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He'd sworn he would never come back here.
Luke Randell hadn't been left with a choice. He released a long breath and climbed out of his BMW. His gaze swept the area that had once been his childhood home. The Rocking R Ranch.
Large oak trees shaded the green lawn. A concrete walkway led to the wraparound porch of the big, well-kept Victorian house. A recent coat of white paint covered the two-story house where he used to live, more than twenty-seven years ago. A rush of feelings sadness and a lot of bitternesshit him as he glanced toward the large barn, outbuildings and corral. They, too, had been well cared for.
Not what he'd expected when he'd left Dallas to return to San Angelo, Texas. A warm breeze brushed against his face, and he caught a whiff of the ranch's earthy smells, causing a flood of more memories memories of his pony, Jazzy, then his horse, Bandit, the chestnut gelding he'd been given for his fifth birthday.
Damn. He'd loved that horse.
Tightness gripped Luke's chest as he thought about the painful day his daddy had sold the animal . That same day everything had changed. No more perfect family. For a six-year-old kid it had been the end of the world.
He quickly shook off the foolish sentiment and walked along the path to the porch, then up the steps. His gaze caught the wrought-iron branding symbol of the Rocking R nailed next to the door.
Another memory hit him before he could push it away. He couldn't keep doing this. Not if he was going to live here in his childhood home. The heavy oak door had been opened inward, leaving a wood-framed screen door to keep out intruders. He shrugged. It was the country, not downtownDallas.
"Hello Anyone here?" he called.
He waited for an answer. When none came, he walked inside the large entry hall. The hardwood floors were polished, showing off their honey color. The front parlor, as his mother used to call it, also sparkled with polish and a lemony scent. There were several antiques, but the dark brocade sofa and chairs still looked uncomfortable.
Who cares? he asked himself. With any luck, he wouldn't be here that long. Right now he needed to find Ray Meyers. Suddenly a sound interrupted his thoughts. On the open staircase that led to the second floor he found a black kitten with white paws.
"Well, at least someone's here to welcome me."
He got another meow as he walked over and picked up the kitten. "Maybe you can tell me where everyone is."
The cat meowed again just as muffled voices came from upstairs. "Looks like I got my answer." He started up the steps, carrying his new companion. He walked along the hall past several rooms, one of which used to be his. He ignored it. No sense stirring up more memories.
Luke continued on toward the open door to the master bedroom. Once across the threshold, he found the source of the voices. He leaned against the doorway and enjoyed the view.
A woman was on her hands and knees with her head buried under the large four-poster bed. He couldn't help but notice how well she filled out her fitted jeans. Next to her was a little girl not more than four or five.
"Mommy, we have to find Jinx. She gets scared when she's all alone." The child's long, blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Her worried look didn't take away from her cute features. Just then the woman's head appeared, and Luke's heart shot off racing. The little girl definitely got her good looks from her mother.
Her wheat-colored hair was pulled back in a ponytail, also, and was a shade darker than the child's. Her profile was near perfect, along with her creamy complexion. He cursed silently for noticing, and cursed again for wanting to see more.
"Excuse me," he said.
The two females swung around toward him. Okay, both mother and daughter were gorgeous. Somehow he managed to find his voice. "Could this little guy be who you're looking for?"
"Jinx!" The small child jumped up and ran to him. "You found my kitty."
Luke handed the furry bundle to her. "I think it found me." He brushed his hands off and glanced at the woman.
Tess didn't like being caught off guard. Over the last several months her entire life had been turned upside down, and she suspected this stranger was the big reason.
He walked toward her and extended a hand. "Luke Randell."
She climbed to her feet. "Tess Meyers." She shook his hand. It was not rough like a rancher's, but his grip was strong.
"This is my daughter, Olivia."
Her daughter looked at Mr. Randell. "But everybody calls me Livy, and this is Jinx."
"Well, hello, Livy and Jinx."
Tess drew his attention back to her. "We weren't expecting you for a few more days, Mr. Randell."
"My plans changed." His gaze bore into hers. "Is there a problem?"
"None whatsoever," she lied. "I just wanted to make sure the house was ready for you." No way was she ready for this man with his dark good looks and silver eyes. Just what San Angelo needed. Another handsome Randell man.
He glanced around. "I didn't expect any of this, but I appreciate it. Thank you."
"Outside of needing linens on the bed, the house should be livable."
He nodded toward the fresh sheets on the bare mattress. "I think I can manage to make up a bed."
She nodded. No doubt he could mess up a bed, too.
She groaned. Where had that come from? "Oh, I plugged in the refrigerator, but I'm afraid there isn't any food in the house."
"Not a problem. I stopped by the grocery store and bought some staples."
She couldn't help but stare at the man dressed in his knife-pressed jeans, navy polo shirt and topsider shoes looking like the last person anyone would expect to take over a cattle rancha ranch she and her father had put a lot of work into, which, there was a good possibility, could be taken away from them. She had to be very careful. This man held her future in his hands.
"Okay then, I guess we'll be going and let you get settled in." She started for the door. "Come on, Livy."
"But, Mom, I didn't ask him yet." She stood rooted in the middle of the room, gripping her kitty. "Do you have any little girls I can play with?"
The new owner looked surprised by the question, but finally he said, "No, sorry, I don't."
"Oh " Livy looked disappointed. "That's the reason I got a kitty because I don't have anyone to play with." She held up Jinx. "Mommy said she wasn't going to have any more babies and I got him so I won't get lonely."
"Olivia Meyers," Tess said, mortified. "It's time we let Mr. Randell move in."
"Okay." Her daughter complied and walked to her mother. "Goodbye, Mr. Randell."
"Goodbye, Livy Jinx." He looked at Tess. "Mrs. Meyers."
"It's Miss Meyers." She didn't know why she corrected him. "Ray Meyers is my father, not my husband."
Livy chimed in once again. "Yeah Mommy doesn't have a husband, and I don't have a daddy."
Thirty minutes later, Tess sat at the kitchen table in the foreman's cottage.
"I was mortified, Bernice," Tess said.
Her aunt shook her head. "The child sure has a mind of her own." She carried their lunch plates to the sink. "Now, tell me, is Luke Randell as handsome as his cousins?"
Bernice was her dad's younger sister. In her late fifties, she'd lost her husband a few years ago. When Ray Meyers first took ill last year, Bernice didn't hesitate to come and help out.
Tess shrugged. "If you like the preppy look. He's definitely not a rancher. I doubt he's capable or has any desire to run this place."
"He could learn," Bernice told her. "My goodness, he has six cousins who do some sort of ranching. It's in his blood."
"What if he doesn't want to ranch, but instead sells the Rocking R?"
Those soft hazel eyes met hers. "Doesn't he have to wait for his brother to show up before he could do anything?"
She nodded. "They do own it jointly."
She'd been notified of Sam Randell's death by the lawyer, who also let them know that the ranch had been left to his two sons, Luke and Brady.
"Maybe Brady Randell wants to sell, too. He's a pilot in the air force. Why would he want a ranch?"
With a shrug, Bernice filled the sink and added some liquid soap. Tess picked up a towel to dry. "And maybe those boys will decide to continue to lease the Rocking R to you."
"Sam Randell leased the land to Ray Meyers. And we both know Dad can't run this place any longer."
Sadness crept in as Tess leaned against the counter in the small kitchen. She'd grown up in this house. Back then it had been just her and her dad. Now it was pretty crowded with Bernice and Livy added into the mix.
That's why Tess had moved into her daughter's bedroom. It was more convenient for everyone to have Bernice move into Tess's room.
She knew this setup was only temporary. His disease was progressing, and his good days were becoming fewer. He hardly ever left his room. It made her sad to think of her father's mind slowly erasing memories of his life and that he was not always able to remember his daughter, or his granddaughter.
Tess shook away the sad thoughts. "I need to talk to Mr. Randell. I need to know what he's going to do, so I can make some plans." She was hopeful she could stay on and continue to lease this house, along with barn space for the horses. She needed to make a living for her family. And there was her father's cattle operation. Although small, she didn't want to sell the calves yet. Roundup wasn't for another few months.
But if the worst happened and they had to leave, she'd get another place. She doubted she could find as good a setup as the Rocking R Ranch. Her father had built several of the horse stalls in the barn. The large corral had been Ray's handiwork, too. That had been the reason the lease agreement was so cheap; her dad had also been the caretaker.
They'd had such big plans as partners. The Meyerses were going to breed and train quarter horses. And her bay stallion, Smooth Whiskey Doc, was going to be their cutting champion. So far she had made something of a name as a trainer and rider. But she wanted and needed the money that her future champion stallion could bring in. She wasn't thinking about herself, but Olivia. She was her sole parent.
Her aunt's voice brought her back. "What?"
"Go work Whiskey," Bernice said. "That always calms you."
She shook her head. "Dad will be up from his nap soon."
"Go. I can look after Ray." She turned her niece around and nudged her toward the door. "Take a break, Tess. You need it."
Tess didn't argue, just headed for the door. She found Livy on the porch playing with her dolls and the kitten.
"Hey, sweetie, I want you to stay on the porch. It's too hot to go out in the sun."
"Mommy, can I go see Grandpa? I'll be quiet. I promise."
It was so sad. Livy and her grandpa Ray had had a close relationship since the day she was born. Now most of the time he couldn't speak to her. "I think he'd like that. But maybe you should leave Jinx in the box in our room."
"I will, Mommy. I know Grandpa doesn't mean to, but he sometimes squeezes too hard."
She knelt down in front of her daughter. "You know Grandpa's sick. He doesn't mean to squeeze too hard."
Livy's blond ponytail bobbed up and down. "I know, Mommy. I wish he wasn't sick."
"So do I, sweetie." Tess had to fight her tears. "You're my best girl."
Livy smiled. "And you're my bestest mom."
They exchanged a kiss and then Tess started off, but her daughter called to her. "Are you going to go see Mr. Randell?"
"No, honey, Mr. Randell is busy. I'm going to work with Whiskey."
Livy's eyes narrowed. Tess knew her daughter was cooking up something else. "He's a nice man. Maybe we should bake him a cake to welcome him home."
Butter up the enemy. That was an idea. "We'll talk about it later. Remember, don't leave the porch." She turned and walked toward the barn, knowing that ploy wasn't going to work for long. She had to come up with something to keep Livy from intruding on Luke Randell.
Putting her wide-brimmed cowboy hat on her head, she glanced toward the large Victorian house. Perched on a hill with a grove of pecan trees lined up on either side for shade and protection from the elements, it was a sight to behold.
She'd heard stories that Mrs. Sam Randell had been so humiliated when her husband's brother, Jack, had been sent to prison for cattle rustling, she insisted they leave the area. It had been twenty-seven years since anyone had lived there.
"Your father did a wonderful job with the upkeep," a man's voice said.
Tess swung around to find Luke Randell. "Oh, Mr. Randell "
"Please, call me Luke."
"Luke, and I'm Tess," she said, a little breathless.
He'd changed into a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of boots. Cocked on his head was a worn cowboy hat, giving him a rugged look.
"Do I fit in a little better?"
Tess was tall at five-nine, but had to look up at him. Stand back was more like it. "You fit in dressed like you were before, but this is more practical for the ranch."
"Especially if I'm headed for the barn." He smiled, and it caused her pulse to race. Great. She was acting like a teenager.
"You want to see the barn?"
He glanced around. "Actually, I was looking for your father. Is he around?"
Oh, no. She wasn't ready to discuss her father's situation yet. "I'm sorry, but he isn't feeling well right now." She rushed on to say, "I'm sure I can answer anything you want to know."
"I just wanted to let him and youknow that my arriving early isn't meant to disturb your operation. You still have another two months on your lease. As the lawyer informed you, I'm just living in the house until a decision is made about the property."
A decision? "What about your brother?"
Luke still had trouble getting used to that term for Brady. "Half brother," he clarified. "Brady is a pilot in the air force, and the only information I've gotten from the military so far is that he's overseas. I left word for him to contact me here."