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May, present day
"I LOVE WYOMING," Sara Montgomery said as Holly turned the pickup truck into the long sloping driveway that led to the Montgomerys' house. "I don't know why Montana gets the big-sky tag. Look at the sky here, it's glorious."
The sun was setting in the west, flinging a kaleido-scope of colors overhead. A gentle breeze carried the fresh smell of grass and cattle as it wafted onward.
Holly smiled and shook her head. "You say that all the time. You've been here for years now. Hasn't the novelty worn off yet?"
"Do you know of a better place?" Sara asked.
"Nope." Not that she'd been to that many places. Colorado. A trip to San Francisco, and one to Chicago. But she loved her home and couldn't imagine settling down anywhere else. "But I hear Kentucky's pretty."
"Oh, it is. But closed in, with trees everywhere and neat plots of fenced land, not rolling open hills where when you reach the summit you can see forever."
"Or at least to the next range of mountains. Not quite forever."
"I'm being poetic." life had shown her a different side.
They rode in silence until they saw the ranch house. Then Sara turned slightly and looked at her.
"Things any better on the home front?" she asked.
"You wait until now to ask?" Holly said. "We had all of dinner."
"Yes, but I didn't want to put us off our food."
"It's not that bad."
"Hank not bothering you anymore?"
"I can handle that," Holly said, with only a hint of doubt in her tone. Hank worried her. But she didn't be-lieve he'd actually cross the line. Ever since her father had had his stroke and been away, Hank had been mak-ing moves. Holly was not interested, but the man had a hide thick as a steer's and wouldn't be discouraged.
"Dad's lack of progress worries me more."
"Your father has to be so frustrated being confined to that hospital room," Sara said. "He was involved in so much."
Holly nodded. "He wants to be instantly okay, but his doctor says it will take time. Dad's never been much on patience and he's more impatient now than ever. What scares me is what if he doesn't get back to normal."
Sara didn't know the full extent of her father's diffi-culties, Holly had tried to ignore his temper, because he'd always been her biggest supporter. And Holly wanted to be the same for him, despite the arguments they seemed to have every time they were together.
"He could have put you in total charge of the ranch," Sara said loyally.
Holly couldn't argue that point. It was a bone of con-tention between her and her father. He tried to run ev-erything in absentia, so each time she visited the rehab center, he made sure he countermanded at least one of her ordersjust to show he was still in charge. She'd begun reporting one stupid decision each day so that most of her real orders stood. She wondered when he'd catch on.
She wished he was back on the ranch. She missed him so much. It had been just the two of them since her mother died when she was four. She couldn't imagine staying on the ranch if he never returned.
Holly pulled the truck to a stop in front of Sara's long single-story housea new wood-shingled dwelling built only five years ago. It was completely different from the old two-story house that had been in Holly's family for three generations. She liked the modern lines and the bright blue shutters Sara and her brother, John Montgomery, had put on the house.
"Come in for coffee. The night's still young," Sara invited. "You're not going to bed for hours, no matter how early you get up in the morning."
Holly nodded. "I'll stay for a while. But decaf, oth-erwise I won't get any sleep."
The two women had spent a girls'night out enjoying a meal they didn't cook and conversation that good friends shared. Trying to get together with the demands of their respective ranches wasn't easy.
With mugs of coffee laced with cream, they headed for the front porch. The mild May evening was too nice to spend inside. Holly sank onto one of the wicker rockers as Sara sat next to her. The brother and sister had bought the ranch years ago, breaking away from a family concern in Kentucky when they'd found what they considered the perfect cattle ranch in Turnbow, Wyoming.
Sara and Holly had become friends in short order. Several times over the past few years Holly had wished she could form the same close attachment with Sara's brother, John. How cool it would be to marry into their family. She'd have a ready-made sister and strong family ties.
As much as she liked John, however, she didn't trust her own instincts about men. Holly shook her head and forced her thoughts away from the past and focused on what Sara was saying.
"We're going to one of the cattle sales in Denver next month after all the branding," Sara said, sipping the hot coffee. "Want to go?"
"I'd love to go, but who knows when my dad will be released."
"I thought he was doing better."
"Better is relative. The doctor says he's improving, but I don't see great strides. He still can't walk without the walker and his left side is almost useless." Her father resented being in the rehab facility trying to regain use of his left arm and leg. Every day she visited, he insisted he could continue to improve at the ranch. His doctor vetoed that idea and Holly stood by the doctor's orders.
"But he will return home one day, right?" Sara asked tentatively.
"So the doctor says. If he doesn't have another stroke. And I'll be glad to have him back. I'm supposed to be taking care of things, but without him giving me actual power, it's a pain. I've been a part of the ranch my entire life. You'd think he'd trust me to know what to do in its best interest."
Holly suspected his lack of confidence stemmed from her poor judgment about Tyler Alverez when she'd been in high school. Her dad faulted her decisions then and he still questioned them now.
"How's the training going?" Sara asked.
"On hold. I don't have time to do anything with horses or even work in my garden. I double-check everything to make sure the ranch is taken care of, and then try to keep up with the paperwork. At least the computer up-grade Dad bought last year makes that easier."
"Are you still going to be able to help with branding this year?"
"Of course. I've penciled in our men starting in a week. First your place and then Fallons'. We're third on the rotation this year. Wilkens follows us."
"We lucked out being number one this time. I can't wait," Sara said.
"The first few days are okay, but by the time we hit the Mallo place, I'll be so sick of the stink of burning flesh I'll feel like throwing up," Holly said. Cattle ranch-ing wasn't her passion. She envied Sara's enthusiasm for the routines. She'd lost her enthusiasm long ago. Except for the horses she trained.
"But we have all those cowboys strutting around, eating, bragging, telling tall tales," Sara said. Even after five years of ranching, she loved the mystique of cowboys.
Holly laughed. One day her friend would likely find a cowboy she'd fall for and find out once and for all that the mystique didn't last. Holly knew cowboys were sim-ply men like any other men. Some strong and true, others liars and cheats. However, she wasn't any good at spotting which was which.
The night grew darker; the stars sprinkled the sky. It was after nine. Before long she had to head for home. Tomorrow she'd tackle the logistics of covering the work at the ranch while the majority of her cowboys helped neighbors with their branding. Once her father was back, if she never saw another steer in her life, except to use in training, she wouldn't miss them.
The mournful sound of a harmonica drifted on the night air. Holly caught her breath, her heart racing. "Across the Wide Missouri." The last time she'd heard that she had been an enthralled teenager, listening to a boy play it for her. Tyler had loved that harmonica of his, often serenading her when they spent the evenings on distant fields of one ranch or another.
She hadn't thought about those days in a long time. She'd been so young, so free, so happy. She hated that she'd also been so gullible.
"Who's that?" she asked, pushing away the mem-ories of ten years ago.
"Our new neighbor. The guy who inherited the old Wilson ranch, which borders ours on the south. Moved up from Texas. He came over for dinner the other night. He and John hit it off when they first met and he offered to help with the branding until his own stock arrives. John said we can use all the men we can get."
"I knew someone once who played that song," Holly said slowly.
"Want to walk over and listen?" Sara asked. "On nights like this, the cowboys sit around a campfire out-side the bunkhouse, drinking beer and swapping stories.
Now I guess they're listening to music as well. It's sort of a sad song, isn't it?"
Rounding the ranch house a moment later, the two women strolled toward the bunkhouse some distance away. The low flames of the campfire silhouetted the men lounging around. The haunting notes of the har-monica seemed to fill the night.
When she was close enough to recognize the musi-cian, Holly faltered. Ty. What was he doing here?
He hadn't seen them. As he continued playing, the others weren't talking, just listening. She felt her heart pounding. For a moment she was a love-struck teenager again, longing to see the boy of her dreams. Then resent-ment flared. This was her homehe had no business re-turning to Turnbow. What had Sara said, he inherited the Wilson ranch? How? The Wilsons were no relation to Ty.
She wanted to turn and flee, yet her feet were leaden. She could only stare at the man the boy she'd loved so foolishly had become. It was hard to see clearly in the flickering firelight, but he looked bigger, harder. His hat was pulled down, obscuring his eyes. His hands cupped the harmonica and moved as the different notes sounded. His shoulders were broad and the denim-clad legs stretched out toward the fire, crossed casually, looked muscular. He'd been taller than six feet when they'd been teenagers. Had he grown any more? He'd certainly filled out.
The song wound down and Sara clapped. "That was terrific, play another."
Ty smiled, then caught sight of Holly. Time seemed suspended as the smile slowly faded. Then he deliber-ately knocked the harmonica against his leg and shook his head. "No more tonight. I'm headed home."
Despite protests from a couple of the men, he rose and turned without another word, heading into the bunkhouse.
Holly watched him stride into the building, unable to believe her eyes. Tyler Alverez, back in Turnbow.
She stared at the bunkhouse door, still in shock. "Hi, Holly," John called from the group. "Come sit a spell."
She dragged her gaze from the door and found John near the fire. Smiling, she tried to cover her rampaging emotions. "Another time maybe. I need to get going my-self." She was stunned to see Ty again after all this time. She didn't want him here. This was her home. He had no right to disrupt her life now.Yet a part of her yearned to talk to him, find out if he had any regrets for what he'd done to her ten years earlier. Clear the air and tell himwhat? That he'd changed her forever? That she was not married and not likely to ever trust anyone who claimed to love her? That he'd ruined her for other men? She needed privacy to untangle her thoughts and feelings.
"I'll call you," she said to Sara, then turned and walked to her truck on numb legs. She couldn't focus on anything but Ty's return.
The old ache rose. Then the idea of her father finding out almost made her cringe. He had not liked Ty before; she had no reason to suspect his opinion of him would have mellowed in the interim. He'd want to defend his little girl. Holly almost smiled at the thought. She was twenty-eight years old, no longer her daddy's little girl. Still, he'd come to her defense in a heartbeat. She would have saved herself a lot of heartache if she'd listened to her dad all those years ago when he'd told her to stay away from cowboys.
And how had Ty inherited the Wilson ranch?