Authors: Rebecca Winters
Zane eyed Trace. “Jarod said you've got something to tell me pertaining to Ned I need to hear. He said it would be better coming from you. What's going on?”
For the next ten minutes Trace told him virtually what he'd told Jarod about his conversation with Owen Pearson, plus his own plans to sell the ranch. “Whoever the buyer is, I want all of you to approve. That includes Connor.”
He saw Zane eye Jarod. “I can see why you felt this was important.” Then his gaze switched to Trace. “I'm glad you haven't spoken to a Realtor yet. For your ranch to be put on the multiple listings, it could rip off the Band-Aid of a very old wound that has never healed.”
“What do you mean?”
“How much do you know about the history between the Bannocks and the Corkins?”
“My dad told me Daniel Corkin has always had it in for the Bannocks. Something about oil, but he never knew the details.”
“Then let me fill you in. Silas Bannock, a Scottish Presbyterian, drilled for oil on his property in 1915. At the time it was part of the Elk Basin Oil Field, and he hit a spewing gusher. Since it was on private land, he claimed all the money and built up the Bannock ranch. With wise investing over the years, Ralph Bannock has turned it into one of the wealthiest cattle ranches in Montana originally funded by oil.”
Trace had no idea.
“In 1920, Pete Corkin, an English Methodist and neighbor of Silas Bannock, established the Corkin Ranch, the one we're sitting on right now. He drilled on this land and made some strikes that fizzled. In that same year Congress established a law that you had to lease federal land from the government and pay a royalty. Over the years, the Corkin descendants couldn't get rich by drilling for oil so they turned to cattle, and thus began a jealousy and a rivalry that developed into hostility.”
Jarod sat forward and picked up the story. “Over the years this envy on the part of the Corkin family over our family's success escalated. Daniel Corkin swore he heard a story from one of his hands that a Crow Indian saw a vision about oil being under Corkin land.
“Convinced he'd be wealthier than the Bannocks when he made his strike, he became so obsessive about more drilling, his wife, Eileen, Sadie's mother, divorced him and went to her family in California. But he threatened to kill Eileen if she tried to take Sadie with her.”
Trace couldn't believe what he'd just heard. “So that's why Sadie spent so much time with Liz's family.”
Jarod nodded. “Daniel left the raising of Sadie to the Hensons, his foreman and wife. When Daniel died, he left nothing to Sadie in his will, and he made it impossible for any Bannock to buy the ranch. But that didn't hold up in a court of law. When the ranch was put on the market, Ned Bannock wanted it and was determined to buy it.”
“That's right. He was still in love with Sadie and wanted her, too. Using his father's and grandfather's money, he put in his bid with the Realtor. But my grandfather went to his attorney and we found a way to outbid him so Sadie could keep her property.”
“They did it by helping me so I could buy it in my name,” Zane interjected. “By that time I'd come from California with Sadie to help her raise Ryan, who is my brother Tim's son. I wanted to start a new life here after both Tim and my wife died. This property is now called the Corkin-Lawson Ranch. It'll be my nephew Ryan's legacy one day.” His voice grew husky. “I'll be indebted to Jarod and his grandfather forever for what they did for Sadie and for me.”
“But we still have a big problem,” Jarod interjected. “Like Daniel, Ned is still convinced there's oil under all our ranches. On his last birthday three weeks ago, he came into his inheritance. The second he hears that you've put the Rafferty ranch on the market, he'll forget his idea to go in on a feral stud farm with Owen, and use the money to buy your ranch. In his sick mind, he'll want it so he can drill for oil and be wealthier than anyone. Then Sadie will want him.”
“That's really sick, Jarod.”
“You don't know the half of it.”
“Jarod's right,” Zane said. “In my mind Ned is a sociopath. Maybe he didn't kill Logan. That I have yet to discover. But he tried to kill Jarod.”
“I know. Last night Cassie told me about the therapy sessions. They revealed that Ned has always hated her.”
“He's been jealous of his sister and brothers, my cousins, and me for as long as I've known him,” Jarod murmured.
Trace eyed both men. “I can tell she's afraid.”
Zane grimaced. “With good reason.”
Jarod said, “The other day Grandfather told me and Connor that according to Uncle Grant, Ned has been a model patient and his doctors feel he's ready to come home for good. But none of us believes it. There's something wrong in Ned's nature. If he gets upset, he'll go after anyone who gets in his way.”
“After what happened to Logan, Cassie has to be terrified,” Trace said.
“That's why Uncle Grant has always been afraid of Ned. We have a situation we're going to have to handle.” Jarod got to his feet. “Sorry to have held you up, Zane, but I felt this was important for you to hear.”
“It's vital,” Zane replied. “If you're intent on selling the ranch, Trace, get it done discreetly by private sale. Hopefully Ned won't find out about it until long after it's a fait accompli. As for Cassie, she knows she'll always have a home with us.”
“Or me or Connor,” Jarod exclaimed. “Now that she's pregnant, she's going to need family. We're all going to have to help keep her safe.”
Trace got to his feet. “You two have given me a lot to think about.”
Zane walked them outside. “Let's keep in close touch from here on out. Now that you're retired from the Air Force, I know Avery wants to give a party to welcome you home.”
“That sounds terrific.”
“Words can't tell you how sorry we are about your eye injury.”
“It's nothing compared to the many guys who've lost lives.”
Trace waved Zane off before they drove away and headed for Jarod's house. The conversation had increased his fears for Cassie's welfare. Jarod slanted him a piercing glance.
“With you back, it feels like the circle is complete once more.”
Emotion thickened his throat. “It's great being with you again, Jarod. I'd forgotten just how much I've missed my oldest friends.”
“Then prove it and stay put.” He got out of the truck. “We'll talk again soon.”
“Yup. Tell Sadie hi for me.”
Trace drove back to the ranch, hoping Cassie was still up. There was a lot he needed to say to her. But when he walked inside, it was quiet and he knew she'd gone to bed. After talking with Jarod and Zane, he could see things were more complicated than he would have imagined. Nothing was black-and-white.
When he got ready for bed, he remembered what his doctor had said about working things out with Nicci before he made any decisions. Trace fell asleep frustrated that she hadn't called him today. His last thoughts were of Jarod telling him to stay put.
* * *
he came awake to the smell of strawberries drifting through the house. Cassie was at it again. He was glad she hadn't gone anywhere yet. He was glad her brother wasn't back living on the Bannock Ranch yet.
Content that she and the baby were safe for the moment, Trace could relax while he thought about the conversation with his father yesterday. “Before you make a decision you can't take back, why not rent the house for the next year, son, to give yourself time?”
In the light of morning his father's suggestion made sense. The right renter would pay a lot for the use of the house sitting on prime hunting land. If Trace charged enough money, his father would receive substantial monthly payments that would add appreciably to his income.
Once he was working in Colorado Springs, Trace could fly to Billings for a weekend once a month to see his father and inspect the property. It could work. How would Nicci feel about it? He needed her to come! The doctor in Billings was right. There was no way he could make definite plans about anything until they were together and could make a decision about getting married.
He rolled onto his side and reached for the phone to call her. To his chagrin it went through to her voice mail. Trace asked her to get in touch with him as soon as she could. Had she refused to answer his calls on purpose? They needed to talk before any more time went by.
Once he'd showered and dressed, he walked through the house and heard voices in the kitchen. One of them was male. Connor! A smile broke out on his face as he entered. “Well if it isn't the king of the rodeo!”
“Dude!” His dark blond friend made a beeline for him and gave him one of those hugs he was famous forâone that could throw a bull to the ground in a couple of seconds. No one had ever called him that but Connor.
“I thought you were injured at finals, but I swear you're tougher than ever.”
Connor let out a bark of laughter. “Don't I wish, but you're looking ripped. How in the hell did you run into a laser?”
Cassie stood in the background, dressed in a blue-and-green print top and jeans. The pregnant woman was beautiful no matter what she wore. Her gaze swerved from Trace to her cousin. “It ran into
, Connor. Kind of the way that steer bucked upward and tore your shoulder. Talk about the walking wounded around here, but no one would ever know looking at the two of you!”
Both men chuckled. Connor's blue eyes twinkled as he studied her. “I guess you thought you could keep
condition a secret, sweetie pie. But Jarod and I had our suspicions a month ago when we saw you leading Masala around instead of riding him. Liz and Sadie are already fighting over who's going to get to babysit your daughter.”
Trace eyed Connor. “Did she show you the ultrasound picture yet? It's like a miracle.”
“No.” Connor shot him a speculative glance. “I haven't had that privilege. Cassie? Can I see it, too? Liz and I are trying for a baby.”
“What do you mean you know?”
“At your wedding reception Liz whispered to me that giving you a child would be her top priority in the foreseeable future.”
“Apparently there are no secrets.”
“NopeâI'll run to the bedroom and get it.”
In another minute she was back. Trace smiled at her before he took the picture from her and showed it to Connor. While they tried to pick out all the parts, Cassie finished a batch of jam.
Connor let out a whistle. “Your baby's going to be a real knockout.”
“You're full of it, cousin.”
“That wasn't nice. I may not have been born with Jarod's gift of vision, but I can say without any doubt that your baby's going to be just like her mother. You brought every cowboy in Carbon County to your doorstep in high school.”
“Stop, Connor. You're embarrassing me in front of Trace.”
“Why? You know it's true and Trace is practically family. You broke so many hearts when you went away to Missoula, it took me and Jarod at least a year to pick up the pieces you left behind. I think Russ Colby still hasn't married because of you.”
“Nope. He stopped me at the supermarket the other day, wanting to know how you were getting along since the funeral. I could swear he was nervous and it wouldn't surprise me if you hear from him one of these days. I know what you're going to say. That it's too soon since Logan's passing, but I just thought you ought to know.”
Trace wouldn't be surprised either. When he'd taken Cassie to that film on Friday night, every male in creation was aware of her. It wasn't just her exceptional looks a man found appealing. She glowed.
When he'd first seen her in the garden at the side of the house, he was drawn to her in a way he hadn't been to another woman besides Nicci. But he could tell Connor's comments were getting to her.
He put the picture on the table. “Have you got time to ride with me this morning?”
“That's why I'm here.” Trace could read between the lines. Connor had already been in communication with his brother and Zane.
“Good. Then we'll get out of your hair for a while, Cassie.”
She darted Trace what could be a grateful smile. “When you get back I'll have lunch waiting for you.”
“I'm looking forward to it already,” Connor said over his shoulder. They left through the back door and headed for the barn. The sky had become overcast. “It might rain later.”
“Jarod told me you handled Masala like he was your horse. You ride him while I take Buttercup.”
In a few minutes the horses were bridled, but both men rode bareback. They headed for the forest and rode as far as the second stream crossing the property. “When I think of the years we used to ride all over the Pryors...” Connor murmured. “It's great to have you back, Trace.”
“Save it,” Connor cut him off. “I know all about your plans to get out of Dodge, but you can't do it.”
“I'm planning to get married.”
“I know all about that, too. You don't honestly think you'll be happy at the Air Force Academy. It won't work. I'll give you a month at best before you want out. Anything less than flying again and you'll hate it. You're a crack pilot, Trace, but those days are over.”
“But if I stay here and work the ranch, I've a feeling in my gut Nicci won't like it.”
“How soon is she coming?”
“I don't know. I'm waiting to hear any day now.”
“Well don't do anything about the ranch until you've spent time with her here. It would be a waste to take her to Colorado Springs. You're a cowboy to the roots, Trace. What would you have done if there'd been no injury? What if you'd finished out all those years as a pilot? Then what? Stay in Italy for the rest of your life away from your father? Doing what?”