Authors: C. J. Carmichael
© Copyright 2014 Carla Daum
The Tule Publishing Group, LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
ISBN 978-1-940296-16-6Table of Contents
Carrigans of the Circle C
The Carrigans of Circle C
Excerpt: Close to Her Heart
About the authorDedication
For Myrna—we’ve been friends through teenaged angst, myriad boyfriends, marriage, motherhood, losses, successes and now... the empty nest! My life has been so much richer with you in it—and a lot more fun!
What should you expect when you pick up Good Together? A love story, of course, one that makes you believe in the amazing goodness of the human heart. But there is also an end-of-love-story, one that reminds us that not all beautiful things last forever.
You should expect to revisit the Circle C ranch in Marietta, Montana. You’ll visit all four Carrigan sisters, as well as their austere father Hawksley. You’ll find out more about the troubles between Hawksley and his deceased wife Beverly. And you’ll get to spend some time with Sage Carrigan (from Promise Me, Cowboy) as well as her smoking hot boyfriend, Dawson O’Dell, and his precocious daughter, Savannah.
You’ll also be introduced to the Tennessee Walking Horses at Bishop Stables, and I want to thank Rick at Rick Wies Stables for giving me and my guy a tour of his operations in Big Arm, Polson. These are indeed beautiful horses, and I hope I’ve managed to convey why Mattie Bishop loves them so.
Two more stories will be coming this autumn for Dani and Callan Carrigan. You won’t believe the surprises in store. Make sure you sign up for both my newsletter, and Montana Born’s so you don’t miss them!
Thanks for being someone who loves books and reading!
CJ CarmichaelCarrigans of the Circle C
Promise Me, Cowboy (novella)
Good Together (novel)
Close To Her Heart (novel)
Snowbound in Montana (novella)
A Cowgirl’s Christmas (novel)CHAPTER ONE
Mattie Carrigan’s subconscious figured out the problem first. She was dreaming that she and her husband Wes were in the airport. “You screwed up the reservation,” he was yelling. “We’re booked on two separate flights.”
She opened her eyes, heart racing, relieved to be in bed at their ranch in the Flathead Valley of Montana and not—as had been the case in her dream—trying desperately to get to Denver where one of their twin daughters had started college two months ago. They’d picked different schools, Portia and Wren, one moving south to Denver, the other west to Seattle, which drove Mattie crazy. It was difficult enough having her children leave the nest. Couldn’t they at least have chosen the same college?
The night was still, dark, and silent. Curtains fluttered in the breeze from the open window to her left. Wes was in the bed to her right, his naked back a wall blocking the digital time display on their alarm clock.
What time had he rolled in from his latest rodeo? This one, the livestock exposition and rodeo in Billings, was about a seven-hour drive from home. So if he’d left at five, like he’d said he would, he should have been back before she’d gone to bed around one a.m.
Maybe he’d delayed his departure to have dinner with friends. Or had trouble with the rig. In either case, he must have been dead-tired when he got here. Yet, judging from the Head and Shoulders scent of him, he’d taken the time to shower before crawling under their covers.
She wanted to move closer and snuggle up against his warm, tanned skin. But something—a nasty stew of resentment, fear and hurt—stopped her. He might have called to let her know he’d been delayed.
Pushing aside her covers, Mattie slipped to the bathroom down the hall. A weak nightlight—installed eighteen years ago when the twins were babies—kept her from stubbing her toes on Wes’s boots. Damn, why hadn’t he taken them off in the mudroom?
She’d seen his bull-riding scores posted on the Internet and they’d been low, so he wouldn’t have brought home any prize money. He hadn’t for the past six months. A sign that at thirty-nine, he was getting too old to be a rodeo cowboy.
The rosemary and bergamot infusion sticks on the back of the toilet tank couldn’t mask the odor of horse manure and cowboy sweat that permeated the pile of Wes’s clothes on the tiled floor. As she peed, she stared at his faded Wrangler jeans and old blue and white checked shirt.
Not that long ago—definitely less than a year—Wes would have woken her up when he got home, no matter how late. They’d make love and then he’d tell her how things had gone. The bulls he’d drawn and the scores he’d made. He’d fill her in on the latest gossip—who’d been injured and who was riding high. And the romances. Someone sleeping with someone else’s wife... it happened all the time.
Mattie stared at her reflection as she washed her hands. The low light was flattering, masking the new age-freckles that had popped out this summer. Now that she was almost forty, she had to be more careful with her sunscreen, she supposed, though she’d never been one for fussing about her appearance.
Her sisters would say she relied too much on the looks she’d inherited from their mother. And she knew it was true, and that she’d been lucky. Good bones and teeth, thick hair and pretty eyes. She’d taken these assets for granted, never guessing that one day they wouldn’t be enough for her husband.
Because that had to be the reason they were drifting apart, right?
He no longer found her attractive. Maybe he’d found someone new...?
Mattie put a hand to her chest, feeling the pain as she entertained this new suspicion... that her husband had fallen for somebody new.
But then common sense prevailed. This was Wes, her husband of nineteen years. They were a team. Had been a team forever. Raising their girls. Running the ranch. They did everything together. And he valued that as much as she did.
She’d never doubted Wes in all the nineteen years of their marriage, even though they’d spent a lot of that time apart. And she wouldn’t doubt him now.
They were just moving into a new stage of life, that was the problem. Every couple went through this when their children moved away from home. For sure she and Wes were handling the change differently. She was clinging in every way possible—text messaging the girls many times a day, sending care packages from home—whereas Wes rarely mentioned them. Wren said he hadn’t called her once since she’d left.
Mattie hung back in the doorway, watching Wes sleep, feeling oddly distant, like she was observing a stranger. They’d met at a rodeo, when she was only eighteen. Ended up married and pregnant before either one of them was twenty. Not a recipe for marital success.
And yet, they’d defied the odds.
Just a year ago she would have called them happy. Wes was her partner, the father of her children, her best friend. They told each other everything.
But not anymore.
“Mat? What’s going on?” Wes lifted his head from his pillow. His dark hair all but covered his eyes.
“I had a bad dream.”
“Worried about the kids?” His head flopped back. “Don’t. They’re fine.”
He always said that. She was the one who worried. But this time, it wasn’t about Wren and Portia. “We need to talk.”
Wes groaned. “In the morning. Get back to bed. It’s damned freezing in here. Did you leave the window open again?”
She loved fresh air when she slept, but Wes preferred to be toasty warm. That meant open windows in the summer, but come October when the cold winds blew off the Mission Mountains, they had to be closed.
She pushed aside the curtains, then cranked the lever until the window was flush with the wall. Quietly she crept back under the covers, loving the coolness of the sheets on her side of the bed. On her back, she stared at the ceiling, waiting to see if Wes would turn and pull her into his arms.
* * *
Before dawn, Mattie was up, dressed for work in old jeans and a flannel shirt. She stood by the bedroom window as she fastened her buttons. In the faint light she could see mist hanging low to the ground and clinging to the Mission mountains. It would be cold outside. She slipped an extra pair of socks on her feet.
Wes was still sleeping and she closed the door after herself so he wouldn’t be disturbed.
He generally slept late after a rodeo. She never did. Nothing happened in her day until the horses had been fed. Wes insisted this was ridiculous because they had hired men to do the morning chores. Well, these days it was only Jake. But Mattie had been raised on a ranch and the rules on the Circle C had been inviolate. No one eats before the animals.
Mattie brought up the twins the same way. From a young age, no matter the weather, she’d bundled them up and taken them to the stables with her. They’d adored trailing the feed cart as she doled out rations, petting the barn cats, and jumping in the wood chips that were used for bedding. But when they hit their teen years, suddenly Wren became a night-hawk and couldn’t drag herself out of bed any earlier than fifteen minutes before the school bus arrived, while Portia’s new hair and makeup routine required at least an hour of prep time , rendering her unavailable for anything as prosaic as ranch chores.
Mattie missed all of this—the early childhood years and the stormy teenaged years—with an intensity that made her chest ache. Something vital had been scooped out of her body the day she and Wes drove the twins to the Missoula airport. Was she always going to feel this hollow?
After filling a to-go mug with coffee that had been programed the night before to brew fresh at six a.m., Mattie almost tripped on the sleeve of a jacket that had been tossed toward a stool—and only partially hit its target. The light navy windbreaker was Wes’s. She bent over to pick it up, wrinkling her nose at the scent of tobacco smoke—he must have worn it into a bar. Intending to hang it on one of the pegs in the mudroom, she paused when she noticed a key had fallen from one of the pockets.
She picked it up, frowning because their house keys were silver-colored, not brass. Besides, Wes kept all his keys on a ring. So what was this for?
She placed it on the butcher block island and went to put her boots on.
* * *
Mattie’s spirits lifted the moment she stepped outside. The crisp air was like a health tonic, and everywhere she looked there was beauty. From the long-needled, elegant ponderosa pine trees that had been planted by Wes’s mother to buffer the house from the road, to the reflective, aquamarine waters of Flathead Lake to the north. A film of ice coated the brick path that led from the back of the house through a break in the lilac hedge to the graveled farm yard, and her boots skidded a few times as she walked. Another sign that the first snow would be coming soon—probably before Halloween.
Wes’s truck was parked in his usual spot, the trailer door left open after he’d unloaded Whiskey Chaser. With the rising sun behind her, she saw the fields glistening brightly and it took a few moments for Mattie to locate the golden quarter horse gelding grazing with the rest of the herd at the far end of the north pasture.
Chaser was a relatively young horse, and this was only the second year Wes had ridden him for bulldogging. Mattie wondered if he was the reason Wes had performed so poorly lately. But last season, Chaser’s first, he’d done pretty well.
Mattie slid open the main door to the barn and unzipped her insulated vest at the welcoming warmth. It was designed and built over thirty years ago, and she was impressed anew every time she stepped inside. Her father, Hawksley Carrigan, a practical cattle rancher who owned more than ten times the land of the Bishops, would never have approved of the expensive wood interior, the brick floors, the airy open-topped stalls with their wrought iron gates.
Wasteful. Extravagant. She could hear the adjectives in her father’s voice, but that didn’t prevent her from appreciating the attractive setting.
Jake Webster was already in the feed room, to the right of the main door, doling rations into the cart which everyone in the family referred to as the “gravy train.” It was built on wheels, so it was a simple matter to push it down the broad main corridor and measure out the feed and supplement according to the charts outside each stall door.
“Morning Jake.” Mattie picked up a scoop and started filling the back side of the cart.
Jake had been hired by Wes’s father and was in his late fifties. His hair was thick and straight—and pure gray. He shaved every day, but in the evening, so he had a perpetual grazing of stubble over his long, lean face. When he’d been younger and his hair was dark, this look had been rather attractive. Now, however, the stubble merely accented his age.
He was still lean, though, and healthy, getting as much done in a working day as he ever had.
“I see Wes made it home last night. Where was he this time?” The note of disapproval in Jake’s voice was customary any time he referred to Wes’s “other” life, as a rodeo cowboy. Jake considered Wes’s bulldogging and bull-riding to be a ridiculous and dangerous hobby, whereas running a horse breeding and training operation was a real man’s career.
Mattie sometimes felt the same way. Over the years there’d certainly been many times when she’d wished Wes spent more time at home.
But whenever she went to watch him at one of the rodeos, she could understand why he was hooked. He was so talented, and he knew how to play to the crowd. His rides always earned him roars of approval, no matter the score. Over the years, he’d made a lot of friends, too. His rodeo family meant almost as much to him as his real-life one did.
“Billings,” she kept her answer brief, knowing where the conversation was heading and not looking forward to it.
“Don’t suppose he bought us any yearlings while he was out there?”
The Northern International Livestock Exposition, where Wes had gone for the rodeo, also held auctions for some of the best horses and yearlings that money could buy. Here was another sore point with Jake. In the old days—when Garth Bishop was in charge—they’d kept more than a hundred horses. Now they were down to twenty-two.
She shrugged. “Not sure. We haven’t had a chance to talk yet.” But she’d be surprised if he had. “Look at it this way—no new horses means less work for both of us.”
Jake snorted. “Hardly worth you guys paying me a fulltime salary if this place doesn’t require fulltime work.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, you’ve got to stop spending so much time on your iPhone, Jake.”
He gave her an affronted look. Then they both laughed. She and Wes had had to practically threaten to fire him before he’d finally agreed to accept the thing and keep it charged and in his pocket while he was working.
“This way, you run into trouble, and you can call for help, quick,” Wes had told him.
“More like, you can reach me anytime to give me more work to do,” Jake had grumbled. But the man wasn’t lazy. It was the infringement on his privacy and his innate dislike of change—especially any change involving technology—that had made him reluctant to accept the phone.
A lot of the older ranchers in Montana were suspicious of change, Mattie’s father included. Rich newcomers from places like California and Washington were buying up the relatively cheap Montana land for hobby ranches. Money to spare, and a lack of appreciation for the way things were done around here, led to a lot of animosity toward the interlopers... and the fancy contraptions they brought with them.
But over time, Jake had started to appreciate certain features that came with the phone. Like the weather app. And sports updates. Portia had even taught him how to download apps for video games.
“Ah well,” Jake sighed. “Maybe this winter I should sell my horse and buy me a nice little trailer. Head south to the desert and soak up some rays.”
About this time of year, Jake always made the same threat. Mattie didn’t take him seriously. She couldn’t imagine Jake being happy if he wasn’t busy working with horses. And if he hadn’t left Montana ten years ago, after his wife Chris died, she didn’t figure he ever would.
About an hour later, all the horses had been fed, their water checked, and most of the stalls were mucked out. Mattie checked her watch. “Think I’ll head inside. Wes should be up by now.”
Jake made no reply to that. But he stopped working and straightened, meeting her gaze with an expression that was partly a frown. And partly concern. To Mattie it felt as if a sheet of ice had been slipped down her back.
Jake’s look told her that he’d noticed the new distance between her and her husband.
Which meant it wasn’t in her head.
Their problems were real.CHAPTER TWO
The smell of burned toast and eggs greeted Mattie as she replaced her boots with a pair of gray canvas slip-ons. After washing up at the stainless steel sink in the mudroom, she headed for the kitchen. Wes was at the island, his head bent over his iPad as he finished up his breakfast with a cup of coffee.
“Hey. How are things out there?”
Since he hadn’t stood to give her a hug, she wrapped her arms around his neck and laid her cheek on the top of his head. Her husband was a small-framed man, but solid muscle. “Want to come out with me when you’re finished with that coffee? We’ve got a couple horses that could use some work this morning.”
His answer was a sigh. “I’m pretty sore after the weekend.” His gaze dropped back to the iPad, that had gone dark. “Not that I have anything to show for my aches and bruises.”
“Bad draws?” She had years of practice at saying the right, sympathetic thing. The score in the rodeo ring was only fifty percent under the cowboy’s control. The bulls were assigned by random draws—and not all of them were star performers. But bad draws couldn’t explain his sad bulldogging times.
She rinsed out the cup she’d taken with her to the barn, then refilled it. Still lots left in the pot. Both girls had become coffee drinkers after they turned sixteen and were allowed to drink the beverage at home. Mattie no longer needed to make a full pot every morning. But it was one of those habits that was tough to break.
Like cooking too much food and checking the girls’ rooms for dirty clothes when it was time to do laundry. And waiting for them to come through the back door after the school bus drove by...
She leaned her back against the counter, sipping the hot coffee and eyeing her husband. He was looking at the iPad again, as if her presence was nothing but an interruption. That was when she noticed the key was no longer on the counter.
“I found a key on the floor by your jacket this morning.”
Wes nodded, head still lowered. “Yeah. Thanks.”
“So... what’s it for?”
Wes hesitated a moment before answering. He seemed annoyed that she felt it necessary to ask the question and he answered with exaggerated patience. “I crashed with the Wilkinson’s this weekend. Peter gave me a key to their guest cabin and I forgot to return it. I’ll put it in the mail later today.”
A wild impulse rose in her—a desire to take his silly iPad and toss it into the garbage. What was he reading on there that was so damn fascinating? After four days apart, was it so unreasonable of her to expect to have a proper conversation with her husband?
Mattie willed herself to be calm. She’d try again, bring up another subject.
“Jake wondered if you’d bought any yearlings?”
“Why would I do that?”
She raised her eyebrows. There was no point in telling him they only had twenty-two horses in their stables right now. Wes was gone a lot, but he still made all the business decisions around here—and paid the bills. He was aware that last year they’d barely broken even. And without new clients or horses, they’d be lucky to do as well this year.
“What’s going on, Wes?” she asked softly.
He grabbed onto his mug with both of his tough, sun-darkened hands and gazed down into it, his posture sagging with a sort of sadness Mattie had never seen in him before.
“Why won’t you look at me?”
He did raise his head then, but only briefly. Getting up from the stool, he went to the far window. The house had been designed open concept with a seamless transition between kitchen and family area. A river-rock fireplace with a heavy walnut mantel grounded the south end of the room. Large paneled windows to the west and north looked out to the pastures and Flathead Lake in the distance.
Mattie set down her mug next to her husband’s and went to stand beside him. She’d lived with this view for nineteen years, but never took it for granted. From here you could see almost all of their land. And it was beautiful.
Wes shifted, putting an extra foot between them. “Mattie—I’ve been thinking it’s time to sell.”
“What?” This was something they’dneverdiscussed. She wouldn’t even have considered it an option. “But—this land is...” She couldn’t find the words to go on. She’d been raised to consider land the most important and valuable thing in the world. Her father’s ties to the Circle C were blood and marrow deep. And, being married to Wes, she’d come to feel the same way about Bishop Stables too.
“I’m getting too old to rodeo, but I’m not interested in breeding and training Tennessee Walkers. That was Mom and Dad’s thing. Not mine.”
She wasn’t surprised that he was making this admission. She’d suspected as much for years. “But—what about the girls?” This land was their heritage, their birthright. But then an ugly suspicion rose up in her. Unlike her father who had made no secret of his disappointment in fathering four daughters, Wes had never seemed to care that they had no sons. After the twins were born he’d agreed with her that their family was complete. “Would you be saying this if we had a son?”
“Of course... Hell, Mattie, that’s not what this is about.”
She was relieved to hear that. But only for a second. She was beginning to see that he’d been thinking about this a long time, and by the firm set of his jaw, he’d already made up his mind.
Without any discussion withher.
This was not how their marriage worked. At least, up until now it wasn’t.
“But, how will we earn our living? We have four years of college to pay for.”
“Only because you pushed the girls to go. I still don’t know why. Neither of us went—and we did just fine.”
The further education of their daughters had been a no-brainer to her. With Wren, it hadn’t been an issue. She’d been excited to go, had already picked out a program at the University of Colorado. Portia, however, had required some persuading.
Mattie had been shocked when Wes sided with Portia, and they had argued privately for over a week. “Let her learn a trade, instead,” Wes had said. “She could be a hairdresser or work in one of those nails places. I see them everywhere I go.”
Finally he’d backed down and gone silent on the subject, leaving her to persuade her lovely, less academic daughter that secondary education these days was a must.
But all of this had taken place a year ago. She wasn’t going to let him pull her back into that argument now.
“Even if the girls could fund college on their own—what about us? How will we support ourselves, not to mention save for our retirement? It’s not like we have a big nest egg set aside.” Making payments to registered plans had never seemed important. After all, they weren’t yet forty.
“The proceeds from the ranch will be enough to take care of the girls.” Wes hesitated. “And you.”
Mattie stared at him. Finally he was looking at her, too, and his eyes didn’t look like Wes’s anymore. They were cold and distant as a stranger’s.
Understanding hit her like a bullet. She gasped, felt a physical pain explode in her gut.This must be what it’s like to die. You’re living your life—and suddenly you aren’t.
When he didn’t say anything, she was forced to put words to the awful thing.
“You want to sell the ranch. A-and you want to leave me.”
He moved restlessly from the window, to the sofa, where he straightened a cushion before shifting to the fireplace. Resting one hand on the walnut mantel, he turned back to look at her. “Yeah.”
Mattie clasped her arms around her torso, feeling a wintery chill, and also, a sense that this simply couldn’t be happening.
It was only last Christmas that she and Wes had sat in this very room talking about their future, once the twins were off to college. One more year of rodeoing, he’d promised her, and then he’d have more time to dedicate to the ranch and more time for her. Maybe they’d take a few trips—see a bit of the world outside the continental US.
Was he going through some sort of midlife crisis?
“Is this about Dex’s accident last spring?”
In May a cowboy had been killed in the rodeo ring in Texas. Dex Cooper had been a bull-rider, competing in the same event as Wes. Mattie had found out about the death online, when she was checking for her husband’s scores. A video of the accident had even been posted on YouTube, but she hadn’t watched. It appalled her that people filmed these things—and then, rather than deleting them, actually put them on the Internet for other people to view.
Who were these other people who got such thrills out of tragedy?
Reading about the incident had been horrible enough. It was her worst nightmare, of course, that Wes would be mauled by a bull and be terribly injured—or worse.
The fact that it had happened to some other woman’s husband, this time, didn’t make it easier to bear.
But what troubled her even more was that Wes hadn’t called to tell her what had happened. She’d assumed he hadn’t wanted to frighten her. But in the past, he’d shared everything with her. The good. And the tough.
When he came home, she could tell the accident had affected him deeply. How could it not? But even then he refused to talk about it, leaving the room if she so much as mentioned Dex Cooper.
That was when Wes’s rodeo scores had started dropping.
It was so obvious now, Mattie couldn’t believe she hadn’t made the connection earlier.
“Dex’s death is part of it,” Wes agreed. “You know I was planning to quit next year anyway. But that kind of cinched matters for me. And I started wondering what it was all for, anyway. All those years in the rodeo ring. Sure I won some belt buckles and made some money. But for what?”
Finally he was being honest. But why had he waited until it was too late?
“You rodeoed because you loved it. And the money you earned helped us raise our daughters.”
Unconvinced, Wes glanced over the pictures on the mantel. His parents and hers. Their daughters. Their wedding photo. God, they’d been young.
“I understand why you’re quitting the rodeo. It’s time.” Few men continued to compete into their thirties, and even less once they hit forty. “But why sell the ranch? Seems to me that it’s the perfect time to be expanding—not getting out.”
Wes rubbed his face and sighed. “You don’t get it. I’m done, Mat. I’m just...done.”
How dared he say that? “What about the rest of us? I’m not done. I love this ranch and I’ve worked harder at it than anyone. And what about Portia and Wren? If we sell, where are they going to go for Christmas and the summer break? This is theirhome.”
“You don’t get it, Mat. You think the girls are going to keep coming back here all the time—well they won’t. They’ll get a job in the city and they’ll meet a guy and we’ll be lucky if they visit one week out of the year.”
Maybe. Eventually. But there were a lot of years to go before that day. “Aren’t you rushing things a little?”
“The twins are eighteen. How much time did you spend going back to the Circle C once you were that age?”
Heat flared over her. “That’s not a fair comparison. Those were different days. And Hawksley wasn’t the kind of father that you are.” Her father had been disapproving and distant—always. He’d never given any sign that he cared whether his daughters came to visit or not. The only ties Mattie felt to the Circle C were to her sisters. The four of them, despite the gaps in their ages, were very close.
“Parents have to step back when their kids are grown. That’s just how it is.”
He’d never talked like this before. “Our roles change,” she agreed, talking slowly, trying to figure out who this man was. She’d always felt that their parenting styles blended perfectly. But looking back now she could see that Wes had connected better with the girls when they were younger. Their adolescent stage had confused him. And maybe he’d pulled back more than she realized. “But they still need us.”
“Portia and Wren haven’t needed me since I taught them to drive.”
“Why are you being so literal? You know being part of a family is more than doing jobs for one another. Family provides our emotional bedrock. None of us ever grow out of the need to be loved.”
“And I’ll never stop loving them,” Wes said, his voice subdued once more.
The implication of his words hit her with another ferocious stab of pain.
He’d never stop loving their daughters.
But he had stopped lovingher.
* * *
Nat Diamond left his doctor’s office in Polson with a feeling of relief at an unpleasant task finally behind him. Ever since his mother’s death, twenty years ago, the result of a misdiagnosis, followed by a drug which had stopped her heart cold, he’d had a profound, if somewhat illogical, distrust for the medical profession. He’d been dreading that appointment for weeks. Now, the day opened up to him full of possibilities.
He’d start with lunch. The Mexican place on the shore of the Flathead was his favorite. He’d order steak fajitas and a glass of Corona. Then treat himself with a long ride on the new colt when he got home.
The colt had turned out to be a nice surprise. Spirited, but anxious to please too. Handsome and gaited, strong and graceful. He couldn’t wait to show him off to his neighbor Mattie. When she’d sold the horse to him three years ago, she’d said he had promise. But she’d be thrilled to see just how much.
At the restaurant, Nat asked for a booth at the back and sat so he could look out at the lake. The patio had been closed off for the season and at the moment nary a boat could be seen over the expanse of the silvery blue waters, speckled with whitecaps. The Flathead was the biggest freshwater lake this side of the Mississippi and it didn’t take much wind to get all that water churned up.
Despite the cooler temperatures—and the knowledge that snow would soon be coming—Nat was relieved summer was over. He didn’t care for the influx of cottagers and vacationers who jammed up the roads with their cars, and the lake with their motor boats every July and August. September was the best, but October was good too.
He’d enjoy this month while it lasted.
The gal who seated customers walked by, disrupting his view as she led an older man to the table next to his. Nat gave a double-take. It was Jake Webster, foreman at the Bishop’s place.
“Hey there, Jake. Want to join me?”
Jake nodded, then took the bench seat with his back to the lake. “Good to see you, Nat. I’ve been meaning to call. You must be planning to move your cattle in soon.”
“Next week. You in?”
One long day of work would see the job done. In the past, when they’d had more cattle on the Double D, pushing the cows down closer to home for the winter had required a two-day trail ride. Nat had loved those days riding with his mother and father, eating dinner around the campfire and sleeping under the stars.
Recent years, though, he’d been downsizing the operation. He’d leased a large portion of his land to a neighbor to the south. Reduced the herd. It was easier this way. And he sure didn’t need the money.
Jake ordered enchiladas and a beer and with their drinks came a basket of tortilla chips and a small bowl of watery salsa. Trying to scoop some up, without dripping on the table, was a challenge Nat almost never met.
“I thought we’d bring the cows in next Monday. With the twins in college, I suppose Mat will want to come. And Wes, if he’s home. Should I call her, or will you pass on the invite?” Nat worded this carefully, because he was treading potential dangerous waters here. Mattie loved any excuse to be out on the range riding all day. Her husband, despite his horse-breeding operation, and love of the rodeo, did not.
Nat wasn’t sure if it was the work—or himself—that Wes objected to. They’d been friends once upon a time. How could they not be, when they’d grown up on adjacent ranches? But once Wes married Mattie, that had changed.
Wes was away from home a lot. And he made it clear that he didn’t want Nat stepping in to fill his shoes while he was gone. Good old Jake—decades older than Mattie—was there to handle any problems that came up.
Only Jake couldn’t handle everything.
And it was Wes’s own fault that he wasn’t home more. If Nat were Mattie’s husband, he sure wouldn’t be taking off to a new rodeo every second week.
Tensions between them eased a little when Nat married Julia. But his marriage hadn’t lasted five years before Julia moved back to Seattle. He should have known better than to pluck a woman out of the city and try to transplant her on a ranch.
He’d resumed his bachelor lifestyle without much difficulty. And Wes had gone back to glowering at him if he spoke so much as one sentence to his wife.
Their food came then, and Nat was half finished his plate before he realized Jake hadn’t answered his question. He looked up to see Jake pushing food around on his plate.
Nat set down his fork. “What’s up?”
“Well. It’s Mattie. I’m kind of worried about her.”
Jake sighed. He wasn’t one to gossip, especially not about the Bishops, about whom he felt incredibly loyal. But sometimes a man had to make a call and speak up, if the situation warranted it.
And this time, apparently it did.
“She hasn’t stepped outside of the house for a week.”
That wasn’t like Mattie. “Is she sick?”
“Don’t think so. She says not. But she won’t let me in to check on her.” Jake swallowed. “Thing is, Wes drove off seven days ago, without his trailer or his horse.”
Jake raised his eyes from his plate, and in his tired gaze Nat could see his concern. The reason for it was obvious. If Wes hadn’t taken his horse, then he wasn’t off to another rodeo. So where had he gone?CHAPTER THREE
There was not a single tea leaf left in Mattie’s kitchen. She’d gone through so many pots in the last week that she’d depleted not only her favorite English Breakfast, but also all the herbal brands her daughters had accumulated over the years.
She’d also worn out two decks of cards playing solitaire. She found the game soothing, for some reason. Shuffling and dealing the cards, logically sorting them, keeping her mind busy so she couldn’t dwell on the unthinkable thing that had happened last Monday morning.
She and Wes had had their “talk” shortly after eight in the morning.
By noon he had left, most of his clothes packed in two suitcases, along with his damned iPad, the check-book, and a box of files he’d removed from the office. She had no idea where he’d gone. She could send him a text message or e-mail if she needed him for something, he’d said on his way out the door.
The implied message was that he was hoping not to hear from her at all.
And he hadn’t.
Despite composing numerous messages to him in her head, fromyou lousy jerk,to,what did I do wrong?she had maintained silence. Every time she felt the urge to reach out to him, she thought about his eyes and how empty they had seemed when he looked at her. As if all the laughter and love that they’d shared had bled out of them.
He no longer saw her as Mattie, the love of his life, but as Mattie, the woman who was standing in his way.
And God, but it hurt. Her husband and this ranch were as much a part of her body and soul as the twins were. How could she survive the loss of all of them? What would be left, who would she be?
And what about Portia and Wren? In about five weeks they’d be flying home for Thanksgiving. What would she tell them if their father wasn’t here? Or if he lived up to his promise to put the property for sale? She was so afraid of this happening that she hadn’t answered the phone all week.
Not even calls from her daughters. She’d texted them instead, silly messages like, “Busy right now. Love you lots!” She’d even missed their regular Sunday Skype call yesterday, sending yet another text message. “Computer on the fritz. Getting it fixed. Skype next week?”
An out-and-out lie.
She was ashamed. But also desperate. One look at her face—she’d hardly stopped crying all week, even when she played cards the tears streamed down her cheeks—and they’d know something awful had happened.
She couldn’t trust her voice on the phone, either. She’d tried calling Sage earlier—and been forced to hang up and send a text message. “Sorry, I had to hang up before you answered. I’ll try calling later in the week.”
Thank God for the impersonal text message. It was saving her butt, big time.
But she couldn’t put off the people she loved forever. Eventually she was going to have to face them. How would Portia and Wren cope? It wasn’t fair for their first year at college to be spoiled by something so dreadful as this.
Damn Wes—how could he have written off his children as if they simply didn’t matter anymore? At one time he would have done anything to protect them.
Mattie reached for the tissue box. She’d scavenged them from every room in the house and this last one she’d taken from the drawer of Portia’s nightstand. The tissues smelled faintly of Portia’s white sandalwood perfume.
Which only made her cry harder.
Just eight weeks ago the four of them had sat down to dinner together, celebrating the girls’ last night at home before college. Not that Mattie had felt like celebrating—tears kept popping into her eyes as she prepared all of their favorites. Broccoli soup for Wren, ribs for Wes, lemon pie for Portia. The occasion had to be marked, she was determined about that.
Never had she guessed that it might be the last time the four of them would eat together as a family.
That thought started another spate of tears. Mattie tenderly dabbed her cheeks, avoiding the raw area around her nose. She ought to take a shower and change out of her sweats. Prepare herself a proper meal. Go out and buy a few essentials.
Instead, she crawled under the quilt she’d moved to the living room sofa. It was old, she’d found it in the linen cupboard, something she’d taken with her when she moved from the Circle C to her new home with her husband. Her grandmother Bramble had stitched together the quilt—she’d made one for all of them, except Callan who’d been born after their grandmother’s death.
Mattie liked to imagine that some of the squares of fabric on her quilt were from old clothing of her mother’s. She’d been twenty-two when her mom was killed in a ranching accident. Already married, with babies of her own. But her mother’s death had shattered her. Even then, though, she hadn’t fallen apart like this.
Mattie pressed the soft flannel backing against her cheek. She wished her mother was here now, to comfort her. What would she say? Mattie knew her parents had gone through rough patches too. Yet their marriage had survived.
Was it possible hers would too?
Blissful relief shot up in her heart every time she considered this. But the hope never lasted long.
Wes wasn’t the kind of man who acted on impulse. He considered long and hard. And when he acted, he rarely turned back.
How long had he been thinking about leaving her? She felt that she should know the exact second he’d first considered it. Had they been together at the time? Maybe she’d said or done something annoying to him...
Stop it! She was driving herself crazy.
She tried to summon the energy to get off the sofa. She spent all her nights here now, unable to face either the room she’d shared with her husband, or the girls’ abandoned beds. Not that she slept much. When she became too tired to play solitaire, she turned on the TV and watched old re-runs of Gilmore Girls.
What she needed was fresh air. And work. If her father could see her right now, he’d be disgusted. Which she totally deserved. She had animals out there depending on her... and yet, she couldn’t make herself go out and face them—or Jake. Not when she knew Wes was planning to sell. For all Jake’s talk about heading South for the winter, he’d be lost without this job.
When the doorbell rang, the sound was so foreign it took her a moment to realize she must have a guest. Jake had been by a few times this week to check on her, but he always knocked.
So who could this be?
She’d just be quiet and wait for them to leave.
The doorbell rang again, and then a knock sounded on the door. Whoever was out there was being damn persistent.
Mattie went to the powder room across from the foyer. She was expecting to look bad, but what she saw shocked even her. Matted hair, blotchy skin, puffed eyes, red nose—and wrinkled sweatshirt. She bet she smelled bad, too.
There was another knock, loud enough that it made her jump. Then a man’s voice. “I’m not leaving until I know you’re okay, Mattie.”
That was Nat Diamond’s voice. What washedoing here? Jake must have said something—there could be no other explanation. Unless Wes had been talking to him? Maybe sounding him out to see if he wanted to buy the ranch.
A sob caught in her throat, and she put a hand to her mouth. It came away damp. She was crying again, but there were no more tissues, so she pulled off a long piece of toilet paper, then went to the door.
Nat Diamond was a good neighbor. In the old days, when they’d had more horses, he’d been generous about letting their Tennessee Walkers graze on his land in the late summer when their own pastures were picked over. He’d been known to stop and warn Mattie when a storm was moving this way, or to help her unload a truckload of feed when Jake’s back was troubling him.
He never put on airs, despite the fact that he owned the largest and most successful ranch in the county. Wes was a good-looking guy, but Nat, he was handsome enough to be a movie star. He didn’t smile much, or flirt, but he had charisma all right, and aside from a brief period of time when he’d been married to a very beautiful woman from California, he’d been the most eligible bachelor of the county by a long shot.
And he’d always been sweet to the twins.
But Wes had never liked it when he heard Nat had been around and so Mattie had learned to keep her distance. She didn’t think Wes was jealous—he just felt guilty when he heard Nat had been helping them out. He didn’t like the idea that he couldn’t be counted on to look after his own ranch, and his own family.
But the simple fact was—sometimes he couldn’t be.
As for right now, well, telling Nat what was going on just wasn’t an option. Mattie was low—but she still had her pride. And no one—no one—was going to see her this way.
She went to the door and sank onto the slate-tiled flooring. She could feel a cool draft from outside. The weather stripping needed replacing. Another chore to add to the list. “Nat, this is Mattie. I don’t know what Jake told you, but I’m fine.”
“Then invite me in.”
“I’m not presentable.”
She groaned. Damn it, why were all the men in Montana so intractable? Wes, her father, Jake—and Nat. “I’d really rather be alone right now.”
“According to Jake you’ve been alone for a week. He’s worried. So am I.”
She closed her eyes, touched by the concern of her foreman and her next door neighbor. Had Wes given a thought to her after he’d walked out? Had he wondered how she was doing—if she was falling apart? He couldn’t have, since she hadn’t heard a word from him. This callous unconcern, more than anything, proved that he really didn’t love her anymore.
There was a long pause before Nat spoke again. This time, his voice was softer, but she still had no trouble making out the words.
“Mattie, I know Wes is gone, and not to another rodeo. If this is pride talking, then just remember I’ve been in the exact same place as you.”
He was referring to when his wife left him. It had been somewhat of a scandal, because Julia had taken up with some rich dude from New York City—met him on the Internet of all things. It was all anyone could talk about for several weeks, but despite all that, Nat held his head high and calmly went about his business. No, the man who had lived through that was not going to cut her any slack over Wes.
“Then you know I’m not fit for company. If you really want to help, I could use some tea and a few boxes of tissues.”
She could hear him chuckling. Damn him for finding that amusing.
“I hope you haven’t been drinking it black. You aren’t that far gone, are you?”
“Damn it, Nat. You’re annoying.”
She smiled then, just a little smile, but enough to make her dry lips hurt.
“Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll go get that tea, but when I return, you’ll let me in. We’ll knock back an entire pot of tea and get all crazy sad and depressed together. You can even cry on my shoulder if you want.”
Oh, Nat. What had ever possessed Julia to leave a man like you?“It’s a deal. But be warned. I look like something fromThe Walking Dead.”
He chuckled again. “You forget. I’ve seen you on horseback in the driving rain after a day out on the range.”
Good point. She rarely looked her best when she was with Nat Diamond. Which was probably for the best.
“I’ll bring something with me to fix that weather stripping,” he added. “Though I have to admit, the gap in your door has certainly been useful today.”CHAPTER FOUR
“First things first,” Nat said when he returned an hour later. He didn’t look at Mattie too closely—didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable. But one quick glance was enough to confirm that she’d been crying all week. She had showered, however, and her chestnut-colored hair fell in gleaming waves to her shoulders. She was wearing clean jeans and a button-up shirt that had been tailored to follow the depression of her waist and the curving out of her hips.
Pretty as a descriptor didn’t do justice to Mattie Carrigan. She had the kind of beauty that could withstand driving rain, hard work, exhaustion, and yes, even a week of crying. If anything, the ravages of the tears only made her eyes seem brighter, her mouth more tender—and kissable.
Nat wasn’t the kind of man to covet his neighbor’s wife. And he sure wasn’t the type to take advantage of a damsel in distress. But he couldn’t deny what was right before his eyes.
Mattie was a very desirable woman.
He had four grocery bags in one of his hands, a tool box with his hacksaw and rubber mallet in the other.
“This is for you.” He passed along the groceries. He’d bought, not only tea and tissues, but some fresh fruit and veggies and a steak for her dinner. The food had been a smart addition. She looked like she needed a decent meal.
Before she could thank him, he added, “I’m holding you to that pot of tea, so you’d better put some water on to boil.”
Then he started to remove the front door from its hinges. “That little draft will feel a hell of a lot colder in a few weeks. I picked up a replacement weather-strip at Ace Hardware.”
“Nat—that was nice of you. I can pay you back for all of this—the groceries and the kit. And I can do the install, as well. I’ve done it before.”
He couldn’t help but be impressed. Mattie was nothing if not self-reliant. But then, she’d had to be, with her husband on the road so damn much.
“Just make the tea. By the time it’s brewed, I’ll be finished.”
The job actually took a half-hour to complete, but when he was done the door opened and closed smoothly and the draft was gone.
Mattie had put on some music, and when he came around the corner to the kitchen, Mindy Smith was singing her version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Mattie was at the sink, her back to him, but he could tell by her hunched shoulders that she was crying again. No wonder. The music was so unbearably sad that he couldn’t take it either. The docking station was on the counter, bracketed on one side by the home phone and on the other by a pile ofWestern Horsemanmagazines. He moved ahead to the next track, only to get another song written in a minor key.
“What is this playlist? Songs to slit your wrist by?”
He was going to make another change when a message popped up on the screen, along with the opening strains from “Modern Family.”This wasn’t an iPod. It was Mattie’s phone.
And the message, he couldn’t help reading it, said, “Are you OK Mom?”
“From one of the girls, I think.” He dislodged the phone from the docking station and handed it to Mattie.
She grabbed a fresh tissue and wiped her eyes before she turned around. “That’ll be Wren.”
Of course she’d have different ring tones set up for each of her daughters.
She glanced at the screen, then replaced the phone, selecting a different playlist this time—rock from the seventies. The Bee Gees started singing,How deep is your love....
“Oh, God. I can’t win today.” She hit the off button. Sighed.
“Aren’t you going to reply to Wren’s message? She sounds worried.”
“I’ve made up every excuse I can think of. First, I told them my computer was broken so I couldn’t talk to them on Skype as usual on Sunday evening. Then I pretended one of the horses had the heaves and that’s why I wasn’t answering the home line...” She slid onto a stool, sagging her arms onto the island.
He found the remote control for the TV and put on the Weather Channel for background noise. And also because, he liked the Weather Channel.
“Maybe you should be honest with them.”
“I can’t give them the news that their father left me over the phone.” Mattie sank her head down on the counter, into the nest she’d made with her arms.
He put a hand on her back. “Is that what happened?”
She blinked very rapidly. “I think so. It was so fast. One minute I was asking Wes if he’d bought any yearlings in Billings. The next he was saying he wanted to sell the ranch and move on. Without me.”
“Sell the ranch?” Nat hadn’t expected this complication. “You sure?”
She nodded. “I half expected you to already know. I mean—” She pulled her body upright with some effort, and looked at him curiously. “It occurred to me that Wes might have already approached you to see if you were interested in buying him out?”
It made sense. If you wanted to sell land, the first people you talked to were your neighbors. Often someone was happy for the chance to grow their operation. Or, at the very least, prevent the sale of adjacent land to someone with massive development plans like... oh, say, a retirement village or an eighteen-hole golf course.
But in this case, “No. Wes hasn’t talked to me. Or anyone else.” If he had, Nat would have heard about it. This kind of news traveled fast. “How do you feel about selling Bishop Stables?”
The look she gave him was pure misery. “I hate it. I probably love this place more than he does. Well, I guess that’s obvious. And while neither one of the girls has shown any interest in working here, or maybe taking over one day, that could change. They’re so young right now, and they deserve a chance to get out and see a little of the world. But who knows—in ten or fifteen years, they might realize that this is where they want to be after all.”
“Maybe,” Nat agreed. But odds were against it. Most of the kids who grew up around here tended to move away when they finished school. There just weren’t that many jobs or careers to entice them to stay.
Still, as Mattie said, generally families at least gave their children a chance to take over if they owned a farm, orchard or ranch. Wes didn’t seem prepared to do even that.
Then again, maybe he needed the money. To finance his divorce. And his new start in life.
Nat kept those thoughts to himself. Mattie was already coping with enough.
“Oh,” she said, getting up from the stool as she remembered the tea. “I put a cozy on the pot. I hope it isn’t too cold.”
She poured the tea into solid white mugs and as she took her first sip, her eyes flitted around the room. Was she wondering how much longer she’d be living in this house? She looked so forlorn, it almost broke his heart.
What she needed was something to look forward to.
“We’re moving the cattle next week. Want to come?”
Usually Mattie jumped at these offers. In all the years she’d been living here, she’d only missed out on a handful of roundups because the girls were sick, or once, when Wes was only home for a few days before heading out to his next rodeo.
Today though she looked wistfully, she shook her head, no.
“I’ve been neglecting my work here for too long. Poor Jake must be run off his feet.”
“I saw him for lunch earlier today. Looks like he’s holding up.”
“I guess someone around here has to.”
The volume on the television increased, and they turned to see an ad for winter tires come on the screen.
“I hate how the commercials are always louder,” Mattie said. Tears were forming in her eyes as she said this. Nat didn’t think she was worried about the volume of the television. Or the need for winter tires, either.
“It’s going to be okay,” he told her believing with all his heart that this was true. Whether her marriage to Wes withstood this storm, or not, she’d emerge stronger than ever.
But the look she gave him was full of doubt.
* * *
After Nat left, Mattie had to allow that his visit had done her good. Not only was her door better prepared to withstand the winter blizzards coming their way, but she was stronger, too. And she realized that cutting herself off from the rest of the world had to stop.
She’d start by phoning one of her sisters.
Dani, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, was the closest to her in age and the most obvious first choice. But Mattie could imagine how that call would go.
Dani would be cool and collected. She’d pass on whatever the statistics currently were for failed marriages and tell her this was not the end of the world. She’d give her a pep talk and tell her to protect herself and hire a good lawyer. She’d also suggest counseling—of course!—and putting her name up on an Internet dating site.
Dani, for all her supposed insight into the human condition, would have no idea how it felt to be looking at the end of a nineteen-year marriage.
Driven and career-focused, at thirty-four, Dani had never been in a serious relationship. She’d eschewed clinical practice for the joys of research and teaching. Nothing got Dani more excited than a bunch of data and the opportunity to run a statistical analysis.
As for telling the twins the awful news—Dani would probably be full of advice for how to do this, as well. But Dani didn’t know how it felt to be a mother. She didn’t understand the need to protect.
And she didn’t know Portia and Wren.
This was going to crush them. Especially Wren, who was less social than Portia, and didn’t have a large group of friends for support.
Mattie paced from the kitchen to the far windows and back again. Several times she reached for the phone, then hesitated.
Callan was the youngest of her sisters, but also the toughest. If Mattie called her, she’d probably find her out on the range somewhere, repairing fences, or making other preparations for winter on the Circle C. Callan would be full of fury toward Wes. She’d talk about revenge and making him pay.
And Mattie wasn’t up to that.
Maybe sheshouldbe storming around having fits of outrage and indignation.
But she was too sad and worn-out for such theatrics.
So no. She wouldn’t call Callan yet, either.
Which left Sage. Of course it did. The third of the Carrigan girls, Sage had a quiet way about her. She would listen to Mattie. She would be sympathetic. And best of all, she would not presume to tell her what to do.
Though all of them had grown up in the saddle, Sage was the most talented rider. On horseback she looked like a ballet dancer, all strength and grace. Their father, seeing her gift, had convinced her to become a barrel-racer.
Disappointed in his brood of females, he’d taken momentary pride in Sage’s rodeo accomplishments, until an accident had resulted in Sage injuring her knee—and giving up the sport.
That had really ticked Hawksley Carrigan off—but Mattie had never seen her sister more at peace than since she’d made the decision to hang up her spurs and open her own chocolate shop back home in Marietta.
Phone in hand, Mattie returned to the windows and the view. She couldn’t stand to think about the possibility that one day—maybe sooner than she thought—this view would no longer to be hers to enjoy.
As she waited for her sister to answer, she turned her back on the windows and tried to picture Sage in her shop. Her sister’s red hair would be tied in a ponytail or braid and she’d be wearing one of the shop’s signature aprons. All around her would be copper-tinted boxes filled with confections of chocolates, nuts and specialty flavors, the air smelling so rich, you could put on weight by just breathing.
Maybe, at the very least, she could ask Sage to send her a package of those delicious salted caramels...
“Hi, Mattie. Good timing, a customer just left. How are you?”
The question hung out there. Mattie realized, damn it, that she’d started to cry again. From her pocket she dug out a couple of tissues, taking a deep breath at the same time.
She had to say something quick or Sage would worry someone had died or something.
“W-wes is gone. He wants a d-divorce.”
“Oh, Mattie. Hang on.” Almost a minute passed before Sage came back on the line. “I’ve left Rose Linn in charge of the shop. I’m in the kitchen now, with lots of time to talk. When did this happen?”
As she recounted the events of the past week, somehow Mattie’s load felt lighter. Nothing had changed, the news was all still so very, very bad. But with Sage to talk to, and listening to her sister’s calm, kind voice, Mattie’s feet were finally able to feel the stability of solid ground again.
She wasn’t just Wes Bishop’s wife. She was a Carrigan. She had a father—even if he was a mean bastard—and three sisters. And she had a home that had belonged to her even longer than this one had.
“Wow, Mattie, Wes really hit you with a lot. Leaving and selling the ranch, too. And this was the first time he’d talked to you about any of it?”
“In so many words, yes. But I believe my subconscious picked up on certain signs. Because I had this dream the night before, Sage. I was in an airport and I’d booked the two of us on separate flights.” She closed her eyes, remembering how, in her dream, she’d been so upset. Beyond what was called for in the circumstances.
“How intense. I bet Dani will have a lot of fun analyzing that one.”
“Eventually. But don’t tell her yet, okay? I need to break this news to the twins, first.” And suddenly Mattie knew how it should be done, and when. Her feet were not only back on the ground, but her strength was returning. “I’ll tell them in person when they come home from college for Thanksgiving.”
“That’s a good idea,” Sage agreed. “It’ll give you and Wes a little time to sort things out. I assume he’ll want to be there with you when you tell them.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the way he’s been acting, I really don’t know.”
A beep from her phone signaled an incoming call. Mattie glanced at the screen, expecting to see one of the twins’ names. But it wasn’t.
“Can I call you back later, Sage? Looks like Wes is finally ready to talk.”CHAPTER FIVE
Amazing how many thoughts can race through the mind in just a few seconds. In the time she took to disconnect the call to her sister and accept the one from Wes, Mattie wondered if this was more bad news. Maybe he’d found a buyer for the ranch. Or had he realized he’d made a big mistake and wanted to come home? Did he miss her?
Maybe he was calling just to talk...
“Wes?” She stopped pacing. Stood breathless and anxious, her eyes on their wedding photo displayed on the mantel.
But it wasn’t her husband, after all. It was a woman.
“You don’t know me, Mattie—"
Oh, how Mattie resented the sound of her name on this stranger’s tongue. This stranger who was using Wes’s phone to call her and invade her own personal space. “Don’t call me that. I’m Mrs. Bishop.”
“I’m phoning as a favor,” the unknown woman continued, ignoring the correction. “I’m sure it’s hard, but you have to let Wes go without a fight. He doesn’t love you anymore. You may find that hard to believe, but it’s true. Trust me.”
This—couldn’t be happening. Mattie sputtered at the effrontery. And then anger exploded. “Trust you? Who the hellare you?”
The phone went dead.
Mattie glared at the screen which had suddenly gone pale, then hit the “End” button with a shaking finger.
Had it occurred to her that there might be another woman in the picture? Of course.
But, just as she avoided the problem signs in her and Wes’s marriage, so too had she shied away from thinking about the possibility he was having an affair.
But clearly he was. Or at least he was on the verge.
The key she’d found that morning. Maybe it hadn’t been for the Wilkinson’s cottage at all, but a room where he’d been meeting this mystery woman?
Her body reacted then, not with tears, but with a sudden, violent need to purge. Mattie ran to the bathroom getting there just in time as her body rejected everything she’d eaten in the last twenty-four hours, the way her mind wanted to reject everything that had happened in that same span of time.
When it was over, she felt weak, trembling... and very cold.
She ran a hot bath for herself, and let herself be soothed by the scented water.
She would not let that woman get to her. This washerlife andshewas the one who was in control.
Wes could leave her, he could sleep around, he could even fall in love with someone else—she couldn’t change any of that. What she could control was the way she reacted.
And the most important thing, she realized, as she was toweling off and selecting clean clothes, was being a strong mother.
* * *
“Do you think something’s wrong with Mom?”
Portia glanced at the message, then turned her phone face down on her desk. She was in her Introduction to Psychology class—and the instructor was her Aunt Dani.
One of the reasons she’d decided to come to the University of Washington was to be close to her aunt. Her mom thought it was good for her to move away from Montana—expand her horizons and all of that. But Portia hadn’t admitted that she felt nervous about being on her own.
Ideally she and Wren would have gone to the same school, maybe even been roommates in the same sorority house.
But Wren wouldn’t go for that.
Wren had chosen to go to school in Colorado. As for sororities—Wren claimed she had no time for them.
Being a twin should have been so fun, but it seemed to Portia that Wren was always trying to push away from her. If Portia chose shoes in red, then Wren would pick black. When Portia decided to grow out her bangs, Wren had cropped hers.
Why was she so determined to be different? Probably because she was embarrassed. Wren had always been the smart one, and Portia suffered in any comparison between the two.
At least coming to Seattle had proven to be a good decision. First, she’d been thrilled to discover she was actually going to be in a class taught by her aunt. She’d been worried there might be rules against that, but Aunt Dani had assured her that since the assignments and exams were all marked by TAs—teaching assistants—there wasn’t any conflict of interest.
Dani had always been Portia’s favorite aunt. Dani was so sophisticated, with beautiful clothes and an elegant way about her. She’d always been really sweet to her and Wren, bringing them gifts when she came to visit and listening to them like they were real people, not just mini versions of their mother—which was how Callan treated them sometimes.
Since she’d made the decision to attend UW her aunt had been especially kind. She’d picked her up at the airport, taken her shopping for clothes for rush week, and given her a tour of the campus. She’d explained to her about the various sororities and made recommendations on which ones she thought Portia would like the best.
Since Portia had settled into her sorority house, every Sunday night Dani invited her to dinner, in her beautiful modern condo with a view of the city. It was painted white with gray furniture and gleaming wooden floors. Real oil paintings were on the walls and all the appliances and lighting fixtures were high tech. One wall was floor to ceiling windows and you could look out at the Space Needle. Portia wanted to live in a place like that when she was older. But she still wasn’t sure how she’d earn the money to afford it.
She sure couldn’t see herself being smart enough to become a professor.
The lecture today was hard to understand, even though she’d done the required reading. She tried focusing harder on her aunt, who was moving confidently around the stage, not huddling behind the lectern and reading from notes the way some of Portia’s professors did.
“The simple fact is,” her aunt Dani was saying, “we don’t always see what we think we’re seeing. Our perception is more than what we take in with the five senses. It also includes the ability to detect changes in another person’s body position or movement. Does anyone know what we call that?”
A few of the students sitting lower down in the auditorium-style classroom called out some answers. Portia, at least, could recognize when she heard the correct one. It wasproprioception.
Despite her aunt’s advice to sit as close to the front in each class as was possible—the professors will remember you better that way—Portia was in one of the back rows, hidden among the almost seven hundred students. She was more comfortable here. She was pretty sure being remembered by her professors for being dumb wouldn’t work in her favor.
Her phone vibrated against the desk, signaling an incoming text message. Probably another from Wren. Unable to stop herself, Portia turned her phone over to read it.
“I haven’t talked to her all week. Have you?”
What was the matter with her? Her sister was getting paranoid. Placing the phone in her lap, Portia used both thumbs to make a quick reply.
“She must be busy.”
Portia wasn’t worried about her mother the way Wren was. She was annoyed. After making such a big fuss about them leaving, and insisting that the three of them Skype every Sunday afternoon, her mom had been the first to bail out. If her laptop wasn’t working, then she could have used the computer in Dad’s office.
Or bought a new one.
What kind of mother would go a whole week without checking in with her daughters. And no, text messages didnotcount.
Portia’s own proprioception kicked in then, and she glanced up to see that the students were filing out of the auditorium. Her aunt was no longer on the stage, she must have dismissed them and left already. She had to stop zoning out like this. From now on when she went to class she would turn her phone completely off, not just put it on stealth mode.
“Hey, Portia. Have you decided what to wear to the party tonight?”
A redhead with olive shaped green eyes, wearing trendy Citizen jeans that Portia coveted, but couldn’t afford, stopped by her desk. Kirsten was in her sorority, they’d met during rush week. Kirsten’s family lived in Portland, her father owned a car dealership and her mother managed an art gallery. Portia had seen pictures of all of this, including the mansion where Kirsten lived, the beautiful Irish Setter that was the family dog—and the gorgeous brother who was one year older, and also enrolled at UW.
For some reason Kirsten thought it was cool that Portia had grown up on a ranch and that her father was a rodeo cowboy. It wasn’t cool to Portia, though, when on the night they were all presented into the Greek system, almost every other girls’ parents came except her own.
Her dad had been at a rodeo, of course.
And her Mom hardly ever left the horses. “That’s the price of owning a ranch,” she’d say, whenever Portia complained about not getting to go on holidays like other families. Pretty much the only time they left home was to visit their grandfather and Aunt Callan in Marietta, or, occasionally to watch their father at a nearby rodeo.
But Kirsten didn’t get any of that, of course. She didn’t understand that owning a ranch meant waking up before the sun came out and scooping horse shit out of stalls. Kirsten watched YouTube videos of Portia’s father on the bucking bulls and gasped at how brave he must be.
“I should probably catch up on my reading.”
“We’ll go later, around ten?”
Portia didn’t commit. The late nights were beginning to get to her. The drinking, too.
The one thing she and Wren had in common was a distaste for alcohol, ingrained by their mother who almost never indulged herself with so much as a beer or a glass of wine. When she was a teenager her mom had given riding lessons to a girl named Neve Shepherd until Neve suddenly decided boys were way more cool than horses.
Shortly after that Neve ended up dead—the result of using alcohol and drugs at a prom night party.
Her Mom had been strongly affected by that. And she’d managed to pass her attitudes along to her daughters. Mostly because she’d never tried to be preachy or bossy about it.
Whether to drink or not will be your choice girls. I just hope you do what feels right to you—and don’t start drinking just to fit in with your friends. And never if you’re driving.
Kirsten was nice. Most of the time they ate dinner together and studied, or went to parties, in the evening. But lately, Portia had begun feeling a little hemmed in. Kirsten had a lot of ideas about the kind of people she liked—and the kind she didn’t.
And one of the guys Kirsten definitely didn’t like was moving toward them right now.
Hastily Portia slipped her laptop in her shoulder bag, then pocketed her phone, as a tall boy with long hair that brushed over his eyes, gave her a private smile. No, more like a grin. She’d noticed him watching her in classes before.
She didn’t know his name, only that he didn’t belong to any of the fraternities and none of her new friends seemed to like him. Kirsten joked about his cowboy boots, calling him apretend cowboybehind his back.
Kirsten’s eyes narrowed as she zeroed in on the guy, moving their way. Then she frowned and turned her back to block him from Portia’s view. “Want to grab some lunch?”
Without waiting for Portia’s response, she led the way into the hall.
* * *
Mattie cooked the steak for dinner, not expecting she’d be able to eat it. She surprised herself by finishing half, along with a baked potato and several spears of broccoli. Bless Nat, he’d known what she needed better than she had.
The TV was on, tuned to six-o’clock news so she wouldn’t be able to hear herself chew. Nothing she hated more since the twins had left than the quiet of mealtimes. When she’d had enough, she cleaned the kitchen, putting off the calls she’d promised herself she would make.
Finally, she dried her hands, then picked up her cell. Since she was most worried about Wren, she called her first.
“Mom! Thank God! Why haven’t you been answering your phone?”
Mattie smiled as she settled on the sofa like a cat, her body curled into the corner, with her legs tucked under her. Did Wren realize she sounded just like the mother here?
“Sorry, honey. It’s been a crazy week.” She wanted to skirt the truth. Not lie. “Plus, my throat has been acting up. It’s been difficult for me to talk.”
“Is it a cold? Are you okay?”
Her daughter’s concern was touching. Mattie blinked, not wanting to risk getting emotional, because one thing would most certainly snowball into another.
“I’m a lot better, today. Don’t worry. How are classes?”
“Crazy busy, but I love them all. Poli-sci is my absolute favorite. We’re reading about Plato—he’s amazing, Mom. Just brilliant. I can’t believe he lived more than two thousand years ago.”
Wren spent fifteen minutes talking about Greek philosophers, most of which Mattie couldn’t follow.
“—and we had to write an essay, and I had the highest mark in the class, Mom. The professor singled me out later and said he was really impressed and that I should participate more during class because I obviously had worthwhile things to say.”
“That’s wonderful, honey.” She was proud of her daughter, but then, she’d never had any doubt that Wren would excel at college level classes. “What are the other kids like in the class? Have you met anyone that you like?”
Wren went silent, and Mattie felt badly, knowing her question had taken the fizz out of her mood.
“Not really. But it’s okay. I’m super busy keeping on top of the work load.”
That was what Mattie had been afraid of. That Wren would throw herself into her studies and end up with zero social life. If only Wren had agreed to go to UW, then at least she could have visited her sister and aunt when she was lonely.
“Can I talk to Dad?” Wren asked, after Mattie had updated her on the well-being of the horses and the cats.
“Sorry, honey, but he isn’t home.”
“I thought he had a clear schedule for the two weeks after Billings?”
Trust Wren to be up-to-date with her father’s calendar. Often she knew better than Mattie where Wes was supposed to be on any given day.
“His plans changed and he had to go. But I’ll tell him you called and if he gets a chance he’ll get in touch.”
They said goodbye after that, exchanging “I love yous” and “I miss yous.”
Mattie called Portia next, which was easier, since Portia didn’t hit her with as many questions, or ask what was going on with her father. For twenty minutes Portia chatted about sorority parties and a new friend of hers named Kirsten. When Mattie turned the topic to her classes, Portia just sighed.
“They’re hard, Mom.”
Portia might have kept chatting for another twenty minutes, but a friend came to her room and so she finally said good-bye. Mattie put down her phone, then closed her eyes, thinking about her daughters, wishing they weren’t so far away. She was relieved that they both sounded okay. But that didn’t prevent her from feeling guilty about being out of touch for so long. Falling apart wasn’t an option when you were a mother. She would have to do better.
* * *
October was slipping away and with it, the long days that came with spring and summer in Montana. The advent of winter was almost harder to bear than the season itself. Five long months of snow and ice, cold, and dark lay ahead. Maybe Jake’s idea about heading south wasn’t so dumb.
Mattie had already been awake for an hour when the morning alarm went off. The news came on, but she couldn’t focus. Then the weather. A cold front was coming down from Canada. She didn’t want to get out of bed. The cheerful prattle from the radio announcer didn’t fool her.
She was alone.
No man was sleeping in the bed next to her, waiting to give her a good-morning hug. No children needed her to make lunches or hurry them along to catch the bus. Even the horses outside didn’t really need her. Jake could manage on his own, one more time, if he had to.
But. She’d promised herself that this morning she would do it, resume her life, in some form or fashion.
So she hauled her body out of the bed then pulled on her work clothes.
Her first sip of coffee promised her she could do this.
She could face the cold, the work... the emptiness.
Fifteen days since Wes had left. The longest she’d been alone in her life.
Maybe she’d feel different, stronger, more capable, if she hadn’t married so young. But she’d moved from her childhood home to this one. Babies coming along so soon, she and Wes had less than a year to enjoy being newlyweds.
Taking her to-go cup with her, Mattie went to the mudroom and piled on the layers, then added her boots, gloves and hat. Outside a lightening of the sky promised that morning would be coming. Eventually. Her gaze snagged on the two sugar maples that the girls had brought home in third grade after a school trip to a nursery.
Maples weren’t indigenous to Flathead Valley and Mattie had babied those trees. Putting up chicken wire to protect the trunks and watering them faithfully during the hot, dry summers. Now they rewarded her every autumn with brilliant red leaves that stood out from the gold of the aspen and cottonwoods. They’d been at their peak the last time she’d come out to do chores. This morning, however, less than a dozen leaves remained on the slender gray branches. What made some leaves cling harder than others? Were they in denial that the season was changing, or just hanging in there to enjoy one more day?
She turned from the depressing sight and made her way to the barn.
Jake was in the feed room, wearing his winter parka and a knitted cap instead of his usual Stetson.
“Damn cold,” he said, after giving her a quick once-over.
They worked silently for the next hour, the repetitious chores a soothing balm on the ache of her heart. Every horse got an extra pat from Mattie that morning. Their nose butts and whispered nickers brought tears to her eyes.
Ever since she’d been a child she’d known that if you treated an animal kindly, they’d give you affection and loyalty in exchange. Never once had this equation failed her. And never once had it meant as much as it did today, especially with the specter of a potential sale looming in her future.
When they were finished in the barn, she and Jake went out to flake hay into the corrals where the majority of the horses were kept. The eastern sky was lighter now, and Mattie leaned against the whitewashed fence to take in the view.
There were ten horses in this pasture, all of them familiar, beautiful animals, who moved with the grace of dancers as they shook out their kinks from the night and welcomed the new day. In the distance a layer of mist clung to Flathead Lake, and the air held a stillness that seemed almost mystical.
In all the years of her marriage, this view never failed to fill her with awe. Even though Bishop land lay before her, almost as far as she could see, she had never been filled with a sense of ownership. The very idea that one person could lay claim to a tree, a field, a lake, seemed full of gall to Mattie.
No, she preferred to think of herself as a steward of the land. Here to enjoy and reap blessings before giving up her space to the next generation.
She’d imagined herself growing old living here—with Wes.
She’d pictured them riding horses still, when their hair was gray and their middles were thickening. She’d seen them hosting family meals on holidays, and sitting alone on the porch after everyone was gone.
If Wes wasn’t coming back, if he really was going to sell this land, what would her future look like?
She didn’t have a clue.
And that was terrifying.
The fence shifted a little as Jake came up beside her and propped his boot on the first rung.
“We should get that pump repaired before it gets much colder,” he said.
She nodded. “You think the horses are dreading the winter as much as we are?” Her gaze was on Wes’s horse now. Whiskey Chaser and her favorite mare, Rosie, named for her disposition, were standing parallel to each other, each facing opposite directions, the way horses often do.
“Nah,” Jake scoffed. “Horses been living in these hills long before ranchers started building barns and filling food troughs. They’re tougher than we are. Built for survival. I think they prefer this weather to the scorching days of summer. And frankly, so do I.”
It was a funny admission from a man who had recently threatened to pack up and head south. The upward twist of his lips told her he recognized the irony himself.
“You okay?” he asked.
It was his first reference to what was going on with her and Wes. Mattie nodded, suddenly afraid to speak in case sobs came out instead of words.
“I’ve been at Bishop Stable for almost forty years,” Jake said, his tone slow and thoughtful. “Wes’s folks, Garth and Jude, were all about the business. They cared about the horses, but even more they cared about their reputation and doing things right. They weren’t what you’d call warm. They treated Wes just fine, the same as they did the horses, actually...”
His voice trailed off and Mattie was left to her own thoughts of the Bishops. She’d been worried about impressing them when she first started dating Wes, but they’d been so hard to read that even today she wasn’t sure if they’d liked her or not.
They’d moved into town after she and Wes were married, but Garth had continued to come out to the ranch most days of the week and Jude had kept up the garden and put away her preserves every fall.
Jude had been the first to pass away, ten years ago now, from ovarian cancer. Garth had died five years later. Mattie had been surprised and saddened by how little they were missed by Wes and the twins.
“The Bishops built this ranch and established a first-rate reputation for the horses. But when you moved in, Mattie, you made this place a home. Those girls of yours laughed more in one day than Wes did his entire childhood.” Jake sighed. “What I’m trying to say is, whatever happens here on, you should know you did good work here.”
“Thanks Jake.” Montana ranchers didn’t do compliments. Which made his words all the more meaningful to her. But how much did he know? “Has Wes told you about—his plans?”
“Not yet. But I know that boy. Stews over problems in his head, makes up his mind and only then does he talk.”
Yes. That was Wes all right. “He’s left me, Jake. And he wants to sell the ranch.”
Jake’s sidelong glance didn’t reveal any surprise. “His interest in the horses has been slipping for years. But your marriage—that I didn’t see coming. I’m sorry, Mattie.”
She leaned over the fence, resting her head. Jake’s hand settled on her shoulder, warm and solid.
“Makes me wonder what I’ve been doing the past twenty years when I thought I was investing in my family.”
“That’s exactly what you did. And you were successful at it. Some people think that if something isn’t permanent, it doesn’t count. But everything changes in this world. You’ll still have your family Mattie—and good memories besides. Keep them close. You earned them.”
For Jake, it was quite the speech. Mattie straightened her back. “You’re a wise man, Jake. Makes me wish you were more of a talker.”
He chuckled. “Me a talker? Not likely.” He pushed away from the fence. “Better get back to work. You got time for a ride this afternoon? Valley Girl could use some work.”
Mattie nodded. The fresh air and exercise would be good for her as well as the horse. Of course no one understood that better than Jake.
“Make sure you take your phone with you,” Jake cautioned.
It was Mattie’s turn to chuckle. “Never thought I’d hear you say those words tome,Jake.”
“Change, Mattie. Happens to all of us.”
* * *
After lunch Mattie worked Valley Girl in the arena for half an hour, taking her through her paces, before heading out on one of her favorite, and shorter, trail rides, following Chatterbox Creek up into the low hills, then running along the crest of Ponderosa Hill before returning along the lake-side slope which offered one of the more picturesque views of Bishop Stables.
Mattie took her time showering, drying, and grooming Valley Girl, crooning to the horse as she worked, the radio playing softly in the background, set as usual to Jake’s favorite country station.
He’d gone out to buy parts for the pump, but he’d be back in time to handle the evening feeding. She knew he wouldn’t mind if she left him to it, and went inside for a shower of her own. But before she made it to the house, Nat Diamond’s grey truck appeared on the road and she watched as he slowed and pulled into her lane.
Mattie rubbed her hands clean on her jeans as she walked toward him. She didn’t want to analyze why her heart suddenly felt lighter. Nat was a neighbor and a friend. Why shouldn’t she be glad to see him? She waited for him to park and open his door. “You have a knack for catching me at my best.”
He stepped down from the cab, wearing jeans, boots, and a sheepskin jacket. The man was so damn handsome, all decked out like a model on the cover ofWestern Horseman. It wasn’t fair.
“Dirt suits you. Been out for a ride?”
“Yeah.” The sun had broken through the clouds around one o’clock and the day had actually turned quite warm. “Enjoying the last of the fall colors.”
“Good. I brought you a gift. But maybe you don’t need it.” He pulled out a shopping bag and handed it to her.
She peered inside and grinned when she saw several boxes of tissues and canisters of tea. “Seems like I’ve got myself a reputation.”
“Some women like flowers. But you’ve always been unique.” He hesitated. “I brought something else. You don’t have to keep it. Just thought it might come in handy...”
It was unusual for Nat to look unsure of himself. She watched as he reached down to the floor on the passenger side of the truck and then gasped when he pulled out a small dog carrier. Inside were two border collie puppies.
“Twelve weeks old,” Nat announced, as he freed them from the padded carrier. The two puppies looked to be all hair, with dark noses and adorable round eyes. “I ordered one of them a while ago. Asked to bring along one of her litter mates. In case you wanted one. But I can see you’re not a dog person.”
She was on the ground, scooping up the puppies, petting them and laughing. “Oh, they’re so sweet. I wish Wren and Portia could see them.”
“Take a video with your phone, then send it to them.” Nat kneeled beside her and scooped up one of the dogs. “This is Buffy. She’s mine.”
Mattie could tell they’d already bonded. “You named your dog after a vampire slayer?”
Nat looked confused. “The breeder named her. I didn’t know Buffy was a—what did you say? Vampire slayer?”
“I’ll lend you the DVDs sometime. Portia has the entire collection.” As she spoke, her eyes were on the other puppy. Almost identical to Buffy, but with a different look around her eyes. “Did the breeder name this one?”
“Tuffy,” Nat admitted, his tone somewhat apologetic. “Want to guess what the other two puppies were called?”
He laughed. “Yup. And the last?”
“Hopefully not Huffy.”
“Buffy, Muffy, Fluffy and Tuffy,” Mattie repeated. “Wow.”
“You could always change the name. If you want to keep her, that is. Like I said before, no obligation. I just thought having a dog around the place might be a good idea.”
Mattie picked up Tuffy and buried her nose in her soft hair. She understood what Nat was thinking. A woman living on her own in the country needed protection. A dog could offer that. But by the time Tuffy was big enough to ward off strangers, would Mattie still be living here?
The truth was, getting a dog right now didn’t make any sense. What if she ended up living in town? Or, God forbid, back at her father’s place on the Circle C? Having a dog in tow could make things really complicated.
But then Tuffy cocked her head to one side. God, she was cute.
It was too late for logic. She was in love.
“I’ll keep her.”CHAPTER SIX
“The puppy was genius. Tell me again about this neighbor who brought her?”
Sage was on the floor by the fireplace, playing tug-of-war with Tuffy with one of the toys Nat had left behind.
Turned out he’d come prepared with everything Mattie needed to become an instant dog owner. There was special puppy food, a dish, a bed, and several toys. And the cutest little collar.
Once he’d helped her carry everything inside, Nat had left, refusing her invitation to stay for dinner, which was just as well because no sooner had Mattie taken the puppy with her to the bathroom and had a shower, than her sister Sage had shown up unexpectedly. It was a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Marietta, and so not an easy trip. Mattie had hugged her sister fiercely.
“You didn’t have to do this.”
“I just wanted to. But I can’t stay long. We have a big party at the store on Halloween so I’ll have to leave after lunch tomorrow.”
Sage had brought dinner—butter chicken and rice—which was now reheating in the oven. She’d also packed chocolate, of course. A box of her salted caramel chocolates and several of her signature milk-chocolate cowboy hats. Since Sage preferred dark chocolate, Mattie knew these were for her.
Mattie was thankful she’d not only showered, but dried her hair and put on jeans and a nice sweater as well, because Sage looked fabulous.
She’d recently cut her thick, wavy red hair, and was wearing a new shade of lipstick that suited her ivory complexion perfectly.
Or... maybe it wasn’t the haircut and lipstick that made Sage look so beautiful. Happiness glowed like a halo around her. Mattie remembered her talking about a cowboy the last time they’d been together, at the Copper Mountain Rodeo in their hometown of Marietta.
Back then Sage had sounded annoyed that this dude from her past had the nerve to come tohertown. What was his name again?
“Oh, you’re so sweet!” Sage kissed the puppy, then released her end of the tug toy. “You win. It’s time for me to make a salad to go with that curry.”
“It smells delish,” Mattie admitted, not sure whether to follow Sage to the kitchen and help chop veggies, or stay here and make sure Tuff didn’t have an accident. Fortunately most of the flooring in her house was wood, however so far Tuff was showing a preference for the handmade Pendleton rug that she and Wes had splurged on five years ago.
Wes. She couldn’t go five minutes without thinking of him. She wondered how he’d feel about the puppy. They’d had a dog when the twins were little, but when Sparky died at the age of twelve, they’d all been so heartbroken they’d decided to wait a few years before getting another.
Noticing a sudden restlessness in Tuff, Mattie picked her up and took her out to the yard. Sure enough, after wandering and sniffing for a few minutes, Tuff peed beside one of the maples.
“Good, Tuff. Good.” Mattie heaped her with praise and gave her one of the doggie treats from her pocket before taking her back inside. The rich, spicy aroma of Sage’s cooking had her immediately feeling hungrier than she’d been in weeks.
She blockaded the dining area with chairs, so Tuff couldn’t escape, then set out plates and cutlery while Sage served the curry, rice and salad. “It sure is nice to be waited on.”
“Good. You deserve it.” Sage took the spot—Wes’s spot—to Mattie’s left. “Now, tell me about the neighbor who dropped off Tuff.”
“Not much to tell. We’ve known Nat Diamond forever. He has a huge ranch, even bigger than the Circle C. Back when we had more horses we used to graze on some of his land.”
“Does he have a family?” Sage spooned a mound of fluffy brown rice onto her plate.
“Both his parents have passed away. A few years later, he did marry a woman from Seattle, but that didn’t last long. She couldn’t hack the ranching lifestyle.”
“Not everyone can.”
Mattie knew Sage included herself in this category. “So what happened with that cowboy friend of yours who came to Marietta for the rodeo? Callan told me he helped with the fall roundup this year. Did pretty well for a greenhorn, she said.”
Down in Paradise Valley winter came early and cattle were moved out of the hills at least three or four weeks sooner than here by the Flathead.
“Callan invited him, not me. But I ended up being glad she did. Dawson and I—well, we’ve mended fences, you might say.”
“Didn’t you tell me he’d been married? And that he has a daughter?”
“Savannah is a great kid. As for the wife—that’s over. Before we hooked up again, I made sure Dawson had the official divorce papers.”
The word hit the air like a bomb blast, reverberating long after both sisters had fallen silent.
Divorce. Divorce. Divorce.
A word that just one month ago, Mattie never would have thought would apply to her.
Her first few tastes of the butter chicken had been delicious. Now she set down her fork, convinced she couldn’t handle another mouthful.
Sage looked concerned and apologetic. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Don’t be silly. No sense avoiding the subject, since I know that’s why you’re here.” She reached over to squeeze Sage’s hand. “Something I very much appreciate by the way.”
“Of course I came. I’ve been worried sick since your call. Have you heard anything from Wes?”
“Nothing. Not a word in sixteen days.” She watched the puppy... tired from all her frolicking, she’d finally fallen asleep on the fuzzy dog bed Nat had given them. “I don’t even know where he is.”
Sage’s eyes widened. Mattie could tell that she hadn’t expected the situation to be this dire.
“Rodeo weekend you told me he’d been badly shaken when a buddy was killed last spring.”
“Yes. Dex Cooper. He was about five years younger than Wes. And it must have been awful for Wes to see it happen to someone he knew personally. Normally he talked to me about stuff like that, but this time he didn’t say a word. It was eating at him, though, I could tell. I thought maybe he’d finally retire. I didn’t expect—"
She stopped, not needing to say the rest.
“Why would you expect him to leave you? You guys were so good together.”
“I thought so,” Mattie said softly.
“Youwere,” Sage insisted. “And you will be again. Don’t give up too easily. Sixteen days seems like a long time now, but when you compare it to twenty years of marriage, it’s just a hiccup.”
Mattie really wished her sister was right and this stormy period was something that could pass. But she hadn’t told Sage everything. So she filled her in about the key and the phone call from the mystery woman. “The signs point to Wes having an affair...”
She waited for Sage to disagree. But she didn’t.
“Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. But even if Wes has been unfaithful, that doesn’t have to spell the end.”
“Are you kidding me?”
Her sister studied her closer, her gaze intense. Then she took a deep breath. “I have a secret to tell you. I’ve kept it from you, Dani, and Callan for a long time. But I think it may help you see your current situation differently.”
“What is it?” She could tell the secret was a big one. And if anyone in their family was capable of keeping quiet about something important, it would be Sage.
“Let’s talk in the family room,” Sage said. “I’ve lost my appetite and I see you have too.”
Mattie cleared the plates, feeling guilty for ruining a meal that her sister had gone to so much effort to prepare. While she stored the food in the fridge so they could eat it later, Sage set a couple of birch logs in the fireplace, started the fire, then brewed a pot of tea.
Once the work was done, Mattie tucked herself into her favorite corner of the sofa, feeling cozy and safe. Sage curled up at the other end, resting her feet on the large oak coffee table.
“So what’s the big secret?”
Sage looked uneasy. “I hope what I’m about to tell you doesn’t change how you feel about Mom.”
Suddenly apprehensive, Mattie asked, “Why would it?”
“I know how close you two were. You were always her favorite.”
“Not true,” Mattie said automatically, though she suspected it sort of was. Not that her mother had loved her more than her sisters. But she’d been the only one of Beverly Carrigan’s daughters to give birth to grandchildren and after the twins were born, during the weeks Mom came to stay with her on the ranch, they’d had so many opportunities to share stories and experiences, to bond as women, rather than as mother and daughter.
“You’re the oldest. Which automatically means you had more years with her than the rest of us.”
Their mother had died, tragically, when the twins were only two years old. The accident happened after midnight, on a cold night in March. She’d been in the barn with her husband, trying to help a cow manage a difficult delivery.
The cow had gone wild and rammed her poor mother into the concrete wall of the barn.
Death had been instant. No suffering, the doctor told them later, which was of some comfort, at least.
The damn cow and her calf had been fine. Her father had sold both, wanting them off the ranch. But of course, the sale had come too late. Nothing could change the outcome. Or the awful knowledge that their mother, who had always been terribly nervous around cattle, would only have been helping under duress.
“I was twenty-two when Mom died. So you were—”
“Gosh. So young.”
“Callan was only eight,” Sage pointed out. “I wonder why there were so many years between us? Five between you and Dani. Then four more between Dani and me, and another four between me and Callan. Did Mom have trouble getting pregnant?”
“She never said so.” Mattie was still mulling over how young Callan and Sage had been when their Mom died. Maybe that was why they didn’t seem to harbor the same anger toward Hawksley that she did.
Her bad feelings toward her father had even deeper roots than her Mom’s death, dating back to the arguments she’d overheard from behind their parents’ closed-and-locked bedroom door.
Hawksley had an awful temper.
And no one had borne the brunt more than his wife.
“Given what a beast dad was, I’m surprised she stayed in the marriage as long as she did. She would have had options.” Their mother had been born Beverly Bramble, after all, an ancestor of the original Brambles who founded Marietta. They’d built a fortune on the copper buried into the mountain of the same name. And diversified into banking once the ore was depleted.
The original Bramble Manor was still one of the grandest homes in Marietta. These days Great Aunt Mable lived in the stately Victorian, along with cousin Eliza, who had turned the place into a bed-and-breakfast and was reported to be writing a family history.
“There are always two sides in any marriage, Mat. That’s kind of what my secret is about.”
For a moment Mattie was reminded of her own marital woes. Did Wes have a list of grievances against her? If so, she wished he’d at least given her a chance to hear them. “Compared to Hawksley, Mom was a saint.”
“I know you’ve always thought that.” Sage took her feet off the table and shifted into a more upright position. She gazed at the crackling fire for a moment, absent-mindedly twisting a strand of her hair at the same time.
“Because it’s true,” Mattie said, feeling suddenly tense and uncertain.
“Is it? I saw something, Mat. About a year before Mom’s accident.”
The room fell quiet, the only sound the snapping and popping from the fire. Tuff picked that moment to wake up and come looking for them. Mattie pulled the little fluff ball into her lap, where she settled immediately back to sleep.
“I was home from school. Sick with a fever, at first, but then I felt better and decided to sneak into Mom’s room to play with her jewelry and makeup.”
They’d all done that when they were little girls. Their mother had owned a beautiful vanity table, a family heirloom, with dozens of intriguing drawers and hidey-holes.
“Only the door was locked. And not thinking that someone must be in there—because it was early afternoon and the room was always empty during the day—I took a pin and unlocked it.”
Mattie could read her sister’s face well enough to guess that she’d interrupted a sexual act. But—“who was Mom with?”
“It wasn’t Dad. It was—Mr. Sheenan. And, oh God, Mattie, it was so appalling to me at the time. They were having oral sex.”
Mattie supposed she shouldn’t be shocked. But she sure as hell was.
The Sheenans owned the ranch next to theirs. Their mother had died much earlier, leaving Bill Sheenan to raise five boys and a daughter on his own.
Ever since she’d start school, Mattie had been cautioned to stay away from those “Sheenan brats” by her father. She’d assumed it was a dispute over water rights that had bred the dislike between the two families.
Now she realized the problems were a lot more... personal.
“Frankly, given what a jerk dad was, I don’t blame Mom for having an affair.”
“Maybe not. But here’s the weirdest part. At the steak dinner after the rodeo last month, Bill Sheenan came up to me and apologized for what I’d seen. All these years later! I couldn’t believe he had the nerve.”
“He must have been feeling guilty for a very long time.”
“I guess. But dad saw him talking to me, and came up and popped him one on the jaw.”
Mattie had seen the fight. “So that’s what was behind it!” Their father had made them all leave the barbecue after that, without saying a word about what was going on.
“I talked to Dad later and found out he knew about the affair. Had known all along.”
“Really? Then why didn’t he ask for a divorce?”
“That’s what I wondered. And Dad told me that there were worse ways you could hurt someone you’d married than by cheating on them.”
“Wow.” Mattie would never have expected to hear something so... understanding... from her Dad. She had always pictured him as a man who saw things in black and white. Sons—good. Daughters—useless.
“Incredible, isn’t it?”
“And you’ve kept this secret for how long?”
“More than a decade.”
It was a heavy weight for a young girl to have carried. Mattie suspected it had taken a toll. She remembered Sage as a young girl—she’d been real chatty, with a sunny disposition and an easy-going nature.
But Sage had changed as she’d gotten older. Become quiet and thoughtful. And this was why. It had to be.
“I’m so sorry you had to deal with this on your own, Sage. I wish you’d confided in someone. Like maybe me?”
“At first I was too scared to say anything. I was afraid Mom would leave us. Then, after she died, I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s memory of her.”
“No wonder you make chocolates for a living. You are the sweetest, Sage. You really are.” Mattie stroked the puppy’s soft fur, and considered Sage’s reasons for exposing this big secret today. To her.
“You’re trying to say that even if Wes has been unfaithful I shouldn’t automatically give up on my marriage.”
“At least talk to him.”
“I want to. He’s the one who’s gone into hiding.”
“Then find him, Mattie. Don’t leave it too late.”CHAPTER SEVEN
As Mattie tried to fall asleep that night, her conversation with her sister kept repeating in her brain. Should she be trying to reach Wes?
She lifted the cell phone, which she kept next to her pillow. No missed calls, emails or text messages. Nothing.
Why this wall of utter silence from Wes?
Was he waiting to hear from her?
That didn’t make sense. Wes had been the one to say he wanted to leave. And he’d done it. His silence proved he didn’t love her anymore.
Still, Mattie’s thumb hovered over Wes’s name on her contact list. It was past midnight. Where was he? Would he take her call if she had the nerve to hit that button?
Even if he did—she had no idea what to say. And there was always the possibility that that woman would answer. Mattie didn’t know if she could bear the certain knowledge that her husband was having an affair.
And yet her father had done it.
Sage’s revelation about their mother’s affair was still difficult for Mattie to believe. How long had the affair gone on? And why had Hawksley put up with it? The man Mattie knew as her father did not offer forgiveness or second chances very often.
Maybe he’d understood that it was his own lack of kindness and loving that had chased his wife into the arms of another man?
No one could say the same of her and Wes, though. From the beginning they’d been affectionate in privateandin public. The twins would sometimes complain when they kissed for too long in places like restaurants or street corners. But Mattie had loved Wes’s demonstrativeness.
That, too, had eased off recently, she realized, when she couldn’t recall the last time they’d shared a kiss in front of others.
Or made love.
Damn, how long had her marriage been crumbling without her even noticing?
* * *
Cooking apples and cinnamon. Fresh brewed coffee. French toast and maple syrup. Mattie rolled over in bed, trying to decide if these delicious smells could possibly have been conjured in a dream. Then she heard the sounds of dishes being unloaded from the dishwasher. Hell, Sage must have gotten up before her. How was that possible?
She reached for her phone and saw with dismay that it was after eight. Outside there was just a hint of daylight peeking through the curtains.
Suddenly she was reminded of how it had felt to be a little girl, on Saturday mornings, sleeping in and being woken by her Mom calling that breakfast was ready so get it while it’s hot. She so hadn’t appreciated how lucky she’d been in those days. If only she could have her Mom back for one day to tell her thank-you for those hundreds of breakfasts that had been made with love and devoured so carelessly.
Like so many things in life, the wisdom of appreciation came too late.
She grabbed her robe and headed to the kitchen, where she found Sage dusting powdered sugar over the French toast. Tuff was licking the floor by her feet where something yummy must have spilled.
“Oh my God. You’re amazing Sage. You made Mom’s breakfast.”
Her younger sister had such beautiful skin that she looked fresh and pretty, even first thing in the morning. Her loveliness only increased with her smile. “I haven’t had French toast for years. But I woke up craving it. Hope you don’t mind that I commandeered the kitchen.”
“You’re kidding, right? Like I would mind. I thought I was dreaming all those delicious aromas. I was afraid to open my eyes.” She gave Tuff a cuddle, then glanced out the window at the morning fog and sighed. “Poor Jake. He had to do the morning chores on his own again.”
“Not totally. I probably wasn’t as much help as you, but I did try.”
“What time did you get up?”
“Early. Tuff has been fed and taken out to pee, as well.”
“You’re an angel.”
“Pretty much.” Sage placed two slices of the prepared toast on a plate, smothered it in cooked apples and cinnamon, then passed it to her. “Eat up. You hardly had a bite of dinner.”
Was that why she felt so famished now?
Her first taste was heavenly. “Tell me more about this new guy of yours. Dawson O’Dell.”
“Want to see some pictures?” Sage set her breakfast plate next to Mattie’s then sat beside her and passed over her phone.
Between bites of scrumptious maple-infused French toast, Mattie scrolled through several pictures of a dark-blond cowboy with a laid-back air and the hint of a smile on his lips. He lacked Wes’s confident, almost cocky air. Instead—“There’s something kind of sweet about him, isn’t there?”
“He has the biggest heart,” Sage agreed. “You should see him with his daughter. He’s such a rock. Kind, but firm and so patient.”
The two sisters exchanged a glance. Their father had possessed only one of those qualities, and they weren’t kindness or patience.
“So he’s really moved to Marietta to stay? He’s quit the rodeo?”
“Yup. That’s part of the reason it took him so long to come and find me. Not only did he need to extricate himself from his failed marriage, but he also took courses and earned his degree in criminology. Now he has a full-time position as deputy sheriff and he and Savannah live in a super cute house on Bramble Lane.”
“Does his daughter like Marietta?”
“She seems to. Though I’m not sure she believes they’re really in town to stay. Her life has been a series of moves from one place to another and she finds the routine of school somewhat tedious. You should have seen her expression when Dawson explained she’d have to keep going until she was at least eighteen.”
Mattie couldn’t wait to meet this kid. She sounded like a real firecracker. “What about Dawson’s ex-wife? Why doesn’t she have custody of their daughter?”
“Gina’s quite the character. Apparently she falls in and out of romantic relationships with regularity and ends up following these guys all over the country. Mostly she’s happy to leave Savannah with Dawson, but he’s nervous since legally they have joint custody and he’s afraid one day she’ll show up in town and want to take Savannah away from him.”
The mention of custody had Mattie’s stomach turning over. Just about the only good thing about her current predicament was that the twins were old enough that she and Wes would never have to fight about things like custody. “Can he get the agreement changed so he has sole custody?”
“He’s talked to his lawyer about it. But getting Gina to sign any sort of legal document is unbelievably hard.” Sage sighed. “It worries me sometimes that Dawson married such a dipstick.”
“Well, he obviously learned from his mistakes.” Mattie affectionately bumped her shoulder against Sage’s. “Or am I jumping to conclusions when I assume the two of you will end up as husband and wife?”
Sage couldn’t stop a smile from revealing the truth. “He’s already asked me. I told him he had to wait a year for my answer.”
“I need to make sure that all the changes he’s made are going to stick.”
“Is he really so different from the cowboy you first fell in love with?”
“That’s a good question. At heart—no. Or I wouldn’t have fallen in love with him all over again.”
Mattie was satisfied with that answer. She was glad that Sage had finally found her place in this world. Too often in the past Sage had seemed a little sad, a little lost. Maybe it was carrying the burden of their mother’s secret that had weighed her down. As the oldest sister, she should have been there for Sage. But it was too late to fix that now. All she could do was feel glad that Sage finally seemed happy. She really did have it all. A career that fulfilled her. A man to cherish her.
It was almost as if she and Sage were balanced on a teeter-totter. Once Mattie had been up and Sage down. Now it was the other way around. The image wasn’t a satisfactory one. Mattie knew that whatever setbacks she was facing now, ultimately she would get through them and be happy again.
But there were still many hurdles to get over before that could happen. First among them was talking to Wes. If he was serious about leaving her then they had to break the news to the twins. Hopefully together.
The secret of her mother’s affair, however, had given Mattie new hope. If her parents had weathered such a big storm in their marriage, maybe she and Wes could too. Other than that key and the phone call from the strange woman, she had no reason to believe he was having an affair. Despite all his travel, she knew he’d never slept around. Gossip traveled fast on the rodeo circuit and she and her family had a lot of friends. If Wes had been a cheat—she would have heard.
For all she knew he was already regretting what he’d done and was too ashamed to make the first move. Later today, after Sage left to drive back to Marietta, she was going to be the bigger person and call him. She had to at least give him a chance to make things right.
* * *
Nat had been expecting to hear from Wes Bishop. Still he felt unprepared when he saw his neighbor’s name on his phone display. Nat was in his office, reviewing blueprints with Timothy Dundas, the architect he’d hired to make modifications to the sprawling ranch home he’d inherited from his parents. The two of them had been talking for over an hour and gone through three cups of coffee each. At this point they were pretty much done.
He pointed at his phone. “Sorry, Tim, I need to talk to this guy. The plans look great. Thanks for dropping them off.”
“No problem. Let me know when you’re ready to start the work.”
Nat handed over an envelope containing a progress payment toward the project and then the two men shook hands. From the outside they were as different as two Montana born men could be. Nat was tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in work clothes and boots that had a little caked mud between the soles and the leather, whereas Timothy was thin and sophisticated, with wool trousers and a cashmere sweater and loafers that looked fresh out of the box.
Despite their outer differences, they shared an appreciation for aesthetics and Nat knew he’d hired the right man for the job. He clapped his shoulder and thanked him again, before opening the office door.
Eadie Johnston, Nat’s housekeeper of fifteen years, was waiting in the hall to see Timothy out. Eadie looked after the five-thousand square foot house, plus made him dinner four nights a week. Kept her recipes and her opinions to herself—best job security going, she liked to say, usually with a grin, because she knew how invaluable she was around here.
Nat closed the door behind his departed visitor and hit the “Talk” button on his cell phone. “Hey there, Wes.”
“Nat. How are you?”
The question was meant as a pleasantry and that was how Nat answered it. “Fine. You?”
“Not bad.” Some background noises escalated, then a door slammed shut and there was silence. “Sorry. Just got myself a coffee, now I’m back in my truck.”
“How’s the weather?” Nat asked, wanting a clue as to the man’s location.
“Skiff of snow. Cold. Usual Montana shit.”
So he was still in the state, at least. “No snow here. At least not yet.”
“Won’t be long,” Wes predicted. “Anyway, the reason for the call is I was thinking of selling Bishop Stables. Of course you’d be my first choice as a buyer. Any interest in expanding? Barns are all in good shape. And you can’t beat the views, as you well know."
“This is kind of sudden.” And, then, he couldn’t resist adding, “What does Mattie think about it?”
“She doesn’t own the land. I do. And you shouldn’t be surprised. I never took to the horse breeding operation the way my folks did. I figure I’m best to clear out while I’m young enough to try something new.”
He’d bet serious money Wes wasn’t just talking about a career here, but a different woman, too. If the man had been standing in front of him, Nat would have been tempted to punch him in the nose.
“You might miss it more than you think. Maybe you should sleep on this idea for a bit.”
“Is that your way of saying you aren’t interested?”
“I never said that.” Last thing he wanted was to have the Bishop’s land end up with some unknown third party.
“Let me think on it.”
“I’ll give you a week. Then I’m putting the place on the market.”
“Don’t rush me, Wes. No one will give you a fairer price than I will.”
“That’s why I’m talking to you first. But I can’t wait forever, Nat. Think fast—okay?”
And then the call was over.
Nat placed his phone on the gleaming surface of his walnut desk. He was an orderly man, one who kept his papers in file folders and knick-knacks to a minimum. So he had a lot of clear desk space. Which helped him to think.
He spread his large, work-roughened hands over the smooth walnut, and thought back over the generations of Diamond men who had sat at this desk and made decisions about the future.
What would his father, or grandfather, have done if they’d been in this situation?
He had no doubt about the answer. They would have put in an offer on the spot. And they would have started low.
After all, Wes Bishop wasn’t in the best bargaining situation. First of all, he was in a hurry. Disadvantage number one.
Second, his chances of finding a buyer who wanted to continue breeding Tennessee Walkers was close to zero. Horse breeding was a dying business and had been for years. Wes might get lucky and find a family to buy the house. But the barns, the arena and other outbuildings? Those would be mostly worthless.
To everyone but him.
He could convert the barns—use them for cattle. The extra land would mean he could increase the herd. His dad, his grandfather, they wouldn’t have hesitated. But Nat wasn’t in the same situation as they had been. And not only because he didn’t have any children to pass this on to. The last few years he’d been doing the opposite of expanding. Nearly thirty percent of his land was currently leased and his herd was smaller than it had ever been.
So no. Buying this land would not be a logical move.
After a few more minutes reflection, Nat picked up his phone and called a woman whose husband had once worked for him. Bernie Howes had been pregnant with their first baby when her husband started drinking on the job. Nat had considered firing him. That was what his foreman, Seth Richards, had wanted him to do. Instead, he’d counseled the guy, talked him around to attending the local AA meeting. Found him a sponsor.
Now Bernie, who worked for the most successful realtor in Flathead Valley, thought he walked on water.
“Hey there, Nat. What can I do for you?”
“Just wondering if you’d heard any rumors about the Bishop place going on the block?” There was a reason he’d chosen to talk to Bernie and not one of the realtors who worked at the firm. Bernie understood the merits of discretion. He could trust her not to use his call as a basis for starting a rumor.
“Not a word,” she answered, an edge of speculation in her voice. “Have you?”
“Maybe. But this is just between you and me.”
“If youshouldhear anything, though...”
“I’ll give you a call right away.”
“Text message would be fastest.”
“You got it, Nat.”
“Thanks.” He ended the call and placed the phone in his pocket this time. He ought to get out to the barn. Plans for the roundup happening in just four days needed to be finalized with Seth. But he couldn’t seem to clear his head.
He’d never doubted that the problems between Mattie and her husband were real. But hearing from Wes directly, well, that cemented things.
There’d been a time when he might have considered moving in on what Wes no longer appreciated. But that option wasn’t open to him now. The best he could do was protect her interests. And if that meant buying land and outbuildings that he had no use for—so be it.
* * *
Sage departed for Marietta shortly after they’d polished off the leftover butter chicken, around two in the afternoon. Mattie hugged her sister tightly before letting her climb behind the driver’s seat. “You’re dangerous for my waistline, but amazing for my state of mind. Thanks for being here, Sage. It meant a lot.”
“That’s what family’s for. But next time, you come up to Marietta. It would be good for you to get away for a while.”
Sage’s intentions were good, but she was wrong. Mattie always kept her visits to the Circle C few and far between for one reason. Her father Hawksley. She didn’t think it was her imagination that Hawksley was harder on her than he was on the other girls. And that was saying something, since he wasn’t exactly easy on any of them.
Of course part of the reason their relationship was so fractious was because she’d always blamed him for being so hard on Mom. Now that she knew there’d been another side to that story, maybe she could be more tolerant of her father’s rough ways.
But that was a theory to be tested when she felt stronger.
“I’ll be in touch,” she promised her sister, side-stepping the subject of a visit.
When Sage started the engine, Mattie picked up Tuff who had followed them outside. She didn’t want to risk the little puppy getting run over. Tuff wriggled and squeaked until Sage was out of the lane and driving toward the highway and finally Mattie was able to set her down.
“Do your business,” she told Tuff, rewarding the pup with a treat when she did.
Though her mind was on the call she intended to make to Wes, Mattie decided to put it off until later and spend a few hours working with Rosie. She took Tuff out to the barn with her—the dog might as well start getting used to the horses now, since she’d be living her life with them.
Mattie pushed aside the worrying possibility that the ranch might be sold. For now she’d try to stay positive. Sage’s visit had left her with hope and she was clinging to it as long as she could.
After saddling up Rosie, she took her into the arena where she put the mare through her paces. A well trained Tennessee walker had three characteristic gaits, all of them smooth and fast, requiring a special pattern of motion whereby no two hoofs touched the ground at the same time. After a brief warm-up, she soon had Rosie in a spirited flat-footed walk. “That-a-girl, Rosie.” She eased back into the saddle and let Rosie do her thing, until they’d completed about twenty circuits.
Next she cued Rosie into a running walk, and fifteen minutes after that, a canter. Rosie was much more responsive than she’d been even yesterday—proving yet again the benefits of consistent training.
Mattie had just dismounted and was leading Rosie to the grooming area for a shower and rub-down when her phone vibrated in her front pocket. Out of habit she glanced at the screen even though she had no intention of answering.
It was Wes.
Damn. He’d caught her unprepared. She’d intended to phone him when she was sitting in the family room with a cup of herbal tea and some soft classical music in the background to keep her calm.
But who knew if she would reach him an hour from now. She’d better take this opportunity while she had it.
She sucked in a deep breath. “Hi Wes.”
“How are you Mattie?”
If only she could see his eyes. She couldn’t tell from just his voice if he really cared what the answer to his question was.
“I’ve been better.”
He didn’t say anything for the longest time. Then, his voice quiet, he said, “I’m sorry about that.”
A powerful longing swept over her, a desperate need to feel his arms wrap around her as he said those words. But she was alone in a barn with only a talented horse and a mischievous puppy for company. She supposed it could be worse.
“Where are you?”
“I’m staying with friends.”
“Friends” being a euphemism for “another woman?” She had to know the truth. “A woman called me yesterday from your phone. Is that thefriendyou’re talking about?”
He swore. “She’s just someone I was having coffee with. She must have used my phone when I went to the washroom. But forget about her. I’m still staying at the Wilkinson’s guest cottage.”
So he was in Montana, not far from Billings. Peter was one of Wes’s oldest friends, also a rodeo cowboy. They’d been traveling buddies for years before a shoulder injury sidelined Peter into a career in his family’s lumberyard. While Peter and Wes stayed in close contact over the years, they’d never done much socializing as couples. Probably because she and Marg had little in common. Marg worked as an accountant at the lumberyard and she and Peter had never had children. That meant they enjoyed a lot more freedom, including the ability to travel almost anywhere at a moment’s notice. A few times Marg and Peter had suggested the four of them take a jaunt to Las Vegas, but while Wes was tempted, Mattie had to remind him that it was hard enough to find someone to watch over the horses—let alone find a sitter for their daughters as well.
That had been a mistake on her part, Mattie suddenly feared.
If she’d made more of an effort to do things with Wes as a couple maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation now.
“That’s kind of them. How are they doing?”
“The lumber business is thriving. So much so that Pete offered me a job.”
Mattie felt as if he’d planted a fist in her gut. “You’ve taken a job?”
“It’s just casual labor. For now.”
Mattie let go of Rosie’s reins, then sank to the floor of the arena, her knees pressing into the soft dirt. She brought both of her hands to the phone, cupping it like it was a delicate object that might disintegrate if she wasn’t careful.
“Wes, I want you to come home. We need to talk.”
He didn’t answer.
“I need to understand what happened to us.” She held back on the wordplease.She wouldn’t beg. She deserved this much. What he was doing—it wasn’t right.
“I don’t know what I would say, Mat. I just need time away.”
“How much time?”
She could picture him shrugging. She knew this man so well. The way his right shoulder always hitched up a little higher than the left.
“I can’t answer that.”
“Damn it, Wes. What am I supposed to do while you’re taking all thisalonetime. Just wait for you to decide if you want to stay married to me?”
“Do what you want. You don’t have to answer to me.”
“What you’re describing sounds a lot like a separation, Wes.” She felt as if her insides had shriveled, leaving her body at the same time heavy and hollow.
“I guess I should get in touch with a lawyer. And we’ll have to tell the kids. When they’re home for Thanksgiving.” She couldn’t believe she was saying these things. Calmly making plans to end their marriage. Why didn’t he stop her? Didn’t he realize what an awful mistake this was?
“Whoa. It’s too soon for lawyers and telling the girls. I’ll come home for Thanksgiving. Let them enjoy the holiday without any worries.”
“And what—we’ll pretend like nothing’s wrong?”
“It’s just a few days.”
“And when the girls are back in college, what then?”
Again, he had no answer. “We’ll figure it out. When we have to.”
His words filled her with anger. “So you don’t want to talk. You don’t want to make any tough decisions. You just want your freedom. Sorry, Wes, it doesn’t work that way. We’ve been married almost twenty years. We run a business together. Have children. You want this to be simple, but it isn’t.”
“You think this isn’t hard for me too?”
Oh, really. He wanted her sympathy now?
“Well it is. And I don’t have any answers yet. I’m just asking for some time. Give me to Christmas. Then, if you want I’ll go for counseling. Or we can talk to a lawyer. Whatever you say.”
Two months of living in the ante-room to hell, not sure if her husband still loved her—or someone else. She couldn’t stand that. But did she have a choice?
“I’ll only agree to that on two conditions. One—you continue to act as if we’re married. That means, no messing around with other women.”
“And the other?”
“You don’t make any moves to sell our ranch.”
She waited through the silence while he considered her deal. Slowly she got to her feet and brushed the soil from her knees. Rosie was looking at her curiously. Probably wondering what in the hell was going on. Tuff had fallen asleep in the wooden box she’d put her in, curled up on the towel she’d placed in one corner. Gosh she was cute.
Finally Wes spoke. “You’re putting me in a tough place. But okay, I’ll agree to your terms.”
“What about Thanksgiving? If you’re not here the girls will know something’s wrong.”
“Hell, Mat. I’ll be there.”CHAPTER EIGHT
Wren was in the library, reading Aristotle’sMetaphysics. The guy was a flipping genius. Every other minute she had to set aside the book to jot down another memorable quote. Her favorite of the night was this one:It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
A group walked by her cubicle and she was momentarily distracted by the fact that one of them had painted his entire face and upper body green.
Oh, yeah. Halloween.
They were having a party in her residence hall. She’d promised a couple of the girls on her floor that she would go. But she’d really rather keep reading Aristotle.
Her first Halloween away from home...
This was going to be a year with a lot of firsts, but she had to admit she was a little sad about spending her first Halloween away from home. Her Mom had always made a big deal of the holiday, decorating the house, helping her and Portia devise amazing costumes, and—since they lived in the country where going door-to-door for candy wasn’t possible—hosting an awesome party for all of their friends.
When they were little, they’d set up a spooky maze in the basement, then play games and finish with a ghost story from her dad. The party had evolved over the years as she and Portia grew older. Once they decorated Halloween cookies, another time they carved pumpkins. Somehow, even in their teens, when Portia had started to drive her crazy with her obsession about clothes, makeup, and boys, Halloween had been a time when they, and their two sets of very different friends, could have fun spending an entire evening together.
Overcome with homesickness, Wren pulled out her phone and texted her Mom. “Happy Halloween! What are you up to?”
The answer came in about five seconds. “Not much. It’s weird without you and your sister.”
Wren felt her eyes grow moist. “Dad there?”
A longer pause this time. Then a simple answer. “No.”
Wren’s stomach tightened. Something was wrong here. She’d had a few quick text messages from her dad, but he hadn’t called once since she’d started college. And it seemed as if he was never home.
“Yes. Aunt Sage came for a visit. House is full of delicious chocolate. Wish I could share. Love you honey. Put down the books and have a little fun tonight okay?”
That made Wren smile. Good old Mom. “I will,” she texted. Then stowed her books and laptop into her bag to live up to the promise.
* * *
It was Halloween night and on campus that meant one thing. Time to party. Again.
Portia couldn’t even remember the name of the frat house Kirsten had dragged her to. She was dressed up as Ann of Green Gables—only Kirsten had vamped her up—shortening the plaid skirt and lending her a pair of over-the-knee black boots. She’d also redone Portia’s makeup, pasting on fake eyelashes and dusting her cheeks with glitter.
Really, the only part of her costume that still looked like the wholesome orphan from Prince Edward Island was her wig with the two red braids.
Despite the getup, Portia managed to have fun for the first couple of hours, dancing and laughing with a never-ending lineup of boys who seemed to want to spend a little time with her. All around her kids were taking Jell-O shots, smoking up, passing around mysterious little pills. Portia went so far as to drink the first three beers that were pressed on her, but after that, she began pouring her drinks down the bathroom sink.
It was almost two now and most everyone was plastered or strung out. The few people still trying to dance could barely stand upright. Couples were making out all over the place. And there was a guy following her around who made it clear he wanted to dothatwith her.
She was so tired of this.
“Excuse me. I have to pee.” She pushed the boy—Brian?—on the chest so he would give her some space, then slipped through the crowd, stepping over, around and between hot, sweaty bodies, until she reached the room where they had stashed their coats when they first arrived. She didn’t like leaving without telling Kirsten, but her friend was all hot-and-heavy with a guy she’d met tonight. Portia didn’t even know his name. Kirsten’s hookups never lasted long. Portia had learned not to bother being friendly.
Coats were piled everywhere, on the sofas, chairs, and even the floor. Everywhere but the closet which had no doors and was filled with empty hangers. Finally Portia located her jacket and shrugged it over her shoulders. She’d text Kirsten later and let her know that she’d gone. Right now she could hardly wait to inhale some fresh air.
Outside, though, she felt confused about where she was, and cold. Temperatures weren’t as low in Seattle as they were in Montana, but the humidity took some getting used to. She zipped her jacket and looked up and down the street, searching for a familiar landmark. She wasn’t great at directions at the best of time. And the middle of the night, tired and still a little tipsy, in a city she still didn’t know very well didn’t add up to the best situations.
Reaching into her pocket, she wrapped her fingers around her phone. She wanted to call her Mom and Dad. “Come and get me. I want to go home.”
And oh, how she longed for it in that moment. The security of her own room. A home-cooked meal. Her father tousling her hair as he leaned over to grab the remote control out of her hands. And her sister at the door of the bathroom, asking how much longer she was going to be. The good stuff and the bad, she missed it all.
With her back against the brick wall of the frat house she sank until her butt was resting on the backs of her boots. She sent a text to Kirsten. No answer, of course. She opened Google maps next and tried to figure out where she was. The maze of streets was a total puzzle to her. Now what?
It was the guy from her psych class. The one Kirsten always snubbed. He was in a dark jacket, jeans and, of course, those dark brown cowboy boots of his. He’d left a group of two other guys and three girls to approach her.
She glanced from him to her phone. “I think I’m lost.”
“Yeah, I’d say that was a good assessment.”
She narrowed her eyes, not sure how to take his comment. “I don’t know where my sorority house is.”
“You’re a Pi Phi, right?”
How did he know?
“Come on, it’s this way.” He pulled her up, and she noted how warm his hands felt. How strong. Then he glanced over at his friends, and motioned for them to go on without him. One of the girls, a cute blond in a cat costume, seemed more reluctant to leave him than the rest, but finally she did. The girl was in her sorority, Portia recalled. Her name was Annie, and she seemed sweet, but very quiet.
“I’m Portia Bishop.”
His smile was crooked, but kind of cute. “Hey, I’ve been a fan of your dad’s since I was six years old. I even met him once. Shook his hand.”
Oh no. Not another rodeo fan.“Why is it everyone I meet in this city is cowboy crazy?”
“Don’t classify me with those uptown friends of yours. I’ve been on the back of a few bucking broncs myself.”
“Right.” In his dreams, maybe. “You from Montana, too?”
He nodded. “Helena.”
“I’d tell you where I’m from but I suppose you know that already too?”
“I’m not a stalker, Portia. Just impressed with the way your dad handles himself in the arena. So—whereareyou from?”
“Flathead Valley.” They’d been walking as they talked and when they came to the corner she was relieved to see a store she recognized. “Thanks. This looks familiar. I’ll be fine from here.”
She waited for him to walk off, but he didn’t.
“It’s two-thirty in the morning. I’d better see you to your door.”
She could see by the set of his mouth that there was no point in arguing. “Your mother raised you the old fashioned way, I see.”
“Some would say the right way.” He waited a few seconds then added, “Aren’t you even a little curious whatmyname is?”
What a dolt she was. “Sorry. It’s been a long night.” She waited, and when he didn’t say anything she wrinkled her nose at him. “You were going to tell me your name?”
“Maybe I’ll make you wait. Build up the suspense a little.”
“Suit yourself.” They’d reached the Pi Phi house now. As he hung back at the white pillars, she dug in her pocket for her key. “Thank you—stranger.”
She held out her hand and he stepped forward to shake it, very correctly, not taking advantage to hold her even a second longer than was proper. Then he stepped back and waited until she had the door open.
The entire encounter was over in less than fifteen minutes. But the odd thing was, once she was in bed, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Kirsten might not approve. But she thought the guy from Helena was just about the nicest person she’d met all night.
* * *
The day after Halloween, Mattie went into town for groceries. She’d been in a funk last night—missing her daughters and Wes so badly that she almost gave in and had a few of Wes’s beers. But drinking wouldn’t solve her problems, and her habit of abstinence, begun when she was twenty-one, was too ingrained to break.
It was no longer just about Neve—who had died so young and senselessly—but abouteveryyoung person who had to make the choice of whether to drink or drive. It was about her daughters, and wanting to set the best example for them that she possibly could. And it also, truth be told, had roots in her childhood observations of her father and how his meanness would become worse after he’d brought out the whiskey bottle.
Somehow she’d made it through the night—Tuff had been a comfort, that was for sure. She was just the most adorable puppy, Mattie couldn’t wait for the girls to see her. Too bad that in four weeks, by Thanksgiving, Tuff would be a lot bigger. Oh well, Portia and Wren would still be thrilled.
Once she’d purchased her supplies, including more puppy food—Tuff was a good eater—Mattie filled the SUV up with gas, then headed for home. Two miles from her gate though, she had to stop because the road in front of her was full of cattle, crossing from one side to the other. She recognized the Double-D brand, not that she’d had any doubt who the Black Angus belonged to since Nat owned the land on both sides of the road.
Looked like he was bringing his herd in for the winter, and not a day too soon according to the forecast.
Snow was expected tomorrow, along with colder temperatures and high winds. The possibility of the first blizzard of the year was what had induced her to stock up on supplies while she could.
Mattie kept the SUV running while she waited. She felt no impatience, actually enjoying the delay. She’d loved helping to move the cattle when she’d been a kid. It was the one time when her father could be counted on to be in a good mood—as long as nothing serious went wrong. The entire family would spend the night camping in the high hills. There’d be a campfire and her Mom and Dad would sing together, harmonizing with unexpected beauty.
Today Nat’s herd was being controlled by relatively few cowboys. She waved at a few as they crossed in front of her truck. There was Seth Richards, short and chubby, but a seasoned cowhand and Nat’s trusted foreman. A couple of border collies whizzed by, as well, happily in their element as they brought the occasional stray back in line.
Finally the numbers thinned until there were only a few stragglers left. And bringing up the rear was Nat, on The Duke—the beautiful colt she’d sold him a while back. When he spotted her, Nat directed The Duke to the driver’s side of her truck and she obligingly lowered her window.
Always a striking man, Nat was at his most attractive when he was on a horse. Not many men rode with the same calm, commanding presence. He gave her a smile that would have made any of her sisters’ hearts go pitter-patter. But she and Nat were neighbors and she couldn’t afford to have that sort of reaction.
“Your timing is good,” she called out to him. “A storm is coming.”
“I heard. We’re lucky. I meant to get them in a few days earlier, but we had some complications.”
His smile faded, just a little, and she wondered what the complications had been. But before she could ask he was speaking again.
“We missed you—and the twins, of course.”
“Not as much as I missed being part of the fun this year.” But she’d been right to decline the invitation. Without her girls, it would have felt wrong somehow, to spend an entire day out in the mountains with a bunch of men—and with Nat in particular.
“Eating me out of house and home. And I love it.” She nodded toward the back where she’d stowed her groceries. “I’ll be all stocked up when the storm hits.”
“If you need anything at all, give me a call. I take it Wes is still—”
She nodded, glancing away from the concern in his blue-gray eyes.
“Well—” Nat looked like he was going to say something else, but instead he just patted the roof of her truck. “Take care, Mattie.”
One minute later the road was clear. But instead of shifting into Drive, Mattie stayed where she was, watching until Nat and his herd had disappeared beyond the cottonwoods.
* * *
For the next month Mattie worked harder than she’d ever done in her life. She worked through the blizzard, which lasted four days, then the next two weeks brought a thaw and milder temperatures. Her body ached at the end of each day—which was the point. It was easier to sleep if you were exhausted and she made sure she was. She was losing weight—a fact Jake kept pointing out as he urged her to slow down.
And he really gave her a scolding when he caught her in the tack room adding a notch to her belt so her jeans wouldn’t keep falling down.
“Maybe you should see a doctor.”
She put away the leather hole punch, then slipped her belt through the loops of her jeans, pleased to see the fit was snug once more. “I’m fine. I couldn’t work this hard if I wasn’t.”
“That’s kinda the point. You’re driving yourself to exhaustion. And while we’re on the topic—you clean this tack room one more time and I’m going to be afraid to walk in there with my boots on.”
“That’ll be the day. But don’t worry. I won’t be in your hair much this week. Portia and Wren are coming home on Wednesday. I’ve got to start baking my pies for Thanksgiving. Apple for you, lemon for Portia, and pumpkin for Wren.”
Jake always joined them for the holidays. When his wife had been alive, they’d come as a couple.
“That’s plain nonsense—baking three pies when you’ve only got three people coming for dinner.”
Mattie paused, meeting Jake’s gaze directly and holding it a few seconds before saying, “Wes is supposed to be here, too.”
“He said he was coming?”
“He did.” But she hadn’t spoken to him since then... and the silence between them grew more painful each day. She was too proud to beg, so she’d just have to wait and see if he followed through on his word.
She could tell that Jake didn’t think he would. She could see the skepticism in his eyes. As well as the pity.
But all he did was shrug.
“Three pies is still too much.”
* * *
The last few days before Thanksgiving passed in a blur. Mattie dusted and vacuumed the girls’ bedrooms, washing the clean linens so they would be fresh and putting a potted mum on each of their nightstands.
She didn’t stop at three pies—she made six—freezing the extra apple ones, just to have on hand. She also baked chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin spice muffins, and went to Green Valley Farm near Ronan to pick up the fresh, organic turkey that was her standing order.
Ten years ago, back when Wes’s parents, Garth and Jude, were still alive and they had at least three or four men working on the ranch, her table had been at capacity for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now it seemed, every year she set the table for one or two fewer people.
She didn’t like this empty nest phase of life, not one bit.
Tuff was growing, healthy and relentlessly energetic. Mattie had laughed, watching her jump and run with delight through her first snowfall. Every day she did something cute that made Mattie smile. And something naughty that had the opposite effect. Tuff loved tussling with Mattie’s leather cowboy boots more than any toy. She’d almost decided to give up and let the pup have them. She needed a new pair anyway.
But was it worth investing in new boots—if Wes ended up selling the ranch?
Almost every hour she butted up against thoughts like this. She hadn’t realized how much her expectations of the future impacted her everyday activities, but they did. In the end she decided there was no way to function except to assume she would stay at Bishop Stables.
And so that’s what she did.
But her appetite remained dull and her sleep was plagued with disturbing dreams. The night before she was to pick the girls up at the airport, she could feel Wes in bed beside her. The weight of his body on the mattress, the heat of his skin, the smell of his hair. The relief was incredible.You’re home.She reached out to touch his face but like magic he vanished and she opened her eyes to face a cold, empty bed.
Knowing it was not a habit to encourage, she couldn’t resist pulling Tuff up from her bed and placing her on the quilt near her feet. The puppy snuggled in happily. And she decided she didn’t give a hoot what the dog training books said.
The next morning she felt a buzz of happy anticipation. In six hours, she would see her girls. She couldn’t wait.
She hummed along to the radio as she did the morning chores. She caught Jake smiling a few times, too.
“What time do they get in?”
“Around noon. I booked their flights so they arrive about thirty minutes apart. Hopefully they’re both on time. I checked when I got up and so far everything’s on schedule.”
The drive to Missoula took a little over an hour. Mattie had showered and styled her hair. She was wearing a bulky sweater with skinny jeans and boots—fashionable ones, not the pair she used for work which Tuff had now all but destroyed. Hopefully the sweater would disguise her loss of weight. But some changes couldn’t be disguised. The sharper angle of her cheekbones. The lines around her eyes. The jutting of her clavicle.
Wren’s flight arrived first, and she came off the plane looking just like the girl who’d left three months ago. Skinny jeans, Ugg boots and a plaid shirt layered with a sweater, then a vest, and scarf wrapped haphazardly over it all.
“Mom. It’s so good to see you.”
Mattie hugged her tight, not able to say a word. Tears were flowing, she couldn’t seem to stop them. She clung to her daughter, thinking no hug had ever felt so good.
“Dad’s not here.” Wren’s voice was flat. Not a question. She had expected this.
Reluctantly Mattie eased her hold. “No. Not yet.”
Wren didn’t challenge that. Instead she suggested they get a coffee while they waited for Portia.
“Good idea.” As they stood in line at Montana Traders, Mattie kept stealing glances at her daughter’s face. She’d been wrong when she’d thought Wren hadn’t changed. There had been subtle shifts in her face and her posture, reflecting a young woman who was more confident and independent than she’d been a few months ago. The change could be heard in Wren’s voice when she placed their orders for lattes, and in the way she organized the lids and napkins, taking care of Mattie the way Mattie was used to doing forher.
“Tell me more about the poli-sci class you love so much.” Once Portia arrived, there wouldn’t be time for serious topics, and besides, this might prevent Wren from asking awkward questions about Wes.
“It’s amazing to me how much Aristotle figured out. That was thousands of years ago! And yet we seem to have a lot of the same problems today as the Greeks did back then.”
“That’s a profound observation. I can see why you’ve impressed your prof.”
“Oh, Mom. I’ve really missed you. Talking on Skype just isn’t the same.”
Mattie’s shoulders tightened. Was Wren going to mention her father again? “No. It isn’t.”
“I wish we had more time to ourselves before Portia comes. It’s selfish of me. But she’d going to get off the plane looking like a fashion model and talking about all her friends and sorority parties... and make me feel like such a loser just because I went to college to study.”
Relief washed over her... along with a dose of motherly concern. If only her girls could learn to be happy with who they were and stop the comparisons. But how did she help them do that?
“Wren, figuring out who you are is one of the hardest things in life. But once you truly are comfortable with your own identity, you’ll find other people’s attitudes won’t bother you so much.”
“Are you saying you don’t have a problem with how obsessed Portia is about her looks? I mean—it’s vain, right?”
“There’s nothing wrong with dressing fashionably per se. The question is, why do you do it? Is it because you enjoy and appreciate nice clothing? Or is it because you feel you need to dress that way to make people like you, or to fit in? Being true to yourself doesn’t mean dressing in rags. At least, it doesn’t have to be.”
“Is that how you think I dress? In rags?”
“Honey, no! You look beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”
And it was a good thing she got those words out when she did, because Portia was running toward them now, and she did look as put together as a fashion model in a skirt, tights and a short red wool coat. Taking a firm grip of one of Wren’s hands, Mattie abandoned her coffee and rushed forward to greet her second daughter, this time all three of them forming a nice, tight knot.
“It’s so good to see you guys.”
To Mattie’s relief, she didn’t ask about her father.
“I can’t wait to get home.”
“And see Tuff,” Wren added.
“Oh my God, I was so excited to see you guys I almost forgot we have a new puppy! Let’s get going!”
* * *
The puppy was a huge hit with the girls, but to Mattie’s surprise, once they’d settled in a bit and had a late lunch, they both wanted to go out riding.
“Seriously?” The last few years she could hardly get either of them on the back of a horse, unless it was for something major like the Double-D roundup.
“I’ve missed the horses more than I thought I would,” Wren confessed.
“Me, too,” Portia added.
Mattie couldn’t have chosen a better way to spend the afternoon with her daughters. The only dark spot was Wes’s continued absence. The girls didn’t mention him though, until later, after they’d had chili and cornbread for dinner and finished a movie about zombies that turned out to be more entertaining than Mattie expected.
“So when is Dad getting here?” Portia asked.
To Mattie the room seemed suddenly far too silent. “I was hoping he would be here by now... but it may not work out.”
“Oh well. It’s still good to be home in our very own house, with you... and Tuff.” Portia patted the puppy sleeping in her lap.
Wren said nothing, but Mattie could feel her gaze, and the worry that lay behind it.
Unfortunately there was nothing she could say to set Wren and Portia’s minds at ease. Whether or not Wes showed up for Thanksgiving, she was going to have to tell her daughters what was going on this weekend.
But until that moment, she’d do her best to keep cheerful and enjoy their company.
“Tomorrow I expect you girls to help me with the dinner,” Mattie said briskly, getting up from the armchair. “You need to start learning your way around the kitchen, and so, I’ve pulled out all our usual Thanksgiving recipes.” She grabbed the cards from the counter and fanned them in one hand. “Do you want to choose what you’re cooking? Or make a random pick?”
“Random will be more fun,” Portia said. “I’ll go first.” With Tuff still sleeping in her lap, she covered her eyes and held out a hand. Mattie moved closer putting the cards within reach. Portia’s hand hovered... then she selected one.
“Sweet potato casserole.” She studied the card a moment. “This doesn’t look like your handwriting.”
“It’s Grandma Carrigan’s.” Sadly, to her daughters, the name meant little. They only knew her mother from photographs and stories she’d told of her childhood.
She held out the remaining cards to Wren who closed her eyes, then plucked out another of Grandma Carrigan’s recipe card. “Cranberry coleslaw. Whew! I was afraid I would have to do the dressing and turkey.”
Mattie put the remaining cards back into her copper recipe box. “I’ve already made the pies, so with you girls helping out tomorrow, dinner will be a snap.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Portia slid off the sofa and went to wash the dog hair off her hands. “Nat Diamond called while you were in the shower. He wanted you to know he’s moving hay tomorrow morning and did you need any?”
With only twenty-two horses? “We don’t.”
“That’s what I thought. But then I asked him why he was working on Thanksgiving and he said it was just another day to him. So I invited him to dinner.”
Mattie froze for a second. Then smiled. “Good.”
But it wasn’t. If Wes did happen to show up tomorrow and found Nat at the table—he might not be too happy. Then again, that was his problem. She’d raised her girls to be hospitable and of course Portia was right. It wouldn’t do for Nat to be on his own at Thanksgiving. Not when he’d done so much for them over the years. And they’d certainly have enough food to go around.
Not to mention pie...
“Mom, Nat used to be married, didn’t he?” Wren was taking her turn with the puppy now, playing tug-of-war on the carpet by the fire. Tuff reveled in the extra attention, had barely napped since the girls arrived. The pup would surely sleep well tonight.
“Yes. Her name was Julia.”
“I sort of remember her.” Portia was in the cupboard now, looking for the chocolate chip cookies. When she found the container, she took a couple. “You want one Mom?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“She was gorgeous.” Portia crossed the room to hand Wren the other cookie, then perched on the arm of the sofa. “She had wavy blonde hair and always wore pretty dresses.”
“Of course you would rememberthat,”Wren said quickly, then flushed when she noticed Mattie’s glance. “Not that there’s anything wrong with pretty dresses.”
“Well, they’re not exactly practical on a ranch,” Mattie said.
“So what happened to her?” Wren asked. “Why did they split up?”
“It’s hard to say. But I’m sure it didn’t help that Julia disliked the ranch and the isolation of Montana. I remember her complaining that we weren’t even close to an International airport. She liked to travel.”
“Well, why’d she marry Nat then?” Portia asked, indignantly. “How did they even meet?”
“Nat had an aunt in Seattle, she owned an art gallery and Julia worked for her. That’s how they met. And they fell in love. But I guess Julia never thought through the part where she was going to have to move to Montana and live on a cattle ranch. Or maybe it seemed romantic to her at the time.”
Out of respect for Nat’s privacy, Mattie didn’t mention the rest. How Julia had started drinking shortly after the wedding, and taken any excuse to leave on a trip to visit friends or relatives. Finally she’d run off to New York City with a man she met on the Internet.
“They didn’t have much in common, huh? Not like you and daddy.”
Mattie stared down at her hands. “True.”
“I’m tired,” Wren announced abruptly. “Mom, can Tuff sleep with me, tonight?”
Portia looked disappointed she hadn’t thought to ask first. “Can I have her tomorrow?”
“Of course. Why not alternate for as long as you’re home. A word of warning though—Tuff gets up early. And you have to take her out for a pee right away. She’s still a puppy.
“Oh.” Wren didn’t look nearly as enthusiastic aboutthat.But she still cuddled the puppy close to her chest as she stooped over to give Mattie a kiss. “It’s been a really nice day.”
“For me, too.” Mattie ran a hand over her daughter’s silky hair, before she left the room. Yawning, she wondered if Portia was ready to sleep as well. But her other daughter was in the kitchen again, putting on the kettle, looking as bright-eyed as when Mattie had collected her at the airport.
And then Mattie remembered—it was an hour earlier in Seattle.
“Want some Sleepy Time tea, Mom?”
“Sure.” No matter how tired she was, she wouldn’t turn down an offer to sit and chat with one of her daughters. “So—how are your classes? Are you keeping up with the work load?”
“I’m managing, Mom. Psychology is my favorite—Aunt Dani is a really good teacher. The kids pay attention when she’s talking.”
“Dani’s passionate about what she does. She’s a great public speaker, too. Smart, funny, with great timing.” When she was younger, Mattie had been in awe of her next-in-line sister. Dani’s confidence and wit had made Mattie feel dull and slow in comparison.
But over the years Mattie had grown out of the petty rivalry. She’d never exchange her life for Dani’s, so how could she resent the gifts that had made Dani who she was?
“What about your social life, Portia? From our calls it sounds like you’ve made lots of new friends. Are they all from your sorority?”
“Mostly.” Portia’s voice was bright, but the very brief pause before her answer was telling.
“You mention Kirsten often. Tell me more about her. Do the two of you have lots in common?” Mattie had always been impressed with Portia’s ability to make friends. Not only make them, but keep them. Most of the little girls she’d hung out with in kindergarten remained in her circle all the way through high school. She wondered if this new friend would fall into that “keepers” category.
Another pause while Portia poured boiling water into mugs, then carried the tea to the table by the sofa. “We both enjoy dancing. And Kirsten has amazing taste in clothes. She’s also rich, so she can afford anything she wants. Not that I’m envious,” she added quickly. “Kirsten’s really generous about lending me things.”
“Don’t you have enough of your own?” Mattie was a little worried to hear the answer. It had seemed to her and Wes that Portia’s budget for clothing and other extra spending was fair, if not extravagant.
“I do. It’s just—sometimes Kirsten likes to dress me up. Like I’m a doll or something. It’s just fun, Mom. All the girls in the house share clothes.”
Something about that made Mattie uneasy, though she knew Portia had often traded clothing with her high school friends, too. “So you’re glad you decided to join a sorority?”
“I wonder if Wren should have gone that route, too. She’s loving her classes but all she ever seems to do is study.”
“Itoldher to. But she never listens to me.”
Mattie felt a yawn coming and just couldn’t stifle it. “Honey, I’m afraid I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. We’ll talk more tomorrow, okay?” She gave her a hug, and was surprised when Portia squeezed her tightly in return.
“Dad will be here tomorrow?”
This time it was Mattie who paused before answering. “I hope so.”
In her bedroom, with the door closed, Mattie took out her phone, dismayed to see no missed calls or text-messages. With a sigh, she typed out a message to her missing spouse.
“What time are you coming tomorrow? Both girls are here. They miss you. Dinner is at six.” She hit send, then waited for a reply.
After ten minutes she gave up and prepared for bed, brushing her teeth and her hair, putting on a pair of cozy flannel pajamas. If Wes wasn’t going to live up to his promise to be home for the holiday, what did that say about the other promises he’d made? That he wouldn’t sell the farm. Would respect their marriage vows and not get involved with other women?
But she couldn’t start obsessing about all that now. She was too exhausted—physically and mentally. She closed the drapes, feeling the cold seeping through the glass panes. Another Arctic front moving in, but no snow fortunately. She was going to miss having Tuff at her feet tonight—though having both her daughters sleeping under the same roof as her tonight was more than enough compensation.
By the time she’d turned out the light and crawled into her bed, there was still no reply from Wes. She put the phone on the pillow by her head then went to sleep.CHAPTER NINE
To Mattie’s surprise, both girls were up early to help with chores the next morning. Tasks that they’d often complained about bitterly were performed cheerfully today. Clearly they’d missed not only her, but also Jake, the horses, the barn cats. Jake’s step had an extra spring to it as he supervised the goings-on. Several times Mattie caught him watching one of the girls, a smile playing on the corners of his mouth.
Once when he noticed her watching he gave her a wink. “Didn’t realize how much I missed those gals. Sure is nice to have them home for a bit.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” She dug her pitchfork under some wet bedding and hefted it onto the wagon in the center aisle.
The girls had brought Tuff to the barn, and made a safe spot for her in the feed room, using sacks of oats and supplements to cordon off an area, setting up a blanket for Tuff to sleep on and a bowl of water. It didn’t take long for the barn cats—Harry and Hermione—to come and check out the newcomer. Harry kept his distance, arching his back, then sticking up his nose and prancing off. But Hermione seemed entranced by the puppy’s antics. She perched on the top of one of the feed sacks and watched as Tuff gnawed on one of the chew toys Wren had brought out from the house.
Once the outside work was done, Mattie and the girls returned to the barn to fetch Tuff—and found the puppy and the cat cuddled together on the blanket, fast asleep.
“Oh my gosh. So cute!” Portia took out her phone to take pictures, and so did Wren. While they tweeted and instagrammed—Mattie didn’t really understand what either of these things were—Mattie gently extracted Tuff.
Hermione stretched, gave her a disgruntled look, then fell back asleep.
Tuff wiggled to get free, but Mattie waited until she and the girls were out of the barn before setting the pup down. As they all headed for the house, Mattie reminded Jake that dinner was at six.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Jake said.
Then she and the girls went inside to shower and start cooking. First a big breakfast, then it was time to truss the turkey.
All this time, Mattie’s phone sat, silent, on the kitchen counter. No messages. No missed calls.
She noticed neither girl asked about their father again. Instead, they focused on preparing their dishes, asking for her advice when the recipe directions weren’t clear. If Wes had been home, he’d have been watching football on TV. Since he wasn’t, the girls took turns plugging their phones into the docket on the kitchen counter, sharing new songs that they’d fallen in love with during the past few months.
After the turkey was in the oven, there were potatoes to peel, the table to set. Mattie put out just five plates. No questions were asked then, either.
At five o’clock they changed for dinner, Mattie putting on a gray and black shift dress with leggings and sparkling earrings. Portia wore another cute sweater and skirt combo and even Wren, who rarely wore anything but jeans, came out in a dress with a long belted sweater over-top.
Mattie checked the time. They still had more than thirty minutes before the guests would arrive. “Let’s Skype Grandpa and Aunt Callan and wish them a happy Thanksgiving.”
“Hey Mattie! Hi Portia and Wren. You all look so gorgeous! Wish you were here!” Callan’s face appeared on the screen first. Petite and pretty, the youngest of the Carrigan sisters was often underestimated by strangers. In fact she was the toughest and most fearless of them all.
“We’ve got a full house,” Callan said, carrying the laptop around the kitchen so everyone could say hi.
Sage was there, her face glowing with happiness. Helping her with the turkey was her handsome cowboy Dawson, and his cute daughter Savannah.
Sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of wine, was Dani. She blew them a kiss when Callan passed her the laptop. “I was going to stay in Seattle for the holidays, but a last-minute seat sale changed my mind. How are you guys doing? Where’s Wes?”
“We’re fine,” Mattie responded, ignoring the question about Wes. “Just about to put the turkey on the table. Say hi to Dad for us, okay?”
“Hang on,” Dani said. “He just came into the kitchen. You can tell him yourself.”
Mattie gave her girls a grim smile. Talking to Hawksley Carrigan in person was hard enough. Over the phone, or on Skype, they’d be lucky to get five words from him.
The screen blurred, and then Mattie’s father’s face came into focus. He was uncharacteristically clean shaven for the special holiday, which made him look younger than usual.
“Hi Dad! You must be happy to have so much company for Thanksgiving.”
He just grunted.
“It’s great to have Portia and Wren home from college,” Mattie gamely continued, carrying the conversation forward on her own.
Her Dad’s blue eyes, grown paler over the years, narrowed as he studied the computer. “Is that a dog?”
Mattie relaxed a little. She’d been afraid he was going to quiz her on her husband’s whereabouts. “Her name is Tuff. Nat Diamond gave her to us.”
The girls both said hi to their grandfather and soon after that the conversation stalled. No one could silence a room quite like her father. Even now that she knew her mother hadn’t been perfect, Mattie still couldn’t feel any warmth for the man. She wished she could, but he had never fostered closeness with any of his children, least of all with her.
“Well, so much for that.” Mattie closed the laptop, then glanced around the tidy kitchen, looking for something that needed doing. The spool of cooking twine was on the counter, but as she reached for it to put it back in the drawer, it spun away from her fingers and fell to the floor.
Tuff, roaming the room, probably searching for the source of the delectable aroma of roasting turkey, pounced.
Mattie tried to catch her, but Tuff was much too fast. Ball of twine in her mouth, she looked up, jubilantly, then took off in a sprint, running under the stools at the counter, around each of the girls, then all the way to couch before she reached the end of the roll and was yanked to a dead stop.
The girls, legs trussed as tightly as the turkey’s, looked down and then laughed so hard they were doubled over.
“I wish we’d caught that on video. It would be amazing on YouTube.” Wren grabbed a piece of the twine and tried to free herself. But as soon as Tuff felt the tug, she pulled back harder, causing the line around Wren’s ankles to tighten again.
Overcome by giggles, the girls fell to the floor. This provided the solution as the twine finally went slack and Mattie was able to unwind it from their legs, the stools, and, ultimately work the ball from the puppy’s grasp.
Tuff cocked her head on one side, as if to say, “But I was having so much fun...”
Her quizzical look had the girls laughing again.
And that was when a knock sounded at the front door. Mattie felt as if her heart had jumped to her throat. As the girls fell silent, her eyes went to the clock on the microwave. Quarter to six. Was her company early? Or had Wes finally come home?
* * *
But Wes wouldn’t knock. Mattie gripped the edge of the counter and took a deep breath. She had to stop expecting her husband to show up at any second. If he was coming, he would have called. Or answered her text message at least.
Portia and Wren both ran to get the door and Tuff, excited by the action, followed. A moment later, Mattie heard Nat’s voice and seconds later he was in the kitchen, offering her flowers, already arranged in a glass vase, and a jar of huckleberry jam.
“Happy Thanksgiving.” He gave her a polite hug and peck on the check. He’d dressed in a dark green sweater that for some reason made the blue of his eyes even more intense. “I nipped the jam from Eadie’s pantry. It’s good.”
“Eadie’s jam always is. Thanks Nat. And the flowers are lovely.” As she added water, then placed them on the sideboard in the dining room, Nat gave both girls a bear hug.
“You’re both too skinny,” he said. “What happened to the freshman fifteen?”
“I don’t understand why people gain weight when they go to college,” Portia said. “The food is way better at home.” She gave Nat another squeeze. Both girls were as comfortable around Nat as they were around Jake. They’d known him forever, had been going on the spring and fall roundups ever since they could sit on a horse.
“You smell like Christmas,” Portia said.
He laughed. “I was chopping up an old pine tree this afternoon. I did shower, but that resin sticks like crazy.”
“Would you like a beer?” Mattie offered. “I’m sorry, I forgot to buy wine.”
“Just water is good.”
“Want it fizzy? With a little cranberry?” Wren offered. This was their usual drink for special occasions and a pre-mixed pitcher was ready in the fridge.
As Wren filled the tall crystal glasses, Mattie went to pull the turkey from the oven. Right away Nat was at her elbow. “Let me get that. Looks like a twenty-pound bird.”
“Only eighteen,” Mattie murmured, but she handed him the oven mitts and let him lift the roaster out to the counter.
Nat inhaled deeply. “Can’t beat the aroma of freshly roasted turkey. Looks amazing, too.”
“We’ll let it sit for about half an hour before we carve.” Mattie passed him two big forks, which he used to transfer the roasted bird to a wooden cutting board, so she could make gravy from the drippings.
Jake arrived next, exactly on time, and the girls gave him an equally warm welcome. Jake had bought a gift too, a potted ivy in a pumpkin-shaped ceramic container. Mattie gave him a solid kiss on the check. “Oh my gosh, you even shaved.”
He patted his face as if he could hardly believe it, either.
It felt good to have men in the house again. Their solid bodies and deep voices added balance and stability. When it came time to carve the turkey, Mattie proffered the knife to Nat. But he shook his head. “Let Jake have the honors.”
Was he being courteous to the older man? Or overly sensitive about not stepping into the role of man of the house? Unsure, Mattie was grateful when Jake stepped up and got the job done, turning the conversation to cattle prices at the same time and smoothing over what might have been an awkward moment.
Wes wasn’t so much as alluded to after that. Even when they sat around the table no one commented on the one man who should have been here, but wasn’t.
The meal was a success from both a food and a conversation perspective. Nat had a friendly, non-judgmental way of talking to the girls that drew them out and Mattie heard tidbits that until now hadn’t been shared.
Like that there was a boy who’d gallantly walked Portia home one night but hadn’t told her his name.
And, even more surprising, that Wren had met a boy in her political science class who’d asked her out to coffee and who wasn’t “a total loser” in Wren’s words.
Once everyone had their fill of turkey and vegetables, they bundled up and went for a walk to Chatterbox Creek, as was family tradition. With temperatures hovering above zero and a full moon and clear sky, conditions were perfect. The girls took turns throwing small sticks for Tuff, who was already showing signs of becoming a master retriever.
After the walk, Nat pulled a couple decks of cards from his coat pocket and announced it was time the girls learned how to play poker. “What makes you think we don’t already know?” Wren asked slyly, taking the deck and shuffling like a pro.
From her bedroom, Mattie brought out the penny jar and they played for over an hour, everyone surprised when it was she who ended up with the largest pile of pennies on the table.
“Mom! How did you do that?” Portia wanted to know. “You acted like you didn’t even understand the rules.”
“When it comes to playing poker, it’s smart to let people underestimate you.”
Nat grinned. “Well done, Mattie.”
After that everyone was hungry enough to eat two pieces of pie each and Mattie gave Jake a smug wink.
The men wouldn’t leave until all the dishes had been washed and the kitchen was spotless. By then it was almost midnight and Mattie thought the big talk she’d been planning to have with the girls would wait until morning. But Nat and Jake were no sooner in their trucks, than Wren shut the door and faced her mother.
“So what’s up, Mom? What’s the real reason Dad isn’t here?”
* * *
In her mind Mattie had delivered the news to her daughters hundreds of times in a hundred different ways. Now she found the words wouldn’t come. Wren’s expression softened and she put her hand on Mattie’s shoulder.
Speaking softly, as ifshewere the mother, she led Mattie back to the family room. “Let’s sit down here, by the fire. Portia, can you grab Mom a glass of water?”
Mattie took the arm chair and waited until the girls were side by side on the sofa, facing her. They looked so young and sweet, and she hated the apprehension and worry on their faces.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Wren finally blurted out. “You look so skinny. You’re not sick are you?”
“No. Not sick. And neither is your father.”
She could see the momentary relief wash over them. But it didn’t last.
“Then what’s going on? I can’t remember Dad ever missing a holiday or important family gathering before.”
It was true. Wes traveled a lot, but he’d always made a point of being here for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.
Mattie realized she couldn’t avoid it anymore. She had to say this. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this. But your father—left me. He said he needed some time alone.”
“When?” Wren asked, at the same moment that Portia burst out with a “Why?”
Poor Portia looked instantly devastated. But Mattie could tell that Wren had been expecting exactly this news.
“Two weeks after the Copper Mountain Rodeo. Your Dad came home from Billings and that was when he told me that—he wasn’t happy.” She stared down at her hands, fingers linked, lying placidly in her lap. Then she glanced up. Wren looked stunned. Tears were already streaming down Portia’s cheeks.
Mattie felt bulldozed by sadness. She felt like she’d just laid waste to her daughters’ happy childhoods. Today would be a dividing line for them. The before... when they were a family. And the after... when they weren’t.
“I was worried it was something like this,” Wren said quietly. “But actually hearing you say the words... I can’t believe it.”
Portia’s tears turned to sobs then. The poor girl looked broken, her face crumpled, black tears laden with mascara rolling down her cheeks. Mattie wiped them away with her thumb, then sat between her daughters, wrapping her arms around their slender backs, wishing they were small enough to gather into her lap.
“I’m so sorry. I wish I could explain how this happened. But—your dad and I, we haven’t really talked. He was supposed to be here tonight. We were going to break the news to you together. I don’t know where he is.”
No excuse he gave would be acceptable. Unless, of course, he’d been in an accident or something. But Mattie didn’t think that had happened. On some level she’d known he wouldn’t show up.
Once she’d been able to count on Wes keeping his word. Now she wondered about the other promises he’d made and realized she’d been a fool to think they would bind him in any way.
“Th-this doesn’t make sense,” Portia took a gulp of air. Steadied her voice. “Why wouldn’t he be happy? You two are perfect together. Even my friends are always saying they wished their parents would be more like you guys.”
“Even the strongest of marriages can sometimes come undone if they’re tested too hard. Do you remember last spring, when one of the cowboys was killed at that rodeo in Texas?”
Wren nodded soberly. “He was a bull-rider, like Dad.”
“Yes. Your Dad took that hard. He’d seen plenty of injuries in his career. But not a death. That cowboy was younger than him by quite a few years. I believe it made him re-evaluate a lot of things in his life. Not just his career...”
“But that should have made him appreciate youmore.” Wren had never been as quick to cry—or to laugh—as her sister. But a fat tear had been accumulating in the corner of one eye and Mattie watched as it slid slowly down her young, perfect skin.
“Tragedy affects people differently. I can’t explain it, Wren.” She gathered her nerve. There was something else she had to prepare them for. If she could have thought of a way to cushion the blow, she would have.
But they simply had to be told.
“There’s something else your Dad is considering...”
She could feel the girls holding their breath. They could tell by her tone that this was serious. But what could be as bad as the family breaking up...?
“Selling Bishop Stables.”
That took longer to sink in. Portia fell back into the sofa cushions. Wren brushed her hair away from her face and squared her shoulders. “He can’t do that, can he? It belongs to you, too, right?”
“Why would hewantto sell in the first place?” Portia moaned. “He grew up here. He was always talking about heritage when we were growing up and telling stories about when he was a kid. He made it sound like this place was important to him. And that it should be important tous.”
Yes. That was the unfair part. Both she and Wes had instilled values in their children that had taught them not to be selfish but to respect the land and put the ranch and the horses first, in almost all things. To then turn around and sell out, denying them the birthright they had been implicitly promised, was against everything they’d stood for as parents.
“He may change his mind. I hope he will. But just in case—I didn’t want you to be blind-sided.”
Little Tuff picked that moment to scamper over. She placed her paws on Mattie’s knees, waiting to be picked up. As soon as she was, she cuddled in among them.
It was odd that a cute little puppy should be able to offer comfort in the face of so much awful news. But she did. The three of them curled in around Tuff, arms entwined, and Mattie could feel their strength returning.
“At least we have each other,” Wren said.
“You still have your dad.” The words were hard to say without breaking into uncontrollable sobs. Mattie had to take a breath between each word. “He left me. Not you.”
“It doesn’t feel that way,” Portia said softly.
No. Mattie supposed it didn’t.
* * *
Her daughters clung close for the remainder of their five-day visit, turning down opportunities to go to town and visit with their high school friends. Mattie felt bad about that but she couldn’t deny their presence was a comfort. On the day they were to leave and fly back to their respective colleges, no one had much of an appetite except Tuff.
The puppy gobbled down her breakfast as usual, then proceeded to start pulling clothes out of the girls’ suitcases almost as fast as they were packed. Despite everyone’s low mood, they couldn’t resist giggling as Tuff snatched one of Portia’s socks and led them all on a merry chase around the house.
“She’s so fast,” Wren marveled.
“And tricky.” Portia fell to her knees and looked under the sofa, where Tuff was hiding out with her prize, just out of arm’s reach.
Never had Mattie been more thankful to Nat for his gift of the adorable puppy. Tuff was a reminder that in the worst of times, there were still reasons to smile, love, and be grateful.
At the airport, she hugged her girls one final time. “I’m so thankful to have daughters like you. Go back to school and try not to worry. Hopefully by Christmas your dad and I will have some things sorted out.”
And hopefully by Christmas, Wes would have been in touch with them, as well. Mattie had noticed lots of surreptitious texting going on in the past few days. She suspected they’d been trying to get in touch with their father.
If he’d responded, she would have heard about it, and since she hadn’t, she could only surmise that Wes was ignoring their daughters in the same callous way he was ignoring her.
And she would never forgive him for that.
* * *
Portia was relieved to say goodbye to her mom at airport security. They shared final hugs and waves, all of them too tearful to say much. Then she and Wren went through the security drill, meeting on the other side of the conveyor belt to put their boots back on, and grab their jackets and backpacks. Finally she was alone with her sister. They only had fifteen minutes before Wren had to board for Denver, but at least they could drop the brave acts they’d been putting on for their mom.
“That was the worst Thanksgivingever.Can you believe it? What is up with Dad?”
“I knew something was wrong between them. But I didn’t think it was this bad,” Wren admitted. “Keep going,” she instructed as she checked their boarding passes for the gate numbers. “We’re at the end of the line.”
“Has dad answered any of your texts?”
“No.” Wren scowled. “He didn’t even call on Thanksgiving Day. How lame is that?”
“Do you think something bad happened? Like, he had an accident or something?”
“The authorities would have called Mom. Besides, I heard her on the phone, checking with police and hospitals one night. No, he just doesn’t want to talk to us.”
That was the conclusion Portia had reached, too. And it really hurt.
She thought back to the last time she’d seen her father—when they’d all driven to the airport together in September. He’d schlepped the bags as usual, complained that they’d packed too much, but she’d seen a tear in his eye when he hugged her goodbye.
“Maybe he was injured at the last rodeo he was in. Hit his head and suffered some sort of brain injury.”
“More likely he fell in love with someone else.”
Portia stopped in her tracks. “That’s an awful thing to say.” But it could be true. Why else would he want to leave Mom, forget to call them, and want to sell the ranch? She got an awful, sick feeling in her stomach.
“This really, really sucks.”
“Agreed,” Wren said. “And it must be ten times worse for Mom. Last night I seriously considered dropping out of college and staying home. At least for the next semester. I hate the idea that she’s all alone.”
“She wouldn’t want you to do that.” But Portia understood the lure. She’d wanted to do the same thing, and only knowing how upset the very idea would make their pro-education mother had stopped her.
“Yeah.” Wren sighed. In silence they walked the rest of the way to their gates, which were side by side. Portia was surprised to see that her flight was already boarding. She turned to Wren and gave her sister a huge hug.
“See you at Christmas, Sis.”
Portia nodded, crying too hard to say anything back. On the plane, she had a minute to check her phone before turning it off. She noticed a string of text messages from Kirsten. “Yay! Can’t wait to see you!” “Party tonight for all Pi Phi!” And then, in a weird twist. “Met this awesome guy—and he has a friend!”
Portia turned off the phone and stuck it back in her bag. Shereallydidn’t want to go back to Seattle. She hated her dad right now. But she also really needed to see him. If only she knew where he was.
At the Seattle airport, she met up with some of her sorority sisters who happened to be flying back from home at the same time and they shared a cab. One of them, Annie Larimer, gave her a friendly smile. Portia had noticed her on the same flight and remembered that she lived somewhere in rural Montana, too, some small town southeast of Missoula. Not on a ranch, her family ran an orchard or something. They’d worked together on a sociology assignment one night and Portia had really liked Annie. But she didn’t have the energy to start a conversation, so she just smiled back then closed her eyes, resting her head on the leather seat and listened to the other girls make plans for that night’s party.
Apparently the few girls who’d stayed behind for the Thanksgiving weekend had been working with some of the guys to plan a big welcome back bash for the evening. The party would be off-site, of course, and there would be plenty to drink.
When the taxi pulled up to the sorority house, Kirsten was waiting for her. Portia had hoped to sneak away to her room, and lock the door. Instead she had to listen to Kirsten go on and on about her trip home.
“My friends and I went on a mega shopping trip. Look what I found!” Kirsten spilled the contents of her suitcase onto her bed. Normally Portia would have been insanely jealous of the beautiful new outfits. But today she had zero interest. The effort of pretending to love each item wore away at her, until soon all she could think of was crawling under the covers in her room.
Instead, she and Kirsten dressed and got made-up for the party. When Kirsten offered to let her wear one of the new tops she’d purchased on Black Friday, Portia uncharacteristically stood firm. “I’m okay in this,” she fingered the lacy top she was wearing with a gray cardigan.
“Yeah. That’s cute,” Kirsten said, without sounding convinced. She leaned forward into the mirror as she applied her eyeliner, then stood back to study the effect. “You like?”
Kirsten tipped her head to one side as she studied Portia’s reflection. “You seem... different.”
Portia knew she should explain, but the words wouldn’t come. The loss and pain were too fresh. “I’m just tired.”
“Yeah, I know. I hardly slept all weekend. It was just one party after another.” She went to her mini fridge and pulled out a couple of Red Bulls. “I think we both could use one of these. You don’t want to be tired tonight. A couple of guys from my high school are coming to the party tonight. Jared and I hooked up on Saturday night. He’s pretty hot and so is his friend Noah. I showed them your Facebook profile and Noah’s excited to meet you.”
Portia took a long drink—the caffeine and sugar helped.
A few hours later, when the party was starting, she had a beer, and that helped too. She had another drink and then joined a bunch of friends on the dance floor. She let the music flow through her, lift her up from her black mood and transport her a happier, better place. Another drink, a little more dancing, and when a dark-haired guy with crazy blue eyes came up to her and told her he was Noah, she happily put her arms around his shoulders and started dancing with him.
He had some good moves, a natural sense of rhythm.
When she stumbled, they both laughed, and he went to freshen their drinks.
Portia lost all sense of time. The dimly lit room was decorated with dozens of strands of twinkling lights and LED candles. Couples started drifting to dark corners, making out while the music continued to pulse and pound.
When Noah touched her chin, she lifted her head and let him kiss her.
It felt nice. Really nice.
They kissed while they were dancing, and then suddenly they had moved off the dance floor into an alcove behind some stairs. She wasn’t even sure where she was anymore.
“You’re a sweet girl, Portia.” Noah was kissing her neck now, his hands gliding down to her jeans, then up and under the lacy tank top. She’d taken the sweater off hours ago, and she could feel the heat of his hands against her own fevered skin.
When his hand cupped her breast, she felt a sweet pleasure not only at the peaks of her nipples, but between her legs, too. She’d made out like this for hours with her high school boyfriend, but it soon became clear that this was not a plateau for Noah, merely a pit stop. She could feel his arousal pushed against her hip bone, as he reached for the button on her jeans.
He immediately stopped what he was doing and kissed her again. “You okay?”
“I’m—” Suddenly the anesthetic of the alcohol and the music and the attention of a cute boy all wore off. She felt alone, sad... and sort of... yucky. She tried to look into Noah’s eyes, but they seemed out of focus to her and she instinctively knew that any attempts to explain wouldn’t be successful.
And why should they? She knew nothing about this boy. Not his major, or his interests... or even his last name.
“Sorry. I think I’m going to be sick.” She broke away and ran, grabbing her coat and somehow finding her way back home, where she locked the door, then fell on her bed and started to cry.
* * *
When she returned home from the airport, Mattie was exhausted. She walked from one empty room to the other, feeling too low to tackle the cleaning and laundry that was waiting for her.
If it hadn’t been for Tuff, she would have collapsed onto the sofa and allowed herself to sink into a depressed stupor.
But the puppy needed to go out, and so she snapped on Tuff’s leash and dressed herself to brave the cold. A thin layer of snow coated the yard today. A big storm was on its way—fortunately not due until well after the girls would be safely at their destinations. She didn’t need to worry about stocking up in preparation. She had leftovers to last a week in her fridge and freezer.
And plenty of pie.
Keeping Tuff on a short leash, Mattie headed to the barns. In the past few days she and the girls had done a lot of riding, so none of the horses had been neglected. The tack and feed rooms were still spiffy from her zealous cleaning frenzy of the previous week. Jake had handled the chores alone this morning. He’d be back in another hour to do the evening feed. She decided to load up the feed cart for him, before heading back inside the house.
She’d no sooner made the decision than she heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle—something big and traveling slowly. Sticking her head out the barn door, she was amazed to see a semi-tractor van with a white cab and silver trailer, taking a wide turn into her yard.
Securing Tuff in the feed room first, Mattie pulled on her wool cap and headed back outdoors. The rig had stopped and a driver was climbing out of the cab. He was tall and chunky, dressed in a plaid jacket and down vest, jeans, and work boots. He had his head bowed against the wind as he walked toward her.
She held her ground until he met up with her. Only then did he straighten so she could see a man in his forties, with a round face and serious eyes.
“Damn, I think the storm is coming early.”
Weather talk first. Only in Montana. “Wasn’t supposed to get here until tomorrow.”
“Don’t I know it. Hope the snow holds off.” He held out his hand. “Guy Medley. You must be Mattie Bishop.”
She shook his hand cautiously. “I am.”
“Good. We should probably load them up first, do paperwork second.”
With her hands on her hips, she shook her head. If he hadn’t known her name, she would have been sure this was a mistake. Her stomach churned. She had a very bad feeling about this. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea what’s going on here.”
Guy’s serious eyes widened a little. “Your husband never told you?”
She gave a negative shake of her head.
Guy’s chest expanded on a deep inhale. He compressed his lips, then headed back to the truck and returned with a clipboard, which he held so she could see.
“Your husband sold fourteen horses to be delivered to Western Sky Ranch on Spencer Lake near Whitefish. Money’s been paid in full. I was supposed to pick them up tomorrow, but when I heard about the storm, I figured it’d be smart to get them moved today.”
Mattie grabbed the clipboard, studied the details. Listed were fourteen of their most valuable horses, including Rosie. “Who owns this Western Sky Ranch?” She squinted at the typed name. “Sean Edwards. Does he have experience with Tennessee Walkers?”
“Doubt it,” Guy said drily. “He’s a reality TV star—my kids watch his show every week. He heard somewhere that Tennessee Walkers make great trail riders and decided he wanted a bunch of them for his new ranch.
She felt sick in earnest now. She couldn’t let these horses leave Bishop Stables. They had so much money and time invested in them. Rosie, in particular, was a treasure. Born, bred and raised to be a show horse—not wasted being ridden by rich greenhorns from Hollywood.
She pushed the clipboard back at him. “I can’t let you take my horses.”
“Well, Ma’am, I’m afraid you can’t stop me since they don’t belong to you. Your husband signed the papers. And he’s already deposited the money.”
“He never told me a word about it.” Blood flowed to her cheeks, and in her embarrassment, her gaze dipped to the tips of her boots. How awful to have to make such an admission to a perfect stranger.
Guy paused, kicked at a clump of snow and sent it scattering. “I feel bad about that. I surely do. But you need to take this up with your husband. And let me do my job.”
She gazed out at the pasture where most of these horses were grazing at the dry tufts of grass still accessible beneath the skiff of snow. Her heart welled with sadness. She didn’t want them to leave. She’d been raised to be a practical rancher, but up until now she and Wes had never sold their horses to anyone without vetting them first.
Now he expected her to let more than half the herd go in one big swoop, just like that?
She needed a moment to think. “How about a cup of coffee, first?”
Guy looked up at the mounting clouds, then at his watch. “I suppose an extra fifteen minutes won’t hurt.”
“We’ll go to the house. I have to get my dog.” She ran back to the barn where she found Tuff and Hermione snuggled together again, napping. They looked so cute, she decided to leave them there.
She then led Guy Medley along the path to the back door, where they deposited their boots and coats in the mudroom, and she washed her hands before continuing into the kitchen.
“Go ahead and sit. Want some pie? I’ve got apple, pumpkin, or lemon.”
Guy’s eyes brightened at that. “Lemon would be nice.”
She put on the coffee, cut him a slice, and invited him to sit at the island.
“I’ll just make a quick call while we wait for the coffee.” Turning her back to him, she went to stand by the windows as she dialed their lawyer. He answered and she quickly outlined the situation.
“Do I have to do this, Stan?”
“I think so. But can you hold a few minutes?”
“Okay.” As she waited, she gazed out at the horses. Each one of them had a distinct personality, was loved and pampered, as well as carefully trained. At Bishop Stables they treated all their horses like five star guests. How could Wes just sell them to some pampered Hollywood star who probably didn’t have the first clue about running a ranch?
Even worse, sell them without consulting her first.
The coffee pot beeped, and Mattie went to pour a cup for her guest. “Sorry. I’ll just be a few more minutes.” She noticed he’d already finished his pie. “Feel free to cut yourself another slice.”
She went back to the family room and took up the same position at the window. Guy could still hear her, but looking out at the view gave her at least an illusion of privacy. Finally Stan came back on the line.
“Mattie, sorry, but you don’t have any option but to let them take the horses. The business is in Wes’s name, only. Mattie, you should have pushed for joint ownership when the two of you were first married.”
Frankly that had never occurred to her.
“There’s something else.”
She could hear the tension in Stan’s voice and braced for more bad news.
“Wes has been talking to me about... the current situation between you two.”
Aren’t you the lucky one. Cause he sure as hell isn’t talking to me...With effort, Mattie kept her sarcastic thoughts unspoken. Feeling betrayed and heartbroken, she managed a simple, “Oh?”
“You should be talking to your own lawyer, too.”
“I thoughtyouwere my lawyer.”
He paused. “Not in this case. It’s not personal, Mattie. It’s just that my firm has been representing Bishop Stables for a long time. And you need a lawyer to stand up for your rights.”
She wanted to sink to the floor and curl up into a little ball.
Even her lawyer was rejecting her.
“So I have to let him take the horses?” If her voice came out sounding like a little girl’s, well so what? She couldn’t help it.
* * *
Of the fourteen horses being sold, ten were turned out in the northwest pasture. All Mattie had to do was shake a pail with some oats on the bottom and their ears perked, even the three at the far end of the field.
She didn’t try to hide her tears from Guy Medley as the horses came running. These horses trusted her, and she was betraying them, sending them off to unknown pastures and people she had never even met.
All of the horses listed on the bill of sale had competed in shows and so were used to the trailering routine. One by one she snapped on their lead ropes and led them out of the gate, up the ramp and into their box stalls where Guy made sure they were correctly positioned and secured for transport. Mattie was somewhat relieved to see that the stalls were clean and the hay boxes full. The trailer was built to ensure the horses would travel as comfortably as possible.
The last three horses were in the barn—and the very last one Mattie led up to the trailer was Rosie. “Hey, girl,” was all Mattie could say, before her voice choked over with tears.
She stumbled going up the ramp, and she could feel Rosie grow tense, then hesitate. The horse was sensing her distress, and didn’t want to go further.
Mattie took a deep breath. She had to get a grip. She didn’t want to make this experience any more stressful for Rosie than it had to be.
“It’s okay, Rosie.” She called on all her inner strength to make her voice calm and firm. “Come on, girl.”
Rosie’s ears moved forward first, then her body. Obviously reassured by Mattie’s newfound composure, she allowed herself to be led into the fourteenth box stall, where Guy snapped her into place, then looped the lead rope so it couldn’t get tangled in her feet.
Rosie gave Mattie one last look, and Mattie was certain she could read in the mare’s soft brown eyes a message along the lines of,I’m not too sure about this, but since you seem to think it’s okay, I’ll go along with it.
Trouble was, Mattie didn’t think it was okay.
It was damn treason.
She stumbled out of the trailer, searched both pockets of her coat for a tissue and when she didn’t find one, dried her eyes with her sleeve. How could Wes have sold these horses out from under her like this?
“I’m real sorry Ma’am.” Guy passed her a clipboard. “I need yourJohn Henry.Then I’ll get out of your hair.”
Her pen hovering over the signature line, she hesitated. “This Western Sky outfit. What kind of a crew does this TV star have working for him? Did he hire competent people at least?”
“I honestly don’t know. But I’ve been in this business a long time and I can size up a person pretty quick. Once I’m done, I’ll send you a message. Give you my gut feel on whether they’re in good hands.”
“I’d appreciate that. Here, let me give you my number.”
They exchanged contact information, then Mattie turned away. She didn’t want to watch Guy drive off with her horses. But she wasn’t ready to return to the house, either. So she trudged with heavy footsteps to the barn. At the barn door, she heard the engine roar to life, then the trailer creak as Guy shifted into gear.
She steeled herself not to look, instead stepping inside and sliding the door closed.
Closing her eyes, she thought back to the first time she’d visited Bishop Stables and the awe she’d felt when Wes had given her a tour of the main barn. He’d been so proud—and with good reason.
Back then, the stables had been full to capacity. Now, all the stalls were empty. The horses that remained—Whiskey Chaser, Princess Bride, Madame Curie, Copper, and four two-year-olds not yet ready to be ridden—were turned out in the south pasture.
She waited for silence. And when it came, she knew her horses were gone. Most likely she’d never see any of them again. She wanted to weep. But she’d done so much of that in the past month and she was so terribly tired of it all.
Her gaze swept the wide aisle, lingering up high where blue and red ribbons proudly proclaimed the past successes of Bishop Stables. Every year of her and Wes’s marriage, the winnings had been a little less than the year before. The trend hadn’t worried her. She’d figured they were treading water, waiting for the day when Wes would retire from the rodeo and devote himself fulltime to their ranch.
Looking back, she realized that it was after his father’s death that his commitment to the business had really dropped.
There had been signs. All sorts of them. But she’d missed some and misinterpreted others because she hadn’t wanted to face up to the truth. It was she who loved Bishop Stables. Not Wes.
And yet it was Wes’s name on the legal papers. Wes who signed checks. And Wes who made the deals...
Dragging her boots along the concrete floor, Mattie entered the feed room, and the half-loaded cart. Tuff lifted her head to look at her, then dropped back to sleep. The cat didn’t move a muscle.
Mattie stood in front of the cart, feeling defeated. None of this was needed now.
Oh, lord... she sank to the floor, with her back against the wall. Jake would be showing up soon, expecting to do evening chores like usual. She should try to catch him before he left, save him the trip.
But as she pulled her phone out of her pocket, it began to ring.
She didn’t recognize the number. But she answered anyway.CHAPTER TEN
Wes’s voice came over the line, so clearly it was like he was sitting right next to her. Mattie cradled the phone with both her hands, as if to take firm hold of the connection between them.
“Wes? Where have you been?”
“I’m still tied up here.”
“Where is ‘here’ exactly?”
He didn’t answer. “I tried to make it for Thanksgiving. Were the girls home?”
“Of course they were. Didn’t you get my messages? Not to mention theirs?”
“I—lost my phone. Had to buy another.”
That explained the strange number. But how convenient that he’d happened to lose his phone just when they’d all been so desperate to get hold of him.
“You promised you’d be home for the holiday. That we’d talk to the girls together.”
“Like I said, I tried.” His sigh made it sound likeshewas the one being unreasonable.
“So what stopped you? Were you in an accident or something?”
“No. It’s hard to explain.”
“I’ve got time. Lots of it, in fact, since I don’t have much in the way of chores to do anymore.”
“Um—what are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the fact that I now have only eight horses to look after. How could you do it, Wes? I suppose it’s too much to hope that you would consult me. But a heads-up would have been something, at least.”
He was silent for a bit. “I take it Guy Medley showed up today?” When she didn’t answer, he added, “He was supposed to come tomorrow. That’s why I’m calling. To let you know.”
“To let me know what? That you’re breaking up our herd? Selling horses I’ve raised and trained from birth to be toys for some reality TV show star?”
“Calm down, Mat. You should have expected this. I told you, already. I’ve got to sell everything. No one wants to take over a Tennessee Walking Horse operation these days. That means selling off whatever I can, and then putting the land on the block.”
“You’re not wasting any time, are you?” Mattie pulled herself up from the floor, dusted off her jeans. When she’d initially heard Wes’s voice on the line, she’d experienced a tiny flicker of hope.
That he was coming home. That he was ready to talk.
She’d even dared to hope that he might rescind the sale, call Guy Medley and tell him to turn his rig around and bring back the horses.
But that flame was extinguished now. She knew with a certainty that felt like a ball of lead in her heart that Wes wasn’t going to change his mind. About any of this.
“What about the rest of the horses?”
“I’ve got a buyer lined up for Whiskey Chaser. A young steer wrestler from Helena. He’ll be coming by with his trailer later this week.”
She swallowed. “And the others?”
“Going to a nice family outfit down by Ronan. I know the people. They’ll treat the horses well.”
“This is going to break Wren and Portia’s hearts.” They’d been six when Princess Bride and Madame Curie were born, within days of each other. Wes had told them, “If you take care of these foals, when they’re old enough to ride, you can help your mom train them—and then they’ll be yours.” The girls had been devoted to their horses ever since.
“It’ll be easier for them this way.”
“You mean it’s easier for you.” He never had liked saying good-bye. When it was time to head to a rodeo, he’d always waited to drive off until the girls were in school and she was out working with the horses. Even his homecomings were low key. Usually he’d slip in during the wee hours of the night, inserting himself back in her bed, and their children’s lives, with the minimum of fuss or fanfare.
“Look, I’d better go. I’ll—”
“Wait!” She had things to say and this might be her only chance. “I spoke to Stan earlier today. He told me you’d been talking to him about—” She might as well say the word. Put it out there. “About our divorce.”
“You might have told me there wasn’t going to be any discussion. That your mind was made up.”
“I thought I had.”
This cold, cold man. Had he really ever loved her? It was so hard to believe now. “Fine. If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. But this stunt you pulled with the horses—don’t you dare do the same thing with our land. Our house.”
“I aim to give you a fair settlement, Mat. But the land and house—they’re in my name.”
“Don’t I know it.” She’d been such a naïve fool, to think she didn’t have to worry about legal technicalities once she was married. “But I have rights, too. And I want some say on the timing of the sale.”
She’d find a lawyer, just as Stan had suggested. She’d see if there was anything she could do to block Wes’s plans. Only a few days ago, Wren and Portia had found out their family was breaking up. Now their horses had been sold out from under them. They couldn’t lose the family house, as well.
* * *
With only eight horses, and none of them in the barn, chores took less than thirty minutes. Mattie was all done when Jake pulled up in his truck. She’d expected him to notice the missing horses right away and come running, but he took measured steps toward her and they met by the patch of raspberries Wes’s mother had planted between the main barn and a smaller one that was used for weaning foals.
The sadness on Jake’s face took her by surprise.
But she had to say it, anyway. “Wes sold the horses. Fourteen of them.” She almost started crying again, and had to press her lips together and stare out at the road.
“He called me an hour ago.”
Before he’d phonedher. The blows kept coming. She couldn’t believe how much they still hurt.
“Not sure what you’re going to do around here anymore, Jake.” She tried to smile, like it was some kind of joke, but couldn’t.
“Not an issue anymore, Mattie. He laid me off.”
Jake shrugged. “I saw it coming. But I have to admit. I don’t like it.” He touched her shoulder. “I’m going to miss those pies of yours, Mattie.”
No more Jake coming round the property two times a day, like clockwork. She couldn’t imagine it. But then, if Wes had his way, she wouldn’t be here much longer, either.
Damn it. Damnhim.
“This is temporary. Don’t go taking another job Jake.”
“Wasn’t planning on it. Figure I’ve done enough talking about Arizona, I might as well drive down there and check it out. Maybe you should get in your truck and take a trip, too, Mattie. Head to Marietta and stay with your family a spell. According to Wes, the rest of these horses will be gone by the end of the week.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Do it. I hate the idea of you all on your own out here.”
But she was alone. And she’d actually been that way for quite a while. It was time she faced that. No more wishing for the past, or crying about her future. She was pulling herself together. Starting now.
She felt as if she’d reached a sort of turning point and that the moment needed to be marked in some special way. “Jake, want to come out to dinner at the Smoke House with me tonight?”
Jake looked surprised. “What for?”
“It was just a thought.” She shrugged, a little embarrassed, hoping he hadn’t taken her offer the wrong way.”
“And not a bad one. But I’ve got a fellow coming over tonight to look at my old car. Wren put a sales notice up on that Internet Kijiji thing for me and I just may have myself a buyer.”
“That’s good news.” He’d been wanting to sell his car for over a year now. And if he was going to travel to Arizona, that plan made more sense than ever.
“We’ll go out for that dinner another time,” Jake promised.
“Sure,” she said. But she was still going tonight. Even if she was a party of one.
* * *
Mattie checked her reflection in the restroom mirror of the Smoke House Bar & Grill. She’d curled her hair, put on a bit of makeup, a dress and heels, and the results were satisfactory, if she did say so herself. She exited the door and headed to the bar, where Ryan Garry, owner of the local Lake County Gazette, was waiting for her.
He’d been sitting at the bar when she first came in, twenty minutes ago. She’d been nervous.
It had been a long time since she’d gone by herself to a bar—actually she never had—and though the Smoke House was far from a pickup place, she still felt conspicuous.
But she knew the bartender. Blake Coffey was in his mid-twenties, cute and charming. When he was younger she’d given him and his sister riding lessons. They chatted a little, and his good-humored banter helped eased her tension. She ordered a cranberry and soda, and kept an eye on the football game playing on TV screens positioned strategically so almost everyone in the room had a view.
Shortly after that, Ryan had come in. Forty, a divorced father of three kids, besides his newspaper, his main passion in life was protecting the ecosystem of the Flathead Watershed. Last time she’d spoken to him, he’d sold her a membership to the Flathead Lakers, a grassroots organization that worked to ensure responsible land and water stewardship.