Lymond Ranch, Morgan Valley, California
Cauy Lymond stared at the gate blocking the road and reluctantly stepped down from his truck into a teeth-chattering wind. The rusting five-bar gate leading up to the main house was closed with a chain and padlock he didn’t have the key for. With a soft curse, he went to find the toolbox he always carried in the back of his truck. By the time he located his wire cutters and work gloves his hands were blue with cold.
After leaving the ranch at sixteen for the sunnier climate of Texas, he’d forgotten how cold it got in Morgan Valley during the winter months. It took him just a second to snap the chain, but far longer to persuade the gate to move past the accumulated muddy ruts so he could get his truck through.
He didn’t bother to shut the gate behind him. He’d probably have to replace the damned thing anyway. It wasn’t as if his father had left him any livestock that could escape. He turned the heater higher and drove up the steep slope toward the single-story house, barn, and ramshackle livestock sheds arranged in a circle at the top of the slight incline. The sides of the rutted track were piled high with abandoned farm machinery, metal and plastic drums, and the odd rusting domestic appliance.
“What a dump,” Cauy murmured as he turned off the engine, and stared at the unwelcoming house. He didn’t remember it looking like this when he was a kid, but he hadn’t returned for almost fourteen years. At one time his father had taken a lot of pride in the place.
The trouble was, it was now his home. He didn’t have anywhere else to go. Cauy felt in his pocket for the house keys his mother had mailed him from Florida where she’d lived after dumping his dad’s ass. He hadn’t brought much stuff with him so he hoped the place was still habitable. He blew out a long breath, and watched the wind bend the trees in a graceful scrabble of desperation as if even they wanted to get away.
He didn’t want to get out of the truck….
Eventually, he forced himself to brave the frigid temperature and went around to the side door that led into the mudroom and kitchen. To the right of the door was the old chicken coop. Even though the wire had long gone, three chickens stuck their heads out of the dilapidated wooden structure and glared at him like he was the intruder.
He found himself smiling as he wrestled to turn the key in the lock. It took a hefty kick with his booted foot to persuade the warped door to open. Cauy paused with his back to the wall and attempted to work out what he was looking at. Someone had helpfully closed the blinds so the room was in complete darkness. A faint smell of damp, bleach, and used cooking oil wafted across his nose, and he swallowed hard.
“First things first.” Yeah, so he was talking to himself now. If he didn’t he might just run back to his truck and never return. “Open the blinds, check the electricity.”
Apparently, his mom’s cousin, who’d married a Turner, had come over on horseback and checked that everything was still connected and paid up. Without much hope, Cauy flicked on the light switch and was rewarded by his first clear view of the kitchen in all its dilapidated glory.
Jeez, for a second he contemplated plunging the place back into eternal darkness but as he already felt like he was in the middle of a horror flick it might not be a good idea. He made himself take stock of the space. The kitchen table with two chairs sat against the far wall. A recliner facing a flat screen TV was crowded in one corner where they had once kept the dog’s beds.
“Weird …” Cauy wandered over to check out the TV. “Same old kitchen appliances and tablecloth, but Dad managed to afford a new screen.” As he’d never seen eye to eye with his father, he wasn’t surprised at their differing priorities. Not for the first time he wondered where the money he’d regularly sent his mother had gone.
After the shock of finding out his father had left him the ranch, Cauy had discovered things were worse than he’d imagined. Mark had run up huge debts and blamed his neighbors the Morgans for destroying his livelihood.
He checked out the refrigerator, which was running but empty, and tried the range. Water flowed into the deep sink and didn’t back up. Whatever else he found, Cauy wouldn’t starve or be driven out into the cold.
If he remembered correctly, there was a parlor, a farm office, and an official front hallway on this side of the single-level structure, and three bedrooms and a large bathroom on the other side. Turning lights on as he went, Cauy opened every door and peered in. Nothing much had changed. He kept expecting his father to walk through from the mudroom at any moment complaining about his day.
He ended up in what he remembered as the master bedroom to find someone had added an en suite onto the side of the house. The room had an unused feel, and he wasn’t surprised when he went into the second largest bedroom and found all his dad’s stuff in there. Cauy took in the ashtray on the arm of the old recliner, another TV, and a queen-size bed covered in a quilt like the ones his grandma used to make. The room still smelled of leather, stale smoke, whisky, and his father’s spicy aftershave.
Cauy shuddered and shut the door. He and Jackson had originally shared that room. Their sister, Amy, had the smaller space next door. He clicked on the light in the bathroom and was pleased to find everything working just fine. He’d have to thank Jean Turner when he went back into town. He suspected she’d done a lot more than just ride over.
Retracing his steps to the kitchen, Cauy rinsed out the ancient coffeemaker and set it to work. He’d stopped off at Maureen’s store in Morgantown to get the basics. No one had recognized him, which was hardly surprising seeing as he’d left home so long ago.
There was no microwave, so he dumped a can of beans and sausages in a pan and set them to warm on the stove. A couple of bread rolls and he’d be fed and watered for the night. If he was lucky, one of the guardian chickens might lay an egg for his breakfast.
The house felt wrong without his mom … like the heart had gone out of the place. Maybe that was why when she’d finally left, his dad had stopped caring and let everything go to shit. On impulse, Cauy pulled out his cell and checked for coverage, amazed when he got a few bars.
He waited as the phone rang, mentally trying to work out the time difference and failing miserably. He was just about to give up when his mother answered.
“It’s Cauy, Mom. I just wanted you to know I got here safely.”
“Cauy! I’m so glad you called. I was just taking the dogs out for their last constitutional before bed.”
His mom, Anita, had two Pomeranians she spoiled rotten. Cauy pictured her in her cozy kitchen and couldn’t help but compare it to where he was now. Had she ever been happy at the ranch? She’d always made an effort for him and his siblings, but he’d heard the fights. They all had.
“Is everything okay up there?” Anita asked.
“Yeah. Do you miss it, Mom?”
She took her time before she answered him. “Some of it. We had some good years before your father made some bad choices that changed everything. I miss the place, and the people in the valley. They were always kind and supportive of me.”
“That’s not what Dad said.”
“Cauy, your dad was an alcoholic. He went out of his way to set up the backs of the very people he needed to help him survive. Ranching isn’t a solitary occupation, and he forgot that.”
Unwilling to argue with his mother, who was the only person in the world apart from his two siblings who were still talking to him right now, Cauy decided to shut it. While he was at the ranch he intended to investigate his dad’s claims and hopefully lay them to rest. He also had no intention of handing the ranch over to the Morgans.
“Anyway, I’m here, and I’ll report back on the state of things when I get a chance, okay?”
“Okay, but promise me you won’t tire yourself out, or do anything stupid. You’re still not a hundred percent.”
“No, Ma. I promise.” Cauy crossed his fingers like a five-year-old.
“I’m just going to take a look around, and see how things are hanging.”
Anita snorted. “Whatever that means. Take care, Cauy, and call me if you need anything.”
He ended the conversation, got himself some coffee, and took a grateful sip. There was no use crying over spilled milk. His mom had always loved to tell him that. Unless he wanted to give up entirely, he had to find a way forward, and at least the ranch offered him an opportunity to do something positive with his life.
It had been in the Lymond family for almost a hundred years and had once rivaled the next-door Morgan Ranch in size and prosperity. If what he’d heard about the Morgans was true, there was no longer any comparison between the two places.
Cauy yawned so hard his jaw cracked and smoothed a hand over his stubbled chin. He’d get the rest of his gear out of the truck, find his sleeping bag, and make use of the single bed in the master bedroom. Tomorrow was soon enough to take stock of the rest of the place. In the meantime, he had shelter, water, and food, which was enough for any man — especially one who’d reached the end of his rope. His future was just as messed up as the ranch. He finished his food and took the plate over to the sink. Maybe they deserved each other after all.
* * *
Rachel Morgan dumped her bag in her bedroom, took off her shoes, and went right back down to the kitchen where her grandma was waiting for her. The smell of roasting pumpkin floated up the stairs, and Rachel sucked it in like oxygen. Ruth was the best cook in the world. When she wasn’t at Morgan Ranch, Rachel often dreamed about her food and woke up with drool on her pillow.
“Rachel, darlin’, come here and give your grandmother a hug.”
Rachel went willingly, bending down to kiss the wrinkled cheek of her grandma Ruth and holding her tight. She smelled just like the pies she loved to bake — full of goodness, with just a kick of spice.
Rachel sat at the table and Ruth pushed a plate toward her. “Have a chocolate cookie while I get on with dinner. They’ll all be milling around in here like sharks in an hour or so.”
“I could help you cook,” Rachel offered. “It doesn’t seem right that you still do everything.”
“I don’t do it all,” Ruth smiled. “I’ve given up cooking for the ranch guests. Avery found someone to take that on and Billy’s a qualified chef as well. Now I just cook for my family, and that’s just how I like it. If I need any help I’ll ask for it, so don’t you worry about me.”
Ruth was in her seventies, but had the wiry strength of a much younger woman and the determination to match. She’d singlehandedly run the cattle ranch until her son and grandsons had come back to help her. Rachel was still in awe of her and hoped one day to be half as strong and capable.
After a few minutes of preparation, Ruth closed the oven door and took the seat opposite Rachel at the table.
“So how’s your stepfather these days?”
“Oh.” Rachel hastily swallowed a mouthful of cookie. “He got married again.”
“What?” Ruth put down her coffee mug. “When?”
“Just last month. He married one of the professors at his college. She’s very nice, and also a widow.” Rachel tried to shrug. “I had no idea until he asked me to go with him to the wedding to act as a witness.”
“Good Lord.” Ruth shook her head. “How do you feel about that?”
“I’m very happy for him, but it was a bit of a shock,” Rachel confided. “They’ve gone on an extended honeymoon to explore ancient Greece. That’s Jane’s specialty, and they won’t be back for several months.”
“Then I hope you’ll stay here with us for a while.” Ruth patted her hand. “You can’t want to be going back to an empty house.”
“He’s putting our house on the market. Apparently, Jane’s place is closer to the Humboldt campus. I haven’t lived there fulltime for years, but it’s still home.” Rachel sighed. “I tried to say all the right things, but I feel like such a killjoy. I know he’s been lonely, and that he misses Mom, but — ”
“It still feels like a betrayal.” Ruth nodded. “You just need some time away to come to terms with it, and what better place than here among your other family? We’ll all enjoy your company over the holidays — especially Billy.”
The last thing Rachel wanted to think about right now was her birth father, Billy. When Rachel was a baby, her mother had taken Rachel and walked out on her husband and four sons never to be seen again. The discovery that she even had a real father and four siblings was still new and, despite their warm acceptance of her, still filled her with uncertainty.
“I’ve finished at college now, so I suppose it doesn’t matter about the house that much.” Rachel picked up another cookie. “I don’t think I would’ve found an engineering job in Humboldt.”
“Probably not. What do you plan to do with that fancy degree of yours?”
“I’m not sure.” Rachel considered. “I could go abroad and work in the mining industry, or I could stay here. There’s always a demand for engineers. It just depends what comes up first.”
Some part of her longed to travel, but the new uncertainty of her adopted father’s unexpected marriage had shaken her complacency. After the first years of her life when it had just been her and her mom moving constantly around she’d always craved stability. When her mom had married Paul she’d been in heaven.
“Well, while you’re here you can start looking for new opportunities,” Ruth said. “Chase knows everyone, and I’m sure he’d be happy to help.” Ruth finished her coffee and got to her feet. “I’ve just got to make this pie. Would you slice the apples for me? I need them really thin, mind.”
Rachel gratefully took on the task while Ruth retrieved her pastry from the refrigerator and rolled it out on a floured board. Soon the kitchen would be filled with noisy Morgans and other family members. Rachel still felt like something of an outsider, but as she planned to stay awhile she hoped to remedy that.
“January and Chase are in San Francisco, and Blue’s at the marine base in Bridgeport teaching horsemanship, so we won’t have everyone,” Ruth observed as she cut out a lattice top for the pie. “Chase says he’s buying me a bigger table, but I’m not sure where he thinks I’m going to put it.”
Rachel handed Ruth the bowl of sliced apples and watched her work her magic with sugar, spices, and all things nice.
“HW’s here?” Rachel asked.
“Yup. Driving everyone mad as usual — especially Ry.”
Rachel had liked Ry on sight, but getting to know his twin, HW, had taken longer. He was as wary of her as she was of him — for very good reasons. She sometimes suspected that he felt like an outsider in his own family as well.
“I feel like everything in my life is up in the air right now,” Rachel blurted out.
“That’s because it is.” Ruth covered the pie with pastry and added egg wash. “Change can be painful you know.”
“Yeah …” Rachel tried to smile. “I’m really lucky to have somewhere to go while I sort myself out.”
“Take as long as you need,” Ruth said as she added the pie to the bottom shelf of the oven. “Fresh air and hard work can help you think things through. Or, to put it another way, you’ll be so tired that you won’t have time to worry about anything before you fall asleep.”
“I’ll need to work on my riding before I can be much help around here.” Rachel sighed. “Ry said I’m getting better but I’ll never —”
Ruth smacked her gently on the arm with her wooden spoon.
“How about you start by thinking more positively about yourself, young lady?”
“You’re right,” Rachel said, grinning. “I’ve got to stop putting myself down.” She flung out her arms. “I’m young, I’ve got great prospects for a fulfilling and interesting career, and I have a family who loves me.”
“You filming a commercial for the guest ranch, Rachel?”
She turned her head to find Ry Morgan smiling down at her. She never had any problem telling him apart from his identical twin.
“Nope.” She stood up and accepted the hug he offered her. “Just giving myself a pep talk.”
Ry kissed her cheek. “I was worried that you were going to burst into song or something.”
Ry had the same blond coloring as she did, but his eyes were hazel while hers were exactly the same blue as Ruth’s and Billy’s.
“Mirrors crack when I sing, Ry. How are you, and how’s Avery?”
“I’m good.” He kissed his grandma, and then took the seat next to Rachel. “Avery’s doing great. We got engaged.”
“That’s awesome!” Rachel squealed. She really liked Avery, who was low-key like Ry and had a dry sense of humor that appealed to Rachel. “Is she living here now?”
“Nope.” Ry grimaced. “She’s still at the Hayes Hotel where she says she’s staying until we get married. She says I need to find her a house to live in, and I’m working on it.”
Ruth got up to check the pie, and Ry lowered his voice. “I’m getting pretty sick of creeping around here and the Hayes place at night, so I’d appreciate any help you can give me on the house building front.”