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GARRETT MCQUIRE LEANED ON the fresh timber and
wire fenceerected properly within the surveyors' stakes, he notedand looked out over the newly created pasture that had Tanner Harris in such a lather. As elected sheriff of Colum County, Garrett felt an obligation to listen to the concerns of all the citizens, but Tanner had been a sneak and a whiner all his life, someone who thought the world owed him, and he wore on Garrett's last nerve.
"When I saw you stop at the head of her road," Tanner said, "I thought you were gonna talk to her. Why didn't ya?"
Garrett took his time answering. Officially he was responding to Tanner's complaint against his neighbor's new fence. As sheriff, he didn't need to get into the fact his son was applying for a job at Whistling Meadows. To Tanner, that alone might look as if Garrett were taking sides. He wasn't. He hadn't even met the other side. Samantha Weston.
Although he'd seen her bicycling around town. Unless she broke the lawor messed with his son in any wayshe was no concern of his. Maybe that's how he should approach the issue with Tanner.
"I didn't talk to her," he replied at last, "because she's done nothing wrong. Nothing I can see."
"Not technically, maybe." Tanner glowered at the offending railing. "But she's gone against time-honored tradition. Sashaying into town from who-knows-where. Buyin' up my family land. Cuttin' off access "
Garrett tuned the guy out. He and the rest of Applegate's residents had heard this rant for weeks. In the barbershop. In the diner. At town meetings, even. And although the beef wasn't new, it had nothing to do with time-honored traditionas much as boundary disputescame close to ritual in Colum County. Tanner's gripes all boiled down to the fact that his aging uncle Red had had the audacity to sell his sixty acres to an outsider rather than will it to his nephew. Three-quarters of Tanner's collateral had always been his presumed inheritance.
As to the comment that Ms. Weston had sashayed into town, she hadn't. She'd arrived and set up her business so quietly that, if it weren't for the new fence enclosing the pasture part of her property and the signs around the county, advertising llama day treks, you wouldn't think much had changed. " and the old man's makin' a fool of himself." Tanner had wound himself even tighter, if that were possible. "Living with her. A woman half his age."
"I don't think you can call it 'living with her.'You're ignoring the fact he sold her the land with the stipulation he can live out his days in the bunkhouse. Separate from the big house. On land he loves. Farmers don't usually get such a secure retirement. In cutting himself a creative deal, your uncle was thinking of his future."
"Well, he sure wasn't thinking of the future of his only kin. Me. With three boys to raise."
"No," Garrett replied, struck anew by Tanner's unrelenting self-centered attitude. "I dare say he wasn't."
Tanner grunted and seemed to be thinking along a different tack. "Between the national park and this fence, I'm blocked in. So where are me and my boys gonna ride our ATVs?"
"Rig yourself a trailer and haul your ATVs to the authorized county trails like most of the other folks around here. Your free-range days are over. Times are changing."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it." Tanner glowered at the top of the Whistling Meadows barn just visible above the far rise. "So, you're not gonna talk to her?"
"As things stand, I have no reason to." Garrett headed for his cruiser. "But I suggest you do. Neighbor to neighbor. Friendly-like."
"When hell freezes over." With a dismissive wave of his hand, Tanner headed across his littered yard toward his run-down house, which had been built too close to the boundary line as if in anticipation of the merging of the two properties.
Garrett got in his cruiser and glanced at his watch. Rory's interview with the Weston woman should be over by now. He hoped his son got the job. As soon as he'd arrived for the summer, the twelve-year-old had found the ad in the paper and had made the call himself. The only thing he'd asked his father for was a ride this morning. And although Garrett was glad Rory was showing some initiative, he wished he knew more of what was going through his son's mind these days. From the last visit to this, the preteen had closed down. Already reduced to seeing him on vacations, Garrett didn't like feeling further shut out of his only child's life. But if there was one thing he'd learned from experience with other people's kids, it was that you didn't find out much by pushing. Patience and observation were keyvirtues easier executed in his job than in the role of parent.
PERCY TAGGING ALONG BEHIND, Samantha walked
Rory McQuire toward the five other llamas wading in the creek. The boy had said very little, but he'd made eye contact as he'd listened to her explain the duties of the part-time job. And he'd let Percy make the first moves. He seemed easier around the animal than he was with her.
"Have you had any experience with llamas?" she asked.
"No, but I've read about them and most other animals. I watch the Discovery Channel. Animal Planet. National Geographic. I want to be a vet."
"How old are you?"
He patted his pocket. "I have my work permit." A work permit meant he was young. Standing on the bank of the stream, he watched Percy join his pack-mates. "Besides, does it matter? I'm strong."
"No, I guess it doesn't matter. I was just curious." She didn't like people snooping, either, and turned the conversation in a different direction. "Thinking how long I might expect your services before you head off to vet school."
He suddenly seemed uncomfortable, so she switched the subject away from him and onto her operation. "My herd's small right now because I'm just starting out. Besides, day treks with six llamas and a dozen or so paying customers are all I can handle by myself." And for the time being, at least, she needed to remain alone.
"Why aren't you out on the trail today?" he asked.
"Monday's our day off," she replied. "Not that the boys need it. But if I don't take a break, work around the house and the property piles up. That's where you'd come in."
"Did you ever think of breeding? Seems like it would bring in more money than trekking."
She didn't care about the money. In fact, a small, obscure operation was just what the doctor had ordered. She'd experienced the personal pitfalls of a big enterprise. But she wondered why a kid who looked like he was in middle school cared about business.
"What made you think of the moneymaking aspect?"
"My mom's in banking," he replied with a shrug.
"I can't avoid the subject."
"To answer your question," she said, strangely at ease talking to this kid as if he were much older, "I think I'll stick to trekking. Adding females to a herd leads to a whole other set of challenges. They're not particularly willing pack animals, and they can be moody."
Rory seemed to be taking mental notes. "How come you advertised for stable help," he asked at last, "when you said the llamas rarely go into the barn?"
"Force of habit. I grew up with horses. Even though the llamas stay for the most part in the pasture, the barn's full of tack and trekking equipment, and you'd be helping keep that in order."
Led by Percy, the five other animals had begun to drift over to the creek bank where the humans stood. Curiosity. Cats had nothing on llamas. Rory stood still. Not nervous, but waiting. Exuding a calm energy that, too, belied his years.
The three other kids who'd come seeking the job had been either too talkative or too boisterous in their movements or too touchy-feely. Llamas, like people, didn't wish to feel assaulted and, as cuddly as they appeared, didn't particularly like being snuggled or petted. They, more than she, had decided to pass on those first candidates.
She pointed to each llama in turn. "That's Percy. You already met him. He's what's called a paint. Then there's Mephisto, the bay. And Fred, the piebald. Mr. Jinx is an Appaloosa. The white one's Ace. And finally Humvee, the black and tan."
"Their coats are so different they're easy to tell apart."
"You'll learn you can recognize them as easily by personality."
Percy chose that moment to lean close and snuffle Rory on the neck. His muzzle, dripping with mountain creek water, must have been cold, but the kid stood his ground, merely chuckling. "What's he doing?"
"He's saying, 'You're hired.'"
"For real. Percy's chairman of my interview committee. Can you start today?"
"I'll have to ask my dad when he comes back."
"Of course." She hadn't paid attention to how Rory had managed to get to her farm. He'd simply shown up in her barn at the agreed-upon time as she'd been cleaning tack.
"He shouldn't mind if you could, maybe, give me a ride home when I'm done."
She tried to hide the reflexive wince. "Sorry. I don't drive."
Rory shot her a disbelieving look, but she was spared an explanation by the staccato double toot of a car horn. Partway down the hill, a cruiser had pulled up in front of the barn. The driver's door opened, and the sheriff got out.
"That's my dad," Rory said, heading downhill. "I'll tell him you want me to start now. I can walk home. I've walked farther. Other days I can ride my bike."
She didn't really want to meet the sheriffshe didn't need her second chance at life beginning with a connection to law enforcementbut, as an employer, she should say hello to this kid's father. So she set her shoulders and marched down the hill.
The boy and the man approached each other as if they weren't entirely at ease. After exchanging a few words, which Samantha couldn't hear, Rory came back up to her, dejection written on his features.
He looked at the ground as he spoke. "I can start today, but I didn't tell you everything. Maybe you won't want me for the job."
He looked back at his father, who remained by the cruiser. "I'm only here for the summer. In September I go back with my mom. To Charlotte. Unless ."
"Let's just say I can only promise you two months. The ad didn't say it was a summer job."
Percy felt comfortable with this kid. And so did she. Besides, two months to a person who was learning to live one day at a time seemed like forever. "Two months will be fine."
"You mean it?"
"Sure. But years from now I might ask you for a vet discount. Who knows?"
His only answer was a heart-melting grin. "Come on. Introduce me to your father."
She told herself she had no reason to be nervous. Her business permits were in order. She hadn't sat behind the wheel of a car since her license had been revoked. She regularly attended her court-ordered AA meetings. Although her name change hadn't been sanctioned by the judge, she was Samantha Weston only in Colum County. For personal reasons. All her business transactions bore the corporation name she'd established three months ago. A holdover reflex from her former life. Perhaps this bit of hedging meant she hadn't really disowned her past. She was glad Percy wasn't around to give her that soul-searching llama look.
"Garrett McQuire. Rory's dad." The sheriff held out his hand. He was tall and fit. Muscles were evident beneath a well-pressed uniform. Not much else showed, though. His facial features were well concealed beneath a Stetson and behind aviator sunglasses. Stereotypical, sure. But arresting.
"Samantha Weston." She tried not to be tentative in her handshake. "I run this place."
"She says I can work the summer." Rory still looked pleased, but a note of defensiveness had crept into his voice. Did the sheriff run his family the way he ran his department? "Maybe I could fill in other vacations, too, if Mom knows I'd be making money."
"You'll have to work that out with your mother, son. And Ms. Weston, of course."
Samantha didn't want to get into the middle of a custody mess. "Let's see how the next few days work out," she said. "You may change your mind. The work I need done isn't particularly glamorous."
"But the llamas are cool, Dad.You gotta meet 'em."
"Another time, okay? Now I'm due at the courthouse. I'll be late tonight, too. Geneva will have your supper ready for you. She can stay if you want to play cards or video games."
"I don't need a babysitter," Rory mumbled.
"I know you don't. But you might want company." He turned to Samantha. All business. "Good to meet you. And welcome to Applegate."
Rory seemed relieved when it was just the two of them again. "What should I do first?"
"Let's go meet Mr. Harris. He used to own this land, and now lives in the bunkhouse. Although he doesn't work anymore, he still supervises."
Rory grinned. "Gotcha. Kinda like Geneva. She doesn't babysit. She supervises."
Red Harris, crafting fishing lures, was sitting in a rocking chair on the bunkhouse porch as they climbed the steep and rocky hill. "This here the new help?"
"You don't miss much," Samantha replied. "Mr. Harris, this is Rory McQuire."
Rory stuck out his hand.