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Her heart as thick in her throat as if she'd swallowed a ball of yarn, Ellie James drove the van over the cattle guard of the O'Brien ranch. She had once loved the man who had owned the ranchand had abandoned him eight years ago.
Guilt pressing in on her, Ellie glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled at her six young preschool passengers. She'd been their teacher at Ability Counts Preschool and Day Care Center in Potter Creek, Montana, for a week. She already loved each of the four-year-olds in her class. Three had physical disabilitiescerebral palsy, spina bifida and a prosthetic leg. The remaining three were simply normal kids, including her own daughter, Victoria.
All the youngsters were the best of friends, which proved the value of mainstreaming disabled children early.
"There's horses!" Carson, her spina bifida boy, screamed.
Billy and Shane echoed Carson's high-pitched announcement.
Ellie flinched. "Inside voices, please."
A dozen quarter horses grazed in a beautifully fenced pasture to the right of the drive.
"Carson's getting anxious," her daughter, Torie, said.
"Yes, he is." She glanced at her sparkly eyed, little minx of a daughter, the child's hair almost the same shade of auburn as her own. She counted God's blessings, as she had every day since Torie had been born. "I bet you're excited, too, Torie."
"I wanna ride a great big horse, not a pony."
"We'll have to see what kind of horses they have, honey. And remember, you'll have to take turns with your friends."
Ellie followed her employer's van, filled with another half dozen preschoolers, down the long, dusty drive toward the core of the ranch. Up ahead, the sun glistened off the two-story white farmhouse. The nearby barn appeared sturdy and well maintained, and beyond that a new house was being built, the framing in place.
Her nerves settled a bit. The ranch was not the rundown, shabby place she remembered. Instead, this ranch was a prosperous enterprise.
Surely Arnie O'Brien was gone by now, had moved away, found another life, the ranch sold. The new owners would be the ones who welcomed the preschoolers.
She parked behind the van driven by Vanna Coulter, the owner and founder of Ability Counts. In the corral a mixed group of six saddled horses waited for their young riders.
"All right, children. Let's remember to help our friends." She activated the special lift that would enable Carson to exit in his wheelchair. Anne Marie, who used crutches, stepped onto the lift, as well. Ellie lowered the lift, and the other youngsters exited in a more traditional fashion.
"Hold hands with your partner." The children were so excited, their eyes wide, that she had trouble keeping them together. "Let's see what Miss Vanna has for us."
Her little clutch of youngsters started forward, Torie helping to push Carson's wheelchair. Jefferson, her quietest boy, stayed close to Anne Marie. The morning was already warm, and most of the children were wearing shorts. Ellie suspected by the end of this outing, she'd be happy to trade her lightweight slacks for a pair of shorts, too.
As they reached Vanna and her group of students, a man in a wheelchair rolled out of the barn and came toward them.
Mouth open in stunned disbelief, Ellie watched in amazement as Arnie O'Brien approached.
Each stroke of his hands on the wheels of his chair propelled him forward. The muscles of his darkly tanned forearms flexed and corded. His shoulders were broader than she remembered. Beneath his ebony Stetson, the tips of his silky black hair fluttered in the breeze he created by his sheer strength and power. His sculpted cheekbones and straight nose spoke of his Blackfoot Indian heritage on his mother's side.
A beautiful golden retriever mix trotted along beside him.
"Hey, kids. Who wants to ride a horse?" he called out.
The children sent up a cacophony of "I do! I do!" and raised their hands, waving them in the air.
Torie tugged on Ellie's hand. "Mommy, the man gots a doggy. Can I pet the doggy? Can I?"
"I I don't know." Her head spun. By coming back to Potter Creek, she'd assumed her path might cross Arnie's againif he was still living in the area. But she'd thought that would be a long shot. To find her former love still at the ranch so many years after his brother's reckless driving had paralyzed and nearly killed Arnie shocked her. She'd expected
She shook her head. She had no idea what she'd expected.
But she hadn't expected the familiar fluttery feeling around her heart or the sense that she'd given up something special by leaving Potter Creek eight years ago. No matter that Arnie, barely out of a medically induced coma, had told her to leave. To go away. She'd deserted him when he most needed her. She'd broken the trust they'd had in each other.
Torie broke away from the group. She made a dash for Arnie and his dog.
Before Ellie could call her back, Torie slid to a stop right in front of Arnie.
"Hey, mister, can I pet your doggy? I love doggies. Does he like little girls? Can I pet him, huh?"
Arnie quirked his lips into a half smile. "Everyone can pet Sheila, but you have to do it one at a time. Okay?"
Not waiting for additional encouragement, Torie squatted down in front of Sheila, who sat calmly while the child stroked her head and ran her fingers through her golden coat.
"She's bea-u-tiful," Torie crooned.
The other children edged forward. Ellie moved with them until she was only a few paces away from Arnie. Unconsciously, she fingered the silver cross she wore around her neck, a gift from her father the year she graduated from eighth grade. Only after Torie was born and Ellie had made her peace with the Lord had she begun to wear it again.
"Hello, Arnie." Her mouth as dry as the sandbox at school, she spoke in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
His attention remained focused on Torie for a moment before he lifted his head. He squinted as he looked up at Ellie. There seemed to be no spark of recognition in his eyes. Only a blank stare.
"I'm sorry my daughter was so forward. I'm afraid she's quite an animal lover." Reaching for Torie, she said, "Give someone else a turn now, honey."
Awareness flickered in his eyes, and he shot the child an assessing look. "Same red hair. I should've known." His voice was as flat as his eyes, yet she read an angry denunciation in them.
"It's been a long time," she said.
"Yeah." No smile. A single word in bitter acknowledgment.
The sting of his response forced her to look away. She had no reason to expect anything more, but it still hurt. "Who wants to pet Sheila next? Remember to be gentle."
She drew Torie to her side, a protective hand on her daughter's shoulder.
"Sheila's a very nice doggy, Mommy. Maybe someday we could have a doggy, too?"
As Carson approached Sheila in his wheelchair, Arnie's brows tugged together in apparent confusion. He glanced back at Ellie.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"I'm teaching at Ability Counts Preschool. I started this week. Four-year-olds."
"That's ironic, isn't it?"
Before she could explain how she'd worked hard to earn her degree in early childhood education and added an elementary school teaching credential to her resume, Arnie's younger brother, Daniel, sauntered out of the barn. Easily recognizable with his long legs and the cocky way he wore his hat on the back of his head, he called to the youngsters.
"Hey, what's taking you guys so long? Isn't anybody planning to go riding today?"
Instantly, the children lost interest in Sheila. They walked, ran and wheeled their way to the barn. In a quick maneuver, Arnie turned his wheelchair around and drove purposely after them.
Vanna and Ellie followed more slowly. A woman in her late sixties, Vanna stood nearly six feet tall and wore her gray hair closely cropped. But it was her smile and obvious love for all "her children" that endeared her to those who attended the preschool as well as their parents.
"The two young men hosting us have been a wonderful help to the school," Vanna said. "Arnie's on our board of directors, a very valuable resource. He's also on the Bozeman Paralympics board. He's trying to start a regional program to train local teenagers with physical disabilities for Western riding events. All the organization offers currently are English-style equestrian events, which leaves some of our kids without an event that appeals to them."
At some level, Ellie wasn't surprised that Arnie was involved with programs for people with disabilities. Of the two brothers, Arnie had been the serious, solid one, often at odds with his wilder, more rambunctious brother.
As a nineteen-year-old, Ellie had been stretching her wings, ready to try anything, while Arnie generally watched with amusement as she tried to break her neck with some half-baked stunt Daniel had cooked up.
Arnie, in his quiet way, had given her balance when she needed it. She hadn't had that anymore when she first moved away to Spokane, to her regret.
Arnie and Daniel separated the two groups of youngsters. Daniel took his clutch of four-year-olds into the corral to ride, while Arnie lined up his kids for a lesson in grooming horses.
Needing to keep her distance from Arnie, not wanting to feel that tingle of excitement or the slashing pain of guilt, Ellie followed Daniel into the corral. He introduced the children to Marc, an older teenager who would assist the kids.
Daniel turned to Ellie. "If you can help out, that'd be." He stopped midsentence and frowned. "Ellie?"
At his recognition, her first smile since she arrived at the ranch lifted her lips. "The bad penny has returned."
"Hey, no, it's great you're back." He glanced toward the barn and frowned. He hesitated. "Does Arnie know?"
"Yes, we've said hello." Barely. His greeting had been less than enthusiastic, which she should have expected.
With the ease of a working cowboy, Daniel picked up Carson and hefted him into a special saddle on a sorrel. He began securing the grinning boy so he couldn't fall off. "Yeah, well, that's Arnie for you. The quiet brother. I know who'll really be glad to see you again."
"Who's that?" Most of her high school friends had moved away, and she'd lost track of them.
He instructed Carson to sit tight until everyone had mounted. "Mindy. You know, Aunt Martha's grandniece? She's Mindy O'Brien now." He stood a little taller, and his chest puffed out with pride.
Ellie's eyes popped open and her jaw dropped. "You married Mindy?" A couple of years older than Ellie, Mindy had helped her learn to knit one long-ago summer, when Mindy was visiting her aunt.
"Yep. Tied the knot last spring." He bent a little closer to her. "We're expecting a baby come the end of the year."
She gasped with delight and covered her mouth with her hand. "Oh, that's wonderful! We were friends only that one summer, but I remember her well." She glanced around. "Is she here now?"
"Nope. She manages Aunt Martha's Knitting and Notions shop. She'll be back in time for supper."
Daniel moved on to boost Torie into the saddle of a buckskin who'd been waiting patiently for a rider. Her skinny, bare legs poked almost straight out to the sides.
"What's my horse's name?" Torie asked.
"This is Patches. He'll take real good care of you."
"I like Patches!"
As Ellie helped Shane mount, she promised herself she'd stop by the knitting shop as soon as she could find the time. It'd be great to see Mindy again. She certainly hadn't expected her friend to return to Potter Creek after she'd gone back to Pittsburgh without saying goodbye to anyone.