Copyright © 2011 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“I’m fine, boys, stop your fussing.” Marion Coleman shook her good hand at the twins as they hovered nearby. “I didn’t need the wheelchair. It’s a silly hospital policy.” She shot to her feet, batting Jesse and Joel away.
Blake offered his help, and she smiled, the edges of her mouth remaining tight and the lines at the corner of her eyes deep. She might make light of the situation but it was clear her arm hurt. A lot. She tucked her fingers around his elbow and dragged him across the hospital parking lot, her rapid pace unhampered by the heavy cast covering her right arm from wrist to shoulder.
They stopped beside one of the huge crew-cab ranch trucks, the twins scrambling into the backseat. Marion stared in disgust at the hand pull she couldn’t reach.
“Why did you boys all have to grow to over six feet? None of you own a nice little Jetta or Mustang for me to be able to slide into. Just these monster trucks. I have to use a ladder to reach the seat.”
“You fed us too well.” Blake worked at remaining gentle as he lifted her to the bench, careful not to jar her arm. He’d closed the door and stepped around to the driver’s side before he realized it was impossible for her to buckle her seat belt with the cast in the way. He slid behind the wheel and reached to help her. “Let me get it, Ma. You’re going to find things a bit awkward for a spell.”
“I hate this.” Marion stared past him out the window, a touch of fury in her eyes.
“Maybe you should have waited for help picking the apples,” Joel piped up from the backseat.
“She did ask, you jerk, remember?” Jesse said. “First we had to finish the back field before the weekend, then Dad asked us to—”
“This is no one’s fault. You boys are all busy, with the hay ready to be cut and the animals to care for. I wanted to get the apples before you had time to help me and, well, I’ve never fallen out of a tree before in my life. Been climbing that one for years.” His mom wiggled around in her seat to shake a finger at her youngest sons. “It was an accident. I don’t blame either of you, so don’t you think you did something wrong. But now I’m going to need some help. Not only do I have a bushel of apples to deal with, there’s the garden that needs to be put up, laundry for the family and the cookin’ and…” She returned her gaze to the window. “I’ve caused a mess, boys, and that’s the plain truth.”
Blake touched her hand softly. His ma was a hard-working woman and not just at the ranch. She’d toiled beside his father for over thirty years, doing everything inside the house, plus caring for and raising six boys, gardening and dealing with the livestock. In addition to her chores at home, she’d always been there for the community, for newcomers and new babies, and whenever a person needed a helping hand.
Having a broken arm was going to bother her a lot—the pain of it mending, and the annoyance of everything she’d be unable to do for a while. Sitting and watching others work was not her style.
“Well, I guess it’s time the neighbours get a chance to show a little lovin’ your way and come to give you a hand.” Blake hoped she’d actually allow people to step forward.
“Blake Coleman, I’ve never done anything in my life in the hopes to be repaid.”
He backpedaled. “That’s not what I meant. We know you do things because you want to help others, Ma, but you’ve got to accept the friends who come to chip in. I’ll do what I can—we all will. Even though we’re temporarily back under your roof doesn’t mean you have to feed us and tend to our needs. It’s not as if we haven’t all cared for ourselves before. We’re big boys. In fact, you need to let us know what we have to take over for you.”
Marion shook her head. “You say you want to help, but when are you going to manage that right now? The fall is the busiest time of year between the animals, the fields and the furniture orders. You can’t add my chores to your list. Everyone else in town is just as busy.”
She lifted the cast in the air tentatively. “I’ll figure out how to work around this. I’ll get by.”
Blake looked in the rearview mirror and exchanged worried glances with his brothers. Something had to happen. He didn’t know who was available, but sooner than later, his ma was right. They were going to need help.
Blake’s truck rumbled up the long drive toward the Colemans’ ranch house, past the cars in the parking area, right to the head of the circular driveway. News had always traveled fast in small towns, even before the invention of the cell phone. Jaxi turned from the kitchen window she’d been staring out, grabbed her tray of food and headed quietly into the main living area.
The neighbours and community folk who’d stopped in shifted from the living room onto the front porch to watch Mike Coleman approach like a bull headed for his mate. He’d been in Calgary fetching supplies when Marion had fallen. By the time the boys contacted him, there was no time to get to the hospital. Marion was already in a cast and being brought home.
Mike yanked open the truck door, lifted his wife carefully and carried her to the foot of the stairs, ignoring her loud complaints at his behavior.
“I’ll carry you whenever I want, woman. Don’t you ever scare me like that again.” He placed her feet on the ground and held her as close as the awkward cast allowed. One long tender kiss on her forehead followed before he turned her to face the concerned onlookers. “Well, she’s still in one piece, folks. I guess she learned to bounce pretty good.”
As a few of her friends surrounded Marion to talk, Mike guiding her up the steps, Jaxi slipped away from her perch just inside the door to pour more coffee. She placed a couple of plates piled with cookies and squares on the long family table for people to serve themselves, then snuck back into the kitchen. Mike followed her, a sigh of what sounded suspiciously like relief escaping his lips.
“You’re an angel. Thanks for helping on such short notice.”
Jaxi grinned. “Mrs. Wade and Mrs. Leaner brought the baking. There are four casseroles in the fridge, and another six in the freezer. If you freeze anything else that arrives—”
“Whoa, girl,” Mike interrupted. “I want to talk to you. I chatted with the doctor when he called, and he told me Marion’s going to need some assistance for a couple weeks. Around the house and personal like. I’ll do what I can, but you’ve got the training and he recommended you. You have the time to come and help us? It won’t require a lot of nursing.”
“I’m not a nurse, Mr. Coleman. I do have a first aid certificate.”
“And a bit more.”
Jaxi nodded. The strange assortment of classes she’d completed at the local college and through correspondence courses over the past couple of years didn’t give her a degree. Still, her training had covered many areas. Personal care she could do.
“It’s short notice, but Dr. Yale thought you were free.”
Jaxi washed her hands in the sink and bent to get a new hand towel from the bottom drawer. “He should know. I’ve been acting as a nanny for him and Katie, but she’s decided to stay home and care for the kids herself. My last day was Friday.”
Mike clapped her on the shoulder. “Will you do it? We’ll figure out some sort of pay rate for the nursing and such.”
She turned to face him, smiling to soften the words. “Please don’t talk about paying me. You and Mrs. C have always been there for me, and I’d love to return the favour.”
“The thing is, you won’t be able to do anything else to earn money. She’s going to need you here twenty-four/seven at first. And now that I think of it, there’s the garden that needs to be dealt with. I don’t want to swindle you. We’ll pay. I insist.”
Jaxi grabbed another tray from under the sink for the empty plates and cups. “Let’s discuss the details later. You go and visit with your neighbours—you know they won’t make a lengthy stay. I’m happy to come and help for as long as you need me.”
He gave her hand a quick squeeze, then returned to the living room.
Jaxi wandered the main floor, cleaning up and making more coffee. She figured out which of the casseroles to pop in the oven for supper, peeking in the fridge to see what else to feed the horde of hungry men who would descend on the house in a few hours.
Marion’s accident had come at an awkward time, with more bodies than usual living under the Coleman roof. Jaxi had wondered when she’d heard Mike had rented out the second family home to a needy newcomer to the community a few weeks ago. The three oldest—Blake, Daniel and Matt—had been living in the nearby house for years. While the twins would return to college dorms in a few weeks, the rest of them, including her ex-boyfriend Travis, worked the Coleman spread with their father. Having all six boys crowded back into their childhood home made for a bizarre flashback—and a lot more work than Marion would be able to keep up with one-handed.
Jaxi finished her tidying and moved to peel the mess of potatoes she’d found soaking in the pantry sink. If she was honest, at least with herself, offering to ease the load for Mrs. Coleman was only part of the reason she’d come over today. The other? It was finally time to make her play. She wanted Blake, and she was ready to do anything to get him to see her as more than the little girl next door.
Others in her high school seemed overly eager to move to Calgary or Edmonton immediately after graduation, desperate to get away from the small town. The ones who returned to visit joked about the lack of culture, the lack of atmosphere, and the lack of everything in Rocky Mountain House. She thought many times it wasn’t the location that was screwed up, but their attitudes.
She looked through the window of the rambling house toward the rolling foothills and the high Rockies rising beyond them. The Coleman ranch was set in one of the most beautiful areas in the whole world, yet young people were scrambling over each other to get away.
She knew better. There was nowhere she’d rather be than here.
A warm spot hit her, right in the middle of her chest. It wasn’t just the location that made her happy. There was no one she’d rather be with than Blake Coleman. She’d do anything to have him be the one holding her tight. To care for the land at his side. It’d been that way forever. Every time she looked at him, pictured him—heck, dreamed of him—it was enough to get her juices flowing. The man was a hunk of handsome, generous to a fault and smooth in all the right ways.
Jaxi smiled as she dropped the diced potatoes into a pot and swirled cold water over them. She was finally grown up enough there would be less complaining among the gossipmongers. All she’d wanted her whole life was to be a rancher’s wife. Blake’s wife.
Staying here put her in a great position to let him know how things would go down from now on. He’d been looking ragged around the edges the past couple times she’d seen him in town. He needed a little caring for.
She was more than up for the calling.
“Jaxi? Wow, girl. Mike just told me you planned on lending us a hand for a bit but I never expected you’d…” Marion leaned on the doorframe to the kitchen, the clumsy bulk of her arm held cautiously in front of her. The older woman grinned and the expression took years off her face. “Well, actually, yes, I did expect you to jump in and make yourself at home. Your momma going to miss you if you bunk here with us?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve been living at the Yales’ place since the spring so she’s fine with the occasional visit. I’m all yours,” Jaxi said.
“Good. We’ll have to see about where to tuck you. The upstairs bedrooms are all full with the twins still here for another few weeks. We can put you in the guest cabin or in the den downstairs, or move one of the other boys from their room in the basement. The cabin is the most private.”
“It’s also a lot farther away if you need me quick. I really don’t mind the den.”
Marion sniffed. “I can get Daniel or Blake to move.”
Jaxi shook a hand at her. “Please don’t do that. I don’t need much space for my stuff.” Jaxi popped the potatoes on the stove and set the heat to boil. “For supper, there’s a green bean casserole from the Thiessens and a large pot of stew from the Laings. You got salad fixings in the garden?”
“Some. I’ll go—”
“You’ll do no such thing. How are you going to pick cucumbers and lettuce with one hand? I can get everything in the oven and warming in five minutes. You stay and watch the potatoes don’t boil over.” Jaxi pulled herself up sharp before turning a guilty smile on the other woman. “Not that I plan on bossing you around in your own kitchen or anything.”
Marion laughed out loud. “Oh, Jaxi, it’s good to have you here.” She tugged Jaxi in close for a hug, pressing a kiss to her cheek. “You go right ahead and boss all you want. I’ll warn you if you step over the line. I consider you a part of this family, you know that, don’t you?”
Jaxi glided around, prepping things for supper. She grabbed the garden pail and hurried through the back door. From Marion’s lips to God’s ears.