Fifty Ways to Say I'm Pregnant
Starr Bravo, home for the summer after her first year of college, stood at the kitchen sink peeling carrots for the stew already simmering on the stove.
“Stah light, stah bwight,” chanted a small voice not far from her feet. Starr had tried teaching her half brother, Ethan, the children’s rhyme just last night. The toddler remembered the first part and seemed to think it referred to his big sister, personally. “Stah light, stah bwight…” Something with wheels rolled up the back of her bare leg.
“Hey!” She paused with a carrot half-peeled to glance over her shoulder and fake a scowl at him.
He beamed up at her as he rolled his tiny toy truck back down the side of her calf. “Vrrooom, vroom…”
“Stop that.” The words were firm, but she couldn’t keep an adoring grin from pulling at the corners of her mouth.
“Vroom, vroom…” Ethan rolled the little truck off across the floor, fat legs working at a speedy crawl.
Starr’s stepmother, Tess, was sitting at the long pine table snapping beans, Edna Heller at her side. Years ago, Edna had been the Rising Sun Ranch’s housekeeper, but now the slim woman in her fifties was just plain family—and Ethan, vrooming with enthusiasm, had his toy truck rolling straight for her left foot.
Edna crossed her ankles and scooted them under her chair. “Don’t you even try it, young man.”
“Vroom, vroom, vroom…”
Starr turned back to her carrot, peeled it swiftly clean and set it on the counter, smiling to herself, thinking how good it was to be home.
Out the window, past the flattened patches of still-green grass and the slanting roofs of the barn and the sheds, she could see the snowy crests of the Big Horn Mountains in the distance, swathed in a few white wisps of cloud. The green slopes of rolling prairie land, dotted here and there with stands of cottonwoods, lay spread below the mountains in overlapping swells of sun and shadow. Closer still, in the pasture behind the barn, a windmill whirled in the afternoon breeze, the sun catching in its vanes, making a golden blur.
As she reached for the next carrot in the pile, a pickup truck—dark green and caked with mud—rolled into the rear yard. Starr spotted the driver and forgot all about that next carrot.
She dropped her peeler in the sink.
Bold as you please, he pushed open the driver’s door and jumped to the ground. He wore dusty Wranglers and dustier boots, a faded chambray work shirt, sweat-dark along his chest, under the arms and down his back. His battered straw Resistol shaded his features, but she knew him anyway. Knew the strong, wide set of his shoulders, the lean hard waist, the long, muscled legs…
Yeah, she knew him. Though she damn well wished she didn’t.
At the table, Ethan was driving his miniature truck in and out between the chairs. “Vroom, vroom, vroom,” he growled as he went.
Tess laughed. “Ethan John, you will get yourself stepped on.”
“Vroom, vrrrooom, vrroooommmm…”
Outside, some other cowpuncher Starr didn’t recognize got out on the passenger side and went around to the tailgate. Beau joined him. The two of them pulled on work gloves and started unloading the fencing wire and posts piled high in the pickup’s bed. Quickly and methodically, they set to stacking everything against the side of the barn.
Starr watched them for a while, kind of simmering inside. In spite of being a rotten lying jerk as a person, Beau was a good worker, strong and always with his mind on the job, never a wasted movement. She could practically see the muscles flexing under that sweat-stained shirt….
She grabbed a towel. “Beau Tisdale is here.” Wiping her hands, she turned to the women at the table, trying with all her might to keep her voice offhand. “He’s got a pickup piled with fence wire and posts, which he is in the process of unloading as I speak.”
Tess and Edna shared a look—and then they both went back to snapping those beans. “Oh, yes,” said Tess, her eyes on the bean she was snapping and her voice as studiously casual as Starr’s had tried to be. “Daniel got some kind of deal from the suppliers on fixed-knot fence. It’s more expensive than barbed wire, but safer for the stock. Lasts longer, too, they say. Daniel and Beau convinced your father to give it a try. So I’d imagine Beau’s just bringing some of it by.”
Daniel Hart, an old guy with no family to speak of, owned a nearby ranch. A couple of years ago, when Beau was fresh out of the slammer, he’d hired on with Mr. Hart. The job, evidently, had worked out just fine.
“Well, isn’t that just so helpful of Beau,” Starr said, ladling on the saccharine. She tipped her chin at a defiant angle. Yeah, she had an attitude when it came to Beau—and she didn’t care who knew it, either.
“Yes, it is,” said her stepmother, curly dark head bowed over those beans. “Very helpful.”
Tossing the towel aside, Starr whirled back to the window and snatched up her peeler. Slammer, she thought the word again, with relish, as she grabbed the next carrot and began scraping away. Fresh out of the slammer ...
She made short work of the carrot and the next one, too. In no time the carrots were all done. She started in on a big potato. Beyond the window, Beau and the unknown cowboy were unloading the last of the fencing materials.
And okay, if you wanted to be strictly factual about it, Beau had gone to the state honor farm and not the penitentiary when he did his time. He’d gotten that break because both Tess and Zach, Starr’s dad, had spoken up for him at the trial. Starr only called it the slammer secretly, to herself. Yeah, it was mean-spirited of her—but she figured she had a right to be a little bit mean-spirited where Beau Tisdale was concerned.
Her father had done a lot for Beau, standing up for him in court like that, after what Beau did. And then, when Beau got out, her dad had been the one who set him up with the job at the Hart place.
Ferociously, Starr scraped away potato skin, baring the naked white meat beneath.
And this wasn’t the first time in the past few years that she’d seen Beau around the Rising Sun. She gouged at one of the stubborn eyes that dotted the otherwise smooth peeled surface. Oh, yeah, she’d seen him and her dad together, out leaning on the horse pasture fence, side-by-side. And more than once, she’d spotted Beau riding in with the hands after a long day’s work poisoning weeds or scattering bulls or doing God knew what all.
Yeah, okay. In a lot of ways, ranching was a community endeavor. Folks from different ranches worked together to get the tough stuff done. But this was more than that. When she was home for Easter, she’d even seen her dad patting Beau on the back. A friendly gesture. Like they were good pals or something….
Tess and her dad were fine people. They would always do what they could to help the disadvantaged. Starr was proud of them for that, and she had no problem with them making it so Beau didn’t have to do hard time. She could even accept her dad’s finding him a job, giving him a new start. But her dad making friends with him? That was one step too far.
“You’re going to mangle that poor potato until there’s not a thing left of it.”
Starr froze in mid-gouge. She’d been so absorbed in her fury at Beau, she hadn’t even heard her stepmother approach.
“Starr…” Tess’s soft voice soothed and reproached at the same time. Starr gritted her teeth and went on gouging eyes—until Tess’s slim, work-roughened hand came around and settled over her own. “Come on, give me that potato…”
Outside, Beau and the other hand were getting back into the cab. Doors slammed, one and then the other.
“Fine. Take it.” She slapped the potato into Tess’s hand and threw the peeler in the sink. Outside, the dirty green pickup drove off. Flipping on the tap, she swiftly rinsed her hands and grabbed for the towel again. “I could use a break, anyway.”
She tossed the towel on the counter and marched out of there, ignoring the way Ethan sat chewing on his toy truck, staring at her with wide, bewildered eyes and Edna pursed up her mouth and shook her head over her beans—and Tess just stood there, looking worried, the peeled, gouged potato still cradled in her hand.
About five minutes later, Starr heard a careful tap on her door. “Starr?” Tess’s voice.
By then, Starr was beginning to feel just a little bit ashamed. No matter how angry it got her to see Beau Tisdale making himself at home on the Rising Sun, she shouldn’t have gone off like that. She wasn’t the sulky, messed-up kid she’d once been. Now, besides being someone you could count on and a straight-A student, she took pride in being the kind of person who never descended to throwing fits, or flying off the handle when something bugged her.
“May I come in?” Tess asked from the other side of the door.
“Yeah,” Starr said grudgingly. “Okay, come on.”
Tess slipped around the door and closed it behind her by leaning back against it, one hand still on the knob. “You okay?”
Starr let a good thirty seconds elapse before answering. She spent the time tugging at the hem of her shorts and pretending to study the swirling blue-and-purple pattern on her bedspread. Tess had sewn the spread for her—along with the dark-blue curtains—when Starr was sixteen and came back to live at the Rising Sun.
“Yeah,” Starr gave out, at last. “I’m okay.”
Cautiously, Tess approached the bed. Starr signaled her willingness to talk by sliding over and making a space for her. Tess took the space, settling into it so gently that the mattress hardly shifted.
After that, for a minute or two, they just sat there, neither seeming to know quite where to begin.
Tess broke the silence. “Those curtains…” She nudged Starr and indicated the curtains she had made three years before. “I was hanging them when I looked down into the rear yard and saw you and Beau going into the barn…”
“God.” Starr dropped her head back and groaned at the ceiling. “Do you have to remind me of that day—let alone of that guy?”
Tess wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave an encouraging squeeze. “Well, yes. I think I do. I think maybe this is something we’ve waited a little too long to talk about.”
Hurt welled up, making her throat feel too tight. She jerked out of the comforting circle of Tess’s arm and hitched a leg up on the bed, facing her stepmother more fully. “I just don’t get it, you know? Dad’s like ... his friend now. How can Dad do that, after what Beau Tisdale did to me?”
“Oh, honey…” Tess reached out again.
Starr ducked away. “Uh-uh. Don’t try to make it all better. It’s not all better. You were there. You were the one who caught us together. And you were there later, too, in the yard, after Dad told him to go. You saw how he threw my heart down on the ground and stomped on it with his worn-out old boot.”
Starr threw up both hands. “Don’t…make any excuses for him.”
“Uh-uh. No.” They stared at each other, and then Starr allowed, “Okay. I know it wasn’t really his fault, that thing with his awful brothers making him sit point for them while they rustled our cattle. I know he turned it around there at the end, went against his brothers and helped you take them in. I can understand, I really can, why you and Dad stood up for him at court over that. And why Dad set him up with old man Hart. But the other…what happened the day before you and Dad caught Beau and his brothers out by the Farley breaks. What happened…with Beau and me…” The old hurt felt so new and fresh at that moment, it closed off her throat and stole the rest of the words right out of her mouth. She hung her head and blinked back tears—stupid, pointless tears, for man who didn’t deserve them.
Light as a warm breeze, Tess’s hand stroked her hair. Starr lifted her head. “Tess, I trusted him — and three years ago, you know how I was. I didn’t trust anyone then. But I did trust Beau. And he took my trust and threw it back in my face.”
Tess spoke softly. “Honey, I think there was more to it than that. I think it’s time you started to look at what happened through the eyes of a woman, because you are becoming a woman now, and a fine one. You are no longer that same hurt, confused girl you were then.”
“What are you talking about? You were there. You saw. He did it right out in the yard, with you and Dad and probably Edna and any ranch hand who bothered to look out his trailer window watching while it happened.”
“No!” She shook her head, hard. “How can you make excuses for him? You know what he did.” Oh, she could still remember it like it was yesterday—a hot day, in June, a day kind of like this one…
Her own heart pounding hard in her ears, Starr came running down the stairs, Tess following after her. She ran straight through the great room and out to the entrance hall, flinging back the front door and racing out to the porch.
Across the yard, the door to Beau's trailer opened. Her dad came out. He started up the driveway, heading for the back of the house. But when he saw her on the porch, he changed direction and came straight to the foot of the front steps. "What's the matter?"
Starr leaned on the porch rail, tears pushing at the back of her throat. “Daddy, what happened? Did you talk to him? Did he tell you—?”
“Starr.” Her dad had a tired look, his tanned face drawn and tight-lipped. “I thought you said you'd stay in your room.”
“I couldn't,” she cried. “I had to know. Did he tell you, how we have something special between us? Do you understand now that he never meant anything wrong to happen, that he—?”
“Starr. Beau is leaving. I'm going to go get his pay and then he’ll be gone.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She gaped at her father. “What? No. You can’t do that. That’s not right, not fair....” She pushed away from the railing and darted to the steps.
Her dad blocked her path. “Go back upstairs.”
Why wouldn’t he understand? Why couldn’t he see? “I have to talk to him.”
“No, you don't. Just let the damn fool go.”
Hot fury swirled through her, that he would speak of Beau that way. “He is not a fool! He...he cares for me, that’s all. He just wanted to be with me, like I want to be with him.”
It was all there in her dad’s sad eyes: that she was sixteen and Beau was twenty-one, that she was a Bravo and Beau was one of those shiftless, no-good Tisdales…
Unfair. It was so unfair. She’d told him that she’d never had sex with any guy, whatever everybody seemed to think of her—that she and Beau hadn’t done anything but kissing out there in the barn, that, yeah, Beau had unbuttoned her shirt. But that was all. It hadn’t gone any farther.
“Starr,” her dad said. “Go upstairs.”
No way. She dodged to slide around him, but he seemed to sense she would do it and stepped in her path once more. She ran square into his chest as he grabbed her by both arms.
“No!” she cried, shouting now. She had to get through him, had to get to Beau. “Let me go!” she screamed. “Let me talk to him!”
“Starr, listen.” Her dad’s big hands held on tight, though she kicked and squirmed and beat on his chest. “Starr. Settle down.”
She was wild by then, twisting and flailing. “No! I won’t! I won’t! Let me go!”
From behind her, Tess said, “He’s coming.”
Her dad swore. Starr froze and craned around him to see. Beau was coming out of his trailer across the yard. “Beau!” she called, all her desperate yearning there in his name. “Beau, he won’t let me talk to you!” She tried again to break free, catching her dad off-guard, sliding around him, almost succeeding that time. But somehow, he managed to catch one arm as she flew by. He hauled her back against his chest, grabbing the other arm, too, holding her like that, with her arms behind her as she yanked and squirmed and tried to kick back at him, to get herself free, to run to Beau.
Beau came at them, fast, long strides stirring the dirt under his boots. He stopped a few feet from where Starr stood, with her father holding her arms and her body yearning toward him.
She saw the bruise then—a big, mean one on Beau’s chin, and she gasped in outrage. “Beau. He hit you!” She turned a hot glare over her shoulder, at her dad.
Beau said, his voice flat with no caring in it, “Forget it. It’s nothing.”
She swung her head front, facing Beau again and she gave him her outrage, her fury for his sake. “No. He had no right to hit you! You didn’t do anything wrong. He can't—”
“Starr.” His eyes were so cold. She couldn’t see the man she’d thought she loved in them anywhere. “He had a right.”
“No!” It came out all ragged, a cry of pure distress. She’d stopped struggling to get free of her dad’s grip. Now, she just stood there and looked at Beau, at his dead eyes and his expressionless face. Oh, where are you? her heart cried. Where have you gone to? What are you telling me?
Slowly, Beau smiled. A knowing smile—knowing and ugly. And then, very low, he chuckled. It was a dirty, insulting sound.
“Tisdale,” Her dad warned in a growl.
“Zach,” Tess said from back on the porch. “Let him tell her.”
For a moment nothing happened, then, with no warning, her dad let go of her. She staggered a little at the sudden lack of restraint and reached out toward Beau. “Beau, please—”
He cut her off, his tone evil with nasty, intimate humor. “You thought you'd heard every line, didn't you, big-city girl? Heard ‘em all and never fell for a one. But the lonesome cowboy routine got you goin’, didn’t it?”
This couldn’t be happening. “Wh—what are you saying?”
He made a low, smug sound. “You know damn well what I’m saying.”
She shook her head, fiercely, as if she could shake his cruel words right out of her head. “No....”
“’Fraid so.” Beau lowered his voice, as if sharing a dirty secret with her. “Come on, you know how guys are.”
Starr kept shaking her head. “No! You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. All those things you said—”
He shrugged. “They didn't mean squat. I was after one thing. And we both know what that was.”
“No…” She only got it out on a whisper that time.
Beau went on smiling that mean, hurtful smile. “Yeah.”
Her dad cut in then. “Okay, enough. Go on, Tisdale. Around back. I’ll get your money.”
And without another word to her, Beau turned and walked away.
“It hurt, Tess,” Starr said, softly now, head bowed again, shoulders slumped. “I don’t think you know how much it hurt…”
Tess didn’t argue. She only reached out and brushed a hand against Starr’s arm, a gesture that spoke better than words could have—of comfort, of understanding….
Starr faced her stepmother again. “And it…shamed me, so bad. To have him say those terrible things. And right in front of everyone, too.”
“I know it did,” Tess whispered. “And…I am so sorry.”
Starr made a low sound. “Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault.”
Tess pressed her lips together. And then she sighed. “You’re wrong there. It was my fault. At least a little.”
“But how?” Starr blinked. “No. I don’t see how you can say that.”
Tess sat up just a fraction straighter. “I say it because it’s true. Zach would have stopped Beau from saying those things. But I told your father to let Beau go ahead.” She paused, looking deeply into Starr’s eyes. “Don’t you remember?”
Starr looked away. She was back out in the yard again, on that day three years ago, in the process of getting her poor heart broken. “Zach,” Tess had said. “Let him tell her ...”
“Yeah.” She turned to Tess again. “I remember. But that doesn’t put you at fault.”
Tess raised a hand. “Yes. In a way, it does. Because I knew what Beau would say. I knew what he was trying to do. And I thought it was the best thing for you, to go ahead and let him do it. Let him hurt and shame you so bad that your powerful feeling for him would sour into hate, that you’d never want to speak to him again, and most important, that you wouldn’t go ruining your life chasing after him…”
“Well, so? You were right. I needed to hear him say what he said. I needed to hear from his own lying mouth what a dirty low-down rat he is. You had it right, that’s all. If he hadn’t said those things, I just might have wrecked my life running after him.”
“But you didn’t run after him,” Tess said with a rueful kind of smile half curving her mouth. “And since then, you’ve pretty much turned your life around, haven’t you?”
“Well, yeah.” She made a humphing sound. She had been flunking school the year before, running pretty wild down in San Diego, with the money her mother threw at her to keep her out of her hair—and no supervision at all. “Okay,” she admitted. “I guess in a twisted sort of way, Beau did me a favor. Those rotten things he said made me want nothing to do with him. And since he landed himself in jail not long after that, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I set my mind on making my life something better than it was then. So, okay. If you look it that way, he did me a big favor.”
Tess’s smile stretched a little wider. “He did, didn’t he?”
“But it doesn’t make him any less of a creep. Yeah, he helped me, in a backhanded way. But it wasn’t like he said those things for my sake or anything.”
Tess wasn’t smiling by then. “But Starr. What if that’s exactly what he did? What if he hurt you because he knew it would set you free?”
Starr blinked and scooted back a little. She had a shivery feeling down inside, a kind of giddy strangeness in her stomach. “No. You don’t really think…”
“Yes, I do. I suspected it then. But now, after seeing the way he’s managed to make something of his own life against near-impossible odds, I’m pretty much positive he said what he said for your sake. He knew he was in big trouble, Starr. His brothers were up to no good, and they’d been battering and abusing him for so long, he had a real hard time standing up to them. He was headed for trouble with the law, and he knew it—and he didn’t want to drag you down with him.”
The hurt, cold place at the center of her heart felt somehow a little bit warmer right then. “You think?”
“I do.” Tess reached out and pressed a loving hand against the side of Starr’s face. “So. Maybe you can find it in your heart to forgive the guy a little?”
Starr took Tess’s cradling hand and gave it a squeeze before letting go. “You know, you are…a real mom to me.”
Tess’s lower lip trembled just a little. “Why, honey. What a beautiful thing to say.”
“It’s only the truth—and I know how you are. So respectful of my mother’s place in my life. So I want you to know it’s nothing against my mother’s memory, I promise.” Starr’s natural mother had lived in San Diego with her much-older, very wealthy second husband—until she’d died in a freeway pileup two years before. When Starr thought of Leila Wickerston Bravo Marks, it was always with a feeling of sad regret—that they’d never shared the kind of closeness that Starr had with Tess, that her mother had never understood her, and never had much time for her. Leila had lavished money on Starr, but love and attention were always in short supply.
“My mother was my mother,” Starr said, trying not to sound as grim as the subject always made her feel. “I know that—and about Beau…”
“I’ll think about what you said. I can kind of see the sense in it. And I do know that Beau has worked hard to make a life for himself after the mess he started out with. I guess he doesn’t need to have me staring daggers at his back every time he comes around.”
Tess leaned close enough to brush a kiss right between Starr’s eyes. When she pulled back, a tear was trailing down her soft cheek. She swiped it away with the back of a hand. “I am so proud of you. And so is your dad.” She reached out again and smoothed a hank of Starr’s hair, guiding it back behind her ear. Then she grinned. “But I have to say, I kind of miss that rhinestone you used wear in your nose.”
Starr gave her a sideways look. “Hey. I’ve still got the navel ring—and a tiny ladybug tattoo right on my—”
“Don’t”—Tess put up a hand— “mention that to your dad.”
Starr wiggled her eyebrows. “He doesn’t ask, I don’t tell…”
Tess laughed at that, a happy, trilling laugh. Starr thought how good it was to know her, that Tess was not only the mother she’d always needed, Tess was also a true friend. Tess jumped off the bed. “Come on.” She brushed at the front of her jeans, as if they’d managed to get wrinkles in them somehow. “There are beans to snap, potatoes to peel—and tonight, if you’re lucky, you, Jobeth, Edna and I will fight to the death in a brutal game of Scrabble.” Jobeth was Tess’s daughter by her first husband. She was eleven now, and right where she wanted to be—out with Zach, who had adopted her that first year he and Tess got together. Jobeth loved every aspect of ranching, from pulling calves to branding to gathering day.
Starr groaned. “It’s a thrill a minute around this place.”
Tess was already at the door. “Coming?”
Starr smiled then. “You know what? It’s great to be home.”
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