“I knew that wasn’t why you left. But it bothered me. No one ever knew how much I wished I could’ve gone to college.”

She murmured, “I knew.”

Of course she did. “One day, I just decided to do it. And I did really well. So I added more classes and let Hank and Celia believe I’d suddenly gotten addicted to Internet  p**n .” He smiled. “Probably I’d’ve given it up, but with Hank off fighting bulls, and Celia doin’ her own thing, I wasn’t sure I could keep the ranch goin’ by myself. I wanted something to fall back on that wouldn’t require me to work as a ranch hand for someone else. But then, Hank married Lainie and returned to ranching full-time. Celia started running the circuits. Which allowed me to increase my credit hours and finish quicker.”

Janie didn’t say anything.

Abe stirred the chili that’d gone cold.

Then Janie’s hands were on his cheeks and she tipped his face up. She kissed him. “Of course I’d be delighted to see you in your cap and gown, waving your diploma. I’m proud of you, Abe. Every day we’re together I think I know you so well, and then I learn something like this, which quite frankly, shocks the shit outta me.”

He laughed.

She kissed him again. “But if I’m taking Saturday afternoon off for you, then I’ll need you to stay late at Split Rock Saturday night and help me catch up, okay?”

“Deal.” Abe touched the dimple in her right cheek, then her left. “I love your smile. It lights up your whole face. I especially love it when you’re smilin’ at me.” Which seemed to be a lot lately.

“You give me a lot to smile about.” She pointed at his food. “Eat up. I have a teacher and student fantasy to fulfill tonight. You never should’ve used that paddle on me.” Janie gifted him with a coquettish look. “Oh, and I’m playing the teacher role, just in case you were curious.”

“You’re gonna torture me about this, aren’t you?”

“Mercilessly.”

Late Saturday morning Abe checked his reflection in the bathroom mirror and felt ridiculous. Mostly he felt stupid because he was so damn nervous, and he shouldn’t be. Wasn’t like he was giving a speech. He adjusted the square hat for the tenth time and the gold tassel swung into his face.

Janie yelled down the hallway, “Abe. Come on. I want to get some pictures of you in your cap and gown before we leave.”

Pictures. Like he was ten years old or something.

Quit pretending to complain. You are thrilled Janie’s excited about sharing this milestone in your life.

Abe tried not to walk like a cowboy as he crossed the floor. But college degree or not, he was a cowboy. He’d been walking this way his whole damn life. He pushed open the door, grumbling, “Make it fast because I . . .” He stopped in the middle of the deck.

Hank, Lainie and Celia stood beside Janie. His little sister yelled, “Surprise!” and launched herself at him, knocking his damn hat off again.

As soon as Celia was done hugging him, she smacked him on the arm. “You big jerk. I can’t believe you didn’t tell us.” She whapped him again. “And I can’t believe I ever felt guilty about keeping barrel racing from you when you were keeping this from us.” Then she hugged him. “But damn, bro. A college degree? I’m so freakin’ proud of you I could bust.”

“Me too,” Hank said.

“And to think I was worried that you’d gotten addicted to  p**n  because of your tendency to disappear into your room for hours on end.” Lainie gave him a one-armed hug because baby Lawson had grown mightily in the last few weeks.

Abe started to ask, “How did you know?” but realized Janie must’ve told them, so he amended, “I can’t believe you guys came.”

“Like we’d miss something so important to you,” Hank scoffed.

“To all of us,” Lainie said. “I’m just glad someone let us know about it.”

“Yeah, Janie, we owe you big-time,” Celia said.

Janie bowed to Abe. “You’re welcome. Now you guys stand together. I want a picture of you with your family.”

Three hours later when Abe walked across the stage for his diploma, he knew when he thought of this day, it wouldn’t be receiving the piece of paper he’d remember. He’d remember how Janie had known what would really mark the occasion and make it perfect.

Janie cried during the ceremony. Twice. She’d practically bawled on the deck step when she truly grasped how much it meant to Abe that she’d told his family of his accomplishment.

They’d had a celebratory steak supper before Celia had to take off. Hank and Lainie headed home with a whispered promise from Hank he’d handle the morning cattle check.

No one was around in the main area of the lodge. She said, “Hang on, I need to check this room,” and motioned Abe inside.

When he saw his duffel bag on the bed, he said, “What the hell?”

“I’m not working tonight. I booked us a room to celebrate.”

Then Abe got the strangest expression. His gaze moved from the separate alcove for the hot tub, to the sandstone fireplace, to the seating area, to the king-sized bed.

Not that she’d expected he’d whoop and holler, but his stillness bothered her. “If you’d rather go home, that’s all right too.”

He smiled almost shyly. “No. I wanna spend the night here. You just caught me by surprise. To be honest, I’ve never stayed anyplace this nice.”

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