“What kind of a name is Georgia for a girl born in Texas?”
Jameson chuckled, then straightened and wiped the sweat off his brow. The summer sun was high above them, beating down on their heads as they stood in the east pasture. In front of them, Gertrude let out a low call, flicking her black tail in irritation. “I guess it’s the first name of some famous landscape artist,” he replied with a shrug. “Nica could tell you more.”
Alex scratched his nose, then waved away a lazy horsefly that was circling them as they examined the elderly dairy cow. “She should be fine,” the vet said, giving the cow a few pats on its rump. “I’ve got some ointment you can rub on her legs to keep the skin from getting irritated. I’ll send enough for the whole herd.”
Jameson had summoned his best friend and brother-in-law to the ranch that afternoon to look at a rash that was spreading among their dairy cows. Relieved to learn that it wasn’t serious, he stretched and pulled his hat off his head to run his fingers through his hair before replacing it. “How about we get out of this sun? Mama May made a fresh batch of lemonade. What say we help ourselves?”
Alex nodded and followed Jameson in the direction of the trail that led to the big farmhouse the MacAllens called home. “Whatever her name is, she sure is cute,” Alex said, continuing his commentary on Jameson’s newly hatched niece. “I bet Jack is over the moon.”
“You don’t know the half of it. He won’t shut up about how perfectly formed she is. Fingers of an artist, he keeps telling anyone who will listen, and a face symmetrical enough to be a work of art itself.”
Alex smiled. “Can’t blame your brother for being proud of what they’ve made.”
“She’s precious,” Jameson admitted. “But boy does she have a set of lungs on her. And when Lou brings Ezra over to visit and they’re both in the same room, it can be louder than a pair of skeletons making love in a tin coffin.”
“This place is fairly bursting with family,” Alex pointed out. “Now that all your siblings have paired off, it’s like the population of the ranch has doubled. Even though we don’t all live here, we spend enough time here to be straining the seams.”
Jameson nodded. “Why do you think I’ve been so fired up to buy that municipal property? The ranch needs to expand, not just to be competitive but because soon there will be too many MacAllens per square mile to support us.”
“Are you saying we breed like rabbits?” Alex said with a laugh. “Because your sister and I haven’t even had the talk yet.”
“It ain’t talking that makes babies,” Jameson said. “I thought you would have known that with all the biology you’ve studied.”
Alex shook his head. “You know what I mean. Still, three grandchildren in the last year. If this trend continues, your family tree will cast enough shade to cover half the county.”
His best friend and brother-in-law wasn’t just whistling in the wind. Although he slept where he always had, in a room in the big house where his parents also laid their heads, the rest of his several siblings had started coupling up and setting up their own household. Elijah and Lilah and their toddler, Luke, now lived in a two-story house on what used to be the northeast pasture. Jim and Peyton lived on their own farm not far away, but his brother still kept his cabin set in the far corner of the ranch, and the cottage by the lake was currently occupied by Nica and Jack. Mark was already talking about where on the property he’d build his house for him and his girl, Piper. “And if we don’t get more land, MacAllen housing will sprawl over half the pastureland,” he said as much to himself as to Alex.
It was an exaggeration, of course, but his need for the land was no less real. The MacAllen Ranch had recently been blessed with a few very successful seasons, and with the help of their adopted billionaire, Gavin Jeffries, his family didn’t have to worry about debt. It was the perfect time to capitalize on their windfall and expand. Changes in the meatpacking industry were leading to lower prices per head, a trend that would only continue as corporate control over the market squeezed out every penny of profit for shareholders who’d never set foot on a working cattle ranch before. For family businesses like his own, it was getting harder and harder to punch out a profit, and the only way to compete was to grow.
The only way to grow for the MacAllen Ranch was to purchase a plot of land the county had recently put up for sale. Jameson was offering a competitive bid for the land, but the county had suddenly stopped accepting bids. A little digging and some ingenuity from his youngest brother, Mark, and his brilliant girlfriend, Piper, had led to the discovery of a secret plan by the county to partner with a company that intended to put the worst of all possible structures on the old test farm—a prison.
The concrete they’re going to cover those prime pastures with is not only sacrilege, but it’s gonna play hell on the drainage and the local flora and fauna. Jameson frowned, hating to think of a piece of land he’d admired for decades being used in the way the county now intended. Good thing we now know what they’re up to so we can fight it.
He walked up the porch steps and into the big house that had been in his family for generations. The boards creaked a little as they turned down the hall toward the kitchen. The paint on the walls was a little yellowed, but his parents had kept the house in good repair. The kitchen had been redone when Jameson was a boy, the old stove replaced by an efficient gas one, but Mama May hadn’t allowed her husband to install a dishwasher, saying she had birthed her own dishwashers, so why waste money when it wasn’t needed?
She was in the kitchen now, bent over the bubbling pot on the stove, an array of jars and lids around her. Like the farm wives that had come before her, she put up all manner of preserves to eat when their contents were no longer fresh from the fields.
“Hey, y’all,” she said without turning around. “Lemonade is in the fridge.”
Jameson opened the fridge and removed the glass pitcher from it as Alex grabbed two glasses from the cupboard. Lemonade poured, they settled into seats around the small kitchen table. The tart but sweet liquid helped cool him down after the ungodly Texas heat.
Mama May wiped her hands on a dish towel and turned to them. “So what’s the diagnosis, Doc? Nothing serious, I hope.”
“It should clear up in a week or two,” Alex said after finishing his drink and licking his lips in satisfaction. “Nothing to get too worried about.”
“That’s always good to hear.” She bestowed a smile on the veterinarian before asking her next question. “And where is my only daughter? She said she’d be around to help with these preserves.”
Jameson knew his best friend well enough to be familiar with the nearly imperceptible lines that appeared on his face when he felt guilty about something. “Well, Mama May, she didn’t exactly check in with her schedule, but I did overhear a phone call this morning with Peyton that said something about a new litter of baby goats, so I suspect she’s at their place.”
Mama May looked up at the ceiling as if all the angels of heaven would descend to do her bidding. “That girl. I could never get her to do a lick of what she considered lady work.”
Jameson heard the front door open. “Maybe that’s her now.”
He should have known better, however, because it wasn’t his sister, Brenne, who strolled into the kitchen, but one of his seven younger brothers. Evan, the reformed black sheep of the MacAllen clan, stopped to kiss his mother on the cheek, then looked at Alex and Jameson appraisingly.
“I see this is what passes for work now,” he said, one eyebrow cocked.
“Says the man who faked a back injury to get out of chores for a month,” Jameson replied with no heat in his voice. Since Evan’s marriage to the lovely Dr. Sadie, he’d been a reformed man. “I didn’t see you in the stables this morning, even though you were supposed to muck out the stalls today.”
“Touché,” Evan said, holding up his hands in surrender. “I was on my way to the stables, but I got a call from Johnnie, who said there was something you needed to see.”
“Johnnie? Why didn’t he call me?” Jameson asked, wondering what game Evan was playing.
“Probably because you don’t answer half the time.”
It was true. Running the ranch kept Jameson busy, and it wasn’t always convenient to pull his phone out of his jeans every time it rang. Hard work kept his hands dirty and busier than his younger brothers might understand. “What did he have?”
Evan pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket. He passed it to Jameson, then grabbed a glass for himself and filled it with lemonade. Jameson unfolded the paper and read it, his eyes widening as he went.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” It was a flyer, although not one that seemed ideal for advertising because it held only text. That text was centered and small, not making use of the space at all. Public Forum, it said in bold. One sentence stood beneath the title, saying that a public forum to discuss plans for the municipal farm was going to be held at a branch of the county library.
“What is it?” Alex asked, having caught the anger in Jameson’s expression. Without responding, Jameson passed it over to him. “July fifth? Are they serious?”
Mama May leaned in over Alex’s shoulder. “This is what we were waiting for, right?”
Jameson nodded. “Ever since Piper found that statute that said a public hearing was required for any redevelopment of public lands, we’ve known the county would have to hold a hearing if they had any hope of building their prison legally.”
“But July fifth? And at eight a.m.?” Alex said, shaking his head.
“It’s the perfect date for them,” Jameson replied. I got to hand it to Miranda. She definitely did not just fall off the turnip truck. “She knows how folks around here like to celebrate our country’s birthday.”
“Folks will still be sleeping off their hangovers and doing the walk of shame from their one-night stands,” Evan added, narrowly avoiding a smack from his mother.
Anger washed over Jameson like a tidal wave. He snatched the flyer back and balled it up, muttering under his breath. “Trying to sneak this past the townspeople. I can’t believe her audacity.”
“Calm down,” Mama May said gently, moving to put a hand on his shoulder. “You know Miss Everheart is a good woman deep down.”
Jameson knew his mother was fond of the director of the county planning office, but ever since the governor had decided to flood their area with development grants, she’d become the bane of his existence. She was a mortal enemy who refused to back down. But she’s about to find out I got no quit in me either.
“This isn’t the action of a good woman, Mama. She’s not only screwing over our family but the entire town by plopping a prison in our midst. Is that really what you want to think about at night, lying in your bed, wondering about the murderers and rapists and thieves just down the road, itching to get out?”
Evan pulled his mother into his arms, shooting Jameson a dirty look. “Don’t be frightened, Mama. You’re well protected.”
Jameson held his tongue, even though he wanted to ask his brother if she’d feel protected when the prison became a reality. I’ve got to beat Miranda, he thought, focusing his anger into a sharpened blade to stab the harpy in her cold heart.