Chapters 15 & 16 of Bear Fate are now posted on my blog. This week Colorado experiences a chinook. (That’s when a warm wind temporarily melts everything in the dead of winter.) We gain new insight into Amber’s character, Calvin continues to fight his unwelcome attraction to this BBW, and Lance invites her home for lunch.
I am having a blast writing this book and I hope you are enjoying the process too. Let me know if and when I strike a false note or contradict something I wrote earlier or in a previous book. This is very much a Work in Progress and I want your feedback to make the story shine.
I continue to be grateful for your help. If you reread the posts, you can see where I have made changes based on your suggestions. The final version is going to be awesome!
The sound of running water woke her. She had to wipe a circle in the steamy window with a rag to peer out at the gray dawn. The trees had shed their load of snow and every needle dripped. From every direction, melting snow rushed down to the creek. She had been warned that the Colorado Chinook made the ones in Washington State seem by comparison like a blast of frigid air. But she had not realized how powerful that warm wind would prove against the severity of their winter.
She would be slogging through mud to get to work this morning. And those tracks she had thought would keep till day, would be meltwater half way to the Colorado river by now. She would just have to accept Lance’s report of what he had seen last night. It was early, but she was no longer sleepy. She had time for coffee and a big breakfast before she faced the mud.
When the knock came, she was just placing the last washed pan in the dish rack. Lance, she thought. He had come for her because of the mud. She had her best smile on when she opened the door.
“Hey,” she said.
“Good morning,” Calvin’s smile was as broad as hers. “I thought you might like a ride up to the stables. It’s all mud between here and there.”
Amber swallowed her disappointment. “That was very thoughtful of you,” she managed. “I’ll just get my coat and boots on. Would you like to come in?”
“I’ll stay out here, so I don’t get mud all over.”
He was standing on the porch inspecting the ceiling when she came out in her unzipped parka. As far as she could tell, despite the roof’s snow load melting, the tongue and groove was tight and dry. He turned, glanced down at her feet. His mouth curved down and he shook his head as if exasperated.
“You’ll fall over before we get to the truck.” He swept her into his arms.
She did not want to like being carried by Calvin Bascom. But she did. His muscular arms felt strong and secure. The scent of his freshly shaven face was sandalwood and leather – and man. Half-aroused man. What the hell?
“T-thank you,” she stammered when he plopped her in the passenger seat.
“You’re welcome. Ever experience a Chinook before?”
“I’m from the Northwest. I’ll have you know, we invented the Chinook.” Like Calvin she said ‘Shinook’. But I’ll admit that we don’t have this much snow to melt, so we don’t get the drama.”
“It’s a real contrast all right. And it won’t last long.”
“It never does.”
He pulled into the parking lot outside the office.
“Thank you for the ride.” She opened her door.
“Yes?” Had to remember he was the boss.
“When you are done with morning stables, I want you to finish collecting the Bluefield data.”
“I only have Lane Six left to do.”
“Excellent.” His teeth were big and white in his broad face. “Can you turn what you found into a spreadsheet I can show Laura? Rhonda will set you up with a computer.” He indicated the office building.
Sixtyish Rhonda was the administrative assistant. She did payroll, answered the phone, called the vet, and generally was indispensable. Amber liked her a lot. “Sure. If you’ll speak to Carlos about it.”
“Of course. Let me know when you’re ready to go to the office. Those boots aren’t built for slush or mud.”
She felt her face heat. “I’m saving up,” she said through her teeth. She knew her boots were worn out and past their best before dates. But she had been raised on ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without’. When she had replaced her savings would be time enough for the extravagance of new boots.
A muscle ticced in his big jaw, but he didn’t comment. “Let me carry you to the stable.”
She slipped out of the pickup and faced him over the hood. “Best not. I already have a hard time getting the guys to take me seriously.”
His mouth went flat, but he let her slip and slide across the asphalt to the concrete path. Sticky mud clung to her boots and left her soles as slick as grease. She would have rather died than admitted that her socks were damp and her toes had been replaced by ice pops.
In the training ring, puddles of meltwater had pooled over the sandy surface. Evidently the melting had only gone so deep. Lance was towing a spreader full of sand with the tractor, filling the puddles to make the surface firm enough for horses. She waved and he waved back. She thought she heard a growl behind her, but probably it was just the tractor motor.
Carlos had all the hands in a huddle by the open front doors. Amber took her time scraping her boots off on the old-fashioned boot brushes. Her boots got cleaner. Her socks stayed sodden.
“Okay. Chinook rules,” Carlos said. “Amber, you’re the only one who doesn’t know what that means.”
“No, sir.” She tried to look alert.
“When the temperature fluctuates like this, we have to make sure that we don’t let our foals catch a chill. We’re taking advantage of the warm weather to air out the stables.” Carlos waved at the open doors. “But the Chinook will be done like that.” He snapped his fingers.
She tried to look intelligent, but she still had no idea what he meant.
“Every time you pass a door, check the thermometer. If it is below thirty-five degrees, shut it. And then shut all the other ones.”
She nodded. That made sense. “Keep checking the foals to see that they’re warm enough. And no mares or foals are to go out to pasture,” Carlos continued. “Too slippery. We don’t want any broken legs. Same for the yearlings. If it’s dry enough later, we can let the two and three-year-olds out. When Lance has the training ring dried out, we can exercise the mares and foals there. The yearlings will just have to wait. Understood.”
There was a chorus of, “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, get to work.”
* * *
Rhonda was hard at work at her desk when Amber got to the office. Even though Laura Bascom Holden was a billionaire, and the stud was a thriving business, no one would ever have guessed that from the state of the office. It was distinctly shabby.
The cream-colored paint on the wall looked decades old. The office furniture was frankly antiquated. All except for Rhonda’s black and pewter ergonomic workstation. It was state-of-the-art. So were the monitors on the walls. They looked as expensive and high tech as the ones in the tack room.
Rhonda was a comfortable middle-aged woman. Her bright red hair was not a color known to nature, but it suited her bubbly personality. She got up the second that Amber walked in carrying her muddy boots, which she had removed in the anteroom.
“Land sakes, Amber,” she cried. “Don’t bring those in here.” She was laughing. “We should call the Chinook the big muddy. I’ve got a little boot tray behind the ficus in the waiting room.” She bustled to the door and showed Amber where to stash her footwear.
“Calvin asked me to write up my notes,” Amber said. She held up her clipboard.
“I know all about it. I’m afraid you get to use my old computer. It’s a little creaky.” Rhonda looked down at Amber’s damp socks. “You’ll catch your death in those wet socks, honey. Let me see if I can find you some clean, warm ones.”
Rhonda was so matter-of-fact and practical, that Amber forgot to be embarrassed. She trailed behind the administrative assistant as she opened the door to Laura’s equally shabby office.
“Laura keeps a change of clothes in her wardrobe. Sometimes she has to change out of stable clothes to meet clients, and sometimes she has to get out of her suit so she can train.”
There was a basket on the floor of the wardrobe. Rhonda helped herself to a heavy pair of wool socks. “These will do.” She grabbed a pair of leather loafers. “I bet these will fit you.”
Amber looked down at her large feet. When you were nearly six-foot-tall, you came with feet that matched. “I don’t think Laura’s shoes will fit me.”
Rhonda laughed. “You’re nothing but a little slip of the thing compared to Laura. Besides, she’s just had a baby. She doesn’t know it yet, but her feet will never be the same.”
“Yeah. Most women go up a size after their first pregnancy. Doctors tell you it’s because your arches have collapsed. But it’s not. Your feet just grow.”
“Do you think that will be true for my sister?” Amber asked. “We’re twins. We’ve shared everything including shoes our whole lives. It’ll be weird not being able to do that.”
Rhonda laughed again. “Don’t tell me you would rather be able to share your sister’s high heels than have three beautiful nieces.” Amber had already shown her photographs of Bethany, Hope, and Stella. “You got any more pictures?”
Amber sat down on the visitor’s chair to swap her socks for Laura’s. Her feet slipped into the loafers as if they had been made half a size too large to accommodate those heavy socks. “I do.” She held up her wet socks. “Where can I put these to dry?”
“There’s a little rack in the bathroom.” Rhonda led the way out of Laura’s office, carefully shutting the door behind her. The bathroom had a shower stall, a sink, a commode and a heated rail. Rhonda switched it on. “We’re always having to dry stuff out. Old Mr. Bascom had this installed about twenty years ago, but it still works.”
Amber hung up her socks, Rhonda set the timer, and they returned to the large room where Rhonda’s workstation was surrounded by beat up metal and wooden desks. “We’ll just have ourselves a nice cup of coffee,” Rhonda said, “Take a look at those pictures of your nieces, and then we can get to work.”
Calvin found them sipping big mugs of coffee when he came in. Amber noticed he wasn’t wearing his boots either. So it wasn’t just non-Bascoms who were made to leave their boots in the waiting room. He looked a little surprised, but all he said was, “Is there any coffee left?”
“Do cows have horns?” Rhonda responded.
“Depends on whether they’re polled or not.” Calvin stalked over to the coffee pot and poured himself a mugful. He joined them at the round formica table. “What were you gals looking at when I came in?”
“Heather sent me some more photographs of the girls,” Amber said.
Calvin pulled out his own phone. “I have pictures of Laura’s twins.”
“New ones?” Rhonda demanded. She put her reading glasses back on and held out her hand for the phone. “Those babies are growing like bad weeds. I swear yesterday that little onesie fit little Kenny. And look at his toes trying to poke through today!” She shook her head and handed Cal back his phone.
Calvin was scrolling through the photos on Amber’s phone. “Is it my imagination,” he asked, “Or do these kids look bigger?”
“It’s your imagination,” both women said together. But they chuckled.
“Patrick can’t wait to get his family home,” Calvin said. “And I don’t blame him a bit.”
“Laura and Steve don’t know how lucky they are,” Rhonda said.
“Yes, they do,” Calvin said. He stayed chatting and laughing until his coffee was done. He stood up and pushed his chair back under the table. “I better get back to work. Carlos wants the mares and foals exercised on lunge lines. He’s not taking any chances that there is ice underneath the sand in the training ring.” He left as abruptly as he had come in.
Rhonda’s pleasant face was wreathed in smiles and she looked knowing. But she didn’t say anything beyond, “See you around, Cal.”
What was that all about? It was as though Calvin had come down to the office specially to drink coffee with them. Amber settled herself at the desk and computer that Rhonda showed her to. The computer compared favorably with the model she had used at Miller’s hardware. Now that was a real electronic antique.
It didn’t take her long to get her notes typed up into a neat chart. Calvin had asked for a spreadsheet. But what he really wanted was the data presented in a form that was easy to read. She made a report that summarized her chart.
And then it was lunch time. Amber sometimes ate at the big house with the Diegos, sometimes with Steve and Laura. Although she preferred to eat in her own cabin. Neither place was appealing today. She did not want to slog through the mud all the way over to the big house. Nor did she want to walk the shorter distance to her own cabin.
The outer door opened, boots stamped, and Lance poked his head in the inner door. “Hey, Amber. Rhonda. You want to grab a bite at my place, Amber?”
“You’re the answer to a prayer,” Amber replied. “Just let me get my coat and boots.” Lance usually walked to work. But today he had brought his pickup. He gave Amber his arm as gallantly as if they were going on a date and she was wearing something soft and feminine instead of her grubby work clothes. He opened the passenger door for her and gave her a bit of a boost onto the high seat.
“I was just wondering what I was going to do about lunch when you showed up,” she said.
“Roundabout lunch time, I realized I hadn’t seen you all morning. I had to ask around. Carlos said you were working in the office.”
“I’m typing up those notes I took on Bluefield’s labor reports.”
“That’s what Carlos said. But I got to thinking that the ground had turned to gumbo. And here I am.”
“And very glad I am to see you too. What are you going to feed me?”
“Well there’s the thing of it, I’ve asked you to lunch, but I was hoping you would do the cooking.”
“What have you got?” Amber asked doubtfully.
“The usual. Bread, baloney, couple of tins of tuna.”
Amber concealed a shudder. “I’ll see what I can cobble together,” she said good-humoredly.
“I’m sure it will be better than anything I’ve ever made. I do my best, but I’ll never make a cook.”
Fortunately, Lance’s refrigerator and pantry were not quite as bare as he had made out. With the tuna, cream of mushroom soup and noodles Amber found, she whipped up a tuna casserole. “If you had a little cheese,” she said, “I could make a topping.”
Lance smugly opened his freezer and took out tub of breadcrumbs and a package of frozen, grated mozzarella. “Will this do?”
“Just dandy.” By the time his oven pinged to let her know it was hot enough, Amber was ready to slide the flat oven-proof dish under the broiler. “This won’t take more than a couple of minutes to brown and heat through. And then we can eat.”
Lance was busy at sink washing up the things she had used to prepare the casserole. Amber began to open drawers. “Where do you keep your cutlery?” she asked.
“In here.” He angled his chin to a bank of drawers. “Top drawer.”
She laid the table, the timer beeped, and she took out the bubbling dish. Lance looked at the browned and crispy casserole as if he had never seen anything more beautiful. He hurried to put a potholder on the table to protect the surface.
It wasn’t fancy. But she hadn’t had much time or much choice in materials. But it was hot and filling, and Lance seemed deeply appreciative. He ate with the hearty appetite of a man who had been doing manual labor all day, and gave her so many compliments that she feared she was blushing.
“It’s just tuna casserole,” she protested. But his praise made even her chilly toes feel warm.
“It’s a lifesaver. I can’t tell you how tired I am of sandwiches.”
“Nothing wrong with sandwiches. Maybe you’re trying to make things that are too fancy?” Amber suggested.
Lance shook his head. “Only if you think that fried eggs are fancy. You never saw anything so hard and inedible. Whenever I think of those burritos you made me.” His voice trailed off.
“I’ll have to ask you to breakfast then,” she offered.
“I’d like that. I’m so tired of my own cooking.” He winked at her and passed his plate for seconds.
It was such a low-key, homey, ordinary meal. Amber enjoyed it thoroughly. It was extraordinarily pleasant to sit and make ordinary conversation about ordinary things while eating the most ordinary of everyday meals. And it was just as pleasant to clean up the kitchen afterward so they could rush back to work, as if they did this every day and had for years.
It felt ordinary too when she turned around from hanging up the dish towel to find his arms waiting for her. His kiss felt like coming home, even though the buzz it gave her was not the least bit ordinary.
“You know what?” Lance asked, “we should go to the grocery store together. I’d sure like it if you made me lunch every day.”
“That could be arranged,” Amber said happily.
He dropped her back at the office. She was putting her boots back on the tray when she noticed Calvin’s size seventeens dripping beside Rhonda’s miraculously clean and dainty pair. The inner door opened. His voice boomed, “Where the hell have you been?”
Rhonda’s chortle could have been heard by ears less sensitive than Amber and Calvin’s. His face flushed and his mouth closed with an audible snap. Amber took her time arranging her boots, slipped her feet back into Laura’s shoes, and straightened.
Calvin had swapped his jeans and scuffed cowboy boots for a western cut suit and a bolo tie. Fancy.
“I went to lunch,” she said mildly. “Why?” She was beginning to enjoy herself. It had belatedly dawned on her that the bear tracks Lance had followed had been made by Calvin. What was going on? It hardly seemed likely that Calvin Bascom, billionaire connoisseur of fashionable blondes, had taken a shine to simple Amber Dupré from the backwater of French Town.
“I came to take you up to the big house,” he said through his teeth. “I thought to save you a walk through the mud. And I figured you’d like to meet Laura’s babies.”
“I wish I had known,” she lied, edging past him into the office. “Hey, Rhonda,” she murmured politely.
“Are you finished that report yet?” growled Calvin.
“First draft is done,” Amber returned crisply. “I should be finished in about an hour.”
“Let me see what you’ve got,” he said. “No sense in editing it if it isn’t what we need.”
“Of course.” She used her sweetest voice. The one she reserved for the crankiest of the old guard who were sure a damfool female looking up their Miller’s Hardware order on a computer would land them with exactly the wrong piece of hardware.
She pulled up the file and opened it. And stood. “I’ll just put the coffee on,” she said.
Rhonda seemed to be having trouble catching her breath. She wheezed and bent over her computer. But Amber saw her lips twitching. Apparently Calvin was acting completely out of character. Amber Dupré must have charms that had become apparent only in the crisp Colorado air.
Her socks were dry. She detoured on the way back to her work station to cram them into the pocket of her parka.
“What have you got there?” demanded Calvin sharply.
“My socks. They were drying on the rack in the bathroom.” She used her soothing cranky old men voice again. Did he think she was stealing some of the office supplies?
Calvin’s jaw developed a tic. “This is exactly right.” He was going to need crowns if he didn’t stop grinding his teeth. Of course, he could afford expensive dental work.
“I’ll just look it over and tidy it up. Do you want me to send it to Laura’s email?”
Her task chair rose six inches when he stood. “Better send it to mine. Rhonda will know. I’m going into Laura’s office to update the breeding stats. Let me know when the Brewsters arrive.”
His suit and alligator skin boots were explained. He was going to show prospective clients around the stud, to sell them on putting their mares to stud. Owners were always rich – horses were an expensive hobby – and needed to be reassured by the appearance of wealth. And this down-at-heels office sure wasn’t going to do it.
“I forgot,” Rhonda said. “They called and rescheduled. They won’t be here until three.”
“Danged clients. Why do they think I specified 1:30? They are going to be tripping over evening stables.”
“The customer is always right.” Rhonda reminded him.
“I know.” Calvin’s voice was resigned. “And they are likely to send both their mares here next year when they see last year’s crop of foals. But I don’t know how Laura stands it.”
“She likes talking horses,” Rhonda said dryly. “I’ll tell Carlos the new time and you can tag team the Brewsters.”
Calvin grunted and went into Laura’s office. Amber returned to double checking her data and fixing typos. She thought of a different configuration that made the data easier to understand and made the changes. Color? Just a little to make the chart stand out. She was so absorbed that when Calvin bellowed she deleted an entire line of numbers.
He stalked into the outer office. “Rhonda, Laura’s going to kill me. I just wiped out six months of breeding records, and I don’t even know how. Is there a backup?”
Rhonda looked grave. “Sure. On the cloud and on a hard drive. But I don’t know how to access that material.” She hurried into the office and she and Calvin continued an anguished conversation.
Amber couldn’t see what all the fuss was about if they had two copies. She fixed her mistake and saved her report. Sent it to Rhonda as a read only file and leaned back to listen to the low-voiced argument. At least Rhonda’s voice was low. Calvin sounded like a bull moose in pain.
* * *
It was really the last straw when Amber casually strolled into Laura’s office with a mug of coffee in each hand and a big smile creating matching dimples. “What’s the problem?” she asked in that overly patient tone she had adopted since lunch. It fucking rubbed his nerves raw.
“I’ve corrupted Laura’s records,” he retorted. It was an awkward admission. He was unused to being incompetent. But this was no time for Miss Sweetness and Light’s cheeriness.
She placed his black coffee on the credenza behind him and handed Rhonda the other mug. “Not possible, if Laura has two separate backups.”
“We can’t seem to get to them,” Rhonda said. “And the files on the laptop are the ones that she worked on last. The copies won’t be as up-to-date.” She literally wrung her hands.
“Chill.” Amber was still irritatingly patient. “It’s hard to completely wipe data from a laptop. The file has probably not been overwritten yet.”
“Much you know about it,” Calvin informed her. “Before I noticed what I was doing, I made I don’t know how many changes and saved each one.” This was a right old snafu. And it was all his fault for bungling what should have been straightforward.
“It will still be there – somewhere. We just need to go through the files until we locate it.” If he wasn’t mistaken Amber was rolling her big, blue eyes exactly like a teenager confronted by the ineptness of her elders. Which wasn’t that odd if you thought about it. What was she? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? By comparison he and Rhonda were Methuselah.
“What do you think, Rhonda? Should we let her mess around with Laura’s files? Or should I get Steve to send one of his wizards out from Denver to fix this mess?” He could count on Rhonda to be the voice of reason.
“Just to recover some recently lost data?” Amber was grinning. “Don’t worry, I’ll find it.”
“Just so you don’t make it worse,” he growled. He wished he could wipe that know-it-all smirk off her face.
She slipped into the chair he had vacated. “Do you have a spare external?” she asked.
Rhonda nodded. “Steve insisted. It’s in the supply cupboard.” She looked relieved to have something to do as she headed out of the office.
Amber raised her brows at him, smirk still in place. “Okay we’ll start by backing up everything on this hard drive. And then we’ll use the external hard drive to transfer the data to another machine before we go looking.”
“How long will that take?” he demanded.
“Depends on how much is on this machine, and how many programs I will have to install in order to read the files,” she said absently as her fingers flew over the keyboard. The screen filled with code. Her lips pursed. “There’s a lot of stuff. Several hours,” she announced. “And then we will be ready to go hunting.”
His suspicions were aroused. “If you’re such a computer whiz, what the devil are you doing mucking out horses instead of doing IT?”
“For your information, I like mucking out horses! Besides, I don’t have any formal qualifications. Yet. But if that was a roundabout way of asking if I can do this? I can. This is computer 101. Nothing obscure. Just a bit tedious.”
Call him a paranoid bastard, but Mary Sunshine aroused all his suspicions. “And just where did you learn so much about computers?”
She grinned. “You can blame your cousin Zeke. When he married Jenna, he took over running the internet service for the Ridge. Improved the speed and quality out the whazoo. And then he donated twenty laptops to the library for long-term loans. Between us, Heather and I have pretty much had one at our disposal for the last couple of years.”
“So you’re self-taught?”
“Hmm. Hush. Let me focus.”
Rhonda returned with a bright blue metal rectangle which she had just removed from its cardboard sleeve. “Here you are.” She set the external on the desk.
And then there was nothing to do but remove himself from Laura’s office to contemplate his rearranged perception of little Amber. And track his package on Fed Ex. Belatedly it occurred to him to contact Steve. His call went to voice mail. Damn. Not that he was looking forward to confessing his blunder to Holden.
* * *
“Hey, Steve, how’s it going?” Amber asked.
“Just dandy. You gotta come by and see the twins. They need a cuddle from their Aunt Amber.”
She felt a warmth around her heart. “Do I get to be an aunty?” she asked lightly.
“Of course. You’re family. Pretty soon the trips will be out of hospital and we’ll have all five of them running amuck. We’ll need all the babysitters we can scrounge up.” Steve sounded happier and more relaxed than she had known him to be. Obviously having his wife safely delivered had lowered his stress levels. Not that he had seemed tense before, but he was now completely laid back.
“I’ll look forward to that,” she said. “But I called about something different.”
“Yeah? Not Prescott by any chance?”
“Lance? No. I’m trying to recover some lost data on Laura’s laptop. Looks pretty straightforward, but there are some encrypted files. Is that where the backup records are stored?”
“You’re messing with Laura’s records?” He wasn’t relaxed anymore.
“Calvin overwrote her data by mistake. I’m just recovering them. I’m transferring the entire hard drive to an external and I’m searching that. But I don’t want to be hacking into unrelated files.”
“What’s wrong with the backup on the cloud?” he asked.
“Nothing – except Laura doesn’t backup after every session. Turns out, Calvin overwrote material that is only on this machine.”
“She should be backing up automatically,” Steve said impatiently.
Amber laughed. “Why didn’t you set it up for her?”
Steve groaned. “Because it’s such a basic thing that I didn’t see the need to do it for her.” He paused. “Can you handle this, or do you need me to come down?”
“Well, it would be good to be able to access the data in the cloud and do a comparison of the latest files. But I can do that if you give me the password.”
“Doesn’t Rhonda have it?”
“Okay.” Steve rattled off a string of numbers and letters. “That’ll get you into her account. Then the files are separately password protected.” He read off a second string of numbers and letters. “Read that back to me.”
“You sure you can manage?”
“Except for the fact that the data is vital, it’s no big deal,” she reminded him. “Besides I’m still copying to the external. I’d go do something else in the outer office, except I think Calvin and Rhonda would go into cardiac arrest if I left the laptop unsupervised.”
Steve chuckled. “Rhonda is in her sixties. Computers are not instinctive to her. And Calvin pays people to do what you’re doing. He never does his own tech support.”
“I know. But this is so simple. Even I can do it.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Amber. When you get your diploma, I have a job for you.”
“In Denver? No thanks. I’m a country girl at heart.”
“I won’t hold you to that.”
This is material not previously published. ©Isadora Montrose, 2017