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The brisk December air smelled like snow. None was forecasted for the next few days, but when it started getting dark this time of year, the Montana temperature invariably dropped.
Jesse McAllister pulled up the collar of his leather bomber jacket, hunched his shoulders against the cold and finished fueling his truck. This week he was using Leo's gas station, which was situated at the edge of town. Next time he'd fill up at Earl's, Blackfoot Falls's only other station, five blocks north on the other end of Main Street. Jesse had gone to school with both men's sons so he was careful to spread the business.
The multicolored Christmas lights twisting around the flagpole and arching over the tiny town square blinked on just as Jesse climbed behind the wheel. He smiled when the giant elm tree lit up and knew that it was Miriam Lemmon who'd flipped the switch. Tomorrow evening it would be Mabel's turn. The elderly twins had been in charge of seasonal decorations since before Jesse was born.
The familiarity should have been comforting. But in the year and a half since he'd returned home, there'd been no solace. His family's fourth-generation ranch was struggling. It didn't matter that the poor economy was affecting everyone.
Hell, he'd crossed an ocean to fight for his country, learned how to fly everything from large planes to small helicopters, and yet there wasn't a damn thing he could do to pull the ranch out of the red.
He'd been eager to come home after his air-force duty, but since then it seemed he'd been nothing but dead weight. Sucking in oxygen yet contributing nothing.
Winter made everything worse. During the spring and summer months, with the calving and roundups and irrigation constantly going haywire, there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day. But since the final cut of hay, work was sparse and they had a bunkhouse full of hands who needed steady paychecks. Like Cole and Trace, Jesse still pitched in, made himself useful the best way he knew how. But his brothers, they belonged here, not him.
Not feeling like heading back to the Sundance just yet, he decided to cruise down Main Street to see if Noah was in his office. Even three blocks away, Jesse could see the sheriff's truck parked at the curb. That didn't necessarily mean anything. Noah could've walked home or over to Marge's diner for supper.
Jesse drove past the Cut and Curl, where his mother always got her hair done, past the hardware store, Ernie's barber shop and the fabric store. He slowed to a crawl when he got to the second residential side street and peered at the third house down. No lights on, so Noah wasn't home. The county provided the small two-bedroom house for him as part of the sheriff's compensation. But mostly he spent his free time out at the Sundance, just as he had when they were teenagers.
Noah had always been part of the family, and sometimes it was easier for Jesse to talk to him rather than Cole. Even though Jesse was only a year younger, his brother had been the one to fill their father's shoes when he'd died of cancer while Jesse was still in college. It was a McAllister traditionthe reins were handed to the oldest son as they should be.
Jesse drove past the Watering Hole, where the usual Friday-evening crowd hung out after they'd cashed their checks. Then he saw Noah through the open blinds of the sheriff's office. Roy, one of the deputies, was on his way out the door, so Jesse parked his truck at the curb.
By the time he went inside, Noah was standing at the window, looking out and frowning. "Where's your Jeep?"
"Traded it in." Jesse went straight to the half-filled coffeepot. The brew was dark, which meant Noah had made it. Reminded Jesse of some of the joe he'd stomached in Afghanistan. So strong you could use it for diesel. "This stuff fresh?"
Noah nodded. "Why did you do that? You loved that Jeep."
Jesse hunted in the upper oak cabinet for a clean mug, found one and sniffed it for good measure. "It wasn't practical."
"Yeah, because you guys don't have enough pickups at the Sundance."
Jesse shrugged. "I got a good deal on the Dodge," he said. "It's secondhand but has only forty-two thousand miles."
Noah eyed him thoughtfully, likely wondering what had brought on Jesse's change of heart. He'd wanted a Jeep since before he'd learned to drive. The first thing he'd done after returning from Afghanistan was find a dealership and drive the latest model off the lot. It wasn't until later, when he'd seen the disrepair of the ranch, that he'd realized what a selfish bastard he'd been.
But that probably wasn't the only thing Noah was wondering about. Jesse wasn't himself and everyone, including Noah, thought the war had changed him. Jesse knew the war had nothing to do with his restlessness.
Sure, he'd seen things no human being should have to witness. War was never pretty. And yeah, even though he'd been a tanker pilot and not one of the fighter jocks, he'd flown some damn hairy missions, but he hadn't experienced anything like the men with boots on the ground. As far as deployments went, he'd had it fairly easy.
No, his problem was pretty basic. After living in Montana most of his life, being completely sure that his duty and his destiny were bound up in the Sundance, he didn't belong here anymore. Ironic that it had about killed him to give the military all those years in exchange for teaching him how to fly. He'd even chosen a college close enough that he could come home most weekends. And now each day his sense of belonging seemed to fade even more.
"Weren't you supposed to fly to Billings to pick up a pair of pit bulls?" Noah finally said, while he topped up his coffee.
"The neighbor of the woman who runs the center there adopted them."
"That was lucky."
"Yeah, people are too biased against pit bulls. They're good dogs as long as they're raised right." Jesse sipped his coffee and stared idly out the window, suddenly feeling foolish that he'd stopped by. It wasn't as if he needed advice. He knew what he had to do. Volunteering for animal search-and-res-cue had taken the edge off his discontent but it wasn't helping his family.
"Sit down." Noah indicated the sorry black vinyl-and-chrome chair, then sat behind his desk. "What are you doing in town, anyway?"
"I had to pick up some fencing wire and fuel the truck."
"It's quiet around here without Sundance guests coming and going. Rachel take any reservations for January?"
Jesse sighed. The family had agreed they'd close the dude ranch for the holidays, but his sister was a pushover. "She's got a woman coming in next weekend."
"A week before Christmas?" Noah frowned over the rim of his mug. "I thought she'd shut down for the month of December."
"She's making an exception. The woman is volunteering over at Safe Haven and was desperate for a place to stay." Jesse shrugged. "You know Rachel. Couldn't say no. You still going to New York to see Alana?"
Noah grinned like a ten-year-old with a new puppy. "I leave next Thursday. My sisters are coming with their families to spend Christmas with the folks."
Jesse managed a smile. Not that he wasn't happy for his friend. It was the holidays he was dreading. He hadn't heard anything about the annual open house his mother usually hosted, but he knew it had to be on the calendar. Even if they did have to shell out a few bucks for the food and beer, no one would deny her the McAllister tradition.
"Which airport you flying out of?" Jesse asked.
"Billings. Anything closer was either booked or involved too many layovers."
"Need a ride?"
Noah's brows furrowed with curiosity. "I thought you'd be looking forward to spending the time with the family. This is what only the second holiday you've been home?"
"Jesus, it's just a ride."
Noah leaned back, a self-deprecating smile pulling at his mouth. "Thanks, I'm taking my truck." He took another sip, his probing eyes staying on Jesse. "How've you been, buddy?"
"You know.. " He shrugged. "Good. I've been doing a lot of flying for different shelters." Nothing new, and not what his friend was asking. Jesse let out a gushing breath. "I'm thinking about reenlisting."
Noah's mouth opened, and he quickly set down his mug. "You gotta be kidding. Shit," he said when he clearly realized that Jesse was dead serious. "What do Cole and the rest of the family say about it?"
"They don't know." Jesse looked him square in the eye. "This stays between you and me."
"Why reenlist?" Noah shook his head. "You hated being away from Montana."
"I'm no good here. At least with an officer's salary I can send home money, plus the bonus I'll get for committing to another ten years."
Noah frowned, looking so troubled Jesse was sorry as hell he'd opened his mouth. "You talked to someone from the air force about this already?"
"Just enough to know what's what."
"Big mistake, buddy. Especially if it's just about the money. You'll break your mother's heart."
Jesse stared into his cold coffee. "Yeah, well, I gotta do what's best for everyone."
Noah muttered a curse. "If you think tearing yourself away from the ranch and your family to make a buck is the right thing, you've got a hell of a lot more thinking to do."
Wasn't that the problem? The more thinking Jesse did, the more lost he felt.
Shea Monroe stared out the large plate-glass window of her San Jose office, the phone pressed to her ear as she listened to her mother complain about her new stepchildren. The older one had dared to move the silk poinsettia topiary an inch out of place. The other two well, their existence alone was enough to make her mom complain.
Age was supposed to mellow a person, or so Shea had heard. In her mother's case the new wrinkles, which had to be instantly treated with BOTOX, or the occasional sprout of gray hair only made her crankier. Oh, Shea loved her. Didn't mean she wanted to listen to her rant.
"Mom?" This was the third time Shea had tried to get a word in.
"If I'd been smart, I would've refused to decorate for Christmas. Let Richard have his office party at the Four Seasons. He's there half the time, anyway, entertaining one client or another"
A designer had done all the work. For that matter, a nanny watched Richard's children, and a housekeeper kept their minimansion spotless. Women as beautiful and clever as Le-ticia Kelly didn't
No, that wasn't right. Shea rubbed her temple. It wasn't Kelly anymore. Was it Griffin? Yeah, maybe Griffin. For having a high IQ, Shea sure had a lousy memory for names. But then, if her parents would stay off the marriage carousel, she might be able to hang on to a name for more than five minutes.
Finally, there was a tiny break in the monologue and Shea jumped in before she missed her chance. "I'm not coming for Christmas."
"What?" A brief pause, and then her mother said, "Don't think you're going to your father's house. You can't. That wasn't the deal."
"He had you for Thanksgiving. I get you for Christmas."
"Mom, I'm twenty-seven, not twelve. You two don't get to decide where I spend the holidays anymore."
"But you promised."
"Uh, no, actually, I didn't."
"My God, Shea, you can't abandon me to these people."
"You mean your family?" She smiled sadly. It would've been nice if her mother had said that Christmas wouldn't be the same without her, or even that she'd be missed. "Look, I'm not going to spend the holidays with Dad, either."
"Please don't tell me you're back together with that Brian idiot."
"No." She glanced toward her open door. It was after six.
Brian would have left already, along with the new love of his life, Serena from accounting. "You know better."
Or did she? Unlike Shea, her mother couldn't abide living alone. She'd been a nineteen-year-old cocktail waitress when she'd met Shea's father at the hotel where he'd been attending a conference. Within eleven months they'd married and had Shea. It took them ten years to divorce, which was a miracle. No two people were less suited for each other. Her father was a prominent theoretical physicist, and her mother well, while she wasn't necessarily bright, she was clever and a stunner with an eye for fashion. Had a knack for snagging rich men, too, considering her roots were crusty blue collar. The longest she'd been between husbands was about a year.
Shea had hated the between times. Moving from town to town, school to school and finally to boarding school. And getting used to new "fathers." She hated change of any kind, even if it meant staying in a relationship that had run its course. Give her a steady routine any dayshe liked having things she could count on. It had been Brian who'd left her. Nearly three years they'd been together, had shared an apartment for almost two of them. She supposed she should feel somethingsadness, regret, maybe even anger over the callous way he'd broken up with her a year ago. She felt nothing.
No, that wasn't entirely true, she thought, with a satisfied smile aimed at the prized view of the skyline outside her window. She was pretty pleased to have the corner office Brian coveted. Hardly a charitable thought, but too bad. She hadn't asked for the prime spot. In fact, it was a waste. Her gaze was usually glued to her computer monitor. Not that she minded. She liked the total focus necessary in her job as a computer software engineer for a high-tech corporation. Her boss had only given the office to her to emphasize her importance to the company. They were always giving her perks and bonuses.
That was part of the reason Brian had called it quits. She'd outpaced him and grown too successful. And her terrible social skills were also a factor. Being rushed through school had its price. She'd had only one friend and two dates by the time she graduated high school at fifteen. College had been more of the same.
But she was getting better. Every day. Though only when she paid attention and put herself out there, going to a movie or having a drink with a coworker instead of locking herself away with her computer and iPad. That's why it was important to put her foot down and not let her mother steamroll her into coming for Christmas.
"Are you still there?"
"What?" Hearing her mother's impatient sigh, Shea realized she'd zoned out. "I have to get back to work, but I wanted to let you know about Christmas."
"Wait a minute. Don't you dare hang up. Nothing is settled."
"Yes, it is. I've already booked a flight."
"What the hell's in Montana?"