Blinking his eyes open, Micah stared at the dust motes floating in the stream of early morning sunlight as it filtered in through the closed French doors. A rooster crowed and a calf called for his mama. A car door slammed and the floor above creaked. Was there anything more beautiful than waking up to this? Wait. French doors? He didn't have French doors in his room.
Ah shit. He'd fallen asleep in the office again. All at once, his body seemed to recognize what his brain had just learned because a sharp pain shot down his spine and a dull ache settled in his lower back. "Ugh." Planting his hand on the desk, Micah intended on peeling his face off the polished oak but it slipped in something. Oh lovely. Drool. He must have been more tired than he'd thought.
After pushing up, he yawned, stretched and wiped his hand on his jeans. His back creaked then popped. Ouch. Sleeping in a chair all night sucked big fat hairy donkey balls.
Micah groaned and looked at the monitor. He had email from Duncan Delany. Great, that was all he needed. He couldn't figure out how to pay the tab at the feed store and here was Ferguson's oldest son bugging him about the ranch again. "Cabrón!" The son of a bitch didn't even have the decency to wait until his father died to try and screw the rest of the family out of their inheritance. How could people be so cruel? A death in the family really did bring out the worst in people.
Pushing his glasses back up on his nose, he opened the email. It was short and sweet.
I expect the ranch's books to be turned over to me before I get there next week, or I'll get my attorney involved. You aren't blood and this doesn't involve you. I want to know what I'm dealing with when my father is gone. I'm sure I'll have to fix the mess you've made of things after my father was no longer able to deal with them.
"Over my dead body, pendejo." Micah hated people who tried to bully those with less money or importance. He would do everything he could to keep his loved ones from losing their inheritance, like he'd lost his. Duncan didn't know squat about family loyalty or running a ranch. No way in hell Ferguson would leave the ranch to him, he'd as much as told Micah so. Micah didn't know who was getting the ranch, but Ferguson had hinted it'd be his younger son, Jeff, or one of his two grandsons.
After dragging the note into his personal folder, Micah closed the email program. On the screen was the row of red numbers he'd been working on the night before. The nauseous feeling he'd had for the past two months flared to life. Duncan wanted to know what he was dealing with? Did he honestly think Ferguson would leave him the ranch? Duncan lit out of Texas over twenty-five years ago with his younger brother's wife and never looked back.
Squashing down the anger, Micah looked back at the screen. No matter how many times he added the numbers they still came up negative. What was he going to do?
He leaned back in the chair he'd come to think of as his since he took over management from Ferguson two months ago, and mashed a fist into his stomach. Where had he put those Tums? God, please don't let me be out.
The office door creaked open and AJ stuck his blond head in. His gaze settled on Micah, then he yelled over his shoulder, "He's in the office!"
"Tattletale," Micah mumbled. All he needed was for Jeff or Tio to lecture him about working too hard again. As if everyone wasn't working their asses off lately.
Sticking his tongue out, AJ pushed the door open fully, and his shoulders sank a little. "Busted. Did you sleep in here again?"
Micah grimaced. "Coffee. I need coffee." Coffee and Tums, then he'd see what he could do with the accounts before he helped with chores.
"Bring him some coffee," AJ shouted toward the door and flopped down in one of the chairs in front of the desk. "Granddad was asking for Tucker and Duncan again this morning. He was asking for you too. He wants you to go up and see him later when you get the chance." AJ was silent for a few moments. When he spoke again it was quieter, sad. "He's not looking so good. Doc just left. He said he didn't think Granddad would make it through the week."
"Damn." The pain in Micah's stomach intensified. Pushing harder on his abdomen, he sat back and closed his eyes. Tears welled up behind his closed lids, but he held them back. He was a traitor. Ferguson Delany had welcomed him to The Bar D with open arms fourteen years ago when Micah's parents had died, and all Micah could feel was relief. Micah hated to see the man, who was essentially his grandfather, hurt any longer. Ferguson had treated Micah like one of his own grandsons, not his foreman's orphaned nephew. Tio Juan was a great man and had done his very best for Micah, but Micah was no fool. The Delanys had gone above and beyond what they should for an employee's kin, even if the employee was Ferguson's best friend. They'd made Micah a part of the family and taken him in when his mother's family had swooped in like the vultures they were and used their money to rob Micah of everything. His grandparents had never forgiven his mom for marrying "beneath her", and when she was gone they'd wasted no time discarding her "half-breed" son.
"Don't start, brat." AJ's voice cracked a tad. "We've known it was coming for months now."
Once he had his emotions under control, Micah opened his eyes. "Yeah. I know, but--"
"I know..." AJ squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He was on the verge of tears, and it tore Micah up to see it. AJ was always so strong and tough.
"Have you gotten a hold of Tucker?" Just saying the name made a whole heap of emotions run through Micah. Anger, regret, love and ... yup, mostly anger. Tucker had abandoned them, abandoned Micah.
"I talked to his secretary. She's supposed to be getting him a message. Said he's out of town."
Nodding, Micah brought his feet up into the chair, trying to alleviate the pain in his stomach. His feet were bare. Where had his boots gone? He looked under the desk as he settled his feet onto the edge of the seat, hoping like hell he didn't seem like he was doubling over in pain. He wasn't going to let Tucker Delany get to him after all these years.
"Looking for this?" AJ's hand came into view under the desk and flipped Micah the bird. Juvenile. "Okay seriously, what are you looking for?"
Micah grinned, the tension fading. "My boots." Above the desk, he shot AJ the middle finger right back before sitting straight again.
"They're on the kitchen floor."
Hugging his raised knees closer, Micah grimaced. "What are they doing in there?" Mierda, his stomach was killing him.
AJ shrugged. "You're asking me?"
"Here's your coffee." Jeff walked into the office with a steaming mug and set it on the desk. He sat in the chair next to AJ and nudged his son with his foot. "You tell him your granddaddy was asking for him?"
Wondering if he'd stashed some antacids in the desk, Micah pulled open the middle drawer. "I need to finish the bills then I'll go up."
"You been down here all night again?" Jeff growled.
There was nothing but pens and paperclips. Micah aborted his search. "Yeah. I fell asleep."
Holding up a hand, Micah stalled him. "I know. But until we find a way out of this hole we're in, I have to keep trying." He stared into Jeff's nearly black eyes, silently pleading with him to understand. "This is my family too, Jeff."
Jeff sighed. "Yes it is. Did it ever occur to you that's why I have a problem with you working yourself into an early grave?"
Warmth spread through Micah. He knew his place here, but he liked to hear it. "All of us are working hard right now."
"What's the damage?"
Micah should tell Jeff about his older brother's threats and demands for the ranch records, but he hated to do that on top of everything else. It was bad enough that Duncan was going to be coming back here to see his father one last time. Micah supposed he could understand Ferguson wanting to make peace with his son before he died, but even the mention of Duncan left Jeff in a black mood for days. "Can we do without the last two ranch hands? It would be better if we could handle the work between you, me, AJ and my tio." Micah hated to pile more work on everyone, but--
"If we have to." Jeff scrubbed his hands down his face then up through his white-streaked dark blond hair. "I'll let them go today. Can we give them a severance?"
No. Micah's stomach clenched, almost knocking the breath from him. He curled further into himself, pressing his leg harder against his stomach. "Yeah." He'd find a way to give the men a severance pay. There was still the measly fifteen grand his grandparents shoved at him to assuage some of their guilt as they cast Micah out of their lives. If he used it wisely, it would pay the remaining hands a nice severance and the property taxes. He'd have to find another way to pay the feed store tab and hospital bills though.
AJ sat forward, resting his forearms on his knees. A frown creased his face as he stared at Micah.
Micah stared back, used to the intimidation tactic. Sometimes it sucked being treated like the younger brother, but it was also comforting with as crappy as everything else was lately. He had the urge to stick his tongue out and make faces. It was a normal impulse and if he hadn't had to yawn, he would have smiled.
"All right, boys. Let's get to work. The morning's a wastin'." Jeff stood and headed out the door.
Standing, AJ dug into his shirt pocket. He pulled something out and tossed it.
Out of reflex, Micah caught it before it hit him in the face. He watched AJ disappear out the door before looking down. In his palm was a half roll of Rolaids.
After popping four of the antacids, Micah sat there for a few more minutes. He needed money. A lot of money in a big hurry and it pained him to need it so badly. He'd grown up resenting rich people like his mother's family, but now he'd give just about anything to be one of them because it would help his adopted family.
He got up and wandered to the French doors, opened them and stepped out into the sunshine. Leaning on the back porch rail, he stared out over the green pasture with a sense of foreboding. Funny, it was early spring and the ranch was teeming with life, yet he was here waiting for his surrogate grandfather to die. It didn't seem real. He dropped his head against the post, trying not to look like he was hanging on for dear life. Losing the old man was bad enough, but Micah wasn't going to lose anyone else. That meant he had to keep the ranch going and in Jeff's hands.
Micah needed to find out what Duncan was up to. Why would he even want the ranch? He hadn't shown the slightest interest in it or its inhabitants until they'd contacted him about his father's declining health.
"What's on your mind, perrito?" Juan's old scarred-up snakeskin boots creaked across the weathered wood porch, coming to a stop a foot from Micah's bare feet.
Micah rolled his forehead against the rough post before lifting his head. His uncle had called him perrito, or puppy, since Micah was a child running after the two Delany boys like an adoring puppy. It reminded him of his carefree childhood here on The Bar D. "Just trying to figure out some stuff, Tio."
"You'll figure it out, mijo. You always do."
The pride in Tio's voice made Micah smile on a day he didn't feel like smiling. "I hope you're right. Tell me about Duncan. He was gone by the time I got here." Micah didn't remember Ferguson's oldest son at all. He'd left The Bar D when Micah was an infant, back when Micah's parents were still alive. Back before his mother's rich family used their money and power to strip Micah of his birthright. But that was a different story. If anyone knew about Duncan, it would be Tio. Juan had been foreman of The Bar D for the past fifty years. He'd had a hand in teaching all the Delanys, and Micah for that matter, what they knew of ranching.
"Hmm..." Juan's forehead furrowed and his eyes narrowed. "Boy never did fit in. Ferguson tried his best. He loved the boy just as much as--" He shook his head. "He spoilt the boy rotten, but it didn't do no good. Was no surprise he run off with Vanessa. Neither of them ever cared much for the country life."
Just as much as what? Micah frowned but let it go. "Neither did Tucker." Oh mierda. Why had he said that? Apparently, he had Tucker on the brain. It was kind of funny, because he hadn't thought of Tucker much the past couple months. He'd been too busy stomping fires.
"Baloney. Tucker got caught up in his career. The boy has the ranch life in his blood. He'll be back, you mark my words." Juan nodded once and spit off the porch.
Micah shrugged, trying to keep the hurt off his face. Money was why Tucker left, but it wasn't why he stayed away. Micah didn't want to correct his uncle though. Money, it seemed, was the key to everything. The root of all evil. "I hope you're right, Ferguson wants him home." And so do you, cabrón. His chest hurt and tears welled in his eyes. Damn you, Tucker. Why did the thought of him still tear Micah up inside? Obviously, that last night hadn't meant anything to Tucker. And Micah didn't mean anything to him either ... Not that it mattered, it was in the past and Tucker was the least of Micah's problems right now.
"He does." Juan touched Micah's shoulder, gaining his attention. He stared right into Micah's eyes. "You do too."
"Me?" He shrugged again and stared out toward the pasture. The cool spring breeze brought with it the sweet, fresh smell of alfalfa. It was peaceful and familiar, helping him pretend nonchalance. "I just want to make sure the ranch stays afloat and stays with those who love it."
"It will." Juan nodded and gripped the wood rail, leaning on it a little.
"I wish I had your confidence, Tio. Duncan is gonna cause problems, I just know it."
Lifting his hat, Juan scratched his head then stuffed the beat-up old cowboy hat back on. "How so?"
"He's been bugging me to turn over the ranch's finances to him."
"Pshaw. Ferguson handed that job over to you." Turning, Juan leaned his hip against the porch rail. "And he did so with good reason."
Micah snorted. "What reason?"
"Because he knows what kind of man you are. You'll find a way to make it all work." Juan chuckled. "Keep looking, perrito. Duncan is no threat." He patted Micah on the back and walked down the steps out toward the barn.
That was ... odd. Keep looking? What did that mean? Micah frowned. What did Juan know that Micah didn't? "Tio?"
Without looking back, Juan waved his hand and kept walking.
Micah spun around and planted his butt against the porch rail. Why did old people always talk in riddles? The breeze ruffled his hair and brought a slight nip, making him shiver. He crossed his arms and gazed back into the office at the computer. Was there something on there? A hidden back account? The hair on Micah's arms stood. Apprehension and anticipation coiled inside of him. Rubbing his arms, he couldn't overcome the sense that his chill wasn't entirely from the wind.