HALF A RANCH
By Robyn Anders
Copyright 2000/2004 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved. You may make or print a single copy of this novel for your personal use only. The entire book is available only to customers of www.BooksForABuck.com or our partners. If you'd like to buy the book, please click the Buy Now button below (all payments are processed by PayPal for your security).
White steam billowed from Mindy Russell's radiator.
She looked around at the almost alien landscape of far west Texas: tumbleweeds, cactus, a few bedraggled bushes, dead clumps of grass. Scrawny cattle stared at her briefly, then turned back to their foraging. She'd passed the last service station an hour before and hadn't seen a single car since.
"Perfect," she muttered. Mindy dug around her back seat, finally turning up a water bottle. Authentic French fizz or not, right now the car needed it more than she did.
Her cat, George, glared at her for a moment, then yawned and went back to studying cows. She had no idea how he could look so comfortable covered with all that fur. The biting heat of summer made her feel like a limp washrag. Even stripping down to shorts and a tank top hadn't helped much.
She managed to open the hood, wrapped a rag around her hand, then twisted the lid off the radiator. Its hiss turned into a pop, and a small mushroom cloud rose into the turquoise sky. Mindy wasn't superstitious, but that looked like a warning of a very bad day.
Still, she shouldn't complain. As old as her car was, she was lucky it ran at all.
She'd just finished filling the radiator with the last of her water when she felt an eerie tickle at the back of her neck. Someone, or something, was watching.
She turned slowly, wishing that she'd brought her brass knuckle keyring from the car.
A man on a huge black horse watched her from about twenty feet away. The rider sat between Mindy and the sun so she couldn't make out his features, just that he was large and his horse even larger. Still, the man wore an air of a predator.
Despite the heat, Mindy shivered. She'd read about women whose cars break down and are never heard from again.
"I think I've got everything under control," Mindy told him. "Radiator overheated. It happens in these old cars." Not that her 1949 Nash convertible was just any old car. It was about the only thing she had to remember her late father by. Family was important to her.
The horse took a few steps closer but the man remained silent.
"I'm Mindy Russell," Mindy explained, wondering if she sounded as scatter-brained and chirpy to him as she did to herself. "I'm looking for the Babbage ranch."
Again the apparition said nothing. Between the shadows and his black hat she couldn't see much, but she was pretty sure the stranger had dark hair. Maybe he only spoke Spanish. The only word in Spanish that came to her mind was taco. Unfortunately, she couldn't see how that bit of knowledge would come in handy right now.
"I am looking for Babbage ranch," Mindy repeated slowly and clearly enough. "Do you know where Babbage ranch is?"
"You're on it." The man's accentless voice was as smooth as aged whiskey and hard as diamond. Still, it sent a little chill down her back. An almost sensuous sensation.
She had been speaking to him as if he were an idiot, she realized. Then again, whose fault was that?
"Do you work here?" she asked.
He nodded slowly.
"Lucy Babbage was my aunt," she told him. She had no idea why she felt the need to explain anything to him.
What she could see of his expression didn't look impressed. He said nothing.
"Look. We've gotten off on the wrong foot. Why don't you ride ahead and tell your foreman that Mindy Russell is here? I'm certain that he'll want to meet with me right away."
"I doubt that," the cowboy answered.
When she had last been here about a decade before, all of the cowboys had been polite. This one had all the charm of a rattlesnake with a hangover.
"Why don't you let him be the judge?" Mindy told him. "My car should be ready to drive now. I'll head for the ranch house. Remember, it's Mindy Russell."
"The foreman comes to the ranch house at about seven."
"But it's only two now."
He made a show of looking at his watch. "Yep."
"See if you can you get him to come sooner? I've got a lot to get done. I need to know about the finances and whether I can get a buyer for this place right away." With luck, she could take care of business quickly and find a hotel in town by dinner time.
"That's the thing. The foreman doesn't take orders real well."
Mindy knew better than to lose her temper. Unfortunately, knowing and doing aren't quite the same. "Where I come from, a foreman is a guy with a job. I think he'll want to talk to me."
"I'll just bet," the cowboy told her. He spun his horse around and rode away.
She shrugged her shoulders, climbed in the car, and cranked the engine. Maybe meeting that cowboy had been the low point of her day; at least the engine started right up. Time to head for the ranch house and find out what was going on. If this cowboy was representative of what she would find here, the ranch was in a lot of trouble.
Of course, now that she thought about it, she should have expected to find men like him on her aunt's ranch. Family lore claimed that Lucy Babbage had liked her men tall, dark, stupid, and plentiful. The sooner Mindy found out what her aunt had left her, the sooner she could get out of Texas and on with her life.
Fifteen minutes later, she pulled her car up to the ranch house and parked. The rambling house looked dusty and faded, oozing an oppressive air as if mourning the loss of its owner.
Aunt Lucy had been twenty when she had married an eighty-year-old Texas millionaire. Mindy's mother claimed he had died in bed less than a year later, a smile on his face. His will had left Lucy almost everything, much to the dismay of his children and grandchildren by multiple earlier marriages. Why Lucy had moved to this place after being the belle of Houston, nobody had known. Mindy wondered if her aunt might have known she was dying even then. It wasn't as if anyone in her family would tell her. They hadn't even informed her in time for her to make Aunt Lucy's funeral.
She shook her head.
Whatever her aunt's tastes, that tall cowboy certainly wasn't the type of man Mindy would choose. In his tight jeans and barely buttoned shirt, the man was nearly the opposite of the sensitive and caring men she sought out. Even if none of the men she'd dated had ever caused those chills down her spine. "Not that I'm likely to lose my head over any kind of man," Mindy assured herself as she scooped up George, and headed for the house.
She shook her head, still trying to put the cowboy out of her mind, reached the door and knocked. No answer. She waited a moment, then knocked again. Still nothing.
George yowled a complaint. She couldn't wait in the sun all day. She twisted the door knob and let herself in. Patience had never been her strong suit.
Simple but expensive furnishings decorated the house and spoke of class. Navajo rugs covered the floor so thickly that they overlapped each other in a makeshift wall to wall carpet. What could only be original art covered the walls.
"Can I help you?" a cool voice inquired.
Mindy spun around.
A middle-aged woman stood, rolling pin in hand, looking at Mindy as if she were some form of alien. From the flour over her apron, Mindy deduced that she had found the ranch cook.
"I'm Mindy Russell."
"Sharon Wagner," the woman answered cautiously, holding out a massive hand. "Call me Sharon."
Sharon's handshake was firm, wary. She apparently hadn't decided quite what to make of Mindy yet.
"What's that?" Sharon asked, gesturing at George.
"George? He's a cat."
"I figured that, honey. But why is he inside?"
"George is an inside cat."
Sharon laughed. "Inside animals. I'll guess you're from the city."
"Sort of. I'm from Omaha."
"What I don't understand is why you and this 'inside cat' are inside my house." Sharon's eyes measured the distance between herself and Mindy, and she slapped the rolling pin significantly against her hand.
"I'm sorry," Mindy said. "I knocked but no one answered. I'm Lucy Babbage's niece."
This seemed to be the right approach. Sharon's face softened noticeably. "Oh. I'm so sorry, dear. We all miss her terribly."
From what Mindy had heard, the ranch hands probably missed Lucy most of all. "I met a cowboy a few minutes ago," she said, biting down her thoughts. "He told me that the foreman usually comes here around seven. Is there any way that you could signal him to come earlier?" Mindy didn't want to be disruptive, but she needed to know what she was getting into. The lawyer who had delivered the legal paperwork to her had insisted that her presence was essential as a major heir. Possibly she would inherit the entire spread. If so, she'd have to get rid of it fast. Obviously she couldn't keep a ranch. Working it was a job for an expert.
"I'd radio him, but it wouldn't do no good," Sharon answered. "That man pretty well decides what he's going to do and then does it. He sure don't take a lick of advice from the likes of me." She cackled to herself. "And won't he get a kick out of an animal inside the house?"
"That's how I knew you were from the city. Most of us country folk think houses are for people and barns are for animals." She laughed again, then stopped and looked serious. "But listen to me. You're here all hot and tired from your trip and I'm jabbering at you and keeping you on your feet. Sit down and I'll bring you some lemonade."
The woman bustled off.
Mindy set down her surprisingly controversial cat. While Omaha was a comfortable town, she'd never thought of it as a big city. Still, compared to the so-called "towns" she'd passed during her drive through west Texas, anyplace with a traffic light would be a major metropolis.
George immediately started exploring, rubbing his sleek sides against furnishings and sniffing suspicious corners.
"Did Lucy decorate this room?" Mindy asked as Sharon returned with a pair of large, ice-filled glasses. The melange of southwestern pottery and art should have been distracting, but wasn't.
Using some sort of electrical device, Sharon squeezed the juice out of two lemons, one into each glass. She then poured water over the cubes of ice and added enough sugar to sink a battleship. Finally she handed one of the cups over to Mindy.
"You were asking me who decorated this room?" Sharon finally said. "Actually I think it was that man of hers. Don't know for sure, though. I stay in the kitchen. Don't leave the kitchen and you don't get hit with the dirty work, I always say."
Mindy nodded as if she understood.
At Mindy's silence, Sharon pressed on. "Of course, once your aunt got sick, he was especially attentive."
Mickey nodded again. How was a gigolo supposed to react when his mealtrain got sick?
"So tell me about my aunt's, ah, boyfriend."
The woman's gaze went to the door for a moment, then she turned back to Mindy. Abruptly, she sank into a chair next to Mindy and heaved herself closer. Her voice dropped to a stage whisper. "Well, I never really saw a lot of chemistry between them if you want to know the truth. Strange, though, since I'd certainly let him park his boots under my bed. Still, she seemed crazy about him. And he spent a lot of time with her during those last days."
Mindy smiled in encouragement. It was obvious that the woman had been dying for someone to talk to. Of course, Sharon's willingness to tell a story might carry over to areas where she didn't really know all the facts. Mindy figured she could live with that. In a place this size, who could keep a secret anyway?
"Is he still around the ranch?"
"He won't leave until he's good and ready," Sharon answered. "You don't think he'd vanish before the will gets read and he gets his piece of the action, do you?"
"I really wouldn't know. Do you think Lucy left him anything?"
"Before she died, she would have done anything he told her to do, honey. I hope you don't have your hopes set on a big estate."
Mindy shook her head. "I'll be honest, Sharon. I'm going back to college to get my teaching degree and I don't have much money. Anything I get will help." Unfortunately, she'd only discovered teaching after she'd graduated from college with a business degree. The private school where she worked now barely paid enough to cover her rent and living expenses with little left over for more college. "All in all, though," Mindy concluded, "I'd rather have an aunt." Only now that Lucy was dead did Mindy realize how empty life could be with no family to call her own.
"You're a relative," Sharon said as if reading her thoughts. "If Lucy'd been in her right mind, she'd have left everything to you. You've got to fight it if she changed her will at the last minute."
"I'm not going to do that, Sharon. It was her money. As far as I'm concerned, she had the right to spend it on anything she wanted." She paused for a moment. "As long as no one took advantage of her."
"I wonder if I ever had your innocence, sweetheart. Long as I've been alive, I had to fight for whatever I got."
Mindy laughed. She couldn't remember anyone mistaking her for a quitter. "I'll fight for what's mine. I'm just not a bottom feeder who feels entitled to other people's work."
"If you say so, dear." Sharon pulled her chair even closer to Mindy's as if about to tell her a secret, then looked at her watch. "Oh, my. Look at the time. If I don't get back to my cooking, I'll be in trouble for sure."
Mindy couldn't imagine anyone making trouble for the obviously hardworking cook. The foreman was beginning to sound more and more like a negative force on the ranch. Why hadn't he done anything about the ranch house's dilapidated look? The employees should be prettying things up with the hope of making a few dollars on the sale. And why hadn't he gotten rid of Aunt Lucy's gigolo? In her experience, really good-looking men think their pretty faces and hard bodies entitled them to everything. That hardly motivated hard work.
Thinking of good-looking men reminded Mindy of her run-in with the cowboy. Could he be the gigolo? He wasn't pretty the way she thought a gigolo would be. One thing for sure, he'd stop traffic in an Omaha shopping mall. Of course if the help he'd offered on her car reflected his normal work habits, he made a better decoration than worker.
She needed to get more facts before jumping to conclusions and Sharon was the place to get them.
Despite Sharon's words, the cook didn't seem to be hurrying back to the kitchen.
"I hope it's not an imposition, but if the foreman doesn't get here until this evening, I won't be able to get back to the nearest town in time to get a motel room. Do you think you could find me a room?" Mindy asked. "Just for tonight."
"Don't be silly. You'll stay here in the house as long as you're in this part of Texas. For one thing, you're family. For another, there isn't a decent motel within a hundred miles. I'll put you in the master suite. No one has used it since your Aunt got sick, but we kept it clean. It's the middle room over there. You'll like it. It has a great view."
Mindy followed the woman's direction. Through the open door, she could see a forest green canopy bed and another doorway that appeared to lead to a private bath. The large window showed a gray expanse of flat, arid moonscape.
"I don't need anything this fancy," Mindy said.
Sharon frowned. "Any of the others would be a bit of trouble, but I suppose I could--"
Oh, great. A reputation for being a picky troublemaker was all she needed. "It's not a big deal. If this is the easiest, it's fine with me. I'll get my stuff."
"If you wait a few minutes while I pull together my cooking, I'll help you carry your things in."
"Did you leave anything back home, or are you moving in?" Bret Sanders dismounted and surveyed the scene in front of the ranch house. He'd hurried his afternoon chores a bit, anxious to get back to the house and find out more about Lucy's niece. Sure enough, he'd ridden up to find her taking control of the house and even Sharon. The ancient car the two women were unloading was packed to the gills.
Mindy started, then stared up at him as if he were some sort of ghost from a fairy tale.
"I'm in the middle of moving," she said. Then she stopped and clamped her mouth shut, as if deciding any further explanation was unnecessary.
"And you ended up here. Very convenient."
"I see the two of you have met," Sharon broke in.
"We haven't been introduced," Mindy answered.
"Mindy Russell, this is Bret Sanders," Sharon said as if oblivious to the obvious friction between the two of them. "Bret, Mindy is Lucy's niece."
"She mentioned that," Bret admitted. She had inherited all of her aunt's looks and then some. Her short shorts and tank top left little of those looks to the imagination, but she certainly hadn't overloaded herself with Lucy's sweet disposition.
"I gave her the master bedroom," Sharon explained.
"Did you tell her about the secret passage?" Bret couldn't resist asking.
Sharon laughed. "You know that's just an old story." She turned to Mindy. "According to the woman who Lucy bought this place from, her late husband had a secret passageway between his room and the guest bedroom. He'd visit his paramours and no one would be the wiser. I think she was just nuts."
Mindy appeared more than a little concerned. She looked at Sharon. "Is someone staying in the guest room now?"
"That's my room," Bret replied. He smiled at her, baring his teeth. He didn't want her too comfortable.
"Oh. Well, you have nothing to worry about from me."
"I'm glad to hear it." For an instant, he wondered what it would be like to call for her in the night and have her sneak in to join him. To his surprise, the thought aroused him. He told himself to banish all thoughts of Mindy from his mind. None of his priorities involved taking up with a woman of any type, let alone a woman who cared more about her aunt's money than she did a living woman.
"Did you have a chance to talk to the foreman?" Mindy asked.
"You have an appointment at seven," he said.
"Thanks. You're a big help."
He nodded, then turned to his horse. At least he could trust this animal. He certainly couldn't trust the female animal in front of him.
Bret walked his horse toward the stable, speaking comforting little nonsense words.
"Food's getting cold," Sharon shouted at him. "You and the boys'd better get to eating."
"We'll be there."
Sharon handled the introductions, naming names so quickly that Mindy knew she'd have to ask again. From the number of hands, she guessed that they must bunk several to a room for all of them to squeeze into the ranch house. No wonder Sharon had looked unhappy when Mindy had asked for a different room.
Dinner was a noisy affair. Mindy realized that the cowboys were showing off for her, trying to catch her attention. As she'd suspected, Bret was just one of several handsome men who had worked for her aunt. But which, she wondered, had been the gigolo? Surely her aunt hadn't spread her affections among the entire group. While Lucy had always adopted modern views, Mindy didn't want to believe she was that modern.
Bret, Mindy noticed, barely participated in the conversation from his aerie at the head of the table. His eyes seemed to see everything, looking through her with a hot gaze. She felt as if she had his full attention, but the men seemed to have similar feelings. If they were trying to get her to notice them, they seemed to look for Bret's approval almost as strongly. The natural charisma of the man was incredible.
Finally the men struggled to their feet, carried empty plates into the kitchen, then disappeared out the back door. Sharon also stood and headed for the kitchen.
Mindy found herself alone with Bret. His maleness filled the room more than the pack of cowboys had.
The best defense is a good offense, she reminded herself. "You said the foreman would be here at seven. It's almost nine now."
He looked at his watch. "Yep."
"Did you let him know that I wanted to see him as early as possible?"
"So where is he?"
"Right here," he answered.
"Right--" Mindy's gaze whirled around the room before coming back to him. "You mean--"
"That would be me, ma'am."
The way the cowboys had treated him should have given away his game. Still, how should she have known that he would get some sick pleasure out of toying with her? "How nice of you to rush right up to meet me, Mr. Sanders."
"Call me Bret."
She needed to keep her distance. She'd be damned if she just added herself to his list of conquests--no matter how tempting his body was. "I'll call you Mr. Sanders. Why did you choose to ignore my request?"
He stared at her for a moment. From the twitching at the corner of his mouth, she guessed he was trying to hold back a laugh.
"Well, Ms. Russell," he told her, "I figured your request could wait better than the cattle." He leaned his back against the kitchen wall, stuck his hands in his belt loops, and waited for her reaction.
"And then you figured that I could wait until after dinner."
"Actually, I assumed that you'd talk to me at dinner. When I told you I lived in the guest bedroom, I thought you'd realize who I am. My mistake and apologies." He looked about as contrite as a sledge hammer and she had no intention of letting him off the hook. "But you're right," he went on without waiting for her to accept his apology, "I wasn't about to ask the guys to sit around hungry while we had a tête-à-tête.
"I understand you have work to do, Mr. Sanders," she told him as she slowly rose to her feet. She could feel her face flushing with anger but she managed to keep her voice under control. "Perhaps now would be a good time to fit me into your busy schedule."
"As a matter of fact, it isn't." He sighed. "But since I don't suppose you'll go away until we talk, why don't you tell me what this is about?"
Mindy actually clenched her fists and took half a step toward him.
He grinned at her.
Damn. Despite her anger, she felt her mouth get dry at his sexy smile.
"How very generous, Mr. Sanders. I certainly will remember your willingness to put aside your personal preferences for the benefit of others."
He nodded "Perhaps we could continue this discussion in my office."
He led her through a Victorian smoking room into a room that was barely more than a closet, then sat behind a large wooden desk.
Mindy sat across from him without waiting for an invitation. "I wanted to talk with you about the condition of the ranch."
"Is that right? Are you an expert on ranch management? Maybe you'd like to discuss the proper method of castrating bulls. I was reading an article about that yesterday."
Mindy flushed again. Why was she letting him get to her?
"I'd be the first to admit that I don't know much about ranching," she said. "Although I spent a couple of summers here when I was a girl, all I really did was ride around on a horse and distract the cowboys. But so what? It doesn't take an expert to notice how this house's paint has faded. A buyer would suspect that the rest of the ranch is as run down as the house, even if it isn't."
She let her voice show her doubt about that possibility.
Bret got comfortable, leaning his chair back against the wall and putting his boots on the desk. "I hadn't heard anything about a buyer."
"Think about it. This is a ranch. A ranch is a business. Either it makes money, or it loses money. If you give it to someone who doesn't know anything about ranching, they aren't going to make any money at it anyway." Even though she was lecturing him like he was a schoolboy, he couldn't help notice the way her body moved with her words. Pure sex appeal.
"Thank you for the economics lesson, Ms. Russell. Perhaps tonight, after I go to bed, I can stretch my mind around your advanced concepts. In the meantime, it's a little premature to think about selling the property. Your aunt's will hasn't even been read yet."
"Facts are facts, Mr. Sanders," she told him, "and they don't depend on who Aunt Lucy left the place to. I understand your concern for your position. Very possibly whoever eventually buys the property will wish to keep you on. Possibly they won't. If I were you, I'd be looking for a positive reference."
He stretched, then linked his hands behind his neck. It hadn't taken her a long time to get to threats. "Of course, Ms. Russell. You're what, twenty-five?"
"Close enough. And in that lifetime, you've spent a total of four months on a ranch. I'm a mere child of thirty-three who has worked a ranch all of his life. A positive reference from you would make all of the difference. Yes, ma'am."
Mindy opened her mouth to reply, closed it, opened it again, then snapped it shut. How could a woman look sexy doing that? It didn't make sense but she did.
With as much dignity as she could collect, she stood and left his office.
Bret watched her flounce out. As he'd anticipated, her grand exit was ruined by the lack of witnesses.
Unfortunately, she didn't let that stop her. He heard her footsteps pause in front of Sharon's room just off the kitchen. She knocked.
He went to the office door and watched.
Sharon's door opened a crack. "Oh. I thought it might be him. He's getting more and more obnoxious every day," Sharon told her.
Bret generally ignored everything Sharon said. She was a good cook and the men liked her. What she thought was her own business. He didn't especially need her reading the long list of his sins to Mindy, but if Mindy didn't hear them from her, she'd hear them from someone in town. Someone like Andresson.
"I've never been so humiliated in my life," Mindy huffed. "He as good as told me that an ignorant child like myself has no business here."
"He can be as hard as the west Texas plains," Sharon agreed. "What he calls his wit can be as cutting as a dust storm. That said, I'd guess he's a pretty good cowboy."
"Thank you, Sharon," Bret broke in. For once, Sharon had told the truth, and even put a little poetry into it.
"I'll be saying good night, then." Sharon slammed her door.
Mindy turned and faced Bret. "I thought you had finished your required humiliation hours."
"I don't suppose you'd be interested in exactly how many people tell me how to run this ranch. It can get tiresome after a while."
"Is that supposed to be an apology?"
He thought for a moment. "I guess not. You didn't buy my last apology so I don't figure I'll make any more."
"Good. I wouldn't want you to strain yourself."
A cat appeared from nowhere and proceeded to rub himself on his boots.
Bret scooped up the animal before it started gnawing on his Tony Lamas. Mindy screeched in protest and threw herself at him, her fists flailing.
It would have been awfully easy to pull her body against his. That image hit him like a lightning bolt. Hold her? He was crazy. Bret blinked twice, then held her away with one hand and scratched the cat under its chin with the other.
"Did I say something?" he asked her.
"I thought you were going to hurt George," she explained, dropping her hands to her sides.
George purred as Bret petted him.
"Why would I hurt your cat? I'm not mad at him. Besides, I'm in the business of taking care of animals, not killing them."
"Oh." She didn't seem to be any better at apologies than he was. "Did you work for my aunt for long?"
"Ten years," he finally answered.
"Ten years. You must have started right after I was here last."
"I started the last summer you were here."
"I don't remember you."
"You were busy and I didn't get promoted to foreman until after you'd left."
He remembered her, though. She had flirted with all the cowboys and caused three fights during her first week there. Until he'd knocked a few heads together and told everyone to lay off. That had been a big part of the reason Lucy had promoted him to foreman. Who would have thought that skinny little thing would develop such attractive curves?
"Did I do anything that summer to make you angry with me?"
The question caught Bret by surprise. "Other than being a teenager with more hormones than sense, no."
"Oh. Well, I wish that I could have spent more time with Aunt Lucy."
"I'm sure." Lucy had been so alone for so long. Only now that she was safely dead did anyone in her family seem willing to accept her.
"No. Really. I wanted to come here. When my parents found out that she was living with some gigolo, they said I couldn't."
"Sorry. Of course. It's only been nine years since you turned eighteen. You couldn't rush to a decision like visiting one of your closest relatives, a woman who doesn't have any relatives but you."
"Mr. Sanders, I'm trying to have an intelligent conversation with you. Every time I tell you something, you twist my words. I don't know if it's any of your business, but I tried to visit Lucy a few years ago. I called her and asked her when I should come. She told me not to bother. I wish I'd come anyway." Her voice cracked ever so slightly.
"I see." What an actress.
"I'm curious, though, Mr. Sanders. Is her boyfriend one of the cowboys I met tonight?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I've never actually met a gigolo before. I don't know exactly how to deal with one."
Bret turned and started toward his room. When he got to his
door he turned. "For your information, Ms. Russell, I am that
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