Lacey smiled at her mother as she set her suitcase on the kitchen floor. She’d driven most of the night, stayed a few hours at another barrel racer’s house to sleep and let Candy, her mare, stretch her legs, before driving the rest of the way. After ten days in Vegas at the Finals Rodeo, she was worn out and extremely glad to be home. “Thanks, Mom.” She went to the fridge, pulled out the pitcher of sweet tea her mother always kept and filled the glass she’d plucked from the cabinet along the way.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t attend. But we watched it on TV. You did such a great job. We’re proud of you.” Her mother gave her a hug.
“Thanks. It’s okay. I know things are tough right now.”
Right now. Lacey wanted to snort at her own response. First had come the droughts. Then the floods. The family farm struggled as never before in her lifetime. Her mother, Helen, clung to her teaching job in order to provide some income along with all-important health insurance. Lacey’s father, Dan, worked the land full-time, running beef cattle, cutting hay and alternating corn and soybeans as a side venture. Tate, Lacey’s brother, helped in his free time from his job as an assistant football coach for the small local college. They all worked. Hard. Even she worked her ass off around the farm while picking up part-time hours at one of the large animal vet’s offices. Anything to make it one more week. One more month. One more year.
“Your father and brother are building fence over at Chester McLeary’s today. They should be back for supper.”
“Okay.” Lacey took a large drink and smiled at her mother. “I missed you.”
A momentary grin took away the lines of worry on her mother’s face. “No more than we missed you.” She pushed a lock of auburn hair out of her eyes and behind her ear. “I wish there was some way we could have been there for you.” Regret carried in Helen’s voice and her eyes.
“Really, it’s okay.” Lacey gave her a quick hug. “We do the best we can, remember? As long as we have one another, we’re doing mighty fine.” The words came out automatically. The same ones she’d recited for years. Lately, they had begun to fall flat.
“Always such a cheery soul.”
On the outside, maybe. Lacey kept her pasted-on smile. She’d spent a lifetime trying to earn her father’s love, to no avail. Worse, since she’d started barrel racing, he’d given her guff right and left. Happiness with her family had slipped away lately, leaving bare bones, and prodding her to consider some big-time changes. None of those thoughts had she aired to her parents. Yet.
Helen sighed. “I wish we could give you more.”
We? She knew her mother loved her. Never even questioned it. The other half of the parental unit, though, she couldn’t really say.
Lacey waved her hand. “I’d rather have you than the pot at the end of the rainbow.” She spoke the truth. Although, right now, that elusive pot looked damn good.
“I’m going to go pick up walnuts in the back pastures. Figured at fourteen dollars per hundredweight, it’s worth it.”
“Wait and I’ll help.” Lacey finished her drink then placed the empty glass in the sink. She’d attended to her mare before coming inside, so nothing pressing existed on her schedule for the rest of the day.
As they headed toward the old farm truck with the bed already filled with empty feed sacks and buckets, Lacey slowed her steps. Ransom Mathews pulled into the driveway in his shiny black truck. It wasn’t new but he kept it in as close to that condition as possible.
“Hey, Lacey. Helen,” he called out of the window as he eased up next to Lacey. “I promised to help Tate and Dan out today but can’t remember where they were working.”
“Chester McLeary’s farm. North pasture, I think,” Helen answered.
Ransom smiled. “Thanks. You don’t mind one more showing up for dinner, do you?”
Helen beamed. “Of course not. You know that! Lord, no matter that the college has put up a fancy apartment for you to use, you still have a bedroom here and always a place at the table,” Helen answered with loving enthusiasm.
Tate had dragged Ransom home in grade school. The rough-and-tumble little boy had worn clothes on their last leg, his unruly hair had needed a cut and the flatness of his eyes had told the family all they needed to know. The stray had needed a better home. They’d opened up their arms and taken him in. After some finagling with court system, they’d obtained legal guardianship as well. His mother, an alcoholic, hadn’t even fought. To hear Helen tell the story, the woman had appeared relieved to be rid of her burden.
Lacey could barely remember a time without Ransom around. A whole three months separated them in age, putting him in her class at school. Tate, being a year older, had resided in the one above them. As she’d grown up, she’d idolized Ransom, teased him, and had fallen deeply in love by the time she’d hit the ripe old age of fifteen. Not much had changed since then. She still possessed deep feelings for him but kept them to herself as she’d watched a few women parade through his life, praying none of them stuck.
She noticed his grin, the dimple in his cheek, and sighed to herself. Big, strong and too handsome for his own good, Ransom caught the eye of just about every woman in the county. His broad shoulders, flat abs and flirty nature didn’t hurt either. Neither did his full-time job at the same college as Tate, as a conditioning coach for the football team. He shared the apartment with Tate as well, though they tended to spend more time on the farm than in town. Pulling their own weight. Just the way they always had.
His short black hair looked freshly cut. Stylish and easy. Just shampoo, rinse and go. Quick, sexy and it fit him perfectly.
His blue eyes met hers. “Nice run at the finals, Lacey. Great job.”
She smiled slightly at his praise. “Thanks, Ransom. I didn’t win, though.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think anyone was going to beat that gray stallion.”
She recalled Trinity and Legacy’s final run. “It was their time. They deserved it.”
“So do you.”
Lacey shrugged. “Maybe next year.”
He flashed another smile. “I better get out there or Tate will kick my ass for being lazy.” He waved, circling the truck around, and left.
Lacey watched him go with a sense of excitement and loss. He’d be back for dinner, yes. But, more importantly, he’d treated her like a sister.
Just like he always has.
Her heart cracked a bit more.
‘Pretend he’s a goat and you’re participating in the goat-tying event.’ Trinity’s advice replayed through her mind. She pictured herself doing just that, roping Ransom, tying him up and sitting on him. More of Trinity’s advice replayed in her head. All along the lines of how keeping her feelings to herself wouldn’t grab Ransom’s attention, or getting him to see her as something more than family. Perhaps the time had come to spill the beans. The sooner she did, the less time she’d spend wishing and hoping for her dream to come true. Better to find out now than pine for him over the next few years. Just like she’d done for nearly a decade.
And look where that got me.
The time had come. Make or break. I’ll tell him. Tonight.
With that decision made, she crossed her fingers for good luck.
“Lacey? You coming or not?” her mother hollered.
With a wicked grin to herself, Lacey hurried to catch up. Work waited for no one, but at least she knew the evening meal promised to provide some entertainment. Afterward, she’d corner her cowboy and get some answers.
* * * *
Five hours later, stiff and sore, Lacey forced her feet to keep moving. She set the roast on the large kitchen table along with the potatoes. Her mother followed with a couple more pans of vegetables and warmed homemade bread. The men stared at the fare with hungry expressions and wide grins.
“Looks like a feast.” Her father winked at her mother.
Lacey rescued the apple pie from the oven. The afternoon had been a testament to stubborn determination. Fatigued from the rodeo and a long drive, all Lacey had wanted to do was find her bed and sleep. Instead she’d found herself spending much of the time bent over, picking up walnuts in order to sell them for a few extra bucks—a sign of their financial woes and the belief that nothing should go to waste.
Resisting the urge to rub her back, Lacey placed the pie on the counter to cool and took her seat beside her brother and opposite Ransom.
Ransom snagged the basket filled with bread and teased Tate by holding it just out of reach for a couple of beats before giving in. As soon as he handed over the goodies, he plucked the butter dish off the table, cut a generous piece and slathered it over the still-hot slice of bread.
Lacey watched the way he wrapped his fingers around his fork, and manipulated the knife with precision, before taking a large bite of meat.
“Lacey? Earth to Lacey.” Tate nudged her. “Potatoes?”
She blinked at Tate, accepted the dish, and placed it next to her plate. In all honesty, she didn’t really feel like eating. Butterflies danced in her stomach as she planned how to broach the subject with Ransom. The words she’d use to convince him that her love was true and that they’d make a wonderful couple. She’d had years to imagine that very moment when she confessed her love, heard Ransom echo her, promise undying commitment, wrap her into his strong arms and swing her around in a moment of joy.
Tonight she’d finally spill her heart and innermost secrets, and she prayed Ransom would find the same feelings inside himself.
“Tate tells me that you’re dating a lovely young lady,” Helen said.
Lacey added some food to her plate and dug in, knowing she had to eat or face concern from her mother. She cut the potato into bite-sized pieces, forked a piece and dropped it into her mouth. Her attention locked on Ransom while she eagerly waited to hear his response.
“Lizzie’s great. We’ve been seeing one another for the last month, but got exclusive a couple of weeks ago.”
Lacey stilled. Worry crept to the fore, especially as Ransom’s face and eyes lit up at the mention of the girl’s name.
“She’s as sweet as she is beautiful,” Ransom continued. He took a drink of tea. “I’ve been doing some thinking lately.”
Lacey held her breath. A sense of foreboding flooded her. She steeled herself.
“About?” Dan asked.
“About asking her to marry me.”
“That’s wonderful.” Helen beamed.
Tate fist-bumped Ransom.
“Bring her around. I want to meet this girl. Sounds like she’s going to be a big part of this family.” Dan smiled like a proud father.
“Congratulations.” Lacey forced an expression of happiness on her face, one she certainly didn’t feel. Her hopes and dreams for the past several years came crashing down at those words.
Ransom found a girl to marry. It isn’t me.
Her heart broke completely open. In the back of her mind, Lacey knew that Ransom would never be hers. Hope lives eternal. Until now.
She resumed eating, going through the motions, not really tasting the food. The others chatted about Ransom’s glorious news while she tried to tune them out and spare her tender feelings from another assault. She focused on biding her time until she could escape to wallow in self-pity alone.
The sound of her name grabbed her attention. “What?”
“I asked when you’ll be going back on the rodeo circuit.” Tate took a drink before forking another bite of food.
She glanced over at her father. Not soon enough. Her father never asked about her racing career. Hell, the only compliments he ever gave revolved around her cooking. The rest of the time she came up short when it came to attention from the head of the family. The two guys beat her out each and every time.
Water under the bridge. Let it go.
Her attention centered on Tate. “In a couple of weeks. I plan on hitting it hard this fall before the winter break.”
Her mother frowned. “But you just got home.”
“I know.” Lacey pushed a pea around her plate. “I need the points if I’m going to get back to the finals. I hope to do better next time.” She took a quick drink. “Speaking of, I need to check on Candy before I work on sending in those entry forms.” She slid her chair back, replaced it, and strode out of the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, she was grooming Candy like she’d done every evening since she’d purchased the mare five years ago. She’d used up all her savings at the time, but hadn’t been able to turn down the opportunity to buy such a top-of-the-line paint. Her pedigree shone, as did her athletic talent. Candy was her ticket to the future, she was sure of it.
“You didn’t eat.” Her mother’s quiet voice carried easily in the barn.
“Not really hungry,” Lacey answered automatically. It was the truth. Ransom’s words had killed her appetite as much as they’d slashed through her very soul.
Helen approached, pulling her sweater around her shoulders.
The chill didn’t bother Lacey. Numbness had set in before she ever left the house.
“For what?” Lacey spared her mother a glance over Candy’s back.
“I’ve known how you’ve felt about Ransom for a while now. He’s never thought of you as anything but a sister. That’s always been the case and always will be. I should have said something sooner.”
“It’s fine, Mom.” Lacey traded out a curry comb for a softer dandy brush. “I’m glad for him. He deserves to find someone to make him happy.”
“So do you.”
Lacey barely contained her snort. “I’ve got all I need. My horse and my family.” That’s more than some people have, supportive or not. She didn’t bother to take a detour about the way her father treated her like a non-person. That old argument never got anywhere, anyway. “A man isn’t in the picture. No biggie.” Those were the same words she’d told herself over and over again since collecting Candy and taking her inside for grooming. They sounded reasonable, almost flippant, but were only a cover. She hoped they carried sincerity. Judging by the regret and sadness in Helen’s eyes, Lacey knew she’d failed. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to say anything. Message received loud and clear.” She sighed. “I care enough for him to leave well enough alone.”
“You’ve never been interested in attending the fall circuit before.” Helen leaned against a stall door.
“We need the money.” Lacey spouted off one of the truths. Her parents never asked, but Lacey always gave them part of her winnings. Rent, she called it. Mostly it was to help them keep their heads above water and in the black. If Tate did the same, she didn’t know about it.
“And you need time away,” Helen finished for her.
“That too.” No sense in lying. Her mother could pick out a fib in a second.
“I’m not sure the road can cure a broken heart.” Helen pinned Lacey with her gaze.
Lacey shrugged. “No time like the present to find out.”