Even though it was late for it, just after seven, I had stopped at the local market to pick up groceries on the way back to the ranch. I wanted to surprise Rand when he got home, with me being there and with dinner. Originally I had told him that I would have to stay late for a department meeting, but it had been cancelled, and instead of going for drinks with the others, I bailed. Even after two years, I still got excited at the thought of going home and being there when the man I loved walked through the door at the end of the day.
So since I had decided to cook, I had to stop and pick up supplies, and I was standing in the checkout line when Mrs. Rawley, who owned the store, came out of the back to see me. It was nice of her to make the effort.
In the small community of Winston, where her store was, the people were divided between those who didn't give a damn that I was gay and lived with my boyfriend, rancher Rand Holloway, owner of the Red Diamond, and those who were vocally and adamantly opposed to the idea. And while those who whispered when I walked by, muttered under their breath, or tossed off slurs when my back was turned were in the minority, there were still enough sprinkled around town to make me conscious of where I chose to conduct my business and spend my money.
After so long, I knew where I would and would not be accepted, but now and then, people still surprised me. What was nice was that more often than not, someone who I thought was just waiting to do or say something hateful or snarky was actually just looking for the opportunity to offer a warm handshake or a smile.
"Can I have Parker carry that out to the car for you, Stef?" Mrs. Rawley offered.
"I was gonna ask," Donna said, clearly exasperated. "For crap's sake, Mama, I wasn't raised in a barn."
I enjoyed the mother-daughter interaction, which was mostly exasperated and sarcastic. "I'm good," I told Mrs. Rawley. "Be nice to your kid."
"Thank you," Donna snapped.
"Respect your mother," I said, grabbing my bags.
"What he said," she shot back at her eighteen-year-old as I left with the jingle of bells at the front door.
As I started toward my car, my snazzy red and black MINI Cooper, I saw the police cruiser parked beside me and the SUV that had me blocked in.
"Really," I called over to the two deputies in the car. They could not miss the irritation in my tone.
Both men got out, both smiling at me, and I noticed that one of the deputies, Owen Walker, had a cup in his hand. He moved fast around the front of the cruiser, and as I reached him, I could smell the chai as he offered it to me.
"C'mon, Stef, you know this ain't our call."
I took the warm cup, and he took the bag of groceries and looked inside.
"What're you makin'?" he asked me.
"Just some breaded pork chops and a salad, Deputy."
He looked up at me. "That sounds good, and it's just Owen, all right?"
"Sure." I nodded, smiling at him.
"There's wine in here too."
"And wine," I chuckled. "Can't have good food without wine."
I smiled at him. "If it wasn't so late, I'd invite you and your family over."
"Maybe you'd like to have us another time," he said, his eyes suddenly on mine.
I wasn't sure if he was serious. He looked it, but I decided to test. "Maybe one Saturday we could barbecue if you want. The kids could see the horses."
"They would certainly love that, and my wife is dying to see how the house runs with the windmill system and the solar panels you all put in. She wants us to go green as well."
"Okay then, I'll give you a call."
"You do that." He nodded as he lifted his hand, motioning with his fingers.
"Gimme the damn keys so I can put this in the trunk for you."
"I can put my own--"
"Just give 'em to me," he growled, grabbing them from my hand.
"This is harassment," I told him.
He flipped me off.
"Stop yelling at him," the second deputy, James, call me Jimmy, McKenna ordered me.
I turned to look at him, and he pushed his hat back on his head. "Is it true?"
"Is what true?" I yawned, so glad it was Friday, so ready to just sit and veg and do nothing for my long three-day October weekend. Monday was Columbus Day, so I had it off. Not that my cowboy would be observing a federal holiday, but at least he would probably take off early to spend the evening with me.
"Is Rand really going to build a school in Hillman?"
My eyes watered as I rubbed them a minute before I turned and focused on Deputy McKenna. "Who told you that?"
"All your hands know, Stef, and most of 'em got wives and kids. How long did you think it would be 'til the whole town knew?"
I exhaled before I took a sip of the chai latte.
"Why does that smell weird?" Deputy Walker suddenly asked me, turning my attention back to him as he passed me my keys.
"It's chai," I told him. "You ordered it. How could you order it if you didn't know what it was?"
"I didn't order it. I went in and said gimme what Stefan drinks, and the girl, whatshername with the messy hair--"
"They're dreadlocks, Deputy."
"They're dreadlocks, Owen."
"Whatever. She gives me this smile like I made her day and gets to work, and five dollars and twenty cents later, I'm carrying around something that smells like cinnamon and cloves and somethin' else."
"How did you guys know I was stopping in town instead of going right home?"
"Lyle's out on the highway, camped behind the 'Welcome to Winston' sign, and he saw you drive on by and make the turn toward town."
I nodded. "How is Lyle?"
"He's good. He and Cindy are expecting again."
My eyebrows rose. "Really?"
He grunted. "Don't I know it? That's number five he and my kid sister are havin'. I told him they should take up bowlin' to give them somethin' else to do together."
I couldn't stifle the snickering.
"I thought my mama was gonna explode."
"I think the sheriff was hopin' to have a word with you," Jimmy chimed in. "It's why we're here interceptin' you."
"That's right," Owen agreed. "And back to the coffee," he began, and Jimmy rolled his eyes. "I really don't get why everyone loves that new place so much. My wife wants to live there, and my daughter stops in every afternoon now after school, and there's gettin' to be a line."
The new coffee/bakery/sandwich shop that had gone up four months ago between the bed and breakfast and the senior center had been, for me, a blessing. I made sure to stop in every morning on my way out of town to grab my chai latte and a homemade blueberry scone. They saw me coming and made my drink, the four people who worked there all knowing my face and name on sight. It was nice.
"They knew what you wanted when I said your name," Owen told me.
"Not a lot of chai drinkers in this town," I assured him.
"I expect not."
I tipped my head at the SUV blocking me in. "Where is the big man?"
"The sheriff is picking up his campaign posters from Sue Lynn's."
"Why?" I asked them. "No one is running against him. Why does he need campaign posters?"
"I suspect he likes to see his face really big," he said, gesturing, showing me how mammoth the sheriff's head would be on the banners. "I mean shit, that's your tax dollars at work there, Stef."
I laughed at them and saw how at ease both of them were in my presence. "Listen, Deputy McKenna--"
"Jimmy," he corrected me like he always did.
"Jimmy," I sighed. "Why do you guys care if Rand is building a school? How does that affect you in any way?"
"I just think it's funny that he's building in Hillman instead of in his own town, is all."
I leveled my gaze on him. "He was kicked off every committee in this town as well as having his property lines rezoned so that the Red Diamond is no longer even in Winston but in Hillman instead."
"So your question makes no sense, as Rand is actually building in the town that the Red Diamond resides in."
His eyes narrowed. "Rand's been making a lot of donations and changes to Hillman lately. Do you know anything about that?"
"You know I do," I said, taking another sip of my latte.
He cleared his throat. "I heard the new school was gonna be a charter, but I ain't sure what that is."
"It means that they can pick and choose the curriculum and--"
"Curriculum is what you get taught, idiot," Owen snapped at him. "Go on, Stef."
I couldn't control my smile. "Rand wants things that the elementary school in Winston doesn't offer. He wants them to learn agriculture, which makes sense, and he feels that Spanish should be taught to the English-speaking kids and English taught to the Spanish-speaking kids. He wants them all to be bilingual."
"What for?" Jimmy asked.
"Because it will help them culturally and economically, and learning a second language improves your mind."
"Yes," I assured him. "And little kids soak up language. It's easier to teach a little kid a new language than it is an adult."
"And so Rand's gonna build a school in Hillman just for that?"
"Right now all the kids on the ranch go to Winston Elementary, but there's no bus that comes all the way out to the Red Diamond, so they're all carpooling. But if Rand builds the school at the south end of Hillman and buys a couple of buses, then all the kids on the ranch as well as the ones who live on the north side of Winston can all go to school in Hillman. The bus can pick them all up every morning."
"When he builds the school, I want my kids to go there," Owen told us.
"You do?" Jimmy asked him, clearly surprised.
"Sure." He shrugged. "I think learning a second language is a great idea."
"There you go," I said, turning back to Jimmy. "It just makes sense."
"Rand sure has made a lot of changes since you got here, Stef," he told me.
"I think the sheriff wants to talk to Rand about that and about maybe taking his seat back on the community board of directors," Owen said softly.
But Rand had been voted off. When he had outed himself by moving me onto the ranch with him two years ago, the Winston community leaders had booted him from the seat that his father had held before him. They didn't even take the time to make it look good; instead they let it be known that the reason for revoking his seat was because of me, because Rand was gay. The Red Diamond Ranch was the largest in Winston as well as in the outlying areas of Croton and Payson, but that had not stopped the mayor and the rest of the city fathers from finding a loophole to get rid of my then boyfriend and now partner. They were homophobic assholes, every last one of them, and when they had rezoned the county three months later, officially relocating the Red Diamond to Hillman, that had been the last straw. I had been surprised that Rand didn't fight it, but when he explained, I understood.
The day the rezoning had gone into effect, the mayor of Hillman, Marley Davis, along with her entire staff, had made a special trip out to the ranch to welcome Rand and the Red Diamond to her county. She had been the one to give her permission to have the county lines redrawn and was thrilled to have Rand join her community and just knew that he would be too. She was hoping that Rand would come to the next city council meeting, as they would be interested in hearing any thoughts he might have. He was also more than welcome to bring me.
I was stunned, and Rand's smile had been huge as he recounted the events that Friday when I got home.
"Everything happens for a reason, Stef," he told me, drawing me into his arms. "I never thought too much of Hillman before, but suddenly I can't think of them enough. I feel like we got us a home all of a sudden, and I think I wanna help those folks out. I got some money that I think will do us all some good if you help me. I mean you got the background in acquisitions and finance and all. Will you take a look at some things and see what you can do?"
Of course I could, and would, and did.
And while it had been hard for Rand, severing all ties with the town he had grown up in, his warm welcome in Hillman twenty miles to the east had been overwhelming. Hillman had not been able to boast of having a large, thriving, eight-hundred-acre ranch in their county, but now they could. I had thought at first that it was the money he represented that they were responding to, but it was also the man himself.
Hillman had become Rand's new hometown and was, as a result, reaping the benefit of both his philanthropy and his loyalty. He made a generous donation to the senior center, built a huge gas station/mini-mart with his friend AJ Myers that had already increased traffic in town, and donated five tricked-out computers complete with scanners and printers to the county library. He built a feed store, and put a new roof on the gymnasium of the high school when he found out it leaked during the last thunderstorm. In the next year, there were more city improvements in the works, and the proposed elementary school was at the top of the list. When Rand had been invited to attend school board meetings, he had been very touched. He was an important citizen in Hillman, his voice appreciated, his opinion courted, and his patronage counted on.
Wrenched from my thoughts, I found myself standing in front of Sheriff Glenn Colter. "Oh, Sheriff, what can I do for you?"
"You bought the Silver Spring from Adam Weber last week."
I had to catch up with the conversation that we were apparently having.
"I didn't," I told him, taking another sip of my latte. "Rand did."
"Adam said that you negotiated the deal."
"That's what I used to do, Sheriff," I said, watching the lines in his face tighten. "And even though I teach school now, at Westland Community College, apparently it's a skill I still possess. The whole background in acquisitions thing doesn't just go away."
"Well, Adam said that you were real fair with him so that's why he sold, but that he didn't mean to include the parcel of land down by the Dalton place."
"That's not what he told me."
"Well, he wants it back."
"Really?" I asked drolly. "You talked to him in Vegas, did you?"
"What I mean is," he said, then cleared his throat, "that's what he was fixin' to tell you before he left."
"You're talking about the parcel that butts up against the Coleman piece, right?"
He grunted loudly. "We both know that those folks from Trinity want that piece, because the way it's zoned now if Rand sells them the Silver Spring and clear down to the highway, then they can make their own drive and not run through Winston at all."
"Yes, I know," I told him. "And with the gas station in Hillman and a resort between the Red Diamond and Hillman... why would anyone even go through Winston?"
"Rand bought up the land, and now he's fixin' to turn us into a ghost town."
I shook my head. "The people from Trinity--"
"That son of a bitch, Mitch Powell, wants to build a resort and a golf course and God knows what else out here, but only if he gets the land to the east where--"
"Rand sold it to him," I said, because it was no longer a secret and would actually create a whole slew of jobs for all the neighboring towns. Mitchell Powell, golf pro turned entrepreneur turned multi-millionaire, was going to build the resort in the area. He was about to put Hillman on the map, thanks to Rand, who had basically collected a monopoly that no one had wanted or given a damn about, and sold it for buckets of money that he was poised to do great things with.
The Silver Spring, Twin Forks, and Bowman ranches, none of which had been working ranches in years, would all be converted into a huge, sprawling, hundred-acre monolith of wealth and prosperity. It would be a very posh, very exclusive, very expensive resort, catering to the rich and famous, that would be far enough from the ranch as to not adversely affect it or change the lives of the people who lived there. The Red Diamond would remain the same, and the land that Rand had bought would finally be put to good use. And even though the town of Winston itself would not see the boon directly, as there were no civic projects planned, the people who lived there would benefit directly from the hundreds of new jobs that were about to be created.
If you didn't work on a ranch, there was nothing to do in Winston. You had to drive to Lubbock, just like I had to, to work. But now, thanks to Rand Holloway buying and selling and Mitchell Powell building, there was about to be a great influx of employment.
"Rand sold all three ranches to Powell?"
"Yessir, he did," I said, walking around him to the driver's side door. "Now move the cruiser. I wanna go home."
The muscles in his jaw tightened as he followed me. "How could he do that to the town he grew up in?"
"He just created thousands of jobs for the people of the town he grew up in," I told him. "Buildings will go up, and when that's done, there will be jobs at the resort to fill. This community just got saved."
"But where the resort would be.... Hillman will be the town the resort is located in, not Winston."
"Why does that matter? The people you serve will be better off for the influx of jobs."
"And Hillman becomes the point of interest between Midland and Lubbock while Winston is left as it is."
"What would you have Rand do about that, Sheriff?"
"You're a smart boy. You understand what I'm saying to you."
I squinted at him. "Papers have been signed, Sheriff. Mitchell Powell has come and gone with deeds and rights and more lawyers than Rand said he ever saw in his life. The people who sold their property to Rand did so under no duress. We both know that the Silver Spring and the Twin Forks have been dead for years, and the Bowman place... well, all Carrie wanted to do was sell and move to Oregon to be close to her son. Running a successful ranch in this day and age is hard work, and for some it's easier to simply get paid and get out. Rand found use for land that was going to waste, and because of that, his own ranch can be that much bigger and that much more lucrative and even more capable of supporting the men and their families, who live and work on it. Now I understand that you're concerned about Winston, but Rand had to do what was best for the Red Diamond, and in the process, he ended up doing right by the town."
"The mayor doesn't see it that way."
"I suspect Rand won't give a damn."
He scowled at me. "I suspect you'd be right."
I smiled back.
He visibly deflated.
"It's not your fault, you know. I know that you weren't one of those who wanted Rand off the board."
His eyes searched mine.
"I know your only reservations with Rand stem from the fact that sometimes he can be kind of an ass."
I chuckled, smiling bigger, unable to stop myself. "It's late, Sheriff. Are you not eating at home tonight?"
"No. Mrs. Colter is visiting her sister in Abilene."
"Well, would you like to come by the house and have some dinner? I have more than enough for three."
"No thank you, Stefan, but I do appreciate the invite. I've got to go over to the Drake place and talk to them about Jeff."
It took me a minute because nothing at all ever happened in Winston. It was why Rand and I had been such big news. "Oh, the drag racing," I chuckled.
"It ain't funny. They could get themselves killed doin' that."
"On the tractors," I said, trying really hard not to sound patronizing. "Yes, I'm sure they could."
He thrust his hand at me to shake. "Call me when you're makin' the lasagna again."
"Yessir, Sheriff, I sure will," I promised, taking the offered hand in mine.
He gave me a smile before I turned to get in my car.
I looked back at him over my shoulder, opening the door.
"Call me if you're makin' the pot roast too."
"Oh, okay," I teased him. "I didn't realize you had favorites."
"Damn right," he told me before he suddenly froze. "You ain't makin' any of those tonight, are ya?"
"No, sir, I'm not."
He grunted before he got in the mammoth car.
It was actually really nice that the man had favorites. Before I began my life with Rand, my culinary skills were basic at best. But the restaurants in Winston were both barbeque places, and while they were good, sometimes variety was nice, so one of us had to learn to cook, and of the two of us I had more time. He really enjoyed it when I slaved away in the kitchen for him; why, I had no idea, but the look on his face when he came in the house and found me in the kitchen was enough to melt me through the floor. He really enjoyed the hell out of me being domestic.
I watched as the sheriff moved his SUV, honking as he drove away. The deputies both followed suit, and when I was headed for home, I had time to think about the transformation my life had gone through in just a short amount of time.