Chapter One

The Rancher and the Vet

Chapter One
 
“I’m being deployed to Afghanistan. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess.”

Reed Montgomery straightened in his black leather desk chair with the lumbar support, his cell phone clutched in his now sweaty hand as he processed what his older brother said.

Colt was being deployed to Afghanistan. Soldiers went there and never returned.

Then the remainder of his brother’s words sank in. I need you to come to Estes Park and take care of Jess.

He loved his niece, but being responsible for a child left Reed shaking. He didn’t want children. The responsibility. The pressure of screwing up and damaging the kid for life. On top of that, any kid would be bad enough, but a teenage girl? That could send the strongest bachelor screaming into the night in fear for his life.

“Tell me I heard you wrong.”

“I need you to take care of Jess.”

His brother had lost his mind.

Once Reed’s brain kicked back into gear and his panic receded, he remembered his niece still had one set of grandparents. “I thought the plan was for Lynn’s parents to stay with her.”

“That was the idea, but when I called them I learned Joanne broke her hip last month and needed surgery.”

“And they’re just telling you now?”

“We don’t talk much since Lynn died. They blame me for her death.”

Almost a year ago, after fifteen years of marriage, Colt’s wife said she was sick of ranch life and ran off with her lover, only to die in a head on collision a month later. Colt picked up the pieces of his life, and explained as best he could to Jess that she hadn’t been responsible for her mom leaving.

Her death also meant Colt had to revise his family care plan the National Guard Reserves required in case he was deployed.

“You weren’t driving the car. Her lover was.”

“They say if I’d been a better husband, she wouldn’t have left. They think I should’ve spent more time at home and less time with the Reserves. Blaming me is easier than accepting the truth.”

An only child, Lynn had grown up catered to, spoiled rotten actually. Colt’s wife had been high maintenance, self centered and thought her husband’s life should revolve around making her happy.

“Is Joanne doing well enough that Jess could live with them in Florida?” In addition to being unqualified for the job, Reed’s life and his business were here in San Francisco. How could he up and leave for Colorado?

“She said she should be eventually, but there’s another problem. Their retirement community only lets children stay for a week. Last night Herb brought up the subject at a town hall meeting, and everyone went crazy. The Association of Homeowners thinks if it makes an exception for Jess, within a month they’ll be overrun with kids.”

“Threaten a lawsuit. That’ll make them back down. Better yet, give me your in-laws number. I’ll have my lawyer call them.”

“You need their phone number, but there’s no point in them talking to your lawyer.” As Colt rattled off the phone number, Reed added it to his computer address book. “Even if they got an exception, Jess refuses to live in an old folks’ neighborhood where people drive golf carts because they’re scared to drive a car. That’s a direct quote. She said when she stays with her grandparents they never go anywhere. So in her words, she’d be a prisoner.”

While he felt bad for his niece, that didn’t mean Reed wanted to return to the old homestead and play Dad. He’d been happy to see Estes Park in the rearview mirror of his beat up truck when he left for Stanford. The thought of returning for anything longer than a weekend visit left him queasy.

“Didn’t she agree to live with her grandparents when you made them her long term care providers?”

“When they bought this house in the retirement community, I didn’t think to talk to Jess about it, because the plan was that they’d stay with her in Colorado.”

“You’re the parent. Don’t ask Jess what she wants. Tell her what she’s going to do.”

Colt laughed. “That’s easy for someone who doesn’t have kids to say. I tried the strong arm approach. She threatened to run away.”

“Teenagers say that every time they don’t get their way.”

“I think she meant it, Reed.” Colt’s voice broke. “She’s been having trouble since Lynn died, but she won’t talk about it. Last year she started cutting classes and sneaking out at night to meet friends. Living in a retirement community and going to a new school would only make things worse.”

Somehow Reed couldn’t connect the sweet niece he’d seen a year and a half ago at Christmas with the teenager his brother described. Jess had been eager to please, had loved school and was an excellent student. He stared at her picture on the corner of his mahogany desk. Her wide smile and twinkling brown eyes spoke of how carefree she’d been. Of course, the photo had been snapped before her mom ran off. He knew how that betrayal had affected Colt, but how could a kid wrap her head around something like that?

And his brother expected him to deal with a teenager who’d lost her mother and was acting out? What did he know about dealing with difficult children? Nothing except the piss poor example his father gave him. His stomach dropped. What if when Jess pushed him, and she would—hell all teenagers did, even the good ones—how would he deal with it? Would he react like his old man, with a closed mind and an iron fist?

No, he was better than his father.

He’d worked hard to become the man he was today, and unlike his father, tried to do something about his anger. When Reed worried he might repeat the cycle of violence he’d taken an anger management class. Of course going back to Estes Park and dealing with a teenager could test the techniques he’d learned.

The good news was he and Jess got along well. He loved his niece and to her, he was the cool uncle who sent great gifts like the latest version iPhone. They’d be okay. “You really think she was serious about running away?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to come here otherwise. I know this will make running your business tough.”

His cell phone beeped in his ear, alerting him to another call. Reed glanced at the screen. Damn. He’d been trying to get in touch with Phil Connor all morning. Forcing himself to let the call go to voice mail, Reed focused on his brother’s problem. “Tricky? Yes. Impossible? No. Could she come here instead?”

“As if dealing with losing her mom wasn’t enough, soon after that her best friend moved to Chicago. Now I’m going to a war zone. I’m nervous about uprooting her, too. That’s another reason I backed down when she balked about going to Florida. I need you to do this for me. You and Jess are the only family I’ve got.”

The words hit Reed hard. He and Colt had always been close. Even before their parents died, he and Colt relied on each other, sticking together through all the crap slung at them during childhood. While Reed’s life the last few years had been almost perfect, Colt hadn’t been as lucky. Life had knocked his brother around pretty good, especially the last year. How could Reed add to Colt’s problems? Only a selfish bastard would say no.

“How soon do you need me there?”

“I leave in three days. If you get here tomorrow, that’ll give us time to go over things before I leave.” Colt’s heavy sigh radiated over the phone lines. “If anything happens to me, promise me you’ll—”

“Don’t say that.” While Reed tried to fill his voice with confidence, he knew there was no guarantee Colt would come home in one piece, or come home at all.

“I’ve got to, and dammit Reed, you will listen. If I don’t come back, promise me you’ll watch out for Jess. Sure, Lynn’s parents would take her, but I’m not sure that’s best for her, especially if they won’t move to Colorado.”

“I give you my word, but you’ve got to take care. Don’t do anything stupid like trying to act like a superhero.”

Colt chuckled, but the sound rang flat in Reed’s ears. “Deal.”

After ending his conversation with his brother, Reed returned Phil’s call and reassured the client that their project was still on schedule. He was proud of his company, of what he’d accomplished. RJ Instruments was small, with only forty employees, but it was his. Something he’d created from nothing, and the company was holding it own in the market. They were the up and comers in the semi-conductors business, making the chips that drove all today’s computer wonder gadgets.

Of course all of that could change when he started running things remotely.

Reed turned to his attention to his calendar and his upcoming meetings. Some he could handle via Skype. With a laptop and his cell phone, he could run his business long distance for a couple of months, but more than that? Probably not. His customers would want to see him in person. He’d have to make in person sales calls to launch SiEtch. He smiled thinking of their newest product. If he was right, they’d revolutionize the semi-conductor industry, but they were quickly approaching some crucial deadlines for release. He definitely couldn’t run his business remotely for a year until Colt returned.

He hadn’t gotten where he was by letting fate toss him around. He’d created a solid business by being proactive. His mind worked the problem rehashing the immediate issues forcing him to return to Colorado—the Association of Homeowners’ age restriction and Jess’s resistance.

No matter what Colt thought, the first step was tackling the association’s age restriction. Reed turned to his computer and clicked on his address book to locate Colt’s in-law’s number. Then he opened a new email, hit the priority icon and typed a message to his lawyer.

Contact my brother’s in-laws to get the contact information on their Association of Homeowners. I need the association to make an exception for my niece to stay with her grandparents indefinitely while Colt’s in Afghanistan. Threaten an age discrimination lawsuit. Do whatever you have to, but get the exception. Until I receive the approval I’ll be forced to relocate to Colorado to take care of my niece.

Reed hit send and leaned back in his chair. He ran a small, but solvent corporation, surely when the exemption came through he could convince one girl to seeing things his way, especially when staying with her grandparents was best for her. There she’d have a woman to talk to and two people who’d actually raised a child, instead of an uncle who couldn’t keep fish alive.

Next Reed called Ethan, his Vice President of Engineering, and asked him to come to his office. He met Ethan fresh out of college when they started working as software engineers at the same company. Eventually Reed moved to the management track while Ethan pursued the technical route. The guy was a genius in that avenue, and the first person Reed hired when he started RJ Instruments.

When the VP arrived, Reed motioned toward the black leather couch. Then he walked across his office and settled into the wing chair to his friend’s right. He glanced up at the print of a hole at Pebble Beach on the wall behind his sofa. Below the photo were the words, “The harder the course, the more rewarding the triumph.” He hoped that held true this time.

“I need to update you on something that developed this morning.” Reed explained about Colt’s deployment and his leaving for Colorado.

“What about the customer calls you’re scheduled to make next week?”

When clients had questions or needed hand holding, Reed picked up the phone or hopped on a plane if necessary and handled the situations. While both he and Ethan understood the technology, over the last few years, Ethan developed issues dealing with clients, viewing them as a necessary nuisance, and became frustrated because they refused to see things his way. But now he’d have to step up and take on some of those responsibilities.

“Hopefully, I can handle the issues with conference calls or on Skype. I might be able to pull off a quick day trip.” Fly out, meet with the client and rush back to Colorado. Or, he and Jess could leave Friday afternoon for a meeting/vacation trip. “But if those options don’t work, you’ll have to go instead.”

“If I have to, I guess I have to.”

“I can still run the weekly status meeting as usual via Skype. Between the two of us, we can reassure clients they won’t see any difference in our service or attention to detail. We need to make sure everyone understands my being in Colorado won’t affect our timelines either, especially for SiEtch’s release.”

“I still think we’re missing the mark, and we should lower our price point.”

No way would he discuss that issue with Ethan again. They disagreed, and nothing either said would change the other’s mind. “My lawyer’s working on getting approval for my niece to move in with her grandparents. Six months at the outside and I’ll be back here running things.”

Ethan shook his head, and chuckled. “I don’t envy you. Six months with a teenage girl? I hope you can stay sane.”

“It shouldn’t be too bad. School starts a couple of days after I get there. How hard can it be when she’s gone eight hours a day?”

# # #

Reed’s stomach knotted up when Estes Park came into view. The main drag into town was four lanes now instead of two, but even now at rush hour, the traffic seemed non existent by

San Francisco standards, and damn, a turtle moved faster. They passed The Stanley Hotel, a white giant perched alone above the town. Further into town, shops catering to tourists that kept the small town of ten thousand alive, lined the streets. So many people came here to enjoy the scenery, shop and relax. Here they could get away from their lives and slow down for a while. Recharge their batteries.

Not Reed. How would he face anyone after what he’d done to his father? Sure he’d changed, but everyone in Estes Park knew who he’d been. That’s why when he visited Colt he stayed on the ranch, but that wouldn’t be an option now.

As the town faded in the rear view mirror and they drove past other bigger ranches, Reed longed for the big city where he could lose himself. Where he could walk past people and no one knew him. No one knew what he’d spent a life time running from.

When Colt turned down the long gravel driveway to the Rocking M, Reed’s chest tightened. Pine and aspen trees stood guard. Others would call the rustic ranch settled among the rugged Rocky Mountains beautiful, maybe even going so far as serene, but not Reed. The mountains loomed over the ranch like a silent giant, reminding him of his father—harsh, unyielding and domineering.

Memories bombarded him as the simple ranch house came into view. Colt had painted the place a soft brown instead of the dingy cream Reed remembered and planted new landscaping, but the alterations couldn’t change his memories or the fact that he’d been glad to be free of the place. For Reed, the old man’s presence dominated everything on the ranch. Even after all these years, and everything he’d done to shake him.

Like staying away from Estes Park while his father had been alive.

“You know where the guest room is,” Colt said once they stepped inside the front door. “When you’re ready I’ll give you the run down on the place.”

While Reed had returned to the Rocking M since Colt owned the place, his visits consisted of a Thanksgiving weekend or a couple of days over Christmas, and he’d avoided town. He’d worked so hard to forget his past, but that was hard to remember when everyone in town knew who he’d been.

Especially Avery.

Ben McAlister, Avery’s father, had done him a favor all those years ago, though at the time, Reed thought it had been the worst thing to ever happen to him.

You’re father’s an alcoholic who beats the people he claims to love. You’ve changed this summer, and I hate to say it, but I see glimpses of him in you son. You need to grow up and deal with your past. Until you do that, all you’ll do is drag my daughter down with you.

As Reed trudged up the stairs he told himself he’d be damned if he’d let his memories pull him down.

He walked into the guest bedroom, and his throat closed up. While the room looked nothing like when he’d lived here, now resembling more of a hotel room with nondescript accessories and earth tones, all he saw was the past. He saw himself as a scared child, huddled in the corner between his bed and the wall as the sounds of his parents arguing shook the house. He remembered how often he curled up on his bed, his chest aching from the blow his father’s meaty fists had delivered. He pictured himself as a teenager sprawled out on the floor, the world spinning around him from drinking too much beer to numb the pain.

He’d never been able to stand being here for longer than four days. How would he handle staying for possibly a year? One nightmare at a time. And he’d do what he’d always done. He’d focus on work. After dumping his suitcase in the closet, he practically ran out of the room.

When he and Colt toured the ranch, Reed realized almost as many ghosts taunted him outside as in the damned house. They walked past the hay pasture, and he remembered how his dad had smacked his head so hard his ears rang for a day when he’d gotten the tractor wheel stuck in a hole, and it took them over an hour to pull the thing loose.

Don’t go there. Remember who you are, not who you were.

Instead he’d focus on tasks and what needed to be done while Colt was gone. If he stayed busy enough he might survive. “I knew Dad sold some land before he died, but I didn’t know it was this much.”

“Damn near half of the acreage. My guess is once you left he was too lazy to do the work and too cheap to hire hands, so selling off the land and stock was the easiest ways to keep a roof over his head and his liquor cabinet full.”

“That sounds like our father.”

“I’ve been rebuilding the place, but it’s been slow going.”

Especially a wife like Lynn. Reed often thought if she hadn’t gotten pregnant Colt’s senior year, she and his brother would’ve broken up after high school. Instead, his brother graduated, enlisted in the Air Force and the pair married.

When their father died, Colt bought Reed’s share of the ranch, and his family returned to Colorado. His brother hoped putting down roots would make his wife happy since she’d grown weary of military life, something he loved. Something he saw as a calling. Part of the compromise had been that Colt could join the National Guard Reserves. Unfortunately despite everything Colt did, he didn’t get the happy ending.

Reed got the better end of the deal. He’d used the money Colt paid him to start RJ Instruments.

The musty smell of hay hit him when they entered the barn, bringing with it memories of the hours he’s spent toting hay and horse feed to the barn, and mucking out stalls.

“How can you stand living here? Don’t the memories get to you?”

“I just remember the bastard’s dead and buried. I’ve had a damned good time changing things around the place. I hope some of them have him turning over in his grave. That gives me a whole helluva lot of pleasure.” Colt thumped his brother on the back. “I know this is tough for you.”

“I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I can stand being here a year.” He looked his brother straight in the eyes. “You don’t know what it was like after you left.”

While they were teenagers, Colt saved Reed more than once. When their dad went on a tirade, Reed shouted back or argued. He and his father went at it like two bulls stuck in the same pasture. Colt was the one who stepped in to diffuse the situation, or he hauled Reed off before his dad could beat him to death. When Colt left for the Air Face, Reed and his father’s anger spiraled out of control.

He’d come home to find his dad drunk and spoiling for a fight, hammering on his favorite subject—how Reed was a bastard for leaving him to fend for himself. One thing led to another, and his father punched him in the face. Something inside Reed shattered that night, and without Colt there, he exploded.

He whirled, delivering blow after blow until his father collapsed on the floor. His chest heaving, Reed stood over the man that had tormented him for years. Then the reality of what he’d done sank in. He’d stooped to his father’s level by taking his anger out on another human being. Then his father roused enough to scream that he’d make Reed pay. He’d call the police and see that Reed’s sorry, ungrateful ass landed in jail.

Panic consuming him, Reed ran out of the house. Hours later when he came out of his haze, he found himself at the McAlister front door. Avery held him while the whole damned mess poured out of him. Then she’d woken up her parents.

Once he explained what happened to Avery’s parents, Ben McAlister called his lawyer. When Reed claimed he couldn’t afford that, Ben told him not to worry about the money. Without Ben McAlister paying for his attorney, Reed could’ve gone to jail. He never knew the details of how Ben and his attorney got his father to agree to drop charges. They’d never said, and he never asked.

That one event had changed him in ways he still didn’t understand.

“I’ve got an idea what it was like. That’s why you coming back to stay with Jess was always the backup plan. That’s why I didn’t want to ask you to do it, and if Joanne hadn’t broken her hip, I wouldn’t have asked at all.”

“I’m also worried about dealing with Jess.” That and holding his company together, but Reed left out that detail. Colt carried enough weight on his shoulders.

When Reed first spotted Jess at the airport, dressed in tight, low cut jeans with a deep v necked sparkly T-shirt that barely covered her midriff, he’d wanted to turn around and catch the first plane going anywhere.

“If I can’t handle being here…If I get your in-laws’ Association of Homeowners to make an exception, and I can get Jess to agree to it, are you okay with her living with her grandparents?”

Colt nodded. “As long as Jess agrees, I’m fine with it.”

Reed’s fear subsided now that he had a safety net.

“Jess is a good kid. Lynn’s leaving really did a number on her. How the hell could she run off on her daughter? She didn’t even have the nerve to tell Jess before she left. I had to,” Colt said as they walked toward the horse stalls. “Damn, that was hard. You should’ve seen Jess’s face. She looked at me with those big brown eyes of hers, and asked why her mom didn’t love her anymore.”

Reed stood there stunned. He knew Lynn’s leaving had been bad, but Colt hadn’t told him what a bitch she’d been. “You sure picked a winner.”

“You’re right about that. The only good thing I got out of that marriage was Jess. She’s worth whatever hell I went through.” Colt shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “School starts the day after tomorrow. It about takes a crow bar to get Jess out of bed, and she takes forever to get ready. Classes start at eight. If she isn’t up by seven, she’ll be late. You need to leave by seven forty-five.”

Reed jotted down information about Jess’s routines, the location of important documents and anything else he thought he might need to remember.

“She seems nervous about starting high school this year.” Colt shook his head. “I don’t remember us worrying about the kind of stuff she does—imagined slights, borrowing clothes, who said what about her outfit. The worst arguments are about boys. Girls are downright mean to each other, and their fights.” Colt whistled through his teeth.

“Worse than ours?”

Colt nodded as they walked past another stall. “We pounded on each other, but then it was over. Not with girls. When they get mad the emails and tweets fly. Girls divide into two camps. Then the tears start. Sometimes for days, and Jess won’t talk about it. Then when I think it’ll never end, everything’s fine, and they’re all friends again.”

Lord help him. He’d rather fight off a hostile takeover than face what Colt just described. Why didn’t society ship all teenage girls off to an island, and allow them to come back once their sanity returned? Not that women actually became completely sane again.

“You’re not making me feel better about this. What do you do during all this drama?”

“Drama? That attitude will get you in trouble.”

Reed froze as a lilting feminine voice washed over him. How many times had he heard that sultry voice in his dreams? Way too many to count, but never once when he’d come back had he sought her out. He wasn’t one to borrow trouble. They were too different. He couldn’t live her again, and she couldn’t live anywhere else, but more importantly, he couldn’t give her one thing she desperately wanted—children.

He glanced over his shoulder at the woman coming out of a horse stall two doors down. She’d been pretty in high school, but the word failed to describe her now. Tall and willowy, even dressed in dirty jeans and a shapeless scrub top, without any makeup, the woman before him could tie up traffic for hours when she crossed the street.

Avery McAlister.

Staring at the beautiful blonde in front of him, he knew he’d been right to Avery, because seeing the only woman he’d ever loved, hurt worse than any blow he’d taken from his father.

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