Read After Tex Online

Authors: Sherryl Woods

After Tex (3 page)

“I'll have to speak to her about that. I'm not sure I like being a topic of discussion for her and one of the hands.”

Jake's posture behind the wheel of the fancy sports utility vehicle had been surprisingly relaxed, but his shoulders tensed at her remark. He turned toward her
and, for the first time, removed the glasses and seared her with eyes that sparked blue fire.

“Maybe we should get something straight right now, Meggie. I'm here as a favor to Mrs. Gomez and, in a way, to your grandfather. I don't work at your grandfather's ranch. In fact, if things turn out the way I hope they will, before too much longer I'll own it.”

If he'd roped her and dragged her feetfirst through the mud, she wouldn't have been any more stunned. “Never,” she said fiercely. The idea of turning the ranch over to a man who'd stolen from her grandfather was thoroughly repugnant.

Her vehement response, however, only seemed to amuse him. “You planning on sticking around to run it?”

The question threw her. She actually hadn't considered what was to become of the ranch. From the moment she'd heard about Tex's death, all she'd thought about was the huge, gaping hole in her life. Even at a distance, Tex O'Rourke had been very much with her. Never again would she hear the gruffly spoken, “I love you, girl,” with which he'd ended every conversation, no matter how contentious. The hated ranch hadn't once entered her mind.

Of course, it would be hers now. She was Tex's only living relative, unless Sarah were around somewhere. He would expect Megan to run his cattle empire, no doubt about it. It wouldn't matter to him that she knew precious little about ranching, that she hated it or that her life was exactly the way she wanted it—in New York.
Duty,
a word that had been bandied about enough over the years, was what mattered to Tex.

Megan's grief gave way to despair. She couldn't do it. She could not stay here, and that was that. She didn't have to think about it, didn't need to examine the moral dilemma she faced from every angle. She would stay in Whispering Wind long enough to take care of Tex's affairs and then she would go back to New York.

“Well, Meggie, what is it? You going to stay or go?”

“I'll be going,” she said at once. “But it'll be a cold day in hell before I sell the ranch to you. I'll let the place fall to ruin before I let you have it.”

She didn't even stop to consider his arrogance in assuming he could afford it. If the man had accumulated millions, it still wouldn't be enough to buy Tex's ranch, not with the price tag she would put on it to keep it out of his reach.

“We'll see,” Jake said. “There's time enough to decide.”

His quiet confidence that she would eventually change her mind rattled her. The old Jake would have raged at her insulting dismissal, forced her to dig in her heels. This Jake with his mild response was leaving her wiggling room, a way to extricate herself from a hasty decision without losing face. Why? she wondered. What was he up to now? Had her grandfather made an agreement with him that she knew nothing about?

She felt his gaze on her and forced herself to face him. “What?”

“I haven't said it before now, Meggie, but I am sorry about Tex. I know you loved him. More than
that, I know he loved you. You'll need to hang on to that in the days to come.”

There was genuine sympathy in his voice. That alone would have startled her, but she was pretty sure she heard something else, as well. A warning, perhaps, that there were shocks to come? Or was it no more than his awareness that making burial arrangements, the funeral itself, dealing with death's aftermath would be grueling? That had to be it, she assured herself. What else could he have meant?

Unwanted and unexpected tears stinging her eyes at Jake's sympathy, Megan turned away and stared out the window as he put the car into gear and headed for home. The drive took over an hour, with barely a word spoken. He seemed content enough to leave her to her thoughts. More than once she wished he'd say something,
anything,
just so she could pick a fight with him. Silence left her too much time to grieve, too much time to think about walking into the ranch house for the first time without Tex there to greet her.

By the time they turned into the ranch's long, winding drive, the sun had vanished behind a bank of heavy, gray clouds. Snow, thick and wet, splashed against the windshield. The air, when she finally stepped out of the car's warmth, was raw.

Leaving the luggage to Jake, she ran toward the front door, only to skid to a halt on the porch when the door was opened by a child of eight or nine, her eyes puffy and red from crying, her hair a tangle of thick auburn curls.

“Who're you?” she demanded, glaring up at Megan.

“I'm Megan O'Rourke,” Megan responded auto
matically, then realized that she was the one who ought to be asking questions. “Who are you?”

“I'm Tess. I live here,” she declared with a hint of defiance.

Megan stared at her, as shocked as if the girl had uttered an especially vile obscenity. “That can't be,” she murmured, just as Jake bounded onto the porch and tucked a supporting hand under her elbow to guide her inside.

The child regarded him with only slightly less hostility. “We're about to have dinner. You gonna stay again?”

Jake ignored the lack of warmth in the invitation and grinned. “Chicken and dumplings?”

She nodded. “Mrs. Gomez said they were her favorites,” she said, gesturing toward Megan. She gave Megan another defiant look. “I hate chicken and dumplings.”

That said, she stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. Megan watched her go, then sank down on the nearest chair. “Who is that child and what is she doing here?” she demanded, already dreading the answer. There wasn't a doubt in her mind that whatever his response was, she was going to hate it. That red hair all but shouted that the girl was an O'Rourke.

“Her name is Tess,” Jake began.

“She told me that much.”

“Tess O'Rourke.”

The confirmation sent a shudder washing over her. Her gaze shot to his. “Please, don't tell me…” She couldn't even say it.

“She's your grandfather's daughter,” he said. “Which technically makes her your aunt, but I think
you can be forgiven if you decide not to call her Auntie Tess.”

Megan had hoped for a distant cousin, maybe. Even a sister. But an
aunt?
It was ludicrous. “I don't believe this,” she murmured. “I don't believe it.”

“Believe it.”

“But how?”

“The usual way, I imagine. All I know for sure is that Tex just found out about her himself a few months back. She was abandoned on his doorstep. He didn't think he should mention it on the phone.”

“Yeah, I can see why he might not want to,” Megan said wryly.

Jake was studying her sympathetically. “You okay?”

“Just peachy.”

“Good, because it gets more interesting.”

Megan shook her head. “I don't think I can handle anything more interesting.”

“You'll adapt. Isn't that what you do best?”

He said it in a way that sounded more accusatory than complimentary. She didn't have time to analyze why before he continued.

“According to your grandfather's will, you are officially Tess's legal guardian.”

“No,” she whispered, stunned not only by the concept, but by the weight of the responsibility. She hadn't planned on having kids, at least not without going through the usual preparations—marriage, pregnancy, nine months to get used to the idea. She hadn't even had nine seconds.

She tried to imagine taking a kid back to New York with her, fitting her into a life already stretched to its
limits. Her imagination, always vivid, failed miserably.

“There has to be another way. Mrs. Gomez…”

“She'll help out, certainly,” Jake said. “She's told me she intends to stay on here as long as you need her.”

“Well, that's it, then,” Megan said gratefully, relieved to have the issue settled so expeditiously.

“Not quite,” Jake said. “You can't just dump Tess with Mrs. Gomez and take off.”

“Why the hell can't I?” she all but shouted as panic flooded through her.

“Because Tex has spelled everything out in his will. I'll give you a copy later.”

His intimate familiarity with the details of Tex's wishes stirred suspicion. “How do you know so much about Tex's will?” she asked, gaze narrowed.

“Because I'm the one who drew it up. Believe me, it's airtight.”

Megan wondered just how many more shocks her heart could take before she wound up in a grave right next to Tex. “You're a lawyer?”

“A damned good one, if I do say so myself. You renege on the terms Tex has spelled out and the ranch is up for grabs.” His expression turned triumphant. “In other words, it'll be all but mine, Meggie, and there won't be a damned thing you can do to stop it.”

3

J
ake wasn't sure what had gotten into him in the car. Why had he declared his intention to get his hands on Tex's ranch? He'd been toying with the idea in the back of his mind, but he hadn't decided on it. Far from it. He was still painting the inside of the modest little house he'd bought in town, discovering that he liked fixing leaky faucets and patching cracks in the walls. What did he need with a ranch?

Sure, owning such a spread would represent respectability. Even the doubters in Whispering Wind would have to take him seriously if he became the area's biggest rancher. Mrs. Perkins at the general store might stop trailing him around as if he were about to steal a loaf of bread. The explanation made sense, but he had a hunch his motives were a whole lot more complicated than that.

Like making Meggie crazy, for one thing. Maybe just to taunt her into sticking around for the sake of that little girl who was in desperate need of someone to love. Though Tess hadn't exactly warmed to him, he had to admit he had a soft spot for her.

The child had come from a background not all that different from his own. Whether she knew it yet or not, Tess had lucked out when her mother had
dumped her on Tex's doorstep. For all of his gruff demeanor, Tex was a man a person could count on. Losing him so unexpectedly and so soon had been a bad break. Getting Meggie for a mother, well, it remained to be seen how that would turn out.

While Megan went upstairs to clean up for dinner—and probably to gather her very rattled composure—Jake wandered into the kitchen, where he'd felt at home the very first time he'd walked through the door years and years ago. Mrs. Gomez had always fit his image of the perfect mother, such a far cry from his own that he thought she'd been conjured up straight out of a fairy tale. She was blustery and affectionate by turns, and she always had some treat in the oven.

“Sit, sit,” Mrs. Gomez encouraged now, waving him toward the table.

The aroma of sugar and chocolate competed with that of the chicken stewing on the stove. Unable to resist, Jake snatched a still-warm cookie from the baking sheet, then sat as she'd asked.

“How come he gets to have a cookie before supper and I don't?” Tess demanded.

“Because he's a grown-up and I can't boss him around,” the housekeeper said.

“You can't boss me around, either,” Tess said. “I'm not your kid.”

“No,
niña,
but you are my responsibility, and I will see that you do right, because that is what your father would have wanted.”

“Some father,” Tess muttered. “He didn't even know I existed till I showed up here. I guess he and my mom weren't real close.”

Jake caught Mrs. Gomez's helpless look and stepped in. “He was here for you when it counted, wasn't he? He took you in, made a home for you. The last few months haven't been so bad, have they?”

Her bright green eyes shimmered with tears, reminding him of another little girl, another time. Tess's lower lip trembled, but that O'Rourke chin jutted defiantly.

“Fat lot of good that does me now,” she declared. “He's dead and I ain't staying here with her.” She nodded toward the door to indicate the absent Megan, no doubt.

“I will be here, too,” Mrs. Gomez promised. “We will all get along just fine.”

“And I'll be around,” Jake added.

“Over my dead body,” Megan retorted, striding into the room and heading straight for Mrs. Gomez, who opened her arms wide to embrace her.

“Ah,
niña,
it is good to have you home, but not so good that it is under these circumstances,” the housekeeper said. She tucked a finger under Megan's chin and looked her in the eye. “You are holding up okay? Shall I fix you some tea? I have all of your favorites—raspberry, orange spice, whatever you like.”

Jake detected a hint of puffiness under Megan's eyes and guessed she'd indulged in a good cry upstairs, where it could be done without witnesses. That had always been her way, ingrained in her by Tex, no doubt. Tex had been critical of emotional displays. Jake had seen Meggie swallow back tears no matter how much pain she might have been in, physical or emotional.

“I'm fine,” Megan insisted. Like Jake, she reached for a cookie and bit into it, oblivious to Tess's expression of disgust.

“Geez-oh-flip, does everybody get to break rules around this place but me?” Tess demanded, scraping her chair away from the table. She shoved open the back door and disappeared into the gathering darkness.

“She does not have her coat,” Mrs. Gomez said worriedly, moving toward the hook by the door where the red, down-filled jacket hung. “It is too cold for her to be outside.”

“I'll go,” Jake said, his hand on her shoulder. “You stay here with Megan.”

Glad of an excuse to escape the restlessness that seeing Meggie stirred in him, he grabbed Tess's coat from the hook and flipped on an outdoor light as he went out. He spotted the child racing toward the barn, ducking into shadows. He suspected the new litter of kittens he'd heard about was at least part of the reason for her destination.

Sure enough, he found her kneeling beside a box that had been lined with an old flannel shirt, one of Tex's favorites, if Jake wasn't mistaken. He wondered if it had been confiscated for this particular duty before or after his death. Jake grinned at the sight of orange-and-white balls of fluff tumbling around inside the box, scrambling to get to their mama's milk.

“They're getting big,” he observed, hunkering down beside Tess. “Do you have a favorite?”

“Not really,” she said, but her gaze was fixed on the runt of the litter, who couldn't seem to squeeze in to feed.

Jake reached down, picked the littlest kitten up and made room for it. “Looks like this one needs some extra attention,” he said, thinking it was a lot like Tess herself. Megan, too, though she would have hated the comparison.

“I suppose.”

“Maybe you should consider adopting it and taking it inside. It's big enough now, especially if you bottle-fed it for a couple of weeks.”

“I can't,” she said, though her expression was wistful.

“How come?”

“Tex said.”

“Did he say why?”

“He said he wasn't having some damned cat bringing in fleas and tearing up the furniture.”

Jake held back a grin. He had a hunch she'd nailed the old man's exact words. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“That if Tex could see how lonely you've been feeling the last day or so, he'd change his mind.”

Her face brightened. “Do you think so?”

“I know so,” Jake insisted, because there wasn't a chance in hell the old man could contradict him. Tess needed something weaker and needier to tend to right now. He doubted Mrs. Gomez would have any objections. He knew for a fact there were cats crawling all over her own house. She took in every stray that ever came to the door, him included. On more than one occasion, she'd been the one he'd run to when he couldn't bear one more night in the same house with his mother and her “gentlemen callers.”

He glanced up from the kittens and caught Tess studying him intently.

“Can I ask you something?” she asked.

“Of course.”

“Is
she
going to keep me?”

“You mean Megan?”

Tess nodded, her expression bleak. “I don't think she likes me much.”

“You just took her by surprise, that's all. No one had told her about you.”

“Well, having her come busting in here like she owns the place ain't no picnic for me, either.”

“She does own the place,” Jake pointed out gently.

“Then how come she doesn't live here?”

“Because she's got a job in New York.”

“That TV show,” Tess said, feigning disinterest despite the spark of fascination that lit her eyes. “Tex used to watch it sometimes. He didn't think I knew that, but I did. Sometimes I'd hide out in his office behind that big old chair of his. Right after dinner, he'd come in there, put in the tape and watch, muttering to himself.”

“Ever hear what he said?”

“That it was damned fool nonsense,” she quoted, probably precisely. “You know what I think, though?”

“What?”

“That he was real proud of her. He never looked at me the way he looked at that show of hers.” Her lower lip trembled. “I don't think he gave a damn about me at all.”

Ignoring the substance of the remark for the moment, he chided, “You know, kiddo, you really do
need to clean up your language. Ladies don't swear half as much as you do.”

“Maybe I don't want to be no lady.”

Jake grinned at the defiance. “What do you want to be?”

Her expression brightened. “A rancher, just like Tex,” she said decisively. “Then I could boss people around and make lots of money and ride horses.” She met Jake's gaze. “He was teaching me to ride. Did you know that? That's when it happened. He fell right down on the ground. I screamed and screamed for somebody to come, but it took forever. I didn't know what to do. I've seen that CPR stuff on TV, but I didn't know how to do it. Not the right way, anyway. I tried and tried, but nothing helped.”

Sobs shook her shoulders. “I didn't mean for him to die,” she whispered brokenly, launching herself at Jake. Her skinny little arms wound so tightly around his neck that he could scarcely breathe. “Sometimes I said I hated him and sometimes I said I wished he were dead, but I never meant it. Never.”

“Oh, baby, I know that,” Jake soothed, feeling totally out of his depth. “Tex was sick. It wasn't your fault.”

“But if I hadn't come, maybe he wouldn't have gotten sick.”

“No. That's not the way it works. He'd been sick for a while. He told me that himself. His heart just gave up. It could have happened anytime. I promise you, you had nothing to do with it.”

Slowly Tess's sobs subsided. She sniffed, accepted Jake's handkerchief and blew her nose. She blinked
away the last of the tears and regarded him evenly. “I got an idea.”

“What's that?”

“I'm thinking I should come and live with you.”

Jake realized he had walked right smack into that one. He'd made it a point to spend time with Tess the past couple of weeks, anticipating what might happen, knowing the kid would need a friend until she adjusted to all the upheaval.

Not that seeing Tess had been any sacrifice. She was bright and funny, and she did have a mouth on her. She didn't like him, didn't trust him and had no qualms about telling him just that. Jake had overlooked it all and stayed the course. The fact that she was willing to turn to him now proved he'd done the right thing. With persistence, he'd slipped past her defenses. It was critical to tred carefully.

He took her hands in his and kept his gaze on her face. “Honey, you know that's not possible. I explained it to you before. Tex named Megan your legal guardian in case anything happened to him.”

“But she doesn't want me,” Tess said, wrenching herself free. Hands on hips, she faced him. “You know she doesn't. I'll mess up her life.”

“It's going to take a little time for her to get used to the idea, just the way it took time for you to get used to being here with Tex. Everybody's real upset about Tex right now. I told you before, I'll be around. You can come to me with any problem, but you can't live with me.”

“Then I'll go find my mom.”

Jake had anticipated that sooner or later that thought would occur to her. Rather than squashing the
notion outright, he asked quietly, “Any idea where she is?”

“No, but I can find her. I'll just ask a lot of questions till somebody tells me. She's probably back in Laramie. That's where we lived before she brought me here.”

Jake knew better. He'd searched Laramie for some trace of Tess's mother himself. “Honey, she's probably moved on.”

“I can find her. I know it.”

“Tell me something,” Jake said. “Do you study geography in school?”

“Sure.”

“Then you know it's a big country. Your mom could be anywhere.”

She stared at him, then. A look of utter defeat crossed her face. “It could take forever, then, couldn't it?”

“I'm afraid so.”

“It's not fair,” she whispered. “Nothing's fair.”

“No,” he said gently. “There's nothing fair about losing your dad almost before you really got a chance to know him. There's nothing fair about your mama running out on you. But it is going to work out, Tess. I swear to you. Megan's got a good heart. You'll get along well enough.”

“You can't make her care about me,” she said, with the weary resignation of someone who'd learned too early that love was never a guarantee, not even from a parent.

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