When the lanky form of Saul Lovell walked into the Watering Hole Café, dragging with him the remnants of the late April chill, Nick Noble knew that his last hope of redemption had died.
Nick didn’t have time to deal with the arrival of his father’s lawyer. Not with one fist wrapped in the collar of Jake’s duster and a forearm pinning his cohort Rusty to the wall.
“We were simply offering to buy her lunch,” Rusty snarled.
“I’m not stupid. I know exactly what you were offering.” Nick motioned for the girl to move away from the pair as he upped his pressure against Rusty’s Adam’s apple. “It’s okay, honey. They’re just fresh from riding fence. You go home now and say hi to your folks from me.”
He didn’t comment on her low-cut shirt or the way it seemed to have material missing at the waistline too. And a run into Miles City three hours south for looser fitting pants might be in order. He’d have to swing by her parents’ place after closing tonight to warn them of their daughter’s recent bent toward trouble.
Only that wasn’t his job anymore, was it? He had to stop thinking like a cop before it landed him in more hot water.
The girl glanced at Rusty, as if hurt, then turned on her boot heel and flounced toward the door, followed by her blonde best friend.
Nick didn’t like the way Jake watched them leave. “If I see you within ten feet of them, I’ll run you all the way back to the border.”
Jake shoved him away, and Nick let go, not interested in swallowing one more whiff of day-old whiskey breath.
“You stay away from those two girls,” Nick repeated as the door jangled shut behind the ladies. He noted the petite brunette who had entered during the tussle and now waited by the door. Tourist, waiting to be seated.
“I ain’t interested in nuthin’ she ain’t already advertisin’.” Jake dusted himself off.
“Don’t make me hurt you.” Nick watched a flash of memory cross Jake’s face.
Clearly it wasn’t enough to deter his mouth. “There you go again, Noble. Jumpin’ to conclusions. You’ve already got us tried and hung. Same as ole Jimmy.”
Nick turned back toward the counter, quelling a flare of anger. “Take a seat. I’ll get you boys a pile of beans.”
Rusty, however, wasn’t ready to move on. Nick saw the swing coming out of his peripheral vision and stepped back, letting the kid’s fist breeze by. He rounded on Rusty, warning in his tone. “Don’t start.”
“You’re not the law around here anymore, Noble.”
“In here, I am. And if I need to follow you home to make sure you don’t detour toward the girl’s place, then I’ll get my keys.”
“A man can’t even be friendly no more round you.” Jake pushed past him and found a stool at the counter, a wolfish grin on his face.
Nick kept his stare pinned on Rusty. The cowpoke’s off-kilter Stetson, his five o’clock shadow and padded jean jacket gave him the look of Billy the Kid. All he needed was a six-shooter and a wanted poster.
“Sit down, Rusty. I know all you’ve eaten for three days is oatmeal and coffee. There’s a pot of chili and beans in the kitchen that’ll make you forget all about high winds and Herefords.”
Rusty gave him a tight glare and reached into his pocket for a pack of smokes.
Nick shook his head, pointed to the No Smoking sign, and headed behind the bar, calling in the order to the cook. His eyes flickered over to Saul. The attorney still wore the flat-topped black Stetson like Adam Cartwright out of Bonanza and had dressed for the drive out to nowhere in eastern Montana in a pair of boots and a wool-lined leather jacket. He met Nick’s glance with a curt nod from his place at the end of the counter.
Yep, this was exactly the moment Nick had dreaded. He grabbed a cup, plunked it down in front of Saul, filled it, and walked away. They’d get around to the topic of his visit. Meanwhile, Nick had two surly cowboys at the counter, a rancher and his wife at table three, the hardware-store owner and his assistant hiding out at the table in back, the tourist waiting for a seat, and a redhead in a ten-gallon hat at the end of the bar, watching him with a frown.
He felt some solace in the fact that his father couldn’t see him now. However, having Saul here seemed nearly as humiliating.
He took the rancher’s and his wife’s orders, served the redhead some water and a menu, gave the hardware-store owner his bill, and gestured toward a booth for the brunette.
Saul drank his coffee, eyes on Nick, saying nothing.
Outside, the wind chased paper along the cracked pavement of Main Street, a chill whistling through the cracks of the plate-glass windows. The etching from the Watering Hole Café now read Wclciino Hclc, but like everything in the tiny town of Wellesley, Montana, signs were irrelevant. People either knew their way around town in their sleep or they were passing through. Quickly. Being right off U.S. Highway 2 on a straight shot between Minot and the Pacific Ocean helped some with the desperate economy. But over the last five years the harsh winter s and drought had driven off all but the hardiest of cowmen and women. Even Nick would have left if he’d had anywhere else to go.
That anywhere had arrived on his doorstep today.
He served Jake and Rusty their beans and filled their coffees before heading to the redhead for her order.
“Steak and eggs,” she said, closing her menu.
Filling a water glass, he stuck a menu under his arm and shook his head, watching the brunette at the booth clean the table with a wet wipe. He forced a smile as he approached her. Maybe she was one of those obsessive-compulsive types he’d read about in school. Or worse, one with a schizophrenic edge. He set down the glass quietly. “Would you like some disinfectant?”
When she glanced up, he saw a blush. “Oh no. There was some . . . ketchup.” She took the menu. “What’s good here?”
“The beef.” He gave her a lazy smile, hoping she caught the joke. Cattle country, honey, get it?
She frowned. “Do you have a Caesar salad?”
He quirked an eyebrow that broadcast his answer.
She sighed, and he recognized fatigue around her blue eyes. “How about a house salad?”
“We’re short on the lettuce and tomatoes right now. Can I interest you in a cheeseburger?” He glanced at Saul. The man watched him with a half smirk, probably remembering the time Nick had worked at Lolly’s Diner. That had lasted all of one day and ended when his father had dragged him home by the scruff of his collar. The second time he’d left home, however, it took.
How he wished now he’d returned.
“All right then, I’ll have . . . a bowl of chili beans.” She closed the menu and smiled at him, tucking her dark hair behind her ear. For a second he wondered where she came from and if he should make sure she left town okay.
Especially after the article in last week’s Sheridan News about Jimmy McPhee’s release.
According to the newspaper, Jimmy was innocent. Nick didn’t know what to believe. He hadn’t exactly turned over every stone searching for Jenny Butler’s killer. No, he’d bitten when they’d arrested Jimmy McPhee—hungover and smelling of guilt—for her murder. He’d bitten because Jimmy had pushed the law too far this time.
Nick should have listened to his gut, been the man his father had taught him to be, the one who protected the innocent and stood up for the truth. Clearly he’d left that man back at the Silver Buckle Ranch.
Thankfully, a drifter’s testimony had exonerated Jimmy McPhee and set him free. Five years too late.
“Very good,” Nick said to the woman as he took her menu. “You in town long?”
“Visiting family,” she said. “Near Scobey.”
“That’s about thirty miles north of here. Roads are clear—you’ll get there by bedtime.” He resisted the urge to encourage her to stay the night in town. But the only beds open this time of year were the hunting cabins, and he wouldn’t even send his sister there, even though Stefanie spent half her life camped out on the open trail. “Better leave before the sun hits the horizon,” he said, surrendering to the ex-cop inside him as he turned away.
The cook had the steak and eggs under the heat rings, and Nick served them to the redhead. “You here for the rodeo camp?” he asked as he poured her a cup of coffee. Twice a year, a rodeo camp for barrel racers, bronc busters, and bareback riders was held right outside Wellesley.
Nick remembered his brother, Rafe, attending once—and coming home with more bruises than a truckload of apples. He’d figured out how to stay on a bronc by now.
“Nope. Just passin’ through.” The redhead covered her eggs with ketchup.
Jake and Rusty finished their meal, threw down a few bills, and left without a word.
Glancing at the rancher and his wife, still deep in conversation and not needing him, Nick knew he’d whittled his procrastination down a nub. “Howdy, Saul,” he said, a sigh at the end of his greeting as he faced his father’s oldest friend and attorney.
“Good to see you, son.”
Only Nick knew how well Saul delivered that lie. “You too, sir.” Nick picked up the coffeepot and a cup and headed around the counter to an empty booth.
Saul followed him, sliding into the opposite bench. “I guess you’re expecting me,” he said, reaching for a toothpick. “No reason to pussyfoot.”
Nick nodded, poured himself a cup of coffee. “How did it happen?”
“In his sleep. Your father went peacefully. Stefanie was there. And Rafe had been by not long before that.”
Nick ran his thumb and forefinger along the handle of his mug. His mouth felt tinny. “When?”
Saul looked past Nick. “Near a month ago. We tried to find you, but the army still had you listed in Miles City. Newspaper in Sheridan had an article about that fella Jimmy McPhee last week. Tracked you down from there.”
Something inside Nick had died when he’d seen that article. What was worse, however, was that he should have made it home years ago. He didn’t exactly have anything in Wellesley holding him back.
Except shame, of course.
Saul chewed a toothpick.
“How’s Stefanie?” And Cole? And Maggie? But he couldn’t—no, wouldn’t—ask about them.
“I can’t lie to you, Nick. The Silver Buckle’s in trouble. The drought has been bad. And one out of every three cows didn’t conceive last year. The herd is dwindling, and Stefanie’s only one woman. The Buckle is in debt over its head, and she’s thinking of turning the ranch into a dude operation.” Saul shook his head. “Your father would have my hide, but I can’t stop her.”
Nick stared into his coffee, cringing at the image of city slickers from Seattle or Denver or even California stomping on the silver sage and black-eyed Susans as they tried ranch life on for size. He closed his eyes. “I should have been there.”
Saul said nothing.
Nick opened his eyes, taking a good look at his surroundings. From the kitchen the cook sang an old hymn. The rich smells of coffee, French fries, and baked apples filled the café. Late-afternoon shadows cast a somber glow across the dingy linoleum.
“There’s something else, Nick.” Saul drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, then reached inside his jacket pocket. “There’s been an offer made on the ranch.” He slid a packet of papers toward Nick.
Nick looked at the packet, uncomprehending. “An offer?”
“To buy you out.”
Nick refused to touch it, feeling it a betrayal suddenly of everything his family had built. “I can’t . . . I’m not . . . why would you bring this to me?” Surely Stefanie wasn’t in on this. She loved the land.
Saul removed his toothpick and twirled it between two weathered fingers. Nick wondered if Saul still ran his own herd, falling back on his law degree as a sideline. Most people in their hometown of Phillips ranched first and fed their families with a second job.
“With the chunk of land your mother left you and your father’s bequest, you own the biggest section of the remaining Noble property. Of course, you’ll have to wait until the land officially becomes yours, but as your father’s lawyer, I’m obliged to convey the offer to you. You can sign the purchase agreement today contingent on—”
“Wait—go back to the word remaining. I don’t understand. Was some of it sold?” Nick pushed the folded papers back toward Saul.
Saul hesitated a moment. “It was divided into four sections.”
Nick stared at him. “Last count I had, there are only three of us in the Noble family—Stefanie, Rafe, and me.”
“Actually, you and your siblings are entitled to only half of the Silver Buckle land. Your father deeded the other half to Colton St. John.”
Half? Nick stared at Saul, nearly choking on the word. “Half?” Nick felt something hot and heavy punch through his chest. “The Silver Buckle has been in the Noble family for three generations! How could my father—?” Words vanished, and Nick found himself on his feet, stalking back to the counter, coffeepot in hand.
“You need a refill?” Nick bit out the words to the redhead, filling her coffee before she answered. The order of beans sat baking under the heat lights; he grabbed the bowl without a tray, burning his hands. He plunked it down before the brunette, dropping a spoon on the table next to the bowl. It clattered and nearly fell on the floor. He noticed Saul watching him with pursed lips as he turned away.
Cole St. John. Nick still had a scar on his hand where they’d mixed blood so many years ago. Blood brothers, through thick and thin.
Cole St. John, wide receiver to his being quarterback, bulldogging partner, coconspirator in the case of the missing school mascot.
Cole St. John, son of the woman who’d stolen his father, Bishop Noble.
Nick swallowed as he sidled close to Saul’s booth. He kept his voice low and tight. “What did he do to make my father deed him our land?”
Saul shook his head.
Nick looked out at the bullet gray sky and its refusal to grant a glimmer of cheer. This morning from his apartment above the café he’d seen a line of black clouds piled up against the far-off mountains. He’d hoped it meant rain, but apparently it only meant high winds and trouble.
“I may not have been the son I should have over the past ten years, Mr. Lovell, but I can promise my father this: I’ll make sure that St. John never sets one foot onto Silver Buckle land.”
Excerpted from RECLAIMING NICK © Copyright 2011 by Susan May Warren. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.