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Chapter 1Copyright© 2003 by Jill Gregory
It had rained the day Katy Templeton left her family ranch in Thunder Creek, Wyoming, for a new life far from all of her childhood memories, and it rained the day she came home. Pouring, gunmetal-gray rain that tumbled in violent sheets, soaking the towering Laramie Mountains and drenching the grazing lands all through the beautiful winding bluegrass country where she'd spent the first eighteen years of her life.
The first fourteen of those years had been happy, carefree, and sunny--the last four hell on earth. The girl who'd left was running away from the pain of loss and loneliness that had left her shaken and reeling inside, a pain that made her never want to look back--but the woman now returning was trying to find something she'd lost. She wasn't sure what it was or where she'd lost it, she only knew that when her mother called her in New York on Sunday morning and told her about her grandmother getting pneumonia and Bessie's Diner all boarded up and closed, about her parents' planned trip to Paris, their first vacation in fourteen years, which her father was all set to cancel, it had seemed like the only right thing to do was go home.
Home. What did that mean anymore? Katy wondered wryly as she wheeled her bag through the Natrona County airport in Casper. For the past few years, home had been too many places--and she didn't really belong to any of them. She wasn't sure she belonged here either, not anymore, but she was needed, at least for a while, and so she had come.
But the moment she saw her father striding toward her, his grim face looking grayer, sterner, and even more downcast than usual, a knot tightened in her stomach and she wondered if thiswas really what she needed after all. Dad hadn't been the same since the accident, since Matt died, and neither had she. Actually, nothing had. Certainly not Thunder Creek.
That's why she'd left.
But Gram needs you, and so does Mom, she told herself--and in a way, her father did too. He was going to take Mom to Paris if they both had to drag him by the boots kicking and screaming all the way.
The image of her plump little ash-blonde mother dragging Big John Templeton by his boots had her grinning even as she dropped her bag and threw her arms around her father.
"Hi, Daddy, you didn't have to come. I told you I could rent something."
"Reckon I can pick up my own daughter when she comes to town," he grunted. Their hug was brief--he broke it first, as always withdrawing from any physical or emotional contact beyond the bare minimum. His gray eyes, the color of the rain torrenting down, squinted at her beneath his hat, taking in her aqua silk sweater and chic black skirt, the delicate diamond drop at her throat, as if wondering where this strangely citified creature had come from.
"You look mighty fancy," he grunted.
"I hopped a plane straight from work."
"When are you going back?"
"When I'm good and ready." She spoke evenly, then softened her words with a smile that had beguiled bankers and CEOs in half a dozen states and a few European capitals. Almost, Big John Templeton smiled back, but he managed to swallow the urge just in time. He gave another grunt and seized the handle of her wheeled bag in one calloused fist.
"Let's go, your mother's waiting to see you. But if you think your being here is going to make me go on that damned trip, you can just turn around and scoot back on that plane."
We'll see about that, Katy thought, but merely fell silently into step beside him, sensing this was not the time to argue. She'd inherited her father's iron will and felt herself every bit a match for him, but she'd also learned to pick her battles and when to fight them. And the moment she set foot in Natrona County was not the right moment to fight.
So instead she tried to let herself adjust to the rapid change of her surroundings, going from her twenty-fourth-floor corner office that looked out on a sea of glinting skyscrapers and roaring traffic, to this wide open landscape with rain sheeting down upon prairie, hill, and mountain, from jammed streets to open spaces so broad and deep they dazzled and gripped the heart, from the smells of sweat and garbage and perfume and hot dogs from the corner vendors to the smell of damp earth and greenery, of air so sweet and pure it could make you drunk faster than a shot of Johnnie Walker--and to the company of the grim, weathered man who drove the pickup with the same fierce concentration he reserved for picking out just the right quarter horse to purchase at auction and negotiating shipping rates for his cattle or oil.
Big John Templeton was a superb rancher and businessman, and a friend to most everyone in Thunder Creek, except a few fools he'd no more give the time of day to than he would sit in a cow pie. But in the husband department, Katy reflected with a sidelong look at his stony profile, he needed a good kick in the ass, and she was going to give it to him.
That was only one of the reasons she'd come home. The other was Gram and the diner.
"How's Gram?" she asked as they headed outside toward the pickup. It was still pouring but far be it from Big John Templeton to put up an umbrella. He had his hat after all, a big gray Stetson with a black band around it, and the water ran in rivulets from the wide brim. "Did the antibiotics kick in?"
"They're helping some. She's holding her own. But she's still too weak to get out of bed."
Katy had tugged her mini-umbrella from her tote bag and snapped it open, almost wincing as she thought of her robust grandmother, who always smelled like a black currant pie and who was used to scampering around the diner faster than any of the waitresses forty years her junior, now laid up in bed, struggling to breathe and to clear the pneumonia from her lungs.
"She's going to be all right, though, isn't she?" As they reached the truck and she swung the door open, she caught the tightening lines around her father's mouth as he loaded her bag and eased his six-foot frame in beside her.
"Hard to say. She's getting on."
"Daddy, she's only seventy-five. That's not so old." Dismay and apprehension made her voice shake, and Katy struggled for the cool control she'd mastered over the past ten years, the control Seth Warfield had expected in his wife, his partner in business and in bed.
"Her heart isn't what it used to be. Better brace yourself before we get home. You haven't seen her in a while."
He eased the truck forward even as she snapped on her seat belt, realizing with a little shock that what he said was true. How long had it been since her last visit home? Two years? Three?
She'd left Thunder Creek when she went off to college, intending never to come back, not to live anyway, and she'd stuck by it. Except for a few visits at Christmas or Thanksgiving, or for her mother's birthday, she'd been a stranger to the Triple T ranch where she'd grown up, keeping in touch with her parents and Gram by phone, and of late by e-mail, but rarely returning to the big stone ranch house set in the shade of Thunder Creek, or to the town where Bessie's Diner stood on a sun-dappled street near Krane's Drugstore and the real estate offices of Turnow and Barnes.
Coming back hurt too much. Home and the town were full of memories. Memories of Matt. And for a long while the pain of losing him had been like a whip on the back of a horse, making her want to run, run, and keep running.
Now the pain was a sorrow that lived in her heart. Deep and abiding, but it no longer drove her. Something else drove her. Another death, so different from the accident that had claimed her brother, yet so familiar in the agony it caused, in the biting, throbbing loss that swallowed and destroyed and pervaded everything else, coloring the world a mottled and sickening gray.
That death, and her divorce and the general falling apart of what had once appeared a perfect marriage, a perfect life, had driven her back home, where she was needed, and where, strangely enough, she needed to be.
At least for now.
It took them nearly two hours to reach the ranch, two hours of steady driving on rain-slicked roads that twisted through sagebrush scented hills and valleys. By the time they drove up the long gravel road that opened onto the two-story house Big John's father had built, and glimpsed the barns, stables, corrals, paddocks, and various other outbuildings all spread upon the valley floor in the shadow of the Laramie Mountains, Katy was exhausted.
She'd gone into work at seven-thirty this morning, trying to finish up as many projects as she could before her leave of absence began, and after the hurtling cab ride to the airport, her flight to Salt Lake City where she'd changed to a Skywest plane for Casper, and the long, mostly silent drive beside Big John through the rain-gouged countryside, she felt drained and weak-limbed. But something happened as they pulled into the wide circular driveway before the house. Something happened just as Mojo came bounding out onto the porch barking frantically, and then her mother stepped outside, a dishrag flung over her shoulder, behind her the lights of the square windows glowing yellow against the thickening dusk.
The rain stopped, and for a moment a beam of sunlight shone in the gray-green sky. It was near dinnertime, and the sun would set soon, but for a moment its silvery glow lit the huge old house and the thick pines behind it. And it lit the beaming face of her mother and Katy felt something slide off her shoulders, something dark and heavy and old, and her heart lightened in a blink as she threw open the door of the truck and ran up the porch steps.
"Mom!" She flung her arms around the woman who gave a gasp of happy laughter and embraced her in a hug that smelled of sourdough bread and corn. "It's so good to see you."
And it was. She hadn't seen her mother, seen any family, since she'd lost the baby, since the divorce. An overwhelming flood of emotions surged through her, emotions she'd sought to keep stifled for longer than she could remember, and she suddenly had to fight back tears.
It felt so good to be home.
"The steaks'll be done in a twinkling, so if you want to change before supper, now's the time," her mother declared. "And I've got corn on the cob and your favorite honeyed butter for the sourdough rolls." Then her mother added in a whisper straight into her ear, a whisper no one else could hear, "So glad you're home, Katy."
And then the rain started again and they ducked inside, leaving the cold, wet night behind them. Big John Templeton sat and watched them from the cab of the truck, his throat tight as the two women, one tall, leggy, and lanky, a sophisticated beauty with hair the color of wild dark honey, and the other short and agreeably plump, wearing blue jeans, a big plaid shirt, and tennis shoes, disappeared into the glowing warmth of the house where once four of them had lived as a close and loving family.
He patted Mojo's silky black head and then retrieved Katy's wheeled bag, hefting it up the porch steps as the rain fell harder and night began its stealthy descent from the mountains.
Stepping into the dimly lit room that had once been the "company" bedroom, and that her grandmother had moved into several years ago, Katy stared at the motionless woman in the bed. The first thing that struck her was that Bessie had lost weight--a great deal of weight. Tucked beneath a crisp white sheet and a pale blue cotton coverlet, her grandmother looked as pale and fragile as an antique wisp of lace. The iron-gray hair that ringed her square-jawed face looked dull and lifeless, and her normally ruddy skin had a pasty sheen to it that made Katy's heart clench with dismay.
"C-come in, girl, and don't look so scared." Gram's voice sounded thin and dry, not at all like her usual crisp staccato. Each word seemed to take an effort. "I . . . never did bite and I'm not about to start now." She broke off into a fit of coughing--hard, violent coughing that racked the body that had somehow, since Katy had last seen her, become spindly, the body of a tired old woman. Katy took a deep breath and hurried forward.
"Well, Gram, even if you did bite, you know you wouldn't scare me," she forced herself to say with a bright smile. Moving to the side of the bed, she clasped the sun-freckled hand that had first shown her how to whisk an egg, how to sprinkle just the right amount of pepper and garlic on a five-pound meat loaf. She held that hand as Gram coughed and groaned, and tried to catch her breath, then as the coughing subsided, the old woman with Big John Templeton's sharp gray eyes leaned her head weakly against the pillow.
"Never could scare you, Katy girl," she muttered, and the glint in those tired eyes held approval.
"Mom said you hardly ate anything tonight. I wanted to know if you'd like some banana cream pie."
"All I want is to sit up and look at you proper. Help me, please. This damned pneumonia's made me weak as a kitten."
Katy propped the pillows beneath her and lifted her by the shoulders until she was leaning against them.
"Stop . . . looking so worried. I'll be all right. It's just going to take some time. You didn't need to come all the way here. I'm sure you've got better things to do than keep company with a sick old lady like me."
"Actually, Mel Gibson was busy tonight, so I figured, why not go to the ranch and bother Gram?" Grinning, Katy seated herself on the side of the bed, pleased by the snort of laughter her words evoked. "Honestly, I think you're all falling apart without me. So I'd better pay a little more attention," she said lightly.
"Hmmm. Who's paying attention to you? You're thin as a shoelace."