Just One Chance
Book Seven of the Billionaire Barons of Texas Series
“There you go.” Mitchell Baron blew out a long deep breath and for the first time in hours, a smile graced his features.
Claire stretched her back, leaning left then right. “It’s never fun when the first thing you see is only one hoof.”
“That’s probably what Mama was thinking.” Watching the healthy calf latch onto its mother was the perfect end to a long night.
“I bet she was happy to have you with her.” The oldest girl in Uncle Everett’s clan, Claire was only eleven months younger than her brother Devlin, and thankfully for the Paradise Ridge Ranch, one helluva veterinarian. “Glad you called me in. Hate it when I get the call after the mom has suffered for way too long. Hate it even more when we lose mom and or the calf because I didn’t get a call at all.”
“When she passed three hours of labor I knew something was off. Her last calf came in just over two. The way she kept looking at me, I just knew.”
“That is a gift I wish more of my ranchers had. Turning the calf is not easy, but it’s better than letting nature take its course and losing her. You did good calling me before the calf presented.”
“I suppose it helps knowing you’re family and won’t tell me to go to hell for waking you up at three o’clock in the morning with a hunch.”
She chuckled before her expression turned serious. “I don’t even want to ask what you were doing awake all night in the barn. That’s not your job.” Always too smart for her own good, Claire raised a single brow at him before shaking her head and stretching her back one more time. “On the bright side, being up at this hour means that I’ll be rewarded with Hazel’s breakfast.”
“Thank heaven for Hazel.” His hand on the small of his cousin’s back, Mitch led Claire toward the house. The barn had always been a place of refuge for him. As a kid when his brothers, who he loved dearly, were in over the top rowdy mode, later when the stress of exams threatened to crush him, or when the senior politicians’ stubbornness drove him crazy…to when he lost Abbie.
Three years had gone by since his wife died, and yet, the ache was still so strong and real that some days it almost stole his breath away. But that wasn’t what had kept him running home from Washington more and more. Tonight it was another text from Susan that had him seeking solace with the animals in the barn.
The moment he and his cousin crossed the threshold into the heart of the family ranch, the smell of fresh baked cinnamon rolls mixed with a hint of bacon frying, assaulted his senses. He had no idea why bacon smelled so much better when Hazel made it, but it did.
“Thought y’all would be hungry.” Spatula in hand, Hazel turned to smile at the two of them. “Table’s set in the dining room. Coffee is hot. Your grandfather has already eaten and is off to some committee meeting. Y’all are on your own until the rest of the family wakes.”
Claire snatched a piece of bacon from a plate on the counter, and Hazel smacked her hand. “None of that till the eggs are done. Off to the dining room.”
Crunching on the stolen morsel, Claire giggled like a schoolgirl.
He loved that laugh. She sounded just like his sister Eve. Her laugh would make him smile as well. It was Eve who more than anyone in the family had helped keep him somewhat together when Abbie died.
His phone beeped and he pulled it from his pocket and swiped at it, quickly putting it back. A few seconds later it beeped again. Once more, he pulled it out and swiped at it.
“Aren’t you even going to see who it’s from?”
“I know who it’s from.”
Claire’s eyebrows rose up and down on her forehead a few times. “A woman?”
“Yes.” He let out a slow sigh. “But not the way you’re thinking.”
“Oh, okay.” It was clear from her tone she didn’t believe him.
“Susan is only a colleague.”
“Susan?” Now Claire was smiling at him.
He had no idea how she could chew and grin at the same time. “We’re on the same committee. She and I were the only two on the same side.”
“Are. We are on the same side, but sometimes fighting the political wheel makes swimming upstream in a river of sharks feel like an easy and safe endeavor.”
“Oh, doesn’t that sound like fun. I guess it helps having an ally.”
Ally. That was one word for Susan. “It did.”
Looking down at his left hand, the simple gold band that Abbie had chosen for him still adorned his ring finger. “I think Washington politics is wearing thin on me.”
The humor in Claire’s eyes dimmed. “Sorry. I know how much you used to love it.”
“That’s what I keep telling myself.”
His phone beeped again and this time he looked at it.
Thought you were staying till the end of session. Are you coming back for the vote?
Quickly running his fingers over the keyboard, he typed a simple answer. Yes. Of course he was going back. Didn’t he always? He might spend every weekend he could in Texas, but he had never missed a meeting, a debate, or a vote before, and he wasn’t going to start now. No matter what, or who, chased him away.
* * *
Gwyneth Van Klein focused carefully on the small wooden box in her hands. On her twenty-first birthday she’d taken refuge in her father’s library from the boring family gathering her mother had orchestrated. The supposed party intended to celebrate her crossing into legal adulthood. The idea was almost funny, as if her mother would ever let her be an adult. Deep down, she’d understood that even then.
Having noticed a book off kilter with the others on the shelf, something her mother would never have stood for, Gwyneth pulled the offending book out of the line. Hidden behind the row of tomes, she’d uncovered her father’s little stash. Tools and materials for fine carving. They were hidden inside a box he’d no doubt etched himself. A beautiful piece of art. She would never have expected something so whimsical from the head of Klein Electronics. The discovery had the corners of her mouth tilting up in her first smile of the day. Knowing that her mother would never approve of such a mundane and common hobby actually made her a little happy. The idea that someone in the family had the nerve to stand up, even in hiding, to her mother had been her best birthday gift.
When she’d discreetly informed her father of her discovery the next day, she’d been eager for him to show her how to use the tools. For the first time in her life, she’d had something to look forward to that her mother couldn’t somehow remove from her world, or worse, destroy. The unexpected reward had been finding a connection with one of her parents. As her father shared with her how to gently maneuver the sharp-tipped tool to create what she hoped would some day be beautiful works of craftsmanship, she’d actually enjoyed herself, and her father’s company. But even more surprising, she truly felt that her father enjoyed passing his beloved hobby onto her. Not her brothers, her.
That time of true contentment in her life came to a crashing end when alone in his office her father suffered a massive coronary. By the time his secretary grew curious about the lack of communication from her boss, it had been too late to save him.
That had been over a decade ago and the only contentment in her life remained the pride at finishing another work. Nora, one of the housekeeping staff, had been her comrade in arms. Nora would help her purchase the supplies without her mother’s knowledge, and then arrange for the sale of the completed project in a local artist’s gallery. The little money she received was just enough to keep her busy. And sane.
Setting down the sharp tool, she reached into her dressing table drawer, sneaking a snack from her sacred stash of cookies and treats. Another thing for which she counted on Nora. After all, snack foods loaded with sugars and artificial preservatives served, according to Prudence Van Klein, only one purpose: to destroy the refined appearance and slim figure of weak-willed and indulgent females. As her mother often reminded her. No one was looking at her anyhow. So what if she never quite lost her baby fat. Not that anyone would notice under the frumpy wardrobe her mother sparingly purchased for her. The only thing missing from the mid-century schoolmarm look were the laced up sensible shoes. Though in some ways her sensible pumps weren’t a far cry from the shoes she remembered her grandmother wearing.
“Miss,” her name sounded, followed by a light rap on her door. It was Nora. “Your mother is expecting you downstairs. Right away. She seems rather eager.”
The mere mention of being summoned by her mother for something ‘eager’ had her hand slipping. The tiny notch would be almost imperceptible to the average person, but not to her. As with so many other things in her life, she tossed the scarred carving into the trash. “Tell Mother I shall be down momentarily.”
Standing a moment in front of the mirror, not because she had anything to admire, but because every hair and stitch needed to be perfectly in place before she descended the stairs, she reluctantly surveyed her appearance. Her sleeves were past her elbow, a true accomplishment to have convinced her mother that long sleeves were unnecessary in the miserable Texas heat. The hem of her dress—not a skirt, and not slacks, a dress—was exactly six inches below the knee and perfectly straight. Of course, she wore hose even though no one else her age, and in their right mind, would do so on sweltering days. Early in her childhood her naturally curly hair had been deemed an unruly mess by her mother. Always tamed into braids longer than appropriate for any child, now every strand of hair was neatly plastered along her scalp and twisted into a perfectly rounded bun at the back of her head. All would meet with her mother’s approval. Just not a man’s. At least not one in his right mind.
“There you are.” As she reached the doorway, her mother looked up from her game of Solitaire. The old fashioned way, of course, with a deck of cards. “I sent Nora for you almost five minutes ago.”
“Yes, Mother. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“Never mind.” Still looking at the cards in front of her, the older woman waved at Gwyneth to sit. “I have wonderful news.”
Somehow, she felt the need to brace herself.
“The Barons are hosting the Cattleman’s Christmas gala at their home this year.”
Gwyneth nodded. The Barons were as far up the social register as the Van Kleins, though it was the Conroe pedigree that her mother admired, not so much the common bloodline the Governor had brought to the genetic pool.
“The guest list is, of course, limited to the right people.”
Which meant her brothers would be on the list. Klein Electronics was only one of many corporations that continued to fill the family coffers and guarantee invitations to the most exclusive parties.
Her mother looked up from her cards. “The gala will be three weeks from Friday next.”
Gwyneth refrained from groaning. Anyone would think her mother had fallen off a time travel machine. Who in today’s world said Friday next?
“Your brothers have previous commitments and can not escort me.” Her mother returned to turning cards. “I’ve decided you and I shall accept the invitation.”
Accept? Her and her mother? Gwyneth’s palms began to sweat. Dread squeezed her lungs. She didn’t do well at large parties. Or small ones. People always stared at her, or more so the way her mother would make her dress. Then all the whispers would start, usually starting with poor Gwyneth. She hated every minute of it. She didn’t want people’s polite smiles with pity filled eyes. She wanted to stay in her room and work on her art until she grew too old to know that life had passed her by.
“In the meantime,” her mother continued, once again looking down at her cards, “Mrs. Baron is having an afternoon tea this coming Saturday. We shall be attending.”
A gala and a tea? What had come over her mother? And why was Prudence Van Klein dragging her awkward and ill-fitting daughter along with her? Something was definitely up, and heaven help her, whatever it was, Gwyneth was sure of one thing, none of it could possibly end well for her.