“HELLO?” AUDIE figured there was some kind of law that said as soon as he was up to his elbows in an early calf who’d come down with the runs, his phone would ring. He held the stupidly small electronic thing to his ear, not daring to do more than swipe to answer.
“Mr. Barrack?” The lady on the other end of the line sounded a little tight-lipped.
“This is Jennifer Laws, the secretary at the school.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Is Grainger sick?”
“No, sir. He’s in the principal’s office. Do you have time to come down to the school?”
“Uh… in about half an hour? I have to clean up. What happened?”
“Grainger and another student have been in a series of fights, sir. Principal Shields would like to see you, please.”
“Okay.” Well, fuck a duck. His Grainger? His yes-ma’am-no-sir boy? “I’ll be there as soon as I wash up. Been working with a sick calf.”
Audie hung up, his brain racing.
Just what he needed. His boy suddenly losing his damn mind. He got the calf dosed and settled in a pile of straw in the barn, hoping the poor thing didn’t expire before he got back. Then he loped up to the house and changed.
He gave Momma a call as he pulled his shirt on. “Momma, I got to run up to the school. Can you get Sister to keep an eye on the calf?”
“Is he sick? Grainger, I mean, not the calf.”
“Nope. It’s no big deal. I’ll be back in a jiff.” He hoped.
“Okay, Son. Your daddy’s due in off the road next weekend. He wants to take that boy of yours to a picture show. Tell him if he ain’t good, PopPop won’t take him.”
He was going to make Grainger miss time with his granddad. Dad loved his boy, even if they only saw each other a couple days in a month. Losing that time would break Grainger’s heart. Oh hell. An hour without his DS would make that boy ready to promise to be good forever. Maybe a day without helping Daddy feed the horses too. His kid had a real thing for the horses. Audie whistled up Duke, their border collie. No way could he leave that evil smart dog home with a sick calf. He’d worry the poor thing to death.
Bright eyes gleaming, Duke jumped up into the truck. He was ready to go. Go, go, go.
Audie headed into town, wondering what kind of kid could make Grainger fight. Not once, but in a series of fights. His son was quiet, laid-back, the sort of kid that people liked. Not a scrapper. Not like Audie had been, and God knew he’d earned his share of trouble.
He pulled up in front of the school twenty minutes later and sat, taking a deep breath.
“Okay. Whatever it is, I’ll deal. I’ll make Grainger apologize and then threaten to whip his butt.” Like he’d spank Grainger for anything not dangerous. The threat was enough, and he’d wait to issue that in the truck.
Feeling like he was back in kindergarten, Audie went to the principal’s office.
“Mr. Barrack? Go on in. They’re waiting.” Miz Laws winked at him as he walked by, which relaxed him, because, Christ, this sucked. He went into the office, which was a mixture of colors and pictures of kids and that weird sternness that meant business. Dr. Shields stood and offered him a hand. Lord, he remembered when she was the drum major back when his Aunt Shirley was in the band.
There was a tiny little girl—and he meant teeny—sitting next to a dude who had hair like a girl, a dour-faced older lady, and his Grainger, who jumped up, one eye bruised. “Daddy! Daddy, I swear, I didn’t start it!”
“Hush, now. Let me talk to Dr. Shields.” He wanted to snatch Grainger up, but he knew better.
“Let’s all sit,” Dr. Shields said, and Audie fought the urge to point out he was the only grown-up standing.
Feeling chastised, he perched on the other side of Grainger.
They all sat there, staring, before Dr. Shields spoke up. “Now, we all seem to have a problem. Randi and Grainger have been in a half-dozen incidents in the last few weeks.”
“Really? Why didn’t I hear about this, buddy?” Half a dozen? Shit.
“You said not to be a tattletale, Daddy.”
Oh God. He damned near swallowed his tongue. They’d have to talk about information versus snitching.
“I didn’t start it. Not onced. I don’t hit girls, but Daddy! She hit me in the face! Hard!” There were tears there, threatening, and Grainger had that hell of a shiner.
“Now, Grainger, are you saying you didn’t push Randi?” the principal asked.
“She called me a doo-doo stupid-head!”
Did the wee girl not talk? She sat there, her chin set, her bright green eyes flashing fire. Her thin arms were crossed over her chest, and her feet swung in an angry rhythm.
“Name-calling can’t hurt you, buddy.” Was he the only adult with a brain here?
“No, but name-calling is completely inappropriate, Miranda.” That was the dad, just looking straight ahead. “You know better.”
“He’s mean! He told the girls I was smelly and not to play with me!”
Audie looked at the principal. “Am I the only one not up to speed?”
The older lady glanced over at him. “Beverly White. Pleased. My granddaughter has had some… transition issues. We’re sorry.”
“Mrs. White.” He nodded, then snuck another peek at the man sitting next to her.
The guy stared straight ahead, not looking at him at all. Crazy.
“Grainger is usually a good kid,” Audie offered. “I’m sorry about those uh, transition things.” Way to sound like a hick.
“Children, can you please wait on the green chairs while we talk?”
Grainger nodded, squeezing Audie’s fingers one more time. Audie nodded and smiled at his son, pretty convinced his boy hadn’t done anything really heinous.
The little gal stomped out, pure fire in her eyes. Oh, she was a hellion, he could tell.
“Are you going to tell me you’re going to move her again?” That was the dad, and the dude seemed about as pissed as his daughter. “She’s not the Antichrist. She’s a tiny little girl. She still sits in a car seat, for chrissake.”
“No, I think we can safely leave her where she is. I really felt that we all needed to chat, though. It’s clear that Audie here had no idea what was going on.”
“Yeah, no shit.” Audie glanced at the gran. “Pardon my French.”
“No worries.” She winked at him. “She’s not a bad girl. She’s had some terrible things in the last year.”
“And for some reason, she’s targeting Grainger. Has he spoken about Randi at all?” Dr. Shields was trying, he could tell.
“No, ma’am. He’s not said a word.” He snuck another look at the dad. This guy was a piece of work. “It’s not like him to pick on someone who’s having a hard time.”
“Of course it’s not. Randi’s the one that’s the vicious little bitch, right?”
Damn, Mr. Snooty could snap.
“What? She’s had a shit life for the last year. She lost one of her dads, she had to leave Austin and her friends and her school, and suddenly she’s the fucking bad guy?”
“Hey, I never said my boy was perfect,” Audie said, snarling a little himself. “He’s managed to get to six without trying to kill anyone, though, so this is new. Back off.”
“Enough. No one is saying either of these children are bad. Randi has a huge number of hurdles to overcome, and Grainger is a shy little boy with a tendency to follow the crowd. Neither of these children have mothers at home, and I was hoping we could brainstorm some ways to help Randi feel included with the others.”
This was ridiculous. It wasn’t his fucking job to make sure this asshole’s little brat felt like she didn’t need to punch his son anymore.
“That’s her teacher’s job, Shannon.” Audie was through with this shit. “I’ll tell my boy to stay away from her. Can we go now?”
“Yes. Yes, of course. Mr. White….”
“I’ll talk to her. If it happens again, I’ll… shit, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll make it up as I go along.” The guy stood, and his mom handed him a cane. A white cane.
Oh Jesus fucking Christ. Seriously? Seriously, Grainger picked the kid with a blind dad and a dead….
Her other dad was dead. Jesus. This guy was blind, had lost his man, and his kid was a shit? That sucked hugely. “I can try to get Grainger to help. I promise.” He had no idea why that popped out, except this guy’s life had to suck, and because it had been a long time since Audie had met anyone who would openly admit to being queer like he was.
“Take us home, Mom. Please.” Now that he could see the White guy, he kind of wanted to wince. Lean, tattooed—this guy wasn’t made to be here, and obviously he wasn’t a local. Hell, his parents weren’t that local; Audie didn’t know them.
“Of course, Son.” She stood and offered Audie a frosty smile. “Thank you for being so, er, understanding.” She put a hand on her son’s arm, and he turned her way, the cane tapping as they left the room.
Audie glared at Shannon Shields as soon as they were out of earshot. “You couldn’t’ve had Miz Laws warn me?”
“I assumed you knew, Audie. Everybody knows.”
“Well, now, you know I don’t have much to do with townies.” He sighed, rubbing his hand over his bristly chin. “I’ll talk to Grainger, okay? See if he can’t find some way to understand. I mean, he ain’t used to being picked on.”
“I’d appreciate it. This poor little girl—she was in a private school in Austin, and suddenly she’s here, the daughter of two gay men, one dead, one who’s lost his sight. The grandparents are good people, but… they weren’t intending on raising another child, you know? She’s getting the help she needs, but she’s still a tiny ball of rage, and I’d hate to have to tell them she can’t come back to school.”
“Like expel her?” No. No, come on. She was thirty-five pounds of hurting. That wouldn’t be right. He sighed. “They live in town, or do they have a place like mine?”
“They’re out on the way to Commerce off of 34. Gentleman’s ranch. I think the granddad’s raising llamas and chickens.”
“Llamas.” He chuckled. “Well, they sure don’t kick as hard as cows.”
“Nope. Sorry there’s trouble. The teacher will keep them separated in the classroom, and I’ll have everyone keep an eye on the playground.”
“Thanks.” He figured he was dismissed, so he put his hat back on and went to get his son.
Grainger was sucking his thumb, which he hadn’t done in damn near a year, legs swinging furiously.
“Hey, buddy.” Audie squatted down, gently removing thumb from mouth. “You doing okay? Duke is in the truck.”
“Uh-huh. Are you mad at me, Daddy?” That little bruise on his boy’s face made him purse his lips and shake his head.
“No. No, I’m sad because that little girl felt like she had to pick a fight, but I’m not mad.” He picked up his son and hugged him. “We got to talk about the difference between tattling and telling Daddy what’s going on in your life, though.”
“Okay, Daddy.” Grainger wrapped around him and held on, and Audie didn’t discourage it. How much longer would he have this? This easy love from his boy? He loved Grainger enough to want to be in on everything, from little league to pimples, but Audie knew he had to keep these moments close.
“Come on. I got that calf in the barn, and you can feed him tonight.” They would even stop at the truck stop and grab a cookie or some fried mac and cheese.
“Yeah? Is he better? I think his name should be Snoopy.”
“Snoopy?” Huh. A calf named Snoopy. Duke went nuts as soon as they came into view.
“Duke!” Grainger wiggled to climb down, then ran over to the truck. “Duke, it’s been a yuck-o day.”
Duke hopped down to meet his boy, licking Grainger’s face. Poor kid. Audie’s mom was gonna have a fit when she saw her grandson with a black eye.
Of course, kids healed quick. Maybe they’d just beg off dinner over there tomorrow night, go have pizza in town….
He grinned at the little voice in his head that sounded like his momma. Coward.
Yeah, yeah. Still. If he worked it right, he wouldn’t see her until she came to pick Grainger up for Sunday school….
“Daddy! Can we have ice cream?”
Well, that settled it. He knew what they were getting on the way home. “Sure, buddy. Just a small one, huh?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry about pushing Randi, but she’s real mean, and she hit me.”
“She’s got a tough row to hoe, kiddo. Her daddy is blind, did you see?” That was a good start to a conversation, and he hoped Grainger might find a little understanding.
“He can’t see. That’s why he has that special white cane.”
“Like he can’t see nothing? For real?”
“For real.” He had no idea how much vision Mr. White had, but the cane told a grim story.
“How does he work?”
“I don’t know what he does, buddy. I can’t say.” He had no idea what a guy like that would do. Maybe that was why he came to live with his folks.
“Can I tell you a secret, Daddy?”
“Sure, kiddo.” He would never say no to that.
“Randi had a whole ’nother dad, and she said he was smashed to death in a car.”
“Oh man.” He lifted Grainger up, then waved Duke back into the truck. “That’s terrible, huh? No wonder she’s so mad.” Christ. A wreck. He wondered if that was what took the live one’s sight.
“Nobody else has another dad.”
“Not one?” He knew that, but this was also a prime opportunity to get some stuff talked out.
“Uh-uh. Well, not and no mom.”
“That’s not bad, though. Just different.”
“Yeah? It’s okay? Shelly and Hannah say it’s not.”
“Well, Shelly and Hannah are likely just saying what their folks told them. What do you think?” He had always been super careful not to push anything with Grainger around, but people who lived in glass houses didn’t teach their kids to throw stones, either.
“I think they don’t like her ’cause she’s got ugly hair.”
He snorted, trying to hold back laughter. “She has wild hair, bud. It’s not ugly.”
“Uh-huh. It’s like the old man book, the one with the beard that has birds in it. Gram reads it to me.”
“Lord. You might like her, you gave her half a chance. She sounds a lot like Auntie Grace.”
Grainger turned to look at him. “Auntie Grace has short hair, Daddy.”
“I know that.” He decided on Braum’s rather than the truck stop, heading into town instead of toward the house. “I mean her temper and all. Auntie Grace used to wale on me.”
Grainger nodded, bouncing as they drove. “She was bigger than you forever, huh?”
“She was. She can still whap me real hard, it just doesn’t hurt as much.” Grace was a horse trainer. She had some strength.
“But you don’t never whap her ’cause she’s just a girl.”
“I’ve wanted to a time or two.”
Grainger crowed when they pulled into Braum’s, and even Duke got to barking. Audie knew he’d have to work on Grainger over the weekend to try to keep this from happening again, but he was pretty pleased with his son’s resilience.
He was a good kid, no matter what the principal thought.