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Southwind

Calls

BOOK ONE


A Novel by

MEL SCHANZ


Copyright

Copyright October 5, 2017

Cover Art copyright October 5, 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, photographic recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages, in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.

All characters of this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead, is coincidental.

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 2 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 3 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 4 ~ Avery

Chapter 5 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 6 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 7 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 8 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 9 ~ Avery

Chapter 10 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 11 ~ Avery

Chapter 12 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 13 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 14 ~ Avery

Chapter 15 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 16 ~ Avery

Chapter 17 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 18 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 19 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 20 ~ Avery

Chapter 21 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 22 ~ Avery

Chapter 23 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 24 ~ Avery

Chapter 25 ~Ashlee

Chapter 26 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 27 ~ Avery

Chapter 28 ~ Ashlee

A Note From The Author

The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong. ~ Laura Ingals Wilder

Prologue

A call came into the station of a possible vehicle accident on Lone-Star road. Officer Needles grabbed his jacket and slapped his deputy on the back. "This is us, Blacko. C'mon we'll catch a bite to eat on the way back."

Deputy Blacko Braun and Officer James Needles climbed into the squad car and buckled up.

"Light 'em up, Blacko," Needles commanded as they sped off in response.

The 911 operator reported the accident location at the bottom of Lone-Star hill. The clump of higher than normal land wasn't actually the name of the hill, but the locals called it a hill because there weren’t any mountains in Kansas, and it was the largest mound around. Also, it happened to be on Lone-Star road. The rain had been drizzling since five in the morning, which made driving fast difficult. Needles feared he’d crest the hill and find himself on top of the accident, so... As he began climbing the hill, he slowed. On the downside, he saw a car overturned in the ditch and a pick-up truck lying on its side in the middle of the road. Needles parked the police cruiser sideways in the road, lights running, at the top of the hill and they continued to the site on foot. He didn't need oncoming traffic plowing into the accident after roaring over the hill.

Needles spotted a boy kneeling beside a man in the ditch. He wasn't sure whether the man was alive or not, there wasn't any movement. The emergency medical team parked on the other side of the accident as Deputy Braun rushed to the boy.

"Hey kid! Are you okay? What happened"

An EMT felt for the old man’s pulse, "It's weak, but he has one!"

Officer Needles took point barking instructions to the EMT's who were getting the stretcher. "Let's get him out of here and to the hospital."

Another EMT checked on the other vehicle. The car was jammed up badly; the small worker shimmied in and out through the back window. When he emerged, lacking color, they knew; it wasn't going to be good news.

"They're gone," he managed to croak.

Needles turned toward the boy, "Son, what happened here? If you know something, you need to tell us."

An EMT checked the boy over, "Are you hurt anywhere?" He slowed while checking the kids' head, nose, mouth and eyes, "I smell whiskey. Are you drunk, son? Hey kid, have you been drinking and driving?"

The boy didn't say a word.

All of the sudden, the boy turned toward the ditch and vomited, violently. After heaving, he turned toward Blacko, looked him square in the eyes, and passed out.

Officer Needles picked the kid up, turned to the EMT's and instructed, "Take the old man to St. Francis Hospital in the ambulance; I'll transport the boy in the squad car. We'll get him checked out and when he comes to, start asking questions. Deputy Braun, call a bus for the other couple. They'll go to the hospital to be pronounced. You're probably going to have to get the Jaws of Life out here to cut 'em out."

"Yes, Sir," Blacko replied.

Needles carried the boy to the squad car and led the ambulance to the hospital, lights and sirens. He had a hard time believing the kid was a drinker. Something wasn't right about it.

“But what? He reeks of whisky, he's disoriented, and he passed out..." he said out loud to the open road before him.

At the hospital emergency drive, hospital personnel were waiting with a gurney for the boy.

"I want full blood work-up done on him."

"Will do, officer," the nurse replied as she pushed through the ER doors.

Nearby, the ambulance unloaded the old man. Needles stopped, checking on him, "How's he doing?" he asked an EMT as they whisked by.

"It's not looking good; we lost him twice on the way in. It's going to depend on if the doc can keep his heart pumping, or not."

This was not how Officer James Needles expected his day to go. He wandered over to the coffee machine and poured himself a cup.

"You okay?" a nurse questioned.

"Yeah, I'll be fine," he replied, wiping his brow and looking toward the surgery room doors. Nurses were running in and out, but he hadn’t heard anything on the condition of the older man.

He sat in the waiting room for what felt like hours before he saw a young blonde girl race through the emergency room doors. She was frantic. Her eyes searched the room before she ran to the nurse's station and asked for Avery Harrison. The nurse asked her to take a seat and someone would come for her, but she was too upset to sit. Another woman, and a girl about the same age as the first, came through the doors a minute later and calmed her. The mother tried getting information on the boy named Avery, but was told the same thing.

A raven-haired nurse came into the room and tapped Needles on the shoulder, "Can you come with me please, officer?"

He arose and followed her down the hallway to an exam room where the kid sat in the middle of a hospital bed, hooked up to machine's spitting out information on his vitals.

"I can't get him to say anything," Needles admitted to deputy Braun when he entered the room ten minutes later. "Why don't you have a crack at him."

The young deputy nodded.

After a few minutes of asking the kid questions, and getting no response, Blacko too, was exasperated.

"Why can't you just tell us what happened?" he asked. "Two people are dead, and I understand your father is in the operating room fighting for his life!"

The door burst open and the young blonde girl from the waiting room entered asking for Avery. She seemed distraught and confused, but relieved to see the boy was okay.

The kid sought her eyes and spoke for the first time since the two officers had been with him. It was an apology of some sort, for what he had done, but it left Needles, Blacko, and the girl more confused. The door opened once more and both officers watched as the raven-haired nurse glanced around frantically, found the girl, and told her she was needed elsewhere. She protested, but Needles and Blacko said the kid would be fine; he'd be under their supervision.

Ten minutes later, the entire hospital heard the girl scream.

Chapter 1 ~ Ashlee

I can't believe I'm really here, I thought for what seemed like the one-hundredth time in the last minute or so. I never wanted to see this God-forsaken place for the rest of my days on earth. Too much heartache. Too many people subjected to devastation and loss. The air even smells of death. The dirt is old, and... Oh, my word, I need to turn around and go back to California. I hate this place. I hate the memories it releases. I want to leave, badly.

But... I can't. I promised my brother I’d take care of things. Of course, he couldn't take leave of his work and care for things, and... I happened to be unemployed at the moment, not by choice, of course. So, here I am. Back in Kansas for the first time in twelve years.

The ranch I grew up on was going to be auctioned off in two months. For the next eight weeks, my job was to figure out a way to save the ranch, or get it ready for auction. My brother, Toby, wasn’t specific on which he preferred, but I had to admit, it’ll be hard to let the place go after four generations of Brackens. Since our parents had both passed away, the ranch ownership fell to Toby and me. However, with ownership, came responsibilities. It seemed we owed over ten-thousand dollars in back taxes on the property; plus, the loans were defaulted, and the banks wanted their money. Or, the ranch would be auctioned. Approximately two-thousand acres, the main house, two ranch-hand houses, three cabins, several barns, cattle, and horses were possibly going up for auction. I had my work cut out for me.

I moved to Monterey, California the week after my parents’ funeral. My brother, Toby, lived there with his wife, Jenna, and their two daughters. They were more than willing to take me in. Toby knew I’d never survive in Kansas; he knew the people would never treat me the same. Sure, everyone would forever be pleasant, but they’d never remove the kid gloves. My brother basically saved my life. By taking me out of my hometown, I wasn't met with anyone reminding me of my past. I didn't have to say I was doing okay when asked, even though they didn't really want the answer; they were only doing the polite thing in asking. Because...what do you say to the fourteen-year-old girl whose parents are suddenly dead?

I was lost in my memory when my son pulled me back, yelling from the back seat of our Jeep, "Wow, Mom! Did you see that? That shop has a huge horse statue on the roof and horse shoes all around the door."

I cowered in the driver’s seat and put my hand to my ear closest to him, "Yes, Eli. I saw it. I saw it when it was lowered onto the roof back in 1997, when I was your age."

"Wow..." he whispered as he stared. "That's a long time ago."

"Yes, yes it was. Your mother is as ancient as the dirt we walk on."

He laughed, "Well, you're not that old, Mom. But the 1900's were a long time ago."

I continued driving through town at the speed of a turtle winning a race. Turning from Main Street onto Lone-Star road, I shivered. I was driving the road my parents died on. It hadn't dawned on me, until the last turn, what I’d be facing, coming back to Kansas. Tears filled my eyes, but I quickly back-handed them aside and sucked it up. No way was I going to let Eli see me cry over the memories of this horrible place. Get in. Get the place ready. Get it sold. Get out. Stick to the plan, Ashlee, I told myself.

I was like a trained war veteran. I drove methodically over the hill where the accident happened and straight to the ranch. Breathing wasn’t an option through the route. I pulled into the ranch drive, and barely had the Jeep in park before Eli was jumping out and running for the first barn he could see.

"Eli!" I yelled, but there was no way he was listening to me. The only thing he spoke of the past two days of traveling, were the horses. He couldn't wait to see them, brush them, feed them, and hopefully, ride one.

"Eli Devin, you wait for me!" I yelled again, throwing in the middle name for emphasis. I rounded the barn door the same moment he reached out and touched the first horse. His tan hand lay on the smooth brown fur of the large animal. I listened and watched as he told the horse he was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. My heart melted. My son was standing right where I stood, with my father, doing the same thing as my father and me. It was our spot. Tears threatened me again as I moved to stand behind him.

I reached into a nearby bin and fished out an apple. I knew where the treats were kept since the horse manager, Frank, was one of the few left taking care of the place.

"Here," I said, as I handed him the fruit. "I bet she's dying for you to give her a treat. But... Keep your hand flat, like mine," I showed him how to hold his hand completely flat, "You don't want to lose any fingers while feeding her."

“She? Are you sure?” he asked, and I nodded. He seemed okay with my answer as he took the apple, held his hand exactly as I had, and moved closer to the horse, holding the offering. The horse didn't need to sniff the apple to know what she was getting, she lowered her mouth and plucked it right off his hand. He jumped back at the sight of her teeth but recovered with a sweet, sweet giggling sound. Oh, it was so good to hear that sound from him. The kid didn't know pain like I did, but he was always conscious of my pain. He knew what I’d been through. He knew of his father, and... Of course, his grandparents.

We stayed in the barn petting and brushing the horses for over an hour. I knew my son always had a thing for animals, especially dogs, but he was seriously in a horse coma and I couldn't bring myself to pull him out of it. He asked their names and I managed to remember the few who still called the Bracken Ranch home, but some were new since I'd left.

"The one you fed the first apple...she’s named Sunny. She was my favorite horse to ride because she was fast." I pointed farther down the barn stalls to a grey horse we'd also given a treat and a thorough brushing, "The grey mare is Patty, short for Patricia. She was another favorite to ride because she was slow."

He glanced at me with confusion.

I shrugged my shoulders and continued explaining, "Sometimes, I felt the need to ride like the wind through the pastures, and sometimes, I felt like being lazy and enjoying a stroll. You know, like when you want to surf, I see you take your board and ride the waves like you’ll never be able to ride again. And then, other times, I watch you lay on the beach where the water laps at the shore and you simply relax."

He glanced from me to Patty and back to Sunny. "Hmm... I get it. She's your wild waves," he said, pointing to Sunny, "And, she's your lazy beach day," pointing back to Patty.

"Exactly." I nodded and ruffled his mop of raven hair.

I heard a sound coming from the barn entrance and turned. As soon as I saw the person standing in the frame, I knew who it was; a squeal left my lips.

"Fraaaannnnk!" I ran to him and almost knocked him down with the enormous bear hug I laid on him.

He returned the squeeze with equal strength, "My girl."

We rocked back and forth for a good minute before I could let go.

He pulled back, taking the sight of me in, but kept his arms locked on mine, "My girl, how long it's been. Look at you; you've done grown up on me. I can't believe what I'm seeing; I mean... I always knew you'd be a beauty, but you're more gorgeous than I ever imagined."

"Now, now. No need to flatter, I'm the same old Ashlee as ever, only a bit older. But, you Frank, you don't look as if you've aged a day. What is Mrs. Butler feeding you? The fountain of youth? And, how is Lannie? God, how I miss her homemade peach ice cream." I laughed softly and squeezed the man's arm one more time before letting go.

"Oh, you know Lannie, she's busy entertaining the grandchildren with stories of a honey-haired little girl who used to live around here; a girl who was always causing mischief, climbing trees and making Sunny jump fences. And, of course, she's still making peach ice cream. I'll be sure and put in the request for you." He winked before I caught his gaze over my shoulder, toward the horses. He whistled long and slow, "Must be the boy." He leaned into my ear and hugged me once more as he whispered, "He's beautiful, looks a lot like his grandma. She'd be so proud of you."

I followed his observation of Eli, and for the first time, saw my mother. It was funny. I'd never thought either one of my parents could be seen in him, but now that Frank had made mention of it, he did resemble my mother. She'd had dark hair with steel blue eyes as had Eli’s father, Devin. A thought quickly crossed my mind as I pictured Devin that summer we were together. I was always drawn to his gorgeous eyes, never once realizing they resembled my mother's. I shook the thought off as soon as it came on and started walking toward Eli; pulling Frank along.

"Frank, I'd like you to officially meet my son, Eli. Eli, this is Frank. He is the head honcho at the ranch and knows everything there is to know about horses, barrel racing, foaling, goats, dogs..." I rattled off as I met his eyes over my son's head and smiled, "and, pretty much everything that goes on at the ranch. He worked for your grandparent’s from before I was born. And, his wife Lannie, is one of my most favorite people, ever."

Frank knew about Eli and Eli knew of Frank. I'd been sending the Butlers photos and letters of my life in California since my brother had convinced me, three months after Eli was born. They’d always been like grandparents to me. Young ones, since they were only around ten years older than my parents, but still, they treated me like family, and I them.

Frank held out his hand, "Pleased to finally meet you, young man. Are you thinking of helping out, here in the barn, during your stay?"

Eli shook his hand and glanced at me, "Well, mom says we aren't staying here long," Then looking back at Frank, he continued, "but, I'll do whatever you let me do. Like brush the horses and ride them and stuff."

"And, muck out their stalls?" Frank asked. "You know what mucking is, don't ya?"

"If you mean being the pooper scooper, then yep, I know what it is, and sure, I'll do it. I want to do everything there is to do with the horses!" He grinned. "Especially Sunny."

"All right, Partner," Frank shook his hand one more time. "We start at six-thirty in the morning; right after breakfast is eaten; you’ll need to make sure you get a good night’s sleep."

Eli nodded and left to tell Sunny all about it.

While keeping my eye on him, I turned toward Frank, "Listen, Frank, you don't have to do that. With everything going on around here, I don't want you to feel you have to entertain Eli too. This has to be hard on you and Lannie." Ashamed, I dropped my chin toward the dirt floor of the barn and scuffed my shoes back and forth. I really didn't know what to say to him, in less than two months I was going to sell his livelihood. He was around retirement age, probably sixty-five, I guessed, but... Farmers and ranchers never really retired. What were him and Lannie going to do for money? Guilt washed over me. Could I really take away their way of life? They lived in one of the houses on the property too, so... Not only their cash flow, but also their home.

"What are you and Lannie going to do?"

He placed his fingers under my chin and brought my wet eyes back to his, "Now, none of that nonsense, Ash. You don’t need to take no blame for needing to sell the place, or even wanting to, if it comes to it. Lannie and I will be fine. We have a place to stay with our youngest boy and we’d like to travel some too."

His explanation was barely convincing. I could tell, he was trying to convince himself as much as he was me.

"You do what you need to do. Ranching has changed from ten years ago, even though we still make pretty good money on foaling and barrel horses, it alone can't keep this ranch afloat. If beef prices were higher, it'd be better, but I don't know much about that. Believe me, I've tried and checked every which way to bring in more money, maybe if the back taxes weren’t owed, or that weasel Clarkins didn’t run off with the money. Either way, I can’t see how to get out from under this mess and make it profitable again.”

A tear dropped onto my cheek. I backhanded it, and pulled Frank in for another squeeze. "I'm going to need that peach ice cream a lot sooner than I thought, Frank."


Chapter 2 ~ Ashlee

I unlocked the back door of my childhood home and stepped inside. The strong smell of old wood drifted through me like a ghost. I flipped the light switch and the mud-room brightened. The electric had been on, and paid, over the years, but the windows had obviously not been opened in quite some time. The place could use a few days of air movement, I thought. Eli followed, pinching his nose. The mud-room was large. It easily housed a few people, the clothes washer, dryer, and boot racks along with jacket hooks. My grandfather added it to the house in the early sixties, per my grandmother's refusal of any muddy boots allowed in her house. The rule still stood. I slipped my shoes off and Eli followed suit. Through the mud-room the house flowed in a sort-of square. If we went to the left, we'd step into the kitchen and then dining room. A right would take us into the main family room, the staircase, two downstairs bedrooms, an office, and a powder room. I turned left.

Eli walked ahead of me through the kitchen where he noticed a framed picture on the wall, "Hey, Mom, is this you?"

I set my bag on the table and glanced his way, knowing exactly which photo it was. The one of me when I was about 9-years-old, riding Sunny for the first time. Dad had brought her home from a livestock auction in Montana. He went for one-hundred head of cattle, but came home with my horse. The cattle made it back with him too, but Sunny was the prize of the auction. She was a year-old filly, and hadn’t even been for sale at the time. She belonged to one of the rancher’s when my dad noticed her; instantly knowing she was the one for me. I later found out, by listening to one of my parents few arguments, he'd paid a thousand dollars more than she was worth. My mother was upset with him, saying he needed to stop spoiling me, but my father didn't care. I was his baby girl; I was going to get whatever he wanted to give me. My mother was exasperated, but still, I heard her giggle. I’d peeked around the corner and saw my father kissing her neck; telling her both of his girls were going to forever be spoiled so she might as well give-up complaining. I went back to bed and dreamed of marrying a man like my father, someday.

"Yes, it's me. And, that's Sunny, the day my daddy brought her home. Wasn't she beautiful? In fact, she still is."

"Wow! She's old. How old do horses live?" he asked, forever interested in animals, along with all their facts.

"Well, let's see, if I remember right, that picture was taken in nineteen ninety-seven and she was a year old, so... That'd make her about eighteen-years. She still has many years left in her. My grandfather had a horse like her who lived to be thirty-seven."

It was strange, feeling this wealth of suppressed knowledge flooding back to me. I shrugged my shoulders in thought, must be the atmosphere around this place, or something about coming home.

He mouthed the word wow once more before moving on, in search of more interesting things in the old house. I shook my head and thought about how much there was for him to learn here. I'd kept everything dealing with the ranch from him his entire life; why had I?

Low enough for Eli not to overhear me, I muttered, "Oh, Toby. You knew damn well what you were doing when you sent me here with Eli. You rascal."

Together, we wandered through the downstairs, flipping on lights and opening windows as we went. Except for the sheets covering the furniture, and layers of dust on everything, it looked exactly the same as when I’d left, twelve years before. Panic rose in me as I thought about my parents and all that had been lost. I punched a fist into my father's oversize recliner. Eli turned sharply from the bookcase he was checking out.

"You okay, Mom?"

"Yeah," I spoke shakily, inhaled and tried again, "Yeah, I'm good. There are a lot of memories here; I never thought I'd come back and face them. But, I'll be fine, Bud, I'm a Bracken. And, Bracken's are strong people." I smiled at him and got a slight smile in return.

You're not fooling anybody here, Ashlee.

"Listen, Bud, let's take our things upstairs to the bedrooms, see how much dust we have to remove to stay the night. What do you say?"

"Sounds good to me, Mom. I'll carry your bag. Because, there's something else Bracken's are, and that's polite," his smile reached his eyes.

"Oh, how I love you," I squeezed his shoulders and thanked God silently again for sending him to mend my broken heart.

I led the way to the antique staircase, a mainstay of the home. The long, winding, maple railing was something I slid down daily, as a kid. I ran my hand over the railing, reminiscing before we ascended the stairs. On the fourth step from the top, I stopped, backtracking a step. Since Eli was behind me, he also had to stop.

"Wait." I held my hand up. I stepped back and forth between the fourth and fifth stair. On the third trip, I finally got what I wanted: A loud wooden creak. "Ah... There it is," I smiled and rocked back and forth again.

"Mom? What are you doing?"

"Making sure no one fixed the creaky step," I smiled as I ruffled his hair and proceeded up the stairs. As Eli followed, he stepped on the creaky step, it creaked once more and we both laughed.

At the top of the stairs, I turned left toward my old bedroom. I opened the door and was instantly transported back to my childhood. After pulling off the dust protecting sheets, I found my bed was made with my favorite quilt. When I’d left the house after my parents’ death, I didn't want to take anything with me. I didn't want memories involving everyday things surrounding my parents. I wanted to keep my favorite things about them, in my heart. Not, physically hold onto them. I wiped at a falling tear and moved on, letting Eli bring in our bags.

I watched him walk around the room, unimpressed until he saw the line of eight ceiling-to-floor windows and the view they allowed. One thing my great-grandparents had done when they built the house, was build large bedrooms. My room sat facing the back of the house with an incredible view of the large lake beginning a hundred and fifty, or so, yards behind the house. The lake covered roughly 16 acres of the property. My brothers’ bedroom was directly across the hallway but faced the front of the property. Even-though the bedrooms were identical in size, and both had the same beautiful windows, Toby had always complained that I had the better bedroom because of the view. I pushed through the door at the end of the room and walked into an over-sized closet which passed through to a bathroom. I continued walking through the bathroom, before exiting into my brother's closet, and then his bedroom. Eli followed and was amazed with the layout. He met my eyes with his wide open, and for the third time, mouthed the word wow.

"It's called a Jack-and-Jill bathroom," I explained. "If your Uncle Toby beat me to the shower growing up, he'd stay in it forever and I’d have a cold shower by the time he finally finished. It's hard to believe he was mean to me, isn't it? But, don't worry, I got him back by spending at least ten minutes first thing in the morning in the bathroom because I knew he had to relieve himself. I wouldn't even be using the bathroom, or anything; I’d lock both doors and give my Barbie dolls a swimming party in the tub. Toby would have to go downstairs to the bathroom, or outside. Oh, how he’d holler. Funny thing was...my daddy was the one who told me to do it. He said he deserved it for sleeping in and not getting up early, helping with the chores.”

My thoughts continued... I hadn't known much about teasing a teenage boy at the time; I was eight and Toby, eighteen. The next year, he moved to California and I didn’t see him much except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the summer, while he was on school break.

I led the way through Toby's room back to mine. His room had a king-sized bed in it for when he and his young family had visited from California.

"You can have my old room and I'll take the other one," I relayed to Eli; he nodded.

After opening the windows, stripping the sheets, and dusting the bedrooms, I called Eli and asked if he wanted to go into town for a few more cleaning supplies, new linens, and some dinner. His answer came in the form of running for the stairs, the back door, then the Jeep. By the time I made it there, he was buckled in and ready to go.

I looked him over and questioned, "You must be hungry, huh?"

“Starving!” he replied. "What is there to eat in this town?"

"You know, I'm not sure what's here now, but when I was growing up there was an amazing diner known for serving the best burgers and fries. Plus, they had chocolate shakes to die for. What do you think? That is, if they're still open."

He nodded eagerly; I put the car in drive and headed toward town. As I drove through town, for the second time, I took a few moments, glancing around the scenery. It was almost as if I time traveled to when I was a young girl, living in the area. The family owned drug store still occupied one corner of the square. The Nelson family had owned it, I remembered. They had two daughters and a boy, the boy being in my grade. Dalton, I believed. I wonder if they still own the store? Next door to the drug store, were a flea market and flower shop. Those were new. Farther down the street, the old bookstore remained next to my mothers’ bakery. The bakery, of course, was gone and a café occupied its place. It had and new awning, redone with red and white stripes, but the same bright-white, massive door invited you in off the street. The cafe was named Vera’s and I thought about trying the cuisine, instead of Bob's Diner, if it was still in business, but decided against pressing myself into dealing with every memory in the same day.

"Breathe, Ashlee," I whispered to myself. "It's merely a building.” Yeah, a building you spent your entire childhood in, no big deal.

Sirens went off on top of the car behind me. Thinking the officer was responding to a call, I pulled over, letting him by. I was surprised when he pulled in behind me.

"Oh great. What did I do to get pulled over?" I berated myself, loud enough Eli heard me.

"I think maybe you were speeding, Mom," he replied.

"No way was I speeding, I don't speed," I countered while I dug into my glove box for my registration. While living in Southwind before, I wasn't yet old enough to drive; I hadn't paid too much attention to the speed limits. Although, I knew the main drag was a slower speed because my dad always complained about driving extremely slow on our way to the bakery. But, how fast was I going?

The officer stepped up to my window. "Good day, Ma'am, Son," he nodded to Eli in the back. "Could I see your license and registration, please?"

"Um...sure," I replied as I handed them over. "Is something wrong, Officer?" I looked at his name badge and read Lieutenant B. Braun. Hmm... The name didn't ring a bell with anyone I could remember from my childhood, but I didn't really know many officers back then, either; only the officer who was at the scene of my parents’ accident. Needles was his name; he was most likely old and retired. Lt. Braun was not old. Young, possibly early thirties and I noticed he was of Indian decent. He could be older though, I reminded myself, everyone knew native people aged well. I found it interesting the police force let him keep his hair long, even if it was nicely kept back in a hair tie. I also noticed he had the traditional police cowboy hat which had been adopted in the Central United States. My mind raced as he checked my papers.

He inhaled audibly as he checked my information, then glanced at me again before replying, "Well, I see you're from out of state, Ma'am,” he paused. “The town square here has an enforced speed limit of twenty miles per hour and you were traveling at thirty-five. Did you not see the signs posted?"

"Really? Thirty-five? Are you sure that's accurate?" I was in disbelief. I never sped. Ever. How could I have missed the speed limit?

"Yes, Ma'am, it's accurate. The radar gun doesn't lie," he replied dryly before asking, "Where are you headed?"

I was still in disbelief. How could I have been driving over the limit? I shook my head, clearing it. "Oh...uh...we're...going to get some dinner and to the country store. Listen, I'm sorry, I should've paid attention more, so...whatever you need to do, write me a ticket, or whatever, I'm sorry, I must've been distracted and missed the sign."

"Listen, I’m going to go run your license and make sure you don't have outstanding warrants before we talk about tickets." Lt. Braun tapped my registration on the car window-sill before returning to his squad car.

"Holy cow, Mom!" Eli exclaimed from the back. "Thirty-five! You were going fifteen over the speed limit. He is so giving you a ticket."

"Oh, thanks Eli. Exactly what I need, you explaining to me how I broke the law." I peered into the rear-view mirror at Lt. Braun in his squad car. What was it my friend Ellie was always telling me got her out of tickets? Tears? Boobs? Damn, I couldn't do either one of those; my kid was in the car with me. I'll have to suck it up and take the fine, I guess. I deserve it anyway, I was speeding, I thought. I glanced again and watched as the Lieutenant stepped out of his car. He was in great shape with long legs and a built upper body. I wondered if he was single. Oh, stop it, Ash. He’s nowhere near your type. Whatever your type is. He held his ticket pad along with my registration in his hand. Oh boy, here we go. I tried to conjure a genuine smile but wasn't feeling it so instead I came up with something resembling constipation.

"Well... Ma'am, seems to be your lucky day," he handed me my papers and continued, “I'm going to let you slide this time with a warning since you're not from the area, but don't do it again. We like to keep the streets safe around here for the kids and the town folk who walk regularly in the area."

"Are you sure?" I was both flabbergasted and ecstatic with not being cited. "I mean, I'm grateful but I don't want you to get in any trouble for letting me off with a warning."

"No, Ma'am. No trouble at all; we'd like out-of-towners to know we're a pretty good folk here. Now, is there anything I can help you find Ms. Bracken? A Motel? Restaurant?"

“Oh...um, we don't need a motel, we have a place to stay, but yes, you could probably help me with a question I have. How about Bob's Diner? Is it still in business? I used to live here when I was a kid and was hoping to take my son for a burger basket and shake, if it’s still open, that is."

Lt. Braun smiled before nodding, “Yes, Ma’am. Ole Bob is still back there grilling too. Burger baskets are better than ever, and the shakes are still delicious."

"Awesome. Thank you, Lieutenant, I'll make sure, from now on, I drive the speed limit," I assured him before I looked over my shoulder, making sure Eli was still buckled. I turned back to the Lieutenant in time for him to nod and raise his hand in farewell. I pulled back into traffic, which was virtually none, and headed toward Bob's Diner.


Chapter 3 ~ Ashlee

Five minutes later, we pulled into the diner parking lot; the smell wafting out the door was amazing. Eli climbed out of the Jeep and walked with me to the entrance. Inside the diner looked about the same as I remembered it. Same red vinyl cushion booths, same bar stools with the same red vinyl covering them. Same jukebox in the corner. Same Coca-Cola sign on the main wall along with license plates from all over the United States; several of them from Kansas. Same sticky floor. Eli wanted to sit at the counter; I obliged, and a young waitress came to wait on us. I didn't recognize her as anyone I knew, but decided everyone would look different being twelve years older than the last time I saw them.

I ordered two burger baskets with the works and two chocolate shakes. Eli asked for money to feed the jukebox, so I dug a couple bucks in loose change out of my purse and sent him off. The waitress came back around and asked if I wanted anything else to drink besides the shake and I decided on an iced tea.

As she poured my tea she nodded over toward Eli, and asked, "How old is your son?"

I was happy to make conversation with an adult since most of my conversations involved a certain little boy. "Eli? He's eight; turned eight in May," I turned my gaze on Eli and smiled before I asked the common courtesy question in return. "Do you have children?"

"Me? Yes, I have a son who's five, a daughter who's two, and one more on the way, due in November," she blushed.

I thought about how young she was with two small children and another on the way. My eyes dropped to her waist line and I thought there might be something there. November would make her about four months along. She was petite and her smock big...it was hard to tell.

"My goodness, you’re so young," I was young when I had Eli. People must've thought the same of me as my belly grew and later as I ran around with a toddler on my hip. I cleared my throat and corrected, "I mean... I was barely eighteen when I had my son, but it was definitely hard with one child. I can't imagine three kids.”

"Me either," she spoke with despair. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I love my children, but I am exhausted from chasing them around and being pregnant. At least my son starts school this year, that'll help take some of the burden from me, but I still have the rest of the summer to make it through. Lord, help me. I'll be fine though; my husband and our parents are around and love the children, so... They take them occasionally. Not as often as I'd like, but a break is a break, right?"

"I hear you on that. I had my brother and his wife when my son was a baby, it wasn't much, but it worked, and they loved him like their own, still do," I explained. "If you don't mind my asking, did you grow up here? You seem familiar... I moved away when I was younger and haven't been back. I’m having a hard time placing faces with names."

"Oh no, not at all. Yes, I've been here my entire life. My name's Chloe. Chloe Davis,” she held out her hand to shake mine. “Trenton was my maiden name. Bob's my uncle," she added as she pointed over her shoulder toward the kitchen.

I strained my brain thinking over Bob's family tree for a moment before it came back to me. Chloe was the daughter of Phyllis and Jack Trenton. Jack is Bob's brother making Bob a Trenton too. And, if I remembered correctly, Chloe had a brother a couple of years older than me.

“I’m Ashlee Bracken. So... Chloe, you have an older brother named Danny, right? I think there was a Danny Trenton who was a couple of years above me in school."

"Yes, Ma’am, that'd be my big brother. He tries to go by Daniel now, but we all still call him Danny. He lives in Texas with a wife and two kids of his own. We don't see them too often. Mainly the holidays and a week or so in the summer when they can get days off work and come home. They'll be in town in mid-July; I can't wait to get our kids together. The cousins adore each other," her attention traveled toward the end of the counter where an older gentleman sat down. She nodded at the man and said, "Well, looks like I better go grab some coffee for Paul, it was nice talking to you, Ashlee. I'll have your burgers out soon."

Eli pulled himself onto the stool next to me and inquired, "Who was that, Mom? Do you know her from the old days?"

I shoulder bumped him lightly and laughed. "No, Bud, but I knew her older brother Danny. He helped out at the ranch when he was starting high school. Nice kid, but my daddy wouldn't let me be alone with him. Something about hormones... I didn't understand at the time, but now, I completely get it."

"Hormones?" he questioned. "Oh, those would be those things Aunt Jenna talks about with the girls, huh?"

"Bingo. Someday you'll get them too," I explained as Chloe brought out our burger baskets. "Hopefully it’ll still be years before I deal with your hormones though, Bud. In the meantime, let's eat."

"You two enjoy your dinner and don't forget to dip your fries in the shake," she set down a few extra napkins and smiled before she stepped away.

"She wants me to dip my fries in my shake?"

"Oh! I forgot about that little secret. Yes, it really is delicious, try it," I said as I demonstrated the procedure. I took a big bite of the frosty fry, "Mm... Devine," I’d forgotten how delicious Bob’s fries and chocolate shakes were together. God, I'm going to pay big-time for this.

Eli gave me his best are you delusional stare but shrugged his shoulders and tried the concoction anyway. His eyes lit up as he tasted, waiting until he was done to give his review, "You were right! It's really good!" he took another bite, followed by another.

The burgers were exactly as I remembered: delicious. We ate the rest of our meals in silence and I left the money on the counter for Chloe. Her tables had picked up since we'd begun eating so she had only enough time to check on us once and leave me the check. I gave her a little wave as we walked out the door and headed for the country store.

It took the better part of two hours to find everything we needed at the store; by the time we made it back home, the sun had set. The light was on in the kitchen of the old house, but I didn't remember leaving it on. I climbed out of the Jeep and told Eli to stay put while I investigated.

"It's probably nothing, Bud. But, I want to be completely sure no one's inside.”

As I stepped on the back-deck steps, I heard muffled voices but couldn’t make out words. I took hold of my mace on my key-chain and opened it, ready to spray. Moving closer to the back door, I was able to see the counter-tops, but not the table, the partial backside of one person sitting at the table, and the legs of someone leaning against the counter. I was ninety-five percent sure I knew who the intruders were, but in-order-to be one hundred percent, I’d have to move closer. With my nose pressed against the back-door window, I saw fully who the person sitting at the table was. She had grey hair done up like she'd recently been to the beauty parlor.

I stepped back, ready to tell Eli all was good, when my foot landed on something, or someone rather. I yelped and we both fell backward down the two steps and onto the ground. I sat up, somewhat recovered and met my son’s eyes. He grinned.

"Eli Devin! You were supposed to wait in the Jeep. You about gave me a heart attack and could’ve broken both our necks. What are you doing?" Something large and white in his hand caught my eye. “And, what are you planning to do with the milk?"

"I'm protecting you, Mom. What if it's a bad person and they knock you down or something worse? And... I was going to clobber them with the milk, of course."

"Well... Bud, you already knocked us both down, so I guess whoever is inside can come and get us. However, I have a feeling they won't be hurting us," I turned my attention on the back door where Frank and his wife, Lannie, peered out. I smiled and waved we were fine. "Go fetch the groceries and I'll introduce you to Frank's wife and the best ice cream you've ever consumed.”


Ten minutes later, we sat around the kitchen table while Eli devoured his second bowl of peach ice cream. Lannie had given me a hug, which seemed to go on forever, before I was allowed to introduce Eli. Then, she insisted we sit and enjoy the ice cream while she put away our groceries. And, I let her. Not because I was exhausted and needed someone to wait on me, but because I knew she wouldn't let me protest, she was a grandmother, after all.

"What do you think, Eli?" I asked, knowing full well it was the best he'd ever had.

"The best. I don't even like peaches and it's good," he exclaimed. "And, I can't believe you let me have a chocolate shake and two bowls of ice cream on the same day. It's like my birthday, or something."

"Well, don't get used to it, Bud. This day has definitely been a special occasion kind of day; a lot of firsts for you. Your first horse encounter, first time you've been to my hometown, first time you've met Frank and Lannie," I chucked him under the chin and smiled at Frank.

We talked for a good while with Frank and Lannie before I began yawning uncontrollably.

Lannie met her husband's eyes and said, "I think it's time we head home and let these two angels get some shut eye. They've had a big day and there are going to be longer days ahead."

We were all avoiding the subject of auctioning the ranch, but I knew we'd have to sit down and talk about it by tomorrow.

"Come by tomorrow morning for some coffee and I'll make biscuits and gravy for y'all. We'll start figuring out what it is I need to do here, okay?"

Frank glanced from me to Lannie and back at me before nodding his agreement.

"All right, Dear, sleep good and you too, young Eli." Lannie kissed his head before mine and I felt a sudden warming. No one had done that in years. Not since my parents. I felt tears threatening and hurried to stand and open the back door for my guests, hiding my emotions.

After they’d gone, Eli asked, "Mom, are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Bud. It was a little emotional seeing my parent’s friends again after so long, but everything will be fine, and we'll have a great summer with them, making memories for you to keep forever. Listen, let's leave the dishes in the sink, take these new sheets upstairs, and make some beds so we can have the good night's sleep Lannie was talking about. Sound good?"

"I'm so tired I could sleep right here in the ice cream bowl," he replied.

We both laughed.


After beds were made, and teeth brushed, I tucked Eli into my old bed and said goodnight. I walked downstairs, checking the locks one more time and turning on the light over the stove in case Eli got up in the middle of the night. Glancing around the family room as I walked toward the staircase, I noticed a picture I hadn't remembered seeing before. It was displayed on the sofa table; the frame, a lovely rose design hand cut from wood. I turned on the lamp and picked up the frame. The picture was one of my parents with Toby and I from the last time we’d all been together; the Christmas before my parents’ accident. I couldn't believe I was seeing the photo again after all these years and knew for a fact my mother, nor I, had ever put it in a frame. Let alone the intricately carved one in my hands. I remembered the day well.

It was Mom, Dad, Toby, Jenna, their girls, Frank, Lannie and I, sitting in this very room. We were opening presents while drinking coffee and hot chocolate on Christmas morning. I'd opened a gift from my parents...a new camera...one I'd been looking at through the window of a shop downtown when I would go to my mother's bakery. I never said anything about wanting it to anyone except my best friend, Clare. Had she told my mother? Possibly, I'd never thought about how my mother knew I wanted the camera. I remembered putting the film in the camera and snapping away at my family. We all laughed over it and eventually everyone got tired of me telling them to smile. Lannie had taken it from me and told the four of us to pose in front of the Christmas tree for a family photo. We did, and a couple weeks later, when I developed the film, I looked through the photos, showed them to everyone I knew, and then they went into an envelope shoved into the back of my desk, forever forgotten.

Until now.

Tears sprung to my eyes. I knew Lannie had done this for me, and I knew she meant well, but... Didn't she know I wanted to forget all those memories? The joy I felt with my family growing up only caused me pain now. I set the frame down and turned off the lamp, climbed the stairs, got into my pajamas and the extra-large bed. The room was cool for a June night in Kansas, but the new sheets and quilt I pulled out of the cedar chest, were comfortable. I had all the lights out, but with the wall behind the bed almost a full sheet of windows, there was still a large deal of moonlight shining in. I laid back and rolled my eyes toward the presence of light. I could see the moon in the night sky; it was full and bright. I laid there staring at it. Everything was peaceful, serene.

Until... Something touched my foot, and I screamed.

"Mom?" Eli asked from the foot of my bed. "Are you okay? I didn't mean to scare you. I thought you heard me come in."

With my hand on my racing heart, I found his steel blue eyes in the moonlight, "No. No. No, it's fine. I'm fine, Eli. I was startled is all. Do you need something?"

"I guess I can't sleep. You know, being in a new place and everything. Can I sleep with you tonight and then I'll try to sleep on my own tomorrow night?" he pleaded.

I scooted over on the bed and made room for him, "Absolutely, Bud. Climb in and keep me company. I'm actually glad you came in here, I wanted you to sleep with me too, but I didn't want to make you." I pulled the quilt on top of us and nestled into the pillows once more.

We lay there in quiet for a few minutes before Eli asked me another question. "Mom, do you miss them?"

“Every day, Bud. I think about them more than I want to. I know that sounds bad, like I don't want to think of them, but what I mean is, every time I think of my parents, I feel pain and sorrow. So, I try to put them far out of my mind," I sighed before adding, "I didn’t realize until today when Frank pointed it out, but when I look at you, I see my mother's eyes, my father’s big forehead, and his ears that stuck out a little."

"Big ears?"

"Yep, not quite as large as my father's but they're growing every day."

There was silence again and I knew my little man was processing this new information. We didn't talk much about his grandparents, and now, in the past forty-eight hours, we'd spoken of them almost as much as his entire lifetime.

"Don't think I don't like looking at you because you resemble them. Eli, I love that you have something from my parents. It means they really lived. The same as the things you have from your father. It keeps a part of him alive."

He shrugged in the bed beside me.

"Kind of deep for an eight-year-old, huh?"

He giggled that sweet, sweet sound I love. "I love you, Mom."

"And, I love you too, Bud." I answered. "Now, let's get some sleep so we can tackle tomorrow."

He was asleep in minutes. I fell asleep much later, dreaming of a raven-haired, steel-eyed boy who stole my heart years ago.


Chapter 4 ~ Avery

"And you're one-hundred percent positive it was her?" Avery questioned as he sat at the bar in Uncle Bob's diner. Bob wasn't really his uncle, but he grew up eating with his pops at the very bar and when he returned to Kansas, he resumed his old habits.

"One-hundred percent," Chloe answered. "I mean, she introduced herself as Ashlee Bracken, and she looks the exact same as she did years ago except prettier than I remember, as if that's even possible. Anyway, hair the same color. Freckles in the same spots, and… I don't think the girl has put an ounce of weight on. Only... Maybe, she has boobs now?"

His eyebrows rose but he said nothing.

She rolled her eyes, "Never fails with men, say the word boobs and they’re all eyes and ears."

He shook his head at the thought of his long-ago friend grown up and womanly. "Did she say why she's here?"

"Nah. We didn't get to talk about that because it got busy in here right after I gave them their food," she answered.

"Them?" his ears perked at the mention of someone accompanying Ashlee to Southwind. "Who was with her? Her brother? Husband?

"Nope. Her son. Who’s eight, if I remember right."

"A son?"

"Yep, a little boy. Dark-haired little fella."

"A son," he repeated. "But, no husband?"

"Not one that I saw, and no wedding band either," she placed both hands on the counter-top, leaned forward and smiled. "Avery Harrison. You still have a thing for Miss Ashlee? What happened to that blonde from Wichita? She sure was pretty."

"She wasn't entirely interesting," he answered. "She went on and on about her cat and how he needed to be bathed every other day. I kept thinking, don't cats bathe themselves? I had to make an excuse not to see her anymore. It's a damn shame too, she had the longest legs I'd ever seen."


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