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They'd been driving for what felt like forever, but that wasn't the real problem. It seemed to Echo De Gris that her stepfather's anxiety had increased with every advancing mile into Wyoming and now that they were on Open Sky Ranch land, it was almost suffocating.
This made no sense because he was the one who had insisted moving back here soon after Echo's mother's long illness had finally claimed her life. Echo had been surprised when, at the last minute, he'd asked her to come along on the trip—they had never really been close and she was in the middle of life-changing events of her own. But how could she deny him?
"There it is," he said, his voice anxious. He shifted around and flashed her a nervous smile, then peered back out the window. His voice barely a whisper, he repeated himself. "There it is."
She'd been so involved maneuvering the big truck and rented trailer along the gravel road that wound its way through the rolling hillsides of tall grass that she hadn't looked very far ahead. She did now as they topped a peak, and caught a glimpse of a large log house nestled near a pond in the valley below. Aspens surrounded the house while the uncompromising Rocky Mountains ringed the valley. A dozen barns and outbuildings fanned into corrals and fenced pastures while an airstrip ran more or less parallel to a stream. There were several black cows in evidence, their lowing riding on a gentle breeze. Horses, some with foals at their sides, dotted the hillsides.
She'd lived here as a small girl but everything looked bigger now than she remembered. High white clouds, brilliant blue skies, jagged peaks.
And talk about remote
"Herd must be up at the summer pastures," Pete Westin mused and there was a wistful tone to his craggy voice. She wasn't sure why he'd sold out and moved her and her mother to the West Coast twenty-some-odd years before; she was just grateful he had. Imagine growing up someplace like this. Even the thought of a day or two in such a spot made her itchy.
A few moments later, she drove into the yard, pulling the rig to a stop beside a half dozen other trucks, most of them with dusty ATVs roped into the beds. All she had to do now was help her stepfather get settled, then she was free to catch a ride to Woodwind and buy a ticket on the first plane headed back to civilization.
"I wonder where everybody is. I expected them to be mowing the fields by now, but it doesn't look as though they've even started," Pete said as he opened his door.
Echo scooted out from behind the wheel. "I'll take a look around," she said. It was a big truck with a long drop to the ground and her full skirt caught in the retracting seat belt. She ended up with bare thighs in a swirl of cotton.
"Never mind, here comes someone," Pete called from the other side of the truck.
As Echo battled with her clothes she looked up to see a man approaching.
There was something about a cowboy, even to a city slicker like her. Maybe it was the snug jeans or the shirt stretched across strong, broad shoulders; maybe it was the way a guy moved when he didn't spend a lot of time sitting. Or the hat—black in this instance—shading the eyes, squaring the jaw. Whatever it was, whew. Some of them just had "it" and you knew what "it" was when you saw it.
He looked away from her predicament, but not before she saw the speculation in his silvery eyes. Damn—she was nearly naked from the waist down. With a final yank, she reclaimed her skirt.
His gaze moved to her face, then away as he appeared to notice her stepfather on the far side of the truck. He looked quickly back at Echo and speculation turned into surprise. "Either Uncle Pete got himself a pretty young wife or you're my little cousin Echo," he said as they shook hands.
She narrowed her eyes and looked him over again. Too young to be Cody gray eyes
She'd seen his college graduation picture a few years earlier, taken with his dad, a herd of cattle behind them. "You're Adam," she said.
His smile tipped handsome into gorgeous. "I didn't know you were coming with Uncle Pete."
"It was sort of last-minute. I'll be gone before you know it."
"She's got herself a new job in New York City," Pete grumbled. He'd made no bones about his opinion of her moving across the country.
Adam released her hand. "New York, huh. You've turned into a big city girl."
"I grew up in San Francisco," she reminded him. "I mean, after we left here."
"Well, it's nice to see you. It's been a long time."
"Yes, it has."
Adam continued on around the truck to greet his uncle. "First Pierce comes home and now you. It's getting to be like the old days around here. Welcome, Uncle Pete."
Pete Westin looked genuinely pleased as he delivered a manly clap on the shoulder to Adam. "Where is Pierce?"
"Still in Chatioux. Analise's father took a turn for the worse. They're getting ready to crown her brother king so Pierce extended his stay. He should be home next week."
"I read about what happened here last winter in the newspapers. They made it sound like Pierce was going to marry this Princess Analise."
"That's the rumor."
"How about that? The troublemaker gets himself a princess. How about Cody? Is he around?"
"He and Jamie are working on the mowers. We were supposed to start haying yesterday but everything went wrong. With any luck we start tomorrow bright and early. Dad is out in the barn with a couple cronies you might remember."
"I'll head on out there," Echo's stepfather said.
Adam nodded across the yard. "No need, they're on their way."
Echo turned to see three men. She'd assume she'd recognize her uncle, but the fact was she wasn't sure which of the men was Birch Westin. All three of them appeared to be in their sixties and cut from the same Western cloth, all imposing in their own way, all about the same size. She looked at their hats—the most recent picture she'd seen of her uncle had him in a black Stetson with silver disks on the band. No help there: they all wore tan hats, two of them straw.
That's when she remembered Uncle Birch had had knee surgery last winter followed by a series of setbacks that had delayed healing. One man limped, plus, the closer he got, the more he reminded her of Adam if you looked past the wear and tear of time.
"So, you made it," Birch growled at Echo's stepfather.
Echo's stepfather's shoulders grew rigid. "Yeah," he said.
Birch nodded, then turned to Echo. His voice softened. "This is a nice surprise. I didn't know you were coming, too."
"I'm just here for a day or so," she explained, moving to accept a perfunctory hug. Birch was as stiff a hugger as her stepfather—neither was the warm, cuddly type. Were all the Westin men like that? Her gaze flicked to Adam. Was he?
Birch took up introductions. "Pete, you remember J. D. Oakes," he said, gesturing at the man with the white handlebar mustache and a piercing gaze. J.D. held between two fingers what appeared to be a hand-rolled cigarette. It smelled foul. "And this here is Del Halverson. I don't know if you and Del ever ran into each other way back when."
Pete shook both men's hands. "Sure, I know these two. Del, I think you bought your place a year or two before I left. You'd just returned from the East Coast as I recall."
Del Halverson was a florid man with small features bunched in the middle of a large face. "I wasn't away long," he said. "Got tired of working for my uncle in a damn bank. We all left Wyoming at one time or another, right? Even Lonnie moved away to be a soldier for a while. Big city lights tempt a man. Most of us wander back sooner or later. 'Cept you, J.D. You didn't come from around here."
"I came from a hundred miles north of here. I swear, Del, unless a man is born in your backyard, he's a foreigner." He smiled at Echo as he added, "I remember when you were a wisp of a little girl." Then he dropped his cigarette to the gravel and ground it out with his boot. He looked up, caught Uncle Birch scowling at him, and hastened to pick it up. "Sorry, I forgot," he said, and crossed to an old milk pail filled with sand that leaned beside a post. He dropped in the butt and turned back to Del. "Let's get out of the way so these people can get reacquainted."
Both men said their goodbyes then climbed into one of the trucks and drove off.
An uneasy silence ensued until Echo finally broke it. With a sweeping gesture, she indicated the house. "It sure looks different than I remember," she said.
"Cody remodeled three summers ago before he married Cassie," Adam volunteered.
"Fat lot of good it did him," Uncle Birch snarled. "She ran off last winter anyway."
Echo didn't miss the knot that formed in Adam's jaw. She wasn't exactly sure what prompted it unless he didn't appreciate his father making those kind of comments about his brother.
"This place is hard on women," Pete commented.
Birch turned on his brother. "Is that why you sold me your share of the ranch and moved Althea away? Because the place was hard on her?"
"Pauline is still here," Birch grumbled. "She lasted." "Maybe because you never married her. Where is she, anyway?"
"In town for the day."
"Looking forward to seeing her. And you know I didn't move just because of Althea. Things weren't the same after."
His voice trailed off and he looked at the ground.
Birch glowered at his brother. "Go ahead and say it."
The silence that followed his remark was so deep it felt like the earth itself held its breath. Echo shifted uneasily, glancing over at Adam, who was staring at the ground.
Finally, Pete thumped his leg with his fist. "That's all water under the bridge. I'm back now to stay unless you'd rather I didn't. It's not my ranch anymore."
"The Open Sky will always be your home," Birch muttered. "Some things don't change."
"Then take me out to the barn and bring me up to speed. I plan to help with the haying. I used to know my way around a tractor, you know."
A smile lifted Birch's lips for a millisecond. "We can use the help. Come on, Adam, we'll—"
"I can't," Adam said so quickly Echo decided he was as anxious to escape these two querulous old men as she was. He turned to Pete and added, "We discovered someone was looting the burial cave this winter. I need to ride out and check the safeguards Pierce and I put in place. What with haying, there won't be another opportunity for the next few weeks."
Echo saw her chance. "I'll go with you," she said.
"I'm going on horseback."
"Do you still ride?"
"Of course." Sort of
He glanced down at her sandals. "You're not dressed for it."
"I have boots and jeans in the truck." "It's a long ride—"
"Oh, come on. I can keep up. I was pretty good on a horse."
"That was a lifetime ago," Adam said. "I was a natural. Uncle Birch told me so."
Birch actually chuckled as he took off his hat, rubbed the red mark it had left on his forehead and pulled it on again.
"Well, Pete, let's you and me go find Cody and Jamie. Leave these two to pick up where they left off—squabbling." With that, the two older men walked toward the outbuildings, both with ramrod-straight backs, both with hands jammed in their pockets.
Adam's gaze followed his father and uncle.
"So," Echo continued, "are you going to take me with you or not?"
He looked straight into her eyes. "You're as pushy as you were when you were a skinny kid with pigtails."
"I prefer to think of it as highly focused."
"Self-delusional, too," he muttered. "Okay, hurry and change. I'll go saddle a couple horses. You want a broken-down mare or maybe a pony would be more your speed?"
She grinned, pleased he could still dish it out. "Give me a stallion, buddy, I can handle him."
"I bet you can," he murmured as he walked away.
Posted October 19, 2011
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