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Amy Grey smacked the side of the ancient adding machine. "Print, damn it." The machine revolted and the decimal key stuckagain. If she wasn't careful, she'd be paying a bill that equaled the national debt. Decimal points were important.
It was quite pathetic, really, that one of the things she hoped someone would get her for her birthday was a new calculator. She shoved away the image of the computer she'd seen at the Best Buy in Phoenix on her last trip. Nope. Not even a possibility.
She rubbed her eyes and knew she should go to bed. There wasn't much more she could do tonight, and her six-year-old daughter, Katie, would be up early tomorrow.
A cool evening breeze wafted across the nape of Amy's neck. It felt good to rub her stiff shoulders. She'd locked up the store hours ago, but left the back door open.
She could hear the sounds of the small town shutting down. Traffic was sparse. The old streetlight buzzed and there were a few hollers of excitement from playing kids. Soon, the desert animals would wake and begin their scurrying.
Peace. This was what she craved.
Another sound caught her attention and made her listen more carefully. Even footfalls on the sidewalk, accompanied by the soft snick of a cane tip, told her Hank Benton was headed this way. With a tired smile, she went to meet him at the door.
He emerged from the shadows and into the yard light. His heavy work boots clapped on the broken cement. Worn jeans and the leather vest he wore over his cotton shirt looked the same as they did every day.
She'd seen pictures of him and her mother when they'd been young. His brown hair had hung well down the back of that leather vest. Now, what was left of it was cropped close to his scalp and tended to show more silver than brown.
Once the foreman on the ranch where she'd grown up, Hank had always been a part of Amy's life. She'd heard stories of his wild past, but he'd always been good to her.
"May I come in?" At her nod, Hank stepped through the old screen door and she returned to her miniscule office. He leaned on the door frame in a familiar pose. "Problems?" He was several feet away, but Amy felt as if he were standing right behind her chair. She needed a bigger office, too. Sending up a silent prayer to the office fairy, she started putting everything away.
"Nope." She answered his spoken question instead of the real issue she saw lurking in his eyes. She cleared the machine's readout. "Just this silly decimal key. I'll try again tomorrow."
Hank was the closest thing Amy had to a father. He'd stepped in when her mom had grown too sick to take care of herself and a fifteen-year-old girl. Amy knew she'd never have made it through the past nine years without him. Hank was one of the few people she dared to trust.
"But thanks for asking." She switched off the desk light and stood. "Want a cup?" Without waiting for his reply, she shut the office door and led the way through the closed store. The single lamp up front cast little light, but they knew the layout well enough to pass through without problems. Hank's footsteps were slower than hers, and loud, thanks to his boots, on the old wood floor.
Walking down the main aisle of her small general store, Amy let her hands trail over the merchandise. She loved this ancient building. It had been built back in the 1890s during the copper boom that had created the town. And it hadn't changed much in the past hundred years.
Since buying the business two years ago, Amy had made only a couple of changes, and as she reached the front of the store, she smiled with pride. Where the soda fountain had once stood, she'd installed a new coffee bar. In the front window, she'd placed four small bistro tables and chairs. The old marble-top counter held the espresso machine, the steamer and two glass cake stands filled with her special cookies.
She wasn't a whiz in the kitchen the way her mother had been, but with all the new coffee-brewing equipment, she could make a danged good drink. She didn't look at Hank as she pulled out ingredients.
"Just a normal cup, thanks. None of that fancy-shmancy stuff." He settled into one of the empty chairs, then reached up and pulled the old-fashioned shade down. They were right on Main Street, after all, and the shade gave them a bit of privacy. Amy smiled, enjoying the homey comfort of the room and Hank's company.
She tried to hide her smile as she brewed Hank's single cup of the French roast he liked in her "fancyshmancy" machine, then made herself a small decaf latte.
She'd just taken her first sip when she noticed the envelope sticking out of Hank's shirt pocket. She frowned, knowing intuitively that he'd come here to talk about whatever was in that envelope.
Hank wasn't smiling. He wasn't looking at her. He was staring into the coffee he wasn't drinking.
"Okay, what's up?" She'd rather face it head-on, not keep waiting and worrying.
He looked at her then. Without saying anything, he reached for the envelope and pulled out the contents, flattening the papers on the tabletop. "This came today."
The pages crinkled and she picked them up. Government papers. Taxes due. Not overdue, she noted. Just due. And due soon.
On the ranch.
She dropped the pages. They landed on the table and lay there, defenseless but accusing. "These come every year," she said dismissively. "Do just like you always do and pay it from the estate. I'll sign the check." Why had he brought this to her?
"Yeah, this isn't new. Only difference is, this year will be the last time we can pay it."
"Your mother's estate doesn't have much left. It will barely cover this. There's nothing left for next year. Or for anything else, like a new coffee bar." He paused, finally taking a sip of the cooling drink. "It's time to consider selling, Amy."
He was kidding, right? Sell the ranch? She couldn't. Amy stared across the table at him. "No."
"You can't avoid talking about it this time. We could break up the pastures, the house, parcel it out. But you won't get as much as if you sell it all together."
She looked at the neat column of numbers, tracking down to the total. Her heart sank. She met Hank's gaze and knew he could see her disappointment.
"That's why I'm bringing it up now," he continued. "At least if you sell, you'll have something. If you don't, and can't pay the taxes next year, the government will take it. You'll have nothing."
"Mom wouldn't want me to sell it."
"And she'd like it if you lost it?"
"That's not fair." Why was he acting like this? Why hadn't he said something before? Maybe he had. Maybe Amy hadn't listened. She hadn't been willing to talk about this. It wasn't as if she was now, either, but she didn't think she had much choice.
Hank looked about as uncomfortable as she'd ever seen him. He rubbed the back of his neck as if that would push the troubles away. The lines on his face were even deeper than on the day of Mom's funeral. Amy wanted to make him happy, wanted to do what she knew needed to be done. But she couldn't.
"Madeline's not here anymore," he whispered. "And I'm too old to work a ranch. It's just a waste, sitting vacant."
"Doesn't Martin still lease the south pastures?"
"Yeah, but it's lowend, and only a small part of the property. It's not enough. No one else is interested in a lease."
Amy leaned back and met Hank's determined stare.
"Look." He rested his forearms on the table. "I know you're busy with the store and raising Katie. You don't need to worry about this. I'll take care of all the arrangements to put it on the market. All you'll have to do is approve the final deal and sign the papers."
A little of her frustration dissipated. Hank was just trying to help. She looked up at him, loving him and knowing he cared about her and wanted what was best for her and Katie. But while she couldn't live at the ranch, she didn't like the idea of giving up her ancestral home, either.
Three generations of her family had owned the ranch, five if she counted herself and Katie. It was all she had left of them, even if she couldn't go there.
Hank didn't know what had happened, not all of it, anyway. She'd never told anyone. That pain remained locked inside her. It threatened from time to time to escape, like now, but she kept a tight rein on that part of her past.
Maybe Hank was right. Maybe it was time to let go and escape the reminders. If only it were that easy to erase the hurtful memories.
"At least think about it." Hank stood and slowly backed away, taking his warmth and familiarity with him. "You've got time before we have to make this payment. But the market's slow so the decision to sell can't wait forever." He turned and left, leaving the papers on the table. He stopped halfway to the back door. "You know where I'll be."
She heard the screen door open, and a moment later, the cool evening breeze slipped in and ruffled the pages, lifting the top one and tossing it at her feet.
She kicked at it, and it simply blanketed her shoe. She stomped her foot but it still clung. She heard the page rip and didn't care. She really didn't care.
She turned back around and stared after Hank. Her gaze wandered to the hallway to the left, the one that led down to the tiny apartment she and Katie shared.
Her throat ached. Katie. She wanted to go downstairs and snuggle up next to her daughter, hold her tight, silently promising that everything would be all right. But she'd be lying to her, just as she kept lying to herself.
She wasn't any better at fixing things than her own mother had been.