“You cannot be serious.”
Devin Halpert looked at his older sister’s completely serious face on his phone screen. “I need you to do this for me, Devvy. You owe me.”
“Have I not done a good job running the ranch?”
Wynn nodded. “Yes, you have. You’ve got the entire operation running like a well-oiled machine. And I appreciate you starting at the bottom just like everybody else. But now we’re in an emergency situation and I need you to helm the regional office for a while, just until things calm down.”
“Sis, come on, you know I ain’t an office person. I don’t know how to keep books and do payroll and shit.”
“There are people at the office who do that job. You wouldn’t need to do that.”
“Well, Winnifred, what would I be doing exactly?”
Devin was literally sitting on the back of a horse at the moment, having just corralled their prize bulls for their regular duties of producing specimens for WX Genetics. It was November and his fingers were freezing now that Wynn’s stupid phone call had made him remove his work gloves. He should maybe invest in those dopey gloves that he could use with his phone while outside in this weather. Wait a minute, he hated phones. No way was he getting any of that pretty-boy bullshit.
He watched the sun rise on the eastern horizon, the Mississippi in the far distance making a purple cloud display in the sky. The pasture grass glowed with frost. Everything was fresh. He had his coffee. On any other morning like this, the only other soul he talked to was his horse and the cows and the bulls and maybe the calves.
Devin didn’t do FaceTime. He definitely didn’t do FaceTime with his sister. And he certainly did not do it at work.
Especially when she was in such a pissy mood. “Don’t call me that, please. Just Wynn, thank you. And to answer your question, you would just be the figurehead at the local level. You have to go to events, meet with investors. Make appearances at Rotary lunches, the bingo hall. Reassure our big clients that everything is going to be fine. Do the community stuff. You know, all the stuff that Peter did.”
Devin sipped his coffee and studied the sunrise. “I wouldn’t know. Peter was a dick; I didn’t have much use for him.”
Wynn laughed a knowing laugh. “Well, if we’d all been paying more attention to Peter, this may have never happened. Well, it may have, but not to this degree.” Peter had been the regional vice president for WX Genetics since Wynn opened the branch here in Iowa. He had recently been arrested for stealing money from the company. Wynn had found out Peter had been quoting a higher product price to clients, then pocketing the difference once the company was paid. In addition, he’d been using his company credit card for family vacations under the guise of business trips.
The horse knew the morning drill almost better than Devin did and trotted along the fence line to check the perimeter. WX Genetics ran a pretty tight ship. “Sis, I cannot help it you hired a moron.”
“That’s just the problem. He was not a moron. He stole money from us. A lot of money. Our investors are nervous. This is going to hurt us for a long time, and what’s worse, I was considering going public. That’s between you and me.”
“I do not know what any of that means, but OK.”
Wynn laughed. “I love you, Devvy. See, that’s why you’re perfect to fill in in the meantime. And also you don’t have a choice.”
“Well, who the hell is going to run the ranch? You got another one of our foster siblings to pull out of your magic hat?”
She sighed. “No, dummy. I’ve got a connection at the community college. We’re going to turn it into a work study for the ag students. We’re going to pay them to run it with a little direction from one of the fourth-years who’s set to graduate soon. In fact, when this stint is over I’m going to hire him to be in charge of our new lab in Colorado.”
All Devin heard was the phrase, “a little direction.” He was pretty sure he knew what that meant. “You think the ranch is gonna run itself? That’s cute, Wynn. Thanks a lot.”
His sister and her lack of patience ended the debate. “I’m done talking about this. You report to the office in two hours.”
And then she hung up.
Two hours? He thought maybe she had meant next week. He didn’t even have time to get a suit and tie, or get the cow shit smell out of his clothes after the morning chores were done. Could he at least wear a hat to the office?
As he finished his chores that morning, he wondered exactly how much this was going to suck, being stuck inside. Especially in the winter. He loved being outside in the ice and snow. He especially did not want to be in an office at Christmastime and all that entailed.
Two hours later, he found out just how bad this was going to suck.
As soon as he stepped in the foyer, he was miserable. This building was too small for Devin Halpert. He had a corner office, with a window overlooking the sad-looking parking lot. He couldn’t even see the cows from here. He wanted to boot somebody in the ass for this. But since he was not prone to lay hands on women, he certainly wasn’t going to start with his boss.
Wynn was not, biologically, his sister. She was his older foster sister who had agreed to give him a job when he had stumbled onto her doorstep, fresh from rehab.
He started out shoveling shit, fixing fences, clearing brush. Then moved up to collecting bull semen. Not awesome, but easy, as the electronic attachment did most of the work. And it was at least more or less outside and didn’t involve too much human contact.
Over the years, he had worked his way up to ranch manager. The ranch hands were easy to work with. They either did the work or they were fired. That was easy enough for Devin to handle.
Office people seemed more complicated. They whined a lot more. They couldn’t handle rough talk. They didn’t like the temperature to be too cold or too hot. They argued about birthday cake flavors.
Yes, everything Devin knew about office culture was from the American version of The Office.
He stared out the office door and watched all the action. Trouble was, there really wasn’t much action at all.
There was Dorothea, his assistant. There was the accounting department. Snooze. There was a receptionist, who answered the phones, and there was also an office administrator.
He had no idea how all these people had different jobs.
If Wynn was so worried about money, maybe he didn’t need an assistant, and the office administrator and the receptionist could just be one person.
Devin had jokingly floated this idea that morning during his introductory meeting, and that had started him off on the wrong foot right away with his new staff.
At the time, he didn’t understand why his assistant, Dorothea, had arranged for such a pointless meeting in the first place.
Devin had swaggered in two minutes late, reeking of cow shit and sweat, in dirty jeans and shitkickers, and crammed one of the Boston creme donuts in his face that had been arranged with precision on the conference room table before he took his seat.
He noticed the staff—all ladies—exchanged looks with each other.
“Hey, guys.” He nodded at everybody, his mouth full.
They were polite as they watched him eat and plop down in his chair. They all said their names, and he did that thing that Wynn had taught him to do, which was repeat everyone’s names back to them. It was one of those business tricks he thought was stupid, but in this scenario, it actually worked. Good thing, too, because there was no way he would have been able to recall anybody’s names, not when they all resembled his high school guidance counselors. In fact, he was pretty sure that the office administrator, Cora, actually might have been his guidance counselor at Middleburg High School.
“Cora, you look familiar,” he said through a second mouthful of donuts.
She smiled painfully and politely. “Yes, sir, I was your English teacher.”
He grinned as the light dawned on him. “Oh yeah! I remember you now! What are you doing here?”
She grimaced. “I was retired, but I decided to go back to work.”
He laughed, “Here?”
The woman all looked at each other. They certainly did that a lot around here, he thought, exchanged looks with each other after every time he opened his mouth.
Cora cleared her throat. “It’s complicated. I care for my grandchildren now.”
He sensed it was time to change the subject.
“So, yeah, Wynn asked me to fill in here for a while. I’m Devin. I’ll be your cruise ship captain for the next…uh…few months, I guess? I don’t know, Wynn didn’t say. Anyway, I’m probably not going to be spending a whole lot of time here in the office, because it looks like you guys all run a pretty tight ship already.”
They all stared. God, this was torture. When cows stare like that it doesn’t mean anything. When people stare it means something, but fuck if he knew what it meant.
“Great! Thanks for the meeting. Great donuts. Hawk’s? They’re the best. So I’ll check back in after a while. I’m going to go home and take a shower. I’ll check back in after lunch!”
He stood to leave, but Dorothea interrupted him.
“Actually, you have a meeting in ten minutes.”
“Oh, I do? With who?”
His assistant smiled graciously. “Well, honey, I’m retiring. You’re interviewing applicants today.”
Shit. “Oh. Well, how many?”
Dorothea passed him a blue folder across the conference table. “Five. Here are the résumés.”
“Well, Dorothea. I surely have no idea what yardstick to use to decide who to hire for this job. Maybe you could handle it?”
“Sir? This person is going to be your personal assistant. You can’t expect me to decide. This person has to mesh with you, not me. With all due respect.”
Finally, somebody who spoke plainly.
“Got it. Well, I honestly don’t mesh with most people, so this should be fun.”
She smiled with even more graciousness. “You’ll be fine, dear.”
Well, he was now wishing Dorothea would stay, because she seemed like the most genuinely nice person here. “What can I pay you to not retire?” he said.
“Well, after everything that’s gone on in the last few weeks…police interviews, all of it. It’s just too much for me, so it’s time to move on. I’m going to be spending a lot more time with my grandkids.”
Then she looked at Cora. “Sorry, Cora.”
Cora looked unfazed. “No need to apologize.”
Devin did not know what that side conversation was about and he really didn’t want to know.
“One other thing,” Dorothea said. “Tonight is the lighting of the town Christmas tree on the square. You need to be there to do the honorary ceremonial lighting.”
“I ain’t gonna have time for that.”
“It’s one of those things your sister always made sure was on Pete’s agenda. It’s good for WX Genetics to be seen doing these little community things.”
“Sure, fine. But it ain’t even Thanksgiving yet! It won’t take long, will it?”
“Well, dear, you have lived here all your life, surely you’ve been to the annual lighting of the tree. There’s a cookie baking contest, an ornament making station. There’s a cider stand to raise funds for one thing or another. I believe this year it’s to help replace the planters along the creekside walking path downtown. I hear it’s going to be very pretty. And then, of course, the unveiling of the Helping Star Tree.”
“What’s that?” He was utterly confused.
“It’s the tree they put up by Mason’s General Store, where you choose a star that represents a local family in need. People adopt the families to provide Christmas gifts to the children. Tonight is the biggest night for that, because this is when most of the stars get picked up. Wait too long, and you get stuck with a star that has five or more kids who need coats.”
Some of the workers chuckled and exchanged glances.
This look was something he finally understood. “Our mama never picked up any of those stars, because she was usually the one with five or six foster kids in need of new coats and not enough money from the state to cover it. But she managed, with or without the help of people who didn’t want to give it.”
A more awkward silence he could not have fashioned if he’d suddenly dropped his drawers and did a striptease on the conference table.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll go, but I ain’t staying for no ornament making or whatever.”
Devin ended the meeting and Dorothea showed him into his office.
And that was where he sat and had been thinking about kicking his sister Wynn right in the corn hole.
He was absolutely the most wrong person he could think of to sit in an office.
Ranch hand interviewing was pretty easy. There was no, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” It was mostly, “Can you pick up a shovel? Are you afraid of a charging bull? Can you dodge a kick? Are you able to sign this release form? If you answered yes to all these questions, you’re hired.”
Ten minutes into his colossal boredom, the first assistant applicant walked into his office. And this particular applicant changed Devin’s entire opinion about working in an office by 180 degrees.
“Hi, I’m Claire Davids.” The most intense green pair of female eyes was staring expectantly at him. Hair the color of the night sky intoxicated him. Speaking of 180 degrees, that would match his temperature as he took in the sight of this applicant’s body, her curves hugged in a tailored green dress suit more lovely than the hills he gazed at every morning.
A moment later—he didn’t know how long—she cocked her head and asked if he was all right. Devin quickly shook the cobwebs out of his head and realized he’d been staring dumbly while she had extended her hand. “Yes. Sorry, you are my new assistant?”
She smiled, even more warmly and genuinely at him than Dorothea had. “Well, I hope so. But we haven’t done the interview yet.”
Shit, he did not want to do any other interviews. “You’re hired. Have a seat.” He gestured to the chair across from his desk. Dorothea swiveled around, peeked into his office, shook her head and mouthed the word “no.” She held up her hand. “Five,” she mouthed.
He got her meaning. He had to give all five applicants a fair shot. Hiring the first hottie who waltzed in probably wouldn’t sit well with Dorothea. Or Wynn. Or Cora. Or any of these other pale office-type people. Too bad, because this woman was so hired he wanted to go back in time and hire her before he even had the job.
Well, he’d just have to do his best to make it look fair.
Claire sat down across from him and placed her résumé on his desk. She smiled shyly and crossed her legs, and Devin spotted black tights and tall black boots, which would look incredibly sexy on the back of his horse.
On her lapel wore a sparkly red brooch in the shape of a Christmas present.
“I like your pin,” he said. God, what an idiot he was. She could see right through his attempts to buy time until he thought of an intelligent interview question. She had to know he didn’t belong here.
“Thank you,” she said. She smiled and looked down and touched it. “My good luck charm. It was my mom’s.”
“She give that to you for good luck?”
“I inherited it. She died. Recently.”
Truly, he was stepping in all of the shit this morning, with every female.
“Oh my god. I am so sorry.”
She shook her head. “Thank you for saying so. It’s all right. I’m fine. So, tell me about the job.”
But she was so obviously not fine. That much, Devin could tell. He was the last person to be considered an expert on women, but she was most definitely the opposite of fine. Everybody’s got a story, he thought to himself.
“My mom died when I was eight,” he said. “I never knew my dad. I grew up a foster kid on a farm not far from here. I found out when I was a teenager that my dad died in prison.”
She bit her lip. She was definitely holding more back. “My dad and mom both died. Together. Car crash. Last summer on their way home from their 25th anniversary cruise. At least my mom got to see the ocean before she died. That’s all she ever wanted, besides us kids.”
Devin’s heart went out to her. Well, here was somebody who didn’t just throw knowing looks around the room. She said exactly what she was thinking and talked about the painful stuff even if it made other people feel uncomfortable.
But she did not make him uncomfortable in the least.
He felt nothing but a sweet affection for this open book in the pretty green suit. She was tidy and sweet and honest. And drop-dead beautiful.
Had he not just said in the meeting earlier this morning that he didn’t mesh well with most people? Well, all of a sudden, he felt that if there was such a thing as mesh made out of humans, she and he would be nicely meshed. He let the slightly dumb part of his brain wander into the thought of how gross that could be, if taken literally, and decided not to speak it out loud.
He replied, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. And yours too.”
And then that was it. They just sat there, smiling sadly and shyly across the desk from each other. This little quiet moment felt comfortable. And then she must have caught his gaze wandering down to her chest, because she bit her lip again and looked down into her lap. Devin thought for a moment she was starting to blush. She self-consciously brushed her hair aside and he caught sight of some sparkly red studs in her ears. He caught a whiff of her hair when she did that. She smelled really, really good.
Then reality came crashing back down. “Sorry, I smell like bullshit,” he said.
She laughed. “What?”
“I mean, I came here straight from the barns. I didn’t have time to wash up. So I smell like actual bullshit. Not figuratively. But hey, I might also smell like figurative bullshit, what do I know?”
She laughed again, a sound that gave him an intense desire to keep making her laugh. Instead he chose to attempt a professional question. “So, tell me why you want to come work for a redneck like me.”
But instead of laughing, she seemed to tense up. Uh-oh, he thought. Were her people rednecks?
“After my parents died, I quit college to come home to take care of my siblings. It was either stay in school and let them go live with relatives, or give up my scholarship and keep them all together. I think I made the right choice. But it’s been hard. I mean, we had my parents’ life insurance money helping us keep the house, but repairs and other things were out of control, so we sold the house and moved to a rental house, and now I have to get a job. I’m sure you know how hard it is to raise children.”
She had assumed he had a family because he was a few years older than she was.
“Oh no. I don’t have any kids. I’m single. Never married. Women hate me.”
He had done it again somehow, accidentally broken the tension and made her laugh again. “I’m sure that’s not true, you’re adorable.” Then she blushed deeply and covered her mouth. “Oh god, I should not have said that. That was totally unprofessional.”
He smiled and leaned across the desk. “I like unprofessional. I can’t stand this kind of environment. My sister stuck me here to keep the investors calm and make sure they don’t abandon ship. But you know what? This is the most comfortable I’ve felt since I started this new job.”
“Oh really?” she asked. “How long have you been doing this job?”
He checked his wrist, which did not have a watch on it. “About 25 minutes,” he said. “When can you start?”
Just then Dorothea knocked on his door and stepped in. “We have another candidate who has just arrived.”
Devin waved her off and kept his eyes on Claire. “Tell her we’ve already filled the position.”
Dorothea cleared her throat pointedly. “It’s a man, sir.”
“OK, then tell him to go home.”
Devin grunted. He gestured to Dorothea and said to Claire, “She’s my handler. I gotta do what she says or Wynn will have my hide. That’s my sister. She owns all of this. Started it herself. She gave me a job about ten years ago when nobody would hire me on account of having just got out of rehab.”
Claire’s eyes widened. He couldn’t tell if it was shock or judgment. She was certainly processing something about him.
He stood and shook her hand again as she prepared to leave. “I’ll be calling you.”
She smiled, less wide this time.
“I’ll understand if you don’t. As you can tell by my résumé I’m not experienced in much of anything except writing term papers. But if you hire me, I will work hard to do…whatever an assistant does.”
She hurried to leave, a little too quickly. But he had managed to shake her hand again. It was warm and soft and fit nicely in both of his. When she left, he instinctively sniffed his hand and smelled her lotion. Like he was a damn dog or something. She left a grassy, floral scent that reminded him of summer out on the range.
After Claire left, Dorothea poked her head in. “One down, four to go!” she sang.
Shit. It was going to be a long day.