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Do or Die Cowboy by June Faver (1)

Chapter 1

Tyler Garrett drove away without looking back. Truth was, he was afraid to even glance in the rearview mirror for fear he would turn his big Ford extended-cab truck around. Of course, he was hauling a trailer with the finest quarter horse ever bred, so turning around on that two-lane road might have given him a little trouble…but then, trouble was what he did best.

Ty was the middle son. The one who invented the word trouble, at least, according to his dad. No one could deny that “Big Jim” Garrett thought the world of his three sons, but somehow it was always Ty who inspired him to call out, “Here comes trouble.”

Well, here goes trouble, Dad.

He placed a hand on Lucky’s head. The two-year-old golden retriever regarded him with trusting eyes. “We’re going to be fine, boy.”

He reached the end of the farm-to-market road and idled, looking both ways for traffic, but of course, there was none. With a deep sigh, he hooked a wide right, allowing the trailer to arc out behind him as he pulled onto the interstate. He straightened his shoulders and thought about his destination.

Dallas.

Dallas, where Ty would take the first step in making his own dreams come true. Where he could polish his talent and live up to his mother’s aspirations for him as well.

He frowned, his grip on the steering wheel tightening. Too bad Mom didn’t live to see this day. She always believed in me.

A lump formed in his throat as he pictured her sweet face. She was the one who never failed to show up at the talent shows, looking pleased and applauding like crazy. Making her proud had been one of his prime motivators.

Big Jim, on the other hand, had just shaken his head and said, “That singin’ stuff is nice and all, but you need to concentrate on your true callin’, boy. You were born to be a rancher. It’s in your blood.”

Ty sucked in a deep breath and blew it out. Well, he’d done what he could to make that happen. He’d graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in agricultural economics and range management. He’d devoted years of his life to making his dad proud of him, but ranching just wasn’t in his heart.

His mother’s last words to him were branded into his memory. She had placed her hand on his cheek and gazed up with love in her eyes. “Follow your heart, Ty. Not many people are blessed with the talent the good Lord gave you, so you need to make the most of it.” She had lapsed into a coma and passed away the following day.

Ty owed it to her to make it big. And Dallas was just the launching pad. His friend Will had a recording studio and was going to cut a demo for him. Then, Ty was set to try out for the Texas Country Star television show. If he made it through to the state finals, he would go on to compete in the Nashville Idol contest. He was pretty sure he had a good shot.

Ty’s departure was taking place a few days earlier than planned. Will had studio time available the beginning of the next week, but after the morning’s blowup with Big Jim, Ty had decided to head for Dallas and just hang around at Will’s.

He drove east, oblivious to the flat, northern Texas countryside. His head was someplace else, but without much effort, he filled the truck with his strong voice, singing one of his mother’s favorite gospel tunes. He could see himself onstage, performing for the Nashville audience. For the world…

After a while, the town of Langston appeared on the horizon. He thought he should stop and grab lunch before the long drive to Big D. It was a fairly small town, so there weren’t many choices. He passed a Dairy Queen and Tio’s, a Mexican restaurant, before pulling in at Tiny’s Diner. It was late, so the lunch crowd had already been and gone. Not too many cars outside. He parked where he could keep an eye on his rig and climbed down out of his truck, leaving the windows cracked for Lucky.

Funny to think he was really on his way. With all his dad’s wealth, Ty had only taken what was important to him—his horse, his dog, his guitar, and a few clothes. ’Cause I’m sure not going back.

A metal cowbell clanked against the glass door when he entered the restaurant. The aroma of good food hit him like a fist. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, since he had forgone breakfast in his rush to leave the sprawling Garrett ranch that morning. The Circle G, with its rambling, Spanish-style ranch house, the many barns, stables, and outbuildings; with thousands of acres of fenced pastureland for the beef cattle and horses; with the long heritage of the Garrett family steeped into the land. Not a problem. Surely his older brother, Colton, or his younger brother, Beau, would pick up the slack. They could take over running the spread when Big Jim was unable. They could provide for future generations of Garretts to carry on the tradition.

“Hello, Tyler,” Crystal called out. She was a fixture here at Tiny’s. A big lady with a big heart. “Table or booth?” She grabbed a menu and cocked her head, waiting for his answer.

“Table near the front window would be best.” Removing his Stetson, he raked his hand through his thick, dark hair.

She walked him over to the window and placed the menu on a table for two. “Here you go. Iced tea?”

“That’ll be good.” He set the Stetson on the other side of the table and took a seat facing the door. When it opened, he had to check out the new arrival.

Man!

His breath caught as his gaze fell on one of the prettiest women he had ever seen. She wasn’t exactly what one could call hot, but when she paused in the open doorway and took a look around, he felt like he’d been kicked in the gut.

Her large, wide-set brown eyes reminded him of a fawn, or perhaps it was her blondish-brown curls, swept up in an untidy gob at the crown of her head. Definitely had the air of a skittish animal, not quite tame. Her threadbare jeans had a rip on one thigh, and she wore a tank top with an oversize blue work shirt on top. She swept the room carefully, as though alert for something, then turned back in the open doorway and motioned someone through.

A young girl stepped forward, pausing when the woman’s slender hand came to rest on her shoulder. The girl looked like a replica of the woman, with lighter blonde hair and a big cast on her forearm.

The kid had that same half-wild expression on her face, like she would turn and bolt from the restaurant if something spooked her.

Crystal came to slide Ty’s iced tea on the table and then went to greet the newcomers. Apparently, the woman wanted to keep an eye on whatever was out there too, since Crystal seated them at the table next to Ty’s, where she sat facing the parking lot. The girl was on her right, facing Ty.

He watched the woman carefully peruse the menu and then reach in her purse. She drew out a wallet and did a quick count of the bills inside. Ty felt a surge of pity, never in his life having to count his money before ordering.

When Crystal came to take his order, he ordered for three. “Just deliver the other two meals to that table,” he said under his breath.

Crystal winked at him and went to turn in the orders. When she returned a few minutes later, she sat a salad on his table and also in front of his two guests.

“What? I haven’t ordered yet.” The woman pushed her chair back, gazing up at Crystal with a frown.

“The gentleman paid for your meal, ma’am.” Crystal nodded to where Ty sat.

The woman regarded him icily, her soft mouth forming a straight line of disapproval.

“Pardon me for being so forward,” he said, “but Tiny makes the best chicken-fried steak, and I thought you might like to enjoy it with me.” She started to protest, but he cut her off. “It would be a shame to pass through Langston without experiencing the best chicken-fried steak in all of Texas.” He grinned at her encouragingly.

She pressed her lips together again and nodded curtly. “Thanks.” Her voice came out low and gravelly, and a blush tinged her cheeks.

“I’m Tyler Garrett, ma’am. Just showing some hospitality.”

* * *

Leah Benson swallowed hard. The cowboy was grinning from ear to ear. He must feel real proud of himself for springing for our meal. “We appreciate it.”

She glanced at Gracie, who was staring at her wide-eyed. When she nodded, Gracie picked up her fork and speared the cherry tomato on top of her salad. She popped it into her mouth and closed her eyes when she bit into it. Such a simple pleasure and yet one that had been denied them for a while.

The waitress came back with a carousel of bottled salad dressings.

“Oh, ranch!” Gracie said, as though that particular dressing was a rare treat. She grabbed the bottle and tried to open it, the cast getting in her way.

“Here, let me.” Leah opened the cap and set the bottle in front of her daughter.

Gracie squirted a generous glob onto her salad and commenced eating like she’d been starved.

Leah exhaled. Well, it had been a long time since they had eaten in a restaurant of any kind, so this was a treat. She squirted the dressing on her salad and took a bite. The tangy dressing complemented the fresh and crispy salad. Yes, this is good. She and her daughter had run out of the sandwiches Leah packed before they left Oklahoma. She’d thought they could make it all the way to Gran’s without having to stop for food. Lord knows the high cost of gasoline had devoured her small hoard of cash. But they were close now. Less than thirty miles to go, and then they would be safe.

The cowboy had stood and was walking toward her table. No way! If he thinks he can buy us a meal and then come over here—

“Pardon me, ladies,” he said in a deep, mellow voice. “I could use a little of that ranch dressing, if you’re done with it.” He looked at Gracie, and she nudged it toward him. “Thank you,” he said.

Leah tried to keep her eyes averted, but his clean, masculine scent seemed to wrap around her like an embrace. She watched him return to his table, noting the wide set of his shoulders and how they tapered down in a nice V shape to his well-filled-out Wranglers. When he took his seat, he met her gaze with a dimpled grin.

Oh no! I have no business noticing cute cowboys, not when I can’t seem to get rid of the last one.

She picked up her fork and concentrated on her salad, studiously ignoring the attractive man at the next table.

When the waitress returned, she brought large platters, each filled with a huge portion of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes, all covered with creamy white gravy. There were small bowls of seasoned green beans on the side. A basket of golden-brown cloverleaf rolls completed the array.

Gracie was staring like it was Christmas, and Leah had to admit the aroma had her salivating. She cut some bites for Gracie, thinking the huge serving might make a good dinner as well.

The waitress placed the same meal in front of the cowboy. Some light banter passed between them, and then he set about enjoying his food.

Maybe his generosity was just a random act of kindness. Leah had heard about them but never experienced any firsthand.

As long as they made it to Gran’s before nightfall, they would have a safe haven. A place for Leah and Gracie to recover from their wounds, both emotional and physical.

Leah glanced at the cast on Gracie’s left arm. A broken wrist. Leah’s stomach seized up with guilt, but she hadn’t known Caine would be paroled and that he’d show up unannounced.

Heaving a sigh, she reflected that she should have left long ago, but they really hadn’t had the money to relocate. Well, this latest disaster had set them on the road, ready or not.

She hurriedly gobbled everything on her plate, barely tasting the delicious food.

“Gracie, maybe you can eat that in the car,” she said and hailed the waitress. “Do you think we could get this to go?”

When the waitress brought a Styrofoam container and a paper bag, Leah scooped the contents of Gracie’s plate into the divided carton and snapped the lid on tight. After she slipped it into the bag, Gracie emptied the basket of rolls on top.

Leah went to the cowboy’s table. “I want to thank you for your kindness, Mister—”

“Ty…Tyler Garrett,” he supplied, rising to his feet. “Think nothing of it. It was my pleasure.”

He had blue eyes, ringed by dark lashes. Dark like his hair. His eyes, blue as a summer sky, a sharp contrast to his deeply tanned face. He reached out to her and, without thinking, she found her hand enveloped in his much larger one. It was callused and warm. “You have a safe trip now.”

“Um…thank you.” Leah turned, but Gracie also extended her hand.

“Thanks for the meal, Mr. Tyler. It was delicious.”

He bowed deeply over her hand. “You take care, little lady.”

She smiled, the first real smile Leah had seen on Gracie’s face since they had left Oklahoma. “My name is Gracie, and my mama is named Leah.”

“Well, I’m happy to meet you, Gracie and Leah.” He gave her another courtly bow.

Leah tried to quell the strangling sensation in her throat, hustling Gracie out of the restaurant and into their loaded vehicle. When her daughter was belted in and their small, terrier-type dog, Eddie, had calmed down, Leah pulled out onto the road.

Gracie continued to eat, and she shared a roll with Eddie, so they were content. Gracie’s nose wrinkled up, and she made a face. “Ewww!” she shrieked. “Eddie!”

Leah sighed and opened the windows. “Honey, he can’t help it. He’s old. Every once in a while, he just has to…”

“He farts!” she exploded. “All the time.”

Eddie, for his part, hung his head and thumped his tail on the floorboard.

“It’s okay. The car is all aired out now.”

“Eddie, please don’t fart while I’m eating.” Gracie gave him a stern look.

Leah had to laugh. Her daughter glowered, while her dog feigned innocence. If a flatulent dog was the worst obstacle they had to face, their future would be sublime.

The long, straight West Texas highway stretched out in front of them, like an arrow pointing the way to safety.

Leah heaved a deep sigh and tried to loosen her grip on the steering wheel, all the while thinking about the cowboy, whose blue eyes seemed to see all the way to her soul.

* * *

Tyler gazed out the window at the woman and child as they scrambled into the old beater of a car. He shook his head. Something about those big brown eyes. He could read the fear there. Someone somewhere had caused her a lot of pain. There was no trust in those eyes.

He watched her pull out onto the interstate and hoped they were headed someplace good. Someplace where somebody gave a damn about them.

Crystal came to refill his iced tea. “That was real nice, what you did for them, Ty.”

He frowned, dipping his dinner roll in the cream gravy. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

Crystal snorted. “It was to them. That woman had bruises on her arms. When I was serving their plates, her shirt fell back, and it looked like handprints on her shoulders too. Somebody gave them a rough time.” She set the tea pitcher on his table and went to clear the one so recently vacated.

Crystal’s words stabbed into his consciousness. What kind of man would hurt a woman? No matter how controlling his father was, he would never have raised a hand to his wife. He had worshiped her, in fact. Since his mom died, it had seemed his father was even more driven to cement Ty to the ranch, to quash any hope he had of making it to the big time.

Ty heard his father’s voice reverberating in his head. “Just forget all that music nonsense. This is your life, right here on the land.”

He stared out the window in the direction the brown-eyed beauty had gone. It appeared they were headed in the same direction. He hoped her dreams would come true as well as his own.

* * *

“Now what?” Leah glanced at the gas tank, but there was over a quarter of a tank. That should get them to Gran’s. But just then, the car took another lurch, sending her nerves into overdrive. “Why me?” she growled before looking over at Gracie, who sat biting her lower lip, her hands fisted in her lap. Way too much burden for an eight-year-old.

The car lurched again, and the motor cut out.

Leah managed to aim for the shoulder before the vehicle ground to a full stop. She leaned back against the headrest for several seconds and drew in a lungful of air. “Stay here,” she ordered Gracie before climbing out to look under the hood.

Not that it mattered. Leah had no idea what she was looking at, but there did seem to be a lot of heat roiling up at her when she lifted the hood. She felt like giving up, but she couldn’t, because Gracie was counting on her to get them to Gran’s house. Counting on her to be the grown-up, even though she felt like sitting down on the ground and giving in to the ocean of regret threatening to rip loose.

Huffing out an exasperated sigh, she stepped back. Stop it! You’re better than this. Gracie needs you.

She left the hood up and climbed back inside the car. “It’s hot. I think if we just let it cool down for a while, I might be able to get it to start again.”

Gracie stared at her with a frightened expression.

“Don’t worry, honey. I’m sure it will be okay.” Leah sucked in a breath and plastered a totally insincere smile across her face. “Really.”

Eddie gazed up at her from the floorboards under Gracie’s feet. He thumped his tail as if to agree with her. Thanks, buddy.

She hadn’t seen much traffic since they’d left Langston, although it was a pretty well-traveled highway. On the one hand, she hoped someone would come along to help them. On the other hand, she hoped no one would come along to murder them.

A huge semi came barreling down the highway but didn’t even slow down. The speed with which it zoomed by shook the car and its passengers as if to say, Get out of my way. I’m coming through.

A few more vehicles passed, but none even slowed down. Leah’s throat ached with despair. How would she be able to get her daughter to Gran’s house?

Leah was beginning to think they might have to start walking back to Langston, but that prospect frightened her as well. Way too vulnerable.

There seemed to be very little traffic on this highway. Maybe it was the time of day. Maybe there would be more cars and trucks as the day wore on. She just needed to be patient and not reveal any of the near-panic gathering in her chest. She gave Gracie a confident smile.

In her rearview mirror, she saw a truck. It was an old truck, but it was slowing down. “Oh, please, please, please…”

Leah held her breath, waiting to see who climbed out…but no one emerged. The doors remained closed. The motor idled roughly, emitting a deep growl-like roar.

Her heart fluttered. It felt as though a feather pillow had exploded in her chest. She noticed the truck’s windows had been tinted dark. She couldn’t see who was inside.

Maybe the driver expected her to get out.

“Mommy?” Gracie’s eyes were wide with fear.

“It’s okay, baby. Just relax.” Leah sucked in a breath and reached for her purse. Cautiously, she reached inside, her fingers curling around the Beretta knock-off she had purchased at the pawnshop across the street from the diner. The pawnbroker showed her that it was loaded with a clip full of .25-caliber hollow points. He had assured her this would get someone’s attention.

She had hoped never to have to actually wrap her fingers around it, but there was no way she would risk her daughter’s life. The smooth metal seemed to warm in her hand. Taking a few seconds to gather her courage, she stared at the truck in the rearview mirror.

The driver of the truck revved the motor several times. It sounded like a monster growling.

Come on out, Mr. Invisible. If you think you can hurt us, you’re mistaken.

She gazed at the truck in the mirror, mentally daring the driver to emerge. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed something big and red. It was slowing down.

“Look, Mommy. Another truck is stopping.”

A red extended-cab pickup slowed down and pulled off the highway onto the shoulder, rolling to a stop in front of her. There was a horse trailer behind the truck.

Now her small car was sandwiched between the two larger vehicles. Swallowing her claustrophobia, she kept a tight grip on the weapon in her purse.

The old truck behind her shifted into reverse, and the driver did a sharp U-turn, speeding off in the direction of Langston.

Leah expelled the breath she’d been holding. Her fingers still clutched the gun. She released them and withdrew her hand, shoving the purse under her seat.

The driver’s side door of the red pickup opened, and someone was stepping out.

Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Oh, please let it be someone nice.

“It’s Tyler!” Gracie shouted gleefully, as though that were a good thing.

Leah’s stomach did a flip-flop when the big cowboy from the restaurant got out and headed back toward them.

He leaned down to peer in the window at them. “Hey, it’s you. What seems to be the trouble?”

“I—I don’t know. It just shuddered and came to a stop.” She felt completely inadequate to deal with this situation. At least she didn’t think the big cowboy would feed them and then murder them on the side of the road.

“Well, let me take a look.” He went to peer under the hood, and she got out to join him, aware of how big he was, of how he could snap her neck in a single blow.

“Um…what do you think?” She gazed at him doubtfully.

“Well, here’s your problem. Your serpentine belt broke. Can’t go anywhere without one.”

While she appeared to be looking at the direction he was pointing, her eyes were blurred with tears. Blinking rapidly, she hoped to stanch the flow, but twin rivulets rolled down her cheeks. “I see. Well, you don’t have a spare on you, or would that be too much to hope for?”

He took off the Stetson and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, no, ma’am. I don’t happen to have a serpentine belt on me, and we’re right out here in the middle of nowhere. I don’t suppose you belong to Triple A, do you?”

This struck Leah as funny, and she began to laugh amid all the tears. When she turned to face him, he frowned and reached in his pocket, unfurling a large, white handkerchief.

He flapped it in the air to open it before extending it to her. “Aw, you don’t need to cry about it. I wouldn’t leave you out here all by yourself.”

Leah reached for the handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

He put his big paw on her shoulder and gave a couple of ineffectual pats. “Where were you headed anyway?”

She pasted on a decidedly fake smile and tried to retrieve her usual good humor. “To my grandmother’s ranch. It’s not much farther. I just wish we could have made it there.”

He nodded. “Okay, I’m going to give you a tow. It’s not far, you say?”

A bubble of hope welled up in her chest. “No, it’s not far at all.”

He nodded and went to open the passenger door of her car. “Come on out, young lady. I’m going to give you a ride to your great-grandma’s house.” He held out his hand to Gracie, and Eddie jumped up on the seat. The big cowboy picked up the small dog and tucked him under one arm while holding Gracie’s hand with the other. He led them to the passenger side of his shiny red truck and opened the back door. He put Eddie inside and hoisted Gracie onto the seat. There was a large dog on the rear seat already, but he appeared to be friendly, wagging his tail. Closing the door, the cowboy turned to Leah, expectantly. “Ready?”

She nodded. “Oh yes.” He handed her up onto the passenger seat and closed the door. She heard him in the back of the vehicles, and then he climbed up into the driver’s seat and backed up a little. He left the motor idling while he hooked up her car, and then he slowly pulled out onto the highway. “You tell me where to turn.”

“I will. Thank you so much. I don’t know what we would have done without you.”

“Somebody else would have stopped to help you, I reckon.”

Yeah, somebody spooky in a dusty old truck. No telling what Mr. Invisible would have done to us. She shivered. Or what I would have had to do to him. “I was really worried. Just let me thank you for stopping.”

He frowned and shrugged it off. He didn’t seem to accept thanks well, so she pressed her lips together. “Where are you headed?”

He seemed to brighten. “I’m on my way to Dallas.” He sent her a dimpled grin. “I’ve got plans there.”

* * *

They chatted in little bits and pieces. He managed to drag from her that she was an Oklahoma girl. She told him her grandpa had passed away and she was moving back to help her grandmother with the ranch. That should be good for her. Give her a fresh start.

She smiled once, and it was like the sunshine breaking through on a rainy day. He just hadn’t thought one woman could be so very pretty.

“That’s the turn!” She sounded excited and pointed to a farm-to-market road cutting off to the right.

Ty slowed and made a wide arc, managing to get the truck, the trailer, and her car going in the right direction. He drove for almost ten miles when she directed him onto another side road. This one wasn’t paved, but at least it was graded smooth. When he pulled up to the small house, he felt a sinking sensation in his chest. This is not a ranch. This is a disaster.

He could tell by her face that she thought so too. She gazed out the side window at the weed-infested fields and the run-down house and outbuildings. Everything was in disrepair.

“Um, are they expecting you?” he asked.

She bit her lip. “I think so. Let me just go inside. Would you wait here with Gracie for a moment?” She climbed down and approached the house.

He watched her step up onto the porch and knock on the screen door. She turned around while she waited, surveying the dismal prospects. Her face registered every emotion she was experiencing. Not a very good place for a woman to make a fresh start. He wondered how the people who lived here eked out a living at all.

There was a barn to the rear of the property. Also a stable and a long metal building, maybe a shed of some sort.

When the door was answered, a small, elderly woman came out onto the porch to throw her arms around Leah. It was nice to see Leah getting some affection from someone. She seemed to be wrapped much too tight, but he suspected she had her reasons.

The two women engaged in a rapid conversation in which Leah pointed to the truck.

Ty lifted a hand in greeting, and the old woman grinned and waved in return. More words were exchanged, and then Leah made her way back to the truck. He rolled down the window when she approached.

“My grandma wants to meet you. I told her how you helped us out.” Her eyes were the color of aged whiskey in the late-afternoon sunlight. Her full lips curved up in a smile. Whatever this little place had to offer, it seemed to be enough to make her happy.

“Sure.” He unfastened his seat belt and stepped out, then opened the back door for Gracie. He lifted her down, and the scruffy little mutt scrambled out as well. “All present and accounted for.”

Leah flashed him a much more heartfelt grin and led the way to the house.

He had to duck when he stepped up onto the porch, because the roof was sagging in the middle, and he noted the rotten wood on the porch itself. Luckily it held his weight.

Leah pulled the screen open and motioned him to the open doorway. “This is my grandmother, Fern Davis. Gran, this is Tyler Garrett. He pretty much saved Gracie and me.”

The elderly woman held out both hands to him. “Thank you so much for delivering my granddaughter and great-granddaughter to me safe and sound.”

“Think nothing of it, ma’am,” he said.

Her eyes crinkled up as a broad grin spread across her face. She threw both of her frail arms around him to deliver a fierce hug. “You’re just an angel straight from heaven.”

“No, ma’am,” he protested, but she was dragging him into the house.

“I been cookin’ all day. Surely you’ll stay and have a bite with us.” She gazed up at him with bright, birdlike eyes.

A small hand grabbed his. “Please, Tyler.” It was Gracie adding her two cents.

Ty glanced from Gracie to her great-grandmother and finally settled on Leah.

She smiled. “I would really like it if you could stay for supper.” Her voice was low-pitched and husky, sending vibrations to his libido.

“Well, I…uh…I guess I could stay. A man’s gotta eat. Right?”

It was something about Leah’s expression and how pretty she looked when she wasn’t running on pure fear. Something that made him set aside his urgency to reach Dallas. He could just as well arrive late tonight. Heck, Will’s not expecting me until next week. Not a problem.

While the three delighted females went to the kitchen, Ty headed outside to the truck and let Lucky out. He detached Leah’s vehicle from the back of the horse trailer, then pulled out the ramp and walked his champion quarter horse, Prince of Darkness. The stallion was antsy and danced sideways, unsure of his surroundings.

“Easy, Prince,” he said, soothing the stallion. Holding both reins, he began to walk the horse along the narrow road leading to the back of the property.

Gracie ran out to join him.

“Your horse is very pretty,” she said, her eyes shining.

“Thank you, Gracie. Do you like to ride?”

“I’ve never been on a horse before. I’m only eight.”

He laughed. “And how old do you have to be to ride a horse?”

She shrugged.

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t ride,” he said. “If I were going to be here longer, I’d give you a ride.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I might be scared.”

He let that sink in as he looked around the property. The barn door had a broken hinge and stood ajar. Taking a look inside, he saw a decent store of baled hay stacked along one side. He wondered how much livestock there was to feed. An old model John Deere tractor was housed inside, but it was covered with a layer of dust. Whoever had stored it here hadn’t used it recently. He’d noticed the fields they had driven past had not been cultivated and were left to lie fallow.

He gave his horse water and the high-grade feed he had brought with him.

When he and Gracie returned to the house, the table was set, and Leah was waiting for him.

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