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“You can’t sell this ranch. It’s our heritage, our family’s legacy.”
The words were both a defensive stance and a helpless plea from her soul. The news her sister Laurel had just handed to her sent Sammi Jo’s heart plummeting inside her chest. They sat side by side, their gazes sweeping across the vast space before them. Yet Sammi Jo knew they were seeing two different worlds.
As far as one could see in any direction were the wide-open spaces opined in many a Texas song and legend. The Burkitt brand was on every gate, vehicle, animal, and even clothing the humans wore. The land they stood upon had been fought over and protected for generations before them over the last two hundred-plus years. And now there was another battle looming just beyond the distant horizon. Sammi Jo had just come face-to-face with a stark reality.
“Times change.” Laurel made the blunt statement. “Grandmother always said that you better keep a fast horse at the ready. You never knew what or who you might have to outrace next. In this case, it’s pure economics.”
“That’s a cold assessment of the last two hundred years of the Burkitt family’s footprints on this land. Strangers don’t belong on this ground…we do. They haven’t earned it. What do you think Grandmother would think?”
“This was entirely her idea. And in her usual way, she left the delivery of the news up to me. I arrived out of the womb and on this land ahead of you by four minutes. That puts me in this unwanted position. And she knew I would have a more hard-nosed business sense than you would about this subject. You’re the one who has a heart the size of Texas and would want to keep every animal on this place and every cowboy and . . .”
“Our animals can’t go to a slaughterhouse. Some of their bloodlines date back a century or more, from the days of the conquistadors from Spain. And those cowboys you refer to have been born here on this ranch and their fathers before them and even grandfathers. Their families don’t know any other home, any other way of life. They gave their blood, sweat, and tears for this land . . . for our family. We owe them more than just a severance check and a goodbye party.”
“Then what would you have me do? I’ve got two offers on the table, both worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Not even a fool would walk away from that sweet of a deal. But if you want this place so much, buy me out. Take over. You have a trust fund. I’ll even take payments on the balance. I trust you and your credit rating.” Laurel was trying to add a touch of levity, but it was a no go.
Sammi Jo was stunned into a brief silence while her sister’s words sank into her brain. She aimed her gaze at her. “You’d do that? Make a deal with me to buy you out? Why?”
“Because I’m an idiot. Or a soft-hearted sucker, after all. Or maybe I think you might be the last true Burkitt. You just may have that strain of blood or genes or whatever it takes to get this place into the next century. And our grandmother did have a contingency plan just in case I found a soft spot in my heart—or head. Consider it Grandmother hedging her bets, as usual. Along with her odd way of making a right to an old wrong.”
“What does that mean? What did Grandmother do?”
“If you had strong objections to selling out, she gave me the leeway to make you a deal . . . with one provision. And that is why I haven’t brought it up before now. Because I really don’t want to see you go ballistic. And this could be a disaster in the making. Or maybe I just don’t want to see my little sister hurt.”
“Well, you’ve come too far to stop now. Spit it out.”
“I don’t think I’ll be spitting anything out. It’ll be you.”
“Details, Laurie.” She used the nickname that few dared in her sister’s presence.
“I can make this deal with you if you agree to the terms—all of them. No discussion. It is a yes or a no. And then the deal is off the table for good. This place is sold to the highest bidder.”
“A foreign conglomerate that doesn’t give a damn about anything but profits and cutting up pieces of this country and . . .” Sammi Jo’s blood pressure was rising, but before it got to the danger zone, Laurel raised her palm.
“Please. I have heard this all before. Save it to preach elsewhere. You just might need that sermon and voracity for someone else if you seriously contemplate taking me up on this.”
“You make the down payment in thirty days to me. And you make the rest of the payments each quarter over the next ten years.”
Sammi didn’t hesitate. “That is possible. Between the trust fund, hard work, and trusting Mother Nature to help out when I need it, the horse stock, and the—”
“The producing oil and gas wells are where I see those dollars coming from in case dear old Mother Nature fails,” Laurel interjected. “That leaves you relying on politicians and the global economy. I don’t know which is the worst trade-off. But it will indeed be work. I know you like that sort of thing. But what you won’t like is that little fine print in the deal. A potential deal breaker if there ever was one.”
“Our grandmother loved her fine print. She spoke with you about this? This was all her idea?”
“It was more of her wish. The attorneys had this tidy little codicil to go along with the will. You know she always wanted to have a grandson to leave all of this to one day, and if she could find a way to lay to rest any traces of that old feud from the bygone days at the same time, that would have made her even more determined. For whatever reasons, she wanted to make amends.”
But the Burkitt heirs were born without the correct genitalia. Just more females when all grandmother wanted was a tough male heir. She even hoped for a while that one of Aunt Naomi’s children might be a male. But cousins Kenzie and MacKenna blew that hope out of the water when they were born. MacKenna left the ranch as fast as she could after graduation. And Kenzie seemed determined to make medicine her calling. But Grandmother did do right by them both in her will. Everyone knew the cousins were left some very lucrative pieces of land bordering the Crazy Coyote River over in the west section of the ranch. And Aunt Naomi was given a nice sum of cash that would make life in Florida with her new husband much more enjoyable.
“And where do we conjure up a male bloodline in all of this?
“Seems she chose a way to right an old family wrong and gain that strong male in the family all at the same time, at least to her way of thinking. And she gets to make the selection. The solution is you marry one. And not just any old male will do. No, she even picked that one out for you herself, since she knew she couldn’t get you to see the straight of it in the time she had left. She killed two birds with one stone if you will. Always the one to cut to the bottom line.”
“What old wrong? Not that ridiculous old feud over a game of cards? And why me? And marriage? Had she totally gone off the deep end?”
Laurie rose to her feet and kicked a stone out of the way with the toe of one designer boot. She turned to face Sammi Jo. “She was pretty cryptic about the old wrong bit. At first, I thought it might be from the meds and painkillers clouding her brain. But she was sharp to the end. The attorneys had that verified. All she or her attorneys would say was ‘It’s time for the reckoning. Time for the Burkitts to right the wrong.’ So if you want a chance to have all of this to continue in this family, you will sacrifice not just a lot of your trust fund for it but also the rest of your life . . . or the next three years, at any rate. If you’ve met the financial obligations to that point, there is an escape clause: you can have a divorce with a strong pre-nup in place, of course. She even drew that up with the attorneys herself. Nothing was left to chance or something as fickle as romance, Heaven forbid.”
Sammi Jo slowly shook her head. “I can’t believe this—but then, yes, I can. This sounds like her shenanigans. She’s still ruling our lives from beyond the grave. Why didn’t she just say this before she died and caused all of this uproar now?”
“Because she loved the uproar. You know that. Sarah McNamara Burkitt was the grande dame of all she surveyed. People were to be moved around the chessboard as her pawns. Do you think she was going to stop doing that even in death? She could give and she could take away. And while she did divvy out her love to us after our parents died, she did so with an eye to the future. She knew I never took to this place, not like you did. You followed in her shadow every step she took. I loved ball gowns and you loved muddy jeans. You loved forecasting beef prices, I loved eating a good steak in a fine restaurant. That’s why I am off to California and bright lights and you are—well, that is up to you. Do you want to stay on this land and go along with her last hoorah at being in control of our destiny?”
“You haven’t said who she chose. Which man is to be the sacrificial lamb in all of this? Does he even know about any of this?”
Silence. Only the Texas breeze daring to murmur through the grasses at their feet. A stunned silence and then a slow burn to a volcanic eruption as Sammi Jo found her footing beside her sister, hands on hips in a fighting stance. “Beau Hawkes?! Was she insane? We’re related! What was she thinking? Did the attorneys really test her for senility or whatever before they allowed all of this in her last will?”
“First of all, insane? No. Not in the clinical sense. Maniacal mostly, devious definitely. But she had to be to run a ranch that is larger than most any three states put together and then some. And related? Like something a million years ago. Her great-grandmother or some such fell for this itinerate gambler in the Hawkes’ gene pool, but that long since thinned out of the bloodlines. Besides, you aren’t planning on offspring, are you?”
“Not Beaudry Hawkes.”
“Hmmm, I seem to recall that you had this major Texas-sized crush on the man for all your teen years. But then he up and married that Cindy Lou . . . Cindy Ray . . . something Cindy. That didn’t last long though. So, he is all yours now if you want him.”
“It was Sandy Louise Betancourt. She was running around on him the whole time he was in the military. Then they got married and she went right back to old habits while he finished college. He was lucky to get rid of her. And she not only left him but their little girl too.”
“Wow. I forgot there was a kid involved. Make sure that’s covered by your attorneys when they draw up the final pre-nup. No loose ends—something Grandmother taught us well, alongside good hygiene and don’t play in the finger bowls.”
“I doubt there will be any need for attorneys because I am fairly certain that Beaudry Hawkes is going to order me off his land the minute he sees my truck pass through his gate. We might not have had the best of relationships the last couple of years.”
“Then you need to start packing. Because this land and that house will be going to a new owner, and I am sure they won’t consider you as part of the bargain. Unless you can hire on as a cowhand or something? But then again, if they plan to subdivide or do something else like that, there won’t be any Aces High Ranch to worry about.” Her sister’s open arms brought her in for a hug. “I have a plane to catch, but you know how to reach me. I’ll give you twenty-four hours to make a decision. Then I will tell the lawyers to put up the Sold sign on the front gate.”
Twenty-four hours. The clock was ticking on her life. That wasn’t being dramatic. That was stating a simple and hard fact. Her sister had taken off for the West Coast in the ranch’s plane, which left Sammi Jo to do some fast contemplation of her own life. And just as determined as her sister was to grab hold of her life, so was she. The only life she had ever envisioned was within the confines of 600,000-plus acres of prime ranchland she had thought would always be home.
Until the world upended itself with her grandmother’s help and now she was sitting on the side of a country road, alone in her pickup, contemplating the tall iron gate that led to her only hope. Only hope . . . could be the title of a sad country song if she had any talent for writing music instead of just being a rancher. And a rancher about to lose the only way of life she had ever known or wanted.
Sammi Jo still remembered how she felt the day she and Laurel arrived at the gates to Aces High. Their parents had been buried in Dallas, after the helicopter they had hired to visit a glacier on their second honeymoon had crashed. That left the young pair to be packed off to the ranch. Sammi Jo had taken longer than Laurel to get used to the change. The house was huge and terrified her. Their grandmother had immediately separated the pair, who had shared a room for the first six years of their lives. Sammi Jo found herself hiding under the covers of a huge bed, a wicked-sounding wind banging the outside shutters, and no one to call out to in the darkness. Not after her grandmother had shown her to her suite of rooms and told her that she needed to grow up and realize that crying was a huge waste of time and never permitted on the Aces High or in her sight. Somehow, Sammi Jo had the feeling that the woman knew each and every time those first months when she would sneak off to one of the grain rooms in the stables and let the tears fall.
And during her teen years, she’d often wondered if her grandmother took some perverse pleasure in placing her in situations that would test that rule. Such as when the mongrel dog she had latched onto not long after arriving at the ranch had been given away to another ranch without any warning and Sammi Jo had been ordered to place the animal in its crate and help load it. The woman had watched for signs of tears, but Sammi Jo had begun learning how to choke them down. Grandmother had remarked that bloodlines mattered to people like Burkitts. There needed to be only the finest horseflesh in their stables, the best equipment in their barns, the best of everything, because people expected it of them. So, no mixed-breed dog was needed.
And then the day had come, a year or so after that, when her grandmother had made her stay in the barn and watch one of the young colts she had taken a liking to be put down over a leg injury. That rendered the animal imperfect and, therefore, useless. Sammi Jo learned each and every lesson the woman had thrown at her. Now, she had been given the final test. Lose everything she loved or fight for it under the rules her grandmother was still calling. She drew in a deep breath and expelled it.
The solid gate had not moved. The silent road was still there.
It led to a man she had last seen more than two years ago. There had been a minor dispute over one of her cows getting mixed in with his prize bulls, and they had ended up in a shouting match on the side of a stock pond. She had been in the process of telling that full-of-himself cowboy what he could do with his bulls when her foot had slipped on the muddy ground, and the next thing she knew, she had pushed away the hand he shot out to grab her. And in doing so, he, not her, had lost his footing and ended up face first in the muddy pond.
By the time he had managed to find his footing and stand, she was on her horse and yelling orders to her cowhands to get their cattle moving. She hadn’t looked back, nor had she offered an apology of any type. Not her finest moment. But there had been a not-so-finer moment before that day—and in front of a much larger audience.
It had involved the woman he had ended up marrying, Sandy Lou, as she was known in the town. It was the final round of the ranch horse competition at the Fort Worth Stock Show. For the first time, Sammi Jo had an actual chance of winning the gold buckle, and besting Beaudry Hawkes in the arena. Her horse, Comet, was doing an outstanding job going into the final round. Laurie should have known that something was up when Sandy Lou made certain to be by the gate as Sammi Jo entered, smiling her simpering little sneer, and even wishing her good luck. Beaudry had been sitting on his mount, waiting his turn after Sammi Jo’s. He didn’t see Sandy’s sneer. He sat in silence with that gaze that always could make Sammi Jo go all bumfuzzled in her brain and feel lesser than under his gaze.
She put them both out of her thoughts as she moved Comet into the ring where the judges were waiting. And then all hell broke loose. Comet began sidestepping and flinging his head side to side. Sammi Jo was taken totally unawares, and she tried to maintain control and settle him down. But he was having none of it, and when his hind feet hit the ground, Sammi Jo parted ways with his back and ended up in the arena dirt on her own backside, shocked into speechlessness. A collective gasp swept over the assembled full house of spectators in the stands.
While others ran into the arena to gain control of the animal, she brushed off the offered hands, embarrassment filling her. Never in all her years of riding had any horse ever managed to unseat her. But now she sat looking up at the cowboy whose hand was in her line of sight, and it had to be Beaudry Hawkes. That compounded it all for her. She scrambled to her feet, knocking his hand away. She managed a slight nod of apology toward the judges as she left the arena, trailing behind her horse who was being led away toward his stall by two wranglers, still not quite settled.
The vet was waiting for them, and once inside the stall, Sammi Jo tried to calm Comet, rubbing his broad nose and using soothing words while the vet began looking him over. And once the saddle came off, then the blanket, the horse calmed.
“Well, here is the culprit. Did you check your blanket before you placed it on his back, Miss Sammi?” She gasped. A huge, angry, barbed cocklebur lay on his gloved hand, its long spikes meaning business to any flesh it connected with. “No wonder this fellow wasn’t having a good day once the weight began stabbing this into his back. Can’t imagine how that got under his blanket.” The vet was shaking his head.
But then Sammi Jo caught sight of a certain blond who had come to stand a few feet outside the stable doorway. And before she turned away, she flashed another smile at Sammi Jo that said all she needed to say about her part in the whole episode. Any other place, Sammi Jo would have gone at the woman full force for inflicting pain on one of her animals. But she remembered where they were and the crowd of other ranchers and spectators in the area. She would bide her time.
And that time had come less than a month later at the Ranchers’ Ball when she entered the civic center’s ballroom at the same time Sandy was exiting on the arm of her newly announced fiancé, Beaudry Hawkes. Sammi Jo had seen red and confronted the woman, who managed to pull off a perfect simpering “poor me” façade in front of the man who had bought into it hook, line, and sinker. He had asked no questions, just told Sammi Jo that she was acting like the spoiled, rich brat she was, and she owed Sandy an apology, as she wasn’t to blame for Sammi Jo’s horse not being ready for the show ring. Sammi Jo had then told him in colorful words where he and his fiancée could both go straight to. Not her finest of moments, and that was why she knew the odds were now in favor that he would tell her exactly what she could do with her request for his help. And she would have only herself and her temper to blame.
But Sammi Jo had to try. The fighting Burkitt spirit had burned brightly within her as far back as she could remember. She was walking by her first birthday and riding a horse by two, with someone holding her in the saddle, whenever they had visited the ranch. By six, she was living on the ranch and she was the one holding the reins and following along in that shadow of her grandmother. They had been known as Big Missy and Little Missy around the ranch and town. Sammi Jo had learned all she could from the woman . . . good and bad. Her grandfather had been the one to supply the kindness of heart and speech in her world. Meanwhile, she tried to please the woman, just as everyone else did. A lot of good it had done her. She stood to be left out in the cold . . . unless she could persuade Beaudry to see things her way.
The Hawkes brothers, Beaudry, and his older brother, Jaxson, lived on their ranch that was a strip of some 10,000 acres cut into the southern side of the Aces High. Long before any of them had been born, the Hawkes had been partners in a cattle operation with a Burkitt. And as the Burkitt operation grew, the Hawkes were basically pushed out of the original dealings, with the coup de grace a losing hand in a poker game between a Hawkes and a Burkitt. Hawkes had claimed cheating and a duel had ensued. The Burkitts had come out on top. That bad blood persisted for a few generations.
Then her grandfather, Samuel Burkitt, had set out to right a wrong. He offered Jaxson, and later Beaudry, jobs at the Aces High Ranch, and by the time Samuel had died, Jaxson was his foreman of ranch operations. Everyone knew that the man thought of Jaxson as the son he wished he had. Beaudry left for a military stint and then came back to run the day-to-day of the Hawkes ranch. He had made a name for himself with his prize ranch horses and had bested the Aces High’s showings on more than a few occasions. That was added to the long list of items that served to grate on her about the man, on top of the more personal reasons involving his ex.
Bury it deep and do what you need to do. Her grandmother had shared that pearl of wisdom with her from a very young age. Now that thought fueled her steps to slide out of the truck at the end of the sidewalk. It led to a gate with a low stone wall around the plot of a tree-covered hillside where the natural stone house sat under huge oak- and pecan trees. The green grass of the yard looked lush and healthy, and she had an urge to take off her boots and let her bare toes revel in it. It was an oasis that caught at her, and the single swing being pushed back and forth in the gentle breeze of the early afternoon brought an urge to sit a spell and close her eyes in a daydream. But she needed to keep her eyes wide open in the current nightmare where she walked.
The squeaking of a screened-porch door brought her back to reality. She looked up to find a little girl with twin ponytails trailing over her small shoulders, dressed in denim overalls and a red T-shirt, who had come to stand on the bottom step, her gaze interested, yet watchful. And then next to her appeared one of the most massive dogs Sammi Jo had ever seen. He was every bit as tall as the little girl whose hand reached over and buried itself in the thick, white fur of his shoulder. The child’s head tilted a bit as she looked at their visitor.
“This is Beast. That’s his scary name. I’m supposed to call him that when strangers are around. But I don’t think he scares you. You’re awfully pretty. What’s your name?”
“Samantha Josefina Burkitt,” said a tall man on her behalf who had come around the side of the house without being noticed. His voice was low and deep and well-remembered. As were the dark-jade eyes snapping their silent bold regard upon her. The jawline was set against an intruder. She supposed that was what she was in that moment. Sammi Jo certainly had not been invited. She wiped her sweaty palms along the denim fabric of her hips before her hands slid inside the pockets of her jacket to calm her nerves.
“That’s a long name. Mine is small. I’m Lacy Ann Hawkes.”
“It’s small, but it is very pretty. And people usually call me Sammi Jo. The other way is too fancy for me.” She and the little girl exchanged smiles.
But the cowboy drew her attention to where he had moved to stand, just to the other side of the closed iron gate, a silent reminder of the chasm between them. “Run finish your chores in the laundry room, Lacy. This lady is about to leave.”
He tossed the words over his shoulder while his gaze stayed riveted on Sammi Jo. The cotton material of his long-sleeved shirt had been rolled up to elbow length, and bare muscled arms moved to cross over his chest. His feet were planted in a protective stance.
“Yes, sir. Bye, Miss Sammi Jo.” She gave a small nod before turning to leave them alone, the Beast trailing right behind her.
Beaudry Hawkes’s silent regard hadn’t changed in its power to hold Sammi Jo still and was even more unnerving in the present circumstance. No way was he making anything easy for her. Except for making her feel her welcome was over even before it had been extended.
Now or never. “I’m here because I have some business to discuss with you. Very important business.”
His gaze didn’t waver. “I can’t think of anything we have to discuss. And I only talk business in my office when people make appointments. That includes a Burkitt. Appears you came out here for nothing.” He went to turn away.
“I need to talk to you today, and it can’t wait. And if you’ll hear me out, you just might find it’s your lucky day that I came here at all.”
The look he shot her told her that he highly doubted that last remark. After a few long seconds, he exhaled a deep breath from within him.
“I trust my gut. And my gut is telling me that luck is not what I might describe it as. But I also have a feeling you aren’t going to go away until you’ve said your piece. So, do it. You have one minute, and the clock is ticking right now.”
“I need less than that. Bottom line is my grandmother screwed me in her will. If I have any hope of keeping my home and the Aces High intact, I have to get married to the one person she decreed I have to marry and stick it out with for three years. That person is you, and God only knows the reason. Her lawyers have papers that will give you fifty thousand more acres of land, free and clear, and a boatload of cash for your cooperation. I need you to meet me at the courthouse at 4:00 p.m. tomorrow, and we can get it all done and legal. Then you have your life and I have mine. Is that fast enough for you?”
End of Excerpt