“CHIEF! CHIEF Cook! Did you see how that insane woman, that Starbaby Flutterbeans or whatever she’s calling herself this ‘incarnation’ painted her house? There’s a nekkid lady on the side. A naked woman!” Ruth Ann Masters was just about to work herself into a right tizzy or a stroke—one of which would be funny as all get-out.
“Miz Masters, that’s the Venus of Willendorf, and it’s art. She ain’t breaking no laws.” Maybe a few of common decency, but that wasn’t under his particular elected umbrella. Some droopy boobs and a wide belly wasn’t exactly pornalicious.
“But it’s naked! Think of the children.”
“If you stay out of Star’s yard, you can’t see it.” It was hidden by that giant pyracantha that shaded the house and the labyrinth that Star’d built out of yard art in her side yard.
“I was not in her yard!”
“Now, Miz Masters, you’re yelling.” Jenny, who owned the Turquoise Café, came to refill TJ’s coffee. “Not dignified.”
“Thank you, Jenny.”
“Look here, you…. My people have been in this town since it was created. I’m—”
“A nosy old biddy?”
Oh Lord, just what he needed, Josh Leman stirring the shit pot.
TJ tried hard not to roll his eyes. “Josh, you hush. Miz Ruth, I can tell you the kids like it.”
Josh plopped down beside him, his oldest and orneriest friend covered in dust. “What? You are a nosy one, Miz Ruth. You know I love you, but you need to leave Star alone.”
“She’s a witch!” the old lady screamed.
“That ain’t illegal, honey. Come on, have a cup of tea on the house.” Jenny rolled her eyes over Ruth’s shoulder.
“That sounds good, huh? Get her a scone on me.” He glared at Josh. “What the what, buddy? I don’t need her writing an op piece to the newspaper.”
“Oh, you know Mike would piss himself if he could have a little war.” Josh was nowhere near worried enough.
“I do know. I also know what I’ll get from the mayor, and Star would curse my dick or something.”
“God forbid.” Josh leaned back and grinned at him, gold front tooth glinting. “So, I come bearing gossip. Interested?”
“Fuck yes.” He needed something besides the shit show of being a small-town cop.
“Okay. Normal stuff first. Diane Colley is having an affair with Jane Tees. Her husband caught them munching carpet last week. Matt Colley’s getting the kids and the house; Diane’s taking the pottery studio and every other weekend.”
“Oh, ouch. I mean, for all of them.” Diane was a neat lady but a bit of a flake. The kids would be better off with Matt, he thought.
“I know, right? I mean, Jane’s a smart cookie. I hope she knows what she’s getting into.” Josh paused dramatically. “Pun intended.”
“Ew.” Josh could be hilariously crude. “That’s not polite, bud.”
“Like I do polite. What else…. Wacey Bene is coming back to town to stay with his folks at the ranch. He got hurt real bad in Cheyenne. Also, my Loretta caught pregnant.”
“Wait, what?” He blinked, trying to process that.
“It’s true. She’s due right after Christmas.”
TJ rolled his eyes. “No, doof. About Wacey. What happened?”
“Dunno. Something about the horses, I think.”
No. No, that didn’t make a lick of sense. Wacey Bene was a dick of the highest order, but the man had been born on horseback. He wouldn’t get in any kind of accident with a horse.
“How bad is he hurt?”
“Did you not hear me? I am having a baby, you cocksucker.”
“Hey! Congratulations.” He grinned wide, knowing it made Josh nuts to be ignored. “Go you.”
“I know, right? I thought it would never happen. She’s over the moon.”
“Are you sure it’s yours? What if you’re shooting blanks?”
“I will shoot you right here, fudge packer.” Josh’s smile never ever faltered. Everyone deserved that—to be loved and trusted without a bit of hesitation. Josh had married Loretta the day after high school graduation, had put her through college at UNM, and had built her the house of her dreams. Those two were disgusting in love.
He grinned. “I’ll arrest you for trying. Seriously, man, congratulations. Kids will change your life forever.”
TJ knew all about that. His boys were the light of his fucking life.
“Good. I would have been happy one way or the other, but my girl? She was getting plumb down in the mouth about not being able to catch.”
“I know. When it’s time, it’s time. Jenny, give Josh another round of pancakes on me.”
“I can do that.” She nudged Josh’s arm. “Congrats, man.”
“So, what were you asking about?” Josh murmured. “Oh! Wacey. He broke a leg or a hip or something. Bad enough that he’s in a wheelchair for like another six weeks.”
“Ouch.” He winced, because that had to be hell for the kid and his folks, both.
Kid. Yeah, TJ reckoned Wacey wasn’t a kid anymore, but he hadn’t seen the jerk in ages.
Hell, damn near ten years, he guessed. Had it been that long since the oldest Bene son had been home? Surely not…. Then again, TJ would have heard about it if Wacey was around.
Josh grabbed the syrup. “Yep. Sucks to be him.”
“I guess so.” Christ, they’d been hot and heavy, once upon a time, but that was a different world, and he’d been a scared kid. No way they would have made it.
“You gonna eat that bacon?” Josh asked.
“Yes.” He made a stabbing motion with his fork. “Back off.”
“So, you got plans today besides sitting on your ass?”
“Yeah. I have a good bit to look into, actually.” He had dick. Turquoise, New Mexico, was a tiny town with pretty tiny problems. Miz Ruth’s complaint, which he wouldn’t even research, was going to be the biggest deal of the day.
Josh gave him an exaggerated yawn. “Poor Chief.”
“I know, I know. I’m overworked and underpaid.” Hell, he loved his job, loved his kids, loved his life.
“You want one more round of pancakes for the road?”
“Heck yes.” Why not? He would work it off.
“Good deal. I’m eating for two now, you know.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly how it works.”
“No?” Josh laughed loud and long. “Any excuse to eat. Jenny! Bring on another round.”
“Lord have mercy. We should all have a hollow leg.”
“Someday I’ll be all paunch, but for now, I can shed it fast.” Josh winked broadly.
Shit, as much as Josh was climbing up and down ladders, the man would never be chunky.
TJ waved Jenny over to pay the bill. This round he was going to have to eat and run, but he would suck down the butter and syrup any way he could. He had to pick his boys up after school today, not to mention all the paperwork at the office.
They powered through one more plate each. “Okay, Josh, I got to go. Keep an ear out about Wacey Bene.” TJ could have bitten his tongue. Why did he say that?
“Will do.” That was the sign of a good friend—when they knew when to just agree about the ex.
He left the tip on the table before rising. “Later, bud. See you on Friday, Jenny!”
“Stay safe, Chief,” she answered, just like always.
That was always the plan too. He had too much to live for to get caught flat-footed out there. Good thing Turquoise was probably the least dangerous town in New Mexico. Time to do his job and keep it that way.
“BUBBA. WELCOME home.”
Wacey opened his eyes, casting his gaze on the Bene Ranch and Rodeo School for the first time since he was a teenager. The big old adobe hadn’t changed a bit—from the ristras hanging on the porch to the canales that had Mama’s roses planted underneath. “It looks the same.”
“You’re the one that changed, Bubba.” Lacey was the oldest and the bossiest one of all of them, and that hadn’t changed either. “This house has stood here for three generations. It’s never going to change.”
“I don’t need the guilt, Lace. I’ve been working.” He was hurting so bad he was thinking about cutting his legs off at the knees.
“I wasn’t going for guilt. I was pointing out your general stupidity.” She grinned at him, her near-black eyes glinting. “We’ve been in a car for two days since I picked you up from the hospital, and I haven’t given you shit. Give me a break.”
“I did. I’m way less work than the twins.”
“The devil himself would be less work than those two demons.”
Wacey had to laugh, even though he was considering death as a viable option. “So we should be feeling sorry for Macey?”
Lace shook her head. “Nah. She’s got the six already. What’s two more?”
“Yeah. Good thing y’all are doing that little job for me.”
“Shit, Macey’s repopulating the entire town. We’ll feel sorry for Kacey, Bubba. He’s trying to fill your boots out there, and he’s scared.” Lacey put the truck in Park. “Time to face the fam, bud.”
“Are they all in there?”
“Mama, Pop, Pap-Pap, Ma-Maw, Mami, Papi, Macey, Tim, Derek, Auntie Flora and Uncle Bam, and—”
“Stop. Just stop. Wheel me out to the casita?” The folks were bad enough. All of them? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“Coward.” She gave a serious look, though. “I’ll tell Mama to come down, okay? She’s wanting to see you real bad.”
“You know I won’t do that. You’re supposed to just take me in.”
“Are all gay cowboys this complicated?”
“Most of us are worse.”
She chuckled, but dutifully hopped out of the truck to grab his wheelchair, then came to help him wrangle into it.
Uncle Bam and Lace’s husband, Derek, were out there before she could do anything.
“Dammit, woman! Let us lift him. You don’t need to be doing that in your condition. Hey, Wacey. Welcome home, man.” The safety man grinned at him, winked. “You survived my wife. Congrats.”
“Condition? Are you knocked up again, Sister?”
“Shut up.” She glared at all of them in turn. “I’m going to get cookies set out.”
“Dude, you didn’t tell me?”
“You had enough on your mind.” She marched away up the walk.
“Congratulations, you turd!” he called after her, and Uncle Bam cracked up.
“You got her number. How you feel?”
“Hurtin’.” That was the best he had.
“We’ll get you on inside, and you can take a pill.” Uncle Bam knew the score. He’d broken more bones than anyone Wacey knew.
Derek had him settled before he could think to hurt too. “Your mama made tamales and green chicken enchiladas and beans.”
His belly snarled audibly, and Uncle Bam snorted. “Oh, you just made her year with that sound, Dub.”
“I bet. I love Tex-Mex, but Mama makes the best tamales.” He breathed deep, the air still crisp with the tail end of winter. He’d been staying down between Austin and Houston during his months off. There, spring started in February.
Here, it waited until May.
“Mama makes the best everything, hmm.” And there she was—reaching out to him with hands laden with silver-and-turquoise rings, the touch the single most comforting thing he’d ever felt.
“Mijo.” She kissed his forehead. “Come in. Come in. I told everyone to be quiet.”
“It’s okay. Just tired and hurtin’ some.” He let Derek wheel him all the way into the kitchen, wanting to sit where it was warm and familiar.
Everything in him relaxed in a rush, and he couldn’t figure out why he’d stayed gone so long. The room was easily the size of his entire apartment in Austin—the big island tiled in Saltillo tiles, the whole place flooded with light.
He loved the bright blue tiles popping in the backsplash, his mama’s herbs hanging from a drying rack back by the pantry. “Wow. It’s good to be home.”
“Good to have you here.” Pop leaned against the counter, his father’s bright red hair and freckled face wreathed in concern. “I talked to Kacey and had that entire remuda sold off, son. I can’t risk this happening again.”
“It wasn’t them. There was a bang—a backfire or something. I told you that.” By the time Kace heard the commotion, it was all over but the crying.
“I know. I also know we can’t have a breeder on our rotation who has such skittish mares going out.” Pop shrugged, reminding Wacey he was a businessman first. He loved the livestock, but unlike Wacey, they were not his life.
“Tell me they went somewhere good, Pop.”
“Of course they did, mijo. Now you need to breathe and heal and have some tamales.”
He glanced at Mama, but he waited for Pop to answer too.
“They went to the lady up in Taos who runs that mustang rescue. She’ll adopt them out as companion horses,” Pop said. “Macey handled it for us.”
“Cool.” Oh thank God. Macey loved horses as much as he did. Kace was into the bucking bulls.
“Don’t think I don’t know you don’t trust me.” Pop handed him a cup of… hot tea? When he raised a brow, Pop gave him a stern look. “Doc says coffee will make you queasy with your pills.”
“Oh, good Lord….”
“Don’t start, Dub. You know it won’t do a bit of good.” Derek looked like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
“Have you told them Lace is knocked up again?” he countered.
Pop and Mama both set up a hue and cry, and he could laugh, knowing he’d gotten the best part of the upper hand. Let Derek fight all that pent-up worry.
Him, he just leaned back and sucked in green-chile-flavored air.
Damn, it was good to be home.