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Babies, babies everywhere, except in the Romero household...
BORN IN TEXAS #13: Mistaken Hero
Thanksgiving and a Wedding
Normally, Chef Bree Romero enjoyed every second she spent inside the kitchen at the Anderson Ranch B&B. The scent of fresh-baked bread wafted in the air every day by sunrise. It was joined by the aroma of cookies, cakes, and pies straight from the oven by mid-morning. Everyone who sampled them swore up and down that she dished up sheer happiness for her family, friends, ranch hands, and the B&B guests.
Her commercial-grade ovens, twin sub-zero fridges, and stainless steel cabinetry were her pride and joy. She washed and polished them to gleaming spotlessness at the end of each workday. A few minutes ago, one ranch hand had jokingly referred to them as “her babies.”
Except they weren’t.
Her vision blurred as she donned her favorite pumpkin orange hand mitts, opened the warming drawers, and removed three wide trays of steaming entrees — roast beef with bordelaise sauce, grilled chicken glazed with garlic herbs, and plank salmon brushed with lemon butter.
She blinked back tears, knowing that there wasn’t an upscale appliance in the world that could substitute for the joy of holding a real, live baby in her arms. She knew first-hand, because she’d held plenty of babies lately — Shayley Foster’s toddler and newborn, as well as her brother and Star’s little one.
It had been a particularly difficult afternoon, watching Kenzie Wilder smiling as wide as a canyon creek at her husband’s side, while his brother, Zane, and Toya tied the knot under a white rose trellis in the adjoining dining hall. Kenzie’s belly was delightfully swollen with child, and she wore that new mama “glow”. If Bree remembered correctly, Kenzie and Nash would be welcoming the new addition to their family a few days before Christmas.
It wasn’t fair! The two of them had eloped less than a year ago, which meant they’d gotten pregnant right away. It’s so not fair! Bree bit her lower lip as her cousin, Crew, the B&B’s manager, swaggered into the kitchen. His presence was a timely reminder that now wasn’t a convenient time to melt into a pool of self-pity. They had a wedding party to feed, for crying out loud!
Crew was in a white button-up shirt, stone-washed jeans, and cowboy boots — the standard uniform at the B&B. He’d added a silver horse-head bolo around his collar and donned white gloves for the catering part of the event. Though he reached for the handles of the first tray of meat, he didn’t immediately turn around to carry it to the warming stands in the dining hall.
A perennial jokester, he was rarely serious. However, he wasn’t smiling as he dipped his head a little to peer at her from beneath the brim of his Stetson. “You okay, cuz?”
She nodded wordlessly, unable to think of a single thing to say that wouldn’t sound petty or selfish. One thing was for sure; she wasn’t ready to step back into their crowd of happy friends and family on the other side of the kitchen wall just yet. Their smiles, their happiness, and their babies had been poking holes in her heart for the past hour. She needed a few more minutes to finish pulling her emotions together.
“You don’t look okay.” Crew lowered his hands to his sides and walked around the silver workstation to face her. “So, how about you park your skinny little backside in that stool over there,” he angled his head at her serving bar, “while I pour you a glass of lemonade?”
She knew he was only being kind, but his casual jibe about her skinny backside served as the last straw. The tears she’d been trying so hard to hold back started to gush.
“Bree!” His agonized exclamation tore through her, making her cry harder. “What’s wrong?” Instead of waiting for her to follow his suggestion to take a seat, he leaped in her direction. Clasping her upper arms, he gently towed her backwards until her legs bumped into the stool.
She sat, eyeing him stormily. “The o-only r-reason my b-backside is s-so skinny,” she quavered, fully intending to explain that her too-thin frame was because of her failure to carry any of her pregnancies to full term. But she was crying too hard to continue. Her shoulders shook from the intensity of it.
“Oh, come on. Bree! You know I didn’t mean—” Watching her helplessly, he backed away from her with his hands raised. “You know what? I’m gonna get Matt.”
She shook her head so vehemently that a few tears went flying. Somehow, she managed to find her voice again. “P-please don’t get him.” She didn’t want to worry her husband. His hands were full enough already. Since it was both a wedding day and a holiday, the ranch was operating on a skeleton crew this afternoon — no easy task, considering their sold-out block of rooms at the B&B. Most of their private cabins were rented out, too.
“Eh, he’s married to you, cuz, so you’re kinda his problem.” Crew’s hands stayed up in defense as he backed through the swing door and bumped into none other than the cowboy they were discussing.
Matt teasingly tossed her cousin aside and hurried into the room. “What’s going on?” His dark gaze zeroed in on his wife, and his tanned features grew wild with concern. “Babe?” He sprinted in her direction.
She continued to shake her head, babbling damply. “I’m f-fine. We n-need to serve the f-food—”
“Crew can handle it,” Matt assured her quickly. He reached her side and took her in his arms. “Talk me to, darlin’.”
She clung to him and cried some more before confessing, “I don’t think I can go back out there.” Her voice was muffled against the front of his shirt. She had no doubt it was now splattered with salt stains.
“Alright.” His voice was tight with worry. “Let’s get out of here.”
Not waiting for her to answer, he scooped her up in his arms and headed for the side exit. The fact that he didn’t so much as wince or let out a huff of air from the effort brought on a fresh wave of tears on her part. She, quite simply, didn’t weigh what an expectant mother would.
Crew materialized and held it open for them.
“I’m t-too skinny,” she wept as Matt walked outside with her into the brisk autumn breeze.
“Uh…I’m afraid that’s my fault,” Crew muttered regretfully from behind them. “I said something about her skinny backside, and—”
“If you’ll just handle the food, we’d be mighty grateful.” Matt cut him off and kept walking. His tone indicated that he didn’t blame Crew for his wife’s tears. He was too smart for that.
“Sure thing,” Crew called after them, sounding relieved.
Matt carried her to his white pickup, which was parked behind the B&B in the staff lot. Shifting her weight more firmly against his chest, he opened the driver’s door that he rarely bothered to lock. “In you go.” He gently set her on the leather seat, carefully sweeping the skirt of her ankle-length sundress into the cab.
She wordlessly shimmied over to give him room to take his place behind the wheel.
Before starting the motor, he reached across her to open the dashboard compartment and withdrew a travel pack of tissues. “Here.” As he pressed them into her hands, he dipped his head over hers to touch his lips to her damp ones. “I love you, Mrs. Romero. More than you’ll ever understand, since I’m no good at telling you.” His callused fingers tangled in the strands of her long blonde hair as he cupped the side of her neck.
His use of her married name made her cry harder. It was a reminder that she wasn’t holding up her end of the deal very well. When two people got married, it was generally understood that children would follow. Or at least that the option to start a family would be on the table when the time was right.
Unfortunately for Bree and Matt, the time never seemed to be right. She’d miscarried three times already and wasn’t sure her heart would survive the fourth loss she feared was coming.
He kissed her again, sighing a little as he raised his head. Then he started the motor and rolled from the parking lot.
She stared blindly out the window, hating the fact that her husband was having to see her like this. Again. Shattered and defeated. It wasn’t the first time. Or the second time. He was probably getting tired of seeing her like this.
They bumped across the gravel road leading deeper into the ranch grounds. At one point, he maneuvered his truck off the road and continued driving across one of the back pastures.
Since it was November, nothing was growing. The Joshua tree limbs were bare, clawing their jagged fingers toward the sky. Tall, dead clumps of grass waved dryly in the breeze. Here and there, a tumbleweed bounced and rolled, sometimes kicking up dust in its wake.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven,” Matt quoted the ancient verse from the book of Ecclesiastes. Reaching for Bree’s hand, he laced his fingers through hers, rubbing his thumb over the wedding band that circled her left finger. “I reckon it’s just not our time yet, darlin’.”
“When?” The word tore from her like a jagged piece of glass falling from a broken mirror. “When will it be our turn?”
“When the good Lord wills it, I guess.”
Though she knew it was true, it wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear. “What did I do wrong?” She swiveled her face toward him, her cheeks dripping with tears.
“Nothing!” Though he sounded aghast she would even suggest such a thing, she found no comfort in his response.
She was beyond exchanging pleasantries. She was beyond trying to fool herself into thinking that what they were going through was normal. It wasn’t. Both of them had voluntarily undergone some medical screening after her last miscarriage. The results were in. There was nothing wrong with either of them — at least nothing that met the eye.
Which told her the fault lay with her. For reasons no one could yet explain, her womb had been unable to carry a fetus beyond the first trimester. Like clockwork, it expelled their every attempt to start a family together at about the ninety-day mark.
Though he didn’t know it yet, the countdown had begun again. She was dreading it so much that it was making her sick. She hadn’t been able to down more than half a cracker and a few sips of water today. Since she was supposed to be catering a wedding, she hadn’t pushed to eat or drink more. She had no interest in getting sick in front of an audience.
“I feel like I’m being punished,” she rasped.
“Why?” Matt’s voice was cautious.
“Because the Bible also says that the Lord will give us the desires of our heart if our ways please Him.” She fisted her right hand and held it clenched against the seat cushion. “I’ve never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted a baby with you, Matt. Never.” It constantly ate at her peace. It was slowly but surely eroding her confidence.
“All in God’s timing,” Matt returned quietly. “The waiting is the hardest part.”
“Do you want children, Matt?” She pinned him with a beseeching look, needing to hear again that she wasn’t the only one. “For real. Please don’t just say what you think I want to hear.”
“Of course, I do!” He feathered his brakes and brought the truck to a halt in front of their favorite canyon view. This was their spot, a place they used to visit often. Granted, they’d spent far less time taking in the view than they’d spent necking. It had been a while since they’d come here, though, probably because she hadn’t been in much of a canoodling mood lately.
“I…had to wonder.” Pulling one of the tissues from the pack, she tipped her head tiredly against his shoulder. As she dabbed the wetness from her face, she soaked in his strength and nearness. “Because you’ve never come unraveled the way I do after...” She was unable to finish the sentence aloud, so she finished it inside her head. After I lose every single one of our precious babies.
He curled an arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead. “It’s not that I don’t feel stuff. Just trying to be strong for you, I guess.” He pressed his lips to the top of her head. “Plus, I’m not exactly doing the heavy lifting here. You are.” He splayed his left hand protectively over her still-flat belly.
She grew still. “You know?” Her voice cracked. She hadn’t yet found the right time to tell him she was pregnant again. Part of her was too raw from the last time she’d miscarried. The other part of her was practically suffocating with fear.
“I always do.” He tipped her face up to his and ever-so-gently claimed her lips. Between kisses, he promised, “I’m praying harder than I’ve ever prayed before for you.” He rubbed his thumb in a slow circle across her middle. “And him.”
She caught her breath on a sob of wonder. “You think we’re going to have a son?” She spoke in a whisper against his lips.
“I know we are.” There was so much confidence in his voice that her tears started to roll again.
“How do you know?” She unconsciously leaned into his embrace, desperate to soak up any reassurance he could give her.
“I have faith, Bree.”
They weren’t the words she expected to hear, but they were enough. For now. “Have enough faith for both of us, Matt,” she begged softly.
For an answer, he deepened their kiss, showing her instead of telling her how much he cared.
The sick feeling in her belly faded as she kissed him back, showing him without words how much his unfailing love and support meant to her.
A loud crack resounded through the cab as something slammed into the windshield.
Bree jolted back in Matt’s arms, twisting her head to stare in alarm at the spidery splinters in the glass.
“What in the—?” Matt leaned closer to the windshield to peer outside. “There’s someone out there.”
She curled her fingers into the fabric of his shirt. “Don’t go,” she pleaded. Their local police department had made great strides in recent months, flushing gang members, meth heads, and drug mules out of the canyons. However, she didn’t doubt for a second that a few thugs remained at large.
“I’m armed, darlin’,” he reminded, with another quick peck on her lips. Then he pushed open the driver’s door and leaped to the ground. Glancing up at her, he warned, “Stay put.”
“Gladly.” She didn’t have the energy to face down any stray gang members today.
“There’s another gun in the glove compartment.” He pointed. “I’d feel better if you get it out. Just in case.” Then he took off at a jog toward the canyon’s edge.
As she leaned across the cab to comply, a blur of movement made her pause. Someone shot up over the edge of the canyon and sprinted in her direction.
Bree hastily closed her fingers around the gun and scrambled out of the truck. She couldn’t think of many reasons for a person to be throwing rocks or running toward her. Visions of abductions and stolen vehicles danced numbly through her brain.
The person making a beeline for the truck was smaller than she’d been expecting, a boy of no more than eleven or twelve. His filthy red and white plaid shirt was torn and hanging open, revealing a ribcage that was way too thin. His hair might’ve once been blonde. Right now, it was matted with tangles and caked with dirt. His sneakers were held together with tape that was peeling loose.
Too stunned to do anything but gawk, she made no move to stop him when he climbed behind the wheel of the truck.
Matt must have left his keys in the ignition, because she heard the motor rumble to life. Then the kid pulled hard on the wheel and circled away from her. In moments, he was bumping jerkily across the field toward the ranch.
Matt jogged back to her side, throwing up his hands in frustration. “Well, that wasn’t how this was supposed to go.”
A chuckle erupted from her. “Meaning a filthy kid wasn’t supposed to steal a truck beneath the noses of two armed adults?” Not that either of them had even considered firing at the boy.
Her husband gave her a hard look. “Not sure what’s so funny about it.” He groaned loudly as the kid hit a rock. “He’s tearing up my new tires!”
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, then chuckled again when the kid bumped through a low spot and eventually drove out of sight. “It’s totally inappropriate laughter. Guess it means I used up all my tears earlier.”
“Not sorry about that.” Matt shot her a long-suffering sideways look before returning his attention to the retreating truck. “It’s good to hear you laugh again.” He reached for his cell phone. “I’ll alert the others that we have a truck-jacking in play.”
Crew promised to have a team of ranch hands intercept the punk. “I’m coming to get y’all,” he added before hanging up.
Bree smiled when the hood of his father’s classic blue Chevy appeared on the horizon. She had no doubt Crew had grabbed the closest vehicle in sight. Since Harley Anderson had played the wedding march on his fiddle earlier, he’d parked right outside the front entrance of the B&B.
Crew drew abreast of them and rolled down his window. He eyed Bree curiously. “You’re looking a lot better, little mama.”
She glared at him. “You knew, too?”
He shot a laughing look at her husband. “I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot fence pole. She’s all yours, Mr. Ranch Manager.”
Matt nuzzled her ear as he pulled open the passenger door and assisted her into the middle of the truck cab. “We’re farmers, Mrs. Romero. We know stuff.”
Crew curled his upper lip at them as they took their seats. “Few ground rules. No slobbering on each other on the way back.”
“This isn’t slobbering.” Matt deliberately cupped the back of Bree’s neck and sealed his mouth over hers.
Crew hit the gas pedal a little harder than necessary, making the truck rock back and forth.
“Easy, bro!” Matt growled, raising his head. “We’ve got precious cargo aboard.”
With a groan of capitulation, Crew obligingly drove at a smoother pace all the way back to the B&B.
Matt’s truck was parked at an odd angle in the middle of the lane running between the B&B and ranch house.
Their newest ranch hand, Saint Riley, had a hand clamped on the arm of the squirming truck thief.
The moment Crew brought his dad’s truck to a halt, Matt leaped to the ground. “Whoa! What’s going on here?”
Bree followed at a slower pace. Her heart wrenched at the genuine fear and despair etched into the small boy’s face.
“He’s my brother,” Saint snarled, giving the kid’s arm a none-too-gentle shake. “What I don’t understand is how he found me. He’s supposed to be staying with his foster parents up in Amarillo.”
“They’re not my parents,” the youth howled. “They’re mean, and so are you!” He viciously kicked Saint’s leg.
Though Saint’s hard mouth tightened, he said nothing in return. If anything, he paled a little beneath his Stetson.
Bree hurried up to them. “How about we take this conversation inside?” Anxiously scanning the boy’s face, she added, “You look hungry, kid.”
To her surprise, his blue gaze misted with tears. “Yes, ma’am, I am.”
Apparently, he had some manners beneath all those layers of grime. Bree smiled and stooped in front of him. “Let him go, Saint. I’ve got this.”
Saint dropped his hand, though he continued to tower menacingly over his younger brother. His body remained tense, as if preparing to tackle him if he tried to run away.
“I’m Bree.” She held out a hand. “What’s your name, kiddo?”
He stared blearily at her hand. “I’m sorry about stealing your truck.”
“That’s a very long name, kid,” she teased.
He stared blankly at her for a moment. Then a grin tugged at his cracked lips. “You’re funny. I like you.”
“You’re going to like my cooking even more,” she promised smugly. “Come on.” She beckoned at him to follow her to the kitchen. “This way, kid.”
“It’s Prince,” he confessed in a wry voice. “You can keep calling me Kid, if you want.”
“Prince and Saint, eh?” She shot a curious look at their newest ranch hand. It was an interesting pair of names, indeed, for two cowboys on the wrong side of the law.
He shrugged. “We had no choice in the matter.”
She chuckled again. “Since you left the wedding early, how about you join us in the kitchen?”
“Sorry, ma’am.” Saint ducked his head. “Didn’t think anyone noticed.”
“Don’t let his modesty fool you. He was chasing down a runaway horse,” Crew supplied dryly as he strode in their direction.
“Oh, no!” Bree’s smile disappeared. “Which horse? Is everyone okay?” She scanned the yard around them but could see nothing amiss.
“It was Rapture,” Crew supplied in the same dry voice.
“Oh, my lands!” She swayed dizzily. Matt’s hand came down on her lower back to steady her.
“That little hottie romance author tried to ride ‘em. She has Saint to thank for living to tell the tale.” Crew gave a snort of derision. “City girls,” he added, as if that explained it all.
A few minutes later, Prince was perched on one of Bree’s stools at the bar in the back of the kitchen, scarfing down food as fast as Bree could pile it on his plate. Saint stood next to him with his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans. A worried frown raised a triple wrinkle between his eyebrows.
“What are you gonna do about my brother, sir?” Though he rarely made eye contact, he lifted his head to meet Matt’s gaze squarely.
“I’m not going back!” Prince spoke with a full mouth, waving his fork fiercely at his brother. “You can’t make me.”
Bree’s heart twisted with sadness at the realization that her husband could, in fact, do exactly that. She caught Matt’s gaze and gave him a beseeching look. “There has to be something we can do,” she declared softly.
His brown eyebrows rose. “He’s not a stray cat, darlin’.”
“I don’t care.” She lifted her chin stubbornly. “I want to keep him.” There was just something about Prince that tugged on every single one of her heartstrings. “Here,” she added firmly. “At the ranch.”
It was a good thing she was looking at Saint for confirmation. Otherwise, she might’ve missed the flash of hope in his gaze. He immediately squashed it. A look of bland indifference returned, and he dropped his head again.
“Oh, please, Saint! Can I stay? Can I? Can I?” Prince begged, leaping down from the stool to face his brother. “I’ll do anything you say. I promise!” He clasped his hands in front of him.
Bree hardly heard a word of what he said or what Saint said in return. The kid’s jump to the floor had caused his torn shirt to fly up a little in the back, and she’d seen the marks there.
“Yes. You can stay,” she choked, staring hard at the back of his shirt as it fluttered back into place.
“Bree, darlin’,” Matt protested quietly.
“He has scars on his back.” Her voice trembled with anger. “Fresh ones. Pretty sure the law is going to be on our side if we put in an application to foster him.”
While Crew and Saint stared at her in surprise, Matt merely nodded, looking lost in thought. They’d not told anyone yet about applying to become foster parents. They’d been researching the adoption process, as well. And undergoing counseling for fertility treatments. In short, they’d been reviewing all their options, should they be unable to bear children.
Prince whirled in Bree’s direction. “I promise to eat all the food on my plate, ma’am, even the vegetables. I’ll do all my chores, too. Whatever you need me to do.”
“I’m sure you will, kid.” She reached out to ruffle his filthy hair and ended up stirring a small cloud of dust in the process.
Crew guffawed loudly, while Saint stared in disbelief at Bree.
Giving his wife a why-not look, Matt held out a hand to Prince. “Whatever my wife wants, she usually gets, so I’ll just go ahead and say it. Welcome to Anderson Ranch, kid.”
With a shout of sheer ecstasy, Prince ignored his hand and launched his scrawny frame at Matt, throwing his arms around his middle. “Thank you, sir! I promise I won’t steal any more trucks.”
Matt’s hands settled gently on his shoulders. “Gonna hold you to that, kid.”
Bree gazed at them in awe, not minding the trail of dirt Prince had left on her husband’s white shirt. It would wash out, along with the salt stains she’d left there. Two words came to her mind, and they were the most wonderful two words in the world.
When Matt said they were going to have a son, this wasn’t what she’d pictured. It felt right, though. So did the life stirring in her belly. She pressed a hand there, sending up a silent prayer of gratitude that maybe this time would be their time.
No matter what, it was an incredible way to wrap up their Thanksgiving Day. She certainly had more to be thankful for right now than she’d ever dreamed possible.