Excerpt from Until There Was You
Book #3 of the Saddlers Prairie Series
Of all the stupid things Autumn Knowles had done, she’d never imagined herself riding in the backseat of Sheriff Bennett’s car—or hauled before Judge Niemeyer.
The tall man squinting at her through tortoiseshell glasses was every bit as imposing as she remembered. Wishing she still owned one of the nice summer dresses Teddy had bought her, and mad at herself for speeding in Saddlers Prairie when she knew better, she locked her shaking hands at her waist. “Hello, Judge Niemeyer.”
“Autumn Knowles. Never thought to see you back in Saddlers Prairie.” Tugging on his elongated ear, the judge frowned at the sheaf of papers on his massive desk—papers relating to her. “Had to get yourself another speeding ticket, did you? Driving a car with expired tabs will cost you even more.”
There was no point in arguing that hers had been the only vehicle on the road, or that she wasn’t the only person in town to speed. “It isn’t my car. It belongs to my mother. She loaned it to me while she and Jett tour the rodeo circuit.”
Within twenty-four hours of Autumn’s arrival in town a few days earlier, her mom and her latest boyfriend had left. Heather had said Autumn could sleep on the Hide-A-Bed until she got back on her feet, and use the car while she was away.
“One of you needs to pay for the tabs or you’ll get another citation.” The judge shook his head. “You already have more outstanding traffic tickets than a prairie dog has fleas. I understand you owe a few merchants around town too. You and your mom are like two peas in a pod.”
Autumn stiffened. “I’m nothing like her.”
Heather wouldn’t care that Teddy was married. She would’ve kept every one of the gifts he’d bought her, and had called Autumn stupid for getting rid of them all. Autumn agreed with her now, but at the time she’d been too upset to think straight. Shortly after discovering that Teddy already had a wife in Butte, she’d scribbled him a nasty note and emailed his wife. Take that, Teddy!
Then she’d pawned her expensive clothes, shoes, purses, and the engagement ring, and bought a bus ticket back home.
She’d left Bozeman with only a battered suitcase containing toiletries, cutoffs and tops, and the clothes she was wearing the afternoon she’d run off with Teddy: jeans, an Official Bruno Mars Hooligan T-shirt, and combat boots that were too hot for the sizzling August weather. An impulsive act she now regretted, if only because a nice outfit would score points with the judge.
His bushy eyebrows rose skeptically, and Autumn pulled her shoulders up straight, doing her best to look responsible and decent—worlds different from her mom.
“I have my high school diploma,” she reminded him. Heather didn’t. Shortly after she’d turned sixteen and found herself pregnant with Autumn, she’d dropped out of school. “My mother lives on welfare, but I’ve worked since I was sixteen. Twelve, if you count babysitting—often for your own kids, I might add. You thought I was a great babysitter.”
“I’d almost forgotten about that. My wife and I always liked you.”
Maybe he was softening. “I don’t take handouts either—I pay my own way,” she added with pride. “I’m a responsible woman.”
“Responsible?” He snorted. “What about the half dozen or so businesses you owe money to? And don’t forget those outstanding traffic citations you left behind when you ran off.”
Ashamed of her brash behavior, of her gullibility, and of not taking care of her bills, Autumn hung her head. If she’d known on that fateful day fifteen months ago what she knew now, she’d have taken the time to get to know Teddy better, instead of running off with him a scant two days after they’d met.
But he’d promised her a wedding and a custom-built house for the family they would raise together. She’d wanted that happily-ever-after dream so badly that she’d thrown away common sense and made a fool of herself.
Okay, so she hadn’t been so responsible when she’d left. She straightened her shoulders. “A person can change. I came back, didn’t I?”
Saddlers Prairie was her home, the town where she’d always lived—if you didn’t count the time in Bozeman. She knew a lot of people, and loved the rolling prairies. She wanted to spend the rest of her life here.
“As soon as I find a job, I intend to pay back every penny I owe.” This morning she’d even asked her old boss Barb if she could have her waitress job back at Barb’s Café. Unfortunately when she’d run off with Teddy, she’d quit with no notice, and the woman wasn’t about to give her a second chance. “I’m sure I’ll find something soon. Then you’ll see how responsible I can be.”
“A job. Hmm.” The judge’s eyes took on a shrewd glint. “I know just the place for you—the old Covey Ranch, now called Hope Ranch. It’s a home for troubled teenage boys. Cody Naylor needs a temporary housekeeper to cook and take care of the place until he hires someone permanently. Sixty days sounds fair.”
Autumn hadn’t seen Cody in years, but she remembered him. He was older than she was. He’d gone away to college, and later had started a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. Every Christmas he returned to Saddlers Prairie to spend the holidays with Phil Covey, who owned Covey Ranch—except the year he’d spent the holidays with his girlfriend’s family. That year, Phil had flown to California instead. Everyone in town had talked about it, wondering if Cody would marry her.
When Cody was in town, he and Phil had eaten at Barb’s a few times. Autumn had waited on them. Cody was handsome, smart, and the richest, most successful man she’d ever met. He also thought he was better than she was. The big tips he’d left had felt more like charity.
When Phil had gotten sick, Cody had moved back, but he hadn’t come into Barb’s during any of Autumn’s shifts. She hadn’t seen him in ages.
What was he doing running a boys’ home? The very idea of living with and keeping house for a bunch of troubled teenage boys was enough to ruin her already bad afternoon.
“I don’t know anything about housekeeping on a ranch,” she said. She didn’t cook either. “Plus I have no experience with boys with problems.” She had enough troubles of her own.
“You just reminded me how great you were with my kids. This won’t be that much different, except the boys are a few years older. There are four of them, ranging in age from fourteen to sixteen. This will be a good job for you.”
Was he joking? “I don’t think so. Surely there are other people who’d be more qualified.”
The judge’s suddenly deadpan expression puzzled her. “Cody needs someone to fill in immediately. You’re here and you’re available.”
She chewed her lip. “I don’t know—”
“You want to prove you’re responsible? Take the job.”
He shook his finger at her, as in “be quiet and listen.” Autumn shut her mouth.
“The way I see it, you have three options. The first is, complete sixty days of what we’ll call ‘community service’ at Hope Ranch. Only unlike the usual community service, with this job you’ll get room, board, and a salary, and at the end of the sixty days, I’ll consider all your outstanding citations paid. You’ll have to work out the payment of your other debts yourself.
“Choice number two is to pay what you owe the county within ten days. I’m guessing you don’t have the eleven hundred dollars owed—that includes fines and accumulated interest. Which leads us to option number three—spend those sixty days in jail.”
Autumn winced. “I thought you liked me,” she said in a small voice.
“I do. That’s why I’m sending you to the ranch. This is your opportunity to help four boys in need and learn something in the process. Someday you’ll thank me.”
Thank him? She opened her mouth, but he wasn’t finished.
“You should also know that if you agree to work at Hope Ranch but don’t stay the full sixty days, you’ll be obligated to pay all your traffic fines the day you leave, or you’ll go to jail immediately.”
Tough terms indeed. This man didn’t trust her at all. She bristled. “If I say I’ll work there, then I’ll stay the full sixty days.”
“I hope you mean that.”
“I do!” Her voice had risen, and she sucked in a calming breath. “Why do you care so much about Hope Ranch?”
“Because Phil Covey was a dear friend of mine, and it was important to him and Cody to make this boys’ ranch work.”
“Phil passed away some eight months ago.”
Oh, man… She bowed her head. “I knew he was sick, but I thought he was holding steady.” Unlike Cody, grandfatherly Phil had always been friendly toward her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“We all are. The job starts Monday.”
“But this is Friday afternoon. Shouldn’t you notify Cody first?”
“I’ll do that as soon as you leave—provided you exercise your common sense and take the job. Yes or no?”
He didn’t leave her much choice. She sighed. “Looks as if I’ll be spending the next sixty days at Hope Ranch.”
Shortly after lunch, Cody glanced at the four boys seated around him in the great room at Hope Ranch. Each of them had suffered through hard knocks that made his own childhood look like easy street.
“I called this meeting because our temporary housekeeper will be here shortly, and I want to set some ground rules,” he told them.
“What do we—” Noah’s voice cracked, and he paused in embarrassment. He was the youngest of the group, and his hands and feet seemed enormous compared to the rest of him, reminding Cody of a little puppy soon to be huge. “What do we need more rules for?”
“Because she’s agreed to stay for sixty days and we don’t want her to quit early.”
Neither of the two previous housekeepers had lasted half that long. Within three weeks of the boys’ arrival at Hope Ranch, Mrs. Meadows, the housekeeper who’d been a fixture at the ranch since before Cody had arrived some eighteen years ago, had abruptly quit. Her replacement, Mrs. Clinton, a widow in her late fifties who’d taken care of a local ranching family for twenty years, had lasted a scant ten days. Word had spread about the teens and the challenges they presented, and Cody and the boys had been on their own for nearly three months.
That wasn’t exactly working out.
Ty, the oldest and the boy the others looked up to, snickered. At six foot three, he was built like a quarterback, but his sixteen-year-old mind hadn’t caught up with his man-size body. “If she’s gonna work at a house filled with losers, she must be hurting bad for a job.”
“Language,” Cody chided, just as Phil had admonished him when he’d put himself down all those years ago. “Try that again.”
“We’re awesome—okay?” Ty rolled his eyes. “Why did she take the job, Cody? What’s wrong with her? Does she even know about us?”
They had Cody’s friend Judge Niemeyer to thank for their new housekeeper, but the boys didn’t need to know the judge had forced Autumn’s hand. “Yes, she’s aware that this is a foster home for boys,” he said, ignoring the other questions.
He wasn’t at all convinced Autumn would survive any longer than the previous two housekeepers, let alone last two whole months. But they needed someone to run the house while he found a permanent housekeeper, and he wanted the boys to give this their best shot.
“She’s the only one you could get, right?” guessed Eric, a stocky fifteen-year-old with a deep voice and a bad case of acne.
Yep, and they all knew it. “Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, okay? Now, before she gets here, I want to cover those rules. Number one, no going through her private stuff. Number two—”
“What about our private stuff?” Ty crossed his arms. “She’d better stay away from that.”
“Yeah,” Eric added, his defensive posture and scowl matching Ty’s.
As usual, fourteen-year-old Justin, of mixed race and a few months older than Noah, was quiet. He’d been the first arrival at Hope Ranch after Cody had opened its doors four months ago. Justin kept mostly to himself and was always on alert, as if expecting a physical blow from somewhere.
Each of the boys met weekly with therapists in private sessions, but the therapy wasn’t enough. If Phil were still alive, he’d know what to do to help them feel safe and coax them out of their protective shells. Phil’s stern but loving hand had taught Cody that he mattered, and had saved his life in the process. He was determined to pay it forward by giving these boys the same chance at success, but he hadn’t realized what a challenge that would be.
“She’ll be cleaning our bedrooms once a week,” he said. “One of our rules for her is to respect everyone’s privacy.”
Ty’s eyebrows rose. “She gets rules too?”
Cody nodded. “That’s only fair. Rule number two is no playing tricks on her. That means no snakes, worms, or other bugs in the linen closets, no cow patties in the bathroom or anyplace else in the house, and no dye added to the laundry. Don’t act sick unless you really are, and no animals of any kind in the house without my permission. No tricks, period. Everyone got that?”
He waited for their grudging nods. “Rule number three—if she asks you to do something, do it.”
Eric narrowed his eyes, adopted a gangsta stance and broke into slang. “I ain’t listenin’ to no chick.”
The kid had never joined a gang, but according to his files, he’d flirted with the idea before coming here. Cody gave him a level look. “If you want respect from other people, you have to give it to them first. That means listening respectfully to me, to Autumn, and to Doug—” the foreman of the ranch “—and when school starts next month, you listen respectfully to your teachers. You feel me?”
“What if Autumn asks us to do wack shi—crap?” Ty re-crossed his arms. “Because she will.”
“Good question. If you have a problem with something Autumn asks you to do, come see me. But you have to be respectful.” At his reluctant nod, Cody continued, “Rule number four—obey the first three rules. Any more questions?”
Eric raised his hand. “What do you know about Autumn?”
“I met her when she waitressed at Barb’s Café, but I haven’t seen her in years.” When Cody and Phil had dined at the café during Phil’s three-year battle with pancreatic cancer, she’d served them several times. He remembered her as a scrawny girl who wore heavy makeup, with punk-style, cherry-red hair, and a boulder-size chip on her shoulder. He knew she had a deadbeat mother and had supported herself from an early age. Having once struggled to feed himself, he always left a big tip.
He didn’t know much else about her, except that she had some outstanding traffic tickets and that she’d skipped out on her job, leaving Barb, who owned the restaurant and also served as the town mayor, high and dry. It was exactly the flaky kind of thing Cody’s own mother would’ve done. Had done, the day she’d walked out on him and his dad.
The boys knew about his past. They didn’t need to know about Autumn’s. “She recently moved back to Saddlers Prairie,” he said.
“You said sixty days.” Ty picked at a hole in the knee of his jeans. “How come she won’t stay longer?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
“She a good cook?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll bet she’s a good sight better than any of us.”
Since Mrs. Clinton’s abrupt departure, he and the boys had tried their hands at putting together their own meals, with dismal results. If not for fast food, the prepared dinner selections at Piersol’s General Store, and Cody’s barbecuing skills, they would have starved. He didn’t even want to think about the housework they’d neglected. It was the last thing any of them wanted to tackle after a hard day’s work. The place hadn’t had a thorough cleaning in months.
“What kind of name is Autumn, anyway?” Noah asked.
Cody shrugged. “Maybe she was born in the fall.”
“Like your ol’ lady probably named you after a guy who built an ark.” Eric laughed, though the harsh sound was more of a taunt.
Bristling, Noah jumped to his feet. His face contorted, and his hands curled into fists. “Shut the eff up, zit face!”
“You shut up.” Eric rose, too, his cheeks scarlet.
They squared off like prizefighters in a ring. Cody stepped between them. “Sit back down, both of you,” he warned in the quiet tone he’d learned from Phil, a voice that for all its softness packed an ominous wallop.
After trading murderous glares, the boys returned to their seats. Releasing a relieved breath, Cody addressed all four of them. “We don’t settle our problems with our fists. What do we do instead?”
“Eff off, Cody,” Noah all but spat.
The others looked on with interest, but underneath their avid expressions loomed tension and fear. Even after four months, they expected Cody to strike them, or worse. How long would it take before they realized he intended to kill them with kindness and understanding, not blows?
“That’s not the answer I was looking for,” he said without a trace of the frustration he felt. “In this house, we talk things ou—”
The doorbell chimed, and all heads jerked toward the front entry.
“That’s Autumn now. You chill while I let her in. Remember, we want her to feel comfortable here so she’ll stay. Otherwise, this house might just fall down around our ears.”