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"I'm sending you to the ranch in New Mexico."
Nothing like condemning a man without a fair trial.
Somehow Ryan Molloy managed to keep from saying that to the man standing in the barn doorway. What did it matter, anyway? Trial or no trial, he'd already condemned himself. His gut-level response at hearing his boss's words only piled on the guilt.
"Plan on being there by the end of the week."
Keeping a stranglehold on the reins in his hand, he nodded.
Over the past few months, Caleb Cantrell had allowed him more than a few chances to pull himself together and get his life back on track. No need for Caleb to voice his thoughts. The fact that he'd made the day trip from New Mexico to Montana said it all.
As if reading his mind, Caleb said, "I don't reckon I need to state the obvious."
"That I've given you no choice?" Caleb wasn't giving him one, either. No option of staying on the ranch here in Montana. He could take the offer. Or walk.
Raising no argument, asking no questions, he returned the reins to their peg on the wall, making sure they hung neatly in their appropriate spot. Too bad he hadn't handled things with such care earlier in the week.
As if in tune with his thoughts again, Caleb said, "What happened with Rod?"
"You haven't heard?"
"I want to hear it from you."
He shrugged. "He mouthed off about folksabout the managernot attending to business around here."
Caleb frowned. "He didn't come across that way when we hired him."
"He was drunker than a skunk the other day," Ryan admitted.
"He didn't mention that."
"Why would he? Doesn't matter. He was in the right. And I did the unthinkable." Let months of anger and frustration and plain raw pain get the best of him. He forced his hands to relax by his sides. "I threw a sucker punch at one of my men. And you're relocating me to the new ranch." His own actions had led to this, yet the words left a bitter taste against his back teeth.
Caleb nodded. "For the time being. I need someone in Flagman's Folly, and you could use a change of scenery."
And a change in attitude.
More words he and the boss didn't need to have out in the open between them. He heard them loud and all too clear.
He heard them ringing in his ears even now, though that conversation had taken place days ago. Afterward Caleb had hustled off to the airport, but not before Ryan assured him he would see him in a few days.
In the weak morning light of his ranch-house bedroom, Ryan fumbled in his dresser drawers, scooping up the items he would need for a temporary but indefinite stay and shoving them into the duffel bag on the bed.
T-shirts handkerchiefs briefs bandannas And heck, why not take the Louis L'Amour paperback from the nightstand, too? The slip of paper marking his place in the book had rested between pages eight and nine for only about six months. He just couldn't seem to focus on the damned story, no matter that over the years he'd read it so many times he had practically memorized every word.
He managed to ignore the dresser top and the picture frame he'd turned facedown a year ago. He could stand beside a rectangle of freshly turned soil, could stare at names and dates on a chiseled stone, but he hadn't the willpower to look at that photo.
Again he swallowed against the bitterness threatening his molars. Leaving Montana meant walking away from every connection he had to Jan and Billy. It meant running away from the memories, too, the good ones he could barely recall anymore, blotted out by the bad ones he couldn't forget.
A year since the accident, those memories still filled his days and occasionally woke him in the dead of night. The pity in his friends' faces had added a few more rips to the torn-up places inside him. And last week, a drunken cowboy's insults had pushed him to his breaking point.
His throat tightened. Despite the breeze blowing in through the open window beside the bed, sweat dotted his brow. Hands hovering above the duffel bag, he paused. Before he could argue or talk himself out of his action, could brush away or second-guess the thought, he grabbed the picture frame from the dresser and slid it, still facedown, under a pile of shirts in the bag.
He would head out late afternoon, once he'd taken care of his chores here on the ranch one last time. Once he'd swung by for a last visit to the small churchyard on Hanaman Road.
Then he'd drive to New Mexico. Only a fool would pass up the opportunity Caleb had given him, one he'd done less than nothing to deserve.
Somehow he had to undo the damage he'd done, to restore his credibility with the boss. To earn back his reputation.
The hell of it was, most of him didn't give a damn about all that. The wonder was, a small part of him still cared enough to fight for it. Plain enough to see the unexpected reassignment would be a battle.
A risk he couldn't afford not to take.
Only a short while into his solo journey, one stretch of road had started looking like any other. He drove through the night, when all the towns he came to had rolled up their sidewalks and gone to bed. Orin the case of his arrival in Flagman's Folly, New Mexico, sixteen hours laterhadn't yet unrolled those sidewalks to a new day.
As he turned onto Signal Street, he figured he could describe the main thoroughfare with his eyes closed; it was almost exactly like all the other main streets in every other small town. Some stroke of luckgood luck, for a changemade sure his eyes stayed open. Up ahead of his pickup truck, a little girl darted into the roadway.
The luck stayed with him, letting reflexes take over. Lungs sucked in a breath. Ribs strained. Arms jerked in tandem with his wrench of the steering wheel, and both legs joined forces to jam the brake. Momentum hurled him against the shoulder belt and then ricocheted him back into the driver's seat.
Far past the end of the truck's high hood, the little girl turned around, met his eyes through the windshield and gave him an angelic smile.
As he sat there shaking his head and willing his heart to beat again, the air left his lungs in a whoosh. Other reactions washed through him, no less powerful for the delay. A tremor that shook him from head to toe. And an immediate understanding of something he'd never before believedin moments of extreme stress, life did flash before your eyes.
Not only your own life but those of people you loved.
In the street, a slim woman hurried over to the girl. A puppy bounded across the adjacent lawn to join them and looked up, tail wagging and head cocked as if to ask what had happened.
The woman led the child back to the sidewalkwhere she should've stayed all along. What if?
He swallowed hard, unable to finish the sentence, even in his mind. Only moments ago he'd shoved a slew of year-old questions like that from his thoughts. Now he could barely think at all.
Both hands scrabbling, he unclasped his seat belt and shoved the door open. As his feet hit the ground, he nearly choked on the smell of scorched tires. A burning sensation raced through his insides. Pain-fueled anger flared. "Lady," he shouted, "are you crazy?"
Even from several yards away, he saw her blue eyes narrow. She spoke, but he couldn't catch the response.
Again he shook his head, wanting to chase away the memories triggered by the near miss. Needing to focus on the here and now.
She said something else, and still he couldn't make out the words. Obviously she was wrought up, with good reason. But that didn't account for the blurriness of her voice.
The hairs on the back of his neck rose. She'd risked her little girl's life . "Are you drunk?" he demanded.
"No, I am not." She clipped off each word now, making a visible effort to speak calmly and clearly.
He frowned. Whether she denied it or not, something was up with her. "What the hell were you thinking, letting that kid run into the road?"
"I didn't let her. She chased after her puppy, and it was too late for me to stop her." Too late.
Not, thank God, for this little girl.
"I'm sorry," she said in a softer tone.
He could hear the ring of sincerity, but couldn't shake off the visions of her child. Or his own. Under his breath he muttered what he'd been forced to learn: "Being sorry won't save your kid."
"I told you, it happened too fast."
He blinked, willing to swear he hadn't spoken loudly enough for her to hear.
Ignoring him, she turned to talk to the girl.
With neither of them paying him any mind, he sagged against the sun-warmed metal of the truck and scrubbed his hand across his mouth, glad for the chance to pull himself together.
He still couldn't shake the images that had peppered his brain like buckshot the moment he'd seen the girl run into the street. He couldn't stop the questions he had hoped to leave a thousand miles behind him.
Had memories flooded Jan's mind in the seconds before the crash? From his booster chair in the backseat, had Billy seen the end coming, too?
From somewhere deep inside, he found the strength to slam a mental door shut on his thoughts. For now.
Avoiding the pair on the sidewalk, he stared down the length of the street, taking in the general store, the pharmacy and a café. When he could breathe regularly again, he checked out the lawn alongside him. The town green, evidently, judging by the formal look of the hitching posts spaced all around the property and the horse troughs overflowing with flowers decorating the walkway. It almost seemed like home.
Good thing he'd never been here before, because this would've been one hell of a homecoming.
And good thing he didn't intend to stay long. Didn't matter what his boss said about "fresh starts" and "taking a breather." No one here but Caleb's wife, Tess, and daughter, Nate, knew him, anyway. But even that didn't matter. He would do his job, make things right with the man who paid his wages and move on to.who the hell cared where.
Trying to ignore the sudden stiffness in his shoulders, he focused on the building ahead of him. Tall columns held up the porch, though the structure looked sturdy enough to do without them. Beneath that sheltering roof stood a white-haired man impersonating an Elvis gone forty years past his prime.
Great. If he'd had to ruin his grand entrance, couldn't he have done it without an audience? The irony made his shoulders grow even more rigid. A year ago he'd hounded the sheriff's office to come up with a single witness.
Maybe the way the old man stood squinting and patting his shirt pocket meant he couldn't see a thing without glasses.
Naturally, all his good luck had run out. Elvis pulled a toothpick out of that pocket, stuck it in the corner of his mouth and crossed his arms over his chest. The old guy looked him up and down much the way Ryan himself inspected potential ranch stock.
Yeah, just great.
Distracted by movement, he looked toward the woman, who had turned to face him again.
A heavy feeling started in his chest and only got worse when she stalked toward him. Slim legs in below-the-knee shorts flashed gracefully but with as much determination as a filly headed for the finish line. He barely had time to take in the rest of her racehorse-lean frame before she came to a stop a yard from him. Her cheeks flushed pink with anger and her blue eyes flamed.
"I explained to Becky what happened," she said, spacing her words, "and now I'll explain some things to you." She spread the fingers of one hand and ticked off each statement as she made it. "I am not drunk. I am not crazy. Becky is not my child."
He shifted his shoulders again. She had a heck of a lot of points to get across, all on his account.
Beyond her he saw the little girl, as blond-haired as the woman in front of him. No wonder he'd taken them for mother and daughter. The child went onto one knee to pet the puppy.
"Becky is my niece. And" the woman tapped her final finger, then curled both hands into fists and slammed them down in front of her "I can take care of her."
The sparks in her blue eyes made him fight not to wince. She had some justification for her anger. He wouldn't deny that. He had good reason for getting upset, too.
But he didn't have enough damn fingers for his list of regrets.
Yeah, at first fear had driven him. Once he saw the child was okay, relief had set in. But then, as with the drunken cowboy, he had let frustration take over.
He couldn't lose it with her again.
"Look," he said, "when I saw the girl, I thought"
"We've covered what you thought."
"Right. And you've said a mouthful about it. Or maybe a handful." He gestured to her fists.
She looked down. Again she made a visible effort to gain control, to unclench her fingers and let her hands hang naturally by her sides. He ought to take notes.
When she met his eyes again, he gave her an unblinking stare.
"I've already apologized." She spoke softly, indistinctly again, making him strain to focus on her words. "I'll say it one more time. I'm sorry Becky ran into the road and gave you such a scare. But she wasn't anywhere near you. You just overreacted."
Another truth he couldn't deny. No matter his unease about the woman, she was right. He had gone over the top with his reaction. The child had run into the road dozens of yards away from the truck, and he'd had plenty of time to come to a stop. Yet if he'd been closer to her, if he'd been distracted, if a car had come from the other direction Too damned many ifs.
"You should have called her back," he said flatly.
"She wouldn't have heard me. She's deaf."
"Deaf?" He shifted his shoulders, trying to shake off the extra guilt her statement had added to him. He'd really messed things up today. Earlier this week. In the past few months.
Once, he'd listened to folks instead of jumping to snap decisions. It made him a better ranch foreman. A better man. Once. And now? He took a deep breath and let it out. "Look, I'm sorry"
"Because she's deaf."
"Because you realize you shouldn't have made assumptions about me."
"I wouldn't do that."
"You already did, didn't you? Why else would you have asked if I was drunk?" Her words now came through to him loud and clear. Her irritation practically rang in his head.
So much for attempting to save the situation.
Frustration clawed at him, yet guilt weighed him down. As fast as everything had happened, as incensed as he had been, he had jumped to conclusions about her. Keeping his tone as level as he could, he said, "You're jumping to a few conclusions about what I'm trying to say, too."