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Authors: Janet Dailey

Texas Tough (11 page)

BOOK: Texas Tough
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Next time.
From a man like Sky Fletcher, that was as close to a commitment as she was going to get.
 
“Where the hell have you been, Lauren? I've been calling your cell for the past couple of hours.”
As she walked in the front door, her father's demanding voice shattered the mellow aura that had floated around her all the way home.
“I went to work at the Tylers',” she said. “I told you I was going. And if nobody answered my phone it was because I left my purse in the car.”
“You didn't check for messages?”
“Sorry, no.” After a twilight ride back to the car with Sky, checking her phone had been the last thing on her mind.
“Well, Josh Hardesty called me. He's still willing to push for the governor's endorsement, and he wants to take you out again. I gave him your number, but when he couldn't reach you, I said I'd try you and get back to him.”
“You gave Josh Hardesty my cell number? Can't you get it through your head that I never want to see him again?” Biting back anger, Lauren stepped out of the entry and into the lamplight. Her father's eyes widened at the sight of her tangled hair and rumpled shirt.
“Lord almighty, you look like you've been rolling in a horse trough. What've you been up to?” His eye narrowed. “Never mind, I can guess. Hardesty mentioned that when he picked you up at the Tylers' you'd just come back from a so-called riding lesson with that half-breed cowboy, Fletcher.”
Lauren had turned to go to her room, but she swung back to face him. “
Half breed?
Good grief, what century are you living in? That term went out with the horse and buggy!”
His face had turned florid. “What I call that Comanche bastard doesn't change the fact that you've got sand in your hair, girl! Of all the men you could've let between your legs, why
him?
Did you do it to spite me—to drag the family name through the mud?”
Lauren knew better than to lie. She straightened and squared her chin. “My personal life is my own business. I'm over twenty-one. I don't have to answer to you.”
Color deepening, he took a step toward her. Lauren braced herself, half expecting him to raise his hand and strike her. But then he halted, the breath hissing out of him.
“Maybe not. But whether you like it or not, your behavior reflects on my reputation. If I find out you're still seeing that man, so help me I'll ruin him! I'll blacken his name all over Texas—and don't think I can't. I'm a U.S. congressman. I have influence, connections, people who'll believe me.”
Lauren was trembling by now, but she stood her ground. “Say one word against him and you'll never see me again!”
His face contorted into a sneer. “Right now I'm not sure that would be much of a loss. You're exactly like your mother—a slut!”
He flung the word at her and stalked out of the room.
CHAPTER 9
B
y dinnertime the following Sunday, Jasper was strong enough to be up and around. He was already demanding to ride his ATV and move from the spare bedroom in the house to his side of the duplex he shared with Sky. Bernice, who'd cared for her brother with saintly devotion, declared that she'd reached the end of her rope.
“Now I know why I never took on another man after my Andy died, God rest his soul.” She punctuated her words with downward strokes of the potato masher. “One more day of fetching and carrying for that old grump, and I'm going on vacation!”
“Then why not let Jasper go back to his own place?” Sky used a towel to lift the heavy roasting pan out of the oven and set it on the stovetop. The kitchen wasn't his job, but Bernice had been favoring her back lately and he worried about the strain.
“You know how rambunctious he is, Sky. If he gets hurt out there again, I'll never forgive myself.”
“He'll be fine, Bernice.” Sky began carving the succulent prime rib. “I'll look in on him every chance I get. And Will's locked up the keys to the ATV, so Jasper won't be taking it anywhere till he's ready.”
“I just don't know.” Bernice scooped the mashed potatoes into a bowl and added a dollop of butter. “When you come that close to losing somebody . . .”
The words trailed off as Erin scurried into the kitchen, took the bowl of potatoes, and headed back through the swinging door to the dining room.
“It's time you took care of yourself for a change,” Sky said. “Otherwise you'll be the next patient in the house. Leave Jasper to me. He'll be happier in his own place.”
Sky put the meat on a platter and carried it to the dining room table before he took his seat. Sunday dinner was a tradition at the ranch, a chance for the family to get together, feast, and talk. Jasper and Bernice were included, as was Sky, although, more often than not, he kept busy elsewhere. He'd never quite felt he belonged at the Tylers' table—not even now. But since today was a celebration of Jasper's recovery, he'd made a point of showing up.
As they waited for Bernice to take her seat, Sky glanced around the table. There was no rule about who sat where, but the arrangement seemed to fall into a natural order. Will was in his customary place at the head, with Erin on his right. Tori, who came most Sundays to be there for her daughter, sat between Erin and Jasper. Beau was seated on Will's left with Natalie and Sky filling in that side of the table. Bernice's place was at the end, closest to the kitchen. She eased her plump body onto her chair with a weary smile.
Beau and Natalie sat close enough to touch shoulders. Without looking down, Sky assumed they were holding hands—or maybe fondling knees—below the table. High school sweethearts, they'd been apart for eleven years when Beau came home. Now it was as if they were trying to make up for lost time. They couldn't seem to get enough of each other.
Sky was happy for them. But he couldn't imagine Lauren looking at him the way Natalie looked at Beau. Oh, Lauren was having fun. But sizzling sex tended to burn out like a Roman candle. It had little to do with the kind of love that flowed between Beau and his fiancée.
For all Sky knew, Lauren was already having second thoughts. He hadn't heard from her since the night of their sunset ride. Sky had to admit he was getting worried. If she wanted to cool their relationship, that was fine. But why hadn't she told him? What if something was wrong?
The
Amen,
murmured around the table, pulled him back to the present. Lost in thought, he'd brooded right through the blessing on the food. Sky wasn't a religious man, but he tried to be respectful of others' beliefs. He could only hope no one had noticed his lapse.
Discussions around the Tylers' table could be intense, even heated. This afternoon, as the dishes were passed, the conversation was relaxed, punctuated by easy laughter. There were serious issues hanging over the family—the drought, the cattle, the money, and the questions surrounding Jasper's shooting. For now these were set aside in the spirit of celebration.
“A toast!” Will rose and tapped his glass for attention. “To our great friend Jasper, the guiding spirit of the Rimrock. We've missed him, and we're happy to have him back.”
“Hear, hear,” Beau echoed. Glasses of iced sweet tea were raised and clinked. Jasper harrumphed, clearly delighted by the tribute but trying not to show it.
Beau waved a hand for attention. “Natalie and I have an announcement to make,” he said.
Will raised an eyebrow. “I hope this means you two have set a wedding date.”
“Not quite, but it's going to be soon.” Beau squeezed Natalie's shoulder. “It seems we're expecting.”
The beat of silence around the table was shattered by a whoop from Erin. “Awesome! I'm getting a little cousin!”
Blushing, Natalie ducked her head. She wasn't a shy woman, but Sky, who knew her well through her work, sensed that she might've liked to keep the news private a little longer.
“Can you tell us when?” Tori asked.
“The best guess is late February or early March,” Natalie said. “We'll have a lot of decisions to make before then.”
“Well it's never too soon to celebrate good news.” Will's mouth smiled, but his eyes showed concern. Natalie had worked for years to build her veterinary practice in town and would fight to keep it. But Beau was needed on the Rimrock 24–7 for responsibilities that didn't run on the clock. A baby in the picture would only deepen his need to be in two places at once.
Sky hadn't been privy to the problems that ended Will and Tori's marriage, but it made sense that Tori's law career had been a factor in the breakup. Was Will worried that his brother's marriage might suffer the same fate? Or was he even more fearful that Beau might choose Natalie and their child over his duty to the ranch?
Years ago Will had faced a similar choice. Now, when he looked at Tori and Erin across the table, did the ranch boss regret the price he'd paid?
 
After dinner, before Bernice could rise from her chair, Tori stood and began gathering the plates. “You've done enough, making this wonderful meal,” she told the older woman. “Go put your feet up and rest. The girls and I can take care of the dishes.”
Taking their cue, Natalie and Erin pitched in, running the leftovers into the kitchen, covering them, and putting them in the fridge. Too tired to protest, Bernice thanked them and retreated to the peace of her tidy apartment off the kitchen. Will, Beau, and Jasper wandered into the den to watch a rodeo on TV. Sky had already gone back to work.
Once the table was cleared and the food put away, Erin excused herself. Natalie scraped the dishes while Tori arranged them in the dishwasher and pondered the right thing to say.
The news about the baby had come as a happy surprise. But as close as she was to both Beau and Natalie, she couldn't help feeling hurt that they hadn't told her first. It wasn't personal, Tori knew. But since their engagement, Natalie and Beau had been so wrapped up in each other that she often felt like an outsider.
Now she and Natalie were alone in the kitchen. With a baby on the way, Tori knew her friend was going to need her.
“Congratulations.” She took the last glass from Natalie's hand. “I'm thrilled about your good news.”
“I'm thrilled, too.” Natalie sank onto a wooden stool. “But I didn't know Beau was going to share it with the family so soon. I was floored when he made that announcement.”
“You know Beau. When he's excited about something, he can't wait to tell the world.” Tori paused to put the glass in the dishwasher. “Is everything all right, Natalie?”
“With the baby? Yes, the doctor says so far everything's perfect. Funny, with Slade I never could get pregnant. I'd assumed the problem was mine. That's why Beau and I weren't more careful.” Natalie gave a little laugh. “Surprise!”
“You sound like you're still in shock.”
“I guess I am.” Natalie swept her dark curls back from her face. “I always wanted a big family. It's just the timing—so unexpected and so many things to be decided. We don't even know where we're going to live.”
“Relax. You've got plenty of time to work things out.” Tori started the dishwasher and took a seat at the kitchen table. She'd wanted a big family, too. But in the years after Erin's birth, things with Will had become impossible.
“I was away at school for most of the years you were married,” Natalie said. “You and Will lived in this house the whole time, didn't you?”
“Yes. We lived here—with Bull. It was a mistake.” Reaching across the table, Tori laid a hand on her friend's arm. “One word of advice. Whatever you do, if you want a life with Beau, don't let him move you into this house.”
Natalie's chocolate eyes widened. “Not that it would be my first choice, but why are you telling me this? There's plenty of room here, and if Bull was the problem, he's gone now. He can't cause any more trouble.”
Tori shook her head. “That's where you're wrong. Bull Tyler is still running this ranch—or might as well be. If you move into this house, he'll take over Beau's life—and yours.”
“I think I understand.” Natalie glanced down at the Texas-sized diamond Beau had placed on her finger. “What if you and Will had moved into a place of your own? Do you think it would have made a difference?”
“Maybe,” Tori said. “I wanted him to move out—begged him to. But Will wouldn't do it. His father needed him, the ranch needed him, and that was that.”
 
After Natalie had gone upstairs to rest, Tori finished straightening the kitchen and walked back to the den to say her goodbyes. From the hallway she could hear the sounds of the rodeo on TV and the whoops and cheers of the watchers. Erin's voice blended with the men's deeper tones. Her daughter fit right in here—as Tori never had.
The sectional sofa, with its back toward the door, faced the big-screen TV. Standing in the doorway, Tori could see Erin's dark blond head resting against Will's arm as they relaxed on the couch. Will was a devoted father, just as he'd been a dutiful son. But he was stamped in Bull Tyler's mold, raised with the ethic that men were here for the land and the livestock and women were here for their men and their babies. Anything else was unnatural and not to be tolerated.
Had she done the right thing, warning Natalie about the pitfalls of marrying a Tyler? Beau was nothing like his iron-willed father, but he had his own brand of stubbornness. Pushed too hard, Beau had left home and stayed away for more than a decade.
So far, Beau and Will seemed to be getting along. But how would Will take to sharing his brother's time with a wife and child—especially under the same roof? And how would Beau take to Will's playing the patriarch and lording it over his family?
If things went wrong, the painful drama of the past could replay with new characters. But it was out of her hands, Tori reminded herself. She'd spoken her mind to Natalie. All she could do now was be there for her friend and for the family she still cared deeply about.
She walked to the back of the couch, then bent forward to brush a kiss on Erin's cheek. “Call me, okay?” she said.
“Sure.” Erin tore her attention away from the bull riding long enough to return the kiss. “Love you.”
“Love you back.” She ruffled her daughter's loose hair.
Will looked up at her, his eyes so deeply blue that, even after all this time, they could still stop her breath. “Same time next week?” he asked.
“Same time, or I'll let you know. Thanks.”
“Thanks for coming.” His gaze held hers for an instant. Then he turned back to the TV, leaving Tori to walk outside alone. These days their friendship was little more than an act, staged for Erin's benefit. Something about Will still quickened Tori's pulse. But it wasn't enough to heal the hurt, and never would be. Over the years they'd become different people—strangers, almost, with nothing to link them except the beautiful child they both adored.
With a last look back at the house, Tori climbed into her station wagon and headed back to town.
 
Sky and Jasper sat on the front porch of their duplex, watching the twilight deepen above the caprock. Crickets chirped in the shadows. The Border Collie curled at Jasper's feet, his nose resting on the old man's boot.
Sky had moved his chair to Jasper's side of the porch so they could be close enough to talk. He had missed the old cowboy. The thought that Jasper might have died from the gunshot wound and the pneumonia still raised a lump in his throat.
Jasper reached down to scratch the dog's ears. “Thanks for gettin' me back here, Sky. That sister of mine was bossin' me near to death.”
“And you were wearing Bernice to a frazzle,” Sky said. “I figured both of you were ready for a break.”
“How about bringin' my ATV around tomorrow? I'm itchin' for a ride.”
“Sorry, but that's up to Will. He's got the keys and he won't let you ride till you're stronger. But I can take you out in the pickup tomorrow. If you're up for it, we can take a look at the place where you were shot. Maybe it'll help you remember.”
“You told me it was your no-good cousin that shot me. And that now he's lit out somewhere. So what's to remember?”
“Maybe nothing. But if you can help me, I'd like to make sure Marie's telling the truth about it being an accident.”
“Marie? That's the cousin who's waitressin' at the Blue Coyote, right?”
“Right. I should probably check in with her. She hasn't been in touch since her brother disappeared.”
BOOK: Texas Tough
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