Ten years later…
Lauren looked down at the grave as a tear slipped down her nose. It was a week before her nineteenth birthday, and she watched as her father’s closest friends lowered his casket into the ground. She heard her sisters crying beside her and blindly reached over and took both of their hands. It had been two days since she'd found her father lying on his bedroom floor. She'd done everything she'd known to try and save him, but she'd been too late. She'd do anything to go back and somehow get to the house earlier that sunny day.
Closing her eyes, she could remember her father's face, his kindness, the way he moved and smelled, and the way he talked. Everything about the man had told his daughter's that he loved them, that he'd do anything for them. They'd lost their mother ten years ago; their father had picked up the pieces and raised three girls on his own. They had all missed their mother, but thanks to their father, they had grown up knowing that they were loved. They had never gone to bed hungry, dirty, or without a bedtime story.
If the food had been a little burnt or a little odd tasting, the girls never complained. Even when Alex's costume for the school play had turned out looking more like a green leaf than a tree, she hadn’t complained. When Lauren had finally hit the age to legally drive, she'd taken it upon herself to drive her sisters to and from school and any other after school functions they'd been involved in, even if it meant forgoing her own social life.
The guilt had always played in the back of her mind. If I had just watched Haley better. If I had just kept holding her hand, Mama would be here today.
The school had offered the girls counseling, but Lauren had just sat through it and had told the older woman who had been assigned to counsel her what she'd wanted to hear. Not once did she hint that it was her fault that their mother was gone. Not once did she confide in anyone that she was to blame.
When her father was in the ground, she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sky. The spring Texas air felt wonderful. She knew that in a little over a month, the breeze would be hot enough to steam the tears that were falling down her face. The cool wind would stop and be replaced by stillness and heat. But for now, she enjoyed the smell of the grass growing, the flowers blooming, and the sight of the cherry trees that were planted around the small cemetery. Her father had always loved the spring. He'd been looking forward to helping her plant a new flower garden near the back of the house.
Now who was she going to plant flowers with? She opened her eyes and looked at Alexis. Her blonde hair was tied up in a simple bun at the base of her neck. Her black skirt and gray shirt were in complete contrast to her sister's normal attire. Even though Alex had just turned sixteen, her wild side had been on the loose for the last two years. So much so that it had started eating up a lot of Lauren’s and their father’s time.
“Your sister is going to be the death of me. Mark my words, Lauren. Someday you're going to walk in and she'll be standing over my cold body, complaining about the fact that she can't have a pair of hundred-dollar jeans.”
In fact, Alex hadn't been home that day. She'd stayed the night at a friend’s house that entire weekend.
Lauren looked over at Haley. She was too young to remember their mother. And even though they'd never talked about it, she knew her sister was a little jealous of the fact that Lauren and Alex could both remembered her.
As the minister, a longtime family friend, was saying his closing, Lauren looked down at her father's final resting place. What was she going to do now? How were they going to live without him?
Her shoulders sank a little as she walked forward and tossed a white rose into the hole, onto her father's casket. When she turned and stepped away, she looked off to the distance. West of here was Saddleback Ranch, their home for as long as she could remember. It had been handed down for three generations now.
Straightening her shoulders and looking off to the distance, she knew in her heart that she'd do anything—anything—to keep it. To keep her and her sisters together. On their land. Like her father and mother would have wanted her to do.
After shaking the hands of and hugging almost everyone in the small three-thousand-person strong community, she stood outside her truck talking briefly with Grant Holton Sr., her father's lawyer and one of his best friends. Mr. Holton was tall and very broad chested. She'd heard once that he and her father had played football together.
She looked over as Dr. Graham and his son, Chase, walked up to them. Dr. Graham had been the ranch's veterinarian. Every animal on her land was healthy thanks to the older man who walked forward and shook her hand with a firm grip. Chase had been a year ahead of her in school. They'd grown up together and had even gone to a couple dances together in high school and had shared a few stolen kisses behind the bleachers. But then he'd graduated and she'd seen less and less of him.
Chase was tall like his father. It looked like he'd tried to grease back his bushy mass of black hair for the ceremony. She'd always loved pushing her hands into his thick hair. His dark brown eyes stared at her with sincere concern and grief, much like his father's did now.
“Lauren.” Dr. Graham shook her hand, then Mr. Holton's.
Mr. Holton nodded, then turned towards her. “I know this isn't the time to think about your future or the ranch's future, but maybe we can meet tomorrow. Just the three of us. There are a few details I need to go over with you.”
At that moment, realization hit her—she was the head of the house. She was now in charge of a thousand-acre ranch. In charge of her sisters. In charge of the cattle, the horses, everything. She must have paled a little, because Chase stepped forward and took her elbow. “Are you okay?” he whispered.
She wanted to shove his arm away and scream. “No! I'm not okay, you idiot. Everything is ruined! I have no family left.” But instead, she nodded and swayed a little, causing him to move his other arm around her waist. “Dad,” Chase said, looking towards his father.
“No,” Lauren blinked. If she wanted to keep the three of them on her family’s land, she would just have to step up a little more. Remember, she told herself, keep your sisters together and do whatever it takes to stay on your family's land. “If you want, I'm heading back to the house now. We can meet in say”—she looked at her watch as Chase dropped his arm—“an hour?”
Dr. Graham and Mr. Holton nodded their heads in unison. She could see the questions in their eyes. Lauren turned when she spotted her sisters walking towards her. She walked stiffly around to the driver’s side of her truck, her shoulders square. As they drove away in silence, she looked back and saw the three men standing there. A shiver rolled down her back and she knew at that moment that everything was going to change.
The drive to the ranch wasn't a long one. It sat almost ten miles outside of town, but the roads were always empty and the highway stretched in a straight line. When they passed the old iron gate with Saddleback Ranch overhead, she felt a little peace settle in her bones. There, in the distance, stood the three-story house she'd always known and loved. It had taken some bangs in its time. The tornado that had claimed their mother had torn the roof right off the massive place. The old red barn had been flattened back then as well. They'd lost a dozen horses and two of the farmhand houses. Thank goodness her father and the men had been in the hills that day, or they might have been caught up in the storm as well. But the barn and farmhands’ houses had been rebuilt. The house had gotten a shiny new roof, along with a new paint job and some new windows panes to replace the ones that had blown out. After her father replaced the storm cellar's door, no one talked about that day anymore.
Lauren stopped the truck in front of the barn, and Haley jumped out and ran through the massive doors. Alex turned and looked at Lauren.
“Don't worry. I'll go talk to her.” Lauren patted her sister's thigh and got out of the truck. Dingo, the family dog, an Australian shepherd m
ix, rushed up to Lauren and jumped on her dress. “No, down.” She pushed the dog off, but she followed her into the dark barn.
Outside, the sun had warmed her, but here in the darkness of the barn, the coolness seeped into her bones. She rubbed her arms with her hands as she walked forward to climb the old stairs that led to the second floor, where she knew her sister would be.
The loft was huge, taking up three quarters of the barn, but Lauren knew Haley's hiding places and walked right to her sister. Haley was stretched out on the soft hay, her best Sunday dress fanned out around her. She was face down and crying like there was no tomorrow. Lauren walked over and sat next to her. She pulled her into her arms and cried with her.
Less than an hour later, Lauren had changed into her work clothes and stood at the door to greet Mr. Holton, Dr. Graham, and, to her surprise, Chase. The four of them walked into her father's large office and she shut the glass doors behind her. Taking a large breath, she turned to face the room.
“Please, have a seat.” She motioned for the three men to sit as she walked around her father's massive desk and sat in his soft leather chair. She'd done it a hundred times, but this time it felt different.
“Your father was a great man,” Mr. Holton started. “He was our best friend.” He looked at Dr. Graham, and the other man nodded his head in agreement. “We could postpone this meeting for—”
“No, please.” Lauren straightened her shoulders.
“Very well.” Mr. Holton pulled out a file from his briefcase. “As you know, I am your father’s lawyer. John, here”—he nodded to Dr. Graham—“well, he has a stake in what we need to discuss. That's why I invited him along.”
“Continue,” Lauren said when she thought Mr. Holton had lost his nerve. She knew it was bad news; she could see it clearly on both man’s faces.
“Well, after that day”—Mr. Holton cleared his throat and shifted in his seat—“after we lost your mother, Richard took out some loans.”
“Mr. Holton, how much did my father owe the bank?” She wanted the bottom line. Holding her breath, she waited.
“Well, that's the tricky part. You see, Richard didn't trust in banks all that much.” The two older men looked between themselves. “Maybe this will explain it better.” He set the file on the desk in front of her.
She opened the file with shaky fingers. There, in her father's handwriting, was her future.
I, Richard West, being of sound body and mind, do solemnly promise to pay back the total sum of $100,000.00 to Johnathan Graham Sr. and Grant Holton II. If anything should happen to me, the proceeds of my ranch, Saddleback Ranch, would go to both men in equal amounts until paid back in full. They would have a say in the running of the ranch until said amount was paid in full.
It had been dated and signed by her father, John Graham, and Grant Holton Sr. over ten years ago.
“I understand your concerns.” She looked up from the paper. “As head of the house now, I will fulfill my father's obligations.”
“Well, that's all well and good.” Dr. Graham smiled. “But, well, we had an understanding between the three of us. If anything happened to him and we saw that you three or the ranch was in any jeopardy, we'd step in and run this place until we saw fit.”
Lauren listened as the men told her the scheme the three of them—her father, Mr. Holton and Dr. Graham—had come up with ten years ago in case anything like this should happen. How they'd take over the running of the land, the handling of the finances, even deciding how to deal with her and her sisters. She was being pushed out before she'd even had the chance to try and run things her way. She'd practically raised her sisters, and now these two men wanted to take control of everything, even her. Her heart sank upon hearing this news. She asked for some time to think about it and the men apologized and quickly excused themselves.
After the older men had driven away, Chase stayed behind and offered her another option. The next day Lauren stood in front of the courthouse in Tyler, wearing her Sunday best. She knew her life would never be the same again after that day.
Seven years later…
Chase stood in the middle of the street and took a deep breath. He was finally home. It wasn't that he'd been avoiding the place, or that he hadn't had the will to return, but life had led him down a twisted path. He was happy that he'd finally ended up back here, at least for now. A car horn honked at him, and he waved and moved from the center of the road. Walking up the stone steps to his father's building, he realized that the old green place had never looked better. He knew the money he'd been sending home over the last nine years had helped with fixing up the clinic.
When he opened the front door, the bell above the door chimed and he smiled.
“Morning, how can I—” Cheryl, his father's receptionist, stood slowly. “Son of a...”
“Now, Cheryl, you know you're not supposed to say that around here.” He walked forward and received her welcome hug. The woman almost engulfed him, but he smiled and took the beating as she patted his back hard. Her arms were like vices, but her front was soft and she smelled just like he remembered, like chocolate and wet puppies. The odd mix of aromas had always warmed his spirits.
“What are you doing back in town?” she asked. She gasped. “Does your father know?” She looked toward the back room.
He shook his head. “I wanted to surprise him.” He smiled.
Her smile slipped a little. “Well, you sure will.” Then she bit her bottom lip and he knew something was up.
“Spill.” He took her shoulders before she could turn away.
“What?” She tried to look innocent.
“Cheryl, how long have I known you?”
She smiled. “Going on twenty-eight years next June.” He smiled. Cheryl always did remembered his birthday.
“And in all that time, I've come to know that when you bite your bottom lip, you have something you're trying to hide. So...”—he motioned with his hand—“spill.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine. It's just your father's health. I know he hasn't mentioned it over the phone to you.”
“What about it?” Chase began to get worried and felt like rushing to the back room to check up on his dad. Cheryl had never mentioned anything personal about his father's health in their conversations. Neither had his father.
“Well, he injured his leg a while back.” She twisted her shirtfront.
“And?” He waited.
“And, well, he's walking with a cane now,” she blurted out, just as his father walked through the back door.
“Thank you, Cheryl. That will be enough out of you.” His father smiled. Sure enough, his father was leaning on a black cane. “Well, boy?” He held out his arm. “Don't make me hobble over to you for that hug.”
Chase rushed across the room and gave his old man a bear hug like he always had, noticing that his father was not only skinnier, but felt frailer. He had a million questions he wanted to ask, but knew his father wouldn't answer until he was good and ready.
“Come on back here, boy. Tell me what you've been up to.” His father started walking towards the back and Chase watched him hobble. Then his father turned. “Are you back to stay?”
“Yes,” Chase said absentmindedly. He hadn't meant to stay, had he?
“Good.” His father turned into his office and took a seat, setting the cane down beside him. Chase sat in the chair across from him, waiting.
“Well, I suppose I should tell you, you couldn't have come home at a better time. I'm retiring.”
“What?” Chase sat up. His father raised his hands, holding off the million questions he had.
“Yes, at the end of the year. I've been kicked one too many times.” His father smiled. “This old body doesn't want to work like it used to. I was going to give you a call later this month.”
“Dad?” He looked at him.
“I know, I know. I told you I'd never retire, but...” he looked down at his l
eg. “The doctors are telling me I have to be off this damned leg for six hours a day. Six! You and I both know that in this line of work you'd be lucky to sit for five minutes a day.”
Chase smiled. “I guess it's a good thing I'm home, then.”
His father smiled and nodded his head. “What do you say we go grab some lunch? I'm buying.”
Fairplay, Texas, had one place to sit and eat. Mama's Diner, a huge brown barn that had been turned into a restaurant, had been the best place to eat in two counties since as far back as Chase could remember. Even now the place looked new and smelled like greasy burgers.
His father took his usual booth. It almost made Chase laugh, knowing the man never sat in a different spot. Even if someone was in it, he'd stand and wait until the table was cleared. There were new menus and he took his time looking over the list of new items.
“How are you today, beautiful?” his father asked the waitress when she stopped by.
Chase looked up and stared into the most beautiful green eyes he'd ever seen. Her hair was longer than before, and her dark curls hung just below the most perfect breasts he'd ever had the pleasure of being up against. She was tall and limber and he could remember the softness of every curve he’d been allowed to feel. She looked down at him like he was in her way and he started coughing. He couldn't explain how it happened, but he was choking on air. Nothing was getting through to his lungs or to his brain. Finally, she smacked his back hard, and he took a deep breath. He stood and grabbed Lauren's arm and demanded in a low voice, “What the hell are you doing working here?”