“You have arrived at your destination.”
“I damn well have not,” Chase Morgan muttered as he checked his GPS again and frowned as the narrow blue line he’d been following just blinked on a whole lot of nothing.
Pulling over onto the side of what barely passed as a road, he got out of his rental car and surveyed the landscape. Scorched golden hills, scurries of dust, the occasional thirst-defying plant, and beyond that the brooding black presence of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range still topped with snow in March. It was a torturous, slow journey from the Bay Area and one that he chose not to make too often.
He cleaned his sunglasses on the hem of his white polo shirt and peered ahead. Had it always been this bleak? Somewhere around here was a gate that marked the driveway of Morgan Ranch. As a kid he’d known exactly where it was, so what had changed? Maybe he should’ve gotten a truck. The drive would’ve been easier and the viewpoint higher.
There wasn’t a lot else on the road, just the abandoned ghost town of Morgansville, which was on ranch property but still attracted those curious and stupid enough to try to get through the electric fence. Chase turned in a slow circle. He was so used to the noise of Silicon Valley that the silence hurt his head. Hearing his heart beating was downright unnerving. . . .
A turkey vulture flew overhead squawking a warning, and he instinctively ducked. He was such a city boy now. His younger self who’d practically grown up on the ranch would have been disgusted by his wussiness. He got back in the car, relishing the cold blast of the AC, and moved forward at a snail’s pace.
His faint smile faded. The overhead sign had fallen down, leaving just the gate, which appeared to have been propped open. Despite the relatively short distance from the Bay Area, he hadn’t been to the ranch for a couple of years, preferring to meet his grandmother in the city. Reaching inside his pocket he extracted the handwritten letter he’d received two weeks ago. She hated talking on the phone.
“Darling boy, your grandma Ruth needs you. Come at once.
P.S. No, I’m not dying, but come anyway.”
Short and sweet, just like his grandma. Well, maybe sweet was stretching it a bit. For a little bitty woman she sure packed a punch. He remembered how she used to wade in and separate him and his three brothers when the fighting got out of hand. She said she’d gotten strong wrangling calves and that small boys were much easier to deal with.
His grandma was a pill. It had taken him the whole two weeks to get organized enough to leave work. He had a feeling her problems wouldn’t go away, and a few days wouldn’t make much difference. He pushed the gate open wide enough to let his car through and closed it behind him.
Was Ruth even running any cattle? Surely not, if she’d risked leaving the gate ajar. He winced as the rental car bounced over and dived straight into another huge pothole in the road. He should’ve gotten a four-wheel drive. Real men, real cowboys always drove trucks. And he should’ve been paying more attention to what was going on with his grandma.
He concentrated on weaving through the potholes until the drive widened out into a large circle. To his left was one of the old barns and to his right the ranch house with its wraparound porch and dainty Victorian railings. The roof was slate, imported at great cost after the original house with its shingles had gone up in flames.
Chase got out of the car and paused to stretch the kinks out of his tall frame. The door of the ranch house opened, and several dogs came out barking and yowling. He tensed as they all barreled toward him.
“Is that you, TC?” His grandma hollered over the barking dogs.
“Afternoon, Ruth.” He grinned as she came toward him, smacking a few of the noisier dogs on the head as they crowded around her. “One grandson as ordered.”
She reached up to cup his chin, her blue eyes in her wrinkled face as clear as the California sky. “Chase, darling. You look more and more like your daddy.”
He grimaced. “Don’t say that. He’s a bad man.”
“He certainly was a fool to throw away a fine family like this one.” She patted Chase’s cheek. “Come on in.”
He followed her up the three steps to the porch, noticing that the house needed painting and that several of the planks on the deck were rotted right through. The screen door banged shut behind them as they entered the cool darkness of the kitchen. Inside everything was fifty years out of date and as neat as a pin, which somehow gladdened Chase’s heart. Ruth might be getting old, but she certainly wasn’t losing her faculties.
Ruth took a glass pitcher out of the ancient green refrigerator, which gave a convulsive death shudder as she slammed the door shut.
“That would be great.” He was three quarters of the way down the glass when the sugar rush hit him, and he practically tasted the fizz of enamel being stripped off his teeth. He put the glass back on the scrubbed pine table only for his grandma to instantly refill it.
She took the seat opposite and pushed a plate of cookies over to him. “Chocolate pecan. Your favorite.”
He took one despite himself and raised an eyebrow. “You’re scaring me now.”
“By baking your favorite cookies?”
“You’re trying to bribe me. It’s how you used to get me to do my homework, remember?”
“You always did your homework. You were the responsible one. It was your rapscallion brothers who needed persuading.”
He held her gaze and sighed. “I’m sorry I haven’t been out here more often. I have a million excuses, but none of them are very good.”
“It’s okay. This place has bad memories for you all,” Ruth said. “I had a letter forwarded from my bank a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Do you think you could take a look at it for me?”
“Sure.” Chase held out his hand, and she slapped it away.
“You don’t have to do it right now. When did you get so impatient? Finish your cookie and your tea—unless you have to leave tonight?”
“No, I’m here for as long as you need me.” He immediately qualified that. “Well, at least for a week or two.”
He hadn’t taken a proper vacation for almost two years. His two business partners had been making pointed comments about “burnout” and “exhaustion,” and, sure, that was easy for them to say when he knew in his soul that if he wasn’t there nothing got done the way he liked it. . . .
Control freak? Him?
And then there was all the other stuff—the stuff that was threatening to tear their friendship and their company apart.
“Good. I’m glad you can stay awhile.” Ruth pushed the cookie plate right under his nose until all he could smell was chocolaty goodness. “Eat. You’re too thin.”
He snorted at that. “What’s for dinner?”
“Pot roast made with Morgan Ranch beef.”
Chase pushed the cookies away. “You are trying to bribe me. You know how much I love your cooking.”
His grandmother’s smile was smug. “I bet you don’t get many home-cooked meals in San Francisco.”
“I do okay.” He thought about the stack of takeout menus beside his refrigerator and the fact that since Jane had left him most of the delivery guys greeted him by name.
The boards on the porch creaked a warning, and Ruth looked up as a clear voice called out.
“Mrs. Morgan? Ruth? Are you there?”
“Yes, dear, come on in.”
The dogs headed out to investigate. Chase studied the unknown woman at the kitchen door who seemed to bring the afternoon sun in with her. She wore jeans, a pink T-shirt, and sturdy brown boots. Her blond hair was tied back in a ponytail and topped with a San Francisco Giants cap that clashed with her top.
He instinctively rose to his feet as she came closer and looked down at her from his superior height. Her eyes were the dark gray of granite, and she wasn’t wearing any makeup. She looked downright wholesome.
“January Mitchell, meet my oldest grandson, TC, or Chase as he prefers to be called these days.”
The woman stuck out her hand, her warm expression immediately cooling. “It’s nice to finally meet you. Ruth mentions you a lot.”
“Good to meet you, too.” Her handshake was firm. He glanced over at Ruth. “You didn’t tell me you had visitors.”
“January’s not a visitor. She lives here.”
Chase sat down and picked up his iced tea, his thumb rubbing away the gathering condensation on the side of the glass. “Seems an odd place to choose to live. The commute into any decent-sized town must be a killer.”
“I don’t commute.”
He swung his gaze back to January, who had taken the seat next to Ruth and was already nibbling one of his cookies.
“You work as a ranch hand?”
She shrugged. “I can do that when necessary, but that’s not my primary purpose here.”
“Which would be what exactly?”
“I’m employed by the county to work with local landowners to preserve the history of the area.” She sat forward, her eyes shining, her hands clasped together on the table. “This area is fascinating. There’s the ghost town, the pioneer trail, the abandoned silver mine, and—”
“Which is all on privately owned land. Morgan land.”
“Land that Mrs. Morgan has given me access to.”
Chase raised an eyebrow and looked over at his grandmother. “Is that right?”
“Sure it is. I’m as interested in finding out about the history of this place as you are.” Ruth turned to January. “When he was a kid there was nothing Chase liked more than to go out on the land and look for clues.”
“That was a long time ago, Ruth. Now I’m more interested in making sure this ranch is a secure and safe place for you to live on.”
“I’m not quite sure how my presence would lessen Ruth’s security, Mr. Morgan.”
There was a question in January’s tone, which made Chase want to smile. “This is a cattle ranch. The last thing my grandma needs is herds of people wandering around admiring the historical sights. The cows don’t like it.”
“I’m not suggesting that should happen, and I’m hardly a herd,” January said quietly. “My primary task is to make a record of these artifacts for the county and for posterity.”
He leaned back in his chair until it creaked in protest and then stretched out his legs. “Does anyone care about what happened in the back of beyond a hundred years or so ago? “
“We should care.” She held his gaze. “The speed at which California moves means it’s easy to forget our past and destroy things we might later regret losing. It’s my job to provide information about where these historical events happened so that later generations—those not so caught up in rushing into the next digital millennium—can rediscover and appreciate their past.”
Chase wondered if Ruth had told January where he worked. He lived his life in a blur of intense decision-making, working long hours that often stretched overnight and in an environment where his opinion might destroy a company or bring it unimaginable financial success.
“There’s nothing wrong with making money and being ahead in technology.”
“I didn’t say there was.” January fiddled with her ponytail. “My job is mainly funded by nonprofit organizations and charity foundations, and I’m grateful for that.”
“I still don’t see why—”
Ruth patted Chase’s hand. “I’ve made up the bed in your old room. Why don’t you take your bags upstairs and get comfortable while I visit with January?”
“You’re trying to get rid of me already?” He smiled as he stood up, his gaze moving between the two women. He was glad his grandma had some company, but he wasn’t sure what to make of her guest. Instinct and hard-won experience had taught him never to take anyone at face value, and Ms. January Mitchell seemed a little too good to be true.
“Get along with you.” Ruth waved him on. “And change out of those clothes before you come and help me with the chores.”
He paused and looked over his shoulder. “I’m back on the roster?”
She winked at him. “I never took you off. You owe me fifteen years of hard labor, darling, so you’d better get started.”
January stared after Chase Morgan as he went outside to get his bags. When Ruth had said he worked in Silicon Valley, January had imagined a pale, skinny nerd, or a fast-talking snake charmer like her ex. Chase was neither of those things. For one, he was tall, broad, and, two, he had a lazy grace to him that made her think he had all the time in the world to . . .
“So what do you think?”
“Of your grandson?” January sipped at the glass of iced tea Ruth had put in front of her. “He seemed nice.”
Ruth chuckled. “You don’t sound very sure.”
“He’s not quite how I pictured him.” The back door slammed, and she heard Chase whistling as he went up the stairs. “He’s . . . tall.”
“His daddy was a big man.” Ruth sighed. “Not a good man like Chase is, though.”
January took another cookie. “Are you okay with my staying here in the house while your grandson is visiting? I know he doesn’t get out here much. I could move down to one of the bunkhouses and give you some privacy.”
“Bed down with the ranch hands? I bet they’d love that, but I don’t think you’d be having much fun with all that snoring, scratching, and farting. Stay here. I like the company.”
“If you’re sure.”
January wasn’t certain how she felt about sharing a house with a big man like Chase Morgan. She’d finally gotten used to having her own space again, and she had a sense he was going to be hard to ignore.
Eventually Ruth got up to check the pot roast cooking in the oven, and January went to change out of her good jeans into something suitable for doing the chores. Even if Chase was willing to help, there was still a lot to do. She’d thought her life in the city was busy until she’d moved to the California Gold Country. Here the work never seemed to stop year round. At least she fell into her bed exhausted every night and slept without dreaming.
Deep in thought she opened the bathroom door and was confronted by the sight of a large, half-naked man bending over the sink. She started to back up and tripped over the bath mat.
“Oh God, I’m sorry; I forgot . . . ”
He turned to face her, the water dripping off his long eyelashes, and smiled. She couldn’t help but notice the way water continued down his chest and over his nice tight abs.
“I guess I forgot to lock the door.”
“There’s no lock.”
“That’s right. Ruth disabled it after the twins flooded the bath twice in one week. I should have realized we were sharing when I had to fight my way through your underwear.”
Her face heated as he gestured at her best bra and pantie set, which was hanging over the shower rail.
“Pretty,” he said approvingly.
She reached around his broad shoulder and grabbed the flimsy pink set. “They are handwash and air-dry, and—”
“Not a problem for me.” He paused. “Unless I’d come in here at night and thought those dangling bits meant I was being attacked by a spider. I hate spiders.”
She clutched her undies to her chest and stared up at him. “You . . . do?”
“Yeah. It’s embarrassing. I’m hoping that, as we’re sharing, you’ll deal with all the spiders that get in here.”
“And what will you do in return?”
He grabbed a towel and slowly mopped his face as he considered her. “Promise to put the seat down?”
She wanted to smile back at him, to respond to that lazy charm, but just managed to stop herself. “I’ll consider it.”
“I’ll be finished in a minute.”
“Okay.” She backed away more carefully this time and only hit the doorframe with her elbow on her way out. “Take your time.”
She managed to find her way into the right bedroom and threw the undies onto her bed. God, she really did need to pee. If he were anything like her ex, he’d be in there for hours. There was another smaller bathroom beside the mudroom downstairs, so she might as well go and use that. Grabbing a towel from the back of a chair she went out into the hallway. Chase was still whistling and splashing around like some kind of chirpy bird, so she made her way down the stairs. The old pipes whined and groaned as the water flowed through them.
After peeing, she surveyed the small shower and realized she had no shampoo or shower gel. Stomping back up the stairs, she noticed the noises had ceased. On the landing, she found Chase, still without his shirt, at the bathroom door surveying her.
He gestured at her towel. “Most people take their clothes off when they shower and get wet.”
“Ha, ha. I forgot my shampoo.”
“Be my guest.” He pushed the bathroom door open wide. “I’m all done.”
“Thanks.” She went to move past him, but he braced one hand on the doorframe, cutting off her advance.
“I get the sense that you don’t approve of me.”
“Whyever would you think that?”
“Because you’re trying really hard not to smile.”
“Maybe you’re just not as cute as you think you are.”
“Possibly, but I think there’s more to it than that.”
She met his piercing blue gaze. One of her new vows was that she’d never let a man stop her from speaking the truth again.
“Why would I disapprove of a man whose grandmother adores him despite the fact that he can hardly be bothered to visit her?”
“Ouch.” His smile disappeared. “That’s a low blow.”
“Someone has to look out for Ruth.”
“And that has to be you because I’m falling down on the job?”
“And why would you be willing to do that, Ms. Mitchell? What do you have to gain from hanging around with my grandma?”
“Not everyone is out to get something, Mr. Morgan. I like Ruth, and I do good work here.”
He sighed. “Don’t get her all invested in this place again, will you?”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s pushing seventy-five; she can’t keep the ranch running all by herself for much longer.”
“You’ve decided that for her, have you?”
“She asked me to come and see her. I assume she needs my help to make some decisions.” He hesitated. “Look, I know I’m a lousy grandson, and that I suck at visiting, but I want to do the right thing here.”
“For her or for you? What’s the plan? Maybe you could get her a nice condo in San Francisco where you could visit her more often.”
He briefly closed his eyes. “As I said, this isn’t your fight. Please don’t get involved.”
She gently moved him out of her way. “Too late. I already am.”