Losing Leo

Shelby hugged her grandmother and said, “Good morning, Gran! I know I’m early, but I just couldn’t wait to get started. I hope you don’t mind.”

GG Beauchamp chuckled and said, “Of course not. Would you like a cup of tea? And how is our little one this morning?”

Shelby made a face. “Determined to crush my bladder, I think. I’m so glad it’s almost time for him to make his appearance. I never dreamed I’d make so many trips to the bathroom when I should be sleeping peacefully.”

GG laughed. “It’s to prepare you for all the times you’ll have to be getting up after he or she gets here.”

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.”

“Just make up your mind that you need to sleep whenever your baby does and let Sam worry about everything else. At least for a while.” GG poured two cups of tea and stirred some honey into them both.

“I just want you to know, Gran, how much it means to me that you’re telling me the whole story of you and Grandpa. You two had such a beautiful love story and I can’t wait to share it.”

GG smiled and said, “Your grandpa was a very special man.”

“I know he was and I bet he’d say the same thing about you.”

GG’s smile turned a little mischievous. “He really did spoil me to death most of the time. He did make me toe the line now and then, though.”

Shelby’s cheeks were a little pink. “How was it that you put it?”

GG said with a wink, “A strong man’s hand can be a very good thing.”

Shelby had to giggle. “Well, I’m ready to begin whenever you are.”

“Let’s do it.” They settled comfortably in front of the fireplace and Shelby turned on her recorder and opened her notebook.

***

The tall man, still lean and fit, even with the gray scattered through his dark hair, leaned his forehead against the tree trunk and counted out loud, loudly enough to be heard across the large yard. There was the sound of an excited giggle and the big Golden Retriever raced in circles at the edge of the yard by a cluster of bushes, barking excitedly as he romped.

A voice called, trying to be quiet, “Rowdy! Go away! Go find Shelby!”

The dog raced across the yard and the man reached the number one hundred and then called loudly, “Ready or not, here I come!”

A small figure darted across the yard as he turned and started away from her, then froze as he turned and spotted her. Stopping as if he were confused, he looked in both directions and then took a few steps toward her. Another small figure crept out of the shadows of the garden shed and advanced toward the big tree until the dog ran to her, jumping up and down in his excitement. The man turned to see where the dog was going and changed directions again, starting toward the child and dog and leaving the other little girl convulsed with giggles. They were quite sure they were tricking him into chasing one of them, then the other until suddenly he turned and they both reached the big tree, just escaping his clutches. They hugged each other, jumping up and down and laughing hysterically.

“We did it! We did it!”

They both let out screams as he ran up behind them and snatched them up, holding one of them under each arm and jogging around the yard in triumph. GG Beauchamp had come out the back door during their game and was sitting on the deck laughing at them all. Her husband, Leo, carried the girls over to her, grinning and bending over to kiss her as he set the two little girls down.

“Gran, did you see?” one of the dark-haired four-year-olds asked.

“We beat Paw-Paw to the tree!” her identical twin sister said in triumph.

“I did see. You were so fast!”

Leo held his hands up in surrender. “I have to admit, you won fair and square.”

“Rowdy always finds us and he tells on us,” the first little girl said.

GG chuckled. “Yes, it’s pretty hard to hide when Rowdy’s around. Who wants a cookie?”

Before the girls could answer, Leo said, “Me! Me!” It made his granddaughters giggle again and GG passed cookies out to them all.

The two little girls were truly identical, with shoulder length, shiny dark hair and brilliant sapphire blue eyes. But Shelby was quieter and gentler than her more temperamental sister, Savannah, although both of them were soft hearted and loving. Leo doted on them both and GG adored them; she could never get enough of them and if she could have changed one thing in her life, it would be to magically make her son and daughter-in-law love the tiny town of Boone, Indiana, just as much as she and Leo did. But they loved living in the city and they had ever since they’d met in college. She had long ago accepted the fact that they were never going to live in Boone. She was just grateful that the girls loved spending time there and their parents were generous with their visits.

“Paw-Paw, can we go see the horses tomorrow?” Savannah asked, turning her big blue eyes on her grandfather.

“Horses? What horses? We don’t have any horses.” Leo loved teasing them.

“Paw-Paw! You know, the horses we always go see! Miss Mamie’s horses!” Savannah’s tone was outraged.

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. Horses might make me sneeze.”

Savannah laughed hysterically at the idea of her grandfather reduced to sneezing around horses. He winked at her and she beamed at him, knowing she would get to see her beloved horses the next day.

Shelby said, “I wish Carter was here. He likes the horses too.”

Leo nodded wisely and said, “I know he does, but his Cub Scout camping trip is very important to him.”

“I don’t think I’d like to sleep in a tent. What if a bear came around?” Shelby looked worried.

Savannah said, “There aren’t any bears in Indiana, silly.” She thought for a moment and then said, “There aren’t, are there, Paw-Paw?”

“No, so far Indiana doesn’t have any bears,” Leo said with a wink.

“Well, girls, who wants to help me make dinner?” GG asked.

“I do!” said Shelby, scrambling to her feet. “Can we make biscuits again?”

“We can make biscuits anytime,” GG promised.

Savannah said, “I’m going to help Paw-Paw take Rowdy for a walk.”

“Okay,” said GG. “Make sure Paw-Paw doesn’t start sneezing around Rowdy.”

Both girls giggled and GG winked at Savannah. Shelby and GG made Swiss steak and mashed potatoes with green beans and a basket full of biscuits with GG’s homemade strawberry jam. After dinner, the girls had their bath with mountains of bubbles and then they all played Candyland together until GG could see the signs of bedtime coming on and she turned on a children’s movie they could all watch together. Half an hour later, her little granddaughters were sound asleep on the couch, snuggled against their sleeping grandfather and GG laughed quietly to herself.

She whispered into his ear, “Leo, let’s get these babies to bed.”

He blinked slowly awake and looked down at the peacefully sleeping little girls and sent up a little prayer of thanks for the richness of his life. He carried the girls up to the room they had fixed up for them, the room that had once been his sisters, Molly and Ginny’s room. Their house had held Beauchamps for several generations and when his parents had been ready to retire to Florida, he and GG and James had moved into it. Filling it with family, especially grandchildren, had always been GG’s dream. They tucked the little girls in, turned on the nightlight and went down the hall to their own room.

“I locked up downstairs and I brought us up a glass of wine,” GG said softly.

“Good.” Leo kissed her and said, “We’ll just watch a little TV in bed; that way we’ll be close to them.”

GG went into the bathroom and changed into her pajamas and when she came out, it was Leo’s turn. She put her arms around him and lifted her face for his kiss. He gave a little growl and said, “Are you trying to tempt me, gorgeous?”

She shook her head and gave a little laugh. “You’re so silly. I’m not gorgeous. I’m getting old. I’m getting gray hair and wrinkles, and even though I try to stay in shape, everything is starting to sag.”

Her husband put a finger under her chin and looked directly into her eyes. “Don’t ever say that again. You’re a beautiful woman, GG, more beautiful now than when you were a girl because of the life you’ve lived, the courage you’ve shown, the love and compassion you’ve given. When I look at you, I see all of it, the girl, the woman, the love. I especially see the love that shines from you every minute of every day. How could you be anything but beautiful? Gray hair means nothing, wrinkles aren’t ugly, they’re a mark of character. Your body bore my son; how could the effects that had on you be ugly to me? So don’t ever doubt me when I call you gorgeous.”

GG’s eyes were shimmering with tears at the words he said to her. “Oh, Leo, how was I ever lucky enough to find you?”

His eyes gleamed. “I was the lucky one. I was lucky that you were so stubborn and determined to get your own way when you were a girl that I had to rescue you from the mob at that Vietnam protest. And that was the beginning of our love story; you thought I was an arrogant, bossy asshole and hoped you’d never see me again.”

GG was laughing softly. “And I was so shocked when I found out that you were living right here in Boone! And luckily, it turned out that I was wrong and you were even more stubborn than me.”

He shot her a look of innocence. “I was stubborn?”

“Yep, you wouldn’t give up on me and you made me fall in love with you.”

“I had to. You would have gotten yourself into all kinds of trouble if I hadn’t been there to get you out of it.”

“Don’t forget, Sharon and I managed to go to a music festival for a whole weekend and nobody ever even found out. And we didn’t get into a bit of trouble.” GG looked quite proud of herself.

“I’d never forget that. You were a rebel.” He kissed her on the tip of her nose, remembering her in her faded bellbottomed jeans with her beads and her long, straight hair falling below her shoulders, with one tiny braid swinging alongside her face, a feather braided into it. She had taken his breath away, and the knowledge of how young she was, scared him to death. He had been twenty-two and she was only seventeen, but he couldn’t get her out of his mind and he had ended up waiting for her until she turned eighteen and graduated from high school. They’d been married a few months after graduation and their lives since then had been a rough journey at times, but one that they always traveled together.

They clinked their glasses together and toasted each other, smiling softly as they looked back at their memories. They had their heartaches to look back on, some that had been almost more than they could bear, but they had managed to come through them together and, in the end, they’d been stronger for it. And when they looked back at it all, the joys outweighed the sorrows by far. Leo still enjoyed his full-time engineering position and GG still ran the arts and crafts gift shop that Leo had bought for her when their son, James, went off to college. The shop, GG’s Gems, had become a part of the little town of Boone; it showcased the work of local artists and craftsmen and women and people came from all around to shop there.

James was their only child, but he and his wife, Allison, had three children, Carter, who was seven and the twins, three years younger than their big brother. So Leo and GG had their family, perhaps not as big a family as they had once envisioned, but enough to fill the house with noise and laughter when they were all there. Both GG’s parents and Leo’s had lived to see their great-grandchildren; Leo’s father had passed away a couple of years ago and his mother had chosen to stay in their Florida community where she had lots of friends and one of Leo’s sisters, Molly, nearby. GG’s parents had retired and bought themselves a motorhome that they lived in, determined to visit every state before they would sell it and pick one spot to live in. They had friends everywhere they went; they were still healthy and when the family gathered at Leo and GG’s home, they loved to come and join them whenever they were able to.

GG’s brother, Carl, had finished his master’s degree before he married his wife and settled down to raise a family. Quite the opposite, his twin, Bryce, had made a name for himself as an investigative journalist and had never married after he’d had a short, tragic marriage in name only with a Vietnamese girl he’d met on assignment. He’d received numerous awards for excellence in journalism and they got to see him often on TV. He visited home when he could and it was usually a complete surprise to the family when he would pop in. He had his choice of assignments and he went to the most dangerous places in the world often. He had a thirst for adventure and a strong need to share the true events of the world with the public.

Savannah was awake first, as usual. She peeked in the door at her grandparents and crept over to Leo’s side of the bed.

“Paw-Paw,” she said in a loud whisper, “it’s daytime out.” When he didn’t stir, she reached over and touched his eyelid, light as a feather, and stroked upward to open his eye.

The touch startled Leo, but he realized immediately what it was and struggled to keep from laughing. She was reaching over to touch the other eye when he jumped and whispered, “What are you doing?”

Savannah squealed and jerked her hand back as she jumped about a foot in the air, she was so startled. Leo laughed and reached out to pull her up onto the bed.

“Well, good morning, Shelby.”

She forgot to be quiet, exclaiming, “I’m not Shelby!”

Leo squinted at her, looking her over for several seconds and finally said, “Oh, I guess you’re not.”

“Paw-Paw, you know I’m always the first one up.”

GG groaned, “Yes, she is. Is the sun even up?”

Savannah said, “It’s been up forever!”

Leo chuckled. “I’ll tell you what; you go down and let Rowdy out in the back yard and we’ll get up.”

“Okay!” She scrambled off the bed.

Leo called, “Walk! And be careful on the steps.”

Savannah slowed down and he could see her grip the handrail carefully as she started down the stairs. Leo leaned over and kissed GG. “Give me five minutes in the bathroom, then take your time getting up. I’ll see if Shelby’s awake.”

A few minutes later, GG could hear him talking to Shelby and then she saw the two of them heading down the stairs together. She lay back for just a second and then sighed and got out of bed, stretching as she went. When she started down the stairs herself, she could smell the coffee Leo had started and she thanked him silently. There was plenty of chatter coming from the kitchen and GG went straight toward the coffeepot, where her husband handed her a steaming cup, already prepared the way she liked it.

“God bless you,” she said fervently, cautiously taking the first sip and then sighing in bliss.

“You used to be much more of a morning person,” Leo observed.

“Yeah, I was younger then.”

He laughed at her and gave her a kiss.

“Don’t worry; coffee will fix it,” she said, taking another sip.

It was a good thing she had her coffee early. The phone rang about twenty minutes later and it was James. After she hung up, she said, “Carter fell out of a tree and hurt his arm. James and Allison are headed to the emergency room, the scout leader is taking him straight there. They think it’s probably broken.”

“Is he all right?” Shelby asked anxiously.

“Oh, yes, it hurts some but he’ll be fine. You daddy did almost exactly the same thing when he was Carter’s age.”

Her eyes were huge. “He did?”

“He sure did. And he was just fine.”

Savannah shook her head solemnly. “He should have come with us,” she said wisely.

GG and Leo had to laugh. Leo looked at his wife inquiringly and she nodded. “He’ll be fine. Now, let’s keep busy until they call us again. What should we have for breakfast today?”

Savannah crowed, “French toast!”

Shelby said, “Yeah, with strawberries.”

“And bacon,” Leo chimed in.

“All right, strawberry French toast and bacon it is.” GG began to bustle around the kitchen and Savannah went to let Rowdy in.

“Paw-Paw, can I feed Rowdy?” asked Savannah.

“I’m sure Rowdy would like that.” He watched Savannah go to the pantry with Rowdy’s bowl and struggle to open the lid of the big plastic bin that held his dog food. He knew better than to offer to help her and, after a couple of tries, she got it open. She measured out the right amount of food and closed the lid before she brought the bowl back with Rowdy dancing around her, eager for his breakfast.

Shelby went to the front porch and got the Sunday paper, bringing it in to Leo. After breakfast, he would sit with both girls in his lap and read the comic pages to them. Then he would be left in peace long enough to get part of the paper read, starting with the sports section. When the girls weren’t there, he liked to watch the Sunday morning news shows, but he didn’t attempt that when they were keeping the grandkids. By the time he got the paper read, GG would have the girls dressed, teeth brushed, and hair up in ponytails, ready for their visit to go see Miss Mamie’s horses. It was the perfect way to spend a spring Sunday morning in Boone, Indiana.

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The Watch

Stuck in the Quicksand

Polly

A watch of nightingales

Pollyanna Sonnenschein sat in the dark cell of a room in the kennel of the Dark Lady’s vast estate in Holmby Hills. The chain around her neck was long enough to allow her to move around, use the ensuite bathroom, and open the curtains to look out at the garden, but she didn’t feel like seeing the rose bushes outside her window. She fucking hated roses. They had ruined her life. More. Her life had always been shit—except for a brief period where she had been on the Dark Lady’s good list—but roses had landed her a place at the top of the bad list, waiting for her name to be scratched. Permanently.

They could have her name, frankly. She hated her name. It gave people all the wrong ideas about her. They expected her to be sweet, friendly, kind, bubbly. Or a bird. She wasn’t. Polly was grumpy, ornery, bratty. Polly bit the hand that fed her. Polly was a cat.

That was one thing Johny Black, the psycho who got her in this mess, got right. He had no illusions about her at all. He thought she was just a cunt. Sometimes, it’s all she was. Johny had allowed her to live for however long she proved entertaining or useful to him. Polly had always known she didn’t have long before he put her down.

She was going to die soon, which seemed like a waste. Her twenty-two years on this Earth had been an endless chain of poor decisions, a bad one leading to a worse one, leading to a disastrous one, leading to motherfucking roses. Leading to the end.

Why would she want to see the sun? What was the point?

She was startled out of her surly contemplations, and somewhat blinded, when the door opened, letting in the light from the hallway.

“What the fuck, girl?” A voice as deep as the ocean bounced off the walls. “You asleep? It’s fucking one in the afternoon.”

“Who can sleep?” Polly asked, her voice was a weak, raspy croak. She hadn’t spoken to anyone for hours. No one in the Dark Lady’s service could say a word to her, and after spending all night crying and shouting to be let go, with no one around to listen, she had run out of things to say.

The giant of a man walked up to the blackout curtains and opened them, letting all the California sunshine through to ruin her day. In the light, she got a better look at him. He was painfully handsome, with the features of a film star and the build of a king. She knew him as a member of The Unkindness, and without a mask he was only more attractive. She’d seen him in passing at Gatherings, she never got to play with him, but she remembered his bright eyes, smooth dark skin, and breathtaking physique. His powerful, sculpted body was hidden today under a white dress shirt and tweed jacket which made him look like a college professor instead of what he really was: a killer.

“So you got the job, huh?” she asked.

“I asked for it,” he said casually, returning to stroke her cheek where she sat on the chaise in the corner. “You’re a mess, kitty cat. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

“Why bother?” Polly said. “You can kill me just as easily now, or take me to wherever you want to kill me. I don’t have to be clean to go in the dirt.”

“What makes you think I’m here to kill you, pet?”

“I know who you are,” she spat. “Just get it done. I’m tired.”

“I can fucking guarantee you do not know who I am, kitten,” he said, yanking the chain attached to her collar and causing her to fall on the floor at his feet, “or you would not be giving me a hard time.”

“Oh, I see,” Polly said, resentful. “They’re going to let you play with me first, before you put me out of my misery. Is that Charlie’s big plan?”

He pulled the chain up, yanking her off the floor and raising his arm high so she dangled by the neck on tiptoes in front of him. He put the other hand on her face, squeezing her cheeks so her lips puckered like a fish.

“You’d best forget you know his name, kitty,” he said. “You’ve only got one life left.”

Then he kissed her puckered lips, so gently, before dragging her by the chain to the standing shower in a corner of the bathroom. It was little more than a hose with a shower head. They didn’t even have a curtain.

He let her drop again on the frosted glass tiles and bent down to tear her oversized t-shirt off and strip her of her cotton panties.

She didn’t even try to fight him. She hadn’t really known what to expect when the moment finally came, but her imagination had pictured worse than this. Of course, there was still time. They had all afternoon. She’d be easier to dump in the dark.

The killer grabbed the hose with the shower nozzle from the stand overhead, tested the water temperature and then sprayed her with it, set on pulse, so she felt like she was being pummeled by a hard rain.

“You will call me Master Rick, or you will call me Sir,” he commanded as he hosed her down, beating her with the water. “When you’re nice, I will be nice. When you’re bad, I will be worse. Got it?”

“Stop it!” she shouted, trying to protect herself from the pulsing water near her face.

“That is not an acceptable answer.” He brought the hose down between her legs so the hard pulsing water lashed her pussy.

Polly clamped her legs closed, and he turned up the heat. “You’re going to burn me, you fucking psycho!”

He pointed the hose at her breasts, straight at her nipples.

“You’re dirty, and you still stink of rotten roses,” he said. “I’m here to make you clean. If you do what I say, you may get yourself out of the boiling pot you threw yourself into, headfirst. Otherwise, kitty, I’ll melt the skin off your bones.”

Pollyanna did not like to cry. She worked really hard at keeping her eyes dry over the years—no matter what happened—but she knew some Doms got their rocks off with the waterworks. She couldn’t recall whether Master Rick was the sort. Polly remembered little about what he did at the gatherings, besides look dangerous and sexy as fuck. Which he still did, even dressed like an angry History Professor who was spraying her with hard shots of nearly scalding water for forgetting which president had signed the treaty for the Alaska Purchase. It was Andrew Johnson. On May 28, 1867. Polly knew because she was from Alaska. Not because she was smart. Smart girls didn’t end up like this, she reminded herself.

It was time to try tears. While she didn’t do it often, Polly had studied acting in school—which is why she first ran away to Los Angeles. She’d learned to draw from personal experience to put on a convincing part. Frankly, she had plenty of material to work with for producing tears. The only problem was her face was already wet, so she had to be a bit more intense.

She went through a range of reactions, from puppy eyes, to quivering lips, to whimpers which built up to a heartfelt sob which strengthened into a wail which echoed in the small bathroom.

“Try again, pet,” Master Rick said, moving the spray of water down to her lower belly.

“What do you want from me?” Polly sobbed. She had turned on the tears, and now she couldn’t find the switch to shut them off.

“I want to play with you a while, kitten,” he said, turning the water all the way to ice cold. “To understand your twisted little mind. I want to know why you thought it was smart to trigger a kind, beautiful, traumatized woman who is the property of our alpha. Only an evil little bitch does shit like that. Are you an evil little bitch, pet? Because I can wash the evil right off you.”

“I tried to explain. It wasn’t my idea. I didn’t have a choice!”

“Bullshit.” Master Rick focused the cold pulses of water on her chest, around where her heart might be.

“He would have killed me!”

“Yeah, I heard something about it,” Master Rick said. “I’m not buying it. Neither is our alpha. You want to know why, kitty?”

She shook her head and wrapped her arms around herself as best she could to protect herself from the cold.

“Because there’s always a choice, kitty,” he said. “You acted against us, instead of telling us about your trouble. Why the hell would you do it?”

“You don’t know this man,” Polly cried. “He’s evil. He’s a monster.”

Master Rick turned off the water and tossed the bottle of Irish Spring liquid soap, which had been on the sink, at her feet.

“You have five minutes to wash your body clear of the rose stench, top to bottom, including your hair, then I’m taking you home,” he said. “If you were a good kitty, I would wash you myself. As it is, you’re lucky I don’t stick you in a sack and drown you.”

“Home where?” she asked.

“Home where you’ll learn your lesson,” Rick said, stepping back into the bedroom and leaving her alone to tend to herself.

The night which sealed her fate replayed in her mind as Polly rushed to scrub herself clean with the fresh-scented gel, working it into a lather in her jet black hair.

She had stared off on her knees, a familiar position, this time at the feet of the split-tongued killer Johny Black, waiting for him to tell her what she might do to buy herself another day.

“It’s simple, pet,” Johny had hissed. Johny Black could only hiss, because of that damned tongue of his, intentionally bisected, like a snake tongue. Johny Black thought he was the son of the devil, or some shit.

“You will bathe in roses. Soak your mask in rose oil. Spray yourself with rose perfume from your hair to your toes until all you smell is roses. Bring the rose oil bottle with you to the gathering of The Unkindness. Then you will find the blonde girl who walks with the red man. You know the red man, yes?”

“A? Yes, I know A. He’s a dangerous man,” she said. She knew better than to use A’s name. If Johny didn’t know, she would not be the one to tell him.

“More dangerous than me?”

How could Polly answer, honestly? It was a close tie. While she would bet, in a knife fight between the two of them, Charlie Green would win, Johny was in the room with her. Honesty seemed like a bad idea, and she wasn’t really bothered by lying.

“No one is more dangerous than you,” Polly said.

He patted her head. Hard. Johny did everything hard. Her brain was already buzzing before. Now her ears were ringing.

“That’s right,” Johny said. “So you go all rosy, rosy. Use the rose oil to refresh the scent, if time passes. Then you go stand next to the blonde as soon as you can. Close enough she can smell you.”

“And then what?”

“I don’t know, but you will find out,” Johny said. “Then, you will tell me.”

“Why am I doing this?” Polly asked.

Johny bent down to where she knelt at his feet and slapped her hard across the face, twice, so her cheeks matched. He was detail-oriented, Johny.

“No questions. Just do it.”

And so she did.

And now she was in the shower washing off all the roses, and there was a lot to wash up. By the time Polly got her chance, she had been so nervous about getting it wrong she’d rubbed the entire bottle of rose oil on her skin. It made no sense, this stupid job of Johny’s. Why did she have to smell like a fucking rose garden? What was the point?

A had taken his newly collared sub, Áine, to the improvised whipping post in the patio—an abstract art piece with a stainless steel O. He was punishing her for acting out during his Shibari show. She got jealous and tried to interfere with his aftercare of the rope bunny. It was funny, really, because all the ravens were jealous of her. How had this blonde earned a collar from the man who absolutely refused to collar anyone? Did she know how dangerous A was? Did she have any idea what she had gotten herself into?

Polly had decided it was the perfect moment to do it, with the girl bound in place, and A distracted, flogging her. Plus, The Unkindness were encouraged to watch. All Polly had to do was slip through the crowd to the front, to stand on the other side of the whipping post and to get really close to the girl. No one would object.

They were outside, and there were so many scents in the air, but the oil Polly had coated herself with was strong. She stood close enough to see the girls blue eyes and striking whiteblonde lashes, framed by the black beautiful feather mask which marked her as an owned raven, as special, as prized. Something Polly knew she would never be.

Why was she so special? Not only did Áine have A all to herself, she had somehow come to Johny’s attention too. And she was in ecstasy, as A lashed her between the legs with the flogger, Áine delighted in it. She was right on the edge of coming. Polly could see the moan forming in Áine’s full, rosy, glossy lips.

Then a soft breeze blew on Polly’s back and the bitch went nuts—absolutely insane. She screeched like a banshee, like someone had taken a knife to her belly and was cutting her open, pulling her guts out. Polly couldn’t move. It fascinated her. Áine had looked so beautiful, just a moment before, being punished for acting out, and now she was a horror show. Was it the rose scent which did it? How?

A was shouting at her, but Polly couldn’t move. She couldn’t budge. She’d seen nothing like this in her life. How could the simple scent of roses make someone lose their shit like this? It was almost magical. Polly felt strangely powerful. She couldn’t suppress a grin. A was barking at Polly again to step back. The right thing to do now would be to disappear as soon as possible, but Polly couldn’t get her legs to cooperate.

Then A freed his raven from her chains and carried her indoors, still screeching, kicking and clawing at the air. Polly felt a gentle black-gloved hand land on her shoulder.

Shit. She was fucked.

***

Morrígan, the Dark Lady, purveyor of the finest cunts and asses in all the land, was a meticulous record keeper. Better than Santa. She kept a comprehensive list in her head of who was naughty and who was nice. Morrígan understood all the different shades of naughty under the sun, and there was really only one she couldn’t stomach: disloyalty.

You could do worse than have her as a boss—Polly knew very well—but you could not do worse than have her as your enemy. Except, maybe having both Morrígan and Charlie Green looking at her as the enemy was probably worse. No. For sure, it was worse. Maybe not as bad as having Johny Black decide you served no useful purpose, but really damned close.

Polly was fucked, and not in any pleasant way.

She’d decided, in the short time she was alone in the room staring at Morríganwho stared back at her with those hypnotic violet eyesshe never wanted to see a rose or smell a rose again for as long as she lived. Which wouldn’t be long. Fuck. She was an idiot. Morrígan had given her a good sort of life, all things considered. Polly had messed it all up, like she’d messed up everything else she ever touched.

“I want you to explain yourself,” Charlie said, each word slipping through his sharp white teeth, his jaw clenched in the pauses between them. He was bright red. His hair was red, his beard was red, his face was red and his chest was red. Charlie was literally on fire. And his eyes were ice.

That just… couldn’t be good.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Polly lied.

“Don’t you dare pretend with me!” His voice continued to echo in the room long after he’d spoken, the warning bouncing between Polly’s ears causing tears to sting her eyes. “And don’t you dare cry! You wicked bitch. You know what you did. I just want to know why you did it!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, trying not to upset Charlie more than he already was. “I thought… I had no idea.”

“Why. Did. You. Do. It?” Charlie asked again.

Polly looked to Morrígan for help, but it was pretty pointless. Polly sat at the very top of the bad list, and the Dark Lady was more than ready to put a line through her name.

“I was told to,” Polly admitted. “Ordered to, really. Threatened. I didn’t have much choice, and I never thought…”

“By whom?” the Dark Lady asked. “How did anyone even know she would be here?”

Polly hesitated. This was it. The moment she’d dreaded. Time to pick a side. Sure, Johny would kill her for betraying him, but Charlie looked ready to kill her too, and Morrígan seemed really eager to watch Charlie tear her apart with those enormous claws he called hands.

“I have a client,” Polly started, which on its own was a terrible admission. Johny wasn’t a client of the Dark Lady’s which was a total no-no. You had to keep clean. You had to go on approved assignments, if you were going to work with her. Freelancing and work off the books was strictly forbidden.

“You don’t know him,” Polly had admitted, and she’d turned on the waterworks in case it helped. “He knows A. He told me to wear rose cologne around A’s girl tonight. I thought it was a weird prank of his. He likes to play with people, but I had no idea.”

“Bullshit,” Charlie spat. “I told you to go away, and you didn’t budge. You were enjoying it.”

“I swear…”

“Silence!” Morrígan never shouted, so the sound of her raised voice put Polly over the edge to genuine tears. “You will not lie to us. If your client is not one of us, how would he know about A or about his girl being here, or even that there was a gathering tonight?”

“I…” she started but couldn’t finish. She’d have to tell them the truth now. It sealed her fate. The end had come. A sob broke out of her chest before she could stop it.

“Explain,” Charlie threatened.

Polly took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on a dark spot on the lush cream carpet so she didn’t have to look at Charlie’s eyes. She could see her skull reflected in them.

“I tell him about every gathering I go to,” Polly began. “He pays me extra to say what is happening, and to describe the attendees. When I told him about this one, he said you would probably bring a girl. I told him you never bring your own, but he insisted you would. He told me about the rose cologne trick. I thought she was allergic or whatever, and it might make her sneeze. I never imagined…”

“Stop. Lying,” Charlie growled. “Tell me his name.”

“He’ll kill me!”

“Darling, you’re already dead,” Charlie told her. “You’re only negotiating for less pain now.”

And now the pain was here. And it was Rick, which was a shame because when she’d seen him at the gatherings of The Unkindness, she’d only ever imagined him giving her pleasure.

She had told Charlie and Morrígan everything. Charlie had said Morrígan should ship her off. Polly wasn’t really clear what that entailed. She didn’t imagine it would be good. When they’d brought her over to the kennel for “safe-keeping,” as Morrígan put it, Polly figured her days were now measured in hours. But if they’d sent Rick for her, those hours were nearly over.

Home. Rick had said. He was bringing her home. Wasn’t it just a euphemism for death? In Polly’s brief life, it had always been.

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Found

Prologue

 

Edinburgh, Scotland

Time has a funny way of presenting itself in life. One spends most of their days thinking they don’t have enough of it, only to be stopped short by the moments in which it seems to stand still. A brief moment suspended along the continuity of one’s existence, usually brought about by great happiness or the perception of extreme danger and the feeling which accompanies it. This was the latter. Fear.

She stood there unable to move, paralyzed as if the absoluteness of what she just witnessed ceased to exist. The rational part of her mind told her to run. But instead, she remained frozen, taking in the small, minute details around her—the barstools knocked over, the light shining off the splinters of broken glass, the pattern of blood splattered along the wall, the steel gray eyes of the killer as his pupils constricted to mere pinpoints.

Run. She wasn’t supposed to be here. This wasn’t her reality. This experience was for someone else. This was their pause in existence, not hers. A crash at the door started the ticking of the clock. Someone was shouting in Russian, “Net. Net.”

Run. She turned, sprinting through a small kitchen in the back of the building as fast as her legs would carry her and out a back door into an alley. The unusually warm air, fetid from the reek of rotting trash assaulted her, thick and suffocating.

Run. She kicked her high heels off and made her way down the narrow street. This part of the city was dodgy; people were more interested in keeping to themselves than in helping someone. She turned down a dark street to her left and bumped into a skimpily clad woman. “Watch it, bitch,” the lady said before disappearing into an alcove. Faster, she must move faster. She could hear him behind her. His footsteps echoed off the cobblestones. Her lungs burned from the exertion and a stitch had formed in her side, but she couldn’t stop. He was getting closer. A barricade of rubbish bins and old boxes blocked her way up ahead. She jumped over a short crate and fell, landing with a thud. Pain radiated up her arm. Please not like this, she thought, it can’t end like this. The footsteps were getting closer. She scrambled to her feet and held her injured wrist protectively, looking around. There was nowhere to go. It was a dead end. She turned slowly, facing her assailant. “Please don’t kill me,” she begged.

He stepped closer. “You weren’t supposed to be there.” She kept her eyes on him until the darkness took her and the irreversible succession of time ended.

 

In 1725, following the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, General George Wade was sanctioned by George 1 to form six watch companies to patrol the Highlands of Scotland. These companies were in charge of disarming the Highlanders, bringing justice to criminals and hindering rebels. The force was known in Gaelic as Am Freiceàdan Dubh, the dark or black watch. Their motto-Nemo Me Impune Lacessit. No one provokes me with impunity.

 

Chapter One

 

Charlie was alive. Her head felt like it had been split in two, but she was alive. Gagged and blindfolded, hands and feet bound, she lay in darkness. She knew she was in the back of a trunk, the movements of the car a silent lullaby, composing a heinous requiem of the senses with every twist and turn of the road. Her wrist throbbed but there was no way for her to adjust her body to relieve the constant ache. The smell of urine, sweat, and fear filled the small, dank space. She had wet herself. The dampness between her legs was cold. Its stench was thick and acrid and as oppressive as her restraints. Never go to a second location. She had learned that in a self-defense class she took in college. The second you get into a car, you are dead, and the things the abductor will do to you before you die will be far worse. Tears slid down her cheeks, soaking the cloth tied around her face. She had been so stupid, and she deserved this. It was, in a sense, divine retribution. The darkness sang out to her. It was easier there, simple in its aphotic beauty, devoid of light or hope. She went to it, letting it sing her to sleep.

She awoke sometime later, nauseous and disorientated. The car had come to a stop and she could hear footsteps outside. This was her second location, her final resting place unless she could find a way to escape. The door of the trunk opened, and the rough hands of her kidnapper picked her up. He placed her over his shoulder, carrying her. Cool air brushed her skin, sending a shiver up her spine. She was no longer in Edinburgh, with its late summer heat wave. She heard a door open and close then the steady thud of his shoes on a wooden floor, the heavy cadence resounding the despairing rhythm of a death march. A dog barked in the distance. He placed her down on a soft mattress and the blindfold was removed. She looked up into eyes as cold as icy granite. He took off his suit jacket and set it on a chair, pulling a knife from a leather holster strapped across his chest. Tears streamed down her face and she found herself unable to move, helpless, as panic coursed through her. Dear God, this was it. The blade came toward her and she closed her eyes awaiting its piercing blow, but instead of stabbing her, he cut the duck-tape around her wrists and ankles. The pain in her injured left arm intensified as the blood slowly returned to it. She held it against her chest and bit back the whimper that threatened to escape as she pushed herself with her legs along the top of the bed, putting as much space between her and the man as she could. He opened a drawer on the nightstand and removed a pair of handcuffs, attaching one end to the headboard. A small voice inside her told her to fight or at least die trying. This might be her only chance. As he reached toward her, she struck out at him with her foot, landing a side kick squarely to his chest.

Unfazed by the blow, he grabbed her leg in one of his large hands. His fingers dug into her muscle. “Don’t try that again,” he said, his voice low and menacing, as his eyes continued to pierce hers. He clicked the other end of the cuffs around her right wrist and ripped the tape from her mouth as he pressed his finger to her lips, arching a brow. “Don’t scream,” he warned, shaking his head to emphasize the seriousness of the situation.

Unable to hold his gaze, she looked down. “Don’t kill me,” she pleaded. Her voice, cracked from disuse, sounded hoarse and chaffed. She wasn’t sure why she bothered saying it, only she was desperate.

He continued to study her, not answering. She looked around the room trying to take in all the details in case she had a chance to escape. He hadn’t killed her yet and her only goal was to survive. The room was dark, its only window covered in a thick black drape. Besides the large bed and chair, there was a dresser and an antique wardrobe. Her eyes kept coming back to her abductor. His looks were disconcerting. She placed him in his mid-thirties. The man had a handsome face comprised of a sharp straight nose, high cheek bones and a strong jaw. He was tall and muscular, his shoulders broad and waist narrow. His dark brown hair was neatly styled and the suit he wore expensive. He didn’t fit her image of a murderer and it was hard to imagine the soul of a killer lived just beneath the skin of someone so beautifully made.

“I-I promise I won’t say anything about what I saw. If you let me go, I promise I won’t say anything.” She was rambling; shock and fear were setting in. He would kill her, she had no doubt. She was a witness.

“Wheesht. Hold your tongue.” He reached out and grabbed her chin, tilting her head to the side as he slowly ran the knife down the length of her neck.

Hot tears mixed with the mucus running from her nose. The tip of his blade, cold and sharp, silenced her instantly.

“Good girl,” he said, slipping the knife back in its holster. He walked over to where his jacket lay and pulled a starched white handkerchief from the front pocket. Then, ever so gently, he began to clean her face as one would a small child. “What’s your name?” he asked. His deep voice cut through the darkness of the room.

“Ch-Charlie,” she stuttered.

“Is that short for something.”

“Charlotte.”

“Last name?”

Lie. If he knew her name, he could find her family and harm them. “Adams.” It was her ex-fiancé’s name. The first one, besides her own, that she could think of on the spot.

“Charlotte Adams.” He pronounced her name Charlak. “Where are you from, lass?”

“America.” There was no use lying, he would know by her accent. He gave her a long, hard look, then shook his head and left, locking the bedroom door behind himself. She listened as another door slammed and the engine of a car started up. Her tears came in sobs as she curled into herself. She tried not to let her mind drift to Michael. This was her punishment for leaving him at the altar. She would never see him or her family again. The darkness was close, calling her name, she would find refuge there. Slowly, she let herself submit to it, drifting into a restless sleep.

* * *

Sinclair Stuart pulled his black BMW M8 coupe into the empty car lot in Wick and parked. Dawn was just breaking on the horizon and he had yet to sleep. Last night had been a fucking disaster. What was supposed to be a well-planned out hit had turned into a nightmare in the blink of an eye. The girl came out of nowhere. Mistake number one—if his partner had swept the building like he should have, he wouldn’t be in this position. Phin messed up. He hated mistakes and he hated cleaning up someone else’s mess. Mistake number two and possibly more serious—Viktor Sokolov had been tipped off.

He should be in his bed right now having drowned out the experience with an expensive bottle of whiskey and a good pump with Maurna. Instead, he’d driven all night and was in the northeast of Scotland with a girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sokolov would be searching for them both. The girl was a problem. He never should have looked into her violet eyes. They reminded him of a piece of artwork, arousing powerful emotions from his past. His hand twitched in response, closing around a makeshift, outlawed pencil. He made a fist, pushing his past and anger down. Damn Alex McKay and his ultimatum.

His mind wandered back to the girl. She had strength, he would give her that. Even with her dark eye makeup halfway down her face and those dammed haunted eyes filled with panic and tears, he could glimpse her resolve. And although she was terrified, and she should be, she would fight him. If he was going to keep her alive, he needed her to fear him.

He opened the car door and got out. A gust of cold wind whipped through the gray morning sky. It would be raining soon. The smell of salt and fish sat heavy in the damp air. He made his way to Bridge Street where the shops were located and entered the local market, picking up food for the next few days. They would have to hide out until he was sure Sokolov’s men hadn’t followed them. Then he would have to figure out what to do with the girl, before heading to the Tower. He shouldn’t have run after her and he definitely shouldn’t have taken her. Instead, he should have left her to fend for herself. Why the hell did he bring her up here? It was those eyes; he’d only seen eyes that color once before, pale lavender, and a window to her fucking soul. The Watch would be unhappy. Shite, Alex would be furious. He cast a quick glance around to make sure he wasn’t being tailed, before he went into a small shop. A perky blonde girl looked up from behind the counter. “Hi, hun. You’re out early for your messages. We’ve only just opened. I haven’t even had a coffee yet.”

“I won’t be long, I just need to pick up a few things for my partner. Her luggage was lost at the airport.”

“Och, poor thing. She’ll be needing everything then.”

“Just enough for a few days. Nothing fancy, just warm.” He didn’t care what she wore except she had wet herself and her dress was ruined and until he decided what he was going to do with her, she needed clothes.

“There’s a storm coming, ye ken,” she warned, scooping a spoonful of instant coffee into a mug and adding hot water from an electric kettle. “It will be blowing something fierce by tonight.”

“Aye.” He wasn’t here for small talk. He just needed the damn clothes.

She smiled and set her mug down. Opening the top button of her blouse, she let her fingers linger on her ample chest. “What size is she?”

Sin hesitated. The girl was flirting with him. Great. He was hoping to get in and out unnoticed, in case Sokolov’s men had followed them and started asking around. “She’s thin, maybe seven and a half stones. About this tall,” he said, holding his hand up below his chin.

The blonde helped pick out a pair of jeans and a jumper. “She’ll need bras and panties and a parka,” she said with a smile, winking as she added some lacy bits to the pile along with a black down jacket.

“Add a pair of Wellies and that should do.” He pulled his wallet out, paying in cash.

“She’s a lucky girl to have such a caring boyfriend. You must love her very much.”

“You have no idea.”

Finished, he headed back to his cottage by the sea, turning down the single lane dirt road that took him to the small stone house. Girnigoe Cottage, named after the famous castle, sat isolated on the cliffs off the North Sea. He bought it years ago out of some sentiment from his childhood. His mother used to bring him here every year to spend their summers. He planned to use it one day for his retirement. That was before The Watch. There would be no retirement for him now and the place held only false and deceitful memories. This was his first time back in over six years. It had sat empty and the renovations he started back when he purchased it had been put on hold. He only came now because he could think of no other place to go. He looked around the stark grounds, breathtaking in the sheer harshness of the scenery. Ten-meter cliffs formed a small cove which led down to the churning sea. During low tide, a small beach appeared, offering the opportunity for walking or picnics, or at one time sketching. To hell with that now. The area around the house was barren, the elements too rough for most plant life except the beach grass which blanketed the ground. In his mind it was stunning and better yet, private. He only hoped it would keep them safe for a while until he decided what to do with Charlotte.

He opened the bedroom door, checking on her. She was asleep. He needed to clean her up and examine her wrist, but it could wait until he slept. First things first, he needed to set up the security cameras and he could use that whiskey.

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The Thrill of Seduction

She cut a solitary figure and stood tall and proud, perfectly groomed in the middle of the grand reception of Sir Clive Tebbit’s home in Oxford.

Belinda Waltham had a drink in her hand. A classic wide bowl, long stem glass containing her third potent martini cocktail. She twirled it around in her palms with a weary expression.

The old man was a family friend. The Foreign Office had appointed Sir Clive as the new British Ambassador to Italy. That night, they were celebrating his nomination and impending departure. He was to take office in Rome the following week.

The problem was Belinda was fresh out of a three-month stint in prison, swiftly followed by a compulsory six-month stay at Dr. Stewart’s clinic, to learn to moderate her explosive temper. The temperamental disposition that had so often landed her in trouble with the law. For this reason, she had been out of her circuit of friends for a year, but it didn’t stop their tongues from wagging on her well-known shenanigans. Friends and acquaintances looked upon her as notorious, the outrageous member of her family.

The younger sister of Fergus Waltham, the Earl of Buckley, Belinda was of note for her antics in their social circle. Some would say shameful for it.

Upon her discharge from the clinic, Belinda had taken a three-month “refuge” as she called it, in the Scottish highlands. She stayed at one of Fergus’ estates. She’d longed to forget the vibes of the clinic and to eradicate the prison from her mind. The peaceful spot went a long way to urge her to consider what she aspired to do next in her life.

She became uncomfortable at the party, jaded. She’d been away from home and Oxford for too long. Belinda felt like a fish out of water.

On her release from the clinic, she had helped manage two orphanages. She dealt with the financial aspects of them. She was talented at obtaining hefty contributions for them, handling tradespeople to get the best for the children at the cheapest price. She made their budgets stretch. These were the children’s homes her father, the old earl, God rest his soul, had refurbished at a high cost to pull her out of prison, the reason the judge had commuted her jail sentence at Dr. Stewart’s clinic instead.

She felt empathy for the children, with their cause. Despite her wealth, she too had grown up without a mother and had a solitary childhood. She became the patron of the orphanages. She was skilful at making money for them out of donations from her wealthy family friends.

Perhaps I could dedicate myself to it fully. She had managed their finances for the last three months from the Highlands. She had spent a lot of time at the orphanages since she was back in Oxford, continuing her work. The children worshipped her. They were fun and she liked them all. Her mind drifted in and out of these matters as she sipped her drink, bored with the party, engrossed with herself.

Oxford had always given her a buzz, but she was not enjoying it anymore. It brought her to a recurrent drilling question instead. And now what? She had to change. She couldn’t behave wildly anymore; she didn’t want to. This question twirled in her mind the moment she left Dr. Stewart’s clinic. Three months in the depths of the Scottish Highlands hadn’t given her a full answer yet.

Fergus had asked her to work for him. She had agreed. Though, lately, she only felt happy when doing things for the orphanages, so maybe that was her answer. She didn’t know. She sighed. She had too many matters to sort out.

She glanced at two of her brothers, both at the party. The oldest, Fergus, was talking to an acquaintance. The other, Sebastian, was deep in conversation with the ambassador. He was joining Sir Clive in Rome next week. Sebastian was used to the eternal city, where he’d lived for the past two years as attaché under the previous diplomat, now returning to his work with the new ambassador.

She looked around the room.

Belinda had taken her sister-in-law’s place for this party, Fergus’ wife. She had agreed to Marguerite’s request as a favour and attended the party on her behalf. Her brothers, too wary of her erratic behaviour, had kept a close eye upon her.

I’m almost twenty-two, for God’s sake. Still… they have a point!

The girl talked to her godmother for a while, Trini, Sir Clive’s wife. Then she mingled but to no satisfaction. Belinda strolled the length of the reception room, weary and absorbed with herself, with another martini in her hand.

***

A man regarded her with interest from the other end of the room. She didn’t notice him, but he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. People staring at her was not a special occurrence. Belinda was used to the spotlight. When she entered a room, she was invariably at the centre of attention. Men and women found her attractive, irresistible. She was a stunning young woman, beautiful, like a goddess. No surprise, this fellow thought her gorgeous most of all.

She was a tall strawberry blonde. A real looker, with the family trait of pale blue eyes. In the past, every time those blue moons landed on him, they did something to his cock.

She was statuesque, but delicate. The face of an angel with a curvaceous body. He found her delightful, bewitching. Like admiring a fine painting, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

He struggled to imagine the things she did that had first brought her to his attention as a police officer. Her awful temper had landed her into trouble more than once. Oh boy, the curses that came out of that lovely mouth. Reconciling her character and personality with her looks was difficult. She was a handful, a little devil in an angel’s body. Sometimes, he hadn’t known how to deal with her. In his opinion, nothing a good spanking couldn’t have cured, but that was not his place.

On the other hand if she were mine… Well, good for her, she isn’t. Or she would have learned the hard way!

In his view, as beautiful as she was, when her temper flared, she was an ill-mannered, insolent, loutish girl, an immature young woman. She brought him to the edge once or twice, and if it wasn’t for his self-restraint, she would have known how much she had displeased him.

Chief Inspector Wendell studied her. He had not seen her for about six months. She looked divine that night, in a figure-hugging, mermaid, red lace dress.

He observed how the frock smoothed over the round curves of her hips enticingly. It ended with an elegant, small sweep train at the rear. The sleeveless, tight bodice with a deep V-neck at the front made her plump breasts stand out. He was sure, if a fellow stood close enough to her, he would count this a lucky night, thanks to her vertiginous décolletage. He scoffed. Wendell couldn’t deny the thought of another man looking at her bosom annoyed him.

When she turned, her almost backless dress gave him an astonishing ample view of her creamy shoulders and back, down to just above her lavish, pert bottom. God, I’d do anything to put my hands on that butt.

He had a glimpse of her stylish stilettos, in the same colour and material as her frock, with glittering rhinestones.

Belinda sashayed back and forth in the room aimlessly, as if she was gliding on a catwalk. Echoing the seductive look, he was sure, she was trying to convey. As if to say to men, ‘Fuck you, look at me, but you can’t have me!’ She was succeeding, too, if he had to judge by the expression on the faces of most men in the place. He muttered a curse under his breath.

He found high heel stilettos sexy. He had seen Belinda wear a few pairs over time since he arrested her almost two years ago. Wendell considered lace most attractive, and he loved a woman in it, and tonight she was wearing both.

It made her look dreamy, gorgeous, feminine, and so foxy. An enchantress! A sorceress enticing men to their own destruction! Dangerous, especially to him.

Another glimpse of her red stilettos and he calculated they must be at least four inches high. He was curious as to how she could walk on them with such grace. Jesus, she is tall! Almost as tall as him, but not quite; he was still a few inches taller, stilettos and all.

For heavens’ sake, stop staring at her, you fool. Damn, those brothers of hers are too indulgent with the chit. Who would allow her to wear a dress like that! They have mollycoddled her. God Almighty!

No wonder the trouble she got up to. If she was his girl… She would learn how to behave by hook or by crook!

Annoyed with himself for speculating about Belinda more than he should have, he spotted Delia, an acquaintance of his. The brunette had given him a certain sexy vibe all night.

Chief Inspector Wendell was a bachelor, a desirable hunk. A great catch, girls would say. A tall man, with a manly handsome face and a muscular, athletic body to whom most women would bat their eyelids to. A striking presence at thirty-four, he commanded more than his fair share of women, and he loved them all.

But Belinda, well, she was something else.

Better to stay away from her, he cautioned himself. So, he turned on his heels and moved towards Delia, to talk to her instead.

As the evening wore off, when she disappeared briefly on him, he could not resist and sauntered towards the Waltham girl.

***

Sweet Jesus! Not that damned police officer! At Sir Clive’s party? What the devil is he doing here? He is a dish, though. The black tuxedo fits him like a glove! Lord, when did he turn so handsome? Oh my, my… Huh? Um… this sexy? How did I miss his good looks?

She hadn’t… she would have known the man, gorgeous as he was, anywhere, if truth be told. Her pulse rising, she was suddenly hot. Her weariness vanished as if by magic.

But he infuriated her. That man had a talent for making her feel small and silly, an idiot. Nothing he said, oh, no! It was the way he looked at her, as if chastising her all the time. She would like to kick his ass. That’s what!

Her friend, Erin, was right. He looks like a model rather than a police officer, in that tux, without doubt!

But he had the knack of making her cross, and her temper rose in a jiffy when he was around. He annoyed her. She wished to punch his smug, handsome face. She always reacted to him that way. She didn’t even know why. So she kept looking straight ahead. Everywhere but at him. When men were concerned, it was an art for Belinda to look nonchalant and disinterested.

Dear God, he is coming my way! What the blast does he want?

“Good evening, Lady Waltham. Nice to see you. You look dazzling.” He inspected her for a second and beamed. His large hazel eyes lit up.

Blast, such an attractive grin… Why am I confused? What’s there to grin at when you arrest a person? No! She had never seen the damn man smile before, she was sure of it. Boy! When he smiles, his eyes twinkle. He was tempting. The broody bastard!

Those eyes flickered like stars. Her skin prickled.

Sweet Jesus! He has that commanding attitude… She loved he could be commanding without making an effort, with just a look, without a word. A natural confidence that demands attention. Bloody hell… so handsome, the arrogant beast!

She exhaled, rather annoyed at herself for having those lascivious thoughts about him. Belinda tried to dismiss him. She reckoned she felt this way because she’d not had a boyfriend for almost two years. So, she was easily susceptible to a masculine charm. That was all.

She glanced imperiously about her, like she hadn’t recognised him or heard him, to lift the edge off her unwanted thoughts about him.

He took her behaviour in the wrong way instead, as if she was huffing at him.

When she kept staring ahead without acknowledging him or deigning to respond to him, he felt he should add something. “Lady Waltham, it has been some time, six months, I believe. You may recall, I am—” he said, still smiling, trying to clarify who he was in case she had forgotten him. He was not some man trying to hit on her.

She knew, sometimes, she had that effect on him.

Belinda 1 – Wendell 0! She smirked to herself! Still, it didn’t stop her from getting cross with him.

“I know who you are, inspector,” she blurted out, irritated, tough, interrupting him, “And God knows, it has not been long enough since I last saw you.” Not what she wished to say, but she couldn’t restrain herself. Oh, me and my big mouth, she stressed. Fergus is right when he says I should count to ten before I speak.

“Lady Waltham—-”

“I got rid of the ‘lady’ bit when you sent me to prison, inspector, remember? No one calls me ‘Lady Waltham’ anymore. ‘Miss’ thank you! Why do you think I’ve been standing alone for most of the evening? Ha? Because my friends don’t wish to associate with a person who spent three months in prison. Or with one who spent six months in a clinic learning behavioural attitude, specifically mine. An idiotic discipline if you ask me, anyway.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All thanks to you, Inspector…” Why had she said that? It wasn’t fair! She should stop talking. Belinda, stop, she told herself.

“It’s Chief Inspector to you.” He was calm, his tone even and clear, although he wasn’t enjoying her arrogant temper tantrum and her voice was going up a notch with every word. He had to master his self-control to sound like this, but his eyebrows crunched and he stopped smiling.

“Chief?” For a moment, he annoyed her even more, and she forgot her best intentions to stop talking.

“Yes, Chief!”

“And what do I care? No! If you ask me, no matter how long it is since I last saw you… it’s not long enough, I guarantee you. You robbed me of my freedom and my friends,” she spat, and her beautiful mouth assumed a thin line. Her blue moons darted a dark scowl at him, as if he were her worst enemy.

He studied her for a moment. His face was serious and a glint in his eyes flashed at her. And there it was again. That look! Chastising her. As if to say, ‘You silly girl! Brat!’

Then he came close to her, way too close, invading her personal space. She could sniff his scent, a manly, invigorating whiff, so fresh and exciting. He smelt divine.

Wendell leaned over to her. She gasped. His lips touched the curve of her ear.

“You did that all by yourself, sweetheart. You were the one who battered your ex-boyfriend’s expensive Ferrari, not me. The criminal damage was all your doing. The judge had no choice. He had warned you, and he sent you to prison. Grow up, girl, and own up!”

“Fuck you! You are a bully and a beast,” she cursed. She made to move away from him, but he grasped her arm, restraining her movement and jerking her back to him.

“At least you are aware now of who your real friends are. I don’t know what sort of company you keep, Miss Waltham, but trust me, a genuine friend does not abandon one in need. If you ask me, you lost nothing. They were not your buddies to begin with.”

“Get off me.” She launched a fiery scowl at him, struggling to free herself.

People were starting to stare at them, and she could see Fergus’ eyebrows knitting at her. The man will get me in trouble!

A curse as black as the night tumbled out of her mouth directed at him with all her vitriolic resentment, knowing full well he was right.

His grip on her got harder and tighter. He stood straight as a pillar, towering over her in his full height. She could feel the pressure of his palm on her arm.

“You are lucky we are at a party, Miss Waltham. I was just saying a friendly hello to you, that’s all. If you swear at me again… see this?” He paused for effect, raised his large hand an inch in front of her nose while she jerked her head back.

“Pfft!”

Leaning over, his lips brushed her cheek, then veered to her ear. “My firm hand will land on that pampered, beautiful ass of yours, I promise you. Am I clear?” he continued, undeterred, in an ambrosial tone, the one he used for women in his bed.

“Go away! You frigging idiot!”

“I’m warning you. I’ll bet no man has spanked you before. Um? Am I right, Miss Waltham?”

Her head snapped up to him. Her breath hitched. Their eyes locked. He astonished her. He held her stare with an amused smile. She gulped, flushed, and lowered her eyes. “Leave me alone.” She moved her arm, trying to get away, but he kept a strong grip on her.

“Have they, Belinda?” he purred. The sound of his voice was pure smoothness with her name on it, raising her temperature. His tone took a mellifluous, silvery murmur. She’d not heard him this way before. It was tantalising, alluring. It drew her to him, like a moth to a bright flame, chiding and teasing her. Her nipples got hard and pert in an instant. In that dress and that material, with her plunging neckline, he couldn’t fail to notice.

His grin broadened. “Answer me, have they?” he insisted, nonchalant, steadying his grip on her arm. She was sure he was marking her with his tight hold, and somehow, it pleased her.

Her stomach did a somersault as his hazel eyes roamed over her body, up and down. His silky, warm baritone and the talk of a firm, large hand on her backside made her pussy clench. It did some warm-up exercises, and her sweet centre drenched in no time.

She gulped, and her skin prickled. “No,” she whispered, to her own surprise. Somehow he’d forced out of her an answer to his question that she had no intention to reply to. It amazed her she had. She turned scarlet.

“I tell you, if those boyfriends of yours spanked you instead of indulging you when you were naughty, we wouldn’t be here. You think about that. You take care, Miss Waltham,” he said as his lips brushed the curve of her ear, over-pronouncing the word ‘miss.’

He let go of her arm and turned to go. He halted after two steps and did a U-turn back to her. “And you are right! With that mouth on you, as beautiful as it is, we cannot call you a lady. I agree.” He turned and walked away from her.

Her jaw dropped. What the fuck! She stood there, barely breathing, still as a statue, as if a cyclone had just hit her. She released the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding.

What the hell is that supposed to mean! Does he mean… or… uh, what the fuck!

What had just happened! She was damp down below and humiliated. Her insides clenched, her nipples were pert, and she had goosebumps. How had this man aroused her with a few words… that included “ass” and “hand” while treating her like a damn fool.

The worst part was she would literally roll over for him and lie with her legs open in a blink of an eye if he asked her. Would I? No, that’s wrong! Lord, what a shambles! Give me strength. I’m an idiot! Perhaps she deserved his chastisement. To offend the fellow like this. Cursing at him. Blast! What possessed her to behave so insolently? All he wished to say was hello. She felt ashamed of herself and she was soaked, her skin tingling.

And when did he become a Chief Inspector?

Belinda sighed and told herself she would never grow up. He was right about her so-called friends, too. She knew that better than anyone. Those daddy and mommy’s boys and girls were too afraid to consort with the scandalous Waltham girl.

Sweet Jesus! He was right on so many levels that she wished to burst into tears. Her lips trembled, but she would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She couldn’t forget the silky voice that raised her temperature, though. He had never used that tone with her before. He had always been professional. The vivid image he planted in her mind, that of his hand on her backside, spanking her, made her hot and giddy. Her heart beat violently against her ribcage. Well… the vision sent her pussy into overdrive.

Bloody hell! Suddenly, she felt so ashamed of her behaviour towards him, she wished to say ‘sorry’ to him, she resolved. Belinda had been an outspoken brat with the man. Her brothers were accurate. She should count to ten before speaking.

She would plead insanity and apologise to Wendell. Chief Inspector, no less. How old is the fellow?

She didn’t wish him to go with the idea she was an idiot. Belinda was certain he deemed her a stupid girl, anyway, for the things she had done in the past. Now, she had confirmed his belief. She longed to be a different woman, a mature person, to put her silly behaviours behind her and turn a new leaf. She had promised her dad on his deathbed, God bless his soul.

Her father even extracted a promise from her to marry a good man. Great job, there weren’t any! Besides, she wasn’t the marrying kind. No, no! No husband will lord over me, thank you! But she needed to act grown up. It was about time she did. The police officer was correct on that point, too.

Something about Wendell turned her on, aroused her. She could still feel her damp pussy. She hadn’t had that tingle for ages. So, she marched towards him with a strong desire to apologise to him and to be forgiven. The moment he glanced at her, he went the other way to talk to someone. Is he trying to avoid me?

She tried again a little later, but the same thing happened. Yes. He wouldn’t speak to her! And she couldn’t blame him, either. He wasn’t happy with her. Why would he be? After the horrible things she said to him, she would run in the opposite direction, too, if she were him. She was a resolute girl, and so, she resolved to apologise to him by hook or by crook, to show him she wasn’t the jerk or the brat he assumed she was.

The same thing occurred a third time, and as he dodged her again, she realised it. He would not talk to her anymore, ever.

She hated the idea of him leaving the party like this, thinking she was a silly girl. He didn’t deserve her bitter remarks; he was doing his job when he arrested her. She had caused all of her problems herself; he was correct about that, too. She needed to speak to him, say ‘sorry’ to him.

Her friend Erin, at the clinic, teased her, telling her the inspector had the hots for her. Erin was mistaken. It didn’t look that way. The man despised her now. He had no intention to talk to her. Besides, the brunette he was speaking to was all over him. He seemed to enjoy the woman’s attention.

No doubt after the horrible scene with me, he is revelling in the advances of a rational, beautiful girl. Not a fool like me! Should I forget about this? Ignore him? Get on with the party? She chewed her lower lip, struggling to decide what she should do.

Forget about Wendell, Belinda, if you know what’s good for you. Her inner voice told her… Oh, bother! When on earth had she ever listened to her inner side? Never! She was a creature of impulse!

***

Oh, hell! she thought now. Oh, why! Why had she listened to her sister-in-law.

“Oh, please say yes!” Marguerite had pleaded earlier on in the evening, Belinda recalled. The thought flashed through her mind as she stood there like a statue after the debacle with Wendell.

“I’ve hardly slept for the last three days. The baby kept me up for half of the night,” her sister-in-law went on and slumped in an armchair in the blue room. She was exhausted and closed her eyes for a moment.

Belinda’s expression softened, her face lit up at Marguerite, and she smiled. “Why can’t Fergus help you with sweet Gus? Don’t pamper my brother too much.”

“He does! He had the baby the other half of the night,” Marguerite said and chuckled. “I’m exhausting my husband, and not in the way I would like to. Gus is teething… I know Olivia is happy to help at any time, but I cannot run her ragged. Fergus doesn’t mind having Gus to let me sleep. He is such a good father. Tonight, I’ve given him the night off for the party. Please, say yes, Belinda, you’ll go for me? Trini would love to see you.”

“I have nothing to wear!” she argued, lifting her brows, not fancying going to it.

“Bella, you own a wardrobe that is the envy of half the fashion houses in Europe. Get dressed in something lovely and sexy. Who knows, you may find yourself a new boyfriend. While I’ll relish an early night. I’ll tell your brothers you’ll go for me. Besides, it is nice for you to go out with them. You’ll enjoy it.”

“Only because I love you, Marguerite. I don’t fancy going to those celebrations anymore, and you know it. Besides, I can have the baby any time you want, I told you.”

“Thank you, darling. I may take you up on it. So it’s a ‘yes’ then?”

“You do realise, since I’ve been back from the Highlands, people have shunned me. At the last two parties, hardly anyone talked to me. It was as if I was an infectious leper. They don’t wish to mix with a woman who’s been to prison.”

“Oh, don’t worry about them, Bella. You are a lovely girl. It’s their loss! You know men. Well, they don’t like to have their cars battered,” Marguerite teased her. She was referring to Belinda destroying her last boyfriend’s car to smithereens with a baseball bat. The fellow had cheated on her. So, his car had been unrecognisable as a Ferrari when Belinda had finished with it, hence the criminal charges that sent her down to prison.

“You laugh all you want! But I tell you, it’s true, they are avoiding me. You know they call me the ‘scandalous Waltham girl!’ Some of them are afraid to be seen with me.”

“Oh, ignore them, Bella. They are silly people. They’ll soon get over it. You’ll see.”

“Who’s silly?” Fergus asked, darting his eyes from his sister to his wife as he entered the room.

“Oh, darling, Bella will go with you and Sebastian to the party. Olivia has Gus for the night, and I’m off to bed.”

“Is Lucy with her, too?”

Fergus also had a daughter, Lucy, from a previous relationship. Olivia was the children’s nanny, she would look after them that night.

Belinda adored her brother’s children. She was so close to Lucy, and now baby Gus enthralled her.

“Yes, she has both of them, the sweet girl. So, tonight, nothing will separate me from my sleep. I have a date with my bed,” Marguerite stated with a satisfied smile on her face.

“Not even I?” Fergus brushed his wife’s lips with his, then thought better of it and gave her a full on, delicious kiss.

She put her arms around his collar, and he murmured an endearment in her ear.

“Not even you, darling!” Marguerite said, caressing his cheek.

“Sir Clive won’t need both of us. Trini will be happy to see her. As long as Sebastian and Bella attend, I could stay and we—”

“Oh, gross! Get a room!” Belinda rolled her eyes at her brother.

They laughed.

“You must go to the party, handsome, you know that. But I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Marguerite winked with a mischievous smile at her husband.

She wasn’t a party animal. So she was glad she had dropped out of the festivities and asked her sister-in-law to attend the celebrations instead.

Belinda was at the party as a favour for her with all her good intentions. Instead, the evening was turning out to be trouble now!

Fuck, fuck, fuck… She wasn’t sure who she was silently swearing at, herself or the damn police officer!

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What’s Good for the Cowboy

Wyatt Geyser couldn’t shake the concern in the back of his mind. It had been there all day, ever since his boss, Cord Anderson, told him at breakfast that he wanted to have a serious conversation at supper this evening. Cord was a good rancher, but the Shimmering Elms was similar to many ranches in Oklahoma right now; it was draining money. Cord insisted he had an idea that would bring the ranch back into the black. Wyatt hoped that was true, but he’d seen many large, well established ranches go broke and end up as housing communities in the last few years. He hated to even think of that happening to the Shimmering Elms, and not just because it would mean he, as the ranch foreman, would be out a job.

Not only were other ranches failing, but Cord hadn’t been in the best of health lately. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew something wasn’t right with his boss. Cord insisted it was nothing, other than his body letting him know he wasn’t a young man anymore, but Wyatt wasn’t so sure. It was true Cord was no longer a young man, but he wasn’t that old, either. Ranchers were hard workers, and that kept them in shape. Early to mid–sixties wasn’t old for a lifelong rancher.

He entered the ranch house, eager to hear Cord’s idea, but when he headed toward the washroom off the kitchen to wash his hands before the meal, he paused when he saw the young man talking with Cord. “Ty?” Wyatt asked.

The young man turned toward Wyatt, a big smile on his face, and his arm extended. “Wyatt, it’s sure good to see you again. How have you been?”

Wyatt reached out to shake his hand heartily. “I’ve been good. How about you? I heard you graduated a few weeks ago. Are you here for another summer with us, or just here for a visit before you start a fancy new job?”

Cord stepped forward and draped his arm around the young man’s shoulders. “Wyatt, my grandson, Ty, not only graduated, but he finished at the top of his class. He earned himself a degree in animal husbandry, as well as business. What do you think of that?”

“Very impressive. Congratulations, Ty,” he said as he pulled the younger man and friend in for a bro hug. “I knew you’d do well. I didn’t know you were going for a double major or that you would finish at the top, though. Good for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Go ahead and get washed up, Wyatt, so we can eat,” Cord said. “Ty here is part of my new plan, and I’m anxious to tell you about it. I want your honest opinion. If you like the idea, too, we’ve got some important planning to do.”

Wyatt nodded and went to wash up before supper. His mind wandered back to the first time he’d met Ty. Wyatt had worked for Cord ever since he graduated from high school, and had just been promoted to foreman when Cord’s grandson, Ty, who was then twelve, came to spend the summer with his grandpa. He wanted to work on the ranch, and was like a sponge, determined to learn everything there was to learn about ranching.

Wyatt had been skeptical that first summer. He was afraid he was going to end up babysitting a twelve–year–old all summer while trying to prove to Cord he was up to the challenge of being foreman, even though he was young himself, at only twenty–six. As it turned out, Ty was a quick learner, a good worker, and didn’t expect any favors as the owner’s grandson. He didn’t even complain when they asked him to muck out horse stalls.

Over the years Ty had spent every summer since then with his grandfather at Shimmering Elms. Wyatt had literally watched Ty grow up and learn ranching, from the bottom up. His love for ranching was evident. When he’d graduated from high school he wanted to work full–time at the ranch, but his parents and Cord said no. They all encouraged him to go to college. Cord told him once he had his degree, if he still wanted to work at the ranch, they would talk again.

It was clearly obvious Cord was proud of his grandson, and with good reason. He truly had learned ranching by doing it all, the good and the bad, and now had a college degree no less. He had to wonder, did Cord feel Ty would be a more effective foreman and could put the ranch back in the black? As he dried his hands he knew he was about to find out.

When he went into the dining room Cord and Ty were already seated. He sat down as Maria, Cord’s cook and housekeeper, brought a bowl of mashed potatoes and a gravy boat in from the kitchen. A big plate of steaks sat in front of Cord, and a bowl of glazed carrots was in front of Ty, along with a fresh salad with what looked like Maria’s homemade poppy seed dressing in a little pitcher beside it. There was a plate of homemade biscuits and some raspberry jam beside them. This was Cord’s favorite meal, so he obviously considered today important.

Once they had their plates full and had started eating, Cord got down to business. “Wyatt, as I’m sure you remember, I’ve been saying ranching is changing, and if we don’t change with it we’ll get left behind. As you also probably remember, I used to raise horses and cattle. The price of beef went high and like many other ranchers around, I thinned out the horses and concentrated on cattle. We only keep enough horses now for our use.”

“Are you thinking we need to get back into horses?” Wyatt asked.

“We talked about it a couple of years ago, and then ironically, Ty asked me a couple of weeks after we talked about it if I’d considered it. I sure wish I would have done it then, like he suggested. I didn’t want to borrow the money I would have needed to get back into it, but I obviously should have.”

After another bite of steak he continued. “Like I said, Ty has his degree in animal husbandry and business. We’ve talked about this, and I think we agree on a plan, but I’d value your opinion, as well.”

Wyatt was a little surprised, but appreciated the confidence and respect Cord was showing him. “Okay.”

“I think we need to get back into horses, but not just any horses. Ty thinks we need to concentrate on a breeding program that will produce top notch horses that will fetch a top notch price. He says we need to do the same with our cattle, too, though. With better breeding we can establish this ranch as a top producer of quality cattle. I knew a top quality bull was worth his weight in gold, but I was shocked when Ty told me how much a ranch can make renting a good bull out or selling his semen.”

Ty mentioned a couple of figures and Wyatt turned toward him with wide eyes. “Is that right?”

“It takes several years of good breeding to get a bull worth that kind of money,” Ty said, “and you have to have his offspring on site for ranchers to see. But if you get to that point where you have one outstanding bull, yes, I’ve seen one bull bring in enough money to run a ranch for a year. Any money you bring in from the cattle or horses then is profit.”

“That sounds like exactly what we need,” Cord said.

“That does sound nice,” Wyatt agreed, “but you said it takes a few years of expert breeding to get to that point?”

“It does,” Ty admitted, “but with good breeding, each year the cattle are a little better, and worth a little more. Buyers pay attention to up–and–coming ranches.”

“So let’s get down to business,” Cord said. “I’d like to get back into raising and breeding horses, and also get a better breeding program going for our cattle. I want you two to work together to do that. Ty’s got the training to handle the breeding part of it, and as the foreman, I need you to see that the work gets done. It will all need to be done right and in a timely manner. That’s why I need you two to work together.”

“I think it sounds exciting. I’m anxious to get these new programs going, and Ty, it’ll be good working together. You’ve earned my respect over the last eleven or twelve years working here in the summer, so I’m looking forward to us working together on this.”

“I told Grandpa pretty much the same thing,” Ty said with a little smile. “You’ve earned my respect while I’ve been working with you, and you’ve taught me so much. I’m eager, too, to get started on this.”

“It’s good hearing you two talking like this,” Cord said. “On top of you fellows starting those programs up, Ty also has the business background now to help me manage the ranch. There are a few places he’s pointed out that we can save a little money. That will be important as we start putting money into the ranch and these two new programs.”

Cord never believed in borrowing money for the ranch, but after talking to Ty, and watching ranches all across the area fold, he knew this was a different time, and if he didn’t do something different the Shimmering Elms would be one of the next ranches to fall. He was proud of his ranch and didn’t want to witness its demise. He’d bought it when he was in his thirties after he’d inherited a tidy sum of money from his grandfather. He’d added to it when neighboring land came on the market, and now had one of the larger spreads around.

More important to him than size, though, was the name and reputation he’d built for the ranch. The Shimmering Elms was known as being a good place to work, and for having good solid livestock. After talking to Ty, he was determined to see that it became known not just for having solid livestock, but top of the line livestock.

The same with horses. They had always been Cord’s first love, and what he focused on initially. Back then there had been a bit of a shortage of good horses, and he bred them and was known to have good horses for ranch hands working the area ranches. Now with Ty’s help, he hoped to get a good breeding program going and again be known for having good work horses for the ranches in the area, but now Ty also felt they could have some top of the line show and racehorses, as well.

Breeding good horses to work on a ranch Cord knew about, or did years ago. He didn’t have the knowledge to add good race and show horses to his line of work horses, but Ty did, and Cord had confidence in his grandson. Wyatt was the best foreman around, which would also be vital if this plan was going to work. Knowing the two men had worked together before and had mutual respect for each other, if they both felt good about this plan, he felt confident they could make it. He hoped so. Once he borrowed enough money to put this new plan into action, the future of Shimmering Elms would depend on it working.

The three men spent the rest of their meal talking about their new plan, working and talking through some of the decisions that would have to be made. By the end of the meal they had agreed on how they would get started, and what barns and pastures would be used for which animals.

They also agreed that at first all the men would work with both the cattle and horses, but as Wyatt saw men with natural ability or love of horses, he would have them working more with them, as horses would require more hands on, taming and breaking the horses, versus the cattle. The rest of the men would continue to work with the cattle.

They would more than likely count on all of them when it came to the big operations, like branding time or market time. They also on a regular basis ran the cattle through a chute to check each one for any signs of injury or illness. If something in a pasture was injuring their cattle or making them sick, they wanted to take care of it. All men would be needed for that operation.

After they finished supper and discussions, Wyatt went to the foreman’s cabin. He would fill the men in on their new future goal the next morning before he gave them their assignments for the day. He, Ty and Cord all felt it was important for the men to know about the changes that would be coming in the near future.

Cord and Ty retired to Cord’s office, where they had a lot yet they had to discuss and decisions to make. Ty wasn’t real sure he felt comfortable seeing Cord’s books, but Cord insisted. He wanted Ty’s help running the ranch through this major change, and for him to be able to advise him, Cord knew he needed to know exactly what the ranch had. They went over his books so Ty was familiar with the amount of money the ranch had on hand, and how much it normally brought in versus what it cost to run it smoothly.

They talked about how much of an investment would be needed to get into horses, and how much it would take to improve the breeding of the cattle. It was a rather large amount, but Cord felt he could borrow that much, and planned to go to the bank the next day.

“Grandpa, banking has changed over the years. I think most banks would be willing to give you a loan for that amount, especially the bank you’ve been doing business with for years. Not only is there no mortgage on the ranch, but it has a good name, which is important to bankers. I think we need to talk to them, though, and tell them what kind of loan we want, how we want it structured. That will make it easier for us to repay it in a timely fashion.”

Cord’s look of confusion changed over to a smile. “See, that’s why I wanted you involved in this from a management position. In my mind if you need to borrow money you go to the bank, ask for the amount you need, and if they approve your loan they give it to you. Apparently you’re saying there’s more to it than that these days?”

“Yes, there is, Grandpa. We won’t spend the money all at once, so we don’t want to get it all at once. We’ll see if we can get it set up like a construction loan, where you take the money out as you need it, as we find the quality animals we want to buy. That way we won’t start paying interest on the money until we actually spend it.”

“That sounds good, but I don’t want to move slow on this, and add things over several years. I think we need to make a move right away.”

“I agree, and we’ll start buying horses right away. It shouldn’t be too hard to get started on raising horses for riding and that ranchers will want for their hands to ride. We want to find good stock, from several bloodlines so we can start breeding and get good animals from the start. It’ll take several months to find the right horses from different places, and even longer to find the cattle we’ll want to introduce into our herd. The hardest part will be to find a good bull. That could take some time, and there’s no use to start paying interest until we actually spend the money. Even if it’s only a few months before we spend the money on a good bull, that’s a few months of interest I’d rather not pay.”

“That makes sense. I didn’t know you could get loans set up that way.”

“Most banks will do it, but you may have to ask for it. As long as you’ve used this same bank, I would think they would want to keep your banking business and be willing to accommodate you.”

“See, you’ve saved me money already, and we haven’t even gotten started.”

Ty laughed, but turned serious again. “I hope I can save us more money, because the amount we’re projecting we’ll need is a big chunk of money. It’ll be hard to make those payments for the first few years, but I’m hoping we can get creative along the way, at least for the first three or four years. Things will definitely be tight while we’re building our equine livestock.”

“Yes, they will, but I think it will pay off in the long run,” Cord said.

“So do I,” Ty agreed. “Once we get the numbers up enough that we can start selling horses, that will help a great deal. The show and racing stock will take longer to develop, though. Once we get a good program going they should pay out well, but they take longer to get to that point. That means we’re going to have to depend on the cattle and other horses to bring in enough to cover the ranch for several years.”

“Do you have any ideas, any ways we may be able to cut costs a little, or save a little here or there? Do you think we may have to let a couple of hands go?”

“No, not unless you have a couple of that aren’t pulling their weight. If anything, we’re going to be busier while we switch over, and as you know, the horses will take more time. I’m going to go over the books in more detail, if that’s okay with you, and check some prices on a couple of things. There were a couple of line items that looked a little high, but I’m not familiar with prices in this area. I’ll check and see if we can get a better price on a few things. Any savings we can come up with will be helpful once we have to start paying money back.”

Cord winced a little. “I’ve been dealing with most of my suppliers a long time and they give me good service. I’d hate to take my business elsewhere, but we may have to do it.”

“I’d hate to switch, too, if you’re getting good service from them. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a little negotiating with them, though. If we find someone that can provide something at a good savings, we can go to your current supplier and talk to them. If we tell them we’re making some changes, which will make money tight for a while, and ask if they can do anything about the prices they’re charging, they may be able to work with us. It’s worth asking, at least.”

“Yes, it certainly would be. Do they have leeway on their prices?”

“Most of them do, at least a little bit, especially if you’re buying a large quantity. If they don’t, they’ll tell us. If they know you’re looking elsewhere and why, most of them will do what they can to keep your business. If they have supplies we don’t use now, but will need as we grow, like quality feed for horses, that will help. They may be willing to go lower on what we use now so they can sell us other items in the future.”

“Okay, good to know. You look at the books all you want. I want you to take the lead when we go to the bank to talk to them about the loan. You know way more about it than I do, so you lead the discussion. Will you be ready to go tomorrow?”

“Give me a day or two to get more familiar with the books. They’ll more than likely have a bunch of questions, and I’d like to be familiar enough with the operation to answer them off the top of my head, then follow it up with records to show them.”

“Like I said, it’s good to have you on board, Ty. You take as much time as you need. Let me know when you’re ready and we’ll go talk to the bank. I’m excited about my ranch again for the first time in several years, and I’m eager to get started. Right now, though, this old man is tired. You stay up as long as you want, but I’m going to bed.”

“Good–night, Grandpa.”

“Good–night, Ty. It sure is nice having you back here again.” He left, and Ty spent a few minutes thinking about what his grandfather had said. It was nice to be back at the ranch again, but he couldn’t deny it was a bit of a surprise. The last couple of months had been a bit of a whirlwind. Although Ty had absolutely loved the time he’d spent on his grandfather’s ranch, and his interest all through college had been breeding animals to get the best offspring possible, this is not where he planned on being right now.

While he was in college he excelled in both his majors, graduating at the top of his class in both, although he’d only been interested in business as it related to ranching. His real love was in the animals and breeding. He’d been offered a job at a research and development center that concentrated on animal husbandry, where he would be one of three men leading the breeding program. It paid well, had good benefits, and he would be doing exactly what he’d dreamed of doing after college. The hours were good, which was the one drawback to a ranch, which had long hours, working until the job was done.

However, his parents, Tom and Helen Anderson, had been worried about Cord. Wyatt had called Ty’s parents when he became concerned. He said Cord had been staying in the house a few days here and there, not going out to work the ranch, which was very unusual for him. He said he’d been slowing down, and some days just didn’t seem like himself. Cord insisted he was fine, just getting older and slowing down. He insisted after running the ranch that long, he deserved a day now and then to himself.

Ty’s parents went to Oklahoma to visit Cord because of Wyatt’s concern, and they agreed with him. He did seem to have less energy. Talking to Cord proved very frustrating, however. He was too stubborn to go to a doctor, insisting you go there if something’s wrong. Getting old didn’t classify as something wrong, so he had no reason to go.

Cord made the trip to Texas to watch his grandson graduate, and spent a week visiting with the family. During that visit Cord and Ty spent a lot of time talking. Ty loved his grandfather. By the second or third day of his visit, however, Ty was beginning to see the same things his parents and Wyatt were seeing. Cord didn’t seem to have the same energy level, but what bothered Ty even more was that after a few days Ty could tell he didn’t have the enthusiasm for the ranch he’d always had.

Eventually Cord asked if they could have a serious talk, and said he hoped Ty might have a few suggestions for the ranch. He admitted the ranch had been losing money the last several years. Ty was shocked. His grandfather was a good rancher, and to hear he’d been steadily losing money was not only heartbreaking, but it told Ty something wasn’t right. The man he’d seen all those summers he’d stayed there would have done something, made some changes somewhere if he lost money one year. The fact that it had been ongoing for several years now told Ty his grandfather needed help.

Moving back to the ranch and helping to get it running in the black again was not a hard decision for Ty. His grandfather was much more important to him than the job he had planned on taking. Besides that, he loved ranching and he loved Shimmering Elms. What worried him was that his grandfather needed help with more than just running the ranch. When he’d made the suggestion for the changes, Cord was very interested, but said he didn’t think he had it in him to oversee a change that big, and he definitely didn’t have the knowledge for the breeding program. When Ty immediately offered to move to the ranch and help, Cord seemed not only ecstatic, but relieved.

Now that he was back at the ranch and Wyatt was on board, he had to see what he could do to make sure his grand plan for the future worked. He planned to keep a close eye on Cord at the same time, and see if he could figure out what was going on there. He was certainly concerned about his health, as were his parents and Wyatt.

Knowing he had a lot on his plate, Ty forced himself to concentrate on the books. First things first; he had to get the ranch back on its feet. Watching his grandfather would be an ongoing thing. Right now, though, he had to prepare to go with Cord and talk to the bank. Without a substantial loan his plan, no matter how good it looked on paper, would remain just a plan.

He stayed up until one o’clock studying the records before calling it a night. He had made several notes, some things he wanted to ask his grandfather, and a few things he wanted to talk to Wyatt about the next day. He also had a list of expenses that seemed a bit high, and planned to do some checking of local prices over the next few days.

***

He talked with Cord and Wyatt the next morning over breakfast. It had always been Cord’s practice for his foreman to eat meals with him at the main house so they could discuss ranch business. Ty was glad that was the practice. It would make sure they were all three on the same page as they went forward with these changes.

For now, he checked his notes and asked the questions he’d had from the evening before. He was happy to see Wyatt was able to answer all his questions easily. He was a little concerned when it became apparent to him that although Wyatt was quickly able to answer his questions, Cord often wasn’t. He often deferred to Wyatt, saying he’d let him explain it, but by watching Cord, Ty could tell Cord was struggling with the answers.

After breakfast Ty went out to get reacquainted with the hands he’d met working there during the past decade of summers, and meet the new guys. Cord stayed inside, saying he was going to be working in his office. Ty wasn’t sure he believed that, but he simply nodded. It gave him a chance to talk to Wyatt a few minutes about his concerns.

They talked as they headed to the barn. Ty asked if he’d noticed Cord forgetting things, and when Wyatt sighed, Ty had his answer. “It seems it takes him a little longer to answer questions,” Ty said, “and I’m afraid it’s because his recall isn’t what it used to be. Am I wrong about that?”

“Ty, I really wish I could tell you that’s not the case, but that’s the conclusion I’ve reached, as well. My problem is I don’t know what that means or what to do about it.”

“I don’t, either, but I think I’ll talk to Dad about it. Cord’s his dad, and I think he has a right to know. I’ll see how he wants us to handle it. Maybe Dad will get involved, which would be easier for me. I don’t want to be the one to approach him, but I think someone needs to talk to him again and try to get him to go see a doctor.”

“Good luck,” Wyatt said sincerely. “I hate seeing him slip like this, and I hope someone can do something to help him. I know it puts you in a difficult spot, though. He thinks the world of you and is proud as can be that you graduated from college, and with honors. He’s been talking about you coming back here once you finished school, but as the time got closer, I think he was afraid you wouldn’t. He knew he didn’t have a lot to offer since the ranch hasn’t been doing well. I think as much as he wanted you to come back, he was afraid to hope.”

“I had no idea he’d been having problems with the ranch. I hope I can help.”

“I think you simply being here is going to be good for him. It was good seeing him so excited last night as we talked about his plan for the ranch. I haven’t seen him look so alive in a couple of years.”

“If we get this loan there’ll be some big changes around here. I hope if I can help him enough to take some of the stress off of him he’ll be able to watch the changes take place and enjoy it. Maybe we can get his enthusiasm back.”

They reached the barn and their conversation ended, as old friends recognized Ty and came out to welcome him back. He stayed around for the explanation Wyatt was about to give as to changes that would be taking place. He looked around and could easily see all the hands were on board and smiling about what they would be undertaking, even as they realized it would more than likely mean extra work. He was glad to see that, since he knew this whole process would be much easier if the men were all in.

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