The Cowboy's Mail Order Bride
Author:Carolyn Brown

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

Emily threw off the covers and slid out of bed with a yawn. Ranch work was never done, and it always, always started before daybreak. She started toward her closet and ran into a chair before she realized that she was not in her bedroom at Shine Canyon. She plopped down in the chair, turned on the lamp beside it, and put her hands over her eyes.

 

She’d been caught up in the moment when she agreed to this job. Gramps had said that she needed time away from ranching so she could sort out what she should do with her life. Working on a ranch, even as a glorified assistant, would put her right back where Gramps didn’t think she should be. If she wanted hard work, she could do it on Shine Canyon. Staying on Lightning Ridge was pure crazy, but she’d given her word and a Cooper’s word was as good as a signature on an affidavit.

 

She dressed in jeans and a knit shirt and unzipped a duffle bag holding all her shoes: sandals, platform heels, a pair of sneakers, and her comfortable cowboy boots. According to the television meteorologist it was forty-five degrees, so she pulled on her boots.

 

She needed coffee, at least two cups to even open her eyes in the morning. Why wasn’t anyone up and around? It had to be close to daylight.

 

“Bunch of sluggards. Out in west Texas, we have to work to make a living. We don’t get to sleep until noon,” she mumbled as she made her way to the kitchen.

 

She opened several doors before she found the coffee and filters, started a pot to dripping, and sat down at the bar to wait. The sticky notes took her attention. She knew Clarice’s handwriting from the envelopes in the box and most of them belonged to her. Some had a reply at the bottom in a tight, stingy script that had to belong to Dotty. And then there were some with the same masculine scrawl as the ones on the two pictures.

 

We will be working on bazaar tomorrow.

 

No, shit!

 

Emily giggled.

 

Think up something different for us to make for the bazaar.

 

I need drugs to do that.

 

Emily laughed out loud and searched until she found the ones with Greg’s handwriting. They were mostly in plain yellow and were reminders.

 

You promised you’d hire someone this month, Nana.

 

Month ain’t over yet.

 

And another one.

 

Haircut on Friday.

 

It’s about time!

 

They lived in the same house, talked to each other all the time. Why in the hell would they stick notes to the refrigerator? Her eyes were drawn to a yellow note from Greg in a bunch of green ones.

 

Glad to be home.

 

Her heart did a flip and she leaned over to study it more. If he was all business, then why in the devil did he participate in the sticky note campaign? Gramps would have called it a bunch of sentimental bullshit.

 

The coffeepot gurgled at last. While she was filling a mug she noticed the clock on the stove.

 

“Ten minutes to five,” she groaned. She’d set the alarm wrong on the clock beside her bed. No wonder no one was up and around. It was too early.

 

She filled a mug with hot steaming coffee and drank it as she watched out the kitchen window for the first signs of a brand-new Texas sunrise. A rooster crowed and she could see the outline of the chicken house to the south. In the opposite direction a lonesome old bawling heifer joined in the barnyard noises.

 

Like she’d thought when she first awoke, ranch work was never done. She borrowed a work coat from the rack beside the back door and slipped outside. The morning air was brisk with a hint of oncoming moisture, and it was good to have eggs to gather and a cow to milk. She would have started breakfast, but Clarice had whispered that Dotty was very territorial when it came to the kitchen, and no matter what, not to interfere with her cooking.

 

A heifer had been penned up in the corral at the back of the barn. The old girl had a bulging udder, and a clean milk bucket waited beside a three-legged stool inside the first stall. Emily had never liked that job, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t squirt milk into a galvanized bucket. Some jobs were downright fun; others were just hard work. When Emily opened the door the cow bawled and headed toward the big sliding doors on the back side of the barn.

 

She dumped feed into the trough and the heifer had her head in it when Emily drew the stool up to the side, leaned her head against the cow’s flank, and set the milk bucket under her udder. The first few squirts made a pinging noise when they hit the galvanized bucket, but after a while it was mundane work and Emily’s mind wandered back to those sticky notes. What did they do when there was no more room? Did they throw them away and start over or just take a few off at a time?

 

When she finished the job, she picked up the bucket, hung the stool back on the nail, and sweet-talked the heifer back outside. There was a thin orange line on the horizon, and the sun’s warmth burned off a few of the gray clouds. It might be a nice day after all.

 

The rooster was doing his best to talk the sun up when she got back to the house, set the milk on the counter, and picked up the egg-gathering basket from a hook in the utility room. She noticed a cluster of bright yellow daffodils blooming right beside the henhouse and squatted to get a better look at them. The petals were soft on her fingertips and made her think of Aunt Molly. She adored yellow flowers of any kind. Maybe that morning Taylor was picking daffodils out in Happy, Texas, for his granny.

 

She was about to stand up when something cold touched the bare skin on her neck and her squeal quieted the rooster for a whole minute. She wound up flat on her back, staring at what was left of a few faint stars in the sky, with a Catahoula dog slurping right up across her chin and cheek, not stopping until he got his tongue tangled up in her hair. His tail wagged furiously, and when she tried to sit up, he put his paws on her chest.

 

“Hey, now!” She shoved back at him. “Cold nosing a woman and scaring the bejesus out of her is rude. Don’t you dogs up here in north Texas have any manners at all?”

 

When she was sitting, the dog plopped down in her lap and she rubbed his ears. “Where have you been? I didn’t see you yesterday. Did you get out of the pen and go visiting the neighborhood girl dogs?” she asked.

 

The animal’s tail thumped in the grass.

 

She pushed him off her lap. “Hey, I see a light in the house. That means I need to get the eggs and take them in or we might not have breakfast.”

 

The rooster flapped his wings and set about his daily chore of waking up everyone who could hear him. She gathered thirteen eggs. Thirteen had always been her lucky number. That had to mean she’d made the right decision to stay on at Lightning Ridge.

 

The aroma of bacon wafted through the air and her stomach growled. She opened the back door to find Dotty staring at the milk bucket. “Girl, what are you doing up so early? Did you bring this milk in? I was wonderin’ if that cow had milked herself this mornin’. What have you got there?”

 

She handed the basket to Dotty. “I gathered the eggs.”

 

“Well, that’s right nice of you. I was just fixin’ to either go or send Greg. There wasn’t enough in the fridge to make breakfast. Wipe your boots and hang up your coat on the rack over there,” Dotty said.

 

 

Greg entered the kitchen through the foyer at the same time she came in the back door. He took one look at the basket of eggs and Dotty and asked, “Where did that come from? I would have gone to get them. You didn’t need to get out this early.”

 

Dotty pointed at Emily.

 

“I’m a witch. I knew that Dotty needed eggs so I snapped my fingers.” She snapped and a loud popping noise made him blink. “And presto, a baker’s dozen eggs floated down from the sky and filled that basket.”

 

“Why didn’t you snap your fingers and milk the cow?” He smiled.

 

“I did. You going to strain it or should I?” she asked.

 

“You really do know about the ranching business, don’t you?”

 

“Most of it. Gramps made me learn from the ground up and from the time I was a little girl. I never liked milkin’, but I can do it. How about you? Can you milk a cow?” she asked.

 

“Nana made me learn from the ground up too. I was milking cows before I was a teenager,” Greg said.

 

“Are the children up and around already? Are they arguing?” Clarice breezed into the kitchen. She wore jeans, sneakers, and a bright blue knit shirt. Her hair had been brushed back, and her eyes twinkled.

 

Dotty smiled. “Oh, yeah, and I think the girl child is ahead of the boy child this morning. He’s going to have to get up earlier than usual to beat her.”

 

Emily held up a palm. “Confession. I set my alarm clock wrong or I’d still be asleep. I won’t be up this early every morning unless Miz Clarice writes it into my job description, and I’m sure hoping she doesn’t make me milk cows. That’s my least favorite job on a ranch.”

 

“So you aren’t brownnosing?” Greg teased.

 

“No, sir. I like my sleep as well or better than anyone else,” she answered. “Now what can I do to help with breakfast?”

 

“Stay out of my kitchen,” Dotty said. “You got the milk and eggs. That’s enough help for breakfast.”

 

Clarice poured a mug of coffee and added two teaspoons of sugar. “Looks like I hired a good hand, right, Greg? Me and Dotty are going to be busy in the kitchen all day fixin’ dinner and finger foods for the domino party tonight. Emily, you are to go with Greg. He’ll put you to work doing whatever needs to be done. Greg, don’t you dare make plans for the evening. Madge and Rose are both coming and we need you.”

 

“Why?” Greg asked.

 

“We need an extra hand tonight. Emily is going to play and we’re going to do partners,” Dotty said.

 

“Call Prissy,” he said.

 

“I already did and she has other plans.”

 

Clarice sat down at the table. “We love domino night, Emily.”

 

“Maybe Emily doesn’t want to play,” Greg said.

 

Emily looked at Greg and the heat in the room raised by twenty degrees. Did he feel it too, or was the physical attraction just on her part?

 

Greg tilted his head to one side. Lord, even that was sexy. What was wrong with her? Sure, it had been a long time since she’d had a date, a long time since she’d been kissed, and even longer since she’d done anything else. But Greg Adams wasn’t the right cowboy for her to entertain such notions about. His roots were in Ravenna, Texas, and hers were eight hours away in Happy.

 

“Do you play dominoes?” he asked.

 

“I’ve played since I was a kid. Gramps loved his dominoes,” she said.

 

“Marvin told me that he played with his grandparents when he was a boy,” Clarice said.

 

Greg removed his glasses, wiped them clean on his T-shirt, and put them back on. “Did your grandpa let you win because you were the fair-haired daughter?”

 

“Darlin’, I’ve never been called fair-haired, and believe me, I come from competitive gene stock. We don’t let anyone win anything. If I won, it was fair and square. Did your grandpa let you win?” Emily asked.

 

“Hell, no! I was fifteen before I beat him. Thought I’d done inherited the moon and stars.” Greg chuckled.

 

“Me too. I danced around the living room like I’d made a touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys. Do y’all play for beans or money?” Emily asked.

 

“Big bucks,” Greg said.

 

“Do I need to make a trip to the bank?”

 

“Buy-in is fifty dollars. No bets less than five,” he answered.

 

“Greg!” Clarice shook her finger at him.

 

Emily smiled. “I think I can scrape up fifty dollars. Does it have to be in bills or can I use pennies?”

 

***

 

Greg was on his way out of the house when Emily pushed away from a porch post. “Hey, I’d begun to think you were going to primp all day.”

 

He tilted his freshly shaven face up to the rising sun. The light reflected off his glasses, making a halo above his head. “Did it do any good?”

 

“You look just like you did when you left the breakfast table, except you are now wearing boots and a coat,” she said.

 

“Well, dammit! I thought at least I smelled better. I used my best shaving lotion to impress you.” He grinned.

 

Her heart skipped a beat. Was he serious or was he joking? Had he felt the attraction that morning at breakfast too? If he did, maybe she’d find a note on the fridge just for her some morning.

 

She sniffed the air. “It’s okay, but I really did like the smell of bacon better.”

 

“Well, then I’ll have to see about some bacon-scented shaving lotion. Hey, not to change this exhilarating conversation, but thank you for staying on, Emily. Nana’s got a new bounce in her step this morning. I think that computerized stuff really weighs heavy on her mind. I’m hoping by the end of the month she’ll let me hire someone on full-time when she sees how nice it is to have some help,” Greg said.

 

“It seemed like the right thing to do. Gramps used to tell me that when I’ve done made up my mind about something and it doesn’t feel right, then I should try on a different decision to see how it feels. I tried to think about spending my month on the beach, but it just didn’t feel right. Then I thought about Clarice’s offer and there was peace in my heart,” she admitted. She didn’t say a word about his pictures being a big part of the decision. Hell’s bells, she hadn’t even told Taylor that part, and she sure wasn’t speaking it aloud right then.

 

“I’m glad it didn’t. Now tell me, how much do you know about horses?” he asked. “I hate to ask you to do this, but the fellow who takes care of the horse barn called in sick a few minutes ago. I’ve got a full day lined up. I’m behind because I’ve been gone a week.”

 

She didn’t give him time to finish. “I love horses. I’ll take care of the stables. Will I have time to exercise them?”

 

He pointed to a pickup truck. It might have been pea green at one time, but nowadays rust covered more than paint and it was a toss-up as to whether the green was lichen or actual paint. The tailgate was gone, and the fenders looked like they’d been whipped with a baseball bat several times.

 

“Hop in and I’ll drive you out there. You know how to handle a stick shift?”

 

“I can drive anything that has four wheels,” she said. “Gramps said that I had to learn to drive everything on the ranch.”

 

“Okay, then I’ll leave the truck with you and you can bring it back at dinnertime. Max can pick me up at the barn, and you’ll be on your own until noon,” he said. “Don’t worry if you don’t get the stalls all done this morning. I can help finish up after dinner. Albert and Louis both have the flu bug today. Just do what you can and we’ll play catch-up later. It won’t hurt the horses to go without exercise for one day.”

 

 

She crawled into the passenger seat of the truck and watched him trot around the front to the driver’s side. The visual that popped into her mind almost put her to fanning her face even though there was a cool breeze still blowing that morning out of the north.

 

Nothing made sense. She’d only known the man one day, and she’d never, not one time, had such a hot attraction to a man—any man, not just cowboys. And she had sure never envisioned doing what she just did sitting in his lap bumping along the rutted pathway at forty miles per hour.

 

Greg stopped the truck in front of a long horse stable and was on the phone when he slid out of the truck seat and slammed the door. “Yes, that’s right. Pick me up here and we’ll get busy with that.” He shoved the phone back into his pocket.

 

She crawled out of the truck and looked at a long horse stable, not totally unlike the one that used to be on their ranch until Gramps had sold that section to Taylor.

 

“You got a phone? You sure you don’t mind doing this?” Greg asked.

 

She held up her phone. “I don’t mind. Keys to the truck so I can get back to the house at noon? And yes, I have a phone, and yes, I have the number to the house if I get into trouble.”

 

“The keys are in the front seat, and thank you, Emily. I didn’t plan on whoever we hired for Nana’s helper to be able to do ranchin’ work too.”

 

“I’m a girl of many talents.” She smiled.

 

“Well, this morning I’m grateful. Now, I’ve got a ton of business to take care of. Hopefully I’ll see you at noon.”

 

A dusty cloud followed Max’s truck to the barn. He’d barely stopped when Greg got in and waved as he shut the door.

 

She slipped inside the horse stable, determined that she’d work her way through the emotions surging around through her body. Greg was too damned nice, and that was a fact, jack. If he’d come to Gramps with an old boot box full of letters, she would have thought he was a con man deluxe. She might have been watching too many reruns of NCIS and CSI in the past couple of years, but she would have figured he was out to get something other than closure from delivering a box of letters.

 

And yet, he’d accepted her on face value and his grandmother’s say-so. She found a hoe, wheelbarrow, and shovel in a room so messy that she wanted to cry just looking at it. It was pitiful considering how many people worked on the ranch. Dotty said that Max and Greg always had their meals in the house but that Max had a small apartment in the bunkhouse that housed twenty permanent hired hands. Then there was another twenty who worked full-time on the ranch and lived in Ravenna or the surrounding areas. That meant a work crew bigger than the one at Taylor’s place, and he’d fire someone if he found a tack room looking like this one.

 

On the way back to the first stable, she passed another room with a small window in the door. Peeking in, she saw a second tack room that was organized and fairly clean. The scent of clean leather and old coffee greeted her when she opened the door. The floor needed to be swept, and upon closer inspection there were a few things out of place.

 

According to the sign above the stall door, the first horse was Glorietta, a gorgeous buckskin mare with a dark tail and mane. Emily kissed the horse on the nose and told her how beautiful she was before she led her outside the stall and tied her bridle reins to the gate.

 

“Did someone clean out your stall yesterday, darlin’? This looks worse than my college suitemate’s room. Surely someone as pretty as you didn’t do this all by yourself,” she talked as she worked.

 

When she’d finished scraping the last of the wet straw from the floor, she pulled the garden hose in from the end of the barn and hosed down the floor and the walls until it was sparkling clean. After that she sunk hay hooks into a small bale of hay, carried it to the stall, and cut the wire holding it together with snips. She spread it over the floor and led Glorietta back into her new clean digs.

 

“Now isn’t that much better? You’ve been a good girl. I’d love to ride you, but I’ve got two days’ work to get done in half a day to prove that I can do anything that Greg can do.”

 

After one more kiss, Emily moved down the row to the next one. It took two solid hours to do the whole stable, including the center aisle. Her back muscles were whining by the time she wound the hose up and tossed the hoe and shovel into the wheelbarrow.

 

She finished the tack room with an hour to spare and remembered that the old truck smelled hot when Greg parked it, so she rolled up her sleeves and lifted the hood. It didn’t take much poking around before she found the problem, but it took the whole hour to fix it.

 

She left a cloud of dust behind her when she braked and jumped out of the truck near the kitchen door. She hurried into the house as the clock on the mantel struck twelve times and headed straight for the kitchen sink to wash her hands. She could see across the hall into the dining room. The table was set. Max, Dotty, and Clarice all peered into the kitchen. She dried her hands on the dish towel and hurried to her place at the table.

 

“Sorry I’m late,” she said.

 

Greg slid into a chair seconds before she did. “I’m late too. Got caught up with the veterinarian who was checking out the new bull.”

 

Clarice smiled. “We had just barely got settled. Hope you like your steak medium rare. I forgot to get your cell phone number or I would have called and asked. Oh, and meet Prissy. She’s been helping me to understand the computer business a little better. She works in Bonham, but she had a couple of hours this morning that she could come by.”

 

“Pleased to meet you, Prissy. And the steak is fine any way you cook it. Medium rare is fine. Rare is fine. I like steak,” Emily answered.

 

A woman with a name like Prissy brought images to Emily’s mind of a petite little thing with big blue eyes and blond hair. But the woman who settled into a chair beside Dotty was six feet tall without the spike heels. She had brown hair and brown eyes, made even bigger and darker with lots of eyeliner and shadow. The pencil-straight red skirt barely touched her knees, and the black-and-red geometrically printed sweater dipped low in the front to reveal two inches of cleavage.

 

Maybe she was the one who’d started the sticky note war on the fridge. Back when Shine Canyon went computerized, Emily had given her grandfather a stack and told him to make notes about the computer and stick them to the wall above it. He had hated the notes because they reminded him of the computer, which he never did master.

 

Emily had the sudden desire to drag that tall woman out to the kitchen, point at the refrigerator, and ask her if she’d hauled in those notes in a wheelbarrow.

 

“How much did you get done? I could help finish this afternoon. Got a call from Albert and he said that he and Louis will be back tomorrow morning.” Greg passed the bowl of foil-wrapped baked potatoes across the table to her. Their hands brushed in the transfer, and the heat had nothing to do with the warm bowl.

 

“There are two tack rooms. One doesn’t look like it’s been touched in years. I got the wheelbarrow, shovel, and hoe out of it, though, before I found the second one. Your horses are sweethearts. I jet-sprayed their stalls before I scattered fresh hay and fed them good. I thought about exercising a couple of them with my spare hour, but then I remembered that the truck smelled hot when you parked it, so I looked at the engine. It had a leak in the radiator. I found the little welder in the tack room. I reckon you’ve got a bigger one somewhere else on the ranch? Anyway, I fired it up and put a patch on the radiator and refilled it with water. Couldn’t find any antifreeze, so you might want to check that since we could get another freeze before spring. Sometimes February can get downright temperamental and shove a late freeze in on us,” she said between bites. “Dotty, this steak is wonderful, and the hot rolls are out of this world.”

 

 

Greg’s eyes were big as cow patties by the time she finished telling him what she’d done that morning. She wanted to giggle, but she bit it back.

 

“What? Was I not supposed to play with the welder?” she asked innocently.

 

“You are welcome to use whatever equipment you know how to operate,” Clarice said.

 

“What’s my job for the afternoon? Am I assistant or hired help?”

 

“We’re still getting ready for the party tonight, so you can be hired help. We’ll get into the computer business later in the week,” Clarice said.

 

“Are there any more like you out there in Happy who might be looking for a job? You know how to drive a tractor?” Greg asked.

 

“I told you this morning, I can drive anything with wheels. And I don’t know of anyone lookin’ for a job,” she said with a smile.

 

“You can have a choice. Rake hay or plow forty for a new alfalfa crop, or hell’s bells, Emily, after the morning you put in, you might want to take a nap.”

 

“I don’t care which job I do, but I don’t want to take a nap,” Emily said. “It’s all sitting in a tractor. Open cab? Do I need my stocking cap under the cowboy hat? Gramps always said that good hard work will cure most everything, so I reckon that’s what I need more than anything these days.”

 

“No, our tractors have good heaters and air conditioners for the hot summertime,” Max said.

 

She looked across at him. His graying hair was cut short, and the grin that covered his face erased part of the wrinkles.

 

“That’ll be like a vacation on an exotic island,” she said. “Pass the rolls, please. I’ve worked up an appetite.”

 

Clarice handed the basket of rolls to Greg, who sent them across the table to Emily. When his fingers brushed hers, she wasn’t a bit surprised at the sparks dancing around the dining room.

 

“Thank you. One of your horses has thrown a shoe. I can fix that tomorrow after I muck out the stables if Albert is still sick.” She was amazed that her voice was as calm as a summer cucumber and not high-pitched like a rat in a trap.

 

“Oh, no! Tomorrow you are driving me and Clarice into town for our hair appointments, and then we go to Braum’s for ice cream,” Dotty said.

 

Emily nodded. “Well, since you said ice cream, I won’t pout too much because I’m missing all the ranchin’ fun.”

 

“Ranchin’ fun.” Prissy sighed. “I never heard it called fun before.”

 

“Gramps used to say that it’s all in how you study it. It can be work or play, dependin’ on how you approach it. So I take it that you don’t like ranchin’?” Emily asked.

 

“Hate it. Hate cows. Hate the smells and hate living away from town,” she answered.

 

***

 

Greg crawled up on the front of the broken-down tractor, opened the hood, and shook his head. Most men couldn’t have done the work that Emily did that morning. She must’ve really cut back on her hired help and done everything herself as her grandfather needed more and more attention and money for his treatments.

 

Max climbed up beside Greg and handed him a wrench. “Hey, I just came from the stables. That woman is worth her weight in gold. You reckon if we drove out to the Panhandle we could find a dozen more like her? I swear she got more done than two men this morning.”

 

“No wonder Nana likes her. She’s a power horse in the office and on the ranch,” Greg said.

 

“I’ll be out at that north forty all afternoon. If you need me, holler.” Max chuckled. “You might do well to pay more attention to her, cowboy. She’s mighty easy on the eyes and has kissable lips to go with that work ethic.”

 

“Hey, now, don’t go getting wedding cake on your mind. She’s only here for a month,” Greg said.

 

“Clarice and Dotty are in there singing her praises.”

 

Greg dropped the wrench and it rattled its way down to the concrete barn floor. “Dammit!”

 

“I don’t know why you don’t want to talk about her,” Max said.

 

“Looks like I need another part for this job, and I’m not going back to town this afternoon. I’ll get it tomorrow morning. I’ll help you mend fence, but only if you don’t talk about Emily all afternoon. I tell you, she’s not interested in staying here. She’s going back to Happy in a month and by then Nana will be over this trip down memory lane, and Max, I’m not going to fall for someone who lives all the way across the state just because she has kissable lips and a pretty smile,” Greg said.

 

“I knew if I stuck around long enough I’d get you to agree to help,” Max said. “I’ll pick up the guys at the bunkhouse and meet you there.”

 

Greg had barely gotten settled into his truck when his phone rang. He knew from the ringtone that it was Jeremiah.

 

He answered it on the second ring. “What’s goin’ on that you are callin’ again? Not that I’m not glad to hear from you, but you never call this often.”

 

“Wait just a minute. Don’t hang up.” Suddenly he was listening to a damn marching mariachi band blasting his eardrums out when he was switched over to hold.

 

He was about ready to hang up when Jeremiah came back. “Sorry, but that was a client and he owes me big bucks, so I had to talk to him. I did some more checkin’ into Miz Emily Cooper.”

 

“Why would you do that? You said she was clean as a whistle,” Greg asked.

 

Jeremiah whistled through his teeth like he did when they were young. “I might come see Mama just so I can meet this superwoman. Does she wear a cape? Is she eight feet tall and bulletproof?”

 

“She barely comes to my shoulder. She’s got jet-black hair and big, clear cobalt-blue eyes that don’t match all that black hair.”

 

“Is she bulletproof? Tell me more,” Jeremiah asked.

 

“Hell, I don’t know. I haven’t shot her. Why would I? She’s a hardworkin’ woman. Nana likes her. You might even be losin’ your place with Dotty to her, so you’d better come on home for a few days and stake out your territory before she lays claim to it. I heard that Dotty always wanted a daughter. Hell, maybe you can kiss your secretary good-bye and take up with Emily,” Greg teased.

 

But somewhere down deep in his heart, a little jealousy reared up. Crap! He didn’t have any right getting jealous over a girl he barely knew and who was only in Ravenna for four weeks anyway.

 

“Black hair and blue eyes? Does she look like Megan Fox?” Jeremiah asked.

 

“More like that woman who plays on the show that Nana and Dotty used to watch, Hart of Dixie,” he said.

 

“Rachel Bilson? She doesn’t have black hair and she’s not blue-eyed,” Jeremiah said.

 

“Well, give her blue eyes and dye her hair black and you’ve Emily. Where are you? I hear road traffic.” Greg asked.

 

“I’m in Happy right now. Had to take a hop over to Amarillo today on some other business, so I rented a car and drove over here to see if everything I’d learned was true. Don’t be mad at me. It’s the PI in me that doesn’t take anything at face value. This place is not a whole lot bigger than Ravenna. Her grandpa’s ranch was sold off to one of her cousins, as the old guy needed the money for cancer treatment, and it’s only about a hundred acres these days, but her extended family owns more land than Lightning Ridge has.”

 

“You sure that picture of her didn’t arouse your inner love bug?” Greg asked.

 

 

“Hush, and listen. I talked to the high school principal and he said the Coopers had been here for more than sixty years. Her grandfather, Marvin, served on the school board a long time ago, and there’s a picture of him in the hallway. Distinguished-looking old cowboy with bright blue eyes. I asked the lady at a local burger shop about Marvin and Emily, and according to her, Emily has wings and a halo. She said that when Marvin got cancer, Emily took up the reins and ran the ranch and took care of him too. Her cousin, Taylor Massey, helped some, but she did most of it.”

 

It sounded like Jeremiah was slurping on a cup of coffee and then he went on, “Tell me she doesn’t turn your head just a little bit and I’ll tell you that you are crazy.”

 

“What good would it do? She’s only here for a month and then she’ll be gone. It would be a poor business deal,” Greg answered.

 

“Got to go. Client calling back,” Jeremiah said.

 

Greg didn’t even get in a good-bye before the line went dead. He didn’t believe in love at first sight any more than he believed in Internet dating. Even though his good friend, Lucas Allen, over in Savoy, had wound up with a helluva nice woman last Christmas that he’d met over the Internet. But Lucas said it damn sure wasn’t one of those crazy dating services where people can put up any old picture or say anything in their profiles. He’d met Natalie through a mutual friend that she talked to on Skype every night.

 

“I still don’t believe in love at first sight,” he declared as he crawled inside his work truck with a fixed radiator and drove out to the place where Max was repairing fences.

 

***

 

The tractor ran smoothly and the CD case in the cab was filled with country music. Emily wondered if they’d be playing Shoot the Moon or Chicken Foot in dominoes that evening. And how in the devil did they bet? Did they all lay out five bucks and the winner got the pot?

 

She whipped the wheel of the machine around and started back down the long side of the acreage when her phone rang. She picked it up from the seat and said, “Hello, Taylor.”

 

“I hear an engine and country music. Are you on a tractor?”

 

“Yes, I am.”

 

“What the hell are you doing that for? I thought they hired you to be a personal assistant,” he said.

 

“Personal assistant wasn’t needed at the house today so she’s helping on the ranch. I mucked out stables this morning and I met a woman who has helped Clarice get used to computers. Her name is Prissy and I think she may be OCD and she’s taught the whole bunch of these people to write every waking thought on sticky notes and plaster them to the refrigerator. There’s something fishy going on with her and Dotty and Clarice. I can just feel it in my bones,” Emily said.

 

“You did what? Are they crazy?” Taylor yelled into the phone. “Don’t they have hired hands to do that kind of work?”

 

“I also cleaned up a tack room and fixed the radiator on an old truck,” Emily said.

 

“Are you nuts?”

 

“Hard work never hurt or killed anyone,” Emily answered.

 

“Em, darlin’, if you want ranch work, I’ll hire you tomorrow as ranch foreman. You don’t have to take a job mucking out stables, for God’s sake.”

 

Emily shifted into a lower gear when she hit hard ground. “It’s good for me to get my hands dirty. Call it therapy, and I think Gramps likes what I’m doing. I get the feeling that he is right beside me here and that he’s tellin’ me to stay.”

 

“Marvin is gone, Emily. Face it, and what’s this fishy thing going on?” Taylor growled.

 

Emily sucked air. “I have faced it. I faced it every day for five years, every morning when I went to see if he’d died in his sleep. I need this time away from Happy to get my bearings and get over his death. So don’t preach at me, Taylor. And the fishy thing is just that. Prissy came to dinner and she and the ladies had these little coy looks going on. It’s got something to do with Greg, I’m sure.”

 

The click of a cigarette lighter said that he was lighting up. “Be careful, honey. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

 

“Anything exciting on the home front?” she asked.

 

“Valentine’s dance over at the Franks’ place next week. Melinda called and asked me to be her date,” Taylor said.

 

Melinda came from good ranching stock. Her father, Gus Franks, owned the ranch right next to the Cooper place. Melinda got her dark hair and big brown eyes from her Latina mother. She’d be a good match for Taylor.

 

“Have fun,” Emily said.

 

“You could easily be here in time to go too. Her brother doesn’t have a date yet, and he’s been sweet on you for years.”

 

“No, thank you. Give Melinda a hug for me. Did I tell you we’re all playing dominoes tonight?”

 

“You will let that sweet old lady win one hand, won’t you?” Taylor asked.

 

“Maybe, but I won’t let Greg win anything. It’ll be fun to beat him. He says I have to have fifty dollars just to buy into the game, but the way Clarice scolded him, I reckon he was bullshittin’ me. I may own his farm when the night is done.”

 

“Why are you bein’ mean to the cowboy? You said he was nice.”

 

“He rattles me,” Emily admitted.

 

“Well, shit!” Taylor swore.

 

“Don’t worry about it.”

 

“I’ll worry even more than before. You haven’t told me that a man rattled you in years, not since you were in college. That’s enough to worry me. Use your business sense and not your heart. That gets you in trouble all the time. And do not put your acreage up for stakes,” Taylor said.

 

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Talk to you later.” Emily laid the phone in her lap. She turned the tractor around when she reached the barbed wire fence. In a few weeks, the grass would be knee high and the cattle would be grazing in the very pasture where she plowed. It was a never-ending job, but come fall when they had the big cattle sale, they’d see the profit from all the hard work. The spring calves would be fat and would bring in maximum dollar.

 

“But I won’t be here to see that. I probably won’t even be here to see this pasture turn green. A few weeks and Clarice will get tired of talking about Marvin and I’ll have outlived my usefulness. And by then I’ll have the closure I want and I’ll be back at Shine Canyon putting my ranch back together.”

 

She put an old Conway Twitty CD in the player. Gramps loved Conway, especially when he sang with Loretta Lynn. He’d sit in his recliner and keep time to the music by tapping his thumb on the chair arm. She smiled at the sweet memory.

 

When he wasn’t listening to music, he wanted to watch old John Wayne Western movies or reruns of anything that had to do with cowboys, modern day or the old guys, on television.

 

Those last few weeks he couldn’t keep his eyes open to watch television, but he asked for music every day and the look on his face said that it took him back to another time in his life when he was a younger man. Emily wondered if his mind had been on Clarice Barton when he listened to the country songs.