Authors: Kay Stockham
Tags: #Teenage girls, #Problem youth, #Single mothers, #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Montana, #Western, #Westerns, #Sheriffs, #Fiction
“Mommy, Daddy asked Skylar to babysit me! She's fun!” Lexi cried the moment Maura opened the van door.
“Really? Well, thank you, Skylar. Lexi's very particular when it comes to who can babysit her. You must have a special knack.”
Skylar shrugged and looked away. Embarrassed by the praise?
Rissa climbed out and tried to think of the last time she'd praised Skylar for something, but only remembered their arguments. Her breath lodged in her chestâhow could she have forgotten how important positive reinforcement is?
“Whatever. She only cried a little when I pierced her belly button.”
Shocked silence filled the air.
Lexi giggled. “
Skylar's teasing you! She got you good, didn't she?”
Maura laughed weakly and shot Rissa a rueful glance. “That she did.”
“But can I?”
“Can you what?”
“Can I get a belly button ring like Skylar's?”
ONAS WAS STILL LAUGHING
at his deputy's joke when he entered the diner. Porter called out from the kitchen, and he raised a hand in reply. It was Saturday night and the diner was full. The ranch hands had been paid, and the small town overflowed with people looking for a little food and a lot of rowdy fun.
Two men were on duty all weekend to handle things, but Jonas often felt the need to pitch in a few extra hours in the evenings during the warm months since the ranch hands were more prone to leave the bunkhouses and venture into town. Usually things were fairly quiet, but he refused to be caught off guard.
“Ah, come on, sweetie, sit down with us. Ain't seen nothin' pretty in here in a long time. Lord knows Charlotte lost her waistline years ago eating Porter's food.”
Jonas glanced toward the back of the diner where a new waitress stood with her back to him. His gaze narrowed. Why did she look familiar?
“Thanks, but no thanks. Here's your drinks and your bill. Bring it to the register when you're ready.”
“I'm ready all right. What are you doing tonight after your shift?”
The waitress ignored the man and moved to another table. “Can I take your order?”
“Hey, I wasn't finished with you yet.”
Ignoring the two newly emptied seats along the counter, Jonas walked over to where a booth had opened up near the hecklers.
“Sir, if you want to wait a minute I'll get that cleaned off for you.”
“Take your time.”
At the sound of his voice, she looked over her shoulder, her face flushing a dull burgundy when she spotted him. The crowd of cowboys quieted down, at least as much as a group of men could in the presence of a woman worthy of flirtation. Rissa Mathews was fresh blood in a community made up mostly of women already attached to someone. Word had probably spread like wildfire that she was a widow even with the Rowland name protectively associated with hers.
She returned to taking the table's order, ripped the slip off her pad of paper and hurried behind the counter to hand it to Porter. That done, she grabbed a tray from where they were stashed and headed back toward his booth.
Jonas ignored the dirty dishes stacked in the middle of the table. Restless, he picked up a menu to give his hands something to do even though he'd memorized the contents when he was eight or nine years old. It hadn't changed much since.
“Let me grab these for you.” Rissa hurried to pile the dishes onto the tray and carried them to the counter before rushing back again to wipe the table down. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem. But you'd better stop rushing around so hard or you'll be worn out long before the place cloâ”
“Oh, yeah, now there's a view.”
Rissa rolled her eyes, but didn't take the man to task. The comment had embarrassed her though because her cheeks reddened again.
Jonas focused on the group in the corner and adopted his sheriff's face. “That you, Ted? Surely not. You've got a daughter about her age, don't you? Can't help but make the comparison, almost like you're flirting with your little girl.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “There's somethin' not right about that.”
The older ranch hand cursed and grabbed his drink from the table, glowering when his younger buddies snickered at him. The group of men reverted to talking amongst themselves in low tones, but made no more comments even though Jonas saw them ogling Rissa every few minutes.
He couldn't blame them for looking. Dressed in snug jeans and a white T-shirt with an apron tied about her slim waist, she was a pretty sight.
“Thanks, but I can handle them.”
“Let me guess, because you're from New York?”
“That's right,” she countered without missing a beat, her eyes sparkling. “Ever hear anything about New York City women? We can kick butt and hail a taxi at the same time.”
He smiled at her boast. “You're good to go then,” he agreed. “But at least let me say thanks for earlier today. Caroline came out behind you grinning like she'd won the lottery.”
“It was fun. She was thrilled when she figured out how things were supposed to fit.”
“Visitors don't usually get jobs. Have you decided to stay?”
“Yes, well, no, not for long, butâ” When he raised an eyebrow, she made a face and glanced around before she lowered her voice. “I am just visiting, butâ¦I'm sort of in between jobs at the moment. The airline I flew for made some permanent layoffs and I was job-hunting when the accident occurred. Then I sold our house thinking we'd buy another wherever my new job took me, but I haven't had any luck yet. That's when Maura invited me to come help out at the ranch in exchange for one of the cabins. How could I refuse? It felt good to get away from everything, and I get to visit with her while I scatter resumes across the country.”
If she attached a picture to them, she'd be hired a lot faster. Jonas nearly groaned at the thought. “Which airline was it?”
“You wouldn't have heard of it. It was small and privately owned. They mostly catered to high-paid executives and Wall Street types in the New York area.”
The kind of men she preferred? What had her husband done for a living?
“Order up, Rissa! Ben, you need more coffee?”
“Be right there,” she called. “What can I get you?”
“Turkey sandwich, no pickle or onion, and a water.”
“Chips or fries?”
“Whatever fruit you've got. Porter'll know. He's used to me.”
She scribbled the order down and took off toward the kitchen again, and it took everything in him not to follow her swaying hips like the other men present. He managed. Barely.
Jonas braced his elbows on the table and rubbed his hand against his mouth.
What was it that drew him to big-city girls?
HE WEEKEND PASSED
in a blur of exhaustion for Rissa. Working at the ranch in the morning and the diner in the evening, she had little time for laundry, keeping the minuscule cabin picked up so that it wouldn't resemble a dorm room or spending time with Skylar. Not that her daughter seemed to mind.
After hearing all about the tricks Skylar had taught Lexi to keep her occupied, Maura had asked Skylar to babysit the kidsâwith Maura sticking close by just in case. Skylar hadn't looked thrilled by the idea, but the mention of cold, hard cash had her daughter nodding her agreementâand Rissa cringing because Skylar had finally agreed to get off her duff and do something to earn money. But did she have the heart to demand a portion of Skylar's small earnings to pay toward the debt Skylar owed her?
Rissa knew her cousin asked partly to help her out where Skylar was concerned, and she was grateful. With Skylar watching the kids under Maura's supervision on weekends, she could work at the diner and not worry, plus it freed Maura to do other things for brief periods of time.
Tonight she'd noticed the library was directly across the street from the diner. And three nights a week they didn't close until nine o'clock. She didn't like leaving Skylar unattended in a public place, but considering North Star held the equivalent population of the local mall back home, she figured a few hours in the library with her next door would be fine.
Rissa slowed to a stop outside Jake and Maura's newly built house. The lights were on in the kitchen, and inside she saw her daughter's dark head and pale skin. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. Was she putting too much pressure on Skylar to make amends
for the thousand dollars? Maybe she should let the credit card thing drop?
Skylar had done wrong. She needed to be held accountable and work off the expensive charge, at least a large portion of it. Skylar was just lucky she hadn't reported the card stolen.
And the belly button ring?
She collapsed against the seat with a groan. Like it or not, she wasn't her military father who would've walked up to her and yanked it out by force.
“Stop worrying. Maura said that Skylar has been great with the kids.”
Rissa started and glanced out her lowered window to see Grace walking toward her car. “What are you doing out here so late?”
The other woman laughed, the sound sheepish. “Maura called earlier to say she was working on a new dessert for our special guest and after thinking about it the last couple hours, I decided maybe I should taste-test it. What can I say, the chocolate is calling me.”
Rissa laughed and shut off the engine. “Count me in,” she said, getting out of the vehicle.
Grace's gaze narrowed on her face. “You look tired, Rissa. You can only burn the candle at both ends for so long. Trust me. I know you need the cash, but remember to take care of yourself. It's been a hard year for you, and a person can only do so much.”
They fell into step side by side but when they reached the porch, Rissa paused.
“Something wrong?” Grace asked.
Rissa shook her head, watching Skylar through the window. Jake had walked into the room and handed Skylar a bottle, keeping another for himself. He plucked
one of his sons into his arms and settled into a nearby chair, but Skylar sat there and her bemused expression slowly turned into a coaxing, gentle one replete with a fleeting smile when her charge spied the bottle and rolled onto his knees to crawl to her.
“See? She's coming around. Kids are great judges of character, and Lexi already thinks the world of herâthe boys, too. Grief takes time, but she's getting better. Right there's the proof.”
“Tell that to the school officials,” she muttered drearily. “And the town. They've already condemned her. It's all over town how some vampire girl is beating up poor innocent victims.”
“They'll forget once she settles down.”
“Maybe.” She brushed her hair away from her face, but the night breeze blew it right back again. “Graceâ¦yesterday Maura mentioned you've taken quite a few classes to get your psychology degree?”
“I have, but not to practice or anything. They give me a better understanding of my patients andâ¦I'm training to begin a women's support group for domestic violence and victims of violent crimes. This area doesn't have one.”
“Wow. That's wonderful. I've volunteered to help out here and there with different causes, but never with something like that. I wouldn't know what to say, and I know I wouldn't know what to do if I was ever faced with that kind of situation.”
Grace smiled, her gaze not quite meeting hers. “Yeah, well, time has proven to me that we're stronger than we think. With the right support system people can do more than they ever dreamed possible. They just need
someone toâ” she shrugged “âpush them a little. Give them a shoulder when they need it orâ¦just be a friend.”
“Well, if I can help while I'm here, let me know, okay?”
Grace laughed softly. “Thanks for the offer, Rissa, but right now I think you've got enough going on.”
“Ahh, yeah, probably so.” She gave Grace a weary smile. “Umâ¦Maura also mentioned you sometimes need help around the gym with your physical therapy sessions?”
“True, so how about I ask Skylar?”
“Pretty obvious, aren't I?”
Grace climbed the last two stair treads. “Yes, but I understand why. And it's not a problem at all. The extra pair of hands would help.”
Rissa was humbled by her friend's quick acceptance. “I guess I didn't expect it to be this easy. In the past year, people have taken one look at her and immediately written her off as a lost cause.”
“Not here. Rissa, you're not alone. That's what familyâeven extended familyâis for,” Grace murmured, the lights from the house revealing her warm expression. “I'm happy to try talking to her in the downtime between patients, but please remember I can't make any promises. I'm not an expert by any means.”
“No, IâI don't expect any.” Her gaze found Skylar again and she noted the way her daughter's face had softened now that she looked into the drowsy eyes of the baby staring up at her. She remembered holding Skylar the same way. “But maybe she'll talk to youâ¦give you some clueâ¦ Grace, I'm getting desperate. I need to know what happened to my little girl.”
Grace wrapped her arms around her and hugged her briefly. “I know you do. Just hang in there and remember you can talk to me and Maura anytime, all right?”
She nodded, said a quick prayer and thanked God above for her friends. Right now they were the glue holding her together.
Skylar glared at her mother. Two days of detention down, three to go.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Sitting there staring at the walls for two hours with the assistant coach watching her every move sucked, but both days
come by. Turned out Marcus-the-shit-shoveler was a football player.
“What am I going to
for five hours?”
“Homework?” Her mom turned onto the main road into town. “Use the time to get your grades up.”
“Who cares what my grades are?”
do. And so did you at one point.”
Her mom stopped at a red light, the first of six until they reached the diner. What kind of town only had
“Prove to me you can make A's like you used to.”
“For what? What do I get out of it?”
Her mom muttered something under her breath. “Skylar, I'm not going to reward you for doing something you ought to already be doing.”
“Just asking.” She straightened the skull-and-cross-bones ring on her right hand. “But I'm not sitting in the car for five hours.”
“I don't expect you to,” her mother said as she accelerated the second after the light turned green. “The library is directly across the street from the diner. You can stay there until it closes. I went inside Saturday evening on my break. There's a seating area in front of the windows to the left of the door. Plant yourself there
and stay there, except to go to the bathroom. Read, listen to music. Play on the computers. I don't care, but
When the library closes, come to the diner. It's pretty dead after eight o'clock so you can sit in a back booth until we close up.”