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The three Colton sisters sat in the parlor area of Catherine's bedroom suite, each of them pretending to carry on a casual conversation while ignoring the reason they were gathered together.
The pregnancy test Catherine had just taken was in the adjoining bathroom and none of them had looked at it yet to see the results.
The suite was three rooms: the sitting area, the bedroom and the bath. All were decorated in a splendor of pinks and black with silver accessories. This was Catherine's haven, the place she felt most safe and secure, but at the moment her nerves screamed inside her.
"Jim Radar's bull got himself all tangled up in a mess of barbed wire this morning. It took me hours to get him unwound and cleaned up," Amanda said. At twenty-eight, Amanda had a successful large animal veterinarian practice and a six-month-old daughter, Cheyenne, who was the love of her life. "I gave Jim a lecture about the dangers of barbed wire, but I think it went in one ear and out the other."
"How's the barn project coming along?" Catherine asked her younger sister, Gabriella. Gabby had a dream of turning an old red barn on the property into a center for troubled teens. She was not only devoted to her project but also planning a Christmas wedding with Trevor Garth, head of security here at the Dead River Ranch.
"Slowly," Gabby admitted, her green eyes sparkling with happiness. "I keep getting distracted by wedding plans. It's already October and that doesn't give me much time to have a perfect wedding by December."
"It's going to be a beautiful wedding and hopefully it will bring some joy into this place," Catherine replied.
Amanda sighed with a touch of impatience. "We've only got an hour before dinnertime. Shouldn't somebody go in there and check and find out if the answer is yes or no?"
Once again Catherine's nerves jumped erratically inside her veins, as if attempting to make a hasty escape. How had she gotten herself into the situation where she'd even have to take a pregnancy test? Before the question fully formed in her head, she knew the answer. She'd been such a fool. They'd always been so careful, always had what she assumed was safe sex, but apparently it was possible that at some point a condom hadn't done its job.
She stood from the dainty pink-and-white chair where she'd been seated, an anxious dread attempting to weigh her back down. "I guess I'll go find out."
Gabby jumped up off the chaise where she and Amanda had been seated. She grabbed hold of Catherine's cold hand. "I'll go with you, Cath."
The whole thing felt surreal. When Catherine had missed her first period she'd chalked it up to all the stress and madness that had been taking place over the past couple of months at the ranch. When she'd missed her second period, she'd finally decided it was time to take the test. And now it was the moment of truth.
She squeezed Gabby's hand tightly as they entered the large, plush bathroom. The plastic test container was on the back of the stool and within five steps of it she could see the result. The positive sign glared up at her.
She was vaguely aware of Gabby's small gasp, but a curious numbness swept over Catherine. Pregnant. She was pregnant. The words went around and around in her head, but she couldn't grasp the concept.
She picked up the test and threw it into the small trash can next to the commode and then she and Gabby returned to the sitting room. Gabby gave a nod to Amanda as Catherine sank back down on her chair.
"So, what are you going to do, Cath?" Amanda asked.
"I don't know. I'm not sure. I need some time to think," Catherine replied. "Neither of you can tell anyone about this. It has to be our secret until I figure things out."
Amanda nodded solemnly. "My lips are sealed."
"Pinky swear," Gabby said. "You know your secret is safe with us."
Catherine did know. She and her sisters had always been a team, confiding in each other, trusting each other, especially lately when there was such tension, such a sense of uncertainty and a faint simmer of danger in the house.
"I need to go check on Cheyenne," Amanda said as she stood.
"And I've got some things to get to before dinner." Gabby gazed at Catherine in concern. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Of course." Catherine forced a smile to her lips.
"Do you need to talk or something?"
Catherine shook her head. "I just need some time to process everything. I think I'll head out to the petting barn for a little while before it's time to eat."
She'd be able to think more clearly there among the little creatures that depended on her for their care. She'd always found peace in the petting barn and she definitely needed some peace at the moment.
Thankfully, as she made her way downstairs and to one of the back doors, she encountered nobody. She didn't want to see anyone right now, didn't want to have to indulge in idle chitchat. She needed to embrace the fact that she was pregnant by a man she'd thought she might be in love with, a man she now abhorred.
The Dead River Ranch was one of the most prosperous spreads in Wyoming. The two-thousand-acre ranch was located in the Laramie Mountains, forty miles from Cheyenne.
The enormous mansion housed not only the three sisters, but also their sickly father, other relatives and staff and ranch hands. It was an entire community unto itself, and for the past three months the community had been folding in on itself, but she couldn't think about all that right now.
Not only was the house huge, but there were outbuildings everywhere and the remains of several that had burned in a horrible fire that had occurred two months before.
Old barns competed with new ones, stables and sheds dotted the landscape against a backdrop of blue endless skies and thick woods of a variety of trees.
As she stepped outside, she drew in a deep breath of the fresh, slightly bracing October air. It smelled of evergreen tinged wind from the mountains and of pastures browning with the cooler air. Cattle were visible in the distance, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine while they grazed.
She headed toward the miniature barn where the petting area was located next to the huge stables building. The petting barn had been built two years ago when Catherine had found herself the unexpected owner of two friendly ferrets.
The owner of the ferrets, a friend of Catherine's, was getting married and moving and she didn't want to take her little babies to the local animal pound. Catherine had taken them and then had talked her father into building the petting barn.
She'd known her father, Jethro, would like the idea of a place where school and scout groups could come.
He loved the idea of anyone visiting the ranch and admiring all that he'd built here.
The minute she opened the waist-high white gate that surrounded a small outdoor arena, Inky and Dinky, the two miniature donkeys brayed a greeting and competed with two sheep, three pygmy goats and a pot-bellied pig to get her attention.
She laughed as she was nudged and head-butted by the variety of animals all vying for an ear scratch, a belly-rub or the nuggets of grains she often carried with her before coming into the enclosure. "Sorry, kids, nothing for you this afternoon," she said. Her words didn't lessen the enthusiasm of the furry, fluffy creatures who loved her with or without treats.
It took several minutes for her to make sure that each and every one of them got a little special time and then she headed inside the miniature barn that housed the smaller animals. Rabbits ran in a fenced area and ducks quacked their happiness as they swam in a small pool that was continuously fed fresh water. A large cage held Frick and Frack, the two ferrets who were favorites among the school and scout troops that came to visit the hands-on animal barn.
During those visits, Catherine acted as spokeswoman, educating the kids on each type of animal and their natural habitats and origins. It was something she loved to do when she got the opportunity.
There were stalls to house the outdoor animals during the harsh, cold winters and the entire barn was heated to keep everyone toasty while the snow flew outside and the temperatures dropped to subzero.
Today, as she checked food and water containers, petted and stroked each and every animal, her mind was a million miles away.
She was pregnant.
Catherine admired Amanda her veterinarian business and Gabby for her commitment to troubled teens. At twenty-six years old Catherine hadn't yet figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
All she'd ever really dreamed of was being a wife and a mother. She'd once believed that would happen with Gray Stark, one of the ranch hands whom she'd loved with every fiber of her being when she'd been a teenager. Then one day she'd awakened to discover that he'd left Dead River Ranch and her behind without a word of explanation.
It had taken her a long time to realize he wasn't coming back, that whatever they'd shared was over and eventually she got on with her life. Thank goodness she hadn't waited around for him. He'd been gone from the ranch for five long years.
She lowered her hand to stroke a small circle across her still-flat lower stomach. Pregnant. Be careful what you wish for, she thought ruefully as she headed back toward the gate. She'd gotten half her wish, but the timing couldn't be worse.
She and the father of the baby had broken up two months ago and nothing and nobody would fix that particular relationship. She didn't want it fixed under any circumstances.
An attempted kidnapping, a couple of murders and a dozen other crimes had created a houseful of distrust and wariness. Her father was on his deathbed and she and her sisters had been working hard in an attempt to locate their half brother Cole, who had been kidnapped over thirty years ago.
Now wasn't the time for her to be an unwed mother, and yet that's exactly what she intended to be. The minute she had seen the positive sign on the test she'd known she was going to have this baby.
She paused at the gate, nervously twirling a strand of her hair with one hand while the other moved to her stomach once again.
Despite the fact that she'd grown to hate the man she'd been dating, the scoundrel who had fathered the baby, she already loved the life growing inside her. This was her baby and there was no way she'd let Dirk Sinclair know anything about it. He'd shown his true colors and she didn't want him anywhere near her or her baby.
A wave of light-headedness swept over her as she stepped out of the gate. She clung to the fence, waiting for it to pass, but it seemed to get worse.
It was all too much.
Her head spun with memories of the night somebody had attempted to kidnap her little niece, Cheyenne, and the unsolved murder of the governess Faye Frick who had tried to intervene. Poor cook's assistant Jenny Burke, murdered in the ranch kitchen pantry and her killer not yet found.
Flashes fired off in her brain of her father in his bed, looking like death as he drifted in and out of comas because of the cancer that ate at him. So much, there was suddenly too much spinning around in her head.
And now, in all the chaos and uncertainty, she was pregnant. Everything whirled faster and faster in her mind and then light-headedness overwhelmed her. She slumped to the ground with her back against the fence. She just needed a minute to rest. She'd be fine if she could just rest a bit, she thought as darkness claimed her.
He smelled her long before he saw her. Ranch foreman Gray Stark had a history with that distinctive fragrance of exotic spices and mysterious flowers. Catherine Colton had worn it for the year and a half he'd loved her, for the five years that he'd hated her and now for the past four years of his cold indifference toward her.
He only had to take a couple of steps out of the stable and he knew she was someplace nearby. The scent eddied in the air, rising above the smell of animals and hay and oiled leather.
She was probably at the petting barn. He glanced at his watch and noted that it was nearing dinnertime. He wondered if she knew how late it was getting.
Although his usual pattern was to avoid being anyplace where he thought she might be, he decided to walk over to the small barn and let her know that it was almost time to eat.
He knew she often lost track of time when she was tending to the ranch's animals. She'd always loved the creatures of the earth and was a natural at nurturing all the ones in her care.
As he ambled toward the small barnlike structure, he steeled himself to see her. He'd believed he'd cast her out of his head, out of his heart in the five years that he'd been away from Dead River Ranch and working on a ranch in Montana.
Four years ago when his father, the former ranch foreman, had become ill, Gray had come back to Dead River Ranch and when his father had passed, Gray had become the new foreman.
In all that time there were moments he almost forgot that he'd once loved Catherine Colton, there were increments of time that he almost forgot the depth of her betrayal. But, seeing her always wrought myriad emotions in him, emotions that he consciously schooled to indifference.
She had no place in his life and he had none in hers. He'd learned that lesson when he'd been eighteen years old, a hard lesson that he was likely never to forget.
Any indifference he might have felt for her fled as he rounded the corner to the petting barn and saw her slumped on the ground against the fence.
Adrenaline roared through him as he raced to her side, his gun pulled and at the ready. Had she been attacked? He hadn't been that far away in the stables and he hadn't heard her cry out, hadn't heard anything that would warrant action or warn of any danger.
It took only a quick assessment to assure him that she didn't appear to have any wounds anywhere. He tucked his gun back into the holster, sat next to her on the ground and pulled her into his arms.
"Catherine?" Everyone around the ranch called her Cath, but when Gray had returned to Dead River Ranch, he'd decided he'd never call her by that affectionate nickname again. He also refused to call her Miss Catherine as all the other staff did. Cath had been a woman he loved. Catherine was just one of his bosses.
He felt the side of her neck, where her pulse was steady and strong. "Catherine," he said louder, as if by the sheer strength of the command in his deep voice alone he could bring her around.
It worked. She drew a deep breath and slowly opened her eyes. For just a moment he was eighteen years old again and she was seventeen. Her indigo-blue eyes held sweet softness and her long blond hair spilled over his arm like a sheet of honey-colored silk. As if in a trance, her lush lips turned up in a smile of such pleasure it ached deep inside him.
Like a time warp, it was as if they were both momentarily trapped in the past, in a time when they'd loved one another more than anyone else in the world, in a time when he'd been foolish enough to believe that a wealthy Colton might really choose a future with a dirt-poor ranch hand.
The moment snapped and she bolted upright at the same time he released her and quickly rose to his feet. "What happened?" he asked. Reluctantly he held out his hand to help her up, unsure if she'd accept his aid or not. They hadn't exactly been on friendly terms for the past few years.