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It came upon a midnight clear
As soon as Ty Hopewell heard the familiar voice and recognized the opening bars of the song, he made a conscious effort to focus on his breathing, on the people passing in front of where he sat in the lobby of the Nugget Hotel and Casino. On anything except that song. He hadn't lived in the boonies for so long that he'd forgotten the day after Thanksgiving was the kickoff of the Christmas season. But he'd forgotten that every public place in Reno seemed to play music.
That glorious song of old
Ty swallowed and then drew in a breath. He could do this. He could sit here and wait for his appointment. Or he thought he could, until he made the mistake of closing his eyes.
From angels bending near the earth
Instantly he was lying on the frozen ground, disoriented and in pain. The truck was on its side, the cab caved in, the headlights cutting through the darkness at an angle that was just plain wrong.
The truck's front wheel slowly spun.
Bing Crosby sang.
For a moment it had been too much to process, and then he'd realized that the radio in the demolished truck was still playing. Somehow. Bing's rendition of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was the only sound in the cold desert night, so out of place in the aftermath of a violent wreck.
And then there had been another soundhis own voice screaming for his friend, demanding that Skip answer him
Ty opened his eyes and got to his feet. He'd go outside, away from the music, to collect himself. Great plan, but he hadn't taken more than two steps when he saw her crossing the casino lobby. Madeline Blaine. Skip's sister.
It had to be her, since the time was exactly ten and she was wearing black slacks, a short red jacket and a black-and-white-checked scarf, exactly as she'd described on the phone the day before. She zeroed in on him, although she had no way of knowing what he looked like, and made a beeline toward him. Ty took off his hat as she approached.
"You must be Mr. Hopewell," she said briskly, extending her hand before he had a chance to speak. He took it briefly, knowing his own hand was probably ice-cold. It was the first time he'd met any of Skip's relatives. The funeral had taken place back east, where Skip had grown up.
"Yes. I'm Ty."
He was struck by how little she looked like Skip. Her hair was straight and dark, while Skip's had been light brown and wavy. Her eyes were green; his had been brown. And Skip had been a big guy. His sister was on the small side, her features delicate. The only similarities he could see were the distinctive high cheekbones and fair skin. Skin that tended to fry under the Nevada sun. Skip had been forever sunburned.
She gestured at the chair where he'd been sitting a few seconds before. Ty obligingly sat and she took the chair kitty-corner to his, so they could face each other. Obviously Ms. Blaine was going to run this meeting. Ty just wanted it to be over. Hell, he wished he knew what it was aboutand he wished Bing would shut up already, but the singer geared up for another verse.
Peace on the earth, goodwill to
Ty ran a finger around the inside of his collar and Madeline Blaine tilted her head as she appraised him, a slight frown drawing her dark eyebrows together. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. Fine." Except for the guilt that was crushing him as Bing sang. Technically, Skip's death had been an accident, but one that clearly could have been avoided if Ty hadn't been so damned stubborn.
He'd reached the point after twenty-three months where he didn't think about it as muchsometimes he could go several oblivious days at a time. But when he did think about Skip's death, it ate at him.
He looked into Madeline Blaine's clear green eyes, having no doubt about what had triggered him today. He hadn't been looking forward to this meeting with Skip's sister, and Bing hadn't helped matters.
He cleared his throat. "Ms. Blaine"
Oh-kay. She was a professor of anthropology at a small university somewhere in New York, but he hadn't realized he had to use her title. "Dr. Blaine."
Ty took a deep breath. "I hope you didn't fly out here just to meet with me."
"Why else would I have come?" She spoke quickly, with unexpected defensiveness. Ty was a guy who watched people and picked up signals. The signal he was getting here he didn't quite understand.
"I thought you might have plans to do something else, to have some fun while you're here." Fun. Shit. Yeah, she should have fun while on a trip to settle her brother's estate. "What I mean is that there's stuff to do here in Reno."
Madeline sat a little taller. "I came to meet with you," she said, clasping her hands together. "About the ranch, as I'm sure you've surmised. The reasons we're losing money."
"We broke even this quarter," Ty pointed out. And they'd had this same discussion on the phone more than once. He understood her impatience, but the cattle market wasn't exactly booming right nowalthough organic beef was doing better than regular beef.
What he didn't understand was how flying across the country to meet with him face-to-face was going to help. To use the guilt factor perhaps? No matter how guilty he felt, it wouldn't make the cattle sales rebound any faster than they were. But.whatever.
"The market is better than it was six months ago, yet that's not reflected in the ranch profits," Madeline said.
"There are things you need to understand." Things he'd thought he'd explained before, but for some reason Madeline wasn't getting it. "I've had to sink money into the ranchmoney Skip would have had to sink into the ranchto keep the infrastructure intact." He'd refenced the property and reroofed the barn, eradicated weeds, worked on the roads. The ranch wasn't in bad shape, but that was only because of the hours he'd put in after the accident, trying to forget the unforgettable.
Madeline nodded. Old news.
"Feed costs are up." Which was a double killer when cattle prices were down.
"I thought you raised your own hay," she said coolly.
"Not enough to feed the entire herd over the winter," Ty replied, still wondering why they were having this discussion in the lobby. Yet another carol played in the background. But at least this way they could get the meeting over with and Madeline could go about her business, whatever it might be. There was no way she'd flown across the country only to meet with him in a casino lobby.
"Then perhaps you need to plant more hay," Madeline said reasonably, as if pointing out a solution that had escaped him. But there was something in the tone of her voice that made Ty shift in his chair.
"The fields can only be irrigated during the spring because of the power and water situation, so that limits the amount of hay we can grow. And living off the grid, generating our own power, is expensive, what with ongoing generator maintenance and repairs and fuel."
She leaned back, studying him for a moment before saying, "I want to see the ranch."
Ty frowned. If he had known that, he would have sent photos. Real photos. The ones Skip had posted on his social websites had been misleading. They hadn't exactly shown anything except a spectacular view and cattle in the field. He'd probably sent his family the same pictures.
"In person," she added, reading his mind. If Ty's teeth hadn't been clenched so tightly, his jaw would have dropped. "It's a five-hour drive."
"I've leased a car."
Leased? As opposed to rented? He felt a knot tightening in his stomach. "Look, Ms
." Ty gave up. "It's your right to come look at it, but I don't see how it's going to help. It's a long trip and then you'll just have to turn around and drive another hour and a half back to the closest town for the night."
"I plan to stay on the ranch."
Somehow he managed to say, "Why?" rather than "Are you nuts?"
Madeline pulled her shoulders back, making her posture even more upright. "Because I want to know exactly what's going on. I want to see how the operation runs and try to figure out why it isn't making money. Skip was no fool. If he went in with you, then the business, the property, must have had merit."
She was correct. Skip was no fool. But he'd been a romantic and thoroughly swept up in the cowboy mystique. Organic beef raised in an isolated environment off the grid appealed to him. "The property is good for what we wanted."
"Yet according to you, the property itself is part of the reason you're not making money."
"That and the market," he said grimly. He rested his forearms on his thighs, holding the brim of his black felt hat between his fingers as he met her eyes.
"The problems you've outlined are all problems Skip was dealing with when he was alive, and yet the ranch made money
It was the way she emphasized the word then that finally clued Ty in.
"The ranch will make a profit again," he replied in a low voice, his expression stony.
Madeline drew in a breath through her nose, the action eloquently conveying her feelings on the matter, and Ty's back went up. He wasn't used to being treated as if he was trying to pull a fast one. A guy who'd caused an accident that had killed his friend, yes, but not a con artist.
He twisted his mouth as he debated, then he looked straight into her eyes and asked, "Did you fly here to accuse me of cheating you out of your half of the profits?"
She eyed him coolly. "Either that or mismanagement."
"Your accountant has the books."
She said nothing, but he could practically hear her asking, "Which set?"
He stood then, his hat in his hand. Reminding himself of her loss, of his culpability, he tried to hold in his temper. But Madeline Blaine didn't appear to be suffering over the loss of Skip. She seemed a lot more concerned about getting cash from the ranch. Well, that was her right. He owed her.
He also didn't like her.
"I'm not ripping you off."
She ignored the edge to his voice, which was a mistake.
"Unlike my brother, I tend to see the reality of situations without romanticizing them. I'm going to the ranch. I'm going to spend some time there and when I'm done, I'll know whether I need to audit, sell or hire someone to run my part of the business. Efficiently."
"Good luck with that," he said abruptly. Ty wasn't easily insulted, but this woman was taking wild swings at his integrity. "Keep me posted." Then he started for the stairs to the parking garage.
"Wait." He stopped and turned back. She was still standing next to the leather chairs. "You need to show me how to get there."
Ty stared at her for a second, then shook his head and started walking again. "You may as well show me," she said, catching up to him. "I'm going to spend the next several weeks there." She spoke as if he were foolish to ignore obvious logic.
"Then you'd better bring some food, lady, because I'm not sharing."
Madeline watched Ty Hopewell walk away, every inch the cowboy in his jeans, boots and burgundy wool jacket. And how appropriate that he wore a black hat over his dark hair. She didn't trust him. Not for one minute.
Skip had thought the world of him, but there was something fishy going on here. Why would the ranch make a decent profit right up until Skip's death? Her accountant had pointed out the vast amount of money Ty was pouring back into the ranch, which cut the profits down to nothing, but neither of them knew whether the expenditures were necessary.or even happening.
Madeline lived two thousand miles away. Ty could say he was doing a lot of things, but whether or not he wasthat was the question. If he was benefiting from her brother's death and cheating her in the process, it was going to stop. If he merely stank at managing the place, that had to be addressed as well, and thanks to an unfortunate twist of fate, she was free to look into the matter.