SHE WOULDN’T NEED black pumps on a ranch…would she?
Ellison Hunter hesitated for only a moment before she tucked her trusty Christian Louboutin shoes, toes stuffed with the original tissue, into their usual spot in her travel bag. She had no idea what she’d be facing in Montana, but would hate to need her pumps and be without. These particular heels, a splurge she’d never regretted, gave her a sense of power and control. Right now Ellie needed all of the above and then some.
The phone rang for the third time in the past two hours as she reached for a stack of underwear to tuck into the spaces around the heels and Ellie considered ignoring it—except that an unanswered call would eventually be followed by a rapping on her door. So much for control and power.
“Montana?” Kate Warren asked without saying hello. Ellie’s closest friend was well aware that Ellie was holding out on her, that she hadn’t divulged the true reason for her abrupt departure from her job and an impromptu trip across the country for an undetermined length of time. And Ellie wasn’t going to spill her guts anytime soon because she was still coming to terms with the reason herself.
“My uncle needs me,” she said.
“It’s where he lives,” Ellie replied patiently, although she felt her back start to go up. Her usual calm demeanor was getting harder to maintain with each passing day.
“No,” Kate said. “He lives in Santa Barbara, and I could understand you going to help him there, but—”
“A surgical practice doesn’t prepare you to manage people.” Which was what Ellie did. She managed people. Helped organizations run more smoothly by evaluating their personnel and their practices. Up until two months ago, her life had mirrored her profession—it had run smoothly, according to plan. And now…
Ellie scrunched up her forehead as she balanced the phone on her shoulder and reached for more underwear. Think about it later.
“Ellie, I know you’re dealing with some kind of a problem,” Kate blurted. “And I think it’s totally unfair of you not to let me help—”
“I’m fine,” Ellie snapped and then let out a sigh. Not fine. “Okay…I need to get away.” That was the truth. “I…need a break. When I talked to my aunt and she told me that the ranch Uncle Milo bought was about fifty years behind the times…well, it seemed like a good opportunity to change scenery and help them out at the same time.”
A long silence met her words. Kate had known Ellie since they’d first been assigned as bunkmates at boarding school, seventeen years ago. Changing scenery was not something Ellie had ever been concerned with.
“Ellie…”There was a soft note of desperation in her friend’s voice; one that made Ellie come very close to confessing.
Not until she had some kind of plan in place. Not until she’d come to terms with everything. Telling her aunt the truth had been ridiculously difficult, and she was not ready to repeat the experience. And then there was always the chance that she wouldn’t have to confess—which was why she hadn’t yet told her mother.
You’re only six weeks along. Sometimes…things…happen.
Her aunt’s words had given her a smidgeon of comfort two weeks ago when she’d simply had to tell someone the devastating news. How horrible was she that she kind of hoped something would happen? That the pregnancy would end itself naturally before the first trimester; that she could go back to her old life and never, ever make a mistake like this again? Really horrible. So she had that to deal with, too.
“Kate…my decision is made. I’m going to Montana. It’s what I want to do.”
“I don’t believe you,” Kate replied. “Quitting your job, moving to a foreign environment, holding out on your best friend…. You don’t have a dreaded disease, do you?”
“No disease. Just a need for a change. And some privacy.”
Kate sighed into the phone. “All right,” she said sullenly. “Go to Montana. Keep me in the dark.”
“It isn’t like I won’t be back,” Ellie said, relieved that her friend was finally showing signs of backing off. “I have to finish packing. I’m running late and I won’t make my flight if I have to keep answering calls.”
“No more calls.”
“It’s okay.” Her words were followed by an awkward silence as if they were both waiting for the other to hang up first, and then Kate said, “You know I have your back.”
“You always have,” Ellie replied, forcing the words over the lump forming in her throat. Stupid hormone-induced emotions. “I’ll talk to you soon.” And then she did hang up. Fast. For a moment she stared down at her suitcase, blinking against the tears before she regained control and started packing again, her movements quick and automatic.
Her new job was bogus—or at least it had started out that way. When her aunt had first suggested that Ellie go to work for them at their new ranch in Montana, her initial instinct had been to say no. It had been more than obvious that Angela was trumping up a way to rescue her niece from the consequences of her actions—something Ellie’s own mother would have never done. Besides, Milo had a ranch consultant coming in later that summer to evaluate, so why would he need her? Easy answer. He didn’t.
But for the first time in her life Ellie had no plan, no idea what her next move would or should be. After several days of considering her alternatives—paying rent from savings while she looked for another job in a tight market, trying to find a position that would work with single motherhood, coming to terms with her pregnancy—she’d realized that she was damned fortunate to have this opportunity. It gave her time, although she hated admitting she needed that time.So three days ago she’d called her uncle Milo and hammered out a deal. She’d travel to Montana and familiarize herself with the ranch, which was still being managed by the original owner, before the consultant arrived.
Milo had seemed relieved, saying that while the consultant came highly recommended, he’d feel better if he had another set of eyes there—Ellie’s eyes. The person he was most concerned about was the former owner, now the uncommunicative ranch manager. On the one hand, he didn’t want to let the guy go if he was the best man to run the place, but on the other, the guy was hell to deal with. Ellie assured Milo she’d take care of matters. That was what she did, after all—take care of matters, evaluate staff, make hiring and firing decisions. Between her and the consultant, they should have the ranch in decent shape by the time Milo retired.
She closed her suitcase and locked the latches. This was not going to be an escape. It was going to be a mission.
THE ARENA WAS MUDDY AS HELL. Ryan Madison shook out his loop, found the sweet spot and gripped it tightly as he urged his black gelding, PJ, into the roping box.
“Come on, Ryan. You can do it!” A female voice broke through his concentration, but he instantly tuned her out. PJ’s body tensed as the calf was pushed forward into position. Ryan sent up a quick prayer, then nodded. The chute clanged open, the calf shot out and after that it was autopilot.
PJ caught up with the calf, squeezed in on him as Ryan dropped the loop over the animal’s neck and dallied around the saddle horn, dismounting almost before PJ had skidded to a stop in the mud. He flanked the calf, a heavy squirming heifer, dodging a foot as the calf hit the ground, before grabbing that same foot, holding it with the two front feet with one hand, making his wraps with the other. Two wraps and a half hitch.
Ryan jumped to his feet, hands in the air. PJ eased forward, slacking the rope stretched between the saddle horn and the calf. He held his breath as the calf squirmed and bucked, and then the judge dropped his flag.
Ryan bent to loosen the rope on the calf’s neck before releasing the animal’s feet from the wraps of the pigging string. The calf jumped up and loped to the far end of the arena as Ryan remounted the gelding, coiled his muddy rope. He was vaguely aware of the announcer giving his time—the best that day so far—and cheers from the crowd as he exited the arena; he nodded at some of his acquaintances. Smiled even though he didn’t feel like smiling, despite a decent run. Somewhere in the warm-up crowd was his half brother, Matt Montoya, who had every intention of stealing this purse away from him.
Have at it, Ryan thought as he rode through the crowd and then headed for his trailer. His run had been pretty damned close to perfect, especially in a muddy arena.
Once at the trailer, he tied PJ and pulled the saddle off. The horse was done for the day, but Ryan wasn’t. He had a mission ahead of him that he was not looking forward to, but one that couldn’t be avoided. He needed to talk to his father. It was a good-size rodeo, but Charles Montoya tended to show up in the competitor area to congratulate his legitimate son after a good run.
Ryan had purposely parked his trailer within sight of his brother’s, although under normal circumstances, they avoided any proximity with one another. In fact, they’d never actually spoken since the fist fight in the rodeo grounds’ bathroom just after he’d turned fifteen.
After PJ was taken care of, Ryan sat on the trailer fender where he had a decent view of Montoya’s trailer, and began his vigil. Matt would make his run within the hour and then, hopefully— Charles Montoya was a tall man with a full head of silver hair. Hard to miss in a crowd, and even harder to miss as he headed for Matt’s trailer.
Ryan, vaguely aware of his heart rate bumping up, just as it did when he was about to rope, pushed off the trailer and started toward the man who, after finding Matt’s trailer deserted, reversed course toward the stands. Ryan knew he probably wasn’t going to have another semi-private opportunity such as this anytime in the near future, so he started to jog after him. “Excuse me,” he called, when he really wanted to say, “Hold up, asshole.”
Charles Montoya stopped walking and glanced over his shoulder, a stunned expression forming on his face when he recognized just who had hailed him. Yeah. It’s me. Surprised?
Ryan’s mouth clamped into a hard straight line as he slowed to a walk, and damned if Charles didn’t take on a polite distant expression. “Can I help you?” he said.
“Yes, you can. Stay away from my mother,” Ryan said as he came to a stop.
And this was when the bluff came in, because although he knew from Cindy, his mother’s best friend, that Charles had been in contact with his mom—and that she’d been in a deep funk for days afterward—he didn’t know the nuts and bolts of the situation. As always, Lydia Madison was protecting people. Ryan. Charles. Everyone but herself.
Ryan took a step forward, putting himself close enough to his father that the guy knew he meant business. “Leave my mother alone. No contact. Understand?”
A fierce frown formed between Charles’s heavy white eyebrows. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You called her, you threatened her, and if you do it again, the era of don’t ask, don’t tell is over. Forever.”
Charles drew himself up in a way that told Ryan he wasn’t used to being challenged. Tough shit.
“Don’t threaten me,” he rumbled.
“Or?” Ryan asked calmly. “You’ll tell the world the truth?”
The older man’s face went brilliantly red and then, apparently unable to find a reply, he turned on his heel and stalked toward the stands. He made it only a few steps before he stopped dead in his tracks. Ryan’s first thought was, What the hell? But he quickly saw exactly what had brought his father to a screeching halt. The golden son, Matt, stood about fifteen yards away, blocking Charles’s escape between two trailers.
Cool. A twisted family reunion.
Ryan started walking before he had a chance to think things through. He had a few words for his brother, too. Matt also moved forward, while Charles stayed planted, one son approaching from the front, one from the rear. Trapped.
Matt’s face was a blank mask when he stopped in front of his father, his gaze raking quickly over the old man’s face before moving on to Ryan. “I was just explaining to your father how much his recent phone call to my mom had upset her,” Ryan said. If he’d had any question as to whether or not Matt would automatically back his father, it was answered when his brother shot Charles a fiercely angry look. “If it happens again,” Ryan continued, “I’ll make a call of my own.” If his mother was being harassed, then Montoya’s mother could join the fray.
“Do that,” Matt growled, “and I’ll beat the shit out of you.”
“Or try?” Ryan asked flatly before he turned his attention back to Charles, who appeared to be on the verge of a stroke he was so red. “No more calls, you son of a bitch. Leave her alone.”
Then, having had all the family reunion he could handle for one day, he turned and stalked back toward his trailer. Neither Montoya followed him. Good thing. He loaded PJ, locked the tack compartment, pocketed his keys. Now that his mission was accomplished, he had to stop by the rodeo office and then grab a hamburger for the road before he put a couple hundred miles between himself and his old man. If he could choke a burger down. Talk about a bad taste.
“Great run, Ryan!” a young voice called as he approached the rodeo office.
Ryan smiled and nodded at the boy dressed in chaps and carrying a red, white and blue rope.“Thanks, bud.”
He conducted his business in the rodeo office, which took about fifteen minutes longer than it should have, and got into the concession line. People stopped and said hello as he waited, congratulating him on his run—still the winning time—and Ryan chatted with a few of them even though he wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there. He’d just made it to the counter and was about to give his order when a collective gasp went up from the crowd, followed by silence. The nasty kind of silence that indicated something bad had just happened.
Ryan’s gut tightened as he waited for the hubbub that would erupt when the injured cowboy got back to his feet. The crowd remained stubbornly silent.
“Oh, no,” the elderly lady in the booth gasped, craning her neck to see, but the solid gate panels blocked the view.
“Our medical team is on the scene, taking a look at this cowboy,” the announcer finally said in a reassuring voice. “As you know, these guys are the best in the business.”
The ambulance rolled past the concession stand then and the wide arena gate swung open to give access. The lady gasped again and Ryan instantly understood why.
The sorrel horse, with the distinctive white spot on his side, standing near the crouched group surrounding the downed cowboy belonged to the crowd favorite. His brother. Matt Montoya.
JUST WHEN ELLIE was beginning to think the dusty single-track road was never going to end, she rounded a corner and a rustic ranch spread out in front of her in postcard-like perfection.
She pulled her leased Land Rover to a halt, taking in the large red barn and several smaller outbuildings on the edge of green fields. The single-story, shake-roofed house with a porch surrounding it on three sides nestled close to a stand of evergreen trees. Cows and horses grazed in the pastures and a pair of large birds flew in lazy circles over the pond at the edge of one of the fields. Milo had bought the place eight months ago and since then had spent a grand total of one week there, shortly after the purchase, but didn’t seem to be able to stop talking about “his ranch” to anyone who would listen. Now Ellie understood why. It was gorgeous. Gorgeous and really, really close.
After fifteen hours of travel Ellie was more than ready for a hot bath and a bed. Ten minutes later she parked at the end of the flagstone walk, not liking the fact that the place felt as deserted up close as it had appeared from a distance. Had Angela or Milo told the staff she’d be arriving? A question Ellie hadn’t thought to ask. Ellie who always thought of everything. She’d been rattled lately. Disorganized. Not herself.
Ellie rang the bell. After the second ring she knocked, then, after a suitable amount of time, tried the handle. Locked. Okay. She set down her handbag and stood for a moment, hands on hips, surveying the ranch, watching for some sign of movement around the barn and outbuildings. Nothing. Great. Her feet hurt and the small of her back ached from sitting for too long and she wanted to get inside. Now.
She started walking around the house, her heels clunking hollowly on the wooden porch, looking for another way in and wondering if she was going to have to call Angela to get the number of the caretaker. She tried the side entrance, the back entrance, the sliding door. No luck. She’d just pulled her phone from her jacket pocket when she heard the sound of an engine. Ellie rounded the corner of the house in time to see a woman with long dark hair scramble out of the open Jeep.
“Miss Bradworth?” she called as she strode up the walk, her long flannel shirt flapping loosely over very worn jeans.
“Hunter,” Ellie called back. “Mrs. Bradworth is my aunt.”
“Oh.” The woman quickly crossed the distance between them, taking the porch steps two at a time. “Sorry about the wait. I didn’t know you were coming until half an hour ago.”
“Really?” How was that possible? The woman held out a wad of keys and then, after Ellie automatically took them, shoved her hands into her back pockets. “I was in town when Walt called and got here as quickly as I could. I hope you haven’t waited for too long.”
There was nothing about the woman’s tone that was impolite, but there was nothing that was particularly friendly, either. Ellie felt rather like an interloper. Well, she was an interloper related to the owner of this place.
“Thanks for hurrying,” Ellie said, holding out her free hand. “Ms.…?”
“Garcia. Jessie Garcia.” Jessie met her gaze directly as they shook hands and Ellie was struck by how really gorgeous the woman was, with high cheekbones and amazing dark eyes.
“I’m Ellison Hunter. Milo and Angela’s niece.”
“Will you be staying long?”
“My stay is open-ended.”
Jessie pulled her mouth into a polite smile, yet Ellie sensed she was not pleased with the answer. Why? Probably because life was easier when the staff had the place to themselves.
“I hope you enjoy your time here,” Jessie said coolly. “I’m sure I will.”
“There’s no fresh food in the house, but you should be able to find some things in the freezer and pantry.”
“Thanks.” Jessie smiled slightly then started back down the steps.
“Excuse me,” Ellie called, waiting for the woman to turn back before she said, “How can I get hold of Mr. Feldman?”
“Walt?” A shadow crossed Jessie’s face. “It’s Sunday.”
“It’s his day off.”
“I see. And after that?”
“I’ll have him give you a call. Okay?”
Ellie had the distinct impression that Jessie wanted to escape and was getting annoyed at the prolonged conversation, but her tone was courteous when she said, “Anything else?”
I want to meet with the staff… But she’d pass that along through Mr. Feldman when they got a chance to talk. “Not right now.”
“Well, have a good one.” The woman climbed into the Jeep. It coughed once, then the engine caught and roared to life. Jessie raised a hand then turned the Jeep into a tight U and sped back down the road in the direction from which she’d come.
Ellie held up the ring of nine keys, frowned a little and then picked one at random. Surprisingly it slid into the lock and the mechanism clicked open. A bed and a bath awaited.
Maybe her luck was changing for the better.