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Porter Cole leaned against the paddock fence and looked out over the group of sixth graders with his Stetson pulled low over his eyes. He was only half listening to his twin brother go on and on about dude ranch technicalities—how many guests they were expecting this fall, how they weather-proofed the barn, blah, blah, blah. Brooks had a tendency to ramble, especially when he was talking to kids. It was like he had this boredom radar. Whenever he sensed that anyone younger than fifteen could be halfway interested, he had to age at least thirty years and start talking about the most mind-numbing things. Exhibit A…caulking.
Porter rubbed the back of his neck. No, what kids this age wanted to hear about was the gross stuff. The stuff they could elbow each other in the ribs about, while laughing behind their hands. If Porter was giving this speech, he’d probably start out with cattle worming, and go from there.
“And that’s how we keep things nice and dry for the animals,” Brooks finished, looking pleased with himself. “Any questions?”
Spindly arms shot up like weeds in a garden.
“Yes,” Brooks said. “You in the blue.”
“Does it always smell so bad out here?”
“Well, it kind of does. But you get used to it.”
The kids murmured in agreement.
“Are you a real cowboy?”
There was a collective ooohhh that moved through the squirmy group.
“You, right over there.”
“Do you rodeo?”
This from a boy who was standing off by himself. His small, freckled face looked sad and hopeful at the same time. Porter watched him, watched how his pretty, young teacher reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, as if she knew why he’d asked this particular question.
“No,” Brooks said, “I don’t, but I have friends who do. Anyone else?”
Brooks continued answering questions—did they have any baby animals on the ranch? Did horses sleep standing up? Is it true that you can burn cow patties, because my uncle said you could…
Their small voices faded into the background, as Porter kept an eye on the little boy and his teacher. She leaned down to say something in his ear, but he didn’t answer. His shoulders looked stiff, his back rigid—like he was carrying a weight.
She straightened, brushing her dark, wavy hair away from her face, and moved over to another student who was doing the potty dance. Her teacher’s assistant had already taken a small group to the bathroom, but still hadn’t reappeared.
Porter was about to offer himself but looked over when the redheaded boy shoved another boy in the arm.
“Take that back!”
“Knock it off, runt.”
And that was it. Before Porter could stop him, the smaller boy launched himself at the bigger boy, and they fell into a tangle of boys in the dirt. And probably some manure, too.
The kids squealed. “Fight! Fight!”
Porter lunged forward, grabbing the redheaded kid by his jacket and yanking him off. But not before the bigger boy got a solid smack in. Blood trickled from the smaller boy’s nose, and he wiped it furiously away with the back of his hand.
The teacher helped the other kid up, and they all stood there stunned.
“He pushed me!” the bigger boy cried.
“Because you called me an orphan. I’m not an orphan, you jackass!”
“Cat!” This from their teacher who shot him a warning look. “That’s enough.”
“Tell him that’s enough.”
“Why don’t you go back to Missoula already?” The bigger boy stood there breathing hard. He was especially stunned. Probably because he hadn’t expected to be tackled by a kid half his size.
Porter and the teacher locked gazes. She looked apologetic. Maybe embarrassed that her field trip had gone south so fast. She didn’t need to be. Porter was used to all kinds of mishaps on these adventures. Last month a first grader had fallen and chipped her tooth on her own boot. He still had no idea how that was even possible.
Behind him, Brooks had managed to corral the kids and interest them in something other than the lingering drama of the fight. The history of Diamond in the Rough Dude Ranch, and how its original settler had been a real-life gunfighter. Porter guessed that’d be enough to keep them occupied for the next five minutes or so.
The teacher stared down at the boy she’d called Cat and frowned. “I think that might be broken.”
Porter didn’t think so. He’d seen a lot of broken noses in his time, his own included. But it wouldn’t hurt to get it checked out, just in case.
“Should we call his parents?” he asked.
“He doesn’t have any parents,” the bigger boy mumbled, brushing off his jeans.
“Alec,” the teacher bit out. “Go.” She pointed toward the group of other students. “We’ll talk about this later. I’m going to have to call your mom.”
Alec glowered at the ground and shuffled off.
Looking back at Porter, she took a steadying breath. “I’m actually Cat’s guardian at the moment,” she said. “He’s my student, but he’s also staying with me.”
Huh. Interesting. Porter glanced down at the boy, who was staring at his scuffed tennis shoes. His shoulders were hunched, his red hair sticking up in the back. There was a tag poking out of his jacket, askew, like it was recovering from the excitement of the morning, too.
Porter touched his elbow. “We should probably take you to the doctor, just to make sure that thing isn’t broken.”
The boy shrugged. “Sure.”
“I can drive you,” Porter said, glancing back at the teacher. “We’ll be back here before they have their lunch.”
“I’ll need to tell Becky. She’s still in the bathroom with the kids.”
“I don’t care if it’s crooked,” Cat said. “My dad has a crooked nose.”
“Yes, but probably not because he wanted one.” His teacher looked up at Porter again. “I’m Justine, by the way. Justine Banks.”
Porter shook her hand. Her skin was powdery soft, and surprisingly warm in the crisp morning air. But her grip was firm, no-nonsense. “Porter Cole,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
“And this is Cat.”
The boy was still staring at his shoes, so Justine clarified for him. “Because he’s scrappy,” she said quietly. “His real name is Tom. You know…tomcat…”
Porter smiled at that. “It fits,” he said. And it did. This kid was a pistol. But he also seemed melancholy. Whoever his dad was, wherever his dad was, it was obviously a tender subject in his young heart. Porter understood this, as his own complicated father had been a tender subject his entire childhood.
“I’ll go pull the truck around,” he said.
Justine Banks, the pretty teacher with eyes the color of the Montana sky above, smiled. And he saw then that she wasn’t just pretty, she was actually stunning. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
His heart skipped a beat. As far as middle school field trips went, this was turning out to be a humdinger.
Justine clutched the throw blanket to her stomach and looked down at Cat, who was watching TV with his chin in his hands. He was small for his age, his red hair permanently messed-up. He looked like he’d just come inside from a windstorm, but he’d actually just gotten out of the shower. Apparently, it dried that way. His freckles were scattered across his cheeks like confetti—as if someone had tossed them there, and they’d stuck. He was an adorable child, but Justine was used to adorable children. Being a teacher had desensitized her to things like freckled cheeks and cowlicks. It was the inside of a person that really counted. And inside, Tom Roberson was damaged.
That undisputable fact did something to her that she hadn’t been prepared for when her dearest friend had asked for a favor this summer. What was supposed to have been a few weeks, had turned into a few months. And if Justine was being honest with herself, if they were all being honest with themselves, it was looking like Cat wasn’t going home to Missoula anytime soon.
She held out the blanket, resisting the urge to wrap him up in it like a burrito. His thin arms looked cold sticking out of his worn T-shirt, and he wasn’t wearing any socks. Her 1920’s bungalow had a tendency to get chilly in the evenings, and tonight was no exception, with an early fall storm brewing outside.
“Hey, Apollo Creed. Want this?”
He smiled, not showing any teeth, as usual. Those smiles were rare, but she’d gotten a few. She coveted them. There was a faint, dark smudge below one of his blue eyes. His nose hadn’t been broken after all, and he’d avoided the worst of a shiner, but it still looked sore.
He was a tough little guy though, and gazing down at him now, her heart swelled. She didn’t want it to swell. In fact, she hadn’t meant to get attached at all. Justine had a busy job. Maybe not so busy a social life, but still. She’d been offered a dream job teaching in the UK next year, thanks to her connections with a college girlfriend, and she was planning on saying goodbye to Marietta, her sister, and her dad, in the summer. At least temporarily. And now it was looking like she was going to be saying goodbye to Cat, too, which filled her with a sense of sadness that unsettled her.
“Thanks,” he said, and reached for the blanket.
Justine picked up the remote and turned down the cartoon, Phineas and Ferb, his favorite—then sat next to him with a sigh. He smelled like baby shampoo. When he’d first come to stay with her, there hadn’t been much notice. She’d gone shopping in a rush and had grabbed random things off the shelf, not thinking it would matter much. Now, all these weeks later, he was still using the economy bottle that boasted no more tears, and if he minded, he never said so out loud.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you ready to talk about today?”
Frowning, he looked at the TV. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Cat. I think there is.”
“He started it.”
“But you didn’t have to finish it. You know better.”
Actually, she wasn’t sure he did. Just because she was now his guardian, didn’t mean he’d absorbed any of her lectures. He was a lost boy, looking preoccupied at the moment, and older than his years. He had good reason. His mom had died when he was in kindergarten, and he hadn’t seen his father since he was a toddler. Nola, Justine’s teaching mentor from Missoula, was his maternal grandmother, and had official custody. She’d done a wonderful job of raising him so far, but now, even that home had been turned upside down. Poor Cat. Except for Nola, and now Justine, he really didn’t have a soul in the world.
So, did he believe there were better ways to settle an argument than with his fists? No. Probably not.
Justine sighed. “I’m just glad that Alec’s parents were so understanding. They could’ve pushed for suspension.”
At the mention of Alec’s parents, Cat winced. It was small, almost imperceptible, but she caught it.
“Alec James is a big, fat turd.”
His tone was so matter-of-fact, that Justine had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. It was true. Alec was a bully. He was big and rotten, and mean as a snake. But Cat still shouldn’t have tackled him.
“I know. I shouldn’t fight.”
She knew he was struggling with this and wished for the hundredth time that there was some way to reach him. To touch what was hurting inside. But he was far away, locked inside his own little bunker where people and circumstances couldn’t hurt him. She identified with this more than he knew.
“Did you call Porter?” he asked suddenly.
She blinked at that. She hadn’t known he’d been paying much attention to her conversation with the tall, green-eyed cowboy who’d driven them to urgent care that morning. She’d been trying to hide her own reaction to Porter Cole for the better part of that hour, since it involved sweaty palms and a fluttery heartbeat that was very un-Justine.
“I don’t…I didn’t…”
Cat eyed her, clearly not going to let her off the hook that easy. Porter had asked her to let him know how Cat’s nose was. Justine decided that was just a nice thing he’d said, and she hadn’t planned on following through. He made her nervous, and Justine didn’t like being nervous. She liked being calm and cool and in control. It was what had protected her from most of life’s messiness up to this point. If you were cool as a cucumber, as her dad liked to put it, people kept their distance. Easy peasy.
“You said you would,” Cat said.
“I know. But I don’t think I kept his number.” It was a stretch, and she knew it.
“Google the ranch’s number.”
“I guess I could…”
“You know who his dad is, right?”
She knew. She hadn’t known that Cat did, though.
“Eddie Cole,” Cat went on, answering his own question. “Isn’t that weird? Don’t you think he kind of looks like him?”
Justine did think he looked like his famous rock star father, who’d retired in Marietta to open a music store. Mistletoe Music. Just another reason Porter made her nervous. Tall, dark, and sexy, with celebrity roots.
“Will you call him, Justine?” Cat asked. For whatever reason, this was important to him. And he’d been let down enough lately.
She laughed. “Okay, okay. What’s the rush?”
“I just don’t want him to think you forgot.”
“You’re right. I’m sure he wants to know how you are.”
She sat there stalling for a minute, but Cat watched her closely. Taking a deep breath, she got up and pulled her sweater close, feeling butterflies bump around in her lower belly. This was ridiculous. Porter Cole was just a guy. A really handsome and charming guy, but just a guy.
“Your phone’s over on the kitchen table,” Cat said.
“Now is probably a good time because it’s right after dinner.”
“You can go into the bedroom for some privacy. I don’t mind.”
She paused, watching him. It was an adult-like thing for an eleven-year-old to say, but she also knew he’d probably overheard too many conversations regarding his well-being lately. Or lack thereof.
“I’ll just be in the other room, then,” she said. “Alright?”
“There’s some mint chocolate chip in the freezer when you’re ready.”
“Does your nose hurt? Do you need a Tylenol?”
He smiled at her. This time with teeth. And a dimple. “I’m fine.”
“Alright.” She tapped the phone against her thigh. “I’ll be right back.”
She reminded herself that as far as cucumbers went, she had a reputation for being the coolest of them all.
End of Excerpt