Authors: Becky Wade
Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000
Â© 2013 by Rebecca Wade
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâfor example, electronic, photocopy, recordingâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSIONÂ®. Copyright Â© 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Jennifer Parker
Cover photography by Mike Habermann Photography, LLC
For Jim and Terry
You are two of the most compassionate,
hard working, and generous people I know.
I'm blessed to have married into your family.
Thank you for everything,
especially for being Granny and Grandad
to three kids who love you dearly.
he was too softhearted to be an oil tycoon.
Meg had always known it, but she'd never worried about it much because while her father was lousy at being a father, he'd always been very, very good at being rich.
William Cole had shouldered the responsibilities of the family company for twenty years, and if the pressures and stresses of his position had ever been difficult for him to handle, he hadn't shown it. He was an old-school oilman who sometimes wore Stetsons with his suits and could be ruthless, arrogant, or demanding if the situation called for it.
William Cole was also, unfortunately, dead.
Which was why Meg herself was about to have to fire this Mr.âshe consulted the file sitting on the surface of the deskâMr. Porter. He'd be arriving here at her father's home office at Whispering Creek any second for their scheduled meeting. At which time she'd have to look him in the face, turn his world upside down, and crush his dreams.
A deep sense of panic rose within her. It swirled and clawed, causing her chest to tighten.
In an effort to counter it, Meg jerked her worn sudoku book from the desk drawer. Almost desperately, she ran her gaze over
the columns of numbers, trying to concentrate, praying the puzzle would help her settle her mind.
She'd spent the last two weeks holed up at the Ritz with Cole Oil advisors, undergoing a crash course on the family holdings. Among many other things, they'd counseled her on Whispering Creek Ranchâa huge plot of land situated thirty miles northeast of Dallas, near J.Â R. Ewing's beloved Southfork. Whispering Creek included their family home and her father's horse farm.
The advisors had unanimously urged her to release the Whispering Creek employees who'd fit into her father's life-style but couldn't possibly fit into her own. Thus, she'd already terminated three people on this Monday morning, her first official day in her new capacity as her father's successor.
She'd fired her father's driver (she didn't want a chauffer), the man who had kept his kennel of hunting dogs (she'd didn't hunt), and the man who had managed his weapons and shooting range (she definitely didn't do guns).
Next on the guillotine list? Mr. Porter, who ran her father's Thoroughbred horse farm. While all of her father's hobbies had been costly, none were nearly as expensive as the Thoroughbreds and none further from her own interests.
Even so, she didn't want to deliver this sad news to Mr. Porter or take away the jobs of the people who worked for him. More than that, she didn't want to face
of this. She didn't want to be in this predicament at all, smothering under the weight of overwhelming responsibilities.
She'd faced some hard knocks in lifeâone really hard one five years agoâand had managed to cultivate a protective shell for herself. But like a Godiva truffle, she was only hard in a thin outer layer. Her insides were still as tender as ever.
Her disobedient heartbeat started thumping like a bass drum as her stomach burned and knotted. Meg popped open her container of antacids, chewed two, and tried to think harder about sudoku.
Dratted anxiousness. Years ago she'd gone twelve rounds with it and bested it. But three months ago, when she'd heard the dreadful news about her father, it had come rushing back for a grudge match. She'd been trying to white-knuckle it through the grief, the shock, the difficulty sleeping, and the stress. She'd been hoping like crazy to escape any full-fledged panic attacks.
But at the moment, it felt like a
full-fledged panic attack was chasing her, gaining, right on her heels. If it caught her, it would mean a trip to the ER on this, her first day back at Whispering Creek. The thought sent her anxiety rising, fast and jagged.
No no no no no.
Meg gave up on sudoku, gripped the armrests of the leather chair, and screwed her eyes shut. She should breathe. Wasn't her doctor always touting the calming benefits of deep breathing? Something about breathe in for a count of six, hold for six, breathe out for a count of seven?
She worked to follow his instructions but soon simply stuck her head between her knees to keep herself from hyperventilating.
, she pleaded.
. Where could she find a paper bag?
A knock sounded on the office door.
Meg reared upright, her gaze jerking to the platinum-edged clock on the edge of her father's desk. Mr. Porter had arrived right on time. “J-just a moment, please.”
She stashed her antacids and sudoku, then pushed to her feet and paced once around the perimeter of the office, shaking out her wrists and trying to determine whether she could hold herself
together well enough to meet with Mr. Porter or whether she'd be needing a straitjacket.
With trembling fingers, she smoothed her black Fendi suit. “Come in.”
The man who let himself into the office was young. Maybe thirty? Thirty-three? Much younger than she'd expected. Tall and powerfully built, with dark hair shaved close to his skull. Such short hair would have made an average-looking man look worse. But he was handsome, she realized, as their eyes met. The close-cropped hair suited his rugged features.
“Bo Porter,” he said.
She introduced herself, shook his hand, and took her seat. He lowered into one of the two chocolate-colored leather chairs that faced her father's desk. In his jeans, beige henley-style shirt, and weathered boots, he looked every inch like a man who made his living working with horses.
“My fatherÂ .Â .Â .” She cleared her throat.
“I'm sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Her stomach clenched horribly. “My father loved the Thoroughbred horse farm that the two of you built here together. If he'd lived, I'm sure that he'd have continued working with you toward your goals for the farm for years to come.”
He regarded her with an even expression, just a hint of tension around the mouth. Slowly, he nodded.
“But as it is, it falls to me now to decide what to do with Whispering Creek Horses. I regret to inform you that I've decided to close down the farm.”
He frowned, concern clouding his eyes.
Silence stretched between them, heavy with the weight of the disappointment she knew he must be feeling.
“May I ask why you've decided to close it down?”
Meg shifted a little. “My father loved horses and horse racing, but I do not. There's no logical reason for me to continue supporting the farm financially now that my father's gone.”
“We're very close to breaking even,” he said calmly, his words accented with the mellow north Texas accent she'd grown up hearing. “Once we do, you'll begin to earn a profit.”
She flipped open the file before her and consulted the column that listed the horse farm's net earnings and losses since it had begun, four years prior. “Yes, I'd noticed that.”
“It cost us a lot to get the farm started. Your father and I decided to pay down all those expenses in these early years. That's why we're not in the black already.”
“Be that as it may, my decision stands.” Suffocating in remorse and trying hard not to show it, Meg extracted a professional-looking report from a desk drawer and handed it over. “This is the severance package we're offering you. I hope you'll find it adequate.”
She knew the package reached far beyond adequate. She'd insisted on triple the amount of money recommended by her father's advisors so this gentleman, and all of the other terminated employees, would have plenty of time to find new jobs. She'd even guaranteed anyone unable to find work a position at the downtown headquarters of Cole Oil.
The three men she'd met with prior to Mr. Porter had all accepted the bad news with disappointment mixed through with good manners. In every case, the severance package had softened the blow. But Mr. Porter didn't even open the report. “Ma'am, more than twenty people work for me at the farm.”
“I'm offering severance packages to each of them, depending on their position and how long they've been working at the
farm. You'll find all of that information in the report. I canÂ .Â .Â . go over it with you if you'd like.”
He let her offer slide, watching her, his expression troubled. “We have ninety horses.”
“I'd like to sell the horses as quickly as possible. I'm not interested in making a profit on them, so much as I'm interested in speed. Perhaps an auction?”
He stared at her with light gray eyes, rimmed with darker gray.
“I give you,” she said, “myÂ .Â .Â . ah, permissionÂ .Â .Â . to go ahead and take whatever steps necessary to sell the horses. You can keep as many staff members as you'll need to complete the task. And I'll send over someone from Cole Oil to oversee the process and help you with accounting or any other financial service you may need.”
“We've already made plans for the next several months. We have commitments.”
“I have attorneys who can help with the contractual side of your obligations.” She'd rehearsed most of these lines last night and practiced them today on the three previous victims. Still, that she sounded like a somewhat intelligent business person astounded her. Five minutes ago, she'd had her head between her knees.
Meg laid her palms on the glossy desktop. “Well. I believe that's all then.”
“It's a good farm,” he said. “We've all worked hard for its success, and I'd hate to see it shut down.”
His honest, plainspoken words twisted her heart, but Meg knew if she let herself fold in any way, she'd cave. “I'm sure that's true, Mr. Porter. I'm sorry that my father's passing has led to this, I truly am.” After a beat, she pushed to her feet. “Thank you.”
She offered her hand. He shook it, hesitated, then turned and left.
Once the door shut behind him, she sank back into her father's chair, her muscles quivering.
The cool air of the office and the almost inaudible whir of the electronic equipment in the space slid around her. Bookshelves lined three sides of the room. A wildly expensive Remington statue of a bronze cowboy riding a bucking bronco stood on a stand in front of one of the windows. Her father's desk sat before her in the center of it all, a birchwood monument that practically shouted, “SIZE MATTERS!” with a megaphone.
This room, just like every other room in the house, had been done up by someone who'd graduated with honors from the “Opulent Texas Lodge” school of design. Everything in the place was either costly, a shade of brown, or lifted off a dead animal. She didn't like the big house. She'd grown up here. But she'd
liked it. This was her father's house, and her father should be the one sitting in this chair.
Meg had always expected him to face death across a negotiating table and haggle out a favorable bargain for himself. Instead, he'd died on the floor of his penthouse office in downtown Dallas in early January, three months ago. Catastrophic heart attack at just sixty years of age.
In that one moment Meg had inherited his controlling share in Cole Oil, his diverse and far-flung investments, hundreds of employees, three properties, six luxury cars, and a plane. She, his only child. She, who'd insisted on living on her own meager salary for the last five years and had found contentment in the simplicity and independence and accomplishment of it. She, whose knowledge of high finance consisted of her checking account at Bank of America. She, who was nothing like her father.
The office door swung open, and Bo Porter strode back in.
She jerked upright.
He stopped about three feet in front of the desk, facing her squarely. “Ma'am.”
She stared at him with round eyes. “Yes?”
“I'm sorry, but no.”
“No, I'm not going to close down the farm. I'm not going to sell the horses.” She didn't hear any anger or threat in his tone, only an abundanceâoceansâof implacable resolve.
Meg's thoughts all dashed in different directions and then vanished. She feared her jaw had locked into place. UmÂ .Â .Â .
“I know I don't have the right to make that decision, but I want to try to persuade you to give me that right. I want a say in what happens to the farm.” He held his body still and under perfect control, but his gray eyes blazed with intensity. “I've earned it.”
Her courage began to unfurl in a long strip, like an ace bandage held out a car window. “Would you care to have a seat?”
“No, thank you. I'll stand.”
She released a long breath, measuring the determined cowboy in front of her, longing for her old job as assistant-to-the-assistant-of-the-curator at the museum in Tulsa. “I'm sure you've worked very hard,” she said carefully, “and I'm sure that you
earned better than this situation. But the attorneys have assured me that the only one with a say about the future of Whispering Creek HorsesÂ .Â .Â . is me.”
“Then change your mind.”
Her brows lifted.
“It's a matter of pride. I can't let you inherit a debt from the farm.”
“If that's what you're worried about, I can assure you that the horse farm's debts don't concern me.”
“I know you don't need the money. But that farm is
business. And my business is going to pay for itself.”
“The auctionÂ .Â .Â .”
“No, ma'am. Even that won't be enough to make back what we've spent. I need time.”
Meg caught herself spinning the back of her earring with her fingers, something she did when nervous. She dropped her hand and walked to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows, taking in the second-story view of the front yard and the drive, lined with mesquite trees, that led away from the house. Beyond, acres of rolling Texas land stretched toward the horizon, the tips of the trees feathery against the blue of the sky.