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The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was the perfect setting for fleeing a funeral. The high drama of the granite peaks rising abruptly from low, jagged hills, the earthy scent of sagebrush and pine, the open space of the high desert, were naturally suited to thoughts of life and death.
Grandma Ruth had loved these mountains. She'd lived most of her life in them. Driving down the scenic highway, marveling at each gorgeous view, seemed a much better way to celebrate her life than sitting in a musty Reno funeral chapel. Samantha still wasn't sure how she'd ended up on this impromptu road trip. One minute she'd been listening to the pastor's words, and the next an outraged voice was screaming in her head that this service wasn't doing justice to Ruth. The rote text didn't describe the loving, vibrant grandmother she knew. Samantha couldn't stand it anymore, so she'd fled.
Running away wasn't like her. Samantha felt her forehead, wondering if she was getting sick. She was known for showing up, helping out and always doing the right thing. But instead she'd abandoned the funeral and then, from the parking lot, called work to let them know she wouldn't be in today. She'd cancelled all her meetings and now, instead of the many things she should be doing, she was speeding down this scenic highway to the ranch outside of Benson.
Her ranch. That idea would take some getting used to. Samantha smiled. In the past few years, Grandma Ruth had tried to get her to be more adventurous. Maybe leaving her the ranch was her last attempt to shake her granddaughter up a bit. "Well, Grandma," Samantha said aloud to the mountains, "you have definitely stirred things up this time."
Samantha turned up the volume on her iPod and let the strains of opera soar. Maybe it was melodramatic, but it had seemed like the only music appropriate for the splendor of this drive, the sadness in her heart and the emotion of this homecoming.
A few tears insisted on rolling down her cheeks. Samantha brushed them off and took a deep breath. All this crying wasn't her usual style. More evidence that it would do her good to be away for a few days, to see something other than the crowded streets of San Francisco and the busy conference rooms of Taylor Advertising. She pictured the ranch as she remembered it from childhood. It might make her sad to be there without her grandparents, but how amazing to see the ranch again after so many years. Growing up, it was the closest thing to a home Samantha had known.
She glanced at the keys on the seat beside her, hooked on a ring neatly labeled Rylant, Ranch House. What would the old house be like? Ruth had moved to Reno ten years ago-what had she left behind? And in what state? The will had promised Samantha four thousand acres of ranch: barns, house, outbuildings "and all items found on the premises therein." She hoped some of those items included furniture or it was going to be a long night.
* * *
Just past the highway sign for Benson, population five hundred seventy-five, another weather-beaten sign read Blue Water Mercantile-Groceries, Beer, Fishing. Under the letters, a painted and peeling fish jumped out of faded water with a smile, holding a beer can in its chipped fin. The local store beneath the fish looked the same as it always had, just smaller and lower, as if it was retreating into the earth. It had been years since she'd been here, but she still remembered climbing down from Grandpa's truck, holding on to his strong hand and hurrying him indoors to get a popsicle or a soda.
An old pickup was parked in front of the store and a man in a battered cowboy hat was leaning on the cab door, talking on a cell phone. As she pulled her car up to the curb, Samantha caught a glimpse of long legs in faded jeans, broad shoulders in a plaid shirt and white teeth that flashed when he talked. A perfect, modern Western scene, she thought, taking in the contrast of the cowboy, the old truck and the cell phone.
She smiled to herself. The sight of a good-looking man in a cowboy hat in San Francisco generally meant one thing-he was not interested in women. Out here that stereotype might not apply, and she couldn't help but glance again at the stranger, appreciating his silhouette. Then she remembered Mark and turned away with a stab of guilt. The last thing she should be doing was looking at another man when she already had a boyfriend-even if that boyfriend hadn't been around much lately.
Samantha crossed the small parking lot and reached for the handle to pull open the glass door of the shop. She jumped, startled, as a much larger hand swooped over hers to pull it open for her. "I got it," said a deep voice in her right ear, and she recognized the navy plaid shirt on that long arm and knew it was the same man she'd seen in the parking lot. Glancing up to voice her thanks Samantha froze, her breath caught in her teeth.
Tall, she thought incoherently. He's really tall. Her gaze slid down to a wide chest underneath faded flannel. Everything else was just a series of impressions-a silver belt buckle, lean muscle, fair skin tanned to gold, dark blond hair that was a little shaggy under the hat, curling a bit at the collar. She looked up quickly and met blue eyes with a brilliance in them that caught the light. Dark honey lashes surrounded them, thick and long. He looked like a man who spent plenty of time out in the elements. There were creases from sun and smiling etched on his angular face. Samantha hadn't known a man could be so beautiful. She just stood there like a fool, staring, trying to remember how to breathe.
The cowboy regarded her with a wide grin, as if he knew just what she was thinking. Then he took a long, slow look at her before saying "You're not from around here, are you?"
It took another attempted breath to get her heart beating again. Glancing down at herself she saw what he saw the long, black pencil skirt, the high, spiked heels on her boots, the chunky gold ring on her hand, the black cashmere sweater. She was definitely not dressed for life in a small mountain town.
With an embarrassed smile tugging at her mouth, she forced herself to look up at those eyes and act as if they weren't paralyzing her. If her friend Tess were here, she'd have the perfect, appropriate-yet-sexy reply, not this vast blankness that had taken over her mind.
Finally she managed, "Nope, I guess not," and pushed past him into the store, hoping he couldn't see her heart pounding through her sweater. She heard him laughing softly as he closed the door behind them with a clang of the bell.
Samantha grabbed a basket. This was ridiculous. Losing Grandma Ruth must have destroyed her confidence. She shopped at the Marina Safeway, for crying out loud, the most notorious singles pickup spot in all of San Francisco! She was used to fending off men asking for cooking advice in the pasta aisle. Back home she brushed those men off easily, but walking to the back of the dusty store, she felt the cowboy's glance lingering on her and just prayed she wouldn't trip and fall.
Samantha heard him greet someone at the counter. She forced herself to focus on her shopping.
Everything about the store brought back a memory. She smelled the unforgettable combination of dust, firewood and the faint odor of the bait sold out of the freezer in the back. There was the ice cream case, and the small section of toys. And in the air there was something she hadn't felt in years-the peace of childhood summers, solidity and home. Tears prickled for what must have been the twentieth time that day and she blinked them back quickly. She was an emotional wreck, one moment running out of Ruth's funeral, the next lusting after some random guy in a cowboy outfit, and now missing her grandparents so much it hurt! Disgusted with herself Samantha turned her attention to filling her basket with provisions and cleaning supplies, and kept her mind busy with plans for opening up the long-neglected farmhouse.
A man in a fishing vest sat behind the counter. She noticed his face was lined and weathered, much like the sign in front of the store. He smiled at her with a "Morning, ma'am," and she smiled back, dumping her basket onto the counter.
There was no sign of the cowboy she'd met at the door. He'd probably left, and Samantha gave a small sigh of relief at his absence. The last time her heart had pounded that fast was during her first formal pitch at work about five years ago? It wasn't a pleasant feeling and not one she felt like repeating anytime soon.
"You look like you mean to stay awhile." The grocer's friendly eyes twinkled at her from beneath his gray brows. "You here for the fishing?"
"It's been a long time since I tried it." Samantha pulled out her credit card as he totaled her purchases on an archaic-looking cash register. No scanners and barcodes at the Blue Water. He took her card, set it in the holder and began to place a paper slip over it. Reading the name on the card, he stopped and looked up at her in surprise.
"Rylant? Are you any relation to Ruth Rylant?" The lump she'd suppressed rose in her throat again. She hadn't thought this through, hadn't taken into account all the people in Benson who'd known Ruth. Figuring she'd better get used to it, and quickly, she swallowed the lump yet again and stuck out her hand to the beaming face across the counter.
"Yes. I'm Samantha Rylant, Ruth's granddaughter," she told him as she shook his hand. "I'm not sure you heard, but Ruth passed away earlier this week."
She heard the emotion in his voice. "Yes, I did hear stupid of me not to give my condolences right away. Ruth was a fine woman. We all missed her when she moved away. I'm sorry to hear she's gone." They were silent a moment and then he continued, "Well, but here you are and I'm being impolite. I'm Dan Sanders, owner of this fine establishment. Welcome to Benson, Samantha. You staying in town?"
"I thought I'd stay out at the ranch."
Dan's gaze shifted down to her hands, eyeing the bold rings and the manicured nails. "Oh, I see. Have you been out there recently? You might want to try the hotel for a while until you can get someone in to clean up the place."
"Believe me, I called, but it's full. A fly-fishing tour. But it's okay, I'll figure something out. I guess I'm just going to have to clean the house up myself." At Dan's incredulous look she pushed on, needing to explain, maybe to herself as well. "She left it to me.so I guess I just want to spend some time there, figure out what I've got on my hands. I haven't been out there since before she moved away."
"Wait a minute!" Dan interrupted. "I remember you now! No wonder you stopped here-you know this place. I remember Ruth bringing you in here from time to time when you were just a kid! And your grandpa, he always used to buy his fishing license here. If I remember right he'd take you fishing right along with him." He grinned and stacked her groceries in a paper bag as he continued. "You were just a skinny little thing, all big green eyes and arms and legs."
"Not much has changed since, has it?" The cowboy's deep voice spoke right behind her. Samantha nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned quickly, hitting her elbow against a rack of sunglasses. "Whoa, steady there!" He caught the wobbling rack and Samantha grabbed her elbow, wincing at the pain sizzling up her arm. "Are you okay? That looked like it hurt."
Her traitorous heart thumped and her pulse raced at top speed as she stared at him, momentarily stunned into silence. What was wrong with her? "I'm fine, really," she managed. Time to gather the shreds of her dignity.
She pulled her eyes away from his handsome face and drew herself up to her full five-and-a-half feet, forcing herself to let go of her stinging elbow. She deliberately turned her back to him and gave Dan the most dazzling, confident smile she could muster, ignoring the cowboy's presence behind her. "Mr. Sanders, it was nice to meet you. I look forward to seeing you soon. Thank you for your kind words."
If Dan noticed the flushed cheeks and contrived dignity he said nothing. He took her hand, a kind expression on his face. "You come on by if you need anything, Samantha. And don't pay attention to the clown behind you. He's just fond of causing trouble. If he wasn't one of my best customers I'd kick him on out of here for you!"
There was another laugh behind her, courtesy of the gorgeous cowboy. Samantha gathered her bags and turned to go. Mr. Perfect stepped out of her way, tipping his hat in her direction. She refused to look at him. Brushing past his broad shoulder she turned to Dan. "Oh, don't worry, I won't pay attention to him." More laughter, deep and warm, crested behind her like a wave that prickled her skin and washed her out the door into the bright fall sunshine.
The phone trumpeted a faint snippet of Beethoven's Fifth and Samantha pulled the car onto the gravel shoulder, reaching for her purse. Hopefully it was Mark, dutifully calling to apologize for not attending the funeral with her. Or, more likely, he'd be calling to talk about work. Still, maybe his familiar voice would banish the memory of the handsome cowboy, whose laughter still echoed in her ears. Ugh.
The screen was flashing her mother's name.
Ignoring the stab of disappointment that her boyfriend continued to be AWOL, she answered.
"Samantha! Are you okay? How's it going?" Her mother sounded revved and excited. She always did, especially before any type of global travel.
"Mom, I'm not even at the ranch yet, but almost. It's nice here." She looked around at the ridges rising above her. "Peaceful. Beautiful."
"Wow, you're making me miss it." Samantha could hear an unfamiliar, wistful note in her mother's voice.
"Really? You know you never liked it here. No one speaking Swahili, no volcanoes erupting, nothing exciting enough for you."
Her mom laughed. "You're right. It's a little tame for your father and me. But gorgeous, nonetheless. Speaking of Swahili, we're at the airport now. We should be back in Kenya by tomorrow."