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Friday, 2:43 p.m.
Charlotte Evans was already late for her doctor's appointment when she looked up and saw a silver SUV blocking the narrow road into town.
The hood of the SUV was up. No sign of the driver.
"Great," Charlotte muttered as she braked to a stop. She should have taken the main road. But, as was her habit, she preferred taking the shortcut into town even though it was more rugged. Normally it was faster. Less chance of getting behind a tractor or a doddering old farmer in a beat-up pickup or cowboys moving a herd of cattle.
She considered turning around. But the barrow pits on both sides of the road were deep and muddy from last night's rain, the road too narrow and steep here above the creekand, in her condition, an insane idea. There were enough crazy people in her family as it was.
She waited for a moment, motor running. It was one of those hot July days, the Montana sky wide and blue, only a few clouds dotting the horizon. She had her window down, since her old car didn't have air-conditioning. The hot summer air was making her sweat. She hated to sweat.
Still no sign of the driver. She beeped her horn.
A hand waved a hello from under the hood.
"Terrific," Charlotte said under her breath and shut off her engine. How long was this going to take?
It was hard enough living so far from town, let alone getting herself behind the wheel eight months pregnant.
She really didn't need this. To make matters worse, on the way to Whitehorse she'd started having contractions.
It would be just her luck to have this baby beside the road. Somehow that might be fitting, she thought. She just hoped the driver of the SUV knew how to deliver a baby.
Opening her car door, she maneuvered her ungainly belly from behind the steering wheel and got out. She told herself she would never have gotten pregnant if she'd known even half of the things that were going to happen to her body. If only.
Slamming her car door, she waddled toward the SUV, cursing under her breath.
A head appeared as the driver leaned out from the front of the car. "Sorry, didn't hear you drive up," the female driver called. "Had my head stuck under the hood." The head disappeared again.
Charlotte wondered how things could get worse. She just hoped this woman knew what she was doing under there.
At least if the driver had been a man, there might be a chance he could get the car moved out of the way so she could get to town.
She stopped for a moment as another contraction took her breath away. She remembered her doctor saying something about false labor. She hoped that was what this was. Maybe she should have read even one of the books her mother kept buying her about labor and delivery, Lamaze, breast feeding and child rearing.
The last book really was a kick, since her mother had done such a bang-up job with her three, Charlotte thought uncharitably. Actually, being pregnant had made her wonder how her mother had gone through it three times much less raised three kids alone.
As Charlotte waddled the rest of the way up to the front of the SUV, she saw that the woman was teetering on the bumper as she leaned under the hood to work on the enginewearing a pair of latex gloves, of all things.
"It just quit running," the woman said, looking up. She was at least fifteen years older than Charlotte, with brown hair and eyes and a look of privilege about her. Charlotte would have hated her on sight except that the woman had a smudge of grease on her cheek and she was almost as pregnant as Charlotte herself.
The woman smiled. "Know anything about cars?"
She'd taken an auto mechanics course last year in high school, but she hadn't paid any attention. She shook her head with a silent groan. Apparently this could get worse. "Did you call AAA or one of the local garages in town?"
"No cell phone coverage out here."
"I really need to get to my doctor's appointment," Charlotte said. "If we could just move your car over a little, I think I can squeeze mine past. I can drive you into town and you can get someone to come back out with you to work on it."
"I think I've got it fixed. Would you mind getting in and trying to start it while I jiggle this cable?"
Charlotte sighed. Just the thought of trying to climb into the huge SUVShe bent over a little, grimacing as she was hit with another contraction.
The woman was giving her a worried look. "Tell me you aren't in labor."
Charlotte held up her hand and breathed through the contraction. It felt so good when it stopped. "False labor." She hoped.
"How far along are you?" the woman asked, studying her.
"Eight months." The lie came so naturally. "You?"
"Seven. So how close are your contractions?"
Charlotte shrugged. "Not that close."
"Your first baby?"
Charlotte nodded and felt the woman looking at her ring finger. "I'm separated from the father." That was actually kind of true. "I'm older than I look." Another lie.
"Must be difficult. Having a baby all by yourself."
She had her mother and her worthless brother, but she didn't mention that. She knew how pathetic it would sound. Even more pathetic if the woman knew the half of it.
"You can understand why I need to get into town to the doctor," Charlotte said.
"Yes. We definitely need to see to you. But I don't think it's going to be a problem. Just pop behind the wheel and try to start the engine. This should at least allow us to get the car out of the way if nothing else. Neither of us is up to pushing it."
The woman had a point. Although arguing was second nature to Charlotte, who'd been arguing for years. With her older sister. With her mother. With her brother. With herself.
But she wasn't up to it right now, and the woman was right. She didn't want to have to push the SUV out of the way and she doubted she could get past it anyway, as steep and unstable as the edge of the road was.
She opened the door of the pricey SUV and, with great effort, pulled herself up to slide behind the wheel. Her feet were a mile from the gas pedal.
"I need to move the seat forward," she called as she bent over as best she could to look for a handle.
She felt the cool metal the moment it was jammed against her throat.
The pregnant thirtysomething driver of the SUV held a gun in her hand. It was so incongruous: this obviously wealthy pregnant woman with the expensive clothes, salon haircut and freshly manicured nails beneath latex gloves holding a gun on her.
It made no sense. That was probably why it didn't register that she was in serious trouble until it was too late.
Friday, 3:15 p.m.
At the Whitehorse Sewing Circle, the women gathered around the quilting frame were unusually quiet on this hot summer afternoon.
Normally they would have been abuzz with chatter. Instead they were sipping lemonade, eating the dainty little cookies Laci Cavanaugh had sent over, and smiling a lotwhile busting at the seams to share the latest gossip the moment Pearl Cavanaugh left.
Pearl, whose mother had started the group too many years ago for most to remember, had a strict rule about gossip.
But Pearl hadn't been coming for months since her stroke, and the group had taken to gossiping and quilting with a relish. Pearl had been living at the nursing home until recently. Now that she was better and mobile in her wheelchair, Titus had brought her home to stay.
She hadn't quite gotten the knack of sewing with her left hand, but she tried hard. And there wasn't anyone in the group who was going to say she couldn't sew if she wanted to.
To a lot of people Pearl and Titus Cavanaugh were Old Town Whitehorse royalty. Both were fearedif not respected.
"Well, isn't Pearl looking well," said Alice Miller the moment Titus had wheeled his wife out the door.
It wasn't until they heard the crunch of gravel as Titus left with his wife that Helene Merchant gave out a relieved sigh accompanied by a laugh and said, "I thought we were never going to get to visit."
A few of the women laughed with her. Alice Miller, who always sided against gossip, pursed her lips but said nothing. She had tried since Pearl left to keep the women in line, but she was ninety and had given up, saving her energy for quilting.
The problem was, in Old Town Whitehorse there was always something to talk about. Even on a slow day there was always the Evans family.
Old Town was the site of the original Whitehorse. But when the railroad came through five miles to the north, by the Milk River, the town had moved and taken the name with it.
Some of the more hearty homesteaders had stayed in what was now called Old Town. They'd kept the original Whitehorse Cemeterythe name forged in a wrought-iron arch over the entrancewhere many of their kin rested for eternity.
The Whitehorse Community Center, the one-room schoolhouse and a few houses were all that was left of the town. Titus Cavanaugh, Pearl's husband, still performed church services at the center on Sundays and took care of hiring a schoolteacher for the school. He was as close to a mayor as Old Town had.
"Have you heard any more about Violet Evans?" Pamela Chambers asked in a whisper, as if the walls had ears.
"That crazy place she's in gave her a job," Helene said. "She's working at a nurses' station. The word is they're going to let her out of the nuthouse and back on the streets. Doctors."
"It scares me," Muriel Brown said. "We all know how dangerous she is. Remember the summer all the cats disappeared? Violet always had that look in her eye from the time she was little."
Even Alice Miller couldn't argue the point.
"The other daughterCharlotte? She's about to have a baby any day," Corky Mathews said. "How old is she anyway?"
"Eighteen, nineteen at the oldest," Helene said. "Anyone heard who was responsible for fathering the baby?"
There was a general shake of heads. This had been a popular topic for months. "Could be anyone," Helene said. "But you know what I heard at the Cut and Curl?"
The women all leaned in. Except for Alice Miller, who sometimes wished her hearing wasn't as good as it was.
"It was some older man from out of town." Helene nodded and went back to her stitching.
"Poor Arlene. You have to feel for her," Muriel said. "Look how her children have turned out. Violet crazy, Charlotte in the family way and Bo, well, is he the most worthless young man you've ever seen? I wonder if Arlene will ever come back to the group."
Looks were exchanged around the table, along with shrugs. Arlene did always have the latest gossip, but with Pearl returning now
"Eve Bailey's marrying the sheriff," Alice Miller threw in, hoping to give the poor Evans family a break.
The conversation turned to weddings and the possibility of more babies. The Whitehorse Sewing Circle was famous for its quilts. For years the circle had made a quilt for every newborn.
"I saw the cutest pattern," Pamela said, and the afternoon passed in a blur of talk of quilt patterns, material andalways a good standbyfood and the latest recipe one of them had tried, as the group stitched away just as it had done for years.
Friday, 6:38 p.m.
ARLENE EVANS STARED at the image in the mirror and felt like crying. She'd changed clothes four times already. If she didn't make up her mind and quickly, she was going to be late. Why had she accepted a date in the first place? She was too old to date.
When Hank Monroe had asked her out, she'd been so excited and surprised she hadn't thought about the actual date part. But the reality set in the moment she went to buy something to wear.
For years she hadn't given a thought to the way she looked. No one else had, either. Floyd, her former husband of too many years to count, had hardly given her a sideways glance. So she'd worn what any working ranch woman wore: an oversize long-sleeved Western shirt, jeans and boots. She couldn't remember the last time she'd worn a dressand she'd bet neither could anyone else in the county.
Her brown hair was long, thick and straight as a stickthe same haircut she'd had in high school, which she trimmed herself when she remembered. Usually her hair was either swept up in a ponytail or thrust under a hat, so she paid little attention to it. She couldn't remember the last time she'd worn her hair down, let alone curled it.
"Stop acting foolish," she snapped at her image in the mirror as she snatched up an elastic band and pulled her drooping curls up into a ponytail.
She took off the dress she'd spent too much money on, tears welling in her eyes as she recalled how cute it had looked on the hanger.
"What did you expect?" she asked herself, sounding just like her mother. Her mother, even dead for years, was right. "Can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
Arlene hurriedly washed the makeup she'd experimented with from her face and changed into a shirt, jeans and boots. She was what she was, and this date with Hank Monroe was a one-time shot.
She thought about the first time she'd seen him and couldn't help but smile. He'd called about signing up for her rural Internet dating service. His voice had been deep and soft and had a strange thrilling effect on her.
They'd agreed to meet at a local café so she could get him signed up. She'd been nervous about meeting him because he wasn't like most of her clientstwenty-to thirtysomething. He was forty-eightmature, like herself.
The minute she'd walked into the café, she'd spotted him. He'd looked up and their eyes had met.
It sounded ridiculous, she knew, but her heart had begun to pound wildly. Hank Monroe wasn't handsome, but there was a masculine strength in his features and in the broad shoulders, slim hips and long legs cased in denim. He looked like a man who could wrestle grizzly bears if he had a mind to.
And, her smile growing as she remembered the first time he'd laughed, he'd made her laugh, surprising them both since hers resembled a donkey's bray.
Hank Monroe had made her feel young and beautifulall the things she wasn't.
Which should be a clue.