Chapter One

 

PLEASE, GOD, Stetson prayed. Please let him answer the phone. Just this one time, let him put me first and answer the motherfucking phone. He looked up at the bright blue of the Santa Fe sky, praying into it as he had for years. Pardon my French, God. I’m a little stressed out, but I need this. I need this more than I’ve ever needed anything.

Stetson doubted that would be true, if he thought about it for any length of time, but he didn’t intend to think on it. Hell, he just wanted to live through this phone call.

He lit his Marlboro, took a deep, deep drag as he listened to the phone ring, watching the nurses and the people come and go from the big adobe building that was just like all the other big adobe buildings that housed doctors and nurses and sick people all over the city.

You’d never imagine how many nurses smoked, but a lot of them did. He’d smoked with everyone in this building.

“Hello?” The smooth, drawly Texas voice always surprised Stetson. Rodeo cowboys should sound like uneducated hicks. Hell, they were gorgeous and irresistible; they ought to open their mouths and be stupid.

It took him a second to speak because he couldn’t believe Curtis answered.

“Hello?”

“Uh. Sorry. Sorry, it’s Stetson. Stetson Major.” You remember me? The guy you walked away from eight years ago?

“No shit?” The raw surprise almost made him smile. “You got a new number, but I saw five-oh-five and worried something had happened.”

“Yeah. It’s been a long time.” Forever. “How are you doing?”

Stetson knew the answer to that. He followed Curtis Traynor in the news and in the rodeo magazines and watched every event on TV. It was like poking at a sore tooth with your tongue. Still, he asked. It was polite, and it kept him from looking like a giant dickwad.

“Pretty good, man. What’s up? Has to be serious for you to call my happy ass.” Curtis just didn’t have patience for bullshit, never had.

“I have a favor to ask. I wouldn’t if it wasn’t important.” Hell, how many times had he wanted to pick up the phone just to have a booty call? Just to beg for a half hour of contact?

He hadn’t. Not once. This was different.

“Shoot. I’ll see what I can do, whatever it is.” He heard the unspoken thought that “whatever” might be nothing.

“It’s my mom.” Suddenly he couldn’t talk; the words stuck in his throat like day-old grits.

“What’s wrong?” Curtis’s voice changed completely, his concern immediate and gratifying as fuck. Curtis had always loved Momma, and Lord knew Momma loved Curtis like breathing.

“It’s Alzheimer’s.” Three years ago, he’d found her in the barn, scared and crying. Now she was in a facility, and…. God. You have to focus, man. Talk to Curtis before he hangs up.

“Oh fuck, Stetson. I’m so sorry. How—how bad is it?”

“It’s bad. She doesn’t have… I mean, shit. Look, man. She wants to see you. She wants to know why you aren’t coming to see her.”

“Oh Lord.” Curtis stopped for a second, and Stetson had a terrifying worry that he’d lost the connection and he’d not be able to get it back. “You mean she don’t remember we split up?”

“No. No, she… well, you know she always cared for you.” Sometimes he thought she’d liked Curtis and his wild ways so much more than she’d liked him. Shit, thought. He knew. Stetson was too much like his granddaddy, just an old cowboy bound to the land. Momma longed for the road, and she’d lost the chance of that when she’d lost Dad.

“She was always good to me, for sure.” Curtis paused for a long moment. “What do you need?”

“Every day she asks for you. Every day she cries. Can you please come see her, just once? Just one day?” Just so he could not listen to her cry for one goddamn day?

“Oh fuck, Stetson. Of course I can.” He heard the sounds of people talking, a lot of them, all of a sudden. “Look, I was on my way out to Dallas for the Stampede, but I’m in Denver at the airport right now. I can be there in about eight hours.”

“I hate to ask, but—” But not enough not to do it, right? “—thank you. We’re in Santa Fe.” Eight hours would be late for Momma, but if Curtis could just stay for a visit in the morning, then he could pay to fly the man to Dallas a few hours later.

“Oh hell, if you’re not up in Taos, it will be faster for me to fly into Albuquerque and rent me a truck. I’ll text you when I have a flight and all.”

“I appreciate it. I’ll… I’ll pay you back.” He’d sell off the last couple of cutting horses if he had to.

“Bullshit you will. This is for your momma.” Curtis snorted. “I love her more than my ostrich Luccheses. This your number now? The good one to text?”

“Yeah. Yes. I’ll be here. Thanks again. I owe you.”

“Text me the address, huh? Are you at a hotel?” He could hear more people talking, could hear Curtis murmuring to someone who sounded very polite. Counter worker?

“I have a trailer here. I’ll get you a hotel room, though. Something decent.”

“I can do that, man. Just hang in there.” Curtis sounded like he always did—capable and in charge. It set up a hurt, deep in the pit of his belly, and didn’t that just piss him off?

“See you soon.” He hung up the phone before he could snarl, because God knew Curtis was doing him a favor. He stood there, staring at his cigarette, which was burned down to the filter. Goddamn.

He went to sit on one of the benches outside the main doors, shivering against the wind. God, his head hurt. He could go back in there soon, though, and tell her Curtis was coming.

“Hey, Stetson.” Mariposa sat down next to him, handed him a cup of coffee. Her scrubs featured Scooby-Doo today, and she had to be freezing, but she didn’t seem to be cold at all.

“Hey, lady. How are you today?”

“Good. Tired. My littlest has a head cold. How’re you? Holding up?”

“I’ll make it.” Though really, he thought he might just die. “I got ahold of my ex. He’s coming in tonight.”

“That the one Momma Major is so worried about?” At his nod, Mariposa reached over and patted his hand. “Good for you. You’re a good son.”

A good son wouldn’t leave her in this place to die, but he hadn’t figured another answer. She was setting fires, ending up curled into corners of stalls with the horses, stark naked and raving. He’d had to do something. The ranch was dangerous.

“I try. I hate this, lady.” He just wanted his mom back. She wasn’t that damned old. Early onset, late middle stage when she was diagnosed. Now she was barreling into the final stage and declining fast.

It wasn’t fair. She was the strongest woman he’d ever known.

And all she wanted was to see the son of a bitch who had broken his fucking heart and left him to run a three-hundred-acre ranch on his own.

“I know, and I’d tell you it will get better, but it won’t. It will be over soon, though.”

“Thanks, honey.” His heart hurt, and his butt was cold. “I guess I ought to go tell her, huh?”

“Sure. She’ll be tickled. Drink your coffee before it gets cold. I brought you some of the good stuff.”

“Oh. Hazelnut syrup?” She was good to his mom too. Mari was just a good woman.

“You know it.” She leaned against him, gave him a grin. “You’re gonna make it, cowboy.”

“I sure hope so. I love her so much.”

“Good. Moms deserve that, huh?”

“They do.” He grinned at that, because his momma would say that. “Remember who pees when she sneezes because of you, right?”

“You know it, cowboy.” She winked over at him, dark eyes warm, gentle.

“Okay, lady.” He knew he couldn’t have another smoke. Momma would smell it. “I’ll see you later.”

“I’ll be around in about twenty.”

He headed inside, nodding to… shit, everybody. He fucking knew every single person who worked here. He hated this. The best place he could afford still had that sour smell of urine and despair, and an aura of sadness among all the families he saw coming and going.

He opened the door, finding Momma was sitting there, tears on her cheeks. “Hey, lady. What’s up?”

“You haven’t been to see me in days.”

“I helped you eat, not half an hour ago.”

She shook her head. “I know better. I missed you.”

“I called Curtis. He’s on his way.” He hoped she’d be pleased. He hadn’t gone hat in hand in a long, long time, and it burned him that it was Curtis that he had to start with.

She brightened immediately, clapping her hands. “I should get my hair done.”

“I can call Miss Sophia to come do it.” She’d done Momma’s hair a bunch since she’d been moved here.

“Thank you.” She gave him a smile, and it only wobbled the tiniest bit. “I like Curtis.”

“I know. He loves you dearly. He can’t wait to see you.”

“Is he doing well this year?” She looked brighter, more engaged.

“He is. He’s favorite to go all-around.” That he didn’t have to make up. Curtis was the best in the world—bareback, saddle, and bulls. One, two, three. High-riding cowboy in the hunt for title number three.

Now that he wasn’t a butt-hurt kid, Stetson got it. There was no way he could compete with the money and the sponsors and the lights. He was just a broke-dick cowboy eking out a living in the high desert sand. Back then, though, he’d thought he was hot shit and worth giving all that up for.

Now, all that knowing didn’t matter one damn bit.

“Good for him!” Her face crumpled a little, and for an awful moment, he thought she was remembering what was really what. Then she perked right up, smiling at him. “Can I get my hair done, son? And can there be enchiladas for supper?”

“Anything you want, Momma.”

“Will you eat with me? I get so confused sometimes, but it’s better when you’re here.”

He was going to scream. Cry. Fall over. Stetson felt that way at least fifteen times a day. Instead, he smiled. He was a cowboy, dammit. He owed her this. He owed her his life. “Only if you don’t mind me having tacos.”

“My goofy taco-loving baby boy.”

“Handheld goodness.” God, her moods swung like a rusty gate.

“But no garden.”

“God no. Leave that to the Texans.” Some things didn’t belong on tacos. Maybe on a tostada, but yeah. Tacos, not so much.

She laughed, sounding young all of a sudden, like he remembered her being when he was a little boy and she was just magic. He smiled along, grabbing her hand when she reached for him.

“Oh, I miss those days,” she said, as if she knew what he was thinking. “You had this terrible cowlick….”

“I prob’ly still do. That’s what the hat is for, right?”

“Yes. Your dad always said that.” Her face creased, but she never forgot about Dad, thank God.

“He did, and he’d do this.” He ruffled his hair, messing it up.

She hooted. “Oh, yes. You look so like him.”

“Poor me.” Momma had always been the striking one. She and Daddy had both been dark-haired like him, but she had dark skin—exotic they called it for a girl. Swarthy for a guy. He had Daddy’s looks—less round, more angular, less Pueblo, more random cowboy. Momma showed up in his eyes, which were black as a bird’s.

“Oh, hush. Your daddy was the most beautiful thing I ever did see.”

“Well, I look like him, full stop.” Momma’d always said that. He was Daddy’s boy, head to tail.

“You have my nose.” She squinted at him. “Is there Jell-O?”

“I can grab you some. Hold up.” Two things she wanted that he could get. Go him.

“Thank you, love.” She sounded tired now, and Stetson knew when he got back she’d be asleep.

Still, maybe she’d remember Curtis was coming. Maybe she wouldn’t cry no more. Maybe this would make things better.

He stopped right outside her door, sucking in air like a stoner at a Grateful Dead concert, because it was that or lean his head back and howl.

Every time he thought he’d reached the edge of what he could do, he proved himself wrong. Every single time. He’d done all this. He could handle seeing the love of his life again.

He could for Momma.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

SANTA FE always gave Curtis a happy. The city had a vibe going, all colorful and almost foreign, like it didn’t belong to the States at all. He loved the rodeo there too. It was tiny, with an arena maybe a quarter of the size of the big shows, but the purse paid out almost a million dollars all told, and every damn cowboy on earth wanted to win it. Truly amazing.

Coming to see Miz Betty because she was so sick? Not so wonderful.

Knowing that Stetson Major only deigned to call him after so long because he needed Curtis to make believe, pretend the reality wasn’t they hadn’t laid eyes on each other in damn near a decade? Man, that fucking sucked.

The drive up from Albuquerque had a stark beauty to it with snow on the ground, and that was early, he thought. Snow usually hit at Thanksgiving.

It was dark by the time he found the hospital and a parking spot. He sucked in the air, the cold hitting his lungs and making him cough for a second. Lord, he’d thought Denver was dry. This was threatening to kill his nose hairs altogether.

He hunched his shoulders, preparing for the antiseptic smell and general sadness of the place. He’d do anything for Miz Betty, though. He really would. That was why he’d come a’runnin’ when Stetson called.

Just outside the doors, there was a cowboy hat attached to long legs and a pair of work boots with a hole in the bottom big enough to ride through. The face wasn’t visible, but it didn’t matter. He would know Stetson Major from across a football field without a JumboTron. That laconic bastard had the finest belly in the known universe, and Curtis worked with men who did a thousand crunches a day.

Someone was having smoke breaks when they’d quit maybe nine years back.

Curtis walked over and tapped one boot toe.

The hat brim lifted, and there he was, face-to-face with the one that got away, those dark brown eyes looking… well, about as exhausted and unhappy as he’d ever seen them. “You came. She’ll be pleased,” Stetson murmured.

“I sure as shit hope so.” Curtis studied the lines on Stetson’s face like they were a map that would lead him to understand how they’d fucked up so damn bad. “You look like hell.”

“I try.” Stetson looked at the cigarette that was burned down to the filter, then fieldstripped it and threw it away. “You ready to see her? She got her hair done for you.”

“I am. If she’s still awake. I’m here for whatever you need me to do.”

“Thank you. She thinks we’re still an item. If she asks for Daddy, just ignore it. Arguing ain’t a thing with this.”

Stetson led him into the hospital, which was nicer than he’d expected, really, and took him into the warren of hallways.

“I’m sorry, man. She’s always been such a pistol.” He didn’t want to see her sick, frail.

Stetson looked at him, gave him a nod and an expression that was all about regrets.

Curtis wanted to reach for Stetson’s hand, but he didn’t have the right to do that now. Hadn’t had that for a long damn time. This wasn’t about them, and there was no fucking them, was there?

There hadn’t been.

What there was didn’t have even embers left. They weren’t even friends. Stetson had wanted a househusband to move cattle through the high desert scrub, and Curtis had wanted a traveling partner. Neither one of them had gotten what they wanted.

Fuck, neither of them had wanted a single thing they might have had with anyone, in reality. Neither of them had been ready to compromise.