“Hey Caitlin, do you have a minute?”
Caitlin Quinn pulled tight on the double knot of her hiking boots, and glanced at the clock on the wall. Doing some quick mental arithmetic, she straightened and nodded to her boss. “Just like, five minutes. And then I’ll have to run.”
Ellie smiled. “What if we said four minutes, and you headed for the mountain at a brisk walk?”
“Deal.” Never one to stand quietly, Cait ran her fingers through her short, still-wet hair in an effort to dry it out. “Reggie probably won’t start without me.”
The other woman chuckled softly and shook her head, her attention on the tablet in her hands. Ellie Weston had been married for almost two years now, and her figure was still softly rounded from giving birth to her son almost exactly a year ago. But she still managed to maintain the L.A.-level sophistication she had when she came to Idaho to whip the River’s End Ranch Aquatics Program into shape.
Or at least, that’s how it looked to Cait.
Ellie was scrolling through some messages, looking for something. “I don’t know how you do it,” she muttered. “I would end up so confused with your schedule.”
It was Cait’s turn to chuckle. “First of all, no you wouldn’t.” She jerked her chin at the tablet as she pulled the hair elastic around her dark bun. “That thing is like your personal calendar—you know where everyone is supposed to be at all times. Am I wrong?” She lifted an eyebrow in challenge.
Ellie flushed but smiled slightly without looking up. “No. And I’ll admit I keep your schedule in here too.”
“I knew it!” Cait shook her left hand out as she tapped her temple with her right index finger. “But I manage to keep it all up here!”
“I know, and that’s what I’m impressed by.”
Cait grinned as she tucked her shirt into her pants. Today’s schedule wasn’t very complicated: lifeguarding here at the pool in the morning, lunch break, then two more hours… Then a half-hour to change into her hiking gear and hoof it over to the trail at the base of the mountain, where she was meeting Reggie and his large tour group at two-thirty. He’d take half up the south side of the mountain, and she’d take the rest up the north side. Back by dinner, easy-peasy.
It was a full day, but fun. And it wasn’t as complicated as some of her other days, when she’d be lifeguarding, hiking, and trail riding in the same day. Sometimes she even subbed on the white-water runs, although she wasn’t certified to take a group by herself. And in the winter, there was the ski patrol, snowmobile tours, and ice-skating lessons.
Yeah, being a jack-of-all-trades here on the ranch could be complicated, but Caitlin wouldn’t have it any other way. The idea of getting up every morning and doing the exact same thing was boring. Imagine sitting behind a desk all day, processing paperwork! Even the idea of having to do the same outdoor job—riding or rafting—every day sounded a little icky to her.
Being out in nature was amazing, of course, but it was changeable. That’s what made it so special. So many people here on the ranch had jobs out in nature, but they still had to do that same job day in and day out.
As far as Cait was concerned, she’d landed the best job on the ranch: Doing anything and everything outdoors. Besides, some jobs paid better than others, and that was awesome. She had almost eight thousand dollars saved towards her dream, and she figured another year or two of working here at River’s End Ranch, and she’d be set.
She’d go where ever she was needed and her bosses knew that. So she was used to being stopped like this and given a new assignment.
But glancing at the clock, she knew she needed to nudge things along. “Two minutes left!”
Ellie jerked. “Sorry! I know it’s in here somewhere. I don’t want to give you the wrong time—Ah! Six o’clock tonight.” She glanced up. “Will you still be around then?”
Cait lifted a brow, still not sure what Ellie was talking about. “I can be, especially if I head to trivia for pizza. What do you need?”
“Oh, not me. Wade’s requested you stop by his office after close of business, and wanted me to check your schedule.”
It wasn’t common for the head honcho to talk to Cait directly, but she supposed it made sense. After all, Wade Weston ran the entire ranch, and there’d been times in the past he’d had to ask her to take on a new job or cover a shift no one else could handle.
“Sure.” Cait shrugged and swung her pack up over her shoulder. “Six in his office, then off to trivia!”
As she waved goodbye to Ellie and speed-walked across the ranch, Caitlin half-wondered what Wade would ask her to do. There wasn’t a lot of jobs left she hadn’t already done, but he wasn’t one to waste time.
Oh well. It can’t be too important. As long as it’s outdoors and pays well, I’ll do it!
Four hours later, hopped up on the adrenaline that came from being surrounded by happy hikers and the great outdoors, Cait knocked on the doorframe of Wade’s office and stuck her head inside. “You wanted to see me, boss man?”
Wade was sitting behind his desk, chatting with a man she didn’t recognize. He looked up at her greeting, and his face split into a grin.
“Hi, Caitlin! I want you to meet Steven Pickman. He’s Legacy’s director.”
Cait’s eyebrows went up. She, like all River’s End Ranch employees, knew about the old-westy show being filmed at the ranch. With the production occasionally shutting down parts of Old Town, the whole thing was either super-cool or a real pain, depending on the day. She herself hadn’t had much to do with the show, but it was neat to meet the actual director.
She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Pickman.”
The man’s smile was kind when he shook her hand. “Call me Steven. I’m the one who talked Wade into sending for you, after all.”
“Oh?” She cocked an eyebrow at Wade.
He explained. “Steven has a…friend who wants to visit the ranch to learn some things. He—the friend—requested that we provide him with a personal guide for whatever outdoor activities he needs to learn, and is willing to pay well. I immediately thought of you.”
Wade’s pause before the word “friend” made Cait all sorts of curious. Steven Pickman was a big-name Hollywood producer, yeah? So what had Wade meant to say? Colleague? Buddy? Brother? Cait’s lips curved up at the mystery.
“What timeframe are you thinking?” This wouldn’t be the first time she’d acted as a personal tour guide for the ranch.
“He’s got two weeks off from—well, he’s booked two weeks here. Some relaxation, I guess, but he needs…uh.” Wade glanced at Steven, then cleared his throat. “He’s coming to get pointers, as I understand it. He stressed that anonymity was really important.”
“Right.” Cait managed to keep from rolling her eyes, just barely. Who was this guy, that he could just demand a personal guide…for two weeks? “I’d have to check my schedule.”
“It’ll start the week after next, and I’ve already checked. We can clear your work with your various bosses, and we’re still far enough out that those shifts can be covered.”
Cait nodded. Well of course Wade would’ve done that…he’s the boss.
So she shrugged. “Whatever you need me for, boss man.”
“Excellent.” Wade grabbed his tablet and began pulling up new screens. “And because Mr. Smith is paying so well, I can comp you your hours at your ski instructor rate.”
Awesome! The ski instructor gig was Cait’s highest-paying one, and two weeks at that rate would mean she’d have a lot more money than she’d expected to by the end of the month. Maybe as much as an extra thousand! Assuming these two weeks went well, she could up her deadline by a few months, and maybe start work this winter on her dream!
Still, she struggled to keep her voice nonchalant when she asked, “Mr. Smith, huh?”
Wade looked up from his tablet and exchanged a telling look with Steven. “Mr. James Smith is how he’s registered.”
“Uh-huh.” She kept her voice level, half wondering who the guy was and half thinking Eeeeeee! An extra thousand!
Steven smiled politely. “Thanks for being willing to take the job, Caitlin. This guy has a reputation for only accepting the best—from himself and others—but he’s a nice guy. I’ve never worked with h—I mean, I just know him socially. But another friend called in a favor, and Wade and I both think this is a good place for him.”
Well, this was getting more and more mysterious, wasn’t it? “Okay, gotchya.” Anonymity, right. “Well, you just let me know when and where to meet Mr. James Smith, and I’ll be there.” She’d take him horsie riding or strolling around to photograph the mountains or whatever a rich, fancy big shot wanted to do, and she’d smile the whole time. Because of the money.
Wade smiled. “Thanks, Cait. I think this is going to be a good move for everyone.”
Her head was still bobbing in agreement as she backed out of his office and headed towards the restaurant. Good for the ranch, certainly—whoever this guy was, he was obviously willing to pay for quality. Good for Mr. Smith, yeah, because she was the best all-around guide here. And good for her, because she’d be a thousand dollars closer to making her dream come true.
On her way across the ranch, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and keyed in a familiar number. When her best friend picked up, Cait smiled.
“Hi Katie! Got a minute?”
“Perfect timing,” came the muttered reply. “I just finished filming a reaction sequence, and I’m putting up the last of the bars…now.”
Cait smiled. She and Katie McIver had worked together at River’s End Ranch as lifeguards a few summers back—along with Joey and Katherine, who’d moved to the Main House—but they’d been besties since childhood, growing up in Quinn Valley. Katie had moved back home last year to finally launch her soap-making business, and it had exploded when she’d started making how-to videos.
“What was this batch?”
“Black Raspberry Vanilla, and oh-em-gee does it smell ah-mazing!”
Cait smiled at her friend’s enthusiasm. Katie always made everything sound incredible. “Did you put a topper on this one?”
Katie snorted. “Have you ever known me to not put a topper on a fancy bar of soap? But the drop swirl on this one—yellow and white and purple!—came out really incredible. I’ll send you a pic.”
“I’d be hurt if you didn’t.”
On the other end of the phone, Katie snorted again. “Puh-lease. I’m guessing you didn’t call to interrupt my hard work just to hear about how phenomenal my workshop smells right now, did you? So, what’s up?”
Cait smiled. “I got some big news at work…”
As she walked, she explained, and her bestie sounded appropriately excited at the right times.
“That’s awesome, Cait. You’re that much closer to getting your truck in the shop and going off and leaving me forever and ever.”
It was Cait’s turn to snort, with laughter this time. “We’ll still have phones, silly. And besides, you’ll be too busy with Sam Whatshisface to worry about me.”
“Please. Sam is history.”
That was news. “What? You were only on, like, your third date!”
On the other end, Katie laughed. “You’re one to talk. You haven’t been on a second date in years!”
Reaching the restaurant, Cait stopped at the front porch. “Hey, I went on a second date with your brother. It was the talk of the ranch.”
“I know—he told me. No one goes on a second date with Andrew, Cait.”
“Hey, I’ve always liked him.”
“He’s old enough to be your father.”
“Not unless he started really young,” Cait fired back.
“Okay, well you never go on a third date with anyone.”
Cait had to laugh in agreement. “That’s because it’s boring to see the same person again and again. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again, and I don’t like being with the same people all the time.”
“You like me though, right?”
“You’re different.” Cait smiled softly, sure her bestie could hear it on the other end. “You’re Katie. Besides, your enthusiasm makes up for how boring you are otherwise.”
Katie burst into laughter. “Alright, alright. Heaven knows I’ve heard it all before.” She pitched her voice lower, in her silly Cait-impersonation. “’I like variety, Katie. I might like a guy for one evening, or even two, but after that he just gets boring.’” She went back to her normal voice. “Most guys—most people—are only one person at a time, Cait. Unless you start dating schizophrenics, and then…”
Cait rolled her eyes. “How about I not worry about dating at all, eh? I’ve got my dream, and that doesn’t involve any guys at all.”
“As long as it involves calling your best friend occasionally.”
“It totally involves calling my best friend occasionally.”
“And in two weeks you’ll be a lot closer to making it all happen.”
“And in two weeks I’ll be closer to making it happen,” Cait agreed.
Katie snorted. “You sound like a parrot.”
Cait grinned. “You sound like a parrot.”
“Say goodnight, Cait!”
As she hung up the phone, Cait could hear her best friend’s laughter on the other end, and felt a flood of contentment sweep through her. Even when she was gone from Idaho, she’d still be able to chat with Katie like this on the phone, plus she’d have the adventure she’d always craved.
And thanks to Mr. Weston’s mysterious stranger, she was closer to making that a reality.
“Well, what do you think, Archie?”
Archie St. John sat behind the wheel of his rented BMW and gazed up at the mountains towering over River’s End Ranch. “This place is incredible,” he muttered.
On the other end of the phone call, his friend Jack chuckled. “I told you it’d be perfect. As soon as you told me what you were looking for, I said River’s End Ranch was the place for you. Didn’t I?”
There was a huge lake butting up against the mountains, looking like something out of a painting. Wondering how cold it must be, Archie adjusted his hold on the cell phone. “You did, my friend. And it seems you are most certainly correct.”
“Did you talk to the manager?”
“Several weeks ago—Mr. Weston was quite helpful. Thanks again for his number.” Archie dragged his attention away from the landscape and towards what appeared to be a cluster of ancient wooden buildings. “And for the tip to reach out to Steven Pickman.”
“Both of them are good guys.”
“High praise, indeed.”
On the other end, Jack grunted in agreement. The two of them—Jack and Archie—had met six years ago doing Endzone, one of Archie’s only action flicks. Jack—the famous heartthrob Jack Raven—was still doing sidekick roles back then, but had gone on to become one of Hollywood’s leading action stars. Every director knew that if you were making a movie with explosions, helicopters, and multiple shoot-outs, you wanted Jack Raven.
Archie had gotten a kick out of watching his friend climb the charts and break barriers. He was playing a role as much as any of them were, but at least Jack knew that. After the years of theater and films and method acting, even Archie himself wasn’t quite sure who he was.
And that was a little disturbing.
“So did Wade hook you up with a guide, like you asked?”
Jack’s question dragged Archie’s attention back to the ranch and what he had planned. “He did. I don’t know his name, but he assured me they had an employee who could shepherd me around, giving me the experience I need. A sort of jack-of-all-trades.”
“Master of none?” Jack quipped.
Archie snorted quietly. “For his sake, I hope he’s the master of everything. I need to learn these skills, and learn them fast.”
Now it was Jack’s turn to laugh dismissively. “You and your method acting.”
“To each his own.” They’d had this debate before. “My art requires me to become a different man every few months. Yours—”
“—Requires me to wear black leather and look cool while walking away from explosions. I know, I know.” Jack finished for him, the laughter still in his voice. “But I’m playing the same character in each movie, right?”
What neither of them said—they didn’t have to—was that the character Jack played had become his identity, how the public knew him. Jack had confessed once last year that he still felt guilty about losing so much of himself…Jonathan Ravenwing had all but disappeared.
Not quite, though. This time last year Jack’s older sister had gotten married and adopted two kids. The family lived here near the ranch, and Jack had visited as much as he’d been able to. He’d said it was the most times he’d seen his sister in years, but his niece and nephew were special to him, and he really liked his brother-in-law.
And luckily, he’d known enough about the area to suggest the ranch to Archie when the two men met up at a party a few months ago. He’d even had Wade Weston’s number in his phone, and had assured Archie that River’s End Ranch would be exactly what he was looking for.
Now, looking around the ranch, Archie could see that the website hadn’t lied; River’s End Ranch did seem perfect for his needs. Even if this employee Mr. Weston had found couldn’t help him, surely someone could, and he’d be ready to go back to work in two weeks with his signature style and aplomb, because he knew what he was doing.
He sighed heavily. “I suppose I’d better go check in and see if someone can direct me to Mr. Weston’s office for our meeting.”
Jack grunted softly in agreement. “And afterwards, you’ve got to head to the diner for lunch. No, wait, they call it a café or something. Doesn’t matter, there’s only the one place. The chef—I hope he’s working today—does amazing burgers. Amazing pretty-much-everything, come to think of it, but don’t tell him that.”
Archie had unbuckled his seat belt and was rummaging around the passenger’s seat, getting his stuff together. “Sounds like you know the guy.” There were too many empty coffee cups in this car.
“You can’t not know Bob if you’re eating there. Allison delivered his daughter Robertina in July.”
Oh yeah, Jack’s sister was the local midwife.
“Then I’ll tell him you sent me so he won’t spit in my food or something.”
Jack laughed outright at that. “You know these artists. So fickle!”
“Says you.” Archie shot back at his friend, and they both chuckled.
“Have a good stay,” Jack said, “and keep in touch. Look me up when you’re back in town, and we’ll get together.”
Archie said his goodbyes without thinking much about them, his mind already on the task ahead. Somewhere on this ranch was the man who would teach him what he needed to know to be successful.
They would start tomorrow.