Authors: Sherryl Woods
“All in good time. Have you forgotten what I said when I called you this morning?”
She tried, but came up blank. “What?”
“I promised you a solution to your problems.”
“Oh, that,” she said. She'd assumed that was little more than a ploy to get her away from the ranch for the day, and had dismissed it. “I didn't think you were serious,” she admitted.
“Where you're concerned, Meggie, I am always serious.”
She scowled at his teasing. “Jake, it would take half the advice columnists in the country, along with a few financial experts and military logistical strategists, to solve my problems these days.”
“Give me first crack at it and see if you still feel that way.”
She sat back. “Sure. Why not?”
It took only a few minutes to reach the western outskirts of Whispering Wind. A few years before the town had made a halfhearted bid to bring in high-tech businesses and light industry. Tex had written her about it. The result was this unimpressive complex of mostly vacant offices and warehouses. It had been an ill-conceived idea. No one in town had had the marketing skills to go after the right sort of tenants. Josh Wilson was the only Realtor in town, and he pretty much waited for folks to come to him. Now weeds had grown up and overtaken the pitiful attempt at landscaping. Harsh winters had left the paint peeling and the sidewalks cracked.
She stared from it to Jake. “This is what you wanted me to see?”
“What's to like? The buildings are ugly and nobody's tended the lawn or gardens since they were planted, probably. Everything looks decrepit and neglected.”
“But it's functional,” Jake corrected. “Perfect for a media empire.”
He gestured toward the row of offices. “Headquarters.” Then to the warehouses. “Studios. Bring
in some fancy furniture, some equipment, and bingo, you're in business.”
Megan stared at the property, incredulous. “You have to be kidding. Here? You want me to bring my entire operation to the middle of nowhere?”
“Unless you plan to abandon the ranchâ¦and Tess.”
“Then what choice do you have?”
Backed into a corner, she said rashly, “I'll commute. I've been toying with that for the past couple of days. It could work. I have a very efficient staff in New York. They can handle the day-to-day stuff. I'll fly in, tape my shows, catch up on whatever needs my personal attention and fly back.”
The brash statement flew straight in the teeth of very recent evidence that her staff would probably rebel within a month. Maybe less.
“How many connections did you have to make to get here for Tex's funeral?” Jake inquired reasonably.
“One. In Denver. It wasn't that complicated, Jake.”
“It's still a huge waste of time, isn't it? With all you have to do, isn't time a very precious commodity, not meant to be wasted?”
“I'll buy a damned jet if I have to.”
He shrugged. “If that's really how you want to spend your money and your time, don't let me stop you. To me, this looks more practical.”
“You're talking about relocating dozens of people.”
“Okay, a couple of dozen. They're New Yorkers, for God's sake. They'd go nuts out here.”
“Better for you to wear yourself out commuting,” he said with an annoying edge of sarcasm.
“I'm one person. I can handle it.”
“If you say so.”
“I can,” she shouted.
“Tell me one thing,” he said quietly, reasonably. “If the head of your company, the star of your show, the editor of your magazineâthat's you in all three casesâcollapses, what'll those dozens of people do for jobs then?”
“I won't collapse,” she said, but the words came out with far less certainty than she would have liked.
“No matter what those press releases of yours might say, you're not Superwoman. She was a figment of someone's imagination. You're flesh and blood, merely human.” He touched a finger to her cheek as if to remind her of that. “Soft and fragile.”
“Tough as nails,” she corrected, but with a catch in her voice that was all too human, all too feminine.
“If you say so,” he murmured, right before his lips touched hers.
The kiss was quick and tender, clearly meant to do no more than prove his point. The swirl of sensations it set off was devastating.
“I'm doing it my way, Jake,” she said, making her own point.
He watched her with hooded, doubting eyes. “Suit yourself. But I think I'll take out an option on this place, just in case.”
“You're wasting your money.”
“I'll worry about my bank balance, Meggie. You worry about keeping all those damn balls in the air.”
ake told himself he shouldn't have been disappointed by Megan's reaction to the industrial complex, but he was. If she'd liked it despite its sorry state of disrepair, if she'd taken his idea and run with it, he would have felt more confident that she was going to stay in Whispering Wind and do right by Tess. As it was, he was more certain than ever that she was keeping all of her options open, that she already had one foot out the door despite Tex's very clear wishes.
Even so, he dropped by the real estate office after leaving the ranch and negotiated a deal for the property. If Meggie didn't want it, someone else would. It was just a matter of putting a spin on the town's more attractive features and getting that spin into the right hands. With the number of actors living at least part-time in Wyoming, convincing one of them to open a production facility close to home should be a breeze.
“You're turning into a regular land baron around here,” Josh Wilson declared after Jake had signed the papers. “You hoping to own the whole dang place one of these days?”
“Could be,” Jake said, thinking of the satisfaction
he'd feel in virtually controlling a town that had once shunned him. It might be an interesting goal to contemplate when he had some time on his hands.
“Who was that actress who bought a town down South awhile back?” Josh asked, his expression thoughtful. “You know, that real pretty one. Kim something.”
“Kim Basinger,” Jake told him. “And she didn't buy the town. She found some investors, sold them on the town's potential and lent her name to the deal.”
“Whatever,” Josh said, clearly not especially interested in the facts. He rarely had been. “Anyway, that's the one.” He shoved a second set of papers in front of Jake. “Sign here and here. We'll schedule the closing whenever you're set with the money.”
“Schedule it,” Jake said.
Josh blinked. “You know, son, even in a small town like this, it takes time to get loan approvals, that sort of thing.”
“Not a problem,” Jake assured him. “Just set the closing, Josh. I'll be here with the money.”
Obviously enthused by the prospect of a quick, hefty commission from the sale of the town's abandoned property, Josh grabbed Jake's hand and shook it. “A pleasure doing business with you, son. A pleasure.”
Jake gave him a wry look. The older man must have a far shorter memory than he did. Not twenty years ago, Josh Wilson had been among the first to label Jake as a troublemaker. He and his wife had led the crusade to have Jake and his mother driven out of town. Only Tex's intervention, his hiring Jake and
advancing him the money to pay the rent on their ramshackle houseâwhich happened to be owned by Joshâhad kept the Wilsons from making good on their threat to see mother and son banished from Whispering Wind.
Jake could remember seeing his mother coming home from yet another confrontation with their landlord, her shoulders slumped, her head bowed, her cheeks red from the humiliation he had subjected her to. Impotent fury that he'd had no outlet for had raged through Jake time after time. He had vowed with a child's fervor that one day Josh Wilson would pay. Nothing that had happened in the intervening years had dulled his determination.
If there had been another Realtor in town with whom he could have done business, Jake would have. Instead, he concentrated on lowballing every piece of property he bought, coming as close to stealing it as he legitimately could. He was collecting property like squares on a Monopoly board, accumulating them one by one so that one day there would be nothing left for Josh to buy or sell. Only when the Realtor was all but penniless would Jake be satisfied. He looked forward to the day when Wilson would need something from him and he could send him packing, just as the Realtor had done to Jake's mother time and again.
The walls were closing in on Megan. Funny, she thought, staring out the window. Here she was, surrounded by wide-open spaces, in a house that sprawled over several thousand square feet, and she felt more claustrophobic than she did in her compar
atively cramped New York apartment with skyscrapers blocking every view.
A lot of that feeling had to do with Jake's sneaky attempt to back her into a corner that morning. It wasn't so much that she'd hated the industrial park on sight. It was what it represented. She'd seen it as a trap. If she'd leased that property, even on a temporary basis, it would have been as much as an admission that she was back in Whispering Wind to stay. She wasn't ready to admit any such thing.
“I brought you a cup of tea,” Mrs. Gomez said, bustling in and giving Megan a welcome break from her dark thoughts.
The housekeeper placed a tray on the corner of the wide oak desk that only a few days earlier had been Tex's. Ranching books and magazines had been piled high, along with a haphazard array of bills and a box of the fancy cigars Tex had favored. Megan had dealt with the bills an hour ago and had moved the books and magazines to the shelves behind her. Now the desk was littered with her own papers, crowded with a computer and a fax machine and a three-line phone that the phone company had installed while she was out.
“Two cups,” Megan noted, glancing at the tray Mrs. Gomez had brought. “And a very big slice of your sour cream cake. That must mean you want to talk.”
The housekeeper nodded. “If you've got the time.”
“For you, always.” She caught Mrs. Gomez's worried expression. “What's on your mind? Is there a problem?”
“More than one, I'd say. I haven't wanted to burden you before now. You've had enough to deal with.”
“Just tell me,” Megan urged.
“There's the ranch, for starters. The men want to know if you intend to keep it operating or if you plan to sell out. Winter's coming on. There are decisions to be made. Up till now, Jake's been handling some of it, along with Tom Hagen, but you're in charge now. You owe it to the men to give them fair warning if you intend to sell out. They'll need to find other jobs, and winter's not the best time for doing that.”
Megan stared at her, grappling with the concept of being a rancher whether she wanted to or not. “I don't know anything about ranching.”
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Gomez said sternly. “Of course you do. Your granddaddy saw to that. He had you working with him from the day you arrived here. You've been on cattle drives. You've done your share of branding.”
“But I hated it.”
“That doesn't mean you didn't absorb at least some of what he tried to teach you,” Mrs. Gomez contradicted. “Tex always believed you had what it took.”
“Tex was wrong.”
Mrs. Gomez regarded her sympathetically. “Megan, I'm not saying whether you should keep the place running or not, just that if you do, then you'd best get to it. This ranch was your granddaddy's pride and joy. It would be a shame to see it suffer from neglect. The men Tex hired work hard. They're loyal. You won't find a better foreman anywhere than Tom.
But it's not the same as having an owner who keeps a close eye on things.”
The walls seemed to creep another foot inward, crowding her. “I see,” she said tightly. “Anything else?”
“There's my own position to consider. If you're going back to New York, do you want me here? I've got a place with my sister in New Mexico whenever I want it. My other sister would move there in a heartbeat, if I'd agree to go, too. I'm at the age when the prospect of slowing down some holds some appeal. Tex's legacy would be enough to keep me going.”
Alarmed, Megan stared at her. “No. Please, I need you here.”
The woman who'd been as close to a mother as anyone Megan could recall smiled softly at her response. “Is that just panic talking or do you really intend to keep this place going and me here with it?”
Megan put her hands over her face. It was all she could do to keep from screaming in frustration and confusion. “I wish I knew what was right,” she whispered. “I only know what Tex wanted.”
“Tex was wise in many ways,
but he didn't know everything. You must look into your heart and see what is right for you.”
“And for Tess,” Megan said. “Don't forget about her.”
“I could not if I tried. But she will be happy only if you are. If you stay out of a sense of obligation or duty and are miserable, you will only hold it against her. She is a very bright child. She will feel that, even if you do your very best to hide it.”
“But when I so much as mention going to New
York, Tess reacts violently. She loves it here. She feels secure. How can I take that away from her?”
“She did not feel that way when she first arrived,” the housekeeper reminded her. “She was frightened and angry, just as she is now. Think back to how you felt the first few weeks you were here. You were lashing out at everyone, me included. Time helped you, as it has Tess. If she feels secure here, it is because Tex did what he could to make her feel that way. Could you not do the same for her in New York, if that is where your heart is?”
“Are you telling me to go?”
Mrs. Gomez smiled sadly. “No,
I am telling you that your options are still open. Do not make a decision for the wrong reasons.” She stood and patted Megan's hand. “For the moment, we will leave things as they are. I will tell the men they are to go on as they would have if Tex were here. Shall I tell Tom he has the authority to make whatever decisions he thinks are for the best?”
“Yes, and thank you. I won't take too much longer, I promise.”
“Tell me one thing.”
“Where does SeÃ±or Jake fit into all of this? Are you struggling with that decision as well?”
“He doesn't,” Megan insisted.
“But he is coming for dinner tonight,
Megan had forgotten. “Yes,” she admitted with a sigh.
“He is a good man.”
“You always believed that, didn't you?”
“Even when my father accused him of stealing the cattle?”
Megan felt that sense of having failed Jake more deeply than ever. “I wish I had.”
“I was old enough to reach my own conclusions,” Mrs. Gomez told her. “You were still very much under your grandfather's influence.”
“Do you think he lied about it deliberately?”
“I would not like to think so.”
“But you believe it's a possibility,” Megan persisted.
Your grandfather loved you very much. Just as now, he thought he knew best. It was a way to be sure you would go off to college as planned. Little did he know that it would wind up with you staying so far away. Perhaps if he had been able to see the future, he would have been less likely to interfere in such a way.”
“He made it possible for me to go to New York.”
“I think it might have been his way of punishing himself for being so foolish where a young boy was concerned.”
“Not a boy,” Megan said fiercely. “Jake was a man even then.”
the housekeeper agreed. “Perhaps that is what your grandfather feared the most.” She reached for Megan's hand and held it in her own. “Let it go. It is in the past and cannot be changed. The present and the future are what matter now.”
But the present and the future were filled with such uncertainty, Megan thought as she tried to concentrate on her work for the rest of the afternoon. Either be
cause she was distracted or because she was overdue for a run of bad luck, nothing went well.
She fielded a dozen calls from Todd, each one more frantic than the last, until she finally agreed to fly to New York on Sunday so she could be in the office first thing on Monday. She called Peggy right away to postpone their dinner party until her return. “I'm sorry to do this to you. Next weekend will be great, if it works for you.”
“I'll be looking forward to it,” Peggy said. “Don't worry about me. You have a real safe trip, okay?”
Only after she'd hung up did Megan realize there had been genuine disappointment in her friend's voice. Obviously Peggy had been counting on their get-together more than she had realized. It was just one more thing for her to feel guilty about.
To make matters worse, Jake spent the entire evening pestering her with a hundred little decisions that needed to be made about Tex's estate. What annoyed her even more was that he never once looked her directly in the eye. He seemed to have distanced himself from her because she hadn't immediately fallen in with his plans for that industrial park.
Then, to top it off, right after dinner Tess disappeared. When Mrs. Gomez announced that the girl was nowhere to be found, Megan didn't believe it.
“She has to be around somewhere,” she responded with exasperation. “Did you look in the barn? She's been spending a lot of time with the kittens.”