Maggie May wasn't sure she'd ever get used to having to tinkle every five minutes, the way she'd been doing for the past six months. Pregnancy had turned her bladder into an intolerably tiny storage compartment, and regardless of how much or little she drank during the day or night, she found herself rushing to the nearest cowgirl's room often. She came out of the stall, sighing in relief, and moved to the ancient sink in the church unisex bathroom.
Peeing constantly was, of course, not the only change to her body. Since she'd turned thirteen, her figure had been a contradiction of petite and voluptuous. Beyond that it hadn't changed much except she now had a little bump that she absolutely adored. Whenever she was in front of a mirror, she had to look at her slowly swelling abdomen. If not for her child's rambunctious activity, she might find it hard to believe she was going to have a baby. Her little Cupid reminded her constantly of his or her presence.
Funny how this pregnancy had started out with her sleeping twelve hour days with many naps during the day, and now her baby kept her up so much she was lucky if she got a few hours of sleep here and there. As she washed her hands, she saw the dark circles all around her eyes. Her face looked strangely lean. Was it possible to lose weight while you were pregnant? She wasn't sure. She'd tried hard to eat healthily since she found out her condition, but she was sick so often.
A small, black cloud floated down into her heart--one she'd been wrestling with a lot in the past half-year. Going through this alone... Okay, so she wasn't really alone; she had her family and friends. Going through this without a partner, the father of my baby, the love of my lifetime...well, hell, that ain't been easy. Some days, some nights, I don't know how I'll get through it at all.
Tears that she usually reserved for her alone time in the black of the night pressed against the backs of her eyes. Ruthlessly, she wiped her hands on the towel. Whatever happened, she was plenty old enough to be having a baby. She'd always wanted one of her own anyway. She was ready, come what may. Scared? Shorely. But I'm prepared. I want this baby so bad.
Maggie ran her hands soothingly over her rocking belly, alive now with kicks and internal blows that made her cringe in pain even while she laughed joyfully. My little Cupid. The unspoken promise of you brought me and your papa together for a single night. A part of me hoped it would lead to forever. But I was never really fair. I wanted to believe he loved me as much as I loved him, so I just...well, moved things along the path I thought they'd eventually go. Yeah, that's what I did. And now I'm alone. Cupid's arrow missed its mark. Maybe it wasn't meant to be. After all, I knew he was a drifter. Nothing I did, he did, we did was ever gonna change that. Moisture stung the backs of her eyes.
Realizing she would be missed if she didn't hightail it out of the bathroom soon, she got her watery emotions in check and went back out to the sanctuary of the small country church in what constituted "town" in Fever, Texas. Every Friday, she and her mama came to the church with their massive mobile haircutting and styling kits. The women in town gathered here to have their hair, makeup, and nails done. Pastor Doc, the only reverend and doctor in town, didn't mind letting them use the church for the weekend prelude to socializing, especially since most of the women were also getting prettied up for church on Sunday morning just as surely as for dancing and flirting at the Spitfire Friday and Saturday nights.
Just as Maggie entered the wing that led into the sanctuary, she heard Mabel Mulroney, who was Fever's police dispatch, secretary and reception all rolled into one, ask in her cigarette-hoarse voice, "Come on, Belle. You can tell us. Maggie tells you everything. Who's the father of that baby?"
Maggie's mother hooted. "I got no clue, sugar. You'll have to ask her."
"You must suspect someone," Lindy Matron added.
It was true that Maggie told her mother everything, yet she hadn't talked to anyone about this. Her mama hadn't asked either, not even after Maggie's daddy got out his shotgun and demanded that one of them tell him something about the sidewinder who dared take advantage of his baby.
"Now, sug, I can't tell ya anything I don't know myself," Belle said in exasperation. "But I do know it couldn't be somebody from 'round here."
Belle didn't need to say more about that. In her time, Maggie had dallied with most of Fever's cowboys her age. She'd been boy-crazy since she got out of diapers, just like her mama had been. The fact was, none of them had ever roped Maggie's heart. She wasn't about to tell anyone, especially her mama, who she'd given her heart and the virginity she'd somehow managed to retain. If Belle told Maggie's daddy who'd knocked their baby-girl up, he'd be after him with a double-barrel, if he could even be found.
Ryder McCall had drifted in and out of Fever, Texas like a season. He'd come in one day with the March rains, and, quite literally, he'd been gone with a summer wind. Since he made Maggie's dreams come true in a single night, he'd disappeared entirely, and she hadn't gone too far in trying to locate him. If Ryder didn't love her even now, she wasn't about to force him to take responsibility for her foolish presumption. She knew darn well she'd tricked him into more than he wanted with her because she wore blinders where that man was concerned.
"Well, hell, Belle, ain't you even curious?" Mabel demanded in obvious annoyance.
Surprising Maggie from where she was hiding in the wing, her mama chuckled softly--a sound like the beautiful bell she was named after. "'Course I am. But I know my Magpie. She chose the best man in the county, and when she's good and ready, she'll accept that cowboy's apology and his weddin' ring."
The black cloud inside Maggie's chest dissolved with her mother's faith in her. She closed her eyes against the burn of grateful tears. Not telling her mama her secret had been harder than anything else she'd ever done. How often had she almost rushed to the old house she'd grown up in and spilled her heart to her mother?
She'd known her mama would feel this way, wouldn't think the worst of her. Her parents always clung to the best impression of her, despite all the rumors and gossip-mongering in these here parts. Her mama was right about Ryder, too, though. He was a good man, lived by the cowboy code. If he knew she was pregnant after their beautiful night together, he'd marry her because it was the honorable thing to do. She'd convinced herself jackrabbiting out of her life like that hadn't been easy for him, especially when he realized she was a virgin. He'd been so shocked at the time. Who would believe she of all cowgirl vixens in this county had held on to her maidenhead and treasured it, only giving it to the man she loved?
Her heart squeezed tight in her chest at the memory of his shocked gasp, the look in his eyes quickly turning to tenderness. Then he'd been so gentle and loving with her, no longer frantic and passion-crazed. She was convinced her first time was the most special of any woman's because of his sweetness after he recognized the gift she'd given to him alone.
Her love for him had started that very first season he'd come to work on her daddy's ranch. She'd heard of him and seen him prior to that season, since he'd worked seasonally on some of the other ranches in the area. He'd insisted from the first that he was too old for her (only seven years--big deal), and he certainly was the one guy who was immune to her charms. She'd chased him harder as a result. Yet he seemed to have no trouble resisting her. Maggie had laughed off his indifference to her, choosing to believe he was just good at hiding his feelings.
One summer day, motivated to get him alone where he could show her how he really felt about her, she'd heard he was out fixing fences and checking cows in the north pasture. The other hands talked about how Ryder liked to work alone. He was a loner in every aspect of his life, they said. With a picnic lunch for them in her saddlebag, Maggie had ridden out to find him. By the time she came upon him, the sky had turned a menacing black. He was too much a cowboy to leave her on her own. They'd had no choice but to seek shelter in an old cabin on her folks' land. It'd been in a sad state, but it was the closest place to get out of the storm. Hail, lightning, and flood conditions had been predicted for the day, Ryder had told her later--which was why he'd been doing a quick check before the bad weather hit.
The cabin was dry at the very least, as well as the shed where he'd put the horses up. When he'd come inside he'd been soaked, but she'd been the one shivering so violently, her teeth chattered. He managed to build a fire in the old fireplace using the wood from the mismatched, ramshackle kitchen chairs stored there. Even the fire hadn't warmed her up, and he'd been worried about her, considering that the temperature had dropped drastically for a summer day. Neither of them could warm up wearing soaked clothing. He'd insisted using shared body heat was practical, their only recourse to getting through the storm, since the blankets in the cabin were too thin and full of holes to be any real help.
His resistance had fallen away unexpectedly in their molten embrace. Yet he'd cringed and almost turned away when she'd told him how much she loved him after the first, amazing kiss that turned her inside out. She'd drawn him back, whispering for more. Somehow that was all it took to bring about the most beautiful experience of her life. After they made love, they shared the picnic lunch she'd been bringing out to him, and she'd talked endlessly, trying to get him to open up. Eventually, they'd been in each other's arms again. The whole night had gone that way. Her love for him had become unalterably real, and the need for him to love her in return was nearly unbearable.
In the light of day, she'd discovered she was alone and barely had time to dress in her clothes hanging over the fire before her father and older brothers were there--sent by her missing beau to rescue her. Ryder had conveniently let it slip to one of the other hands that he'd seen her horse near the ramshackle cabin while he'd been out checking the damage early that morning. He'd also implied he'd taken shelter with the cattle during the hellish night. Naturally her father heard about it second-hand ASAP--after Ryder had already informed the man he had to leave on account of a family emergency.
Did Ryder believe their time together was a mistake? Or simply realized her father would kill him as soon as he was sure his baby-girl was safe? Whatever the case, he was gone by the time she got back to the ranch house, and she couldn't doubt he'd left because of her. For more than a month, she'd been furious and then devastated. Her love hadn't been enough. The most cherished night of her life had merely been sex, heat of the moment, for a drifter like Ryder McCall. Even still, when she learned she was pregnant, a part of her had been wildly happy. Maybe she should have gone after him and told him the truth, but she couldn't live with a shotgun marriage or one based on some code of honor that was outdated in most parts of the world but not here. She wanted love. Nothing less. Would Ryder want to know anyway?
After she and her mother packed up and got their kits back in the pickup, Maggie hugged her hard.
"What's up, sweet pea?" Belle asked, obviously seeing how close she was to the edge.
"I don't know what I'd do without you, Mama. Thank you. For everything."
Her mother looked into her face, and, as she had all her life, Maggie wished to be as beautiful as her. Oh, she had no doubt she had her own measure of appeal, but her mama had the most natural beauty she'd ever seen in another human being. Closing in on her late fifties and five children borne from her own body, Belle May could have easily passed for thirty. She took good care of herself, and Maggie's daddy was still drunk in love and lust with her. Their marriage was what Maggie had wanted all her life--after she was done with her man-crazy ways as a teenager. Ryder had seen to making that the case. "You're emotional today, sug."
Maggie sighed. "I wanna make some changes in my life, Mama. I been driftin' too long, thinkin' all the wrong things were gonna satisfy me. They never have. What I want most of all is to be a good mother to this baby."
"Oh, Magpie, you will be. You'll be the best mama. Don't you know that? Who couldn't love you? Your nieces and nephews adore you. Everyone does, sugar."
Maggie didn't laugh out loud, but she could have. In a country where the women outnumbered the men considerably, her flirtatious ways had made enemies. She had few female friends anymore. She regretted that often, especially when she remembered her closest friends growing up: Angie Lewis, now living in Wisconsin, and Karla Sanford, who'd become an enemy when Maggie started dating Ken Abrams--the man Karla had eventually married, presumably after being secretly in love with him most of her life.
Ryder didn't love me, the way I fooled myself into thinkin' he did. If she couldn't make the one man who mattered fall in love with her, she wasn't sure how good she'd be at making a baby, even her own, love her. What if she was no good at mothering? Contrary to her mother's faith in her, no one else would ever believe she'd make a good mother. Her reputation had seen to that. But she wanted to change all that. She wanted to make some female friends and learn how to be a good mama. Her own mother had already taught her so much, but she still had a lot to learn, especially since she'd be doing this whole parent thing on her own.
It's just me, and I wanna do this, this above all, right. Lord help me, there's nothing else left for me if I can't get the most important thing I've ever done in my life right.
Four years later
"What will you do when the babies come, Amanda?" Keri Woods-Lewis asked while Maggie brushed color from root to ends on a section of the hair she was low-lighting. Almost as if magnetically drawn, all eyes went to Amanda's hugely pregnant stomach. "I mean, Shell can't handle the ranch on his own during that time, and you know what they say about twins. They almost always come early. So he might be on his own longer. That's a lot for one old coot."
"Plenty of cowboys in the area who'll be willin' to help out," Mama May said before Amanda Mackenzie could respond and explain the worried look on her face. Belle didn't look up from working on Amanda's nails.
They lived in a cooperative circle of ranches. All five cattle ranches in Fever could count on each other during the various seasons of work. The Mackenzie Ranch was the newest and the only horse ranch in the area. While it was still small--boarding, training and selling horses mostly for ranch work--the operation had expanded by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Amanda's husband, Wings or "Mac" as everyone called him, along with his lone hand, Don Shelley, had been handling all the day-to-day work.
By rote, Maggie sectioned out another lock of hair with her tint brush, then reached for a foil. "Hasn't Shell been talkin' about retirin' anyway?"
"He's been with the Mackenzies for so long, working for Wings's dad and now his oldest son, I think he feels strange about retiring," Amanda said what they all could have guessed about the old cowboy. "But he wouldn't mind doing it part-time instead." Shaking her red head, Amanda glanced toward her open kitchen window. "Truthfully, Wings has been more worried about all this than I have been. I keep saying that surely women have been having babies longer than I have! I have no doubt that everything will be fine. But Wings can't forget how far we are from the hospital..."
More than an hour from any city of consequence, Fever, Texas was located between the Permian Basin to the south and the Texas Panhandle to the north. What little "town" there was to speak of amounted to a church, a gas station with basic groceries, a variety of cattle and horse ranch businesses that sold feed and such, a single school that taught first grade through twelfth, a diner, antique shop, and the well-frequented tavern, the Spitfire.
"I'm not saying being so far from the hospital isn't a little scary," Keri--the mother of three, all in school at the moment--offered, "and I've never had twins, but Joshua has always gotten me there in plenty of time." Joshua designed furniture and his business was in his own workshop on their property. Unlike most of the cowboys in these parts, he could usually be counted on not to be out in some field, miles from communication.
Maggie realized what her best friend, Amanda, wasn't saying. Mac was worried not so much about getting there in time but about something going wrong. Twins were a whole different ballgame. Maggie had been utterly terrified when she'd gone into labor, reminded that not so long ago a woman her age and a once-upon-a-time friend of hers, Karla Abrams, had gone into labor unexpectedly... and she'd lost the baby before her husband Ken got her to the Lubbock hospital. Maggie's daddy had acted like he hadn't been through it five times previously with his own kids, then a whopping eighteen times as a grandfather. When Maggie had asked her mother why he was so all-fire anxious, Belle had said, "You're his only baby-girl. Don't ya know he'd go through this for ya if he could, sug?" Maggie had giggled through the pain of a violent contraction, but she suspected now that Mac would do the same for Amanda.
Instead of immediately moving to the last section to apply lowlights to Keri's blond hair, Maggie walked to the kitchen archway that led into the dining room, and from there, looked into the living room on the far end of the house. She had a clear view of her baby boy, Little Tex, sleeping on the couch. Getting him down for a nap had been the usual fight, but his body realized he needed the rest even if he would never give in to such a notion. Tex was a ball of fire, always moving, flying, burning through life in search of the next adventure. She knew it wasn't easy for her friends to take. They'd "Tex-proofed" their houses in preparation for their visits--bells on every door and window--and anything even vaguely dangerous or precious far out of reach. He talked a mile a minute, got mad when no one understood him and threw tantrums as a result, butted into every conversation, and talked at the top of his voice at all times. He was never quiet, never still, and he was always in trouble, breaking things or acting out. Yet everyone seemed to love him. Like Maggie did herself, they saw beneath the flurry and recognized his heart was sweet and innocent.
Against her will, she returned to her clients and closest friends. Amanda started saying, "Anyway, Wings has finally hired someone to handle the ranch, and not just while I'm having the babies. The cowboy is quite a bit younger than Shell and he knows horses, too, as well as he does cattle. Apparently he's worked around these parts seasonally, at most of the other ranches."
Maggie straightened, feeling her insides go rigid with uncertain expectation. No one seemed to notice her breathless hesitation, listening so close now she could barely get herself to finish off the foils.
"Wings says he's so good with horses, he doesn't even need to say anything. He can train them with his touch and the look in his eyes."
Mama chuckled at the exaggeration.
"Wings has been trying to get him down here since last year, but apparently he had a really bad accident that almost prevented him from ever walking again. He's been in intense rehabilitation, and he's back on his feet now, though he'll always have a serious limp and pain."
"What'd you say his name was, sugar?" Mama May asked what Maggie wasn't sure she could get herself to, even while her heart was jumping out of her chest, longing to hear the name that was as bittersweet as nostalgic memories, good tea, and the end of a beloved book.
"I haven't yet. It's Reece...no, Ryder. Ryder Mc...something."
"McCall," Belle filled in with no undue concern.
"That's it," Amanda confirmed. "Wings knew him when they were much younger, and he's been trying to get Ryder back here."
Invisible hands closed around Maggie's throat. A band around her heart squeezed so hard, she could hardly breathe. She moved over to the archway between the kitchen and the living room again, her back to the other women so they couldn't see the tears in her eyes. "What happened to him?" she asked without conscious thought. "How did he get hurt?"
"Oh, bullfighting. Wings says a bullfighter is a bull rider's bodyguard. When the rider was thrown from the bull, Ryder and his teammates engaged the bull. The monster went after Ryder and trampled him like he was a puppet. It's a miracle he's alive. He ended up with two all but shattered legs, his ribs broken, and a severe concussion despite the protective vests and helmets they're required to wear these days. He was in the hospital for more than nine months. He's not entirely healed and probably will never be, but Wings believes him when he says he never wants to go back in the ring and face down one of those creatures again."
"We come from a long line of rodeo cowboys," Mama May said unexpectedly, a hard edge in her tone. "We don't talk about it with our kids, but it's how Maverick and I met. We've seen countless relatives maimed for life from what's laughably called a sport. Mav and I decided to put a stop to it. We never even took our kids to a rodeo. The last thing we wanted was one of 'em to catch the fever that won't allow them to see the danger they're puttin' themselves in. No, that kind of thing...bullfightin' and ridin'...nobody walks away from either unless they sustain an injury that makes it impossible to continue. Even then..."
Maggie was stunned to hear this from her mother. It was true her parents had never been much for visiting relatives. Extended family always came to them, to the May Ranch, for holidays and visits. Maggie had never thought to ask what they did for a living--she assumed they were ranchers or hands in other parts of the state. It hadn't mattered. Now she wondered. Sure, her big brothers had sneaked off more than once to go to a rodeo--Maggie hadn't seen the harm in that, though she'd never had any personal interest in it.
Is that where Ryder went when he left me? Ran off to be a bullfighter? 'Cause it's in his blood; it's a fever he can't walk away from for too long... but now maybe he'll have to because of his injury. Dear Lord, what happened to him? How bad was he hurt that he was in the hospital for almost a year and won't ever fully recover?
Then another thought came to her. How well known was Ryder on the rodeo circuit? Had her daddy recognized--or failed to recognize--Ryder when he hired him for the season? Not one of the other hands had mentioned what Ryder did when he wasn't working cattle ranches, and she knew her daddy's workers were bigger gossips than Mabel Mulroney. Maybe they don't know or Daddy warned them not to tell me. And maybe he deliberately kept Ryder's rodeo identity from me so I couldn't go looking for him after he disappeared and I told them I was pregnant. Did he assume Ryder was the father? The dread of exactly that grew in her, pushing aside the tears.
When she turned back to the kitchen table where she was working, she refused to meet her mother's eyes but sensed a strange look directed at her.
* * * *
While Keri and Mama May were returning their haircutting and styling kits to the truck and Maggie and Amanda were putting lunch on the table, Maggie asked her best friend casually, "Where'll Ryder be staying? In the bunkhouse with Shell?"
Amanda nodded as she took the cover off the veggie-filled whole grain pasta salad Maggie had made last night for their weekly get-together.
"When will he get here?"
Her friend looked up in surprise. "Oh, didn't I say? He's already here. He's been here for a few days."
A few days? How could I not have known? How could I not have sensed him so close by? Panic made it difficult for Maggie to ask with continued casualness, "How bad is he hurt? I mean, with two shattered legs, it seems impossible he can even walk, yet he's gonna be Mac's new foreman?"
"It's a miracle. I actually saw the footage of that accident during the few times my internet was working out here. I can't believe he survived. It was so horrible. No one expected him to live, let alone walk again, but the limp is actually the worst of it...and the pain in one leg he doesn't like to talk about."
Knowing Amanda would be suspicious, especially when her mama came back in with Keri, Maggie shook off the need for more information. "Well, it'll be good to have someone else in charge, someone to help Shell, 'specially when those babies come. Mac's gonna wanna take paternity leave for a good, long while."
Amanda giggled, nodding.
From the opposite corner of the kitchen, Tex was talking incomprehensibly to Amanda's dog, Pip-Pip. Maggie couldn't understand a word he was saying. Of everyone, she was best at deciphering her son's language, but even she couldn't pick up more than two-thirds of his constant communication. The tiny toy spaniel seemed to understand perfectly. The two had a bond that defied Pip-Pip's intolerance of everyone except his mistress. If Ryder is truly the horse whisperer Mac believes him to be, my Tex is an animal whisperer--animals love and comprehend him. Maggie had noticed he had a way with all living creatures since he was just a baby.
For the first time, she looked at her son and wondered if anyone around here would notice the similarities between Tex and Ryder. With adorable, deep dimples in his cheeks, his big, bluebell eyes, and mischief, mystery and unfathomable emotion lurking in every facet of his expression, Maggie concluded that few would miss the likeness if the two stood side by side.
Keri and Mama returned to the kitchen. When his grandma tried to pick him up, Tex struggled out of her hold within seconds of giving kisses. No one and nothing kept her little cowboy down for longer than two seconds. To say he was a handful and then some was to underemphasize the sheer Tasmanian devil in him. A few months ago, she'd let herself admit that Tex's energy wasn't normal--wasn't like anything she'd seen in her brothers' many children. She'd taken Tex to the doctor and learned something that did the opposite of relieve her. It was then she'd broken her promise to herself and tried to find Ryder.
Unfortunately, Fever was smaller than small with little means for locating a drifter who didn't care to leave anything like a forwarding address when he cleared out. Maggie had even asked her father if he knew anything more about Ryder beyond his name. Whatever had convinced her daddy that Ryder was a good man when he hired him clearly had changed because he'd had nothing to tell her at all.
Nor did any of the other ranchers in the area. Did Daddy convince them not to tell me anything if I came around askin'? Because the May Ranch was still stuck in the dark ages, as was Fever in general, she'd gone to the local library and used their single computer with sluggish, sporadic internet service. She'd found out nothing about him mostly because she didn't know enough to refine her search, and the librarian hadn't been much more knowledgeable than she was. Even the post office had never heard of him, since he'd never had any mail delivered through them.
Not once had she considered asking Mac or Amanda about him. She wouldn't have guessed in a million years that Mac knew him. Just a few years ago, Mac had been co-owner of a wastewater treatment engineering firm situated in Los Angeles. He'd settled down after falling in love with Amanda. I gave up searching for Ryder too soon. But now he's here and I don't feel ready. How to explain...
Maggie wondered if Ryder would be bothered, knowing he had a son who was already four years old. What would his reaction be? It wasn't as if the two of them had had some great love story. She'd chased him like a bitch in heat. In cattle country, hordes of single women chased any man, whether he was eligible or not. Most of the cowboys settled down early and started a family. The rest of the men were drifters, coming and going for seasonal work on the ranches. Ryder was one of the most eligible men who'd come through Fever in many a year. He was a novelty and he'd gained a reputation of avoiding attachments. No one knew why. There'd been plenty of speculations. Maggie had been determined to be the one to catch him. And she had. For a single night. When he'd cut out in the morning, he'd made it clear he didn't care what the consequences of their night together wrought. He didn't want to be found. She hadn't found him when she most needed him. Now I'm half crazed and scared out of my mind about seeing him. I made a fool of myself over him once before. But I'm no longer the boy-crazy filly I was. I'm thirty-eight years old, and I've settled down. The only male I care to chase down is my high-rev little boy. And concerning the situation I need to talk to Ryder about...dear Lord, I don't wanna be alone in this.
Had Ryder changed? Had he really cleared out before the busy season was over because of a family emergency, like her father had said? Did it matter? Did it make up for her devastation when she'd found out he was gone after they shared something so precious and unforgettable to her? Make up for the fact that, when she'd needed Ryder McCall the most, he hadn't been anywhere to be found?
During a meal she barely touched, Maggie struggled with her own desire to storm outside and find him, demand to know why he'd disappeared off the face of her earth. Why he'd used her so callously. Why I wanted him to. Other than the freak weather, she'd engineered that night from start to finish...because she was in love. Did she really have any right to make demands on him, insist that he take responsibility for the life he'd helped create?
But none of that had been why she'd tried to contact him a few months ago. No, all she'd wanted was someone--a partner, Tex's father--to share her fears of the future. She hadn't told anyone else because only Ryder could fill the role she needed him to step into.
Because she couldn't control her own insane emotions over the prospect of seeing him again, she planned to do the only thing she could do: As soon as Tex had lunch, she'd flee the scene. She was desperate not to catch the slightest glimpse of Ryder McCall or to be seen by him.