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Authors: Sherryl Woods

After Tex (21 page)

BOOK: After Tex
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“Easy for you to say,” she said grumpily. “Every time I turn around something's happening, and I'm usually right smack in the middle of it.”

She had a point. “Okay, I'll make you a promise.
If anything comes up that involves you, I will tell you about it right up front.”

She regarded him skeptically. “Cross your heart?”

Jake sketched a cross over his chest. “Promise.”

Tess nodded solemnly. “Okay, then. Maybe you'd better start by telling me where my mom's hiding out.”

“I haven't seen your mother since she visited the ranch the other day,” he said honestly.

“But she's gonna come back, right?”

“She said she would.”

“Is Megan just gonna let me go with her?”

“No, absolutely not,” Jake insisted. “You know that, Tess. That's why she stayed here this week.”

“Maybe I should just go with my mom now and get it over with,” she said wearily. “It would make it easier.”

“Easier for whom?”

“Megan. You.”

“Do you want to be with your mom?” Jake asked cautiously.

“No way. I mean, it's not like she wanted me till she found out about Tex being dead and me maybe having some money, right?”

“Then you can stop worrying about it. Megan and I will see to it that you stay right here at the ranch. Tex wanted you to stay here. He set it up so that you could.”

“But he made Megan come home when she didn't want to. That's my fault.”

“It's not your fault. It's just the way things had to be. Megan will adjust.” He leaned down. “I'll tell you a secret.”

“What?”

“I think she's a whole lot happier about being home than she's been letting on.”

“Boy,” Tess said, “she must be really good at faking it, 'cause, if you ask me, she doesn't like it at all.”

“Remember when you first came to the ranch?” Jake suggested.

Tess nodded.

“After a few days, you started to like it, didn't you?”

“I guess.”

“But you didn't let Tex or anybody else know that for a long time, did you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Tess shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Maybe it was partly because you wanted to punish everybody for making you come in the first place,” Jake suggested.

Her expression was puzzled. “So, Megan is kinda getting even with all of us?”

“I doubt she realizes it, but yes, I think that is exactly what's happening.” At least, he prayed it was. More than anything, he wanted Megan to wake up one of these days and realize that she was truly glad to be back in Wyoming.

Glad to have him back in her life again…even if she was too stubborn to admit it to him.

19

P
eter had actually bought a Stetson—a white one, yet—just as Todd had predicted. Megan couldn't seem to take her eyes off of him as he stood in the doorway of the ranch house, all dressed up as some sort of western hero right down to the tips of his fancy new snakeskin boots. Barely five-ten, a little flabby around his middle, he looked thoroughly uncomfortable and totally out of his fancy Upper East Side element. A suit could cover a lot of sins that an unforgiving pair of jeans could not.

“Well, howdy,” she said, sensing that she'd better slip into a western role herself to keep him from feeling utterly foolish.

Apparently she didn't succeed in reassuring him. His expression fell. “It's too much, isn't it?”

She nodded her agreement. “A little over the top.”

“Does that mean I can get out of these damned boots? They're killing my feet.”

“Gucci loafers in your luggage?” she inquired.

“Right on top.”

“Next to the Armani suit, no doubt.” She led him to a guest room. “When you've changed, come back downstairs. Todd and I are in the office working on preproduction notes. We'll take a break when you get
there, and you and I can work on some budget issues.”

That faint flicker of disappointment returned to his eyes. Megan guessed that he'd hoped for a more personal welcome, something warmer than the peck on the cheek she'd given him.

It was funny. After all these years, Peter Davis was still an enigma to her. He'd been recommended to her by friends the year she'd arrived in New York. His client list was a roster of Manhattan's wealthiest individuals and fast-rising boutique corporations. He traveled in society circles, lending prestige to dinner parties and his name to charity balls.

Yet there was a shy vulnerability about him, a hint that no one was more surprised by his success than he was. Megan had been touched and flattered by his attention at first, but when it became increasingly evident that his infatuation was turning into sentiments she couldn't return, she had tried to cool the personal side of their relationship. Peter had continued to pursue her with dogged devotion, inviting her to dinner parties, theater openings and regular business lunches.

What he needed in his life was a warm, generous woman who could make a real home for him, not one who only pretended to have those skills on TV and in the pages of a magazine.

An image of Peggy came to mind, only to be hurriedly banished. Peggy was married to Johnny Barkley, for better or worse. She was definitely an unsuitable choice for a matchmaking scheme, which just went to prove that Megan was no better at that than she was at baking. How she had ended up in her chosen career was yet another enigma. Maybe she
was trying to prove that anyone could overcome a dysfunctional background to achieve domestic bliss…at least on some superficial level. Heaven knew, her mother had rarely stepped into a kitchen, except when she'd been trying to make up for neglecting Megan. Then she'd baked cookies with a frenzy.

“So, the hero's come to save the day,” Todd said when Megan joined him after showing Peter to his room.

“Don't you dare make fun of him,” she snapped. “He just wanted to fit in, which is more than I can say for you.”

Todd held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, I give up. Peter's a saint and I'm a jerk.”

She waved off the apology. “I'm sorry. I was just feeling guilty.”

“Guilty?” Jake echoed, coming into the room looking tanned and healthy and vigorously masculine.

“Don't get excited. I'm not confessing to my sins,” Megan told him, unable to ignore the stark contrast between this man and the one she'd just left upstairs. Measured against Jake, who was all solid muscle, Peter made a lackluster showing. She couldn't help wondering if she'd been subconsciously comparing them for years.

“Too bad,” Jake said. “Listening to you recite your sins could have been fascinating.”

“Where's Tess?” she asked, deliberately changing the subject.

“In the kitchen eating chocolate chip cookies.”

“I'm surprised you're not in there with her.”

He grinned. “I've had mine.” He held up a foil-
covered plate. “Mrs. Gomez dispatched me to bring a batch to you guys.”

Todd reached eagerly for the plate, then breathed in deeply. “Still warm from the oven. I've died and gone to heaven.”

“You work for a culinary celebrity,” Jake pointed out. “Doesn't she ever feed you leftovers?”

“Sure,” Todd said, biting into a cookie. “Take-out Chinese is my personal favorite.”

“I meant from her own private kitchen.”

Megan scowled at the pair of them. “I don't cook at home.”

Jake chuckled knowingly. “Still lousy, huh? I thought maybe being the host of
Megan's World
might have taught you something. You make it look so easy.”

“Don't you start on me, too,” she said. “I've already had this conversation with Tess.” She glanced up and spotted Peter in the doorway. He looked more like himself in his tailored slacks, silk-blend shirt and polished loafers. “Come on in. You know Todd, of course. And this is Jake Landers. Jake, Peter Davis.”

With Todd looking on in amusement, the two men squared off as if readying for a sparring match. Even dusty and windblown, Jake had the clear advantage. Peter exuded money and polish. Jake exuded pure male sensuality. Megan truly wished it weren't so. Peter was a whole lot easier to cope with. Safer.

“Peter and I have business to discuss,” she said, hoping to dismiss Jake.

Instead, he settled into her grandfather's favorite leather chair. “Don't mind me, darlin'. I'll be quiet as a mouse. You won't even know I'm here.”

Unfortunately, ignoring Jake's presence was as impossible as pretending that she was still happily ensconced in her New York life-style. “Whatever,” she mumbled.

“Megan, these really are private business matters,” Peter said stiffly. “Do you think a stranger should be present?”

“Oh, I'm no stranger,” Jake said before Megan could reply. “Meggie and I go way back. For a time there, we were practically joined at the hip.”

Todd choked on his cookie. Megan glared at him, then at Jake. “If you're staying, keep quiet.”

“Not another word,” he vowed solemnly.

Of course, the fact that he remained stoically silent while she and Peter discussed her company's financial situation made her even more aware of his presence. A discreet cough every now and then hinted of his disapproval of various plans offered up by Peter.

Jake scowled when Peter shook his head over her plan to create a production facility in Whispering Wind.

“What kind of rent will you be paying for this studio space?” Peter asked. “What are the cost projections for renovations? The kind of equipment you'll need won't be cheap. What about offices? Where will the crews come from? It seems to me to be sheer folly to even consider this, when everything you need is already available in New York.”

“I can't be in New York right now,” Megan said. “This is temporary.”

“Then it truly is a waste of money,” Peter countered. “I'd have to strongly advise you against it.”

“Maybe so,” she said, accepting his judgment. “But can I do it?”

“There's money in the bank, if that's what you're asking,” he said tightly. “I thought you were asking my advice.”

“I think she's made it clear that she's not, hot-shot,” Jake piped up, then gave her a rueful smile. “Sorry. I lost my head.”

“Yeah, right,” she muttered. “Okay, we're not getting anywhere like this. Why don't we have another meeting tonight, when Kenny has given me the cost projections?”

Peter scowled in Jake's direction. “Will he be here?”

“More than likely,” Megan said with a sigh of resignation, after glancing at Jake's intractable expression. She reached for Peter's hand. “Come on. I'll show you around.”

“Better watch those shoes, Pete. There's a lot of cow dung on a ranch,” Jake called after them.

As soon as they'd walked outside, Peter regarded her with a miffed expression. “Who is that man?”

“An old friend,” she said wearily. “And my grandfather's attorney.”

Peter stared at her incredulously. “
He
has a law degree?”

“Oh, yes. He used to practice in Chicago, till he decided to come back here, more than likely for the sole purpose of making my life a living hell.”

Jake stuck his head out the door. “I heard that, darlin',” he said, before disappearing inside again.

“He is a very annoying person,” Peter proclaimed.

“Tell me about it,” Megan said. The only trouble
was she was beginning to count on that very annoying person. Moreover, he was beginning to make her palms sweat and her knees go weak just the way he had all those years ago. It was a very bad sign.

 

Satisfied that Peter wasn't outside making moves on Megan, Jake returned to Tex's office and settled in to cross-examine Todd.

“What's the scoop on those two?” he asked point-blank. Jake was fully aware that he was now doing exactly what he'd warned Tess against doing—prying into Megan's private life.

“Megan and Peter?” Todd responded, his expression innocent as a lamb. “He's her CPA, but, of course, she told you that.”

“Anything more to it? The guy hovers like he has a right to.”

“Why don't you ask her?”

“Because you're here and I'm asking you.”

“Then you're flat out of luck, because Megan pays me very well to keep my mouth shut about her private business.”

Jake wanted to remind him that he hadn't been half so discreet with Tess, but stopped himself. He considered pressing the point, but concluded that Todd's loyalty was too admirable a trait to mess with. “Does she know how lucky she is to have you working for her?” he asked instead.

Todd grinned. “I remind her every chance I get.”

“How do you like Wyoming?”

“Hate it,” Todd said succinctly.

“What happens if she decides to stay?”

“I'm praying that won't happen.”

Jake gave him a warning look. “I'm praying just as hard that it will.”

Todd shrugged. “I guess we'll see whose prayers have more pull.”

“I'm not relying entirely on outside forces. I aim to do a little persuading of my own.”

“By sleeping with her?” Todd asked, regarding Jake with disconcerting directness.

Jake considered his own response carefully. Discretion be damned. “No,” he said finally. “That will be all about pleasure.”

“Then you'll use Tess,” Todd concluded with evident scorn. “You really are a low-down louse, aren't you?”

“No. I'm a man who cares what happens to an eight-year-old kid who's just lost the only person who ever really loved her. I'm also a man who knows Meggie well enough to understand that she'll never get past the guilt if she doesn't do what her granddaddy counted on her doing.”

“Why here? Why can't she do that in New York?”

“Because this is Tess's home.” Jake shrugged. “And Megan's, though I don't think she's realized how important that is to her yet.” He wondered if, in the end, that wasn't what had drawn him back to Whispering Wind, despite all the bad memories.

“It's a house, land, a bunch of cows,” Todd said disparagingly.

“It's her heritage.”

“What makes you think her heritage matters to her? She ran away from it once.”

“And I'm betting that she's regretted it ever since,” Jake told him, as sure of that as he was of his
own growing feelings for her. Meggie needed a home more than most. So did he.

“Not so you'd notice. I keep her schedule. Her life in New York is full, jam-packed with friends.”

“And empty of the one thing that counts,” Jake said.

Todd looked perplexed.

“Family,” Jake said quietly, thinking of how desperately he'd always wanted one of his own. All those years of living on the edge with a mother who'd drifted in and out of an alcoholic haze had made him long for a real home, the kind Tex had made first for Meggie and then for Tess. Jake wanted children and family feasts on holidays and a zillion presents tucked under a towering Christmas tree that sparkled with lights. Maybe it was an idyllic illusion. Maybe it didn't exist in real life, but he wanted to find out for himself.

He wanted all of that with Meggie, a woman who'd tossed everything aside for a single life and an all-consuming career. Maybe Todd was right. Maybe Jake was nothing but a damned fool thinking he could have all of that with Meggie. Just because they'd once shared that dream didn't mean it still meant anything to her.

BOOK: After Tex
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