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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 ka-leidoscope 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."
"Oh." Holly wasn't the poetic type. She was practical and down to earth. She'd once been romantic, but 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 believe he'd actually cross the line. Ever since her father had had his stroke and beenaway, Hank had been making 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 difficulties, 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 contention between her and her father. He tried to run everything in absentia, so each time she visited the rehab center, he made sure he counter-manded 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 genera-tions. She liked the modern lines and the bright blue shutters Sara and her brother, John Mont-gomery, 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, otherwise I won't get any sleep."
The two women had spent a girls' night out enjoying a meal they didn't cook and conversa-tion 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 attach-ment 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 improv-ing, 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 upgrade 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 ranching 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 simply 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 logis-tics 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 serenad-ing 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 memories 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 outside 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 harmonica seemed to fill the night.
When she was close enough to recognize the musician, Holly faltered. Ty. What was he doing here?