Authors: Lori L. Robinett
Rondo had been a powerful man in his younger years. Though he remained thick and stout, the ruddy skin drooped under his chin. Gray now peppered his dark red hair and his thick mustache was nearly white. His most striking feature was his dark green eyes. He winked at her. “That’s my girl. Always thinkin’.”
She cleared her throat. “This was my last run to that yard. Something was off. A new kid working the yard.”
A muscle twitched under his eye and he stared at her. “Bobby Rafferty is family.”
She blinked but met his gaze. “I know. Not sayin’ anything against Bobby, but a deputy sheriff pulled in just as I was leaving, and I caught a new kid taking a picture of my rig.”
Rondo rocked back in his chair and looked at the television. “You take care of the kid?”
Lana swallowed hard. “Couldn’t.” Lana shook her head, angry at herself for feeling nervous. “That deputy pulled in and I thought it was best to get out of there.”
He stroked his mustache a few times with stubby fingers, then said, “What’s done is done. We’ll let things cool off a bit there, but I’m not turning my back on Bobby Rafferty. You can take the next load to a different sale barn next time, but then we’ll go back to Rafferty’s place.”
Lana pushed to her feet. It was just like Rondo to sit here like a king, giving orders and issuing edicts while she was the one out there on the front lines taking all the risks. “I’m not going back to Rafferty’s.”
Rondo snorted. “Oh, yes, you will.”
She’d been doing this for far too long. He might think he ran the family, but he didn’t. She was the one who took care of everyone. She was the one who scoped out the targets for their missions. She was the one who drove the truck. She was the one that knew where all their accounts were held. All that information was kept in a journal she kept under her seat in the big rig. And if he thought she was going to risk it all because he had some sense of loyalty to Bobby Rafferty, he had another thing coming.
Besides, if she played her cards right, she might end up able to retire to a life of luxury now that Beau had a stake in that fancy schmancy horse ranch, the Diamond J.
But before that could happen, she’d run one more load of cattle. And this time, the check would be made out to her, not Rondo.
Gina waved the smoke away as she pulled the cake from the oven. “Damn it!” She dropped it on the hot pad and perched her fists on her hips, then glanced at the clock. Not quite 10 am. She shook her head.
“Good thing you started early.”
Gina turned as Midge walked through the door. “What are you doing here? You were going to watch the store for me.”
Midge shrugged. “I left Dottie there. She’s there so much, she knows what to do. I thought you might need some help here.” Her gaze landed squarely on the dark rectangle of cake sitting on the counter, and she scrunched up her pixie nose.
Gina pulled another mixing bowl from the cabinet while Midge rummaged for another box mix. The two worked together, Gina mixing and Midge adding ingredients. The only time they stopped talking was while the beaters hummed for two minutes. After Gina dumped the batter into the pan Midge had greased, she popped it in the oven and set the timer.
Midge picked up a package of red and blue bandanas from the kitchen table. “You decided to go with the cowboy theme?”
Gina nodded and pointed to a roll of baling twine. “Yeah, Toby is still into them. Thought we could drape the bandanas over this, to make a banner to hang there on the wall.”
Midge grinned as she reached into her oversized tote. She produced a box with a family of model horses. “I got him a set of Breyers. I was going to wrap it up, but do you want to use it as a centerpiece?”
“That’ll be great. I got a couple of little straw bales from the craft store the last time I went to the city. They’re in my bedroom on the dresser. Why don’t you go get them while I put the tablecloth on?”
When Midge returned, she arranged the miniature bales with the model horses. “So, what did you get the little cowpoke this year?”
“Not as much as I wanted. You know, it’s been a tight year, money-wise, but--” Gina’s eyebrows rose. “I got him a cowboy hat.”
It was Midge’s turn to grin. “Red?”
“You know it!”
“I know it’s a touchy subject,” Midge cleared her throat before she continued, “But did you invite Steve?”
Gina sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “I did. Despite the way I feel about him, he’s Toby’s daddy.”
Midge unrolled the twine and began folding the crisp new bandanas over it. “Steve’s not a bad guy. Just a bad husband.”
“Yeah, I know.” Gina kept talking as she walked to her bedroom. Her house was so small, with such thin walls, it was easy to carry on a conversation no matter what. “He could be a lot worse. And without him, I wouldn’t have Toby. He’s such a sweet kid. And he got an excellent report card - the teacher said he was helping the other kids sound out words.” She walked back into the kitchen, arms full.
Midge cleared off a spot on the table, then reached into the junk drawer for tape and scissors as Gina spread out the wrapping paper. Midge said, “You’re totally responsible for that. Between your genes and the work you’ve done with that little boy, he’s a natural.”
Gina pointed to the index cards taped to the front of each drawer and cabinet. “Putting labels on everything was a great idea. Thanks so much for suggesting that.”
“It was nothing.” Midge shrugged, then leaned forward. “But enough about exes and kids. Have you thought any more about the hottie that came by the store yesterday?”
Gina pressed her lips together and shrugged, trying to appear casual, but felt an ember of heat deep within her at the thought of him. “The guy from the Diamond J?”
“Um, yeah.” Midge snapped the tea towel at Gina’s butt. “You need to get some ass. And he had a mighty fine one. Mmmm-hmmmm. Did you see how those Wranglers showed off his package?”
“Midge!” Gina exclaimed. Her eyes widened in mock disgust, but she had to admit, she’d looked.
And the package was impressive.
Before she could say more, Toby burst through the front door. “Mommy! I’m home!”
The little boy was short for his age, which gave him a stout, stubby look. His blonde hair curled around his ears, giving a halo effect that was not far from the truth. The boy seemed to take his role as man of the house seriously, and worked extra hard to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible for his mama. His bright blue eyes widened as he took in the scene. Almost immediately, he focused on the Breyer box set up next to the little straw bales, then he held up one finger and said, “Be right back! I forgot to tell Missus Randolph that you’re here and I’m okay.”
He turned on his heel and darted back to the front door, leaned out and waved. He trotted back into the kitchen and scooted a chair out, then climbed up.
Gina stepped toward him and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Happy birthday, little man!”
The boy wrinkled his pug nose. “I’m six now, Mama. That’s too old for you to call me that.”
Gina pressed her lips together to keep from smiling and nodded sagely. “Right, of course. Happy birthday, Toby.”
Midge chimed in, “Happy birthday, Toby!”
He looked at her, then at the box sitting on the table. “Is that my present?”
Midge nodded. “Yup. And I thought the horses would make the centerpiece better, but I think it’d look better if they were out of the box. What do you think?”
Toby swung his head around to look up at Gina. “Can I?”
Gina nodded. “Go ahead. You’ll have other presents to open after your friends are here for cake and ice cream.”
While Toby worked to free the horses from their plastic enclosure, he said, “What time is Daddy getting here?”
The timer beeped and Gina turned to pull the cake from the oven before she answered. “He should be here any time.”
“Good. Today is an important day. You only turn six once.”
Gina leaned to the side and glanced out the screen door at the driveway. No sign of him yet, but she’d told him 2. He still had time.
Gina had just finished frosting the still-warm cake when she heard the rumble of a pickup truck in front of the house.
She glanced out the window and felt a little thrill run through her body when she recognized the dusty white truck. Aidan had come! Had he been forced to, or had he volunteered?
Aidan and a shorter, wider man pulled fence panels out of the truck.
Gina hurried out the door to greet them. "Thanks so much for coming!"
The shorter man only grunted in reply, but Aidan stopped in mid-reach and his jaw dropped. He blinked twice, then a smile spread across his face. "Gina! I didn't realize this was your house. Glad to oblige. Where do you want us to set up?"
"Right around here. I can't tell you how excited the kids are going to be about this." Gina led them around the side of the house and watched as the two men quickly arranged the panels in a slightly irregular square.
Aidan nodded toward the house. "So this is where you live?"
She straightened. "Yes." Her house wasn't as big as the Diamond J, but she was proud of her little place.
"Nice." He said as he helped the stouter man clip the fencing together, leaving one panel open as a door. "So you have kids?"
"One." She swallowed hard and nodded. Well, that cinched it. He'd lose interest now. "A little boy. Toby. Today's his 6th birthday."
He nodded, but she couldn't read his expression under the shadow of his dark cowboy hat. The two men returned to the front of the house and Aidan reached into the back seat of the truck to retrieve two cotton leads. The shorter man swung the trailer door open, then Aidan stepped up and clipped the leads to the calves' halters.
Just as Aidan led the animals out of the trailer, Toby burst out the front door. "Are those for me?" His eyes were big as half dollars.
Gina was surprised it had taken him this long to figure out what was going on, but noticed a smidge of frosting at the corner of his mouth. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder to keep him from scaring the calves. "They're for your party, not for you to keep."
Aidan handed one lead to his cohort and together they led the young animals to the back yard and put them in the pen. Toby skipped along beside them, barely able to contain his excitement. He pestered the men with questions as they walked.
"Are they boys or girls?"
"What are their names?"
"How old are they?"
The shorter man ignored the boy's questions, but Aidan took the time to answer each and every one. After the calves were safely corralled in the makeshift pen, Gina looked up at Aidan. "You're both welcome to come in for cake and ice cream."
One corner of his lips curled up in a grin. "Thank you, but we'll stay here with the little ones."
"I'll bring you a drink when we come back out, then." Gina nodded to him, then took her son's hand and went to greet his guests. Within minutes, the kitchen was overflowing with sugar-fueled kids devouring chocolate cake and cookie dough ice cream.
As soon as the kids finished the refreshments, they went to the backyard to see the calves. They gathered around the little makeshift pen and pulled grass to feed the babies. The fuzzy red calves were jumpy at first, but put up with the mass of hands rubbing them to nibble at the tender green shoots offered to them.
One little girl tugged on Gina's shirttail. "I need to go potty. Can you show me where the bathroom is?"
Gina glanced around. Midge was still inside cleaning up. Gina looked up at Aidan, eyebrows raised. "Do you mind?"
He looked around at the kids intent on the calves and shook his head. "Go ahead. They'll be fine for a minute."
Gina took the girl inside. The girl went into the bathroom and hollered for help almost immediately. "My zipper is stuck!"
It took Gina quite some time and a bit of ingenuity to get the girl's pants unzipped, thanks to one of Toby's stubby crayons. Squeals and screams drifted through the open windows. Whatever Aidan was doing with the kids seemed to have them excited. She left the girl to her business and hurried out the back door.
She stopped on the back step, one hand still on the door handle, unable to believe her eyes. The kids pressed against the hog panels, fingers entwined in the wire. The shorter ranch hand stood in the midst of the kids, the lead rope in one hand with a calf contentedly munching on the grass. But it was the man and boy inside the pen with the other calf that caught her attention.
She sighed deeply and smiled. Aidan had let Toby get in the pen with the calf. Her son's eyes sparkled with excitement as he ran his hands over the red hair of the animal. When she'd met Aidan at the store, she'd known he was something special, and here he was, going the extra mile to make Toby's birthday the best it could be.
As she watched, Aidan leaned down and spoke into her son's ear. Toby nodded eagerly.
Aidan grabbed Toby under his arms, scooped him up and deposited him on the calf's back. Aidan stepped back against the fencing. The calf quivered a moment, flipped its tail back and forth then sprang into action. It spun in a circle, put its head down and bucked forward once, twice, three times. Toby hunkered down, his arms wrapped around the animal's neck as it bawled its displeasure at being ridden. Gina watched, rooted to the spot, unable to believe her eyes.
The calf bolted forward, then lowered its head and planted his front feet. Toby tumbled forward over the animal's head and hit the ground with a dull thud.
That sound jolted Gina out of her frozen state. She leapt off the back step and ran across the yard. The crowd of kids parted as she pushed her way through, then she yanked the fence open and shoved Aidan out of the way. She dropped to the ground next to her son. She touched his back as he pushed himself up. He lifted his head and looked at her, blood at one corner of his mouth.
"Oh, my God!" Gina wailed. She ran her hands over his body, down his arms, down his legs, then gingerly touched his mouth. Her blood pounded in her ears. For a moment, she felt as if she might pass out.
He grinned. "Did you see me, Mom? That was awesome!" One of his front teeth was gone.
She took a deep breath, blinked away the tears that threatened to spill and told herself to be strong. She scooped him up and pushed herself to her feet, then spun and faced Aidan, pinning him with her eyes. "You! What the hell were you thinking? You did this to him! I leave you alone with my son for one minute and this is what you do?"
Aidan blinked. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. Finally, he managed to croak out two words. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, you are." She strode through the crowd of kids, who stared at her with rounded eyes, stunned into silence. She took Toby inside and sat him in a chair at the kitchen table. She cleaned him up with a cool dish cloth, carefully wiping away the dirt and grass from the scrapes on his arms and face.
The entire time she worked on him, Toby chattered on about how exciting his ride had been. "I want to be a cowboy when I grow up. Aidan says I'm a natural."
Her heart was still racing. "He does, does he?" She worked quickly. She'd left all those kids outside alone with those ranch hands. She needed to get back out there before someone else got hurt.