Carson grabbed the phone without looking, knowing it would be Rebecca. She was late—as usual—and she tucked it against her shoulder as she hunted for her keycard.
"I know, I know, I'm late," she said. "Sorry. I'm on my way."
"Then I'm glad I caught you."
She nearly dropped the phone at the sound of the man's voice. She stopped in her tracks, her brain recognizing the voice before her heart allowed her to.
"Chase?" she whispered.
"Oh my God. How did you find me?" She sat down heavily, her lunch date with Rebecca forgotten as her mind raced. She hadn't heard her brother's voice in twelve years.
"Well, you know, our lawyer found your lawyer. You really shouldn't have kept your business with Grammy Mae's attorneys if you didn't want to be found."
"I never thought anyone would look," she said, surprised at the bitterness of her words. She'd thought that twelve years was enough to get past it.
"You ran away so fast, we didn't think you wanted us to look."
"Ran away?" She laughed, again the bitterness tasting strange in her mouth.
"What he did to you was wrong, Car, but it didn't reflect what the rest of us felt. At least not me. You know that."
"Whatever," she mumbled childishly, both annoyed and thrilled at the shortening of her name. Chase had rarely called her by her full name.
"You need to come home now."
"What? You call me up after twelve years and tell me to come home? No pleasantries? No how have you been? No where have you been? Nothing?"
"I know where you've been. Europe mostly. You have a fondness for Italy."
"Well, the women there are really hot."
"No doubt. I imagine now you're back in New York."
"You imagine wrong," she said, glancing out her hotel window at the unobstructed view of Fisherman's Wharf and San FranciscoBay.
"Look, you need to come home. He's dying. He has cancer."
"So? He's been dead to me for a long time."
"Cody and Chance are running the ranch into the ground, and Colt wants to turn it into a dude ranch, of all things," he said. "I need you to come back."
"The old man's too sick to run the place?"
"He's been sick for over a year, in and out of the hospital. He's coming home tomorrow. He's coming home to die. You need to make your peace with him, Car."
She wanted to feel nothing. In fact, she convinced herself that the twinge of guilt she was feeling was for the ranch and not her father. She loved the ranch. She loved everything about it. Up until that final day, however.
"Please, Car. Come back. Come back home."
"Wow, even by your standards, this is really late," Rebecca said as Carson joined her at their favorite outdoor café.
"Sorry," she said, bending over and kissing her friend quickly on the cheek. "I got a phone call."
Rebecca finally looked at her, her brow furrowed. "What's wrong? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Aptly put." Carson took a swallow of water before continuing. "My brother."
"Carson Cartwright, you have a brother?"
"Four of them, actually."
Rebecca smiled and leaned her elbows on the table. "Oh, you're always such a woman of mystery. I learn something new about you every time we talk."
"That's because you know nothing about me so any time I let something slip, you're fascinated."
"Of course. Like I said, a woman of mystery." She leaned closer. "Why is that, Carson? Why do you keep yourself so guarded?"
"It's a hard habit to shake," she said, pausing as a waiter placed a bowl in front of her.
"I took the liberty of ordering," Rebecca explained. "Crab salad."
"Thank you," she said, smiling at the waiter. She no longer had an appetite but she picked up her fork, twisting it in her hand. "He wants me to come home."
"Where is Montana exactly?"
Carson rolled her eyes.
"I'm kidding, of course," Rebecca said. "It's somewhere north, I know that. Cows and snow?"
Carson nodded. "Mountains, forests, huge ranches. Lush green valleys. My family has a ranch there." She sighed, picturing the ranch in the summertime, the bright green meadow against the blue sky almost too beautiful to absorb. How many days did she ride off and lay down on the carpet of green, staring up into the endless blue, thinking there was no better place on earth than right there where she was. And for awhile, that was true.
"And? Why does he want you there?"
"My father is dying."
"And she has a father too."
"Look, I know I haven't told you much about my past—"
"Much? Try nothing." Rebecca pushed her salad aside. "When I met you, you were a wide-eyed nineteen-year-old lost in Manhattan. All you told me was you'd run away from home." She shrugged. "Nothing unusual there, except you had a never-ending supply of cash. It took me two years to learn your grandmother was loaded. Now, after knowing you—what—eleven years, now you tell me your estranged family wants you to come home. To Montana." She raised her eyebrows. "So are you going to tell me about it or what?"
Carson looked at her affectionately, the woman who had befriended her all those years ago. Yes, she'd been wide-eyed and scared out of her mind. She didn't recall what had possessed her to flee to New York, she only knew she wanted to be far away from home, and far away from her memories. When her grandmother died—Grammy Mae—she was as surprised as everyone else to learn she'd left her entire estate to Carson. The explanation the attorney gave her was that the ranch would be left to the boys, assuming Carson's father would exclude her from that inheritance. Carson had dropped out of college the next week, leaving Boulder and moving into her grandmother's house in Denver, waiting for it to sell. And it moved so quickly, she hadn't had time to formulate a plan, no time to decide what to do or where to go. Why not New York?
"Why didn't you ever try to sleep with me?"
Rebecca leaned back, surprise showing on her face. "Where did that question come from? I thought we were talking about your family."
"It occurred to me that you never once even hinted that you wanted to sleep with me. Yet you had a parade of women coming and going, but never me."
Rebecca reached across the table and squeezed her hand. "Oh, my beautiful Carson. You were nineteen. I was already thirty-five. Yes, it would have been so easy to seduce you. And I won't lie. The thought did cross my mind." She smiled. "But I didn't want to do that to you. You needed a friend." She waved her hand dismissively. "Besides, I taught you everything you know."
"Yes, how not to fall in love."
"Love is so over-rated. It's a pain in the ass. Isn't it much more fun to enjoy sex and not have to worry about the emotional turmoil that comes with a relationship?"
"I never understood that about you," Carson said. "You could have had any woman you wanted."
"I did have. Many of them."
"I meant have as in love," she clarified. "Yet you never wanted any part of it. Why?"
"We all have our secrets, don't we? And I believe we were discussing yours, not mine."
Carson let it go. At first, she was simply overwhelmed by the number of women Rebecca would bring home. A different one nearly every night. And she took it all in, learning Rebecca's skill of sex without love. Yes, she taught her well. Fortunately, she had enough emotional scars that it didn't take much to dull her to love. No doubt Rebecca had been deeply in love once and had her heart broken. Carson, on the other hand, couldn't relate to that part of things. Her small high school, out in the middle of nowhere, consisted mostly of kids from other ranches. Mostly boys, and the few girls her own age were straight. Of course, as a teenager with raging hormones, she couldn't be choosy. She found if she kept it quiet and under the table, straight girls were more than willing to experiment. It wasn't until she'd gone to college that she finally slept with another lesbian.
Once in New York, she quickly picked up the social skills required to mimic Rebecca, the woman who took her in and offered a place to live. She wouldn't admit it to her, but she'd long grown weary of that life now. She often exaggerated her sexual trysts just to keep Rebecca amused and thinking that she'd raised a star pupil who followed in her footsteps. She couldn't very well tell her that she spent most of her time alone on her frequent trips to Europe. It was simply too exhausting to keep the pace that Rebecca assumed she kept.
All of which made her question why she had agreed to meet Rebecca in San Francisco in the first place. Despite their age difference, she still couldn't keep up with the older woman. Not when it came to parties and women. Perhaps the excuse of going home—back to Montana—would be her reprieve.
"Would you think I was crazy if I ditched you and took my brother up on his offer?"
"Crazy? Yes. You love San Francisco. You'd leave this to go be with cows?"
"Cows and sheep," she said. "Or that's what the ranch used to raise. And horses." She had an image of the white stallion she used to ride—Windstorm. She purposefully hadn't thought of him—or the ranch—in years.
"Why did you run away? Or is that a subject you still don't want to discuss?"
Over the years, Rebecca had brought it up occasionally. Each time, Carson had chosen to ignore the question. This time was no different. But she was willing to give her something.
"I lived with my grandmother for a few months before I went off to college. She died my second year there." At Rebecca's raised eyebrows, she added, "University of Colorado, Boulder. Anyway, as you know, I was her sole beneficiary." She grinned. "A kid with money. A dangerous combination."
"Yes. Good thing you met me. Some lesser person might have taken you for everything you had."
"That's true." Of course, it helped that Rebecca was a wealthy socialite in her own right. Yes, Rebecca not only showed her how to party with the ladies, she also showed her how to invest wisely. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. So you're going back? To a place you haven't been in eleven, twelve years?"
"And you've had no contact with them in that time?"
"No. Not until today. Chase—he's my twin—he said—"
"You're a twin? God, woman, what other bombs are you going to drop on me today?" She leaned forward again, elbows braced on the table. "Carson and Chase. Nice Western names. You have three other brothers?"
"Cody, Colt and Chance."
Rebecca laughed. "Are you serious?"
Carson nodded. "Yep. Cartwrights. Circle C Ranch. As you said, very Western."
Rebecca's smile slowly faded. "So? Are you leaving me?"
Carson's gaze left Rebecca as she stared out over the bay. "I shouldn't, should I? I mean, what do I want there? It's been twelve years, right?"
Rebecca again squeezed her hand. "Go if you feel you need to. If for nothing else, closure."
"Closure? I'm not sure that applies to me. I've reconciled everything."
"Have you? I guess since you can so easily talk about your past, then nothing still haunts you. My mistake."
Carson smiled at her friend, knowing she'd hit on the truth. Yes, her past still haunted her. She could pretend all she wanted that she was happy and content with her life now, but truth was, she wasn't. There was always something missing. She used to think it was the fact that she didn't work, that she had no responsibilities, that she wasn't being a productive member of society that made her feel so empty. But she traveled a lot, she shared special occasions with friends, she never lacked for companionship, so there was little time to dwell on her fate. Maybe that was one reason she constantly kept moving, kept traveling—it kept her from examining her life and questioning her very existence.
"You always could see through my armor, couldn't you?"
"It's funny, Carson, but the older you get the more your pain shows. When you were a brash nineteen, twenty-year-old, you had the world by the balls. You were invincible. The last few years though, you've had such a—I don't know—melancholy look about you. Not really sad, exactly, but more sorrowful, depressed." She smiled, softening her words. "Not to say you've been depressed. That's not what I mean. You just—"
"I know what you mean. You're right. I think maybe I've been more reflective, maybe even judging my life somewhat. It's not always a pretty picture."
"Which is odd. You have everything, Carson. You're a beautiful woman, you have money and the time to spend it. You have connections all over the world. Most people would envy your life."
"Would they? In the end, I'm still alone."
"In the end, we're all alone."
Kerry Elder stood back, trying politely not to eavesdrop as the brothers argued. It was obvious Colt Cartwright was the only one on board with this. As their voices got louder and more agitated, she thought it was time to intervene before she lost without ever being able to present her case. She blew out an exasperated breath and stepped forward.
"Excuse me," she said, smiling broadly at the four men whose argument with each other strained their handsome features. Four brothers, all tall and dark, each as handsome as the next. And not a one of them wearing a wedding ring. Amazing. Of course, she could use that to her advantage. She wasn't above flirting to get a contract. Irene Randall had taught her that. Besides, it wasn't like she would be cheating on anyone. She hadn't had a date in so long, she had a hard time recalling the last one. She spread her hands out, looking at each one of them. "We're not going to get anywhere like this, guys."
"A dude ranch? Seriously?"
"Please, can we talk about it rationally?" she suggested.
Chance, the oldest of the brothers, glared at her. "The fact that Colt contracted with you without our agreement threw rationale out the window."
Chance and Cody seemed to be the ones most opposed to converting the ranch, Chance more so than Cody. She couldn't decide between the two who would be an easier target for her. "I understand. And as I've stated, the contract is not binding."
"But the deposit is," Cody reminded her.
"Yes, well, I have travel expenses and such to cover if you decide to back out." And maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, she reasoned. Starting her own business shouldn't be this difficult. But as Cody watched her, she decided to focus on him instead of Chance. Chance appeared to have his mind made up.
"Let's all sit down and let her explain," Colt said. "If we can't reach a consensus, then we'll go a different route, but we can't continue as we are. We'll be bankrupt in a year."
Finally, a voice of reason. "Yes, please allow me to present my ideas to you as a group. Colt has already heard much of them." She motioned to the leather sofa, smiling as only two of the brothers—Chance and Cody—took her suggestion. Chase, the youngest, chose the fireplace hearth and Colt took the overstuffed chair facing his brothers. Sides had been drawn. Her job was to bring them together.
She picked up the four copies of her portfolio and handed one to each brother, pausing to smile charmingly at Cody. Colt, of course, had already seen it.
"I have worked for Randall Consultants for six years," she started. "And I've been in the consulting field for ten years. I am branching off on my own, but I do have extensive experience."
"We'd be your first client?" Cody asked, a hint of skepticism in his voice.
"Yes." She smiled confidently. "But as I said, I have ten years experience in the consulting business." She pointed to the folders each now held. "As you know, with the downturn in the economy, a lot of the larger ranches have been hit hard. Including yours, I'm told. The photos are from my last project. The Dry Creek Ranch, in the PryorMountains south of Billings, converted last year."
"Dude ranch is not really the correct term," Kerry said. "Guest ranch is the term we use now. What we did at Dry Creek, we renovated the bunkhouse to accommodate our guests, along with upgrading the bathroom facilities. They also invested in building three private cabins."
"Wait a minute," Chance said. "During the season, our cowboys live in the bunkhouse."
"Yes, well, your guests will be your new cowboys," she said.
"What the hell?"
"This will allow you to save on payroll. What they did at Dry Creek, they put up temporary housing—one of those room-like tents—for the few they hired. You won't need to hire as many seasonal cowboys to move your herd. Your guests, who will pay you, drive the cattle for you."
"So you expect some guy from Chicago, who has probably never seen a horse before, to just come up here and trail the cattle for us? That's insane."
"And that guy from Chicago will pay you close to two thousand dollars to do just that."
"That's the going rate for cattle drives. It's my understanding—and correct me if I'm wrong—but you have two major drives each year. Spring, where you move the cattle and their calves from the winter pasture up to the mountains, and then again in the fall where you move them from their summer location back down to the ranch."
"That's correct," Cody said.
"How long do these drives normally take?"
"Five, six days usually, depending on how many cowboys we hire," he said. "And the weather," he added.
She nodded. "So you hire less, allow your guests to work the cattle, and perhaps take seven days." She held her hands out. "Let's face it. The horses know what they're doing. They've been trained. You have cattle dogs to help. Just having a couple of seasoned cowboys should be all you'll need."
"And Dry Creek Ranch did this?"
"Yes. And you have an advantage. You have a large lake on your property. When it's not the season for cattle drives, your guests come to enjoy the mountain lake, to ride horses, to get a feel for a real working ranch."
"And for two thousand dollars, what all do they get?" Chase asked.
"Lodging, meals," she said. "Trout fishing. Horseback riding. We'd have to establish some sort of a trail ride into the mountains. We'll have a large campfire and a cookout on the last evening. All depending on how much you want to invest," she said. "Some ranches have turned into resorts, adding large swimming pools and recreation buildings. Others do nothing more than cattle drives You can do a little or a lot."
"That's just it. We don't have much capital to invest," Chance said.
"Then start out small. Fifteen to twenty guests on a cattle drive will get you thirty to forty thousand dollars. Whatever upgrade you do to the bunkhouse can be paid for on your first drive. After you've added more recreational opportunities for your guests, you can start taking reservations all summer long." She paused, meeting each of their eyes, holding Cody's the longest. "If you build it, they'll come," she said with a smile. "Our cities are congested, our open spaces limited. You'd be surprised at how many people just want to take a break from real life and spend a week without distractions. They can do that out here."
Chance stood up, pacing slowly across the room. "I'll admit, it sounds good. I'm also skeptical that it'll work. What if we do invest in renovating the bunkhouse only to have no guests?"
"Obviously that's a risk," she said. "But my job is to get your name out there, set you up a website and promote this by advertising in outdoor magazines and the like. I'll go over everything you have here at the ranch and assess what changes you need to make. Whereas in the past you hired cowboys, now you'll need to hire a cook who can accommodate a large number of guests. You'll need to hire someone to change and launder linens and towels. Also keep in mind this is seasonal. Will you have enough locals who can work or will you have to advertise for that as well? If you do have to hire from afar, then you'll have to have accommodations for staff too."
"There are enough people in the area looking for work that I don't think that would be a problem," Cody said.
"And I think if we hired someone to cook, Martha would be highly offended," Colt added.
"Martha?" she asked.
"Martha's been our cook here since, well, since our mother died," Chance explained.
"The bunkhouse could stand to be remodeled anyway," Chase said. "It hasn't had any improvements in twenty years."
She watched them, suddenly seeing excitement on their faces as her words began to sink in. Amazing how the mention of money and profits changed their attitudes. She felt her confidence rise, thinking she was close to inking her first real deal.
"Just one thing," Cody said. "What's in this for you?"
"You get six months of my time here at the ranch, plus additional time off-site as warranted. All of which includes my expert analysis and recommendations on improvements, coordination of the renovations, a website that will take reservations and payments, and several varied guest itineraries for you to choose from to implement." She paused. "My salary would be forty thousand."
"Seriously?" Chance asked.
"Which is ten thousand less than Randall Consultants was paid by Dry Creek Ranch."
She took a deep breath. She'd made her pitch and they had her portfolio. Now it was up to them. She began gathering her things, a smile still playing across her face. One thing she learned at Randall, always expect to make the deal.
"Well, I'll leave you to discuss it all. Colt has my number in case you have any questions. I can begin as soon as you're ready."
Colt politely guided her out with a light touch on her back. She shook his hand firmly at the door.
"I'll be in touch," he said. "I think this is the best way to save the ranch."
"It certainly is the way a lot of them are going these days. But you must get in at the beginning and establish a reputation. If the market is saturated, then you'll just be another ranch offering a cattle drive," she said. "Our goal is to have a waiting list of guests who are anxious to come here. We just have to offer them what they want."
"I like your enthusiasm. I think my brothers do too. Give us a few days to talk about it. My sister is actually coming soon," he said. "If I remember correctly, she'll most certainly have an opinion. I'd like to get this sorted out before she gets here."
"I didn't know you had a sister."
"She hasn't been around in a number of years."
Kerry nodded. "And with your father so ill—"
"Yeah. But we don't want her involved in this. She has no interest in the ranch."
"Well, I'll wait in Billings for your call. If you decide not to do this, I'd appreciate it if you let me know as soon as possible," she said. "I have another potential client in Idaho to visit."
"Of course. I anticipate only a few days."
She drove away after returning his wave, asking herself for the thousandth time if she'd made the right decision by quitting Randall. She knew in her heart that she had but it was her bank account which stood to suffer. But really, six years was enough. She'd done the work, she'd secured the contracts, she'd babied the clients, she'd put in the long hours only to see the cash flow go to Irene and David. Yes, it was their company and they'd built it, but she got tired of seeing them jet off to the Bahamas during the winter and then settle into their mountain cabin during the summers, while she toiled away bringing in the cash.
Of course, Randall Consultants did much more than ranch conversions, but it was something she'd found she enjoyed. When she first started with Randall, she did seminars for companies wanting to boost production. The seminars themselves weren't bad, but the research ahead of time bored her to tears. She then moved to on-site consulting, reviewing manufacturers assembly line productivity. That usually meant spending three to four weeks there, feeding data into the software programs that Randall had assembled. Randall Consultants then got involved in higher education, sending two-member teams to observe—and then streamline—office procedures. She enjoyed the travel and found it fascinating how reducing time and energy on certain tasks shifted the workload and freed up hours for other projects. In the end, it was all about money and production. But Randall's higher education goals shifted more toward recruitment and retention and Kerry's enthusiasm shifted as well.
Now, setting out on her own, she wouldn't have the resources at her fingertips like she had at Randall, but she had enough knowledge to manage, especially if she planned to only work with ranches for the time being. But like she'd told Colt, they needed to get in while there was still a market for it. Same with her. There were only so many ranches to convert before the market would become saturated. She hoped by that time she would have established herself—and saved enough money—to start doing more of the varied consulting work she'd learned at Randall.
In the meantime, she'd stay the course. She had little to no expenses and she'd saved diligently over the years, knowing that she wanted to venture out on her own. The constant travel with Randall meant she could get by without having a permanent residence. Thankfully her parents were willing to store her few possessions and allow her to stay with them whenever she was in Denver. She was thirty-four years old and not in the least embarrassed to say she lived with her parents. They had always had a close relationship and she never stayed there long enough to wear out her welcome. Which, if this deal didn't work out, she would be heading back there to stay while she courted the ranch owner in Idaho who'd shown an interest in the Dry Creek Ranch conversion.
She shoved thoughts of her future aside and instead mentally listed the changes she thought needed to occur at Circle C Ranch, starting with the old, rundown bunkhouse. The quick tour she'd taken gleaned her enough knowledge of the building to see the potential of possibly fifteen rooms, albeit small. Perhaps a couple of larger rooms, for a higher price, could be worked in.
But it was the lake which held the most interest for her. Not many ranches could offer that, and this one was large enough to accommodate a couple of small piers and perhaps canoes or kayaks for the guests to paddle around in. And of course fishing. She could see that as a big draw in addition to the cattle drives and horseback riding.
Now, if only the brothers could come to an agreement. She was ready and willing to get started. She just needed the go-ahead.
And the money.