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Accounting for Love
Blizzard of Love
Arrested by Love
Returning for Love
Christmas of Love
Overdue for Love
Stampede of Love
Flames of Love
About Erin Wright
Copyright © 2016, 2017, 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.
To my own cowboy:
Thanks for being my biggest cheerleader
“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 and alfalfa.
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 jerk ain’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 stuffin’ 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 mad.
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 her rules.
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 upset 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.
I have to.
“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.
“I’m the person the bank sends to find out if there is a way not to take the farm. My job is to look through everything and see if there’s something that can be sold to pay the loan or an underdeveloped part of the business that I can help beef up. If I can’t find something like that, I look for a way to only take part of the farm. This usually means selling some of the land or part of the livestock. The point is, I’m the last chance before the bank takes everything.”
“You think there is a way to save the farm?” Carmelita’s voice held just a hint of hope.
“I don’t know yet. I need to get back to work to find out. Thank you for the coffee,” Jennifer said as she stood up and headed back to the office.
Now she just had to succeed at her job.
No pressure or anything.
After laying down the law with that no-good female banker, Stetson stormed out to the barn, where he promptly spent the rest of the day hiding. Dangblast that bank anyway. At least if they’d sent a man, he could have told the man what he really thought about him, the bank, and how screwed up this whole situation was, preferably punctuated with his fists.
To add insult to injury, he also knew that he was going to hear about his rudeness from Carmelita sometime in the very near future, and the prospect of a butt-chewing didn’t make him any happier.
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 crap, so he probably should stay away from them. All people, actually.
And beasts, for that matter. Cows were trying enough on the best of days.
So, the barn it was. At least there, he had a reasonable chance of being left alone.
The large structure was more of a storage building and a workshop combined together than a typical barn. In the winter, he would park the tractors and other equipment to keep the expensive machinery out of the weather. Along the long wall, there were workbenches, toolboxes, and all of the miscellaneous tools and junk that 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.
1) He was a farmer;
2) Farmers never threw away anything; and
3) Carmelita was never allowed into the barn.
There were laws of nature that just shouldn’t be broken.
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 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.
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. Darn 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,” he said out loud. It was a declaration to the universe.
He spent the entire day tinkering with the machine. With no real plan, he absentmindedly loosened bolts and tightened belts as he thought about other things. Prone to talking to himself while spending hours alone working on the farm, Stetson’s worries were spoken out loud to the empty barn.
“One year. One whole year. That’s all I lasted,” he fumed. “I screwed everything up so quickly. Why did Dad ever think that I could do this? Why did he leave so soon? There are a million things he never taught me and then he just…left.”
Stetson’s loss and anger kept him silent for a time, but eventually his thoughts carried him to another topic.
“And who do they think they are? Coming in here, sticking their noses in where it doesn’t belong. I’ll pay them their money, but they could have at least waited until grass had grown on his grave. Vultures, the whole lot of them!”
Stetson wrestled another broken part off the tractor and carried it to the workbench.
“And sending a woman. What a nasty trick. They knew if they’d sent a man, I would’ve just kicked his rear right there. Instead, they sent a woman. They could’ve at least sent some old hag with blue hair and a mole on her chin.”
The image of the Wicked Witch of the West showing up at his door to conduct an audit did tickle his funny bone a bit. He felt the slightest bit of tension slip away. The funny image didn’t work for long though, because he had let his mind stumble on to another thing that was bothering him.
“And what is wrong with you, Stetson? Thinking that woman is hot. She’s here to take away everything this family stands for and you’re busy looking at her chest. Get a grip.”
Okay, fine. He stared at more than just her chest. He also liked her legs. It wasn’t often that a guy in this area got to see a woman dressed up like that – stilettos and a pencil skirt that skimmed her every curve…
Oh, and her eyes. Brilliant green and sparkling, even when he was being rude to her this morning. Through it all, he’d felt like he could drown in those eyes.
Any other time, I’d be chasing her up and down the lane. Why’d I have to go and get a beautiful banker? Why can’t I have found a beautiful bartender? Or accountant? Or veterinarian?
When he heard the door at the other end of the barn open and close, he thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t been talking out loud at that moment. The last thing he wanted was someone to overhear him dreaming about meeting a cute veterinarian.
“Anyone in here?” a voice asked.
Argh! What is Declan doing here?
“I’m back here!” Stetson shouted back.
His older brother emerged from around one of the big farm trucks still parked in the barn waiting for harvest time.
“What’re you doing in here? The farm’s running itself so well, you can work on that old thing?” Declan asked with a chuckle.
“Yeah, kinda. The guys had everything handled today so I thought I could get away with spending a day in here. I haven’t touched it since Dad…” He trailed off, knowing Declan would understand.
“Yeah, sometimes it feels good to remember,” Declan said with a nod.
“So, what brings you home?” Stetson asked, trying to move off the uncomfortable subject.
“Well, I was driving by and remembered that Wyatt had asked me to come see you ‘bout setting up a time when we can talk about harvest. His wheat is finishing quickly because of the drought.”
Stetson thought for a moment. Working with his brothers came with the farm. They had both helped Dad, and he had helped them, but it was different now. Declan was fine, but Wyatt was difficult to deal with. Their father had not let him get away with much crap, but Wyatt tried to be as much of a pain as possible to Stetson.
Which was saying something because when Wyatt set his mind to it, he could be a real pain. But in the end, Stetson decided that he’d better help, because that’s what Dad would’ve wanted.
“Anytime that’s good for y’all is good for me,” Declan added. “How ‘bout Friday? I’ve a couple of things I need to finish up this week, but I should be free by then.”
“Sure, swing on by any time after five,” Stetson said.
“Great,” Declan responded. “I gotta get moving, but I’ll let Wyatt know.”
Stetson watched his brother turn to leave and gave a small mental sigh of relief that the conversation had not stayed on their father.
“Oh, what’s with the fancy car at the house?” Declan asked, turning back.
“It’s…my accountant,” Stetson said, trying to buy time to come up with a good story.
“Why’d you get an accountant up here?”
“Welllllll…” Stetson drug out the word, playing for more time. “With Dad passing, I’ve had to do all of the paperwork, and I thought since I’m not too good at it, I’d have an accountant come up and just make sure I’m not screwing it up too badly.”
“Oh cool. Good idea. I’m impressed you thought of that on your own,” Declan said and headed for the door.
Stetson waited for the sound of the barn door closing before he threw the wrench he’d been holding to the ground, spiking the tool like it was a football.
“What were you thinking?” he angrily asked himself, the clanking of the bouncing metal punctuating his frustration. “You could’ve just told him. Declan would’ve understood.”
What he acknowledged to himself, even if he didn’t say it out loud, was that he really didn’t trust his brothers. Not that he hated either of them – well, sometimes Wyatt was hard to like – but the truth was, he was the baby of the family. There was just such distance between them that it was hard to feel like he was even in the same family. As the middle child, Declan was eight years older than Stetson, but only two years younger than Wyatt. Those two had grown up together and had this annoying habit of thinking of Stetson as not just the baby of the family, but sometimes as an actual baby.
So yeah, not much in common, age-wise, and it sure didn’t help that he’d inherited the farm in its entirety. Because Wyatt and Declan had moved out and bought their own farms while Stetson was still in junior high, Dad had chosen to give the family farm to Stetson. He figured Wyatt and Declan didn’t need another farm to run, but…they hadn’t taken it well to be cut out of the will that way and there’d been an undercurrent of tension ever since.
But when Mom had died, it’d been Stetson’s responsibility to take over her chores and help run the farm, even though he’d been only a child himself. When Dad had fallen ill, it’d been his responsibility to figure out how to pay for the cancer treatments. Declan and Wyatt didn’t have to – they just focused on their own farms and their own lives, and left Stetson to figure it all out on his own. It wasn’t like life had been handed to him on a silver platter or something.
But then again…
“It’s not like they didn’t grow up here, too,” he scolded himself. “They have an interest in how this place runs. I should’ve just come clean. Screw it! I’ll tell ‘em on Friday and just be done with it.”
Picking up the wrench from under a nearby truck, he placed it back on the workbench. He grabbed a pile of dirty rags he wanted washed and headed to his truck.
By the end of the day, the shoebox-of-an-office looked a million times better.
Jennifer leaned back in the battered office chair, her left leg straight out in front of her to help her keep her balance. She still didn’t trust the chair would hold her. Picking at the duct tape repairs on the armrests, she admired her progress as she sipped some delicious coffee. Carmelita had kept a constant flow of the beverage coming into the office all day.
Normally, Jennifer liked a gallon of flavored creamer and a pound of sugar in her coffee, but whatever Carmelita did when she brewed a pot worked wonders, and now the cup was truly black. The thought of adding a single grain of sugar to this ambrosia would certainly be a blatant affront to the coffee gods. She buried her nose in the mug again, accepting another dosing of this miracle beverage.
As she had worked her way through the mountains of unorganized paper, Jennifer found there was a structure in place for the paperwork that just wasn’t being used very efficiently.
There was a file cabinet that held contracts, income records, and other important documents to the side of the desk. On top of the desk was a small set of drawers that looked like they’d once been a card catalog from a library. The drawers were labeled so that receipts could be sorted according to which part of the farm the expense corresponded to.
During her excavation of the office, she’d found that the system that had been in place was abandoned about a year ago. Starting about that time, the tidy sequence of dated papers in perfect order disintegrated into a jumbled mess.
That just happened to perfectly coincide to when Stetson’s father died, according to what Carmelita had told her earlier, which was of course when Stetson had taken over every part of the business.
Everything in his life fell apart then, including this office.
Jennifer sipped the coffee again and let her mind mull over Stetson’s situation. It was the end of the day so she could allow herself a few moments to relax, right?
The quiet was broken, first by a buzzing sound, then by the opening notes of Bachman Tuner Overdrive’s “Working Overtime,” a ringer she’d downloaded specifically for her boss’ cell phone number. At first, the ring tone was a joke, but now it was a harbinger of doom. Dinner dates, weekend trips, even movies with friends, all died a swift but painful death when that ring tone played. She had to battle the urge to break her phone every time she heard that song, even when it was on the radio.
She dug the phone out of her laptop bag and tapped the green dot.
“Hello?” she said, trying to think of a reason why Greg might be calling her. Her boss knew that it was the first day of the audit, and that meant a lot of time sorting and organizing just to get to a place where the actual audit could begin.
“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.
“There you are. What took you so long?” Greg sounded annoyed, but then again, everything annoyed Greg.
“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. I have all of their financials sorted and organized.”
“Do they have the money?”
“I don’t know yet. I just got all of the paperwork in order so I can start looking.”
“I really don’t want to hear your problems, I want to hear your solutions,” he snapped back.
“I will start the audit tomorrow,” she ground out.
“So when can I expect a report?”
“I don’t know.”
Greg began his usual litany of problems, and Jennifer started to tune out. It was always the same pattern with Greg: He would say his favorite line about wanting to hear solutions, not problems and then he would launch into a long recitation of his problems. It never occurred to Greg that maybe other people did not want to hear his problems.
Stetson’s truck pulled up in front of the house as she was pretending to listen to Greg. Jennifer watched as he stepped out of the pickup. He looked up at the house and fixed his gaze, for just a moment, on her. He didn’t seem as angry as he had been earlier. There was something about the look on his tanned, angular face that made her stomach flutter.
Did he just look at me like I’m a human? Maybe he could think of me as something other than the enemy.
The possibility pleased her in a way she knew it shouldn’t, given the reason they’d met, but still, a girl could hope. Just a little. Besides, it was after five, so she could allow herself a little bit of unprofessionalism.
She became even more distracted when Stetson leaned back into the truck. He was bent over at the waist, trying to retrieve something from under the driver’s seat, his nice butt sticking out as he searched. She felt her breathing shorten as she admired the way the faded blue jeans molded to him.
There is apparently something that country girls know that us city girls don’t.
A small and devilish smile appeared, but it didn’t grow to its full potential because Greg’s voice finally cut through her reverie.
“Are you even listening to me? Jennifer!” Her boss sounded really annoyed at this point. “I said, I want the report as soon as possible, and sooner than that if you really like your job.”
And there it was. The closing line.
Every single time, without fail, Greg would threaten to demote her or fire her. Any more, she wished the pompous little worm would just skip straight to the firing and get it over with. But in the end, she needed the job. As much as she hated to admit that fact, it was unfortunately true.
“Yes, I’m here. I know you want the report yesterday,” she said and then kicked herself for letting her annoyance show. “I’ll have your report as soon as I possibly can.”
“Good,” Greg said and the line went dead.
She was just tucking the phone back in her pocket when Stetson reached the front steps, some dirty rags in hand.
He wasn’t smiling exactly. Instead, he had a…pleasant look on his face. It was the first time he’d looked anything but angry around her, and she found that she liked that expression a lot more than she really should. It was okay to secretly admire, right? It was after five.
Stetson lifted one eyebrow as he walked past. He never said a word, but the look conveyed it perfectly. What was that all about?
He walked right past her and into the house. Jennifer let out a long breath once she heard the door latch behind her. She was trying to calm her racing heart when he scared her by walking back out of the house only a moment later.
“Eeeeek!” she squealed as she jumped.
Stetson did smile this time. A brief but honest show of amusement before he continued down the front steps and out to his waiting truck.
Her face was slightly pink from the fright and embarrassment. Now her heart was beating faster for another reason.
Watching his butt in the faded denim walk away, she noticed the yellow stitching on the pockets of his jeans. The thread formed a W on each pocket. She let herself be hypnotized by the way those Ws bounced up and down.
Oh heavens, I am never going to survive this audit.
The barn was only a few hundred yards away from the house, but Stetson drove the massive diesel truck back to the house anyway. He parked next to the little car the accountant drove. Looking down on the small vehicle, he felt a surge of love for his truck. It would go through Hades and back. That little matchbox car was only good for driving around a city. His truck was so much more practical and trustworthy than anything a banker would drive.
Speaking of, he saw that she was standing on the porch, talking on her cell phone.
She’s lucky to have service out here.
He jumped out of the truck and then reached back in to gather the rags. His less-than-pleasant mood had led him to just fling the rags into the cab as he’d gotten in. As a result, they were scattered all over the place.
He gathered what he could reach from one side, slamming the door shut with his foot as he went, and headed around to the passenger side to gather up the rest. He looked up at the porch as he walked. She was sure pretty, no matter what her purpose here was. Her dark brown curly hair was pulled back in some sort of tie but it still drifted in the breeze blowing through. It begged for a man’s hand to be run through it…
Deciding he’d not really gotten a good look at her this morning, Stetson changed his plan and carried the small handful of rags he’d gathered into the house. His plan was simple: Make two trips and get two looks.
He stepped up on the porch just as she pocketed her phone.
A small part of him had hoped she had some…unfortunate aspect about her. Something he’d missed this morning that would make her less attractive, downright ugly if he was really lucky.
As he passed by, he stared down at her. Ugh. She was more attractive up close than he’d realized earlier. Where was a huge black hairy mole when he needed one? Her eyes still captivated the majority of his attention.
That shade of green exists no place else on this planet.
He didn’t linger but went directly into the house, tossed the rags in the laundry room, and walked back out to the truck.
On the way back outside, he was able to get a glance at her from behind. Shorter than him by more than a foot, she had that perfect curve. The skirt and top that she wore clung to her outline in just the right way, and the spiky heels made her calves flex just a little, showing off some amazing legs.
Why’d she have to go and wear a skirt and heels to a farm? No one wore a skirt on a farm. No doubt that’s why he thought she was so beautiful – she was just unusual.
Out of place.
Don’t let a fancy skirt make you soft. She is the enemy. Nothing more than that.
Stetson probably shouldn’t have opted for the second pass. Even though looking at a beautiful woman usually put him in a very good mood, he still couldn’t get rid of the knowledge of why she was there.
By the time he’d reached the truck the second time, he was back to being in a foul mood.
He did have to admit that startling her was fun. Childish, but fun. Her surprised little shriek was cute, and he couldn’t help noticing how her butt tightened as she jumped. Even if he did enjoy the juvenile thrill of startling her, though, it didn’t erase the reason she was there.
Everything seemed to be spinning out of control. Not only was he torn between lusting after this woman and hating her, but now he was being dishonest with his family. Stetson was not a fan of feelings in general, but this feeling of helplessness was one he liked least of all.
Carrying the second pile of rags, he returned to the house. He was happy to note that she’d gone inside. He’d spent quite enough time drooling over the banker’s legs today. He dumped the rags on the pile with the others. Turning around and heading for the living room, he practically ran her over.
They were headed in opposite directions in the hallway, but this meeting had them blocking each other.
They stared at each other. His heart rate began to climb. She didn’t look mad at him for his earlier behavior. In fact, she carried the slightest smile on her face as she tilted her head up to look at him.
For no better reason than it was the worst possible choice to make at that moment – and Stetson seemed to be full of those today – he handled the situation rudely.
“It is now 5:05,” he said, looking at his watch theatrically. “I thought I told you to be out of my house by 5:00 sharp.”
The small smile instantly evaporated from her face.
Why did I just do that?
The truth was that looking down on her like that, standing so close, smelling her fruity perfume, had made the idea of kissing her flash through his mind. That was not an option. The rudeness was instinctive, protective, primal.
“I apologize, Mr. Miller.”
Still slightly bewildered by his own actions, Stetson watched as the now-furious Jennifer hoisted her bag farther onto her shoulder and then shifted from one foot to the other, looking for the clearest path past him.
“Stetson Byron Miller!” came an accented shout from behind him.
His head automatically dropped so that his chin touched his chest. It was a reaction created out of years of repeated training. It was what he always did when Carmelita caught him doing something he knew he shouldn’t have.
“I have had enough of you and your horrible attitude,” Carmelita said from right behind him. “You know better than that. She is a lady, and you will treat her like a lady. Do you understand me?”
Stetson turned towards his housekeeper. With his head already bowed, he was looking right at her upturned face…ugh, her red upturned face. This meant that not only had he stepped over the line, Carmelita felt like he’d pole-vaulted past it.
“Your father, God rest his soul,” Carmelita said, crossing herself automatically, “would take you outside and beat you good.”
“Carmelita, this is my house, and I make the rules,” he said, trying to justify a position even he knew he couldn’t really defend.
“Your house? Hmph,” Carmelita yelled as she shook a finger in his face. “This is your father’s house and this is your mother’s house.”
Again she crossed herself.
“But nothing, mi hijo. As long as I am around, you will follow the rules that you were taught, and being rude to a lady is not allowed in those rules.”
Stetson knew he was defeated. She was on a roll and there was no stopping her when she got like this. It was the use of the Spanish “my boy” that gave it away. Normally, Carmelita was very good about being a supportive and nurturing woman without trying to fill the hole left by his mother. Stetson also knew that, despite her respect for his parents, she felt a very strong maternal bond toward him. So when she called him mi hijo, he knew he’d hurt her in that way only a son can hurt his mother.
“You will apologize to Ms. Jennifer right now,” she said with a stamp of her foot.
Stetson knew that apologizing was the only way out of this situation. He also knew that he should apologize even if Carmelita wasn’t making him.
Saying you’re sorry is never easy, no matter how much you’re at fault. He could feel the flush spreading across his face as he turned back to the woman from the bank. Stetson’s dislike of apologizing was another one of those things left over from his childhood. Being so much younger than his brothers, it seemed like he was the only one who ever made mistakes. No matter what had happened, his older brothers would twist the situation, any situation, so that it was his fault. Stetson couldn’t begin to count the number of times he had apologized for being hit by his brothers.
He paused, gathering his words and swallowing his pride, and in that moment, her smile returned. Not a big grin, but just enough of a smile to kick his embarrassment up a notch further. Argh!
“Look, this whole thing’s been tough, and I’ve not been nice to you. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been rude,” Stetson said, hoping that it was sufficient.
The short woman regarded him with those stellar eyes for a long moment. His heart continued to pound in his chest as he waited.
“I accept your apology. And to show that I appreciate it, I’ll be here tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. sharp.”
With that, she turned sideways and shuffled past him, headed for the door. Stetson flattened himself against the wall, but still, her body traced a sizzling hot line across his where they brushed against each other.
The drive back into town was long and slow. Despite traction control and a million other features the dealer had droned on about when she’d bought the car – all of which were supposed to create “a safe and comfortable driving experience” – Jennifer had had a hard time staying in control as she’d negotiated the mile-long gravel pit Stetson called a road.
Surviving the first mile, the rest of the drive wasn’t that bad. Traveling on a two-lane highway was not something she was used to either, but at least it was paved and the 15 mile drive at a slower pace did give her time to think.
Even with the slipping and sliding on the gravel road, she’d kept a smile on her face at the memory of Carmelita making Stetson apologize to her. Turning left onto the paved highway, she was able to concentrate on the day rather than her driving.
“She doesn’t let him get away with anything,” she said, chuckling to herself. “Maybe there is something to this ‘country charm’.”
You have got to stop thinking about him like this. Yes, he’s handsome, but if you get too far down this road, what’s going to happen if you can’t find a way for him to pay the loan? Getting attached to him and then being the face of the bank that kicks him off the family farm is not going to get you a second date.
“Ugh, the audit,” she mumbled to herself. “The cleanup went a lot quicker than I’d thought it was going to. But why does Greg want the report so soon? He knows the drill. These things take a few days.”
The sudden change of topic in her own mind left her a bit stunned. Why was this audit getting to her like this? She normally didn’t have this much of a problem maintaining concentration, but something was causing her brain to act like a 15-year-old girl with ADD at a concert.
She tried to find a radio station. Something to take her mind off her boss’ unusual behavior, saving Stetson’s farm, and her uncontrollable attraction to this farm boy who had barged into her life. The selection was disappointing. Pressing the scan button on the radio, she found a country station, a political talk show, a talk show about Jesus, and something in Spanish. None of the choices excited her, so with a shrug, she went back to talking to herself.
“I don’t know what Greg’s problem is, but I really have to find some way for Stetson to stay there. That guy’s had a lot to overcome. I can see why he didn’t want to deal with the books.”
“Stop that. You know you have to keep a professional distance.”
“Why does this job have to be so adversarial? It doesn’t always have to be us against them.”
The “other side” of her argument was about to make a point when she was interrupted by the chiming of her phone, indicating she had a text message.
Looking at the screen, the message was from Paul, her ex. The preview on the screen said, “I know this is…”
What does he want?
Pressing her thumb to the button, she unlocked the phone. Keeping one eye on the road, she glanced at the long message. Ugh. Deciding the message was too in-depth to safely read while driving, she tossed the phone onto the passenger seat instead. She could read it later.
Looking back at the road, she was surprised to realize she was already at the edge of the little town. It seemed like a much longer drive this morning going out there. She took a few moments to admire the quaint brick buildings and the stone monument in the center of the street with the flowers planted around the base. Oh wow, a single stoplight. At least traffic wouldn’t be a problem with this audit.
Eventually, she found the little motel. The low buildings lined a central parking lot. The Drop-Inn sign jutted out over the sidewalk and under the name, a smaller sign proclaimed “Color TV.”