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C. J. Wright stared at the stubborn jut of his son's jaw and prayed for patience.
"I want Gramps." The request in Liam's whisper-soft voice hurt more than CJ. could say.
Liam sat at the far side of the table, his nimbus of white-gold hair lit by sun streaming through the kitchen window, turning him into an angel. The kitchen smelled of coffee and bacon and eggs, all of the old familiar scents that should have brought comfort.
CJ. placed the box of breakfast cereal and a spoon on the table in front of Liam, carefully, then stepped away.
"Gramps," he called, "you got a minute?"
"Yep." Gramps's voice drifted from the living room followed by the sounds of him folding the newspaper, then shuffling down the hall. All for the sake of one little boy.
C.J.'s grandfather entered the kitchen, stooped and leaning on his cane. When had his shoulders started to roll forward so much?
Gramps glanced at Liam's mulish expression and said, "Someone else used to look like that when he didn't get his way."
CJ. couldn't smile at Gramps's attempt to lighten the mood, to pretend that Liam's actions were normal for his age.
CJ. had never been so stubborn that he wouldn't let his own father take care of him.
Gramps, stalled by the hurt C.J. knew showed on his face, gestured with his head toward the living room. "Take your coffee and go read the paper."
While Gramps poured Liam a bowl of oversweetened cereal, then poured milk on it—doing the things that CJ. wanted to do himself—CJ. passed behind Liam to refill his mug.
Mug full, he reached a hand to the back of his son's head, to stroke it, but thought better of it. Liam would shrug it off anyway.
C J. set his jaw and strode to the living room. He stopped in front of the window and stared out at the fields lying fallow. Waste of good land. He needed to get the store sold and out of the way so he could ranch full-time.
Always so much damn waiting.
His grandmother's old lace curtains smelled dry and dusty. No wonder. She'd been gone ten years. He noticed something white tangled in the lace. Dental floss. Gramps had used it to mend a tear.
C J. wouldn't have done any better himself. Weren't they the pair? Now, his young son had entered the house and the job of turning him into a grown man was all on C J.'s shoulders.
Damn, what a load. C J. exhaled roughly.
Gramps's two-step limp sounded behind C J.
"He's eating." Gramps placed one arthritic hand on C J.'s shoulder. The affection and heat of the touch eased some. "He's still young."
"Am I spoiling him by giving in?"
"With any other kid I'd say yes, but not with Liam. He lived a hard couple of first years."
"What did Vicki tell Liam that makes him dislike me so much?" CJ. cursed her to hell and back. It was bad enough that she was bleeding him dry. Why did she also have to turn his son against him?
"Some kind of poison that made sense in her own mind, I guess." Gramps settled onto the sofa with a huff of pain.
"The drugs changed her," CJ. said. "She wasn't always like that, Gramps. Not at the beginning."
"I know." The newspaper rustled behind CJ.
"Has Liam ever mentioned what his mother said about me?"
"Nope. Not a word."
C J. stared at his coffee mug on the windowsill. The stains of old coffee, where he'd set his mug on this same window-sill and stared at these same fields, stood testament to the countless mornings he'd done this. Lord, how much longer before Liam began to accept and trust him?
"Keep being kind and patient with the boy," Gramps said. "He'll come around in time."
CJ. paced the length of the room. "It's been eleven months." Eleven long months of bashing his head against Liam's resistance.
He ran his hand over the bristle on his scalp. When he'd brought Liam home to live with him, he'd shaved his hair military short and had traded in cowboy shirts and jeans for more conservative clothing, so damn afraid that Child and Family Services would find some crazy excuse to take the boy away from him. He missed his hair.
Oh, grow up.
C J. headed for the hallway. He couldn't believe he'd just thought something so stupid. Every change he'd made was worth it if it kept his son safe with him on the ranch.
"You two have a good day." With one hand on the front doorknob, he called, "Liam, you have fun with Gramps today."
No answer. The ring of a spoon against cheap china followed CJ. out the door.
Janey Wilson crouched in the shade of the weeping willow on the lawn of the Sheltering Arms Ranch. Its branches soughed in the hot breeze scuttling across the Montana landscape.
She stared at the delicate child in front of her whose gaze was as wide-open as the prairie surrounding them.
"Katie," she said, "I can't play with you right now." Liar. "I need to go do something." Coward. "It's something important I have to do right away. Okay?"
Katie stared with solemn brown doe eyes, silent and wise before her time and so much like Cheryl Janey couldn't breathe.
Sunlight, filtered by the leaves of the tree, dappled Katie's face, underlining the dark circles beneath her eyes and highlighting her sallow skin.
Cancer did terrible things to children.
Janey touched Katie's small shoulders, the thin cotton of her old T-shirt worn soft. She nudged Katie toward the field across the driveway where the ranch's latest batch of inner-city kids played a game of touch football.
"Hey, you little hoodlums," the ranch foreman, Willie, yelled, "this ain't tackle football."
Willie lay on the ground under a wriggling pile of giggling children—all of them cancer survivors.
Janey closed her eyes. She couldn't take much more of handling these children daily while her heart bled.
"How long are you going to keep this up?" Startled by the rasp of a bark-dry voice behind her, Janey spun around. Hank Shelter stood on the veranda of his house watching her, his big body relaxed and leaning against a post, but his eyes too perceptive. She tried to hide her pain, but wasn't fast enough.
"How much longer can you do this?" he asked.
Before she answered, he raised a hand. "Don't insult my intelligence by claiming you don't know what I'm talking about."
She exhaled a breath of frustration. "Hank, I'm okay, really. I'm dealing."
"No, you aren't dealing, Janey." The regret on Hank's face broke her heart. "You haven't been able to in the year you've lived here."
"I can try harder," she insisted.
Even in the shade, a drop of sweat meandered down Hank's cheek. "Being this close to the kids is killing you."
He left the veranda, his cowboy boots hitting each step with a solid clunk, and approached. Janey tilted her head back to look at him.
"You haven't gotten rid of any of your demons." He gestured toward her clothes. "You're still wearing your armor, but it doesn't seem to be doing you much good."
Janey flushed. True. Here on the ranch her attire wasn't helping her to deal with the children. But on the few times she'd joined Amy to run errands in town, it had sure come in handy.
"I've watched you turn yourself inside out with sorrow," Hank said. "It isn't getting better. It's getting worse.
"You're getting worse." He touched her shoulder. She flinched. He dropped his hand. "Sorry."
Hank was a good man, an affectionate one. He liked hugging and touching people. Janey didn't.
Hank gestured to the children in the field. "Working with the kids is wearing you down, and it's killing Amy and me to watch it. Something's got to give."
Janey's heart sank. Her pain was affecting Hank and Amy. She'd thought she'd hidden her grief so well. She couldn't justify harming them. She had to do something, go somewhere. Now.
"As much as we love you," Hank said, "Amy and I can't watch you like this, darlin'. We brought you here to heal, not to cause you more pain."
Janey pressed her hand against her stomach. How could she stand to lose the ranch? If not for the pain the children caused her, it would have been perfect.
Janey caught a glimpse of Amy in the front window, with baby Michael in her arms. Just looking at mother and son started an ache in Janey's chest.
She wanted her own little girl back.
She stilled, willing the ache to pass quickly.
Hank must have detected something in her face, because he glanced over his shoulder and saw his wife and son.
He turned back to her and raised one eyebrow, as if to say, Get my point?
"There's too much hardship for you here," he said.
The decision she'd been avoiding for too many months loomed. "Yeah," she whispered. "You're right."
"I'll help you in any way I can. Do you want to go to school? Take some college courses?"
"Hank, I dropped out of high school to have Cheryl." She'd been fifteen and terrified.
Hank cursed. "Sorry, Janey, I should have figured that out already."
"I was working on my diploma when she died, taking correspondence courses."
"You can stay here while you finish getting it."
A shout from the children in the field served as an exclamation mark. You'll still have to deal with us!
"Maybe not such a good idea." Hank cracked the knuckles of his right hand. "I'll pay for you to rent a room in town while you return to high school."
"That's okay, Hank, I still have all the checks you gave me."
"What?" Hank's eyebrows shot toward his hairline. His dusty white Stetson followed the motion. "You haven't cashed any of them?"
Janey shrugged and shook her head.
Hank sighed. "Amy's gonna have your guts for garters."
Janey glanced over his shoulder, but Amy had disappeared.
"Didn't I hear her tell you months ago to cash those?" Hank took off his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, then slammed it back onto his head. "They'll be stale-dated and the bank won't cash them. Tear them up and throw them out."
Janey toed a small branch that had fallen from the willow. She hated disappointing Hank.
"Why didn't you cash them?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I haven't had to. You and Amy give me everything I need here."
Out in the real world, she would need that money.
Hank pointed a finger at her. "I'm going to write you a check and you're going to cash it today, young lady."
The check she'd received in the mail last week from Maria Fantucci's lawyer burned a hole in her right pocket. She knew she still had to deal with it. Now Hank, too, was going to give her money.
"Hank, I don't want to take anything from you. You and Amy have done so much for me."
"You've earned your paychecks. Do you think anyone else here works for free?" He frowned. "We'll miss you. You do great work with the children, 'specially considering how hard it is for you."
Hank turned when he heard the screen door close. Amy had brought out a checkbook and a pen. Hank joined her.
"I heard," Amy said.
Janey stood still, clamping her throat around a scream trying to erupt, I don't want to leave.
"I'm sorry, honey," Janey heard Amy say. "Between having the baby and planning the rodeo, I haven't been keeping up with the books."
"You know I'd do them if I could."
The love between Hank and Amy was so palpable, Janey felt like an eavesdropper.
"You okay?" Hank approached with a check in his hand, but Janey didn't reach for it.
Holding Michael, Amy watched, her face unlined except for the worried frown that Janey knew she'd put there.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Janey finally answered, but the rough croak of her voice gave her away.
"Aw, hell, no, you aren't," Hank said. "It'll get easier in time."
"Did it get easier for you?" Janey asked. "After your little boy died?"
Hank stared hard at the grass near his feet and nodded. "Took a long time to get over Jamie's death, but it did get better, eventually."
His son had died of leukemia when he was two. At least Janey had had six years with Cheryl.
"About a year after Jamie died—" Hank placed a hand high on the trunk of the willow "—I started bringing young cancer survivors here. He's why I do this." He looked at Janey with sympathy in his hazel eyes. "It helped. A lot. You'll find something for you that will help."
Janey doubted it.
"Cheryl died a whole year ago," she said, "but it still hurts so bad."
"Losing a child," Hank murmured, "is a tough thing to get over."
Janey sighed. "Yeah, it sure is."
"Take your time figuring out what you want to do," Hank said. "Visit the library to research careers and schools. You got a place to live here as long as you need. But give yourself a break and stay away from the children."
He handed her the check, the paper crisp and clean on her palm. "Take this. Amy said you're going to deposit it today if she has to drag you there."
Janey's laugh felt good. "It's okay. I'll go by myself."
"You want a ride?" Hank asked.
"No. I feel like walking." She glanced at the check. "Twenty thousand dollars?" she exclaimed. "Are you guys nuts?"
"That's a year's salary."
"It's way too much. You gave me free room and board."
"Naw, it isn't enough." Hank rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. "Honest, Janey, I wish I could give you more."
Janey closed her eyes for a minute, gathering strength, pulling the butterflies roiling in her stomach under control.
"Okay," she said, "I'll open an account in town and try to figure out what I'll do next."
She turned toward the driveway and started the walk into town.
"Good luck, darlin'," Hank called. "See you at dinnertime, okay?"
Her step faltered. She'd felt safer here on this ranch than anywhere else on earth.
Cripes, Janey, pull yourself together. This isn't the end of your life with them.
No, it wasn't, but after the first step she took toward town, things would be different.
Suck it up. Do it.
She continued down the driveway toward the small highway that would take her to Ordinary, Montana.
Maybe now she could start work on the dream she hadn't thought about since Cheryl's death. Maybe now she could let herself consider her future.
Yeah, now was the time to finish her education—she could afford college!—to become one of those women who dress up for work, who wear beautiful clothes and expensive shoes and red and pink lipsticks. For sure not black.
She could become one of those women she used to envy on the streets of Billings who worked for businesses and owned businesses and who were important. No one would dare to hurt them.
One thing she was sure of—she'd never live in poverty again.
She couldn't go back to Billings, though. Just couldn't. Maybe she could live in Ordinary and do college long-distance.
While she walked, she skirted the edges of that dream, considering some possible actions, discarding others. Forty-five minutes later, still without a firm plan, she pushed open the bank's heavy door and stepped in.