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Distant thunder rumbled as Jake Stone lifted his duffel bag onto his shoulder, closed his door and started walking down the hall toward the lobby of the Starling Hotel. It was a rainy day in March and he didn't look forward to the long drive north to Dry Creek, Montanaespecially because once he got there his older brother would start pressing him even harder to move back to the ranch, settle down and get married.
Jake refused to marry some poor woman just to stop his brother from nagging him to death. The Stone boys had bad history when it came to family life, even if his brother chose to ignore it. As for moving back to Dry Creek, Jake had decided years ago that this nondescript hotel near the Las Vegas airport was home enough for him.
He entered the lobby and glanced over to where the owner of the place stood behind the counter.
"Well, don't you look fine?" Gray stubble showed on Max Holden's weathered face, but his eyes were lively as he looked up. "Going home to Dry Creek for your brother's wedding is doing you good already."
Jake stopped and ran a finger around the collar of his new white shirt so he could breathe easier.
"Got some stamps?" He finished walking over to the counter, dropped his duffel bag to the floor and reached into the back pocket of his jeans, pulling out an envelope and handing it to the other man.
Jake didn't like to talk about the wedding. His brother was wrong if he thought getting married would change who he was in the eyes of their small hometown. Not that Jake blamed anyone for how they felt about the Stone family. Everyone knew about the years of physical abuse out at their ranch. All of the family secrets had been laid bare when his father was murdered and his mother had gone to trial for doing the crime. People naturally had wondered if the sons were more like their father or their mother. Neither answer had been good back then.
Max took the long, white envelope from Jake and weighed it in his hand. "I figure two stamps should do it." Then he glanced down at the writing on the front. "I hope this Cathy Barker appreciates all the letters you send. Who is she, anyway?"
So much time had passed since Jake heard someone speak the woman's name that he hadn't expected the jolt that went through him. Max had never questioned the envelopes before.
Secrets had destroyed Jake's family as surely as his father's alcoholism. If his mother had confided in their neighbors, then they might have understood what was happening. And she might not have served a ten-year prison term before anyone realized she was innocent and had only confessed to protect her teenage sons from facing suspicion.
"We used to call her Cat," Jake began and forced himself to set forth the whole story. "I don't know how she feels or even if she gets the letters. I put my return address on every one, but she never writes back."
At that bit of information, Max's jaw dropped along with the envelope.
"You mean to tell me, all these years you've been stuffing those letters with cashand don't think I don't know what's in therethen asking me to mail them like they were your last will and testament. And you don't even know whether or not they're getting through to her."
Rain continued to pound against the windows as Jake tried to think of an answer that didn't make him seem like a half wit. Nothing came to mind. It sounded foolish to admit that it eased his worries to send her money.
"You're sure about sending this?" Max asked as he looked down at the envelope now resting on his counter. "What if you have another dry spell? You might not always be winning at the poker tables like you have been. And, there's a lot of money in there."
Jake glanced over his shoulder. The lobby was empty. But, through the main windows, he could see the figure of a woman walking down the street toward the motel, trying to hold a black umbrella open in front of her against the wind. As near as he could tell, it looked as if she was rolling a big suitcase behind her. He had only a few minutes before she got here.
Jake turned back to Max. He'd have to talk fast. "If I keep my expenses like they are now, I have enough money in the bank to last me a hundred and fifteen years. I don't plan on living nearly that long, and Cat might need something today. She's a friend from the youth homeyou know, the place where they sent me and my youngest brother when they shipped my mother off to prison and my older brother joined the rodeo circuit. No one there will ever give me Cat's address, but they always promise to forward the letters for me."
Jake had never strung so many words together in his life and he was starting to regret it.
Max cleared his throat and nodded. "I know how it is. There are guys from Vietnam I'd send my last dollar to if they needed it. You go through something like that with someone, you never forget them."
Jake nodded. Maybe it wasn't so bad to bare his soul after all.
Then the door clicked open behind him and the wind blew cold air inside, making the back of his neck shiver. He didn't turn to see who was there. The anxious frown on Max's face was enough to scare the woman away without him adding to it. Thinking of Cat always unnerved him.
"Mommy?" The voice of a young girl sounded uncertain behind him.
He'd been mistaken in thinking it was a suitcase beside the woman, Jake realized. He was usually more observant, but the rain on the windows had made it difficult to see. Still, he didn't turn around. He figured a woman with any sense would be shepherding her little one out of the Starling about now. One good look at the run-down hotel would be all it would take to give a mother with a young child second thoughts about staying there. The place had heart, but the color from the linoleum had faded away to nothing over the years. He should give Max some money to replace the linoleum with carpet. Jake had the money to give and Max had been good to him over the years.
"Can I help you?" Max finally asked as he looked past Jake. He must have expected the woman to be gone by now, too. "Our business is mostly by the month. There's a nice family motel around the corner and down a block, though. It's a little more expensive, but they've got a small pool. Ask for the spring special and they'll treat you right."
"I am looking for 3762 Morgan Street," the woman said. "I think it must be a house or an apartment. I didn't see any numbers outside your place and I wondered if you'd know how close I am."
Jake lost all feeling in his body before she got to the street name. He knew that voice as well as he knew his own.
"You got a package or something?" Max asked, suddenly cautious.
"I'm looking for a man. Jake Stone. He lives there."
Max gave a start and his bulging eyes went to Jake as if he was waiting for some signal as to what he should say to the woman.
Jake would have been happy to oblige, but something had happened in his brain and everything was going in slow motion. It sounded as though the woman's words were coming from a great distance. He needed to sit down, but he couldn't move. His boots kept him rooted to the place where he stood.
"My name's CatI mean, Cathy Barker. If you know where I could find the address, I'd appreciate it very much if you'd point me in the right direction. I had planned to take a taxi from the airport, but none of them had a child's safety seat so I just left our luggage in the claim section and we started to walk. They said it wasn't far when they told me how to find the street."
Max's face turned a little purple at her flow of words.
"You're " He started to sputter and then stopped. Finally, he pointed. "That's him. This is the address right here."
Everything was silent for a moment.
The hesitation in the woman's voice brought Jake to his senses. He didn't want to stand with his back to her like a fake statue, not when Cat might just be passing through and only wanted to say hello. He bluffed at the poker tables in one casino or another almost every night. He should be able to school his face into some semblance of normalcy and turn around and greet his old friend.
"Mommy, is that him?" the girl asked.
Jake felt his breath catch in his throat. He forced his lips to stretch into a smile as he turned around.
There she was. Cat. She hadn't changed a bit, he thought, as she stared up at him, her green eyes growing large and her delicate face turning pale. Her chin still jutted out as if she expected a fight, but her golden-brown hair had been blown around enough to show she didn't even have the strength to battle the wind on her own. And that was before the rain had plastered every strand of hair to the side of her head. He'd always protected her and he felt like doing it now.
"I.. " Cat started to say something, but stopped.
"Mommy?" The small voice grew more incessant and worried. Jake glanced down and saw that the girl had a plastic, gold tiara clamped onto her damp blond hair. She wasn't much taller than the stool behind Max's counter and her pink cheeks made her look like a cherub in some old European painting. She had gold glitter sticking on her shoes, too, in spite of the rain. Jake was going to say something to soothe her, but then she reached for her mother's hand.
He looked up in time to see Cat's eyes start to close. If he hadn't stepped over to catch her, she would have drifted all the way to the floor. As it was, she didn't weigh more than a feather when he lifted her in his arms. He wanted to ask when the last time was that she'd eaten a decent meal. He hadn't seen her for five years and she certainly hadn't gained an ounce in all that time. He wondered what she had spent all of the money he mailed her on. It certainly hadn't been food, not when she'd just fainted the way she had.
Jake caught the subtle scent of lilacs as he looked down. He'd presented Cat with a whole case of lilac soap for her eighteenth birthday.
"Mommy?" the girl said again, but this time the word had an edge to it, as though she was frightened.
Cat's little girl stared up at him, expecting something.
"It'll be all right," he assured her. "Your mother just needs to eat something."
He remembered Cat had fainted a time or two when she first came to the youth home. The nurse said it was because she hadn't eaten then, too.
The child nodded. Her curls were starting to bounce, but her blue eyes still watched him closely. It seemed she didn't quite trust him, even if she wasn't withdrawing from him. She reached up to steady her tiara, not saying anything.
He stepped past the girl and carried Cat over to the sofa. He laid her down on the vinyl sofa, arranging her head so it rested on one sofa arm while her feet curved up on the other one. The upholstery creaked softly as it adjusted to her being there.
Cat had run away from the youth home the day after he gave her the lilac soap, taking every one of the bars with her. She must be almost twenty-three now. She was only a few months younger than him.
He reached for her face, hoping to bring her back.
Her skin was wet and cold from being outside, but he felt his fingers tingle where they touched her. He took his Stetson off and set it on the back of the sofa. Then he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. It wasn't proper, but he couldn't help himself. This was Cat.
"Are you a prince?" Suddenly the girl was beside him. She sounded suspicious and she moved even closer, as though she wanted to be sure she could see everything he did.
Jake leaned back and looked over at her in surprise. "A what?"
He'd been called many things in his life, but never that.