“Tell me again why I have to go with you?” The question came from over my shoulder to the accompaniment of boots crunching over gravel.
“Because I told you to,” I bit back, pain flaring across my jaw as I clamped it shut again. “Damn fucking—”
“Don’t let Mom hear you say that. What’s wrong?” The crunch of gravel became a shadow over my shoulder.
“Will you move out of my light, Delaney? I can’t see what I’m doing.”
The shadow moved away again as my sister stepped back, and light once more flooded the ratchet strap that refused to tighten further.
“What’s wrong?” came the question again. She might have moved out of my light, but Delaney wasn’t about to drop the subject.
“This damn ratchet is old, and someone left it out in the rain a few weeks back. There’s rust on it, and it won’t tighten any further.” I sighed, letting my head hang for a minute as I tried to figure out what to do with the recalcitrant ratchet.
“Here, let me try.”
Delaney’s hip made contact with my shoulder as she muscled her way in, knocking me off balance. I barely caught myself by grabbing the trailer rail to keep from falling on my ass. Then I paused a moment and levered myself up. My right knee creaked as I did, and I winced—that wasn’t happening a few years ago.
“You’re getting old, big brother,” Delaney said. Any hope I had she hadn’t heard the noise went out the window.
I glared at the back of her head. “Thirty-seven is only old when you’re thirty-one. I’m still young. Just the other day, I was at the feed store, and George Parker called me a youngster.”
Delaney stopped fiddling with the ratchet long enough to look over her shoulder at me, eyes narrowed against the sun’s glare. “Mr. Parker is ninety if he’s a day, Austin. Everyone is young to him. Mom and Dad are young to him.”
“If you want to try to fix the ratchet, then try to fix the ratchet,” I growled at her. “But if I couldn’t do it, I don’t know how—”
With a click and grind, the ratchet cranked to life. Delaney finished tightening the four-wheeler to the trailer and sprang to her feet with envious ease, brushing her hands together.
“You were saying?” she asked, hands on her hips, her mouth curved into a smirk.
“You’re such a brat,” I growled again but had to smile. But not before hooking my arm around her neck and rubbing my knuckles in her hair.
“Hey, quit it!” Delaney shoved me off and wriggled out from under my arm before pushing me. Though I made a show of losing my balance, I barely felt the impact—I was at least twice her size.
“Whatever, brat. Get in the truck.” I turned her and gave her my own small shove toward the other side of my old truck.
“Jerk,” Delaney shot back, sticking her tongue out at me before yanking the door open and jumping in the cab.
It took a few turns of the key before the engine roared to life.
“That was a close call.” My sister’s sigh of relief was exaggerated, but not by much. I let out the breath I had been holding before huffing a reply, unwilling to admit anything, though we both knew a new truck was absolutely out of the question.
“Well, someone’s in a grumpy mood today.”
“I’m not grumpy. I just want to get this done and over with,” I grunted as we bumped and skittered down the ranch’s long dirt driveway. Even if I didn’t need a new truck before winter, I was definitely going to need a new set of tires. They were far closer to bald than I cared to admit. How I would get them, I didn’t know. Maybe I could make a trade for something.
“Fine. You’re not grumpy—you’re just being yourself. Tell me again why I have to go with you?”
I didn’t look over at Delaney or give her the satisfaction of answering her jab. “You know exactly why.”
The cracked leather creaking followed her sigh as my sister sat back, one booted foot on the dashboard that I pushed away without looking.
“You would think you would be nicer to me, knowing that the only reason you’re dragging me along is to sweet talk Earl so you can get out of there before dawn,” Delaney said, arms crossed over her chest.
“Don’t forget getting the four-wheeler back before spring,” I added.
“That, too.” Delaney’s face dimpled as she smiled, and I couldn’t help the way one side of my mouth pulled up at the corner. My sister had had the same effect on me since she had been born—her first smile had wrapped me around her finger, and I’d stayed there ever since.
“Are we going in with a game plan?” Pulling one leg up, Delaney wrapped her arms around it and rested her chin on her knee.
“Get in and out as fast as possible.”
I slowed the truck as we passed under the large wooden sign for our ranch, then stopped at the unpaved county road. No one ever came down the road this far, but I always stopped just in case.
“You’re asking the impossible, big brother,” Delaney shook her head. “Getting Earl to agree to fix the four-wheeler will take at least half an hour.”
“Fifteen minutes, tops,” I replied, pulling onto the road.
“Fifteen minutes?” Throwing her head back, my sister laughed. “Right. Do you want to bet on it?”
Wincing as a particularly deep pothole jerked the truck and its ancient shocks around, I shook my head. We had been complaining about the road for years, but it wasn’t going to happen short of a miracle or doing it ourselves. “No. I don’t have money to lose.”
“Just saying hello is going to take fifteen minutes.”
I tipped my head in acknowledgment of the truth Delaney spoke as she reached over and turned on the radio. Country music flooded the cab, and she cranked down the window before settling back in her seat, eyes closed.
We rode in companionable silence the rest of the way to Earl’s, watching the scenery and taking in the subtle first signs of autumn, from the first snow on the distant, craggy mountain peaks to a hint of gold among the green of the stands of shimmering trees.
Earl pushed open the screen door as I shut off the engine, in his usual overalls that had at one time been blue but were now a dingy gray streaked with grime. He ambled off the porch as we stepped out, hands in his pockets.
“Afternoon, Earl.” I held up my hand, but Earl didn’t see. His gaze was on Delaney as she climbed down from the cab, and I bristled at the way it stayed there as she stopped beside me.
“Hey, Earl.” She flashed him a brilliant smile.
I cleared my throat to gain Earl’s attention and, failing that, stepped toward the guy with a hand outstretched for a handshake.
“So, what can I do you for?” Earl drawled.
“Our four-wheeler is giving us some trouble,” I told him, gesturing behind the truck.
“Oh yeah?” Earl craned his neck to see the off-roading vehicle before his gaze crept back to Delaney, who returned to unhitch the trailer it was on. “So, what’s wrong with it?”
“Well, it won’t start right away, and when it does, it makes this whining noise—”
“A whining noise?” Earl interrupted, then stopped. But he didn’t look quite finished—his mouth was still open like he was deciding whether to speak. But when nothing followed, I continued.
“Yes, a whining—”
“Is it a high-pitched whine or kind of like a grumbling whine?” The words finally wandered from Earl’s mouth.
“It’s a high-pitched—”
“Because if it’s a high-pitched whine, it could be one thing. But if it’s a grumbling whine, it could be another.”
I stared at Earl. The big man was like a turtle, stopping and starting with molasses-like slowness, the words coming heedless of anything else going on.
“Here, Earl, let me show you.” Delaney popped back up and flashed Earl a grin, and the big man followed my sister like a lost puppy while I stood there grinding my teeth. She did, however, manage to get him to listen to the problem and sweet-talked him into a promise to have it done sometime soon, just as I had hoped she would.
“Y’all want to come in? I have some coffee brewin’.” Earl gestured back toward his house.
“Thanks for the offer, Earl, but we have to be getting back. Ranch work is never done, right, Delaney?” I glanced at my sister, raising my eyebrows in what I hoped was a clear signal, hoping she would throw me a lifeline and pull me back to shore before I drowned in silent pauses.
“No, I think we’re good. I finished all my chores this morning.” She hooked her thumbs into her back pockets and shuffled a foot through the dirt, tilting her head and smiling a smile of pure innocence. But mischief glittered in her eyes.
I gave her a look, my lips thinning and my eyes narrowing. Not enough for Earl to notice, but our long bond meant she saw it and understood. I knew because her smile only grew until I could see her teeth—a move only a younger sibling could pull off.
We—I—suffered through fifteen more excruciating minutes with Earl before I’d had enough and stalked back to the truck with little more than a “Gotta go. See ya, Earl.”
“You know what? I hope I have a husband like Earl someday.”
I paused with my hand on the open door, one foot on the step up to the cab, and stared at my sister through the truck windows. Her grin grew as she hopped up into the cab with a gleeful laugh. The only thing I could do was shake my head before pulling myself up into the seat and shutting the door with a loud creak.
“Oh, come on.” Delaney pulled the seatbelt over her torso. “He’s kind, at least.”
I gave her a side-eyed look as I turned the key, and the engine roared to noisy life. “You want to put up with a conversation taking half an hour that should take five minutes for the rest of your life?” I asked. “What if you have to decide where to go for dinner? Or who’s going to do what chores?”
Delaney laughed again. “I probably won’t have to worry about those conversations. At least not the chores part—you know he’d probably do them all just to make me happy.”
Shaking my head, I put the truck into drive, and we rumbled back up the driveway. “I don’t like the way he looks at you.”
A raised eyebrow was the first response. “You don’t like how any guy looks at me,” she shot back.
“I sure as hell don’t because they’re all creeps. You won’t be dating anyone if I have any say in it.” My growl echoed the panic I felt at the thought of either of my sisters dating anyone. I didn’t want them to go through what I had in the name of what I thought had been love. What had been love and had gone so horribly wrong.
Delaney propped her foot on the dashboard again, shooting me a defiant look that dared me to try to shove it away again. “It’s a good thing you don’t have a say, then.”
She sounded smug.
“None of us have time for relationships,” I added. “We need to focus on the ranch.”
“Hey, leave me out of your grumpy no-fun land. You might not mind having no life, but don’t think I’m going to go there with you.” Delaney held her hands up like she was defending herself from the idea.
“It’s not a choice, Delaney.” I would never understand why none of my siblings could grasp the precariousness of our situation at the ranch. We lived on a knife’s edge—any waver and we would tumble off the side and lose everything generations of our family had worked to build. “We can’t afford to lose our concentration, and a relationship is a distraction.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Delaney shooting me a look, her mouth screwed up on one side and something else in her eyes. But I couldn’t read it, and I didn’t care what it meant—I knew I was right, and I wouldn’t let anything distract me from safeguarding the ranch and our future.