By Ryan, R.C.
Forever Copyright © 2012 Ryan, R.C.
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455502455
Get in.” The rusted old Ford truck rolled to a stop beside the back door of the Conway ranch house, and Big Jim Conway, patriarch of the family, pointed to the passenger side as he barked commands. His voice had the rasp of a rusty nail. “Quinn, help your little brother.”
Quinn, at ten the oldest of Big Jim’s three grandsons, grabbed hold of little Jake’s hand. “Come on.”
As always, five-year-old Jake jerked his hand free, resenting any hint that he couldn’t keep up with his two older brothers. “Don’t need any help.”
“Don’t sass, boyo, or you’ll answer to me.” As always, whenever his temper heated, the trace of Irish brogue in Big Jim’s voice deepened.
Jake climbed up beside his grandfather, followed by seven-year-old Josh. Quinn climbed in last and pulled the door shut.
Quinn, the practical one, reached around his brothers. “There aren’t enough seat belts.”
At the impatient command he stretched the seat belt as far as it would go. The truck was already speeding along the curving driveway of their ranch, leaving a trail of gravel in its wake.
“Where’re we going, Big Jim?” little Jake asked.
The three boys had never called their grandfather anything but Big Jim. No soft, cuddly nicknames like Gramps or Grandpa would suit this tough bear of an Irishman.
“We’re heading to town, boyo.” Big Jim couldn’t keep the frustration from creeping into his voice.
“Why?” Jake demanded.
“ ’Cause your pa needs some time alone.”
“He’s not alone.” The little boy’s tone was matter-of-fact. “The police chief is with him.”
Josh dug an elbow into Jake’s ribs to quiet him.
He turned on his brother. “Hey. That hurt.”
Big Jim shot a quelling look at his middle grandson, and Josh, always the rebel, hunched his shoulders in defiance. “Your pa and Chief Fletcher just need to talk.”
It had become a weekly ritual. Ever since their mother disappeared without a trace, Chief Everett Fletcher would stop by to fill in Cole and Big Jim on the latest details of the police investigation, which seemed to be going nowhere. No trail to follow. No witness to her disappearance. No strangers spotted in the vicinity. No rhyme or reason to the mystery. No solution. No closure. No end to the pain. Though they never spoke about it, Quinn could tell by their sad, mad faces that the news wasn’t good.
When he would leave, Big Jim would mutter and swear and take the boys away while Cole would go off to one of the barns and work off his frustration and grief in a frenzy of chores.
To discourage any further questions, Big Jim turned up the volume on the radio. They drove the rest of the way serenaded by Patsy Cline and Buck Owens until they reached the town of Paintbrush, more than an hour from their ranch. Along the main street they drove past Thibalt Baxter’s Paint and Hardware, the Odds N Ends shop with the slogan “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” painted across the top of the building, and came to a halt outside Flora’s Diner, announced in gaudy pink and purple letters.
Big Jim handed Quinn some money. “While I’m picking up supplies at Homer’s Grain and Seed, you three can have some lunch at Flora’s.”
The three boys vibrated with excitement as they climbed down from the truck and walked inside.
“Why, look who’s here.” Flora, white hair looking like the cotton balls their mother used to remove her makeup, her angular face creased with a warm smile, came out from behind the kitchen as soon as she caught sight of them walking up to the shiny stools at the counter. Ordinarily she left the waitress duties to her daughter, Dora, a younger, wider version. But Dora was busy with the other tables. Besides, these customers were special in Flora’s eyes. The whole town was buzzing about the mysterious disappearance of their mama, Seraphine. “What’ll you boys have?”
“Burgers and fries.” Quinn spoke for the three of them.
“How about some milk shakes to go with that? On me, of course.”
Three heads bobbed up and down and she hurried away. When she returned, she passed around plates and tall soda-fountain glasses with thick chocolate shakes.
Flora’s burgers were the big, greasy kind that oozed mustard and ketchup. She always added extra fries and made their milk shakes so thick they had to use spoons. The whole time she served their food, she kept making soothing little noises about the poor, motherless boys.
They didn’t much care for the words or the fact that she sounded like she was cooing at a couple of babies, but they figured it was a small price to pay for the special food they never got to taste back at the ranch.
When she finally walked away to wait on a table, her voice lowered to a raspy whisper so she wouldn’t be overheard by the three boys at the counter. Unfortunately, Quinn could hear every word.
“Them’s the Conway boys. Their daddy and granddaddy are legends in this part of Wyoming.”
There wasn’t anything Flora didn’t know about anybody within a couple hundred miles of Paintbrush. The only thing she liked better than cooking was sharing what she knew with anybody willing to listen. If anybody wanted the latest news, they didn’t have to wait for the weekly newspaper. They just dropped by Flora’s Diner.
Quinn saw some people turn to stare and was grateful that Josh and Jake didn’t notice. They were too busy slurping their milk shakes.
At one table was Thibalt Baxter, who owned the paint and hardware store. He was the skinniest man Quinn had ever seen. So skinny, he had to wear both a belt and suspenders to hold up his pants.
Across from him was Dr. April Walton, whose father had been a doctor when Big Jim first came to Wyoming. Dr. April always boasted that she had a granddaughter just about Quinn’s age. At another table was Reverend Cornell, pastor of the Paintbrush Church, sitting with Judge Kirby Bolton and Randall Morton, who ran the fairgrounds where the annual rodeo was held.
Flora was having herself a good time relaying all she knew about the boys to a couple of customers, who were obviously new to town. “Their grandfather, Big Jim, carved their ranch out of pure wilderness, with a hundred head of cattle he herded from Saskatchewan, Canada, clear across Montana to the plot of land he’d inherited from an unknown uncle on his mother’s side. That herd has grown into more than a hundred thousand head of some of the finest beef cattle in the world, and he’s continued to add to his land. Now his ranch is the biggest in the state.”
“You don’t say.” The young cowboy shot another glance at the three boys. “Lucky kids.”
“Ranching’s just the beginning,” Thibalt Baxter added. “Big Jim’s land is rich in coal and oil.”
Flora nodded, eager to take back control of the conversation. “Which he leases to oil companies and mining companies for a whole lot of money. I’ve heard they produce enough gas and oil to fuel the entire state.”
“Big Jim’s a generous man,” Reverend Cornell put in quickly. “There isn’t a man or woman in this town who hasn’t benefited from his generosity at one time or another.”
“Including me,” Flora insisted. “When I couldn’t keep up the payments on this place, Big Jim loaned me the money and told me to pay it back whenever I could. You don’t find ’em any better’n that.” Her voice lowered. “But Big Jim paid a high price for all that success. He lost the great love of his life, Clementine, at an early age. A pretty little thing. I knew her when we were girls. She gave him five sons, and not one survived past his first birthday. But then Colby, their sixth boy, was born, and he was the strongest, healthiest child you’d ever see. Big Jim figured his string of bad luck was broken, until that winter when Clementine was found dead in a snowdrift after one of the worst snowstorms trapped her between the barn and the house, while Big Jim was up in high country with the herd.”
The strangers, spellbound by all they were hearing, shook their heads.
“Now that’s tough,” the cowboy muttered. “That kind of thing would break most men.”
Flora was enjoying herself, relaying a tale that had become bigger than a legend in these parts. “Big Jim Conway isn’t most men. He did what he had to. With a ranch to run and a baby to tend, he strapped the baby to his back and took him everywhere. Even after Big Jim hired a full-blooded Arapaho woman named Ela to tend to the kitchen and household chores, he kept that boy with him. By the time Cole Conway, their daddy”—Flora nodded toward the three boys slurping their milk shakes—“was old enough to walk, he could handle the reins of a horse. By the age of eight he could drive a tractor loaded with feed for a stranded herd while his father tended far-off ranch chores. I’ve heard it said that Cole Conway can chart a trail by studying the stars, survive a blizzard with nothing but a few evergreen branches for cover, and can bag a deer or a rabbit for his dinner with a single toss of his knife.”
“Now you’re making him sound like some kind of superhero,” Thibalt Baxter protested.
Flora laughed like a girl as she turned to the others for confirmation. “I guess that’s how most of us around here see Cole Conway. I still remember him coming to town with his daddy. By the time he was sixteen or so, women of all ages found him irresistible. Of course, that can be both a blessing and a curse. I bet there isn’t a female in this town who hasn’t fallen under the spell of Cole Conway at one time or another.”
“Lucky guy.” The cowboy shook his head from side to side.
“Or cursed.” Flora lowered her voice as though revealing a state secret. “His wife Seraphine’s gone missing without a trace. The police and the private investigators that Cole and Big Jim hired have all come up empty.”
Across the room Quinn couldn’t hear what was being said, but the sudden silence in the diner had his food sticking in his throat like a boulder and he sensed the keen interest of the other diners.
Everyone, it seemed, had something to say about his family. Everyone except the people directly involved.
He and his brothers had learned to avoid all mention of their mother or risk their father’s stony silence or, worse, his embarrassing, unexpected, heart-wrenching grief. Given a choice, they would prefer silence to grief. It went completely against the grain to see their strong, stoic father crushed by the weight of his loss, his eyes red rimmed, his spirit broken for days and weeks at a time.
And so they had adopted a code of silence.
Quinn had a sudden itch to breathe fresh air.
“Come on.” He shoved away from the counter, and his younger brothers looked up in surprise.
“I’m not done,” Jake said.
“Bring it with you.”
The little boy shoved the last of his fries into his mouth and began sucking down the dregs of his shake before sliding off the stool to follow his brother.
Josh, determined to flaunt his independence, took his time, dipping his fries in ketchup and eating every last one before following the other two.
“Bye, now, you sweet things,” Flora called. “You be sure and bring your daddy and granddaddy with you next time you come calling.”
“Yes, ma’am.” As usual, Quinn spoke for all of them.
Once outside, Quinn spotted his grandfather’s truck at the end of the street. Without a word he started toward it, with the other two trailing slowly behind, stopping to peer in the windows of the Odds N Ends shop, the barbershop, and even the doctor’s office.
Quinn kept his head down. The last thing he needed was to run into any more busybodies wanting to cluck over the poor, motherless boys.
His mother’s absence had left a terrible hole in their family. A hole none of them knew how to fill.
The ride back to the ranch was even more subdued than the ride to town had been. Big Jim pulled up next to the barn and spotted Cole inside, mucking stalls like a man possessed.
“You boys might want to take the horses out for a while,” Big Jim said. “Give your daddy more time.”
Quinn didn’t need any coaxing.
As he saddled the big brown gelding, Quinn’s grandfather said, “You keep an eye on your brothers, you hear, boyo?”
A short time later, after Quinn and Josh helped Jake saddle the spotted mare, the three boys headed into the hills.
“I’m tired. Why are we riding way out here?” Jake’s high-pitched voice broke through the stillness.
Quinn reined in his mount and looked over his shoulder. “ ’Cause Pa’s not ready for company.”
“We’re not company.”
Quinn rolled his eyes and urged his horse into a run, with the others following.
Behind them, the rusted gate leading to their ranch was swinging back and forth, creaking and moaning in the wind. Burned into the wooden arch above it was the letter C for Conway, though Big Jim often joked that the ranch should really be called Devil’s Wasteland. That’s what he thought he’d entered when he’d first come upon this wild, primitive place.
Their horses moved single file along the sage-covered meadow. Though it was mid-May, here in the Wyoming wilderness there were still patches of snow beneath some of the bushes in the higher elevations.
“Come on, Jake. Keep up.” Quinn kept looking back at Jake, riding between him and Josh. Not that Jake needed tending. Despite his young age, their little brother was absolutely fearless. A fact that caused Quinn endless trouble.
As Quinn’s horse came up over a rise he caught a slight movement out of the corner of his eye. Curious, he slid from the saddle and led his horse toward a fallen log. Even before Quinn reached it, a tiny black and tan wolf pup gave a welcoming yip and bounded toward him.
Jake and Josh, following Quinn’s lead, dropped to their knees beside the pup. At once three more wolf pups emerged and began climbing playfully among the children.
“Oh, look. Aren’t they cute?” Jake was clearly enchanted by their antics.
“I wonder where their mama is?” Josh couldn’t resist picking up one of the pups, which began licking his face.
“Maybe she’s gone, like Ma.”
At Jake’s words Quinn felt the hair at the back of his neck rise. Eager to deny it, he shook his head and gathered a wriggling pup into his arms. “She’s probably off hunting food while these little guys are supposed to be sleeping.”
The three children were soon laughing out loud as the pups tumbled over one another vying for their attention.
Jake looked over at his big brother. “Maybe that’s where Ma went. To hunt some food for us.”
Quinn’s smile was wiped away at another sudden, wrenching reminder of their loss. Would it never end?
“Why?” Jake stared at him with all the innocence of a five-year-old.
“ ’Cause there’s enough beef in the freezer to feed us for years.”
“Maybe she wanted to ride into town and buy us something special.”
“Like what?” Josh picked up two yipping pups and tucked them inside his vest to warm them.
“I don’t know. Cookies, maybe. Or a birthday cake. Ma knew I was turning five.”
“You don’t know anything.” Josh’s voice trembled, and he tried to cover the quick flash of pain by burying his face in the pup’s fur.
“Do, too.” Jake stuck out his chin in an eerie imitation of their grandfather. “Ela says Ma was taken by evil spirits, but we’re not ’posed to say so in front of Pa, ’cause it makes him sad.”
“Why would evil spirits want to take away our ma?” Josh demanded.
The little boy gave an expressive shrug. “I don’t know.”
“There are no evil spirits.” Quinn’s eyes flashed.
“How would you know?” Jake challenged. “Ela says—”
“Come on.” With a snarl, Quinn deposited the pup on the ground and got to his feet, wiping his hands down his pant legs.
Whenever they started talking about their mother he got this terrible empty feeling inside, as though nothing in the world would ever be enough to fill the hole. Maybe this was how their dad felt when he went off to the barn and worked like a devil was after him.
“Time for us to head home.”
Despite their reluctance, the other two set down the pups they’d been petting and pulled themselves into their saddles. It never occurred to them to question Quinn’s authority.
As they turned away, Quinn pointed to a blur of shadow in the woods. “Just in time. There’s their ma now, heading home with their dinner. Let’s not spook her.” He wheeled his mount and the others did the same.
As they rode away they kept looking back, relieved that the mother wolf had returned to her pups.
For Quinn, it was a sign of hope. Maybe, by the time they got home, their own ma would be back, too.
Just as they topped a ridge they heard a single gunshot and the high, sharp cry of something wild, followed by a volley of gunshots that echoed and reechoed like thunder through the still air.
With the hairs at the back of his neck bristling, Quinn tugged on the reins, wheeling his mount, and the other two followed, urging their horses into a run as they raced back to the wolf den.
A neighboring rancher, Porter Stanford, was standing over the bodies of the female and her pups sprawled around her.
It was a grisly scene, the ground already stained with blood, the bodies twisted and still where only moments earlier they’d been filled with life.
The children stared in stunned silence as Porter spit a wad of tobacco. “Lucky I got here when I did. I just saved my herd and yours from these filthy predators.”
“But they didn’t—” At Jake’s protest Quinn reached over and covered his mouth, stifling anything more.
He saw the flash of fury in their neighbor’s eyes as he looked up at them, still seated on their horses.
“You got anything to say?” he demanded of Quinn.
“Good. Glad your daddy taught you to respect your elders.” He looked back at the wolves. “Murdering bastards got no right to live.”
With a muttered oath the man swung away and pulled himself heavily into the saddle. He dug in his heels and his horse took off with a flurry of hooves.
Without a word Quinn slid from the saddle and bent to cradle one of the dead pups. Despite its eerie stillness, the tiny body was still warm.
He knelt and set it gently inside the den.
Seeing what he intended, Jake and Josh did the same, placing the pups side by side in the hollowed-out earth.
It took all three of the children, sighing and straining, to lift the female’s body, which they placed on top of her pups. By the time they were finished, their clothes were stained with blood and dirt.
“Should we say a prayer?” Jake asked.
Though his brothers looked uncomfortable, they nodded, and Quinn murmured the words from one of the familiar nighttime prayers their mother had always insisted on, while the other two echoed his words.
They remained there for long, silent moments, bound together by their shared pain.
As they mounted their horses and started away, Quinn could no longer hold back his tears. Of rage. Of frustration. Of a deep, unexplained pain at the loss of beautiful creatures that had been so alive, so vibrant, just a short time ago. They didn’t deserve this cruel fate. They deserved to live, to grow, to play, and to howl at the moon. To mate, and have pups of their own.
Instead, their lives had been cut short by the whims of one man.
This cruel act was so final. So wrong and unfair.
As wrong and unfair as the twist of fate that had stolen a mother from the family that needed her.
As Quinn worked frantically to stem his tears, his fingers left filthy streaks of mud and dirt on his cheeks, like the war paint Ela had described to them when telling them about her Arapaho heritage.
The sight of Quinn’s tears had Jake nudging his mount closer to Josh for comfort.
Despite all that their family had been through, these two had never seen their older brother cry. Not even when they’d learned of their mother’s mysterious, unexplained disappearance.
The sight of their brave brother, his heart broken and raging against the injustice they’d been forced to witness, was an image they would carry with them for a lifetime.
And for Quinn Conway this mother wolf and her pups seemed connected in some strange way to his own mother, and to her sudden, wrenching loss.
This single incident was the germ of a passion, a wild longing in his heart that would forever set his feet on the path to his future.
Grand Tetons—Present Day
In the predawn darkness storm clouds hovered, threatening more snow. A ribbon of pale pink rimmed the horizon.
Red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning.
The childhood rhyme played through Quinn Conway’s mind as he stretched his long, lanky frame and slipped from his bedroll. As if to prove the wisdom of the words, the first fat snowflakes began dusting his hair, tickling his face. It may be springtime in Wyoming, but here in high country drifts were still waist deep.
For Quinn, the weather wasn’t even a distraction. He kept his attention focused on the wolf pack as they began emerging from their den. He could tell, by their happy yips and yaps, that they were content to be back on their home turf, after days of hunting and travel. These wild creatures could typically travel forty or more miles in a twenty-four-hour period while hunting food. And when he was tracking them, he traveled the same route, keeping them always in his sight and grabbing his sleep whenever they did.
This was his pack. The one he’d been studying for more than five years. When the young male had been little more than a pup and Quinn an eager graduate student, he had implanted a tracking device under the animal’s skin that allowed him to monitor every movement. When the wolf matured and became an alpha male with his own pack, he’d become the perfect subject for a scientific study. The publication of Quinn’s papers chronicling the behavior of the pack had made him one of the preeminent naturalists in the country. His advice was often sought by scientists and ranchers in search of the latest up-to-the-minute information regarding wolves in the wild.
Now, with his latest wilderness trek behind him, Quinn gathered his notes, securing them inside his backpack along with his bedroll. He ran a hand through the growth of beard that darkened his face. With any luck he would be home in time to help with some of the ranch chores before breakfast. Afterward, he intended to take a long, hot bath before tackling this beard.
The thought of a hot meal and a steaming tub had him moving out at a fast pace.
The sun had been up for nearly an hour when Quinn paused at the top of the hill to gaze down at the ranch that was home to three generations of Conways. It was a sight that always stirred his blood. The house and outbuildings of weathered wood and stone looked as though they had been here as long as the mountains. The hills and valleys dotted with lowing cattle. The horses in the corral, tossing their heads and occasionally running full out, as though daring the others to race them.
A smile of contentment creased his face as he approached the horse barn and saw the big door standing open. A sure sign that his father was already hard at work mucking stalls.
Quinn stepped inside and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
When there was no reply, he turned toward the stall of his father’s favorite gelding, Scout.
The horse was standing very still, head down, as though watching something in the corner of his stall.
Quinn paused to run a hand along the gelding’s muzzle. “Hey, big fellow…”
It took a moment for the dark form slumped in the corner of the stall to register in Quinn’s brain. In that first second, as he took in the familiar parka, the solid, sturdy figure of his beloved father, Quinn’s mind rejected the truth, even while the natural instinct for survival kicked into high gear.
“Pa.” He was down on his knees in an instant, his hand at his father’s throat.
Eyes fierce, he studied the sickly pale flesh, so cold to the touch.
At last, finding a faint pulse, he sucked in a breath and reached for his cell phone.
For now, for this one moment, it was all that mattered. It meant that they still had a fighting chance.
At the voice on the other end he said tersely, “Quinn Conway. I need a medevac at the Conway ranch right away.”
He listened, then replied, “Not a ranch accident. He’s on the ground. Weak pulse. No response. Possible heart attack.”
He rang off, before dialing the number up at the house.
He heard the voice of old Ela, who had been with the family for as long as Quinn could recall. “Ela. I’m out in the barn. I need Big Jim.”
He listened, then swore under his breath when he learned that his grandfather was in high country with the wranglers. “Have Phoebe come out to the barn right away.”
Phoebe Hogan had been twenty-three when her cowboy husband had died in a flaming truck accident, leaving her the impossible task of running their hardscrabble ranch alone. She’d been hired as a temporary housekeeper and surrogate mother shortly after Seraphine went missing and stayed on, easing three boys through the loss of their mother, helping them navigate the minefield of awkward teen years. As the months had turned into years, Phoebe had sold her own ranch and remained with the Conways, serving the family with absolute devotion.
Minutes later she stepped into the barn, holding the lapels of the oversize parka she’d grabbed from a hook in the mudroom.
“Welcome home, Quinn. What do you need?”
As she spoke, she stepped closer and gasped at the sight of Cole lying deathly still in the hay, wrapped in Quinn’s parka for warmth.
Her hand flew to her mouth as she knelt beside Cole. She looked up at Quinn. “What…?” It was all she could manage.
“I found him in Scout’s stall. I’ve already phoned for a medevac. I need you to contact Big Jim and my brothers. As soon as I get word from the doctors in Jackson Hole, I’ll call.” Quinn’s tone was gruff. “I’ll leave it to you to tell Ela.”
“I’ll take care of it. You take care of him.” She nodded toward Cole and took hold of his hands, squeezing gently before getting to her feet.
Quinn was grateful for her quiet acceptance. Some women might have wept or asked a dozen questions, none of which he could answer. Phoebe, though she was as stunned by all this as he was, could be counted on to hold things together and do whatever necessary until this thing was resolved.
This thing. The very thought of what might have taken his father down had Quinn’s nerves quivering.
When the helicopter arrived to ferry Cole Conway to the hospital, Quinn helped the medics lift his father onto the gurney and remained by his side throughout the long flight.
As he sat beside the eerily still figure of his father, grasping his cold hand in both of his, Quinn was reminded once again of the incredible strength Cole Conway had found while drowning in despair. The strength to continue working the land, raising his boys, while grieving the loss of the only woman he’d ever loved. And now, Quinn could feel that strength slowly ebbing.
Quinn leaned close to whisper, “Stay with me, Pa.”
Had there been a flicker of movement behind those closed lids?
Quinn pressed his mouth to Cole’s ear. “We need you, Pa. I need you to stay strong.”
Cole’s fingers flexed, moved, and Quinn gave a long, deep sigh as the helicopter began its descent. “Hang on, Pa. We’re almost there.”
As he moved along beside the medics rushing his father into the emergency room of the hospital, Quinn was stopped at the door by a young woman who hurried from behind her nurse’s station.
“You can’t go in there. Only medical personnel go beyond these…”
Her words trailed off. Maybe it was the size of the man, who stood easily six and a half feet tall. More imposing than his size, however, was his appearance. Even in this remote part of the country, it wasn’t often that she saw a man who resembled a grizzly. Thick, dark hair curled over the collar of a frayed wool shirt. His eyes, narrowed on her with fierce determination, were so gray and piercing, they reminded her of a feral animal.
Quinn brushed past her as though she were invisible. Once inside, as a team of doctors and nurses began working over his father, Quinn thought about the dark cloud that seemed to cast its pall over his family and this land, and braced himself for whatever was to come.
He’d never had a chance to say good-bye to his mother. Fate couldn’t be cruel enough to hand him a repeat of that heartbreak. Not that he had any illusions about life being fair. He was a man who believed in charting his own course in life while playing the cards dealt him.
Still, he wasn’t about to leave his father’s side until Cole was able to walk out of this place under his own steam.
“Good job, as always, Josh.” Henry Townsend, a burly medic with AMT, Air Medical Transport, shook Josh Conway’s hand before slogging through waist-deep snow to the waiting helicopter.
Within minutes the blades of the copter were spraying blinding snow with all the force of a blizzard as the vehicle lifted high above the mountain.
Josh Conway shaded the sun from his eyes and watched until the helicopter dipped out of sight.
He was bone tired. He’d spent the past forty hours crawling around snow-covered Gannett Peak in the Wind River Mountain Range searching for a lost climber. He’d found the man, a member of a six-man team who had been climbing the summit and had been separated from his friends, wedged between two high, sheer cliffs.
It had taken another six hours for a helicopter crew to arrive and cut the man free of his icy prison.
Now, with the noise of the copter fading in the distance, Josh wanted nothing more than to return to his family ranch, take a long, hot shower, and fall into a real bed.
Not that he minded the work. Though he was a rancher, he was also one of a select few climbers who knew these mountains well enough to be trusted to traverse them in any weather. When the usual rescue crews failed, they turned to Josh to do the impossible. He rarely failed in his mission.
Tall, athletic, and, best of all, fearless, he was perfectly suited to pit his skills against the fickle mountains that had been his playground for his entire life. Because of his success rate in persevering when others gave up, Josh Conway had become something of a legend in this part of the country.
By the time he reached his vehicle parked at a base in the foothills, his stomach was grumbling, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten a thing since the previous night.
He climbed inside his truck and tipped up a bottle of water. He’d left his phone here, knowing the storm on the mountains rendered service useless. As he began scrolling through the missed calls on his phone, there was only one message he bothered to play.
When he heard Big Jim’s voice, he rewound and played it again.
“Boyo, I know you’re somewhere in the mountains, but as soon as you get this message, hurry to the hospital in Jackson Hole. That’s where they’ve airlifted your father.”
That’s where they’ve airlifted your father.
Those words, and the tone in which they were spoken, had his blood freezing in his veins.
Cole Conway had never, as far as Josh could recall, been to the hospital.
Josh put his truck in gear and headed toward the town hundreds of miles from here. With every mile he found himself praying that he would get there in time.
In time for what? He refused to allow himself to think about the possibilities. For now, he would drive like the devil was chasing him. In truth, it was a devil. A devil in the form of an icy band of fear that was tightening around his heart with every mile.
Jake Conway stepped out of Lambert Hall, where he’d just spent the past two hours in an intense study session led by Dr. Chason, preparing for the grueling exams that would begin in another week.
He glanced up at the fragrant pink buds of the apple trees that lined the walkway. After his years here at Michigan State, studying veterinary medicine, he was constantly amazed by how quickly springtime arrived in the Midwest. Back home there would still be snow on much of the ground.
He waved to friends as he made his way across the campus. Even to the casual observer, he never gave the appearance of being just another college student. Maybe it was the lean, rugged, rancher’s body encased in well-worn jeans. Or the ever-present cowboy boots. Or the wide-brimmed Western hat worn as comfortably as his friends wore their baseball caps.
To his professors, he’d proven himself to be a natural in his chosen field of study. As a working rancher, he was comfortable with the life-and-death cycle of animals large and small. The pain and mess associated with birth, which often distracted first-year students, had been second nature to Jake Conway. As for administering antibiotics to bawling heifers, he’d been doing that since he was ten.
Now that he was free of the study session, he reached into his shirt pocket and turned on his phone. Dr. Chason had threatened murder and mayhem to anyone whose phone dared to interrupt a single word of his lecture.
Jake smiled as the numbers began to scroll and was about to return the call from his roommate when he spotted the call from home.
He was crossing the street, but as the message began he stopped dead in his tracks.
Pa. In the hospital.
The sound of a horn, followed by the screech of brakes, had him looking up in confusion.
He hastily retreated to the sidewalk, then played the message a second time.
His frantic call home was answered by a machine. That had him dashing back to his apartment in a fog. It took hours to book a flight to Wyoming, drive to the airport, and then wait. And worry. And pray.
Quinn had been awake for more than twenty hours, refusing food or the offer of a room in a nearby inn. Instead he remained at his father’s bedside while monitors buzzed and beeped, doctors poked and probed, and nurses silently entered to check vital signs before slipping away to write their reports.
When Cole Conway finally opened his eyes, the first person he saw was his oldest son.
“Where the hell am I?”
“Hospital. In Jackson Hole.”
“How’d I get here?”
“Medevac. I came home from the hills and found you slumped over in Scout’s stall.”
Cole let that sink in a moment before saying, “I don’t remember. But it sounds serious. I hope I don’t look as bad as you.”
That had Quinn smiling. “You look good, Pa.”
“And you look like hell. What’s that damnable noise?”
“A heart monitor.”
“Yours? Or mine?”
Quinn laughed out loud. Oh, it felt so good to be able to laugh. “Yours. The doctors tell me you had a heart attack.”
“Liars. The whole pack of ’em.”
“That’s what I told them. I said you were just lying in Scout’s stall taking a catnap.”
The two men shared a quick grin.
Cole closed his eyes and took in a long, deep breath. “Think I’ll take another quick nap.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be here when you wake up, Pa.” Quinn took his father’s hand and watched the steady rise and fall of his chest, willing him to continue to breathe.
It was Quinn’s last coherent thought before he tilted his head back in the chair and slept.
Quinn awoke to his brothers, Josh and Jake, standing on either side of a hospital bed. The minute he lifted his head they hurried over.
His arm was punched fiercely by Jake. His shoulder slapped by Josh with enough strength to stagger most men.
He looked beyond them. “Where’s Big Jim?”
“At the airport.” Josh grinned. “He was here and talked to the doctors. Now he’s going over our plane with the mechanic, so he can fly Pa home whenever the doc releases him.”
Jake nodded toward their father. “What’s the verdict?” His voice was little more than a whisper.
“The patient will live,” came the gravelly voice from the bed.
Seeing that their father was awake and alert, they hurried over to grasp his hand.
Cole Conway managed a weak smile. “What took you so long?”
“Sorry, Pa.” Josh shot his father a grin. “I was up in high country. Took me some time to make my way down. At least, once I got within range, I was able to learn why you were here. What’d the doctor say?”
“You can ask him yourself.” Cole nodded toward the doorway and his three sons turned as the white-coated physician strode across the room.
“Dr. Whittacre, you met Quinn, but you haven’t yet met my other two sons. Josh and Jake.”
The three exchanged handshakes.
“Dr. Whittacre’s the finest cardio surgeon in Wyoming.” Cole’s eyes twinkled. “Or so everyone on this floor tells me.”
“From your lips.” The young surgeon, with soft hands and an engaging smile, moved to the foot of the bed. “The test results are in. You suffered a mild myocardial infarction. In layman’s terms, a heart attack, which always results in some damage. But since you were lucky to get in as quickly as you did, the damage seems minimal.”
“Great. When can I leave?” Cole was already swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
“Hold on.” The young doctor moved quickly to lay a hand on Cole’s arm, restraining him. “You’ll be released. But not until you meet with my associate, Dr. Bradley, who will give you a list of things you’ll need to do going forward.”
“Do? Hell, just tell me when I can get back on a horse, drive my tractor, and when I can fly my plane again.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that, Mr. Conway. There’s diet, and exercise, and—”
Cole swore and glanced at his sons. “See why I avoid doctors and hospitals?” He looked over at the doctor. “I have a ranch to run. A herd to see to. Ranch hands depending on me to pay them. Several international companies that depend upon my land to remain in business. And some young intern fresh out of medical school is going to talk to me about what I should eat and how many push-ups I need to do every day? I don’t have time for this.”
“I’m sure you don’t.” Dr. Whittacre kept his easy smile in place. “But if you don’t follow orders, Mr. Conway, you may find yourself with all the time in the world. You could find yourself sitting in an easy chair, drooling into your bib, and trying to tell your family what you want, which won’t be easy after you’ve suffered a major stroke.”
Cole fell back against the pillows as though he’d been slapped.
Jake’s protective instinct kicked in and he draped an arm around his father’s shoulders before giving the doctor a steely look. “That’s some bedside manner, Doctor. Do you really think that was necessary?”
“Sometimes my patients just don’t understand the gravity of what they’ve come through.” He spoke directly to Cole. “You were lucky, Mr. Conway. This time. But your heart can’t be pushed like a string of horses on a roundup. If it wears out, you can’t saddle up a spare. So you need to take better care of the one you have, from this day on. After you’ve spoken with Dr. Bradley, who, by the way, has been out of med school for a number of years and is a much-respected professional, I’ll have your discharge papers ready. And I’ll want you to set up an appointment to see Dr. April Walton in Paintbrush in four weeks. By then I’ll have all your data sent to her, and we’ll come up with a plan that you can live with. Can I count on you to follow through on this?”
“You’ve got my word on it,” Cole said gruffly.
The doctor shook hands with Josh and Quinn and reached across the bed to shake Jake’s hand before walking away.
Before Jake could finish, Quinn grinned at his father. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you cave in so easily.”
Their father shrugged. “Gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. I figure he’s holding all the aces on this one.”
The four men tossed back their heads and laughed.
Jake gave a shake of his head. “I guess some things never change. While Rome is burning, the Conway men make jokes to cover the seriousness of the situation.”
“It’s better than crying.” Cole turned from his angry youngest to study his firstborn. “You look rough. Have you slept at all?”
Quinn realized that his father was eager to change the subject. Cole had never been one to bare his soul, and knowing his father so well, Quinn figured the old man was more embarrassed at having been felled by a heart condition than worried about the consequences of it.
Quinn chuckled. “There’ll be time enough for sleep later. Right now, all that matters is that you’re going home.”
Something flared in Cole’s eyes and he blinked quickly before looking away. “Okay. Why don’t you three go find something to eat while I wait for Dr. Bradley? When I’m through with him, I’d like to get out of here.”
Jake clapped a hand on his father’s shoulder. “It can’t be too soon for me.”
Quinn turned away and the other two followed, eager to learn whatever knowledge he’d gleaned that would fill in the gaps of their limited information about their father’s shocking medical crisis.
As soon as the room emptied, Cole Conway gave a long, deep sigh.
Until this moment, he hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed having his three sons around him.
This event—he refused to allow himself to even think the words heart attack—had left him stunned and reeling.
What if Quinn hadn’t come home when he did? How long could he have survived alone?
His last clear memory before waking in the hospital was working out in the main barn, mucking out the stall of his favorite gelding, Scout. Cole had been doing the same down-and-dirty chores since he’d been a kid, and the last thing he’d expected was to be flattened by hard work.
Or had this event been caused by something else?
Stress? The doctors kept mentioning that word, but wasn’t the life of every rancher filled with stress?
While mucking the stall he’d been thinking about his sons. About how proud he was of them. Not only were they able to pursue their own distinct interests, but they did so while managing to pitch in and help keep the ranch running smoothly.
Take Quinn. He’d carved out an amazing career as a wildlife expert, yet he was always around when he was most needed. Despite his frequent treks in the wilderness chasing after his pack, he always returned renewed and energized.
And there was Josh, back from climbing somewhere in the Wind River Mountain Range, searching for another careless climber who’d gotten himself lost. It was always Josh those rangers called when they ran out of hope. As though he had nothing better to do than leave a dozen ranch chores unfinished while he traipsed off in search of the lost. Cole felt a thrill of pride at the knowledge that his middle son was as comfortable hiking in the treacherous snow-covered mountains as a city kid would be walking to a neighborhood park. He supposed, to Josh, it was like a walk in the park. His neighborhood. His childhood home. His comfort zone. Spread over thousands of acres of the most desolate mountains in the West.
Cole sighed. And then there was Jake. Pursuing veterinary medicine. Cole shook his head in amazement. Who would have believed that the wild, fearless boy would suddenly settle down and decide that what their ranch needed most was a veterinarian? What was even more amazing to Cole was the fact that his youngest son had aced every test and had gotten himself into one of the toughest veterinary programs in the country.
Thinking of Jake always had Cole thinking of Jake’s mother. He had been so young when Seraphine had disappeared. Did the lad have any memory of her at all? Of her laughing eyes? Her fabulous hair, which she’d dyed every color imaginable. Black. Red. Platinum. As though she couldn’t decide who she wanted to be—earth mother or seductress. Not that it ever mattered to Cole. He’d loved her no matter what part she was playing. He’d loved everything about her. That fine porcelain complexion. Those green eyes, all fire and ice. That lithe dancer’s body. He swore under his breath. And that hardheaded attitude that Cole found both endearing and infuriating.
Cole suddenly frowned. He remembered something else that had flashed through his mind just before the incident. He’d been worried about the fact that sometimes he couldn’t remember Seraphine as clearly as in years gone by.
Was she slipping away from him? Was he letting her slip away?
Drained by too many memories and lulled by the steady drip of the intravenous in his arm, Cole slept and dreamed of home.
“That beef stew hit the spot.” Cole, seated at the head of the table, mopped up the last of the gravy with a biscuit and sat back, glancing around at the others.
Though he appeared as rugged and rock steady as ever, with that rogue smile and handsome, Irish countenance, there was a weariness in his eyes that he couldn’t hide.
Big Jim, an older mirror of his son, except for the white in his full head of hair, was seated at the opposite end of the table. Both father and son were lean and muscled, eyes crinkled at the corners as much by laughter as by the effects of a lifetime squinting into wind and sun.
Big Jim drained his mug of coffee and nodded. “I bet you didn’t get food like this at the hospital.”
Cole shared a smile with his father. “I have to say, it wasn’t half-bad. But then, all I remember having is some broth and some mashed potatoes.”
“Saving your appetite for the homecoming, were you?”
The two men laughed. Around the table, the others joined in.
As they had been for years, Quinn and Josh were seated to the left of Big Jim, with Jake and Phoebe and Ela on his right.
Phoebe wasn’t exactly seated. During the meal she’d been up and down half a dozen times, fetching a forgotten pitcher of water, then a batch of biscuits from the counter, and later the freshly baked apple pies that had been cooling in the kitchen. There had also been refills of coffee, a tray of mugs, along with cream and sugar, and, finally, extra plates for the dessert.
All of these would have ordinarily been handled by old Ela, who, it was whispered, had been old when Big Jim hired her to cook and clean for him and his infant son more than fifty years ago. No one was sure of her age, but she was still going strong. She was barely five feet tall and nearly as round. Her constant attire was a shapeless native dress of doeskin and, over that, a crisp white apron. Her gray hair was braided and pinned up like a crown around a face so deeply lined it resembled aged parchment.
“Where’s your mind today, woman?” Big Jim studied her as Phoebe was forced to retrieve yet another forgotten part of their meal, Cole’s favorite tall glass of foaming milk with his dessert.
Ela pretended not to hear while Phoebe’s cheeks turned pink. “We’re both just a little distracted. But we’re so glad to see our patient home where he belongs.”
“Amen to that.” Cole studied the stingy slice of pie she passed him. “What’s this?”
“The dietitian’s list warned about excess sugar.”
Cole’s lips thinned. But before he could explode, Jake intervened. “Remember, Pa, the doctor also said that you have to be your own advocate. Don’t put this on Phoebe’s shoulders, or on Ela’s. You know what’s good for you, and it’s up to you to do the right thing.”
Cole glowered at his youngest. “I don’t need you to tell me—”
“That’s right. You don’t.” Jake turned to Phoebe. “Just so you know, it’s not your responsibility to be Pa’s nursemaid. He doesn’t need to be coddled right now. What he needs is to step up to his responsibilities and do the right thing.”
Phoebe couldn’t hide the impish grin that tugged at the corners of her lips. “Thanks, Dr. Jake. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Quinn and Josh shared a smile before Quinn decided to change the subject. It was obvious that their father was getting close to his boiling point.
Quinn turned to his grandfather. “Josh tells me one of the herds is snowbound up in the hills.”
Big Jim nodded. “They may be there until spring thaw. I’ll be heading back up there at first light with a truck full of feed.”
Quinn glanced out the window, where snow fell like a thick, hazy curtain. “That’s a mountain of feed to disperse. Do you have wranglers to lend a hand?”
“I do, boyo.” Big Jim smiled. “And don’t think about volunteering. You look like you need about a week of sleep to catch up.”
Quinn touched a hand to his freshly shaved face. “At least I don’t look like a grizzly.”
“Or smell like one,” Jake added.
Around the table, everyone joined in the laughter.
Cole looked over at his oldest son. “You thinking about leaving again soon?”
Quinn shot a glance at his brothers. The three of them had come up with a strategy of sorts. They would try to see that one of them was always around to handle the toughest chores without letting their father know what they were doing. If he had even a hint of what they were planning, he’d have their hides.
“Not for a few weeks.”
Cole fixed his middle son with a look. “What about you, Josh?”
Josh shrugged. “My job is done for now. I found the lost hiker I was searching for, and the rangers have assured me he’s doing fine in the hospital. So I have plenty of time to lend a hand.”
Cole visibly relaxed. “Good.” He swiveled his head. “What about you, Jacob? Got time for your old man? Or are you heading out, too?”
The use of his full name was a signal to his family that Cole was battling his emotions. One look at his face told him that they’d guessed correctly that Cole was craving sympathy and attention from his long-absent family.
“We’ll be in finals all next week. But I have my laptop and can study everything I need right here. I won’t have to fly out until the weekend.”
Now Cole smiled broadly, and the last of his tension seemed to melt away. “That’s good news.” He looked down the table. “Right, Big Jim?”
The older man nodded. “Great news, boyo.” He tucked into his dessert, which Ela had topped off with a mound of vanilla ice cream.
Seeing it, Cole’s eyes narrowed for a moment. Then, seeing his family watching him, he pushed aside his own dessert and drained his glass of milk.
He’d be damned if he’d whine about having to give up desserts. For now, for tonight, he had his family around him. That was sweet enough for him.
“What do you think?” Josh settled himself into a chair pulled close to the fireplace in the great room, where a roaring fire blazed.
Quinn shrugged. “His color’s good. He seems tired, but that’s to be expected, I’d say.”
Both men turned toward Jake, who walked in carrying a tray of longnecks.
After passing them around, he set aside the tray and took a long pull on his drink before dropping down on one of the hearth cushions.
Having overheard them, Jake picked up on the thread of their conversation. “I think this heart attack has rocked Pa’s world. He never saw it coming.”
“Neither did I.” Quinn leaned a hip against the arm of a sofa. “He’s the strongest man I know.”
“Next to Big Jim,” Josh put in.
“Yeah.” The two shared a look.
Jake looked over at his brothers. “This doesn’t have anything to do with strength, physical or mental. This is about stress to the heart. And we all know Pa’s had enough of that in his life. I see a sadness in Pa that I haven’t seen in years. Not since…”
His words trailed off, as they always did when he started thinking about their mother. After a lifetime, it was second nature to avoid all mention of Seraphine. Even now, after all these years, the loss was still a source of real anguish to Cole Conway. A lingering wound that continued to fester and drain the joy from his life.
Jake cleared his throat. “Maybe Pa’s sadness is just a natural side effect of his heart trauma. Or maybe he just wants some attention, and sees this as a way to get it. Whatever the cause, I’ve decided to put off leaving as long as I can.”
“You said you’re in finals. You plan on just dropping out and forgetting about graduating?”
At Josh’s question Jake shook his head. “I did give it some thought. But I’ve worked too hard, studied too long, to quit now. I’ll fly back and turn in my last papers and take whatever exams and complete any procedures that are necessary. And then I’m heading home for good.”
Quinn drained his beer and idly tapped the empty bottle against his thigh while he digested his youngest brother’s words. “I plan on staying put for now. I can’t think about leaving Pa when he looks so…”—he struggled for words—“… so crushed. But sooner or later I’ll have to go. This weather won’t wait. If I don’t get back to that pack soon, they’ll be lost to me until summer and, with them, years of work down the drain.”
Josh stood and slapped his brother on the back. “You don’t need to explain to us. I know Pa understands.”
“I hope so.” Quinn turned back to Jake. “I’m glad you’re hanging around for a couple of days more. That ought to take some of the sting out of my departure whenever I decide to go.”
The two brothers shared a backslap, the closest thing they’d ever had to a hug between them.
As they stepped apart Jake couldn’t help laughing aloud. “You realize, of course, that staying a few more days will make me Pa’s favorite.”
“Wow. What a concept,” Josh deadpanned. “The baby of the family a favorite.”
His two brothers broke into gales of laughter while Jake shot them each a smug look.
“Not that you’re jealous or anything. But I am, after all, his baby forever.”
Josh chuckled. “I’m sure glad my babysitting days are over.”
“You.” Quinn shook his head. “What about me?” His voice took on a perfect imitation of their grandfather’s growl. “ ‘Quinn, take your little brother along. Don’t let him out of your sight, boyo. Did you let Jake ride that ornery stallion? Shame on you, boyo.’ ” He chuckled. “I’m surprised he and Pa didn’t ask me to take you along on my dates.”
“You went on dates? With girls?” Jake pretended to be shocked.
Josh and Quinn shared a laugh.
Josh nudged his brother. “You had him fooled, Bro.” He turned to Jake. “I bet you thought he was tracking wolves whenever he slipped away after dark.”
“And just who were you seeing?” Jake demanded.
Quinn put a finger to his lips. “Some things are better left a secret, little bro. But I will tell you this: Francine Hurly may be one of the best kissers in all of Wyoming.”
“Fancy Francie? You actually dated her?”
“I don’t know if you could call it a date. But whenever we met in her daddy’s barn, we used to melt the snow for a hundred yards or more in all directions.”
After sharing a laugh, Jake shook his head. “And I thought I was the only one Francie ever kissed.”
“Francie kissed every guy in this part of Wyoming. But what about your wild fling with that flame-haired niece of Flora’s when you were sixteen?”
Jake’s smile faded, as he remembered his first mad crush. “She was dating three guys in town and telling me I was her one true love.”
“As I recall, Bro, you moped around for days after you found out about the other guys.”
Quinn nodded. “And when Phoebe found us teasing you, she ordered us out of the room so she could have a little talk with you about life.”
Jake’s frown turned into a smile at the memory. “And Phoebe became some kind of mama grizzly, even ordering Pa and Big Jim out of the house, as well. And the next thing I knew, I was telling her everything. And she told me that I’d just experienced an important life lesson. Hearts, she told me, were very resilient organs. They could be broken again and again and, given enough time, would eventually heal.”
“Good for Phoebe.” Quinn put a hand to his heart. “I wonder why she didn’t tell me the same thing when Francie dumped me for one of her daddy’s ranch hands?”
“Maybe because you never bothered to confide in her.” Jake looked over at his oldest brother. “Did Francie break your heart?”
Quinn grinned. “The only thing she wounded was my ego. It wasn’t very cool to be dumped for a guy who was missing some teeth and a few brains, as well.”
The three shared a laugh.
“Anyway, I survived without Phoebe’s sage advice.”
“And moved on to college girls,” Josh added.
“Well, they did take the sting out of my bruised ego.”
While the fire burned low the three brothers continued nursing their beer and reminiscing together until at last, drained by the emotional events of the past few days, they were forced to give in to the need to sleep.
Quinn climbed the stairs to his old suite of rooms on the second floor.
Inside he kicked off his boots and stripped off his clothes before turning down the bed linens.
Before he could climb into bed he heard the distinct howl of a wolf. Low and mournful, it carried on the night air.
The sound always had the same effect on him. It shivered through his veins and seemed to touch his very soul.
He crossed to the window and leaned against the sill, watching the darkened silhouette against the snow on a distant hill. The very sight of the wild creature sent a thrill coursing along his spine.
He loved his family. There was no place he’d rather be than here on his ranch. But when he wasn’t needed here, there was no doubt where he would be found. Out there. On the trail with his pack.
Quinn framed the wolf in his long-range viewfinder and snapped off a couple of quick photos. The male’s coat, thick and shaggy, was matted with snow from the blizzard that had been raging now for three days.
After Quinn had left the ranch and returned to the mountain, it had taken considerable skill to locate the pack, despite the homing device implanted in the male. Cut off from their den by the storm and with the alpha female about to give birth, the pack had hunkered down in the shelter of some rocks near the top of a nearby hill. Since there’d been no sighting of the female, Quinn was fairly certain there would be a litter of pups before morning. That would create a problem for the leader of the pack, whose hunting ground had been narrowed considerably by the unexpected spring snowstorm. The alpha male would have to provide food and shelter for his pack, and all would have to wait out the storm before returning to their den.
Quinn saw the male’s attention fixed on something in the distance. Using his binoculars, Quinn studied the terrain. When he spied a small herd of deer nearly hidden in a stand of trees, he understood what had snagged the wolf’s interest.
The springtime blizzard had caught all of nature by surprise, it would seem. As Quinn watched, a doe dropped her newborn into the snow and began licking it clean of afterbirth.
Sadly, the doe and her fawn, in such a vulnerable state, would be the perfect mark for a hungry pack of wolves desperate for food during their own confinement.
The male wolf took up a predator position, dropping low as he crept slowly up the hill until he reached the very peak. For a moment he remained as still as a statue, gazing into the distance.
Quinn watched, transfixed. Even though he knew this would end in the bloody death of a helpless newborn fawn, he also knew that it would mean the difference between life and death for the pack of wolves unable to go forward until their own newborns were strong enough to travel. Their strength, their survival, depended upon sustenance. The female, too weak at the moment to hunt, would trust her leader to provide fresh meat while she nursed her young.
Quinn felt again the familiar thrill as he saw the alpha male rise up and begin to run full speed across the rim of the hill. The raw power, the fierce determination of this animal, never failed to touch a chord deep inside him.
The wolf dipped below the rim of the hill and was lost from sight.
Quinn experienced a rush of annoyance. He wanted to record the kill for his journal. But something had caused the wolf to veer off-course at the last moment. Snatching up his camera, Quinn was on his feet, racing up the hill, half-blinded by the curtain of snow that stung his face like shrapnel.
He was halfway up the hill when he heard the unmistakable sound of a rifle shot echo and reecho across the hills. It reverberated in his chest like a thunderous pulse.
Heart pounding, he ran full speed the rest of the distance.
When he came to the spot where the male had fallen, Quinn stared at the crimson snow, the beautiful body now silent and still, and felt a mingling of pain and rage rising up inside, clogging his throat, tightening a band around his heart until he had to struggle for each breath.
How dare anyone end such a magnificent life. Why?
He studied the prints left in the snow made by a single horse.
Far off in the distance, barely visible through the falling snow, was a tiny beam of light.
An isolated ranch house, it would seem.
Clouds scudded across the rising moon, leaving the countryside in near darkness.
Quinn knew that he needed to return to his campsite soon and settle in for the night or risk freezing. But he was determined to confront the rancher who had just robbed Quinn’s pack of its leader. A cruel act that had not only left the vulnerable female and her newborn pups without a guardian but had also cut short the scholarly research that had consumed the past five years of Quinn’s life.
With a heavy heart he turned away, knowing that by morning scavengers would have swept the area clean of any trace of carnage. It was the way of nature.
Even if he were so inclined, there wasn’t time to dispose of the wolf’s body. Quinn needed to follow the tracks in the snow before the storm obliterated them completely. Already the surrounding countryside had fallen under the mantle of darkness.
He returned to his campsite and began to pack up his meager supplies. As he did so, anger rose up like bile, burning the back of his throat and eyes.
All attempts at scholarly disinterest were swept away in a tide of fury at the loss of the wolf Quinn had come to love.
He could no longer hide behind a professional wall of anonymity.
This was personal.
He needed, for his own satisfaction, to confront the rancher who had snuffed out the life of the creature that had consumed every minute of every day of his life for the past five years.
As he shouldered his supplies and began the trek in the darkness he found his thoughts turning to his father. There was no comparison between this despicable act and the horrible trauma Cole had suffered at losing Seraphine. Still, the loss was so deeply felt that it connected Quinn to Cole Conway in a way that nothing else ever had.
Was this how Cole had felt when he’d faced the greatest loss of his life? Had he been swamped with this helpless, hopeless sense that everything that he’d worked for had just been swept away by some cruel whim of fate?
Cole had been, in those early days, inconsolable. A man so grief stricken, even the love for his children and his father, Big Jim, hadn’t been able to lift him out of the depths of hell. Cole’s only coping mechanism had been to throw himself into every hard, physically demanding chore he could find around the ranch, many of which would have broken a less determined man.
Right this minute, Quinn would welcome any challenge that would lift him out of his own private hell.
Quinn moved through the waist-high drifts, keeping the light of the distant ranch house always in his sight.
Someone would answer for this vicious deed.
Someone would pay.
As Quinn drew close enough to peer through the falling snow, he could make out the sprawling ranch house and, some distance away, the first of several barns and outbuildings.
He was turning toward the house when he caught the glint of light in the barn. Pausing just outside the open door, he watched the rancher forking hay into a stall, where a horse stomped, blowing and snorting, as though winding down from a hard ride. The snow that coated the rancher’s parka and wide-brimmed hat was further proof that he’d just retreated from the blizzard that raged beyond these walls.
Quinn stepped inside, holding his rifle loosely at his side. It wasn’t his intention to threaten the rancher, merely to confront him. But right this minute, Quinn relished the thought of a good knock-down, drag-out fight. For one tiny instant he was that helpless boy again, confronting the rancher Porter Stanford as he’d gloated over the needless deaths of a wolf and her pups. Then Quinn snapped back to the present, though the thought of that long-ago scene had his voice lowering to a growl.
“I’m tracking a wolf-hating rancher. Looks like I found him.”
The figure whirled.
Quinn continued to keep his rifle pointed at the ground, though his finger tightened reflexively on the trigger when he caught the glint of metal as the rancher lifted the pitchfork in a menacing gesture.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
Quinn blinked. The voice didn’t match the image he’d had of a tough Wyoming rancher. It was obviously female. Soft. Throaty. Breathless, as though she’d been running hard.
“My name is Quinn Conway. My spread’s about fifty miles east of here. And you’d be…?”
“Don’t act coy with me. You know who I am. You’re trespassing on my land. I’ll give you one minute to turn tail and leave, or you’ll answer to this.”
Quinn realized that, though her left hand continued to hold the pitchfork aloft, her right hand had dipped into the pocket of her parka and she was holding a very small, very shiny pistol aimed at his chest.
He lifted a hand, palm up. “I didn’t come here to hurt you.”
“Oh, sure. That’s why you burst into my barn holding a rifle?”
“I’m here to get some answers.”
“Sorry. I’m fresh out.” She tossed aside the pitchfork and in one quick motion pocketed the pistol and grabbed a rifle leaning against the wall. Taking careful aim, she hissed, “Now get, whoever you are. And tell Deke I have no intention of changing my mind. If he thinks he can send some bully—”
Quinn reacted so quickly she didn’t have time to blink. He kicked aside her rifle, sending it flying into the air. Before it landed in the hay he’d leaped at her, taking her down and pinning her arms and legs with such force beneath him that she was helpless to move anything except her head.
She let loose with a stream of oaths that would have withered a seasoned cowboy. That merely reinforced Quinn’s determination to pin her down until her fury ran its course.
In the process, his own anger seemed to intensify. He’d come here to confront a cold-blooded wolf killer. What he’d found was a crazy woman.
“Let me up.” Teeth clenched, she bucked and shuddered with impotent rage.
“Not until…” His breath was coming hard and fast and he found himself having to use every ounce of his strength to keep her pinned. In the process, he became aware of the soft curves beneath the parka, and the fresh, clean evergreen scent of her hair and clothes. “… you agree to give me some answers.”
“Go to hell.”
Damn her. He wanted to end this tussle, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for him. And the longer he lay on top of her, the more aware he became of the woman and less of the enemy he’d come here to confront. “You’re not going to cooperate?”
When she made no response he dug in, using his size and weight to intimidate. “You shot a wolf out there on the trail. I want to know why.”
“A wolf?” She stopped fighting him.
He absorbed a small measure of relief that she seemed to be relenting.
She was clearly out of breath. “What business is this of yours?”
“That wolf is my business.”
He saw her eyes go wide. “This is really about the wolf?”
“What did you think it was about?”
He saw the way she was studying him beneath half-lowered lashes and realized how he must look, hair wild and tangled, his face heavily bearded from his days on the trail.
He decided to take a calculated risk. Moving quickly, he got to his feet and held out a hand.
Ignoring his offer of help, she rolled aside and got her bearings before turning to face him.
Her hand went to the pocket where she’d stowed her pistol but didn’t dip inside, remaining instead where he could see it.
“Let’s start over.” He fought to keep the anger from his voice. “My name is Quinn Conway. I study the life cycle of wolves. I was tracking my pack when the alpha male was shot. I followed the shooter here. Now I want to know why a rancher would kill a wolf that was only hunting food for his pack.”
When she held her silence he arched a brow. “It’s your turn to introduce yourself and say… ‘My name is… I shot the wolf because…’ ”
“My name isn’t important, but the wolf is. It was threatening my herd. That’s what wolves do. And what smart ranchers do is shoot them before they can rip open a helpless calf.”
“My wolf was stalking a herd of deer.”
“Your wolf?” She eyed him suspiciously. “I didn’t realize he was a pet.”
“He isn’t. Wasn’t,” Quinn corrected. “He was, in fact, the object of years of scholarly research.”
“Uh-huh.” She shot him a look guaranteed to freeze a man’s heart at a hundred paces. “I wouldn’t know anything about scholarly research, but common sense told me he was about to take out one of my calves. And I got him before he could get to my herd. Now if you don’t mind…” She turned away.
Before she could reach for her rifle Quinn caught her arm. “I don’t believe you. I saw the herd of deer.”
She yanked herself free of his grasp. “I don’t give a damn what you believe. I know what I saw.”
Her head came up sharply. “I don’t have to prove anything to you.”
“You already have. The fact that you’re a liar.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “Look. I don’t care what you call me. I know what I saw.”
But even as she spoke, he could see the wheels turning as she cast a glance at the snow swirling in the darkness just beyond the barn. Neither of them was eager to face the blizzard. But neither of them was willing to concede that fact.
She took in a breath. “You can saddle up the mare over there.”
Without another word she turned away and began saddling the big roan stallion she’d been tending.
Quinn crossed to the other stall and began saddling the spotted mare. Continues...
Excerpted from Quinn by Ryan, R.C. Copyright © 2012 by Ryan, R.C.. Excerpted by permission.
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