Authors: Janet Dailey
he headquarters for the Fort Worthâbased conglomerate known as Maresco, sleekly modern in its glass and granite architecture, stood a modest four stories tall. But, as owner and chairman Max Rutledge, was fond of saying, Dallas could have the soaring skyscrapers; Fort Worth had the money. And the digits of his total net worth numbered in the billions.
On the building's top floor, his suite of executive offices occupied one entire side of the structure. Few pieces of furniture could be found in his personal office. The minimalist approach was in keeping with the suite's contemporary decor, but its purpose was to limit the number of obstacles that the wheelchair-bound occupant had to face.
Power, wealth, prestigeâRutledge had it all.
No one was more aware of that than his valet and personal nurse, Harold Bennett, as he entered his employer's office without being summoned. He paused just inside the door, waiting to be noticed. But Rutledge had his back to the door, his wheelchair facing the glass-walled exterior, as he sat hunched forward in it.
Bennett cleared his throat rather loudly. When that failed to draw a response, he spoke. “Excuse me, sir.”
A faint whirr came from the motorized chair as it pivoted to face him. “What is it?” Rutledge glowered at him.
“You didn't respond when your secretary buzzed you on the intercom. Your ten-thirty appointment is waiting.”
“Reschedule it. I'm busy.”
Without a word, Bennett crossed to the desk and relayed the instruction, then paused to cast a worried glance at his employer. More silver grizzled the old man's hair and the gauntness in that age-lined face had become more pronounced these last few months. But it was these dark and brooding moods that troubled Bennett the most.
Briefly he wondered what had triggered the black mood this time. Then he noticed the newspaper lying open on the desk. Near the bottom of the right-hand page was a short article. Bennett read the first few lines of it.
The findings of an inquest into the stabbing death of Boone Rutledge, son of prominent Texan Max Rutledge, were released today. It was ruled to be a case of self-defense on the part of Quint Echohawk, grandson of Chase Calder, owner of the famed Triple C Ranch in Montanaâ¦
There was more, but Bennett had seen enough. He glanced at the page number. “They buried it on page seven,” he murmured with some surprise.
“And it cost me a helluva lot to get that done,” Rutledge snapped, then gestured to the newspaper. “Throw it away. Then track Donovan down and get me a number where I can reach him.”
“Donovan.” Bennett knew what that meant. “You're going after the Calders. Why?” he blurted without thinking. “You saw what the inquest ruled. Boone was the one who went after Echohawk with the knife. The Calders aren't responsible for his death.”
“Not responsible!” Rutledge boomed in outrage. “My son is dead! He was a fool and a hothead, but he was my son! And, by God, they're going to pay for it!”
It hit like a bolt
from out of the blue.
It was the hottest storm
this Calder ever knew.
he afternoon sun was on its downward drift toward the western horizon, throwing its bright light across a vast Montana sky ribboned with wispy mare's-tail clouds. Springtime cloaked the wide plains with its fresh green hues and scented the air with the raw vigor of new life, all sharp and clean.
Jessy Calder breathed in its wild fragrance as she stepped out of the pickup's passenger side. Emblazoned on the truck's door panel was an enlarged version of the Triple C brand. Below it, block letters spelled out the name
Calder Cattle Company.
There was little about Jessy Calder that would suggest to an outsider that she was the current head of a ranch that numbered over a million acres within its boundary fences. As usual, the widow of Chase Calder's only son was dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a brown Stetson hat. A smoothly tailored white blouse was the only exception to typical working attire.
A feathering of lines around her eyes and mouth revealed that she had passed the fifty mark a few years ago, but she had yet to lose her lean, boyish figure. And the silvering of gray in her hair had only the effect of lightening its once dark-honey color.
Without a doubt, Jessy Calder was a handsome woman, indeli
bly stamped with an aura of calm competence. Much more subtle was the air of authority that emanated from her as well.
Turning, Jessy reached into the truck's cab and collected the western-cut suede jacket lying on the front seat, then closed the passenger door. The freewheeling whine of a semi on the interstate drew her eye to the divided highway. Almost automatically her glance leaped beyond it to the sweep of far-reaching plains that stretched north.
It was a big land, spreading beneath an even bigger sky. Strangers saw monotony in its seeming flatness without discerning its rippling muscles. But Jessy had been born and raised on these lonely, rugged plains. She knew the riches they possessed, and she also knew how harsh and unforgiving they could be.
This was a land that bent to no man's will for long. But for those who chose to live with it, there was a bounty to be had. The continued existence of the Triple C Ranch was proof of that.
Almost with regret, she pulled her gaze away from the wide land and scanned the collection of vehicles parked in the motel's paved lot. The absence of a particular one cut a puzzled crease in her forehead as she joined the tall, lanky cowboy waiting for her at the curb.
He went by the name of Laredo Smith, although Jessy had long known that wasn't his real name, just as she knew he was a man with a past that wouldn't bear scrutiny. Yet she had never attempted to learn his true identity. On the Triple C, people still lived by the codes of the Old West. Foremost among them was the unwritten rule that a man was judged by what he did, not what he had done. And Laredo Smith had proved his loyalty and worth years ago. More than that, she loved the man, something that still slightly amazed her, especially when she recalled how certain she had been that her late husband was the only man she would ever love.
“I don't see Trey's pickup,” she said to Laredo, referring to her twenty-four-year-old son and the Triple C heir. “He left the ranch before we did. I thought for sure he'd be here by now.”
A smile lit Laredo's blue eyes, the twinkle in them softly chiding. “Tank Willis and Johnny Taylor rode with him. Judging from the tent and sleeping bags I saw piled in the back of Trey's truck, I'm guessing they plan on setting up camp at the fairgrounds. I don't imagine either Johnny or Tank favor the idea of wasting money on a place to sleep when they don't plan on doing much of that this weekend.”
“That doesn't exactly surprise me,” Jessy said with a wry smile.
“I didn't think it would,” Laredo replied easily. “After all, can you think of a better time or place for a bunch of young studs to roar and paw the ground than at the famous Cowboy's Mardi Gras?” Tucking a hand under her arm, he leaned close and whispered near her ear, “Maybe an old stud, too.”
Jessy laughed as she was meant to do, but not without a little curl of anticipation at the veiled suggestion in his voice.
A Cowboy's Mardi Gras was the nickname the locals had attached to the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, traditionally held on the third weekend in May. The three-day event was part auction and part rodeo. Owners from across the country brought their rough stock, both broncs and bulls, to Miles City; riders, many of them area cowboys, bucked them out of the chute. Afterward, the animal was auctioned off; those that were rankâcowboy vernacular for bucking hardâwere usually sold to rodeo stock contractors for high dollar. The rest went for a considerably cheaper price.
The chance for local cowboys to win prize money in the rodeo arena was a definite draw, and the other festivities held in conjunction with the sale, a parade and street dances among them, doubled its allure. With spring in the air and a long, cold winter behind them, people came from far and wide to cut loose and party, swelling the population of Miles City to twice its size or more.
A couple in their mid-fifties was at the registration desk when Jessy and Laredo entered the hotel lobby. With a trace of impatience the man demanded, “Can't you at least check with some of the other motels and find out if they have a room available?”
“Don't need to,” the clerk replied. “There isn't a single room to be had in Miles City. In fact, you'll probably have to go a good ways down the road before you'll find a vacancy.” The telephone rang, harshly punctuating his statement. The clerk reached for it, dismissing the pair with a rueful but definite, “Sorry.” His glance skipped past them to Jessy. “Be right with you, Ms. Calder.”
When the frustrated and travel-weary couple moved away from the counter, Jessy took their place while Laredo shifted to one side, propping an elbow on the counter and half-turning to keep an eye on the lobby entrance. With the phone call handled, the clerk laid a registration form and pen in front of Jessy.
“By any chance has my son checked in yet?” she asked.
“I'll register for him, then.” Jessy proceeded to fill out the form, pausing only to nod in Laredo's direction. “Laredo will be sharing the room with him, so he'll need a key,” she said, then reminded the clerk, “Our reservations called for adjoining rooms.”
“That's what you've got,” he assured her after checking the computer, then busying himself with programming the electronic key cards. “Did you hear that the weather forecast calls for clear skies all weekend? Those old-timers who claim it always rains on the Bucking Horse Sale are going to be wrong this year.”
A crooked smile lifted one corner of Jessy's wide lips. “You're talking to a rancher. As dry as it's been this spring, I wish it was pouring buckets.”
“Next year it probably will be.” The man shrugged with a touch of resignation.
By the time the check-in process was complete, the lobby was aswirl with new arrivals waiting to register and clutches of guests waiting to be joined by a missing member of their party prior to leaving the hotel. A dark-eyed blonde with mascara-thickened lashes separated herself from one of the latter groups and sailed across the lobby to intercept Jessy and Laredo. Jessy recognized the eighteen-year-old girl instantly as Kelly Ramsey, the daughter of a veteran
Triple C ranch hand and a direct descendent of one of the original cowboys to work for the brand.
“Hi, Jessy. Hi, Laredo.” Her greeting was breezy and familiar. “No rain. Can you believe it? Although heaven knows we need some,” she added hurriedly, as if belatedly remembering whom she was addressing.
“That's true,” Jessy murmured, casting a glance over the girl's attire. A short tank top bared her middle, and a pair of low-riding jeans with frayed hems hugged her hips and thighs like a drumskin. And the faded jeans jacket she wore did a poor job of providing any show of modesty. But Jessy withheld any comment on Kelly's attire, remembering too well the many arguments over clothes she'd had with her daughter, Laura, Trey's twin sister, during her teen years.
Laredo showed no such restraint, grinning his admonishment. “You're liable to catch cold in that getup tonight.”
Kelly laughed, unconcerned. “That's what Daddy said.” Her glance quickly darted around and behind them in a searching manner. “Isn't Trey with you?”
“No. He left the ranch before we did,” Jessy replied.
“Oh.” Disappointment gave the curve of her mouth a downward turn, but only momentarily. Forcing a brightness into her expression, she said, “I'm sure I'll see him at the fairgrounds. We're headed that way now. Catch you later.”
She flashed them a parting wave and scooted back to her family. Jessy raised an acknowledging hand to the Ramseys, a gesture they returned before moving en masse toward the door. But Jessy's attention remained on Kelly.
“She has her sights set on Trey, doesn't she,” she murmured to Laredo.
“Are you just discovering that?” His smile was rich with amusement.
“You aren't surprised at all.” She shook her head in mild dismay at this realization. “Sometimes I think you know more about what's happening on the Triple C than I do.”
“That's because you're too busy running it to listen to all the gossip that comes through the range telegraph. Besides, there isn't a single woman in five hundred miles who wouldn't like to throw her loop around your son.”
“I just hope he makes the right choice when the time comes.” And she hoped it wouldn't be soon. But Jessy knew those decisions weren't hers to make.
“You aren't worried that he'll get fooled into marrying some gold-digger, are you?” Laredo chided. “Don't forget, Trey learned all about feminine wiles from his sister. At one time or another he saw Laura use every trick in her arsenal on some poor, unsuspecting male. When it comes to women, that boy is much wiser than his years.”
“True,” Jessy agreed. “Did I tell you Laura called last night?”
“No. But you better tell me about it outside,” Laredo suggested as more people entered the hotel, familiar faces among them. “This place is getting busier than a bar on Saturday night. We'd better get our bags out of the pickup and up to our rooms before we get trapped in the lobby.”
“It isn't that bad.” But Jessy didn't object when he steered her through the stream and out the door, giving her only enough time to exchange nods and brief hellos with those she knew.
Moving to her right shoulder, Laredo asked, “So how's the new bride doing?”
“Laura's doing well, and still sounding very much like a bride. Nearly every other sentence started with âSebastian said' or âSebastian suggested.'”
“I think it's called love,” he teased as they crossed to the ranch pickup.
Jessy ignored the playful gibe. “I'm just glad she's happy. I only wish that she lived closer. England is half a continent and an ocean away.”
“You and Cat both are dealing with an empty nest, aren't you?” Laredo remarked astutely. Cat was Jessy's sister-in-law, Catherine Calder Echohawk. Widowed almost a year ago, Cat had moved
back to the Triple C to look after her aging father, Chase Calder. “First your Laura gets married in November. Then her Quint ties the knot in April. Now you're wondering if Trey will be next.” As he reached into the truck bed for his duffel bag, he looked up and paused, sliding a dry glance at Jessy. “Speak of the devil.”
With a nod of his head, Laredo directed her attention to the pickup just pulling into the motel lot. Three cowboys sat shoulder to shoulder in the cab, their faces shadowed by the hats they wore and the dim interior. But Jessy easily picked out her son from the others even before they piled out of the pickup after it pulled up at the motel entrance.
Standing six feet, three inches, he was easily taller than the average man, wide in the shoulders and chest, yet youthfully lean and supple, with a rider's looseness about him. One look at his deep-set eyes and rawboned face and there was no doubt he was a Calder. That hard vitality was like a tribal stamp.
At his birth, Jessy had proudly named him Chase Benteen Calder after his grandfather and the family patriarch. His great-great-grandfather had carried the same name, the Calder who had formed the Triple C Ranch more than a century and a quarter ago. Within weeks of his namesake's birth, the baby was dubbed “Trey Spot,” which was soon shortened. He'd been called Trey ever since.
As Trey swung his long frame toward Jessy, he was hailed by Kelly Ramsey. “Mind if I ride with you to the fairgrounds, Trey?”
Laredo was quick to detect the wary tensing of Trey's body, but the smile was easy, without the coolness of rejection. “Sorry. There's no room. I've got Tank and Johnny with me.”
His response was clearly not the one she wanted to hear. She wavered for an instant, as if assessing the odds of changing his mind, then showed some wisdom and accepted his answer with good grace.
“No problem,” she said, already taking the first retreating steps back to the Ramseys' double-cab pickup. “I'll see you later.”
Trey was quick to turn away and shoot a glance at Laredo. It was one of those man-to-man looks that conveyed his utter lack
of interest in the girl and his relief at avoiding her company. Laredo dipped his head down, hiding a smile, as Trey loped over to them.