"But how can I do that, Aunt Lois? I have no idea how to cook for one person much less ten or more!" Trace sat by his Aunt's hospital bed holding her hand. She had regained consciousness in the night and had immediately begun orchestrating her surroundings. When he finally arrived an hour or so ago he walked into her room to find her sitting up in bed, fully made up and in her own dressing gown.
He had spoken with the doctors like he had wanted to. Even though his aunt was lucky to be alive, she had a number of injuries, some serious. Both of his aunt’s legs were broken, one in two places, she had a broken arm and many cuts, scrapes and bruises. Thankfully, she had no serious internal injuries but she would be in the hospital for a while yet anyway.
"You can, sweetheart, trust me.” Her voice steady but weak. “Who have I to rely on? Just breakfast and lunch, honey, maybe a snack or two. Keep the coffeepot on and run fresh, cold water out a few times a day. It's not difficult. The grocery lists and schedules are on the wall in the pantry and the bills are neatly filed in the desk in the living room. All the bank information is there as well."
"But... but..." What about Sawyer? What about the gorgeous tall, angry, demanding cowboy you hired as the foreman? Trace had made a total and complete idiot of himself in front of the man. Even now he felt his heart twinge at the mere thought of him.
His aunt closed her eyes for a moment. Trace wasn’t sure if it was from pain or not, maybe she was just tired, but now he felt like a total jerk. Here his aunt had nearly died and all she was doing was asking for a little bit of help from her free loading nephew and Trace could only whine and turn up his nose like a spoiled three year old. She finally reopened her eyes and sighed. "You can do this. Please, Trace? It's going to be a while before I’m moving around and with all the rehabilitation they are saying I’ll need, I won't be home for at least a few weeks. I need you."
Trace sighed and stroked his aunt's hand. "I'm sorry. Of course I will. I’ll do anything for you. Thank you for taking me in."
She chuckled lightly. "Oh poppy cock. I had no intention of letting you while away your summer being depressed. Best way to snap back from misfortune is to work. But… I never meant for you to have take over the running of my ranch either. So odd about that car. I never had trouble before and I had just had it in to the mechanic…” Trace watched as his aunt’s eyes faded a little, as if she were thinking hard about something. Maybe it was the powerful painkillers she was on. But even as Trace was identifying the look she blinked hard and her sharp eyes once again focused in on him. “So. Tell me. What do you think of the foreman?"
She snorted. "Yes. Sawyer. You know perfectly well who I mean."
"Um… oh, yeah, he… I… he's fine... I guess. I mean..."
"Yes, I know. He's a handful."
Instantly the image of a “hand full” transformed into Sawyer's warm balls rolling around in Trace’s palm and every drop of blood in his body chose one of only two places to go. His face turned into an inferno but there seemed to be plenty to fill his nether regions to near painful as well. He coughed being totally incapable of taking a breath. "Yes... I mean no! I mean... fuck… sorry! No! He's fine. Absolutely fine I’m sure..."
He saw one of his aunt’s eyebrows raise up as she watched him squirming on the chair. "Well… you let him run things outside but when it comes to feeding the boys and running the finances of the ranch, you do it, you hear me? It’s what you went to college for, isn’t it? Don’t misunderstand me, I trust Sawyer with my life. But he can’t do everything. He’s going to try, though. You will just have to make sure he has your help. The man is a little too aggressive sometimes when it comes to things he wants. He fiercely protects me and my property. That protective embrace will now include you too.”
Okay, the image that invokes is not helping either. “Aunt, I…”
“You don't understand something or you feel pressured, you go to him. You’ll see. You’ll like him. No problem."
Oh fuck. Liking him was the problem!
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. "Ms. Riven? Ms. Lois Riven?"
Aunt Lois grunted when she looked up at the door. "Who wants to know?"
The man at the door was tall and muscular with dark eyes in a tanned face. Dressed in a dark shirt and pants Trace guessed him to be in his late thirties. With his black hair in a military style haircut, he looked like a bouncer as he took two bold steps into the room. He gave Trace a once over from his hair to his tennis shoes as Trace rose quickly to his feet to face the newcomer. A slight smirk formed on the stranger’s face when his eyes came slowly back to Trace’s eyes. Then his attention returned to his aunt. "My name is William Parell, Ms. Riven. I am a detective with Harbor Ridge Police Department.”
“Really?” Aunt Lois turned her nose up. “Harbor Ridge’s city budget can afford its own detectives now?”
“Well, I guess you could say I’m on loan from Fort Worth. Twelve month trial, they tell me. Been meaning to get out to your ranch and introduce myself. Sorry to be meeting you under these circumstances." He held a hand back toward another man, one wearing a police uniform, who had just stepped into the room as well. "This is Officer Benton.” The officer dipped his head at the introduction. “He’s going to be standing at your door for the duration of your stay here.” He turned back to Lois. “And I’m here to ask you a few questions about your incident last night." He turned his attention back to Trace. "Who might you be?" Once again William let his eyes roam Trace's body.
"He's my nephew," Aunt Lois interrupted. "His name is Trace Macky. He's here to take care of my ranch while I'm laid up."
"Oh?" the detective smiled. "So... you're sticking around for a while? How nice."
"I... yes... I guess so."
"Good. We’ll have to get better acquainted later. Right now I have some business here with your aunt so if you don’t mind..." He gestured toward the door.
"He can stay. I want him to stay."
William turned to Lois with a raised eyebrow. After a moment he nodded once. "Fine." He sat down in the chair Trace had vacated handing a business card over to her, presumably with his information on it. "Benton, take the door. Trace, take a seat over there and stay quiet – unless I ask you something." He indicated a recliner by the window. Trace obediently hurried to the recliner and sat on the edge.
“So, Lois – may I call you Lois?” She nodded. “Alright then. Just finished talking with the mechanic who inspected your car and it seems…” He looked up at Trace. “seems the brake line was cut. You know anything about that?” His hard gaze went back to Lois.
Trace watched his aunt blink but other than that she showed no sign of shock. He knew his own eyes had to be wide with unbelief. His aunt sighed. “No. I have no idea.”
“Seems someone wants to see you… removed, shall we say. Do you have any enemies, Lois, anyone who would do something like this to you?”
To his aunt’s credit, she hesitated before answering, allowing herself to think about that possibility. “No, detective, I know of no enemies who would want to see me – removed.”
“I looked into your worth, Lois, and it’s quite substantial. Everything pretty much paid for. Seems you also have a sizable life insurance policy. Is there maybe some relative out there looking to collect on their inheritance?” His gaze went right back to Trace.
Trace dropped his mouth open but his aunt raised her frail looking hand. “Trace is my only living relative and he would never have done what you’re suggesting. Besides, he just arrived here from Minnesota early this morning. He has absolutely nothing to do with what happened.”
“Yeah? Just this morning, huh? What time, Trace?”
Trace cleared his suddenly very dry throat. “Um… I got to the ranch around two, I think…”
“You think? Don’t you know? Where were you prior to that?”
“I was… driving. I drove here…”
“Any witnesses to back up that statement? Anybody to verify when you left – where was it – Minnesota?”
“Witnesses?” He looked back to his aunt his mind doing somersaults. How could he be considered a suspect? “No… but I… I didn’t…”
“Mr Parell, that’s quite enough. Trace is nothing but a good boy and had nothing at all to do with my accident.”
“Please, call me William. And you see, Lois, that’s just the thing. It wasn’t an accident. In fact, I’ll wager you know exactly who it was that sabotaged your car. I would also wager you saved your own life by using those bushes to slow down your vehicle. Maybe it wasn’t just the cut break line. Maybe the accelerator stuck, too?”
Lois sighed. “It seemed to. But I just had the car maintenanced. There was nothing wrong with it.”
“Mike told me. He’s the mechanic who looked at it for me and told me the brake line was cut. Said he had just had your car in the shop last week.”
“You don’t suspect Mike, do you?”
“No. Thing is, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take all that long for brake fluid to leak out. I suspect the line was cut minutes before you left. Did anyone know you were headed out?”
“Of course. Everyone did. All the ranch hands. But you can’t suspect them either.”
“Well, we’ll see.” He rose from the chair and Trace followed his action. “I’ll let you recuperate for a bit, Lois, but I’ll be back with some more questions. We’ve only just begun the investigation.” Looking straight at Trace, William winked. “Nice to meet you, Trace. We’ll be talking again real soon.”
The detective left but Office Benton stayed just outside the door to Lois’s room.
Trace came around the bed and grabbed his aunt’s hand. “Aunt Lois? What’s going on? Someone cut your brake line? You have to know something!”
Lois harrumphed. “The only thing I know, sweetheart, is someone made a mistake. Don’t worry so.” She laid her head back. “This is absolutely ridiculous.”
“But Aunt, they wouldn’t make a mistake about something like that. Someone’s trying to kill you.” Trace automatically lower his voice as if the killer might be within hearing distance.
“No one’s trying to kill me.” She patted Trace’s hand. “But even if there was…” She eyed the officer at the door. “it seems I now have protection. Completely ridiculous! So you quit your worrying. Enough about that now. Let’s go over what to do tomorrow morning,”