Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California
Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center
The sight of a one-hundred-and-thirty-pound Marine flailing around like a chicken—a Marine Blue Morgan was tethered to on the side of a sheer cliff face—was not good. With a yell, the idiot lost his grip, and his booted feet scrabbled for purchase, narrowly missing Blue’s head. The only thing keeping them from plummeting to the bottom of the canyon was the steel pin driven into the rock. It still meant Fielding swung out on his rope like a pendulum, jerking his unfortunate instructor up to meet him.
Blue barely had time to brace himself before he smashed into the other man. His head did a weird flick-flack and then mercifully everything went black.
* * *
“Gunny? You okay?”
Blue opened one eye and saw two versions of Mel, his fellow instructor, dancing against the bright Californian sky. He winced and retreated back into the darkness.
“Gunnery Sergeant Morgan?”
“Yeah.” He managed to croak. “Is Fielding okay?”
“He’s fine. Blubbing like a baby, but nothing broken. You took the hit for him.”
“Tell me about it.” Blue attempted to roll onto his side and broke out into a sweat as nausea engulfed him.
“Take it easy. The corpsman’s coming.” Mel patted Blue’s shoulder. “I got you down. You two were unconscious for a while and swinging back and forth like a brace of pheasant.”
“Funny,” Blue muttered. “It wasn’t Fielding’s fault. He startled some kind of bird.”
“He still panicked, though.”
“Which is why this is called Basic Cliff Assault Training, so he’ll learn not to do it somewhere important.”
A shadow came over his other side and someone touched his shoulder. The smell of antiseptic swept over Blue, making him shudder.
“It’s Ives. Do you know where you are?”
“Still in the Marines?”
Ives chuckled. “Specifically at this moment.”
“Flat on my back with the headache from hell.”
“What’s your name and rank?”
“Gunnery Sergeant Morgan.”
“What day is it?”
“Good. I’m going to check you over and take you back to the hospital, okay?”
Blue had seen quite enough of them to last a lifetime. He only had six months left in the military. He’d hoped to see it out peacefully in his home state. This was his last training course. He’d managed to complete his final deployment in the sandbox, without a scratch, and now this.
Sometimes life sucked.
Ives placed a collar around his neck and Blue was gently lifted onto a board. He assumed the other six guys who had been climbing with their group had already been taken back to base. He was loaded into a vehicle and Ives got in behind him. Two others followed and the doors were shut.
Blue tried to relax, but the pain behind his eyes kept growing.
That was definitely Fielding, the little shit. Blue didn’t have the ability to reply as his head started to pound and he literally saw stars. He set his jaw, aware that if he puked he was strapped to a board and couldn’t even turn his head. He’d been in far worse situations than this. There was nothing left to do but hang on and hang in there.
* * *
“Concussion, whiplash, two broken ribs, and a black eye.” The doc shook his head. “The newbie boot got a little graze on his widdle nose when he collided with your helmet.”
“Figures,” Blue muttered. “When can I leave?”
“You’ll need to stay overnight so we can check on that concussion. You’ve had a couple in the last few years, so we’ve got to be extra careful. We’ll see how you’re feeling in the morning, okay?”
The doc was way too cheerful and loud for Blue’s liking, but that might be his headache talking. Pretty much everything was too much at this point.
“Can I sit up?”
“In an hour or so we’ll raise the head of the bed.”
“Do I have to keep the collar on?”
“For a couple of weeks minimum. We called your grandmother.”
“God, no,” Blue groaned.
“She says to give you her love, and she’ll see you soon. Command are working on a security pass for her.”
The thought of Ruth descending on him was half-comforting and half-terrifying. She’d never been one to let her grandkids sleep in and was highly suspicious of any attempt to get out of chores. On the other hand, if you were really hurt she would coddle you like a newborn calf…
Blue drifted off to sleep again, only to be woken up by a nurse because—concussion. He’d been there before and wasn’t looking forward to a night filled with fitful sleep and wake-up calls. He longed for the peace and quiet of his bed at the ranch where the only sounds were the livestock, his grandma’s TV, and his brother and January getting too loud in their bedroom.
He could do without the last one. But Chase only grinned when Blue reminded him to keep it down and suggested he was jealous. Blue thought about that. Was he jealous that Chase had found the right woman?
He liked his life just as it was. He was in control, and no one was ever going to take that away from him. Twelve years in the Marines had made him a man to be reckoned with. It hadn’t been easy. When he’d enlisted he’d been something of a hothead, and soon learned that didn’t work in the Corps. They’d knocked him into shape and taught him everything he needed to know about how to survive.
But he had a new purpose now—to save Morgan Ranch and make it profitable again. Ruth and Chase were relying on him, and he was looking forward to the challenge.
* * *
The smell of apples and cinnamon drifted over him and he opened his eyes to see his grandmother sitting beside his bed. The lights were still too bright and it was now dusk outside.
“Ruth. You smell like pie.”
“That’s because I was making them when the call came through.”
The nurse raised his bed so he could see his grandma’s worried face. She had the same blue eyes as him and Chase, and her lined skin was baked brown by the harsh sun. She barely topped five feet, but she was still formidable.
“You look terrible, BB.”
She patted his hand. “What were you doing dangling off a cliff? Didn’t I teach you not to do stupid stuff? I would’ve thought the military would have drummed that into you by now.”
Jardin, his nurse, gave a snort of laughter and winked at him as she arranged his pillows.
“It’s my job, Ruth. I was trying to teach some idiot how to climb.”
“Well, stop doing it.”
Blue raised an eyebrow, and even that hurt. “I can’t just stop when I feel like it—although I’m pretty much done here anyway.”
“Why?” Her sharp gaze moved over him. “Is there something they didn’t tell me?”
“Nope, I’m good. It was my last training exercise.”
A voice came from the bottom of the bed. “Mrs. Morgan? I’m Blue’s physician. He’s going to be just fine, but he will be on light duty. Best guess, his command will probably just put him behind a desk until he separates.”
“Might as well shoot me now,” Blue groaned.
“Can I take him home?” Ruth asked.
“Not yet. We have to keep him here because of the concussion, but I’m sure he’ll be able to come visit you soon. It’s nice that you’re so close.”
Ruth sighed. “Well, that’s a pity. I brought Chase’s big truck so I could put him in the back.”
Blue tensed. “Wait a minute. You didn’t drive that monster all the way up here, did you?”
She fixed him with a quelling look. “I’m quite capable of driving anything I want, young man. I brought January with me. She’s waiting in the truck.”
“Okay, then.” Blue subsided back onto the pillow, which suddenly seemed very welcoming. Holding his head up was hard work. “I don’t suppose you brought some of that pie?”
“There’s a hamper beside your bed with three different kinds of pie in it. I knew you’d be asking.” She stood up and gently kissed his forehead. “Now you take care of yourself, BB, and no more getting into trouble, you hear me?”
“Yes, Grandma,” Blue murmured as she smoothed a hand through his short hair as if he was five again. “Tell January to drive carefully.”
She kissed him one last time and then went off chatting to his doctor. He closed his eyes and heard a scraping noise, which brought him instantly alert.
“What are you doing with my pies, Jardin?”
The nurse patted his knee. “I’m just going to put them in a safe place until you are allowed to eat solid food.”
“Like the staff refrigerator?” He snorted. “They’re fine right there.”
“Sorry, the cooler’s a fire hazard sticking out like that. Don’t worry, I’ll save you a piece.”
He already knew that Ruth would’ve brought enough pie to feed fifty, so he didn’t really mind the hijack.
“Peach,” he murmured as he started to fall asleep again. “That’s my favorite.”
“You’ve got it.” Jardin’s voice faded and he let himself fall into the blackness.
* * *
“Well, this isn’t good.”
Blue rubbed his aching temple and studied his desk, which in his five-day absence had acquired about ten two-foot-high stacks of paper. He’d been released from the hospital, his ribs were taped up, and it hurt when he breathed too hard. His black eye was determined to capture every color of the rainbow, and he had at least another week in the neck brace. He was going to ditch that sucker as soon as no one was around to see him do it.
Carly Hughes, his liaison from admin, smiled sympathetically. “The separation process for leaving the service is paved with more paperwork than a very messy celebrity divorce.” She moved one stack closer to another. “And while you’re doing all that you’ll be attending classes to prepare you for reentry into civilian life and help to find you a new career.”
“I already know what I’m doing next.”
She glanced at him. “Really?”
“Yeah. My family owns a cattle ranch near here.”
“So you’re a cowboy?”
He shrugged. “More of a rancher, but I can ride a horse.”
“And you rope cattle and all that kind of dirty, messy manly stuff?”
She sounded all kinds of breathy. Was she one of those women who thought cowboys were romantic? Blue put more space between them. “I do what needs to be done.”
She sat down on the corner of his desk and studied him carefully. “That’s good to know.”
He picked up the nearest folder and looked inside. There were about ten forms in there alone. He hastily put it back on the stack.
“As I can’t climb and I’m on my way out, I’ve also got to help the other instructors with scheduling and lesson plans.” Which was about as exciting as it sounded. The other guys had been delighted to pass all the shit jobs over to him.
“Then you’re going to be a busy man.” She stood up and brushed down her skirt. “Let me know if you need any extra help.”
She waited a second longer than necessary, but he slid into his chair and started firing up his laptop. Carly was a great-looking woman, but he’d already set his sights on the next phase of his life, and getting involved with someone still in the service wasn’t going to work out. Getting involved with someone period was going to have to wait a few years until he’d established himself at the ranch.
He had a plan, and nothing was going to stop him from making Morgan Ranch the best historical dude ranch in the state of California, if not the world. He was a Marine. When he set his mind to something, he never failed.
Taking a deep breath, Blue took another file, scanned the contents, got a pen and started to fill in the blanks.
* * *
“Mom . . .” Jenna McDonald sighed and held the phone farther away from her ear as her mother started in on an all-too familiar theme. “Let’s not do this right now, okay? I just called to wish you happy birthday.”
She closed her eyes. “Yeah, I wish I was with you, too. No, I don’t want you to look for a safer job for me where you live. I’m really happy here with Uncle Ron and Aunt Amy. Yeah. I also know that when Faith gets back, I might be out of work.”
Her mom kept talking and eventually Jenna just let it flow over her. It was almost three and afternoon clinic was due to start, which meant she needed to move things along. Adopting her most cheerful, nonaggressive, super-validating tone—the one she’d learned in family therapy—she cut across what her mom was saying.
“I know you worry because you care, Mom. I understand your position perfectly, and I will think about every single thing you have said to me today. Now why don’t you go and have a nice dinner with Dad? Call me tomorrow and tell me all about it, okay?”
She barely waited for her mom to make some kind of agreeing noise before she said an airy good-bye and put the phone down. She loved her mom, but sometimes it was like trying to stop a river in flood. Not that her dad was any better, but at least he tried to listen to her occasionally and had been instrumental in finding her the job with his brother at the most northern end of California, far from her mother and hypersuccessful sisters.
“Jenna?” Meg, one of the veterinary techs put her head around the door. She was an older woman who’d been with the practice for years and had saved Jenna’s ass on several occasions already. “You okay to start seeing folks? You’re the only one here.”
“Sure.” She grabbed her white coat and slid her reading glasses on top of her head. “Do we have many waiting?”
Unlike most modern veterinary practices, her uncle preferred to let the afternoon clinic remain a free-for-all, which meant sometimes there were twenty people crammed into the small waiting room and other days it was crickets. Jenna didn’t mind. It was all new to her, and every appointment helped her gain valuable knowledge. Most large animal veterinary practices didn’t deal with the smaller pet stuff, but they were the only clinic for forty miles, so they happily coped with everything.
“Only three so far. I’ve put Monica Flaherty in exam room one, so you can start there. Files on the outside of the door.”
Jenna went into the exam room, closing the door quickly behind her because she never knew exactly what she’d be facing. There were many desperate escapees who didn’t want to be there—and that was just the humans.
“Hey, Monica. What’s up?”
The teenager frowned. “Where’s Dave?”
“He’s out on a call.” Inwardly Jenna sighed. Her cousin was thirty-one and single and the cause of intense local feminine interest. “Do you want to go back to the front desk and make an appointment to see him specifically?”
Monica’s sigh was almost loud enough to rattle the window glass. “No. It’s okay. I found this by the side of the highway.” She pointed at a box on the metal exam table.
Jenna cautiously opened the lid and peered inside. There was a towel covering the bottom of the box, and coiled within it was a large white and brown patterned snake.
“Did you find this guy in the actual box, or on the road?”
“On the road. I put him on the damp towel and sat him on top of the water heater last night.”
“Great idea. He was probably way too cold out there to survive.” Jenna checked over what she could see of the snake’s lean coils.
Monica came to look over her shoulder. “What kind is it?”
“It’s a California king snake, I think. He’s not poisonous or anything, but he is a powerful constrictor.” Jenna glanced at Monica. “You probably know that, seeing as you picked him up.”
“I made Finn do it. He thought it was a rattlesnake.”
“They sometimes rattle their tails to scare predators into thinking they are rattlesnakes.” Jenna closed the lid of the box. “I assume you don’t want to keep him?”
“I’d like to, but my mom said no.” Monica pouted. “Can you find him a good home?”
“I can certainly ask around, but he could survive in the wild. He’s native to California and he’s not called the king for nothing.”
Monica fiddled with the box. “Dave knows a lot about snakes, doesn’t he?”
Which was probably why Monica had made her boyfriend pick the snake up in the first place. The poor guy. “He sure does. I’ll check in with him when he comes back. Do you want me to call and let you know what happens?”
“When you talk to Dave?” Monica perked up. “Maybe he could call me himself?”
“Someone will definitely call you when we’ve made a decision.” Jenna hid a smile as she washed her hands. “Thanks for bringing the big guy in.”
Jenna patted the teen’s shoulder as she left the exam room and belatedly picked up the chart Meg had left in a slot by the door. She wrote a quick summary of the visit. It was weird going back to writing notes with a real pen after the tablets at her last job. Attempting to decipher her colleagues’ handwriting was another head-numbing task altogether.
Meg came out of the second exam room and Jenna handed her the file. “Monica found a California king snake by the side of the road. I don’t know enough about them to tell if it’s injured or not. Can we put it out back in the heated terrarium until Dave comes in?”
“Sure.” Meg nodded. “I’ll take it right out and then come back to assist you. Pet rabbit in two.”
“Got it.” This time Jenna remembered to pick up the clipboard and went into the room. She found one of the Hayes family that ran the local hotel clutching a large black and white rabbit to his chest. “Hey, Wade, who’s this?”
The boy cuddled the rabbit even closer. He was the youngest boy in the big Hayes family and Jenna reckoned he was around twelve. “Duke.”
“That’s a great name.” Jenna perched on the edge of the table and gently stroked Duke’s nose. “So what’s up with him?”
“He’s been, like, acting really strange.”
“In what way?”
“Getting cranky with me, trying to dig his way out of the cage and, like, moving stuff around the place into big piles in the corners.”
“Weird,” Jenna said. “Can I take a good look at him?”
“He’s like real grumpy at the moment.”
“I’ll be careful,” Jenna promised as she set the rabbit on the exam table. She kept petting him with one hand as she palpated his abdomen with the other. “Do you have any other rabbits?”
“Yeah, one more called Stan, short for Stanford.”
“Do they share a cage?”
Jenna looked at Wade over Duke’s head. “Is your mom here with you?”
To her dismay, the boy’s eyes teared up. “Duke’s going to die, isn’t he? You can tell me. I don’t need my mom here. I’m almost twelve.”
“He’s not going to die.” Jenna held his gaze. “Duke’s going to be a mother.”
“He’s female and he’s pregnant.”
A dull red color rose from Wade’s neck to cover his face. “He’s a . . . girl? Do you mean, like that he and Stan . . . ?”
Jenna nodded. “Yeah, I think they did, and judging from the size of Duke’s belly, she’s going to give birth fairly soon.”
Almost before the words left her mouth, Wade was running for the door. Jenna waited for a minute and then started to smile. Meg came in and raised her eyebrows.
“What did you say to Wade? He ran past me like he was being chased by something with teeth. Is there something wrong with Duke?”
“Duke’s a girl and she’s pregnant,” Jenna said, patting the rabbit. “Wade was horrified by every single word in that sentence.” She grinned at Meg, and they both burst out laughing.
“The poor kid.” Jenna eventually recollected herself. “Can you see if Mrs. Hayes is out there so I can talk to her?”
“Will do,” Meg said.
While Jenna waited for Mrs. Hayes, her thoughts flew back to her parents. They would probably never understand how a day like today could make her love her job even more. They thrived on order, and the life Jenna had chosen wasn’t like that at all. To say that she loved a challenge was an understatement. After years of knowing exactly what was expected and obeying every demand made on her, surely she was entitled to enjoy a little bit of chaos?
* * *
Much later she was sitting in the back office writing notes about the cases she’d seen when the back door banged and opened to admit her cousin Dave. He stomped in looking tired and rumpled. The veterinary offices were housed in the original McDonald homestead, and the family had moved up the hill into a larger, more convenient house. It made the commute to work fairly straightforward, although they spent most of their time on the road visiting the various ranches around Morgantown.
Uncle Ron kept saying he was going to rebuild the clinic, but he’d never gotten around to it and Jenna doubted he ever would. Which meant that they all put up with the inconvenient old ranch house and made the best of the space available.
Jenna wrinkled her nose. “What did you fall into?”
“Pig shit. I did shower.”
“I was on a call near Morgan Ranch, so I went to check out the new arrivals.” Dave dumped his bag on the table and turned to take off his coat and wash his hands. He’d already removed his boots in the mudroom and wore mismatched socks. “The darling little piggies tripped me, and the mama pig sat on me when I was down.”
“I don’t suppose Roy got that on camera?”
“I hope not. I think he was laughing too hard.” With a groan, Dave sat down and shoved his hands through his spiky black hair. “Sometimes I wonder why I do this job.”
Jenna patted his shoulder. “Because you love it?”
“There is that.”
“I didn’t know Ruth was thinking of keeping pigs,” Jenna said as she got up to make some more coffee.
“She wasn’t. It’s all Roy’s idea. Apparently, he’s always wanted to keep pigs, and Ruth decided it would add authenticity to the idea of a self-sufficient historical ranch.”
Jenna tended to the old coffee percolator, which needed a firm hand, and got out two clean mugs. “Do you think the Morgans are going to make that idea work?”
“The historical dude ranch guest house thing?”
“I don’t see why not. With Chase Morgan’s financial connections, and Ruth and Roy’s experience, it could work out really well.”
Jenna put one of the mugs in front of Dave, who added three spoonfuls of sugar. “And don’t forget January and the Morgantown Historical Society.”
“How could I when my parents are on the board?” Dave groaned. “Next thing you know I’ll be dressed up like a cowboy and be expected to fake being an old-fashioned veterinarian or some such crap.”
“Ruth would probably love that.” Jenna took a sip of her coffee. “Was January back or was she still in San Francisco with Chase?”
“She’s back, but she and Ruth had to dash off to the Marine place near Bridgeport. Apparently, BB was in an accident.”
“Blue Morgan? Oh wow, what happened?” Jenna hadn’t taken to the arrogant Marine when she’d met him at spring branding, but she still hoped he was okay.
“BB was in the base hospital with concussion after a fall from a cliff or something. Ruth was going to go by herself, but January offered to drive her.”
“Why do you call him BB rather than Blue?”
“It’s his name.”
Jenna raised her eyebrows. “His actual name?”
“His initials are BB. His full name is Blue Boy.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Jenna started to grin. “The big tough Marine is little boy blue?”
Dave shuddered. “We stopped saying that around second grade after he’d beaten the crap out of us a few times. His dad named him after a TV cowboy show, I think. You’ll have to ask him which one. I’m not doing it.”
The Marine did have very blue eyes. She remembered that. She also remembered his Internet-derived assumptions about her profession. She hated being talked down to. But he had at least tried to apologize before she’d brushed him off. She’d appreciated the gesture, which had taken her by surprise.
“Monica Flaherty brought in a snake for you.”
Dave perked up. “What kind?”
“California king, I think. I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with it or if Monica just saw the darn thing and wanted an excuse to come in and see you.”
“Where’s the snake?”
“In the terrarium next to the vaccine refrigerator. Where else would it be?”
Dave was already moving, his mug gripped in his hand. Jenna sensed he got tired of dealing with horses, cattle, and various large animals sometimes. She followed him into the other room and waited as he took his first gander at the snake.
“Looks in pretty good shape to me,” Dave commented.
“I couldn’t see any obvious injuries, but I don’t know a lot about snakes,” Jenna confessed. “She did find him out at night, so he might have gotten cold.”
“True.” Dave opened the terrarium and ran his fingertip over the coils of the snake. “We can keep an eye on him for a day or two. If he’s capable of eating live food, we can probably release him back into the wild.” He replaced the lid and washed his hands.
“Do you want to call Monica and tell her?” Jenna asked.
“No thanks.” Dave mock frowned at her. “There’s no need to encourage her.”
Jenna snorted. “From what I’ve seen, you don’t need to do anything to encourage them. They all just fall in love with you at first sight.”
Dave refilled his coffee mug. “God knows why. Vets aren’t exactly a catch. We’re usually covered in shit, unavailable at the weekends, and always in debt.”
“They should go after the Morgans,” Jenna said. “Local gossip says they have all the money.”
“Well, Chase does. But he’s engaged to January, BB’s in the military, and the twins haven’t been back for years and are pretty wild.” Dave lingered by the door. “Are you coming up to the main house?”
Jenna looked at her pile of paper. “I’m just about done, so I should go and eat. Amy said something about a nut casserole.”
“Then you’ve got to come right now. Ma makes a really good one.” Dave held open the door. “And I want to talk to you about Morgan Ranch.”
* * *
“You want me to do what?” Jenna asked.
Dave sat back in his chair and let out a loud and very indiscreet belch. They’d eaten dinner together in the large pine kitchen and taken themselves into the den. There was no sign of Amy and Ron, who tended to go to bed early and watch TV until they fell asleep. If Dave’s groupies could see him in his natural habitat, smelly socks and all, Jenna doubted they’d be quite so infatuated with him.
“Horses are your area of expertise, right?”
“They’re supposed to be, but—”
“Then you are the perfect person to help the Morgans out. Firstly, they need to assemble a stable of rideable horses for the guests, and then they need to keep them healthy. You can start by helping them select good stock.”
“I suppose I could,” Jenna said doubtfully. “But won’t it take up a lot of my time?”
“Look, I know Dad’s stepping back, but—” Dave sat up, dislodging his huge feet from the coffee table. “If you want to stay and Faith decides she wants to practice here when she graduates, we’re going to need all the work we can get to justify employing three vets. Don’t get me wrong, we want you to stay, we love you, but if it comes down to it and we don’t have enough clients, Dad’s going to pick his own daughter over you.”
Jenna nodded. One thing she really liked about Dave was his honesty. “Do you think Morgan Ranch could end up being a really lucrative client?”
“Yeah, with the grass-fed cattle and the dude ranch? Definitely.”
“Then I’d be happy to do whatever needs doing.”
Dave winked at her. “Good girl. I’m not kidding, it could become a full-time job if the ranch does well.”
Jenna clinked her mug against his. “As long as the younger Morgan brothers keep away, I think I’ll do just fine.”