Excerpt from ROMANCING THE COWBOY, March 2008

CHAPTER ONE

"I need to talk to you about Edna." At the sound of Doc Graham's age-worn voice over the telephone line, Jared Clayton's gut clenched and his chest tightened. This, he suspected, was the moment he'd been dreading. The call he and his two brothers had known would someday come.

He'd been sitting in the worn, tufted-leather chair in his study, the ledger spread across the polished oak desktop, when the phone rang.

Edna Clayton, who was known as Granny to most folks in the small Texas community of Brighton Valley, had adopted Jared when he'd been a gangly adolescent. At the time, he'd had nowhere else to go except the county home for boys.And for the next twenty years, the elderly widow had been the only real mother he'd known.

Jared waited for the small-town physician to tell him the reason he'd called. Instead, Doc asked, "How long has it been since you visited the ranch?"

"A year or so." Jared made of a point of spending the major holidays with her and whichever brother could make it, although he'd missed being home last Christmas, due to a crisis on his own ranch—a divorce that had caught him completely by surprise. "But I call regularly."

Oh, yeah? a small voice asked.

When was the last time he'd picked up the phone to chat with her, to ask how things were going?

A couple of weeks, he suspected. Or maybe a month.

Guilt rode him hard. He hadn't meant to let it go that long. And the fact that he'd been so damn focused lately—first on his divorce, then on his seriously injured brother—didn't help. At this point, neither Jolene nor Matthew seemed to be a good enough excuse.

"When did you talk to her last?" Doc had been Granny's best friend for as long asJared could remember, but this was the first time Jared had felt as if he'd been called on the carpet by the man. Or maybe it was his own guilt doing a number on him.

"I meant to give her a call this evening," he lied, thinking he ought to actually schedule the time on his calendar so this wouldn't ever happen again. He'd make a point of checking in with her weekly, if not daily.

"It's just as well that you haven't yet done so."

"Why? What happened?"

"At this point? Nothing, but her memory is failing, and she's been having some health problems."

"Like what?" At seventy-nine, any number of things could wear out or go haywire. Maybe Jared ought to bring her to his ranch to live with him so he could keep an eye on her, but she'd always been so independent and set in her ways. And the old Granny, the one who'd raised him, would never agree. He'd have to hog-tie her and throw her over his shoulder in order to convince her to leave the Rocking C, the only home she'd had in nearly sixty years.

"I can't seem to control her blood pressure," Doc said, "even with medication. She has a heart murmur, and I'm afraid she may not have much time left."

A stab of grief shot through him, stirring up his memories—the good ones. Granny and his adopted brothers, Matt and Greg, were the only family he'd ever really had.

"Since I doubt Edna will let you boys know what's going on, I thought I'd better call."

Jared couldn't help thinking that Granny's heart had worn out over the years. The idea wasn't founded upon medical science by any means, but it seemed as though all the good deeds and charity work she'd done over the course of her life had finally taken their toll.

For as long as folks in BrightonValley had known her, Granny had been taking in strays of all shapes and sizes— human ones, as well as the four-legged variety.And Jared thanked his lucky stars that he'd been one of them.

He had his own spread now, nearly a hundred miles away, but that didn't mean he didn't love her dearly. Granny was the only woman who had always come through for him and never let him down—one way or another.

"Give it to me straight, Doc."

"Well, I think she needs to go into Houston and see a cardiologist, but I've never seen a woman so dang stubborn in all my life." Since Doc had attended the local high school with Edna and was pushing eighty himself, that was saying a lot.

"Is she all right living out on that ranch alone?" Jared asked, thinking that they might need to hire a nurse to look after her if he couldn't talk her in to moving in with him.

"She's not alone," Doc said. "That's another issue completely. Right now, she's got a full house."

"What do you mean?" The last time Jared had gone by the ranch, the only ones living there had been Granny and Lester Bailey, the foreman, plus a couple of newly hired greenhorns who tried hard but didn't know much about cattle. Thank goodness the other hands knew what to do without being told. "Who's she taken in now?"

"A whole passel of women, one of whom looked pregnant to me. And there's at least one kid."

Oh, for Pete's sake. Jared, of all people, ought to be understanding of Granny's hospitality. But she was getting older now and was more vulnerable than she'd been in the past.

"Looks like I'd better make a trip south tomorrow." Of course, he'd have to find someone to look after Matthew. Jared had a bad feeling about leaving him alone, especially in his present frame of mind.

"You probably ought to consider staying at Edna's for a while," Doc added.

"Why is that?"

"I spoke to Grant Whitaker about her yesterday when we were eating breakfast down at Caroline's Diner."

Grant was Granny's CPA, at least he had been. He had to be Granny and Doc's age. Or at least getting close. "Hasn't he retired yet?"

"Nope. He still works for Edna and a couple other longtime clients. And he was concerned about something. He decided to run it by me first, before bothering you boys with it."

Jared stiffened. "What was he worried about?"

"Grant seems to think there's a discrepancy in her accounts."

"What kind of discrepancy?" Jared asked.

"He says there have been a significant number of electronic withdrawals over the past few weeks."

"I don't know how in the hell that could have happened. Granny doesn't even have a computer."

"Apparently, she does now. Her new bookkeeper talked her into getting one."

She hired a new bookkeeper? One who had access to online banking, account numbers and passwords? Jared gripped the receiver until he thought he might choke the truth out of it. "I'm not going to wait until morning. I'll give her a call now and tell her… Hell, I'll think of something. Either way, I'm leaving this evening."

"Good. If she were my mother, I'd want to know."

"If someone is taking advantage of her, they'll wish they weren't."

"Now, don't go in there half-cocked, son. There could be a logical explanation for all of this."

Yeah. Right.

Granny needed him.

And now it was his turn to be there for her.

As he disconnected the line, a flash of lightning briefly illuminated the oak-paneled study. He pushed himself away from the desk, then strode to the open window in slow steady steps as a rumble of thunder rolled across the evening sky.

The scent of rain mingled with smoke from the chimney. He could smell the storm coming. For a moment, he considered waiting it out and driving after it passed, but he didn't think on it too long.

He needed to get to Granny's ranch and find out what he was up against. He shut the window, then glanced at the clock on the bookshelf. 8:38 p.m. It would be late by the time he and Matt arrived.

Jared had a key to the back door, but he didn't want to let himself in without telling Granny he was coming. So he dialed her number.

"Hello?" a woman answered, her voice laced with a slight Latina accent, her tone soft and gentle.

All the frustration and worry that had been swirling inside caused Jared to snap in a manner that was more sharp and brusque than usual. "Who are you?"

She paused momentarily. "Why don't you introduce yourself first?"

Patience had never been one of his virtues, not when he wanted answers. "In case you didn't hear me the first time, who the hell are you?"

She cleared her throat, yet the softness remained. "I'm Sabrina. I work here."

"Let me talk to Mrs. Clayton."

"I'm not sure I want you to."

"Excuse me?" His voice, rock hard and determined, mocked her velvety tone.

"She's resting, and I'd rather not see her upset."

Jared didn't know who this woman was, but he didn't like her already. "Why in blazes would I call to stir her up?"

"You seem to be irritated about something, sir. And I can't see any point in raising her blood pressure."

"Listen here, Sabrina. You're raising my blood pressure. All I want to do is talk to Edna, to ask how she's feeling, to check on her."

She remained silent for the longest time, as if trying to determine whether she was talking to a friend or a foe.

"This is Jared," he said, although she didn't respond right away.

Hadn't Granny even told those women about him? About how she'd adopted not only Jared, but also two other boys, who loved her and would do anything to protect her?

Apparently not.

The memory lapses Doc had mentioned came to mind, and Jared was even more determined to set things right. Even if it meant backpedaling and reining in a conversation that he now realized had started off on a bad foot.

"Maybe we ought to slow down a bit and clear the air. I'm Edna's oldest son. And I'd like to talk to her. I get a little riled up when someone tries to put me off."

"She told me about you. I'm sorry. I'll get her." When the woman set down the receiver, silence filled the line. A barrage of questions begged for answers. And not just questions about Granny's health, the women who'd infiltrated the ranch and the loss of money in Granny's account.

What had Granny said about Jared?

It could have been any number of things, he supposed. But sometimes Granny had a way of revealing secrets, things a guy would rather keep to himself. And her lack of discretion was one reason he hadn't gone into details about the divorce with her, just the irreconcilable differences part.

The real reason Jolene had left him remained deeply hidden within a ragged crevice in his heart.

"Jared?" that familiar, maternal voice asked. "Is that you?"

"Yes, Granny. How are you doing?"

"Fine as frog's hair," she responded. Then she made a fruitless attempt to cover the mouthpiece of the phone and speak to someone else, most likely Sabrina.

"Thank you, dear. No, I'll lock up for the night. Go on to bed."

"Granny?" he asked, a bit put out that she'd be chatting with one of the moochers instead of him.

"I'm sorry. Where were we?" Granny asked.

"I asked how you were doing."

"Oh, yes. I'm doing just fine. How about you? Are you well?"

Jared had been doing okay until Matthew moved in. And until Doc had called this evening. "I'm all right. Keeping busy."

"What about Matt?" Granny said. "Is he doing okay, too?"

"Yes," Jared said, not wanting to worry his mother. But the truth was, although Matt seemed to be mending physically, he'd been depressed ever since the accident.

Of course, Jared really couldn't blame him. Matt had been the driver in the accident that killed his fiancée and her son. And he'd been the only one in the vehicle to survive.

"Does he still have to use a wheelchair?"

"Yes, but hopefully that's only temporary." Jared had built ramps to help him get in and out of the house, even though he seemed to prefer being inside. Or near the liquor cabinet.

"I'm sure it's tough on him," Granny said. "A man like Matt doesn't cotton to being laid up."

Jared wouldn't like it, either. And while he wasn't sure what Matt would say about the decision to go back to the Rocking C for a few days, he thought it might do him some good.

"You don't usually call so late," Granny said. "Is there something wrong?"

He suspected so, which was why he decided to lie about his reason for going back to the ranch and staying for a few days. "Matt and I have a couple of business meetings in Houston over the next week or so. We thought we'd come down, stay with you and drive back and forth."

"Why, of course. I'll ask Tori to make up beds in the den and in the guestroom."

"Who's Tori?"

"My new maid."

"Then who is Sabrina?" he asked.

"She's my new bookkeeper."

Aw. The suspected thief. "What's she doing at your house this late?"

"She and her nephew live here."

The hordes had begun to move in, ready to pounce and take advantage of one of the kindest little old ladies in Texas. And Jared wasn't going to let that happen. "I guess I'll meet her when we get there."

"When are you coming?" she asked.

"Late tonight. But don't wait up. I've got a key." And once Jared got to Granny's ranch, he was going to take control of a sorry situation, evict a few freeloaders and see to it the thief ended up in jail.

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