Authors: S. E. Kloos
Fifteen minutes later, Xander was sitting in the living room with his brother, daddy and Marshal. He was drinking a beer and bullshitting with them as the ladies set the table and got dinner finished up, doing his absolute best to strain his hearing, so he knew what his mama was saying. There was quite a bit that he would certainly prefer she never found out about, though he was near positive that was what his mama was telling. He was nearly crawling out of his skin by the time the boys were called in to eat by the Little Darlin’ belting out ‘All hogs to the trough’.
That was his mama’s doing, he was sure of it.
Once they were in the dining room, he was pointed to an end chair, so he could prop his foot up on a chair, while his mama and Mrs. Johnson started bringing out dinner. Elizabeth asked the guys what they wanted to drink, vanishing into the kitchen with the drink orders, and then returning with the requested alcohol. The part that surprised him the most was once the table was set; she took up a seat between him and his brother, figuring she would have sat across from them instead.
After grace was said, he had taken a drink from his beer, only to nearly choke on it when the little thing leaned over to whisper in his ear. “Christ, you were a mean little fucker, weren’t you?”
Before he ever even looked at her, he gave his mother a horrified look. “Mama.”
Bev was completely unrepentant about it, too. “What? Way I figure it, the lady had a right to know whatever she wanted ‘bout you after the way ya acted earlier, youngin.” Then she pointed a finger in his face. “You pull somethin’ like that again, and I tell her ‘bout your first huntin’ trip, ya hear?”
Xander’s jaw drop, the horror not gone from his voice. “You wouldn’t?”
Bev’s voice was full of challenge as her brows slid up her forehead. “Bet your ass I would, Alexander. Wanna test me?”
Xander shook his head, backing down at the gleam in his mama’s eyes. “No, Ma’am.”
After the very real threat of revealing what would probably be considered the worst day of Xander’s young life, things settled down, and the conversation turned to other things that wouldn’t kill him of horror or embarrassment.
Part way through dinner Elizabeth had gotten refills, prompting a smartass comment from Xander. “Tryin’ to get us drunk, Little Darlin’?”
To which she responded, “Anything to loosen your tongue enough to tell me about that hunting trip.”
Xander just smirked as Kyle and his daddy snorted. “There ain’t enough booze on the planet to get me that drunk, Sugar Britches.” His smirk widened a bit at the challenging look that sparked in her eyes. Once she was in the kitchen, he turned to her aunt. “This is some amazing Chicken, Mrs. Johnson.”
Steff beamed at him, “Why thank you kindly, Xander. I played with my mama’s recipe, and this was the outcome.”
Then Elizabeth came back, her voice colored with the same pride that was on Marshal’s face. “It was voted best in three counties.” After she handed out the beer and took her seat again, she turned to Xander with a smile. “And if you think this is good, wait till dessert. She made this pecan pie that will knock your socks off.”
She was right, too. As much as he loved his mama’s pecan pie, Mrs. Johnson’s was better by a mile. After everyone was done eating, they just stayed at the table talking about this and that. Xander had slouched down in his seat a bit, draping one arm over the back of his chair. After glancing at Elizabeth out of the corner of his eye, he took a chance to set his other hand on her knee, leaving it there when all she did was look at him briefly before turning back to the conversation.
After a while, the conversation turned to Xander and his broken ankle. Marshal had asked how long he was laid out for, as well as when he was going to be able to ride again, to which he shrugged a bit. “Doc said ‘bout a month or so ‘for this thing comes off. I was already signed up for this rodeo in Dallas in two weeks. Entry wasn’t cheap, but it’s too late to back out. However, due to the circumstances, they gonna allow a sub rider, so I’ma be workin’ with Mark to take my place for it.”
Elizabeth looked at him while cocking her head to the side. “Why not Kyle?”
Xander leaned forward a bit, eyeing his brother. “You wanna answer that?”
Kyle shrugged slightly, looking at Elizabeth when he spoke. “I would’ve, had Mark not said he would, but I don’t compete anymore. I got chunked few years back. Jarred my back up pretty good, and I’m smart enough to think twice about lettin’ it happen again.”
Elizabeth looked confused at the terms used. “Chunked? Like you got bit or something?”
Kyle smirked a bit and shook his head. “Naw, Sugar. I was thrown from a bronco and landed bad. While I can still ride, I tend to only do so outside an arena.”
Elizabeth just nodded, having nothing to say to that. She could certainly understand his point of view on the matter. She wouldn’t take the chance of it happening again either. Instead, she looked back at Xander. “So, what exactly happens at one of these? I didn’t get to see much at the one yesterday.”
Clicking his tongue a few times, Xander shrugged a bit. “Can’t really explain it, Little Darlin’. It would be somethin’ to see for yourself. I mean, I can give ya a rundown if ya like, but words just don’t it.” Then he hummed a bit, “If ya want, you welcome to come and watch as I give Mark a crash course later this week. It still won’t be the same as the actual event or nothin’, since he ain’t ever done it, but it should give ya the basics.”
She smiled at that, nodding her head. “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
Four days later, Elizabeth pulled up to the Steele ranch in her uncle’s truck. After knocking on the door, as well as a short talk with Mrs. Steele, she was pointed out to the backyard where she would find Xander as he tried his damnedest to teach Mark to ride a bucking bronco and a bull.
From what she was hearing, it wasn’t going well.
“God damn it, Mark; you hurt that steed and I’ma have your fuckin’ hide.”
Biting her lip slightly, she walked up behind him, calling out. “Well, it looks like this is going well.”
Xander looked over his shoulder, a light glare on his face, being unable to wipe it off completely. He was irritated and borderline pissed off at this point, since there seemed to be no way to get the dumbfuck to listen to him. His annoyance was in his voice as he called back “Oh yeah. Couldn’t be better, Little Darlin’” only for him to whip back to the corral at the sound of a pained whine from the horse. This time, his voice was darker when he spoke. “Scratch that. I’ma kill ya if that horse cries out like that one more fuckin’ time, Mark. You wanna mistreat a horse like that, do it on ya own land. I’ll switch hit ya for it here.”
Reaching his side, Elizabeth watched Mark for a minute before looking up at Xander when he growled. “I’m about to cut the loss of the entry fee for the sake of my horse and sanity… just say to fuck with it.”
Looking back at Mark, Elizabeth tilted her head to the side a bit. “What is he doing wrong?”
Xander crossed his arms across the top of the fence to the corral while glaring at his cousin. “Just about every damn thing he can, that’s what.” Then he looked down at her, “He hadn’t rode in one of these since the rules changed few years back. We can’t wear spurs on a horse no more, only on a bull. So to make up for the lack of sticks,” he looked back at Mark, speaking louder than necessary, “Seems he tryin’ his damnedest to break the horse’s back, instead of just taking the fall.”
Mark looked over at him as he called out. “Shit hurts.”
Xander just gave him a flat look. “Naw, you just a pansy ass. Now, quit actin’ like you a fuckin’ glass daisy ‘fore I break ya, ‘cause you hurt my horse, and I’ll fuckin’ kill ya. Rocky ain’t ever done nothin’ to you to deserve the way you treatin’ ‘im. I suggest you use the brains God gave ya, and not test me right now, Boy.”
Elizabeth watched Mark for about an hour, Xander talking her through everything he was doing, trying to help her to understand the basics of what was going on. She understood most of it, but there were a few things that she couldn’t, just like Xander figured there would be. There were a lot of things that just couldn’t be explained during something like this, and only fully understood in the actual setting. Mark had taken a few nasty looking falls during that hour, too.
Also over that time, it was becoming increasingly apparent to Xander that he was going to just have to eat the entry fee this time around. From what he was seeing, Mark was going to end up being disqualified out the gate. He would rather swallow the loss than have his reputation tarnished by picking a replacement rider who didn’t know his head from his ass.
While he would admit that he wasn’t the biggest fan of the change in the regulations, he still followed them. Mark seemed incapable of getting it through his skull that not only were you disqualified for spurring a horse, you were fined and banned from entry for six months. Since Mark was riding under his entry, both punishments fell on him. This was how he made his living, so a six month ban would royally screw him, not to mention the thousand dollar fine for breaking the rules.
There was another whine from Rocky, making Elizabeth grimace before looking up at Xander. She swallowed hard at the dark look that entered his eyes as he glared at his cousin, though she honestly couldn’t blame him. He had given repeated warnings to Mark about not doing that, because it would hurt the horse. From what she had gathered over the last hour, Rocky was Xander’s baby.
The tone that colored Xander’s voice when he spoke to Mark sent a chill down her spine. “Get ya ass off my horse ‘fore I crack ya fuckin’skull. We done for the day, and I suggest ya bring ya own horse tomorrow, ‘cause you ain’t ever getting nowhere near mine again.”
Mark dismounted and turned to look at Xander. “That fall could’ve broken my neck.”
The darkness on Xander’s face didn’t ebb in the slightest. If anything, it got darker. “Your neck don’t mean shit to me compared to the back of my horse, Dick. A broken neck for you means a cushy place in bed for a time. A broken back for Rocky means death, you sumbitch. You keep that shit in mind next time you jerk him ‘round like that, ya hear?” Unlatching the clasp to the gate, Xander swung it open with a click of his tongue to the horse, calling his attention to the escape route offered to it.
Once the horse was through, Xander grabbed Rocky’s reigns so he didn’t go anywhere, then gave him a handful of sugar cubes and patted at his neck, all the while still glaring at his cousin. Once the horse was done with the treat, Xander grabbed his crutches, leading Rocky to the stables to let him relax and rest.
Not knowing what else to do, Elizabeth followed after him incase he needed any help. She watched the ease in which Xander worked; unlatching the saddle, removing and tossing it like it weighed nothing onto a wooden horse in the hall of the stable, before grabbing a brush to swipe it across Rocky’s torso.
While he was doing that, she took a seat on a hay bale to watch for a bit longer before she spoke. “Mark didn’t hurt him too bad that last time, did he?”
Xander shook his head, but didn’t look away from what he was doing. “Naw, don’t think so anyways. Rocky’s resilient and can take quite a bit. On the other hand, Mark is built like brick shit house and weighs about the same. He’ll be sore a spell, I’m sure, but some time under a heated cover and he should be fine, I reckon.”
Leaning an elbow on her knee, she propped her chin in her palm. “If Rocky means that much to you, why did you let Mark ride him for so long today?”
Tossing the brush into a bucket in the corner, then picking up a flat headed bar, Xander picked up one of Rocky’s front legs to begin the task of cleaning the packed dirt out of his hooves. He hummed a bit in his throat before answering that with a tisk. “Rocky here knows the ways of buck trainin’, so he was the best option to try and give Mark the crash refresher course. Plus, out of all the horses on the ranch, Rocky is the youngest and only one that would be able to bounce back, had the horse actually gotten hurt.”
Elizabeth nodded a bit at that before leaning back on her hands. “So, are you going to let Mark ride for you next weekend?”
At that, Xander growled. “Right now, I ain’t too sure that Mark is even gonna live to see next weekend, much less ride in my place. I’m sorely tempted to just eat the couple hundred bucks and save my reputation. If I send him in pullin’ the shit he pulled today, it’ll be years before I can show my face in the arena again.” Giving his head a shake, a glare on his face and sneer in his voice, he spoke again. “You’d think the dipshit ain’t ever been on horse b’fore.”
Throwing the bar in his hand into the corner harder than he intended to, he then grabbed the cover to toss over Rocky’s back to help sooth his sore muscles. He then led the horse into his stall, before turning to lean against the stall wall with his arms crossed. Turning his sights on the little lady, he saw two things that tightened his gut a bit. She was looking at him with wider than normal eyes, a seed of slight fear in them at the display of his flaring temper, as well as the white knuckled grip she had on the edge of the hay bale.
Dropping his head back on his shoulders, Xander took a deep breath to try and calm back down a bit, and then sighed before looking back at her, his voice softening. “Sorry, Little Darlin’. I didn’t mean to scare ya.”
Elizabeth looked up at him, taking a deep breath of her own before letting it out slowly with a shake of her head. “It’s alright. You have every reason to be mad. It’s just...”
Xander have moved across the hall, crouched down in front of her, and pushed his hat upon his head with a thumb. Setting a hand on either knee, he cut her off and forced her to lock eyes with him. Once he was positive he had her attention, he smiled at her. “You listen good now, Little Darlin’. There are two things we gonna get straight, right now. I ain’t gonna lie ‘bout the fact I got a nasty temper. If you gonna be ‘round, you need to know you gonna see it. You also need to know that I ain’t ever even so much as raised my voice to a lady, not even as a kid... and I ain’t ever gonna. If a lady is the reason for my temper, I walk away and calm down ‘fore I ever say a word. That way I don’t be goin’ off half-cocked and say somethin’ I shouldn’t, even if I mean it. Now a man, that’s a different story entirely. I’ll treat a man exactly how he acts, but I’ll always treat a lady like she a belle, even if she don’t act like one.” Cocking his brow, he asked, “Ya understand what I’m tryin’ to say here, Little Darlin’?”
Sighing slightly as she looked down, Elizabeth nodded a bit. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry for freaking out, it’s just...”
Xander crooked a finger under her chin in order to lift her head back up, giving her a serious look. “You ain’t got shit to be sorry ‘bout, ya hear? You got as much right to get freaked out over a loss a temper as anyone else. Tell ya what; I’ll make ya a deal. I’ll work on my temper if you promise me you’ll keep in mind that if I ever do lose it again, it ain’t with you. Even if it is, I ain’t gonna act on it like you expect me to.”
Her face fell at that. “But that’s just it, Xander. I learned a long time ago to expect it, so when it does, you’re ready for it. If it doesn’t, it’s a nice surprise.” Then she lowered her voice a bit. “I don’t like it, but I can’t help it. When you hear the words over and over, then they still do it, it makes you not put faith in what someone says. It’ll never happen again doesn’t mean anything anymore, because it does happen again. It’s fucked up, but it’s the way it is.”
Xander’s brow rose higher on his forehead at her words. “Just how long were you in that kind of situation?”
Tears pricking at her eyes and a small lump forming in her throat, she swallowed hard before answering. “Over six months. Every time it happened was sworn to be the last, until the next time came. Every time was worse than the one before it. I
to believe you, I do. Please, don't take this the wrong way, but I wanted to believe him, too.” Pulling her chin free, she turned away from his piercing green eyes, shaking her head as a tear slipped down her finally healed cheek. “And that didn’t turn out very well.”
Xander watched as that single tear slowly slid down her cheek, mocking him with every centimeter it moved, to the point he was ready to go hunting so he had an excuse to kill something. Lightly tapping a finger on her knee a few times, he tsked a bit. “Well, there is really only one way to prove my point that I can see, Sugar Britches.” Reaching up to wipe that mocking tear away, he once again turned her to face him, a smirk on his face. “You just gonna have to spend time with me until you figure out that not all guys are that fucked in the head. Whatcha say, Little Darlin’? Never know,” he winked at her, “You might just have some fun.”
She looked him in the eyes for a minute or so, trying to decide just how good of an idea this was, before giving him a half smile. “Will you teach me how to ride a horse?”
Giving her another one of those blinding smiles, Xander chuckled a bit. “It would be my pleasure, Little Darlin’.” Glancing off to the side and down the walkway, he bit into the corner of his bottom lip as he tried to figure out the best horse for her to learn on. He would have picked Rocky hands down, had Mark not been a jackoff. Since he was out, he figured his mama’s horse was the best choice left of the bunch they had on the ranch. She was one of the older ones, making her the least likely to take off or rear up and throw the lady from her back.
Standing, he went to the stable doors before calling toward the house, “Mama.” Once she was out on the porch, giving him the attention he inquired. “When was the last time you took out Laylonni?”
When she actually had to think about the answer, Xander had already decided it was too long ago to be good for the old girl, being confirmed when his mama answered with ‘about three weeks’. A riding horse of Laylonni’s age needed to be taken out at least once a week, if not twice in that time, to keep the muscles tight enough for her to be able to be ridden. He looked back at his mama when she called back out to him, “Why?”
“Miss Elizabeth here wanted to ride, but Mark’s dumbass hurt Rocky’s back.”
“You be good to her, Xander... Elizabeth?” Once the young lady she was looking for was in her sights, “You stayin’ for supper tonight, Sugar? It’ll be done in ‘bout an hour.”
Eyes going wide, she looked at her watch, not realizing that so much time had passed. Looking back up, “I told my aunt I’d be home for dinner.”
Mrs. Steele waved a hand in the air, “I’ll call her and let her know. Y'all kids have fun, now.”
Elizabeth blinked at her as she disappeared back inside, then turned to Xander. “She doesn’t get told no, does she.”
Xander snorted while shaking his head. “I only heard it once in 26 years, Sugar Britches. She didn’t like it much. Come on, I’ll show you how to saddle.”