Authors: Sherryl Woods
Why was it that no other woman could turn him on the way Meggie did? She was irritating and prickly and jumpy as a june bug. He wondered what her fans would think if they could see how rattled she'd been by a little ol' kiss. They looked to Megan for cool competence in the face of any social crisis. They
probably figured she walked away from a tumble in bed with every hair in place.
She hadn't been cool when his lips had brushed across hers, though. Her skin had heated as if she'd been standing squarely in the noon sun on a blistering hot summer day. Her expression had turned dreamy and flustered at the same time. He'd been fully aware of just how angry that had made her, but she'd still managed to come off sounding haughty and imperial. He'd concluded right then that he was going to spend however long she remained in Whispering Wind doing his darnedest to shake her composure at every opportunity. It was the first hobby he'd considered that he could pursue with enthusiasm.
He was thoroughly enjoying contemplating the future when his phone rang, startling him. “Yes?”
“Is this Jake Landers?” a woman demanded, her voice thick and vaguely slurred.
“Yes. Who's this?”
“Are you the one handling Tex O'Rourke's estate?”
Jake's feet hit the floor and he sat up straight at the question and its tone. “Who wants to know?”
“You haven't said yet if you're the one who's in charge of the estate.”
“Yes. I'm handling it. Now tell me who you are or I'm hanging up.”
“How much does the kid get?”
Ah, Jake thought with disgust, so this was Tess's mama. No further introduction was necessary. The nature of her questions, the slurred voice told him everything he needed to know about Contessa Florence Olson.
“I'm not at liberty to discuss the terms of the will except with those directly involved.”
“I'm that child's mother,” she admitted finally, “so I guess that makes it my business. Tex took real good care of her, didn't he?”
“As I said, that's between me and Tex's heirs. Once the will is filed for probate, you can pick up a copy at the courthouse.”
“Oh, you can bet the ranch I'll be doing just that,” she declared.
Because he had a hunch that he was going to need to know the answer before all was said and done, he asked, “Where are you calling from?”
“I don't see that that's any of your business,” she said, clearly mocking him. “That's between me and my girl.”
“Stay away from Tess,” he said coldly. “You have no rights where she's concerned.”
“Who're you to tell me to stay away from her? She's my baby, isn't she?”
“No. That's where you're wrong. You gave up any claim to her the day you left her with Tex. I have the papers you signed saying just that.”
“Tex is dead. All bets are off. She needs her mama.”
“Tess doesn't need the likes of you,” he countered emphatically.
“Who's taking care of her now?”
“Tess is being well taken care of. You have no need to worry on that score.”
“I think I'd like to see that for myself, rather than taking your word for it.”
“Stay away,” Jake said again. “If you go near
Tess, I'll have you slapped with a restraining order so fast it'll make your head spin.”
“She's my baby.” She said it with a whine that set his teeth on edge.
“You should have thought of that before you ran out on her,” he said coldly, and hung up.
Jake stood up, grabbed his jacket and headed for the ranch. Megan needed to know about this.
So did Tess, he supposed, though he wasn't looking forward to being the one to tell her. He had no idea how he would handle it if Tess got the idea in her head, as she had a few days ago, to go off with her mama. Legally he could prevent it. She was in Megan's care now, but Megan would have to be the one to fight to keep her. Would she do it? Or would she see this as the perfect out, a chance to get her own life back?
He made it to the ranch in record time, then went in through the kitchen. Barely pausing to give Mrs. Gomez a quick kiss on the cheek, he asked, “Where's Megan?”
“In Tex's office playing with all those gadgets she bought this morning.” She regarded him with a knowing look. “There is a problem, isn't there?”
“Just something I need to talk over with Megan.”
As he started to leave, she stopped him with a hand on his arm. “The woman called you, didn't she? That's why you look so troubled?”
He hesitated, searching her face. “Tess's mom?”
The housekeeper nodded, her concern evident.
“You know, then, that she's asking questions? How?”
She called here earlier. I refused to let her talk
to the girl. I gave her your number. It's no surprise she's calling out of the blue. She's heard of Tex's death and thinks there will be money, yes?”
“That would be my guess,” Jake agreed.
“She has no claim to the child, does she?”
“Whether Megan will fight her.”
“You sound so certain,” Jake said, wishing he were half as sure.
“I am. She is Tex's granddaughter, isn't she? O'Rourkes stick together.”
Jake squeezed her hand. “For Tess's sake, I pray to God you're right.”
t had taken Megan most of the afternoon to get all of her new equipment up and running. The minute she had everything set to go, the fax began humming with paperwork from her office. She'd been deluged ever since.
For the past hour she'd been on the phone with Todd, dictating memos, rearranging her schedule and getting a strong lecture on staying in better contact with her staff.
“I'm telling you, Micah's bouncing off walls. You promised you'd call her this morning. She thinks you're deliberately keeping her out of the loop,” Todd said. “Then there's Caitlyn. She's champing at the bit to get that wedding cake art finalized, and you're not in your office, so she can't bust in and get your okay.”
“I'll call them,” Megan promised.
“Now,” Todd stressed. “Micah first, so she doesn't latch on to the idea that she's even less important than your magazine art director.”
“Okay, fine. Transfer my call to her.”
“Thank you,” Todd said fervently.
“Anytime. I know I've left you with enough on
your plate without having the staff coming down on your head, too.”
The conversation with her producer was every bit as tense as Todd had predicted. After a few minutes, Megan decided to deal with her bluntly.
“Micah, do we have a problem here?”
“Haven't I just been reeling off a hundred of them?” she snapped in response.
“I'm not talking about the show. I'm talking about you and me.”
Silence greeted that. Megan sighed. “Apparently we do. Look, I know this isn't easy. I'm not overjoyed about throwing the schedule into chaos, but these are extraordinary circumstances. My grandfather just died. I've been hit with a whole lot of things I didn't expect.” It was a massive understatement, but she was unwilling to discuss Tess right now. “I know I'm putting a lot of the burden on you, but I'm doing the best I can.”
Micah drew in a deep breath. “I'm sorry,” she said with what sounded like genuine regret. “I got so caught up in my own stress, I didn't even stop to think about what you must be going through. It won't happen again.”
“Hey, we all get stressed out from time to time. Just try to keep things in perspective, okay?”
“I'll talk to you soon, then. If problems crop up, call me or fax me here.”
“Any idea when you'll be back?”
“Not yet. I'll keep you posted, or Todd will.”
“I'd rather hear it from you,” Micah said irritably.
Megan sensed that she'd accidentally hit on the real
crux of the problem. “Is that what this is really about? Don't you and Todd get along?”
“It's just that I'm the producer of your show. He's a secretary, for God's sake. Why should I hear what's going on from him instead of you?”
So that was it. Her ego was bruised. “Micah, I tell Todd what's going on because it's one call and he can handle things from there. He's not a secretary. He's my executive assistant. For all intents and purposes, he's as close to a second in command as I have. I'll try to be more sensitive to your feelings, but I can't swear it won't happen again. Todd and I have had a strong working relationship for several years now. You and I are just finding our way.”
“And I'm telling you that I need to know you trust me, that you see my role as important.”
“Well, of course it is,” Megan said impatiently. “And I do trust you. If I haven't demonstrated that, I'm sorry. I'll work on it. I've got to go. I have other calls to make.”
Megan hung up before she gave in to the temptation to tell the woman to grow up and concentrate on doing her job. Micah was the best producer around. She intuitively sensed which ideas would translate into strong segments for the show. Right now, though, Megan didn't have a whole lot of patience for the ego stroking she apparently required.
In her next call, she soothed the ruffled feathers of the art director, whose layout for the lead story wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been. Megan doubted the news would go over well. She took a deep breath and told her anyway.
“The picture of that wedding cake has to be big
ger,” she explained to Caitlyn Holmes. “Readers have to be able to see every detail of the decorations. It's a masterpiece. I want them to know that, so when they follow the directions and duplicate it at home, they'll know what they've accomplished. I want every prospective bride in the country to want just that cake at her reception.”
“Then they'd better go to a professional, because if they try it at home, it'll be a disaster,” Caitlyn retorted. “How many people do you know who can actually find edible gold in their neighborhood grocery store, much less manage to get it on a cake so it looks like anything other than little gold nuggets?”
“That's what the directions are for,” Megan explained patiently. “Anybody can follow directions.”
“Have you made that cake?”
“Dare you to try,” Caitlyn said. “Call me back when it's done and I will personally fly out to Wyomingâat my own expense, no lessâand arrange a photo shoot of the one you've baked and decorated. In fact, I'll talk to Micah and you can do it live for the TV show.”
On another occasion, Megan might have been inclined to accept the challenge, but a prickling at the back of her neck told her that Jake was in the vicinity. She turned toward the door and found him watching her, a storm brewing in his eyes.
“I've got to go,” she told the art director. “Fax me the new pages when you have them.”
“Just do it, Caitlyn. We can debate the clarity of
the recipe directions some other time.” She hung up slowly and faced Jake.
“You're early by about twenty-six hours,” she said.
“We've got trouble.”
Megan was struck by his somber tone. It matched the grim expression. “Come in, then.”
He came into the room and shut the door behind him.
She gestured toward a chair. “Have a seat.”
He ignored the suggestion and began to pace.
His mood was beginning to make her nervous. “Jake?” she prompted.
“I had a call earlier from Tess's mother.”
The tone was casual and not especially revealing. Still, it was evident that he was deeply troubled by the call.
“Why did she call you?”
“Mrs. Gomez told her to.”
Megan was surprised by that. The housekeeper had said nothing to her. “Was she checking on Tess?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said, his expression wry. “She wanted to know how much Tess had inherited.”
“I see,” she said, realizing she should have expected it. “What did you tell her?”
“That it was none of her business.”
He shot her a worried look. “She's going to come here and stir things up, Meggie.”
“We can handle her.” Her gaze narrowed. “Can't we? She doesn't have a claim on anything, does she?”
“Only on Tess, not the money.”
She realized then what was really worrying him. “You're afraid I'll let her have Tess, aren't you?” If she hadn't understood only too well that she'd given him reason for concern, she might have been insulted.
He regarded her intently. “Will you?”
“No,” she said at once, not sure which of them was more surprised by the vehemence of her response.
“It would be a way out for you,” he said. “Tess would be back with her mother and you could return to New York with a clear conscience.”
She was hurt that he would think so little of her. Then again, maybe it was no less than she deserved after doing much the same thing to him. “You don't know me very well, do you?”
“I thought I did,” he said. “Once upon a time.”
“I don't take the easy way out, Jake. I never did.”
“You're wrong. You did back then,” he accused. “You heard the story going around, you took it at face value and you ran.”
She sighed. She had known it would come up sooner or later. Better to get it over with. “I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Tex seemed so certain that you were behind the rustling. I thought you had betrayed him and me.”
“You left without even talking to me, without even asking my side of it. That was what hurt the most.”
Jake leaned across the desk, eyes blazing. “Didn't it ever occur to you that Tex might lie to keep us apart?”
“Not at the time, no,” she retorted heatedly. “Tex
had never lied to me, not once. That was one of the first things he promised me when I came hereâthat he would never lie.”
“He never told you I'd been cleared of the charges, either, did he?”
“No,” she admitted.
“A lie of omission. That's two big ones that we know of, then. I can only imagine how many more there were.”
She could see how deeply Jake had been hurt, could imagine him waiting for her to come to his defense, only to learn that she had left town without even saying goodbye. “I'm sorry. I know it doesn't mean much now, but I truly am sorry. I should have had more faith in you.”
“Not just in me, Meggie. In us. I could never have betrayed you.” He backed away, shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “But like you said, it was a long time ago.”
“But you haven't forgotten, Jake.”
“No, obviously I haven't. But that's hardly the issue now,” he said, straightening up, his expression coolly businesslike again. “This is about Tess.”
“I'm not running out on her, Jake. I'd like to go back to New York. I'd like my life to be exactly the way it was before Tex died, but that's not possible. I may not have all the answers yet, but I do know one thing. Tex wanted Tess with me and somehow, some way, I intend to make that work.”
He gave her a curt nod of satisfaction. “Good. Then I think we should go to court now and ask for a restraining order. That could prevent a whole lot of heartache down the road.”
“Will Tess's mother pay any attention to a restraining order?”
“She'll have to, or land in jail. That's not what she wants.”
“What about Tess? How will she feel when she finds out?” Megan thought back nearly two decades. “I would have been furious if Tex had kept me from seeing my mother.” Given everything that she'd just discovered about Tex's role in separating her from Jake, she had to wonder if maybe he hadn't kept her and Sarah O'Rourke apart. It was something Megan would probably never know.
“Tess is an eight-year-old kid,” Jake retorted. “It's not up to her.”
Megan smiled. “Try telling that to her. She's eight going on twenty. Besides, she has to be prepared. She has to know that her mother could turn up here, and what the stakes are.”
“Are you going to be the one to tell her that her mother might want her back, now that she stands to inherit some money?”
The prospect held little appeal. “Hey, you talked to the woman, not me,” she said.
“We'll tell her together,” Jake decided, his expression grim.
As it turned out, Tess took the news in stoic silence. When they finished explaining about the phone call and its implications, she nodded.
“I'll be in my room,” she said dully, then turned to go.
“Tess?” Megan called after her, but the girl refused to turn around.
“I think you'd better go talk to her,” Jake said.
Megan had never felt so helpless in her life. “What do I say?”
“I don't think the words are important. Being there is what counts.”
Megan climbed the stairs with reluctance. Outside Tess's room, she hesitated, drew in a deep breath, then knocked. “Tess, may I come in?”
“Suit yourself. I'm just a kid. You'll do what you want, anyway.”
Megan couldn't help smiling at the snippy retort. Tess might be down, but she definitely wasn't out. Megan opened the door and walked into the room, surprised to find it neat as a pin. There were none of the kind of posters she'd had as a girl, no hodgepodge of toys scattered on the floor. It looked as if the occupant had just arrived, a guest in a new home.
A child prepared to be uprooted at any moment. Megan scanned the room for some sign of a packed bag.
“Did you just come in to stare or what?” Tess asked.
“Actually, I came to see if you were okay.”
“Why wouldn't I be?” Tess held her, chin defiantly high.
A few days ago the bluff might have worked. Megan would have wanted it to be easy. She could see past Tess's tough facade now, too. More and more of her own pastâcarefully shut away for yearsâwas coming back to remind her of what Tess must be feeling.