Authors: Karen Templeton
“We are that,” she said, and Granville chuckled.
“So I hear you’ve bought Waffles.”
“Technically, my mother did. But yes. For my son, when he comes to visit.”
“It was Josh’s idea, fostering horses.” His smile softening, he glanced up at the young man, his eyes shining with pride. “A damn good one, too,” he said, then returned his gaze to Mallory as she caught the young man’s almost diffident shrug. “He tells me you’re letting the horse stay here, though.”
“For the time being. Probably until Landon arrives. But I couldn’t wait to see him again.”
Granville’s eyes narrowed. “Josh tells me you used to ride.”
“Yes. I was raised on a ranch, in fact.”
“You don’t say? Cattle, horses...?”
“Both. Not a huge operation, but it kept us out of trouble.”
“A real cowgirl, then?”
She laughed. “At one time.”
“From cowgirl to movie star.” He shook his head. “Life certainly takes some strange twists and turns, doesn’t it?” His chuckle ended on a brief coughing spell. “Well. I’ll let you and Josh to it. There any of that vegetable soup left, Gus? I think I might like that for lunch...”
She watched as Josh’s boss and the housekeeper left the room, then turned to Josh, frowning. Sighing, Zach’s brother screwed on his cowboy hat and led her back outside, walking slowly enough for her to easily keep up.
“We don’t know, exactly, what the problem seems to be,” he said when they reached the end of the porch, answering her unspoken question. “Mainly because he won’t discuss it. Or let anyone who comes in to help him discuss it with us.”
“Why on earth not?”
“Because that’s the way he is. Always has been. But it’s pretty obvious things’re going downhill fast. Just in the last few weeks.”
“I’m so sorry. He seems like a wonderful man.”
“He is. Dad was the ranch manager when we were kids, so we all grew up here. Granville was more like an uncle than a boss. And when Dad had his heart attack and couldn’t work anymore, Gran deeded him the house my parents now live in.”
“Does he have family? Do they know?”
His hands slugged into the pockets of his jeans jacket, Josh stepped off the porch onto a cemented path leading to the pastures and barns, his head angled so she couldn’t quite see his face in the hat brim’s shadow. “One daughter. She lives in DC. I can’t even remember the last time she was home.”
“But doesn’t she know...?”
“I have no idea,” he said, not looking at her. Not meanly, exactly, but definitely as though she’d crossed a line she didn’t know was there. Even so, he tossed her a tight, almost apologetic smile. “I’m only the hired help, not my place to get involved in family business.”
Only the hired help, my butt
, Mallory thought as Josh nodded toward the nearest pasture, where Waffles was out with several other horses. “Well. May as well go see your boy...”
She’d forgotten how much intrigue and craziness there could be in a small town. Like a living soap opera. Even as a kid in Springerville, Mallory had been aware of far more than a child probably should’ve been. But what else was there to do, other than watch TV and go into town every now and then? Of course, this wasn’t Springerville and it was highly unlikely that, as an outsider, she’d ever really be privy to the town gossip. Oh, she knew
drill. One did not air one’s dirty laundry to strangers, ever. However, that didn’t mean she was immune to the emotional pull—that a man’s courage in the face of his obvious illness wouldn’t tug at her heart, that a younger one’s equally obvious sting over a young woman’s absence wouldn’t pique her curiosity.
That his brother’s obvious pain over the loss of his wife wouldn’t make her thoughts drift in directions they had no business drifting.
As they neared the fence several of the horses, including Waffles, plodded over to the fence to say hey. Her chair’s wheels bumped a bit on the uneven surface as she pushed herself close enough to talk to the handsome boy. And his scent, his feel when she laid her cheek against his muzzle, stirred up all manner of emotions she wasn’t sure what to do with.
Not all of them related to the horse.
Grinning, Josh leaned one elbow on the fence’s top rail. The other horses, realizing this wasn’t about them, walked off, nickering and whuffing among themselves. “Easy to tell you’re a horse person. You’ve got that look.”
An echo of his brother’s words, her first time here. Mallory smiled when Waffles nodded, as if he was agreeing with Josh. “And what look would that be?” she said, reaching into her jacket pocket for a piece of carrot, which she offered to the horse, palm up.
“That one. You came prepared.”
“I’m no fool,” she said, and he chuckled. A nice laugh, the kind that probably made girls go all moony on a regular basis. He had that way about him, the good-looking cowboy who thought he was all that. The off-kilter grin, the cheek creases when he smiled...so not her type, she thought, slipping the horse another piece of carrot. Even if she hadn’t had at least a good ten years on him. Which of course got her to thinking about his older brother, who by rights shouldn’t have been her type, either—
“So where’s your little man?” she asked, remembering his son.
That got the beaming smile of a man only too happy to talk about the most important person in his life. “Right now? Austin’s with my folks. But it varies, depending on who snags him first. He’s a pretty popular little dude. So when’s
boy coming out?”
“Two weeks,” she said, flashing a smile at Zach’s brother.
“Let’s see...two weeks. Before or after the tenth?”
“Too bad. He’ll just miss the rodeo.”
“There’s a rodeo?”
“After a fashion. Probably nothing like you were used to.” At her lifted brows, he said, “Zach told me. Barrel racer, huh?”
“Yep.” She patted the horse’s shoulder and steered the conversation away from herself. “What about you? You ride?”
“Some. Cutting, mostly, these days. Although since Austin came I’ve only done the local one. It’s a big deal around here, though. Which is why I cannot figure out for the life of me why my brother and his fiancée decided that’s when they should get married.”
Mallory’s head jerked up. “Your brother?”
A grin spread across Josh’s mouth. “My twin. Levi. What?”
Her face hot, Mallory turned back to the horse. “For a moment I forgot you had more than one brother, that’s all. But a wedding!” she said, smiling at him again. “How exciting!”
“For Levi, maybe,” Josh said with another quick grin, propping a boot up on the lower rail and looking out over the pasture. “Levi’d been sweet on Val all through high school, but she ended up with his best friend. Then both Levi and Tomas enlisted, went to Afghanistan...” He sobered. “Except Tommy didn’t make it home.”
“Yeah. Everybody here took it pretty hard. He was a good guy. A really good guy. The kind of good guy who makes his best friend swear to look out for his wife and kids.”
“Oh. Wow. And now they’re getting married.”
Waffles nuzzled her hair. Looking for more carrots, maybe. Mallory obliged. “You all really watch out for each other, don’t you? The whole town, I mean.”
“To the point where we drive each other nuts sometimes. But yeah.”
Mallory hesitated, then asked, “Would it be betraying a confidence to tell me what happened to Zach’s wife?”
Frowning out into the pasture, Josh waited a good long time before answering. “Car crash. Hardly a secret. Beyond that, though...”
“Understood. And there’s no reason he should talk to me about it, really. We hardly know each other. But I get the feeling he doesn’t talk about it to anyone.”
Josh turned his gaze to hers. “No. He doesn’t.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I think it’s a family trait. Except for my mother. Whatever she’s feeling, you know it, boy. Which doesn’t mean she blabs about anyone else. But the rest of us...” His head shook. “None of us even know what really went on with Levi, when he was overseas. Although I suspect he’s sharing more with Val than he ever did with any of us. She has that effect on people.”
“Aw...you like your sister-in-law.”
Another cute, almost embarrassed grin preceded a quiet, “We all do. She’s good folks.”
Mallory smiled. From what she’d heard so far, there were several people in town she thought she might like getting to know.
“A word of warning, though,” Josh said. Kindly, she thought. Leaning one hip against the fence, he crossed his arms high on his chest. “Zach’s doing a pretty good job of holding it together. For his kids, his clients. At least, that’s how it seems to us. But the minute you poke at him, you’re right—he’ll close up faster’n a snapping turtle. And despite what most women think—and with good reason, I’ll admit,” Josh said with a smile, “not
men are totally oblivious. Meaning I can see you’re curious. Don’t know about interested,” he said, his eyes narrowing, “but the wheels are definitely turning.”
She blew a short laugh through her nose. “Yes, they are. And you’re right, I am curious. In a people-fascinate-me kind of way.”
“And the other?”
Her gaze shifted to his. “Speaking of looking out for each other.”
Josh shrugged. “Long ingrained habit. Whether any of us want to be looked out for or not.”
And sometimes, she decided, lying really was the best option. Because to admit the truth would only go to prove it wasn’t only her legs that weren’t working properly. “Your brother is obviously a nice guy, and it hurts me to see someone else hurting,” she said, echoing what she’d said to her mother. “But I won’t pry, I promise.”
“And that’s really all there is to it?”
. But the more details she went into—that she was only there part-time and would return to Los Angeles, that she was in no position to embark on a relationship herself—the more likely she’d sound as though she was protesting too much. Never mind that both things were true. And of course there was the indisputable fact that her wheelchair was a huge turnoff for some men. Okay, a lot of men. For her, it was freeing. There were few places she couldn’t go, far fewer things she couldn’t do than people might realize, even if she did them differently. But an awful lot of people only saw her as somebody who couldn’t walk, as though that was the main thing that defined her.
Still, there was the also indisputable fact that the man stirred something inside her that went way beyond her severe hanky-panky deprivation. Something that took her out of herself, made her...want to do more. Be more. But to say this was a nonstarter didn’t even begin to cover it.
And the look Zach’s brother was giving her right now told her he wasn’t buying it for a minute. Especially when he said, “That’s too bad. Because I think you’d be real good for him.”
Josh laughed, then nodded toward the nearest barn, a modern number, all mental and clean lines. Nothing like the much, much older—and far more charming—huge wooden structure she’d noticed on her way up to the main house. “If you need tack for the horse, his previous owners gave us what they used for him, and you’re welcome to it. But you might want to see it first, decide if you’d rather get something new for your boy...”
At least this stuff she knew, Mallory thought a few minutes later as she inspected the hardly worn saddle, the bit and bridle and blankets that were part of Waffles’s “dowry.” This stuff, she could make decisions about.
The rest of it? The important stuff? Thirty-eight years, she’d been doing this, and she still knew bupkiss.
Especially about why in the hell she’d find herself interested in the last man on earth who’d be interested back.
* * *
Some days, Zach mused as he ushered his very wiggly progeny into a booth at Annie’s, being a responsible adult was beyond him. As in, the kind of adult who actually cares about what his kids are shoving in their faces. Only after the morning he’d had—which had started at o-dark-thirty hauling ass out to Ed Jenkins’s place to help his mare deliver a breech foal—he was doing well to feed the kids at all. Heck, remember he had kids.
“Hey, there, Zach. Boys.” Val Lopez, Levi’s fiancée, appeared at their booth, order pad at the ready and a smile on her face that put the sun to shame. In the early afternoon light streaming through the street-facing window, her long, wavy ponytail was the color of corn silk. “What’ll it be? Wait, let me guess,” she said, setting a pair of kids’ paper place mats in front of the boys, a small round diamond flashing on her left hand. “Regular burger and fries for this one,” she said, tapping a giggling Jeremy on the head, “chicken fingers for cutie-pie there, and a deluxe cheeseburger with double fries for you. Am I right?”
“Are we really that predictable? Liam—no, buddy.” The baby was on his knees, the ketchup bottle already upside down over the place mat.
Grinning, Val shoved the pad in her apron to calmly reach over and pry the plastic squirt bottle from Liam’s chubby hands. “Most men are, honey,” she said over the baby’s affronted bellow. She reached into her pocket for a small packet of crayons, plopped them in front of the boy. “Y’all want chocolate shakes with that?”
“Please.” Zach smiled tiredly as Jeremy leaned close to his baby brother, helping him to choose a crayon to color the horse in the center of the place mat. Blue, apparently.
As Liam began to madly scribble more or less over the horse, Val called out their order to AJ, Annie’s husband and the diner’s short-order cook, before turning back to Zach. They were on the late side for lunch, so the place was virtually empty except for a couple of tourists a few booths down and Charley Maestas, the old army vet who spent a good portion of every day at the counter, mostly shooting the bull with whoever would talk to him. Which was pretty much everybody. Yeah, the town definitely looked out for their own.
“So how’d Ed’s mare do?” Val asked. “She okay?”
As tired as he was, Zach had to smile. “Now how’d you know about that?”
“Your mom was in for a second, filling up her thermos on her way out to the pueblo to deliver a baby. Said you’d dropped the boys off before dawn.”