The Rancher Meets His Match – Kate Pearce

“You still up there, Kaiden?” Kaiden Miller took a second to remove the two long nails from between his teeth before squinting down through the haze of dust and wood shavings to the floor below. He was halfway up a ladder inside the gutted interior of what had once been the Morgantown movie theater attempting to repair a broken support beam. “Yup, what do you need, Doc?” He put the nails in the top pocket of his denim shirt and his hammer back in his tool belt before carefully climbing down. “Sorry to interrupt you,” Dr. Tio said. “But I wanted to check in before you headed home tonight.” Kaiden shook the sawdust off his battered old watch, and realized it was far later than he’d realized. He was supposed to be helping at the ranch while his brother Danny was away at some agricultural college thing. His father, who wasn’t known for either his patience, or his good temper, would be yelling the moment Kaiden turned into the driveway to the ranch. “Sure, how can I help, Doc?” He was already late; he might as well enjoy the full Jeff Miller show with all the trimmings. “I just had Juan Garcia in for an appointment.” “How’s he doing?” Kaiden asked. “Not too good. It looks like he’s going to be using a wheelchair a lot more.” Dr.

Tio grimaced. “Which means his ranch house is going to need some adaptations.” “Do you want me to take a look at it?” For some reason, even though technically he was just a carpenter, Kaiden was often asked to be the project manager for local jobs. Not that he minded. He got bored very quickly and appreciated some variety in his life. “If you could, that would be great. I’d much rather someone local got the job.” Dr. Tio looked relieved. “The family is willing to pay the going rate to get it done as quickly as possible.

” “I’ll have to check in with my dad as to my availability, and I can’t do it all myself,” Kaiden added. “But I know plenty of guys who would be happy to get the work.” “Thanks so much.” Dr. Tio patted his shoulder. “I appreciate it.” Kaiden nodded. “Tell Mr. Garcia I’ll drop in tomorrow morning, if that’s okay.” “Will do.

” Dr. Tio paused to look up at the twenty-foot-high roof. “This place is coming along great. How many apartments do you think you’ll get in here?” “At least four, maybe six depending on what Chase Morgan’s architect decides when we’ve finished checking out the structural integrity of the place.” Kaiden had fallen in love with the old building, which somehow, despite falling into disrepair, still retained the scent of popcorn, bubblegum, and anticipation from its movie theater days. Luckily, May Chang, the architect, was a big fan of keeping as much of the original spirit of the building as Kaiden was. “Thanks again, Kaiden,” Dr. Tio repeated. “I’ll speak to you tomorrow.” He picked his way carefully through the debris and out onto the street.

Kaiden took the time to make sure all the tools were locked away and the site was as secure as he could make it before locking the temporary door behind him and heading for his truck. The sun hadn’t quite gone down and cast a beam of light straight along Main Street illuminating the raised walkways, false shop fronts, and hitching posts that gave Morgantown its special Northern California gold rush town appeal. Even though he’d lived there his entire life, Kaiden wasn’t immune either to its charm or its limitations. His cell phone buzzed. He took it out to see at least ten messages with full-on caps and exclamation points and wished again that his sister Daisy hadn’t taught their father how to text. He didn’t bother to reply. He’d be home in fifteen minutes and then his father could give it to him straight. As he approached his battered truck, Kaiden thumbed through his contacts checking to see if he had a number for the Garcia Ranch. As Juan’s health had failed, a few of the local ranchers who matched boundaries with the Garcias had tried to help out mending fences and moving cattle when the valley had partially flooded. It wasn’t as if they weren’t busy enough, but out here in Morgan Valley, it was a tradition that neighbors helped neighbors.

Kaiden set his toolbox and belt in the passenger seat and stretched out his tired muscles. Working in the cramped roof space wasn’t ideal for his six-foot frame, but there was no one else willing to get up close and personal with the hundred-year-old beams. As the last of the sun disappeared behind the dark forbidding heights of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Kaiden set off along the county road toward home, mentally cataloguing the chores he’d have to catch up on in order to escape his father’s wrath. “Who am I kidding?” Kaiden muttered. “He’ll shout at me anyway. He just loves shouting.” Sure, Jeff Miller had mellowed a bit in the last year since the wife he’d divorced twenty years ago had reappeared. Not that Kaiden had a problem with that. His mom had put up with a lot before she’d finally lost it and walked out to teach their father a lesson he’d failed to learn. Coming back on her own terms to get to know her own kids took balls.

His cell buzzed constantly as he neared home. When he paused to punch in the gate code, he was tempted to throw it out the window. Hoping to avoid his father, he parked on the far side of the drive and took the back way to the barn where Danny usually fed the ranch horses and took care of any stray calves they were hand rearing. Kaiden loved the calves with their long eyelashes and soft brown eyes. He could always pick out the ones he’d help rear in the herd for years afterward. “Ha! There you are!” He jumped like a guilty teenager as his father’s voice boomed out from behind him. Jeff wasn’t a particularly tall man, but for what he lacked in inches he made up in sheer cussedness. “I got held up by Dr. Tio.” Kaiden had already started on the feed.

He knew the routine by heart. “I couldn’t just walk away.” “Sure you could. We do have phones you know.” “Yeah, but—” Kaiden didn’t bother to finish the sentence because one thing he knew was that he’d never win an argument with his father. “Excuse me.” He pushed past Jeff and headed into the first two stalls, checking the water and hanging the feed buckets on the wall. “What did he want?” his dad asked. “He was checking up on me again, wasn’t he?” “Dad, he only has to look at you to know you haven’t listened to a word he said about lowering your cholesterol.” “I’ve been eating goddam salad!” “Only when Mom’s here, and only to impress her.

” Kaiden filled another two buckets and kept moving. He was taller than his dad now, and unlikely to get swatted, but you never knew what was coming. “You ate four slices of pizza yesterday.” “Because I work outside and burn up a lot of calories!” Jeff protested. “What does Dr. Tio know about that kind of work?” “Seeing as he chose to practice in a town chock-full of ranchers you’d think he’d be quite knowledgeable.” By the time Kaiden got back with the third set of buckets, his dad had started on the other side of the barn, and they worked together in silence until all the horses were fed. “How many calves do we have, right now?” Kaiden asked. “Just the one.” Jeff closed the lid of the feed bin and locked it.

“I was wondering whether young Roman would like to help rear him for the 4-H club.” “That’s a great idea. Did you ask Adam and Lizzie?” “Thought I’d run it by you first.” Jeff studied his scuffed boots. Kaiden stared hard at his dad. “Why’s that?” “Because I’m trying to check in with other people before I get stuff wrong.” “You are?” Kaiden fought a smile. “Good for you.” He received a scowl in return. “It’s your mother’s idea if you must know.

” “I’d never have guessed that in a million years.” Kaiden shook his head admiringly. “I was just wondering if you’d fallen and hit your head or something.” “Get on with you.” Jeff ’s frown returned. “I don’t know why I put up with your crap.” “Because I can run faster than you now, and you can’t catch me?” Kaiden grinned at his dad. “Or is it that I could saw you in half with one hand tied behind my back?” Jeff merely grunted and turned toward the exit. “Dinner will be ready in half an hour, so get a move on.” “Will do.

” Kaiden made up the milk formula and shook the bottle as he walked to the end of the barn where the calves were kept. The only occupant of the stall immediately came up to the bars and mooed like he hadn’t been fed for a week. “Here you go, youngster.” Kaiden braced one booted foot against the bars, held the bottle with both hands, and offered the teat to the calf, who latched on immediately and sucked the whole meal down in minutes. After cleaning out the empty bottle and checking all the horses were settled in, Kaiden turned out the lights, leaving the barn to the feral cats and the bird population. Darkness came quickly to Morgan Valley at this time of year, but he knew his way back to the ranch house blindfolded. He went into his bedroom, painfully aware that his brother Ben, whom he’d shared a bathroom with his whole life, was no longer there. He’d moved out to manage the Gomez Ranch with his film star fiancée, Silver. Technically, Ben was only a couple of miles away, but Kaiden missed his messy brother more than he had anticipated. Even when they’d fought, they’d always forgiven each other and made up quickly.

At least his bathroom was clean now. Ben had tended to drop everything and leave it there while Kaiden liked stuff to be in its correct place. He stared at the immaculately lined up bottles and found himself missing the clutter, which was just weird. “Get over yourself,” Kaiden muttered as he turned on the shower. “Enjoy the space.” By the time he’d washed up and changed, he could already smell the heavenly aromas coming from the kitchen. His big brother Adam loved to cook and knew they all had healthy appetites, so he didn’t stint on the portions. When Kaiden reached the large open-plan kitchen, he paused to run his fingers over the work surface he had hand planed from wood salvaged from Miller land. He loved the ranch, but working with his hands to create his own unique furniture was sometimes even better. “Hey,” Adam called out to him as he set a big casserole dish on the table.

“Can you grab some beverages from the refrigerator?” “Sure.” Kaiden got out the iced tea and lemonade and placed them on the table with a selection of glasses. “Are Lizzie and Roman here?” “No, she had to work late today.” Adam frowned as he mashed the potatoes. “I’d like her to move up here permanently, but she’s not keen on that.” “Give her some time, Bro,” Kaiden advised. “She’s got a lot on her plate right now.” “Yeah, I know.” Adam wasn’t the most forthcoming of brothers at the best of times, and getting him to talk about the woman he loved was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t because he didn’t care or feel things deeply, it was just because he’d spent so many years bottling things up that it was still hard for him to open up even with his family.

Kaiden didn’t push the conversation and, instead, went to call his father and brothers to the table. His sister Daisy was currently in Palo Alto working at her high-tech startup, and Ben was living at the other ranch. Kaiden wasn’t sure he liked all the absences around the table. It felt like his family was changing too fast while he somehow stood still. “Where’s Danny?” his father demanded as he came into the kitchen. “He’s probably on his way back right now.” Adam handed his father a plate. “It’s a long drive from Lake Tahoe.” “I don’t know why he’s bothering with that degree rubbish anyway.” Jeff sat down, mumbled a quick prayer, and then helped himself to the pot of chicken.

“I can teach him everything he needs to know about how to manage a ranch right here for free. I taught you guys everything.” “You sure did, Dad.” Kaiden shared a wry glance with his oldest brother, Adam, and his youngest brother, Evan. “And we all have the scars to prove it.” “No one dies from getting a clock in the head when they’re being stupid, Son.” Jeff chewed vigorously. “I didn’t have time to consider whether I was hurting your feelings when a steer was running you down.” “You didn’t even consider we had feelings.” Kaiden took a huge portion of the creamy mashed potatoes and the rich chicken and red wine sauce.

“Danny’s degree will help keep this ranch in business. He’s learning all new kinds of stuff that we’ve never even considered before.” Jeff made a face before continuing to eat. “Waste of money.” “He’s paying his own way with what he makes here and working for me,” Kaiden pointed out. “I think he’s smart to do it. I wish I’d had the opportunity.” “You went to college, Son,” Jeff pointed out. “I didn’t like that, either, but at least you learned something practical, which saves me money.” “I learned a trade.

That’s different.” Kaiden turned to Adam. “This food is awesome, by the way.” “Thanks.” Adam nodded. “There’s plenty more, so keep going.” By the time they got to dessert, even Kaiden was full, and decided to stick with coffee. While Jeff was busy trying to argue with Evan about something to do with the calves, Kaiden turned to Adam. “Dr. Tio asked me to go out to the Garcia Ranch to see Juan tomorrow.

” “Yeah? What for?” Adam frowned. “Don’t tell me you’re leaving to manage the ranch for him— although it could do with all the help it can get right now.” “The house needs adapting so that Juan can get around in his wheelchair.” “That sucks.” Adam sipped his own coffee. “He’s got multiple sclerosis, right?” “Yeah. I said I’d check out what needs to be done—bathrooms, ramps, doorways, that kind of thing.” “Who’s paying for that? I don’t think Juan has taken any cattle to market the last two years, and the ranch is a mess.” “Dr. Tio said the family would take care of it.

” Kaiden shrugged. “Maybe Mr. Garcia got some kind of disability grant, or something. He’s retired military.” “Maybe one of his kids is coughing up the cash. Miguel’s in the military, right?” “As far as I know.” Kaiden kept his tone neutral. “What about Julia?” “I have no idea.” Kaiden finished his coffee. “I guess I’ll find out the answers tomorrow.

” * * * Julia Garcia turned a slow circle around her father’s kitchen. Nothing had changed since she’d left ten years ago to attend college and never really come back. The coffeepot on the ancient stove was the same, as was the plastic covering on the table, and the loudly humming refrigerator. It was like time had stood still. She pressed her hand over her heart and forced herself to take a deep breath as memories overwhelmed her. Miguel grinning and pulling her hair, her mom cooking at the stove, and her dad coming in the back door smelling like leather and cow shit. “You okay in there?” Her father’s voice echoed down the hallway. She’d left him settled in his recliner in front of the TV and offered to make some coffee. “Yup! Do you have a coffee maker, Dad?” she called out. “I thought that was you.

” She smiled despite herself. “I mean like an electric one or a pod dispenser.” “Nope. Cowboy coffee made on the stove or over the fire is good enough for me.” Julia mentally added a coffee maker to her ever-increasing list of things she needed to survive in the boonies. “Right.” She approached the coffeepot like it was about to burst into flames and cast her mind back to how to make it. “Coffee in the bottom, add water, bring to the boil, easy,” she murmured to herself as she opened the cupboard, found the scratched tin marked COFFEE, and added what she hoped was the appropriate amount before setting it on the stove. She’d arrived last night when it was dark, greeted her father, fallen into her old bed, and slept for eight hours, which was unheard of. She’d forgotten how powerful the silence around the ranch could be.

It felt like she was constantly holding her breath. She checked the refrigerator for cream and set out a couple of mugs. But wasn’t that why she’d left in the first place? That silence? That sense that nothing would ever change if she didn’t make it happen? She went back to speak to her father. “What would you like for breakfast?” “There’s oatmeal. I like that.” He smiled up at her. “Do you have a microwave to make it?” Before he even answered her, Julia held up her hand. “Scratch that. Of course you don’t. I’ll make you some.

” “I don’t want to put you to too much trouble, my love.” Juan frowned. “I’m quite capable of feeding myself.” “I know that, but how about you let me pamper you my first morning back?” Julia kissed his cheek. “Just stay there, Dad, and enjoy your show. I’ll be back.” The kitchen window still had the drapes she’d made with her mom about fifteen years ago. The lemon pattern looked like it hadn’t been washed for years and was stiff with dirt and grease. For a horrible second, Julia wanted to rip the curtains down and scream at the unfairness of it all. But she was a different person now, a more controlled one, and she certainly wasn’t going to let her current sense of helplessness beat her.

Even as she talked herself strong again, her gaze was caught by the endless vista through the smeared window, the vastness of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance, the rolling green foothills, and grasslands topped by a startlingly blue sky. Home: where you could run for miles without seeing another human being or hearing the sound of a car. Nothing like the city she lived in now with its endless sirens, people, and traffic. She paused at the unexpected sound of a truck coming up the driveway. Did her dad still employ hands? She hadn’t seen any sign of activity at the barn, and she’d been up since dawn. She watched as the truck drew up, and a cowboy got out and strolled toward the house. Even though she couldn’t see his face, she immediately knew who it was, and flew to open the front door. When he saw her, he stopped as if surprised and angled his head to one side. “Julia?” “Who else?” She raised her chin. “What the hell are you doing here, Kaiden Miller?”



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