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Kai tried to get her heart to stop pounding so hard in her chest. She sat in her Ford pickup in front of the Triple H Ranch, rubbing her damp palms against her jeans. This was the twentieth ranch she'd traveled to in order to apply for a job as a mechanic and wrangler. She'd been to six ranches in South Dakota, ten in Montana, two in Idaho, and now Wyoming ranches didn't look like they were hiring, either. Worse, she was a fine mechanic due to her US Army time as an Apache helicopter repairer, but the listless economy was stopping any new hires. Plus, she was a woman and the ranch owners just rolled their eyes when she said she was a mechanic.
Kai could fix anything. You name it, she could handle it. She knew being a woman brought prejudice to the table. And ranchers tended to be conservative, old guard and even outright Neanderthal in their view of women. She'd had one rancher nearly fall off his chair in his office laughing hysterically when she said she was a mechanic.
Hell, it was tough enough getting out of the military after enlisting at age eighteen and separating from the Army at twenty-eight because of downsizing. She thought her job rating would make it easy to get hired. In the military, women did so-called men's work, and no one thought anything about it. But they sure did out in the civilian world, she was discovering.
Kai wiped the dampness off the top of her lip, taking a quick glance around the ranch. There was an opening for a mechanic and wrangler. She was a perfect fit for it. The owner, Talon Holt, was the contact. Would he laugh her out of his office, too?
Money was tight. Kai didn't have enough left, after buying the tools she'd need and her wrangling gear, to try to rent an apartment in Jackson Holeif she got the job. She'd already cased the town, looked through the rentals in the newspaper and found exorbitant demands for a small one-bedroom apartment. It was sticker shock. Yes, she had savings. Yes, she could pay that kind of highway robbery, but she was counting on a bunkhouse where she could live, instead, until she got her feet under her. Her goal was to eventually buy a house.
Looking around, the main ranch home was built of cedar and two stories tall, a silver sheen to its aging wood. The roof looked new. There was a white picket fence, recently painted, surrounding it. It was June first and Kai knew Wyoming winters hung around forever. She saw someone had bravely planted flowers in beds along the inside of the fence in hopes they could survive and struggle to stay alive in the near freezing temperatures that occurred at night. As she gazed out beyond the graveled parking area, she saw a number of rusted pipe fences that were in sad shape. This rancher would need a welder. She knew how to weld. That would be a plus, something she could tell the owner in hopes of him hiring her.
Kai sat there, feeling her stomach knot. Desperate for a job, her hope long since fading, she didn't want to apply for government assistance. It just wasn't somewhere she wanted to go, and she fought the idea. Swallowing, her throat dry, she closed her eyes, knowing she couldn't go home. Home to Cody, Wyoming. Home to her father's ranch, the Circle T.
Her father had disowned her when she joined the Army at age eighteen. He favored her older brother, Steve, over herself. He'd written her out of the will when she left for the Army. And he never believed a woman could run a ranch, so he'd left it to her brother when it was his time to die. At age 59, Hal Tiernan was the same gruff, terse, mean son of a bitch he'd always been. Kai had been an unwanted addition to her father's life. He doted on his son and barely tolerated her because she was female. He called her Troublemaker.
Rubbing her dark blue long-sleeved blouse that was feminine looking but functional, her heart ached for what she wished might have been with her broken family.
If her mother, Olivia, hadn't died when Kai was eight years old, things might have turned out a lot different. Kai was in constant touch with Steve, who loved her fiercely, begging her to come home. But home to what? Hal verbally digging at her on a daily basis? Making sniping remarks because she was a woman? He looked at all women as useful only when they were pregnant and barefoot. That was her father's favorite saying. Kai didn't know how her mother, who had been a high school principal, tolerated that kind of shit from him. She certainly didn't. And that was why he called her Troublemaker. He never called her by her real name, only his nickname for her. Kai hated it.
She pulled herself out of her pain. Opening the door, she climbed out, her cowboy boots crunching across the graveled driveway to the gate of the picket fence. Kai heard a dog barking but couldn't see it. Walking down the red-tiled sidewalk, she liked the wide, U-shaped porch that surrounded three-fourths of the house. There was a large, dark green porch swing in one corner and it looked inviting. A person could sit in it and look out over the lush swales and small hills of green grass that grew thick and abundant all around her.
Her boots thunked hollowly across the cedar porch. She saw the screen door was open and knocked loud enough so that someone would hear that there was a visitor. Heart pounding, Kai removed her dark blue baseball cap, nervously running her fingers through her short auburn hair.
A blond-haired woman in her late forties, who was very thin and frail looking, walked slowly down the foyer. She wore a bright apple-green-colored knit shawl around her shoulders, jeans and a pink sweater.
"Hi, I'm Kai Tiernan," she said. "I've got an appointment with Mr. Holt for a job interview at one o'clock."
The woman smiled and pushed open the screen door. "Nice to meet you, Kai. I'm Sandy Holt. Come on in. I'll let my son, Talon, know you've arrived. Make yourself at home."
Kai smiled and nodded, noticing Sandy moved at a halting pace. She appeared very ill, her skin not a good color, but her blue eyes were alert and the smile on her lips was genuine. Stepping into the foyer, she waited for the woman to guide her. She smelled bread baking in the kitchen and her mouth watered. Her mother used to bake bread and it brought back poignant memories. There were also other wonderful fragrances, apple pies baking. Her heart ached because she remembered her mother baking pies just like these in the kitchen of their ranch home. It brought back so many good but sad memories.
"This way," Sandy invited. "Sorry, I'm a little slow
"No worries," Kai replied gently. "Do you need some help?" She offered her hand.
Sandy shook her head. "No, but that's sweet of you to ask." Her face took on a wry look. "As it is, Cass is like a mother hen and I'm his chick. I'm lucky I got to answer the door before he could race to get to it, first."
"I heard that, Sandy," Cass called. "You must be feeling better because you were faster to answer that door than I was."
Kai saw a tall, sandy-blond-haired man with glinting blue eyes poke his head around the corner of the kitchen entrance. He was wearing a red apron around his narrow waist. He wore jeans, cowboy boots and a dark brown shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hair was rather longish, but she could see his ears and the nape of his neck. There was something about him that alerted Kai. She'd swear he'd been in the military. It was nothing obvious, but frequently she could meet someone and tell if they had been in or not. It was the way they carried themselves and that rock-solid confidence they had about themselves.
"This is my broody hen caregiver," Sandy dead-panned, weakly lifting her hand toward him. "Cas-sidy Reynolds, although we all call him Cass, meet Kai Tiernan. She's here for a job interview with Talon in about ten minutes."
Cass grinned and came around the corner, holding out his large, work-worn hand toward her. "Hey, nice to meet you, Kai. Can I get you anything to drink while you're waiting?"
Kai gripped his hand. The man was definitely ex-military, no question. He was probably about six foot two, with powerful shoulders, his forearms thick with muscle, telling her he worked hard. She saw some bits of flour spotted across his shirt. "Nice to meet you, Cass. And no, I don't need anything to drink, but thank you."
"Ah," he said, giving Sandy a wicked look, "she's just like you. Kai has this look on her face of what is a man doing in a kitchen and wearing, of all things, an apron?" He released her hand and chuckled. "Just FYI, Kai, I do the cooking around here five days a week. And" he gave Sandy a warm, teasing look "I take care of this headstrong, wild filly, plus I'm the operating officer for this ranch."
"Wow," Kai said, put at ease by Cass's easygoing nature, "you're a multitasking guy if I ever saw one."
Sandy chuckled and shook her head. "I'm going to the living room to sit down. Come join me, Kai?"
"Yes, ma'am," she said.
"Don't 'ma'am' her," Cass warned gravely. "Things around here are loosey-goosey. No one stands on much protocol."
"Good to know," Kai murmured, giving Cass a grateful look. Already, she liked this ranch. Sandy worried her, though, and now she knew Talon Holt was her son. Was he like his mother? She didn't know but hoped some of her DNA had made its way into him. Cass was a man in the kitchen. So maybe Talon wouldn't think it odd she was a woman mechanic. Here at this ranch, they seemed not to care what the gender was as long as they were good at what they were doing. Mentally, Kai crossed her fingers.
Kai didn't have long to wait for Talon Holt. She heard a man come in the screen door, the clacking of paws indicating a dog with him. Sitting on the couch, she saw a beautiful Belgian Malinois dog enter the room. His alert cinnamon eyes instantly settled on her. The intelligence in the dog's gaze was apparent and Kai lifted her chin, seeing the owner come in right after him.
"Zeke, sit," he ordered the dog.
Instantly, the dog sat.
"I'm Talon Holt," he said, glancing at his mother and then at her. He took off his black Stetson. "You must be Kai Tiernan?"
Kai instantly stood. "Yes, sir, I am. Nice to meet you, sir." She saw the tall man with black hair and gray eyes, grimace.
"Stand down," he said with a slight smile. He crossed the room and shook her hand. "No need to say 'sir' to me."
Talon looked back and pointed at his mother. "Zeke, guard."
Sandy made an unhappy noise. "Now, Talon. I do not want that dog herding me around like I'm a sheep to be taken care of. Really!"
"No," Cass boomed, coming into the room, handing Talon a cup of hot coffee, "she has me. Let the dog go out and smell the flowers that you're trying to grow."
Grinning, Talon nodded. "Kai, one second? I'll be right back."
Kai nodded, fascinated with the family dynamic. Unlike her own, no question. Sandy was the matriarch. Cass was protective of her, for sure. And as Talon turned and gave the dog a hand command, Zeke leaped up, tongue hanging out of his mouth, and ran down the long cedar hallway toward the screen door ahead of him.
Cass handed Kai a cup of coffee. "Might as well be relaxed. Come on, I'll show you to Talon's office. That's where he'll interview you."
Grateful for Cass's warmth and thoughtfulness, she followed him out of the massive living room and kitchen. It was an open-concept area. Down another hall, Cass led her into a small office. There, he gestured to a chair in front of a massive oak desk that looked to her to be at least a hundred years old. She sat, holding her coffee between her hands.
Cass hesitated at the door and said, "Now, just be yourself. And don't call him 'sir.' He was in the military, but he's out now. Okay?"
"Yes, si I mean, yes, I'll remember."
Cass nodded and said, "You've got mechanic's hands."
Dumbfounded, Kai stared up at him.
"I was in Special Forces, a sergeant," he said. "I was the mechanic in our A team. You can always tell someone who works around equipment."
"Really?" she asked, still in shock that he could tell by just looking at her hands.
"Sure," he said, "short, blunt nails, calluses on the insides of your fingers, and the skin around your nails is darker, indicating oil or other fluids you've been handling." He grinned. "Hey, be proud of it. I tried to talk Talon into letting me go finagle those sick pieces of equipment in the barns, but he needed me because I'm good at numbers." He laughed.
A little shaken, Kai wondered what kind of ranch this was. Talon had been in the military. Cass had been an Army Special Forces operator. She was a vet. Did he hire vets? Her hopes rose sharply. Kai heard the thunking of Talon's boots along the hall. Her heart rate went up. Setting the cup on the desk, she pulled out her résumé from her pocket and unfolded it, placing it on the desk where he would sit. What would he think?
"Cass make you at home?" Talon asked, entering the office and quietly shutting the door.
"Yes, s I mean, yes, he did. Thank you."
Talon hooked his Stetson on a peg behind the leather chair and sat down, scooping up her three page résumé. "I've been anxious to see you," he admitted, glancing up, the paper in his hands. "Good mechanics are rare as hen's teeth. And when you answered the ad and sent me an email, telling me you had been a mechanic in the Army, I was very interested. Let me read this for a moment?"
Kai sat there trying to relax. Talon Holt was as tall as Cass and he walked like he'd been in the military, no question. His gray eyes were darker colored than hers. She remembered her father hated her eye color, accusing her mother of it being her fault that she had been born with the god-awful color. He didn't like the light gray color because he constantly told her he felt as if she had X-ray vision and was looking straight through him. That it made him feel damned uncomfortable.
Kai watched Talon's expression closely. The man homed in on the résumé like a laser-fired rocket. Kai could literally feel the shift of energy around him, that sudden focus. She gulped once, realizing that her dead husband, Sam Morrison, who had been a Delta Force operator, had that same kind of intensity, that same telltale energy about him. It was a mark of an operator. And Kai had known enough of them at Bagram in her many tours at that Afghanistan Army base to recognize one when she saw one.
Was Talon Holt an operator, too? Shaken by the synchronicity, if that were true, Kai felt her hopes rise a little more. If he was, he'd speed-read it, memorize it and have it locked permanently into his brain. That's the way operators were. She waited, barely breathing. Hoping against hope. Finally he looked at her after rapidly skimming the three pages.
"I like that you were an Apache helo mech. Only the cream of the Army crop of mechanics get that important position. Were you the only woman?" He smiled a little.
"No, s No, I wasn't. In my squadron, we had four women. The rest were men."
"I see you had six deployments to Bagram. You were kept busy."