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Zane Nicholson believed in listening to his gut. At nine fifty-five that morning, it was telling him that today wasn't going to be a good day.
He glanced out the window at the rolling hills that made up the Nicholson Ranch and wondered if being a farmer would have been easier. Crops didn't break through fences in the night and wander away. Crops didn't try to be born breech. He could be growing corn. Or wheat. Wheat was patriotic. All those amber waves.
He turned his attention back to his paperwork and shook his head. Who was he kidding? He was a fifth generation rancher. The closest he would come to farming was the vegetable garden the ranch cook grew out behind the bunkhouse.
Zane watched his foreman step into his office. Frank Adelman took off his worn cowboy hat, slapped it against his left thigh, then eased into the hard, plastic chair in front of the desk.
A visit from Frank before noon wasn't going to bring good news.
"What?" Zane asked, more resigned than annoyed.
Nicholson Ranch had been annexed earlier this year by the city of Fool's Gold, California, meaning that it was now inside the city's jurisdiction, a decision which the mayor had sworn would be good for him. She said everyone out this way would benefit from more city services, but so far, it had only meant an increase in paperwork. He didn't see the win, though his brother was happy about the faster internet speeds that came from the city laying cable out this way.
"There's a busted pipe in the bunkhouse," Frank said. "Under the kitchen sink. All the boys are out with the herd. I turned the water off, but we're going to have to see to it today. You want me to pull someone in or call for a plumber?"
Zane dropped his pen on the desk and rubbed his temples. What he wanted was a little cooperation from fate. A couple of weeks without a crisis. Apparently that was too much to ask.
He weighed his options. Frank couldn't take care of the busted pipe because they were expecting buyers in an hour or so, and Frank was going to take them around to see the kids. Zane had a meeting with some research scientists from Cal U, Fool's Gold, that afternoon, which meant he couldn't take the buyers around. A plumber from Fool's Gold would be easiest, but he might not be able to get someone out today.
"Call in a couple of the boys," he said at last, then shook his head. "It's Monday, right? It always hits the fan on Monday."
Frank grunted his agreement, then rose. The phone rang before he'd even walked to the door.
So much for getting his paperwork finished on time, Zane thought as he reached for the receiver.
"Nicholson Ranch," he said. "This is Zane."
"Hi," a woman said, her voice low and friendly. "I'm calling to talk to someone about facilities. Can you help me with that?"
Zane blinked at the question. "Facilities? You mean horse boarding? We don't do that here, ma'am. You could check with old Reilly Konopka. Last I heard he was taking in boarders. Or Castle Ranch in town.
Ask for Rafe."
The woman laughed. "No. Not facilities for my horse. I meant for my husband and myself. We're coming up for the cattle drive this weekend, and I was wondering if there were any spa facilities. We've been under a lot of stress lately. I was thinking that a couple's massage might be a nice start to our vacation. Maybe deep tissue. Or those heated rocks. Aren't they all the rage right now?"
Massage? Vacation? Cattle drive?
"Ma'am, I have no idea what you're talking about," Zane said, his temper rising steadily as a knot formed in his gut. His gut feeling turned downright ugly.
"Oh." She sounded disappointed. "The website didn't say anything about a spa, but I was hoping. Can you recommend a hotel with a spa in Fool's Gold? We'll come a day early. I do want to be rested before we arrive for our cattle drive on Saturday."
"Ma'am, could you please tell me about this cattle drive you're expecting?"
"Excuse me? Aren't you an employee of the ranch?"
He was supposed to own it. What was going on? "I'm, ah, filling in," he lied.
"Oh. All right. My husband and I are going on a cattle drive."
She chatted away, giving details, including the website where she'd first found her vacation. While she continued to talk, Zane turned to his computer and typed in the web address. When the site popped up, his jaw dropped. He barely remembered to say goodbye before hanging up the phone.
In less than two minutes he'd explored the site, which detailed all the delights of a Northern California cattle-drive vacation. On Zane's ranch. There was only one person who would dare a trick like thathis brother.
Rage bubbled and boiled into something Zane couldn't begin to name. It filled him until he knew he was going to explode.
Chase had screwed up before, countless times, but compared to this new stunt, all that had been kids' stuff. What had he been thinking?
Zane stood and headed for the door, then stopped himself. He wanted to hit something, throw something, break something. If he went to Chase right now, he would say and do a lot of things they would both regret. He knew the kid saw him as a cross between the devil incarnate and the worst guardian since Scrooge. He also knew Chase was nearly an adult, and if the teen didn't get his shit together, he was going to spend his life screwing up and living with regrets.
Regrets. The single word was enough to calm Zane's temper. He'd lived with them himself, since he was Chase's age. They had a way of eating at a man's in-sides. Of making him want to outrun the wind, if only he could leave the past behind. But the world wasn't that tidy. Once done, a thing couldn't be undone. He didn't want that for his brother.
Ever since Chase had been a toddler, following him around the ranch, mimicking his every move, Zane had loved him so much, it was painful at times. He had vowed back then to watch out for the kid, to protect himeven from himself.
So instead of going gunning for Chase, he returned to his desk to consider the best course of action. Once and for all he was determined to teach his brother about responsibility so he could become the kind of man who respected himself. The kind of man who didn't have to live with the ghost of blame.
"I've decided not to put you in prison, Ms. Kitzke," Judge Haverston said, looking stern as she peered over her half-glasses. "I believe you had the best of intentions." She paused. "You know what they say about the road to hell."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"There will be no punitive damages. The earnest money will be refunded." She glanced at the paperwork on her wide desk, then gave her gavel a light tap. "I believe we are adjourned."
Phoebe Kitzke remained standing as everyone else in the small Los Angeles courtroom was told to rise. Judge Haverston swept through the doorway leading to her chambers, or whatever it was that judges had. The legal secret place, she thought, looking for humor but unable to feel anything except lingering terror. Hopefully relief would soon follow.
Not going to prison was a good thing, she reminded herself. She'd seen plenty of teenage prison movies when she'd stayed up late watching cable while babysitting back in high school. She knew what sorts of things could happen. Far better to stay on the right side of the law.
Phoebe shook hands with the company attorney and thanked him for his help, then turned to find her boss, April Keller, waiting for her. April was taller than Phoebewho wasn't?and the kind of sun-streaked blonde Southern California was famous for. Phoebe had always felt a bit out of place in LA, with her short, curvy physique, and dark hair and eyes.
"Are you okay?" April asked.
Phoebe shrugged. "I'm happy about avoiding prison. I don't have the background to be successful there. As for the rest of it, I'm still pretty numb."
April sighed. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding both miserable and relieved. "For everything. You really saved me."
Phoebe didn't want to go there. If she thought too much about what had happened, she would get angry and say things that would damage an important relationship.
"What about my job?" she asked instead. "Did I save that, too?"
April pressed her lips together and avoided her gaze.
"Great," Phoebe said and pushed past her, heading for the exit. "Let me guess. I've been fired."
April followed her into the hallway. People milled around them, all going about their legal business. Phoebe hoped the innocent ones would have better luck than she did. She stopped by a battered bulletin board and looked at her boss.
"For how long?" she asked.
"A month." April touched her arm. "Look, I'm going to make this up to you, I swear. I'll pay your salary out of my own pocket."
Phoebe sucked in a breath. "I was suspended without pay?"
Perfect. Just perfect. Phoebe stepped back and squared her shoulders. "I guess I'll see you in a month," she said before heading for the door.
April hurried after her. "Phoebe, wait. I know you're furious with me. You have every right to be angry."
Phoebe stopped. "Actually, the person I'm angry with is myself."
Tears filled April's eyes. "If you hadn't helped me, I don't know what would have happened."
"I know. I'm glad you're okay." She made a show of glancing at her watch. "Look, I have to go."
"Okay, but call me in a couple of days, okay? You can yell at me for as long as you want. I deserve it."
Phoebe nodded, then walked toward the elevator for the underground parking. She tried to tell herself that in the larger picture, she'd done a good deed. Cos-mically, she'd just improved her chances of fame and glory in her next life by helping out someone in need. If there was a next life. If there wasn't, she'd just been suspendedwithout payfrom a job she loved, for something that shouldn't have been her fault, but was.
So far it wasn't the best Monday she'd ever had.
The voice came from behind her, but she recognized it. Recognized it and knew her Monday was about to get worse. She sucked in a breath and turned to find Jeff Edwards standing in the grubby hallway. The same Jeff she'd once loved, promised to marry and had almost moved in with
right up until she'd caught him in bed with an eighteen-year-old intern she was training as part of a jobs program for kids aging out of foster care.
Tall, good-looking, successful Jeff Edwards who had dared to demand all his DVDs back after she'd ended the relationship. Jeff Edwards of the California Bureau of Real Estate.
"You really screwed up," he said, holding out an official-looking envelope. "The board is considering revoking your license."
She blinked at him, unable to believe this was really happening. It was like being involved in a car accident, when everything moved in slow motion. While there was no time to stop the course of events that would change her life forever, there was also no way to avoid the crash.
In a perfect world, she would be able to think of some witty, biting comment to put him in his place. But as her world was spinning in much the same direction as her day, she plucked the envelope from his hands without saying a word. In her first stroke of luck that morning, the elevator doors chose that moment to open, and she stepped inside with as much silent dignity as she could muster. Her only minor victory was the look of shock on Jeff's face as the door gently closed, leaving him standing alone and talking to himself.
Chase typed rapidly on his keyboard, his fingers moving in time with the pounding beat of the song playing in his earbuds. On his screen, a small frame in the corner displayed a montage of images flickering on and off, also in perfect synchronization with the music. He ignored them for the most partexcept for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit pictures he'd downloaded the previous week. Those very fine ladies got his full attention. When his program started flashing pictures of rock bands, cars and twisted space aliens, he moved his gaze back to the chat box in the center of his screen, and the message waiting there.
Robotic cat failed to attack mice, although it did fall on one.
Chase read the sentence twice, swore, then pulled out a worn notebook and began flipping through the pages.
Did it show any interest at all? he typed. Can you confirm sensors are working?
Because in the last test, the sensors had been working fine. At least they'd been registering. But did the robot understand what it was seeing? That was where he and Peter stumbled. Maybe a robot cat was too ambitious, he thought for the thousandth time. Maybe they should have started with the mouse instead. Maybe
The pounding in his earbuds suddenly went silent. Chase glanced up and saw Zane standing next to his desk, the jack connecting the earbuds to the computer dangling from his hands.
Instantly he hit three keys in rapid succession, activating the macro that sent a message to Peter telling him, due to adult interference, communication would have to cease for now. All his friends had similar emergency escape messages. Some of them were pretty funny. But looking at Zane's angry face and the fury blazing in his eyes didn't make Chase feel much like laughing.
He tried to remember if he'd messed up recently. He'd accidentally broken a couple of plates while cleaning the kitchen last night, but Zane had already yelled at him for that. Plus the level of anger radiating from him wasn't about two broken plates. Which meant Chase had messed up somewhere else. Somewhere big. But it wasn't noon. Except for breakfast, he hadn't even left his room.
Unless Zane had found out about
Zane didn't say anything. Instead he moved closer to the desk, then leaned over and typed in an internet address. By the time he punched in the fourth letter, Chase knew he was totally and completely screwed.
He watched the site load in a matter of seconds. A panoramic picture of the town of Fool's Gold nestled into the Sierra Nevada filled the screen. Text scrolled at the bottom. Come to the Northern California wilderness and experience a vacation like no other.
The picture faded, replaced by one of people riding on horseback. It was a great photo, he thought, remembering how he'd copied it from another site.
"Start talking," Zane growled as he straightened and fixed Chase with his sternest expression.
When Chase had been little, he'd called it the death-ray look. It used to terrify him. But he'd been a kid then and still unclear on how things worked. Back then Zane had been his big brother and the best part of his world. He'd been too young to know that while he would always think of Zane as his brother, his family, Zane would only think of him as a constant screwup who always got in the way.