Copyright 2016 Maggie Shayne
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Robert McIntyre found the strawberry blonde of his dreams out behind the Long Branch Saloon near the trash cans. She was bending at the waist and twisting sideways, using her cell phone’s glow to try to see the back of her left thigh and holding her skirt up high in the effort. As a result, he could see the full length of her long leg from the shapely calf emerging from the top of her cowgirl boot to sexy curve of her thigh.
He stopped looking by sheer force of will, cleared his throat and said,
“Can I uh, help you with something?”
She straightened, gasped, dropped the skirt and damn near jumped out of it all at once. He held up both hands, “Easy, I’m just one of the owners, taking out the trash.” He held up his plastic bag as if to prove it, and reminded himself that she wasn’t the woman of his dreams. He didn’t dream about women. He had nightmares about them.
She blinked at him for a second, then smiled, patting her chest with her hand. “You scared me half outta my boots.”
He was getting sucked into that big white smile, so he lowered his head as if to inspect said boots as he carried the overstuffed bag to the trash can nearest her, took off the lid and dropped it inside.
Cowgirl boots, they were. Brown leather with pink embroidery and heels that would challenge a tightrope walker.
“I was s’posed to meet an old friend here for a nightcap,” she said. “But I guess she’s not coming. I walked around back looking for a few more bars on my phone, and caught my skirt on a branch. I think a thorn got my leg.”
For some reason, every bit of it seemed false, and alarm bells sounded in his head. “You uh—need me to check for you?”
Her brows rose high over those big, innocent eyes. In the overhead lamplight, he thought he saw freckles across the bridge of her nose.
“Are you flirting with me?” He blinked. “I don’t think so. But if you’re here for that nightcap, we’re closed.”
“Oh.” She lowered her head. Wavy ribbons of pale honey and sunshine fell down over her cheek.
“I’m the only one here. Otherwise I’d invite you in.”
“I don’t mind that you’re the only one here,” she said, real fast and eager. And she beamed those eyes at him, all full of hope. “I mean, you’re one of the McIntyres, aren’t you?”
“Rob,” he said nodding.
“Kiley,” she said, extending a hand.
He took it. She had a nice hand, soft and warm, and she gripped his all snug and strong. She had an honest handshake. That was a good sign, right?
“Everyone knows you McIntyres are upright citizens. I’m not scared to be alone with you. And I sure could use that nightcap.”
He had no freaking idea why he was grinning like a friendly chimp, and he quickly tried to press his mouth into a straight line. “Come on in. I could use one, too.” Stupid, stupid, stupid, his brain said. He extended an elbow and she grabbed onto it, walking close enough that her perfume made his brain go fuzzy. Maybe not so stupid, he thought.
They crossed the brand new deck, and he opened the door for her, then watched her as she sashayed on through, her skirt swaying, her boots tapping the floor. The big lights were all turned off, but there were night lights on. They were spaced evenly at floor level throughout every room at the Long Branch. As they walked through the kitchen, the counters and dangling pots and pans, and giant cook surfaces and sinks and coolers were all easy to distinguish. “This way,” he said, guiding her toward the big double doors, then through them into the barroom.
It was dimmer there, and all the chairs had been tipped up on top of the tables. He walked her right up to the bar, and she slid onto a saddle shaped stool, sidesaddle style.
Rob went behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
“Rum and Coke. Helps me sleep.”
He made her a drink, grabbed himself a long neck, and stayed on his own side of the bar. “You don’t sleep well, huh?”
“Not tonight. Tonight my dream is circling the drain.” She held up her glass. “Here’s to believing in last minute miracles.”
He tapped her glass with the top of his brown bottle and took a nice long pull from it.
She looked around the bar, pointed at the giant cardboard sign near the jukebox and said, “I’ve been seeing signs like that all over town. What’s it about?”
The cardboard thermometer measured dollars instead of degrees. It was painted red all the way from $0 to $275,000, but the word “goal” was way up at the $500,000 mark. She read the lines across the top aloud. “‘Big Falls’ Big Future'?”
“People are worried about drought,” he explained. “It’s been bad south of here, and forecasters say it’s coming our way, sooner or later. So the town’s raising funds to buy some property and build a reservoir. The land’s for sale at three-hundred and fifty, and the rest is to get the building underway.”
“I wouldn’t have thought a small town like this would be able to raise so much.”
“I’m surprised too. The church is giving half its bingo proceeds, firemen are holding chili socials. Every business in town is chipping in what they can. When anyone buys property here, the Post Office automatically sends them a flyer asking for a contribution. Even little kids are selling lemonade for the cause.”
“That’s nice, everyone pulling together like that.” Except she was frowning at that sign like she wished she could see through it.
“It’s that kind of town.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” She studied her drink, turning the glass slowly on its coaster. “I grew up here. Well, ‘til I was thirteen anyway. Long time ago. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got back here.”
He nodded slow. “Big Falls has a way of getting inside a person. I never intended to stay here either. But now….” He shrugged, deciding not to go on, or he’d start sounding like he believed the local tales about a town that chose its residents and refused to let them go. “You gonna tell me about this dream of yours that’s in danger of imminent demise?”
She smiled at him. He thought there should have been a ricochet sound effect to go with that smile when she aimed it his way.
“What is it about sitting at a bar that makes people want to whine about their troubles to the guy on the other side?”
“I don’t know, hon, but there’s no point bucking tradition, is there?” He found a clean bowl, scooped it full of bar mix from the canister, and set it in front of her. “Whine away.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a nice guy, aren’t you?”
“No. I’m brooding and grouchy. Ask my brothers.”
“I will.” She pinched a pretzel out of the bowl, ate it, sighed. “You know the old Kellogg place, out on Pine Road?”
“Hell yeah, I know it.” In fact, he’d been out there earlier in the week, looking at the ranch with Betty Lou Jennings, Big Falls’ resident gossip queen and only real estate agent. The Kellogg property was a thousand acres of prime ground; lush meadows with the Cimarron River running right through it, three ponds, and a hundred-acre woodlot, two barns and a sweet little farmhouse, all about to be auctioned off for back taxes.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. And she tipped her head sideways and gazed off into space, like she was seeing it in her mind’s eye. “That old-fashioned farmhouse with the flower boxes in front, and those shutters with the heart shaped cutouts in them, and the way the porch wraps around one side….”
In his mind, those heart shaped cutouts in the shutters were gonna be the first things to go. He didn’t bother telling her so, but he had a feeling a strawberry blond storm cloud was about to start raining on his plans. And when she spoke again, it did.
“I was planning to buy it. They’re auctioning it off tomorrow, you know.”
“Yeah. I know.” He was planning to bid on it himself, on his own, not with the trust fund his father had set up for each of his sons, funds so big they were snowballing under the momentum of their own interest and dividends now.
He wanted to buy the ranch with his own money. Not his father’s and not some bank’s. He’d saved up enough, and he was about 99% sure the old Kellogg place was gonna be the one.
It wasn’t in his nature to bid against a beautiful dreamer. But business was business.
“I don’t have enough, though,” she went on. “Half, maybe.” She turned her dewy glass on its coaster, back and forth, back and forth. “Grandma’s sending me her heirloom ring, she says it’s worth a fortune. There’s a jeweler in Tucker Lake who says if the stones are genuine, he’ll buy it. But if it doesn’t get here by tomorrow morning, before auction time, I’m doomed.” She held up her glass, and said, “Here’s to the US Postal Service. May it deliver.”
“Here, here,” he said. But something had changed in her voice and demeanor when she’d started talking about her grandma’s ring. Something that told him she was lying, and he couldn’t quite figure out why. It was in the way her eyes shifted away when his tried to lock on, and the softer tone.
She took a long sip from her glass, seemed to really relish it, smacked her lips and closed her eyes, and then set the glass down again. “You probably think it’s stupid for a woman alone to think she could manage a thousand acres.”
“I don’t think it’s stupid at all. It’s a beautiful spread.” He gave in to his worse judgement and came out from behind the bar, slid up onto a stool beside her. He could smell her perfume and feel the warmth of her body sort of reaching out to tease his. But he reminded himself that his track record with dishonest women wasn’t exactly stellar. “I’m curious though, what would you do with it? Run beefers?”
“I don’t want to raise cattle. I’ve got other things in mind.”
He lifted his brows. “What other things?”
“Lambs and bunnies in the spring—for pets, not for eating. An acre-wide patch of shamrock and clover with miniature leprechauns peeking out here and there for St. Patrick’s Day, and four-leaf clovers and pots of gold foiled chocolate hidden for kids to find. I’ll host the biggest Easter egg hunt in seven counties at Easter time. I want to try to grow Christmas trees, acres of ‘em, so kids can come and pick their own right out of the field. We’ll take ‘em around on a wagon, or a sleigh those rare seasons when we get a little snow. Maybe have Santa driving it.”
“Wow.” The way her eyes sparkled while she talked about her plans, the pinkness in her cheeks, those things were damn near taking his breath away.
“I want to landscape the prettiest spot on the place, down by the riverbank, and make it even prettier, then rent it out for folks to hold wedding ceremonies.”
“You’ve really thought this through.”
“I’ve been thinking about it since I was a kid.” She lowered her eyes. “I grew up on that ranch. Happier times.” She looked up at him and smiled, but it was a sad smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I want to spread my sister’s ashes there. But not unless I get the place. If I don’t, then… I just want to keep her near me.”
And the rainstorm became torrential. How the hell was he going to bid against her now?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Was it recent?”
“Six weeks ago. Almost seven. I don’t…I can’t—” She held up a hand and her eyes got damp.
Everything in him turned to mush at the sight of those unshed tears. He wanted to chase them away. The power of his attraction to her was shockingly strong. He hadn’t felt this drawn to a woman in a long time. Maybe not ever. “Tell me more about your plans for the place.”
She sipped her drink, blinked her eyes dry again. “Probably just pipe dreams.”
“They don’t sound like pipe dreams so far. What about Halloween, what kinds of tricks and treats do you have in mind for Oklahoma Octobers?”
Her whole being shifted, he thought. The light came back into her eyes. “Hayrides and corn mazes and pumpkin patches. The smaller of the two barns would make the most amazing haunted house you ever saw.”
“It would, wouldn’t it?”
“Mm-hm. I’ll name the place Holiday Ranch. It’s gonna be a gold mine.” She was smiling hugely when she looked his way, then lowered her eyes, her cheeks going pink. “You must think it’s a crazy idea.”
“I think you might be kind of brilliant.”
“Really?” She looked at him as if his answer mattered. “I really want to know. You have a lot more knowledge about business stuff than I do, being the son of RJR McIntyre.”
He knew enough about business to be aware that his own dreams for his someday ranch were not likely to be lucrative at all. But he didn’t want to do it for the money. “I agree it could be a money maker, after a while. You might be living hand-to-mouth for the first year or two. Might need to grow some sort of crop or lease some of the acreage to a local farmer to help get up on your feet. Might even need to take on a side job until things start rolling. But it’s a sound idea. And you’re only just scratching the surface of what you can do out there. Gift shop, maybe an on-site coffee and snack bar—”
“Oh, that’s good. That’s really good.” She smiled at him. “Thanks for that. This is important. It’s a new beginning for me. A whole new life.”
She finished her drink and reached for her handbag.
“Nope. It’s on the house.”
She smiled up at him, then slid off her stool, landed on the floor, and stumbled a little on those heels. He caught her shoulders and she tipped her head up, met his eyes, and hers turned soft and smoky.
He felt a rush of something warm and dangerous whispering through him. The urge to kiss her was like a giant hand on the back of his head, pushing him closer.
But Rob resisted. “Night, Kiley. It was real nice meeting you.”
Kiley left that fancy saloon like she was walking on a cloud. She was going to do it. The ranch was practically hers!
Rob McIntyre was polite and sweet and charming, and according to that bumblebee-like real estate agent Betty Lou Jennings, who loved to gossip while showing potential buyers like Kiley around properties, he was very interested in buying the old Kellogg place. He’d be at that auction tomorrow for sure. All she had do was get there ahead of him and wait.
He was more handsome than she’d expected. Yes, she’d seen him from a distance, because she’d been researching him. But up close, it was like being pulled by the force of his gravity or something. He had the sweetest face she thought she’d ever seen. Thick, full lips and a wide broad smile that made his eyes crinkle up. Dark hair that wanted to curl, and just enough scruff on his face to send her hormones into overdrive.
He was so over-the-top nice to her that she’d have suspected he was running a con of his own if she didn’t know he was rich. Rich folks could afford to be polite and charming for no reason, she guessed. But it would have been easier if he’d been a jerk to her. Or if he looked like an ogre. Or if his smile hadn’t just about made her forget how to breathe.
This was gonna be hard. It would work, but she almost wished it didn’t have to.
Kiley Kellogg was turning over a new leaf, going straight, creating a respectable life in her small hometown the way she’d always secretly dreamed of doing. Being that her father was in prison and her sister was dead, she didn’t think the message could’ve been any clearer; she needed to change her life if she didn’t want to end up like they had.
But going straight required capital, and she only knew one way to make bank. She’d never been worth a damn at it, nowhere near as good as her dad and Kendra. A constant source of disappointment to them both, as a matter of fact. But if she wanted her home back, she was going to have to up her game.
She had to con a billionaire cowboy into handing her half a million dollars. And she had to do it in a way he would never suspect had been a con at all, because she wanted to go on living in this town once the ranch was hers again. She might even consider paying him back.
She got into her beaten and barely road-worthy car, and then drove it home. It was all of five minutes if you took your time. Right out of the parking lot of The Long Branch Saloon, two miles down, then right onto Pine Road. The ranch her mother had inherited and her father had pissed away, included both sides of Pine road, a full thousand acres of it, wide flat meadows and scrubby woodlots, generously watered by the Cimarron.
Her battered car’s headlights lit the rutted driveway and picked out what remained of stonework pillars on either side. There used to be a gate attached, but it was long gone. Just the rusted hinges remained, their orange-brown decay staining the stones.
She shut the headlights off before driving on through. It wasn’t exactly legal to be squatting on the property before she’d bought it, but she couldn’t afford much else. The trip from New York had cleaned out most of her cash. Besides what she’d set aside for the auction.
She had five hundred thousand dollars in cash, stuffed into a duffle bag, crammed behind the wall in the back of a bedroom closet. She and Kendra used to hide their diaries in there.
She pulled all the way up to the house, and then drove around behind it, cut the engine and got out. Then she just stood there for a minute, looking around. The sky was so much wider here than in New York, a blanket of twinkling stars, spread as far as you could even see. No moon tonight, and hardly a cloud, either.
When she was a little girl, she and Kendra used to sneak out on nights like this. They’d wander down to where the river meandered through the meadow, and spin until they were too dizzy to stay upright. Then they’d open their arms and fall backward into the deep grass and wildflowers, giggling until it was hard to breathe. When the laughter ebbed, they’d keep lying there. That was the best part. Lying there in the silence of an Oklahoma night, listening to the bullfrogs and grasshoppers and nightbirds, and gazing up at all those stars. Sometimes a fish would jump and splash in the river, or a bullfrog would croon a baritone lullaby.
It would be good to reclaim her home, to be able to live there legally. Good to turn it into what she and Kendra had talked about as kids.
She felt close to her sister there. Closer than she’d felt to her in years. They’d struggled so hard to stay in touch when their father had gone to prison and they’d gone into the system, moving from one foster home to another, never in the same one together. They’d made sure they never fell out of contact back then.
And then they’d turned eighteen and had been booted out on their own. Kendra wanted to run games, con the wealthy, and get rich quick. Kiley wanted to take classes and learn how to make an honest living, so she only grifted when she had no other choice. They’d run one or two fairly successful games together, but they just didn’t see things eye to eye. Kiley felt guilty, which made Kendra feel judged. Angry fights ensued, and they’d drifted apart.
She slid her hand into her big handbag and closed it around the black leather drawstring pouch that held Kendra’s ashes. “I’ve just gotta run this one last game to get the rest of the money for the ranch, Sis. Once it’s mine and no one can take it, I’ll spread your ashes here. Down by the big boulder on the riverbank.”
Guilt gnawed at her belly. It was always the same. If she ran a game and failed, which happened more often than not, she hated herself for not living up to her dad’s expectations and her sister’s phenomenal skills. If she ran a game and succeeded, she felt even worse.
All those people who’d sent her money through Go-Fund-Yourself.com for her non-existent Chihuahua’s make-believe prosthetic legs, haunted her dreams at night. It had been the most successful con she’d ever played. And it was still only half enough to buy her home back. To fund her dream.
And that was why she had to go straight. She had never been any good at the game anyway. And if she started to get good at it, she thought that would be even worse. She just wasn’t cut out to be a criminal.
One more game, and she’d have enough to get her home back. And that was it. No more.
Kiley nodded, affirming to herself that all of her dreams were about to come true, and then she went inside, crawling through the same window she’d been using for the past few nights. The house was empty, but had been spruced up for potential buyers. She trailed her fingertips over the fresh paint as she went upstairs to the bedroom that had been her sister’s, walked into the closet and pulled away the board that covered up the hollow spot in the wall. Just inside the dark opening her sleeping bag waited, all neatly rolled up. The smaller green duffle contained most of her worldly possessions. Clothes and toiletries, mainly. The bigger green duffle held the cash. She hauled everything out except the cash, and dropped it all onto the bedroom floor.
Her styrofoam ice chest full of food and bottled water stood in the farthest corner from the bedroom windows. There was no electricity turned on in the place, and it was summer and hotter than hell by day. But the century-old farmhouse stayed remarkably cool. Would stay cooler still once she put some curtains in the windows.
She unrolled her sleeping bag, gave it a shake, in case of visitors, then stripped off her clothes, and crawled inside, tired and lonesome, but closer than ever before to her dreams coming true. She just wanted to snuggle down, close her eyes, and imagine how it was going to be.
So she did.
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