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Authors: Deb Kastner

His Texas Bride (5 page)

BOOK: His Texas Bride
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Whatever it was, Buck didn’t like it.

Not one bit.

 

Ellie tried her best to put the distraction of Buck’s presence—and her looming destiny—behind her as she prepared for the day’s clientele, a special favorite of hers. Children from the foster-care program for Grange County, located in the nearby town of Silverdale, were bused in every Wednesday.

To these special kids, some abandoned by their parents or truly orphaned from some type of tragedy, her services were free. So what if she wasn’t making a huge profit on the ranch? she argued to herself, as if to Buck. She was helping others in need, making a real difference here.

If only Buck could see it.

Ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers, the children delighted in the ranch life they found here at McBride’s. The little ones liked to pet the bunnies and chase the chickens. The older children often visited the horses. Ellie taught them how to care for the various animals and even took them on trail rides from time to time. She had purchased a pair of draft horses for special-occasion hayrack rides, which the children loved so much.

Ellie straightened her shoulders, forced a smile on her face and waved to the children as the bus approached the ranch house. She wouldn’t think about the fact that the ranch would soon not carry her name, that everything she’d worked for all her life was about to go up in smoke.

She
wouldn’t
think about it.

As the children clambered over each other to get off the bus, Tyler appeared at Ellie’s side. She was surprised but tried her hardest not to show it, giving Tyler the same smile she offered the children running in her direction.

“Are these some of the kids you minister to?” Tyler asked, curiosity lining his expression.

“They are,” she replied, giving the boy another big grin. “All of them come from one bad situation or another. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is for them to lose their families and then have to trust a
new group of people with their well-being. Foster homes aren’t always as permanent as they need to be. Not too many of these children ever get adopted. Not enough, anyway.”

Tyler frowned. “That’s too bad.”

He sounded sincere. Eager, even. Ellie wondered why Buck had indicated he had such trouble with the boy. Tyler had been nothing but sweet to her.

Tyler jammed his hands into the front pockets of his blue jeans. “Is there anything I can do to help, Miss McBride?”

Ellie couldn’t believe how well mannered Tyler was acting. A little shy, even. This time her smile was as much inward as it was outward.

“Why, yes,” she replied readily. “I can use all the help I can get around here.”

“What would you like me to do?”

Ellie thought for a moment before speaking. “There are a couple of things that come to mind,” she said slowly, waving at the foster-care children as they ran past her and into the farmyard. “I’ll tell you what. How about if I tell you what needs doing and you pick what you’d most like to do yourself?”

Tyler nodded solemnly, his lips in a serious straight line. “Sounds good to me.”

Ellie gestured toward a flock of warbling preschoolers. “Those little guys need someone to watch over them. They always send a supervisor from the county, but as you can see, she’s really got her hands full. You’d just need to watch them, keep them out of trouble. Mostly they like to pet the smaller animals and chase the chickens around the pen.”

Tyler laughed.

“Or,” Ellie said with a wink, “you could go back down to the stable, where most of the teenagers hang out. I think there are a couple of pretty girls.”

Tyler’s face blushed as red as a Macintosh apple, and Ellie had to smother her chuckle. For all her blustering to Buck, she didn’t know all that much about twelve-year-old boys. Tyler probably wasn’t into girls at his age, she thought. Maybe she shouldn’t have teased him that way.

Tyler glanced toward the stable. Despite her joking, Ellie fully expected him to pick the latter of the two options, to be with kids his own age—not to mention being in the atmosphere in which he was most at home. With horses.

But the young man surprised her. He shrugged and said, “I’ll watch the little ones, I guess.”

Ellie’s eyebrows rose in surprise, but she beamed at Tyler, nonetheless. “Excellent. The woman in charge over there is Mrs. Downey. Just tell her you’re there to help, and she’ll point you in the right direction.”

Tyler looked at his feet, where he was swishing around the dirt with the toe of his tan cowboy boot. “Thank you,” he muttered, so low Ellie could barely hear him.

Ellie didn’t think her smile could get any wider, but it did. “No, Tyler. Thank
you
.”

 

Buck didn’t leave the stable after his confrontation with Tyler. He was most at home among horses, and their sounds and smells somehow comforted him.

He sighed aloud. When had his life gotten so outrageously complicated?

When Ellie McBride had walked back into his life.

That was when.

He heard rather than saw the group of loudly chatting teenagers enter the stable, and he quickly moved to the far corner and into the shadows, where he couldn’t be seen.

Where had these kids come from, and what were they doing in Ellie’s—in
his
stable?

To Buck’s surprise, the rowdy group immediately quieted upon entering the stable. Even more astonishing, they all picked up grooming tools, and each went to work on a different one of the horses. Obviously they’d been here before, and each teenager appeared to have chosen a horse they particularly liked.

One of the girls squealed in delight upon finding the newborn colt in the birthing stall, and all the teenagers crowded around, straining to see the foal. There were delighted whispers all around as they observed the mother horse with her baby.

“Look at him. He’s trying to walk,” said one of the teenagers.

“How cute. His mother is nudging him with her nose, trying to encourage him,” said another.

“Maybe we ought to back off.” This came from one of the older boys. “I’m not sure she wants us all bothering her and her foal right now.”

The kids murmured in agreement and wandered back to the horses they’d started to groom earlier.

Buck hadn’t been noticed yet, and he had no intention of being seen now. He quietly strode to the back entrance of the stable and slipped out the partially open door.

He wasn’t sure what he’d just witnessed, but he made a mental note to ask Ellie about it.

Why would she possibly let a group of teenagers onto her land, much less trust them with her horses? Was this what she was getting paid to do?

And how, Buck mused, was this any sort of ministry? Free stable help, maybe, but nothing Buck himself would consider using with his own horses.

Buck began to trek up the hill, toward the ranch house, his black boots sliding on the coarse gravel. He immediately saw that the property was overrun with small children dashing this way and that. Attempting to avoid little children was the last thing Buck wanted to deal with right now, but there was no other way to get to the house, so he moved forward again, determined to walk right through the middle of the chaos.

And then he saw Tyler.

The boy was sitting on the ground, cross-legged, with a little boy—maybe three or four years old—on his lap. He was holding a squirming white rabbit in his left hand and gently guiding the child’s touch with the other. Both his son and the little boy were chuckling at the rabbit’s antics.

The Texas landscape in this part of the country was dry and pretty sparse, especially in early spring, after the tough winter, but the ranch house had a few blooming white flowering dogwood trees tucked around it, and Buck quickly stepped behind one, hiding himself from view as he gazed at his laughing son.

Buck tried to remember the last time he had seen Tyler laugh, really laugh, as the boy was doing now. To his regret Buck couldn’t think of a single time in
the past couple of years. Buck’s life had been on a downward spiral for the past few years since the divorce, and he now realized with a deep stab of remorse that he’d taken his son right along with him for the ride.

Tyler was surprisingly gentle with the little boy, though Buck knew his son was inexperienced with preschoolers. Tyler was typically a loner, shying away even from kids his own age back at the ranch Buck used to run.

“Pet the bunny,” he heard Tyler instruct the squirming child in a tender but eager tone of voice. “See how soft his fur is? Nice bunny.”

The little boy on Tyler’s lap giggled as the bunny sprang loose from his hand and scampered off under the safety of one of the nearby rabbit hutches.

Buck had to clamp his lips together to keep from laughing out loud himself. It was such a rush of relief to see true joy on his son’s face.

What kind of a father had he been to Tyler, anyway? No wonder the boy was so sullen. Why hadn’t he tried harder to give his son a better life? Had he been so wrapped up in his own problems that he hadn’t really noticed his son as he should?

Buck knew that was true. Yet here at Ellie’s ranch, and apparently under Ellie’s guidance, the boy was opening up like a flower to the sun.

Amazing.

Making a good deal of noise by shuffling his feet on the gravel, Buck stepped from behind the tree and walked casually toward Tyler, pretending he hadn’t seen the interchange between the young man and the
preschooler at all. Still, he grinned and winked at Tyler as he passed, and to his surprise, the boy smiled back.

As Buck neared the ranch house, he glanced over his shoulder to find Tyler now leading a small group of preschoolers into the large wired coop for a chicken chase.

“Get one. Hurry. There’s one over there,” Tyler urged, followed by his own laughter and that of the children. “Oh, I almost got that one.”

Naturally the children would never catch the chickens, and Buck suspected Tyler wouldn’t, either, though the boy clearly could if he wanted to. It was the playful interaction with the little ones that Tyler was obviously seeking, although becoming a caretaker to preschoolers was the last thing on the planet Buck would ever have pegged his son for.

He shook his head at the thought, then removed his hat and hung it on a hook as he entered the house. He hadn’t seen Ellie around the property and figured she was probably inside somewhere, and he was determined to find her. After what he’d just witnessed, he had far more questions than answers.

Chapter Five

B
uck found Ellie in the kitchen, preparing tuna-fish sandwich wedges for the children. She looked up as he entered, but didn’t smile or even acknowledge his presence. Buck grunted softly and pulled a chair out from the kitchen table, turning it around so he could straddle it.

When Ellie glanced at him again, it was with one dark eyebrow arched and her head cocked a little to the side. “Do you ever seat yourself normally at the table?” she asked wryly. “Like a regular human being?”

Buck looked down at his arms, which were resting on the chair’s back, and chuckled. “Honestly, I never thought about it. Tyler and I normally ate in the bunkhouse with the other cowboys, and all we have at
our
dinner tables are benches.”

“That explains it, then.”

Buck suspected the
it
in question was Ellie’s idea of good manners, and he had the niggling urge to stand up and turn the chair around to suit her.

That
wasn’t going to happen. He shifted more solidly into place on his
backward
-facing chair.

Ellie sighed deeply. “What do you want, Buck? I’m kind of busy right now.”

“Anything I can do to help?” he asked before thinking better of it.

“You know your way around the kitchen?” Her lips quirked in amusement.

“No.”

“Then, no, there’s not anything you can do to help. Thank you, anyway.”

“Can we talk about the ranch, then?”

Ellie stopped slicing sandwiches and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to steady herself.
Please, Lord,
she prayed internally,
give me grace to get through this
.

When she opened her eyes, she squared her shoulders and took another calm, cleansing breath. She knew what Buck was asking, what with the ranch currently overridden with children of various ages. What she didn’t know was how he would respond to what she would tell him.

She
needed
to make him see that what she was doing was important, a real ministry and not simply running an overglorified tourist trap, as he had so un-aptly put it. Ellie just wasn’t quite sure how she was going to do that.

No words immediately came to mind, no matter how hard she prayed and searched for them. Buck’s gaze was as reserved as always, and he never took his piercing green eyes off her for a moment.

She thought about playing innocent, making Buck say what was on his mind, but quickly discarded that
idea in favor of forthrightness, knowing Buck was more apt to respond to a straightforward question than to her beating around the bush.

“What is it you want to know?” she asked with all the dignity she could muster.

“Well, for starters, why are there a gazillion kids running around the ranch?”

Ellie shrugged. “It’s part of my therapy program. They are the kids from the foster-care program in Silverdale. They get bused in every Wednesday afternoon.”

“I see,” Buck said, though he clearly didn’t. “And they are here to do what, exactly?”

“Interact with the animals, mostly. Animals can be great therapy, you know, especially for a child who has trouble bonding with human beings.”

“Chasing chickens is good therapy?” There was a bit of a teasing tone to his voice, but Ellie knew Buck was ultimately serious about the question, just as he was dead set on removing her from this property.

“Sometimes,” she answered slowly. “Mostly that’s just for play. But you ought to see the children with Cody, my German shepherd. When the dog encounters a distressed child, he’ll nose his way under the boy or girl’s arm, in effect giving them a furry hug.”

Buck nodded for her to continue.

“Most of the teenagers like the stables the best. They work with the horses—grooming them, fixing tack, cleaning stalls. Oddly enough, or rather by God’s grace….”

She paused when Buck cringed visibly and looked away from her. “By God’s grace,” she repeated, “each teenager in this particular group has bonded with a dif
ferent horse. They are always anxious to get out to see ‘their’ horses, without ever arguing about who gets what mount.”

“Yeah, I saw that,” Buck commented with a gruff edge to his voice.

“Did you?”

“I was still in the stable when they came in.”

“Did they see the foal?” Ellie asked, not realizing until after she’d spoken the words that she might well just have unintentionally changed the subject, which was the last thing she wanted to do. She desperately needed to clear up Buck’s misconceptions about her ministry.

He chuckled. “I’d say they were pretty excited about that particular find.”

Ellie smiled. “Good. I’m glad.”

“I watched them for a few minutes. They all seemed to know their way around horses. How is that?”

She shrugged. “I taught them.”

Buck gave a low whistle. “That must have taken a good deal of time and effort.”

“Maybe,” she conceded, cutting the sandwiches into quarters so they were easier for the small children to eat. “But it was worth every second. And I happen to enjoy working with kids.”

Buck laughed. “That much I got.”

He was suddenly silent and his smile faded. Ellie was curious and a little frightened by Buck’s suddenly quiet demeanor, but she waited for him to speak.

“I saw Tyler on my way up to the house.” He spoke casually, but Ellie knew there was a lot more emotion behind those words than Buck was letting on. “He was helping a little boy with one of your rabbits.”

“That was nice of him.” She kept her hands busy, hoping Buck wouldn’t see that she was shaking with determination, and maybe a little bit from dread.

“Hmm,” Buck answered, now sounding thoroughly bemused. “Yeah. Nice of him.”

It wasn’t like Buck to repeat words. He was definitely the strong and silent type. Ellie knew there was something that had rattled him enough to shake him from his stupor.

Seeing her ministry for what it was, maybe? Did she dare to hope?

“See, here’s the thing,” Buck continued. “My son doesn’t like little kids.”

Ellie cocked an eyebrow. “You’re sure about that? Because when I was out there before, he appeared to be enjoying himself as much as the preschoolers.”

Buck nodded. “Doesn’t that beat all? Back at the ranch where we’ve been living, Tyler pretty much kept to himself.”

“Just like his father,” Ellie muttered under her breath, but apparently it was loud enough for Buck to hear, because his gaze narrowed on her.

“I—I didn’t mean anything by that,” Ellie stammered hastily. The last thing she wanted to do right now was rile Buck up. Next thing she’d know, she’d be packing her bags, no explanation wanted or given.

“No. You’re right,” Buck agreed with a clipped nod and a soft chuckle. “My son
is
like me. That’s why I can’t figure out what’s going on now.”

“Maybe Tyler is just learning to relax,” Ellie suggested tenderly. The soft spot in her heart was for Tyler, of course. At least that was what she told herself.
“You know, you could do with a little R & R yourself, Mr. Ranch Foreman.”

“Hmm,” he said again, as if the thought had never occurred to him before.

“Your room and board are on me,” she reminded him. “Well, not exactly. But the rent I’m paying covers the mortgage on the ranch each month.”

Which was sort of true. At least it had been until Mama Esther had passed.

Ellie realized Buck hadn’t heard the entire will, though probably he had guessed the truth. With Esther’s passing, Buck now owned the ranch free and clear. All the more reason for him to give Ellie her notice—so he would finally own some land of his own with no strings attached.

His own horse ranch.

The one dream, Ellie suspected, he’d never quite released, even when everything else in his life had gone sour.

Ellie knew she should share the information, but she remained silent. He’d learn about it soon enough. She needed as much time as she could get between now and then to prove what she had here was a bona fide ministry to the children and that he should keep her on past the end of their two-month agreement.

Buck lifted an eyebrow and blew out his breath. “If you don’t mind my asking, how much does the government pay you for this weekly therapy?”

Ellie hoped Buck didn’t notice her change in demeanor, because that was the one question she
didn’t
want him to ask. Hastily, she picked up the platter of tuna wedges. “I need to get these out to the children.”

Buck stood and was blocking her path out the door faster than she thought possible.
Cowboy reflexes,
she thought miserably. And Buck looked like a big, black-clothed brick wall—no way to get over, under, around or through him. At least not until she’d answered his question. And it didn’t help that her heart began to flutter at his close proximity.

“I’m waiting,” he said, staring down at her and crossing his arms over his chest.

Ellie looked down at the tray in her hands, not able to bring herself to make eye contact with him.

“Nothing,” she murmured under her breath, fighting the urge to squirm under his narrowed gaze.

“I’m sorry?” Buck said. “I don’t think I quite heard that.”

Oh, he’d heard it all right. Ellie was sure of it. He was just making her repeat it to torture her. She looked up at him, locking gazes with him testily.

“Nothing,” she repeated irately, much louder than she needed to speak.

“Nothing,” Buck parroted. “Ellie, you aren’t going to tell me you’re giving your services, whatever they may be, away for free, are you?”

Ellie refused to look away, no matter how scathing Buck’s gaze was on hers.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “To the kids who really need it. The government can’t afford to pay. Or rather, they have too many other expenses.”

Buck huffed. “I imagine they do.”

Ellie glared at him. “I won’t turn these children away. Not as long as they need what I offer.”

“But this is a business, right?” He didn’t sound like he believed that it was.

“It’s a ministry, Buck,” she said, tired of repeating herself. “I do what I do to serve God and others. But, yes, in answer to your question, I do actually make my living on this ranch, thank you very much.”

“By giving everything away for free.”

“No.” She wanted to shake Buck until he could see the truth—until his teeth rattled, as a matter of fact—but she doubted it would help. The man clearly had rocks in his head. “I have many clients who pay for the therapy program. The foster-care program just doesn’t happen to be one of them.”

“I see,” Buck said, nodding to himself as if he’d suddenly stumbled across the truth. “So that’s where the tourists come in—and the bed-and-breakfast you insist you don’t run here. To pay for the foster-care kids. I guess that makes sense, in a cockeyed sort of way.”

Ellie sighed loudly, clenching the platter in both fists, willing herself not to toss the entire sticky contents right in his face. He was baiting her deliberately, and they both knew it.

“Ellie?” he said when she didn’t rush to explain herself.

“No.” She shook her head fiercely. “They aren’t tourists. Or at least, not many of them. Most of the kids come from Ferrell, and some from neighboring towns.”

“How do you advertise?”

“Word of mouth, primarily. The
Tri-County News
occasionally writes an article about the ranch. I’m a member of a national organization. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to deliver this snack to my little kiddos.”

Buck raised an eyebrow but stepped sideways, out of the doorway. “This isn’t over.”

Ellie scoffed and stepped through the doorway, not looking back. “Whatever you say, Buckshot,” she replied, purposefully using the same pet name she’d had for him when they were youngsters, hoping it would throw him off a bit.

It must have, because he didn’t say another word, although Ellie could feel his eyes on her back all the way down the hill. She smiled to herself. She wasn’t done fighting for this ministry.

Not even close.

 

Buck was still mulling over Ellie’s use of her special pet name for him the next morning, over a hot cup of coffee. Ellie had remembered that after all these years? He remembered all too well. How could he have walked away from that kind of love?

Ellie and Tyler were nowhere to be seen. They were probably not even awake yet, he guessed. It had long been Buck’s habit to watch the sun rise, and the fact that he was currently unemployed and taking a little R & R, as Ellie put it, didn’t keep him from waking before dawn.

This wasn’t rest
or
relaxation.

This was torture, plain and simple. He and Ellie couldn’t say a single word to each other without undertones of unspoken dialogue—why she wanted to stay on at the ranch and why he couldn’t let her do so.

If it were anyone else renting his ranch, Buck would have sent them packing the moment he’d learned about his mother’s will. But Ellie was his tenant, which changed everything, and they both knew it.

Count on Ellie, though, to try to take advantage of his generosity to plead her case. Why couldn’t she just realize she wasn’t going to get her way in the end and start looking for somewhere else to do her
ministry?
It sure would make it easier on both of them if she would.

But Ellie had always been a stubborn woman. There was no reason to think she’d be anything else just because twenty years had gone by.

Not his Ellie.

No. Not
his
Ellie.

Buck knew he needed to stop thinking that way, or he was going to end up in a world of hurt. He was obviously already headed in that direction, and it wouldn’t take much to send him right over the edge. He sighed deeply and took another sip of his still-steaming coffee.

He was so startled by the sharp rapping on the front door, he nearly spilled his coffee in his lap. Surely Ellie didn’t have clients calling at this time of the morning?

Standing stiffly, he jammed his hands through his hair and stretched. Only two days with Ellie and he was already getting soft in the head. He promised himself a good long horseback ride—to clear his head—later on in the morning and moved to the door, pulling the curtain slightly to one side so he could peer into the early morning mist.

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