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The wind howled down the Crazy Mountains, rocking the pickup as Sheriff Frank Curry pulled to the side of the narrow dirt road. He hadn't been to this desolate spot in years. Like a lot of other residents of Beartooth, he avoided coming this way.
The afternoon sun slanted down through the dense pines, casting a long shadow over the barrow pit and the small cross nearly hidden among the weeds. The cross, though weathered from eleven years of harsh Montana weather, stood unyielding against the merciless wind that whipped the summer-dried weeds around it.
After a moment, Frank climbed out of the truck, fighting the gusts as he waded into the ditch. Someone had erected the wooden cross, though no one knew who. Back then the cross had been white. Years of blistering hot summers and fierce, long snow-laden winters had peeled away the paint, leaving the wood withered and gray.
The brisk fall wind kicked up a dust devil in the road. Frank shut his eyes as it whirled past him, pelting him with dirt. The image he'd spent years trying to banish flashed before him. He saw it again, the young woman's broken body lying in the barrow pit where it had been discarded like so much garbage.
The lonesome moan of the wind in the tops of the thick wall of pines was the only sound on this remote rural road. That night, standing here as the coroner loaded the body, he'd sworn he would find Ginny West's killer if it was the last thing he ever did.
Now, he looked again at the cross that marked this lonely place where Ginny had died. The wind had plastered a dirty plastic grocery bag against its base.
Feeling the crippling weight of that vow and his failure, Frank crouched down and jerked the bag free. As he rose to leave, he heard the sound of a motor and looked up to see a small plane fly over.
Rylan West lay dazed in the dirt. He'd lost his hat, gotten the air knocked clean out of him and was about to be trampled by a horse if he didn't moveand quickly.
To add insult to injury, as he lay on the ground staring up at all that blue sky, he saw Destry Grant's red-and-white Cessna 182 fly over. He didn't have to see the woman behind the controls to know it was her plane. Hell, he could call up Destry Grant's face from memory with no trouble at all and did so with frustrating regularity even though he hadn't laid eyes on her in more than ten years.
In the past few weeks that he'd been home, he'd made a point of staying out of Destry's way. He told himself he wasn't ready to see her. But a part of him knew that was pure bull. He felt guilty and he should have. The last time they'd seen each other, he'd made her a promise he hadn't kept.
Not that anyone could blame him under the circumstances. Eleven years ago he'd left Beartooth, Montana, joined the rodeo and hadn't looked back. That is, until a few weeks ago when he'd grown tired of being on the road, riding one rodeo after another until they'd become a blur of all-night drives across country.
He had awakened one morning and realized there was only one place he wanted to be. Home. He'd loaded up his horse and saddle, hooked on to his horse trailer and headed for Montana. He'd yearned for familiar country, for the scent of pine coming off the fresh snow on top of the Crazy Mountains, for his family. And maybe for Destry, as foolish as that was.
He swore now as he listened to the plane circle the W Bar G, hating that Destry was so close and yet as beyond his reach as if she were on the moon. That hadn't been the case when they were kids, he thought with a groan. Back then he couldn't have been happier about the two of them growing up on neighboring ranches. They'd been best friends until they were seventeen and then they'd been a whole lot more.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
Rylan blinked as he looked over on the corral fence to see his younger brother Jarrett glaring down at him. To his relief, he noticed that Jarrett had hold of the unbroken stallion's halter rope. The horse was snorting and stomping, kicking up dust, angry as an old wet hen. His brother looked just as mad.
"Nothin's wrong with me," Rylan said with a groan as he got to his feet. At least physically, that was.
"If Dad finds out that you tried to ride that horse
" Jarrett shook his head and glanced toward the sky and Destry's plane. His brother let out a curse as if everything was now suddenly crystal clear.
Rylan grabbed the reins from his brother, hoping Jar-rett had the good sense not to say anything about him trying to ride one of the wild horses their father had brought home from the Wyoming auctionor about Destry. If he and Jarrett had that particular discussion, more than likely one or both of them would end up with a black eye.
He knew how his family felt about the Grants. Hell, he felt the same way. Even after all these years, just thinking about what had happened still hurt too badly. Just as thinking about Destry did. But as hard as he tried to put her out of his mind, he couldn't do it.
"I just heard the news. It's all over town," his brother said as her plane disappeared from view.
Destry Grant banked the small plane along the east edge of the towering snow-capped Crazy Mountains and then leveled it out to fly low over the ranch.
It never failed to amaze her that everything from the mountains to the Yellowstone River was W Bar G Ranch. Say what you want about Waylon "WT" Grantand God knew people did, she thoughtbut her father had built this ranch from nothing into what it was today.
She'd spent the past few days in Denver at a cattleman's association conference and was now anxious to get home. She was never truly comfortable until she felt Montana soil beneath her boots.
The ranch spread below her, a quilt of fall colors. Thousands of Black Angus cattle dotted the pastures now dried to the color of buckskin. Hay fields lay strewn with large golden bales stretching as far as the eye could see. At the edge of it all, the emerald green of the Yellowstone River wound its way through cot-tonwoods with leaves burnished copper in the late October air.
Destry took in the country as if breathing in pure oxygenuntil she spotted the barns and corrals of the West Ranch in the distance. But not even the thought of Rylan West could spoil this beautiful day.
The big sky was wind-scoured pale blue with wisps of clouds coming off the jagged peaks of the Crazies, as the locals called the mountain range. Behind the rugged peaks, a dark bank of clouds boiled up with the promise of a storm before the day was over.
Just past a creek tangled with dogwood, choke-cherry and willows, the huge, rambling Grant ranch house came into view. Her father had built it on the top of a hill so he'd have a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of his land. Like the ranch, the house was large, sprawling and had cost a small fortune. WT scoffed at the ridicule the place had generated among the locals.
"What did WT think was going to happen?" one rancher had joked before he'd noticed Destry coming into the Branding Iron Cafe for a cup of coffee last spring. "You build on top of a knob without a windbreak, and every storm that comes in is going to nail you good."
She hadn't been surprised that word had spread about what happened up at WT's big house in January. During one of the worst storms last winter, several of the doors in the new house had blown open, piling snowdrifts in the house.
Even early settlers had known better than to build on a hilltop. They always set their houses down in a hollow and planted trees to form a windbreak to protect the house from Montana's unforgiving weather.
That was another reason she'd opted to stay in the hundred-year-old homestead house down the road from WT's "folly," as it'd become known.
She was about to buzz the house to let her father know she was back, when she spotted something odd. An open gate wouldn't have normally caught her attention. But this one wasn't used anymore. Which made it strange that the barbed-wire-and-post gate lay on the ground, and there were fresh tire tracks that led to the grove of dense trees directly behind the homestead house where she lived alone.
She frowned as she headed for the ranch airstrip, wondering why anyone would have reason to drive back there. As she prepared to land, she spotted a bright red sports car heading toward the ranch in the direction of WT's folly. In this part of the state, most everyone drove a truck. Or at least a four-wheel-drive SUV. The person driving the sports car had to be lost.
After leaving the plane at the hangar, Destry drove straight up to the main house in the ranch pickup. She pulled in as the dust was settling around the red sports car she'd seen from the air. As the driver shut off his engine, she saw her father roll his wheelchair down the ramp toward them.
WT had been a handsome, physically imposing man before his accident. Not even the wheelchair could diminish his formidable strength of will, even though he was now grayer and thinner. The accident hadn't improved his disposition, either, not that it had been all that great before the plane crash.
WT was a complicated man. That was the nice way people in the county explained her father. The rest didn't mince words. Nettie Benton at the Beartooth General Store called him the meanest man in Sweet-grass County.
Right now, though, WT looked more anxious than Destry had ever seen him. As he wheeled toward the car, Destry shifted her gaze to the man who had climbed out. For a moment she didn't recognize her own brother.
"Carson?" For eleven years, she'd wondered if she would ever see her big brother again. She ran to him, throwing herself into his arms. He chuckled as he hugged her tightly, then held her at arm's length to look at her.
"Wow, little sis, have you grown up," he said, making her laugh. She'd been seventeen when he'd left, newly graduated from high school and on her way to college that coming fall. She hated to think how young she'd been in so many ways. Or how much that tragic year was to change their lives. Seeing Carson on the ranch again brought it all back with sharp, breath-stealing pain for everything they'd lost.
Carson had filled out from the twenty-year-old college boy he'd been. His hair was still a lighter chestnut from her own. They both had gotten their hair color from their mother, she'd heard, although she'd never seen as much as a snapshot of Lila Gray Grant. Unable to bear looking at photographs of Lila, her father had destroyed them all after his wife's death.
Her brother's eyes were their father's clear blue, while her own were more faded like worn denim. It had always annoyed her that her brother had been spared the sprinkling of freckles that were scattered across her cheeks and nose. He used to tease her about them. She wondered if he remembered.
Around his blue eyes was a network of small wrinkles that hadn't been there eleven years ago and a sadness in his gaze she didn't recall. Like their father, he was strikingly handsome and always had been. But now he was tanned, muscled and looked like a man who'd been on a long vacation.
"What are you doing here? I mean" She heard the crunch of her father's wheelchair tires on the concrete beside her and saw Carson brace himself to face their father. Some things hadn't changed.
"Carson," WT said and extended his hand.
Her brother gave a slight nod, his face expressionless as he reached down to shake his father's hand. WT pulled him closer and awkwardly put an arm around the son he hadn't seen in years.
For the first time in her life, Destry saw tears in their father's eyes. He hadn't cried at her mother's funeral, at least that's what she'd heard through the county grapevine.
"It's good to have you home, Carson," their father said, his voice hoarse with emotion.
Carson said nothing as his gaze shifted to Destry. In that instant, she saw that his coming back to Montana hadn't been voluntary.
Her heart dropped at what she saw in her brother's face. Fear.