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Montana Sky, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  “I’ll be back by Monday at the latest.”

  She carried the phone along as she paced about with quick, jerky motions, nervous energy searing the air around her. She’d closed the doors of what she supposed was a den, hoping to have at least a few moments of privacy. She had to work hard to ignore the mounted animal heads that populated the walls.

  “The script’s finished.” She smiled a little, tunneled her fingers through the straightedge swing of dark hair that curved at her jaw. “Damn right it’s brilliant, and it’ll be in your hot little hands Monday. Don’t hassle me, Ira,” she warned her agent. “I’ll get you the script, then you get me the deal. My cash flow’s down to a dribble.”

  She shifted the phone and pursed her lips as she helped herself to a snifter of brandy from the decanter. She was still listening to the promises and pleas of Hollywood when she saw Lily and Adam stroll by the window.

  Interesting, she thought, and sipped. The little mouse and the Noble Savage.

  Tess had done some quick checking before she’d made the trip to Montana. She knew Adam Wolfchild was the son of Jack Mercy’s third and final wife. That he’d been eight when his mother had married Mercy. Wolfchild was Blackfoot, or mostly. His mother had been part Indian. The man had spent twenty-five years on Mercy Ranch and had little more to show for it than a tiny house and a job tending horses.

  Tess intended to have more.

  As for Lily, all Tess had discovered was that she was divorced, childless, and moved around quite a bit. Probably because her husband had used her for a punching bag, Tess thought, and made herself clamp down on a stir of pity. She couldn’t afford emotional attachments here. It was straight business.

  Lily’s mother had been a photographer who’d come to Montana to snap pictures of the real West. She’d snapped Jack Mercy—for all the good it had done her, Tess thought.

  Then there was Willa. Tess’s mouth tightened as she thought of Willa. The one who had stayed, the one the old bastard had kept.

  Well, she owned the place now, Tess assumed, shrugging her shoulders. And she was welcome to it. No doubt she’d earned it. But Tess Mercy wasn’t walking away without a nice chunk of change.

  Looking out the window, she could see the plains in the distance, rolling, rolling endlessly, as empty as the moon. With a shudder, she turned her back on the view. Christ, she wanted Rodeo Drive.

  “Monday, Ira,” she snapped, annoyed with his voice buzzing in her ear. “Your office, twelve sharp. Then you can take me to lunch.” With that as a good-bye, she replaced the receiver.

  Three days, tops, she promised herself, and toasted an elk head with her brandy. Then she’d get the hell out of Dodge and back to civilization.

  “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO REMIND YOU THAT YOU GOT guests downstairs, Will.” Bess Pringle stood with her hands on her bony hips and used the same tone she’d used when Willa was ten.

  Willa jerked her jeans on—Bess didn’t believe in little niceties like privacy and had barely knocked before striding into the bedroom. Willa responded just as she might have at ten. “Then don’t.” She sat down to pull on her boots.

  “Rude is a four-letter word.”

  “So’s work, but it still has to be done.”

  “And you’ve got enough hands around this place to see to it for one blessed day. You’re not going off somewhere today, of all days. It ain’t fittin’.”

  What was or wasn’t fitting constituted the bulk of Bess’s moral and social codes. She was a bird of a woman, all bone and teeth, though she could plow through a mountain of hotcakes like a starving field hand and had the sweet tooth of an eight-year-old. She was fifty-eight—and had changed the date on her birth certificate to prove it—and had a head of flaming red hair she dyed in secret and kept pulled back in a don’t-give-me-any-lip bun.

  Her voice was as rough as pine bark and her face as smooth as a girl’s, and surprisingly pretty with moss-green eyes and a pug Irish nose. Her hands were small and quick and able. And so was her temper.

  With her fists still glued to her hips, she marched up to Willa and glared down. “You get your sassy self down those stairs and tend to your guests.”

  “I’ve got a ranch to run.” Willa rose. It hardly mattered that in her boots she topped Bess by six inches. The balance of power had always tottered back and forth between them. “And they’re not my guests. I’m not the one who wanted them here.”

  “They’ve come to pay respects. That’s fittin’.”

  “They’ve come to gawk and prowl around the house. And it’s time they left.”

  “Maybe some of them did.” Bess jerked her head in a little nod. “But there’s plenty more who are here for you.”

  “I don’t want them.” Willa turned away, picked up her hat, then simply stood staring out her window, crushing the brim in her hands. The window faced the mountains, the dark belt of trees, the peaks of the Big Belt that held all the beauty and mystery in the world. “I don’t need them. I can’t breathe with all these people hovering around.”

  Bess hesitated before laying a hand on Willa’s shoulder. Jack Mercy hadn’t wanted his daughter raised soft. No pampering, no spoiling, no cuddling. He’d made that clear while Willa had still been in diapers. So Bess had pampered and spoiled and cuddled only when she was certain she wouldn’t be caught and sent away like one of Jack’s wives.

  “Honey, you got a right to grieve.”

  “He’s dead and he’s buried. Feeling sorry won’t change it.” But she lifted a hand, closed it over the small one on her shoulder. “He didn’t even tell me he was sick, Bess. He couldn’t even give me those last few weeks to try to take care of him, or to say good-bye.”

  “He was a proud man,” Bess said, but she thought, Bastard. Selfish bastard. “It’s better the cancer took him quick rather than letting him linger. He would’ve hated that and it would’ve been harder on you.”

  “One way or the other, it’s done.” She smoothed the wide, circling brim of her hat, settled it on her head. “I’ve got animals and people depending on me. The hands need to see, right now, that I’m in charge. That Mercy Ranch is still being run by a Mercy.”

  “You do what you have to do, then.” Years of experience had taught Bess that what was fitting didn’t hold much water when it came to ranch business. “But you be back by suppertime. You’re going to sit down and eat decent.”

  “Clear these people out of the house, and I will.”

  She started out, turning left toward the back stairs. They wound down the east wing of the house and allowed her to slip into the mudroom. Even there she could hear the beehive buzz of conversations from the other rooms, the occasional roll of laughter. Resenting all of it, she slammed out the door, then pulled up short when she saw the two men smoking companionably on the side porch.

  Her gaze narrowed on the older man and the bottle of beer dangling from his fingers. “Enjoying yourself, Ham?”

  Sarcasm from Willa didn’t ruffle Hamilton Dawson. He’d put her up on her first pony, had wrapped her head after her first spill. He’d taught her how to use a rope, shoot a rifle, and dress a deer. Now he merely fit his cigarette into the little hole surrounded by grizzled hair and blew out a smoke ring.

  “It’s”—another smoke ring formed—“a pretty afternoon.”

  “I want the fence checked along the northwest boundary.”

  “Been done,” he said placidly, and continued to lean on the rail, a short, stocky man on legs curved like a wishbone. He was ranch foreman and figured he knew what needed to be done as well as Willa did. “Got a crew out making repairs. Sent Brewster and Pickles up the high country. We lost a couple head up there. Looks like cougar.” Another drag, another stream of smoke. “Brewster’ll take care of it. Likes to shoot things.”

  “I want to talk to him when he gets back.”

  “I expect you will.” He straightened up from the rail, adjusted his mud-colored dishrag of a hat. “It’s weaning time.”

  “Yes, I know

  He expected she did, and nodded again. “I’ll go check on the fence crew. Sorry about your pa, Will.”

  She knew those simple words tacked onto ranch business were more sincere and personal than the acres of flowers sent by strangers. “I’ll ride out later.”

  He nodded, to her, to the man beside him, then hitched his bowlegged way toward his rig.

  “How are you holding up, Will?”

  She shrugged a shoulder, frustrated that she didn’t know what to do next. “I want it to be tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow’ll be easier, don’t you think, Nate?”

  Because he didn’t want to tell her the answer was no, he tipped back his beer. He was there for her, as a friend, a fellow rancher, a neighbor. He was also there as Jack Mercy’s lawyer, and he knew that before too much more time passed he was going to shatter the woman standing beside him.

  “Let’s take a walk.” He set the beer down on the rail, took Willa’s arm. “My legs need stretching.”

  He had a lot of them. Nathan Torrence was a tall one. He’d hit six two at seventeen and had kept growing. Now, at thirty-three, he was six six and lanky with it. Hair the color of wheat straw curled under his hat. His eyes were as blue as the Montana sky in a face handsomely scored by wind and sun. At the end of long arms were big hands. At the end of long legs were big feet. Despite them, he was surprisingly graceful.

  He looked like a cowboy, walked like a cowboy. His heart, when it came to matters of his family, his horses, and the poetry of Keats, was as soft as a down pillow. His mind, when it came to matters of law, of justice, of simple right and wrong, was as hard as granite.

  He had a deep and long-standing affection for Willa Mercy. And he hated that he had no choice but to put her through hell.

  “I’ve never lost anybody close to me,” Nate began. “I can’t say I know how you feel.”

  Willa kept walking, past the cookhouse, the bunkhouse, by the chicken house where the hens were going broody. “He never let anyone get close to him. I don’t know how I feel.”

  “The ranch . . .” This was dicey territory, and Nate negotiated carefully. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

  “We’ve got good people, good stock, good land.” It wasn’t hard to smile up at Nate. It never was. “Good friends.”

  “You can call on me anytime, Will. Me or anyone in the county.”

  “I know that.” She looked beyond him, to the paddocks, the corrals, the outbuildings, the houses, and farther, to where the land went into its long, endless roll to the bottom of the sky. “A Mercy has run this place for more than a hundred years. Raised cattle, planted grain, run horses. I know what needs to be done and how to do it. Nothing really changes.”

  Everything changes, Nate thought. And the world she was speaking of was about to take a sharp turn, thanks to the hard heart of a dead man. It was better to do it now, straight off, before she climbed onto a horse or into a rig and rode off.

  “We’d best get to the reading of the will,” he decided.


  J ACK MERCY’S OFFICE, ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF THE main house, was big as a ballroom. The walls were paneled in yellow pine lumbered from his own land and shellacked to a rich gloss that lent a golden light to the room. Huge windows provided views of the ranch, the land and sky. Jack had been fond of saying he could see all a man needed to see from those windows, which were undraped but ornately trimmed.

  On the floor were layered the rugs he’d collected. The chairs were leather, as he’d preferred, in rich shades of teal and maroon.

  His trophies hung on the walls—heads of elk and bighorn sheep, of bear and buck. Crouched in one corner as though poised to charge was a massive black grizzly, fangs exposed, glassy black eyes full of rage.

  Some of his favored weapons were in a locked display case. His great-grandfather’s Henry rifle and Colt Peacemaker, the Browning shotgun that had brought down the bear, the Mossberg 500 he’d called his dove duster, and the .44 Magnum he’d preferred for handgun hunting.

  It was a man’s room, with male scents of leather and wood and a whiff of tobacco from the Cubans he liked to smoke.

  The desk, which he’d had custom-made, was a lake of glossy wood, a maze of drawers all hinged with polished brass. Nate sat behind it now, fiddling with papers to give everyone present time to settle.

  Tess thought he looked as out of place as a beer keg at a church social. The cowboy lawyer, she thought with a quick twist of her lips, duded up in his Sunday best. Not that he wasn’t appealing in a rough, country sort of fashion. A young Jimmy Stewart, she thought, all arms and legs and quiet sexuality. But big, gangling men who wore boots with their gabardine weren’t her style.

  And she just wanted to get this whole damn business over with and get back to LA. She rolled her eyes toward the snarling grizzly, the shaggy head of a mountain goat, the weapons that had hunted them down. What a place, she mused. And what people.

  Besides the cowboy lawyer, there was the skinny, henna-haired housekeeper, who sat in a straight-backed chair with her knobby knees tight together and modestly covered with a perfectly horrible black skirt. Then the Noble Savage, with his heartbreakingly beautiful face, his enigmatic eyes, and the faint odor of horses that clung to him.

  Nervous Lily, Tess thought, continuing her survey, with her hands pressed together like vises and her head lowered, as if that would hide the bruises on her face. Lovely and fragile as a lost bird set down among vultures.

  When Tess’s heart began to stir, she deliberately turned her attention to Willa.

  Cowgirl Mercy, she thought with a sniff. Sullen, probably stupid, and silent. At least the woman looked better in jeans and flannel than she had in that baggy dress she’d worn to the funeral. In fact, Tess decided she made quite a picture, sitting in the big leather chair, her booted foot resting on her knee, her oddly exotic face set like stone.

  And since she’d yet to see a single tear squeeze its way out of the dark eyes, Tess assumed Willa had no more love for Jack Mercy than she herself did.

  Just business, she thought, tapping her fingers impatiently on the arm of her chair. Let’s get down to it.

  Even as she had the thought, Nate lifted his eyes, met hers. For one uncomfortable moment, she felt he knew exactly what was going through her mind. And his disapproval of her, of everything about her, was as clear as the sky spread in the window behind him.

  Think what you want, she decided, and kept her eyes cool on his. Just give me the cash.

  “There’s a couple ways we can do this,” Nate began. “There’s formal. I can read Jack’s will word for word, then explain what the hell all that legal talk means. Or I can give you the meaning, the terms, the options first.” Deliberately he looked at Willa. She was the one who mattered most, to him. “Up to you.”

  “Do it the easy way, Nate.”

  “All right, then. Bess, he left you a thousand dollars for every year you’ve been at Mercy. That’s thirty-four thousand.”

  “Thirty-four thousand.” Bess’s eyes popped wide. “Good Lord, Nate, what am I supposed to do with a fat lot of money like that?”

  He smiled. “Well, you spend it, Bess. If you want to invest some, I can give you a hand with it.”

  “Goodness.” Overwhelmed at the thought of it, she looked at Willa, back at her hands, and at Nate again. “Goodness.”

  And Tess thought: If the housekeeper gets thirty grand, I ought to get double. She knew just what she’d do with a fat lot of money.

  “Adam, in accordance with an agreement Jack made with your mother when they married, you’re to receive a lump sum of twenty thousand, or a two percent interest in Mercy Ranch, whichever you prefer. I can tell you the percentage is worth more than the cash, but the decision remains yours.”

  “It’s not enough.” Willa’s voice snapped out, making Lily jump and Tess raise an eyebrow. “It’s not right. Two percent? Adam’s worked this ranch since he was eight years old. He’s—”

� From his position behind her chair, Adam laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s right enough.”

  “The hell it is.” Fury for him, the injustice of it, had her shoving the hand away. “We’ve got one of the finest strings of horses in the state. That’s Adam’s doing. The horses should be his now—and the house where he lives. He should have been given land, and the money to work it.”

  “Willa.” Patient, Adam put his hand on her again, held it there. “It’s what our mother asked for. It’s what he gave.”

  She subsided because there were strangers’ eyes watching. And because she would fix the wrongness of it. She’d have Nate draw up papers before the end of the day. “Sorry.” She laid her hands calmly on the wide arms of the chair. “Go on, Nate.”

  “The ranch and its holdings,” Nate began again, “the stock, the equipment, vehicles, the timber rights . . .” He paused, and prepared himself for the unhappy job of destroying hopes. “Mercy Ranch business is to continue as usual, expenses drawn, salaries paid, profits banked or reinvested with you as operator, Will, under the executor’s supervision for a period of one year.”

  “Wait.” Willa held up a hand. “He wanted you to supervise the running of the ranch for a year?”

  “Under certain conditions,” Nate added, and his eyes were