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A single fly buzzed past Francis Elkton and swooped up to the bare lights that hung from the rafters of the old barn. Francis didn't notice the fly, but on most nights she would have even though her eyes were now half-closed as she slow danced to an old fifties tune.
Francis was an immaculate housekeeper. And a first-class manager. She often said, in her job with the City of Denver, that the two went hand in hand. You only needed to look in someone's top desk drawer, she'd say, to predict what kind of a city manager they would be. Whether it was paper clips or people or drainage pipes, everything needed an order.
She would never have tolerated an out-of-place fly if she hadn't been so distracted.
But tonight, the fly was only one more guest at the wedding reception, and Francis was too busy trying to keep her unwanted memories in their place to give any attention to the proper place of a mere insect. Every time she opened her eyes she realized that things were not turning out the way she had planned.
She'd taken a three-month leave from her job and come back to Dry Creek, Montana, because she thought she'd be able to stand up to her pastto look her memories of Flint L. Harris square in the eyeand be free of him once and for all. She was mentally cleaning out her files, she told herself. Throwing away outdated papers. Putting her life back in order even if it had taken her twenty years to face the task.
The only reason she'd decided to do it now was that Sam Goodman, her neighbor in Denver, had said he would not wait forever to marry her. She'd realized suddenly that she could not give her heart to Sam, or any other man, until she got it completely back from Flint.
It had been a sentimental decision to come back to Dry Creek to purge herself. She reasoned that the memories had started here in this ranching community, in the shadows of the Big Sheep Mountains. And they would surely end here if she just screwed up her mind and willed them to be gone. It was like reaching deep inside herself to pull out the roots of an unwanted weed that had refused to die over the years.
But, for the first time since she'd come back, she realized her heart wasn't bending to her will. The past had not grown dimmer because she'd stood up to it. No, the past was right here before her in living color whether she wanted to see it or not.
The pink crepe paper streamers coming down from the rafters were the same color her high school class had used twenty years ago for their prom. Back then her classmates had gone to Miles City to school and had decorated the gym there with their streamers.
Tonight, the dance was being held in the large old barn her brother Garth had built for loading cattle. He had not used the barn for his cattle for several years now, and the community of Dry Creek had scrubbed it clean for their annual Christmas pageant some months ago. On a cold winter night like tonight, the inside of the barn shone bright and the windows were covered with frost.
Dry Creek was fast making the barn into an informal center for all kinds of occasions. Like tonight's dance to celebrate the wedding of Glory Becker and Matthew Curtis. The dance wasn't a prom, but the music was the same. The same swaying music. The same soft laughter of other couples in the background.
Francis could close her eyes and almost imagine it was Flint who held her in his arms. Flint with his shy halting gladness to see her and the tall wiry length of his twenty-year-old body. Even back then, she should have known that dancing with him would come to no good
"Francis?" A slightly alarmed man's voice growled in her right ear.
Francis blinked and then blushed. Jess, one of her brother's older ranch hands, had invited her to dance, and it was his face that now looked at her suspiciously. She hadn't realized until he spoke that her arms had crept up his back until she had him in an embrace that was more than friendly. She shook the memories from her eyes, cleared her throat and loosened her arms. "Sorry."
"That's okay." Jess ducked his head, apparently reassured once the sensible Francis was back. Then he added teasingly, "After all, your brother did tell me to stick close to you tonight."
"He's not still worried about that phone call?" Francis gladly diverted the conversation to her brother's needless caution. "Just because some guy calls up and says someone might be out to kidnap meit's all nonsense anyway. Even if Garth did know something about the rustlers who have been hitting this areawhich he doesn'twell, it doesn't make sense. Before they start making any threats, these rustlers should find out if Garth knows anything that's a danger to them. Any manager would tell them that's the first step. They might be criminals, but that's no excuse for sloppy planning. You need to identify your problem and then verify how big it is before you can even hope to solve it."
"Way I hear it, it wasn't just some guy that called."
Apparently Jess only heard the first part of what she'd said. Francis had noticed that the ranch hands who worked for her brother tended to let their eyes glaze over when she tried to teach them management techniques.
"The man never gave his name," Francis corrected stiffly.
"Didn't need to from the way I heard it," Jess mumbled. "Begging your pardon for mentioning him. Stillcan't be too careful."
No wonder she was having so much trouble getting rid of her memories of Flint, Francis thought. He seemed to have more lives than a stray alley cat. She'd bury him one day and he'd be resurrected the next. Did everyone in Dry Creek know about that phone call?
"I don't believe it was Flint Harris on the other end of that phone call. For pity's sakehe probably doesn't even remember Dry Creek." Lord knows he doesn't remember me, Francis added silently. "He never had roots in Dry Creek. He only came here that one spring because his grandmother was ill. He hasn't been back since she died."
"Hasn't sold her place yet, though," Jess argued. "Even pays taxes on it. That's got to mean something."
"It means that it isn't worth selling. Who would buy it? The windows are all broken out and it's only got five acres with it. The only thing you could raise there is chickens and with the low price of eggs these days"
Francis stopped herself. She didn't need to be her own worst enemy. She needed to forget chickens. That had been their adolescent dreamthat they would live with his grandmother and make their living by selling eggs. A fool's dream. Even back then, it wouldn't have kept them in jeans and tennis shoes. She cleared her throat. "The point is that Flint Harris is nowhere near here."
"Like I said, I'm sorry to bring the louse up. If I'd have been here back then and met the boy, I'd have given him a good speaking totreating a nice girl like you that way."
Francis stopped dancing and looked at Jess. He seemed to expect a response. "Well, thank you, but that wouldn't have been necessary. I could take care of myself even back then."
"If you say so."
Francis looked at him carefully. There it was. A steady gleam of pity in his eyes.
"Those rumors are not true." Francis bristled. The one thing she didn't miss in Denver was the gossip that flowed freely in a small community. "While it is true that he and I drove to Las Vegas after the prom and looked for a justice of the peace, it is not true that we were actually married."
"Mrs. Hargrove says"
"Mrs. Hargrove wasn't there. I was. The man was not a justice of the peace. My father called down there and asked. They had no justice of the peace by that name. It doesn't matter what words we said, those papers we signed were worthless."
"You signed some papers?" The pity left his eyes. It was replaced by astonishment. "You still have them?"
"I didn't say I have papers," Francis said patiently. The last time she'd seen those papers, Flint had had them. She remembered the way he had carefully folded them and put them in his coat pocket. She hadn't realized at the time that any young bride with any sense asks to keep the papers herselfespecially when the wedding takes place in Las Vegas. That should have been her first clue.
"Besides, that is long ago and done with," Francis said briskly. "As Mrs. Hargrove probably told you, even if it had been a marriage, it would have been the shortest marriage ever on record in Dry Creekprobably the shortest in all of Montana. I don't even think it lasted forty hours. We had the trip back from Vegas and then he dropped me off at my dad's to pack. Said he was going to Miles City to buy me some rosesevery bride needed roses, he saidthose were the last words I ever heard from him. He never came back."
Francis believed in slicing through her pain quickly and efficiently with a minimum of fuss. She'd held her breath when she recited the facts of those two days with Flint and now she let it out slowly. "I'm sure it was one of the smoothest exit lines in the book and I fell for it. Five weeks later I made arrangements to graduate early from high school and I left for Denver. That's all there was to it."
"But no one knew," Jess reproached her softly.
"That's the only reason the folks here still remember it. No one but your father knew and then you just left so suddenly. These were your neighbors and friends. They cared about you, they just didn't know what was happening. Even now Mrs. Hargrove keeps trying to think back to something she could have said to make it better in those days for youblames herself for not taking a more motherly role in your lifewhat with just you and your dad out there alone when Garth was in the servicekeeps having this notion that Flint did come back in around that time and stopped at her place to ask for you."
"She's confused," Francis said flatly. People meant well, but it didn't help to sugarcoat the truth. "If he'd tried to find me, he'd have tried my father's place. He knew where it was. He'd been there enough times."
"I suppose you're right."
The dance ended and suddenly Francis felt foolish to be standing there arguing about whether or not a man had stopped to see her neighbor twenty years ago. "I think I'll sit the next one out if it's all the same to you. You can tell my brother I'll be fine. I'll just be taking a rest."
Jess looked relieved. "I could use a break myself. My arthritis is acting up some."
"Well, why didn't you say so? We could have sat the last two dances outno need to be up and moving around on a cold night like this."
"It is a blistering one out tonight, isn't it?"
"All the more reason to forget about the kidnapping threat," Francis agreed. "No one but a fool would be out setting a trap tonight. It's too cold. No, I think the kids are right when they said it was that rival gang they have in Seattle calling to make mischief."
Francis's brother, Garth, had offered the use of his ranch to a woman who ran a youth center for gang kids in Seattle. At the moment, thirty of the kids were learning to be better citizens by spending a few weeks in Dry Creek, Montana. Garth had been in charge of teaching the boys how to be gentlemen, and Francis had been astonished at his patience. He'd had them out in the barn practicing how to dip and twirl their dance partners, and the boys had loved it.
A rich society woman from Seattle, Mrs. Buckwalter, was underwriting the cost of the trip to Montana, and Francis couldn't help but notice how excited the older woman was tonight. Mrs. Buckwalter couldn't have been prouder of the teens if she'd given birth to every one of them.
And Francis couldn't blame her. The teenagers sparkled at this dance, the boys in their rented tuxedos and the girls in the old fifties prom dresses they'd borrowed from the women of Dry Creek. It was hard to believe that they were members of various gangs in Seattle. A few dance lessons and a sprinkling of ties and taffeta had transformed them.
"That's really the logical explanation," Francis concluded. If the other gang could only see the youth center kids now. She couldn't help but think they'd be a little jealous of the good time these kids were having.
"Maybe." Jess didn't look convinced. "Just don't take any unnecessary risksyour brother will have my hide. He's worried, you know"
"Even if Flint did kidnap me, he'd never hurt meno matter what Garth worries about." As Francis listened to herself saying the words, she realized how naive she sounded. She didn't know what kind of a man Flint might be today. She'd often wondered.
Jess looked at her. "Still, things happen."
"What could happen?" Francis waved her arms around. She might not know about Flint, but she did know about the people of Dry Creek. At least a hundred people were in the barn, some sitting on folding chairs along the two sides, a few standing by the refreshment table and dozens of them on the floor poised ready to dance to the next tune. A lot of muscle rested beneath the suits that had been unearthed for this party. "One little scream and fifty men would come to my rescue. I'm surrounded by Dry Creek. There isn't a safer place in all the world for me."
Jess grunted. "I guess you're right. Maybe you should go visit with Mrs. Hargrove a bit. Talk to those two little boys that belong to Matthew Curtis. Find out how they like the idea of having a new mama."