~ Ethan ~
I had been a lawyer from New York City. I'd only come to the Eagle Creek Ranch for the reading of my father's will. I hadn't intended to stay. That was six months ago, and so much had changed since then. The biggest change was my romantic involvement with Jake Cooper, the ranch foreman. I was pretty sure I was falling for him, but he kept treating me like I didn't belong on the ranch, making it harder to decide whether to stay or go.
Before I can decide one way or the other, dealing with troubles at the ranch take precedence. People are coming onto the ranch, endangering everyone here. And if that wasn't bad enough, I get called back to the city to deal with an old client of mine. Flying back to New York City wasn't the problem. Deciding if I was coming back to the ranch—and Cooper—was.
~ Cooper ~
Ethan Walker was unlike anyone I had ever met and I was totally fascinated by him. He was also a city boy and I was terrified that he would get hurt because he knew nothing about life on the ranch. When my need to keep him safe leads to a rift between us, and then he suddenly decides to fly back to New York, I make the decision to go with him. I'll be damned if I let him go alone. He might not come back.
~ Cooper ~
"Explain it to me one more time."
I heaved a heavy breath as I reached up and rubbed the pinched skin between my eyes. The headache coming my way was going to be epic.
"A couple of guys in suits came to the door," Colby Wilder started again, his hands waving around. I kind of expected it out of him. He probably couldn't talk if his hands weren't moving. "They said that they were with some state agency and they were here to take some water and soil samples up by the old mine. Ethan demanded to see their IDs, but once he did, he started yelling at them and kicked them off the ranch."
"A little while later, I spotted their car going down the dirt road that runs along the south side of the west pasture. I told the boss, and he grabbed a shotgun, jumped on Mimi, and took off after them."
Mimi was supposed to be my horse, gifted to me by Ethan's father, along with two other horses. She'd taken one look at Ethan and decided he belonged to her.
Damn fool horse followed him everywhere.
Colby winced as he twisted his fingers together. "I tried to stop him, Cooper. I swear I did, but he was just gone, tearing off after them."
Christ on a crutch.
"I'm real worried about him, Cooper. He was so angry."
"Did he say why?"
Colby shook his head. "No, but I got the impression that those two guys didn't work for the state."
Yeah, I was kind of getting that impression as well.
So, who were they?
"The west pasture you said?"
"Okay, call Macon and have him meet me out that way." I shoved my cowboy hat back on my head and made a beeline for the front door. I don't know what had ruffled Ethan's feathers, but he really wasn't someone to go off half cocked. He usually had a reason.
I shuddered to think of what that reason could be.
We occasionally got people coming onto the ranch that thought there might still be gold in the mines or the mountains behind the ranch house. It happened. There wasn't much we could do about it other than steer them back toward town with a strong warning not to trespass again.
It usually worked.
If these were state environmental agents, Ethan could get into a lot of trouble for kicking them off the ranch. I didn't enjoy their yearly visits anymore than any other rancher did, but they were a fact of life on the ranch.
My horse was tied to a post in front of the house. I'd only come back to grab a different set of gloves since I'd ripped a hole in mine fixing the fence line in one of the pastures.
Ethan's situation kind of made me wonder how that fence had gotten broken in the first place. Maybe I'd send someone to look at it, after I found Ethan.
He was a city slicker from New York, a lawyer. He'd only come to the Eagle Creek Ranch for the reading of his deceased father's will. He hadn't intended to stay.
That was six months ago, and so much had changed since that time. The biggest probably being the fact that his father Buck Walker wasn't really dead. Granted, he had recently survived cancer, and cancer treatment, and was now traveling the world with Ethan's mother, but he was alive.
That was the important part.
I jumped on my horse and spurred him toward the west pasture. As I rode past the brand new two story building between the main house and the barn, I realized this was another thing that had changed.
True to his word, Ethan had built a new bunkhouse for the ranch hands. The finished product had changed a bit from the original plans Ethan had made. He'd added five extra bedrooms and bathrooms.
I still didn't understand why. We had plenty of men working the ranch, but Ethan seemed to believe we needed to prepare for the future just in case. It wasn't like I could argue. It wasn't my money, and it wasn't my ranch.
I just worked here.
I rode down toward the road that ran along the west pasture as fast as my horse would go. I hadn't seen a single sign of Ethan or the two state workers, and I was a little surprised they had gotten this far.
The old dirt road went on for another two or three miles before coming to a stop at the base of the mountain range that sat behind the main house.
If they reached that far, there would be no place for them to go but up, and up wasn't a road. It didn't even have a trail. It was just a well-worn path used by the cows and wild animals in the area.
I was relieved when I saw Macon riding toward me from the north pasture. In the last six months, Chester Macon had become my second in command, my go-to guy. I often put him in charge when I had other things to do. He was trustworthy, smart, and he didn't take shit off of anyone. He was a good man to have at my side.
When he met up with me, I pulled my horse to a stop.
"What in the hell is going on, Coop?" Macon asked. "Colby called and said the boss had lost his mind." He glanced up and down the road and then into the fields on either side of us. "Where is he?"
"Colby told me that two state workers showed up saying they had to take water and soil samples. Ethan kicked them off the ranch, but they came back, so Ethan went after them."
Macon's eyes rolled. "Oh god."
Yeah, pretty much.
"I'm hoping to catch him before he brings the state down on us." The state environmental agency could be a tad bit bitter if people messed with their employees, especially ranchers or farmers.
If we didn't play nice, they called in the big guns, and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency took no prisoners. We did not have an easy relationship with any of them, but I didn't know of a rancher that did.
"Which way did they go?"
"Colby said the car the two state workers were in was headed down this road." I nodded forward on the road we were on. "I'm assuming that is where Ethan went."
"Doesn't this end at the base of the mountains?"
"Yes, and this is the only way in or out except on horse or foot."
"All right." Macon wheeled his horse around. "Let's go save Ethan from himself."
Ethan meant well when he did stuff like this, so I took that comment like it was meant. There were things about the ranch life that Ethan didn't understand or didn't agree with. When that happened, he paved his own path and did what he thought was right, no matter what anyone told him.
It could be both a good thing and a bad thing. It had certainly made me shake my head on more than one occasion. On the other hand, life with Ethan Walker on the Eagle Creek Ranch was never boring.
Besides the fact that the man made my teeth ache just looking at him, he tended to use his power for good. He had an innate desire to help the little man and would fight tooth and nail to protect those he believed couldn't protect themselves.
Macon and I started riding again, spurring our horses into a faster pace. We were currently running between two pastures with wooden fence on either side of us, but the beginning of the forest—where the fence ended—lay ahead of us.
We had almost reached it when a man on horseback broke through the trees. I was relieved to see that it was Ethan until I realized that he was leading two men that were on foot, and they were being pulled along behind his horse by a rope.
"Holy shit," I whispered. "He's going to get us all arrested."
"Maybe you should listen to why he's doing this before you freak out, Cooper. Ethan might be from the city, but he's not stupid. He obviously had a reason to go off on these guys."
Yes, but I was terrified to know what that reason was. What Ethan might consider an issue, other people might not. I never really knew which way he would go on any given subject, which made things rather interesting around the ranch.
"Ethan," I said as I brought my horse to a stop in front of him.
"Hi, babe." Ethan smiled before gesturing to the two men behind him with his head. "Meet Bert and Steve. They work for the State Environmental Prevention Agency. Guys, say hi to the pretty cowboy."
Macon snickered when both men said hi.
"Ethan, you..." Wait. "Did you say the State Environmental PreventionAgency?"
"I sure did."
What in the hell was that?
"Last month, when I was working on getting those wind turbines put up over the ridge, I called the EPA to come in and make sure we were in compliance with their agency. Anyway, when my friend Tony arrived, he showed me his identification. It was real pretty. Had the agency logo on it and everything."
My head hurt.
"Tony and I had a lot of time to talk while we were headed over the ridge. He likes what we are doing here and the fact that we are trying to comply with all the state regulations. He also told me that he's the only one that services this area since his agency is spread so thin and if I had any problems, to give him a call. Imagine my surprise when these two idiots showed up, trying to convince me they worked for his agency."
"I take it they don't?"
"So, who do they work for?" I asked.
Ethan shrugged. "Got me."
Yep, that was a throb in my temple.
"Ethan, honey, you can't tie people up just because they show you the wrong ID. It's called kidnapping, and it's frowned upon. Ken will arrest you."
He'd already threatened to arrest Ethan on several different occasions due to some of the antics he pulled over the last six months.
"Oh, he's going to be arresting someone all right, but it won't be me." Ethan folded his arms and rested them on the pummel of his saddle. "See, I talked to Tony, and then I looked up the regulations concerning the EPA. Technically, we are not required by law to let them on our land unless they have a warrant. These guys don't."
Okay, that part was news to me.
It wasn't like I had a lot to do with environmentalists. I ran a cattle ranch. I dealt more with animal rights people than anything. There was always someone screaming that running cattle was bad for people, bad for the environment, and bad for the cattle.
"So, what now?" I asked as I glanced at the two men. "What are you going to do with them?"
"The sheriff is already on his way. I doubt he can arrest them for much more than trespassing and impersonating a state official, but it'll get them out of our hair for awhile."
"Did they say why they were so insistent on getting on the ranch?"
Ethan's snort was rude and disgusted. "They were trying to get to the gold."
"I swear to god." I rolled my eyes, filled with my own disgust. "I am going to blow that damn mine up, take pictures of it, and post them down by the main gate."
It might be the only way to keep people from trespassing.
Ethan wiggled his eyebrows. "Know where we can get some dynamite?"
"I'll look into it."
Ethan gave a gentle tug on the rope before moving his horse closer to mine. He handed the rope off to Macon before leaning toward me as far as he could go without falling off his horse and pursing his lips.
I chuckled as I cupped the side of his face and then brushed my lips over his. "You had me worried, Ethan."
All amusement left his face. "I would have called you if I needed you. You know that."
"I'd like you to call me before you need me. That way I won't worry." I swear he had taken ten years off my life before he explained what he was up to and why.
"Okay," he replied. "I can do that."
I doubted it, but I appreciated the sentiment.
"Come on." I turned my horse around and pointed him toward the main ranch. "We'd better get these guys back to the ranch so Ken can earn that fancy paycheck of his."
And I could get a drink.
I needed one.
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