Come sundown, p.39
signed the papers, and it’s yours. Your family’s. I don’t regret it.”
“It would break my heart if we had to sell our land.”
Oddly, he thought it would break his own if that ever happened.
“It’s not like that for me, not this land. I don’t know if it ever was. One of these days I’ll want my own, and I’ll get it.” With a shrug he smiled at her. “I did all right in California. You’re not too polite to ask about that, but you haven’t.”
“There’s not too polite and there’s downright rude. I can be downright rude,” she decided. “What’s ‘all right’ for yourself, more or less?”
“Enough I didn’t have to sell. I could’ve kept the land, given my mother and sister their shares. Bought some stock, got a decent ranch going.”
Maybe that was more all right than she’d imagined, and maybe that added another aspect to him she hadn’t considered. She appreciated a good head for business and financial security.
“But you didn’t.”
“Nope. Because it’s not what I wanted. I didn’t mind running my own business, and wasn’t bad at it.”
“What do you mean your own business?”
Since he knew where she’d been heading, he rode forward. “I hooked up with a partner in California, and we had our wrangling enterprise, such as it was. And it did all right. When I was ready to come back, he bought me out. I don’t mind working for somebody else, either. So I’m fine where things stand.”
Yet another aspect she hadn’t considered. “I didn’t know you started a business—I thought you just worked for one.”
“I wanted to try it out.” As simple as that really, he thought now. He’d wanted to try things, get a feel for things. “It fit well enough, for a while. It fits you better from what I see. I’ve gotten real fond of women who know how to run things, and have to think a lot of one who juggles it all to get home for an hour in the middle of the day to put family ahead of everything.”
“Why, Callen Skinner.” Eyes wide, she pressed a hand to her heart. “You’re going to bring a blush to my cheeks.”
“That’ll be the day.”
He could see the house up ahead now, the single story with its slightly crooked L. The empty paddocks, the overgrown yard, the scrabble of a chicken coop. The empty barn gone to a faded, red-streaked gray where his father had hanged himself.
Some wildflowers were trying to bloom. In the distance, the mountains held some blue, some green under the frosting of snow.
“What was the idea?” he asked her. “Coming here?”
“We’re still deciding what to do. We have some options. The first is whether to incorporate it into the ranch or the resort. I lean, big surprise, toward resort.”
“That’s a shocker,” he replied.
“Chase is on the fence—another shocker. Though I think part of the fence-sitting is waiting until he knows what you’d rather.”
“It’s not my land.”
“Shut up. Rory’s with me. Mom’s just too distracted to think clearly either way, and Dad leans ranch, but he’s open. We haven’t brought the grannies into it, but we will.”
“Either way leads to other options, but right now the leans are swaying heavier toward resort’s more likely, so I’ll give you those. We could fix up the house, the outbuildings, rent this out as a mini-ranch experience. Families, groups, corporate events. We could raze the house, the outbuildings, and build new ones. Either toward that mini-ranch experience or a group of high-end cabins, with a central kitchen and community area like we do for the glamping. Bring in some stock, make it an educational experience for youth groups. How to tend horses, cattle, chickens. Lots of options.”
“You’ve got your preference. Which is it?”
She shook her head. “They’re all workable, all good, and can all be fluffed up and marketed. I’m asking you how you feel about it.”
“I told you, I’m fine with it. It’s not mine to say anyway.”
She hissed, dismounted. “Oh, get off your horse, Skinner. I mean that literally and metaphorically.” She walked Leo to the paddock, looped his reins over the fence. “You grew up in that house. You worked the land here, raised horses and cattle. You have a damn opinion. You have feelings.”
He got off his horse, and distinctly felt the edges of the corner she had pushed him into. “I don’t care as much as it seems you want me to.”
“Bullshit. Just bullshit. I’m asking you to tell me right when we’re standing here. Take it down, the house, the barn, all of it, or fix it up and make it new again. Just that. Tell me.”
Angrier than she wanted to be, she knocked a fist on his heart. “Tell me what you feel, what you’d want.”
She left her hand on his heart. He swore it burned right into it, like the sun burning across the sky on its slow descent. Like her eyes into his.
“Take it down. All of it. I—”
“Done,” she repeated. “That’s all I needed.”
He grabbed her wrist before she could pull away. The temper they both felt evaporated when she laid her other hand on his cheek.
“It matters, Callen, what you feel. Not just to me, but it sure as hell matters to me. They’re options, and all of them good. Why shouldn’t what you want count?”
“It’s not mine.”
“It might’ve been, but it wasn’t. If my only choice in coming back was to come here, to this land, to this house, I wouldn’t be here. This isn’t where I’m rooted, and whatever roots there were, were so shallow ripping them out didn’t change a thing.”
He pulled her close so they could look at the front of the house together. “I’ve got mixed memories, good and bad. I don’t know that one outweighs the other so much. I remember when my father got it into his head to build that addition there. He didn’t know what he was doing, and I was about twelve, so I didn’t know, either. But he tried.”
He heard his mother’s voice as they stood in the wind over his father’s grave.
“He tried,” Callen repeated, maybe finally accepting just that. “And it made my mother happy. It’s lopsided and the floor inside slopes, but he tried and it made her happy. It’s mixed that way.”
Saying nothing, Bodine leaned into him a little. An offer of comfort.
“But my mother’s never going to walk on that floor again. And she’s never going to stand here and look over at that barn and remember how he looked hanging. I don’t want you to take it down for me.”
“I said it’s done.” Turning to him, she laid her hand back on his heart. “Maybe she’ll come back here one day and see what we’ve built. Maybe it’ll make her happy. Maybe it’ll make you happy.”
She gestured, waited until he stopped looking into her eyes, followed her direction. “You’ve got a couple of rosebushes over there. You should dig them up. Make sure you get good root balls, cover them with burlap, and take them to your mother. I bet your sister would know how to get them going again. It would mean something to your mother.”
In his throat, emotion lodged with gratitude. “There are times I don’t know what to say to you. Times you just blow a hole through me.”
He drew her in, held on. “I’ll dig them up,” he told her. “She’ll like that, and I wouldn’t have thought of it.”
“You might have.”
“I’d throw it all out,” he stated, looking over her head at what might’ve been his. “That’s the wrong way. There’s some of those daffodils trying to come up on the side of the house. I could dig them up, too. Savannah always liked those when we were kids. And—”
“Maybe I’ll pry up a couple floorboards before you tear it down. Between Justin and Savannah, they could make something. She’d like that.”
“There you go.” Bodine leaned back enough to kiss him. “Why don’t we walk around for a mi
Before he could answer his phone signaled. “Text from my mother.” He frowned at the readout. “She never texts. She just— Christ, my sister’s in labor.”
“Well, you’ve got to go!” Grabbing his hand, Bodine dragged him back to the horses. “You have to get there.”
“She’s having it at home. Why would anyone do that? There ought to be a law or something. Why is she—”
“Mount up, Skinner.” She said it with a laugh, for a moment seriously adoring him and his pure male fluster. “You can get to your truck in less than ten minutes, and drive there and ask her yourself.”
He swung onto his horse. “Maybe Vanna doesn’t want me in the middle of things.”
“Men are idiots.” Bodine sent Leo into a gallop, knowing Sundown would follow her lead.
* * *
Her mood high, Bodine strode into the house. She found Clementine at the counter with Alice, peeling potatoes.
“I’m making mashed potatoes. Clementine’s showing me how. I can watch her fry the chicken.”
“And I can eat it,” Bodine said, making Alice duck her head and smile. “Something already smells good.”
“We baked a chocolate cake. I like cooking with Clementine. My house doesn’t have an oven. I couldn’t bake chocolate cake.”
“You’re making me hungry for it.” Bodine poured a glass of wine as her mother came in. “I brought home news,” she announced. “Callen’s sister’s having her baby.”
“That’s happy news,” Maureen said. “You can pour me a glass, and we’ll drink to a healthy baby.”
“I had babies.” Alice continued to peel as she spoke, but her shoulders hunched. “It hurts, and there’s blood, and it hurts more and more. If they’re girls you can’t keep them because they fetch a good price. The sister keeps her girl, but I can’t keep mine.”
She aimed a furious look at Maureen. “My girls would be as pretty as yours. Prettier! It’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not,” Maureen began. “I’m sorry—”
“I don’t want your sorry. I don’t want your sorry. I want my babies. I want my Rory. Why is he yours, too? Why do you get everything?”
“Let’s sit down, Alice.” Bodine moved toward her. “You can show me the scarf you’re making me.”
“No!” For the first time Alice slapped out at Bodine, then rounded on her. “You’re the daughter. I’m the daughter, too! I’m the daughter. Why does she always get everything?”
“That’s enough.” Her own temper fraying, Maureen stepped between them. “That’s enough, Alice.”
“Just shut up. Shut up, shut up! You’re not my boss. Reenie, Reenie, Reenie. Always the good one, always the winner, always, always.” Alice shoved her.
To Bodine’s shock, Maureen shoved Alice right back. “Maybe you should start acting your age. Maybe you should stop whining about everything just like you always did. Maybe you should stop blaming everyone but yourself.”
“I hate you.”
“Yeah, what else is new?”
“Girls!” Cora quick-stepped into the kitchen, Miss Fancy on her heels. “Stop it right now.”
“She started it.” Alice poked a finger at Maureen. “She can’t boss me around, Ma. You always take her side. It’s not fair. How come I have to wash the dishes for a week and she doesn’t? Just because she gets straight As? The teacher doesn’t like me, okay? And I was going to clean my room, Ma, I was! I just forgot. Reenie, Reenie, Reenie’s such a beautiful bride. Well, I’m going to be a movie star. Just you wait and see. Why does she keep her babies? Why?”
Tears flowing, Alice pressed her hands to both sides of her head. “Why, why, why? I don’t understand. Who am I? Who am I? Not the woman in the mirror. No, no, no! The old woman, who is the old woman in the mirror? Who am I?”
“Alice. My Alice.” Cora stepped forward. “Alice Ann Bodine. There now.” With her fingertips, Cora wiped at the tears. “Who am I?”
Bodine felt her own throat close as she watched Alice struggle. “Ma. Ma. I … I was coming home.”
“I know. I know. You’re home now.”
“I don’t feel right. I don’t feel right anywhere in me. Can I go back? Just go back?”
“We’re going to start from here, and it’s going to be all right.”
“Reenie’s mad at me.”
“No, I’m not.” Maureen ran a hand down Alice’s braid. “I’m not mad. I’m glad you’re home, Alice.”
“I was mad. I was mad. I was mad. I can’t remember why. My head hurts.”
“You can lie down awhile,” Cora said. “I’ll sit with you.”
“No. No, I’m making mashed potatoes. Clementine’s teaching me. Clementine … If complaints were a dollar, you’d be a billionaire.”
“That’s right.” Though her eyes shined, Clementine tapped a half-peeled potato. “They won’t peel themselves, girl.”
“I’m going to sit down right beside you, make sure you do a good job.” Miss Fancy walked over, sat on a stool.
“Grammy.” Alice tipped her head to Miss Fancy’s shoulder. “Grammy always smells so good. Where’s Grandpa?”
“He’s up in heaven, darling, taking care of your little Benjamin.”
“Grandpa’s with Benjamin. I don’t have to worry.” As she picked up the peeler, she looked at Maureen, her eyes full of grief. “He’s not my Rory. He’s yours.”
“We’re sisters. We share.”
“I hate to share.”
Now Maureen laughed. “Don’t I know it.”
Behind them, Bodine slid an arm around Cora, spoke softly. “Come on and sit down. You’re shaking. I’ll make you tea.”
“I’d rather have that wine.”
Bodine dashed back for the wine, waited until her grandmother wrapped both hands around the bowl of the glass, took a sip.
“She called me ‘Ma.’”
“It’s the first time. She called me ‘Ma,’ and when she looked at me, she remembered. I could see it in her eyes. She’s coming back. Alice is coming back.”
* * *
Exhausted, confused, and overwhelmed, Callen stepped back into the shack. He tossed his hat and jacket in the vicinity of a chair. Though he deeply wanted a beer, he wanted sleep more. He headed into the bedroom and, dropping down on the bed to pull off his boots, sat on Bodine.
He said “Jesus Christ” inside the few seconds it took him to identify woman rather than God knew what. She rolled upright with a grunt.
“You’re supposed to look before you sit.”
“That’s leap.” He fumbled for the light, which had her slapping a hand over her eyes.
“What are you doing sleeping on top of my bed with all your clothes on?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You were doing a damn good impression.”
“At home. I thought I’d wait for you, and I fell asleep. Savannah? The baby?”
“Great and really pretty. I think. She’s my first straight out of the oven. Here.” He pulled out his phone. “See for yourself.”
Bodine blinked her bleary eyes, focusing on the image of a tiny bundle swaddled in a pink-and-white blanket and wearing a pink cap. “She’s not really pretty. She’s gorgeous. What did they name her?”
“Aubra. Aubra Rose.”
“Did you hold her?”
“I’m going to admit I didn’t want to. Rather handle sweating dynamite, but I got roped into it. And it was a moment. There were lots of moments.” He swiped through to show Bodine other pictures of the baby—in her mother’s arms, her father’s, her grandmother’s. And finally his.
Come Sundown by Nora Roberts / Romance & Love / Mystery & Detective have rating 4.1 out of 5 / Based on45 votes