Palomino Ch. 01byLadyRoscoe©
Wesley whistled sharply to his dogs after checking the cows recently brought down from the high winter pasture. "'ere dogs! C'mon!" The little Corgi dogs raced across the field and dodged between his mount's legs. The horse nickered a bit in irritation and danced backward, snorting as the dogs ran across the main yard toward the barn where they'd get their supper when Wesley was finished looking after the horses. "Easy, girl." He patted the horse's neck gently before guiding her through the gate.
A cloud of dust on the main road drew him up. "Whoa girl..." He shaded his eyes and squinted in the direction of the vehicle. None of the hands had gone to town while he was out, had they?
Lacey King's Mercedes convertible slowed some on the gravel road as she approached the great expanse of ranch that she had known as a child, when her mother had been married to her natural father, Bill, aka William King, owner of the King Ranch. But he died just a few short months ago, leaving the well-established and well-known ranch in the name of his only heir. Blue eyes looked at the sprawling ranch house that began to take form in the distance behind the shield of dark sunglasses as blonde hair whipped around her face. She had simply come out to tie up some loose ends before heading back to the city. She hadn't been on a ranch in years and didn't know the first thing about owning one, much less running one.
Wesley Hardigan had been foreman on the King ranch for six years now. He had six hands beneath him, and he did old man King's paperwork and business deals. It'd been a heart break for the whole ranch when the old man passed. The grief was still strong amongst the workers, but there was work to be done and lots of it. Wesley's eyes narrowed on the convertible thing that clearly didn't belong out here. Some city schmuck probably lost out on the back roads; probably took a wrong turn back at the frontage road several miles back. He clucked his tongue to his horse and turned her head for the main house, urging her into a quick trot. The dogs barked behind him as he hadn't taken his normal route straight to the barn and raced across the lot to "race" the horse and zoomed past her to jump up on the deck of the main porch.
Turning onto the long driveway that clearly took her to the main house instead of branching off in the different directions to barns or leading off the property, it was clear that Lacey's convertible was headed for the main house. Waving her hand in front of her face, she coughed a bit, wishing she had come with the top up. She had all but forgotten the dust this road stirred up and muttered over why her father had never paved the roads out here. Turning her head a bit, she could see someone riding up to the old-Spanish style house with the red-tiled roof and smiled a bit at the horse he rode. She had, even though living in the city for the past 14 years, never lost her love for horses. Pulling up into the circular drive in front of the large front porch, she smiled to see the elderly housekeeper, Caroline Lord, step out to meet her arrival, killing the car with a quick grin and wave of her hand.
Carol was out on the porch, hushing the dogs' barking racket. Wesley's sharp whistle shushed them immediately and their ears perked as they looked at the foreman. "Sprout! Tick! C'mere, ya mongrels!" Sprout didn't want to listen and jumped off the porch as the car came to a halt, bouncing and barking up a storm, his bobbed tail just wagging frantically. It took Tick a moment to decide not to obey too and went to join the other dog. Wesley growled and grabbed the saddle horn as he stood in the stirrups and stepped down. "Tick! Sprout! Ya mangy mutts! C'mere!"
Lacey stepped out of the car, sweeping her wind-blown hair back with a slender hand, the gleam of her watch catching in the sunlight as she beamed up at Caroline. "Caroline Lord! It's been ages!" she gushed, eyeing the dogs momentarily before rushing towards the porch, met half-way by the small, tanned older woman, embracing at the bottom of the steps in a tight hug before Caroline pulled back with a loving smile, looking over the girl that had blossomed into a lovely young woman. "Lacey King ... where have you been all these years? We've missed seeing you around here."
Wesley whistled again sharply at the dogs that followed the woman, yapping at her. Finally he got their attention and snapped at them, pointing toward the barn. They lowered their heads a bit at his sharp reprimand. "Git!" The dogs half obeyed, at least shutting up for the time being and slunk up onto the porch to lay down, their tongues hanging out. Had they had longer tails, the tails would've shaken their whole bodies with the wiggles. Wesley dusted himself off and pulled his old beat-in hat from his head, running his fingers through his hair to make himself somewhat presentable. He hadn't expected company or he would've come in earlier and cleaned up some before Carol put dinner on the table. He eyed the old housekeeper. The woman was prone to keeping secrets. This clearly wasn't just some city shmuck lost out on their roads.
Both of the women's gazes seemed to move to the foreman at the same time as Caroline interlocked her arm in Lacey's. Lacey was almost a head taller than the older woman but it was clear who was in charge. Caroline was used to telling lots of people what to do and when to do it.
Lacey's free hand moved up to remove her sunglasses, pushing them to the top of her head to reveal expressive blue eyes that met the foreman's as Caroline spoke. "Lacey, I don't believe you've ever met Wesley. He joined on a while after you left." She smiled, walking the younger woman closer to the foreman and spoke again. "Wesley, this is Lacey. Bill's only daughter who has spent entirely too much time away from home."
Wesley was still agitated with the old woman, his eyes locked on hers a moment too long to make her know just how irritated he was with her. Not that it did any good. Probably the only person he'd accept orders from, other than old man King, was Caroline, and that was because the old woman ruled with an iron fist. After a moment, he regarded the younger woman. He hadn't noticed her when he was reprimanding the dogs to get them to shut the hell up and leave her alone. The blue of her eyes was shocking, the blonde hair, clear skin, general curvature of her form. It took him a moment to find his voice and he tilted his head and removed his hat in cordial greeting. "Ma'am," he said simply as he held his hand out to shake hers.
Lacey smiled genuinely, her blue eyes seeming to take in the rugged foreman's tall, lean, but hard frame. He was every inch a cowboy, but lacking the rough, weathered look that sometimes aged men like him way before their time. Yet, she couldn't place his age either. It was obvious that he was exactly the kind of man she had avoided since leaving Wyoming; the only kind of man that truly caught her eye. She was too busy with her job as an up and coming editor of a top-notch modeling magazine to date. Her eyes roamed him once again as she reached for his hand, her smaller one dwarfed in his larger one as she spoke in a soft voice, "Nice to meet you, Wesley."
His grip was firm and weathered, very callused from rough work. He squeezed her hand firmly. He nodded and ran his fingers through his hair before replacing his hat now that the formalities were through with. He did this all naturally. "Pleasure's all mine, Ma'am". His voice rumbled deep in his chest.
Caroline smiled a knowing smile as she watched the two of them and then retook Lacey's arm as she explained to Wesley, "Lacey works for Metropolitan magazine in New York City. Up and left us years a go with her mother and hasn't had enough good sense to come home until now." She smiled as Lacey laughed and shook her head and then looked at Wesley with a firm but loving frown. "I expect you are going to put that horse up and come eat dinner with us in a timely fashion?"
It took a bit of effort to pull his eyes from Lacey. Now that the beauty had a name, he'd been assessing her a bit more. He frowned at Carol's question. "I'm always on time."
Caroline smiled and winked at him good-naturedly, knowing she was going to irritate the hell out of him now that she could sense his distraction with her younger charge. "Good ... we'll meet you in the dining room then," she teased before she led Lacey away. Lacey smiled apologetically over her shoulder, having forgotten how downright bossy Caroline could be. Soon enough Wesley had turned the old mare out to pasture after washing her down and watering her. He fed the bossy dogs before going to the water faucet to wash up some. He took the towel from draping over the handle and wet it to wash his face and neck. He unbuttoned his shirt cuffs as he washed his hands and arms of the dirt and muck that clung to his sweaty skin in the day. With one last dust-down he put his hat back on his head and draped the towel back over the faucet. It'd have to do. With a glance to his watch, he noted he was a few minutes late for supper ... so much for being on time. He traipsed across the lot and up onto the porch. Using the boot brush he knocked some of the dirt that clung to the worn leather. Instantly he reached up to take his hat off again as he entered. Carol fussed if the men wore hats in the house.
Lacey wandered the house she grew up in as a child as Caroline went into the kitchen to ensure dinner was being put on the table on time. She and Bill and Wesley ate at the same time every night for the past six years. Wesley stuck to their routine after Bill had passed away. It was normal. And he couldn't cook a can of beans if he wanted to.
Lacey looked up from a photo of her father and Caroline as Wesley walked in the door, Caroline's voice beating any kind of greeting she might have, "I was wondering if you were waiting on an engraved invitation." Lacey couldn't help but grin at Wesley's irritation as she set the photo down.
As much as he loved Caroline, she had a habit of getting under his skin, and she did it so quick and so easy. He wasn't quick to anger, but over the years Carol had mastered the art. He looked at Lacey. He wasn't accustomed to another woman in the household. He hadn't forgotten she was here, but she was out of place. The slight nervousness showed in him as he took his normal chair. Bill's chair was left empty since he'd passed away. Nobody had taken the head of the table.
Lacey purposely left her Father's chair empty as they were seated. She did it out of a deep-rooted respect for her father and the love she knew Caroline still harbored for him. Caroline's soft voice prayed, "Father, we offer thanks for this day and the blessings given us in it. Please bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and we thank you for the safe arrival of our long-lost sheep." Lacey opened one eye to peek over at Caroline with one eyebrow cocked to see if she was goading her on purpose, but only a small smile was noted on Caroline's lips before one simple word followed, "Amen."
As they ate, Wesley looked at Lacey a little closer. He didn't seem to be able to pull his eyes from her from the second he'd met her. She was something new, very pretty, and very intriguing. He'd heard Bill talk about his daughter in New York City. He'd seen pictures of her when she was younger. In person she was so much prettier.
Caroline's sweet accent filled the silence as she talked about the ranch, catching Lacey up on this and that. Most of it was going in one ear and out the other as Lacey ate daintily, like a city-raised woman would.
She felt Wesley's gaze on her and lifted her eyes to meet his, a small smile flirting with her moist, full lips. Caroline chatted away. Wesley was gorgeous, in this rugged outdoorsy way, much different from the men she knew in NYC. There was not an ounce of fat on him, and not because he spent hours in the gym, but because of his continued work outdoors, the way a man should be. There was no one like him in the city and it saddened her a bit to know that she wouldn't get a chance to get to know him better.
"... when you move out here permanently," Caroline finally paused for breath.
Lacey's head snapped around. "Wh -what? What do you mean?" she asked with furrowed brows.
Wesley chuckled at the presumptuous Caroline. He'd listened quietly. He was never a man of many words. Carol usually did all the talking anyway... not that anybody could get a word in edgewise when she got started.
"Now Lacey King ... don't you go acting like you haven't a lick of common sense in your pretty little head," Caroline retorted. "You know exactly what I mean."
Lacey set her fork down and shook her head, "I think you've misunderstood, Caroline. I'm not staying. I don't know the first thing about owning or running a ranch and you know it!"
Caroline snorted as she took a bite of mashed potatoes and then jerked her head slightly towards Wesley. "You have the perfect teacher sitting right across from you. Isn't that right, Wes?" she said, dragging him into the conversation.
He lifted his attention, "What?" He set his knife down and reached for a napkin to wipe his mouth.
Caroline pursed her lips somewhat irritably and her chest puffed up like a hen. The man was almost as irritating as Bill had been. "Lacey needs to learn about running a ranch ... the ins and outs of what it is all about. You are the perfect person to teach her all about it."
Wesley's face blanched at the idea and he took in the city-slicker of a woman. He was no teacher; never had been. He was a do'er... to get things done, rather than dilly-dally with the b.s. of not having it done right. "I'm no instructor, Carol..." he said almost weakly then reached for his glass to down the iced tea.
"Nonsense," Carol retorted. "Lacey, you can start in the morning by riding out with the men and get a good look around the ranch again. It's been too long, and like it or not, this place IS yours now," she said.
Lacey's jaw dropped. "W-wait a minute, Carol ... I ... I haven't ridden in years, " she replied in a somewhat unsure voice. "Heavens, Lacey ... it's like riding a bike. I'm sure Wes can find you a suitable mount. Besides, you'll enjoy it. You've spent too much time inside."
Wesley growled in irritation and set his glass down again with a loud clunk, ice rattling against the glass. "Now waitaminute, Carol." His voice was stiff, tense. One thing he wouldn't stand for is a house keeper bossing around where her nose didn't belong. Anything beyond the barn and the fence wasn't hers to meddle with. Period. That was his and his hands' business. "We've got work ta do tomorra'"
Caroline's eyes sparkled mischievously. "You could always use an extra hand ... Lacey's got two good ones. Besides, she needs to know what goes on around the ranch."
Wesley growled again and pushed back from the table. He'd suddenly lost his appetite. Carol had crossed a line, and the old woman knew she had. He reached down and retrieved his hat before standing from the table. "We've got work ta do tomorra', Carol."
"You're short a hand with Tate breaking his leg a couple of days ago ... you're hurting for two extra hands, and Lacey's got 'em."
Wesley couldn't deny it. Caroline's face lit up with a knowing smile. The old woman was pushing too hard. She'd already crossed the line, now she was diving over it head first. "We've got work ta do tomorra'. Checkin' calves." He said it evenly, as if to impress the point on the woman to shut the heck up.
Lacey reached over to lay her hand on Caroline's arm, quickly interjecting, "Caroline ... I have a conference call I have to make back at the magazine tomorrow. There's no way I could ride out with them in the morning. There's just not."
Caroline's expression darkened the foreman's stubborn nature kicked in. She knew she had to get Lacey to stay somehow and getting her involved in the ranch was the only way to do it.
Wesley put his hat on to make the point that he was leaving absolutely clear. It would irk Carol too. Hats in the house were just something she fussed over all the time. He tipped his hat to Lacey. "Ma'am." he said gently then looked back at Carol and nodded to her stiffly. "Goodnight, Carol." He was ending the conversation now, before the woman pushed his buttons and he exploded right there at the dinner table
Caroline frowned heavily as she watched Wesley stride confidently out the door.
"Want to tell me what that was all about?" Lacey asked, looking to the older woman as she sat back in her chair, one eyebrow lifting.
After her anger simmered, Caroline put on a charming smile and reached over to pat her hand gently. "Not to worry, my dear. Wes and I have... an understanding."
Lacey laughed. "You haven't changed a bit, Caroline. I get the feeling that you get a perverse pleasure out of irritating the men around you," she teased. But there was this part of her that wished she was going to see the handsome cowboy in the morning, all the same.
"Who? Wes? Nah. He's a big softy. Just doesn't show it much. You show up to work tomorrow, he'll put ya to work." She sat back and looked at Wesley's half-eaten supper. "I wish he had eaten more. Stubborn cuss." She sighed and picked up her own fork. "I'll take it to him after we eat. He's still hungry. Never leaves food on his plate, usually."
Glancing to Caroline and then Wesley's plate, the words tumbled out of her mouth before she realized what she had offered, "Want me to take it to him?"
Carol looked up from her meal. "That's a fine idea. He's in the foreman's house down the way ... big thing. Way too big for one man... but that's just me. I'm usually the one who ends up cleaning it. The man can't clean or cook for nothin'."
Once dinner was over and Caroline had packed Wesley's dinner with some extra helpings and covered it with foil, Lacey found herself walking down the dimly lit walkway towards the foreman's house. The Wyoming sky was littered with millions of brilliant stars and she found herself on the front porch with a suddenly nervous sigh, lifting her hand to knock on the door as she balanced the heaping plate on her other hand.
A dog barked from inside and there was scratching on the door, whines and whimpers until the porch light was flipped on from the inside. "Hush Sprout." Wesley opened the door to peer out. He'd almost snapped, thinking it was Carol, but he was brought up short when he saw Lacey at the door. His eyes narrowed a bit, then he relaxed and opened the door, pushing the screen door open. Sprout slipped out when given the chance, sniffing at the woman's ankles then pushing against her for attention. "Can I help ya, Ma'am?"
Lacey smiled nervously before offering the heaping plate of food. "You forgot something."
He took the plate with a grateful nod and pushed the door open wider. "C'mon Sprout ... in the house. Care to come in?"
Lacey was tempted to agree to his offer, but then Caroline would be winning at her little game, and offered him a smile and a small shake of her head instead. "You've got dinner to eat and I'm actually on my way out for a walk. I won't keep you from eating any longer than you already have."
"Don't get lost walkin' around here. There's no lights to guide ya back," He warned gently. It wasn't an insult, just a plain, fair warning.
Lacey miled gently and nodded in farewell as she stepped off the porch and headed towards the barn, feeling his eyes on her backside as she silently chastised herself from walking away from an opportunity to get to know him better. But she wasn't staying ... no, she couldn't stay. She didn't belong on a ranch ... not anymore.
Wesley let the screen door close. He reached to flip the light off, then thought better of it. She might need the light when she got turned around. Out here there really were no lights.