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(Kendrick/Coulter #5)
June 2004
ISBN: 0-4512-1216-9

As Zeke Coulter parked his red Dodge Ram in front of his new ranch-style home that August afternoon, he was eagerly anticipating the weekend. One of the drawbacks of owning a ranch-supply store was that he had to work most Saturdays, but he'd rearranged the employee shift schedule that morning to give himself a mini-vacation, two entire days to do exactly as he pleased. Although a half rack of cold longnecks sat beside him on the seat, there would be no beer on tap for him tonight. He planned to work outside in the garden until dark and then spend the remainder of the evening putting up vegetables for winter.

Just as he reached to turn off the truck ignition, his cell phone rang. He expected it to be someone at the store. Randall, the night manager, couldn't wipe his own ass without Zeke telling him how.

"Zeke here," he answered, his voice edged with frustration.

"You got a hot date tonight?"

Zeke grinned. He hadn't heard from his younger brother Hank in over a week. "Hey, little brother. I thought your dialing finger was broken." Hank was newly married, and Zeke couldn't resist teasing him. "That pretty little bride must be keeping you mighty busy."

"We come up for air occasionally," Hank replied good-naturedly. "Carly and I were hoping you might come out for dinner. Southern-fried chicken with all the trimmings."

"I thought the smell of fried food made her sick."

"Not anymore. She's over that and having sudden cravings again. Tonight it's fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy."

"Which one of you is pregnant? Sounds highly suspicious to me. That's your favorite meal."

Hank chuckled. "We've got similar tastes. What can I say? You comin' out or not?"

With genuine regret, Zeke explained that he had other plans for the evening.

"Picking vegetables and canning?" Hank echoed with unveiled disgust. "You've got the Coulter reputation to uphold, remember. It comes as part of the genetic package, right along with the nose."

Zeke couldn't help but laugh. It was true; he and all his brothers had their father's looks— sable hair, dark skin, blue eyes, and sharply chiseled features, the most prominent of which was a large nose that their mother often likened to the blade of a bowie knife. "If I don't get my tomatoes put up this weekend, they'll ruin. I worked too damned hard growing that garden to let the produce go to waste."

"What's the matter with you, bro? Thirty-three and single on a Friday night, and you're going to can tomatoes? You're supposed to be having fun."

"Almost thirty-four, and I enjoy canning."

"Don't tell anyone."

Zeke laughed again. "You had enough fun for both of us, and look how you ended up. Canning tomatoes is safer."

"I like the way I ended up," Hank retorted, his tone mellow with contentment.

Hank did seem to be truly happy, and Zeke was glad for him. But getting married and raising a family weren't for everyone. "I'm sorry I can't make it for dinner, bro. Tell Carly thanks for the invite."

Zeke had just ended the call when he saw a boy who looked to be about twelve racing from behind the house. Just the way the kid ran, shoulders hunched and body low to the ground, told Zeke that trouble was afoot. Cursing under his breath, he swung out of the vehicle.

"Hey!" he yelled.

His T-shirt flapping and sneakers flying, the kid never broke stride. Zeke watched him cut across the field that lay between his forty acres and the neighboring farm. Fantastic. He could well remember being that age. Summers in the country could be long and boring for a boy who wasn't kept busy, and boredom often led to mischief.

The late-afternoon sunlight burned through Zeke's blue shirt as he strode along the west end of the house to see what the kid had been up to. When he reached the side porch, he saw a splash of red on the cream-colored siding just below the kitchen window. He snapped to a halt and circled the flagstone steps to get a better look. The pulp of a ripe tomato had been splattered on the new paint.

"Damn it!" Swearing to turn the air blue, Zeke rounded the corner of the house to find countless more splotches of red on the siding. And that wasn't all. The family room slider and bathroom window were shattered, and the door of the storage shed hung from one hinge, the cross bucks broken clean in two.

When Zeke turned to survey his garden, a wave of regret washed over him. His tomato plants and corn looked as if a tornado had flattened them. Fury, sudden and searing, fired his blood. This wasn't mere mischief, but malicious vandalism. The tomato stains would never wash off his house. He'd have to repaint. And that wasn't to mention the cost of replacing the windows and the storage shed door.

Spurred by rage, Zeke set off across the field, following the boy's footprints. What the hell is the world coming to? he asked himself as he marked off the distance with angry strides. Just as he suspected, the kid's tracks led directly to the old farmhouse, a white, two-story monstrosity with a wraparound veranda, peeling paint, and a green shingle roof sorely in need of repair. As Zeke entered the patchy side yard, which was peppered with shady elms and oaks, he saw movement on the front lawn. His steps long and purposeful, he circled the house, hoping to collar the child before he escaped inside.

Instead of finding the boy, Zeke came upon a woman. No question about her gender. She was bent over a long plank table, struggling to cover an assortment of odds and ends with a blue plastic tarp that kept catching in the breeze. Her skimpy black dress rode high on her bare thighs, revealing long, shapely legs the color of coffee generously laced with cream. When she stretched farther forward to catch the tarp, her hemline inched higher. Sweet Lord. If he had known someone like this lived next door, he'd have come over to borrow a cup of sugar.

"Excuse me," he said to her attractive backside.

"Oh!" Startled by his voice, she jerked erect and spun around.

The front of her was just as delightful to look at as the back. Normally Zeke preferred fashionably slender women, but he quickly decided there was something to be said for females who were generously round in all the right places, especially when the roundness was showcased in clingy black stuff that revealed every dip and swell.

"I'm sorry. I didn't hear you drive up." She tugged her skirt down and fluttered a hand at the collection of stuff on the table. "I was just closing up shop until morning, but if you'd like to take a quick look, feel free. This is the third day, and I just marked everything down."

Zeke decided she was having a yard sale. Unfortunately, the only item of interest didn't sport a price tag. Despite the heavy layer of makeup, she was beautiful. A mane of curly black hair cascaded past her slender shoulders, which were bare except for thin black straps. Her mouth was lush, soft, and defined with deep burgundy gloss, the lower lip pouted and glistening in the sunlight, the upper shaped in a tempting bow. Above the bodice of the dress, full, creamy breasts plumped up, displaying a dusky cleavage that invited him to look. Raised to be a gentleman, Zeke resisted the urge, dropped his gaze, and found himself staring at her legs instead. Not good.

He caught the scent of vanilla, which rattled him even more. His most pleasurable moments were spent in the kitchen. "I, um— I'm not interested in buying anything," he finally found the presence of mind to say.

Smoothing her short skirt again, she gave him a questioning look, her sherry-brown eyes warming as she smiled. "Are you here to see my father then?"

For an awful moment, Zeke couldn't recall why the hell he was there. Then he glanced at his feet, saw a chunk of tomato clinging to the toe of his Western-style boot, and remembered in a rush.

Before he could launch into an explanation, she dimpled a cheek at him and said, "Are you sure I can't sell you something? I have a set of Ping golf clubs that are like brand-new."

You could sell me almost anything. Zeke shook his head. "I'm not into golf."

"How about some perfectly good warm-up pants?" She gave him a measuring look. "Probably not. Robert is quite a bit shorter than you." Her eyes fairly danced with mischief. "I've got a great shotgun, though, that I'm willing to sell cheap, along with a reloading kit that has never been used. I've also got every issue of Playboy, dating back to March 1970. You can have the entire lot for a dollar."

"That's quite a collection."

"Yes, well, Robert is—" She broke off and shrugged. Something dark flashed in her eyes, momentarily veiling the shimmers of brightness. "He's an enthusiast, I guess you might say."

Zeke wondered how any man in his right mind could ogle other women when he had this one at home.

With a soft sigh, she regained her composure, and the shadows left her eyes. Her mischievous smile was infectious, and Zeke found himself grinning. "You aren't, by any chance, getting a divorce?" he asked.

"Done deal. Now I'm just trying to recoup some of my losses and exact a little revenge while I'm at it."

She could make any man cry with one swing of her hips. Zeke kept his gaze fixed on her face and did his damnedest to look like a choirboy.

"If you're interested in a tried-and-true lucky shirt or a prized letterman's sweater, you've come to the right place." She wore sexy black stilettos with snappy straps that showcased her slender ankles and shapely calves. As she circled the table to retrieve the tarp, she balanced her weight on her toes to prevent the thin heels from sinking into the grass. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm running late for work. If you're here for eggs or milk, you'll find my dad in the house."

Zeke wondered what kind of work she did, to be dressed like that. Don't even go there, son. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, which, if she had married young, put her at about the right age to be the tomato thrower's mother. Zeke looked into her pretty eyes and regretted his reason for being there. He doubted she'd be happy to hear that her son had just inflicted costly damages to her neighbor's house and garden.

"I'm Zeke Coulter. I live next door."

"Ah, Pop's new neighbor." She finished drawing the tarp over the table and stepped forward to offer him her hand. "It's good to finally meet you. Right after you moved in, I baked you a cake, but it met with disaster before I got it out of the oven. My daughter, Rosie, jumped rope in the kitchen."

"Uh-oh. Rope jumpers and rising cakes don't mix." Taking care not to squeeze too hard, Zeke shook hands with her. Her fingers felt slim and soft against his calloused palm. "That's a shame. I love a good cake."

"I didn't say it was a good cake." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm not much of a cook, I'm afraid. It probably would have fallen, regardless. Rosie just gave me a good excuse."

With those looks, who needed culinary skills? Zeke hated to let go of her hand. "And your name is?"

"Oh!" She laughed again and rolled her eyes. "I'm sorry. Natalie Patterson." She tugged her fingers free and glanced at her watch. "I'm sure you'd like to meet my father. If you'll step into the house, I'll introduce you before I grab my purse and run."

Again Zeke wondered what kind of work she did. A barmaid, possibly, only how could she survive an eight-hour shift in those impractical shoes? "Actually, meeting your father isn't what brought me over." Zeke wished he knew a gentle way to say this, but straight and to the point was more his style. "When I got home from work a few minutes ago, I saw a boy running from my backyard. I followed him here."

Her smile slowly faded. "That would be my son, Chad. Is there some sort of problem?"

"You could say so, yes." Zeke told her about the vandalism to his property. "At a quick guess, if I do the repairs myself, I'd say about a thousand dollars' worth of damage has been done. That isn't to mention all my hard work on the garden down the drain. I've been babying those tomato plants since early June, and the fruit was just getting ripe enough to pick."

Her finely arched brows drew together in a frown. "Oh, Mr. Coulter, I'm so sorry."

Zeke had expected her to jump to the defense of her son, not immediately conclude that the boy was guilty. "No sorrier than I am."

She rubbed her bare arms as though to ward off a chill as she turned toward the house. "Chad!" she called. "Can I see you out here for a moment, please?"

Zeke saw that the old-fashioned, double-hung windows of the house had been raised to let in a breeze. Through a living-room screen discolored with age, an elderly man with unkempt white hair peered out at them. "What's happenin', Nattie? You need me out there?"

"Nothing's happening, Gramps. I just want to talk to Chad."

"Chad!" the old man yelled. "Yer mama's hollerin' fer ya!"

The wind picked up, bringing with it the refreshing evening coolness that made summers in Central Oregon so enjoyable. Nattie. Zeke liked the ring of that. It suited her, somehow— sweet yet sassy. The breeze trailed black strands of curly hair across her face. As she brushed at her cheek, he took the opportunity to study her features, which seemed only more perfect upon closer inspection. Sculpted cheekbones, a dainty little nose, a mouth that begged to be kissed, and a flawless, sun-kissed complexion.

The front screen door slapped open, and the boy emerged onto the veranda. He cast Zeke a look that burned with resentment. Then he hung his head and tromped down the rickety porch steps. When he reached his mother, he shoved his hands in his jeans pockets, slouched his shoulders, and toed a clump of overgrown grass.

"Chad," Natalie began, "this gentleman says that you ruined his garden, threw tomatoes at his house, broke two windows, and wrecked his shed door."

The boy finally raised his head. A shock of honey-brown hair fell into his eyes, which were a mirror image of his mom's. "So?"

It wasn't what Zeke expected. No denials? Not that lying would have been a smart move. The boy's Portland Trailblazer T-shirt and Nike running shoes were smeared with tomato pulp and seeds.

"So?" Natalie grasped the child's arm and gave him a light shake. "Is that all you have to say? Mr. Coulter claims you've inflicted at least a thousand dollars in damages. I don't have that kind of money right now. You know that."

The kid's eyes flashed with anger. "Call Dad. He's got plenty of money."

Natalie looked as if she meant to say something, but then she caught her lower lip between her teeth and remained silent. Finally she whispered, "Oh, Chad. Your father isn't even paying his child support. What makes you think he'll come through for you on this?"

The boy jerked his arm from her grasp. "It's your fault Dad doesn't send any checks. He hates your guts, that's why. If he finds out I'm in trouble, it'll be different. You'll see."

Before Natalie could respond, the screen door slapped open again. The elderly man Zeke had glimpsed through the window screen shuffled across the porch and down the steps. He wore faded denim overalls and a dingy undershirt. Old, leather-soled house shoes flopped on his bony feet as he hobbled across the grass.

"What seems to be the problem out here?" he demanded, his grizzled brows snapping together over rheumy blue eyes.

Natalie rested a staying hand on her son's shoulder as she turned to address her grandfather. "This gentleman is our new next-door neighbor, Gramps. It seems that Chad wreaked havoc over at his place, throwing tomatoes at his house, among other things. He estimates the damage at a thousand dollars or more."

"Ha!" the old man snorted. He nailed Zeke with an imperious stare. "You find any fingerprints on them there tomaters, mister?"

The absurdity of the question gave Zeke pause. Then he glanced at the boy. "Dusting for prints wasn't necessary. The kid is covered with tomato pulp."

Natalie's grandfather leaned around, narrowed his eyes, and peered at his great-grandson. When the old man straightened, he said, "Tomaters is a purdy common crop. We got a bunch ripe for pickin' ourselves."

"Gramps," Natalie inserted. "Please. You're only making matters worse."

"Hmph. Worse how?" Gramps hooked his thumbs under his overall straps, rocked back on his worn-down heels, and glared at Zeke. "You know who yer messin' with, boy? Westfields, that's who."

The name didn't ring any bells, but Zeke refrained from saying so.

"Been Westfields in this area for nigh on to a hundred years," the old man continued. "Don't come on this property makin' wild accusations without no proof. We don't take kindly to smears on the family name."

Zeke didn't take kindly to smears on his house, but again he held his tongue. The old man's face was an angry red. Zeke didn't want him to have a stroke.

Natalie released her son to curl an arm around her grandfather's frail shoulders. "Gramps, you're missing your game show."

"To hell and tarnation with game shows!" Gramps said with a snort. "Like I got nothin' better to do?" His withered mouth puckered like a drawstring pouch. "I'm politely invitin' you to get off this property, mister. Our Chad's a good boy. He wouldn't do nothin' like you say he done. You readin' me loud and clear?"

"Gramps, please," Natalie said again, only her voice was firmer this time. "That's enough. Mr. Coulter hasn't been unpleasant, and Chad has confessed to doing the damage."

"Say what?" Gramps blinked. Then he leaned around Natalie to peer at the child again. "That true, Chad?"

Chad nodded sullenly. Just about then, the screen door whacked the exterior of the house again, and a dark-haired siren in a red miniskirt and cropped tank top appeared on the veranda. She looked a lot like Natalie, but her long, curly hair was stiff with styling gel and she was walking straight legged, balancing her weight on her heels. Zeke glanced at her bare feet and saw that she had cotton balls between her toes.

"Hey," she said, flashing him a sultry smile. "I'm Valerie, Nat's younger sister." Coming to a stop at the porch rail, she relaxed her stance, splayed a slender hand over one shapely hip, and winked. "Did I hear someone say ‘new neighbor'?"

"I'm Zeke Coulter." Zeke would have known the girl was Natalie's younger sister without being told. The two women might have been poured from the same mold. He guessed the younger version to be in her early twenties, not exactly jailbait, but close. "I bought the place next door."

"Way cool," Valerie said, smoothing her fingertips provocatively over her hipbone. "Finally, something interesting happens out here in the back of beyond." She popped her chewing gum, a habit that drove Zeke crazy, and grinned, flashing a dimple similar to Natalie's. "I've been home for only two weeks, and already I'm dying of boredom."

The insinuation was that Zeke might provide her with some much-needed diversion. The smell of her perfume drifted across the yard. Obsession. He recognized the scent because his sister Bethany often wore it. No question about it. Valerie was a hot little package, all curves and long legs, with big, dark, expressive eyes to suck a man under before he realized he was drowning. Zeke had long since learned not to wade in deep water. He just felt older than dirt when he looked at her.

He bit back a smile, no offense intended, and returned his attention to Natalie, who was still trying to soothe her grandfather. She wasn't his type, either. Nice to look at, though. He preferred naturally beautiful women who didn't need heavy makeup, stiletto heels, and slinky black dresses to catch a man's eye.

Natalie glanced at her watch again. Patting her grandfather's shoulder, she said, "I want you to go back in the house now, Gramps." She turned to her son. "You, too. And to your bedroom, young man. No television, no computer games, no music, no Harry Potter. I want you to stare at the ceiling and think about what you've done. In the morning, we'll discuss this further and decide on a punishment."

In Zeke's day, the punishment would have been meted out with a wide leather belt. As a kid, he'd detested those trips to the barn with his dad, but the sting had stayed with him for hours and made him think twice before he messed up again. Watching Chad slouch away, struggling to preserve his tough-guy image, Zeke couldn't help but think that an old-fashioned march to the barn might be just what he needed.

Zeke heard the screen door slap open again. Why am I not surprised? He was one of six kids and had family members oozing out from under the baseboards. As he focused on the newest character in the Westfield clan, a younger version of Gramps with salt-and-pepper hair, a few less wrinkles, and patched overalls with holes at the knees, Zeke decided that his relatives were downright normal by comparison.

"Dad, what're you doing out here?" the younger gramps asked as he gimped across the patchy lawn, one hand pressed to his lower back. "Sounds to me like Natalie is telling you to shut up, and you aren't listening."

Natalie sent the new arrival an imploring look. "Pop, would you make Gramps go back inside? He isn't helping this situation any."

Pop scratched his head, which, to his credit, didn't look as if it needed shampooing. "Dad, you need to come back in the house. Nattie can handle this."

"She can't, either. She needs a man to stand up for her and the boy. That no-account husband of hers is too durned busy with that blond harlot to take care of his family. That leaves you and me."

Pop, whom Zeke guessed to be Natalie's father, hooked an arm around the older man's shoulders. "Come on, Dad. You ever heard that joke about the Chihuahua pissin' on a fire hydrant? Positive thinking can only take you so far."

"A what pissin' on a what?" Gramps clearly didn't appreciate the comparison. "The bastard's big, I'll grant you that, but I'm not afraid of him. If I hit a man and he don't fall, I'll walk around behind to see what's holdin' him up!"

Natalie closed her eyes as her father and grandfather shuffled away. With every step, Gramps muttered under his breath about Court TV and Natalie selling Chad down the river. Natalie's father just shook his head and continued herding the old man toward the porch.

Natalie sighed, fixed Zeke with an imploring gaze, and said, "I wish I could say he has Alzheimer's."

Zeke could sympathize. His relatives weren't quite so colorful, but on occasion, his boisterous brothers had given him cause for embarrassment. He glanced past Natalie to spare a long look at Valerie's shapely legs as she helped her father and grandfather up the steps, no easy feat with cotton balls between her toes.

"Valerie just broke up with her boyfriend and lost her job." Natalie shrugged. "A family trait, I guess. When everything goes wrong, we run home to the farm." Her smile was tremulous. She drew in a bracing breath. "I'll happily pay for the repairs to your house and garden," she assured him. "Chad is having a rough time right now, accepting the divorce— and other things. He's been acting out and being difficult. I think he's hoping that he'll finally do something bad enough to get his father's attention."

"Does his dad live out of town?"

She shook her head. "No. Right here in Crystal Falls. He's just— busy."

With the blond harlot? Zeke couldn't imagine any father worth his salt letting a woman take precedence over his child.

Natalie's slender throat convulsed as she swallowed. "Look, Mr. Coulter." Her gaze chased off to the fields. "I'm sure you're not interested in our family dynamics. Suffice it to say that I know Chad did the damage to your house and garden. No contest." She looked him straight in the eye again. "It's just— well, I'm not in the best position right now to make restitution. Things have been tight." She swung her hand at the table behind her, which told him the yard sale had been prompted more by sheer necessity than a need for revenge. "I'd like to say I could pay you next month— or the month after that." She straightened her shoulders. "But the truth is, I honestly don't know when I'll be a thousand dollars ahead. Would you let me make installments?"

Zeke understood that this must be a difficult time for her. He'd overheard enough to know that her ex-husband wasn't fulfilling his responsibilities, and supporting two kids without help couldn't be easy. On the other hand, though, her son had damaged Zeke's property. Zeke didn't want to be a hard ass and call the cops, but there was no way he could let it slide, either. When a boy inflicted costly damages, he had to be held accountable.

Zeke rubbed his jaw. He didn't want this prank, if it could be called that, to go on Chad's record. "How about if we strike a deal?"

Her eyes filled with suspicion. "What kind of deal?"

Zeke almost grinned. She was a tempting package, but he wasn't into bargaining for a piece of ass, as appealing as the prospect might be. "I was thinking that Chad could work off the debt. It'll be cheaper if I do the repairs myself. Why can't he come over and help me?"

"I'm not sure that's a good idea."

The more Zeke considered the solution, the more he thought it was a great idea. Inspired, even. The kid had a problem. A little hard work might be good for him. "The way I figure, paying minimum wage, he owes me"— he broke off to do some quick calculations—" about a hundred and forty hours. Calculating on a forty-hour week, that works out to be"— he paused again—" three and a half weeks."

She looked distressed. "But he has camp."


"At the Lake of the Woods the last week of August. He goes every year."

Zeke arched an eyebrow. "Isn't camp expensive?"

"It's church camp. The kids raise the money themselves with bake sales and car washes. So much else has been turned upside down in his life. I can't take that away, too." Her expression grew pensive. "Could he work for three weeks? I'll come over and finish up for him, no problem."

Zeke couldn't believe she was offering. He'd seen her check her watch more than once. She worked swing shift somewhere. What did she mean to do, get up after a few hours of sleep and work all day for half a week, paying off her son's debt? No way.

"This is the boy's mess to clean up." It seemed simple enough to Zeke. If you screwed up, you had to pay. "He'll work off the debt himself, or I'll call the law, your choice."


Zeke had been raised by his father's iron hand. Right was right. If he'd been in Chad's shoes, he'd have gotten a whipping and still been made to work off the debt. "Let me make myself clear, Mrs. Patterson. I'm bending as far as I intend to bend."

"Chad is very—" She broke off to fix him with an imploring look. "He's been through so much, Mr. Coulter, things you don't understand. He's very delicate right now."

Delicate? The kid was a bank robbery waiting to happen. "That's my offer. Take it or leave it."

"I understand that you're angry. That's one of my concerns. I don't want my son indentured to an unreasonable taskmaster for three and a half weeks. He needs to go to camp. He needs the interaction with other kids and some time with the counselors."

He needed a swift kick in the ass. But Zeke was through arguing. "I'll expect to see your son at my door at eight tomorrow morning," he said in his "boss" voice, which came fairly easy after dealing with the incompetent Randall for six months. "If he doesn't show, I'll turn this matter over to the police."

Zeke didn't trust himself to stand there, looking into those pleading brown eyes, so he pivoted and took off. He'd gone about three paces when he heard a malevolent hissing sound. Before he could whip around, something bit him on the ass. He whirled to confront a flapping, maniacal gander, bent on doing him physical injury.

"Chester! Stop it!" Natalie cried. "Oh, God, Mr. Coulter, I'm sorry! Rosie must have let him out. I've had him in the pen all day because of the yard sale. He hates strangers."

Trying to maintain his dignity, Zeke swatted at the gander as it flapped its way airborne to nip at his chest. Problem. There was nothing meaner or more viciously effective than a gander protecting its territory. Not even a Rottweiler was as ominous. Zeke did the only thing any self-respecting cowboy could do.

He ran.

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