A Cowboy in Her StockingBy: Trish Milburn
The cold, early December air stung Talia Ardmore’s cheeks as she stared at the house where she’d spent the first sixteen years of her life. It had seen better days. All hope for a quick trip to Texas fled, racing off to the east with the winter wind. Before she could put the house and the accompanying ranch on the market, she was afraid she was going to have to invest in more than a quick coat of paint.
With a sigh, she walked slowly forward. She noticed the peeling paint had exposed the wood beneath, allowing some of it to begin to rot. A couple of floorboards on the porch were bowed. A gutter had pulled away from the roof at one end. Everywhere she looked there was evidence of how her stepfather’s health had increasingly failed in the last year of his life. And she couldn’t scare up even one ounce of sympathy for the man. Even from the afterlife, Bill Turner was making her life miserable. If there was any justice in the universe, he had flames licking at his backside right now.
Talia turned away from the house to scan the pasture filled with cattle. The entire place had an air of neglect about it. Any potential buyers would notice it before they ever turned into the driveway and likely keep on driving. At least the herd looked relatively healthy. She supposed she should be thankful for small blessings.
She glanced back toward the house, wondering if the interior was in better or worse shape. But she wasn’t ready to go inside. Wanting to take a proactive step toward putting Blue Falls behind her forever, she headed for her car. She needed a handyman, and unless things had changed drastically in the last ten years the best place to find one was only a few miles down the road.
As soon as she drove into Blue Falls, nervousness welled within her. It didn’t make any sense. After all, the man who’d made her so jumpy and frightened was gone now, buried a week ago. But even though her stepfather no longer posed a threat and she wasn’t a defenseless teenager anymore, she couldn’t help the uncomfortable tightening in her middle.
When she found a parking spot outside the Primrose Café, she didn’t immediately get out. First, she had to bring her anxiety under control. She fell back on what she knew worked—slow, deep breaths and visualizing waves rolling up on a beach. In her mind, she repeated the mantra that had gotten her through some of the scariest times of her life. You are strong. You are free. You are safe.
It took a little longer than normal for the anxiety to subside, but that was to be expected considering this was where her battle with anxiety had been born. When she finally felt it recede to a manageable level, she got out of her vehicle and walked toward the front door of the café.
As soon as she stepped inside, she noticed two things. One, it didn’t look any different than it had ten years ago. And two, even with Blue Falls being a tourist town, the locals still noticed when an unfamiliar face stepped foot inside the Primrose. She knew the moment someone recognized her because something indefinable shifted in the air. She might be crazy, but she’d swear she could feel accusation and blame being shot toward her through the power of all those gazes.
What was likely only the span of a few seconds felt like eternity before she headed toward the hallway that led back to the restrooms. She felt several pairs of eyes watching her. Well, let them stare. Let them assume they knew why she’d run away from home the night she graduated high school. She’d bet every penny in her bank account that they’d all get it wrong.
Like the rest of the restaurant and its occupants, the contents of the hallway hadn’t changed. The framed feature article about the Primrose from the Dallas paper still hung next to certificates thanking the restaurant for sponsoring several local sports teams. And next to them was the community bulletin board.
She scanned the mishmash of business cards, auction and estate sale notices, for-sale listings, and a brightly colored poster for a winter carnival at the elementary school. She’d be in luck if she needed a pond dug or a pickup truck with lots of miles but in good shape. But strangely she didn’t see any notes from handymen looking for work.
She sighed as she began searching the large corkboard again, hoping she’d just missed what she needed. Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she stepped closer to the bulletin board so that whoever it was could pass her on their way to the restroom. Only the person stopped next to her.
Talia braced herself for an unpleasant encounter. She hadn’t stepped foot in Blue Falls or kept in touch with anyone here in so long that she had no idea what the locals thought about her and her disappearance. Did they blame her for her mother’s death in a car accident six months after Talia had run away from home? Did they think her awful for not even giving her stepfather a funeral, instead burying him with no sort of service at all? Not that any of it mattered. She planned to leave Blue Falls behind for good well before Christmas. She had a home, a job, friends, a life to get back to in California.
“Looking for something in particular?”
Talia glanced over to see Verona Charles. The older woman might be a bit grayer now, but she still wore the same infectiously friendly expression she always had. The tenseness in Talia’s muscles relaxed a little.
“I’m in need of a handyman, someone who knows his way around a ranch.”
“Fixing up your folks’ place?” So Verona knew who Talia was.
“Yes. It’s in too bad a shape to sell as it is.”
Verona nodded in understanding. The woman couldn’t possibly know how thankful Talia was that she wasn’t peppering her with a million questions.
“Jake Monroe could use the work.”
At the sound of Jake’s name, Talia’s heart squeezed. Jake had been one of the last people she’d seen before she fled the night they graduated. While he and the rest of their classmates were partying with friends and family, she’d been stuffing everything she could in her backpack and fleeing into the unknown.
“You two were friends, weren’t you?”
“Yeah.” Good friends. She could only imagine what he must have thought when she’d disappeared, especially after he’d asked her what was wrong that last night. She’d been close to telling him, but it wouldn’t have made any difference so she’d kept everything locked inside. “He’s the only one you can think of?”
“There might be others, but he’s a good worker. And he and Mia have had a hard time of it lately, so I like to push what work I can his way.”
“Mia?” The last she’d known, he and his girlfriend Sunny had been madly in love and most likely headed for the altar. That’s why Talia had never admitted to him that she felt anything other than friendship toward him. Again, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
“His little girl. She just finished up her cancer treatments. Poor Jake has been strong for her, but I know it had to scare him to his core, especially after losing Sunny to the disease.”
Sunny had died? And Jake was raising a daughter alone, one who had been stricken with cancer as well? All this new information left Talia feeling selfish and blessed at the same time. Yes, she’d had a frightening few years after her mother had married Bill, but she’d escaped. It sounded as if Jake had been forced to endure pain he couldn’t flee into the night to avoid.
“Are you okay, honey?”
Talia looked at Verona and nodded. “Just stunned. I can’t believe he’s had to go through all that.”
“It seems some people end up bearing more than they should have to.”
Talia got the oddest sensation that Verona was talking about more than Jake, but there was no way she could know about Bill and how he’d caused Talia to cower in fear each night as she lay in bed praying for deliverance. To everyone looking in from the outside, their family had seemed remarkably normal, well liked in the community. Bill had them all snowed, even Talia’s mother.
“Jake still lives in the house he did when you both were kids,” Verona said. “He took over the ranch from his dad when he and Sunny got married. John passed on a couple of years ago.”
Jake had lost his mom when he’d been young. Were it not for his daughter, he’d be as alone in the world as Talia. That broke her heart. She hoped he still had lots of friends to lean on, ones better than her.
“Thanks. I’ll go see if he’s interested in the job.”
As Talia moved to leave, Verona reached out and captured one of Talia’s hands between her own. “It’s good to see you again, sweetie.”
A lump rose in Talia’s throat. She hadn’t expected that kind of reaction from anyone, not after the way she’d left. Not after all these years. She was surprised to realize how very much it meant to her.
“Thank you. Good to see you, too.”
Before she could make a fool of herself by doing something stupid like crying, Talia backed away and walked quickly through the dining room toward the front door.
The intervening years hadn’t dulled her memory of where Jake lived, but as she pulled into his driveway her nerves started dancing an Irish jig again. This time, no amount of deep breathing seemed to help. But she wasn’t willing to wait until the next day to see if he was interested in the job. The quicker she got the repairs under way, the quicker she could go home and never have to think about Bill Turner or Blue Falls again.
She parked next to an older model pickup and took another deep breath before slipping from her car. Once outside, she heard music coming from the barn beyond the house. Determined to get the awkward reunion over with, she headed in that direction.
When she reached the open barn door, she spotted a man using a pitchfork to transfer fresh hay from a wheelbarrow to a horse’s stall. With one more deep breath, she knocked on the door to draw his attention.
He turned toward her, startled. Talia’s breath caught in her chest at the sight of him. If Jake Monroe had been good-looking as a teenager, he was simply stunning now. Stunning in that dusty, hardworking, cowboy sort of way.
“Can I help you?” he said, obviously not recognizing her.
He tilted his head slightly, as if something about her was familiar but he couldn’t figure out what.
“Been a long time since graduation night,” she said.
He shifted, took a step closer. “Talia?”
He turned away and leaned the pitchfork against the front of the horse stall. “So you’re not dead after all.”
Talia jerked at the anger she heard in his voice. While part of her wanted to throw it back in his face, she had to remind herself that he had no idea why she’d left. From his perspective, he had every right to be upset. If he’d suddenly disappeared without a word, she would have worried about him, too.
“No.” She fought the need to elaborate, but she didn’t want to get into the why of her leaving now any more than she had that long-ago night.
“Where you been all these years?”
“Lots of places. I live in California now.” Drowning in tense awkwardness, she dived right into her reason for showing up at his home. “I need help fixing up the ranch so I can sell it, and Verona Charles said you might be interested in the work.”
At first he didn’t answer. Instead, he stood with his profile toward her, rubbing the forehead of the horse in the stall. Just when she thought he wouldn’t respond at all, he said, “What all you need done?”
“The house is in disrepair, so at least some exterior work. And help keeping up with the herd until I can figure out what to do with the cattle.”
“Contact Jason Carpenter at the stockyard. He’s always looking for good stock. Or there are a couple of big ranching outfits that seem to always be increasing the size of their herds.”
“Thanks.” Honestly, right now the cattle were secondary. She needed an answer from him. “So, are you interested in the job, or do I need to look elsewhere?”
He gripped the top board on the front of the stall and seemed to be debating his answer before he glanced at her. “I’ll take it.”
She got the distinct feeling he hadn’t wanted to but that he’d had no choice. That shouldn’t hurt her, but it did. She tried to convince herself it was because her emotions were already raw from having to deal with Bill’s final arrangements, seeing the ranch again, and returning to a place she had thought she might never see again. But at least part of her recognized that it had just as much to do with the fact that once upon a time, she and Jake had been friends and she’d ruined that the night she’d left without a word.
That sense of needing to flee hit her again with such force that it stole her breath for a moment. When she pulled herself together, she shifted her gaze to see he’d fixed his on her. She did her best not to fidget under the intensity of his stare.
“Can you start tomorrow?” she asked, trying to be all business.
“I’ll be there as soon as I drop Mia off at school.”
She nodded and started to step away, but before she could think better of it she stopped and met his eyes again. “It’s good to see you again, Jake.”
Fearing he didn’t feel the same way, she made her escape before he could respond.
A few minutes later when she returned to her family’s ranch, she almost wished she’d stayed at Jake’s longer. Even that uncomfortable conversation would have been better than having to face stepping foot inside her childhood home, a house filled with memories she wished she could erase from her brain.
Knowing she had to get it over with in order to free herself of this place forever, she strode toward the house. The front steps creaked under her weight, and she made a mental note to have Jake check them as well. When she stood in front of the door, it took her several breaths before she was able to make herself slip the house key the coroner had given her into the lock. One click then a turn of the doorknob and she was faced with perhaps the hardest step she’d ever taken in her life. Even running away had been easier than voluntarily stepping back inside the house where Bill had ruined the final two years she’d had with her mother.
With her heart hammering in her chest as if Bill might reach out from the great beyond and grab her, she forced herself to step across the threshold into the home’s living room. In that moment, she knew that today she could go no farther than this room. Walking on shaky legs to the couch took the last ounce of “push through it” that she’d been allotted for this day. Tomorrow was soon enough to confront the ghosts that resided here.
JAKE THOUGHT NOTHING could surprise him anymore, but that was before Talia Ardmore had shown up at his place. Even now, a day later, a layer of anger still vibrated inside of him. How many times had he worried that the worst had happened to her? And now she’d strolled back into Blue Falls only after her parents were dead and gone. He’d never imagined her being so cold. But she’d laid even more evidence at his feet when she’d made it clear that she wanted to get her ranch fixed up and on the market as fast as she could so she could return to her life in California. Well, who was he to argue with that, especially when she was going to pay him cold, hard cash that he needed to make it happen?
He’d wanted so badly to say no to her offer of employment, and not just because of lingering anger at her disappearing act. He was already working so much when he wanted to spend more time with Mia, especially after he could have lost her. But saving his baby girl had come at a cost, one that arrived in his mailbox almost daily.
And the medical bills weren’t the only reason he’d decided to shove aside the past and work for Talia. With Christmas just around the corner, he was determined to make it the biggest, best Christmas Mia had ever experienced, even if he had to sell his blood to do it. He wasn’t going to let Mia miss out on what should be the happiest time of the year for a child simply because their bank account was close to bone-dry.
By the time he parked beside Talia’s small car, she’d already come out onto the porch bundled in a heavy jacket and cradling a mug.
“Good morning,” she said when he got out of his truck. She sounded as if she was trying hard to be cheerful, too hard.
“Morning,” he said simply.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Have my own. Thanks.”
“Okay. Well then, I guess I should show you what needs to be done.”
It made his heart ache to hear their stilted conversation, one that sounded as if it was between strangers. Well, they were strangers now, weren’t they?
As she showed him everything she wanted repaired, he caught himself snatching glances at her, noting how she’d changed. Her hair was shorter now, cut even with her chin. She must live in southern California because she still had a healthy color to her skin despite it being winter, and it didn’t look like a product of a tanning booth. Part of him wanted to ask her where she’d been all these years, what she’d done, why she’d left in the first place. But another part told him to just keep his questions to himself, do his job and nothing more.
“Anything inside?” he asked when she’d finally ticked off the last item on the outdoor to-do list.
“Honestly, I don’t know yet. I didn’t get any farther than the living room last night.”
“Okay. Just let me know if you find anything. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy out here for awhile.”
He glanced at her again in time to see a flicker in her eyes, almost as if she wanted to say something else. But she merely nodded and broke eye contact. “I’ll be in the house if you need anything or have any questions.”
As he watched Talia walk away, the slight slump of her shoulders told him she wasn’t as unaffected by the loss of her stepfather as she’d first appeared. Maybe it was only now hitting her, the fact that she’d lost the only parent she had left and that she’d allowed her mother and stepfather to live out the rest of their days not knowing if she was alive or dead.
That was a lot of guilt to bear, and he almost felt sorry for her. Almost.