Eighteen Months Later
Alejandro stared in dismay at the fading paint and dilapidated state of the farmhouse in front of him. Even in the fading light of the day, the home looked horrible. Had his dad not done any maintenance to the place? But as fast as that thought crossed his mind, he felt horrible. Of course not, you idiot. It’s hard enough to do chores when you’re sick from chemo, let alone repair your home. He shoved his hands into his pockets, before moving around to the tailgate of his truck. The pang of his father’s sudden death less than a month after his graduation had barely registered as he dealt with caring for his now invalid mother. A freak car accident on the I-70 had left his mother paralyzed from the chest down and her only son struggling under the weight of the family farm and his mother’s physical needs.
So other than paying for a modest flower arrangement and taking the afternoon off to attend the small funeral, he had been left to grieve in silence as he struggled to not only keep his family home, but to find a way to pay for his mother’s around-the-clock care. Eventually though it hadn’t mattered. His mother had to sell the Bar M to pay the mounting medical bills. Which is why I’m not going to lose the Rancho de la Luna. It had damn near killed him to move into town, but his mother had needed to be closer to her doctors. Not that it mattered in the end. A staph infection took her from him a few months ago. Now however, with both parents gone, he needed to get back to his roots. To feel the sunshine on his face, the wind through his hair, and the rhythm of honest to God chores as he worked his body to exhaustion.
Grabbing the two duffle bags that held all of his worldly possessions in one hand and his battered old guitar case in the other, he hauled the items up the rickety steps and to the front door. Setting down the guitar, he was just getting ready to open the screen door when a woman appeared in the opening. With her graying hair pulled back in a braid, and wearing a Metallica T-shirt and a pair of tight faded blue jeans her sudden appearance caused Alejandro to jump in surprise.
“About time you got here,” she snapped. “Damned lawyer said you were going to be here this morning. I don’t appreciate waiting nearly all day in a hot house while you take your sweet ass time showing up.”
“Suzette. You startled me.” He tried to calm his racing heart. He’d briefly met his father’s lover at the reading of his father’s will a little over a year ago. The hostility in her gaze hadn’t lessened during that time. Like it was his fault his dad had left him the Rancho de la Luna instead of her. Or the fact that traffic on the interstate had been murder. “Look, I got here as soon as I could. Traffic was a bitch.”
“It took you over a year to get here?”
He flushed. “My mother was ill and just passed away six weeks ago.”
Suzette harrumphed and he suddenly felt like an insect under a magnifying glass as her cool blue eyes studied him. “If I hadn’t promised Kemen to be nice to you, I’d be ripping a strip off your hide a mile wide, boy.”
He blinked at the open hostility in her tone. What the hell had he ever done to her to warrant such a reaction. “Excuse me?”
“You should’ve made the time to come see your old man. Do you realize how hard it was for him to go sniveling to your graduation like a dog with his tail tucked between his knees? Especially when he knew he was dying?”
He stiffened, finally fed up with the heat and the bitchy woman in front of him. Lover or not, he wasn’t going to let her accuse him of lord knew what just because she was pissed she had to wait for him. “I know my relationship with Dad was distant, but don’t for a second accuse me of not caring about what happened to him. If I’d known he had cancer, I’d have been here. But he never even breathed a word about his illness to me when I called to tell him about Mom’s accident. He just told me he understood and insisted I take care of Mom.”
She grumbled then her face softened. “Sounds just like the stubborn bastard. Family first always, no matter the cost.”
He wanted to protest. His dad had never chosen his family first. EVER. He’d chosen the woman in front of him over his only son. But it wouldn’t do any good to shatter the poor woman’s illusions of his father. “So they say.”
She shifted and pushed open the screen door. The click of nails on wood behind her distracted him. His frustration vanished as a blur of white, black and tan almost knocked Suzette over in an effort to get to him. With a speed belying his age, the hound dog rushed him. “Bojangles?”
The old basset hound slid to a stop, his long floppy ears swaying as he cocked his head. Sad liquid brown eyes seemed to ask “Do I know you?” as Alejandro squatted down in front of him. Holding his fingers out, he spoke softly, “It’s me, boy.” He had to swallow hard against the tears in his throat when Bojangles nudged his fingers with his head in an obvious plea to be petted. His tail thumped against the porch as Alejandro scratched him behind one ear.
“Damn, you must have the magic touch. That damned dog hates everyone.” Suzette leaned against the door frame.
Alejandro looked up. Despite her grumbling he could hear the affection in her voice. He patted the dog’s head once more, before straightening. “This sweetie? I can’t believe he’s been giving you guff.”
She sighed. “That sweetie? He misses your Dad and isn’t shy about showing it.” She fished her keys out of her pocket, before removing one. “But judging by his reception, you won’t have any issues.” She handed him the key. “Here’s the key. I’ve made sure the fridge is stocked with the basics and your utilities are on. The air’s on the fritz so it’s hotter than hell inside.” A soft smile crossed her face. “It’ll be nice to have a Delgado on the Rancho de la Luna again. The ranch wouldn’t be the same if someone else took over.”
Confused at her abrupt three-sixty, he took the key. “Thanks, I guess. Is there anything else I need to know?”
She shrugged. “Other than the fact that I hired you a cowhand? No.” Then she was stomping down the steps.
He gaped after her. “Wait! You did what?” He didn’t have the money to pay for a hired hand. At least not until his birthday next month. Then the trust fund his father had set up for him would finally be his.
She disappeared round the corner of the house. Following after her, with the dog at his heels, he caught up with her just as she swung herself up into a dusty silver Jeep that had been hidden from sight. “Got you some help. You have nearly a hundred head of cattle that are ready to be taken to market, plus a chicken coop and two horses. Do you honestly think you can handle all that by yourself? Especially with the way things are falling down around your ears?”
“But…” He frantically searched for something to say.
“Look, boy. I’m getting up in age and so are my ranch hands. We’ve barely managed to keep the place running until you arrived. Lucky for you, last year Kemen had already hired a couple of hands from Idabel to bring the calves to market. But they took nearly half the profit. You can’t afford to do that again and keep the Rancho from going under. The new hand I hired for you understands the situation and isn’t expecting pay until after you take the cows to market.”
He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “So let me get this right? You hired a hand for me that is not only aware of my financial situation but is still willing to work for peanuts?”
She shrugged. “Yes. And he’s also expecting room and board.” She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat this, Alejandro. Even with Benji’s help you may still sink.”
She nodded. “Yeah Benji Coleman. I’ve known him for years. Honest worker for honest pay. Used to live around these parts until he had a falling out with his dad. He should be here by tomorrow night. He had a few things to wrap up before heading north.” She twisted the key in the ignition. “He’s a good hand― and,” she eyed him thoughtfully, “I don’t think you can afford to picky at this point.”
He stared after her as she pulled out in a cloud of red dust. He was at a loss for words. Not only had he inherited his father’s falling apart ranch, he now had a hired hand he’d never met, and a dog. “Well, hell.” He glanced skyward. “You left me a fine mess, Dad.”
Benjamin Coleman IV, or Benji, as he preferred his friends to call him, downshifted and throttled back his motorcycle as he approached the turn-off to the Delgado ranch. Under him the Harley rumbled its protest as he turned off the paved highway and onto gravel. The trip from El Paso had been a long and dusty ride but had flown by faster than he’d expected. Navigating up the lane, he took in the barbed wire fences and scattering of cows. He frowned as he passed a sagging section of fencing, but had to remind himself that the new owner had been absent for nearly a year according to the Widow Ranson. So he mentally jotted it down on his to do list. Hopefully Delgado’s son knew his ass from a hole in the ground, or it was going to be a long couple of months as they brought the herd to market.
The sun was just setting when he caught sight of the house. Perched at the top of a small incline and facing south, the fading streaks of sunlight threw a good portion of the home into the shadows― including the porch. Pulling up next to a battered old pickup truck, he lowered the kickstand and turned the key. The purr of the motor died, leaving the yard almost silent. He swung off the bike, stretching out the kinks the twelve-hour drive had caused. That’s when he heard it. The faint sound of a guitar and the most earth-shattering baritone he’d ever heard. Low and sultry, it made him think of smoky bars and a primitive lust, followed by desperate kisses and groping hands.
Drawn to the sound, he lowered the bandana he’d worn over his mouth and slapped his hat against his leather covered thigh before settling it back on his head. As he moved toward temptation, he hoped it wasn’t coming from his new boss, but knew his luck wasn’t that good. Suzette had told him that the young man had no one and could use the guidance of an experienced man. He’d jumped at the idea. Anything was better than staying with his folks. As the song rose in its intensity, his parents, even the idea of the singer being off limits, faded from his mind. Like rats to the Pied Piper, he was drawn irrevocably closer. Every note wrapped around him. Every softly sung word lured him until he found himself at the foot of the stairs leading to the porch.
The music died and the voice faded when he moved to climb the steps. He wanted to beg the man to not stop. To finish the song, but he froze― one foot on the first step and his hand wrapped around the weathered rail. He could barely force himself to speak. “Please, continue.”
The stir of the shadows as a dog got to his feet barely registered as the thud of a chair’s legs being lowered back to the floor drew his attention. “Heel, Bojangles.” The softly spoken command had no less impact on Benji, than the song. Then the man stepped into the fading light holding a battered old guitar crosswise across his body. Shirtless and barefoot, wearing nothing more than a faded pair of Levi’s, he was beyond tempting with his blond hair burnished a dark gold.
At least that’s what Benji thought as the man lifted the guitar over his head, before leaning it up against the railing. “You must be Benji Coleman. Suzette said you’d be here sometime this evening. So I saved some stew and homemade cornbread for you, in case you were hungry.”
He nodded, surprise at the man’s generosity warring with stirring lust inside him as the taut muscles which had been hidden by the instrument came into view. He broke out in a sweat that had nothing to do with the summer heat and everything to do with unwanted desire. His body hungered for more than the offered food.
Then the man stuck his hand out. “I’m Alejandro Delgado. I’ve been told I’m your new boss.”
He licked his lower lip and pushed down his disappointment before taking the offered hand. Even if the other man was interested in a summer fling, as his boss, Mr. Sexy Crooner was definitely off the menu. “Yeah, I reckon so.”