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It might be too late to tell my fake wife that I have real feelings for her.
I was looking for a hassle free “wife on paper” when I met Allie.
I’d give my own life to ensure her safety.
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I scanned the expanse of open ground before me. I could see clear to the tree line that marked the boundary of my property — or of what should be my property. Unless Papí got his way, the ranch would never be mine.
I’d spent six months and thousands of dollars trying to break the will, find any loophole in those terms. But like Papí’s opinions, the will was ironclad.
That wasn’t the problem at hand though. The problem at hand was the pair of calves that hadn’t followed the round up to the sheds. A storm was rolling in despite what the weather report on my phone said. I had grown up on the land. I knew for damn sure when the sky was changing and when trouble is about to rain down.
I had sent Miguel, Pablo, and Kirby back with the herd to get them under cover in time. I turned back for the calves. Sure, I had thousands of head of cattle, but those two mattered. I wasn’t a man to waste anything, and I wasn’t leaving my livestock loose on the ranch while I hunkered down out of the rain. I nudged Mantilla, my favorite horse, into action. We would search until we found them.
My Papí would make a joke about finding lost lambs, about shepherds or loyalty or something. I shook my head at the memory, wishing he was here. I’d give him a piece of my mind and then share a bottle of whiskey with him one more time. The rain started to fall the way it always did in this part of Texas — all of a sudden and hard enough to hammer nails. I tugged at the brim of my hat and rode on, skirting the usual pastureland and heading southeast toward the river. Wind whipped up, slinging rain my face like a volley of arrows. I wasn’t a mile on when I saw the two calves huddled near some scrub, lowing in panic. I whistled, got my rope from its place on my saddle.
In no time, I had them headed to the sheds. Mantilla picked up the pace at the first hint that I’d let her hurry toward shelter and feed. We made quick work of the distance back to the outbuildings. Soon I had the calves under roof. I dismounted and led Mantilla into the stables so I could remove her tack, comb her and towel her off. “A man takes care of his animals,” I remembered my grandfather always saying to me. Sure, we had plenty of money and plenty of staff to do that for us, but it was a matter of pride that you do it yourself when it’s the animal that bore you on its back all day. So I set to work, though my clothes were drenched from the pitiless rain.
Pablo came up to see me and sat down on a bucket because he knew me well enough to realize I wasn’t going to let him take over caring for Mantilla after a ride.
“You find the lost ones?”
“I never doubted it. You know you could go dry off. I been in charge of these stables four years, and I’m not gonna neglect your favorite mount. Tia here is my old friend, aren’t you Tia?” he said, scratching under Mantilla’s forelock.
I worked in silence for a few minutes. I knew what was coming, but I wanted to make him ask. I wasn’t about to offer information about the most personal blow I’d ever taken. They say that the people you love can hurt you worse than your enemies every time, because they know your heart. I always thought some bitter asshole came up with that. Until the day I sat in the law office and listened to them read his last will and testament, the controlling old bastard. I would have laid down my life for him from the time I was five years old, but I’d be damned if I’d lay down my free will for him, especially after he was dead.
“So are we gonna talk about this? Or are you pretending you can get out of it?” he said.
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“C’mon, caballero. Sometimes you take the strong silent type a little too far. Watched too many of them Clint Eastwood westerns with Antonio up at the big house.”
“When you call it the big house instead of the main house, it sounds like you’re talking about jail,” I remarked.
“Don’t get salty with me. I taught you to ride a bike.”
“True,” I said, “but that don’t give you the right to talk about my personal problems.”
“No, but the fact is, I’m your best friend so that gives me the right. And another thing, when your personal problem is the difference between me keeping this job I love and me driving my pickup clear across Texas looking for another stable this size that needs a man like me to run it, you’re damned right it’s my business,” he said.