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Colt Brannigan kissed his mother on the cheek. "I'll see you tonight." He turned to her caregiver. "I'm working with the nursing service in Sundance. They'll be sending someone out in the next few days to start helping you with Mom's care."
"I'll be fine. Hank's been able to give me some free time."
"That's good. See you tonight, Ina."
Colt's sixty-year-old mother didn't know anyone. She'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's before his father's death sixteen months ago. It had grown much worse over the past year. She needed round-the-clock care.
At the sound of his brother Hank's voice, Colt shut the bedroom door and strode down the hallway of the ranch house's main floor toward him.
"Phone call for you from Warden James's office."
Warden James? "Must be a wrong number," he said, knowing full well it wasn't. He walked past his brother and headed for the back door, not needing another delay when he should be in the upper pasture.
Hank followed him at a slower pace due to his walking cast. "You did advertise for a housekeeper in the Black Hills Sentinel. They want to know if you've already filled the position."
Colt realized he should have indicated in the ad that they were looking for a female housekeeper. His mother would insist on it if she could express herself, but that time would never come again. "Tell them it's too late."
"No buts!" He cut his brother off with a grimace. Before their father had passed away from blood clots in the lungs, he'd obliged the warden by granting him a favor, one he'd lived to regret.
The freed inmate had been taken on as a ranch hand on a provisional basis. He'd stayed only long enough for a few meals and a paycheck before he took off with the blanket from his bunk and some of the other hands' cash. To add injury to insult, he'd stolen one of the ranch's quarter horses.
Colt had tracked him down and recovered the stolen property. The ex-felon was once again behind bars. Unfortunately the percentage of freed inmates who ended up back in prison was high. Now that Colt ran the Floral Valley Ranch, he'd be damned if he would make the mistake his father had and invest any more time or money on an ex-con.
"I'll be checking fences all day. Won't be home until late. Call if there's an emergency." He jumped off the back porch and headed for the barn. After swinging into the saddle, he galloped away on Digger.
It took the right kind of female to run a household like theirs and manage the domestic help. In fact it took a saint, but those were in short supply since their previous housekeeper, Mary White Bird, had died. Colt realized their family could never replace her. The full-blooded Lakota had been their mother's right hand and an institution on the ranch.
He'd advertised in various newspapers throughout Wyoming and South Dakota, but so far none of the applicants had the qualifications he was looking for. Forget a released felon. Colt was getting desperate, but not that desperate.
Floral Valley Ranch 4 miles.
Geena Williams rode past the small highway sign and had to turn around. Eight miles back an old rancher at the Cattlemen's Stock and Feed Store in Sundance, Wyoming, had told her she might miss the turnoff if she weren't looking for it. He'd been right. From here on out it would be dirt road.
She stopped long enough to catch her breath and take a drink from her water bottle. During the day the temperature had been sixty-nine degrees, with some wind in the afternoon, typical for early June in northeastern Wyoming. But now it had dropped into the fifties and would go lower. Her second-hand parka provided little insulation.
Though the weather had cooperated, it was sheer will and adrenaline that had gotten her this far. Now desperation would have to get her the rest of the way. Her legs would probably turn to rubber before she reached her destination, but Geena couldn't quit now. She needed to make it to the ranch before it was too dark to see.
A half hour later she caught sight of a cluster of outbuildings, including the ranch house, but it was ten to ten and she didn't dare approach anyone this late.
She pedaled her road bike over to a stand of pines and propped it against one of the trunks.
Her backpack contained everything in the world she owned. No. That wasn't exactly true. There were some other items precious to her, but she had no idea where they were. Not yet anyway.
She undid the straps to eat some snacks. They tasted good. After she'd pulled out her space blanket, she more or less collapsed from exhaustion onto a soft nest of needles beneath the boughs of the biggest tree.
Using her pack for a pillow, she curled on her right side and covered up, still in shock that tonight the only roof she had over her head was a canopy of stars. She picked out the Big Dipper. Venus was the bright star to the west.
"Come on, Titus. Time to go home."
Colt shut the barn door. The border collie raced ahead of him with more energy than he knew what to do with. Titus led a dog's perfect life. He was loved. He ran and worked all day, ate the food he wanted and had no worries. That's why he went to sleep deliriously happy and woke up happy.
As for Colt, he wouldn't describe himself happy in the delirious sense. He'd been in that state only one time. Falling in love at twenty-one had been easy when you'd been on the steer-wrestling circuit, winning prize money and dazzling your girl.
It was the happily-ever-after part he didn't have time to work on before she wanted out because a married man had ranching duties and she wasn't having fun anymore. Their eleven-month marriage had to have been some kind of record for the shortest one in Crook County, Wyoming.
At thirty-four years of age now, he recognized his mistake. They'd been too young and immature. It simply didn't work. Since then he'd dated women from time to time, but unless he met one who enriched the busy life he already led, he didn't see himself in a rush to get married again.
Suddenly the dog switched directions away from the ranch house, barking his head off. He hadn't gone far when he made that low growling sound that let Colt know they had an intruder on the property. Whether animal or human he couldn't tell yet.
As he hurried to catch up, he heard a woman's voice say, "Easy, boy," trying her best to soothe the black-and-white beast who'd hunted her down. He weighed only forty-five pounds, but in the dark his terrifying growl had clearly made her nervous.
Closer now, Colt could see why. The female on her feet beneath their granddaddy's ponderosa was wrapped in a space blanket that covered her head. She probably couldn't see anything. Enveloped like that, she presented a tall silhouette to Titus who couldn't quite make her out. Any mystery caused the dog to bark with much more excitement.
Against the trunk Colt glimpsed a brand-new road bike. Next to her feet he saw a backpack. "Quiet, Titus," he commanded the dog, who made a keening sound for having to obey and walked over to Colt.
If she was a nature lover, she was going about it the wrong way. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Y-yes," she stammered. "Thank you for calling him off. He startled me." She had an appealing voice. The fact that she didn't sound hysterical came as another surprise.
"What in the devil do you think you're doing sleeping out here in the dark?" The women of his acquaintance wouldn't have dreamed of doing anything so foolhardy. "Any animal could bother you, especially a mountain lion on the prowl."
She pulled the edges of the blanket tighter. The motion revealed her face. "I got here too late to disturb anyone, so I thought I'd rest under the tree."
"You came to this ranch specifically?"
"Yes, but I realize I'm trespassing. I'm sorry."
Her apology sounded genuine and she spoke in a cultured voice. What in blazes? He was taken aback by the whole situation. After a glimpse into hauntingly lovely eyes that gave him no answers, he took in a quick breath before picking up her backpack. It was unexpectedly light and had seen better days.
"For whatever reason you've come, I can't allow you to stay out here. Leave the bike and follow me. It'll be safe where it is."
"I don't want to intrude."
She'd already done a good job of it and had gotten his attention in a big way, but that was beside the point. "Nevertheless, you'll have to come with me. Let's go."
The three of them made an odd trio as they entered the back door of the house. He showed her through the mudroom, past the bathroom to the kitchen. Titus headed for his bowls of food and water. After that he would go to his bed in the den. Colt's father had been gone a long time, but Colt had a hunch the loyal dog was still waiting for his return. Maybe Titus wasn't that happy after all.
Colt put the woman's backpack by one of the kitchen chairs. Out of the corner of his eye he watched her remove the space blanket. She was tall, probably five foot nine. He'd thought it might be the blanket above her head that had added the inches. After folding it, she laid it on the oblong wood table, then took off her insubstantial parka. He imagined she was in her mid-twenties.
Except for white sneakers, everything she wore, from her jeans to her long-sleeved navy crew neck, looked well-worn and hung off her. The clothes must have originally been bought for a larger woman. Her brunette hair had been pulled back with an elastic in an uninspiring ponytail. No makeup, no jewelry.
He thought he might have seen her before and tried to imagine her features and figure with a little more flesh on her. Had she been ill? In profile or frontal view, her mouth looked too drawn, the hollows in her cheeks too pronounced, but the fact still remained he felt an unwanted attraction.
Two physical characteristics about her were remarkable. Great bone structure and eyes of inky blue. They looked disturbingly sad as they peered at him through lashes as dark as her brows and hair. Why sad, he couldn't begin to imagine.
If she'd been running away from a traumatic situation, she bore no bruises or wounds he could see. She stood there proud and unafraid, reminding him of an unfinished painting that needed more work before she came to full life. That in itself added an intriguing element.
"You're welcome to use the bathroom we just passed."
"Thank you. I'll do that. Please excuse me." After she disappeared, he walked over to the counter, bemused by her femininity. She'd been endowed with more of it than most women.
Hank had made a fresh pot of coffee and had probably gone to their mother's bedroom to sit with her for a while. As Colt reached for a couple of mugs from the shelf, his intruder returned. He told her to sit down. "I can offer coffee. Would you like some, or does tea sound better?"
Colt poured two cups. "Sugar? Cream?" he called over his shoulder.
"Please don't go to any trouble. Black is fine."
He doctored both and brought them to the table where she'd sat down at the end. "I laced yours anyway. You look like you could use a pick-me-up."
"You're right. Thank you, Mr____"
"Colt Brannigan." He drank some of his coffee.
She cradled the cup. With her eyes closed, she took several sips, almost as if she were making a memory. This puzzled him. He stood looking down at her until she'd finished it. In his opinion she needed a good square meal three times a day for the foreseeable future.
"How about telling me who you are."
Her eyelids fluttered open, still heavy from fatigue. "Geena Williams." This time he thought he remembered that name from somewhere, too. Eventually it would come to him.
"Well, Geenaperhaps if I made you a ham sandwich, more information might be forthcoming about where you've come from and why you showed up on our property."
"Please forgive me. I'm still trying to wake up." He'd never heard anyone sound more apologetic. She got to her feet. "I was just freed from the women's prison in Pierre, South Dakota, today and came all the way to your ranch. I'd hoped to interview for the live-in housekeeper position for a temporary period of time, but it took longer for me to get here than I'd supposed."
With those words, Colt felt as if he'd just been kicked in the gut by a wild mustang. In an instant everything about her made sense, starting with the call from the prison warden this morning. He must have believed she was trustworthy, yet the new bike propped beneath the tree didn't match her used clothing. Had she stolen it?
She's an ex-felon. With the realization came an inexplicable sense of disappointment.
"Is the position still open?" The hope in that question, as if his answer meant life and death to her, almost got to him.
He had to harden himself against it. "I'm afraid not."
All people had baggage, but anyone who spent time in prison carried a different kind. Colt was looking for a housekeeper who was like Mary White Bird. A wise woman who'd raised a family of her own, a woman who'd helped his mom run the affairs of the ranch house since he was a boy without being obtrusive. She'd had an instinct for handling the staff and guests, not to mention the hothead personalities within the immediate and extended Brannigan clan.
As for Geena Williams, she was too young. She'd done time. He had no idea what crime she'd committed, but he knew she could use counseling to rejoin the world outside prison walls. Who knew the battles going on inside her? Hiring her was out of the question.
Her eyes glazed, yet not one tear spilled from those dark lashes. "You've been very kind to me, but I realize I've made a big mistake in coming here without arranging for an appointment first."
He frowned. "As it happens, Warden James called here this morning hoping to make one for you. I asked my brother to tell him it had already been filled. It appears the two of you had a miscommunication. For your sake, I'm sorry the warden didn't say anything to you."
A look of confusion marred her features. "Warden James is a woman, but I didn't know she'd called you. After I was taken to her office yesterday morning, she informed me I'd be freed this morning. I guess she was trying to help me find work so I would have some place to stay.