Susan Mallery

The Rancher Next Door

The first book in the Lone Star Canyon series, 2000



The bright red bike beckoned Katie Fitzgerald. It lay abandoned in a heap of other more battered bikes, all left behind the ice cream parlor where Katie’s older brother and his friends had gone for an afternoon snack. The pocket of her jeans jingled with the coins her father had given her to keep her out of trouble, and she knew that fresh peach ice cream, her favorite, had been made that morning.

But even more tempting than the thought of cool, creamy ice cream melting on her tongue and slipping down her throat was the realization that this might be her only chance with the bike. The twins, younger by two years, could both ride two-wheelers already, but she couldn’t. Not because she wasn’t coordinated enough but because her parents had never let her try.

It wasn’t her fault that she had been born small, she thought balling her hands into fists. Her father laughingly called her the runt of the litter, which hurt her feelings, but she never let him see the tears in her eyes. Instead she kept her head high and chin thrust out, because she was a Fitzgerald and ten years old, which was practically grown-up.

Katie glanced at the back of the ice cream shop and knew that her brother David would be in there for hours. Once he and his friends got to talking-bragging was more like it-they could waste a whole afternoon. Her dad wasn’t going to be finished with his business until three, and it was barely past one. All she had to do was make sure no one saw her.

Easier said than done, she thought glumly. Lone Star Canyon wasn’t much of a town, and everyone around knew everyone else by sight if not by name. Besides, she was a Fitzgerald, and her father always told her that Fitzgeralds were looked up to by other folks and had a responsibility to act right.

But it’s not as if she were stealing the bike, she told herself even as she walked over and grabbed the handlebars. It was her brother’s, and she was just borrowing it. David would understand.

Even she didn’t believe that lie, so she ignored the feeling of guilt in favor of the excitement growing in her belly. If she could learn to ride a bike on her own and then show her mom when she got home, they’d have to stop treating her like a baby. Just because she’d been sick a lot as a little girl, both her parents made her avoid sports and bikes and be careful all the time. She had rules that her brothers and sisters didn’t. It was humiliating that the twins had more freedom than she did.

It all came down to learning to ride the bike. Then her parents would have to see it was okay for her to be outside and playing, just like every other kid around. So if she borrowed the bike for a really good reason, that didn’t make taking it such a bad thing, right?

She pressed her lips together and figured she was going to get into trouble anyway, so why not enjoy the process? Then she steadied the bike by putting her hands on the handlebars and straddled the crossbar.

The seat was too high for her to sit on and still touch the ground, even on tiptoe. Katie walked over to the driveway, then down to the street, where she could balance on the curb while perched on the seat. She settled herself, shifted to get her balance, then pushed off the curb.

Thirty minutes later she’d skinned both knees and one elbow, and had yet to ride more than five feet at a stretch. Despite the tears of frustration and the pain burning her knees and elbow, she refused to give up or admit defeat. “I can do this,” she whispered fiercely.

“You’re going about it all wrong,” a voice said from behind her.

Katie spun, then caught her breath as she saw Jack Darby. The boy rode lazily toward her, his battered bike looking as if it had been run over and left for dead more than once. He rode off the curb with the easy grace of a natural athlete, then skidded to a stop three feet in front of her.

Although only a year older, Jack was about five inches taller and twenty pounds heavier. Like all the Darbys he had dark hair and eyes. Katie swallowed her fear. She wasn’t about to let any Darby know she was scared of him.

“You want me to hold the bike steady?” Jack asked, letting his bike drop to the ground. He moved next to her and reached for the seat. “You need to get your balance, Katie. Once you learn that, the rest of it’s easy.”

“I’m fine,” she said stiffly, wishing she could ride to safety, but she was trapped. “I don’t need help from you.”

Something flashed in his eyes-something that she might have thought was hurt, except he was a boy and from what she’d seen with her brothers, boys didn’t have any softer feelings.

He stood beside her, studying her. Katie stared right back. Jack Darby didn’t look like he was gonna hurt her or anything. In fact he looked friendly. But Darbys hated Fitzgeralds from their first breath to their last…didn’t they? Darbys and Fitzgeralds had been feuding for about as long as Texas had been a state-at least that’s what her father always said.

Jack pointed at her bleeding knees. “You keep falling, you’re gonna scrape off all your skin. You’ll end up looking like a plucked chicken, and then what?”

Despite her fear and the pain from her slips off the bike, she smiled at the image of herself as a naked chicken. “Will not.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Then you’ll get all scabby and gross and everyone will run when they see you.” He gave a little shake of the seat. “Come on, Katie. Both my sisters can ride, and they’re younger than you.”

She stiffened at the challenge in his voice. But when she glanced at him, she didn’t see anything mean in his expression. His too-long hair tumbled over his forehead, and his dark eyes were bright with humor. Except for seeing him in school, she’d never been this close to Jack before. Her dad always said mean things about the Darby family, but from what she could tell, Jack was sorta nice.

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” she admitted in a small voice, then tugged on the hem of her T-shirt. Summer in Lone Star Canyon was hot, so they were both in shorts, but Jack’s knees were smooth and tanned-not a single scab in sight.

Jack grabbed the handlebar. He kept his other hand firmly at the base of the seat. “Go on and sit down. Put your feet on the pedals. I won’t let you fall. You gotta get a feel for the bike and find your balance. Once you have that, riding is easy.”

She did as he said. He walked her around while she wobbled and tried to pedal. He was close enough for her to realize that he didn’t smell bad, even though her dad said that Darbys were dirt.

Suddenly Jack gave her a little push. She yelped and nearly lost her balance, but then she was moving forward and actually riding a bike!

“I can do it!” she yelled at him.

An hour later they still rode together. Katie wasn’t as fast as Jack, but he rarely went ahead and he always picked easy routes for her to follow. The buildings of town flashed by as they raced to the end of Mason Street, then turned right. The rear wheel started to slip on some loose dirt, but Jack had already taught her how to compensate for that.

“Not bad for a girl,” he called, his voice approving. “You’re so little that if you were a fish, I’d have to throw you back, but you do okay.”

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