"Don’t push things if they put up a fuss," Hannah said. "Some of the cats are feral. We give them shots, spay or neuter them, then try to find farms where they can be barn cats. Take your lead from the animals." She turned to leave.
"What if one gets away from me?" Morgan said, beginning to panic a little at the thought of being alone among all these cages.
"As long as you keep the main doors shut, you’ll be fine." Hannah assured her. "Just come back up front when you’re done."
Left among the animals, Morgan didn’t know where to start, but she approached the cage of an orange tabby and cautiously opened it. The cat, interested, came over to inspect her, sniffed her outstretched hand and consented to be picked up. Morgan sat down on the floor and held the purring cat in her lap, stroking her fur and allowing her to sniff her, in return. The cat seemed in no hurry to run away from her so after a moment she relaxed and was rewarded when it curled up in her lap.
After a few minutes, she reluctantly put the animal back in its cage and took another one out, repeating the process. This one was more wiggly and she wasn’t able to pet it as long before it made an effort to get away. Once she safely had it back in its cage, she moved on to the next one.
Soon she realized she was moving methodically through the cages because she wanted time with each animal before she had to leave. She began to understand how Bella could become obsessed with saving them all. How could you choose which one to keep or let go? They were all so beautiful.
A few crouched in the back of their cages, hissing and spitting when she reached out to let them sniff her hand. Those she let be, but when she cuddled her tenth cat, a lovely black and white one who liked to nuzzle her under her chin, she had to laugh when she thought back to her confrontation with the Mathesons.
Who cared about Holt or Jake or Ned? These kitties didn’t judge her because she was a Tate instead of a Matheson, or because she wanted a vineyard instead of cattle. They accepted her presence – reveled in it – without question.
Some humans could learn a thing or two from these fluffy balls of fur.
When she finally did leave, after cuddling every cat in the building that would let her near, she felt much better. Hannah smiled at her. "Are you hooked yet?"
"You bet. I still don’t see how Bella can afford to feed all those animals, though."
"The bills are crazy," Hannah confided. "I’ve been working on some plans, though."
"Really? Anything I can do to help?"
Hannah brightened. "Do you mean that?"
"Sure." It was better than stewing about Holt.
"If you want to join me for lunch soon I could show you what I’ve got so far. I could use someone to bounce ideas off of."
"Sure. I’ll call you later in the week." Morgan left the office much happier than she’d been when she arrived. Between the furry therapy she’d received from the cats, and the promise of a lunch date with Hannah, she thought she could take on Holt and all his sons.
Besides, she had made her first friend in Chance Creek unconnected to Rob or the Cruz ranch. In some small way, she’d sent down a thread of a root into the community she wanted so badly to join.
Right before dinner on Sunday, Rob parked in the lot at the Chance Creek Regional Airport and climbed out of his Chevy. He couldn’t believe only a little over a week had passed since he and Morgan landed here. So much had happened in the intervening days.
He was dog tired and he still had hours of work ahead of him at Carl’s place tonight. He’d managed to get some equipment in and the acre plot was mowed and tilled within an inch of its life, but it had been much harder to find a mason. He had two kinds of rocks on order; rounded river rock for the perimeter fence, and flat shale for the raised beds. While the mason worked on the fence, he’d tackle those beds himself.
He’d done his best to lay out the garden’s primary features in a pattern as similar as possible to the magazine photo Carl had given him. Carl himself had ordered the fountain, so tomorrow a contractor was to come in and lay the pipe. He’d also put in a sprinkler system throughout the garden. Rob would have to take an hour or two off of his day with Ethan to make sure the man understood the plans he’d dropped by his office.
Entering the airport, he waited for Jamie and Claire’s flight to come in. He was excited to tell Jamie about moving onto the Cruz ranch, and looked forward to hashing out ways their business interests could line up. Morgan had lectured him about waiting at least until tomorrow to discuss that, however. She said Jamie and Claire would be too exhausted from their travels to talk business tonight.
He understood that. He was almost too tired, himself.
When the happy couple finally deplaned, they did look a little done in. Both were tanned, and they were holding hands, but Claire was quieter than usual.
"You two okay?" Rob asked, when they met up.
"Better now that we’re off that plane," Jamie said.
"Three flights and I sat in front of a screaming baby twice," Claire said. "My head is pounding."
"Let’s get you home," Rob said. He kept his mouth shut about all of his news, grateful for Morgan’s advice now. This was definitely not the time to spring his plans on either of them. When they reached their new log home, he helped unload their luggage and prepared to take off.
"Any chance you could fill in for me again tomorrow morning?" Jamie said, leaning against his truck. "I want to make sure Claire’s better before I get back to work."
"Great. I’ll call Ethan and let him know."
"I can tell him myself," Rob said. "I’m heading back that way now."
"Really? Helping him with evening chores?"
"Nah – just popping home for dinner." When Jamie looked confused, he elaborated. "Morgan and I are staying in the spare room at the bunkhouse; until we buy some furniture and get moved in over at your old cabin."
"My cabin? Why aren’t you on your own ranch?"
Rob realized he’d put his foot in it. "I was going to tell you tomorrow; you two looked too bushed to talk it over tonight. I’m buying 150 acres from you and Ethan. That’s where Morgan and I are going to settle down. We’ll put in her vineyard and eventually build a winery there. Meanwhile I’ll help you and Ethan and maybe the two of us can team up on that horse-breeding business. In time, I want to offer rodeo riding lessons. It’ll all play into the guest ranch business." He grinned, happy now that he’d had a chance to lay it out for Jamie, after all.