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Stepbrother Master(45)

By:Ava Jackson

A glossy chestnut foal with white socks was tethered inside on a long cotton rope. At the sight of the food, it whickered loudly and pawed the floor. As soon as Griff set down the bucket, it shoved past to bury its nose in the purple mush, almost knocking him over.

“Little sonuvabitch,” Griff said, patting its neck. He ambled away and sat down heavily on a hay bale, taking a tin of chewing tobacco out of his pocket.

After I latched the stall door behind him, I found myself at a loss for what to do next. Griff had evidently finished his chores, and since he'd barely spoken to me, I felt weird bothering him anymore. I wandered around the barn for a while. But soon, visiting with the horses and examining the farm equipment turned into flat-out pacing again.

“You gonna say what's on your mind, girl, or just keep sighin' up a storm?”

I turned abruptly, startled. I almost forgot Griff was still there.

On our drive from the airstrip to the mansion, he’d seemed like a tight-lipped grump. After I'd spent some time on the ranch, though, I knew better. He didn't mean anything by his silence—he just didn't feel like talking. And right now, what I needed most was a sounding board. Someone who knew how to listen without judgment. It seemed Griff was my man.

I hesitated … then spilled my guts. Even leaving out the gory details, I talked for half an hour about the importance of career, and love, and how I was caught in the middle. I almost expected him to leave or doze off in the middle of my blathering. When I finished, I looked over to see him staring into space and scratching his beard. Just as I started wondering whether he'd heard a single word, he asked, “You ever thought about the juvie hall out by the county line?”

I shook my head. “There's something like that around here?”

“Might be called 'youth correctional facility,' or whatever the fashion is these days.” He turned his head to spit. “They need good folks who actually care about helping the kids get their diplomas and keep outta trouble … not just people who want the paycheck.”

I picked at my fingernail as I thought about it. I wasn't certified for this specifically, but a lot of my training would probably overlap since I'd chosen my classes with an eye towards inner-city teaching. For students who had spent their whole lives in underfunded, understaffed schools, and in dangerous neighborhoods. A juvenile detention center was just one step beyond that—kids who had fallen through the cracks in an even bigger way. That kind of work definitely wouldn't have any shortage of challenges. It never occurred to me to look for a job in the prison system, but…

“That's a great idea,” I replied aloud. “Do you know anything else about the school?”

Griff shook his head. “Haven't had much cause to find out. Hell, I probably even got the facts wrong. Might be one juvie hall for boys and another for girls.”

I guess I don't know what I expected. I smiled at the old foreman. “Thanks anyway. You've been a huge help.” A little Googling would handle the rest of my questions; what was really important was the glimmer of hope that Griff had planted. Maybe I could stay in Montana after all.

He grunted in acknowledgment and dipped his head. But as I turned to leave, he said, “You been havin' some trouble with Miss Celeste.” It was a statement, not a question.

Caught off guard, I muttered, “Uh … ” I didn't think I'd revealed that much about butting heads with Celeste. What more did I want to tell him?

“Before this job, she lived with her sister and her good-fer-nuthin husband. Busted her ass waitin' tables while he drank away all her tips.” Griff shifted and spat onto the floor again. “That ain't an excuse for her nonsense, you understand. Just a reason.”

I nodded slowly. “Then how did she start working for Russ?”

“Welp, the bastard roughed up Celeste's sister sometimes, and one night the sheriff came a-knockin'. I don't know if Celeste called him or it was a neighbor, but either way, word got out around town. Russ went right down to her diner and offered her a job. Room, board, and wage. He said Celeste was welcome to bring her sister along, but I guess she wouldn't leave … dunno the details. Celeste sends her money every couple months.”

For a moment, I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine having to deal with something like that. “Thanks, Griff,” I finally said. “I'll remember that.” And I would—it was the longest speech I'd ever heard from him, and it put a lot into perspective.

During my big fight with Ford, I had yelled that Mom was nothing like Celeste. Now, though, I wondered if the difference between them was really so great. Sure, Celeste was catty and ruthless about chasing money, while Mom was just pragmatic, without ever losing her positive attitude. But what if that kindly widowed lawyer had never come along? Mom had had me to look after. How far would she have gone to keep food on the table? How bitter would she have become after years of bad luck and fear? I wasn't sure I could answer that question.