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"Good morning, Kristin."
Claire Ford greeted the high school secretary and signed the visitors' register. Claire and the guidance counselor Betty Haynes had held their weekly meeting yesterday to discuss the upcoming summer ranch camp for troubled kids, but she'd gotten a call early this morning to come in at ten. Micah must have gotten in troubleagain.
"Go right in," Kristin said. "Miss Haynes is expecting you."
Claire's stomach churned. One more strike and Micah was not only out of her camp, but out of chancesat least at Little Lobo High School. Of the two boys and two girls registered in the summer camp, Micah Abbott, a tough seventeen-year-old only one strike away from reform school, was the kid who would benefit most.
She thought back to the preadmission interview she'd held with Micah and his motherMicah's sullenness and his mother's assurances he would not only attend camp, but also do the mandatory follow-up assignments. Since then, Micah had been in trouble again, and now if he wanted to stay in school he had to finish the camp.
The counselor's door was open a few inches and Claire could hear the sound of conversation. She recognized the voice of Barry Nestor and smiled. The assistant principal, he had agreed to work for Claire over the summer as camp leader.
It was only days before her dream would be realized, the goal she'd struggled toward for several long years achieved. Finally she'd be able to try to help these kids get their lives back on track.
She tapped on the frosted glass of the door before opening it wide. Betty Haynes sat behind her desk, a venerable teacher and advisor with a reputation for dishing out fairbut firm discipline. Dressed in a prim navy-blue suit, she had pulled her silver hair into a bun. The students loved her, with the exception of those like Micah who spent far too much time in her office.
Barry was dressed more casually, in khaki pants and a light blue knit shirt. Heavy, dark-framed glasses gave him a bookish air that had the odd effect of softening his angular features.
Both looked glum, and Claire braced herself. "What's Micah done?" she asked, taking the seat Betty indicated.
The advisor made a wry face. "He and some others got drunk last night and decided to set off cherry bombs in rural mailboxes. They made the mistake of returning to gloat over their handiwork, and somebody got the license number off the truck."
Way to go, Micah. "I hope this won't interfere with his coming to the camp. I'm sure Barry and I can help him," Claire said. She saw the look the other two exchanged and didn't like it. "What?"
Barry cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable.
"What?" Claire repeated.
"I don't quite know how to tell you this " He hesitated. "So I'm just going to say it. I'm not going to be able to work for you this summer."
"You're you're kidding, right?" She shifted in her seat, leaning toward him. "Barry, camp starts in a little over a week! We have to move the horses to the ranch and get the bunkhouse ready. And"
"Listen, I'm sorry about this, but I got a job offer last night that I couldn't refuse. I'll be joining a group of psychologists in Phoenix. I've been trying to land a position like this for years. It's in my field of study, pays triple what I make here and, frankly, I'd be a fool to pass it up."
"But you made a commitment to these kids. They need you. I need you."
Barry lifted his hands in a hopeless gesture. "I'm sorry, Claire. I'll try to help you find a replacement, but I fly to Phoenix at the end of the week, as soon as school's out."
"I can't believe this. What about Micah?"
"I wish I could help you. I really do." Barry used a finger to push his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. "I can't afford to turn down this offer. If I can't start right away, they'll find someone else."
Fighting back panic, Claire moaned. "This can't be happening." Where would she find a replacement for Barry?
"Claire," Betty said, "I have great respect for what you're doing with your camp. But, this is Micah's 'third strike' and the principal intends to expel him."
"Summer break starts next week. And Micah will be coming to camp the following weekend," Claire pleaded. "Just this once, couldn't you ask for leniency?"
Betty smiled sadly. "I am sorry. I was hoping Micah would stay out of trouble until summer. But I'm afraid with this last incident, and without Barry there "
"In other words, you think I can't handle Micah," Claire said with a frown. "It's not fair to punish him because of Barry's decision."
"I know you're very capable, but Micah needs a strong male presence. Even if I could convince the principal to make an exception, I can't support his participation at this point, especially since we have another boy attending."
"We'll be on the ranch, surrounded by men. My father, Jon Riderboth are excellent role models. We'll be fine."
Betty propped her fingertips together and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Claire. They're not camp employees and will have other things to worry about. If you can't find a suitable replacement for Barry by early next week, I'll have to recommend that neither of the boys attend the camp."
Claire had dealt with Betty before and knew that the guidance counselor wielded enough influence to keep the students away from camp. Determined that Micah was not going to slip between the cracks, Claire stood, clenching her fists at her sides and forcing herself to remain calm. "Barry, I hope the job works out." Then to Betty, she said, "I'll find somebody. Please convince the principal to give him one more chance. I intend to have Micah Abbott at camp."
Staring out the window during math class, Micah saw Claire Ford leave the school building. Nosy bitch. No doubt she'd been talking to Miss Haynes. And no doubt when class was over he'd get a summons to the guidance counselor's office because Claire'd been meddling in his business again.
Like his life was any of Miss Haynes's concern. Or Claire Ford's concern, or anybody else's, for that matter. They all wanted to horn in where they had no business.
Wanted to fix him.
Well, he couldn't be fixed. His dad was in jail, his mother was a junkie who didn't particularly care what he did, and they lived in a crappy trailer on the wrong side of Little Lobohard to do, given the size of this Podunk Montana town. His parents were trash, his life was trash. He was trash.
Micah watched Claire detour to the playground where the elementary students were at recess. Miss Morgan, the third-grade teacher, met her at the fence that enclosed the play area, and they began to talk. Claire was hot, with a great buttmust be from riding horses all the time. If he thought there was any chance of tapping that, he'd be happy to play camp. But that jerk Nestor was going to be a counselor. Micah figured he might as well be in prison like his dad as go to that camp.
Micah's attention wandered to the front row of the classroom where Annie Whitman took notes on the lecture, her blond hair falling in silky waves over her shoulders. He'd heard she'd made it with every player on the football team.
She denied it, of course. But everybody knew it was true.
As if she could feel him staring, she turned her head and met his gaze. He winked. She straightened and jerked her head back around. She hadn't lost her high-and-mighty attitude, that was for sure. Micah pressed his lips together. Just wait, babe. You'll change your mind yet.
An announcement crackled over the classroom intercom. "Micah Abbott, please come to Miss Haynes's office after class."
Micah rolled his eyes and stuffed his math book into his bag as the bell rang.
Right on time.
Sethyawned and opened his eyes to narrow slits. Mid-morning light filtered into the room around fluttering curtains. He breathed in the smell of sweet grass and fresh air wafting through the partially open window.
Still sleepy, he closed his eyes again, drifting aimlessly in murky half dreams to a bright, sunny day more than three months ago. Victory within reach. A rank bull named Rotten. Riding on top of the worldthen plummeting into oblivion.
Fighting the sensation of falling, Seth jerked violently awake. He wrenched upward, triggering a shaft of pain in his left hip and leg, which were held together with a rod and screws. He let out a yelp and collapsed onto the bed, snatching fast, shallow breaths, squeezing his eyes shut until the pain began to ebb. Meanwhile, he pulled a pillow over his head and tried to shut out the awful memory.
When he could breathe normally again, he shoved the pillow aside and looked toward the nightstand, which was lined with medicine bottles. The clock there showed it was almost 11:00 a.m. Another day in hell. He hated how the pain meds fogged his brain, but some days they were the only way to get a few hours of relief from the constant ache. Then there were the torturous workouts at the gym. They seemed to be doing next to nothing to restore strength to his thigh.
Almost three months after surgery he was still a cripple. He'd been able to put his full weight on his leg for a week now, but without crutches, he still struggled to keep his balance.
Seth sat up again, more gingerly this time. Slowly he shifted his legs over the side of the bed. He pushed himself to his feet, then stood still for a minute to let the pain ease before hobbling to the bathroom. After a hot shower that loosened him up a little, he poked around the kitchen, then nuked a large chunk of leftover casserole and sat down at the table with the steaming food and a glass of milk.
He hated to impose on his sister for so long, but the choice had been Libby's house or his parents' ranch. In truth, he'd rather be alone all day than have to deal with his father after the way they'd parted when Seth left home after high school. Seth's jaw tightened at the thought that once again he'd disappointed the man, even though he'd made a name for himself on the bull riding circuit. Rookie of the Year right out of high school, he'd earned a good living, been to the Professional Bull Riders World Finals in Vegas the last three years in a row, came in third last season. Damn it. He would have qualified this year, too. The way he'd ridden in the first few events, he could have ended up number one.
Then he could have returned home on his own terms to mend the rift between him and his father. Not now not after that night in the hospital room when his father had assumed he was asleep.
"I knew he would end up this way. I tried to tell him," he'd heard his father say to his mother. "What's he going to do now that he's all busted up?"
Judd Morgan had no idea that Seth had heard, but the old resentment had flared up again and Seth would rather have gone to hell than drag himself home in disgrace.
Instead, he'd ended up here. Laid up at his sister's house, too dispirited to even follow the rest of the season on TV. He needed to get back on the circuit to bring in some money. He was losing his savings at an alarming pace, on expenses his meager medical insurance wouldn't pay. No company wanted to insure a bull rider, at least not at a reasonable rate, so he'd taken the minimum coverage. Even though he knew the bull riding mantrait's not if you get hurt, it's when and how bad he'd never intended to use that insurance. The best intentions
Plus, he had a hefty truck payment, and insisted on paying room and board to his sister. Libby didn't want him to, but she didn't make much teaching, and he refused to mooch off her. His sponsors had been patient so far, but the nasty rumors that he'd never ride again were getting around, and those sponsors wouldn't wait for him forever.
Bile rose in Seth's throat as he recalled the orthopedic surgeon's dire prognosis after hours of intensive surgery.
"I'm optimistic you'll be able to walk without a limp again, in time."
Walk again? Of course, he'd walk again!
"Cut to the chase, Dr. Tandy. When can I get back on a bull?"
"Bull riding? No."
Bull riding, yes! It was all Seth knew. All he loved. "I've got to ride, Doc."
"Is it worth the risk? You could do permanent damage."
If it wasn't worth the risk, I never would have climbed on the back of a bull the first time.
"Come on, Doc," Seth had countered, refusing to accept his fate. "Guys ride after breaking a leg. No big deal."
"The bone twisted apart in three separate places. If you injure it again " He'd shaken his head and turned away from the hospital bed, writing on his chart. "Do yourself a favor, Seth. Find another career."
Seth made himself stop thinking about that. He grabbed his gear bag, went out to his truck and headed to the gym.
That evening, Libby brought home food from the local café. Seth didn't say so, but the fried fish, coleslaw and beans were a welcome change from the casserole he'd eaten for three days straight now.
"How did your workout go?" she asked.
Her sincere interest made him feel guilty. Her eyes searched his face and she shook her head, making her short blond hair bounce. "Not so well, huh?"
"I didn't go today." He wouldn't admit that he had driven all the way to Bozeman, only to take in a movie and drive home again.
"Seth, you can't do that! You have to be consistent with your rehab or you're never going to make progress."
"So what? Doc Tandy says I'll never ride again, anyway."