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it was the last place that Val Hunter wanted to be. She stood in the coolness of the Wyoming morning facing her past. The taxi had just dropped her off at the main house of the Bar H ranch. She bitterly recalled when her father, Buck Hunter, had remodeled the old one-story log home. Now, the house rose two stories and looked like an iconic cedar palace. Val's mouth quirked as she heard the robins singing in the background. They sounded so happy in contrast to how she felt.
She had to enter the home and let her grandmother, Augusta Hunter, know that she'd arrived. Gus, as everyone called her, had been the only bright spot in Val's upbringing. And she owed it to Gus to come home even though her heart felt weighted. Hot tears jammed into her eyes and Val hung her head and fought them back. Compressing her lips once her eyes were cleared, she picked up her two suitcases and slowly trudged up the cedar stairs as if she were going to her death.
After knocking on the huge wooden door with the emblem for Bar H carved across it, Val waited. It didn't take long for a small woman with short silver hair to answer.
"Val!" she cried, her face lighting up. "Hi, Gus. I made it home."
Throwing her arms around her granddaughter, Gus held her for a long time. "Thank you for coming," Gus said in a wobbly voice. She released Val and stood back, a cane in her left hand. "Come in. I have coffee waitin' for us."
Giving her short, wiry grandmother a forced half smile, Val picked up her luggage. It was always chilly on Wyoming mornings in June. "Thanks," she murmured, setting down the bags and closing the door behind her. Gus hobbled on her cane as she limped down the hall. "I'll take these to my old bedroom?"
"Yep, it's waiting for you." Gus pointed toward the polished stairs. "You get settled in and then come down and join me in the kitchen. Have you eaten?"
"Yes, I got breakfast on the flight over to Jackson Hole," Val said. Gus halted at the opening on the right, which led to a huge kitchen. A kitchen that her father had built for her mother, Cheryl, many years earlier. Bitterness swept through Val. She passed her grandmother and headed up the stairs.
Her father had been violently drunk one night. He'd beat her mother so badly that she'd had to remain in the hospital for three days. After she got home, Buck had been apologetic and promised her that kitchen she'd always dreamed of having. He hadn't built it because he loved Cheryl. No, it was a kitchen created out of guilt, terror and pain.
The hollow echo of her feet on the stairs sounded like an invisible ball and chain from the past. Her old bedroom was to the right of the stairs. Everything looked the same, as if time hadn't touched it. Yet, as Val trudged unwillingly toward her room of terrible memories, she wondered how her grandmother managed to keep the house so clean. It was a large two-story home and Gus had broken her hip shortly after Cheryl died. Before that, Gus and Cheryl had lived here at the Bar H together, barely keeping it on life support. Val was ready to pull the plug on it.
Nudging the bedroom door open with the toe of her shoe, Val stepped into her hated past. On the bed, she saw the colorful flying geese quilt that Gus had made for her when she was ten years old. She set the bags on the floor, staring at the red, white and blue quilt. How many times had she wrapped herself up in it pretending that Gus was there, holding her? Holding her safe against her father? Of course, back then, Gus had lived with her husband, Pete, on a five-thousand-acre spread near Cheyenne, Wyoming. And Val knew her mother had worked hard not to let Gus know what was really going on at the Bar H.
Sighing, Val turned and studied the quiet room. There were frilly white curtains bracketing the large window, light pouring in and making it seem far more peaceful than she felt. Her childhood had returned. Only this time, her mother or father weren't present. It was an odd, uncomfortable feeling and Val didn't know how to deal with it. Why had she agreed to come home?
She went back downstairs. The only comfort in this life change she was making was being with her feisty eighty-four-year-old grandmother. Entering the warm kitchen, she saw Gus setting two mugs of steaming coffee on the rectangular cedar table.
"Ah, there you are. Come and sit down," Gus invited with a smile. "I've got your sugar and cream here." She noodled an arthritic finger toward the white porcelain containers sitting in the center of the table.
"Why don't you sit down, Gus? You're the one with a broken hip." Val pulled out a chair for her grandmother.
"Thanks, honey." Gus slowly lowered herself into it and propped the cane against the edge of the table. Smiling up at her, she murmured, "I can't tell you how good it is that you're home." Gus gestured to the other side of the table. "Come on, sit down, Val. Let's talk over coffee. That's always a soothing, positive activity." Gus chuckled indulgently.
Val couldn't help but smile. As she walked around the table and sat opposite her silver-haired grandmother with her sparkling, lively blue eyes, a tiny part of her felt happy. The burden of the years living at the Bar H had overwhelmed any optimistic feelings. Picking up the creamer, Val said, "This is nice. Thanks for having coffee ready for me."
"God's lifeline." Gus picked up her mug of black coffee. She raised it in a toast and then took a sip. "Westerners and their coffee are one and the same." Sliding her work-worn fingers around the white mug, Gus watched Val as she poured the cream and sugar into her coffee. "I'm really sorry that I had to ask you to leave your career in the Air Force and come back home. I know what kind of courage it took to walk away from something you loved in order to help me."
Val tasted the strong coffee and set the mug down. She reached across the table and brushed her grandmother's hand. "I wouldn't have done it for anyone else," she said in a whisper, a catch in her tone. "You know that."
Gus puckered her thin lips and nodded gravely. "You know, honey, when your mama died last year and you came home for the funeral, I knew
Gus shrugged and smiled a little. "I had this feeling you were coming home for good. Oh, I know you swore never to return." Her silver brows fell and she scowled. "What I didn't know is three months after your ma's passin', I'd fall out there at the corral and bust my femur." She touched her right hip in memory of the accident.
"I know you're giving up your career as an intelligence officer for this ranch."
"I'm not doing it for the ranch. I'm doing it for you.'''
Gus was truly a savior in Val's life. Shortly after Cheryl had been released from the hospital that time Buck had laid into her, Gus had suddenly lost her husband to a massive stroke. After the funeral, Gus had sold her husband's ranch and moved into the Bar H house. Val soon discovered Buck wouldn't beat up her and her mother with Gus around. From that time forward, she remembered Gus as a guardian angel.
The tough woman rancher might have been only five foot tall and a weighed a mere hundred pounds, but Buck wasn't about to push the envelope on her fierce protec-tiveness. And that's exactly what Val and her mother had needed: protection from Buck. Gus had been a shield against her father for Val's last two years spent in this house and for that she was forever grateful to her grandmother.
Reaching out, Val took Gus's hand and squeezed it. "You saved us from harm and that's why I came back. I wanted to pay you back for what you did for Mom and me."
Gus sighed and her blue eyes teared up as she squeezed Val's fingers. She gave Val a trembling smile and released her hand. "I didn't know what Buck was doing until he landed your mother in the hospital. Cheryl never let on, not until I visited her in the hospital that time. Lord knows, I wished I'd known sooner."
"My father was so careful to bruise me where no one would see it," Val muttered. "He knew what he was doing. But my mother didn't have the guts to call the sheriff. I still can't believe she'd let my father beat the hell out of me." Val shook her head, anger bubbling up within her as it always did when she thought about that time in her life. "Why didn't my mother ever protect us, Gus?"
"Honey," Gus said gently, "your ma was so beaten down by that bastard that she didn't know she could ask for help and get it."
"Why didn't you take that information to the sheriff, Gus? I could never understand."
"Because your ma pleaded with me not to. She wanted to go back to Buck. She said she loved him. And when Pete suddenly died, I knew I had to get over here. I felt Buck would leave you two alone if I was in the house, and I was right. So while I couldn't go to the authorities, I did the next best thing."
"You have no idea how grateful I was that you moved here, Gus." Val gave her a look of admiration. "You gave up your whole way of life in order to protect us. I'll never forget what you did."
Giving her a gentle look, Gus said, "Honey, I'd do it all over again. I have no regrets about any of my decisions. My gut told me that Buck would stop if I was around. He was the kind of man who was so wounded, so scarred by life, that all he knew how to do was take his anger out on others. Truth be told, I had a baseball bat hidden in the closet and I swore to myself that if he ever lifted a pinkie against either of you, I was going to beat the hell outta him." Gus gave her a wicked smile.
Val knew she meant it. Even Buck knew it. "You're a force of nature, Gus. You always have been." Val managed a slight smile toward her plucky grandmother.
Val unconsciously rubbed her tightened stomach. Looking around the warm, bright kitchen, she uttered, "This place is nothing but a vat of lousy memories for me, Gus."
Gus reached out and patted her hand. "Honey, I know how much I was asking of you when I made that phone call to you in Bahrain. I knew you hated Buck and hated this house."
Val slipped her hands around the mug of hot coffee. Warmth against the iciness inhabiting her knotted gut. "Like I said, I'm here because of you, Gus. If you hadn't broken your hip, I couldn't have gotten out of the Air Force. Because of the situation, I was able to get what they call a hardship discharge."
"I'm so glad you're here. An elder like me with a cranky hip can't run this place alone."
"Gus, why save the Bar H at all?" Val drilled a look into her grandmother's wrinkled, darkly tanned features.
"Why not?" The elder perked up, feisty now. "This is your home, Val. It doesn't have to always be the terrible place it was for you as a child. You can create happy memories here, too. I had to sell our ranch in Cheyenne and it was the last thing I wanted to do. Pete's family started that ranch a hundred and twenty years ago. It broke my heart to have to leave it in order to come back here. But I did it. Sometimes, life puts huge demands on us we don't want to face. But we must sacrifice for a greater good."
Guiltily, Val said, "You gave up so much. I knew you were grieving for Grandpa Pete's passing. And I know you two spent your sixty years together building that spread into a profitable ranch. You walked away from all of it for us, Gus. Even at sixteen I realized the terrible sacrifice you made for us."
"I did it," Gus said, her voice firm, "because you two were far more important than our ranch. Family comes first. Always. You're my granddaughter and all I ever wanted for you was happiness."
"That didn't happen," Val said in a rasp, fighting back rising emotions. She held her grandmother's teary blue gaze.
"I just wanted to put this whole damn thing behind me, Gus. I never wanted to be here again."
"Then," Gus said gently, "maybe it's time to start healing up from it? Everyone deserves to have a home. A place where they came from. A place where they can come back to and call their own. Us Westerners believe in family, home and loyalty. Maybe between you and me some healing and good might come from this."
"You're such an optimist, Gus."
Perking up, she grinned. "Yes, I hold out hope for hopeless, that's for sure. Pete always called me a cockeyed idealist," and she chuckled.