Once a Rancher

By: Linda Lael Miller

CHAPTER ONE

SLATER CARSON WAS bone-tired, as he was after every film wrapped, but it was the best kind of fatigue—part pride and satisfaction in a job well done, part relief, part “bring it,” that anticipatory quiver in the pit of his stomach that would lead him to the next project, and the one after that.

This latest film had been set in a particularly remote area, emphasizing how the Homestead Act had impacted the development not only of the American West, but also the country as a whole. It had been his most ambitious effort to date. The sheer scope was truly epic, and as he watched the uncut footage on his computer monitor, he knew.

160 Acres was going to touch a nerve.

Yep. This one would definitely hit home with the viewers, new and old.

His previous effort, a miniseries on the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, had won prizes and garnered great reviews, and he’d sold the rights to one of the media giants for a shitload of money. Like Lincoln County, 160 Acres was good, solid work. The researchers, camera operators and other professionals he worked with were the top people in the business, as committed to the films as he was.

And that was saying something.

No doubt about it, the team had done a stellar job the last time around, but this—well, this was the best yet. A virtual work of art, if he did say so himself.

“Boss?”

Slater leaned back in his desk chair and clicked the pause button. “Hey, Nate.” He greeted his friend and personal assistant. “What do you need?”

Like Slater, Nate Wheaton had just gotten back from the film site, where he’d taken care of a thousand details, and it was a safe bet that the man was every bit as tired as he looked. Short, blond, energetic and not more than twenty years old, Nate was a dynamo; the production had come together almost seamlessly, in large part because of his talent, persistence and steel-trap brain.

“Um,” Nate murmured, visibly unplugging, shifting gears. He was moving into off-duty mode, and God knew he’d earned it. “There’s someone to see you.” He inclined his head in the direction of the outer office, rubbed the back of his neck and let out an exasperated sigh. “The lady insists she needs to talk to you and only you. I tried to get her to make an appointment, but she says it has to be now.”

Slater suppressed a sigh of his own. “It’s ten o’clock at night.”

“I’ve actually pointed that out,” Nate said, briefly consulting his phone. “It’s five after, to be exact.” Like Slater himself, Nate believed in exactness, which was at once a blessing and a curse. “She claims it can’t possibly wait until morning, whatever it is. But if I hadn’t been walking into the kitchen I wouldn’t have heard the knock.”

“How’d she even find me?” The crew had flown in late, driven out to the vineyard/ranch, and Slater had figured that no one, other than his family, knew he was in town. Or out of town. Whatever qualified as far as the ranch was concerned.

Nate looked glumly resigned. “I have no idea. She refused to say. I’m going to bed. If you need anything else, come and wake me, but bring a sledgehammer, because I’d probably sleep through anything less.” A pause, another sigh, deeper and wearier than the last. “That was quite the shoot.”

The understatement of the day.

Slater drew on the last dregs of his energy, shoved a hand through his hair and said, “Well, point her in this direction, if you don’t mind, and then get yourself some shut-eye.”

He supposed he sounded normal, but on the inside, he was drained. He’d given everything he had to 160, and then some, and there was no hope of charging his batteries. He’d blown through the last of his physical resources hours ago.

Resentment at the intrusion sent a tremor through his famous equanimity; he was used to dealing with problems on the job—ranging from pesky all the way to apocalyptic—but at home, damn it, he expected to be left alone. He needed rest, downtime, a chance to regroup, and the home place was where he did those things.

One of his younger brothers ran the Carson ranch, and the other managed the vineyard and winery. The arrangement worked out pretty well. Everyone had his own role to play, and the sprawling mansion was big enough, even for three competitive males to live in relative peace. Especially since he, Slater, was gone half the time, anyway.

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