Annie smiled to herself. She knew the gruff male voice very well, even though she couldn't see her dad. Tyrell Bennett had to be just over the low ridge that separated the road from the ranch's back acres. She'd pulled up behind his pickup in her own, a slightly newer vehicle, red to his dark blue.
But who was he talking to and why did he sound so cross? Couldn't be one of the hired hands. They had all been let go when autumn turned into an early winter. The Bennetts were more or less on their own in the Colorado backcountry until spring.
She walked to the top of the ridge in bounding strides and looked down at the two men below her. Tyrell's gnarled fists were squarely placed on his belt, his wiry arms bent at the elbow. The unzipped down jacket he wore against the biting wind lent some fullness to his tall frame, but it seemed to her that her dad was thinner with every year that passed.
The man he'd spoken to looked up at her. He was a stranger, though clearly a westerner by his stance. He was taller than Tyrell, lean and muscular, wearing a fleece vest over a checked flannel shirt and heavy jeans with work boots. Annie couldn't see much of his face besides the strong jaw and deep grooves that framed masculine lips somewhere between a scowl and a smile. Dark brown hair curled over his collar, controlled by a ball cap that he'd pulled down over his eyes, no doubt to keep from squinting.
Distracted by her presence, he stood with one hand resting on a surveyor's tripod. The thing looked new; it was bright yellow with pointed red feet jammed deep into the dry land for stability.
He didn't flinch under Tyrell's fierce glare when the older man spoke again. “If Chuck Pfeffer is looking for an argument about property lines, he can speak to me directly.”
Annie sighed inwardly and made her way down the ridge, stepping carefully so as not to trip on the clumps of dry brown grass. Their troublesome neighbor generally was looking for an argument about one thing or another. Pfeffer had been disputing the precise placement of the boundary between the two ranches since he'd moved in several years ago.
“Mr. Bennett, Iâ”
Tyrell cut off the surveyor with a curt wave of his hand. “Pack up and git. And you tell that son-of-a-gun Pfeffer that you can't take a shortcut through my land to his.”
“That was my idea.”
Tyrell glowered. “Is that right? My ranch is posted. No trespassing.”
“I apologize. Must have missed the signs.”
They really weren't easy to see. Only a couple were left on distant fence posts, small squares of painted metal nailed up decades ago, dotted with rust and BB holes. But if you were from the area, you knew the signs were there and respected them.
“Hmph. Where's your truck, anyway?”
Annie glanced at the stranger's long legs. The jeans had bits of grass clinging to them and his work boots were good and dusty, so maybe he had. Couldn't have been easy with the tripod slung over his shoulder and a heavy bag of surveyor's gear to lug.
“From where?” Tyrell's tone was a fraction less angry as curiosity got the better of him.
The stranger nodded in the direction of the neighboring ranch. The Pfeffers' house was more than a mile away, a small white box set on flat land dotted with scrub trees. Behind it towered a mountain, shadowed with the deep green of pines and the tattered remains of the aspens' golden glory.
“Oh. I thought you had crossed my land to get to his. So it was the other way around, huh? Either way, I'd like to know what Chuck Pfeffer's up to this timeâ”
“Dad.” Annie ran the last few steps, hoping to forestall a pointless argument. It was certainly possible that the stranger was only doing his job and meant no harm.
Tyrell turned to her, a look of surprise creasing his weather-beaten face.
“You're back early, girl. I thought you and your mother were going to stay in town for the day.”
“Mom met Cilla at Jelly Jam CafÃ© and decided to stay. She told me to run along so I came back. Cilla will drive her home.”
“Oh.” Tyrell Bennett seemed satisfied with that explanation. Annie suppressed a smile. Her dad had never lost his lifelong habit of watching out for his womenfolk. So long as he had some idea of approximately where they were, he was fine.
It had taken a bit of adjusting for Annie to get used to not going wherever she wanted without a second thought. She'd moved back home several months ago to help her parentsâand herself. A skiing accident in early spring had broken her leg, and complete healing was taking months longer than anyone had expected.
At least she wasn't limping anymore.
The stranger looked at her with renewed interest. Annie never had been one to obsess over her appearance, but she was glad she'd brushed her long dark hair to gleaming smoothness before she'd come out and that she had on new jeans that fit her just right.
Politely, he touched a finger to the brim of the ball cap, just as if it were a Stetson. The old-fashioned courtesy pleased her. And besides, it gave her a better look at his eyes.
Calm and crinkly at the corners. Very deep brown with long lashes and thick dark brows. He studied her face for a few moments, stopping there and skipping the usual head-to-toe sweep she got from guys checking her out. Probably because of her father's presence. But Annie felt herself flush faintly under his serious gaze.
“Never mind the introductions. I don't know this feller's name,” Tyrell informed her. “And I can't say that I want to know it. I believe you were just leaving,” he said to the man.
Annie felt a little sorry for the surveyor. He couldn't know how strongly her dad felt about his land. The Bennetts had owned it for several generations.
The surveyor only nodded in response to Tyrell's pointed comment as he packed up quickly, removing the electronic theodolite from the top of the tripod and putting it into an equipment bag. In another few seconds the tripod was folded and slung across his broad shoulder with a carrying strap.
“Yes, sir. That's correct.”
Tyrell narrowed his gaze and looked to the horizon, refusing to acknowledge the
Or the fact that the stranger was cooperating. Her dad had always been tough to butter up.
“Good-bye.” The surveyor saved his last nod for her. And . . . a ghost of a wink, while her father still wasn't looking at him.
Annie watched him walk away until he went over the crest of a low rise, and then down. Then he was gone.
“Have you eaten lunch?” she asked her father.
Tyrell's annoyed expression faded away. “Not yet. I'd be happy to sit down with you and have a bite.”
“Deal. Let's go.” She put her arm through his and they walked back to the trucks.
“How about a tuna fish sandwich?”
It wasn't her dad's favorite meal, but he would eat it if there was nothing else. Annie rummaged through the pantry shelves.
Besides the lone can of tuna, they were overstocked with a sale brand of chili that no one seemed to like much and the kind of lunch meat that tended to be saved for blizzards. Lately, what with one thing and another, she hadn't had a chance to do much shopping.
“If God wanted ranchers to eat tuna fish, there would be horns on the can. But okay,” Tyrell said, grinning at his daughter as he settled himself in a kitchen chair to watch her prepare his lunch.
“You know, I thought you and that surveyor might get into a fight,” she said, vigorously mashing the tuna and mayonnaise in a glass bowl. She chopped a stalk of celery into tiny bits and added it for crunch, then got out the bread.
“I was kinda steamed,” Tyrell said. “But I wouldn't go that far. Even if I am an old cuss.”
“No, you're not.” She cut the sandwich in half and set it in front of him. “Go ahead and eat, Dad. Don't wait for me.”
“I'll wait for you if I feel like waiting for you,” he said firmly.
Annie shook her head, smiling, and quickly made a second sandwich.
After eating lunch Tyrell settled into his favorite armchair with a book while Annie started to tidy up the kitchen of the old ranch house. She went out to the hall and woke him up, not on purpose, when the closet door squeaked. He turned his head to see her putting on a denim jacket with a warm plaid lining.
“You going out again?” he asked.
“Yeah. Thought I'd make a run to the big supermarket. We need more canned goods and fresh stuff too. And cold cuts. It's a long drive, but the prices are great. The cupboards are bare,” she joked. “Almost, anyway.”
He looked outside at the fading sky. “Drive safe. I wonder where your mother is. Think I oughta call her?”
“She just texted me.” Louisa Bennett, known to all as Lou, believed in staying in touch. “She should be home in about fifteen minutes.”
“Okay then. Have fun at the store.” His fond gaze took her in as she wound a hand-knit scarf around her neck. “Now when exactly did you get so tall and grown up? Doesn't seem that long ago when you were trying to climb out of the shopping cart, not pushing one around.”
Annie laughed. “Young and wild, that was me. Those were the days.”
“How old are you again?”
She knew that he knew perfectly well how old she was. She was the baby of the family, though. Her two older brothers, Sam and Zach, never let her forget it. But she answered him anyway. “Twenty-eight.”
“Hell,” he sighed. “Then I am an old cuss. And you are definitely grown up.”
Bouncing over ruts in the ranch road in her pickup, Annie soon reached the turnoff to the county road to Velde. Out of habit, she stopped the truck to check the mailbox, something she'd meant to do before lunch and hadn't. She unlocked the box with a key on her ring and felt around inside. Nothing. Not even one of her mother's catalogues. She closed the small arched door with a soft bang and locked it again.
The county road was empty when she swung out onto it, looking down toward the small town of Velde below, nestled in the valley. There had been a number of new houses built in the last several months on subdivided land. The town limits, which had always been so clearly marked, were slowly spreading out, moving toward the foothills of the Rockies, in the general direction of the Bennett ranch and others.
She sighed. Progress was good and it created jobs, but it still felt odd that the distant lights of town seemed to get closer every year. Home was where she liked to get away from all that, even though, working in Vail and then Aspen as a ski instructor, she'd loved the bright lights and the glamour of expensive resorts with an international clientele.
Just not all the time.
Velde was Colorado the way it used to be. She rolled down her window, not minding the chilly air, enjoying the evening hush and the cold fragrance of the woods in winter.
Annie drove on. The slight change in altitude was still enough to make her ears pop. She swallowed and looked around, spotting the frame of a new house through aspens that had lost their leaves.
Had that been there last week? Probably. Ranches were being bought up and subdivided into ranchettes. Of course, everyone was entitled to live where they chose if they could afford it, but she wasn't the only one who would miss the openness of the land. Once that was gone, it didn't come back.
Her dad had told her grumpily that Pfeffer's land wasn't zoned for subdividing, which was only one reason he'd made a stink about it. He wasn't able to tell her exactly why the surveyor had been there, but she could guess.
Annie couldn't help thinking about the banked fire in the stranger's dark eyes when he'd turned his thoughtful gaze on her. It had been a while since she'd been looked at that way. He probably was only a few years older than anyone she'd dated from around here, but he sure seemed a lot more manly.
It wasn't like living in Vail and Aspen had spoiled her; there hadn't been that much choice in either place. Between hard-partying ski bums wanting to crash at the condos she'd shared with roommates and rich guys looking for temporary flings, dating was no big thrill.
After the cast on her leg came off and she was able to venture out on her own into Velde and nearby towns, she'd run through the local possibilities one by one. And then pretty much retreated to the ranch, where there was always work to do.
An oncoming car blinked its headlights. Annie checkedâhers were on. Then she realized Priscilla Rivers was behind the wheel. She waved and Cilla waved back without rolling down the windows or stopping to say hi. You never knew these days when a semi might be coming in either direction.
Annie looked in her rearview mirror. As she'd expected, her mother had turned to watch her go around the curve ahead, even though she knew her daughter had taken the road to town and back ten thousand times in the last ten years. Annie didn't really mind.
She knew her mother liked having at least one of her grown kids at home to fuss over.
Now that her oldest brother, Sam, was married to Nicole, a window designer for major fashion retailers, they traveled a lot. As of September, Zach had been in Oregon with his wife, Paula, who'd taken a leave of absence from the Denver police force while they looked at land in the Pacific Northwest.
In a way, it was Annie's turn to hold down the fort. She missed skiing, but she knew she'd get back to it. The blinking red light at the intersection of county roads had her slowing down.
Annie felt a sharp twinge in her healing leg as her foot pressed down on the brake. She distracted herself until the pain went away by making a mental list of what they needed from the market.