Perfect Touch – Chapter Two
Yeah. When you reupped for ‘Trashcanistan’ I figured you’d never come back to the ranch.
So did I. Then I got tired of unreal politics and real bullets.
Below is the second chapter from my brand-new book, Perfect Touch.
Over the next couple days, we’re going to release the next four chapters.
Did you miss the first chapter? Catch up here!
So without further ado, enjoy Chapter 2!
Perfect Touch – Chapter Two
Inside the wood-paneled hearing room, Jay Vermilion stretched against his borrowed jacket, trying to loosen the leather across his shoulders.
Never thought anything of JD’s would be small on me.
But it was.
Henry Pederson said under his breath, “Quit twitching, boy. Remember what JD said and never show anyone fear.”
Their attorney, sitting next to Henry, bit back a smile as he made last-minute notes.
Jay gave his shaggy ranch foreman a sideways look. “I learned about fear and stillness in places you’ve never seen.”
“Good thing. Liza about bled the ranch dry,” Henry said. He started to spit, remembered where he was, and swallowed instead. “Hope the judge doesn’t finish the job.”
“We’ll survive without the paintings.”
“Thought you wanted to meet Ms. Sara Medina,” Henry said, rub-bing his mustache. “She sounds like a pistol.”
Jay hid the warmth that slid through him at her name, but he didn’t bother to hide his grin. “Yes, she does. A lot of fire and intelligence, too. If we get the Custers, we’ll owe her.”
“Damned painter. Never was worth much but trouble. Ranch was better off without him.”
But we’d be better off with his paintings, Jay thought. There’s so much the ranch needs. I finally could fix all the little things that were let go until it became a big, expensive, run-down mess.
He didn’t say anything aloud about the condition of the ranch. Henry was seventy-four and thin as a fence post. As tough, too. He had done the best he could to hold things together while Jay was gone and JD went into his long, slow decline.
With a glance at his watch, Jay settled back. “No matter what the judge finally decides, fence wire still needs tightening in the south pasture, mineral licks need to be put out, irrigation trenches kept up, and cattle moved to greener pastures. That’s real. The rest is just dogs bark-ing at the moon.”
Henry rubbed his long, uneven mustache, more silver than black now, and nodded. “Your daddy taught you good.”
“He must have. I’m alive.”
The foreman smiled crookedly. “Chip off the old stubborn block.”
“JD met his match with Liza Neumann.” A grunt was Henry’s only answer. He had never thought much of
JD’s second wife and had seen no particular reason to hide it.
While the second hand crawled around the old hearing room clock, Jay thought of all the things he could be doing at the ranch. He wanted to grab his town Stetson off the table in front of him, walk out of the court, and get back to work. Then tonight, Sara Medina would call with a question, or he would call her, and they’d talk. He’d tell her about the hearing room and the judge and the verdict. She’d tell him about the sophisticated, pricey items she searched out and bought for wealthy, demanding clients.
Give me an ornery cow any day, he thought.
He looked over to the plaintiff’s side of the courtroom. Liza’s pair of attorneys waited as quiet as owls hunting for their next meal. He knew exactly what her lawyers were being paid, since the Vermilion estate had been footing their legal bill for the past six years.
Just like everything else in Liza’s life, Jay thought wearily. She spends. Vermilion Ranch pays and pays and pays.
Not for the first time, Jay hoped the screwing his father got was worth the screwing he got.
The hall door opened with a hollow sound that bounced around the bare hearing room. Liza Neumann, formerly Vermilion, made her entrance on high heels that stretched her five feet, five inches to five feet ten. Her strawberry blond hair had turned to platinum, a finishing touch on the ice-queen sheen. JD’s diamonds hung from her ears and glittered on her hands. Unlike the Custer paintings, the jewelry JD had showered on his then-young wife was an uncontested gift.
“Ma’am,” Jay said, standing when she passed around the side of his table. Henry didn’t move. Liza paused as she reached her seat. “Thank you, Jay,” she said in a
husky, smoky voice. “Whatever JD’s many faults, he raised you polite.” Henry waited until she was seated at the plaintiff’s table before he said to Jay, “Wish JD was here.”
“Even if he was still alive, he wouldn’t be here in any way but physical.” As Jay sat back down, he gave the buckskin across his shoulders one last stretch. “He used to be okay most of the day. Then he started fading before sundown. Then it was the afternoon. Then . . .”
“Hell of a way for a strong man to die,” Henry said, shaking his shaggy gray head. “I get like that, just shoot me and leave me for the bears.”
The hall door opened again. Jay didn’t have to turn around to recognize the quick sounds of his much younger half brother’s leather shoes making an expensive tattoo down the aisle.
“That kid will be late to his own funeral,” Henry muttered. “Ain’t much of JD in him. A mama’s boy through and through.”
“JD didn’t get much of a chance to raise him.” And I left for West Point long before Barton could shave.
What’s done is done. Now we have to live with it.
Barton paused near the end of the aisle separating the plaintiff’s and defendant’s tables. His delicate features and pale skin were blotchy and flushed, as if he’d just run all the way there. He took off his black overcoat, showing a lightweight cream suit beneath. Like everything else about him, his clothes had an expensive eastern cut. In this case, New York via Miami, where he had been trying to finalize a big real estate deal.
Or so people said.
Jay didn’t much care for gossip, but he could see that something was eating on his brother from the inside out. Beneath the pink flush of exertion, his skin was white and his shoulders hunched like a man hefting a heavy load. His rust-red hair was barely tamed by the expensive razor cut. At twenty-four, his light blue eyes had a look of permanent anxiety in them.
When Barton’s eyes darted toward the defendant’s table, Jay used his boot to shove out a chair in silent invitation.
Barton looked toward Liza just as she turned to him and raised her eyebrows. With an apologetic glance at Jay, the younger man went to the plaintiff’s table. He reached to pull out a chair, discovered it was heavy, solid wood, and had to put his back into the effort. A few moments later he flopped down next to Liza.
She didn’t even look at him.
Jay shook his head slightly. A winter wind is kinder than that woman, and JD was old enough to be Barton’s grandfather. Lousy way to raise a kid. Money only fixed the things that money could. Barton’s childhood wasn’t one of them.
“Give it up,” Henry said. “The boy knows which side his bread is buttered on.”
“If he did, he’d be sitting next to me. I keep trying to give him a chance, to teach him about the ranch.”
“Can’t teach what a kid don’t want to learn.” Jay didn’t argue with the truth. “In one way, Barton is exactly like I was at his age. I wanted to be hell and gone from the ranch.” Henry’s gnarled fingers fiddled with the brim of his going-to-town Stetson, started to put it on, then remembered why it was on the table.
“You sure got what you wanted.”
“I sure did,” Jay said, and then turned his mind from the distant place that had been dubbed the Meatgrinder by the troops who survived. “I guess lawyers are more civilized than bullets. But being sued to death one inch at a time gets tiresome. Thank God Sara—Ms. Medina—helped us fight for JD’s claim to the paintings. Don’t know what we would have done without her. And you, of course, helping to find those receipts.”
“Foolishness, sneezing through boxes of old stuff when the ranch needed tending.”
“It was what JD wanted.”
Henry sighed. “He was set on keeping those paintings. Never knew why. Pure cussedness, likely.”
“It was the last thing he ever asked of me. If I can keep the Custers out of Liza’s hands, I will,” Jay said simply.
It was the same vow he’d made every night to JD, a vow his father had to hear before he slept. Then he would curl around the reassurance like a big diamond as he slept.
Some diamond. It felt like an unsheathed blade to me, a cut that he mistook for comfort.
Or maybe he liked pain. It sure would explain Liza.
“The man loved what he loved,” Henry said. “Wasn’t real smart about it, though.”
Jay hissed out a breath. “I’m not sure that love had much to do with it. Liza and JD fought to the death over these paintings. But custody of the child? Settled in an hour. When I got old enough and left, Barton was stuck with two parents who were too busy fighting to raise him.”
“Don’t feel bad for him,” Henry said drily. “Either way, he can go with the winning side.”
Jay looked at his brother in his pale Miami suit and knew that Vermilion Ranch wasn’t ever going to be home for him. But it was home for Jay and all the hands who worked there. Now more than ever, it was his job to make the place thrive.
In seven years, Barton gets a chunk of the ranch or I buy him out. If I have the money.
A stir went through the room as Judge Flink was announced. Everyone rose while the judge entered from the side and took her seat on the bench. When people were seated again, she smacked the gavel sharply and began summarizing the high points of the long case.
Good thing the military taught me patience, Jay thought, settling in to listen to the facts he had long ago memorized.
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