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Shelby Hawkley knew what it was like to go from fulfilled and happy to broken and sad, knew how fast it could happen, knew how it came at you from your blind side.
It could happen in a blink. It could stop your breath. It could break your heart.
It being disaster. It changing her life forever.
Just moments ago, she'd been happy, secure in the knowledge that things were looking up. And then she'd blinked.
"If there's an earthquake now, there'll be trouble." Shelby stood in the middle of a narrow trail carved through her grandfather's living room, willing herself not to blink.
Thirty or so five-foot-tall stacks of books, journals, periodicals and magazines occupied the space. It looked like crowded Manhattan skyscrapers, minus the straight-gridded streets. Her grandfather had created twisted paths, one of which ended at the television, leaving just enough room for him to sit on the hearth and watch the news.
"Don't move and everything will be all right," her grandfather replied, nonplussed. Warren Wentworth sat cross-legged, all sharp, bony angles, his hair a dry white mop. He looked like he'd been lost on this trail for too long, and had missed too many dinners.
"Grandpa, we've got to move. Now.''" Before she bumped something and their surroundings tumbled upon them. There'd been a time when she thought she and her loved ones were impervious to disaster. That period was long past.
Her grandfather turned off the TV, unfurled his limbs and rose, wobbling slightly.
Shelby reached for him, careful to keep her elbows within the confines of the path, hy-peraware that she was prone to stumble if she didn't keep her attention firmly on the floor. "How did this happen? This this book maze."
He harrumphed. "Don't overreact, hotshot. This is my library. I'm exploring the stacks. Didn't you once tell me I wasn't very adventurous?"
"Grandma said that." Keeping her tone matter-of-fact, Shelby began backing toward safety, towing him gingerly along with her.
"It's called the adventure of life." Grandpa's breath smelled of coffee. He couldn't have been sitting on the hearth for long. "What fun would life be if it was a wide, straight road and you knew the ending?"
"What fun would it be if all this fell down on us?" His bones were old and fragile. "If this collapses I'm just saying I'm done with surprises and hospitals." Morgues and funeral homes.
"You're still grieving, love. I understand." He squeezed her hands. "I miss your grandmother terribly."
Grandma Ruby and Shelby's husband, Nick, had died within a week of one another nearly two years ago. Shelby and her grandfather had leaned on each other through those difficult first few weeks. As only children from a long line of only children, the pair didn't have a lot of family to rely on.
Shelby wasn't still grieving. She wasn't still lost. But she was cautious. She couldn't say the same about her grandfather. "Tell me the rest of the house isn't like this." She'd had lunch with him a few weeks ago, but hadn't come inside the place.
"Young lady, if it is, it's none of your business." He spoke in grandiose tones, as if he was a knighted explorer being led out of a newly discovered jungle instead of a retired veterinarian being led out of his living room in the small remote California town of Harmony Valley.
"I take that for a yes."
"That is a no."
Their footsteps were muted by the worn avacado shag. One more turn. One more twist.
"Where's Mushu?" Her grandmother's ancient cocker spaniel.
"That dog's been spending a lot of time in the backyard."
Shelby couldn't blame her. One misplaced wag of the tubby dog's tail and she'd be history. The house needed disaster-proofing.
Shelby navigated the fork toward the kitchen, refusing to dwell on how bony her grandfather's hands were. One disaster at a time. "And Gai-pan? Did you chase her outside, too?" The old Siamese was probably upset that she couldn't sit on the back of the couch and dream of pouncing on the birds in the front yard. The couch was littered with books, haphazardly stacked, ready to tumble.
"Gaipan doesn't like me. Never has," Grandpa said. "She stays outside mostly, except when she's hungry."
They reached the kitchen, which was blessedly stack-free and optimistically yellow, just as her grandmother had been. Goldenrod Formica. Daisy patterned linoleum. Canary-yellow walls. The September afternoon sun angled through the windows facing the backyard, making Shelby squint. Mushu lay on the grass in the shade of a peach tree, a black ball of curly fur. Beyond the fence, the Jameros' empty pastures rolled up toward Parish Hill. The Jameros had left town, like the majority of residents after the grain mill exploded and jobs disappeared, until the once quaint and charismatic town was quiet and quirky. Not exactly the thriving, supportive community of her youth, but a community she longed for nonetheless. And one that was growing again in dribs and drabs.
Shelby released her grandfather and sat on a walnut ladder-back chair. The room was clean and unclutteredthe collection of animal salt-and-pepper shakers lining the kitchen counter and grouped in the center of the kitchen table didn't count. They'd been there as long as she could remember.
"Do you ever hear from the Jameros?" She couldn't keep herself from adding, "Or from Dead Gage?"
"Don't call him that." Her grandfather gripped the chair next to hers. "He's not dead."
"He's dead to me." Had been since the day of Nick's funeral. He hadn't answered any of her calls or pokes on social media. She picked up the bumblebee saltshaker, wiping dust off the curves of its black and yellow body.
"If he was really dead to you, you wouldn't ask about him." Her grandfather traversed the kitchen as though he was aboard a ship deck, pitching and rolling with each step.
When had his equilibrium worsened? "Where's Grandma's cane?" Shelby stretched a hand toward him.
He tottered backward. "I don't need a cane."
"You don't need to fall." She extended a hand again, but he swatted her away.
"Give a man some room."
"I would, but look what you did with the living room," she said drily, giving up for now. "My question is, why?"
"I'm writing a paper on the non-invasive assessment of equine musculature recovery post-delivery." Since he'd retired, he'd written many papers. As titles went, this one was almost decipherable. Almost. After a moment, he obliged her questioning look. "How a mare's muscles regain their tone after delivering a foal."
"And you need all those books and magazines for that?" Shelby knew her expression was incredulous. It was the face Gage Jamero, her former best friend, used to take one look at and say, "Barnacles." He claimed her features twisted up as firmly as her resolve, and were just as reluctant to let go. Not that he'd ever given in to her. On the other hand, Nick used to recognize that expression, raise his hands in surrender, and say, "Babe."
Her grandfather wasn't looking at her. He'd turned in his chair to see through the archway back toward the living room. "No, no, no. The stacks by the piano were for the paper I did on canine word retention. The stacks by the fireplace were for the paper I did on bovine stimulus-response. The stacks"
"Hold up." Shelby raised a hand. "There are stacks in there from papers you've already written?"
"Submitted for publication?"
He shrugged. "Mostly."
"So we can get rid of those."
"No, no, no. What if someone challenges my findings? I may need to write a rebuttal or be asked to write a companion piece." He drew himself up in bony regalness. "I have a system. Don't touch a thing."
"You do remember I'm here to stay with you through harvest?" She'd landed a job as the cellar master at the local winery. Grape harvest at Harmony Valley Vineyards started soon. She'd be working ten hours or more a day from now until the holidays, managing the various containers and equipment where the grapes would ferment, plus making clean transfers as the wine moved from crusher to tank to barrel to bottle. Once this was under way, as well as launching construction of a wine cellar, she'd have time to find a place of her own. And she'd know if Harmony Valley would live up to its name and her memories of it being a close-knit town. "You do remember I'm not that graceful."
"Of course I remember." Grandpa tapped his temple with a thin, age-spotted finger. "I'm not senile."
"We need to find a place to put your inactive research, so I won't" and her grandfather wouldn't "come in late at night when my reflexes are shot, and knock everything down." Given how he walked, it was a miracle the stacks hadn't toppled already.
"I like my library where it is. You can come in the kitchen door." Her grandfather had a barnacle expression of his own, reminding her why his nickname was War.
Shelby realized she'd have to raise the stakes. "You know, Grandma Ruby wouldn't approve."
"Maybe not," he allowed. "But she'd understand. You'll come through the kitchen door."
"Accept my apology, Sugar Lips?" Gage Ja-mero was up to his elbows in trouble with his latest lady love.
Well, at least one elbow.
Sugar Lips's contraction built like a blood pressure cuff around Gage's right biceps. His face heated, his fingers numbed, his body felt as if it was wrapped in a too-tight ace bandage.
"Breathe easy, honey." Gage tried to follow his own advice. During his internship and residency, he'd gained quite a reputation as a horse whisperer when it came to peevish, pregnant horses. Since then, he'd soothed countless mares and saved many foals trapped in utero by breach positions, like this one was. But this foal, sired by a Kentucky Derby winner, was the equivalent of a million dollar baby.
On the floor of a hay-lined stall, sprawled on his back, his legs half across Sugar Lips's chestnut flanks, Gage sweated through the mare's next contraction. He hadn't been this nervous about his performance since he choked while asking his lab partner out in the twelfth grade. Saving this foal would make or break his fledgling career.
He'd graduated. He'd passed his licensing exam, both in California and Kentucky. He had a job offer in Lexington. All he was waiting for was his predecessor's retirement. Until then, he was working for lucrative per-delivery fees from the Thomason Equine Hospital, a facility in Davis which was also an open classroom to local university vet students. They received notification when a procedure or delivery was imminent at Thomason and were able to observe through specially installed viewing windows. Today they were witnessing Gage, one of their own a year ago, on the main stage. He'd never been requested to deliver such a valuable foal before. If he screwed this upand there were many ways to fail hereit would be a blow to his young career. He might even lose the job in Kentucky.
As if sensing what was at stake, the student onlookers and support staff in the hallway of the birthing center fell into a hushed silence, much like the gallery at a golf tournament before a pro-golfer shot for birdie and the win.
And just like that pro-golfer, Gage knew he had supporters and detractors. No one wanted anything bad to happen to the mare and her foal, but everyone was hungry for the spotlight he'd recently claimed.
The contraction faded and Gage regained use of his fingers, pressing them harder against the flat of the foal's forehead, pushing it farther back into the mare's uterus. He shifted more weight onto his shoulders and the mare's haunches. Extending his arm, he found the foal's front leg and eased it forward without snagging the umbilical cord until he had two delicate hooves in his grasp.
"Here we go, Sugar Lips," he crooned, much too aware that his back was at the mare's mercy should she kick.
The mare's wet flanks heaved as if this breath would be her last. She was young and this was her first pregnancy. She'd spent much of her prelabor huffing, glaring and kicking at Gage, blaming him for her condition. So far he'd been extremely lucky in avoiding injury, but luck only lasted so long when idiots were present.
"Dr. Jamero?" The question echoed through the birthing stall.