Sold! In the Show Me State

 

Chapter 1

The auction had started.

Chandler Hudson sat on the bench outside the back door of the rec center.

He wasn’t scheduled to go until last, but they would be missing him soon, worried he’d skipped out, most likely.

Still, he didn’t get up. His legs were braced, and he leaned his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped between them.

Talk about getting cold feet. Although it wasn’t like this was his idea. Miss Lynette, the pastor’s wife, had called him with the idea of selling a month of his time at the auction that would benefit the recent tornado victims in Trumbull, which was the next town over from his old Missouri hometown of Cowboy Crossing. He said an easy yes, because hey, the auction was a month away, and for some reason, he just had the idea that he wouldn’t actually have to go through with it. Who sold people? Even to make money for tornado victims?

Someone would come to their senses.

He supposed, if he were around Cowboy Crossing more often, he might have a little better idea how tenacious Miss Lynette could be.

As it was, he’d figured it out now.

Too late.

He’d taken a lot of ribbing over the last few days, mostly people joking that they would buy him. For most of the people he’d talked to, he really wouldn’t mind.

His brothers had teased him that they’d buy him and put him to work on the farm.

He was between movie shoots, so he could afford the time off, and it wasn’t like the work they’d have him doing would be that hard. He wouldn’t be in the field picking rocks.

He’d be in an air-conditioned cab of a tractor somewhere, most likely.

There had been a few old ladies who had cackled gleefully at the idea of having him around for a month.

Even more disturbing, and probably what ate at him now, was there were actually women in their twenties and thirties who had looked at him up and down, like a horse on the block, and suggestively said they wouldn’t mind having him for a month.

He wasn’t under the illusion that he’d have to do anything he didn’t want to—there had to be limits—but he didn’t really want to spend a month bored out of his mind, at some woman’s beck and call. Especially if she were a fan.

He hardly thought the situation would come up in his lifetime twice, but he made a mental note, if anyone ever asked him if he wanted to sell himself at auction again, his answer would be a definite “no.”

The door opened, and Chandler looked up. A dark outline appeared against the glow of the door. A man.

“Hey,” a deep voice said.

His brother, Deacon.

“Where’s Tinsley?” Chandler asked, referring to Deacon’s daughter, more to cover his nervousness than because he needed to know.

“She’s in with Mom, watching the auction. Of which you are soon going to be a part, bro. Nervous?”

Deacon came over and stood about three feet away from the bench, leaning against the back of the building with his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes lifted toward the sky.

Chandler didn’t have to see his face to know that there’d be humor there, but also a deep sadness coupled with an upright honesty that Chandler had never seen replicated in another man. Deacon had been born to be a pastor, but he’d allowed that dream to be stripped from him on the day he was to be ordained, without a protest.

Chandler would’ve fought, if anyone had tried to take his dream, even though he was about as easygoing as a man could be. But not Deacon. He’d shouldered the responsibility of a child, responsibility that Chandler highly suspected wasn’t his, and walked away.

Didn’t seem to be bitter about it either.

It kinda made what Chandler was facing now look like child’s play.

“Be crazy not to be, wouldn’t I? One of our brothers might buy me. I could be working nonstop for the next thirty days.”

“At least you’ll eat well.” Deacon always did have an ability to be reasonable and to look on the bright side.

“That’s true. I’m sure they’ll feed me. If only because they’ll get more work out of me that way.”

“‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.’” Deacon quoted the Bible verse in the natural way that most people breathed. Chandler had no idea how he did that. Not only did he have the verses in his head, but they came to him in every applicable situation. If Chandler had said that, it would have sounded stilted and stupid, but with Deacon, it was just as natural as hair blowing in the wind.

“Why didn’t anything that you did ever rub off on me when we were growing up?”

“We’re just different. Don’t sweat it.”

“No, I’m serious. You’d think with me growing up with you, I’d have been a little more like you.”

“I’m sure you are. You just don’t notice it. Sometimes I wonder if it matters anyway.” Deacon said that last as an aside, and they were words that were so unlike him that Chandler jerked his head up, peering into the darkness.

But Deacon didn’t turn his head to look at him, and Chandler let it slide. What would he say anyway? He was no one to give Deacon advice.

“I thought you might try to get out of this. I was kinda surprised to open the door and see you sitting here. I thought you’d be long gone.”

“I said I’d do it,” Chandler said, but they were just words. He knew they didn’t really mean anything. He wasn’t exactly known for doing what he said. If anything, he was probably known for doing what was easy.

Hollywood had encouraged the tendency, which might explain why he was here. He didn’t like the man he was becoming.

More and more, it had felt like there were two sides, the good side and the bad side of him, and being in Hollywood brought out the bad side. He made a lot of money with it, and he liked that, of course. But he didn’t like getting up in the morning and looking at himself in the mirror and knowing that the values of his youth were slipping further and further away.

“No one here holds anything against you.” Deacon’s voice was unemotional and matter-of-fact in the stillness of the night air.

“I know.” They didn’t because he’d done things the folks in Cowboy Crossing couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Part of him wanted to do better; the better part, of course. Part of him didn’t want to give up the money and didn’t want to become what he’d spent his life trying to get away from.

“You know you’re always welcome here,” Deacon said in that same matter-of-fact tone.

“I know.” He hadn’t moved from his position with his elbows on his legs, and he stared at his hands, just able to see the outline from the glow of the stars.

He could come home. Of course. But what was he going to do? He’d never enjoyed the farmwork the way his brothers had. Maybe he just felt the distance from it. Sitting in a tractor, watching the machine put the seeds in the ground, endless cycles of planting, spraying, and harvesting, all of it clinical and scientifically proven to be the best and most accurate in timing and process.

His brothers would probably be shocked to find out that rather than less work, he’d always wanted more. To feel the seeds as he was putting them in the ground, to hold a shovel in his hands and feel the sun on his head.

Riding in an enclosed tractor and watching a machine do it for him, he might as well be sitting in a boardroom in L.A., talking about the latest script. There wasn’t that much of a difference.

Other than the company that surrounded him, his brain reminded himself.

But no one in today’s world could make a living on a small piece of property, wielding a shovel and touching the seeds himself. He wasn’t even sure one should touch the seeds with all the gunk they put on them to keep them from rotting in the package.

He wanted something simpler.

Funny that he ended up in L.A. instead.

No one would understand.

He wasn’t even sure he understood it himself. After all, it wasn’t like he was known as Saint Chandler in L.A.

Maybe there were just some things inside of a man that were destined to never be uncovered.

The door opened again, and this time, it was his brother Clark’s fiancée, Marlowe, who stepped out. “Deacon?” Her voice sounded through the night air. “Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Deacon said, without shifting at all.

Maybe Marlowe couldn’t see him because of Deacon being mostly in the way and with her eyes not being used to the dark.

“Have you seen Chandler? It’s probably going to be another forty-five minutes until he’s up, but I wouldn’t put it past him to cut out. And there are a lot of people here expecting to see him auctioned. I know your parents would be embarrassed if he’s not there.”

“He’ll be there,” Deacon said. It was the kind of assurance that not even Marlowe could argue with.

Marlowe was the closest thing to a sister that they had, being that she’d been their only neighbor growing up.

“He told you he would be?”

“I’ll make sure of it.”

Chandler felt rather than heard Marlowe’s disapproval and disbelief, but she mumbled something that sounded like “okay” and disappeared back inside.

Chandler didn’t move, even after the door clicked closed. He waited for Deacon to say something along the lines of, “Now don’t let me down.” Or something like that.

But Deacon didn’t say anything, and finally Chandler just mumbled, “Thanks.”

A few seconds later, Deacon’s hand, big and strong like their dad’s, settled on his shoulder. “Stop being so hard on yourself. It doesn’t matter to me what you do. You’ll always be my brother, and that means I love you.”

Chandler hadn’t been expecting that. They were hardy Midwestern stock. They didn’t go around talking about their feelings all the time. He had to admit it made him a little uncomfortable. But he also appreciated being accepted for who he was and not having judgment passed on what he did, which sometimes felt like the way it was in Cowboy Crossing, or what part he played, which was the way of the rest of the world.

He almost felt like he’d lost himself. He needed Deacon’s grounding words.

He also appreciated Deacon’s trust. Trust since Deacon didn’t feel like he needed to remind him that he just put his neck on the line for his brother and Chandler had better come through.

“Thanks.” That’s all he could say.

Deacon pushed off the wall and opened the door with a flash of light before disappearing inside, leaving Chandler sitting in the dark, alone.

~~~

Ivory Haynes stood in the back of the room. She’d never seen this many people congregated at Cowboy Crossing before in her life. Of course, in her life, she’d never been invited to any of the big get-togethers. She supposed this must be what a wedding would look like. Only the people would be in church instead of the rec hall. Maybe it’s what a reception looked like. She wouldn’t know.

The last time she’d been in a gathering this big had been her high school graduation. She wouldn’t even have been to that, except Cowboy Crossing had a truant officer who took their job seriously. Even Ivory, with street smarts that would ensure her survival in any large city, hadn’t been able to shake her for long.

She supposed she owed Mrs. Davis a debt of gratitude. Not that her education had ever helped her much.

She’d been about eight when she figured out how to lie on applications and got her first job. Not in Cowboy Crossing, because everyone would recognize her. With her dark hair and eyes, she’d been mistaken a lot for a Latino in Trumbull, and by the time she was eleven, she’d been able to convince employers that she was sixteen.

If she worked the night shift, she could still go to school.

It’d taken her fifteen years, but she saved up enough money to buy a small farm of her own.

Still, she couldn’t shake the stigma that came from being the daughter of the town drunk and the retired, and possibly reformed, town prostitute.

The taunts of her classmates were hard to forget.

And one taunt in particular from one person in particular had haunted her for years.

He was up for auction tonight, and although she had a lot of cash in her back pocket, she doubted she’d be able to afford him.

She wouldn’t even be considering it, except someone had stopped her when she got out of her old, beat-up truck. Someone whose voice had sounded familiar. In his command to not turn around, he hadn’t seemed threatening. She didn’t reach for the pistol she always kept tucked in the waistband in the back of her jeans when she went out. Which wasn’t often.

His hand on her shoulder hadn’t been scary for some reason, and then he’d said, “Please don’t look at me, that way if anyone asks you about this, you can honestly say you don’t know. But I think there’s someone you need to buy tonight, and I want to help you.”

As he tapped her shoulder, she’d reached up, and the wad of bills had slipped into her hand.

They were hundreds. And there were fifty of them.

She could do a lot with five thousand dollars.

She didn’t know how the man who handed her the money knew, though, that while she could use the money on the farm, tonight, there was only one thing she wanted to do with it.

Buy the man whose insults had haunted her for the last ten years. And make him pay.