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Nell Bishop barreled down the highway, heading home, racing against the approaching storm. The March winds whipped against the pickup as she hurried toward Twin Canyons Ranch, thirty-four miles south of Promise, Texas.
Her mother-in-law was with the children, but Jeremy and Emma would have difficulty getting the animals into the barn without help. Ruth would do what she could, but the older woman's heart wasn't strong and
Nell didn't want to think what might happen if she didn't make it back in time.
Her life had been on a fast-moving treadmill for the past three years, ever since her husband died in a tractor accident. Storms were the least of her worries, considering the financial challenges she'd faced working the ranch without Jake. Not a day passed that her husband wasn't in her thoughts. Twenty years from now, forty years from now, he'd still be a part of her.
Ruth and others had encouraged her to remarry, at least to date, but Nell had resisted. She never expected to love againnot the way she loved Jake. Their love was the kind that happened only once in a lifetime, and no other man could compare to her Jake.
Nell had always known she wasn't any candidate for homecoming queen, but Jake had made her feel like one. He'd understood what it was to be big-boned and just plain big. Dainty or elegant would never describe her; at six feet, Nell was as tall as most men. Jake had been six feet four inches by the time he was a high-school freshman, and the only boy in school taller than Nell.
They'd lived in the same town all their lives, but it wasn't until high school that she'd noticed him. The very first day of high school, as a matter of fact. She was a freshman to his senior, and the minute his eyes met hers as she walked down the hall, she knew she'd found her life's mate. He was the only boy she'd ever dated. When he enlisted in the army and became an Airborne Ranger, she'd written him every day. He served his time in the army and was discharged a week after her graduation. Despite her family's protests, she'd married Jake while still a teenager.
Neither was to know that ten years was all the time they'd have together. It was Nell who'd found her husband trapped beneath the tractor, Nell who'd held him in her arms as the life flowed out of him, Nell who'd screamed in anguish, helpless to do anything to save her husband's life.
Now it was Nell who struggled to hold on to Twin Canyons Ranch, tended what remained of the herd, raised their children and cared for Jake's aging mother. The ranch had been Jake's dreamand hers; it was a small spread that they'd bought together, shortly after their marriage. But she was so very tired, weary to the bone with her financial struggles and other worries. The past three years had drained her mentally, emotionally and physically. For that reason she'd sold off most of the herd and started a new venture. A dude ranch.
Bless Jeremy's heart. Her son had been the one to give her the idea. Last year, she'd promised him a reward for acing his spelling test and he'd chosen to rent a movie. Of all the movies available, he'd picked City Slickers, and to Nell it was like a revelation.
After seeing the movie, Nell hadn't been able to sleep all night. She was certainly familiar with dude ranches, but it had never occurred to her that this might be a solution to her own dilemma. She couldn't say she understood it, but people actually paid for the opportunity to eat food cooked in a chuck wagon, ride around on horses and drive cattle. Why these people would prefer to live in primitive circumstances when they could experience the luxury of some fancy resort for basically the same price was beyond her. Apparently she had a lot to learnbut learn she did. After months of research Nell was convinced that a dude ranch really was the answer. With a portion of her profits from the sale of last year's herd, she'd had brochures printed and she'd contacted several travel companies. Now she was almost ready for business, and in a couple of months she'd be entertaining her first bunkhouse full of greenhorns.
In many ways she was a natural for this kind of work. After these few years without Jake, there wasn't a ranching chore she couldn't accomplish with the speed and dexterity of a man. At this point, she knew as much about ranching as any cowboy. Not only that, she'd heard the great stories of Texas all her lifestories about the state's settlement and the Alamo and the early cattle drives and many more. She'd always loved those stories, and if she could make money telling them now, romanticizing the Old West, all the better.
Heavy black clouds darkened the sky. Pushing thoughts of Jake from her mind, Nell focused her attention on the highway. Driving well above the speed limit, she rounded a turn in the road and saw a sports utility vehicle parked along the side.
Some damn fool had stopped to take pictures of the approaching storm. The man obviously wasn't a local. Anyone from Texas would know to take cover, and fast. Like the state of Texas itself, storms tended to make an impression, especially spring storms like this one.
Despite her hurry, Nell applied her brakes and pulled over. With the engine running, she leaped down from the cab. The wind slapped her long braid against her face as she raced toward the stranger.
The greenhorn lowered his camera. "Howdy," he greeted her cheerfully. He was taller than she was and clean-cut. His clothes were new-looking but rumpled.
"Listen, I don't mean to be rude, but any idiot knows to head for cover in a storm."
His smile faded to a frown.
"I don't know where you're from or where you're going," she went on, "but if I were you I'd get my butt back into that fancy car of yours and drive into town as fast as those tires will take you." Having done her duty, she started back to her truck.
"Hey," he said, "Got a minute? I have a few questions."
"I have to go." Nell didn't mean to sound abrupt, but she didn't have time to waste. She'd said her piece and whether or not he took her advice was completely up to him.
"Are you from around the area?" he called after her.
"Yes! Now listen, we get hail the size of golf balls and if you don't want to pay to have the dents removed, then I suggest you make tracks for town."
"This will only take a minute
"I don't have a minute, I've got horses and calves to worry about," Nell shouted into the wind. "And I don't have time to convince you a storm is about to break." She raised her hand toward the threatening sky. "It's going to cost you plenty if you don't get that vehicle under cover."
"Hail is an act of God." Whether he caught her last words or not she didn't know. Nell leaped into her truck and put the pickup in gear. One glance in the rear-view mirror proved that giving this stranger advice had been a wasted effort. He hadn't moved. Furthermore, he wasn't snapping pictures of the dark horizon anymore; he was taking pictures of her!
Shaking her head in wonder, Nell dismissed him from her thoughts, and drove home at breakneck speed.
When she pulled into the ranch yard, she saw Jeremy chasing chickens in a futile attempt to lure them into the coop. Emma and Ruth led the horses toward the barn, yanking on the reins as the two geldings battled the wind. The scene right before the tornado in The Wizard of Oz flashed through Nell's mind.
She parked the truck near the barn, where it would be protected, and hurried toward her family. With her help, Ruth and Emma managed to secure the animals before the storm broke.
By the time they scurried into the house, the rain had started and they were breathless and excited.
"We did it!" Twelve-year-old Jeremy said, exchanging a high five with his sister. Unlike most siblings, Jeremy and Emma rarely fought. Sure, they squabbled now and thenall kids didbut these two were close in age and temperament. They'd also been through the devastating experience of their father's death, which had created a strong bond between them.
Jeremy was large for his age, like his father and Nell, toobig-boned, muscular and tall. Two years younger, Emma was small and delicate, resembling Ruth, her grandmother.
"I'm glad you made it home in time," Ruth said, pouring Nell a cup of hot tea before filling a second cup for herself.
Nell gazed out the kitchen window at the ferocity of the storm. The wind propelled the rain at an almost horizontal angle, pelting the trees and flowers. Smaller trees were bent nearly in half. Many a new crop would see ruin this afternoon.
Sighing, she turned away from the window. "I would have been a couple of minutes earlier if it hadn't been for some greenhorn," she said. "The silly fool stopped at the side of the road to take pictures."
"Anyone you recognized?" Ruth asked.
"Never saw him before in my life." Nell would have remembered him if she had. He was big like Jake, sturdy and broad-shouldered. Unfortunatelyunlike Jakehe didn't seem to possess an ounce of common sense.
Ruth shook her head. "Probably one of those tornado chasers."
Nell frowned. "I don't think so." He wasn't the type. Too soft, she decided, and although it might sound unkind, not all that bright. Anyone with brains knew to seek shelter in a storm.
"What's for dinner?" Jeremy asked.
"Not chili," Emma pleaded.
Despite herself Nell laughed. "Not chili," she assured her. Her family had been good sports, sampling different variations of her chili recipe for the past few months. Nell was perfecting her recipe and had used her family as taste-testers.
The Chili Cook-off was being held that weekend as part of the Promise Rodeo. These festivities launched spring the way the big Cattlemen's Association dance in June signaled the beginning of summer.
Nell held high hopes that her chili might actually win this year. Her talents in the kitchen were legendary, and she believed she made a great pot of chili. For weeks she'd been combining recipes, adding this, subtracting that. After feeding her family chili twice a week, she was finally satisfied with her recipe.
"Are you going to win the cook-off?" Emma asked.
"Of course she is," Ruth answered before Nell could respond. "I don't see why she shouldn't, seeing she's the best cook this side of the Rio Grande."
Both children nodded enthusiastically, and Nell smiled. "How about porcupine meatballs for dinner?" she suggested. The meatballs, made with rice and cooked in tomato soup, were one of the children's favorites. Jeremy and Emma instantly agreed.
"I'll peel the potatoes," Ruth said. As usual her mother-in-law was willing to lend a hand.
The lights flickered just then, and the house went dark.
"That's okay," Jeremy said. "We don't need electricity. We can roast weenies in the fireplace, can't we?"
"Yeah," Emma seconded. "We could have hot dogs."
"Sounds like a good idea to me." Nell reached for a candle, grateful her children maintained a sense of adventure. They were going to need it when the first dude ranch guests arrived.
Cal Patterson shook the moisture from his jacket as he stepped inside out of the driving rain. He removed his Stetson and placed it on the hook just inside the porch to dry. He'd done what he could to protect his herd, gotten his horses into the barn and battened down the shutters where he could. Glen, his brother and business partner, had left for town early in hopes of beating the storm. Cal had worked alone, listening with half an ear for his wife's arrival. He didn't like the idea of Jane driving all the way from town in this kind of weather.
"Cal, is that you?"
His heart rate accelerated at the sound of her voice. "Jane? What the hell are you doing here? Where's your car? I didn't see it."
"I live here, remember?" she teased, joining him in the kitchen porch while he removed his boots. She'd obviously just had a bath and now wore a flannel bathrobe, belted loosely about her waist. "And I didn't park in my usual place because Glen's truck was still there."
"You should've stayed in town," he chastised, but he was delighted she'd managed to make it home. He didn't relish the idea of a night spent without her. Two months of marriage, and he'd grown accustomed to sharing his home and his heart with this woman.
"The clinic closed early," she informed him, "and I've got my beeper. Anyone can reach me in case of a medical emergency."
Cal shed his jacket and slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her close and urging her into the kitchen. His wife was the town's only physician, so there were constant demands on her time. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop worrying about you."
"Hey, I'm a big girl."
"Sure you are!" He was about to kiss her when the lights went out. Not that he minded. A romantic interlude wasn't unwelcome.
"I've got a fire going in the fireplace," she whispered, pressing against him, reminding him of the benefits of married life. She looped her arms around his neck and kissed his jaw.
Cal shut his eyes and inhaled her fresh sweet scent. This was about as close to heaven as he expected to get in his lifetime. "I don't suppose you're wearing that see-through nightie of yours?"
"No," she said, "but that could be arranged."
"Now you're talkin'."
Cal felt her smile against his skin. "I love you, Rebel."
Growling, he swung her into his arms and carried her into the living room. Sure enough, a small fire flickered in the fireplace. This had become their favorite room; he'd lost count of the number of times they'd made love in front of the fireplace. The room had a special significance for him, since it was here that he'd first realized how much he'd come to care about her. It was here in this very room that Dr. Texas, as he was fond of calling her, had taken his freeze-dried heart and breathed life into his lonely existence.
Cal was happier than he'd ever thought possible. With each passing day he loved Jane more. Their love had demanded plenty of adjustments on both sides. Sacrifices. But for everything he'd given up, he'd gained so much more.
The storm raged outside and a fair one was building on the living-room carpet when Jane's beeper went off.
Cal groaned and rolled onto his back, inhaling several deep breaths. "That damn well better be important," he muttered.
"I want someone real sick."
Giggling, Jane scrambled for her beeper and read the message. "It's Laredo Smith," she said.
"Wanna bet he's phoning about Savannah?"
"She's just over eight months," Jane said, sounding concerned.
"But Laredo's acting like she's three weeks overdue."
"He's worried, that's all."
Cal figured he would be, too, in Laredo's situation. This was the Smiths' first child, and Savannah was over thirty; as well, Cal knew there'd been some minor complications with the pregnancy. Despite thatand unlike her husbandthe mother-to-be remained calm and confident. Savannah had insisted on a home delivery, overriding Laredo's protests.
"This shouldn't take long," Jane promised. She hurried over to the hall phone.
Cal cupped his hands behind his head and watched his wife move through the room, bathed in firelight. Her hair was mussed and her bathrobe hastily tiedand he couldn't recall a time she'd looked more beautiful. It never ceased to amaze him that Jane had agreed to be his wife.