Home > Hope on the Range(9)

Hope on the Range(9)
Author: Cindi Madsen

   He almost made “hard lesson” sound dirty. It’d been so long since someone had flirted with her that Tanya couldn’t be sure that was what he was doing, but the guy was slick, that was for sure.

   The key in Eric’s hand jingled as he lifted it in the air. “I just got checked in, so I’m gonna go get settled, and then I’ll be back.”

   Tanya glanced at her watch. “You’ve only got seven minutes until the first activity of the day starts. First lesson of running a ranch is that we keep a tight schedule. Animals don’t understand sleeping in, and I’m not handing out special exceptions for individuals. We ride and work as a group. If I assign the last horse and you’re not there, you’ll get left behind.” His eyebrows arched, and Tanya raised hers right back. “I suggest you hustle. The rest of you, follow me.”

   * * *

   Brady surveyed the group of students gathered in front of him after lunch on Wednesday afternoon. Despite no longer being part of the program, Aiden and Chloe were in the mix. They attended classes with the rest of the teens so they could finish their schooling, and if they wanted to see a counselor, they were free to do so.

   He’d seen such a big change in Chloe since she’d shown up last spring, bitter at her mom and at the world and dealing with anxiety. Sadly, depression and anxiety were nearing epidemic levels in teens, beginning from a younger and younger age, and social media often fed the beast.

   Pride swelled as Brady thought of how well his soon-to-be niece had learned to manage it, even though it’d be a lifelong fight.

   Chloe slipped her hand into Aiden’s, and he beamed at her—Brady had seen a big change in his youngest brother over the past year as well. Like their brother Nash, who’d asked their parents if they’d consider also adopting his kid brother, Nick, Aiden had originally ended up at the ranch due to a court order. In addition to what the program had done for him, working with the horses, along with the realization he’d found a permanent home, had caused the kid to really come out of his shell. The blond at his side was also good for him, same way he was good for her.

   “Yo, what we doin’ out here?” Desiree asked. Half her dark hair was in its usual super curly style, and the other half was in tiny braids. All the girls had been sporting different hairdos than usual. Apparently Danica had decided she was going to become a hairdresser and was thrilled to have a group to practice on.

   “Yo?” Brady said, and Desiree rolled her eyes, but her white teeth flashed against her bronze skin as the corner of her mouth turned up.

   “Mr. Dawson, sir. Why are we out here on this fine day, waiting for you to say something?” She saluted him, the smart-ass. Since he was the one who graded her science homework, he also knew she was exceptionally smart, period. “Sir.”

   “Would you rather be doing chores?”

   Danica smacked Desiree’s arm, and Desiree glared at her before beaming at him. “Nope. Carry on with your silent staring.”

   Brady would call it “assessing,” but that fell under the semantics category. He was confident he had all the pieces to make one hell of a team. He merely needed to figure out where to put them. Allie, who was the school principal, Ma, Liza, and his brothers had agreed to let him do the majority of the rodeo training this year—and to give him the extra time he’d asked for so the teens could be included. “As some of you know, the local rodeo is coming up.”

   The new kid let out a groan, his head lolling back. “This is what counts for exciting around here?”

   “It does, and anyone who decides not to participate can clean the stables instead. Anyone wanna volunteer for that?”

   The teens stood straighter, arms down at their sides, as if one small movement might mean accidentally volunteering. Save Maddox, who shrugged as if he were above caring.

   Probably because he’d only done cleaned the stables once so far, and it’d been a light day. Not to mention Nick had gotten him halfway through. Maddox’s attitude had been set to contemptuous since he’d arrived, and according to Nick, he’d treated his first counseling session like it was a police interrogation and he was determined not to say an incriminating word.

   Brady hoped the punk would come around eventually. And not just because he had an athletic build that could sway the rodeo preshow odds in their favor. “This year, we’re going to have our own mini competition with the ranch next door before the major events. Anyone who qualifies can also compete in the main part of the rodeo and have an extra hour a few times a week to train for that.”

   “Hell yeah, I’m in already,” Abby said. She was fairly new but had embraced things almost immediately and a mite too enthusiastically. He had a feeling she might be trying to show them she was totally okay and didn’t belong here, but that was more Nick and Liza’s territory.

   Still, Brady made a mental note to keep an eye on her and to ask which one of them was counseling her. Most likely Liza, because teenage girls were often uncomfortable with a male counselor. Unfortunately, too many males in their lives had let them down, betrayed their trust, and even abused them. If he thought about that, he’d get angry and want to go full vigilante, so it was one of those things he let the trained professionals handle.

   “All right then.” The purr of an engine drifted over, and Brady glanced at the older black-and-blue Dodge heading their way.

   Right on time.

   The screen door to the cabin swung open, and Ma emerged from the house with the whiteboard he’d requested. Since a health scare and hospital stay last winter, the entire staff had tried to convince her to take it easy. Which was why he’d asked her to have Wade or Trace bring the board and markers outside once she tracked them down.

   Naturally, she was struggling with the various supplies instead, attempting to prove she could do everything herself. Brady took a step toward her to help, but Aiden and Chloe were on it. Aiden grabbed the whiteboard, and Chloe grabbed the stand.

   “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Ma said with a huff. “I can carry something.”

   “You’ve got the markers and erasers.” Chloe jerked her chin toward the bag in her hand. “Can’t write without those.”

   Ma tried to maintain her disgruntled expression, but she melted at Chloe’s bright smile. “Bless you, dear.”

   Doing this outside was causing more fuss than it was worth, but he never did like being in a stuffy classroom on a nice summer day. One of the benefits of living near the base of the mountains was the frequent cool breeze that kept the temperature from getting too terribly hot.

   Dundee and Quigley, their Australian shepherd and black-and-white border collie, raced toward their approaching visitor, barking like they were tough guard dogs instead of overgrown puppies who only occasionally herded cattle.

   Harlow Griffith climbed out of her truck and gave the dogs the affection they were seeking before heading over to the group. “Y’all get started already?”

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