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Copyright © 2018 by Erin Wright
These books are 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 these books 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.
Welcome to Long Valley, where the cowboys are *damn* fine…
Accounting for Love – Book 1
Blizzard of Love – Book 2
Arrested by Love – Book 3
Returning for Love – Book 4
Christmas of Love – Book 5
Author’s Note II
Overdue for Love
Overdue for Love Excerpt
A FREE Story For You…
Stampede of Love Blurb
Stampede of Love Preview
The story doesn’t end…
Also by Erin Wright
About Erin Wright
When I first started writingAccounting for Love, I’ll be honest: I had no idea what I was in for. I’d ghostwritten a series for another author (no, I can’t tell you who or what, sorry), and had fun with that, but it’s a totally different ball of wax when you have to also edit, and buy blurbs and covers, and promo the books, and stay active on social media, and send out a newsletter every week, and still give enough attention to your cat that she doesn’t feel neglected.
Which is, of course, a losing proposition because Jasmine the Writing Cat is always going to feel neglected unless I am actively petting her at that very moment, but I do try.
A picture of her? Of course! I’d love to share.
Yes, she is the cutest cat on the face of the planet, and no, I’m not biased.
But anyway, once I embarked on this journey, there was no going back. I began to fall in love with my handsome cowboys and all of their many flaws. I became best friends with my girls, cheering them on when they made the right choice and beating them about the head when they didn’t.
In short, I created a world that I never wanted to leave, and it’s my fondest wish that when you join me in Long Valley, you’ll feel that same way.
In the end, more blood, sweat, and tears went into this series than I can possibly begin to catalog (or expected to shed!) but I have to say, damn, it was all worth it.
Oh, before I forget:
All of my books are standalones, meaning that they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and never have godawful things like cliffhangers. Also, all of them make sense by themselves, even if you’ve never read another book by me.
However, I strongly suggest that you read them in order. They build on each other, in a way, because they move through time chronologically. If a brother finds love in one book, then he’s (obviously) still in love with that person in the next book. In fact, in the next book, they might be getting married or having babies or whatever.
And after all, you have all five books in your hot little hands, so why not read them in order, right?
Last but not least, if you enjoy this series, then at the end, I have a free book offer and info on other books in the Long Valley series (and my spinoff series, Firefighters of Long Valley) and as always, everything is available on all storefronts. I will never publish on only one storefront – I believe strongly in making my books available to all. It’s the librarian in me. 😀
So be sure to check all of that out once you’re done.
With that, let’s dive into the world of Long Valley.
Okay, that was the last picture of Jasmine the Writing Cat, I promise. Accounting for Love for realsies now…
Stetson Miller looked around his father’s cluttered office. Well, it was Stetson’s office now, although he was sure it’d feel like his dad’s office until the day he died.
Died like his father had.
Stetson pushed the thought away. His office, his father’s office…none of that mattered now. Not with the office, the house, and the whole damn farm about to be stolen from him.
Desperate to do something, even if it was wrong, Stetson turned towards his father’s desk, ready to start filing papers or straightening up or something.
Piles were everywhere – piles on top of piles. He was pretty sure piles were having little baby piles every time he turned his back on ‘em. He picked up a sheaf of papers with a heavy sigh, thumbing through the jumbled mess. Hmmm…they appeared to be his heating bills for the cow barn this past winter…
Stetson looked up from the papers to stare at the rows of drawers to his right, all labeled in his father’s spiky, neat handwriting. Cow Expenses, the far right drawer label read, a little newer than the other labels. Not quite as yellowed. Not quite as faded. Stetson went to shove the papers inside when he noticed another drawer labeled Heating and Cooling Expenses.
He paused, eyes darting between the two drawers. The receipts really could go in either one…
Stetson dropped the papers on top of a precarious pile of receipts with a muttered curse that would have his mother spinning in her grave. He pulled his hat off and chucked it in the corner, shoving his hands through his hair.
This was ridiculous. The whole thing was ridiculous. Since when was a farmer supposed to like paperwork? Everyone knew that real work was done out in the fields, not in an office. Bucking hay, building fences, castrating cows – now that was a job well done.
Pushing papers around was for pansies. People who couldn’t hack it out with the real men.
Stetson’s eye fell on the letter in the center of his father’s desk. It sat there alone, unsmudged, no scribbled phone numbers or coffee spills on it. It mocked him with its pristine state of being, in such stark contrast to everything else in the office.
Thirty-one days. The bank had given him thirty-one days to bring his loan current. He didn’t need to re-read the letter to know what it said. Every word was imprinted in his brain, like a branding iron on his gray matter.
And it had been thirty-one days.
The month had passed in a blur, with Stetson considering and then discarding every idea he could think of, their outrageousness growing as the days passed.
He could sell his truck.
Except, what farmer didn’t have a truck? How was he supposed to haul hay or workers or rolls of fencing out to the pasture? How was he supposed to farm? And to add insult to injury, selling his truck wouldn’t actually solve the problem. That’d bring in $30,000, maybe. On a good day. Not $176,900.
Then came an even worse idea: He could ask Wyatt or Declan for a loan.
Which of course meant admitting that he’d screwed everything up from day one. Admitting that he was on the brink of losing the family farm.
The derision, the sneer on Wyatt’s face when he heard the news…Stetson didn’t need to actually tell his oldest brother the truth to know what Wyatt’s reaction would be. It was the same reaction that Wyatt had for almost every piece of news Stetson had to relay – good, bad, or indifferent.
And this news was definitely not indifferent.
No, he couldn’t tell his brothers. He couldn’t admit how much things had gone downhill since their dad died. They’d never forgive him.
Not, of course, that any of this was his fault. It was all the damn bank’s fault. Why, his dad was hardly even cold in the ground. They didn’t need to be circling like vultures overhead, just waiting for a chance to shred him to pieces. They could at least give a guy a chance to get his feet underneath him.
Stetson picked up the letter, unsullied by even a dirty fingerprint, and stared down at it unseeingly. Then, with a precision worthy of a surgeon, he began tearing it into strips. Long, straight, neat strips.
“When that asshole banker gets here, I’m gonna give him a piece of my mind!” Stetson growled to himself, tearing the letter into smaller and smaller pieces. Each tear of the paper was satisfyingly precise. “I’ll teach him how not to be a bastard. I’ll teach him with my fists, that piece of shit—”
A clearing of a throat cut Stetson off at the pass. He froze, hoping that if he just stood there long enough, no one would notice him. He’d blend into the background, like a cowboy version of a chameleon, and avoid the wrath of his housekeeper.
She cleared her throat again.
Stetson let the pieces of the letter flutter to the ground – his one act of defiance that he dared to do in front of his formidable housekeeper – and then turned to the doorway.
There Carmelita stood, her fists planted on her hips, shooting him glares that Stetson could only be grateful didn’t actually kill.
Behind his fiery, rotund Hispanic housekeeper stood…a woman?
She stared back.
Time stood still as Stetson’s mind scrambled to put the information in front of him together into a coherent whole. The hated banker, the one he was going to beat into the ground with his fists was…a woman.
“That low-down snake!” Stetson erupted, staring at the female banker. “That piece-of-shit bank president sent in a woman to do his dirty work? Is he hiding behind your skirts? Huh? Why doesn’t he come in here like a real man and face me?”
Carmelita’s face, unhappy to begin with, turned a bright shade of red that Stetson hadn’t seen since he’d gotten the oh-so-grand idea at age six to dye the white sheets in the guest bedroom a deep red. He’d used them as a cape to jump off the roof – he was gonna fly like Superman.
He wasn’t sure which had hurt worse: His broken leg or being on the receiving end of that stare.
“This lady is going to look at your books,” Carmelita ground out, staring Stetson down, which considering she had to crane her neck upwards to do, was quite the feat. His righteous indignation began to seep out of him like a balloon with a pinprick in it. “And you will treat her like a lady!” she thundered.
With that, his housekeeper moved to the side, letting the tiny woman through. Even with heels on, the banker barely came to Stetson’s shoulder.
“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.
Maybe he couldn’t punch the banker, and maybe he couldn’t use choice words to tell her exactly what he thought of her chosen profession – stealing farms from hard-working, red-blooded Americans – so he’d do the next best thing: He’d put her in her place.
“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 telling this woman what’s what, 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 damn 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. Damn, it felt good to order the bank around. It was ‘bout time they got a taste of their own medicine.
Jennifer stared up at the pissed-off farmer, towering over her, and had the most vivid – if short – daydream of stomping into his instep, kneeing him in the balls, and walking out the door. With that, she could go back to her boss, tell him that the farm had failed the audit and that the Miller Farm needed to be repossessed for lack of assets and income. It’s what her boss wanted her to report back, anyway. Jenn knew that.
But she pushed down her urge to knock the asshole of a farmer down a peg or two, and instead forced a smile onto her face. An unconvincing, stiff-as-dried-plaster smile, but a smile nonetheless.
“Thank you for the information. Now, if you wouldn’t mind, I have work to do, since it appears none has been done in months.” She stared pointedly at a particularly precarious pile of file folders tottering on the edge of the desk and then back up at Mr. Miller.
Waaaay up at Mr. Miller. Dammit all, this guy was a giant. Were all Sawyer farm boys this tall? She was going to hurt her neck, craning it like this.
Not that she was going to admit that to this overgrown ape. She’d already had her fill of his condescending attitude and she’d only been in his presence for three minutes. She’d admit a weakness to him about the same time she’d chop off her right foot.
And anyway, it sure as hell wasn’t her fault that her father wasn’t cousin to Bigfoot.
“Whatever. I have work to do. Real work.” He stomped past her and out into the hallway, his footsteps echoing with anger as he stormed out of the house.
Jennifer turned back to the portly older woman still hovering in the doorway, and shot her a more genuine smile. “Thanks for your help,” she said.
“My Stetson should not have behaved that way,” Carmelita announced angrily, her cheeks a flaming red. “I will have a talk with him when he comes back in about his manners.” She too stormed down the hallway but her soft slippers didn’t clomp nearly as loudly as Mr. Miller’s boots had. Jennifer somehow knew that Carmelita was regretting her shoe choices that very moment.
Jennifer turned back to the office, surveying it with a groan. She’d audited some pretty disastrous offices before on behalf of the bank, but she was pretty sure that this one took the cake. In stark contrast to the rest of the pristine house that Jennifer had caught sight of as she’d followed Carmelita back here, this disaster zone really looked like it just deserved to be set on fire so they could start over again.
Why was it that offices run by men always looked like this? When women were the bookkeepers, the offices may not have been spick-n-span, but they were at least tolerable. But men’s offices…it was like they were allergic to filing paperwork. Or cleaning.
Which was, of course, why the bank was sending her out to audit the books to begin with. People who were on top of their paperwork and their filing and their bills didn’t tend to have their businesses taken away from them. That wasn’t always true, of course – sometimes a business ran into a string of bad luck that couldn’t be avoided – but usually, it was a hatred and/or a complete lack of bookkeeping knowledge that put people into this position.
She sighed. She knew from hard-won experience that getting grumpy about the state of an office at the beginning of an audit did her absolutely no good. It was time to get to work. She could complain about farmers’ inability to file papers into a drawer later over wine with Bonnie.
Just as Jennifer moved to sit down in the rickety old office chair that looked like it’d survived a WWII bombing raid, she heard the front door slam open, footsteps echo through the entryway and hallway, and then Mr. Miller reappeared in the doorway, his face as brilliant red as Carmelita’s had been. Avoiding eye contact, he snatched his cowboy hat off the filing cabinet in the corner – Jennifer hadn’t even noticed it in amongst the piles of papers everywhere – shoved it down on his head, and then stormed back out, the door slamming shut behind him.
She wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or cry.
She sat down in the office chair with a snort-laugh that ended with a yelp of terror when she found herself staring up at the ceiling, her head cracking against the hardwood floor as the chair slammed backwards. “What the hell?!” she half-yelled, the words coming out of her before she could stop them. She usually tried not to swear at a customer’s place of business, but she also usually did not sit in chairs that fell over like fainting goats, either, so she figured she had a valid excuse just this once.
She rocked and rolled and finally heaved herself out of the chair and onto her feet, staring down at the innocent-looking chair with a baleful glare. She brushed her black skirt off, trying to get the bits of hay and mud and cow shit off her from her roll on the floor. That was definitely not how she wanted to start this audit. With a sigh, she hoisted the ancient office chair upright again, settling down into it gingerly this time, finding just the right spot to keep her precarious balance.
Yup, this was gonna be one fun audit, all right.
After laying down the law with that no-good female banker, Stetson stormed out towards the barn, remembering halfway there that he’d left his hat behind, went back to retrieve it, and then stormed out to the barn again, where he promptly spent the rest of the day hiding.
Well, not hiding, of course. He was a man. Men did not hide from women. He was just choosing to spend his day working on very important things that were not inside of the house, was all.
Which was a very different kettle of fish altogether.
His hired hands were working hard on vaccinating the new calves, and he really should go help them, but it wasn’t fair to them if he made them pay for the bank’s bullshit by biting their heads off for the heinous crime of breathing, so on second thought, he should probably stay away from them.
All people, actually. And anyway, Christian – his foreman – was out there with them, so he’d make sure that the men were doing what they needed to.
And while Stetson was staying away from people, he should probably do the same with beasts for that matter. Cows were trying enough on the best of days, and this was definitely not a best day, or even a mediocre day.
So, the barn it was. At least there, he had a reasonable chance of being left alone.
Damn the bank anyway. At least if they’d sent a man, he could’ve told that man what he really thought about him, the bank, and how screwed up this whole situation was, punctuated perfectly with his fists. To add insult to injury, Stetson also knew that he was going to hear about his rudeness – and swearing – from Carmelita sometime in the very near future.
The prospect of an ass-chewing didn’t exactly make him jump up and down for joy.
Stetson looked around, trying to find a very important project to work on. The Miller Family Barn was more of a storage building and workshop combined together than a typical barn. In the winter, he would park tractors and other equipment in it to keep the expensive machinery out of the weather, but since it was the middle of summer, there was a lot more elbow room to be found.
Along one wall, there were workbenches, toolboxes, and all of the miscellaneous tools and junk that had accumulated over the years. The piles of stuff were ostensibly kept under the pretense that they could someday be used to make repairs, but Stetson knew better.
The truth was:
1. He was a farmer;
2. Farmers never threw away anything; and
3. Carmelita was never allowed into the barn.
There were some laws of nature that just shouldn’t be broken.
And then, he spotted it. Hidden in the very back corner of the barn was a small tarp-covered tractor. Unlike the modern equipment that was used for the day-to-day operations of the farm, this tractor was nearly 60 years old.
It had belonged to the Miller family from the day it’d rolled off the assembly line. It was the first piece of motorized equipment Stetson’s grandfather had purchased. Since then, a long line of equipment had passed through their ownership. Bigger, more efficient equipment cycled through as technology advanced, but the family had held on to this particular tractor as a reminder of all the things it symbolized.
Stetson wandered over to the miniature tractor – at least, miniature in comparison to today’s beasts – and pulled the tarp off, sending up a cloud of dust that had him coughing and gasping for air. Once most of it had settled and the air became breathable again, Stetson ran his hand over the rusty, chipped green paint and split leather seat, remembering…
Over the years, the tractor had sat in a field through rain, snow, and shine. Eventually, time took its toll on the machine to the point where it would no longer run. Then one day, Stetson’s father wrapped a chain around the front axle, lifted a much younger Stetson into the seat, showed him how to release the clutch and how to steer, and together, they pulled the rotting tractor to the barn. It was the first thing Stetson had ever driven.
“What’re we gonna do to Grandpa’s tractor?” Stetson had asked.
“We’re going to fix it,” his father replied, amused at the obviousness of the answer.
“But this one’s old and we have better ones over there.”
“I guess that depends on how you judge better,” his father had said, kneeling to look his young son in the eye. “If it wasn’t for this tractor, your grandfather wouldn’t have been a successful farmer, and that means that we wouldn’t have had the money or reason to buy those other tractors that you say are better.”
“But why are you going to fix it? The other tractors are stronger and faster.”
“First, I’m not the only one who’s going to fix this tractor, son. You’re going to help me fix it. Second, we’re going to fix this tractor because it’s a reminder of where our family has come from. It’s a symbol of all the hard work that’s gone into giving us the things we have now. It may never plow another field, but this is the tractor that plowed the fields and planted the seeds that are your future and I want you to learn to respect that.”
Stetson’s vision was blurry. The tractor was fuzzy around the edges and his face was hot, but in his mind, he could clearly see the deep, sun-etched wrinkles at the corners of his father’s eyes.
Stetson wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand as the memory faded. Damn dust in the air, anyway.
The tractor still didn’t run. There was a new part attached here and there, but he and his father had only ever worked on the tractor a few moments at a time over the years.
“If they want my farm, fine. But this tractor will run again, by God,” he said out loud. It was a declaration to the universe. Finally, something that he could do, rather than just sit and worry. What had thirty-one days of worry gotten him? A banker in his father’s office, doing her damnedest to steal the Miller Family Farm.
He grabbed a wrench and got to work. Worrying and stewing over bankers solved nothing.
What about drooling over bankers?
Stetson stopped, his wrench in mid-air as he stared unseeingly at the tiny, antique tractor in front of him. Where the hell had that thought come from?
The stress was getting to him, that was for sure. If he didn’t pull his head out of his ass, and soon, he was going to lose his mind along with his farm.
And Stetson wasn’t quite sure which one was worse.
Jennifer gingerly stood up from the chair, rolling her neck from side to side to work the kinks out of it as she looked down with satisfaction at the piles of papers on the wooden, scarred desk. To the untrained eye, it would look a lot like it had when she’d started – just piles of papers laid out everywhere – but this time, there was a purpose for those piles.
Which definitely couldn’t be said for the first set of piles she’d inherited.
She hadn’t sorted out the piles elsewhere in the office, stacked on every horizontal surface available, but hey, baby steps.
Now that there was some semblance of order in the chaos, at least in the desk arena, she just had to find a way to help Mr. Miller save his farm, even if he was an ungrateful ass. He may not appreciate her hard work on his behalf, but that didn’t mean it was any less her job.
Which, now that she thought about it, was rather like operating on a pain-in-the-ass patient and saving their life, whether or not they wanted the help, and whether or not they appreciated it.
Jennifer wrinkled her nose at herself. How was it that she’d gone from one profession to the next, and neither one of them appreciated the effort and care she put in? She must be a glutton for punishment – a masochist of the first order. There was no other explanation.
“Would you like a break now?” came Carmelita’s voice behind her, startling her out of her self-pitying thoughts. She whirled around to face the door, her hand over her heart, a startled yelp spilling out of her.
“Sorry, I did not mean to scare you,” the housekeeper said with a kindly smile. “You have been hard at work for a long time, though, and I thought that you might want to take a break.”
Jennifer’s eyes flicked to the elk clock on the wall. Wow – 3:15 in the afternoon? Where did today go? “I’d love that,” she said. “You have my crust of bread and my glass of water to drink?”
She may or may not have said that with sarcasm dripping off every syllable.
Carmelita sighed as she turned to head back towards the kitchen, her soft slippers making her almost completely silent on the creaky hardwood floors.
“Stetson has not come back in from outside yet, but when he does, we will have a talk about manners,” the housekeeper said over her shoulder in her softly accented voice. “He was not raised by his parents – God rest their souls,” she crossed herself, “to speak to a woman that way. Or anyone at all.”
They’d made it to a cheerful, if cramped, country kitchen, where Carmelita set about making a sandwich for Jennifer, her hands moving rhythmically between the ingredients. There was a small, worn table shoved up against the wall, so Jennifer slipped into a seat, watching the housekeeper at work. Homemade white bread, thick sliced roast beef…her mouth was watering at the sight.
“Are his parents no longer here?” she asked, trying to phrase that in the most tactful way possible. The housekeeper seemed intent on bringing them up, even if Jennifer usually didn’t get involved or even know much about a client’s background. But since Carmelita wanted to talk about it, it was only polite to respond and ask questions.
Nothing more than that.
“No,” Carmelita said sadly, sliding a plate in front of Jennifer along with a glass of milk. Jenn stared at the glass in bewilderment – she hadn’t been served milk to drink since she was a small child. She took a hesitant sip of the super thick, creamy liquid as Carmelita continued, “His mother died 14 years ago in a car accident – hit a deer on the way over to Pocatello to visit Stetson’s older brother, Declan. His father was devastated; they loved each other very much. He never dated or looked at anyone else. He died of cancer last July, or so they say. I think he died of a broken heart. He was never right after Mrs. Miller died.”
She stopped talking just as Jennifer had taken another overly large bite of her glorious sandwich – she’d almost just shoved the whole thing in her mouth because it was so damn delicious, but had instead settled on only taking a huge bite instead.
Which left her chewing furiously so she could respond without her mouth being full.
Finally, she swallowed and said, “That’s a really sad story.”
Which was just about the most lame comment on the planet, but she really wasn’t sure what else to say.
Carmelita pulled out an oversized mixing bowl and canisters, lining them up in preparation to make something delicious, Jennifer was sure of it. It was probably a good thing that an audit only lasted a couple of weeks. She was going to have to be rolled out the front door at this rate on a hand truck if all of Carmelita’s cooking was as delicious as the sandwich had been.
She scrambled for something else to say as Carmelita hummed softly to herself, stirring flour and sugar together in the ceramic mixing bowl.
“So Mr. Miller has an older brother?” She wasn’t sure why she was asking this question, other than out of politeness. It certainly wasn’t any of her business.
She certainly didn’t care.
“Two older brothers,” Carmelita corrected, adding salt into the mixture. “Wyatt is the oldest and then Declan two years later. Stetson was…how do you say? Surprise.” She laughed a little. “Mrs. Miller was so flustered when she found out she was pregnant again. Stetson was eight years after Declan, and they had believed that they were done. She wanted a little girl but of course, he was a boy. Mr. Miller was happy, though, and Stetson never left his side. As soon as he was out of diapers, he spent the whole day with his father. Never complained – his shadow. Two peas in a pod.
“Declan was always closest to Mrs. Miller, and Wyatt…well, I do not know. Wyatt is his own person.”
Which was just about the oddest statement ever, but Jennifer didn’t feel comfortable asking for clarification. She’d already gossiped about her client’s past long enough. It was time to get back to work.
With a barely stifled groan, she pushed back from the worn kitchen table and stood, stretching for just a moment before smiling at the housekeeper. “Thank you for lunch,” she said.
The housekeeper bobbed her head, flashing a quick smile before concentrating on her baking again. Chocolate chips were being added to the bowl now. Jennifer tried not to drool.
Too much, anyway.
“My Stetson – his bark is worse than his bite. He is just worried. He has a good heart. He will be nicer to you next time. I will make him.”
Jennifer let out a snort of laughter at that. The diminutive housekeeper was probably a good two feet shorter than Mr. Miller, but Jennifer was pretty sure that in this case, size wasn’t really what mattered.
“Well…ummm…thanks again,” she said, and headed back to the office.
She was still pretty sure that Stetson Miller was a jackass of the first water, but at least he had good taste in housekeepers. That was one point in his favor.
Even if it was his only one.
Stetson pulled the alternator off the tractor and carried it over to a workbench. Covered in a thick coating of grease and dirt, it didn’t look like much, but he was sure that with a bit of a tune-up, he could make it sing again.
Or at least put-put-put down the field. Wouldn’t that be something – he could start using this tractor around the farm a little again. Machines were meant to be used, not to just sit around under a tarp.
“Hey, Stets, you here?” Declan’s voice called out as the barn door squeaked and rattled open.
Dammit. What is he doing here?
Declan was certainly Stetson’s favorite brother – it wasn’t hard to be declared the winner in that contest, considering the competition – but that didn’t mean he wanted him here on the farm. Not with the damn banker still here. It wasn’t five o’clock yet, so she would still be in their father’s office, doing her best to steal the farm away.
Stetson didn’t want Declan anywhere near Jennifer-the-Thief.
“Hey, Dec!” Stetson called back, as casual as he could. “I’m back here!” He listened to his brother’s cowboy boots echo on the dirty concrete floor, and then he appeared in the doorway, pushing his hat back on his head as he looked around the indoor riding arena that had long ago been turned into a large repair shop.
“Whatcha workin’ on?” he asked, making his way through the random piles scattered about. He got over to Grandpa’s tractor and let out a little laugh. “Is the farm doing so well, you don’t need to worry about working out in the fields anymore? You can take a day to just work on this old thing?”
Stetson shrugged as he fiddled with a nut, pretending to be utterly fascinated by it. He couldn’t meet his brother’s eye. “I just…wanted to do something a little different today. Figured it was ‘bout time someone worked on this.”
“Yeah, Dad would’ve loved to see this up and moving again.”
They both stood in silence, staring at the family relic. “So,” Stetson finally said, clearing his throat and wiping his hands on a grease rag, “what’s up?”
“Just wanted to stop by and talk to you about having a family meeting. Are you free on Friday afternoon? With the drought hitting hard this summer, Wyatt’s dryland wheat is ripening faster than usual. I think he’s anxious to get it out of the fields.”
Stetson bit down on the inside of his cheek. Hard. Since Wyatt was the only dryland farmer in the bunch, his wheat always ripened first, which meant he always harvested first. Which meant he could always destroy farm equipment with impunity and then return it without a care in the world because he was cock-sure his brothers would fix it all before starting into their own harvests.
Which was true, mostly because they had no other choice.
“Wyatt…I just don’t know,” Stetson hedged, trying to figure out a way to get out of sharing farm equipment this year. “You know we haven’t been getting along lately.”
Stetson decided to leave that part out. “If I have to work with him on harvest again this year, I’m not sure we’d both still be alive by the end of it.”
Declan let out a little laugh. They both knew it was true; Declan was just too nice to say it out loud. “C’mon, brother,” Declan chided him, “you know it’s what Dad would’ve wanted.”
Which was also true, dammit. And it sucked that Declan was willing to play that card, even if it was true.
Of course, he didn’t get the title of peacemaker in the Miller family for nothing. He’d been the liaison between his older brother and younger brother since the day Stetson arrived on the scene, and had finely honed his craft over the years. He was the only reason Stetson and Wyatt ever ended up in the same room together. Without Declan serving as a buffer between his two brothers, they would’ve either stopped talking to each other or killed each other long before now.
It was a toss-up as to which it would’ve been.
Stetson let out a long sigh. “Yeah. You’re right. Fine. Meet me here on Friday? We’ll go over our harvest schedules and put together a plan then.” Hopefully the banker-a-la-thief would be gone by then.
He could only hope.
Declan grinned. “Awesome. See you then.” He turned and started making his way back out of the barn, when he stopped and turned back. “What’s up with the fancy car up at the house?”
Dammit, hell, shit, God almighty—
“Just an accountant I hired to come look at the books. You know, make sure they’re in tip-top shape.” He smiled, trying to act as casual as possible, but he was dying inside. There was no way Declan would fall for that one. It was the stupidest idea known to man. You didn’t deal with paperwork; you just threw it in the office, closed the door, and ignored it.
Everyone knew that.
“Great idea! I’m proud of you for thinking of that. Having someone else take over the books is just what you need to do.”
Or that. Declan could always think it was a grand idea to invite a bookkeeper into their lives. Stetson barely kept from rolling his eyes. His brother had the most ridiculous ideas sometimes.
“Hell,” Declan continued, “I might just go on up to the house and talk to him about coming over to my place and taking a look at my books. Do you—”
“Oh, you shouldn’t bother her! Not ummm…not right now. Maybe later. But she has a lot to go through right now. Lots of…paper.” He waved his hand in the air vaguely.
Stetson gave Declan a weak smile.
“She, eh?” Declan arched an eyebrow teasingly. “Is she a looker?”
“Oh no. Ugly. Mole on her nose. A little hair sprouts out of it.”
He had no idea where that came from. Or where any of this was coming from. He shouldn’t be lying to his brother. He knew that. He also couldn’t figure out how to tell him the truth.
And wasn’t that just quite the pickle to find himself in.
“Damn. Well, I better get to work. See you on Friday.” He walked out, his footsteps fading away, and then the creak and squeal of the barn door signaled his exit.
Stetson’s shoulders dropped and he stared unseeingly at the tractor in front of him. He’d just screwed up, and he knew it. He shouldn’t have lied to Declan. His parents had raised him better than that.
But to tell him the truth? That was unthinkable, too.
With an angry growl at himself and the world in general, Stetson gathered up the rags he’d dirtied and carried them to his truck he’d left parked outside the night before. He’d drive the rags back up to the house and make sure that the banker wasn’t doing something she shouldn’t be. Like, snooping around the house, searching through trash cans or something, hoping to find incriminating evidence. Of what, he wasn’t quite sure, but dammit all, she had shifty eyes. He’d seen that this morning. He shouldn’t hide out in the barn any longer; he had to go protect his family’s legacy.
Ummm…work in the barn any longer. Because he sure as hell wasn’t hiding.
He was a man. Men didn’t hide from women.
Having finished the piles on the desk (and on top of the filing cabinet and in corners, lurking like monsters in a nightmare), Jennifer had moved on to the inside of the filing cabinet.
It wasn’t a typical metal filing cabinet, but rather a beat-up wooden relic with rows of drawers, all neatly labeled in the same spiky handwriting that she’d found on a few papers scattered around. In contrast, most of the papers piled on the desk had been in a blocky handwriting, and Jennifer had spent the afternoon idly trying to figure out which handwriting was the father’s, and which one was the son.
She pulled a cabinet drawer open and found file folders, neatly labeled by year, tabs marching through the drawer like soldiers, and instantly knew that this settled it – the son’s handwriting was the blocky one. All of the file folders in here had the spiky handwriting on it, and Jennifer was willing to bet next year’s salary on the fact that Stetson wouldn’t take the time to organize file folders if his life depended on it.
So when the father was alive, he filed and organized, and then once he died and Stetson took over, all of that stopped? Not surprising. The man she’d met that morning didn’t give a rat’s ass about paperwork or bills or filing, of that she was sure. Of course he’d let his paperwork fall into disarray, and then blame the bank for the mess he’d found himself in.
She started to reach for the first file folder in the drawer when she glanced up at the elk clock on the wall, the bull’s head thrown back as it bugled to the world, a 2 on the tip of its nose. Huh. It’s almost five. If I get started in on another project, I’ll be here hours past when I should be, and God only knows, the bank doesn’t pay overtime. Plus, Mr. Miller was quite clear on my work schedule this morning.
She shoved the drawer closed instead. She could get started on this phase of the excavation tomorrow morning. That would be soon enough. She began gathering up her laptop bag and notepad when her phone started singing out Working Overtime.
With a groan, she grabbed her iPhone and swiped to answer. “This is Jennifer Kendall,” she said in her most professional tone of voice. It was how her boss wanted her to answer the phone, even though he damn well knew who she was.
Just one of his many idiosyncrasies.
“How shhhhsirifks ldislkds,” her boss’ voice chirped in her ear.
“Hold on, Greg, let me get somewhere with better reception.” Jennifer hurried through the farmhouse and out onto the covered porch that stretched the length of the house.
“Can you hear me now?” Jennifer asked, feeling distinctly like she was starring in a Verizon Wireless commercial even as she said it.
“There you are. What took you so long?” Greg sounded annoyed, but then again, everything annoyed him.
“Sorry, I’m way out in the sticks. The signal isn’t very good; I had to go outside.”
“Whatever, just don’t leave me waiting like that again,” Greg huffed on the other end of the call. “Are you making progress?”
“Yes?” she said, more of a question than a statement. “I mean, I got through the piles on the desk today. I’ll get to work on the filing cabi—”
“I don’t need a play-by-play of your workday,” Greg said, cutting her off. “I just need to know if they have the money. The Millers. Are they going to bring their loan current?”
“There’s only one Miller who still lives here, first of all, and second, I have no idea. Like I said, I haven’t even touched the filing cabinet yet and there’s a lot—”
“I want results, not excuses!” Greg interrupted. Again. Jennifer bit down on the inside of her cheek. Hard. There were days…
“Give me a few more days and I can give you more information,” she said politely but firmly.
“I want a status report at noon tomorrow.” And with that, he hung up.
Jennifer stared down at her phone in shock. Even for Greg, he was being inordinately pushy and difficult. He usually didn’t hound her for a status report on an audit until she’d been there for a few days. He’d been in the foreclosure department of the Intermountain West Bank & Loan for longer than she had. He knew what he was asking for was impossible, so why the bee up his bonnet?
There was something not quite right here…
She heard the rumble of a diesel engine and looked up to see Mr. Miller pull up in front of the house, giant tires crunching on the gravel driveway, and then he hopped out, leaning back in to grab something. Unbidden, her eyes followed his legs up to the curve of his ass, his Wranglers cupping it just so – damn, I can’t breathe – and then he straightened up, his hands full of…dirty laundry?
He sauntered towards the house in that loose-hipped swagger that all cowboys seemed to naturally take on at birth, up the two steps and onto the covered porch. With a nod of greeting, he shoved the rags underneath his arm to free up a hand to get the screen and front door open, and then stood back, allowing her to pass by him and into the house.
She headed back down to the office to grab her stuff, and she could swear she could feel his eyes on her ass every step of the way. Which was ridiculous, of course. He thought she was some awful creature, come to steal his farm from him. He certainly wasn’t checking her out.
Just like she hadn’t been checking out his ass. She’d just been studying the fashion trends in Wrangler jeans.
Which was a totally different thing.
She finished shoving her stuff into her bag, slinging it over her shoulder with a grunt at the weight. Someday, she was going to be able to afford a Mac laptop again, instead of these oversized bricks HP liked to call laptops.
She headed out into the hallway, where she promptly slammed right into Mr. Miller, who’d been heading…well, somewhere else. And now his hand was on her elbow and he was standing in front of her and looking down at her and she couldn’t breathe again and…
Jennifer crashed into him just as he was heading to the guest bathroom to clean up. Instinctively, he reached out to steady her, and then his hand dropped like he’d been burned.
Don’t touch the enemy!
He’d never felt so off balance in his life and he hated the feeling with a passion. He wasn’t about to show weakness in front of this woman though, so just as instinctive as steadying her had been, he now looked down at his watch theatrically. “It’s 5:05,” he informed the stupidly beautiful thief in front of him, who was sadly not in possession of a single mole, hairy or otherwise, on her nose. Damn the bad luck. “Didn’t I tell you to be gone by 5:00?”
Even as the words were leaving his mouth, he knew he shouldn’t. He knew he was being an ass. But today seemed to be the day for saying things that he knew he shouldn’t, and regretting them even as the words were coming out.
Well, at least the one thing he had going for him was consistency.
Her brilliant green eyes snapped open in shock and just as she opened her mouth to tell him her thoughts – in great detail, no doubt – Carmelita’s voice thundered through the house. “Stetson Byron Miller!” she yelled, advancing towards them in the already crowded hallway. He tried shrinking up against the wall, but his cowboy-turned-chameleon act didn’t work any better the second time.
“Your parents would be ashamed of you!” She poked him in the arm, glaring up at him, eyes flashing. He gulped. “You apologize to Ms. Jennifer—” She stopped and turned towards the thief in front of him. “What is your last name, dear?” she asked kindly, at total odds with the tone of voice she’d just been using with him.
Stetson wanted to thump his head back against the wall. Didn’t Carmelita know that this woman was trying to ruin five generations of Miller farmers? Whose side was she on, anyway?!
“Kendall,” the petite woman said politely, as if they were in a drawing room and being introduced over tea. Stetson glared down at her. She smiled angelically up at him.
“You apologize to Ms. Jennifer Kendall right now!” the housekeeper bellowed, not missing a beat as she turned back towards him, arms akimbo.
Stetson tried hard to stifle his groan. Voicing it would not help his case. “I apologize, Ms. Kendall, for my rudeness.” He wanted so badly to end that with, “I should be kind to those who are trying to destroy my life,” but somehow, through an inhuman act of self-restraint, he managed to swallow those words instead. He was rather proud of himself, really.
Jennifer seemed to be waiting for him to finish, as if she could sense there was more that he wanted to say, but when he stayed quiet, she nodded once in acceptance. “I will be here at 8 a.m. sharp tomorrow morning,” she informed him cooly.
With that, she turned sideways and shuffled past him, heading for the front door. Stetson flattened himself against the wall again, but still, her body traced a sizzling hot line across his where they brushed against each other.
Jennifer drove down the long gravel pit Stetson apparently considered to be a driveway, heading back towards town. She’d blown through Sawyer on the way out to the Miller place that morning, but it was time to find her hotel – no, motel – room and some food. In that order.
There was a huge, fancy hotel on the edge of town that Jennifer had first spotted online when making reservations for this audit, but the price per night…it was definitely geared towards tourists, not bank auditors. Greg would’ve laughed himself off his chair if she’d asked for a $250-per-night per diem for a hotel room.
So Drop-Inn Motel it was.
Please don’t let the whole room be decorated with bugling elk.
She wasn’t sure how many more of them her fragile psyche could handle right about now. She sent the silent plea up to the heavens just as her phone buzzed in her bag. Keeping one eye on the gravel road as she fished around in her laptop bag, she finally snagged and pulled the vibrating phone out.
Paul Limmer, iMessages informed her.
Jennifer dropped her phone like she’d been scalded. Paul? Paul?!?!?!
“You do realize we’re not dating anymore, right?” she said aloud, and then felt ridiculous for talking to herself. She could read his message in a minute and decide how to respond then. For now, she needed to concentrate on where she was going. She’d made it back to town surprisingly fast; the drive had felt much longer that morning. She looked around as she drove through the tiny town, smiling a little as she went. Quaint brick buildings lined Main Street, leading up to a stone monument in the town center, flowering petunias planted around the base. It was…adorable.
She came to a stop at the only stoplight she’d spotted thus far and waited for it to turn green. Compared to Boise and the Treasure Valley area as a whole, it felt like a portal through time to drive down these streets. At least traffic wouldn’t be a problem with this audit. Honestly, no traffic and Carmelita’s cooking were about all this audit had going for it so far.
She refused to admit that Mr. Miller’s good looks were another plus towards the audit. Now, if he had a personality to match those good looks…
Eventually, she came upon the little motel, the low buildings lining a central parking lot. The Drop-Inn sign jutted out over the sidewalk and under the name, a smaller sign proclaiming “Color TV” creaked in the breeze, slowly swinging back and forth.
Jennifer studied the motel with a critical eye. It was straddling that fine line between quaint and rundown, and was teetering dangerously towards the later.
Please no elk decor, please no elk decor, Jennifer chanted to herself.
The hardest part of checking in was waking the little old lady in the rocking chair behind the counter. Once Margaret shook off the sleepiness, though, checking in was a simple matter of signing the guestbook. Jennifer was surprised when Margaret used an attachment on her iPhone to charge Jennifer’s company credit card.
“We may be a bit rundown, dear, but we’re not completely cut-off,” Margaret said in response to the look on Jennifer’s face. The cloud of blue hair bobbed up and down with Margaret’s forceful nod for emphasis.
“Th-hank you,” Jennifer stuttered, smiling politely as she accepted the key. An honest-to-God key with a heavy metal fob, the number “6” inscribed on it. She couldn’t remember the last time a hotel gave her a real room key. Maybe never.
“I hear you’re doing some accounting out at the Miller place,” the older woman continued, pinning Jennifer down with an inquiring stare.
“Oh, uh yeah,” Jennifer stumbled, not sure how much this lady already knew, or how she knew it. Were all small towns like this? She wasn’t sure if this was creepy or charming.
“Well, you set that boy straight. He’s a damned hard worker, but I don’t think he’s very good at keeping the books. He’d much rather be out driving a tractor than running an adding machine,” Margaret said, before wandering back to her television.
Obviously the “You’re here to take his farm away” part hadn’t been passed on to Margaret. Thank God for small favors.
Jennifer found the room easily enough. With only one floor and 15 rooms total, it wasn’t exactly difficult. It was so close to the office, she decided to just pack her stuff to it instead of re-parking the car.
Within a few minutes, she was set up. The room was nothing to get excited about, although it was thankfully free of elk decor. Instead, there were prints of ducks on the wall. Jennifer stared at the faded pink and baby blue duck prints for a moment, not sure if they were really an improvement over elk or not. The threadbare carpet was brown and suspiciously stained a darker brown in a couple of places. The queen-sized bed was just a bed and that was the best that could be said about it.
Overall, it was a place to sleep.
Livin’ the life.
Somehow, when she’d been working her way through college for a second time, this hadn’t exactly been what she thought she’d get as her prize at the end. On the other hand, there were a lot of aspects of her life that had turned out wonderfully, so she shouldn’t complain too much.
Just because she shouldn’t didn’t mean she didn’t want to, though…
With a groan, she kicked off her conservative pumps and plopped down on the bed. Now that she’d gotten checked in, she needed to find a place to eat and then call Bonnie and commiserate. Bonnie’s job was just as awful as hers, so they had lots to commiserate about.
And really, what were best friends for?
Jennifer grabbed her phone and swiped to open so she could do a Google search for a restaurant, when iMessages opened instead, Paul’s message in front of her, demanding to be taken care of.
She wrinkled her nose in disgust. She’d been happy to forget all about the text message and live in ignorance, thankyouverymuch, but now that it was open, she ought to just deal with it and move on. Her eyes flicked down the long message once, twice, and then she started at the top again, reading more slowly this time. Surely this isn’t right…
I know this is hard for u Im sorry ur so confused about what happened Im willing to giv u a second chance to work this out U have to understand that as a dr i have to work closely with nurses other doctors & patients that r female. Ur jealousie is a prob but im willing to let you come back as long as ur working to control that jealousie.
He was willing to forgive her?!
Her thumbs hovered over the messaging app as she debated what to say, finally typing, “You’re drunk. Stop texting me,” and hit send.
It was pretty damn early to be that drunk, but on the other hand, this was Paul. He’d probably been dumped by yet another woman, and had started to make the rounds on his ex’s, hoping to find someone who would take him back.
He was nothing if not consistent, considering this was his third attempt at this game. Maybe he thought the third time really was a charm?
Happy to concentrate on something else, she closed the messaging app and switched over to Google Maps. She found a Betty’s Diner listed as being on Main Street, which meant she drove right past it on her way in. Whoops. Well, this would give her a chance to go admire Sawyer’s Main Street again. She grabbed her wallet, keys, and cell phone, and headed out to her car. Hmmm…food, wine, and then she could call Bonnie.
Order of operations. It was a thing.
She headed back down Main Street, this time focused on the names of the businesses instead of being overwhelmed by their overall cutesiness, when she spotted the sign. Betty’s Diner, with an electronically waving woman in an apron clutching a wooden spoon. How had she missed this on the way in? She must’ve been sidetracked by the bakery just down the street – The Muffin Man. She’d have to be sure to check that one out, too.
She pulled up into a parking spot in front of Betty’s Diner just as her stomach gurgled loudly. The OPEN sign was off, though, and the lights were too. Jennifer got out and walked up to the front door to stare forlornly at the business hours listed there. Open until two o’clock every afternoon.
Two? What kind of restaurant closes at two?!
Stomach still rumbling loudly, Jennifer climbed into her Honda and did another Google search, this time with urgency tingeing her movements. Surely there was another restaurant in town. Surely…
She drove back to the Drop-Inn, this time looking at the town with fewer stars in her eyes. Somehow, she’d found herself at the ass-end of the earth, where restaurants weren’t even civilized enough to stay open past mid-afternoon. What did people do around here – eat dinner at home every single night? Wasn’t that a little…old-fashioned? Who had time to cook every day, day in and day out?
She pulled up in front of the motel’s lobby and got out, stomping over to the front door with a little less cheer in her step than she’d had before, and woke the blue-haired lady up with an emphatic ring of the bell on the counter. Margaret moseyed on over to the front desk with a cheerful smile, leaving Wheel of Fortune on full blast behind her.
“Yes, dear?” she asked, blinking owlishly at Jenn.