Authors: Jill Sanders
The little boy was going on two years old and was smarter than most kids twice his age. At least according to his mother and aunts. Ricky had been blessed with the West green eyes and his father’s jet-black hair. The mix was something to see in a chubby toddler.
After dinner, Ricky walked around the table and ended up sitting in Wes’s lap. His face and fingers had been wiped clean by his father, but he still managed to spill some sauce on Wes’s shirt. Wes didn’t seem to mind or notice it. He just played peak-a-boo with the little boy and melted Haley’s heart a little bit more.
After the sun went down, they sat on the swing on the back deck and talked some more. She still felt like she was holding herself back from him, but she couldn’t explain why. After all, he’d gone through so much and had even taken the time to explain his past actions.
But, to date, he hadn’t once talked about the future. She didn’t know if he was ready to talk to her or not, but she did know that she wasn’t going to completely trust him until he told her his plans.
It wasn’t as if she was asking for much. After all, she didn’t think she could explain her future plans to anyone if they asked. She’d been born and raised on Saddleback ranch. The longest she’d been away from it had been the one summer her father had gotten it in his mind to send her to riding camp. It was the most grueling week she’d ever spent. She couldn’t remember ever being so homesick in her life.
It was getting a little difficult living with Lauren and Chase. They had started their own family and planned on expanding it even further. Alex had married Grant and moved out over a year ago, so that helped. It was a big house, but Haley was starting to realize just how small it felt when you were constantly walking in on a couple who wanted privacy. She tried to joke with them about it and always tried really hard to avoid areas she knew they were in. But bumping into them like today was inevitable.
More and more over the last year she had wondered what she was going to do about it. She knew she wasn’t ready to marry. Up until Wes had returned, she’d only found one other man in town worthy of dating.
Finally, Wes stood up and explained that he had to be in Tyler first thing in the morning. She didn’t pry, and he didn’t explain why, which only made it harder to trust him again.
When he kissed her goodnight, she felt that he was holding something back. As she watched him walk away, she felt like crying.
Why had she let herself walk into this again? She was so torn, she didn’t know what to do. Maybe some time away would help? She had some cousins she could go spend some time with. They lived about an hour away and she always had a fun time on their ranch. They ran a horse ranch, something she’d always dreamed of doing but had never had the time or money to.
Leaning her head back against the swing, she closed her eyes and imagined her future. She dreamed of what she would want to do if time and money weren’t a problem.
She’d name the ranch Haley’s Sanctuary. She wouldn’t just stop at horses. Her sanctuary would be open to all different kinds of animals: horses, cows, goats, dogs, even llamas. She stopped swinging and smiled. The Becker’s down the road had a few llamas. She always loved working with them. They were mischievous, but very smart creatures.
She wondered where in Fairplay she could open such a ranch. There weren’t too many places in town, but she knew of a few older ranches on the outskirts that could be fixed up to house such a large endeavor.
By the time she walked up stairs to head to bed, she had it all planed out in her mind. All she needed now was money and time.
The next few days she had little of either. What she had plenty of was sweat and blood. She had ripped open the cut on her finger several times while cleaning out stalls or helping with the cattle. Even though she wore gloves, every evening she would walk in, her hand covered in blood.
“Damn.” She was standing in the kitchen covered in hay and dirt, looking down at her bloody hand.
Damn, damn, damn,” Ricky’s sweet voice came from behind her.
She turned and winced at Lauren. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were behind me.”
Lauren shook her head and frowned at Haley’s hand. “Is that thing still bothering you?”
Yeah, it just won’t close up. I’ve cleaned it and bandaged it up. But you know how it is when you use your hands the way we do.”
Lauren nodded. She sat Ricky in his high chair, making sure to lock him in. He was a master of escape and everyone joked that they should have called him Houdini instead. “Here, try this.” Lauren walked to the kitchen cabinet and pulled out a small bottle just as Alex walked in the back door.
“Super glue?” she asked Lauren.
Her sister nodded. “Trust me.” Then she turned to Alex, who was still dressed in her uniform from Mama’s. “Busy day?”
“You’ve no idea,” Alex said, sitting down next to Ricky.
Damn, damn, damn,” Ricky said, smiling as he banged his hands on his high chair.
Alex laughed as Haley cringed. “I win the bet.” Alex looked over at Lauren and held out her hand to Haley.
“Bet? What bet?” Lauren asked.
Nothing,” Haley said quickly. She reached into her purse and handed her sister a twenty.
Haley Marie. What the . . .”—Lauren looked towards her son—“. . . moon, are you talking about?”
We bet on who would be the first to teach your son curse words,” Alex said, holding up the twenty. “And you can see by the dollar signs in my eyes and the crisp bill in my hands that I won. I won. I won.” Alex got up off the chair and did a little dance, much to Ricky’s delight. He started clapping his hands and singing, “I won,” too.
Lauren laughed. “At least he’s not saying . . . the other word any more.”
Haley spent the next few minutes cleaning up her hand and trying to super-glue her finger back together. By the time she tossed the small bottle on the table, several of her fingers were glued together.
Alex sat back and watched her, laughing at first, then reached over and started to help. Seeing her sister’s blonde head bent over her hand, a flash of memory played in Haley’s head.
Haley didn’t really remember their mother well; she was only four when the tornado took her away. But seeing Alex’s head bent over her hand, she was sure that her mother had done something similar.
Haley?” Lauren asked from across the room. “What is it?” Her sister rushed to her side.
Hale?” Alex looked up at her. Her dark chocolate eyes turned a deeper shade, widened a little, and her face softened. For a split second, she could see her mother’s face instead of Alex’s.
Mom,” she croaked out, her voice going hoarse with the emotions. “I remember mom doing this.”
What?” Alex had a frown on her face. “Hal, you’re white as a sheet. Lauren, call that husband of yours inside.”
Lauren rushed to the back door, only to be stopped by Haley. “No, wait. I’m okay, really. I just—it’s just that I remembered Mom.” She smiled a little. “For the first time in my life, I remembered Mom.”
“Oh, sweetie.” Lauren rushed to her sister’s side, bent down, and hugged her.
Tears were streaming down Haley’s face. She could feel her sisters hugging her and even felt Ricky’s little hand reach out and tug her hair. Closing her eyes, she played the scene in her memory over again, wanting to hold onto it.
“I had a boo-boo.” She pulled back and smiled at her sister’s face. “Here.” She held up her thumb. “Mom was putting an Elmo Band-Aid on it. I wanted a rainbow one, but Alex had used them all on her dolly earlier.” She frowned at Alex, who only smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
Dolly had a lot of boo-boos that summer.”
Mom’s head was bent down, looking at my boo-boo. She was singing to me. The ‘All Better’ song.”
Alex looked off towards the window and started singing, her rich voice laced with country as she sang her mother’s original song.
“I know you’re scared
But I will always be there
I know there’s pain
But I’ll hold you til it goes away
I’ll kiss it all better, (ooo)
I’ll kiss it all better (ooo)
I will always be there for you
Cause that’s just what mammas do
There’s no need for you to cry
Cause you’re the apple of your mamma’s eye
I’ll kiss it all better (ooo)
Kiss it all better
Just for you, I’ll kiss it all better”
When Alex was done singing, there were even more tears in the kitchen as the sisters hugged one another.
“You sound so much like her,” Lauren said. “It’s not fair.” Her sister smiled and held Alexis’s face. “You get her looks, her voice, and from what dad always said, her temperament.”
They all laughed just as Chase walked in the back door.
“What going on?” When he saw the tears, he had the face all men get when they walk into a room full of weeping women. His eyes darted around the room and found a dozen escape routes. The sisters laughed as they hugged and cried.
Wes threw the cane against the door. He hadn’t wanted the damn surgery. There was no way he was going to go back to walking with a damn stick. When the pretty nurse walked back in, she looked down at the cane and frowned.
Now, Mr. Tanner, this isn’t going to do you any good clear over here.” Not even her southern drawl and pretty smile could lift his spirits.
I don’t want the damn thing.” He started to stand up and almost toppled over. The nurse raced across the small space and wrapped her arms around his hips. If he hadn’t been so focused on his pain, he would have appreciated the nice pair of breasts pushed tightly against his chest.
Hell, he had to be honest with himself. Ever since he’d come home, there was only one pair of breasts his mind had been on—Haley’s.
Now he’d gone and ruined his chances with her. What was she going to think of him when he hobbled back into town tomorrow? What could he say? Oh, hey, by the way, I just had major surgery without telling you, and I’ll need at least two more in the next year.
Great, just great. He closed his eyes as the nurse forced him to sit back on the table. “Mr. Tanner, if you continue to do reckless things, you’re going to end up on the floor, and I’ll have to call an orderly.” She leaned forward and whispered to him. “And they aren’t near as nice as I am.” She winked and handed him his cane. “Now, shall we try this again?”
The next day, he sat in his father’s truck and leaned his head back. There were a million excuses running through his head. None of them explained why he’d kept this secret from the town. Why he didn’t want the support of the people he loved. Maybe it was his parents’ fault? He looked over at his dad. He was the spitting image of his old man, except that his dad had silver hair and a little beer gut.
His parents kept to themselves as much as they could, which was hard in such a small town. But they kept to themselves and liked it that way. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t told anyone what he was going through.
Closing his eyes, he knew excuses wouldn’t cut it with Haley. He should have told her.
When his father drove up to the small house, he cringed when he saw her sitting out on his front porch.
“I’m sorry. I know you didn’t want anyone to know what was going on.” His father looked over at him as he cut the engine. “But your mother thought it was best that someone know you would be needing some help. Since you’re living here,” he nodded, “we thought it best that someone close check up on you for a few days.”
He nodded. “Thanks, Dad.”
His father opened his door and rushed around to open it for him. Haley was there, holding her hands in front of her. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was worried, but couldn’t read anything more. She stood there as his father helped him into his house.
He sat on the couch, his cane propped up next to him, feeling a little light headed. He hated the medication he’d been given and had even protested against taking it. But in the end, his doctor and the pain had won out.