In the second book in a new Western romance series by Rita Award nominee Tory Cates, a woman struggles to keep the ranch she’s worked so hard for—against a man who melts her heart.
Malou Sanders has always felt most comfortable in the world of animals and chosen their company over that of men. So when land developer Cameron Landell threatens to sell the Texas ranch where she keeps the troop of Japanese monkeys she’s studying, Malou decides to fight to save the animals. Then Malou confronts Cameron under the sweltering desert sun, and from the moment she looks into his thickly lashed dark eyes, her resolve melts. Soon her hopes for professional acclaim are replaced by a different dream. But one lingering doubt is still keeping Malou from Cameron’s arms…and her dreams from coming true.
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Tory Cates is a Rita Award nominee who lives in Texas.
Read an Excerpt
The April breeze was laden with the fresh green scent of mesquite buds just beginning to blossom. It riffled gently through Malou Sanders’s wispy, wheat-colored hair, a color that was repeated in her khaki shirt and shorts. She breathed in the moist air, knowing that the Texas sun, still just a scarlet crack of dawn along the far horizon, would sear every bit of softness out of the air before long. Spring in this sunbaked land so close to where the sweltering borders of Mexico and the U.S. rubbed together was little more than a crack in time. By May, just a week away, the brief season would be well on its way to becoming memory.
Sitting down on a large flat rock within the grassy, fenced-in enclosure, Malou tucked up her legs—extravagantly long for her height and already tanned to a rich coppery color—and lifted the binoculars hanging by a strap around her neck to scan the two hundred acres spreading out before her.
Her eyes burned slightly from lack of sleep. She blinked and focused on her search. In an unconscious gesture of nervousness, she nibbled at her bottom lip, exposing teeth that were strong and white but ever so slightly crooked. Malou had never been bothered enough by the tiny imperfection to correct it.
“Where are you, Jezebel?” she whispered to herself as she strained to see beyond the stands of prickly pear and mesquite that blocked her view.
Her gaze slid over sleeping forms that, from a distance, appeared to be slightly fuzzy, tawny gray boulders. They weren’t. The furry clumps were monkeys, Japanese macaque monkeys to be precise. To Malou Sanders, resident manager of the South Texas Primate Research Center, known locally as El Rancho de los Monos—the Monkey Ranch—they were much more. Besides being the focus of her life’s work, each and every one of them was a clear and distinct individual complete with a unique face, name, family history, and personality. And one was missing. That was her first worry. Her second worry also had a name, though no face. The name was Mr. Cameron Landell, the new owner of El Rancho de los Monos, and he was a far more serious source of concern. Since Mr. Stallings’s death two weeks ago, dozens of developers had been sniffing around El Rancho de los Monos, but Cameron Landell had been the high bidder. Malou doubted that he would have the same soft spot for macaques that Mr. Stallings had had.
When, at long last, Malou had been able to chase that ominous name from her thoughts and fallen asleep last night, there had been 313 members in the troop. If her calculations were correct, there should be 314 monkeys this morning. She swiveled around searching for the newest troop member to be born in this strange land so far from their ancestral home in Japan. She hadn’t worried this much about the other births, but Jezebel was different. Since Jezebel herself had been abandoned by her mother as an infant, there was no telling what the flighty creature might do after delivering her first baby.
“Where are you, you little bubble brain?” Malou muttered to herself; like all the monkeys, in Malou’s eyes Jezebel had a very pronounced personality: scatterbrained and impulsive.
While Malou was studying the sleeping macaques’ watermelon-pink faces, suddenly, as if a switch had been thrown, they all came to life at once. As many times as she’d witnessed the awakening, it never failed to thrill Malou. For the moment she forgot her anxiety about the newborn and her even more pressing preoccupation with this Cameron Landell person who suddenly loomed so large in her life. Being present at the instant when the complex drama that was macaque life began anew with the rising of the sun was Malou’s reward for the long years she’d spent in lecture halls and labs. Her reward for the absorption in her field that had left her few outside interests and a social life that extended no further than her colleagues and her family. For Malou—when the sun was rising, at least—it was enough.
Elbows propped on brown knees, binoculars pressed to her face, Malou became lost in the quickening pace of activity. A streak of gray fuzzed across the prairie, followed hotly by three more streaks as a quartet of young monkeys, “juveniles” in primatology terms, chased one another across the dusty earth. New mothers with infants snuggled to their bellies awoke to suckle their babies. Sumo, the troop’s alpha male, its leader, stretched with a lordly yawn. His powerful squat body and combative nature gave clues to the origin of his name. A small harem of the highest-ranking females began to groom him, combing carefully through his thick fur. He remained imperiously detached throughout the process.
Lower-ranking females and their offspring occupied spots farther away from the center of the troop. Farther still, the troop’s outcasts, the peripheral males, perched in scrubby mesquite trees along the fence enclosing the compound. Malou chuckled. It was so much like small-town human society, with the mayor and his cronies living at the center of town and the less affluent and prestigious fanning out from there.
It was all so complicated, she marveled, yet so orderly. So structured, yet so unpredictable. She pulled out her field notebook and jotted down some notes on the interactions she was observing.
As she continued watching, Malou saw that she wasn’t the only one observing the troop. Kojiwa, at well over thirty the oldest monkey in the troop, sat in the shade of a cactus, keeping an eye on the troop he had once led. The old curmudgeon held a special place in Malou’s heart, for he was one of the few males who could be counted on to intervene in a fight on behalf of a weaker combatant. He was also the only male she’d ever seen care for an abandoned infant. That infant had been the errant Jezebel.
Just as Malou was reflecting on the unique relationship between Kojiwa and his adopted daughter, Jezebel, the expectant mother capered out of the backcountry bush, rushing forward to greet her guardian. Malou winced. Jezebel was alone and clearly no longer pregnant. All Malou’s worst fears were confirmed. Knowing no better, Jezebel had abandoned the baby she’d borne during the night, just as her own mother had abandoned her.
Before Malou could begin searching for the baby, a distant, mechanical hum intruded to remind her of far greater worries.
Just as he promised! Malou fumed, remembering the curt phone message his assistant had left on her voice mail. The message had said Landell would arrive bright and early. It was certainly early, but for Malou, the morning had now become considerably less bright.
She trained her binoculars on the plume of dust rising along the dirt road that led up to the compound, and she groaned softly. Of course he would drive a Cadillac Escalade. It fit the land developer’s image to a T. She was sure Cameron Landell would live up to all her worst fears of what a soulless, money-grubbing Texas wheeler-dealer was like. He was of a type and from a world that usually would never concern her. But, because of Mr. Stallings’s death, their worlds had collided. Malou couldn’t concern herself anymore with Jezebel’s baby; she had the whole troop’s survival to worry about now.
The claret-colored SUV stopped alongside the portable building that served as both research station and home for Malou and for Ernie Pierce, the researcher-in-residence temporarily living at the ranch. Malou didn’t make a move. She kept her binoculars trained on the Escalade and waited for her first glimpse of her adversary.
Cameron Landell stepped out and, in one split second, shot Malou’s preconceptions all to hell. Where she’d expected a paunchy middle-ager, Cameron Landell looked to be the kind of man that, even when he did reach middle-age, would never let his age show. He had the tight, spare build of a prizefighter or a dancer, an aggressive modern dancer. And instead of the button-down shirt and slacks she would have predicted, Landell was wearing worn Levi’s and a faded blue workshirt. A cowboy hat of gray felt shielded his eyes.
Malou shifted her focus and zoomed in on his face. She needed clues and needed them fast. She needed to know everything she could about this man. Again, the face surprised her. She’d figured that a man responsible for turning as much natural, unspoiled land into ticky-tacky tract housing as Cameron Landell was reputed to have would have a much different face. A bland face that never registered any second thoughts, any qualms, any deeper consideration than, “Will it make money?”
But Cameron Landell’s face wasn’t like that. More than the thickly lashed dark eyes and full mouth, Malou noticed the edgy wariness that animated it. His eyes searched the landscape with a predatory intensity. Malou had the impression that everything Cameron Landell saw registered. That nothing escaped his notice. It was a most unnerving first impression.
His appraisal completed, Landell moved to the front door of the research station. His walk was brisk, much faster than the loping gaits of most Texans she’d known in the ten years since her father, a physics professor, had moved the family from Chicago to Austin to teach at the university there. Landell’s was a tough, muscular walk that again brought to Malou’s mind the aggressive motions of a modern dancer. Cameron Landell walked like a man in a hurry. Even on a spring morning in the middle of nowhere with the day barely begun.
Malou couldn’t hear the sound of his knock against the door of the distant research station, but she could tell from the force Landell put into it that it was loud. Several minutes passed while he stood bouncing slightly from foot to foot like a tennis player waiting to receive a match-point serve. Finally Ernie opened the door.
Her fellow researcher looked as if he too had had a hard night—hair tousled, eyes swollen, shirt buttoned crooked. That was when Malou remembered that the shower in Ernie’s bathroom was broken and she was supposed to look into getting it repaired. He was doing some study on visual acuity, comparing the vision of caged versus free-ranging macaques. Malou could never remember the precise subject. Just that it involved running tedious but harmless tests on animals in his lab. Her interest lay strictly with uncaged animals, with the fascinating behavior rituals that bound the troop together. Blinking into the morning sun that sliced across the land, myopic Ernie, blind without his glasses, pointed a vague finger in the general direction of the enclosure. With a brisk wave of both thanks and dismissal, Cameron Landell left Ernie, who was still speaking, and headed toward the enclosure.
Malou sighed and rested the binoculars on her chest. The signs were not good. Not good at all. She’d searched Cameron Landell for signs of vulnerability, softness, a crack in that stern facade. She hadn’t found any. Her hands went icy in the south Texas heat. So much depended on this meeting. On her. She had to do whatever was necessary to charm, cajole, intimidate, and/or educate Cameron Landell into keeping the troop together. She stood, pulled herself up to her full five foot four and a half inches, and marched to the front gate. She tried reviving her sagging confidence by reminding herself that she was a competent adult of twenty-seven, a highly trained professional, and a scientist who, at a very early age, had already won several major awards in her field.
Cameron Landell reached the gate before she did. He leaned against it with a loose-jointed ease as he waited on the other side for her. Waited and watched. Malou suddenly became very conscious of her walk and of the length of brown leg her khaki shorts left on display. She even noticed, for the first time ever, how the binoculars pressed against her breasts, rising and falling with each step she took. Landell clearly noticed too, soaking in that detail just as he seemed to absorb every other detail around him. She felt his eyes on her, appraising her as if she were a prime piece of real estate he was interested in acquiring—acquiring and despoiling.
In that same instant, Malou realized something else: She was coming to him. Just like the female monkeys who came to Sumo to offer their services, she had put herself in a subordinate position by being the one to come to Landell. She was certain the same pattern held in human society. Landell probably would have made her come to his office in San Antonio if he hadn’t wanted to inspect the property himself. No, Landell was the sort that somehow always turned others into subordinates, always made them come to him.
And that, Malou realized, anger sparking within her, was precisely what he had succeeded in doing to her. He’d managed to make that damned gate he was leaning on into his office for the moment, and to turn her into a humble supplicant coming to him. Well, she hadn’t studied the behavior of lower primates for this long without picking up a few tricks of her own. Such as overfamiliarity. She’d observed the way low-status troop members always deferred to Sumo, cringing and cowering and fleeing any contact with the head honcho. Malou was determined to win back the ground she’d inadvertently lost—there would be no cringing or cowering.
“Cam,” she called out casually, “I’d forgotten when your office said you were coming.” She could see by the slight flutter of those thickly fringed, espresso brown eyes that she’d momentarily nonplussed him with her nonchalant greeting. She followed up her advantage by coming to the side of the gate where he waited and thrusting her hand out boldly. “I assume you are Cameron Landell, proud new proprietor of El Rancho de los Monos. As you’ve no doubt guessed, I’m Malou Sanders, resident manager.”
“You’re right on the first count.” His voice was as clipped and staccato as his walk had been. Betraying origins Eastern and urban, it was a far cry from the good-old-boy Texas drawl she’d anticipated. “As far as being proud goes, that remains to be seen.” He took her hand in his. An ironic smile flirted around his lips.
Remembering Sumo’s model, Malou brought her free hand over to rest on top of Landell’s clasped hand. She patted it lightly in a condescending way, touching him with the easy familiarity that Sumo would use with an underling. “Hope you didn’t have too much trouble finding the way out,” she said, implying that he had experienced difficulties.
“Not really,” he answered, still holding her hand, his words edged with mocking irony. “Once you leave San Antonio, it’s pretty easy. You just head south. If you end up in Mexico, you know you’ve gone too far.” The edge softened and he smiled. Still holding her hand, he now held her eyes as well.
“And you’re clearly not a man who ever goes too far,” Malou shot back, freeing her hand and her gaze. She’d wanted Landell to be the one to withdraw first, but the feel of his hand, strong and warm against her own, was far too disconcerting; if there was one thing she absolutely could not afford to be at this moment, it was disconcerted.
“Oh, clearly. Never,” Landell agreed. But the quirk of his eyebrows told Malou that just the opposite was true. Dangerously true. “And now, Mylou? Milieu? What in the devil is your name?”
“Muh-lou,” she sounded out the name that no one ever got right the first time. “It’s short for Mary Louise.” Malou reflexively bit her lip. She shouldn’t have told him that. Shouldn’t tell the enemy anything more than what was absolutely necessary—name, rank, and serial number.
“Well, Mary Louise . . .”
She knew she shouldn’t have told him. She hated her real name. So prissy, so refined, so everything she never wanted to be.
“Malou,” he corrected himself, catching her look of distaste. “If you’re through trying to one-up me, why don’t you tell me the history of this, this monkey ranch.”
Malou winced. Landell had seen through her power play so easily. Even more unsettling, though, was his condescending tone when he’d said the word “monkey.” It told Malou all she had to know about the contempt in which he held the animals she’d chosen to devote her life to studying.
In any other situation, facing a man as commanding and as attractive as Cameron Landell, Malou would have withdrawn. She would have retreated, forsaking the human apes she found so bewildering for the company of the lower primates she was more comfortable with. But she couldn’t run away now. For once she stayed. She had to.
“?‘One-up’? What could you be talking about, Cam?” she asked, dragging out her words with the barest hint of the Southern accent she’d never actually acquired. She would not be disconcerted.
Landell smiled, a pirate’s grin that said he would be willing to play along—up to a point.
“Step inside your ‘monkey’ ranch,” Malou said, holding open the gate so that he could pass inside. “I’ll give you the deluxe tour complete with a history of the troop, and I’ll try not to get too esoteric.”
“Oh, spare me no detail,” Landell teased.
Malou smiled tightly at his mockery and launched into the history she’d recited dozens of times for visitors from around the world. This performance, she knew, was the most crucial she would ever give.
“The troop’s ancestral home is high atop Mount Arashiyama, Storm Mountain, outside of Kyoto, Japan. For centuries the monkeys lived wild there, feeding on persimmons, chestnuts, and berries, enduring the snow and rain from the indigo clouds that gave the mountain its name. Their breed is often called ‘snow monkeys’ because they are the only primate other than man able to live in such a cold climate.”
Malou glanced over at Landell, attempting to gauge his reaction. It was impossible. He wasn’t reacting, he was absorbing—both her words and the animals they described. He watched as a monkey with an infant clinging to her belly bent a mesquite branch down to her mouth and stripped off the tiny leaves.
Malou kept on. “These macaques are the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, do no evil’ monkeys. The Japanese call them ‘little old men of the forest.’ They are beloved in their native land and appear in many Japanese fairy tales, where they have a reputation for wiliness.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Landell commented, “and not be taken in by any wily macaques.”
That was far from the moral Malou had intended to be drawn.
“Now, much as I’m enjoying all this, I have a closing I need to get back for, and if I miss it I’ll be out a healthy chunk in earnest money. That would make for a fairly pricey natural history lesson. So, if you have no objection, could we move on to the part of this story that concerns me?”
Malou was so irritated that she had to look away to hide the fumes she felt were pouring off of her. Her glance fell on old Kojiwa and his adopted daughter, Jezebel, lounging in the shade of a leafy mesquite. This is for you, she thought, bringing herself under control. She was a model of composure when she turned back to face Cameron Landell.
“Of course,” she demurred sweetly, picking up the thread of her narrative again. “In 1947, the Japanese institutionalized their affectionate regard for the snow monkeys by declaring them national treasures.”
“Sort of like sacred cows in India, eh?”
The analogy was completely off base, but Malou bit her tongue and continued. “Well, they were protected, and the entire mountain was turned into a monkey sanctuary. Primatologists laid out rations of wheat and apples to coax the animals down out of hiding so they could study them.”
Malou ignored Landell’s derisive snort and went on. Whether Cameron Landell realized it or not, what she had to say was important; and whether he was interested or not, he would hear it.
“Anyway, the monkeys were close enough that researchers could study them, but their social patterns, which caging would have destroyed, were intact. That was so important.”
Unconsciously, the urgency that Malou felt leaked into her words. “That’s how scientists learned how vital kinship is in the macaque world and how it’s the basis for each member’s status in the troop.” Malou’s excitement about the area that was the subject of her life’s work came through, enlivening what she said.
She stopped short when she glanced over and found Cameron Landell staring, no longer at the monkeys capering past, but at her. Staring very hard and very long. She stared straight back. Landell was the first to break off the gaze. “It all sounds like monkey heaven back there in the Land of the Rising Sun. So why did the beasts end up here where there is not only no snow, but damned precious little water in any form?”
“You’re right,” she began again. “It was heaven until a bit over ten years ago. Then, with all the provisioning and protection, the population of the Storm Mountain troop exploded and split into two groups. The alpha male stayed with the old troop and they drove the new group off, keeping it away from the rations at the food station. The hungry monkeys of the new troop were led by that old fellow over there.”
Malou pointed to Kojiwa. Abruptly, as if he didn’t like being talked about by the meddling humans, Kojiwa turned his pink rump to them and took off, bounding stiffly on all fours across the field.
“With old Kojiwa in the lead, the new troop left Storm Mountain and started raiding gardens in Kyoto. Worse than that, though, the raiding band took to sleeping in the rafters of the Buddhist temples.”
“Ho-ho,” Landell signaled his comprehension, “and the national treasures became a public nuisance. I can imagine that monkey manure in the temples was not a popular decorating idea with the Japanese people.”
His conclusion was annoyingly accurate.
“Not popular at all. There were a lot of suggestions about how to deal with the renegades.” Malou tried to keep her voice light, but inwardly she shuddered as she said, “One small faction of primatologists felt that the offending monkeys would make ideal candidates for the . . .” She stumbled over the words. “The dissection table. Primatologists around the world rose up to protest such an immoral waste.” Her voice rose with the ongoing urgency of her story. It was a tale whose end had still not been told.
“Not too hard to guess which faction you agreed with, is it?”
“These monkeys, with all that’s known about them and their family histories, are invaluable for behavioral research.”
The quirk of Landell’s eyebrow made Malou aware that she’d turned her last few sentences into an impassioned plea. Her voice was neutrally calm when she began again. “A worldwide search was conducted to find a new home for the displaced monkeys of Storm Mountain. When the Japanese primatologists called Professor Everitt of the anthro department at the university, he called Mr. Stallings. In addition to being a rancher and a big landowner, Stallings was known to be an animal lover.
“Professor Everitt made Stallings the oddest proposition of the old man’s life: If he would fence in a couple hundred acres of his land, he would become the owner of a monkey troop. In return for provisioning the monkeys, once the troop was established, Mr. Stallings could sell any surplus animals he wanted to for lab studies.”
“But there never were any ‘surplus’ animals, were there?” Landell asked with his usual irritating accuracy. He pointed toward the troop poking around for breakfast. “I mean, every one of those stumpy creatures out there is some vital link in the great monkey society you’ve got going here. Stallings never made a dime on the deal, did he?”
“He stopped caring about that,” Malou blurted out, aware too late that she’d tipped her hand. But it was too late. Besides, it was the truth and she was tired of tap-dancing around it. “He found out that there are more important things to care about than making money. That the monkeys, keeping them alive and together, was the most crucial thing.”
“Most crucial to you,” Landell amended.
“Mr. Stallings believed in what we’re doing,” Malou protested. “Besides, keeping the monkeys wasn’t that expensive. My salary is paid by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and Mr. Stallings had money anyway.”
“?‘Had’ is right,” Landell shot back. “I didn’t know it, but by the time I met him, his money was either all gone or going fast. There had been a couple of oil wells that ended up spouting dust and a few other bad business investments. When he came to me for a loan on a wildcat well up north, he used his south Texas holdings, including Los Monos, as collateral. That well was a duster too. Mr. Stallings died broke and I ended up with a monkey ranch on my hands.”
Landell stopped and stared down at Malou. “There’s one other thing you should probably know. Stallings went bust trying to protect these monkeys you esteem so highly. Maybe the day-to-day costs of maintaining them don’t seem high to you, but there are a few hidden expenses you’ve no doubt overlooked. Like keeping a couple hundred acres of land fallow. Not using them to raise beef or citrus or anything else that’s going to pay you back for the use of that land while taxes are eating you alive. Now that, I guarantee you, is not cheap.”
Landell pivoted around, sighting along the fence lines winging out in either direction. “All this fence. Not cheap. And that pond.” He pointed to the pond that had been dug into the brown earth for the monkeys to use as their swimming pool, cooling off during the scorching days. Even now, two youngsters were splashing happily. “Not cheap to keep water pumping through that.”
He continued his survey, looking now at the research station. “Having those buildings and that road put in. Stringing power lines all the way out here. Putting in a septic tank, a well. Phones. None of it was cheap.”
Malou was caught off guard. Like a four-year-old child, she’d entered this world and accepted it without question. The range cubes she fed the monkeys once a day during the driest part of the summer were the only expenses she’d seriously considered.
“Never thought about any of it, did you?”
Malou didn’t disagree—the truth was too obviously written on her face to attempt a lie.
“Didn’t think so. Your type never does.”
“Okay, those of your ‘socio-economic status.’ Those of you from the creamy top of the middle class. Correct me if I’m mistaken.”
Malou didn’t. Child of the suburbs, her father a university professor and mother a pharmacist, she couldn’t. Indulged, an only child, she had existed all her life at that creamy top. “Well,” she shot back, stung again by the acuity of his perceptions, “correct me if I’m wrong, but judging from your car, clothes, and speech, you haven’t exactly led a life of deprivation.”
“You’re wrong,” he stated flatly. The only elaboration he offered was, “Cars, clothes, even speech can be acquired if you want them badly enough.” Abruptly he changed the subject. “What would one of”—he pointed to the group of monkeys hovering nearby—“your little buddies sell for?”
“As a laboratory animal?” Malou choked out the words. If she hadn’t been sure Landell could find his answer in five minutes without her help, she would have refused to answer. But he could. “Fifteen hundred dollars.”
He nodded. “Fifteen hundred. Not a spectacular return, but enough to balance off some of Stallings’s debt.”
“You can’t be thinking what I’m afraid you are,” Malou said, her very worst nightmare about the troop’s future coming to life—the nightmare that all the families would be torn apart and the monkeys sold to labs.
“What? That I might be so unspeakably callous as to want to make back a fraction of the money I’ve already lost? Yes, believe it or not, that’s what I want to do.”
Malou turned away, unable to face him with the look of sick shock on her face.
“Though it’s absolutely none of your business,” Landell informed her, “I’ll tell you anyway. I got beat on this deal. Beat bad. Stallings, wonderful humanitarian and friend to monkeys everywhere that he might have been, skinned me on the loan I made to him. He represented Los Monos as a going concern, turning a healthy profit every year. He made off with roughly five times what this place could ever conceivably be worth, sunk it into that duster, then died and left me holding the bag.”
“How very discourteous of him.” The ice in Malou’s voice fairly cracked in the heat.
“So the pretense of cordiality shatters,” Landell observed. “And all because I’m not willing to fill in for Stallings as troop benefactor to the tune of a few hundred thousand a year so you can play Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey down here.”
Malou was stunned and angered to hear the names of her two childhood heroines on Landell’s lips. Stunned that he even knew of the existence of the two women who had rewritten the book on primate study, and angered that he used their names with such cynical contempt. “Those two scientists have added immeasurably to our knowledge of primate behavior.” Malou couldn’t help the note of prim outrage that tightened her voice. If she’d given in to her true emotions, she would have wept right there in front of this odious Cameron Landell. “If I can make even the smallest fraction of the contributions they have, I’d be delighted to ‘play’ them for the rest of my life.”
“You’d better start thinking about doing it on another stage,” Landell told her. “Because I’ve made all the contribution to monkey study I intend to. This whole fiasco has blown up at just about the worst time imaginable. I needed Stallings to pay back that loan with hard cash and healthy interest so that I could cover my own debts. Not that I expect you to care, but I have two very short weeks before my banker expects me to start paying off the largest note he ever allowed me to put my hands on.”
Malou looked away, unwilling to face Landell or the troubles he was telling her of. She had enough of her own.
He took his hat off and slapped it against his thigh in a gesture of annoyance. “Prepare to start dismantling this operation, Ms. Sanders. I’m selling out to the highest bidder who comes along, and if that happens to be a laboratory, so be it.”
Malou bit down hard on the inside of her mouth. She would not cry. Not now. She had to think. To do something. To stop him. A chaotic jumble of ideas churned through her mind. She blurted out the first one she could articulate.
“I won’t let you do it,” she threatened. “I have friends, reporters. If you try sacrificing the troop to your greed, I’ll plaster the paper with stories about you slaughtering innocent animals, wasting a priceless research resource.”
“So, you plan on adding monkey murderer to my list of credits. A bold threat, Malou, and not a particularly wise one. You’ve got a lot to learn about the delicate art of negotiation. For starters, it doesn’t flourish among heavy-handed threats. I think I’ve seen enough. I’ll be in touch with you about closing the place down and shipping the animals off. If you really care about them, you’d be wise to hunt up a few new homes that are to your liking.”
He strode off without a good-bye. His clipped gait now seemed almost forcefully brutal, but it was herself that Malou derided. She had been heavy-handed, and now it was too late to know what might have happened if she had been more reasonable, more open to compromise. The SUV had faded to a bloodred drop against an immense, sun-bleached background by the time Malou slumped down onto a rock.
Several juveniles cautiously approached her. Soon they were scrambling over the rock she sat on, touching her hair and clothes. As usual, though, it was her binoculars that fascinated them most. They were forever entranced by anything shiny and metallic. Anything that glinted in the sun. She felt a tiny furred paw hesitantly reach up and touch the tear shimmering on her cheek.
Malou smiled wanly at the little face lifted up to hers, just a figure-eight of deep pink inside a furry ruff. There was so much she’d never be able to make them understand, so much she never wanted them to have to understand. A glimpse of Jezebel crouching down to slurp a drink out of the pond reminded Malou that she still had to find the flighty monkey’s baby and see if she could prod Jezebel into taking up her maternal duties. With a great heaviness weighing her down, Malou stood and set off to scout the backcountry where Jezebel might have borne her infant.
Before she’d taken two leaden steps, Malou sighted Kojiwa returning to the troop. At first, Malou couldn’t believe what she was seeing. That dark spot on his chest, that couldn’t be . . . Malou grabbed for her binoculars. It was! A tiny newborn with the characteristic chocolate brown fur of the macaque infant was clinging weakly to the old fellow. He’d found the baby that the ditzy Jezebel had abandoned.
Kojiwa delivered the baby to Jezebel, transferring the infant to his mother’s chest, where it began to suck greedily. In the instant that the baby faced toward her, all Malou could register were two huge eyes staring helplessly out at a new and scary world. She christened the baby Bambi and entered the name into her census book.
Malou’s joy at the baby’s discovery was short-lived, however. She wondered darkly about what, precisely, the infant had been saved for.