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Chapter 1: Bad News
Alison Chant stared at the telephone message in her hand.
"You can't do this to me!" she shouted into the silence of the Mustang Mountain Ranch kitchen. Her cry echoed back from the high ceiling.
Seconds later, her cousin Becky Sandersen banged through the ranch house door and skidded into the kitchen. "Alison? I heard yelling. Are you okay?"
"No, I'm not okay." Alison thrust the message at Becky. "Read this." She watched her cousin's brown eyes widen as she read the news.
"This is awful." Becky glanced up at her slender, dark-haired cousin. "Your parents aren't getting back together like they said."
"Can you believe it?" Alison's voice was high and scornful. "They didn't even have the nerve to tell me in person. They left a message with Slim, the cook."
"It's hard to get through to the ranch on the radio-phone." Becky started to make excuses.
"They could have tried a little harder." Alison shook her head. "My parents treat me like I'm some kind of suitcase they left in storage First, Dad couldn't take me to Paris in July -- even though he promised -- because he and Mom were in couples therapy. Fine, so they shipped me here to Mustang Mountain, where nobody, including you, was glad to see me."
Becky's normally rosy cheeks flushed a deeper red. "That's not true!"
"Yes, it is, and you know it," Alison rushed on, "but I didn't care because my parents were getting together again. I could live in my old house in New York, be near my friend Meg, go back to our old school. I even gave you my horse, my Shadow, because I was going home."
She grabbed the note back from Becky and smacked it with herhand. "And now this. I'm not going home. My whole life is unraveling like a cheap sweater!"
"I'm sorry ..." Becky could see that behind Alison's scornful face, she was trembling with hurt and anger. Her cousin could go from an elegant, poised fifteen-year-old to a spoiled five-year-old in a flash.
"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me." Alison sniffed. "I want a normal life."
"It -- it's not all bad." Becky reached for her cousin's hand. "You can have Shadow back. Now that you're staying in Alberta, you won't have to leave her at Mustang Mountain."
"No. Forget it." Alison straightened her shoulders. "Shadow is your horse."
"But now you won't have to trailer her across the continent," Becky argued. "That's what you were so worried about -- that she wouldn't make the long trip..."
"I said forget it!" Alison insisted. "Shadow hates crowds and noise and traveling. She'll never make a good barrel racing horse."
That wasn't totally true, Alison thought. Her little paint mare was getting better at dealing with strange situations. But my mind is made up, she told herself firmly. I'm not like my father, who breaks promises as if they were breadsticks!
"Anyway," she gulped, "Chuck said he'd help me find a new horse before I went back east. Now that I'm not going back... we'll have lots of time to horse hunt." Chuck was a cowboy who'd turned up at Mustang Mountain last month. He'd soon be heading home to his ranch near Calgary.
Alison glanced at the note in her hand, then gazed around at the kitchen's warm wood walls. "Mom says she'll pick me up on the weekend. We're moving back into our dumpy little townhouse in Homer Creek," she sighed miserably. "In the middle of summer."
Alison's mother had rented a truck and horse trailer to transport Shadow from the ranch to Homer Creek. The empty trailer bounced in the dust as she and Alison drove down the dirt road from Mustang Mountain two days later.
"Why didn't you tell me you were leaving Shadow behind?" Marion Chant complained. "All this money wasted on a horse van!"
"If you'd bothered to call me, I would have told you," Alison growled. "I'm going to be looking for a new barrel racing horse."
"We can't afford a new horse," Marion announced. "And that's final."
"What about Dad? Doesn't he have to help support me?" Alison asked. Her dad was a wealthy businessman in New York.
"Your father's paying your sister Ashley's college bills." Marion glanced at her daughter's determined face. "Your Grandmother Chant has plenty of money. You could ask her."
"Never!" Alison exploded. "Grandmother hates anything to do with the west, including western riding. You know that. But if I'm going to live in Alberta, I have to barrel race. I need a horse."
"You had a horse." Marion shook her head angrily. "I can't understand why you gave Shadow to Becky -- after all the trouble you had adopting the mare in the first place." She glanced in the rearview mirror at the cloud of dust rising behind the horse trailer. "Don't get me wrong -- I'm glad I'm not dragging that mustang down this mountain, but why on earth did you give her away?"
"Because I thought we were moving back to New York." Alison could feel her teeth starting to grind. "Remember that plan?"
"Well, then, there's a simple solution." Her mother shrugged. "Get Becky to give Shadow back."
"That may be your simple solution, but it's not mine!" Alison turned away in disgust. The little paint she'd adopted from the wild belonged at Mustang Mountain, not in some Calgary suburb. Becky loved her. And I promised, she reminded herself fiercely.
"Then the matter is closed," Marion told her. "We'll have no more discussion about horses."
Alison looked over her shoulder for one last glimpse of Mustang Mountain disappearing behind the other peaks of the Rockies. Then she hunched down in the front seat of the rental truck and prepared herself not to speak to her mother for the rest of the ride back to Homer Creek.