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"What's wrong, Clint? You look like you've just seen a ghost," Sal Mathews said, slapping Clint Travers on the back, and jolting his attention to the people in the restaurant once more.
Clint glanced from the crowded mall to his friend.
Shaking himself, he defied the uneasy anticipation that ran up his spine as he smiled at his friends. "She was probably just a hallucination."
Sal nodded with a big grin on his ruggedly handsome face. "Clint, you better quit chasin' those skirts, and find you a steady gal. It's high time you were married, boy."
Without another word, Clint handed the baby in his arms back to Sal's wife. Little Freddie, all of three months old didn't seem to want to leave the warmth of Clint's chest. Funny, but Clint didn't like giving him back, either. He was fond of children. Especially since his older brother Deke had married and had begun a family of his own. Fatherhood looked tempting. If only marriage didn't go with it. There was only one woman that could ever hold his heart, and she was strictly off limits. He'd decided many years ago that marriage was completely out of the question.
Little Freddie fussed as his mother reached to take him. For just a second, Clint imagined what it might be like, coming home to a little woman, and children, lots of children. He shrugged it off. It would never happen. Not now. Not after he'd messed up the one good thing in his life.
"Not me. Although I wouldn't mind having a little critter or two, myself."
Sal's wife Wendy shook her head, her large brown eyes narrowing on Clint with a serious frown. "It's a shame. You'd make a dandy father, Clint. Why, just look at you. You calmed littleFreddie down just by picking him up. He likes you, and quite frankly, Little Freddie doesn't cater to many men. I swear, Clint, you are a living, breathing waste."
Clint gave Wendy a quick, sharp glance. That wasn't the first time he'd heard that, but it still stuck in his craw to hear it. "A waste. Just because I don't want to be saddled with a wife and white picket fence. Marriage is fine for some, but not me. I'm a rodeo bum, remember?"
"You don't have to be, you know. You chose to be." Wendy reminded.
While he was talking, his mind was on the apparition that he had probably imagined by the window of the restaurant. Through the throngs of Christmas shoppers, he had spotted her. Or, at least, he thought he had. Yeah, like a dozen times before.
He had to get out of here. He had to know if that was Abby or not!
Abigail Martin had been his neighbor. His best friend--until he ruined it. He wasn't prepared to run into her, and yet, he had to know for sure. But one glance from those see-all blue eyes of hers, and his groin reacted with a jolt. It had to be her. No woman had ever affected him the way Abby had.
He suddenly stood and grabbed his black Stetson from the back of his chair. He grabbed his black leather jacket, and straightened his bolero tie. "Say, do you mind if I take a raincheck on that drink at your place later?"
Sal reared back in his chair, and shot him a quizzical look. "Sure, Clint, any time. Only next time you're in town, don't wait so long to call us."
"I won't. It's been wonderful, but I need to tie a few loose ends up before I head home, if you don't mind," Clint said, running a gentle hand over little Freddie's red fuzzy hair. He'd only been with Sal a couple of hours, and already he was wondering what it might be like to have a few little cowpokes of his own. He had to quit thinking along those lines; it would do no good. He didn't deserve that kind of happiness.
Apprehension shot through him as his mind continued to narrow on Abby.
"Congratulations, he looks like he's going to grow up to be one fine little cowboy."
"Cowboy?" Wendy frowned up at him, her familiarity with Clint allowing that frown to linger. "Not on your life, Clint. He's going to be a doctor."
Clint tried not to let that remark rankle, but for some reason, it bothered him when women frowned on one of the oldest western professions. What was so darned wrong with being a cowboy? Why did all women think so poorly of cowboys these days? He shrugged off the hurt and pecked Wendy on the cheek and tipped his hat to Sal. "Good seein' you, partner."
"Same here. Don't be a stranger."
Clint didn't understand his own urgency. Or did he? A couple of more rounds with Wendy about cowboys, and he'd be out of there, anyway. He was too much of a gentleman to argue with her, but the lady needed setting straight. Cowboys had been the good guys once; what had happened to that image? If he couldn't convince his own family, how did he expect to convince friends? Not that every one of the Travers men weren't some kind of cowboy, but a rodeo cowboy had a stigma attached.
He should feel guilty leaving his friends he'd purposely looked up after suffering extreme boredom at the Cattleman's Association meeting. He wasn't a speechmaker; he was a cowboy. A rodeo cowboy, at that. Why Deke had sent him instead of Jake, he wasn't sure. And if Deke hadn't been so tied up at the ranch, he wouldn't be here.
Maybe he hadn't seen Abby, after all. Maybe he just needed an excuse to get away from those tied down feelings that Wendy kept talking about. He already felt the tension leaving his body, being replaced by a new urgency.
Marriage! He didn't need it. Some women took your heart and broke it, and the other kind of women he didn't deserve. Other women, like Abby. So, he'd learned a lesson the hard way, never again. One night with Abby proved that heaven really did exist. And made him ache to claim it. But there was an obstacle between his and Abby's happiness, and that obstacle was not one Clint thought he could fight and win. Her father!
He quickened his steps.
Something deep down told him he had seen Abby, and he had to follow that hunch. It was time for some sort of apology, because the one thing he knew for sure was that he'd missed her. He missed her laughter, her understanding nature, her gentle ways.
He rushed out into the Christmas shopping delirium. Seeing Abby renewed his sharp sense of guilt. He owed the woman, big-time. He'd be lucky if she'd speak to him. He deserved whatever he got, but he hoped she'd speak. He secretly hoped he could rekindle the friendship they had once shared.
He'd missed sharing things with Abby; all the times they'd sat all night in the barn, nursing some sick cow or the like, spilling their guts to each other. But then, no, that wasn't right, either. He'd spilled his. Abby rarely laid any of her troubles on him. No, it was mostly one-sided.
It didn't matter; they were friends. Good friends. They knew everything about each other. He could talk to her like no other woman. At times, he nearly forgot she was a woman. And he hadn't been with a woman since that night; the night he'd realized he'd lost the best thing in his entire life--Abby.
Of course, it might not have been Abby he'd seen, he reasoned. Wishful thinking again. Maybe his damn imagination was overplaying again. It wouldn't be the first time. The chances of her being here at this particular time of evening were not very good. He really hadn't gotten that good of a look at the woman hightailing it through the crowd. Maybe it was his conscience playing tricks on him. But deep down, Clint didn't think so. No one had such an angelic face, with beautiful long, straight, blonde hair and flashing blue eyes as Abby. And although he couldn't have seen the color of her eyes, he certainly had seen the flash of them. Not that she could see him. The restaurant window was tinted, and he doubted she could have gotten as good a look at him.
He had to know for sure. He only hoped he could find her in the mall of Christmas shoppers. Of all the times to spot her, in a throng of shoppers that was impossible to muddle through.
Christmas songs echoed in his ears as he watched kids scream with delight as they darted from one decorated window to another, and people bumped into him with their presents as he tried despairingly to track the one woman he knew didn't want anything to do with him.
He'd already kicked himself a dozen times for what he had done to her that night. He'd already planned what he'd say to her if he saw her again. And he suddenly realized, with stunning clarity, that he didn't know what to say to her anymore. How could a man apologize to woman for something like that?
That night had changed things, and not for the better, even though he knew with such clarity that he wouldn't change a moment of it. Before that night, he had only known he loved her, but after that night, he knew no other woman could take her place. Nothing would be the same again, and that realization hurt him more than he cared to admit. Dammit, he'd been such a fool. The story of his life. Any time anything good in life came along, he managed to screw it up.
Although no one said it, he considered himself the black sheep of the family; the one that didn't make anything of himself. Deke was the strong one, the one that everyone depended on in the family. Jake was the silent warrior always willing to defend, and then his younger brother Rusty was still a little wet behind the ears. Deke had stability, Jake an education, and Rusty the perseverance it took in life. Clint had nothing, as far as he could see. He was the one that didn't succeed in life. What did a broken down rodeo bull rider do when his bones got too busted up to let him ride?
Sure, he'd joined the Junior Rodeo Association, and had become a teacher. They'd elected him Chairman of the Board three years in a row. But what was he teaching? Young boys to learn how to break their necks? That held no future, he could tell them. And yet, Clint knew for a fact that if it was in your blood, there just wasn't anything you could do but rodeo. He only wished his brothers understood that a little better.
Unconsciously he gripped the back of his left leg where Bulldozer had gored him during that last ride. It ached in the winter. It ached in the summer. Hell, it ached all the time, but he'd learned to live with it. After two surgeries that his family knew nothing about, he was able to walk again without limping, and he had come home, for good. But it had taken that injury to wake him up and to realize that his life was going nowhere.
He followed what he thought was Abby into a store. A Christmas store, filled with the scent of holidays. Yeah, he sighed, Abby would be in here, if it really was her. She loved Christmas stores. Maybe she was Christmas shopping. Maybe he'd catch her, yet.
What was he going to say to her, if he found her? That made him almost stop and catch his breath. What could he say? "I'm sorry I made love to you and then ran out." God, he'd been nine kinds of a fool. Abby was the best friend he'd ever had. Man or woman.
Not that he had any notion of him and Abby ever getting together again. No, she was meant for someone better. She was special, in every way. He only hoped he could convince her how sorry he was. He hoped they could regain that friendship, a friendship that meant everything to him.
Scents of pine and cinnamon pierced his nose. Christmas music played in the background. Flashes of red and green were everywhere, red tinsel, red santa hats, green lights. How was he going to find her in all this?
He waded through the throngs of people, knocking over stacks of this and that, bumping into people with packages, and helping them pick them up as best he could, nearly knocking down displays over trying to catch up to the ever moving mirage. And just about the time he gave up, he spotted her.
Abby! His Abby!
She wore a long, thin, cashmere coat; her hair hung in one long silk tress down her back; her long bangs nearly hid her eyes. Abby wore it pinned at the sides and straight down her back. Thick and lustrous, he longed to touch it. His hand itched. His heart pounded. And a light sweat broke over his forehead. Damn, facing Abby was worse than facing Bulldozer! She was standing near the outside doorway, staring at a tree, decorated in all its Christmas finery.
That was his Abby. She loved Christmas more than anyone he knew.
"It's a beautiful tree, but how you gonna get it home with all that finery on it?" Clint asked, leaning against a display counter, a little away from her, and crossing his arms over his chest.
She turned around slowly, the tears in her eyes shimmering.
God, he hadn't expected this, the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, his friend, his Abby, and she was crying?
"Clint!" His name was like a whispered prayer on her lips. Even her soft, voice made his heart trip. All the shadows of his heart lifted in pure joy at seeing her.
"Abby?" God, what should he do now? He wanted to run and take her in his arms, but he knew better.
The sweet whiff of perfume floated about his nose, like an enticement meant to stir his senses. He smiled.
She came into his arms willingly. And he felt as though he'd come home after a long hard ride. He'd done it so many times over the years. But this time was different. This time, it wasn't a pony that hurt its leg, or a puppy that didn't make it into the world. This time, Abby cried aloud.
And she was sobbing her heart out.
Who'd hurt her? He'd kill them!
He scolded himself silently for thinking that way. Frightening anticipation shook him as he held her so close. It felt like old times. Yet, it didn't. He wasn't prepared for the shocking reaction of his body when full breasts pillowed against his chest, even through her thin coat and his heavier one, he felt over-stimulated. It was the last thing he wanted to feel around Abby. Awareness warned him to be careful, but he ignored it all, and pulled her closer.
She needed him right now, and he was there. That was the important thing
Her arms flew around his neck, and her lips barely grazed his cheek. Her light scent of flowers intoxicated him. He had never realized how he'd committed every detail about this woman to memory.
She felt different against him now, though, all grown up and filled out, so perfectly, shocking him into a reality that would later prove painful.
Just as suddenly as she had gone into his arms, she pulled away, as though having second thoughts of her actions. Her blue eyes surveyed him through ultra dark lashes that seemed to go on forever. He always had the sensation of heaven when looking into those eyes.
"I--I guess you've heard?" She almost whispered in a small choked voice.
"Heard?" He knew from the sound of her voice he probably should have, but he honestly didn't know what she was talking about.
"About dad ...dying."
Clint's smile faded, and the blood drained from his face. He could feel it leaving; he didn't have to look in a mirror. A cold chill ran up his spine. Dear God, he'd never have guessed; Ross Martin had always seemed so healthy. He saw the pain in Abby's eyes, and wished with regret he could hold her again. Conflicting emotions choked him. His own personal feelings for Ross seemed unimportant.
"I didn't know, Abby. I've been gone." He whispered somewhere near her ear.
Abby swiped a tear from her cheek and pulled out of his arms, moving deliberately away from him. He moved away, too, to lean against the counter. She'd never know how weak-kneed a cowboy could get. Straightening herself, she looked back at the tree. "Yes, so have I."
"I'm so sorry, Abby," he muttered in a half strangled voice, not knowing how to comfort her any longer. Not knowing if he should try.
As though gathering her strength, she stiffened her back, and looked into his face. Her expression was soft and alluring all at once. "It was a heat attack. He didn't suffer long. Thank goodness."
"Damn, Abby." Clint shuffled his feet, feeling a little dizzy from holding her, and hearing such news all at once. "How's your Mom taking it?"
"Better than I expected," Abby said, looking at him strangely. "I mean, at first she crumpled, but by the time I arrived, she had regained most of her composure, and is facing this better than I'd ever believed possible."
"When's the funeral?" Clint asked, when a silence sliced the air between them.
"Tomorrow. You'll come, won't you?"
"Sure, of course I will. We'll all be there for you. Is there anything I can do, in the meantime? I mean, have all the arrangements been made. Do you know what he wanted?"
"Yes, he had a pre-paid funeral arrangement. Everything has been squared away." Abby glanced back at the tree. "There is one thing, though."
She paused staring at him for a full minute, then a shy smile broke across her face.
"Help me get this darn tree home, Clint."
It sounded just like the friend he knew. His Abby.
Clint came closer, trying to read her face. "The tree. This tree?" He pointed, then glanced at her for confirmation.
"Yes, you know how Mom loves big Christmas trees. And this one is so beautiful. I thought it might take her mind off it. I just asked, and it's the last one they have this size."
Clint glanced at the tree. Obviously Abby was over-wrought with grief. She couldn't buy a tree with decorations on it and take it home like one big Christmas present. But it didn't matter. If Abby wanted the tree, he'd get it home for her; he'd even help her decorate it.
"Sure, Abby, we'll get the tree."
Clint patted her hand, and went to find a salesman.
He didn't want to think about what the sight of her did to him again. He'd washed that away three years ago. But there was an ache inside him that even he couldn't ignore.
It took an hour to get the tree free of decorations, and another hour to get it tied down on top of his Suburban, but he did it, and Abby helped.
After securing it, Abby moved closer to him. He sensed her apprehension. However, a slight smile curled her lips. "Since when do you drive a Suburban?"
"Since I started working for the Junior Rodeo Association. Can't haul all those kids around in an open pickup. It's against the law, now."
"You're working for the Junior Rodeo Association?" She sounded surprised.
"Have been for a year or so."
"But aren't you competing any longer?"
"Nope." He really didn't want to talk about it, but she persisted.
"But I thought you'd never tire of it. You've always loved the rodeo."
"Let's just say I'm a little partial to my bones, and leave it at that, okay?" Clint didn't want to sound harsh, but sliding back into the best friend routine wasn't as easy he thought. Even if she could forgive him, he wasn't sure he wanted the same relationship they had. No, he was damn sure he didn't. But he knew he wouldn't get what he really wanted.
He followed her home, which was a good hour and half drive, and pulled into her graveled driveway. He backed the truck up to the door, and proceeded to untie the tree, while Abby went inside, turned all the lights on and opened the door for him.
Mrs. Martin came to the door in her robe. "Clint Travers, is that you?"
"Yes ma'am," Clint answered, puffing as he dragged the big tree off the top of his truck. He backed straight into Abby, and she almost jumped backwards. Well, what had he expected? It wasn't like she welcomed his touches.
"Why, Clint, that's the biggest tree I've seen in my life!" Mrs. Martin gasped.
"Yes, ma'am, Abby picked it out."
Mrs. Martin wrung her hands, grabbed her chest, and Clint saw tears slipping down her cheek as he and Abby took the tree inside. She pushed back a strand of greying hair, and swiped her eyes. "Land sakes, that's the prettiest tree I've seen in years."
Abby laughed, "I know, and I wouldn't have gotten it home if it hadn't been for bumping into Clint at the mall."
"Clint in a mall. I don't believe it."
"I was having dinner with some friends when I spotted Abby."
Judy and Ross Martin had been married nearly thirty years. You didn't see one without the other. The old house didn't look the same without that bear-voiced man coming to hold his wife close and watch Clint's every move toward his daughter.
The minute Clint entered the old farmhouse, he had felt guilt stab him. Damn, there were so many things he felt bad about, where did he start? And how would he ever make amends to this family, to Abby? He hadn't been over here in ages. Hadn't checked on them, hadn't helped them. God, they must think he was a cad.
After all the times Ross Martin had come to his aid, he hadn't so much as bothered to ask if he might need help in the past couple of years. No, of course he hadn't. He'd been too busy playing Rodeo Cowboy. Even though he'd finally given up the circuit, he had to admit, teaching at the Junior Rodeo Association had given him quite a big head. To the kids, he was a hero. He had needed that boost to his ego when he had felt so low in losing Abby.
Clint and Abby moved the tree toward the big picture window in the living room, and Mrs. Martin fetched a tree stand from out of one of her closets.
"My," the older woman said, clutching her robe together from the cold breeze of the open door, "that really is some tree."
"Yes ma'am, it is," Clint agreed. "Sorry about Ross, ma'am."
"Now you stop ma'aming me, Clint Travers, we been friends too long for that kind of talk. You always called me by my name before. There's no need to start doing differently now. And yes, my Ross is gone, but at least he didn't lie around suffering. He would have wanted it that way."
"Yes ma'am. I mean, yes, Judy, he would."
"Abby, why don't you and Clint come in the kitchen, and have some cake and coffee. Bertha's been over, brought a whole table full of food from the church. I swear I don't know what this community would do without that woman."
"That Bertha is such a sweetie. I can't wait to see her again. How is she these days?"
"Better ask Clint; I think they see her more than anyone else. Any sign of Bertha and Cal making things official?" Mrs. Martin asked with a smile.
Clint chuckled as he secured the tree in the stand, then dusted his hands off. "I think the subject has come up a time or two. Especially since Deke got married. You know Dad's a changed man since Sammie Jo came into the picture."
"Kids have a way do changing things, don't they? I've heard he's quit smoking. I never though I'd see the day," Judy added. "Old habits die hard on a man his age, you know. He deserves some credit for that. Ross never did quit. Although I sure nagged him often enough."
"Would you like me to fix you a plate, Clint?" Abby gestured toward the food on the table.
"Sounds good to me. But I can help myself. You just lead me to the plates and forks."
Not one word about the past. Not one word. It made Clint feel twice as guilty for not being here. He should have been over regularly. He should have stayed in contact with Abby, too.
As they moved into the kitchen, Abby took her coat off and laid it on the couch. She waited for Clint to take his leather jacket off. Clint slid out of it, after recovering from seeing Abby without her coat. What a helluva woman she turned out to be. Better than most of the rodeo bunnies he'd dated. Abby was one helluva woman now. There was no sign of the young skinny kid he had grown up with.
That damned pitiful night when he'd let his emotions carry over to Abby and he'd taken what she so freely offered haunted him again, reminding him--hands off, from what he'd secretly wanted so very long--Abby. Oh, he'd wanted her from the beginning, when she was still braiding her hair and wearing braces, but there was no chance of that happening as long as Ross Martin was alive. Ross had warned him he'd kill him if he so much as looked crossed-eyed at Abby. "Abby," he'd said, "deserved better". Clint agreed. So Clint contented himself with being the only thing he could be, a friend.
As they moved into the kitchen, Clint couldn't keep his eyes off Abby's backside. She was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, but she certainly did fill the jeans out nicely. And when she turned around to offer him coffee, he couldn't stop noticing that her breasts filled her sweatshirt, too. His body reacted on its own.
What had happened to his skinny little Abby? And why was there suddenly a fire in his loins for the one woman he could never have? He'd harnessed his affection for so long; why now, when there was no hope, was he acting like a rutting stag?
"Judy, you should have called me," Clint scolded mildly as he began helping himself to the food, and trying desperately to distract himself from Abby. "I'd have been over here more if you had," Clint said, as he sat down at the big farm table in the middle of the kitchen. There was a formal dining room, but no one used it except at Christmas. He remembered so many times sitting here at this old table, drinking coffee at four or five in the morning, and talking to Mr. Martin and his family about the drought, the cattle, the plans for the day.
Ross and Clint got along just fine, as long as Clint kept his place. And Ross had made sure that Clint knew his place. Ross had told him flat out, "She's not going to get herself fouled up with some rodeo bum, Clint. She's a good girl, and she's gonna stay that way."
"Ross wasn't ill, Clint. Never was sick a day in his life. It just happened. He was out mending fences, and just keeled over. No problems, no pain. Just keeled over dead," Judy said without choking. "I miss him already, but if he had to go, I'm glad it was quick."
"You're right, Mama, it was a blessing the way he died," Abby said, as she placed a cup in front of Clint and her mother, and brought each of them a piece of chocolate cake. Still, his absence left a void in the old farmhouse that both women seemed aware of.
For lack of what to say, Clint stuffed his face with food, and listened to Judy relate the story of her and Ross and how they built their small empire. He envied her, envied what Ross and Judy had. And the way Judy was taking it made him proud he knew her.
"Is Matt coming home?" He shot Abby a quick glance.
"No, Matt's in Turkey right now."
"Turkey?" Clint nearly spewed his coffee.
"Yeah, he went after the earthquake. Said he thought he would be needed there," Judy said with a long sigh. "I can't tell you how proud I am of that boy."
"I guess looking at it from a doctor's point of view, he's right, but aren't you gonna need him now?"
"For what? I still have a foreman, as far as I know. Bud runs things around here."
Yeah, Bud Taylor was a good wrangler, but there was something shifty about the man. Clint hadn't liked him, and he had tried numerous times to tell Ross that, but Ross wouldn't listen, and even became hostile about it when approaching the subject.
"Nothing is going to change, Clint. I got Abby, too. At least for a while."
Clint wouldn't argue with Judy right now; it wasn't the right time. But surely she wouldn't keep Bud on now. A man no one in the county liked or respected, and a daughter who hadn't had saddle sores in at least three years; that wasn't going to be much help to Judy.
Damn, he wished Ross would have listened to him years ago, and gotten rid of that foreman. He had driven every friend Ross Martin had away. He was trouble, and Clint knew it. The man had made insinuating remarks to Abby when Abby was just a young girl. Bud gave Clint the creeps. Now Clint remembered why he stayed away. Ross Martin liked Bud. That's where they parted ways. Yet, instead of telling Ross his suspicions, he'd dropped it and stayed away. Now Ross was dead.
Abby smiled and patted her mother's arm as she sat down beside Clint. "Have you gotten any sleep?"
"Sleep. You know I never sleep during the day. No, I'll go lie down shortly. Don't fret over me, honey, I'm okay," Judy insisted, even though it was apparent from the shadows under her eyes that she'd been crying most of the day.
"You need any help, you just call me. Deke can spare me," Clint offered. But the way Judy had bragged on her son put a dent in his heart a mile wide. He shouldn't have been jealous. Matt had amounted to something. Matt, and Deke, and Jake and Rusty, but not him. He couldn't claim anything but a few rodeo titles. And rodeo bunnies.
And he'd trade all of them right now for Abby's friendship again.
"That Deke, he done himself proud getting a wife like Emma. I was glad to see the day," Judy remarked, glancing at her daughter and Clint.
"I haven't met Emma, yet," Abby said, coloring from her mother's glance.
"She's great. You'll like her. So, I guess this means you're gonna be staying, huh Abby?" Clint glanced at her, noticing the way her cheeks colored, and liking it.
"I haven't quite decided yet, Clint," Abby answered, not looking at him any longer.
"Abby's engaged now, Clint." Judy offered the information, and watched Clint closely.
Lord, he hadn't wanted to hear that. Anything but that. Still, she hadn't married yet. And that thought gave him comfort. Not that Abby was his business, but he sure didn't want to hear about her love life just yet. Just getting used to the changes in her was hard enough, but this! He knew this would be a long hard winter, having to stay close and yet keep his hands off Abby, too. Now, to learn that she was engaged hit him below the belt. Well, maybe it was best. Maybe now, he truly would keep his hands off her.
"Oh, is he going to be at the funeral?" Clint had to know. Had to prepare.
"No, John couldn't make it. His own mother is ill, and he takes care of her. He couldn't leave her right now."
Clint soaked the information up like a sponge. But it didn't sit well. Abby with a boyfriend. A good boyfriend. A man that took care of his mother. God, how could he ever compete with this family or his own? He was a castaway, and everyone around him knew it. He sank down into the chair.
Abby's father dead. Abby living practically next door again. So many things were happening all at once that it was hard to take in.
Clint didn't taste the chocolate cake. It went down like mud.
He certainly had no one to blame but himself. Abby had a right to happiness. Just because he hadn't found it didn't mean she couldn't have it. So why did all this news add up to nothing short of heartburn?
He was still berating himself for all he should have done, when a small tyke of about three years came barrelling into the kitchen in pyjamas.
"Mamaw, would you read me a story?" the little boy asked, sidling up to Judy and hugging her.
Judy grabbed the boy protectively to her, and smiled.
"Clay, honey, you're supposed to be in bed," Abby protested, her skin turning beet red.
Clint assessed the situation with nothing short of shock. Abby had a kid? A kid. A boy kid. A three year old boy. Couldn't be Judy. But Abby?
He sat very quietly, sipping his coffee, and looking at the little fella that clung to Judy. So, who was the father?
God in heaven, what had Abby been up to?
"This your boy, Abby?" He managed to ask when he found his voice.
"Y--yes," Abby stalled. Then pulling the little boy into her lap, she sat him close, and barely glanced at Clint. "This is my son, Clay."
"Hi, are you a real cowboy?" the little fella asked, looking straight at Clint with his big round dark blue eyes.
Clint stuck his hand out to the little boy. "Hi there, Clay. My name is Clint. And to answer your question, yes, I'm a cowboy."
The little boy took his hand, and gave him a big shake and a lopsided grin.
Clint nearly fell out of his chair when he suddenly realized he was looking in the mirror. His hair was black and straight and pulled to the side. His eyes were a bright deep blue. He could have been Clint twenty-five years ago.
Questions, time periods danced in Clint's head. A little over three and a half years ago, Clint had made love to Abby. If a brick had hit him, he couldn't have been more stunned.
Clint sat paralyzed in the chair as Abby and Judy went to put the boy to bed. Clay was his kid; he just knew it. He had to be. Abby didn't sleep around. Abby hadn't even had a boyfriend during that time.
Why hadn't she called him? Why hadn't she told him? How long would she have gone, not letting him know he had a son? A million questions danced in his head. And he wasn't leaving until he got some answers.
"He knows, Mother," Abby cried, swiping her eyes as she laid out Clay's pajamas.
"Will you read me a story, Mamaw?" Clay put his pajamas on, and jumped into his small bed eagerly.
"Just a short one, Clay honey." Judy reached for a familiar book on his shelf, and sat on the edge of his bed. While she read, Abby paced. Her mother's voice carried through the room like a whisper. The scent of the beautiful pine tree that Clint had helped her with drifted in to tickle her nose and remind her they were not alone.
Then Judy kissed Clay, and turned out the light. "Goodnight sweetheart."
"Night Mommy, night Mamaw. Is Papa really dead?"
The question seemed to hang in the air for a long moment, then Abby started toward her son to explain, when Judy stayed her. "Let me explain it to him, honey."
Abby nodded then smiled sadly. "He looks so much like him," she whispered in a small choked voice, thinking suddenly of Clint again.
Judy sat by Clay on the bed, and told him how Papa had gone to heaven to be with God. Clay nodded, as though he completely understood. After kissing his grandmother again on the cheek, he looked solemnly up at her. "I'll take care of you now, Mamaw. Don't you worry."
Judy kissed him, and wiped away a tear. "Thank you, darlin'."
Abby kissed Clay's smiling face and closed the door behind them.
Clay had gone to sleep practically before his head hit the pillow. "So--go on in there and talk to Clint, Abby. You owe him that much."
"What can I say? Maybe he doesn't realize--"
Judy shook her head and put her arm on her daughter's shoulder. "He'd have to be blind not to see the resemblance. No, he knows, alright. And it's up to you where to take this now."
"But what can I possibly say? I mean--after all this time. How can I explain?"
"Do you think he'll hate me?"
"Not a chance of that, if I know Clint Travers."
Abby paced the floor for a moment, thankful that the thick shag carpet muffled the sound of her boots. Then she looked at her mother with tear-stained eyes. "I'm not sure I can. I'm not sure I know how."
"You've got too much on you now. But this has to be taken care of, too. Clint's bound to realize, if he doesn't already." Her mother smoothed Abby's brow, and smiled gently at her. "And the sooner the better. Clint's a reasonable young man. For goodness' sake, Abby, he's been your best friend for years. Surely the two of you can work this out. How else will you ever go on with your life?"
"Yes, you're right about that. Better that I get it taken care of now, then later, after John and I are married."
"He's not going to like what I have to say."
"No, he won't," Judy agreed, adding to Abby's fears. "He's a man. Give him time to adapt to it, Abby. And don't be so hard on him or yourself. I know your father talked you into not telling Clint, but it's time now. Way past time. I never liked you keepin' it a secret, anyway."
Abby put her hands behind her, and leaned against the wall. She didn't know what to say to Clint. She hadn't meant to spring it on him this way. She had intended to tell him slowly, after she got reacquainted with him. Three years could change a lot of things. Clint had changed too, she noticed. He didn't seem quite as jovial. He was more serious, less talkative. And the fact that he wasn't doing the rodeos was a severe change. She wondered what had brought that on. She knew Clint; she knew his nature, and she couldn't imagine him quitting.
"I guess you're right. Clint's a reasonable man." Abby reassured herself, taking her courage in hand and forcing herself further into the hallway. She had determined long ago that Clint was in the past. All the hurt of him not loving her had melted away when she found out she was pregnant with his child. Clint's child. At least she had a part of him he could never take away.
Head held high, she retraced her steps toward the kitchen, pausing only long enough to call to her mother again. "Aren't you coming?"
"No dear, I'm tired, I'm going to lie down now. Besides, I'm not meddling in your business. There's been enough of that already. What's between the two of you is your business."
Her mother looked tired and much older tonight. She wished she could turn back the clock for her mother, and herself, too. She was a strong woman, but the strain of holding back took its toll, too.
Had her father been right? She'd never questioned his motives or reasoning; she'd loved her father too much for that. But now that he was gone, she had doubts.
Abby nodded, summoning a courage she wasn't sure she was feeling. She wanted to have time to plan what she would say to Clint. From the look on his face, he knew, or had guessed.
Just seeing him tonight of all nights seemed to heal something deep within her. It felt so right going into his arms again, letting him comfort her. She remembered everything about him, and he hadn't changed that much, she reassured herself. She still wanted to ruffle that old-fashioned cowboy haircut of his. She loved the natural scent of leather and horseflesh that seemed to surround him.
But her life had changed. She had changed. Somehow, she had to convince him of that.
She peeked around the kitchen door, and saw him sitting there at the table. He knew. Just from his expression she knew he knew. He wiped his face with one hand, as though weary.
Just seeing him again relit a small fire deep within her, a fire she had spent years trying to put out. No, she would not fall in love with Clint Travers again.
If only the sight of him didn't make her heart trip so fast. If only he was old and ugly and unappealing. But then, Clint had never been any of those things, and she had to deal with that, too. It was John she had to think of, John and her future.
She approached the kitchen as though knowingly walking into a lion's den.
"So Clint, want some more coffee?" She managed a bright smile she was far from feeling. She kept her hands busy, so he wouldn't see them shake. She couldn't look directly at him yet. That would take all of the remaining courage she had left.
She saw the determined thrust of Clint's chin as she chanced a quick glance. She saw the slight crease in his chin deepen. He was upset. She knew every plane of his face. His blue eyes looked full of emotions that she couldn't identify. Her gaze traveled over him now, slowly, savoring this one last glance for more private times. God, he looked so good. Nothing had changed about him. He was still the biggest heartthrob of West Texas. He wore his Levi jeans and jacket like a second skin. The muscles bulged against the material, not too tightly, just well-fitted. His black Stetson was pushed away from his forehead, and his thick black hair puffed above it.
He was built strong and solid, with not one inch of waste on him. Where her gaze went, her hands itched to follow, but she kept her distance and her heart in a safe place these days. He wasn't for her, never had been. That lesson she had learned the hard way. Her dad had taught her that although she had been madly in love with Clint the night he had made love to her, Clint didn't love her. He had never told her he loved her, and she had to accept it. It was her fault things got out of control. Women always had the control with an honorable man. According to her father, she deserved better than Clint--the rodeo cowboy. And she hated the little part of her soul that told her Ross Martin might have been wrong about this.
Even though her life had changed, the same love-starved feeling flushed over her, making her want to rush into his arms, tell him everything, and beg his forgiveness. She couldn't do that now. She was an adult, a mother.
She recognized that half hurt, half mad look he got in his beautiful deep blue eyes when something was wrong. She'd seen it too many times.
Memories of their shared experiences flashed through her mind, and her heart bounced hard against her chest. An ache as old as time quivered through her.
"Yeah, sure, looks like I'm going to need it, doesn't it?"
"I don't know what you mean," Abby lied, coming dangerously closer as she poured him another cup. Her nostrils filled with the fresh scent of a light citrus cologne.
He grabbed her arm, cuffing it with his big warm hand. "Cut the small talk, Abby. He's mine, isn't he?"
She started to deny the entire thing, but one look in Clint's dark brooding face, and she knew she couldn't possibly lie about it. Not to Clint.
"Yes," Abby said quietly, "he's yours." Her voice sounded odd to her, as though it came from somewhere else. Someone else.
"God, Abby!" Clint shot to his feet and paced the kitchen. He wasn't going anywhere, but his movements made her nervous. "When were you planning on telling me about him? When he was fully grown?"
Abby started to answer, but he cut her off again. "Or were you?"
"Of course I was--eventually." She felt the trembling of her own lips, the shaking of her hands, the pounding of her heart in her ears. What could she say? How could she explain this well-kept secret to him?
"Why, Abby? Why did you wait three damn years to tell me I had a son?" His voice rose with each word, and he came dangerously closer. "Why did you deny me my son?"
She started to say something, but his fist hit the table, and then he grabbed her by the upper arms, pulling her to stand in front of him. Her eyes clouded with unshed tears.
"We were friends, good friends. Why didn't you trust me enough to take care of this? Do you think I would have just walked away from it?" His eyes glared into hers. "I'd have taken care of you, the baby. We'd have worked this out. Didn't you know that?"
An almost hurtful sob broke from her lips as she turned away from him.
"I knew you'd be there for me, Clint," she answered steadily now, although how, she didn't know. Her tongue felt like sandpaper in her mouth. Her hands and feet felt as though they belonged to someone else as she moved about numbly.
He still wielded the same powerful control over her emotions he always had. This time she had to keep herself and her heart from him.
"You want the truth?" She hesitated, staring directly into his face.
"Yes, I want the truth."
He turned toward her again, and she sat down, afraid her knees would buckle if she stood to face him again. Instead, she looked anywhere but at him.
"Yes, I knew you'd pay for an abortion, take care of the kid, or even go so far as to marry me. But that's not what I wanted. I didn't intend trying to trap you into a loveless marriage, Clint."
"A loveless marriage? For crying out loud--"
"I knew what I was doing that night, Clint. It was my fault it happened. I took the responsibility."
She sat quietly, knowing full well that her heart was anything but quiet.
Clint looked like a volcano about to erupt, and she wished this surprise had been easier on him.
"What do you mean, that's not what you wanted? In a situation like this, you don't do what you want, you do whatever has to be done," Clint stated, his hand coming down again on the table.
"I'm sorry, that isn't enough."
"Isn't enough. What more is there?"
Abby stood up now, as Clint slid into the chair in front of her. "There's love, Clint. The one word you've never used with me. I wanted love. You think, you have the audacity to think, I would let you use my body, without the slightest bit of feeling. I thought you knew me better than that. But you never once stopped to consider how I might feel about any of it. You think I'd just laid down for you at your beck and call, just because you had a broken heart. I had feelings, too, Clint. You loved every girl in the county, but me. You never once suspected I had any feelings for you ..."
She stopped, too embarrassed, too humiliated to go on.
"Abby, I--" The look on his face was priceless, and hurt all the more for its innocence. "I've wanted to apologize for a long time. But what could I have said? If I'd only known about this ..."
"I know." Abby said, all the anger flowing away from her now. Somehow, the very fact that she knew Clint would stand by her reassured her of the man he was, the man she had loved. "Of course you would have stood by me. I knew that. But it's not what I wanted. And I'm sure you never once suspected. I knew you were using me, but I had these young girl notions in my head that if I gave you my all, you'd see it and love me, too. You didn't."
He started to move toward her, and she threw her hands out to stay him. "No--please don't patronize me now. It's too late."
Tears came down now, and Clint stood up. He moved toward her, trying to take her into his arms, but Abby moved away. "I'm sorry. It's too late. For both of us. But now the hurt's over. I'm over you. Once and for all. I'm Clay's mother, and legally, he's nothing to you. I didn't give him your name, Clint."
"You--" Clint looked stricken. He moved away, too. He leaned against the kitchen counter now, obviously stunned by her confession. "Then who's--"
"I didn't give him any man's name when I went to the doctor. I told them I made a mistake and got pregnant. It happens a lot these days. They don't question much anymore. Women have children alone these days, and raise their children without shame. He's a Martin."
"And that's a lie." Clint's words whistled through his teeth at her.
"Until I marry, he's a Martin," Abby said quietly.
"Until you mar--" Clint's face screwed up into a frown. "You mean you're going to marry this John whatever his name is?"
Abby swallowed hard. "Maybe, I don't know yet. He's asked me."
Clint sank into the kitchen chair and tipped his hat back. Abby didn't want to look at him, didn't want to face him. She couldn't face him. Her entire body was trembling with an unleashed fury of emotions.
But when she raised her gaze to his, she was stunned to see the dejection on Clint's face, something she had never seen in him. It was so real, she wanted to reach out and comfort him one more time. But she resisted, knowing just how dangerous that could be. Comforting Clint had gotten her pregnant and taught her an important lesson in life. She wasn't about to feel sorry for a man again.
"I'm sorry, Clint. But that's the end of it."
"End of it. You announce I have a son. A three year old son, and then tell me, that's that. I have no rights whatsoever?"
Abby looked him in the eye with all her courage. "I'm sorry, Clint. That's the way it has to be, Clint. Not for your sake, but for his."
"I can't accept that, Abby. I won't."
"You'll have to."
"No. I won't. Has he been told who his father is?" Clint watched her closely.
Abby felt a stab of pain in her heart. Momentary panic swept through her. Surely Clint wouldn't tell Clay. Surely he wouldn't hurt his own son that way. She knew that this was the lowest Clint could possibly stoop to.
"He thinks his father's dead."
Abby stood up again, this time turning away, looking out the window. "I'm sorry, Clint. I killed you in my heart the day I realized you weren't coming after me. Weren't even going to apologize for using me. I knew you didn't love me, Clint. That part, I'll own up to. It was as much my fault as yours. But when you couldn't even apologize to me, or even care what happened to me, that killed what I felt for you."
"You left town the next week." Clint staggered his words as though thinking before speaking. "I didn't plan for that to happen, Abby. It took me by surprise as much as you. I wasn't sure you'd really want me to come after you. Besides, how could I have come after you? I didn't know where you went."
"You could have asked."
Abby jerked about to face him now, stunned.
"Your father wouldn't tell me. I did ask. I came over, once, your father said you'd left. He wouldn't tell me where you'd gone. Said it was best to leave you alone." Clint glared at her. "He wouldn't tell me anything more. He got real stand-offish and wouldn't say another word about you."
"I gave you a week. When I left, I didn't know I was pregnant. By the time I realized it, it was too late. I was too ashamed to come home. Too ashamed to face you, too. I wasn't as brave as some people thought. I couldn't come home. I wrote my parents from my grandparent's house. I stayed with them until he was born. But I did know I had to get away from you. I had loved you all that time, and not once had you taken into consideration my feelings. Not once. Well, I learned my lesson the hard way, Clint. I won't listen to a sad luck story anymore. I won't be falling for any men who love other women. I listened to you talk about your women, and my heart broke every time. But I kept hoping. Until one day, I just ran out of hope."
A strange look crossed Clint's face. A look she didn't recognize. He swiped at his eyes and looked at her. She'd never seen him look so confused and bewildered. Sympathy swamped her, choking her words and thoughts.
"You have every right to be mad, every right to be hurt, Abby, I agree. But he's my son, too. You didn't do this single-handedly."
Abby shook her head. "You can't and won't make me feel guilty, Clint. Even though I share the blame with you. This is my life, Clint."
"What about him?"
Abby looked at him again. "Him?"
"Yes, Clay. What about how he might feel? What about the fact that you are robbing him of his father? How does that make you feel? A father that would love him, do for him."
"Very badly. But it can't be helped."
"Of course it can be helped. We can tell him, together."
"No." Abby stepped up to him now, bravely. Her son's mental health could be in danger if he found out this way. She wouldn't let anyone destroy his perfect little world.
"But this isn't fair, Abby. He's my only son. Maybe the only son I'll ever have. You can't just deny me."
Abby knew that to some degree Clint was right, that he at least deserved something. Her fair-minded ways began to eat at her heart.
"I've come home to make a decision about John and me. I'll be here until I do. You can see him, be friends with him, but that's all," Abby declared, wiping a tear away. "I'm sorry if this seems like harsh punishment. It's not meant to be. But under the circumstances, I can't let anyone tell him different."
"Friends. You want me to be friends with my son?"
"Please lower your voice, I don't want him to hear us," Abby cried.
Clint sank into the kitchen chair again, with a look of dejection that Abby had never before seen. Her heart ached for him, but she had to be strong, otherwise--
"I guess I deserve this, don't I?"
Abby looked straight at him, a tear falling down her cheek. "I don't know, Clint. But what's done is done. He thinks you died in the Rodeo. On a bull."
"God, you told him that?" Clint's face screwed up.
"It was close to the truth."
"Why didn't you just tell him the truth, that we were friends and we made a mistake ..."
"You wanted me to tell him he was a mistake?" Abby gasped.
"Well--no, but. Damn, Abby."
Clint just sat there, not moving, not talking. Abby felt nervous again. What were they supposed to do now?
"I guess I better go." Clint shot to his feet, and didn't look at her.
Abby watched him with a strange fear gnawing at her. "Yeah, I guess you better."
"Is this John gonna be there tomorrow?"
"At the funeral?"
"Yeah," Clint voice belied his anger as he glanced at her.
"I doubt it, why?"
Clint looked her straight in the eyes, and something oddly familiar reached to her for a second, then was gone. "Because whoever you decide to marry is gonna be the father of my son, and he better be good. Goodnight, Abby."
Abby started to say something, then shut her mouth and followed him to the door. Clint didn't look back, but he hung his head as he walked slowly to his truck.
"'Night," she whispered, as more tears rolled down her cheek.
Clint's booted foot hit the dry ground long before the dust settled from his vehicle. He slammed the door, unmindful that the window rattled as though it might combust at any moment. He didn't run, he didn't walk, he moved like a man bent on self-destruction. He was unaware of his hands clenching and unclenching, or the tightening and bunching of his shoulders. His lips firmed into an aggravated stance.
"Well, bro, how'd the meeting go?" His oldest brother, Deke was sitting in the swing on the porch, watching him with keen-eyed interest.
"Fine, fine, everything's fine." Clint could barely keep his temper checked. His words were bit out like a man chewing bricks. He felt himself slowing to a stop as he mounted the porch steps as though all the steam finally escaped him. He was mad, weary, and defeated. He suddenly felt old and tired beyond his years. He readjusted his hat and glanced at all the turned out lights. Time didn't register, though. His mind wasn't on lights. His mind was on Abbey and the surprise of his life. His son--a son he'd never known.
"Everyone gone to bed?" He somehow managed to ask trying to be polite.
"Yes." Deke eyed him closely. "It's one o'clock. So, what's up, bro, you must have really tied one on to be coming in this late? But you don't look drunk. In fact, you look about as sober as a man can look."
Clint smirked. "I'm cold sober. I almost wish I wasn't." Then when he realized what his brother said, he added. "I--I didn't know it was so late."
"Thought you'd be home before now. Get hung up somewhere?"
"Yeah, you could say that." Clint firmed his lips and looked away. He didn't need conversation right now. He needed to hit something. He needed to bang his head against a wall and make everything that happened tonight go away. But it wasn't going anywhere, and neither was he.
He glanced at his brother, aware that big brother had worried over him. "Sorry I didn't call. I ran into Sal and his wife. Had dinner with them. They have a new baby, you know." He didn't want to talk small talk, but he figured he wouldn't spill his guts to his brother who had enough responsibility on him now with his relatively new family.
Deke dropped his head and didn't stare at him anymore. Clint thanked him silently.
Clint tried to relax. He felt as though every muscle in his body were tensed for battle. He leaned against the porch railing, gripping it with his hand.
He heard Denver barking in the distance, and nearly choked on all his emotions. When had that old dog learned to howl like some lonesome coyote? Lonesome, dear God, that's exactly how he felt. Betrayed, lonesome, lost.
"I heard they had a kid. So, you been with them all evening?" Deke asked, still not looking at him. As though waiting.
The word kid sent a cold shiver through Clint. He hitched a boot on the railing, and shook his head. "No, I haven't been with them all this time. In fact, I left them pretty early on."
Deke waited then added. "Didn't figure you'd hang around the Association long. Did that go okay?"
"Yeah, it went okay. I just got bored after a bit." Clint fidgeted. "I ran into Abby."
"Abby Martin?" Deke questioned, glancing up at his brother with what looked like concern. "So she's back?"
"Yeah. Did you know about Ross?"
"No, not till this evening. Judy called and told me. Came as a real shock. Ross was in good shape, last I heard. Worked every day of his life. I guess the news hit you pretty hard, then."
"Yeah. And then some. Judy said he just keeled over with a heart attack while he was mending fences." Clint finally managed to look straight at his brother. He never could hide anything from Deke. Somehow Deke knew when something was amiss.
"So, is that what's got you so tore up?" Deke questioned. "I guess Abby's pretty upset, too?"
"Yeah, but she's taking it well. I should've been over there. Helping him."
Deke nodded. "Don't go blaming yourself for that. Ross brought a lot of it on himself, Clint, you know that. But--you're right, to an extent, we all should have been better neighbors. We shouldn't have let him down, no matter what we thought of Bud. But it's a little late to be worrying about what we should have done. If he hadn't gotten so damned stubborn a few years back when he hired Bud and wouldn't listen to anyone else, he'd of had our help. I reckon that's why we all sorta let him be. Ross was stubborn as a mule. He'd die before admitting a mistake."
Clint twirled his hat in his hands, his face finally breaking into a tortured glance. "He had his reasons, Deke."
"Yeah," Clint said sliding his hat back in place, raising himself straight, and looking away. He dug his hands into his pockets, and looked out over the yard, wishing with all his heart he could start over in life--and start over with Abby. "Yeah. Did you know Abby's got a kid?"
"A kid. She married?"
Deke shot to his feet. "What?" It wasn't the question so much as how he said it that had Clint wanting to crawl in a hole and stay there.
His tone held no consideration. Clint was taken aback till he realized his brother's concern caused that stern tone.
"At least by blood, anyway," Clint nearly choked out the words. Never in all his life had he felt so lost, so helplessly lost. And he could hardly face Deke, not wanting to see the disapproval in his face. Travers men stood by their own, no matter what. Family came first, always. And dammit, he wanted his son here, where he belonged.
Deke came closer. "What does that mean--by blood? Either he's yours or he's not."
"It means she doesn't want any part of me. Or me to have any part of my son's life." Clint said, and stalked into the house in a choked voice.
Clint went straight to the kitchen, his nostrils filling with the aroma of fresh baked chocolate pie Emma had set on the table in a glass cake holder before going to bed. Without thinking, he cut into it. He poured himself a big glass of milk and downed it, then hacked into his pie with a vengeance. It was cold and fresh, and he hoped it would untie all the knots in his stomach. But there were no miracle cures for how he was feeling. He just needed to hit something--anything.
Deke followed him inside.
"Damn, Clint, how'd this happen?" Deke grabbed a glass and poured himself some milk too.
Clint laughed at the serious way his brother went for the milk. Whenever a Travers man was upset, he reached for the milk; not whiskey, not vodka, but milk Their dad had taught them that milk was a "settler". He had told them, "It cures what ails you". They should be in commercials, his mind wandered aimlessly. Anything was better than thinking about the bleak future ahead of him now.
"It's a long story. Don't you think you better get to bed? You gotta full day tomorrow herding those cows to the south pasture."
Secretly he wished Deke would go to bed so he could sit and sort this all out for himself. He had some heavy thinking to do.
"Not when my brother's announcing something like this, I don't. Face it, little brother, even if the whole state of Texas came down on you right now, I'd be there for you. And you better know it. But, hellfire, Clint, what happened?" Deke took a chair, turned it backwards and straddled it in front of him. His face lined with real worry. He obviously wasn't going anywhere until he heard the entire story.
Clint glanced at Deke, surprised to see no censure in his brother's serious face. No, there was only concern. He should have known his brother wouldn't show anything but deep-down concern for his well being. Travers men were like that. Travers men. His son would someday be a Travers man. Would he be like this? Would he ever know this deep family commitment the Travers men shared?
Clint swallowed a lump in his throat. God, he loved his brother, his family. And up until today, his life. There was nothing like the feeling of family support. It never mattered how serious the problem, Travers men stuck together, through thick and thin. And this was pretty damned thin.
Clint tipped his hat back, and threw his long legs over the edge of the table, letting his boots dangle. "Remember when I got so tied up with that Platt girl?"
"Yeah, I remember." Deke frowned, his voice filling with exasperation as though he were indulging him. Clint inwardly flinched because he hated thinking how adolescent it all seemed now.
"Well, I made a real big mistake, bro. One I'm not proud of, either."
Deke nodded. "Go on."
"One that's been burnin' at me for a while now. I was burnin' with jealousy that night I caught her with Steve. I knew Steve didn't love her. Hell, Steve didn't love anybody but himself. He was always trying to up me on something."
"Yeah I remember, I never wanted you hanging out with him in the first place."
Clint ignored the remark. "Hell, I knew she didn't love him, too. I just couldn't put it all together and see it, then. He got to my pride, I guess. I was seeing red. Anyway, to make a long story short, I sorta cried on Abby's shoulder that night."
"You mean you and Abby? That night?" Deke's face screwed up in a frown. "Oh, God, Clint, how could you do that to her? She was your best friend, like family." Deke stood up and paced. "I knew there was some kind of rift between the two of you, but you wouldn't talk about it. You been going along all this time letting it eat at you, haven't you? That's why you haven't looked at women for so long. Why didn't you tell me? I've been waiting for you to come to me and tell me, but I honestly thought it was the rodeo that had you down."
"I couldn't." Clint glanced at him and saw the same thing in his eyes that Clint was feeling, lost for words. "The next day I was so ashamed, I couldn't even talk to her about it. I mean, what could I say? I knew better. Thinking back on it, I can't imagine getting that carried away. Abby's always been so sweet, so understanding."
Deke nodded in agreement.
Clint put his hat on his knee. "I wanted to go to her, explain how sorry I was. Make things right with her. But how do you explain something like that, Deke?"
He looked at his brother, and saw the same question in his eyes.
"How do you make it right? She had every right to hate me. But I knew I couldn't explain such an action."
"Yeah." Deke sighed heavily. Deke eyed his brother closely, and looked him in the eye, "This just isn't like you."
"I was dirt. Am dirt."
"Glad you fi gured that one out for yourself." Deke smiled sardonically.
"I didn't figure she'd ever forgive me. I couldn't forgive myself. I've been kicking myself ever since. I haven't even dated since that night."
"Yeah, I know. I've been meaning to stick my nose where it doesn't belong for a while now, but I thought you'd eventually bring your problem to me." Deke nodded. "But I thought it was because you were pining for the Platt gal."
Deke looked outside, stood up, peered out the door a long time, then placed a hand against the wall, and leaned. "When did you find out--about the kid?"
"Tonight?" Deke watched him. "Damn, a double whammy."
"Just a few hours ago. I was just sitting there in Judy's kitchen, having cake and coffee and talking up a storm to both of them when this kid came running in, couldn't have been more than two or three. And the spitting image of me. Like looking in a mirror. She couldn't deny it."
"Did she try?"
"No, not really. She admitted the whole, ugly story. But I knew it was the last thing she wanted to do."
"And what is the whole ugly story, Clint?" Deke's voice held no sympathy.
"I got her pregnant that night, in the barn. The night I used her like a common w--"
"Now, wait a minute, pardner." Deke seemed totally unwilling to believe such a thing of his brother. He moved toward Clint, and shook his head, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him just enough to get his attention. "I don't believe you could sink that low. I know you and Abby were always close. Real close. One didn't see you without her, back then. You were bound to have some feelings for her."
Clint flinched inwardly, but tried to laugh, a hurtful laugh. "Well, believe it, bro. I'm as guilty as sin. I realized what I had lost the next day: my best friend. I'd lost Abby. I was a coward, to boot. It took me nearly two weeks to get up the guts to go talk to her dad. He wouldn't tell me where she went. Told me it was best left alone. He knew what happened, I could tell by his expression."
"But, my God, man, she was your best friend. For years. How could you do that? I mean, if you didn't feel anything for her at all, it'd be different?"
"That's the problem. It's been eating at me all this time. I haven't had a woman since that night. I couldn't."
"And you are sure the kid is yours?"
"I'm sure as my name's Travers. He's mine.