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When he found the kid sacked out on the hay he was supposed to be doling out to the horses in the barn, Keller Rafferty felt a spike of irritation. He’d thought after six months of this foster thing that he and Lucas had reached an accord, a balance of sorts, but maybe not.
Then he heard some chomping from the closest stall. He went to look, and saw his horse Blue contentedly munching on what was obviously fresh hay. He checked the stall next to him and found the little sorrel doing the same. He checked every one of the dozen stalls, down to the brood stall at the end, where the pregnant buckskin mare, Bonnie, gave him a curious look. It was a rerun every time.
Lucas had finished the job. He’d put in a full day working, to make up for the absence of two of Keller’s brothers who were gone this weekend, and had clearly been looking forward to dinner and some downtime when Keller had asked him to do the evening feeding.
“Now?” Lucas had asked. It hadn’t quite been a whine, but close.
“Some things can’t be put off just because we’re tired or shorthanded. Livestock feeding is one of them.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the kid had muttered. “I know, they eat before we do.”
And they had.
Great. Now I feel like an ass.
Keller lifted his hat and ran a hand over his hair. He’d only made the change to the cooler, straw Resistol this morning. He was stubborn that way, or so Mom said, waiting until it broke eighty to switch. And since she was usually right—about everything—he didn’t argue the point except to say if he was really stubborn, he would argue the point. That usually got them both laughing. And if it didn’t, the fact that she’d bought this one for him, the straw with the Cattleman crown and the ventilation holes in the shape of X’s, chosen because the style’s name was “All My Exes” after one of her favorite country songs, usually did. And they ended up hugging before she shooed him off to the day’s work. And he went, thankful that he only had one ex, and that she lived nowhere near Texas.
And neither of them ever mentioned the real reason he resisted setting the black felt cowboy hat aside for the hotter months. That it had belonged to the man they had both loved and lost. Kyle Rafferty had been killed overseas nineteen years ago in a place that made a dry Texas August look like a green jungle. And the family he’d left behind had never been the same.
But that they were still a family at all was because of the indefatigable Margaret Rafferty. A tornado of energy in a petite blonde with a pixie haircut, she had persevered, dedicating her life to raising alone the boys she had brought into the world.
As it always did, those thoughts brought on an echo of grief, one he doubted would ever go away. Some days it was stronger, some days more distant. Sometimes it swept over him with as much pain as if it were fresh, sometimes he was able to look back and smile. But in the beginning, at seventeen, he had barely been able to function at all, so overwhelmed had he been with pain and horror and anger.
And that’s where the kid is now. Cut him some slack.
It had been a little less than a year since Lucas Brock’s parents had died in a tragic crash ten miles out of Kerrville, where they’d been involved in preparing for the annual folk festival. The couple had shared a profound love for the music celebration, which of course meant their at the time twelve-year-old son loathed it and insisted on staying home in Last Stand with a friend.
It was the only reason the boy was still alive.
He reached out and nudged the kid’s foot with his own. Noticed the spots on the worn tennis shoes around the toes. Wondered if maybe he’d outgrown them; he seemed to remember his own feet growing an inch over one summer. And his mother explaining this was why the expensive cowboy boots could wait until he was full grown.
“Wha—?” Lucas opened his eyes and rose up on one elbow. Sleepy brown eyes widened when he saw Keller. “I finished,” he said quickly.
“I know. Good job. Now it’s time for dinner.”
“Oh.” Lucas scrambled to his feet.
“And Mom’s cooking tonight.”
“Oh!” He smiled then. It didn’t last, but it had flashed for a moment.
“Better get rid of that hay, though. You know how she gets.”
“I know,” Lucas said ruefully as he started to brush at the stuff that had such a knack for clinging to everything.
It was funny, the effort he had to make to talk to the kid, to try and relate. He saw mainly his family, and friends he’d known a long time, so he didn’t have to think about it much. With Lucas, however, he had to think a lot. All of which he supposed had a significance he didn’t really want to think about. He grimaced inwardly at the irony even as the thought formed.
So instead he made the effort. “I remember when I used to forget, and walk in and shed it all over her clean floor. I’ve never seen a volcano in person, but…”
Lucas glanced at him. “I’ll bet you cleaned it up fast.”
“You always jump to do what she says.”
He considered that, and the fact that Lucas was actually holding his gaze, not looking away as he usually did. “She’s earned it. She held us together. If it wasn’t for her, we’d all be scattered to the winds. This ranch would be condos or something by now.”
Lucas frowned at that. But then, slowly, he said, “The first time she gave me an order, I jumped, too.”
Something in the way he said it made Keller hold his gaze in turn and repeat the boy’s own question. “Why?”
“It was the first time I felt like…like I belonged here.”
Keller’s stomach knotted at the way he sounded. He tried for a little lightness. “Hey, my orders don’t make you feel that way?”
Slowly Lucas shook his head. “No, ’cuz she’s the boss.”
The moment the words were out the boy’s eyes widened, almost in fear. And Keller knew he was afraid he’d pissed him off, since he, nominally, was the guy who ran this place. So he didn’t try to hold back his laugh.
“Then you’ve got the lay of the land, kid,” he said with a grin. And was pleased when Lucas relaxed and went back to brushing off the hay.
That pleased feeling had him wondering, not for the first time, what it would be like to make this permanent. He might have made the first move, toward fostering Lucas, out of sympathy, but he’d gotten used to having him here now. And thinking about the kid leaving someday, if somebody else wanted to adopt him…no, he didn’t like that. Which surprised him; he’d never expected that.
Keller wondered how the kid would feel about him officially adopting him. He’d have to think about how to bring that up. Not just with Lucas, but with everyone.
They started toward the house.
“How bad do your toes hurt?” he asked when he confirmed his earlier guess by how the boy was walking rather gingerly.
Startled, Lucas gave him a quick glance before saying, “I…a little.”
“We’ll get you a new pair. In the meantime, maybe a pair of Cody’s will fit you better. In fact, maybe a pair of his boots, too. Better for working. Mine are too big, and Ry’s as well. And Chance only has combat boots.”
“What, he’s just going to give them to me?”
“Loan them.” Keller smiled. “Besides, we’ll probably have them back before he even notices they’re gone. You know how he gets.”
It was true that his youngest brother sometimes lost track of…everything when he was working on something with that quick brain of his, most likely something tech-related that none of the rest of them had a clue about. They laughingly called him Cody the Coder, which he inevitably answered with a twitch of his middle finger—except to Mom; she got only an eye roll.
But that was why this weekend Cody was at an exhibition in Dallas, of the latest and greatest in all the things he loved. Both Keller and their mother looked at it as an investment in the ranch. They were all fairly functional with computers thanks to Cody, and Keller himself kept the ranch records in a detailed software program his brother had developed for him to test out.
If it kept working as well as it had—and if he could ever get him to stop tweaking it—Keller thought he should really try to market it. There were unique aspects to running a ranch of any kind, no matter what you were raising, and Cody had covered them all. His last tweak had been to add an alarm notification, not when they were about to run out of hay or feed, that was already there, but when they should be about to…so they’d know if they weren’t on pace, and that maybe they should try to figure out why. He’d tied it to the current livestock population, and it updated all the data internally anytime they added to or subtracted from that number. Genius, Keller thought every time he used it.
And that didn’t even count his pets, the drones he kept building.
Out of habit they went inside by way of what his mom called the wash porch, because it had a tile floor, a boot scraper, a rack for boots that were too dirty or muddy, and a sink for washing up before dinner. But after today Keller had his mind set on a shower and some clean clothes. He sent Lucas on the same path; they’d both worked up a sweat today.
Mom’s cheesy chicken bake with pasta was perfect, and filled the hole he’d been building all day, especially since he hadn’t stopped for lunch in his drive to get the shoeing done. They’d had three of the working horses throw a shoe within a week, and that was one more than they had backup for. They had to be reshod, and he was the one who knew how to do it, so he’d spent the day over hot coals and an anvil. Which was what had precipitated the surrender to the straw hat this morning.
Lucas ate silently, keeping his eyes on his plate. Keller frowned inwardly; he’d thought they’d made progress there, too. And that since it was only the two of them and Rylan—his other brother, Chance, was as usual holed up alone at his place—with Mom tonight, that he might be more relaxed. He had been, for a while. Or at least Keller had thought so. Maybe he’d just been imagining it, been too hopeful.
He sighed inwardly, wondering if he’d let sympathy get the better of him in taking this on. Sympathy and the memory of what it felt like to lose the center of your life. But if he was serious about this adoption thing, he’d better get used to it.
When Lucas excused himself, a little too politely, to go up to his room and finish his homework before going back to school tomorrow, Keller noticed he took his plate, glass, and utensils and carefully put them in the dishwasher first.
When he was gone, Keller leaned back in his chair, fiddling with his fork.
“He was quiet tonight,” his mother said.
“Very.” He lifted his gaze to meet his mother’s. “I was hoping we’d made progress.”
“We have,” she assured him. “But I expected him to be a little withdrawn right now.”
“Keller, the festival is on.”
His eyes widened. Damn. Even when he’d thought about it earlier it hadn’t really registered that the Kerrville Festival was going on at this moment. He was usually aware of when it started from increased traffic in the area, but since it went on for nearly three weeks, he must have noted it and moved on.
“Crap. That was stupid of me. No wonder he closed up.”
“The anniversary date is coming up next week,” his mother said.
“Should we…do something? Like we used to do for Dad? Or would that make it worse?”
They had, in the beginning, acknowledged the date of his death by gathering at the cemetery out on Hickory Creek Road. It had been his mother who had, after several years, put a halt to that. They’d switched the date to his birthday then, and gathered to honor him, not to cry that he’d left them.
“I’m not sure. Everyone grieves differently. You know that. And there are so many stages…”
“And we spend a lot of time revisiting stages we think we’re past.”
“It would be a lot easier if it was a steady progression.”
His mother’s blue eyes were the tiniest bit shinier, and he knew, as always when speaking of his father, she was feeling the pain that never completely faded. But she’d always insisted they all speak about him. And looking back, he thought it the wisest course.
“It’s not meant to be easy, honey. I’ve always looked at the pain as a measure of the love. If we got over it easily, what does that say about that love?”
He couldn’t think of anything to say, and he doubted he could get words out at this moment anyway. So he reached across the table and took her hand in his. That small yet utterly capable hand, not soft and delicate but strong in that uniquely feminine way that could outlast the strength of any man, given the motivation. He had no doubt of that, not when he’d had this woman as an example all his life.
She spoke quietly. “Maybe we should just confront it and ask him what he wants. And—” she squeezed his fingers “—if I haven’t said so lately, I’m very proud of you, for taking on that poor boy.”
His mouth twisted wryly. “Moment of weakness.”
“Moment of compassion.”
“Maybe.” He let out an audible breath. “I sure never saw myself as a foster parent.”
“I know. That reminds me, I saw Lark Leclair in town this morning. She asked how things were going.”
“Could be better, could be worse.”
“About all you can ask for in life, isn’t it?” He smiled at that. “Why don’t you call her, find out if she has any advice on what to do?”
The woman who had walked him through getting custody of Lucas as a foster parent—to the point of calling on his old classmate and now police chief Shane Highwater to vouch for him—had spent several years working with Child Protective Services, and had likely encountered situations like Lucas’s more than she cared to remember. So he would take Mom’s advice and call her. Besides, he wanted to talk to her anyway about the next steps if he was going to proceed with the adoption.
“And by the way, she was sporting an engagement ring. Kane obviously popped the question.”
“Well that’s hardly a surprise,” he said with a grin.
“He’s come a long way. It’s quite admirable.” She sighed. “That’s the last of the Highwaters married or engaged now.”
He gave his mother a wary look. “That was a bit pointed.”
“I want my boys happy. So sue me.”
“We are happy.”
“Content, maybe. Cody and his gadgets, Rylan and his craft, Chance and his dogs, you running the ranch—”
“Ha. Everybody knows you run this place and I just dance to your tune. Even Lucas knows it.”
She blinked. “Lucas?”
“He told me you were the boss.” He smiled at her then, this indomitable woman. “He said just today that the first time you gave him an order, he felt like he belonged.”
The smile she gave him in return at that made him very glad he’d shared that moment. But then, when her gaze narrowed, he knew he hadn’t escaped. “That’s lovely. Thank you for telling me that. But quit trying to divert me. As I was saying, you boys are content, but there’s a difference between content and truly happy.”
He never knew what to say when she got on this particular horse, so as usual he clammed up and said nothing. He’d tried for that romantic gold ring once, and it had been a disaster. And only at the end had he realized Anna, his ex, had expected him to tire of ranch life and come back with her to the city, just as he had expected she would grow to love ranch life and stay here with him. Neither was going to happen, and so that gold ring got melted into a shapeless nugget he kept on his dresser as a reminder to believe what people did, not what they said. And over time he’d settled into simply not letting what anybody outside the family or his closest friends said or did matter at all, at least not in a personal way. And it worked.
He was, as his mother said, content.
Happy, he told himself, was overrated.
End of Excerpt