A Man Called Jesse

Ken Casper

a man called jesse ken casper ebookPrice: $2.99

Family, home and community are very important to Jesse Amorado, so when a real estate developer threatens to turn his beloved barrio into a country club for the rich, Jesse fights. He wasn’t counting on having to resist Tori Carr, the man’s beautiful daughter in the process. She places family loyalty high on her list of priorities too, and that means advancing her father’s agenda. It’s a clash of wills and cultures. Friction, of course, always produces heat of one sort and another.

Reviews…

“Here’s a book with all the romance, danger, adventure, and passion a reader craves. The excitement never stops in this impressive debut novel!” Susan Wiggs. NYT Bestseller author

This edition published by AWritersWork.com © K. Casper, 2000
First Published by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd, Toronto, Canad

CHAPTER ONE

Tori Carr flew due west. The last leg of her journey home.

She clicked on her microphone. “Coyote tower. Twin Cessna, Romeo-Romeo-three-three-eight, ten miles east for landing.”

A momentary pause, then a crackling response. She adjusted her altimeter and checked her heading indicator.

Without warning a violent lurch flipped her hard over to the left. As she glimpsed a T-38 military trainer jetting out from under her, Tori grabbed the control yoke with both hands and centered the wheel. Her right leg stiffened on the rudder to overcome the spin while her hands rammed the yoke sharply forward. Then came the hollow-stomach sensation of careening headlong into a nosedive. With calculated slowness, she pulled back on the yoke. The plane shuddered violently.

Her heart pounded. Her blood raced. Her ears buzzed from the engines’ keening roar.

The rate of descent slowed.

She finally leveled off at a thousand feet, got her air speed under control. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. She held extra pressure on the right rudder and adjusted the trim tab. Forcing a deep breath, she looked through the side window to assess the damage. Jagged metal glittered like tinsel in the sunlight. The right wing fairing was clipped. Bad? Certainly. But manageable.

The Cessna regained three thousand feet.

“Situation under control,” she told herself.

Then black smoke began ribboning from the amputated wing tip.

The impact of the midair collision must have ruptured a fuel line. Fire!

“Mayday, Mayday,” she called on the radio. “This is twin Cessna three-three-eight. Mayday, Mayday. Right wing tip on fire. Repeat. I am on fire. Mayday, Mayday.”

Tori clawed the yoke with one hand and reached with the other to turn off the fuel-boost pump to engine number two. She feathered the propeller, watched it stop. She’d practiced single-engine emergencies before. Plenty of times. She could do it. She had to.

Her fingers were steady as she adjusted the trim tab to maintain level flight of the crippled aircraft. The fire continued to burn.

There was a maneuver. . . It was a gamble, but one she had to take. Flight boots glued to the rudder pedals, she forced the plane into a slip to the left. Left wing down. Full right rudder. Gloved hands clamped in a death grip on the controls, she rammed the yoke forward into another deliberate nosedive. Her shoulders knotted as the Cessna screamed and fell from the sky, leaving her stomach behind once more.

Again the rusty brown earth zoomed toward her as the wind tore at the flames. “Go out, damn it. Go out!” The savage land reached out to her like a magnet. Fifteen hundred feet.

“I didn’t resign my Air Force commission to die in this little Cessna,” she muttered to herself as the altimeter needle twirled counterclockwise.

A thousand feet.

Again the plane convulsed in bone-rattling tremors. She wasn’t just tempting fate—she was daring it. Five hundred feet.

At the last possible moment, the flames guttered out. Only the adrenaline of pure terror and relief gave her the superhuman strength to ease back on the yoke. G-forces plastered her to the seat as the aircraft swooped over a stand of pecan trees and began its upward swing above the cheated earth.

She surveyed the situation. The fire was out. Perspiration pooled between her breasts.

Clicking the mike button below her right thumb, she forced herself to speak calmly. “Mayday, Mayday. Coyote tower. This is twin Cessna three-three-eight. I have an in-flight emergency. Request immediate landing instructions. Mayday, Mayday.”

“Twin Cessna three-three-eight. You are cleared to land at your discretion. Runway one-eight. Emergency crew standing by.”

“Roger, tower. Going for runway one-eight.”

She heard the tower advising all other aircraft in the area to clear the pattern. She wasn’t home safe yet. Her life depended on keeping the plane straight and level in the glide path. The landing, less than a minute later, was a little rough, but with no more ballooning than she’d seen other pilots perform under much better conditions.

It wasn’t until she’d come to a halt in the middle of the runway that her limbs began to tremble, all strength spent. Even lifting her hand to fumble with the last power switch demanded extraordinary concentration.

Emergency vehicles were already surrounding her. She yanked off her headset and moved quickly to the back of the four-passenger compartment. A wall of hot, dry Texas air assailed her when she opened the door. The searing stench of raw aviation fuel invaded her nostrils.

Impulsively she ran her fingers through her short blond hair and skittered down the ladderlike steps into the brilliant summer sun. She was home.

Tori dashed on rubbery legs as far as possible from the plane while crash vehicles disgorged their crews. A foam truck stood by ready to douse the wing, or the whole craft, if necessary. Only heat waves radiated from the scorched metal.

A canvas-topped Jeep pulled up to within a few feet of her. A man, probably in his sixties, with parched, sun-wrinkled brown skin, smiled reassuringly at her.

“You must be Tori Carr. Name’s Sam. Sam Hargis.” He tipped his soiled baseball cap, which said Hargis Aviation. She’d arranged to moor her plane on his pad. “That was some flying you just did, lady. I haven’t seen aerobatics like that since my daddy took me to see some barnstorming at a county fair.” Fumbling in a cooler behind his seat, he extracted a frosty can of soda and offered it to her.

“Thanks.” She accepted it gratefully and hoped he didn’t notice her hands shaking as she popped the tab. She gulped. The cold drink burned the back of her throat.

“If you ever want to get a job crop-dusting or giving stunt-flying lessons, you just let me know,” the old man said. “There’s half a dozen outfits around here that could use you.”

She gave him a wide grin. “Sam, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that again, much less for a living.”

He chuckled. “Anyway, that was mighty impressive. Jump in. Your folks are waiting for you at the hangar.” She climbed onto the hot canvas seat.

At the corner of the old wooden building, a tall, strapping man gave her a thumbs-up as they drove by, then tucked his big hands in the back pockets of snug jeans. The shadow of his white cowboy hat masked his features, but Tori could feel his eyes following her as the open vehicle pulled into the shade of the cavernous structure.

The Jeep drew to a stop, and Tori caught sight of her father and his secretary running toward her. His partner walked rapidly behind them. She jumped to the ground and was instantly swallowed up in a hearty bear hug. The familiar scent of her father’s aftershave conjured up ghosts of love and sadness.

“Thank God you’re safe,” Winslow Carr whispered huskily in her ear. He released her quickly, as though embarrassed at his emotional display, and held her at arm’s length. “I was listening to the tower chatter in Sam’s office. You scared me out of a year’s growth, young lady.” The quaver in his voice stole even the pretense of harshness from his words.

“I’m fine, Dad,” she assured him. “Really.”

He offered her a small bouquet of cut flowers. Several of the stems were bent, the entire collection askew.

“I guess I got a little nervous watching you come in,” he said sheepishly.

She paused for a second to get past the lump in her throat. “Thanks, Dad. They’re lovely.” She kissed him on the cheek.

His secretary, Lydia Anderson, was next. Her silver bracelets jangled as she threw her arms around Tori. “You could have been killed up there,” she said in a strained voice.

Tori was tempted to quip that it was all in a day’s work, but the anxiety in the older woman’s face told her this wasn’t a time for levity. “I’m fine,” she said, and gave her a loving kiss on the cheek.

Finally there was Burton, her father’s business partner. Burton Hazlitt, with his big muscles and mischievous grin. She’d had an affair with him right after she was commissioned, the consummation of years of flirtation. But by her next visit home, she knew their relationship was over, on that level, at least. He’d tried several times to rekindle it, but his attempts were only halfhearted, more a game than passionate seduction. The repartee they’d fallen into since then was amusing and flattering, but neither of them took it seriously. Still, he’d been her first lover, and she couldn’t help feeling a nostalgic affection for him.

He stood before her now, a fireplug of a man, his bulging arms bowed out from his stocky body, his hands by his sides. Obviously he was still pumping iron.

“You sure know how to make an entrance,” he said, and gave her an openhanded salute. She chuckled softly when she realized she almost saluted back.

“At ease, Burton.”

He dropped his hand and leaned forward, clutched her upper arms and gave her a stiff, formal kiss on the right cheek. She grinned at his mockery and decided not to tell him that even without heels on, she could see his brown hair was beginning to thin on top. As he repeated the gesture on her other cheek, she glanced over his shoulder to the side of the wide doorway. The cowboy in the snug jeans had turned his back and was walking away.

It took less than half an hour to file her mishap report with the Federal Aviation Administration. Then she stopped by the tower to thank the controller for his help. The T-38, she learned, had been from the Air Force base near the Mexican border. The pilot, on routine low-level maneuvers, had been practicing instrument approaches to the airfield but veered from his pattern and hadn’t seen Tori’s plane above him. He’d clipped his own vertical stabilizer in the midair collision but was able to get back to home base safely.

Tori returned to her waiting family.

Burton picked up the single piece of luggage she’d retrieved from the plane when Hargis towed it into the hangar. “Is this everything?”

“The Air Force is shipping the rest,” she told him. Her father and Lydia were already walking across the shiny painted hangar floor to the parking lot. “It should be here in a day or two.”

“You sure travel light—” he looked at her with the seductive little grin that used to send her pulse skittering “—for a woman.”

She laughed. “Sounds like you’ve had a lot of experience traveling with women.”

Judging from his not-so-coy leer, he regarded the put-down as a compliment.

Tori took a closer look at her father, a few steps ahead. He was only fifty, but his once-square build was beginning to appear more barrel-shaped. Obviously, he wasn’t watching his diet. And Lydia had reported that he was also becoming obsessed with his real estate ven- tures.

Burton had parked his forest green Jaguar on the shady side of the hangar. He deposited her flight bag in the trunk while Winslow and Lydia climbed into the back seat.

“I wondered how long you’d stick it out,” Burton commented as he held open the front passenger door for Tori. “You lasted longer than I thought. But I knew eventually you’d quit.”

“Quit?” she gasped as he slammed the door and walked around the front of the vehicle.

Her father reached forward from the back seat and placed his hand on her shoulder. “I hope you’re not too disappointed about the Air Force not working out, sweetheart. Military life isn’t for everyone.”

She bit her lip. Listening to Burton and her father, one would think she hadn’t accomplished anything since she’d graduated from the Air Force Academy at the top of her class.

“The only reason I joined,” she reminded him, “was to fly. Color blindness kept me from doing that for Uncle Sam, but I can still fly commercially. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a damned good pilot.”

“But why come back here?” Burton asked as he got in and buckled up. “This isn’t exactly a mecca for jumbo jets.”

The hint of condescension in his question annoyed her.

“I’ve applied to the airlines that fly into Coyote Springs,” she told him. “In the meantime, I thought I’d spend some time with y’all. Lydia tells me you’re up to your eyeteeth in this Riverbend project.”

“Going to help us out, huh?” He started the engine. “Well, I’m sure we’ll be very grateful.”

“God, Burt, you’re as chauvinistic as ever.” She buckled her own seat belt, satisfied with the little tick of displeasure she’d provoked. He didn’t mind being called a chauvinist, but he hated being called Burt. Lydia made a noise from the back seat that sounded suspiciously like a giggle.

“How’s Riverbend coming?” Tori asked as they pulled out into the bright afternoon sunshine.

“Great,” her father replied enthusiastically. “All the plans are drawn, most of the property has been bought or optioned and our contractors are standing by, ready to start development within thirty days.”

One thing she’d learned from the military and diplomatic briefings she’d set up as an executive officer in the Pentagon was the judicious use of words.

“You said most of the property is accounted for.”
“We’ve got one holdout,” Burton explained.
“Tell me about it.”
“Not much to tell. Jesse Amorado’s a small-time builder who

owns half a dozen rental houses in the barrio, and he’s playing hard to get. Don’t worry about him. It’s just a matter of money. I’ll bring him around.”

THE MOVING VAN ARRIVED on Wednesday. The first thing unloaded was Tori’s Corvette. She’d bought the red sports car for a good price from a fellow officer who’d gotten himself into a financial bind. Anticipating coming home, she’d registered it in Texas with her own personalized license plates—TORI. She checked it out after the long journey as carefully as she inspected her plane before a flight.

As for the rest of her possessions, there weren’t many. She selected a few of her favorite treasures to decorate her father’s guest room—an antique mantel clock from London, some delft from Amsterdam, crystal from Italy and an oil painting from Paris. The rest she stored in the garage until she could find a place of her own.

To her delight, a letter arrived the following morning from a major airline in Dallas, inviting her to come for an interview. She called them immediately and was pleased they were able to schedule her for Friday afternoon. She booked the last flight that night from Coyote Springs, then went to the airport early to check on her Cessna.

“Repair’s not a problem,” Sam Hargis told her, and showed her exactly what had been damaged. “The question is how long it’ll take to get parts. Could be anywhere from ten days to ten weeks.”

While they talked airplanes, she kept an eye peeled for the tall cowboy but didn’t see him and couldn’t think of an unobtrusive way to ask who he was.

“I run a charter service, too,” Sam told her. “How about coming to work for me?”

Tori laughed and explained why she was on her way to Dallas.

“Well, you ever change your mind, you let me know. I can always use an experienced pilot, especially one who can keep her cool in a crisis.”

LYDIA WAS ALONE Monday morning when Tori arrived at her father’s office. Winslow and Burton had gone to an early city council meeting. There were half a dozen agents who worked out of offices down the hall, but they usually used the door at the other end of the building, so Tori didn’t run into any of them.

“How did your job interview in Dallas go?” Lydia asked as she finished filling out a form on her computer screen.

Tori plopped into the chair next to her desk. “Overall, I guess it was positive. I’m not very comfortable blowing my own horn. I don’t think I relaxed until we started talking airframes and performance characteristics. Now I wonder if I didn’t come across as a little too opinionated.”

In fact, the civilian world was a culture shock. She’d never had to look for a job before. In the military, work was assigned and pay was defined by law. Now she was faced with questions about how much “compensation” to ask for and what conditions of employment were negotiable.

“I’m sure you did fine. When will you find out?”

Tori got up restlessly and went to the credenza in the corner, poured herself some vanilla-flavored coffee, then brought the pot back and refilled Lydia’s cup.

“It’s decaf,” Lydia pointed out. “What your father doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Sneaky.” Smiling, Tori returned the carafe and resumed her seat. “They said they’d notify me within thirty days. Could be a hell of a month.” She took a sip of the steaming brew. “I’m not very good at wait- ing.”

Lydia pecked away at her keyboard as she talked. “Take some time off, go sightseeing, kick up your heels.”

Tori shook her head. “I need to keep busy. Dad told me last night he’s having some problems with this Riverbend project. I got the impression he’s beginning to panic.”

“Things have gone a lot slower than he expected.”

“Maybe I can help. You know, check out the lay of the land. Can you give me a list of the properties Dad owns in Santa Marta?”

“That’s easy.” Lydia manipulated her computer mouse, changed the screen to a series of icons, then clicked on one of them to bring up a database. She asked over her shoulder, “Just the ones we own, or the ones we manage, too?”

Tori thought a moment. “Both.”

“It’s a pretty long list.” Lydia poked at some keys. “Looking for anything in particular?”

“I just want to see what our holdings are.”
Several sheets of paper rolled through the laser printer.
“These are the addresses of the properties we own,” Lydia

explained, pointing to the headings at the top, “and these are the ones we manage.” She handed the sheets to Tori and settled back in her chair. “I’d better warn you, honey. Santa Marta doesn’t look the way you remember it. A lot’s happened in the past couple of years. You’ve got to understand that all those places are going to be torn down to make way for the Riverbend project.”

Tori nodded absently as she browsed through the lists.

“Just a minute,” the older woman said, and straightened up. Her ringed fingers skimmed deftly along the keyboard. The printer whiffed and another list came spewing out. “Here are the properties we don’t own or manage but have options on. As you can see, just about everybody’s committed to Riverbend.”

“Except Amorado.”

“You got it. The last holdout.”

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG to get into the heart of Santa Marta. As a child, Tori had loved coming here after school to wait for one of her parents to pick her up on their way home from work. She’d been fascinated by the lilting speech and the wonderful vitality that seemed to permeate everything. The bakery and tortilla factory brought back happy childhood memories of warm fruit empanadas and honey-sweet sopapillas. There was heartbreak, too—the memory of her mother getting killed here. But she wasn’t going to dwell on that now. She had a mission to accomplish.

As she meandered through the curbless streets, Tori understood why Lydia had warned her that things had changed. The old neighborhood had never boasted the lushness of Woodhill Terrace, where her father lived, but now it looked battered, run-down, neglected. A shiver of sadness rippled through her for a time that was no more.

Finally, she drove slowly down South Travis Street. Her eye caught blue-and-white ceramic tiles spelling out Amorado Construction on the left side of the road. The narrow, nondescript stucco building was in a sort of no-man’s-land between cheap commercial structures and the heart of the barrio. Burton said bringing around this last holdout was a matter of money. From the looks of the place, it shouldn’t take much. So why hadn’t he succeeded?

On an impulse she decided to find out what Jesse Amorado was like. Gruff and hard of hearing? Or would he be all Latin charm and cunning? For that matter, did he even speak English? Her fingernails drummed the leather-covered steering wheel as she watched several mud-caked pickup trucks go by in both directions.

When the coast was clear, she zipped into one of six empty parking spaces in front of the building. Climbing out of the sports car, she nervously checked her lipstick in the reflection of the driver’s side window, adjusted her buff calf-length silk skirt and matching sleeveless vest and proceeded to the aged, wood-frame glass door in the middle of the single-story building.

As she opened it, a bell tinkled inside, reminding her of the sound of the bells they used during Sunday Mass at the old Spanish church a few blocks away. She resisted the temptation to close the door quietly in the silence of the tiny room.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” a voice called out from somewhere in back, its male resonance filling the hollow space around her.

Her nervousness eased as she moved around. The reception room, if you wanted to call it that, was austere. Unadorned rough walls painted stark white, a battered oak desk that looked as if it might have come from a 1940s schoolhouse, a few equally ancient, stiff wooden chairs, a rag rug on the quarry-tile floor. Amorado Construction didn’t make much of a first impression.

“How can I help you?” The deep masculine voice was close behind her this time, its richness compelling her to face its owner.

She turned and thought instantly of the cowboy she’d seen at the airport, the man standing in the shadows of the hangar.

“I’m Tori Carr.”

He extended his hand. It was large, warm and rough with calluses. She was considered tall, but she still had to look up to meet his gaze. A smile tugged the corners of her mouth. No way would she see a bald spot on his head, even if she was wearing heels. And obviously this man’s thick, shiny black hair wasn’t thinning.

“I’m Jesse Amorado. What can I do for you?”
She looked around the room. “Is there someplace we can talk?” “How about my private office?” He swept a hand toward the

doorway he’d just come through. “After you,” she said.

She liked the way the creases beside his wide mouth intensified when he grinned back at her. He preceded her through the narrow passageway. She was vaguely aware of a little filing room to her left, but her attention was drawn to the broad back that tapered down like an arrowhead, pointing to Jesse’s narrow waist and slender hips. Definitely not what she’d expected.

He motioned her to a worn, tapestry-upholstered wooden chair in front of a desk. “Please sit down. I was just fixing coffee. Would you like some?”

She looked up. He had high, wide cheekbones that hinted handsomely of Native American descent; his complexion was olive- toned. She also noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Didn’t mean a thing, she told herself. A lot of pilots didn’t, either. For safety reasons. Made playing around easier, too.

Now, what had he asked? Oh, yes, something about coffee. She’d already had two cups this morning. Her limit. Besides, this wasn’t a social visit. But before she knew it, she was acquiescing, “Yes, thank you.”

He disappeared into a small alcove, giving her a chance to examine the office more carefully. Larger than the outside room, its atmosphere was considerably warmer. The cherrywood desk was old but so well oiled that even the chips and cracks in its fine veneer took on a glowing nobility.

She noted, too, the homey display of framed photographs on the walls. One showed Jesse romping on the lawn with a youngster of five or six. The boy had Jesse’s big brown eyes and clearly loved the man he was playing with. Another captured a laughing Jesse tossing a toddler in a colorful dress high into the air. The little girl was giggling with glee, totally confident that Jesse’s big strong hands would be there to catch her. In the third photo, Jesse was standing behind a pretty raven-haired woman who was sitting on a backyard swing, his hands resting comfortably, assuringly, on her shoulders. The boy and girl stood on either side of her, their little fingers intertwined with hers. All of them were smiling contentedly into the camera.

That’s what I’d like someday, Tori thought with an unexpected pang of longing. A happy family with lots of kids.

She almost jumped when Jesse reached in front of her and deposited a scarred but colorfully painted metal tray on the corner of the desk. The service was complete, if unconventional: sugar in an old tin canister and milk still in its plastic quart container. The spoons didn’t match, nor did the two ceramic mugs. But the steam rising from them emitted an aroma that was rich and inviting.

“I hope you like strong coffee. This is my own blend. Colombian and French roast with a touch of cinnamon.” He set the light blue mug in front of her and took the chipped brown one for himself. “I recommend milk and sugar unless you’re particularly brave.”

“Black is fine.”

He shrugged almost imperceptibly and added milk and sugar generously to his own.

She took a sip and instantly wished she’d taken his advice. The concoction tasted like burned mud.

He didn’t miss the shocked look on her face and barely managed to keep his expression neutral.

“It’s delicious,” she said with a slightly forced smile, “but . . .” He chuckled softly and pushed the tray toward her.
Taking her cue from him, she added two heaping spoonfuls of

sugar and filled the cup to nearly overflowing with milk.
“Much better,” she said after tasting it. “Thanks.”
“That was quite an exhibition you put on the other day,” he said.

“Are you home on leave from the Air Force, Captain?”

She raised an eyebrow, surprised he knew she had been in the service.

“Every time you moved to another assignment or got another medal,” Jesse explained, “your name was in the paper announcing it.”

The information startled her. She didn’t know her father had publicized those details.

“I’m not a captain anymore. I resigned my commission. I’m looking into other career options now and thought I’d help my father out for a while.”

He gazed at her for a long minute, took a deep breath, then exhaled. “What can I do for you?”

Behind his desk was a large map of Spring County with the city of Coyote Springs clearly outlined. She pointed to six properties prominently marked with colored pins.

“You own several houses in the barrio.”

He leaned back in his swivel chair. “You mean the Santa Marta district? They’re not for sale, Miss Carr.”

“Oh, come, Mr. Amorado.” She smiled ingratiatingly. His widely spaced eyes were as dark as Kahlúa. A woman could lose herself in those mysterious depths. “Investment property is always for sale. It’s simply a matter of the right price. My father’s prepared to give you top dollar.”

“They’re still not for sale.”

So he was going to play hardball. That didn’t surprise her. She’d do the same thing in his place. “Of course they are. You can’t live in all of them, and why would you want to, anyway?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m just saying that from what I’ve seen of the barrio, most of the houses are pretty run-down. Some are little more than shacks, hardly habitable.”

“But people do live in them. And my shacks are no worse than the ones around them that your father owns.”

“That’s exactly why we’re planning to tear ours down and—”

“What about the people who live in them?” He leaned back in his chair.

Mirroring his action, she leaned back, too, then decided to go for broke. “Believe me, I know how unsettling moving can be. I’ve done a lot of it in the past few years. But it’s not as if the residents would have to leave Coyote Springs. There are other places to live right here in town.”

Places are like things, she wanted to tell him. They can be changed. It’s people we love who can never be replaced.

She picked up her cup and took another small sip of coffee. It’s richness was addictive. “As you probably know, the government offers several low-cost mortgage-assistance programs, and for people who can’t afford to buy, there are other options.”

“You mean the public housing over on the east side of town?”

Public housing. It wasn’t a term she would have chosen to use. She’d seen so-called public housing in several large cities: rat-infested, crime-ridden hellholes in which human life was sometimes valued less than the price of a hit of crack or a line of cocaine. The idea of sentencing the people of Santa Marta to the environment of big-city tenements was totally abhorrent to her. But, of course, this wasn’t a big city. This was Coyote Springs.

His next question was pointed, accusatory. “How much do you know about Coyote Springs, Miss Carr?”

“I was born and raised here, Mr. Amorado.”

“So you call it home. But you haven’t spent very much time here in the past few years, have you? And even when you did live here, how much did you get to know the place?”

“Perhaps more than you realize.”

“Then you know public housing has the worst crime rate in the city, while Santa Marta—” he emphasized the last words “— has one of the lowest. Right behind Woodhill Terrace, where your father lives. Although I’m sure if white-collar crime were counted in the statistics, Woodhill would have an even higher crime rate than Santa Marta. There aren’t too many white collars in this district.”

The implied insult wasn’t lost on Tori, but she held her tongue. Instead, she sized up the man in front of her . . . until she realized he was doing a reconnaissance of her, too, starting at the vee of her vest. She toyed nervously with her gold necklace, then self-consciously dropped her hand into her lap. The man behind the desk was positively disconcerting.

“I’ll tell you why Santa Marta has such a low crime rate,” he went on steadily. “We’re family here. Sure, like any family, we have our disagreements from time to time. When we do, we take care of them among ourselves.”

“Ah. That’s very interesting.” She couldn’t resist indulging in a bit of sarcasm. “But it sounds like what you’re saying is that there’s just as much crime here as on the north side. You just keep it better hidden.”

Jesse took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the arm of the chair. “I’m not saying that at all,” he countered, then paused. “But I’m not going to argue with you about it, either. As I told you, my property is not for sale.”

Tori wasn’t pleased with her outburst. Trading barbs would accomplish nothing. The secret to successful negotiation was to take whatever he wanted to dish out, as long as in the end Carr Enterprises got his signature on a contract of sale. It rankled that she was losing control while he wasn’t. Only the rhythmic throbbing of the vein in his neck beneath the smooth, strong jaw-line indicated any tension. His sensuous lips were smiling.

Maybe another approach.

“Look, Mr. Amorado, let’s examine the financial angle for a moment. My father owns or has control of most of the property in the barrio.”

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but she raised a hand to keep him from interrupting. “Excuse me, Santa Marta.”

His nod was almost imperceptible. She went on.

“I think you’ll agree this is a great opportunity to develop it into something this entire city can be proud of. Riverbend will bring money and prestige to Coyote Springs, and with it new jobs. That’s going to help your people, as well as the rest of the city.”

He frowned. “Miss Carr, I guess you haven’t been listening. So let me say it again. My property is not for sale.”

She pressed on anyway. “I’m not going to kid you. Your property is important to my father’s venture. That’s why I’m here—to open up dialogue. I’m sure if we try, we can find common ground and reach a mutually acceptable compromise. Look, name a price. Let’s see if we can’t use that as a starting point to work something out.”

He shook his head, his eyes narrowed. “That’s all you think about, isn’t it? Money. Well, you’re wrong. This isn’t about money—it’s about people. But you don’t care about them, you and your father and his partner. All you see is a chance to make another killing at the expense of the same people you’ve been victimizing for years. I’m afraid, Miss Carr, we have a basic disagreement. I’m not interested in selling my property in Santa Marta to your father or anyone else.” He leaned toward her, his chair squeaking slightly. “On the other hand, perhaps I can persuade you to sell me yours.”