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The only way Ryan Gallagher had figured he'd ever come back to Four Aces Ranch was if he arrived in a government-issue casket.
Returning home on his own power had never been part of his plans. now, standing at the entryway of the main house, he glanced over his shoulder at the deeply rolling land stretching to the horizon. Every gnarled cedar, every rocky outcropping stirred a flood of memories he couldn't hold at bay.
He'd been gone fifteen years, barring two brief trips home to see his brother married and his grandfather buried. It hadn't been long enough.
Ryan shook off his reservations. Just a few months, maybe less. How could this be any harder than Ward 57 back at Walter Reed?
Turning back to the ornately carved oak door with Four Aces Ranch written in sweeping script between images of champion quarter horses and prize cattle, Ryan knocked before letting himself in.
Nothing but the best, his father had always said. From the livestock and land acquisitions, to every ostentatious detail of his massive brick house, Clint Gallagher still wasn't finished trying to impress the world.
His decades as a Texas State Senator had never been enough for him.
"I don't believe it." Adelfa stood transfixed in the middle of the foyer on her way to answer his knock. The elderly housekeeper's dark eyes filled with tears as she drank in the sight of him from head to toe. "Madre de dios! I never thought I'd find you at this door!"
Steeling himself against the pain radiating through his shoulder, Ryan enveloped the stocky Latina in a hug. "And nothing could be better than finding you're still here."
He released her, surprised by his reluctance to step away from Adelfa's familiar scent—cinnamon and the Chanel he always sent her for Christmas and birthdays. "You still make this place home," he added, brushing a kiss on her wrinkled brow. "Only you."
"Your father could not always be here when you boys were young." She frowned, as quick to defend her employer of forty-some years as she'd always been to stand up to him. "He is a busy man an importante senador"
And to her, that made everything right. She was, Ryan realized with chagrin, every bit as loyal as his fellow Rangers, even if her loyalty was misplaced. "So, is Clint here?"
"Si." Adelfa cast a glance over her shoulder, her brow furrowed. "But he is not such a happy man tonight."
Ryan threw his head back and laughed for the first time in months. "Tell me when that wasn't true."
She clucked at him, her mouth a stern line. "He has many responsibilities. Phone calls. Visitors. The newspapers—aye, they still send their reporters out here, looking for a good story."
"Clint always knew how to use the press," Ryan retorted dryly. "The reporters were either in his pocket or wanted to be."
Adelfa rocked back on her heels and crossed her arms over her ample chest, muttering rapid-fire Spanish phrases under her breath.
He caught every word and grinned at her. "I agree. He won't listen to anything I say, and this visit will be a big mistake if I just upset him."
A deep blush worked its way into her plump cheeks. "Some things, they just don't got a fix to 'em," she murmured.
"For Garrett and Trevor's sake, I'm staying for a couple months. By then, we'll either have this ranch straightened out, or Dad and I will have dueled out in the desert."
Her harrumph spoke louder than words. "So you have talked to your brothers?"
"Not yet, I understand they ran out of options, and figured I was their best bet. They asked Leland to track me down." The certified letter from the Four Ace's lawyer had caught up with Ryan in Georgia several weeks ago. "Maybe they think I'm less likely to walk out than someone hired off the street."
"You and your father are both stubborn and strong as two bulls." There was a note of pride in Adelfa's voice as she sized him up. "For nothing more than that, you would stay now to prove him wrong."
"I don't much care what he thinks about me, and I'm not intimidated by what he says. You know how well we get along." Ryan gave her a quick wink. "For that reason alone I'm probably the best person for the job. I hear the ranch is in financial trouble."
At the faint jingle of spurs, Ryan turned and found his middle brother, Trevor, grinning at him from the doorway, dressed in his usual faded Levi's with a plaid Western shirt stretched across his burly chest. He held a dusty Stetson.
Ryan extended his hand, but Trevor ignored it and gave him a bear hug before stepping back for a thorough appraisal.
"Long time," he drawled. "You looked a mite peaked the last time I saw you. Musta been that fancy gown or maybe it was because those nurses moved a lot faster'n you could."
"I barely remember those first days at Reed." Ryan closed his eyes against the flashes of fuzzy images the beep of his morphine drip the glare of fluorescent lights, day and night. Somewhere, in that fractured catalog of memories, he had a vague picture of Trevor's worried face as he bent over the bed. "You were there, right?"
Trevor snorted. "Not for long. You ordered us to go home and leave you in peace. You were so surly about it, day after day, that the nurses finally encouraged us to keep in touch by phone."
Ryan winced. "Must've been the medication."
Trevor shot him a wicked smile. "Bern' unwanted and all, we finally had to turn tail and go home in disgrace."
"I don't know what to say, except that I'm sorry."
Adelfa searched Ryan's face. "They took good care of you, I hope. Good food? A good bed? We worried about you, every day."
"Well not a whole heck of a lot," Trevor added. "Me and Garrett figured you were just too mean to die."
Adelfa gripped Ryan's forearm for a minute, as if for reassurance, then lumbered back to the kitchen, muttering in Spanish.
"She lit candles for you at her church," Trevor said in a low voice. "She had a little shrine here, on the sideboard in the dining room, and had candles going there, too, and she never said grace at a meal without adding prayers for your healing." His voice broke. "It's good to see you again, pal."
Ryan swallowed the unfamiliar lump in his throat. "Same here."
"And Dad—" Trevor looked away. "Well, he was in the middle of trying to get some bill passed. He couldn't make it out to Washington, D.C. with us, but I know he was concerned, and he did make some phone calls."
Concerned? Ryan laughed. "I hope that didn't interfere with his schedule."
Trevor glanced over Ryan's shoulder into the house, his eyes troubled, then he hitched a thumb toward the main horse barn. "Maybe we should go have a talk, before he finds out you're here. Got a minute?"
Ryan shoved his battered duffel bag to one side of the doorway with his boot. "My time is yours."
Trevor led the way to the pine-paneled office in the main horse barn, just inside the double doors.
"Looks like you're doing well." Ryan nodded toward shelves crowded with quarter horse championship trophies and framed Superior and Register of Merit award certificates. "Last time I was here, the trophies only filled one wall."
"I spend a lot of my time on the road now. We hit most of the major show circuits west of the Mississippi." Trevor shrugged. "It's good for business."
Ryan sauntered over to the five-tier racks of show saddles and the glittering rows of silver-encrusted show halters, bridles and breast collars hanging from padded hooks. "Well, I'll be." He rested a hand on the custom-made saddle that had been his, a lifetime ago. "I'm surprised this is still here."
"Of course it is. It's yours." Trevor motioned to a couple of leather barrel chairs in front of the cluttered desk, then tossed his hat on one of them, propped a hip on the edge of the desk and rubbed his face. The premature gray in his dark hair and the deep lines creasing his cheeks made him look far older than thirty-two.
"It's good to have you back. Things have been tough here—real tough. What did Leland tell you in the letter?"
"Mostly things I already heard. That Oscar moved away and left the financial records in a mess, then the new foreman embezzled a lot of money." Ryan leaned back in his chair. "Did anyone check out Oscar to see if he was involved?"
"He went back to Mexico and we lost track of him, but we all thought he was an honest man.
Experienced hand with cattle, though he managed just basic record keeping and never did understand that dinosaur of a computer. Hardly capable of pulling off a complete embezzlement scheme." "And the next man?"
"Dad fired Oscar's replacement four months later." Trevor shook his head in disgust. "Lucky, or Nate would've had more time to steal us blind. Leland says we'll never know the full extent of that loss."
"Nate Cantrell?" Ryan stared at him. "I knew there were problems, but never heard all the details."
"You haven't been back since it happened. I thought I wrote you.but, with you halfway around the world most of the time, maybe that letter never caught up." Trevor's brow furrowed. "Crazy isn't it? A local guy, doing something like that to people he knows."
"All I remember is that he and dad had occasional business dealings over the years." The name brought other, less welcome memories, but none Trevor needed to hear.
"After Nate, Dad hired a string of business managers who either quit or were fired, and now he's trying to do it himself. He's trying to get me to do it," Trevor amended. "I never went to college. I don't know anything about accounting—and I'm out working with the cattle from dawn to dusk as it is. I've tried, but he gets impatient. Then he works on it himself and " He took a deep breath. "You know about him, right?"
"That he's an arrogant old coot? That he's probably making your life miserable?"
Trevor stood and wandered over to the saddle racks, where he absentmindedly began polishing the silver cantle plate on a Billy Royal cutting saddle with the cuff of his shirt. "His eyes, Ryan. He won't admit it to anyone. I only know because I happened to see a billing slip from his last ophthalmology appointment. He's got macular degeneration. He's also got high cholesterol and a bad heart, but I sure haven't had any luck making him go in for his checkups. He's long overdue—and one of these days, he's gonna drop in his tracks."
"All this at sixty?"
"His vision upsets him the most. He'll spend hours in his office in the house poring over bills and reports, but I can tell he's struggling. It's no wonder he didn't catch what was going on—he can barely see to read."
Ryan sat back in his chair trying to absorb the enormity of that news. Clint was well-known as a powerful force in state and local politics; a wheeler-dealer who was ruthless in his business dealings and who carefully cultivated a broad spectrum of cronies to help him meet his ends.
What was it like for him, now that he faced the potential loss of his independence?
"Can't the lawyer help out with all of this?"
"Leland is on retainer. Dad consults him on financial matters sometimes—investments and so on—and he has limited power of attorney to oversee major business decisions if Dad isn't available. He doesn't cover day-to-day management. It might be different if he was always in town, but he lives in San Antonio and just comes to his satellite office in Homestead a couple days a week. I can't do it all, no matter what Dad thinks. Frankly, I don't even know where to begin. So—" Trevor ended on a long sigh "—we've had overdue notices. The hunting lease program is a mess. Records are missing. Dad is land rich and cash poor right now, and last winter he missed a chance to pick up a big piece of property that borders the Four Aces."
"He needs more land?"
"You know Dad." Trevor shook his head. "Money. Power. Land. He wants it all, but the K-Bar-C was far more than that. It controls the aquifer that supplies a large percentage of our land. It was tangled in foreclosure for over a year. When it finally came up for sale, he couldn't pull enough money together in time. That still rankles him to no end."