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A Cowboy's Touch
By Denise Hunter
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Denise Hunter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAbigail Jones knew the truth. She frowned at the blinking curser on her monitor and tapped her fingers on the keyboard— what next?
Beyond the screen's glow, darkness washed the cubicles. Her computer hummed, and outside the office windows a screech of tires broke the relative stillness of the Chicago night. She shuffled her note cards. The story had been long in coming, but it was finished now, all except the telling. She knew where she wanted to take it next.
Her fingers stirred into motion, dancing across the keys. This was her favorite part, exposing truth to the world. Well, okay, not the world exactly, not with Viewpoint's paltry circulation. But now, during the writing, it felt like the world.
Four paragraphs later, the office had shrunk away, and all that existed were the words on the monitor and her memory playing in full color on the screen of her mind.
Something dropped onto her desk with a sudden thud.
Abigail's hand flew to her heart, and her chair darted from her desk. She looked up at her boss's frowning face, then shared a frown of her own. "You scared me."
"And you're scaring me. It's after midnight, Abigail—what are you doing here?" Marilyn Jones's hand settled on her hip.
The blast of adrenaline settled into Abigail's bloodstream, though her heart was still in overdrive. "Being an ambitious staffer?"
"You mean an obsessive workaholic."
"Something wrong with that?"
"What's wrong is my twenty-eight-year-old daughter is working all hours on a Saturday night instead of dating an eligible bachelor like all the other single women her age." Her mom tossed her head, but her short brown hair hardly budged. "You could've at least gone out with your sister and me. We had a good time."
"I'm down to the wire."
"You've been here every night for two weeks." Her mother rolled up a chair and sank into it. "Your father always thought you'd be a schoolteacher, did I ever tell you that?"
"About a million times." Abigail settled into the chair, rubbed the ache in her temple. Her heart was still recovering, but she wanted to return to her column. She was just getting to the good part.
"You had a doctor's appointment yesterday," Mom said.
Abigail sighed hard. "Whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?"
"Goes out the window when the doctor is your sister. Come on, Abigail, this is your health. Reagan prescribed rest—R-E-S-T—and yet here you are."
"A couple more days and the story will be put to bed."
"And then there'll be another story."
"That's what I do, Mother."
"You've had a headache for weeks, and the fact that you made an appointment with your sister is proof you're not feeling well."
Abigail pulled her hand from her temple. "I'm fine."
"That's what your father said the week before he collapsed."
Compassion and frustration warred inside Abigail. "He was sixty-two." And his pork habit hadn't helped matters. Thin didn't necessarily mean healthy. She skimmed her own long legs, encased in her favorite jeans ... exhibit A.
"I've been thinking you should go visit your great-aunt."
Abigail already had a story in the works, but maybe her mom had a lead on something else. "New York sounds interesting. What's the assignment?"
"Rest and relaxation. And I'm not talking about your Aunt Eloise —as if you'd get any rest there—I'm talking about your Aunt Lucy."
Abigail's spirits dropped to the basement. "Aunt Lucy lives in Montana." Where cattle outnumbered people. She felt for the familiar ring on her right hand and began twisting.
"She seems a bit ... confused lately."
Abigail recalled the birthday gifts her great-aunt had sent over the years, and her lips twitched. "Aunt Lucy has always been confused."
"Someone needs to check on her. Her latest letter was full of comments about some girls who live with her, when I know perfectly well she lives alone. I think it may be time for assisted living or a retirement community."
Abigail's eyes flashed to the screen. A series of nonsensical letters showed where she'd stopped in alarm at her mother's appearance. She hit the delete button. "Let's invite her to Chicago for a few weeks."
"She needs to be observed in her own surroundings. Besides, that woman hasn't set foot on a plane since Uncle Murray passed, and I sure wouldn't trust her to travel across the country alone. You know what happened when she came out for your father's funeral."
"Dad always said she had a bad sense of direction."
"Nevertheless, I don't have time to hunt her down in Canada again. Now, come on, Abigail, it makes perfect sense for you to go. You need a break, and Aunt Lucy was your father's favorite relative. It's our job to look after her now, and if she's incapable of making coherent decisions, we need to help her."
Abigail's conscience tweaked her. She had a soft spot for Aunt Lucy, and her mom knew it. Still, that identity theft story called her name, and she had a reliable source who might or might not be willing to talk in a couple weeks.
"Reagan should do it. I'll need the full month for my column, and we can't afford to scrap it. Distribution is down enough as it is. Just last month you were concerned—"
Her mother stood abruptly, the chair reeling backward into the aisle. She walked as far as the next cubicle, then turned. "Hypertension is nothing to mess with, Abigail. You're so ... restless. You need a break—a chance to find some peace in your life." She cleared her throat, then her face took on that I've-made-up-my-mind look. "Whether you go to your aunt's or not, I'm insisting you take a leave of absence."
There was no point arguing once her mother took that tone. She could always do research online—and she wouldn't mind visiting a part of the country she'd never seen. "Fine. I'll finish this story, then go out to Montana for a week or so."
"Finish the story, yes. But your leave of absence will last three months."
"It may take that long to make a decision about Aunt Lucy."
"What about my apartment?"
"Reagan will look after it. You're hardly there anyway. You need a break, and Moose Creek is the perfect place."
Moose Creek. "I'll say. Sounds like nothing more than a traffic signal with a gas pump on the corner."
"Don't be silly. Moose Creek has no traffic signal. Abigail, you have become wholly obsessed with—"
"So I'm a hard worker ..." She lifted her shoulders.
Her mom's lips compressed into a hard line. "Wholly obsessed with your job. Look, you know I admire hard work, but it feels like you're always chasing something and never quite catching it. I want you to find some contentment, for your health if nothing else. There's more to life than investigative reporting."
"I'm the Truthseeker, Mom. That's who I am." Her fist found home over her heart.
Her mother shouldered her purse, then zipped her light sweater, her movements irritatingly slow. She tugged down the ribbed hem and smoothed the material of her pants. "Three months, Abigail. Not a day less."
Chapter TwoMoose Creek—Gateway to Yellowstone—Population 1,923. The wooden sign, propped on two spindly log legs, stood just outside town on the corner of a tiny park. The picture Abigail had conjured in her mind matched reality.
The cabbie drove her through town—Main Street the sign read. She noted the old brick shops with sun-faded canopies jutting out over boarded sidewalks. Vehicles, mostly trucks, occupied the diagonal parking spaces that lined the two-lane street.
Just past town, they turned down a country road in need of a good paving. What was she going to do here for three months? Her mother's words flittered through her mind. "You need a break—a chance to find some peace in your life." She wasn't sure there was anything to be found in Moose Creek, Montana, except peace.
Thank God she'd brought her laptop. She could only hope Aunt Lucy had Internet. Please let there be Wi-Fi.
Several minutes later the cabbie turned down a long drive. A weathered log archway straddled the lane, bearing a sign that read Stillwater Ranch. Gravel crunched under the tires as the driver accelerated down the road. Hills and evergreens marked a land so vast, Abigail felt small and lost. The lane dipped and rose and curled between spring-green hills.
About a mile down the drive, she told the cabbie to turn onto a side lane, as her directions instructed. Ahead, a tiny cabin was tucked at the base of a hill, centered in a grove of evergreens and surrounded by a plethora of colorful flowers.
The driver applied his foot to the squeaky brakes. Abigail exited the cab and stepped onto the grass, surveying the tenant house. Her mom had told her that Uncle Murray worked this ranch for years as a cowhand. After he'd passed on, the owner allowed Aunt Lucy to stay in the home for a small fee.
Abigail hoped the fee was as small as the cabin. Have mercy, would they both fit?
She paid the cabbie, then toted her bag toward the cabin. The flowers were so—Abigail squinted and frowned as she approached the colorful blooms—fake. Hundreds of vibrant plastic blossoms protruded from the soil. Only Aunt Lucy.
The screen door squawked open and out popped her aunt, a smock hugging her generous waist. She seemed to have shrunk since Abigail last saw her, and her short hair was whiter than Abigail remembered. Her thick glasses perched on her nose, magnifying her brown eyes.
"Abigail!" She waddled across the porch, the marionette lines beside her mouth deepening as she smiled.
"Aunt Lucy!" A smile spread across Abigail's face.
The woman crushed her in a hug, never mind that her aunt's face was somewhere in the vicinity of Abigail's bosom. Abigail patted her back.
"You're so tall and slim, like your father! Ten years is too long." Aunt Lucy pulled back. "Let me look at you. You're so lovely and grown up, and look at that beautiful complexion! But those pretty green eyes look tired. Marilyn said you work too hard." She patted Abigail's cheek, then brushed Abigail's hair over her shoulder.
"Well, you must be exhausted from your travel. Come in, come in. You know I hate to travel. Ever since Murray went away, I stick close to home."
He'd died years ago. All Abigail remembered was that he'd worn a cowboy hat and smelled like leather.
The door opened to a small room full—and she did mean full— of stuff. Lamps and knickknacks and books and boxes and dolls. The little cloth creatures perched on the armchair in the corner, lounged on the back of the sofa like sleeping cats, and lined up across the shelf over the TV, staring blankly at her with their button eyes. It was just this side of creepy.
"Everyone welcome Abigail!"
Nothing in the house stirred except Aunt Lucy, who moved toward another room. She stopped on the way and repositioned a doll on the love seat. "Don't be rude, Dorothy, make room for our guest. You want a nice tall iced tea, dear?"
It took a moment to realize Aunt Lucy was speaking to her. "Uh, yes, please."
Abigail sat opposite Dorothy. The doll's stitched-on smile seemed to mock her.
"Still making dolls, I see," she said when her aunt returned with the tea.
"Oh yes, I still have my little shop in town. You passed it on the way in. The girls keep me busy."
Ah ... the "girls" from her letter.
Aunt Lucy adjusted the Western skirt on the nearest doll. "I'm so excited you can stay all summer. It's been ages since I've had family around, and I can't wait to show you off to my friends at church."
She'd be going to church then. It had been awhile.
"I'm just so happy to see you." Her aunt's eyes turned glassy, and she dabbed at them with the corner of her smock, knocking her glasses askew. "You favor your father so much." She sniffled. "Oh, I'm being a wet rag!"
"I'm glad to see you, too, Aunt Lucy. You were always Dad's favorite."
"Well, enough of this." She straightened her glasses. "It's tight quarters, as you can see, but you'll get to know all of us, and you can keep me company at the shop if you like."
Abigail pictured a dusty shop full of Aunt Lucy's friends. "Well, I was hoping to research my next story while I'm here. I don't suppose there's any Wi-Fi around here."
"Wi—Internet. You know, for the computer."
"Oh, the Internet. The main house has it, but I don't have a computer. You could check the library. They might have some Internet."
Well, what had she expected to find out here in the boonies? "Maybe I'll do my research there."
Aunt Lucy fingered her white curls. "Oh, whatever you want, dear, whatever you want. I'm just tickled to have you." She gave her cloth companion a sip of tea.
Aunt Lucy might not be so tickled, Abigail thought, when she found out why she'd been sent.
* * *
Abigail ran a duster over the glass counter at the Doll House. Only a few days in Moose Creek, and she was already bored out of her mind. Aunt Lucy had run to grab a bite at the Tin Roof, leaving her in charge.
Abigail scanned the dozens of dolls staring blankly into space and pointed her duster at them. "Behave yourselves, girls."
Holy cow. Five days in Moose Creek and she was losing it.
But her perpetual headache was tapering off, and she hadn't had palpitations in a few days. She checked her pulse to make sure she was still alive, then set the duster down and stretched her back, twisting to one side and then the other. Sleeping on the couch was putting the hurts on her, literally. The old tweed sofa was lumpy, hard, and about eight inches too short.
For a couple days she'd done research at Mocha Moose, which offered free Wi-Fi and tasty espresso. Abigail hadn't found a single issue of Viewpoint in town, but her mom had forwarded a few e-mails from readers. It was gratifying to see her work in print and get feedback, though that was secondary to the thrill of exposing the truth.
But the coffee shop's Internet had been down for two days, and she'd somehow become her aunt's assistant in the stagnant shop. Her mom called twice for her initial assessment on Aunt Lucy. Abigail's diagnosis so far: eccentric but not fatally so. No reason to rush her off to assisted living just yet, but she realized after some Internet research on dementia that she needed to watch her aunt for signs of forgetfulness.
The bell over the door tinkled, and a woman and a little girl walked in.
"Good afternoon," Abigail said. "Can I help you find something?" Probably not, since she knew nothing about the dolls other than a few of their names.
"We bought a doll here for my daughter's birthday last summer, and she'd like another. We're passing through on our way to Yellowstone."
"I want a blond-haired one." The little girl tucked her own swingy hair behind her ear.
Abigail smiled. "Well, we have lots of those. Look around and see who catches your eye. Any one of them would love to have a mommy like you."
The child frowned at her. "I'm just a little girl."
The mother laughed as the bell tinkled again, announcing Aunt Lucy's entrance. Saved by the bell. Her aunt led the customers to the back of the store, and Abigail resumed dusting. She'd just cleaned out the window display by the front door and returned the dolls when the door opened again.
A girl of ten or eleven entered. She walked as if the floorboards might snap under her slight weight. Abigail didn't see her tears until the light from the window hit her face.
"Hi, honey," Abigail said. "Are you okay?"
The girl looked toward the back of the store where Aunt Lucy was pulling a doll from the shelf, then back toward the entrance.
Abigail squatted in front of her. Now that she was closer, Abigail noticed her wide-set green eyes and a light smattering of freckles on her nose. "Is that your mom?"
The girl shook her head. "I need to talk to Miss Lucy."
"Miss Lucy's with a customer right now. Could I help? I'm Miss Lucy's niece, Abigail. What's your name?"
The girl turned her eyes on Abigail for the first time, and a fat tear slid down her face. "Maddy Ryan." Her lip trembled. "Somebody took my bike." Another tear tumbled down her cheek.
Abigail frowned and took her hand. It was cold and wet from her tears. "Tell me what happened."
"I ... I rode to town 'cause Dad said I need a haircut, and I wanted to buy some candy 'cause I saved some money. I parked outside the market." She reached into her hoodie pocket and pulled out a handful of Twizzlers. "When I came out, my bike was gone." Maddy drew a shuddery breath that threatened to turn into a full-out bawl.
Excerpted from A Cowboy's Touch by Denise Hunter Copyright © 2011 by Denise Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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