“Come on, girl, don’t treat me like that. You know you love me.”
Big brown eyes stared him down before a long, low moo filled the barn. The cow seemed to be saying that she wasn’t quite as fond of him as he thought.
Elijah stroked the back of the old milker, trying to calm her ruffled feathers. “Here, Bessie Ann, let me get you some balm to soothe you,” he said softly. The udder balm liberally applied, he tried to milk her again, this time with more successful results. He adjusted his seat on the short stool, and soon, milk was filling the pail beneath them.
“Knew you could do it,” he said, hitting his rhythm that generally made short work of his morning milking. They only had a couple of milkers, both retirees from the local dairy. His dad had a soft spot when it came to cows, and although the ranch didn’t sell milk, he didn’t want the old girls sent to the slaughter yard, so he gave them a nice retirement here where they could graze in peace. Elijah didn’t mind the extra milking labor. He supposed the soft spot in his heart was identical to his father’s.
His phone vibrated in his shirt pocket, and Elijah wiped his hands on his old jeans before retrieving it. The screen announced that it was his twin brother, Evan, calling. Elijah had checked his brother’s bunk before leaving the bunkhouse for the barn this morning, and the bed had been empty, so he’d assumed Evan was doing his chores. “Yeah?”
“Hey, bro. I need a favor.”
“Where are you?” he asked, wondering why his brother would call instead of coming down to the barn.
“I got tied up.”
Elijah frowned. “You were supposed to get the eggs from the chicken coop this morning.” He wasn’t surprised. Evan was always running into trouble. I don’t know why I thought he’d be choring. I should have known better.
“Sorry, bro, but I’m tied up. Literally.”
“What are you talking about?”
His brother grunted before responding. “I went home with Yolanda, you know the one. Black hair, big rack. We had a little fun last night and I must have passed out. When I woke up, I was still tied up and Yolanda was gone.”
Evan laughed. “I said, Yolanda is Yo-gone-da. And now I’m stuck.”
“Serves you right,” Elijah said. He was torn between annoyance and a perverse glee. His brother was what his sister, Brenne, called a man-whore, chasing anything in a skirt and getting himself into situations like this more often than Elijah wanted to count.
“I know you got no sympathy for me, bro, but this time, it’s an emergency. I’m stuck out in Benton and I—”
“I’m hanging up.” His brother had gotten Elijah into enough scrapes for him to know to avoid whatever trouble Evan had fallen into.
“No, don’t! You don’t know how hard it was to dial this phone with my hands fastened to the headboard.”
“Sounds like an Evan problem.”
“It’s about to be an Elijah problem too,” Evan countered. “You’ve gotta help me.”
“I’m not dragging your butt home from all the way out in Benton, you son of a—”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Evan said, then muttered a curse as he struggled against his bonds again. “I need you to do something else for me. I landed a job interview.”
“And you need me to reschedule for you?”
“Hell no,” Evan said. “It’s now or never. I need you to cover for me.”
“What on earth are you talking about? Cover for you?”
“Yeah, it’s an interview in the city in a nice office.”
“You, working in an office?” His brother wasn’t suited for that sort of work. Elijah could already imagine how quickly they’d kick Evan out for his antics. “Who in their right mind would give you an interview?”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Evan snapped. “I don’t have time to play Twenty Questions, bro. Even if she walked back in here now and untied me, there’s no way I can make it home from Benton in time to shower, dress, and make it into Lubbock in time for the interview. I need you to put on a shirt and tie and cover for me. They’ll never know the difference. Just flash your farm-boy smile, melt some panties, and get me the job.”
“We aren’t kids anymore, Evan. We’re not pulling the ol’ switcheroo. It’s about time you grow up and take some responsibility for yourself.”
“Sure, Dad. Whatever you say. Just do this for me. This is my chance to finally get off the family farm and out of your hair. Help me out one last time.”
“Not interested,” Elijah said. “I need to finish the milking and, apparently, to grab the eggs myself. I’m hanging up.”
“No!” Evan shouted. “Wait! We can make a deal. I’ll take over milking for a week!”
“Pass.” Elijah was in no mood to negotiate. Evan had no interest in doing the work, and Elijah wanted no more of his brother’s empty promises.
“I’m serious! A month. I’ll do it for a month!”
“Evan, look here. I don’t even know what the job is for. How am I supposed to land you some job I have no experience in? It’s a waste of my time and a waste of your breath. Now I’ve got to finish with Bessie Ann before she throws a fit and kicks me to Kingdom Come.”
“You’ll ace the interview. It doesn’t require experience, just knowledge of the community. They want locals who know how to talk to their neighbors. You’re basically the poster boy for Whiskey River. They’ll love you. I’m probably even more likely to get the job if you’re the one doing the interview.”
Elijah sighed. “If you’re pulling my leg and set this all up so I could get this job for you, you’ll be eating a knuckle sandwich tonight.”
“You mother—” Evan grumbled, then grunted. Suddenly, the video snapped on. The angle was terrible, but he could make out his brother’s face and half of his shirtless torso. “See? I’m not making this up.” He moved the camera so the ropes were exposed and then let out a curse as he fumbled the phone. “Don’t look at my dick! It’s cold in here.”
Luckily, the phone landed next to him on the bed, and Elijah found himself staring at the ceiling fan above his brother’s prone form.
Elijah shook his head. “You’ll gather the eggs and milk the cows for the next month. And you’ll also muck every stall in the stable for the next month too.”
“Now you’re just taking advantage,” Evan growled. “No job is worth that punishment.”
“Two weeks then,” Elijah replied, holding back a laugh. Seeing his brother in his current position had tickled him. Doing the job interview for Evan might be worth it just for the story. He would be heckling his twin brother about this morning for years to come.
“Deal,” Evan said, then let out a long breath. “All the information you need for the interview is on that scrap of paper on the top of my dresser. And bro, after the interview, I’m going to need you to come out to Benton if she hasn’t come home yet. She lives off the highway near—”
“You’re breaking up,” Elijah said. “I—can’t—you—have to—up—” he said, interspersing his words with fake static.
“Don’t you hang up on me, you udder-chugging—”
Elijah ended the call, smiling. He went back to work, hurrying to finish up the milking. Hauling the pail back to the house, he poured it into the canister they used to store the milk until they fed it to the piglets.
“Did you happen to bring in the eggs? We’re out,” a voice asked over his shoulder.
He turned to find his older brother, Jack, standing in front of the refrigerator. Jack’s old T-shirt was stained with paint strokes. His brother painted landscapes when he wasn’t helping their father go about his daily routine. Bill MacAllen, the patriarch of the MacAllen Clan and owner of a 700-acre ranch that also grew corn and soybeans, was likely still in bed. He’d been struggling to get back on his feet after a battle with cancer that had knocked him sideways.
Their father was a survivor. He had to be, having eight children just as stubborn and ornery as he was. Elijah didn’t envy Jack’s position of having to help the old man regain his strength. Bill MacAllen was a strong, vital man and he resented how his illness had siphoned off his vitality. It seemed the only thing shorter than his crewcut hair was his temper, and Jack often bore the brunt of it.
“Nope. Evan was supposed to haul them in, but he got himself tied up out in Benton.” He reached around Jack to grab the bottle of orange juice from the fridge. He poured himself a glass and drank it in one gulp. “I’ve got to lend him a hand. How’s about you grab the eggs for us?”
Elijah pulled out his most innocent smile, the same one he’d used on his older brothers for over two decades. The one that always seemed to get him out of trouble. Mama May called it his twenty-four-carat grin. “You could smile like that and convince St. Peter to let your trouble-makin’ brother through the Pearly Gates,” she’d said more than once.
Elijah had long ago decided that St. Peter wouldn’t be seeing that smile for a long time. Let Evan get a little hot under the collar with the red-horned boys downstairs, he figured. His brother could use a little rehabilitating.
“Fine,” Jack said, shaking his head. “I’ll grab my sketchbook and see if I can’t rough in some hens. The landscape I’m working on could use a little more life.”
Elijah headed into the front room, knowing he’d find his mother in the office, working on the books by hand. Jameson had transitioned everything over to a computer years ago, but his mother still insisted on keeping her records by hand. Entering the bright and cheerful room, he found out that his mother wasn’t alone. Brenne was looking over her shoulder as Mama May made a notation in her weathered notebook.
Brenne looked up, her green eyes seeming to flash in the sunlight pouring through the wide windows. “Who let you in the house, farmhand?” she asked with a grin.
“Says the girl who stinks of horse,” Elijah replied with a look he reserved for his only sister.
Brenne stuck her tongue out at him, then laughed. “Hush now, you two,” Mama May said, waving her hand distractedly. “You’re gonna make me lose count.”
Elijah made a face at his sister, crossing his eyes and pulling his upper lip above his teeth. Brenne used a finger to pull up her nose and rolled her tongue. He almost lost it, but whichever one of them laughed first lost.
“Knock it off,” Mama May said, her back still turned. “I know you’re making those horrible faces at each other.” She sighed then turned around. “It’s clear I’m not gonna finish inventorying the 4-H Club’s county fair submissions with you two messing around. What do you want?”
Elijah leaned in to kiss his mother on her rosy cheek. “I’m going into the city, Mama. I wondered if you needed anything while I was there.”
“I need something,” Brenne interjected, but Elijah ignored her.
“Bring me back some of those little fancy cakes from that store I like. You know the ones shaped like little animals?”
“I know the ones.” Elijah smiled. His mother was addicted to the fancy bakery items. “I’ll bring you back a whole menagerie.”
“What about me?” Brenne asked, putting herself between him and their mother, but Elijah again ignored her, talking around her to his mother.
“I’ll be back later, Mama. I should have enough time to catch up on my chores, but if Evan beats me home, tell him to get to mucking the stalls.”
Mama May nodded. “Stop teasing your sister,” she said, waving her hand to dismiss them both.
Brenne followed him out. “Come on, Elijah.”
Elijah let out a fake sigh. He liked teasing Brenne. Her dander shot up quicker than a frog in a dynamite pond. “All right, what do you need?”
“A ride into Lubbock where you can drop me off.”
He looked at her. “What do you want to go into the city for?”
She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. “What do you wanna go into the city for?”
Elijah stopped short of rolling his eyes. “We can argue in the truck. I need to get ready.”
Brenne nodded with a grin. “Meet you at the truck in fifteen.” She hurried up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Elijah hustled out to the bunkhouse, his mood darkening.
“Do I really have to wear a dang tie?” he grumbled to himself.