Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (44 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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* * *

W
ALT
'
S
HOUSE
WAS
dark when Ryan drove by. It wasn't until he got to the main ranch, found Walt's truck by the barn, the ranch rig gone and all the lights off in the house that was usually all lit up, that he suspected something was off.

He unloaded PJ, turned the big gelding loose then pulled the phone out of his pocket and tried to call Francisco. Nothing. He called the bar. They hadn't seen Walt, knew nothing—not that he'd expected them to, with Walt's truck still being there. Then he noticed that the four-wheeler was also gone. None of this made sense, because he was pretty certain that Walt and Ellie hadn't gone four-wheeling in the dark.

But what if...

He dialed the hospital, which was easy, since Jessie had insisted he put the number on speed dial when she was pregnant with the twins.

“Hi, this is Ryan Madison. I was just wondering if Walt Feldman might have checked in.”

“Hey, Ryan.” Whoever was on the other end obviously knew him, but Ryan wasn't asking for names. “Walt was here, but he's on his way home now.”

“Was he alone?” Ryan asked.

“Nope. Good-looking woman with him. He got all snarly with her when she handed over a credit card to cover the bill, but she just ignored him.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, not bothering to ask why Walt had been at the hospital. If he'd left, he was ambulatory. He pocketed the phone and then set about parking the trailer and unhitching it, his movements automatic. He hadn't eaten since lunch and had planned to get something in his stomach as soon as he got home, but he wasn't hungry now. Once the trailer was taken care of, he got into his truck and drove down to Walt's house, getting there only a few minutes before headlights appeared from the opposite direction.

Ellie pulled the truck to a stop close to the front of the house. She got out as the dogs scrambled from the back and came around, probably to open the door for Walt, who pushed his door open, almost hitting her, and then painfully eased himself out of the truck.

“What kind of wreck did you have?” Ryan asked, startling both of them.

“Rolled the four-wheeler, cracked some ribs,” Walt muttered, heading for the steps—steps he was going to have a hard time negotiating with cracked ribs.

Ellie stayed where she was next to the rig, her eyes first on Ryan and then on Walt who grimaced as he raised his foot to the first step. Ryan knew better than to offer help. Once Walt was on the top step, his breathing shallow, Ryan opened the door and snapped on the lights.

“Thanks,” the old man muttered as he shuffled past. Ryan looked past him, waiting for Ellie to follow, but she'd already gotten back into the truck and through the evening shadows he couldn't see her. A second later the truck was in gear and heading off down the road.

Ah, Walt.

“What happened?” he asked, turning his attention back to Walt.

“I lost control on the side hill just past the granite knob.”

“What were you doing out there?”

“Looking for the blasted cows,” Walt grumbled, ripping into a white paper pharmacy bag.

“I told you, those cows are long gone. We'll find them with someone else's herd in the fall if they haven't been stolen.”

“Whatever,” Walt muttered, shaking out a couple pills. Ryan took the bottle and read it, then handed it back, ignoring the look of outrage on Walt's face. “I'm not some kind of kid. I can take my own medication.”

“How did Ellie come into this? Did you ask her to drive you to the hospital?”

“She found me.”

“Found you? Like...came looking for you?”

“I guess. I don't know why else she'd be driving around the pastures at night.”

“You owe her,” Ryan said matter-of-factly.

“Yeah. I know. Probably thousands of dollars for this little visit and follow-up.”

“That's not what I meant.”

Walt just shook his head. “I don't want to talk about it.” He raised pain-filled eyes to Ryan. “This stuff is supposed to knock me out, so if you don't mind, I think I'm going to take care of some business, then settle into my chair for the night.”

Ryan knew better than to ask if Walt wanted him to stay. “I'll check in with you in the morning.”

Walt grunted and slowly made his way down the hall to the bathroom. Ryan waited until he came back and slowly settled into the recliner. Gently he raised the footrest. Walt grimaced, then seemed to relax. The drugs were taking effect. Fast.

“Call if you need anything.”

Walt raised a hand off his lap in what was probably supposed to be a wave without opening his eyes. It fell limply back to his lap. Ryan turned on a lamp near the door, then turned off the overhead light. By the time he'd shut the door behind him, Walt was probably asleep.

And he should probably have gone directly into his house after getting back home. He was hungry and exhausted. It was the sane thing to do. But there were a couple lights on in Ellie's house, so he did the opposite of sane and started up the flagstone path to the front door.

* * *

E
LLIE
FROZE
AT
the sound of the knock, her stomach doing a small flip-flop. Ryan, of course, wanting to know the story about what had happened with his surly mentor. She started to pull her hair back with an elastic, then stopped and came out of the bathroom to answer the door. Ryan had only knocked once and by the time she opened the door, he was halfway down the front walk.

He stopped, turned back. Without thinking, she pulled the door open wider and he started back to the house. Neither of them said a word until Ellie quietly closed the door behind him.

“You rescued Walt?” he asked.

“Somebody had to,” she muttered, eyeing him warily, as if afraid that he was going to take up where they'd left off the last time.

“Do you have any idea what happened? If it rolled over him or what?”

“Walt doesn't talk to me.”

“But you went looking for him.”

Ellie crossed over to the counter. When she turned back toward him, she felt a wash of exhaustion. Walt was enough to exhaust anyone when he was being stubborn. “Again,” she said softly, “someone had to. It was getting dark and he hadn't come back, so I drove to the stock tanks and he came out of the brush just before I was about to leave.”

“I wonder how far he walked.”

“Don't know. Enough to weaken him to the point that I was able to get him to the hospital. It was a bit touch and go, though. For a minute I thought he was going to throw himself out of the truck.”

Ryan's eyebrows went up. “He didn't ask to go to the hospital?”

“Are you kidding?” Ellie blew out a derisive huff of breath. “And when I paid, I thought he was going to have a stroke.” She turned a frowning glance his way. “Does he not understand insurance?”

“He said you used your credit card.”

“Deductible. Walt didn't have his wallet on him.”

Ryan slowly nodded. “You don't have to pay when you go in.”

“I wanted to take care of matters right then.”

She felt him walk around her, closed her eyes, listened to the tread of his feet, wondered why he made her feel so grounded. He came to the opposite side of the counter, leaned his arms on it. “I know he was probably an ungrateful bastard, and I'll apologize for him—” his gray eyes held hers “—and I'll thank you from me. I've worried about him getting hurt while I'm gone, but figured that Lonnie or Francisco would be there.”

“They weren't,” Ellie said, unable to tear her gaze away from his.

“But you were and you went looking for him.”

She shrugged one shoulder. “What can I say? I'm a masochist.”

He smiled, just enough to curve his perfect lips, making them look more perfect.

Pretty faces. What have you learned about pretty faces?

Except Ryan also had substance. He was steady. Dependable. Father material.

Ellie took a mental step back as the thought slammed into her. She was not trolling for father material.

“Something wrong?” Ryan asked.

“It's been a day,” Ellie said casually. “Or rather, a night.” She rubbed a hand over the side of her neck, surprised at how stiff her muscles were. “How'd you do at the rodeo?”

“One step closer to finals.” Although he felt none of the excitement he'd felt last year at this time.

“What are we going to do about Walt?”

“Maybe we can keep him sedated,” he said, making Ellie smile.

“Maybe we can slip a little to George, too.”

Ryan laughed and Ellie felt her insides go liquid at the low, sexy sound.

She swallowed. “It's getting late.”

Ryan's gaze didn't waver as he said, “Totally late.” He pushed off from the counter and started for the door, Ellie trailing behind him, her hormones crying, “No, don't let him go....”

She held the edge of the door as he walked outside. He turned, his expression half smiling yet intense.

“Thank you for rescuing Walt.”

“Anytime,” she said lightly. And then it took everything Ellie had to close the door behind him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

T
HE
NEXT
MORNING
,
George's official first day of work, the man commenced making himself a pain in the ass. He strode around the property with a clipboard, watching, waiting, notating. Today was apparently machinery day. He spent a long time in the shop evaluating and inventorying the equipment. He grilled Francisco for more than an hour on his mechanics training and practices, where he bought his fuel, his oil, his filters. Did he consider online sources?

And this was only the beginning. Ryan had thankfully been busy moving cattle from one pasture to the next, stringing new temporary pasture fencing—which he was certain he'd soon have to justify—and generally laying low. He was so damned glad Walt was out of commission. He felt for the guy, but if he'd had to get hurt, this was the best possible time. If they played their cards right, George may have to write his final report and make his recommendations without a lot of one-on-one with Walt. And his general crankiness could be blamed on the pain of healing ribs.

George stopped evaluating in the early afternoon when Ryan broke for lunch, and retired to his mobile home, where he sat outside and tapped away at his laptop, looking official. Ryan went back to work after a quick sandwich in his house. Ellie came out of the house, shook a rug then went back inside. George watched her in a way that made Ryan feel the need to connect his fist to the man's nose. Was he going to start hitting on her?

Ellie was quite capable of holding her own, but all the same he couldn't help but think that fist plus nose equaled satisfaction.

* * *

G
EORGE
KNOCKED
ON
Ellie's door at a quarter to seven, an efficient fifteen minutes early.

“How'd it go today?” Ellie asked as she ushered him to the kitchen table where he set up his laptop.

“I did inventory, talked to the crew. Generally got a feel for the place. Some of the equipment is sadly outdated and would best be replaced. The initial investment is steep, but it'd pay for itself in more efficient operation and fewer repair costs.” Ellie sat and he proceeded to go over his inventory, explaining which pieces of equipment should go, which were still cost-efficient.

“Of course, it doesn't all have to be replaced at once,” he said, closing the laptop. “I'll prioritize and offer different strategies for replacement.”

“Sounds good.”

“I also talked to the crew,” George said. “With the exception of Walt Feldman, of course. Were you aware that Francisco Garcia has no formal training in the field of mechanics?”

“He seems to know what he's doing,” Ellie said.

George smiled tightly before continuing. “Ryan Madison has a college degree in range management, which is a plus. Walt also has a college degree.” Ellie's eyebrows rose. She had no idea. “However,” George continued on a cautionary note, “one of the biggest detriments to forward-thinking management is lack of technical knowledge and a refusal to learn new skills.”

“You mentioned that,” Ellie said.

George laid his palm flat on the table in front of him to emphasize his point. “So much of what we do now is computer oriented, and I can't tell you how many of the old guard refuses to learn technical skills.”

“Do you have any reason to believe that Walt doesn't have computer skills?” Ellie asked reasonably.

George shook his head before he slowly admitted, “No. However, it's not uncommon for men of his generation.”

“Well, let's not make unfounded suppositions,” Ellie said mildly, although she'd be quite surprised if Walt was computer literate.

“That's the furthest thing from my mind,” George said easily. “I simply want to make certain that the crews on the ranches I've evaluated are the best and most effective employees possible.”

“Of course,” Ellie murmured.

“I want to make certain my employers get what they pay for, and so far I've had no complaints.”

Except from the former employees, according to Ryan. “I'm sure you do an excellent job or Milo wouldn't have hired you.” This was unfortunately true. Ellie got to her feet as she spoke, signaling the end of the meeting. She'd had enough of George.

The consultant took the hint and picked up the laptop. “Would it be convenient to meet again tomorrow at around seven p.m.?”

Tomorrow? What had happened to every few days? “Yes. That would be fine,” Ellie said, walking him to the door.

Once he was gone, she reached up to pull the pins out of her hair and let it fall around her shoulders. Despite his charming exterior, there was something about George that she really didn't like. His track record was impeccable, employers did sing his praises—she'd researched him online, found a few testimonials. He'd successfully turned more than one failing operation around, but Ellie was getting a vibe from the man that she didn't particularly care for.

And Walt... What to do with that cantankerous old coot?

Not that long ago Ellie had also thought that replacing him was a given. She pictured the new manager as someone college-educated, articulate. Someone who could deal with Angela and someone that Milo could trust to run his ranch.

The problem was that now that she'd lived here for a while, she couldn't shake the idea that Milo and Angela had no idea what they were getting into. They had good friends at a neighboring ranch and, as Angela had once stated with tolerant amusement, Milo had always wanted to be a cowboy. But the new was going to wear off. They were going to, in all likelihood, spend less and less time at the ranch and eventually the manager would run the operation and they would visit one or two weeks out of the year.

For this they were going to kick an old man off his property?

Ellie walked down the hall to the office and started the computer. Her laptop sat on the chair next to the desk and when she bent to move it she had an idea. It might torture Walt a little, but she wasn't totally against that. The more she thought about it, the more she liked her rough plan, so she went to the freezer to take out a casserole she'd recently bought, slipped on shoes and a coat, popped her laptop into the case and took off for Walt's house.

“Come in,” Walt called when she knocked five minutes later. Ellie pushed the door open and came inside, juggling the casserole and the laptop bag. After kicking the door shut behind her with one foot, she looked up to see Walt gaping at her. A frown quickly formed when she met his eyes, but she ignored it and walked past him into the kitchen, setting the laptop on the kitchen table as she went by. There was, thankfully, a small microwave oven next to the refrigerator, so Walt would be able to heat his meal.

She placed the casserole into the fridge and then walked back into the living room, where Walt was craning his neck to see what she was doing.

“I know Jessie is probably taking care of you, but I brought you food,” she said as she took the laptop out of the case.

“I don't—”

“You're welcome,” she responded, cutting him off. She unfastened the Velcro wrap that held the cord together, unfurled it and plugged it into the laptop. There was a good-size end table next to the old man's chair, so she turned on the wireless mouse and set it there.

“What's that?” Walt demanded.

“I think you know what it is,” Ellie responded.

“Okay, why is it here?”

“Because you need to learn computer skills.”

“I have the TV.” Walt dug the remote out of his lap and waved it at her.

“This isn't about entertainment. This is about keeping your job. George doesn't think you have computer skills. You have the time it takes you to heal to learn some.”

“I'm not—”

“Yeah. You are.”

Walt grunted, looking as fierce as she'd ever seen him, which was saying something.

She opened the laptop and booted it up before setting it gently on his lap and stepping back. He pulled his chin in and stared down at it as if it was a poisonous snake and he was afraid to move for fear of startling it.

“Have you used a laptop before?”

He gave his head a sullen shake. “And I don't see why I should start now.”

“Because you can shop for bulls online. And semen.” She had to fight to say that with a straight face. “You can check out the competition. You can read husbandry articles. You can take online courses if you want.” She settled a hand on the arm of his chair and leaned closer. Walt shrunk back a little. “You can use the time that you're trapped in this chair doing something worthwhile instead of jonesing to get back outside and hurting yourself by doing too much, too soon.”

“Look—” He started to lift the machine, then caught his breath and let it settle back on his lap.

“And there's more. George Monroe is going to meet with you and he's probably going to try to tell my uncle that you're hopelessly out of touch with modern whatever it is you do. But if you can develop a few computer skills, research information and generally look like you're tech savvy, then I can go to bat for you and say, ‘No. Walt is on top of things.'”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I like Ryan.” His eyes narrowed slightly and Ellie leaned closer. “Walt,” she said sternly. “For once in your life, think about other people.” That got his attention. “If you go, Ryan's going. This place probably needs both of you.” She inhaled a deep breath as she straightened. “Play. Ball.”

Walt's eyes widened for a moment, as if he couldn't quite believe she was talking to him that way, and then he quickly dropped them back to the computer.

“Have you used a mouse?”

He nodded as he reached out to put his gnarled fingers over the small blue device. Ellie frowned slightly. Those swollen joints had to hurt. No wonder he was cranky all the time.

“The laptop is the same as any computer. When you close the case, it goes to sleep. Try not to move it too much when the case is open, because the hard drive is spinning and—” Walt's eyes started to glaze over. “Just close the lid when you set it aside. Open it and shake the mouse when you want it to wake up. That there—” she pointed at the internet icon “—will put you into a search engine. Type in
Gelbveih
or
bulls
or whatever and then start exploring.”

Walt breathed deeply, his eyes squeezing shut for a moment, telling her just how badly he was hurting. She was so glad she'd forced him to go to the hospital. Otherwise Ryan or Francisco would have had to have done it.

“Do you want me to heat up some casserole or anything?”

“No. I'm good,” Walt said, his hand still on the mouse, even though he hadn't yet used it to move the cursor.

“All right, then. I'll, uh, come back and check your progress.” Hopefully without George, but no telling.

Walt nodded without looking at her and Ellie had mercy on the guy. She headed for the door without looking back. She'd done what she could. The rest was up to Walt. If he'd let her teach him a few things in the coming days, great. If not... Well, she'd done her best—and maybe she could solicit some help.

Ellie drove the half mile to the Garcia house and walked to the open front door. Two nearly identical and adorable faces peered through the screen door at her, then one little girl giggled and ran for the kitchen while the other continued to stare.

“Mama!” Jeffrey called from where he was racing cars on the sofa. “That lady is here.”

“What lady?” Jessie asked as she came into the room, wiping her hands. “Oh,” she said, meeting Ellie's eyes through the screen. “Hi. Come on in.”

“Thanks,” Ellie said, pulling open the door. Jessie scooted some toys aside with her foot as Ellie walked into the room, letting the screen door close behind her. She smiled at the closest twin, who put her hands up to her mouth, but smiled back. “You have such cute kids,” Ellie said.

“Thanks,” Jessie said wryly. “Cute but messy.”

“Something I need to get used to,” Ellie said.

“Yeah?” Jessie asked on a note of bemusement.

“I'm pregnant.”

Jessie's eyes widened at the confession. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Ellie said, somehow feeling better, stronger, for having announced her condition. She was pregnant. She was fine with it. She was going to be a mom. “But that's not why I'm here. I need help with Walt.”

A look of patient confusion crossed Jessie's face. “Walt?”

“I just gave Walt a laptop. Our consultant wants the ranch to have a computer-literate ranch manager. I'm not holding out a lot of hope, but maybe you can help Walt get a bit more comfortable with the computer.”

Jessie pointed at her four-year-old son. “If I can't, he can.” Her smile faded a bit as she idly folded the dish towel she held. “You're trying to help Walt.”

“I...I think he should be given a chance.”

“That's a turnaround,” Jessie said candidly, making Ellie like the woman even more.

“Hey, I'm not saying he'll survive my aunt and uncle, but I want to give him the opportunity to change.”

Jessie's mouth curved back up again. “I'll do what I can.”

“Thanks,” Ellie said, leaning to admire the doll that one of the twins was holding up for inspection. “Pretty,” she said to the girl, who beamed as she hugged the baby closer to her. “I should get going, but I really appreciate your help.”

Jessie walked to the door with her. “So...were you able to get the orange juice out of your pants?”

“I was.”

Jessie grinned as her daughter leaned her head against her leg. “Welcome to motherhood.”

* * *

E
LLIE
DIDN
'
T
SEE
much of Ryan over the next week. In fact, she never got closer than fifty yards from him. Whenever he saw her, he seemed to change course, go in the opposite direction. According to his schedule, he'd gone to two rodeos and she looked up the results later—one first, one second—but when he was on the ranch, he continued to avoid her. And even though Ellie should have been relieved that the matter was taken out of her hands and she didn't have to deal with an attraction that realistically could go nowhere, she felt empty when he wasn't around. As though she'd missed an opportunity, which was crazy. What opportunity? How well did she know the guy?

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
8.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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