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Copyright © 2016 by Erin Wright
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
To my own cowboy:
Thanks for being my biggest cheerleader
Quick Note: If you enjoy Accounting for Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.
With that, enjoy!
“How am I supposed to organize this crap?” Stetson groaned, shoving his hand through his hair. The back of his neck was burning hot with anger.
Spending time in the small room always made Stetson uncomfortable. Sometimes, he was simply annoyed by the boring work that was done in the office. Other times, sitting in the room would flat-out anger him. Memories would flood his mind, reminding him of his father’s death. Consequently, he spent as little time in the office as possible. Real farming happened in the fields – everyone knew that.
He shuffled papers from one stack to another and back again. The small office was closer to being a closet than it was an office, but his father had kept the little room spotless. Stetson, on the other hand, had let that organization disappear in the months since his father’s death. Small drawers labeled “Cattle Receipts” and “Parts Receipts,” among other expenses, were only half closed. Thin yellow and pink papers fanned out from the overstuffed drawers like the backend of a turkey.
“When that jerk gets here, I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind!” he ranted. “I’m really gonna let him have it.”
The Letter (and it could only be referred to in capital letters) held an unfortunate pride of place in the center of the desk.
Dear Mr. Miller,
As you are aware, the terms of the loan granted to you and your agricultural operation stipulate that a payment is due at the beginning of each calendar year in the amount of $176,900.
As you are also aware, the payment due on January 1st of this year was not received on time and has not been remitted since.
We are writing to inform you that we are forced to take the unfortunate step of ordering an on-site audit of your records and assets to determine if this arrearage can be rectified.
According to clauses contained in paragraph 13 subsections A-F, Northern Ag Credit and its representatives can conduct this audit after giving the grantee 30 days’ notice in writing. Please consider this letter to be that notice.
A forensic accountant employed by Northern Ag Credit will arrive at your facilities on July 13th. Please have all pertinent financial documentation organized and ready to expedite this process.
Once the audit is complete, the board of directors will determine a course of action to remedy the past-due nature of your obligation. You will receive a written statement of action no later than 15 days following the completion of the audit.
President, Northern Ag Credit
The letter had sat on the desk for 29 days.
“They have no right whatsoever to force some clown to come into my house and tear apart my bank accounts! Just who do they think they are.”
Stetson picked up yet another stack of papers and stared silently at them, trying to decide which pile of receipts he should put them in.
Ugh. His father’d been the bookkeeper, not him. Stetson’s job had been out there on the farm, doing the real work. He was the one who fixed the fences, bailed the hay, and repaired the tractor.
Well…to be honest, his father wasn’t all that fond of record-keeping either, but it was one of the few tasks he could do once the cancer treatments started.
“How did you keep track of all of this crap?” Stetson mumbled the question to the memory of his father.
Now that his dad had passed away, the paperwork just seemed to multiply every time Stetson turned around. Cow vaccines, crop spray, fertilizer…it was a hundred times worse because he didn’t just focus on growing one major crop, like most farmers did. He did it all – cows and row crops andalfalfa.
He remembered when he’d first brought up the idea of raising cows to his dad. He was only 17, and so sure he could make it work.
“Cows? What do we want cows for?” His dad had stared up at him like he’d just announced he wanted to fly to the moon for breakfast.
So, his dad had not been impressed with the idea, to say the least. The Miller family had raised row crops since they originally moved out west in the 1880s. As they had prospered, they bought up neighboring pieces of land, spreading out over the years.
But cows? Cows were a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. They required squeeze chutes, strong fences, and corrals. They were expensive, and they could up and die on a man for any number of reasons. They were a gamble, and Millers weren’t known for being gamblers.
But Stetson was. He took that gamble and he won. Through a dent of pure will and a whole lot of statistics, he finally convinced his dad that this was a risk worth taking. He grew that first small herd into a small-but-growing herd. From there, strong management had turned a gamble into a sure thing. Well, as sure as ranching ever got.
In the end, it was a business venture that returned profits, changed his father’s mind, and forced his brothers to see him differently. Stetson took a lot of pride in the fact that it was his cows that had paid for his father’s cancer treatments. He’d made enough to extend Dad’s life for an extra six months.
He hadn’t, however, made enough to pay the bank loan, too.
“That jerk will not take my cattle. If the bank wants my cows, they can think again,” he said, slamming the papers he held in his hands into the drawer marked “Cows” in his father’s neat, spiky handwriting. He wasn’t entirely sure that the papers had to do with cows – he wasn’t actually sure what the papers were about at all – but at least now they were in a drawer, right?
He looked around the office. It looked the same as when he had begun his bank-ordered organizing spree. Everything was a mess except the center of the desk. The letter from the bank sat there, alone, straight, clean. No smudges, no coffee spills, no pen scribbles.
He sat down. The chair creaked under his weight. Placing his elbows on the desk, Stetson lowered his head over the letter.
“That stupid bastard isn’t gonna come in here and take everything. I’ll shove his teeth down his throat first,” Stetson muttered. “I’ll take him outside and beat the living hell outta him. I’ll—”
From behind him, Carmelita cleared her throat.
Stetson turned slowly in the beat-up office chair. Standing just outside the office door was his housekeeper/cook, and she looked pissed.
The short Hispanic woman had worked for the Miller family longer than Stetson had been alive. Technically she was an employee, but after so much time and dedication, she was family, and she knew it.
Carmelita folded her arms across her chest and glared daggers at him. Carmelita didn’t allow foul language in her house. Stetson’s name may be on the deed, but as long as Carmelita ran things, her house was run by herrules.
Carmelita had helped raise him and his brothers. Before his mother had died, Carmelita had always filled the role of grandmother, but after Mom was gone, she made sure the boys, especially Stetson, didn’t go hog-wild on her. She was astute enough to never try to replace his mother, but she did help fill in the gaps.
Behind his formidable housekeeper stood…a woman? Younger than he’d expected and much more…female than he’d expected. She was a head taller than Carmelita, and if he hadn’t already decided to hate her, his first reaction would’ve been to get his hands on her in an entirely different way. Or at least do everything in his power to get his hands on her number.
His face turned an even deeper shade of red, and he stared at the duo for just a moment. Ugh. Any chance he may have of endearing himself to the…female auditor was gone. Why’d they have to go and send a woman, anyway? Any hopes of landing a nice right-hook on the auditor’s face had just disappeared.
Stetson’s anger toward the bank grew even more. This was a dirty trick to send a woman. He knew they figured sending a woman would cut down on the yelling and fighting. He wanted to yell at the auditor. He wanted to tell a pencil-necked jerk just what he thought of this audit, but instead that slimy bank was using the underhanded trick of sending a woman. They hoped that he wouldn’t be the kind of man who would yell and rage at a woman.
They were right, darn their dirty hides.
Giving up hope of winning over (or at least punching) the bank employee, he decided to ignore the warning look Carmelita was sending him. Screw them all. There was nothing that would entice him to be nice to the bank, no matter what shapely form the bank came in. He stood up, using his height to tower over the petite banker.
“Hi,” the woman said, extending her hand toward him. “I’m Jennifer—” She stopped abruptly, Stetson noted with pride. Probably because he was looking down at her hand with all the respect he might give a rotting fish.
“I know who you are and why you’re here,” Stetson said flatly. “Let’s get some things straight. First, you’re not staying here. This is not a guest house; you can get a room in town. Second, this is my home, and I’ll not have it invaded by…” he waved his hand in the air, “bank people. You can use the office and the bathroom. The rest of the house and farm is off limits.”
Really warming up to the task of putting this woman in her place, he continued, “Third, I’m not paying for the privilege of having my farm stolen from me. If you have to make a phone call, you’ll do it on your own dime. Use your own phone, not mine. Fourth, Carmelita serves lunch at noon each day. Because I’m a good host, I’ll let you eat one sandwich with a glass of water, but that’s it. Finally, you’re gonna start at 8 and be gone by 5 every day. No exceptions.”
Drawing in a deep breath, he crossed his arms and glared down at her. Wow, it felt good to order the bank around. About time they got a taste of their own medicine.
This was not the first time Jennifer had conducted one of these audits. She listened to Stetson lay out the rules without interrupting.
Intellectually, she understood that people tended to get very emotional when money was involved, and it was especially hard to handle for people who aren’t used to dealing with their feelings.
In other words, men.
Emotionally, she wished they’d believe that she didn’t want to see them lose their livelihoods. She saw her job as the last-ditch attempt to save them from this fate. She was here to go through his records and there was just as much of a chance that she would find a way for him to stave off foreclosure as there was of her recommending that the bank go through with taking the farm.
Unfortunately, all of the audits she’d ever conducted started out like this. A cold introduction and no chance for her to explain what it was she was really here to do. She’d found out over the past year that it was better to let her actions speak louder than words – trying to convince the farmer at this point that she was on their side was a losing proposition.
“I understand,” she said.
Without saying another word, Stetson stormed out of the office. Jennifer turned sideways, flattening herself against the hallway wall just in time to avoid being run over.
“Thank you for showing me in,” she said to Carmelita, who was still pressed flat against the opposite wall.
“That boy should not have acted like that. Let me know if you need anything and trust me, I will have something to say to him about his lack of manners.”
“Don’t say anything on my account. I understand what my being here means; it’s a tough thing for folks to deal with.”
“Thank you, but he will not act like that while I,” she jabbed her finger into her ample chest, “am around.”
Jennifer smiled at the kindly woman, instantly liking her.
Carmelita left Jennifer to get set up.
Jennifer knew from so many brusque beginnings that it was best to get straight to work rather than dwelling on the anger directed toward her. If she could find that overlooked pocket of money that would save his home and farm, his anger would quickly fade.
I really hope I can change this guy’s mind.
Ugh. Jennifer, where did that thought come from?
Yes, he was handsome, even when he was angry, but Stetson Miller was her client, and it would be absolutely no good for anyone involved if she allowed herself to entertain…unprofessional thoughts.
As she looked around the office, she sighed. Some things were becoming all too routine. An angry introduction followed by an office that had all of the organization of a tornado touchdown site.
Another sigh escaped her that quickly turned into a gasp. The rickety office chair behind the desk was as stable as a bucking bull. She slowly leaned to her left, trying to stay upright, or at least not get chucked out on the floor. The chair creaked and held, but who knew for how long.
Well, she’d made it through the first introduction, and now it was time to get to work. Her mind had other ideas though, taking advantage of the mindlessness of digging her laptop, pens, and adding machine out of her bag to continue following a decidedly unprofessional and delicious path.
So, Stetson was drop-dead gorgeous. By far the cutest farmer she’d ever done a forensic audit for. Usually, the farmers were pot-bellied, short men with tobacco-stained teeth, and a piece of straw hanging out of their mouths. Okay, so maybe that was an exaggeration, but Stetson…Tall, blond, and handsome, he looked like he came walking right off a cowboy calendar. The view of him leaving – the tight jeans cupping his hot butt – wasn’t so bad either.
“Where are these thoughts coming from?” she chided herself as she set to work. The office was a true disaster – no surprise there. She never had this problem when a woman did the books.
“Why is every man’s office a mess?” she grumbled. She knew from hard-earned experience that if she let the large stack of papers get to her, she’d never make it through the audit. At least, not without a lot of wine.
Sorting through piles of papers was a mostly mindless task in the beginning. Decide on a basic organizational structure and then sort. She made a few quick decisions and then let her mind wander as her hands divided papers into groups.
This receipt seemed to have something to do with crops so into the pile on the left of the desk. That pink one looked like it was for parts so onto the equipment pile on the right. The next one most likely was for the cows so it went on the center pile.
“It never fails – every farmer is the same. They always assume it’s my fault they’re behind on their bills. Why is that?” She slammed the receipt into the parts pile.
Argh! Handsome men. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!
Well okay, not all are handsome but this farmer sure is.
“Knock it off! This isn’t professional,” she scolded herself.
“What is not professional?” a slightly accented voice asked from behind her.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Jennifer said, turning and smiling at Carmelita. She wasn’t about to admit to the housekeeper that she found her employer drool worthy.
Carmelita was holding a cup of coffee and the smell drifting into the little office was heavenly.
It’s against the rules.
“Here. This is for you,” the housekeeper said, holding the steaming cup out toward Jennifer.
“I really shouldn’t. I don’t think Mr. Miller would be happy to find me breaking the rules in the first 30 minutes.”
“Mr. Miller,” Carmelita said sarcastically, “broke enough rules this morning that the last thing that will be on his mind is a cup of coffee.”
Jennifer could not help but smile at the fiery woman. Jennifer never knew her grandmother, a fact that left her with a longing. Jennifer had always imagined that she was a stern but loving older woman, full of wisdom and experience with no tolerance of insolence.
“You come into the kitchen, and I will tell you a thing or two about Mr. Miller.”
Jennifer knew she really should keep working, but Carmelita was obviously not the type of woman who heard the word “no.”
I think I’d like to know a little more about Mr. Miller.
Jennifer grimaced at yet another unprofessional thought; luckily, Carmelita was in front of her and didn’t notice. As they walked down the hall and through the living room to get to the kitchen, Jennifer gave her own lecture – to herself. She had to stop it. No drooling, no unprofessional thoughts, no…anything. She was here for an audit, nothing more.
“I am so sorry for the way that Stetson treated you,” Carmelita said as she indicated a stool for Jennifer to sit on. “He was raised to act better towards a lady.” Carmelita pulled out bins of flour, sugar, and salt as they talked.
Jennifer felt her face color a bit at the idea that she was a lady. She did not think of herself as a bad girl, but the thought that she might qualify as being a lady by down-home country standards was just…weird. And kinda cool.
“It really isn’t that unexpected—” She faltered, realizing that she didn’t know what to call the housekeeper. Manners would dictate that she not be called by her first name, but that was all Jennifer knew.
“Call me Carmelita, dear,” the older woman said, picking up the cue flawlessly, looking up from her mixing bowl to smile at Jennifer. “The boys have called me Karma for a long time, but I think they mean it as a joke.”
“Thank you, Carmelita,” Jennifer said, smiling back, grateful for her understanding. “It really isn’t that unexpected. There are a lot of complex emotions that come with having money troubles, and I’m the outsider – from the bank, no less! People take their frustrations out on me. I’m used to it.”
Jennifer watched Carmelita instinctively add ingredients to the mixing bowl, a maestro at work. Carbs were bad, right? Carbs made you fat?
She breathed in deep. Man, that smelled amazing. It was a good thing Stetson had ruled out Jennifer eating anything but a crust of bread and a glass of water, or she could easily envision waddling out of here.
“Just because a lot of people do something does not make it right,” Carmelita said, dragging Jennifer back into the moment. “I will have a talk with Stetson about that later. He will not act like that when I am around.”
“Oh, please don’t make it an issue.” She didn’t want Stetson to think that she’d gone to the housekeeper and complained about him behind his back. He’d really be pissed then.
“I am sorry, but I have to make an issue out of it, as you say. Out here, it is very easy for a young man to forget that he must be a gentleman no matter what. The cows can bring out the dirty words very quickly. A broken tractor or torn-up fence will make a person lose their temper just as fast. If there is not someone here to remind him to be nice, a man can become mean to the center too quickly.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” Jennifer murmured, before burying her face in her mug. She wasn’t entirely sure what to say, so she decided to become preoccupied with sipping her coffee. A safe enough preoccupation, right?
“Well, it has worked so far. The other thing that Stetson needs to remember is that just because he got himself into trouble, does not give him permission to pass off his responsibilities, no matter how hard life gets.”
“What do you mean?” She knew she was shamelessly fishing for information at that point, but couldn’t bring herself to care. Or stop.
“Sí. It is never easy being the youngest brother and then his mother died, God rest her soul,” Carmelita said and crossed herself.
Oh. Poor guy. No wonder this woman acts more like a mother than a housekeeper.
“How old was he when his mother passed away?”
“He was 12. His brothers are much older than he is, so for years, it was just his father and him. He had to grow up very quickly,” Carmelita answered, the pride apparent in her voice. “It was only a couple of years after his mother passed away that his brothers bought their own farms, so then it was completely up to Stetson to pick up the slack. He learned to work very hard.”
So he basically got a job before he was even a teenager. Yikes…
“Then his father got sick,” the older woman continued. “At the beginning, it looked like it might be okay. Some trips to the doctor and some medicine and then it would go away. But the sickness was not nice, and the body was only so strong.”
Jennifer watched a single tear trace its way down Carmelita’s face. She didn’t know if she should comfort her. Would Carmelita want a hug? They’d just met. Maybe Carmelita isn’t a huggy sort of a person? She decided to ask a question instead.
“When did his father die?”
“Mr. Miller, God rest his soul,” again she made the sign of the cross, “left us about one year ago.”
No wonder Stetson’s so upset. That’s a crap sandwich with a side of crap chips.
Okaaaayyyyy, so Carmelita definitely shouldn’t be calling me a lady.
She worked hard to stifle the smile bubbling up; considering the topic, that didn’t really seem appropriate.
“Stetson has been trying so hard to keep the farm working,” Carmelita continued. “He only took one day off for his father’s funeral and then he was back at work. He works even harder now. He will say that he works so hard because his father is not here to help, but I think it keeps him from missing his father. Fathers are very important to young men.”
I have to save this farm.
“That’s…very sad,” Jennifer finally said, the statement weak and hollow in her ears.
“Sí. It is very sad,” Carmelita agreed. “There are other things you need to know.”
Other things? Dear heavens, the man was an orphan and forced to be a workaholic to keep his farm. What else could there be?!
Out loud, she said, “What’s that?”
“There are other worries that Stetson has,” Carmelita said, wiping her hands on her apron and turning her full attention to Jennifer. “There are many people in this town who have had to give their farms to the bank, and that upsets people around here. They work hard for their whole lives. They take many chances, but then there is no rain or the prices are not so good and the bank shows up and makes people leave their farms. People here do not like that. You are here because of the bank. It will be very hard for people here to like you.”
“I know,” Jennifer said, dropping her head to stare at her empty coffee mug. “I wish people understood what I really do for the bank.”
“What do you do for the bank if you are not here to take away the farm?” Carmelita asked, sounding genuinely confused.