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Cody walked through Last Stand with his brother Xander. They’d just finished a long meeting about windmills with an energy company. That was not exactly how Cody would prefer to spend a chilly January day, or any day, but Xander had asked Cody to come along. Xander was brilliant with money and technology, but he didn’t always feel comfortable with people. Cody didn’t have drive like his oldest brother Josh or big dreams like their second brother TC or brilliance like Xander, the youngest. But at least his brothers called on him when they needed extra hands, a strong back, or moral support. Maybe that was his place in life: someone to be there and help the driven and the dreamers.
He paused to look across the street at the old movie theater. When movie distributors stopped making films on actual film, hundreds of small-town theaters had closed because they couldn’t afford the new digital projectors. Last Stand’s theater was one of the victims. It was a cool old building, faced in alternating bands of beige and sand-colored brick, with lots of fancy trim on the front. Under normal circumstances, Cody might vaguely think Someone should preserve that old building and then go about his business.
Someone was already trying to do just that. Mallory Moore. Her name ran through his mind like a song chorus. Cody’s history with Mallory was complicated and included one of his best memories alongside several of his worst.
Xander tucked his scarf tighter around his neck as they gazed at the building in silence. Xander rarely asked Cody what he was thinking. That was a relief, because Cody wasn’t certain he knew the answer or wanted to share his thoughts if he did.
Mallory was in there, which made him want to find her and also made him want to walk past quickly.
Cody had seen the notices about the work party, step one of her plan to renovate the theater into a place for live theater. The teenagers in the high school theater class she taught were developing a musical revue about the history of Last Stand. They planned to perform it during the spring Bluebonnet Festival and summer tourism season. Mallory also hoped to buy a new projector so they could have movies again.
It was a clever idea. The building was one of the oldest in town, not as old as the saloon where the founding fathers had made their last stand against Santa Ana’s troops in the eighteen-thirties, but at least a century old. It had started life as a live theater before transitioning to playing movies. Cody hadn’t been inside since high school, but he had vague memories of the ceiling and upper walls covered in decorative trim, complete with flowering vines and cherubs who looked more like zombie babies due to the flaking paint. It must be even worse now, since it had been sitting empty for so long.
The remodel was an ambitious project, and no doubt expensive, but Mallory hadn’t asked the Tomlinsons for any money. Not yet, anyway, but he suspected she never would. Certainly not if she had to ask Cody for anything.
A flurry of movement and voices from down the street caught his attention as a group of women headed their way. Cody recognized most of them from high school.
One raised her arm high and waved. “Cody!”
Great. He’d been avoiding Amber ever since his family had won the big lottery a couple of months before. He and Amber had dated in high school, or at least fooled around for a few weeks. Back then, he’d been grateful that she could overlook his scars and limp. After he moved away, they’d hooked up a time or two when he came back to visit. He’d stopped that years ago, when he realized he didn’t particularly like Amber and was only taking advantage of her availability and the lingering feelings of gratitude. She apparently thought they had meant more to each other, or she’d simply convinced herself that she could make any relationship work if the guy was rich enough.
Xander’s shoulders hunched, and he tucked his chin deeper into his scarf as if he could hide from the attention. They’d had enough trouble with friends and complete strangers wanting a share of the money. They needed to be careful not to give any women the wrong idea. Texas didn’t allow people to sue for breach of contract over a broken engagement—Cody’s best friend Carly, now the family lawyer, had checked—but if someone ran to the media with tales of bad behavior by the “billionaire bachelor brothers,” it could cause a lot of hassle and smear their reputations. Cody found that part laughable, since he didn’t have much of a reputation to lose, but he didn’t want his brothers and mama tarnished by his actions, so he’d tried to lay low.
Therefore, Cody had been dodging Amber since he moved back home before Christmas. No reason to stop now. He didn’t look at the group of women. He’d gotten good at pretending he didn’t see people or hear his name called. His mama would scold him for being disrespectful, but really, when you couldn’t even stop in the diner for a cup of coffee without being mobbed, you had to learn to ignore people.
He stepped into the empty street. “Come on. Let’s check out the work party.”
They walked across, or maybe scurried or fled were better words. They’d check in on the work party, see how the renovations were going. Merely to avoid the other woman, of course. Not because he wanted to see Mallory. He had things he ought to say to her, but he couldn’t say them in front of her students.
He pushed open the theater door. They stepped into the foyer, dimly lit by the weak winter sunshine fighting its way through the grimy front windows. Cody risked a quick glance back. Amber was leading the woman across the street in their direction. It would be rude to lock the door behind him, and besides, it looked like locking it required a key he didn’t have.
They could at least disappear farther into the theater. Music, voices, and occasional banging announced people at work. He ducked into the short hall, Xander trailing behind. They stepped out into the main theater, a large room by small town standards, the ceiling soaring high above seating for about two hundred. The old movie screen had been removed, revealing the stage. The wall lights barely cut through the darkness, but a few extra lights shone down from the catwalk.
Mallory stood center stage, talking to a skinny kid in a denim jacket. Dust swirled around them in the blue-tinged beams of the stage lights, giving the scene an otherworldly effect.
Cody blinked. Memories flooded his mind, overlaying the current scene. He’d spent so much time in theater his senior year. He hadn’t been a theater kid before that. He’d been rodeo all the way. Riding bulls and bucking broncos gave him the adrenaline rush he craved as he waited to get old enough to join the military and become a fighter pilot. The kids interested in acting and stage crew practically spoke a different language and called themselves theater geeks, which was reason enough to avoid them.
Then his accident had disrupted those dreams. He’d crashed his daddy’s truck, so he didn’t even have the cool factor of a rodeo injury. He’d spent weeks in the hospital and had a long recovery. He’d been bitter about his ruined dreams, resentful of the therapy he needed, and angry at everyone. Looking back, he could see how his bad attitude had frustrated his physical therapist. She’d finally suggested theater as a form of physical and speech therapy. He’d agreed, because it had to be better than tedious sessions at the hospital, repeating the same exercises dozens of times.
With theater, he’d entered another world, one more fascinating than he’d ever expected, but still not his. That year almost felt like an entirely different life.
Back then, Mallory had been a quiet, anxious girl who crept around the school hardly saying a word. But in the theater, she blossomed. She slipped into roles as easily as someone else tried on clothes. She went from mousy to fierce or tragic or sultry, and that one time, after she’d been so flirty and friendly as they performed The Importance of Being Earnest . . .
He shook his head. Those years were long gone, and he shouldn’t go there again, even in his mind.
“Cody!” Xander broke him out of his reverie.
Women’s voices came from the foyer behind them. The closed door hadn’t deterred Amber. How did celebrities handle fans? Cody didn’t flatter himself that the attention was about him and Xander. It was about the billion-dollar lottery the family had won. Still, the result was the same: no privacy and everyone wanting a piece of you.
He gave a grunt of annoyance and strode down the aisle toward the stage. They were halfway there when Mallory glanced their way. Her posture went from loose and expressive to stiff.
Cody lifted a hand in a casual wave and tried to smile. “Hey.” He raised his voice to carry over the murmurs of the women behind them. “We heard about the work party. Thought we’d stop by.”
Mallory crossed her arms and studied them with a sour look. “You’re here to work?”
“Yeah, definitely.” He stopped at the stage, looking up at her. He’d seen her now and then on his visits back home, but he still thought of her as the girl he knew in high school. She had the same lean frame, but with more muscle. Her hair, which she’d worn in a single long braid and released only for performances, was now cut in a shorter, choppier style. Her face was thinner without the softness of adolescence, but her expression had changed most of all. Instead of eyes wide with apprehension and vulnerability, her narrowed gaze and the twist of her lips suggested she could handle a classroom full of rowdy teenagers with a look, and chew and spit out a couple of Tomlinson brothers in her spare time.
Her gaze shifted past him. He glanced back at the woman hurrying down the aisle. This had been a mistake. He owed Mallory an apology for how he treated her back then, but luring Amber here would only make things worse.
He turned to Mallory with a sheepish grin, hoping she didn’t think he’d brought the women in on purpose.
Someone snagged his arm from behind. “Cody!”
“I suppose y’all are here to work as well,” Mallory said.
“I just want to talk to Cody,” Amber said brightly. “I’ve hardly seen him since he’s been back in town, and we used to be so close.”
Cody winced at that. They hadn’t been close, not really, but they’d sure looked close sometimes.
“This is a work party,” Mallory growled. “If you’re not here to work, get out.”
“Sure.” Amber slid her arm through Cody’s. “We can find someplace cozy to have a nice visit and let y’all get back to work.” She tugged on him.
He pulled his arm away. “Sorry. I’m here to work.”
Amber’s mouth got a mulish set. “I can stay and work beside you.”
He glanced down at her high-heeled boots. “I’m climbing up into the catwalk. I don’t think you want to do that.”
He was painfully aware of Mallory watching from behind as Amber caressed his arm. “Give me a call then,” she said. “We should get together soon.”
“Mm.” He avoided any meaningless polite phrases Amber might take as a promise. He turned to the stage, put both hands on the edge, and hoisted himself up. Xander did the same, only faster, as if they were being stalked by mountain lions rather than women. Cody refused to look behind him to see if Amber and her friends were leaving. He didn’t know what to do if they weren’t.
A dozen teenagers had stopped to watch the exchange.
Mallory clapped her hands. “Okay, everyone back to work.” She said something to the boy in the jacket, who headed backstage. Her gaze narrowed as Cody and Xander joined her. “Are you two really here to work?”
Cody risked a glance to the side. Amber and her friends were leaving. At least he’d dodged that bullet. He could make an excuse and take off now, but . . .
He looked back at Mallory. It was nice to see her, even if things had been awkward between them for a long time. Maybe he could make that right. He didn’t know how, but he could try.
It was good to be back in the theater as well, on the stage with oddly tinted light streaming down. He’d left behind everything having to do with plays when he’d escaped Last Stand. He thought of theater as part of that year he wanted to forget. But now, simply being here, the knots in his shoulders started to unwind.
“Yeah. Sure,” he told Mallory.
His life had been turned upside down for the second time by the lottery win. Granted, it was a much better upset than the accident, but he didn’t know what to do with his future. Carly liked to toss around questions such as, “What will you do now that you can do anything, literally anything, if money is the only object?” Cody hadn’t figured out the answer yet.
Two girls stepped out from backstage. They looked about fourteen or fifteen, and Cody didn’t recognize them, although he probably knew their families. They would’ve been little kids when he left.
“You’re the billionaires,” one of them said.
“Not exactly.” Cody glanced at Xander, who was better at explaining the financial side of things, but he looked like he was trying to disappear into the shadows by the ropes. Cody’s shoulders went rigid again as he tried to explain. “My family did win that big lottery, but we don’t have anything like a billion dollars in the bank. It’s paid out over many years, and divided by a bunch of us, with taxes and stuff, and most of it goes into the family fund for charitable donations anyway.”
They were trying to spread the word about all of that to blunt some of the overwhelming attention the word billionaires caused. Granted, he and his brothers still had a ridiculous amount of money. They each got ten thousand dollars a month for expenses, plus they could apply to the family fund for bigger purchases, like TC had done with his new ranch.
The girl’s friend nudged her, and she spoke again. “Yeah, but you still have a ton of money. You could totally pay for the theater renovation. The equipment is going to be, like, a hundred thousand dollars, and that’s nothing to you, right? And you could hire people to do all this cleaning and repairs so we don’t have to.”
It was as good a use of the money as he could think of. But before he could decide on an answer, Mallory spoke loud enough to carry to all the other teens who’d drifted closer. “The Tomlinsons are not paying for our theater renovation.”
Cody opened his mouth and closed it again. Was she trying to save him from making excuses? Did she really believe he wouldn’t be willing to donate the money?
She looked fierce. “You get what you work for. Don’t expect anything as a gift. This is our theater, and we will do this ourselves. Every time one of you gets on stage, you’ll know that you built this. Even in the future, when you sit in the audience, or maybe your own kids get on stage someday, you’ll know you turned an abandoned, decaying building into something beautiful and wonderful. A place where magic happens. If you perform in the summer variety show for the tourists, you’ll have the pride of knowing that this is something you did.”
She looked around, making eye contact with the teens. “Something we did. All of us together. You’ll have earned it.” She clapped again. “Now get back to work!”
Some of the kids returned to their jobs immediately. Others lingered, still staring at Cody and Xander as if they were a new species at the zoo. Mallory glared until they turned their attention back to their assignments.
Cody edged closer to her and dropped his voice. “I could, you know. Donate the money. Whatever you need.”
She shook her head. “We don’t need your money.”
He winced at the sting of We don’t need you.
“They’ll appreciate it more if they work for it.” She scanned the theater, making sure everyone was on task. “You’re a distraction.”
“Sorry.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “We can leave.”
She studied him for a long moment. He had another sudden flash of memory, the way she used to do that, look at him as if she saw behind the surface. He’d treasured that once. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt truly seen by anyone except Carly and his family.
“You could stay and set an example,” she said.
He broke eye contact. “I’m not sure I’m an example of anything you want them to learn.”
“You could be. Since that lottery win . . .” She grimaced. “Enough teens want to be rich and famous without doing anything to earn it. They want to get paid for playing video games online or posting videos of themselves dancing in skimpy clothing. They want to be music stars or athletes, even if they don’t have the natural talent or the work ethic. Now they want to win the lottery, since you proved it could happen.”
It was uncomfortable enough when he’d been a bad example for his recklessness. Now he was a bad example for something he didn’t even do, since Mama had bought the lottery ticket for the family. “Believe me, we were as surprised as anyone.”
“Mathematically, it was highly unlikely,” Xander murmured from behind him.
Mallory spread her hands. “So stay and work and show them that it’s worth working, that money isn’t as important as being part of your community and contributing to the world.” Her expression made it less an offer and more a challenge.
She wasn’t merely asking him to stay for the work party on this one day. If he was going to prove anything to the teens, he’d have to commit to this all the way. Not merely donating money but working. Contributing to the community. The family was already donating millions to various charities. But that was easy. Someone else took care of the details, and he couldn’t miss money he’d never had. This would require work and commitment and being a good example to teenagers. His brain stuttered on the thought. He’d always been a bad example.
Could he be anything else?
End of Excerpt