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A blizzard swept across the empty fields outside of Dry Creek, Montana, freezing the night air and throwing snowflakes against the two-story house that stood in the middle of the sprawling Elkton cattle ranch. Inside the home, Renee Gray knelt on the hardwood floor, one hand gripping a phone and the other frantically searching for a pulse in the neck of the unconscious stranger lying in front of her. She was still in shock at finding him slumped over the porch railing a few seconds ago, a saddled horse close to him and what looked like a wolf barely visible some yards behind him in the falling snow.
The wolf hadn't looked menacing, but the man did.
After the scary times she and her five-year-old daughter, Tessie, had endured with her ex-husband, Renee had been careful not to let any man who looked like this onevirile, strong and maybe dangerousinto their lives. And yet, here he was right on the floor in front of her and in desperate need of help.
With relief, she found his heartbeat. It was weak but steady. She'd already called 911 and the operator was off-line connecting with the ambulance company, so Renee relaxed enough to glance over at Tessie. It was past the girl's bedtime, but she didn't show any sign of fatigue as she leaned over the strange man protectively, her frail frame trembling with excitement.
"Is he a prince?" Tessie whispered in awe as she peered down at him. She wore cardboard angel wings on her shoulders and one of them tipped precariously. That didn't stop Tessie from reaching out to the black hair that curled against the man's forehead. Equally dark stubble covered his face. His skin was so white from cold that it almost matched the color of her wings. "Did Santa bring him for Christmas?"
Renee blinked. "No, sweetheart. He's not a present."
The two of them had been in the living room putting the last of the tinsel on their Christmas tree when the girl insisted she heard a thump outside. They both went to the door and Renee managed to use a rug to drag the man inside while keeping a watch on the darkness to be sure the wolf was gone.
"Don't touch him," Renee added as she covered the phone with her hand.
Tessie pulled back and nodded, but she kept looking at the manparticularly at the brown mole high on his left cheek.
Her daughter had longed to meet a prince since the night of her first bedtime fairy tale. Renee had tried to tell her that those kinds of princes did not exist, and if they did, they didn't go calling on bunkhouse cooks and their little girls. But Tessie never quite believed her. Renee had a sinking feeling that she knew what Tessie had whispered in Santa's ear at the school program last week.
Renee couldn't help but stare at the man. Snow was melting in his hair. Except for the dark circles under his eyes and a faded scar on one cheek, she had to admit he did bear a striking resemblance to the drawings of the aristocratic hero in her daughter's beloved Sleeping Beauty storyespecially because the prince in the book also had a mole high on his left cheek.
The temperature gauge on the porch read below zero, so Renee hadn't really had a choice about bringing the man inside, especially with that wolf following him. But she fervently hoped he would be taken away soon. She had enough trouble with Tessie's imagination without this kind of a coincidence.
Right then, the snap of chewing gum sounded in Renee's ear, indicating that Betty Longe, the 911 operator, had finished contacting the emergency crew and was back on the line.
"Is he still breathing?" the woman asked.
Then she realized the operator could not see the action. "Yes, his pulse and breathing are much better. I think it helps that he's out of the cold. The bleeding seems to have stopped, too, now that he's not moving around."
"We can ease up a bit, then. The sheriff should be there in a few minutes."
"The man needs an ambulance more than the sheriff!" Renee could hear the tension in her voice. Even though the man was doing better, she didn't have much beyond iodine and bandages to use if his wound decided to bleed some more.
Betty grunted. "Anytime a strange man stumbles onto your porch in the middle of the night with a bullet in his shoulder, I'm going to send out the sheriff along with an ambulance. Sheriff Wall is just closer than the others right now."
"Actually, we're not at my place." Renee realized that in the rush of things she hadn't mentioned that pertinent fact to the operator. She'd barely had enough wits about her to make the call. "I'm housesitting. The Elktons are spending Christmas in Washington, D.C., with their son and they asked me to stay in the main house while they're gone."
Everyone knew the bunkhouse cook at the ranch had her own quarters, and the EMTs would lose precious time if they went there first.
"Worried about possible rustlers, are they?" Betty asked, her words slow and chatty, as if she had all the time in the world.
"Yes." Renee recognized that the operator was trying to help her calm down. She took a deep breath. "Have there been more cattle reported missing?"
Betty was silent for a moment, likely passing along the additional information about where to go and then coming back to speak.
"Not that I know of. It's still seventy-three reported gone."
Renee listened for the sheriff's siren but didn't hear anything but the slight scraping sound of Tessie's slippers as she fidgeted.
"Well, be careful," Betty finally said. "Women tend to think an unconscious man is harmless, but you never know."
"I don't think he's harmless," Renee protested. She looked down at the man. He was still breathing okay. She didn't easily trust the men she knew, let alone someone she'd never met. "I wonder what he was doing out there all alone in the middle of the night. Riding a horse and being trailed by a wolf. I can't believe he was up to any good."
"We don't have wolves around here," Betty said sharply and then paused. "Well, not many."
"It only takes one to do damage."
Renee looked up and suddenly noticed the room had grown silent. Her daughter was standing stiffly next to the man. It was as if Tessie had never danced in delight at finding the stranger. Instead, her little face was scrunched up in resignation. And the angel wings that their friend Karyn McNab had lent her to wear in the church nativity pageant seemed to weigh down her shoulders.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" Renee asked as she covered the phone again.
"You think he's a bad man," Tessie muttered. "You don't believe Santa sent him."
"Oh, dear," Renee said to her daughter. "I know you want him to be a prince, but we talked about this. Princes don't exist. Not the fairy-tale kind, anyway. We need to accept that. And Santa is just for fun."
Tessie got a stubborn look on her face. Her lower lip protruded and her lips pressed together in a straight line. Renee would have said more, but she saw tears start to form in Tessie's eyes.
"I know who he is," the girl finally whispered. "If Santa didn't send him, then Daddy did. The prince has a Christmas message for me. He just needs to wake up so he can tell me what it is."
"Oh, sweetie," Renee said, not caring that her hand had slipped off the phone.
Before she could say anything more, Betty spoke. "Well, if you ask me, no one needs a prince like that to deliver a message. Not when we have the good old U.S. Postal Service with their white trucks and pretty stamps."
"Did you hear that, Tessie?" Renee held the phone out so her daughter could listen. She was surprised at the support she was getting from Betty, but she was grateful anyway. Maybe her daughter would pay more attention to another adult. "Betty doesn't think you need a prince, either. If your daddy wanted to write you a letter, he'd just send it in the regular mail."
Renee supposed adding some reality to her daughter's fantasies was an improvement even if the odds of Tessie's father sending her a letter were no greater than her meeting a storybook prince out here in the middle of the Montana plains.
"You listen to your mother, Tessie," Betty said, the words coming through loud enough to be heard by both Renee and her daughter. "A letter is easy enough to send."
Tessie stepped closer to the phone and asked the operator, "But what if he is a prince?" Then she turned her back, no doubt hoping Renee couldn't hear, and whispered, "Mommy doesn't know what a prince even looks like."
"That's not true" Renee began and then stopped. She wasn't going to get into a ridiculous argument like this. Renee intended to keep her daughter safe from strange men even if Tessie was angry about it. Her daughter could afford to fall in love with fairy-tale princes, but Renee could not.
They were all silent for a moment.
"Maybe your mommy just hasn't met the right prince yet," Betty finally said softly, obviously changing sides before the battle had even begun.
Renee put the phone back to her own ear and whispered into it, "You're not helping."
"Well, you must admit you don't even look at single men anymore," Betty replied. "You're twenty-four years oldtoo young to give up on men because of one bad experience. It wouldn't hurt you to think there was a prince somewhere who was meant for you."
Without thinking, Renee let her eyes stray to the man's left hand and noticed he wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Of course, her ex-husband had seldom worn one, either, so that didn't prove much.
"I agree you don't want another man like that husband you used to have." Betty's voice had gentled again and her gum chewing had stopped. "Why, he almost took you to prison with him. And the armed robberies he committed weren't the worst of it. Everyone knows he was abusive to you and Tessie."
"I" Renee wished she hadn't brought up her marriage. She cupped the phone to her ear so her daughter wouldn't hear. Tessie had turned around and was looking at her.
"But you can't judge all men by him." The operator continued as though Renee hadn't even tried to speak. "There are dozens of men around here who would be happy to be a little girl's prince. And yours, too, if you'd let them. Maybe the new man who is delivering the mail in Dry Creek these days would do. He's single and has a steady job."
"Barry Grover?" Renee asked, momentarily stunned. She'd met him. He was balding and had a paunch. She looked up to see if there was a red patrol light reflecting in the window. Barry was missing a tooth, too, if she remembered right. Sheriff Wall should be here by now. Please, Lord, bring the lawman soon, she prayed. If she stayed on the phone with Betty much longer, all the people in Dry Creek would be out looking for a husband for her, and she was afraid of what kind of man they'd find.
It was bad enough that young Karyn, a high school student who worked weekends for her as a relief cook, had started dropping hints that marriage was good at any age. Of course, that was likely for her own benefit, since Karyn was infatuated with that boy she was seeing. Neither one of them was of an age to be thinking about a wedding, in Renee's opinion.
"Barry might be a little older than you," Betty acknowledged. "But twenty years' difference isn't so much in a marriage. And he has that nice new Jeep. It has heated seats, I hear. And four-wheel drive. He's taking some treatment for his hair loss, too, so he'll look younger before you know it. And he'll have a good retirement if he stays with the postal service. You'll be well set in your golden years. And Tessie might get that puppy she wants."
"That's okay. No one needs to match me with anyone. And I'm working on the puppy."
Renee looked back at the man on the floor. His skin color was returning to normal. He might look better than Barry Grover, but he would be more difficult. She didn't know how she knew, but she was sure of that. He just seemed like the kind of man who could turn someone's life upside down without even trying.
"We have to do it for Tessie," Betty said then, her voice thick with emotion. "Why, even before she said what she did when she was on Santa's knee, she's always been going on aboutah" the operator hesitated and lowered her voice "family things."
Mercifully, she stopped at that.
"I am thinking of Tessie," Renee whispered. The knot of misery in her stomach tightened. She supposed the whole town of Dry Creek knew about her daughter's stories by now.
Against all odds, Tessie still loved her father and told anyone who would listen how wonderful he was. Instead of his being an inmate in the state prison in Deer Lodge, she had convinced herself that her father had been sent on a secret mission to rule some faraway kingdom, living in a majestic castle with guards at the gate and princes at the ready. It was straight out of one of her fairy-tale books. Tessie would describe the man's crown and robes and the presents he was going to send to her. She even mentioned the wolfhounds that guarded the bridge over the moat by name.
Renee renewed her commitment to finding a suitable puppy for Tessie.
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to pry," Betty finally said, sounding as discouraged as Renee felt. "It's just with her father the way he is"
"I know you mean well." In a small town, no one carried his or her burdens alone. Sometimes that was good, sometimes bad. But Renee knew the concerns were as much for Tessie as they were for her, and she couldn't fault the town for caring.
She had been taking her daughter to a therapist in Billings and the woman said that Tessie would outgrow these fantasies when she finally felt completely safe. The girl's love for her father warred against her fear of him. She yearned to see him and, at the same time, was scared he might come back with some wolfhounds to hurt her. Her fairy-tale pretense of a father as a faraway king helped her feel secure until she could finally admit it wasn't the animals but her father who made her afraid.