Read After Tex Online

Authors: Sherryl Woods

After Tex (6 page)

“So, what's it going to be, Meggie? Will you stay or go?”

“You'd just love it if I left, wouldn't you? You'd stay here, do the noble thing, be a hero.”

“I'm not sure I'd be declared a hero, but your leaving would ease the way toward me getting this ranch.” He shot her a lazy grin. “But I can wait. Having you around again might be even more fascinating.”

 

That night was the longest of Megan's life. She felt as alone and every bit as afraid as she had when her mother had abandoned her on Tex's doorstep years before. The only thing that kept her from sinking into despair was knowing that, as bad as she felt, Tess probably felt worse—more frightened and even more alone.

Not that the child would show it. Tess had avoided her for most of the evening, and when Megan had offered to go upstairs with her and tuck her in, the girl had jeered, “I ain't no baby,” and stalked off with shoulders squared proudly.

In the moments that followed, Megan had longed for someone she could confide in, but the only person who came to mind was Jake, and she refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her vulnerable and uncertain.

By the time it occurred to her that Peggy would
have listened and probably offered sensible, down-to-earth advice, it was too late to call.

“Get a grip,” Megan muttered to herself when the illuminated dial on her bedside clock ticked on toward four o'clock.

She reminded herself that she ran an entire media conglomerate, that she had all sorts of resources at her disposal, that she was known worldwide for her creative solutions to all sorts of social dilemmas. Surely she could come up with something that fit the fix she was in.

By five she was up, dressed and in the kitchen searching for the coffee grinder. When she found nothing but a store brand of already ground, ordinary Colombian beans, she sighed heavily, put them into the automatic coffeemaker and waited to see what sort of pitiful brew emerged. She grimaced at the taste, but it was hot and loaded with caffeine, so it would do.

At five-thirty she reached for the phone and called her office. Todd picked up on the first ring.

“How's it going back there?” she asked, suddenly unsure just how much she was ready to tell him about the upcoming upheaval in all their lives. No matter what her final decision, some things would inevitably change.

“We're managing,” he assured her. “What about you?”

“Same here.”

“When will you be back?”

“Well, that's the thing,” she began slowly.

“Megan, is there some sort of a problem?” he asked sympathetically. “I know losing Tex can't be
easy, despite the way you two argued all the time. We can cope around here for a couple of weeks if you need more time.”

She drew in a deep breath. “It may be a little longer than that.”

Todd fell silent. “How long?” he asked eventually.

“I'm not saying it's going to happen. It's certainly not what I want—”

“Spit it out, Megan. What's the worst-case scenario?”

“Worst case? Unless I can find some other way to handle certain things, and believe me I am trying, I could be here permanently.”

“Permanently?” he echoed, as if the word were unfamiliar. “As in forever?”

“That's the definition I'm most familiar with.”

“What the hell is going on out there?” Todd demanded. “Have you been taken captive or something?”

“The days of the Wild West are pretty much over,” Megan assured him, grinning despite herself.

“Then what?”

“It's gotten complicated,” she said, settling for the same word she'd used with Tess.

Todd was no more satisfied with the response than Tess had been. “Complicated how? The estate and stuff?”

“You could say that.”

“Megan, why don't you just spit it out?” he repeated with a rare touch of impatience. “I need to know what we're up against here. Are you closing things down? Selling out?”

“Absolutely not!” It was more certainty than she'd
displayed with Jake, but she realized she'd made her decision about that overnight.

“Then explain.”

“Tex's legacy wasn't exactly what I expected.”

“More money? Less? The ranch? What?”

“An eight-year-old daughter.”

That silenced her unflappable assistant.

“Todd?”

“I'm here. I'm just grappling with this. He left you a daughter?”

“That pretty much sums it up, except for the part where I have to stay here to raise her.”

“You've got to be kidding me.”

“I wish to hell I were.”

“You with a kid,” he said with evident amazement. “It boggles the mind.”

“Doesn't it just?” she agreed. “But that's where I am. I'm still trying to figure out how to make all this work, so don't go blabbing the news around and set off a panic, okay? My goal is to get back to New York, but that could take time and some legal tap dancing, okay?”

“My lips are sealed,” he assured her. “Uh, Megan, just what are some of the options you're considering? Commuting, maybe?”

“It's on the list,” she agreed, though even she had to concede that as a practical matter it was seriously lacking. She wasn't sure Todd was ready to hear another option she'd been toying with all night long. Envisioning Todd and the others—savvy, sophisticated New Yorkers one and all—trying to adapt to life in Wyoming had given her one of the only good
laughs she'd had overnight. Last resort, she'd finally conceded. That was definitely her last resort.

“Commuting could work,” Todd said, as if eager to convince her. “There are faxes and e-mail. And just imagine all those frequent-flyer miles. Plus you'd be halfway to the West Coast, so trips to L.A. would be a breeze, too. Just say the word and I'll start writing up a plan.”

“Not just yet. I still have some thinking to do. In the meantime, I'll pick up a fax machine and a computer for Tex's office here. I'll call as soon as I can get everything set up. Now tell me what's happening there. Everything on schedule?”

“Running like clockwork,” he assured her. “I shifted the taping schedule on the show till next week. If you can't make that, we'll adjust, despite Micah's dire predictions that it'll be a disaster. There are enough shows pretaped to hold us for a while. The lead story for the magazine's been laid out. I can fax you the pages as soon as you say the word.”

“Terrific. I don't know what I'd do without you. I'll talk to you later. Tell Micah I'll check in with her before the end of the day, too.”

“Right.” He hesitated. “By the way, Megan, don't think I haven't noticed that it's practically the middle of the night there. Now that I know your brain does actually function in the morning,” he taunted, “I might start scheduling those a.m. meetings for eight.”

“Don't even think about it,” she warned, but she was chuckling as she hung up.

“Everything okay at your office,
niña?
” Mrs. Gomez asked from behind her.

Megan turned. “I didn't hear you come in. I hope
I didn't wake you with all my commotion in here. I really appreciate you staying over till things settle down.”

“This is not a problem. I can stay as long as you like. My sister will take care of things at my house. As for waking me, we're early risers here. You know that. Tess will be down any minute wanting breakfast.”

“And then what?” Megan asked, at a loss about what sort of routine the child had.

The housekeeper regarded her quizzically. “I don't understand what you are asking.”

“Does she go to school?”

“Well, of course she does, though I thought it best that she not go this week because of Tex. She will return on Monday and things will settle back to normal.”

Megan wanted to scream that things would never be entirely normal again. She wanted to ask what could possibly be normal about Tex's empty office or his empty place at the table. She wanted to ask what was normal about becoming an overnight mother to a child she hadn't even known existed a few days ago.

“You will see,
niña,
” Mrs. Gomez consoled, as if she had read Megan's mind.

Before Megan could argue, Tess wandered into the kitchen, gave Megan a distrustful look and sat down at the far end of the big oak table.

“I thought you'd be gone by now,” she said.

“Did you really?”

“I know what a busy life you have in New York,”
she mocked. “You told me so yourself. Go, if you want. We don't need you here.”

“Tess,” Mrs. Gomez scolded, placing a hand on the girl's shoulder. “Be polite.”

Tess retreated into scowling silence. Megan didn't have the strength or the ingenuity just then to try to coax her out of it. Besides, Tess's distrust was justified. Megan hadn't done much to prove she intended to stick it out in Wyoming. How could she when she didn't know herself what decision she would finally reach? Maybe her actions today would help give them both some breathing room, though.

“If you'll excuse me,” Megan said, pushing her chair back, “I have to go into town for a few things today. I'm going into Tex's office to make a list.”

“A trip into town will do you good,” Mrs. Gomez agreed a little too enthusiastically. Then she added slyly, “Why not take Tess along?”

“No way,” Tess blurted, just as Megan was about to protest as well.

Mrs. Gomez went on as if their reactions had been more positive. “Tess can show you where things are. There are new stores since the last time you were here.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Megan conceded grudgingly. “Tess, would you like to come along?”

“Not really,” the girl grumbled, but at a sharp glance from the housekeeper, she shrugged. “Might as well. I ain't got nothing else to do.”

“Working on your grammar might be one alternative,” Megan muttered, but she forced a smile. “Terrific. We'll leave in an hour.”

But in an hour, there was no sign of Tess. If it had
been up to Megan, she would have left without her, but Mrs. Gomez seemed to be determined to send the two of them off on some sort of bonding experience.

“She will be in the barn,” she told Megan. “There are kittens there. They seem to give her some comfort.”

Thinking of Tess turning to a litter of helpless kittens for consolation shamed Megan sufficiently that she walked to the barn in search of the girl. Sure enough, she was hunkered down with kittens scrambling all around her.

“They're cute,” Megan said, drawn to them despite herself.

“I'm not giving them away,” Tess stated defiantly.

“Did I ask you to?”

“No, but you will.”

Megan imagined that was what Tex had insisted on. He'd always allowed a single cat to wander the barn in search of mice, but no more, and never one in the house as a pet. She had longed for one of her own, a warm ball of fluff who would curl up in her lap and sleep on her bed, but she had dared to ask only once. Tex's curt refusal had kept her silent about wanting a pet from then on.

“You could bring them up to the house, if you like,” Megan suggested casually. “When they're a little bigger and the mother won't mind.”

Tess stared at her with wide eyes. “I could?”

The longing in her voice brought a lump to Megan's throat. She nodded. “I don't see why not.”

“Jake thought it might be okay, too, but I figured you'd never go for it.”

“I will on one condition,” Megan said.

Tess frowned. “I knew it! I knew there'd be a catch.”

“No catch, just a condition. I want one of the kittens for my own.”

Tess simply stared, clearly too shocked for words.

“Is it a deal?” Megan asked.

“Yeah!” Tess said excitedly, then caught herself. “I mean, I suppose that would be okay.”

Megan held back a grin. It wasn't much, she concluded as they walked to the car, but it was a start. If only the next ten years or so would go as easily, maybe they would survive them.

6

J
ake was at loose ends. With his biggest—okay, his only—client dead and buried, his workload was back to zip. That was exactly the way he wanted it, or so he'd thought. Rather than relaxing, maybe going off on a long horseback ride through the countryside, however, he was restless. He knew exactly where to lay the blame for that: Megan.

He'd pushed aside a lot of old resentments the past few days. He wanted to go on hating her for thinking the worst of him all those years ago. He wanted to steal Tex's ranch right out from under her just to get even. But for some reason, he couldn't work up much enthusiasm for the all-out war he'd once envisioned. It was probably because of that sad, lost look in her eyes. He'd always been a real sucker for vulnerability, especially in a woman normally as tough as Meggie.

The smart thing would be to steer clear of her. Even if she made a halfhearted attempt to comply with Tex's wishes, it wouldn't be long before she found some way around the terms of the will and hauled Tess back to New York with her. There wasn't a doubt in his mind that was what she desperately wanted to do. He'd seen the wheels clicking away the instant she'd realized what Tex's will meant.

Somehow Megan had turned into a city girl. Maybe she'd always been one, though how that had happened living in the middle of nowhere with Tex was beyond him.

As for Jake, his foray into the urban thing had been pure rebellion. He'd had something to prove to himself and to Tex and to all the judgmental people of Whispering Wind.

He'd been damned good at it for a time, but in the end he'd accepted the fact that he was happier right here in Whispering Wind. The pace was slow, the demands and expectations were few. And he had enough money now to enjoy the spectacular scenery at his leisure without anyone being able to label him that “no-account Landers kid.”

He glanced around his office, took stock of the fancy artwork on the walls, the bronze of a bucking bronco on his credenza, the thick carpeting and well-cushioned leather sofa and chairs, the wall of bookcases filled with leather-bound legal volumes, the state-of-the-art computer setup.

Unlike his home, which could best be described as a fixer-upper, he'd taken pleasure in designing his office to impress. Of course, he hadn't bothered to hire a secretary or to solicit new clients. As restless as he felt this morning, he regretted that. Maybe if he'd had a few cases to sink his teeth into, Meggie's image wouldn't be popping into his head with such annoying regularity.

He heard a commotion on the street, then a howl of protest. He was on his feet and dashing for the door before it registered that that howl was distressingly familiar.

He found Tess outside, her expression indignant, the fist of the red-faced sheriff, Bryce Davis, clamped tightly over her shoulder. Lyle Perkins was standing in the doorway of his mama's general store with a smug expression on his face.

Jake had been exactly where Tess was a few times himself, though Lyle had been a boy back then, but no less of a bully. Apparently he hadn't outgrown the tendency. Jake's hackles rose as he strode toward the group. He couldn't wait to tangle with Lyle and Emma Perkins now that he was on equal footing with them in the community.

The instant Tess caught sight of Jake, she broke free and ran straight for him, then turned and shot a defiant look at the sheriff that would have withered a less confident man. She didn't look at Lyle at all. Fortunately, Jake supposed, Bryce Davis wasn't lacking in ego. Jake had tangled with the sheriff a time or two himself. It would take more than a fiery eight-year-old to intimidate Davis.

“Okay, what's the problem here?” Jake asked, directing the question at the beefy sheriff, while ignoring Lyle.

“I need a lawyer,” Tess announced before Bryce could open his mouth. She slapped a quarter in Jake's hand. “Here's your retainer. It ain't much, but it's all I've got. I want to sue him for false arrest, police brutality and whatever else you can come up with.” She jerked a thumb toward Lyle. “Sue him while you're at it.”

Jake hid a grin at her riled-up declaration. “You've been watching too much TV, kiddo. I don't think you're under arrest yet.”

Tess trembled with indignation. “Oh, yeah, try telling that to him. He was about to slap handcuffs on me and take me to the slammer.”

Jake figured there was another side to the story that he'd better hear before he leaped too trustingly to Tess's defense. “Bryce?”

The sheriff didn't mince words. “Aunt Emma caught her shoplifting. Lyle called me to get over here. He tried to hold her till I arrived, but she made a break for it. I nabbed her out here.”

Jake turned to Tess. “Is that so?”

Tess's gaze met his and never flinched. “I didn't take anything from the old bat's store. All she's got is a bunch of junk, anyway.” Once again she cast a disparaging look toward Lyle. “
He
probably put her up to it. He's mean as a snake and everybody in town knows it.”

“Why, you little punk,” Lyle began, taking a step in Tess's direction. He backed off at a sharp look from his cousin.

Since Jake had had his own run-ins with the paranoid shopkeeper and her spoiled son, he would have been inclined to believe Tess, even if she hadn't just hired him to be on her side. Lyle had always been eager to make trouble for anyone weaker than he was. In those days, Jake's only weakness had been his lack of anyone to stand by him. He'd settled more than one argument with Lyle with his fists. Fortunately, he had grown out of the habit.

“What'd she steal?” Jake asked the sheriff.

Bryce rocked back on his heels and looked vaguely uneasy. “That part's a little hazy, what with the commotion of catching up to Tess before she got away.”

“Then I suggest we all go inside and get our facts straight,” Jake said, starting for the general store, where Mrs. Perkins waited in the doorway just behind her son, hands on ample hips.

“I might have known you'd take the girl's side,” she said, scowling at Jake with a sour expression before turning an equally sour look on Bryce Davis. “I expected more of you, Sheriff, especially since you're family.”

“Nobody's taking sides, Aunt Emma,” Bryce said soothingly. “We just need to figure out what happened here. What did you see?”

“She was right over there,” Mrs. Perkins said, gesturing toward a case filled with school supplies. “I looked up and saw her hand go in her pocket. When it came out again, it was empty. She stole some of them pens, or maybe the stickers the kids like so much.”

“Did you see her with either pens or stickers in her hand?” Jake asked.

Bryce scowled at him. “I'll ask the questions, son.”

Jake shrugged. “Be my guest, but I reserve the right to ask a few of my own if you don't get at the truth in a hurry.”

“Well, Aunt Emma, did you see the girl with those items, or anything else, for that matter?”

“No, but I know what kind of mischief her kind gets into.”

The hairs on the back of Jake's neck stood up at the characterization, but he forced himself to deal with one thing at a time. Most important was clearing
up whether or not Tess had shoplifted so much as a paper clip from the old bat.

“Tess, honey, did you ever pick up any of the things Mrs. Perkins mentioned?”

“Do I look like I play with stickers?” she shot back, giving the storekeeper a belligerent glare. “As for pens, Tex practically bought them by the case because he was always chomping off the end, once the doc told him he had to stop smoking cigars. I sure as heck don't need hers.”

Jake hid a grin. “That's not the issue,” he admonished. “Did you put anything into your pockets?”

“No. If you want to, you can check.” She shot a triumphant look at the shopkeeper, but when the sheriff stepped forward, she scowled. “Not you. Jake.”

“That okay with you, Bryce?”

“I suppose,” he said with obvious reluctance.

Jake emptied Tess's pockets, turning them inside out for the sheriff's benefit. He came up with a candy bar wrapper, a couple of pennies, some lint and a wilting daisy, which he suspected came from Tex's funeral bouquet.

“Satisfied?” Tess demanded, eyeing them all belligerently.

“My apologies,” Bryce said, then looked toward Jake. “I had no choice. You know that, don't you?”

“Can I sue him now?” Tess asked. “Her, too?”

“We'll talk about it,” Jake said. When Tess appeared ready to balk, he added, “Over ice cream.”

She followed him docilely enough after that. When they were back on the sidewalk outside, he paused. “How'd you get into town, anyway? And why would you go into that store when you know how Mrs. Per
kins is? She thinks every kid in town is out to rob her blind.”

“I came in with Megan. As for the other…” Tess shrugged. “I guess I just like to see her get herself all worked up watching me every second. That Lyle, though, he gives me the creeps.”

“Then I suggest you steer clear of the place. Now, where's Megan?”

“Beats me. I pointed her in the direction of the new office-supply place, then took off. She didn't seem real disappointed to see me go.”

“Did you arrange to meet her someplace?”

Tess shrugged. “I figured we'd both turn up at the car sooner or later.”

Jake sighed. Clearly Tess intended to make him work for his answers. She was volunteering nothing. “Where'd she park?” he asked next.

“A couple of blocks that way,” Tess conceded, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.

“Let's go see if she's there.”

“I thought we were going for ice cream.”

“We will, after we find Megan and let her know you're okay.”

“Like she'd care,” Tess muttered.

Obviously things weren't going smoothly with the bonding. “Don't you think maybe you should give her a break?” he asked.

“Why? She doesn't give a rat's behind about me.”

“Maybe because she hasn't had a chance to get to know you, any more than you've taken the time to get to know her.”

“What's the use? She'll leave.”

To his very deep regret, Jake's heart thudded at that. “Has she said that?”

“No, but she will. Everybody does.”

Jake gave up trying to argue the point. All the evidence in her young life was on her side. It would take time to prove that Meggie was different, that she had staying power. For Tess's sake, he prayed to God he was right about that. She was already jaded enough without another disappointment.

“Any idea what she was getting at the office-supply place?” he asked.

Tess shot him a disgusted look. “Duh! Office supplies would be my guess.”

“You know, kid, one of these days somebody's going to take exception to that smart mouth of yours.”

“Oh, yeah? Who?”

“Lyle Perkins for one. You did your darnedest to rile him back there.”

She grinned. “I know,” she said proudly. “Who else?”

“Me.”

“And then what?” she asked, clearly unintimidated. “You gonna lock me in my room?”

“No. I'll wash your mouth out with soap, the way my mama used to do with me.”

Tess's eyes widened. “She did that? Oh, gross.”

“Gross pretty much sums it up, but it was effective. I cleaned up my language. Think about it.”

Jake fell silent, as did Tess, though whether she was actually pondering his warning was anybody's guess. She trailed along a step or two behind him, scuffing the toes of her sneakers on the sidewalk.

He spotted Megan up ahead, looking predictably more impatient than worried.

“There you are,” she said, when she noticed Tess behind him. “Where on earth have you been? I've been waiting here for a half hour at least.”

Tess shot an imploring look his way. Jake relented and left the encounter with the sheriff and Mrs. Perkins unmentioned. “Visiting with me,” he said. “We were going for ice cream and came to ask you to join us.”

“I was hoping to get back to the ranch so I could get all this equipment set up. I have work to do.”

Jake peered into the back of the sport utility vehicle. There were a half-dozen cartons, along with bags that appeared filled with reams of paper and other supplies. He took heart from the sheer amount and extravagance of the purchases.

“Was this stuff cheaper here than it would be in New York?” he inquired lazily.

“Of course, but that wasn't the point.”

“What was?”

“I need a few things if I'm going to be able to get anything done while I'm here.”

He took a better look at the cartons. “A fax machine, a copier, a computer, a printer, a scanner. Yep, that ought to get you through the afternoon, all right.”

Other books

Eppie by Robertson, Janice
Paradise Found by Nancy Loyan
Her Lone Wolves by Diana Castle
First Date by Melody Carlson
Against The Wall by Dee J. Adams
Runaway Love by Nicole W. Lee
Lost Light by Michael Connelly