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1.

 

 

Sheriff Joel Masterson wanted to kick the kid’s ass seven ways to Sunday, but he controlled himself. Barely. The boy was too old for this stupid shit.

Joel was, that was for sure. He grabbed Phoenix Tyler by the back of his collar and dragged him to his feet. “Come on. I haven’t got all night.”

Tyler protested, curses ringing out through the night. Main Street was fully deserted except for him, Tyler, and the man twice the kid’s size who he’d started the fight with.

The two wannabe wrestlers smelled like the whiskey distillery on the outskirts of town, and Joel’s eyes burned from the strength of it. But his hands were steady on the kid.

Best to get Tyler out of there before Rutherford got the idea to give the kid the beating Tyler most likely deserved.

Rutherford wasn’t known for Friday night barroom brawls.

Neither was Tyler, for that matter. Now, underage drinking…well, Deputy Lowell had picked him up for that a time or two already, hadn’t he?

Nothing Joel hadn’t seen a hundred times in his two years as the sheriff of Masterson County. 

Time to return this boy to where he belonged, so Joel and the deputies could get out around the county. They needed to make certain the floods that were impending hadn’t washed out the access roads. Five thousand people resided in the county, and if too many roads were flooded out, the entire county would be impacted.

He didn’t have time for some punk wannabe with a chip on his shoulder right now. The floods headed their way were supposed to be record breaking. And he didn’t know if the dams were going to be strong enough to keep the waters at bay.

It was going to get bad in Masterson County, Wyoming— really bad.

And it was his job to keep the people in his county safe. It wasn’t a responsibility he took lightly.

He cuffed the Tyler kid and shoved him in the back of his SUV, thankful for the metal grill that separated Tyler from his seat. It took a call to his dispatcher to find out where the boy lived—while he’d had a few brushes with the law, Joel hadn’t dealt with him personally before—and then he headed his SUV toward the far southwestern corner of his county. As he covered the familiar territory, he wondered about the kid in his back seat. There were a bunch of Tylers out past his family homestead, but he’d never met all of them.

The boy was one of those Tylers, then. They’d been contentious sonsofbitches since before the county was formed. He’d had more than a few run-ins with the boy’s uncles and cousins.

Looks like Phoenix Tyler was following the family footsteps right down a bad path.

Joel sighed, wishing the world he lived in could be a hell of a lot different. Part of the problem with the Tylers he knew was a simple lack of economic opportunity. They were ranchers, pure and simple, and in Tyler Township, where they lived, the lands were barren and inhospitable. Nothing worth a damn would grow there, and nothing could live there.

Except for ornery Tylers, that was. Despite the odds, the Tylers kept on.

He’d been to this corner of the county numerous times, but not to the particular address he was headed toward now.

The kid continued to mouth off in the back of the SUV. Joel just kept driving. It wasn’t the first time a dumb kid took a ride home in his SUV. At least this one wasn’t puking everywhere.

It was a forty-minute drive from Masterson to the Tyler ranch. The kid ended up snoring in the back before they were halfway there.

Maybe he’d sleep off most of it and be able to deal with his parents then?

Parents were sometimes the hardest part of his job. Especially parents of screwups like the boy drooling in his back seat.

He reached the Tyler ranch and turned down the pitted and rutted lane. They needed about four loads of gravel to even make it halfway passable, didn’t they?

The house was sprawling but in such disrepair on the outside that he wondered why it hadn’t been condemned yet. Although it did look like someone had planted flowers along the walkway recently.

That saddened him more than anything. The flowers spoke of hope and a desire to at least try. The house screamed of neglect and despair.

He looked around one more time. He wasn’t so certain he wanted to leave the boy here.

The yard was trimmed neatly and free of clutter at least. That told him a lot. Someone, at least, was trying.

Joel tensed when the light flicked on in the front of the house. They’d heard him pull up.

He parked next to the small porch and killed the engine. He had a feeling he was going to be there for a while. It just always seemed to happen that way at Tyler homesteads. Whether Joel wanted it to or not.

The door opened, and a middle-aged man wearing a white tank and faded jeans stepped outside. His hair was thinning and gray, and his eyes showed years of hard living, but his body was tough and lean. He looked like a hundred other weathered ranchers Joel had seen through the years. “What’s wrong?”

His voice was roughened and harsh, but unthreatening. Joel cataloged the man quickly. A man just trying to get by in a world that wasn’t always easy to navigate. Like so many others in Masterson County. “You Phil Tyler?”

“Yes.”

“I have your boy in the back seat. Got into a brawl at Dan’s Tavern in Masterson. I was going to book him in, but to be honest, I have to deal with the approaching storms. I don’t have time for underage drinking, and my deputies are all spread over the county.”

“He facing charges?”

Joel thought for a moment. “I’m not sure yet. Have him at my office Tuesday at ten, and we can discuss it.”

He pulled the teenager from the back seat, and the kid came awake, swinging and swearing.

His father stepped off the porch and grabbed the boy by the shoulder. “Phoenix, shut your mouth before it gets you into deeper trouble.”

The boy cursed his father up one side and down the other. The older man never lifted a hand to hit him, at least. If anything, the father looked more embarrassed than angry.

The kid’s tirade went on for a good fifteen minutes before the front door opened again and six more bodies came tumbling out.

Joel studied them quickly. Young. Three were female, small, slim, startlingly pretty in the bright porch light, and—if he wasn’t mistaken—two were identical. The rest were boys, younger than the one still cursing. Hell, the youngest had to be under eight or nine, didn’t he?

The rest of the Tylers?

Joel turned back to the boy when the kid started swinging. The father, no more than five nine or five ten, was a few inches shorter than his son. And a whole lot soberer.

Joel didn’t have time to suffer fools gladly. Or wait for a father to gain control of his son. He grabbed the back of the kid’s shirt and lifted him off his feet. While Phoenix Tyler was close to six feet tall, Joel dwarfed him. At six foot four, two hundred and fifty pounds, he was twice what the boy weighed.

He used that to his advantage now. He turned Phoenix toward him. “Get your shit together now. Or I will run you into town, and you can hang out in the drunk tank for the next seventy-two hours. How would you like that?”

“You can’t do that. I have school tomorrow,” the boy sneered.

“You could just be truant then. We’ll see how well that goes over with the school.” Masterson public schools had a zero-tolerance truancy policy that was strictly enforced. Every parent knew that. Jail wouldn’t be an excuse.

The boy continued to kick and fight. Joel continued to hold him. He could do this all night if he had to.

 

 

2.

 

 

Phoebe Tyler saw the lights and knew something was going on. Something that shouldn’t be. She didn’t even bother trying to listen, as she’d lost the ability to distinguish most sounds when she’d been six years old. She wasn’t fully hearing-impaired and could speak, but there was a lot she missed. Especially without the hearing aid currently sitting on her bedside table. She’d tried to sleep with it in before, but it just didn’t happen.

A fact a lot of her siblings took advantage of. Especially the younger ones. They’d better not be up wandering the house. Not this late.

She was the oldest of eight, and she didn’t take that role lightly. Her father busted his butt trying to turn a profit on the small ranch that had been in their family for generations. But it wasn’t easy. Especially since her mother had passed two years earlier in a car wreck that had two of her siblings injured. Leaving a mountain of debt bigger than the mountain that she could see from her window. The loss of their mother left the day-to-day care of the ranch house, and her youngest siblings, up to her.

Well, up to her and her sisters, Pip, Perci, and Pandora. The girls had their own responsibilities, though. Pip was doing her best to build a horse ranch out of their small stable of cutting horses. A few more years, and she’d be able to sell off some of the horses she’d bred and trained herself. Perci helped Phoebe with her Angora goat herd when needed—and worked extra twelve-hour shifts as a nurse at the county hospital whenever she could. Perci made a point of taking every bit of overtime she could get. Pan spent most of her time helping their father and Phoebe. When she could, Pan did virtual-assistant work and cleaned houses for some of their cousins and uncles. Phoebe’s responsibilities around the house made it impossible for her to have a full-time job. She supplemented what her sisters brought in with her goats. She sold the mohair yarn she created herself. Money was tight, but they were holding on.

In her spare time, Phoebe tended her little drove. After she had finished with that, she would sit at her loom and weave blankets from the yarn she kept back for that purpose. When those sold, she’d bring in a few hundred dollars each.

Every penny their branch of the Tylers could bring in helped their family of nine survive.

If something was wrong with one of the children, it was Phoebe’s job to take care of them. She didn’t bother with a robe or slippers. She grabbed the hearing aid sitting on her night table and slipped it in. With the device, she had close to sixty percent of hearing in her left ear.

Phoebe hurried down the stairs.

 

***

 

Joel caught the door opening again as he held the idiot teenager aloft and lectured. Another woman stepped out. He looked at her long enough to figure out if she was the mother or not. She looked like all the rest of the females but smaller, slighter. A little older. Maybe, but not much. She wore small, thin pajamas that did little to hide the fact that she was all woman. Hell, Joel would far rather be looking at her than dealing with this kid.

She took one look at what was happening and jumped right into the fray. By smacking at Joel and lecturing him.

Joel couldn’t defend himself and the boy from the small tornado attacking him—not without seriously hurting her—so he dropped the boy heedlessly to the ground and grabbed the woman by her arms. He tried to turn her to face him more fully, but she was mighty resistant.

“Stop. Lady, I said stop, unless you want to be arrested for assaulting an officer.”

She had one little finger pointing in his face, but she wasn’t looking at him. No, now her brothers got the rest of her tirade. She had the younger ones hurrying back inside with a few sharp words, under the direction of one of the sisters. The twin females remained on the porch. Watching silently, warily.

Joel wrapped his arms around her and bear-hugged her when she waved her hands around again. He didn’t have time for this. No matter that he was half enjoying having such a sweet-smelling female in his arms again. If she just wasn’t trying to kick him with her bare little feet…

Joel lifted her straight off the ground and held her there, aloft. “Stop. Now.”

“Don’t hurt her, Sheriff! She can’t hear you,” the father said, hurrying closer. He reached out like he was going to try and take her out of Joel’s arms. Joel wasn’t about to put her down just yet. Not until she stopped kicking. “My girl is deaf. I don’t think the hearing aid is on. Battery doesn’t always work right.”

 

***

 

There was a strange man holding her. Phoebe hadn’t gotten a good look at him, but she thought it was that brute, Tom Rutherford, who’d been harassing Phoenix for weeks. He certainly felt big enough to be Rutherford.

She felt his chest rumble as he spoke behind her. Felt his arms tighten around her yet again. He certainly was a large man. Strong.

Phoenix jumped to his feet and charged the cowboy holding her. The cowboy twisted. His arms tightened around her, almost protectively.

He jerked as her brother struck him on the side.

They almost went down, but the man was strong. Big and muscled…and royally ticked off.

He let go of her, and Phoebe scurried away. The man grabbed her brother. Within seconds he had Phoenix wrestled to the ground—and handcuffed. It was then that Phoebe saw the emblem on the side of the SUV.

Oh, hell. She’d just accosted the Masterson County sheriff.

Phoebe pushed Perci’s helping hand away. “Get inside, with Pan and the boys. I’ll deal with this.”

“Phoebe, let Dad deal with it,” her slightly younger sister said.

“No.” She’d deal. She’d made the situation so much worse; it was her responsibility to clean it all up. Phoebe rose to her feet and turned to the man now glowering down at her. She got her first good look at the sheriff.

Even in the light from the front porch, it was hard to miss the gorgeous cowboy in jeans and a white Stetson staring at her. If he wasn’t about to eat her for lunch, she would almost be tempted to stop and just stare at him.

“You.” He pointed right at her. Phoebe stood her ground and refused to look away.

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