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Margaret thought she was ready, as ready as any daughter could be to face her father's death. She'd been at his side, his rough, callused hand between her own, when it happened. For hours she'd sat with him, watching the intermittent rise and fall of his chest, waiting, wondering if this breath would be his last, praying it wasn't. Clinging to what little life was left in him.
Bernard Clemens had refused to die in a hospital and at his request, she'd brought him home. The hospice people had been wonderful, assisting Bernard in maintaining his dignity to the very end. Margaret had stayed with her father almost constantly the final week of his life.
She watched him draw his last shallow breath, watched him pass peacefully, silently, from one life to the next. Margaret wasn't sure what she'd expected to feel, but certainly not this torrent of agony and grief. She'd known he was dying, known it for months, and she'd thought that knowledge would blunt the sharp rawness of her pain. It hadn't. Her father was gone. She'd spent every day of her life with him, here on the Triple C, and now she was alone. In time, she realized, she'd be able to look back and see the blessing her father had been, but not yet. Not when her loss hurt as much as it did now.
She'd waited until she'd composed herself and then, dry-eyed, walked out of the large bedroom and awakened the sleeping family members, who'd gathered at the ranch. She'd announced that Bernard had died and his death had been peaceful. No tears were shed. That wasn't how grief was expressed in the Clemens family.
Almost immediately, everyone had found a purpose and the house was filled with activity. More and more people arrived, and then, two days later, it was time for the funeral. Bernard Clemens's three surviving brothers stood at the grave site with Margaret; they stayed long enough to greet folks and thank them for coming. Then they left, to return to their own families, their own lives.
The reception following the funeral was well attended. Nearly everyone in Buffalo Valley came to pay their respects. Hassie Knight, who owned Knight's Pharmacy, took charge of organizing the event. She'd been a family friend for many years. At least a hundred people had gathered at the large ranch house, and there was more food than Margaret could eat in six weeks. She never had understood why people brought casseroles and desserts for a wake; the last thing she wanted to think about was eating.
"Margaret, I'm so sorry," Sarah Urlacher told her, gently taking her hand and holding it. She was sincere, and her kindness touched Margaret's heart. Sarah's husband, Dennis, stood with her. His eyes revealed genuine compassion.
Margaret nodded, wishing she knew the couple better. It was her father who was well acquainted with the folks in Buffalo Valley. He'd been doing business there for years. Dennis delivered fuel to the ranch, so Margaret at least knew him, even if their relationship was just a casual one. Sarah owned and operated Buffalo Valley Quilts, a growing enterprise that seemed to be attracting interest all around the country. Margaret knew Sarah only by sight; they hadn't shared more than a few perfunctory greetings.
She wanted to thank everyone for comingshe really did appreciate their expressions of sympathy and respectand at the same time f ind a way to steer them out the door. Making conversation with people she hardly knew was beyond her. She was polite, cordial, but a tightness had gripped her chest, and it demanded every ounce of restraint she could muster not to rush to the barn, saddle Midnight and ride until she was too exhausted to go farther.
Bob and Merrily Carr came next, with their little boy, Axel. They owned and operated 3 OF A KIND, Buffalo Valley's bar and grill. After that, the banker, Heath Quantrill, offered his condolences. Rachel Fischer was with him, and if Margaret remembered correctly, they were a couple now.
Ranchers and farmers crowded the house. So many people. There barely seemed room to breathe.
"Do you need anything?" Maddy McKenna asked with a gentleness that nearly broke Margaret's facade. Maddy was the best friend she'd ever had. If anyone understood, it would be Maddy.
"I want everyone to leave," Margaret whispered, f ighting back emotion. The lump in her throat refused to go away and she had trouble talking around it.
Maddy took Margaret by the arm and led her down the long hallway to her bedroom. The two of them had spent many an afternoon in this very room; at Margaret's entreaty, Maddy had tried to instruct her in the arts of looking and acting femininefeminine enough to attract Matt Eilers. Not that her efforts had been noticed. Not by him, anyway.
"Sit," Maddy ordered, pointing to Margaret's bed.
Without argument, Margaret complied.
"When was the last time you had any sleep?"
Margaret blinked, unable to recall. "A while ago." The night before the funeral she'd sat up and gone through her father's papers. He had everything in order, as she'd suspected he would. He'd realized months ago that he was dying.
"Lie down," Maddy said.
"I have a house full of company," Margaret objected weakly. It went against the grain to let someone dictate what she should or shouldn't do. With anyone else, she'd have made a fuss, insisted it was her place to be with her father's friends.
"You're dead on your feet," Maddy told her.
Margaret nestled her head in her pillow, surprised by how good it felt against her face. How cool and comforting. "I
I thought I was prepared," she said, her eyes closed. "I thought I could handle this."
"No one's ever ready to lose a father," Maddy said as she covered Margaret with the afghan from the foot of the bed. The weight of it settled warmly over her shoulders.
"Sleep now. By the time you wake, everyone will be gone."
"Nothing's ever going to be the same again," Margaret whispered.
"You're right, it won't."
Maddy's voice sounded soothing, even if her words didn't. But then, Margaret could count on her friend to tell the truth. Already she could feel sleep approach, could feel the tension leave her body. "Matt didn't attend the funeral, did he?"
"No," Maddy said.
"I thought he would." She was keenly disappointed that he hadn't bothered to show up.
Maddy was disappointed in him, too. Margaret could tell from the inf lection in her voice. Few people understood why she loved Matt. If pressured to explain, Margaret wasn't sure she could justify her feelings. Matt Eilers was as handsome as sin, shallow and conceited. But she loved him and had from the moment she'd met him.
With Maddy's tutoring, Margaret had done everything possible to get Matt to recognize that she was a woman with a woman's heart. A few months back, she'd had her hair done and put on panty hose for the f irst time in her life. The panty hose had nearly wrestled her to the ground and the new hairdo had made her look like one of the Marx Brothersin her opinion, anyway. The whole beautifying operation had been a unique form of torture, but she'd willingly do it all again for Matt.
"I'm sure he'll stop by later and pay his respects," Margaret whispered, conf ident that he would.
"He should have been here today." Maddy wasn't nearly as forgiving. "Don't worry about Matt."
"Call me in the morning," Maddy said.
"I will," she promised, exhausted and grateful for Maddy's friendship. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was of the father she loved and how bleak her life would feel without him.
Jeb McKenna knew his wife well, and her silence worried him as he drove the short distance between the Clemens house and his ranch. Unlike the Clemenses and most other ranchers in the area, Jeb raised bison; Maddy owned the grocery store in town. Right now, though, she was staying home with their infant daughter.
"You're worried about Margaret, aren't you?" he asked as he turned down the mile-long dirt driveway leading to their home. Maddy had barely said a word after seeing Margaret to her room.
"She was ready to collapse," Maddy told him. "God only knows the last time she slept. Sadie said she'd been up for two nights straight."
"Poor thing." One didn't generally think of Margaret in those terms. She came across as tough, strong, capable. They'd been neighbors for about five yearsever since Jeb had bought the propertyand he'd seen Margaret on a number of different occasions. It was some time before he'd realized Margaret was a she instead of a he.
It'd startled him, but he wasn't the only person she'd inadvertently fooled. Maddy confessed that when they'd f irst met, she'd taken Margaret for a ranch hand.
"Bernard's death has shaken her."
Jeb understood. Joshua McKenna was in his late sixties now, and Jeb knew that sooner or later he, too, would lose his father. The inevitability of it made him feel a wave of sadness
and regret. He parked the car and turned off the engine.
"I'll talk to Margaret in the morning," Maddy said absently.
The October wind beat against him as Jeb climbed out of the vehicle and reached in the back to unfasten Julianne's car seat. At three months she was showing more personality than he would've thought possible. She gurgled and smiled, waving her arms as though orchestrating life from her infant seat. She'd proved to be a good-natured baby, happy and even-tempered.
Carrying the baby seat, he covered Julianne's face with the blanket and hurried toward the house, doing his best to protect his wife and daughter from the brunt of the wind.
Maddy switched on the kitchen lights and Jeb set the baby carrier on the recliner, unfastening Julianne and cradling her in his arms.
"I liked Pastor Dawson," Maddy said casually.
The Methodist minister had recently taken up residence in town. Although Larry Dawson had grown up in Buffalo Valley, Jeb didn't remember him. That wasn't surprising, seeing that the pastor was near retirement age. Dawson was slight in stature, his hairwhat was left of itcompletely white. He hadn't been in contact with Bernard Clemens for many years, but he'd given a respectable eulogy.
"The pastor invited us to church services on Sunday," she murmured.
Although it was an offhand remark, Jeb knew Maddy was interested in becoming involved with a church community. He hesitated; the drive into Buffalo Valley took at least fifty minutes, and that was on a good day. Going to church would consume nearly all of Sunday morning. He opened his mouth, about to offer his wife a list of excuses as to why it would be inconvenient to attend. Before he could utter a word, he changed his mind. The fact that she'd mentioned the invitation at all meant this was important to her and shouldn't be taken lightly.
When he married Maddy, Jeb knew there'd be a number of concessions on his part, but he loved her enough to make them. She'd certainly made concessions of her ownone of which was living so far out of town, away from her friends and the grocery she'd purchased a little more than a year ago. Church for Maddy would be a social outlet, and it would uplift her emotionally and spiritually. Women needed that.
Jeb and Maddy had met soon after she'd bought the one and only grocery store in Buffalo Valley. Her lifelong friend, Lindsay Snyder, had begun teaching at the high school and married Gage Sinclair the following summer. Maddy had been Lindsay's maid of honor; the very day of the wedding she'd decided to settle in Buffalo Valley herself.
Jeb would be forever grateful that she had. His life changed the day he rescued Maddy during a blizzard. She'd been trapped in her car while delivering groceries and would have frozen to death if he hadn't found her when he did. He'd brought her home with him, never suspecting that their time together would have consequences affecting both their lives. Consequences that included an unexpected pregnancy
He'd fallen in love with her in those three snowbound days. After losing his leg in a farming accident several years earlier, Jeb had thought it would never be possible for him to live a normal life againor to feel normal emotions, normal desires. Maddy had shown him otherwise. They'd been married four months now and he was so much in love with her he had to pinch himself every once in a while to convince himself this was real.
"What do you think about us attending church services?" she pressed, studying him closely.
"I think that's a fine idea," he said. It wouldn't hurt and might even do him some good.
Her smile told him how much she appreciated his response.
A few minutes later, Maddy eff iciently changed Julianne's diaper, then settled into the rocking chair. She unbuttoned her blouse and bared her breast for their baby. Fascinated, Jeb watched as his infant daughter instinctively turned toward her mother and greedily latched on.
Maddy rocked gently and hummed a lullaby. It wasn't long before his daughter had taken her fill and Maddy carried her into the nursery to prepare her for the night.
Jeb had the television on, watching a news broadcast, when Maddy joined him. They'd decided to skip dinner, since they'd eaten the equivalent of a meal at Bernard's wake that afternoon. Now, sitting at her husband's side, Maddy picked up her knitting, a recently learned skill. Leta Betts, a devout knitter and Lindsay's mother-in-law, had taught both Maddy and Lindsay how to knit while they were pregnant. "I wonder what Margaret's going to do now."
Jeb glanced away from the television long enough to recognize that Maddy needed to talk about this. He reached for the remote control and muted the sound. "It wasn't as though Bernard's death came as a shock."
"I know. It's just that
"What?" he urged.
"I'm worried about what'll happen to Margaret without her father there to protect her."
"How do you mean?"
"She's alone for the f irst time in her lifeand vulnerable."
Jeb frowned. He hadn't given the matter much thought, but Maddy was right. Margaret had lived a sheltered life, protected by her father and his name.
"She's easy prey for some man. Anyone with a good line can just step in and take advantage of her. Look at all the attention she got at Bob and Merrily's wedding."
Jeb had no recollection of anything about that night except Maddy. She'd been seven months pregnant with his child. It was the night he'd asked her to marry him and she'd agreed.