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Authors: Roxann Delaney

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BOOK: The Reluctant Wrangler
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“Women,” he muttered to himself. But deep down, he was worried.

 

N
IKKI PULLED OFF
the highway and into the gravel parking lot of the truck stop. Parking near the door of the small diner, she took a deep breath, got out of her car and walked inside the building. She glanced around the dingy interior until she found who she was looking for.

Sitting in a booth near the back of the diner, a middle-aged woman pulled off a pair of dark glasses and smiled. But the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “You made good time,” she said when Nikki slid onto the seat across the table from her.

“What’s this about, Mom?” Nikki asked.

Sally Rains O’Brien Frederick frowned and replaced the dark glasses, but not before Nikki noticed how red her eyes were.

She’s been crying.
For a moment, Nikki felt bad, but then she thought about what Mac must have been thinking when she left without a real explanation.

“You’re angry,” Sally said.

“Damn right I am,” Nikki answered, leaning forward.

Sally stiffened and sniffed. “Not half as angry as I am. What do you think you’re doing at the Rocking O?”

“Who said I was at the O’Brien ranch?” Nikki asked, leaning back and crossing her arms in front of her.

Sally shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you went there, when I warned you years ago not to ever try to contact anyone there.”

“It was Grandmother, wasn’t it?”

Turning away, even though her glasses were dark enough to hide her eyes, Sally pressed her lips together before speaking. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Nikki had expected this. She’d been thirteen when her mother had revealed the secret she’d begged to hear all her life. They’d gone to Desperation, driving down the main street, her mother quiet beside her, never saying anything. Nikki had asked several times what they were doing, but Sally had only replied, “Just looking.”

Afterward, they’d driven slowly by the ranch, and Nikki had wondered who lived in the big white house. Some time later, they’d stopped at this same diner. “That house was where I lived,” Sally had said softly as they sat sipping soft drinks. “That’s where my boys live. And your father.” Her mother hadn’t been aware then that Brody O’Brien had died.

There’d been no explanation of how or why, and Nikki closed her eyes, wishing the memory away. And all it had done was cause friction between her and her mother. She’d learned never to mention the trip or her brothers, but she’d sworn that someday she would return. And she had.

“I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d try to keep me from going there,” Nikki answered. Sighing, she leaned on the table. “Mom, look at me.”

Sally turned her head and slowly removed the sunglasses, placing them on the table. “I warned you then, Nikki. I don’t want your heart broken. They didn’t want us. If they had…”

Reaching across the table, Nikki laid her hand on her mother’s tightly clasped hands. “It’s time to forget. It was a long time ago. You have a good life now. I have a good life.”

Tears glistened in Sally’s eyes, and she shook her head. “You could have had a better life. I should have thought of that. But I was a selfish young girl who only wanted to have fun.”

“I’ve never blamed you, Mom. I understand.”

“I wanted to get away from Tahlequah,” Sally whispered, her head lowered. “And my parents. I thought marriage to Brody O’Brien would be fun, nothing more than riding the rodeo circuit together. But he wanted to settle down and start a family. He loved me, but…” She shook her head. “I couldn’t stay, so I left.”

“You left?” Nikki asked, her thoughts spinning. She’d thought Sally had been told to leave. “Did he send you away?”

Sally shook her head. “It was my decision. Raising two little boys was more than I’d bargained for, even with a man I thought I loved.”

“But—”

“I didn’t know I was pregnant again, not for several weeks after I’d left,” Sally continued. “When I realized it, I quit riding and went home to Tahlequah to live with my mother.” She raised her head and looked into Nikki’s eyes. “After you were born, I realized how much I missed my boys. You were two when I had enough courage to call and ask to see them.”

Nikki felt tears gathering in her own eyes and willed them away. This was the story she’d begged to hear. Shouldn’t she be happier? But now she understood what all her mother’s tears had been about for so many years. It was guilt.

Sally’s smile was sad as she went on. “A woman answered. She told me the boys were fine, they didn’t need me and not to call again or try to see them.” Her eyes cleared and she smiled. “But I still had you.”

“He didn’t know about me?”

“I was afraid he might try to take you away from me if he knew, so I didn’t say anything to the woman on the phone.”

Stunned that none of her father’s family even knew about her, Nikki also didn’t want to upset her mother. That explained why no one had questioned her or seemed to notice a family resemblance. Now, after hearing the story, at least she knew why her mother had always been so protective of her.

“Why didn’t you tell me these things before?” Nikki asked.

“I thought that the less you knew, the better off you would be. Maybe I was wrong to think that.”

Nikki wasn’t sure how to answer. She understood that her mother had been trying to protect her. She didn’t agree, but it would be useless to tell her so now. Instead,
she glanced around the diner until she spied the waitress. “Would you like something to drink, Mom?”

“I think I would, yes.”

Nikki waved to indicate they were ready to order. “Tea or soda?” she asked her mother. “Soda.”

The waitress slowly made her way to the booth and stood holding her pad and pencil. “What can I get you, honey?” she asked around a piece of gum that popped when she spoke.

“Two sodas.” Nikki tried not to stare at the woman’s bright red hair, held back with a wide band that was decorated with a green polka-dot bow. On a young girl it might have looked cute, but on a woman of retirement age it was sad. “Lots of ice,” she added as the woman wrote the order.

“I’ll have it for you in just a few minutes, honey,” she said, popping her gum again before she walked away.

While Sally shed her expensive linen jacket, Nikki surveyed the interior of the diner. It hadn’t changed much in the fifteen years since Sally had brought her here after their drive-by visit to Desperation and the Rocking O. The walls were the same mossy-green they’d been then, but the color of the booths now matched, instead of the garish pink they’d been years before when Sally had revealed the secret to a stunned thirteen-year-old daughter.

“How’s Roger?” Nikki asked, hoping to fill the silence that fell between her and her mother. She liked her stepfather, but when her mother had married him and announced they’d be moving to Louisiana, Nikki had asked to stay in Tahlequah with her grandmother. When her mother hadn’t argued, Nikki had felt Sally cared more for Roger and was rejecting her for him.
Now that she was older, she understood it was her own insecurity.

“He stayed in Tahlequah,” Sally answered, sounding more like herself. “Your grandmother enjoys his visits.”

“She enjoys everyone’s visits.”

“You need to come back with me,” Sally said, combing her fingers through her chin-length hair.

“I need to get back to work,” Nikki replied.

Sally stared at her. “You’re
working
there?”

Nikki nodded as the waitress returned with their drinks. “I’m working as a housemother to a group of young boys sent there by the court, and I’m teaching them how to ride.”

For a moment her mother’s eyes shone with pride, but she shook her head, as if what Nikki had said wasn’t true. “They don’t want you, Nikki, and I can’t imagine how you managed to get a job there. Come back with me. You can have them ship your things.”

Nikki had known that if her mother ever learned she was anywhere near the Rocking O, she’d do whatever it took to get her to leave. But Nikki wasn’t going to leave. She’d finally found one of her brothers, and she intended to find the other.

“I’m happy at the Bent Tree Boys Ranch, Mom. Leaving isn’t an option for me.”

Sally pushed her glass aside and leaned forward, determination written on her face. “You’ll only get hurt, Nikki.”

“I’m willing to take that risk.”

“But—”

“They don’t
know.

Sitting up straight, Sally looked around the diner
before focusing again on Nikki. “You haven’t told them who you are?”

Nikki shook her head. “I haven’t decided yet if I will.”

“But if you do—”

“That’s my decision,” Nikki said. She knew what she needed to say, but she waited several seconds for her mother to accept that she was now a grown woman, not a little girl who wanted to please her mother. “Did you think I wouldn’t ever try to find them?” Nikki asked, keeping her voice low.

“I hoped,” was all Sally said.

Even knowing it might be painful for her mother, Nikki had to tell her what she knew. “Tanner’s a father now,” she began. “His wife owns the boys’ ranch, and she’s a wonderful woman. I think you’d like her.”

“I’m sure I would,” Sally whispered, “if you like her.”

“Their little boy is almost two years old, and he’s adorable.”

Sally hesitated for a moment, before she smiled. “So was Tanner. Tucker, too. Have you met him?”

Nikki had expected questions about the younger of her two brothers, but she still didn’t have any answers. “No, I haven’t. I don’t know where he is, but his son is there at the ranch. Shawn is almost eighteen and lives with Tanner and Jules. I don’t know him well, but I liked him the instant I met him.”

Tears filled Sally’s eyes, and she wiped them away with her fingers. “I always wondered what happened to them. I never forgot them.” Her gaze met Nikki’s. “If you tell them— Let them know I loved them, Nikki. Tell them I’m sorry. Will you do that?”

“Of course I will,” Nikki promised.

Sally nodded. “I’ll worry about you.”

“I’ll be fine, and I’ll call you when I can. I’m sorry I didn’t let you know, but…”

“No, I understand.” She reached for Nikki’s hand and held it tightly. “Just be careful. Don’t let them hurt you. Please.”

“I won’t.”

Hesitating, Sally nodded, then reached for her jacket. “Roger and I are going to Europe in the spring.”

“How wonderful for the two of you.” Nikki was glad her mother had found happiness and wished the best for her.

They talked about Sally’s trip for a while, then decided it was time to say goodbye. In the parking lot, after promising she’d be careful, Nikki waved as her mother drove away.

Climbing into her car, she glanced at her watch. She had about an hour to come up with a reasonable explanation for leaving Mac to deal with her responsibilities. He wouldn’t expect anything less.

Chapter Six

“But where did Nikki go?” Kirby asked Mac, a worried frown on his face.

Mac perched on the edge of Kirby’s bed in the younger boys’ cabin, hoping he could do this right. “I don’t know, but she promised to be back later. And you know she wouldn’t make a promise she wouldn’t keep.”

Kirby nodded, but he didn’t seem to be cheered by the explanation. After dinner Mac had gathered all the boys together to let them know Nikki had needed to leave. Telling them right off that she’d be back, he decided, was the best thing to do. Other than that, he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He wasn’t accustomed to keeping boys of any age occupied.

“So what do you all want to do?” he asked. “How do you spend your evenings?”

Shamar shrugged. “Studying, sometimes. We could go watch television in the administration building.”

“Or play Ping-Pong in the dining hall,” Leon suggested.

“Can’t we do something else?” asked Benito, looking bored.

“Like what?” Mac replied. He didn’t have a clue. “Board games?”

“Nah,” Benito replied. “Kirby always wants to play kid games.”

“Right,” Mac said, then shot an apologetic smile at Kirby.

“What did you do when you were a kid?” Ray asked.

Mac tried to think back to a time when he was their age. There were some years that he’d attended private school, but he wasn’t eager to share those memories. He and some of the other boys at school had managed to get themselves in trouble, more often than not.

“I worked at my godfather’s ranch in Idaho in the summer,” he said without thinking as his memories skipped ahead.

“What was it like?” Billy asked. “Were there horses?”

Mac nodded, smiling at the memory. “Lots of horses. We rode the range nearly every day.”

“Did he pay you?” Benito asked.

Laughing, Mac shook his head. “No, but the fun I had and all the things I learned made up for it.”

“Nikki always makes it fun here,” Kirby said quietly.

The other boys nodded in agreement.

“Hey!” Billy said. “Maybe we can do something special for her.”

The other boys looked at each other. “But what?” Shamar asked.

Billy shrugged as the happy light in his eyes dimmed. “I don’t know. It’s just an idea.”

“We could make her a card,” Kirby whispered.

“A card?” Mac asked.

“Yeah,” Benito said. “Like a thank-you card, maybe? For teaching us to ride.”

“And we could all sign it,” Ray added, bouncing on his knees on the bed across the room.

Mac wasn’t sure whether he should tell the boy to stop, or if he should ignore it. He was at a total loss and wished Nikki hadn’t put him in this situation. He could go up to the house and ask Jules to come deal with them, but he knew that wasn’t fair. Nikki had entrusted the boys to him until she returned, and he’d told Jules he could handle it.

“What about some balloons?” Leon asked.

“Sounds good,” Mac replied, glad someone had some ideas.

“The kind that float in the air,” Ray added, still bouncing.

“Helium?” Mac asked. “I don’t know…”

“I bet Jules has some,” Shamar said.

“Why would she—” Mac began.

“Can we go ask her?” Ray interrupted. At least he’d quit bouncing.

Mac shrugged. “Well, I suppose we could try.”

The boys started shouting, all of them wanting to go with him to the ranch house to ask Jules. Mac didn’t think it would be a wise idea to truck them all up there, interrupting what he guessed was a quiet family evening for the O’Briens.

“Why don’t I go ask?” he suggested. Frowns were his answer, but he wasn’t going to give in. “Benito, you’re the oldest. You’re in charge,” he said, rising from Kirby’s bed. Turning to the others, he tried for his sternest look. “Nobody—and I mean nobody—leaves this cabin until I get back.”

Resigned, the boys agreed, and Mac hoped he was doing the right thing.

Jules was pleased, as always, to see him at the house.
When he explained what the boys were planning, she was eager to help.

“We had balloons at Trish and Kate’s baby shower, and I think we still have some helium left,” she told him when he asked about the balloons. “Let me get Tanner to check. I think he locked up the tanks out in one of the buildings.”

While waiting for Jules to return, he wandered into the kitchen, where he found Bridey. “Would you like a piece of cake, left over from supper?” she asked.

Even knowing he shouldn’t, Mac couldn’t resist. “If it isn’t any trouble.”

She fixed a plate with a large slice of cake and set it in front of him at the table, joining him there. “Jules mentioned that Nikki had gone somewhere. Is everything all right?” she asked.

Mac nodded. “As far as I know. She didn’t say what it was about.”

Bridey nodded, too. “Family, maybe. Has she ever mentioned her family?”

“Only a little,” he replied, enjoying his cake. “Why?”

Bridey shrugged and stood, moving away from the table. “She reminds me of someone.”

“Who?”

“Nobody you’d know,” she answered, patting his shoulder.

Just as he finished his cake, Jules returned with a canister of helium. “Don’t let the younger boys mess with this stuff, and for heaven’s sake, don’t let them inhale any of it!”

“What?” Mac asked with a grin. “No cartoon character voices?”

Jules shook her head, but smiled. “I know boys. Oh,
and here’s a box with some balloons.” She handed him two boxes. “The other has some ribbon. Maybe the boys can find a use for it. You can bring whatever you don’t use—and the helium—back in the morning. Just make sure you lock it up in your room until you do.”

“I will,” he promised.

When he returned to the boys’ cabin, he was greeted with whoops and cheers. After warning them that he’d be the one inflating the balloons, he saw Shamar turn to Benito with a disappointed frown. Benito’s reply was a shrug, and it wasn’t long before they joined in with the others.

Mac herded the boys into the common room in the main building, then quickly set to filling the balloons. Shamar had been voted in charge of making the card. Mac hadn’t realized that the boy had so much artistic talent. There was so little he knew about them. If they hadn’t been so busy and excited about the surprise for Nikki, he might have done something to rectify that. As it was, the whole experience struck him as controlled pandemonium. But he enjoyed it and so, it seemed, did the boys.

When the glare of headlights swept across the entrance doors and into the commons, Mac gathered the boys. Nikki was back. “Okay, boys, she just drove in. Why don’t you take your places in the kitchen? Quickly, but don’t make any noise.”

The boys scattered immediately, whispering in excitement as they hid. Mac was relieved she was back. If it had been much later, he would have sent the boys to bed.

He’d been worried. She’d been so pale and in such a hurry when she’d left that he wasn’t sure what to think. He only hoped it wasn’t serious.

He heard the door near their apartments open and close, heard her footsteps, and then she called to him. “Mac? Are you down there?”

“Come on down. I’m in the middle of something.”

Her footsteps echoed in the hallway as she walked his way. “What are you— Oh, my!” She turned to look at him. “Mac, what is this?”

She stopped next to the large round table, where the boys had anchored the bouquet of helium balloons, with a sign attached that read Nikki is the Best.

“There’s a card,” he said.

She turned back to him, her eyes brimming with tears. “Oh, Mac,” she said. “Are the boys asleep?”

Suddenly the boys threw open the doors on the pass-through in the kitchen, shouting, “Surprise!”

In seconds they left the kitchen and swooped in on her, surrounding her. Laughing, she gave each one, even the older boys, a hug. They were all talking at once, a hundred miles an hour, but she had them calmed in a matter of minutes, asking questions. They beamed with pride, and Mac couldn’t blame them. He was pretty proud of what they’d done, too.

After nearly thirty minutes she reminded them that it was late and sent them off to their rooms, with a promise to come later to tell them all good-night.

When they were all gone and the administration building was quiet again, he walked with her to her apartment. “Everything okay?” he asked.

She reached for the doorknob, hesitating, then nodded and turned to him. “I’m sorry I ran out like that. My mother called, and I was afraid something had happened to my grandmother. She’s in her eighties and… Well, I worry.”

Mac nodded. “She’s okay, though? Your grandmother, I mean.”

“She’s fine. They both are.” She stood at the door, watching him. “You put in a lot of work on that surprise. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

“Believe it or not, every bit of it was their idea. I only helped them get together some of the things they needed. We had a little help from Jules, too.”

“I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Then don’t.” Uncomfortable with thanks he didn’t think he deserved, he quickly changed the subject. “You’re sure your grandmother is all right?” he asked.

“She’s fine. I lived with her for several years after my mother married and moved out of state. My mother just…” She shook her head and sighed. “Families can sometimes be…”

“Yes, they can,” he agreed.

“What’s your family like?” she asked. “You said you have a sister. Any others?”

“Only Megan. She’s two years younger than me. I was a horrible big brother.”

Nikki laughed. “Somehow I doubt that.”

“Ask Jules. I tortured both of them every chance I got.”

“Your sister probably adores you, and Jules has obviously forgiven you for it,” she pointed out.

“How about you?” he asked. “Brothers or sisters?”

She shook her head. “Just me and my mom. And grandmother.” She turned the doorknob, then hesitated before turning back. “I—I never knew my father.”

“Maybe that’s not a bad thing.”

She lifted her gaze to his. “Why?”

Shrugging, he looked away. He didn’t know if he should share his past with her, but none of it was a secret,
so it didn’t really matter. “You might as well know that I came here to get away from my family.”

Nikki’s eyes were wide with surprise when he glanced at her. “Why?” she asked.

“I’d just learned that the man I thought was my father had adopted me after he married my mom.”

Emotions scurried across her face. “But now you’re here.”

He felt her watching him and finally met her gaze. “It’s complicated.”

She sighed and leaned back against the door. “Life is complicated.”

He couldn’t agree with her more. Only Jules and Tanner knew the real reason he’d left Boston and come to the ranch. Maybe someday he’d feel more comfortable telling Nikki the whole story, but for now, he wasn’t ready to do that.

 

“I’
VE NEVER BEEN
to a carnival.”

Nikki looked down at the boy who held her hand tightly as they wove their way through the crowd of people attending Desperation’s fall festival. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed,” she told him, pleased that she was the one introducing Kirby to one of the simple joys in life. She suspected he hadn’t had many.

“Look at all those rides!” Ray shouted as they threaded their way through the amusement rides and carnival booths that filled the baseball field near the park.

“Is that a Ferris wheel?” Kirby asked, pointing to the tall, rotating wheel ahead of them.

“It sure is. Want to ride it?”

With wide eyes, Kirby nodded, obviously in awe of the tall structure spinning slowly, its baskets swinging
gently against a clear blue sky. Looking around for Mac, Nikki finally spied him with the rest of the boys, standing several yards from a ticket booth. “There’s Mac,” she told him. “He must be getting tickets.”

“Tickets?” Kirby asked, planting his feet and tugging at her hand as she tried to walk in Mac’s direction. “We have to buy tickets?”

His awe and excitement had been replaced with disappointment. There was also a glimmer of fear in his eyes. “Why, yes,” she answered, “but—”

“Now, don’t you worry, young man,” said a voice from behind her.

She turned to see a middle-aged man, a wide, friendly smile on his face and the same gimme cap on his head. “Mr. Barnes,” she said, smiling. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Same here,” he replied. “And it’s Gerald to my friends. I consider you one of those. Tickets for the boys are all taken care of, if you’ll just head on over to where Mac is. He’s getting ride-all-day bracelets for all of you.”

“All day?” Kirby asked. “Are we going to be here all day?”

Nikki nodded. “Most of the day, at least.”

“Are we going to eat here, too?” Ray asked.

Laughing, Nikki looked at the two boys. “Can you smell all that good food? It won’t be long until lunchtime. Why don’t you both go join Mac and the others, and I’ll be right along.” When they were gone, she turned to Gerald Barnes. “Who’s paying for these ride tickets?”

“Our local veterans group.” He looked past her and grinned. “Seems there may be some trouble brewing over that, though.”

She turned to look and saw two women about his age
marching toward them. The shorter of the two, her graying hair laced with shots of red, appeared to be angry.

“Gerald Barnes, you know Hettie was planning to pay for the rides for those boys,” the woman said.

“And I told you, we’re taking care of that, Aggie,” he answered matter-of-factly, “so it’s a done deal.”

Nikki was pleased to see that Mac and the six boys were walking toward them. She had a feeling there was a feud going on between the two women and Gerald, and she wasn’t eager to be in the middle of it, at least without some allies.

“Tell the members thanks for us,” Mac told Gerald when he joined them. When he glanced at the two women, Nikki was certain he didn’t know them, either.

“Happy to do it,” Gerald replied. “Aggie here isn’t as pleased. Don’t know how Hettie feels about it.”

“Hettie isn’t happy,” the shorter woman said, a mulish expression on her face.

“It’s all right, Aggie,” said the tall, white-haired woman beside her.

Mac turned to look at the shorter one. “Aggie?”

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