The Cowboy’s Enemy
When Abner Coblantz lived in southern Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky and West Virginia, he’d thought the winters were cold.
After having spent a winter in North Dakota, he’d changed his mind.
Ohio wasn’t cold.
It was brown. It had more curves than a wrinkled blanket. And not only did it make him carsick to drive his Harley over the hills and valleys and hairpin turns, but the deeper he went into the redneck hill country of his childhood, the closer he got to the Amish community where he’d spent the first thirteen years of his life and the tiny towns where he’d lived out the rest of his miserable childhood, the more he wanted to turn his bike around and put it in the wind.
So, of course, he didn’t.
His first thirteen years had taught him self-control and self-denial. The rest of his life had tested that teaching.
He could eat what others couldn’t, work when others dropped, and smile through pain that would have another man on his knees.
But he hadn’t wanted to test his limits by coming back to his hometown and risking running into the girl he hated. And loved.
His gram had died. His mother wanted to see him. And his half-brother, who’d been involved with everything up to his eyeballs, had swallowed his pride and called Abner.
So, here he was.
He’d parked his bike at the church that was a staple in the center of every town in the northeast and walked three houses down.
It wasn’t the house he’d grown up in. There’d been about seven or eight houses after he’d left the Amish. None of them had been this one. Still, this was the address in the paper where, in lieu of flowers, donations to help cover funeral expenses could be sent. It might not be his mother’s house, but he’d not called to check.
He wasn’t giving them a warning.
He’d found his way here, and he could find his way home, and if he didn’t see anyone he knew in the meantime, he wouldn’t be heartbroken.
Couldn’t break something that had never been fixed.
A big, old oak, with tangled branches bare against the low, bereaved gray sky, squatted in the front yard. A white picket fence, missing most of the pickets, looking more dull, chipped gray than white, and using a very liberal definition of the word “fence,” lined the cracked and broken sidewalk. Other derelict homes in various states of neglect hunkered along the street.
Broken toys, faded plastic garbage and tired lawn decorations dotted the small yards between the sidewalk and the structures.
The walk was just a path through the front yard to the house, or maybe there were stones under the weeds and dried grass. He couldn’t tell.
Before he’d moved the broken gate out of the way, the front door burst open and two boys rushed out, yelling and grabbing at each other, leaving the door hanging open behind them. One was slightly bigger than the other, and they both looked to be elementary school age. About the same age as Gina, his harvest crew boss’s daughter.
The boys never even saw him but jumped the steps in one leap and tore around the side of the house.
Abner watched, his heart beating slow and heavy in his throat. One of those boys could have been the baby Cora was carrying when he left. The one she claimed was his.
The one they both knew wasn’t.
He pushed the aching pressure aside. He’d never been so hurt himself and angry at another human as he had been with Cora when all that went down.
He’d had to leave.
He’d still wanted to kiss her.
Which made him a fool.
Unfortunately, it seemed to be in his DNA that when he fell for someone, that was it. Because he’d never been able to find another woman who rested perfectly in the contours of his heart, the way Cora had. No one even came close.
He’d never had the desire to go hunting, either. His heart had already found the one it wanted and nothing had been able to convince it to look at anyone else.
So he hadn’t.
He’d pushed the crooked gate out of the way and stepped into the yard, under the big, winter-bare oak tree, when a woman, carrying a girl with long legs sticking out of a dress and skinny arms wrapped tightly around the woman’s neck, came to the doorway.
The woman’s long brown hair hung haphazardly out of her lopsided bun. She wore a loose skirt that fell the whole way to her toes, which were bare, pink, and sticking out.
He couldn’t see much of her body, because the girl was really too big to be carried, but her face was a familiar heart shape.
His heart tripped.
Then she looked at him.
Deep, soulful brown eyes that were dark, maybe even black—they changed according to her mood—and he’d recognize them anywhere. They haunted his dreams quite often.
Sometimes he hated them.
Sometimes they were closing as he bent to kiss her. Finally.
Currently they widened in surprise, and he thought she recognized him. But he realized it was just because an unexpected visitor stood in her yard.
He wished he had his cowboy hat instead of the ball cap, although the ball cap fit in much better here in the east and traveled better on his bike. He wouldn’t feel so exposed. But he wanted her to recognize him, didn’t want to have to introduce or explain himself. Not to her.
So he stood, waiting. His hands at his sides and his riding boots planted. He wore simple blue jeans and a button-down. Maybe he was a little taller, a little broader. The stubble on his face wasn’t there when he left.
“Oh, dear God,” Cora breathed. The little girl started to slip down her front. She cried, and Cora tightened her grip, although it looked like she swayed a little. Her skirt wavered. “Abner?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
Shock? Or fear? He wasn’t sure.
He wanted to go to her, take the child from her arms, and put his own around her. Give her his strength.
At the same time, anger bubbled up in his chest, hot and thick.
He didn’t move. He wasn’t setting foot in that house if it was Cora’s.
“My mother live here?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level. Emotionless.
“Yep.” A trace of the old Cora surfaced. She’d be in bare feet. Casual. Friendly. It had changed sometime in the year before he left.
“She own the place?” he asked, still not wanting to walk in if Cora’s husband was the responsible person.
“She sends the rent check out. Guess that makes it hers.” Cora had recovered. She was always quick.
He figured the girl she was holding must be hers, too. And now there was a little one toddling out, tugging on her skirt. That one had dark hair and sparkling brown eyes. Like her mother.
His jaw had clenched so tight against the undulations in his chest, his teeth squeaked and his jaw muscles ticked in and out.
“You can send her out.” His eyes felt hot and his face stiff, but his voice was still level.
Her lips tightened. Another little one, this one a boy, bigger than the child already holding her skirt but smaller than the one she carried, grabbed a hold of her. She managed to keep the bigger child in her arms while a hand came down, touching the heads of the two that were clutching her skirts. Soothing.
She shook her head. “You’d better come in.”
His feet itched to turn and leave. The family he’d always wanted was right here in this house, but it belonged to another man.
The hate and bitterness that had lodged in his heart for so long erupted from his mouth when it opened. “Can I come in without being accused of being the father of your next child?”
Old memories, a jolt of guilt, and a flash of pain passed across her face in the milliseconds before her eyes narrowed and the hate he wanted to see there appeared. “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch my kids. You can come in, speak to your mother, then scram like the rodent you are.”
She spun, maybe intending to disappear back inside the house, maybe she was running from him—a good idea—but her hasty retreat was spoiled, because the little one holding onto her skirt fell as Cora twisted. The other one, slightly more steady on his feet, didn’t fall but was off-balance enough to crack his head on the corner of the doorframe. Both children started screaming.
As did the one she was holding as she tried to bend and pick up the smaller of the two from off the floor.
If it had been anyone else, anyone else in the world, he would have stridden over immediately and helped them. Happily. He had a knack with little kids, and they seemed to like him. Maybe it had been his unconventional upbringing: Amish for thirteen years, surrounded by small children, then plucked out of that life and jerked down into a life of rigid schoolrooms with only his own grade, which was full of kids who didn’t understand him, were far less mature in some ways and far more mature in others, wore different clothes, different hair, different accents, and were quick to make fun of their differences.
He’d longed for his old comfortable Amish home and the happiness of the children around him, even if his father was severe and his Amish stepmother hated him.
Cora barely kept from dropping the toddler on the step as she struggled to get a hold on her while keeping her balance as the older child clung to her neck. The cries of all three kids grew louder. From in the house, someone shouted.
Abner was up the steps and picking up the screaming toddler before he gave it another thought. It didn’t hurt kids to cry. They needed to sometimes. But hopefully, he’d never be such a jerk that he’d enjoy watching unnecessary suffering.
While Cora was adjusting the bigger girl in her arms, he scooped the little boy up as well. Now they could cry because a stranger was holding them, rather than because their mother wasn’t.
He’d just better not run into her husband sitting inside with his feet propped up, beer can in one hand and TV remote in the other. He’d seen it a lot growing up in the English world, although his mother had never been married to any of those losers. They’d come and gone slightly more often than he’d gotten a new pair of shoes.
If Cora’s husband was like that… Abner’s fingers itched to ball up. That could be ugly.
See? He wasn’t a violent man. Didn’t even have a temper. Yet, he’d been in Cora’s presence for less than five minutes, and already he itched to throttle someone. She brought out those deeper emotions in him, and he always wanted to either grab her or kiss her…but not now. He didn’t want to kiss her. He didn’t even know her. She’d changed. He’d changed.