The New Girl In Town. Brenda Harlen
time was that she was pregnant. Back in those days that was a disgrace. I didn’t believe it. Gave a few folks a good dressing-down for even suggesting it. But, seeing as how you boys are here, looks like it was true.”
“Could you give us directions to the Rocking R?” Matt asked.
“Sure. Just follow the highway north about ten miles and you’ll see the sign.”
She hesitated, gnawing at her bottom lip, looking from one to the other. “Look, fellas, I feel it’s only fair to warn you, Seamus Rafferty is meaner than a snake. He’s not gonna take kindly to you showing up on his doorstep. Fact is, you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t run you off at gun-point.”
“We still have to give it a shot,” J.T. said.
“We’re not here to cause trouble,” Matt added. “All we want is some information.”
“Yeah, well, good luck getting it. Regardless of how it turns out, though, I want you to know that I’m just pleased as punch that I got to meet Colleen’s boys. An’ I sure hope you get the answers you want,” she added, but her expression said she didn’t think much of their chances.
After turning in at the ranch entrance they drove several more miles without seeing anything but rich, rolling grassland on either side of the SUV.
The land rose and dipped in undulating waves, stretching out as far as the eye could see to the east, north and south and to the base of the mountains to the west. Patches of snow still dotted the winter-brown pastures, but in protected spots green shoots poked up to brave the chill. Here and there stands of pine and spruce broke up the rolling landscape. Placid cattle grazed on either side of the narrow dirt road.
Now this was prime ranch land, Zach thought. Exactly the kind of spread he’d always dreamed of owning.
His mouth twisted. Yeah, right. In your dreams, Mahoney. If he saved his money until he was ninety, he’d never have enough to purchase a place even a fraction the size of this one.
The road went down a long incline into a wide, gently rolling valley. At its center sat the ranch house, a sturdy, sprawling, two story structure made of logs and stone. The logs were stained dark brown, the shutters and trim painted cream. A wide porch spanned the considerable width of the house, front and back. It had the look of permanence, as though it had been sitting there for a hundred years or more.
A couple hundred yards or so behind the house, cowboys worked in and around a maze of corrals and the gargantuan barn. Beyond that a bunkhouse, several open-sided hay barns and other outbuildings, which Zach knew probably housed tractors and cattle trailers and other ranch equipment, were scattered around. It was as fine a setup as he’d ever seen…and he’d darn near sell his soul to own it.
A Border collie lay sleeping in a patch of sunshine on the porch. When Matt drove up to the front of the house the animal sprang to her feet and streaked down the steps, barking furiously.
Zach, Matt and J.T. climbed out of the SUV, and the dog continued to growl. Following Zach’s lead, they let her sniff their hands. When she was satisfied, the men went up the walk and climbed the steps, the Collie trotting along beside them, tail wagging.
Their knock was answered by an elderly Hispanic woman.
“¿Sí, señors?” Her face went slack with shock and she clasped her face between her palms. “¡Aiee! ¡Madre de Dios! It is you! Señorita Colleen’s muchachos!”
Before any of them could respond the woman surged forward, hugging first one, then the other, weeping and babbling in an incoherent mix of English and Spanish.
“Dammit to hell, Maria! What in tarnation are you caterwauling about!” a male voice inside the house bellowed.
Boot heels hammered across the foyer an instant before a gray-haired man appeared in the doorway. Backing up a step, Maria wrung her hands, her worried gaze bouncing back and forth between the four males.
The old man’s weathered skin resembled aged leather. He was shorter than Zach and his brothers by about two inches and lean to the point of boniness, but he looked as tough as a pine knot.
“Whoever you are and whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested, so get the hell off my property.”
As he spoke the old man’s gaze skimmed over them, then did a double take, flashing back to Zach. His faded blue eyes narrowed and sharpened as recognition dawned. He stared for the space of three heartbeats before switching to the other two men.
Zach would not have thought it possible, but the old man’s expression grew even harder, and his eyes narrowed with pure hatred when his gaze settled on J.T.
“So…she whelped three of you, did she?”
Maria made a distressed sound, which drew the old man’s attention. “Get back to your duties, woman. This is no business of yours.”
“Are you Seamus Rafferty?”
“That I am.” His flinty stare returned to J.T.
“My name is Zach Mahoney. These are my brother’s, Matt Dolan and J.T. Conway. We’re here because—”
“I know who you are,” the old man snapped. “No matter what you call yourselves, you’re still Colleen’s bastards.” He jabbed a bony forefinger at the end of J.T.’s nose. “This one is a dead ringer for Mike Reardon, the sorry, no-good saddle tramp who seduced my daughter. And you.” He turned his head and looked at Zach. “You’re the image of her.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Seamus turned his attention on Matt. “Now, you—you don’t favor either of them. You’re just a mutt mixture of both.” He looked down at Matt’s cane, and his mouth curled with contempt. “Got a gimp leg, I see. Not much use to anyone, are you?”
Matt’s jaw tightened and his piercing blue eyes flamed.
Zach made a subtle shift, placing himself between Matt and the old man. “We’re looking for some information. We’re hoping you can help us.”
Seamus Rafferty’s hard stare swung to Zach and held for an interminable time. Finally he snapped, “Come in. I don’t conduct business on the porch.” He stomped back inside, leaving them no choice but to follow.
As they walked through the entry hall a young woman dressed in snug-fitting jeans and a Western-style shirt and boots descended the stairs. She was small and wand slim. At first glance Zach took her for a teenager, but drawing nearer he realized she was in her mid-twenties. Her skin was ivory, her eyes blue, her hair black. The thick mane hung down her back almost to her waist, arrow straight and as shiny as polished ebony. Though she appeared to wear no makeup she had the kind of delicate beauty that took your breath away.
Zach wondered who she was. Another of Seamus’s grandchildren, perhaps? Or a late-in-life child? Or perhaps his wife?
The last thought was so distasteful Zach dismissed it immediately.
The woman came to a halt on the bottom stair as they walked by, but even so she was still not eye-level with Zach. He realized that she could be no more than five feet two or three—and that her eyes were not blue at all, but a startling violet.
He thought surely Seamus would stop and introduce them, but the old man stomped past the stairs without so much as a glance in her direction.
“Seamus?” she called after him. “What’s going on?”
The husky contralto coming from such a small, delicate woman surprised Zach, but he was given no opportunity to contemplate its sexy quality.
“This has nothing to do with you, Willie. Go on about your own business girl, and keep your nose out of mine.”
He led them into a walnut-paneled office, took a seat behind a massive desk, then motioned impatiently to the leather sofa and chairs by the fire.
When they were seated he glared at them. “Well?”