Christmas On His Ranch: Maggie's Dad / Cattleman's Choice Diana Palmer Maggie's DadHot-tempered rancher Powell Long had once stolen Antonia Haye's heart. But small-town lies tore their young love apart, forcing Antonia to flee.Years later, she's returned to find Powell raising a daughter alone. Fatherhood hasn't tempered his wild side, or his feelings for the one woman he's always wanted–Antonia.Not even her pride could make her ignore the eager pull of her heartstrings. And taking a chance at a future family with Powell was simply too irresistible….Cattleman’s ChoiceCarson Wayne had come to Mandelyn Bush with the ultimate request: he needed her to teach him how to treat a lady. No doubt he'd asked the right person—Mandelyn was as polished and feminine as Carson was rough and reclusive. And she was the only person who could reason with him during one of his barroom brawls.It was too intriguing a challenge to turn down. Mandelyn was curious about what lay beneath the outlaw's hard shell. She suspected that the renegade was really a caring and sensitive man.But what she hadn't counted on were her own feelings for this irresistible rebel. Christmas on His Ranch Maggie’s Dad Diana Palmer Cattleman’s Choice Diana Palmer www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Table of Contents Cover (#u1a77866d-799f-5a02-91a4-91fe3e3d42d8) Title Page (#u16ffaad7-8c23-5957-b992-4b5ab36dfb72) Maggie’s Dad (#u79f0fc02-97c7-57ee-a69b-89370404c879) About the Author (#uf6c2fd4d-cbda-52e6-bbfb-053748f1d097) Prologue (#u91db5824-5415-539b-8dfe-e331866c5dc7) Chapter One (#ua65d5eaa-58b5-5d7b-8dad-82bbb8ff08ed) Chapter Two (#u97517d90-aaeb-50d7-b787-a8d6e6af0116) Chapter Three (#u60726aa0-0022-5538-afc0-6d9f6776ef6b) Chapter Four (#ua24741ef-11ba-55ae-aabf-90583e119364) Chapter Five (#u0258ae8d-1a8f-5eb6-ad55-e099296347fc) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Cattleman’s Choice (#litres_trial_promo) Back Cover Copy (#litres_trial_promo) Dedication (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Maggie’s Dad (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) The prolific author of more than a hundred books, DIANA PALMER got her start as a newspaper reporter. A multi–New York Times bestselling author and one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humour. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia. Visit her website at www.DianaPalmer.com (http://www.DianaPalmer.com). Prologue (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) Rain was peppering down on the roof of the small house where Antonia Hayes’s parents lived. It was a cold rain, and Antonia thought absently that she was very glad it was summer, because by early autumn that soft rain would turn to sleet or snow. Bighorn, a small town in northwestern Wyoming, was not an easy town to leave once it was covered in ice. It was rural and despite having three thousand inhabitants, it was too small to offer the transportation choices of a larger town. There wasn’t even an airport; only a bus station. The railroad ran through it, too, but the trains were spaced too far apart to do Antonia much good. She was about to begin her sophomore year in college, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and snow was fairly rare in that area in winter, except up in the mountains. The desert floor had light dustings, but not enough to inconvenience anyone. Besides, Antonia—having just finished her first year there—had been much too busy trying to pass her core courses and heal a broken heart to notice the weather. She did notice the summer heat now, though, she mused, and thanked God for air-conditioning. The clock sounded and Antonia turned, her short, blond hair perky and her gray eyes full of sadness at having to leave. But fall semester started in less than a week, and she had to get back into her dorm room and set up some sort of schedule. The only comforting thing about going back was that George Rutherford’s stepdaughter, Barrie Bell, was her dorm roommate, and they got along very well indeed. “It’s been lovely having you home for a whole week,” her mother, Jessica, said warmly. “I do wish you could have stayed the whole summer….” Her voice trailed off. She knew, as did Antonia and Ben, her husband, why Antonia couldn’t stay in Bighorn very long. It was a source of great sadness to all of them, but they didn’t discuss it. It still hurt too much, and the gossip hadn’t quite died down even now, almost a year after the fact. George Rutherford’s abrupt move to France a few months after Antonia’s departure had quelled the remaining gossip. Despite what had happened, George had remained a good, true friend to Antonia and her family. Her college education was his gift to her. She would pay him back every penny, but right now the money was a godsend. Her parents were well regarded in the community, but lacked the resources to swing her tuition. George had been determined to help, and his kindness had cost them both so much. But George’s son, Dawson, and his stepdaughter, Barrie, had rallied around Antonia, defending her against the talk. It was comforting to know that the two people closest to George didn’t believe he was Antonia’s sugar daddy. And of course, it helped that Dawson and Powell Long were rivals for a strip of land that separated their respective Bighorn ranch holdings. George had lived on his Bighorn ranch until the scandal. Then he went back to the family home he shared with Dawson in Sheridan, hoping to stem the gossip. It hadn’t happened. So he’d moved to France, leaving more bitterness between Dawson and Powell Long. There was no love lost there. But even with George out of the country, and despite the support of friends and family, Sally Long had done so much damage to Antonia’s reputation that she was sure she would never be able to come home again. Her mind came back to the remark her mother had just made. “I took classes this summer,” she murmured absently. “I’m really sorry, but I thought I’d better, and some of my new friends went, too. It was nice, although I do miss being home. I miss both of you.” Jessica hugged her warmly. “And we miss you.” “That damn fool Sally Long,” Ben muttered as he also hugged his daughter. “Spreading lies so that she could take Powell away from you. And that damn fool Powell Long, believing them, marrying her, and that baby born just seven months later…!” Antonia’s face went pale, but she smiled gamely. “Now, Dad,” she said gently. “It’s all over,” she added with what she hoped was a reassuring smile, “they’re married and they have a daughter now. I hope he’s happy.” “Happy! After the way he treated you?” Antonia closed her eyes. The memories were still painful. Powell had been the center of her life. She’d never imagined she could feel a love so sweeping, so powerful. He’d never said he loved her, but she’d been so sure that he did. Looking back now, though, she knew that he’d never really loved her. He wanted her, of course, but he had always drawn back. We’ll wait for marriage, he’d said. And waiting had been a good thing, considering how it had all turned out. At the time, Antonia had wanted him desperately, but she’d put him off. Even now, over a year later, she could still see his black eyes and dark hair and thin, wide mouth. That image lived in her heart despite the fact that he’d canceled their wedding the day before it was to take place. People who hadn’t been notified in time were sitting in the church, waiting. She shuddered faintly, remembering her humiliation. Ben was still muttering about Sally. “That’s enough, Ben.” Jessica laid a hand on her husband’s arm. “It’s water under the bridge,” she said firmly. Her voice was so tranquil that it was hard for Antonia to believe that the scandal had caused her mother to have heart problems. She’d done very well, and Antonia had done everything possible to avoid the subject so that her mother wouldn’t be upset. “I wouldn’t say Powell was happy,” Ben continued, unabashed. “He’s never home, and we never see him out with Sally in public. In fact, we never see Sally much at all. If she’s happy, she doesn’t let it show.” He studied his daughter’s pale, rigid face. “She called here one day before Easter and asked for your address. Did she write to you?” “She wrote me.” “Well?” he prompted, curious. “I returned the letter without opening it,” Antonia said tightly, even paler now. She looked down at her shoes. “It’s ancient history.” “She might have wanted to apologize,” Jessica ventured. Antonia sighed. “Some things go beyond apologies,” she said quietly. “I loved him, you know,” she added with a faint smile. “But he never loved me. If he did, he didn’t say so in all the time we went together. He believed everything Sally told him. He just told me what he thought of me, called off the wedding and walked away. I had to leave. It hurt too much to stay.” She could picture in her mind that long, straight back, the rigid set of his dark head. The pain had been terrible. It still was. “As if George was that sort of man,” Jessica said wearily. “He’s the kindest man in the world, and he adores you.” “Not the sort to play around with young girls,” Ben agreed. “Idiots, people who could believe that about him. I know that’s why he moved out of the country, to spare us any more gossip.” “Since he and I are both gone, there’s not much to gossip about,” Antonia said pointedly. She smiled. “I’m working hard on my grades. I want George to be proud of me.” “He will be. And we already are,” Jessica said warmly. “Well, it serves Powell Long right that he ended up with that selfish little madam,” Ben persisted irritably. “He thinks he’s going to get rich by building up that cattle ranch, but he’s just a dreamer,” Ben scoffed. “His father was a gambler, and his mother was a doormat. Imagine him thinking he’s got enough sense to make money with cattle!” “He does seem to be making strides,” his wife said gently. “He just bought a late-model truck, and they say a string of ranches up in Montana have given him a contract to supply them with seed bulls. You remember, Ben, when his big purebred Angus bull was in the paper, it won some national award.” “One bull doesn’t make an empire,” Ben scoffed. Antonia felt the words all the way to her heart. Powell had told her his dreams, and they’d planned that ranch together, discussed having the best Angus bulls in the territory… “Could we not…talk about him, please?” Antonia asked finally. She forced a smile. “It still stings a little.” “Of course it does. We’re sorry,” Jessica said, her voice soft now. “Can you come home for Christmas?” “I’ll try. I really will.” She had one small suitcase. She carried it out to the car and hugged her mother one last time before she climbed in beside her father for the short ride to the bus depot downtown. It was morning, but still sweltering hot. She got out of the car and picked up her suitcase as she waited on the sidewalk for her father to get her ticket from the office inside the little grocery store. There was a line. She’d just turned her attention back to the street when her eyes froze on an approaching pedestrian; a cold, quiet ghost from the past. He was just as lean and dark as she remembered him. The suit was better than the ones he’d worn when they were dating, and he looked thinner. But it was the same Powell Long. She’d lost everything to him except her pride. She still had it, and she forced her gray eyes up to his as he walked down the sidewalk with that slow, elegant stride that was particularly his own. She wouldn’t let him see how badly his distrust had hurt her, even now. His expression gave away nothing that he was feeling. He paused when he reached her, glancing at the suitcase. “Well, well,” he drawled, watching her face. “I heard you were here. The chicken came home to roost, did she?” “I’m not here to stay,” she replied coolly. “I’ve been to visit my parents. I’m on my way to Arizona, back to college.” “By bus?” he taunted. “Couldn’t your sugar daddy afford a plane ticket? Or did he leave you high and dry when he hightailed it to France?” She kicked him right in the shin. It wasn’t premeditated, and he looked as shocked as she did when he bent to rub the painful spot where her shoe had landed. “I wish I’d been wearing steel-toed combat boots like one of the girls in my dorm,” she said hotly. “And if you ever so much as speak to me again, Powell Long, I’ll break your leg the next time!” She brushed past him and went into the depot. Her father had just paid for the ticket when his attention was captured by the scene outside the depot. He started outside, but Antonia pushed him back into the building. “We can wait for the bus in here, Dad,” she said, her face still red and hot with anger. He glanced past her to where Powell had straightened to send a speaking look toward the depot. “Well, he seems to have learned to control that hot temper, at least. A year ago, he’d have been in here, right through the window,” Ben Hayes remarked coldly. “I hope you crippled him.” She managed a wan smile. “No such luck. You can’t wound something that ornery.” Powell had started back down the street, his back stiff with outrage. “I hope Sally asks him how he hurt his leg,” Antonia said under her breath. “Here, girl, the bus is coming.” He shepherded her outside, grateful that the ticket agent hadn’t been paying attention and that none of the other passengers seemed interested in the byplay out the window. All they needed was some more gossip. Antonia hugged her father before she climbed aboard. She wanted to look down the street, to see if Powell was limping. But even though the windows were dark, she wouldn’t risk having him catch her watching him. She closed her eyes as the bus pulled away from the depot and spent the rest of the journey trying to forget the pain of seeing Powell Long again. Chapter One (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) “That’s very good, Martin, but you’ve left out something, haven’t you?” Antonia prompted gently. She smiled, too, because Martin was very shy even for a nine-year-old and she didn’t want to embarrass him in front of her other fourth graders. “The secret weapon the Greeks used in battle…a military formation?” “Secret weapon,” he murmured to himself. Then his dark eyes lit up and he grinned. “The phalanx!” he said at once. “Yes,” she replied. “Very good!” He beamed, glancing smugly at his worst enemy in the second row over, who was hoping Martin would miss the question and looked very depressed indeed that he hadn’t. Antonia glanced at her watch. It was almost time to dismiss class for the day, and the week. Odd, she thought, how loose that watch was on her wrist. “It’s time to start putting things away,” she told her students. “Jack, will you erase the board for me, please? And, Mary, please close the windows.” They rushed to obey, because they liked Miss Hayes. Mary glanced at her with a smile. Miss Hayes smiled back. She wasn’t as pretty as Miss Bell down the hall, and she dressed in a very backward sort of way, always wearing suits or pantsuits, not miniskirts and frilly blouses. She had pretty long blond hair, though, when she took it out of that awful bun, and her gray eyes were like the December sky. It would be Christmas soon, and in a week they could all go home for the holidays. Mary wondered what Miss Hayes would do. She never went anywhere exciting for holidays. She never talked about her family, either. Maybe she didn’t have one. The bell rang and Antonia smiled and waved as her students marched out to waiting buses and cars. She tidied her desk with steady hands and wondered if her father would come for Christmas this year. It was very lonely for both of them since her mother’s death last year. It had been hard, coping with the loss. It had been harder having to go home for the funeral. He was there. He, and his daughter. Antonia shivered just remembering the look on his dark, hard face. Powell hadn’t softened even then, even when her mother was being buried. He still hated Antonia after nine years. She’d barely glanced at the sullen, dark-haired little girl by his side. The child was like a knife through her heart, a reminder that Powell had been sleeping with Sally even while he and Antonia were engaged to be married; because the little girl had been born only seven months after Powell married Sally. Antonia had glanced at them once, only once, to meet Powell’s hateful stare. She hadn’t looked toward the pew where they sat again. Incredible how he could hate Antonia after marriage and a child, when everyone must have told him the truth ten times over in the years between. He was rich now. He had money and power and a fine home. His wife had died only three years after their wedding, and he hadn’t remarried. Antonia imagined it was because he missed Sally so much. She didn’t. She hated even the memory of her one-time best friend. Sally had cost her everything she loved, even her home, and she’d done it with deliberate lies. Of course, Powell had believed the lies. That was what had hurt most. Antonia was over it now. It had been nine years. It hardly hurt at all, in fact, to remember him. She blinked as someone knocked at the door, interrupting her train of thought. It was Barrie, her good friend and the Miss Bell of the miniskirt who taught math, grinning at her. Barrie was gorgeous. She was slender and had beautiful long legs. Her hair was almost black, like a wavy curtain down her back. She had green eyes with mischief in them, and a ready smile. “You could stay with me at Christmas,” Barrie invited merrily, her green eyes twinkling. “In Sheridan?” she asked idly, because that was where Barrie’s stepfather’s home was, where George Rutherford and her stepbrother Dawson Rutherford, and Barrie and her late mother had lived before she left home and began teaching with Antonia in Tucson. “No,” Barrie said tightly. “Not ever there. In my apartment here in Tucson,” she added, forcing a smile to her face. “I have four boyfriends. We can split them, two each. We’ll have a merry whirl!” Antonia only smiled. “I’m twenty-seven, too old for merry whirls, and my father will probably come here for Christmas. But thanks anyway.” “Honestly, Annie, you’re not old, even if you do dress like someone’s maiden aunt!” she said explosively. “Look at you!” she added, sweeping her hand toward the gray suit and white blouse that was indicative of the kind of clothes Antonia favored. “And your hair in that infernal bun…you look like a holdover from the Victorians! You need to loose that glorious blond hair and put on a miniskirt and some makeup and look for a man before you get too old! And you need to eat! You’re so thin that you’re beginning to look like skin and bones.” Antonia knew that. She’d lost ten pounds in the past month or so and she’d finally gotten worried enough to make an appointment with her doctor. It was probably nothing, she thought, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. Her iron might be low. She said as much to Barrie. “That’s true. You’ve had a hard year, what with losing your mother and then that awful scare with the student who brought his dad’s pistol to school and held everybody at bay for an hour last month.” “Teaching is becoming the world’s most dangerous profession,” Antonia agreed. She smiled sadly at Barrie. “Perhaps if we advertised it that way, we’d attract more brave souls to boost our numbers.” “That’s an idea,” came the dry agreement. “Want adventure? Try teaching! I can see the slogan now—” “I’m going home,” Antonia interrupted her. “Ah, well, I suppose I will, too. I have a date tonight.” “Who is it this time?” “Bob. He’s nice and we get along well. But sometimes I think I’m not cut out for a conventional sort of man. I need a wild-eyed artist or a composer or a drag racer.” Antonia chuckled. “I hope you find one.” “If I did, he’d probably have two wives hidden in another country or something. I do have the worst luck with men.” “It’s your liberated image,” Antonia said in a conspiratorial tone. “You’re devil-may-care and outrageous. You scare off the most secure bachelors.” “Bunkum. If they were secure enough, they’d rush to my door,” Barrie informed her. “I’m sure there’s a man like that somewhere, just waiting for me.” “I’m sure there is, too,” her friend said kindly, and didn’t for a minute let on that she thought there was already one waiting in Sheridan. Beneath Barrie’s outrageous persona, there was a sad and rather lonely woman. Barrie wasn’t at all what she seemed. Barrie basically was afraid of men—especially her stepbrother, Dawson. He was George’s blood son. Dear George, the elderly man who’d been another unfortunate victim of Sally Long’s lies. The tales hadn’t fazed Dawson, though, who not only knew better, but who was one of the coldest and most intimidating men Antonia had ever met where women were concerned. Barrie never mentioned Dawson, never talked about him. And if his name was mentioned, she changed the subject. It was common knowledge that they didn’t get along. But secretly, Antonia thought there was something in their past, something that Barrie didn’t talk about. She never had, and now that poor George was dead and Dawson had inherited his estate, there was a bigger rift between them because a large interest in the cattle empire that Dawson inherited had been willed to Barrie. “I’ve got to phone Dad and see what his plans are,” Antonia murmured, dragging herself back from her memories. “If he can’t come down here, will you go home for Christmas?” She shook her head. “I don’t go home.” “Why not?” She grimaced. “Oh. Yes. I forget from time to time, because you never talk about him. I’m sorry. But it’s been nine years. Surely he couldn’t hold a grudge for that long? After all, he’s the one who called off the wedding and married your best friend less than a month later. And she caused the scandal in the first place!” “Yes, I know,” Antonia replied. “She must have loved him a lot to take such a risk. But he did eventually find out the truth,” she added, tugging absently on a strand of her long, wavy black hair. Antonia sighed. “Did he? I suppose someone told him, eventually. I don’t imagine he believed it, though. Powell likes to see me as a villain.” “He loved you…” “He wanted me,” Antonia said bitterly. “At least that’s what he said. I had no illusions about why he was marrying me. My father’s name carried some weight in town, even though we were not rich. Powell needed the respectability. The love was all on my side. As it worked out, he got rich and had one child and a wife who was besotted with him. But from what I heard, he didn’t love her either. Poor Sally,” she added on a cold laugh, “all that plotting and lying, and when she got what she wanted, she was miserable.” “Good enough for her,” Barrie said curtly. “She ruined your reputation and your parents’.” “And your stepfather’s,” she added, sadly. “He was very fond of my mother once.” Barrie smiled gently. “He was very fond of her up until the end. It was a blessing that he liked your father, and that they were friends. He was a good loser when she married your father. But he still cared for her, and that’s why he did so much to help you.” “Right down to paying for my college education. That was the thing that led to all the trouble. Powell didn’t like George at all. His father lost a lot of land to George—in fact, Dawson is still at odds with Powell over that land, even today, you know. He may live in Sheridan, but his ranch covers hundreds of acres right up against Powell’s ranch, and I understand from Dad that he gives him fits at any opportunity.” “Dawson has never forgotten or forgiven the lies that Sally told about George,” came the quiet reply. “He spoke to Sally, you know. He cornered her in town and gave her hell, with Powell standing right beside her.” “You never told me that,” Antonia said on a quick breath. “I didn’t know how to,” Barrie replied. “It hurts you just to have Powell’s name mentioned.” “I suppose Powell stood up for her,” she said, fishing. “Even Powell is careful about how he deals with Dawson,” Barrie reminded her. “Besides, what could he say? Sally told a lie and she was caught, red-handed. Too late to do you any good, they were already married by then.” “You mean, Powell’s known the truth for nine years?” Antonia asked, aghast. “I didn’t say he believed Dawson,” the other woman replied gently, averting her eyes. “Oh. Yes. Well.” Antonia fought for composure. How ridiculous, to think Powell would have accepted the word of his enemy. He and Dawson never had gotten along. She said it aloud even as she thought it. “Is it likely that they would? My stepfather beat old man Long out of everything he owned in a poker game when they were both young men. The feud has gone on from there. Dawson’s land borders Powell’s, and they’re both bent on empire building. If a tract comes up for sale, you can bet both men will be standing on the Realtor’s doorstep trying to get first dibs on it. In fact, that’s what they’re butting heads about right now, that strip of land that separates their ranches that the widow Holton owns.” “They own the world between them,” Antonia said pointedly. “And they only want what joins theirs.” Barrie chuckled. “Ah, well, it’s no concern of ours. Not now. The less I see of my stepbrother, the happier I am.” Antonia, who’d only once seen the two of them together, had to agree. When Dawson was anywhere nearby, Barrie became another person, withdrawn and tense and almost comically clumsy. “Well, if you change your mind about the holidays, my door is open,” Barrie reminded her. Antonia smiled warmly. “I’ll remember. If Dad can’t come down for the holidays, you could come home with me,” she added. Barrie shivered. “No, thanks! Bighorn is too close to Dawson for my taste.” “Dawson lives in Sheridan.” “Not all the time. Occasionally he stays at the ranch in Bighorn. He spends more and more time there these days.” Her face went taut. “They say the widow Holton is the big attraction. Her husband had lots of land, and she hasn’t decided who she’ll sell it to.” A widow with land. Barrie had mentioned that Powell was also in competition with Dawson for the land. Or was it the widow? He was a widower, too, and a long-standing one. The thought made her sad. “You need to eat more,” Barrie remarked, concerned by her friend’s appearance. “You’re getting so thin, Annie, although it does give you a more fragile appearance. You have lovely bone structure. High cheekbones and good skin.” “I inherited the high cheekbones from a Cheyenne grandmother,” she said, remembering sadly that Powell had called her Cheyenne as a nickname— actually meant as a corruption of “shy Ann,” which she had been when they first started dating. “Good blood,” Barrie mused. “My ancestry is black Irish—from the Spanish armada that was blown off course to the coast of Ireland. Legend has it that one of my ancestors was a Spanish nobleman, who ended up married to a stepsister of an Irish lord.” “What a story.” “Isn’t it, though? I must pursue historical fiction one day—in between stuffing mathematical formulae into the heads of innocents.” She glanced at her watch. “Heavens, I’ll be late for my date with Bob! Gotta run. See you Monday!” “Have fun.” “I always have fun. I wish you did, once in a while.” She waved from the door, leaving behind a faint scent of perfume. Antonia loaded her attaché case with papers to grade and her lesson plan for the following week, which badly needed updating. When her desk was cleared, she sent a last look around the classroom and went out the door. Her small apartment overlooked “A” mountain in Tucson, so-called because of the giant letter A that was painted at its peak and was repainted year after year by University of Arizona students. The city was flat and only a small scattering of tall buildings located downtown made it seem like a city at all. It was widespread, sprawling, sandy and hot. Nothing like Bighorn, Wyoming, where Antonia’s family had lived for three generations. She remembered going back for her mother’s funeral less than a year ago. Townspeople had come by the house to bring food for every meal, and to pay their respects. Antonia’s mother had been well-loved in the community. Friends sent cartloads of the flowers she’d loved so much. The day of the funeral had dawned bright and sunny, making silver lights in the light snow covering, and Antonia thought how her mother had loved spring. She wouldn’t see another one now. Her heart, always fragile, had finally given out. At least, it had been a quick death. She’d died at the stove, in the very act of putting a cake into the oven. The service was brief but poignant, and afterward Antonia and her father had gone home. The house was empty. Dawson Rutherford had stopped to offer George’s sympathy, because George had been desperately ill, far too ill to fly across the ocean from France for the funeral. In fact, George had died less than two weeks later. Dawson had volunteered to drive Barrie out to the airport to catch her plane back to Arizona, because Barrie had come to the funeral, of course. Antonia had noted even in her grief how it affected Barrie just to have to ride that short distance with her stepbrother. Later, Antonia’s father had gone to the bank and Antonia had been halfheartedly sorting her mother’s unneeded clothes and putting them away when Mrs. Harper, who lived next door and was helping with the household chores, announced that Powell Long was at the door and wished to speak with her. Having just suffered the three worst days of her life, she was in no condition to face him now. “Tell Mr. Long that we have nothing to say to each other,” Antonia had replied with cold pride. “Guess he knows how it feels to lose somebody, since he lost Sally a few years back,” Mrs. Harper reminded her, and then watched to see how the news would be received. Antonia had known about Sally’s death. She hadn’t sent flowers or a card because it had happened only three years after Antonia had fled Bighorn, and the bitterness had still been eating at her. “I’m sure he understands grief,” was all Antonia said, and waited without saying another word until Mrs. Harper got the message and left. She was back five minutes later with a card. “Said to give you this,” she murmured, handing the business card to Antonia, “and said you should call him if you needed any sort of help.” Help. She took the card and, without even looking at it, deliberately tore it into eight equal parts. She handed them back to Mrs. Harper and turned again to her clothes sorting. Mrs. Harper looked at the pieces of paper in her hand. “Enough said,” she murmured, and left. It was the last contact Antonia had had with Powell Long since her mother’s death. She knew that he’d built up his purebred Angus ranch and made a success of it. But she didn’t ask for personal information about him after that, despite the fact that he remained a bachelor. The past, as far as she was concerned, was truly dead. Now, she wondered vaguely why Powell had come to see her that day. Guilt, perhaps? Or something more? She’d never know. She found a message on her answering machine and played it. Her father, as she’d feared, was suffering his usual bout of winter bronchitis and his doctor wouldn’t let him go on an airplane for fear of what it would do to his sick lungs. And he didn’t feel at all like a bus or train trip, so Antonia would have to come home for Christmas, he said, or they’d each have to spend it alone. She sat down heavily on the floral couch she’d purchased at a local furniture store and sighed. She didn’t want to go home. If she could have found a reasonable excuse, she wouldn’t have, either. But it would be impossible to leave her father sick and alone on the holidays. With resolution, she picked up the telephone and booked a seat on the next commuter flight to Billings, where the nearest airport to Bighorn was located. Because Wyoming was so sparsely populated, it was lacking in airports. Powell Long, now wealthy and able to afford all the advantages, had an airstrip on his ranch. But there was nowhere in Bighorn that a commercial aircraft, even a commuter one, could land. She knew that Barrie’s stepbrother had a Learjet and that he had a landing strip near Bighorn on his own ranch, but she would never have presumed on Barrie’s good nature to ask for that sort of favor. Besides, she admitted to herself, she was as intimidated by Dawson Rutherford as Barrie was. He, like Powell, was high-powered and aggressively masculine. Antonia felt much safer seated on an impersonal commuter plane. She rented a car at the airport in Billings and, with the easy acceptance of long distances on the road from her time in Arizona, she set out for Bighorn. The countryside was lovely. There were scattered patches of snow, something she hadn’t thought about until it was too late and she’d already rented the car. There was snow on the ground in Billings, quite a lot of it, and although the roads were mostly clear, she was afraid of icy patches. She’d get out, somehow, she told herself. But she did wish that she’d had the forethought to ask her father about the local weather when she’d phoned to say she was leaving Tucson on an early-morning flight. But he was hoarse and she hadn’t wanted to stress his voice too much. He knew when she was due to arrive, though, and if she was too long overdue, she was certain that he’d send someone to meet her. She gazed lovingly at the snow-covered mountains, thinking of how she’d missed this country that was home to her, home to generations of her family. There was so much of her history locked into these sweeping mountain ranges and valleys, where lodgepole pines stood like sentinels over shallow, wide blue streams. The forests were green and majestic, looking much as they must have when mountain men plied their trade here. Arizona had her own forests, too, and mountains. But Wyoming was another world. It was home. The going got rough the closer to home she went. It was just outside Bighorn that her car slipped on a wide patch of ice and almost went into a ditch. She knew all too well that if she had, there would have been no way she could get the vehicle out, because the slope was too deep. With a prayer of thanks, she made it into the small town of Bighorn, past the Methodist Church and the post office and the meat locker building to her father’s big Victorian house on a wide street off the main thoroughfare. She parked in the driveway under a huge cottonwood tree. How wonderful to be home for Christmas! There was a decorated tree in the window, all aglow with the lights and ornaments that had been painstakingly purchased over a period of years. She looked at one, a crystal deer, and remembered painfully that Powell had given it to her the Christmas they’d become engaged. She’d thought of smashing it after his desertion, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The tiny thing was so beautiful, so fragile; like their destroyed relationship. So long ago. Her father came to the door in a bathrobe and pajamas, sniffling. He hugged her warmly. “I’m so glad you came, girl,” he said hoarsely, and coughed a little. “I’m much better, but the damn doctor wouldn’t let me fly!” “And rightly so,” she replied. “You don’t need pneumonia!” He grinned at her. “I reckon not. Can you stay until New Year’s?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I have to go back the day after Christmas.” She didn’t mention her upcoming doctor’s appointment. There was no need to worry him. “Well, you’ll be here for a week, anyway. We won’t get to go out much, I’m afraid, but we can keep each other company, can’t we?” “Yes, we can.” “Dawson said he might come by one evening,” he added surprisingly. “He’s just back from Europe, some convention or other he said he couldn’t miss.” “At least he never believed the gossip about George and me,” she said wistfully. “Why, he knew his father too well,” he replied simply. “George was a wonderful man. No wonder you and he were friends for so long.” “I miss him. I miss your mother, too, God rest her soul. She was the most important person in my life, next to you.” “You’re the most important person in mine,” she agreed, smiling. “It’s good to be home!” “Still enjoy teaching?” “More than ever,” she told him warmly. “There’s some good schools here,” he remarked. “They’re always short of teachers. And two of them are expecting babies any day. They’ll have problems getting supply teachers in for that short little period.” He eyed her. “You wouldn’t consider…?” “I like Tucson,” she said firmly. “The hell you do,” he muttered. “It’s Powell, isn’t it? Damn fool, listening to that scatterbrained woman in the first place! Well, he paid for it. She made his life hell.” “Would you like some coffee?” she asked, changing the subject. “Oh, I suppose so. And some soup. There’s some canned that Mrs. Harper made for me.” “Does she still live next door?” “She does,” he murmured with a wicked smile, “and she’s a widow herself. No need to ask why she brought the soup, is there?” “I like Mrs. Harper,” she said with a grin. “She and Mother were good friends, and she’s like family already. Just in case you wondered what I thought,” she added. “It’s only been a year, girl,” he said, and his eyes were sad. “Mother loved you too much to want you to go through life alone,” she said. “She wouldn’t want you to grieve forever.” He shrugged. “I’ll grieve as long as I please.” “Suit yourself. I’ll change clothes and then I’ll see about the soup and coffee.” “How’s Barrie?” her father asked when Antonia came out of her bedroom dressed in jeans and a white sweatshirt with golden sequined bells and red ribbon on it. “She’s just fine. Spunky as ever.” “Why didn’t you bring her with you?” “Because she’s juggling four boyfriends,” she said, chuckling as she went about warming soup. “Dawson won’t wait forever.” She glanced at him. “Is that what you think, too? She won’t talk about him.” “He won’t talk about her, either.” “What’s this rumor about him and the widow Holton?” He sat down in a chair at the table with a painful breath. “The widow Holton is redheaded and vivacious and a man-killer,” he said. “She’s after Dawson. And Powell Long. And any other man with money and a passable face.” “I see.” “You don’t remember her, do you? Came here before you went off to college, but she and her husband traveled a lot. She was some sort of actress. She’s been home more since he died.” “What does she do?” “For a living, you mean?” He chuckled and had to fight back a cough. “She’s living on her inheritance. Doesn’t have to do anything, lucky girl.” “I wouldn’t want to do nothing,” Antonia remarked thoughtfully. “I like teaching. It’s more than just a job.” “Some women aren’t made for purposeful employment.” “I guess not.” She finished heating the soup and poured the coffee she’d made. They ate in silence. “I wish your mother was here,” he said. She smiled sadly. “So do I.” “Well, we’ll make the most of what we have and thank God for it.” She nodded. “We have more than some people do.” He smiled, seeing her mother’s face in her own. “And a lot more than most,” he added. “I’m glad you came home for Christmas.” “So am I. Eat your soup.” She poured him some more, and thought that she was going to make this Christmas as happy for him as she could. Chapter Two (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) Dawson Rutherford was tall, lean and drop-dead gorgeous with blond, wavy hair and eyes that seemed to pierce skin. Even if he hadn’t been so handsome, his physical presence was more than enough to make him attractive, added to a deep voice that had the smoothness of velvet, even in anger. But he was as icy a man as she’d ever known, especially with women. At his father’s funeral, she’d actually seen him back away from a beautiful woman to avoid being touched. Odd, that, when she knew for a fact that he’d been quite a rounder with women in his checkered past. If Antonia hadn’t given her heart to Powell Long so many years before, she wouldn’t have minded setting her cap at Dawson, intimidating though he was. But he was plainly meant for another type of woman altogether. Barrie, perhaps. It was Christmas Eve, and he’d stopped by with a pipe for her father. Antonia walked him out a few minutes later. “Shame on you,” she muttered, pausing on the porch. Dawson’s green eyes twinkled. “He’ll get over the bronchitis. Besides, you know he won’t quit smoking, whether or not I give him a new pipe. You’ve tried and I’ve tried for years to break him. The best we can do is make him smoke it outdoors.” “I know that,” she agreed, and smiled. “Well, it was a nice gesture.” “Want to see what he gave me?” he asked, and produced a smooth silver lighter with inlaid turquoise. “I didn’t know you smoked,” she observed. “I don’t.” Her eyes widened. “I did, just briefly, smoke cigars.” He corrected himself. “I gave it up months ago. He doesn’t know, so don’t tell him.” “I won’t. But good for you!” she said approvingly. He shrugged. “I don’t know any smokers who don’t want to quit.” His eyes narrowed, and he watched her without blinking. “Except one, maybe.” She knew he was talking about Powell, who always had smoked cigars, and presumably still did. Her face began to close up. “Don’t say it.” “I won’t. You look tortured.” “It was nine years ago.” “Somebody should have shot him for the way he treated you,” he replied. “I’ve never liked him, but that didn’t win him any points with me. I loved my father. It was a low thing, for Sally to make him out a foolish old man with a lust for young girls.” “She wanted Powell.” His eyes narrowed. “She got him. But he made her pay for it, let me tell you. She took to alcohol because he left her alone so much, and from all accounts, he hated their daughter.” “But why?” Antonia asked, shocked. “Powell loved children, surely…!” “Sally trapped him with the child,” he replied. “Except for that, he’d have left her. Don’t you think he knew what a stupid thing he’d done? He knew the truth, almost from the day he married Sally.” “But he stayed with her.” “He had to. He was trying to build a ranch out of nothing, and this is a small town. How would it look for a man to walk out on a pregnant woman, or on his own newborn daughter?” He pursed his lips. “He hates you, you know,” he added surprisingly. “He hates you for not making him listen, for running. He blames his misery on you.” “He’s your worst enemy, so how do you know so much?” she retorted. “I have spies.” He sighed. “He can’t admit that the worst mistake was his own, that he wouldn’t believe Sally capable of such underhanded lies. It wasn’t until he married her that he realized how she’d conned him.” He shrugged. “She wasn’t a bad woman, really. She was in love and she couldn’t bear losing him, even to you. Love does crazy things to people.” “She destroyed my reputation, and your father’s, and made it impossible for me to live here,” Antonia said without pity. “She was my enemy, and he still is. Don’t think I’m harboring any tender feelings for him. I’d cut his throat given the slightest opportunity.” His eyebrows levered up. Antonia was a gentle soul herself for the most part, despite an occasional outburst of temper and a keen wit that surprised people. She hadn’t ever seemed vindictive, but she harbored a long-standing grudge against her former best friend, Sally. He couldn’t really blame her. He fingered the lighter her father had given him. “How’s Barrie?” he asked with deliberate carelessness. “Fending off suitors,” she said with a grin, her soft gray eyes twinkling. “She was juggling four of them when I left.” He laughed coldly. “Why doesn’t that surprise me? One man was never enough for her, even when she was a teenager.” She was curious about his antagonism toward Barrie. It seemed out of place. “Why do you hate her so?” she asked bluntly. He looked surprised. “I don’t…hate her,” he said. “I’m disappointed at the way she behaves, that’s all.” “She isn’t promiscuous,” she said, defending her colleague. “She may act that way, but it’s only an act. Don’t you know that?” He looked at the lighter, frowning slightly. “Maybe I know more than you think,” he said curtly. His eyes came up. “Maybe you’re the one wearing blinders.” “Maybe you’re seeing what you want to see,” she replied gently. He pocketed the lighter with a curt gesture. “I’d better go. I’ve got a deal cooking. I don’t want the client to get cold feet.” “Thanks for coming to see Dad. You cheered him up.” “He’s my friend.” He smiled. “So are you, even when you stick your nose in where you shouldn’t.” “Barrie’s my friend.” “Well, she’s not mine,” he said flatly. “Merry Christmas, Annie.” “You, too,” she replied with a warm smile. He was kind, in his way. She liked him, but she felt sorry for Barrie. He was a heartbreaker. And unless she missed her guess, Barrie was in love with him. His feelings were much less readable. After he left, she went back to join her father in the kitchen, where he was fixing hot chocolate in a double boiler. He glanced over his shoulder. “Did he leave?” “Yes. Can I help?” He shook his head. He poured hot chocolate into two mugs and nodded for her to take one while he put the boiler in water to soak. “He gave me a pipe,” he told her when they were seated at the small kitchen table, sipping the hot liquid. He grinned. “Didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve finally given it up.” “Dad!” She reached across and patted his hand. “Oh, that’s great news!” He chuckled. “Figured you’d like it. Maybe I won’t have so much trouble with my lungs from now on.” “Speaking of lungs,” she said, “you gave Dawson a lighter. Guess what he’s just given up, and didn’t have the heart to tell you?” He burst out laughing. “Well, maybe he can use it to light fires under his beef cattle when he throws barbecues out on the Rutherford spread.” “What a good idea! I’ll suggest it to him the next time we see him.” “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” he replied. “He travels a lot these days. I hardly ever see him.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “Powell came by last week.” Her heart fluttered, but her face was very composed. “Did he? Why?” “Heard I was sick and came to check on me. Wanted to know where you were.” Her frozen expression grew darker. “Did he?” “I told him you didn’t know about the bronchitis and that he should mind his own business.” “I see.” He sipped hot chocolate and put the mug down with a thud. “Had his daughter with him. Quiet, sullen little thing. She never moved a muscle the whole time, just sat and glared. She’s her mother all over.” Antonia was dying inside. She stared into her hot chocolate. That woman’s child, here, in her home! She could hardly bear the thought. It was like a violation to have Powell come here with that child. “You’re upset,” he said ruefully. “I guessed you would be, but I thought you’d better know. He said he’d be back to check on me after Christmas. Wouldn’t want him to just show up without my telling you he was expected sooner or later. Not that I invited him,” he added curtly. “Surprised me, too, that he’d come to see about me. Of course, he was fond of your mother. It hurt him that the scandal upset her so much and caused her to have that first heart attack. Anyway, he’s taken it upon himself to be my guardian angel. Even sent the doctor when I first got sick, conspired with Mrs. Harper next door to look after me.” He sounded disgusted, but he smiled, too. “That was nice of him,” she said, although Powell’s actions surprised her. “But thanks for warning me.” She forced a smile to her lips. “I’ll arrange to do something in the kitchen if he turns up.” “It’s been nine years,” he reminded her. “And you think I should have forgotten.” She nodded. “You forgive people, Dad. I used to, before all this. Perhaps I should be more charitable, but I can’t be. He and Sally made my life hell.” She stopped, dragging in a long breath. “No other suitors, in all that time,” he remarked. “No social life, no dating. Girl, you’re going to die an old maid, with no kids of your own, no husband, no real security.” “I enjoy my own company,” she said lightly. “And I don’t want a child.” That was a lie, but only a partial one. The children she had wanted were Powell’s, no one else’s. Christmas Day passed uneventfully, except for the meager gifts she and her father exchanged and their shared memories of her late mother to keep them company. The next day, she was packed and dressed for travel in a rose knit suit, her hair carefully coiffed, her long legs in hose and low-heeled shoes on her feet. Her burgundy velvet, full-length coat was slung over one arm, its dark lining gleaming in the overhead light, as she put her suitcase down and went to find her father to say goodbye. Voices from the living room caught her attention and she moved in that direction. But at the doorway, she froze in place, and in time. That deep, gravelly voice was as familiar as her own, despite the many years since she’d last heard it. And then a tall, lean man turned, and cast narrow black eyes on her face. Powell! She lifted her face slowly, not allowing a hint of emotion to show either in her posture or her eyes. She simply looked at him, reconciling this man in his thirties with the man who’d wanted to marry her. The memories were unfavorable, because he was definitely showing his age, in the new lines beside his mouth and eyes, in the silver that showed at his temples. He was doing his share of looking, too. The girl he’d jilted was no longer visible in this quiet, conservatively dressed woman with her hair in a bun. She looked schoolmarmish, and he was surprised that the sight of her was still like a knife through the heart, after all these years. He’d been curious about her. He’d wanted to see her again, God knew why. Maybe because she refused to see him at her mother’s funeral. Now here she was, and he wasn’t sure he was glad. The sight of her touched something sensitive that he’d buried inside himself. Antonia was the first to look away. The intensity of his gaze had left her shaking inside, but that reaction was quickly hidden. It would never do to show any weakness to him. “Sorry,” she told her father. “I didn’t realize you had company. If you’ll come and see me off, I’ll be on my way.” Her father looked uncomfortable. “Powell came by to see how I was doing.” “You’re leaving so soon?” Powell asked, addressing her directly for the first time in so many long years. “I have to report back to work earlier than the students,” she said, pleased that her voice was steady and cool. “Oh, yes. You teach, don’t you?” She couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Her gaze fell somewhere between his aggressive chin and his thin but sensuous mouth, below that straight, arrogant nose and the high cheekbones of his lean face. He wasn’t handsome, but five minutes after they met him, most women were enchanted with him. He had an intangible something, authority perhaps, in the sureness of his movements, even in the way he held his head. He was overwhelming. “I teach,” she agreed. Her eyes hadn’t quite met his. She turned to her father. “Dad?” He excused himself and came forward to hug her. “Be careful. Phone when you get there, to let me know that you made it all right, will you? It’s been snowing again.” “I’ll be fine. I have a phone in the car, if I get stuck.” “You’re driving to Arizona, in this weather?” Powell interrupted. “I’ve been driving in this weather most of my adult life,” she informed him. “You were terrified of slick roads when you were in your teens,” he recalled solemnly. She smiled coldly at him. “I’m not a teenager now.” The way she looked at him spoke volumes about her feelings. He didn’t avert his gaze, but his eyes were dark and quiet, full of secrets and seething accusation. “Sally left a letter for you,” he said unexpectedly. “I never got around to posting it. Over the years, I’d forgotten about it.” Her chest rose in a quick, angry breath. It reminded her of the letter that Sally had sent soon after Antonia had left town, the one she’d returned unopened. “Another one?” she asked in a frozen tone. “Well, I want nothing from your late wife, not even a letter.” He bristled. “She was your friend once,” he reminded her curtly. “She was my enemy.” She corrected him. “She ruined my reputation and all but killed my mother! Do you really believe I’d want any reminder of what she did?” He didn’t seem to move for a minute. His face hardened. “She did nothing to hurt you deliberately,” he said tersely. “Really? Will her good intentions bring back George Rutherford or my mother?” she demanded hotly, because George himself had died so soon after her mother had. “Will it erase all the gossip?” He turned away and bent his head to light a cigar, apparently unconcerned. Antonia fought for control. Her hands were icy cold as she picked up her suitcase and winced at her father’s worried expression. “I’ll phone you, Dad. Please take care of yourself,” she added. “You’re upset,” he said distractedly. “Wait a bit…” “I won’t…I can’t…” Her voice choked on the words and she averted her eyes from the long back of the man who was turned away from her. “Bye, Dad!” She was out the door in a flash, and within two minutes she’d loaded her cases into the trunk and opened the door. But before she could get in, Powell was towering over her. “Get a grip on yourself,” he said curtly, forcing her to look at him. “You won’t do your father any favors by landing in a ditch in the middle of nowhere!” She shivered at the nearness of him and deliberately backed away, her gray eyes wide, accusing. “You look so fragile,” he said, as if the words were torn from him. “Don’t you eat?” “I eat enough.” She steadied herself on the door. “Goodbye.” His big hand settled beside hers on the top of the door. “Why was Dawson Rutherford here a couple of nights ago?” The question was totally unexpected. “Is that your business?” she asked coldly. He smiled mockingly. “It could be. Rutherford’s father ruined mine, or didn’t you remember? I don’t intend to let his son ruin me.” “My father and George Rutherford were friends.” “And you and George were lovers.” She didn’t say a word. She only looked at him. “You know the truth,” she said wearily. “You just don’t want to believe it.” “George paid your way through college,” he reminded her. “Yes, he did,” she agreed, smiling. “And I rewarded him by graduating with honors, second in my graduating class. He was a philanthropist and the best friend my family ever had. I miss him.” “He was a rich old man with designs on you, whether you’ll admit it or not!” She searched his deep-set black eyes. They never smiled. He was a hard man, and the passing years had only added to his sarcastic, harsh demeanor. He’d grown up dirt poor, looked down on in the community because of his parents. He’d struggled to get where he was, and she knew how difficult it had been. But his hard life had warped his perception of people. He looked for the worst, always. She’d known that, somehow, even when they were first engaged. And now, he was the sum of all the tragedies of his life. She’d loved him so much, she’d tried to make up to him for the love he’d never had, the life his circumstances had denied him. But even while he was courting her, he’d loved Sally most. He’d told Antonia so, when he broke their engagement and called her a streetwalker with a price tag…. “You’re staring,” he said irritably, ramming his hands into the pockets of his dark slacks. “I was remembering the way you used to be, Powell,” she said simply. “You haven’t changed. You’re still the loner who never trusted anyone, who always expected people to do their worst.” “I believed in you,” he replied solemnly. She smiled. “No, you didn’t. If you had, you wouldn’t have swallowed Sally’s lies without—” “Damn you!” He had her by both shoulders, his cigar suddenly lying in the snow at their feet. He practically shook her, and she winced, because she was willow thin and he had the grip of a horseman, developed after long years of back-breaking ranch work long before he ever made any money at it. She looked up into blazing eyes and wondered dimly why she wasn’t afraid of him. He looked intimidating with his black eyes flashing and his straight black hair falling down over his thick eyebrows. “Sally didn’t lie!” he reiterated. “That’s the hell of it, Antonia! She was gentle and kind and she never lied to me. She cried when you had to leave town over what happened. She cried for weeks and weeks, because she hadn’t wanted to tell me what she knew about you and George! She couldn’t bear to see you two-timing me!” She pulled away from him with a strength she didn’t know she had. “She deserved to cry!” she said through her teeth. He called her a name that made her flush. She only smiled. “Sticks and stones, Powell,” she said in a steady, if husky, tone. “But if you say that again, you’ll get the same thing I gave you the summer after I started college.” He remembered very well the feel of her shoe on his shin. Even through his anger, he had to stifle a mental smile at the memory. Antonia had always had spirit. But he remembered other things, too; like her refusal to talk to him after her mother’s death, when he’d offered help. Sally had been long dead by then, but Antonia wouldn’t let him close enough to see if she still felt anything for him. She wouldn’t even now, and it caused him to lose his temper when he’d never meant to. She wouldn’t let go of the past. She wouldn’t give him a chance to find out if there was anything left of what they’d felt for each other. She didn’t care. The knowledge infuriated him. “Now, if you’re quite through insulting me, I have to go home,” she added firmly. “I could have helped, when your mother died,” he said curtly. “You wouldn’t even see me!” He sounded as if her refusal to speak to him had hurt. What a joke that would be. She didn’t look at him again. “I had nothing to say to you, and Dad and I didn’t want your help. One way or another, you had enough help from us to build your fortune.” He scowled. “What the hell do you mean by that?” She did look up, then, with a mocking little smile. “Have you forgotten already? Now if you’ll excuse me…?” He didn’t move. His big fists clenched by his sides as she just walked around him to get into the car. She started it, put it into Reverse, and pointedly didn’t look at him again, not even when she was driving off down the street toward the main highway. And if her hands shook, he couldn’t see them. He stood watching, his boots absorbing the freezing cold of the snow around them, snowflakes touching the wide brim of his creamy Stetson. He had no idea what she’d meant with that last crack. It made him furious that he couldn’t even get her to talk to him. Nine years. He’d smoldered for nine years with seething outrage and anger, and he couldn’t get the chance to air it. He wanted a knock-down, drag-out argument with her, he wanted to get everything in the open. He wanted…second chances. “Do you want some hot chocolate?” Ben Hayes called from the front door. Powell didn’t answer him for a minute. “No,” he said in a subdued tone. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.” Ben pulled his housecoat closer around him. “You can damn her until you die,” he remarked quietly. “But it won’t change one thing.” Powell turned and faced him with an expression that wasn’t easily read. “Sally didn’t lie,” he said stubbornly. “I don’t care what anyone says about it. Innocent people don’t run, and they both did!” Ben studied the tormented eyes in that lean face for a long moment. “You have to keep believing that, don’t you,” he asked coldly. “Because if you don’t, you’ve got nothing at all to show for the past nine years. The hatred you’ve saved up for Antonia is all that’s left of your life!” Powell didn’t say another word. He strode angrily back to his four-wheel-drive vehicle and climbed in under the wheel. Chapter Three (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) Antonia made it back to Tucson without a hitch, although there had been one or two places along the snow-covered roads that gave her real problems. She was shaken, but it never affected her driving. Powell Long had destroyed enough of her life. She wasn’t going to give him possession of one more minute of it, not even through hatred. She kept busy for the remainder of her vacation and spent New Year’s Eve by herself, with only a brief telephone call to her father for company. They didn’t mention Powell. Barrie stopped by on New Year’s Day, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and trying not to look interested in Dawson’s visit to Antonia’s father’s house. It was always the same, though. Whenever Antonia went to Wyoming, Barrie would wait patiently until her friend said something about Dawson. Then she pretended that she wasn’t interested and changed the subject. But this time, she didn’t. She searched Antonia’s eyes. “Does he…look well?” she asked. “He’s fine,” Antonia replied honestly. “He’s quit smoking, so that’s good news.” “Did he mention the widow?” Antonia smiled sympathetically and shook her head. “He doesn’t have much to do with women, Barrie. In fact, Dad says they call him ‘the iceman’ around Bighorn. They’re still looking for a woman who can thaw him out.” “Dawson?” Barrie burst out. “But he’s always had women hanging on him…!” “Not these days. Apparently all he’s interested in is making money.” Barrie looked shocked. “Since when?” “I don’t know. For the past few years at least,” Antonia replied, frowning. “He’s your stepbrother. You’d know more about that than I would. Wouldn’t you?” Barrie averted her eyes. “I don’t see him. I don’t go home.” “Yes, I know, but you must hear about him….” “Only from you,” the other woman said stiffly. “I don’t…we don’t have any mutual friends.” “Doesn’t he ever come to see you?” Barrie went pale. “He wouldn’t.” She bit off the words and forced a smile to her face. “We’re poison to each other, didn’t you know?” She looked at her watch. “I’m going to a dance. Want to come?” Antonia shook her head. “Not me. I’m too tired. I’ll see you back at work.” “Sure. You look worse than you did when you left. Did you see Powell?” Antonia flinched. “Sorry,” came the instant reply. “Listen, don’t tell me anything about Dawson even if I beg, and I swear I won’t mention Powell again, okay? I’m really sorry. I suppose we both have wounds too raw to expose. See you!” Barrie left, and Antonia quickly found something to do, so that she wouldn’t have to think any more about Powell. But, oh, it was hard. He’d literally jilted her the day before the wedding. The invitations had been sent out, the church booked, the minister ready to officiate at the ceremony. Antonia had a dress from Neiman Marcus, a heavenly creation that George had helped her buy—which had become part of the fiasco when she admitted it to Powell. And then, out of the blue, Sally had dropped her bombshell. She’d told Powell that George Rutherford was Antonia’s sugar daddy and he was paying for her body. Everyone in Bighorn knew it. They probably did, Sally had worked hard enough spreading the rumor. The gossip alone was enough to send Powell crazy. He’d turned on Antonia in a rage and canceled the wedding. She didn’t like remembering the things he’d said to her. Some of the guests didn’t get notified in time and came to the church, expecting a wedding. Antonia had had to face them and tell them the sad news. She had been publicly humiliated, and then there was the scandal that involved poor George. He’d had to move back to Sheridan, to the headquarters ranch of the Rutherford chain. It had been a shame, because the Rutherford Bighorn Ranch had been his favorite. He’d escaped a lot of the censure and spared Antonia some of it, especially when he exiled himself to France. But Antonia and her father and mother got the whole measure of local outrage. Denial did no good, because how could she defend herself against knowing glances and haughty treatment? The gossip had hurt her mother most, leaving her virtually isolated from most of the people who knew her. She’d had a mild heart attack from the treatment of her only child as a social outcast. Ironically that had seemed to bring some people to their senses, and the pressure had been eased a bit. But Antonia had left town very quickly, to spare her mother any more torment, taking her broken heart with her. Perhaps if Powell had thought it through, if the wedding hadn’t been so near, the ending might have been different. He’d always been quick-tempered and impulsive. He hated being talked about. Antonia knew that at least three people had talked to him about the rumors, and one of them was the very minister who was to marry them. Later, Antonia had discovered that they were all friends of Sally and her family. To be fair to Powell, he’d had more than his share of public scandal. His father had been a hopeless gambler who lost everything his mother slaved at housekeeping jobs to provide. In the end he’d killed himself when he incurred a debt he knew he’d never be able to repay. Powell had watched his mother be torn apart by the gossip, and eventually her heart wore out and she simply didn’t wake up one morning. Antonia had comforted Powell. She’d gone to the funeral home with him and held his hand all through the ordeal of giving up the mother he’d loved. Perhaps grief had challenged his reason, because although he’d hidden it well, the loss had destroyed something in him. He’d never quite recovered from it, and Sally had been behind the scenes, offering even more comfort when Antonia wasn’t around. Susceptible to her soft voice, perhaps he’d listened when he shouldn’t have. But in the end, he’d believed Sally, and he’d married her. He’d never said he loved Antonia, and it had been just after they’d become engaged that Powell had managed several loans, on the strength of her father’s excellent references, to get the property he’d inherited out of hock. He was just beginning to make it pay when he’d called off the wedding. The pain was like a knife. She’d loved Powell more than her own life. She’d been devastated by his defection. The only consolation she’d had was that she’d put him off physically until after the wedding. Perhaps that had hurt him most, thinking that she was sleeping with poor old George when she wouldn’t go to bed with him. Who knew? She couldn’t go back and do things differently. She could only go forward. But the future looked much more bleak than the past. She went back to work in the new year, apparently rested and unworried. But the doctor’s appointment was still looming at the end of her first week after she started teaching. She didn’t expect them to find anything. She was run-down and tired all the time, and she’d lost a lot of weight. Probably she needed vitamins or iron tablets or something. When the doctor ordered a blood test, a complete blood count, she went along to the lab and sat patiently while they worked her in and took blood for testing. Then she went home with no particular intuition about what was about to happen. It was early Monday morning when she had a call at work from the doctor’s office. They asked her to come in immediately. She was too frightened to ask why. She left her class to the sympathetic vice principal and went right over to Dr. Claridge’s office. They didn’t make her wait, either. She was hustled right in, no appointment, no nothing. He got up when she entered his office and shook hands. “Sit down, Antonia. I’ve got the lab results from your blood test. We have to make some quick decisions.” “Quick…?” Her heart was beating wildly. She could barely breathe. She was aware of her cold hands gripping her purse like a life raft. “What sort of decisions?” He leaned forward, his forearms on his legs. “Antonia, we’ve known each other for several years. This isn’t an easy thing to tell someone.” He grimaced. “My dear, you’ve got leukemia.” She stared at him without comprehension. Leukemia. Wasn’t that cancer? Wasn’t it…fatal? Her breath suspended in midair. “I’m…going to die?” she asked in a hoarse whisper. “No,” he replied. “Your condition is treatable. You can undergo a program of chemotherapy and radiation, which will probably keep it in remission for some years.” Remission. Probably. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Her aunt had died of cancer when Antonia was a little girl. She remembered with terror the therapy’s effects on her aunt. Headaches, nausea… She stood up. “I can’t think.” Dr. Claridge stood up, too. He took her hands in his. “Antonia, it isn’t necessarily a death sentence. We can start treatment right away. We can buy time for you.” She swallowed, closing her eyes. She’d been worried about her argument with Powell, about the anguish of the past, about Sally’s cruelty and her own torment. And now she was going to die, and what did any of that matter? She was going to die! “I want…to think about it,” she said huskily. “Of course you do. But don’t take too long, Antonia,” he said gently. “All right?” She managed to nod. She thanked him, followed the nurse out to reception, paid her bill, smiled at the girl and walked out. She didn’t remember doing any of it. She drove back to her apartment, closed the door and collapsed right there on the floor in tears. Leukemia. She had a deadly disease. She’d expected a future, and now, instead, there was going to be an ending. There would be no more Christmases with her father. She wouldn’t marry and have children. It was all…over. When the first of the shock passed, and she’d exhausted herself crying, she got up and made herself a cup of coffee. It was a mundane, ordinary thing to do. But now, even such a simple act had a poignancy. How many more cups would she have time to drink in what was left of her life? She smiled at her own self-pity. That wasn’t going to do her any good. She had to decide what to do. Did she want to prolong the agony, as her aunt had, until every penny of her medical insurance ran out, until she bankrupted herself and her father, put herself and him through the long drawn-out treatments when she might still lose the battle? What quality of life would she have if she suffered as her aunt had? She had to think not what was best for her, but what was best for her father. She wasn’t going to rush into treatment until she was certain that she had a chance of surviving. If she was only going to be able to keep it at bay for a few painful months, then she had some difficult decisions to make. If only she could think clearly! She was too shocked to be rational. She needed time. She needed peace. Suddenly, she wanted to go home. She wanted to be with her father, at her home. She’d spent her life running away. Now, when things were so dire, it was time to face the past, to reconcile herself with it, and with the community that had unjustly judged her. There would be time left for that, to tie up all the loose ends, to come to grips with her own past. Her old family doctor, Dr. Harris, was still in Bighorn. She’d get Dr. Claridge to send him her medical files and she’d go from there. Perhaps Dr. Harris might have some different ideas about how she could face the ordeal. If nothing could be done, then at least she could spend her remaining time with the only family she had left. Once the decision was made, she acted on it at once. She turned in her resignation and told Barrie that her father needed her at home. “You didn’t say that when you first came back,” Barrie said suspiciously. “Because I was thinking about it,” she lied. She smiled. “Barrie, he’s so alone. And it’s time I went back and faced my dragons. I’ve been running too long already.” “But what will you do?” Barrie asked. “I’ll get a job as a relief teacher. Dad said that two of the elementary school teachers were expecting and they didn’t know what they’d do for replacements. Bighorn isn’t exactly Tucson, you know. It’s not that easy to get teachers who are willing to live at the end of the world.” Barrie sighed. “You really have thought this out.” “Yes. I’ll miss you. But maybe you’ll come back one day,” she added. “And fight your own dragons.” Barrie shivered. “Mine are too big to fight,” she said with an enigmatic smile. “But I’ll root for you. What can I help you do?” “Pack,” came the immediate reply. As fate would have it, when she contacted her old school system in Bighorn, one of the pregnant teachers had just had to go into the hospital with toxemia and they needed a replacement desperately for a fourth-grade class. It was just what Antonia wanted, and she accepted gratefully. Best of all, there had been no discussion of the reason she’d left town in the first place. Some people would remember, but she had old friends there, too, friends who wouldn’t hold grudges. Powell would be there. She refused to even entertain the idea that he had any place in her reasons for wanting to go home. She arrived in Bighorn with mixed emotions. It made her feel wonderful to see her father’s delighted expression when he was told she was coming back there to live permanently. But she felt guilty, too, because he couldn’t know the real reason for her return. “We’ll have plenty of time to visit, now,” she said. “Arizona was too hot to suit me, anyway,” she added mischievously. “Well, if you like snow, you’ve certainly come home at a good time,” he replied, grinning at the five feet or so that lay in drifts in the front yard. Antonia spent the weekend unpacking and then went along to work the following Monday. She liked the principal, a young woman with very innovative ideas about education. She remembered two of her fellow teachers, who had been classmates of hers in high school, and neither of them seemed to have any misgivings about her return. She liked her class, too. She spent the first day getting to know the children’s names. But one of them hit her right in the heart. Maggie Long. It could have been a coincidence. But when she called the girl’s name and a sullen face with blue eyes and short black hair looked up at her, she knew right away who it was. That was Sally’s face, except for the glare. The glare was Powell all over again. She lifted her chin and stared at the child. She passed over her and went on down the line until she reached Julie Ames. She smiled at Julie, who smiled back sweetly. She remembered Danny Ames from school, too, and his redheaded daughter was just like him. She’d have known Danny’s little girl anywhere. She pulled out her predecessor’s lesson plan and looked over it before she took the spelling book and began making assignments. “One other thing I’d like you to do for Friday is write a one-page essay about yourselves,” she added with a smile. “So that I can learn something about you, since I’ve come in the middle of the year instead of the first.” Julie raised her hand. “Miss Hayes, Mrs. Donalds always assigned one of us to be class monitor when she was out of the room. Whoever she picked got to do it for a week, and then someone else did. Are you going to do that, too?” “I think that’s a good idea, Julie. You can be our monitor for this week,” she added pleasantly. “Thanks, Miss Hayes!” Julie said enthusiastically. Behind her, Maggie Long glared even more. The child acted as if she hated Antonia, and for a minute, Antonia wondered if she knew about the past. But, then, how could she? She was being fanciful. She dismissed the class at quitting time. It had been nice to have her mind occupied, not to have to think about herself. But with the end of the day came the terror again. And she still hadn’t talked to Dr. Harris. She made an appointment to see him when she got home, smiling at her father as she told him glibly that it was only because she needed some vitamins. Dr. Harris, however, was worried when she told him Dr. Claridge’s diagnosis. “You shouldn’t wait,” he said flatly. “It’s always best to catch these things early. Come here, Antonia.” He examined her neck with skilled hands, his eyes on the wall behind her. “Swollen lymph nodes, all right. You’ve lost weight?” he asked as he took her pulse. “Yes. I’ve been working rather hard,” she said lamely. “Sore throat?” She hesitated and then nodded. He let out a long sigh. “I’ll have him fax me your medical records,” he said. “There’s a specialist in Sheridan who’s done oncology,” he added. “But you should go back to Tucson, Antonia.” “Tell me what to expect,” she said instead. He was reluctant, but when she insisted, he drew in a deep breath and told her. She sat back in her chair, pale and restless. “You can fight it,” he persisted. “You can hold it at bay.” “For how long?” “Some people have been in remission for twenty-five years.” She narrowed her eyes as she gazed at him. “But you don’t really believe I’ll have twenty-five years.” His jaw firmed. “Antonia, medical research is progressing at a good pace. There’s always, always, the possibility that a cure will be discovered….” She held up a hand. “I don’t want to have to decide today,” she said wearily. “I just need…a little time,” she added with a pleading smile. “Just a little time.” He looked as if he were biting his tongue to keep from arguing with her. “All right. A little time,” he said emphatically. “I’ll look after you. Perhaps when you’ve considered the options, you’ll go ahead with the treatment, and I’ll do everything I can. But, Antonia,” he added as he stood up to show her out, “there aren’t too many miracles in this business where cancer is concerned. If you’re going to fight, don’t wait too long.” “I won’t.” She shook hands and left the office. She felt more at peace with herself now than she could ever remember feeling. Somehow in the course of accepting the diagnosis, she’d accepted something much more. She was stronger now. She could face whatever she had to. She was so glad she’d come home. Fate had dealt her some severe blows, but being home helped her to withstand the worst of them. She had to believe that fate would be kinder to her now that she was home. But if fate had kind reasons for bringing her back to Bighorn, Maggie Long wasn’t one of them. The girl was unruly, troublesome and refused to do her schoolwork at all. By the end of the week, Antonia kept her after class and showed her the zero she’d earned for her nonattempt at the spelling test. There was another one looming, because Maggie hadn’t done one word of the essay Antonia had assigned the class to write. “If you want to repeat the fourth grade, Maggie, this is a good start,” she said coolly. “If you won’t do your schoolwork, you won’t pass.” “Mrs. Donalds wasn’t mean like you,” the girl said snappily. “She never made us write stupid essays, and if there was a test, she always helped me study for it.” “I have thirty-five students in this class,” Antonia heard herself saying. “Presumably you were placed in this grade because you were capable of doing the work.” “I could do it if I wanted to,” Maggie said. “I just don’t want to. And you can’t make me, either!” “I can fail you,” came the terse, uncompromising reply. “And I will, if you keep this up. You have one last chance to escape a second zero for the essay you haven’t done. You can do it over the weekend and turn it in Monday.” “My daddy’s coming home today,” she said haughtily. “I’m going to tell him that you’re mean to me, and he’ll come and cuss you out, you just wait and see!” “What will he see, Maggie?” she asked flatly. “What does it say about you if you won’t do your work?” “I’m not lazy!” “Then do your assignment.” “Julie didn’t do all of her test, and you didn’t give her a zero!” “Julie doesn’t work as fast as some of the other students. I take that into account,” Antonia explained. “You like Julie,” she accused. “That’s why you never act mean to her! I’ll bet you wouldn’t give her a zero if she didn’t do her homework!” “This has nothing to do with your ability to do your work,” Antonia interrupted. “And I’m not going to argue with you. Either do your homework or don’t do it. Now run along.” Maggie gave her a furious glare. She jerked up her books and stomped out of the room, turning at the door. “You wait until I tell my daddy! He’ll get you fired!” Antonia lifted an eyebrow. “It will take more than your father to do that, Maggie.” The girl jerked open the door. “I hate you! I wish you’d never come here!” she yelled. She ran down the hallway and Antonia sat back and caught her breath. The child was a holy terror. She was a little surprised that she was so unlike her mother in that one way. Sally, for all her lying, had been sweet in the fourth grade, an amiable child, not a horror like Maggie. Sally. The name hurt. Just the name. Antonia had come home to exorcise her ghosts and she wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Maggie was making her life miserable. Perhaps Powell would interfere, at least enough to get his daughter to do her homework. She hated that it had come to this, but she hadn’t anticipated the emotions Maggie’s presence in her class had unleashed. She was sorry that she couldn’t like the child. She wondered if anyone did. She seemed little more than a sullen, resentful brat. Powell probably adored the child and gave her everything she wanted. But she did ride the bus to and from school and more often than not, she showed up for class in torn jeans and stained sweatshirts. Was that deliberate, and didn’t her father notice that some of her things weren’t clean? Surely he had a housekeeper or someone to take care of such things. She knew that Maggie had been staying with Julie this week, because Julie had told her so. The little redheaded Ames girl was the sweetest child Antonia had ever known, and she adored her. She really was the image of her father, who’d been in Antonia’s group of friends in school here in Bighorn. She’d told Julie that, and the child had been a minor celebrity for a day. It gave her something to be proud of, that her father and her teacher had been friends. Maggie hadn’t liked that. She’d given Julie the cold shoulder yesterday and they weren’t speaking today. Antonia wondered at their friendship, because Julie was outgoing and generous, compassionate and kind…all the things Maggie wasn’t. Probably the child saw qualities in Julie that she didn’t have and liked her for them. But what in the world did Julie see in Maggie? Chapter Four (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) Powell Long came home from his cattle-buying trip worn out from the long hours on the plane and the hectic pace of visiting three ranches in three states in less than a week. He could have purchased his stud cattle after watching a video, and he sometimes did if he knew the seller, but he was looking over new territory for his stock additions, and he wanted to inspect the cattle in person before he made the acquisition. It was a good thing he had, because one of the ranches had forwarded a video that must have been of someone else’s cattle. When he toured the ranch, he found the stock were underfed, and some were lacking even the basic requirements for good breeding bulls. Still, it had been a profitable trip. He’d saved several thousand dollars on seed bulls simply by going to visit the ranchers in person. Now he was home again and he didn’t want to be. His house, like his life, was full of painful memories. Here was where Sally had lived, where her daughter still lived. He couldn’t look at Maggie without seeing her mother. He bought the child expensive toys, whatever her heart desired. But he couldn’t give her love. He didn’t think he had it in him to love the product of such a painful marriage. Sally had cost him the thing he’d loved most in all the world. She’d cost him Antonia. Maggie was sitting alone in the living room with a book. She looked up when he entered the room with eyes that avoided his almost at once. “Did you bring me something?” she asked dully. He always did. It was just one more way of making her feel that she was important to him, but she knew better. He didn’t even know what she liked, or he wouldn’t bring her silly stuffed toys and dolls. She liked to read, but he hadn’t noticed. She also liked nature films and natural history. He never brought her those sort of things. He didn’t even know who she was. “I brought you a new Barbie,” he said. “It’s in my suitcase.” “Thanks,” she said. Never a smile. Never laughter. She was a little old woman in a child’s body, and looking at her made him feel guilty. “Where’s Mrs. Bates?” he asked uncomfortably. “In the kitchen cooking,” she said. “How’s school?” She closed the book. “We got a new teacher last week. She doesn’t like me,” she said. “She’s mean to me.” His eyebrows lifted. “Why?” She shrugged, her thin shoulders rising and falling restlessly. “I don’t know. She likes everybody else. She glares at me all the time. She gave me a zero on my test, and she’s going to give me another zero on my homework. She says I’m going to fail fourth grade.” He was shocked. Maggie had always made good grades. One thing she did seem to have was a keen intelligence, even if her perpetual frown and introverted nature made her enemies. She had no close friends, except for Julie. He’d left Maggie with Julie’s family, in fact, last week. They were always willing to keep her while he was out of town. He glowered at her. “Why are you here instead of at Julie’s house?” he demanded suddenly. “I told them you were coming home and I wanted to be here, because you always bring me something,” she said. “Oh.” She didn’t add that Julie’s friendship with the detestable Miss Hayes had caused friction, or that they’d had a terrible argument just this morning, precipitating Maggie’s return home. Fortunately Mrs. Bates was working in the house, so that it was possible for her to be here. “The new teacher likes Julie,” she said sullenly. “But she hates me. She says I’m lazy and stupid.” “She says what?” That was the first time her father had ever reacted in such a way, as if it really mattered to him that someone didn’t like her. She looked at him fully, seeing that angry flash of his black eyes that always meant trouble for somebody. Her father intimidated her. But, then, he intimidated everyone. He didn’t like most people any more than she did. He was introverted himself, and he had a bad temper and a sarcastic manner when people irritated him. Over the years Maggie had discovered that she could threaten people with her father, and it always worked. Locally he was a legend. Most of her teachers had bent over backward to avoid confrontations with him. Maggie learned quickly that she didn’t have to study very hard to make good grades. Not that she wasn’t bright; she simply didn’t try, because she didn’t need to. She smiled. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thought, if she could use him against Miss Hayes? “She says I’m lazy and stupid,” she repeated. “What’s this teacher’s name?” he asked coldly. “Miss Hayes.” He was very still. “Antonia Hayes?” he asked curtly. “I don’t know her first name. She came on account of Mrs. Donalds quit,” she said. “Mrs. Donalds was my friend. I miss her.” “When did Miss Hayes get here?” he asked, surprised that he’d heard nothing about her returning to Bighorn. Of course, he’d been out of town for a week, too. “I told you—last week. They said she used to live here.” She studied his hard face. It looked dangerous. “Did she, Daddy?” “Yes,” he said with icy contempt. “Yes, she used to live here. Well, we’ll see how Miss Hayes handles herself with another adult,” he added. He went to the telephone and picked it up and dialed the principal of the Bighorn Elementary School. Mrs. Jameson was surprised to hear Powell Long on the other end of the phone. She’d never known him to interfere in school matters before, even when Maggie was up to her teeth in trouble with another student. “I want to know why you permit an educator to tell a child that she’s lazy and stupid,” he demanded. There was a long pause. “I beg your pardon?” the principal asked, shocked. “Maggie said that Miss Hayes told her she was lazy and stupid,” he said shortly. “I want that teacher talked to, and talked to hard. I don’t want to have to come up there myself. Is that clear?” Mrs. Jameson knew Powell Long. She was intimidated enough to agree that she’d speak to Antonia on Monday. And she did. Reluctantly. “I had a call from Maggie Long’s father Friday afternoon after you left,” Mrs. Jameson told Antonia, who was sitting rigidly in front of her in her office. “I don’t believe for a minute that you’d deliberately make insulting remarks to that child. Heaven knows, every teacher in this school except Mrs. Donalds has had trouble with her, although Mr. Long has never interfered. It’s puzzling that he would intervene, and that Maggie would say such things about you.” “I haven’t called her stupid,” Antonia said evenly. “I have told her that if she refuses to do her homework and write down the answers on tests, she will be given a failing grade. I’ve never made a policy of giving undeserved marks, or playing favorites.” “I’m sure you haven’t,” Mrs. Jameson replied. “Your record in Tucson is spotless. I even spoke to your principal there, who was devastated to have lost you. He speaks very highly of your intelligence and your competence.” “I’m glad. But I don’t know what to do about Maggie,” she continued. “She doesn’t like me. I’m sorry about that, but I don’t know what I can do to change her attitude. If she could only be helpful like her friend Julie,” she added. “Julie is a first-rate little student.” “Everyone loves Julie,” the principal agreed. She folded her hands on her desk. “I have to ask you this, Antonia. Is it possible that unconsciously you might be taking out old hurts on Maggie? I know that you were engaged to her father once…. It’s a small town,” she added apologetically when Antonia stiffened, “and one does hear gossip. I also know that Maggie’s mother broke you up and spread some pretty terrible lies about you in the community.” “There are people who still don’t think they were lies,” Antonia replied tersely. “My mother eventually died because of the pressure and censure the community put on her because of them.” “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.” “She had a bad heart. I left town, to keep the talk to a minimum, but she never got over it.” Her head lifted, and she forced a weak smile. “I was innocent of everything I had been accused of, but I paid the price anyway.” Mrs. Jameson looked torn. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.” “Yes, you should,” Antonia replied. “You had the right to know if I was deliberately persecuting a student. I despised Sally for what she did to me, and I have no more love for Maggie’s father than for his late wife. But I hope I’m not such a bad person that I’d try to make a child suffer for something she didn’t do.” “Nor do I believe you would, consciously,” Mrs. Jameson replied. “It’s a touchy situation, though. Mr. Long has enormous influence in the community. He’s quite wealthy and his temper is legendary in these parts. He has no compunction about making scenes in public, and he threatened to come up here himself if this situation isn’t resolved.” She laughed a little unsteadily. “Miss Hayes, I’m forty-five years old. I’ve worked hard all my life to achieve my present status. It would be very difficult for me to find another job if I lost this one, and I have an invalid husband to support and a son in college. I plead with you not to put my job in jeopardy.” “I never would do that,” Antonia promised. “I’d quit before I’d see an innocent person hurt by my actions. But Mr. Long is very wrong about the way his daughter is being treated. In fact, she’s causing the problems. She refuses to do her work and she knows that I can’t force her to.” “She certainly does. She’ll go to her father, and he’ll light fires under members of the school board. I believe at least one of them owes him money, in fact, and the other three are afraid of him.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll tell you flat that I’m afraid of him, myself.” “No freedom of speech in these parts, I gather?” “If your freedom impinges on his prejudices, no, there isn’t,” Mrs. Jameson agreed. “He’s something of a tyrant in his way. We certainly can’t fault him for being concerned about his child, though.” “No,” Antonia agreed. She sighed. Her own circumstances were tenuous, to say the least. She had her own problems and fear gnawed at her all the time. She wasn’t afraid of Powell Long, though. She was more afraid of what lay ahead for her. “You will try…about Maggie?” Mrs. Jameson added. Antonia smiled. “Certainly I will. But may I come to you if the problem doesn’t resolve itself and ask for help?” “If there’s any to give, you may.” She grimaced. “I have my own doubts about Maggie’s cooperation. And we both have a lot to lose if her father isn’t happy.” “Do you want me to pass her anyway?” Antonia asked. “To give her grades she hasn’t earned, because her father might be upset if she fails?” Mrs. Jameson flushed. “I can’t tell you to do that, Miss Hayes. We’re supposed to educate children, not pass them through favoritism.” “I know that,” Antonia said. “But you wondered if I did,” came the dry reply. “Yes, I do. But I’m job scared. When you’re my age, Miss Hayes,” she added gently, “I can guarantee that you will be, too.” Antonia’s eyes were steady and sad. She knew that she might never have the problem; she might not live long enough to have it. She thanked Mrs. Jameson and went back to her classroom, morose and dejected. Maggie watched her as she sat down at her desk and instructed the class to proceed with their English lesson. She didn’t look very happy. Her father must have shaken them up, Maggie thought victoriously. Well, she wasn’t going to do that homework or do those tests. And when she failed, her father would come storming up here, because he never doubted his little girl’s word. He’d have Miss Hayes on the run in no time. Then maybe Mrs. Donalds would have her baby and come back, and everything would be all right again. She glared at Julie, who just ignored her. She was sick of Julie, kissing up to Miss Hayes. Julie was a real sap. Maggie wasn’t sure who she disliked more—Julie or Miss Hayes. There was one nice touch, and that was that Miss Hayes coolly told her that she had until Friday to turn in her essay and the other homework that Antonia had assigned the class. The next four days went by, and Antonia asked for homework papers to be turned in that she’d assigned at the beginning of the week. Maggie didn’t turn hers in. “You’ll get a zero if you don’t have all of it by this afternoon, including the essay you owe me,” Antonia told her, dreading the confrontation she knew was coming, despite all her hopes. She’d done her best to treat Maggie just like the other students, but the girl challenged her at every turn. “No, I won’t,” Maggie said with a surly smile. “If you give me a zero, I’ll tell my daddy, and he’ll come up here.” Antonia studied the sullen little face. “And you think that frightens me?” “Everybody’s scared of my dad,” she returned proudly. “Well, I’m not,” Antonia said coldly. “Your father can come up here if he likes and I’ll tell him the same thing I’ve told you. If you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. And there’s nothing he can do about it.” “Oh, really?” Antonia nodded. “Oh, really. And if you don’t turn in your homework by the time the final bell sounds, you’ll find out.” “So will you,” Maggie replied. Antonia refused to argue with the child. But when the end of class came and Maggie didn’t turn the homework in, she put a zero neatly next to the child’s name. “Take this paper home, please,” she told the child, handing her a note with her grade on it. Maggie took it. She smiled. And she didn’t say a word as she went out the door. Miss Hayes didn’t know that her daddy was picking her up today. But she was about to find out. Antonia had chores to finish before she could go home. She didn’t doubt that Powell would be along. But she wasn’t going to back down. She had nothing to lose now. Even her job wasn’t that important if it meant being blackmailed by a nine-year-old. Sure enough, it was only minutes since class was dismissed and she was clearing her desk when she heard footsteps coming down the hall. Only a handful of teachers would still be in the building, but those particular steps were heavy and forceful, and she knew who they belonged to. She turned as the door opened and a familiar tall figure came into the room with eyes as dark as death. He didn’t remove his hat, or exchange greetings. In his expensive suit and boots and Stetson, he looked very prosperous. But her eyes were seeing a younger man, a ragged and lonely young man who never fit in anywhere, who dreamed of not being poor. Sometimes she remembered that young man and loved him with a passion that even in dreams was overpowering. “I’ve been expecting you,” she said, putting the past away in the back drawers of her mind. “She did get a zero, and she deserved it. I gave her all week to produce her homework, and she didn’t.” “Oh, hell, you don’t have to pretend noble motives. I know why you’re picking on the kid. Well, lay off Maggie,” he said shortly. “You’re here to teach, not to take out old grudges on my daughter.” She was sitting at her desk. She folded her hands together on its worn surface and simply stared at him, unblinking. “Your daughter is going to fail this grade,” she said composedly. “She won’t participate in class discussions, she won’t do any homework, and she refuses to even attempt answers on pop tests. I’m frankly amazed that she’s managed to get this far in school at all.” She smiled coldly. “I understand from the principal, who is also intimidated by you, that you have the influence to get anyone fired who doesn’t pass her.” His face went rigid. “I don’t need to use any influence! She’s a smart child.” She opened her desk drawer, took out Maggie’s last test paper and slid it across the desk to him. “Really?” she asked. He moved into the classroom, to the desk. His lean, dark hand shot down to retrieve the paper. He looked at it with narrow, deep-set eyes, black eyes that were suddenly piercing on Antonia’s face. “She didn’t write anything on this,” he said. She nodded, taking it back. “She sat with her arms folded, giving me a haughty smile the whole time, and she didn’t move a muscle for the full thirty minutes.” “She hasn’t acted that way before.” “I wouldn’t know. I’m new here.” He stared at her angrily. “And you don’t like her.” She searched his cold eyes. “You really think I came all the way back to Wyoming to take out old resentments on Sally’s daughter?” she asked, and hated the guilt she felt when she asked the question. She knew she wasn’t being fair to Maggie, but the very sight of the child was like torture. “Sally’s and mine,” he reminded her, as if he knew how it hurt her to remember. She felt sick to her stomach. “Excuse me. Sally’s and yours,” she replied obligingly. He nodded slowly. “Yes, that’s what really bothers you, isn’t it?” he said, almost to himself. “It’s because she looks just like Sally.” “She’s her image,” she agreed flatly. “And you still hate her, after all this time.” Her hands clenched together. She didn’t drop her gaze. “We were talking about your daughter.” “Maggie.” “Yes.” “You can’t even bring yourself to say her name, can you?” He perched himself on the edge of her desk. “I thought teachers were supposed to be impartial, to teach regardless of personal feelings toward their students.” “We are.” “You aren’t doing it,” he continued. He smiled, but it wasn’t the sort of smile that comforted. “Let me tell you something, Antonia. You came home. But this is my town. I own half of it, and I know everybody on the school board. If you want to stay here, and teach here, you’d better be damn sure that you maintain an impartial attitude toward all the students.” “Especially toward your daughter?” she asked. He nodded. “I see you understand.” “I won’t treat her unfairly, but I won’t play favorites, either,” she said icily. “She’s going to receive no grades that she doesn’t earn in my classroom. If you want to get me fired, go ahead.” “Oh, hell, I don’t want your job,” he said abruptly. “It doesn’t matter to me if you stay here with your father. I don’t even care why you suddenly came back. But I won’t have my daughter persecuted for something that she didn’t do! She has nothing to do with the past.” “Nothing?” Her eyes glittered up into his. “Sally was pregnant with that child when you married her, and she was born seven months later,” she said huskily, and the pain was a living, breathing thing. Even the threat of leukemia wasn’t that bad. “You were sleeping with Sally while you were swearing eternal devotion to me!” Antonia didn’t have to be a math major to arrive at the difference. He’d married Sally less than a month after he broke up with Antonia, and Maggie was born seven months later. Which meant that Sally was pregnant when they married. He took a slow, steady breath, but his eyes, his face, were terrible to see. He stared down at her as if he’d like to throw something. Antonia averted her gaze to the desk, where her hands were so tightly clasped now that the knuckles were white. She relaxed them, so that he wouldn’t notice how tense she was. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she said after a minute. “I had no right. Your marriage was your own business, and so is your daughter. I won’t be unkind to her. But I will expect her to do the same work I assign to the other students, and if she doesn’t, she’ll be graded accordingly.” He stood up and shoved his hands into his pockets. The eyes that met hers were unreadable. “Maggie’s paid a higher price than you know already,” he said enigmatically. “I won’t let you hurt her.” “I’m not in the habit of taking out my personal feelings on children, whatever you think of me.” “You’re twenty-seven now,” he said, surprising her. “Yet you’re still unmarried. You have no children of your own.” She smiled evenly. “Yes. I had a lucky escape.” “And no inclination to find someone else? Make a life for yourself?” “I have a life,” she said, and the fear came up into her mouth as she realized that she might not have it for much longer. “Do you?” he asked. “Your father will die one day. Then you’ll be alone.” Her eyes, full of fear, fell to the desk again. “I’ve been alone for a long time,” she said quietly. “It’s something…one learns to live with.” He didn’t speak. After a minute, she heard his voice, as if from a distance. “Why did you come back?” “For my father.” “He’s getting better day by day. He didn’t need you.” She looked up, searching his face, seeing the young man she’d loved in his dark eyes, his sensuous mouth. “Maybe I needed someone,” she said. She winced and dropped her eyes. He laughed. It had an odd sound. “Just don’t turn your attention toward me, Antonia. You may need someone. I don’t. Least of all you.” Before she could say a word, he’d gone out the door, as quietly as he’d come in. Maggie was waiting at the door when he walked in. He’d taken her home before he had his talk with Antonia. “Did you see her? Did you tell her off?” she asked excitedly. “I knew you’d show her who’s boss!” His eyes narrowed. She hadn’t shown that much enthusiasm for anything in years. “What about that homework?” She shrugged. “It was stupid stuff. She wanted us to write an essay about ourselves and do math problems and make up sentences to go with spelling words.” He scowled. “You mean, you didn’t do it—any of it?” “You told her I didn’t have to, didn’t you?” she countered. He tossed his hat onto the side table in the hall and his eyes flashed at her. “Did you do any of the homework?” “Well…no,” she muttered. “It was stupid, I told you.” “Damn it! You lied!” She backed up. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her. He frightened her when he looked that way. He made her feel guilty. She didn’t lie as a rule, but this was different. Miss Hayes was hurting her, so didn’t she have the right to hurt back? “You’ll do that homework, do you hear me?” he demanded. “And the next time you have a test, you won’t sit through it with your arms folded. Is that clear?” She compressed her lips. “Yes, Daddy.” “My God.” He bit off the words, staring at her furiously. “You’re just like your mother, aren’t you? Well, this is going to stop right now. No more lies—ever!” “But, Daddy, I don’t lie…!” He didn’t listen. He just turned and walked away. Maggie stared after him with tears burning her eyes, her small fists clenched at her sides. Just like her mother. That’s what Mrs. Bates said when she misbehaved. She knew that her father hadn’t cared about her mother. Her mother had cried because of it, when she drank so much. She’d said that she told a lie and Powell had hated her for it. Did this mean that he hated Maggie, too? She followed him out into the hall. “Daddy!” she cried. “What?” He turned, glaring at her. “She doesn’t like me!” “Have you tried cooperating with her?” he replied coldly. She shrugged, averting her eyes so that he wouldn’t see the tears and the pain in them. She was used to hiding her hurts in this cold house. She went up the staircase to her room without saying anything else. He watched her walk away with a sense of hopelessness. His daughter had used him to get back at her teacher, and he’d let her. He’d gone flaming over to the school and made all sorts of accusations and charges, and Antonia had been the innocent party. His daughter had used him to get back at her teacher, and he’d let her. He was furious at having been so gullible. It was because he didn’t really know the child, he imagined. He spent as little time with her as possible, because she was a walking, talking reminder of his failed marriage. Next time, he promised himself, he’d get his facts straight before he started attacking teachers. But he wasn’t sorry about what he’d said to Antonia. Let her stew on those charges. Maybe it would intimidate her enough that she wouldn’t deliberately hurt Maggie. He knew how she felt about Sally, he couldn’t help but know. Her resentments were painfully visible in her thin face. He wondered why she’d come back to haunt him. He’d almost pushed her to the back of his mind over the years. Almost. He’d gone to see her father finally to get news of her, because the loneliness he felt was eating into him like acid. He’d wondered, for one insane moment, if there was any chance that they might recapture the magic they’d had together when she was eighteen. But she’d quickly disabused him of any such fancies. Her attitude was cold and hard and uncaring. She seemed to have frozen over in the years she’d been away. How could he blame her? All of Antonia’s misfortunes could be laid at his door, because he was distrustful of people, because he’d jumped to conclusions, because he hadn’t believed in Antonia’s basic innocence and decency. One impulsive decision had cost him everything he held dear. He wondered sometimes how he could have been so stupid. Like today when he’d let Maggie stampede him into attacking Antonia for something she hadn’t done. It was just like old times. Sally’s daughter was already a master manipulator, at age nine. And it seemed that he was just as impulsive and dim as he’d ever been. He hadn’t really changed at all. He was just richer. Meanwhile, there was Antonia’s reappearance and her disturbing thinness and paleness. She looked unwell. He wondered absently if she’d had some bout with disease. Perhaps that was why she’d come home, and not because of her father at all. But, wouldn’t a warm climate be the prescription for most illnesses that caused problems? Surely no doctor sent her into northern Wyoming in winter. He had no answers for those questions, and it would do him well to stop asking them, he thought irritably. It was getting him nowhere. The past was dead. He had to let it go, before it destroyed his life all over again. Chapter Five (#ub88dd233-2ec8-5cf7-915f-b52f0618cec1) Antonia didn’t move for a long time after Powell left the classroom. She stared blindly at her clasped hands. Of course she knew that he didn’t want her. Had she been unconsciously hoping for something different? And even if she had, she realized, there was no future at all in that sort of thinking. She got up, cleared her desk, picked up her things and went home. She didn’t have time to sit and groan, even silently. She had to use her time wisely. She had a decision to make. While she cooked supper for her father and herself, she thought about everything she’d wanted to do that she’d never made time for. She hadn’t traveled, which had been a very early dream. She hadn’t been involved in church or community, she hadn’t planned past the next day except to make up lesson plans for her classes. She’d more or less drifted along, assuming that she had forever. And now the line was drawn and she was close to walking across it. Her deepest regret was losing Powell. Looking back, she wondered what might have happened if she’d challenged Sally, if she’d dared Powell to prove that she’d been two-timing him with her mother’s old suitor. She’d only been eighteen, very much in love and trusting and full of dreams. It would have served her better to have been suspicious and hard-hearted, at least where Sally was concerned. She’d never believed that her best friend would stab her in the back. How silly of her not to realize that strongest friends make the best enemies; they always know where the weaknesses are hidden. Antonia’s weakness had been her own certainty that Powell loved her as much as she loved him, that nothing could separate them. She hadn’t counted on Sally’s ability as an actress. Powell had never said that he loved Antonia. How strange, she thought, that she hadn’t realized that until they’d gone their separate ways. Powell had been ardent, hungry for her, but never out of control. No wonder, she thought bitterly, since he’d obviously been sleeping with Sally the whole time. Why should he have been wild for any women when he was having one on the side? He’d asked Antonia to marry him. Her parents had been respected in the community, something his own parents hadn’t been. He’d enjoyed being connected to Antonia’s parents and enjoying the overflow of their acceptance by local people in the church and community. He’d spent as much time with them as he had with Antonia. And when he talked about building up his little cattle ranch that he’d inherited from his father, it had been her own father who’d advised him and opened doors for him so that he could get loans, financing. On the strength of his father’s weakness for gambling, nobody would have loaned Powell the price of a theater ticket. But Antonia’s father was a different proposition; he was an honest man with no visible vices. Antonia had harbored no suspicions that an ambitious man might take advantage of an untried girl in his quest for wealth. Now, from her vantage point of many years, she could look back and see the calculation that had led to Powell’s proposal of marriage. He hadn’t wanted Antonia with any deathless passion. He’d wanted her father’s influence. With it, he’d built a pitiful little fifty-acre ranch into a multimillion-dollar enterprise of purebred cattle and land. Perhaps breaking the engagement was all part of his master plan, too. Once he’d had what he wanted from the engagement, he could marry the woman he really loved—Sally. It wouldn’t have surprised Antonia to discover that Sally had worked hand in glove with Powell to help him achieve his goals. The only odd thing was that he hadn’t been happy with Sally, from all accounts, or she with him. She wondered why she hadn’t considered that angle all those years ago. Probably the heartbreak of her circumstances had blinded her to any deeper motives. Now it seemed futile and unreal. Powell was ancient history. She had to let go of the past. Somehow, she had to forgive and forget. It would be a pity to carry the hatred and resentment to her grave. Grave. She stared into the pan that contained the stir-fry she was making for supper. She’d never thought about where she wanted to rest for eternity. She had insurance, still in effect, although it wasn’t much. And she’d always thought that she’d rest beside her mother in the small Methodist church cemetery. Now she had to get those details finalized, just in case the treatment wasn’t successful—if she decided to have it—and without her father knowing. He wasn’t going to be told until the last possible minute. She finished preparing supper and called her father to the table, careful to talk about mundane things and pretend to be happy at being home again. But he wasn’t fooled. His keen eyes probed her face. “Something’s upset you. What is it?” She grimaced. “Maggie Long,” she said, sidestepping the real issue. “I see. Just like her father when he was a kid, I hear,” he added. “Little hellion, isn’t she?” “Only to me,” Antonia mused. “She liked Mrs. Donalds.” “No wonder,” he replied, finishing his coffee. “Mrs. Donalds was one of Sally’s younger cousins. So Maggie was related to her. She petted the kid, gave her special favors, did everything but give her answers to tests. She was teacher’s pet. First time any teacher treated her that way, so I guess it went to her head.” “How do you know?” “It’s a small town, girl,” he reminded her with a chuckle. “I know everything.” He stared at her levelly. “Even that Powell came to see you at school this afternoon. Gave you hell about the kid, didn’t he?” She shifted in her chair. “I won’t give her special favors,” she muttered. “I don’t care if he does get me fired.” “He’ll have a hard time doing that,” her father said easily. “I have friends on the school board, too.” “Perhaps they could switch the girl to another class,” she wondered aloud. “It would cause gossip,” Ben Hayes said. “There’s been enough of that already. You just stick to your guns and don’t give in. She’ll come around eventually.” “I wouldn’t bet on it,” she said heavily. She ran a hand over her blond hair. “I’m tired,” she added with a wan smile. “Do you mind if I go to bed early?” “Of course not.” He looked worried. “I thought you went to see the doctor. Didn’t he give you something to perk you up?” “He said I need vitamins,” she lied glibly. “I bought some, but they haven’t had time to take effect. I need to eat more, too, he said.” He was still scowling. “Well, if you don’t start getting better soon, you’d better go back and let him do some tests. It isn’t natural for a woman your age to be so tired all the time.” Her heart skipped. Of course it wasn’t, but she didn’t want him to suspect that she was so ill. “I’ll do that,” she assured him. She got up and collected the plates. “I’ll just do these few dishes and then I’ll leave you to your television.” “Oh, I hate that stuff,” he said. “I’d much rather read in the evenings. I only keep the thing on for the noise.” She laughed. “I do the same thing in Tucson,” she confessed. “It’s company, anyway.” “Yes, but I’d much rather have you here,” he confessed. “I’m glad you came home, Antonia. It’s not so lonely now.” She had a twinge of conscience at the pleasure he betrayed. He’d lost her mother and now he was going to lose her. How would he cope, with no relatives left in the world? Her mother had been an only child, and her father’s one sister had died of cancer years ago. Antonia bit her lip. He was in danger of losing his only child, and she was too cowardly to tell him. He patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t you do too much in here. Get an early night. Leave those if you want, and I’ll wash them later.” “I don’t mind,” she protested, grinning. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.” “Don’t wake me up when you leave,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m sleeping late.” “Lucky devil,” she called back. He only laughed, leaving her to the dishes. She finished them and went to bed. But she didn’t sleep. She lay awake, seeing Maggie Long’s surly expression and hating eyes, and Powell’s unwelcoming scrutiny. They’d both love to see her back in Arizona, and it looked as if they were going to do their combined best to make her life hell if she stayed here. She’d be walking on eggshells for the rest of the school year with Maggie, and if she failed the child for not doing her homework, Powell would be standing in her classroom every day to complain. She rolled over with a sigh. Things had been so uncomplicated when she was eighteen, she thought wistfully. She’d been in love and looking forward to marriage and children. Her eyes closed on a wave of pain. Maggie would have been her child, her daughter. She’d have had blond hair and gray eyes, perhaps, like Antonia. And if she’d been Antonia’s child, she’d have been loved and wanted and cared for. She wouldn’t have a surly expression and eyes that hated. Powell had said something about Maggie…what was it? That Maggie had paid a higher price than any of them. What had he meant? Surely he cared for the child. He certainly fought hard enough when he felt she was attacked. Well, it wasn’t her problem, she decided finally. And she wasn’t going to let it turn into her problem. She still hadn’t decided what to do about her other problem. Julie was the brightest spot in Antonia’s days. The little girl was always cheerful, helpful, doing whatever she could to smooth Antonia’s path and make it easy for her to teach the class. She remembered where Mrs. Donalds had kept things, she knew what material had been covered and she was always eager to do anything she was asked. Maggie on the other hand was resentful and ice-cold. She did nothing voluntarily. She was still refusing to turn in her homework. Talking to her did no good. She just glared back. “I’ll give you one more chance to make up this work,” Antonia told her at the end of her second week teaching the class. “If you don’t turn it in Monday, you’ll get another zero.” Maggie smiled haughtily. “And my daddy will cuss you out again. I’ll tell him you slapped me, too.” Antonia’s gray eyes glittered at the child. “You would, wouldn’t you?” she asked coldly. “I don’t doubt that you can lie, Maggie. Well, go ahead. See how much damage you can do.” Maggie’s reaction was unexpected. Tears filled her blue eyes and she shivered. She whirled and ran out of the classroom, leaving Antonia deflated and feeling badly for the child. She clenched her hands on the desk to keep them from shaking. How could she have been so hateful and cold? She cleaned up the classroom, waiting for Powell to storm in and give her hell. But he didn’t show up. She went home and spent a nerve-rackingly quiet weekend with her father, waiting for an explosion that didn’t come. The biggest surprise arrived Monday morning, when Maggie shoved a crumpled, stained piece of paper on the desk and walked back to her seat without looking at Antonia. It was messy, but it was the missing homework. Not only that, it was done correctly. Antonia didn’t say a word. It was a small victory, of sorts. She wouldn’t admit to herself that she was pleased. But the paper got an A. Julie began to sit with her at recess, and shared cupcakes and other tidbits that her mother had sent to school with her. “Mom says you’re doing a really nice job on me, Miss Hayes,” Julie said. “Dad remembers you from school, did you know? He said you were a sweet girl, and that you were shy. Were you, really?” Antonia laughed. “I’m afraid so. I remember your father, too. He was the class clown.” “Dad? Really?” “Really. Don’t tell him I told you, though, okay?” she teased, smiling at the child. From a short distance away, Maggie glared toward them. She was, as usual, alone. She didn’t get along with the other children. The girls hated her, and the boys made fun of her skinny legs that were always bruised and cut from her tomboyish antics at the ranch. There was one special boy, Jake Weldon. Maggie pretended not to notice him. He was one of the boys who made fun of her, and it hurt really bad. She was alone most of the time these days, because Julie spent her time with the teacher instead of Maggie. Miss Hayes liked Julie. Everyone knew it, too. Julie had been Maggie’s best friend, but now she seemed to be Miss Hayes’s. Maggie hated both of them. She hadn’t told her father what Miss Hayes had said about her homework. She wanted her teacher to know that she wasn’t bad like her mother. She knew what her mother had done, because she’d heard them talking about it once. She remembered her mother crying and accusing him of not loving her, and him saying that she’d ruined his life, she and her premature baby. There had been something else, something about him being drunk and out of his mind or Maggie wouldn’t have been born at all. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/diana-palmer/christmas-on-his-ranch-maggie-s-dad-cattleman-s-choice/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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