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Darcy Simms stared in disbelief at the pink slip attached to her meager paycheck.
Laid off! How could she be laid off? She needed that job and the money it provided if she was going to survive. Where was the justice in laying her off now, of all times? How would she manage?
Darcy ignored the sound of the ringing telephone reverberating down the hall of the old, rundown apartment building. The thing was always ringing. But the calls were never for her. How could they be? She'd made very sure that her new life didn't involve anyone from her past, and her friends at work didn't know where or how she lived. They thought she was just like them young and carefree.
What a joke!
The sudden pounding on her door sent her heart shifting into overdrive. That awful man down the hall had been watching her coming and going for the past week. His beady little eyes took in everything about her. She wondered if he was even now outside her door, waiting. Her gaze flew to the dead-bolt locks, to be sure they were fastened securely, even though she knew one good kick would easily splinter the tired old wood.
"Yes?" She called out finally when the banging resumed. She glanced just once toward the curtained bedroom. "What is it?"
"Darcy Simms?" The voice was low and hesitant, as if the owner weren't sure he had the right place.
"Y-yes." Darcy stood behind the door, waiting. Why would a man be outside her door? "What do you want?"
"I have something for you, Miss Simms. Would you please open the door?" The voice was firmer now, determined. The only good thing was that he didn't sound like her neighbor.
"Who are you? What do you want?" When there was no immediate answer, she panicked and backed away. "Go away or I'll call the police!" He couldn't know that she didn't have a telephone, could he?
"My name is Luke Lassiter, Miss Simms. Please. Just hear me out. I'm from Colorado. You might say your parents sent me."
"Then you're just a bit late." She laughed harshly. "And so are they. About five years too late, I'd say. Now go away."
"I can't. I promised that I'd do this and I intend to keep my word. I'll wait out here if you insist, but I am going to speak to you."
He waited a long time. As hard as she listened, Darcy could hear no impatient shuffling beyond the door. There was no sound of footsteps moving down the hall. It seemed that Mr. Luke Lassiter would not give up easily on this mission of his.
If that's who he really was. Images of yesterday's bloody fistfight in the corridor flew through her mind and Darcy cast another protective glance at the bedroom. But since everything was quiet for now, she decided to risk speaking to this man. Whomever he was.
"I'm going to undo the door just enough to talk to youbut the chain stays on."
"In this neighborhood, I don't blame you." The reply was agreeable. There was silence then and Darcy undid the top and bottom bolts loudly and noisily, pausing a moment before she finally opened the door.
Darcy peered through the crack in the door. Luke Lassiter was tall and lean and weathered looking. Dressed from head to foot in clean but worn denim, he wore a thick sheepskin-lined jacket to keep out the brisk November chill. Darcy doubted that the black Stetson on his head did much to keep his ears warm.
"Hello, ma'am," he drawled, tipping his hat. "I'm Luke Lassiter. I live just outside of Raven's Rest. I've been asked to give you this." He pulled a plain white envelope out of his pocket and handed it through the crack in the door. "It's from Reverend Anderson. He's the pastor out our way these days."
Something glowed out of his dark brown eyes. What was it? Pity? Darcy immediately tore her gaze away from his and slit the letter open.
"I can't imagine what your Reverend Anderson would have tooh, no!" Darcy stared in horror at the words scrawled across the page in big black letters.
I regret to inform you that your parents, Martha and Lester Simms, were killed six weeks ago in a terrible car accident. We have spent some time searching for you in the hope that you might return home as your parents last requested. I trust this will be possible for you and urge you to have every confidence in my friend Luke Lassiter, who will be happy to accompany you on your return journey.
Reverend David Anderson
Nevernot once in the past five years since she'd shaken the dust of her hometown off her feethad Darcy even considered not seeing her parents again. She'd wished a lot of things on those stern, unforgiving people. But not this. Never this!
"Would you please let me in now?" Darcy barely heard Luke's low-voiced request, and automatically moved to unsnap the chains that would allow him entry to her home. "Are you all right? Can I get you anything?" His voice slid over her like a warm, soothing blanket, numbing the pain that threatened to spill out and destroy her thin veneer of calm.
"No." She sank onto the ratty old sofa that sat on one leg and three coffee cans, and stared at the paper. "No, nothing. Thanks."
"I'm sorry that it took us so long to find you, Miss Simms." The tall cowboy folded himself until he was hunkered beside her. "There was no forwarding address, you see. Not much to go on."
"That was the point," she murmured dazedly, wondering now why it had mattered so much that she hide away in New York.
"I had no idea you were this far away until a friend of mine got a tip from the IRS about your tax records. I followed you home from the factory." He smiled grimly at her start of fear and surprise. "Well, we had to find you somehow." His smile was sympathetic. "There's the ranch and everything."
"Yeah, the ranch." She grimaced at the very thought of it. "Thank you for coming all this way and telling me, Mr. Lassiter. I appreciate the time and effort. But there's nothing for me in Raven's Rest anymore. And I have no intention of going back."
She fluttered the papers attached to Reverend Anderson's letter. "According to this they've been gone some time. I'm sure there's already been a funeral and my parents are buried in the local cemetery. There's nothing left for me to do."
"Not even to mourn?" His voice accused her of something, and Darcy couldn't help but let her hackles rise at the old pattern from the past repeating itself. Ungrateful daughter.
"I did mourn, Mr. Lassiter. Five years ago, when I left good old Raven's Rest and its narrow-minded citizens. On that day I vowed I'd never return. I see no reason to go back and dig up the past. I have to move on."
"What about the ranch?"
"What about it? It's not my home. It never was. It was merely a place I stayed until I could get away." She stood and marched over to the sink, intent on drying the three plastic dishes she'd used for supper, if only to get away from the knowing look in Mr. Lassiter's piercing dark eyes.
"So what's stopping you from coming backjust one last time? To hear the will and dispose of what's left." She figured that he'd noticed the jerk of her shoulders at the word "will" and pressed on that one weak spot. "It's their final word on the only earthly goods they had to leave you, Darcy. It's your heritage" "Mommy, mommy!"
Darcy whirled, eyes wide with surprise as four-and-a-half-year-old Jamie raced across the room and grabbed her around the knees.
"I had a bad dream," he cried, staring at Luke Lassiter with that immediate intensity that all children possess. "There was a bad man." His eyes were huge pools of violet as he stared at their guest.
"Hi, little guy," Luke said, bending down slightly to meet the boy's gaze. "I'm not a bad man. I'm one of the good guys. Come to take you and your mommy for a ride to a ranch that's far, far away. Would you like that?"
To Darcy's surprise, her shy, introverted son left her embrace to walk over and stand in front of their guest.
"Yes, I would," he said clearly, arms folded across his chest. "Are there horses?"
"A ranch always has horses." Luke watched as the little boy stared wide-eyed at his scuffed cowboy boots. "Maybe I could even take you for a ride. If it's okay with your mom." He twisted his head to study her. "Is it okay, Mom?"
"I don't know. I'll have to see." She gave him her most furious look, hoping he understood how difficult he was making it for her. "You have no right," she whispered angrily as Jamie moved away.
"He does," Luke asserted gravely. "He has a right to see the heritage that you're so intent on giving up."
"I'm not giving it up. It was never mine." She let the bitter smile curve her lips. "Perhaps you didn't get the whole picture, Mr. Lassiter. My parents didn't know what to do with me. I wasn't exactly what they expected."
"How do you know that?" He sank down into the rickety armchair with an ease that Darcy envied.
"Believe me, I learned early on that a scruffy tomboy was the last thing Martha and Lester expected. They should have gotten a boy, or at least a dainty, little girl who would have accepted all their rules and settled down with a nice local boy."
"And that wasn't you?" He looked genuinely interested, Darcy decided. That in itself was unusual. Her life was something less than interesting.
"Hardly." She grimaced. "I'm five feet nine inches, Mr. Lassiter, and no one has ever called me dainty. Besides, I never could learn to sit still for hours on end while some man stood in the pulpit, berating people for being human."
"Are you sure that's what he was doing?"
Darcy stared at him. "Maybe you had to be there." She shrugged. "It was doom and gloom. All the time. Feel guilty, you sinner. Ask forgiveness. Repent. Evil, wrong, no good. That's all I ever heard."
"Sounds pretty bad," Luke Lassiter agreed, smiling. "Can't say it's my idea of a good service either."
Darcy stared. "You think it's funny? Believe me, there was no joy there."
"No, I don't imagine there was," he murmured gently.
"But then a lot of people feel that way about God. They haven't found the real meaning of love, I guess."
"And what, pray tell, is the real meaning of love?"
"I don't think it's something you can explain. It's something you have to feel as it heals you."
"Love doesn't heal. It just hurts people, makes them obligated to someone else when they should be free to live their own lives." Darcy couldn't disguise the acid edge to her voice.
"Yeah, sometimes love hurts. Nobody said life was without pain. But it can also heal and renew and rejuvenate. Love isn't ever wasted."
The very idea was a whole new concept in Darcy's young life, especially since she'd wasted twenty-three long years loving people who couldn't possibly love her back.
"Can you be ready to leave tomorrow morning? I don't like to be away too long," he asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"From the farm?" Darcy remembered well that a rancher's dedication to his cattle was par for the course in Raven's Rest. Sometimes, she remembered bitterly, it even exceeded a father's duty to his own family.
"Well, there's that." Luke grinned at Jamie as he piled up blocks on the floor and then swatted them down. "But actually, I was thinking of my Aunt Clarice. She's all alone and I worry about her."
"Clarice?" Darcy frowned. "I don't remember any Clarice at Raven's Rest."
"Ah, but you've been gone five years, haven't you," he reminded her with a smile. "Things change. Even at Raven's Rest."
"Nothing about that one-horse, narrow-minded, little town could change enough to make me want to live there again." Darcy laughed angrily. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lassiter, but I have no intention of going back."
"Why?" He glanced around the room, assessing its ugliness. His inquisitive eyes fell on the pink slip she'd laid on the table before answering the door. "There's nothing here holding you back, is there?" His gaze was steady, daring her to deny what he'd already surmised.
"Don't worry, I'll get another job," she told him defiantly. "I've managed this long."
"But there's no need. Why not take a break? Just for a while. You could relax on the ranch until the will has been sorted out. New York's not going anywhere."
His tone was smooth and cajoling and Darcy ached to give in. She was tired, desperately tired of just barely managing. It would be nice to release that tight control over things, even if only for a little while. Nice not to have to be on guard every moment of the day. She glanced at her son and smiled, thinking of the freedom of running in a yard of grass instead of the asphalt playground he was confined to at the day care.
And then the memories resurfaced from a time she'd tried so hard to forget. In five years that awful feeling of loss hadn't lessened one whit. "I can't," she muttered finally. "I just can't."
"Sure you can." He was so sure of himself, his eyes calm but serious. "You just take it one day at a time and trust that somehow God will work it all out."
"Like He's done so far, you mean?" Her eyes mocked the ugliness of the dingy room and its threadbare furnishings. "You'll understand if I find that a little difficult to do."
Luke Lassiter covered her hand with his. "I didn't say it would be easy." He smiled. "I just said you could do it."
Darcy didn't understand any of this. She didn't want to. What good would be served by rehashing the agony of the past?
She glared at him, gathering Jamie in her arms. "Why are you so interested? I don't mean anything to you."
"Of course you do. You're the daughter of some friends of mine and you're alone. Right now I think you could use a break." A funny look drifted across Mr. Lassiter's eyes as Jamie leaned his head against her legs and yawned noisily.
"I think Jamie needs some special time with his mom and maybe a place where he can run and yell to his heart's content. Raven's Rest certainly has enough room."
He hadn't said a word about the pathetic little apartment or the perpetual odor of boiled cabbage that seemed to hang in the air, but Darcy knew Luke Lassiter hadn't missed a single detail of the ugliness of her life.