Twenty-two years ago, July, Silver Stone ranch
Tucker Stewart stood silently beside his uncle Ashton, hands shoved into his pockets to keep from wiggling as he waited to be dismissed. Every time he arrived for his annual summer visit, they went through this same ritual, and while it wasn’t getting any easier, at twelve years old, at least now he expected it.
His uncle was talking with his bosses, Mr. Stone and Mr. Hayes. Since they were the ones in charge of approving whether or not Tucker got to spend the entire summer, Uncle Ashton always said it was important to make a good impression.
Of course, by now Tucker had realized that everything about his visit was pre-arranged, and he was good to go, but just in case, he didn’t want to take any chances.
Not being able to live on the ranch, play with Luke Stone, and fish and ride and pick berries with the rest of the Stone kids would mean a summer that sucked. His best alternative would be tons of time at the local Winnipeg library, and while he liked reading, within reason, nothing but reading?
That was a fate worse than death.
“You ready for some more difficult chores this year?” Mr. Hayes folded his thick arms over his chest like a superhero. “I know Luke’s been asking to help with the horses more, and he wants you around.”
Tucker was tempted to try the pose himself, but his arms were nowhere near that size. No use drawing attention to anything that might make these important men realize that he wasn’t very big. He hadn’t hit his growth spurt yet, and that was another thing that sucked.
A head poked around the edge of a stall then vanished instantly. Dark brown eyes, a waving ponytail. Darilyn Hayes, which meant the other annoying girl who lived on the ranch was around. Because where Dare was, Ginny Stone was certain to be as well.
Another head popped briefly into view above the top of the nearest stall, like a gopher poking its head out of a hole. The mischievous expression on his summertime best friend made excitement tingle in Tucker’s gut.
Luke. They’d go fishing and camp on the shore of Big Sky Lake. Maybe they could camp this year by Heart Falls, and go swimming and—
His uncle’s hand on his shoulder brought Tucker’s attention back to the gathering.
The other two men were examining him, faces twisted up like they were trying not to laugh.
“Sorry,” he said quickly, deliberately straightening and meeting Mr. Hayes’s gaze. “Yes, sir. I’d like that very much.”
“You sure you want to work with the animals? I hear you’re good with computers. Maybe there’s another job out there for you. Something in research like your parents—”
“No, sir,” Tucker interrupted before he could help himself, and the words came out high-pitched and slightly squeaky. He cleared his throat, then tried again, a little deeper. “I want to be a ranch foreman like Uncle Ashton.”
Walter Stone grinned harder at Ashton, but he dipped his chin. “Well, if you’re going to learn, learn from the very best.”
“Yes, sir. That’s my uncle.”
Joseph Hayes rubbed at his mouth, his low comment directed with amusement toward his partner barely loud enough for Tucker to hear. “I’ve got no objections. Maybe his manners will wear off on your boys.”
“Maybe they’ll wear off on our girls,” Walter suggested. “Heaven knows where Dare and Ginny learned those words they were skipping to the other day. By the way, Deb blamed me, so I blamed you.”
“Having a surprise baby on the way is making you mean, Stone.”
“Payback for the year your second was born, when I ended up with all the night calls for way too long,” Walter returned. “Slacker.”
“Maybe before the insults veer into territory that will get us all into trouble, we could let my nephew go?” Ashton suggested, amusement in his tone.
All three of them snorted as Tucker shifted from side to side, his gang of friends, which now included Walker and Ginny, gesturing wildly from farther in the barn.
“Seems you’re good, young man. Listen to your uncle, and get your chores done when he tells you to. Remember, it’s a group effort that keeps this place running, yes? No riding without supervision, and no hanging around the new horses. Understood?” Walter Stone offered his hand as if Tucker were an adult.
Tucker solemnly shook it. “Understood.”
“Now, get,” his uncle said, calling louder as Tucker took off at a sprint. “Don’t think we didn’t know you were there. Varmints, the lot of you.”
“We love you, Mr. Stewart.” The sweet chorus rose from Ginny and Dare as Tucker raced past them, nearly bowling into Luke.
“Come on,” his friend urged.
Like every year since Tucker could remember, they made their way up into the hay loft over the old, old barn. The musty scent slid from a memory into a brand-new reality, and he was grinning by the time they scrambled over the scratchy bales.
This might be where he lived every summer, but the feeling inside was so much more.
The ranch was the closest thing to heaven he could imagine.
“Over here,” Luke whispered, gesturing for them to follow as he crawled on hands and knees through a tunnel nearly three bales long.
Darkness surrounded Tucker, random stalks poking into his arms and shoulders and then suddenly, sunshine. The tunnel emptied into a deep pit arranged right up against one of the windows in the loft wall.
“This is so cool.” Tucker stared around him as Ginny, Dare, and Walker plopped out of the entrance one at a time to join them.
Dare reached into a small crack between the bales and pulled out a sturdy blanket, spreading it on the base beneath them. Then they all sat, Tucker leaning against one of the bales. He stretched his legs in front of him as he breathed deeply and peeked at his cohorts in summertime hijinks. “Hi.”
“A new foal was born two days ago,” Ginny announced. “And I found a batch of kittens that nobody else knows about.”
“Dad said that we can camp at Heart Falls, as long as Caleb helps us pick the spot,” Luke said at nearly the same time, ignoring his little sister. “Caleb helped build this hideout. Dad said Caleb’s getting to be a real asset to the ranch, but he’s still a super good big brother, so I know he’ll help if we ask.”
Walker poked at the golden-toned boards in the wall beside the window. He gave up his task and pressed his nose against the glass to stare into the yard. “I’m hungry.”
“Ginny made cookies,” Dare added helpfully. “Did you bring them?”
Ginny sniffed. “Of course.”
She pulled the bag from her pocket, and for the next few minutes while they talked and caught up, they shared the slightly broken chocolate chip cookie pieces—she’d shoved the bag in her pocket, and crawling through the tunnel hadn’t done them any good.
But every crumb tasted like sunshine to Tucker. He never got homemade cookies at home.
Which was why, as excited as he was about the camping, and how cool the hideout was, and everything else he was buzzing inside to experience, he turned to Ginny first.
“I want to see the kittens.”
Her instant smile was also part of Silver Stone and memories and happiness. They all scrambled through the tunnel after Ginny, off on their first kitten search of the summer.
Everything was right in Tucker’s world.
Sixteen years ago, July
There was nothing worse than being told you couldn’t have a thing, Ginny Stone decided.
Her mother, Deb, eyed her hard and handed her another plate to wash. They stood side by side at the kitchen sink, cleaning up the lunch dishes. “Whatever mischief you’re currently plotting, stop right now.”
Ginny offered an innocent smile. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, mother dear.”
A loud burst of laughter was the instant response. “Oh, sweetie, you are a handful. But I am onto you.” Deb Stone leaned closer. “I also love you more than you know. You’re in a tough place, and I get that. But you need to let your older brothers have some space these days.”
“So that Luke can go suck face with Courtney Masseny?” Ginny shrugged. “I suppose I don’t want to witness that anyway.”
Her mom blinked for a second. “Courtney? I didn’t see that one coming.”
“Please. She’s been after him since third grade,” Ginny complained.
“And you would know this how?” her mom asked with real curiosity.
“We take the bus every day, Mom. ‘The ride to and from school is an education all in itself’,” Ginny quipped. “That’s what Caleb said the other day in his ‘I’m older and wiser than you’ voice.”
“Caleb is older, and hopefully wiser, than you.” Mom shook her head slowly. “Back to the matter at hand, your brother Luke…sucking face…notwithstanding, you need to remember there’s a big age gap between you and Dare and the boys right now.”
“Same four years that’s always been there with Luke. And only two between us and Walker.” Ginny grinned. “I know math isn’t my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure I have that part figured out.”
“Heaven help us if you ever have to do any real accounting,” her mom teased. “Yes, it’s the same four years it’s always been. But four years works something like magic when it comes to being alive. When Dustin was born, Shayla was already three. They didn’t do anything together back then. Now that they’re older, they play together a bit more, but Shayla is still able to do more than he is.”
“I assume this lecture will eventually have a point.” Ginny dodged the snap of the towel her mom cracked at her butt. “Hey, that’s not fair. I’m not armed.”
“You’ve got a smart mind, girl, and a smart mouth to go with it. Learn when to use which,” her mother admonished. “And the moral of the story is, once you’re all grown up, four years won’t mean a thing because time seems to compress the older you get. But right now, you’re thirteen. Four years between you and Luke and Tucker means you’re on this step, and they’re over here. Let them be for a while.”
Ginny did the math in her head. “You’re saying I should leave them alone now, but once I’m grown up, I can bug them all I want?”
Her mother actually rolled her eyes before giving Ginny the look. “Go for it. Once you’re an adult, you will hopefully have learned how to act and who to spend your time and energy on. They can tell you to go away if they want.”
Which meant, if she’d done the figuring properly, Ginny had seven years to wait. “So when I’m twenty?”
“Try twenty-one,” her mom said, pulling her in for a hug. “Don’t try to grow up too quickly, sweetie. One step at a time. That’s the best way to do anything.”
Eight long years until she was a grown up. Ginny sighed.
Well, in the meantime, she had her best friend Dare, and she had lots of time with her brothers, and Tucker, doing regular old fun stuff around the ranch.
But once she was grown, she would tell Tucker that they should go kissing behind the barn. If Courtney could wait six years for Luke—ugh—Ginny could wait a little longer for Tucker.
Thirteen years ago, February.
Tucker had never been in the Silver Stone ranch house and felt such silence. It wasn’t the quiet of a barn in the evening, with small animals moving comfortably. Not a peacefulness that spoke of life and potential and daily renewal.
It was the silence of death and loss and pain.
They’d buried them the day before. All five of those lost in the tragic car accident. Walter and Deb Stone. Joseph Hayes, his wife Jacquie, and their youngest daughter Shayna.
With one swoop, death had stolen away Dare’s entire family. Tucker’s heart ached at the sight of the sixteen-year-old currently wrapped in a blanket and curled up in Caleb’s arms. Her tear-soaked lashes rested on her cheek as she breathed unsteadily. She looked lost. So very lost.
Caleb met Tucker’s gaze across the room. Only four years separated them, but at twenty-four, Caleb had aged overnight as responsibility for the entire family landed squarely on his shoulders.
Because death had taken both of the Stone parents. Both of the Hayes, which meant everyone in charge of the ranch was gone.
Ashton was still there, and he’d do everything possible, but he was the foreman, not the owner. The ranch now belonged to Caleb, his siblings, and the broken-hearted girl in his arms.
The house seemed eerily quiet without Deb Stone laughing as she called out orders in the kitchen, or shouted from the office for someone to please bring her a cup of coffee before she passed out from accounting fatigue. It was strange to glance into the living room and not see Walter Stone in his favourite chair, speaking quietly to one of them in that no nonsense way he had that said firm and fair and yet absolutely loving.
Tucker had hurried to be there for his friends—the people who meant more to him than anyone else in the world. But now that he was at the ranch, he was powerless to do more than deal with chores and fight the tangle inside himself that he didn’t understand.
Twenty years old, and this was the first time that death had intruded on even the edges of his world. He was gutted—
How much worse did his friends feel?
Luke sat at the table, back to the room, staring at the wall. Walker paced restlessly in the open space between the kitchen and the mudroom. Eight-year-old Dustin sat across from Luke, his face streaked with red as he stoically tried to stem his tears.
Tucker glanced around quickly, wondering where she’d vanished to.
Pivoting, he discovered the not quite sixteen-year-old in the kitchen. She had the coffeemaker out and the kettle on. The contents of what looked like half the fridge were spread on the counter in front of her.
Their aunt was in the room, but instead of helping, the older woman sat beside her husband on the couch, the two of them eyeing each other as if urging the other to hurry up and speak.
Meanwhile, Ginny worked. Her face tight, lips pressed into a thin line that was night and day different from her usual happy grin. She had plates out, and sandwiches for lunch in progress.
There. Something he could help with. Tucker crossed the room and silently joined her.
She paused for barely a second before reaching into the cupboard and pulling down two enormous pitchers. She tilted her head toward the freezer. “Can you make juice? There are cans in there.”
He squeezed her shoulder briefly, then got to work.
In the living room, Frank Stone cleared his throat. “This is tough, but it’s not going to get any easier. Heather and I need to be going soon, so it’s time. We’re ready to help.”
Caleb’s voice seemed to have deepened in the past week. A gruff rasp that was chilly and borderline rude echoed in the silence. “So you told me. Thanks for the offer, but it’s not necessary.”
“You can’t do it by yourself,” Heather said sharply. “Be reasonable, Caleb. I know you’re grieving, but you have to face facts. It’s only logical, and it needs to happen now.”
It wasn’t as if Tucker could avoid overhearing what sounded like a private conversation. Not when Heather nearly shouted the words.
None of them could ignore it. Ginny paused in the middle of stacking sandwiches on a plate, her gaze riveted on her aunt.
“What’s she talking about?” Walker stopped his pacing to face the room. A furrow settled between his brows as he tried to figure out what was being discussed.
Heather waved a hand, but Caleb cut her off. “We already had this conversation, and I told you no.”
“Son, you’re not thinking straight,” Frank began.
“He’s not your son,” Dustin retorted. He abandoned his chair and rushed across the room to stand beside Caleb as if ready to protect him. “He’s my big brother.”
“And he’s a good big brother,” Heather said, softer this time. “But you’re young enough you need a mom and dad, and so does Ginny. Which is why both of you will come live with us.”
Pandemonium struck. Shouts and questions and outright refusals.
“I’m not living with you.” Dustin planted his fists on his hips in a position so reminiscent of Walter Stone, Tucker did a second take.
Frank Stone rose to his feet and jabbed his finger at Dustin. “You’ll live where you’re safe and cared for.” The finger moved toward Dare who blinked hard, hands clenching the blanket as Caleb gently moved her aside so he could stand. “Once social services take that Hayes girl—”
“What?” Ginny bolted across the room like a wraith, sliding in front of her best friend to wrap her up in a protective hug. “Dare isn’t leaving us.” Her gaze darted to Caleb’s face. “She’s not. She can’t.”
Caleb pulled them both against his side and squeezed. “Hush. No one’s going anywhere. We’re a family, and we’re staying together.” He nodded at Dare to include her in the statement. “Dare as well. I’ve talked to social services, and to Dare. Luke agrees with me, which means no one needs to leave. Not Dare, not Ginny, not Dustin.”
“Except them,” Ginny snapped, glaring at her aunt and uncle. “You can leave. Right now, and don’t ever come back.”
Frank thrust out his hands as if Ginny’s comment proved his point. “See what you’ll have to deal with? You’ll be asking us to take over before the summer hits, mark my words.”
Caleb took a slow breath, his frown deepening. The girls and Dustin clung to him like a frayed rope on an old fence post. Unsteady, wavering, yet knotted so tight they weren’t going anywhere without someone expending a lot of time and energy to cut them loose.
Luke crossed to where Tucker stood behind Caleb. Walker joined on the other side. “We’ll help take care of them,” Luke said quietly but with absolute certainty.
“So, like Caleb said, thanks, but no thanks,” Walker added.
That wasn’t the end of the complaining or the threats, but Caleb got Luke and Walker to help, and in the end, the shouting and arguing moved outside while Tucker stayed where he was and helped the girls and Dustin get lunch ready.
Eventually, they were all seated at the big family table.
Caleb stared at the stack of plates and bowls resting in the usual spot in front of their father’s chair. The chair Caleb now occupied.
He swallowed hard, dipped his chin, and then, like a man preparing for battle, picked up the soup ladle and began serving portions and passing them around.
Just the way Walter Stone had always served his family.
Tucker looked away and wiped his eyes to get control before he lost it.
Caleb carried on until they each had a bowl of soup and a sandwich. Then he sat back, speaking slowly. “This isn’t what we wanted, but it’s what we’ve got. And we are going to make it work. But I can’t do this by myself, and not with just Luke’s help, or Ashton’s. We’ve all got to do what we can.
“We have to work together. We need to rely on each other, and that’s what will make us strong.”
“We’re Stones,” Ginny said firmly, even though her voice hitched a little. “We are strong.”
Caleb’s lips curled into the first smile Tucker had seen in the past few days. “We are Stones. But I don’t want us to just be stones, rocks on a mountain. We still need to have fun, although I know that doesn’t sound easy right now.” His gaze skipped to Dustin. “Families have fun together, and I’ll definitely need your help to remember that.”
“Skipping stones,” Luke suggested. “Stacking stones into alien creatures. Stone artwork.”
Walker scowled. “What are you talking about?”
Luke shrugged. “Caleb said stones have fun. He’s right. I can think of lots of things, when the time is right.”
Before him, Tucker saw the family begin to pull together.
“Stone soup,” Dare suggested. “That’s one of my favourite books.”
“There’s a book about making soup from stones?” Dustin looked horrified, glancing at the remainder of the soup in the bowl in front of him.
Ginny and Dare exchanged glances then nodded firmly.
“I bet we can get that book from the library,” Ginny told Dustin. “Once we do, you and I can make stone soup.”
The youngest Stone sibling looked suspicious, but he nodded. “Okay.”
Caleb laid a hand on Ginny’s arm, squeezing gently as he gave her a nod of approval.
Transition had begun. Tucker took a deep breath and hoped things would continue the best way possible under the circumstances.
That night, he slipped out of his uncle’s rooms and returned to the family homestead to grab a bag he’d forgotten. He stepped through the back door, and the barest of noises pulled his attention to the right.
Ginny stood in the laundry room, shoulders shaking. Huge, silent tears poured down her cheeks.
Tucker didn’t hesitate. He closed the distance instantly and held her close. This was the semi-little-sister he’d run wild with for years. The one who’d messed with his tent pegs and broken his bike. Who’d resolutely fought to keep up with whatever harebrained stunt he and Luke were attempting, no matter that she was a foot and a half shorter and weighed half as much as they did. Fearless, stubborn to a fault…
Now crying with what sounded like a broken heart, and it was killing him because there was nothing he could do to make it better. No words to say, no reassurances.
She wiggled closer and pressed her teary face against his chest. “I hurt inside.”
It came out so shaky they sounded like twelve words instead of three.
“I know,” he whispered. “It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to cry. Hell, it’s okay to scream if you need to, but that one we won’t do in the house because it might scare Dustin.”
She hiccupped. A small laugh mixed in with the tears.
He patted her back and held her, standing in the clean-scented room, with reminders everywhere still of Deb, of Walter. Reminders of the past that was gone.
Tucker stood and held Ginny, and something inside him twisted with a brand-new understanding.
Silver Stone wasn’t simply a place he came and visited every summer. These weren’t just people he had in his life for a short time and then moved on. Losing Deb and Walter Stone meant seeing how much more important it was to not only treasure the things he had, but to treasure the things he wanted to have.
He wanted his friendships to stay strong.
He wanted people like the Stones in his life forever.
Down the road, he wanted a relationship like Walter and Deb had shared, not a cold and broken one like his parents had, based on unending unhappy compromises.
Ginny took another shuddering breath before loosening her hug. Resting her forehead on his chest, she stared at the floor. “I’m sorry I lost it like that. I won’t do it again.”
“Damn it, Ginny.” Tucker lifted her face to his, examining her carefully. Tears were there, but determination as well. As if she were preparing for whatever battle would come next. “You don’t need to be strong all the time.”
“I do,” she insisted. “I won’t let my family come apart. I won’t let Mom and Dad down.” Strong like her name. Ginny stepped back and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I will do this. You’ll see.”
In that moment, Tucker knew that anyone who thought they could stand in her way would be proven very wrong.
He wouldn’t bet against her for anything.Return to A Rancher’s Love