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“You hired a ranch sitter?” Cade Keller set one of the two cups of coffee he’d just poured in front of his mom while she spread jam on a piece of toast. She gave him a quick smile of thanks and set down the knife.
“Only for the days that we’re all gone. I had no idea that you were coming home.”
After the blowup between him and his boss on his current—perhaps his last—drilling project, he’d thrown his gear in his truck, left the rig in the less-than-capable hands of his new boss, and then drove through the night to arrive at his parents’ ranch in time for morning coffee.
As he’d driven, he’d convinced himself that things were working out for the best. The job hadn’t been good since Masterson took over as crew boss, and the only reason Cade hadn’t quit earlier was that he felt a measure of loyalty to Apex Drilling, the company that had kept him gainfully employed for the past eight years. And he’d thought he could outlast the guy.
But Masterson had pushed things too far, demanding he work in conditions he knew to be unsafe, then writing him up when he complained. The thing about being the quiet guy who put his head down and worked was that sometimes he got underestimated. Masterson thought Cade would capitulate to his bullying tactics. He didn’t, and now Masterson was going to have to explain to the owner of the company, his uncle by marriage, what had happened.
Cade smiled grimly at the thought, then took a drink of coffee to help clear his sleep-deprived brain. Uncle or not, Cade was one of Apex’s most dependable drillers and would be missed.
Audrey gave her son a concerned look, but didn’t ask questions. Of her four kids, he was the one who’d given her the least cause for concern over the years. His brother Spence was a close second. In other words, his twin, Em, and Reed, his oldest brother, had kept the folks busy.
“Winter drilling hiatus.” Not the total truth, but close enough. The company was going on hiatus in a few weeks, and Cade didn’t want to worry his mom before her vacation. “It gives me extra time home for the holidays.”
He took another swallow of coffee, willing the caffeine to take effect. “Not to take a job away from anyone, but do you think you can unhire the ranch sitter? I mean, I’m going to be here, and no sense paying someone to do what I can do.”
“She’s painting the interior of the house while we’re gone. The chores are bonus.”
“Never mind,” Cade said on a wry note. He hated painting. It was genetic—everyone in the family hated painting, but it was a yearly thing, which was why, in addition to meticulous roof repairs, the outbuildings on the Keller Ranch had lasted for so many years.
“I figured that the best time to paint was while everyone was gone—and it’s still hard to believe that we arrived at that perfect storm.”
It was a perfect storm. He couldn’t remember a time when there’d been no family on the ranch, but this winter his brother, Reed, was set to honeymoon in Hawaii. His other brother, Spence, was taking a trip to the East Coast with his fiancée, Haley Parks, to meet her father over the Thanksgiving holidays, and his parents were set to embark on a three-week RV drive through New Mexico, Arizona, and California, combining a trip to a wedding with their second-ever vacation.
“Should I ask where my twin will be?” Cade asked. They kept in contact, but Em was hard to pin down at times.
“She took a contract job in Arizona, counting lizards as part of an ecosystem study. She’s gone until just before Christmas.”
“She didn’t tell me.”
“She just found out a couple days ago.”
Cade stifled a yawn. Caffeine wasn’t enough to counteract the drama of quitting, followed by the long drive.
“Go to bed,” Audrey said, pushing her chair back.
“No. I’m going to see if I can catch Reed.” He paused at the kitchen door, looked around the dingy walls that yes, needed refreshing, then sucked it up and said, “You know . . . I can paint while you’re gone.”
“I know,” his mom replied matter-of-factly. “But I don’t want to take this job away from Alex. I think she needs it.”
“Woodson. You must remember her. She recently started a business redoing interiors.”
Cade’s cup hit the table a little too hard as he set it down. “Alex Woodson is painting houses?”
His mom seemed to find his reaction amusing. “Only the interiors.”
“Rich Alex Woodson?”
“The one that graduated with you.” Audrey finished the last bit of toast and reached for her coffee cup.
“That’s an interesting picture,” Cade muttered. Alex had swept into Marietta High School at the start of his junior year, a golden girl in all senses of the word. She was there because her wealthy parents had decided that two years of public school would help round her out as an individual. That was the story, anyway. Rumor had it that the family had gone bankrupt not long after Alex graduated. They moved from the area and Cade hadn’t given the Woodsons a thought—until now.
“I’m surprised she’s back,” Cade said. “How did you connect with her?”
“She’s a neighbor.”
The surprises kept coming.
“She lives in that little place on Polestar Road.”
Audrey studied her cup as she did a mental calculation. “She moved in not quite a year ago.”
Polestar Road formed the southern boundary of the Keller grazing allotment, and there was only one place on the barely maintained road—an abandoned farm with a single-wide trailer, corrals, and a couple of unused grain silos. Unless someone had done major renovations, it was not the place where he envisioned Alex Woodson residing.
Why was one of Marietta’s former social elite living in the middle of nowhere and painting houses for a living? It had been an unspoken assumption during high school that Alex would head off to some hotshot private college where she would rub elbows with her own kind. The wealthy kind. Maybe that rumored bankruptcy had gotten in the way.
A stomping outside the door announced Cade’s older brother, Reed’s, arrival. “Hey,” he said to Cade as he came inside. “Surprise vacation?”
“Something like that.”
Cade didn’t want to answer questions about his job, so he leaned back in his chair and looked down the hall toward his old bedroom. “I should get my stuff out of the truck.”
“Stay in the little house,” Reed said, referring to the cottage next door, where he had lived until his marriage. Now he and his bride resided in her small house a few miles away. “Beds are made, ready for holiday visitors. You may as well take advantage.”
“Yeah. I will. Thanks.” That way he wouldn’t be dealing with paint fumes or have to stare down the inspirational basketball and rodeo posters he’d never gotten around to taking off his old bedroom’s walls.
Audrey got up. “I need to tackle the laundry. Only a few days until we leave.” She pointed a finger at Cade. “Get some sleep. And welcome home.”
He gave his mother a tired smile. “Thanks, Mom.”
He didn’t know how long he was staying, and he was glad his mom hadn’t asked. He didn’t know if Apex Drilling would call to discuss his abrupt departure, or whether they’d simply send his last check.
What he did know was that he was going to have to make some plans. A part of him said that it was okay to take a week or two off to decompress and think about what he wanted to do with his future. The holidays were coming up, after all, and what better time to lay low and clear his head? But another, more insistent part of him said that idling around was a stupid idea. He’d never not worked, and he needed to funnel his energy in a forward direction. Hanging out simply wasn’t his style.
He and Reed headed out to unload his stuff from the truck. The door had barely closed behind them when Reed asked, “What happened?”
Cade knew his older brother would not be put off by the drilling hiatus story. In past years the hiatus had come a week before Christmas, not Thanksgiving, which was less than a week away. He figured his mom also had suspicions about the odd timing, but was biding her time before pushing to find out what was going on in her youngest son’s life.
“I gave notice at my job.”
“I had to.” He gave Reed a rundown of the events of the past month, the push to work in dangerous weather and the lack of consideration as to where a drill rig could be safely set up. “It was getting dangerous, and the new guy took things just that much too far.”
“And now . . .?”
“I don’t know. I thought I’d come home and watch the ranch, maybe cook Thanksgiving dinner for Henry. Stuff like that.” Henry was the now-retired foreman of the Keller Ranch and essentially part of the family. He’d been on the ranch for as long as Cade could remember, having hired on shortly after Cade and Em were born.
“Henry’s going to Boise for Thanksgiving,” Reed said. “And I meant what now with your job situation?”
Cade let out a breath. “I’ve been unemployed for less than twenty-four hours. I’m going to take a day or two and let my head clear. I might not do anything until the new year.” Saying the words aloud made him realize that he didn’t want to wait that long to find a job, but it made sense to take a little time to let things settle and map out a thoughtful course of action rather than a desperate one. The one thing he didn’t want was a mercy job on the ranch.
Reed considered, then said, “However it came about, I’m glad you’re here. I hate having someone on the place when there’s no family at home.”
“By ‘someone,’ you mean Mom’s housepainter?” Reed nodded and Cade had to ask, “Do you remember her?”
“I remember the Woodsons and their reputation in the community.”
So did Cade. Cold, privileged people who only showed up at the major events in Marietta, very much like Reed’s father-in-law, Carter Hunt, another privileged person who didn’t mingle much with the locals.
“Alex wasn’t snobby, like her family. She could be wicked funny.” He remembered times when she’d been teased by a teacher or classmate and had held her own with surprising ease. He also remembered her approaching him at a party, asking him questions about rodeo until, overwhelmed, he found an excuse to escape. She’d done it on a couple of different occasions, including him as she’d worked the room. Cade gave a half laugh. “But she was kind of . . . perfect.” Which had made her intimidating, at least to his circle of friends, the quieter members of the rodeo crowd. Ropers didn’t tend to be as outgoing as the rough stock riders.
“So why is she painting houses?” Reed asked. “Rebellion?”
“Maybe so. Whatever the reason, I’ll be here to keep an eye on things while you guys are gadding about.”
“I don’t think a honeymoon trip qualifies as gadding,” Reed pointed out. “And I planned this long before Mom and Dad decided to go to that wedding.”
“Well, Em is gadding, for sure. Lizard counting? Really?”
Reed grinned, and Cade opened the door to the truck and pulled out a heavy duffel, which he handed to his brother. He dragged two more duffels out of the back and then closed the door again. “Anything need done after I sleep for a couple of hours?”
Reed shook his head. “But tomorrow, I’d appreciate it if you saddled up Fletch and ride the allotment. We’re missing three steers and the next week’s forecast shows snow.”
Reed opened the door to the little house and dumped Cade’s duffel inside. “Get some sleep. Think about what you’re going to tell Mom when she starts questioning you.”
“Yeah.” At least Reed was on the same page as him. They’d caused their mom enough worry in their younger days.
“Keep me posted too . . .” Reed paused, as if he wanted to add more, but didn’t.
Cade closed the door after his brother, and Reed’s truck started a few seconds later. He’d just quit his job and set the bridge behind him on fire. He had to think about new beginnings sooner rather than later, but first . . . first he was going to become unconscious for a long, long time.
Alex Woodson stood outside her single-wide trailer house, hoping that an explosion didn’t rip through the place before the propane guy arrived to take care of the leak. If it did, she had no idea where she was going to live.
The explosion did not come. Twenty minutes after she’d called, a utility truck pulled into the driveway, and Alex went to meet it, giving the driver, a short guy with longish hair sticking out from under his logoed cap, a grateful smile.
“I left the doors to the house open. The person on the phone told me not to bother with the windows.” She’d simply told her to get out and stay out.
He drew himself up in an important way. “Just stay back and leave it to me.”
Alex did as she was told, hugging her arms to her chest as she stood near her Subaru and waited. She caught a movement near the old grain silo and glanced that way in time to see the stray black-and-white dog who hung around her place disappear behind the old board fence. The dog had shown up a little over a month ago, and Alex had started leaving out food as soon as she realized they shared a space, but so far Shadow was not interested in making friends. She seemed to consider Alex’s property her own and spent her day keeping an eye on things.
The propane guy came out a few minutes later, went to his truck, then returned to the trailer, seemingly unconcerned about explosions.
When he came out the second time, he said, “Faulty regulator. You should be fine now.”
“Do things like that happen often?”
He shook his head. “Every now and again, but everything else looks good. No leaks. No problems that I can see.”
“Great.” She smiled and he finished writing up his trip ticket. But instead of heading to his truck now that his duty was done, he said, “Are you Alex Woodson?”
She was used to the note of surprise. After her career had taken a bad turn, she’d left her job in Kalispell, returned to the place where she’d felt happiest, and started her small business on a shoestring. She didn’t know whether it was the peace and quiet of the Marietta area that caused her to return, or memories of the bliss she’d felt after escaping prep school and enrolling in Marietta High School. Probably a little of both. Both times she’d returned to the area had been a healing experience, and now she saw no reason to leave. She’d been there for almost a year and had established her business, Alex’s Interiors, with little more than a business card, online advertising, and word of mouth. She had enough work to keep her busy and she didn’t have to answer to a boss. Those two things made her feel, in a word, blessed.
“I am Alex Woodson.”
The guy smiled. “I thought so.”
“Do I know you?” she asked slowly, embarrassed that she didn’t recognize him. His shirt was embroidered with the name Jed, but she couldn’t remember any Jeds from school.
“No.” He turned a little red under his tan ball cap. “I was a couple years behind you in school. You would haven’t noticed me.”
“You don’t know that,” Alex said with a smile, and the guy went even redder. “Is there anything I should be aware of?” She lifted her chin in the direction of the trailer. “You know, with the propane?”
Jed shifted back to professional mode. “Everything looks okay now that I swapped out the regulator, but you might invest in a gas detector. You can get a decent one online for”—he glanced around Alex’s rather rundown property—“not much money.”
“I’ll do that.” She pushed her hands into the back pockets of her baggy painter pants. She’d have loved to have told him that she had a master plan for renovating her place, and that in a couple of years, he wouldn’t recognize it, but instead said, “Thank you for coming. You have my address for the invoice?”
He opened the door to his utility truck. “I have everything I need.” He seemed to have gotten over being embarrassed. “Maybe we’ll see each other around?”
Alex smiled again. “Maybe.” But you’ll have to look fast.
She, who had once lived for the next social event, now kept to herself. The sole reason that returning to Marietta to start her business might have been a mistake was because of people’s memories of her. She had enjoyed herself immensely after the constraints of boarding school, doing only enough schoolwork to keep a B average. She’d been the grasshopper to her wiser classmates’ ants, assuming that she’d have resources to fall back on for as long as she pleased.
Her teenage self had been out of touch with reality and clueless as to the true state of the family fortune. That had come back to bite her in the butt more than once, but she’d forged ahead and here she was, back where she’d come from.
The utility truck roared to life, and Jed swung it in a backward arc before starting down the short driveway leading to Polestar Road. Alex took a moment to watch the truck disappear around a corner, flashes of white showing through the bare branches of the willows edging the river as the vehicle headed for the main road.
Then she turned toward her house, studying it with a critical eye, as she tended to do after receiving visitors. It wasn’t much, but it was hers, and one of the few things that had escaped the family financial meltdown, mainly because her immediate family hadn’t owned it. If they had, it would have been long gone. Thankfully, her dad hadn’t known that his mother’s first husband had left her property upon his death many years ago. She, in turn, left that property to Alex.
As far as Alex knew, her grandmother, whose early marriage to a young Marietta cowboy hadn’t lasted more than a handful of years, had never set foot on the place. She’d paid the taxes and leased it out. She’d also probably smiled from heaven when her materialistic son had a conniption fit at the will reading.
Her father had been outraged when he’d discovered that there’d been a potential asset that he might have gotten his hands on to settle debts he’d racked up. Alex’s feelings toward her parents were complicated—she’d wanted their love and approval back in the day, but had resigned herself to getting neither. Bottom line, she didn’t know or understand them. How could she, when they’d sent her away to school every year? Until the money dried up, she’d only known her family during holidays. The rest of the time she’d been at Elmwood Preparatory School two states away in Washington, learning how to negotiate a Lord of the Flies-type dormitory environment. Marietta High had been such a welcome relief from the drama of her former school. She’d encountered one or two potential mean girls at her new school, but their abilities had not been honed as sharply as Alex’s former classmates, so it was hard to take them seriously.
She had truly enjoyed those last two years, when she’d made real friends who’d had her back. There were times when she wished that her two best high school friends were still in Marietta, so that she had someone who actually knew her. But they’d settled in other parts of the country, so Alex was, for all intents and purposes, alone. That was okay, because one thing she’d learned over the past several years was that, in many ways, she did better alone.
She didn’t need other people to prop her up, reassure her or validate her, or the mental exhaustion of always being “on” to please other people. She was good living by herself with the shadow dog watching her back.
Reed was right. It was going to snow. Maybe not today, but soon. The clouds brushed the top of the mountain range, and the air was oddly still, making it all the more imperative to find the steers if he didn’t want to be riding through deep powder. He remembered years where they didn’t get serious snow in the mountains until mid-December or later, but this was not one of those years.
Cade pushed his hat back on his head and loosened the reins to allow Fletch to snatch a mouthful of dry November grass before starting back down the mountain. He’d been beating the brush for hours, looking for strays that were better at hiding than he was at finding, and had concluded that the missing cattle were in trespass on someone else’s property. When he got home, he’d put out the call to the neighbors.
He gave the reins a gentle tug. Fletch lifted his head and then began to pick his way down the trail, past the line shack that was in danger of losing its roof to the narrow trail that connected the upper grazing allotment to the meadows below.
As he rode, Cade couldn’t help but mentally size up the trees he passed, looking for firs of the right size and symmetry to grace the folks’ living room in a few weeks. Cutting the Christmas tree was a big deal and he would continue the tradition, even though he’d have to do it alone. It’d be nice to have the house ready when his mom got back from her holiday. She liked to do things a certain way, but he didn’t think she’d have any problem with them being done for her this year.
Cade and Fletch reached the gate they’d entered through, and then on a whim, Cade decided to ride the fence to the west, more to see if he could get a glimpse of the place where his mother’s housepainter lived on Polestar Road than because he thought it would help him find the missing steers.
The area was rocky with little grazing, and the cattle didn’t usually hang on that part of the allotment, but apparently, there were times that they did. Less than half a mile from the gate, he found a toppled fence post, wire on the ground, and cattle tracks in the windblown alluvium that had collected over the years in the low spots on the granite bedrock.
“And there we are,” he muttered to Fletch, who flicked an ear. He dismounted and led the gelding over the downed wires, then remounted on the other side.
Fletch picked his way over the granite to softer ground, and then they followed the tracks through the trees to a low meadow and yet another wonky fence. At that point, Cade lost the tracks in the tall grass of the field. He wasn’t going to find the steers today, but he’d come back tomorrow.
On the far side of the field was the old farm where Alex Woodson lived. A rust-orange Subaru was parked in the driveway, so he rode Fletch along the remains of the old fence until he came to a narrow track through the field leading to the property. Once there he dismounted and broke good-horsemanship protocol by loosely tying Fletch’s reins to a garden fence post before approaching the house, where he knocked.
“Coming,” a voice called from within, and a moment later, the door opened and the woman his mom had hired to paint her house appeared.
“I . . .” He stopped, surprised at the impact of seeing Alex Woodson again. She hadn’t changed much since high school. Her hair was shorter, falling just past her shoulders, but it was still the color of the grain fields in the fall. Because her face was makeup free, he could see the freckles scattered over her nose and cheeks, and even without eyeliners and shadows and whatever, her eyes were the same startling blue he remembered, and her lips had the natural curve that has fascinated him back in the day.
“Cade?” Her face broke into a smile, wary at first, as if she wasn’t certain of the identification, then broadening, and he felt an instant tug of attraction. Oh yeah. The woman still had it.
“Yep.” He was a little surprised at the friendly greeting, as if he were a bona fide old friend—which he was not. As he’d told Reed, they hadn’t interacted during school, with the exception of the few times she’d talked to him at parties. He hadn’t taken the incidents seriously. In fact, he’d taken pains not to take them seriously. Alex, with her expensive clothes and pricey Land Rover, was not his type, and he was not hers. They lived in different worlds, and he truly hadn’t wanted his friends laughing at him for taking a casual conversation as some kind of flirtation.
“I didn’t know you were back home.” She spoke as if they were old friends, rather than people who’d moved in different social circles. “Your mom didn’t say anything.”
Probably because he’d shown up out of the blue. “I’m home for a few weeks.” Hopefully, no longer.
“Did she tell you that I’m going to paint your parents’ house?” She sounded excited by the prospect, which he found hard to fathom. Didn’t everyone hate painting?
“I know. She’s looking forward to having it done.” He shifted his weight and got down to business. “I’m looking for some missing steers. I don’t suppose you’ve seen any wander by?”
“I haven’t seen any, but I’ll let you know if I do. I have your mom’s number.”
He pulled out his phone. “Take mine as well. That way we can skip the middleman.”
“Don’t you mean ‘middle-mom’?” Alex took his phone without waiting to see if he smiled at her lame joke—he did—and entered her number, then passed the phone back. “I appreciate your mom hiring me.”
“She’s that kind.”
Her gaze came up. “What kind?”
“The kind that needs her house painted?”
Alex’s eyes narrowed shrewdly, and Cade was struck by the sense that this was no privileged debutant standing in front of him and that perhaps he needed to recalibrate his former assessment of the woman.
“I thought you were insinuating that it was a mercy hire.”
“I promise she is not that kind. It’s been years since the interior of the house was painted. We focus more on the outbuildings when we get forced into holding a brush or roller.”
He very much wanted to ask why she was there. What had happened in her life that had her living in a narrow trailer on an old farm property? Instead, he said, “I’d like to track down those steers before it snows.”
“I’ll call if I see anything,” she said.
Alex looked as if she was about to say something more, then apparently changed her mind and gave him a nod before he turned to go.
Cade’s nerves hummed as he headed back to where Fletch had untied himself and was now grazing on dry grass along the edge of the driveway, which was stupid. He wasn’t a shy seventeen-year-old kid anymore, but he felt like one. He gathered the reins and mounted, barely getting into the saddle when a black-and-white flash appeared out of nowhere, making a low pass at the gelding’s heels. Fletch took to the sky, and Cade had a few dicey moments until he got the gelding under control.
By the time Fletch decided that the earth wasn’t about to eat him, and that Cade would indeed keep him safe, Alex was a few yards away, a concerned look on her face.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “She’s not my dog.”
“It happens,” Cade said. All he wanted at this point was to be on his way before any other surprises came darting out of nowhere. He touched his hat in a casual salute, then turned Fletch toward the mountain to retrace their steps through the hole in the allotment fence and back to the ranch.
End of Excerpt