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"Ease up, boy." Pulling on the reins of his horse, Cole McAllister squinted across a thousand acres of McAllister land at the late June sun sinking toward the soaring Rockies. He never wore a watch, didn't need to. The sun's position in the blue Montana sky told him he had just enough time to ride home and grab a shower before his sister arrived. The party would have already started, but he didn't care about missing any of the festivities. A quiet family dinner would have been his choice to celebrate Rachel's return after finishing graduate school.
He was excited to have his only sister back, equally pleased not to have to come up with more tuition money. The family ranch was officially operating on fumes. No one knew how desperately they needed cash but him. Both his brothers had some idea of the trouble they faced, Jesse more than Trace. After Jesse's two tours in Afghanistan, Cole got the feeling he didn't miss much.
Trace was still young, only twenty-six and most concerned with how soon he could trade in his pickup for a newer model. It wasn't that Cole had tried to hide anythingthough the boys had agreed not to burden their mother or Rachelbut each month the economy just kept sliding further downhill, sinking them deeper into the hole.
Beef consumption was down, fuel and grain prices up. Any number of reasons accounted for their predicament, and they weren't alone. Most of the other ranches around Black-foot Falls were in debt and disrepair, yet Cole still felt responsible. For six generations the Sundance had been passed from eldest son to eldest son and despite droughts and land disputes, recessions and wars, the McAllisters had survived on wits and grit. Cole would be damned if he'd be the first to go begging.
Bad enough that when some of the smaller ranches had started to buckle, men Cole had known his whole life had lost their jobs and come to him. Oh, he'd had work for them, but no means to pay them. That he had to turn them away about broke him in two. But it was all he could do to keep from laying off his own handssome of them had hired on with his dad and were building fences and rounding up cattle before he was born.
They'd been there eleven years ago to console the family the day Cole's father had lost his final battle with cancer. They were the same men who'd loved and respected the formidable but fair Gavin McAllister as if he were their own kin, and they suffered his loss in the same way.
That hadn't stopped a single one of them from stepping in to give Cole a leg up in managing the three-thousand-acre cattle ranch. He'd turned twenty-one the week before, too young to fill his father's impressive boots. But it wasn't as if he'd had a choice. Even if he had, he wouldn't have changed anything. He'd been proud to pick up the reins, scared spitless but willing and honored. Who knew he'd bring the family to this?
He exhaled slowly, took a final long look at the land, dotted by the last vestiges of wildflowersfield daisies and pink columbine barely able to hang on this late in summer and only because of the altitude. The thought that they'd have to sell even a square foot of McAllister land twisted his gut in raw disgust that even his horse seemed to feel. Tango reared up. Cole tugged on the reins and leaned over to soothingly stroke the gelding's neck.
"Hey, buddy. Rachel's coming home today. You'll be happy to see her." He wheeled Tango around and since the horse had been watered and rested, Cole nudged him into a gallop. He took off, at one with the stiff, warm breeze.
They wove through the aspens until they broke out into the open meadow and raced across the tall thick grass, the sun fierce on Cole's back. He didn't slow them down until he saw a pair of veteran hands working along the fenceline, and he waved for them to return to the ranch so they could enjoy the barbecue. The crazy old fools would work till sundown if he didn't stop them. That's what made the situation so damn hard. Everyone from Chester, the bunkhouse cook, to the last hired wrangler took pride in the sundance as if it were his own. If it came down to layoffs
Cole could barely think in that direction. There would be no choice at that point. He'd have to auction off some of the land. Hell, what was he thinking? There'd be no auction. Wallace Gunderson would be the first one muddying up the McAllister porch, pen and checkbook in hand. Not only was he the sole person with that kind of money around here, but the old man had lusted after the hilly creek-fed McAllister spread for as long as Cole could remember.
Even when Cole's father was alive, Gunderson had put a sizeable offer on the table for the north pasture that butted up to his land. That was one of two times Cole had seen his father lose his temper. He'd nearly thrown the man and his son out of the McAllister kitchen. Of course, it was no secret to anyone who lived within a hundred miles that the McAllisters and the Gundersons hadn't gotten along for over four generations. Cole wasn't sure if anyone recalled what had started the feud. Didn't matter. If and when the time came to sell, he'd sooner rob a bank than deed so much as a square inch to Wallace. Cole's dislike for the man had nothing to do with the family history. He simply couldn't abide the bastard's mistreatment of his animals.
The bunkhouse and barn came into view, made hazy by the plumes of gray smoke drifting up from the rows of barbecue pits. Chester had started early this morning, baking corn bread and preparing the chicken and ribs for this evening's bash. As Cole rode toward the stables, he saw the groups of picnic tables set up closer to the main house. A couple had been placed near the bunkhouse kitchen. White lights had been strung up around the pine trees and along the corral fence, and a rainbow of balloons bobbed from the posts.
He didn't see his brother's Jeep so Cole knew Jesse hadn't returned from the airport with Rachel yet. Some of the neighbors were already here. He recognized the two black-and-red trucks parked along the gravel driveway, and noticed that the Richardson brood and Ida and Henry Pickens were climbing out of their pickups on the other side of the barn. He didn't know how many people his mother had invited, over fifty he'd reckon. And that wasn't counting the handsmost of them had been as much a part of Rachel's life as Cole and his brothers.
If Cole hadn't stepped in, there would have been a much larger crowd. The shocked expression on his mother's face when he'd given her a budget remained vivid in his mind. What had stung even more was the sad, resigned nod that told him she suspected they were in trouble. Still, she hadn't asked for details, hadn't given him so much as a glance of disapproval or a hint of disappointment. Being the gracious lady she'd always been, she'd simply smiled and said how happy she would be to have Rachel home again, and that was all that mattered.
His sister would be a whole different story. She'd take one look at the barn that needed painting, the corral fence that should've been replaced by now and all the other areas he'd been forced to ignore, and she'd have questions, demand answers. He wouldn't blame her one bit. Didn't mean he'd welcome the inquisition.
Shortly after ten, the last of the guests started to leave. Cole normally would be getting into the sack by now since he routinely awoke at five every day, but throughout the evening he'd caught Rachel's questioning looks enough to know that she wouldn't wait until morning to give him the third degree.
Fighting the temptation to go help his brothers clear the tables, he stayed near the house, leaning on the clothesline post. He watched her tug a lock of Johnny Weaver's strawberry-blond hair. The boy stopped yawning long enough to give her a toothless grin.
"Time for someone to go to bed," she said, raising her brows when the youngster opened his mouth in protest.
Instead of arguing, Johnny yawned again.
His mother, Peggy, smiled at Rachel, then gave her a quick hug. "Good to have you back. You'll have to come for supper once you get settled."
"I'll do that." Rachel handed over the plate of leftover corn bread, chicken and chocolate cake she'd wrapped for Peggy to take, then swooped down and kissed the boy's cheek. He turned beet-red, but there was that grin again.
Cole nodded his goodbye to the Weavers and waited while Rachel walked them toward the driveway. She'd make a great mother some day. He knew that a family of her own was what she wanted eventually, but in the meantime, he had no doubt her focus would be on him and the Sundance.
He stared up at the clear summer sky filled with stars, remembering how as a kid he'd lain on his back deep in the grass, hands clasped behind his head, gazing up at those very same stars making wishes that had rarely come true. Hadn't stopped him though. Especially after Lizzie Adams had finally laid a wet one on his mouth for a full three seconds. The unexpected memory made him smile.
The moment faded, and he wondered what had happened to that bright-eyed, optimistic young boy. Reality, bills, droughts, payroll that's what had happened. And now Rachel, the little spitfire. The only girl and the youngest, but she was a force to be reckoned with, all right.
As soon as the Weavers' taillights burned red in the darkness, she walked purposefully toward him. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Jesse and Trace had stopped collecting the platters and bowls from the tables, as if waiting for the fireworks. Hell, had she already said something to them? Or had he been fooling himself about how much they knew of the family's trouble?
"Can I talk to you in your office for a minute?" Rachel asked, glancing over at their mother who paid them no attention as she helped Chester store the leftovers.
"Yep." Cole pushed off the post. "Looks like we might have company," he said, gesturing with his chin at his approaching brothers.
Jesse and Trace tried to make it look as if it was a coincidence that they were carrying the platters of food to the kitchen at that particular moment, but Cole knew otherwise. He didn't care. Better that they were included, and he could get this over with.
They all went inside and, after the brothers deposited their platters in the kitchen, they all headed for the office. Jesse claimed the brown leather couch, while Trace stretched his tall lanky body on the extra office chair that likely should've been tossed out years ago. Cole closed the door, not surprised that Rachel had chosen to stand. While he and his brothers all exceeded six feet, like every McAllister man before them, Rachel took after their mother, with her auburn hair, green eyes and petite frame. From early on she'd preferred to even her odds by standing over her brothers whenever they had a family meeting.
Cole obliged her by sinking into his chair behind the desk, then laid his head back on the black leather headrest. Might as well get comfortable. Rachel was like a dog with a bone once she set her mind on something, and she'd say her piece even if it took until midnight.
She met Cole's eyes. "What's going on?"
"You wanna be more specific?"
"This place." She waved a hand, her gaze darting to the window. "It looks like hell."
"Nice, Rach." Trace snorted. "It's not as though we've been sitting around on our asses."
"That's not what I mean." She glared at Trace.
Cole and Jesse exchanged weary glances. Typically one of them would end up refereeing the pair of younger hotheads, but before the discussion heated up, Cole said, "Look, money's been tight. Cosmetics aren't a priority right now."
"I don't understand " Rachel shook her head. "Did something happen?"
"Yeah, the economy dove nose-first down a sinkhole." Trace gave a helpless shrug. "We're not the only ones having trouble. I heard tonight that the Circle Four is filing for bankruptcy. Damn shame."
Cole scrubbed a hand over his face. He'd heard the news last week and decided to keep it to himself. No need to cause panic.
"Bankruptcy?" Rachel's eyes widened. When she moved to sit on the couch with Jesse, he reached over and rubbed her shoulder. "I don't think anyone around here has ever gone broke before. Do you think it's true?" she asked, her frightened gaze finding Cole.
"I wouldn't doubt it. The cost of shipping beef has put a drain on all of us. Expenses keep going up." Cole inhaled. "At least we haven't laid off anyone yet. Just about everyone else in the county has."
"Yet," Rachel murmured, her face growing pale. "How bad is it?" she asked. "For us, I mean."
Cole's insides twisted. No more hiding, no more whitewashing the truth. Even if he wanted to, the bank ledger would call him a liar. "Bad. Real bad."
Trace abruptly turned his head, directed a probing look at Jesse, who remained impassive. He was a lot like Cole in that he kept his emotions in check, everything else close to the vest and spoke sparingly. After his discharge from the air force, Jesse had become even more circumspect.
Rachel's voice was shaky when she asked, "Does Mom know?"
"We haven't had any discussions, but she's not a stupid woman. I'm sure she's noticed the same things you have." Cole sighed. "Hell, the whole place needs improvements. So far, I've been able to keep the creditors off my back, but I can only trade on our reputation for so long."
"It's not fair to hide the problem from her."
At the hint of accusation in her tone, Jesse jumped in. "We're not hiding, just trying to survive. Why point out the obvious with no solution in sight?" He looked pointedly at Cole. "Creditors are on our backs, too, bro. This isn't only your problem. We all have a stake here."
Cole rubbed his jaw. Sure they all had a stake, that's why he felt so damn guilty. Because the responsibility to make the place profitable was his alone.
Trace fidgeted, loosening the collar of his blue Western-cut shirt. What the hell was he looking guilty about? This wasn't his fault. Not just because he was still young. Maybe he was feeling sheepish for not understanding the depth of their problem. But the failure of the ranch was on Cole, always had been. He didn't deny it.