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Four Winds Ranch lay in the valley below, rimmed to the west by the Wyoming Rockies. Lush meadows spread like emerald blankets among stands of pine and aspen. Even from this mountain road, Cole Daniels could see the sparkling water of a stream that meandered from a high canyon and traversed the property. His property, now.
Postcard perfect, the ranch represented everything he'd ever worked for, everything he'd lostand a nightmare that had lasted for sixteen long years.
But now he was back, and he was going to make things right.
Grim memories assaulted him as he shifted his pickup into gear and drove down to the home place, where a construction crew was framing up a new fifty-by-eighty-foot horse barn and refurbishing the old one.
Irwin Benson, the crew boss, nodded to Cole and strolled over to his truck, offering his hand for an overly hearty shake. "It's coming along."
The crew of eight had stopped to watch them, but when Cole returned their stares, they all turned back to work. "Will it be done by Labor Day?"
"Maybe." Irwin pushed up the brim of his ball cap and mopped at the sweat on his brow. "If we get the materials in time."
Cole narrowed his gaze on Irwin's face. "I thought everything was ordered a month ago."
"I did, just as promised." Irwin shifted his weight and looked away. "The siding hasn't come, and the hardware for the sliding stall doors is still on back order."
"Is there a reason?"
"Just some sort of delay. That's all they told me."
"When is it supposed to arrive?"
Irwin shrugged. "I didn't get a straight answer. I did check with some other suppliers in the area, but then we'd be starting all over. And if they've got back orders,too "
"I'll stop in Wolf Creek and talk to the lumber-yard manager." Cole thought back to his senior year of high school, sorting through the names and faces that he could still remember. But after so many years of trying to forget this town and everyone in it, many of its inhabitants were just a dim memory.
"Is it still owned by the Olsons?"
"Yep, so good luck." A faint smirk twisted Irwin's mouth, but quickly faded. "They were good friends of Wes Truly, you know."
"Not to say they'd hold a grudge or anything, but some people just don't forget."
Cole stilled, a deadly calm spreading through him. "What about you?"
The older man's eyes flared wider, as if he'd suddenly realized his mistakeand now faced danger he hadn't expected. He held out his hands, fingers splayed. "All of that's old business. Nothing to do with me back then, and not now, either."
Cole bared his teeth in a smile. "But you were around in those days. Right?"
"Er guess I was. But I had no stake in anything that happened." Irwin nodded vigorously. "I liked Rand. A lot." He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. "I better get to work, so we can get the windows framed up before we leave today."
Cole watched the man head back to the barn. There'd be other days, other chances to see how much Irwin really knew. And before the barn was finished, Cole planned to have conversations with every last man on the crew. Unlike the people in town, they were temporarily in his employ which meant he had a better chance at getting them to talk.
Sixteen years ago a jury had convicted his father of murder, and two years later, he'd died in prison.
At least two of the witnesses had lied.
But someone in this town had to know the truth.
If it took the rest of his life, Cole was going to find out what had really happened that night, because despite local opinion, Rand Daniels had died an innocent man.
Leigh McAllister had dreamed of this day throughout all four years of vet school.
Planned every last detail. Felt her anticipation rising with every long-distance call from her uncle Gray, who'd offered her space for a clinic at Four Winds, his Wyoming ranch.
The news of his unexpected death last winter had left her grieving for months.
She'd finally rallied over the summer. Found another place to begin her practice. But now, with a hot August wind kicking up dust devils across the desolate parking lot and everything she owned packed in the back of her ancient pickup, Leigh wasn't sure if the precious contract in her hand was an opportunity or a life sentence of debt.
The weathered building ahead of her had seen better days. Much of the veterinary equipment inside was outdated. And the blue-sky part of the practicethe warmth and skill of the county's beloved Doc Henry Adamswould be moving with him to Arizona at the end of the week.
Yet the Wolf Creek Vet Clinic had always been the busiest practice in two counties, and the client base alone had to be pure gold.
Unless Neil's warnings were true.
Remembering the phone call from Henry's nephew a few weeks ago, she closed her eyes. Dear Lord, please let this practice be Your answer to my prayers, and not just my own blind desire.
She turned at the sound of wheels crunching across the gravel and squinted against the glaring Wyoming sun, its rays all the more blinding at this altitude.
A gleaming Ford pickup pulled to a stop a few yards away from her, sending a cloud of thick dust boiling into the air. Through the haze, she could make out Salt Grass Veterinary ServicesNeil Adams, DVM emblazoned in script on the side of the multi-compartment vet box installed in the bed of the truck.
Henry climbed out of the passenger side, his white hair thick as ever, his jaunty stride belying his seventy-five years.
Another twinge of doubt worked its way through her midsection and began to tie her stomach into a knot. Had she ever really imagined that she could replace him?
He batted at the dust with one big paw. "Sorry about that, Leigh. My nephew might be a dandy vet, but he's still got hot-rodding in his soul."
"I remember," she retorted with a dry laugh, recalling the freckle-faced boy who'd had half the charm and common sense of his uncle, and far too much money to burn. "High school, senior year. Neil rolled his new Corvette going over High Creek Pass."
"Two weeks off the showroom floor." Henry's voice held a note of amused affection. "Didn't even have a bruise, but his daddy sure hit the ceiling." The twinkle in his eyes faded. "Real sorry about your uncle, by the way. It's hard to believe he's gone."
"Thanks. I miss him so much."
Neil stepped out of the truck and pulled a ball cap over his sandy, thinning hair. "Everything settled?"
"Just need a quick walk-through." Henry tossed a ring of keys to Leigh. "I want to make sure everything is in good shape."
Neil glanced at his watch. "Fifteen minutes, and Aunt Martha wants you home."
Henry waved dismissively. "She's probably already ordering those movers around like a drill sergeant. I'll just be in the way."
He led them into the clinic, through the waiting room with its brown tiled floor and bare windows facing the mountains to the west. Past the tall counter separating the receptionist's area, with its banks of file cabinets and an old-fashioned typewriter.
Rustic pine paneling and framed Remington prints gave way to off-white walls and bright fluorescent lighting in the hall leading to the heart of the buildingthe two exam rooms, a lab and pharmacy, storeroom, treatment area, surgery and an office. Beyond another door was a tiny apartment that would be her home for the foreseeable future.
"I'm leaving decent, usable equipment that oughta hold you for awhile." Henry braced a hand on the doorway to the lab and sighed heavily. From his long face, this last visit was more like a wake than a joyous departure into the freedom of retirement. "Once you have my old vet box mounted in the bed of your truck, you should be good to go."
"I'm just thankful for everything that was included in our deal." She stepped past him and walked along the long white counter filled with lab equipment. Above, glass-front cupboards revealed bags of sterilized surgical instruments resting in stainless-steel trays, ready for action. Beyond the refrigerator, shelves of pharmaceuticals filled the rest of the back wall.
Neil met and held Leigh's gaze, but waited until his uncle walked down the hall and disappeared into one of the exam rooms. "This isn't going to be an easy transition for you."
"Believe me, I never thought it would be."
"He was an institution in these parts, and my practice in Salt Grass is just forty miles away." Neil cleared his throat. "Two strikes against someone new.And honestly, he should have retired years ago."
Unease slithered through her midsection. "Why?"
"Well " Neil lowered his voice. "Errors in judgment. A few mistakes. Might've just been his vision but either way, he was losing business. Fast."
That sense of unease now wrapped around her heart and tightened like a vise. "But I saw the figuresthe gross last year was almost $190k."
"Was it?" Neil gave her a thin smile. "Really? But the bigger question is how much higher was it the year before, and the year before that?" He glanced at a water-stained area in the ceiling tile. "And how much will it take to repair this old place? You, my dear, have just boarded a sinking ship."
She'd needed to come back to Wolf Creek because of family problems, but this clinic hadn't been a snap decision. She'd prayed long and hard about it over the past six months. She'd spent hours researching banks and meeting with loan officers before she'd signed the contract.
And now, her uneasiness turned to fear.
She had no choice. She had to make moneyand she had to start making it fast.
To help her get started, Henry had offered to sell his practice on a one-year, lease-to-own deal, with a balloon payment in twelve months.
Already she was facing over eight hundred dollars a month on the practice, the used truck she'd needed to buy last year, and a short-term loan on some extra equipment and supplies. Once her student loan deferment ended in three months, the figure would jump to over eleven hundred.
And if she didn't keep up with her payments, no bank on earth would consider financing the practice come next fall. Which meant she could lose everything.
Neil must have read her mind, because he smiled in sympathy. "Not good news, I know. Just don't forgetmy offer still stands."
She nodded faintly.
A merger of the two veterinary practices was probably the most logical plan, but it was one she would never consider. She knew what would happen. One more person would end up calling the shots, and it wouldn't be her. Her lifelong goal of independence would slip from her grasp.
And then she'd never be able to prove her worth to the one person she'd never been able to please.