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Katrina Britton stood looking out the window of the only gas station in Dry Creek, Montana. The handful of houses she saw had their curtains drawn. It was supposed to be spring, but winter still had a grip on this tiny town. The ground was sprinkled with frost and dried mud was splattered on everything from parked cars to that little garden gnome sticking up in someone's dead lawn.
In all her thirty-two years, Katrina had always liked winter. But seeing how lonely the gnome looked surrounded by all that withered grass made her eyes tear up so she blinked and concentrated on the window in front of her. The ground wasn't all that was frozen. Twenty minutes ago, she'd pulled off the I-90 freeway outside this town to take a call on her cell phone. When she finished the conversation, she knew her new photography business was as cold and lifeless as anything she could see out this window. In the past couple of months, she'd fought against everything—her unsupportive boyfriend, her dwindling savings and her own doubts—all in hopes of landing this one big client that would jump-start her career as a freelance photographer. She wanted this more than anything she'd ever wanted. And just when she thought it was hers, the client had said they couldn't use her photos because, although they were technically good, they lacked heart.
Lacked heart? How could they lack heart? She'd spent almost everything she had getting the perfect models to portray that illusive thing called heart.
Not knowing what to do after that call, she started the car again, only to have the muffler make a horrid noise and begin spewing out black smoke. She was forced to take the first exit she could find to get help. So, here she was. Her day was miserable and it was only eight-thirty in the morning.
She hiccupped and saw the man at the desk look up at her. In an effort to stop the tears from falling, she turned back and focused on the window. Eventually, she'd need to decide what to do next in her life, but for now she just needed to breathe. Of course, a distraction would help her get through the next few minutes, but there was nothing more to see outside. That's when she noticed that the large glass pane itself was amazingly clean.
"Who does the windows?" she turned to ask the man who was watching her instead of tallying up a repair estimate for her muffler.
"I do them," he answered a little tentatively. "Why, do you see a spot?"
She'd grown up in a muddy town like this so she knew how hard it was to keep windows clean during the winter. "I just think that whatever they're paying you to keep them looking like this, it's not enough. You're doing a great job." She peered at his name tag. "Conrad."
She would love to have someone tell her she was doing a good job—at anything. It would certainly make her feelings of failure a lot less right now. But he didn't seem to care if anyone appreciated his efforts. He grunted and turned back to the repair estimate he was filling out.
Well, Mr. Congeniality he was not. She studied him anyway because she needed to focus on something right now. His brown hair was cropped close, but not styled. His beige uniform had his name, Conrad Nelson, embroidered on the top pocket in orange thread. She'd guess he was in his late thirties. He was fit, but not buff. The shirt of his uniform was neatly tucked in and his shoulders were military straight as he sat in his wooden chair.
Something about him steadied her, though. His demeanor said he was a rock. She guessed he was a man who always quietly did his duty.
He pointed to the small sign by the door. "This is my place. I take care of it all. Top to bottom, including windows."
"You're fortunate." She envied him; there'd been pride in his voice.
"I do okay. Moved everything here from Miles City a few months ago." Conrad paused to look at her some more. "You need a job or something? Washing those windows wouldn't pay much, but—"
She tried to smile at him, but couldn't.
"I'm just passing through," she managed to say. When that didn't seem like enough, she added, "This place is wonderful, though."
Actually, the town looked like it had sprung up in some rancher's field and would blow away if a good wind bothered to come along. The only thing that connected it to the outside world was that winding asphalt road she'd driven into town. Across the street from the gas station, she'd seen a hardware store and a little farther down was a café. That was it for businesses, unless she counted the small church.
She wished she could overlook that church, but it stood out. The old-fashioned white building had concrete steps leading up to the front door. Stained glass windows lined the side. If it had a steeple, the place would look almost like the church she'd gone to as a child. That had been so long ago. Back then, she believed God was in His heaven and all was right with the world. Of course, she knew better now. If God was up there looking down at her life, it was only idle curiosity that moved Him.
She blinked. That bothered her more than it had in a long time. And made her feel like she had too much in common with that old garden gnome out there, standing isolated and frozen in some eternal winter she didn't understand. She blinked again. She'd always made do with what she had in life; she would again.
Just then she heard the faint sound of a sliding chair. She turned and saw Conrad reach into a side drawer of his desk, take something out and stand up.
"Here." He opened the box of tissues and held it out to her. He didn't even look at her when he offered the box with the yellow flowers on it. She wondered how often women burst into tears in his office. She hated to look that emotional. Her boyfriend—well, ex-boyfriend now—always walked away from her when she cried. And the tears had come too easily ever since the lump in her breast had turned out to be cancer. The doctor said the surgery had probably removed it all, but he wouldn't know for sure until six months had passed. She had four and a half months left until the final verdict.
"I don't need anything." She lifted her head high, which proved to be the wrong thing to do as a tear lost its moorings and slid down her cheek. Well, she supposed she did need something. She reached out and took a tissue. "Sorry."
"I don't usually get so upset." She waved her hand in a vague way. "It's just because of—"
"It's okay," Conrad said and set the tissue box down on his desk.
"I've been fired." She didn't want him to think she was unhinged so she needed to explain there was a sensible reason for her tears. And she hadn't talked about the cancer with anyone since the one disastrous conversation with her boyfriend, so she wasn't going to mention that. "Well, technically not so much fired as not hired."
She took a breath.
"But I'm doing fine," she added before he could say anything more about the window washing job. "I have so much to be grateful for. Really."
"Yeah," he said in a voice almost as phony as hers.
He clearly didn't believe her. "Of course, I wasn't wild about having the muffler fall off. But my life is good," she said.
That might be a stretch. But she was at least trying to make everything right. After her surgery, she hadn't wanted to go back to her secretarial job, not when she craved so much more out of life. Over the years, she'd taken a dozen photography classes so she decided to at least try to make her dream come true.
Conrad looked up and glanced at the wall where a calendar hung. He was probably only checking the date, but Katrina's heart stopped.
"April 9," she offered quickly. "Today's Saturday, April 9."
She felt the heat rise on her face. She'd forgotten she was pictured on this month's page of that particular agricultural calendar. Last year, she'd answered an ad in the paper for models. She'd only wanted to see what a professional photo shoot was like, but she'd ended up being chosen to model for a Depression-era picture. The tractor was the star of the photo; she was in a distant farmhouse calling her "husband" home from the fields for dinner. She'd told herself she was far enough away that no one would recognize her.
Conrad looked up from his desk and opened his mouth to say something. Then he closed it again. He didn't say anything, but she noticed something had changed in his face. Maybe he was having a heart attack. He was white as snow. Well, not snow in general, but he sure matched the kind of gray that would be found in this town during winter. He was even slumped a little in his chair.
Just then the phone on his desk rang.
Conrad straightened himself and picked up the phone. "Service station. Nelson here."
Katrina could hear another man's voice indistinctly on the other end of the phone.
"Easy now," Conrad said as he put his hand over the receiver and looked up at her in apology. "Sorry, but this is my uncle. It'll only take a minute if—"
Katrina nodded. She was more than happy to leave. She turned and walked into the repair part of the gas station and shut the glass door behind her. She hadn't had a chance to tell Conrad that the car belonged to her sister, Leanne. Her sister had asked her, begged her really, to come for a visit. It had been bad timing, though. Katrina arrived at Leanne's place yesterday, just in time to listen to her sister fret about why her husband, Walker Rain Tree, hadn't come home the night before.
This morning, Leanne had asked her to take three-year-old Zach and six-year-old Ryan with her for the day so she and Walker could have a serious talk without them around. It seemed this wasn't the first night Leanne's husband had been gone and then refused to explain why. Katrina didn't want the boys to witness that kind of a quarrel either, so she said yes, and now the boys were asleep in the back of her sister's car. Leanne had insisted Katrina take her old car in case she wanted to take some of the back roads. That way, Katrina wouldn't risk damaging her leased Lexus.
On a whim, Katrina had promised the boys a quarter for each photo she took of them today. They had been excited about earning money so she expected they'd be up soon. Even with all of the delays, they should be home at Leanne's in time for an early dinner.
Conrad waited for the woman to walk out of his office before he put the phone back to his ear. "Now, start at the beginning."
He had to admit he was glad she was gone. His whole face relaxed. For a while he thought he might be hallucinating, but his uncle Charley would bring him back to reality.
"Is she still there?" the older man asked a little unnecessarily in Conrad's opinion. His uncle was looking out the window of the hardware store across the street. There was no way a person could leave Conrad's gas station without being in full sight of anyone looking out that window.
"Yeah, she's still here," he answered anyway. "Did you happen to get a good look at her?"
"Elmer said she has really long black hair and is pretty."
A whole group of older men sat inside the hardware store and kept their eyes on the comings and goings of Dry Creek. Elmer had underestimated her beauty, Conrad thought. Pretty was too tame a word to describe her. She was leggy and walked toward the beat-up old car with her long hair swinging with every step she took. She had warm brown eyes and creamy skin. Even wearing jeans and a black leather jacket, she was too exotic for this place. He hadn't given much thought to her apart from that until he saw the tears in her eyes. That's when all of the pieces fell into place and he recognized her.
Conrad remembered his uncle was waiting. "Yeah, she is that."
"Is she acting peculiar?"
"In what way?"
"Well, nervous. Is she anxious to get away from here?"
"She might be a little impatient, but lots of people are." He didn't know how to go about this, but he knew a man needed to lance aboil if he wanted it to heal. "The thing is she looks like someone in a picture I have and—"
"Aha," his uncle interrupted in triumph. "Elmer told me she's probably on one of those wanted posters you keep on that bulletin board of yours. The sheriff called and asked us to be on the lookout for an old gray car with a dent in the right fender. Somebody stole it down by Pryor. On the Crow Indian reservation. Even I could see her car is gray. And banged up, too."
Conrad closed his eyes. No one would steal that old car she was driving. Not unless they were drunk or too blind to see it clearly. "I don't think she's wanted for anything. That's not where I saw her." He drew a deep breath. "I know it's not her, but she looks like the woman on the calendar."
"You know the one I showed you."
There was a moment of absolute silence.
"You mean the woman you're going to marry?" Uncle Charley finally asked in a hushed tone. "That calendar?"
Conrad didn't know why he hadn't seen the pitfalls last week when he'd used a page in his calendar to make a point with his uncle. "No, she's not the woman I'm going to marry. I'm just saying—oh, I don't know what I'm saying."
The fact that he had not wanted to have a serious discussion with his uncle about his love life was the reason he was in trouble now. Last Wednesday the older man had come over to show Conrad what he'd put in the church prayer bulletin—"Wife wanted for my nephew."
A prayer didn't get more public than that. Or more embarrassing.
Conrad knew he should have sat down right there and assured his uncle that he would get married eventually, in his own time. But he was in the middle of rebuilding a tractor engine for the Redferns and they needed it soon if they were going to plow the ground they were leasing in time to get a crop planted.