Chapter One

 

AUBREY KLEIN sat back in his chair with a groan. No matter how many ways he tried to add up these damned numbers, they just wouldn’t come out right. The ranch was doing better, and he’d made a lot of progress in the last six months, but they were still hanging on by a lick and a prayer. The hole that had been dug in over years couldn’t be filled in and wiped clean in a matter of months, he knew. The debt was going down, and if he had to, he could hold on for maybe another six months to a year, as long as he caught some sort of break with the weather. He closed the ledger with a thud and wished his daddy had converted the records to computer years ago. Of course, if he’d have done that, he might have done some of the other things necessary to keep the ranch from ending up on the brink of foreclosure.

“Son, are you done in there? I need your help in the yard.”

“Sure, Dad, I’ll be right there,” Aubrey called. There was work to be done, and wishing the ranch books were in better shape wasn’t going to make it happen. That was going to take hard work and sacrifice. Aubrey cringed as he thought about the sacrifices he’d already made. But if those sacrifices saved the ranch and helped his mom and dad get back on a level footing, it would be worth it.

He got up and left the office. For years this room had been his father’s domain, but now it was his. Aubrey met his dad by the kitchen and followed him outside, where a load of hay for the horses was waiting to be unloaded. Aubrey groaned. “Where did this come from?” He clamped his eyes closed. They already had a barn full of hay.

“John Bridger had some extra, and we always need hay, so….”

“Dad.” Aubrey stifled the urge to yell. It wouldn’t do any good. Diabetes and its complications had slowly robbed his father of the ability to fully think things through, and he now tended to make emotional decisions as opposed to business or rational ones. “The barn’s already full. There’s enough hay to more than last us.”

Dad walked to the barn and peered upward. Aubrey could see his father’s shoulders slump slightly the moment he realized Aubrey was right, and just like that Aubrey wished he hadn’t been. “Sorry, son, I thought….” His words trailed off in a cloud of defeat. “Nothing seems to turn out right for me anymore.”

“Don’t worry about it, Dad. I’ll find a place for it. Just be sure to ask me before you buy things for the ranch. I have things under control, and we’re going to be okay.” Lord, he hoped to high heaven that he wasn’t telling his dad a lie. Things were getting better, and he was close to having the money together to finally pay off the most vicious of the loans his father had taken out. Once that debt was gone, he hoped to be able to start paying down the others and free up some money for improvements. “Why don’t you go on in and see what Mom has for lunch? I need to get this unloaded.” Aubrey looked at his watch and realized he needed to get a move on, or he was going to be late.

“Everything okay?” Garrett Lamston asked as he came around the barn. He worked for Bridger and had obviously been the one to make the delivery. “You don’t need this hay, do you?”

Aubrey waited until his dad was inside. “No. I have plenty right now. I know with the drought the past few months that there are plenty of folks who need it. But I—” The last thing he needed was another bill for something he didn’t need.

“Don’t you worry. John offered his extra to your dad because he wanted to make sure you had enough. We have a number of places that will take it.” Garrett smiled, and Aubrey did his best not to let his heart do the little flips it always did when Garrett was nearby. Not that it mattered. He and Garrett were friends—or at least they’d known each other since they were kids. “It’s not a problem.”

“That’s mighty good of you,” Aubrey said with relief.

“I take it things are still tough for your dad.” Garrett lifted his hat and wiped his forehead before dropping the old, once-white Stetson back down onto his head. He’d worn that same hat for years, and it looked as fine on him today as always.

“They aren’t going to get better. All those years on insulin and not listening to the doctors have taken their toll. Momma does what she can, but he’s a stubborn old coot and overdoes it all the time. Last week I found him passed out on the barn floor after he tried to clean stalls and overexerted himself.” He’d had to use glucose injections to bring his father around. It hadn’t been pretty, but he’d done what he had to.

Garrett nodded slowly in that way he had. “Wish there was something I could do to help.”

Aubrey patted the trailer. “You already have.”

Garrett smiled and turned to go. Aubrey watched him as he went, glad he was alone, because anyone watching him stare at that high, pert cowboy ass in those tight Wranglers would know exactly what kind of thoughts and images were running around in his head. He blinked to clear his lascivious thoughts and school his expression as Garrett climbed in the truck. While things were changing—maybe slowly in this part of Texas—he wasn’t about to tempt fate and let everyone know which way he swung. With the ranch just hanging on, the last thing he needed was rumors and folks deciding they didn’t need to be doing business with him. That could be the end of everything he’d been working so hard to preserve.

Aubrey raised his hand in a combination farewell and thank-you. Garrett opened the window, leaning out so Aubrey got a look at just his head and broad shoulders. “We should go for a beer sometime. Give me a call the next time you’re going to town, and I’ll meet you.”

“I’ll buy the first round,” Aubrey called and swallowed hard as Garrett stared back at him for a second longer than necessary. Heat rose in Aubrey’s stomach as that itchy feeling filled his belly and the tingle of potential possibilities buzzed in his head. He blinked and was about to turn away when Garrett pulled his head back into the truck and thunked the door closed. A hand jutted out the window, and the truck and trailer started pulling down the drive. Aubrey inhaled deeply, wondering if he’d really seen what he thought. It had to be his imagination. He’d known Garrett for years, and there had never been any indication in all that time that Garrett was interested in bulls rather than heifers.

With one small crisis averted, Aubrey pulled his attention away from the possible contents of Garrett’s jeans and turned toward the house.

“Did you get the hay unloaded already?” his dad asked from his favorite recliner in the living room when Aubrey got out of the oppressive heat and into the air-conditioned comfort of the house.

“Bridger offered it to us because he wanted to make sure we were doing okay. There are other folks who need it a lot worse, so they’re going to sell it to them.” He patted his dad’s shoulder lightly. “We’re going to be okay, and it’s all good.”

“Okay, then….” His dad put his feet up, and Aubrey figured he’d probably be asleep in five minutes or less.

“You ready to eat?” his mom asked as she came in from the kitchen. She’d aged a lot over the past few years, just like his dad. Her hair was mostly gray now instead of the raven black he remembered from when he was younger. Unlike his father, she was in good health, but taking care of Dad had taken its toll on her.

“That’d be great. I need to leave in an hour or so.” He checked his watch.

“Going to Dallas again to see your friends?” she asked without judgment or reproach.

“Yeah.” He sat at the table and hung his hat on the back of the chair next to him.

“You need to get away every now and then. Everything here will be fine while you’re gone.” She got plates and dished up some of her special macaroni salad and added a huge, thick sandwich on homemade bread. None of that store-bought “sawdust bread,” as she called it. Mom did things the old-fashioned way whenever she could, but it was getting harder and harder on her. All Aubrey wanted to do was make his mom and dad’s lives easier, and he’d do whatever he had to in order to make that happen.

“This is really good,” he told her, not really wanting to talk too much about his weekly trips into Dallas to see his “friends.” The less he said, the fewer lies he told, and when it came to his momma, that was always a good thing. “You always take good care of us.” He took another bite of the roast beef sandwich and sighed to himself.

“You’re the one taking care of us now,” she said. She looked into the other room.

“Did he eat?”

“Yeah. He was hungry, so I fed him as soon as he came in,” she whispered. “He ate, then went to sit in his chair and fell asleep.” She turned away and sat down with her own plate. His mom had always been the last one to eat. “I heard from Carolann this morning. She said she’s been real busy in San Francisco with her work and all.”

Aubrey nodded and tried not to let jealousy and bitterness well up. His sister always had excuses not to come home and help out. Aubrey took another bite of his sandwich to stifle a growl. Part of the reason they were all in this mess was because his dad had taken out a loan against the ranch to help pay for her Stanford education.

“She said she sent out a check to start paying us back.”

Aubrey lowered his head and tried not to humph. Somehow the postal service always seemed to lose Carolann’s checks. “That’s good.” There was no use arguing. Mom wouldn’t hear it. Carolann was her only daughter, just like he was her only son, and Momma wasn’t going to hear bad things said about either of her children. Besides, Aubrey knew the loan had been their decision, and what was done was done. “When I get back, I’m going to put in that new electric line out to the barn. That way I can bury the cable and get rid of that old overhead line.”

“You need me to do anything for you while you’re gone?”

“Just make sure Dad feeds and waters the horses. I got everything set out in the barn, so it’ll be easy on him. He needs to do it tonight and tomorrow morning. I’ll be back in the afternoon and can take over from there.”

She flashed him a disgusted look. “We’ve been doing this work for—”

Aubrey put up his hand to keep her from getting up a head of steam. “I was only trying to help.” Aubrey looked to the living room. “He bought a trailer load of hay we didn’t need,” he added in a whisper. “I took care of it, but I’m worried.”

The fire in her eyes died. “I am too.” Her voice was little more than a whisper and filled with pain and worry. He hated the strain all this was taking on her. “We’ll take care of things here.” She took his plate when he was done. “Go on and have some fun. You work hard, so you deserve it. Give yourself a chance to let off some steam with your friends, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Aubrey stood and kissed his mom on the cheek. Then he strode down to his room and grabbed the small bag he had packed and ready. He carried it out to his truck and then did one last check that everything was all set before he got in the truck and pulled down the drive for the ride from Greenville to Dallas.