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Reno Redfern stopped his pickup in front of the hardware store in Dry Creek. He was late and splattered with thick gray mud. Hopefully someone would have sorted the mail by now, and he could quietly pick up his few bills and get back to the ranch and shower. If he had been paying more attention to the road, he wouldn't have slipped into the ditch and ended up with the wheels of his pickup stuck in the mud.
Reno shook his head. He'd made it a point to thank God repeatedly for the rainwhat rancher wouldn't?but he was working on being honest in his dealings with God, and so far he hadn't been able to say anything polite about the mud. The mud just lay everywhere, making the ground look forlorn and generally being a nuisance.
Reno had liked the first part of spring well enough. The cold of winter had eased up a little and he could walk from the house to the barn without pulling his cap down over his ears. But later, for some reason, everything had turned to mud. The mountains were no longer covered in snow, but the grass hadn't taken hold yet either. Gray clouds hung in most of the skies, and the air was wet even when it wasn't raining. The worst part was the deep clay that trapped everyone's wheels.
Reno frowned as he opened the door to his pickup. The one good thing he could say for the mud was that it matched his mood these days. If it had been a normal Montana spring with endless blue sky and those tiny purple wildflowers blooming beside the gravel roads, he wouldn't have been able to take all the love and sunshine flowing around the Redfern Ranch now that his sister, Nicki, had settled into married life.
At first Reno had wondered in alarm if he were jealous ofNicki's wedded bliss. But that wasn't it. He just missed the way things used to be.
There was such a thing as too much happiness, Reno finally decided, and his sister proved it. Nicki was so sweet these days it made his teeth ache. If she weren't so sweet, he probably wouldn't miss the old Nicki so much.
But as much as he tried to bring Nicki back to her senses, he couldn't. He couldn't even get her going on a good argument about cattle prices and fertilizer, and those used to be her favorite topics for heated discussion. But now all she wanted to talk about was curtain fabric and love. She had a perfectly good rancher's brain that was turning to sentimental mush, and he was powerless to stop it.
And she wasn't content to limit her new sentimental thoughts of love to herself and her new husband. Oh, noshe had started to speak of marriage with a missionary zeal that made Reno nervous. He had seen the speculation in her eyes several days before she came right out and asked him if he'd like her to set him up.
Set him up! Reno still couldn't believe it. He and Nicki had had a pact. Neither one of them was going to get married, at least not for love. Of course, they'd made that vow when they were ten and twelve, a good four years after their mother had left their father and they'd heard every day since about the damage love could do from their father's own bitter lips.
Besides, even if Reno decided to take leave of his senses and look for a wife, he didn't need his sister doing the looking for him. There were plenty of women who wanted to date him. Granted, he wasn't exactly in touch with any of them at the moment, but that was only because he was busy feeding the new calves and, wellthings.
"I'm getting around to it." Reno had set his glass of water down on the kitchen counter when Nicki asked her question. "You don't need to worry about me. I'm doing fine."
"Really, you've met someone you want to date?"
Reno scowled. She didn't need to sound so surprised. "Well, no, but I will"
"When you have time," Nicki finished for him, and shook her head. "I know as well as you do that there's never any extra time when you're ranching you have to make time for what's important."
"Getting the alfalfa planted is important."
"With mud like this, you can't even plow. That's why Garrett and I decided to go to Denver. There's nothing to do right now."
"I can change the plugs on the tractor."
"Or you could do something fun for a change, like maybe go down to Los Angeles and pay a visit to Chrissy Hamilton."
Reno was struck dumb. Chrissy was the cousin of Nicki's new husband, Garrett Hamilton. "Why would I do that?"
"Because you've been, well, morose since Chrissy visited here last fall. That's not like you."
Morose? Ever since Nicki had married her trucker husband, she'd started learning a new word every day. Reno didn't like to discourage anyone who wanted to learn. Still "That's not because of Chrissy."
Well, Reno admitted to himself, it might be a little bit because of Chrissy, but it wasn't in the way his sister thought.
Chrissy had come to Dry Creek last fall looking for Reno and Nicki's mother. Before Chrissy moved back to Los Angeles, she had been a waitress in the Las Vegas casino where their mother worked. The two had become friends, and Reno could understand why.
If Chrissy was upsetting to him, it was only because she reminded him of his mother. Both women had that high-wattage, bright-color sway that went with a place like Las Vegas. They wore fancy sequin dresses with the same ease that women in Dry Creek wore their aprons.
It was clear that neither his mother nor Chrissy belonged in Dry Creek, and that's why Chrissy had bothered him. Really the only reason she still bothered him, he told himself.
Nicki looked at him as if she didn't believe him. "You're not still afraid to get married, are you?"
Nicki had the grace to blush. "I know we both said we would never get married, but we were kids. What did we know?"
"We knew what Dad told us."
"Ah, well, he only saw one side of being married. If he'd known there were people out there like Garrett, who can really love someone, he wouldn't have wanted us to stay single all our lives."
Reno decided he shouldn't argue with his sister on this one. "I suppose he might have been okay with you marrying."
Nicki looked relieved. "And you, too."
Reno doubted all of it. He had known his father. But he held his tongue.
"Anyway, here's Chrissy's address and phone number," Nicki said as she pulled a piece of paper out of her jeans pocket and set it on the kitchen counter. "You could at least call and talk to heror write her a letter or something."
With that, Nicki turned and walked away.
She might as well have left a stick of live dynamite on the kitchen counter.
Reno just stared at the paper.
He didn't tell his sister that he didn't need to call Chrissy or write her a letter to find out if the two of them were destined for some kind of wedded bliss. For even a little bit of bliss to happen, the woman would have to like him, and it appeared the very thought of dating him made Chrissy Hamilton want to cry.
Even someone as lovestruck as his sister would have to agree that was not a good sign. Fortunately, no one knew about him and Chrissy.
When Chrissy had been at the ranch last fall, he'd decided to invite her to eat dinner at the café in Dry Creek with him. He hadn't thought it was any big deal. He'd spent the afternoon convincing himself that just because her green-gray eyes made him want to take up painting storm clouds, that was no reason to think he was interested in anything but getting to know someone who could tell him more about his mother.
He'd even stopped himself from wondering about Chrissy's lips once he decided they looked as soft as they did because of some sort of Las Vegas beauty trick.
No, he'd put all that aside. Dinner was just a logical thing. Hamburgers and fries for two hungry people at the café in Dry Creek. Maybe spaghetti and garlic bread, if they had it. He'd started out by saying there was no reason to go to any trouble and change clothes and they both had to eat, so would she like to come with him to eat at the
That's as far as he'd got before she'd given him a stricken look and started to cry. He hadn't known what to do but take her in his arms and let her sob against his last clean shirt. After the first burst of tears had ended, she'd pulled back and looked embarrassed. Her cheeks had been pink, and her eyes had dared him to ask about her tears.
Before he could say anything, she'd thanked him for the invitation in a businesslike voice and added she was sorry she couldn't date him. She was also sorry about the shirt, she said, and added that a little bleach should take the mascara out.
By then he couldn't say he hadn't been asking her out on a date, so he'd just thanked her for the laundry tip. He hadn't added that he was surprised. He'd never figured someone like Chrissy would know anything about laundry.
Fortunately, no one knew about any of this, and Reno wasn't about to tell anyone. He picked up the slip of paper from the kitchen counter, intending to crumple it up and throw it away. He should be glad Chrissy wasn't interested in him.
Reno was cautious when it came to women. Even if he hadn't had his father to remind him of how fickle women could be, his mother had taught him that some women just weren't meant to live on a ranch.
Life on the Redfern Ranch could never compete with the excitement of a big city. Ranch life was plain, good living, and that was all Reno wanted, but he knew there was no theater, no fine dining, no museums, no upscale shopping.
A Vegas cocktail waitress like Chrissy would never stay in a place like Dry Creek any more than his mother had. Oh, Chrissy might think it was quaint and amusing enough for a week or so, but in the long term she'd leave. Dry Creek would never be enough for her.
Yes, throwing away that piece of paper his sister had left on the counter was the only sensible thing to do. Reno said those words to himself, but for some strange reason he didn't listen. Instead, he folded the piece of paper into a small square and put it in his shirt pocket.
He told himself he'd throw it away tomorrow. When tomorrow came, he told himself it wouldn't hurt to wait until the next day.
That was two weeks ago Monday, and he no longer even bothered to lie to himself. Every day when he changed his shirt, he moved that piece of paper to the new pocket.
Reno shook his head. This past Saturday he'd actually looked at a map to see which freeways he'd need to take if he drove down to Los Angeles. He'd gone so far as to remind himself he'd never seen the Pacific Ocean and had a good reason to drive down to Los Angeles, quite apart from seeing Chrissy. A man ought to see the ocean some time in his life.
Reno scraped his feet on the porch of the hardware store. At least no one in Dry Creek knew about that slip of paper in his pocket or the foolish thoughts going around in his head. He wouldn't have had any peace if they did. Sometimes it felt as if he had a dozen grandparents, each one of them anxious for him to date someone so they could plan a wedding and then begin the more serious business of knitting baby booties.
Reno didn't know why the seniors in Dry Creek were so set on babies. But all he heard these days were wistful remarks that, given all the marriages in Dry Creek lately, it sure was a shame there weren't any babies.
No, he didn't want the people of Dry Creek to know he was even thinking of visiting Chrissy. They'd start putting their hopes on him, and he'd only let them down.