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Authors: Sherryl Woods

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She sounded so confident, so sure of her facts that Megan was taken aback. “Jake didn't steal the cattle? Are you sure?”

“Well, of course I am. I can't believe you didn't know that.” Peggy shook her head. “No, I take that back. It makes perfect sense. Tex certainly wouldn't tell you. Not only was he a man who never cared for
admitting a mistake, but he wouldn't have wanted you running straight back to Jake. I always wondered if he didn't have something to do with those charges being trumped up in the first place, but then I couldn't imagine a man as upstanding as Tex O'Rourke doing such a low-down thing.”

“Peggy, what are you talking about?” Megan demanded, cutting into the rambling monologue.

“There were no stolen cattle,” Peggy said succinctly.

“Of course there were. Why else—”

“No, it was all some huge mistake. Or so they claimed once the dust settled. That's why your grandfather paid for Jake to go to college and law school, to make up for midjudging him.”

“Tex paid for Jake's education?” Megan repeated, stunned.

“Every penny.”

“And the cattle were never stolen.” She couldn't seem to grasp the implications of that.

“Nope. They'd just wandered off to some other pasture, according to the story that came out eventually. They were grazing a few miles up the mountain, happy as could be.”

“He never said a word,” Megan whispered. “Not one word.”

“Who, Tex?”

“No. Jake. All these years he's let me go on thinking the worst of him.”

“What did you expect? The man had his pride. You were supposed to know him better than anybody on earth and you thought he was a thief. Never even had a doubt about it, as far as I can recall. Is it any
wonder he never said a word, after the way you let him down?”

The accusation stung, in part because of the truth of it, in part because it was coming from a woman who'd never been a particularly big fan of Jake's back then. Now Peggy sounded like a blasted cheerleader. Obviously the tide had turned in Whispering Wind.

“I wonder if he'll ever be able to forgive me,” Megan said, surprised and dismayed to find that it suddenly mattered. All those years of thinking of Jake as the bad guy were nothing more than wasted time and wasted regrets. It was just one more thing to hold against Tex. At this rate, by the time the funeral came along in the morning, Megan was going to be glad to see the sneaky old coot buried.

 

There was a light dusting of snow on the ground when Tex was finally laid to rest on the hill overlooking his spread of land. A mountain of flowers covered the grave, from the splashy, elaborate arrangements he would have loved to the simple bouquet of daisies that Jake had helped Tess pick out at the florist in town.

All during the service Tess had kept her hand tucked in his while huge, silent tears rolled down her cheeks. He had a feeling it was the only display of genuine emotion in the entire crowd of mourners. Most people were here because it was expected. Some had come out of curiosity, because they wanted to see the hot-shot from New York who'd once lived just down the road.

As for Meggie, she certainly didn't appear all that broken up. Dry-eyed and coolly competent, she
looked as if she were worried about nothing more than catering details, when he knew for a fact her heart had to be breaking. Still, five minutes after the service ended, she was back at the house, issuing orders to the temporary kitchen staff and putting the final touches on an elaborate buffet for the mourners. She did it all with a brisk efficiency that proved entertaining a crowd this size was second nature to her.

As he watched her place steaming platter after steaming platter on the table, Jake couldn't help wondering what had happened to all the food the neighbors had dropped off in Pyrex dishes covered with foil. Probably not up to her fancy standards.

She stood by the table and frowned at some flaw Jake couldn't detect. He wandered over to stand beside her.

“Something wrong?”

Megan barely glanced at him. “There's something missing, but I can't pinpoint what it is,” she said with evident frustration.

“Nobody's going to notice if you've left off a saltshaker or a serving spoon. They're coming by to show their support and their sympathy, not to see if Megan O'Rourke can throw a great party,” he reassured her, even though he'd been thinking exactly that about the mourners' motives earlier.

When she would have protested, he tucked a finger under her chin and forced her gaze to his. “Meggie, it's not a test.”

For a moment tears swam in her eyes. She looked lost and surprisingly vulnerable. “I have to get it right,” she whispered. “For Tex.”

“Then you should have thrown a barbecue and
been done with it. That was Tex's style, Meggie. Not all this fancy silver.”

He'd meant it to be reassuring, but he knew instantly she took it the wrong way. Fire flashed in her eyes.

“Are you saying I've gotten this wrong, too? Well, who the hell are you to tell me what my grandfather would or wouldn't like?” she exploded. “He was
my
grandfather, dammit. Just because you somehow managed to cozy up to him these last few months doesn't mean you knew him better than me, Jake Landers. It doesn't.”

With that she burst into tears and fled to the kitchen. Jake hadn't intended to goad her into an outburst, but he couldn't help being glad he'd broken through that tough act she'd been putting on for everyone's benefit. He was about to follow her when the housekeeper put a hand on his arm.

“Let her go,” Mrs. Gomez said.

“I should have been more sensitive, I suppose,” he said, but without much real regret.

“No. She needed a good cry, but she won't like you seeing it. You being the cause gives her an excuse she can handle right now. Thinking of Tex being dead and buried is still too much for her.”

“Is she going to be all right?” he asked, still staring worriedly after her.

“Oh, I imagine she'll be just fine in time. Megan's a strong, resilient woman. She's had to be all her life. Her world's a little topsy-turvy right now, but she'll set it straight soon enough.”

It sounded kinder when Mrs. Gomez said it than it
had when he'd sarcastically accused Megan of being adaptable. “Will she be okay with Tess?”

“As I said, she is resilient. She is also good-hearted. She will do what is right for the child.”

Still staring after Meggie, Jake sighed. “There have been a lot of times these last few months when I've regretted letting Tex talk me into drawing up that will of his. This is one of them.”

“If you hadn't done it, someone else would have. Better that it was someone who knows Meggie, someone who cares about her and can see her through this.”

His gaze shot to hers. “I never said…”

She patted his cheek. “You didn't have to. It is in your eyes. It always has been.” She gestured toward the table. “Now pile a plate up with some of this food and eat. You will need your strength for what's to come,
Sí?

Jake had a feeling he could eat every last scrap on the buffet and still not be strong enough to deal with Meggie when she found out about Tex's final devious scheme to get her back to Wyoming for good.

5

T
ears streaming down her cheeks and, no doubt, destroying her carefully applied makeup, Megan retreated to the back steps, where she was pretty sure no one would find her. The fight with Jake had been absurd. She knew that. But it had set off a whole slew of insecurities and stirred up anger and resentment that she'd kept pretty well tucked away inside for the past couple of days.

The anger had been misdirected, of course. It was Tex she was furious with, not Jake. She was mad at him for being sneaky and conniving and, most of all, for being dead.

Now she'd never have the chance to tell him that she loved him, that she owed him or that she was sorry they'd fought. It was too late to take back what she'd said—not that she would have—about belonging in New York, not Wyoming, no matter how much it hurt him to hear it.

The cold air was drying the tears on her cheeks and setting up goose bumps when she heard a soft, shuffling sound and noticed Tess creeping up beside her. The girl's face was streaked with dried tears and dirt, and her hair was a tangle of mussed curls and straw. Obviously she'd paid another visit to the barn. As
pitiful as she appeared, she still shot a defiant look at Megan.

“Why are you crying?” Tess demanded, as if Megan had no right to shed tears over Tex.

“Same reason as you, I imagine.”

“You didn't care about Tex,” Tess accused.

“Yes, I did,” Megan corrected mildly.

“Sure didn't show it. I been here six months and this is the first I've seen of you.”

“Because I work in New York.”

“So? You make a lot of money, least that's what Tex said. You could have come home, if you'd wanted to.”

Megan sighed. “Yes, I suppose I could have.”

Tess seemed startled by the quick admission. “How come you didn't, then?”

“It's complicated,” Megan said, for lack of a better explanation.

“Complicated how?” Tess asked, refusing to be put off.

Was this what life was going to be like from now on? Was she going to be asked tough questions by a kid, rather than a reporter? Megan struggled to find a plausible answer that would satisfy an eight-year-old. “Tex and I didn't always see eye to eye about the choices I made.”

“Like what?”

“Like me living in New York.”

“You liked it better than here?”

“Yes.”

“I don't get it,” Tess said. “This place is the best. There's stuff to do and it's real pretty. Why would you rather be in some big, ugly city, all crowded in?”

The characterization of New York had Tex's stamp all over it. Megan had heard it often enough over the years. She supposed now was as good a time as any to contradict it, to get Tess excited about the prospect of moving east.

“Because my work is there,” she explained. “And because it's filled with people from all over the world. It's amazing, like no place else I've ever been. It's bright and glitzy and energetic. There's something going on every minute. There are museums and plays and wonderful restaurants. You'll see.”

Tess regarded her suspiciously. “What do you mean, I'll see?”

“When you come there to live with me.”

Tess backed up, her expression as horrified as if Megan had suggested taking her on a spaceship to an alien world. “I'm not coming there. No way. You can't make me, either.”

Megan reached out a hand, but Tess moved farther away.

“This is where I live. It's where I belong,” the girl all but shouted. “Tex said. He promised!”

Tess turned then and ran, leaving Megan shaken. She hadn't expected such a violent reaction. Why hadn't Tex prepared Tess? Foolish question. Because he hadn't believed he was going to die. Then again, there was the will, naming her as Tess's guardian. That proved he had known. He'd just chosen not to stir things up. He'd left that to Jake.

As if just thinking about him had conjured him up, Jake appeared at the doorway behind her, his expression filled with concern.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Just peachy,” she said without looking up.

“I'm sorry for upsetting you earlier.”

Megan started to lie, to protest that he wasn't even capable of upsetting her, but she didn't have the energy for the debate that would have inevitably followed. Instead, she just shrugged, as if it were of no consequence.

“People are beginning to leave,” he said. “They'd like to say goodbye, if you're up to it.”

Because it was expected, she stood and brushed herself off, patted her cheeks to smooth out her makeup, and offered Jake a bright smile.

“Of course I'm up to it. The O'Rourkes don't indulge in self-pity.”

“No one would think any less of you today if you did,” Jake noted.

“I would,” she muttered, and swept past him. In her business world, appearances mattered. In Wyoming, they mattered, too, though for very different reasons. Here it was important not to seem standoffish, to be the good neighbor that Tex had been, to show what O'Rourkes were made of.

Megan kept that smile plastered on her face for the next hour as she accepted condolences from dozens of people she'd never met before and dozens more she hadn't seen in years.

When the last of them had left, she sank into a chair and breathed a sigh of relief. But she realized she'd done it a bit too soon when Jake settled into a chair opposite her. He'd shed the jacket of his black suit and loosened his tie, which gave him a rumpled, sexy look that would have been hard to resist if she hadn't been so utterly exhausted.

“I thought you'd gone,” she said.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” he said wryly. “But we have business to take care of, unless you'd rather come into town tomorrow.”

She was sorely tempted to take him up on the delay, but that would be cowardly. “No,” she said finally. “Let's just get it over with. I can see you won't be happy until you've spilled whatever deep, dark secrets have been nagging at you ever since I got here.”

He pulled a sheaf of papers from a briefcase. “Want me to do a formal reading of the will or would you rather scan it yourself?”

She held out her hand for the papers. The document in a blue folder was the will, she concluded after a glance. An envelope held a letter from Tex. Her fingers trembled as she took out the pages and stared at his familiar scrawl.

“Darling girl,” it began, as his letters always had, even when he'd been mad at her. Tears stung her eyes. She wouldn't break down now, not in front of Jake. Swallowing hard, she lifted her gaze to his. “I'm not so sure I can do this right now, after all.”

He took the papers. “Let me.” Putting the letter aside, he started with the will, reading through a lot of legal jargon that held no surprises. There were bequests for Mrs. Gomez and other employees, a trust fund for Tess, and the legal guardianship arrangement putting Megan in charge of Tess's future.

“Is that it?” she asked when Jake paused.

“Not quite. On this last part, though, I think the letter spells out his wishes better than all the legalese that's in the will. Maybe you'll understand his rea
soning better. If it's too painful, I can read it aloud for you.”

His words, his tone alerted her that what was to come wasn't going to thrill her. Perhaps she could do a better job of concealing her reaction if she read the letter to herself, after all.

“I'll read it,” she said, taking the letter from Jake's outstretched hand.

It began with a plea for her understanding about Tess, an apology of sorts by Tex's standards.

I know I'm leaving you with a burden that, by rights, isn't yours to shoulder, but I'm counting on you, girl. Be a mother to that child. Lord knows, she hasn't had much of one up till now.

Megan glanced at Jake. “Do you know anything about Tess's mother?”

“Her name—Contessa Florence Olson.”

“Contessa?”

“A name, not a title, I assure you,” he said wryly. “She goes by Flo. From what Tex told me she was waiting tables at a restaurant in Laramie when he met her about nine, maybe ten years back. They saw each other from time to time over a year or so. A matter of convenience, I believe he called it.”

So, Megan thought, it had begun about the time she'd gone away to college. Tex had been lonelier than she'd realized and had turned to a stranger for companionship. Funny, Megan had never thought of Tex as being lonely. He'd seemed like the most self-contained man she'd ever known.

“He had no idea she was pregnant?” Megan asked.

Jake shook his head. “Not until Flo appeared one day about six months ago, said she was tired of the hassle, that it was his turn to take responsibility for the kid. Off she went without a backward glance. She hasn't been heard from since. I've checked and there's no sign of her in Laramie. No one there has heard from her.”

“Poor Tess,” Megan murmured, knowing precisely how she must have felt the night she'd been left behind. Pity wasn't what Tess needed, though. She needed a home, and Megan wasn't the least bit convinced she could provide one. Tex, however, hadn't given her much of a choice. She returned her attention to the letter.

When I'm gone, give the child some time right here on the ranch to adjust. Don't go dragging her off to New York. Thanks to the way her mama dumped her here and ran off, Tess's world has been turned upside down too much as it is. You should remember what that was like, Megan. It'll be a bond between you. Seems to me you'll be good for each other. You both need family whether you realize it or not. It's been sorely lacking in both your lives. I regret that more than I can say, but I did the best I could by both of you.

So far, Tex's request wasn't much of a shocker. It made sense to stick around for a couple of weeks to give Tess a little time to get her feet back on the ground again. With Todd and Micah to handle things
in New York, Megan could juggle her responsibilities and make that work.

Then she recalled Tess's earlier reaction to the idea of going to New York, and she realized with dismay that her grandfather hadn't intended this to be a temporary adjustment at all. He wanted Megan back here permanently. Jake had pretty much laid that out for her, too, when he'd said if she didn't follow her grandfather's wishes, the ranch would be up for grabs, and that he was first in line to claim it.

A terrible sinking sensation settled in the pit of her stomach as she read on.

Whatever it is you have to do to keep all those balls you're juggling in the air can just as easily be done from here. That's what faxes and computers were made for, leastways that's what you're always telling me. Put technology to good use. Make this one of those challenges you're always talking about. You can make it work, Megan, if you want to badly enough.

Could she? Tex certainly had more faith in her than she had in herself, at least in this one area. Megan glanced back at the page and saw that there was more.

If you choose to go, if other arrangements need to be made for Tess, well, Jake knows what to do. You've made your own way. You don't need anything I could leave you. I have to take care of the child, Meggie. I have to see to what's best for her.

He'd phrased the letter in the form of a request, but it was evident from this final paragraph that it was a whole lot more than that. Megan was to stay on the ranch with Tess indefinitely, become the rancher he'd always wanted her to be—or lose everything. Her choice, or so he wanted it to seem.

“He expects me to stay here?” she demanded, staring at Jake for confirmation of her own interpretation of the letter.

“Yes.”

“Or?”

“The ranch will be sold—to me—and the money will be put in trust for Tess.”

“He can't mean it,” she whispered, even though she knew that he had.

“He did.”

“But I can't go on living here. I can't just walk away from my career, everything that means anything to me.”

Jake shrugged. “You have a choice. Stay, or go and lose the ranch. Tess can stay on here with me.”

“That's no choice. I don't give a damn about the ranch. I never have.”

“Then walk away. You certainly don't need his money or his land, right?”

“No,” Megan agreed. She didn't need land or money, but she had always craved Tex's approval, and she knew that even from the grave he'd withhold it if she didn't at least try to do as he asked.

Besides, she thought, who else was there? Not Jake, no matter how calmly he had declared his willingness to step in. She wouldn't have him doing what was by rights her duty. She—Lord help them both—
was all Tess had, just as Tex had once been all Megan had had. She would manage just as Tex had. O'Rourkes always did what was expected of them. It had been her grandfather's mantra.

BOOK: After Tex
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