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The station wagon pulled up to the curb in front of the airport in Colorado Springs. "Son, won't you please consider coming back home? I mean for good."
He knew what she meant. Buck Summerhayes stared into his mother's pleading eyes before releasing the seat belt. They'd been through this half a dozen times since last March when he'd been given a medical discharge from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The military had flown him home, where his family had been waiting to welcome him.
"You know I can't do that, Mom," he said, breaking into a cough. "I've made a commitment to Carson and Ross. I only flew here for a three-day break. Now I have to get back to Wyoming. Another family of a fallen soldier from California will be arriving in Jackson this evening. The guys and I take turns. This family will be my main responsibility for the next week, so I have to be there to pick them up."
"I realize that, but you have no idea how much we all miss you. Your father and brothers could use you in the business. At his last physical, the doctor told Dad he needed to slow down."
"Is it anything serious?" Buck asked in alarm.
"No, darling. He's just getting older, and all I'm saying is that Summerhayes Construction could use your help." Her face took on a sad expression. "Is it possible you're still staying away because of Melanie?"
A mother wasn't a mother for nothing. There was no point in avoiding the subject of Melanie Marsden, his high school girlfriend and the woman he'd hoped to marry after college.
But after his oldest brother, Pete, told him she and his brother Sam had fallen in love while Buck had been away at school and that they were afraid to tell him, he wished them all the best. After their wedding, he'd joined the marines and it would have become his lifelong career if he hadn't been diagnosed with acute dyspnea.
He frowned. "That might have been the case twelve years ago, but the war changed my life. When you see your buddies blown up in front of your face, it changes the way you think about things. I got over it a long time ago. Don't you remember? When I was first sent overseas, I wrote them a letter telling them how happy I was for them?"
"Yes, of course. They told me what you did after you were deployed and it meant the world to them, but I was just afraid that because you haven't met a woman to settle down with"
"You thought I was still pining for her?" He cut her off. Incredulous, he said, "Momput your fears away. That's in the long-forgotten past. There've been many women since then and there will be many more to come. Jackson Hole is a mecca for Western goddesses decked out in cowboy hats and spurs."
His comment caused her to laugh. "If you want to know the truth, I love what I'm doing now. I need it."
She patted his cheek. "I believe you."
"I'm glad you do, because you don't know what survivor's guilt is like. When I was in the hospital, it tore me apart to think that some of our buddies didn't make it home to their wives and children. My friends and I decided the only way to get over it was to find a way to help people. Carson came up with the idea of turning his ranch into a dude ranch to give some of the victims' families a vacation. It struck a chord with Ross and me."
"It's a very noble idea, but what about your health?"
"We all see the doctor regularly. It could've been a lot worse. We like to think of it as our mark of bravery for breathing all that nasty stuff over in Afghanistan."
She leaned across and gave him a big hug and a kiss. "I love you, honey." Her voice was filled with tears.
Emotion swamped him as he reciprocated. "I love you, too. Stop worrying so much. I'll see you in six weeks."
He was saying that now, but he couldn't guarantee it. Their dude-ranch business for regular tourists was growing faster than they'd anticipated. As for their first experiment entertaining a war widow and her son, it had gone so well that Carson had just married Tracy Baretta, and her six-year-old son Johnny was the cutest little kid Buck had ever seen.
It seemed unbelievable that she'd flown out from Ohio at the beginning of June and now they were man and wife and raising a child together. It was only the third week of July. Johnny would be celebrating his seventh birthday next Thursday night. Carson and Tracy were in the middle of planning a big party for him.
In truth, Buck was envious of Carson. Bachelorhood was all right until the right woman came along, but Buck could see how fulfilling it would be to be a father and he felt that yearning growing stronger. Johnny had gotten to Buck in a big way.
Buck smiled when he thought about Carson. The second he'd laid eyes on Tracy, the ultimate bachelor cowboy was a goner. He couldn't be happier for his friend, but his nuptials had cut their numbers to an overall bachelor status of two.
After getting out of the car, he reached for his duffel bag on the backseat. "Drive safely, Mom. You're the only mother I've got. And please, don't worry. One day the right woman will come along and I'll get married and give you grandchildren."
"Oh, you." She chuckled. "Take care, my brave boy."
He was still her boy instead of a thirty-five-year-old vet with an annoying disease. As for brave, there were degrees of bravery. Like the heroism of one of their buddies who volunteered to be a target to save half a dozen of their platoon. He'd saved Buck's life. Now, that was brave.
Buck shook his head after watching his mother pull away, and then he hurried inside to make his afternoon flight to Jackson via Denver.
His forty-minute trip went smoothly, but after changing planes for the second leg, the pilot made an announcement. Bad weather and high winds over Wyoming meant their flight had to be diverted to Salt Lake.
Once he arrived at Salt Lake International to check his bag, he phoned Carson and Ross, but got voice mail for both and had to leave messages. Frustrated, he called the front desk at the ranch and was able to reach Willy and tell him about the delay. The part-time apprentice mechanic who alternated shifts with Susan and Patty told him not to worry. Alexis and Jenny Forresterthe mother and daughter he was supposed to meetwould probably be late, too. But no matter when they arrived, someone on staff would pick them up. Buck was to give them a call whenever he touched down.
Rather than sit it out in the passenger waiting area, he found a Starbucks on the lower level and grabbed a sandwich and coffee and a copy of The Salt Lake Tribune. The place was packed with tourists. A lot of flights had been delayed. After he'd eaten, he went back upstairs and walked behind the last row of lounge seats until he came to the end where he found a free one. In the next chair was a blonde girl, maybe six or seven years old, curled up asleep next to her mother.
After sitting, he opened his newspaper to the business section. Unlike many other states, Utah was experiencing some growth of new housing in an otherwise depressed economy. He hoped things would pick up in Colorado, but it probably wouldn't happen for some time.
Beside him, Buck could hear the mother talking to someone on her cell phone. "I know a week seems like a long time, but it's something I feel I had to do for a lot of reasons . You know why . Please try to understand, Frank . Love you, too."
The call ended just as Buck had finished the editorial page. When he felt a spasm coming on, he coughed into the newspaper to muffle the sound, hoping he hadn't startled the little girl, who straightened in her seat and rubbed her eyes.
"Now that you're awake, let's go to the restroom, sweetheart," the mother said in a well-modulated voice. Buck would bet it wasn't a coincidence that she'd made the suggestion at that particular moment. Chagrined to think he was probably the reason they got up, he kept his face hidden behind the paper and flipped to the financial section.
The guys had joked about wearing signs that said their coughs weren't contagious; maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.
When he'd finished reading the paper, he tucked it between him and the side of the chair. As he sat leaning forward with his hands clasped between his knees, waiting for the announcement that his flight was now boarding, the little girl walked in front of him to take her seat.
Behind her came the most gorgeous pair of long legs he'd ever seen on a woman. Her linen-colored skirt fit snugly around shapely hips and legs to flare at the knee, and she was wearing beige wedge sandals.
Compelled to look up, he took in the top half of her shapely body clothed in a summery crocheted top. Her wavy chestnut-colored hair hid her profile as she sat down next to her daughter. Surprised by his strong reaction to the stranger, it took all the willpower he possessed not to stand so he could get a better look at her. No one appreciated a beautiful woman more than he did.
When he'd told his mom there'd been many women in his life, he hadn't exaggerated, which was why he was so surprised that this particular female had so captured his attention. It appeared that she and her daughter were taking his flight, but that didn't mean Jackson was their final destination. The mother and daughter he was supposed to meet were flying in from Sacramento, Californiacould they have been rerouted to Salt Lake City, as well?
In the middle of his reverie, he heard the announcement that his flight was ready for boarding. The woman and her daughter had already gone ahead to join the lineup. He was the last one to board the midsize passenger plane. Since his flight had been diverted, he was the last to be given a seat assignment and had to sit at the rear of the plane.
Before he reached his seat, he spotted the mother who'd caught his eye sitting on the left a couple of rows ahead. She was helping her daughter with the seat belt. He noted there was no wedding ring on her left hand. She could still be married, he surmised, or then again Frankthe man she'd been talking to on the phone earliercould be a boyfriend. Buck was forced to keep moving down the aisle and he still didn't get a look at her face, because her hair had fallen forward.
The flight was a short one, but bumpy toward the end. After the plane landed, three-fourths of the passengers got off, but he saw no sign of the woman and her daughter. Oddly disappointed, he made his way over to the baggage claim to retrieve his duffel bag and call the ranch.
He wheeled around to see Willy carrying a sign for the Teton Valley Dude Ranch. "Hey, Willy."
The twenty-six-year-old pushed his cowboy hat back on his head. "I didn't know you'd be on this flight. You didn't by any chance see a woman and little girl on board, did you? The Forresters didn't come in on the last flight. I was supposed to pick them up in front, but they weren't outside, so I figured they'd be in here getting their luggage. Some of the bags still haven't been claimed."
So the woman and her daughter were the Forresters!
After overhearing part of her phone conversation with "Frank," he'd pretty much ruled her out as possibly being the widow of Daniel Forrester.
The marine's heroism had been lauded after he'd taken a grenade to save members of his platoon from certain death. He'd been buried only nine months ago. Not that his wife couldn't have found herself in another relationship this fast. The woman was a raving beauty.
Come to think of it, Melanie and Buck's brother had gotten close much faster than that while he'd been away at school. But Melanie hadn't lost a husband in the war. Somehow, Buck would have expected a grieving widow to take a little longer to recover. The woman had already removed her wedding ring. Still, it was none of his business.
"I sat next to a mother and daughter in the airport lounge in Salt Lake, but I had no idea they were the family we're hosting. Unfortunately, I was the last one off the plane." He frowned, wondering if the turbulence had made one of them ill. They were his responsibility, after all. "Maybe they're in the restroom. Stay here."
He started across the terminal lounge to look around when he saw them come out of an alcove and head for the luggage carousel. The little girl clung to her mother's hand. Buck closed in on them.
She swung halfway around, giving him the frontal view he'd been trying to glimpse earlier. Midnight-blue eyes connected with his. He thought she looked surprised to see him. She probably hadn't expected the man with the cough at the Salt Lake airport to be the one greeting her.
She was maybe thirty. A generously curved mouth and high cheekbones were set in an oval face. Her classic features appealed to him as much as the rest of her. She was a very attractive woman. He thought of Carson and the way he'd felt when he'd first laid eyes on Tracy.
He looked down at her daughter, who showed all the promise of growing up to be a beauty herself. "I'm Buck Summerhayes, one of the partners at the dude ranch. Welcome to Teton Valley." He shook her hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Summerhayes. We're very happy to be here." Although her tone sounded cordial enough, she seemed a bit subdued. Maybe the flight had made her ill.
"Let me introduce Willy Felder. He's one of our staff and will be taking us back to the ranch."
"My name's Alex. How do you do?" She shook hands with him.
"If you'll tell Willy which of those bags are yours, he'll take them out to the van."
"They're the red ones."
"Red's my favorite color," the little girl piped up.