The sound of a shotgun being cocked, a bare second before the cold barrel came to rest against his nose. Though stillness reigned in his chest—his heart had stopped dead—there was a whole lot of movement in places much farther south. Places he couldn’t adjust due to the fact that his hands reached for the sky, in spite of the iron grip he maintained on his briefcase. He cleared his throat and tried not to look as fascinated as he felt with the rough-edged beauty on the other side of the shotgun. “This isn’t exactly a warm welcome to the Double O, ma’am.”
Dark blue eyes narrowed, emphasizing the lines around them created by too many years squinting against the sun. “Who said you were welcome?”
The woman had the voice of an angel, if an angel had been forced to spend a great deal of time in the constantly swirling dust that had descended on Creek Bend over the past few years. She was a bit hoarse, but so were most of the people in those parts. At least she wasn’t gargling with the effort of dislodging the grit from her lungs—probably due to the protective handkerchief she’d pulled down below her chin when he’d emerged from his automobile.
Fighting to keep his gaze on hers, rather than dropping it to run over curves barely contained in a ragged pair of men’s breeches, Sam did his level best to seem professional. “I’m looking for Opal O’Neal.”
The woman gave no quarter, and if the situation hadn’t appeared so dire, Sam would have leaped up onto the rickety porch the woman defended so fiercely and taken her into his arms. And kept her.
“My name is Samuel Hollister. I’m an employee of the River’s Edge Bank and Loan. I’m here to begin auditing the Double O ranch.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The shotgun moved a few inches down and to the left, giving Sam another look at the beauty wielding it.
She wouldn’t have been every man’s cup of tea, but she certainly suited Sam. Her skin was browned from the sun, faint lines marring what should have been a smooth surface. Her eyes seemed bluer for the hue of her skin and her full lips were a deep plum—a little chapped, but so were everyone else’s, considering the dust. She had a line of freckles crossing her nose and wisps of dark hair escaped from her thick braid to curl around her strong jaw.
She looked tired, worn-down and struggling to keep body and soul together. Just like every other resident of Creek Bend, except for the spirit she showed. Sam sighed and slowly lowered his hands, wishing he wasn’t the lowest ranking man employed by the River’s Edge Home Loan Bank Board. With another few years under his belt, he’d have had seniority and a nice desk, and wouldn’t have had to make the rounds to the unfortunates on the verge of losing everything.
“Are you Miss O’Neal?”
“I was,” she admitted. “Then I wasn’t, but now I am again.”
Sam cocked his head. “Pardon me?”
“O’Neal was my daddy’s name, not my married name.”
Sam’s heart, which started thrumming in his chest once he stopped staring down the business end of the shotgun, sank to his toes. “You’re married?”
“Not anymore. Since the bastard hardly did anything to my advantage while we were together, I didn’t feel the need to keep on pretending to be his after we parted ways.” The woman lifted her chin. “I petitioned the courts to get my name changed back to O’Neal.”
“A woman of courage.” The words slipped out on a warm current of relief that made Sam a little unsteady on his feet.
“A woman of confusion, Mister Hollister.” The shotgun jerked. “Why are you here to audit my ranch?”
“It’s in your best interests, Miss O’Neal. Considering the amount of money you owe the bank for your property, the River’s Edge Home Loan Bank Board sent me here to go through your paperwork and see what we can do about refinancing your mortgage.”
Opal dropped the butt of her gun to the wooden planks of the porch and leaned against it as if a good deal of strength had gone out of her legs. She opened her mouth, only to close it, then swipe at her hair, then repeat the process twice more.
Finally, she shook her head. “Why, in God’s name, would I refinance a mortgage I’ve nearly killed myself to pay off? I only have a thousand dollars left, then I’m in the clear. I’m certainly not about to add to my burdens, Mister Hollister.”
Sam could hardly believe his ears. “No, Miss O’Neal, you’ve barely paid half of what you owe. Are you not aware of—”
“Balderdash! You better check your papers again!” The shotgun flew back up.
So did Sam’s hands. “I understand how upsetting this may be, Miss O’Neal, but, please, let’s be rational! You can’t murder a man for bringing you bad news. Especially when he’s offering a solution.”
“I’m sure everybody ’round here will understand if I throw lead at a grifter looking to swindle me out my home!” She made a shooing motion with the gun. “Get off my property.”
“I am not a con man! I’m here from the bank!”
“Then you’ve got the wrong ranch.”
“Please!” Sam felt a trifle desperate, and yet he fell in love with the dangerous woman in front of him a little bit more. He liked strong, take-charge women. He appreciated a woman who stood up for herself and did whatever it took to stare life down and bend it to her will.
They were much more interesting than the sad-eyed women who were giving up the fight all over the region. “Let me show you the paperwork! I have proof I am who I claim to be.”
Slowly, the shotgun lowered. “Let me see it.”
“I have to open my briefcase.” Sam moved at a snail’s pace so as not to alarm Opal any further. He kept his eyes on her as he retrieved the bank’s paperwork and held it out to her.
It took her very little time to skim over it. “This says I owe five thousand dollars, Mister Hollister.”
“Yes.” Stretching his good fortune, Sam fished a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow.
“That’s impossible. The entire original mortgage was only seven thousand dollars and I’ve been paying it down for years.”
“Interest, Miss O’Neal. The balance is adjusted for interest, which increases the longer you don’t pay.”
Opal’s head snapped up and she pinned him with a cold, blue stare. “I pay every month. I wring myself out paying every month. I’ve done all I can to make enough money just to cover my mortgage payment and thank God every night this ranch is lucky enough to grow its own food so we don’t starve.”
“Your payments aren’t enough.” Sam’s stomach squeezed into a little ball. He hated giving people the particulars of their sorry financial state, but he—like Opal—thanked God every night he had a job that allowed him to eat. Though he often lost sleep because of it. “I’m sorry, I truly am, but—”
“This paper also states that I’ve been late several times. I haven’t.” Opal flipped to the second page of the report. “My interest isn’t three percent and my payments aren’t three hundred dollars a month, either. Good Lord! I could never afford that!”
“The mortgage agreement for this ranch contains a clause that allows the interest to rise a quarter of a percent every month you fail to make your payments on time.”
Opal jumped off the porch and slapped the paperwork to Sam’s chest. “I’ve never been late! None of this information is right, so I suggest you take your schemes to steal land to someone else’s ranch. There’re plenty of abandoned homesteads just a few miles out of Creek Bend.”
“I’m sorry, Miss O’Neal, but the proof—”
“Funny how your proof is different than mine!” The angry woman used the barrel of her gun to shove Sam back a step toward his automobile, parked under a massive wooden sign that had two metal circles hooked together. He’d assumed that stood for ‘Double O’.
Sam planted his feet. “What proof?”
“Oh,” she sneered, “you didn’t expect a woman to keep a hold of her paperwork, did you? You thought you could come here and bamboozle me out of my land with some cockamamie story about foreclosures and late payments? You’re a fraud, Mister Hollister, if that’s even your real name, and I will have you know that I will be filing charges against you with the sheriff in town!”
Sam took one look at Opal’s flushed cheeks and wild eyes and knew something was very wrong about the entire situation. She wasn’t simply denying the bank’s right to foreclose on her property unless she refinanced—though that issue was debatable itself—she was confident in her claims, and suspicious of his.
Sam slowly reached into his briefcase again, this time blindly searching for his identification. Once he found it, he held it out to Opal. “Miss O’Neal, I promise I am who I say I am and I am here for the reasons I stated. However, I don’t understand the confusion of this situation, so I’m asking to look over whatever papers you have to verify your claims against ours.”
“An audit.” Her lips twisted against the word.
Sam nodded. “I swear, I’ll get to the bottom of this.”