A Cowboy To Love Again-4

Sneak Peek-4

A Cowboy To Love Again by Chris MartinGina Middleton was back in town. Gina Maisie, now. 

Running into her was like running into a brick wall, and thanking the bricks for the pleasure. 

When she’d left, he’d made it clear that he didn’t want her name mentioned around him. So he hadn’t heard that she’d graduated college, gotten married and had a kid. Or that she and her family had returned to Sagebrush.

After the first five years or so, he’d stopped hoping she would come back. He’d also become resigned that no other woman compared to her. Not that he was trying to compare them. He wanted to like them. Some women, he did like. But he didn’t like-like them. They just didn’t click like Gina and he had always done.

She had looked so pretty, even prettier than he had remembered. There was a depth to her beauty now that hadn’t been there. And a backbone, too. 

Mr. Maisie sure better appreciate what he had, that’s all Zach could say about it.

Zach pushed the grocery cart down the aisle, as Cade trailed behind reading something on his phone.

Cade held the phone close to his face. How long had he been doing that? Zach had appreciated Gina’s explanation How quickly could they get an eye exam scheduled? If that’s all it took to solve Cade’s school problems, Zach would be thankful.

“Zucchini?” Zach held up a few of them to gently tease a reaction from his nephew, knowing Cade detested them.

Cade just frowned at him and went back to poking at his phone.

Usually, the grocery store was one of Cade’s favorite places to go. Zach had made an unplanned stop just to lighten up his nephew’s mood, but it wasn’t working. 

As Zach lifted a sack of potatoes into the cart, Cade caught up with him. 

“Uncle Zach, We have to go over to Jack’s house, right now.”


“The kid I was sitting next to when you came to pick me up. The Vice Principal’s kid.”

Zach set down the potatoes, alarmed and confused.

“What’s up with this, Cade?”

“Jack just texted me. His dad is at his grandma’s place, where he lives now.”


“His dad is who gave him that black eye.”

“Oh.” Zach wheeled around the cart to push it to the front of the store.

“He’s texting me his address.”

“I know where his grandma lives.” Mrs. Middleton’s house had been a hangout for not only him but for all of Gina’s friends in their youth.

“He says I can knock on the door and say I picked up one of his books by mistake or something.”

“Or something.” Zach waved an apology to the checker as he abandoned his cart by her register.

While Cade’s long stride generally outpaced Zach nowadays, his nephew had to pick up his step to keep up with Zach this time.

They both piled into the truck and Zach headed toward Gina’s house, running a yellow light that he normally would have stopped for with his impressionable nephew in the truck.

Zach only slowed when the Middleton’s yellow and white, farmhouse style home came into view.

When they arrived, Zach made sure to park so that the rental car had an easy exit route. He also backed his truck in so he could make a speedy departure, too.

“You stay here,” he said to Cade.



Zach hurried over the paving stone path that used to be so familiar to him and climbed the three wide steps to the deep porch and the wreath-decorated front door.

Through the closed door, Zach couldn’t make out words only tones of voice. A low voice and two high voices were having a not-so-friendly discussion, with volumes raising and then lowering then raising again.

He gave a harsh knock, trying to decide how best to handle this.

Mrs. Middleton opened the door. “Oh, Zach, hello!” She glanced behind her, but inside the house was too dark against the brightness of the day for Zach to see what she looked at.

Before he could come up with an excuse for stopping by, she said, “Please, come in.”

Standing backed up against the kitchen door frame was Gina. Too close to her stood a man a good decade older than her with the slight frame of Jack, but with a scowl that was all his own.

Still, the man was a few inches and a lot of muscle bigger than Gina.

“Now is not the time for visitors, my friend,” he said, half way turning to Zach but keeping Gina within range of sight.

“I’m not your friend.” Zach took a step toward him. “And you’re the visitor. It seems you’ve overstayed your welcome.”

“Is this why you left me, Gina? You had someone on the side all along?”

“I have a restraining order against you, Malcolm. You need to leave.”

Zach got as close to Malcolm as Malcolm was to Gina. “Let me show you out.”

“Listen, mister—“ Malcolm had a bit of a whine to him now.

“I’m a bad listener. But I’m pretty good at taking out the trash. Wanna see?” Now, Zach moved between Gina and Malcolm, feeling Gina’s warmth at this back. He looked down at Malcolm. “Time to go.”

Malcolm took a step back, then another one. Then he brushed past Mrs. Middleton, knocking into her and almost making her fall.

Zach followed him out then stood on the porch, arms crossed, as he watched the rental car leave. 

“Zach,” Mrs. Middleton began.

“Just one second, please.” He whipped out his phone and dialed.

“Sergeant Rivers,” his cousin answered the phone.

“Yeah, David, I just wanted to let you know that there’s a guy in town, a Malcolm Maisie, with a restraining order against him. Gina Middleton’s ex. He was at her home, threatening her.”

“Is she all right?”

“Yeah, I ran him off. He’s driving a rental.” Zach described the make and model and provided the license number. 

“You know, I was just thinking we needed a patrol car at the stop sign on that street to keep traffic in line. Speeders, rolling stops, that sort of thing. It’s been happening too often in that neighborhood.”

Zach grinned. “Thanks, cuz.”

“Oh, no. Thank you. It’s concerned citizens like you who keep our town safe,” David replied with a grin in his own voice.

Zach turned back to Mrs. Middleton to find Gina had joined them. “We’ve got you covered.”

Mrs. Middleton gently placed her hand on his forearm. “Thank you, so much, Zach.”

“How did you—?” Gina looked more shaken and puzzled than grateful. Zach understood that.

“That’s a discussion you should have with Jack,” he answered, diverting. He was already knee-deep in the middle of her family business. He didn’t need to go any deeper. Still, he was glad he could help.

“Jack?” Gina looked around for her son who had had the good sense to disappear and went in search of him.

“You must stay for supper, Zach.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Middleton, but I’ve got Cade with me. He’s in the truck.”

“Of course, Cade must come in and eat, too.”

Even if Zach had been inclined to stay, he couldn’t inflict Cade’s tremendous appetite on any unsuspecting cook. “I really can’t. But thank you for the offer.”

Gina must have been near enough to hear her mom’s invitation, because she returned with a small paper bag.

“Cookies.” She held them out. “My mom just baked them. Surely, you’ll take cookies, right?”

Was that a challenge in her voice? If so, why?

“Yes, I will gladly take your mom’s cookies. I remember them from when the old gang used to hang out here after school.” 

Mrs. Middleton had always opened her doors to all of Gina’s friends, especially those who lived out of the town limits. When they had a game after school and driving all the way home and back would have eaten up hours as well as gas, her place had been a refuge for a good half dozen or so, including him.

“Snickerdoodles.” Mrs. Middleton added, understandably proud of her baking skills.

“I remember them well. Cade will think he died and went to heaven, getting to taste these.” Died and went to heaven. It was an expression they didn’t say anymore in the Rivers household since Mary’s passing. It had just slipped out. Thankfully Cade and Adam were nowhere near to hear.

After another round of goodbyes with a couple more thank you’s thrown in from Mrs. Middleton, Zach finally made it back to his truck, where a worried Cade sat wringing his hands.

“What happened?” Cade asked before Zach got his door closed.

Zach took his time putting on his seat belt and cranking up the truck before he answered, “Not much of anything.”

“What’s in the sack.” Cade sniffed toward the cookies.

“Snickerdoodles. Go ahead, just leave one for me and one for your Uncle Shawn.”

Cade looked forlornly at them. “I don’t think I can. My stomach is kind of upset. I was worried.”

Wow! The kid admitted he was upset. He’d been denying any kind of emotion ever since his mom went into the hospital. This wasn’t the way Zach would have wished for progress, but he would take it.

“I told the guy to leave. He did.”

“Jack was pretty scared. What if his dad comes back?”

“David is putting a patrol car near their house. They know who to look for.”

Cade nodded, reached out his hand for the cookie sack, then pulled it back. “I can’t imagine how bad it must be to be afraid of your own dad.”

Zach nodded, not knowing what else to say.

“Were you afraid of the Judge?” 

Zach had to think about that one. That Cade called his grandfather ‘the Judge’, just as Adam, Zach, and Shawn did, said a lot about the man’s lack of warmth right there. 

“He never hit me but there was an underlying threat of it. I’d have to say that I was afraid of him more often than I felt safe with him.”

Without prompting, Cade kept talking. “That black eye Jack’s got? His dad did that to him. His dad used to hit his mom all the time. She’d try to hide it from everyone but then they finally got divorced. But then Jack went to stay the weekend with his father and his dad got mad and hit him. That’s why they finally got to move away from San Francisco. Because the courts wouldn’t let Jack’s mom move because of custody arrangements, but then Jack’s dad hit him. Jack says that in a way, he’s glad his dad did it so they could get away from him and move here.”

Zach tensed up then deliberately lightened his grip on the steering wheel as he tried to work through all that Gina must have lived with all these years. He had a deep desire to show that jerk of a husband and father what pain really was. To make sure he never hurt anyone ever again. 

Even though he was usually the most even-tempered of his brothers, right now, all he felt was rage.

But that was not the best emotion to show his nephew right now, especially since Cade was finally talking after all these months of monotoned monosyllables. 

He took slow, even breaths and let the anger and sadness and fear and regret and all the other emotions that tore at him move through him with each exhale.

He glanced sideways at Cade, but the boy hadn’t noticed, too caught up in Jack’s horror.

“I probably should have minded my own business, but, well, Jack texted and I just couldn’t.”

“Don’t you ever.” It came out a lot more forceful than Zach had intended. He took another breath and let it out. “Taking care of others is everyone’s business, especially when they can’t take care of themselves. You did the right thing, Cade. I’m proud of you for that.”

Cade let out a deep breath of his own. “I wasn’t sure.”

“You went with your instincts and you were right. You know right from wrong. Trust yourself.”

Cade nodded. “Yeah. Thanks, Uncle Zach.”

He reached for the bag and took out a cookie. “How did you get him to leave?”

“Bullies usually back down when they can’t dominate.” Zach grinned, “And he’s got a restraining order against him. Threatening to call the police is probably what did it.”

“Couldn’t Jack’s mom have done that? Called the police, I mean?”

How did Zach explain about the spiral of abuse that slowly took a woman’s self-esteem and agency, making her doubt herself? He didn’t quite get it himself. He knew it just happened, little by little, like water dripping on a stone.

  But Cade seemed to reach his own conclusions. “Do you know Rachel Worthinson? Her mom is—was one of the nurses that took care of Mom.”

Zach thought a bit. “The girl with short pink hair? Yeah, sure.”

“Rachel and her mom and brother left her dad before they moved here last year. He’s some kind of politician and they lived in the capitol.” Cade crimped the cookie bag. “Whenever their dad got mad and—well, then he said they deserved it. He said he was under a lot of pressure and they made it happen by making him mad.”

“You know that’s not true, right? No one makes another person act out in violence, no matter what.” Zach thought about how close he’d come to succumbing with Malcolm. “Even if the other person pushes their buttons.”

Cade nodded. “Rachel said when she and her brother finally told someone, they didn’t believe them. Or told them it wasn’t that bad. They were making too big a deal out of it and they would hurt their dad’s career if they told anyone. Finally, their mom took them to this place that helps women and their kids escape from their dads and they found them a lawyer that didn’t like her dad, either. Rachel says that the woman at the place that helped them escape told her that if you’re supposed to lie to save someone’s good reputation, they don’t have much of a good reputation worth saving.” Cade looked sadly at his half-eaten cookie. “I wonder if Jack or his mom ever tried to tell, but no one believed them? I wonder if that’s why Jack texted me instead of calling the police.”

“Maybe.” Zach’s gut clenched at the thought that Gina might have reached out, but no one helped her.

Cade strangled the cookie sack. “Is that what happened to Grandma?”

“The Judge never hit anyone. Us or Grandma.”

Zach thought for a moment about changing the subject. But who would he be protecting? Not Cade. Cade needed to know these things.

The Judge. He’d be protecting the Judge. Again. After all these years, those old, ingrained habits still surfaced.

He cleared his throat, glad he had to keep his eyes on the road instead of face Cade. “That woman is right about the reputation thing. It’s also good to remember that just because someone you’re related to does something bad, that doesn’t mean you’re bad by association.”

Cade gave him a tentative sideways grin. “That sounds like therapist talk.”

Zach grinned back, letting Cade know this topic was okay to discuss. “It is therapist talk.”

Even though his therapist had told him time and time again that he wasn’t responsible and couldn’t have done anything even if he’d known the about the whole scheme, he still felt shame for his father’s moral failings. He still didn’t understand how the Judge pulled off sentencing juvenile offenders to private prisons for kickbacks. He just knew that there was a lot of money and then there was none, and life had been very, very hard for a while. 

And that his big brother Adam and had saved him when his stepmother couldn’t. He reached up and scratched his faded scar that started behind his right ear. While the Judge hadn’t been responsible for the scar, directly, he had been indirectly. 

The scar had come from being bashed over the head with a pipe, compliments of Zach’s short stint in foster home from a brother of a boy the Judge had sent to prison unjustly. But then, the subsequent concussion and hospital stay had convinced Child Protection Services that Zach was safer with his eighteen-year-old brother than he was in foster care. So the scar wasn’t all bad, was it?

“The Judge was more into head games than violence.”

“That’s what happened to Grandma, right? He threatened her if she told on him.”

Zach swallowed. “Yeah. All kinds of threats, but he was smart enough to say the words in ways that didn’t sound like threats if she were to report him for them.”

Cade studied the cookie, went to take a nibble, but then didn’t. “Grandma turned him in to the FBI, didn’t she?”

“Yes. She did all the right things. She’s a courageous woman.”

Shawn’s mother had planned, making connections, and sneaking survival money and gathering evidence that finally convicted her husband. 

Zach couldn’t imagine how much bravery that had taken. Rose had bundled up Shawn in the middle of a snow storm and driven off with the money she had hidden away. She had wanted to take Adam and Zach, the two stepsons she loved as much as she loved Shawn, but that would have been kidnapping her secret counselor had told her. So she’d had to leave them with the promise that she would come back for them.

That promise had been what Zach had clung to in the months after she left and the years before the case was finally settled.

She’d kept her promise as soon as she could.

Zach couldn’t love her more.

“Jack’s mom made him go to therapy. Grandma made you go, too, didn’t she?”

“It was my choice, but she was very persuasive.”

Cade sighed. He had resisted therapy so far, worried that his friends would find out, that they would make fun of him. Also, Zach suspected, Cade worried that he would feel guilty for finally not feeling so sad over his mother’s death. The whole thing was complicated. 

Damn it, Adam. Your son needs you. Zach immediately took it back. Adam was doing what he needed to for his own mental health. He had given Cade all he had to give, but he was wrecked and hadn’t had a lot of support that he could offer to his son.

“I miss Grandma.”

Cade was finally talking about his feelings. Zach had to tread carefully here. “You can video chat with her.”

“It’s not the same. I think I need a hug from her.” 

Another emotional breakthrough.

“That can be arranged.” But hell if Zach knew how they would arrange it. But they would make it happen. Mentally, he did some quick math in his head. He’d intended to raise the calf that had just been born and sell it at auction once it had some weight on it, but he could sell it now with delivery promised when it was weaned. That should take care of a round trip airline ticket for Cade and maybe enough for Shawn, too. 

He’d figure out the ranch work without the two of them to help him. He’d figure it all out. 

One thing for sure, they’d make it work.