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The road was little more than a pair of ruts making lazy brown paths through the lush spring grass of southern Montana, and Hank was handling the truck like a tank on maneuvers. But Abby gritted her teeth and didn't say a word. Hank, in his fifty-plus years, had forgotten more about ranch work than she'd ever learn. And she wasn't about to put him in a bad temper by asking him to slow down.
She stared out over the smooth rolling hills where Cade's white-faced Herefords grazed on new spring grass. Montana. Big Sky country. Rolling grasslands that seemed to go on forever under a canopy of blue sky. And amid the grass, delicate yellow-and-blue wildflowers that Abby had gathered as a girl. Here, she could forget New York and the nightmare of the past two weeks. She could heal her wounds and hide away from the world.
She smiled faintly, a smile that didn't quite reach her pale brown eyes, and she clenched her hands around the beige purse in the lap of her shapeless dress. She didn't feel like a successful fashion model when she was on the McLaren ranch. She felt like the young girl who'd grown up in this part of rural southern Montana, on the ranch that had been absorbed by Cade's growing empire after her father's death three years earlier.
At least Melly was still there. Abby's younger sister had an enviable job as Cade's private secretary. It meant that she could be near her fiancé, Cade's ranch foreman, while she supported herself. Cade had never approved ofJesse Shane's decision to allow his eldest daughter to go to New York, and he had made no secret of it. Now Abby couldn't help wishing she'd listened. Her brief taste of fame hadn't been worth the cost.
She felt bitter. It was impossible to go back, to relive those innocent days of her youth when Cade McLaren had been the sun and moon. But she mourned for the teenager she'd been that long-ago night when he'd carried her to bed. It was a memory she'd treasured, but now it was a part of the nightmare she'd brought home from New York. She wondered with a mind numbed by pain if she'd ever be able to let any man touch her again.
She sighed, gripping the purse tighter as Hank took one rise a little fast and caused the pickup to lurch to one side. She clutched the edge of the seat as the vehicle all but rocked onto its side.
"Sorry about that," Hank muttered, bending over the steering wheel with his thin face set into rigid lines. "Damned trucksgive me a horse any day."
She laughed softlyonce she would have thrown back her head and given out a roar of hearty laughter. She might have been a willowy ghost of the girl who left Painted Ridge at eighteen, come back to haunt old familiar surroundings. This poised, sophisticated woman of twenty-two was as out of place in the battered pickup as Cade would be in a tuxedo at the Met.
"I guess you've all got your hands full," Abby remarked as they approached the sprawling ranch house.
"Damned straight," Hank said without preamble as he slowed at a gate. "Storm warnings out and calving in full swing."
"Snow?" she gasped, looking around at the lush greenery. But it was April, after all, and snow was still very possible in Montana. Worseprobable.
But Hank was already out of the truck, leaving the engine idling while he opened the gate.
"Drive the truck through!" he called for what seemed the tenth time in as many minutes, and Abby obediently climbed behind the wheel and put the truck in gear.
She couldn't help smiling when she remembered her childhood. Ranch children learned to drive early, out of necessity. She'd been driving a truck since her eleventh birthday, and many was the time she'd done it for Cade while he opened the endless gates that enclosed the thousands of acres he ranched.
She drove through the gate and slid back into her seat while Hank secured it and ambled back to the truck. He'd been part of Cade's outfit as long as she could remember, and there was no more experienced cowboy on the place.
"New York," Hank scoffed, giving her a disapproving glance. He chewed on the wad of tobacco in his cheek and gave a gruff snort. "Should have stayed home where you belonged. Been married by now, with a pas-sel of younguns."
She shuddered at the thought, and her eyes clouded. "Is Cade at the ranch?" she asked, searching for something to say.
"Up in the Piper, hunting strays," he told her. "Figured he'd better find those damned cows before the snow hits. As it is, we'll have to fan out and bring them into the barn. We lost over a hundred calves in the snow last spring."
Her pale eyes clouded at the thought of those tiny calves freezing to death. Cade had come home one winter night, carrying a little white-faced Hereford across his saddle, and Abby had helped him get it into the barn to warm it. He'd been tired and snappy and badly in need of a shave. Abby had fetched him a cup of coffee, and they'd stayed hours in the barn until the calf was thawed and on the mend. Cade was so much a part of her life, despite their quarrels. He was the only person she'd ever felt truly at home with.
"Are you listening?" Hank grumbled. "Honest to God, Abby!"
"Sorry, Hank," she apologized quickly as the elderly man glared at her. "What did you say?"
"I asked you if you wanted to stow your gear at the house or go on down to the homestead."
The "house" was Cade'sthe main ranch house. The "homestead" had been her father's and was now Melly's. Soon, it would belong to Melly and her new husband.
"At the house."
"Then just drop me off there, please, Hank," she said with a pacifying smile.
He grunted and gunned the engine. A minute later, she was outside under the spreading branches of the budding trees and Hank was roaring away in a cloud of dust. Just like old times, she thought with a laugh. Hank impatient, dumping her at the nearest opportunity, while he rushed on to his chores.
Of course, it was nearing roundup, and that always made him irritable. It was late April nowby June, the ranch would be alive and teeming with activity as new calves were branded and separated and the men worked twenty-four-hour days and wondered why they had ever wanted to be cowboys.
She turned toward the house with a sigh. It was just as well that Cade wasn't home, she told herself. Seeing him now was going to be an ordeal. All she wanted was her sister.
She knocked at the door hesitantly, and seconds later, it was thrown open by a smaller girl with short golden hair and sea-green eyes.
"Abby!" the younger girl burst out, tears appearing in her eyes. She threw open the door and held out her arms.
Abby ran straight into them and held on for dear life, oblivious to the suitcase falling onto the cleanly swept front porch. She clutched her sister and cried like a lost child. She was home. She was safe.
&hat; 2 *
"I was so glad when you decided to come." Melly sighed over coffee while she and Abby sat in the sprawling living room. It had changed quite a bit since Cade's mother died. The delicate antiques and pastel curtains had given way to leather-covered couches and chairs, handsome coffee tables and a luxurious, thick-piled gray rug. Now it looked like Cadebig and untamed and unchangeable.
"Sorry," Abby murmured when she realized she hadn't responded. "I had my mind on this room. It's changed."
Melly looked concerned. "A lot of things have. Cade included."
"Cade never changes," came the quiet reply. The taller girl got to her feet with her coffee cup in hand and wandered to the mantel to stare at a portrait of Donavan McLaren that overwhelmed the room.
Cade was a younger version of the tall, imposing man in the painting, except that Donavan had white hair and a mustache and a permanent scowl. Cade's hair was still black and thick over a broad forehead and deep-set dark eyes. He was taller than his late father, all muscle. He was darkly tanned and he rarely smiled, but he could be funny in a dry sort of way. He was thirty-six now, fourteen years Abby's senior, although he seemed twice that judging by the way he treated her. Cade was always the patronizing adult to Abby's wayward child. Except for that one magic night when he'd been every woman's dreamwhen he'd shown her a taste of intimacy that had colored her life ever since, and had rejected her with such tenderness that she'd never been ashamed of offering herself to him.
She shuddered delicately, lifting the coffee to her lips. As if that would ever be possible again, now.
"How is Cade?" Abby asked.
"How is Cade usually in the spring?" came the amused reply.
"Oh, I can think of several adjectives. Would horrible be too mild?" Abby asked as she turned.
"Yes." Melly sighed. "We've been shorthanded. Randy broke his leg and won't be any use at all for five more weeks, and Hob quit."
"Hob?" Abby's pale brown eyes widened. "But he's been here forever!"
"He said that was just how he felt after Cade threw the saddle at him." The younger woman shook her head. "Cade's been restless. Even more so than usual."
"Woman trouble?" Abby asked, and then hated herself for the question. She had no right to pry into Cade's love life, no real desire to know if he were seeing someone.
Melly blinked. "Cade? My God, I'd faint if he brought a woman here."
That did come as a surprise. Although Abby had visited Melly several times since she'd moved to New York, she had seen Cade only on rare occasions. She'd always assumed that he was going out on dates while she was on Painted Ridge.
"I thought he kept them on computer, just so that he could keep track of them." Abby laughed.
"Are we talking about the same man?"
"Well, he's always out every time I come to visit," Abby remarked. "It's been almost a year since I've seen him." She sat back down on the sofa next to her sister and drained her coffee cup.
Melly shot her a keen glance, but she didn't reply. "How long are you going to stay?" she asked. "I never could pin you down on the phone."
"A couple of weeks, if you can put up with me____"
"Don't be silly," Melly chided. She frowned, reaching out to touch her sister's thin hand. "Abby, make it a month. At least a month. Don't go back until you feel ready. Promise me!"
Abby's eyes closed under a tormented frown. She caught her breath. "I wonder if I'll ever be ready," she whispered roughly.
The smaller hand that was clasping hers tightened. "That's defeatist talk. And not like you at all. You're a Shane. We wrote the book on persevering!"
"Well, I'm writing the last chapter," Abby ground out. She stood up, moving to the window.
"It's been two weeks since it happened," Melly reminded her.
"Yes," Abby said, sighing wearily. "And I'm not quite as raw as I was, but it's hard trying to cope____" She glanced at her sister. "I'm just glad I had the excuse of helping you plan the wedding to come for a visit. What did Cade say when you asked if it was all right?"