Authors: T. J. Kline
For my Little Stink. The path ahead is rocky and rough but always trust in your heart. You know where you belong. Don't ever give up on your dreams no matter what anyone says.
call from Brendon, Jessie. We can't keep pouring money into Heart Fire without some sort of income. If you won't take in guests right now, you need to think about selling a few of the horses.”
Jessie Hart held the phone away from her ear, taking a deep breath and trying to contain herself before she blasted her brother with the anger bubbling like lava in her chest. How many times did she need to explain that she didn't care what their accountant said or how many times he called, the horses weren't ready to be sold yet? She couldn't rush them. These were abused horses, for goodness' sake. Several of them were still recovering, psychologically as well as physically, from the mistreatment they'd faced. She couldn't just sell them to the highest bidder and wash her hands of the situation.
Justin was a veterinarian; he should understand. Why couldn't he see how much this meant to her? She just needed a little more time to figure out how to turn the ranch into a rescue facility; she couldn't give up and go back to running the property as a dude ranch now. Maybe she should just explain what she and their father had been planning, how he'd agreed to let her turn the ranchâat least part of itâinto a horse rescue. But Justin had always seen it as another waste of time, a drain on the family finances. In his own words, horses were a money pit unless she was buying and selling quickly.
“I don't tell you how to run your vet clinic, so don't tell me how to run
ranch.” She clenched her jaw, barely able to stem the flow of angry words before her mouth got her into trouble again.
Justin sighed. She could picture him, rubbing his temples the way he always did when he was growing impatient with her.
“I'm not telling you how to run it, Jess, but we need to figure out something. Right now, my clinic is the only thing keeping
ranch in the black. I can't keep delaying buying new equipment in order to fund a place that used to turn a profit.”
“I bet you didn't ask Julia to sell any of her dogs,” Jessie snapped, instantly regretting her quick temper. It was her worst trait, the one thing her mother had left her that she wished she hadn't. It wasn't fair to drag her sister or her service dogs into this argument.
She didn't need to hear the words come from his mouth to know what he was thinking: Julia wasn't the one driving the family ranch into ruin; Jessie was.
“No, I didn't.” Justin's voice softened, the way it did when he was trying to soothe terrified animals in his vet clinic. Jessie was beginning to feel a bit trapped herself. “Maybe it's time to think about taking in guests again. It's been months since Mom and Dadâ”
“No!” She couldn't give up her dream, not yet. This plan had been in its first stages when their parents were killed in the car accident. She had to see it through to fruition. She just needed to buy herself a little more time to figure out how to get cash flowing into the ranch again. Maybe she should sit down and talk with Brendon about getting another loan. If nothing else, it would get her brother off her back.
The thought sent shivers of dread up her spine. She couldn't stand the creepy way Brendon watched her every move, as if he owned her. He'd always been overly possessive, but lately he'd been dropping by unannounced and following her around the ranch. He'd never wanted to be around when her parents were alive. She certainly didn't need him stalking her now.
“Then will you please take my advice and talk to Nathan? I'm sure if I call him, he'll help out. He's been all over the news for the last five years, turning huge corporations around. He's a financial genius.”
“I don't need help from someâ”
Justin sighed. “Yes, we do, Jessie. You could at least talk to himâsee what kind of advice he offers.”
She'd spent too long trying to forget Nathan Kerrington. She didn't want to think about how it had felt to be in his arms and the longing that had sent her young heart falling hard for a man who didn't belong in her world. She didn't want to think about the last time she'd seen him, climbing into the truck with her brother on their way back to college. Or the way he'd promised to stay in touch, to come back the summer after graduation.
What a stupid, naÃ¯ve girl she'd been at eighteen. She had never heard from him again after that. Two weeks after returning to college, Nathan had moved out of the apartment he shared with Justin and never spoke to either of them again. According to Justin, the only reason Nathan gave for ending their friendship was that it was for the best.
She refused to ask for Nathan's help. She'd rather punch his rich kid face. Unfortunately, she couldn't tell her brother that. He had no idea what happened between Nathan and her that summer. No one did. She should have known better when he'd asked her to keep their relationship a secret until he talked to Justin about it.
Jessie sighed heavily into the phone. “What does some stuffy CEO know about running a horse ranch?”
“This isn't a regular horse ranch though, is it? It's a
ranch, a resort, Jess. At least, it would be if we had guests.”
“Don't start again, Justin. I'm doing the best I can.”
“Then let me help. Let Nathan help.”
She wasn't sure why she was letting him talk her into this. The last thing she wanted was a stiff Wall Street tycoon wreaking havoc on her ranch, especially one who lied, used people, and then threw them away. She didn't need that kind of help. She couldn't risk Nathan flipping the ranch on its head and leaving her worse off than before.
She wasn't going to allow Nathan to tell her how to run the ranch that she'd been working with her parents for years. She and her two siblings were born and raised on this ranch, cutting their teeth on snaffle bits and western saddles. She knew and loved every inch of the two-thousand-acre spread, even if only a third of it was hers to operate now.
Jessie inhaled deeply, trying to settle the anxiety twisting in her gut. She also couldn't let her siblings down again. Justin and Julia loved the ranch just as much as she did. She might run the daily operations of Heart Fire Ranch while her brother ran the vet clinic and her sister headed Heart Fire Training, but each of them held a one-third partnership in the other businesses. If one was having trouble, they all were. And right now, Jessie was the one on the edge of financial ruin. She was the one single-handedly destroying the legacy their parents had spent their lives creating. She was beginning to believe
was her only area of expertiseâletting everyone down.
She couldn't let her siblings suffer so she could chase her dream of turning Heart Fire Ranch into a horse rescue and rehabilitation facility. Even if the thought of running Heart Fire as a dude ranch again made her skin crawl. She had only done it because it was what her parents wanted. When she was a teenager, they had needed her help. Justin and Julia had wanted to go to college, but she'd stepped up. Still she had always hated the constant influx of people who saw her way of life as a novelty. She would much rather work with people who understood her love for the animals. Not just city slickers looking for a vacation retreat. Unfortunately, her dreams and sense of pride weren't paying the bills.
“Fine,” she finally agreed. “Call him. I'll hear him out, but only because I love you.”
“I was hoping you'd say that. He's flying in on Friday. I'll tell Bailey to clean one of the guest cottages this week and pick him up at the airport.”
“Wait, what? He can't stay here. You said
, not have him come for a visit.”
“He offered, and I'm not about to turn down a chance like that. Besides, he was my best friend.”
“Some friend, Justin. You haven't spoken to him since your senior year of college. He bailed on you, remember?”
“And I'm sure he had his reasons for leaving. I have to go. Mrs. James just brought in that damn cat again. I'll come by later.”
“No, wait! He can't stay here.”
The click of Justin disconnecting the call was confirmation that he had gone ahead and done what he wanted without asking her again. Irritation burned in her chest. Her idiot brother had actually invited Nathan out to her ranch without asking her. Jessie shook her head. Just because she rescued horses didn't mean she wanted a jackass on her ranch.
the arrivals hall of the Sacramento International Airport as he waited for his luggage to come around the carousel. Justin had promised to send someone to pick him up, but he had no idea who he should be watching for. He prayed it wouldn't be Jessie. After the way he'd left things with her, he was surprised she'd even agreed to him coming. Not that he could blame her. He owed her an apology, at the very least, but how did you apologize for taking a woman's virginity then abandoning her? Hallmark didn't have a card for that.
He'd done what he had to protect her, but it didn't change the fact that he'd hurt two people he'd cared about. He hoped that saving Jessie's ranch might prove to her he hadn't meant to hurt either of them. Eventually, he was going to have to tell her the truth: how his father had been prepared to use his wealth and influence to destroy her family's business, just to maintain control over his son. But Jessie had never been the forgiving type. Nathan pushed aside the memories of the curvaceous eighteen-year-old girl who'd stolen his heart and searched the terminal for a friendly face.
Nathan half-expected to see a ranch hand waiting for him with some dirty pickup truck belching out smoke and country twang. Justin would do it just to drive him crazy. He couldn't help but grin as he thought about the trouble they'd caused in college. When he'd initially moved into the residence hall and found out his roommate was a hillbilly country boy, Nathan had cringed. Back then, neither would've guessed they had anything in common, let alone that they would become inseparable. At least, until his father realized he could use the friendship to twist Nathan to do his bidding. It wasn't the first time his father had tried to use people Nathan cared about to get his way, but turning his back on Justin and Jess had cost him more than any other.
He reached for his Balenciaga bag, slinging it over his shoulder, and looked around the nearly deserted airport. Arriving at two in the morning wasn't his usual style, but something in Justin's voice told him this matter was urgent, so he caught the first flight out. He rubbed his eyes, feeling the grit behind the lids.
What he wouldn't give for a limo and a nice aged scotch right now. He took a few steps toward the front doors, wondering where his ride was, when he saw the young girl, barely awake in a plastic chair. With her hair pulled back in a ponytail, ripped jeans, and worn T-shirt bearing the name of a band he didn't recognize, she reminded him of a street-smart version of his little sister.
She looked too much like Justin to not assume she was family. She rose when he walked toward her. “Nathan?”
He narrowed his green eyes. “Yes, and you are?”
She thrust out a hand. “I'm Bailey. Justin asked me to come pick you up.”
He crossed his arms, wondering if he was really going to let this teenager drive him to the ranch or if he should just call a cab. “How old are you, sixteen?”
She cocked her head to the side and glared at him, planting her fists at her hips. “Almost twenty-two, thank you very much.”
Nathan quirked a brow at her tone. The girl had spunk; he'd give her that. Few people dared talk to him the way she did, and he grinned, feeling like Dorothy. This wasn't his Kansas anymore. He was definitely out of his element. “I'm sorry. But don't sweat looking young, kid. You'll love it when you're my age.”
She eyed him skeptically. “Because you're so ancient, right?” She headed for the front doors, pulling the keys from her pocket and spinning them around her finger, leaving him no choice but to follow. “And, don't ever call me kid again, if you know what's good for you.”
“I remember you.” Nathan chuckled at her spirit and hurried after her, his long legs eating up the distance between them quickly. “You were that skinny cheerleader who followed Justin and me around when I stayed at the ranch that summer.”
She stopped midstride and spun back toward him. Nathan almost ran into the back of her, catching himself with his hands on her shoulders. At the sudden stop, his bag swung forward and banged against her ribs, knocking her back a step. “Slow down, Wall Street. We're not in a hurry, and we've got a long drive ahead of us.” She eyed him, taking in his gray Armani suit. “Justin says you're some kind of genius.”
Genius wasn't the term he would use. Leave it to Justin to exaggerate. He was pretty successful at restructuring flailing businesses, and it had become something of a niche for him as a consultant. But he was used to financial renovations, not rebuilding them from nothing. From the sound of things, Jessie needed a small miracle. He wasn't sure about all the details but, according to Justin, after their parents' death six months ago, the dude ranch had sunk into the red.
“Not the way I'd put it.”
Bailey laughed. “What kind of genius wears
to a dude ranch? I mean I thought I'd seen a lot of people come and go on the ranch but you beat them all.”
He arched a brow and, for the hundredth time in the last few hours, regretted caving to Justin's request. He didn't belong out here. A horse ranch didn't fall into his wheelhouse of expertise. The summer he'd spent here, he'd been completely useless until Justin had taught him how to use a hammer and nails to help mend fences. Stacking hay and building corrals didn't take a business degree to figure out, but the Harts had welcomed him anyway. He owed Jessie, and from the worry he'd heard in his friend's voice, there wasn't time to waste.