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Edith Danielle Morena Brannt was not impressed with her new boss. The head honcho of the Rancho Real, or Royal Ranch in Spanish, near Catelow, Wyoming, was big and domineering and had a formidable bad attitude that he shared with all his hired hands.
Morie, as she was known to her friends, had a hard time holding back her fiery temper when Mal-lory Dawson Kirk raised his voice. He was impatient and hot-tempered and opinionated. Just like Morie's father, who'd opposed her decision to become a working cowgirl. Her dad opposed everything. She'd just told him she was going to find a job, packed her bags and left. She was twenty-three. He couldn't really stop her legally. Her mother, Shelby, had tried gentle reason. Her brother, Cort, had tried, too, with even less luck. She loved her family, but she was tired of being chased for who she was related to instead of who she was inside. Being a stranger on somebody else's property was an enchanting proposition. Even with Mallory's temper, she was happy being accepted for a poor, struggling female on her own in the harsh world. Besides that, she wanted to learn ranch work and her father refused to let her so much as lift a rope on his ranch. He didn't want her near his cattle.
"And another thing," Mallory said harshly, turning to Morie with a cold glare, "there's a place to hang keys when you're through with them. You never take a key out of the stable and leave it in your pocket. Is that clear?"
Morie, who'd actually transported the key to the main tack room off the property in her pocket at a time it was desperately needed, flushed. "Sorry, sir," she said stiffly. "Won't happen again."
"It won't if you expect to keep working here," he assured her.
"My fault," the foreman, old Darby Hanes, chimed in, smiling. "I forgot to tell her."
Mallory considered that and nodded finally. "That's what I always liked most about you, Darb, you're honest." He turned to Morie. "An example I'll expect you to follow, as our newest hire, by the way."
Her face reddened. "Sir, I've never taken anything that didn't belong to me."
He looked at her cheap clothes, the ragged hem of her jeans, her worn boots. But he didn't judge. He just nodded.
He had thick black hair, parted on one side and a little shaggy around the ears. He had big ears and a big nose, deep-set brown eyes under a jutting brow, thick eyebrows and a mouth so sensuous that Morie hadn't been able to take her eyes off it at first. That mouth made up for his lack of conventional good looks. He had big, well-manicured hands and a voice like deep velvet, as well as big feet, in old, rugged, dirt-caked boots. He was the boss, and nobody ever forgot it, but he got down in the mud and blood with his men and worked as if he was just an employee himself.
In fact, all three Kirk brothers were like that. Mallory was the oldest, at thirty-six. The second brother, Canea coincidence if there ever was one, considering Morie's mother's maiden name, even if hers was spelled with a Kwas thirty-four, a veteran of the second Gulf War, and he was missing an arm from being in the front lines in combat. He was confronting a drinking problem and undergoing therapy, which his brothers were trying to address.
The youngest brother, at thirty-one, was Dal-ton. He was a former border agent with the department of immigration, and his nickname was, for some odd reason, Tank. He'd been confronted by a gang of narco-smugglers on the Arizona border, all alone. He was shot to pieces and hospitalized for weeks, during which most of the physicians had given him up for dead because of the extent of his injuries. He confounded them all by living. Nevertheless, he quit the job and came home to the family ranch in Wyoming. He never spoke of the experience. But once Morie had seen him react to the backfire of an old ranch truck by diving to the ground. She'd laughed, but old Darby Hanes had silenced her and told her about Dalton's past as a border agent. She'd never laughed at his odd behaviors again. She supposed that both he and Cane had mental and emotional scars, as well as physical ones, from their past experiences. She'd never been shot at, or had anything happen to her. She'd been as sheltered as a hothouse orchid, both by her parents and her brother. This was her first taste of real life. She wasn't certain yet if she was going to like it.
She'd lived on her father's enormous ranch all her life. She could ride anythingher father had taught her himself. But she wasn't accustomed to the backbreaking work that daily ranch chores required, because she hadn't been permitted to do them at home, and she'd been slow her first couple of days.
Darby Hanes had taken her in hand and shown her how to manage the big bales of hay that the brothers still packed into the barnrefusing the more modern rolled bales as being inefficient and wastefulso that she didn't hurt herself when she lifted them. He'd taught her how to shoe horses, even though the ranch had a farrier, and how to doctor sick calves. In less than two weeks, she'd learned things that nothing in her college education had addressed.
"You've never done this work before," Darby accused, but he was smiling.
She grimaced. "No. But I needed a job, badly," she said, and it was almost the truth. "You've been great, Mr. Hanes. I owe you a lot for not giving me away. For teaching me what I needed to know here." And what a good thing it was, she thought privately, that her father didn't know. He'd have skinned Hanes alive for letting his sheltered little girl shoe a horse.
He waved a hand dismissively. "Not a problem. You make sure you wear those gloves," he added, nodding toward her back pocket. "You have beautiful hands. Like my wife used to," he added with a faraway look in his eyes and a faint smile. "She played the piano in a restaurant when I met her. We went on two dates and got married. Never had kids. She passed two years ago, from cancer." He stopped for a minute and took a long breath. "Still miss her," he added stiffly. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I'll see her again," he replied. "Won't be too many years, either. It's part of the cycle, you see. Life and death. We all go through it. Nobody escapes."
That was true. How odd to be in a philosophical discussion on a ranch.
He lifted an eyebrow. "You think ranch hands are high-school dropouts, do you?" he mused. "I have a degree from MIT. I was their most promising student in theoretical physics, but my wife had a lung condition and they wanted her to come west to a drier climate. Her dad had a ranch
." He stopped, chuckling. "Sorry. I tend to run on. Anyway, I worked on the ranch and preferred it to a lab. After she died, I came here to work. So here I am. But I'm not the only degreed geek around here. We have three part-timers who are going to college on scholarships the Kirk brothers set up for them."
"What a nice bunch of guys!" she exclaimed.
"They really are. All of them seem tough as nails, and they mostly are, but they'll help anyone in need." He shifted. "Paid my wife's hospital bill after the insurance lapsed. A small fortune, and they didn't even blink."
Her throat got tight. What a generous thing to do. Her family had done the same for people, but she didn't dare mention that. "That was good of them," she said with genuine feeling.
"Yes. I'll work here until I die, if they'll keep me. They're great people."
They heard a noise and turned around. The boss was standing behind them.
"Thanks for the testimonial, but I believe there are cattle waiting to be dipped in the south pasture
." Mallory commented with pursed lips and twinkling dark eyes.
Darby chuckled. "Yes, there are. Sorry, boss, I was just lauding you to the young lady. She was surprised to find out that I studied philosophy."
"Not to mention theoretical physics," the boss added drily.
"Yes, well, I won't mention your degree in biochemistry if you like," Darby said outrageously.
Mallory quirked an eyebrow. "Thanks."
Darby winked at Morie and left them alone.
Mallory towered over the slight brunette. "Your name is unusual. Morie
She laughed. "My full name is Edith Danielle Morena Brannt," she replied. "My mother knew I'd be a brunette, because both my parents are, so they added morena, which means brunette in Spanish. I had, uh, Spanish great-grandparents," she stuttered, having almost given away the fact that they were titled Spanish royalty. That would never do. She wanted to be perceived as a poor, but honest, cowgirl. Her last name wasn't uncommon in South Texas, and Mallory wasn't likely to connect it with King Brannt, who was a true cattle baron.
He cocked his head. "Morie," he said. "Nice."
"I'm really sorry, about the key," she said.
He shrugged. "I did the same thing last month, but I'm the boss," he added firmly. "I don't make mistakes. You remember that."
She gave him an open smile. "Yes, sir."
He studied her curiously. She was small and nicely rounded, with black hair that was obviously long and pulled into a bun atop her head. She wasn't beautiful, but she was pleasant to look at, with those big brown eyes and that pretty mouth and perfect skin. She didn't seem the sort to do physical labor on a ranch.
"Sir?" she asked, uncomfortable from the scrutiny.
"Sorry. I was just thinking that you don't look like the usual sort we hire for ranch hands."
"I do have a college degree," she defended herself.
"You do? What was your major?"
"History," she said, and looked defensive. "Yes, it's dates. Yes, it's about the past. Yes, some of it can be boring. But I love it."
He looked at her thoughtfully. "You should talk to Cane. His degree is in anthropology. Pity it wasn't paleontology, because we're close to Fossil Lake. That's part of the Green River Formation, and there are all sorts of fossils there. Cane loved to dig." His face hardened. "He won't talk about going back to it."
"Because of his arm?" she asked bluntly. "That wouldn't stop him. He could do administrative work on a dig." She flushed. "I minored in anthropology," she confessed.
He burst out laughing. "No wonder you like ranch work. Did you go on digs?" He knew, as some people didn't, that archaeology was one of four subfields of anthropology.
"I did. Drove my mother mad. My clothes were always full of mud and I looked like a street child most of the time." She didn't dare tell him that she'd come to dinner in her dig clothing when a famous visiting politician from Europe was at the table, along with some members of a royal family. Her father had been eloquent. "There were some incidents when I came home muddy," she added with a chuckle.
"I can imagine." He sighed. "Cane hasn't adjusted to the physical changes. He's stopped going to therapy and he won't join in any family outings. He stays in his room playing online video games." He stopped. "Good Lord, I can't believe I'm telling you these things."
"I'm as quiet as a clam," she pointed out. "I never tell anything I know."
"You're a good listener. Most people aren't."
She smiled. "You are."
He chuckled. "I'm the boss. I have to listen to people."
"I'll just finish getting those bales of hay stacked," she said. She stopped and glanced up at him. "You know, most ranchers these days use the big bales
"Stop right there," he said curtly. "I don't like a lot of the so-called improvements. I run this ranch the way my dad did, and his dad before him. We rotate crops, and cattle, avoid unnecessary supplements, and maintain organic crops and grass strains. And we don't allow oil extraction anywhere on this ranch. Lots of fracking farther south in Wyoming to extract oil from shale deposits, but we won't sell land for that, or lease it."
She knew they were environmentally sensitive. The family had been featured in a small northwestern cattlemen's newspaper that she'd seen lying on a table in the bunkhouse.
"What's fracking?" she asked curiously.
"They inject liquids at high speed into shale rock to fracture it and allow access to oil and gas deposits. It can contaminate the water table if it isn't done right, and some people say it causes earthquakes." His dark eyes were serious. "I'm not taking any chances with our water. It's precious."
"Yes, sir," she replied.
He shrugged. "No offense. I've had the lectures on the joys of using genetically modified crops and cloning." He leaned down. "Over my dead body."