Authors: Rebecca Winters
Trace took a swift breath. “I've been asking myself that question since I was released from the hospital. I know what Nicci would want. She'd expect me to go on living there while her father found work for me.”
“No way,” Connor muttered. “When I married Reva, I thought I had it all figured out until she came home with me for a time. Our marriage took a nosedive. We could never get it back because it never worked in the first place. The ranch was my life. Hers was in the city.”
“I know. Cassie told me. Reva and my mother had a lot in common.”
“That's right, but with one difference. We weren't pregnant so it was easier to say goodbye. So learn from my mistake and take a leaf out of my book while you're still free. Forget Colorado. You don't really want to teach other guys how to fly. You've been there and done that.
“Bring Nicci to the ranch and let her get a taste of what life will be like with you. This is your home. Ask her to stay here and find out if she takes to it. Otherwise I can promise you'll be miserable, and that's without the benefit of Jarod's special gift telling you the same thing. We don't want anyone else living next door.”
“You and Jarod know how to make a guy feel good. I'll think about everything you've said. But there's still the problem of Cassie to worry about.”
“It's been solved. Liz has already talked to her mom. Millie and Mac are going to keep Cassie with them until after the baby is born. She'll be close by all of us and safe with them.”
“That's a terrific solution, but Cassie won't do it. She's too independent.”
“She will when Zane talks to her. Jarod found out from our grandfather that Ned is being released from the mental facility a week from Thursday.”
Eleven more days...
“Because of the suspicion surrounding the reason for Logan's shooting, he wants her away from your ranch. Mac Henson will be the best bodyguard she could have.”
Trace pondered everything. “When were you going to talk to Cassie?”
“After lunch I was hoping to take her over to our house where Liz and I will broach the subject.”
“Do me a favor and let me discuss that with her, Connor?” Several ideas were rolling around in his head now that he'd heard the date of Ned's release from the facility. A new, possible option had opened up in his mind, but he wasn't prepared to address it yet. “I need to tell Cassie about my plans for the ranch before she hears it from anyone else. Dad and I owe her that much after the fabulous way she and Logan have taken care of everything.”
After a moment of quiet, “Sure, Trace. We just want you to know we're here for her in any capacity. And you.”
“That's what best friends are for, right?”
“You know it.”
They headed back to the barn to give the horses water and fresh hay. When they entered the kitchen, Cassie had made them tuna fish and peanut butter sandwiches. She'd also put two quarts of milk on the table, unopened, and a bowl of potato chips. Trace couldn't help but smile at her. “Trust you to know exactly what to fix.”
“It's easy when you're feeding a bunch of ravenous cowboys,” she quipped.
Did she really see Trace that way?
After they'd eaten, Connor thanked Cassie and excused himself to get back to Liz. Trace walked him out to the porch and waved him off. When he returned to the kitchen, the clock on the wall said it was ten after two.
Cassie had cleaned everything up and was packing her jam jars in some cartons.
“Need me to help?”
“Oh, no. I'm all done. Thanks, though.”
She wouldn't look at him. “Who's the lucky recipient?”
“Hopefully my baby. I plan to sell these at the White Lodge Fair in the fall so I can buy some essentials. You know. A crib and an infant car seat. Things like that. My time will be here before I know it. I need to be prepared.”
“If you don't have plans, how would you like to take a Sunday ride with me? Not a long one. I haven't been up to Yellow Bell Lake in years. There won't be many people around in case you're worried about that.” He figured they'd beat the rain if it came.
She turned her head to look at him. “I'm sure you have other things you need to be doing.”
He stared at her through veiled eyes. “Talking to you is at the top of my list.”
That sounded somewhat ominous because there was no levity now that Connor had gone. Trace would never invite Cassie to go out with him unless he had a heavy reason.
“You want to leave right away?”
“If it's all right with you.”
“Of course. I'll just grab my purse.”
In a few minutes they'd both freshened up. He brought a bottle of water for each of them. After helping her into his Explorer, he walked around to his side and they took off. After they pulled out on the highway, he turned at the next left leading up the mountain to a number of lakes hidden in the pines.
The small circular lake was named for the yellow bells that blossomed there in the spring. But when Trace pulled into the area where he could park the car, he could see that time was over for this year.
“I'm afraid it's too late for the flowers to be in bloom,” she said, reading his mind.
“It's still a beautiful spot, even with the cloud cover. Your cousins and I used to ride our horses up here when the ground was covered in a mass of tiny yellow bells. We'd swim and have rock-skipping contests.”
She nodded. “I rode up here with my high school friends, too. Marsha Porter's dad would drive up with the inner tubes so we could float and sunbathe. I'm sure the music scared away every wild creature in sight. Those were fun, lazy days untilâ”
When she didn't finish the sentence Trace glanced at her. “Until Ned ruined things?”
“I don't want to talk about him.”
“I think we're going to have to at some point. What do you say we get out and sit on that log the guys and I dragged over there once upon a time.”
Her eyes widened. “You did that?”
“It was either that or sit in the wet grass.”
Cassie chuckled and got out before he could come around to help her. “It's lovely up here. I'd almost forgotten.” She made her way over to the log. “Oh, my goshâyour initials! TR, CB and JB.” Cassie lifted her head. “Okay. Truth time. How many girls did you bring up here?”
His lips twitched. “We swore an oath we'd never tell.”
“Well, we all know who Jarod brought, so that's no mystery. Connor probably had dozens up here at one time or other. Besides Liz, Marsha had a terrible crush on him. Then there's
. Since you went to high school in Billings, you were the mystery man of the three amigos. Did you have a special girlfriend?”
“I dated, but didn't bring anyone up here.” His eyes zeroed in on her. “You're the first. To prove it, I'll carve your initials next to mine.”
“No, Trace. Stop!”
But he'd pulled out a Swiss army knife and carved so fast she couldn't believe it.
Her heart pounded like a runaway train.
“I think you're trying to sweeten me up before you drop a bomb on me.”
He put the knife back in his jeans pocket and straddled the log near where she was sitting.
His right boot almost touched hers. Being with him like this away from the world caused her to think forbidden thoughts. She despised her vulnerability andâheaven help herâher susceptibility to everything male in him.
Cassie sneaked a glance at his handsome features made more severe by whatever serious thoughts were going on inside him.
“You need to know something important. I can't put this off any longer. It wouldn't be fair to you. My father gave me the ranch as my legacy, but my intention is to sell it.”
She averted her eyes, too shocked by his announcement to make a sound. Poor, dear Sam.
“By the crestfallen look on your face, I can tell this has come as a blow. If I tell you the reason why, I know it won't take away the shock, but I hope you'll understand this is something I have to do. Dad and Ellen need the money to buy themselves a house.”
“You don't owe me an explanation, Trace. It doesn't have anything to do with me. Logan and I were lucky to find work here for as long as we could.”
“Cassieâ” he said in an urgent voice. “Please realize it won't happen right away. I want you to stay on and earn your living until I find a buyer. Or maybe a renter. Probably within four to six weeks. Hopefully that will give you enough time to make other arrangements. I'm prepared to help you with that. So is your family.”
“What do you mean?”
“Connor told me that Mac and Millie want you to live with them until after your baby is born where you'll be safe. That's the reason he came over earlier, but I told him I'd rather tell you myself.”
“I see.” She got to her feet and walked over to the water's edge. “That's all very kind of the family, but I'll make my own arrangements.”
She felt him behind her. “I told Connor that's what you'd say because you're much too independent.”
“You know me well. Do you mind if we go home now? It's going to rain.” They'd heard thunder, so it wouldn't be long.
His hands slid to her shoulders. He pulled her back against his hard-muscled body. The unexpected action caused a small gasp to escape her lips. “I meant what I said about helping you. The Realtor I'm using can find you a place to live at the same time.”
“I'm sure he could, but I'll be fine.” Before she turned around and crumbled in his arms, Cassie eased away from him and walked back to the car. By the time he'd joined her, she'd put one of the bottles of water to her lips.
“I want to thank you for being frank with me so I can handle this on my own. Four to six weeks gives me enough time to find work and a place to live that suits me. I knew this day had to come. It's another wake-up call after being in a deep sleep. You and your father have been so kind and wonderful to me, I'll never be able to thank you enough.”
Fat drops of water started to hit the windshield as they started down the mountain. Slow at first, they picked up speed until there was a downpour. By the time she and a tight-lipped Trace reached the ranch, she felt as if they'd been enclosed in their own secret world. She was unbearably aware of him. Something about the rain made everything more intimate. His chiseled profile haunted her.
When he stopped the car, she jumped out, needing to get away from him. Once in the house she rushed to her bedroom and shut the door. Hoping to shrug off the feel of his hands on her shoulders, Cassie got undressed and took a shower.
She washed her hair and pampered herself, but the imprint of his body against her back still stayed with her. When desire hit, there was no mistaking it for anything else. She desired Trace Rafferty. How long had he been at the ranch? Six days? Up at the lake he'd carved her initials in the log and she'd responded like a love-struck teenager instead of a twenty-seven-year-old pregnant woman.
When she finally left her room in a clean pair of denims and a cotton sweater, the house was quiet. After looking out the living room window she discovered his Explorer was still there, but he wasn't inside the house. With the storm activity, he was probably out at the barn to settle the horses. Thank heaven. She needed some breathing space.
While he was gone, she fixed them each a sandwich and left a covered plate on the table for him. She took her sandwich back to her room. How long ago had Trace dropped his bomb on Sam? Had it happened while the two men had sat out on the front porch swing that first night?
She was still trying to recover from the direct hit she'd taken after learning about his plans. Doc Rafferty would be sick over his son's decision to live in Colorado, but as she'd told Trace, it was none of her business.
Cassie should be thankful he'd been up-front with her this afternoon. Trace had given her enough time to find a new job she badly needed. Her college degree in wildlife conservation from the University of Montana in Missoula could open doors for her. She would hunt for jobs with the government, but her first choice would be to work in the private sector.
The White Lodge Wildlife Sanctuary might be a good place to start looking since she already had a connection there. It depended on one of their paid staff leaving, but she didn't know what the odds were of that happening. If she found a decent apartment to rent in town, the location would be perfect.
She could approach the owners at the sanctuary and find out if they were planning to hire someone else. With her college credentials and her work with the American Prairie Reserve after she'd graduated, it was possible they might hire her. The two years she'd spent on the High Plains in northeastern Montana helping facilitate and maintain water rights along with livestock and wildlife had given her invaluable training.
It was on one of her brief trips home she'd met Logan Dorney, the new hired hand on the Bannock Ranch. Technically speaking, Jarod had done the hiring. When Cassie's father had fired him, Jarod didn't override the decision. Sadie confided to Cassie that her husband felt it was wise to leave it alone. Everyone, especially Jarod, knew how fragile Cassie's father had become because of Ned.
If Cassie and Logan hadn't fallen in love, she'd still be working in the northeast part of the state. With that on her resume, it was worth it to find out if the sanctuary would be interested in her.
Tomorrow after breakfast she'd drive into town and make a start. If there was no opening, she'd run by the fish-and-game office to see what they'd posted locally. After that she'd drop in at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A water conservancy group was doing a project out on the Pryor Crow Reservation an hour away from White Lodge. Maybe she could get hired on there, but they preferred to employ an ApsÃ¡alooke. She understood that. Still, if they needed someone qualified and no one else had applied, she could get lucky and be hired.
Cassie was desperate for a good job and wouldn't stop until she found one.
For the next hour she looked up all kinds of positions in her field on her laptop. Helena and Kalispell had half a dozen wildlife conservancy openings, but she didn't want to move to either place away from Avery and her cousins' wives. Sadie and Liz had been her friends from grade school. With Logan gone, she needed them, even if they didn't get together very often.
Though Trace had said she could stay here until the new owner moved in, she knew she was living on borrowed time. Tomorrow she'd go to town and start looking for an apartment. The small nest egg she'd saved from the insurance money would make it possible for her to put down a cleaning deposit, plus first and last month's rent.
As soon as she could move in, hopefully next week with Avery's help, she'd drop by the vet clinic and turn in the house key to Sam. If her applications for work didn't produce results soon, then she'd get a temporary job in town until the right one came along. Having made up her mind, she could finally settle down to sleep.
But when she got ready for bed and crawled under the covers, she soon broke down in agony and reached for the picture of her husband she kept on the bedside table. “Logan...why did you have to die? I need you more than ever now. I don't know how I'm going to make it.” Tears soaked her pillow as she fell, finally, into a fitfull sleep.
* * *
the horses to make sure the storm hadn't bothered them. There'd been some lightning and thunder. Content they were all right, he went back in the house and found a couple of sandwiches waiting for him.
She was amazing. He decided there wasn't anything she couldn't do in spite of her pain.
After he'd finished eating, he started down the hall to his room when he heard anguished sobs coming from the other side of Cassie's door. It tore his guts out. He felt guilty as hell.
Not only had he devastated his father with his unwelcome news on that first night, Trace was now forcing Cassie to find a new job while she was still grief-stricken over the loss of her husband. But no one could bring Logan Dorney back.
No one could give Trace a new eye so he could continue to fly.
No one could make his father ten years younger so he and Ellen could enjoy the ranch together.
No magic formula could take away Nicoletta's pain because the work he needed to do was here in the United States. Their dream to live in Italy had been shattered by that laser.
No wrinkle in time could put Trace's family back together before the divorce.
Some things weren't fixable.
Full of grief himself, he left the house and walked around to the garden, thankful his father had Ellen to cling to at this time in his life.
The rain had stopped and the storm clouds had moved on. In the distance loomed the shadow of the Pryor Mountains. They were sacred to the Crow Nation whose people called them the Hitting Rocks Mountains because of the abundance of flint.
The Pryors weren't as high or as spectacular as the Italian Dolomites where he'd done a lot of mountain climbing and skiing, but they had their own unique beauty. Over the years he and his father had ridden into them hundreds of times. They would wind around the canyons where wild horses like Masala roamed free. The sight of them thundering through a gully took your breath.
Trace walked down one of the rows of fruit and reached for some strawberries that had ripened. The rain hadn't hurt them. They were delicious. Cassie's jam was to die for. So were her rolls and the roast and meatloaf she'd cooked last week, the kind he'd eaten as a boy. He hadn't had much of an appetite since his injury. But the food he'd enjoyed since coming to the ranch had conjured memories of home long ago when his life had been intact, and he'd found he couldn't get enough of it.
Food could do that to youâsend you to a place in your mind. Trace had been around the world. Every country had its own specialties. But only one place served food that reminded him of his childhood. Today at the lake, tonight in the barn tending to the horses, he was shaken by emotions he hadn't allowed to surface for a long time. They would smother him if he didn't do something concrete about his situation.