Read an Excerpt
Resisting the Rancher
A Three River Ranch Novel
By Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Roxanne Snopek
All rights reserved.
To: Miss Celia Gamble
Congratulations on your new veterinary practice. What a huge achievement. I'm sure you'd do anything to make it succeed. Unfortunately, I've read some nasty things on the Internet about you recently. Things like:
-Offering sexual acts in exchange for preferential grading
-Obtaining hospital assets as payment for sexual acts
-Violation of the Montana Animal Cruelty Act
I understand the pain this must cause you and would like to offer my assistance in clearing up this matter. While a woman cannot put a price on having her life stolen out from under her, I'm sure you'll see my twenty-five thousand dollar fee as completely reasonable.
Sincerely, a friend.
PS: I'll be in touch.
Celia Gamble scanned the words again, then folded the letter up with shaking hands and returned it to the envelope. No return address. She placed it on her brand-new reception desk carefully, as if it were a bomb, and took a step back. When she hit the wall, her knees buckled. She slid to the floor, pulled off her glasses, and buried her face in her hands.
Twenty-five thousand dollars?
The excitement she'd felt since returning from Bozeman two weeks ago disappeared in a tide of disbelief, humiliation, and fear.
And yet another surprise wave of grief.
Yeah, she knew exactly who this letter was from.
She pressed the heels of her hands hard against her eyes, trying to convince herself this wasn't what it looked like. Maybe she read it wrong. She needed some sleep, after all.
Who was she kidding? She needed a lawyer.
She slid her fingers against her scalp. Lutherton had exactly one of those and he happened to be her brother Zach's best friend — not to mention her childhood crush.
Forget legal advice.
She clenched fistfuls of hair, welcoming the pain as if it could absolve her of monumental stupidity. In the aftermath of the accident that killed her brother Cale and gravely injured her father, she'd sleepwalked through half a semester of vet school on legs that felt nerve-blocked, knowing she couldn't possibly graduate, unable to drum up the energy to give a damn.
Until Paul Stone took her into his bed.
No! Celia slapped her hand against the floor until it stung. He'd taken her under his wing! Not into his bed! They'd never been physically intimate. Sure, they'd skated close to the edge, sharing more about their lives than strictly appropriate, but the second he mentioned his failing marriage as the reason behind all his free time and the air of defeat that trailed him like a cloak, she came suddenly, violently, and fully awake. No way was she going to be somebody's "other woman."
Of course, she had to pick a guy with a mad wife hidden in the attic.
Dr. Stone was no Mr. Rochester, but his wife Madison was definitely off her rocker, and now, gunning for Celia.
Something warm bumped her knee.
The one-eyed cat sniffed her cautiously, as if unsure of his welcome.
He rubbed his cheek against her hand. For the first time, the gift of his affection failed to lift her spirits, but she gave him the scratches he wanted and his throat rumbled in pleasure.
Vaguely, she registered the sound of barking, and tires on gravel. Pull it together, Doc. Panic time's over.
She stood abruptly and gathered her ravaged hair into a rough pony-tail. Cyclops scampered away, his white-tipped tail twitching in annoyance.
The upside of setting up Gamble Veterinary Services on Twinridge Ranch? Free rent.
The downside? Living in the rural Montana equivalent of your parents' basement.
Celia ran the back of her hand over her brow and smoothed her clothes. Shoulders back. Deep breath. Smile.
"Come on in!" she said. Too hearty. Try again. "Welcome."
Better. Less crazy.
Rory Granger, from Three River Ranch, peeked through the screen door, a chubby-cheeked toddler in one arm and an enormous bouquet of flowers in the other. Her shaggy chocolate-colored dog, Mistral, pushed past them from behind, then stopped and looked over her shoulder, her lip lifting just once.
Outside, Celia saw Chewy, Zach's dog, skid to a stop before crashing into them. He sat comically wagging his tail, but the older dog ignored him.
"Mistral!" scolded Rory. "Be nice to your son!"
"Miss-al!" yelled the baby, her arms and legs bouncing in excitement. "Benny tooty ton!"
Rory had moved to Lutherton while Celia was away at college, so they didn't know each other well, but she and Carson had been a huge support to the family after Cale's accident.
Poised, pretty and thoughtful, that was Rory. Celia pulled open the door, slamming it against the toe of her biker boot as she did so. Smooth.
"Congratulations," said Rory, hip nudging the vase onto the counter. "Welcome home, best wishes on your new venture."
"They're lovely, but you shouldn't have. Hey, Lulu-bear." She poked gently in the child's armpit and was rewarded with a shriek of glee.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you for setting up here. I was getting sick of taking Missile, as Lulu calls her, to Chinook." The older woman put her daughter down and gave Celia a hug.
The simple gesture disarmed her completely. She had learned in college to live without the interconnectedness of the ranching community. Re-opening those barriers had been tougher than she anticipated, but moments like this reminded her of how much she needed that closeness and support.
She hugged Rory back, hard.
Maybe things weren't so bad. Maybe she was overreacting to the threats in the letter, flying off the handle prematurely.
The dog sat in front of them and offered Celia a paw.
"Aw!" She bent down and got a big slurpy kiss in addition to the handshake. Nothing like a little dog love to boost your confidence. "Such a smart doggy!"
"I think she likes your T-shirt."
Celia glanced down to remind herself of what she was wearing. She really needed to start dressing in front of a mirror.
Proud [begin strikethrough]Vetanarian
Proud Dog Doctor!
"And she reads, too! Best dog ever!"
"Except for those hairy Labradoodle ears." Rory gave her an apologetic smile. "Do you have time for a quick look?"
"Oh, let me think," said Celia, putting a hand to her jaw. "Since you're the first non-family client to darken my door, I could probably squeeze you in, say, now. How's that?"
The well-trained animal was a delight to work with. Plus, everyone knew how crazy Rory was about her dog. For her to trust Celia with Mistral's care was a huge honor. It could go a long way in counteracting any bad press from Paul's wife.
"I was hoping you'd say that! I didn't notice the problem until this morning. Des and I are heading to town for wedding stuff, so I'll be gone all day." She paused. "I can't believe Zach finally got her to set a date."
"I can't believe I'm going to have a sister-in-law."
A metallic bang sounded and they both looked toward it.
Lulu was sitting inside a cage, painting a spit-picture on the pristine stainless-steel. "You rascal!" Rory pulled her out. "Let me get this little monster safely in her car seat, okay? I'll be right back."
Celia examined the dog and quickly found the problem. "A minor ear infection," she called to Rory, over Lulu's complaints.
She put the ear cleaner and ointment in a small bag and waited. How did Rory manage to look so elegant and put-together — while wrangling a small child and a large dog?
"Thanks, Celia, you're a life-saver," said Rory. Even with her hair mussed and her cheeks flushed, she looked like she could be in a magazine. Then, her smile faded. "Something's bothering you. What is it?"
"Uh, nothing." Celia blinked. Some people said Rory was psychic. "I'm tired and stressed from the move. That's all."
"Mm," Rory looked her up and down, her lips pursed. "No. I don't think so. But you've got a clinic Facebook page, right? I'll post a good review. Maybe that will help."
Freaky. Her page was barely a week old.
"Thanks," managed Celia. "That would be great."
Thankfully, Desiree chose that moment to pop her head in. "I hope my God-child isn't going to make that noise the whole way back to your place. Hey CeeCee, we're picking up your bridesmaid dress today. Don't even start. It's going to be perfect. Come on, Rory, let's go."
Bridesmaid dress. Celia had forgotten about that. Sure, they were excited about the wedding. They'd look like Betty and Veronica: perfect hair, perfect make-up and perfect bodies. While she'd be Ethel Muggs. The tow-headed, runty version.
She watched the women drive off, then propped her elbows on the windowsill, taking a moment of comfort from the everyday beauty of a working ranch. On the hillside, cattle grazed while warm sunshine burnished their sable-colored coats nearly black. Neatly stacked golden hay bales stood sheltered by the broad side of the main barn. The fences were straight and tight, the yard tidy.
Twinridge, the only home she'd ever known, had survived the difficult change from traditional to sustainable ranching practices, and was finally thriving again.
And her beautiful, beautiful clinic. Zach and his crew had gutted and renovated an unused outbuilding for her, arranging the small space to accommodate her equipment and meet the stringent requirements for state approval. The apartment above, that she now called home, provided personal privacy. Fresh white paint and black shutters subtly emphasized her independence from the stone-and-shingle exterior of the house, while matching window-boxes full of crimson geraniums, her mother's contribution, linked them and added a welcoming touch.
Pride rushed over her and with it, another twist of sorrow. If only Cale were here to see it. She stood up and reached for the broom. They'd all come so far and now that she was finally an asset, able to care for the animals with a proper medical degree, instead of a liability of student loans, she intended to stay that way.
But what if Paul's wife made good on her threat? If those lies got out, there would be rumors, ugly gossip, questions Celia didn't want to answer. Would it destroy her career? Probably not. The Gamble family was wellloved in the community. Even though Celia was the odd duck, the wild-child of the bunch, people would support her for her parents' sake. She hadn't imagined starting her professional run with a stumble out the gate, but Gamble Veterinary Services would find its feet.
Then she sagged against the broom handle. She could just picture it.
Poor Marnie. She's got her hands full with that one!
Good thing Zach built her clinic on the ranch, where he can keep an eye on her.
Joe's barely walking again; this could set him back.
She'd thought people would finally see a new side to her. She'd succeed on her own merits, and create a whole new reputation at the same time.
Instead, her practice would limp forward on pity.
And her family would be humiliated.
* * *
The middle-aged woman stood in the doorway of his office, clicking one polished talon on the frame.
"You can't keep ignoring me."
E I E I I O U. Old MacDonald Loses Farm Putting Son Through Law School.
Worth it? Not lately.
Jonah Clarke, attorney-at-law and her boss, didn't look up from his smartphone. Some kid was beating him at Words With Friends and that wouldn't do. Anne-Marie shook a sheaf of papers at him, making the bracelets on her wrist jangle madly. "Mitch is one of your best friends. A little fresh air and fun on a Saturday? You remember fun, don't you?"
Yeah. I was having it until about five seconds ago.
"A little help orienting a couple of new kids to ranch life."
"I don't work with young offenders." He kept his eyes on his game.
"You think this is a job offer?" she snapped. "A few Saturdays." Her voice softened. "Mitch does what he can for these kids, but he needs your help."
"Which I give him. In large amounts. As you know."
He rearranged the letters on his screen yet again, but had no choice but to take a dive. So far, his opponent had gotten the X, the J, and the Q.
Heels tapped on hardwood as she approached.
Here it comes, he thought.
Mitch had turned his whole life around when he left the corporate world to buy a run-down ranch and turn it into a camp for high-risk kids. These kids were guilty of little more than chronic truancy, shoplifting, and getting kicked out of foster care. Hard Tack was the best place for them, and Jonah wished Mitch every success. However, bridges still smoked from when Jonah finally gave up fighting the hopelessly inept juvenile justice system.
He wished Mitch the best. The kids that landed at Hard Tack had no idea how lucky they were. They had a chance to turn their lives around.
And if they failed, it wouldn't be Jonah's fault.
"You give money." She dropped the files onto the gleaming glass surface of his desk. "He wants you. Those kids need all the help they can get."
"Have you ever tried to help someone who doesn't want to be helped?"
She raised an eyebrow at him meaningfully.
Jonah nudged the files aside. "I'm done with youth court. I'm done with advocacy and mediation. I'm done with being part of something that only ends up hurting people."
Contracts and insurance, that was his life now. Facts, documents, numbers. No messy emotions to deal with. No more desperate kids pretending they didn't care what happened to them. No more kids promising, too late, to change. No more files closed with a coroner's report.
"Some days," she continued, shaking her head, "I don't know why I clock in. It's not for the slave wages you pay and it's sure as hell not for the workplace culture."
"Slave wages," he snorted. "I pay well above the going rate and you know it."
And since she did the work of three, he was spoiled for anyone else and he knew it.
What did he have now? I O U L A D Y.
Got that right. No one could torture him like Anne-Marie.
"Maybe it's the sparkling conversation." She tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Wait. I get more from my goldfish." Jonah heard the swish of fabric as she crossed her arms.
"I can stand here all day."
He pushed his swivel chair back until it hit the wall then looked up, smiling deliberately, blankly. "Annie-honey, good morning! Have you changed your hair? You look lovely."
She narrowed her eyes. "If you ask me about coffee, I'll —"
"Coffee!" Jonah beamed at her. "I'd love some. Thanks for offering, especially since I know the strong feelings you have about paralegals acting as waitresses. That's what I love about you, your selfless dedication to my comfort and well-being. You are the definition of a team player."
She pulled a chair up and lowered herself across from Jonah, smoothing her skirt and composing her face.
"Sweetheart," she began. "You know I think of you as a son —"
"Nope." Jonah made a back-off motion with his hands. "We are not going there."
"A special kind of son," she continued. "A handsome, sweet, well-meaning boy who spent a little too much time in the birth canal and can't be trusted to look out for himself properly."
"Anne-Marie, you're fired."
"And you are a mid-thirties not-entirely-repulsive male whose closest female relationship is with a menopausal paralegal who, due to her exceptional skill and training, could bludgeon you to death with a merlot bottle and never do a day of time."
"Before you go, I'll have a double espresso, thanks."
Anne-Marie leveled a gazed at him. "Think about it, Jonah."
He steepled his fingers and stared back at her. "Yesterday's leftovers microwaved would also be fine."
Anne-Marie smiled and shook her head. "There's more to life than work, you know."
"I know. That's why I'm back in Lutherton." Jonah got up and walked to the window, feeling a muscle in his jaw twitch.
"If I believed that, I'd be in a hammock in Mexico, sipping tequila, waiting for my Botox appointment, instead of babysitting you."
He'd been passionate about the law, once. Now he understood the high rate of failed marriages and alcoholism in his profession.
"You're bored with contracts and insurance," said Anne-Marie with a sigh. "A little pro bono work for Mitch's kids wouldn't kill you."
He had to work to unclench his jaw. "Mitch's youth camp gets far more value from my money than it ever would from me."
Excerpted from Resisting the Rancher by Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2014 Roxanne Snopek. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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