Authors: T. J. Kline
For Michelle who reminds me every day to push myself beyond my limits and how important it is to laugh. And for Aunt Ba who insisted the next three books be dedicated to her. I love you both!
upright in the bed of her trailer, waking from her nightmare with a gasp. A fine sheen of sweat covered her body, even in the cool early morning air. She scrubbed her eyes with her hands, brushing her light brown hair back from her face, but she couldn't seem to shake the vision of her mother from her mind. It had been over twelve years since her parents had been killed in an accident, but foggy nights on the road always seemed to give her nightmares. She hated that she could picture her mother's face clearly in these dreams, pleading with Jennifer to save them before the semitruck crossed into their lane, but she couldn't picture her face at any other time, no matter how hard she tried.
Jen flipped back the covers and dropped her legs over the side of the mattress, wondering if she should just get up now. Sleep would probably elude her for the rest of the night anyway. She'd take a sleepless night over falling back into that nightmare again any time. Her feet padded on the carpet as she made her way to the small kitchenette to start coffee. She glanced at the clock over the stove. It wasn't even five in the morning, but she might as well head out to feed the animals a little early and save her brothers the work.
She reached for her youngest brother's sweatshirt, which hung on the back of the chair, and went to check on him. Derek was sleeping soundly on the sofa bed, his hands curled under the pillow. She brushed his dark hair back from his face, as her heart swelled with love for him. She knew it drove him nuts when she mothered him, but she couldn't help it. When their parents died, she'd tried to band her siblings together as tightly as possible, and because she was the oldest, she'd taken on a parenting role for both of her younger brothers. Just because Derek was in college now didn't mean she wouldn't still watch out for him.
Jennifer reached for the flashlight and slipped out the door as quietly as possible, cringing when it creaked loudly. She added asking Jake, the rodeo crew foreman, to oil the hinges to her mental to-do list. She shivered as the chill from the low fog crept into the folds of her sweatshirt, and she tugged it around her tighter. She might hate being on the road in this kind of weather, but as a stock contractor, the rodeo season was the way they made their living, rain or shine . . . or fog. She set the flashlight on top of the alfalfa and reached for the clippers to cut the twine. The feeling of dread from her nightmare was clinging to her like a cobweb. Logically, she knew the chance of the same sort of accident happening to them again was one in a million, but even those odds were too great for her. Honestly, the traveling was the only part of the job she
like. She broke off several flakes of hay.
“I thought I heard someone out here.”
She spun, knocking the flashlight to the ground and biting back a curse at her jumpiness. “Scott,” she whispered, trying to keep from waking the others still sleeping nearby. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” he said, stepping forward to pick up the flashlight from where it still spun, illuminating their feet in turn through the haze. “You all right?”
“Yeah,” she muttered as she took the flashlight from her brother. “Did I wake you?”
He cocked his head to the side. “Jen, I'm a grown man. Just because Derek lets you baby him doesn't mean I will.”
Lately, her brothers couldn't seem to be in the same room and get along. Sure, Derek was immature and tended to skip out on the work whenever possible, but Scott had become bitter and angry at the world after breaking off his engagement. Jen gave Scott an understanding smile as she arched her brow. “I'm not trying to mother you. But you have to be on horseback all day. I don't. Go back to bed.”
“It's fine, I'm already up.” Scott reached for two flakes of alfalfa and carried them to the cattle pen. “Another nightmare?”
She turned to look at him, surprised. “How did you know?”
“I've known for years.” He didn't elaborate, but she could hear the sympathy in his voice. “Jen, you've got to stop living in the past. I miss Mom and Dad, too, but they're gone.”
“I'm not living in the past, Scott. I'm trying to plan for the future, and that includes making sure we are all taken care of, no matter what might happen.” She reached for the hay.
“You're awfully pessimistic this morning. I thought that was my job around here.”
She rolled her eyes at him. Still, she glanced around as the fog settled close to the ground, making the cattle look like eerie ghosts, shifting in the haze of the early predawn light. She shivered slightly, but this time, it wasn't from the cold. “I sure hope this burns off.”
“It's California. It'll probably end up in the eighties.” Scott took the flakes of alfalfa from her hands. “Go start the coffee. I'll take care of the animals. We both know I can't cook, and if I try, I'll just make a mess in your trailer. Then the crew will go hungry and be meaner than those bulls.”
Jen grinned. “Already done, baby brother, but I'll go get you some.”
“Stop calling me that,” he grumbled.
She took the chance, while his hands were full and he couldn't retaliate, to pinch his cheek playfully. “Aw, you'll always be my baby brother.” She laughed as he glared at her and hurried back to her trailer.
Jen opened the door to see Derek had flopped onto his back, one arm flung across his eyes, snoring loudly. She was just pouring coffee for herself and Scott when she heard a quiet knock on the door. Mike opened it and came inside, stealing Scott's cup.
“Morning, Mike.” She leaned over and kissed the old man's cheek before fetching another mug for Scott.
All three of the siblings adored Mike. He'd given up his own plans for the future to accept guardianship when their parents were killed. Mike had been more than a partner to their father; he'd been his best friend, rodeo partner, andâafter their father's deathâthe man helping her brothers navigate the path to manhood.
“Morning, kiddo. You doing okay?”
Jen could read the worry in his watery blue eyes. He saw too much and knew her too well. “Rough night,” she admitted.
“I know this weekend's gonna be hard for you, but I'm here if you need to talk.”
Jen frowned, wondering about his cryptic offer, until she remembered the date: March 25, the anniversary of her parents' death. The heaviness that had hung over her since waking began to seep into her bones.
“Could you two talk quieter? Some of us are trying to sleep,” Derek groaned from the bed, breaking through the painful memories threatening to bury her.
“Sorry, Derek, but that's what you get for crashing in the big, comfy trailer instead of the smaller ones like the rest of us guys.”
“Gee, thanks for the sympathy, Mike.” He swung his long legs over the side of the bed and ran his hands through his messy hair. “I do you a favor, come home from school this weekend to help out, and this is the thanks I get?”
“Get up and help out then, ya spoiled brat,” Mike teased. Derek chuckled at the ribbing. “I'm sure your brother could use some help feeding,” Mike added more seriously.
“Fine.” Derek sighed as he pulled a wrinkled T-shirt over his lanky frame and stuffed his feet into the worn cowboy boots he'd tucked under the bed. “I'm going. Maybe I should've just stayed at school this weekend,” he muttered as he walked to the door.
“Here, take this.” Jen handed him the sweatshirt. “It's freezing out there.”
He slid his arms into the warmth as she shivered; the air in the trailer was colder than she'd expected. “Thanks, Jen. I'll be back for coffee, too.”
The pair watched him leave. “You think he's ever going to grow up, Mike?”
“Give him some room and a reason, kiddo. Derek's going to turn out just fine. So will Scott.” He turned to face her, and she wondered how he always seemed to know exactly what she was thinking. “That daughter of mine did a real number on that boy, and I'm ashamed to say I'm to blame for the way things turned out.”
Jen reached over and squeezed his hand. “Liz made her own choices. You did the best you could. Look how good you've done with us. Here.” She handed him a cup of steaming coffee. “Take this out to Scott?”
around the rodeo arena. He knew Jennifer was around here somewhere; he just wasn't sure if he was trying to find her or avoid her. It'd been almost five years since he'd last seen her, sleeping peacefully next to him with her hand tucked under her chin, wearing the engagement ring he'd slipped on her finger only hours before. Then he had walked out the bedroom door and out of her life.
A tall cowboy on a black and white paint jogged his horse past him, barely glancing his way before he pulled the horse up short. The animal's hind feet slid in the packed dirt.
“Clay?” The rider spun the horse and headed back toward him. “Holy crap, it
“Scott?” Clay looked up at the man on the horse. “You've filled out.”
Scott dismounted and threw his arm out for a handshake. “Forget that, man, get over here.” Clay wrapped a massive arm around the younger man's shoulder in a quick one-armed hug. At one time, Scott had been his best friend, his confidante, and almost his brother-in-law.
“Well, five years added some meat to my scrawny bones.” Scott chuckled. “What have you been up to?”
He shrugged. “Riding, roping. I'm working as a pickup man for Smith Brothers up in Oregon now.”
Clay appreciated that Scott didn't seem to be holding any grudges about the way he had snuck out and run away, but he'd called later to explain as much as he could to Scott and Mike, swearing them to silence. He didn't think Jen was going to be so gracious about having been abandoned without a word. He shook off his doubts. He'd been right to end it the way he hadâa clean breakâto let her move on with her life and forget him. Even if he couldn't forget her.
“That explains why you're built like a Mack truck now,” Scott said, slapping at Clay's arm. “So, what are you doing here?”
“Hazing for a couple friends who came down from Oregon to ride.” He glanced around. “Is Mike around?”
“Somewhere, probably up in the announcer's booth getting ready.” Scott shot him a wary glance. “You haven't talked to Jen yet, have you?”
Clay wondered if Scott was warning him off or trying to discern his intentions. “I just got here. Do I need to keep my distance?”