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It was reckoning day.
Caitlyn Belle knew that with every beat of her racing heart.
She stopped at the entrance to the Southern Cross ranch and shoved the stick shift of her old Chevy truck into first. The gears protested with a grinding noise, which she ignored. Her brain cells could process only so much, and right now her full attention was on the ranch's owner, not a faulty transmission.
Once she crossed the cattle guard, there was a whole lot of reckoning waiting for her. Judd Calhoun, the man she'd jilted fourteen years ago, had requested a meeting with her. The question why kept jangling in her head like loose change.
Time to find out.
Reckoning or not.
She drove between the huge stone pillars that supported the decorative, arched wrought-iron sign that bore the name Southern Cross. White board fences flanked both sides of the graveled road, curling toward a massive ranch-style house with a red tile roof.
A circular drive with a magnificent horse-sculpture fountain made of limestone graced the front of the house. The place looked like something out of a magazine. The only things that signaled this was a working ranch were the corrals and barns in the distance and the white Brahman cattle that dotted the horizon.
High Five had once been like this, but not anymore. Cait felt a moment of sadness. She couldn't change the past. The future was her main concern.
The High Five, owned by the Belles, and the Southern Cross, owned by the Calhouns, were the two biggest ranches near High Cotton, Texas, a stop in the road of less than five hundred people. It had been both families' dream that someday the ranches would be one, joined by the marriage of Caitlyn, the oldest Belle daughter, and Judd, the only male Calhoun offspring.
But Caitlyn couldn't go through with it. No one understood her reasons, least of all her father, Dane Belle. He'd begged her to think about what she was doing and to reconsider. She couldn't. The rumor mill in High Cotton said she was spoiled, stubborn, but there had been a whole lot more to her decision than that.
The two families had been at odds ever since. The Calhouns prospered, while the Belles suffered financial losses one after another. Her father had passed away two months ago and High Five was barely holding on. The enormous debt Dane had incurred still angered Caitlyn. Without the royalties from the oil and gas leases, the ranch would fold. She was going to make sure that never happened.
She parked on the circular drive and took a moment to gather her wits. But her wits were scattered hither and yon, and might take more time to collect than she had. The fountain bubbled invitingly and memories knocked on the door of yesterday. She refused to open it.
Getting out, she hurried toward the huge walnut front doors and tapped the brass knocker before she lost her nerve. She studied the beautiful stained glass and saw her distorted reflection.
Maybe she should have worn makeup and a dress instead of her bare face, jeans and boots. The thought almost caused her to laugh hysterically. Judd Calhoun was not going to notice how she looked. This was business. It certainly wasn't personal. Personal feelings had taken a hike when she'd said, "I can't marry you."
Brenda Sue Beecham swung open the door. "Oh, Caitlyn, you're right on time."
Brenda Sue, a bleached blonde, had more curves than Harper's Road and was known for her friendly disposition. In high school she'd been called B.S. for obvious reasons. No one could B.S. like Brenda Sue. Her mouth was going at all times.
After a failed marriage, she was back home, living with her parents and working as a secretary in the Southern Cross office. There were very few jobs for women in High Cotton, and Cait could only imagine how Brenda Sue had gotten this one. But she shouldn't be catty. Brenda Sue's dad, Harvey, had worked on the Southern Cross for years before he retired because of a bad back. Cait felt sure he'd asked for Judd's help on her behalf.
"Come this way. Judd should be here any minute. You know how he loves his horses. Oh, what am I saying?" Brenda Sue gave a forced laugh. "You know everything about Judd. Sometimes I forget that, with you being such a stick-in-the-mud and all. Now, I don't mean that in an offensive way. You've just always been rather you know "
Caitlyn followed her into Judd's study, thinking that yellow hair would make a good dust mop. She pushed the thought aside. Brenda Sue and her endless digs and infinite "you know's" were the least of her worries.
"Judd will be right with you. I have to get back to the office. I help out in the house every now and then, you know. Gosh, it's good seeing you, Caitlyn." With that, Brenda Sue closed the door and disappeared.
Caitlyn hadn't said one word. She didn't need to. Brenda Sue was a one-woman show, no participation required. How did Judd put up with that airhead? But he was a man and probably enjoyed looking at her cleavage. Caitlyn didn't want to think about what else might be between them.
She took a seat in a burgundy leather wingback chair facing the enormous mahogany desk. Vibrant polished wood surrounded her. A man's room, she thought. There were no family photos, just framed pictures of prize Brahman bulls and thoroughbred horses, along with several bull and horse sculptures. A magnificent one sat on his desk, a smaller version of the one in the fountain. The stallion stood on his hind legs, his mane flowing in the wind as his front feet pawed the air.
If her nerves weren't hog-tied into knots, she'd take a closer look. Right now she had to focus on the next few minutes. She crossed her legs and tried to relax. It was only a meeting.
After fourteen years.
The knots grew tighter.
She touched her hair in a nervous gesture. After brushing it until her arms ached, she couldn't decide whether to wear it up or down. Judd had liked it loose and flowing, so she'd weaved it into a French braid, as usual. It hung down her back and conveniently kept her hair out of her face.
She recrossed her legs and stared in horror at the horse crap on her boots. Damn. Damn. Damn! But when you ran a working ranch it was hard not to step in it every now and then.
Tissues in a brass holder on the desk caught her attention. Just what she needed. As she started to rise, the door opened and Judd strolled in with Frank Gaston, her father's attorney. Her butt hit the leather with a swooshing sound, but Judd didn't seem to notice. He didn't even look at her, though the lawyer nodded in her direction.
Judd sank into his chair, placing a folder on the desk in front of him. He was a big man with an even bigger presence. His hair was dark brown, his eyes darker. She'd once called them "midnight magic." Their color rivaled the darkest night, and magic was what she'd felt when he'd looked at her.
Oh, God! She'd been so naive.
The leather protested as she shifted uncomfortably. Judd had changed very little over the years. He'd been at her father's funeral, but had never gotten within twenty feet of her. She'd seen him every now and then when she was at the general store or the gas station in High Cotton, but he'd always ignored her.
As he did now.
She'd never been this close before, though, breathing the same air, occupying the same space. There were gray strands at his temples, but they only added to his appeal. A white shirt stretched across his shoulders. Had they always been that wide?
Reality check. Something serious was going on and it required her undivided attention. What was Frank doing here?
As she watched, Judd opened the folder and laid a document on the desk in front of her.
"Two months before your father died, he sold me High Five's oil and gas royalties."
Everything in the room seemed to sway. Cait's fingers pressed into the leather and she felt its texture, its softness, its support, yet it felt unreal. The expression on Judd's face, though, was as real as it got.
Something was stuck in her throat. "Excuse me?" she managed to ask.
"Are you hard of hearing?" He looked at her then, his dark eyes nailing her like barbed wire to a post, hard, sure and without mercy.
"Of course not." She wouldn't let him get to her. She sprang to her feet, wanting answers. "I don't believe it. My father wouldn't do that to us."
"It's true, Caitlyn. I'm sorry," Frank said, a touch of sadness in his voice.
Judd poked the document with one finger. "Read it. The fifteenth will be your last check."
Grabbing the document, she sat down to see this debacle with her own eyes. She had to. Her knees were shaking. As she read, the shaking spread to her whole body. It was true. Her father's bold signature leaped out at her, sealing her fate and the fate of High Five.
How could he?
Judd Calhoun had found his revenge.
She was lost somewhere between feeling like a nineteen-year-old girl with her head in the clouds and a woman of thirty-three with her feet planted firmly on the ground. Shaky ground. What happened next? The adult Caitlyn should know, but she didn't.
Judd did, and she was very aware of that as she heard his strong, confident voice. "Dane worried about the welfare of his daughters and his mother."
"So he sold everything that was keeping us solvent. Why?" She fired the question at him with all the anger she was feeling.
"Gambling debts. He didn't want those people coming after you or your grandmother."
"So he leaves us with nothing?"
"You have the ranch."
She stood on her less-than-stable legs, but she would not show one sign of weakness to this man. He had somehow finagled her father into doing this. That was the only explanation.
Judd pulled another paper from the folder. "There was nothing he could do about the gambling debts but pay them. He felt, though, that he should made arrangements for you, your sisters and your grandmother. I agreed to honor them as best as I could."
That was her father. He was of the older generation and believed a woman had to be taken care of. That her place was in the home, kitchen or bed. Daughters were pampered and spoiled and did what they were told, like marrying a man of their father's choosing.
Caitlyn had lived with that mindset all her life. She had defied it once, to her regret.
Pushing those thoughts away, she concentrated on what Judd had said. Agreed to what?
"What are you talking about?"
"With his enormous debt, Dane had very few options, and he asked for my help." The rancher paused and picked up a gold pen, twirling it between his fingers. "Dane was also very aware of your stubborn, independent streak."
She stiffened. "So?" As if she wasn't reminded of it every freakin' day of her life.
"Here's Dane's deal ." His dark eyes swept over her. "If the ranch is not making a profit within six months, you will sell High Five to me at a fair market price."
"What!" His words hit her in the chest like a shot of her dad's Tennessee whiskey.
"Still have that hearing problem?"
She ignored the sarcastic remark. "You can't be serious."
"It's true," the lawyer interjected.
"Shut up, Frank." She pointed a finger at him. "What are you doing here? You're the Belles' attorney. Shouldn't you be on my side?"
Ignoring her outburst, Judd read from the paper in front of him. "'I'm giving Caitlyn the option to operate High Five or sell. This decision is hers, not Madison's nor Skylar's. It is my wish, though, that she consult with her sisters. To die with a clear conscience, I have to give Caitlyn a chance. But if the ranch continues to decline six months after my death, then High Five ranch and all its entities will be sold to Judd Calhoun. Dorothea Belle will continue to live on the property as long as she lives.'"
Caitlyn was speechless, completely speechless. Her father, in his antiquated thinking, had given Judd a golden opportunity to exact his revenge. But she would not give in so easily. She would not fail.
"I I think I'll go and let you two sort this out." The attorney glanced at her. "If you need anything, Caitlyn, just call."
Frank shrugged and walked out.
She looked straight at Judd, her eyes unwavering. "You think you've won, don't you?"
He leaned back in his chair, the cotton fabric of his shirt stretching taut across his chest. "Yes, I've won. But knowing you, I'm sure you'll flounder along for six months. In the end I will take everything you love."
Her heart fell to her boots and her words tangled in the remnants of her shattered pride.
"Nothing to say?" he mocked.
"I think you've said it all, Judd. If you're waiting for me to beg, I'd advise you to take a breath, because it's going to be a long wait."
He lifted an eyebrow. "Beg, Caitlyn? For what?"
"Go to hell."
He shrugged. "Thanks to you, I've been there, and I'm not planning a return trip."
"What do you want from me?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
She swallowed. "Then this meeting is over."
"Not quite. I take it you are planning to operate High Five."
"You got it."
"Your sisters have to be informed of this development. Do you want to do the honors or should I?"
"I will speak to my sisters. We do not need your interference."
"Fine." He rested a forearm on the desk, his eyes holding hers. "Give it up, Caitlyn. You can't win this. Even Dane knew that. Sell now and save yourself the aggravation."
"You are not God, Judd, and you can't control people's lives."
"Control?" His laugh bruised her senses. "I never said anything about control. I'm helping a friend. Out of respect for your father, I've agreed to this arrangement and I will not go back on my word."
Respect? He didn't know the meaning of the word.
"You're a conniving bastard, Judd. I don't know how you got my father to agree to this."
"Dane came looking for me, not the other way around." He spoke calmly, but she couldn't help but note the curl in his lip.
"And you were there, eager to oblige."
He suddenly stood, and instinctively, she took a step backward. "I will own High Five and I will take great pleasure in taking it from you."
She held her head high. "I've often thought you were heartless, sort of like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, except he wanted a heart. You, Judd, are lost forever. May God have mercy on your conniving soul."