The First Family of Texas
The Number One Ranch has been in the First family for generations, but Adam First’s daughter has just sold controlling interest to the bank. Now he must answer to Sheila Malone, a management consultant whose ideas on how to run an 800-square mile spread clash sharply with his. Two strong-willed people who need to join forces in more ways than one.
“K. N. Casper’s THE FIRST FAMILY OF TEXAS offers up mature characters skilled in life experience and rejuvenated by the magic of love.” Four Stars, Romantic Times
This edition published by
© K. Casper, 2001
First Published by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd, Toronto, Canada
Coyote Springs, Texas
MICHAEL FIRST TURNED to his sister with venom in his eyes. “You did what?” His deep voice boomed off the walls of Kerry’s house on the eastern edge of the Number One Ranch.
“I sold my share to the bank,” she said calmly.
Michael’s knuckles were white as his fingers curled into tight fists. “Just like that, without a word to anyone? If you wanted money so damn badly why didn’t you give us a chance to buy you out?”
She laughed, but there was more bitterness in the sound than humor. “Believe me, you couldn’t possibly have matched Homestead’s generous offer.”
He knew it was true. Her share wouldn’t have made any difference in the family’s common ownership of the ranch, but combined with the forty-five percent Homestead Bank and Trust already held, it gave them controlling interest. He was afraid to ask how many millions of dollars she’d received for her critical six percent.
He ran a hand through his thick dark hair. “You’ve told Dad, of course.” His voice was low, filled as much with sorrow as anger.
“The bank said they’d notify him in a day or so. I understand they’ll also be sending someone out to evaluate the way the place is being run.”
Michael stared hard at his sister and turned away. He paced in the narrow confines of the cluttered living room. At last he sank into an easy chair, his hands dangling over the grease-stained arms.
“So you’re taking the easy way out. I should have guessed.” He threw his head back against the cushion, squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. “I know you and Dad don’t get along, Kerry, that the two of you are always butting heads, and I understand why.” He frowned at her and added softly, “But I didn’t know you hated him.”
Leaning against the edge of the bar next to the entertainment center, his sister sipped her glass of blood-red wine, apparently unmoved. “In three months, when school’s over, Brian and I are out of this dump.”
The two-story house was well built and fair-sized, hardly a hovel. She had a cleaning service come in twice a week to shovel the place out, too. Michael was tempted to tell her it looked like a slum because that was the way she chose to live. But what was the point? “Where are you going?”
She smirked. “What do you care?”
“About you? I don’t. You can go to hell as far as I’m concerned. But your son is my nephew. Family may not mean anything to you, but it does to me.”
“Ah, sweet brotherly love.”
“What you’ve done is despicable, Kerry. You’ve given up your right to love.”
For a fleeting moment he saw her lips quiver before she pressed them together defiantly.
Michael rose to his feet and stared down at her. “Next week is Dad’s birthday. We’re planning a big bash like we do every year. Brian is welcome.” He strode to the door, tugged it open and was about to step outside, when he turned one last time to his sister. “I think it would be wise if you stayed away.”
ALL SHEILA MALONE could see in her rearview mirror was the billowing cloud of fine white caliche dust her two-year-old Lincoln Town Car was kicking up, She chuckled, remembering the adage: “You know you’re in West Texas when the directions to the house say to continue another ten miles after the pavement ends.” The paved road had ended eight miles back.
She shifted restlessly in her seat. The six-hour drive from Houston had been mercifully uneventful, but she was ready for the boredom to be over. This Number One Ranch job was a godsend. She’d studied every scrap of information Homestead Bank and Trust had given her access to, and privately researched magazine articles, agribusiness journals, livestock markets and economic analyses. She was ready—she hoped.
Establishing her own consulting business had been a big gamble for a single woman approaching fifty, but specializing in farm and ranch management had been a lifelong dream, one she felt uniquely qualified to perform. She was, after all, a rancher’s daughter. She’d seen the cards fate could deal, knew how pride could cloud an intelligent man’s vision and how shame could eat at his soul. Maybe in coming here she could help one rancher retain control of his spread, and in doing so avenge in some mysterious way her father’s bad luck and poor judgment.
Altruism wasn’t her only incentive, however. Despite hard work and determination her financial position had deteriorated in the three years since she’d opened her doors. She needed this fee, by far the largest she’d ever been offered, to solve the chronic cash- flow problems she was experiencing with her struggling firm. The bank’s tentative offer of a continuing oversight role in the Number One’s future operations—if this initial evaluation produced satisfactory results—was a bonus that would ensure her company’s reputation, growth and long-term success. Failure, on the other hand, could well destroy it.
Stone and wrought-iron gates to the interior of the mammoth ranch were spaced about two miles apart. As she approached the ten-mile point, the fifth gate loomed on her right. A call box was embedded in a rock pillar within arm’s reach of the driver’s-side window. She pressed the button and gave her name to a crackly voice that couldn’t be identified as male or female. The wide gate swung open.
She drove another three miles over more packed caliche between budding green pastures before spying the house perched on the edge of a bluff. It didn’t look especially big from her vantage point, but appearances could be deceiving in this broad, open land. Downshifting into low gear, she climbed the steep dirt road that skirted the side of the mesa.
The top was in stark contrast to the rugged prairie below. Oak, mulberry and pecan trees shaded the two-story gable-roofed house. Red-tipped photinia, purple sage and pink Indian hawthorn bushes lent splashes of color to the well-kept landscape.
After parking in the neatly bordered driveway, she alighted from the vehicle and inhaled the spring-fresh scent of the gentle breeze. She was stretching her stiff back muscles, when the front door of the house opened and Adam First emerged.
He was halfway down the concrete path before she realized she was staring. She’d seen pictures of him in Texas Monthly, but they didn’t do him justice. He was taller than she’d expected, a couple of inches over six feet. In spite of his fifty-plus years, he still had a full head of dark hair, conservatively cut, and the lean- hipped, broad-shouldered build of a physically active mature man. What the glossy photos had totally failed to capture was the seasoned masculine power his square jaw and loose-limbed gait projected.
She extended her hand. “Mr. First? I’m Sheila Malone.”
He accepted it and squeezed her fingers gently. His hand was large and had the thick-skinned texture of a working man. “Miss Malone.”
“It’s Mrs., actually.”
“Sorry,” he said, the single word laced with just enough sarcasm to make it insincere. “I suppose I should have pronounced it Miz.”
She hadn’t expected him to greet her with open arms—the thought sent an uncomfortably warm shimmer up her spine—but she was a little surprised by his coolness. Texans in general, and West Texans in particular, were notoriously friendly.
“It’s very kind of you to invite me to stay here at your place. I didn’t realize you were so far from town,” she commented as he led her up the walk. Feeling foolishly self-conscious when he ignored her thanks, she added, “Lovely house.”
“My father built it.” He turned the knob of the ornately beveled glass front door, pushed it open and with the sweep of his arm motioned her in ahead of him. “In the early fifties,” he added, closing the door, “Before the drouth.”
The drouth. She wondered if there was any other part of the country besides West Texas where this archaic word for drought was still used. Seven years of substantially below-average rainfall in the mid-fifties had turned West Texas into a second dust bowl. As a child she’d never realized she was living in hard times. It was only later when she read The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton, a western writer from San Angelo, that she began to appreciate the disaster it had been and the stubbornness of the people who had endured it. A lot of landowners had gone under; many of those who managed to hang on never fully recovered. The Number One, among the oldest continuously operated family-owned ranches in Texas, had survived.
Why then had Adam’s daughter Kerry Durgan sold her share of the spread? According to the annual reports the bank had given Sheila to review, profits had been declining over the last three years. Had Kerry calculated that the ranch was headed for bankruptcy, and she’d wanted to make her deal while she still had bargaining power?
The entrance hall of the brick-and-stucco house was large and square. A split-landing staircase ascended on the left. The wall to the right was faced with rough-cut weathered boards. A spinning wheel, blacksmith’s anvil and a branding iron stood proudly before it, as well as a silver-encrusted saddle of scarred brown leather over a saddle blanket with the Number One brand emblazoned on one corner. A four-by-eight-foot oil painting behind them immortalized a small wagon train crossing an endless, sun-bleached prairie of cactus and scrub. There were mesas in the background; above them, ominous gray storm clouds. No one entering the home, Sheila realized, could forget this family’s pioneer heritage.
Adam led her past the wall into an open-timbered room that rose the full two stories and ran the entire depth of the house. The furnishings were simple, heavy and very masculine. Huge picture windows at both ends of the room filled it with light.
A short round woman wearing a Mexican peasant dress appeared at the far left corner of the room. She wiped her hands on a bib apron as she approached.
“Elva, this is Mrs. Malone.” Adam turned to Sheila. “Elva Hernandez is our housekeeper and the best cook on either side of the Pecos.”
“I’m very glad to meet you, Elva.”
The woman smiled politely as they shook hands. “Welcome, miss.”
“It’s Mrs.,” Adam corrected her.
The silvery-haired woman arched an eyebrow quizzically at him.
Sheila glanced at her host and for a fleeting moment thought she saw humor twinkle in the corners of his gray eyes, but it quickly dimmed. “Please, call me Sheila,” she told the housekeeper.
Adam rubbed the back of his neck as he glanced at the old Regulator ticking on the wall beside the stone fireplace. “It’s too late to show you around today,” he declared. “Sun’ll be down soon. We’ll start the tour tomorrow. I’ll get your bags from the car and take them up to your room. We eat in about an hour, so you have time to freshen up.” Without waiting for her reply, he strode to the front door.
Elva shot Sheila an apologetic smile that said he wasn’t usually this abrupt. It brought scant comfort.
“He’s very busy preparing for the barbecue,” the housekeeper explained. “You must be thirsty after your long drive. I have lemonade in the kitchen.”
“Wonderful. I’ll come with you and you can tell me all about this barbecue. What’s the occasion?”
Elva poured the tangy beverage into a tall glass filled with ice. “It’s for Mr. First’s birthday.”
Sheila accepted the drink gratefully and took a long swallow before the alarm went off in her head. “His birthday?” From an article she’d read she knew the birthday of the head of the family was traditionally celebrated as a sort of founder’s day. Prominent guests were invited and the entire ranch was treated to a gala western cookout. “When?”
The housekeeper gaped at her. “Why, the day after tomorrow. Didn’t you know?”
Sheila closed her eyes in exasperation. “No, I didn’t. “
SHE WAS WAITING for him at the foot of the stairs when he came down after delivering her luggage. Sheila Malone looked nothing like his late wife. Helen had been short, brown haired and inclined to put on weight. This woman was tall, blond and slim. Helen had been a homemaker. Sheila Malone had the air of a professional businesswoman.
“Mr. First, I wish you’d told me last evening when I spoke to you on the phone that this was the week of your annual barbecue.”
The waning sun slanting through the glass door behind her caught the golden-red highlights of her stylishly short hair. Like little fires, he thought.
He folded his arms across his chest. “Does it make a difference?”
“Of course it does,” she responded irritably. “I’m here to evaluate ranch operations, not interfere in your personal life.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I think there’s something we need to establish right now, Mr. First. If I’m going to be of any help to you, you’re going to have to be honest with me. Play games and we both lose. Is that clear?”
Adam found himself enjoying the set of her jaw, the determination in her attitude. She projected strength and confidence, qualities he respected regardless of gender.
His easy agreement seemed to irritate her all the more. She took a deep breath. “I also have a business to run back home. Time is valuable, Mr. First. I wish you hadn’t seen fit to waste mine.”
He could have explained that he’d mentioned the ranch party to Nedra Cummings when she’d proposed this consultant’s visit. The acerbic vice president for investment management had been quick to point out they were in a hurry to get started—and that it was in his own best interest to cooperate. He’d gritted his teeth at the time. Now he was more inclined to run his tongue over them.
“I’ll leave tomorrow morning,” Sheila announced. “I’d like to reschedule with you, however, for a more convenient time. Perhaps next week—”
“That’s up to you.” He dropped his arms with a shrug. “On
the other hand, you’re here now.” She wasn’t the thirty-something he’d pictured from her voice on the phone. Closer to his age. Surprisingly, that pleased him.
The shake of her head made her slender drop earrings bounce against the delicate skin of her neck. “You’ll be tied up with your barbecue,” she pointed out.
She had a beautiful complexion, clear and smooth. The laugh lines at the corners of her eyes and mouth were delicate and appealing.
“On Wednesday,” he said. “One day. If you turn around and go back to Houston now you’ll have lost two days.” He tossed her a peppery smile. “As you say, your time is valuable.”
He motioned her toward the double doors opposite the living room. “You might as well stay,” he observed nonchalantly. The woman walking ahead of him into his office fascinated him. She’d been very careful to identify herself as married, but he noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding band. Did that mean she was divorced? Widowed? Or one of those liberated women who refused to wear a man’s ring?
“I can give you a quick tour of the place tomorrow. Then, after the picnic, we’ll explore a little more closely.”
She clearly wasn’t happy with the situation, but she had little choice.
“Since you’re here to evaluate ranch operations—” he waved her to the leather couch and joined her there rather than take his seat behind the desk “—why don’t you tell me what your qualifications are for passing judgment on how I run things.”
The quick parting of her lips and the color creeping up her neck told him she didn’t appreciate his choice of words, but she refused to be riled. Impressed by her self-control, Adam settled against the arm of the other end of the couch. “Tell me about yourself, Mrs. Malone.”
She studied him a minute, seemingly troubled by the inconsistency between his harsh words and casual manner. In truth, the push-pull of his reaction to her mystified him, as well.
“Call me Sheila.” Her voice softened and the worry lines around her mouth began to recede. He’d already noticed the intelligence in her blue eyes, but now he had an opportunity to examine them more closely. They were tantalizing. He hadn’t been with a woman in a long time. It was even longer since a woman had stirred him the way this restrained female was stimulating him.
“Okay, Sheila.” He smiled back. “Call me Adam. So how did you get into this management-consulting racket?”
Again he detected an impulse to snap at his uncomplimentary terminology. She crossed one knee primly over the other. Her nail polish matched her wine-colored pantsuit.
“I majored in management in college,” she began, “and worked as what they used to call an ‘efficiency expert’ for a few years after that, until Bill and I had our son. I planned on putting my career on hold for only a couple of years, but then our daughter was born and I got caught up in being a full-time mom.”
“You have two children?” He and Helen had had five and might have had more . . . but he pushed the memories aside.
“Just the two,” she said with perhaps a note of regret. Because there weren’t more? Or because they were a disappointment in some way? Because they’d interrupted her career?
“What does your husband . . . Bill . . . do?” “He was a CPA.”
“He died seven years ago.”
So she was a widow. “I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. He knew what it was like to wake up alone in bed.
“By then the kids had their own lives and my time was my own.” There was a hint of vulnerability, too, in the way she toyed with the shiny gold buttons on her burgundy jacket. “I went back to school, earned my master’s and rejoined the business world.”
“And now you work for Homestead Bank.” He made it sound like a putdown, or at least a disappointment.
“They’re one of my clients.”
He stretched his arm across the back of the couch. “Do you enjoy the work?”
“I’ve been able to help people keep and improve their businesses, Adam. Contributing to their success has been important to me. I think I can help you, too, if you’ll let me.”
He was tempted to tell her she was too late, that the damage was irretrievably done. Would things have turned out differently had Helen lived? Undoubtedly. Or if Sheila Malone, widow, mother and management consultant, had appeared on the scene years earlier? It was an intriguing question . . . one that would never be answered.
“Tell me about your kids,” he prompted.
“Derek’s a geologist working for one of the big oil companies in the Middle East. He’s still single. Melanie’s married to an army captain. They’re stationed in Germany.”
“Two beautiful granddaughters.” For the first time, Sheila’s smile was completely spontaneous, revealing dimples in both her cheeks. And for a moment, Adam forgot to breathe.
“I don’t imagine you get to see much of them if they live overseas.”
“Not nearly enough,” she admitted. “Your children live here on the ranch, don’t they?”
“My eldest son, Michael, his wife and four kids have a house west of here. Kerry and her boy to the south. Gideon works at the university, so he has an apartment in town, as does his sister, Julie, who’s finishing her master’s in education.”
He almost added that he’d had another son, a bright spark of life that had glowed and then died.
“You’re very lucky to have them all so close.”
He kept his face neutral as the picture of the family graveyard flashed before his eyes. A wife. A son. “Do you have any other family in Houston?”
“An aunt who lives not far from me. She’s in her eighties now and still quite independent. We’ve developed a routine of breakfast and shopping every Saturday.”
“No other family?”
“A brother in Ohio. We’re originally from north of Wichita Falls, just across the Red River from Oklahoma. Still have a few cousins there, but we’re not particularly close.”
Sheila toyed with the bracelet of silver rings on her wrist, making them jingle. She didn’t like to be reminded that the tight- knit family life she’d dreamed of, with a husband, children and grandchildren underfoot, hadn’t happened. Bill was gone. Kids and grandkids were scattered across the world. Instead of baking cookies, cutting out sewing patterns and reading bedtime stories, she spent her time worrying about profit and loss, efficiency and effectiveness. She envied his full rich life surrounded by the people he loved.
“I understand you don’t want me here, Adam. I appreciate the situation you’re in—”
“Maybe better than you realize. I’m sorry my visit has to be under these circumstances.”
Her self-assurance now irritated him. “If I hadn’t agreed to your being here, you wouldn’t be.”
He gazed at the beautiful woman sitting across from him. Sending her away would mean she’d have to come back. Maybe it would be better to get this over with.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before opening them again. “I apologize for my rudeness, Sheila.” He smiled at her wryly. “I don’t usually shoot the messenger. If I haven’t made you feel too unwelcome, I’d like you to stay and enjoy the barbecue with us.”
“That’s very generous of you, Adam, but I don’t want to be a wet blanket.”
“I don’t think you will.”
SHEILA WALKED into the breakfast nook the next morning dressed comfortably in jeans, a midnight-blue turtleneck and her old hiking boots. Simple gold studs had replaced the more ornate earrings of the previous day.
“I’d forgotten how quiet the country is,” she said as she slipped into the seat opposite her host. “And how dark.”
She received the barest nod in response. The few brief moments of softening she’d sensed the evening before seemed to have melted with the light. Perhaps he wasn’t a morning person, though she suspected his unwillingness to communicate had more to do with her than the time of day. She caught his sidelong glances. It annoyed her that his silent rebuke nudged her into apologizing again for being there.
“I’m sorry showing me around will take you away from your work,” she commented as they left they house. “Especially with so much else going on.”
“Making sure you see and understand what this ranch is all about is my work while you’re here.” He might as well have been talking to a ranch hand about the day’s tasks. “Besides, I can still carry on business with my people at each location.”
My people. It sounded paternalistic. Was it? Whole families had worked the Number One for generations. What should he have called them—his employees? Somehow that sounded worse.
She declined the hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs he’d eaten, choosing an English muffin and coffee, instead.
Twenty minutes later they were in his chopper.
“My grandfather first started using biplanes to check on roving herds back in the twenties,” Adam explained as they skimmed over the rugged terrain.
Sheila adjusted her headset so her mouth was closer to the lip microphone. “Helicopters are a lot more complicated, aren’t they?”
He scanned the land below and the sky around them as he responded. “They’re harder to fly and more expensive to maintain.”
They rose smoothly above a ridgeline and maintained altitude as they approached the next one. “In forward flight they’re about as fast as most small conventional aircraft, plus they have the advantage of being able to hover and land almost anywhere. Being able to pick up cargo with a sling—or people in an emer- gency—is also a big, big advantage.”
Land contour was difficult to discern from overhead, but Sheila was able to distinguish low spots and creek beds by the darker patches of green and winding trails of brush. “It looks so dry,” she commented.
“We’re going into our fifth year of drouth.”
They flew past herds of cattle, sheep and goats, circled barns, sheds and corrals, pump jacks and gas lines. Cowboys and other people on the ground waved when he flew low. He rocked the chopper in acknowledgment and gave a running commentary, spouting statistics, as they flew. She wasn’t surprised that he seemed to know every tree, outcropping, fence line and windmill. This land was a part of him, rooted in his soul.
“We have slightly over fifteen thousand head of cattle,” he expounded as they sped across yet another grazing area, “and nearly as many sheep and goats.”
“Not much market in wool and mohair these days, is there?”
“You can thank the government for that,” he replied acerbically. “They’re the ones who removed tariff protection. As a result of improved trade with the Middle East and our own growing immigrant population from that region, though, there’s an increased demand for lamb and goat meat. So we adjust.”
Watching him check instruments and gauges reinforced her confidence in his competence. She’d always enjoyed aviation and had actually started taking flying lessons, until her husband’s heart attack distracted her from that goal.
“It’s a cyclic thing,” Adam commented. “Sometimes all you can do is wait for the wheel to turn. The mistake, in my opinion, is to expect it to cover the same ground. The future is never like the past, no matter how fondly we may treasure it. Only the fact that we continue to make mistakes is constant.”
Surprised at the note of pessimism, she glanced over at him. “Do you know the definition of a cynic, Sheila?”
Having one’s mind read was decidedly unsettling, so much so
that she had to consciously put a smile in her voice. “I bet you’re going to tell me.”
A spark twinkled in the corner of his eye. “It’s what an optimist calls a realist.”
Chuckling, she considered the analysis a moment. “And you think I’m an optimist?”
His smile was friendly. “Why else would you be a management consultant?”
On that score she had to agree, but she couldn’t escape the suspicion he was laughing at her.
“Where do you get the labor to deal with all this?” she asked. There were 512,000 acres to cover—eight hundred square miles of land.
“We have twenty-five families living on the ranch, each responsible for designated sectors. In my father’s day we hired another hundred men or more from off the ranch. We still contract for seasonal labor, but our own people manage the normal day-to- day workload. With modern equipment and techniques, we’re much more efficient than we used to be.”
They returned to the headquarters for lunch, or as he called it, dinner. It was a large meal, the kind she usually indulged in only in the evening when she was dining with friends.
Adam resumed the aerial tour. By midafternoon, her long trip and restless night in a strange bed, as well as the sun streaming in the side window, had her sinking into a kitteny doze. She looked over at the man in the opposite seat.
“After the heavy lunch we had, how do you stay awake and so alert?” she asked around a yawn.
“Good genes, I guess,” he replied smugly.
She regarded him with sleepy eyes. Hmm. How do you spell that, she wondered: genes or jeans?
She was jolted to attentiveness when Adam landed on a narrow pasture at the mouth of a shallow box canyon.
“This is where we’ll have the barbecue tomorrow,” he said through the headset as he shut down the engine.
Men stopped setting up long black cylindrical smokers and staking small mesquite logs in neat piles to watch them dart crablike out from beneath still-twirling rotor blades. Adam greeted each by name and introduced her. He was at home with these people, she realized, and they with him. That they deeply respected him was also greatly apparent.
“Pretty location,” she remarked a few minutes later as they began a gradual climb toward a grove of massive cottonwood trees, a sure sign of water. He strolled over to a narrow stream, where a thin rivulet trickled between smooth gray stones.
“The water table’s down,” he muttered, as much to himself as to her. “This creek is fed by underground springs. It should be running hard this time of year.”
Sunlight danced on the crystal brook and the lily pads in the pool farther downstream. “Did it go dry in the fifties?”
“No. But I don’t remember it ever being this slow.” Worry darkened his eyes. “If it dries up, we’re in real trouble. These are the headwaters of the Coyote River.”
“What will you do?”
He shrugged fatalistically. “Same thing other ranchers are doing. Sell livestock. We can bring in feed for them in bad times, but there’s no way to truck in enough water to keep them alive, not for the numbers we have.” They proceeded up the hill. “Consumers may enjoy the low prices for a while, since we’ll be flooding—no pun intended—the market with cattle for slaughter, but a few years down the road, when herds have been nearly wiped out and the appetite for beef had been whetted—oops, no pun again—prices will skyrocket. It’s that cycle again.”
Then she saw the house on the side of the hill and her heart stopped. It didn’t much resemble the one she’d been born in, where she’d spent her most formative years, but it had the same aura. For a magical moment she was coming home to a world that had felt safe and secure.
This building was abandoned and had been for a long time, based on the red-budded trumpet vines twisting and curling around the wooden porch columns. The single-story building was set high on a stone foundation. Its long gabled roof sagged in the middle. Old-fashioned shutters covered the windows.
She gazed with acute sadness at the derelict house. This had been someone’s home. People had lived and loved here, had experienced hopes and dreams.
“This is the home place,” Adam explained. “Built by my great-grandfather over a hundred years ago. It was a vast improvement over the simple log cabin he’d grown up in.”
“Is the cabin still in existence?” Her voice was almost a whisper.
She’d seen the primitive dwelling her grandfather had been born and raised in, a cross between a log cabin and a sod hut. She could still recall the expression on his weathered face when he talked about his parents settling on what was then still inhospitable frontier. She wished she could have met those stalwart pioneers, who valued independence above comfort and the achievements of hard work over the softness of luxury. She remembered, too, the sadness in her father’s eyes years later when they went back to the same spot after the flood to find nothing left. It had been an omen, though she hadn’t realized it at the time.
Adam shook his head. “Washed away in the flood of 1882. That’s when he built this house. The family lived in it until the fire in ‘51. My father designed the new house, the one we live in now.”
“This is lovely.” She drew closer.
It wasn’t nearly as imposing as the current ranch house, but where the newer one had mass and an almost pretentious sophistication, this one had charm.
“Is it safe to go inside?”
He slanted her a forlorn smile. “‘Fraid not. The roof and floor on the right are rotten. The kitchen and dining room were on the left. That’s where we had the fire.”
They walked around the back. There was another porch, but this one had been partially enclosed—probably, based on the size of the windows, to create a bathroom when they installed indoor plumbing.
“I’ve considered restoring it,” Adam remarked, “but it’s a little too far from the ranch headquarters to use for guests. I could rent it out to hunters, I suppose, but that would be for only a few weeks a year. Doesn’t seem worth the expense. Now—” he looked at her unhappily “—the decision isn’t mine to make.”
“You don’t kill messengers, remember?”
He offered her an apologetic smile.
She studied the crumbling building. “It must have been beautiful when it was in use,” she mused, unwilling to face the pain she knew she would see in his eyes. “The porch, shaded by the huge old trees . . . I bet it was cool in the summer.”
Without conscious thought, he took her hand and led her around the ruin. For a moment, they strolled like lovers in a private park, before he released her.
“I can picture young children scampering around the corners,” she continued dreamily, “playing hide-and-seek in dappled summer sunlight. Their parents and grandparents sitting in rockers in the evening after all the chores are done, grabbing those few precious minutes of relaxation and calm before bedtime and the dawn of a new workday.”
He smiled at her and her heart melted in spite of herself. Had he lived that life here as a kid?
“You called it the home place,” she reminded him. “Was this part of the original acreage?”
He nodded. “My great-great-grandfather purchased sixty thousand acres from the Spanish government in 1820. Six years later, Mexico won independence from Spain. In 1836, when Texas fought its own war of independence from Mexico, he was killed in the Battle of San Jacinto.”
She knew the history by heart, but she relished hearing him tell it. There was pride in his voice, respect for the past.
“His son,” Adam continued, “my great-grandfather, took over the ranch, added more land and later served in the legislature of the old republic. He was killed in the Civil War, or as Granddaddy would say, the War Between the States. Till the day he died he insisted that since Texas was a sovereign nation when it joined the Union, it damn well had the right to secede.”
Sheila laughed. “I’m a native Texan, Adam. You don’t have to convince me. My grandpa referred to it as the War of Northern Aggression. He left me his stash of Confederate money.”
He smiled distantly, then grew somber. “Every generation of Firsts has increased the size of the ranch, my father included. The drouth of the fifties damn near destroyed us. Dad had two choices. Sell out at depressed prices or borrow on the land and hope he could pay back the loan. He chose the latter.”
Adam stooped to pick up a stick, then tested its strength between his strong hands.
“Dad refinanced the loan several times, trying to forestall the inevitable. We hadn’t yet found oil. He’d drilled a few wells, but they all came up dry. In the end he had no choice but to give the bank a forty-five percent interest in the ranch.”
He threw the stick with a sidearm motion that had the force of anger, a man swinging out at fate. “Five years later we did hit oil and gas, but it was too late. The bank refused to renegotiate. The drouth had broken. We were operating in the black again, and they had no reason to give up a profitable investment.” Bitterness crept into his voice. “Since then, they’ve collected the original debt, plus interest, many times over.”
A sharp gust of wind came up and swirled around them, reminding them there was still a remnant of winter’s chill in the February air.
“We’d best be getting back,” he said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
Even in her light wool sweater Sheila shivered as they started making their way, side by side, to the helicopter. Glancing over, Adam saw her cradle her arms below her breasts, hugging herself against the biting blast.
“You’re cold,” he said with concern. Moving closer, he spread his arm around her shoulders and drew her into his side. The snug warmth of his embrace, meant merely to harbor her against the north wind, stirred a strange remembrance in her, the sensation of being protected, even treasured. It had been so long since a man had held her, she reminded herself, that the desire curling through her was simply an overreaction. This man meant nothing to her, and she meant nothing to him. Yet she had to resist the temptation to wrap her arm around his waist and rest her head against his chest.
He escorted her to the passenger side of the aircraft. Was it her imagination that he hesitated before letting her go? That he pulled her tighter for a fleeting moment before releasing her? That the hand holding hers lingered longer than necessary as he helped her up into the seat? That just before he closed the door she saw something in his glance to match the sudden, urgent ache inside her?