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Authors: Roxann Delaney

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BOOK: The Reluctant Wrangler
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Nikki nodded in agreement and gave Mac a warm smile, grateful for his support.

Bridey came in with a platter of scrambled eggs and another of sausage links, and Mac leaned closer to Nikki while everyone’s attention was on the food. “I told you it was a good idea.”

Nikki hoped it was. There was a lot of work to be done, and she prayed she was up to the task. It wouldn’t be a good thing if she and the boys didn’t pull this off.

 

M
AC’S RADAR WAS UP
. He’d noticed Nikki had been quiet for the past couple of days, but hadn’t asked. One lesson learned.

They were checking the equipment in the tack room after the boys had finished their afternoon ride when he decided it was time to find out what was going on. “You’re distracted,” he told her.

She was sitting on a bench at the other side of the small room, and her hands stilled for a moment. “You’re imagining things.”

“No,” he countered.

Sighing, she looked at him. “All right. I lost my turquoise ring.”

“The one your grandfather made?”

“Yes. It was a graduation gift from my grandmother, and it means the world to me.” Her eyes sparkled with
unshed tears, but she didn’t falter. “I always leave it on the ledge over the sink when I work with the horses. It wasn’t there when I went to get it.”

“You looked on the floor under the sink?”

She nodded. “Yes, all around, but the ring is gone. I even searched my room, in case I’d left it there.”

“Do you think someone took it?”

“Stole it?” She shook her head when he nodded. “No, why would anyone do that? Maybe it fell off and was kicked or something. I don’t know.”

Putting aside the bridle he’d been checking, he studied her. He understood how much the gift meant to her. But there was very little he could do, except search the same area where she’d searched. “Did you ask the boys if they’d seen it?”

She nodded. “And I put up posters in the bunkhouses, but no one has found it yet.”

When she fell silent, he attempted to change the subject to the boys’ riding exhibition, but she didn’t seem eager to discuss it, so he let it drop. With a little luck, he hoped they’d find the ring soon. He didn’t like seeing her so sad.

He was checking the grounds the next day for needed repairs to do, when he spied Ray with Leon in the circle of trees south of the cabins, where they’d held their campfire. It wasn’t unusual to see one of the older boys with a younger one, but there was something about the way they were huddled together that raised his suspicions there might be trouble afoot. Their backs were to him and as walked toward them, he strained to hear what they were saying.

“I know it’s hers,” Leon said. “I remember seeing it the first day she came, and then Billy mentioned there
was something special about it. I don’t remember what, but she always wears it, except when we’re riding.”

“Yeah, I think I’ve noticed it, too,” Leon said. “And you’re sure you saw him with it?”

“Definitely. Somebody needs to tell.”

Mac was only a few yards from them when he spoke. “You can tell me.”

Both boys jumped, and Ray let out a yelp. Guilt was written all over their faces when they turned to look at him, but they’d managed to hide it by the time Mac reached them.

“Tell you what?” Leon asked, his eyes wide with an innocence that Mac sensed was a ruse.

“Tell me who took what of whose,” he answered, “although I’m pretty sure the ‘whose’ is Nikki.” When neither of them spoke, and instead started watching their feet shuffling in the grass, he knew it was going to take all the patience he had to get them to talk. He was pretty sure the “who” was Kirby, Ray’s roommate, and after what had happened on Sunday night after the carnival, it made sense. Or as much sense as a troubled eight-year-old could make.

“We don’t know nothin’,” Leon tried.

“We don’t know
anything,
” Mac corrected, and Leon made a face. “But you do, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d tell me everything you know. I’d like to help.”

The boys looked at each other, as if secretly communicating. “Well…” Leon said, and waited.

Beside him, Ray bit his lower lip, and then shrugged. “You won’t get mad at us, will you?” he asked Mac.

“Why would I get mad at you?”

“Because we didn’t come tell you or Nikki.”

“No,” Mac assured them, “but I won’t be very happy if you don’t tell me everything.”

Silence stretched between the three of them, while Mac waited for them to do the right thing. He knew they would. Neither one was a bad boy, but in spite of everything, they still seemed to have a fear of authority.

“Kirby stole Nikki’s ring,” Ray finally said, without looking at Mac.

Leon stared at the ground.

“Do you know where he is?” he asked. The boys answered that they’d last seen him in his room. “Why don’t you let me take care of this?” Mac suggested.

Leon looked at Ray, indecision written on his face. “I don’t know…”

Mac had a feeling he knew what the boys were thinking. “Look, guys, I won’t mention how I learned about the ring, and I won’t mention any names.”

Relief washed over their faces, and they even smiled. “Yeah, yeah,” Ray said, nodding. “That’s good.”

“Let’s keep this between us, though,” Mac added.

The boys agreed, and he sent them on their way. He didn’t have a clue how to approach this problem, but he would do whatever he could to make things right for everybody involved.

When he reached the boys’ quarters, he found that Kirby’s door was open, and he stepped inside. “Can I come in?” he asked.

Looking up from where he was sitting on his bed, Kirby nodded. “Did I do something wrong?”

Just like a kid, Mac thought. Always on the defensive when it came to grown-ups. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked with a smile, hoping to ease Kirby’s fears.

Kirby shrugged his shoulders, but remained silent.

Settling at the foot of the bed, Mac remembered an incident at the boarding school when he was young
and how the headmaster had handled that particular insurrection. “I need your help with a problem.”

Deep brown eyes widened. “Me?”

Mac nodded. “It seems Nikki lost her ring. You know, that pretty blue one she wears?” When Kirby nodded again, he continued. “She lost it, and I was wondering if you might have found it.”

His eyes grew larger. “Found it?”

“We think it fell off the ledge over the sink in the barn, where she’d left it.”

“No.”

“No? You didn’t find it?”

Emotions warred on Kirby’s face. Mac saw fear, shame and pride, and hoped the boy would do the right thing.

“I—” Kirby began, followed by a deep, heart-wrenching sigh. “I took it.”

“Do you want to tell me why?”

“I was mad.”

“Mad at Nikki?”

“She was— She was kissing you.” Kirby stopped and sighed again. “I was mad because she liked you better than me.”

It was exactly how Mac would have felt in the same situation. “Nikki loves you, Kirby. And, well, she and I are… We’re friends. Sometimes grown-ups care for each other in a different way, that’s all.”

It was clear that Kirby understood how serious the matter was, and that was the most important thing. He knew he’d done wrong. “Would you like to return it to her?” Mac asked.

Slowly Kirby nodded his head.

It would break Nikki’s heart to know Kirby had taken her ring, but he doubted there would be any harsh
punishment. She hadn’t wanted any at all when Kirby had stolen the food. Thanks to her, Mac now understood there were other ways to deal with transgressions.

He’d learned so much from her. When he’d first come to the ranch, he hadn’t known how to connect with the boys and had been uncomfortable with them. But Nikki had shown him that what they needed most was love and guidance. After hearing Kirby’s story about not having anything to eat, Mac had realized how rich his own life had been, not only because his family had never had that kind of hardship, but because of how much they all cared about one another. He was learning more from her than simply how to deal with boys. He was learning forgiveness. All he needed to learn now was how to forget the past and get on with his life, whatever he decided to make of it. If only he knew where to start.

Chapter Eight

The boys knew the main building was off-limits, except in an emergency. Mac considered this visit as one of those exceptions. Opening the door, he held it while Kirby entered the building, looking as if he was on his way to the gallows. His feet barely left the floor with each step, his shoulders slumped and his head was lowered. The nearer they got to Nikki’s door, the more slowly he walked.

Poor kid, Mac thought. Kirby had a good heart—he just hadn’t had the guidance most boys his age had experienced. Mac had skimmed his file, and he suspected that some information that should have been there had been left out. He didn’t trust Kirby’s father.

“I can stay out here, if you’d rather,” he told the boy, who stood silent beside him. Kirby’s face was so pale the scar on his cheek was even more visible than usual.

Kirby shook his head, but didn’t look up at him, so Mac tapped on Nikki’s door.

The sound of music coming from the apartment quieted, and then Nikki opened the door. “Gracious!” she said. “To what do I owe this honor?”

Mac glanced at Kirby and nodded, adding an encouraging smile. After a deep breath, the boy looked at Nikki. “We— I mean, I need to give you something.”

Nikki’s eyebrows went up. “Come on in, Kirby, and show me what you have for me.”

She glanced at Mac as if he would explain, but Mac remained near the door and tried to keep his expression blank. When Kirby didn’t move, he decided it was time to give the boy a nudge. “Kirby?”

Kirby looked up at him again, and Mac could almost feel his fear. He saw the boy’s chest rise and fall with a deep breath.

Nikki was clearly puzzled. “Please, sit down,” she told them and curled up in the corner of the sofa.

Mac took the chair and nodded to the other end of the sofa for Kirby. “It’s okay,” he told the boy.

Kirby nodded, although it wasn’t without hesitation, and then took his seat, stiff and proper, his hands clasped in his lap. “I did something bad,” he finally said.

“Oh, I can’t believe that,” Nikki replied with a look at Mac.

But Mac was staying out of it. Kirby needed to be the one to tell her, not him. “Go ahead, Kirby.”

For a moment Mac thought the boy would remain silent, and he didn’t know what to do about it. Nikki needed to know what had happened to her ring, and Kirby needed to tell her. But if he didn’t say something soon…

Kirby moved to stick his hand into his pocket. When he withdrew it, he opened it and tentatively held it out to Nikki.

Her mouth flew open and she leaned toward him. “My ring!” She took the silver-and-turquoise circle from the boy’s outstretched hand and slipped it onto her finger. “Where did you find it, Kirby?”

He shook his head and folded his hands in his lap again. “I didn’t. I took it.”

She stared at him, her lips parted as if she would say something, but nothing came out. Shaking her head, she sighed. “Why would you do that?” she asked softly.

His answer began with a beseeching glance at Mac, who encouraged him to continue with a nod. “When we came back from the fair the other night, I—” He glanced at Mac again. “I saw you and Mac.”

Nodding, Nikki offered him a small smile, but it was clear she wasn’t comfortable talking about it. “I know. Mac saw you in the doorway. But what does my ring have to do with that?”

“I—” Kirby ducked his head. “I thought you liked him better than me.”

Nikki looked at Mac, a question in her eyes. Clearing his throat, he tried to answer her. “Kirby and I talked about it, and I told him that you loved him and things were different with grown-ups.”

Her eyebrows rose for a split second, then she quickly turned to Kirby. “He’s right, you know. I love you and all the boys.”

Kirby nodded, and Mac noticed a slight smile quivering on his lips. “Sometimes I miss my mom,” he said, his voice almost a whisper. “I guess I was afraid you’d go away, too.”

“Your mom was sick, Kirby,” Nikki told him. “She went to the hospital. Didn’t you go see her?”

He shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t let me.”

Even from a distance, Mac could see the tears welling in Nikki’s eyes. “But you’re here now, and we all love you,” Nikki finally said. “We’re not going to go away.”

“Things are different now,” Mac told him.

Nodding, Kirby hung his head. “I was afraid.”

Nikki moved closer and put her arm around the little boy. “When you’re afraid, you should tell me. Or Mac,”
she added with a glance and smile at him. “Grown-ups do things children can’t understand, but sometimes all it takes is an explanation. I’m not leaving. I love it here at the Bent Tree. Don’t you?”

Kirby nodded again and touched the scar on his cheek. He continued to keep his head down, even as Nikki held him.

“Is something else bothering you?”

“No. And I’m sorry I took your ring.”

Nikki smoothed her hand on his cheek. “I know you are. And I know you won’t ever do anything like that again.”

There was no question in her voice, as if she trusted he wouldn’t. Mac hoped somehow he’d managed to get across to Kirby that he cared, too. But he still had a lot to learn.

Kirby looked up at her, and Mac saw her brush what he suspected was a tear from the boy’s cheek. “That’s quite a scar you have,” she said, her voice quiet and easy.

“I fell out of bed and cut it on a toy on the floor.”

Nikki looked at Mac, who shrugged in reply. Tilting her head to the side, she studied Kirby. “Is that what really happened?”

“Can I go now?” Kirby asked, moving out of Nikki’s arms.

Nikki released him, looking as if her best friend had deserted her. “Sure.”

Standing, Kirby faced her. “I won’t ever take anything that belongs to somebody else again.”

“I know you won’t.”

When he turned to look at Mac, his face revealed his resolve. “I know you won’t, too,” Mac told him. He watched as Kirby walked to the door and let himself out.

Several moments after the door closed, Nikki turned to Mac. “I don’t believe his story about cutting his face on a toy,” she said, fury mixed with sadness in her eyes. “Kids will say whatever they’ve been told to say by a parent. I’ve seen it happen, many times.”

“You think his dad hit him?” Mac asked.

“I think it’s highly possible.”

“What can we do?”

Nikki shook her head and sighed. “Nothing. As long as Kirby sticks to his story and no one saw it, nothing can be done. I’ve seen kids who have moved beyond the terror and told the truth, but…”

“I know,” Mac answered. “I know.” Wrapping her in his arms, he wished there was something he could do for Kirby.

The kiss came naturally, without much thought, and was meant only to comfort her. But when her hands moved up his chest and settled around his neck, comfort was the last thing on his mind. He wanted more, was ready for more, but this wasn’t the time.

Gathering all the resistance he could muster, he ended the kiss and stepped back. The starting and stopping was going to kill him. And after glancing at Nikki, he suspected she felt the same. Moving to the door, he cleared his throat. “Maybe we should concentrate on the riding exhibition.”

He didn’t even wait for a response. He slipped out the door knowing he never should have touched her, but not knowing how he could stop.

 

B
Y MIDWEEK
, the incident with her ring was forgotten as far as Nikki was concerned, and she was able to focus on the upcoming show.

“Nikki, have you met Sheriff Rule?”

Nikki looked up at the tall man who stood the merest inch shorter than Mac, who was standing beside him. “No, I haven’t.”

As Mac made the introductions, the sheriff took the hand she offered and touched the edge of his wide-brimmed hat with his other hand. “It’s a pleasure,” he said before releasing her. “My wife has mentioned you.”

“Your wife?” Nikki asked. “Oh, I know! Trish. Yes, I met her at the fall festival. Her sister, too.”

“Morgan stops by every week to talk with the boys and see how they’re doing,” Mac explained.

“I was at a law-enforcement conference the week after you arrived,” the sheriff added, “so I missed meeting with the boys and welcoming you to the ranch. And the baby tends to take up a lot of our time.”

“Krista, right?”

The sheriff nodded. “Born in July.”

Nikki couldn’t help but smile. His joy was evident in his voice. “Babies are special.”

He agreed, but it was Mac who spoke next. “Morgan is quite impressed with the boys.”

Morgan nodded. “Whether it’s you or if they’re just getting used to the ranch, they’re like a completely different bunch of boys.”

“I’d say it’s Nikki,” Mac said. “At least most of it.”

Nikki tried not to let on how embarrassed she was. “They do seem to be adjusting well.”

“I hear you’re having some sort of riding show,” Morgan said.

Nikki nodded. “An exhibition, so the boys can show off what they’ve learned.”

“We’re all planning to be here on Saturday to see it.”

Nikki prayed the boys were ready, but she didn’t want anyone to know how nervous she was about it. Now that the day was getting closer, she wondered if her idea would be as great as she’d thought it would be. “I hope it doesn’t rain.”

Morgan turned his head at the sound of a vehicle coming up the long drive. “Looks like OKDHS is here. Probably the monthly visit.”

“I’m familiar with them,” Nikki replied. The Oklahoma Department of Human Services had made the arrangements so she could live with her grandmother when her mother remarried and moved to Louisiana, and later she’d been involved with them while working for Cherokee Nation Youth Services.

She watched as the car stopped near the entrance of the boys’ ranch, and a petite woman climbed out. Jules appeared from the house and met the woman, a wide smile on her face.

Mac shaded his eyes with his hand. “She’s early.” He glanced at Nikki, but only for a moment. “She was here just three weeks ago.”

“Maybe her schedule changed,” Morgan suggested as the two women walked under the ranch sign and approached them. “And I’d better get back to town. Whatever you do with the boys, Nikki, you’re doing well. I’ll see you all on Saturday.”

Mac and Nikki said goodbye, but Nikki was watching the two women. Jules waved at them and spoke to the woman. At least they were smiling, Nikki thought, but as they walked closer, she noticed Jules’s smile falter. She also realized she knew the woman.

A shaky smile barely covered Jules’s worry when she and the woman joined them. “Cheryl, I’d like you
to meet Nikki Johannson. She’s been working with the boys for the past few weeks.”

“Nikki and I know each other,” Cheryl Bickham said with a smile at both of them. “We’ve worked together a few times. I’m glad to know you’re here, Nikki. You understand how things are done, and there’s something I need to talk with you about.”

“Why don’t we go up to the house?” Jules suggested. “The boys are in class, and we’ll be more comfortable.” She turned to Mac. “I’d like you to join us, too.”

Nikki shivered in the late-morning sun and had no answer when Mac looked at her, one eyebrow raised. Something was going on and she was afraid she wouldn’t like hearing it. The only way to know for sure and ease her fears was to go with them and hear what Cheryl had to tell them.

Once they were settled in the O’Brien living room, Jules made sure they were all comfortable. Bridey brought in a pitcher of lemonade, with a promise of more goodies when they finished with their meeting. Jules sat in one chair, while Cheryl took the other, and Nikki and Mac shared the plush sofa.

Silence filled the room and was finally broken when Cheryl cleared her throat, then looked directly at Nikki. “I’ve heard you’ve become quite fond of Kirby Miller.”

Nikki wasn’t sure what to answer, but decided the truth would be best. “I guess you could say we’ve formed a bond, perhaps because he’s so young.”

Cheryl nodded. “It may be. And being the youngest, he’s probably needed more attention than some of the others. It’s okay, Nikki. It shows your emotions run deep when it comes to the boys and your job. But I caution
you not to get too close. You know how heartbreaking some of the cases can be.”

Nikki nodded and offered what she hoped was a small smile. The weight that had felt like a ton of lead in her stomach grew even heavier. This was going to be about Kirby. Would she need to tell Cheryl about the ring?

She noticed how Cheryl glanced at Jules before speaking. “Kirby’s father has requested visitation.”

“You denied it, of course,” Nikki blurted without thinking. She was certain they wouldn’t let a man who’d allowed his son to roam the streets of the city, often searching for something to eat, have time with that son.

“Mr. Miller is apparently eager to see Kirby.”

“He didn’t seem to care enough to be a father to him,” Nikki replied. “I also suspect he was the one who put that scar on Kirby’s cheek.” Nikki’s voice rose with each word. She didn’t care. She couldn’t let this happen.

Cheryl didn’t meet Nikki’s gaze. “Mr. Miller told the caseworker repeatedly that it was an accident and that Kirby had fallen on a toy truck.”

“Highly unlikely, from what I’ve seen of Kirby.”

Cheryl reached out and took her hand. “We only have his word to go by. You know that. And Kirby didn’t deny it.”

“But—”

Leaning back in her seat, she released Nikki’s hand and continued. “Mr. Miller was assured that over a period of time, his son might be returned to him permanently.”

“No!”

“I’m afraid it’s out of my hands.”

“You can’t send that boy back to a man who physically and emotionally abused him!”

Beside her on the sofa, Mac moved. “Nikki—”

Nikki ignored him as Cheryl shook her head. “Mr. Miller will have supervised visitation,” she explained. “No overnights until the court agrees, and that only after we confirm that Kirby wouldn’t be in any kind of danger. Nikki, you know how careful we are about being thorough. And it’s all been agreed upon by the court. There’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Because she’d worked within the system, Nikki did understand. Cheryl had no choice, only orders. Her job was to follow them. Questioning those orders wouldn’t get Nikki anywhere.

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