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"Have you finished everything on your list?" Agnes Tuttle asked.
Glancing up from the kitchen island countertop she was scrubbing, Caroline eyed her mother with a mixture of affection and exasperation. Caroline loved her only parent, without doubt, but Agnes's expectations sometimes suffocated her.
Today was one of those days.
Agnes, a soft, plump woman in her late fifties with hair artificially colored the hue of ripe apricots, hovered in the hall doorway, ready to take flight. She wore her best summer dress and patent leather pumps and a matching purse draped over her arm, all in the same subdued orange shade as her tight curls and the bright swaths of rouge on her cheeks.
Caroline pushed a strand of blond hair off her forehead and straightened, easing the muscles in her back. "I've scrubbed the bathrooms, changed the linens in all six bedrooms, dusted and vacuumed. And I'm almost through with the kitchen. I still have to do the laundry and run errands." sheesh, sometimes she felt like Cinderella. Except there were no pesky stepsisters, no upcoming ball and no Prince Charming waiting in the wings. No nasty stepmother, either. Just a mother who loved her and had relied on her totally for too many years.
"Don't put the sheets in the dryer," Agnes said, as she invariably did. "Hang them on the line. I want them to smell like sunshine and fresh air."
It did no good to argue that by Friday, when the next wave of weekend guests arrived at the Tuttle Bed and Breakfast in Pleasant Valley, South Carolina, the linens' scent of sunshine would have long since dissipated. Her mother had always had her standards, although Caroline often wondered if Agnes had to do the work herself to live up to them whether her requirements would have remained as stringent.
"I'll be at Aunt Mona's until tomorrow," Agnes reminded her.
Caroline nodded. Every Monday, her mother made the trek to Walhalla, less than an hour away by car, to spend the day with her sister. Because Agnes didn't drive after dark, she stayed overnight. Caroline welcomed the regular respites. Agnes, who claimed to suffer from a long list of ailments that none of the doctors at the medical center had been able to confirm or cure, depended on Caroline, her only child, to keep the massive old Victorian house in immaculate condition for their guests. Only when Agnes left town did Caroline feel that her life was her own.
"Have a good time, Mama, and kiss Aunt Mona for me." She held her breath, praying her mother would leave before thinking of more items to add to the to-do list.
A few hours later, reveling in her brief freedom, Caroline lay on the thick grass of the lawn of the deep backyard, folded her arms behind her head and followed the progress of a single wispy cloud across the brilliant blue sky. The heady fragrance of roses, the thick sweetness of honeysuckle, and the pungency of recently mowed grass, distinctive smells of summer, filled her nostrils and lifted her spirits. The late June sun warmed her like a blessing. Only the drone of bumblebees, lumbering through the Queen Anne's lace and black-eyed Susans in the meadow beyond the back fence, and the snap of freshly laundered sheets on the clothesline behind the garage broke the drowsy silence.
Caroline had been at work since before sunup, preparing breakfast for departing weekend guests. After the meal, she'd finished the cleaning and prepared the week's shopping list. Errands to Paulie's Drug Store to refill her mother's numerous prescriptions and to Blalock's to buy groceries had taken most of the afternoon. Now, except for retrieving the sun-dried linens from the lines and folding them away, Caroline was finished with work for the day.
The B and B had no reservations for the night, and she was contentedly free to do anything she wanted, or nothing, if she pleased.
"You're thirty-three and need a life of your own, Caroline," her friend eileen Bickerstaff had told her for the umpteenth time last week as they'd enjoyed a cup of tea at eileen's kitchen table at Blackberry Farm, ten miles out of town at the west end of Pleasant Valley. "Your mother's perfectly capable of taking care of herself. And she can hire a girl from town for the housework she has you doing. Maria Ortega's younger sister Rosa would be happy for the job."
At ninety-eight, decades older than Agnes Tuttle, Eileen had managed quite well by herself for more than sixty years, with only occasional help the last few years from Caroline with the heavy cleaning. The spry, elderly woman could literally run circles around Agnes with her hypochondria and self-professed weak heart.
"I'll have a life of my own soon," Caroline had assured Eileen. "You know I've been saving my pay from both you and Mother for years. When I have enough, I'll make my move."
Now, basking in the sun, Caroline felt a smile of satisfaction tugging at her lips. In another year, she'd have the nest egg she needed. She loved her mother and she loved Pleasant Valley, but she loved the prospect of freedom and being responsible to no one but herself more. Next year, with her savings in hand, she'd tell her mother and friends goodbye and head west. Maybe to Colorado or Montana. Or more likely Texas, New Mexico or Arizona, where she'd find a temporary job until she could locate a small piece of land she could afford, buy horses and a few cattle, and live out her dreams.
She closed her eyes and pictured the scene. Wide-open spaces, rugged mesas, high chaparral and lonesome pinon pines. Quaint little towns with a single main street lined with stores with wooden facades, plank sidewalks and hitching posts out front.
She sighed at the prospect. She'd always loved cowboys.
Her dreams hadn't really changed in the fifteen years since she'd graduated from Pleasant Valley High. They'd only become more focused. In college, she had pursued a business degree and hoped to use those skills to escape the valley where she'd lived all her life. But her father's untimely death had ended her college career during her junior year. Wallace Tuttle had left an insurance policy, but it wasn't enough to pay college tuition or even to support Agnes through her remaining years. With Caroline's encouragement, Agnes had turned the enormous family home into a thriving bed-and-breakfast. At the time, Caroline had volunteered to help.
She hadn't intended that offer to become a life sentence.
Only her goal of moving out west and having her own place had sustained her through the years of her mother's unceasing demands and bouts of so-called illness. To avoid the harsh reality of her mother's complaints and bossiness while she planned and saved for her move, Caroline had escaped into fantasy. Immersing herself in Western culture, she'd devoured Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey novels and watched classic movies like Silverado, Lonesome Dove and Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns until she could quote the dialogue by heart. The books and movies had whetted her appetite for all things cowboy.
Her eyelids drooped against the bright sunlight. Soon, she assured herself, she'd shake the dust of the valley from her feet. Even if escalating real estate values meant she had to take a temporary job out west before she could afford her own place, she would make her break by next year or find herself smothered by Agnes's expectations and tethered to her mother's apron strings forever.
Soon, she promised herself.
She sighed, nestled deeper into the soft grass, and closed her eyes.
A keening wind howled down the deserted main street, scattering tumbleweeds and spawning wind devils that spewed dust in their paths. The relentless sun beat down with thin warmth, casting the tall shadow of a lone figure in the middle of the street, six-guns strapped to his hips, determined eyes vigilant beneath the shadow of his Stetson. The only hope for the frightened citizens against the outlaws who terrorized them, the lawman lifted his steely gaze toward the edge of town, where riders approached in a thunder of hooves and a swirl of dust. Without taking his eyes from the oncoming desperadoes, he called to the people cowering behind closed doors.
"Hello?" the deep voice said.
Caroline's eyes flew open, but she had to be dreaming still. The tall man with broad shoulders stood between her and the sun, so that all she could see was his silhouette. The town was safe. At well over six feet with an imposing build, he was a bulwark against all outlaws. His hands rested on the butts of his six-guns, ready for action.
"I knocked on the front door." His voice, while rich and pleasing, held no distinctive Western twang. "When no one answered, I came around back. I need a room for the next few nights. Do you have a vacancy?"
His words finally registered in her sleep-numbed brain, and Caroline came fully awake and leaped to her feet.
The man's hands weren't resting on six-guns, but tucked in the back pockets of his jeans. She shifted to see his face in the sunlight, and his resemblance to the perfectly handsome Western hero of her dreams faded, although the stranger's chiseled features would have looked terrific beneath a broad-brimmed cowboy hat. Dressed in jeans, work boots and a faded navy T-shirt, he wasn't handsome in the classic sense, but his rugged looks were very easy on the eyes. His hazel irises, deep brown flecked with grass-green, reflected both tranquility and an underlying pain, and his tanned face crinkled in an engaging smile that exposed perfect white teeth. She guessed he was in his early thirties, close to her age.
"Sorry if I woke you," he said.
"I was only daydreaming." Caroline, suddenly conscious of her tousled hair, grass-stained shorts and rumpled shirt, combed her fingers through her hair and tugged at her blouse in a futile attempt to straighten it. "You said you need a room?"
He nodded, hands still tucked in his pockets as if he were hiding them. "If you have one."
His warm grin was contagious, and she returned it with a smile of her own. "I have six. You can take your pick. Follow me."
Rather than take a guest through the back door, she circled the house, navigating the brick walkway through the wisteria arbor, draped with fragrant lavender blooms. The stranger's gaze burned between her shoulder blades, and she chided herself for noticing. Even though he was the best-looking man to hit the valley since attorney Randall Benedict's arrival from New York last year, he remained a stranger, merely passing through. With plans for her move west still buzzing in her brain, she needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle, no matter how appealing he appeared, so his good looks were a moot point.
She entered the foyer, its coolness a welcome contrast to the summer heat. In a corner beneath the massive staircase with its polished newel post, a small writing desk held the guest registration book. She handed the stranger a pen. "I'll need your name, home address, and car license tag number."
When he reached for the pen, she stifled a sympathetic cry. Scar tissue, raised welts of pale skin, covered the backs of his large, powerful hands that looked as if they'd been horribly burned. She turned quickly to the board behind her to grab a room key and hoped he hadn't noticed her reaction.
"Headed for the mountains?" she asked in a neutral voice.