Authors: Elaine Levine
She opened the screen door, then unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Every time she came back to the house that she’d inherited from her grandparents, she half expected to see them still hustling about, doing the things they’d done every day. Maybe she should change the furniture so she wouldn’t miss them so much.
She walked into the kitchen. Angel was close on her heels. He touched her shoulder, stopping her.
“Talk to me.”
“I went over to see him. In the barn.” She glanced at him. “I wanted to know how his visit with Dr. Kimble went. And I wanted to give him a heads-up about the garden work.”
“Kit already did that at this morning’s team meeting.”
Mandy fished the bullet out of her pocket. She held it in her fist a moment before peeling back her fingers to show Angel. “I found this in his trunk.”
Angel took it from her. “Was there a gun that went with it?”
“I didn’t see one, but I was certain I heard him dry-firing one before I went up to the loft.”
“I’ll talk to him. Again.”
“Not sure that’s a good idea. He visited Dr. Kimble this morning, then went straight up to play with his gun.” Her voice broke as a wave of tears choked her. “Should I stop the garden work, Angel?”
She nodded, then lowered her head and let her tears take her. It was a relief when Angel pulled her close. He rubbed her back, patting her like he might comfort a weeping steer. She tried to breathe but snorted instead. He didn’t spook, just reached over and grabbed a paper towel, which he shoved toward her. She blew her nose.
“I’m afraid for him,” she said.
Angel nodded. “Give the shrink time to work with him. Rocco didn’t get this broken overnight. It’s going to take a while to unbreak him. In the meantime, we have to keep carrying on. He has to see that normal is still happening all around him.”
Mandy blew her nose. “Okay.”
“Let’s get that tea going.”
“I don’t mean to keep you.”
“You’re not. One or more of us will be over here while they’re working.”
“I appreciate that. The foreman said they’d be done in a few days.”
* * *
Rocco pounded the heavy bag in a rapid succession of right and left punches. Every time he slowed down, he saw the way Mandy had looked at him earlier when he’d put his boy to bed. He hadn’t heard her come into Zavi’s room, but she’d been there to catch the lame excuse he’d given his son about why he couldn’t stick around for a story. Hell, even his four-year-old had seen through it.
Rocco picked up his rhythm. He’d caught her expression in the seconds before he turned off the light in Zavi’s room. Hurt, anger, worry, sorrow…every human emotion had been tangled up in her green eyes. She’d turned the light back on, picked up a book, then scooted next to Zavi on the bed.
It was good they had each other. Damn good. It would make what he had to do a little easier.
He pounded the bag. Someone came into the gym, flipping on all the fluorescent lights. Rocco squinted as he looked up. “Shut ’em off, Angel.”
“Kinda hard to use the equipment if you can’t see it.”
Rocco had propped the door to the men’s locker room open, letting its light spill into the room. “Got enough light.”
“Yeah. Now you have a whole lot more.” Angel sat on one of the benches along the wall behind Rocco.
Rocco put a fist against the heavy bag to steady it as he turned to look at Angel. “You want the room? You can have it.”
“I don’t want the fucking room. I came to talk to you.”
“Not in the mood.” He tugged one of the wrist ties loose with his teeth, then held it between his arm and body and pulled his hand free. After removing the other glove, he put them away in the equipment shelf.
“Oh well.” Angel held up the bullet between his thumb and forefinger. “You got the gun that goes with this?”
Rocco saw the light shine on the metal casing of a .45 cartridge. “Where’d you get that?”
“Mandy give it to you?”
“Maybe. Maybe I went snooping. Where’s the gun, Rocco?”
“What difference does it make? If I were suicidal, do you think a gun’s my only way out?”
Angel got to his feet. “Where’s the fucking gun?”
“You know what? Keep the goddamned bullet. There’s more where that came from.”
In a flash, Angel came at him. He caught Rocco’s arm and twisted it up behind him as he slammed him against the wall. “Are you suicidal?”
Rocco thought about that. Was he? Suicidal people just wanted out, an end to life as it was. He didn’t want to go—he
to go. He had to be with his baby in heaven. There was a difference. He quit resisting. Releasing a long breath, he leaned his head against the wall.
Angel shook him and shouted in his ear, “Are you fucking suicidal?”
“No.” Rocco bucked against Angel’s grip, gaining his release. He rolled his arm around, easing the pain in his shoulder. “What the hell would you have done if I’d said yes, anyway?”
Angel’s black eyes held his. “I’d come into that dark hell you’re living in and carry your ass out.” He put his face in Rocco’s. “No one gets left behind on this team.”
Rocco blinked. No one got left behind…except his little baby, the most fragile person of all.
Angel frowned, then hit his shoulder. “Shake it off, Rocco. You want to spar?”
Rocco nodded. The pain usually helped, though this little convo had cemented what he needed to do.
* * *
Mandy was cleaning out stalls when she looked over to see Rocco standing near Kitano’s pen. Rocco was about ten feet from the long corral. Kitano noticed and turned to keep an eye on him.
When they’d first come to Ty’s place, Rocco had made it a point to visit the broken horse every day. When had he stopped doing that, Mandy wondered? The team’s work over the past few months had been intense. She was glad to see him taking a few minutes for himself and for Kitano. It was much, much better that he was here rather than hiding in her old, crumbling barn.
Mandy stayed in the shadows and watched him. Kitano had come to tolerate her quite well, but was still leery of just about anyone else. Rocco approached the fence. Kitano shook his head, his focus sharp. Rocco turned left and slowly walked to the end of the long corral. Kitano kept pace with him, staying on the far side of his corral. Rocco walked back the other way. Kitano did, too.
Rocco climbed the six-foot fence and dropped inside the corral. Kitano didn’t like that. He tossed his head, snorted, then stamped the dirt with his front hoof. Rocco spread his arms and took a couple of steps into the corral. Before Mandy could react, Kitano charged forward. She swallowed a shout and hurried out of the stall, then realized she needed a halter and lead. She grabbed them, but paused long enough to check her panic—that level of energy would only worsen what was happening.
She watched, seeing Rocco step out of Kitano’s forward rush seconds before being trampled. Kitano turned just as he reached the fence, sandwiching himself sideways between it and Rocco.
“Whoa…whoa…whoa,” Rocco said, the sounds coming out almost as a single word from deep inside his chest. He was calmer than Kitano, which caused the Paint to pause and reassess the situation. His nostrils were sucking and blowing air as he scented Rocco.
Mandy held still, worried her rapid appearance would upset the tense balance Rocco had achieved. He was close to Kitano. He didn’t even have to stretch his arm out all the way to touch him. Kitano turned his head. Lifting his lips, he bared his teeth and went in to nip Rocco.
Mandy had had enough. A horse like Kitano could pick a man up by his neck and toss him about like a rag doll. But again, she paused as she saw that Rocco had the situation under control. As soon as Kitano laid his ears back and tried to nip, Rocco popped his mouth and barked, “Knock it off!”
Stunned, Kitano looked forward again and shook his mane. Rocco reached out and patted his shoulder. “Atta boy. See? We’re all good, you and me. See? Easy, now, easy.” Rocco’s warm, calm voice sent shivers through Mandy. With the work the team was doing, she sometimes forgot that Rocco grew up around horses on a working ranch.
“I wish I could set you free, boy. Mandy will take care of you. You’ll be in good hands with her.”
Mandy pulled back, staying deep inside the shadows of the barn as she tried to puzzle out the meaning of his words—words that sounded too much like a goodbye.
“Wynn, would it upset your plans for the day very much if I took Zavi for a little while?” Mandy asked his new teacher. The garden was all finished—she was dying to show it to someone, but honestly was a little afraid to bring Rocco over. Since she’d also planned it as a place for Zavi to visit with his mom, it made sense that he be the one to help her start up the fountain.
“Oh, I think he’d love that. We can take a break from our lessons.”
Mandy smiled at Rocco’s son and held out her hand. “Let’s go. We’ll ride a horse over to my house. We should have enough time for our outing before lunch.”
Zavi skipped along beside her on their way out to the stable. He was excited to have something different to do. He asked a million questions about random things, keeping up a constant stream of chatter. Mandy smiled. His excitement was infectious.
She wondered if Rocco had ever been as buoyant as his son. What a sight that would have been to see.
In the stables, she readied one of her horses, then lifted Zavi up into the saddle and swung up behind him. They went out of the stables into the sunshine, across Ty’s property to hers.
Zavi’s little hands held on to her forearms. He giggled as they climbed the hills. When they reached flat ground, she had him hold the reins and showed him how his movements directed the horse. They stopped at one of the upper corrals, where she tied the horse to the fence.
She and Zavi walked over to the new garden area. The trees the nursery had planted were a good size—bigger than saplings. The evergreen shrubs would take years to get big enough to make a privacy screen. But the little annuals in the beds under the cottonwoods and the colorful tiles on the benches gave a welcome pop of color.
Mandy looked down at Zavi and saw he wasn’t impressed. She smiled. “Would you like to turn the fountain on?”
He nodded. She showed him the switch in its protective plastic box. The motor whirred, then water spurted up out of the top of the fountain. It had three stone bowls to fill before it would fill the lower reservoir. Mandy stayed on her knees next to him as they watched the water spill over the first bowl. When it finally made it down to the lower level, she laughed and clapped her hands. Zavi smiled, but his joy was less enthusiastic.
“Zavi, what do you remember before you came to live here?”
“I remember Papa racing camels with my uncles.”
“Do you remember your mother?”
Zavi’s eyes took on an unfocused look. Mandy knew he hadn’t been very old when the explosion happened, shredding his family. Rocco had said a shepherd had taken him in. And then he’d been turned over to the Americans while they looked for Rocco.
“I remember my aunts. And my grandmother.” He frowned. “A little.”
Why didn’t he remember his mother?
“I thought, sometime, if you wanted to talk to your mom, you could come here and say it to the fountain.”
Zavi frowned as he considered that. “You want me to talk to the water? Why can’t I just tell you? You’re my mom, aren’t you?”
Great, huge tears filled Mandy’s eyes. She laughed and pulled Zavi close, rocking him slightly as she squeezed him. He pushed free. His face was very serious. “Papa said you’re going to have my baby brother or sister. You’ll be the baby’s mom, so I thought you’d be my mom, too.”
Mandy nodded. She brushed Zavi’s hair from his temple. Maybe…maybe she should go ahead and marry Rocco—for Zavi’s sake. “It would make me the happiest person in the world to be your mom.”
“Then I can call you Mom?”
“I’ll talk to your dad.”
“Okay. But I’m going to call you Mom anyway. He doesn’t get to pick who my mom is.”
“He does get to pick, sweetheart.”
“Then I’ll tell him to pick you.” He looked at the water spilling over the stone bowls. “I like your fountain, Mom, but I
don’t want to talk to the water.” He shot a glance over to their horse. “Can we ride around some more?”
* * *
Mandy was at the buffet bar making a sandwich for Zavi when Rocco came into the dining room. His hair was wet. A rough beard darkened his chin and neck. She didn’t know where he was sleeping, or even if he was sleeping—if she were to judge from the shadows under his eyes. He looked lean again, like when she first met him.
He glanced across the room as if seeking her out. His gaze held hers a second, then dropped to his son. Zavi knelt in his seat. “Papa! Sit with me and Mom!”
The whole room went silent, and she became the focus of several intense stares at Zavi’s outburst. The only person whose reaction she cared about was Rocco. He looked almost relieved. He came over to the buffet and reached for a coffee cup.
“Have you eaten anything recently?” she asked, using his proximity to hide her question from Kit and the others.
He turned his face until it almost touched hers. “I’m not hungry. I just wanted to say good morning to Zavi. And to you.” The last he added as if an afterthought. He had a bruise on the side of his chin and a tear in the corner of his lip. These were new, not leftover from Fiona’s recent rescue.
“What happened to you?”
He touched a knuckle to his lip. “Nothing. Forget it, Mandy.” His dark eyes caught hers. “I don’t need to be fixed.”
Kit was coming over to the buffet. Whether for food or because he’d caught their whispers, she didn’t know. She turned her attention to filling her own plate, though she had no appetite now.