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"So, when is the city girl going to make an appearance?" Landon Cutter finished cleaning the stalls while John hauled another fifty-pound bag of sweet feed into the barn.
John's phone beeped before he had a chance to answer his brother. He stacked the bag on top of the others he'd already hauled in, then fished the cell from his pocket and read the text. "How about that, her plane just landed." He glanced down at his sweat-soaked shirt, work jeans and boots. "Man, I've got to take a shower before she gets here."
"You've got plenty of time. It'll take her a good hour or so to make it to Claremont from Birmingham. Plus, from what I hear, it takes a while to get luggage at the airport."
John wasn't certain Landon was all that keen on his bringing in someone as prominent as Dana Brooks to their farm. Landon figured she wouldn't grasp the concept and appeal of down-home Southern pride. The Brooks family of Chicago rivaled the Trumps in money and influence, so John had also been surprised that the late Lawrence Brooks's daughter had seen merit in his business plan. In fact, John had sensed an undeniable appreciation in her texts and conversations. And if anyone could sell his dude ranch idea, it was Dana Brooks.
"She didn't fly into Birmingham. Her plane landed at the local airstrip in Stockville." John removed his work gloves, slapped them together and tossed them on a shelf in the tack room. "They've got a private jet. She should be here in half an hour."
Landon whistled. "A private jet. Isn't that something? And she's coming here to help you start a dude ranch in North Alabama?"
"Reckon I must have won her over with my unique idea and Southern charm." John's smile was instant, but he fought to maintain his confidence about the classy lady hopping on a plane to see the ranch firsthand. And she planned to stay for a month, until they got the place up and running. How would he entertain a Chicago socialite on a ranch for four weeks? "I'm going down to the fishing shack to clean up before she gets here."
"Fishing cabin," Landon corrected. "And you'd better get used to calling them cabins, or Georgiana is liable to have your hide."
"Right, my fishing cabin." John didn't know if he'd ever get used to the term. Landon's wife, Georgiana, had the idea to turn the old fishing shacks on their property into something more habitable that would appeal to those interested in an outdoor getaway to fish and relax. Cutter's Fish Camp had only been open a couple of weeks but was doing great, with regular weekend reservations for five out of six cabins. John was thrilled with the early success, but he still wanted to succeed with his own business plan, the one the bank had so quickly turned down. However, business magnate Dana Brooks had faith in his dude ranch idea and in John.
He saddled his horse, Red, and started across the fields toward the stocked pond and the fishing shackscorrectioncabins. When Landon married Georgiana, John insisted that the two of them, along with Georgiana's seven-year-old daughter, Abi, live in the Cutter family home, a two-story log cabin at the center of the property. He, on the other hand, would live in one of the fishing shacks and therefore be nearby whenever a fishing camp guest needed anything. He liked the rustic, compact cabin and the seclusion the place provided from the outside world. True, guests surrounded him when the cabins were rented, but the majority of the time they kept to themselves and he had the perfect place to meditate on God and study for his business degree.
The cabins were multicolored, Georgiana's idea to paint them similar to Charleston's Rainbow Row. Being blind, Georgiana often discussed the appeal of color and how she remembered hues from before she lost her sight. Consequently, the cabins were painted with the favorite colors from her memories. John hoped the look would appeal to the city girl, Dana Brooks. His cabin was sage-green and the smallest of the lot. He'd stuck a couple of rockers in the front, and Abi had helped him put blooming plants in big pots on each cabin's porch, including his own. Riding closer, he took in the colorful cabins, the sky turning turquoise in the early afternoon, the green mountains, the brown water from the pond. The place looked like a postcard or an ad for the newest dude ranch, the only dude ranch, in Alabama.
Maybe the scene would impress Dana Brooks.
He dismounted, and Red moved to graze near the cabin, then John glanced toward the edge of the property, toward the dirt road entrance, and noticed a gaping hole in the fencing. Undoubtedly his oldest and most ornery cow, Gypsy, had once again decided to play nomad. She'd been escaping since she was a calf, hence her name; now at nearly sixteen, Gypsy was already a year past the age Charolais cattle typically lived, and she still managed to escape. But nowadays she often got confused, wandering out, then wandering right back in. John scanned the field, but didn't spot Gypsy. He had no idea whether she was out or in, but either way, he had to fix that fence before he lost more livestock. You couldn't very well have a dude ranch without horses and cattle.
John withdrew his cell and noted the time on the display. 4:00p.m. Ms. Brooks would be getting a rental car in Stockville. Maybe that'd take enough time for him to repair the fence and clean up before she arrived.
God, help her like this place, and help me make a good first impression.
Dana stepped onto the tarmac while her copilot, Ned, unloaded her bags. She'd only needed Mark, her pilot, and Ned for the trip, so Ned had assumed the duty of assisting her while Mark got everything in order for their flight back to Chicago.
She'd requested a vehicle that would blend with farm country, some type of SUV, and the sole Stockville car rental agency had delivered nicely. A tall, thin man in a black T-shirt and blue jeans stood beside a white Cadillac Escalade parked nearby. Definitely not standard car-rental-agent attire, but he did have a name tag stating that he was Jesse Burger with Stockville Car Rental.
"Ms. Brooks." He moved quickly toward her with a way-too-broad smile in place. She wished people wouldn't get so nervous around her, but that was part of being the late Lawrence Brooks's daughter that she couldn't change.
The late Lawrence Brooks. Dana frowned, still having a difficult time getting used to the fact that her father was gone.
"I'm Jesse Burger." The friendly man grabbed her outstretched hand and pumped it vigorously.
"Nice to meet you, Jesse." She pushed her sadness aside and managed a smile for the friendly man.
"Welcome to Alabama. I hope you like your vehicle. We don't typically keep this type of SUV at the agency in Stockville, but we brought this one in from Birmingham just for you. I reckon you'll enjoy the ride. It's really sweet."
Reckon? Sweet? She was charmed by the accent and by the local flavor in his speech. It reminded her of the thick drawl she'd heard on the other end of the line the few times she'd spoken to John Cutter. "I'm sure it will be fine."
"I'll admit I kind of volunteered to go pick it up so I could drive it. I've never been in a Cadillac. Talk about a smooth ride. And it sits high on the road, almost as high as my dually." He motioned toward an oversize red pickup truck with two full doors and humongous tires, similar to those she'd seen in advertisements when the monster trucks were at the Sears Centre Arena in Chicago. Naturally, she'd never seen one of the big trucks up close. She was more of an opera and ballet kind of girl, but she couldn't deny that she found the oversize truck interesting. However, anxious to get to the Cutter ranch, she wouldn't take time for a perusal now.
"I went ahead and programmed that address where you said you were headed into the GPS. It's got all the roads already highlighted for you and ready to go. But really, you just take the main road from Stockville to Claremont. It's called Old Claremont Road if you're headed from here to there. If you're coming the other direction, it's Old Stockville Road."
"Seriously?" She'd never heard of anything so bizarre.
"Sure. Wouldn't make sense to give credit to only one of the towns." He grinned big.
"No, I guess it wouldn't." This trip was definitely going to be interesting. A road with two names, depending on which way you were driving. Her brother would never believe it.
"And that farm you're looking for is about dead center halfway. Shouldn't take you more than twenty minutes from here, I'd guess. Maybe fifteen, even."
"Thank you." She eyed the SUV. "I've never been in anything like this, but I'm looking forward to it." She had a Prius and a BMW in the garage, but hardly ever went anywhere on her own. She'd wanted the environmentally friendly Prius but also hadn't been able to resist the cute little red Z4. But even though she had the two vehicles, a driver typically took her wherever she wanted to go in Chicago. Driving amid paparazzi had never been appealing, and they crowded her car so terribly when she went to town that she'd practically forgone the fun of driving. She was rather excited about the Escalade, and about the fact that the paparazzi hadn't followed her on this venture. No sign of a camera anywhere.
Ned put the last of her bags in the back of the SUV. "Ms. Brooks, will you need anything else before we return home?"
"No, Ned. And I'll keep you posted on when I plan to return. Should be four weeks or so." She was determined to show her brother, Ryan, that she could help "young dreamers," as he called them, to make it in business. Their father had once been a young dreamer, and he'd regretted not helping others do the same before he died. Dana was doing this for him and for herself. She wanted to do the right thing, wanted to help others, even if she had virtually no experience yet.
Her father's repeated words over the last few weeks of his life echoed through her thoughts.
"I was selfish. I forgot God, forgot myself. Only cared about the money. More money. More power." Tears had slid down his weathered cheeks and pierced Dana's heart. It'd been the first time she'd ever seen him cry. "Don't end up like me, Dana."
She'd vowed to him that she would follow his wishes. Now if she could get Ryan to understand that their father did have a change of heart before he died, that he really did encourage her to use funds from Brooks International to help rags-to-riches hopefuls.
Her cell phone rang, and her brother's name displayed, as if he were reading her very thoughts. She answered and put the phone on speaker while she climbed in the comfy SUV. "Hey, Ryan, give me a moment. I'm getting in my vehicle."
"There's heated seats." Jesse pointed inside the car. "Just push that button right there. But be careful, I tried 'em, and they get mighty hot mighty quick." He slapped the back of his jeans with a grin. "And all your payments and paperwork and everything were all taken care of. I guess you knew that. There's a copy of everything in your glove box. Oh, hang on, nearly forgot." He pulled a paper out of his back pocket. "I do need your signature on the contract showing the vehicle is okay and for the insurance and all."
"Thanks, Jesse." She signed the paper and closed the door.
"Heated seats." Ryan couldn't hold back his laugh.
"He's a very sweet man." Dana watched Jesse Burger head toward his monster truck. "Very down-to-earth."
"I'll say. So, you already growing accustomed to Nowhere, Alabama?"
"I'm still at the airport, if you can call it that. I wouldn't say I'm accustomed yet, but it looks nice." She took in her surroundings, mountains in the distance, trees and fields all around. The airport was more of a runway in the middle of a pasture.
Jesse waved before climbing in his big truck, and Dana waved back.
"Nice. Right. Well, while you're hanging out with the farmers, I'll keep running the business in the real world." He paused, and she knew what was coming before he started. "Honestly, Dana, this is not what Dad wanted. Think of all the medications he was taking when he talked to you those last days. That wasn't our father. Do you seriously think he'd want you to turn your back on Brooks International? He built this company from the ground up, and he expected us to run it after he was gone. This business was his life."
"Exactly." Those were her father's precise words, in fact. "And he wanted more. He wanted to do more, help more, specifically help others more."
"Listen, I haven't got time to argue with you about it now. I've got a meeting with marketing in five minutes." He huffed out an exasperated breath. "I could use you here, Dana. That's your expertise, not mine."
"You said you had no problem with my giving this a try. And it is what Dad wanted, whether you believe it or not."
He ignored the last part of her statement. "For one month max. You promised me that."
"Right." She wished she hadn't agreed to a time limit on her act of goodwill. What if it took longer than a month to get a dude ranch up and running in North Alabama? Her dad had wanted to help others, and John Cutter had impressed her immensely on the college entrepreneurial forum she'd joined online. Plus, she'd been drawn to the country drawl, the enthusiasm for his business plan and the optimism that radiated from the Alabama rancher. In fact, she couldn't wait to meet the guy. "I've got to go, Ryan. I'll call you in the morning and let you know how things are going."
"Fine," he muttered before disconnecting.
Starting the SUV, Dana glanced at the GPS and began her drive to the farm, thinking about the cowboy with the delicious Southern drawl. Did he look as good as he sounded on the phone? She'd searched the internet for John Cutter, of course, but there was no sign of a Facebook page or anything else with a photo on it. No, she couldn't see herself with a country boy long-term, but John Cutter did have something. His texts were witty, their conversations interesting, and she found herself a little nervous about meeting the Alabama rancher. Dana couldn't remember the last time she'd been nervous about, well, anything.
Her suitcases bumped against each other when she turned out of the airport, and she wondered if she'd even brought the right clothing for this trip. She had an entire suitcase for shoes. Right now she wore typical travel-wear, a navy-and-white jacquard cardigan over a matching shell, a navy gabardine skirt and high-heel pumps. Granted, she wanted to impress him with her business panache, but she also had to admit that she had no idea about appropriate ranchwear. She planned to head out shopping as soon as she got the right attire in mind, because while she did want him to see her as a businesswoman, she also wanted him to see her as approachable. Maybe even very approachable. She'd heard Southern men were gentlemen and treated ladies "right."
Every guy she dated in Chicago seemed to be after the Brooks name and money. John Cutter didn't come across that way. He came across as black and white, honest to a fault, particularly when he told her all the reasons the bank gave for turning down his business plan. No genuine investor would ever fund a dude ranch in the middle of who-knows-where, Alabama.
But she would.