Hendrix Durrant eyed his longtime neighbor, speaking with a hard-edged frustration he didn’t bother to conceal. “You’re hiring Ellen? Really, Jay? You’ve been talking to me about getting this well dug for the past eight months. You’ve had me meet you out here two or three times for details on where to drill, how deep to go, what size pump you’ll need to get enough water, what we’ll do if we encounter sand, and on and on. And now you’re going with my competitor?”
Jay Haslem, a forty-something mechanic who was finally getting the chance to build a nicer home outside the small town of Coyote Canyon, Montana, where Hendrix had lived since he was eleven and Jay had lived his whole life, shoved his hands in the pockets of his grease-stained overalls and stared down at the dirt. “Well, she’s not really your competitor, is she?”
Hendrix rested his hands on his hips. “She does the same thing I do, but her business is completely separate from mine. Wouldn’t you call that competition?”
“Yeah, but…she’s Stuart’s daughter. And he’s married to your aunt Lynn. I know you’re not related, but you’re sort of…connected, right?” He offered Hendrix a weak grin, which Hendrix immediately wiped from his face with a heated retort.
“Not only are we not related, I barely know her and hate that she moved to town two and a half years ago, because ever since then, she’s made a concerted effort to become a major pain in my ass.”
“It’s just that…her dad’s married to your aunt,” Jay said again.
Lynn had raised Hendrix from the first year she married Stuart, after his mother died of breast cancer. Everyone knew he’d been taken in out of the goodness of her heart, that he would’ve gone into the foster care system otherwise. It wasn’t as if he had a father, like most other kids. His mother, Angie, who’d lived and worked as a venture capital analyst in San Francisco, where attitudes were more liberal in general, had been so determined to have a child on her own terms she’d used a sperm bank, never imagining what might happen to him if she wasn’t around. That meant, once she was gone, he’d been lucky to have extended family who would give him a home. “I don’t care. That doesn’t change anything.”
Jay winced as he pulled on his beard. “My wife likes her, Hendrix. Thea’s the one who promised her the job. Not me. Ellen’s a tough little thing, a go-getter. We… I don’t know, we admire that kind of gumption, I guess. After all, there aren’t many women in your field.”
Jay’s, either. Not too many female mechanics around… But Hendrix was too focused on other things to point that out. “You admire her gumption,” he echoed, chuckling humorlessly. “You’re giving her the job because she’s—” he used air quotes “—a tough little thing.”
Once again, Jay shifted uncomfortably. “That and…she’s saving us a few bucks, of course.”
“Of course,” Hendrix echoed flatly. Ellen had been undercutting him and Stuart since she moved to town. “How much is a few bucks?”
“She said—” He stopped and cleared his throat before finishing in a mumble, “She said she’d do it for a thousand less than whatever you bid.”
“Excuse me?” Hendrix had heard him fine, but he wanted to make his neighbor state, clearly, the reason he’d chosen Ellen. This wasn’t about supporting a female-owned company in a largely male-dominated field, as Jay had tried to claim a few minutes ago. This was nothing more than pure self-interest. Ellen had been working day and night since she moved to Coyote Canyon, just to best him and Stuart, her father. Hendrix knew that was true because, in some cases, she was—had to be—drilling wells and replacing and repairing pumps for next to no profit, other than the pleasure of taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to them.
“She said she didn’t have the time to come out and bid, but she’d do it for a thousand less than what you said you’d do it for,” Jay repeated. “All we had to do was give her the paperwork you left with us.”
“You handed over my bid? Now she can order the supplies and get you on her schedule without spending any of the time I’ve invested in assessing your needs.”
Jay hung his head. “I’m sorry. You know I don’t have a lot of money. Thea and I have held on to this property for several years, hoping to save enough to start improving it, or…or I would’ve gone with you no matter what.”
Drawing a deep breath, which he immediately blew out, Hendrix stared over Jay’s shoulder at the rugged Montana terrain that constituted his neighbor’s five-acre dream parcel. Ever since Ellen Truesdale came to town, he’d made a point of avoiding her. If he ran into her by accident—in a population of only three thousand it was impossible not to encounter each other every once in a while—he nodded politely, so she wouldn’t know how much it bothered him to have her around. But she never responded. She just gave him that unflinching, steely-eyed gaze of hers that let him know she was gunning for him.
Despite that, he’d remained determined not to let her get to him. But as time wore on, and she stole more business from him and Stuart, she was harder and harder to ignore.
Why couldn’t she have sold the place her grandparents had given her here in town and remained in Anaconda, where she’d been born and raised? Anaconda was twice the size of Coyote Canyon; there had to be more people in that part of the state who were looking to drill a water well. Actually, he knew that to be true because he and Stuart occasionally drilled a well or helped with a pump out that way—Fetterman Well Services ranged over the whole state and even went into Utah and Nevada. And if Ellen had stayed in Anaconda, which was almost two hours from Coyote Canyon, their paths would most likely never have crossed.
But Hendrix knew her decision had very little to do with where she could make the most money—or even where she might be happiest. She had a vendetta against her father, who’d left her mother when Ellen was only ten to marry Hendrix’s aunt, and she was determined to make him pay for walking out on them. Hendrix and his cousin, Leo, whom he considered as close as a brother, were just the visible representation of all she resented.
“No problem,” he told his neighbor as he started back to his truck. “Here’s hoping she does a decent job for you.”
“Are you saying she might not?” Jay called after him, sounding alarmed.
Hendrix didn’t acknowledge the question, let alone answer it. Undermining Jay’s trust in Ellen was a cheap shot—beneath him, really. Ellen knew what she was doing. In many ways, she ran her business better than Stuart ran the one Hendrix had helped him build since he was brought from San Francisco. She didn’t have the resources or the experience they did, but she was a quick study. From what he’d heard, she was also detail-oriented—stayed right on top of everything—and since Fetterman had two crews consisting of three employees each, and covered a much bigger area, he had no doubt she was operating with far less overhead, so she could be nimble.
Although Stuart insisted they didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to Ellen—that she’d give up trying to get back at him and eventually move on—Hendrix was beginning to realize that wasn’t true. Stuart was just avoiding the problem because he felt guilty about the past. And the more he avoided it, the worse it got.
* * *
When Ellen Truesdale heard a vehicle pull up, she assumed it was Ben Anderson, her only employee. She’d finally sent him out to grab some lunch. Since breakfast early this morning, they’d been too busy to eat, and she was starving. He had to be, too; it was almost three. At twenty-one, he seemed to consume twice his body weight in food each day. But when she finished welding the steel casing they were putting down the well and flipped up her helmet, she saw that it wasn’t Ben. Hendrix Durrant had just parked next to her older and much less expensive pickup.
Since Hendrix hadn’t actually spoken to her since she came to town, she was more than a little surprised he’d driven out to her jobsite. That meant he was here with a very specific intention.
Setting her torch aside, she removed her helmet entirely and shoved up the long sleeves of her shirt. She had no idea what he wanted, but whatever it was…she couldn’t imagine she was going to like it.
Instead of approaching her right away, he slipped his hands into the pockets of his well-worn jeans and studied her GEFCO rotary drilling rig. Maybe he’d assumed she couldn’t afford a top-head drive, which enabled her to advance the casing that blocked off the sand and gravel as she drilled, and was shocked to see it. She could understand why that might be true. A rig like hers cost almost a million dollars, and she’d never had the luxury of being able to ride on her father’s coattails. If she hadn’t been able to take out a loan against the house and property her paternal grandparents had passed on to her, she wouldn’t have had the down payment necessary to purchase it. And if she’d had to settle for an older rig, it would’ve made her job much more difficult.
As it was, her payments were almost ten thousand a month, and that didn’t include the water truck she’d also had to buy. Fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as the rig. She’d managed to find a used one in Moab, Utah, for only fifty thousand. But it all added up. She had a lot on the line, which was why she worked so damn hard.
“Is there something I can do for you?” she asked, tensing in spite of all the self-talk that insisted there was no reason to be nervous. She didn’t care if she had a confrontation with her father and those connected to him. She’d been spoiling for a fight with them almost as far back as she could remember. Except for Leo, of course. Leo was harmless. Everyone knew that.
Hendrix turned to face her. She hadn’t moved toward him, hadn’t closed one inch of the gap between them. If he wanted to speak to her, he was going to have to cross that distance himself—which he did, reluctantly from what she could tell.
“You’ve been in town for two and a half years now,” he said.
She wiped the sweat from her face before giving him a smirk. “I didn’t realize you’d been counting.”
His eyebrows slid up. “I’ve only been counting because you’ve been doing everything you possibly can to make me notice you—and now I have.”
She barked a laugh. “Am I supposed to be excited about that?” She had to admit most women would be. With sandy-blond hair, smooth golden skin and wide, sky blue eyes, he reminded her of Brad Pitt in Troy—mostly because of the structure of his face but also his build. She couldn’t claim he was hard to look at.
“I was hoping to convince you to come over and talk to your father,” he said. “Scream and yell, say whatever you want, but quit trying to punish him by ruining our business.”
She removed her leather gloves and slapped them against her thigh, which made him take a step back to avoid breathing in the resulting cloud of dust. “I have nothing to say to my father.”
“Obviously you do, or you wouldn’t be living here.”
“In case you’re not aware of it, my grandparents gave me their house, and it happens to be here. I guess you didn’t quite manage to replace me in their affections.”
“I didn’t try to replace you at all. I’m sorry if you feel I did. But just so you know, your grandpa and grandma Fetterman have been good to me, too.”
She shrugged off his words. “Only because they’re nice to everyone.”
“Maybe so, but just because you got their house doesn’t mean you have to live in it. You could sell if you wanted to…”
“That’s the thing.” It took effort, but she brightened her smile for his benefit. “I like it here.”
“Come on,” he said. “Be honest. You’re only staying because you think it bugs your father.”
“That’s not all,” she said with a taunting grin. “I’m staying because it bugs you, too.”
“And that makes you happy?”
“Happier,” she clarified.
He shook his head. “There’s something wrong with you. What’re you trying to do? Prove you can build the same business we’ve built on your own?”
“And do it even better,” she said with apparent satisfaction. That had been her goal for a long time, ever since she’d finished college at Montana State with a degree in business and returned to Anaconda to help her mother make ends meet. After seeing her father become successful drilling water wells, she’d decided to do the same thing. She knew she didn’t want to get stuck waiting tables forever, and Anaconda didn’t offer a great deal of opportunity.
But it hadn’t been easy to get started. If she hadn’t managed to convince Ross Moore, a successful driller in Anaconda, to hire her, she wouldn’t have had the chance. But she’d needed only two years of experience, drilling fifteen wells under a licensed contractor, in order to get her own license. So Ross had eventually agreed—just to be a nice guy, she thought—and wound up being so happy with her work he’d kept her as his business expanded until her grandparents gave her their house in Coyote Canyon two and a half years ago, and she decided to go out on her own.
Hendrix’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve been pleasant so far, haven’t lifted a finger to stop you. I don’t want to—” he spread out his hands “—do anything that would harm you, even financially.”
“If there was anything you could do to me financially, you would’ve done it already,” she pointed out, which only seemed to enrage him further.
“Our company’s bigger than yours,” he said with a hard set to his jaw.
Our company. She was Stuart’s daughter. Hendrix was only his second wife’s nephew. He stood to take over the business when Stuart died, since Leo wasn’t capable, but he wasn’t even considered a true partner at this point. As she understood it, he was only on salary. And yet, when Hendrix lost his mother to breast cancer, her father had not only allowed Lynn to take him into their home, he’d chosen Hendrix over her in every regard. No doubt Stuart assumed Hendrix was stronger and more capable than she was, but she was bound and determined to prove he’d significantly underestimated her abilities. “That’s obvious.” She gave him the once-over. “But bigger isn’t always better.”
He stepped closer, too close for comfort, which was probably his intent, and glared down his nose at her. “It is in this case. Don’t make me put you out of business.”
He turned on his heel to stalk back to his truck, but she called after him. “You couldn’t put me out of business if you tried!”
He stopped before opening his door. “We have deeper pockets than you do, Ellen. We can play the price game, too. What if I were to go around to all your jobs and offer to drill cheaper? You’re saying I couldn’t steal your next six months of work from you?”
“You’ll be taking a heavy loss if you do!”
He studied her for several seconds. “I’m beginning to think it would be worth it.”
The size of her monthly bills—the payment she had to make on her rig alone—sent a tremor of foreboding through her. She couldn’t withstand a full-on battle with her father and Hendrix. Not one that went on for very long, at least. She needed to back off. But she couldn’t. “You don’t scare me!” she yelled. “I’ll take you on. I’ll take on both you sons of bitches!”
His tires spun dirt and gravel as he backed up and nearly hit Ben, who was just coming back in his Jeep.
Ben slammed on his brakes in the nick of time and waited for Hendrix to swerve around him. Then he got out, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, and walked over to where Ellen stood at the rig. “That was Hendrix Durrant, wasn’t it?” he said. “I told you he wouldn’t like what we’ve been doing. He confronted you about it, didn’t he? What’d he say?”
“Nothing,” she retorted. She couldn’t bring herself to admit that the resentment driving her might have caused her to sign the death warrant on her fledgling business—the only thing that was currently keeping a roof over both their heads.
* * *
Damn her! What’s wrong with her? Hendrix fumed as he drove, probably a little too recklessly, to Lynn and Stuart’s. At thirty-one, he no longer lived with them, but his house wasn’t far away, and he was at their place a lot to see his cousin, Leo, who had Down Syndrome.
The office for the drilling business was in one section of the barn, too, and most of their drilling equipment was parked on the property.
Leo was in the wide front yard wearing a snowsuit—even though it was the end of March and edging toward spring and there were only little patches of white in the shadows—playing with his dog, Zeus. He lit up like a Christmas tree the second he saw Hendrix turn in, and came running to the truck.
“Hi, Hendrix!” he said, waving enthusiastically as Hendrix got out. “I been waitin’ for ya. I knew you’d come!”
Because Hendrix came almost every day. He typically brought Leo a donut or other treat, and he would’ve again today, except Lynn had told him he had to stop. Leo was gaining too much weight. It was hard for Hendrix to disappoint him, but he had no other choice. “I know you’re probably hoping I’ve got a donut for you, bud, but I couldn’t get over there in time to buy one. I’m sorry.”
Leo’s shoulders slumped, and the corners of his mouth turned down, which made Hendrix feel terrible. But in typical Leo style, he perked up right away. “That’s okay, Hendrix,” he said as they started to walk, with Zeus, toward the office. “You’ll bring me one tomorrow, right? I like the chocolate with sprinkles. It’s my favorite. I bet that’s the one you’ll buy me. You’ll bring me the chocolate one tomorrow, won’t you, Hendrix?”
Hendrix eyed his thickening middle and offered to take him on a walk instead, but Leo was having none of it.
“After I eat my donut?” he asked.
“Yeah, after you eat your donut,” Hendrix said, finally relenting. He couldn’t refuse, despite Leo’s weight. He’d just have to take Leo somewhere else to eat it so Lynn wouldn’t catch them. He hated to contribute to the problem when she’d asked him not to, but he couldn’t deny his cousin the few simple pleasures he enjoyed so much. Maybe the walk after would zero it out.
“Thank you, Hendrix. I can’t wait!” He rubbed his hands in anticipation as they reached the office. “What are you doing today?” he asked before Hendrix could open the door. “Are you drilling another well? Can I get my steel-toed boots and my hard hat and go with you?”
It was Friday, Hendrix’s day for picking up parts, fixing broken equipment, giving estimates and helping catch up on any paperwork Lynn was holding back because of questions she had. She helped in the office while they did the drilling, but she must be in the house or getting her hair done or something else today, because Hendrix didn’t see her when he swung open the door. “For the next little while, I’m mostly hanging out here with Stuart, okay, bud?” he said. “But if I have to run an errand or two, you can come along.”
Leo smiled widely—something he did almost all the time. “Maybe we could buy a candy bar while we’re out!”
“No treats, Leo,” he said. “They aren’t good for you, remember?”
Leo’s shoulders rounded again, until he thought of the donut. “But you’ll bring me a donut tomorrow?”
Hendrix barely refrained from groaning. He’d never known anyone with such a sweet tooth. Leo was at him for candy, soda and other junk food all the time. “Yes,” Hendrix told him. “I said I would.”
“I love you, Hendrix,” he said. “You’re the best!”
It was hard to remain angry about anything in the face of his childlike exuberance. “I love you, too,” Hendrix said with a chuckle.
But when he walked into the office and Stuart glanced up, he remembered why he’d come skidding into the driveway of their house in the first place.
“You need to do something about Ellen,” he said bluntly.
“Ellen Truesdale?” Leo piped up before Stuart, who was sitting at his desk, could respond.
Hendrix wasn’t surprised Leo knew who Ellen was. With her bleached blond hair, cut in a short, jagged style, nose ring and ear piercings, together with the tattoo sleeve that covered one arm, she stood out in the ultraconservative community in which he’d been raised. Not only had she been a hot topic around town, she’d come up in plenty of conversations between Stuart and Lynn.
Hendrix was surprised, however, that Leo remembered her last name. It wasn’t as if they knew any other Truesdales. As soon as she’d turned eighteen, Ellen had legally changed her last name to her mother’s maiden name—another of her many attempts to get back at Stuart. Leo’s father had been an alcoholic who’d raised and sold hunting dogs—before he shot himself when Lynn left him. Stuart adopted Leo when he and Lynn married three years later, so Leo went by Fetterman. And since Hendrix’s father was found in a tube of sperm cells in a lab somewhere, he’d retained his mother’s last name and went by Durrant.
“Yes, Ellen Truesdale,” Hendrix told him.
Stuart sighed as he rocked back in his chair. “What’s she done this time?”
“Took the Haslem job from us.”
His father looked startled. “I thought we had that one in the bag. Isn’t Jay your neighbor?”
About four years ago, Hendrix had bought a small, two-bedroom, two-bath, log-cabin-style home on a couple of acres about five minutes away. Jay lived in the mobile home next door—until he could move to his other property, anyway. “Yeah, well, I guess loyalty doesn’t count for much when money’s involved.”
“She undercut us again?”
“Word’s getting around that she’ll beat any price we give. At least, that’s what I’m guessing. All Jay told me was that he was hiring her because it would save him some money.”
The beard growth on Stuart’s chin rasped as he rubbed it. “Drillin’s hard work. I can’t believe she’d do it that cheaply—and that she’s actually doing a decent job. She’s only about five foot four, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet.”
“You know she has Ben Anderson to help her, right? She hired him right out of high school when she first got here.”
“I know she’s got Ben, but it has to be difficult for her even with a hired hand.”
Hearing the grudging admiration in his voice made Hendrix’s hackles rise again. “She’s trying to damage our business. You realize that.”
“She’s not going to damage it for long,” Stuart said dismissively. “I’ve been drillin’ wells and servicing pumps for forty years. We’ll reach a new equilibrium sooner or later.”
“I’m not so sure,” Hendrix argued. “Can’t you meet with her? Have a discussion? Folks talk, especially in a small town like this. If word has it that she’s the cheapest around, and she’s a good driller…” He shook his head. “It’s been two and a half years since she moved here. She’s only getting a firmer foothold as the days go by.”
“What do you want me to say to her?” his uncle asked. “She’s not doing anything wrong.”
“Purposely targeting our business isn’t doing anything wrong?”
“It’s a free market,” he said with a shrug. “There’s nothin’ to say another driller can’t move in here and compete with us. Whether it’s her or someone else…”
“I’ll talk to Ellen!” Leo volunteered. “She’s so pretty. And such a little thing. I bet I could pick her up.”
“Don’t ever try that,” Hendrix told him. “I don’t think she’d like it.”
“Oh, I’d never hurt her,” Leo hurried to reassure him.
Hendrix knew he’d never hurt her intentionally. Leo would never hurt anyone intentionally. But he was a big man, and he didn’t know his own strength. Sometimes he reminded Hendrix of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, not least because he himself identified with George Milton in the role of Leo’s protector. During his teens, he’d been in more fights than he could remember trying to defend Leo from the bullies who’d tease and make fun of him. “I know you wouldn’t, bud. You just have to remember not to touch her, okay? Ever.”
“Okay,” Leo said dutifully.
“So will you talk to her?” Hendrix asked, turning back to Stuart.
Stuart blanched. “I don’t know what to say to her,” he admitted. “I mean…what can I say? I didn’t do right by her, and there’s no changing that now.”
“Then apologize,” Hendrix said, “before she makes me lose my mind.”
Stuart stared at the paperwork on his desk for several seconds before finally—and grudgingly—relenting. “If I get the opportunity, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Let me give you the opportunity,” he said. “She’s drilling the Slemboskis a well right now. Should be there another day, at least. Maybe longer.”
His uncle’s jaw had dropped as soon as he heard the name. “The Slemboskis went with her, too? Slim Slemboski’s on my bowling team!”
Hendrix threw up his hands. “See what I mean?”
Stuart winced as he went back to rubbing his jaw. “O-kay,” he said on a downbeat, as if agreeing to talk to Ellen was tantamount to walking the plank. “I’ll go over there tomorrow, see what I can do.”
“You did…what?” Talulah Elway cried.
Ellen cast her friend a sheepish glance. She hadn’t known Talulah her whole life, like most of Talulah’s other friends in Coyote Canyon—Talulah had grown up here—but they’d become close in the year since they’d met. The property Ellen had received when her grandparents moved to Phoenix was set away from town, adjacent to the old farmhouse and acreage Talulah had purchased from her great-aunt Phoebe’s estate when she came home to handle the funeral. Talulah had planned on going back to her dessert diner in Seattle, which she’d started with a partner, but while she was in town, she fell in love with Brant Elway—a rancher Ellen had dated for a short time herself when she was new to the area. After Talulah married him, she sold her interest in the diner and had recently opened a new one downtown.
“I couldn’t help myself,” Ellen grumbled, sinking deeper—thanks to dejection and exhaustion—into the porch swing where they were sitting and rocking while gazing out at the gathering twilight. The rig had blown a hydraulic hose just before she and Ben were about to quit for the day, so he was the only one who’d left. She’d had to work late to get it fixed. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to continue drilling in the morning. She hadn’t even had a chance to shower yet. When she drove past Talulah’s on her way home, she’d noticed the lights were on but Brant’s truck was gone, meaning her friend was probably home alone and she wouldn’t be interrupting anything they were doing together if she stopped by. So she was still in her jeans, work boots and the long-sleeved T-shirt she wore to protect her arms from sparks when she had to cut and weld—which she did with the casing almost every hour while she was drilling.
“I think you might’ve gone too far,” Talulah said. “Your father’s business is well established. Hendrix is right when he says they have deeper pockets than you do.”
“They also have bigger overhead.” She’d been telling herself that ever since Hendrix had stormed off, but her father’s office was on the same property as his home, and for all she knew, he’d paid off his trucks and equipment over the years. He had to cover Hendrix’s salary, of course, and she had no doubt Hendrix was earning way more than she was paying Ben, who was much younger. He also had to pay his other employees, and he had quite a few more than she did. But she was paying for her equipment and she had spare parts and supplies, like the pumps she needed to keep on hand, each of which cost a couple of thousand dollars, charged to her credit cards.
Using credit wasn’t the safest way to build a business. But at least she didn’t have a house payment beyond what she’d borrowed for the rig.
Talulah bit her lip. “Maybe I could go talk to him, tell him you didn’t mean what you said today and try to work out some sort of truce.”
“No!” Ellen sat up straight. “I’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing.”
“I admire your grit,” Talulah said. “No one could fault your courage. But…you don’t want this to turn into all-out war, do you?”
She manufactured a shrug. “There’s nothing they can do to me.”
The sullen note in her voice had given her away. Clearly, Talulah wasn’t convinced Ellen meant what she’d just said. “I know you might not want to hear this, but I don’t believe Hendrix is a bad guy. He drilled a well for Brant out at the ranch several years ago and is friends with Brant’s younger brothers. Brant really likes him.”
Everyone said Hendrix was a stand-up guy and admired him for the way he looked out for his cousin, who was a year older. But Ellen didn’t want to hear it. Her father had already chosen him over her, sharing his longtime business and treating him more like a son than he ever treated her like a daughter. The praise Hendrix received only made her feel worse. “I thought you were supposed to be cheering me up.”
“I’m just saying that maybe you should let the past go—for your own good.”
That was easier said than done. Didn’t Talulah believe she’d tried? “I don’t have a problem with the past,” she said, even though they both knew it wasn’t true. “I’d better go,” she added and stopped the swing. “I need a shower.” She needed some sleep, too. Six o’clock came awfully early when she got home so late.
“Ellen!” Talulah called as she stepped off the porch.
Ellen no longer wanted to talk. She regretted stopping in the first place. But she turned.
“You’re a wonderful person. It’s your father who missed out. Don’t let the decisions he made when you were young rob you of the chance to be happy now.”
“I am happy,” she insisted.
But once she got home and walked into the empty house that had belonged to her grandparents all the time she was growing up, she was overwhelmed by the memories of coming to visit them. Memories of seeing the pictures of her father hanging on the walls and gracing the side tables—and knowing he was in the area but couldn’t be bothered to see her, other than meeting them to get an ice cream cone at his parents’ urging. His defection still cut so deeply, even now, that she flinched.
She had to banish those memories. Her father was an asshole. All she’d ever wanted was a few crumbs of his attention. But it was Hendrix who’d gotten everything. Hendrix, who wasn’t his son, wasn’t any kind of relation—except the boy Stuart had always wanted.
* * *
Hendrix sucked the foam off the top of his beer while waiting for Kurt Elway to take his turn at billiards. Coyote Canyon offered plenty of things to do—camping, fishing, four-wheeling, hiking, hunting and more, most of which he loved, but those things took place during the day. There was far less to do at night. Dinner and whatever movie was playing at the drive-in theater was a possibility. But even then, the drive-in was only open during the summer and typically featured older flicks the owners could bring in on a budget. That left hanging out with his buddies and having a drink at Hank’s Bar & Grill while listening to music—a live band on weekends—and playing darts and billiards, which Hendrix did probably once a week.
“Damn. Missed,” Kurt said as he stood and lifted his cue.
Kurt would probably beat him despite flubbing his turn. They were fairly equal when it came to pool, but tonight Hendrix couldn’t concentrate—couldn’t quit thinking about Ellen, who’d been getting under his skin for a long time. He simply couldn’t ignore what she was doing anymore. The confrontation he’d had with her earlier played in a loop in his mind. She’d been so defensive when he approached her. He wasn’t sure he’d ever met a woman with a bigger chip on her shoulder. Her stormy green eyes, the stubborn set of her jaw and the tenseness of her body telegraphed her animosity toward him.
Despite his preoccupation, he managed to sink two balls and even up the game. He felt pretty good about that, until Kurt went up by one immediately after.
It was March Madness, so basketball played on the plethora of TVs in the bar. Whenever he was waiting to take his turn, Hendrix watched New Mexico State battle it out with Vermont, so he didn’t see Ben Anderson come in. By the time he noticed Ben was there, he’d lost at pool, Kurt had gone to the bathroom and he was on his way to get another drink.
Ellen’s employee was sitting at the bar, eating a burger. Hendrix knew he had a girlfriend. He’d seen them together around town. But she wasn’t with him tonight.
He looked up as Hendrix drew close, then immediately yanked his gaze away. Hendrix almost let it go at that. Maybe Ben worked for Ellen, but he wasn’t responsible for how she ran her business. Hendrix told himself to ignore the kid and carry on with his night, but the look in Ben’s eyes suggested he felt uncomfortable and understood that they were on opposing teams.
Seeing Hendrix approach, the bartender came close enough to be heard. “You want another beer?”
“Sure. This time I’ll take a Corona,” Hendrix said, and as the bartender turned away, he decided to sit down and have a little talk with Ben.
His close proximity seemed to startle the kid, who glanced over at him twice before continuing to eat.
“Hey.” Hendrix had to speak loudly to be heard above the cover band.
Ben stuffed a French fry in his mouth. “Hey.”
“You work for Ellen Truesdale, don’t you?”
Ben swallowed before answering. “Yeah. That was me you almost crashed into today when you were leaving our jobsite. I was coming back with lunch.”
“Sorry about that. Didn’t see ya.”
“No problem. You seemed to be in a hurry.”
He had been in a hurry—to get away from Ellen.
The bartender returned with Hendrix’s beer, then went to make someone else a drink while Hendrix squeezed the accompanying wedge of lime into the bottle. “How do you like working with Ellen?” he asked Ben.
The kid seemed taken aback by the question. “I like it fine. I’m glad I have a job.”
“You don’t plan to go to college?”
“Nah.” He dipped some fries in ketchup. “I hate school.”
“But she treats you right…”
“We get along.”
“Somehow I didn’t expect you to say that.”
He lifted his own beer and took a long swig. “Why not?”
“She seems like a difficult person, if you ask me.”
Ben bit into his burger, then had to talk while he chewed. “She probably wouldn’t like me telling you this, but she’s not as badass as she wants everyone to believe.”
“Really. She’d be the first person to wade out into a flood and risk drowning while trying to rescue some flea-bitten feral cat, you know?”
Ben chuckled but Hendrix didn’t. An idea had popped into his head, a way to show Ellen that there were consequences to picking a fight with him. A way to show her without having to go so far as to lose money drilling for even less than she was. “Don’t you get tired of doing all the heavy lifting while she takes home the majority of the pay?”
Ben didn’t seem to know how to answer that question. After several seconds, he took another swallow of beer, then said, “She owns the business. I figure she should take home the majority of the pay. She certainly works hard enough—harder than most men, if you want the truth.”
The respect in his voice irritated Hendrix. Because of her attitude and the way Ellen bleached her hair—or turned it pink or purple, depending on her mood—and the piercings and tattoos, most people in Coyote Canyon steered clear of her. She made her own way and didn’t apologize for it, and they didn’t like that she dared to be different.
But he was talking to someone who’d spent a great deal of time with her in the past two and a half years, and Ben clearly admired her. “She pulls her own weight, huh?” he said, still digging to see if there was an opportunity here.
“And then some.” Ben drained his glass. “What she lacks in physical strength she makes up for with determination. If we need to get something done, she figures it out. I’ve never known anybody like her.”
“Still. You gotta look out for yourself,” Hendrix said, pointing at him with his bottle of beer. “Do what’s best for you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I have a job opening. One of my drillers is moving at the end of the month, which means I’m going to have to replace him.”
Uncertainty descended on Ben’s face, but what Hendrix had said was true. Randy Bettencourt was relocating to Billings so he and his wife could be closer to her family when they had their first child, due in three months. Hendrix was going to have to hire someone to replace him and suddenly saw this as a way to solve both problems.
“And…” Ben prompted.
“I’m thinking the job might be of interest to you. You’ve had a couple years of experience now, and I’m assuming she’s trained you right.”
“I’m a good driller,” he said. “What’s the pay like?”
“It’d be a lot more than you’re making now. Probably twenty or thirty percent more.”
Ben put down his burger. “You’d pay me that much?”
“You’d be earning it. Heading up a drill crew comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Again, the kid didn’t seem to know what to say. After a few beats, and a long exhalation, he finally admitted, “That’s a good offer.”
“It is.” Hendrix got up and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Why don’t you consider it and come talk to me sometime next week.”
Ben’s forehead wrinkled in consternation. “I don’t think I could do that to Ellen…”
“She’s your boss, not your wife, Ben,” he said with a laugh. “For one reason or another, business owners lose employees all the time. It’s just part of free enterprise.”
Ben scratched his neck. “This is a little different.”
“How? If she’s as great as you say, I can’t imagine she’d begrudge you a better offer. I mean, you deserve to succeed, too. Can’t you use the raise?”
“Of course I could use the raise…”
“And you’d be a driller, not a driller’s helper. There’s something to be said for that, too. It’s always nice to come up in the world—make your parents proud.” He saw that Kurt was out of the bathroom and looking for him, so he and Ben exchanged numbers and he grabbed his beer. “I’ll be waiting for a call from you,” he said and waved to get his friend’s attention.
“What were you doing over there with Ben Anderson?” Kurt asked when Hendrix got close enough to hear him.
Hendrix wasn’t surprised Kurt knew Ben. The town was small enough that most folks were connected in one way or another. “After two and a half years, I’m finally hitting back.”
“What?” Kurt said, looking confused.
Hendrix glanced at the bar to see that Ben was still watching him. “Don’t worry about it.”
* * *
Ellen’s muscles were sometimes so sore she could hardly get out of bed. But at least she had jobs lined up for the next several months and would be able to pay her bills.
With a yawn, she groaned as she pushed herself out of bed. A shower and a cup of coffee would make all the difference, she told herself. It was worth getting an early start. If she and Ben could finish the Slemboski well today, maybe she could get paid. Although she collected half the cost up front, that only covered a portion of her expenses. The back half covered the rest and went to overhead and profit. As always, she was eager for her final check and to be free to move on to her next project. The faster she worked, the more she’d earn and the closer she’d be to buying a pump pulling unit, a piece of equipment that would make it much easier to fix or replace pumps in existing wells. She guessed her father made half or more of his income from “out of water” calls.
She put on some coffee before checking her phone to see if Ben could meet her at seven. She’d texted him last night to tell him she’d fixed the hose that’d gone out, so they were good to continue drilling today, but since she hadn’t yet received a response, she sent him another message.
Hey, you up? Let’s knock this out and have the rest of the day to relax. Then we’ll have tomorrow off and hit it hard again on Monday.
Unless she was under a tight deadline, she generally took Sundays off. Sometimes she was tempted to work seven days a week. But she knew her body probably couldn’t take the abuse. She pushed herself hard and needed to rest now and then.
Besides, she’d promised to help at the dessert diner so Talulah and Brant could spend the day together in Bozeman. With its wonderful smells, bright, cheerful colors and so many beautiful and tasty confections, Ellen didn’t mind serving customers and working the register for a few hours. It was nice to get cleaned up and do something different, have somewhere to go. Talulah always paid her. It wasn’t much—not nearly as much as she could make drilling—but enough to give her a change of pace and a small amount of cash.
By the time she stepped out of the shower, the coffee was ready. She poured herself a cup and drank it mixed with a little almond milk while scrambling two eggs. She knew better than to leave the house without breakfast. Since she rarely took time to pack a lunch and often got caught up in what she was doing, it could be quite a while before she ate again—just like yesterday.
A ding signaled a text while she was buttering her toast. Assuming Ben was finally answering her, she grabbed her phone.
But it wasn’t Ben. It was her mother.
Call me when you can.
Jan typically wasn’t up this early. So what was going on now?
Ellen was almost afraid to find out. Her mother went from one hard-luck story to another, which was part of the reason Ellen resented her father so much. After he’d left, nothing was the same. Her mother writhed in the bitterness she felt toward Lynn for “stealing” her husband and couldn’t get over the loss of her marriage, couldn’t make it on her own, let alone support a child, even in an emotional sense. And since, more often than not, she’d had to fight Stuart for the child support he owed her, they rarely had the money they needed. There were times Jan couldn’t even make herself get off the couch. Ellen felt she’d done more to take care of her mother over the years than her mother had ever done to take care of her.
Because that was still the case, she didn’t want to hear the latest. She’d moved away from Jan on purpose—had to get a break from the constant neediness, and her grandparents had made that possible. But unlike her father, she felt a responsibility to help. So she returned Jan’s call as soon as she sat down at the table to eat.
“There you are,” her mother said, sounding frantic.
“What’s going on?” Ellen kept one eye on the clock as she shoveled eggs into her mouth. “What are you doing up this early?”
“My landlord was just here, banging on my door.”
“Banging? Why would he be banging?”
“He’s mad because I can’t cover my rent this month.”
Ellen paused with her fork halfway to her mouth. Of course. “Why can’t you cover your rent?”
Jan lived in a tiny, cheap duplex. And that was about the only payment she had, besides utilities, gas and groceries. She’d ruined her credit long ago, didn’t have any charge cards. And since Ellen already had a truck, she’d given Jan the reliable car her grandparents had left when they passed on the Coyote Canyon property.
“I’m not getting enough shifts at the pancake house,” she complained. “Oliver hired someone else last month, and he’s been giving her most of my shifts. The way he talks to her and touches her at every opportunity, I think he’s hoping she’ll work after hours, if you know what I mean.”
Jan had dated her manager for a while, too. Sadly, it hadn’t worked out. Or maybe Ellen should be grateful. Oliver sounded like he was a hot mess, too. “How much do you need?” she asked.
The amount took Ellen by surprise. “I loaned you three hundred last month.”
“I know. And I’ll pay you back as soon as I get on my feet. I promise.”
Ellen stifled a sigh. Problem was…she never seemed to get on her feet. “So what are you going to do to change things up for next month? Are you looking for another job?”
“I’ve put out a few feelers. One of the cooks at the pancake house told me he heard they need a clerk over at the dollar store. His wife works there. She’s going to talk to her boss about me.”
That was nice of the cook, but if Jan’s reputation preceded her, she wouldn’t get the job. She’d been fired more times than Ellen could count—was always late or calling in sick or having to leave early for a doctor’s appointment—usually fictional.
“I have bills to pay myself, Mom. But I’ll see what I can do.”
Ellen would come up with the money somehow. She couldn’t leave her mother in the lurch. But she also didn’t want Jan to make a habit of coming to her for help. Jan didn’t seem completely committed to taking care of herself. She leaned on anyone who’d allow it—and that was mainly Ellen.
“Or maybe you can talk to that father of yours and get the back child support he owes me,” Jan grumbled.
Ellen had heard her mother complain about Stuart for years. If Jan had been more functional, she probably could’ve sued Stuart to force him to pay his child support. But she didn’t have her life together enough to see anything through. “I’m not speaking to him,” Ellen said. “You know that.”
“Then why don’t you come back to Anaconda? What are you still doing in Coyote Canyon?”
“I’m building a business here, Mom.” She only needed to drill one well a month to stay afloat, and lately she’d been averaging one and a half. Even if she couldn’t get a new well, she could squeeze by repairing old ones or repairing or replacing pumps. Considering the start-up costs of getting into her line of work, the difficulty of finding new clients and the physical demands of drilling, she was proud of what she’d accomplished. Not just anyone could do it. She couldn’t tell her mother that, though. If Jan thought for a second that she had extra money coming in, the requests for help would never stop.
Besides, Ellen didn’t want to go back to Anaconda. Then Jan would ask to live with her, and the next thing Ellen knew she’d be supporting her mother entirely. Jan had to stand on her own two feet for as long as possible. And Coyote Canyon was probably the only place that would allow Ellen to keep a safe distance. Since Stuart lived here with the dreaded “other woman” Jan had hated for the past twenty years, unless she was enraged about something she wouldn’t even come close.
“You could build a business here just as easily, especially if you sell the house you have there. Then you’d have plenty of cash to buy another place.”
No way would Ellen fall into the trap her mother had just set for her with that statement. “It’s the equity in the house that enabled me to afford my drilling rig. Besides, I wouldn’t want to have to train a new assistant. Ben’s working out great. And then there are my friends…”
“You don’t talk about your friends much.”
“I’ve mentioned Talulah.”
“Why isn’t there a man in your life?” her mother asked.
Because, with one rare exception when she briefly dated Brant, she couldn’t seem to pick a good one. She hadn’t been in a serious relationship since leaving Anaconda. Even then, there was no one she stayed in contact with. “I don’t get out much. Been too busy working.”
“Seems to me all you do is work.”
Ellen almost said, “That’s not an entirely bad thing. At least I can pay my bills.” But she swallowed those words and tried to get off the phone instead. “Today’s packed, Mom. I’d better run. But I’ll look at what money I’ve got coming in and get back to you tonight or tomorrow, okay?”
“You can’t let me know now? I need to have something to tell my landlord.”
“Tell him I think I can do it and send me his Venmo information.”
“Thanks, honey.” She sounded relieved, but it wasn’t as if the anxiety this had caused her would teach her a lesson. She’d forget about it the next time she had to choose between picking up an extra shift at the pancake house or sleeping in.
“I have to run. I’ve got a well to finish today.”
“You sound just like your father,” her mother complained.
Except that she hadn’t abandoned Jan. Stung, Ellen shoved her half-finished plate of eggs away. “If I finish, I might get a check, which will help both of us.”
“Okay. Let me know about the money as soon as you can.”
Ellen promised she would and, relieved to have the conversation behind her, disconnected. While she’d been talking, another text had come in. This one was from Ben, but it wasn’t about meeting her this morning.
We’ve been working six days a week for the past two and a half years, ever since you hired me.
She didn’t know how to respond. Was he asking for the day off? Are you saying you’d rather not work today?
I’m wondering if you think I’ve been doing a good job.
Why would he be asking her this right now? Couldn’t they talk about it while they were drilling? They’d have plenty of time for conversation. Yes, I do. I’ve told you that before. I’m grateful for your help.
I’m happy to hear it, because Hendrix Durrant just made me an offer I might not be able to refuse.
Ellen’s blood ran cold. Hendrix had approached Ben? “Please say it isn’t true,” she whispered. She’d thought he might go after her future drilling jobs, but she’d never dreamed he’d try to steal her only employee. When?
What’d you tell him?
I haven’t told him anything yet.
Which meant he might be open to staying. But it would cost her.
The chair scraped the floor with a squeal as she stood. “Shit!” she yelled. There went any hope of being able to save up for her pump puller.