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As Jenny Wyler passed the Saddlers Prairie, One Mile Ahead road sign, she swallowed. The rolling Montana plains were beautiful, with their fields of prairie grass stretching clear to the horizon and plenty of "big sky." The scattered houses and buildings here and there added a nice, welcoming touch.
Great for a getaway.
But living here almost ten months?
Jenny was used to Seattle's snarling rush-hour traffic and bustling activity. Malls, restaurants and coffeehouses galore, movie theaters and fitness centers. None of which was here.
Accepting a teaching job in a one-room school in a place she'd never even heard of until last month was probably a huge mistake.
What in the world had she been thinking?
She signaled. Not that she needed toher four-door sedan was the only vehicle on the two-lane highway. In the split second before exiting, Jenny considered turning around and backing out of her contract. But school was scheduled to start the Wednesday after Labor Day, a mere five days from now, and she couldn't leave the students without a teacher.
Jenny took the exit. "Buck up, kiddo," she murmured, sounding a lot like her father. "We're Wylers. We adapt."
The paved road stretched in front of her like a dull, gray ribbon. Jenny glanced at the directions Silas and Valerie
Mason had emailed. The Saddlers Prairie Post Office was located in the town center, roughly a mile from here.
With little to distract her, she thought again of her father and all that had happened since his death last October.
If he were still alive, he'd no doubt support this move, especially after what Rob had pulled. Or according to Rob, what she 'd pulled.
Dad had always counseled her and her older sister, Becca, to keep the past where it belongedin the past. Desperate to forget, to fit in and be normal like all the other kids, Jenny and Becca had never even mentioned their mother to each other, let alone anyone else.
Which made it all the more ironic that shortly after their father had passed away, the Seattle paper had printed some of the embarrassing details about April Wyler. That she was a schizophrenic who disappeared for weeks at a time and periodically prostituted herself to support a drug habit. When Jenny was seven, her mother had entered a mental institution for counseling and help. Within a few months of moving in, she'd killed herself.
Becca was lucky. She lived in Johannesburg, far away from any fallout from the article. Jenny, on the other hand
You'd think that in the twenty-first century, the sordid past would barely touch a successful, thirty-year-old teacher. Wrong.
As Jenny drove toward the center of town, memories pelted her like stinging nettles. Coworkers, people she considered friends, had looked at her with surprise, pity and even disgust. Rob's emotions had run deeper and uglier, seesawing between shock and anger. He was her fiance, and assumed she'd been open and honest with him. About most things, she had.
But she'd hidden the full truth about her mother, and he'd been furious. Also scared, and with good reason. Schizophrenia tended to run in families. Which meant their future children could inherit the mental illness.
Rob didn't want to hear about the medications available to keep the disease in check. Within a few days of learning the truth about Jenny's mother, he'd broken the engagement.
Jenny understood. In his shoes, she'd have done exactly the same thing. At least that's what she told herself.
For one long moment, pain and regret washed over her, and she barely noted the long prairie grass rippling elegantly in the late August wind. Then she squared her shoulders.
With all the upheaval in her life, teaching last year had been rough, to say the least. Compared to that, a year in the boonies, where life was simpler, wouldn't be so bad. No emotional ups and downs, no pretending not to see the appalled expressions on the faces of so-called friends, no wondering who would learn about her mother next. Here, the past was back where it belongeddone with and forgotten.
Jenny needed this school year to regroup. While she was here, she intended to fit in and give her best in the classroom. Then, when her contract ended in June, she'd leave.
As if Mother Nature approved of Jenny's craving for normalcy, a sweet, welcoming smell filled the air, reminding her of sun-drenched clover. Only it wasn't clover.
Whatever it was, the lovely smell grew stronger as she neared and passed a neatly lettered sign, Dawson Ranch, Established 1896. A ranch with miles of wood and wire fence that paralleled the road. She saw cows, lots of them, and men on horses. In the distance, the proverbial red barn was visible, along with a white, two-story house with a wraparound porch and other buildings, plus assorted cars, trucks and farm equipment.
After passing the ranch she pulled into the center of townif that's what you called the gas station, cafe and weathered shops grouped loosely together around a packed-dirt parking area riddled with potholes.
A lone vehicle was parked near the door of Spenser's General Store, a dusty red pickup. Jenny pulled to a stop a few yards away in front of the post office, a neat, wood building about the size of the one-car garage at the condo she and Rob had shared.
Wanting to make a good first impression, she pulled off her sunglasses, adjusted the visor mirror, then quickly applied lipstick. Thanks to being straight and newly cut just above the shoulders, her hair was easy to smooth. Nothing much she could do about the lap creases in her cotton slacks, though.
She exited the car. After sitting for hours, standing felt good, and she stretched her back.
Just then a lanky male wearing a baseball cap exited the general store, his arms bulging around two giant, burlap bags. Tall and tanned and about her age, he wore faded jeans, a black T-shirt and cowboy boots. Beside him, a little girl with copper-color pigtails who looked about five.
As the big male tossed the bags into the back of the truck, Jenny stared shamelessly, watching his muscles bunch with the effort. He caught her looking. His mouth quirked, and he pulled off his cap, revealing short, dark hair. "Can I help you with something?"
Face warming, she tugged the hem of her cap-sleeve blouse over her hips. "I'm looking for Silas or Valerie Mason."
The man ambled closer, his hand on the little girl's shoulder. "They'll be in the post office." Which, of course, Jenny knew.
He looked her up and down, his expression unreadable. "You must be the new teacher."
How did he guess? "I am." Jenny extended her hand. "I'm Jenny Wyler."
Though she was five-nine in her summer sandals, this man stood at least half a foot taller. Somber eyes the color of this afternoon's blue Montana sky met her gaze. She noted faint squint lines in the outer corners.
"Adam Dawson." His grip was firm and calloused, and she caught a whiff of grass and man.
"On the way into town, I passed the Dawson Ranch," Jenny said. "Any relation?"
The big man's shoulders straightened with pride. "That's oursmine and my brother's."
"It looks huge."
"Until two weeks ago, we were sixteen hundred acres and seven hundred Black Angus beef cattle. We just added six hundred acres and two hundred more head."
"I know nothing about ranches and cattle, but that sounds impressive." Jenny smiled.
Adam Dawson did not. In fact, he frowned as if she'd said something wrong. That, or he didn't much like her.
Her cheerful expression wavered before she amped it up again and turned to the little girl, whose eyes were the same deep blue as her father's. "What's your name?"
"This is Abby," her father quickly replied.
She couldn't speak for herself? Ignoring the man, Jenny offered her hand. The girl solemnly shook it, her eyes sparkling, probably because she was excited to be doing something so grown-up.
This time Jenny didn't have to force a smile. "Nice to meet you, Abby. My name is Miss Wyler, and I'm the new teacher at Saddlers Prairie School."
The little girl flashed a matching set of dimples that was utterly irresistible. Charmed, Jenny went on. "You look like you're old enough for kindergarten. Will I see you in class next week?"
For some reason, the question banished Abby's smile. She ducked her head, her attention suddenly riveted on the packed dirt ground.
His frown deepening, her father stepped in front of her. "She'll be there."
He seemed to intimidate his own child. Jenny's protective hackles rose. After shooting him a dirty look, she directed her words at Abby. "That's great. I'll look forward to seeing you on Wednesday."
In the meantime, she'd find out more about Adam Dawson and his wife, whom Jenny hoped wasn't as cowed as her daughter. Jenny certainly wasn't, and gave the imposing man the stern look she reserved for disciplining students.
His eyebrows upped a fraction before he slapped the hat back on his head, dipped his chin, cupped his daughter's shoulder and steered her toward the truck.
Jenny turned away and headed for the post office. By the time she opened the door, Adam Dawson's truck was bumping toward the road.
In contrast to the bright afternoon sunlight, the post office's fluorescent lighting seemed dark. But the cheerful country-western music song that filled the air made up for the dimness.
A plump, middle-age woman in a sleeveless blouse stood behind a small counter leafing through a magazine, her hair pulled into a loose ponytail. She gave Jenny a cursory look, then reached behind her and turned down the radio. Her apple cheeks rounded in a grin.
"You must be Jenny Wyler," she oozed with warmth and friendliness. The exact opposite of Adam Dawson. "I've been waiting for you. Welcome to town."
"Thank you so much," Jenny said. "I assume you're Mrs.
"That always sounds so stuffy. Please call me Val. Silas has the keys to the school and your cottage," she continued, rounding the counter and smoothing a hand over navy summer slacks a size too small. "He's over at Barb's Cafe, having his afternoon coffee. Come on, and I'll take you over and introduce you."
Jenny barely had a chance to nod before Val hustled her toward the door. "Barb Franklin, who owns the cafe is also our mayor. She was on that conference call where we interviewed you last month. Her husband, Emilio, and his family settled here from El Salvador a good thirty years ago. At first, the Delgados worked for other people. Now they own a small sheep ranch, run by Emilio's brother. Emilio prefers the restaurant business and always has. He does the cooking and the menus.
"There are several part-time waitresses who come and go, but Donna is always there. She's a real gem. She used to be married, but a good twenty years ago her no-account husband ran off with a gal from Helena, leaving poor Donna with three kids to raise on her own. They're grown now. The boy sells insurance in Missoula. One girl lives with her husband in Boise. The other is divorced and cuts hair on the other side of town. You'll meet her two kids at school."
Val paused to catch her breath, and Jenny marveled at what she'd just learned. Her new acquaintance was a fount of information.
"I noticed you talking to Adam Dawson and little Abby," Val said as they headed across the lot.
She gave Jenny a searching look, and Jenny guessed that her reply would be broadcast far and wide.
"Abby's adorable," she said, skipping over her opinion of the girl's intimidating father.
"She's something, all right."
Val shook her head and clucked her tongue, which only added to Jenny's curiosity. Questions about the man, his child and his wife crowded her mind, questions that Val would no doubt soon answer.
Jenny waited expectantly, but the postal clerk marched ahead.
Pushing through the windowed front door, Val announced to the mostly empty cafe, "Jenny Wyler is here."