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Emily Sullivan was glad to be back in the States. She wasn’t sure how she felt about being back at the Three Sisters Ranch, though. Tired, she decided. She felt tired. And hungry. Worst of all, she could smell the bacon her mother was making in the kitchen. Her stomach roiled and she forced herself to breathe through her mouth.
But the reek of it was worth it to see her sisters and parents leap up from the table and surround her.
“Why didn’t you let us pick you up from the airport?” her oldest sister, Kelly, asked. She looked as beautiful as ever, like the rodeo queen she had been.
“I’m so glad you’re here. Now we can get started.” Janice, her other older sister, hugged her and then went back to her notebook, where she probably had a seven-page to-do list. Janice looked like a badass librarian who could wield a ruler like a samurai sword if you pissed her off.
“You’re too skinny,” her mother lamented. She and Alissa, Kelly’s daughter, were dusted with flour from baking something that smelled much nicer than the animal meat. After a rough start, her mother had fallen into grandmother mode like it was her job.
“It’s good to see you, baby girl.” Her father hugged her hard.
When did he get so frail? He had aged ten years since she last saw him at Christmas.
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” she told him fiercely, gripping him tight.
A few weeks ago, she had been working in West Tigray, Ethiopia, when the sporadic internet service in the town she was staying in delivered a cryptic message from her father.
Come home one last time. We’re selling the ranch. We can’t keep up with the bills.
She had joined the Peace Corps out of college because she wanted to make a difference and she hadn’t come home because she hadn’t felt like she had managed that yet. But she always thought there would be a home to come home to. She had always dreamed of taking over as ranch manager from her father when he retired. But her family had never taken her seriously. She was the baby, the wild child, the practical joker. Emily had thought that serving a few years in the Peace Corps would lend some weight to how serious she was about running the Three Sisters Ranch.
“How can you run a cattle ranch when you’re a vegetarian?” her father would scoff every time she had tried to bring up the subject after she graduated high school.
Selling cattle to the slaughterhouse wasn’t her favorite part of ranch life, that was for sure. But when she was in charge, she could diversify the ranch so they didn’t have to rely on that so much. And she could make sure the animals were treated humanely until it was time to sell them. What happened after that wasn’t something she liked to think about, but she would have to face the reality of it sooner or later. Or maybe she would change them from a cattle ranch to a dairy ranch, but that was an argument for another day.
The Three Sisters was a five-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Last Stand, Texas. It had been in their family for generations. But once Emily had been born, her father changed the name from the Sullivan Ranch to the Three Sisters in honor of his daughters.
“I’ve got my girls home,” he said, opening up his embrace to include her niece, Alissa.
Her family could be overwhelming and after the isolation and vastness of Africa, Emily was feeling a little claustrophobic with all the activity that was going on in the kitchen. She was having a hard time wrapping her head around that it was morning. In Ethiopia, it would be around four in the afternoon.
“So, what did I miss?” Emily held her father out at arm’s length to look at him again. He didn’t look well. Did her sisters keep anything from her? They had arrived a few weeks ago, while she dealt with the red tape to get back home. She had been eight months into her second contracted term with the Peace Corps and had to apply for a hardship dismissal so she didn’t lose the stipend she had earned. One of the terms of the negotiation was that she had to stay and train her replacement. And while Kelly and Janice texted her as often as they could, Emily wasn’t sure she’d got all the messages.
“We’re reorganizing a bit,” her father said gruffly.
“The cattle industry is dying. We need to branch out into more sustainable activities,” Emily said.
He chucked her under the chin. “You’re so cute.”
Emily grimaced. “I’ve killed men for less.”
He snorted. “See what I mean?”
“That is kind of condescending, Dad,” Janice said.
“You’re cute, too,” he told her.
“I’m cute,” Janice said to Kelly, who rolled her eyes.
“So am I!” Alissa piped up, and they all chuckled. Her niece was five years old and had just attended her first rodeo. Emily had missed the annual Last Stand Rodeo that happened over Fourth of July week, but she got to see the video of Alissa mutton bustin’. Kelly had taken a ton of pictures to build up her portfolio for the portrait studio she was planning on opening. After looking at her album, it was almost like Emily had been there.
“Wait until you meet Trent and Donovan,” her mother said. “They’re such nice men.”
“So I’ve heard,” Emily said with a trace of sarcasm. Both nice men were renting land from her father and it was helping keep the creditors at bay, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.
Trent Campbell was a local boy who had made it big in professional bull riding. He was back in town and starting his own rodeo school on their land. It was supposed to have been a surprise that her father had wanted to spring on them, but her sisters had ferreted out the truth and filled her in.
Emily thought that was pretty cool. She remembered seeing Trent ride when they’d gone to the rodeos when she was growing up. However, she knew it bothered her father to have strangers on his land.
The other renter, however, she had major problems with—even though she’d never met him. Donovan Link had paid for hunting rights on their land and was currently paying a monthly lease on the property until he decided if he wanted to build a hunting lodge. That was going to happen over her dead body. She had to convince Donovan that it wasn’t worth his time to be here. Her family would figure out how to make up the lost revenue another way.
“I saw Trent’s school as I drove by. I’m hoping we won’t have to deal with another building and more foot traffic.” Emily figured she’d try to get on her father’s good side.
“Well, hope again,” Janice snapped. “My retreat center is going to bring in groups of people and since Kelly’s photo studio will be a part of it, we all have to realize that changes are going to happen. And we all need to adjust to them.”
Great, not home five minutes and she’d already touched a nerve. “I didn’t mean your retreat center,” Emily said. “I meant nonfamily members.”
Kelly smiled into her coffee. “You mean Donovan’s proposed hunting lodge.”
Her sisters were her best friends—when they weren’t trying to be a second and third mom to her. Talk about bossy! Kelly had always been on her to fix her hair and makeup, while Janice wanted to quiz her on history and math flash cards. And yet, they covered for her when she had missed curfew and looked the other way when she signed her father up to get Ms. Magazine.
They hadn’t had a lot of adult time together, though. Kelly had decided to move to New York after a fight with their dad and Janice went to Kentucky straight out of college.
Emily had planned on sticking around and going to a local college for a business degree, but her father had refused to take her seriously. So, she had decided to go on an adventure instead. Africa had been the farthest point she could get to. And since no one knew her there, Emily had finally been free of her family’s expectations.
In Africa, she had been a “case manager,” instead of “the baby.” She was an American worker, not Kelly Sullivan’s little sister. Emily had taken care of children and planted food. She had not sent cattle out to be slaughtered in the name of profit, and she certainly didn’t hunt for fun.
“We don’t need a hunting lodge here. It’s barbaric.”
Frank Sullivan rolled his eyes. “He’s going to help us out with our feral hog problem.”
Emily grit her teeth and with effort kept the smile on her face. “We can trap them. We don’t have to kill them.”
“Just because you don’t want to eat pork, don’t take that away from the rest of us,” he said.
“Dad,” she complained. It wasn’t about that and he knew it. Ever since she was little, she couldn’t stand the thought of an animal being in pain or being killed. It made growing up on a cattle ranch tough. Emily had to accept that there were situations that weren’t ideal, but necessary, until she took over the ranch from her father. In her opinion, though, a hunting lodge wasn’t one of them.
“Look, let’s say you do trap them,” her father said. “What are you going to do with them? Relocate them? Where? No one is going to want them. Give them to someone else to slaughter and eat? It’s the same thing.”
She didn’t have a leg to stand on with the feral hogs and she knew it. She didn’t have to like it, though. But she also knew that most hunters weren’t just interested in pigs. “I agree the feral hogs are a problem. Are the other game animals off-limits?” Emily challenged.
“Deer are also a nuisance. Turkey, too.”
“Why can’t we coexist with nature and show tourists the spectacular wildlife we have? Wildlife that’s still alive.” Emily knew she was talking just to hear her own voice. Her family was exchanging “there she goes again” looks. She had been hoping her sisters would be on her side in this matter. But she probably lost them when she mouthed off about the new buildings. Her family took for granted all the species of animals that shared their ranch with them, from the cute little javelinas to the majestic elks. There was so much to enjoy about them. It didn’t have to be survival of the fittest. They could all coexist—if her family could find a way to stop foreclosure. The fact that selling cattle to the slaughterhouse was no longer paying all their bills was a big red flag that things needed to change. And she was just the ranch manager to do that.
Through her spotty internet and trying to find her way home from Africa, Emily and her sisters had brainstormed several ways to bring the ranch back into the black. Kelly was eventually planning on opening up a portrait studio, but for right now, she was doing staged shots of kids on horseback and engagement photos against the gorgeous Texas sunsets. Janice was setting up an area for a women’s retreat, a kind of a dudette ranch, which was going to drive Nate, the ranch’s foreman, crazy. But since Nate had always had a soft spot for Janice, her sister was hoping she could get him on board with the plan.
Emily had a bunch of ideas. One of them was to have a wildlife conservation museum, although she didn’t think it was going to be a moneymaker for the ranch. It would be nice to have a place to celebrate nature. And it would be one more thing for Janice’s guests to do. However, she had a number to call that her friend Bobby in the Peace Corps gave her to contact someone about using their land for alternative energy sources. The ranch had a few unused pastures that could support several wind turbines to harness wind power. And after a small initial investment, brokering the energy could sustain the farm in perpetuity. Emily knew her father was going to be a hard sell on it, but she thought it would work. Saving the farm by using renewable energy would give her a small victory over her family who thought she was nutty when she preached conservation.
“Your mother told me what you girls have planned, and I’m all for it,” her father said. “The problem is each of your bright ideas is going to cost money that we don’t have. To be honest, you all should have done this a few years ago.”
Typical Daddy. Of course, he didn’t tell any of them about the ranch being in trouble until last month. “Well, we didn’t,” Emily said. “But we’re here now.”
“Donovan and Trent brought their own money in, so they get first dibs on the land and resources.” Frank sat back down at the table to finish his breakfast. “I want you girls to work with them, not against them.”
Emily glanced away and hoped he didn’t see that she had her fingers crossed. While she wasn’t thrilled about bull riding, she could live with it as long as the bulls weren’t being abused. The hunting, though? Donovan Link had to go.
“Can I get you some blueberry pancakes?” her mom asked.
“I’d love some,” she said gratefully. “Butter and syrup will make everything better.”
“I thought you couldn’t eat butter because it comes from a cow,” her father challenged her.
Emily sighed at this old argument. “I’m a vegetarian, Dad. Not a vegan. Although, if Mom has some vegan butter, I’d be glad to have that instead.”
“Wouldn’t matter,” Kelly said around a mouthful of pancake. “She put butter, eggs, and milk in the recipe.”
And that was another reason why she wasn’t vegan. It was damn near impossible to be one in this family.
End of Excerpt