"Next rider in the College National Finals is our oldest in the competition today. He's almost finished with medical school, but first he's got to finish this ride. Give Trey Brown a hand, ladies and gentlemen!"
Sessa Lee Chambers shifted in her seat to watch her five-year-old son stand in rapt attention watching the cowboys in gate seven move in perfect synchronization. One held the gate, one held the rope, and another sat astride a bronc that looked as if it would easily take the rider's head off if given the opportunity. A fourth man spoke energetically into the rider's ear, his words lost on the cheering crowd inside the Sam Houston Arena.
Her attention shifted back to Ross. Was that…a smile?
"Come on, cowboy," Ross shouted over the din as his lifted his little red cowboy hat to mimic the others now crowding the gate. "You can do it!"
Clutching her throat, Sessa fought back the tears that were already blurring her vision. Ross hadn't smiled or spoken a word since his father died nearly one month ago. Taking him to the rodeo had been Ross's grandfather's idea. Get him outside. Expose him to some good old-fashioned commotion. Let him pet a horse or two.
That last one was the most difficult of all. Just last week, her dwindling finances had caused her to sell the last of Ben's beloved horses to an old friend who lived south of town. Bud Jones would take good care of them, this she knew. What she hadn't known was how heartbroken Ross would be at their loss.
Of course, because she was too far gone in her grief to see anything, it had been Daddy who'd pointed out Ross's sadness. And not very nicely.
But he was right. And she had to do better.
The gate opened just a few feet away from them, and the horse bucked out, jarring her thoughts. The rider bounced with legs out and hat flying, but he held on until the buzzer sounded.
"Now that was a ride, wasn't it folks? Hard to believe he's thirty one!" The speakers blared with the announcer's excitement. "Good job, cowboy!"
Funny. The man striding victoriously across the arena was two years older than she. Her memories of college were brief and dimmed by time and distance. One semester was all she'd gone, but she'd somehow managed to meet Ben Chambers, marry him, and forget all about any ideas of pursuing higher education. Looking back, it was the worst decision of her life. Then she looked at Ross and realized that decision had been the best.
Ross waved his hat like the others standing at the gate. "Good job, cowboy!" he echoed.
He was still waving the hat when the long-legged cowboy ambled by. "Good job, cowboy," he repeated.
To Sessa's astonishment, the cowboy stalled right there and knelt down to get eye-to-eye with Ross. She couldn't hear what transpired over the noise of the crowd, but a moment later, one of the other men was handing the cowboy a pen.
Ross ran toward her as fast as his little legs could carry him. "Look, Mama!" he shouted. "The cowboy signed his name on my hat! He said someday I could be a cowboy just like him!"
"Hold on there, cowpoke."
Sessa looked up to see the sandy-haired cowboy once again kneel beside Ross. "I said you could be a cowboy like me, but only if you study hard and keep your grades up so you can get into college. Oh, and be sure and listen to your mama."
He looked over Ross's head to offer Sessa a wink.
Through the haze of numbness, she felt a twinge of…something. Attraction, maybe. Unwelcome as it was. She let her gaze drop to her son, avoiding further eye contact with the cowboy.
Oblivious, Ross beamed up at the man, one hand clapped to the hat on his head, steadying it. "I will," he said. "I promise."
The cowboy straightened Ross's hat and then stuck his hand out to offer the child a firm handshake. "I have a feeling I'm going to see you again someday," he told Ross as he rose.
"Me too!" Ross said with a broad grin.
He wore his grin, and that cowboy hat, all the way home. Even as he fell into a deep slumber in his bed, Ross still bore the traces of that smile.
And of course he wore the hat.
Fifteen years later
Venting her frustration, Sessa fashioned a block of the finest ash into the shape of a lion's nose then moved to the table where the next task awaited—carving a replacement ribbon for a century-old prancing carousel horse.
Every satisfying jab of the chisel had chipped away at another piece of her resentment until exhaustion, and the completion of the piece, forced her to quit. Still the aggravation teased at her, daring her to forget her belief in the Lord's plans in favor of believing He was out to get her.
He had to be.
She set the well-used carving tool in its place and shook her head to remove the sawdust from her hair. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the thick file of papers neatly packaged for mailing.
Today of all days, she should be on top of the world. Unlike some of her smaller commissions, the pieces strewn across her workspace could soon be replaced by several dozen intended for use in the Smithsonian's traveling carousel display. After years of careful planning and despite the death of its founder fifteen years ago, Chambers Carousel Restorations had a real shot at hitting the big time.
Her husband, rest his soul, would have been so proud. On the other hand, their son Ross would be unimpressed. What a cruel irony that she and Ben had worked to build something to pass on to the next generation, only to find their only child entertained no interest in the family business.
If only Ben had lived to help raise him. Maybe Ross would have been the man she hoped he'd become.
But then, Sessa could spend hours thinking about what might have been. Instead she chose to live in the present, only thinking of her prodigal on carefully chosen occasions. She went back to her work only to find her control had slipped.
It happened more often these days. Sometimes a glance at her son's baby pictures would bring a memory to mind, while other times it would be the sound of laughter from a child on a radio commercial or the photograph of a dark-haired boy in the newspaper. Other times her longings might stem from a conversation between herself and her mother, some snippet of a past memory that would turn happy then stab her in the heart. Then there was the red cowboy hat on the shelf in his room, faded by time and dusty from her own inability to spend much time in a place where memories hung deeper than morning fog, that hat gave rise to the best memory of Ross she had.
The day he spoke. The day some stranger turned a boy from inward to outward. To horses and riding and rodeo. She smiled and batted at the dust motes dancing in the sunshine.
Remembering Ross as the baby, the child, and the young man prevented her from thinking of him as the adult he had become. The adult she barely knew and hardly recognized.
How long had it been since she'd seen him? The months had stretched long and distant until nearly a year had gone by since his last visit. Even then, he'd been someone she loved but did not like. It shamed her to think of how relieved she'd been when he'd left.
And now this. An impossible situation with no good solution.
Her smile faded. This.
A litany of if only's assaulted her, and she covered her ears to stop them. When they'd finally quieted, Sessa reached for the next piece, a delicate rabbit's ear made of maple.
Wood shavings littered the floor of her studio, and a fine dust danced in the rays of morning sun. Seemed she might never come to terms with the guilt plaguing her.
"Guilt is not of the Lord." She reached for a piece of cheesecloth and gave the prancing horse's nose a thorough cleaning. "You're doing the right thing. There's absolutely no proof."
But the right thing seemed so wrong. And the proof was in those eyes. In the dimple in that tiny chin. In that bawl that sounded as if it came all the way up from those tiny toes.
Her cell phone mocked her, daring her to do what she knew she should, and even as she made a swipe for it, she felt the pain of doubt. "Lord, I can't," sprung to her lips in a desperate plea. "I'm too old, too busy, too… You're the one who made me, so you know how terrible I am at doing more than one thing at a time. Surely you understand."
The clock over the door read exactly eleven-thirty. One hour from now the decision would be taken away from her; it would be done. All she had to do was wait it out.
Cradling the phone in her hand, she blew a fine film of dust off its black surface only to watch the particles settle on the envelope. All her dreams, the hope for a secure future, lay beneath the dust of shattered plans. Somehow, with the Lord's guidance, she could make new plans, find new dreams.
Slowly she punched in the number she'd been given last night, a number she tried to forget yet couldn't help but remember. An eternity later, the phone rang. Sessa cleared her throat and said a prayer for guidance then found her voice when a young woman answered the phone.
"I'll meet you at the bus station." Sessa hung up before she could take back the words. "I did what I should have, didn't I, Lord?"
Even as she spoke, she knew the answer. "I can do all things through Christ," she said on an exhale of breath, "who gives me strength."
"Well amen to that!"
Sessa heard high heels clicking on the concrete and knew the cavalry approached. What was it about her best friend that brought her running at the first sign of trouble, even when she had not yet been told about the trouble?
To the untrained eye, Cozette "Coco" Smith-Sutton hadn't aged a day since she reigned supreme as Sugar Pine High's head cheerleader and then married the quarterback—after he successfully completed his college career at Texas A&M and made it into the pros, of course. The fact that she'd also held the titles of Homecoming Queen, Cotton and Corn Princess, Miss Sugar Pine (twice!), and fourth runner up to Miss Texas should have disqualified her as friend material for a woman who would rather read or spend time in her father's workshop than just about anything else.
And yet Sessa and Coco, who began life together as babies in the church nursery, had defied the odds to remain closer than sisters all these years. Coco had been her rock when Ben's delivery truck rolled off the highway that icy night so long ago, had tucked Ross into bed at her place alongside her boys on nights when Sessa's work kept her in the workshop because not working would have seen the electricity turned off or the mortgage not paid.
In turn, Sessa had brought casseroles and fended off well-meaning church ladies when Coco's mama died and her daddy suddenly became the most eligible bachelor in the Over-Sixty Seekers Sunday School class. She'd also held Coco up through the long dark days and nights after media darling and NFL quarterback Ryan "The Rocket" Sutton, the man that ESPN called unstoppable, stopped loving perfect Coco and her boys and took up with a twenty-something stripper from Fort Worth.
Oh, they fought. For all her sweetness, Coco could go sour fast if she found out you were doing one of the three things she detested most: hiding something she thought she ought to know, telling a lie, or messing with Texas.
"I'm out in the workshop," Sessa called as she tossed off her gloves and swiped at the sawdust in her hair.
"Well of course you are," she said. "I was just heading to the grocery store and thought I'd see if you needed anything."
Today Coco had poured her long lean legs into white jeans, thrown a turquoise top over them, and finished the ensemble with matching turquoise high heel sandals. While Sessa's hair was moderately tamed in a messy bun, Coco's artfully created blonde ponytail looked as if it had been styled in an exclusive Hollywood salon instead by Vonnette over at the Hairport.
She dropped her keys into her signature oversized designer purse, this one the same color as her heels, and removed the sunglasses that hid her perfectly made up face. A dozen silver bracelets jangled as she rested her hand on her hip.
"Honey, you look like something the cat drug in. What's wrong?"
Right to the point. Typical Coco.
"I've been better." Sessa tossed off her gloves.
Coco's green eyes opened wide. "What has Ross done now?" She continued walking toward Sessa. "No, do not answer until I can get you inside and pour you a cup of coffee. You look like you need something stronger than that, though. A pity neither of us drinks."
"Coffee won't fix this."
"Don't be silly. Coffee fixes…wait—" Coco shook her head. "This is really bad, isn't it?"