It was Ty’s turn to nod. “Mostly around the salt lick on the north side. Should make roundin’ ’em up easy enough.”
“How many, you think?”
“The buyer wants fifty head,” Ty answered as he worked his way down Ranger’s side. The Andalusians he raised were known for their strong bloodlines and resistance to disease. “With the added help, it’ll take two, maybe three days to get ’em in the pens.” He smiled, knowing his ranch hands could do the job in an afternoon. Their paying guests might slow things down a bit, but the trade-off—money in the bank—was worth it.
“That ought to put us on the trail to Kissimmee by Monday.”
Seth stole a piece of hay from Ranger’s crib. “Sounds about right.”
Though he practically had the schedule branded on his arm, Ty asked, “You still headin’ to Fort Pierce tomorrow for supplies?” At the older man’s affirmative grunt, he suggested adding sunblock to the list. “Cold weather or hot, a sunburn stings.”
Seth leaned against the stall door and chewed as if he had all day and no place to go.
Ty shot him a look. In his thirty-two years he’d never known Seth to laze around. “You need somethin’ else?”
“Well,” Seth drawled, “that woman from DCF called again.”
Ty’s mouth slanted to the side. “Sarah Magarity? What’s that make—four, five times?” She’d called on Christmas Eve and every day since. “She say what she wanted this time?”
“No. Just that she needs to talk to you on a—” Seth grinned, his voice hitting a high falsetto “—personal matter.” He shifted his straw into the left side of his cheek. “I think she wants t’ ask you out.”
Laughter bubbled up from Ty’s chest. The day the feisty caseworker thought of him that way, he’d share a pail of oats with Ranger. “Not much chance of that happening.” He patted the horse’s flank. “Not after the set-to we had the last time we saw each other.”
“Oh?” Seth’s sparse eyebrows knotted. “Hadn’t heard about that. Guess she wasn’t happy to hear those kids she sent us started a grass fire. What’d she say when you told her?”
“To tell the truth, the conversation never got that far.” Ty ducked under Ranger’s neck and began to work on his other side. The Big Brother program sponsored by his college fraternity had been his own personal way of honoring his best friend after J.D. died in Afghanistan. But the first batch of foster kids had been nothing but trouble with a capital T. He’d put up with the teens’ shenanigans as long as he could. Still, some rules couldn’t be broken. Starting a wildfire was one of them.
“She whisked those two juvenile delinquents into a conference room the minute my boots crossed the threshold. When she came out, it was clear they’d told some tall tales. She lit into me like a mama bear protecting her cubs.” He’d had to admire the woman’s spunk, even if she was wrong. “She blamed me, and made it clear in no uncertain terms that Alpha Rho wouldn’t be sponsoring any more kids on my next roundup.”
“You let her get away with that?”
“She didn’t leave much choice, but it suited me just fine.” He shrugged, recalling how the fiery redhead had marched him out of the DCF office, her cheeks so inflamed they matched her hair, the buttons of her sensibly tailored blouse straining with every breath. “I did manage to say those punks were born misfits, and there was nothin’ in the world she could do to change it.”
Seth chuckled. “Bet she didn’t like hearin’ that.”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. I left before she could dish out any more of her nature-versus-nurture nonsense.”
Or call Security, as the woman had threatened.
Ranger sidestepped, a move that telegraphed a growing unease.
Realizing he’d put a little more action into the brush than the job required, Ty slowed his strokes. “You sure she didn’t say what she wants?”
“Yep, but based on what you just told me, maybe she finally realized how wrong she was and wants to apologize. Beats me why you’d have to go to her office, though.”
“She wants me to come to her?” Ty clenched his teeth. The gall of women who thought they could crook their little finger and have men come running was beyond him. He’d had enough of that in the short time it had taken his marriage to fizzle. “Shoot.” He shook his head. “I don’t have time to drive into town.”
“She seems pretty insistent.” Seth sucked his teeth and spit. “Why don’t you let me handle the chores here tomorrow, and you can go on the supply run. That way, maybe you can take Ms. Magarity out for a cup of coffee.”
Ty aimed a sharp look at the ranch foreman. “You just want out of the trip, or you got something else in mind?” Lately, his nonexistent love life had been the subject of Seth’s not-so-subtle hints.
“Well, it has been a while since you’ve been past the Circle P’s gate. And you’re not gettin’ any younger. Ya know you’ll be tied up here till after the cattle drive.”
Ty forced out a long breath. Ever since he’d quit his job as an investment broker and returned home, hanging on to the ranch that had been in his family for four generations had required every minute of his day. Six years ago, it had cost him his marriage. He hadn’t gotten involved—not really—with another woman since then. Sure, there were days when he’d like to come home to something more than an empty house and an empty bed, but he’d have to be more than a little interested to drive as far as Fort Pierce for a date. And he wasn’t interested in Sarah Magarity.
Why, then, six months later, did his anger over their argument still sting?
“You honestly think she wants to apologize?”
“What else could it be? Unless she’s gonna ask you to take another couple of kids on the trail ride. Either way, she has to make nice.”
Ty couldn’t help thinking the two-hour drive might be worth the trip if it meant seeing a softer side of the argumentative woman who worked for the DCF. He bent low, examining Ranger’s hooves one by one, certain Seth would offer a snide comment if the older man saw the look on his face.
“Fine,” he said, straightening. “But there’s a lot to be done if we’re going to be ready when everyone gets here on Friday. You up for the job?”
“Have I ever let ya down?”
Ty stepped into the wide corridor between the stalls and hung the currycomb back on its hook. He trusted Seth, the same way his dad had relied on the man.
“Let’s head on up to the house and compare notes, then.” He lifted a brow, teasing. “You think Doris’ll have supper ready?”
“Beats me.” Seth grinned. His wife, Doris, was the Circle P’s head cook. She set supper on the table at six on the dot every night.
By the time he climbed into one of the Circle P’s pickups at eight the next morning, Ty was certain Seth would have everything squared away in time for their guests’ arrival. Having already put in a half day’s work himself, he was surprised to find that he actually looked forward to relaxing a bit on the hundred miles of sparsely traveled, two-lane blacktop that stretched between the ranch and the nearest city. Not that he intended to waste the time. While he drove, he worked on the lyrics of a ballad he was trying to learn. Once he came within cell tower range, he turned off the CD player and concentrated on the ranch business he could handle by phone. No one answered at Sarah’s direct line so he left a message saying he was on his way. The numbers on the dashboard told him it was a little after one when he finished his errands, including the much-needed haircut.
Inside the drab concrete-block building of the Department of Children and Family Services, Ty made his way between movable partitions that divided a large room into cubicles the size of Ranger’s stall. Reaching an open area, he nodded to a little boy who looked up from the building he was creating out of small, red bricks. The child scrambled to his feet.
“Are you a real cowboy?” the boy asked, his mouth hanging open.
Ty glanced around to see if the boy’s mother was close by, but there was no one within hailing distance. If Millie had stuck around, they’d probably have a passel of their own by now. But it hadn’t worked out and he didn’t know much about kids. This one was still staring so Ty twirled his best Stetson on one finger.
“You got me, kiddo. You like the boots?” He kicked out a foot.
“Uh-huh,” the boy said. His head swung toward the end of the corridor. “Where’s your horse?”
Ty let his voice deepen into a John Wayne-like gravel. “Back at the ranch.”