The truck flew over the cattle stop. Dust trailed his 1994 Dodge pickup as it bounced over washboards on the gravel road leading to the ranch. He’d reached Home Hill. The first place on the road from which the ranch house could be seen in the distance. He pulled over on the side of the road, stopped his truck and got out. Benjamin Ander Copeland couldn’t believe he was home. He’d avoided this place for the last two years. Too many painful memories floated about the place. Despite himself, a warm feeling invaded his chest and for the first time in a long time Ben felt a smile crease his face. He scrubbed it away. It didn’t feel right smiling here.
The smell of spring filled the air and assaulted his senses. Sagebrush, newly budding poplar and willow trees, bullberry bushes and new prairie grasses all sent fragrance into the air. Not for the first time in his life he was grateful he didn’t have allergies. It smelled like home. He took a deep breath and filled his lungs.
The remnant of last year’s grass scrunched beneath his cowboy boots as he climbed the small rise for a better view of the house. His dad had built the house for his mother not long after they’d gotten married. Before then they’d lived in the bunkhouse across the yard; a place where Benjamin had spent a fair bit of time in his last few years of high school. It had been his hiding place from his overzealous sisters. If he’d only known how life would have turned out, he would have stolen every moment he could with them.
“Well, Rachel,” he said to the air around him, “you’ve got your wish. I’m home now.” Benjamin stared down at the flat rock at his feet, marking the place his sister’s ashes had been spread two years ago. “I don’t know if this is such a good idea though. I’ve been away so long.” He cleared his throat and looked back towards the house. It was partially obscured by hills and trees but he could still see the roofline. His throat tightened at the sight. “I’ll come back and see you soon.”
He turned from the memorial and walked back to his truck. He sat there behind the wheel for a moment, fighting the memories. He took a deep breath and turned the key. It was time to go home.
His mom was waiting in the driveway when he pulled up. He was barely out of the truck before she was wrapping her arms around him.
“Benjamin Copeland, you’ve been away far too long. Don’t you put me through that again.” She loosened her hug and looked up at him. “I need you, you hear? And you need to be with your family.” She smiled, kissed his cheek and then let him go. “Come on in, dinner’s about ready.”
She hurried into the house before him but kept looking over her shoulder at him, making sure he did as he was told. Some things never changed, he thought. Even after all these years, his mom could still make him feel like a little boy. He gladly followed her into the kitchen; he could smell something good.
A whorl of golden hair flew at him. He barely had time to open his arms and catch his sister before she collided into him.
“Watch it, Beth,” he told her, a smile spreading across his face.
“Where the hell have you been, Ben?” Beth dropped her arms and stood before him with her hands on her hips.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Am I late?” He glanced at the wall where the kitchen clock had hung his whole life. “Where the hell’s the clock?”
“Mind your language, Benjamin,” his mother said from the stove where she was stirring gravy.
“What? She swore too,” he said incredulously.
“Mom,” said Beth. “Hell, is not a swear word.”
“It is in this house.” She turned back to her gravy.
Beth rolled her eyes at him and smiled.
“It’s good to have you back, big brother…but you should have come home long before now.”
“I know,” he sighed.
The kitchen of the ranch house was exactly as he remembered it. The same worn wooden countertop shone in the late afternoon light as it flooded through the open windows above the sink. His mom’s china was displayed pride of place in a china hutch standing in the corner of the room. The white walls and the cool yellow cupboards enhanced the brightness of the cheery kitchen.
He put his hat on the hook by the door and ran his hand through his hair and over his face. Over a day’s worth of stubble prickled against his palm. He needed a shave.
“Where’s Dad?” Ben asked.
“He’ll be here soon, he’s just on the phone with Mr. Hargrave’s assistant again. What was her name again, Mom?”
“Melody Careman or some such thing. I have it written by the phone if you want to have a look.”
Benjamin felt the tension building in his shoulders and the familiar knot in his stomach growing. It was too normal here. Almost as though nothing had changed. He grabbed his hat back off the hook and ducked out the door while both of their backs were turned.
“Ben, you’re not leaving, are you?” Beth caught up with him, breathless.
“I just needed some air.” He took a great lungful of it and then turned back to his sister.
“What’s going on, Ben, why did you stay away so long?” Beth touched his arm and he fought the impulse to pull away.
“You know why,” he mumbled, avoiding her gaze.
“No Ben, I don’t. None of the rest of us ran away. We stayed. Do you know how hard it’s been on Mom and Dad not having you around either? Or me? It’s like we lost you too Ben. Do you have any idea how horrible it was to lose my brother just weeks after my sister died?”
He pulled away and turned his back on her.
“I don’t need this right now, Beth.” He could see the horses in the pasture just out from the barn. What he wouldn’t give to climb up on one and ride away for ever.
“When do you need it then, Ben?” she raged. “You haven’t ‘needed’ it since Rachel died and Jenna ran away.’
Her anger cut him. He wanted to run. He wanted to disappear. But he couldn’t do that. Cowboys don’t turn their back on their problems; they face them head on. The day his sister died he forgot how to be a cowboy.
He opened his mouth to tell Beth that he just needed more time, but before he could get the words out his mother’s voice cut through the uncomfortable silence.
Beth stepped close to him and said in a lowered voice, “Don’t think we’re done with this conversation, Ben, because we aren’t. Just make sure you act happy for Mom and Dad. They’ve been so excited about you coming home. Don’t spoil it for them.”
He turned and watched Beth go back inside and shook his head. In truth, he was happy. It was good to be home again and he knew he’d stayed away too long. He really loved this place. But now the ranch contained sadness too and he wasn’t used to that. He doubted he ever would be. Rachel died but he still had the rest of his family. He needed to remember that.
He followed his sister inside. He vowed to himself that he would make the effort to appreciate all of them now that he was home.
The smell of roast beef assaulted him as soon as he came back into the kitchen. His mom and Beth were placing the last of the meal on the table. His stomach rumbled in approval. He placed his hat back on the hook at the door and took his seat at the old oak table. Honeyed carrots glistened in their dish, mounds of mashed potatoes where piled high in their bowl, and sautéed cabbage, gravy and, best of all, Yorkshire puddings all appeared before him. He felt like a king waiting for a feast held in his honor. If the table hadn’t been so sturdy it would have collapsed when at last his mom placed the juicy roast beef down.
“What’s the occasion? Why the roast?” he asked his mom.
“You, silly,” she said, planting a kiss on his cheek. “It’s not every day you come for dinner.”
Watching his mom and sister he could’ve easily fooled himself that nothing has changed. But the laughter he grew up with wasn’t as loud and the creases around his mother’s eyes told him that the last two years had taken their toll on her too. He hated knowing some of those wrinkles were because of him.
“Ben, you made it!” His dad entered the room with a huge smile on his face.
Lance Copeland looked like every rancher from his generation should: tall, muscled but slightly paunchy around the middle from enjoying years of his wife’s good cooking.
As soon as Ben stood up he was enveloped into a hug. He swayed at the force of his dad slapping his back.
“It’s so good to see you, son. You’ve been away too long.”
Ben caught his dad’s eye and was surprised to see tears gathering along the lashes. He had to clear his throat before responding.
“It’s good to be home. I’ve miss it. I’ve missed you.”
If you enjoyed these chapters, I Choose You is now available at all good e-retailers. See below for the links or have a look at my Books page.
Lights. Camera. Cowboy.
Helga Hansen is the movie star of the moment. Wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, beautiful and girlfriend of sexy Myles of the world-famous band The Knights: life could not be better. Until Myles cheats on her, that is. Then her latest movie is ‒ again! ‒ a career-threatening flop. She’s sacked her friend/agent in a fury. And, to make matters worse, her little sister’s life seems to be spiraling out of control and Helga’s just not sure how to help her out of the abyss.
So the invitation to star in Brian Hargrave’s new movie – yes, the Brian Hargrave ‒ is one she just can’t turn down. And if it means filming in Hicksville for what’ll seem like an eternity, so what? It’s time away from the big smoke and a chance to lick her wounds. And did someone say something about cowboys?