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Cheryl Steele planted her hands on her hips. "Angie, in order to attend your wedding, I have endured the wrath of my director, risked losing the best role of my career and traveled miles out of my way. At this moment, I'm very close to regretting all that effort."
In the small dressing room at the back of an old stone church on the outskirts of Wichita, Kansas, Cheryl's sister ignored her ire. "You will go out to the ranch, won't you? For me?" Angie coaxed again. "It's practically on your way."
"It's fifty miles out of my way." Exasperated by her younger sibling's persistence, Cheryl tried changing the subject. "Your veil isn't straight. Let me fix it."
"My veil is fine. You didn't answer my question."
"Yes, I did. Two dozen times in the past two days. The answer is, no! Now, hush." Cheryl adjusted the veil then stepped back and gazed in poignant wonder at the vision in satin and lace before her.
"Well?" Angie demanded.
"You look...radiant...beautiful.... I don't think I can find the right words. Jeff is a lucky man. I hope he knows it."
A mischievous grin curved Angie's lips. "He does. I tell him every chance I get."
Cheryl chuckled. "I bet you do."
Angie's smile faded. "Please say you will go out to the ranch before you leave the state. For me. Consider it a wedding present."
Cheryl sighed. "You don't give up, do you?"
"Not when it's important."
"There's nothing important about a few acres of grass and some rundown buildings in the middle of nowhere."
"It was our home. Our family is there."
"No! It was never a home after Mom died!" Cheryl shouted, then realized she was overreacting. She drew a deep breath and tried for a calmer tone. "I'm sorry. That ranch was the place we were stuck at until Cousin Harriet took us away. She gave us a home, and you are all the family I have left."
Irritated by her sister's persistence, Cheryl turned away and busied herself with the satin ribbons of Angie's bouquet of fragrant yellow roses. "I don't know why you keep harping on the subject."
"Harriet wanted you to go back, Cheryl. It was the last thing she asked of you before she died."
"I know." Cheryl's anger drained away replaced with an aching sense of loss. She owed everything to Harriet Steele.
The day their mother's cousin had descended like a whirlwind to defy their grandmother and whisk both girls away from the ranch had been like something out of a fairytale. At first, Cheryl had been terrified their grandmother would come and take them back. But after a month in Philadelphia, Harriet had called Cheryl and Angie into her study and told them they were to live with her for as long as they liked. She had granted them an opportunity of a lifetime — a chance to live where no one knew them — where no one looked down on them — where no one hit them ever again.
And she gave Cheryl an even greater gift — the opportunity to study ballet. Harriet had passed away five years ago, a month before Cheryl debuted in her first major role, but Cheryl knew that every step she danced, every triumph she achieved in her career, she owed directly to that staunch, remarkable woman. Knowing that she had failed to honor the woman's last request left a bruised place in her heart.
Cheryl glanced at her sister's troubled face. This was Angie's wedding day. She should be happy today. She deserved that and much more.
"Why is it so important to you?"
"Because I see that you need closure, even if you won't admit it. You're still hiding. You're still afraid, and it isn't healthy."
"I'm not afraid." Somehow, her words didn't carry the conviction she had hoped for.
"Then you'll go?"
"Not even for me?"
With her sister's disappointment so painfully clear, Cheryl found herself wavering. "It's not like Doris would welcome me with open arms. Besides, if she didn't care enough to come to your wedding, why should I make an effort to see her?"
"Grandma Doris is stuck in the past. She can't...or won't...move on with her life. Seeing you, perhaps gaining your forgiveness, it could help. As for Jake —"
"Stop it!" Cheryl's anger came roaring back to life and she cut her sister off with a raised hand. "I don't want to hear another word about those people. Not one word!"
Angie caught Cheryl in an unexpected quick hug. "Oh, Cheryl, where we come from is part of what makes us who we are. Changing your name didn't change that."
"Now you sound like a psychologist."
Drawing back with a little laugh, Angie said, "That's because I'm studying to become one, remember?"
"I thought you were going to treat kids. I'm twenty-six years old, sis. Four years older than you."
Sadness settled over Angie's features. "You may be older, but in some ways you are still a hurting little girl. I would go back and change things if I could. So much of it was my fault."
Cheryl took her sister's face between her hands. "Don't ever say that. The blame belongs to Dad and Jake and Doris. They were the adults. You were a child."
"You were a child, too."
"I was old enough to know what I was doing. I don't regret anything."
"If that were true, you wouldn't have cut yourself off from Grandma Doris and Jake after Dad died. You can't let unresolved issues from the past ruin your life."
Cheryl looked at Angie in amazement. "Are you kidding? My life isn't ruined. I'm the lead ballerina in a fabulous dance company. What more could I want?"
"But are you happy?"
Was she? She was happy when she danced, but after the lights went down...when she went home to an empty apartment alone... Cheryl shook off the troubling thoughts. "Hey, I'm supposed to be asking you that question. You're the one getting married."
Angie's expression softened. "I'm very happy. God has blessed me in more ways than I can count. I give thanks to Him every day. He brought me a man of faith who is my true love."
Cheryl swallowed her bitter retort. Angie was entitled to her beliefs. As far as Cheryl was concerned, God, if there was one, hadn't bothered to intervene when He had been needed most. Cheryl didn't believe. Not anymore. It was another topic she decided to ignore.
Determined to sidetrack Angie's questions, Cheryl said, "I do wish you and Jeff could come see me dance. It's a wonderful production of Alice in Wonderland, and I love the role of Alice. Our performance tonight is a special one for disadvantaged children. That was one reason I really wanted the role. Most of the cities on our tour have at least one performance especially for children. You know I believe kids everywhere should have a chance to see how beautiful ballet is.
"I wish we could have worked it out, too. But that silly man of mine wants to take me to Hawaii for our honeymoon. Who am I to argue with a romantic like that?"
"All right. If I can't talk you out of marrying the fool, then let's get started so I can get on the road. The forecast is calling for snow. Snow in April! I'd almost forgotten how unpredictable the weather is out here. I'll never understand why you moved back."
"I came back because this is where my roots are. Yours are here, too."
"No, mine have been transplanted to New York, and they're thriving, thank you very much."
Angie studied Cheryl's face for a long second. "I wish I believed that."
"Enough with the analyzing."
"You can't keep avoiding the subject forever."
"I can, and I will. Drop it, Angela. I mean it. I don't have any family except you. That's the way it is."
"What if Jake asked to see you?"
"I'd say, "Jake who?"
"He's your brother."
Angie reached out and took hold of Cheryl's hand.
"Can't you consider forgiving him?"
"No. He got what he deserved and Eldorado Prison is not on my itinerary — so don't even ask."
Angie's shoulders slumped and she nodded in resignation. A knock sounded at the door and she went to open it. One of the ushers stood on the other side.
"Everything's ready," he said. "The guitarist wants to know if he should start playing or if you wanted to see him first."
Angie looked at Cheryl and sighed. She turned back to the usher. "Tell him to start playing, please."
Cheryl didn't understand the sorrow in her sister's voice. "What's the matter, honey?"
Angie held out her hand. "Why is it that the people I love are all so stubborn? Never mind. Let's go get me married."
Hours later, hunched over the steering wheel of her rental car, Cheryl peered through snowflakes the size of goose feathers as they filled the beams of her headlights. She was driving into a storm and into the middle of nowhere, and for what? Because she couldn't bear to remember the look of disappointment on her sister's face.
Tightening her grip on the wheel, Cheryl marveled at her own folly in leaving the turnpike for this deserted stretch of rural highway. She had a major performance later tonight. She should be resting in her hotel room by now. But when the exit sign for Highway 77 had appeared, she had taken it — almost against her will. That had been an hour ago — long enough to regret her decision a hundred times. Still, she had to be close now. She fought down the feeling of dread that rose with the thought. Seconds later, the gray shape of a rural mailbox loomed out of the snowy night.
She braked, feeling the car slide on the slick road as she turned into the barely discernable country lane and stopped.
At least the snow and the darkness hid the desolate landscape of the rolling Flint Hills from her sight. Only a dim gleam, from a porch light or perhaps a window, showed her where the old ranch house stood out on the prairie. She was home.
No sense of nostalgia filled her — only bitterness — a bitterness buried so deep she hadn't realized she still carried it until this moment. Staring at the flickering light in the distance, she suddenly understood why she had come.
She hadn't come because of Angie's pleadings. She had come to prove that nothing remained of the frightened girl who had left so many years ago.
"You can't hurt me anymore!" She wanted to shout those words in the old woman's face, but she didn't move. Her fingers grew ice-cold where she gripped the wheel as the old shame and fears crawled back to replace her bravado.
Coming here had been a mistake. She shifted the car into Reverse. She couldn't change the past. No one could. Cheryl Thatcher had effectively buried that past. Cheryl Steele didn't intend to resurrect it. Angie might believe in forgiveness, in healing old wounds, but Cheryl didn't. There was no forgiveness in this bleak land.
The tires whined as they spun in the snow, then suddenly they caught and the car lurched out of the lane and onto the pavement. Cheryl shifted into Drive, then stepped on the gas and didn't look back as she headed down the winding two-lane highway that would take her away. This time, forever.
Half an hour later, she raged at her own stupidity and bad luck. The snow came down faster and thicker with every mile. Her side trip had turned into a major mistake. A glance at the clock on her dash showed it was already half-past six. It would be close, but she could still make it. She had to. Her position was too important to risk by missing a performance. She would have to let Damon know she was running late. She dreaded placing the call. He wasn't an easy man to deal with at the best of times. Reaching down, she fumbled in her purse for her cell phone.