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Along Came Joe

Written by Marie Ferrarella

In need of cash to save the family ranch, single dad Joe competes in a reality television show! Unfortunately, beautiful Theresa Knight is just as determined to win... 

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Chapter one

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Joe Cooper demanded.

“Don’t yell at your mother.” A sad, bemused smile curved Elaine Cooper’s lips as she looked at her firstborn. She knew he only meant well. “Sets a bad example for your son.”

Chapter One

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Joe Cooper demanded.

“Don’t yell at your mother.” A sad, bemused smile curved Elaine Cooper’s lips as she looked at her firstborn. She knew he only meant well. “Sets a bad example for your son.”

Joe lowered his voice, exasperation echoing in every syllable. “Jesse’s upstairs, trying to figure out how to be a rock star so he can impress some girl in his class. I am not yelling and don’t try to change the subject. You should have told me the county was asking you for back taxes on the ranch.”

He wouldn’t have known now, if he hadn’t stumbled across the letter in the den while looking for an old photo album. The bill had been for the astronomical sum of three hundred and forty-five thousand dollars, payable in a month’s time. Or else.

Elaine shook her head. After all this time, he still didn’t understand how mothers worked. “And what, casually toss it on top of all the trouble you were having? Your wife was dying, you were going bankrupt and trying to hold civilized life as you knew it together for Jesse’s sake. Did you expect me to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hello, son. How are you and, oh, yes, by the way, can you spare a truckload of cash because some idiot realized they’d been taxing my land at the wrong rate and now if I don’t pay them, I’m going to lose the old homestead?’”

“Something like that.” He dragged a hand through his deep brown hair and looked at his mother. “So what are you going to do?”

Elaine sighed. “I don't know. Going to bed with the county assessor doesn’t seem to be the way to go. He’s gay.” She saw the incredulous look come shooting across her son’s face. “I’m kidding. Not about the county assessor being gay. He is.” She glanced at an oil painting of her late husband hanging over the living room fireplace. Lord, but she did miss him. He would have known what to do, no matter what. “Wouldn’t want to add insult to injury.”

Humor had always been his mother’s way of dealing with things. It used to be his, as well, but he had long since lost the ability to laugh over things. Life had gotten much too serious for him in the past year.

“I’m assuming you haven’t called the guys about this, either.”

She looked at him sharply. “No, and I’m not going to. And neither are you,” she warned. “There’s nothing Max, Sean and Ryan can do, anyway. The back taxes come to almost three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Why was she being so stubborn about this? “There’s money being held in trust for each of them. Almost a half a million each according to the terms of Dad’s will,” he reminded her. He’d already gotten his share, but Sandra’s medical bills had cleaned him out. But there was more than enough still waiting for his brothers. “If any one of them had access to their resources -”

“Exactly,” his mother cut in. “Their resources, not mine. Four hundred thousand dollars for each of them — same as you.” A small woman, she straightened and squared her shoulders. “I couldn’t ask them for it. Besides, they won’t even get it until after they’re married and from what I know of my sons, even with that incentive dangling in front of them, none of them is anywhere close to tying the knot. I can’t expect them to grab some woman off the street and run off to get married because I need money.”

Joe fixed her with a look. “You’ve always been there for us.”

Elaine waved away his protest. “Sticking Band-Aids on scraped knees doesn’t quite come with a price tag of four hundred thousand dollars each for services rendered.”

“You did a hell of a lot more than that and you know it.” She was the glue that had held the family together through the lean years, the one who had instilled such a strong sense of family within him. She couldn’t expect him to just back away from that now.

“I’m sure June Cleaver wouldn’t have expected Wally and the Beaver to fork over a couple hundred thousand each, either.” Elaine smiled fondly. “More than likely, they’d throw together a lemonade stand. If you wanted to go sell lemonade on my behalf, I wouldn’t stand in your way.”

“What I want to do is save the ranch. For all of us.” But mostly for her. This was her home, he thought. The only home she’d ever known since she’d come to the Virginia horse ranch as a new bride.

Elaine sighed, looking out the bay window that faced the back of her property. The view stretched out forever, taking in the stables, the lush grass, the corral where she and her husband and then her sons had trained the horses. How much longer was she going to be able to see it? How much longer was this going to be hers? She didn’t want to think about that.

“So do I, dear, so do I. But right now, I am fresh out of ideas. The tooth fairy doesn’t leave that kind of money under the pillow when she makes her rounds, and I certainly can’t get a loan from the bank.”

And it went without saying that he wasn’t exactly a candidate for floating one, either. At least, not for the kind of money it would take to placate the county tax assessor.

There was a little more than five hundred dollars in his bank account. What the stock market hadn’t eroded from his holdings, Sandra’s medical bills had eaten up. They had exceeded by far anything that their health insurance was contracted to pay out. That was why he and Jesse had to come back to the ranch to stay after her death. He’d sold everything to get out of debt and had nowhere else to turn.

His mother had welcomed them both with open arms, telling him that this was their home and always would be.

Apparently, “always” was going to have a finite duration if the county had its way.

Joe frowned. He felt like someone caught up in an old fashioned melodrama. He needed to save the old homestead from being sold right out from under them.

That the responsibility wasn’t solely his had never crossed his mind. He was the oldest; it was his job to look out for his mother and her interests. At bottom, that was what he was about — making sure those he loved were cared for, were all right.

Right now, he wasn’t doing his job very well. He’d spent months helplessly watching his wife deteriorate without being able to do anything to change that. Impotently watched as bills ate his money, money that had been earmarked for Jesse’s college education, for a better life for his son.

He hadn’t been able to help Sandra, hadn’t been able to keep his inheritance from eroding, but there damn well had to be something he could do here.

He tried to think of options and found himself facing nothing but a brick wall. But people scaled walls. He used to as a kid. “There’s got to be a way to raise money.”

Elaine nodded. She placed her hand on his arm, trying to mutely tell him it was all right, that this was her fight, not his.

“Maybe there is.”

They both turned to see that Jesse was standing in the doorway, his worn sneakers planted on the highly polished wooden floor. His son was clutching a newspaper in his hand.

“Don't you know any better than to come sneaking up on your dad and grandmother?” Joe asked.

“I wasn’t sneaking,” the eight-year-old said defensively. “You were talking loud.”

Elaine gave Joe a look that all but audibly declared, “See?”

Joe beckoned his son over to the sofa. “How could you hear me over that guitar you’ve been torturing?”

Jesse ignored his father’s question. Instead, he held up the newspaper he’d brought down. There’d been an ad for a video game he wanted in it, but what he’d heard had made him forget about something so selfish. “I can earn the money for you, Grandma.”

Elaine hugged the boy to her. “I’m afraid I can’t wait for you to become a rock star, honey.”

Jesse gave her a look that said he knew that. “No, but I can go on TV and win the contest.”

“What contest?” Joe wanted to know.

“The Journey. They’re coming here and looking for people.” Jesse held up the front page of the section he was holding. “It says right here they’re looking for outdoor types.” He grinned at his grandmother, looking exactly like his father had at his age, Elaine thought. Jesse pounded his chest with a small fist. “I’m an outdoor type. I can win the contest and give the money to you. You’ll be rich.”

Elaine could only laugh. It served to keep back the tears. “I already am rich. I’ve got a big, strong, handsome grandson who wants to take care of me.”

“Let me see that.” Joe took the paper from his son and began to scan the article.

Elaine looked up sharply. She knew what a private person her oldest son was. She also knew all about reality shows. This would be tantamount to living in a fishbowl. “Joe, you’re not thinking -”

“Yes,” he told her, “I am.” He turned the paper around so that she could see the title of the article: Winner to Get a Million Dollars. “That should take care of all your problems,” he pointed out. “And there’d be more than enough left over to stake me to a new life.”

“You going to try out for the contest, Dad?” Jesse wanted to know.

“No,” Joe said. “I’m going to win the contest.”

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About the author

I was born in West Germany, arrived in the U.S. at the age four, and s...

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Marie Ferrarella

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