Written in 21 minutes. No time for rereading.
Elizabeth forced a smile at her surly son as he threw himself on the sofa in their parlor, burrowing his face in one of the pillows. “I’m sorry, Cam,” she murmured, sitting beside him and rubbing his back. “I know how much you love going into town, but I have a meeting and it’s easier if you stay home.”
“Don’t wanna stay home,” Cameron’s muffled words were laced with bitterness and insult.
“I bet that Mrs. Baldwin will sneak you some cookies,” Elizabeth said as she flashed a more genuine smile at their housekeeper, Gail Baldwin. She’d been with Elizabeth’s family since she was a small girl and was the closest thing to a grandparent Cameron would likely know.
Cameron turned his face slightly to look at her suspiciously. “How many cookies?”
“Oh, as many as you like,” Gail said with a laugh as the music of Ireland danced in her voice. “Come with me to the kitchen and let your mam take care of her boring business.”
Cameron slid of the sofa and bounced across the room to take Gail’s hand. Elizabeth sent Gail a grateful look as she crossed to the closet and drew out her hat and driving gloves. “I’ll be back before sunset,” she promised them.
The drive into town gave Elizabeth time to think and plan her strategy. It was important that this meeting went the way she wanted it to, but when it came to Ric Lansing, one always had to be six steps ahead.
And unfortunately, Ric always seemed to have a backup scheme to derail even Elizabeth’s best escape plans. If this didn’t work, she’d need to pull up stakes and leave Diamond Springs. Leave behind her grandparents’ ranch and everything they’d ever worked for.
Once more, she cursed her father and hoped he was roasting in hell for what he’d done to her.
She drove past the jail, keeping her eyes straight. She didn’t want to catch even the slightest glimpse of Jason Morgan today. Or any day coming. She wanted to pretend he didn’t exist for as long as she could.
She wondered if things really would have been different if Felicia Jones hadn’t stolen her letters and kept Jason’s from her. Would Jason have come home? Would he have received her pleas?
She was relieved to have the letters in her possession — she’d checked all of them and they’d remained unsealed—all the letters she’d sent over two years — and then one single letter she’d sent in desperation six months after the last.
She steered her cart and horse toward the livery stables to store them while she was in town, and started across the street to the bank. She stopped to look at the outside, at the name of Lansing etched into the sign.
Of course if Jason had received her letters, if he’d come home—Ric would have just found a reason to destroy him like he had anyone else Elizabeth had turned to over the years.
When she stepped inside the bank, she found her tormentor smiling at her. “Right on time, Bethie—”
“That has never been my name and you do not have my permission to address me so formally,” Elizabeth snapped. She drew off her riding gloves and tucked them into her reticule. “Now, I believe you have some paperwork for me to examine.”
Ric’s smile faded as his eyes narrowed. “You haven’t come to your senses yet, I see. Well, then, come to my office—”
She followed him into the smaller room and took a seat—but she jerked out of the chair when he started to close the door. “Don’t you dare,” Elizabeth snapped. “You leave the door open! I will not have you ruin my good name.”
Ric pursed his lips. “Fine. I had thought to give us some privacy, but have it your way.” He took his seat and slid paperwork across the desk. “As I said, here is the mortgage your father took out on the Lazy W. Payments were made on time until his death two years ago, and you now owe me all the back payments, including interest.”
Elizabeth didn’t look down at the paperwork. “Is that contract any more real than the one you gave Alexander? Or Peter?” Her lips pressed together. “Or my husband?”
Ric raised a brow, then leaned back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Bethie. This is why you need someone at your side to take care of you. You just can’t do it alone—”
“If I remember correctly, you also presented my husband with a mortgage contract.” Her fingers clenched in her lap. “And when he could not pay what you said he owed, you took him to court. You took our home.”
“Well, he should not have done business if he couldn’t pay the price.” Ric’s smile was almost feral. “Cameron should have known better.”
“You mean I should have known better,” she murmured softly. “The moment I accepted Cameron’s proposal, you were going to do to him what you’d done to anyone I’d ever thought about marrying.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“I always wondered what you’d done to Jason,” Elizabeth said. “When I didn’t receive any word from him—I assumed you were right. That his grandmother was right. But now I know. You, my father, and Lila Quartermaine were in this together—”
Ric tipped his head. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course, Lila never would have worked with you if she’d known my father was involved, but she never cared for me.” Elizabeth looked away. “I will never marry you. You can take everything I have, but I promise you—”
“Well, if the Lazy W isn’t enough to convince you—” Ric slid another piece of paper across the table. “This might do it.”
Elizabeth frowned as she picked up the paper, her heart pounding as she recognized her own writing—but this wasn’t hers. She hadn’t written this.
“You forged a letter from me—to you—” Her blood iced over. “Claiming that I was pregnant with your child—”
“If you decline to marry me this time, Bethie, I will take what is mine. I’ll have my son.”
“He’s not—” White spots danced in her eyes. “He’s not—”
“Who do you think the courts will believe? You? After the trail of destruction you left? Or me?” Ric raised his brows. “What will it be?”