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Gina was rushing out to get herself another espresso before the upcoming meeting when her office phone rang. Knowing that it might be someone from Grant Industries, she lunged toward her desk before her assistant, Carrie, picked up. "This is Gina Arnett."
"It's Uncle Redd."
Of all times for him to call.
"Hi," she said. "I know I haven't phoned you lately, but I've been in a real crunch here, working on that holiday promotion for Grant Industriesthe big retailer I told you about last time we talked. If they like the results from the campaign I've put together, they'll put me on retainer for them for the next year."
Plus she'd earn a fat yearend bonus, which she really, really needed.
She checked her watch. Still time to race down to the coffee bar and get that espressoif she hurried. "We're rolling out part two of our Holiday Magic campaign tomorrow, and you wouldn't believe how busy I am right now. Can I call you back tonight?"
"I need to tell you something, Gina," her uncle said in a solemn tone Gina had rarely heard. "I'm afraid it can't wait."
She frowned. "What's happened?"
Uncle Redd usually cut straight to the chase, and this time was no different. "Sometime during the night, your uncle Lucky had a heart attack. He's gone."
"Gone?" She sank onto her desk chair.
"I'm afraid so." Her uncle cleared his throat. "How soon can you get home?"
It had been almost seven years since she'd visited there. The last time had been for her mother's funeral. She remembered the long flight from Chicago to Billings and the shorter connecting flight to Miles City, followed by a forty-mile drive to Saddlers Prairie. Getting there would take the better part of a day.
"I'll need to check with the airlines and get back to you," she said. "When do you need me there?"
"As soon as possible. Seeing as how Thanksgiving is next week, we decided to hold the funeral right away. We scheduled it for this coming Fridaythree days from now."
The news finally sank in. Uncle Lucky was dead. Their little family just kept shrinking. Gina's shoulders sagged.
"Do you need help with airfare?" her uncle asked.
"No, Uncle Redd. I'm thirty years old and I make a good living." Never mind that most of her credit cards were just about maxed out. Nobody needed to know that. "As soon as I book the flight, I'll call with my arrival information. Or would you rather I rented a car?"
"Waste your money like that? There's no need, honey. I'll be waiting for you at the baggage claim."
Uncle Redd made a choking sound, and Gina suspected he was crying. Uncle Lucky had been his last living brother and they'd been close.
Gina had also been close to him, had spent most every summer of her childhood at his Lucky A ranch. She teared up, too.
Lately, Uncle Lucky had been begging her to come back and visit, saying he missed her and needed to talk to her about something important. Now she'd never know what he'd wanted to say.
Why hadn't she made more of an effort?
She managed to tell her uncle goodbye before she hung up. She was sniffling and looking up the number for the airline on her smartphone when the com line buzzed.
"It's me," her assistant whispered. "Where are you? Everyone's here."
By everyone, she meant Evelyn Grant, the great-granddaughter of William Grant and Grant Industries' first female CEO. That she'd even come to the meeting showed how important this campaign was to her. She wouldn't like to be kept waiting.
There was no time to grieve. Gina wiped her eyes, grabbed her iPad and left for the meeting room.
Later that afternoon, Gina sat in her office with Carrie reviewing what needed to be done with each of their clients when Gina's boss, Kevin, knocked on the door. Wearing an elegant cashmere coat and scarf over his bespoke suit, he looked put-together, handsome and successful. Sure, he was a bit on the ruthless side and on his third marriage, but careerwise, Kevin was her kind of man.
Someday, Gina hoped to meet and fall in love with someone with her boss's drive and determination. "Carrie and I are just reviewing my client to-do list," she said. "What can I do for you, Kevin?"
"Are you sure you can handle the Grant campaign from Montana?"
This was the third time he'd asked her that question since she'd told him about her uncle's passing. "Absolutely," she repeated with a reassuring smile.
As the only member of her family under seventy, she would be expected to handle her uncle's estate, meet with the attorney and cull his papers and personal effects before Uncle Redd moved into the house and took over the ranch.
But that shouldn't consume too much of her time, and she was sure she would still have plenty of opportunities to focus on her job. "Anything I can't do from there, Carrie will take care of. She's been in on this campaign from the start and she's up to speed on everything. And don't forget that next week is Thanksgiving. The office is only open Monday and Tuesday. That means I'm really only out three days this week and two days the next."
Gina's assistant, who'd worked for her for the past six months and was only a year out of college, nodded enthusiastically. Like Gina, she dressed in stylish suits and great shoes. She was smart and eager to get ahead, reminding Gina of herself at that ageof herself to this day.
"I'm excited about this challenge," Carrie said.
Seeming satisfied, Kevin nodded and checked his Rolex. "I have a dinner meeting tonight with clients and I don't want to be late. I'll leave you two to hash over any details. What time does your plane leave, Gina?"
"Six a.m." Way too early, given that she'd probably get to bed around midnight tonight. But for more than a month now, she'd pretty much lived on sleep fumes. With the help of copious amounts of caffeine and plenty of chocolate, she'd managed just fine.
"You'll be back the Monday after Thanksgiving."
It was a statement, not a question. "That's right," Gina said.
She'd booked a return flight for that Sunday, giving her ten full days in Montana. That should be enough time to see everyone and straighten out her uncle's affairs. "Give my condolences to your family, and have a good holiday."
It wouldn't be much of a holiday. "Thank you, Kevin." Her boss left.
Gina hadn't spent Thanksgiving or any other holiday with her relatives since her mother had died. They would probably expect her to cook Thanksgiving dinner, which was okay with her. She enjoyed cooking but never had the time anymore.
"Um, Gina?" Carrie said, bringing Gina back to the task at hand. "I'm meeting some friends in a little while and I should get going."
"Right," she said. "Let's review day by day what's supposed to happen between now and when I return. We'll start with Grant Industries and then go over the other accounts."
Carrie didn't quite manage to stifle a yawn, which caused Gina to yawn, too. They were both exhausted, but she needed to know she could depend on her assistant. A lot was riding on this campaign.
"This is a huge responsibility, Carrie. Are you sure you can handle it? Because I can easily bring in someone else." Several of her colleagues, including her best friend, Lise, would do anything for the Grant account. But when Grant Industries had signed with Andersen, Coats and Mueller, Kevin had selected Gina to manage it, and she preferred to keep Lise away from her "baby."
Carrie perked right up. "I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to prove myself."
Gina smiled, relieved. After reviewing all of their clients' accounts, Gina shut down her desktop computer.
"That's it, then. My uncle's ranch only has dial-up, but I found a hot spot for wireless so I'll be able to stay connected." She would have to drive about five miles into town to get internet, which was inconvenient but better than nothing.
"Seriously? No wireless?"
"Unfortunately not. My uncle was a rancher and didn't use the internet much. I expect frequent reports from you on the Grant account and the rest of our clients. Numbers, feedback plus any ideas or concerns you have. That way I can keep tabs on everything and make sure nothing slips through the cracks."
"Great. You have my cell phone number. If you need me for anything at all, text me or callday or night. Oh, and Montana is an hour ahead of us, by the way."
Carrie nodded. "Don't worry about a thing, Gina. I can handle this."
Gina hoped she was right. Her job and her creditors depended on it.
Dusk was falling when Zach Horton exited Redd's battered Ford wagon. Icy wind blew across the airport parking lot, and he clapped his hand on his Stetson to keep it from flying across the pavement. Time to switch to a wool cap.
Redd blew on his gloved hands and squinted at the cloud-filled sky. "Looks like it's fixing to snow tonight. Good thing Gina's flight is due to arrive on time. I sure appreciate you driving my old heap to pick her up."
The seventy-one-year-old was too shaken up by his older brother's unexpected death to drive the forty miles to the airport alone, let alone in the dark. "I'm happy to help," Zach said. "I've been hearing about Lucky's niece since he hired me. It's time I met her."
She didn't know it, but Lucky had left her the ranch. He wanted her to take it over. Correction: he wanted Zach to persuade her to take it over. "Where did she say to meet her?" he asked.
"In the baggage claim area."
"She checked bags?"
"That's what she said."
Zach shrugged. According to Lucky, Gina Arnett was a marketing whiz, steadily climbing the corporate ladder. She'd recently been promoted to assistant vice president at her company. The whole family was proud of her.
Zach was familiar with the type. Uptight, driven, goal orientedhe'd had his fill of women like her. He'd had his fill of corporate deals and one-upmanships, period.
He doubted Gina Arnett would want anything to do with the Lucky A and had told Lucky so. But Lucky had asked Zach to do everything possible to persuade her. The rancher had taken Zach in when he was a broken man, and Zach owed him.
There weren't many people he counted as friends, and losing Lucky hurt. He would sorely miss the old man who had taken him in and mentored him in ways his own father never had.
He and Redd entered the baggage claim area, which was noisy and full of passengers awaiting their luggage.
After a moment, Redd pointed to a woman across the way. "There she is."
In high-heeled suede boots and a stylish camel hair coat over pants, she looked pretty much as Zach had pictured her, though taller. Her light brown hair was parted on the side and hung almost to her shoulders in a straight, sophisticated style. With big eyes, full lips and an air of self-confidence, she was knockout beautiful. Lucky had neglected to mention that.
"Uncle Redd," she said, hugging Redd tight. Her eyes flooded before she squeezed them shut.
Feeling like a voyeur, Zach stood back and averted his gaze, giving them privacy.
Finally, Redd let go of her and wiped his eyes. "Gina, this is Zach Hortonhe's the foreman at the Lucky A."
She raised her watery gaze to Zach. Makeup had smeared under her grief-stricken eyes. For some reason, that made his chest hurt.
He whipped off his hat and extended his arm. "Pleased to meet you."
She had delicate fingers and a firm grip, her skin soft against his callused palm. "I'm sorry about Lucky," Zach said, sounding gruff to his own ears. He cleared his throat. "He talked about you quite a bit."
"He told me about you, too. I remember how happy he was when he hired you several years ago. He was always talking about how much he liked and respected you. I loved him so much." Her eyes filled.
As the tears spilled over, Zach's throat tightened, pressure building behind his own eyes. He turned away and nodded at the conveyor belt. "Here come the bags. Which one is yours?"
"I checked threetwo big and one smaller. They're red with cream trim."
She was staying what? Ten days? This wasn't a vacation, and little Saddlers Prairie had only one real restaurant. What did she need all that stuff for? Zach didn't miss the laptop peeking out from her huge shoulder bag. She must be planning to work from the ranch. He'd expected that.
Gina pulled the smaller of the three bags from the conveyor belt and Zach grabbed the remaining two. Redd reached out to take one, but Zach shook his head. "Leave those to me."
"I'll take the other one, then." Redd pulled the smaller bag from Gina's grasp.
"Thank you both." She hooked her free arm through Redd's. They bowed their heads and made their way toward the exit.
Shivering, Gina tucked her cashmere scarf into her coat collar as she, Uncle Redd and Zach made their way toward her uncle's old station wagon. The icy Montana wind was every bit as biting as she rememberednot much different from Chicago in late November.
Snow flurries danced in the glow of the parking lot's perimeter lights. A few flakes could easily turn into a deluge, and she hoped they made it to the ranch while the roads were still passable.
"You sit in the front with Zach," Uncle Redd said, the breath puffing from his lips like smoke while Zach loaded the luggage into the cargo area.
Tired from lack of sleep and the long travel day, and feeling emotionally raw, Gina preferred to sit in the back and just be. "You take the front, Uncle Redd," she said. "I'm fine sitting in the back."
"That's where the dogs ride. You don't want to get dog hair on those pretty clothes."
He had a point.
Zach slammed the cargo door closed and headed toward the passenger side of the car. "Hop in," he said, opening the door for her.
He was big and muscular and movie-star good-looking, with a strong chin and wide forehead, and he was tall enough that even in boots with three-inch heels, she had to tip her head up to meet his gaze. She'd noticed his striking silvery-blue eyes halfway across the crowded baggage-claim area.
Despite her grief, and despite the fact that she was usually attracted to corporate-executive types, she was hyperaware of him.
What drew her most was the sorrow evident in his face. No one had expected her still-spry Uncle Lucky to die at seventy-four. His loss would no doubt be keenly felt by Zach and everyone in town.
She slid onto the bench-style front seatUncle Redd's car was that old. In an attempt to get warm, she hunched down and hugged herself.