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Rough Out Jeans. Ride with the Best.
Until you screw up, that is.
Kade Danning grimaced as he walked past his own self-assured face smiling from an old advertisement still tacked outside the local feed co-op. Sort of a Kade Danning memorial. Damn, but he'd been cocky back then.
Well, he wasn't feeling so cocky now. And he wouldn't be posing for photos or endorsing jeans again anytime in the near future. Nope. He'd screwed up that deal royally.
Only one pickup sat in the parking lota fancy, shiny red one with duallies and running lights. So there was a chance the store would be empty soon. Good. He wanted to talk to Zero Benson alone.
Earlier that day, he'd driven the fifty miles from Otto, Nevada, to the larger town of Wesley, where he'd dropped off an application at the personnel office of the Lone Eagle Mine. He'd also put in a general application at the Wesley employment office and then, on the way home, he'd decided to stop at the feed store. Zero would know of any ranch work that might see him through until he was able to find something more permanent.
Zero was standing behind the barn-wood counter when Kade walked into the store, deep in conversation with a man Kade didn't knowa money guy, from the looks of it. Creased Wranglers, neat white shirt, neat white mustache. His hat alone would pay for the new fridge Kade had a feeling he'd need to buy to replace the monstrosity in his father's house.
Neither man had noticed his arrival, so Kade hung about at the back of the store, near the racks of halters and bridles, scanning the want ads tacked to the wall while he waited for the conversation to end. Horses for sale. Tractor services. Shoeing.Nothing in the Help Wanted.
"Have you tried his brother?" Zero asked the guy.
"I don't like his brother," the man stated adamantly.
"Then I don't know what" Kade glanced up when Zero abruptly stopped speaking, and he saw the older man's mouth gape open. "Well, hell's bells!" Zero said, lumbering out from behind the counter and sidestepping a pallet of feed bags. "Kade. How are you?"
"Good," Kade lied. Zero's face was rounder and more wind-burned than the last time he'd seen him ten years ago, but other than that, his former part-time employer looked the same. He might even have been wearing the same overalls and flannel shirt.
"So are you back or just visiting?" Zero asked, clapping Kade hard on the shoulder.
"I'm working on my dad's house, getting it ready to sell."
The man with the white mustache frowned at Kade, obviously trying to place him.
"This is Kade Danning" Zero explained to the man. "Kade, Joe Barton. Mr. Barton bought the Boggy Flat ranch last year."
"Zephyr Valley ranch," Barton corrected him.
Zero made a hoity-toity face. "Like he said. Hey, you want a job?"
Kade's stomach dropped. Was it that obvious? Had Zero heard things that Kade hoped weren't common knowledge? The IRS trouble had been much publicized, but he'd tried to keep the fact that he was dead broke to himself. "I, uh "
"Mr. Barton has some colts to start and he can't get 'em in to Will Bishop."
Joe Barton appeared none too thrilled at Zero's suggestion. "Zero"
Kade jumped in to save them both further embarrassment. He'd forgotten Zero's habit of saying whatever popped into his mind. "Can't," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm going to be busy working on the place. I want it on the market by the end of June and my daughter's coming in July, so sorry."
And then he beat it out of there. He'd come back later or call to see if Zero had heard of any ranch workpreferably not on the Barton spread, since Barton hadn't seemed all that impressed with him. But the guy had to be loaded if he'd bought the Boggy Flat. The ranch was huge.
"Don't you know who that was?" he heard Zero ask as he escaped through the open door.
Was. The word summed up Kade's life well.
Libby Hale cursed under her breath as she drove by the Danning ranch early Friday morning and saw that the yard lights were on again.
As if she didn't have enough trouble in her life without Kade showing up.
But she would not let his presence get to her. He wasn't the reason she was having trouble sleeping.
The road from Otto to Wesley was a straight shot through the desert to the northeast, over one mountain range and then down into the adjoining sage-covered valley. Libby drove it at least four times a week, sometimes five, depending on the length of her workdays. Usually she traveled on autopilot, planning her schedule, but today she focused on the road, refusing to think about anything but her driving.
There was one car in the Bureau of Land Management parking lot when Libby pulled in. Ellen Vargas's highly polished Lexus SUV. Libby parked at the opposite end of the lot and sat for a moment, staring at her boss's Lexus and wondering how long it would be before she came to work and the damned thing wouldn't be there.
It was no secret that Ellen Vargas would move on as soon as she could, following an upwardly mobile career track in government. Libby only hoped Ellen didn't do too much damage before that happened.
The building was dimly lit when Libby walked in, since Francine, the receptionist, wasn't at work yet. The only bright light spilled out of Ellen's open office door. Libby would have loved to tiptoe by, but it wasn't her style, so she said, "Morning," as she passed on the way to her office.
"Good morning, Libby. Do you have a minute?"
Libby reversed course and stepped into Ellen's office. When Glen had been there, the manager's office had been pleasantly cluttered. Now it looked like a page out of House Beautiful. A vase with a single exotic flower stood on the corner of the government-issue desk, making Libby wonder where on earth Ellen had managed to find an orchid in Wesleyif it was, indeed, a real orchid and not a silk replica. But if it was a silk replica, it was very realistic. Libby had an urge to poke at it, to see if it was genuine, but she didn't think Ellen would appreciate that. Maybe she'd come back later, while her boss was mustering the troops.
"How long have you been a wild horse specialist, Libby?"
Ellen already knew the answer, just as she knew everything about everyone who worked for her. She'd done her homework. But since she asked, Libby answered, thus demonstrating that she was a team player, cooperative, responsive and accountable.
"And before that you were a range conservationist?"
"Yes." She'd hired on as a range con, never suspecting that the wild horse positionher dream jobwould open up four years later, right when she was poised to slip into the position. Sometimes things did fall into place.
"You seem to enjoy your work."
She would also enjoy it if Ellen got to the point. The woman's highly polished gold-rimmed glasses glinted as she tilted her head slightly. Behind the glasses her eyes were perfectly made-up. Liner, shadow, mascara. How was it that she could apply cosmetics so well, so early in the morning? Libby could barely see when she got up, much less apply eyeliner with precision. And she could only imagine what she'd have to go through to make her long curly hair approach Ellen's blond lacquered perfection.
"I've skimmed the past few years' records and" Ellen tapped her pencil on the desk "I don't understand the procedure with these animals that people gain title to months after the official adoption period has passed."
"Those are the leppies."
The glasses slid down Ellen's nose a fraction of an inch as she dropped her chin. "The leppies?"
But she didn't seeit was obvious. And she would be looking into the matterequally obvious. This was what happened when people from Florida were put in charge of operations in the Nevada desert and vice versathere was a huge learning curve and an enhanced propensity for poor decision making. When Ellen's ego was factored in Oh, yes. This was going to be a fine year.
"There are people who will take in orphans caught in the gathers and care for them. In return they get title to the foals once they're old enough to freeze-brand."
"And they pay nothing."
"Do you have any idea what mare-milk replacer costs?"
"Is this common practice?"
"It is here."
Ellen inhaled in a way that indicated perhaps she'd heard those words too often since she'd come to work in the Wesley field office. "All right. Thank you for explaining. We'll meet again more formally after I've had a chance to go over all the files."
"Just tell me when." Libby patted the door frame and then escaped. "Sheesh," she muttered as she unlocked the office she shared with Stephen, the range con who'd taken her place when she became a wild horse specialist.
She sat at her desk without bothering to turn on the lights and stared at the blank computer screen, surprised to realize that even though she should have been steaming after the conversation with Ellen, she was wondering, instead, just how long Kade would be in Otto. How long it'd be until she ran into him. And why she, who generally welcomed confrontation, didn't feel quite ready for that day.
Kade stepped out of the living quarters of his horse trailer, which was parked next to the ancient stone barn, and started across the weed-choked driveway to the house. Three nights on the property and he still couldn't bring himself to sleep in his old bed. He didn't know if he ever would.
The sun was barely over the mountains and he had a full day ahead of him in the house he hated. But it was also his daughter's ninth birthday, so at least he could end the day on a positive note by calling her and seeing how she liked the present he'd mailed a few days ago.
He crossed the weathered porch, which echoed under his boots, and opened the kitchen door. Then he stood for a moment, one hand on the worn doorjamb as he steeled himself for the day ahead, taking in the scarred tile floor and the decrepit kitchen appliances. The big enamel sink, where he'd washed a million dishes while his father yelled at him. The fridge that contained who knew what.
No one had come in to clean after his father had died. There'd been no funeral, no memorial, no will. And since the property had been in legal limbo at the time, Kade had made the final arrangements over the phone. It had seemed cold, but it was what his father had wanted. No funeral. No contact with his son.
Even when Kade had become a world champion bronc rider, his father had wanted nothing to do with him. And now Kade wanted nothing to do with anything that reminded him of his fatherincluding his father's ranch.
But he had tons of work ahead of him before he could sell. As Marvin the Realtor had pointed out when Kade had first contacted him, ramshackle houses, sagging fences and weedy pastures were not all that easy to market. Marvin might be new in the real-estate business, but he recognized the obvious.
Kade stepped into the kitchen. Number one, the fridge, which he'd avoided for the first few days while he'd concentrated on the other rooms. One look inside and he resigned himself to buying a new one. Not only was the appliance more than twenty years old, it was filled with an assortment of overgrown and dried-up stuff that definitely qualified as biohazards. He shut the door, considered duct-taping it shut so that whatever was inside wouldn't come creeping out during the night, and made arrangements over the phone for a new one.
By the time he was done, his gut was at boot level, but Marvin had also said that showing a house without decent appliances was not a smart idea. Trouble was, right now he didn't have a lot of money. And what he did have was dwindling fast.
Zero had promised to call if he heard of any work, when Kade had finally gotten hold of him the night before, but there was nothing at the moment. It was kind of the way Kade's luck had been running for the past five or six years, so he shouldn't have been surprised.
Cleaning went better while he was focused on his lack of finances. The memories didn't bite at him every time he opened a door or found something that reminded him of his teen years. He still hadn't ventured into his dad's room, but he'd pretty well gutted the living room and kitchen. He had his dad's stock trailer loaded with stuff that he would take to the dump or to Goodwill. He didn't want any reminders. He just hoped the tires on the trailer held out, because he didn't want to replace them.
Kade finally left the house, exhausted, at six o'clock for his dump run. But he waited until eight to call his daughter, as per his ex-wife Jillian's instructionsafter Maddie's birthday party, before bedtime.
"Hi, Daddy," she said when she came on the phone, and as usual Kade felt a pull deep in his chest at the sound of her voice. "Let me tell you everything that's been happening. "
Kade smiled and settled back in the lawn chair next to his horse trailer, propping his feet on the fender. "Shoot, kid."
Maddie prattled on for at least five minutes, ending with, "And then Mike took us to the game, and after that, pizza."