Daniel's Choice:Brotherhood Protectors World(6)

By: Pam Mantovani

“He comes first. That’s non-negotiable.” She sat back, nodded in the direction of the ranch. “Can we go now? Cole’ll be home from school soon.”

“School?” he asked, vaguely horrified. “At four?”

“He spends too much time with adults. I enrolled him in a pre-kindergarten program so he can be with other children.”

Daniel put the truck in drive and navigated around a hole that reminded him of the terrain following an IED explosion. “So, it’s just the two hands and yourself running the ranch?” He shook his head. “How the hell do you do it all?”

“There’s a lot that’s had to be put off because something else was more important. We have twelve, no thirteen cattle now, three pigs, some chickens and four horses. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, I’m trying to establish the breeding business so tending them, babying them according to Carl, takes up most of my time.”

The house came into view. It was what Daniel imagined was a fairly typical ranch house. A two story home with a wide porch on the front, complete with a couple of rocking chairs. It could use a paint job and one window on the second floor only had one shutter. The yard was small but well-tended, including late blooming flowers, he thought they were pansies, in pots on the porch, some kind of ground cover he couldn’t identify lining a path and drooping rose bushes along the side of the house. In the near distance he could just make out the barn, also in need of a painting along with a corral and a fenced-in area that held the chickens and pig. He braked to a stop in front of the porch. He didn’t know squat about ranching, but he could provide some free labor on renovations or improvements while he kept an eye on Avery.

“You haven’t said how we’ll explain my appearance in your life,” he said, stopping her exit from the truck. She sat frozen, her back to him. “Look, I know damn good and well I don’t look or act like any kind of ranch hand.” She turned back to face him, her gaze narrowed. “And I don’t have any experience with the kind of life-long people in my life like you do. But, I’d bet money those same people are going to be curious and want to know why the hell I suddenly showed up.”

“You look just fine,” she said, and then bit down on her bottom lip as she lifted her hands, let them fall back onto her lap. Once again he saw her gaze swing to the left. “I’m no good at lying.”

“Why don’t we say I’m an old boyfriend from college who stopped it to catch up?”

“No one will believe that.”

“Why not?”

She shifted to look out the passenger window. “Everyone will be more likely to believe you’re an old friend of Brad’s. We’ll say you’ve been overseas in the military and when you came home, stateside, you came out here to see him.” She shrugged. “I invited you to stay a few days.” She opened the door and stepped out. “I’ll show you the inside of the house now.”

Through the windshield, Daniel watched her climb the steps. She stopped and glanced back, a small frown creasing her forehead when she realized he hadn’t followed. Reluctance warred with possibilities at the idea of being alone with her in the house, a house that had bedrooms within easy reach. Hell, he scrubbed a hand over his face, there were floors, walls, and countertops he could imagine where the two of them could fuck like honeymooning newlyweds.

He grabbed up his duffel and went to the porch. “Are you sure about having me stay in here?” he asked once Avery had opened the front door and stepped inside.

“Makes the most sense given the story we’ll tell everyone.” Then she surprised the hell out of him by walking back to where he waited, standing close. Her eyes were warm and stayed steady on his. “I trust you, Daniel. I can’t explain it, to you or myself, and I’m not going to spend time trying to. I’m just going with it.” She stood a moment longer and then, with a small smile, turned around.

He took note of a central living room, containing a sofa and a wide cushioned ottoman in brown leather. “The kitchen is through that door.” She pointed at a doorway to the right. “There’s a door there that leads to the mudroom and then out to the back door, which is the one we use more often than not since it leads to the barn.” She turned to the left, and began climbing the stairs.

“This is my son’s room.” She gestured to her right. Daniel peeked in, saw a room bright with sunshine and the clutter of cars, trucks and colorful plastic bricks. “And mine.” She pointed across the hall. “You’ll have to share a bathroom with Cole.”