“Keep me in the loop.” Kade eased to his feet.
“Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.”
Kade snorted. “I’m a little short on roommates these days. Do most my talkin’ to the tractor or the cattle.”
“I hear ya there.” Cord followed Kade out to his pickup.
“This sucks sometimes, don’t it?”
“Bein’ the oldest next generation McKay son. You. Me. Quinn. Knowin’ that keepin’ the McKay ranch goin’ is on our shoulders. Feelin’ responsible for every damn thing that happens on our place. Bein’ stewards to the land and the cattle and feedin’ the mouths of our family. Makin’ sure everyone and everything is properly tended. Can be a heavy weight, cuz. Can be damn lonely.”
Cord didn’t respond. Kade wasn’t much for philosophizing, but when he did, he was always dead on. Cord was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and listen.
“Least you got an heir. I thought I’d be married by now. Have a couple of kids. It ain’t really bothered me until recently. I figured there was time. Now that I’ve been livin’ with my folks, might sound sappy as shit, but I want what they have. I’m afraid I’m gonna wake up in ten years and be a grumpy forty-year-old man and be in the same damn place I am now.”
Was Cord an example to his cousin of the kind of man Kade did not want to become? Why’d that sting so bad? He wasn’t so set in his ways he couldn’t change, could he?
“Maybe things are gonna change.”
“Whenever you say that, it’s usually for the worse,” Kade said wryly.
“Lemme know when you’re ready to introduce your lady friend.”
“Like hell. She’ll dump me and go for you—the broodin’ cowboy with the wounded soul and the cute-as-a-button motherless son. Plus, you’ve got a bigger”—he grinned—
“section of the ranch than me. She’ll drop me like a cow pie.” Kade added slyly, “That is, if you ain’t already spoken for by your lady friend by the time I get up the gumption to bring her around.”
Right. His lady friend would be living in Colorado in a few short weeks.
Kade drove off and Cord trudged up the steps and into his house.
He wandered from room to room. Watched TV. Felt loneliness beating on him from all sides before he finally went to bed.
Later the next following morning, AJ’s mother said, “You’re gonna wear yourself out.”
“Probably. But I’m used to working hard around here and it has to be done. I’m about finished with the bedrooms.”
“What’s in those boxes?”
“The clothes going to the mission on the reservation.” AJ dropped the box and dust shot up, making her cough. “Three more and I’ll take a break.”
Ten minutes later she carried two glasses of iced tea into the front room. “I might curl up beside you and take a nap this afternoon.”
“I’d welcome it. I used to love that you were such a cuddler when you were a little girl. Jenn never was. You would crawl right up on my lap.” Her mom fussed with the straw in the glass. “That was about the only time you were allowed to be a kid. I’m sorry we relied on you so much later on. Neither your daddy nor I wanted to admit his health was failing. For him to go from being so robust, to so frail.”
Mostly for him to spend years pretending not to be either.
AJ loved her dad, but like most tough Wyoming men, his pride overrode his common sense. From her thirteenth birthday until her father died when she was eighteen, she—in essence—had been their hired man. She’d done the chores in all seasons, except for haying, which they’d always hired out. She, her mom, and dad managed to muddle through that first calving season of her dad’s weakened state. At least he’d realized she couldn’t handle the livestock, so they’d quietly sold off all their cattle a few cow/calf pairs at a time and began renting sections to the McKays for grazing.
Yes, Floyd Foster’s reputation as a keen rancher had remained intact until the day he’d died.
Amy Jo Foster’s reputation in those years was nonexistent. She stopped participating in school activities, as she went home directly after classes ended to do chores. She’d morphed from an outgoing girl to a withdrawn young woman with more responsibilities than what clothes to wear to the next rodeo dance. Her classmates—including Keely McKay—believed she’d become a goody-goody, when in truth, AJ’d been too tired to be anything. She worked like a dog and she’d had few friends besides her horses.
She didn’t complain. It was tough on her mother taking care of her ailing father and the household, plus keeping a false face to the community. Jenn was too busy raising three kids by herself to help.
But Jenn had no problem demanding you drop out of school and come back here to help her.
AJ knew Jenn felt guilty about asking AJ to temporarily withdrawal from school, but the bottom line was AJ was here right away after her mother’s injury. Once again she was a daughter who did the right thing out of love. For her family. As she’d continue to do.
“You’re awful quiet. Is everything all right?”
“Just thinking, which always gets me into trouble. Can I get you more tea?”
“No.” Florence kept fiddling with the straw. “Since you were home last night, will you be out whoopin’ it up tonight during happy hour at the Golden Boot?”
“Maybe. We’ll see. I’m supposed to be helping Liza with her bachelorette party so I might head to her place to see what’s up.”
You’re going to Cord’s to see what pops up on him.
He’d be a little anxious after not seeing her for a couple of nights.
On second thought…“A nap might not be a bad idea.”
A few hours later, after she’d packed the ranch truck with boxes for donations, her cell phone rang. Caller ID said Cord.
“Hey, AJ. How are ya?”
“Lonely and lookin’ forward to tonight.” Pause. “You are comin’ over later, right?”
Cord sounded…anxious. She smiled. “Far as I know. Why?”
“Just wanted to make sure you wear boots and long pants. No, baby doll, you don’t get to ask why.”
“I’m sure hopin’ I hear a ‘but’ in your response someplace.”