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Skylar Belle hated being ignored, especially by a man.
Especially by him.
The padded chair squeaked against the hardwood floor as she moved uneasily due to her infuriated thoughts. But she wasn't going to put up with his blatant rudeness one more day.
"The ex-con has to go." She said the words loudly and clearly, with an angry undertone, determined to snare her sister's attention. What she got was silence.
Damn freakin' silence.
Her oldest sister, Caitlyn, sat transfixed with her hand on her stomach, a goofy expression Sky had never seen before plastered on her face. The look seemed out of place on her responsible, bossy sister. Finding out you're pregnant could do that to a woman, though. Skylar knew that.
Her other sister, Madison, held her four-month-old daughter on her shoulder, burping her and occasionally kissing the baby's cheek. Maddie was enraptured and totally oblivious to everyone else in the room.
Neither sister had heard a word she'd said.
She might need a cannon or a bomb to break into their thoughts.
"She's asleep," Maddie whispered, gingerly getting
to her feet. "I'll put her down and then we can talk. I know you said something, Sky."
"Yes, and I'd appreciate it if you two could focus." They were in the study, having their monthly meeting to discuss the High Five ranch. Or trying to have the meeting, was more accurate.
As Maddie left, Cait rubbed her flat belly. "I can hardly believe a little person is growing in here."
Sky leaned back, studying her sister with the black hair and Belle blue eyes. The ranch had always been Cait's top priority, but now Sky couldn't even get her attention todiscuss it. "I never thought you'd be this sappy."
Cait looked up, her eyes as bright as the May sun peeping through the study windows. "Judd and I are so happy."
"And I'm happy for you, but could we please talk about High Five?"
"Of course, but we have to wait for Maddie. She's busy with the baby." Cait crossed her legs, that goofy expression still intact. "We thought Maddie would never have children, and now she has three. That's so wonderful. No one deserves it more than our sister."
"Yes." Sky picked up a crystal paperweight and the scent of vanilla drifted to her from the candle sitting beside it—one of Maddie's touches to the study.
Her sweet, loving sister had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was twenty-eight, and was unable to have children. But then she'd met Walker, a man with three kids who needed a woman in his life. They fell deeply in love. Maddie deserved her happily-ever-after, but Sky knew that type of relationship wasn't for her.
Cait was the responsible one, Maddie the sweet one and Sky was known as the wild one. Their three different mothers had all been married at one time to Dane Belle. Sky's mother had married five times, so Sky never had a stable environment, except when she visited her father, grandmother and sisters on the High Five ranch in Texas. Now her dad was gone and the ranch he loved had been left to his daughters. Their goal was to keep it going.
Since Cait's mother had died in childbirth, she'd been raised on the ranch. Sky had thought her sister would never leave the place of her birth. Then a neighboring rancher, Judd Calhoun, had wooed her away. Now the responsibility for High Five was on Sky's shoulders, and she didn't take that lightly. She had to make her sisters understand her point of view.
Clearing her throat, she said, "We're all dealing with motherhood, but we still have to run this ranch."
Cait lifted an eyebrow. "Is bitchy getting responsible?"
Sky groaned at the nickname, but she had to admit she could be a bitch if the occasion arose.
"I've always been responsible." She tried to keep a straight face.
Maddie slipped back into the room. "Sorry that took so long, but Georgie had the baby's blanket tied around his neck, preparing to jump off the back of the sofa as Spider-Man. Kira was right behind him."
Sky was immediately on her feet. Her child was her life. "Is she—"
"She's fine." Maddie motioned for her to sit down. "I had a talk with Georgie, and he won't do it again."
"Your talks are not exactly stern. I'd better—"
"Georgie won't disobey," Maddie said on a firm note. "Gran and Etta are watching them. So what do you want to talk about?"
This was it. She had their attention.
"Oh, darn." Maddie glanced sideways at her shoulder. "I have milk all over me."
Sky felt like bumping her head against the desk in frustration. Instead, she opened a drawer and threw her a box of tissues. "You smell great, too."
Maddie made a face and caught the box. "Sour milk is my perfume these days. Walker loves it, so we're both happy."
Losing patience, Sky clapped her hands. "Listen up. We need to talk about High Five."
"I've been here thirty minutes and nothing's been said."
"Because you're not listening," Sky shouted at Cait. "You're in la-la land."
Both sisters stared at her, and she leaped right in with what she had to say. "After the destruction of the hurricane and the fire, High Five is finally making a turn for the better. I think that's what Dad wanted for us—to realize the importance of our heritage and to work together to secure it. That's why he put that ridiculous clause in his will that the ranch had to be sold to Judd if it wasn't showing a profit in six months."
"Dad knew I'd fight that like a hellcat and call y'all home to help, especially since I'd jilted Judd fourteen years before and considered him my archenemy." Cait's voice softened. "He also knew that if he pitted Judd and me against each other, we'd fall in love all over again."
"He had a plan and it worked," Maddie said, wiping at her blouse. "Even though he'd left the ranch in dire straits because of his gambling debts, he knew we'd pull together to save High Five. He wanted us to feel the same pride he had in home and family."
Cait's eyes grew wistful. "It's ironic that Dad, who was the king of spoiling and pampering and who repeatedly told us we needed husbands to take care of us, took the biggest gamble of his life when he bet those same daughters would rescue High Five."
There was silence for a moment as they each thought about their father. Sky knew they were getting sidetracked, and she had to bring the discussion back to her problem.
"As I said, the ranch is finally showing a profit and I want to keep it that way." She gripped the paperweight. "I can't do that with Cooper Yates as foreman. He has to go. I've put up with his insolent attitude long enough."
Maddie's head shot up. "I don't understand why you can't get along with Cooper."
"Why do I have to? I own this ranch."
"You're a part owner," Cait reminded her.
She gritted her teeth. "When Maddie got married, I agreed to take over running the place, but I can't do that with someone who ignores me and my orders."
Maddie and Cait shared a glance, and it irritated Sky when they did that. She was always the odd one out.
Cait got to her feet. "Bottom line, Sky, this ranch won't survive without Cooper's expertise. He puts in fourteen- to sixteen-hour days without any overtime pay. He's dedicated to High Five, so I suggest you learn to get along, because Cooper stays."
Sky rose to her feet, ready for battle. "You don't get to make that decision alone."
"I vote with Cait." Maddie placed the tissues on the desk. "Cooper stays."
Sky tucked her naturally curly red hair behind her ears. "I have a child and I thought you'd be more considerate of Kira. I don't want her around an ex-con."
"You know Cooper was framed for killing those horses, and all the charges were dropped." Cait reached for her purse on the floor. "What else is bothering you?"
Sky had to be honest. "Not all the charges were dropped. He almost beat to death the man who framed him, and he's still on probation for the assault. I don't want a man with that kind of temper around my daughter."
Maddie picked up her diaper bag. "I'd trust Coop with my kids any day of the week. I've worked with him and I know he's a good man who's had some bad breaks. Just cut him some slack."
"I can't believe you two." Sky flung up her hands. "I ask for your help and you're telling me to deal with him."
"That's it." Cait glanced at her watch. "I've got to run. Judd has a decorator coming to give ideas on a nursery." She slung her purse strap over her shoulder. "As if I need ideas, but I'll cooperate because I'm such a good wife."
Sky's patience snapped. "If High Five needs Cooper Yates so badly, then I might as well not be here. I'll pack my things and leave." She glared at her older sister. "That's my bottom line."
"That's just like you, Sky," Cait shot back, just as Sky knew she would. Their relationship had always been volatile because they were so alike in their fiery temperament. "It's your way or nothing."
"It's not about having my way. I can't work with the man."
"All right," Cait shouted. "I'll take over running High Five."
"Cait!" Maddie was quick to come to her defense. "You can't do that. You're going to have a baby."
"With Sky being so stubborn, I don't see any other way. I'll have to come back."
Sky felt like a fifth grader, being mean for no reason. Except she had a reason.
"Cait…" Maddie trailed off as Gran walked into the room. Their grandmother's hair was beautifully white and curled into a knot at her nape. In slacks, a multicolored blouse and sensible shoes, Dorthea Belle looked much younger than her seventy-seven years. Sky had often thought she had an ageless beauty, with a softness and a fragility that was very striking. Even in slacks Gran wore her pearls.
Southern manners had been instilled into her, and she tried her best to impress those views on her granddaughters. Somehow her teachings had missed the mark, but all three sisters were aware of Gran's position on life, women and their roles. They respected her enough never to hurt her.
"What's this I hear about leaving and coming back?"
Maddie hoisted the diaper bag higher on her shoulder and walked forward. Linking her arm through Gran's, she asked, "Have you been listening at the door?"
"Certainly not." Gran stiffened her shoulders. "A lady would never do such a thing."
"Then how did you hear?" Maddie continued in her pleasant, soothing way.
"Cait and Sky were shouting, my baby. That's how I heard." Gran looked at Cait. "What's this nonsense about you coming back to High Five?"
Cait stared at Sky, who wasn't sure how to explain this to Gran. Damn Cooper Yates.
Gran patted Maddie's hand. "Since your sisters seem to be tongue-tied, tell me what's going on."
As if it was the easiest thing in the world, Maddie started to explain. "Sky has a problem working with Cooper."
"What? That's ridiculous. Cooper is a very nice and polite young man."
"We were trying to explain that to Sky, but she feels differently, and we have to respect her feelings. That's the reason Cait offered to come back."
"Respect, my ass," Cait whispered under her breath.
"Cait's not coming back to High Five to work," Gran stated firmly. "She has a husband, a home, a baby on the way, and she doesn't belong here, running a ranch." Gran patted Maddie's hand again. "Neither do you, so go home to your husbands. Sky and I will sort this out. If worst comes to worst, I can run the ranch."
A collective gasp echoed around the room. Cait mouthed at Sky, I'm going to kill you.
"I can see you, Caitlyn," Gran stated.
She held up a hand. "Go home, my baby. That's where you belong."
"But you can't run this ranch." Cait couldn't leave well enough alone.
Their grandmother bristled. "You don't think I can."
"Cait didn't mean that." As usual, peacemaker Mad-die tried to soothe the ruffled feathers.
"Good." Gran nodded. "Sky and I will talk about this. We'll let you know how it turns out. Goodbye, my babies."
"I'm going to kill you," Cait muttered once again as she walked out the door. Maddie looked anxious, but followed her.
Don't go. Don't go.
As upset as she was with her sisters, Sky did not want to face her grandmother alone. Gran would pick away at her emotions like a buzzard gnaws at a carcass, laying bare every fear, every anxiety she kept hidden.
Gran took Maddie's seat, her back straight, her hands folded in her lap. "Now, young lady, what's the problem?"
Oh, God. When Gran sat as a proper Southern woman and called her "young lady," Sky knew she was in trouble. However, she wasn't a little girl or a teenager anymore. She was now an adult and able to handle her grandmother.
Yeah, a little voice mocked her, like when cows can vote.
She pushed the nervousness away and decided to be honest. "Gran…"
"Just so we're clear." Gran held up the forefinger on her left hand, and Sky noticed her platinum-and-diamond wedding rings. Sky had always loved them. When Cait married, Sky had felt sure Gran would give them to her, but Judd had had his own ideas for Cait's rings, as Walker had for Maddie's. Sky was the only granddaughter left, and she would never wed. She would never again open her heart to a scum like Todd Spencer, who had shredded her emotions like confetti.
"You are not leaving High Five." Gran's declaration broke through her musings. "Kira loves it here and you can't keep uprooting her. She needs stability. It's time to stand up to Todd's parents, but that's another discussion. Right now I want to talk about Cooper."
For once Sky would rather talk about Cooper, too. Ever since Todd's parents had found out about Kira, they'd wanted a paternity test done, in hopes of gaining custody of their only grandchild. Sky had been on the run since then. She would fight with her last breath before she'd let the wealthy Spencers take her child.
She forced Todd's parents out of her mind. "Cooper doesn't like me and I'm not that crazy about him, either. I don't see how we can continue to work together."
"How do you know he doesn't like you?"
"He won't speak to me and he avoids me. When I tell him to do something, he ignores me."
"Well, that's just rude."
Sky blinked. Hot damn. Gran was on her side. She didn't expect this.
"But, my baby, you've been rude to him, too. Cooper doesn't even eat at the house anymore because of you and your intolerance. I've taught you better than that. Being part owner of this ranch gives you certain rights, but prejudice isn't one of them."