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The late afternoon Texas heat was even more intense than it had been earlier, making the minor fence repair a feat of endurance rather than the mindless drudgery it usually was. Fay Sheridan felt another rivulet of perspiration streak down her cheek to bead on her jaw as she set the prongs of the last staple against a fence post. The bead of sweat fell as she hammered the staple into the wood, securing the loose strand of barbed wire. A few of the older wood posts along this stretch of fence needed to be replaced with T-posts when she got time.
Time. She felt the stifling weight of it as she pulled off her Stetson to blot her forehead and jaw on the sleeve of her plaid work shirt. She was overloaded with time these days. Months, weeks, days, hours, minutes
There weren't many true seconds anymore. It was as if they'd all stretched to the length of minutes, and she was living some kind of slowmotion life, where the more she found to do, the more leftover time she was stuck with. She'd somehow lost her grip on the kind of days when hard, continuous work made time fly.
Fay put her Stetson back on and walked to her horse. The sorrel gelding had been dozing in the heat but he perked up when she put the hammer and bag of staples in the saddlebag, as if he hoped the workday was done. Thunder rumbled, and Fay glanced toward the western sky.
The thunderhead that had been building in the distance looked to be at least seventy thousand feet high, with others piling high on either side behind it. The massive, anvil topped cloud formations had blocked the sun, though the air was still hot and muggy and the sky overhead and behind her to the east was blue. The storm would be a big one, bringing an evening of hail and much needed rain, with maybe a tornado or two.
Fay mounted her horse and continued along the fence, scanning the four-strand barbed wire that separated her ranch from the much larger R/K Ranch. If the storm held off, she might be able to finish checking this stretch. She'd become almost fanatical about maintaining the miles of fence on her ranch, but then, she'd become fanatical about a lot of things this past year.
Constant vigilance and almost continuous hard work had helped her stay sane, providing her with purpose and restoring at least some sense of order. Life had become predictable again; at least she'd been able to create the illusion that it was. And yet the energy that illusion of predictability required had also leached what little vitality and pleasure life might still hold for her.
Which was probably why the oncoming storms brought an inkling of relief despite the frustration of having to leave a chore unfinished. The sameness of the past year had worn her down, but storms the size of this one banished a bit of that sameness. A long, much louder rumble of thunder sounded, and she drew her horse to a halt at the crest of a rise.
The massive clouds had churned closer in the few minutes she'd been riding, and parts of them were dragging rain shafts. She could tell when the wind picked up at ground level in the distance, and watched as it brushed down the dry grass like a giant, invisible arm sweeping across the land.
The sorrel warily turned toward the fence and pricked his ears forward expectantly, his nostrils flaring to catch the scent of rain as the first cooling wind gust reached them. The air temperature dropped several degrees, and Fay felt a light chill over her sweat-damp clothes. The first gust was quickly followed by harder, much cooler gusts, and the air filled with the scent of rain.
It didn't bother her that she was astride a horse on top of a ripple of land, not only high profile in open country next to a wire fence, but also carrying enough metal in her saddlebag to attract a bolt of lightning. Lightning could strike from miles away, but she felt no fear at the notion, and wondered fleetingly if she'd ever feel fear again. She'd already faced one of the most excruciating pains life could hold. After that, every other calamity paled in comparison, even the idea of being struck by lightning.
The sorrel began to fidget, but Fay tightened the reins to check his movement, more than a little mesmerized by the storm. Something about it mirrored the deepest places in her heart, places where despair warred against the will to survive, and her soul grappled with incomprehensible tragedy.
The black clouds of the storm roiled faster now, blotting out the western sky from north to south and rapidly filling the air above her. The rumble of thunder varied from muted rambling to crackling cascades of sound that tumbled from screeching highs to throbbing lows that trailed on and on.
She ought to turn the sorrel and ride to the house, but she couldn't seem to make herself start. Sheet-lightning whitened a cloud here and there, and occasional cloud-to-ground lightning pierced down to dance across the land.
Tendrils of spectral clouds dangled eerily nearby, but there was no sign yet of a wall cloud that signaled a potential tornado. Fat, intermittent drops of rain began to splatter the dry grass near the fence, kicking up tiny dust explosions here and there as the drops hit dirt.
The sorrel began to fidget again, momentarily distracting her. The horse was impatient for the shelter and safety of the stable. No doubt he wanted to outrun the storm and was confused about the delay. Any horse would be looking forward to the end of a workday, eager for a stall and a rubdown before a fresh pail of water and a measure of grain. The storm would make that idea even more attractive.
Fay had no similar eagerness for home and rest, and hadn't for a long time. The hardest part of the day, other than facing the start of a new one before dawn, was the time she had to finally walk into the big house, where the only person there was a housekeeper. Yet more often than not, Margie's work would be done and she'd have gone home.
Fay continued to watch the clouds, letting the growing danger send a tingle of peril through her to offset the bleakness she felt at the idea of going home to an empty house. The wind blew harder now, and the fat raindrops gave way to smaller, faster drops. The sky continued to rumble and flash, as if to warn her, and the anger she'd been numb to for months began to stir. Suddenly it burst into outrage.
The boys hadn't been given a warning; they'd never had a chance. One moment they'd been having the time of their lives learning to water ski; the next, they'd been struck by a boat and drowned. They'd barely had a hint of what was coming, and no chance to escape it.
The agony of that knowledge was unbearable, and her failure to come to terms with it this past year stoked the conflagration of pain and anger until she was wild with it. If death meant to reach out for her now, too, then it could damn well get on with it while she was watching.
The defiant thought was buttressed by an avalanche of self-pity. What did she really have left anyway, but a life of work and responsibility that was dominated by grief and loss and regret? Her heart had been crushed and sometimes she felt so hollow and hurt so much that she wasn't sure she could scrape up enough courage to face another moment.
One stroke of lightning could put a quick end to the relentless march of endless gray days, and the idea grew more tantalizing by the second. After weeks and months of being numb, the mounting chaos of dark feelings was overwhelming. The knowledge that she wanted to die made her feel even more defiant.
The sorrel began to prance again and toss his head, but Fay kept the reins tight, all but daring death to strike her down as brutally as it had her brothers. As if the storm was eager to accommodate her, the wind began to blow even harder. Marble-size bits of hail beat down with the rain, then abruptly stopped, and the sorrel tossed his head again, snorting impatiently.
Fay was so caught up in the storm and the anger that boiled impotently inside her that she was slow to distinguish the distant shouts over the roar of the wind. Once they caught her attention, the shouts became louder and more distinct.
The sound of her name in the roar and the urgent message jolted her.
Faydon't do it!
Recognition struck her heart like a closed fist, and sent a rash of goose bumps over her skin. The world tipped, and she felt the fleeting touch of something otherworldly, yet familiar. Shaken to her soul, she glanced wildly around.
She hadn't mistaken her brothers' voices, and yet she couldn't possibly have heard them call to her. As she continued to glance around and strained to hear their voices in the howl of the storm, she realized she was trembling.
The sorrel had taken advantage of her distraction and was moving away from the fence, though Fay's grip had frozen on the reins and she was still holding him back.
Her brain was in shock, and her heart all but bled with longing to hear those beloved voices again.
Had she lost her mind? The question burst into her consciousness, bringing a new torment. Her heart was pounding hard enough to make her chest ache as her thoughts ran crazily for an explanation. She knew her brothers' voices and always would, but to hear them so clearly, and to feel that otherworldly touch
Fay loosened the sorrel's reins, still straining to hear their voices, but suddenly a little afraid she would. Maybe going crazy and hearing voices was the next turn in the downward spiral she'd been on, and the idea shook her up even more.
She couldn't deal with this, couldn't cope. The knowledge that she'd reached her emotional limit sent anxiety pumping through her. She urged the sorrel into a trot away from the fence in the rainslick grass in an instinctive need to flee what she couldn't understand, but just as she signaled him into a gallop, the air suddenly went blindingly white. The simultaneous boom of thunder sent the sorrel shying hard to the side, taking Fay so by surprise that she lost her balance and clung to the side of the saddle.
A second flash and boom, even more blinding and deafening than the first, made the sorrel lunge the other way, literally pitching her from one side of the saddle to the other. At the same instant, his back hooves slipped and his backside started to go down. Fay managed to yank her left boot from the stirrup to keep from getting a foot trapped, but the sorrel caught himself and lurched awkwardly to his feet.
He barely got all four hooves solidly beneath him before he rocketed away, breaking her hold, and the hard, wet ground leaped up to slam the breath out of her.