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Food was important to Matthew Tredway. He loved the taste, texture and smell of good food, and at six foot five and 220 pounds, he required a lot of it. But due to a series of air-travel snafus between Richmond, Virginia, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he hadn't had a decent meal all day.
Jeb Branford, a lanky, red-haired cowboy, had picked him up at the Jackson airport for the hour's drive to the Last Chance Ranch, where Matthew was scheduled to train a problem horse named Houdini. The potentially valuable stallion had never been ridden, let alone used as a stud. Matthew had been hired in a last-ditch effort to salvage the ranch's investment.
As a bonus, he looked forward to some down-home ranch cooking during the week or so he'd be at the Last Chance. Jeb had offered to stop somewhere for a bite to eat, but Matthew didn't want to look at another restaurant menu if he could help it.
"I'll just wait until we get to the ranch," Matthew said. "I'm ready to kick back with a cold beer and some home-cooked eats."
"I really think we should stop somewhere." Jeb scanned the area as they headed out of Jackson. "About a mile down this road there's a burger joint that serves really"
"No, thanks." A burger would do in a pinch, but Matthew longed for something that hadn't been part of an assembly-line operation. "I'm sure leftovers from the ranch kitchen will beat your burger joint, hands down."
"I wouldn't bet on it, Mr. Tredway."
"Okay, Matthew, although it feels funny calling you that."
"Because I'm so old?" Matthew pegged the cowhand as early to mid twenties, and at that age, a thirty-five-year-old like Matthew probably seemed ancient.
"Heck, no!" The kid's blush nearly obliterated his freckles. "Because you're famous, Mr. TredI mean Matthew. You've been on TV and everything! I have your book, Think Like a Horse, and I've about worn it out. I lobbied for the chance to pick you up at the airport."
"Well, thank you." The concept of having fans always made him uncomfortable. Fame was a byproduct he hadn't counted on when he'd set out to do the work he loved. "I'm glad the book has been useful."
"Oh, definitely. Although we finally had to give up on Houdini, which is kind of cool since he's the reason you're here. I'm actually grateful to that horse for being a pain in the ass if he brought you here."
Matthew laughed. "I hadn't thought of it that way.
Ultimately, if my program is a success, I'll work myself out of a job."
"I doubt that will ever happen. There'll always be people who mess up a horse one way or another and need you to straighten things out. But listen, I really think you should eat before we get back to the ranch. We've passed up everything in Jackson, but Shoshone will be coming up in forty minutes or so. We could stop at the Spirits and Spurs or the Shoshone Diner."
"Why are you so dead set on feeding me before we get to the ranch?"
"Because the food there is terrible."
"Terrible? I find that hard to believe on a ranch the size of the Last Chance."
"It didn't used to be terrible. Mary Lou fixed great spreads." Jeb spoke in a worshipful tone. "Fried chicken with her special batter, amazing ribs, potato salad seasoned just right, stew with lip-smacking gravy, biscuits that would melt in your mouth man, what I wouldn't give for some of that grub right now."
Matthew had a bad feeling about how this story would end. "Don't tell me Mary Lou up and died."
"No, not that bad. She got married."
"And left you high and dry?"
"For a little while, yeah. Mary Lou and Watkins, one of our top hands, are on a three-week honeymoon cruise, and nobody saw that coming because first of all she said she'd never marry him and second of all she's not much of a traveler. But the upshot is we're stuck with Aurelia Imogene Smith for the duration."
"That's quite a handle." Matthew pictured a sourfaced woman who insisted everyone address her with the whole blessed thing.
"Yeah, well, she told us that her mother gave her two fancy names to offset the boring last one. I don't know if those fancy names went to her head or what, but she claims to be a gourmet cook."
"Oh." Matthew smoothed a hand over his mouth to hide a smile. Most cowhands weren't big on gourmet vittles.
"The hands might be able to tough it out, but I feel especially sorry for the kids. Did anybody tell you about that program?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. You've got, what, eight teenaged boys for the summer?"
"That's right. This philanthropist named Pete Beckett came up with the idea of using the ranch for a residential summer program for teenage boys. They've been labeled troublemakers, but I guess they like being on the ranch, because they haven't caused a single problem. I worry about this food thing, though. Teenagers need regular food. They don't want to complain, but I can see it in their faces that they don't like it."
"So what does she serve that's so bad?"
"Escargot." Jeb said it with a groan.
"Hmm. Pricey." Matthew wondered what sort of bills Aurelia Imogene was running up.
"It's snails, man! You don't eat something that crawls on the ground with slime coming out its ass! But she served a plate of those varmints and expected us to eat 'em. I don't think so."
"So you left them on the plate?" Matthew happened to love escargots and hated to think of that delicacy going to waste.
"Hell, no. That would have been rude. We scooped 'em out of the shells like we planned to eat them. By now we know to bring plastic bags in our pockets when we come up to the main house for lunch, which is the only meal we eat there. Mornings and evenings we fend for ourselves down at the bunkhouse with stuff like canned chili. We always used to fill up at lunch. But now we're starving to death."
"What'd you do with the snails?"
"Gave 'em to the dogs."
Matthew winced at the travesty of that. Of course, maybe the snails weren't any good. Just because someone claimed to be a gourmet cook didn't mean they were.
"Some stuff's so bad even the dogs won't eat it."
Matthew was hardwired to solve problems, and this was one he had a stake in because he did love his food. "Can't you talk to somebody? Either her, or whoever hired her?"
"That's just it. She's Mary Lou's niece, and Mary Lou invited her to come and fill in. Nobody wants to offend Mary Lou because she's been good to us, and to be honest, I don't know what the Chance family thinks about the food because they've never said anything."
"So maybe they like it."
"I'd be surprised. I think they're just trying to ride it out like the rest of us. Plus, Aurelia's sweet as can be, and I'm sure she doesn't mean to make us gag. Nobody has the heart to hurt her feelings. In fact " He glanced over at Matthew before sighing and turning his attention to the road again. "No, I can't do it. It's not fair to you."
"What's not fair?"
"One of the guys came up with the idea that you could pretend you were on a special diet or something, which she'd have to accommodate because you're an honored guest, and we'd all climb on board and say we'd eat the same thing to make life easier for her."
"I'm not going to lie to her about some bogus special diet."
"No, I don't think you should, either," Jeb said quickly. "I told the boys that. Bad idea."
"But I'd like to help. I've had some experience with fine dining, so maybe if I show that I appreciate what she's trying to do, I can make some subtle suggestions that would turn things around."
"Now that's more like it! But I still think we should stop for food before we get to the ranch."
Matthew shook his head. "That makes no sense. Before I can discuss food with her, I have to eat something she's made." He glanced at the clock on the truck's dashboard. They wouldn't arrive at the ranch until around seven, which was nine his time. By then he might not care what he ate.
"You're a brave man."
Matthew laughed. "That bad, huh?"
"I have two words for you. Goat cheese." Jeb made a face. "Find out if she's made something with goat cheese, and if she has, don't eat it. I guarantee you'll want to puke your guts out."
Matthew decided not to admit he was fond of goat cheese, too. Demand for his training skills now brought him offers from around the world. He'd learned to appreciate all sorts of food, assuming it was prepared well.
"So I should drop you at the main house?" Jeb asked.
"Right. I need to check in with Sarah Chance, anyway. If you'll take my duffel to the bunkhouse, you can put it on whatever bed you want me to use. I'll unpack after I've had something to eat."
"I hope you don't mind being down with us, but it's that or sleep in the main house with eight teenagers. I hear they're behaving themselves, but still."
"No worries. Bunkhouses are amongst my favorite places to sleep." Matthew gazed out at the majestic Tetons in the distance and the grassy meadows bordering the road. After spending the past few weeks in the manicured pastures of Virginia, he relished the rugged landscape of Jackson Hole especially on a warm July day. Born not far from here in Billings, Montana, he was a Westerner at heart.
At sixteen, he'd hired on at a working ranch outside Billings. There he'd discovered his gift for working with difficult horses when he'd befriended a mare that previously had trusted no one. His boss had been a talkative man, and soon Matthew had been in demand throughout the state.
When he'd transformed a Montana senator's unruly horse into a mount children could ride, he'd earned a national reputation for being a miracle worker. Many people had encouraged him to write a book about his methods, and that book had brought international attention to his training ability. He enjoyed the travel opportunities, but he welcomed a return to more familiar surroundings.
Jeb seemed happy about Matthew's fondness for bunkhouses. He glanced over with a smile. "We have a card game going most nights, in case you're interested."
"Deal me in. Once I assess the food situation, I'll be headed down there ready to play." He looked forward to spending a week at a place where Stetsons and hand-stitched boots were the norm. Jackson Hole felt a lot like coming home.