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Laura Bell geared down and turned left on the county road. Faded asphalt stretched out long and lean past Hawthorne Ranch and up into the foothills, threading a tight S-curve at the top of a small rise. Her Mercedes SLK-350 hugged the twisting roadway like a close friend.
Across from a tight row of mailboxes she hooked a sharp right at a private lane, slid to a stop and waited for the dust to settle. That's when she saw himreined in near a scrub oak cluster, as if waiting for her to get out of the way.
Wonderful. An audience.
Defensive about her stirring arrival, she pulled the emergency brake, stepped out of the convertible and yanked at her black pencil skirt.
The cowboy leaned forward, arms crossed on his saddle horn, reins hanging loosely from his fingers. A wide-brimmed hat hid his eyes.
His shoulders bounced once, as if he'd laughed and held it inside.
She pushed her sunglasses tight against her face and raised her chin. He may not know it yet, but he did not want to laugh at her.
Ignoring him, she spiked her way through the weeds in four-inch heels toward a Realtor's For Sale sign. Wrapping one perfectly manicured hand around each side, she jerked upward, but it wouldn't give. She pushed against it with her hip and tried again.
Frustrated, and feeling as graceful as an elephant on ice, she bent the sign back and forth, hoping to loosen the stakes. She tugged again. Not a budge.
A leathery squeak drew her gaze around to see the cowboy stepping from his saddle. Three long strides brought him to the sign, and with a hand firmly gripped around each stake, he pulled.
Privately pleased that the Lone Ranger couldn't get the sign out either, Laura folded her arms across her pink silk blouse and angled one open-toe stiletto in front of the other.
He continued to pull. No lunging or pushing, just a steady upward tug that flexed the muscles in his tanned forearms. She could imagine what his biceps looked like at the moment.
The sign surrendered. The cowboy pulled it free of the earth, and handed it to her with a sober look. A black patch covered one eye.
She took the surprisingly heavy sign and looked away. "Thank you."
In her hurry to leave, she spun on one foot. The thin heel snapped off, and she tilted dangerously to the right.
He caught her by the arm and held on until she regained her balance.
"Thanks," she mumbled.
She detected a humorous note in his voice and tightened her grip on the sign.
Limping to her car, she leaned over the driver's door, reached under the steering wheel and popped the trunk. Then she laid the sign in the back, took off her ruined shoes and tossed them in.
Roadside grit stuck between her toes.
A quick glance revealed the cowboy standing next to his horse, thumbs hooked in his jeans and an odd tilt to his mouth. Something seemed familiar.
Too embarrassed to acknowledge him further, she slid behind the wheel, released the brake and eyed the lane that looped up and around the hill. That narrow climb had been the road home for the first twelve years of her life. The best years.
The past twelve? Not so much.
Unaccustomed to driving barefoot, she misjudged the clutch, the car lurched forward and the engine died.
Heat burned her ears and neck and she hoped her silent observer couldn't see the blush from where he stood. She tried again, and successfully shifted through first and into second for the half-mile climb.
The horseman disappeared from her rearview mirror on the first curve, and at the top she parked next to the house, shut off the engine and stared.
Memory had failed her.
Hawthorne pastures spread across the valley like a rumpled green quilt. Oak trees and granite boulders knotted the landscape, and red pipe fences still trimmed the ranch. Black angus cattle grazed. And just east of the center of it all, just east of the Hawthorne's ranch house and barns, the guest house and lawns, lay the ponda gray-blue jewel. Canada geese squatted along the western edge and mallards paddled under the shady arms of an overhanging oak.
She stepped out of the car and blinked away the mist in her eyes. Standing barefoot at the edge of the steep slope, she breathed in the summery perfume of wild grass and oak leaves. Her throat tightened at the memories and the tragic possibilities of what-if.
What if the place had sold?
These twenty acres of hill and lowland that bordered the beautiful Hawthorne Ranch were all she had left of her family, of the good years. She was suddenly grateful for California's slumping real estate market. Selling could have been a horrible mistake. As horrible as marrying Derek Stone.
Laura sat on the granite edge, not caring whether her skirt snagged. So be it. She didn't plan to wear it again anyway. It belonged to a life she'd left behind forever, a life of Derek's reshaping, designed to fit into his metropolitan mold.
Insisting his fiancée drive a new Mercedes, he'd let her choose his engagement gift, though he grimaced at her preference for the steel-blue roadster.
Now, gazing down at the beautiful, peaceful reason, she felt vindicated.
She pulled off her sunglasses, took the pins from her hair and shook its length down her back.
Derek had insisted on other things, too, and she'd foolishly agreed just to please him. She'd changed the way she dressed, the way she wore her hair, her job. And she'd given up her dream of a wedding in the Spring Valley Chapel.
Too country, he'd said.
Her heritage didn't fit his lifestyle, and he'd shown little interest in her past.
Unfortunately, she hadn't shown enough in his, or she might have noticed the warning signs earlier.
And then Mama died.
The decision to bring her mother's body home to be buried next to Daddy had opened Laura's eyes to a future she didn't have. Why not move back home? At least for a year. She could live that long on the life insurance policy, substitute at the local school, get her bearings.
She scheduled the funeral, took the property off the market, packed her personal belongings and left.
A movement caught her eye and pulled her back to the present. The mysterious rider made his way along the road, onto the ranch and straight to a corner gate where he sidled up next to it and swung it open without dismounting. Hinges moaned as he closed the gate on his way through.
Quite a hand, she grudgingly admitted.
Leaving the view for later, she gathered her few things from the car and fingered through her key ring. The lock on the house had never been changed, even during the early years when Mama rented it out for extra income. She inserted the key, turned the knob and stepped back in time as she stepped through the double French doors and into a wall of stale, mousy air.
No surprise. Emptiness did that to a house. Dust covered the kitchen counters and what little furniture remained. Clean square poison boxes lay scattered about, evidence that at least one rodent generation had perished. But others had come. It was the country, after all. She'd get a cat.
She set her bags in the corner of her parents' old room and then turned in a slow circle.
She'd bought a sleeping bag, but it wouldn't do, not with the mice. She'd have to spring for a real bed.
At the window, an overgrown mulberry tree blocked her view of the pond and ranch. She toured the other two bedrooms, walked through the dining room and living room, and out onto the covered front porch that stretched the length of the house.
Below her a dog barked and a smile seamed her lips as she remembered the Hawthornes' golden retriever pup. Memories rushed in and pulled her down the ranch lane that led to the pond and picnic area. She had run there with Eli Hawthorne III and his dog, pumping her short legs to keep up with Eli's longer strides. He ran with two fishing poles and a tackle box, and still he beat her to the pond, claiming the best spot beneath the tree.
Annoyance niggled into the memory. Sometimes she'd resented Eli's arrogance and dominating attitude. And sometimes she worshipped him.
She'd heard whispers at her mother's funeralbehind-the-hand murmuring that he'd been hurt in Afghanistan. She hadn't even known he'd joined the Marines. She didn't know anything about him, really. Not since those dozen years ago when Daddy died and she and Mama left. Eli went the way of the pondtucked into her memories, a piece of herself too precious to share.
"Wish I had binoculars," she mumbled, then shook her head at the nosey thought. She searched for a yellow dog trailing along the pond bank and someone sitting in the old fishing spot beneath the oak tree.
The oak tree.
A dull throbbing began in her chest as she traced the red pipe fence to a cross section T of barbed wire. The throbbing intensified.
There, in the farthest corner of her father's bottom land, stood an ancient oak, mutilated from some horrible incident, but alive.
How proud she'd been to show Eli. He was always the one discovering new things and marvelous sites, but she had found the great scarred tree on her own.
The dull throb sharpened to a pointed pain and she pressed a hand against her chest. From a distance the oak looked like the other hundred trees scattered over the hills, only bigger, strengthened by a horrific tragedy. A fire, Eli had declared with his irritating, know-itall attitude.
"It's just a heartless old tree, Laura Bell, you ding-a-ling," he'd said. But she'd caught the wonder in his blue eyes.
"No, it isn't." She stomped her foot on the summer pasture. "It's a Miracle Tree. It has to be. How else could it be alive when there's no insides?"
They wiggled into the cavity and just fitlike two acorns in a squirrel's nest, their backs against the smooth shell. Lazy summer afternoons often found them there, guessing what had started the fire that ate away the tree's heart.
Blinking now didn't stop the tears, and they fell to fingers curled against the sharp pain.
Taking a shaky breath, she returned to the bedroom, opened her suitcase and found a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She'd hike down to the tree first, then see about unpacking.
Eli Hawthorne never figured he'd prevent a city girl from doing a header in the roadside ditch, but the gal was right next to him when her skinny high heel snapped off and he couldn't just let her fall.
She mumbled a quick "thank you" without making eye contact.
He made people uncomfortable.
After the little sports car shot up the hill, he mounted Buddy and rode down the slope toward the northwest section gate. He could do this with his eyes closed.
He snorted. What a laugh. With one eye gone, he was already halfway there.
He and Buddy ambled across the pasture, past the ranch house and into the barn where Eli unsaddled and brushed the gelding, then turned him out.
Goldie didn't hear the commotion and lay sleeping on her mat near the tack room door. Eli rubbed the old retriever's side and waited for her to get her bearings before he lifted her into the golf cart. She barked and fanned her thinning tail.
Loving eyes followed his every movement, and saliva dripped from her pink tongue. As a kid, Eli had thought she was smiling when she looked at him like that, her mouth pulled back in a grin. The gold had faded around her eyes and muzzle where white hairs outnumbered the yellow, and she needed his help getting in and out of the cart. No more bounding through the pastures while he fed the cattle.
He rubbed her ears and cupped her old head in his hands.
"Ready for a ride?"
She flicked her tongue and caught him on the nosean old trick.
A distant screen-door slap jerked his gaze to the hill and memories popped to the surface like fishing bobbers. He squinted toward the house, but the front porch shadowed whoever stood there.
Laura Bell ran across his mind in her old sneakers and cutoffs, hair flying behind her like a horse's tail. He'd rarely climbed the hill when she lived there, because she'd always insisted the ranch was more fun than her house. Sometimes he'd meet her halfway up on a granite ledge where they'd sit and watch Goldie chase ground squirrels. He'd shoot at the chirping nuisances with his .22 and Laura would slug him and hide her face and cry when he hit one.
He chuckled to himself and scoped the hilltop, down the western side to the corrals and her dad's shop. When Mr. Bell died and Laura and her mother moved away, he'd tried to convince himself that life would be easier without that little pest tagging along behind him every minute.
But life hadn't gotten easier. Just emptier.
Goldie yapped impatiently and Eli climbed behind the wheel and glanced back at the hill.
Someone leaned over the deck railing and Eli froze.
From the porch, we can see everything, Laura had once told him. The slightest movement drew the eye, she'd said. He squinted again, trying to make out who it was. Man or woman, he couldn't tell.
The figure backed into shadow and Eli waited. In a moment, the person stepped off the porch and headed west, slowly descending toward the corrals.
Eli left the golf cart and walked in the opposite direction, across the yard on the east side of his house, keeping the hill in view. But the figure didn't go to the corrals and instead took the hairpin turn down an overgrown path that angled back toward the bottom land.
Eli stopped next to a tree, confident his dull clothing would blend in with the colorless bark. The reflexive action surprised him. Irritated him. This wasn't Afghanistan. He stood on his own property with every right in the world to be there. But he couldn't shake the training. He'd rather see than be seen.
The figure wore a ball cap but didn't walk like a man. Had to be that womannew Realtor or new renter, though considering the sleek car she'd driven, he doubted she was a renter. He watched her saunter down, pause and look toward the house, then continue on. Where was she headed? The fence or the well?
At the bottom she picked up her pace and beat a straight line to the property's southeast corner. Each silent, distant step hammered in his chest. Only one other person knew about that corner and the importance of what stood there.
The hammering evened out to a steady throb and he half crouched, waiting for her to disappear behind the great oak. He assessed the distance to the next tree downhill, closer to his property line. When she stepped out of view, he made a run for it.
What a fool. Stalking a stranger on neighboring land. What if she saw him?
What if it was her?
"Don't be stupid," he muttered under his breath. That woman in the tight skirt was not Laura Bell.
A cold snout against his right hand jerked him around to see Goldie grinning and wagging her tail. How'd she get off the golf cart? Huffing a deep breath he reached for the old dog, but she edged away and limped off down the hill.
Toward the big oak tree.