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The computer screen glowed in the darkened shadows of the living room. Riley Palmer stared at it, wondering why she couldn't seem to hit the email send button.
"Do it, Riley," she muttered softly. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Do it for Wendy and Roxanna and yourself. Do it for the National Organization for Women. Just do it!"
Her fingers hovered over the mouse as she tried to find courage.
Tonight her sister's small apartment felt cozy, but foreign somehow. Both the girls were sound asleep in Jillian's spare bedroomas they should be this close to two in the morning. Her sister had gone to bed after the late news. The place was so quiet Riley thought she could hear her wristwatch ticking.
It was the perfect time to think about making life-changing decisions, the perfect time to work through her thoughts in peace and quiet, and she'd spent the past two hours doing just that. So why couldn't she send this email?
She knew that some of her reluctance was because her email wasn't completely honest. She hadn't lied, exactly. Just embroidered a little. considering the current job market, who didn't do that when they applied for work these days?
Desperation made a powerful motivator. She'd been divorced from Brad for almost a year, but she was still sleeping on the couch in her sister's apartment while the twins took the second bedroom. Jillian had been an angel about all of them sharing such tight quarters, but it wasn't right.
Riley needed a job. She needed decent money coming in. Most of all, she needed a home for her eight-year-olds, Wendy and Roxanna. The decision to leave their father had been hard enough on the girls. They deserved stability. Security. Faith that their mother could provide for them. So if that meant adding a few embellishments to her resume and omitting one big, stupid drawback that shouldn't even be an issue Well, so be it.
And really, would Charlie Bigelow ever steer her wrong intentionally? He'd been friends with her family for nearly forty years. He'd helped Riley and Jillian plan their parents' funeral after the accident, guided them through probate, even walked Riley down the aisle. All those times when Brad had left her on the ranch to figure out things for herself, hadn't Charlie been the one she'd turned to for advice?
If he thought this Quintin Avenaco guy would make a fair boss, and she'd be a great ranch manager for him, then who was she to disagree? Charlie didn't just know livestock. He knew people.
Riley had always been a little impulsive, and in the past had made a few foolish decisions she'd been forced to live with. But this was a chance she had to take. She couldn't stand the idea of spending another week searching for a job and coming up empty-handed. With that thought, she surrendered to impulse and clicked the send button before she could change her mind. The email zipped into cyberspace. "There you go, Quintin Avenaco of Beaumont, Texas. You've got mail, cowboy."
Almost immediately she had second thoughts. She should have checked her resume one more time, tried to find a way to honestly address the only problem she could see that might get her a big fat no right off the bat.
She placed her hands on either side of the screen. "I take it back! Give me a do over, darn it."
"So now you're talking to yourself?"
Riley nearly yelped out loud. She turned to find her sister at her shoulder, yawning. "Geez. You scared the life out of me."
Jillian frowned down at her. "Why are you still up?"
"The usual. Job hunting. Charlie Bigelow called me yesterday afternoon with a lead. I'm following up on it before it hits the classifieds."
"Great," her sister replied, though she sounded too sleepy to care much.
"I hope it will be great. I hope it pays a ridiculous amount of money, though right now, I'd settle for a place to live."
"You have that here."
"I know, but you're family. You have to pretend you like living in a two-bedroom apartment with four people. And when two of those people are rambunctious eight-year-olds."
Jillian gave a grumpy growl. "Don't say a word about my nieces! They're angels. You're the one I just tolerate."
Riley smiled up at her. Really, how would she have managed without Jilly's help this past year? Her life had been torn to shreds by Brad's infidelity, Wendy's stay in the hospital and that bitter court battle for custody. Through it all, Jillian had been a rock.
"I know my kids," Riley told her. "Somehow they've reverted to the terrible twos without my permission.
Wendy starts bawling if you just look at her the wrong way. And Rox Rox's answer to everything I say is 'Why?' I checked her scalp yesterday to see if 666 had been branded there."
"They're just unsettled right now. But I think we're managing."
"I have to do more than just manage, Jilly. We can't continue to impose on you this way. I know Doug wants to take your relationship to the next level, as they say. But he can't do that with the three of us underfoot. So that means I need a decent paying job and a place to call home."
Jillian conceded that point with a grimace, then stared down at the computer screen. "Anything else encouraging out there? I heard Wegman's is thinking about opening up a third store. They might need accounting help."
Before the girls were born, Riley had been a pretty competent bookkeeper. "I'm not going after any more accounting jobs. every bean counter in the country seems to be looking for work in Texas." She put a big smile on her face, ready to go into sales mode for Jillian's sake. "I'm reinventing myself. All the magazines say that in this job market you need to review the talents you have and find work that fits them. So I did."
Jillian looked at her askance. "What talent do you have besides accounting?"
"You don't have to sound so incredulous. There are lots of things I can do. And I just took the first step."
She tapped the computer screen and clicked into her sent mail so Jillian could see her latest message.
"'Dear Mr. Avenaco,'" Jillian read over Riley's shoulder. "'I understand from a mutual friend of ours, Charlie Bigelow, that you'll soon be in the market for a ranch manager '" She straightened and scowled. "You're applying to be his ranch manager? When have you done that kind of work?"
Riley frowned back. "Who do you think managed Hollow Creek? While Brad was playing footsie with his boss's daughter, I kept our place up and running. I might not have the official credentials, but I can do that job, and pretty well, I think."
"Really?" Her sister looked very skeptical now. "You know everything about running a ranch."
Riley felt her cheeks grow hot. All right. Admittedly, there were a few holes in her resume that she'd glossed over. But she didn't see her shortcomings as a serious problem. "Well, maybe not everything. But close enough. Charlie's been out to this guy's place in Beaumont. He says Avenaco's only going to run about one-hundred head. Strictly horses." She lifted her eyebrows. "He's probably a Sunday cowboy who's in love with the idea of the Old West. Which means he'll be open to someone else's direction."
"Or he'll second-guess every move you make, and watch every dollar you spend to be sure he's getting his money's worth. He could drive you nuts, micromanaging. And what about what about the other thing? The fact that you're "
"A woman?" Riley finished, wishing her sister hadn't gone there. It had taken Riley two hours to convince herself she could overcome the gender problem. "I keep reminding myself that this is the twenty-first century. Texas State had thirty students in their ranch management class last year. Four of them were women. I checked. That has to be a good sign, doesn't it?"
"Did any of those women get jobs? This is Texas. You know the men here can be kind of chauvinistic."
"Some of them. That's why I'm not telling this guy I'm a female." She lifted her chin, prepared to argue if her ultraconventional sister found fault. Which she did. Immediately.
"You lied to him?"
Riley pointed to the bottom of the message, where she had signed off. "I used my real name. It's not my fault Dad wanted a boy, and I ended up with a name that could work either way."
"But Avenaco will probably think you're a man."
"Then that's his foolish mistake," she said, determined to be positive. "If he flat out asks me, I'll tell him, but otherwise."
"Did you tell him you have two little girls?"
"No. What difference does that make, as long as I can do the job?" Seeing her sister's face, Riley called up some of the same reasoning she'd used on herself only hours ago. "Look, it's not like I'm going to dress up as a guy and lower my voice to try to fool anyone."
"I'm relieved to hear that."
"Stop staring at me like I'm one of the trespassers who sneaked into the White House. I just want to establish an email relationship with him, chat back and forth. Maybe he'll realize how capable I am before we actually talk on the phone or meet in person."
"Charlie must have told him you're a woman."
"He didn't, because the conversation never got that far. Avenaco said he was looking for a ranch manager, and Charlie told him he knew a couple of good prospects and would send them his way. That was it."
"But surely "
"This guy doesn't exactly own the King Ranch, you know?" Riley argued. "Who's ever heard of Echo Springs? How demanding can it be?"
"Who'll watch the girls while you're out digging postholes and herding horses?"
"The twins are getting old enough that they should expect to help out. Didn't Mom and Dad have a whole slew of chores for us to do when we were their age? Time for them to stop playing with dolls and start making a real contribution."
As expected, Jillian's eyes went wide. Their parents had been pretty tough. Memories of the family ranch in Oklahoma weren't filled with parties and fairy tales.
Riley laughed and gave her sister's arm a shake. "I'm kidding," she said. "I'd never turn them into the slaves we were."
"Still, it seems like awfully hard work, Rile. A lot harder than crunching numbers as a bookkeeper."
Riley set her jaw and shook her head. "You know what real hard work is? Trying to find a reason to keep a marriage alive with a man who'd rather be with his mistress than at the hospital with his own sick child." The words came out angrier than she expected. She had thought she was all through with that. She forced out a deep, calming breath. "I can handle this, Jilly. I know I can."
Unexpectedly, Jillian reached down to give her a hug. "I don't want you and the girls to move away."
"Beaumont's only a five-hour drive from Cooper. Charlie thinks there's a decent-size apartment on the property. You could come and visit us."
Riley held up one hand. "You can't talk me out of this. Besides, the email's sent. Please don't make me feel bad about it. When Charlie suggested I send my resume, it just felt right. And if Quintin Avenaco isn't interested, if he's too dumb to recognize what a catch I am, then someone else will. I'm not giving up on this idea."
Jillian reached out again, hugging her even tighter. "I hope you're right. You know I want you and the girls to be happy, after everything Brad put you through."
Riley couldn't have agreed more, but a lump had formed in her throat and she couldn't respond at the moment. She had wasted nine years trying to make her marriage work. Nine years. She shouldn't have to be reinventing herself at age thirty-one. It wasn't fair or right. But that was life. And if she didn't take a few chances, how would she ever get back on track?
Unexpectedly, the computer chime went off, notifying her that she had mail. She and Jillian both glanced down at the laptop in surprise.
"Who's after me now?" Riley complained with a laugh. Secretly, she was afraid it might be the automatic notification for her car payment popping into her inbox. She didn't want Jillian to see that she was late with it. Her soft-hearted sister would just try to give back the money Riley had shelled out for this month's share of the groceries.
She opened her email. After reading the subject line, she jerked back as if something had tried to reach out and grab her. "Oh, my God," she said softly. "What's he doing up at this time of night?"
"Who?" Jillian asked.
Riley gave her a stunned look. "Quintin Avenaco. He's already answering my email."