Nate’s sister leaned around their cousin and his new wife. “Just look at him,” she said, “hoggin’ the biscuit basket, again.”
Zach and Summer sat back to give the siblings a direct line of sight to each other.
“Poor Henrietta. She’s never has figured out the difference between biscuits and rolls.”
Her wadded up her napkin flew past the newlyweds and landed in Nate’s his mashed potatoes.
“How many times do I have to tell you, it’s Hank, not Henrietta.”
“You may be Hank on the barrel racing circuit,” he said, calmly buttering his roll, “but you’ll always be Henrietta to me.”
“Nate,” his mother scolded, “don’t taunt your sister. You know as well as anyone that the name change is legal.”
“Hank,” his dad muttered. “Ridiculous. The name Henrietta was good enough for your grandmother. I’ll never understand why it isn’t good enough for you.”
“Dad,” she said on a tired sigh, “we’ve been over this ground a dozen times. It was a business decision, pure and simple.”
Hank had probably taken this particular guilt trip often enough to earn frequent flyer miles, and Nate felt bad about stirring things up again, especially over Sunday dinner at Aunt Ellen and Uncle John’s.
“You still planning to change it back once you’re married with kids?” he asked.
Zach laughed. “Don’t do it! I think Granny Hank is a great name for a grandma.”
Nate’s father harrumphed. “Your grandmother thought Henrietta was a great name for a grandma.”
If their father noticed Hank’s heavy sigh, it didn’t show. Nate heard it, though, and got an eyeful of her angry glare, too. After dessert, he’d take her aside and apologize…and hope for the best. She’d always had a fiery temper, and if things ran true to course, he’d need to prove exactly how sorry he with the promise of dinner at Shanahan’s, her favorite restaurant. That sister of yours sure does know how to get her way.
Did Eden stay in control of the boys in her care with shouts and fist-shaking? Not if those big sincere eyes and the warmth of her pretty smile was any indicator.
“You planning to go back to sucking your thumb, son?”
It took a second to figure out what his dad was talking about. Laughing quietly, Nate put down the butter knife and wiped his hand on a napkin.
“I know that googlie-eyed look,” Hank said, smirking. “I’d bet my Greely Stampede Barrel Champion buckle on it…he was off in Lala Land, dreaming about some woman.”
For an instant, no one moved. Not even his cousins’ kids said a word. Nate hadn’t shown any interest in a woman since Miranda, not even the pretty cowgirls Hank set him up with, so the wisecrack didn’t make a lick of sense.
“Okay, cuz,” Zach said, breaking the silence, “out with it. Who is she?”
“There is no ‘she,’” he said.
His mom’s eyebrows disappeared behind dark, silver-streaked bangs. “Oh, she must be a real pip if he feels it necessary to hide her.”
Et tu, Mom?
He could take the spotlight off himself by reminding them of Hank v. Henrietta conversation, but throwing his sister under the bus didn’t seem right. Or fair. Nate sat up straighter and donned his best You’re all nuts! grin. “There’s no one to hide. Sheesh. Guy can’t even butter his thumb around here without everybody jumping to conclusions.”
While they laughed at his self-depreciating joke, Nate decided to further distract them with the latest ranch news.
“Carl found another dead horse yesterday. We got plenty of pictures. Near as we can tell, there’s a cougar on the loose.”
Maeve Marshall gasped softly. “But…there hasn’t been a cat sighting since….” She faced her husband. “How long has it been, Royce?”
“Five, six years? I’d have to check.” He looked grim. Concerned. “Are you sure, son?”
Nate explained the condition of the carcass, and repeated what his dad had taught him about the differences bear and cat kills.
“You’re frightening the children,” Maeve said.
The kids did look a mite wide-eyed. But he’d been far younger when he got his first up-close and personal look at what a determined predator was capable of.
“Wish I had time to take every one of these kids out there,” he said, pointing at shed, visible through the many-paned window across the room, “so they could see for themselves what a determined predator is capable of.” Nate looked at each child at the table. “You’re ranch-raised kids, same as the rest of us were, and spend a whole lot of time outside. Meaning you have to keep your wits about you while you’re having fun.”
“Aren’t you just a big ol’ ball of warm and fuzzy,” Hank said.
He ignored her and got to his feet. “I’d rather give them a couple of scary dreams than see them become the prey of stealthy predators.”
Tossing his napkin onto the seat of his chair, Nate faced the hostess. “Dinner was great as always, Aunt Ellen. Thanks.”
“You’re leaving? Before dessert?”
In truth, Nate didn’t know what to blame for the agitation and tension in his whirling in his mind. With any luck, a few gulps of fresh mountain air would cure what ailed him.
“Thought I saw some leaning fence posts,” he said with a nod toward the windows. “That sky looks pretty threatening. Might as well check ‘em out before that storm rolls in.”
At least out there, he could think about Eden without being interrogated.
Her pretty face came to mind, and just that quick, his mood improved.
To learn more about the Those Marshall Boys series and to pre-order SWEET MOUNTAIN RANCHER, visit Loree's website at www.loreelough.com
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