Finding her brother in jail wasn’t the homecoming Emily Hanover had pictured.
These past four years, she’d been living back east with her grandmother. This three-week trip was her first and likely her last visit home. She’d dreaded coming home and facing painful past memories, but she’d come because she sensed David was in trouble. It appeared she’d arrived just in time.
Emily stared at the torn welcome banner and ruined buffet table, destroyed by her brother, David, just minutes before her arrival.
Turning from the mess, Emily reached for the rusted door handle of the jailhouse. She ignored the cramp in her foot caused by shoes designed for fashion not comfort. Pushing open the door, she stepped into the dingy jailhouse.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light. When it did she saw her brother sitting on the stained cot in the single cell, his head cradled in his hands.
“David,” she said, moving toward the cell.
At the sound of her voice, he lifted his head. He stared at her a moment before he smiled. “’Emily, you look so different. You look like a real lady just like Ma always wanted.”
Emily jerked off her laced gloves, unreasonably annoyed by the compliment. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
His smile vanished and he moved to the bars. “I’ve done it this time.”
The strong scent of whiskey and urine drifted from the corner of the cell. “You certainly have. I hear you got drunk, rode through town on a stolen horse, knocked an old man down, and injured the mare you stole.”
He closed his eyes. “I didn’t steal the mare, I just borrowed her. I only wanted to ride out and greet your stage. But the mare was too much for me to handle.”
“Why’d you try to jump the buffet table?”
He laid his forehead against the bars. “That was the mare’s idea, not mine.”
The part of her that had been tamed by life back east worried about scandal. The wild Texas rose she’d been before she left Upton, Texas, only wanted to make things right. “When are you going to grow up, David?”
His expression grew mutinous, as if he were a child and not a man three years older than Emily. “You know I hate this town, Emily. I don’t belong here.”
“That’s no excuse.”
He managed a feeble grin. “I don’t know why you’re so upset. Everything will be fine once you pay off the old man.”
“I’m not made of money, David,” she said tersely. “And you’re lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt.”
“Can’t you fix this? Please. I don’t know how to get out of this one.”
“What about the owner of the horse?”
He shrank back a fraction.
She stepped closer to the bars. “Whose horse is it, David?”
David dropped his gaze. “Jake Lazarus’s.”
Emily felt the color drain from her face. “Jake Lazarus.”
“I know you two got history.”
History. There’d been a time when she’d loved Jake with her whole heart. But her parents had shipped her back east before they could marry.
David offered a tentative smile, the same one that had coaxed her into trouble in the past. “Can’t you just pay Jake off?”
“He’s the last person I want to see.”
The door to the jailhouse closed with a bang. “But you’re gonna see him.” The deep voice came from the doorway and Emily recognized it immediately.
She’d forgotten he could move as quietly as a mountain lion.
Turning, she found him by the door. Six feet, he was all sinew and hard muscle and his shoulders still filled a doorframe. Faded denims molded his powerful thighs. Dust covered his white shirt, scuffed leather boots, and low-crowned Stetson. His range coat hung open, the right side tucked behind his pistol.
A chill snaked down her spine.
Emily lifted her chin. “This is between my brother and me, Jake.”
He jerked off his hat. His hair, as black as coal, brushed the top of his collar. “Not when it involves my mare and my cook, Emily.”
Emily tilted her head back so that she could meet his gaze. There’d been a time when she could read his emotions. Now there was a wall between them. Her skin grew hot under his gaze.
“Jake, I’m prepared to pay for the damages.” Emily’s fingers trembled as she snapped open her purse. “I’ll pay you enough to hire another cook, plus ten percent for your trouble.” She quickly calculated the price. She’d be nearly penniless when she settled this mess.
Distaste flickered in his eyes. “Money isn’t going to fix this one, Emily. It’s time David grew up and took responsibility for his actions.”
“David has to be back at the ranch for the evening feedings.”
Jake lifted an eyebrow. “And I got a ranch full of hungry hands and a cook who’s laid up for at least a week.”
“You’ll make more money this way.”
“You’ve been back east so long, I suppose you’ve forgotten how we do things here.”
His words stung. “I’m trying to make this right.”
“This is your brother’s mess, not yours. David injured my man, so the way I see it he can cook for my men.”
David gripped the bars. Fear flickered in his pale green eyes. “I’m not working his ranch! Jake Lazarus is trash, just like Ma and Pa used to say.”
Jake’s jaw tightened. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and menacing. “You will work for me if you don’t want me to press charges. They hang horse thieves in this state.”
David’s knees nearly buckled. “I didn’t steal the horse. I was just having a little fun.”
Jake leveled his gaze on David. “You took my horse without my permission. And thanks to you she’s got a sprain that’ll take weeks to heal. That adds up to jail in these parts.”
David looked to Emily. “Tell him I wasn’t stealing. I didn’t mean to hurt the horse. He’s just crazy enough to see me hang!”
Emily summoned all the diplomacy lessons she’d learned in school. “Jake, you know my brother can’t cook and he has to work the Double H. Isn’t there some compromise we could reach?”
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “I need a cook. No compromise.”
It would be easier to move a mountain than to get Jake to change his mind. He’d not leave here today without a cook. “Then take me instead.”
Jake looked genuinely shocked. Boldly his gaze traveled from her green hat with the jaunty peacock feather, over her velvet traveling suit, to the pointy tips of her kid shoes. “You even remember how to work a cookstove?”
His bold appraisal had her temper rising. “I’ll manage.”
“’Emily, don’t!” David shouted. “Ma and Pa would have hated the idea of you working for him.”
She didn’t take her gaze off Jake. “You can’t go to jail, David. That ranch was Pa’s dream and I won’t see it lost.”
Jake shook his head. “You look like you’d blow away in a stiff breeze.”
For a moment, he said nothing and she thought he’d reject her offer. “We work sunup to sundown on my ranch.”
Something akin to approval flashed in his eyes. “For two weeks.”
The way he hovered close made her hesitate. “Yes.”
He tugged off his glove and held his hand out to her. Automatically, she took it. He wrapped his long, calloused fingers around her small, soft hand. “You haven’t done hard work in years.”
“My grandmother would be pleased to hear you say that. She’s worked hard to erase my years in Texas.”
“I never did like society types.”
Fire flashed in her eyes. “Then I suppose it’s going to be a long two weeks.”