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Coming back to the ranch was harder than he'd thought.
Carter Beck swung his leg over his motorbike and yanked off his helmet. He dragged a hand over his face, calloused hands rasping over the stubble of his cheeks as he looked over the yard.
As his eyes followed the contours of the land, the hills flowing up to the rugged mountains of southern British Columbia, a sense of homesickness flickered deep in his soul. This place had been his home since his mother had moved here, a single mother expecting twins.
He hadn't been back for two years. If it hadn't been for his beloved grandmother's recent heart attack, he would still be away.
Unable to stop himself, his eyes drifted over to the corral. The memories he'd kept at bay since he left crashed into his mind. Right behind them came the wrenching pain and haunting guilt he'd spent the past twentythree months outrunning.
The whinnying of a horse broke into his dark thoughts and snagged his attention.
A young boy astride a horse broke through the copse of trees edging the ranch's outbuildings. He held the reins of his horse in both hands, elbows in, wrists cocked.
Just as Carter had taught him.
A wave of dizziness washed over Carter as the horse came closer.
Even as he took a step toward the horse and rider, reality followed like ice water through his veins. The young boy wore a white cowboy hat instead of a trucker's cap.
And Carter's son was dead.
A woman astride a horse followed the boy out of the trees. The woman sat relaxed in the saddle, one hand resting on her thigh, her broadbrimmed hat hiding her face, reins held loosely in her other hand. She looked as if she belonged atop a horse, as if she was one with the animal, so easy were her motions as her horse followed the other.
When the woman saw him, she pulled up and dismounted in one fluid motion.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked, pushing her hat back on her head, her brown eyes frowning at him as she motioned the boy to stop.
Carter felt a tinge of annoyance at her question, spoken with such a cool air. Sir? As if he was some stranger instead of the owner of the ranch she rode across? And who was she?
"Is that your motorbike, sir?" The young boy pulled off his hat, his green eyes intent on Carter's bike. "It's really cool."
His eager voice, his bright eyes, resurrected the memories that lay heavy on Carter's soul. And when the woman lifted the little boy from the saddle and gently stroked his hair back from his face with a loving motion, the weight grew.
"Yeah. It's mine."
"It's so awesome," the boy said, his breathless young voice battering away at Carter's defenses.
Carter's heart stuttered. He even sounded like Harry. Coming back to the place where his son died had been hard enough. Meeting a child the same age Harry was when he died made this even more difficult.
He forced his attention back to the woman. A light breeze picked up a strand of her long, brown hair, and as she tucked it behind her ear he caught sight of her bare left hand. No rings.
She saw him looking at her hand and lifted her chin in the faintest movement of defiance. Then she put her hand on the boy's shoulder, drawing him to her side, as if ready to defend him against anything Carter might have to say. She looked like a protective mare standing guard over her precious colt.
Carter held her gaze and for a moment, as their eyes locked, an indefinable emotion arced between them.
"My name is Carter Beck," he said quietly.
The woman's eyes widened, and he saw recognition in her expression. He caught a trace of sorrow in the softening of her features, in the gentle parting of her lips.
"I imagine you've come to see Nana
He frowned at her lapse. This unknown woman called his grandmother Nana?
"And you are?" he asked.
"Sorry again," she said, transferring the reins and holding out her hand. "I'm Emma Minton. This is my son, Adam. I help Wade on the ranch here. I work with the horses as well as help him with the cows and anything else that needs doing. But I'm sure you know that," she said with a light laugh that held a note of selfconscious humor.
"Nice to meet you, Emma," he said as he reluctantly
took her hand. "Wade did tell me a while back he was hiring a new ranch hand. I didn't expect
"A woman?" Emma lifted her shoulders in a light shrug. "I worked on a ranch all my life. I know my way around horses and cows and fences and haying equipment."
"I'm sure you do. Otherwise, Wade wouldn't have hired you."
Emma angled her head to one side, as if wondering if he was being sarcastic. Then she gave him a quick nod, accepting his answer.
Carter glanced around the yard. "Where is Wade?"
"He and Miranda went to town. She had a doctor's appointment."
"Right. Of course." The last time he'd talked to Wade, his ranch foreman had told him his wife was expecting.
Emma's horse stamped impatiently, and she reached up and stroked his neck. "I should put the horses away. Good to meet you, and I'm sure we'll be seeing you around." Then without a second glance, she turned the horses around, her son trotting alongside her.
"Was that man Mr. Beck? The man who owns the ranch?" Adam's young voice floated back to him.
"Yup. That's who it was," Emma replied.
"So he's the one we have to ask about the acreage?" Adam asked.
Acreage? What acreage? He wanted to call after her to find out what she was talking about. But he was sure his grandmother heard his motorbike come into the yard and would be expecting him.
As he turned toward the house where his grandmother lived, his gaze traced over the land beyond the ranch yard. The hay fields were greener than he had ever seen them.
Beyond them he heard the water of Morrisey River splashing over the rocks, heading toward the Elk River. The river kept flowing, a steady source of water for the ranch and a constant reminder of the timelessness of the place.
Five generations of Becks had lived along this river and before that who knows how many generations of his greatgreatgrandmother Kamiskahk's tribe.
He felt a surprising smile pull at his mouth as other, older memories soothed away the stark ones he'd been outrunning the past two years.
Then, as he walked toward his grandmother's house, he passed the corral. He wasn't going to look, but his eyes, as if they had a will of their own, shifted to the place where the horse waterer had been. The place where his son had drowned.
His heart tripped in his chest and he pushed the memories away, the reminder of his son's death stiffening his resolve to leave this place as soon as he could.
He looked older than the picture Nana Beck had on her mantel, Emma thought, watching Carter stride away. He wore his hair longer, and his eyes were slateblue instead of gray.
Emma had heard so much about Nana Beck's grandchild, that she felt she knew him personally.
But the tall man with the sad eyes and grim mouth didn't fit with the stories Nana had told her. The man in Nana Beck's stories laughed a lot, smiled all the time and loved his life. This man looked as if he carried the burden of the world on his shoulders. Of course, given what he had lost, Emma wasn't surprised. She felt her own heart quiver at the thought of losing Adam like Carter lost his son.
"Can I feed the other horses some of the carrots?" Adam was asking, breaking into her dark thoughts.
Emma pulled her attention away from Carter.
"Sure you can. Just make sure you don't pull out too many. We have to pick some to bring to Nana Beck." She opened the corral gate and led her horses, Diamond and Dusty, inside, Adam right behind her.
"Are we having supper there?"
Emma shook her head as she tied the horses up. "Nope. Shannon
Miss Beck said she was coming." Since Nana Beck's heart attack, Nana Beck's granddaughter, Shannon, Miranda, the foreman's wife, and Emma all took turns cooking for Nana, making sure she was eating. Today it was Shannon's turn.
"Are you going to talk to that Carter man about the acreage?"
"He just got here, honey. I think I'll give him a day or two." Emma loosened the cinches on Diamond's saddle and eased it off his back. She frowned at the cracking on the skirt of the saddle. She'd have to oil it up again, though she really should buy a new one.
And Adam needed new boots and she needed a new winter coat and she should buy a spare tire for her horse trailer. But she was saving as much as possible to add to what she had left from the sale of her father's ranch.
"Do you think he'll let us have our place?"
Emma frowned, pulling her attention away from the constant nagging concerns and plans of everyday life and back to her son.
"It's not our place, honey." Emma pulled off the saddle blankets, as anticipation flickered through her at her and Adam's plans. "But I do hope to talk to him about it."
Wade Klauer, the foreman, had told her about the old yard site. How it had been a part of another ranch Carter had bought just before his son died. When Wade told her Carter was returning, she'd seen this as her chance to ask him to subdivide the yard site of the property. Maybe, finally, she and her son could have a home of their own.
"I'm going to get some carrots," Adam said, clambering over the corral fence. "And I won't pick too many," he added with an impish grin.
Emma laughed and blew him a kiss and then watched him run across the yard, his boots kicking up little clouds of dust.
He was so precious. And she wanted more than anything to give him a place. A home.
Up until she got pregnant, she'd spent her summers following the rodeo, barrel racing the horses her beloved mother had bought for her. Her winters were spent working wherever she found a job. But after she got pregnant, she was determined to do right by her son. And when Adam's biological father abandoned her, she moved back to her father's ranch and returned to her faith.
A year ago she met Karl and thought she'd found a reason to settle down. A man she could trust to take care of her and her son. A man who also loved ranch and country life.
But when she found him kissing her best friend, Emma ditched him. A few months later, Emma's father died. And in the aftermath, she discovered her father had been secretly gambling, using the ranch for collateral. After the ranch was sold to pay the debts, Emma was left with only a horse trailer, two horses, a pickup truck and enough money for a small down payment on another place.
As Emma drove off the ranch, her dreams and plans for her future in tatters, she knew she couldn't trust any man to take care of her and Adam.
She struggled along, working where she could, finding a place to live and board her horses. So when she saw an ad for a hired hand at the Rocking K Ranch, close to the town of Hartley Creek, she responded. The job promised a home on the ranch as part of the employment package.
As soon as Emma drove onto the Rocking K, nestled in the greening hills of southeast British Columbia, she was overcome with an immediate sense of homecoming. She knew this was where she wanted to be.
"I got some carrots," Adam called out, scurrying over to the corral, his fists full of bright orange carrots, fronds of green dangling on the ground behind him.
"Looks like you picked half a row," Emma said with an indulgent laugh as she slipped the bridles off Dusty and Diamond.
"Only some," he said with a frown. "There's lots yet." As Adam doled out the carrots to the waiting horses, his laughter drifted back to her over the afternoon air, a carefree, happy sound that warmed her heart.
When Adam was done, Emma climbed over the fence. As they walked back to the garden, she heard the door of Nana Beck's house open. Carter came out carrying a tray, which he laid down on a small glass table on the covered veranda.
He looked up and across the distance. She saw his frown. And it seemed directed at her and Adam.
"What a day to be alive," Nana Beck said, accepting the mug of tea Carter had poured. She settled into her chair on the veranda and eased out a gentle sigh.
"I'm glad you're okay," Carter said quietly, spooning a generous amount of honey into his tea. "Really glad."
"No inheritance for you and your cousins yet," she said with a wink.
"I can wait." He couldn't share her humor. He didn't want to think that his grandmother could have died while he was working up in the Northwest Territories on that pipeline job. Knowing she was okay eased a huge burden off his shoulders.
She gave him a gentle smile. "So can I." She reached over and covered his hand with hers. "I'm so glad you came home."
"I tried to come as soon as Shannon got hold of me. But I couldn't get out of the camp. We were socked in with rain, and the planes couldn't fly." He gave her a smile, guilt dogging him in spite of her assurances. "So how are you feeling?"
"The doctor said that I seem to be making a good recovery," Nana said, leaning back in her chair, her hands cradling a mug of tea. "He told me that I was lucky that Shannon was with me here on the ranch when I had the heart attack. They caught everything soon enough, so I should be back to normal very soon."
"I'm glad to hear that," Carter said. "I was worried about you."
"Were you? Really?" The faintly accusing note in his grandmother's voice resurrected another kind of guilt.
"I came back because I was worried, and I came as soon as I could." He gave her a careful smile.
"You've been away too long." Her voice held an underlying tone of sympathy he wanted to avoid.
"Only two years," he said, lounging back in his chair. He hoped he achieved the casual and incontrol vibe he aimed for. He would need it around his grandmother.
Nana Beck had an innate ability to separate baloney from the truth. Carter knew he would need all his wits about him when he told her that his visit was temporary.
And that he wouldn't be talking about his son.
"Two years is a long time." She spoke quietly, but he heard the gentle reprimand in her voice. "I know why you stayed away, but I think it's a good thing you're back. I think you need to deal with your loss."
"I'm doing okay, Nana." He took a sip of tea, resting his ankle on his knee, hoping he looked more in control than he felt. He'd spent the past two years putting the past behind him. Moving on.