Big Sky Secrets Linda Lael Miller The "First Lady of the West," #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller delivers the stunning finale of her acclaimed series set in Parable, Montana—where love awaits.Self-made tycoon Landry Sutton heads to Hangman Bend’s Ranch to sell his land to his brother Zane. Though he’s got cowboy in his blood, Landry plans to return to city life before the dust even settles on his boots. Of course, he didn’t count on falling for Big Sky country…or Ria Manning.Ria’s starting to settle into country life herself…until she has a close encounter of the terrifying kind with a buffalo. Turns out the peeping monster belongs to the cowboy next door—and he has her running even more scared than his bison. She wants a home where the buffalo don’t roam, and the men don’t either. Could Landry’s homecoming be her heart’s undoing?“Miller has created unforgettable characters and woven a many-faceted yet coherent and lovingly told tale." –Booklist on McKettrick’s Choice The “First Lady of the West,” #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller delivers the stunning finale of her acclaimed series set in Parable, Montana—where love awaits Self-made tycoon Landry Sutton heads to Hangman Bend’s Ranch to sell his land to his brother Zane. Though he’s got cowboy in his blood, Landry plans to return to city life before the dust even settles on his boots. Of course, he didn’t count on falling for Big Sky Country…or Ria Manning. Ria’s starting to settle into country life herself…until she has a close encounter of the terrifying kind with a buffalo. Turns out the peeping monster belongs to the cowboy next door—and he has her running even more scared than his bison. She wants a home where the buffalo don’t roam, and the men don’t either. Could Landry’s homecoming be her heart’s undoing? Praise for #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller “Miller’s name is synonymous with the finest in Western romance.” —RT Book Reviews “Full of equal parts heart and heartache, Miller’s newest Western is sure to tug at the heartstrings from the first charming scene to the last.” —RT Book Reviews on Big Sky Summer “Miller’s down-home, easy-to-read style keeps the plot moving, and she includes…likable characters, picturesque descriptions and some very sweet pets.” —Publishers Weekly on Big Sky Country “A delightful addition to Miller’s Big Sky series. This author has a way with a phrase that is nigh-on poetic…this story [is] especially entertaining.” —RT Book Reviews on Big Sky Mountain “A passionate love too long denied drives the action in this multifaceted, emotionally rich reunion story that overflows with breathtaking sexual chemistry.” —Library Journal on McKettricks of Texas: Tate “Miller’s prose is smart, and her tough Eastwoodian cowboy cuts a sharp, unexpectedly funny figure in a classroom full of rambunctious frontier kids.” —Publishers Weekly on The Man from Stone Creek Big Sky Secrets Linda Lael Miller www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Dear Reader, I’m so happy to welcome you back to Three Trees and Parable, Montana, and to bring you the story of Landry and Ria. Big Sky Secrets has been one of my favorite stories to write. Early on, we meet Ria Manning, who’s bought a defunct flower farm that borders Hangman’s Bend Ranch, property of Zane and Landry Sutton. Ria’s had problems with the Sutton herd before, but when she’s trapped in her home, held hostage by an unruly buffalo that’s made its way over to her land, she’s had enough. It’s time to confront the cocky financial-whiz-turned-cowboy, Landry Sutton. Having almost decided to sell his part of the ranch to his brother Zane and return to city life, Landry is taken by surprise when he falls in love with the land—and with the feisty, dark-haired beauty next door. Sticking around will mean coming to terms with his past, but each meeting with Ria convinces him that staying in Parable may not be such a bad idea after all. I’ll be teaming up with the talented folks at Montana Silversmiths to produce another wonderful piece of jewelry. For now, I’m keeping it a secret, but you’ll read all about it in this book, and might even find yourself wanting one of your own. Just go to www.montanasilversmiths.com (http://www.montanasilversmiths.com). My share of any profit goes straight to my scholarship fund. Meanwhile, stop on by www.lindalaelmiller.com for my (almost) daily blog, excerpts from my books, videos of some very sexy cowboys, scholarship news and fun contests, along with a few surprises now and then. Happy trails! With love, For Steven and Robin Black, of Uptick Vineyards, new and forever friends. You make a wonderful and inspiring team, and I’m proud to know you both. Contents CHAPTER ONE (#u1c78031b-6bb0-5497-a36b-0884c79e4505) CHAPTER TWO (#ucf666b98-7851-5152-86d0-fc1756541047) CHAPTER THREE (#u84b7ca4a-93d7-5332-a4c9-3e5900f34fb1) CHAPTER FOUR (#u3bfc82b4-c52f-570c-bc67-bff70c705fd9) 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) CHAPTER ELEVEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER TWELVE (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER THIRTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FOURTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIFTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIXTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) EPILOGUE (#litres_trial_promo) EXCERPT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE SCOWLING AND WARM behind the ears, Landry Sutton picked himself up off the hoof-hardened ground of Walker Parrish’s main corral. Stubbornly setting his jaw and squaring his shoulders, he laid silent claim to his dignity and finally bent to retrieve what remained of his hat. The bronc, a gelding aptly named Pure Misery, had stomped it flat in the brief but hectic process of throwing him that third and—for today—final time. Landry reckoned he should be glad his skull hadn’t met the same fate as his headgear, but he couldn’t quite make the philosophical shift from adrenaline-fused annoyance to gratitude. He was frustrated, embarrassed and pissed off—and those were just the emotions he had names for. Arrogance on four legs, the sweat-lathered horse took a few prancing turns around the corral, moving outward in ever-widening circles. He snorted once or twice, nostrils flared, neck bowed into a curve, head held high and proud, ears laid so far back they were almost flat against his hide. Finally, the gelding came to a purposeful halt about a dozen yards away from Landry, hind legs planted firmly in the dirt, flanks quivering with a barely contained strength that seemed about to bust loose in a whole new way, like a primeval thunderstorm. Go on, cowboy—try it again. That was the message. Slowly, Landry became aware of their immediate surroundings, his and the horse’s—that son of Satan—though most of what lay beyond their battleground was still a dust-roiled haze, a void with its own heartbeat. Landry did register the presence of his brother Zane perched on the top rail of the corral fence. He knew his sibling was looking on with charitable, even benign, interest, waiting to see what would happen next. Was Landry fool enough to get back on that crazy cayuse, he might have been wondering, or would he finally see reason and call it a day? “Anything broken?” Zane called, in a jocular drawl. He was only thirteen and a half months older than Landry, but the gap might have been wider by a decade, considering the dynamics between the two of them. Zane tended to come from the place of older-and-wiser, like a father, or a venerable uncle—or a justice of the Supreme Court. Stung anew, Landry merely glared in Zane’s general direction for a few moments, then slapped his ruined hat against one thigh to vent some of the steam still building inside him. A handful of ranch workers—all employed by Walker Parrish, local rodeo-stock contractor and older brother to Zane’s wife, Brylee—ducked their heads briefly, in half-assed attempts to hide their grins of enjoyment. It was no big stretch to figure out what the other men were thinking, of course. After nearly a year in Montana, Landry was still an outsider, still that dandified greenhorn from Chicago, still the perennial dude. Still and always the great Zane Sutton’s kid brother. And not much more. Six feet tall, smart as hell and a self-made man, an independently wealthy one no less, and a ranch owner in his own right, Landry normally didn’t sweat the small stuff. The fact was, he’d never failed at anything he set out to do, in all his thirty-plus years of life, unless you counted his efforts to stay married to Susan Ingersoll without committing murder, that was. To him, the ill-fated marriage had been a disaster, yes, but he wouldn’t have described it as an actual defeat. He and Susan never should have tied the knot in the first place, if only because they hadn’t wanted the same things, even in the beginning. Now, aching in every muscle, bones seeming as brittle as if he’d aged by twenty years since breakfast, his pride chafed raw as a sore with the scab ripped off too soon, Landry watched glumly as one of the ranch hands roped the bronc, led him out of the corral and turned him loose in the adjoining pasture. Zane stood next to Landry now, there in the slowly settling dust. “Buy you a beer?” he said quietly. He started to raise one hand, as if to slap Landry on the back, perhaps in brotherly reassurance, but he must have thought better of the gesture in the end, because he refrained. It was just a beer, and Landry wanted one badly, but his first impulse was to refuse the offer, all the same. He and Zane had been close as kids, and right up through their late twenties, but then, around the time their mom died... Well, things had just gone to hell. Some kind of chasm had opened between the brothers, and there didn’t seem to be a way across. For the most part, they’d gone their separate ways, Zane taking to the rodeo circuit and eventually winding up in the movies, of all things, while Landry headed for Chicago, a place that had always intrigued him. By going to night school and working days and weekends as a barista at one of the coffee franchises, he’d gotten his degree, taken a job with Ingersoll Investments, originally landing in the mail room. He’d climbed the corporate ladder and eventually met and married the boss’s daughter, Susan. Certain he’d found his niche at long last, Landry had pushed up his figurative sleeves and proceeded to make money—a shitload of it—for the company and, through bonuses and finally a partnership, for himself, as well. “I wouldn’t mind a beer right about now,” Landry heard himself say, instead of the “No, thanks” instinct dictated. The more sensible thing would have been to take his sorry self straight home, of course, back to his half of Hangman’s Bend. There, he could have tossed back a Scotch or two, gulped down some aspirin and maybe stood in a hot shower until his muscles stopped screaming. So it was that they walked out of the corral together, Zane and Landry, passing through the gate, shutting it behind them. Zane waved a farewell to the others as he and Landry headed for his rig, a silver extended-cab truck so covered in dried mud that it might have been any color in the spectrum. Zane’s adopted mutt, Slim, waited patiently in the bed of the pickup, panting in the bright June sunshine, perfectly content to be just what and where he was. A person could learn a lot from a dog, Landry reflected silently. Stepping up onto the passenger-side running board, he paused long enough to pat the critter on the head and ruffle his floppy ears. “Hey, dog,” he said, with gruff affection. “How ya doin’?” Talk about your rhetorical question. Slim wagged his tail, appreciative but, at the same time, taking the greeting as his just due, and then settled down for the short ride over to neighboring Hangman’s Bend. Without pausing, Zane climbed behind the wheel, pushed the ignition button and looked back over one shoulder, acknowledging the dog with a grin. He loved that goofball canine, no question about it, would have let him ride in the cab if the critter had shown any inclination to do so. Slim had recently developed a preference for the back, though, seemed to like riding with a pile of feed sacks and whatever else Zane happened to be hauling at the time, and he showed no signs of changing his mind anytime soon. “You ought to get yourself a dog,” Zane remarked, maneuvering the truck into a slow, wide turn. “They’re real good company, you know.” His brother, the authority on loneliness, Landry thought, with an ironic inward sigh. As if Zane had ever suffered any lack of “company,” even before he’d settled on the run-down, abandoned ranch outside Three Trees, Montana, the one he and Landry had bought together, sight unseen, a few years before. These days, Zane had his beautiful bride, Brylee, first and foremost. And then there was the formidable but ever-faithful Cleo, their housekeeper—and Nash, Zane and Landry’s half brother, a rowdy thirteen-year-old with a childhood behind him that made their hardscrabble upbringing look downright pampered. “I’ll get around to it,” Landry allowed, still distracted by other thoughts. “Getting a dog, I mean.” A pause, followed by an irritated “There’s no hurry, is there?” Zane didn’t answer, and that was all right, because sometimes—and this was one of them—they didn’t feel a need to talk. The rig bounced down the long, rutted driveway, dog and gear rattling in the back. Walker’s place, called Timber Creek, was a prosperous spread, to put it mildly, but the dirt trail leading to the main gate was in little better shape than a cow path after a month of pounding rain followed by a ten-year drought. Out here in the wilds of Montana, Landry had observed, folks weren’t overly concerned with either convenience or appearances, whether they had two nickels to rub together or not. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to most of them to smooth the way with a layer of asphalt. Sure, one or two showy types might have sprung for a load of gravel, if the bills were current and the price of beef was decent, he supposed, but nobody paved a driveway. Nope, even ranchers as successful as Walker Parrish seemed content to cope with whatever conditions presented themselves—waist-high snow in the winter, the sticky mud of spring, which the locals called “gumbo,” or the deep, dry dirt furrows of summer and fall. There were times, usually short-lived, when the lure of the place eluded Landry completely—like now. Still cheerfully pensive, Zane drove on. The living quarters on his share of Hangman’s Bend Ranch were relatively modest, considering the size of his bank account. He’d been what amounted to a modern-day John Wayne before he suddenly decided to leave movie stardom behind for good, go back to the land and subsequently reinvent himself. Now he and Brylee shared a nicely renovated stone house, large and comfortable, but certainly nothing fancy, by Hollywood standards at least. The barn was sturdy and the old-fashioned garage was detached, with a dented aluminum door that had to be raised and lowered by hand. Neither a tennis court nor a swimming pool marred the landscape. Brylee was weeding the vegetable garden when Zane and Landry drove in, her ever-present German shepherd, Snidely, supervising from the sidelines. Zane’s bride wore a floppy straw hat, her rich brown hair stuffed fetchingly up inside, a sleeveless blouse and denim jeans, frayed where she’d cut them off above the knees to make shorts. Brylee’s long legs were sun-browned, like her arms, and her feet were probably muddy and probably bare. Seeing the truck, she beamed like a war bride at the approach of an overdue troop train and came toward them, hurrying but graceful, moving between rows of corn and green beans and Bibb lettuce. Watching Brylee, Landry felt a pang of something sharp and forlorn, bleaker than loneliness, but not quite qualifying as envy, while Zane jumped out of the rig, strode to meet his wife and, with a laugh, swept her right off her feet, swinging her around in a broad circle of celebration and then kissing her soundly. Slim, like any good country dog, bounded down from the back of the truck and rushed toward his master and mistress, barking, delighted by the ruckus, making himself part of it. Brylee had lost her hat by then, and her hair spilled down over her shoulders in glorious, coffee-colored spirals, threaded with gold. Belatedly noting Landry’s presence, his sister-in-law blushed apricot-pink, a modern-day Eve just now coming to the realization that she and her Adam weren’t blissfully alone in the Garden of Eden after all. So much for a bout of lovemaking right there in the tall grass, Landry thought. He wouldn’t have put it past them, if the circumstances were right. Wouldn’t have blamed them for it, either. He smiled a “hello” at Brylee, reached for his hat and remembered that he’d tossed it into the back of Zane’s pickup, but the words in his head, surprisingly affable, were meant for his brother. You lucky bastard. “I promised this yahoo a beer,” Zane announced, still grinning, cocking a thumb toward Landry to identify him as the yahoo in question. The taut air around the couple almost snapped, like a rubber band stretched beyond its limits, and then let go. “As you can see, the man’s a little the worse for wear.” Although he was sure Zane hadn’t meant anything by it, the remark reminded Landry with a wallop that he’d been thrown three times, that his clothes were stiff with dust and dried sweat and a combination of the two and that his boots were caked with manure. Plenty of good old-fashioned dirt had ground itself right into his hide, filling every pore, coating every hair on his head. Again, it swamped him, that sense of self-consciousness mingled with some indefinable loss, a factor he’d never had to cope with before the move to Montana. “I’ll be fine out here on the porch,” he suggested, and instantly wished he’d kept his mouth shut, if only because the offer sounded so lame. Brylee smiled warmly. Although she hadn’t liked Landry when he first arrived in Parable County, she’d mellowed noticeably since last Christmas, when she and Zane had gotten married. “Don’t worry about it,” she responded, with a rueful glance at her own grimy feet. “This is a ranch, and dirt comes with the territory.” The screen door creaked just then, and Cleo—Zane and Brylee’s housekeeper—trundled through the gap and out onto the porch, her skin a glistening ebony, her dark eyes flashing, her gray hair partially tamed by a bandanna scarf. She looked stern, but that was a pose, Landry suspected, the ruse of a tenderhearted person trying to hold on to a little personal space. “Say what, Mrs. Sutton?” Cleo challenged, making it clear that she’d overheard Brylee’s statement about ranches and the inevitability of dirt. “I just now finished mopping the kitchen floor—it isn’t even dry yet—and I don’t care how much dirt it takes to make up this ranch. You’re not setting foot in my clean house until you hose those feet off good.” In the next instant, Cleo’s gaze moved over both Zane and Landry, sweeping them up into her good-natured consternation. “Same goes for the two of you. I don’t work my fingers to the bone around this place for my health, you know. And a person’s got to have standards!” Zane, apparently used to being lectured, simply grinned and gave the woman an affable salute of acquiescence. The discourse sounded familiar to Landry, too—he could easily imagine that warning coming from Highbridge, not quite so colorful, but with better enunciation and grammar. Ah, Highbridge. Yet another reason Landry fit in around here about as well as an extra toe in a narrow-soled boot. He employed a butler. What self-respecting cowboy did that? “You tell me what you want and I’ll bring it out here,” Cleo prattled on, hands on her hips, elbows jutting. By then, the hint of a grin had appeared in her eyes, and the corners of her mouth twitched slightly. Like Highbridge, she clearly relished stating her opinion, asked for or not. “Beer,” Zane replied lightly. “And make sure it’s cold, if you don’t mind.” Cleo narrowed her eyes, then fixed Brylee with a look. “Iced tea or lemonade for you,” she informed her crisply. “If you’re not pregnant, it’s not for lack of effort, now, is it, and we both know alcohol is no good for babies.” Brylee shook her head, but her color was high again. “Cleo,” she scolded, laughing a little. Cleo remained undaunted. “Iced tea or lemonade?” she repeated, folding her plump arms now. Brylee sighed, put up both palms in a gesture of surrender and sat down at the small wicker table in a shady corner of the porch. Zane and Landry joined her. “Tea, please,” Brylee said, almost primly. Cleo gave a stiff nod and ducked back into the house to fetch the refreshments. “Cleo can be a tyrant sometimes,” Brylee confided, smiling, but still pink in the cheeks. Every time she glanced in Zane’s direction, the air sizzled. “But only between the hours of midnight and twelve a.m.,” Zane said. He’d taken Brylee’s hand by then, and their fingers were interlaced, the gesture easy, ordinary and yet somehow profoundly intimate. Landry did a quick mental scan of the few tempestuous years he’d spent with Susan and was saddened by the swift, searing realization that they’d never been close in the way Zane and Brylee were, not even in the best of times. The sex had been good, he thought, but then, in his experience, which was relatively broad, bad sex was a rarity. He shoved a hand through his filthy hair, wondering what had prompted all this introspection. The two dogs meandered up onto the porch then and curled up in separate shady spots for an afternoon snooze. Bees buzzed in the flower beds nearby, and way off in the distance, one of the cattle bawled, probably calling her calf. Cleo bustled and banged out of the house again, lugging a tray this time. On it were one glass of iced tea, a plateful of cookies and two long-necked brown bottles with thin sleeves of ice melting off their sides. She served Brylee first, then plunked a beer down in front of each of the men. “You seen Nash lately?” she asked, evidently addressing the whole group. Before anybody could reply, she continued. “I’m fixing to wring that boy’s neck if he doesn’t pick up his dirty laundry, like I told him. A person can’t walk across the floor of his room for all the empty pizza boxes and soda cans. This keeps up, well, the next thing we know, this whole place will be crawling with bugs!” Zane, who had just taken a swig of beer, made a choking sound, part chuckle, and lowered the bottle from his mouth. “Nash went to that bull sale up in Missoula, with Walker and Shane,” he reminded the disgruntled woman. “When he gets back, though, I’ll be sure to have him slapped in irons.” Cleo didn’t smile at the joke. “I’d like to know who told that child he could go off gallivanting that way, and not a one of his chores done,” Cleo fussed. She lifted three snow-white, crisply pressed cloth napkins from the otherwise empty tray and slapped them down on the tabletop in a fan shape, like a winning hand of cards. “That would have been me,” Zane responded mildly. “Spoiled, that’s what Nash Sutton is,” Cleo harrumphed, before turning on the heel of one lime-green high-top sneaker and storming back inside the house. Brylee swatted at Zane with the hand he wasn’t holding, but she was smiling and the flush was still in her cheeks, as fetching as ever. Landry predicted, silently of course, that the two of them would be in the shower together within five minutes of his departure, and twisting the sheets five minutes after that. Cleo might have surmised that, too, because she came right back out of the house, still in her cotton scrubs but wearing a red sun hat now, along with a pair of knockoff designer shades. She carried her big purse close against her side, as though she expected to find herself wrestling with a mugger at any moment. “Some of us,” she tossed off in passing, waddling down the porch steps and marching toward an old station wagon parked near Zane’s truck, “have better things to do with our time than sit around in the shade. I’m going to town for some groceries, and I’ll be gone awhile.” Brylee shook her head again, amused. Zane laughed. Landry, feeling downright superfluous—in this case, three was definitely a crowd—immediately pushed back his chair and got to his feet, ready to hit the trail. Startled, both dogs lifted their muzzles from their forelegs to look at him. “What’s your hurry, little brother?” Zane asked, frowning slightly. “You haven’t even finished your beer.” Did the man have a clue? This was his chance to be alone with his breathtakingly beautiful wife and he was worried about leftover beer? Landry sighed and bent to kiss Brylee’s cheek in brotherly farewell. “I’ve got things to do at home,” he said. Then he reconsidered his beer, decided he’d rather have Scotch from his own bar and, leaving the bottle where it was, headed for his truck, left behind earlier in the day when he’d ridden over to Timber Creek with Zane. Though Cleo’s vehicle was long out of sight when Landry drove away from his brother’s house, the dust her tanklike station wagon had churned up was still billowing in the air as he took a left onto the county road. Briefly, he wished that he had somewhere else to go besides home, where no one was waiting for him but Highbridge and a two-animal herd of buffalo. * * * TWILIGHT TURNED THE famous big Montana sky lavender at the edges, spilling the first thin shadows over the rim of the valley, softly draping fields of colorful zinnias and gerbera daisies in the cool, gentle promise of a summer evening. Ria Manning felt mildly unsettled as she gazed out over her small patch of land. Something vaguely like homesickness stirred within her, which was ridiculous since she was home, wasn’t she? She bit her lower lip, deftly winding the garden hose into a thick coil of green rubber and hanging it from the sturdy hook on the wall of the toolshed. She’d mowed her lawn earlier, and the sprinkler system was just coming on. The sweet scent of cut grass soothed Ria as she skirted little geysers of water, making her way toward the back porch. The structure sagged slightly, weathered and rickety, and Ria added yet another chore to the daunting to-do list she carried in her head—replace porches. Behind the cottage—it was actually just a small house, so calling the place a “cottage” was on the creative side, to Ria’s mind—the weeds were thick and tall enough to hide a variety of outmoded farm equipment and other relics of previous productivity. The fields on that side were empty, plowed under and left to recover from repeated overplanting. In another year or so, with proper fertilization and maybe a burn-off, carefully controlled, of course, the soil would be fertile again—or so the county extension agent maintained anyway. Some people might have been impatient, but Ria understood the basic concept of long-term investment, that good things really did come to those who waited. Once a bean counter, she thought, with a slight, rueful smile, always a bean counter. As Frank, her late husband, used to say, she was so left-brained it was a wonder she didn’t tip over every time she tried to stand up. Sighing, because memories of Frank always made her sigh, Ria kicked off her muddy sneakers just inside the back door, leaving them on the newspaper she’d laid out for the purpose. The kitchen floor gleamed with cleanliness, and she took a moment’s satisfaction in that before flipping on the overhead lights. Ria had discovered long ago, possibly even in childhood, that if she stood still too long, the loneliness would overtake her, so she got busy right away, washing her hands at the sink, filling the old-fashioned copper teakettle, setting it on a burner, turning the appropriate stove knob to “high.” She took a pretty cup and saucer from one of the cupboard shelves, dropped in a tea bag and then crossed to her desktop computer, wriggling the mouse to wake the machine from its slumber. While the thing booted up, she took her cell phone from its charger to check her voice mail. Heat surged rhythmically through the kettle on the stove. There was a single message awaiting her—that was one more than she usually received—and it was from her half sister, Meredith. Ten years Ria’s senior, Meredith didn’t contact her often, since they had little in common besides a father, now long dead. When she did initiate a phone call or an email, Ria usually wound up wishing she hadn’t. Meredith wasn’t actively hostile—not all the time anyway—but she was one of those people who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and, though she never said so outright, it was understood that she thought Ria slotted right into that category. Against her better judgment, Ria pressed the speaker button on her cell and plunked the device down on a counter before zipping over to the refrigerator, in search of supper prospects. Meredith’s recorded voice filled the small kitchen, educated and shrill, and Ria’s back molars automatically locked together. “Are you there, darling?” Meredith chirped. “I was hoping you’d pick up.” For once. Ria sighed again, decided on a grilled cheese sandwich and canned soup for her evening meal, set the makings out on the counter in an orderly row. “Listen, sweetie, this is important,” Meredith went on brightly. “I’ve had to fire another manager—at our Seattle branch, this time—and the result is complete and utter chaos. I’m talking possible embezzlement here. The feds might even be a factor. If you don’t get over there and straighten out the situation—well, we’ll have to close that office, and there will be government audits and all sorts of bad publicity, and you know how Daddy would feel about that.” Meredith paused to drag in an audible breath, then launched into the big finale. “Call me when you get this message, pretty please. No matter what time it is. You have my numbers.” A beat passed. “Love you!” And Meredith hung up. Love you! Right, Ria thought, wishing she could ignore her sister’s request to call her back and already fully aware that she couldn’t. She was just too damn responsible, that was her problem. Still, she intended to eat first. She’d been working hard all day, weeding and watering, making preparations for Saturday’s farmers’ market over in Parable, and she was hungry. Not to mention tired. Ria grilled her sandwich, heated her soup. Her tea was brewed by then, and cool enough to drink. She served her food up in pretty dishes, using the good silverware she and Frank had received as a wedding present, trying to invoke some semblance of a family meal. Frank. He’d been her mainstay, the only man she’d ever truly loved—or could even imagine loving. Now, when he’d been gone for just two and a half years, she occasionally forgot what he’d looked like and had to study their wedding pictures to reacquaint herself with his features. She’d memorize his angular jaw, his strong mouth, his thick, dark hair, his brown eyes and his quick smile. And then forget again. Although Ria knew the phenomenon of not being able to recall a departed loved one’s face wasn’t unusual among the bereaved, she always panicked a little when it happened, and the guilt could last for hours, if not longer. Why was she so bereft now, though? It was the time of day, Ria reminded herself silently, sitting down to her lonely supper, spreading a napkin over her blue-jeaned lap and taking a deep breath in an effort to restore her equanimity. She’d been hungry before, but now, suddenly, her appetite was iffy. She nibbled at one half of the sandwich and spooned up some of the soup, then gave up and cleared the table. Methodically—because Ria Manning was nothing if not methodical—she tossed the leftovers into the trash and rinsed off her plate and bowl in the sink before wandering into the front room, taking her cup of lukewarm tea with her. The face, dark brown, hairy and horned, and roughly the size of an armchair, loomed suddenly in the center of the picture window. And even though Ria knew, on one level, exactly what she was looking at, she was startled enough that she gave a little squeal of alarm, leaped backward and nearly dropped her china cup and saucer. The creature at the window made an awful, plaintive sound, a sort of forlorn bellow. The drapes, still open, of course, gave the impression of stage curtains, as though Ria made up the entire audience at a horror show. Recovering slightly, Ria set her tea aside on an end table, her hand shaking all the while, and pressed splayed fingers to her pounding heart. Bessie. As the shock subsided, Ria’s temper kicked in. “Not again,” she said, coming to a simmer. “Damn it, not again!” By contrast, the cow buffalo standing in Ria’s flower bed seemed to have calmed down considerably. After that one harrowing cry, Bessie ducked her massive head out of sight, and when she raised it again, she was chewing on a big clump of freshly planted petunias. In the near distance, Ria spotted Bessie’s yearling calf, now nearly as big as its mama, making a meal of the bright orange poppies growing in an old wheelbarrow. For a moment or so longer, Ria was frozen where she stood. Bessie looked quite content now, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t get riled again. Since she probably weighed as much as a farm truck, the prospect was terrifying. With one swing of that gigantic head, she could shatter the picture window to smithereens. Why, she might even scramble through the opening and run amok in the living room. Get a grip, Ria admonished herself. This is not an emergency. It didn’t help much. Walking backward, she fled to the kitchen, dived for the landline receiver on the wall above her computer desk and speed-dialed. “Sutton residence,” Highbridge intoned formally. “May I help you?” “They’re out again,” Ria announced. “Those—creatures—” “Oh, dear,” Highbridge commiserated. “I do apologize. Have they done any damage?” “Besides scaring me half to death and eating my flowers, you mean?” Ria knew the situation wasn’t Highbridge’s fault—he was a butler, not a ranch hand—but since he was directly in the line of fire, he got the worst of it. “Do you realize, Mr. Highbridge, that Oriental poppies don’t bloom until the second year after they’re planted?” “Just Highbridge, if you don’t mind,” he interjected mildly. British to the core, he managed to convey both concern and carefully controlled amusement. “And one of these animals just pulled them all up?” Ria went on. “Mr. Sutton will be right over to collect the beasts,” Highbridge replied. “And I’m sure he’ll be happy to compensate you for any damage, as usual.” Mr. Sutton will be right over. Well, that was something, Ria thought, simmering down slightly. When Landry arrived, she’d simply pretend she wasn’t home. CHAPTER TWO RIA DID NOT like Landry Sutton, did not like him one bit—never had, never would—which was why she intended to make herself scarce when he came to round up his smelly, flea-bitten, poppy-scarfing buffalo. Landry had arrived in Parable County at about the same time as Ria, a little over a year before, and, from the very beginning, he’d struck her as bullheaded, full of himself and, for the most part, insufferably stubborn. Only his impossibly good looks—the classic square jaw, those perfectly sculpted features and blue eyes that changed, according to his mood, from periwinkle to cornflower, that shock of shaggy, wheat-blond hair, a lean but powerful build, not to mention innate masculinity—kept him from being entirely unendurable. Physical qualities were genetic, after all, accidents of birth; it wasn’t as if the man could take credit for having good DNA, for Pete’s sake. But, being Landry, he probably did anyway. He had the air of a man who had never failed at anything he attempted, and since that was humanly impossible, Ria had long since dubbed him a poser. Now, stepping up to the darkened picture window—an act that set her barely calmed heart to pounding all over again, because she knew she’d jump right out of her skin if she found herself face-to-face with Buffalo Bessie for a second time in one night—she squinted through the glass. The lumbering creatures were nowhere in sight—not surprising considering the density of the gloom—but Ria had no illusions that the animals had wandered conveniently homeward, never to trouble her again. That would have been too easy, and while her life hadn’t been any more difficult than anyone else’s, she was accustomed to dealing with obstacles. She checked her watch, frowned. The great Landry Sutton was certainly taking his sweet time getting over here and tending to business, that was for sure. At least an hour had passed since she’d called his place to demand action. Following a surge of renewed frustration, Ria stretched out her arms, grabbed hold of the drapes and yanked them shut. She might have been in a more forgiving state of mind if this same disaster hadn’t befallen her, and her struggling crops of zinnias and gerbera daisies, half a dozen times in the past few months. Then she heard the noise. It was an alarmingly loud and wholly horrific combination of furious thumping and repeated scraping, and it was coming from the front, right-hand corner of the cottage, just a few feet from where she stood, in the questionable safety of her own living room. Holding her breath, Ria crooked an index finger to pull one of the drapes aside by a couple of inches and then looked out again, but she still couldn’t see what was going on. Which was not to say she hadn’t guessed. Incredibly, the nerve-shattering racket intensified. Once or twice, she would have sworn that the whole house trembled on its ancient and probably cracked foundation. Her sense of caution exceeded only by a need to confirm her suspicions, Ria tiptoed over to the door, flipped on the porch light, turned the dead bolt from its locked position with a decisive twist of one wrist and stepped outside, poised to run back over the threshold in a heartbeat if the situation warranted. Inside its bug-speckled cover, the single bulb glowed a sickly yellow, throwing a small spill of light onto the welcome mat, no threat to the thick darkness of a near-moonless night in the Montana countryside. All around her, crickets croaked in the balmy gloom, and although the sky was spangled with stars, they certainly didn’t illuminate the landscape. A sudden, roaring bellow froze her blood in an instant. But this was her house, her property. And, damn it, enough was enough. Steeling herself, Ria ventured a few steps closer to the corner of the porch, where shadows loomed, knowing, on some level, what she’d find there, but, at the same time, not quite believing it. Sure enough, there was Bessie, scratching her mangy hide against the corner of the house. “Shoo!” Ria whispered hoarsely, making a flapping motion with both hands but otherwise standing still. “Go away!” The response was another earsplitting, window-rattling bellow. Was the animal warning her? Issuing some kind of primitive protest? Ria neither knew nor cared. She wasn’t fool enough to move any closer, but she wasn’t about to retreat, either. Damn it, she had rights. Being a buffalo, Bessie couldn’t be expected to know that, but her owner sure as hell should have. Especially since this certainly wasn’t the first time her farm had been invaded by his livestock. And what was keeping him anyhow? He lived on the next place over, and he’d had plenty of time to saddle up a horse or whatever. After pushing up her mental sleeves in preparation to do battle, Ria drew a deep breath and tried once more to scare the creature away, this time raising her voice to a near shout. “Shoo!” Again, nothing happened, except that the floor of the ancient porch seemed to ripple slightly under her feet as Bessie heaved her gritty brown bulk against the corner of the house. As if in answer to her exasperated wonderment of moments before, headlights swung in at the top of Ria’s long dirt driveway, and she heard wheels bumping over hard, rocky ruts as a large vehicle barreled toward the house. Mercifully distracted, Bessie stopped the awful bawling and the assault on the cottage, and Ria put her fingers to both temples and gave a sigh of angry relief as the tension-tight muscles between her shoulder blades relaxed slightly. As the rig drew nearer, she could make out the outlines of the trailer being hauled behind it. Bessie’s calf, invisible before, trotted out of the darkness and stood still in the cone-shaped gleam of the truck’s headlights. The animal didn’t seem frightened, as a deer or other wild creature would have been; instead, the calf remained where it was, giving a single, low grunt. A moment later, Bessie ambled over to stand beside her baby boy. Ria was astounded by this behavior, and annoyed, too. She’d been sure both animals would charge her if she dared step off the porch, but now they were acting like well-trained pets. Were they tame? Hard to believe, after the way they’d carried on like banshees with bellyaches, trampling her flower beds, trying to knock down her house. As casually as if the incident were no big deal, though admittedly an inconvenience on his part, Landry opened the truck door, activating the interior lights and thus becoming deliciously visible. He raised one hand to Ria in a desultory wave, got out of the vehicle and started toward the back of the trailer. He whistled once, low and through his teeth, and, miraculously, both buffalo obeyed the summons as readily as a pair of faithful farm dogs. Despite her earlier intention to avoid direct contact with her neighbor at all costs, Ria didn’t disappear into the house, shut the door and wait for Landry to retrieve his stray critters and leave, as she probably should have. Instead, she remained where she was, stubborn and indignant and, though this was completely unlike her, spoiling for a fight. She listened through the thrumming of her blood in her ears as Landry opened the rear door of the trailer, soon heard the metallic rasp of a ramp being lowered, the steely, resounding thump as one end struck the ground. Landry muttered some gruff command, and hooves clattered like thunder as two beasts the size of mastodons clattered up the ramp and into the trailer, which seemed too flimsy to contain them. An instant later, the ramp clanked back into place, and then the doors were closed with a bang and bolted shut. Go inside, Ria told herself. Let Landry Sutton take his stupid bison and get out of here. It was prudent advice, since no good could come of a confrontation, but Ria still couldn’t bring herself to back down. Anyway, it was too late to pretend she wasn’t at home, as she’d planned to do, since Landry had obviously seen her. Finally, the rancher rounded the truck and trailer, idly dusting his hands together as he moved, probably congratulating himself on a job well done. With just the wimpy porch bulb and the truck’s headlights to see by, Ria couldn’t make out his expression, but she didn’t need to, because she caught the brief flash of his grin. Cocky bastard. “It took you long enough to get here,” she blurted, folding her arms tightly across her chest, as if she were cold. She had a legitimate gripe, and she was still furious, but she regretted giving voice to the complaint, because instead of getting back into his truck, turning it around and heading out of there, he approached her. His walk was slow and easy, loose-hipped and damnably sexy. He came to a stop at the base of the porch steps, features awash in the light from the bulb beside the front door, and his grin was affable, generously tolerant and amused. “If they did any damage,” he said mildly, “just send me a bill.” No remorse at all. He thought the incident was funny. People like Landry—rich people—always seemed to think money was the solution to every problem. Ria’s belly twisted. She glared at Sutton—they were almost at eye level, since he was standing on the ground and she on the porch—and held her folded arms even more tightly against her chest. “Maybe you’ve heard the old saying?” she bit out. “‘Good fences make for good neighbors’?” Landry sobered a little, but a glint of mischief lingered in his eyes. “Do they?” he countered, charitably amenable. Condescending SOB. He was nettling her on purpose and, worse, he was enjoying it. Ria glowered back at him. She was a sensible person, so what was stopping her from just turning around, without another word, and marching straight into her house and slamming the door in his handsome face for good measure? No answer came to her. Landry sighed heavily, as though sorely put-upon, his broad shoulders rising and falling slightly as he inhaled and then thrust out a breath. “Look,” he said, sounding resigned now. “I’m sorry about what happened, but all I can do is apologize and make restitution—” “You could also build better fences,” Ria suggested tersely. Who was this snippy woman inhabiting her body? Her normal self was pleasant and friendly, at least most of the time, but there were things about Landry Sutton—some of them impossible to put into words—that just plain got on her last nerve and stayed there. Now he folded his arms. Was he doing that rapport thing, reflecting her stance? Trying to win her over with body language? Fat chance. “My fences,” he replied tautly, “are just fine. Most likely, somebody left a gate open somewhere, that’s all.” “That’s all?” Ria sputtered, still wondering why she was prolonging this conversation when all she wanted was to go back inside, take a hot bath, read for an hour and then fall into the warm oblivion of a good night’s sleep. Once she drifted off, she wouldn’t have to think about her too-sexy neighbor, her demanding half sister, Meredith, or the fact that she’d bought a flower farm in the heart of Podunk County, Montana, and was barely making a go of the enterprise, even without the perils of free-range buffalo. “These flowers aren’t just for decorating my yard, Mr. Sutton,” she added primly. “I earn a good part of my living selling them. I won’t know for certain until morning, when I can see clearly enough to assess the damage, but there’s a reasonable chance that some or all of my crop has been wiped out.” She sucked in a breath, huffed it out. “Surely, you can see why I’d be concerned?” Her tone implied that he couldn’t, being oblivious and all. At this, Landry looked both exasperated and apologetic. He sighed again, shoved a hand through his hair. “Yes,” he answered, in a measured tone. “If I didn’t say it before, I’m sorry.” “You didn’t,” Ria said briskly. She hadn’t intended to say what came out of her mouth next; it just happened, and she didn’t have the luxury of unsaying the words. “Why can’t you raise cattle or chickens or hogs or sheep, like everyone else around here? Why does it have to be buffalo?” A muscle tightened in Landry’s fine jaw, relaxed again, as if by force of will. “Well, for one thing, I’m not like ‘everyone else around here,’” he retorted. Then he narrowed his eyes, studied her for a long, scrumptiously uncomfortable moment and added, “And unless I miss my guess, Ms. Manning, you’re not, either.” Heat suffused Ria’s entire body, and a rush of—well, something—quivered in her belly and hardened her nipples and set her heart to pounding. All her life, she’d wanted to fit in, to belong, though something inside her always rebelled, in the end, causing her to go her own way instead of following the herd. She’d thought, until this night, until this instant, that no one else knew her secret, that she was different. Even her late husband, Frank, had never seen through the act, as intimate as they’d been, and now here was Landry Sutton, of all people, calling her out, subtly questioning the facade she’d worked so hard to maintain. Damn him. “Since this conversation is getting us nowhere,” she said, quietly reasonable, “it would probably be best if we said good-night.” The evening, balmy before, had grown chilly, and goose bumps rippled across Ria’s flesh. Conversely, her insides felt molten, like lava about to blow out the side of an otherwise tranquil mountainside. Landry chuckled, but it was a rueful sound, a little raw, a little broken. He looked away, looked back, and, inside the trailer, Bessie and her huge “calf” fidgeted impatiently, and it seemed possible, at least to Ria, that they might actually turn the whole thing over, right there in her driveway. “You’re probably right,” he conceded, without a trace of generosity. “But I’ll be back tomorrow. We can look the—crops—over together, and come to some kind of agreement.” A brief pause. “Not that I can really picture you agreeing with me about much of anything.” By then, Ria was fresh out of bluster and ready comebacks—civil ones anyhow. So she let the gibe pass, nodded stiffly and, at last, went back inside the cottage. Once over the threshold, she shut the door hard behind her and turned the dead bolt with a reverberating click. Through the door, she heard Landry Sutton laugh. * * * “THAT IS ONE hardheaded woman,” Landry remarked aloud as, back behind the wheel of his truck, he negotiated a wide U-turn and drove slowly back up Ria Manning’s driveway to the county road beyond. Minutes later, at his own place, he backed the trailer he’d borrowed from Zane up to a corral gate, got out of the truck and proceeded to release Bessie and her calf into the pasture at Hangman’s Bend. That done, he parked the truck, still hitched to the trailer, alongside the house. Thanks to Highbridge, light glowed in the kitchen windows, and Landry felt a shade less lonely—and less bleak—because, for the next little while anyway, he wouldn’t be alone. “Alone,” of course, was a relative term. He tended to a few chores in the barn, checking on the horses, making sure there was hay in every feeder and no debris in the waterers in the stalls and finally headed for his half-finished house. He’d borrowed the stock trailer from Walker Parrish, but there was no need to return it tonight. Anyhow, his muscles were starting to ache again, from the bronc ride that morning, and his pride wasn’t in great shape, either. Bad enough that he’d been thrown three times in front of half of Parable County; the confrontation with Ria Manning had left him feeling scraped raw on the inside. Okay, yeah, the lady had a right to be pissed off about the damage Bessie and her strapping calf might or might not have done to her property, but, hell, he’d offered to make good for that, hadn’t he? What else could he do, at this point? Damned if he had a single clue. One thing was abundantly clear, though—nothing he said or did was going to please Ria. She just flat-out didn’t like him, buffalo-on-the-loose notwithstanding, and while Landry didn’t usually give a rat’s ass about other people’s opinions, this was different. This time, with this particular woman, he cared. And that might have been the most troublesome part of all. Reaching the house, Landry crossed the flagstone patio and stepped into the kitchen, which was spacious and ultramodern, with travertine tiles on the floors, gleaming granite on the counters and the latest in top-of-the-line appliances. He nodded a greeting to his butler, Highbridge, before heading for one of several steel sinks to wash up a little. Highbridge, tall, skinny as a zipper turned sideways and exuding English dignity from every pore, stood with his hands clasped behind his back and his spine straight. For him, this was relaxed. “I trust the most recent—buffalo incident—is behind us?” he murmured, obviously stifling a smile. Landry dried his hands. “For the time being,” he conceded, a mite on the grumpy side now. Highbridge consulted his heirloom pocket watch, drawn from a special pocket in his long-tailed butler’s coat. Cleared his throat. “Will there be anything else, sir?” he asked. Landry moved to the oven—make that ovens—where his dinner awaited, carefully covered in foil and still warm. “No,” he responded tersely. “You can change out of that monkey suit and do whatever it is you do, once the workday’s over.” Using a potholder, he removed the plate from the oven, lifted a corner of the foil and peered beneath it. Cornish game hen, roasted to crispy perfection, wild rice, exquisitely seasoned, and green beans cooked up just the way Landry liked them best—boiled, with bacon and chopped onion. His mood might have been on the sour side, but his stomach rumbled with involuntary anticipation. Highbridge, usually anxious to vanish into his well-appointed quarters to watch some reality show on TV or, conversely, read from one of his vast collection of multivolume tomes, like Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, lingered. Cleared his throat again, a clear indication that there was more he wanted to say. With a silent curse, Landry carried his plate to the trestle table in the center of the vast room, where cutlery, a starched linen napkin and a glass of red wine awaited him, and sat down. “What?” he nearly barked. “Ms. Manning,” Highbridge began carefully. He faltered and made another attempt, but that failed, too, and he just stood there, hands still clasped behind his rigid back, looking reluctant and stubborn, both at once. “What about her?” Landry demanded, plunging a fork into the succulent game hen on his plate. “Well,” Highbridge ventured, “she did have something of a scare this evening, you must admit.” Even you. “Is she all right?” Landry reached for the saltshaker and proceeded to oversalt his food, mainly because he knew the act would bug his butler, who made every effort to serve healthy meals. Right or wrong, Landry felt like bugging somebody. “She’s as prickly as a porcupine with PMS,” Landry answered flatly. “I don’t know if she’s ‘all right,’ but she’s definitely her usual ornery self.” A corner of Highbridge’s normally unexpressive mouth quivered just slightly, though whether this indicated annoyance or amusement was anybody’s guess. Taking his etiquette cues from Henry VIII, Landry ripped off a drumstick and raised it to his mouth, bit into it, chewed and swallowed with lengthy deliberation, hoping Highbridge would take the hint and retire for the evening. Landry had, after all, used up his quota of words for the day, and felt no inclination to chat—especially if the subject of the exchange was Ria Manning. Yet again, Highbridge cleared his throat. “I see,” he said. Landry might have rolled his eyes, if he hadn’t been so busy chowing down on all that good food. After the day he’d put in, he was ravenous. “And?” he prompted pointedly. “Obviously, you have more to say. Spill it, okay?” Highbridge arched both bushy white eyebrows and stood his ground. “‘Spill it’?” he echoed, letting it be known that he considered the freewheeling use of slang one of America’s many lesser charms. “Explain,” Landry explained, and none too politely. “It’s just that Ms. Manning is a very nice, hardworking person,” Highbridge supplied. “Hardworking,” Landry conceded, somewhat testily now, “yes. ‘Nice’? I don’t think so.” “She has very good manners,” Highbridge insisted, sounding miffed. Landry paused in the act of devouring his supper and studied the butler solemnly. Highbridge, a man with a mysterious past, had been working for him since before he’d married Susan—a lifetime ago. “Really?” he replied. “I hadn’t noticed.” To Highbridge, hard work and good manners were everything. Reasons enough, as far as he was concerned, to overlook proclivities ranging from littering to international terrorism. “You do understand that Ms. Manning is a widow?” Highbridge went on. “Yes,” Landry admitted, thinking of the wide gold wedding band on Ria’s left-hand ring finger. If she was wearing it after all this time, it followed that she was still hung up on her dead husband. An oddly discouraging insight. And where was this conversation headed, exactly? He had no idea. “So I’ve been told,” he finished. Highbridge sighed, as though balancing the unwieldy weight of the world on his narrow shoulders. “If there’s nothing else—” Landry leveled a look at his only full-time employee, a look that said Highbridge should have gone off duty hours ago. Some of Zane’s ranch hands moonlighted for Landry now and then, and a cleaning lady came in three times a week, but other than that, Highbridge was the whole staff. When a picture of the butler dressed to ride the range popped into Landry’s mind, complete with a Stetson, a sun squint and woolly chaps, he had to smile. “Have a good night,” he said. Highbridge nodded, with his usual formality, and left the kitchen. Once he was gone, a rush of fresh loneliness passed through Landry, which was crazy, because Highbridge wasn’t the type to shoot the breeze, whatever the time of day, but there it was. He finished his dinner, imagining how things were on his brother’s half of the ranch, over beyond the creek. By now, Cleo would have come back from town and made supper, and after the meal, Brylee would have chased the housekeeper off, good-naturedly, of course, so she and Zane could clear the table and load the dishwasher. They’d talk about their day—Zane, no doubt, would offer a comical account of Landry’s bronc-riding episode, and Brylee would elbow him and tell him to be nice, and then she’d blush as they both remembered summer-afternoon lovemaking. Whoa, Landry thought, derailing his previous train of thought by shoving his chair back from the table and getting to his feet. He carried the remains of his supper—gourmet fare by anybody’s standards, so he had no business complaining on that score—over to the sink. There, he tossed the bones in the trash bin and scraped and then rinsed his plate and stowed it in the machine, along with his utensils and the wineglass. Maddie Rose Sutton had raised her boys to clean up after themselves, swearing she wasn’t about to unleash a couple of slobs on a world full of women who had enough to do as it was, without kid-gloving some man. By now, it was a habit. Landry stood still, there at the sink, remembering his mom. She’d had it tough, Maddie Rose had, but she’d never complained, as far as he could recall. Just when he was getting established and Zane was about to sign the contract to make his first movie, and they could have been assets to their mother for once, instead of liabilities, she’d come down with a case of flu that turned out to be some virulent strain of leukemia instead. After a week in a small hospital in the backwater Dakota town where she’d been waiting tables for the past few months, Maddie Rose had breathed her last. Worse, she’d been alone when the time came, except for a friend or two from the café where she’d worked. He and Zane had both been far away, doing their own thing, blissfully unaware that Maddie Rose’s flu wasn’t flu at all. Once they were informed, it was too late to say goodbye, or thank you, or I love you, Mom. Landry sighed. Maybe one of these days, he’d be able to think of his mother without guilt and regret, but, just now, that day seemed far off. He should have been there for her—Zane, too. The way she’d always been there for them. He was just about to shut off the lights and retreat to his bedroom, to read or watch TV or maybe just lie down and stare at the ceiling with his hands cupped behind his head, waiting in vain for sleep, when the wall phone rang. Landry scowled at the thing for a moment or two, tempted to ignore it. Unlike the phones in his bedroom and home office, this one hadn’t come equipped with caller ID, wasn’t even cordless. Highbridge’s doing, he recalled grimly—the butler didn’t entirely approve of too much modern technology, was suspicious of what he considered unwarranted convenience. So Landry picked up the receiver, in case something was wrong over at Zane and Brylee’s, or those damn buffalo had broken through a fence line somewhere and made for Ria’s flowers again. He answered with a rather brisk “Hello?” If the caller turned out to be a telemarketer or a survey taker, he might just take the person’s head off, long-distance. The reply was a low, rumbling laugh, gratingly familiar. “Landry? Is that you, boy?” Jess Sutton—his father. “What do you want?” Landry asked. He didn’t hear from the old man for years at a time, and when he did, it was because a favor was about to be asked, so there was no point in beating around the proverbial bush. Jess gave another chuckle. “Is that any way to talk to your old dad?” he chided, with just the slightest edge in his voice. Landry said nothing. He knew what was coming, and saw no reason to make it easy. His father sighed, long-suffering, patient as the day was long. As if. “I was wondering how Nash is doing,” Jess went on quietly, letting it be known that he was hurt but magnanimous enough to generously overlook the injury. “In that case,” Landry replied, frowning, “why didn’t you call Zane and Brylee’s place? Nash lives with them—but I guess you were aware of that, since you signed him over like a quit-claim deed.” A long silence followed; then Jess cleared his throat. “Hell, Landry,” he finally muttered, “I know I was a lousy father to all three of you. No need to rub it in.” Landry relented, but only a little. “Lousy” didn’t begin to describe the kind of parent Jess Sutton had been—back when he and Zane were growing up, the man had mostly steered clear, and they’d liked it that way. After a while anyhow. At first, they’d missed him to the point of genuine pain. They’d waited for him to change, come and get them and their mother, bring them home for good. They’d all live happily ever after then, like a real family. Not. “Okay,” Landry said. “But I’d still like to know why you’d call here looking for Nash, when you know he’s elsewhere.” “Zane and I don’t get along very well,” Jess said, aggrieved. He never seemed to relate consequences to anything he’d said or done, but that was nothing new. Most likely, he regarded himself as the innocent victim of betrayal, misunderstanding and just plain bad luck. “He won’t ask you for child support, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Landry supplied ungenerously. Zane had had himself a successful movie career, a kind of lucky fluke, before he’d come to Three Trees to settle down and marry Brylee, and money wasn’t a problem. “Do you ever let up?” Jess asked sadly. Poor, beleaguered Jess Sutton. Good-looking, smooth-talking and not worth the powder it would take to blow him to hell. “Look,” Landry replied, wishing he hadn’t answered the call in the first place, “as far as I know, Nash is fine. He’s grown about a foot in the last year, he does all right in school, he likes girls and he’s rodeo-crazy. All pretty normal.” If only Jess actually cared about any of those things, or about the boy himself. The truth was, asking about Nash was just a way in, a conversation starter. “I’m in a little trouble,” Jess said, after another silence, this one so long that Landry had been about to hang up, thinking the connection had been broken, when the man finally spoke. Landry closed his eyes. Waited. Here it comes. “Are you still there?” Jess asked. “I’m still here,” Landry confirmed, opening his eyes again, shoving his free hand through his hair. He’d been expecting this, but that didn’t make it any easier to handle. “I need a small loan,” Jess thrust out. Landry felt a stab of pity then, but he didn’t let on—not because he was trying to spare his father’s pride, though. Jess was the classic con man, always on the lookout for a soft spot, and if he found one, he’d zero in on it like a suicide bomber. “How small?” Landry asked. With Jess, the word loan was a misnomer. Handout was the better word, since he had no intention of paying it back. “Five thousand dollars,” Jess said, and now the edge was back in his voice. Landry gave a low whistle. Five thousand dollars wasn’t a lot of money to him personally, not these days anyway, but it was still a respectable sum, hard to come by for most people. “Go on,” he said. “You want an explanation?” Jess asked, testy all of a sudden. It was an interesting approach, considering he was the one in need of some help. “Yeah,” Landry said. “I guess I do. What happened this time?” Jess took his time answering; he might be sulking, but he could be making up a story, too. Finally, he launched into his spiel, and damned if it didn’t sound like the truth, for once. “I got into this private poker game down here in Reno—one of those backroom kind that aren’t entirely legal—and I was doing real good for a while, before my luck went sour. These guys aren’t the kind to wait around for their winnings, son. They’ll have their money or a strip of my hide if I don’t pay them, pronto.” Landry shook his head, tired, disgusted and sore all over. “Damn it,” he muttered, “why did you get into the game in the first place, if you were broke?” “I anted up a hundred dollars,” Jess said defensively. “That’s all. Before I knew it, I was up a couple of grand, and it was still early, so I couldn’t just cash out and leave everybody high and dry, now, could I?” Shit, Landry thought. “Of course you couldn’t,” he rasped. Jess didn’t pick up on the irony. Or maybe he just figured he couldn’t afford to remark on it. “I started losing, as the night went on,” he said hurriedly, as though talking fast would convince Landry that he ought to ride to the rescue, “but I figured things would start going my way again, so I gave my I.O.U. and—” “And now you’re down five grand?” Landry supplied, when Jess fell silent. “I’m only down three, actually,” Jess admitted. “But I’ve got some other bills to pay before I can leave town.” “To go where?” Landry asked. He didn’t really care what the destination was, as long as it wasn’t Hangman’s Bend. “Boise, I guess,” Jess speculated. “I know some people there.” “Right,” Landry answered. Jess “knew some people” just about everywhere. Trouble was, if he hadn’t slept with their wives or girlfriends, he probably owed most of them money. Maybe both. “I’ve only got till tomorrow morning, when the banks open, to pay up,” Jess went on. “Once these guys find out I can’t make good on my marker, they’re going to want blood.” He sucked in an audible breath. “My blood. Are you going to help me out, or not?” Landry let his forehead rest against the door of the cupboard directly above the wall phone. He knew he’d be enabling the old man if he gave him the five thousand, making bad matters worse. Still, the alternative—the strong likelihood that his dad would wind up sprawled in some back alley, beaten and bloody, or even dead—was no good, either. “Where do I send it?” Landry asked. CHAPTER THREE RIA BARELY SLEPT that night, one moment worrying about her financial future and the next, lusting after Mr. Wrong, that being Landry Sutton, the first man she’d really been attracted to since Frank’s death. With widow guilt compounding physical and emotional exhaustion, she was out of the house as soon as the sun rose, taking no time for coffee, let alone breakfast. Those things could wait. Right now she wanted a good look at whatever havoc the buffalo had—or hadn’t—wreaked on her farm, without Landry there to gauge her every reaction. Or to guess somehow that she’d lost sleep wondering what he looked like without a shirt, what it would be like if he kissed her or to feel the weight of that hard, uncompromisingly masculine body of his poised over hers, then settling into her softness and, finally, claiming her... “Stop it!” Ria ordered her inner love slave, right out loud, as she marched through the still-dewy grass in the front yard, bent on inspecting poppies and daisies and other colorful residents of her flower beds, performing a sort of horticultural triage. Some plants, she soon discovered, had been squashed, or even uprooted, but to her surprise and relief, most of the blossoms had survived. Ready for a new day, they were already raising their brightly colored faces toward the big sky and the first promise of sunshine. Hardly daring to hope everything would be all right after all, Ria trudged over to the field of zinnias, a glorious ground quilt of red and magenta, orange and gold, pink and purple and white. There was no evidence of the buffalo invasion here, no tracks in the fertile soil, no broken stems and stripped petals. She was moving on to the field of gerbera daisies, which abutted the carnations, when she saw Landry’s truck turn into her driveway, glinting silver in the morning light. Although her first impulse was to dive between the rows of multicolored daisies and hide there until her visitor gave up and left, Ria planted her sneakered feet firmly and stood her ground, lifting her chin a jot to convince herself, as well as Landry, that she wasn’t intimidated, and waited. Landry parked the truck at the edge of the field, got out and strolled toward her in that easy, rolling-hipped way of men who were used to meeting challenges and coming out on top. Ria gulped. Unfortunate choice of words, she thought, glad she hadn’t voiced the observation out loud. Sunlight danced in Landry’s hair and lent him a full-body aura of glittering gold, and last night’s fantasies rushed to the surface of Ria’s skin, fiercely visceral now, and pulsed there, dangerous and primitive and absolutely delectable. She frowned hard, hoping Landry wouldn’t pick up on the fact that she was ridiculously attracted to him, physically, at least—a man she didn’t even like. Maybe her friends back in Portland were right—she’d been too quick to start over in a new place, among strangers, wasn’t over the trauma of losing Frank, needed grief therapy, not a change of scene. Landry’s smile was taut, but it still opened a trapdoor in the pit of Ria’s stomach and made her heart pound under her lightweight sweatshirt. “Well,” he said, coming to a stop one row over from where she stood, and she almost giggled at the contrast between his blatant self-confidence and all those delicate flowers at his feet, “what’s the verdict?” Ria felt a blush climb her neck and throb in her cheeks. Damn it. “There doesn’t seem to be any real harm done,” she finally managed, after reminding herself that Landry had told her he’d be stopping by, and so what if she hadn’t believed him for a second? She’d just have to deal. “No thanks to your marauding buffalo.” Even as Ria spoke, she was measuring the shadows under his eyes, the tight lines of his jaw, the hard set of his shoulders. He hadn’t shaved, she noticed, and the effect was disturbingly appealing. You’ve been alone too long, girl, Ria thought. For one terrible moment, she thought she’d spoken aloud, because Landry gave a rough bark of laughter, as if he’d heard her. He tilted his magnificent head to one side and studied her as though he couldn’t quite get a handle on whatever it was that made her tick. Dressed the way he was, in jeans and a long-sleeved green cotton work shirt and beat-up boots caked with manure, it was hard to picture Landry in his former incarnation, managing a multibillion-dollar international investment fund back in Chicago, where he’d surely have worn three-piece suits, custom-tailored, of course, and paid hundreds of dollars for a haircut. This morning, he was all cowboy. All man. “You sound disappointed,” he observed, after a few moments, his tone on the dry side. “That your crops aren’t lying in ruin, I mean.” Ria’s blush went from mild to moderate to off-the-charts, all in the space of a second or so. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she sputtered. “Of course I’m not disappointed—” Landry laughed again, though this time it was more of a chuckle, and there was a rawness to the sound that pinched her heart—the heart she wished she could harden at will, but couldn’t. She didn’t need all these crazy feelings, didn’t want them. “You’re hell-bent on hating me, aren’t you?” he asked, very quietly. Almost gently. “Why is that, Ria?” Nervously, Ria twisted Frank’s wedding band on her finger, trying to ground herself. Landry’s gaze followed the gesture unerringly. “I don’t hate you,” she said lamely. “I just don’t happen to like you very much.” Again, he laughed, and the sound stirred things inside Ria that were better left alone. “Why not?” he asked. The question stumped Ria, at least briefly, and left her slightly embarrassed. “Because—well, because—” While she faltered, searching for something sensible to offer in reply, Landry stepped over the row of tall orange zinnias between them and stood facing her, so close she could feel the heat and the hard substance of his flesh. “Because—?” he prompted. One side of his mouth crooked up slightly, but the expression in his blue eyes was solemn, even a little bleak. Ria squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, prepared to brazen her way through to goodbye, see you around, get lost, and finally took a stab at putting her opinion into words. “Because you’re—I don’t know—too good-looking.” His eyes twinkled. They were the most startling shade of blue. Was he wearing colored contacts? And were those impossibly white teeth genuine, or cosmetically altered? “Excuse me?” he said. Ria was mortified, but she forged ahead anyway. “And you know it,” she added. He frowned, looking confused. “I do?” Ria folded her arms, drew a deep breath, huffed it out again. “You’d have to be blind not to,” she retorted. “That’s my big crime?” Landry asked, after a brief, charged silence had passed. “Being ‘too good-looking’ and ‘knowing it’?” She didn’t have the first idea what to say to that. She’d gotten herself into this, and she’d have to get herself out, but she’d be darned if she could see how that was going to happen. That was when Landry cupped one hand, calloused and gentle, under her chin, tipping her face up slightly, so that their gazes locked and their breaths mingled. Right there in that field of sunlight and dazzling color and sweet-scented breezes, he bent his head, and he kissed her. At first, Landry’s lips merely brushed against hers, but before Ria could so much as catch her breath, and certainly before she could recover from the shock of pleasure jolting through her like a series of violent earthquakes, Landry deepened the kiss. Ria moaned, knowing she should resist, pull back, make a run for it—and completely unable to do any of those things. Instead, she gave herself up to that incredible kiss, and to the man administering it, without reservation. The windswept depths of her need, a vast and lonely canyon yawning within her, terrified her, even as thrill after sweet thrill rolled through her. She wanted to run away. Conversely, she wanted more of Landry, more than the kiss. Right here, right now. Yikes. She’d been intimate with one man in her entire life—her husband—and now here she was, ready to make love in the open, under the morning sun. In the end, Landry was the one who withdrew, his breathing ragged, his gaze fixed on something—or someone—far off in the distance. When he looked back at Ria, though, an impish light danced in his eyes. “That’s why you think you don’t like me,” he said. Ria blinked, still dazed by the kiss and the internal ruckus it had caused, trying to firm up her melted knees by sheer force of will. “What?” she muttered, when she figured she could speak coherently again. Landry’s crooked grin was mildly insolent, maddening in the extreme, and downright sexy. “You’re afraid of me,” he said easily. Ria opened her mouth to protest, to tell Landry Sutton that she thought he was a smug, overconfident son of a bitch and, furthermore, she wasn’t at all scared of him, so he shouldn’t flatter himself that she was. But this time, nothing came out. Not a whisper, not a squeak. Landry, meanwhile, reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind Ria’s right ear. “Admit it,” he said. “You’re afraid of the things I might make you feel if you ever gave me a chance to get too close to you. You’d have to let go, and that’s a risk you don’t want to take.” The gall of the man. A fresh surge of fury rushed through Ria then, and she fairly trembled with it. “You have to be the vainest, most obnoxious person on earth,” she burst out, though she wasn’t sure exactly who she was more put out with at the moment, Landry or herself. If she hadn’t let the man kiss her, or if she’d made even the slightest effort to pretend the sensation of his mouth on hers hadn’t shifted the very core of her, if she hadn’t been instantly and obviously aroused... Landry was still grinning, the self-satisfied bastard. “It just so happens,” Ria snapped, reconnoitering, “that you don’t ‘make me feel’ anything, Mr. Sutton!” He arched a skeptical eyebrow, folded his arms and waited without speaking for her to continue. “Except,” she qualified, well aware that the conversation was now careening downhill and unable to put on the brakes, “an overwhelming urge to slap you right into the next county!” At that, Landry actually threw back his head and gave a raspy shout of laughter. “You’re just lucky I’m not a violent person,” Ria said. She was digging herself in deeper with every word, and she knew it. Why couldn’t she just shut up? Landry had stopped laughing, but mischief sparked like blue fire in his eyes as he looked directly down into her face, and maybe into her soul, where she stashed her deepest secrets. “Prove it,” he said. “Prove what?” Ria demanded, disgruntled and overheated, even though it was still too early in the day for the temperature to climb. “That I’m not a violent person? I think I just proved that by not striking you or running you through with the nearest pitchfork.” Slowly, Landry shook his head from side to side, as though marveling, albeit sympathetically, at the ravings of a dimwit. “No,” he drawled, in a voice so low and so quiet that it felt—well—intimate, like a caress. He leaned in toward her, until their noses were almost touching. “Prove that you’re immune to me,” he breathed. “That shouldn’t be difficult, now, should it? Not unless the lady protests too much, that is.” Part of Ria reconsidered finding a pitchfork and using it feloniously. Another part of her, one she barely recognized as belonging to her, wanted to rise to Landry’s challenge, prove once and for all that, unlike a lot of other women probably, she could live without him. Happily. “That’s crazy,” she said, after some mental scrambling. “I don’t have to prove anything to you or to anybody else.” “How about to yourself?” Landry asked reasonably—so reasonably that Ria thought about breaking her personal code of behavior and slapping him after all. No, punching him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied, heading for the edge of the field now, her stride brisk and purposeful. And slightly desperate. “The hell you don’t,” Landry said, keeping pace easily, since his legs were so much longer than hers. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. That kiss was nuclear, at least on my side, and you’ll have to go some to convince me you didn’t feel some of the same things I did.” “I’m not trying to convince you of anything,” Ria argued, afraid to look at Landry, because if she did, she might just hurl herself into his arms, wrestle him to the grass right there where the flower fields and the lawn met and have her way with him. In broad daylight. Oh, God, she thought. What was wrong with her? She’d loved Frank passionately—she had—but the best climax she’d ever reached making love with her husband hadn’t rattled her as much as the one and only kiss she’d shared with Landry Sutton. In the shade of a venerable maple tree, one with some of the lower branches stripped of leaves, almost certainly a casualty of the most recent buffalo raid, Landry caught hold of Ria’s elbow and stopped her. His grasp was gentle, but firm, and it sent fresh waves of wanting roaring through her. “You’re right,” he ground out, glowering down at her now. “You don’t have to convince me of anything. You don’t need to prove a damn thing. But something’s going on between us, Ria, and maybe you’re too cowardly to find out what it is, but I’m not.” Her throat thickened, closed tight. She didn’t pull away, didn’t speak, didn’t move at all. Landry sighed, loosened his hold on her arm, slid his hand down to close his fingers around hers. “I’m not asking you to sleep with me, Ria.” She met his gaze directly, there in the soft shade of that old tree. “Then what are you asking me?” she replied, in a near whisper. Her heart felt winged, like something caged, flailing against the bars, frantic to break free and go soaring into that big sky arching high over their heads. At last, Landry smiled. It wasn’t a mocking grin; it wasn’t a smirk. It was a genuine smile. And Ria realized, much to her chagrin, that she was helpless against it. It rocked her first, then settled over her heart like some invisible balm. When Landry finally answered her question, she was panicking again, and she could barely hear him over the hum in her ears. “There’s a party at the Boot Scoot Tavern, over in Parable, this Saturday night. It’s a sort of kickoff before the rodeo starts, and half the county will be there, so nothing drastic will happen. Between us, I mean.” Nothing drastic? Even as she mentally catalogued the most obvious reasons why she should refuse—she’d be tired and grubby after a long day at the farmers’ market, selling flowers, and crowd or no crowd, the proposed evening amounted to a date, and what were the implications of that?—Ria was stunned to find herself on the verge of agreeing. Was she losing her mind? She wasn’t much of a drinker, after all, and she had no clue what else there was to do in a bar. Again, Landry seemed to be reading her mind, a disconcerting thing. “If you won’t trust yourself,” he said, “how about trusting me?” “I do trust myself,” Ria insisted. Not so much, argued a snarky voice in her head. Landry smiled again, and spread his hands wide in a well-then kind of gesture. “Great,” he said. “Then we don’t have a problem. I’ll pick you up around seven—we’ll have some dinner and head for the Boot Scoot.” With that, he nodded a farewell and started off toward his truck. “Just a minute,” Ria called after him. He paused, perhaps ten feet away from her, the sun in his hair, his eyes lively with amusement and something less easily defined. “What?” It’s not too late to beg off. Make an excuse—do something! “What do people—women, that is—wear at the Boot-whatever-tavern?” Had she really and truly just asked him such a 1950s kind of question? Brylee could have clued her in on the dress code, or Casey Parrish, both of whom were good friends. Damn, what was up with her mouth? Landry’s gaze glided over Ria, from head to foot, with a look of appreciation and, strangely, nothing that even vaguely resembled mockery. “I figure you’d look good in just about anything,” he told her gruffly, “and even better in nothing at all. But the Boot Scoot isn’t fancy, so jeans and something short-sleeved will do. It gets hot in there when there’s a crowd.” Ria opened her mouth, closed it again. There was still time to call off the whole crazy idea—she was no cowgirl: she didn’t ride horses or dance to ballads on a jukebox or anything like that—but, for some reason she refused to examine too closely, she didn’t call it off. Landry reached his truck, turned long enough to nod an amiable goodbye and got behind the wheel. He was driving away by the time Ria collected her scattered wits, willed some strength into her legs and headed for the house. The wall phone was ringing as she stepped inside and, in need of an immediate distraction, she answered—in spite of the fact that the caller was Meredith—a robotic voice had already announced that. “Hello,” Ria said tersely. She could almost see her half sister recoil at the tone of the greeting. “Ria?” Meredith asked, sounding wary. “Is that you?” Ria thrust out a sigh. No, she thought. The real Ria has been abducted by aliens and replaced by a reckless and wanton woman determined to play with fire. If she and Meredith had been close, like other sisters, they could have talked about Landry Sutton and the way he riled her, hammered out some of the whys and wherefores. Ria might have confided in an older and wiser Meredith that she was scared and confused and horny as hell, all at once. But she and Meredith weren’t close. “Yes,” Ria finally replied, with another sigh. “It’s me.” Meredith’s voice brightened. Enough small talk—time to move in for the kill. “Have you given my offer any thought?” she trilled sweetly, immediately setting Ria’s teeth on edge. Her offer? Last night’s voice mail had sounded more like an order than a request—come to Seattle, straighten out the financial mess at the branch office there, or else Daddy will turn over in his grave, heads will roll, all will be lost. Yada yada yada. “I can’t get away right now,” Ria said. “Sorry.” A stricken silence ensued. Meredith had a gift for conveying disappointment and disapproval without saying a word, either in person or over the phone. “I guess I didn’t make the situation clear in my message,” Meredith ventured, after several moments. “Things are dire, Ria. There could be an audit, a scandal, even indictments—” Not my problem, Ria thought, without bitterness. When their father had died, the business, as well as the bulk of his fortune, had gone to Meredith, the daughter of Dad’s first and only love, his beloved Marjory. Ria, being the child of a trophy wife who’d earned her living as a Las Vegas showgirl before hooking up with a wealthy Portland businessman, had gotten a few thousand dollars, the used car one of the maids had driven while running errands and a subtle-but-still-plain “don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” And she’d never felt a moment’s resentment, not over the inheritance anyway—only profound and lasting relief. Wealth was fine for others, Ria supposed, but she preferred simplicity and the freedom that came with it. For her, enough really was enough. “Meredith,” she said calmly, after drawing a deep, preparatory breath, “please tell me you haven’t done anything illegal.” She did care what happened to her sister; it was just that she didn’t feel responsible for smoothing Meredith’s way. Meredith immediately bristled, insulted by the very suggestion. “Of course I haven’t done anything illegal!” “But you want me to break the law?” Ria asked, keeping her voice mild. “I didn’t say that,” Meredith protested, snappish now, and unable to hide the fact. “You didn’t have to, Meredith,” Ria said. “You want me to go to the Seattle office and ‘straighten things out’—isn’t that the gist of it? In other words, I’m supposed to cover someone’s tracks—maybe even doctor the books—wave some fiscal wand and make the whole thing go away.” Meredith was even more affronted than before; Ria didn’t have to see her sister’s cameo-perfect face to know that. “So you’re not going to help?” she asked, after a very long time. “You’re really not going to help?” “Meredith,” Ria responded, “I can’t help. What’s done is done—from what you’ve told me, there’s nothing to do now but deal with the fallout.” She paused, bit her lower lip, then tentatively added, “Besides, I have a life here.” “Oh, absolutely,” Meredith sniped, obviously still smarting over Ria’s refusal to do what she wanted. People generally did what Meredith wanted—it was easier that way. Indignation rose into the back of Ria’s throat and tightened there, like a tiny ball of rusted barbed wire. Normally, she would have allowed the gibe to pass—after all, it had been implied, rather than stated outright—but something had changed. Ria, always ready to lend a hand before, even when she shouldn’t have, wasn’t the same person she’d been when she’d woken up that morning, the woman she’d been before—before— Before Landry Sutton kissed you. “Look,” Ria said firmly, “I’m proud of who I am and what I do for a living. Maybe I’m not setting the financial world on fire, like you, but my flowers are beautiful, and they brighten people’s lives.” Meredith waited a beat before replying. “Of course, dear,” she said, her tone acidly sweet and, therefore, completely condescending. “You brighten people’s lives. But does your little business even begin to pay the bills? Where would you be without Frank’s life-insurance money bringing in quarterly dividends? And what about that big salary Whittingford International paid you, after college? If you hadn’t socked away most of that—” Ria sucked in a breath, rubbed at one temple with the fingers of her right hand, trying to forestall a tension headache. Whittingford International, her father’s company, and now Meredith’s, had indeed paid her well, but she’d worked twelve-and sixteen-hour days to earn that paycheck, too. It was only after she’d married Frank, a firefighter, that she’d cut back on her time at the office. “You know what, Meredith?” she shot back. “None of that is any of your business. I’ve earned what I have, such as it is. And in approximately one second, I’m going to hang up, so, not to be rude, goodbye.” Meredith started to say something more, but the allotted second had passed by then, so Ria put the phone receiver back on the hook. The ringing began again as she walked rigidly to the other side of the kitchen, took a water glass from one of the cupboards, filled it and drank every drop. She would have liked to ask about her seventeen-year-old niece, Quinn, the only loving relative, now that her mother was gone, that Ria had left. She was close to Meredith’s daughter and they usually stayed in touch, via email and texts, but she hadn’t heard from the girl in over a week. Was something wrong? Unfortunately, Ria and Meredith didn’t have that kind of relationship. They didn’t talk about family, or anything else that was purely personal. The bristly exchange just past was all too typical. For a moment, Ria considered calling Quinn directly; she knew her niece’s cell number by heart, but she decided to wait awhile, until she’d weeded and watered and fertilized a few rows of zinnias. That way, she could work off some of her irritation and not have it spilling over into her conversation with Quinn. She headed for the field, worked until she was sweating and her nose was surely peeling from too much direct sunlight—she’d forgotten to put on the blue baseball cap she usually wore when she spent more than a few minutes outside—and was on her way back to the house to clean up and have a light lunch when she heard the jaunty honk of a car horn and looked up to see Brylee Sutton’s SUV rolling along the driveway. Ria smiled, made for the edge of the lawn and waited. Brylee stopped the rig and got out, smiling that warm, wide smile of hers. As always, her dog, Snidely, was riding shotgun, and he leaped across the seats and down to the ground to stand benignly at his mistress’s side. Brylee, her beautiful brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, held out a cloth-covered basket, the contents exuding a marvelous butter/cinnamon/sugar smell. “Hope we’re not interrupting or anything,” she said, meaning herself and Snidely. “It’s just that I’ve been on another of my baking jags.” Ria was genuinely glad to see her friend, though she suspected there was more to this visit than an overabundance of baked goods. “Come on inside,” she said. * * * LANDRY CAUGHT UP to Zane over at his place, where he was standing just outside the barn, next to Blackjack, his gelding. Bent at the waist, Zane was in the process of checking the animal’s right rear hoof for pebbles or burrs, and while he didn’t stop what he was doing or straighten his back, his eyes blazed at Landry. “Say what?” he growled, in response to Landry’s opening statement. Landry sighed, rubbed his beard-stubbled chin. The jangly state of his insides had nothing to do with the five thousand he’d sent to their dad, via the internet, or with Zane’s clear disapproval—and everything to do with the lingering scent of Ria Manning and the crazy effects of just one kiss. “I’m not here to confess my sins and get your absolution, bro,” he said. “I just thought you ought to know the old man is up to something again, that’s all. In case he turns up in person with a plan to cause trouble.” Young Nash, their half brother, nowhere to be seen at the moment, was settling in at Hangman’s Bend just fine, but, like any kid, he wanted to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that his father loved him. And that meant the boy was susceptible to Jess’s influence, easily manipulated. Vulnerable. Jess wouldn’t hesitate to promise the boy everything there was to promise, use him to achieve some purpose of his own—most likely gouging one or both his older sons for more money—and then abandon the kid all over again. Slowly, Zane let go of Blackjack’s shin, walked away from the horse and set the hoof pick on top of a nearby fence post. “Did Jess say he was headed here?” he asked, his tone as taut as his expression. “To Montana?” “Not exactly,” Landry answered, simultaneously shaking his head no. “But he’s been gambling, and I think he’s in deep—probably deeper than he admitted to me. Even if he settles up with the badasses he told me about over the phone last night, that doesn’t mean the heat is off.” He paused, sighed. “I think his life is in danger, Zane.” “And I think you’re a world-class sucker,” Zane answered, but some of the tension drained from his face and the stiffness in his shoulders eased a little. Lightly, he slapped Landry on the back. “Let’s go inside and talk awhile.” CHAPTER FOUR THE DRIVER OF the semi pulled in at a busy truck stop on the outskirts of Three Trees, Montana, reined in the big machine with a squeal of brakes and smiled over at Quinn Whittingford. His eyes were sad and gentle, in a way that made seventeen-year-old Quinn miss having a dad just that much more. He glanced at the ragtag little dog cuddled in her arms, then looked into her face again. “You sure you’ll be all right?” the man asked quietly. His name was Tim Anderson, and there was a snapshot of a pretty woman and three small girls affixed to the driver’s-side visor. His wife and daughters, he’d told Quinn earlier. He’d picked her up back at that last rest stop, somewhere in southern Idaho, late the night before. “That little fella can’t offer much protection, much as he might want to.” Quinn held the gray-and-white critter she’d named Bones, after finding him alone and hungry, possibly lost but more likely abandoned, maybe five minutes before Mr. Anderson had stopped at the rest stop to stretch his legs and avail himself of some free coffee. He’d already given Quinn the standard lecture on the dangers of hitchhiking, offering her his cell phone so she could call home and let her “folks” know she was okay, but, obviously, he was still concerned. She knew he was a good person, and that she’d been lucky to catch a ride with him, considering some of the stuff that could have happened. Quinn had endured the speech, but since she planned on becoming a cop after college, or even an FBI agent, and she’d seen all the shows on the ID network about rapists and serial killers, she wasn’t completely clueless. Not, she silently admitted, that her behavior was any indication she knew better than to take such a risk. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “Thanks.” Tim Anderson nodded. “You be careful, now,” he said as she pushed open the heavy door of the truck, slung her backpack over one T-shirted shoulder and climbed down onto the running board and then the pavement, careful not to drop Bones in the process. “Sure you don’t want to use my cell phone? Call your mom and dad?” he asked again. “I’m sure,” Quinn said politely. She didn’t have a dad, actually, and her mom was probably relieved that she was gone—if she’d even noticed yet. She had a cell of her own tucked into her backpack, but the battery was stone dead, and she hadn’t mentioned it, for whatever reason. “Thanks again.” She stepped back, and smoke billowed from the truck’s gleaming stacks. The horn blew once, a shrill salute, Tim Anderson waved goodbye from behind what seemed like an acre of windshield and Quinn silently asked herself a question she’d kept at bay until then: what she’d do if Ria turned her away. Though she’d always been close to her aunt, it was at least remotely possible that Ria was busy with her new life and didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with a teenage runaway. Still, she couldn’t, wouldn’t go home, not only because she was seriously on the outs with her mother, who preferred to be addressed as “Meredith,” claiming that being called “Mom” made her feel ancient, but because Bones would almost certainly wind up in a shelter if she did. Meredith didn’t like dogs—or cats, either, for that matter. They were too messy, she claimed, too much trouble, always needing something. Like a kid, maybe? Furthermore, all the carpets in the upscale Portland condominium the two of them had been sharing for most of Quinn’s life were a pristine white. And the house rules were strict. No shoes allowed past the tiled entryway. No eating or drinking outside the kitchen, at the table or the breakfast bar. No watching television or listening to music in the living room. The whole setup reminded Quinn of one big and very weird game of hopscotch—whatever she did, she had to be careful not to step on the lines. Naturally she never invited friends over; she’d have to police their every move, as well as her own, if she did. So, when she wasn’t at school, Quinn spent most of her time holed up in her bedroom, and even there, she felt like some kind of hostage. She’d been over at her friend Rosalie’s place, cruising social-media sites on her tablet while Rosalie used the desktop in the family room—family room, what a concept—when Meredith had called and turned an ordinary day upside down. Quinn and Rosalie had been having a great time until Quinn’s cell phone rang, and Meredith instructed her, crisply and with no preamble at all, to come home and pack. At the last minute, she’d found a summer camp with an opening—Quinn hadn’t even known she was looking for one—and promptly signed her daughter up for nearly three months of arts, crafts and songs around the campfire. She’d be leaving first thing in the morning, from the parking lot at their church, by bus. Koombah-freakin-yah, Quinn had thought, as an overwhelming sense of hopeless misery settled over her. She’d reminded Meredith that camp was for kids—that she was seventeen, not seven—and she’d be perfectly all right spending the summer at home. Why, in one more year, she’d pointed out, her temper gathering momentum, she’d be going off to college, for Pete’s sake. Meredith, being Meredith, hadn’t listened. She’d insisted that Quinn would make new friends at Camp Winna-Whatever and have a wonderful time swimming and hiking and breathing in all that fresh air. In other words, it was a done deal, and there would be no negotiations. Obviously, Quinn’s mom wanted a teenager-free summer, though she hadn’t actually said that straight out, of course. True, Meredith seemed chronically worried and distracted these days, and she’d been working even longer hours than usual lately, and traveling a lot more than usual, too. If something was seriously wrong in Meredith’s life, though, Quinn was the last person she’d have confided in. Quinn had gone right home from Rosalie’s—Meredith was still at the office and Hannah, the housekeeper, had already left for the day—and she’d packed, all right. But not for a stint at camp. No, she’d stuffed fresh underwear, an extra pair of jeans, a favorite T-shirt and her tablet computer into her backpack, along with her cell phone and charger, and lit out. She’d walked for several miles, not exactly sure what to do next, and then, finding an ATM in the convenience store where she’d stopped to buy a bottle of water, Quinn had taken her last eighty dollars out of her account and made up her mind to head for Three Trees, Montana. And Ria. Two cowgirls on their way to a rodeo in Idaho had offered her a lift, and she was off. They’d bought her a cheeseburger along the way, asked her a lot of questions, like how old she was and if something was wrong at home, and, finally, reluctantly, dropped her off at the rest stop, where she met up with Bones and took a chance on a long ride with Tim Anderson, a stranger. Now, standing outside the truck-stop café, hot and tired and grungy, Quinn wondered if the people inside would kick her out if she tried to bring Bones in with her. She could sure use something cold to drink and maybe a sandwich, and she needed to use the restroom, too. She supposed she could say Bones was a Seeing Eye dog, but since he looked more like a walking dust mop than a service animal, the story probably wouldn’t fly. Still, Quinn couldn’t bring herself to leave him outside, alone. She didn’t want the poor little thing to think, even for one second, that he’d gotten his hopes up only to be ditched all over again. Her stomach grumbled loudly, and she looked around carefully, spotted a phone booth over by the newspaper boxes and the ice machine. Juggling Bones, she rummaged through her backpack and came up with enough change—she hoped—to make a local call. Accustomed to cell phones, texts and instant messaging over a computer, Quinn had never actually used a pay phone. She approached the gizmo, frowning a little as she examined the smudged buttons, their numbers and letters partially rubbed off by years of weather and wear. Good thing she knew Ria’s number by heart, she reflected, because the skinny directory dangling from a chain beside the telephone looked as though some wild animal had eaten the pages in a single bite. Murmuring to Bones, who wanted to be set down on his own four feet, wobbly though they were, Quinn plunked several coins into the slot and started punching digits. Please be home, she thought as Ria’s phone rang once, twice, three times. “Hello?” Ria said, just as Quinn was about to hang up, ask somebody for directions and hoof it to her aunt’s farm. There was puzzlement in Ria’s familiar voice. “Who is this?” Quinn swallowed, and the backs of her eyeballs stung. “It’s me, Aunt Ria,” she managed. “Quinn?” A smile came into Ria’s tone, and she no longer sounded curious. Most likely the readout in her caller-ID panel had flashed an unfamiliar number or maybe even read “pay phone.” “Are you—? Where—?” Quinn laughed, forestalling the need to cry even as a certain giddiness rose within her. “I’m in Three Trees,” she said. “At the...” She paused, turned her head, read the big sign out by the highway. “At the Whistle-By Truck Stop.” “That explains the readout,” Ria murmured, probably thinking aloud rather than addressing her niece. “What on earth—?” “I’m here for a visit,” Quinn said cheerfully. “Can you come and pick us up?” Ria didn’t ask who “us” was, as Meredith would have done. In fact, she didn’t hesitate at all. “I’ll be right there. Don’t talk to strangers.” Quinn smiled at the admonition. Too late, she thought. “Okay, I won’t.” Since pretty much everybody around this little Montana burg qualified as a stranger, she guessed she’d just zip her lip until Ria showed up. And that would be soon, Quinn hoped, because she needed something to eat, a hot bath and a few hours of sleep. Nice as Tim Anderson had been to her, she’d been afraid to close her eyes the whole night, despite all the subtle indications that he was a devoted family man. It could so easily have been an act. Quinn shuddered slightly at the silent admission. She’d just said goodbye to Ria and hung up the clunky black pay-phone receiver, rubbing her hand down the thigh of her jeans in a hopeless attempt to wipe away any lingering germs, when a man’s voice spoke. “Are you all right?” Quinn’s heart sped up a little as she turned, clutching poor, road-weary Bones protectively to her chest, and saw a tall, dark-haired man in a cop’s uniform standing directly behind her. His shirt was so crisply starched that the folds still showed, and his badge gleamed in the sunlight, brightly enough to dazzle a person, but she made out the words embossed in the metal just the same: Sheriff, Parable County. “Um, sure,” she said, her bravado wavering slightly now. The sheriff looked kind enough, with his warm brown eyes and that crooked cowboy smile, but she still had to fight down a wild urge to turn and hotfoot it right out of there. Here she was, already breaking the don’t-talk-to-strangers rule. Again. But he was a cop, and under other circumstances, Quinn would have pelted him with questions about the job, the life, given her own aspirations to serve in law enforcement someday. And surely it was safe to talk to a policeman. Plus, making a break for it would have been a bad idea, she decided, since he would surely catch her easily, long before she reached the woods behind the truck stop and found a place to hide—he looked young and fit. While Quinn was pretty sure she hadn’t broken any laws—was running away from home illegal?—the affable intensity of this man’s focus unnerved her. He clearly wasn’t going anywhere until he got the information he was after. “Boone Taylor,” he said, putting out a hand. Quinn had to jostle Bones a little, but she managed to return the sheriff’s handshake. Her throat closed up tight, her nearly empty stomach tightened like a fist, and she felt her upper lip and the space between her shoulder blades go clammy with perspiration. Sheriff Boone Taylor waited a beat or two, but when nothing came out of Quinn’s mouth, he arched one eyebrow and asked, with a glint of humor in his eyes, “Do you have a name?” It wouldn’t do her any good to lie, she sensed that, and anyway, she was rotten at bending the truth. If she tried to shine this guy on, he’d know it by her expression or her body language—or both. In an instant, too. “Quinn Whittingford,” she managed to croak out. “I’m here to visit my aunt, Ria Manning. Maybe you know her?” Get here, Aunt Ria. Please, get here quick. “She’s a good friend of my wife’s,” he said, and Quinn relaxed a bit, only to tense up again when he added, “I saw you get out of the cab of that truck a little while ago. Was the driver somebody you know, Quinn, or did you hitch your way here?” Quinn swallowed. Exactly how far away was her aunt’s flower farm? What if Ria lived at the far end of some long dirt road, on the other side of town, a rutted stretch of gravel winding for miles and miles before it finally reached the truck stop? In that case, it might be an hour before she arrived, or even longer. “I hitched,” she admitted. The sheriff rested his hands on his hips, and his black leather belt—with its gun and holster and various other fascinating cop gear—creaked as he shifted his weight slightly and studied her with a pensive frown on his tanned and handsome face. “That’s not good,” he said. Quinn blinked hard, fearing that tears would spring to her eyes if she didn’t, giving away how scared she was. “I know,” she said, very quietly. “But my aunt’s on her way here right now. Everything’s fine, Officer—really.” He absorbed her words, giving no indication whether he believed her or not, smiled at Bones and gently touched the little dog’s head, scratched him behind the ears. “Who’s this?” he asked. “His name is Bones,” Quinn said, hoping the hurried way she spouted out the answer hadn’t made her sound guilty of some crime, like dognapping. “I found him wandering around at a rest stop last night. Maybe he just got lost, but it was pretty far from any towns or farms or anything, so I think somebody must have dumped him.” Boone shook his head, and a muscle bunched briefly in his square jaw. “There’s a special place in hell for people who do things like that,” he said, frowning again. “Looks like he could use a few good meals and a bath.” Quinn smiled then. She didn’t know why she did that, because she was still scared shitless of being arrested or sent straight back to Portland without even getting a chance to make her case with Ria. There would be hell to pay with her mom, and then she’d be packed off to summer camp anyway, and all of this would be for nothing. “Yeah,” she agreed. At that moment, she spotted Ria’s car, the same unprepossessing compact she’d driven back in Portland, before Uncle Frank died, swing into the lot out by the big Whistle-By Truck Stop sign. Saved. “There’s my aunt now,” Quinn chimed, pointing. She hoped Sheriff Taylor would get back into his cruiser and drive away, satisfied that the runaway was about to be collected by a responsible adult and, therefore, all was well. No point in hanging around; he must have crimes to solve, even way out here. “I guess I’ll stay and have a word with her,” Boone Taylor said, making it plain that he wasn’t planning to budge until he had a real handle on what was going on. “Why don’t you leave the dog with me, go inside and rustle up a bowl of water for him?” “He doesn’t have a leash or anything,” Quinn reasoned, though she wanted, and badly, to ask for water for Bones and use the restroom. “I’ll keep an eye on him while you’re gone” was the sheriff’s quietly pragmatic reply. “Go on inside.” Ria, instead of having a straight shot, had to wait while a huge 18-wheeler made a three-acre turn and wound out onto the highway. Reluctantly, but desperate for the bathroom and worried that Bones might be seriously dehydrated by now, Quinn set the dog down carefully at the sheriff’s feet, told the animal she’d be right back, honest to God, no fooling, cross her heart and hope to die, and entered the truck stop. First stop, the ladies’ room. She peed, washed her hands and face at one of three sinks and slowly straightened to take in her reflection in the long mirror affixed to the wall. No wonder the sheriff was hanging around, she thought. Her brown hair was tangled, her clothes were rumpled and she looked like a fugitive on the run, straight out of an episode of Dates from Hell or Deadly Women or some other true-crime show. Okay, Ria was outside, waiting for her. Probably chatting with the sheriff by now. But she, Quinn, definitely wasn’t out of the proverbial woods. Resigned, she bent over again, cupped her hands under the faucet and splashed more cool water onto her face until she began to feel remotely human. * * * RIA, BACK BEHIND the wheel of her car, with Quinn in the passenger seat and the scruffy little dog perched on the girl’s lap, couldn’t stop thinking of all the terrible things that could have happened to her niece between Portland and Three Trees. “I can’t believe you hitchhiked,” she said, well aware that she was repeating herself and quite unable to help it. Quinn leaned her head back and sighed. Her eyes were closed and her lashes, golden-brown like her hair, fluttered slightly. “I was desperate,” she said, very softly, very simply. “Meredith was going to send me away to camp, for the whole summer. I would have been older than most of the counselors, never mind the actual campers, all of whom were probably under twelve.” Ria felt a pang of sympathy then, and the sudden, wild fear inspired by the knowledge that Quinn had come all this way, mostly in the company of strangers, began to subside. Yes, the child could have been abducted, raped, murdered, out there on the highway—hitchhikers disappeared all the time, all over the country. Especially young women. Still, none of those things had actually happened, thank heaven. Quinn was right here beside her, safe and sound, if a little the worse for wear. “Your mother must be beside herself,” Ria fretted. They were passing through the town of Three Trees by now, and she considered stopping at the big discount chain store for kibble and a collar and leash for the dog, along with whatever else Quinn happened to need, of course, but she decided that the errand could wait awhile. Quinn lifted one shoulder slightly, as if to shrug, opened her eyes and turned to face Ria. “Are you going to send me back?” “I don’t know,” Ria said, in all honesty, her hands tightening on the steering wheel, her palms suddenly damp. Whatever her own feelings about Meredith might be, Quinn was the woman’s daughter. By now, her half sister had probably called the police, put up a reward for the girl’s safe return, even hired private detectives to aid in the search. In Meredith’s shoes, Ria knew she would have done some or all of those things herself. “You have to call your mother the minute we get home, though. She’ll be frantic.” Quinn sighed. “Annoyed,” she conceded. “Definitely inconvenienced. But ‘frantic’? No way. After all, the whole point of sending me to camp was to get rid of me.” Troubled, Ria let the remark pass unchallenged. They were passing a string of fast-food franchises just then, so she picked one at random, slowed the car and signaled to turn into the parking lot. “You must be hungry,” she said, in belated explanation. “A little,” Quinn said, very softly. “Can we get Bones a burger, too? I have some money in my backpack—” She indicated the seat behind them, where she’d stashed her one piece of luggage, with a small motion of her head. “I can pay you back later.” “That,” Ria said, “is the least of my worries right now.” They pulled into the drive-through line, and when their turn at the speaker came, a brief consultation was held and then Ria placed the order—a fish fillet sandwich, fries and a diet cola for Quinn, a cheeseburger off the children’s menu for the dog. “Don’t you want anything?” Quinn asked, when the person inside had confirmed their requests and specified the amount they’d be expected to pay at the second window. She sounded so concerned. And so young. Ria’s heart ached. What was going on at home that had caused Quinn to take to the road the way she had? Surely it wasn’t just the prospect of summer camp—much as she apparently disliked the idea, her niece had indeed been “desperate” to get away. Questions, questions, questions. And the time wasn’t right to ask any of them. “No,” Ria replied, finally, with a shake of her head. “Not just now. I’ll have something when we get back to the house.” There was a pause, fragile and quivery, nearly tangible. Then Quinn asked, “Are you mad at me?” The subtext was Because if you are, I’m not going to know how to handle it. I need you to be on my side. “No,” Ria said, for the second time in two minutes. There were three cars ahead of them, each one stopping at the designated window to hand cash or an ATM card through, in exchange for paper bags with blotches of grease on the sides and cups the size of oil barrels, and Ria considered the rest of her answer carefully. “I’m not angry,” she said, finally. “Not completely anyhow, and not permanently.” Quinn gave a nervous little giggle. “That was ambiguous,” she remarked. “Hitchhiking is a stupid thing to do, Quinn,” Ria pointed out, irritated with herself because that was certainly stating the obvious, wasn’t it, and she’d sounded so pedantic, too. “I know that,” Quinn answered, and her beautiful green eyes brimmed with tears. They reached the window then, and Ria paid for the food, accepted the fragrant bag and Quinn’s soda, passed them over, not wanting to say more until they were out of the cheerful clerk’s earshot. The dog—Bones, wasn’t it?—had been curled up in Quinn’s lap until the transaction was made, but as soon as the food was inside the car, he perked right up, putting his grubby little paws on his mistress’s chest and sniffing wildly. Quinn chuckled softly as they drove away, ferreted out the dog’s cheeseburger and tore off a tiny piece for him. He gobbled it right down and, once again, Ria felt a stab of emotion, a poignant, heart-hollowing awareness that that big world out there could be so terribly hard on the helpless, whether they had four legs or two. While Quinn and the dog consumed their food, taking turns, Ria drove toward home, thoughtful and silent. There were still a million questions she wanted to ask her niece, yes, but the girl was obviously worn out, half-starved and God only knew what else. Quinn needed time to catch her breath, get her bearings. When the farm came into view, with its rows and rows of zinnias and gerbera daisies and other brightly colored flowers, Quinn sat up straighter and gave a little gasp. Bones, having devoured his cheeseburger, had settled back onto her lap again and drifted off into a snooze. “Wow,” Quinn said, in a murmur. “It’s beautiful!” Ria’s spirits rose by a smidgen, though she was dreading the necessary call to Meredith, had been all along. But she’d worked hard to keep her small operation afloat, weeding and watering, digging and hoeing, planting and replanting, slogging out to the greenhouse through knee-deep snow the previous winter to tend seedlings and sprouts, and the genuine admiration in Quinn’s voice meant a lot. Especially since Meredith and most of Ria’s friends back in Portland thought the whole enterprise was a hokey waste of time and financial resources. “Thanks,” she said, after clearing her throat, parking the car in the driveway instead of inside the detached garage because she knew she’d have to make a run into town for various supplies before the day was over. “It’s lots of work, for not much money, but I love it anyway.” She flashed on last night’s buffalo visit and added, “Mostly.” A blush threatened, because remembering the bison incident meant remembering Landry Sutton—and the kiss. And the date for Saturday night. What had she been thinking, saying yes to that? Now, at least, she’d have an excuse to beg off—unexpected company. Though that particular thought should have been a comfort, it left Ria feeling strangely disappointed instead. Quinn, naturally unaware of the whole quandary, opened the car door and got out, setting the dog on the ground with a tenderness that pinched a tender place in Ria’s carefully guarded heart. The girl looked around, taking in the famous big sky, the trees, the mountains and foothills that surrounded both Three Trees and its neighbor, Parable, thirty miles away. “I can see why you love this place,” she said, her voice almost reverent as she took it all in. “It’s so quiet—so peaceful.” The dog, meanwhile, trotted to the middle of the lawn, nose lowered to the ground, spent a few moments sizing the place up and finally raised one hind leg to christen the resin garden gnome. After that, Bones wagged his stubby tail and turned a perky gaze on Quinn and Ria, patient even though they were lagging behind when there was some serious exploring to do. “Sorry,” Quinn said, very quietly. “About the gnome, I mean.” Ria grinned. “No problem,” she said. “Look—he’s still smiling.” With a soft laugh, Quinn retrieved her backpack from the rear seat, but her expression turned solemn again as she started toward Ria, who waited for her on the flagstone walkway leading to the front porch. “Meredith won’t let me keep him, you know,” she said. “Bones, I mean. If I have to go back to Portland—” While Bones continued to check out the yard, Ria slipped an arm around her niece’s shoulders, gave her a brief squeeze. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay?” she advised, though she knew Quinn was right about the dog. Meredith definitely wasn’t an animal person. Heck, most of the time, she wasn’t even a people person. For her, everything had to be at a distinct remove, and preferably sterile—right down to conceiving a child. Quinn didn’t respond, except to sigh again and lean on Ria a little as they walked. “One thing at a time, sweetheart,” Ria told the woman-child beside her. “Our first order of business is to call your mother and let her know you’re all right. After that, we’ll play this by ear.” Quinn tried to smile in response, but her mouth wobbled, and the attempt fell away. Tears filled her eyes again. Ria wanted to cry right along with her niece as she unlocked the front door and opened it, and Quinn turned to summon the dog. He darted toward them, still grungy but full of pep now that he’d eaten and been invited into the house. Before she’d even set down her purse and dropped her car keys into the blue bowl on the small table beside the entrance, Ria made up her mind on one thing, at least. If Meredith forced Quinn to come home—as she well might—Bones wasn’t going to any shelter; he was staying right here on the farm, with her. After she’d shown Quinn around the cottage—there wasn’t much to see, since it was so small—the girl ducked into the bathroom to take a quick shower, and Bones went with her. Ria didn’t have a guest room, since she used the second bedroom as an office, but there was a foldout couch in there, and of course Quinn was welcome to it. The shower went on, and on, the sound of the running water a distant hum. Surely the child was clean by now. The dog, too, probably. Eventually, it occurred to Ria, sitting at her kitchen table making a shopping list, that the task of calling Meredith was going to fall to her. Quinn was obviously in avoidance mode and, besides, the girl’s emotions were at a very low ebb. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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