Read an Excerpt
"Welcome to the Bent Tree."
Nikki Johannson took the outstretched hand of the woman who was now her employer and hoped Jules O'Brien didn't notice how nervous she was. She hadn't expected to get the job as housemother for a group of boys ranging in age from eight to fifteen years old, but the moment she'd read the newspaper article about the Bent Tree Boys Ranch, she knew she had to try. Had it been only a week since she'd been hired?
"Thank you for the opportunity to work here, Mrs. O'Brien," Nikki said, releasing her hand.
"Please, call me Jules. We're all family here, and no one calls me Mrs. O'Brien."
Nikki tried for her best smile, struck by the word family and how close it was to the secret she kept. "I'm sure I'll enjoy working here, Jules."
Lines formed between Jules's eyes. "You're certain you want to take on giving the boys riding lessons, too? " she asked. "I don't want to burden you with extra duties, and I'm sure we can find someone else if"
"I don't mind at all," Nikki replied. "I'm looking forward to it."
The frown on her new employer's face disappeared, replaced by a grateful smile. "You have the experience to do it, but if it should get to be too much for you, we'll make other arrangements."
Before Nikki had a chance to answer, a tall man approached them, looking too polished for an Oklahoma ranch.
"You needed to ask me something?" he asked when he stopped near Jules. His voice was deep and smooth as he glanced at Nikki.
Nikki noticed a glint of arrogance in his baby-blue eyes as he returned his attention to Jules. His aquiline nose and chiseled square jaw would make any woman take a second look. Nikki swallowed hard. She knew enough about the O'Briens to know the man wasn't Jules's husband, and she wondered who he was.
"Thank you for coming so quickly, Mac," Jules greeted him, then turned to Nikki. "This is William MacGregor, better known as Mac, our head wrangler at Bent Tree. Our only wrangler at the moment," she added, turning to smile at him. "Mac, Nikki Johannson is our new housemother."
"Nice to meet you," he said without looking directly at her.
Nikki was surprised to learn he was a ranch hand. He looked nothing like the few she'd met, and he certainly wasn't anything like the cowboys she'd known.
Jules turned to the man again. "Since you're in charge of the horses for the boys, Mac, you should know that she'll also be teaching the boys to ride."
He slid a look at Nikki that made her skin prickle. "We don't have a lot of horses at present, but we'll be getting in more stock."
"We'll be adding a few more boys soon, too," Jules said thoughtfully, and turned to Nikki. "You do know that these boys have had serious problems in their lives.
A few have been in trouble with the law, although none of them are dangerous."
Nikki nodded. "As I mentioned, psychology is my college major, although I'm still working on my degree." Or would be, if she hadn't been forced to quit because of finances. Even with a scholarship and financial aid, she still had to work for a living, and that took up most of her time. "I've worked with boys who had similar problems at Cherokee Nation Youth Services, so I understand they need a strong, yet caring person to guide them. I assure you, I'm up to the job in that respect."
"Where was that?" Mac asked.
"In Tahlequah," Nikki answered. "I was employed at what's now known as Sequoyah Schools for four years after graduating from there, as well as having worked at a riding camp near Broken Arrow and with Youth Services."
"That explains the Scandinavian surname."
Jules looked at her with eyes full of interest. "My husband is half Cherokee, with an Irish surname."
"Is he?" Nikki asked, as if she hadn't known. The name Johannson was on her birth certificate and her legal name, but she knew it wasn't her father's name or her mother's. Even so, there was no reason to tell either of them that.
Turning to Mac, although she yearned to know more about Jules's husband, she asked, "Have you studied the Cherokee?"
"No, I haven't." His mouth twisted into a slight smile. "But I did read Where the Red Fern Grows when I was a boy."
Nikki did her best to take the edge off her answer. "Not quite the same."
"I'll give you a tour of the ranch and the staff accommodations." Jules motioned for Nikki to follow her and turned to call over her shoulder. "Mac, could you meet me at the main building in about ten minutes?" His answer was a nod before he disappeared into a row of trees.
"It's very nice here," Nikki said as Jules led her under a large carved wooden sign proclaiming they were entering the Bent Tree Boys Ranch.
"I explained last week that there are two ranches on the property here," Jules continued. "The Rocking O Ranch was my husband's home before we were married. He grew up here. As a wedding gift, he gave me forty acres of what was pasture, for the purpose of building a boys' ranch. It's been a dream of mine since I was a young girl to provide a place where childrenespecially boyswho haven't fit within the court system or foster care could be free to enjoy a group home in a natural setting. Tanner helped make that dream come true."
"What a wonderful gift," Nikki replied, aware that Tanner O'Brien had been involved with several charities. She'd done research on the family, long before the boys' ranch had been established.
"Besides the two ranches," Jules continued, "Tanner and his partner own a rodeo stock company. They both competed in rodeo. Tanner retired from bronc riding a year and a half ago, and Dusty McPherson retired from bull riding last year because of injuries. They're on a buying trip right now, mostly for more horses for the boys, but they should be back in a few days. I'll introduce you as soon as they return."
Nikki was disappointed to learn Tanner was gone, but quickly decided his absence gave her more time to adjust to her new job. She also noticed that Jules hadn't mentioned he'd won the national bronc riding championship before retiring, a sign to Nikki that the O'Briens didn't flaunt their success.
"Are the boys allowed on the Rocking O property?"
"They spend most of their time on the Bent Tree grounds," Jules explained. "They have the run of it, and it's easier to keep an eye on them if they're limited to their own area. We plan to have something once a month with the boys up at our house, such as barbecues when the weather's nice and things like that."
Nikki nodded. "So the boys are more like extended family."
"Very much so," Jules answered as they continued along a wide path. "Of course, you recognized the corral and barn from the main drive. The boys are in classes now, so we won't bother them."
"What kind of classes?"
"They're in the middle of the first semester of school," Jules explained. "The younger boys have on-site teachers, and the older ones mostly participate in a virtual program through our local high school. Tutors are also available to them."
"So they keep up with schoolwork. That's good to hear."
"Education is important."
Nikki nodded in agreement, regretting her own set-aside schooling, and followed as Jules led her across the grounds to several buildings that looked new.
"This is where you'll be living," Jules explained as they stepped through heavy glass doors into the largest of the buildings. A short hall led to a large open room furnished with several sofas and a few tables with chairs. A narrower hallway ran to the right and left of the room. Turning to the right, they walked to the end.
Jules pulled a key out of her pocket and unlocked the door on the left. "It isn't very large and definitely not fancy," she said as she opened the door, then handed Nikki the key, "but you can make it your own however you'd like to."
Stepping inside, Nikki was surprised to see there was so much room. "It's like a little apartment," she said, taking it all in.
"There's a small kitchen back where we came in. We try to keep it well stocked, but if there's something special you want, just let me know. The kitchen facilities here in the building are for staff, although most of your meals will be taken in the boys' dining facility, but feel free to use the kitchen here whenever you like. We have a nurse practitioner on call, and there's a dispensary near the boys' quarters."
"It's wonderful," Nikki said, running her hand along the back of the small sofa.
Jules glanced at her watch, then pointed across the room. "The bedroom is through there."
Nikki started for the door, but stopped when she heard Jules speak to someone. "Would you mind showing Nikki the rest of the ranch?" Jules was saying. "And if you could introduce her to the boys when they're free, I'd appreciate it."
Nikki looked around to see Mac standing in the doorway, studying her, and she quickly looked away. He tended to rattle her nerves.
"Of course," he answered.
Jules gave Nikki an apologetic smile. "I have a conference call scheduled with the licensing board, so I'll leave you in Mac's capable hands."
"I'm sure we'll be fine," Nikki said, her imagination taking flight about what way Mac's hands were capable. Quickly shoving the thought from her mind, she looked at him. If nothing else, working with him would be interesting.
Mac's first thought when he'd been introduced to Nikki was that she was too pretty. She appeared to be in her early twenties, with long dark hair, chestnut-brown eyes that tilted up and a generous mouth that belonged on a pixie. She wasn't beautiful in the true sense of the word, and pretty wasn't quite right, either. Whatever it was, he was completely aware of her, and that wasn't something he needed in his life right now.
"Do you want to get settled in first, or would you rather I give you the tour?" he asked.
She didn't even hesitate. "The tour, if you don't mind."
He answered with a nod and motioned for her to follow. "Just so we're all on the same page, this is the administration building, the main building on this part of the ranch."
"Everything is beautiful here. Very different than the eastern part of the state. Are you from Oklahoma?"
"No," he answered. "Back east."
"Are there a lot of ranches there?"
"A few, but my ranching experience was in the western part of the country." Having just met her, he wasn't inclined to offer her any personal information. She'd soon learn that he had the experience necessary for the job.
"This is the commons area," he explained as they returned to the large room at the center of the building. He quickly pointed out the kitchen, then the office down the hallway in the opposite direction from the living quarters. "The door to the main office is kept locked, but you'll be given a key. You'll find files on the boys there."
"Where do the boys stay?"
"Out this way." He led her down the short hallway and out the door. "There are currently two cabins for them, each able to bed twelve boys, with plans for more in the future."
"The cabins are only for sleeping?" she asked, hurrying to keep up with him.
He shortened his steps. She wasn't an especially short woman, but he stretched beyond six feet. "More like a dormitory," he answered, and gestured toward one of the buildings. "Go ahead and look inside, but only through the windows. The boys don't like adults poking around in their belongings, unless invited."
She took the few steps to the building and leaned forward to peer in a window. For a moment he enjoyed the view. Her dark, straight hair fell forward over slender shoulders. He'd noticed a regal posture when he first saw her standing with Jules near the camp entrance. No slouching for this girl, he'd thought, and she held her head high, looking a person straight in the eye when talking to them. Whether that was natural or she had learned it, he couldn't guess.
She disappeared from view, but within minutes he heard her voice as she rounded the back of the cabin and returned.
"I like that they've personalized their space," she said.
He avoided looking into her brown eyes. "The camp provides them with whatever materials they ask for."
She caught up with him as he walked toward the other buildings. "The O'Briens seem to be very generous."
"They are," he replied, and he was thankful for it. If it hadn't been for Jules, he wasn't sure where he'd be.
"The few people I spoke with in Desperation had good things to say about them. What do you know about the family?"
He'd known Jules since childhood, but didn't feel he needed to mention it. Glancing down at Nikki as she walked beside him, he shrugged. "Very little."
When she didn't ask anything more, he continued around the grounds, showing her the indoor-outdoor dining area, complete with a large industrial kitchen, before pointing out the building where the boys were currently in class.
"Do any of the teachers live on site?" she asked.
"None at present."
"What about counselors?"
He shook his head. "Perhaps in the future, but for now it's a day job, although there's room for another four in the main building."
Her steps slowed and she looked up at him. "We're the only ones living in the main building?"
Her eyes had widened. "Unless you have a problem with it?" he asked. When she shook her head with a smile that appeared genuine, he continued. "The pool is over there," he explained, pointing to it. "And the basketball court."
"It's good they have several things to burn off energy."
He silently acknowledged that she knew boys fairly well. "It helps. I suspect riding will, too."
"How soon will I get to meet them?"
Checking his watch, he answered, "About forty-five minutes. They'll break for lunch, and then have counseling sessions today, before classes resume for another two hours."
"How many counselors?"
"Two are currently working with them. Jules sits in on the sessions twice a week and meets with the counselors every Friday." He wasn't involved with the counseling, so there was little he knew about them, but he realized it might help to clarify his job at the ranch. "Unlike you, I don't have experience working with young boys. My job is to take care of the horses and keep Tanner updated on their health, temperament and what we might need in the future. Jules is the one you should speak with about the boys."