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Penny Bradford strode toward the bunkhouse, knowing she was getting there late, but she needed to talk to Gerald Butler, her ranch manager.
She was grateful she had her father's trusted manager to rely on. Because of her brother's unexpected death at the age of sixteen, she hadn't been taught much of anything about ranching. Grieved by his death, her father had feared she might die also and had decided that Penny would instead be sheltered from ranch work and showered with affection. She had become her father's princess and his tragic death in a car wreck with her mother had devastated her.
But now it was time for Penny to start learning about running a ranch and Gerald had agreed to teach her. She had planned to meet him later that morning, but something else had come up and she had gone in search of him earlier than anticipated. She reached the bunkhouse and stood for a moment to draw a deep breath and prepare to knock on the door. Before she could do that, there was an uproar of laughter.
Leaning forward, she listened to determine what could be so funny and froze upon hearing her manager's betrayal.
"I don't see why I shouldn't continue. If I could fool her dad, the girl ought to be ridiculously easy. She'll never have any idea that I'm skimming off the top. Why, I've collected more than fifty thousand a year for the past four years."
Penny backed away from the bunkhouse in shock. When she thought she couldn't be heard, she turned and ran back to the ranch house.
Inside the house, she reached for the phone and called her cousin. "Oh, Sally, thank goodness. II just heard Gerald bragging that he's been skimming at least fifty thousand a year off Dad for the past four years! What do I do?"
"Oh, my! Penny, that's awful. Well, there's really only one thing you can doyou'll have to fire him. Clearly the man isn't to be trusted so you make sure he leaves with nothing that belongs to the ranch. Will you be able to do that?"
Penny took a deep breath. "Yes, I can do that I'm so angry that he would treat my father that way. The only problem is, what do I do then? You know I know nothing about ranching. Dad refused to teach me, afraid I might have an accident, and Gerald is the only one who knows how the ranch works."
"I know, you are going to need some help. Wasn't your dad friends with Dexter Williams? He's the biggest rancher in the area, maybe he could recommend someone trustworthy to replace Gerald."
"Good idea. Thank you. I couldn't think for a moment. I think I'll get the sheriff to escort Gerald off the ranch. I'll go see him first thing in the morning and let him come back out with me. I doubt I could prove what Gerald has done, but I should be able to scare him enough to send him on his way."
"I'm glad I could help. Let me know what happens."
"I will, Thanks, Sally, I'll call you tomorrow." Penny hung up the phone and prepared to take her first difficult step as ranch owner.
* * *
"Mr. Williams, I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. I know you and Dad were friends, and I need your advice."
"Of course, Penny. How can I help you?"
"I need a ranch manager, someone known for his honesty as well as his ranching skills, and who would be willing to teach me about ranching."
"Hmm, that's a tall order, my dear. What happened to Gerald?"
"I fired him this morning after I discovered he was ripping Dad off. Now I need a replacement"
"I'm sorry to hear that, Penny, your father was a good man. Decent honest ranch managers are hard to find." Suddenly, as if a lightbulb went off in his head, he said, "But I may know just the man for you. He's ready for a managerial job but there isn't an opening here for him."
"What's his name?"
"Jake Larson. There's only one thing about him." The old man began to chuckle as he decided how to phrase his next words. "He has a bit of a reputation as a ladies'man, so you'd best keep your distance."
"Oh, I'm sure I can do that, Mr Williams, as long as he can be trusted on my ranch."
"Oh, he's completely trustworthy. I'll send him over to talk to you first thing in the morning."
"Thank you, Mr. Williams. I appreciate your assistance."
"I'm glad to help out, Penny. Now you let me know if there is anything else I can do for you."
Penny replaced the receiver, pleased that she had found an answer to her problem, but curious as to exactly what kind of man Jake Larson was.
Jake Larson walked up to the big house, gritting his teeth. He hoped it was Dexter who wanted to see him and not the much younger Mrs. Williams. She'd been chasing Jake all summer and he'd been expecting to be fired.
It wouldn't be fair, because he had no interest in the woman, but he couldn't convince her of that. He had even less of a chance to convince Dexter it was his wife who was doing the chasing.
So he'd take what was coming as well as he could.
He knocked on the back door and waited.
Dexter appeared and opened the door to him. "Come on in, Jake."
"Let's go to my office and have a chat." Jake figured he'd be lucky if Dexter gave him a recommendation.
Once they were seated, Dexter said, "Jake, we both know things can't continue as they have been. I didn't want to let you go, because you're a good man. That wouldn't be fair. So I've found you another job."
Jake's head came up and he stared at his boss. "I usually find my own jobs."
"Okay, I'll be honest with you. You'll be doing me a favor if you take this job. You're ready for it. The daughter of a friend of mine who recently died needs a new manager. Someone who can run the ranch and also teach her about ranching."
Jake frowned. He'd been wanting a managerial job. That was great news. Teaching a woman about ranching didn't appeal.
"I'm not sure I'm right for the job."
"You're right for it, Jake. And we both know you can't stay here."
"Yeah, I know, butwhat ranch?"
"The Rocking B ranch, on the other side of town. It's a good operation, but she's just found out her manager has been skimming the profits for the past four years."
"That's the one with the brand that looks like a hat?"
"Yeah, that's them."
"I guess I could talk to her."
"Good. She's expecting you this morning. Pack your things. I'll let my wife know you've moved on."
"Yes, sir." Jake figured he'd talk to the lady about the job. Then, if he didn't like the situation, he'd move on. He'd saved some money and would be all right for a few months.
When he got back to the bunkhouse, the men had already gone out on their assignments. He'd call a couple of them after he got settled. They all knew the situation, so they wouldn't be surprised to find him gone.
It didn't take long to pack up his belongings. The main thing he would take with him was his mount. He and Apache had been partners for the past four years. He was well trained and Jake had had a lot of offers for Apache, but he knew the value of his horse.
His truck and trailer had been well-maintained and would come in useful wherever he worked. He loaded Apache in the trailer and connected it to his truck, then he threw his belongings into the back seat and took the hour-long drive to the Rocking B ranch.