Broken Trails – Book 1 – Sneak Peek

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Broken Trails

A lonely cowboy … a woman searching for hope. Will love be enough to heal their pain?

Nathan Rourke lost almost everything he holds dear. What he still has, he’ll do anything to keep. His Montana ranch is not just a place, it’s his home and what’s left of his family. He’s holding his own, making it work.

But then high-school sweetheart Emma reappears … and suddenly this cowboy’s life is as rough as a ride on an untamed bronc.

Emma Benson left high school without a word to Nate, rather than admit she was too ill to go on. Now she’s desperate to prove that she’s more than the disease that keeps her dependent on her family and friends. And she craves just one more chance at love.

Nate embodies the promise of a life free from the confines of her small world. But will loving her mean he must give up his own freedom? 

No matter which path they choose, this young couple will be battling the odds.

Saddle up for a ride with the Montana Trails you’ll never forget—lasso your copy of Broken Trails today!

Prologue

Nate

1999

Perfect day for a double funeral.

Nate stiffened his collar against the brisk wind and prying eyes of other mourners. They wanted to see him cry. Wanted to see him break.

Well, Nathan Rourke didn’t fail, and he certainly didn’t cry.

In front of people.

He straightened his spine, conscious of his squared shoulders and his two younger sisters sobbing beside him.

Nobody should have to worry about losing their parents at twenty-one.

His poor sisters, Stefanie and Hannah, had more to cope with at only fourteen and eleven. Their parents’ death would be harder for them. Nate had to be strong for them, keep his sanity together.

The grave attendees motioned for Nate to step forward as they straightened their gloves and jackets in the cooling weather.

“As young Mr. Rourke says his final goodbyes, I would ask the rest of us to observe a moment of silence.” The rent-a-pastor tugged at his cuff, watching Nate like he too expected tears and blubbering.

Clenching two long-stemmed red roses, Nate stepped forward, lifting his chin. He’d be damned before he’d say or do anything in front of the group watching him. Not one of them knew his family like they should. No other family had shown up. Did he even have family out there in the world anymore? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t place anyone.

None of that mattered. He was just stalling, trying not to say goodbye one last time. Not to his Mom. Not to Dad. If he threw the flowers in, the workers would cover his parents in dirt.

But for a moment – the smallest of moments – Nate could save them from that. He hadn’t been able to save them from the accident, but this one second – he could save them this one second in time.

Then his second was over. He couldn’t stare at the coffins forever.

He tossed the flowers backhandedly into the not-so-empty graves and turned his back.

Mom and Dad weren’t in those holes.

They couldn’t be.

Chapter 1

Nate

2001

Storming through the craftsman-style home, Nate bellowed, “Hannah, I’m going out.” He couldn’t find his hat. Normally he hung the darn thing from the hook by the door. Where was it? He ignored the empty elegance echoing back his footsteps. If he thought too hard about the things he’d gotten rid of, the guilt would overwhelm him.

Impish at thirteen, Hannah poked her head around the corner from the kitchen. A small spot of flour dotted her shirt. She frowned. “Stefanie, again?”

Nate glared. “Something tells me you already knew.” There, behind the door his wide-brimmed cowboy hat peeked out. He swooped down and snatched it from its hiding place. If not for the creamy-colored walls to contrast with the dark mahogany hard wood flooring, Nate would never have seen the dark brown bucket.

He plunked the hat on his head and stalked slowly toward Hannah. “Did you know? Where is she?”

Blue-eyes wide, Hannah backed up, hands lifted in the air as if in surrender. “Hey, I know what you know. I just guessed. She’s always making you mad.”

He yanked supple leather riding gloves on. Hannah wasn’t the type to hide things. She most likely wasn’t. More likely Nate’s irritation and worry over Stefanie’s whereabouts made him doubt and suspect everyone and everything.

Even Hannah.

“Sorry to bark at you, I’m just worried.” He ground his teeth, fuming. Add raging to his concerns and Nate wasn’t controlling his emotions very well. Riding his horse would help. That always helped.

He slammed the door shut and the fresh green growth on nearby willow trees quivered from the force.

Nate was pissed and the longer it took to find Stefanie, the harder his anger would be to control. He wouldn’t snap, but her consequences would grow.

A neighbor had spotted Nate out on the field earlier not that long ago and made a comment about kids being kids when they’d exchanged pleasantries.

Not Nate’s favorite saying.

After pressing for more information, Nate culled information from the neighbor about high school students ditching class to go burn a bonfire and party out by Old Man Ruger’s pond.

Nate had gotten in his own trouble out that way when he was in school. The last thing he needed was Stefanie drunk and sleeping with some over-sexed farm boy who didn’t know anything about protection or women.

Especially when that woman was Nate’s younger sister.

The run-down barn had an attached stable that sat off to the side like a lean-to. Everything was wood – wood siding, wood trim, wood slats for roofing. The place was a veritable pile of kindling waiting for a match to fall and spur it to an inferno. But the building was all they had for a barn. In the back, Nate’s dad had built a solid cement-walled room for forging. Somehow the presence of cement didn’t make Nate any less leery about the safety of the rest of the tinder box.

Nate had to open the door a specific way with a combination of moves done exactly right, or the old door would squeak and grown but not open. First, hit the top corner of the barn door with the flat of his palm just so. Next, yank on the wooden long handle while at the same time yank his hip to the side. Nate wouldn’t be surprised, if one day he had to enter with a password – he already had to do the special handshake.

Normally they left the door slightly ajar, but Stefanie had put the horses away last and she wasn’t one who cared about making things easy for others.

Dust motes drifted inside the time-bleached building. Afternoon sunlight filtered through overhead fiberglass slats Nate’s father had installed for windows.

Closing the door enough to block the wind, Nate shut out the chaos of the world. He simply existed for a minute within the peacefulness of the barn.

Old as it was, run-down as it had become, the barn was a different world full of comfort and serenity. Muted nickering and the quiet lifting and chewing of hay mingled with the random clip and clop of hooves.

Nate sighed, a little less amped up, but no less worried.

He clucked his tongue. “Hey, girl, where are you?” He played the same game with his mare every day, pretending she wasn’t in the middle stall with her name painted above her in pink. “Missy, where are you?” A soft whistle usually signaled her to poke her caramel brown head out and – yep, there she was. “Hey, girl. Ready to go for a ride? We need to take Pluckster with us.”

The mention of her name pulled the attention of the dark sorrel mare from the feed box. Her ears twitched and she watched Nate stop at the tack closet and pull out the necessary items. He prepped his horses with care, but almost as an afterthought since he’d done the job so many times.

He led the horses out of the barn, careful to close the door before mounting Missy. He wrapped Pluckster’s reins around Missy’s pommel and set off at an amble. He didn’t need to push the animals into a sprint and risk injury, especially when he couldn’t afford more than a 30.06 bullet for care.

Old Man Ruger’s place spanned over a thousand acres along the northern border of the Salish reservation. Mr. Ruger didn’t check his land much. Nor did he pay the ranch hands who worked the place enough to secure the properties from partying kids. According to rumor, some workers even joined in once in a while.

Two miles down the dirt road, Nate passed in front of the Benson place. He didn’t want to look obvious as he studied the small patio and windows. Would she be there? Would Emma poke her head out? Was she even in town? Nate hadn’t seen her in years.

But the time didn’t dim his affections or his anxiety to see her – catch a glimpse of her.

Lights didn’t even flicker in the house. Nate accepted her rejection in high school for the billionth time and nudged Missy further down the road.

Turning right and headed south, Nate ran through all the possible scenarios he could find his sister in.

She wasn’t a drinker, so that one wasn’t a huge possibility. Would she be swimming in the pond? Nah, the sunlight was warm, but the water was usually frigid in early May, at least in the northern section of Montana where Taylor Falls, Clearwater County was located. Stefanie hated being cold – with a passion.

“Come on, girl. We’re doing good.” Nate didn’t fight the quiet. Since his parents died, the noiselessness unsettled him somewhat, but not enough to ramble on to no one in particular. He hadn’t gone crazy, for crying out loud.

A downed pole of a split rail fence gave away the position of the trail wending its way off into the thickly grassed fields. Not more than a hundred yards or so away from the fence, trees created a natural border where the tilled grounds gave way to the forest. Old Man Ruger raised beef and he let his cows have their freedom in the wilds of his own forest.

Free-ranging beef was something Nate understood. He appreciated.

The trail was well-maintained with years of numerous parties and secret rendezvous wearing down the grass and plants.

Nate came to the tree line and ducked under low-hanging pine branches as he passed, clucking to his horses.

The scent of smoke and burning damp wood lingered on the late afternoon air.

Eyeing the skyline, Nate tapped Missy’s flank with the toe of his boot. He’d be hanged before he’d waste his time trying to find Stefanie in the woods in the dark. She had no qualms running onto Salish land, with or without permission, and Nate would never find her then.

Missy climbed the gentle sloping land easily, lowering her head as she picked her way through the trees and bushes. Like she’d been that way before. He pushed those memories behind him, leaving them to fall under Pluckster’s hooves.

Carefree laughter reached Nate through the wakening evergreens. He tightened his jaw. The rumors were true, sticking in his craw like a bur stuck between a jean and sock. Damn Stefanie for lying to him. She was supposed to be at school and then at her girlfriend’s place.

This wasn’t the first time he’d caught her lying and sneaking around.

But he’d be damned, if it wasn’t going to be the last.

“Whoa,” he murmured. If he announced his arrival before actually getting there, the teenagers would scatter.

He knew the rules.

Hell, he’d invented some of them.

Dismounting, Nate led the horses to a tree off the path and out of the way. He tied their reins with enough give they could still munch on nearby foliage if they were so inclined.

He braced himself on tree trunks as he passed. Minimal noise came from his slick, well-worn cowboy boots as he crossed over grass, rocks, and twigs. The recent rains had left everything moist and even the dried pine needles from the previous fall didn’t break or snap as he walked over them.

In seconds, the bright orange-yellow of the bonfire blazed before him at the center of the clearing. Flanked by trees and surrounded by a pond the size of a football field, the clearing was the perfect place to lose one’s inhibitions. An inlet stream and outlet creek added the noise of moving water to the ambiance.

Nate glared at the mass collection of students. Some looked young enough to be in Hannah’s class and a few looked like they might have graduated about the same time as Nate.

He stopped beside a large Bull Pine a few feet back from the line of sight. If any of them peered into the woods, they’d most likely spot him. Yet the odds of the self-absorbed teenagers thinking of even looking out of the circle of light were more in Nate’s favor than he wanted to admit.

Locate Stefanie. Where was she? A sliver of hope that she wasn’t there invaded his anger. He studied the crowd as it moved and changed. Some people were in the water, their splashing and catcalling diverting Nate’s attention momentarily. He shivered at the thought. As it was, he’d worn a duster to keep any possible chill off.

Teens were so stupid. He should know, he’d been one of the dumbest.

At least his sister was smart enough to keep her butt out of the water.

A group had planted themselves in front of the fire. Girls on guys’ laps and some lying on the ground with their heads on each other.

There she was. Stefanie stood off to the side with her friend – Nate could never remember her name – and stared at a boy on the other side of the fire. Longing was strong in the downturn of her lips and the narrowed focus in her eyes.

Nate glanced at the boy then back at Stefanie. Drake Benson. He wasn’t who Nate wanted for his sister. Her crush was evident, even to Nate who’d just arrived. Why wasn’t Drake curled up with Stefanie? Maybe the kid was smarter than he acted. Or maybe he wasn’t interested in the Rourke girl.

Like his sister wasn’t interested in the Rourke boy.

Nate lifted his foot to barrel in and drag Stefanie’s butt home.

Crashing from the east stopped him. He turned with all the others in the clearing, and watched as a tall, willowy, dark-blonde woman took the area by storm. She stopped at the start of a different trail from Nate’s, frozen. Her fury was palpable as it rode the wind.

Emma Benson. The glimpse of her Nate had craved. Her eyes flashed as she surveyed the crowd. Once her gaze landed on Drake, she returned to her dynamic movement and propelled toward his group. A stark white bandage covered her wrist and elbow.

Her brother shrank at her arrival, pushing the girl he’d been whispering to away. He lurched to his feet and frantically searched the crowd, probably for the fastest escape. Eyes lighting on Stefanie, Drake rushed around the circle, throwing his arm around her and pulling her lips to his.

Concern for Stefanie’s safety morphed into concern for Drake’s. One thing Nate wouldn’t tolerate was some boy messing around with his sister’s emotions. Would Nate’s anger finally land him in jail? He clenched his fists and stepped further into the clearing, but no one noticed him as they watched the drama unfold.

Emma burst through the circle like she didn’t care about the people in her way. A boy lounging on his back grunted when her toe connected with his ribs. She didn’t glance down as she stomped toward Drake. “Drake Benson. You get your butt home. Now.”

Nate couldn’t drag his eyes from Emma as she thrust her finger at the ground and took a stance a few feet from Drake and Stefanie.

“Go away, Emma. You’re not scaring anyone.” Drake turned his face away from Stefanie’s dazed expression long enough to comment before turning back and continuing their kiss.

Nate puffed his chest to get as big as possible, and he wasn’t a small guy. He stepped into sight. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I was pretty frightened.” Nate met Emma’s startled gaze with steadiness. She’d never had anything solid in her life. Nate knew it.

He’d lost her once because of it.

Drake thrust Stefanie from him, eyes wide. “Nate. Um, Nathan… um…” He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand and avoided meeting Stefanie’s eyes by looking down at the ground and then back to Emma.

Nate didn’t blame the boy. If looks could scald a person to death, Drake would be past the boiling point and on into steamed and limp.

“I’m here for Stefanie.” Nate didn’t raise his voice or move farther than he had to. He postured there, under Emma’s watchful gaze and pretended to be completely unaffected by the girl from his past in front of all of the town’s teenagers. Gossipers by trade.

Stefanie stepped toward Nate, her eyes bemused like in a trance from the solid kissing Drake inflicted on her. Nate tried not to growl under his breath.

“Stefanie…” Drake reached out, gripping her upper sleeve in his fingers.

Hardness erased the bewilderment from Stefanie’s expression. She turned her head, slowly melting Drake with her eyes. “Oh, no, Drake. I’m not good enough for you, remember?” Jerking away from his touch, she continued toward Nate, comfortable in her skin and who she was. Her girlfriend stayed behind, standing closer to Drake and watching Stefanie with narrowed eyes.

Bending down to grab her cowboy hat, which rested on a rock by a pile of jackets, towels, and six-packs of beer, Stefanie didn’t break stride. She joined Nate. “Let’s go.” She disappeared into the forest line where he’d come from.

Nate glanced Emma’s way, anxious to connect on some level. She redirected her gaze from him to Drake, ignoring Nate with an effective wall she constructed in seconds.

Ignoring the catcalls from the other kids aimed at Drake, Nate shook his head. Drake would be effectively labeled as the target of jokes and pranks for at least a week. Until the next mess up came along at least.

Nate remembered his mistakes with corrupt clarity.

Emma happened to be one of his biggest.

At twenty-three years old, a man didn’t want to have too many of those to count. Not yet. Not when they walked on legs that went up for miles and stared a man down with eyes so dark a brown they challenged walnut wood for coloring.

No, Emma could be a mistake, but she’d never be a regret. Not when Nate had never stopped caring about her.

He tromped through the woods after Stefanie, no longer worried about who could hear him. If he was lucky, Emma would hear his movements and he’d crash through her thoughts that way.

One way or another, he had to get back on her radar. Nate hated leaving anything unfinished, and Emma and he were everything but finished.

Chapter 2

Emma

Emma couldn’t believe she had just run into Nathan Rourke. No makeup on. Her hair limp. She hadn’t even put on a clean shirt after mucking out the chicken coop.

She stomped along the path home with Drake directly behind her. Sullen. That was her little brother, always sullen. Always worried about what the world wasn’t giving him. Mom attributed it to Emma getting so much attention because of her illness growing up.

Jealousy. Emma huffed under her breath. If anyone had the right to be jealous, it was her. Drake never had to deal with hospitals or needles or exams or prodding or the cold. Oh, the cold. She shivered as another chilly ripple in the air grazed her skin.

She didn’t have a jacket that fit. They didn’t have the money and her mother was wearing hers.

Emma didn’t look back to make sure he heard her or was even still following. “It’s gonna be dark soon. Mom said you still need to get your chores done.” If he wanted to risk more of Dad’s wrath, that would have to be on him. Emma’s strength waned. Out of breath, she was already getting tired, and she hadn’t had to walk more than a few hundred yards to get to the pond. Ruger’s property bordered theirs, making excursions to the pond altogether too easy for Emma in her younger days and for Drake now.

Could their parents really be upset at them for taking advantage of the proximity?

Tightly coiled ivy grew up the pine trees at the start of the Benson land. Emma reached out and plucked at the new leaves as they passed.

Pushing the problems with Drake from her mind, she reluctantly returned to thinking about Nate. Again.

Nate. Like growing up with him and loving him wasn’t enough. As if she needed the constant reminder that dreams of a young girl don’t matter. Some wishes can’t be granted by foundations. No matter how sick a kid got.

The Rourke boy – no, man – was one of those dreams.

He’d looked amazing. His shoulders filled out to match his height and the straight lines of his back and waist couldn’t hide beneath his duster. Well-stacked jeans fit snug around his thighs – thighs that had thickened with muscle over the years.

How long had it been since she’d seen him last? She was only twenty-one, which didn’t leave much time since graduation. Three years? Four at the outside?

Drake pushed into her back, shoving her to the side.

“Ow! What’s wrong with you?” Emma rubbed at her lower back where his elbow had sharply connected. She stared at his retreating form as he passed her, his eyes cast away from her.

Whatever had crawled up his rear needed to be removed. Immediately.

He disappeared into the shed where the feed for the milk cow was kept. A good couple hours of work sat before him. Even then, Dad might still get after him. Nothing took priority over the animals. They needed to be fed and maintained, before the Benson family did. Always.

With their meager income, sometimes the animals ate when the family didn’t.

Emma slowed her pace, and still reached their house faster than she would’ve liked. Yes, her mom was worried about Drake, but with Dad’s beat-up Ford in the drive, the mood in the house would be different. The tension thicker, difficult to breathe through.

Opening the back door, Emma stepped inside. She listened as hard as she could for any fighting. The complete silence unnerved her and she tiptoed toward the humble kitchen with its one countertop no more than four feet long and single sink under the window.

As scarce as their belongings, Emma’s mom kept things clean enough to lick.

Her dad sat at the table, his head in his hands while her mother rubbed his back as she stood beside him. Glancing up at Emma, her mom gave a quick jerk of her head.

Emma ducked down the hallway to her room. She got the bedroom and Drake got the closet. Literally. A closet in the hallway had been designed for a washer and dryer to fit inside. Dad put the laundry machines outside on the back deck and gave Drake the closet so he’d have something of his own.

Drake still grumbled about that.

Not that Emma’s room was much bigger. The only difference besides an extra ten square feet was a window that couldn’t have been bigger than a text book which let in enough light to wake to.

She picked up the rotary dial phone on the floor next to her bed and moved to dial. But she didn’t have anyone to call. No one to talk to about seeing Nate again for the first time in forever and how crappy she looked. Or about anything.

Flopping over on her back, Emma ignored the twinge of pain where her last IV had been. The nurse was new and she’d jabbed Emma so many times Emma was convinced she’d leak like a sieve. The bruises wouldn’t go away for a while. Not with the medications she was on.

Was always on.

At least the woman had bandaged her properly after taking out the line. The tape tugged, but didn’t bother her as much as the bruises did. Emma rolled to her stomach and curled her arms around the flattened pillow.

No noises carried from the kitchen.

Most likely he was worried about money. Dad always worried about money.

And Emma was usually the cause.

~~~

Drake knocked on her door early the next morning. He stuck his head in and then stepped inside, filling the rest of the free space in her room. A sheepish cast to his normally cocky expression hinted at his intentions.

Emma didn’t move. She hadn’t slept in a while. Her stomach growled from skipping dinner the night before. They didn’t have any food, but Mom promised something today. Anything was welcome. The chickens hadn’t laid eggs in almost a week, probably because of their diminished feed.

“Sorry about… Did I hurt you?” Drake bit his lower lip. He wasn’t a jerk, he just had a lot on his mind.

His pride was all he had left, and Emma got that. She had more in her head sometimes than she thought she could handle. She shrugged. “Not more than that nurse.”

Weakly laughing, Drake dropped to the edge of her twin mattress, pushing her feet to the side. “She did a number, didn’t she?” He’d been there when they’d admitted her. Driven her, in fact. Dad had been at work and Mom couldn’t get to Taylor Falls fast enough. Drake had borrowed the neighbor’s rig and driven like a rodeo horse gone wild.

Not answering, Emma watched her brother. He wanted something, but she couldn’t figure out what. Best thing with Drake was to sit back and wait.

She didn’t have to wait long.

Drake cleared his throat, picking at the pilling on Emma’s worn quilt. “Did you see me kiss that girl?” His cheeks flushed and he held his gaze down.

Oh no. Emma had seen, but had chosen to keep her mouth shut. He’d have enough ribbing at school. He didn’t need crap from his older sister about it. She nodded, but since he wasn’t looking at her, she added. “Yeah. Stefanie Rourke, right?”

The mention of her name drew Drake’s eyes to focus on Emma. He nodded curtly. “Yeah. Well, do you think… do you think it looked like, maybe she was into it?”

She peered at her brother, like he was asking something other than his fairly blunt question. Emma shifted to sit up and face him better, give the topic the seriousness it warranted. Drake never came to Emma about anything. This moment was huge. “At first she looked like she was, but what she said afterwards kind of gave me a different opinion. What was she talking about?”

A pained expression shadowed his dark brown eyes. “She’s not very popular. She likes to hang out with the guys and she’s stronger than half the boys on the baseball team. I don’t want to be a bigger loser than I already am.” His admission cost him many pride points from the slump to his shoulders and the drawn out sigh.

Stefanie Rourke was anything but unpopular. Everyone liked her. But with Drake’s pride, he’d ignore that. He had to. How else would he survive being rejected by the pond?

When the Rourke children lost their parents they gained the sympathy card that even surpassed the one Emma had for her chronic illness. Stefanie had dark hair with penetrating blue eyes that matched her brother’s and she was petite with an athletic build. There was everything to like about Stefanie.

For people like Drake and Emma, they had to protect themselves from rejection before it even happened. Living in the poorest section of Clearwater County, the Bensons weren’t known for their class or their cash – more for their humility and hard work and desire to help anyone in need. While those traits were admirable, they weren’t the ones that got you invited to the cool kids’ table at school or to the parties afterwards.

“I honestly doubt Stefanie would hurt your popularity, but I know that’s not what’s important to you. Do you like her?” Emma held her breath. She’d always had feelings for Nate and if Drake cared about Stefanie… well, things would get very uncomfortable if Emma got her way and was able to at least date Nate again. She couldn’t give him a future, but dreaming about it never hurt anyone.

He shrugged, screwing up the side of his face like he couldn’t decide. “I do and I know she does, too, but I was drinking yesterday and, well, I said some things to her in front of everyone and…” He swallowed, piercing Emma with his gaze. “I think I hurt her feelings.”

Emma had seen the whole thing and Stefanie’s feelings were definitely hurt. She leaned forward to pat his shoulder.

A shrill whistle carried to them from the front of the house.

Pushing at her covers, Emma pulled on clothes over her tank top she wore at night and stumbled after Drake into the hall. The whistle was a command to hurry and get out front.

Immediately.

Even at twenty-one, Emma still worried about upsetting their dad. She hadn’t grown out of the dependence part of growing up since she’d missed out so much on actually being home. Plus, guilt held her in check. She relied on them for help health-wise. Without her parents, she didn’t have anything. And because of her, they had next to nothing.

Crashing into each other, Drake and Emma came to a stop in front of their parents who stood by the front door with their jackets on. Mom clutched her purse, tears in her eyes.

Dad narrowed his eyes at Drake. “It’s taken us some maneuvering, but after last night, we have a solution. I assume you haven’t come up with any consequences to make up for your irresponsibility?”

Drake looked down and mumbled, “No, sir.” He kicked the toe of his boot at the matted carpet.

“You accept that ditching school and your chores was irresponsible and disrespectful?” Their dad didn’t soften his tone and held his back rigid.

“Yes, sir.” Drake clasped his hands behind his waist and nodded shortly.

Emma didn’t know what was going to happen, but she hoped it wasn’t bad.

Dad met Mom’s eyes with his and pressed his lips together in a thin disapproving line. He spoke to Drake and Emma. “I lost my job. They were downsizing and I’ve taken too much time off over the last three years. I was cut first.” Dad didn’t look at Emma during the last part. He didn’t soften the blunt edge of his words.

He took off work to be with Emma at the hospital. He donated his blood and plasma so she would have some. Not only was her family poor because of her but her dad lost his job because of her.

Shame and guilt welled inside Emma, bringing more nausea than any of the chemotherapy treatments ever had. She swallowed back the bile threatening to come out of her like hot lava.

No one replied, just waited for him to continue. Nothing irritated Dad more than being interrupted when he spoke. What would they say anyway? Sorry for your loss?

“That being said, and taking into consideration your antics over the last few months, Drake, your mother and I have decided to send you to live with Uncle Will.” His words fell into the small house with impending finality. No discussion would be tolerated.

Emma gasped, jerking both hands up to cover her mouth as she stared at her brother.

Drake finally looked up, glancing between Mom and Dad, harsh betrayal glistening in his eyes and in the tightness of his cheeks. “What about school? What about… Don’t you want me anymore?”

Tears pricked at Emma’s eyes. Yeah, she was old enough to move out and live on her own, was an adult in all intents and purposes. But she had missed so much time at home over the years because of time in the hospitals, she never really felt caught up. Now, Drake wasn’t going to be there. Their family was going to be torn in half.

He was her brother. She needed him. And she was pretty confident he needed her.

“It has nothing to do with wanting you or not, son. Uncle Will’s a professor at Wyoming State University. You’ll live with him, get your GED, and then go on to college there. He can have up to three dependents get an education free. You’re going to be one of them.” Dad pulled on his jacket, avoiding looking anyone in the eye. His next words came strangled, but he didn’t relent. “Go get your stuff. The bus leaves in an hour and I need to get to town to submit my resumes.”

Right then? He was leaving right then. No time to say goodbye.

“Can I go to town, too, Dad?” Emma asked quietly, her chest tight. Her dad didn’t refuse her anything and she rarely asked. She didn’t want to compile more guilt onto her already overflowing plate.

Their mother spoke up, her words choked. “We’re all going, as a family.” She nodded jerkily, brooking no argument. She stumbled out the door, steadying herself with the frame and pulling from Dad’s outthrust hand.

Emma met Drake’s gaze and they turned together to trudge down the hall with the weight of impending separation dragging them down.

“You have ten minutes, boy.” Their dad closed the door behind him as he followed Mom outside.

“I’m so sorry, Drake. I had no idea.” Emma bit her lip. Was he mad at her? Did he blame Emma? Would her parents send her away, too? She ran through the things she could’ve done lately, but came up blank. Her dependence on them left her in a shaky spot. They could send her or her brother away at any moment.

Drake shrugged, opening his doors and pulling out a large duffel bag from the shelf in the top of his room/closet. He stuffed clothes into it, the few he had as well as a quilt their grandmother had made him shortly before she’d passed from a heart attack. “It’s not a big deal. Less expense for Mom and Dad to deal with, right?” His tortured tone gave away his pain.

She stood there quietly, watching him pack up the remnants of his life with his family. He spoke calmly, even controlled, which wasn’t like Drake. Hopefully, he wouldn’t explode on Uncle Will. The man was a little scary, but cared about his niece and nephew. He wasn’t rich, but Drake wouldn’t go to bed hungry.

Emma was a little jealous.

Drake paused and stared at the bare mattress in the now-empty closet. “I always complained about the size, but it was mine, you know?”

The tears Emma fought slipped from her lids and she blinked. She had to be brave for him. For her little brother. He must feel abandoned and alone. Her breath hitched and she chewed on the inner skin of her cheek to hold back her sobs.

He stood from his crouched position and Emma threw her arms around him, pulling him close in a tight sisterly hug. “I’m going to miss you.” She muttered into his shoulder.

Drake patted her back and nodded, but didn’t reply.

Together they walked down the hall and outside to climb into the back of the pickup where their mom and dad waited in the cab.

Wind picked at Emma’s hair and she tried not to dwell on the fact that, try as much as she could, childhood was gone. She’d never get it back.

The fifteen minute ride passed fast and bumpy. Drake and Emma didn’t speak, but every once in a while their eyes would meet and they’d curve their lips in an attempt at smiles.

When Dad parked the rig along the curb in front of the general store, Emma reached out and ruffled Drake’s hair.

Climbing out, Drake claimed a spot to stand on the squares of the sidewalk. He seemed out of place beside a streetlight peppered in signs and flyers fluttering in the breeze next to him.

Mom walked by him and lifted her hand as if to touch him, but dropped it at the last moment and walked inside the store. Dad disappeared into the small post office and florist building, probably to see if the knowledgeable owner had any insight on job openings.

Emma had never felt more alone.

The clip-clopping of horseshoes on the pavement drew Emma’s gaze. Her lips grew slack and she tried not to stare, but some things are just plain hard to do.

Nate’s horse ambled along, coming to a stop at the tailgate of the Benson truck. Nate stared down at Emma without blinking, as if he was taking all of her in.

She pushed at her hair, extremely aware of the dust coating her skin and the fact that she hadn’t had a chance to brush her teeth before leaving that morning.

After his parents died, the word around town was he’d sold or gotten rid of all their cars and trucks. Now he rode his horses around. Like an old-fashioned cowboy. Emma didn’t blame him. Losing his parents the way that he did… she didn’t think his actions were that outlandish.

He tipped his hat and then glanced at Drake who he nodded as well. “Emma, Drake, how you doin’?”

“Good, thank you.” She nodded abruptly. Why wouldn’t he leave? She didn’t need him stirring feelings up inside her she wasn’t equipped to deal with. Seeing him the night before had nearly crushed her. He came in after her or she never would’ve gone into the clearing – Drake or no Drake. Was Nathan mad at Drake for kissing Stephanie? Was he going to cause trouble there?

Avoiding Nathan Rourke had become a talent she excelled at.

Drake grunted and shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t say anything else, but walked to stand by the window of the small bookstore.

Dismounting, Nate fiddled with the reins in his hands and glanced at Drake and his bag while addressing Emma. “Where’s Drake off to?”

“Away.” Emma didn’t elaborate. How many people watched them, wondering what in the world a guy like Nate Rourke was doing with a girl like Emma Benson? She played with the hem of her t-shirt, looking everywhere but directly at him.

His soft chortle drew her attention. “You always did keep it private.” He nodded. “Alright, that’s fine. I’d like to catch up, spend some time with you.” His smile melted into a sober line filled with history and meaning. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, it has.” She considered his interest. How did Emma respond to that? He wanted to see her? Again? She couldn’t be that lucky, but at the same time, she wouldn’t string him along, either. She wanted to be more with him, but a future with her wasn’t possible. He was right, she always held things back, kept things tight to her chest. If she wanted to see him, she had to spell it out for him, keep things open from the beginning. “Friends, right?”

Why did she always have to ruin everything? She was losing her brother and now Nate wanted to see her? Things were so confusing. She was going to get lost in her emotional turmoil before she even had that breakfast Mom promised her.

Drake didn’t have any food to take with him on the long ride. She glanced at her brother, worry clenching around her waist, deep in the center of her stomach.

“Friends. Of course.” His smile tight, he watched her with a penetrating stare. “How about we go for a ride? Sometime next week?”

He might think he wanted more with her, he always had, but she couldn’t give him more. Didn’t want to saddle him with what more meant.

A bus turned the corner a few blocks down. Emma sighed in relief. She was off the ropes of talking to Nate and all his hidden meanings and magnetic pull. His presence wouldn’t let her heart slow down.

She caught her breath at remembering what the bus meant.

Emma glanced back at Nate. “I’ll ride over to Bella Acres one day next week. If you’re outside on your horse, we can go.” She nodded quickly at him, like ‘take it or leave it’ and swiveled her head in search of Drake.

“What if I’m not?” Nate didn’t take the hint and pressed for more. She’d always liked his persistence, but today wasn’t the day for impressing her.

“What if you’re not what?” Emma turned back, drawing her eyebrows in. Seriously, she was going to lose her brother any second.

“What if I’m not outside?” He pressed, twisting the reins around and around his leather work gloves.

She shrugged, offering a coy smile and turning to stand with Drake. Figure it out, cowboy.

Nate moved to the side as Emma’s parents joined them on the sidewalk. She pushed him to the back of her mind while her heart manhandled the next few seconds.

Mom hugged Drake and sniffed, squeezing his shoulder. “You be a good boy, now.” She walked to the truck before her tears fell, climbing in without looking back.

Their dad nodded and hoarsely said, “Be good. Let us know you made it.” And he joined his wife in the cab. Such an emotionless send off.

Emma didn’t acknowledge anyone else. She stared at her brother, scrunching her lips and nose as she struggled with her tears. “I’m going to miss you.”

“We already did this. I love you and I’ll call you when I get in.” He pulled her tight into a bear hug and rocked her back and forth for a moment longer than normal.

“I love you, too, little brother.” Heart twisting with goodbye, Emma nodded. “I’ll see you sooner than you know.”

He ignored his parents, patted Emma’s shoulder and climbed on the silver and blue bus. He didn’t look back. He held his shoulders straight.

A niggling of bitterness towards her parents planted itself in Emma’s heart. That was her brother. Her only friend. And they’d just sent him away.

Turning to look for Nate, Emma’s surprise at his absence overshadowed her disappointment that he was gone. He’d vanished so quickly. How was that even possible?

She climbed into the back of the truck, unable to look her parents in the face. She understood where they were coming from, but at the same time, how could they tear up their family?

Now she was as fractured as Nate.

Chapter 3

Nate

Swinging down from Missy, Nate patted her flank. “Good girl, Missy. Good girl.” He removed his hat and wiped at his brow with his sleeve.

Early spring brought a warm sun and cool breeze with even cooler nights. Starting work on the fields and in the paddock at five before the sun rose required warmer clothes than later in the day. Nate hadn’t had a chance to change since before breakfast.

From around the side of the house, Hannah rang the large metal triangle bell hanging from the awning rafters. She hollered out to the field. “Ten minutes!”

Right on time.

After taking care of Missy, Nate washed his hands in the barn sink.

He’d waited all week for a chance to see Emma. Watched for her from the fields which didn’t help as he checked the irrigation lines and surveyed the fences necessary to keep animals out of his wheat and corn.

Wheat and corn.

Nate shook his head, thinking about the crops his dad had switched to a couple years before dying made him queasy. All his life, Nate had been taught how to care for beef and other animals. How to take care of the livestock to make money, how to take them to auction, how to work deals with suppliers and how to trade for deals with other vendors, like butchers, and feed haulers. Vast difference from the golden stalks he sought after all season.

Meat prices dropped in the late nineties and Nate’s dad switched to wheat and corn when a disease wiped out over eighty percent of his stock.

Two years. Not enough time to learn anything, let alone develop a schedule or production plan.

And neither parent had life insurance or much in savings to carry past any real time period.

Before going inside the house, Nate paused on the deck, bracing his arms on the railing and staring out at the wide expanse of Bella Acres. Beautiful land. Named by his mom. No matter what happened in his life, Nate had the land. His sisters had a home as long as Nate had Bella Acres. Nothing could go wrong, if they held onto their parents’ dreams.

No matter what it took, he wouldn’t lose the land.

The acreage didn’t have any surface water, but it had a gravity-pressurized well and plenty of healthy soil. The latter didn’t matter if Nate didn’t have any idea how to cultivate and plant it and reap what he sowed.

He wiped at his face.

Hannah only gave him ten minutes. He’d probably pushed the time past what she asked.

Inside, Nate nodded to his sister at the table and took his seat. “I’m sorry. I had to stable Missy and check on the other horses before coming in.” Their mother had pressed manners on them from the beginning. Getting to the table when called was one of her biggest rules.

You didn’t come, you didn’t eat.

It didn’t take more than once or twice to learn that lesson.

“You’re okay. I forgot to make honey butter. I used the extra time.” She smiled sweetly. At only thirteen years old, his sister was already a heart breaker. Without any agenda behind her looks, she really was an angel trying to manage her loneliness.

Not for the first time, Nate wished he could trade his mom for a spot in that car accident. Not that he wanted to die, but so his sisters could have their mother. He missed her more than he could explain, but a girl needed her mom growing up. Not an older brother who knew nothing about anything.

Hannah placed a large ceramic plate in front of him, piled high with chunks of steaming roast, carrots, potatoes, corn, and a roll. Condiments already claimed their positions on the Lazy-Susan in the center of the large square table.

They folded their hands and said grace.

“Did anyone stop by today?” Nate sipped at his ice water, trying not to search Hannah’s face for any possible hints or clues. How many times did Emma have to blow him off for him to learn his lesson?

Grinning, Hannah poked his shoulder. “Not today either, Nate. You waiting on something in the mail, or for a chick to show up?”

Chuckling, Nate nodded his head. “You just let me know when someone shows up.” Picking up his fork, Nate glanced at Stefanie’s empty spot and then over at Hannah. His eyebrows drew together. “Where’s Stef?”

Half-shrugging as she slathered golden honey-butter on her roll, Hannah mumbled, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her all day. Would’ve been nice to have some help.”

“She didn’t come down for breakfast?” Nate lowered his fork. Was Stefanie sick? Had she snuck out again? “Did she get any of her chores done?”

Hannah glanced at him, her eyes wide. She shook her head the smallest amount. “I haven’t seen her all day. I didn’t check in her bedroom, because I was mad. And I got madder all day. I don’t even want to talk to her right now.” She gritted her teeth and tossed her buttered roll to the plate, glaring at the condensation on her glass. She continued through clenched teeth. “I did her chores.”

Shoving his chair back from the table, Nate stood.

Enough was enough.

Stefanie had to pull herself together. Nate couldn’t do everything for her, and neither could her younger sister. He snagged his water glass and traipsed up the stairs to the bedrooms at the end of the hall.

The last thing he felt like doing was hounding after his sisters. The continued stress of dealing with Stefanie’s moodiness combined with the waiting and longing to see Emma again. A sneer etched itself on Nate’s lips as he thundered through Stefanie’s bedroom.

She didn’t stir from her spot under the covers. Eyes closed, she may or may not have been asleep. Whether she was feigning or not, Nate didn’t care. At the same time he reached the side of her bed, he turned his cup upside down, emptying its icy contents onto her face and hair.

The splash covered her and splattered onto her pillow, blankets, and the wall.

Sputtering, Stefanie shot up to a sitting position, straggling strands of wet hair clinging to her cheeks and across her eyes. “What the hell?” She swiped at her face and shook her head.

“Have you been in bed all day? What is wrong with you?” Nate jabbed his hands on his hips and glared at Stefanie. All day? She’d been there in bed all day while he and Hannah had been working? “This is unbelievable.”

“I’m tired.” Stefanie lifted her chin and pursed her lips. “It’s been a long week. We had a bunch of finals and…” She shrugged, wiping at her face with the corner of her blanket.

Finals. High school. Nate didn’t miss any of it at all. Plus, it was the week following the crap at the party. He calmed down a bit. He’d been there. He understood. “Fine. I get it. It’s time to eat. You have night chores now – all of them.”

Stefanie gasped. “All of them? No, that’s way too many. Can’t Hannah help me?”

“Hannah did your morning chores.” Nate pointed his finger toward the door. “She’s been working since daybreak. Now, she gets to sit on her butt and watch a movie or read a book or whatever she likes to do for fun. You’ve been in bed all day. You’re helping around here.”

She glared, crossing her arms over the water-dark spots on her nightshirt. “Why? It’s not like it’s going to do any good. We’re sinking, Nate. I saw the books.”

“What are you looking at the books for?” Nate scowled. He barely understood Dad’s antiquated system of finances. The ledgers were dizzying and Nate avoided looking at them unless it was absolutely necessary.

“Dad used to have me help him.” She looked down, tightening her features so she wouldn’t cry. Stefanie was tougher than people realized. She was also more vulnerable than anyone but Nate and Hannah knew. Her relationship with their dad had been the closest parent-child relationship in the house.

She was also a whiz at math, sleeping through her calculus classes and passing with straight A’s as a junior.

“You understand those things?” Nate blinked a couple times to clear the disbelief from his eyes. “Why didn’t I know this?” In two years you’d think she would’ve said something.

“Because I didn’t tell you.” Scoffing, Stefanie climbed from her bed. Her sweat pants hanging low on her hips and she yawned. “Nate, you’re sinking.”

“No, we’re sinking, little sister. If Bella Acres folds, we don’t have a place to live.” Angry, frustrated, disappointed in the situation with Emma, and irritated that Stefanie knew more about the land than he did, he turned and tossed over his shoulder. “To get yourself out of trouble with me and Hannah, you’ll do the chores and tomorrow you’re going over those books.” He glanced back. “I want the chores done before I get back.”

“Where are you going?” Stefanie lifted her hand to the side, palm up.

“Out.” Nate needed to relieve some of the tension, and one of the things he needed to do was see Emma.

She hadn’t come to him.

Fine. He would go to her.

Kindle

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