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"The bus is coming. Bye, Dad. Don't forget I'm going to Jen's house after school for a sleepover. Her mom is driving us all home tomorrow so you won't have to worry about it." Allie leaned across the front seat of the truck and gave him a hug.
"I haven't forgotten anything, but I think your cold's worse," Colton Brenner said. Throughout the week, her congestion had become more noticeable. "Maybe you'd better give this party a miss and have an early night."
"I can't! It would ruin the whole weekend!" She sounded so upset he was sorry he'd said anything. "We've made too many plans, but I promise not to stay up late. The decongestant pills you gave me are in my purse."
"If you're not improved tomorrow, I'm taking you to the doctor."
"Everyone has a cold right now. It's not a big deal." Her warm brown eyes slid away from his. When they did that, it signaled she didn't want to get into a heavy discussion with him.
"But not everyone is my daughter." He kissed her cheek. "I love my children."
"We love you, too." She opened the door and got out.
"Later!" his son called from the backseat.
He turned. "Bye, Matt. I'll be at your wrestling match at three o'clock."
"Don't forget it's in Livingston."
"Would I do that? " They high-fived each other before he jumped down. "We'll go for pizza after."
"Cool!" Matt shut the door.
ColtonColt to his friendssat back in the seat, eyeing his fifteen-year-old twins as they waited for the school bus that would drive them into Bozeman eight miles away.
Every morning he brought them down to the entrance of the Circle B to make sure they got off safely. The family always ate breakfast together and talked over the day's plans. His housekeeper Noreen picked them up at the same spot after school. It was a ritual he'd started years earlier and had never deviated from.
When their mother had pulled her permanent disappearing act, he'd made it his mission to be there for them in every possible capacity. He loved them more than life.
This morning their breath curled in the invigorating air. Twenty degrees above zero wasn't bad for mid-November in the Bridger Mountains of Montana. He could remember other Novembers at twenty below. Unfortunately the weather couldn't be good for Allie's cold.
More snow wasn't forecast until tomorrow evening. With a lull between storms, this was the best time for him and his foreman to ride up to the north forty with some of the hands and finish repairs on the fencing. If he left with them now, he'd be able to get in a good six hours of work before he had to leave for Livingston, twenty-six miles away.
Now that football season was over and Matt's team had lost in the playoffs, Matt had joined the wrestling squad. His school's first preseason match was today. The boy was shooting up, but he wanted to get more buff. Colt smiled. He remembered wanting the same thing at Matt's age.
After his children boarded the bus, he waved to the driver before heading back to the ranch house three miles up the mountain. His eyes took in the blanket of snow covering evergreen forests and copses of aspens. He loved it all, from harshest winter to the glory of summer, when wildflowers filled the alpine meadows. Every season highlighted different aspects of the ranch's beauty and brought him renewal.
Thanks to his Scottish ancestors who'd emigrated here in the late 1800s, the setting of the Brenner cattle ranch was the most beautiful mountain spread this side of the Continental Divide. He counted his blessings.
The one thing missing from his life hadn't mattered to him in years. He'd long since put the pain of his travesty of a marriage behind him. Though everything else had failed during those nightmarish twelve months of supposed wedded bliss, he and his nineteen-year-old bride had made perfect babies together. Matthew and Allison nonidentical brunettes who came with their own individual spirits.
Loving his children, working the ranch to leave them a legacy for the future, was his reason for living.
Thirty-year-old Kathryn McFarland had the distinction of having been kidnapped from her parents' mansion on South Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, and lost to them for the first twenty-six years of her life. The people at Skwars Farm, Wisconsin, who'd taken her in had called her Anna Buric. Her origins were a mystery to everyone. Then one day a miracle happened.
She was found!
In an instant, she'd become Kathryn McFarland. And like the pauper who'd suddenly been thrust on the throne as the Prince of England, she inherited lands, titles, wealth and a loving, illustrious family eager to embrace her.
That was more than four years ago. Yet every time she let herself inside her penthouse condo at the Mc-Farland Plaza in downtown Salt Lake, she experienced alternating waves of gratitude and guiltgratitude because she'd been united with the most wonderful, generous parents imaginable and guilt because she needed her own space.
She knew it seemed unfair to her family that after waiting twenty-six years to get their little baby back, Kathryn had returned a grown woman who needed her family desperately, but secretly needed her independence, too.
They'd lost all that time with each other. So had she, with them. It was only natural for her to live with them and bask in their love, but it couldn't go on forever.
Kit Talbot McFarland, Kathryn's sister-in-law, knew exactly how Kathryn felt. She, too, had been kidnapped as a baby in the same bizarre case twenty-six years earlier, and had been found a few months before Kathryn.
But in the process she'd met Cord, one of Kathryn's two older brothers. It wasn't long before they were married and now had a little girl and another baby on the way.
From the beginning Kathryn shared a unique bond with Kit. She, too, suffered untold guilt for not spending more time with her birth parents and family, who lived in California. Kit and Kathryn were painfully aware that both sets of parents, the McFarlands and the Talbots, had suffered "empty arms syndrome" for more than two decades.
To some degree, Kit's two-year-old daughter helped satisfy that ache in the Talbots' lives, but Kathryn had no husband or children. She wasn't even close to starting her own family. Which was why Kathryn's parents couldn't understand why she wouldn't continue to live with them in their home in Federal Heights, only a few miles from the plaza.
They didn't outwardly pressure her. It was more the pleading in their eyes, the unspoken message, hinting they wanted her with them. All those silent hopes played havoc with Kathryn's guilt.
Thank heaven for Maggie!
There weren't enough words to describe Kathryn's love for her older sister Maggie McFarland, the mother of a one-year-old boy. She, along with her husband, Jake Halsey, had been the ones to find Kathryn in Wisconsin and bring her home.
Soon after their family reunion had made headlines in every newspaper in the nation, Maggie and Jake married and built a house in upper Federal Heights. When they were settled, Maggie insisted Kathryn move into the penthouse where Maggie had been living in order to have some breathing room.
Their mother's fear of another kidnapping had made her so overprotective, she'd almost suffocated Maggie at times growing up. Now that Kathryn was finally home, Maggie could see the same thing happening to her sister and told her she needed to get out of the house and on her own.
"There needs to be spaces in your togetherness," she'd whispered to Kathryn at her wedding.
"Listen to Maggie," their oldest married brother Ben concurred in a low voice. "She knows what she's talking about."
Cord nodded. "We've all lived with horrific guilt for twenty-six years because no one heard the kidnapper come into the house and steal you away. Now that you've been found alive and are home again, everyone needs to get on with their lives. No more guilt. No more looking back."
With those words, Kathryn understood her siblings were her best friends and allies. Between them, they took care of the move and got her settled on top of the McFarland Tower. Every window looked out on a superb view of the Salt Lake Valley and the mountains encircling it.
From the kitchen, she had an eastern exposure and could see Mount Olympus, covered in snow. This morning while she'd been working with Cord, he'd told her there was fresh powder up Little Cottonwood Canyon in Alta, where he and Kit lived.
They'd made plans to ski tomorrow. Their first outing of the season. She couldn't wait. Cord was a fabulous skier and had given her lessons every winter. Kathryn was getting pretty good at it, if she said so herself.
Cord was the true mountain man of the family. In that regard, they were soul mateslike the first McFarland who'd claimed a lot of land in the Albion Basin for his own before the turn of the last century.
She'd seen it for the first time in summer, when the meadows were a riot of wildflowers. A euphoric Kath-ryn had thought she loved that season best until fall arrived and the trees turned to gold and flame everywhere she hiked.
Then came the majesty of winter, so white and gorgeous. She hated to see it go, but when spring followed and the primroses poked their pink heads out of the melting snow, the signs of new life filled her with indescribable yearnings for the changes yet to come. After living in a flat part of the country so many years, she couldn't get enough of the Rockies and was a constant visitor to Cord's mountain home.
When she heard her iPhone ring, she'd just taken a bite of peach yogurt. It was probably her brother making final arrangements for tomorrow. She clicked on and said hello.
"Hi, Kathryn. It's Bonnie Frank." The woman worked at North Avenues Hospital in the patient advocacy department funded by the McFarland Foundation.
"Hey, Bonnie. How are you?"
"Ask me tomorrow morning when I haven't been on my feet all day."
Kathryn chuckled. "I hear you." She took some more bites. "What's going on?"
"The E.R. just contacted me. A teenage runaway was admitted a few minutes ago after collapsing on a downtown street. Nancy Isom was the head nurse on duty and she couldn't get any information from the girl, so she called my office asking for you. I know it's dinnertime, but do you think you could drop by the hospital sometime this evening and interview this one? I've gotten absolutely nowhere with her."
"I'll come now." The sooner she dealt with the problem, the sooner she could get to bed. A day of skiing gave her a real workout and needed to be fortified with a good night's sleep.
"You're an angel. I'll let them know you're on your way."
Kathryn rang off before freshening up in the bathroom. After making sure she had a McFarland Foundation brochure in her purse, she put on her parka and left the condo.
The private elevator took her to the underground car park where the security guard waved to her. She got in her Jeep and took off for the hospital, located a mile away. She phoned her parents en route to see how their day had gone.
After all those years, when she'd wondered if she had a mother and father who were even alive, it seemed miraculous that Kathryn could call them up whenever she felt like it. She adored them.
There was one slice of pizza left in the pan. Colt glanced at Matt. "Do you want to wrestle for the last piece?"
He screwed up his face. "That's all right, Dad. I want to live to see another day. You can have it."
Colt laughed. "I liked that reversal you came up with before the ref blew the whistle. Good job."
"Thanks." Matt reached for the pizza, as Colt knew he would, and made short work of it.
The waitress came to refill their glasses, but Colt shook his head. After she walked away, he pulled out his wallet and left a couple of bills on the table. "Shall we?"
They both got to their feet at the same time and shrugged into their parkas before heading for the entrance to the pizza parlor. "Hey, Dad, want to see a movie?"
"Sure. With your sister gone, we'll make it an official guys' night out." They walked into the frigid air. "What's playing?"
"The latest vampire film."
"I thought that was a chick flick," he teased.
"It is, but Marcus was talking about it at the match. He said it was pretty good."
"I guess I can stand it if you can. Allie can't seem to get enough of the Twilight series."
Two hours later Colt said, "Believe it or not, I liked it."
"Me, too!" Matt blurted, eager to talk about it as they left the theater.
Halfway to the truck, parked around the corner, they heard, "Hi, Matt! Hi, Mr. Brenner! Where's Allie?"
He glanced around, surprised to see Carrie and Michelle, two of Allie's good friends. Colt would have thought they'd be at the sleepover, but evidently they hadn't been invited. Allie had given him the impression it would be a big group. It appeared somebody must have hurt somebody else's feelings. Diplomacy was called for.
"She made other plans. Did you two like the film?"
Michelle smiled. "We loved it."
"Did you?" Carrie asked Matt.
"It was okay," he answered in a quiet voice, hiding his enthusiasm.
Colt got a kick out of his son, who acted like a typical male around girls. At that age, shyness hadn't been one of Colt's problems. His ease around girls had probably facilitated his early marriage. Would that Matt took a little longer to grow up before he made a commitment that would change his life.
They reached the corner. "See you girls later. Don't let any vampires bite you tonight."
The girls broke into laughter. "Bye, Mr. Brenner."
"Bye, Matt." Carrie again.
His son said something indistinct before they parted company and headed for the truck.
On the way home he turned to Matt. "This morning on the bus, did your sister say anything about a quarrel with her friends?"
"No." He darted him a curious glance. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I thought all Allie's friends were going to be over at Jen's tonight."
Matt shrugged. "I don't know, but she was kind of quiet on the bus."