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Kate Garrett had never much belonged to anyone. And that was how she liked it.
She didn't have the time or desire to deal with anyone telling her what to do or how to act or how to sit. If she wanted to ride across the field like a bat out of hell and let her hair tangle in the wind, gathering snarls and bugs and Lord knew what else, she'd do that.
It was the perk of independence. Compensation from life since it hadn't seen fit to give her a mother who was around to tuck her in at night. The consolation prize that came for living with a father whose every word was scented with whiskey, who moved around her as if she existed in a different space. As if she wasn't even there.
But who needed warm milk and itchy tights and whatever the hell else came with being hovered over for your entire childhood? She'd rather have freedom and the pounding of a horse's hooves on arena dirt.
Or on the soft soil of the Garrett family ranch, which was what she had today. Which meant it was a damn good day. She had to be at the Farm and Garden for work in a couple of hours, so she would have to cut the ride shorter than she'd like. But any ride was better than none, even if she'd rather keep going until her face was chapped from the wind and her lungs burned.
The sun was getting high in the sky and she knew it was time to haul ass back. She grimaced and slowed her horse, Roo, turning sharply, as she would if they were going around a barrel, before picking up the pace again on the way out of the loop and galloping back in the direction she'd come.
Wind whipped strands of dark hair into her eyes and she cursed her decision to leave it loose. So maybe nobody yelled at her for letting her hair get tangled, but in the end she had to comb it out and that was always a pain.
She would braid it before work. Because when she'd gotten her horse ready to be put away, she wasn't going to have time to get herself looking pretty. Not that she needed to be particularly pretty to man the counter at the Farm and Garden.
She would settle for not looking homeless.
She slowed Roo as they approached the horse barn, and she dismounted, breathing hard, the early-morning air like a shot of ice to her lungs on every indrawn breath. She led the horse inside and removed her bridle, then slipped on a halter and looped the lead over a hook. She didn't even bother with tying a quick-release knot on Roo when they were at home. She knelt down and loosened the girth on the saddle before taking it off completely, along with the bright blue blanket underneath. In spite of the chilly air that marked the shift from summer to fall, Roo had worked up a sweat during the ride.
She pulled the towel off a nearby rack and wiped Roo down, making sure she was dry and that the saddle marks were removed. Then she took her bright yellow pick out of the bucket and ran her hand down Roo's leg, squeezing gently until the horse lifted her foot. She picked out any rocks and mud that had collected during the ride, humming softly as she did. She repeated that step on the other three legs and was nearly finished when she heard footsteps on the ground behind her, followed by her oldest brother's voice. "You're up early, Katie."
"I wanted to get a ride in before I headed to work. And if you call me Katie one more time, I'm going to stick this pick in your eye."
Connor only smiled at her threat, crossing his arms over his broad chest, his wedding band catching her attention. In the seven months since he and Liss had gotten married, it had stayed shiny. It was some kind of metal designed to break if it got caught on anything, since ranch work was dangerous for men wearing jewelry.
She liked the reminder, though. The reminder that he was happy again. Connor had spent way too much time buried in the depths of his grief, and Liss had finally been able to lift him out of it.
As an added bonus, Liss had allowed Kate to wear jeans and boots to the wedding. Which was more than her future sister-in-law, Sadie, was letting her get away with for her and Eli's upcoming mammoth nuptials.
"Sorry, Kate," Connor said, his smile getting wider.
"You're cheerful this morning," she observed, finishing with Roo's last hoof before straightening.
"I'm pretty much cheerful all the time these days."
"I've noticed. Which is more than I can say for your wife."
"Her ankles are swollen. It's all my fault," he said, but he didn't look at all abashed. In fact, he looked rather proud. Love did weird things to people. It was kind of strange being surrounded by it like she was now.
Watching both of her older brothers fall fast and hard.
And she was just alone. But then, she was kind of used to that. And she liked it. She wasn't beholden to anyone. It was secure. It was familiar.
Anyway, it made for a lot of free time available to ride her horse.
"Yeah, she makes a good case for staying far away from marriage and pregnancy" Kate tucked a strand of hair behind her ear "what with all the complaining."
"Suits me just fine if you stay away from it for now," Connor said. "Nobody's good enough for you anyway."
"I don't know about that. But I haven't met anyone with the balls to keep up." That wasn't strictly true. It was more true to say she hadn't done any serious looking.
She gritted her teeth and ignored that thought. "That doesn't surprise me. What time do you get off?" he asked. "Pretty early."
"Are you coming out for poker?"
She was usually invited to the family game these days, after years of them behaving as though her presence stifled conversation. No matter whether she was three, thirteen or newly twenty-three, Eli and Connor looked at her like she was a child. Of course, Sadie and Liss weren't much better.
And Jack was pretty much the worst.
She ignored the slight twist in her stomach when she thought of her brothers' friend.
"Isn't it my night to bring dinner?" she asked.
He leaned against the barn wall. "That's one reason I was making sure you're coming. If not, I was going to have to cook something."
"By which you mean opening a frozen pizza box?"
"Yes. Because that is the extent of my skills and if I ask Liss to cook anything right now, I'm going to end up with a ladle shoved up where the sun don't shine."
Kate winced. "Well, out of concern for your
that, I promise to bring dinner."
He pushed away from the wall. "Excellent. See you tonight."
She hesitated before asking the next question. But she did need to know. "How many of us will there be?"
Connor screwed up his face, clearly doing mental math. "Six counting you."
So that meant everyone was coming. Which wasn't all that remarkable. It was more common than not. Considering that, her stomach should not have felt the way it did when she took an extra-sharp barrel turn while riding Roo.
"I might bring fish and chips from The Crab Shanty."
"You don't have to do that. It's expensive. And greasy." He paused for a moment. "You realize that expensive was the negative and greasy was the positive."
She waved a hand. "I'm sick of pizza. I'll spend my money however I damn well please. Anyway, I still have some cash from my last win." The purse for the last amateur barrel racing event she'd won hadn't been very big, but it had been enough to continue giving her the luxury of working part-time at the Farm and Garden while she kept honing her skills.
It was too expensive to jump into the professional circuit without the ability to back it up.
"Fine. Spend your money on seafood. In which case, I'll take the lobster, thanks."
"Liss isn't the only one who might stuff things in places, Connor. I'd watch it."
He reached out and mussed her hair, like she was a damn toddler. Or a puppy.
"Watch it, asshole," she grumbled.
"Sorry, did I break one of the eggs in that bird's nest of yours?"
She scowled. "I hope your wife punches you in the face."
"That isn't a far-fetched hope."
"Excellent," she said, knowing she sounded bloodthirsty. She felt a little bloodthirsty.
"I hope you don't plan on treating your customers the same way you treat me."
"No, I perk up for actual people."
"I don't really care how evil your mood is if you bring food. And money to lose."
"Shut it, Garrett. You know you aren't going to get any of my money."
Connor's smile turned rueful. "No. Because Jack is going to end up with everyone's money."
The outright mention of Jack's name made her skin feel prickly. "Well, that's true," she said. "I don't know why you invite him."
Connor looked mystified. "I don't think anyone does. He just shows up."
"Ha. Ha." Kate scuffed her boot through the dirt, leaving a line behind.
"I have to get a move on," he said. "These cows won't castrate themselves."
"Damn lazy beasts. Also" Kate held her hands up and wiggled her fingers "no thumbs."
"Right. It's thankless work. It's also the only magic trick I know."
She narrowed her eyes. "Magic trick?"
"I'm off to go change bulls into steers. With the help of my lovely assistant, Eli."
She snorted. "Yeah, well, enjoy that. I'm going to give thanks that I'm not on ranch duty today."
"See you tonight." And with that, he turned and walked out the alley doors.
Kate grabbed her brush out of the bucket, then tossed the pick back in. She straightened and ran the bristles quickly over Roo's hair before taking the end of the lead rope and guiding her into her stall.
She unhooked the rope and patted Roo on the nose before scratching the white star on her forehead. "See you later," she said, unable to resist dropping a kiss on the horse's nose.
A day that started with a ride and ended with a poker game surrounded by her family could only be a good day.
And the presence of Jack Monaghan didn't matter at all.
It was a strange thing knowing that whenever a random expense came up, he had the means to handle it. After spending most of his childhood in poverty, Jack Monaghan was still getting used to having money. Not just in his pocket but in his bank account. In stocks and bonds. He even had a savings account and some set aside for retirement.
If someone looked at his finances, they might think he was responsible. Stable. Because on paper, he looked good. A person might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Jack was a steady, staid family man.
Yeah, that motherfucker would be wrong.
But Jack didn't care either way. Because today his tractor was broken, and he was headed over to the Farm and Garden to get a replacement part and he didn't have to beg anyone for a loan.
He killed the engine on his F-150 and got out of the truck, walked to the front door of the store and pushed it open. The little bell that was strung overhead signaled his arrival and a dark head popped up from behind the counter.
"Hey there, Katie," he said making his way across the store.
The youngest Garrett narrowed her brown eyes, her glare as penetrating as a rifle bullet. "What are you doing here, Monaghan?"
"I'm a paying customer, twerp."
"Did you just call me a twerp? Because I have the right to refuse service to anyone." She flipped her braid over her shoulder, her expression remaining fierce.
"Yeah, that would go over real well with your boss. Especially since I'm here to drop decent money on a freaking carburetor."
"We're probably gonna have to order it. You could always go to Tolowa and pick it up at one of the bigger stores."
"I'd rather get it here. Keep my business in Copper Ridge."
The corner of her lips turned up in a bad approximation of a smile. "That's appreciated."
"It's okay, Katie. I know you don't appreciate much about me."
"If you called me something other than Katie, I might."
"I just called you twerp and you didn't seem to appreciate that, either."
"Maybe if you pulled your head out of your ass and realized I was a grown-up and not a child, we wouldn't have so many problems." She crossed her arms beneath her breastswhich he knew she had; he wasn't blindand cocked her hip to the side.
"We don't have problems. You have problems. I am fine." He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket that had all of the relevant make and model information for his tractor. "Well, except for a carburetor problem." He handed her the paper and she took it from him, studying the information before scrunching her nose and turning to the antiquated computer on the counter.
The monitor was practically the size of a hay bale, big and square, off-white. Like something they had used back in the junior high school computer lab.
"Doesn't that thing drive you crazy?" he asked, indicating the machine.
Kate frowned, entering numbers in slowly before turning to look at him. "Why would it drive me crazy?"
"Because it's so outdated I'm surprised you can't hear gears turning inside when you give it a command."
"It works fine."
"Isn't it slow?"
She blinked. "Compared to what?"
"Do you have a computer?"
"Why would I need a computer?"
He looked at the completely earnest and completely confused expression of the younger sister of his two best friends in the world. Kate was pretty enough even if she didn't choose to make the most of her assets, not a bit of makeup to enhance her features, her hair rarely in any configuration other than a single braid down her back. Invariably, she wore slightly baggy T-shirts or flannel button-up tops tucked into either a pair of Wrangler or Carhartt jeans.
Kate dressed for functionality, not decoration.
He had no issue with that. Kate was
Well, as women went, she was more functional than decorative, so it fit.
"I think most people would say they couldn't survive without one," he said.
"Well" Kate flashed him a smile "look at me. Surviving and shit."
"Good job." He tapped the counter. "Now let's see if you can order me a carburetor as handily as you can survive."
"Watch it, Monaghan," she said, still typing numbers into the computer. "I am bringing dinner tonight, and I don't have to bring any for you."
"Oh, do we have the option of excluding people from dinner now? I'll remember that when my turn comes around."
Lately, Kate was usually prickly as a porcupine when he was around. He was never sure why. But then, he seemed incapable of leaving her be. He wasn't sure why that was, either. She brought out the devil in him. Of course, the devil in him seemed to live real close to the surface.
It hadn't always been like this. Sure, they'd always hassled each other. But beneath that, he'd known where he stood. Somewhere in the vicinity of her brothers. Both of them had had some pretty shitty home situations. His mother stressed, angry and resentful of his presence. While Kate's mother had been gone, her father a slobbering drunk.
Eli and Connor had done their best to take care of her, but when they'd needed help? He'd been all in. Making her smile had been his goal. Because she'd been so short on reasons to smile.
An only child, he'd had no one around to take care of him. To cheer him up when he'd been smarting from a slap across the face delivered by his mom. He'd had the Garretts. And he'd soon realized that the void he'd felt from having no one to take care of him could be filled by offering Kate what he'd so desperately wished for when he'd been young.
Somewhere along the way they'd lost some of that. Something to do with her not being a kid anymore, he supposed.
The bell above the door rang again and Alison Davis walked in, carrying a white pastry box with a stack of brochures on top. "Good morning, Kate." She offered Jack a cautious smile, tucking her red hair behind her ear and looking down at the ground. "Good morning."