The Bull Rider’s Family
by Leigh Duncan

“Are we there yet, Mommy?”

Emma Shane slowly counted to ten when her daughter’s sneakered foot struck the side of her seat. Again. Strapping her four-year-old into the center of the car offered the best protection but, apparently, none of the safety experts had considered the added wear and tear on a mother’s nerves. Emma craned her neck until she met a pair of dark eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Don’t kick, Bree.” Summoning patience she certainly hadn’t learned at her own mother’s knee, she spoke softly. “Want a juice box?” At Bree’s nod, Emma reached into a stash nearly depleted after two days on the road.

“Are we there, Mom?”

“Not quite, honey, but we’re getting close.”

Emma swept the back of her hand across her face. Late spring in Florida was more intense than she’d expected, but the perspiration that dampened her brow had more to do with second thoughts than her car’s faltering air conditioner. Still, sweat was sweat. She wiped her hand on her jeans while she prayed that this time she’d made the right decision. That this move would be their last. She spared a quick glance at the hand-drawn map taped to the dashboard.

“Real close,” she added.

Twenty miles outside of Okeechobee. Two miles past the abandoned gas station on the right. She counted five driveways after the blinking yellow caution light. At number six, she signaled for a left turn and braked to let an approaching semi pass.

Emma gripped the steering wheel, her car swaying while the truck thundered by. Vents in the carrier’s long sides provided a quick glimpse of cattle on their way to market, proof there was more to Florida than citrus, beaches and tourist attractions.

She glanced at the scenery that hadn’t varied since she’d turned inland from the coast three hours ago. Under a sun so bright it washed the color out of the sky, cows dotted the pale green grass that stretched as far as she could see. Ahead, shimmering mirages wavered on the blacktop. She squinted, making sure no other vehicles approached.

The way clear, Emma pulled across the two-lane road onto a dirt apron beneath a sign that was surprisingly nondescript considering the idyllic pictures on the Circle P’s website. She stopped to get her bearings and stared at a graveled track that stretched into the utterly flat distance before it disappeared around a copse of low trees.

Had she made yet another wrong turn in a life filled with them?

The wide gate, according to the directions included in the folder along with her job offer, absolutely had to remain closed at all times. Someone had propped the gate to one side. They’d even looped the security chain around a post, making sure it stayed that way.

If this was the Circle P’s version of a welcome mat, it wasn’t much of one.

Thud. Bree’s sneaker struck Emma’s seat again. “Mommy.. ”

The symbol branded into the wooden sign overhead confirmed that, locked gate or not, they were in the right place. Emma brushed the end of a long ponytail over one shoulder.

“The main house and the barn should be just another half mile ahead. Help me look for them, okay, kiddo?”

She put the vehicle in gear. When gravel shifted and spit from beneath the sedan’s tires, she slowed the car to a crawl.

“Look, Mommy! There’s cows. Lots of them. Where are the horses? Can I have a horse, Mommy? And cowboy boots. And a cowboy hat. Can I, Mom? Huh? Huh?”

“We’ll see.” Emma stared at the sharp horns sported by several dozen cattle. Her gaze dropped to the strands of thin wire strung between wooden posts. As she had a dozen times during the long drive, she wondered if walking away from all she’d worked for in the four years since Jack’s death had been her best idea. She shook her head.

Going back was not an option.

She’d reduced that particular bridge to ash when, in the middle of yet another of Chef Larue’s nightly melt-downs, she’d rolled her knives into their carrying case. Hung her apron on a hook by the door. Emptied out her locker. And walked out on the belligerent cook, leaving him with no one to scream at but the busboys.

Maybe she shouldn’t have, but Seth’s job offer had given her the courage to leave. Really, though, Chef Larue shared the blame. He’d set things in motion by putting her in charge of catering the Cattlemen’s Association awards dinner, where she’d met Seth and Doris Judd.

Emma had instantly warmed to the soft-spoken older couple, who’d raved about the bite-size beef taco appetizers, a recipe she’d created especially for the event. They’d talked for hours, Seth and Doris sharing stories that made life on the ranch he managed in southern Florida sound absolutely perfect. When the wizened ranch hand had asked her to recommend a place for their wedding anniversary, Emma had slipped him a card, good for two complimentary dinners at the tony Chez Larue. Two nights later, she’d joined them at their table.

In his thank-you note, Seth suggested she leave New York’s frenetic pace behind and come to the Circle P as his wife’s assistant. Though she wasn’t quite ready to make that change, Emma had considered the offer each time Chef Larue rapped his famed wooden spoon across the fingers of an error-prone line cook. She’d weighed the merits of idyllic ranch life whenever she slogged through ice and snow on her way to the bus stop. Or when the babysitter didn’t show up, or Bree brought another cold home from day care. Until, finally, she’d asked Seth to put the details in writing.

The day the offer arrived in the mail, her fingers had shaken so badly she had to read the contract twice before she understood that Seth was handing her the opportunity to run her own kitchen—after a short apprenticeship. The deal included a house, hers as long as she stayed on the ranch. Finally, she could provide Bree with the safe, secure childhood Emma had yearned for since she was her daughter’s age.

Okay, maybe she should have looked a little closer at the picture Seth and his wife, Doris, had painted of the Circle P. From behind the wheel of her car, she studied the road that seemed to lead to nowhere. The setting was far more rustic, far more isolated, than she’d ever dreamed. She wished she’d thought to ask for photos of the kitchen and cringed imagining rust-coated refrigerators and warped counters.

Her neck stiffened, and she rolled it.

Accurate image or not, there was no turning back. For both their sakes—hers and Bree’s—she had to make this work. She’d learn a new style of cooking, prove she could run a kitchen that catered to both ranch hands and the Circle P’s upscale clientele. And she’d do it in the year before Doris retired.

She filled her lungs. With two years of culinary school and another couple as a sous chef under her belt, she was ready for the challenge.

The highway disappeared from her rearview mirror as the long driveway curved around the trees. Emerging on the far side, Emma held her breath and braced for her first glimpse of their new home. Her foot eased off the gas. The car rolled to a stop while she studied an immaculate two-story house. An impressive barn occupied the space to one side. Opposite it stood a gigantic greenhouse. But the biggest surprise were the cars and pickup trucks. Dozens of them. They haphazardly crowded a grassless yard between the buildings.

“Mommy, is there a party?” Bree unsnapped her seat belt the second Emma found a spot wide enough to accommodate her compact car. “Can we have cake?”

“Even if there is a party,” Emma cautioned, “we weren’t invited.” Despite Seth’s assurances that family came first on the Circle P, learning how much the hired help mingled with the guests was on her lengthy to-do list.

Stepping from the car, Emma fanned air so thick with moisture her shirt instantly clung to her skin. Before she’d taken two steps, the jeans she’d worn while driving tugged uncomfortably at her waist, her knees. Knowing she’d need all the help she could get to project an image of poise and self-confidence when she met her new employers, she reached past Bree and tugged the jacket of her chef’s whites from its hanger.

“Mommy, what stinks?” Bree scrambled from her car seat, her nose wrinkling.

Emma gave a cautious sniff. A dank undertone floated in the breathless air. “Smells like cows,” she said. Well, what did she expect? They were on a cattle ranch, after all.

She slid her arms into the snug uniform. From the trunk, she took the basket of cookies and other baked goods she’d carefully wrapped to withstand their twelve-hundred-mile journey.

“Are you ready?” She ran a smoothing hand over Bree’s dark curls. “You remember everything I told you?”

Bree nodded all too solemnly for a preschooler. “No running in the house. No yelling. Mrs. Wickles and me, we’ll be good.” Bree squeezed her much-loved doll to her chest. “Won’t we, Mrs. Wickles?”

Emma shrugged. Having her active daughter underfoot in the kitchen was asking for trouble, but what choice did she have? She and Bree were on their own in the world. They were venturing into new territory. They’d have to find their way.

She gave Bree an extra-reassuring hug.

“Okay, then,” she said at last.

Hand in hand, they crossed the open yard to a narrow strip of lawn. The temperature dropped ten degrees as they mounted the steps onto the shaded porch. At regular intervals, waxy flowering plants hung from the eaves. Emma drank in the sweet scent that overpowered the odor of manure. At the massive entryway, she squared her shoulders. Poised to knock, Emma quickly nudged Bree out of the way when the door sprang wide.

A tall, masculine figure brushed past. Emma caught the barest glimpse of a chiseled jaw before the man stopped at the edge of the porch to tug a black cowboy hat low over thick dark hair.

“Excuse me.” She juggled the heavy basket at her hip. “Do you know where I might find Mr. Judd?”

The stranger frowned. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific. There’s six—” An odd expression twisted his lips. “Five,” he corrected. “There’s five of us.”

Though his high cheekbones and sculpted nose reminded Emma of Seth Judd’s, this man’s expression appeared to be carved into a permanent scowl. One that deepened as ice-blue eyes scoured her jacket.

“Deliveries go round to the back,” he said sharply.

Without another word, he spun away, his boots ringing against the wide wooden planks as he stalked down the stairs. In an obvious move to put as much distance between them as possible, he strode across the yard toward the barn.

So much for Southern hospitality, Emma thought while she stared at a pair of wide shoulders that tapered to slim hips. Bree tugged on her hand.

“Mommy,” she whispered, her eyes nearly as wide as her mouth. “Was he a real cowboy?”

“I’m not sure, baby,” she answered. Neither Seth nor Doris had mentioned having a grown son, but then, their descriptions of the Circle P hadn’t mentioned the half-hour drive between the ranch and the closest town.

She squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Come on, honey,” she whispered. “Let’s go see if we can find the kitchen.”

With a final glance toward the barn, she led the way around the corner, not stopping till they reached a small concrete patio shaded by an oak tree that towered over the house. There, two young men sat eating lunch at one of several picnic tables that dotted another patch of lawn.

Emma mustered a bright smile. “I’m Emma Shane.” She tugged Bree forward. “This is my daughter, Bree.”

One of the lanky young men half rose. “I’m Tim,” he said, extending a work-hardened hand. “He’s Christopher.”

“Chris,” the second boy corrected. “You dropping something off for the funeral?” He peered expectantly at the basket Emma held.

Funeral. Whose?

Recalling the cowboy’s odd reference, Emma swallowed. “I’m supposed to see Mr. Judd. Mr. Seth Judd. Is he around?”

Sorrow shimmered in Tim’s brown eyes. “Mr. Seth?

He died.”

“He’s…dead?” Emma blinked. Nausea rolled through her stomach. “How? When?”

“Three days ago.” Chris spoke around the bite of pie he’d just forked into his mouth. “The service was this morning.” He gestured toward the main house. “Everybody’s come to pay their respects.”

“Mommy, you’re holding me too tight,” Bree protested.

“Sorry, baby.” Despite the fresh beads of perspiration that broke across her brow, Emma loosened her grip. She sipped air and tried to figure out what to do next. Had she come all this way for nothing? The job offer was in her folder, the contracts to be signed upon her arrival. Surely Seth’s replacement would honor their deal.

“Do you work here? In the kitchen?”

“In the greenhouse mostly,” Tim answered.

“Sometimes we wash dishes,” Chris added.

“I’m Ms. Judd’s new assistant,” Emma said, once more extending her hand to first Tim and then Chris. She paused when the boys stared at her as if she was some alien life-form. But until she could speak with Doris, or whoever was in charge, she’d been hired to do a job. There was no time like the present to start it.

At last, Tim shrugged. “Ms. Doris, she’s busy right now.”

Emma’s chest tightened. Memories of the days immediately after Jack’s death flooded back, and with them, the overwhelming sense of loss. “I’m sure she is,” she murmured. “So why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourselves, and then we’ll see what we need to do next.”

Tim and Chris, it turned out, had bounced around the foster care system until the owners of the Circle P took them under their wings. Free to go wherever they wanted once they turned eighteen, they’d decided to stay on at the ranch in hopes of learning a trade. Today, that meant washing dishes.

“Well, I’m sure Doris’ll appreciate your being here,” Emma said.

Their introductions complete, she eased open the screened door and shepherded her daughter inside. Longing swept through her as she surveyed the spacious kitchen. Ignoring the dirty dishes and items that cluttered every surface, she focused on granite counters and high ceilings. She drank in the light that poured through windows over the sink. Contrary to her worst fears, not a speck of rust dotted the twin Sub-Zero refrigerators and freezers built into one wall. Opposite them, an enormous AGA stove glistened beneath a pile of pots and pans.

Eager to get to work, she flexed her fingers. Though the kitchen wasn’t perfect, it had definite possibilities. But Seth’s death complicated things, and she swallowed a twinge of concern as she cleared a space for her basket on one of the counters. She glanced pointedly toward an enormous sink.

“Tim, why don’t you and Chris start washing dishes while I get some of this food organized.” She took a second look, noting a wealth of plastic-wrapped platters on the long trestle table and some of the counters. “Where did all this come from?”

“No one shows up to a funeral empty-handed.” Chris shrugged.

Tim nodded. “There’s plenty more when the food on the buffet is gone. I been stickin’ casseroles in the fridge, but it’s full.”

She hiked an eyebrow. Thinking of potato salad and meats left too long at room temperature, Emma stifled a groan.

Tomorrow, she’d figure out where she and Bree would go from here and whether the new boss would honor her arrangement with Seth. But for now, there was a kitchen to run and, although the circumstances were far from what she’d expected, she intended to give it her best shot.