Authors: Victoria Vane
“Is that what you want?” Miranda asked in surprise. “To move to Phoenix with them?”
want, but not exactly
them. All the places they took me to were at least twenty minutes away from their house.”
“I'm speechless, Jo-Jo.”
“You don't have to say a word, sweetheart. It's true that actions speak louder, and that trip told me everything I needed to know. They don't want me in their lives, they just want control. Judith invited me down again this year, but I'm not going. If they want to celebrate Thanksgiving as a family, they'll have to come up here. If they don't come, that's just fine with me. The two of us will spend it together.”
“I haven't had a real Thanksgiving in ages,” Miranda said. “I spent it alone for three out of the four years I was in California. Last year was the only exception. I was invited to dinner with some of Lexi's friends, but it didn't feel much like Thanksgiving.”
“They were Buddhist vegetarians, so there wasn't even a turkey. We ordered takeout Thai food instead.”
Jo-Jo's eyes widened. “
Miranda laughed. “Yup. Pretty much anything goes in L.A. They aren't so big on tradition there, but I'm a traditional girl. That's another reason I didn't fit. I'm glad to be here with you this year.”
“So you still don't have any regrets about leaving?”
“No, Jo-Jo. I don't. I thought I might when I told Bibi I wasn't coming back, but I have perfect peace about it. Helping those horses makes me feel like I'm finally doing something right with my life. I feel like it's what I was meant to do.”
“You once felt that way about your filmmaking,” Jo-Jo reminded her.
“Filmmaking was all about me and my desires. This is so much bigger than just me. I haven't given up on films completely, but right now I feel like I can make a difference, and I
to make a difference, Jo-Jo.”
“I think you know by now that I'll always support whatever you do, as long as your heart is invested,” Jo-Jo said.
“It is.” Miranda added wistfully, “I just wish Keith's was as well.”
“I guess we'll have to take Wade up on his offer to help us find someone,” Jo-Jo said.
“Yeah. I guess so,” Miranda reluctantly agreed. It was so frustrating to think how Keith chose to waste his talents.
“When we're finished here, we should also go and take a look at some used equipment. With winter coming on, we're going to have to feed a lot of hay to those mustangs. I think we might need a bale splitter. I wish I hadn't already sold ours, but I didn't think I'd ever need one again. I'm hoping we might be able to rent one.”
“Shouldn't we wait until we hire someone to help us?” Miranda asked.
“I suppose we could,” Jo-Jo agreed. “I've just become used to doing everything myself. To be honest, now that you're doing my morning chores, I'm not even sure how to occupy my time.”
“That's probably a good thing. You've worked hard for a lot of years. You should do something for yourself now, Jo-Jo. Something you enjoy.”
“You mean like reading, knitting, or needlework?” Jo-Jo rolled her eyes. “I've tried all of those things over the years, but never could sit still long enough to do any of them.”
“Then maybe you need to find something more active? How about a yoga class?”
“Yoga? Sweetheart, I've had no reason to put my legs around my neck since Bud passed on.”
“Jo-Jo!” Miranda squealed.
“Don't look so scandalized.” Jo-Jo laughed. “I'll have you know I've read the
cover to cover.” She added with a wink, “You gotta spice things up from time to time when you're with the same man for fifty-some years.”
Miranda wondered what it would be like to grow old with someone. She immediately thought of Keith. But what future could there be for two people who wanted completely different things?
“It's been brutal these past weeks,” Mitch said, “but I don't see it getting better any time soon. We're taking off the next few months, but come spring, we'll almost certainly be going back to Nevada.”
“You'll be doing it without me this time,” Keith said, closing the steel door behind the last horse and then proceeding to unhook the trailer. After six weeks and eighteen trips, carrying over three hundred horses as far west as California and as far south as Oklahoma, he was weary and more than ready to retire from driving. “I'm done traveling. All I want now is to lay my head down at night and remember where I am the next morning.”
Mitch clapped him on the shoulder. “Can't blame you for that, but it's even better when you have someone keeping the sheets warm for you.” He winked. “So what's your plan?”
“Don't know yet. I'm hoping I'll figure it out soon.”
“I hear Miranda Sutton's convinced her grandmother to take on some mustangs,” Mitch said. “The BLM just approved it.”
“They're starting with two hundred, but plan to take more next year if it all works out.”
Keith shrugged. “Miranda Sutton's gonna do whatever she wants, no matter how ill-advised it might be.”
“Why do you say that? It could turn out to be a good deal all around,” Mitch said.
Keith shook his head. “It's more than two women can handle, especially with one in her seventies and the other who knows almost nothing about ranching and even less about mustangs. Hopefully, they'll have the good sense to hire someone who does.”
“It ain't rocket science, Keith. Miranda's a smart girl. She'll figure it out, but I do know they've been looking for some help. She called me a couple of days ago to check references on a wrangler that used to work for me.”
“What'd you tell her?”
“I said he had too much cowboy attitude and was rough with the stock. I also told her I knew someone else who'd be perfect for the job.” He gave Keith a pointed look. Mitch obviously wasn't aware that he and Miranda had called it quits.
“She already asked, and I refused,” Keith said. Not that he hadn't had second thoughts about it afterward. He had. Several times during the countless hours of staring down a never-ending highway he'd almost called her back about the offer, but he just couldn't bring himself to pick up the phone and dial her.
“They need your help,” Mitch said.
“She ignored all my advice,” Keith groused. That was one more thing that stuck in his crawâthat she'd moved forward without even talking to him about it. They'd spoken only a couple of times in the past month. Miranda was determined to go her way, so he had no choice but to go his. “Their timing sucks to be doing this. I don't know why she couldn't have at least waited until spring. They're going to need to truck in a shit-ton of hay to get the horses through winter, a huge up-front expense they wouldn't have had if Miranda wasn't so damned hardheaded.”
“Given the dire situation, I'm sure the BLM can be persuaded to bring in the first load of hay,” Mitch said. “After that, I can help them find a good price. I buy all mine from a big alfalfa grower down in New Mexico. I can maybe hook them up.”
“I'm sure they'd appreciate it.”
“Maybe you should reconsider that job, Keith. Although I'd hate to see you go, I can't think of anyone better suited to help them get this thing off the ground. God knows we need to find more homes for these horses.”
And Keith really wanted to get back to ranch work. It was true that they needed experienced help, and he needed a break. Even the chores he used to despise mostâposthole digging and pulling wireâsuddenly seemed more appealing than his current situation.
“All right, Mitch. I'll make the damned call.” Snatching out his phone, Keith punched the number. Four rings later, her voice mail picked up. “Miranda? It's Keith. If you're still looking for help, I'm available to get everything set up to bring the horses in. You can reach me at this number until tomorrow.”
He didn't know if she'd even call him back after the way things had ended. It wasn't an ugly breakup; they just hadn't seen eye to eye. Was it really over between them? He'd soon find out.
* * *
Miranda awoke with a strange feeling of anticipation. She threw back the handmade quilt and snatched her robe from the bedpost, shivering as her feet hit the icy floorboards. She then peered out the frost-etched window. As forecasted, a light dusting of snow had fallen during the night, just enough to give everything a magical glow in the early morning light. It was a breathtaking scene that filled her with dismay. Winter was right around the corner, and they were miles of fence from ready.
After dressing and swigging down her coffee, Miranda snatched a second muffin from the basket and stomped into the pair of rubber muck boots sitting beside the kitchen door. Mug in hand, she nearly skipped toward the workshop-cum-stable. She'd finally begun to adapt to her new schedule since she'd insisted on taking over the morning ranch chores. Although she hated rising with the sun, she loved the warm nickers from Jesse and Doc when she appeared every morning with their feed buckets.
After the horses finished their breakfast, she led them out to pasture, and then turned her hand to mucking out the manure from their stalls. It was messy, smelly work, but she loved the earthiness of it. In truth, there was nothing on the ranch that she'd ever really minded doing. She wondered if that would change in time.
Returning after her morning chores, she found a missed call from Keith. She'd almost given up on ever hearing from him again. Although they'd spoken on the phone a couple of times, they hadn't seen each other since their fateful trip to Gunnison. Her pulse raced as she played his terse voice mail. She didn't know what had brought about his change of heart, but it didn't matter. Even with their differences, there was still no one else she'd rather hire. Her heart clogged her throat as she hit redial. Three rings, and he answered. “Hello? Keith? It's Miranda.”
“I know your voice,
The sound of
sent a warm ripple down her spine until she realized he'd reverted back to her real name. Had he done it intentionally to create more distance? The idea stung.
“I just got your message,” she said. “You've changed your mind?”
“If the offer is still open,” he said.
“It is. We've been approved to take two hundred horses and have been looking for someone to help us. I'm certain Jo-Jo will agree that you're the best person. We can pay you a salary based on a percentage of the per diem we receive, plus room and board. There's a cabin you can have all to yourself. And you can even bring your horse with you. It's not a lot, but at least you won't have to live on the road anymore.”
“The offer is more than generous,” he said, “But I won't accept your money.”
“What do you mean you won't accept it?”
“I don't need your money. I'll come because you need the help.”
“I don't understand you at all, Keith, but I'm not about to refuse. There's a lot to be done before winter sets in. Thankfully, we don't need to do all the fencing right away, just enough to accommodate the first two hundred horses. How soon can you come?”
“I'll drive up tomorrow.” A long silence followed. “I need to make something clear up front, Miranda. My feelings about all of this haven't changed. I'll help you with your fences and getting everything ready, but I won't be staying on once the horses are settled.”
Her stomach dropped with disappointment. “Oh. I see.”
“Knowing I'll stay only a few weeks, do you still want me to come?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied softly. “I still want you to come.”
“All right then. I'll be there by noon.”
When Keith hung up, Miranda felt more confused than ever. She was disappointed at his lack of enthusiasm, but refused to allow it to mar her happiness. Although his feelings about her pet project hadn't changed, his actions told her that he still cared for her. There was no other explanation for his call, and that alone gave her reason to hope it wasn't over between them.
After showering and changing, she went back downstairs to find Jo-Jo sitting in her grandfather's old La-Z-Boy with a big tangle of yarn in her lap. “What are you doing?” Miranda asked.
Jo-Jo scowled over the reading glasses perched on her nose. “Taking your advice and trying to knit, but making a huge muddle of it. To hell with this! You can't teach an old dog new tricks.” She tossed the tangle to Miranda. “Maybe you can figure it out and show me.”
Miranda caught the yarn with a laugh. “I'll have to check and see if there's an app for knitting.”
“You think a computer is going to teach you to knit?” Jo-Jo asked.
“Why not?” Miranda replied. “There's an app for almost everything these days. I came down to tell you there's no need to make that phone call to Wade.”
“Why's that?” Jo-Jo asked.
“Because I just heard from Keith. He's coming to help.” She couldn't hide her giddy grin. “He said he'll be here around noon tomorrow.”
“Well, that's quite a turnaround,” Jo-Jo remarked dryly.
“Maybe not,” Miranda said, her smile fading. “He's not planning to stay after we bring the horses in.”
“How do you feel about that? Do you still think he's the right one?”
“Yes. There's no one better to help us, Jo-Jo.”
“I just hope you and he can manage to work together,” Jo-Jo said skeptically.
“I'm sure we can, Jo-Jo. Keith's extremely competent. You won't be disappointed with him.”
“It's not my disappointment I worry about, Miranda Josephine. It's yours.”
* * *
“Here's your phone back, Mitch,” Keith said. “Looks like I won't be needing it anymore.”
“So you're going to take the job after all?” Mitch asked.
Keith shrugged. “I'll help them get started, but I don't plan to stay.”
“That so?” Mitch cocked a brow. “I've got a notion you might feel differently after you get there.”
“I won't be changing my mind. I'm only helping them out to prevent a disaster. I'll be back in Wyoming in a couple of weeks.”
“If that's the case, you might as well hold onto the phone. You can give it back when you return.”
Keith pocketed the phone. “Thanks, Mitch.”
“When do you leave?”
“I'm heading out tomorrow.”
“Then I'll text you that contact for the hay. Do they need anything else besides forage?”
“Not that I'm aware of. She said everything seems to be in good shape, other than needing to upgrade the fence.”
“What about saddle horses?” Mitch asked. “Need any of those?”
The suggestion gave Keith pause. He recalled how much Miranda enjoyed riding. She'd told him that her grandmother had sold all the riding horses and kept only a couple of old retirees. Although most outfits had long ago switched to ATVs for most of the real work, it seemed a shame for her to be living on a ranch with no horse to ride. “What do you have?” Keith asked.
“How about a coupla mares?” Mitch suggested. “Sadie's fully recovered from her leg injury, and I've got a filly of hers that might suit you well enough.”
“You looking to sell or lease them?” Keith asked.
“Neither. You can take them as a gift,” Mitch offered. “I've got too many that aren't earning their keep. Might as well reduce the herd before winter.”
Why not take the two mares? Keith had already decided to bring the mustang he'd intended for his grandfatherâthe one he hadn't been able to bring himself to return to BLM even after it had failed to win Kenu's favor. Since he'd now resigned himself to keeping the renegade, it was past time to teach him some manners. Working with the horse would also be the best way to keep himself occupied and his hands off Mirandaâif he didn't get himself killed first. Then again, in that event, he wouldn't have to worry about keeping his hands off Miranda anymore. Just being near her again would be a huge temptation, one he wasn't sure he'd be able to resist.