From the Author
Perfect day for a double funeral.
Nate stiffened his collar against the brisk wind and pryingeyes of other mourners. They wanted to see him cry. Wanted to see him break.
Well, Nathan Rourke didn't fail, and he certainly didn't cry.
In front of people.
He straightened his spine, conscious of his squared shouldersand his two younger sisters sobbing beside him.
Nobody should have to worry about losing their parents attwenty-one.
His poor sisters, Stefanie and Hannah, had more to cope withat only fourteen and eleven. Their parents' death would be harder for them.Nate had to be strong for them, keep his sanity together.
The grave attendees motioned for Nate to step forward as theystraightened their gloves and jackets in the cooling weather.
"As young Mr. Rourke says his final goodbyes, I would ask therest of us to observe a moment of silence." The rent-a-pastor tugged at hiscuff, watching Nate like he too expected tears and blubbering.
Clenching two long-stemmed red roses, Nate stepped forward,lifting his chin. He'd be damned before he'd say or do anything in front of thegroup watching him. Not one of them knew his family like they should. No otherfamily had shown up. Did he even have family out there in the world anymore? Hecouldn't remember. He couldn't place anyone.
None of that mattered. He was just stalling, trying not tosay goodbye one last time. Not to his Mom. Not to Dad. If he threw the flowersin, the workers would cover his parents in dirt.
But for a moment - the smallest of moments - Nate could savethem from that. He hadn't been able to save them from the accident, but thisone second - he could save them this one second in time.
Then his second was over. He couldn't stare at the coffinsforever.
He tossed the flowers backhandedly into the not-so-emptygraves and turned his back.
Mom and Dad weren't in those holes.
They couldn't be.
Storming through the craftsman-style home, Nate bellowed,"Hannah, I'm going out." He couldn't find his hat. Normally he hung the darnthing from the hook by the door. Where was it? He ignored the empty eleganceechoing back his footsteps. If he thought too hard about the things he'd gottenrid of, the guilt would overwhelm him.
Impish at thirteen, Hannah poked her head around the cornerfrom the kitchen. A small spot of flour dotted her shirt. She frowned."Stefanie, again?"
Nate glared. "Something tells me you already knew." There,behind the door his wide-brimmed cowboy hat peeked out. He swooped down andsnatched it from its hiding place. If not for the creamy-colored walls tocontrast with the dark mahogany hard wood flooring, Nate would never have seenthe dark brown bucket.
He plunked the hat on his head and stalked slowly towardHannah. "Did you know? Where is she?"
Blue-eyes wide, Hannah backed up, hands lifted in the air asif in surrender. "Hey, I know what you know. I just guessed. She's alwaysmaking you mad."
He yanked supple leather riding gloves on. Hannah wasn't thetype to hide things. She most likely wasn't. More likely Nate's irritation andworry over Stefanie's whereabouts made him doubt and suspect everyone andeverything.
"Sorry to bark at you, I'm just worried." He ground histeeth, fuming. Add raging to his concernsand Nate wasn't controlling his emotions very well. Riding his horsewould help. That always helped.
He slammed the door shut and the fresh green growth on nearbywillow trees quivered from the force.
Nate was pissed and the longer it took to find Stefanie, theharder his anger would be to control. He wouldn't snap, but her consequenceswould grow.
A neighbor had spotted Nate out on the field earlier not thatlong ago and made a comment about kids being kids when they'd exchangedpleasantries.
Not Nate's favorite saying.
After pressing for more information, Nate culled informationfrom the neighbor about high school students ditching class to go burn abonfire and party out by Old Man Ruger's pond.
Nate had gotten in his own trouble out that way when he wasin school. The last thing he needed was Stefanie drunk and sleeping with someover-sexed farm boy who didn't know anything about protection or women.
Especially when that woman was Nate's younger sister.
The run-down barn had an attached stable that sat off to theside like a lean-to. Everything was wood - wood siding, wood trim, wood slatsfor roofing. The place was a veritable pile of kindling waiting for a match tofall and spur it to an inferno. But the building was all they had for a barn.In the back, Nate's dad had built a solid cement-walled room for forging.Somehow the presence of cement didn't make Nate any less leery about the safetyof the rest of the tinder box.
Nate had to open the door a specific way with a combinationof moves done exactly right, or the old door would squeak and grown but notopen. First, hit the top corner of the barn door with the flat of his palm justso. Next, yank on the wooden long handle while at the same time yank his hip tothe side. Nate wouldn't be surprised, if one day he had to enter with apassword - he already had to do the special handshake.
Normally they left the door slightly ajar, but Stefanie hadput the horses away last and she wasn't one who cared about making things easyfor others.
Dust motes drifted inside the time-bleached building.Afternoon sunlight filtered through overhead fiberglass slats Nate's father hadinstalled for windows.
Closing the door enough to block the wind, Nate shut out thechaos of the world. He simply existed for a minute within the peacefulness ofthe barn.
Old as it was, run-down as it had become, the barn was adifferent world full of comfort and serenity. Muted nickering and the quietlifting and chewing of hay mingled with the random clip and clop of hooves.
Nate sighed, a little less amped up, but no less worried.
He clucked his tongue. "Hey, girl, where are you?" He playedthe same game with his mare every day, pretending she wasn't in the middlestall with her name painted above her in pink. "Missy, where are you?" A softwhistle usually signaled her to poke her caramel brown head out and - yep,there she was. "Hey, girl. Ready to go for a ride? We need to take Plucksterwith us."
The mention of her name pulled the attention of the darksorrel mare from the feed box. Her ears twitched and she watched Nate stop at thetack closet and pull out the necessary items. He prepped his horses with care,but almost as an afterthought since he'd done the job so many times.
He led the horses out of the barn, careful to close the doorbefore mounting Missy. He wrapped Pluckster's reins around Missy's pommel andset off at an amble. He didn't need to push the animals into a sprint and riskinjury, especially when he couldn't afford more than a 30.06 bullet for care.