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"We're almost there," Jacob said, glancing at Kittie, garbed entirely in black, including her nail polish and lipstick. He'd decided to deal with her abysmal wardrobe later; getting her out of Seattle had been a big enough struggle.
She blew a bubble with her gum and stared ahead silently.
"You'll be able to ride horses there. You used to enjoy riding. Remember?"
He gave up and checked the GPS for how much farther they had to go. They'd flown to Billings, Montana, in an O'Donnell International company jet. Upon arrival Jacob had rented a car for the rest of the trip.
Along with losing her MP3 player, Kittie's punishment for smoking and accidentally setting fire to the girls' locker room was having to pay for the damages out of her allowance and composing a written apology to the school. An acceptable written apology, since Kittie could easily make an apology sound more like an insult.
Oh, yeah, and she was grounded for life, plus ten years. Jacob had told her if she shaped up during their trip, he might shave a few years from that part of the punishment.
Kittie hadn't even blinked.
Tough love sounded cliched, but he was desperate. He'd try anything.
Guided by the GPS, Jacob turned onto the U-2 Ranch road and after a mile came over a hill. Laid out in a shallow valley were the ranch buildings and, on the opposite slope, an array of white canvas tents. He wincedhe hadn't slept outdoors since he was a boy. A ranch vacation was a far cry from the Caribbean resort where he'd taken Kittie for Easter a year ago.
Jacob pulled to a stop in the parking area. There was plenty of space, likely because the school year hadn't ended for kids who were still attending classes instead of being expelled.
"Hello, there," called a voice as Jacob opened the trunk of their rental. The speaker was a white-haired man who looked older than the hills. But the weathered cowboy had steel in his face; he might be a worthy match for a surly teenager. "I'm Burt Parsons. Welcome to the U-2 Ranch. You must be the O'Donnells."
"Duh," Kittie said sarcastically.
Burt didn't seem surprised. "And you have to be Kittie."
Without a word, she spit her gum to the grass.
Before Jacob could say something about it, Burt gave her a stern look. "We don't allow littering here," he informed her. "Put it in the trash."
Kittie didn't move.
"Pick it up, young lady, unless you'd rather shovel horse manure from the barn."
"Better get the shovel, Burt," Jacob suggested, taking their new sleeping bags from the trunk. It was hard letting someone else discipline Kittie. He had a hunch that tough love might be rougher on him than on his daughter.
Glaring at them both, she picked up the wad of gum and threw it in a barrel marked for trash.
"You folks are later arriving than we expected," Burt said, stepping forward to help with the luggage. He read the baggage tag on Kittie's neon-pink duffel, pushed it into her arms and went ahead of them with an easy stride, carrying the sleeping bags. Jacob followed with his own suitcase.
Kittie trudged next to him with an aggrieved mutter, but as they passed the largest barn, a young man came out and she stopped dead in her tracks. "Uh, hi," she said, without even a touch of sarcasm or disdainlike his old Kittie.
Jacob stiffened. At first sight the guy appeared to be in his early twenties, but on closer inspection he was clearly younger. Great. That was all his daughter neededa crush on another messed-up teenager.
The boy checked Kittie up and down. "You're that city kid we've been expecting."
"I'm not a kid, but I am from Seattle. My name is Kittie O'Donnell uh, that is, I prefer Caitlin. Who are you?" She smiled shyly.
"Reid Weston. You'll scare the horses in that getup," he said.
He walked away and Jacob realized Reid Weston wasn't a troubled teenhe was a cocky, underage cowboy. Kittie's devastated expression showed he'd flattened her ego with a single comment. And what was that bit about Kittie wanting to be called Caitlin? It was the first he'd heard of it.
"Reid and his family own the ranch," Burt explained, as if nothing had happened. "You'll be seeing a lot of them." He motioned them toward the hillside studded with tents.
The tents were utilitarian at best, with mattresses laid out on each side of a canvas partition, along with lanterns, a small bedside table and sturdy army-green footlockers.
"We don't recommend keeping food in here." Burt tossed a sleeping bag onto the mattresses. "We have the usual critters who'll want to share it, but if you do have any snacks, be sure to put them in your locker and fasten it tight. Better yet, store all food in your car."
"Hear that, Kittie?" Jacob asked his daughter. Kittie had a thing for red licorice. He'd bet a thousand bucks she'd filled her duffel bag with the revolting stuff.
She just stuck out her chin.
"The lanterns are rechargeable," Burt went on. "Bring them to the mess tent in the morning if they need a charge, otherwise you'll be taking care of business in the dark. No candlesit isn't safe. Flashlights are okay if you've got 'em. The bathrooms and laundry and other facilities are in the buildings to the left, and the mess tent is over there." He pointed to a large tent with smoke rising behind it. "Folks are mostly gathered for supper alreadywe start serving in thirty minutes."
"Thanks, we'll be there."
"No hurry," Burt said. "Take your time and get comfortable. We don't stand on formality." With a short nod, he ambled toward the ranch house.
Jacob shot a look at Kittie. She'd assumed her defiant attitude, apparently having recovered from Reid Weston's snubbing remark.
"I'm not shoveling any horse poop," she announced and disappeared into her side of the tent.
Mariah Weston stalked into the ranch house and slammed the door. She leaned against it and took several deep breaths.
"Problems, dear?" asked her grandmother.
"Nothing a two-by-four making contact with a certain cowboy's privates wouldn't fix. Hurt a guy where he lives and maybe you'll get his attention."
Dr. Elizabeth Grant Weston smiled resignedly. "Lincoln must have broken another heart."
"Yes. We have yet another departing guest who hoped Lincoln had fallen in love with her and wanted to get married. For crying out loud, Linc keeps a supply of condoms in his shirt pocket! It's pretty obvious what his intentions are. Did she really think he was going to change his ways and decide that wearing a wedding ring is better than being a carefree bachelor?"
"It's been known to happen."
"Cowboys don't changethey just get older and stop having luck with the opposite sex."
"Goodness, you're in a mood today."
"Can you blame me? I found Ms. Bingham smoking in one of the barns, so upset she almost set fire to the place."
Elizabeth frowned. "Oh, dear. We don't allow smoking. I wish we could extend the ban to chewing tobacco, but the ranch hands practically mutinied on the no-smoking rule."
"I reminded her about the rules when I grabbed the cigarette and doused the smoldering hay. She apologized and the whole story spilled out in a hysterical swoop. Lucky me. I guess she just needed to tell someone. Linc always breaks things off at the last minute, but the women usually don't take it this hard. Why are people so blind?"
"Patience, dear," her grandmother urged.
Mariah rubbed her aching temples.
Patience wasn't one of her strongest qualities. She did well with animals, not so great with people. Animals were straightforward; their emotions weren't illogical. She felt sorry for Diane Bingham, but she honestly wondered how the woman could have imagined things working out with a cowboy. Diane was a born-and-bred city dweller with a taste for fast cars, sushi bars and nightclubs. She'd come to Montana on a whim and nearly gone crazy with the quiet before getting hot and heavy with Linc.
Linc had grown up on a horse, had never lived in a town with more than five hundred residents, probably thought sushi had something to do with sex and drove a decrepit truck from the 1970s that couldn't reach fifty on a paved road.
The difference between ranchers and cowhands and most people was just too big. You might have a casual vacation affair, but you never expected it to become permanent. Mariah had learned that when she was fifteen and discovered that summer promises were too easily shattered along with hearts.
Elizabeth patted her arm. "I'll have your grandfather speak with Linc."
"No, it's okay, Ms. Bingham admitted Linc didn't make any promises. But from now on he's only working with family groups. We'll keep him so busy that his sorry ass is too tired to do more than crawl into bed."
"That's usually where the trouble starts," Elizabeth said drily.
"Don't remind me. And they say country dwellers are naive. Is Reid in the office?"
"I think so. I just got home myself."
Mariah headed to the back of the house, weary though it was only the beginning of the season and she ought to be brimming with energy. Ranching wasn't easy. There were droughts, floods, lightning storms, disease, harsh winters, ornery cattle, unstable beef prices and a wealth of other problems to juggle. Yet those problems seemed minor compared to managing a bunch of greenhorn visitors and cowboy wranglers.
"Hey, Reid," she said, stepping into the office. Their parents had converted a storage room into work space when they'd started the ranch vacation business. Originally they'd needed only a phone, a desk and a file cabinet, but the business had changed over the years, as had technology. Now the office was cramped with the newest equipment.
"Hey," her brother said absently. He was bent over a book, reading intently.
"Not exactly." He looked up and pushed back from the old desk. "The travel agency phoned while you were out. Amy is waiting for the computer repair service to arrive, so I crosschecked the reservations that came in this week to be sure they were confirmed."
"I appreciate your doing that, but I could have taken care of it later and let her know," Mariah murmured. "Amy works evenings."
Amy Lindstrom was a neighbor and ran her agency from home, largely through the internet. Initially it had stung Mariah to be charged for a job she could have kept handling herself, but Amy had significantly increased the U-2's bookings.
"Yeah, well, you can't do it all. By the way, I saw that new kid you said was coming," Reid said. "She's a real piece of work, and her dad is wearing a fancy suit and tie. I'll bet his clothes cost more than a prize horse and wouldn't last an hour riding fence lines."
"I talked to Burt and he mentioned you'd met the O'Donnells. Just do your best and remember they won't be here forever," Mariah said, the same way she'd told him for years. The thing was, Reid was sixteen going on forty. He didn't appreciate city people wanting a taste of Western living, except those city people were the difference between the U-2 turning a profit or going deeper into debt each year.
The U-2 was a working ranch, owned and operated by the Weston family for six generations. Paying guests worked along with everyone elsenot as hard as a ranch hand, and always under the care of a wrangler, but they worked. It was all about the romance of the West and being part of it for a while.
"Sis, they're from Seattle." Reid knotted his fists.
Mariah's heart ached, recalling the boy who'd stood by his parents' graves, furious with everyone and everything for taking away his mom and dad. They went through this each summer, the first time guests arrived from Washington State. Their mother and father had died because a vacationing Seattle investment banker was driving too fast and lost control of his car. His blood alcohol level was primarily responsible for the accident, but Reid also blamed the entire state.
"Okay, they're from Seattle," she said, carefully avoiding any mention of their parents. "Don't go near them if it's easier."
He rolled his eyes. "That kid will want to hang around.
I can tell."
That "kid" was only two years younger than him, but Mariah understood why Reid felt older. Life and death were a daily part of their world.
It made you older.
"I've assigned wranglers to the O'Donnells," she assured him. "You won't have to spend time with them. Anyhow, you have classes and finals coming up. You need the grades to get into a good school, and the ones with pre-vet programs are terribly competitive."
"I told you, I don't want to go to college and I don't want to be a vet."
"Even if that's true right now, you might change your mind.
We have to talk"
"There's nothing to talk about." Reid cut her off. "Don't worry, sis, I'll get the grades." He went out the door with a mulish expression.
As brother and sister, they were close in many ways, yet a wall rose between them when certain subjects were raised like the future.
Stomach tight, Mariah went to the desk and saw Reid had been reading one of her books on equine diseasesshe would never be a vet now, but that didn't prevent her from staying current on veterinary medicine. As for Reid, though he claimed he wasn't interested in going to veterinary school, she doubted it. He was bright, talented and set to graduate high school a year early the way she had done and he spent all of his free minutes studying animal care.
Worry and a feeling of helplessness nagged at her. Reid shouldn't have such tough decisions to make at his age, but there didn't seem to be anything she could do to fix it. Maybe if their father hadn't given up after the accident, if he'd tried to survive his own injuries, things might be. No.
Mariah shook her head guiltily.
She still struggled with the memory of her big, strong dad turning his face to the hospital wall when he learned that his wife of twenty-four years had died instantly in the collision, the light in his eyes vanishing until he was almost unrecognizable. The doctors had thought he would pull through, yet a day later he was gone, too, and she'd been so angry with him for wanting to die more than he wanted to live for the rest of his family. For her and Reid.
Nobody discussed it; after the funeral, Granddad had said that Reid didn't need to hear loose chatter. He was suffering enough. That was fine with heradmitting how she felt was the last thing she'd wanted.
Sighing, Mariah walked down to the mess tent. It didn't make sense to be angry with someone who was dead, and it wasn't as if Sam Weston had committed suicide. He'd just given up.
"Good afternoon, everyone," she called, forcing a smile.
The cooks waved. The guests, in varying degrees of fatigue from working on the range, waved, as well.
"Oh, my God," said the new bride of one of their annual visitors. She sat, wincing as she made contact with the bench. "My fanny hasn't ever hurt this much. Who'd have known that riding a horse would be so painful?"