Authors: Rebecca Winters
For the next few minutes Trace told him about the encounter with Owen Pearson at the Golden Spur. “He'd already had too much to drink when I got there. Everything that came out of his mouth verified Cassie's conviction that her brother hates her and hated Logan. According to Owen, Ned is going to be coming home any day now for good.”
“That could be Ned's wishful thinking talking. But if it's true, then we're all in for a new nightmare sooner than we thought.”
“There's more. Owen says they're going into the feral stud farm business on his father's ranch.”
Jarod's features hardened. “So now he wants to compete with Connor? His jealousy is over the top, always has been. It'll never happen, Trace. That's another pipe dream of Ned's. Uncle Grant wants his son working around here, but Ned gets out of work any way he can. As for Owen, he's been in so much trouble because of Ned, his father would never allow it.”
“He told me he's divorced.”
“Yup. His short-lived marriage was another mistake. He keeps making them, and sticking like glue to Ned isn't helping. Zane needs to hear all this from you, but it's Saturday, which is his day to go out to the reservation with Avery. They probably won't be home until late.”
“I'll try to get together with him tomorrow.”
“Sunday will be a good time to find him home. Traceâdo me a favor? Until you've talked to Zane, don't breathe a word of your plans to anyone about selling the ranch, especially not to Cassie. For reasons you don't know about, he'll want to hear everything you told me first.”
That sounded cryptic. “Except to explain the situation to my father, I won't say anything. But I'm anxious for the opportunity to talk to Zane about Logan's death. Once Ned is home again, whenever that happens, I'm afraid Cassie could be in danger.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
“Don't let me keep you, Jarod. After I take Masala back, I need to drive into town and discuss Cassie's situation with Dad.”
“Let's exchange phone numbers so we can stay in close touch.”
Cassie left the house wearing a clean, pale green smock over her clothes and got in her truck. Every Saturday she volunteered at the White Lodge Wildlife Sanctuary. It was one of several public refuges in Montana to save animals that were too sick or injured to be returned to the wild, or were too humanized to survive there.
Today she was going to join her married friends Paul and Lindsey Shaw, also volunteers, to paint the railings in front of the outdoor wolf enclosures. The sanctuary was adding new sections to accommodate the animals and birds found struggling. If they recovered and could handle it, they'd be released to live in their former habitat. Otherwise they were well taken care of.
Every Saturday there was a different assignment to tackle. Cassie had been helping out for close to a year. More and more tourists stopped to see the wildlife. She could understand why. She loved the animals, too, and through perseverance had made friends of some of them.
As Cassie started the engine and backed up, Trace, wearing boots and Stetson, rode into her line of vision on Masala. She put on the brakes. Like his father, he was such a natural on a horse you'd never have guessed he was also an ace pilot whose career had been cut short.
Her pulse raced when the hard-muscled male astride the horse walked them right up to her open window. She was almost blinded by the intensity of his hot blue eyes. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“To the White Lodge Wildlife Sanctuary.”
“I've heard of it, but have never seen it.”
“You'd love it. I'd tell you more about it, but I volunteer there and I'm late. Have a nice day, Trace.”
Without waiting for his response she took off down the dirt road. Seeing him had changed the rhythm of her heart. Until now she'd managed to put him out of her mind for a little while. It was astonishing how fast everything changed the minute he came near.
She was determined not to let him affect her day. Once she'd reached the area of the sanctuary closed off to tourists during renovation, she started painting with a vengeance.
Today's project happened right outside the fencing where the wolves were enclosed. Paul had been sanding the surfaces of the railings, so the paint went on evenly. The old structures were being refurbished. The brown color was a great improvement over the weathered wood that had never seen a coat of paint.
One of the gray she-wolves came up to the fence and howled at Cassie when she got to work.
“Don't be upset, Lulu. I know the smell is a hundred times stronger for you than for me, but it won't hurt you. We'll be gone pretty soon.” The minutes turned into a couple of hours.
Lindsey was painting the last railing. “Can you believe that constant yipping? It's coming from Annie who went into her house to get away from Paul. She hasn't stopped.”
Cassie nodded. “Lulu is defending her. The sound of the sander frightens them. I didn't realize our work would stress them out so much. They're usually so calm. We'll be gone in a few more minutes, Lulu. Don't worry.”
“Can anyone help?” spoke a deep, familiar male voice behind Cassie.
She turned around with brush in hand and almost dropped it. The man she'd been trying her hardest not to think about had come to the sanctuary. “Hi! What are you doing here?”
“I dropped by my Dad's for a while and thought I'd check out the sanctuary before heading back to the ranch. What's wrong with these wolves? They look healthy.”
“They are now, thanks to your dad. Two winters ago someone found them near dead in the forest just outside the town. Sam tested them for mange. Mites had burrowed under their skin and the scratching caused so much hair loss, they almost froze to death. Unfortunately they're too domesticated now, so they have a permanent home here.”
“Did he name them?”
“No. That was the owner of the sanctuary. She passed away a year ago at the age of ninety-five. I heard she loved the Little Lulu comic books as a child so she named these sister wolves Lulu and Annie. Aren't they beautiful?”
“They are,” he murmured, but he was looking at her. She could hardly breathe.
“We're finished with the painting for today.”
“I bet your OB would tell you not to get around paint.”
“It's okay. We're outside, and this paint is VOC proofed. As long as you're here, you need to see my favorite animal. Let me put my things away first.” She put the brush in the can of turpentine and sealed the paint can. As she started to pick them up, Trace took them from her and carried them down to the box at the end of the railing for her.
“Thank you,” she said. “See you next week, guys,” she called to her friends.
They waved her off.
“You won't believe how darling this little female fox is. Logan found her in the forest behind your house. He said she acted disoriented, so we took her to your dad's clinic. He discovered the poor darling was close to blind. Wait till you see her.”
Trace followed her around to the next enclosure. “Right now she's housed in a special raptor mew waiting for new animal quarters. The owners call it the âfox condo.'”
A low chuckle escaped him. Cassie felt it to her bones as she approached the fox. Her little goldish-red head lay propped on the grassy platform. “Look, Trace. That sweet face with all the white below. Have you ever seen anything like it? She's elegant. You would think she was gazing out at the whole world, seeing everything.
“Giselle?” The fox's ears pricked like Buttercup's. “Giselle? It's Cassie.” The animal lifted her head and put her black nose to the fence. Cassie touched it with her finger. “I brought a friend. His name is Trace. Do you know what? He owns the ranch where you were found. Isn't that amazing?”
The fox moved its head as she talked.
“Good heavens. That animal understands you,” Trace said under his breath. “I never saw anything like it.”
“Then you haven't watched Liz talking to her horses. It's almost spooky the way they know everything she's saying. On her last round barrel racing at Finals, she had to ride Polly because Sunflower had gotten stall cast. She spoke to Polly the way I'm talking to you and told her they had to win for Connor. I swear that horse knew exactly what she had to do.”
Their eyes met. “I wish I'd been there.”
“You can't be everywhere while you're protecting our world from the air. But now that you're here, why don't you say something to Giselle? Let's see what she does. Touch her nose at the same time.”
Trace moved closer and put his index finger on it. “Hello, Giselle. You don't know me. I'm Trace.”
“Trace rhymes with Ace, Giselle. Guess what? Would you believe his eye got hurt, too? You two have a lot in common.”
The man standing next to her threw back his head and laughed. It was a marvelous sound. Happy. Cassie wished he'd do it more often. When he quieted down he said, “Are you the one to name her Giselle?”
“Yes. The woman who ran this incredible French auberge in Switzerland had that name. I think it's beautiful, and it just seemed to suit my precious fox. I wanted to take her home with me to raise, but of course that was impossible. She was turned over to the sanctuary. That's when I started coming on a regular basis to help where I can.
“You should see all the animals and birds. They've got a rough-legged hawk that's only half-flighted, and a lynx that can only see light and dark. Then there's a vulture with an amputated wing. The list goes on and on.”
Trace smiled at her. “Pretty soon you'll be occupied with your own little daughter. Maybe if the fox lives for a long time, you can bring her to see Giselle and tell her the story of how her daddy found the fox.”
The tenderness in Trace's voice was too much. She felt her eyes smarting and fought tears. “Maybe.”
“I'm sure you're tired. I'll follow you home. You've worked so hard, you need to put your feet up.”
“You're not supposed to remember everything I tell you.” Trace was way too attentive.
“My former commanding officer would tell me the exact opposite.” He walked to her truck. “Drive safely.” His eyes narrowed on her face. “Remember there are two of you to consider.”
“As if I could forget,” she said, sounding out of breath to her own ears. The things Trace said shook her world.
He got in his truck just as Paul called to her from outside his car. “See you next Saturday.”
Cassie wheeled around. Lindsey smiled, giving Cassie a knowing look that said she approved of the attractive cowboy who'd come to the sanctuary looking for her. This town was too small for Trace and Cassie. Gossip would build. There'd be a price to pay if he didn't leave for Colorado soon.
“I'll be here, you guys. What will we be working on next?”
“That's anyone's guess. Let's go for pizza after.”
“I'd love it.”
Adrenaline spilled into her system as she drove back to the ranch. Out of her rearview mirror she noticed how Trace stayed behind her. She'd been alone just long enough without Logan that she'd forgotten what it was like to have someone watching out for her.
Cassie had to admit it was a nice feeling. She couldn't understand why Trace's girlfriend hadn't arrived here already. A man like him didn't come along every day. The Rafferty men were exceptional.
When she finally reached the ranch house, Trace pulled up alongside her and opened his window to talk to her. “Jarod called me a minute ago and asked me to meet up with him. Before I go, I want to make sure you get in the house safely.”
Her spirits didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed he was leaving. “I'm fine, Trace. Don't forget I've been doing this for a long time. But thanks for caring.” She climbed down from the cab and hurried up the porch to the front door.
“Wait, Cassieâbefore you go in let's exchange cell phone numbers in case we need to get hold of each other.”
“That's a good idea.” She pulled the phone out of her purse and programmed his number. He did the same thing with his phone. After opening the front door, she waved him off.
Who knew when he'd be back?
Please don't care, Cassie. Please don't.
Once she showered, she'd grab a bite to eat and watch a little TV before going to bed. Maybe because she knew he would be coming back, even if it was late, Cassie was able to fall asleep faster. For the first time since Logan's passing, her husband didn't fill her thoughts. She found herself thinking about Trace and what an amazing man he was. Any woman loved by him would feel cherished.
* * *
to Jarod's to pick him up. Jarod had talked to Zane after he and Avery had returned from the reservation. She was eager to visit her grandfather and tell him about her day, so Jarod thought this was the best time to drop in on Zane.
They took off for the Corkin-Lawson Ranch bordering the other side of the Bannock spread. “What does Avery do at the reservation?”
“She's a historian, writing a book on Crow folklore. On Thursdays she teaches classes on Crow culture at the college.”
“You must be very proud of your sister.”
“I am. The tribe has given her a special name. Winterfire Woman.”
“What does it mean?”
“Because she does her research on the reservation year-round, not just in summer, the tribe considers her an authentic teller of their histories. She reminds them of the storytellers of old who gathered children around the fire on long wintry nights. Avery doesn't make them feel used.”
“That's a phenomenal compliment. Are she and Zane happy?”
A smile broke the corner of Jarod's mouth. “You ought to see them together. I know she'll be anxious to see you.”
It didn't take long for them to pull up in front of the small, one-story ranch house. They got out and knocked on the front door. Only one other time had Trace ever been over here. His father had been called out on an emergency and fifteen-year-old Trace had gone with him.
The owner of the ranch, Daniel Corkin, was in a drunken rage because his best horse had broken a leg. When his dad told him they needed to put the animal out of its misery, Daniel ordered him off his property. If he didn't leave, he'd shoot him.
Trace still remembered that day and understood why Daniel's daughter Sadie had fled to California to live with her mother, who later on remarried. His thoughts drifted back to Cassie. Her father Grant Bannock may not have been in a drunken rage, but he was unstable enough to drive his flesh-and-blood daughter out of his home and his life. Considering Ned Bannock was his son, it proved the adage that the proverbial acorn didn't fall far from the oak tree.
Trace's thoughts were jerked away when a striking man, Trace's height, in cowboy boots with dark brown hair answered the door. He wore a plaid shirt and jeans. “Thanks for coming, Jarod.”
He nodded. “Zane Lawson? Meet Trace, Doc Rafferty's son.”
His gray eyes swerved to examine Trace. Dimples formed when he smiled. “Your fame is legendary. Avery will be sorry she wasn't here to welcome you home, Trace. She's thrilled to know you're back to stay for good.”
That meant Jarod hadn't told him about Trace's plans. Everyone assumed he was home to take over the ranch. “It'll be great to see her again.”
“I'm finally shaking hands with the Ace!”
Trace liked him right away. “I'm a has-been. You're the famous SEAL.”
“You couldn't be talking about me. My nephew Ryan has reduced me to Deputy Dawg status, isn't that right, Jarod.”
All three men chuckled before Zane grew serious. “I know you have other things you'd rather do tonight, but I felt this visit couldn't wait, not after talking to Jarod. Come on in. Can I get you a drink?”
“No, thanks.” They walked into the living room and sat down on the couch and chairs placed around the coffee table.