Release Day! Forget Me Knot is now available! Read Ch 1…
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“You can’t keep doing this to yourself, Romeo.” Drannon stared down at the half-naked form of his brother sprawled out on the front porch. It was lucky Roman had made so much noise stumbling around drunk, or he might have frozen to death before morning. As it was, he’d woken Drannon from a sound sleep, and as usual, Drannon had gone to his brother’s rescue. Dragging Roman’s limp body up over his shoulder, and carrying him out of the February night air, he grumbled under his breath, “Going to end up poisoning your blood with alcohol, or get some sort of damn STD. Why the hell do you think you have to bang every woman this side of the Mississippi anyway? Stupid. Just plain ol’stupid is what that is.”
There was no response from the unconscious man, but Drannon felt better as he spewed out his feelings on the recurrent situation. For months he and the other guys had been bailing Roman out and cleaning him up after his binge partying sessions. Maybe it was time to give the kid an ultimatum. Dry out and straighten up, or…
It was the “or” that was the problem. Drannon would never be able to kick his brother off the ranch, no matter how stupid he behaved. Crawley Creek was all Roman had, all any of them had, and it belonged to the whole lot of them.
With one final curse, he dumped Roman onto the sofa and headed for the kitchen in search of a midnight snack. The bright light of the fridge made him squint as he reached for the milk to go with the cookies he knew Marilyn had just put in the cookie jar.
“I thought I heard something.” Vin’s voice startled him, and he choked on his cookie spewing crumbs all over the counter top. Laughing, Vin slapped him on the back, “Sorry D, didn’t mean to scare you. Didn’t you bring your teddy-bear downstairs with you?”
“Asshole,” Drannon grumbled, reaching for a napkin to wipe his face. “The teddy bear is passed out on the sofa, probably drooling all over Marilyn’s fancy pillows, and mumbling to himself, as usual.”
Vin’s eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. “Not again.”
“Yep. Found him on the porch minus his coat, shirt and boots.”
“Fuck. That kid is trying to kill himself.” Vin took a seat at the breakfast bar, and swiped a cookie from the jar. “Who’d he go out with tonight?”
“No clue, but he smells like cheap perfume and cigarettes. I was half tempted to dunk him in the horse tank before I brought him in, but that isn’t fair to the horses.” Drannon snorted at his own joke. Roman Freemont, aka Romeo, was only ten years younger than he and Vin, but he acted like a teenager. Partying, and womanizing like it was going out of style. “We’re going to have to do something about it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have a clue what.” Vin scraped his nails over his shaved head in a gesture that was as routine as breathing for him. “He’s been tore up ever since…”
His words drifted off, but Drannon nodded his understanding. Less than a year ago, Abraham Crawley had died of a sudden heart attack while fixing a fence in the west pasture. Roman was supposed to have gone with him that day to help him make the repairs, but he’d spent the night at a lady friend’s house, and hadn’t gotten home in time, so Abe had left on his own. Roman held on to the crazy idea that if he’d been there with Abe he could have saved him, even though the doctors insisted Abe had died almost instantly.
“Guilt’s still eating him alive inside.” Drannon said, sighing heavily as the sweets he’d consumed turned into a heavy lump in his belly. “He needs help.”
“Yep, but he’s too stubborn to admit it.”
“Just like someone else I know,” Drannon shot back with a pointed look at Vin.
His brother’s nostrils flared, and his eyes darkened in the murky kitchen lighting. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Like you don’t know? You go all Incredible Hulk on everyone at the slightest thing lately. That PTSD isn’t something to play around with, Vin. You need to get back on those meds.” Drannon hated pointing it out, especially this late at night, but the opportunity had presented itself, and he couldn’t let it go.
“That medicine makes me numb. I’d rather feel something than nothing,” Vin grumbled. “Besides, it ain’t my fault the guys you hired last summer are morons. Shit, if we had some hands with brains around here maybe I wouldn’t lose my temper so much.”
It was an argument Vin had made for too long, but Drannon let it drop because two a.m. was not the time to get into it with his brother.
“I’m going back to bed. We have an empty house until Thursday, but then we get a guest.” Drannon put the milk away, and wiped the crumbs from the counter into his palm.
Vin frowned back at him as he put the cookie jar away, “A guest? In February?”
“I know, but they booked it a while ago, and it’s already paid for. I can’t imagine anyone taking a trip to the Dakotas in the dead of winter for fun, but whatever. Money is money, and if we’re going to start taking in fosters this summer, we need what we can get.”
Following Drannon into the main hallway, Vin nodded, “True that. Want me to take him upstairs?” He gestured toward the living room where Roman’s snores rumbled.
Drannon shook his head, “Don’t bother. Marilyn will lay into him when she finds him in the morning, and he deserves what he gets.”
“That’s stone cold, man,” Vin said with a chuckle, “but I like it.”
The two parted ways, with Drannon heading up the main staircase to the original wing of the house, and Vin heading farther down the hallway to the new wing that was added a couple of decades ago. Abraham and Seraphina Crawley had turned Crawley Creek Ranch into a home for foster children, and as their small clan of orphans and runaways grew, they kept adding on to the main house until it was obvious they needed more space. Cabins sprang up all over the back forty acres, and after the kids grew up and moved away, the buildings stood empty.
Walking through the silence in the dimly lit hallway regularly brought back the memory of how Drannon came to be at Crawley Creek, and he let himself drift back thirty years on a memory.
No one ever told Drannon outright that his mother was dead, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. All around him, people avoided his questioning gaze until he stopped looking altogether. The doctor gave him an uncomfortable one-armed hug, and told him that everything would be okay, but the stately man left unspoken the phrase that would shatter a child’s eight-year-old heart.
It didn’t matter that Kelsey Russo was a drug addict who frequently sold her body to men in order to buy peanut butter and bread to keep in the cupboards of their tiny one bedroom apartment. All that mattered was that she was his mom and the only person in the world who had ever loved him. Now she was gone. A victim of her own demons.
After several hours of lonely boredom in the tiny hospital waiting room, a tired looking woman with dark coffee-colored skin, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, arrived to collect him. By the time she’d completed the hospital’s necessary release paperwork, Drannon was near to falling over with hunger and exhaustion.
“Hello Drannon, my name is Danica. I’m with social services, and I’m going to get you someplace more comfortable so that you can get some rest. It’s been a trying day for you hasn’t it, sugar?” Her voice was raspy but comforting after the haunted silence of the last hours alone wondering and worrying. When she cocked her head and frowned, he nodded quickly, feeling his cheeks heat. “Do you have anything with you?”
He shook his head no, thinking briefly of the three t-shirts and two pairs of torn jeans resting in the bottom drawer of his mother’s dresser. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. Clearing his throat he tried to tell her. “M-my c-clothes, um…they’re in m-my house…er…ap-ap-apartment.”
Embarrassment filled him making the stuttering even worse as he struggled to get the words out. Danica nodded, but her eyes were sad. “Unfortunately, the police have the apartment roped off while they do their investigation, but I’ll do my best to collect whatever you need from there tomorrow. For tonight, we’ll just have to make do.”
She didn’t mention the stuttering at all, and his anxiety eased. When she reached for his hand, he gratefully accepted the gesture. There was no way she could know that it was the first time in his life he could remember anyone holding his hand. Following her lead, they left the hospital that held the empty body that was his mother, and went directly from there to a fast food restaurant where Danica let him choose anything he wanted off the menu.
After a large cheeseburger and fries washed down by an enormous cola, his eyelids began to droop heavily. He didn’t remember anything about the ride other than climbing into the car and buckling his seat belt. On that frigid February night, all that mattered was that he was full for the first time in months, and comfortably tucked in front of the heat vent in Danica’s car.
She woke him when they parked in front of a massive white ranch house that had a wrap-around front porch. Drannon couldn’t see much more in the dark, but he got the impression of other buildings off to his left as he followed Danica to the front door. A tall man with dark hair and a mustache that looked like a huge caterpillar swung it open and gestured them inside.
“Who have we here?” the man’s voice was deep, and it brought a shiver to Drannon’s spine as it reverberated in the foyer and on down the wide hallway.
“This is Drannon.” Danica answered, patting his shoulder hard enough that he had to take another step further into the house. “Drannon, this is Abraham Crawley. He owns the ranch, and he and his wife will be your guardians until we find you a permanent place to stay.”
“Drannon?” Abraham’s eyebrow rose. “Strong name. Do you have a last name, son?”
His throat was drier than the desert, but he managed to force out a reply. “R-Ru-Russo.”
“Drannon Russo, yes sir, that’s a strong name. Italian last name, I believe. Tell me son, do you have a strong backbone to match that name?” Abraham looked him over as if he was measuring up a man his own size, and Drannon felt his chest puff out in an attempt to live up to the other man’s estimation of him.
“Y-yes s-sir.” He said, grimacing at the repetitive sounds. Over the last couple of years he’d managed to get a handle on his stuttering, but the moment he found his mother sprawled out on the bathroom floor with her face covered in her own vomit, he lost all control over his own tongue.
Like Danica, Abraham didn’t react to the stuttering, and Drannon breathed a sigh of relief. It was hard enough to speak to adults, much less disappoint them when they heard him slip up. He realized Danica was talking to Abraham and tuned back in to the conversation. “…release the body from the coroner’s office tomorrow. So far we haven’t located any living relatives.”
A soft voice tinkled from behind where Abraham’s broad shoulders blocked the opening from the foyer into the rest of the house, “So sad. I’m sure she was way too young. Well, anyways, it’s lovely to meet you, Drannon, no matter the circumstances.”
For the first time, Drannon noticed a petite woman with braided brunette hair standing just behind Abraham. The way she slid under his arm against his side, assured Drannon that she was the lady of the house, and he nodded his thanks to her without speaking.
“Drannon, I’d like you to meet my wife, Seraphina Crawley.” Abraham looked down at the smiling woman with pride. For just a moment, Drannon felt envious of Seraphina. What would it be like to have such a strong man look at him with pride? He couldn’t remember his mother looking at him with anything but affection and obligation. Although he knew she loved him, he’d always come second to her addiction.
“Call me Sera; only Abe gets away with using my whole name.” Sera’s eyes were dark chocolate brown, and her kind smile radiated warmth. Drannon’s heart flip-flopped and he fell half in love with her in that moment. “Have you eaten yet?”
“We stopped and ate a burger on our way out here. Unfortunately he’s been stuck at the hospital most of the day. I was in court or I’d have picked him up earlier. I didn’t get the message about his m—er…situation, until after seven.” Danica gave him a smile he figured was supposed to be apologetic, but really held only pity. He hated pity. Thankfully there was no pity in the sympathetic gazes Sera and Abe turned on him.
“Poor thing. I’m glad you’ve got a full belly. That will make it a little bit easier to rest tonight. Come on upstairs and I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping. We only have one other boy here right now, and he’s in the room across from yours. You’re lucky it’s a quiet time. We’ve had up to fourteen children here at one time.” Without a backwards glance at Danica, Drannon followed the chattering Sera farther into the house and up a wide staircase that split the living room in two. It was an enormous house from the looks of it, but it felt warm and cozy in spite of its size.
At the top of the stairs she turned and led him to a set of closed doors. Opening the one on the left, she stepped aside for Drannon to enter first. The bedroom was larger than the apartment he’d been living in with his mother, and the bedding covering the massive wood framed bed looked clean and fresh. A thick blue comforter covered the mattress, and a chest of drawers taller than he was, was tucked into the corner. Heavy-looking blue curtains hung over a window opposite the bed, and the whole room smelled like cedar.
“This is going to be your room; we call it the blue room for obvious reasons. The other young man we have staying with us, Vinnie, is across the hall, you’ll meet him at breakfast in the morning. He’s been here a while now, so he can show you the ropes. Abe and I are through those double doors at the end of this hall, and there’s a bathroom right here,” Sera gestured just down the hallway, “You and Vinnie will have to share it, and I don’t tolerate fighting, so make sure you get along. You’re welcome to use anything you find in the medicine cabinet and linen cupboard, but if you need anything else, you just holler.”
Drannon’s head was spinning. He’d gone from a crack house to a mansion in a day, and somehow, even though he’d lost everything, he couldn’t feel the sadness anymore. He wanted to feel sad about his mom. He was going to miss her, but he wasn’t going to miss cold nights on the dirty floor while she was tucked away with someone in the only bedroom. And he wasn’t going to miss racing to school in the mornings so that he could arrive in time for breakfast because it was the only food he was going to get before class.
Turning back to Sera, he surprised himself when genuine emotion boiled up and his eyes stung, “T-thank y-you, Miss Sera.”
“You’re welcome, Drannon. This is your home for as long as you need it, and we’re glad to have you here. Now, make yourself comfortable. I’ll grab you some clothes to sleep in, and if you’ll leave your dirty clothes in the laundry hamper tonight, Marilyn will make sure they get washed for you.” She bustled into the bathroom, and Drannon followed just far enough to keep his eyes locked on her. He had no idea who Marilyn was, but he didn’t really care either. All that he wanted now was to crawl into that big bed, and sleep until he could put this whole nightmarish day behind him.
Sera pulled a brand new toothbrush and toothpaste out of the cabinet behind the mirror in the bathroom, and laid them on the counter. Next came a bar of soap, a washcloth, and a towel. “Do you need help taking a bath, Drannon?” she asked, with a look of concern on her face. He didn’t like it when she frowned like that. It made her forehead wrinkle, and she was much prettier smiling.
“N-no ma’am. I c-c-can do it.”
Her smile of approval nearly blinded him, “Good. I figured at eight years old you were probably well on your way to taking care of yourself, but like I told you, if you need anything at all, Drannon, just come find me. Okay?”
They watched each other, she with rapt curiosity on her face, and he with wary reservation and admiration for the tiny woman in front of him. He wondered why she was being so nice to him. They were strangers, but she was treating him like family. When her face fell into a sad frown he realized he’d voiced his thoughts, and he immediately took a hesitant step backwards when her hands reached to embrace him.
“You poor dear. I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through today. No one should have to go through that.” Her genuine concern stole his breath and cracked the shield he’d been holding over his emotions all day long. Tears filled his eyes, and his lungs burned as he panted for air. “It’s okay, let it out. Cry all you need to. There’s no shame in crying when the tears are for someone you love.”
The validation meant everything to him, but he couldn’t find it in him to respond verbally so he just nodded mutely, and wept against her shoulder. All of the fear and sorrow from the day seemed to leak out of him rolling down his cheeks and soaking into her blouse. When his sobs finally subsided and he was left hiccupping and wiping his snotty nose on his hand, she finally released him.
“There now. You’ve got that all out of your system, and now you’ll sleep better.” Tenderly pushing his shaggy hair from his eyes, she brushed her lips across his forehead. “We’ll talk when you’re ready, but tonight you need to rest. Sleep well, Drannon.”
Silently, he watched as she headed off down the hall, turning at the top of the stairs and disappearing from sight. He stood dumbly for several minutes in the doorway of the blue room, taking in his temporary home with a hint of envy for the people who lived here permanently. He assumed by the way Danica spoke it was unlikely he’d be here long, but he was going to take advantage of the luxury while he could. After all, it wasn’t like his mother was going to come back to life and scold him for indulging in a bath with real soap.
If he was going to be on his own for the rest of his life, he was going to take advantage of every possible good thing that came along and relish in it while he could. Who knew what kind of home permanent Danica would find for him? For this brief moment, he was safe, surrounded by warmth and people who genuinely cared about his feelings, and that was all he’d ever wanted.
A door opened and closed downstairs, startling Drannon from his reminiscing, and he shook off the lump of emotion in his throat. Abe and Sera became his salvation as he grew into a temperamental young man with an ax to grind. They’d just as easily been his cheerleaders when he finally realized no one owed him anything and he’d have to go out and work for his future. He invested his energies in a career that turned sour on him, and eight years ago, he came home from the big city with his tail between his legs, and found his heart back home on the ranch.
He and his three closest foster brothers, Roman, Vin, and Hawke had bought the ranch off Abe and turned the main house and most of the cabins into a guest ranch. Of course it was Marilyn who ran the guest side of things, while the boys took care of the ranch. It turned out to be a great investment, and a timely one considering Sera died a couple of years later, and the fire inside Abe fizzled.
Now that both Crawleys were gone, the big house seemed cold and empty most days, even when it was full of guests or ranch hands. Skimming his hand up the wide oak banister, Drannon remembered sliding down it on his rump and getting scolded over and over by Sera, who always did it with a smile on her face. He remembered garland wrapped around it with twinkling lights encircling the posts, and the smell of pies and Christmas cookies. This Christmas Marilyn had put up the tree alone, and the tree skirt had remained empty since the boys decided not to bother exchanging gifts with each other. Maybe it wasn’t just Abe who lost his heart when Sera died. The whole of Crawley Creek Ranch seemed to have lost its sparkle.
Pushing aside his sad thoughts, and longing for the old days, Drannon went back to bed already listing in his head the multitude of chores that needed to be done when the sun rose.