Return to Crystal Creek

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-07-01
  • Publisher: Harlequin
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Three top Harlequin authors invite readers to return to the beloved small Texas town of Crystal Creek, a setting featured in 24 stand-alone titles and three series spin-offs, with this brand-new anthology. The mysterious Nick Belye shows up in town, and what he's up to is anybody's guess--but in Crystal Creek, romance is definitely in the air. (July)

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Crystal Creek, Texas, was in the grip of insanity.

The fact was proclaimed everywhere. Each store window declared it. Children carried yellow balloons announcing it. In bright letters, a banner hanging above Main Street repeated it: May Madness!

The annual sidewalk sale was in progress. Outside every shop, displays offered their temptations. "Buy me!" the goods seemed to call. "Buy me now! "

At the display before Wall's Drugstore, stood a fat man with a mercenary grin. He wore a yellow T-shirt that said, Want To Buy? I Want To Sell! This sentiment pleased the stranger. He wanted to buy, and what he wanted to buy, some might say, was the town's soul.

He knew who all of these merchants were and what they owned. He knew about everyone of importance in Crystal Creek, although he had never before seen the place. It was a pretty little town. He liked it, and he would enjoy practicing his arts here.

The stranger paused before a small, neat building with flower boxes at the windows and a red-striped awning over the door.

The Longhorn Coffee Shop did not look like a significant place, but it was. This was where Crystal Creek's movers and shakers met and talked, made deals both big and small. It was the town's lively, throbbing pulse.

The stranger went inside. He was a tall, lean man, and his name was Nick Belyle. His Stetson was neither black nor white, but thundercloud gray. He wore a white shirt of western cut, jeans and gray snakeskin boots. His silver belt buckle glittered and was shaped like a dollar sign.

Crossing the threshold of the Longhorn was like stepping backward into the 1950s. The seats of the stools, chairs and booths were upholstered in red leatherette. Red-and-white-checked cloths covered each table, and each booth had its own old-fashioned individual jukebox.

The air was fragrant with the scents of coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls. It was an hour before lunchtime, but the place was already half-full and abuzz with conversation.

In a corner booth sat a trio of men, talking over their coffee. Nick Belyle was pleased, for these men interested him deeply.

Close to their booth was a small vacant table. Belyle moved to it and took the chair facing the corner booth. From beneath the brim of his hat, he watched the men, and his keen ears took in their every word.

"I don't like it," the heavyset one said. "Too damn many changes. Nothing's the same no more."

The hefty man was Bubba Gibson. In his mid-sixties, he had a jowly face and the band of his hat was studded with turquoises. On one hand was a wedding band and on the other a turquoise ring with a stone the size of a halved Ping-Pong ball.

Bubba owned the Flying Horse Ranch, eight thousand acres of rolling land - a very nice piece of real estate, wasted on raising ostriches, of all things. It was fairly profitable, but Bubba was getting too old and fat to chase ostriches.

Yes, someday Bubba could be ripe for plucking - or not. Nick sensed unpredictability in the man, a strange mix of the conservative and the reckless.

"Things have changed a lot since I got here," admitted a second, younger man. He shook his head as if in bewilderment.

Brock Munroe was a big man, well dressed yet somehow disheveled. He had a gentle air and pie crumbs on his shirt.

Munroe had come from Montana less than ten years ago and bought a ranch, fifty-five hundred acres that were more scenic than useful. He was hurting from the cattle-killing winter of two years ago and the drop in beef prices. Yes, Munroe, too, was a good possibility.

"There's new doctors comin'," grumbled Bubba, twisting his turquoise ring. "New preacher . My damn lawyer's gonna retire. I gotta find a new one. Don't want a new one. Want the one I got."

"Times change," said the third man. "You've got to change with them. Stop complaining. You sound like an old geezer."

"I am an old geezer, dammit," Bubba retorted. "At my age, I got the inalienable right to complain."

The third man, J. T. McKinney, only smiled. He was different from the others. If the town had anything akin to royalty, it was the McKinney clan.

J.T. owned the Double C Ranch, thirty-five thousand acres of prime Hill Country. His elder son had established a successful vineyard in its south quadrant; his younger son was filthy rich in his own right, and his daughter raised thoroughbred horses.

All three offspring were ferociously loyal to the land and to their father. Their mother was dead, but now there was a second wife, Cynthia. She had borne J.T. his youngest child, another daughter. At this point Jennifer was the only McKinney who didn't wield formidable power.

Although J.T. was in his sixties, he was still trim, handsome, and looked as if he had plenty of fight in him. His hair was silver at the temples, but the dark eyes were alert and full of intelligence.

He was, in fact, discreetly watching Nick Belyle and taking his measure. Then a waitress made her way to Nick's table, coming between him and McKinney and blocking their view of each other.

At first Nick, irritated, saw nothing of the woman except her white apron trimmed in red rickrack.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," she said in a breathless voice. "We're shorthanded today. What can I get you?"

"Coffee, black," he said, and raised his eyes. He was about to add, "And a piece of pie," but a freakish thing happened. The words stuck in his throat, unsayable.

The woman was beautiful. She was a goddess with a coffeepot in her hand.

What's more, she seemed strangely familiar, as if he'd known her in a previous life. Tall and slender, her long-lashed eyes were dark, and her skin seemed to have a sheen of gold. Her hair, gleaming and black, fell to her shoulders, and she carried herself like a queen.

"Pie," he managed to say.

"What kind?" she asked. His eyes traveled in wonder up and down her body. She had full breasts, a small waist, and long, long, legs.

"Wh-what would you recommend?" stammered Nick. He couldn't remember the last time he'd stammered.

With one perfectly shaped golden hand, she filled his coffee mug. "Everybody likes the coconut cream," she said. "There's one piece left."

"I'll take it," he said. She smiled, and her goddess power doubled. She wore a denim skirt, a pale blue blouse, the red-trimmed pinafore, and no wedding or engagement ring. Over her left breast was a gold-colored pin that said Shelby.

Then somebody called her name, and she was gone, weaving through the growing crowd. He stared after her.

Shelby . Of course: Shelby Sprague. Back in Beaumont, Texas, she had been a preacher's daughter, five years younger than he was. The last time he'd seen her, she'd been only twelve years old. She'd been a child then. Now she was a woman - and what a woman.

She wasn't on his list of key townspeople. This meant she had no money, no status, no importance and no power - except her extraordinary beauty.

He raised his coffee mug and took a meditative sip. The second he'd looked at her, his plans had changed. This trip would not be strictly business. From the time he was a boy, he had wanted Shelby Sprague. As a boy, he'd been nobody. But now he was a man, and one used to getting what he wanted.

Excerpted from Return To Crystal Creek by Vicky Lewis Thompson Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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