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Rock Creek, Wyoming
A moment with Josie Bright that's all Ty Dormer wanted as he rode into Rock Creek, Wyoming. After five years in the Wyoming Territorial Prison, he didn't deserve the privilege. He didn't deserve to breathe Josie's name, but he hoped she'd forgive him. He hadn't meant to leave her waiting at the altar. They'd planned the wedding for months. But instead of saying "I do" to the woman he loved, Ty had spent his wedding day in jail.
Today he had business to conduct before he went to the Bright ranch, and it wouldn't be easy. Keeping the gelding to a walk, he approached the church where he and Josie should have spoken their vows. What a fool he'd been The day before the wedding, the Scudder gang stole six of his best horses. Josie pleaded with him to let the law handle it, but Ty and her brother went after the thieves. A gunfight erupted and he shot and killed Brant Scudder. Ty didn't know it, but the gang had cut the horses loose. With no evidence of their crime, he'd been convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.
As the white church came into view, he thought of the wedding that hadn't taken place. Josie had poured her heart into making her wedding dress. It kept her busy while Ty built up his ranch. The Brights weren't wealthy, but they had enough. Ty had wanted Josie to have enough. Too late he realized what enough meant to her. A wedding would have been enough. He would have been enough. Instead she'd sat dry-eyed through the trial. When it was over, she'd come to his jail cell and spoken words he'd never forget.
I want to forgive you, Ty. But I can't. You love that ranch more than you love me. You love your horses more than anything.
With her eyes misty, she'd walked out of the jail. Ty wrote to her begging forgiveness, but she never replied. His only contact with Rock Creek had been monthly letters from Reverend Hall, the minister of the Rock Creek Church. Ty had opened his letters with trepidation, expecting to learn Josie had married. She hadn't, but there had been other news. Her father died four years ago of a heart ailment. Two years ago her brother perished in a hotel fire, leaving Ty to wonder how the Bright women were managing. Josie's mother had been nearly blind when he went to prison, and Josie had two young sisters with ambitions of their own. Knowing Josie, she was carrying the load for everyone.
After a year in prison, Ty stopped writing to her. With time, his feelings for her faded into memories and he'd realized something. Just as prison had changed him, sorrow had likely changed Josie. He needed her forgiveness, but he had no illusions of picking up where they'd left off. The love they once shared had most likely withered and blown away like tumbleweeds.
Ty climbed wearily off his horse, a nag he'd been given by the prison chaplain, and went to the iron gate marking the church cemetery. The last time he was here, there had been only three graves in the plot marked by a low stone wall. Now there were eight, including the resting place of Nathan Bright, Josie's brother and Ty's best friend.
The gate squeaked as Ty opened it, a reminder of the metal door of the cell he'd left a week ago. He didn't have to hunt for Nate's grave. The Bright family had bought a granite marker that stood a foot high. Behind it a rosebush held a dozen buds that would bloom in June. Ty took off his hat, approached the stone and hung his head.
"I'm sorry, friend so sorry."
With his eyes closed, he heard the echo of Nate telling him to let the Scudders go. Let the law handle it, Ty. You 're getting married tomorrow.
"I wish I'd listened," he said to the stone.
He opened his eyes and relived that day. He and Josie had been having supper with her parents when his hired hand rode into the yard, shouting about the Scudders stealing his breeding stock. Ty had helped himself to a Winchester in the gun cabinet and turned to Josie. I'm getting my horses back.
Ty, don't! You could get hurt.
She'd given him that bossy look he remembered. They'd once had that kind of fun where she groused at him and he kissed her and they snuggled on the porch swing. That day had been different. He resented being bossed, and she'd been angry and worried that he wouldn't make it back for the wedding. He'd ridden off on Smoke, the gray stallion that could outrun anything, and he and Nate had found the Scudders. The gunfight got crazy. When it was over, Ty had killed sixteen-year-old Brant, the youngest and most innocent of the thieves. Ty made it back to Josie, but he didn't make it to the wedding. The town deputy, a man related to the Scudders, arrested him on his way to the church.
Ty stared at the stone marker. "I messed up, Nate. I don't know how to make it up to her, but I'm going to try."
It was all he could do, all he could say. With his chest tight, he bowed his head and prayed for blessings on the Brights.
The rattle of a rig reached his ears and he turned. He saw a piano buggy being pulled by a mule. The side of the hood hid his view of the driver, but he noticed a sky blue skirt flowing to the floorboard. Ty couldn't stand the thought of seeing anyone from Rock Creek, especially not a gossipy woman. He considered hopping the stone wall, but he'd left his horse by the gate. He couldn't leave without drawing attention, so he turned his back to the buggy and focused on Nate's grave.
The buggy halted, then creaked as the female climbed down. With his neck bent, he listened to the squeak of the gate as she opened it. He tried to follow her movements, but the grass muted her steps. He listened for the rustle of her skirt but heard nothing. Frozen and alert, he thought of the years he'd waited in a prison cell. He'd learned to be patient. He could be patient now. He wouldn't budge until the woman went on her way. He thought of the graves he'd seen. Was she visiting the small one that belonged to a child? A newer one with a name he didn't recognize?
A roselike fragrance drifted on the air, becoming stronger as the woman approached. Josie liked fancy soaps. She also liked roses. A soft gasp confirmed his deepest fear. This woman knew him. This woman was Josie.
"Ty? Is that you?"
He turned enough to see the hem of her skirt. It took him back to the day before the wedding and her banter about "something borrowed, something blue." She'd whispered in his ear about a blue garter, and he'd loved her more than ever. Now he looked up slowly, taking in the hard line of her mouth. Gone was the cheerful girl who'd teased him with mischievous smiles. In her place he saw a woman burdened by life. Her eyes were still turquoise and her chestnut hair gleamed under a straw bonnet, but she'd lost her sparkle.
Ty had come home for this very moment, yet he felt unprepared as he matched her gaze. Instead of the words he'd practiced, he stared into her eyes, feasting on the past until he found his tongue. "Hello, Josie," he said in a drawl. "I'm hoping we can talk."
Josie Bright had loved Ty Donner for most of her life. What she felt now, she didn't know. He'd left her standing in the wedding dress she stitched with her own hands. She'd been devastated, then the anger had set in and the bitterness. Over the years her father and brother had died, leaving the Bar JB in her hands. She also inherited responsibility for her two sisters. Anne, the middle sister taught school and sent money home. Scarlett, the youngest, lived with an aunt in Denver and wanted to go to college.
Josie took her responsibilities seriously. The Bar JB was named for her father, Jeremiah Bright, but she shared his initials and his love for their home. She hadn't married because her family needed her. She'd also been hurt by Ty and had vowed to never be hurt again. The last two years had been particularly hard. She had a couple hired hands, but there was always too much work and not enough daylight. She'd long ago traded pretty dresses for dungarees.
Now even that sacrifice didn't help meet the family's needs. Winter had been brutal, and the Bar JB had lost ninety percent of its cattle. Josie had gone to the bank to beg for a loan to restock. Barring a loan, she needed mercy on an overdue mortgage. Not only had Lester Proffitt denied her request, he'd looked down his nose at her. I don't do business with women, Miss Bright. Find a husband to take care of you. Have babies and be happy. His words stung in every possible way. Of course she wanted a husband. Yes, she wanted babies of her own, but her mother and sisters needed her. If she didn't make the mortgage payment in thirty days, she and her mother would have to leave the only home Josie had known.
If Ty Donner hadn't let his pride get in the way, they'd have been running the Bright ranch together. Instead they were standing at Nate's grave, and Josie had the horrible sensation of her heart speeding up as she matched stares with the man who'd left her at the altar.
The years had been kind to Ty's looks. He was dressed in dark trousers and a tan shirt, holding his hat and standing tall. He'd been lean, almost a string bean, when they became engaged. She'd been seventeen and he'd been twenty. Now he had broad shoulders and muscles shaped by physical labor. Some men in the Wyoming Territorial Prison made brooms. She guessed Ty wasn't one of them. In addition to lean muscles, she saw creases around his blue eyes eyes that still shimmered like sun-kissed water. Neither had his hair changed. She remembered it being brown in winter and lighter in summer. Today it was in-between, a mix of brown and gold, and it still curled over his collar.
With some difficulty, she found her voice. "This is a surprise."
"I figure it is."
"So it's been five years " She'd known this day would come. She just hadn't expected today to be the day, nor had she imagined meeting Ty at Nate's grave. She'd noticed the horse by the wall, an old gelding laden with his gear, but it hadn't reminded her of Ty. The man she once loved had been the best judge of horseflesh in the county, maybe the state. The nag was a testament to how far he'd fallen. It also raised the question of where he was headed, or if he was staying in Rock Creek.
Her throat went dry. "What are your plans?"
"Me?" She didn't want Ty Donner thinking about her. She didn't want him anywhere near the Bar JB. Just looking at him stirred up painful memories, especially in the shadow of the church where their wedding plans had gone to pieces. She wanted to calmly tell him to leave. She also wanted to shout and berate him. The confusion clogged her throat and threatened to turn into angry tears. She felt Ty's gaze on her face, reading her as easily as he'd read her five years ago.
He indicated the buggy. "Let's talk over there."
It felt disrespectful to argue at Nate's grave, so she let him guide her out the gate. As they approached, the mule chuffed. The Brights had come down in the world and it showed. Josie did her best with the ranch, but nothing had gone right since the death of her father and then Nate. Her sisters had problems of their own, and her mother's vision was so clouded by cataracts she couldn't read her Bible anymore. Josie read it to her, fighting every word because she'd lost her faith.. fighting bitterness because she'd been so hurt. She hated being bitter. It tainted every breath she took, every thought she had.
Determined to put the ugliness aside, she faced Ty. He looked stronger than ever and bolder than she would have expected. Instead of cowing him, prison had made him tough. When he spoke, his eyes glinted with sincerity. "I was a fool to run after the Scudders. I'd like to think I did it for youfor usthat I was protecting our future, but the truth is plainer. I wanted my horses back, but mostly my pride got the best of me. Nothing else mattered in that moment. I've thought about that day for five years and what it cost"
"I've got to finish."
"No!" She raised her chin. "Don't say anything. It's over."
"I know that."
"Just seeing you " She closed her eyes, but it didn't stop memories from filling her mind. Instead of seeing Ty, she saw the white dress in her wardrobe. She'd sewed every pearl button into place all twenty-four of them. She'd worked the buttonholes for hours. Anger dried the threat of tears and she opened her eyes. "Go away, Ty. I've gotten on with my life. You should do the same."
"I will. But not until I'm sure you're all right. Nate was my best friend. I owe it to him. I owe it to you."
She raised her chin. "You don't owe me anything."
"I think I do," he replied calmly. "This winter was tough for everyone. How are things at the ranch?"
"I'm managing just fine."
His gaze slid to the mule and the buggy. Josie cringed, because Ty would see her poverty. The leather seat had a crack in it, and the mule lacked dignity. Next he looked at the dress she'd stitched when they'd been courting. She'd made it over a couple times, but he'd recognize it. Neither could she hide the faded color.
His jaw tensed. "You're struggling, aren't you?"
"Like I said, I'm fine."
His gaze stayed on her face. "Things don't look fine."
Just like old times, she felt as if he could see to her toes. Knowing Ty, he wouldn't back down until he got what he wanted, and today he wanted details. No way would she tell him the Bar JB had lost most of its cattle, and that Lester Proffitt refused her request for a loan. She had her pride, and she wanted Ty to leave.