— SPRING —
The cell phone on my belt vibrates against my hip, and I pull it from its holster, register my dad’s name on the caller ID, and answer.
“What’s up, Dad?”
“Where are you, Josh?” His voice is hard but calm, and all the hairs on my body immediately stand on end.
“I’m checking fence on the far-west pasture, about fifteen minutes from the house.”
“We need you here, Son.”
“Is Mom okay?” My voice is calm, and just as hard as Dad’s. We’re nothing if not calm in a crisis.
“She’s fine, but we have a situation.”
“I’m on my way.”
Holstering the phone, I kick Magic gently and she immediately sets off in a gallop toward the house.
What the fuck is going on?
The last time Dad called with that tone in his voice, my brother, Zack, had been hurt in Afghanistan.
He’s in Afghanistan now.
Before long, the old, sprawling house comes into view. Although mostly retired, Mom and Dad still live in the big house, and I rebuilt one of the old farmhand houses on the opposite side of the property a few years ago. I’m in charge of the Lazy K Ranch now, and I love every minute of it.
Mom and Dad step out onto the porch as I dismount, and suddenly I hear tires on the gravel driveway.
“What’s going on?” I demand, scowling as I watch my dad’s eyes go hard. A blue rental pulls to a stop in front of us.
“Kensie called,” he mutters.
“How could she do this to him?” Mom whispers with tears in her eyes. “To both of them?”
“Would someone like to tell me what in the hell is going on?”
“Get out of the car, Seth.”
I know that voice. Ice instantly runs through my veins as I turn to see Zack’s wife, Kensie, pull herself out of the passenger seat, open the back door, and pull my nephew, Seth, out of the car, along with a duffel bag, which she throws without care onto the dirt.
“What’s this about?”
“Seth’s your problem now,” she replies coldly.
My eyes immediately fall on the boy, who’s looking down and drawing circles in the gravel with the toe of his worn shoe. His jeans are a size too small, the hem riding above his ankles, and his T-shirt is stained and dirty.
“Seth isn’t a problem,” Mom replies, and flies down the stairs to pull Seth into her arms. He stiffens, but doesn’t pull away. He also doesn’t hug her back.
Jesus, he was here two years ago, bright-eyed and interested in all of the ranch animals. Now his eyes are dull and tired.
“He is for me,” Kensie replies with a shrug. Her clothes are impeccable, and I assume purposefully a size too small. Her hair and nails are polished and perfect. She winks over at me and my stomach rolls in revulsion. “How are you, handsome?”
“What is this about?”
“Zack made noise about wanting a divorce the last time he called from BFE, so I beat him to the punch. Cole”—she gestures toward the car and the man sitting impatiently inside—“doesn’t want a kid around, and frankly, I’m tired of being a full-time mom.”
“You’re tired of being a full-time mom?” I yell. Dad shakes his head and my mom tries to pull Seth away and into the house, but Dad puts his hand on her shoulder, stopping her.
Seth shouldn’t hear this bullshit.
“Twelve years I have been alone with him,” she sneers, and points her finger at her son. “While Zack spent more time in a desert or in a plane with the army, leaving us in a different city every two years, I stayed because Zack’s paychecks were nice, and I didn’t have to work, but I’m done. I sold his car.” Dad gasps and I want to wrap my hands around her little neck and squeeze. Zack loves that damn car. “I gave the rest of his shit to charity and I’m giving you the kid. If Zack wants to traipse around the world every year and ignore his family, fine, but I’m done! I deserve more than this!”
She’s screaming now, carrying on about what is owed to her, but I can’t take my eyes off Seth. His face hasn’t shown one bit of emotion. Most kids would be in tears, horrified by their mother’s behavior.
How long has this been going on?
“Seth is always welcome here,” I begin, and take a few steps toward Kensie, satisfied when she shuts her foul mouth and her eyes go round as I get closer.
I’ve never enjoyed scaring women. It’s easy for me to do with my size and is something I’ve always been careful of.
But I’m going to scare the shit out of her.
“But you are not. Seth will stay with us until Zack is back in the States in a few months. You are never to come back here.” I step closer and loom over her. “If you ever show your face here again, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing and I will ruin your pathetic life.”
Her eyes widen and her jaw drops in surprise as she takes half a step away from me, but she quickly pulls herself together and squares her shoulders, pulling her painted-on eyebrows into a scowl.
“Why would I ever come back here? There’s nothing here I want.” She raises her chin defiantly and, without a look at Seth, climbs in the car, which peels out of the driveway.
“Oh, honey,” Mom whispers, and kisses Seth’s hair. He shrugs and pulls away, grabs his bag, and looks up at me for the first time since they drove up.
“Can I stay here, Uncle Josh?” His eyes flick over to Magic and back to me. He always loved the horses.
“Of course, buddy, you always have a place here.”
He nods soberly and looks back down at the ground, waiting to be told what to do. Mom is openly crying now, and Dad just shakes his head, wipes his hand down his face, and sighs. “Come on, Seth. Grandpa will show you to your room. You can have your dad’s old room.”
“I don’t want anything of his,” Seth spits out, his hands in fists. “I’d rather sleep in the barn.”
Dad blinks in surprise, glances to both Mom and me, then frowns. “Okay, the spare room it is then.”
“Come on, honey, let’s get you settled and I’ll fix you some lunch.” Mom smiles at Seth through her tears and wraps an arm around his thin shoulders. “We’ve missed you so much. There are some fish out in the creek that need to be caught, you know. . . .” Her voice fades away as the three of them walk into the house, and all I can do is stand here, my hands on my hips, and wonder what the fuck just happened, and what are we going to do with a twelve-year-old boy?