Katie and Rocky sat in companionable silence, with Rocky humming along to some country song playing quietly on the radio and Katie staring out the window at the rolling hills and bright green fields.
“First time in Montana, Miss Katie?” Rocky asked, smiling at her before looking back at the road. Katie hesitated, but decided it would be easier to tell the truth than some elaborate lie.
‘I’m already lying to these people about my name and my background. I can barely keep those lies straight! I should just avoid adding more to my already ridiculous false story,’ Katie thought.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Rocky,” Katie answered. “I’ve actually never lived outside of a city.”
“Gonna keep calling me sir, hon?”
Katie’s hands flew to her mouth and her eyes got bigger as she realized she disobeyed him.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Rocky! I promise, it won’t happen again. I’m so very sorry.”
Katie had almost plastered herself to the passenger’s side door, trying to put as much space between herself and Rocky as possible. She crouched in on herself, waiting for the inevitable blow. Instead of pain, though, Katie just heard Rocky laughing again.
“You don’t have to apologize, hon,” Rocky said, still chuckling. “I was just teasing. Tell you what, you call me Rocky and I’ll call you Katie, no more miss or mister. Sound good?” Rocky glanced over at her and saw how Katie was cowering away from him. He frowned, concern showing on his face.
“Hey now, hon, no reason to be scared. I ain’t gonna hurt you,” Rocky said, worry in his voice. Katie didn’t move and Rocky’s frown deepened. “Katie, honey, it’s all right. Truly. Nothing to be scared of. You okay or should I pull over so you can get some air?”
Katie slowly untangled herself and gave Rocky a weak smile.
“No, Mist-, uh, I mean, Rocky, there’s no need to stop. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to worry you.” Katie couldn’t look at Rocky, her cheeks red from shame. She grabbed her bag out of the footwell and held it tightly against herself.
‘Stop freaking out! Now he’s going to be suspicious. Just calm down and breathe.’
Rocky continued to frown at her out of the corner of his eye, but he wisely dropped the subject.
“So what made you leave your city life and come about as far away from civilization as possible?” Rocky asked.
“Just, um, just needed a change, that’s all. When I saw Mr. Buchanan’s ad, I thought working on a ranch would be a nice change of pace,” Katie said out loud. Silently, she thought, ‘Plus, no one knows me here and the only people I’ll have to deal with are the ranch hands. I guess people in town, too, if I want to take a three hour round trip to pick something up.’
Rocky hummed to himself, as if he was thinking over her answering and deciding if it passed muster.
“Well, a ranch is certainly a change from big city living,” Rocky finally said with a laugh. “I think you’ll like it, though. It’s nice and quiet. All peaceful like. Well, unless the animals start acting up and they do have a tendency to do that!”
Rocky laughed again and Katie finally stopped tensing, sitting back in the seat and putting her backpack back in the footwell.
“I’m not sure I’ll have much to do with animals. Mr. Buchanan wasn’t very specific about the job, other than he needed someone good with both numbers and computers,” Katie said.
Rocky chuckled again. “Yeah, poor Cash has had a hell of a time doing the books and inventory. His old man was in charge of all that, but...” Rocky trailed off, his face showing a deep grief he was still processing.
“Oh, I was under the impression that Mr. Buchanan had been running the ranch for quite some time,” Katie said.
“Oh, goodness, no! His folks, they...” Rocky sighed, that sadness returning. “Well, I might as well tell you, since you’re gonna be living here and all. Cash’s folks were killed in a car wreck coming home from a cattle auction four years ago. Poor Cash was only 23 and now he had the whole ranch to take care of, all by himself.”
Katie’s mouth dropped open in shock.
“Wait, Mr. Buchanan is only 27?” Katie asked, her voice high and nervous.
“Yes, ma’am,” Rocky replied. “Although you talk to the boy now, you’d think he’s 47. He’s been carrying the entire ranch on his shoulders and it’s definitely taken its toll. I’ve helped him as much as I can, well, hell, we all have but Cash is as stubborn as his Daddy. Lilah, Cash’s momma, used to say that Buchanan’s were born with rocks for skulls! Never listen to anyone, have to do everything themselves. Hell, the only person Eli, Cash’s daddy, would listen to was Lilah!”
Rocky started laughing, completely missing the panic on Katie’s face.
‘No, no, no, Mr. Buchanan was supposed to be some old rancher who wouldn’t even notice I’m around! What the hell am I supposed to do now?’ Katie glanced over at Rocky, then asked, “So, Mr. Buchanan’s not married then?”
Rocky threw back his head and laughed so loud, Katie was a little afraid he would hurt himself.
“Cash, married? Haha, goodness, no! That boy’d have to leave the ranch to meet a nice lady and he hasn’t left the ranch in ages.”
“So who gets supplies from town?” Katie asked. “I mean, you guys do go to town right?”
“Of course, hon,” Rocky laughed. “We might grow some food on the ranch, but not nearly enough for all the hands. No, Ruby goes to town twice a week to pick up supplies and the hands go whenever we have shipments for the ranch come in. Plus, we have a rotating schedule so every weekend a quarter of the hands go to Billings.”
“Billings is almost four hours away!” Katie cried, shocked. “They go all the way there just for two days?”
“Men get lonely, hon,” Rocky replied. “Especially the younger ones who haven’t worked on ranches very long.” Rocky paused and glanced over at Katie, noticing how pale she’d gotten. “You know you’re safe on the ranch, hon, right? Cash runs a tight ship and he and I keep everyone in order. No one’ll bother you. Not unless... Well, unless you become interested.”
Katie had started violently shaking her head back and forth before Rocky even finished.
“I’m not interested in anything or in starting any type of relationship,” Katie said with a note of panic. “I just want to do my work.”
“Then that’s what you’ll do, hon. Don’t worry a thing about it,” Rocky said.
They sat in silence for a little while before Katie asked Rocky something that had been bothering her.
“When...when I spoke to Mr. Buchanan, he said no other women worked on the ranch. But you mentioned a Ruby. Who’s she?”
Rocky chuckled, shaking his head in amusement. “Ruby’s our cook. His real name is Robert, but God help anyone who calls him that. He’s been with us for, oh, seven years now, I think. Best damn cook we’ve ever had and he’s got no plans on leaving us.”
“So...why Ruby?” Katie asked.
Rocky laughed and shook his head. “I honestly don’t know where Ruby came from, but he loves it and won’t answer to anything else. He’s a bit...oh, flamboyant, I guess. As gay as the day is long. Wears the most ridiculous outfits, always with sparkles or feathers or other nonsense. He’s probably the nicest person on the ranch. Loves taking care of everyone, making sure we’re all happy and fed.” Rocky glanced at Katie, eyeing her up and down. “Soon as he sees you, he’s gonna try and feed you everything in the house!”
Katie smiled, already looking forward to meeting Ruby. ‘He sounds safe. Definitely someone I could try and be friends with. ... If I remember how to make friends,” Katie thought rather bitterly.
“You’ll probably see Ruby more than the rest of us,” Rocky said. “He works in the big house all day, like you’ll be doing.”
“Oh, does he live there too?” Katie asked. “Mr. Buchanan said my room was in the main house, but he didn’t mention who else lived there.”
“Nah, Ruby’s got his own little cottage. Eli had it built special for him and Ruby just loves it. It’s right off the main house, next to my cabin. The rest of the hands stay in bunks. Only other person who lives in the big house is Cash.”
Katie bit down on her lower lip, uncomfortable with the idea of living alone in a strange house with a strange man. Rocky saw the nervous look on her face and smiled gently at her.
“We already set up your room. One of the nicest guest rooms and it has its own bathroom attached. Door locks too.”
Katie gave an internal sigh. ‘Well, he definitely added that last part just to make me feel better. I’m doing a rather terrible job of hiding my reactions.’
Before Katie had a chance to reply, the truck drove over the crest of a hill and Katie gasped. Spread out in front of her was an enormous, beautiful house with a half dozen smaller buildings and four huge barns. There was a lake glittering behind the main house and a perfect view of snow-capped mountains in the distance. Rocky looked over at Katie and smiled.
“Welcome to Skyheart Ranch, Katie.”