Meadow Dawson just stared at the slim, older cowboy who was standing on her front porch with his hat held against his chest. His name was Ted. He was her father’s ranch foreman. And he was speaking Greek, she decided, or perhaps some form of archaic language that she couldn’t understand.
“The culls,” he persisted. “Mr. Jake wanted us to go ahead and ship them out to that rancher we bought the replacement heifers from.”
She blinked. She knew three stances that she could use to shoot a .40 caliber Glock from. She was experienced in interrogation techniques. She’d once participated in a drug raid with other agents from the St. Louis, Missouri, office where she’d been stationed during her brief tenure with the FBI as a special agent.
Sadly, none of those experiences had taught her what a cull was, or what to do with it. She pushed back her long, golden blond hair, and her pale green eyes narrowed on his elderly face.
She blinked. “Are culls some form of wildlife?” she asked blankly.
The cowboy doubled up laughing.
She grimaced. Her father and mother had divorced when she was six. She’d gone to live with her mother in Greenwood, Mississippi, while her father stayed here on this enormous Colorado ranch, just outside Glenwood Springs. Later, she’d spent some holidays with her dad, but only after she was in her senior year of high school and she could out-argue her bitter mother, who hated her ex-husband. What she remembered about cattle was that they were loud and dusty. She really hadn’t paid much attention to the cattle on the ranch or her father’s infrequent references to ranching problems. She hadn’t been there often enough to learn the ropes.
“I worked for the FBI,” she said with faint belligerence. “I don’t know anything about cattle.”
He straightened up. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said, still fighting laughter. “Culls are cows that didn’t drop calves this spring. Nonproductive cattle are removed from the herd, or culled. We sell them either as beef or surrogate mothers for purebred cattle.”
She nodded and tried to look intelligent. “I see.” She hesitated. “So we’re punishing poor female cattle for not being able to have calves repeatedly over a period of years.”
The cowboy’s face hardened. “Ma’am, can I give you some friendly advice about ranch management?”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
“I think you’d be doing yourself a favor if you sold this ranch,” he said bluntly. “It’s hard to make a living at ranching, even if you’ve done it for years. It would be a sin and a shame to let all your father’s hard work go to pot. Begging your pardon, ma’am,” he added respectfully. “Dal Blake was friends with your father, and he owns the biggest ranch around Raven Springs. Might be worthwhile to talk to him.”
Meadow managed a smile through homicidal rage. “Dariell Blake and I don’t speak,” she informed him.
“Ma’am?” The cowboy sounded surprised.
“He told my father that I’d turned into a manly woman who probably didn’t even have . . .” She bit down hard on the word she couldn’t bring herself to voice. “Anyway,” she added tersely, “he can keep his outdated opinions to himself.”
The cowboy grimaced. “Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” she said, and managed a smile. “Thanks for the advice, though. I think I’ll go online and watch a few YouTube videos on cattle management. I might call one of those men, or women, for advice.”
The cowboy opened his mouth to speak, thought about how scarce jobs were, and closed it again. “Whatever you say, ma’am.” He put his hat back on. “I’ll just get back to work. It’s, uh, okay to ship out the culls?”
“Of course it’s all right,” she said, frowning. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“You said it oppressed the cows . . .”
She rolled her eyes. “I was kidding!”
“Oh.” Ted brightened a little. He tilted his hat respectfully and went away.
Meadow went back into the house and felt empty. She and her father had been close. He loved his ranch and his daughter. Getting to know her as an adult had been great fun for both of them. Her mother had kept the tension going as long as she lived. She never would believe that Meadow could love her and her ex-husband equally. But Meadow did. They were both wonderful people. They just couldn’t live together without arguing.
She ran her fingers over the back of the cane-bottomed rocking chair where her father always sat, near the big stone fireplace. It was November, and Colorado was cold. Heavy snow was already falling. Meadow remembered Colorado winters from her childhood, before her parents divorced. It was going to be difficult to manage payroll, much less all the little added extras she’d need, like food and electricity . . .
She shook herself mentally. She’d manage, somehow. And she’d do it without Dariell Blake’s help. She could only imagine the smug, self-righteous expression that would come into those chiseled features if she asked him to teach her cattle ranching. She’d rather starve. Well, not really.
She considered her options, and there weren’t many. Her father owned this ranch outright. He owed for farm equipment, like combines to harvest grain crops and tractors to help with planting. He owed for feed and branding supplies and things like that. But the land was hers now, free and clear. There was a lot of land. It was worth millions.
She could have sold it and started over. But he’d made her promise not to. He’d known her very well by then. She never made a promise she didn’t keep. Her own sense of ethics locked her into a position she hated. She didn’t know anything about ranching!
Her father mentioned Dariell, whom everyone locally called Dal, all the time. Fine young man, he commented. Full of pepper, good disposition, loves animals.
The loving animals part was becoming a problem. She had a beautiful white Siberian husky, a rescue, with just a hint of red-tipped fur in her ears and tail. She was named Snow, and Meadow had fought the authorities to keep her in her small apartment. She was immaculate, and Meadow brushed her and bathed her faithfully. Finally the apartment manager had given in, reluctantly, after Meadow offered a sizeable deposit for the apartment, which was close to her work. She made friends with a lab tech in the next-door apartment, who kept Snow when Meadow had to travel for work. It was a nice arrangement, except that the lab tech really liked Meadow, who didn’t return the admiration. While kind and sweet, the tech did absolutely nothing for Meadow physically or emotionally.
She wondered sometimes if she was really cold. Men were nice. She dated. She’d even indulged in light petting with one of them. But she didn’t feel the sense of need that made women marry and settle and have kids with a man. Most of the ones she’d dated were career oriented and didn’t want marriage in the first place. Meadow’s mother had been devout. Meadow grew up with deep religious beliefs that were in constant conflict with society’s norms.
She kept to herself mostly. She’d loved her job when she started as an investigator for the Bureau. But there had been a minor slipup.
Meadow was clumsy. There was no other way to put it. She had two left feet, and she was always falling down or doing things the wrong way. It was a curse. Her mother had named her Meadow because she was reading a novel at the time and the heroine had that name. The heroine had been gentle and sweet and a credit to the community where she lived, in 1900s Fort Worth, Texas. Meadow, sadly, was nothing like her namesake.
There had been a stakeout. Meadow had been assigned, with another special agent, to keep tabs on a criminal who’d shot a police officer. The officer lived, but the man responsible was facing felony charges, and he ran.
A CI, or Confidential Informant, had told them where the man was likely to be on a Friday night. It was a local club, frequented by people who were out of the mainstream of society.
Meadow had been assigned to watch the back door while the other special agent went through the front of the club and tried to spot him.
Sure enough, the man was there. The other agent was recognized by a patron, who warned the perpetrator. The criminal took off out the back door.
While Meadow was trying to get her gun out of the holster, the fugitive ran into her and they both tumbled onto the ground.
“Clumsy cow!” he exclaimed. He turned her over and pushed her face hard into the asphalt of the parking lot, and then jumped up and ran.
Bruised and bleeding, Meadow managed to get to her feet and pull her service revolver. “FBI! Stop or I’ll shoot!”
“You couldn’t hit a barn from the inside!” came the sarcastic reply from the running man.
“I’ll show . . . you!” As she spoke, she stepped back onto a big rock, her feet went out from under her, and the gun discharged right into the windshield of the SUV she and the special agent arrived in.
The criminal was long gone by the time Meadow was recovering from the fall.
“Did you get him?” the other agent panted as he joined her. He frowned. “What the hell happened to you?”
“He fell over me and pushed my face into the asphalt,” she muttered, feeling the blood on her nose. “I ordered him to halt and tried to fire when I tripped over a rock . . .”
The other agent’s face told a story that he was too kind to voice.
She swallowed, hard. “Sorry about the windshield,” she added.
He glanced at the Bureau SUV and shook his head. “Maybe we could tell them it was a vulture. You know, they sometimes fly into car windshields.”
“No,” she replied grimly. “It’s always better to tell them the truth. Even when it’s painful.”
“Guess you’re right.” He grimaced. “Sorry.”
“Hey. We all have talents. I think mine is to trip over my own feet at any given dangerous moment.”
“The SAC is going to be upset,” he remarked.
“I don’t doubt it,” she replied.
* * *
In fact, the Special Agent in Charge was eloquent about her failure to secure the fugitive. He also wondered aloud, rhetorically, how any firearms instructor ever got drunk enough to pass her in the academy. She kept quiet, figuring that anything she said would only make matters worse.
He didn’t take her badge. He did, however, assign her as an aide to another agent who was redoing files in the basement of the building. It was clerical work, for which she wasn’t even trained. And from that point, her career as an FBI agent started going drastically downhill.
She’d always had problems with balance. She thought that her training would help her compensate for it, but she’d been wrong. She seemed to be a complete failure as an FBI agent. Her superior obviously thought so.
He did give her a second chance, months later. He sent her to interrogate a man who’d confessed to kidnapping an underage girl for immoral purposes. Meadow’s questions, which she’d formulated beforehand, irritated him to the point of physical violence. He’d attacked Meadow, who was totally unprepared for what amounted to a beating. She’d fought, and screamed, to no avail. It had taken a jailer to extricate the man’s hands from her throat. Of course, that added another charge to the bevy he was already facing: assault on a federal officer.
But Meadow reacted very badly to the incident. It had never occurred to her that a perpetrator might attack her physically. She’d learned to shoot a gun, she’d learned self-defense, hand-to-hand, all the ways in the world to protect herself. But when she’d come up against an unarmed but violent criminal, she’d almost been killed. Her training wasn’t enough. She’d felt such fear that she couldn’t function. That had been the beginning of the end. Both she and the Bureau had decided that she was in the wrong profession. They’d been very nice about it, but she’d lost her job.
And Dal Blake thought she was a manly woman, a real hell-raiser. It was funny. She was the exact opposite. Half the time she couldn’t even remember to do up the buttons on her coat right.
She sighed as she thought about Dal. She’d had a crush on him in high school. He was almost ten years older than she was and considered her a child. Her one attempt to catch his eye had ended in disaster . . .
* * *
She’d come to visit her father during Christmas holidays—much against her mother’s wishes. It was her senior year of high school. She’d graduate in the spring. She knew that she was too young to appeal to a man Dal’s age, but she was infatuated with him, fascinated by him.
He came by to see her father often because they were both active members in the local cattlemen’s association. So one night when she knew he was coming over, Meadow dressed to the hilt in her Sunday best. It was a low-cut red sheath dress, very Christmassy and festive. It had long sleeves and side slits. It was much too old for Meadow, but her father loved her, so he let her pick it out and he paid for it.
Meadow walked into the room while Dal and her father were talking and sat down in a chair nearby, with a book in her hands. She tried to look sexy and appealing. She had on too much makeup, but she hadn’t noticed that. The magazines all said that makeup emphasized your best features. Meadow didn’t have many best features. Her straight nose and bow mouth were sort of appealing, and she had pretty light green eyes. She used masses of eyeliner and mascara and way too much rouge. Her best feature was her long, thick, beautiful blond hair. She wore it down that night.
Her father gave her a pleading look, which she ignored. She smiled at Dal with what she hoped was sophistication.
He gave her a dark-eyed glare.
The expression on his face washed away all her self-confidence. She flushed and pretended to read her book, but she was shaky inside. He didn’t look interested. In fact, he looked very repulsed.
When her father went out of the room to get some paperwork he wanted to show to Dal, Meadow forced herself to look at him and smile.
“It’s almost Christmas,” she began, trying to find a subject for conversation.
He didn’t reply. He did get to his feet and come toward her. That flustered her even more. She fumbled with the book and dropped it on the floor.
Dal pulled her up out of the chair and took her by the shoulders firmly. “I’m ten years older than you,” he said bluntly. “You’re a high school kid. I don’t rob cradles and I don’t appreciate attempts to seduce me in your father’s living room. Got that?”
Her breath caught. “I never . . . !” she stammered.
His chiseled mouth curled expressively as he looked down into her shocked face. “You’re painted up like a carnival fortune-teller. Too much makeup entirely. Does your mother know you wear clothes like that and come on to men?” he added icily. “I thought she was religious.”
“She . . . is,” Meadow stammered, and felt her age. Too young. She was too young. Her eyes fell away from his. “So am I. I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” he returned. His strong fingers contracted on her shoulders. “When do you leave for home?”
“Next Friday,” she managed to say. She was dying inside. She’d never been so embarrassed in her life.
“Good. You get on the plane and don’t come back. Your father has enough problems without trying to keep you out of trouble. And next time I come over here, I don’t want to find you setting up shop in the living room, like a spider hunting flies.”
“You’re a very big fly,” she blurted out, and flushed some more.
His lip curled. “You’re out of your league, kid.” He let go of her shoulders and moved her away from him, as if she had something contagious. His eyes went to the low-cut neckline. “If you went out on the street like that, in Raven Springs, you’d get offers.”
She frowned. “Offers?”
“Prostitutes mostly do get offers,” he said with distaste.
Tears threatened, but she pulled herself up to her maximum height, far short of his, and glared up at him. “I am not a prostitute!”
“Sorry. Prostitute in training?” he added thoughtfully.
She wanted to hit him. She’d never wanted anything so much. In fact, she raised her hand to slap that arrogant look off his face.
He caught her arm and pushed her hand away.
Even then, at that young age, her balance hadn’t been what it should be. Her father had a big, elegant stove in the living room to heat the house. It used coal instead of wood, and it was very efficient behind its tight glass casing. There was a coal bin right next to it.
Meadow lost her balance and went down right into the coal bin. Coal spilled out onto the wood floor and all over her. Now there were black splotches all over her pretty red dress, not to mention her face and hair and hands.
She sat up in the middle of the mess, and angry tears ran down her soot-covered cheeks as she glared at Dal.
He was laughing so hard that he was almost doubled over.
“That’s right, laugh,” she muttered. “Santa’s going to stop by here on his way to your house to get enough coal to fill up your stocking, Darriell Blake!”
He laughed even harder.
Her father came back into the room with a file folder in one hand, stopped, did a double take, and stared at his daughter, sitting on the floor in a pile of coal.
“What the hell happened to you?” he burst out.
“He happened to me!” she cried, pointing at Dal Blake. “He said I looked like a streetwalker!”
“You’re the one in the tight red dress, honey.” Dal chuckled. “I just made an observation.”
“Your mother would have a fit if she saw you in that dress,” her father said heavily. “I should never have let you talk me into buying it.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter anymore, it’s ruined!” She got to her feet, swiping at tears in her eyes. “I’m going to bed!”
“Might as well,” Dal remarked, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets and looking at her with an arrogant smile. “Go flirt with men your own age, kid.”
She looked to her father for aid, but he just stared at her and sighed.
She scrambled to her feet, displacing more coal. “I’ll get this swept up before I go to bed,” she said.
“I’ll do that. Get yourself cleaned up, Meda,” her father said gently, using his pet name for her. “Go on.”
She left the room muttering. She didn’t even look at Dal Blake.
* * *
That had been several years ago, before she worked in law enforcement in Missouri and finally hooked up with the FBI. Now she was without a job, running a ranch about which she knew absolutely nothing, and whole families who depended on the ranch for a living were depending on her. The responsibility was tremendous.
She honestly didn’t know what she was going to do. She did watch a couple of YouTube videos, but they were less than helpful. Most of them were self-portraits of small ranchers and their methods of dealing with livestock. It was interesting, but they assumed that their audience knew something about ranching. Meadow didn’t.
She started to call the local cattlemen’s association for help, until someone told her who the president of the chapter was. Dal Blake. Why hadn’t she guessed?
While she was drowning in self-doubt, there was a knock on the front door. She opened it to find a handsome man, dark-eyed, with thick blond hair, standing on her porch. He was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, complete with badge.
“Miss Dawson?” he said politely.
She smiled. “Yes?”
“I’m Sheriff Jeff Ralston.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said. She shook hands with him. She liked his handshake. It was firm without being aggressive.
“Nice to meet you, too,” he replied. He shifted his weight.
She realized that it was snowing again and he must be freezing. “Won’t you come in?” she said as an afterthought, moving back.
“Thanks,” he replied. He smiled. “Getting colder out here.”
She laughed. “I don’t mind snow.”
“You will when you’re losing cattle to it,” he said with a sigh as he followed her into the small kitchen, where she motioned him into a chair.
“I don’t know much about cattle,” she confessed. “Coffee?”
“I’d love a cup,” he said heavily. “I had to get out of bed before daylight and check out a robbery at a local home. Someone came in through the window and took off with a valuable antique lamp.”
She frowned. “Just the lamp?”
He nodded. “Odd robbery, that. Usually the perps carry off anything they can get their hands on.”
“I know.” She smiled sheepishly. “I was with the FBI for two years.”
“I heard about that. In fact,” he added while she started coffee brewing, “that’s why I’m here.”
“You need help with the robbery investigation?” she asked, pulling two mugs out of the cabinet.
“I need help, period,” he replied. “My investigator just quit to go live in California with his new wife. She’s from there. Left me shorthanded. We’re on a tight budget, like most small law enforcement agencies. I only have the one investigator. Had, that is.” He eyed her. “I thought you might be interested in the job,” he added with a warm smile.
She almost dropped the mugs. “Me?”
“Yes. Your father said you had experience in law enforcement before you went with the Bureau and that you were noted for your investigative abilities.”
“Noted wasn’t quite the word they used,” she said, remembering the rage her boss had unleashed when she blew the interrogation of a witness. That also brought back memories of the brutality the man had used against her in the physical attack. To be fair to her boss, he didn’t know the prisoner had attacked her until after he’d read her the riot act. He’d apologized handsomely, but the damage was already done.
“Well, the FBI has its own way of doing things. So do I.” He accepted the hot mug of coffee with a smile. “Thanks. I live on black coffee.”
“So do I.” She laughed, sitting down at the table with him to put cream and sugar in her own. She noticed that he took his straight up. He had nice hands. Very masculine and strong-looking. No wedding band. No telltale ring where one had been, either. She guessed that he’d never been married, but it was too personal a question to ask a relative stranger.
“I need an investigator and you’re out of work. What do you say?”
She thought about the possibilities. She smiled. Here it was, like fate, a chance to prove to the world that she could be a good investigator. It was like the answer to a prayer.
She grinned. “I’ll take it, and thank you.”
He let out the breath he’d been holding. “No. Thank you. I can’t handle the load alone. When can you start?”
“It’s Friday. How about first thing Monday morning?” she asked.
“That would be fine. I’ll put you on the day shift to begin. You’ll need to report to my office by seven a.m. Too early?”
“Oh, no. I’m usually in bed by eight and up by five in the morning.”
His eyebrows raised.
“It’s my dog,” she sighed. “She sleeps on the bed with me, and she wakes up at five. She wants to eat and play. So I can’t go back to sleep or she’ll eat the carpet.”
He laughed. “What breed is she?”
“She’s a white Siberian husky with red highlights. Beautiful.”
“Where is she?”
She caught her breath as she realized that she’d let Snow out to go to the bathroom an hour earlier, and she hadn’t scratched at the door. “Oh, dear,” she muttered as she realized where the dog was likely to be.
Along with that thought came a very angry knock at the back door, near where she was sitting with the sheriff.
Apprehensively, she got up and opened the door. And there he was. Dal Blake, with Snow on a makeshift lead. He wasn’t smiling.
“Your dog invited herself to breakfast. Again. She came right into my damned house through the dog door!”
She knew that Dal didn’t have a dog anymore. His old Labrador had died a few weeks ago, her foreman had told her, and the man had mourned the old dog. He’d had it for almost fourteen years, he’d added.
“I’m sorry,” Meadow said with a grimace. “Snow. Bad girl!” she muttered.
The husky with her laughing blue eyes came bounding over to her mistress and started licking her.
“Stop that.” Meadow laughed, fending her off. “How about a treat, Snow?”
She went to get one from the cupboard.
“Hey, Jeff,” Dal greeted the other man, shaking hands as Jeff got to his feet.
“How’s it going?” Jeff asked Dal.
“Slow,” came the reply. “We’re renovating the calving sheds. It’s slow work in this weather.”
“Tell me about it,” Jeff said. “We had two fences go down. Cows broke through and started down the highway.”
“Maybe there was a dress sale,” Dal said, tongue-in-cheek as he watched a flustered Meadow give a chewy treat to her dog.
“I’d love to see a cow wearing a dress,” she muttered.
“Would you?” Dal replied. “One of your men thinks that’s your ultimate aim, to put cows in school and teach them to read.”
“Which man?” she asked, her eyes flashing fire at him.
“Oh, no, I’m not telling,” Dal returned. “You get on some boots and jeans and go find out for yourself. If you can ride a horse, that is.”
That brought back another sad memory. She’d gone riding on one of her father’s feistier horses, confident that she could control it. She was in her second year of college, bristling with confidence as she breezed through her core curriculum.
She thought she could handle the horse. But it sensed her fear of heights and speed and took her on a racing tour up the side of a small mountain and down again so quickly that Meadow lost her balance and ended up face first in a snowbank.
To add to her humiliation—because the stupid horse went running back to the barn, probably laughing all the way—Dal Blake was helping move cattle on his own ranch, and he saw the whole thing.
He came trotting up just as she was wiping the last of the snow from her face and parka. “You know, Spirit isn’t a great choice of horses for an inexperienced rider.”
“My father told me that,” she muttered.
“Pity you didn’t listen. And lucky that you ended up in a snowbank instead of down a ravine,” he said solemnly. “If you can’t control a horse, don’t ride him.”
“Thanks for the helpful advice,” she returned icily.
“City tenderfoot,” he mused. “I’m amazed that you haven’t killed yourself already. I hear your father had to put a rail on the back steps after you fell down them.”
She flushed. “I tripped over his cat.”
“You could benefit from some martial arts training.”
“I’ve already had that,” she said. “I work for my local police department.”
“As what?” he asked politely.
“As a patrol officer!” she shot back.
“Well,” he remarked, turning his horse, “if you drive a car like you ride a horse, you’re going to end badly one day.”
“I can drive!” she shot after him. “I drive all the time!”
“God help other motorists.”
“You . . . you . . . you . . . !” She gathered steam with each repetition of the word until she was almost screaming, and still she couldn’t think of an insult bad enough to throw at him. It wouldn’t have done any good. He kept riding. He didn’t even look back.
* * *
She snapped back to the present. “Yes, I can ride a horse!” she shot at Dal Blake. “Just because I fell off once . . .”
“You fell off several times. This is mountainous country. If you go riding, carry a cell phone and make sure it’s charged,” he said seriously.
“I’d salaam, but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet,” she drawled, alluding to an old custom of subjects salaaming royalty.
“You heard me.”
“You don’t give orders to me in my own house,” she returned hotly.
Jeff cleared his throat.
They both looked at him.
“I have to get back to work,” he said as he pushed his chair back in. “Thanks for the coffee, Meadow. I’ll expect you early Monday morning.”
“Expect her?” Dal asked.
“She’s coming to work for me as my new investigator,” Jeff said with a bland smile.
Dal’s dark eyes narrowed. He saw through the man, whom he’d known since grammar school. Jeff was a good sheriff, but he wanted to add to his ranch. He owned property that adjoined Meadow’s. So did Dal. That acreage had abundant water, and right now water was the most important asset any rancher had. Meadow was obviously out of her depth trying to run a ranch. Her best bet was to sell it, so Jeff was getting in on the ground floor by offering her a job that would keep her close to him.
He saw all that, but he just smiled. “Good luck,” he told Jeff, with a dry glance at a fuming Meadow. “You’ll need it.”
“She’ll do fine,” Jeff said confidently.
Dal just smiled.
Meadow remembered that smile from years past. She’d had so many accidents when she was visiting her father. Dal was always somewhere nearby when they happened.
He didn’t like Meadow. He’d made his distaste for her apparent on every possible occasion. There had been a Christmas party thrown by the local cattlemen’s association when Meadow first started college. She’d come to spend Christmas with her father, and when he asked her to go to the party with him, she agreed.
She knew Dal would be there. So she wore an outrageous dress, even more revealing than the one he’d been so disparaging about when she was a senior in high school.
Sadly, the dress caught the wrong pair of eyes. A local cattleman who’d had five drinks too many had propositioned Meadow by the punch bowl. His reaction to her dress had flustered her and she tripped over her high-heeled shoes and knocked the punch bowl over.
The linen tablecloth was soaked. So was poor Meadow, in her outrageous dress. Dal Blake had laughed until his face turned red. So had most other people. Meadow had asked her father to drive her home. It was the last Christmas party she ever attended in Raven Springs.
But just before the punch incident, there had been another. Dal had been caught with her under the mistletoe . . .
She shook herself mentally and glared at Dal.