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Of all the stupid things Autumn Knowles had done, she'd never imagined she'd be riding in the backseat of Sheriff Bennett's caror be hauled before Judge Niemeyer.
The tall man squinting at her through tortoiseshell glasses was every bit as imposing as she remembered. Wishing she still owned one of the nice summer dresses Teddy had bought her, and mad at herself for speeding in Saddlers Prairie when she knew better, she locked her shaking hands at her waist. "Hello, Judge Niemeyer."
"Autumn Knowles. Never thought to see you back in Saddlers Prairie." Tugging on his ear, the judge frowned at the sheaf of papers on his massive deskpapers relating to her. "Had to get yourself another speeding ticket, did you? Driving a car with expired tabs will cost you even more."
There was no point in arguing that hers had been the only car on the road, or that she wasn't the only person in town to speed. "It isn't my car," Autumn said. "It belongs to my mother. She loaned it to me while she and Jett tour the rodeo circuit." Within twenty-four hours of Autumn's arrival in town a few days earlier, her mom and her latest boyfriend had left. Heather had said Autumn could sleep on the Hide-A-Bed until she got back on her feet, and use the car while she was away.
"One of you needs to pay for the tabs or you'll get another citation." The judge shook his head. "You already have more outstanding traffic tickets than a prairie dog has fleas. I understand you owe a few merchants around town, too. You and your mom are like two peas in a pod."
Autumn stiffened. "I'm nothing like her."
Heather wouldn't care that Teddy was married. She would've kept every one of the gifts he'd bought her, and had called Autumn stupid for getting rid of them all. But Autumn had been too upset to think straight. Shortly after learning that Teddy already had a wife in Butte, she'd scribbled him a nasty note, pawned her engagement ring and bought a bus ticket back home.
She'd dumped the expensive clothes, purses and shoes at a thrift store near the bus depot, and had left Bozeman with only a battered suitcase containing toiletries, cutoffs and tops, and the clothes she was wearing the afternoon she'd left Saddlers Prairie to run off with Teddy: jeans, an Official Bruno Mars Hooligan T-shirt, and combat boots that were too hot for the sizzling August weather. An impulsive act she now regretted, if only because a nice outfit would score points with the judge.
His bushy eyebrows rose skeptically, and Autumn pulled her shoulders up straight, doing her best to look responsible and decentworlds different from her mom.
"I have my high school diploma," she reminded him. Not Heather. The second Heather had turned sixteen, and gotten pregnant with Autumn, she'd dropped out of school. "My mother lives on welfare, but I've worked since I was sixteen. Twelve, if you count babysittingoften for your own kids, I might add. You thought I was a great babysitter."
"I'd almost forgotten about that," the judge agreed, looking thoughtful. "My wife and I always liked you."
Maybe he was softening. "I don't take handouts, eitherI pay my own way," Autumn added proudly. "I'm a responsible woman."
"Responsible?" Judge Niemeyer snorted. "What about the half dozen or so businesses you still owe money to? And don't forget these outstanding traffic citations you left behind when you ran off."
Ashamed of her brash behavior, of her gullibility and of not taking care of her bills, Autumn hung her head. If she'd known that fateful day fifteen months ago what she knew now, she'd have taken the time to get to know Teddy better, instead of running off with him a scant two days after they'd met.
But he'd promised her a wedding and a custom-built house for the family they would raise together. She'd wanted that happily-ever-after dream so badly that she'd thrown away common sense and made a fool of herself.
Okay, maybe she wasn't so responsible back then. "A person can change," she said. "I came back, didn't I?"
Saddlers Prairie was her home, the town where she'd always livedif you didn't count the time in Bozeman. She knew people here, and loved the rolling prairies. She wanted to spend the rest of her life here.
"I intend to pay back every penny I owe, Judge Nie-meyer, just as soon as I find a job." This morning she'd even asked her old boss, Barb, if she could have her waitress job back at Barb's Cafe. But when Autumn had run off with Teddy, she'd quit with no notice, and Barb wasn't about to give her a second chance. "I'm sure I'll find something soon. Then you'll see how responsible I can be."
"A job. Hmm." The judge's eyes took on a shrewd glint. "I know just the place for youthe old Covey Ranch, now called Hope Ranch. It's a home for troubled teenage boys. Cody Naylor needs a temporary housekeeper, someone to cook and take care of the place until he hires someone permanently. Sixty days sounds fair."
Autumn hadn't seen Cody in years, but she remembered him. He was older than she was. He'd gone away to college and later had started a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. Every Christmas he returned to Saddlers Prairie to spend the holidays with Phil Covey, who owned Covey Ranchexcept the year he'd spent the holidays with his girlfriend's family. That year, Phil had flown to California instead. Everyone in town had talked about it, wondering if Cody would marry her.
When Cody was in town, he and Phil had stopped in at Barb's a few times. Autumn had waited on them. Cody was handsome, smart and the richest, most successful man she'd ever met. He also thought he was better than she was. The big tips he'd left had felt more like charity.
After Phil had gotten sick, Cody came back, but he didn't eat at Barb's during any of Autumn's shifts. She hadn't seen him in ages.
What was he doing with a boys' home? The very idea of living with and keeping house for a bunch of troubled teenage boys was enough to ruin Autumn's already bad afternoon.
"I don't know anything about housekeeping on a ranch," she said. She didn't cook, either. "Plus I have no experience with boys with problems." She had enough troubles of her own.
"You just reminded me how great you were with my kids. This won't be that much different, except the boys are a few years older. There are four of them, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen. This will be a good job for you."
Was he kidding? "I really don't think so," Autumn said. "Surely there are other people who'd be more qualified."
The judge's suddenly deadpan expression puzzled her. "Cody needs someone to fill in immediately. You're here and you're available."
She chewed her lip. "I don't know"
Judge Niemeyer sat up straight in his chair and looked down at her. "You want to prove you're responsible? Take the job."
He shook his finger at her, as in "be quiet and listen." Autumn shut her mouth.
"The way I see it, you have three options. The first is, complete sixty days of what we'll call 'community service' at Hope Ranch. Only unlike the usual community service, with this job you'll get room, board and a salary, and at the end of the sixty days, I'll consider all your outstanding citations paid. You'll have to work out the payment of your other debts yourself.
"Choice number two is to pay what you owe the county within ten days. I'm guessing you don't have the eleven hundred dollars owedthat includes fines and accumulated interest. Which leads us to option number threespend those sixty days in jail."
Jail? Autumn winced. "I thought you liked me," she said in a small voice.
"I do. That's why I'm sending you to the ranch. This is your opportunity to help some boys in need and learn something in the process. Someday you'll thank me."
Thank him? Autumn opened her mouth, but the judge wasn't finished.
"You should also know," he continued, "that if you agree to work at Hope Ranch, but don't stay the entire sixty days, you will be obligated to pay all your traffic fines the day you leave, or you will go to jail immediately."
Tough terms indeed. This man didn't trust her at all. Autumn bristled. "If I say I'll work there, I'll stay the full sixty days."
"I hope you mean that."
"I do!" Her voice had risen, and she sucked in a calming breath. "Why do you care so much about Hope Ranch?"
"Because Phil Covey was a dear friend of mine, and it was important to him and Cody to make this boys' ranch work."
"Was?" Autumn asked.
"Phil passed away about eight months ago."
She bowed her head. "I knew he was sick, but I thought he was holding steady." Unlike Cody, grandfatherly Phil had always been friendly toward her. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"We all are. The job starts Monday."
"But this is Friday afternoon," Autumn protested. "Don't you have to notify Cody first?"
"I'll do that as soon as you leaveprovided you exercise some common sense and take the job. What do you say?"
The judge didn't leave her much choice. Autumn sighed. "Looks as if I'm spending the next sixty days at Hope Ranch."
Shortly after lunch on Monday, Cody glanced at the four boys seated around him in the great room at Hope Ranch. Each of them had suffered through hard knocks that made his own lonely childhood look like easy street. "I called this meeting because our temporary housekeeper will be here shortly, and I want to set some ground rules," he told them.
"What do we" Noah's voice cracked, and he paused in embarrassment. He was the youngest of the group, and his hands and feet seemed enormous compared to the rest of him, reminding Cody of a growing puppy. "What do we need more rules for?"
"Because she's agreed to stay for sixty days and we don't want her to quit early."
Neither of the two previous ones had lasted half that long. Within three weeks of the boys' arrival at Hope Ranch, Mrs. Meadows, the housekeeper who'd been a fixture at the ranch since before Cody had arrived some eighteen years ago, had abruptly quit. Her replacement, Mrs. Clinton, a fiftysomething-year-old widow who'd taken care of a local ranching family for twenty years, had lasted a scant ten days. Word had spread about the teens and the challenges they presented, and Cody and the boys had been on their own for nearly three months.
Which wasn't exactly working out.
Ty, the oldest and the boy the others looked up to, snickered. At six foot three, he was built like a quarterback, but his sixteen-year-old mind hadn't caught up with his man-size body. "She must really be hurting for a job, because no one wants to work in a house filled with losers."
"Language," Cody chided, just as Phil had admonished him when he'd put himself down all those years ago. "Try that again."
"We're awesomeokay?" Ty rolled his eyes. "Why did she take the job, Cody? What's wrong with her? Does she even know about us?"
Cody had his friend, Judge Niemeyer, to thank for their new housekeeper, but the boys didn't need to know how the judge had forced Autumn's hand. "Yes, she knows this is a foster home for boys," he said, ignoring the other questions.
He wasn't at all convinced that Autumn would survive any longer than the previous two housekeepers, let alone last a full sixty days. But they needed someone to run the house while he found a permanent housekeeper, and he wanted the boys to give this their best shot.
"She's the only one you could get, right?" guessed Eric, a stocky fifteen-year-old with a deep voice and a bad case of acne.
The rhetorical question didn't require an answer. "Let's give her the benefit of the doubt, okay? Now, before she gets here, I want to cover those rules. Number one, no going through her private stuff. Number two"
"What about our private stuff?" Ty crossed his arms. "She'd better stay away from that."
"Yeah," Eric added, his posture and scowl matching Ty's.
As usual, fourteen-year-old Justin, of mixed race and a few months older than Noah, was quiet. He'd been the first arrival at Hope Ranch after Cody had opened its doors four months ago. Justin kept mostly to himself and was always on alert, as if expecting a physical blow from somewhere.
Each of the boys met weekly with therapists in private sessions, but the therapy wasn't enough. If Phil were still alive, he'd know just what to do to help them feel safe, and coax them out of their protective shells. Phil's stern but loving hand had taught Cody that he mattered, and had saved his life in the process. He was determined to pay it forward by giving these boys the same chance at success, but hadn't realized what a challenge that would be.
"She'll be cleaning our bedrooms once a week," he said. "One of our rules for her is to respect everyone's privacy."
Ty's eyebrow rose. "She gets rules, too?"
Cody nodded. "That's only fair. Rule number two is no playing tricks on her. That means no snakes, worms or other bugs in the linen closets, no cow patties in the bathroom or anyplace else in the house, and no dye added to the laundry. Don't act sick unless you really are, and no animals of any kind in the house without my permission. No tricks, period. Everyone got that?"
He waited for their grudging nods. "Rule number threeif she asks you to do something, do it."
Eric narrowed his eyes, adopted a gangsta stance and broke into slang. "I ain't listenin' to no bitchick."
Cody knew Eric had never joined a gang, but had flirted with the idea before coming here. He gave him a level look. "If you want respect from other people, you have to give it to them first. That means listening respectfully to me, to Autumn and to Doug" the foreman of the ranch "and when school starts next month, you listen respectfully to your teachers. You feel me?"
"What if Autumn asks us to do wack shicrap?" Ty crossed his arms. "Because she will."
Cody ignored the boy's cocky expression. "Good question, Ty. If you have a problem with something Autumn asks you to do, you come see me. But you have to be respectful."
At his reluctant nod, Cody continued, "Rule number fourobey the first three rules. Any questions?"
Eric raised his hand. "What do you know about Autumn?"
"I met her when she used to waitress at Barb's Cafe but I haven't seen her in years." The few times Cody and Phil had dined at Barb's during Phil's three-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Donna had served them. Cody remembered Autumn as a scrawny girl who wore heavy makeup, with punk-style dyed red hair and a boulder-size chip on her shoulder. He knew she had a deadbeat mother and had supported herself from an early age. Having once struggled to feed himself, he always left a big tip.