Read After Tex Online

Authors: Sherryl Woods

After Tex (2 page)

That Megan had succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and his was still baffling to him. Not a conversation passed without him asking when she was going to “give up that damn fool nonsense” and come back where she belonged. She'd put off another visit for just that reason, because the pressure to come
home—both overt and subtle—would be relentless. Seeing the hurt and disappointment in his eyes when she refused took some of the joy out of her accomplishments. Better, she'd concluded, to stay away.

Tex thought she should be satisfied that she'd proved what she could do in a competitive world. He simply couldn't understand that every single TV show, every single issue of the magazine was a new and exciting challenge. His attitude was proof that his early support had been an indulgence, not a genuine exhibition of faith in her abilities. He still dreamed of turning her into a rancher.

That lack of understanding and his refusal to set foot in New York grated on her and made every conversation with her grandfather a minefield. Their last one had ended with an explosion that had shaken her. She'd been avoiding his calls for the past week, letting Todd and her answering machine deal with Tex because she simply couldn't, not without adding to the mountain of guilt already weighing her down.

She was tapping her pencil against her desk, still lost in thought, when Christie Gates burst into her office carrying an
I Love Lucy
lunchbox and a
Howdy Doody
puppet. Christie was Todd's assistant and an aspiring writer who spent every lunch hour searching for some story angle she could sell to Megan. Most of the ideas had been outlandish and way off the mark, but this one had potential. Megan could feel it.

“Are these not the greatest?” Christie said enthusiastically, setting the two pieces of memorabilia on Megan's desk with surprising reverence for someone who hadn't even been born when either classic show was originally on the air.

Megan examined them closely. “Definitely originals,” she concluded.

“Would I bring back anything else?” Christie demanded indignantly. “I know a reproduction when I see one.”

“What do you propose we do with them?”

“I was thinking of a feature on using decorative accents like this to rediscover the child within. Talk about a whimsical touch. I mean, how could you not smile every time you walk into a room with Howdy Doody or Lucy staring you in the face? I've even heard that people are collecting those really old sand pails to remind them of when they were kids at the beach.”

She paused and watched Megan closely. “So, what do you think?” she finally prodded.

Megan considered the idea thoughtfully, deliberately taking her time, then grinned at Christie's bouncing impatience. “I think it's terrific. Congratulations! You have your first story assignment.”

“Oh, wow! You mean it?”

“I mean it. At a fee above and beyond your salary, of course. Have Todd draw up the contract and make sure accounting reimburses you for whatever you have to buy for the photo shoot.”

“Like a real freelance deal?” Christie asked.

“Yes, ma'am.”

Christie rushed around the desk, embraced her, then backed away self-consciously. “Sorry, Miss O'Rourke.”

Megan grinned. “No apology necessary. And I think from now on you should call me Megan.”

The girl's eyes brightened. “Really? Oh, wow.”

Megan might have been amused by the unabashed excitement if it weren't for the fact that not very long ago she had reacted in exactly the same way to every triumph—minor and major. Still did, if the truth be known, but she tried to confine it to the privacy of her office.

“One last thing,” Megan added, “you might ask around, see if any decorators know of a home doing anything like this. Todd can give you a list of people to call.”

Christie bounded toward the door to share her news, but Megan stopped her. “Hey, Christie, when the story's done and all the photos have been shot, I'd like you to bring Howdy Doody back to me, okay?”

“You want the puppet?”

“Sure. I need to remember being a kid, the same as everybody else,” she said. The pitiful truth was, though, she couldn't really remember ever being a kid at all.

Slowly the outer offices fell silent. Megan worked on her column for the next issue of the magazine, not coming up for air until darkness had fallen outside and the sky was lit with the twinkling lights of endless rows of skyscrapers. It was her favorite time of day in New York, when the streets were emptying of traffic, the impatient blare of horns was dying and the view from her office turned into a picture postcard. Daytime might offer a glimpse of Central Park in all its orange-and-red autumnal glory, but this was the view that had been on the one postcard she'd ever gotten after her mother abandoned her.

Some days Megan wondered if New York's pull
had been professional or personal. Had she subconsciously come here hoping to spot Sarah O'Rourke on a street corner? It was a question she rarely asked herself and had never adequately answered, just as she never examined too closely how a woman whose own background was so dysfunctional was qualified to promote life-style choices for others.

To her surprise, given the hour, one of the phone lines lit up and she heard Todd answering. She was even more surprised when he stepped through the door rather than buzzing her. The sympathetic expression on his face set her pulse to pounding.

“What is it?”

“It's Mrs. Gomez.”

No doubt the housekeeper had been persuaded to play intermediary for her grandfather. “I can't talk to Tex tonight. Please just tell her that for me.”

Todd stayed right where he was. “You need to take the call, Megan.”

If she hadn't already had this gut-deep feeling of dread building inside, his somber tone would have set it off. With reluctance, she reached for the phone.

“Mrs. Gomez,” she said.

“Ah,
niña,
” the woman murmured, her voice suspiciously scratchy, as if she'd recently been crying. “I am so sorry to be calling like this. It is your grandfather.”

The pounding pulse slowed to a dull thud. “Is Tex okay? Has something happened to him?”

“There is no easy way to say this. He is gone,
niña.
Your grandfather passed away a few moments ago.”

The words echoed, nonsensical, impossible.

“No,” Megan protested in a whisper.

“I am so sorry,
niña.

“No,” Megan said again as tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks. “Not Tex.” He was big and blustery and strong. Indomitable. Immortal.

“I am so very sorry,” Mrs. Gomez repeated. “It was very fast. There was no time to call you. His heart, the doctor said. There had been signs, but your grandfather ignored them. Like always, he thought he knew best.”

“I'll be there on the first flight,” Megan told her, dimly aware that another phone line had lit up, indicating that the ever-efficient Todd was already making the arrangements. He would clear her schedule, see that things ran smoothly in her absence. More than ever, she thought what a godsend he was.

“I'll let you know when I'll arrive,” she promised. “And I'll arrange for a rental car.”

“No need to do that. There are cars here you can use. I will tell Señor Jake. He will pick you up.”

Megan was not so distraught that the name of a man she'd thought long gone from Whispering Wind, Wyoming, slipped past her. “Jake?”


Sí
. Señor Landers. You remember.”

Oh, yes, she remembered. All too well. Sexy. Arrogant. Big-time trouble. Also a man her grandfather had once despised. Tex had worked very hard to see that Jake was out of both their lives.

“Why is Jake Landers there?”

“I am sure he will explain it all to you.”

“You tell me,” Megan insisted.

“I do not know your grandfather's business,” Mrs. Gomez said. “Just hurry home,
niña.

It was too late to worry about hurrying, Megan
thought bleakly. It was too late for so many things she had vowed to do to let her grandfather know that she loved him, that she would be forever grateful for all he had done for her.

“I'm coming home, Tex,” she murmured.

But, of course, it was too late for that to matter, too.

2

“I
s she coming?” Jake asked Tex O'Rourke's housekeeper after she had talked to Megan.

“Well, of course she is,” Mrs. Gomez replied with a touch of indignation. “Did you think she would stay away at a time like this?”

The truth was Jake didn't know what to think about Meggie after all these years. Once he'd had a world-class crush on her, but she'd been as out of reach to him then as if they'd lived on different planets. In a very real sense, they might as well have.

As Tex O'Rourke's granddaughter, Megan had been part of Whispering Wind's elite social circle, such as it was. Jake had been the son of the town whore and a troublemaker in his own right. No one was more stunned than Jake himself that he had wound up a lawyer. Then again, few people knew both sides of the law as well as he did.

Jake still wasn't entirely certain what perversity had drawn him back to Whispering Wind a few months ago. Some would say he was returning to the scene of his crimes. Others would probably assess his motives even less charitably. The bottom line, though, was that he was back, and predictably enough, the whole town was still talking about it.

Ironically, Tex O'Rourke had been one of the few who hadn't cast judgment, but then the old man knew better than most that not all of the tales about Jake's misdeeds had been accurate. When Tex had turned up in Jake's office late one afternoon asking for legal help, Jake wasn't sure which of them had been the most uncomfortable.

The last time they'd met, Jake had been charged with trying to rustle cattle from Tex's ranch. Even though he'd eventually been cleared of the charges, it had left a bitter taste in his mouth. As for Tex, he'd bought his way out of that misjudgment by sending Jake off to college, then funding his way through law school.

When his mother died before his graduation, Jake had had every intention of never setting foot in Whispering Wind again. He'd joined a prestigious law firm in Chicago, married and settled down, chasing after money the way he'd once chased after stray cattle.

Then he'd discovered his wife in bed with one of his law partners who was on an even faster track. In the midst of their very messy divorce, he'd won an acquittal for a guy who was a perpetual loser, only to discover the kid was guilty as sin. It hadn't taken all that much encouragement from his stuffy, uptight, publicity-shy partners to get him to quit. Jake had taken his considerable savings and investments, his bruised and battered ego, and retreated to Whispering Wind. Maybe, he reasoned, if he finally dealt with his past, he'd be able to figure out his future.

Opening a law practice here had been a halfhearted gesture, a way to keep his old neighbors from referring to him as that lazy, no-account Landers boy once
again. He'd figured not a soul in town would turn to him for legal advice, but he had enough money tucked away and enough income-producing investments not to care. In fact, whole days often passed before he stopped by to check his answering machine for messages from potential clients. He should have known the most powerful man in town—his reluctant benefactor—would be the first to show up and actually catch him sitting behind his desk.

“Surprised to see you back here,” Tex had said, sinking heavily into a chair opposite Jake.

“Displeased, too, I'll bet.”

“No, the truth is, I'm glad for the chance to make it up to you for what happened back then. You'd done some foolish things. It was easy enough to believe you'd taken the cattle. I latched on to the notion when I shouldn't have.”

It was more of an apology than Jake had expected. He shrugged, as if it made no difference at this late date. “You paid my way through school, old man. We're even.”

“Not just yet,” Tex insisted. “I want to hire you. That'll bring the rest of the folks in town flocking to you.”

Jake had shuddered at the prospect. He hadn't actually wanted to be successful all over again. It certainly hadn't suited him well the last time. “Thanks all the same, but I came home to take it slow and easy. I don't need you building up business for me.”

“Yeah, I heard about that kid. Must have shaken you pretty bad.” Tex had regarded him knowingly. “Almost as bad as finding out your wife was cheating on you with a man you'd thought of as a friend.”

“I see you've kept up,” Jake said dryly, not the least bit surprised at the old man's ability to ferret out secrets. Tex had always known what Jake and Megan were up to, that was for sure, and he'd done his best to see that things between them never went too far.

“You cost me enough,” Tex said, explaining away his interest. “I figured it was my duty to see how my investment was paying off.”

Anger, long denied, surfaced. “No, what cost you was misjudging me. I was never a thief, old man, and you should have known it. I respected you, looked up to you like a father. I gave you an honest day's work for every penny you ever paid me, and then some.”

Tex nodded in agreement. “True enough. And that's exactly what I expect of you now.”

“What kind of legal work do you want me to do?” Jake asked reluctantly.

“I want you to write up my will, make it airtight, so no legal shark can pull it apart after I'm gone.”

Jake studied him and noticed something he should have spotted earlier. Tex O'Rourke's color was bad, his complexion ashen. His words came with a hitch in his breath. For a man not yet seventy, a man who'd always been in robust health, the changes were dramatic.

Jake was surprisingly shaken by the thought of his old nemesis dying. He'd realized in that instant that, even after all this time, he wanted to prove himself to this cantankerous old man. Until the day Tex had charged him with cattle rustling, he'd been the closest thing to a father figure Jake had ever known. The realization that there might not be much time left shook him.

“Is it your heart?” he asked, trying not to let his dismay show. Tex would hate pity more than most men, hate it coming from him even more.

“So the doc says. It's my opinion I'm too contrary to die, but you never know where God stands on something like that, so I'm not taking any chances.” He leveled a look straight into Jake's eyes. “Will you do it?”

Filled with reluctance, Jake reached for a yellow legal pad and a pen. “Tell me what you have in mind.”

An hour later he was reeling. “Megan's going to be fit to be tied,” he said.

Tex shrugged. “She'll adapt. It won't be the first time life's tossed her a curve.”

“Being dumped on your doorstep as a kid was one thing. She had no choice. Now she does. She has a successful career in New York. Why should she come back here?”

Tex slammed his fist on the desk, proving he still had power enough to make his point. “Because, by God, she's my flesh and blood. She'll do what's right, because that's the way I raised her.”

“She doesn't know anything at all about this?” Jake asked. “You've told her nothing?”

“Not a word. She hasn't been home in months now and this isn't something I wanted to get into on the phone. If the doc's right, she'll find out soon enough.”

“And I'm the one who gets to break the news.”

Tex grinned at Jake's discomfort. “You'll enjoy it, son. Don't even try to deny it. You've been itching for a way to get under Meggie's skin since the first
time you laid eyes on her. Now's your chance to do it. Better yet, you'll have my blessing. That ought to satisfy you.”

It was evident that afternoon that the old coot had thoroughly enjoyed the bombshell he'd dropped and the fix he was putting Jake in. Now it was time for Jake to follow through.

But how the devil was he supposed to tell Meggie that her beloved grandfather had had a short-lived liaison with what could only be described as an unsuitable woman? Moreover, Jake was expected to explain that Tex had fathered a child who was now eight years old and had only recently come to live with him, abandoned on his doorstep just as carelessly and indifferently as Megan had once been.

Even worse than all that, though, he was going to have to break the news that Megan O'Rourke—hot-shot media executive—was now this child's legal guardian and that she was expected to raise the girl on the very ranch she had fled a decade earlier, or she would lose her inheritance.

Even in death, Tex O'Rourke was destined to turn several lives upside down—Jake's among them. Tex was probably laughing all the way to hell.

 

Megan had done everything but beg. Nothing she'd said, though, had dissuaded Mrs. Gomez from sending Jake Landers to pick her up at the airport.

“He will be there,
niña.
Look for him. You will recognize him,
Sí?

Recognize Jake? Oh, yes. She would be able to pick that low-down, conniving son of a gun out of a crowd of thousands. Her personal radar had been at
tuned to him practically from the second she'd hit puberty. It had taken several long and painful years for her to discover that her radar was not capable of exercising good judgment. When he'd stolen Tex's cattle, she'd finally realized her mistake. Jake had been securely locked behind bars when she'd left for college. His name had never once been mentioned in all the years since.

So what on earth was he doing at the ranch now? she wondered. And why was he running errands for Mrs. Gomez? Had her grandfather hired him once he'd been released on parole, maybe given him an undeserved second chance? Tex wasn't sentimental, so she doubted it. Jake had probably pulled some scam to get back in her grandfather's good graces.

When the plane landed in Laramie, Megan was the first one off. It didn't take more than a quick glance around the waiting area to spot Jake. He was propped against a railing, dressed in black from head to toe, the stereotypical western bad guy from his Stetson to his boots. Even his reflective sunglasses spelled trouble. At least they prevented her from getting a good look at his eyes. He'd always been able to make her weak kneed with a glance from those piercing blue eyes.

“I'm glad to see you're on time,” Megan said briskly, handing him her baggage claim slips. “Four bags, all matching, Gucci.”

He grinned. “Of course, they would be.”

His amused tone, the wash of his deep baritone, raised goose bumps. The sarcasm irritated. “What is that supposed to mean?” she snapped, already break
ing her vow to remain cool and impersonal for however long she had to put up with his company.

“Just an observation, Meggie. Don't get your drawers in a knot.”

“My drawers are none of your concern.”

He waved the luggage claim slips under her nose.

“Apparently they are, unless you're wearing the only ones you brought.” He tilted his head consideringly. “Or don't you bother with them these days?”

“Your mind's in the gutter as always, I see,” she said, casting an imperious look his way and sweeping past him. She all but raced for the baggage claim area. Ten seconds, maybe less—that was how long it had taken the man to not only rile her, but remind her that she'd once wanted him with a passion so powerful it had threatened to wreck her life.

There had been a time when she would have chosen Jake Landers over anything. She would have ditched her dreams, settled for an uncertain future, if only this man were a part of it. Nothing anyone said could persuade her that Jake was all wrong for her. Then the cattle had gone missing, Jake had gone to jail and, brokenhearted and disillusioned, Megan had left Wyoming.

There hadn't been a single day since that she had looked back with regret. He'd betrayed her as well as her grandfather. It was something she wasn't likely to forgive or forget.

She supposed a case could be made that she owed him. His crime had revealed her first significant error in judgment, forced her to reevaluate her priorities. She now had the career she'd been destined for, thanks to Jake's betrayal. She socialized with men
who were rich and powerful and, most important, honest. Thanks to lessons learned, she was slow and cautious before trusting anyone. People took advantage of her at their own peril, because she had a reputation for being ruthless with those who tried.

Megan stood by while Jake gathered her luggage, then followed him to the parking lot. Though it was only mid-October, the air had the sharp bite of winter in it. She shivered as it cut through her lightweight wool jacket.

“I hope you brought something heavier than that to wear,” Jake said, opening the door for her. “They're predicting snow for later tonight or tomorrow.”

“Don't worry about it. I'll be fine. I've been dressing myself for years now.”

“When was the last time you were in Wyoming when cold weather hit?”

“Not that long ago,” she responded evasively, aware that there was a guilty flush in her cheeks.

“Does Christmas four years ago ring any bells?”

The accuracy rankled. “What have you been doing, grilling Mrs. Gomez?”

“Didn't have to. She likes to talk,” he said as he started the engine. He glanced her way. “You're one of her favorite subjects.”

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