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Only in Fool's Gold would a Mercedes be brought to a stop by a goat. Rafe Stryker turned off the engine of the powerful sedan and climbed out. The goat in the middle of the road surveyed him with a confident gleam in her dark eyes. If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn she was telling him this was her road and if anyone was going to back down in this battle of wills, it would be him.
"Damn goats," he muttered, looking around for whomever owned the wayward animal. Instead, he saw a few trees, a broken fence line and, beyond all that, mountains soaring up to the heavens. Some would describe this as God's country. Rafe knew that God, being smart and all knowing, would have nothing to do with Fool's Gold.
Hard to believe that a three hour drive west would return Rafe to San Franciscoland of fine dining, high-rise buildings and beautiful women. It was where he belonged. Not here, on the outskirts of some town he'd promised himself he would never set foot in again. And yet he had returned, drawn by the one person he could never turn his back onhis mother.
Swearing under his breath, he eyed the goat. He would guess she weighed about a hundred and twenty pounds, give or take. While he'd spent the past eighteen years doing his best to forget his time in Fool's Gold, the lessons he'd learned on the Castle Ranch lived on. He figured if he'd been able to wrestle an adult steer as a scrawny fourteen-year-old, he should be able to take a goat now. Or at the very least, pick her up and move her to the side of the road.
He lowered his gaze to her hooves, wondering how sharp they would be and what they would do to his suit. He rested his elbow on the roof of his car and pinched the bridge of his nose. If his mother hadn't sounded so broken on the phone, he would turn around and go back home. In San Francisco he had a staff, minions even. People who would take care of things like goats in the road.
He chuckled, imagining his starchy assistant facing down a goat. Ms. Jennings, a fifty-something powerhouse with an innate ability to make the most successful of executives feel incompetent, would most likely stare the goat into submission.
"You found her!"
Rafe turned toward the voice and saw a woman jogging toward him. She had a rope in one hand and what looked like lettuce in the other.
"I was so worried. Athena lives to get into trouble. I can't find a gate lock that will keep her contained. She's smart. Aren't you, baby girl?"
The woman approached the goat and patted her on the back. The goat moved toward her, like a dog seeking affection. She took the lettuce and the rope around her neck with equal acceptance.
The woman glanced back at him. "Hi. I'm Heidi Simpson."
She was maybe five-nine, with blond hair she wore in braided pigtails. A cotton shirt tucked into jeans showed him she was leggy and curvy, a combination that normally appealed. Just not today. Not when he still had to deal with his mother and a town he despised.
"Rafe Stryker," he said.
The womanHeidistared at him, her green eyes widening as she took a single step back. Her full mouth trembled slightly and she lost her smile.
"Stryker," she whispered and swallowed. "May is your"
"Mother. How do you know her?"
Heidi took another step back. "She's, ah, at the ranch right now. Talking to my grandfather. There seems to be a mix-up."
"Mix-up?" He used what Ms. Jennings referred to as his scary, serial-killer voice. "Is that how you'd describe what happened? I was thinking more along the lines of fraud and theft. Felony theft."
This was bad, Heidi thought, wishing she could simply run for it. Not that she wasn't one to face her problems. But in this case, she would feel a lot better facing them around other people, rather than on a deserted road. She eyed Athena, wondering if the goat would protect her, then decided probably not. Athena would be more interested in getting a taste of Rafe Stryker's well-cut, obviously expensive suit.
The man standing in front of her looked seriously pissed. Pissed enough to plow her over with his big car and keep going. He was tall, with dark hair and eyes, and right now he looked angry enough to crush her with his bare hands. She had a feeling he was strong enough to do it, too.
She drew in a breath. Okay, maybe he wouldn't crush her, but he wanted to do something. She could read that in his brown-black eyes.
"I know what you're thinking," she began.
"I doubt that."
His voice was low, silky and made her feel unsettled. As though she couldn't predict what was going to happen next and, whatever it was, it was going to be bad.
"My grandfather overstepped his bounds," she began, thinking it wasn't the first time Glen had given in to his "ask forgiveness rather than permission" philosophy of life. "He didn't mean to hurt anyone."
"He stole from my mother."
Heidi winced. "You're close to her?" She shook her head. "Never mind. Stupid question." If Rafe didn't take care of his mother, he wouldn't be here now. Not that she was surprised. From what she could tell, May was a lovely woman who had been very understanding about the mistake. Although not understanding enough to keep her son out of it.
"Glen, my grandfather, has a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer. Harvey needed treatment, didn't have insurance, and Glen wanted to help." Heidi did her best to smile, but her lips didn't feel as if they were cooperating. "So, um, he got the idea of selling part of the ranch. To your mother."
"The ranch that belongs to you."
"Technically." Her name was the one on the bank loan. She hadn't done the math, but she would guess she had in the neighborhood of seventy thousand dollars in equity. The rest of the ranch was tied up in her mortgage.
"He took two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from my mother, and in return she owns nothing."
"Your grandfather has no way to pay her back."
"He gets social security and we have some savings."
Rafe's gaze moved from her to Athena and back. "How much in savings?"
Defeat made her shoulders sag. "Twenty-five hundred dollars."
"Please move the goat. I'm going to the ranch."
Heidi stiffened her spine. "What are you going to do?"
"Have your grandfather arrested."
"You can't!" Glen was the only family she had. "He's an old man."
"I'm sure the judge will take that into account when setting bail."
"He didn't mean to hurt anyone."
Rafe was unmoved by her plea. "My family grew up here, Ms. Simpson. My mother was the housekeeper. The old man who owned the ranch paid her next to nothing. At times there wasn't enough money for her to feed her four children. But she hung on because he promised to leave her the ranch when he died."
Heidi didn't like this story. She just knew it had a bad ending.
"Like your grandfather, he lied. When he finally died, the ranch went to distant relatives back east." His dark eyes turned into lasers that seemed to bore into her, promising untold punishment. "No one is going to screw my mother out of this ranch twice."
Oh, no! It was worse than she'd imagined. Much worse. "You have to understand. My grandfather would never hurt anyone. He's a great guy."
"He's the man who stole two hundred and fifty thousand dollars from my mother, Ms. Simpson. The rest is simply window dressing. Now, move your goat."
Unable to think of what else to say, Heidi stepped to the side of the road. Athena trotted along with her. Rafe got in his car and drove away. The only thing missing from his angry departure was a cloud of dust. However, the road was paved and well maintained by the city. One of the advantages of living in Fool's Gold.
She waited until he'd gone past, then turned toward the ranch and started to run. Athena kept up easily, for once not insisting on extending her time of freedom.
"Did you hear that?" Heidi asked, her athletic shoes pounding on the pavement. "That man is really mad at us."
Athena trotted along, apparently unconcerned about Glen's fate.
"You'll be sorry if we have to sell you to pay back May Stryker," Heidi muttered, then wished she hadn't.
All her life she'd only wanted one thing. A home. A real home with a roof and a foundation, hooked up to sewer and water and electricity. Something most people took for granted. But she'd grown up moving from town to town, the rhythm of her days defined by the carnival where her grandfather worked.
When she'd found the Castle Ranch, she'd fallen instantly and madly in love. With the land, the old house and especially the nearby town of Fool's Gold. She had a herd of eight goats, uncounted feral cows and nearly a thousand acres of land. She'd started a business making goat cheese and goat-milk soap. She sold goat milk and goat fertilizer. There were natural caves where she could age her cheese. This was her home and she wasn't giving it up for anything.
But she might have to give it up for somebody. Glen. Who'd sold a part of what he didn't own to a woman with a very angry son.