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It was love at first sight.
Shayla had never used that expression before in her entire twenty-four years.
But then she had never seen anything like this before.
The land was huge and breathtaking. Some people might have found the mile upon mile of treeless rolling plain desolate, but Shayla felt something in her opening up, soaring like that red-tailed hawk above her.
The prairie was in constant motion: the wind playing in tall golden grass, creating slow and sensuous waves; herds of prong-horns appearing in the distance, suddenly disappearing again; funny black-tipped spikes poking above the grass, turning out to be the ear tips of deer.
She unrolled the window on her ancient Volkswagen and took a deep breath of air that smelled of earth and sunshine, and something she couldn't quite define.
"Love at first sight," she repeated, out loud this time, letting it roll off her tongue.
"Bluv burst bite," her passenger echoed.
Shayla started. "Nicky! You're awake."
She turned and looked over her shoulder at her little charge, strapped securely in the brand-new car seat in the back of her car.
"Did you see them? The deer and antelope? It's just like the song," she realized with delight. "You know the one. 'Home, home on the range "'
Nicky nodded solemnly, his eyes huge and black behind a sooty fringe of lashes. Dark loops of hair curled around his fat cheeks. He was a truly beautiful child, save for a tendency to beetle his brows and frown ferociously when he wanted his own way. Which was often.
"Me free," he said, holding up a fistful of fingers.
Free, she thought. That's what it was. The landscape spoke to something in her about wildness and freedom.
"That's right," she said, glancing at him in her rearview mirror. "Three." She noticed bright dots of color on each of his cheeks. "We're going to be at your uncle's soon. What do you think about that?"
She laughed. "Me, too. Having my first adventure at the ripe old age of twenty-four. Me, Shayla Morrison, having an adventure!"
It wasn't really an adventure. She was doing a friend a favor. That was all. But this landscape called out to a part of her that she hadn't known existed.
A part of her that longed for an adventure.
Tentatively she pushed her foot down a little harder. No speed limit in Montana. She had never gone fast in her whole life. The road was good, straight, paved and empty.
Why not fly?
"Me six," Nicky announced. "No, three."
In her rearview mirror, she watched black eyebrows drop down, and a pug nose scrunch
"It doesn't matter if you're three, when you're a tree," Shayla sang lightly. "And it doesn't matter if you are six if you are in a fix."
"Ohhh," Nicky breathed with delight. "Poppy Pepperseed."
Shayla laughed again. Her laughter felt rich within her, as glorious as this sun-filled day. For the past two years she had worked out of her home, writing the music and lyrics for The Poppy Pepperseed Show, a locally-produced children's TV program in Portland, Oregon. Though she didn't do the voice or the singing for the program, Nicky invariably recognized when she became "Poppy."
"Sing," he commanded.
And so she sang. Nonsense lyrics that celebrated the huge sky and the circling hawks and the bouncing pronghorns. The next time she looked in the mirror, her number-one fan was sound asleep.
She frowned. Again? How often did kids sleep? The red in his cheeks seemed to be deepening. He wasn't sick, was he?
She gave herself a little shake. She worried too much. Worrying was her specialty.
It was probably just boredom. They had been traveling now for two days.
A week ago, her neighbor Maria, a young single mom she had met about a year ago at the apartment's pool, had dropped NicholasNickyoff for an afternoon as she occasionally did.
But by late that evening, the shy, beautiful Maria hadn't come back. Nicky had fallen asleep on the couch, his thumb in his mouth, cuddling his hand-knit purple-and-turquoise dinosaur, Ralph. It wasn't at all like Maria, who was soft-spoken and conscientious always, and Shayla began to wonder if she should start calling the hospitals.
When the phone rang, Shayla listened to the coins falling into place before Maria had come on the line.
"Shayla, I hate to ask, but could you keep Nicky for a day or two? Something has come up."
"Are you all right?" Shayla asked. Maria's voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away.
Maria laughed, and Shayla realized she had never heard her neighbor laugh before.
Of course she couldn't keep Nicky. He was not exactly the kind of child content to play on the floor with his Tonka toys while she plunked away at her old piano. Her next deadline was looming large.
A note in Maria's voice made her say yes. Her neighbor's voice held the smallest thread of happiness.
Maria always seemed to Shayla to be too young to look so tired and overburdened.
What was a day or two? She would have to figure out a way to work with Nicky around. Maybe even test the songs on him. A novel concept, testing a children's song on a real child.
What was a few days if it did something to take the sad and defeated slump out of Maria's thin shoulders?
Two days had come and gone, and then Maria had phoned again. She couldn't come back right away. Something had come up. An emergency. She wasn't sure when she would be back, actually, maybe weeks. Could Shayla take Nicky to his uncle in Montana?
That thread of happiness ran even stronger in Maria's voice.
"I can't go to Montana, Maria. When are you going to be back? What do you mean, weeks? "
She knew she could not keep Nicky for weeks. He was a small tyrant, ordering her around like some tiny generalissimo dictator. No wonder Maria always looked so tired!
Nicky eat. Now.
Nicky go to pool. Now.
Nicky not sleep. Nicky swim. Now.
Nicky not eat green. Nicky eat red. Lick-rish. Now.
Nicky playground. Now.
Shayla was beginning to hear the word now in her sleep.
If her choice was to either keep him for weeks or take him to his uncle in Montana, she was going to Montana.
She had written down Maria's directions carefully and phoned in to work to tell them the music would be a little late. It was the first time in two years she had missed a deadline, but she was writing the Halloween episode, so she was nearly a month in advance of production, anyway.
As soon as she had started packing, she'd realized she felt happy.
"I think I wanted to get away," she murmured to herself, pressing down the accelerator just a little bit more. Seventy-two miles an hour. It was absolutely heady stuff.
Away from what?
Her job? It was true that after two years of writing the music for Poppy, her career was something less than challenging now. There were mornings she woke up and absolutely dreaded trying to think of a weather song, or a feelings song or any other kind of song that was going to be sung by adult actors dressed as puppets and furry animals and clowns.
Which brought her to Barry Baxter. Bo-Bo the Clown on the show. Her beau-beau for the past year.
"You're going where?" he'd yelped when she'd called him. "Montana? With that kid?"
She'd resented the way he'd said that, as if Nicky was a two-headed monster instead of a child. A bossy child, yes, but still barely a baby nonetheless.
"You don't like kids, do you?" she'd asked with slow comprehension.
"It's not that I don't like them. I'm just surrounded by kid stuff all the time. The show, the kids who come on the show. I'm a man who wears a clown suit for a living. For Pete's sake, when I take it off, I want to be a grownup. No kids. And especially not that one."
"It's going to be that one for weeks, unless I go to Montana."
"Look, isn't there a law or something? She can't just dump her kid off there and expect you to deal with it."
"Are you suggesting I call the police? On sweet little Maria?"
"She's abandoned the kid."
"She has not."
Shayla sighed as she drove along. That was the real reason it felt so good to get away, she admitted to herself. She had a lot of thinking to do about herself and Barry.
Her mother thought she should marry him. So did Barry.
He was what her mother called a catch. Even though he was an actor, he had a steady job, and he was stable. He was also very good-looking, if just a trifle on the chubby side.
"You're never going to meet anyone else," her mother lamented. "You're a recluse, sitting at home plunking away on that piano. He's a nice boy. What's wrong with him?"
"There's nothing wrong with him," Shayla said desperately. "Is that a good reason to get married? Because there's nothing wrong with the person?"
"Shayla, this is your mother speaking. You marry a man with a good heart. A provider. Forget all these schoolgirl romantic notions. Forget your heart beating faster and skyrockets. There's nothing but pain in those things. I should know."
Shayla's mother and father had divorced years ago, a passion burned out quickly.
She had phoned to tell her mother she was going to Montana. How had the whole marriage issue come up?
"He doesn't like kids, Mom."
"There are worse things."
"I like kids."
"He loves you, Shayla. What more do you want?"
To love him back. She liked Barry. Her mother was right. She'd lived like a recluse until he'd come along. Now she had a charming companion to go to the movies with, to eat dinner with sometimes. They shared a certain creative bent that made them very compatible.
But marry him?
She didn't even really like kissing him. Why couldn't things just stay the same? Why did it have to move on? Why couldn't they just enjoy going to movies and out for dinner together?
But if she truly wanted things to stay the same, how could she explain the creeping discontent she felt in a lot of areas of her life? She should like writing Poppy. She should feel lucky to have a job doing something in her field. With the exception of Lillian Morehouse, who was playing with the Philharmonic, 90 percent of her graduating class had not gained employment in the music field. Mike Webster's job in a record store didn't count.
It was Montana that was doing this to herawakening some restless spirit within her, calling to some part of her that was just a touch wild and reckless.
Her mother and Barry had mournfully watched her pack the car to go.
"I can't believe you're doing something so harebrained," Barry had said.
Her mother had nodded vigorous agreement.
Well, she'd hardly been able to believe it herself, but now that she was doing it, it felt great! Perhaps there had been a harebrained side of her, hidden for many years, just dying to get out.
She slowed, approaching an intersection, and glanced at the mileage covered, according to her trip meter. She had passed the small community of Winnet and the even smaller one of Sand Springs. This was it.
The signs were right beside the road, just as Maria had told her they would be.
Provided by the 4-H Club, neat placards said who lived down the roadthe family name followed by the number of miles down that road.
Shayla scanned the placards quickly. There it was. MacLeod. Thirty-seven miles down that road. It looked like his closest neighbor was seven miles from him.
The immenseness of the country struck her anew. She got out, looked around, stretched and felt it again. Free.
Nicky slept on. She quietly opened the back door and loosened his little plaid shirt, so painstakingly stitched by his mother. The heat coming off him startled her.
It was a warm day, though, one of those September days that still held the full heat of summer.
When she got back in the car she unrolled the passenger-side window, too, so that the breeze could blow on Nicky.
She reset her trip meter and turned down the gravel road, somehow feeling her whole life was ahead of her.
At mile thirty-seven there was a big-timbered gatepost that spanned a drive on the west side of the road. Hanging from the weathered center beam was a piece of driftwood with the name MacLeod burned deep into it. In this barren country, where only a few spindly deciduous trees grew in the draws, it must have taken quite a bit of effort to get those timbers.
She drove under the sign. She had expected to see a house, but instead there was another road, more narrow now, twisting and dipping over little rolls of land and through small coulees.
She had gone another five miles before she topped a rise in the undulating landscape and saw the buildings sprawled out in the draw below her.
She stopped the car and checked Nicky. He was still sleeping soundly, his cheeks, thankfully, felt cooler to her now.
She looked down at the buildings below her. It wasn't much, really. A small square of a house, a barn that looked newer and more distinguished than the house, and a few scattered outbuildings.
A cloud of dust drew her eyes beyond the outbuildings to a corral. She shielded her eyes against the sun.
"Oh, my," she whispered.
A man stood dead center in that corral, while a beautiful black horse galloped around him, kicking and bucking.
Even from a distance she could see he was the quintessential cowboy. Whipcord lean in his dust-covered jeans and denim shirt, a big-brimmed white cowboy hat shading him from the sun. She liked the way he was standing, loose-limbed and calm in the middle of all that ruckus, radiating an easy strength.
And then he took off the hat and wiped a careless sleeve over a sweating brow.
Even from a distance his features seemed even and clean, pleasing to the eye.
Her heart somersaulted, and again she used an expression she had never used until today.
"Love at first sight."
She blushed at her own silliness.
The man was a stranger, glimpsed from a distance. He did make a decidedly romantic figure, but obviously Montana had had a strange effect on her sensesheightened and honed them to a dangerous sharpness.
If she had an ounce of sense, she would get back in her car and go down the road the way she'd come.
But then if she had an ounce of sense, as Barry and her mother had already told her, she wouldn't be here in the first place.
She'd made a commitment to deliver Nicky to his uncle, and she would carry it through to the end.
She got back in her car and pointed it right toward those buildings.
The dust behind the car must have told him she was coming. As she pulled up to the house, he was in the yard, if not waiting for her, at least done working the horse for a moment.