LONE STAR DAD

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Chapter One

He wouldn’t do this. Not again. He wouldn’t shame himself or his family this way.

Quinn Buchanon clenched his jaw hard enough to make his face ache and slapped his outstretched hands against the fireplace mantle. He was off balance, as always, the fingers of his right hand barely reaching while the left was just dandy. The bitter root of the last eleven years curled inside his chest. His arm throbbed harder.

He glanced up at the plastic clock tacked above the crackling fireplace. Two o’clock. Too early.

Releasing a slow, frustrated breath, he pushed back and rubbed his right arm, the exact spot where the surgical titanium rod pushed against the bent muscle and scar tissue. On winter nights, the ache was worse. Add precipitation, like tonight’s cold misty rain, and he was in a world of hurt.

Quinn thought he’d conquered the problem during his stint in Dallas, but the last surgery and coming home to Gabriel’s Crossing brought the pain and grief and most of all the pure exuberant thrill tumbling back in. The glory days. The accident. Yes, accident, as he’d come to realize last year. Jake Hamilton had not intended to hurt him. If anything, the fault was Quinn’s. His own fault. His own misery.

Whoever was to blame, the damage was done and he’d never be the same. Most days he didn’t even feel like a man, certainly not the toast of Gabriel’s Crossing and half of Texas he’d once been.

Memories were killer.

Head starting to pound in that incessant ache he knew too well, he took long strides down the length of the cabin, through the living space and out onto the saggy front porch. The air would clear his head. The cold would give him something else to think about.

He liked the quiet, lonely spot here in the woods by the Red River where none of his well-meaning siblings-six of them-could casually drop by. He loved his family but he needed space.

A sharp, wet wind blew up from the river. Quinn reached back inside, grabbed his coat from the hook hanging next to the door and shrugged it on. He shoved his hands into his pockets, but left his head bare. He lifted his face to the blast of wet air, needing the slap of cold.

The weathered old hunting cabin he called home was nothing fancy, but the rustic unpainted logs and bare bones essentials nestled among the oak and cedar of northeast Texas suited him. The porch wasn’t much either, a wooden floor and a sagging overhang with a weathered rocking chair, a pile of firewood and a dead potted plant from his landscaper mother that he’d forgotten to bring in before the frost.

He sucked in the cedar scent, held the frigid air in his lungs until they ached, and then let it out in one gusty breath.

The pawpaw tree two steps off the porch clung to a single leaf like a mother holds to a child’s hand in a hurricane.

He watched that one valiant leaf battle for life. When at last, the wind proved too much and the quivering leaf sailed into the mist, lost forever, Quinn felt a little sad.

Battling. Buffeted. Lost. He could relate. He was hanging on for dear life and didn’t intend to let go, no matter how hard the wind slammed him.

A fine mist peppered his skin, soft rain edging toward sleet.

By tomorrow a thin sheen of ice would cover the grass and trees and sparkle in the sunrise. He’d be up. He always was. Sleep was short.

He settled in the rocker, a remnant from long forgotten former owners, and tried to focus on the weather, the outdoors, the surrounding woods and creeks he’d loved since boyhood. Sometimes they helped. Sometimes not. Regardless, he wouldn’t let himself go back inside the cabin for a while. Personal discipline was the one lesson he’d never quite learned off the football field, but he had to learn now.

He had work to complete for Buchanon Built, his family’s construction company. Maybe he could get his mind on a new set of architectural plans and off the pain.

He rubbed at his shoulder again, over and over. Up and down. Round and round. The ache went clear through his chest into his heart. Deeper yet, into his soul.

God seemed far, far away.

On the lane leading from the dirt road, the only road that connected him with anywhere, a shadowy creature appeared out of the mist. Quinn squinted through the drizzle. Maybe a raccoon. They were plentiful here. As the animal waddled closer, Quinn recognized a cat-a very pregnant cat, her belly swinging like a metronome.

He didn’t much like cats.

Yet, she was a distraction and he watched her trot his direction until she reached the porch, stopped at the edge, raised her thin face, and mewed. Her troubled eyes gleamed golden yellow in a black and white face.

Quinn looked away. “Sorry, lady. You’re on your own.”

She wobbled onto the porch and rubbed against his leg. He felt the bumpy movement of her unborn kittens, and startled, moved his leg.

“Go on now. Get.”

She meowed again, gazed around the mostly empty porch. Finding no comfy spot, she sprawled across his feet.

Quinn gently slid his boot from under her disconcerting belly and went inside the cabin.

He hadn’t intended to go inside. Temptation waited there, calling his name with promises of relief that ensnared. The cat had left him little choice.

As if she carried a megaphone, the pregnant feline meowed loud enough for him to hear through the solid wooden door. Quinn turned on the television and though he could no longer hear her, he knew she was there. He peaked out the window. She was in his chair, though how she’d gotten her swollen body up that high defied the laws of physics.

He couldn’t leave her out there in the cold. What if she had those kittens? What if he awoke tomorrow morning to a pile of frozen baby cats on his front porch?

With a defeated sigh, he rummaged around until he found a cardboard box, dumped out the contents, added a couple of old towels, and went back outside.

“You’re not coming in the cabin. Understand? There’s the well house. It’s heated. Pipes freeze, you know.” He motioned toward the leaning, unpainted building beside the cabin that housed the well and where he kept his tools and basic man junk. “You can bunk there until this weather passes. No babies, though. You hear me? Tomorrow at the latest, you’re out of here.”

Gently, his stomach a little woozy when the kittens did all kinds of gyrations against his hand, Quinn lifted her into the box. As if she’d been expecting exactly this, she settled into the towels. He toted her, box and all, to the shed and put her inside.

She blinked up at him with big golden eyes.

Quinn growled deep in his throat, muttered, “Sucker,” and went back into the cabin for a bowl of warm milk.

He left the old girl lapping with her dainty tongue and jogged toward the porch. The mist spattered his face like tiny, cold pebbles.

From out of nowhere, a gunshot cracked the gray stillness.

Quinn whirled toward the sound. Blood roared in his ears. His heart thudded madly. It took all his will power not to fall to the ground and low crawl back to the cabin. He didn’t, a small victory.

A gunshot in the woods echoed far and wide and was hard to pinpoint, but this one was close. Too close. Even though Buchanon land was posted, poachers invariably tried their luck this time of year.

He clamped his jaw tight and stomped toward his truck. This poacher’s luck had just run out.

***

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