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Despite the bruised ribs, bone-deep tiredness and a catalog of aches that had more to do with attempting to nap in an airport chair than spending his weekend trying to stay on top of over fifteen hundred pounds of wildly bucking bull, Josh Garrett felt pretty good.
He'd come home with a win, a hefty check and the chance to earn the biggest pay of his life, if his luck, skill and body held out for the next several months.
So pretty good lasted all the way from the Albuquerque airport to Luna Hermosa and made it as far as the end of the road leading into Rancho Piñtada. And then it crashed and burned the moment he saw his dad standing at the corral fence.
Jed Garrett's scowl clearly said, one, Josh didn't have a good enough reason for being three days late and, two, Josh had neglected something Jed had expected to be done a couple of yesterdays ago.
The dust from Josh's quick stop by the barns didn't have time to settle before Jed was at the truck door. "'Bout time you showed up. Where the hell have you been? Ah, don't bother," he growled, flinging a hand in Josh's direction. "I don't wanna hear how you've been wastin' your time. You were supposed to deliver those horses to the Addison place on Monday. Will Addison's been chewing on me for two days now because in his words he's paid me for nothin'. Which is what I seem to be payin' you for these days."
"Hey, Dad, good to see you, too." Walking around Jed to haul his saddle and bag out of the back of the truck, Josh didn't bother to explain his reason for being delayed or to remind his father that his so-called pay for his work on the ranch was room and board. He'd managed to earn a decent enough amount workingthe professional rodeo circuit for the past four years and that fact, he knew, irritated the hell out of Jed because it took away from the time his father felt he should be working the ranch instead.
"Look, I'd planned on being back in time to get it done but things didn't work that way," he said. "But I can talk Will around easy enough. I'll get to it this afternoon, as soon as I've finished up here."
"You do it now," Jed said, jabbing a finger into Josh's shoulder. "You need to get your mind on work, boy, and I don't mean that rodeo crap. You've been gone more than you've been here these last couple of years but you've run wild long enough. You plan on stayin' around much longer, then you need to give up on this damn fool idea of ridin' bulls for a living and start pulling your weight around here."
Not giving Josh a chance to answer, Jed stumped over to the golf cart he'd left parked by the barn and started off in the direction of the sprawling ranch house. "Get those horses over to Addison," he yelled back over his shoulder.
It was more than the bulk of the saddle weighing him down as Josh walked slowly toward the barn. Part of him wanted to toss everything he owned into his truck, hitch up the horse trailer and take off for good. Spurred by his successes on the rodeo circuit, he'd been on the edge of doing just that more times than he could count these past couple of years. And every time he'd pulled back.
He'd come up with plenty of excuses, but the biggest thing tying him to the ranch was a nagging sense of guilt and responsibility.
Three years ago Jed had been diagnosed with cancer and that had put more pressure on Josh and his brother Rafe to take over the ranch operations. Rafe had taken it on with a vengeance; Josh reluctantly tried to fit it in between rodeos. Most of the time it didn't work and more and more often he found himself frustrated because of it.
"You going to put that down any time today?"
Josh looked up, realizing he'd somehow walked into the barn and was still holding his saddle and staring hard at the dirt and straw on the floor.
Standing a few feet from him, Rafe was looking at him, with a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Welcome back. And congratulations. Looks like you got yourself in a good position for the finals."
"Yeah, thanks." Josh moved to stow his saddle.
"From the lack of a clever comeback, I'd guess you ran into Jed." Though Rafe was Jed's son, both by adoption and, as he'd recently discovered, by blood, he refused to ever call him father. Most people wouldn't guess by looking at them that Josh, Rafe and their brothers Cort and Sawyer could call the same man father to begin with. They'd all inherited Jed's height, but Rafe had the black hair and eyes bestowed by his Native American heritage; Cort and Sawyer, their dark good looks from their Hispanic mother. Compared to them, Joshlankier, with whiskey-colored hair and green eyeslooked like a changeling. "He was in here earlier, carrying on about the delivery to Addison."
"I already heard it," Josh said before Rafe could repeat it all. "I need to make a run into town. I'll get Addison his horses on the way."
Half expecting Rafe to pick up where Jed had left off, he resigned himself to hearing another lecture about slacking off.
Instead Rafe folded his arms across his chest and studied him for a moment before asking, "Bad morning?"
The response surprised him. Rafe could be as hard as Jed when it came to work getting done. Although to be fair, Josh admitted that since his marriage a little over a year ago to Julene Santiago, his brother had softened at the edges. He'd become less bitter, less obsessed with the ranch, and more willing to agree there was more to life than bison, cattle and the land. And now that he and Jule were expecting, the change in his brother was even more obvious. As far as Josh was concerned, Jule was the best thing to ever happen to Rafe.
Josh leaned back against the wall, feeling every sleepless hour and ache and pain catch up with him at once. "It wasn't until I showed up here. Then I got the speech about how I'm wastin' my life and need to settle down and do some real work." Rafe didn't comment and Josh shifted uncomfortably under his brother's level gaze. "Maybe he's right," he muttered to himself.
"About what I'm not gettin' done around here, yeah. I know you've been covering for me for a long time. Even before Jule turned you all warm and fuzzy," he added, flashing a grin at Rafe's grimace. "I guess I've been takin' a lot of things for granted."
Rafe looked amused. "That almost sounds like there's a chance you'll grow up one day."
"Don't get your hopes up."
"Haven't had reason to yet."
"I know. That's the problem."
Rafe moved to a stall to lead his horse out and started to saddle it. "You do much more thinking and you're gonna hurt yourself. Go get breakfast and some sleep. I'll get Jesse to deliver Addison's horses. That'll get Jed off both our backs." Josh started to protest but Rafe waved him off. "Get going before I get over being warm and fuzzy."
"Thanks," he said, meaning it more sincerely than his brother probably knew. "I promise I'll make it up to you. After breakfast."
"I'm not sure I'm doing you any favors." Josh followed him outside and Rafe swung into the saddle, fisting his hand around the reins before looking back at him. "You're going to have to settle things one way or the other. If the rodeo is what you want, then make a clean break with Jed and this place. Just don't let it become everything so that nothing else matters. It's what I did over this place. I nearly lost Jule and everything else because of it."
With a snap of the reins, Rafe set his horse into a gallop across the wide expanse of land, in the direction of the grazing bison herd. Josh watched him for a moment before getting back in his truck to make the drive to the ranch house. He didn't start the truck right away, instead leaning his head back against the seat, staring at nothing, feeling a whole lot of things he'd rather ignore.
That couldn't be right.
Going over the figures in the account book one more time, Eliana Tamar resisted the urge to shove the whole messy pile of paperwork in the trash can and forget she'd ever started on this thankless job.
No matter how many ways she manipulated the numbers, the final total was never enough to cover all the expenses for her large family. Her family's tack shop was modestly successful, but the profits never kept pace with the needs of her five younger siblings.
Eliana pressed her palms against her eyes, trying to force her brain into coming up with some solution that would make it all work. It seemed that was all she ever did these days, tried to make everything workthe family, the household chores, the business, the financesand yet there was always something broken she was scrambling to fix.
There didn't seem to be a time when she hadn't been juggling responsibility. Since she was twelve, she'd been helping her father in the tack shop and her mother cope with the younger children. Her mother had died shortly after the birth of the youngest, Sammy, suddenly thrusting twenty-year-old Eliana into the roles of substitute mother, business partner and housekeeper.
She managed, but some days, feeling overwhelmed by all the pressure, Eliana wondered who she was. She often felt that if her business and family obligations disappeared, so would she.
"There you are." Her father's voice pulled her away from her daily bout of frustration. Saul Tamar, leaning heavily on his cane, limped into the oversize closet at the back of the tack shop that Eliana called an office and dropped into the corner chair. He looked gray and tired this morning, thin shoulders sagging, as if the weight of living had pushed him down once too often.
Eliana didn't need to guess at the reason for the defeat dulling his dark eyes. "Sammy?"
Saul nodded. "School called again. Sammy didn't like the story this morning and ran and hid under one of the tables. It took them an hour to get him to come out." He shook his head. "I don't know how much longer we're going to be able to do this. He was in school for less than ten days last month."
"I know, but what choice do we have?"
"Eliana, we've talked about this. The state home"
"No!" Eliana blurted, then as her father's mouth tightened at the corners said more calmly, "No. We can't send him there. How can we?"
"It isn't what I want, either. But what's best for Sammy? I have four other children to think about. Neither of us can spend all our time with him. And there are days when I just don't know what to do for him. He needs more than we can give him."
Part of her knew her father was right. Sammy had been six weeks premature and, since birth, had had serious developmental and physical problems. It had been difficult from the beginning to provide the specialized care and supervision he needed. He'd turned eight last month and although for the past two years the local school had made accommodations for him, there were too many days that his behavior kept him out of class. The problems had gotten worse in the past few months. The principal had become a frequent caller; counselors and Sammy's special education teachers suggested, with increasing pressure, that he might be better off at a facility for children with special needs.
And more recentlyand most disturbinglySammy's number of school absences had prompted calls from Social Services. The social worker had been sympathetic, but questioned whether Eliana and her father were, in the long run, going to be able to give Sammy the care he needed.
Except there was no way her family could ever afford a private school and home care for Sammy. Even so, Eliana continued to resist the alternative of sending him to a state facility. The very idea of it appalled her.
"There's still the ranch" she began.
"Eliana, be realistic," Saul said. "That's only a dream of yours. It could be years before it ever comes about if it happens at all. Sammy can't wait that long. It may not be what we want but we have to at least consider other options. For everyone's sake." He pushed slowly to his feet. "But not today. I've got an appointment with Dr. Gonzales this morning. You go ahead and open up."
"Your hip doesn't seem to be getting any better," she said, running a critical eye over him. Her father, wounded during his tour of duty in Vietnam, had for years battled recurring back and leg problems caused by his injuries. Lately he'd seemed worse, spending less time in the shop and relying more on Eliana to run the business.
Saul brushed her off with a wave of his hand. "It's nothing, just a bit stiff this morning. I won't be long. You think things over and we'll talk again later."
Eliana didn't want to think about things. She wanted to believe there was a way she could make everything work. But that called for a miracle and one had yet to come her way. Shadowed by the futility of wishful thinking and knowing whatever temporary solutions she came up with would never be enough, she went through the motions of helping customers, finishing inventory and making sure the shelves were fully stocked. By late afternoon she was yearning for something to distract her from her worries.
Then Pete Lopez walked in the door, his face screwed up in a glower that announced he hated the world in general, and she immediately wanted to take it back.
"I'm sorry, but your order isn't in yet," she said, hands held up in apology, hoping in vain to head off one of his tirades before he got started. "I told you I'd call when we got it."
"That was a week ago. How long am I supposed to wait around while you make excuses?"