Authors: Tina Leonard
“The Aguillar landowner is proving to be the most difficult,” stated Carter Haskins with a shake of his head. “We can’t get him to budge.”
Zachary Rayez eyed his employee patiently. The man was leading up to something, but he was afraid it might be awhile before they got around to the heart of the matter.
“And I don’t mind saying it’s become something of a Mexican standoff between us and the Aguillars. As long as their property remains privately held, the other landowners continue to refuse our offers, too. For the most part, anyway.”
Zach glanced out the window of Carter’s spacious office, letting his mind wander temporarily while his colleague ranted about the difficulties of getting folks to sell their land. Some of those farms had been family landholdings—and usually homesteads—since the early 1800s. Zach knew sentimentality didn’t concern Carter Haskins. With a new state highway going in and land deals turning over at outrageous prices, upwardly mobile Carter scurried to buy as many innocent people out as possible—all for the sake of “progress”.
It was more for the sake of Carter’s reputation—and to line his pockets—than for any real gain to their corporation, Ritter International. The sweetener for politically savvy Carter was how good all this brokering flurry made him look to his friend, the governor. Carter could point to his sales as stimulating industry. The governor could claim, “New jobs! Texas is back in the saddle again!”, always dropping Carter’s name to folks interested in buying up Texas land. It was a let’s-rub-each-other’s-back fraternity.
Nobody would bother to count the minority who had to find a new way of life. A new way to make a living. To solder new ties to old memories.
Zach sighed to himself. Privately he could sympathize with the landowners. But it was his job to ensure that everything went smoothly at Ritter International. And as far as helping indecisive folks make up their minds, Carter Haskins was good at his job. Occasionally, damn good.
Carter’s thundering voice brought Zach out of his musings. “I couldn’t even get the Aguillars to consider an offer.”
Zach slid his gaze cautiously to Carter’s face. Zach had given notice of resignation to Ritter’s board over a month ago. Slick salesmen—reminiscent of carpetbaggers—were a breed he intended to cut ties with as soon as his tenure here was over. He’d made plenty of money, but now he wanted to make some he could feel good about. He wanted to go to sleep at night without being haunted by the faces of people he’d come to know and respect, mostly small landowners he’d persuaded into selling out in the name of progress—concrete and steel for highways and businesses. Being president of Ritter International had felt wonderful in the beginning, before he’d realized that people were drowning in the sea of green bills washing them out of their homes and heritages.
“Carter, if you’re hinting for help on this, don’t. I can’t go out to Desperado. With my wedding to LouAnn coming up in a month—never mind my last day here is in two weeks—” Zach slipped in smoothly, “I just can’t afford the time away.”
Zach shifted in his chair, arranging an appropriately regretful expression on his face. Inside, he was relieved. Life married to LouAnn Harrison was going to be very sweet. She was calm, with none of the hypertensity his colleagues usually exhibited. He liked that. And she had no aspirations for him politically. His future included taking over the family business from her old man, which was cushy indeed. Zach looked forward to that rosy picture, and getting delightfully plump and blonde LouAnn pregnant every year. She might not be the most intellectual woman he’d ever met, but he could get warm just thinking about how her soft little hands eagerly reached for him at night. Thanks to LouAnn, he could dodge this last manipulation of Carter’s and finish his work in Austin.
Then he was going to try his damnedest to forget about all the lives he’d helped ruin.
Carter sat down behind his massive mahogany desk, sighing. He pulled out a fat, Mexican-brand cigar, stuffing it into his mouth unlit. Zach’s words hung in the room, and he appeared to consider them before speaking. “You know, I’ve always thought of you as a good friend, Zach.”
Carter peered at him through gray eyes that shone with sincerity, and Zach shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Carter’s smooth sales talk had been helpful in making Ritter International financially secure in a tough political and financial climate, and in return, Carter had benefitted greatly from Zach’s ability to induce highly placed people to see his side of things. It had been a mutually advantageous relationship, businesslike and efficient. But if Carter was pulling on his emotional strings now, something had to be up. Something big.
Zach nodded, acknowledging the other man’s sentiment and going along with the game for the moment. Carter apparently was satisfied, for he continued, “If we want to catch the attention of the business world on this one, Zach, we ought to move quickly. Ritter International stands to become an even bigger player if we can close sales in that area of Texas. We’ll be able to bid to bring large corporations to that region, now that the state highway is almost certain to run right through it. Think of the effect on commerce in that region, and the tourists that might be drawn there.”
Zach didn’t want to see where any of these points were leading. Ritter International stood to gain some additional cachet, perhaps, maybe some clout for the commercial real-estate deals they could pursue. But an uncomfortable itch at the back of his neck told him that the person who would gain most from these ambitions was Carter. Zach raised a brow, but remained silent.
“The Aguillars have been an ornery thorn in our backsides that we’ve tried to be gentle about removing, but it’s not working. The race for the governorship is going to be dirty this coming year, and those damned Democrats are going to shoot at us with everything they’ve got. With Texas suffering so much financially, we could dry up like a puddle in the sun if the leadership changes hands and we lose our inside track.” Carter stared at Zach intently. “These transactions could be the ones that push Ritter International over the top in the real-estate game.”
You mean you need to make hay before your highly placed connection gets the boot.
Zach shook his head, unwilling to jump to the trumpet call Carter was sounding. “My wedding is in four weeks, Carter,” he reminded him, his tone definitive. “This job might take that and likely longer.”
Carter rolled his cigar pensively in his mouth. “This deal should be so easy you could do it with your eyes closed. The old man who owns the property’ll probably kick off any day. And you’ve got the rest of your life to make up for your absence to LouAnn.”
Resentment curled through Zach. LouAnn would be more than unhappy. She’d be livid. There were enough showers and supper parties in the next four weeks to fill up an old maid’s calendar—not that he cared about any of the peripheral merrymaking surrounding his impending nuptials. But it mattered to LouAnn, so it mattered to him.
“Look, Carter,” he began, his tone assertive, “I gave the board my word I’d stay through the next two weeks. But that was to tie up loose ends, dammit, not to go running off to some godforsaken patch of yellow land nobody’s ever heard of before. If wooing them by phone isn’t working, then go call on the Aguillars in person.”
Carter listened to him patiently and reclined in his chair, kicking his boots up on the desk. “They already hate me just by the sound of my voice. This sale is going to take real finesse if it’s going to happen.”
And they both knew that finesse was something Zach Rayez had in abundance.
Zach shook his head. “No.”
Carter leaned forward across the desk. “It surprises me that you won’t take the time to see that your creation is positioned where it should be, at the top of the competition.”
Zach returned Carter’s stare. He could feel Carter’s speculative gaze on him, appraising him like a snake about to strike an unsuspecting victim. “Your point is convincing, Carter. So convincing that it makes me wonder what the real story is. Is there a detail or two you’d like to fill me in on?”
“Nope.” Carter shook his head. “Just that, as you know, the stockholders are hungry to get this first major sale in that area.”
“How does it have my name on it? Just because I started Ritter?”
“It just as easily has mine, Zach. But the Aguillars hang up on me when I call. I figure, you go apply your usual charm to this deal, and I’ll have the easy part. There’ll be a lot of brokering to do if you can push this first sale through.” Carter grinned.
Zach frowned. “Let’s try to remember that I’m the president of Ritter International, Carter. You don’t make decisions for me.”
Carter shrugged. “Even vice presidents have their uses, Zach. One of mine is that you hired me to do your haggling with our country clients. Your dirty work, in other words. This time, the job is eluding me. I think you could handle it in your sleep. But, do whatever you want.”
Damn. Carter’s points were salient. It would be a wonderful edge if Ritter could get ahead in that region. But LouAnn would be a witch on a broom for days over this sudden business trip. A sparkly gem or two would make up for his absence, of course. Something to show off at those ridiculously shallow cocktail parties. Hell, everybody had a price. LouAnn’s was jewelry and real fur.
Two weeks of Zach’s time, to figure out what the Aguillars’ price to sell out was, would be a minor inconvenience he’d hardly even notice.
Ignoring Carter, and not about to concede that he would be going to Desperado, Zach slid his jacket on. He also ignored the small voice accusing him of being glad of the opportunity to escape from the claustrophobia of the wedding plans his fiancée was enjoying to the fullest.
“It is not necessary for you to make a trip out here, Mr. Rayez,” Annie Aguillar spoke into the phone. “The right of eminent domain can’t be applied to our land. We are willing to fight our case in court if we must.” She hung up, her hands trembling.
“Who was that, Annie?” Travis Cade walked slowly into the room and waited for her answer. Almost eighty years old but still the handsome man he’d been in his younger days, her father kept a vigilant watch over her and her six-year-old daughter, Mary. The cane he was supposed to lean on was carried in his hands instead, as if he was prepared to fight an unseen enemy.
Annie smiled at her father’s protective instincts. “The same old thing, Papa. A Mr. Rayez wants to come out and smooth-talk us out of our land. I told him he was wasting his time.”
“Good girl.” Satisfaction gleamed in Travis’s worn pewter eyes. “Don’t let those oil-slick city boys intimidate you.”
“What’s a right of empty domain?” Mary asked from her perch in a windowsill overlooking the front of the house.
Annie glanced at her only child fondly. “Well, it means that if the government wants to take your land for people to use, they can. They have to pay you for it, but it’s just not the same. Money is never the same as heritage. But don’t worry, Mary; nobody’s going to take our land,” she said fiercely, more to herself than to her daughter.
“Oh.” Mary looked out the window again, her curiosity turning to other things. “Look, Mama! A snake!”
Annie crossed to the little girl’s side and glanced out the window. “It’s a big one, too. Stay in the window, Mary, while I go catch him.”
She quickly pulled on knee-high boots and grabbed a long-handled pole from a closet in the kitchen. Making certain Mary was still sitting in the window, Annie hurried out the front door.
“Be careful, Annie,” her father called.
A rifle cocking punctuated his words, and Annie knew her father would watch at the window with the same grave excitement as Mary. If she couldn’t catch that rattlesnake alive, her father would make sure its skin ended up adorning a pair of cowboy boots.
The fat old rattler had picked a spot near the house to sun himself in, and Annie crept forward. The snake flicked its tongue in warning and bunched itself into a tight, gleaming coil. The rattles began to shake. Annie halted and carefully extended the pole. The snake drew back to strike, and she slipped the loop over its head, tightening it with quick hands. The rattler flailed in the sun-baked dirt, desperate to escape the noose.
From inside the house, she could hear Mary clapping. Annie knew her father’s eyes would be crinkled at the sides with proud amusement. For their benefit, Annie lifted the snake high and it thrashed angrily, exhibiting its diamond-shaped markings and impressive length. A rattler this size would bring a good price, for its venom as well as for its skin.