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Clay Gregory stood in the middle of the barn corridor, his booted feet planted on the cold concrete and his hands shoved into the pockets of his sheepskin jacket. His breath formed frosty clouds in the air and his dark eyes glittered beneath the brown knitted hat he wore in lieu of his customary Stetson.
Meg looked away, determined to ignore him. Clay Gregory thought himself a cut above and she didn't mind taking him down a peg or two this cold March morning. She refused to glance his way again, instead giving her shovel a satisfying scrape along the stall floor. She dumped the soiled straw into a waiting wheelbarrow. She made the same action twice more, each time her heart thumping a little harder as he remained silent. The increase in her heart rate wasn't from the physical exertion, though the exercise was a welcome feeling after months of taking it easy.
Nope. The hammering pulse was one hundred percent caused by Clay. The last time he'd spoken to her it had been to accuse her of running away. She'd wanted to make him understand, but his mind had been closed. The spectre of cancer had killed most of her romantic illusions where Clay was concerned, and his harsh words had finished the job. She'd told herself she was over her schoolgirl crush, but his censure had bothered her more than she cared to admit. Because there wasn't just a crush at stake. They'd been friends first, and the words he'd flung at her had hurt more than he knew. "Megan."
Finally. His deep voice seemed to fill the corridor and she took a measured breath. She stood the shovel on its blade and rested her hands on the handle as she looked up, meeting his gaze dead-on. "Hello, Clay."
He took a step forward. Meg gripped the shovel handle and stepped back, resuming her task. She had to keep working. She didn't want to talk to Clay, not this morning. Facing things one at a time was what she intended to do and Clay Gregory's closed mind was not on the list for today.
"You're back," he said, and she realized he was only a few feet behind her.
"Yes, I'm back. Thanks for noticing."
"I came looking for Dawson."
Oh, so he wasn't here to see her after all. She bit down on her lip to keep from blurting out the sharp reply that had formed in her head. There was no reason for her pride to be hurt. Clay had said some very painful things last spring. When he'd accused her of running away he was right. She had been, but her reasons had been solid. At least to her. She made the best decision she could and she didn't regret it one bit. She was here now because she'd made the decision to fight with all she had. If Clay didn't like it that was his problem.
"We had some problems with calves last night," she said blandly. "Dawson went back to bed and I said I'd do the horses."
She didn't need to look at Clay to know he was scowling. He had a way of frowning that made a line form between his eyebrows. When she'd still been able to tease him she'd called it a penny slot, and many a time she'd wanted to smooth the crease away but she'd been too chicken to touch him in such an intimate manner.
She'd save herself that humiliation, thank you very much. The only thing worse than having a crush on her brother's best friend while growing up had been the possibility of acting on it and being rejected. As she surely would have been. Clay had never shown the slightest interest in her that way. He'd always treated her like an annoying little sister.
"Give me the shovel," he said, and his long arm reached around and closed over hers on the black handle.
Megan ignored the automatic zing that raced down her limbs at the contact and pulled the implement out of his grasp. "What are you doing?"
His response was to grip her shoulders and turn her around.
She looked up—a long way up, because Clay was over six feet tall and she came in at a measly five foot five. She couldn't help the thrill that coursed through her at his nearness.
Coursed through every part of her body, save one. On the right side of her chest she felt nothing, because there was nothing there.
This was so not how it was supposed to go. Clay Gregory and the cancer were in the past. She wished she could just forget about them both. But both had left their indelible mark no matter how hard she tried to move past them.
"What was Dawson thinking, letting you do this?" he demanded, the line between his brows now a deep crater above his nose.
She pulled away and lifted her chin. Not like it would make her any taller, but it made her feel better. "Dawson doesn't let me do anything. He's not the boss of me."
Great. That made her sound what, ten years old? She glared at him as best she could. She hadn't come back to Larch Valley just so people could start bossing her around and treating her with kid gloves. "I've been mucking out stalls since I was a kid, Clay. If you want to see Dawson, he's up at the house. Let me get back to work."
Her snappish words seemed to take him back a bit as the line eased but the concern still rested heavy in his eyes. "Are you sure you should be doing heavy labor, Meg? You shouldn't do too much and…"
"And what?" she finished for him. What did he think would happen? There were no more stitches to pop. She wasn't going to collapse at his feet. "Shoveling…you-know-what is hardly heavy labor. I think I know what I can and can't handle," she replied, but she softened her tone a bit. There was no sense in arguing. "I'm fine, Clay. I'm all better now. Good as new."
It was a lie, but it would be truth soon enough. Granted, there were still lingering issues since her treatment. Twinges that happened at the oddest times. Fatigue. Then there was the issue of her scars. They would never go away, but the rest would be cured by time and working to get stronger. "Farm work is exactly what I need."
Megan Briggs had been just about as low as she ever cared to get, but that was over now. Breast cancer hadn't beaten her—she'd beaten it. Now it was time to reclaim her life. She had ideas—good ones. And if she wanted her family's support, she had to first prove to them that she wasn't going to fall apart at any moment. They needed her. And while the past year couldn't have been helped, she was determined to help keep the Briggs ranch on its feet.
If people kept tiptoeing around her like she was breakable, how on earth was she ever going to make it happen? But she wasn't about to give up. And so she tightened her hands around the shovel, prepared to resume her work.
Clay's response was to retrieve another shovel from beside the door. Megan looked up at him and wasn't sure if she was flattered or insulted at his obvious caring. She decided insulted. It was easier that way.
"I can do this," she repeated, feeling a silly urge to stamp her foot. She did not. She merely stared at him as he took the stall next to her and dug in. "Clay! I said I've got it."
"Shut up, Meg," he said mildly, igniting her temper even further.
It would serve him right if she walked out and let him do them all, she thought. But that wouldn't help her cause one little bit. She needed everyone to see she was fine. Same old Meg. Reliable and ready to put in a hard day's work. Not a burden. Not a girl who needed to be pampered. Definitely not made of glass, ready to break at any moment. That whole "poor Meg" bit was what had driven her to Calgary in the first place.
"Fine." She wasn't about to stand and argue about it. She finished the stall she was on and moved the barrow down the aisle, beginning on another. A raw breeze blew through the door at the end of the barn, and when Meg looked up, soft flakes were falling. The horses were huddled together in the corral, the light snow dusting their backs.
The hard edge of her mood melted away and she smiled to herself. The horses, this ranch, her family—they were what were important now. She had to remember that. She'd done what she had to do to get through her illness, but oh, it was wonderful to be home. This was where she belonged. And where she would stay.
Clay saw the hint of a smile touch Meg's face and some of his frustration mellowed. It was good to have her back. Good to see her looking so well. A little thinner than he remembered, but with the same thickly lashed, saucy brown eyes and the same dusting of freckles over her nose. She wore a horribly ugly hat on her head that looked like it had been knitted by yarn odds and ends, the colors varied and mismatched.
It suited her to a T. Meg had always been a little unconventional and he'd liked that about her. When she'd snapped at him her delicate features had taken on a familiar stubborn set. Meg had never cared what other people thought. That was what made her disappearance to Calgary so troubling. Suddenly the spunky girl he'd always known had turned into a frightened waif running away. He'd been worried and had gone about telling her in all the wrong ways.
Now she was back and he wanted to believe she was okay. She certainly looked fine. She'd told him she'd be back strong and fit and he'd had his doubts. Doubts he'd refused to voice, because he'd been afraid. He'd admitted it to no one but himself. He'd been afraid Meg was going to die. The girl in dark, curly pigtails who had held his hand in hers and said she'd always be there for him had faced something that made promises irrelevant.
And instead of talking about it he'd lashed out. What he had said all those months ago had been so very wrong and he'd regretted those words ever since. Dawson had mentioned she was coming home and Clay had thought to catch his friend in the barns, do a little digging about her state of mind—and health—before facing her again.
Instead of Dawson he'd found Meg, cleaning stalls like the last year had never happened. He owed her an apology for those words.
"You're truly okay?" He kept shoveling, needing to keep moving, to pretend that this was like any other sort of conversation he'd had with Meg a thousand times.
Instead he found himself face-to-face with her and her sharp attitude. The sweet Megan he remembered was gone and replaced by a woman with a stubborn jut to her chin and eyes full of fire. Before he would have been able to soothe ruffled feathers with a smile and a bit of charm. But Meg seemed immune now. The words of apology he'd practiced in his head disappeared, swept away on the arctic air blowing through Larch Valley.
"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," she replied, shaking fresh straw on to the stall floor.
He looked up briefly. She was watching him, her eyes enormous above her plaid wool jacket. Old work gloves covered her hands and she wore jeans and boots, same as him. At this moment, it was hard to imagine her body being ravaged by disease.
"If I said I was sorry for what I said to you last spring, would you believe me?" He stumbled over the words. They were nothing like he'd rehearsed, but he couldn't take them back now. What was he supposed to say? That all the hateful things he'd said had eaten at him all these months? That at the time he'd been afraid they were the last words he might ever say to her? Her current strength and determination made the sentiments seem ridiculous.
"Sure." She shook out more straw over the floor and he gritted his teeth. She was certainly as mule headed as ever.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
She looked up at him. "Not really. Let's just let it drop."
In Clay's experience, a woman never "dropped" anything, but Megan wasn't like most women. He had no idea what to say next. He'd apologized and he'd meant it. Maybe that was enough.
"Did your mom tell you about Aunt Stacy?"
With a sigh, Meg put her shovel aside. "No, she didn't.
What's to know?"
"Gee, Meg, I'm sorry, is my conversation boring you?" He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his tone. She was completely exasperating. He'd come over here, wanting to say hello, wanting to say he was sorry, and he got a sharp tongue and put-upon air for his troubles.
A slight flush touched her cheekbones and she looked a little sheepish. "Of course not. I'm a little touchy, okay? Everyone is treating me like I'm going to break at any moment. It's a bit suffocating."
"That wasn't my intention."
She raised an eyebrow and he knew she was right. It had been, from the moment he had said she shouldn't be mucking out stalls. He'd taken a heavy hand from the start. Well, sue him for being worried about her. "If people are concerned, it's only because they care about you and don't want you to do too much, too fast."
"I know that."
"You've just come home. I'm sure once everyone sees you're back to your old self, they'll move on to another topic." He made his voice sound far more confident than he felt.