Laina Turner, Author
L.C. Turner, Author

The Reluctant Rancher – A Gallagher Brothers Painted Acres Ranch Romance Free Chapter

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Welcome to Cottontail Junction, Montana. Population 3826.

Brock read the sign as he passed it, and relief washed over him. He wasn’t that far from his destination. He had driven from Boise and was ready to get out of his truck and stretch his legs. Over nine hours in his vehicle was enough to make every part of him stiff. As his GPS led him through the downtown area to the real estate office, he smiled as he gazed at the old but well-kept brick buildings he would soon frequent in his new town. A typical Main Street layout with buildings on both sides that offered retail space. He could see a bakery, a flower shop, a bookstore, and what looked like a bar. The buildings were all two stories, and he assumed apartments might be on top of the retail spaces. The buildings were old and not at all fancy; they looked like a snapshot of a moment in time from long ago. Add to that the Tobacco Root Mountain range backdrop, stretching the entire way across the horizon, and the town was breathtaking.

This was definitely the right decision. He was so ready to get out of the city and escape the memories it held, and the small-town feel he already had from driving through Cottontail Junction sat well with his soul.

His GPS barked orders to turn left in 800 feet, and as he looked ahead, he could see the sign for Cottontail Junction Real Estate. Brock pulled into a parking spot on the street in front of the building and shut off his engine. He got out of the truck, taking a second to stretch his six-foot-four frame before pocketing his keys and heading to the door. He walked in to see an attractive blonde who grinned widely when she saw him.

“Brock Gallagher?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am, that’s me.”

She stood up from her chair and motioned for him to have a seat in front of her. Sitting back down was the last thing he wanted to do right now but to not do so felt rude. If his mama had taught him anything, it was never to be rude, especially to a woman.

“You made good time. I wasn’t expecting you for another hour. By the way, I’m Heidi Spooner, in case you hadn’t already figured that out.” She giggled.

“I assumed. Nice to meet you in person, Heidi,” Brock said. He had dealt with Heidi throughout the entire transaction to buy the ranch that brought him to her office today. He’d have recognized that high-pitched, girlish voice anywhere after their many phone calls. There was something about her that got on his nerves a little. Still, she had been impeccable in their business dealings and had negotiated a heck of a deal. So he chalked it up to her being too peppy. Which he knew was a ridiculous reason to be annoyed by someone.

“I have your file right here. We’ve done most of the important stuff already, and I only have a couple more things for you to sign. Did your brothers come with you?” she said, glancing out the window to her right that faced the street parking as if his brothers were going to magically appear and seeming quite eager at the prospect. 

“Just me right now. But I have power of attorney to sign on their behalf.”

Heidi nodded, and he noticed a bit of disappointment in her eyes, but the smile never left her face. “Of course. Not a problem.” She opened her folder, took out some papers, set them in front of him, and explained them all. Brock only half-listened. He had already been over them with his attorney, so he knew what the forms said, but he let her do her spiel.

“So, if all that looks good, you just sign each of these seven places for you and your six brothers, and I’ll give you the keys.”

Brock took the pen and started signing.

“Seven boys. Wow! You must have kept your parents busy. I had a younger brother growing up and couldn’t imagine seven of him,” she said.

“Yep, they sure did,” he said and felt bad when he saw her smile waver a little at not being able to engage him in conversation. He knew he wasn’t being overly friendly. Still, he was tired, and he didn’t want to do anything to encourage any kind of female attention. He had seen that look in a woman’s eye before when they knew he was single and sometimes even when they didn’t. The one that signaled a deeper interest than he wanted. That part of his life was a closed book. He was done with romance. Casual or serious. Best to keep things strictly professional.

Brock pushed the paperwork back to her as he finished signing each form, and after the final one was complete, he said, “You have the paperwork for the practice?” He had made prior arrangements with the doctor to leave the paperwork at the real estate office.

She frowned and shook her head. “Dr. Gladwell decided he wants to meet face-to-face with you first. He’s kind of old school and said he wanted to lay his eyes on you and determine if you were a good fit before entrusting the animals of Cottontail Junction to your care.”

Brock grinned at this, and Heidi’s eyebrows rose. She seemed surprised he was okay with what she’d just said. She probably hadn’t expected him to be so good-natured about her inability to have the purchase of the local veterinary practice all sewn up, something she had all but assured him on the phone would be a piece of cake.

“No problem. I’d probably do the same thing in his shoes. I guess I’ll just have to do my best to charm him.” He would have preferred buying the practice to be as simple as purchasing the ranch he and his brothers now owned, but he respected Dr. Gladwell wanting to vet him first. Said a lot about his character. 

“I’m sure you’ll have no problem with that,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “Anyway, he told me to tell you to call him once you got in town and got settled.” She took a card out of the folder and handed it to him. It was one of Dr. Gladwell’s business cards.

Brock stood up, wanting to stretch his back, but held off since her eagle eyes followed his every move. “I’ll do that. Anything else about the property I need to know?” he said, not expecting her to say anything. He and his brothers had already done their due diligence before deciding to buy a ranch that had been vacant for years. Though none had been there in person, Heidi provided pictures and video.

She reached into a drawer, pulled out a key ring with at least a dozen keys on it, and handed them to him as she stood up.

“The one with the green plastic tab is the front door key to the house, and as for the rest of them, I don’t know what they go to. It will be trial and error. All utilities are scheduled to be turned over in your name tomorrow, but they currently aren’t connected. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to connect them until you looked things over. I’ve had a water pipe bust and flood a house before.”

“That makes sense,” he said to her, realizing he hadn’t thought about that himself. He wondered, not for the first time, what he and his brothers had gotten themselves into.

“And if you have any issues, call me. Or feel free to call me even if you don’t have any issues.” She smiled and took a step closer to him.

He nodded his head and walked toward the door.

“Oh, wait,” she said, and he turned to look at her.

“Your ranch backs up to a small ranch called the Bar C, and rumor has it the ranch isn’t doing too well, so if you ever want to expand, let me know. I can probably get her to sell.”

“Good to know. Thank you. Have a good day.”

Brock got back in his truck. As anxious as he was to see the ranch in person, his stomach growled at him, making him think he should take care of that issue first since there wouldn’t be any food at the ranch. Or probably even a working kitchen. He remembered seeing a diner when he came through town and retraced his steps back a few blocks until he found it. After finding a place to park, he walked into a mostly empty place. Not surprising since it was after the standard lunchtime. The interior was rustic, with dark oak tables and chairs, along with a long lunch counter. Red checked tablecloths covered each table, and vases with one red carnation sat next to the salt and pepper shakers. 

“Have a seat wherever you like,” a female voice called out as he entered. Following her direction, he headed to a booth that wasn’t far from the only other patrons in the restaurant. He figured it would be less running for the server if he sat closer to them. His late wife had waited tables while he was in vet school, so he tried to be as courteous as possible, knowing how hard servers worked.

“You’re new in town,” the woman said matter-of-factly as she set down a menu and water. She was an older woman, probably in her late sixties, with bottle-red hair up in a ponytail. Her casual uniform of jeans and a shirt that said ‘The Ranch Hand’ gave a feeling of homecoming, even though he’d never been there before.

“You would be right.”

“Are you one of the brothers that bought the Thurston ranch?”

He reared back in surprise, and the woman started laughing.

“Small town, not much entertainment, so you and your brothers buying that abandoned ranch will be quite the source of gossip for a while, I’m afraid. You might as well get used to it.”

He threw his head back and laughed, enjoying her candor. He liked this woman and hoped everyone in this small town was as open as she was.

“Brock. Brock Gallagher,” he said by way of introduction.

“I’m Pearl Butters. This is my place. Can I get you something to drink besides water?”

“I’d like a coffee and whatever you recommend for lunch,” he said, returning the menu to her.

“You got it.”

She turned around, and Brock pulled his phone out of his pocket. He’d received several text messages from his brothers Will and Judge, the two most excited about buying the ranch. He shot off quick responses to both, promising to text once he got to the ranch when the conversation of the three men at the table next to his booth broke into his thoughts. They were being loud, and he couldn’t help but look over at them.

“Deborah at the tax office said they mailed out the final letter demanding payment.”

“That gives her, what, a couple more months?” one of the other men said.

“About that. But that Costa woman has no chance of getting that money together. Her business has tanked since her dad left. No surprise. A woman has no place being a horse trainer. She couldn’t even be trusted to keep her clients’ horses safe.”

As Brock listened to them, even though he didn’t know the woman they were talking about, anger swelled inside him. He had never been one of those men who thought women were somehow inferior. Another thing his mama had instilled in all her boys. She taught them women were to be respected and treated like queens, but that you better darn well know a woman could do anything a man could do.

“I’ve been making sure to put a bug in people’s ears about the Bar C. I’m not taking any chances of not getting my hands on that land,” the man said, and now Brock really strained to pay attention. The Bar C was the ranch the realtor said butted up against his. And while he would like to expand at some point, he didn’t want to take advantage of someone’s misfortune, especially when it sounded like these guys had it out for the owner.

“Here you go, hot coffee and the best bacon double cheeseburger and sweet potato fries you will ever taste,” Pearl said, setting his food down.

As the aroma from his food made his stomach growl, and he took a big bite of the burger, he watched the men pay their bills and leave. They had definitely gotten his attention, and he wanted to learn more about “that Costa woman” because he didn’t want anyone to take advantage of a woman who was down on her luck.

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