He popped the top on a bottle of Bud and chopped carrots and celery for chicken noodle soup. He’d have to use canned chicken on such short notice, but his version would still be better than cracking open a can of Campbell’s.

Would his adeptness in the kitchen surprise Janie? She’d prepared meals for the whole family during their marriage, and at the time, Abe had no desire to learn to cook. That mind-set had changed after Janie left. So he, Hank and Celia had learned together. They’d concocted some truly awful dishes. His memories weren’t of the food, but how the three of them had reconnected over a hot stove.

As he tossed the veggies into the chicken stock, his cell phone buzzed. He swiped it off the table and checked the caller ID. “Hey, little sis, I was just thinkin’ about you.”

“At least somebody gives a shit about me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Everything. God. I never thought my life could suck this bad.”

He sipped his beer. “Got some examples of the supreme suckage of your life?”

“Didja ever get the feelin’ you were just a hostage to your own desires?”

Pretty deep conversation for four in the afternoon. “I’ve felt like that at one time or another. Why?”

“’Cause I’ve passed the held hostage by my own desires stage and I’m smack in the middle of the what the f**k am I doing with my life stage.”

The sound of liquid sloshing echoed through the earpiece. Great. Celia was drinking. “How bad was your run today?”

“We tipped over two barrels so I finished last. Again.” She swallowed loudly. “I’m foolin’ myself, aren’t I?”

“Foolin’ yourself that you’ll make it to the AFR? Honey, you’ve only been at this a couple years. You’re young. There’s time to prove yourself.”

“It’s not what I thought it’d be, Abe. I’m not who I thought I’d be.”

“And who is that?”

“Who knows? I just don’t want Mickey to be the only person who loves me.”

“First off, Celia, I love you. Second, Mickey is not a person; Mickey is a horse.”

“You know what I meant.” She sniffed again. “I miss Murray.”

“Murray lived a good life. Twelve years is a long time for a cattle dog to survive.” And two years was a long time to be mourning her dog, but he’d never say that to her.

“Know what’s sad? I felt less lonely in the middle of the Wyoming prairie than I do in an arena full of people.”

His concern grew because Celia was rarely morose. “Tell me what’ll get you outta this funk. Want me to share my screwed-up day to make yours feel normal?”

“Yeah, right. What bad happened to you today, Honest Abe? Forget to brush your teeth so you called your dentist and apologized?”

“No. Someone pushed Janie at the Split Rock and she took a helluva tumble. Remember the hit and run? Come to find out none of this bad shit is a coincidence because Janie had a stalker a few years ago. She can’t stay at the Split Rock, so she’s here in Hank’s old room.” Why did he feel the need to tack on that disclaimer?

A pause. Then Celia laughed. “Okay, you got me. That was a great joke. A bit twisted, because dude, a stalker? In Muddy Gap? No freakin’ way.”

“It’s no joke. I’m dead-ass serious.”

“Holy cow. Is Janie okay?”

“Banged up. Not happy about bein’ forced to live with me in isolation on the ranch again.”

He heard the click of a lighter and a swift intake of air. He hated that Celia smoked, but he didn’t harp on it, which was damn difficult to do. Yes, Celia was an adult woman. But part of him would always see her in pigtails.

“How long is Janie gonna be workin’ up at the Split Rock?”

“She hasn’t said. I don’t think she knows. Maybe until she’s convinced that Renner and Tierney ain’t gonna kill one another.”

“Still that bad, huh?”

“Yeah. Reminds me of—” You and Kyle. He didn’t voice the comparison because that was another taboo subject for his prickly sister. “Never mind. So did the story of me playin’ the hero, ridin’ into town in my white pickup truck to save the damsel in distress provide a distraction from your funk?”

“That’s the thing. It’s not just a funk. That’s not the Jim Beam talkin’ either.” She sighed. “Although, the booze has loosened my tongue enough to talk about it at all.”

The Lawson siblings were closemouthed when it came to sharing their feelings, so he wasn’t surprised this was the first he’d heard of it. “You haven’t said nothin’ to Harper or Lainie about this?”

“No. Harper’s a nauseatingly happy newlywed, and Lainie is positively glowing with pregnancy. They both deserve to revel in happiness, not be subjected to my piss-poor outlook on life. Which just seems to be getting worse every damn day.”

“Come home,” he urged. “We’ll get this figured out. Just you and me. Just like old times.”

“God, Abe, you’re so damn sweet beneath that gruff exterior. I love you. I really do. You know that, right?” Celia’s voice broke. “But I don’t belong there. I don’t belong here. I’m beginning to think I don’t belong anywhere.”

She was breaking his heart. A level of alarm set in. “Where are you? I’ll get in my truck and drive to wherever you are right now.”

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