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Gracie Stone sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea growing cold in front of her. She gathered her frayed bathrobe around her against the night's chill and glanced up at the clock, wincing when she saw it was almost midnight. Every time she was ready to doze off, she remembered the determined voices of her grown sons as they had vowed earlier in the day that they were going to find a husband for her.
"They're just worried about me living alone," she muttered to Rusty, the dog lying at her feet. There had been a string of gas station robberies up north around Havre, and she supposed the boys were right to be concerned.
"But a husband? That's a bit extreme," she said, telling her faithful companion the same thing she'd told her sons, as she bent down to rub the dog's ears. She had returned to the family ranch in Dry Creek, Montana, to get her old life back, not start a new one. "They should know I'm not going to take a chance on marriage again."
Suddenly, a flicker of light shone briefly through the window above the sink.
Gracie blinked before realizing it had to be the headlights of a vehicle driving over the small rise in the lane that led to her house. She figured she might as well put the teakettle back on the burner. As she stood up, she wondered which of her three sons had looked out his window in the middle of the night and noticed that her light was on. Each lived with his newlywed wife on the ranch property, their individual houses just far apart enough to need separate driveways.
Gracie reached up to the cupboard for another mug. She would appreciate the company tonight even if she had to listen to another lecture on the virtues of matrimony. Rusty seemed to agree. He'd gotten to his feet and was running in circles around the table, barking as he went.
"Hush now," she said. The dog was always excited to see her sons.
Just then, she heard the sound of the engine stopping. Shortly thereafter she heard a faint knock on her kitchen door.
She paused, the mug still in her hand. She hadn't heard footsteps on the porch, and all of her sons wore cowboy boots that beat a loud rhythm as they pounded up those old wooden steps. Rusty usually didn't carry on for this long when they came, either.
"Just a minute," she called as she set the cup down on the counter and tightened the sash on her robe. Her feet were bare, but that couldn't be helped. At least she was wearing an old T-shirt and sweatpants under her robe.
She stepped over to the sink and looked through the window. The porch was around the corner, but she could see a small car, its headlights still on, parked in her driveway. She didn't recognize the vehicle, but then none of the neighbors would be knocking at her door at this time of night without phoning first anyway.
"Yes?" she said as she walked closer to the door.
Her youngest son, Tyler, had called a few hours ago to make sure she had locked both doors before going to bed, and she was glad she had followed his advice. The October night was darker than usual, so she assumed the clouds were still overhead. The stars were hidden and winter was forecast to come early this year. Tonight was already cold.
She didn't hear anything for a minute. Rusty had stopped barking, but he walked over to the door and growled low in his throat.
"I need" a woman started, her voice so soft Gracie couldn't hear more than that even though she had been leaning close to the door.
Gracie breathed a sigh of relief. The robberies had been committed by two men in black ski masks. There'd been no mention of a woman. Rusty's growl faded, and that meant he was satisfied with whoever was on the other side of the door.
Still, Gracie figured she needed to show some caution.
"Where are you headed?" she asked. Anyone who was lost on these gravel roads wouldn't be able to find their way in the dark; that much she knew. Half of these old roads weren't even marked. And there were no lights, of course.
"Calen Gray," the woman said, her voice falling with each syllable as though her strength was draining away.
"Calen?" Gracie repeated in surprise. He was the foreman of the nearby Elkton Ranch and was in church most Sundays, even though she seldom greeted him. She never knew what to say; he'd seen her and her late husband at their worst years ago, and there were some things she preferred to forget. She expected he felt the same way.
Gracie was reaching for the doorknob when she heard a soft thud.
Dear Lord, what is wrong? She prayed for guidance as she turned the lock. She opened the door slowly and stared into the darkness. The light from her kitchen was weak. The headlights from the car lit up the yard, but the partiallyenclosed porch stayed in shadows.
Gracie heard a moan and looked down to her right. The woman must have tried to steady herself on the wooden cabinet before crumpling to the slatted floor next to it. Rusty had slipped out of the house and was sniffing around her.
"Are you all right?" Gracie asked softly as she knelt down and motioned for Rusty to back away. The young woman's denim-clad legs were at an awkward angle. Her skin was clammy as Gracie touched her face. There was not even a murmur in response. Gracie looked closer and brushed aside the woman's brown hair. That's when she saw a dark bruise above the woman's eye. Another faded one showed on her cheek.
Gracie recognized discolorations like that, and her lips tightened. Someone had hit this young woman recently and not for the first time.
"She might not even be out of high school," Gracie looked up and muttered to Rusty. He looked over in sympathy, but obediently kept to the edge of the steps.
Fortunately, the new wall phone her sons had installed was close to the door, and Gracie only needed to stand and reach through the opening to pull the phone to her. She called Tyler, since he'd had some medical training in the military.
"I need your help," Gracie said when her son answered. "A woman passed out on the porch and she's"
"I'll be right there," he said. Then he hung up.
Gracie nodded even though Tyler couldn't see her. He kept a first aid bag near his back door and he'd bring it along.
The woman stirred again. Gracie thought maybe Rusty made her uncomfortable, but when the woman opened her eyes and glanced around frantically, she didn't even pause as she glanced at the dog. Gracie knew it was more than that.
"It's just my son coming over," Gracie murmured, but that didn't seem to soothe the woman. "He's one of the good guys. You're safe here. No one will hurt you."
So it was a man she feared, Gracie thought to herself.
The woman's eyes closed again, although her breath was still ragged.
Gracie realized she continued to hold the phone in her hand. She punched in another number, one she had memorized years ago when she'd thought she might need this kind of help herself. She'd longed for a friend back then almost as much as she did now. Her husband had kept her so isolated. But she'd never called the number until now.
She had no sooner said his name than she realized she did not know him well enough these days to trust him. He'd given her that number almost twenty years ago. He might go to church now, but she didn't really know that he was safe.
"I'm sorryI" The woman moaned.
"I dialed the wrong number," Gracie said, even though she knew it made no sense. She disconnected the call and set the phone down on the floor of the porch. It had been so long since she'd been in an abusive relationship that she had forgotten the first rule of protection. Never assume that a man is innocent just because he seems nice on the surface. No one, except her teenage sons, had known her husband was severely beating her all those years ago.
She reached over to reassure the woman. By that time, a strong beam from approaching headlights flickered through the screen on the porch. Rusty moved in closer and gave a quick yip.
"My son's here," Gracie murmured, and left her hand on the woman's shoulder. "He'll be able to help you."
The woman seemed fragile and that only made Gracie want to protect her more. She'd been blessed with sons, but had always wanted a daughter, too.
She wondered what Calen's relationship was to this stranger. He never asked for prayers for himself in church, so she had no idea what his life was like. But then, she never asked for prayers, either. She preferred to keep her business to herself, so she couldn't fault him for doing the same. Still, it made her uneasy. She'd never figured Calen for the kind of man who would get involved with a woman so much younger than himself.
It was a pity really, because apart from that Calen was She'd scarcely started that thought when she stopped. Maybe her sons were more astute than she had realized. She might not trust any man enough to marry him, but she suddenly wished she could. Not that it would be Calen, of course. They had too much history. But sometimes, like now, she missed having a man at her side. She'd had a miserable marriage, yet she still believed a couple could live happily ever after if they loved each other enough.
She shook her head at her own foolishness and took a long look at the bruises on the woman in front of her. That should be reminder enough. Some women didn't get a happily ever after. They got a nightmare instead. She wondered if the young woman still dreamed of true love and if she thought she'd found it with a ranch foreman who had to be twice her age.
Calen sat in his bedroom in the Elkton bunkhouse and stared at the phone in his hand. The darkness outside his window was deep and the night was silent. He'd heard the panic in Gracie's voice. And he didn't believe she had dialed his number by mistake.
Without thinking, he swung his legs out of bed. It would only take him a couple of minutes to go to her place and check on her. He had failed to help her when she'd needed him more than a decade ago; he wasn't going to let her down again.
He barely had time to pray for every worry that raced through his mind before he pulled into the driveway that led to the main Stone ranch house. As he sped over the small rise, he could see a car and two pickups parked near the porch.
Calen pulled his pickup to a stop behind the last vehicle and started walking over to the porch. A dog turned and growled at him, but Calen didn't hesitate. He was prepared to knock on Gracie's kitchen door, but there was no need. The door was wide open, even though two people were kneeling in the shadows.
"What's wrong?" he said as he took the steps up to the porch.
"I shouldn't have called you," Gracie said as she looked up. He didn't think she was really aware of him until he spoke.
"Please leave," she added. "Everything's fine."
Gracie's long black hair was pulled into a braid that ran down her back. She always had been a striking woman, and her Cherokee ancestry was pronounced in the shadows. Dark brown eyes were cold as she looked at him. Her fine-boned hands gripped the collar of her cotton robe with enough strength to betray her agitation, even though her face told him absolutely nothing of her thoughts.
"I'm not going to leave until you tell me what's wrong." He was relieved to see that Gracie's youngest son, Tyler, was the other person kneeling there. The two of them had fished together many years ago. Even as a boy, he'd always had good sense.
"We have a bit of a situation here," Tyler answered, lifting his head.
"Someone has been beating up on this woman," Gracie interrupted fiercely, her emotions breaking through now and her eyes flashing as they met Calen's. "And it's not going to happen again."
He couldn't miss her meaning. "I've never hit a woman in my life."
Did she really think that of him? he wondered in dismay.
"You and my husband grew up together," she continued bitterly. "You were best friends. I had forgotten that until now."
Calen felt the guilt twist inside of him. He didn't know how he hadn't seen that abusive side of Buck Stone. "If I had known what was happening in this house, I would have done something. You have to believe that."
Gracie was silent. They'd both gone through some rough times, Calen told himself. He was forty-eight years old now. She was a year younger. Maybe if he hadn't been so strongly attracted to her when she'd moved to Dry Creek back in high school, he would have kept hanging out with Buck after he'd married her. Maybe then he would have seen the changes in the man.
"We need to call the sheriff." Tyler spoke without looking up from the woman.
"What?" Gracie and Calen said in unison as they turned to stare at him.
"Someone may have been beating up on her," Tyler explained. "But the reason she passed out is that she's been shot. It's more of a graze than anything, but she has been slowly losing blood."
Tyler shifted his position as he held up a hand with a small spot of red. When he moved, Calen was finally able to see the face of the woman lying on the porch.
"Renee?" he whispered.
"You know her?" Gracie asked. Her tone was flat, and she didn't give away her feelings even though he sensed she disapproved.
Calen turned to look at her squarely. "Renee is my daughter."
A wave of shock flashed across Gracie's face. Her skin paled and her lips parted as if she was going to say something, but couldn't think of the words. If they'd talked about anything important in the past decade, he would have mentioned his daughter to her. He wondered if Buck had even told her about his brief marriage to Renee's mother.
"Tell the sheriff we need an ambulance," Tyler said as he picked up the phone lying on the porch and handed it to Calen. "Your Renee put some kind of bandage on the wound herself, but it didn't work. The sooner we get her to an emergency room, the better."
Calen took the phone as Tyler turned back to his patient.