Read Beginnings (Crawley Creek Prequel) Online

Authors: Lori King

Tags: #erotic, #short story, #hea, #western, #ranch, #cowboys, #north dakota, #prequel, #foster children

Beginnings (Crawley Creek Prequel) (2 page)

“Either stop thinking so hard, or tell me
what’s going on in that pretty head of yours.” Abe’s words against
her ear sent a shiver down her spine, and she turned her head in
offering. Instantly he pressed a kiss to her temple. It was a
gesture he’d repeated a million times in the fifteen years they’d
been together, and yet there was something painfully intimate about
it this time.

“I’m just feeling a bit blue today is all,”
she offered, praying he’d buy the white lie.

Peering down at her doubtfully, he huffed.
“You’ve been so caught up in your thoughts that you didn’t even
notice we stopped moving. Blossom’s limping.”

Sera looked down at the horse and let out a
gasp of sadness. “Oh no, hurry, let’s get down and see what’s
wrong. Maybe she’s just thrown a shoe.”

Abe eased out of the saddle and then reached
up to lift her down. She was perfectly capable of dismounting
herself, but she knew he liked helping her, so she didn’t complain.
They quickly sought out the reason for Blossom’s limping gait.

“It looks like her hoof split. Probably had
a rock in it and no one noticed,” Abe said gruffly, shaking his
head in disgust. “I’m going to have to talk to the hands about
paying more attention. Can’t have a good horse going lame because
they aren’t doing their job.”

“It’s no one’s fault, Abe; these things
happen.” Sera countered, absently stroking Blossom while she
nuzzled her hip. “We’ll just turn around and head back to the house
to call Smit.”

“But I had a picnic planned for us.” Abe’s
lips turned down in an almost comical pout.

“We can eat our picnic on the back patio
just as easily as in the pasture, and we’ll probably get less
chigger bites that way.” Sera kissed his pouting lips. “Come on.
Smit will be deep into his drink if we don’t get ahold of him
before sunset. I don’t want Blossom to have to be in pain through
the night.”

Abe reached for her and, pulling her into
his arms, kissed her more deeply. When he lifted his head, they
were both breathing more heavily. “I love you, Seraphina Crawley. I
don’t know any other woman who would put her horse’s wellbeing
ahead of her own anniversary celebration.”

Patting his chest, she grinned. “That’s
because you don’t know many other women, period, and that’s how I
like it.”

“Ah, jealousy, I love it. Makes me feel
manlier.” He reached for Blossom’s lead rope and looped his arm
around Sera’s waist.

“Ha! If that’s all it takes, Mr. Crawley,
then clearly I’m not doing my job lately.” Sera tried to keep her
tone light and playful, but her brain was buzzing with her own
words. The implications that perhaps he might seek out someone else
when he found out about her womanly limitations were almost too
much.

“Then we’d better go home and get your horse
handled so we can have a practice session tonight.” Abe said,
wiggling his eyebrows flirtatiously. “I’d planned on making love to
you on a blanket at sunset, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Laughing, she tucked her fingers into his
hand on her hip and fell into step with him. Love for him consumed
her, and yet guilt rode high in her chest. Next week, when he
returned from his trip to Saline, she’d tell him. There was no need
to ruin their evening.

Chapter 2

 

“Mrs. Crawley?” Sera jumped at the knock on
the back door, dropping the package of rice she was holding. It
spilled all over the floor, tiny grains scattering like snow on the
dark hardwood.

“Jiminy Crickets,” she hissed under her
breath. The knock came again, and she carefully stepped over the
mess to unlatch the screen door. Their ranch foreman, Nick, smiled
back at her. He stepped inside pulling his beat-up cowboy hat off
his head as she greeted him. “Good morning, Nick.”

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said,
looking sheepish. “I’ll help you clean up.”

“No, no. It’s fine. I’ll get it in a minute.
I was just putting the rice back in the pantry, and I was lost in
my own thoughts. What can I do for you?” She leaned her hip against
the countertop.

“I just got back from picking up some feed
from town and found out we’ve got sick cattle in the pasture. I
figured you’d want to know so that you could call Smit out.” Nick
explained.

“Sick? What do you mean sick?” she asked,
concern sending her hurrying across the scattered rice on the floor
to the phone without hesitation.

“Not sure, but it ain’t good. Hands found
one dead, and we’ve got four more that look to be at the end of
their rope,” Nick said, scratching at his balding head. “We’ve
separated them from the herd, but we can’t be sure the others
weren’t exposed.

“Why does this sort of thing always happen
when Abe is out of town?” she grumbled.

“Won’t he be back this evening?” Nick asked,
hopefully.

“No, he called early this morning and said
the rain delayed part of the cattle auction. To be there for that
bull he wants, he’ll have to stay again tonight.” She turned away
as the line began ringing. Once she’d placed her call to the local
veterinarian, she turned back to find Nick snagging a cookie from
the cookie jar. “Smit will be here within the hour.”

Nick blushed when he realized she’d caught
him, and grinned showing the gap where he was missing a front
tooth. Though he wasn’t much to look at, Nick had become Abe’s
right hand man, and Sera knew he was trustworthy. She counted him
as one of their closest friends. If Crawley Creek succeeded, he
would succeed, and they’d made sure to reward him as the ranch
grew.

“I’ll head on out and wait for him.”

She nodded, “Thanks Nick. This is going to
be expensive isn’t it?”

“Probably, but it would be more expensive if
it took down the whole herd.”

“You’re right about that.” She sighed and
rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “Just seems we’ve been dealt a
lot of blows lately. It gets tiring.”

Nick was peering at her through narrowed
eyes when she looked up again. “Mrs. Crawley, iffin you don’t mind
my saying, you’ve been looking a might peaked lately. Like you
ain’t feeling so good.”

“Why do you insist on calling me Mrs.
Crawley? After five years you ought to be able to say my name,” she
grumbled, ignoring his observation.

“Fine. Sera, are you feeling okay? Is there
something wrong?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

She felt tears burn her eyes as she nodded.
“Everything’s wrong, but I don’t know how to fix it.”

Nick shifted awkwardly, and she realized
that her tears made him uncomfortable when he said, “Do you, uh,
need a handkerchief?”

Dabbing her eyes with the bottom hem of her
apron she shook her head, “No, thank you. I’m sorry, I’m just a bit
tired lately is all.”

He patted her shoulder tentatively, and then
edged toward the door. “Are you sick in the mornings? Maybelle got
all teary-eyed when she was carrying Daniel, but she was real sick
each morning, too.”

It took her a minute to realize he was
surmising that she was pregnant, and then she began to laugh
uncontrollably, tears falling from her eyes once again. “No, I’m
not pregnant. In fact, that’s the problem. I can’t get pregnant.
I’m barren.”

Nick grimaced and shook his head, giving her
a sympathetic look, “I’m sorry to hear that…”

She stomped her foot and held out her hands
in his direction, pleading with him. “Gosh darn it. I wasn’t going
to tell anyone until I told Abe. Please don’t tell him. I need to
figure this out...”

Nick shook his head. “I won’t tell a soul.
Your secret’s safe with me.”

Relief washed through her, and she gave him
a teary smile of gratitude. “I’m sorry to dump on you like this. I
hate having to ask you to keep it from Abe.”

Nick hesitated for a minute, and then
sighed. “Mrs. Crawley—er—Sera, I know you probably already know
this, but keeping secrets is hard on a marriage.”

“Tell me about it.” She groaned. “I just
found out, and with our anniversary, and Blossom, and the cattle
auction, well, I just haven’t had time to figure things out. But I
will. Just, please, don’t say anything. It’s going to break his
heart as it is to find out I can’t have children. I don’t want him
to find out from someone else.”

“I said I’d keep your secret, and I will.”
He reached for the door, and then glanced back. “If you need
anything, anything at all, you just ask. Me and Maybelle will help
however we can.”

“Thank you, Nick. It’s good to know that we
have such good friends.”

“I’m gonna go wait for Smit now. I’ll let
you know what we find out.”

Sera watched as he disappeared out the door
and around the house in the direction of the barn. Staring silently
out into the distance, she thought about all of the wonderful
blessings she had in her life.

Thanks to scholarships, she and Abe had both
been able to go to junior college and get some schooling. His was
in business and agriculture, and hers was in English. Not that hers
did her any good being a rancher’s wife, but it made her feel
better about herself. After college, Abe had proposed and they’d
planned a wedding in just six short weeks. They’d moved into a tiny
one-bedroom home in Montford, and he’d worked at the same
fertilizer plant that his father did while she’d worked as a
secretary for the mayor. Saving every extra penny, they’d dreamed
of starting their own ranch, and building a legacy together.

When Andrew Edwards had a stroke and his
kids decided to put him in a nursing home, she and Abe had reached
out and made an offer on his existing ranch. It was dilapidated,
and only had a few dozen head of cattle, but they came to an
agreement on the price. The day they moved in, Abe had surprised
her with a wooden sign, which he hung just over the front door. It
read “Crawley Creek Ranch Est. 1976”.

She still looked at that sign every day as
she entered her home, admiring the roots they’d planted and the
love that had carried them through the hard times. It wasn’t easy,
but together they’d begun making repairs and purchasing healthier
livestock. With careful breeding and purchasing, Abe had managed to
build their herd up to a couple hundred head, and their income was
more fluid now. That didn’t mean there weren’t tough months, like
this month with two visits from the vet.

Sighing with resignation, she turned back to
face the mess in the kitchen. It was ironic that she seemed to be
cleaning up messes one after another lately. Each of her own
making.

Chapter 3

 

 

Four weeks later, Sera was no closer to
answering her problem. After Smit had determined that the cattle
were sick from eating moldy grain, they’d had to thoroughly clean
all the feeders on the ranch and find a new grain source. Abe had
returned and been swamped with the project, so she’d told herself
that she just wanted to wait for things to settle down before she
gave him the bad news.

But now, after a full month, she still
hadn’t told Abe the news. In fact, she’s spent most of her energy
on avoiding telling him. It was eating her alive inside, and she
knew he was suspicious.

Lying in bed with him at night was the
worst. Not because she didn’t enjoy her time with him, but because
that was when they usually shared intimate conversation and spoke
about their plans for the future. Twice he’d mentioned her
ovulation calendar going missing from the bathroom, and both times
she’d changed the subject to avoid explaining.

She’d never lied to him before. It felt
awful. Like a black rain cloud was constantly pouring down sadness
over her life, blocking out the joy. Today, she was going to seek
out advice from the only person she felt safe spilling the beans
to.

The heavy door of the church creaked when
she opened it, and the familiar smell of roses, vanilla candles,
and Murphy’s Oil Soap hit her, soothing her frazzled nerves. This
was a place of serenity and acceptance in her life, and she
regularly sought the chapel out when she needed a private moment to
think. Now, privacy wasn’t what she was searching for.

Mary Gillian was plucking the brown leaves
from a few plants in the foyer of the church as she hummed a hymn,
and Sera was smiling before she even called out a hello.

“Sera! It’s lovely to see you.” Mary said,
returning the smile and approaching her for a hug.

“Hello Mary. The plants are looking
beautiful.” Sera complimented her oldest friend.

As a shy teenager, Sera had found herself
fearing her first day in a new school, but luckily her next-door
neighbor turned out to be ripe for a new friendship. Mary Reeves,
as she was called before she married Pastor David Gillian, was an
exuberant girl who never met a person she didn’t like. She oozed
positivity, and Sera had been seeking her out for nearly two
decades when she needed a pick-me-up.

“Thank you! I added a bit of fertilizer to
the new pots when I repotted them this spring. I think they really
enjoyed the extra vitamins.” Mary beamed with pleasure as she
looked over the greenery. “If they keep growing like this I’ll be
able to split them again next spring. Maybe this time you’ll want
one for that big beautiful foyer you have on the ranch?”

“Maybe,” Sera said, neither accepting nor
declining her friend’s generosity. She was talented at many things:
cooking, baking, horseback riding, needlepoint, event organization,
and she even wrote the occasional poem or essay in her old
leather-bound journal, but she absolutely did not have a green
thumb. “I actually wanted to talk to you. I have a problem and I
need some advice.”

Mary’s eyebrow arched and she cocked her
head. “I wondered when you’d get up the nerve to talk to me.”

“What?”

“You’ve been gnawing on something for weeks
now, and everyone knows it. Just didn’t think it was right to push
you into sharing if you weren’t ready.” Mary explained. “I’ll grab
us both a coffee and meet you in the chapel.”

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