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Chapter One


About four hours after he'd fallen asleep, Ace Journey woke up naturally. He never slept long, but always woke refreshed. It was dark outside, and ghostly moonbeams from gaps in the window drapes touched the furnishings. It was 5:00 AM and time to get busy for the day. Work on the ranch started early.

He switched on a bedside light and looked over at his sleeping wife. Gabby was uncovered, lying on her stomach, as she was wont to do after a serious spanking. Though her bottom had been bright red after he'd taken her over his lap the night before, it was pristine white now, unblemished and pleasantly curvy where it peeked out from under her very short nightie.

The erection he almost always awoke with throbbed and ached for her. It seemed like he never got enough of her sweet body and mischievous ways. And today was her birthday: twenty-three. He'd given her a birthday spanking just after midnight to celebrate. They'd followed that up with something erotic and had gone to sleep curled up together. These were moments he didn't want to give up, and he was afraid of what they were going to embark upon. Afraid it would change their relationship forever.

Ace wasn't used to jealousy and he tamped it down firmly. It was wrong to anticipate it and self-destructive. They'd made an agreement, an agreement he approved of. It was right, it was appropriate, it was something he wanted. It was time.

As he watched Gabby breathe gently there on the twisted sheets, he realized that the changes he anticipated, the ones that went along with having children, would be another worthwhile life experience. He wanted children. Gabby was eager for them. Sharing her with them was inevitable and he could deal with it. The idea of a passel of naughty little Gabbys running around the ranch made him smile.

He turned to her and glided a hand over her firm bottom and up her flank until he was tangling his fingers in her long, wavy chestnut hair. She sighed and slowly reached behind her, looking for the warm body that pressed up against her. Gabby found his hard prick and gripped him.

"Good morning," she mumbled softly.

"Gettin' better every minute," he whispered against the back of her neck.

Stroking him, she pressed her bottom back against him more firmly. Her hand was doing wicked things to him. He didn't want to take her slow and careful like the night before. He wanted her hard, writhing beneath him. And the idea of taking her bareback affected him as well. He hadn't had a woman without a condom since he lost his virginity some twenty-four years ago. There had only been the one time, too, a moment of overwhelming hormones and teenage frenzy. He'd been lucky that time, and had used protection ever since. So many years of wrapping his dick in latex before burying it deep in a lover's pussy. The sensation of taking his lover, his precious wife, completely naked made him all the more eager. Like being that teenage boy again, though he was no longer a green boy at nearly forty-one.

Ace disengaged from her hand and rolled her over onto her back, easing her out of her nightie as he did. She was so beautiful, his Gabby. So young and firm, padded in all the right places. She had a loving, loyal heart and joyful spirit as well. She'd make a wonderful mother. He only hoped he could do his part as well as she.

As he moved to kneel between her thighs, Gabby smiled up at him and reached out to caress his thick biceps. Hard work on the ranch kept him in shape and he knew he'd be like his father, hard and lean for life. He had a trick knee, due to bull-riding in his youth, but it was a minor thing that didn't slow him down. Ace wouldn't let it.

He spread Gabby's knees and stabilized his position, moving his hands up her soft stomach to her breasts. Kneading her breasts until she moaned, Ace pinched her nipples, his excitement burning him up from inside.

She smiled and tossed her head, murmuring encouragement.

"Spank," she suggested. "I want it. You know how I-" Her sentence was interrupted by his hard hand coming down between her legs, smacking her wet pussy and making her gasp.

"Oh! Yes!"

"Mmm," he replied, spanking her again a few times. Her lower lips took on a rosier color and her clit swelled out of its hood, asking for more. Ace wanted nothing so much as to bury himself deep in her. He slapped once more, and then several more times, and Gabby moaned and writhed, her nails digging into his arms. He couldn't wait any longer, she was wet, eager, moaning his name.

Ace pressed her knees toward her chest and with a strong, hard thrust, buried himself deep. The sensation was exquisite. Her body conformed to him like a glove, all smooth and hot and wet. Pausing to get his control back, he watched realization come over her lovely face, followed by a slow, sensuous smile.

"It's my birthday," she whispered.

"Yeah, li'l girl. I didn't forget my promise."

"God, Ace, it feels so good. More."

He slid out and immediately speared her again. She bit her lower lip and moaned, wriggling her hips, pressing herself against his balls, opening herself even wider. Ace watched her face as he thrust, his movements forceful and arrhythmic and his saint's medallion bouncing slightly on his chest—tap, tap, tap. He liked keeping her on the edge, liked the sensation of control it gave him over the both of them. But his control was slipping, as it inevitably did when making love to his wife. His actions got more vigorous, almost violent, the sensation of her tender flesh around him while he fucked her too good to ignore or resist.

Ace's balls tightened, his body was on fire, and he watched his prick enter and leave her reddened pussy with wonder at the wetness on his flesh. His flesh!

It was more than he could bear, but bear it he would until she reached her peak. It took only minutes, thank God, and she pressed her hips up toward him as she cried out. Her pussy spasmed around him, grasping his bare cock with hungry intensity.

The waiting was over. With one final, violent thrust, he buried himself in her to the hilt and came. The moment lasted forever and yet only a few seconds as he gave the urge its due with a rumbling groan of pure pleasure.

Sweat beading on his chest, he watched her come down from her pinnacle and wriggle against him, coaxing a little more precious fluid from his trembling cock.

"Mmm, Ace. I love you so much. Thank you."

"My pleasure, ma'am." His voice was hoarse, his breathing coming back to normal slowly. "I could grow to like this just fine."

She giggled. "Good." As he withdrew, she sighed. "I hate it when you go."

Ace leaned back on his heels and pushed a lock of shaggy hair off his forehead. "Work to do, li'l girl."

"Right. Can we cuddle for a minute, though?"

"It's your birthday, sweetheart. We can cuddle for two minutes," he teased.

"Two whole minutes! You're gonna spoil me, Mr. Journey."

They arranged themselves comfortably, her head on his shoulder, and he held her tight against his side. "I'll take that chance. I'm a gamblin' man."

The bedside phone rang. Ace frowned. Who'd be calling at 5:40 AM? He knew his father would be out on the property already—he was an even earlier riser than Ace—so he picked up the phone and pressed it to his ear.

"Journey," he said simply.

"Is this Ace?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's mighty early for a social call. Is there a problem?"

"Si," she said, switching to Spanish. "This is Marguerita Rivera. I have bad news."

Ace sat up immediately, tense and ready, answering her in Spanish. "Is something wrong with Consuelo?"

Consuelo, Marguerita's sister, was the Journey family housekeeper, often the siblings' substitute mother over the years since their own had died. She was dear and vital to their family and they loved her as though she was a full relation. She was visiting her sister for a few days.

Marguerita hesitated a moment. It seemed like she was gathering her thoughts, finding a way to say whatever she had to say. Ace wanted to prompt her to spit it out, tell him her news. "Consuelo had a heart attack late last night. She's in intensive care over at Hudspeth hospital. They wanted to airlift her to San Antonio, but they had the one intensive care bed open, and I thought…I thought she'd want to stay close to home. That you'd want her to be close by…in case."

"Damn," he said, stomping on the panic that spread through him. Consuelo was five or six years younger than his father. She wasn't a young woman any longer, resilient and able to heal fast. This danger to her was serious. The thought of losing Consuelo brought back all the horrible memories of losing his mother. He'd been twenty, all his brothers and sisters younger—Jackie had been only two--and their mother's slow death had been devastating.

"Is she… How serious is it?"

Marguerita's voice, so collected before now shook a bit. "A heart attack…she could die, Ace."

"We'll be there right away."

"Gracias."

He said his good-byes, anxious to get off the phone and into his truck. But first, he had to find his father. Ace and Gabby's suite was just down the hall from Leo Journey, but they respected each other's privacy carefully. Ace didn't know where on the ranch his father was exactly.

Gabby, attuned to his moods, put a hand on his back. "What's wrong?"

"It's Consuelo," he told her. "She's in intensive care at Hudspeth." He punched a number into the phone and listened to it ring several times then go to voicemail. His father must have forgotten to put the phone in his pocket, or he didn't hear it ringing. That was common enough. "Shit. He's not answering. I have to tell Dad."

Gabby turned and rose from the bed as he did. "I'll help."

* * *

After dressing and hurrying outside, it took Ace another twenty minutes to triangulate from the ranch hands' directions to his father. He was out at the farthest barn, inspecting some baling equipment. Ace rushed to him and Leo looked up from the gearbox he was working on.

"Dad, we need to get to Sonora."

Leo straightened and put down his tools. "What's wrong?"

"Consuelo is in the hospital. She's had a heart attack."

Ace's heart sank as the color drained out of his strong and able father's lined face. The overhead fluorescent lights made him look gray and all of his almost seventy years. "When?"

"Late last night, according to Marguerita."

Leo rubbed a hand over his cheek, smooth after his morning shave. "How bad?"

"Bad. We need to get over there."

Pulling a red rag from a pile of gears nearby, Leo wiped his dirty hands and squared his shoulders. Ace watched proudly as his father gathered himself up and rose to the challenge at hand.

"We'll take my truck," he said, throwing the rag back.

* * *

Ace grabbed his cellphone and his wife, and the three got into Leo's big, black truck and headed for the nearest town, Sonora, Texas, population 4,000, give or take a few. On the way, Ace called Pete Kaminsky, his baby sister Jackie's new husband and the rural doctor outside of Sonora. He asked the man to do what he could to find out Consuelo's particulars and let him know what to expect. Ace wanted to be prepared.

When he hung up, Leo gave him a hard stare. "What did you do that for?"

"He's a doctor, Dad. I reckon he has hospital connections. He knows the doctors who are carin' for Connie. He can interpret their doctor-speak."

"Why the hell did I get that fancy degree in animal science for you for if you don't even know how a heart attack works? Gettin’ other folks riled up before we’ve had a chance to use our own eyes makes me wonder if you ain’t lost your sense."

Ace felt an emotional spear plunge into him. His Dad never spoke to him that way. They had a partnership, an arrangement. As the oldest boy, Ace had been expected to take over the ranch as his father got older. Leo had done it for his own father, the same as had happened two generations before that. Journeys had owned Journey's End ranch since the early 1800s. It suited Ace to continue the progression and he'd gone to college to learn animal husbandry and ranch ecology to make a difference on the ranch. His father had never questioned his capabilities before, and it seemed quite unreasonable now. Ace bristled in response.

"I ain't a doctor, Dad. I know cows and combines, not the inside workin's of people. People aren't the same as horses or cows."

Leo, still frowning, moved his hands on the steering wheel, his grip hard. Ace had never seen his father so unsettled, not since his mother had passed away. Leo grunted. "Mammals is mammals, boy. You spent too much time in the college cantina rather than studyin', is all. Waste of money and time to send you there."

"I been out of college for more'n fifteen years and this is the first you've said about it," Ace said, jaw tightening. "And, I reckon I ought to remind you, I paid for that education myself with my bull ridin' winnin's."

Leo didn't respond, his eyes riveted to the road.

The sun was cresting the horizon and the shadows were long and purplish in the surrounding fields. They passed a field being irrigated and the smell of water and wet greenery came in through the truck's ventilation system. Ace took a deep breath, tried to focus on the fresh, sweet smell and worked at calming down. It wouldn't help matters to be mad at Leo.

* * *

When they got to the small, local hospital, Leo took charge and got them ushered to the family waiting room on the ward where Consuelo was being tended. Ace worried over whether she was getting the best care. The hospital had fewer than a dozen beds and though they were efficient and friendly, if she was seriously ill, maybe San Antonio was a better place for her. Still, it was hours away from the ranch and who knows what could happen while they were in transit between Journey's End and San Antonio.

Leo was allowed to go to her first. Only one person at a time, the nurse explained. Grim-faced, Leo strode out of the room, his booted feet making heavy thuds on the linoleum in the hallway as he left.

Gabby took Ace's hand and he gave hers a squeeze. He didn't want to show how upset he was. Gabby would understand, of course. Her mother had been in the hospital numerous times for a variety of ailments, but Ace wasn't used to showing weakness and so he kept himself together as best he could.

They waited. Leo had been gone half an hour before Gabby said anything. "Do you think there's something wrong, Ace?"

"I don't rightly know, li'l girl. I think they'd have come to tell us if thin's had taken a turn for the worse."

She nodded. "I'm sorry this is happening. I know, with your mother and all…"

He gave her a tight smile, feeling like his thick moustache was weighing down his upper lip. "It's okay. This ain't the same as that. Connie's a stubborn old hen. She'll pull through."

Gabby nodded again.

"I'm sorry about your birthday, li'l girl. I know this ain't the way you intended to spend it."

Genuine surprised popped her eyes open wider. "Oh, Ace! My birthday is so unimportant compared to Connie's health."

Ace's heart lurched and swelled. He was a very lucky man to have Gabby for his wife. Some city women would have resented the family's affection for their Mexican housekeeper, but she embraced Connie with an open heart. Ace felt her concern for the older woman and was touched by it. "I got you a present," he told her.

Her cheeks got a little pink. "You already gave me the best present of all. I don't need more."

Ace squeezed her hand again. "That was for the both of us, honey. I got you somethin' just for you."

A sweet smile stole over her. "What is it?"

"A locket." He felt a little foolish. Handing it to her had been something he'd looked forward to ever since he had the necklace made. But he didn't have it with him, and this would not have been the time or place to bestow it upon her. Still, he wanted to let her know how much she meant to him. "It's for tiny, li'l pictures. I figured you could put photos of our children in it. Assumin' God blesses us with 'em."

Tears glittered in her soft, brown eyes. "Oh, Ace." Her voice was ragged and gentle. "Oh, Ace. The thought is so…so…amazingly sweet. You are the best husband. I can't imagine being with anyone else in the whole wide world."

The compliment felt good, but a little embarrassing, too. "Well," he said. "I ain't got it with me, and for that I'm sorry. It's at home, though. After…all of this is stabilized, we'll go have us a moment to gawk at it."

She smiled again; it was a sweet smile, and she gripped his big hand in both of her small ones. "I look forward to it. Thank you."

He held her hand silently, and once again they waited. After a while, they heard Leo's heavy footfalls in the corridor and a moment later he entered the small room. "She's sleepin'," he told them as he sat stiffly in one of the wood-framed chairs. "All wired up like a hay baler with a broke gear."

Ace wasn't surprised, but he didn't like the sound of it at all. "Did you see the doctor?"

"No, but the nurse told me that Pete had called. Not that it got me any more information than I had before," he said gruffly. "I hate this not knowin'."

"Me, too, Dad. I was waitin' to have more information before I called the others, but I reckon I'd best make those calls anyway."

"Don't you go rilin' up your brothers and sisters, boy."

Ace stiffened. "This is Connie, Dad. They need to know."

"She'll be okay. It'll all be a fuss for nothin'."

Incredulous, Ace asked, "You think this is nothin'?"

A sad stubbornness washed over Leo's stern features. "Of course. Connie ain't gonna let this keep her down long."

Ace stared at him for a long moment. His dad was hip deep in denial; it was completely out of character. Leo was a practical, forthright man, a man who took the bull by the horns and wrestled him to the ground. It worried Ace deeply to see Leo so shaken. "Yeah, of course, Dad. I'm sure you're right. But, just to be safe, I'd best call the others."

"They'll all come down to Sonora like a stampede, Ace. It's not necessary."

"Whyn't you let them decide if it's a waste of their time? I won't embellish, you know that. But, Dad, this is serious and if anythin' further happens to Connie, they'd never forgive me for not keepin' them appraised of the situation. They deserve to know. They love her, too. Same as you 'n me."

Leo's shoulders sagged a bit, though he was still rigid in his seat. "Yeah, okay. But don't you go tellin' them all to high-tail it into town. They got lives to live."

They heard voices in the corridor and all three looked up as a man in a white lab coat entered the room. He was a man in his fifties who carried himself well and had an air of authority. His sandy hair had receded from his forehead, but he wore a good-quality shirt and tie and well-made boots. "I'm Doctor Stokes. You're the Journeys?"

Ace stood up and offered his hand. Leo did the same a second later. "I'm Ace Journey," he told the doctor. "And this is Leo Journey, my father." He gestured. "My wife, Gabby."

The doctor nodded, but didn't smile. "I'm sure you want to know about Consuelo."

"Is she gonna be okay?" Ace asked. His father was staring with near hostility toward the doctor as if this was all the man's fault.

"I explained her condition to her sister."

"Oh. Well, I only had a short conversation with her," Ace explained. "I don't know where she is."

"I sent her home to get a couple of hours of sleep. She was quite upset and had been here all night. I'm a bit surprised she took my advice."

Sympathetic as he was toward Marguerita's upset, and grateful as he was for her call to him, Ace's primary concern was for Consuelo and he wanted straight answers. "Do you mind tellin' use about her condition? We're like family to Connie."

"I can give you a general update. I have to keep patient confidentiality in mind. You're not direct relations, right? Marguerita said she was the only one."

Ace nodded with growing impatience. Their relationship with Consuelo was every bit as abiding as a family tie. It was incredibly frustrating to be kept in the dark. "That's true, as far as it goes, Doc. But Connie's been part of our household for more'n twenty years. She's like kin and we care about her condition."

The doctor looked at Ace, assessing him, then he looked to Leo, who stood with his arms crossed over his chest, big, intimidating despite his age. He was a Journey man and they all came tall, broad-shouldered and confident. The doctor straightened his tie and turned his gaze back to Ace. "She had a heart attack. It was a serious one. We're monitoring her carefully, but she's in and out of consciousness."

Gabby spoke up. "Will she be okay?"

"I can't make any guaranties. She needs a couple of what we call stents, and Marguerita gave us permission to do the procedure. Consuelo really should be in San Antonio, but there's a cardiologist who sometimes consults with us. He's from Austin. He should be here soon and he'll do the procedure."

Ace thought of his younger brother Deuce, who was a pediatric cardiologist. Unfortunately, he was in Houston. Too far away to be helpful on such short notice. "Okay. So, you give her these stents and then what?"

"Then she should start recovering pretty quickly. The damage to the heart muscle wasn't too bad. Assuming she gets rest and there are no complications, the prognosis is good."

"Why is she unconscious?"

"It's her body's way of starting to heal. We don't think there's any brain damage."

Ace had never considered the possibility of brain damage, but of course, if the heart wasn't pumping blood around, the brain would be starved. He shuddered to think of what might have happened.

There was a beeping sound and the doctor reached into his pocket and pulled out a pager. "The cardiologist is here. I'm sure he'll come find you when she's back in ICU."

Leo grunted. The first sound he'd made since they stood.

Doctor Stokes was irritated, but Ace drew his attention away. "Thank you, Doctor."

Stokes shook Ace's hand—Leo didn't offer his—and walked away.

Ace was furious with his father. Being hostile toward Connie's doctor wasn't going to make the man any more eager to help her. Leo had to get himself together! But Ace hadn't had to confront his father for many years. He wasn't quite sure what to say, and a part of him thought Leo would snap out of it if given time and some hope that things would be okay.

"Dad, the doc said the prognosis was good. What the hell is stuck in your craw?"

Gabby shrank back toward her chair, and Ace caught her pained expression out of the corner of his eye. Ace rarely showed his anger, but his wife knew that if he did, he was really mad.

"You watch your mouth with me, boy," Leo said, unfolding his arms from his chest.

"I ain't a boy no more, Leo." Ace tried to modulate his voice. He wasn't a yelling kind of man and this wasn't the place for an altercation anyway. "You been prickly as a barrel cactus since I told you about Connie. I can understand if you're upset—we all are—but this ain't the way to deal with it."

Leo eyed him angrily, locking his jaw tight. "Step aside, Ace."

Ace knew he was between his father and the door, and for one fleeting second, he was mad enough to consider pressing the old man into a physical confrontation. Gabby's hand on his arm calmed him down, though, and silently, he stepped aside.

"I'm goin' out for a smoke. If somethin' happens, y'all come get me," Leo told them as he headed out into the corridor.

"Wow," Gabby said as they listened to his boot heels slam the floor.

Ace took a deep breath, realizing that his hands were balled into fists. The whole morning had been a trial. And now he had to call his brothers and sisters.