Lonesome Creek (The Westerners, Book 3) by Jeanne Harrell

“You’re breaking up with me?”

Stuck in a traffic jam in downtown Sacramento, Carrie Bendix was sandwiched in a line of cars stretching for miles before her and miles behind her. Resistance was futile and she knew she’d be living in this traffic the rest of her natural life.
Lonesome Creek (The Westerners, Book 3)
Lonesome Creek (The Westerners, Book 3) by Jeanne Harrell
“Are you kidding? This isn’t the least bit funny, Barry. I’m stuck in…” “… Sorry, Carrie,” said the voice on the other end of the call. “…But this isn’t working for me. You know, being at your beck and call. Just not my scene.” “Beck and call? Not your scene?” she squeaked holding the phone away from her ear. “…My neighbor says our names rhyme, which is a bad sign – Barry and Carrie – See what I mean?” “Your neighbor, the sexy astrologer?” “Yeah,” his voice dropped an octave… “Miranda.” “You’ve already slept with her, haven’t you, Barry?” Besides seething, she was perspiring profusely and squirmed in her seat, trying to get her air conditioner to turn on. She smacked the dash when it blew out a puff of air, sputtered and died. “Well, maybe… okay, yes. What’s that say about our relationship, Carrie, if I want to sleep with other women? Huh?” “It says,” she screamed in the phone, “that you’re an asshole! That’s what it says. We are so history!” She snapped the phone shut and threw it across the car. “Damn it!” she screamed again before realizing her window was open. The guy across from her in the next car over had obviously gotten an earful and was grinning with a mouthful of food. When she glared at him, he laughed so heartily that he blew the food all over her car. A piece of lettuce hit her nose. It was that kind of day. * * * CHAPTER 2 “Honest to God, Megan. That’s what he said to me!” “What were you doing with an out-of-work actor anyway, Carrie. You brought this on yourself.” “What?” Glancing around the office, Carrie knew she was too loud and quickly lowered her voice, practically whispering into her phone. “Megan… if you will recall, you lined me up with him. ‘Cute guy at your gym. I just have to meet him.’ Well? That does ring any bells?” “Just can’t win them all, sis. Aren’t you at work?” “Oh, yes… The big boss called me ‘that girl’ yesterday and my immediate boss hinted that he needed a cup of coffee, which I, of course, got for him. I thought the seventies were over. Whatever happened to women’s lib?” “Well, just hang in there, Carrie. You’ve got enough school debt to choke a horse and you need that job. It’s pretty good and you could make six figures in two years.” “Yes, yes… I know.” She exhaled audibly. “…If I can just hang in there is right. I’ll try.” There was a knock on the frame of her open door and a good-looking man in an expensive, midnight blue, double-breasted suit glanced in at her. Carrie noticed his silver hair had recently been styled and his dark eyes locked in on hers too quickly. She swallowed and ended the call. “May I come in?” said a velvety-smooth voice. “Please, Mr. Jarvitz,” she rose and motioned him in. “Come in.” Gliding, she noticed, Jarvitz didn’t walk. He floated on a cushion of air like the cushion of wealth that surrounded and nourished him. As he sat on one of the chairs before her, his subtle aftershave filled her nose and she came from behind the desk to sit with him. He was her boss and had hired her. Although she had graduated top of her class at law school, she had a nagging feeling that there were other reasons as to why she’d gotten such a prestigious job right out of graduation. She nervously touched the clip holding back her mass of long, dark hair and fixed her hazel eyes on his forehead, instead of his searing eyes. Carrie prayed she could hang in there like Megan suggested. It might be a hard hang. He settled into the chair, checking her out as she sat by him. Jarvitz turned a few inches to have a better look at her, she presumed. Carrie smoothed the wrinkles from her woolen suit, glancing at him, wondering the reason for the visit. “Carrie.” His soothing voice didn’t really soothe her. His mere presence was a bit unnerving and she often wondered why. So many women in the office and everywhere else in the world seemed charmed by him. He made her squirm with that unrelenting stare. “Mr. Jarvitz. Nice to see you. What can I do for you?” “Oh, Carrie,” he said reaching over to softly pat her hand. “It’s what I can do for you.” “… Sir?” “You’ve been putting in some pretty long hours. What’s that doing to your love life?” “Oh, ha. Um, everything’s just fine. Here’s that report I’ve been working on for the Collier account.” He skimmed a few pages, stealing a glance or two at her while doing so. “Looks good. I’ll check it more thoroughly later.” He sat the report on her desk. “How about some lunch?” Carrie looked at her watch, her brows knit. “It’s only eleven, sir.” “Jacob,” he soothed. “Please call me Jacob.” “Jacob, it’s early for lunch, isn’t it?” Rising, he touched her shoulder. “It’s never too early for lunch. Come.” Jarvitz held out his hand to help her up. “Besides, I have something to discuss with you. Business-related, of course,” he added smoothly. He drove them to a chic restaurant in the most fashionable part of the city in his sleek, new Mercedes. The rich leather smell added to the already perfumed air making Carrie almost woozy. Too many rich smells all at once. The obsequious waiter turned up his nose at her behind Mr. Jarvitz’s back. She felt ill at ease. After Jarvitz had ordered lunch and wine for them both, he got down to business. “You’re on a fast-track, Carrie.” He nodded at the tuxedoed waiter with white gloves pouring a taste of elegant wine. Taking a sip, he nodded again, the waiter expertly poured both glasses and left discreetly. “I want to groom you for partner. You think your hours are bad now, wait until you make full partner. They’re brutal.” He cocked his head at her. “Think you can handle it?” Her eyes blinked, astonished. “Mr. Jarvitz, Jacob,” she amended at the tiny shake of his head. “This is only my second year at the firm. I… You want to submit my name for consideration? Already? I…” “I know quality when I see it, Carrie, and you’ve got it. Taste, looks, brains… You’re exactly what this firm is looking for to expand our client base and we knew that when we hired you. The work you’ve done since has been outstanding. Truly outstanding.” She blushed this time, refolding the linen napkin in her lap. “Well, ah, if the other partners agree with you.” He reached over to put his hand on hers. “You just need some polishing, which I can help you with.” “You…” she cleared her throat. “What kind of polishing, sir?” “Jacob, please.” He squeezed her hand and then let go. She tensed and grabbed her water glass for a big drink. “Jacob.” Lunch arrived and he took his time prepping his food – cutting, salting, moving things around on his plate until everything was just so. After he chewed and swallowed a small bite, Jarvitz wiped his mouth, smiled and began again. “I’d like to make appointments for you with a stylist, personal shopper and make-up artist. All at company expense.” Her jaw dropped. “Do I look that bad?” His laugh was small and breathy. “No, of course not. You look terrific. But you’ll be dealing with some very wealthy people for some of this new work we’re sending your way and you need to look the part. You know,” he angled his head at her, “wealthy… like the clients. Also,” Jarvitz took another bite, chewed and swallowed. “Your car needs replacing. The company will lease a new Mercedes or BMW that you can use for personal use as well.” By this time, Carrie sat stock-still, in shock. Eyes wide, she pushed back wisps of dark hair that had fallen around her face and tried to make sense of what she’d just heard. It was just too good to be true. And what had her mother always told her about that? She tried not to breathe through her mouth. He was waiting for an answer and appeared mildly surprised that she hadn’t responded. “Carrie? What do you think?” She couldn’t… couldn’t think. Too much, too fast and Carrie bet her bottom dollar that seductive strings would be attached. What to do. * * * CHAPTER 3 Seductive strings prevailed. Carrie had nodded and smiled at the infamous lunch that had set her up in grand style. She put in the long hours with new clothes, new makeup, hairstyle and car. She was happy to see other relatively new lawyers at the firm getting the gold standard treatment as well, so maybe it was her law skills that had turned the tide. Then why did she feel half scared most of the time? Her sister told her to enjoy it while it lasted and life had become very good indeed. It wasn’t a hardship to drive around town in a new luxury car with tinted glass and people probably wondering who was inside. Her old boyfriend, Barry, took notice and wanted to come back. He said the sexy astrologer that he’d left her for, had her moon in someone else’s house. Carrie told him to drop dead. Then came the day Jacob Jarvitz knocked on the doorframe of her newly decorated corner office. The one with the big windows and grand view of the downtown city. “Carrie. Got a minute?” He dazzled in a gray pinstriped suit, snowy white shirt and dark gray tie. Jarvitz looked good and he knew it. “Sure,” she smiled. “Let me get these papers into a folder and I have a few minutes.” “Great.” He floated in and settled on one of her comfortable new chintz chairs. Glancing around, he said, “Your new office is beautiful. Did you help the decorator at all?” She shook her head. “No time, which you very well know.” He quietly chuckled. “I guess you have been pretty busy. Have you finished the Taylor account?” “Yes, sir. I worked with Brody next door, as you suggested, and we finished the property appraisals and taxation reports just last night. I’m tying up loose ends today.” “Excellent. I knew you’d do well.” She rose gracefully and moved around the desk to sit by him. “Carrie…” He touched her hand. Although she was used to his hand touching, it never gave her much pleasure. “Sir?” “The other partners passed the Meryweather account to me and I’ve decided to pass it to you.” Carrie wanted to smack her head to stop the brain cells from pinging around her brain like BBs in a boxcar. “Meryweather, sir? Me? You want me on the Meryweather account? Every lawyer in the firm wants that business. Why me?” “Because,” he purred, “you’re the best lawyer for the case. We’ll be flying to New York in two days to meet with Mr. Meryweather to see how we can assist him with the building purchases here in California and that hotel in Dubai. It’s a big step for you, Carrie.” She rubbed her eyes. “It’s unbelievable, is what it is. Do you really think I’m ready?” “I do. New York this week, Dubai next month. It’s the chance of a lifetime in your career, Carrie. Are you with me?” “Yes, sir. Where do I sign up?” He laughed brightly and rose. “My assistant will call you this afternoon with the details you’ll need. Just pack what she tells you and we’ll be off to New York for a few days. A working vacation, as it were.” She tried to keep her face bland at that, but her brows furrowed anyway. He had walked out her door already and she exhaled that huge breath she’d been holding. It was the career step of a lifetime! Carrie got on the phone to her sister. * * * CHAPTER 4 It arrived by mail that morning. Saturday was finally a day off for Carrie and she had called her sister to come for breakfast. The letter sat on the table between them. “Who sent it?” “Another law firm here in Sacramento.” “Did you know anything about this?” “Nothing. I didn’t even know that Uncle Bill had died. Did you, Megan?” “No. Nothing. With Mom and Dad gone, we just don’t hear much from our country relatives anymore. I guess,” she started and stopped, “we should have kept in better touch ourselves.” Carrie nodded, sticking her knife in the jar to smear more strawberry jelly on her toast. “You’re right and I’m sorry we didn’t. We were both going to school and establishing jobs, and it all just got away from us. Uncle Bill was a wonderful man. We had such fun on his ranch in the summers, remember?” Megan sipped her orange juice and nodded. “I do. He had all those beautiful horses,” her blue eyes sparkled. “We would ride every day and then comb the horses out, watch the farrier put on new shoes.” “He had that trail-riding business one summer. Do you remember that?” Carrie bit into her toast with a loud crunch. “Absolutely, we’d ride out with tourists for the day. I remember one time we were told to look out for bears…” “…And we saw one! A big black bear,” she shivered. “Scared the crap out of us, but Uncle Bill just laughed. Said we were being city slickers.” “The town of Murphys is such a great place too. So low-key, everyone knows everyone else and are so ready to help if you have some trouble.” “Ha,” laughed Carrie. “I remember very well that you called it Mayberry, RFD!” “Okay, yeah, but it was still fun going there for summers.” They sat at the kitchen table in Carrie’s apartment quietly finishing their breakfast. Megan spoke up as she loaded her dishes in the dishwasher. “We should go out, Carrie.” Carrie’s eyes widened. “Go out to the ranch in Murphys? What in the world for?” “Uncle Bill left the ranch to us.” “Well, sure… We were his only living family.” “That means something, Carrie. I just want to see the place again. Don’t you think we owe it to Uncle Bill?” Carrie about choked. She rose to put her plate and glass in the dishwasher, scraping excessive food off first in the sink. “You’re getting that idealistic look in your eye, Megan. We’re city girls, remember? I’m an incredibly busy lawyer and you’re an incredibly busy elementary school teacher. We’re not country gals.” Megan shook her head. “I know we’re not, but just hear me out.” Carrie shook her head, heading for the bedroom, waving her hands as she walked. “I don’t have time. I’ve got to do some preliminary work for that trip to Dubai coming up and I know what you’re going to say.” She looked sharply back at her sister with fists on her hips. “No, you don’t.” “Yes, I do and don’t start this, like we’re six years old.” Megan actually pouted and Carrie’s lips curved. “You’re doing it!” She pointed at her. “You’re making that six-year-old face!” “Hear me out, Carrie. Please?” Megan threaded her fingers together as if she was praying and Carrie laughed again. “I just know I’m going to regret this.” Carrie changed from pajamas and a tank top to sweats and a tee shirt. “All right. Tell me.” She headed into her office, sat down at the desk. “Okay,” Megan followed, looking as contented as a cat licking his paws. Sitting on the couch in Carrie’s office, she looked around. “This is what we should do – Let’s head out to Murphys. It’s what? An hour and a half drive from Sacramento?” She stretched out her legs. “Let’s take a look at the ranch, see what kind of condition it’s in and talk to a realtor.” “So you want to sell it?” Megan settled back on the couch. “I don’t know, Carrie. I have great memories of the place and we shouldn’t be too hasty making a decision. But, in the meantime, would it hurt to find out what it’s worth?” Carrie was already nodding. “Well… there I agree with you. We definitely should take some time with this, but time is something I really don’t have. I’m working a hundred hours a week as it is.” “Don’t you have a weekend off?” “Not until after the Dubai trip.” Megan frowned, picked lint off her jeans. “Has Jarvitz been keeping his distance?” “Surprisingly yes,” breathed Carrie. “He was a perfect gentleman in New York.” “Probably because his wife showed up.” “That could have had something to do with his impeccable behavior.” She opened a drawer to take out a few files. “Really, sis. What are you going to do with him? You can’t fight him off forever.” “Well, I’m not going to sleep with him either.” “Whatever happened to sexual harassment in the workplace?” “I think that concept went out in the nineties.” Carrie gave her a look and continued. “I need to pay my dues with this firm and then maybe I can go to another. Get away from him.” Megan shrugged. “Sounds like a plan, but when could you get a few days together to go out to Murphys?” Placing the files on her desk, Carrie picked up a pen and tapped it on the wooden desk. “Thanksgiving… I’ll have Thursday and Friday off. I might be able to stretch it to Saturday with some pleading.” “Great!” Megan rose to give her sister a hug. “I’ll take off now. I know you have a lot of prep work to do and I’ll leave you to it.” She beamed her brightest smile. “So Thanksgiving then? We’ll drive out to Murphys together and see the ranch?” “Yep,” grinned Carrie. “Get your jeans, Western shirt and cowboy hat out. You’ll need them.” “You betcha, partner. I’m so looking forward to it! Bye!” she sang, going out the door. Carrie drew brows together over uncertain eyes. She reached into her pocket, snagged a hairband and quickly pushed her dark hair into a ponytail. Reaching for her laptop, she glanced out the window by her desk. The sun’s rays streaked boldly through the window illuminating her frowning face. “That was our childhood,” she remarked to no one in particular. “This…” she waved a hand towards the big pile of papers on her desk, “…is adulthood.” And she got to work. Dubai was calling. * * * CHAPTER 5 Driving south from Sacramento, Carrie tipped her rear-view mirror for a better view behind. She reached for her sunglasses before spreading pink gloss on her full lips. Megan sat in the passenger seat and excitedly poured over a map. “You know Highway 49 is called the Gold Country Highway, don’t you, Carrie?” “Yes, I knew that, thank you.” She smoothed some stray hairs back. “This isn’t our first trip out of Dodge, Megan.” Megan’s hardy laugh echoed in the car. “Silly. I know that. It’s just… it’s…” “It’s what?” “It’s almost like we’re heading back home. It’s where Mom grew up, where she and Dad married.” “Yes, I know the story too.” She smiled over at her sister. “But Dad got that advertising job in Sac and the rest is history.” “But…” “No one’s going to remember our family anymore, Megan. If you’re expecting some big homecoming, it’s not going to happen.” “I know that too, but it’s fun.” Megan went back to her map. “What is?” “This. The road trip. Sisters bonding.” She stole a quick grin at Carrie. “And you forgot that Mom’s maiden name was Murphy.” She paused to let that sink in. Carrie drove easily through the winding roads, a smile coming to her lips. “I had forgotten that. Okay,” she laughed, “so maybe one guy about ninety years old might…just might remember Mom’s family.” “The Murphy brothers helped to establish the town.” She was reading from information on her smart phone. “John and Daniel Murphy came to Sutter’s Mill and earned their living as merchants.” “Not prospectors?” asked Carrie. “No,” she read. “They made more money as merchants than gold prospectors, it says here. Then they moved over to Murphys and established business there. It was also a popular spot because of the giant sequoia trees. It still is.” Carrie glanced out her window wistfully. “Oh, my… I’d forgotten about those beautiful, huge redwood trees. We picnicked there once or twice with Mom and Dad, and took pictures standing under that big tree the path goes through.” “Yes! I remember that.” Megan was quiet for a while, just reading. Finally, she closed the map and put away her cell phone. “Enough research for now?” “Yep.” She stretched her arms out in front, rolled her shoulders. “How far are we to Murphys?” “The last road sign said ten miles.” “Good. Just enough time for me to ask you,” she peeked over at Carrie. “…Ask me what?” “About Dubai. How’d it go?” Carrie’s eyes slid over quickly and back to the road. “The business went fine. Our firm is doing the real estate transaction for that company in L.A. and…” “Another feather in your lawyer cap?” teased Megan. She plucked a bottle of water from the cup holder and twisted off the cap. “Yes, thanks.” Carrie’s bright tone soon faded. “However…” “I knew there’d be a however.” Megan took a sip and put the bottle back down. “Tell me.” “One night in Dubai, Jacob and I went to dinner without clients. He said he was leaving his wife and asked if we could get together once we got back to California.” Megan huffed, shaking her head. “Whatever happened to that old expression of not shitting where you eat?” “Preaching to the choir, you are, but Megan…” “There are no buts here, Carrie. It’s a mistake to get personally involved with your boss. I just can’t help but think a lot of what’s happened to you recently has been a set-up. Besides, I thought you didn’t like him.” Carrie sighed and said nothing, but her hands gripped the wheel tighter. Megan held her breath, looking over at her sister’s pretty profile. “Did you… sleep with him in Dubai, Carrie?” She shook her head. “No. I tried to keep my head, but it was pretty hard, I can tell you. I was wined and dined in five star restaurants and hotels by a man who has more money than Bill Gates.” She looked over helplessly at Megan. “Maybe he’s in love with me, sis.” “And maybe he’s not.” The town of Murphys loomed ahead. Carrie pulled into a parking place on Main Street right in front of a café. The tree-lined street offered restaurants, souvenir and wine shops for several blocks. The historic hotel sat on one corner across the street. Blue shutters framed the windows of the old two-story mansion. Megan pointed at it. “There’s Murphys Hotel. Remember it’s got all those rooms named for the famous people who’d stayed there? I think we were once in… Daniel Webster’s room.” Carrie’s smile bloomed. “Right, I think so. Or was it,” she teased, “…Ulysses S. Grant’s room? No bathrooms in the rooms.” “Oh, man. I remember having to take a shower down the hall, walking back to the room with a wet head and a towel wrapped around me. Fun times.” “Yeah and we heard you screeching because some poor guy was heading for the shower and passed you.” “Ha! Let’s get out and stretch, Carrie. My legs are stiff and I’m getting hungry.” Up and down the busy street, tourists were walking in and out of stores, shopping, eating, enjoying the day. With a holiday coming, some businesses had pictures of turkeys in the windows and autumn decorations adorning their merchandise. Carrie and Megan walked into Millie’s Café, stretched out arms and legs as they went. Once inside the homey log cabin café, a stocky, older woman in jeans and Western shirt sauntered over to their table. “Hi. I’m Millie and what can I get you today?” Megan offered her brightest smile. “Hi, Millie. I’m Megan and this is my sister, Carrie. How do you do?” She offered her hand to shake. Millie took it with a large grin that showed off plenty of white teeth. “Very nice to meet you, Megan and Carrie. Here for the day?” “Oh, no. We’re here to…” Carrie elbowed her, shaking her head. Millie frowned, hands on her hips. “No need to feel that I’m being nosy, missy.” She looked sternly at Carrie. “This is a small town and I’ll find out sooner or later.” Carrie chuckled at the audacity of that statement and nodded for Megan to continue. “As I was saying,” Megan shot narrowed eyes at her sister, “we’re in town to look at our uncle’s ranch. We inherited it recently.” Millie scratched a pencil in her graying hair, thinking about that. “The only one to die around here recently was old Bill Murphy.” She focused in on their faces. “You’re related to Bill?” “Yes, ma’am,” beamed Megan, her pale eyes smiled as she glanced around the room. “He was our uncle.” “No foolin’? You inherited Lonesome Creek?” exclaimed Millie. “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.” She looked behind her. “Sam! DeeDee! This here’s Bill Murphy’s nieces. Come on over and say hi!” Before Carrie knew it, she was shaking hands with everyone in the place. Apparently, Uncle Bill had eaten dinner in that café every day for the past twenty years. This was their admission to Murphys society and the girls relaxed, smiled. A handsome man in his thirties with gray, seductive eyes and a cowboy hat walked over with an outstretched hand towards the girls. “Tad Roberts. My brother and I own the ranch a mile over from Bill’s. Well, yours now… Great man, your uncle. We knew him well and liked him. The man would give you the shirt off his back.” He hung on to Carrie’s hand a little longer than she liked. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Roberts,” she said as she pulled back her hand. “Tad, please.” He took off his hat to bow slightly. Nice manners. “Perhaps I can assist you somehow while you’re settling in at the ranch. There might be…” “Hold on, Mr. Roberts,Tad,” she corrected. “We’re here to look at the ranch. We haven’t been here in years and we’re not sure what we’re going to do with it yet.” “Oh, excuse me,” he said smoothly. “My mistake. I just assumed you were going to live there. It’s a nice, little spread. Bill kept it up pretty well.” Millie muscled him out of the way. “All right, Tad. Leave these girls be. They haven’t even taken off their coats or had a bowl of soup yet.” Tad smiled, tipped his hat and left. Megan’s playful look at Carrie included a raised eyebrow. Millie and Carrie both laughed at her. “He’s our county hunk, ladies. Venture at your own risk.” “Millie, thanks,” smiled Carrie, “but we’re just here for a few days over Thanksgiving. We have no intention of getting involved with the town stud…” “Good thing, gals. He’s a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em type of guy. Now,” she reached for her pad and pencil. “What’ll you have?” * * * CHAPTER 6 A few hours later, Carrie and Megan were driving out to Uncle Bill’s ranch. Millie had drawn a small map on a napkin, since she warned them that GPS didn’t function well in the back parts of town and countryside. “Wasn’t Tad Roberts the cutest man you’ve ever seen? Dark eyes, wavy hair – Not really my type, but you two would look good together.” Megan sighed, glanced out the window. “And where are all the cows? I thought Bill had cattle.” Carrie shook her head as she turned the steering wheel sharply to miss hitting two deer that stood on the road. “Good grief! The wildlife around here sure has no fear of cars!” “Be careful, Carrie. A big deer could wreck the car and with no cell service, we’d be hiking back to town.” “But if we’re stranded, dear sister, maybe cute Tad Roberts will come save us in our hour of need.” She gave her a pitiful look making Meg laugh. “You laugh now.” “You bet! I’ll laugh now and laugh later. Tad Roberts wasn’t that cute and he seemed to come on pretty strong.” “Maybe to you. He hardly glanced in my direction and I’m between men right now.” Megan bit her lip, tried not to grin. “I’d need a life to have a boyfriend,” muttered Carrie matter-of-factly. They drove to a clearing in the woods where they came upon a small, one-story house of some light-colored wood backed up to a good-sized creek. The house was built in the shotgun style, with a door on one side of the house and windows looking out to the creek and woods. The roof was A-frame, to keep snow off, Carrie supposed, and the wrap-around porch looked inviting. Benches and a rocking chair stood at the ready. A parking area was alongside the house and grass circled around it. After parking, they started to gather a few belongings. “Here we are, Meg. Lonesome Creek.” Carrie got out of the car, stretching arms over her head. Looking around, she already liked what she saw. “I’d forgotten how quiet it is, Carrie. Oh, look!” Megan cried. “There’s more deer over by the creek.” They wandered around the house, peering in windows and checking out what little landscaping there was. Uncle Bill preferred the native approach, so wildflowers and indigenous bushes flourished. The creek was closer to a lake in size, a beautiful blue color and crystal clear. “Wow!” exclaimed Carrie. “This takes me back.” She pointed at the creek. “There’s the rowboat that we’d take out fishing.” Megan glanced back at her sister. “I sure hope you have the key on you, or else it’s back to Sacramento we go.” Carrie flashed a smile. “Of course, I have the key. It’s in my purse. I’ll be right back.” But once in the car, she hunted through her purse and dumped its contents on the seat. Pawing through everything, she began to panic. Carrie opened every compartment in the car as she searched in vain for the key she now realized was sitting on her kitchen counter in Sacramento. Damn! She got out, slammed the door, mumbled about her stupidity, as a weather-beaten Chevy truck drove up and parked by hers. Carrie shaded her eyes to see who was in the driver’s seat. No one she knew. A tall, well-built man got out, unfolded his legs, and grabbed a cowboy hat as he stepped from the truck. He ran a hand through sandy-colored hair and adjusted the big hat on his head. Closing the door, he shyly glanced over in Carrie’s direction. She quickly brought her hand down and stuck it in a pocket. That seemed too formal so she dropped it by her side. Why was she nervous? “Hello,” the man called out. “I heard Bill’s relatives were coming out this way.” Walking up to her, he stretched out a hand. “…Russ Roberts. I live at the ranch next door, about a mile west.” She took the calloused hand that enveloped her small one. He shook quickly which gave her hand a little tingle from the touch. She stuck the tingling hand back in her pocket. “Hi. I’m Carrie Bendix. My sister Megan is around back admiring the creek. We just arrived.” “Well,” he drawled, “Bill Murphy was a good friend and anything I can do to help you, please let me know.” He stood looking at her and Carrie had to lick her lips to speak again. “Have we met before?” “…Long time ago. Need anything?” “That’s nice of you. I don’t suppose you’d have a key to Bill’s house. I seem to have forgotten mine.” Deep blue eyes under that low hat smiled at her. “As a matter of fact, I do.” He reached into his jeans pocket for his key ring and twisted off a key to hand her. “We have each other’s keys just in case.” “Thank God for that,” she breathed. “You saved me a trip back to Sacramento.” “Is that where you’re from?” “And returning to after Thanksgiving. We’re just here to decide what to do with the ranch.” Carrie blinked, once, twice as she tried hard not to look him over, but failed miserably. The strong angles on his tanned face marked him as a rugged individual used to working outdoors. A rustic Western shirt, worn jeans and old boots completed the picture of a real live cowboy. “You met my brother, I understand, at Millie’s?” “Yes.” She stared. He shifted from one foot to the other. “Um… anything else I can do here for you? I know Bill would consider it poor manners if a neighbor wasn’t nice to his kin.” “His kin?” A friendly smile came out to play between those enticing dimples in his cheeks. She tried again to remember what her mother said about something being too good to be true. “That would be you and your sister, miss.” The dimples deepened. “Oh, ah…” she cleared her throat. “Thanks for the key and here comes Megan.” She turned and waved. “Meg! This is Russ Roberts, next door neighbor.” She rushed up offering her hand. “Nice to meet you! Another Roberts. Are you brother to Tad whom we met earlier?” “Yes, he’s my younger brother. I hope he was polite to you ladies.” “Of course, a perfect gentleman.” He angled his head. “We’re still talking about my brother, right?” “Cute,” Megan laughed. “He was very nice like everyone else we’ve met so far.” “Well,” he took off his hat and adjusted it back on his head. “It’s a small town and we try to look out for one another. It comes back around.” Both Carrie and Megan watched mesmerized as Russ took off that hat, revealing a head of very attractive hair. Their lips parted and the action almost happened in slow motion. Neither could speak. “Ladies?” he tried. “Could I help you inside?” When they both gave him blank stares, he took the key from Carrie’s hand and walked up on the porch to open the front door. “Ladies?” he tried again. “Have a look around. Bill was a good housekeeper. You should find things in good order.” * * * CHAPTER 7 Carrie snapped to and almost slapped herself for being such an idiot. Hadn’t she ever seen a good-looking man before? Criminy. She pushed Megan who needed a push and together they walked up on the porch and into the house. What a sight! Bill had obviously made a few improvements over the years. They walked into a long living room on one side, spacious kitchen on the other. Comfortable couches and chairs backed up to full windows with incredible views of the creek and trees. Walking towards the back, Carrie discovered a small staircase that led to a loft bedroom upstairs. The kitchen had the latest in appliances with overhead lamps that illuminated the space and a small dining area. The house wasn’t large, but the living space was laid out nicely and it was lovely. Rough wooden panels covered the walls. Both Carrie and Megan stood quietly admiring the wonderful house before them. Russ stood by the door and softly coughed. “Um… ladies?” Carrie turned back to him. “Yes? Russ, correct?” “Yes, ma’am,” he drawled. “I’ll take off now unless you need something else.” She hurried over to him. “Thank you for coming to our rescue. It would have been a tough drive to Sac with my angry sister breathing down my neck the entire way. Should I return the key to you?” “If you’d like. That’s up to you.” He touched the brim of his hat with a finger. “Nice to have met you both.” And he left. Megan plopped down on one of the living room couches, let out a deep breath. “Well.” Carrie joined her on a matching chair and looked out into the darkening night. “Well what? And it sure gets dark here fast.” They looked out the tall windows at mountains in silhouette above the trees. The big inky sky with a boatload of stars draped the mountains. “It’s so beautiful, Meg. Why on God’s green earth did we stop coming here?” Meg’s shoulders rose and fell. “I don’t know. Dad died and Mom didn’t want to do much of anything. I forgot all about this place actually.” As she looked around, Carrie sighed. “Me too and what a shame to sell it.” Megan glanced at her and straightened on the couch immediately. “Why do we have to sell it, Carrie?” She rolled her eyes in her sister’s direction. “How in the world would we keep it? The taxes over here aren’t cheap, I looked it up, and there are horses still on the property. Not sure about cows.” “Okay, so there’s upkeep.” “Upkeep?” Carrie’s voice squeaked. “Upkeep? We’d have to hire a caretaker for this house and property, animals, etc. It’s too much for us to just keep as a summer place.” “I’m doing all right money-wise as a teacher and you’re doing great as a hot-shot lawyer. Let’s pool our resources.” Carrie shook her head. “Look, Megan. For one thing, I’m trying to pay off that huge school loan and save some money for a rainy day. For another reason, this place needs a real owner -- Someone to live here and take proper care of it. That’s not going to be us.” “Why not?” “Why not? I’ll tell you why not.” Carrie rapidly rose and started pacing around the large living area. Soft, braided rugs padded her feet. “I’ve got a job that won’t let me take vacations. You could move out here, but what about your job?” “I could put in for a leave of absence.” “The school year just started, Megan. You’d probably lose it if you tried.” “Well, we could…” She stopped pacing in front of Megan. Carrie placed a hand gently on her sister’s shoulder. “No, we couldn’t, sweetie. If we moved here, how would we live? What income?” Megan sighed deeply and sank back against the cushions. “I don’t know, but there must be something we could do.” Carrie smiled, eyes laughing. “You’re just lovesick over the two cowboy brothers we just met.” “Me?” she snorted. “I saw you checking out Russ big-time. Me? I preferred Tad but he didn’t give me the time of day.” Carrie refrained from rolling her eyes again and joined her on the couch. “…It doesn’t matter anyway. I just don’t see how we can keep the house.” “Huh.” Megan turned to watch a shooting star out the big window. Carrie saw it too as they sat together in companionable silence. “Huh.” she said again softly. “Well, let’s at least bring in our luggage and the groceries we brought with us.” Carrie nodded as she rose from her chair. “Yes, let’s! Let’s have a fun, holiday weekend and just enjoy the time here while we’ve got it.” “Last person to the car, sleeps on the couch,” yelled Megan racing out the door. “What are we – twelve?” Carrie squealed and took off after her, as she contemplated counting all the stars in that black, black sky after dinner. * * * CHAPTER 8 “Millie says there’s a dance at the town community center Friday night. Want to go?” Megan had driven into town for a few supplies and joined Carrie in the kitchen to clean up the lunch dishes. She placed the bags on the counter. “A dance? What kind of dance?” Amusement warmed her eyes. “Silly. The kind where two people get up close and swirl around the floor together. Millie says it’ll be a good way to meet the townsfolk. So?” Carrie’s lips formed a hard line. “It’s a good way for them to look us over, you mean.” “We’re new in town. It’s expected.” Megan took items from the bags and began placing them in cupboards. “We’re not here long, Meg.” “… Carrie.” Megan turned to look sternly at her sister. “There’s no cable here, no TV, barely any cell service. My GPS works when it wants to and my iPad is gathering dust. Let’s do something besides play cards!” “Okay, okay. If you put it that way. My boss is probably foaming at the mouth that he can’t reach me.” Megan gave her another sharp look. “I thought you had Thanksgiving off.” “I do, but he said he might call – you know, to discuss a few things about Dubai.” “Uh-huh,” Megan muttered. “I’ll bet.” Carrie let it go. “I’ve got the turkey in the oven. It should be a nice Thanksgiving dinner tonight.” “Do you want to invite the Roberts brothers over for dinner?” “No. Absolutely not but…” She drew out the last word into two syllables. Megan turned to look at her. “Yeah?” “Your boyfriend, Tad, dropped by after you’d left to leave a pumpkin pie for us.” “Why didn’t you invite him then?” “Because I didn’t want to. Can’t we have a nice, quiet holiday dinner without men around?” Megan picked up a can of beans that had dropped on the floor, and then pushed back a mass of curly brown hair as she stared back at her sister. Blue eyes blinked at her unbelievably. “If we’d been in Sacramento, I bet ten bucks that you’d have gone off with your boss somewhere for a nice intimate dinner ignoring your favorite sister completely.” “Megan, let’s just have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, find a real estate person tomorrow and get back in the car to drive home on Saturday.” “What? We can’t even stay the weekend?” “… Oh, all right,” she breathed. “We can drive back Sunday. I just don’t have a clue what we’ll do here for the weekend.” Irritated, Megan folded her arms. “I bet we can think of something.” * * * Friday morning Carrie drove into town to find a realtor. With a real estate office located next to Millie’s Café, she dropped in for coffee afterwards. “Hey, Carrie!” Millie came down the counter to pour her a cup. “How was your Thanksgiving?” She refilled a cup for the man next to Carrie while she was there. “It was… interesting, Millie.” Carrie tried to hide a smile behind her napkin. “How interesting?” Curious now, Millie stopped to talk to her waving at the other waitress, DeeDee, to wait on another customer. “Ready for this?” Millie nodded and leaned a generous hip against the counter. “I burned the turkey, Megan dropped the salad all over the floor and stepped in it. Want more?” she grinned. Millie’s smile was as wide as the counter. “Please.” “We bought a large can of yams that had a juicy worm inside, so we tossed it out trying not to throw up, and… the pumpkin pie was squishy and undercooked.” Millie held her sides as she laughed. “I’m just happy we didn’t burn the place down with candles burning on the linen tablecloth. It was touch and go.” “But you still enjoyed yourselves.” “Oh, Millie. How can we not? It’s such a beautiful house and property. We’re trying to take care of the two horses in the barn, catch fish in Lonesome Creek and I’ve never been more relaxed than just sitting out on the porch in a rocking chair, enjoying the night sky.” She sighed. “It’s wonderful here. A real change-of-pace for us.” Millie’s lips curved slightly. “Do you know how to care for horses?” “No, but luckily Russ Roberts stopped by again this morning to see if we were all right. I asked him and he showed me a few things to do. You know,” she smirked, “like what to feed them.” “Well, that is important.” Millie went over to deliver a plate to another customer and walked back to Carrie who was sipping her coffee. “Good coffee.” “Russ stopped by, did you say?” Millie wiggled an eyebrow making Carrie laugh. “We’re only here for the weekend, Millie. No matter how cute the Roberts boys are.” “Okay, but what about the dance tonight?” “What about it?” “Please come. The whole town will be there and everyone wants to meet you.” “Millie, we’re probably going to sell the ranch.” Millie grimaced. “…We’ll think about that later. For tonight, come meet the townsfolk. You’re the biggest news all week and people are dying to see you.” “Like creatures in the zoo?” she laughed. “Something like that,” Millie shrugged. “But it’ll still be fun.” Carrie considered that while taking another sip of her cooling coffee. “Top you off?” “Please.” Millie brought over the pot and poured more into Carrie’s cup. Raising it to her lips, she looked at Millie over the rim. “No set-ups with the local guys, right?” Mock indignation appeared on Millie’s round face. She pushed a pencil behind an ear. “Do I look like an escort service?” She stuck a hand out in front. “Don’t answer that. See you tonight, cutie. Community Center, seven o’clock.” “I’m going to call you Miss Escort Service from now on. ES, for short.” Millie grabbed the pencil from behind her ear and took out her pad heading down to another customer. “I can live with that.” * * * CHAPTER 9 Friday night and the joint was jumpin’! The town community center, located at the end of Main Street, half a block from Murphys Hotel, shook with movement of people dancing. Music blared from a rousing band that played guitars and fiddles over in a corner. Four rows of people line-danced to the rhythm of the Western music. “Everyone who’s anyone is here tonight,” shouted Millie in Megan’s ear. “Go find someone to dance with.” “They’re all busy dancing,” Megan shouted back over the noise. “Well, your sister’s wasting no time.” “No indeed,” she agreed. As she glanced across the stuffy room, Megan saw that Carrie was dancing with the one and only Tad Roberts and seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. Tad was an excellent dancer and kept Carrie in his sights at all times. When the music finally stopped, he tugged on her elbow. “Let’s go outside for a breath of air.” Fanning herself, Carrie agreed and let him escort her. They walked just outside as other couples caught a breath of fresh air too. A few people lit up cigarettes and she waved their smoke away, taking a step to one side. Tad introduced her to several people who all smiled and inquired as to how she liked the town so far. “Everyone’s wondering about you and your sister,” said Tad. “Are you really going to sell Bill’s ranch? It’s been in the Murphy family for so long.” His hangdog expression was comical. “Yes, Tad,” Carrie tucked flyaway hair back into her ponytail. “I’m a lawyer and my work is in Sacramento. Megan’s a teacher and also works in Sacramento. It’s where our lives are.” “Sorry to hear that. You’d both make nice additions to our town.” Wanting to change the subject and get out from under the avalanche of questions, she began, “What do you do, Tad? Do you live full-time at the ranch with your brother?” He scrunched his nose. “Nah. I work the rodeo circuit as a bronc-rider. I’m gone a lot of the time.” “Really. So you ride wild horses for money?” Brows drew together over her curious eyes. “That pretty much sums it up.” “You can’t do that forever,” she frowned. “Do you have another career goal?” He laughed as if that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Shrugging, he said, “… Something will turn up.” “Will it,” she mumbled softly to herself. Tad turned his handsome face towards the door and a big smile broke out. “Hey, the next song is starting. Let’s dance!” Carrie shook her head. “I’m sitting this one out, but go ahead. Have fun.” Tad, popular guy that he was, had a bevy of local beauties just waiting for him to tire of the new girl in town. When he stepped away from Carrie, several women swooped in and he picked a pretty blonde for the next go-round. “Go, go,” she whispered. “I would not have you back again.” And she sought out Megan who was dancing with Sam from the café. Megan smiled and laughed as Sam whirled her enthusiastically around the dance floor. Carrie wandered to the side of the dance floor behind a few people and sat on a bale of hay watching men and women, teens and children – all ages – who were having fun, talking and laughing. The music was lively and actually quite good. Soon Carrie’s foot was tapping in time against the hay. She had bought Western shirts with snaps instead of buttons at a local store for her and Megan, and admired the way the silver snaps shone when the light caught them. Spotting her untied shoe, Carrie hopped off the bale and crouched down to tie it, when a pair of familiar cowboy boots clipped smartly up beside her. She gazed from the boots, up a pair of equally worn jeans, onto a plaid Western shirt. Russ Roberts nodded when her eyes met his. When he reached out a hand to help her up, she almost stumbled and he held tight to steady her. Carrie felt that tingle again when his skin touched hers. The band began a slow country song about finding your true love and he just smiled, holding onto her hand. Russ never said a word but drew her onto the dance floor and into his arms. She didn’t consider herself much of a dancer, but as he led, she was amazingly light on her feet. With steady eyes and bodies close together, he placed her hand on his heart as his hand covered hers. Rough hands that spoke of his life as a hard-working rancher. He surprised her with his gracefulness as they glided around the dance floor in their own little world. Her dark ponytail swung with the rhythm of the music. Without his big cowboy hat, his deep blue eyes shone and the dimples appeared occasionally when he smiled. For some reason, she longed to run her fingers through his neatly combed hair. And he never said anything. They danced well and happily together until the last note of the music and Russ stepped away, reluctantly untangling their bodies. He nodded while she was still in some sort of hypnotic trance and softly kissed her hand. She closed her eyes savoring the moment, which was a mistake, because he was gone seconds later when she blinked them open. Searching all around for him, she glanced outside to watch as his truck left. “Wow,” she said. “Wow.” she repeated as she continued to look out the window. Megan hurried up to her. “Hey!I saw you dancing with Russ Roberts.” Carrie blew out a deep breath, turned to her. “And let’s have one more wow.” “Ready to take off?” “Sure.” As she drove home, Carrie could still feel the warmth of his arms and the soft kiss on her hand. “Wow…” she whispered again to Megan’s gentle snores. CHAPTER 10 Bright and early Saturday morning, Carrie met with the local real estate agent, Sandy Foster, as Megan slept in. They walked the property, although Sandy was already familiar with it, and discussed the ins and outs of selling real estate. “Well, it takes a particular customer who wants a property in the country. I’m sure this isn’t news to you, Carrie.” Sandy was an attractive blonde in her thirties who had lived in Murphys all her life. She knew the market backwards and forwards. “And it might take some time.” “How much time?” frowned Carrie as she walked down to the creek with Sandy. “My sister and I have lives in Sacramento and we might not be able to afford to hang onto the ranch.” Sandy shook her head and cast her eyes away. “I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a lovely property and your uncle owned it all his life. His father before that… wouldn’t that be…” “…My grandfather, yes.” “You’re Murphies after all and this has been in the Murphy family for…” “Right,” sighed Carrie. “A really long time.” They walked up to the clear creek with waterfowl flying overhead and landing noisily. Clumsy geese came sliding in to spray water everywhere. “Lonesome Creek is a migration stop for many varieties of birds, you know.” “No, but that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been watching the birds for several days now. They’re spectacular.” “What about the horses? Tango and Thunder? Do you plan to sell them too? With the property or separately?” Carrie’s head began to throb and she rubbed her temple. “They were my uncle’s pets and they’re so happy here.” Sandy put a hand on her arm. “Sure you want to sell this place?” Carrie brushed back her sentimental feelings and snapped into focus. “Absolutely. There’s nothing else we can do at this time.” “It’s just that…” Sandy started and stopped. She moistened her lips. “You seem to fit in here so well. Everyone says so.” “…Does anyone want to pay my tax bill or figure out how I can conduct business with my law firm in Sacramento from the middle of gold country?” She stopped, blew out a staggered breath while looking into the face of a chastened real estate agent. “Gotcha, Carrie. I’ll post the listing this afternoon and we’ll see what happens from there. How’s that?” “Just what we wanted, Sandy. Thanks for coming out.” “My pleasure.” She waved good-bye to the agent and walked out to visit the horses. Tango, an Appaloosa, pushed his nose into her arm and she smiled, stroking his white face. “What am I going to do, Tango? Huh? Any good ideas for me?” When the horse whinnied, she chuckled. “You know that won’t work, because you’re too big for my apartment. How about a ride instead?” Carrie saddled him the way Russ had shown her, put a leg in the stirrups, and the saddle fell off at her feet. “Okay, let’s try that again.” She threw the old saddle back over the patient horse. Tango stood still, chewing on some hay, as he gave her the occasional look. Determined, Carrie cinched the leather straps that went around the horse and tightened them. “There!” she said proudly. “Here we go again.” This time, she got up in the stirrups, sat back and lifted her arms in the air for a victory cheer when the saddle stayed on. “Yippee! Success!” She gently pushed her feet into Tango’s sides and he immediately moved out of the barn down towards the creek. The horse snorted and jerked his head forward, pulling at his reins. “Oh, you want to go, do you?” Spurred on, the horse took off at a gallop and Carrie relished the feel of the wind in her hair, the graceful, powerful horse below her and being out on the open land. A feeling of absolute joy gradually filled her, as she held the reins and watched the ground race below her. After galloping across the property for a while, Carrie walked Tango along the side of the gravel road on the way back to the house. Up ahead she spied a truck parked next to her car as she and the horse headed towards the barn. As she put the horse in his stall and pitched him some hay, Carrie glanced up to see Russ walk towards her. Tight jeans, cool stare… that was Russ all right. She put down the pitchfork, wiped sweaty hands on her jeans. Dark curls had slipped from her ponytail and she pushed them back. “Sure you’re a city girl?” he teased. A slow smile crept across his rugged face and those dimples came out to play. “Yes, sir. Why do you ask?” “I saw you and Tango loping along just as happy as can be. You’re a good rider.” She looked up at him shyly. “Thanks.” “And now you’re mucking out the barn without anyone telling you what to do.” It wasn’t a question but she wanted to answer him. “I used to do all this when we visited Uncle Bill in the summer. To tell you the truth, I never wanted to leave.” “Why did you?” he asked wistfully, reaching over to give Tango an apple that he’d brought, his eyes seeking hers. “I was a kid. My dad had a job in Sacramento. Just like I do now and Megan does.” He shifted his stance, leveled his gaze. “We met a few times during those summers. You probably don’t remember but I fished you out of the creek one time when you’d fallen in. You were… maybe nine or ten.” A light slowly dawned in her eyes and she nodded. “I do remember. I’d rowed out to catch fish and rocked the boat goofing around. That was you? How old were you?” “Thirteen.” “So we knew each other as children. Was Tad here too?” Russ shook his head. “Our parents divorced and he went to live with our dad for a while.” “Oh, my God,” Carrie shoved his arm. “Your mom dated Uncle Bill once, didn’t she?” He laughed, dimples deepening in his blushing cheeks. “We probably should close Memory Lane.” Russ glanced shyly. “So …you’re leaving for sure.” She shrugged and they began walking together towards the creek. His hand brushed against hers, which caused that pesky tingle again. She rubbed the hand down her jeans. “You’re going to miss Lonesome Creek in the winter. It freezes, you know, and you can ice skate on it.” “Right.” She turned brightly to him. “Ice skating. I forgot about that. I haven’t ice skated in years.” “Come back in a few months and you can.” They stopped to gaze across the creek, small ripples widened as ducks and geese dipped in and around, honking and spitting, getting ready to fly south. A bird flew in the water sharply trying to snap up a fish. Lonesome Creek reflected a pale blue sky, streams of clouds stretched for miles. “It’s so beautiful here. I almost feel like it’s a sanctuary.” “I wish… you’d stay, Carrie. The place needs you.” She looked up into a kind face, a strong man with nice eyes and a good heart. “Why…did you come here today, Russ?” “Come back to the truck. I brought something for you, since I see you like to ride.” “What is it?” He smiled at her as they walked along. “No hints. Just come look.” In the back of his truck, he pulled a blanket off a well-worn saddle. “Here. This was your uncle’s. He left it at my place once when one of his horses died and he thought he’d never want to use it again. He had other saddles, of course, but this one had been his favorite to use with his best horse.” Carrie reached out to touch the ancient leather, rough but unbroken, apparently like her Uncle Bill. Aged, but still valuable… Small rounds of silver decorated the sides. In that brief moment, memories of her wonderful uncle swept over her like a river. Moving her hand along the saddle, her eyes filled and she held on to the pommel. “Hey, now. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Really, Carrie, I’m sorry.” She tried to find a tissue in her pocket. Finding none, she dabbed her eyes with the bottom of her shirt and waved him away. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve gotten pretty sentimental out here these past few days. I’ll have to go back to the city to harden up again.” He shook his head, took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair. “Wish you wouldn’t do that, ma’am. It’s nicer when you’re soft.” Carrie giggled and smoothed down her shirt. “Was I that mean to you when we met, Russ?” “No, but you’ve changed for sure.” She could tell he wanted to say more, but didn’t. “Will you come in for coffee?” Russ adjusted the hat back on and looked good doing it. Carrie almost sighed. “Thanks, but I need to take off. Tad’s leaving for the rodeo circuit and I need to see him off.” “Will he be gone long?” “Long enough. When do you leave?” “Tomorrow.” “Well then,” he stuck out a hand. “It’s been nice meeting you, Carrie. Come see me sometime if you’re ever back this way.” She smiled as she shook his solid hand. “I will… I really will. And if you’re ever in Sacramento…” He climbed into his truck and drove away. She stood still watching the dust and rocks fly up behind the tires until the truck was out of sight. Gone. Huh. Somewhere, something within her stumbled, like had happened at the dance. But he wasn’t here to catch her this time. * * * CHAPTER 11 Apparently, Carrie had been away too long. Returning to Sacramento, she went into the office early Monday morning, puzzled as to why she couldn’t reach Mr. Jarvitz on Sunday. She’d tried on the way home from Murphys and twice more that evening. All her calls went to voice mail and were unreturned. Not many eyes met hers when she walked through the building towards her office. A new lawyer had moved in next to her and she vaguely wondered what had happened to Brody, the lawyer she’d worked with on another account. As soon as she got settled into her plush chair, Carrie logged onto her computer and opened her email inbox. There were several urgent messages that she’d been unable to respond to, being out in the country with no cell service. As she opened the first one, her eyes bugged out. Carrie. Just a quick warning. There’s firings afoot. Be careful with J. The warning was unsigned and from an address she didn’t recognize. Not the company’s service… Opening a few more, they were basically the same message: trouble with a capital J. Carrie sank back into her chair and wondered what the hell was going on. She got out her files on the Meryweather account, the one she’d been working on when she left, when there was a soft knock at her door. “Come in,” she called out. Thinking again, she rose and walked to open the door. “Miss Bendix?” A young, rather nervous, small woman stood there trying to look brave. “I’m Mr. Jarvitz’s assistant. May I come in?” “Certainly. Sue, isn’t it? Please have a seat.” Sue perched on the very edge of the chair, while Carrie sat down in hers and looked at the woman across her desk. Sue’s forehead was beaded with perspiration, her eyes refused to move above Carrie’s chin. “Are you all right?” Sue nodded curtly. “I’ll get right to the point. I’m here to tell you that you’ve been discharged from the firm. Mr. Jarvitz said he had to turn in a poor performance evaluation for you, which he’s sorry about, but was necessary.” She paused for breath. Carrie’s mouth opened and closed as she raked a hand through her dark hair, making a mess of it. “What did you say? I’ve been fired? What?” Sue gulped hard and rubbed her upper lip. She nodded again. “Yes, ma’am.” Carrie stood and leaned against her desk. “What? Who? Jarvitz? Where is he?” “Miss Bendix.” Her pointed stare stopped Carrie cold. “He’s not in town. Mr. Jarvitz flew to New York yesterday with another attorney. He said to tell you that he’s sorry but your performance was disappointing.” Carrie thought bitterly that it was most likely her lack of sexual performance that he meant. Just because I wouldn’t sleep with him? The dark thoughts wouldn’t leave her head. Sue stood, handing her a thick manila envelope. “This is the severance packet. It’s pretty standard – six months pay and health benefits. The firm will give you a good reference when you apply at another law firm.” “How do I get a good reference when they fired me?” “…I…I’m sure I don’t know, Miss Bendix. I’m just the messenger.” Sue dipped her head and left the office in a rush. Carrie collapsed in her chair, her mind in a frozen state. No thinking… Just feeling and she was beginning to feel pretty pissed off. Sitting quietly with a slow burn growing, Carrie looked up to see someone in the doorway. “I knocked and I saw you come in, but you didn’t answer. May I come in?” Carrie thawed a little. “Please, Sharon. Have a seat. Do you know?” Serious eyes flashed under a dark fringe of bangs. Sharon blew out a heavy breath and sank in the chair. “Everyone knows. Brody’s out too. I tried to reach you Friday when all hell was breaking loose but you were off the grid. Jarvitz was seriously mad.” Carrie came around her desk to sit next to her. “Can you tell me what happened? I haven’t a clue.” Sharon’s dark eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “Come on, Carrie. You’re not that naïve. When he couldn’t reach you, he just blew a fuse. Everything was in an uproar. Before we knew it, he had hired your replacement and guess who she looks like?” “Who?” Sharon stood and towed Carrie to a large, decorative mirror by her bookcase. “Look. See anyone you know?” Carrie blinked, beginning to tremble. “My replacement looks just like me?” “Jarvitz likes the raven-haired beauties. Word’s out that he started divorce proceedings and was prepping you to be Wife #3! When you went missing, he was seething.” “But he knew I was taking off for a few days.” “Apparently, the plan changed and your presence was required.” She had absolutely nothing to say to that and Sharon gently steered Carrie back to her chair. “I…I see. I guess,” she whispered, dropping her head in her hands. “I feel so stupid.” Misty eyes looked up into Sharon’s compassionate face. Carrie stuttered, “Why me? You and I look similar.” “Uh-uh, sweetie. I’ve got six inches and twenty pounds on you. Jarvitz likes his woman smaller, so I’ve stayed out of his spotlight, thankfully, for five years now. I want to keep it that way too.” Carrie’s head sunk wearily in her hands. Sharon laid a hand of Carrie’s shoulder. “Listen. None of this is your fault. You can sue for false firing, you know.” “False firing?” “Sure. Wasn’t your last evaluation pretty good?” Carrie nodded, perking up a bit. “It was outstanding. I was the next Clarence Darrow.” Sharon laughed and brought Carrie up straight. “Good. Keep the sense of humor. Listen.” She poked her arm. “Are you listening to me?” “Yes, yes…” “Pack your stuff, go home with your six months severance package.” “…Everyone knows that too, I suppose.” “Well, naturally. Just take some time to breathe. If you want to sue, I’ll give you the name of a shark who’ll take Jarvitz on for you.” “Jeez, Sharon – Aren’t you sticking your neck out?” “I don’t like what he did to you and why he did it. He’s a predator and I’d like to see him stopped. But I can be discreet.” As she stood shakily, Carrie took out a few bags from a small closet. “Okay. I’m packing and going home. I’ll call you in a few days.” Nodding, Sharon headed for the door. “Oh, and Carrie… One more thing.” Carrie looked up, busy hands stilled for the moment. “What?” “Better call a cab. Your car will have been confiscated and sent back to the leasing company by now.” “Yeah, right.” Sharon left, closing the door quietly behind her. Carrie stood in the ruins of her office, fighting for control. Her hands fisted at her sides and she wanted very much to scream as loud as she could. In the next second, she was ready to sob. Biting her lip, she picked up a bag and began to fill it with personal items. Working for fifteen minutes or so, Carrie lifted a bag over a shoulder, grabbed her purse and one other bag. She glanced wistfully around her office and for a second, just a split second, wondered how it had all gone up in smoke. Her eyes slit when she had full conscious thought of the man responsible for her demise at the firm where she’d worked so hard. She strode to the door and left, leaving the office that had practically been her home for the past three years. Yes, she decided. That was the problem, not just Jarvitz. She needed to build a new life, a better life and she wouldn’t get it working a hundred hours a week. Should she apply at another firm? Should she stay in law? She obviously had a lot of thinking to do. Carrie walked through the building, head high, and waved goodbye to one and all. * * * CHAPTER 12 “What are you going to do, Carrie?” Megan’s plaintive voice echoed through Carrie’s brain – “do, do…do.” She lay back on the couch, flipping through stations on her television, as she held the phone to her ear. “Nothing for a while, Meg. I’m going to wallow and sleep in.” “Well, I know that sounds well and good, but you’re going to have to work eventually.” “That’s the operative word here – eventually -- not today.” “It’s already been two weeks, and you haven’t sent out any resumes, had any interviews.” “Yeah, yeah,” she continued channel surfing. Finding nothing interesting, she shut off the TV and shifted the phone to her other ear. “Aren’t you a bowl of sunshine?” “Carrie.” The voice sounded both mildly scolding and pleading. She got off the couch and headed for her office. Catching sight of her sloppy sweats and saggy tee shirt in the hallway mirror, Carrie caught her breath. “Got to go, Meg. I’ll call you later.” She turned to the right and left, then cocked her head. “I look terrible.” Carrie went right to her bedroom closet and started tearing through her clothes. “Where are my happy clothes?” she muttered while she tossed suits, skirts, jackets, blouses and scarves on her bed. Soon her closet was close to empty and the whole area of her bed, floor and chairs was covered with articles of clothing. A small mountain of colorful fabrics sat in the middle of her bedroom. Cottons, silks, woolens and mysterious fibers all waited patiently for her attention. “I recognize this cleaning spree is because I’m unhappy,” she announced to the startled woman in the full-length closet mirror. She picked up a pretty, spring dress and held it up to model in the mirror. “I’m not unhappy because of my job…not really.” She threw the dress back on the pile. “Well, maybe a little.” A deep blue jacket caught her eye and she held it up to model. “No, my job was sucking the life out of me.” The jacket went flying. On the floor was a plaid, wool skirt she loved. She picked it up to hold in front of her – turning this way and that way. “My boss was a pig, that’s true.” She stopped a minute. “And so was my ex-boyfriend, Barry.” Carrie threw down the skirt and picked up several colorful, printed scarves to playfully wrap around her neck. “Do I really want to practice real estate law?” She slowly unwrapped the scarves, one by one, tossing them in the air. Scarves rained down for a few minutes. “That,” she said solemnly in the mirror, “is the question.” Modeling and discarding acres of more clothing didn’t quite solve any problems. She still had that school loan to repay and her savings wouldn’t last forever. If she wanted to keep her apartment in this nice area of town, Carrie was going to have to do something and relatively soon. She wished her parents were still alive, so she’d have someone to give her advice, since she already knew what her sister thought. For a nanosecond, while she was holding up the blue Western shirt she’d bought in Murphys, she remembered Russ Roberts, but discarded the thought before it could sprout wings and fly. She looked down at what she was wearing – droopy sweatpants and a stained tee shirt. Huh… No boyfriend… no job, plus all the clothes she owned lay in the middle of her bedroom. Carrie was finally stirred into a course of action. She ran a quick comb through her hair, forgot makeup and grabbed a jacket from the hall closet. She also grabbed purse and car keys, and fled her apartment like she had to hurry to an appointment. Carrie pressed her old Ford Focus back into service. Walking up to the car, she sighed and yearned for a very sleek BMW that had been hers for about twenty seconds. Carrie wasn’t that old, but it seemed like the good old days were already behind her. The Ford reluctantly chugged to life, not having been driven for a few months, and she drove down the street on a mission. In an old residential neighborhood, Carrie found what she was looking for: the corner pub. Her old car squeezed into a front parking place, she got out and looked the pub over. She couldn’t handle anything fancy. Neon lights blinked in the window and the bar was wedged between a Laundromat and a nice group of older, brick homes. She hesitated, but the happy music within set her mind and in she walked. It was the basic bar – long wooden counter with a huge mirror stretching behind with bottles of every kind of liquor imaginable standing at attention. Quiet patrons sitting on stools or at tables nursed their drinks, slight murmurings of talk. She walked over and parked on a stool, the bartender looked at her curiously. Forty minutes later, Carrie had had three martinis and was beginning to feel it. The stool seemed too small and the bartender was already pushing the coffee. He picked up a cloth used to wipe down the counter and wiped perspiration off his bald head instead. Was the stool wobbly or was she? Bits and pieces of her story had also gushed from a mouth that didn’t stop talking when alcohol was involved. “Carrie, maybe you’ve had enough. Is there someone I can call to pick you up?” “I’m f-f-fine, S-S-Stan. Just fine.” She took another sip of the delicious drink. It went down so smoothly. She raised her hand in the air. “Another, please!” When he shook his head, other patrons glanced over at her and shrugged. A man in a ball cap sitting close-by passed a freshly pulled beer down to her. Some others passed drinks along too and soon she was sampling sips from all kinds of drinks. “Look, Carrie,” Stan began again. “I know you’re upset about losing your job, but drowning your sorrows probably isn’t the best thing to do.” “How would you know, my good man?” She weaved a bit on her seat. “Ever lost…hic… a really good job because you wouldn’t s-s-sleep with…your boss?” Stan blinked and pushed a tray of peanuts over to her. “Can’t say as I have. Here, eat something.” Her phone rang a few times and stopped. Stan started to call for a cab when her phone began ringing again. “Carrie, your phone’s ringing. Answer it. Maybe it’s someone who can take you home.” “Pfft…” she waved away his suggestion, took another sip and the phone stopped ringing. Stan wiped his head again. He turned his back to her and muttered into the cash register. “I don’t want any trouble and a pretty girl drunk out of her mind is just inviting it.” When her phone started ringing again, Stan hurriedly fished it out of her purse and made her answer. “Okay, S-S-Stan…” she said into the phone, “I’ve got it already. Get a grip.” The bartender pointed at the phone. “Hello? Who’s this-s-sh?” she hiccupped. “Who’s this?” the voice said on the other end of the line. “No-o-o…. Thatsh my question.” “Carrie? Is that you?” By this time, Stan leaned over to take the phone out of her hand. “Hi. Are you a friend of Carrie’s?” “Yes. Is there a problem?” “Oh, buddy, is there. She’s drunk and I need someone to take her home. Can you come get her?” “Sure,” said the voice. “Tell me where she is.” “Thanks,” Stan rubbed his eyes in relief. “We’re at Fifth and Elm, corner bar. How will I know you because she’s pretty out of it?” “Jeans and cowboy hat.” “Gotcha. Thanks, mac.” And in ten minutes, the door opened and in walked Russ Roberts. * * * CHAPTER 13 Russ strode into the bar glancing in several directions, cowboy boots clicked on the wooden floor. He spied Carrie immediately, perched precariously on a barstool. A man in red baseball cap sitting close was holding her up, when the bartender saw him, waved him over. “Thank God you’re here, mister. She’s pretty far gone.” “Why’d you keep serving her?” “I cut her off after three martinis. Some other guys gave their drinks to her.” “Oh, for Pete’s sake…” he mumbled. Russ walked up to Carrie and spoke to Baseball Cap. “Thanks. I’ve got her.” The man shrugged and went back to his beer. When he let go, Carrie fell backwards, right into Russ’ waiting arms. Relief was etched on Stan’s face. “Thanks. What’s your name?” “… Roberts.” “Need any help?” “No.” Russ picked her up like Rhett Butler and walked with her out the bar. She mumbled and smelled like alcohol. Russ scrunched his nose. “Damn, Carrie. What happened to you?” She kept murmuring and he got her safely in the truck. She lay curled up on the front seat of his truck where he could watch her. He shook his head at her sweats and disheveled long hair. Russ got out his phone and made another call. “Megan? This is Russ again.” “Did you find her?” “I did… she…” Just then Carrie leaned over and threw up all over the floor of his truck. Russ blew out an exasperated breath as she coughed and curled back up on his seat, instantly asleep. “Russ? Russ? What’s happening?” “Too much, Megan and all at once. Can I call you later?” “Yes, please.” “Oh wait! I called to get Carrie’s address.” “221 Waterford Avenue, Apt B. It’s an upstairs apartment, Russ.” “Figures,” he mumbled. “Thanks.” Russ punched the address into his GPS and began driving as instructed. All the way to Carrie’s place, he wondered what could have driven such a bright, independent young woman to drink herself into oblivion. His truck and clothes now smelled like vomit, so he tried to breathe through his mouth with the window rolled down. That was only marginally helpful. When he arrived, Russ grabbed the small duffel bag from the back seat and walked around the truck to get Carrie. He swept her up in his arms again which might have been pleasant, if she hadn’t smelled like alcohol and puke. And it might have been comical, if he wasn’t so concerned about her. Waking for a moment, Carrie blinked watery eyes trying to focus. “Russ? Is that you?” “Yes, honey. It’s me. Just relax and I’ll get you home.” She coiled her arms around his neck, nuzzled her lips under his chin. He was so surprised that he nearly dropped her walking up the flight of stairs and forgot that she didn’t smell so good. What was good was that she was in his arms. Russ nearly dropped her again once he was on her floor, trying to get the door open. He’d already gotten the key out of her purse and she was snuggled in so well, that he didn’t want to release her. Struggling with many stops and starts, he finally got the door open and swept her in, kicking the door shut behind him. When he walked with her into the bedroom, Russ stopped abruptly, mouth open at the avalanche in front of him. “What the hell?” he mumbled. Clothes were piled high on her bed and all over the bedroom floor. There was hardly any room to walk into the room, much less put her on the bed. Russ made a quick decision. He turned around and laid her gently on the living room couch until he could figure out what to do. He collapsed into a chair and watched her for a minute. She curled up on the couch, little puffs of air from her pouty mouth. Russ smiled… she was a snuggler, he could tell. His mind began to wander until… “Hey! I need to move. Lots left to do tonight.” Russ hopped up from the chair like his butt was on fire and hurried into the kitchen. He soaked a small towel and tried to clean Carrie up. He turned her over and washed her face, smiling as he wiped her pretty cheeks and mouth. Her clothes weren’t too bad, so he decided to leave her in them and concentrated on clearing a place for her to sleep in that horrible bedroom. What the devil was going on here? He’d come to town to pick up a new saddle and thought he’d pay Megan and Carrie a social call. When Carrie didn’t answer her phone, he called Megan who was panicky, not knowing where Carrie was but that she might be in trouble. He fished her out of a bar and she heaved all over his truck? Russ threw his hat down, which left a small circle in his shaggy, blonde hair and he shook his head in wonder. Explanations would have to wait. He went back into the living room and carefully picked her up again to take her into the bedroom. He’d cleared a small space for her to sleep, tucked her under covers and crouched by the bed. “Night, Carrie. I hope you feel better in the morning.” “I will,” she whispered, eyes closed. “Thanks, Russ.” He blinked in astonishment. Was she awake? He pulled the comforter over her shoulders and went back to the kitchen. Gathering a bucket with soapy water and a few cloths, he went back downstairs to clean up the mess in his truck. It was late now and he was tired, so he figured he’d camp out here. Upstairs afterward, he pulled a toothbrush out of his duffel, did a few bathroom necessities and shrugged off his jeans before spreading out on the couch. He thought momentarily about watching television, when he closed his eyes and fell soundly asleep. * * * CHAPTER 14 “Oh, man! Why does my head hurt?” Carrie lifted her head slowly and squinted around the bright room as sunlight shone in the window. Yeah, this was her bedroom, but how did she get here? Wasn’t she in a corner bar somewhere? She sat up rubbing her forehead and got up very slowly to walk into the bathroom for water and aspirin. That chore done, she did a double take at the unrecognizable woman in the mirror and a hand flew to cover her mouth. “What…who? Oh, no.” Long, dark hair stuck out in many directions, ponytail long forgotten. Bloodshot eyes looked back at her and why did she smell so awful? “Jeez, I smell like puke.” After brushing her teeth, she moved slowly towards the shower, turned on the water and stripped off her clothes. A hot shower brought her back to life, but not to memory. What had happened last night? She shrugged into a fluffy robe and walked into the living room toweling her wet hair. Heading for the kitchen, she halted in her tracks when she saw a man sleeping on her couch… A man in his boxers. This morning was just getting better and better. As she grabbed a shoe from the floor for protection, Carrie crept up to him when he suddenly flipped over, snoring slightly. Her eyes popped wide and she dropped the shoe with a loud thud by the couch. “Russ?” She poked his arm and he moved again. Dark lashes fluttered open and he slowly focused in on her. A smile spread amiably across his handsome face. “Russ Roberts,” she repeated. “Ma’am?” “What the hell are you doing on my couch?” Raking a hand through tousled hair, Russ sat up and stretched. “And where are your pants?” She turned away as he reached for his jeans and stood to put them on. “No need to get so embarrassed. Not after last night.” She turned back to him, lips parted. “What happened last night?” He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Got any coffee? It’s a long story, but I need a quick shower first.” Carrie shook her head as she wearily went into the kitchen to make coffee. When the good aroma filled the air, Russ came out of the shower with damp hair and sat down by her at the kitchen table. “Ready to tell me now?” “Yes, I am,” he smiled. “But you’re not going to like this.” So they sat together in the cozy kitchen, and drank hot coffee while he told her what he knew. She gasped and said, “Really?” a few times, staring at him unbelievably. When he finished, she sagged against the chair. “So I got drunk and threw up in your truck?” Russ nodded with smiling eyes. “That’s a big chunk of it.” “Don’t say chunk.” She slowly rose to refill their cups. “Want some breakfast?” “No,” he said as he stood. “Sit. Let a cowboy cook you some breakfast.” She sank back into the chair cradling her cup. “Not too much though. I just thought you might be hungry. And what are you doing in Sacramento?” He looked in her refrigerator, took out bacon and eggs. “I came into town to pick up some supplies and called your number to say hello.” He found a frying pan, laid it on a burner and laid strips of bacon in it. “You didn’t answer but… remember Sandy, the real estate lady?” She nodded and took a sip. “Anyway, Sandy gave me numbers for both you and Megan. Since I couldn’t reach you, I called your sister. She was frantic trying to find you since you were supposed to meet her for dinner, and the rest is history.” He cracked eggs in a bowl and began scrambling with a fork. When she was quiet for several minutes, he stilled the fork as he glanced over at her. “Why’d you tear up your closet, Carrie and why did you drink too much? You’re a smart girl who’s obviously troubled. Tell me… please?” After he had flipped the bacon and taken out another frying pan for the eggs, Carrie watched while he expertly made crispy bacon and fluffy, scrambled eggs. He watched her with hooded eyes as she slowly began her explanation. “I’m not sure… how far back to go, Russ. Sure you want to hear this? It’s a soap opera.” He nodded, handing her a plate of food. “I do.” She took the fork he handed over and bit into a forkful of yummy scrambled eggs. “It’s good. Thanks,” she grinned, another bite heading to her mouth. “And…” he encouraged as he sat and bit into a slice of bacon. She took a deep breath. “I graduated top of my class in law school and was immediately hired by a prestigious law firm in town that specializes in real estate law.” “That’s great.” “And so it was for a while. I have a big school loan to repay so I was thrilled to be making high five figures right out of school.” The fork that was heading to his mouth stopped and his eyes widened. “High five figures? Well, good for you!” She nodded. “Yeah, yeah, it was all great for a few years until my boss apparently took a shine to me and things went downhill within a few months.” “Why?” “I wouldn’t sleep with him.” His chewing stopped and his eyes softened. “I’m so sorry, Carrie. You should have been appreciated for your brains, not just your beauty.” “I’m not that pretty.” “Says who?” She smiled, eyes laughing as she ate another bite. “You’re sweet.” “I’m truthful.” “Regardless… I was fired several weeks ago and yesterday it all came to a head. I went crazy dumping clothes on my bed, trying to find something happy to wear.” “Clothes that would make you feel happy.” “Something like that.” “So,” he continued, pushing away his plate, “emptying your closet didn’t do it for you, so you headed for the nearest bar.” “It seemed like… a good idea at the time.” “I bet.” “And then I woke up here to find my rescuer on my living room couch – and he also made me breakfast.” “Don’t forget I cleaned you up and my truck too.” A broad smile creased her face. “Maybe I should get you a medal.” He grinned right back at her. “You know what you could do? You know, to pay me back for my services?” “What?” “You could let me take you to dinner.” “Tonight? What about today while you’re in town?” “Maybe we could take in a movie.” He reached over to cup her face. “… Mr. Roberts, do you have a crush on me?” she teased as she took his hand. “I do, Miss Bendix. How do you feel about that?” She blew out a long breath. “You should know by now that I’m a mess. I’m trying to find a new identity and my evolution process is pretty rough – as evidenced by last night. I can think of easier girls for you to date.” He laced their fingers. “Who says I want easy?” “You’re staying the day and going home tomorrow?” “Yes, ma’am.” “…Well,” she grinned, “I think I can probably handle that. Long-term commitments aren’t on the program right now, Russ. Okay?” “I understand. I’ll take a day or two as they come.” “Then let’s plan the day…and Russ?” “Ma’am?” “Thank you for the rescue.” * * * CHAPTER 15 Sacramento Zoo Old town Sacramento Train museum Dinner By the time Russ took Carrie home that night, they should have been exhausted, yet felt revved being together. It had been a whirlwind day with activities, food, long looks and lots of handholding. As she poured glasses of wine in the kitchen, Carrie winced that it could be Act One of their movie: Boy meets girl and they fall in love. Only she didn’t want to fall in love with anyone right now. She had too much on her plate as it was and everyone knew that love could put a real kink into… whatever. She put the stopper in the wine bottle and mused that she didn’t exactly have this…thing between them sorted out. It had all just happened. Everything in her life had spun out of control and Carrie desperately wanted to get her bearings, but there was this man sitting in her living room. And not just any man: a handsome cowboy who lit up whenever he looked at her. She sighed and took the glasses out to him. “I hope you like Merlot. It was all I had.” He took the glass from her. “I do, thanks.” He sipped, nodded. “It’s good,” and he set it on a table. Carrie gulped her wine and a few drops spilled on her lap. Russ reached over with a napkin to wipe her off. “You’re always helping me,” she said. “Have you noticed that?” “And you’re nervous. Why is that when we’ve spent a very pleasant day together? You didn’t seem nervous today.” She set down her glass and looked into a peaceful face. “My nervousness knows no bounds.” Carrie stood and began pacing. “Sometimes it comes over me in waves.” “What does?” he coaxed as he watched her carefully. “I don’t have a job.” She turned and paced the other way. “I’ve got money saved, but it won’t last forever.” Wringing her hands, she stopped to look at him. “Professionally, I feel frozen in place, traumatized. I either can’t or don’t want to make a decision right now.” “And personally?” “All wrapped up in knots. I just can’t handle a relationship right now, Russ. I know you want more from me but it’s just not possible – I live in Sacramento and you live in Murphys. I’m a nut and you’re an island of calm. It’s…” “Hey.” Russ stood to take the hands she was threatening to wring off her wrists. “Take a deep breath. I’m not asking anything of you and I won’t as long as you don’t want me to.” He tipped up her face to his. “…All right? We just had a pleasant day – no strings.” He casually smoothed her dark hair away from her face. Her eyes roamed his face before they settled on his soft, attentive eyes. Wanting to run fingers through his sunny hair, she sighed again. It was getting to be a habit around him. “You’re waiting for me to make the first move.” “Yes.” She closed her eyes, acknowledged the inevitable and blinked them open, meeting his steady gaze. When she reached a hand behind his head, she drew him closer until their lips were a few inches apart. “Still waiting for me?” “Yes, honey.” Calling her honey clinched the deal. With all her flutterings and misgivings, indecision and anxiety, Carrie knew what she wanted that moment – Russ. She grabbed his face with both hands and laid a hot kiss on his waiting lips. He wrapped his arms around her so tightly she could feel his heart pounding in his chest. So…. he was nervous too. That tidbit of information sweetened the pot. One sexy kiss led to another until she totally surrendered to the fever that burned in her brain. Carrie seized the front of his shirt and kissed him with a passion she never knew she had. His hands ran up and down her trembling body and in between steamy kisses, his breathing was staggered and uneven. “Carrie…” he breathed once in her ear. All those knots started to loosen and she couldn’t get enough of him. Her hungry mouth ravenously kissed his cheeks, nose and eyes. When her lips brushed his throat, he sighed this time. “Um…” she began and stopped, stepping back. His eyes instantly widened. “Don’t go…” and he reached for her. “I’m going into my very untidy bedroom and you’re coming with me.” She brought his hand up to her lips for a kiss. “Am I, Miss Bendix? To help you tidy up?” “Nope. Maybe tomorrow,” she wiggled her brows over mischievous eyes. “Tonight we’re tearing up the sheets.” Russ laughed, leaned over to kiss her nose. “If we can find them.” Once in the bedroom, Russ took over. Pushing back a pile of clothes, he laid her back against the pillow and marveled at the sight before him. She was so beautiful and didn’t have a clue. Which made her more beautiful. “Are you waiting for an invitation?” She reached up to stroke his face. He shook his head, leaned down, and brushed her lips with his for one shining moment. Then he devoured. His need pushed him further and further, and he opened her shirt, jeans, eagerly anticipating the treasure he’d find. She gasped, hands groped through his shirt, nails dug into warmed flesh. Arousal, desperate longing, need all waged inside him as he absolutely plundered her mouth, breasts, body. She writhed beneath him… body arched as her hands wildly grasped anything within reach. Clothing from the pile slipped down on them as they rolled back and forth, wringing every last drop of passion from one another. Sensation… touch. Giving. Even with his brain on fire, it occurred to Russ that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. She sucked air from his mouth since he was unwilling to release her firm, moist lips. It all seemed so impossible that she would want him this much. Driven with desire, Russ rolled on top of her and drove himself in with one fluid movement. Her hips rose as she gasped for breath, hands clutching the tangled sheets around them. Movements quickened as he consumed her, riding the wave together. Higher and higher…cresting… slowing… he collapsed on her, rolled over to one side, dragging pieces of clothing with him. He tried to push it all away and pulled Carrie over on her side to see her considerably calmer face. She leaned in to lightly kiss his now familiar lips. “I think I needed that,” she giggled. Russ pulled her closer. “I know I did.” She yawned and blinked sleepy eyes. “Turn around and snuggle into me, sweetheart,” he said. “You’re bushed.” Carrie flipped around and Russ pulled her into his warm embrace. He kissed her silky hair, pulling her closer, arms around her. “Rest.” “…’Kay,” she mumbled and was out like a light. He was so relaxed and had never felt so good. And he had Carrie in his arms where he’d wanted her for some time. Unable to pull the comforter around them, Russ pulled a bunch of clothes from the pile down on them. In the morning they’d awaken under shirts and jackets and sweaters and skirts… cozy and warm curled up together. It would be a wonderful way to greet a new day, making him a happy man indeed. * * * CHAPTER 16 “Can you take me back to the scene of the crime?” Carrie whispered. Daylight was just showing through the parted curtains, birds were singing at break of day. “Mmm…” With eyes still closed, Russ rubbed his lips on the back of her neck, making her skin tingle. “Scene?” he mumbled. “…Crime?” Smiling, she moved his hand, warmly draped on her hip, to her breast. When he began to massage her, his intimate touch was thrilling and she could feel other parts of his body awakening. “Good morning,” she purred, turned to caress his sleepy face. “It’s sure looking that way.” And then rolled on top of her to make it a very good morning. Much later as they sat contentedly at the kitchen table, he watched her over the rim of his freshly brewed cup of coffee. She mirrored his actions. “What?” “What did you mean about the scene of the crime when you so seductively stirred me from slumber this morning?” “Oh, you remembered.” “Honey, with that kind of wake-up, it’s hard to forget.” She laughed and took another sip. “…My car’s still at the bar, I assume, unless it’s been towed. Can you take me back to get it before you leave today?” “Sure. When did you want to go? Do you want some help with hanging up the clothes too?” “No, but thank you. And wasn’t it strange to wake with mounds of clothing all over us?” A beat. “… Was it strange to wake up with me?” She held his gaze while he held his breath. “Not one tiny bit,” she grinned. “You’re a considerate bed partner – You didn’t hog the covers, such as they were.” “Carrie…” He set down the cup, gave her a warm look and she threw up a hand. “Um…” And he stopped at the sight of that hand. “We agreed no strings. Please don’t push me, Russ.” He nodded. “Right. Well, do you want to get dressed to go?” She glanced at his downcast eyes and was immediately contrite. “I interrupted you. You’re not saying what you want to say.” She rose, pushed in her chair to the table. “You won’t let me and you’re probably right. It’s all too soon.” Russ rose to load their dishes in the dishwasher. When she just stood there, anxious look on her face, he reached over to take her hand. “Not to scare you, but just to let you know,” his lips brushed her soft skin, “I’m going to wait until you tell me to come here or go away. All right? Full disclosure.” * * * He drove Carrie to pick up her car. After he parked the truck, Russ walked over with her to check out the Ford, make sure all was fine before she left. “Nice car,” he laughed. “It’s an oldie but a goody.” “Oh, ha,” she drilled a finger into his belly. “This car has gotten me where I’ve needed to go for six years.” He rolled his eyes. “Sure, as long as it’s around town.” When her smile faded and her lingering gaze went on and on, Russ gently pushed her back against the car, tipped her face up and kissed her with no pretense. He kept his hands snuggly on her waist. Soon she was breathy and excited…she coiled her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly back. “I’ve got to go,” he whispered against her mouth. “Now?” Her lips claimed his again and angled for a deeper kiss. Quiet, contented sounds rumbled low in her throat. He nodded once, continued with an angels-weeping, thunder-crashing kiss to end all kisses. When they broke apart and he moved slightly back, she whimpered. “Carrie,” he smiled while he cupped her chin. “Come home for Christmas. It’s only a week away.” She touched his sweet face. “Home? You mean Murphys?” “Home is Murphys -- you just don’t know it yet.” She gave him a slow, sultry smile. “Why don’t we go back to my apartment and fool around?” He released her and took off his hat. “You’re killin’ me, honey… but I’m going to take off. You have decisions to make and a closet to fill.” He opened the car door for her and she settled into the driver’s seat. She beamed him a killer smile and tried again, “Sure?” Russ exhaled a shaky breath and bent down to kiss her through the open window. “I’m sure.” He kissed her again. “You’re sending mixed messages. You need to figure out a few things. Just come home soon. All right?” “Only if you kiss me again,” she arched an eyebrow at him. Russ flashed her a hot look that nearly melted her in the seat. He possessively caressed her face and leaned in to kiss her like he’d never kissed her before. As their lips melded together, her fingers threaded his hair, tugged him to her. When he finished the kiss with a loud smack and pulled back grinning, she was in a fog. “There’s more where that came from, but only if I see you again… soon…Carrie?” He adjusted the hat back on his head. She blinked and briskly shook her head. “You have to go now or I’m going to drag you into the car and ravish you. Then we’ll just bruise our knees on the dash and rap elbows on the gearshift” “And never want to have sex again.” “Boy,” she breathed, meeting his eyes dead-on, “I sure can’t imagine that.” Russ took a step back, touched a finger to the brim of his hat. “After you, Miss Bendix. Take off…I’ll see you later.” Carrie blew him a kiss, started the ignition and drove off. It was all Russ could do to force himself back into his truck, drive to the freeway and then home. His mind was overloaded with emotion and vivid, sexy thoughts of her, and driving away was just too hard. All the way home he thought how much he wanted to be with her and images floated about how great that would be. Somewhere just outside of Murphys, he realized she didn’t know what she wanted. Sure there was an incredible physical attraction between them, but that was a far cry from the home and hearth that he so desperately desired. His roots in Murphys and his ranch were deep, going generations back. Carrie had only recently become reacquainted with life in a small town – would she want to live here? As he pulled into his ranch, Russ knew he’d probably confused her even more with his attentions, but she had been right there with him. If she hadn’t wanted him, wouldn’t she have pushed him away? Like she did with her boss and with Tad? Russ got out of the truck, grabbed his duffel and wearily shook his head. “Fat’s in the fire,” he muttered. “I guess we’ll see what happens next when it happens.” And he walked into his ranch to get to work. * * * CHAPTER 17 Carrie had a ton of trouble just trying to drive back to her apartment. She felt like she’d been punched in the stomach and those knots were beginning to form again. Was it Russ who loosened those knots? Was she falling for him? No, she told herself. It’s just sex. Wild, crazy, let’s-tear-up-the-sheets-all-night-long sex… Whew. She wanted him right now just thinking about it. Then a lump in her throat joined the knot in her stomach when she remembered his gentleness too. He had rescued her at the bar -- A stupid move on her part that could have been so much worse. He’d cleaned her up, put her to bed. Spending the whole next day with him had been fun, sweet. He couldn’t stop kissing her… she rubbed her eyes. Damn. Why did he have to be so wonderful? This was the worst time ever to fall for a guy. A terrible idea and she just hated those. Carrie knew he was going to rumble around in her head, like he’d tumbled around in bed with her and she wasn’t going to forget him any time soon. Huh. Not sure what to make of that. Time to get to work. Thank God her car had been on automatic pilot and had gotten her home safely because she barely remembered driving there. Pushing aside confusing thoughts of Russ Roberts, she marched into her apartment and right into the bedroom. Time to attack that closet! * * * A madwoman had definitely been here. Hundreds of naked hangers lined the bars of her closet daring her to clothe them! Carrie had been working industriously for an hour, just trying to sort skirts from jackets, blouses from dresses. If they were all going back, they were going back in some sort of helpful system. Finally, she began to hang up a few items, when the shelves at the top of the closet caught her eye and a small box stood out. She got out her stepstool, used it to reach the shelves and slowly pulled out the colorful box. A big smile bloomed when she recognized it. She had made the box in elementary school, decorated it with red and blue hearts in crayon and glued a yellow bow on the top. Gold and silver glitter stuck to her hand as she brought it down, shaking it slightly. What was in it? She sat down on the small space she’d cleared on the bed, and while sweet childhood memories cascaded down on her, Carrie opened the little box. She plucked out a ribbon she had won in a school race, a spelling medal and a pink bunny made of pipe cleaners with a pin on the back that she’d worn on coats as a little girl. As she lifted tiny, silk gloves and a shiny brooch, she saw a folded paper tucked underneath. With shaky hands, Carrie opened the paper, knowing full well what she would find – It was a note from her mother who had died five years ago, but was never far away in her thoughts. She cleared her throat as she began to read: Dearest Carrie, I know you and your sister are having the best time at your uncle’s place, but your daddy and I miss you both terribly. We’ll be coming to pick you up in a few weeks, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond to your nice letter. Yes, Lonesome Creek is a wonderful place and I knew it would fit you like a glove. You’ve always been a country girl at heart. Don’t try to hide it. It’s fine… You do with your life what pleases you the most. You asked if you could live there, but your dad’s job is here in Sacramento, so I just don’t see that happening. Maybe when you’re a grownup girl, you can make that decision. We’ll see you soon. Have fun with the horses and help Uncle Bill all you can. Love, Mom How wonderful that she still had the letter all these years. Tears clouded her vision but wiping them away, she saw a small P.S. on the bottom that read: And quit flirting with that cute Rusty Roberts next door. He’s too old for you! Tears gave way to laughter and soon she’d rolled over on the floor holding the letter to her shaking stomach. Unbelievable! She’d liked him as a child too. Grownup girl. Her mother had written that: when she was a grownup girl. Interesting that now she was a grownup girl, she was still flirting with cute Russ Roberts. But did she still want to live at Lonesome Creek? Only one way to find out – she got the phone out of her jeans pocket. “Meg? Can you come over? Yes, I found something I want to show you. Okay.” Carrie continued the slow process of rehanging clothes, and just when she was beginning to see a little progress, she heard a knock at the door. * * * CHAPTER 18 “Come in, Megan!” Carrie called out. In a minute, she heard a voice call back. “Carrie? You in here? Carrie?” She poked her head out of the bedroom to see her friend, Sharon, walk in. “Hey!” Carrie walked over to give her a hug. “Great to see you, Sharon. You look good.” Humor warmed her eyes. “Ha. You used to be a better liar than that.” Returning Carrie’s hug, Sharon held her out at arm’s length. “You know what? I expected you to look like shit but you don’t.” “Gee, thanks.” “…You look terrific. New guy?” Carrie narrowed her eyes, mouth formed a thin line. “You’ve always been a good attorney, Sharon, but I swear you have extrasensory perception or something.” “So,” she smirked, “there is a new guy.” “… More of a blast from the past.” “Huh?” Sharon’s brows quirked over dark eyes. “Come again?” “Nope.” Carrie led her into the kitchen. “Sit down and tell me all the office gossip. I presume that’s why you’re here.” Sharon sat at the table. “Got a diet something?” “Sure.” Carrie walked to the frig and pulled out a can. “Let me get you a glass and some ice.” “Well, gossip… sure. Although hearing about your new guy would be much more interesting,” teased Sharon as she fluffed back dark, curly hair. She took a sip from the glass Carrie passed her. “I guess the biggest news is that Jarvitz was promoted.” Carrie plopped hard in her chair, eyes wide. “You’re kidding.” “No, the guy’s slick. He outmaneuvered the big boss and took his seat in the boardroom. You should have slept with him – the new girl might be up for his old job!” Carrie’s jaw dropped. “You have to be kidding.” “Well,” Sharon grinned, “I’m only slightly kidding about sleeping with him.” “Did he divorce his wife?” “Oh, yeah. Gave her a boatload of money and she’s gone.” She took another gulp of soda. “And this new gal is taking her place.” Sharon shook her head, small curls swung around her face. “…Actually, I don’t think so. Rumor’s out he’s seeing several women.” “When does he have time to work?” Carrie muttered. “Exactly.” “What else?” “…Rumor also has it that the company is buying up chunks of land in California and Nevada for speculation. You could read mineral mining into that.” “Sounds like business as usual.” “Depends on whose land they want to buy.” Just then the door opened again and Megan walked in. “Carrie! You around? Door was open.” “In the kitchen.” In a thin, down jacket and fashionable slacks, Megan strolled into the kitchen and pivoted like a model on a runway. “Wow, sis! Looking good. New hairdo?” “And clothes and guy…” She glanced over at Sharon. “Hey, Sharon. How’s it going?” Sharon rose from the table, took a last drink of her soda. “I’m gone actually. I’ve got papers to deliver to a client and just took a shot I’d find Carrie home.” She gave Carrie a quick hug. “Good to see you, sweetie. Let me know where you end up.” “Professionally?” “And personally. I have a feeling things are changing a whole bunch for you.” After Sharon left, Megan took her chair at the kitchen table. “Office gossip?” Carrie nodded, took down a glass from the cupboard. “Nothing I care to repeat.” She poured and handed her sister the glass. “New guy?” “I could say that right back at you. What happened with Russ Roberts? He’s cuter than his sexy brother, Tad.” Her eyebrows merrily danced. “Ha. My question first.” “Okay. I just had a date with a teacher I met at that conference last week. His name’s Brian -- he teaches math and coaches track.” She tipped her head. “Enough info for you?” “If that’s all you’ve got.” Megan shrugged. “We’ve been out only once, nothing serious yet, but I really like him. He’s got potential.” Her eyes darted back to Carrie. “Your turn… give.” Carrie’s face broke out into a big smile. “Miss Nosy.” Megan jumped up, pointed a finger at her sister. “I knew it! I knew it!” With a frown, Carrie folded her arms. “Do you want to hear this or not?” Megan nodded eagerly and sat back down to sip her soda. “I really do.” Carrie repeated the story from the night before and how Russ fetched her from the bar, brought her home, cleaned her up. She mentioned their fun day together but skipped to the end rather quickly. Megan’s brows furrowed and she set down her glass. “You slept with him, didn’t you? Not that I blame you. He’s a gorgeous guy and is obviously gone on you.” Carrie blinked. “Why do you say that?” “Oh, Carrie. Jeez… You’d have to be blind and deaf not to see that the guy adores you. It’s the way he looks at you. Remember when you danced with him? You could read the contentment on his face.” “Suddenly you’re some kind of love expert?” “…For other people, apparently,” she teased. “I do like him,” Carrie grudgingly admitted. “He’s wonderful and I know he likes me.” Megan wiggled her brows over smiling eyes. “I bet he’s a good kisser too.” “Some of us don’t kiss and tell, missy.” She gave Carrie a dour look with a slight shake of her head. “Okay. He’s a fabulous kisser.” “Are you going to see him again, sis?” “That’s one of the reasons I called you to come over. First, let me show you what I found.” She took her into the bedroom and told her not to complain about the mess. When Carrie picked up the colorful box, Megan smiled and sat in the corner chair. “I remember that box. You made it for Mom one Mother’s Day – She put jewelry in it and kept it on her dresser.” Carrie handed her the folded piece of paper. “What’s this?” Nodding, Carrie said, “Read it…” Megan sat back, drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair. She read quickly and a huge grin spread across her face. “Rusty? He was called Rusty?” “I guess so,” Carrie shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t remember.” “So…” her eyes lit up, “you had a crush on him then too.” “Anyway,” Carried grabbed the note. “Anyway, I want to go to Lonesome Creek for Christmas.” “You do? Why?” “I thought you loved it there. For Pete’s sake, Meg, you’re the one who talked me into going in the first place.” “Yeah…. Ah, right. So…” Megan sat up. “Let’s go then. I’ve got a few weeks off from school now.” “What about the boyfriend?” “He’s not ‘the boyfriend’ yet and I think he’s leaving town for the holidays. And Carrie,” she paused, “you didn’t answer why.” Carrie folded the note, put it away in the box. She placed it on her dresser and looked at it for a minute, before she turned back to her sister. “I’m at that proverbial fork in the road, Meg. There’s something pulling me towards Lonesome Creek and I’m feeling like I should give it a try. I… I’ve always loved it there,” she swallowed, “and finding Mom’s note, well… let’s just say that was the final push.” She looked in her sister’s eyes. “What do you think?” “You had me at the crush on Rusty Roberts. Go get ‘em, kid.” “Oh, come on. It’s more than Russ.” “Maybe so,” she agreed, “but you can’t tell me he’s not a big part.” Carrie collapsed on a stack of clothes on the bed. “What if that ‘big part’ doesn’t work out? I’ll be stuck with a next-door neighbor that I don’t get along with making life miserable. And maybe a broken heart.” “… Life’s a gamble, so is love.” Carrie started to laugh. “You’ve got your Yoda thing going today.” She sat up quickly and clothes spilled on the floor. “Honestly, sis?” Meg tried again as she leaned towards her. “You just won’t know anything unless you take a chance.” She stood. “Let’s leave tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” Carrie squeaked, waving a hand around. “See all this? I have to hang it up.” “Not if you decide to pack it instead.” Meg’s animated brows moved again. A shrug, a frown… another shrug. “Maybe,” said Carrie. “Let’s go.” * * * CHAPTER 19 Russ couldn’t seem to keep two linear thoughts strung together. It was taking him twice as long to accomplish any chore because all he could think of was Carrie. She was with him when he groomed and fed the hungry horses. She loomed large when he swept the floor and cleaned up the kitchen. Her image was in the mirror when he shaved this morning – he nearly cut himself. Russ gave up and drove to town for a few groceries. After loading them in the truck, he walked over to Millie’s for some lunch. Stomach-rumbling aromas of bread baking and hamburgers grilling filled his nose as he went in the door. “Russ!” A voice called out to him from behind the counter. He wandered over and perched on one of the stools, dropped his hat under his chair. “Hey, Millie. How you doing?” “Not bad. Arthritis is flaring up a bit,” she glanced over at him and smirked, her bulky frame leaning against the counter. “You didn’t really want to know that, did you?” He laughed and reached for a menu. “What’s Sam cooking today that’s good?” “Brisket for dinner tonight, but the cheeseburgers are pretty good now.” Setting the menu back down, he said, “Tell him to grill me one.” “Gotcha.” Turning, she yelled, “Sam, another cheeseburger.” Millie waited on another customer and came back to Russ as she filled a glass with soda. “How was the trip to Sac? Get your saddle?” “I did,” he nodded, eyes slid away. “It was a… productive trip.” She handed the glass to a customer two stools down and looked back at Russ. “Get ahold of the Murphy girls when you were there?” She pulled a lever at the fountain to fill a glass for him. He was gazing out the window and jerked his attention back to her. “Yes. Sure… What?” Frowning, Millie handed him the soda. “So you saw them or you didn’t?” “Well, I saw Carrie and spoke to Megan.” “You saw Carrie? Huh.” Russ took a big gulp and nearly choked with Millie still looking at him. “You okay?” “Yeah, sure.” “You don’t seem okay.” Brows knit, she angled her head, watched the blush spread over his face. “What gives? You look like you just got caught stealing all the cookies.” He picked up a napkin to wipe his mouth. “Nothing.” “Well then, how was she?” “…Who?” “Carrie. Isn’t that who we’re talking about?” “She was fine.” Millie frowned again. Something didn’t add up. His face was too red and it wasn’t warm in the café. He had started to perspire and she’d barely asked him anything. Then it came to her – Carrie. Sam, a lanky man in a cook’s apron, brought the cheeseburger to Russ. “Here you go, enjoy!” “Thanks, Sam.” He smeared on ketchup before he took a big bite. Millie went out into the large room and came up behind him with several dirty plates heading for the kitchen. “You know Carrie really likes Sam’s cheeseburgers too.” She gave him an angelic smile. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. When Russ started choking suddenly, Millie shifted dishes to one hand and smacked him hard on the back. Then Russ reached for his glass as he was coughing and rubbing his stinging back. He swallowed hard and spit out, “Damn, Millie. You don’t need to beat me. I’m fine.” He took a huge gulp and sat still for a minute. Millie swung her frame around the corner of the counter, put down the dishes and pushed strands of gray hair behind her ear. “I don’t think so. You’re too nervous whenever I mention Carrie’s name. What’s up and don’t tell me nothing.” “Damn, Millie, could this possibly be none of your business?” She laughed, shook her head. “…Small town, son, but if you’re nice to me, I might let it slip that Carrie called me this morning.” That got his attention. Still smiling, she noticed he straightened on the stool like a puppy dog waiting for his treat. That was it… He was gone for the girl. “Well?” he asked, food forgotten. “Well what?” She walked down to the end of the counter to wait on another customer. When she called in the order to Sam, she bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Millie. What did she want?” “Who?” He grimaced. “Quit sounding like a damn owl and tell me what she said.” “Why should I?” she nearly laughed. “It was my phone call.” Irritated, with a red face, Russ stood, reached for the wallet in his back pocket. He pulled a few bills out, threw them down on the counter and refused to look at her. Exhaling an exasperated breath, Russ leaned down to pick up his cowboy hat, adjusted it on his head. “Leaving so soon? Something I said?” “Whatever, Millie.” He turned to leave. “Russ…” Her scolding tone caused him to turn back. She looked and assessed the handsome cowboy who stood there with waves of irritation emanating from him. Pissed blue eyes glanced back at her under spurts of blonde hair and a big, black cowboy hat. Plaid shirt tucked loosely into tight jeans. Working boots. Yes, he would do nicely for Carrie, she thought. “Well?” he tapped a foot on the floor with folded arms. “She and her sister are coming to town for Christmas.” Millie paused as his face lit up and his arms relaxed. “And… they’re arriving tomorrow. She wanted to arrange some food for a small Christmas party.” She paused again, watched his irritated posture become fluid, happy. “It sounds like they’re planning on having a few people over. Will Tad be here?” He nodded happily and tugged on his hat. “Thanks, Millie. See you later.” He strode out of the restaurant like he had just won the lottery. Millie waited on another customer and watched him out the window. He stopped to talk to a woman he used to see a few years ago – Sandy Foster. Good grief. What was that about? Uh-oh… As Millie continued to watch, Russ’ happy face was miscommunicated to Sandy. She could tell Sandy thought he was happy to see her. Damn… and the hits just kept comin’. * * * CHAPTER 20 Christmas in downtown Murphys was beautiful. Carrie and Megan drove by trees with stripes of colorful, twinkling lights. Evergreen wreaths were draped across Main Street in several places. Big red bows hung from their centers. Someone had left a tractor parked on a side street decorated with lights all over. A small Santa stood on the seat waving at one and all. It was hard not to get into the Christmas spirit when people were happily walking the streets, shopping in stores, talking on corners and eating in restaurants. Wine shops had full Christmas regalia in store windows with appearances from Rudolph and all the reindeer. In front of the historic Murphys Hotel, a huge pine tree stood decorated with green and blue lights twisted through the limbs, twinkling on and off. Colorful bulbs hung from the branches. If Carrie had heard carolers and seen ice skaters down the street, she would have christened it immediately the town most like a Norman Rockwell painting. As it was, she was enchanted. “I’m glad we picked up that little tree, Carrie,” said Megan beside her. “Who knows if we could get one here at this late date.” “Absolutely good thinking, Meg. Want to stop in for a bite to eat at Millie’s? I need to talk to her about the food I’d like to pick up.” “Didn’t you call her yesterday?” “Well, yes, but I changed my mind about a few items. Let’s go in.” Millie’s Café was the busiest place on Main Street. Carrie and Megan wove their way around as they looked for two seats together. Finally, two stools opened at the counter and Megan rushed over to claim them. “Hi, Millie,” said Megan, as Carrie joined her. “How have you been?” “Great, really. How’s your Christmas been so far?” Millie handed them each menus. “Wonderful. What’s Sam cooking today?” “The grilled cheese is a sell-out.” “Two,” replied Megan, holding up two fingers. Millie glanced at Carrie as she got situated on her stool, slipped out of her down jacket. She was a black-haired beauty in a perky ponytail and had dark eyes that didn’t miss much. She saw the sweet face that Russ liked. Carrie glanced around the restaurant quickly and seemed disappointed. “How are you, Carrie?” Millie watched her closely as she sat up straighter, offered Millie a peppy smile. “Good, thanks. How’s business?” “Not bad. As you can see, not a seat in the house,” she replied brightly. Then she softened her tone. “Russ Roberts was in yesterday. I gather you saw him in Sacramento.” Carrie blinked rapidly, moistened her lips and shrugged her shoulders. “Um… Yes.” Megan sidled up to Carrie with a playful expression on her face. “Rusty, you mean?” Carrie punched her in the arm, not so gently. “Rusty?” asked Millie pouring coffee for them both. Sandy Foster walked up to pay her bill. “Yes. Russ was called Rusty when he was younger. Why when we dated, I thought the name Rusty was dreamy.” Her eyes drifted upward as Megan, Millie and Carrie stared at her. Her eyes came down to rest on them. “Didn’t you all know we dated? In fact,” her voice lowered. “I think he wants to ask me out again. But,” she sang brightly, “You didn’t hear that from me!” She put some money on the counter and walked out of the restaurant with the three women watching her. “Uh, Carrie. What was that all about?” asked Megan with her mouth open. “How the heck would I know?” Carrie turned to Millie. “Do you know what she’s talking about?” “Actually, I do. Sandy and Russ were an item about two years ago, but he broke it off for some reason. Apparently, they might see each other again, according to Sandy…” Millie took out the pencil from behind her ear. “Is that a problem?” She looked straight at Carrie, as did Megan. Carrie glanced at them both and coughed. “Why…why…cough…would it be a problem? He can date whomever he pleases.” “Really?” asked Millie with her pencil poised over her pad. “Maybe I’ll mention to him that Sandy’s interested in him. What do you think about that?” She watched Carrie’s face flush and her ponytail swish back and forth. Carrie dropped her menu on the floor and picked it up, bumping her head on the counter. Megan looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. Millie, smiling slightly, watched as Carrie chewed her lip and tried to read her menu upside down. “Carrie? What would you like to order?” She slapped the menu on the counter, blew out a breath. “Nothing, thanks. I’m not hungry.” Megan shook her head. “Bring us both the grilled cheese, Millie. She’ll eat when she’s out of her funk.” Millie left them alone to eat their lunches, but watched out of the corner of her eye as she waited on other customers. Carrie watched the door constantly, perked up when someone opened the door and seemed crestfallen with whoever walked in. Millie’s guidance system honed in to the fact that Carrie was looking for Russ. She made arrangements with them to pick up various snack trays and desserts the next day so the girls could have a small Christmas party at Lonesome Creek that evening. They seemed excited and told her a few of the invited guests. “Sandy Foster? You’re inviting Sandy?” “She’s our realtor, Millie,” answered Megan. “We really should.” “Are you still selling the property? I would have thought…” “Thought what?” asked Carrie. “Never mind. Tad’s in town. Are you inviting the Roberts brothers?” “Indeed we are,” said Megan happily. She turned to Carrie, whose pink face had returned. “Aren’t we, Carrie?” She just nodded and gave Millie a half-hearted smile. “I’m sure Russ and Tad will be thrilled to see the Murphy girls.” Carrie’s smile spread across her face. “We’ve never been the Murphy girls, Millie. That was our mother.” “Well, that’s what we’re all calling you here, so you’d best get used to it. See you tomorrow night!” “See you, Millie. Have a good night.” Megan elbowed Carrie as they went out the door. Millie’s brows lifted and she shook her head. “With Tad on the prowl,” she muttered, “and Sandy on the hunt, this could be a very interesting evening.” And Millie went back to serving customers in the busy café. * * * CHAPTER 21 The tiny Christmas tree perched on a table shone brightly out the front window. Multi-colored lights hung from the short branches and twinkled their little hearts out all night long. Megan had hung shiny, silver garland around the tree, glass bulbs and icicles proudly sat in their posts. A smiling angel topped the pretty tree as it surveyed its realm. All the guests who had been invited had arrived and were gaily walking around the ranch house, talking and sitting in comfortable couches in the living room, or eating from the snack trays Carrie had picked up from Millie’s Café. Soft music played in the background. While snow lightly coated the ground and a playful moon peeked through the tall trees, Megan thought the party was a resounding success. Carrie did not. It was bad enough that cocky Tad Roberts had been entertaining her with tales of his rodeo adventures all night long. She couldn’t seem to escape. Tall with dark hair and a mildly amused expression on his face, his company had gone from bad to boring and she’d stifled a yawn behind his back. No, what made the party a failure in Carrie’s eyes was that Russ showed up with Sandy Foster and had kept his distance from her. Sandy’s incessant chatter seemed nonstop as she kept him close and Carrie’s spirits sagged. He had only glanced at her a few times. Peeking around Tad, she had to admit Russ and Sandy looked good together, two blondes with blue eyes. Hmpf. How could he? Her mind was in a complete dither trying to figure out how in the world he could make incredible love to her not so very long ago, and then escort their realtor, an old flame, to her party! She had heard an old pop tune on the oldies radio station just last week called, It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to, that expressed Carrie’s feelings at this moment succinctly. Alternating from being bored to tears with Tad, to being driven to tears by Russ, her emotional basket was overflowing. Megan came up behind her, tapped on a shoulder. “What’s wrong with you?” she whispered. When Carrie gave her a droopy look, Megan patted Tad’s arm and told him to get something to eat. As Tad loped off, she dragged Carrie into the bathroom. “What’s the matter with you?” she tried again as Carrie grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “Russ is here with S-S-Sandy,” she stuttered. “I saw that.” Megan waved a hand in the air. “I think he just gave her a ride or something. He’s been staring at you and Tad all night.” “Why won’t he talk to me?” she choked back a sob. Megan plucked another tissue from the box to hand her. “Crap, Carrie. Your emotions are parked on your sleeve. I thought you didn’t want to get hung up on a guy right now. What happened to that plan?” “It wasn’t such a good plan obviously.” “Well, wipe your eyes. We have guests and Millie’s watching you like a hawk. Everyone’s going to know after tonight exactly how you feel about Russ, if you don’t pull yourself together.” Carrie tucked strands of dark hair behind an ear and sopped her moist cheeks with a soggy tissue. “How…how…would they know…sniff…when I don’t?” “…And now your eyes are red. Here,” she handed her a small bottle. “Use some eyewash and come back out.” She started to leave the bathroom when Carrie grabbed her arm. “Meg, hold the fort for ten minutes or so. I’m going to walk out by the horses. I need some air and for God’s sake, do something with Tad for me.” “Don’t take too long,” she warned and hurried back to their guests. Leaving the bathroom quietly, Carrie picked up her jacket and sneaked out the back door, nearly colliding with Tom Evans, town mayor. “Oh, excuse me, Tom.” “Bailing on your own bash, Carrie?” He laughed heartily as his paunch shook and spilled his drink on the floor. “No, sir. I…I’ll be right back.” Once out the door, she leaned against it and looked up in the night sky, gulping air as another shooting star crossed overhead. She took a deep breath and a few more, then worked on composing herself. Breathing in fresh smells of sage and snow, she cut quickly across the yard to hide out for a few minutes. She buttoned her jacket and walked into the dark, wooden barn. It had one light over by the stalls that gave out a small beam of light and she headed for it, that and the comfort of the horses. Thunder was asleep but Tango heard her and came up to heave his head over the half-door to see who was there. “Tango. Thank God you’re here.” She wiped her face again before sinking it into the horse’s mane. Tango snorted and nodded. “… Is that horse bothering you, miss?” said a familiar voice by the door. Carrie’s head jerked up at the intrusion and she ran hands over her face. Her heart lurched at the sound of his voice and fell with a thud in the hay below her feet. The voice took a step towards her. “You’ve been anxious all night and haven’t spoken to me.” Another quiet step. “And now you’re crying…” When she didn’t respond, he tried again, “Why are you crying, honey?” That did it. Carrie ran into his outstretched arms as fast as she could go. Russ grabbed her, held on for dear life. In his arms where she needed to be, Carrie cried it out. He softly smoothed her hair, letting her do what she needed, as he tightened his hold. Eventually, she swallowed and lifted her tearful eyes to meet his smiling ones. “You’re such a big, strong girl. Was this really necessary?” he asked her, still holding her close. “What?” “Being jealous that I gave Sandy a ride.” “She…she,” Carrie sniffed, “…told us at Millie’s that you two were dating again.” “That was wishful thinking on her part.” He softly kissed her cheek. “But…” “There are no buts. She called and asked if I could give her a ride because her car was in the shop. That’s it. End of story.” “You’re not going out with her?” A small tear slid down her cheek that Russ pushed away. “Would that bother you?” he grinned. “Yes-s-s,” she gulped and snuggled back into the warm circle of his arms. “I thought you were flirting with my brother,” he spoke to the top of her head. She glanced up at him. “Why would I do that?” “To make me jealous, of course.” They gazed at one another for a brief moment before Russ leaned in to capture her waiting lips. Carrie eagerly placed her hands on his face, pulling him closer to her, deepening the kiss. Wrapped together like ivy, contentment washed over her. Russ lifted his head to grin into dark, tempting eyes. “Better, miss?” Carrie’s knots began to loosen. “Oh, yes, thank you.” “I have something for you.” “Another kiss?” she teased, outlining his lips with her finger. “That too,” his lips sought her lovely, upturned mouth for another hungry kiss. He brushed her lips lightly, once, twice, teasing her into impatience. “Russ…quit fooling around and kiss me,” she insisted as his hands went through her long hair and tightened his hold. His demanding kiss buckled her knees and he had to hold her up. They eventually surfaced, breathing hard. With her hands on his chest, she blinked happily and rose on tiptoes to lightly kiss his lips. “I can’t tell you how much I want you,” he whispered. “…No more than I want you.” “I think we’re going to have to wait a few days, honey. Tad doesn’t leave for the circuit until Saturday.” “Megan leaves on Saturday too.” “You’re staying?” he asked, one hand caressing her face. When she nodded, Russ hugged her hard against him and leaned back, lifting her off her feet. “Yippee-ki-yay!” “Says a true Westerner,” she laughed. * * * CHAPTER 22 “We’d better head back to the party. They’ve probably noticed by now that one of the hosts is missing.” Russ took Carrie’s hand, brought it up to his lips, and they began to walk back to the house. “Oh, I forgot!” He shook his head, hand reached into a pocket. “I got this for you – Merry Christmas.” He handed her a very small package with red and white candy cane wrapping and a tiny gold bow on top. “Good because I got you something too.” She reached into her coat pocket and drew out an equally small, round package with a picture of Santa on the paper. Russ beamed and they exchanged gifts looking intently at them. After laughing at their awkwardness, Carrie took the wrapping off hers to hold up a small object. Russ tore off the paper on his gift and held it in his hand with knit brows. “Is this a package of twine?” he asked. “…Is this a spool of thread?” she asked. With a quizzical expression, he said, “You go first. This I’ve got to hear.” She smiled, eyes laughing as she turned his object around. “Remember when I told you, ‘No strings’?” He nodded, big grin creasing his face. “I do, that’s why I gave you thread. It’s not string either.” Just then Tad yelled out the door for them, “Hey! You guys out here? We’re having dessert.” “In a minute,” Russ yelled back. Then he cupped her chin to look into her face. “You said ‘No Strings’, so throw it away if you want, or keep it if you’re unsure. Give it back to me once you know.” Carrie blinked. “Wow… You put some real thought into this gift. Mine was just a little joke, a play on words.” Her eyes searched his. “I’m just starting a new chapter, Russ. You’re going to have to give me more time.” She shook her head. “I know how incredibly lame that sounds…hollow.” “No, Carrie. It’s all right. You’re biting off a lot coming here. You’re still staggering from the job loss and everything seems to have hit you at once.” He smiled at her. “Take all the time you need, but can I see you as often as possible – please?” “You may.” She lifted up on her toes to give him a peck on the lips. “We’d better go in. I’m freezing.” Laughing, he laced her fingers with his as they walked back to the house together. And it escaped no one’s attention that Russ and Carrie walked into the party together, holding hands. * * * CHAPTER 23 “You sure this is okay?” A few days after the Christmas party, Megan was packing the car and getting ready to take off for Sacramento. She hoisted a bag into the trunk and closed it with a thud. Carrie was nodding and waving a hand. “Yes, Yes. I’ll be fine. Russ said he’d loan me a vehicle to drive until you get back.” She swallowed and looked confidently at her sister, while she shivered in her light jacket. “Sure about this, Meg? You’re taking a real chance applying for a leave of absence in the middle of the school year. It could cost you your job and what about the almost boyfriend?” “I’m not going to let you do this all alone, Carrie. It’s what you want to do and I’m going to help you with it. We both have money saved… No,” she smiled, “I’m not a saint, but it sounds like a great adventure!” Megan got into the car and started the ignition. “When are you coming to pack up your apartment?” “Pretty quick, I think. I need the clothes!” She laughed, patted her sister on the cheek and stepped back. “Bye now. I’ll talk to you soon.” Megan took off and Carrie watched until the car was out of sight. She shaded her eyes looking up at the sky. The sun might be out but huge clouds were rolling in fast. Snow? Rain? Could be both and neither. Carrie turned back to the house excitedly rubbing her cold hands together. She had so many projects to tackle – caulking windows, cleaning the house, preparing the bedroom for her and Megan. There were two double beds in the upstairs loft bedroom, which was lucky. She also needed to throw in a load of clothes and figure out the best time to pack up her apartment to bring home. Home… Just the four-letter word excited her. She’d had a wonderful home when her parents were alive, but a series of apartments left Carrie very much desiring a home of her own. Looking up at the wood frame ranch house that Uncle Bill had left them made her so happy she danced the rest of the way up the porch and into the house. There were so many things she wanted to do: ice skate on Lonesome Creek once the ice was harder, put out bird feeders for the multitude of birds she still saw, and learn how to use the snowshoes she’d found in the barn, for starters. She had also found an old wooden sled and hoped she could convince Russ to try it with her. Russ. He was the best winter activity of all. Carrie hurried into the kitchen to begin dinner preparations. He was coming over for dinner after putting in a full day with his horses, getting some ready to take into town soon to sell. She had learned that his horse breeding business was busy and lucrative. With Tad and Megan now gone, Carrie was looking forward to having Russ all to herself. A few hours later, he came in the front door, wiped snow from his coat and dropped boots on the thick doormat. Russ slipped off his hat, shaking out his wet hair and stuck gloves in the coat pocket. “Hi!” she called out from the kitchen. “Just throwing a few things together.” “It’s beginning to really come down. I hope I can get that old snow-blower working again.” Russ walked into the kitchen sniffing with an upturned nose. “What’s that great smell, Carrie? Are you cooking, really?” She turned to him, hands on hips. “I do know my way around a recipe, thanks.” She gave him a slow, easy smile and walked briskly to him, as he eagerly wrapped his arms around her. Something had shifted between them since the Christmas party. There was some kind of wordless understanding to which they’d both agreed. They spoke every day and knew what the other was doing. Nothing had been said but his heart fluttered to see her ride up on Tango just to say hello. He was thrilled when she leaned up to kiss him and he had her in his arms. His mind brimmed over with happiness just remembering their lovemaking and anticipating the next time. Things were different, like now…She was preparing a casserole and cornbread for dinner tonight, their first solo dinner since Sacramento. Russ got a beer out of the refrigerator and leaned against the counter, watching her work. Her lawyer hands, so competent at the computer and writing, had trouble mixing and blending, cutting and slicing. But she kept trying. Being a guest, he belatedly thought that he should have brought her flowers. “How’d it go with the horses today? Did you select the ones you want to sell?” He swallowed a sip and nodded. “I did. There’s some beauties that will make great ranch horses. How was your day?” She set the dish in the oven and set the controls. “Megan left. I don’t know if she’ll be able to stay out here.” “Why not?” “Her life is in Sacramento and I know she’s only doing this for me.” “Great sister.” “She is.” “Are you sure you want to stay?” He looked over, hoping to catch her first reaction. Carrie washed her hands in the sink, and tied her long, black hair into a quick ponytail. All the while, she watched him with a small smile on her face. Just when he was beginning to wonder if she was going to respond, Carrie moved close and wound her arms around his neck. Breathless now, she planted her lips firmly on his and kissed him until his head spin. By that time, his hands had grabbed her hips, bringing her closer. She pulled slightly back from him and looked him in the eyes. “I’m home now, Russ. Remember when you told me that Murphys was home and I just didn’t know it yet?” He nodded, unwilling to move from her lips. “You were right. I suspect,” she smiled, “it won’t be the last time. It won’t be easy with me, Rusty Roberts.” Surprised, he shot her a startled look. “I told you I wasn’t expecting easy and why did you call me Rusty? No one’s called me that for a long time.” She kissed him again, picked up his bottle for a sip. After she told him about finding her mother’s note and the flirting comment, he whistled. “I knew your mom was onto me. I remember teasing you or trying to. I didn’t think you noticed me.” “Well, my mother thought I did.” During dinner, it felt natural to eat and talk pleasantly together. As she tugged a knife through the cornbread, Carrie winced. “I’m so sorry about the casserole. I guess I left it in too long.” “No,” he said quickly, “it had an interesting, ah, texture to it.” “That’s code for ‘It wasn’t very good.’” “I liked it, honestly.” He pressed his lips together to keep from smiling but she burst out laughing. “You can’t fool me, Russ Roberts, but I’ll keep trying if you’ll continue to be my guinea pig.” His smile warmed. “You want to keep seeing me then.” “Why wouldn’t I want to see you?” “… Carrie,” he reached for her hand. “This is what people call a relationship. Something you said once that you didn’t have time for. Maybe… that was just then. Do you have time for one now? Do you want one with me?” “I told you before I was a work in progress. I haven’t figured this job stuff out at all but … I...I,” she stopped and he heard a catch in her voice. “I like figuring this…whatever out with you.” “This whatever?” He placed her hand on his heart. “Oh, Russ,” she blushed, eyes blinking rapidly. “I’m…trying but I can’t cook for shit.” “So?” “So you’ll starve if you have a steady diet of my cooking.” “But I won’t starve having a steady diet of you. We’ll figure it out as we go. Cooking’s not a biggie in my book, but now sex…” She laughed, rose to clear the table. “What about it?” Russ helped her stack the dishes in the dishwasher and turned her to look at him. “If I can’t get you naked soon, I’m going to burst.” “Really,” she smirked, “there’s going to be bursting?” Russ took her by the hand through the kitchen and up the stairs to the loft bedroom. “It’s chilly up here,” she remarked as he held her close. “It won’t be soon, sweetheart. Let’s get under the covers.” Crazed passion had given way to quiet passion. Pulling off her sweater, Russ pushed up her bra, rubbing her nipples, exciting them both. When he put his mouth on her breast, he felt her breathy need, body arching in response. He slipped out of his jeans and shirt to unzip her jeans, sliding them seductively down her toned legs. Fingers dancing along her warmed skin as he went. Soon Carrie shivered as they lay down on the bed. “Cold?” “…No.” Russ began kissing every sensitive place on her body – her belly, the underside of her leg, along her throat. Arousal rose within him like a rising tide. He teased her lips over and over, making her cry out for him. He used tongue and lips to bring her higher and higher, and as she called out his name, he rolled on top, pushing her over the edge with him. Afterwards, Carrie just concentrated on breathing in and out. She was wrung out and couldn’t move. Who was this man who could do such incredible things to her body and her mind? Russ pulled her over to spoon and she dropped to sleep like a stone in water. Waking happily the next morning, they shivered for a different reason -- a layer of snow was all over the bed. Snow?? * * * CHAPTER 24 Megan worked in her classroom most of the day on Sunday – packing boxes, taking them out to her car. Not really sure if she’d be back or not, she was leaving supplies, paper, crayons, markers and many other things she’d purchased with her own money. It was, after all she reminded herself, a leave of absence, not a gone-forever type of absence. She might want to return, right? Her principal had actually been in to see her this morning, expressing real regret that she was leaving the school mid-year. But what could she do? Her sister was in crisis and needed her. And Lonesome Creek had been her idea. As Megan sorted through notebooks and textbooks, her mind wandered to earlier days. She missed her dad… Their father had been a wonderful man, loved the advertising business as much as he had loved his family. His early death rocked their mother who never could find her footing after that. She had died only two years later and Megan had been convinced it was from a broken heart. After that, both girls had focused hard on their careers. She loved her job as an elementary school teacher, but she marveled at Carrie’s meteoric rise from top law school student to junior partner at the most prestigious law firm in the area. Nor did it surprise her when Carrie’s rise had plummeted, sending her spiraling out of control – the night at the bar. Flipping through some assignments in a folder, Megan continued to think about Carrie. Her emotional range expanded as far as her intelligence. She was sitting on top of the world one week and laying on her couch comatose the next. Carrie had crashed and burned with Barry, her ex, vowing to hate men for all eternity, until that sexy Russ Roberts had brought her back to life. Russ. Although the younger sister, she remembered him very well from those summers at Uncle Bill’s ranch. She’d tried to get him to ride horses with her, but all he noticed was Carrie, who wouldn’t give him the time of day… Of course, they were little girls then, but they had grown up and Carrie was noticing him now. Packing another box, Megan began to worry – Her sister was so unraveled right now because of that job and the way things had gone. Carrie was goal-oriented and her life plan had fizzled out. Her nerves were frayed and the only person she was responding to was Russ. Could he help put her back together or would she push him away if it all got too comfortable? Carrie, she knew, was complicated. She had kept her feelings about Russ at arm’s length when he was in Sacramento, but had cried like a baby in Murphys when that real estate lady had shown interest in him. Did she really want him? Megan smiled, shaking her head. She taped up the box and looked around. Was there anything else for her to take? Poor Russ would be on a roller coaster with Carrie for a while. This, she knew, to be a fact. But what about Megan? What did she want? Just then the phone jingled in her coat pocket. She walked over to where she’d laid the coat and fished it out to answer. “Hello?” “Megan? This is Brian.” “… Well, hi. How were your holidays?” “Pretty good. Almost got snowed in at the Chicago Airport.” Megan laughed. “That wouldn’t have been so good.” “Say,” he started and stopped. “Is it true you’re moving out of town? I heard something about that.” “I am. It’s a long story but I’ve put in for a leave of absence from the school to help my sister move down to Murphys.” “Murphys? Out in gold country?” “That would be the place.” “Well, could I buy you a cup of coffee before you go? I’d like to hear this long story.” He paused. “How about now?” “Um…” Megan cleared her throat. “Well, sure. I’m about done here.” “Could I meet you at the coffee place down the street from your school?” “Java Joe’s?” “That’s it. Fifteen minutes?” “Sure. See you there.” And as she closed her phone, it occurred to Megan that maybe there could be something coming along for her too. Why should Carrie have all the fun? CHAPTER 25 Two sets of bleary eyes focused on the ceiling. What was going on? They actually saw flakes of snow falling from a particular place above them. “I guess we could have slept in the other bed,” said Carrie. “We’d still have woken up in an icebox.” Russ pushed back the cold covers, reached for his jeans and shirt. Standing on a chair, he squinted up to examine the ceiling problem from a closer distance. “I’ll start the coffee.” “Please, while I figure this out.” She slipped on a sweater and jeans, and glanced up at him probing through the snow. “Russ?” she smiled when he looked back down. “What?” “You’re doing it again.” “What’s that?” “… Rescuing me.” His eyes were amused. “Seems to be my mission in life.” “I’ll make the coffee.” Later, when he came down the steps from the loft, Russ shook the snow out of his hair. He gratefully accepted the hot cup Carrie handed him and took a quick sip. “How bad?” “Bad enough. You’re probably going to need a new roof, which is pretty hard to do in winter with all that snow.” Carrie pushed back some wayward hair. “What should I do?” “I can patch it for you for now but we need to go to Sacramento for the supplies. I believe that’s the closest place to get what’s needed.” “That’s good actually because I need to pack up my clothes and personal things. Will you be able to help?” “Sure but no furniture?” “No, Megan and I both have had furnished apartments for a while. All the chairs and tables we inherited from our parents are in storage. Neither of us had a house to put it in.” As he blew on his coffee and looked around, Russ smiled. “You do now.” Carrie smiled, took the cup from his hand, set it on the counter. She snuggled up close to him and laid her head on his chilly shirt. “I’m going to wear you out, Russ. You’re too good to me.” He tipped her face up to him. “Don’t ever say that. We’re figuring things out as we go, remember?” She nodded and leaned up to kiss him. “In case, I ever forget, thank you for being here and thank you for helping me.” His hands moved down to playfully squeeze her butt. “I should thank you for last night while we’re being grateful. I’d be doubly grateful if we slept in my bed tonight. Your loft is going to be icy for a while.” “You’re assuming I’m going to sleep with you tonight.” “Well, I was hoping.” Her hand slid down inside the front of his jeans to touch a more sensitive area. Russ raised an eyebrow. “Do you mind?” He bent to kiss her grinning mouth. “Do what you gotta do.” * * * Russ stuck whatever he could find to plug the ceiling hole temporarily. The whole ranch house was beginning to cool down, so they took off for Sacramento that morning to find what would be needed to patch the roof. On the drive up, Russ glanced over at Carrie. She was wearing her dark hair down around her neck and shoulders. She was lovely and when he told her so, her eyes absolutely sparkled at him. “Are you enjoying your break from being a lawyer?” he asked. “Actually, I really am. You know Uncle Bill used to run a trail-riding business. I was thinking about starting something up in the spring, maybe part-time.” She slid her eyes to him. “What do you think?” “You don’t want to be an attorney anymore?” She shook her head. “Not for a while. I’ve got enough money saved to hold out for a year and I’d like to try something different.” “And I think that’s great, but you spent all that money for school.” “Yes and I have lots to repay yet.” “…So it begs the question.” She turned to look at him. “Russ, even if I wanted to, where would I get work as a lawyer in Murphys?” “We have an attorney.” “Yes and one is good enough. There’s not enough business in this town for two attorneys. Besides, my specialty is real estate law.” “I would think that would come in handy in an area like ours. There are surrounding towns that aren’t too far away where you could set up a small practice too.” Her brows deepened. “Are you saying I should go back into law?” “I’m just saying, don’t throw the option out. You may want to pick it up someday.” “I’m happy at the ranch, Russ.” “And I’m thrilled to have you there.” He reached out to take her hand. “Don’t misunderstand. I only want you happy.” She kissed his hand, making him smile. “Okay.” * * * CHAPTER 26 Once they had arrived in Sacramento and Russ was searching up and down the aisles of a roofing supply store, Carrie took the time to give Megan a call. They arranged to meet at the apartment where Carrie and Russ would be going next to pack up her belongings. Megan was packed and ready to go. “It’s a darn good thing Rusty has a big truck,” smirked Megan, as she surveyed the mess in Carrie’s apartment. “Rusty?” He rolled his eyes at Megan, before he scratched his head and looked around. “And where do we start?” “Easy. I want clothes, bathroom stuff and kitchen stuff. The rest came with the apartment.” “What about TV?” “Yes…that too. Not too bad, huh?” She leaned up to give him a quick kiss on the lips. “All right. If you say so.” “Do you need me, Carrie?” asked Megan. “Otherwise, I’m going to take off for Lonesome Creek. Should I pick up any groceries on the way?” “Please do and remember, we’re rolling out sleeping bags for a while.” “Well, I am, I’m sure, but you’re probably sleeping with a cute cowboy in a warm bed.” Megan began to laugh as she headed out the door and Carrie tossed a cushion at her. When she’d left, Russ pulled Carrie to him and whispered in her ear, “She’s right, isn’t she?” Carrie ran a hand over his smooth face and brushed her lips on his jaw. Then she moved her lips slowly along his throat, kissing as she went while his eyes became unfocused. “Anytime, anywhere, cowboy.” Her sexy voice held him spellbound until she kissed him again and he sputtered to life. “Right, okay,” he blew out a shaky breath. “If we don’t get you packed up now, I’m taking you to the bedroom.” “Are we in a big hurry?” She wiggled her eyebrows as he grabbed her hand to lead the way. * * * Megan and Carrie both slept at Russ’ ranch that night. The temperature at their ranch had fallen low enough to make sleeping even in the living room uncomfortable, so Russ offered his guest bedroom to Megan. She took it gratefully and they’d made a nice dinner at his place. After dishes, Russ excused himself to find sheets and towels for Megan to use. She watched him go and turned to Carrie the second he was out of sight. “Carrie, you two seem tight. Have I missed a step here?” She put a hand up. “No. We’re enjoying being together and are keeping it light.” Megan shook her head. “Uh-uh… Maybe you’re light but he’s in love.” When Carrie opened her mouth, Megan put her hand up this time. “I know you too, Carrie. I think you have real feelings for this guy.” “No…no! That’s too much too soon.” “How much time does it take? He’s been gone on you since the first day he came by the house. You have to see it too, Carrie.” She patted her hand. “Don’t you?” “I…I don’t need love right now, Meg. It’s not a good time.” “When would be a better time? I’ll schedule it for you.” “Sarcasm won’t help.” “…Has he said anything to you?” Carrie slid her eyes to the hallway. “He’s told me he’ll wait until I’m ready. And I’m not, Meg. I’m not ready. Don’t be putting me in a place that I can’t be yet.” Megan sat back, toyed with a button on her blouse. “Just calling it like I see it, sis, but I want to say this.” She glanced towards the hall and lowered her voice. “If you don’t feel anything for him then, for Pete’s sake, don’t lead him on. He’s fixing your roof, helping with the move and you guys are sleeping together. He’s expecting something.” “Whew, Meg.” Carrie raked a nervous hand through her hair and rose quickly to stack the dishes in the dishwasher. Russ came down the hall, boots clicked on hardwood floor. He was getting to know the girls pretty well and one glance at Carrie’s downcast face told him something was up. Megan seemed too cheerful, thanked him for a lovely dinner and scurried off to bed. Carrie clanked a few pots and pans in the kitchen, trying to figure out where they went. With the dishwasher humming in the background, Russ stuck hands in his pockets and leaned against the door to watch her. “Are you all right?” “… Sure,” she said but wouldn’t look at him. “Do you want any more coffee?” “No, thanks, but a look from you would be nice.” When she turned to him, he saw a pretty woman with long, dark hair, cute nose, heart-shaped face and mesmerizing eyes. Silky blouse tucked into her tight jeans. Pale pink lips that began as a frown, slowly curved the longer she looked at him. Finally, a big smile graced her face and he nodded. “Better?” “Oh, Russ.” Carrie hurried over to him, then wrapped her arms around him for all her worth. They hugged one another tightly and Russ laid his head contentedly on hers. “Do you want to talk about it?” “Maybe” she mouthed into his shirt. “…Please?” “Okay, but can we talk in bed? I’d be more comfortable.” “Of course.” She took her sweet time getting ready for bed. He began to worry when she took so long in the bathroom. When she finally came out in pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, he was mildly surprised. “What?” “It’s just that I haven’t seen you in bedclothes before. You’re usually naked, which I do prefer,” he teased as she blushed. Russ opened the covers for her next to him and she got in, sitting up. Carrie pushed a pillow behind her and he watched her from a prone position, elbow propped up his head. His brows drew together while she fluffed the pillow and smoothed the sheets. “Things are getting comfortable between us, Carrie. Is that a problem?” She wouldn’t speak, so he thought he would start. She shook her head, opened her mouth and closed it. Finally, she licked her lips and tried again. “Megan thinks I’m using you.” She turned to him in a panic. “But I’m not… honestly, I’m not.” Russ sat up to take her flailing hands. “I know you’re not, honey. It’s all right, but that’s not all of it.” Carrie turned away. “She also thinks that you have feelings for me and I…” She trailed off from saying the words he was hoping to hear. He scooted a little closer to her, lacing his hands with hers. “I do… have feelings for you, but I said I’d wait until you were ready to hear them. And,” she started to say something and he cocked his head. “And I know how you feel about me, even though you won’t admit it, much less say it. I’m hoping you will someday and I’m willing to wait.” “I…I,” she stuttered, “I’m…not ready yet, Russ, but I’ll… tell you this much.” “What?” “My heart takes notice when you’re in the room.” She gazed into smiling eyes. “Does that help?” “It does,” he nodded. “Tired?” “Yes.” “Come on, sweetie. Lie down by me.” When she rolled on her side facing him, his heart took notice of those sweet looks she gave him. Long… dare he say… loving looks she cast his way. She closed her eyes as he leaned in to brush her lips again and again. Long lashes fluttered open when he gently pushed her against the pillow, so he could smile at her between deeper kisses. And she closed her beautiful eyes, smiling, when they began to make love. Slow…sweet…sensational love. Russ knew they were way past just sex and were sputtering into complicated, at least on her part. Good thing he was a patient man. * * * CHAPTER 27 The next day Russ worked on the patching the loft ceiling, while Carrie and Megan moved in all their clothes and things. What a mess. Piles of clothing lay draped over chairs and couches and they began to wonder where they’d put it all. Carrie suggested they find a closet guy to enlarge the current one up in the bedroom. Megan pointed up in the direction of the loft. “There’s your closet guy.” “No,” Carrie said quickly. “I can’t ask Russ to help us with the closet too. He’s got a ranch to run and horses to care for. He’s a working rancher and I’ve already taken up too much of his time.” “I don’t think he minds,” smiled Megan. “Well, I do. I’ll figure something out. In the meantime, we’re going to have to go through this stuff and get rid of what we don’t need.” “Or put some in the storage we’ve rented in Sac.” “…Or…” They worked the next few days putting unneeded clothing back into boxes. Megan volunteered to donate a few boxes to a local charity and take the rest back to their Sacramento storage unit. Since she’d gotten a call from Brian, Carrie didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why Meg was so eager to drive up to the city. Carrie was beginning to feel pretty good about life at Lonesome Creek. The house was in relatively good shape – Russ’ roof patching seemed to be holding and the roof could wait until the snow melted. She was settling into a routine: exercising, riding, working around the house, dinners and walks with Russ. Sometimes the three of them would sit by the fireplace, play a board game or drink cowboy coffee talking about anything. She and Megan had gotten out the snowshoes and plodded across a field until they fell over laughing at their clumsiness. Carrie happily checked off the items on the list she’d made when she first arrived. Life with Russ was settling too. He’d be around for a few days until she started to lose her bearings, or her head, and then he would disappear to take care of ranch business, or so he said. She guessed he was really giving her space… a little breathing room. She had to admit he was right because after a day or two, she was riding Tango over to his ranch or trying to get him on the cell phone that occasionally worked. Russ was smart, quick and funny. Always an attentive lover and sometimes a wildly demanding one -- an intimate friend that she loved having around… He and Megan had developed an easy relationship too – She kiddingly called him Rusty and he called her Teach. Once she heard them talking in the living room while she was working in the kitchen. “Brian sounds like a good guy,” said Russ. “Why don’t you bring him to Lonesome Creek sometime?” “…Actually, that’s not a bad idea. I’ve been getting antsy to see him and I think I’ll ask him.” She paused for a moment. “Do you think he’d want to come down?” “Why are women always so insecure about men?” he asked. “We’re really pretty simple creatures. Give us home and a hug, and we’re pretty happy.” “Home…hug… happiness,” she repeated. “I’ll have to remember that. Have you told my sister?” “No.” Carrie tilted her head to hear them better. “I don’t think she wants to hear it yet.” Megan had laughed. “Why can’t you tell her? I bet you’ve done everything else.” And Russ laughed with her. * * * The next week Russ was off to an auction in Reno to sell a few of his horses. He had asked her to come along, but she demurred. One of her horses was off his feed and, with Tad still gone, Russ needed someone to take care of his remaining stock. So she stayed home but gave him lingering kisses at the truck when they said goodbye. With Megan up in Sacramento, Carrie was truly alone for the first time in a long time. A few days later, she was working on the last boxes that hadn’t been unpacked yet when her cell jingled. Reaching into her pocket, she smiled, thinking it would be Russ. “Hi! How’s the auction?” “Auction?” said a female voice. “Carrie?” “Sharon! How are you?” “I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth. I’ve tried lots of times to reach you.” “Sorry. The cell service out here comes and goes. You caught me at a good time.” “Who’s at the auction?” “Huh?” “Who’d you think was calling? You obviously thought it was someone else.” “Ah, Sharon…” “A guy, right?” “… I have been seeing someone.” “Glad to hear it. Pickings are pretty slim up here.” “I remember,” Carrie laughed. “What’s up? I assume you called for a reason.” “Just to keep you informed. The firm is acquiring land in various rural areas basically on speculation, turning the purchase over quickly for a fast profit. You know the drill.” “Yes.” “Well,” Sharon took a deep breath. “I’ve heard rumors about a big buy-out down your way in gold country. I didn’t catch all the details… it was a water cooler rumor, but you might keep your ears open.” “Why?” “Aren’t you practicing around there yet?” “No, Sharon. I’m not sure I’m going back into law.” “Oh.” Surprise colored her voice. “I didn’t know that. I thought sooner or later…” Carrie cleared her throat. “Maybe later.” “Okay. Well… ah… I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference to your town or not, but you might want to put a word in your mayor’s ear.” “Sharon…” “Carrie, some of these big land purchases haven’t been friendly to the little towns around them. It depends on how who buys the land, but some towns have been protesting. Just thought you should know.” “Thanks, Sharon. Maybe I’ll do that.” After they hung up, Carrie got out her laptop and prayed that her service was still strong. It was and she was able to research some of these land purchases recently made around the state. Sharon had been right: lots of protesting from small towns because of disrupted services and loss of resources. She stared out her front window thinking for several minutes. Rising suddenly, she started pouring through the law books in the bookcases, looking for a few in particular. Finding what she wanted, Carrie sank on the couch with her reading material and a notebook. She sat for hours, reading and making notes. The furrow between her eyes deepened, the more she read. Finally, she discovered something useful, made more notes and closed the books. The next time she saw the Tom Evans, Murphys’ mayor, she had a few things to tell him… Just in case. And she hoped that case wouldn’t come up. It was a small tug back into the world of law. A toe-dip into the shallow end of the pool. Carrie shivered. One toe at a time was all the faster she’d be able to manage right now. It would have to be good enough. CHAPTER 28 Going out to the barn a while later, Carrie noticed immediately that Tango didn’t poke his head out to see her as usual. Thunder, an older horse, hung back and was never particularly active, although Megan could get him out and moving. “Tango? Here, boy,” she called. “Where are you?” She opened the door to his stall and coaxed him out. The beautiful brown and white Appaloosa definitely didn’t look right – his teeth clenched and he would sometimes stretch a leg out from his body. Wracking her brain for an idea of what could be wrong, she thought of gas or maybe an upset stomach. She noticed fewer feces in the horse stalls when she cleaned them out nearly every day. Carrie put him back in his stall and took a quick look at Thunder, a chestnut mare, who seemed to be just fine – he chewed on some hay and looked sleepy. She ran into the house for purse and car keys, making a beeline for her old Ford and town. Carrie drove the five miles to Murphys a little faster than the road allowed and briefly wondered about the rocks hitting the belly of her car. Once in town, she drove quickly to Millie’s Café, unhooked her seat belt at the same time she shut off the ignition. Three steps and she was in the café, searching for Millie. “Hey, Millie!” “Carrie, over here.” Millie was back in the kitchen helping Sam with the lunch hour traffic. “Millie.” Surprised, Millie turned to her. “Take a breath, Carrie. What’s wrong?” “Who’s the closest veterinarian? Tango has a problem and I need someone fast.” “Oh, that would be Mike Evans, mayor’s son. Has a nice practice down two blocks. Tell him…” Millie couldn’t finish the sentence because Carrie wasn’t in the café anymore. She had beat it down the two blocks as fast as her legs would go. As luck would have it, there were already a few people waiting to see Dr. Evans, in his large animal practice and she burst through the door. “May I see Dr. Evans, please? It’s an emergency,” she said breathing hard. “He’s with a patient.” A teenage receptionist with freckles and perky breasts chewed her gum, frowned at Carrie and her rushed appearance. “This is really, really important. I need the doctor out to my place immediately. My horse is in bad shape…” Carrie pressed. “Just a minute,” Perky huffed. She rose from her reception desk reluctantly and disappeared in the back. When she strolled out, Carrie was about to jump out of her skin. “Well?” “Doc said he could be there in thirty minutes. You’re out at Lonesome Creek, right?” “Yes, that’s right. I’ll wait for him at the barn.” Carrie left the vet’s office marveling that people knew her and where she lived, even if she didn’t know them. Small town. Back at the ranch, she saw Tad’s truck parked in her driveway and saw him wave at her from the porch. Great… she rolled her eyes. Not the Roberts brother she wanted to see today. Tall and lanky with sexy eyes, the good-looking cowboy raised his hat as she pulled up and got out of her car. Walking into the house, Tad followed her in and began to tell her all about his latest rodeo adventures. “So this bronc really had a good, strong rhythm going and I just about fell off three times. Why the crowd was so excited, that I…” “Tad, listen. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to tell me, but my horse is in bad shape and Dr. Evans is heading out here soon to take a look.” “Oh, man,” he was immediately contrite. “Sick horse? Let’s go take a look.” Walking out with him, Carrie shook her head. Tad was a nice enough guy but he had two interests: the rodeo and pretty women. That about summed it up. She would have laughed but they neared the barn and she could hear Tango breathing hard. Tad went in to bring the horse out to the corral and have a look. He glanced hard at the horse and back at Carrie. “I’m going to hook up our horse trailer. Doc will have to take him into the clinic – today.” She only had time to nod as Tad handed her Tango’s reins and ran to his truck. Carrie nervously stood in the corral with a very distressed Tango. He was salivating profusely and pacing, and had to be in pain. Carrie became more agitated herself as time wore on and the doctor hadn’t arrived. She finally heard a truck coming fast on that gravel road and turned to watch a huge, new truck pull in behind her car. A slim, young man grabbed a white cowboy hat from his car and strode briskly over to her. The closer he came, the more movie star handsome he became. By the time he had joined her in the corral and stuck out his hand, Carrie’s jaw had dropped and she forgot momentarily about the poor horse. “Hi. Mike Evans. You Carrie?” “Yes.” “Nice to meet you. Let’s see what we’ve got here.” The young doctor, in jeans and Western shirt, walked around the horse a few times and bent over to palpitate the stomach and bend up a leg. Checking the horse’s mouth elicited a few ‘Uh-huhs’ and the doctor’s head began to nod. In the meantime, Tad had pulled up with a horse trailer attached to his truck and Mike turned to wave at him. “Good. We’re going to need that trailer. I didn’t realize this was such an emergency.” “I did tell your receptionist.” “Well, she’s my brother’s daughter and isn’t exactly the most informative receptionist I’ve ever had.” His eyes smiled when he said it. “Let’s get the horse loaded.” Grabbing Tango’s reins, Carrie walked with the doctor towards Tad’s truck. “…But what’s wrong with him? Where are you taking him?” “He’s got colic, Carrie. It’s a digestive problem caused by a blockage of the intestines.” “How did that happen?” “Well, it could be any number of things: improper food, foreign objects or something unknown.” “What will you do?” “If the intestines are twisted, which I think is the case here, I’m going to have to operate. So I’m taking him back to my clinic.” Carrie bit her lip hard. Tango was in real trouble. “I see.” “You’re welcome to come and stay while I operate, but it may take a while. I suggest you follow me in your car and stay at Millie’s until I call you.” Tad and the doctor loaded an anxious Tango into the horse trailer. Tad drove out with the doctor behind him. Carrie got in her car, started it up and reached for her cell phone to call Russ as she followed along behind Tad and Mike. When she couldn’t reach him, she left a message, trying not to cry. She’d been able to hold it in with the doctor and Tad, but knew the water works would begin if she heard Russ’ sympathetic drawl. The small convoy drove into town together to the Evans Large Animal Clinic down at one end of Main Street. As they rushed by, Carrie noticed people walking into shops, talking at corners and eating in the restaurants -- oblivious to the emergency going by them. She shook her head thinking of how much her life had changed from a mere six months ago. Carrie had gone from being a hard charging, business suit-wearing attorney at a prestigious law firm in Sacramento, to a low-key, jeans-wearing country girl in the small town of Murphys. Talk about a one hundred and eighty degree change in lifestyle! She also realized she’d fallen hard for a local rancher and discovered she was no longer scared to death about it. Here was the possible death of her horse staring her in the face. Why was she so afraid of love? Tango had taught her a whole lot more than how to ride. * * * CHAPTER 29 After checking that Tango was in surgery and it would take several hours, Tad and Carrie headed to the bar at Murphys Hotel. She wanted to stay close in town and needed company to wait with her until Doc Evans called with a report. Waiting to hear about Tango had her nerves on edge. She hadn’t been in the bar for some time and it looked like a scene out of the Wild West – long, wooden bar with decorative mirrors behind, muted lighting by the bar and dangling chandeliers, Western paraphernalia on walls with an old, rugged hardwood floor. Western music blared from a jukebox in the corner. Tad and Carrie parked on bar stools and ordered beers. When she took a pull of the cold beer, Carrie heard the ringtone buzzing in her purse. She fished out her phone to answer. “Hello?” “Carrie? Russ. Are you all right? How’s the horse?” “Oh, Russ. I’m so happy to hear from you!” Tad next to her yelled, ‘Hi Russ!’ as did several other bar patrons. When the noise quieted, she tried again. “I’m in the bar at Murphys Hotel.” “Was that Tad? You’re at a bar with my brother?” Uh-oh… This hadn’t started so well. She got up to walk outside and to a more private place. “Um, yes. Could I explain?” “Please,” replied the deep voice. Walking in the garden behind the hotel, her hand flew up with her conversation. “Tango was really bad, so I drove to town to find a doctor. I didn’t know about Mike Evans until Millie told me. Anyway, when I got back to the ranch, Tad was there and brought over your horse trailer for the doctor to use. Mike just took Tango into surgery and my nerves are shot. Tango’s in real trouble.” She paused to listen for something. When nothing came, she spoke again. “Please don’t be mad.” He laughed. “Honey, I’m not mad and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the horse. But I know my brother will definitely make a pass at you, no matter what the circumstances.” “But…” “And…” he continued with a smile in his voice. “And I know you will be pissed off at his audacity to bother you with a sexual suggestion in your hour of need.” He paused. “Did I come close?” “Crap. Am I that predictable?” “Yes, but you’ve very cute.” “He hasn’t made a pass at me yet.” “Give him time.” “Do you trust me?” “Absolutely.” A beat. “… Russ, I’ve been thinking…” Just then she could hear a loud speaker through the phone. “Hey, Carrie, I’ve got to go. One of my horses is up for sale. Call me later about Tango. Good luck and…” I love you just hung in the air between them when the line went dead. Carrie stared at the phone in her hand, listened to the dial tone. Goosebumps appeared on her flushed skin and she knew the reaction was because of Russ. ‘I’m in love’ – the thought floated around her mind and she waited for the other shoe to fall. Huh… was the only other thought she had, which made her realize she hadn’t freaked out about it. It was all right. Better than all right. It felt good. But Carrie did think she was losing her mind. Sitting in a bar with her horse in surgery, she came to the realization that she loved a man. The mind was certainly a funny thing and whoever said love kicks the stuffing out of a person, sure knew what he was talking about. Carrie looked down on the ground as she walked back into the bar. She thought she would see her insides all twisted and gnarled under her feet, instead of the snow and earth she walked over. She sat back at the bar with Tad and had another drink of her beer. “How’s Russ? At the auction?” “Yes, he had to go back in for a sale.” “Really… So he won’t be home tonight,” Tad said with a slight smirk. “I don’t think so.” “Maybe you and I could go… have some dinner, you know, while we’re waiting for Tango.” Carrie got off her stool, reached into her wallet to toss a few bills down to cover her tab. She looked over at Tad and grinned. “So you’re as predictable as I am.” “Huh?” “No, Tad, I’m going to Millie’s to wait by myself. You need to go home. Thanks so much for the loan of your horse trailer and I’ll get it back as soon as possible.” “Okay, Carrie.” She started to leave, stopped and turned back to him. “Oh, and Tad?” “Yeah.” “I’m in love with your brother,” she smiled while she patted him on the shoulder. “I knew it!” he grumbled and went back to nurse his beer. “But don’t tell him. I want to leave it for a surprise.” * * * CHAPTER 30 Carrie walked into Millie’s Café and found a chair at a back table. She was looking at the menu, although why did she even bother? Carrie knew she’d order whatever Sam was cooking tonight: tacos, by the looks of what the mayor was having. Millie waved at her and brought over a glass of water. After she ordered the tacos, she blanked out for a few minutes, thinking about Tango. She glanced at her watch several times but the minute hand didn’t move very quickly. And then Tom, the mayor, spoke loud enough for her to hear. She eavesdropped, since he made it so easy. “So all of Calaveras County has been talking about it, Steve. No, it’s just not right. We’re not sure who they want to sell to, but if it’s for gold mining, this town could be in trouble.” “You’re going to have to get more involved, Tom, before the proverbial shit hits the fan. It could get bad.” “Tom,” interrupted Carrie tugging on his arm, “may I ask you a few questions?” The mayor, a slightly bald man with a paunch and eyes the color of fudge looked over at her and smiled. “Sure, Carrie. The more the merrier. Plus…” his eyes narrowed, “didn’t someone tell me you’re a lawyer?” “Yes, sir, although I haven’t practiced since I moved to Lonesome Creek.” “Well, scoot on in here. Millie!” he yelled. “Could you bring us a couple of beers over here, please?” After Carrie had moved to his table, she was introduced to another council member, Steve Hawkins. Millie served the beers with a quick look around the table and left. The mayor got down to business. “Here’s the deal. A big law firm up in the Sacramento area who handles big real estate deals for wealthy clients has set their sights on us. They’re handling an option to buy up most of the land between the cities of Murphys and Angel’s Camp, and we’re not sure of much after that.” “Which firm?” she asked with a sinking feeling in her stomach. “That would be Lander, Mills, Jarvitz and somebody.” The feeling sunk like a stone and she felt slightly nauseous. “I used to work for that firm, Tom.” Tom and Steve both whipped their heads over to her, eyes popped wide. “Well, I’ll be damned,” said Tom. “Would you be able to give us a few tips how to sidestep this minefield?” asked Steve. She was already nodding. “I think so. A friend of mine still with them alerted me to this situation recently. I’ve been doing some research.” “Carrie,” Tom’s eyes were dead on her, “your expertise would be extremely valuable to this town. Would you come to the office tomorrow and meet with a few of us? We’ll lay everything out as we see it and perhaps you can advise the town what to do.” “We’ll pay, of course,” added Steve. “No,” Carrie shook her head. “I don’t want any money. I’m going to volunteer my services.” “You sure?” asked the mayor. “We wouldn’t expect you to work for free.” Carrie cleared her throat. “… It’s something that I need to do, Tom. Just let me do it on my terms.” She held the mayor’s curious gaze. “Okay. If that’s how you feel, I’m not going to complain.” He glanced at Steve and then at Carrie. “Could we meet at ten tomorrow? Shoot, no. Tomorrow’s Saturday. How about Monday?” “Sure, Tom. Monday’s fine. I’ll be there.” They all shook hands and the men rose to leave. Tom winked at her and left her to the tacos that Millie brought over. “What the hell was that about?” Carrie shrugged, bit into a taco. “I’m just going to help out the town a little, that’s all.” Millie sat down, a broad smile on her face. “How’s it going, Carrie? You look good. Haven’t seen you for a week.” “Millie,” Carrie exhaled and dropped her taco on the plate. “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” She caught Millie up on the roof repair, Megan’s love life, fixing up the ranch and Tango’s emergency surgery. “Wow! That’s a ton. You have been busy. How’s Tango now?” “I’m sitting here waiting for a call from the doc. He said Tango’s colic was severe and it could go either way.” “Sounds expensive too.” “Jeez, Millie. I hadn’t even thought of that. How much would a surgery like this cost?” Millie rubbed her chin. “Could be… several thousand dollars.” Carrie’s face froze. “The new roof is going to cost $10,000.” “Hope you have lots of money with you.” “I’m going to run out sooner than I thought. Maybe I should get a job.” “Huh.” Suddenly, Millie brightened. “Hey, come to work for me a few days a week. Tips are good, especially for a pretty girl like you.” “How much could I make a shift?” “…$200-$300, depending on the number of tourists in town.” “Really?” Carrie’s face thawed and a small smile came out. “Sign me up.” “All right, I’ll check with Sam and let you know what days. And my last question.” “Would be…” “How are you and Russ doing?” Carrie’s face lit up like an internal light had been turned on. She opened her mouth to speak and the phone rang loudly in her purse. She grabbed it up. “Hello?” “Carrie? Mike Evans. Say, Tango’s going to be all right.” Her shoulders sagged and Millie reached over to pat her arm. “That’s great!” “But I need to keep him under observation for a few days. You can come by tomorrow to see him but he’ll be medicated and not too responsive.” “Thanks, Dr. Evans, Mike! I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.” She tucked the phone back in and leaned over to hug Millie. After wiping their eyes, both women laughed. “He’s going to be fine.” Carrie fished out another tissue from her purse. * * * CHAPTER 31 Carrie called and left a message for Russ in the car before she started for home, letting him know that Tango was out of danger. She also mentioned that she wanted to have a talk with him when he came back. And then she smiled all the way back to the ranch. It had been a long day and she was tired, desiring to be home in her bed. Megan was coming back tomorrow and… Lost in her thoughts, she began to smell smoke. She rolled down the window and didn’t think it was coming from her trusty Ford – it must be out there somewhere. Peering through the windshield, she spotted a blur of orange radiating in a wooden area off the road. A few miles from her place, it looked like her neighbors to the east, the Callahans. Carrie made a 911 call and drove faster towards the shimmering color. Turning up the dirt road, the log cabin was on fire with various people running in and around it. She stopped back a ways, jumped out and ran as fast as she could to the first person she saw. “Mary!” she yelled. “Where are the kids?” A short woman with red hair and frightened eyes blinked in her direction. Carrie grabbed her arms. “Mary! The kids!” Mary pointed towards some trees where Carrie saw two children crouching. “And Everett… Where is he?” A man ran by her with a hose trying to put out a few spot fires. Water spouted from the hose but didn’t have enough pressure to stop the raging house fire. Mary and Carrie clung to one another and watched the house burn down. At night and in the dark, bright red and orange flames shot up into the evening sky. Sounds of small explosions occurred a few times that shook the earth and scared everyone out of their wits. Fireballs shot out at them, unexpectedly and anywhere, creating spot fires around in the dry timber. Although Carrie could see the Callahans had made firebreaks around the house, the danger was always there in drought-stricken California. She held on tight to Mary and the children as they helplessly watched their home and everything in it go up in smoke. A volunteer fire group from town showed up in fifteen minutes, just in time to watch the rest of the house fall into rubble. The fire had started fast and spread so quickly that no fire department would have been able to stop it. When the active fire had died out and dark gray smoke billowed high in the sky, Carrie led Mary and the children to her car. After getting them inside, she walked back to Everett to get him to come with her too. Everett Callahan, a tall man with chestnut hair, turned to her with tears in his eyes. She reached out for his arm. “Please come, Everett. I’m taking your family home with me. Come.” She drove everyone back to her ranch and watched as they despondently slunk out of the car. Everyone was covered in dirt and soot from head to toe. The long day had ended very badly and was now going into extra innings. Blinking, surprised, she saw Megan’s car and ran into the house to get her. Together, they got Everett and Mary, plus the children, cleaned up and put to bed in the upstairs loft. Few words were spoken and the shocked family fell asleep instantly. Megan and Carrie wearily washed up and put on clean clothes. When Carrie fell tiredly on the living room couch, only then did she see the quiet man sitting across from her. “… Ah… Are you Brian? I didn’t know you were here…” “Hi Carrie. Nice to meet you. I gather you’ve had quite a day.” “I hope you don’t mind if I can’t carry on a decent conversation right now.” She twisted her long hair into a quick ponytail and squinted over at him. She couldn’t even make out what he looked like in the dim of the room. As she lay back on the couch, Megan walked over and sat down. “Carrie, I need to talk to you.” Uh-oh. Meg had that tone. That tone signaling Carrie wouldn’t like what she had to say. Rising, Carrie looked up at her. “What?” “I realize you’ve had quite a day, what with the horse in surgery and our neighbors’ house burning down, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve decided to move back to Sacramento. Brian came down for a few days to help me pack – again – so I can go back. I’m going to finish up the year at my school. I’ve already called my principal.” Megan stopped with the look on Carrie’s face. ”You’re leaving me?” With a flushed face, Meg tried again. She tucked curly hair behind an ear and wiped the corners of her mouth. “There would never be a good time to tell you this, but Lonesome Creek has always been your dream, not mine.” “Meg…” “I’ll come visit on holidays and summers. Brian too. We’re getting married.” “You’re getting married?” Carrie’s legs swiveled to the floor and she sat up straight. Then a grin spread across her face as Carrie reached over to hug her sister. “I…I can’t believe it. I didn’t know. Gee, Meg. I’m been so caught up in what’s happening here.” She rose and walked over to Brian who stood up to give her a hug. She leaned back to take a good look: A handsome man, with bright green eyes that returned her curious glance. Since he was a good foot taller, Carrie got a brief image of Brian and Megan dancing together with Meg coming nowhere close to his shoulder. She laughed and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Welcome to the family, Brian.” * * * CHAPTER 32 Later on, when exhaustion had set in, Carrie slept fitfully on the couch for a few hours and woke up. Megan and Brian were stretched out in sleeping bags on the floor. Carrie got up, grabbed a jacket, tiptoed carefully around them. She went quietly out the back door and walked over to the barn. Feeding Thunder some hay, Carrie glanced up at the starry sky missing Russ terribly and knew he wouldn’t be back for another day. A dark figure walked toward her, shining a flashlight. “I saw you leave. Are you all right?” Meg asked. “No. Talk about too much all at once.” “Where’s Russ?” “He went to Reno to sell some of his horses.” Megan took Carrie’s hand. “Is it really okay with you that I’m moving back?” “Yes,” she smiled. “It absolutely is.” Carrie blew out a frosty breath. “It’s chilly but spring’s coming. I do want to talk. I’m so happy for you about Brian because I’m ecstatic about Russ.” “I was wondering,” Meg smiled. “I thought things had been heating up between the two of you.” “Indeed. I think it’s boiling. Meg, I finally realized that I was in love with him. It just burst in my brain like some kind of epiphany and I know he’s the one for me.” “Oh, Carrie. Have you told him yet?” “With the million things going on in my life right now, he’s going to be first on the list as soon as he comes back to town. I can’t wait!” Megan gazed at her sister’s flushed face and shining eyes. Every bit of her vivid personality was gleaming and Megan had never seen her look more radiant. “Then I can’t wait for him to return either!” Carrie put an arm around her sister. “Please let me know what I can do to help with the wedding. Would you like to have it at Lonesome Creek? It would be beautiful in the spring…” They strolled slowly to the house discussing the wedding and crashed in their makeshift beds, falling asleep without much effort. With the first streaks of sunlight in the windows, Carrie awoke with two small children staring at her. It was barely seven o’clock and Tad was in the kitchen cooking breakfast, Everett and Mary were washing clothes and Brian was folding sleeping bags. Carrie stretched out her arms and sat up. “Guess it’s time to get up.” She rolled her neck around her shoulders and pushed the hair out of her face. The kinks in her neck seemed to be locked in place for eternity. All Carrie could think about was getting that first cup of coffee. Maybe after that she’d be able to tackle a few things in her life, one by one. The hot water was gone by the time Carrie got her shower, but that was all right. The Callahans were warm, clean and talking quietly in the kitchen about what to do next. They had made calls to other family members, plus their insurance company, and a representative was already on his way out. She tied her hair back into a ponytail and scrubbed her face hard. Smiling at the pink face in the mirror, Carrie slipped into warm clothes to help Megan with the laundry. Dr. Evans had called with another good report about Tango and she was feeling pretty good. Better than last night for sure. Blinking sleepy eyes out her front window, she blinked again to see Russ walking up the steps. She took one look at that handsome face, broad shoulders and blonde hair, and smiled broadly as she ran out the door into his strong arms. Hugging her at first, Russ pulled her arms away and didn’t smile. “Honey, let’s go for that talk.” Her steady smile continued as he took her hand to walk down by the creek. Birdsong trilled and the day was bright and shiny. Small wildflowers were popping up everywhere to announce that spring was on its way. “Russ, so much has happened…” Carrie gushed until she looked at his drawn face. “What’s the matter? Didn’t the auction go well?” “The auction was fine but I did a lot of thinking while I was away.” He paused and swallowed hard. “I think you need some time, Carrie. Time to figure out what you really want, or maybe you know already and don’t want to tell me.” “I know what I want.” “Maybe you think you do, but it may not be the best thing for you.” “Can’t I be the judge of that?” She reached up to touch his face. He flinched, surprising her. “You haven’t even kissed me. You’re always kissing me by now. Don’t you want to?” His words at last swept over her like a tidal wave making her eyes mist. Understanding was beginning to register and her throat constricted at the seriousness of his suggestion. “We need a break, Carrie. Time away to decide what’s best for each other.” “No, we don’t.” She dropped his hand and stepped back. “Are you… breaking up with me?” His sad eyes dropped to his boots. “I’m not going to come over for a while, and I don’t want you riding Tango over to see me. Okay?” “No, it’s not okay. Why are you doing this? I…” He turned around without looking at her and walked away. Stunned, Carrie watched the man she loved walk right out of her life. “Russ!” she called out. But instead of running after him, she planted her feet firmly on the ground. What had just happened? She couldn’t think… didn’t want to think. She just stood there watching him walk away. Eventually, another wave of insight washed over her and she gasped, thinking it might be over between them. Tears rolled down her astonished face. Is that what he wanted? Really? Maybe he’d given up on her. Carrie turned to sit down on the chilly ground by the creek and gathered her knees close to her chest where her head limply dropped. Megan found her a while later. CHAPTER 33 “There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you. Where’d Russ go?” And then Meg looked closer to see the steady tears rolling down her sister’s rosy cheeks. “You’re freezing and you’re crying! What happened?” Meg tried to pull Carrie to her feet but she wouldn’t budge. “No, I want to stay here for a few more minutes. When I go back in the house, I have so many things to do…” She hiccupped. “Out here I can just be.” “Be what? Lonesome? Unhappy? Sick? Tell me what’s wrong.” Megan sat down beside Carrie and put an arm around her. “And we thought we saw Russ.” “…Russ broke up with m-m-me!” she stuttered through the tears. Megan’s mouth dropped open. “Is that what he said? He wanted to break up?” “Not exactly.” “Tell me exactly then.” She swallowed and licked salty tears off her lips. Continuing to watch the placid surface of the creek, she cleared her throat. “… He wants to… take a break and I can’t go see him. He won’t come here either.” “Why’d… he say that?” “He thinks I don’t know what I want and he wants me to make a decision.” She turned to look at her sister, wiped tears from her wet cheeks. “But I do… I do know what I want. I want him!” “Do you want him now because you can’t have him?” “No! Of course not,” she scolded. “I realized when he was gone to Reno how much I love him. I told you that last night. Remember?” “I do, sweetie. How about you come in the house now? It’s cold this morning and you’re going to catch a cold.” Megan pulled her up and walked her into the house. * * * Russ had driven home from Reno with a heavy heart. Her message mentioned wanting to talk and it didn’t sound good. Maybe she wanted to break up. That didn’t seem likely, but who knew? Carrie could be as changeable as the weather. Maybe she’d met someone else. Maybe. Maybe he was just insecure about her and he was getting impatient. He was definitely ready for the next step and he didn’t think she was. Would she ever be? Russ was so hooked that he was in fear of drowning if he didn’t do something. Something drastic. So he had steeled himself for what was coming. Russ was going to push her hard to make a decision -- he was at the point where he wanted it all… or nothing. After the horrible words had dribbled out, his feet felt like solid cubes of concrete. Walking away from her was the hardest thing he’d ever done and he could hear her behind him. A strangled sound came from her throat and she had started to cry. What he really wanted was to rush back to her, dry her tears and tell her he was sorry. Had he done the right thing? Or had he broken their precious relationship into a million, tiny pieces. Besides the slow, plodding walk, he couldn’t breathe either and leaned against his truck gasping for breath. Driving back to the ranch was nearly impossible when his eyes wouldn’t focus on the road. They could hardly focus at all and it was a wonder he didn’t have an accident along the way. Once home, he grabbed aspirin from the cabinet in the bathroom, but knew no man-made drug would cure this pain. He swallowed three and gulped water from the faucet with his hand. Tad walked in calling for him. “Hey, bro. Didn’t know you were back. All kinds of doings around here.” He kept talking to Russ as he walked down the hallway and back into the kitchen. Russ sat down at the kitchen table with his throbbing head in his hands. There wasn’t much he could do for his breaking heart but wait… Wait for a move from her that might go the wrong way. * * * When Megan got Carrie back in the house, luckily Everett had taken the children off to town to meet their insurance representative. Brian was washing breakfast dishes, but left the room when Megan gave him a look. Mary came over immediately, helped Carrie into a chair and put the kettle on for tea. Carrie looked over at her. “Please don’t bother, Mary. You’ve been through so much.” Mary shook her head. “I’ve lost possessions for sure, which is hard, but I haven’t lost my children or my husband. That would have been devastating indeed.” She glanced from Carrie’s teary face to Megan’s confused one. “What’s happened?” “I think her boyfriend just called a break in their relationship.” “You mean they broke up.” “Well, sort of. He said they needed time to think.” Mary angled her head, looked curiously at them. “Time to think about what?” “… Whether we love each other or not,” replied Carrie wearily. “What? You don’t know?” asked Mary, brows knit. “I didn’t for the longest time. I guess he got tired of waiting for me.” Carrie laid her head on the table. “Let’s make her that tea, Mary.” Megan bustled around the kitchen, finding cookies and crackers to go with the tea. When pushed in front of her, Carrie wanted nothing. She looked up at the two women. “Thanks for being so nice, but I just need to be alone for a while.” She rose, buttoned up the jacket she still wore and headed for the barn. “I should probably think, but the only thing I want to do now is cry.” Wordlessly, Megan and Mary watched her go. They looked at one another and back to Carrie. When she crossed the yard for the barn, Megan decided. “I’m going to make sure she’s all right. If it looks bad, I’ll bring her back in.” Between the horse, the fire and the break-up, it was one of the worst weekends that Megan could remember. She was very glad when it was over. * * * CHAPTER 34 By Monday morning, Carrie had made a few decisions. She wasn’t going to wallow. She was going to work at Millie’s for part of the day and then head over to the mayor’s office for a meeting. Somewhere in there she’d visit Tango and try not to think about Russ. Busy, she told herself… stay busy. Millie’s was so busy that it was hard to think of anything period. Tourists were flocking back into town and the café was busy from sunup to sundown. Carrie felt like she was on the run carrying trays of food, taking orders and cleaning tables from the minute she got there. She’d told Millie about the meeting with the mayor, so she could only work the morning. Millie wanted to know about Tango and the fire. Breakup news hadn’t traveled as fast yet. Megan called at lunch to tell her something she’d forgotten in all the excitement – Sandy Foster had called that an offer on the ranch had actually come in. What should she tell Sandy? Overhearing part of the conversation, Millie caught up with Carrie. “Did I hear you say something about an offer?” Carrie had put on her jacket and was wrapping a scarf around her neck. She nodded. “Yes. Meg said Sandy called sometime…this weekend was so crazy… that we got an offer on the ranch.” “Damn, Carrie. Are you going to take it?” “You know, Millie,” she breathed. “Right this very minute, I just couldn’t tell you. Some things haven’t turned out as I’d hoped.” “What things?” “Gotta go, Millie. See you tomorrow.” Fifteen minutes later, Russ walked in for lunch. He smelled Sam’s burgers out in the street and decided to have one. Millie spied him and moved his way. “If you hurry, you can catch her.” “Who?” “Carrie. She just left.” Russ squirmed on the stool. “Was she in for lunch?” “No, she’s working here a few days a week now.” Russ’ jaw dropped. “She didn’t tell you? With the horse surgery expense, a new roof and all, one night when you were gone, she confessed that she needed a job. So I hired her but I’m not the only one who wants her.” His mouth closed, then opened again. “Who else?” “She’s going to help the mayor and the town council figure out a big legal problem that’s come in. I’m not sure of the details yet, but she talked to Tom and Steve right here at the café one night.” “They hired her as a lawyer?” “Tom told me they tried, but she wouldn’t take any money. You know, Russ,” Millie grinned at him, “she’s getting pretty invested in this town. You should be right proud of her.” “I am,” Russ’ eyes slid away to the door and back to Millie. “Any other news I should know?” “You bet -- That was all before the fire. This morning Megan called to say she’s got an offer on the ranch and can sell it if she wants.” Russ was paralyzed now, stuck on his stool unable to move. “What,” he choked, “did she say to that?” “… I can’t believe you don’t know any of this, Russ Roberts. Well, Carrie looked at me and said she wasn’t sure about anything right now. Then she up and left for the meeting.” He slumped in his seat, not wanting to hear any more. “Why the hell don’t you know any of this? Haven’t you two been talking?” “No,” he stood up, readjusted the hat back on his head, “because I broke up with her when I came back Saturday morning.” Millie glared at him with open mouth and wide eyes. “Unbelievable. Why in tarnation would you break up with the girl you love?” She emphasized every syllable. “Because I’m a damn fool, Millie.” And he walked out the door. “Got that right,” she pooh-poohed behind him. * * * Every day Carrie began her routine. She would wake up, get ready for work, brush her dark hair until it shone and get a quick cup of coffee. Megan and Brian had left – Carrie reassured them that she was fine and life would continue. The Callahans rented a house in town and had decided to rebuild. Carrie wished them luck and told them she’d help any way she could with the rebuilding. She worked for Millie in the mornings -- yes, she decided to work every day to stay busy, and in the afternoons, she’d either meet with the mayor or go to the library to do more research. She was able to access online many of the documents she needed for the case she was preparing. Before going home, she would visit Tango and check on his progress. Then she’d write a little note on a piece of pretty stationary and drop it in Russ’ mailbox on the way home. Why did she do it? After several days of soul-searching, it was impossible for her to believe that he didn’t love her. Maybe he needed to think, but she didn’t and he was going to hear about her daily activities whether he liked it or not. She dug in. A week of this and little notes began to appear in her mailbox. Scraps of newspaper or magazines told about his day. She hoped he was smiling when he opened his mailbox like she did, when she opened hers. Dr. Evans brought Tango home after ten days at the clinic and her first check from Millie went straight to the doctor’s coffers. Taking money from her savings account to pay the balance didn’t bother her in the least. Carrie knew she was on a different path now, maybe pushed there by Russ, but there all the same. Things were going to turn around and Tango was a major part of her life. She’d go home, do more research, have dinner and go to bed. Most nights Carrie stared up at the ceiling for an hour or more, and missed Russ so much it hurt. Whispering in his ear, kissing him, sharing secrets… But she eventually slept and woke up the next day to begin again. It was the routine that kept her going. * * * CHAPTER 35 Every day Russ began his routine. He’d wake up, have coffee, shower and shave. For the first few days, he had to avoid shaving because of his shaky hands. Tad left for the rodeo circuit again, promising to be back sooner this time. Russ too had spoken with the Callahans and said he would help with the rebuilding of their new house when it started. He worked with his horses in the morning and did ranch finances in the afternoons. He avoided going to Millie’s for lunch and only went at dinnertime a few times a week. Business had picked up for him and he had many more horses to work with than before. And then the little notes began to appear in his mailbox. The first time Russ pulled one out, he was genuinely confused until he saw her handwriting and it took his breath away that she would do this. She wanted to keep in contact… And she did. He anxiously went to his mailbox the first thing every morning and it made his day more than he ever could have imagined. After a week, he began to write her back. Just bits of information written on whatever he could find. He’d put them in her mailbox before dinner, hoping to be unseen and happily imagining what she thought when she read them. After dinner, he read a bit and went to bed where he stared up at the ceiling for hours, missing Carrie so much it hurt. Holding her, pillow talk, laughing together, making love… He eventually dozed off and woke up the next day to begin all over. The routine kept him going. Millie shook her head at them both. She watched them both come and go at their different times, wondering what the hell was wrong with them. It was plain to see that they were crazy in love and acting ridiculous. They soaked up any information she had about the other, so she did her best to keep them both informed and hoped they’d come to their senses soon. * * * Mayor Tom Evans had been holding more strategy sessions upstairs in the town courthouse. The old brick building a block down from the Murphys Hotel had been built during the early gold rush days in the 1800s and it needed constant maintenance. The electrical wiring was decades old. While they worked late some nights, the power would just go off and they would all have to go home. Plumbing in the old building needed babying as well. A couple of strategy sessions had to be moved down the street to a bar because the toilets quit flushing. Just a week before their first day in court, Tom gathered the council again to meet with Carrie. She strode briskly into the meeting with a carton of documents, juggled a briefcase, while she wore reading glasses, old sweater and torn jeans. Tom began to laugh. “What?” she asked him as she removed a pencil from her mouth. She sat by another council member and plopped all her materials on the big conference table, looking at him like he was nuts. “I sure hope you look a little different in court,” he kidded. “You know, lawyer-ish.” “Lawyer-ish, Tom? Is that even a word?” “Now don’t get on your high horse, Miss Carrie. I just want to make sure you look the type. You’ve already convinced us that you’re a hotshot attorney – I just want the judge to agree with us.” “Yes, Tom,” she rolled her eyes. “I have lots of killer suits. I’ll look the part, have no fear.” “Fear is what we have plenty of, Carrie,” said Steve, a council member. “If we can’t convince the country judge in our own backyard, this petition will be dead in the water.” “Okay,” said Carrie. “Then let’s calm everyone down and go over salient facts tonight.” “Fine with me,” said Tom. “I can stand a review.” Carrie sat up straight, took off her reading glasses and began unloading documents from the box. Soon the table was covered with research materials, discovery, she might need in court. “The eight acres between Murphys and the town of Angel’s Camp was originally part of a Spanish land grant back before California was a state. Ownership has passed through many hands down through the generations, but currently the owners are the Foster family, well-known in the area as major philanthropists.” “Whose great grandfather struck it rich with gold around Angel’s Camp,” added another council member. “That’s right, Murray,” Carrie continued, “and there are various state laws that prohibit usage of that land in a variety of ways. We’ve got the state statutes to cite if they want to mine the area, for instance. There are countless studies on mining to show that the area is played out.” “But what if the buyer wants to put in a shopping center?” asked Tom. “Well, that area has never been zoned for any particular use and shopping malls take a certain kind of zoning. I haven’t heard anything further from the lead attorney for the firm handling the sale, but I doubt they’re going that route.” Carrie leaned back in her seat, picked up a glass of water and gulped it. “That leaves housing, doesn’t it?” Steve looked at various council members. “Which means a huge strain on county resources…” “Water…” “…Sewage.” “Utilities.” “Schools…” “Jails.” “And so on,” said Carrie. She pointed her pencil at the council. “You’re all correct and it could go that way. I’m still researching the best way to stop a huge new development from going in. With all the historical landmarks, state and national historical preservation sights, we should have a good leg to stand on. At least to get the judge to throw out the petition.” “If the judge throws out our petition, won’t the law firm in Sacramento just submit it to the state court of appeals?” asked Tom. “Very possibly,” Carrie nodded, “but unlikely. The buyer might skedaddle with all the trouble and publicity caused by the case.” Another hour of review and Carrie looked into tired faces. “Whew.” Tom blew out a tired breath. “It’s been a long day and I think we’ve got it for tonight. Carrie, good job.” She bowed to applause from the group. “When this is over,” he continued, “would you think about working for the town as other legal work comes up?” Carrie looked at him over her reading glasses and wiped sweaty hands on her jean. “You… you want to hire me as town attorney?” “Yes, on a part-time basis,” he laughed. “It’s about all we can afford.” “But we might be able to throw in some services here and there,” added Steve. “Like what?” “Dry cleaning, maybe some free wine from different shops, dinners at various restaurants.” Tom shrugged his shoulders. “We’d sure be grateful if you’d think about it.” Carrie nodded all around. “Thanks, everyone. I will.” After they all left, Carrie stayed a few minutes longer to write Russ a new note. She was proud of the work she’d been doing and wanted to share some of it with him. Dear Russ, Good meeting tonight with the council. They offered me legal work for the town after this case is over. What do you think? No, don’t tell me – I’ll figure it out for myself, which is the point of our estrangement, isn’t it? I’ve been figuring many things out, as I hope you are doing too. Love, Carrie * * * CHAPTER 36 “What are you wearing for the big case, Carrie?” Megan was down that weekend and was more concerned about wardrobe than arguments. “Don’t worry, Meg. I’ve got lots of business suits. Remember I was an attorney once.” Carrie tried another forkful of Meg’s spaghetti. Too much garlic and her palette objected. “You haven’t done any lawyering for, what eight months or so? I’d just be nervous, if I were you.” “If you keep telling me I should be nervous, I’m going to get nervous. Just eat.” Megan quietly chewed on a few noodles for a minute, before her eyes danced with a new thought. “Are you speaking to Russ yet?” “No, we’re corresponding.” She blinked, surprised. “You’re writing letters?” “If you must know, Miss Nosy, we write short notes to one another.” “How often?” “Every day.” Meg slurped up another noodle. “How are they delivered?” “We put them in each other’s mailboxes.” “Carrie, for Pete’s sake. Doesn’t that seem a little juvenile?” “Actually, it seems kind of sweet to me,” she said. Putting her fork down, Carrie reached for her glass of wine. “But I’ll tell you this much.” “What?” “I miss him more every day.” “Let me go bug him, Carrie,” Megan whined. “No-o-o! Let him be. Something’s going to burst sooner or later. I know he was watching me ride Tango the other day.” “How do you know?” “We were riding in that meadow by the road. He drove by very slowly. I couldn’t miss him.” Interested, Megan leaned forward. “Did you look at his truck?” “Nope.” She shook her head. “You two are a strange breed of human. You live close together, are madly in love and refuse to talk to one another. Strange.” “It’s not forever,” Carrie began, taking another bite of her garlicky spaghetti. “We’re just taking a break.” “Well, if you want to give up on Russ,” she chuckled, “Barry called asking about you the other day.” “You’re kidding.” “No. Just say the word and he’s yours again.” “I don’t think I really wanted him the first time. He was your palm-off.” “Yeah, well, we all make mistakes.” * * * The night before the court date, Carrie received a note in her mailbox. Retrieving it, she caressed it against her chest and ran into the house and up to her loft bedroom to read. Lying under the warm covers, Carrie carefully opened the note. It was written on a half sheet of copy paper this time. Dear Carrie, I have five more horses trained and ready to sell. It’s been a rough week, what with the winds and all, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. Like you, I’ve been figuring some things out, things that may make a real difference. I want to wish you good luck with your court presentation tomorrow. I know you’ll do well. Take care of yourself, Russ As Carrie lay there in her bed, thinking of the case tomorrow and thinking of Russ, she knew what she was going to do. After she blasted out her old law firm before the judge tomorrow, she was going to ride Tango over to Russ’ ranch, stand on his porch and pound on his door until he came out. He was going to have to speak to her. Carrie wanted to find out once and for all if they were through for good, or if an agreement could be reached. Maybe with a few codicils attached to the agreement. She laughed and shook her head. Too much legal thinking recently, but she was serious about seeing him. This had gone on for a month now and enough was enough. She wasn’t a lawyer for nothing – she knew she could convince him with a reasonable argument, professional presentation of the evidence and witness questioning. Maybe… * * * CHAPTER 37 The day of the court presentation came. Carrie and the mayor drove over to San Andreas together, seat of Calaveras County. They mistakenly drove to the old county courthouse first. An historic building built in 1867 that was several stories of brick with the exterior decorated white around the corners. It had been added to the National Register of Historic Places and included a jail that had once held the outlaw Black Bart, a notorious northern California highwayman. When Carrie learned it was mainly used as a tourist attraction now, she asked for directions and headed for the new county courthouse. Pulling out, she thought she recognized Russ’ old Chevy truck parked along the street. She put all thoughts of him out of her mind. She had a case to present. The courtroom in the Calaveras County New San Andreas Courthouse looked standard and modern. Several rows of wooden benches similar to church pews faced the front where the judge’s large desk and podium stood. The American flag graced the judge’s right while the flag of California was placed at his left. Recessed lighting in the ceiling threw subtle beams of light towards the judge and chairs in the front. Although Carrie and Tom had arrived early, the wooden benches were already beginning to fill with onlookers, murmuring and looking around. Proud faces from the community were present, eager to see what would happen to their town. “Think the judge will allow an audience?” Tom asked Carrie as they began to unload their petition and discovery materials. Carrie set her reading glasses on the long desk facing the judge. She glanced over at the desk for the opposing side. No one had arrived yet and her stomach fluttered with a bit of nervousness. “I don’t see why not, Tom. This is a public hearing, notice was officially made in due course and the public is invited to listen, as long as they maintain a certain standard of courtroom etiquette and decorum.” He swallowed hard. “I think most of the town is coming.” She smiled at him. “There’s only room for about fifty people. The rest will have to wait outside.” As the time drew near, most of the wooden benches were just about filled and Tom’s anxiety began to show. Beads of perspiration dotted his upper lip and he dropped the tissue Carrie handed him to blot his face. “How…can you look so calm?” He finally mopped the beads and shook his head. “I’m already a nervous wreck and we haven’t even started.” “Good thing I’m the attorney then, huh?” She playfully rolled her eyes at him. With all the seats filled and the clock striking the hour, the double doors suddenly opened and Jacob Jarvitz, with two other attorneys, stroke briskly into the courtroom. He moved gracefully with quiet purpose and total confidence. The other attorneys walked behind carrying documents and definitely looked like assistants. Carrie narrowed her eyes as he came in. She turned back to look straight ahead until she heard movement to her right and knew Jarvitz was settling in at his table. She finally gave him a cursory look when he cleared his throat. Carrie knew that was her signal to look at him. She knew this man and his attorney tactics – and she planned to use every one of them against him. “Miss Bendix.” Jarvitz was loaded for bear. He was wearing an expensive double-breasted silk suit that she had once complimented him on. And she knew he remembered. Another tactic. He nodded at her and she nodded back. “Mr. Jarvitz.” His eyes swept over her quickly and he obviously liked what he saw. The corners of his mouth curved slightly and he nodded again. You don’t want to play this game with me, Jacob. I am so done with you. When Jarvitz turned back to face the front, Carrie glanced down at her suit for a brief second. She’d chosen well, she decided: the black, woolen suit cut with crisp, elegant lines was her most severe, most professional looking suit and she’d won the most cases wearing it. The suit was her good luck talisman and right now, with Jarvitz nipping at her heels, she would need all the luck she could manage. The judge walked in. Everyone rose and the bailiff announced, “Hear ye, Hear ye. This court in the county of Calaveras, state of California, is now in session. The Honorable Raoul Garcia presiding. You may take your seats.” Settling into his chair with that black flowing robe, Judge Garcia put on his glasses and picked up the petition on his desk. Carrie knew, since theirs was the first case on the docket today, that the judge would be fresh and more curious than with his last case of the day. She was prepared. The judge put down his glasses and looked up. “Miss Bendix.” She stood. “Your Honor.” “You’re the attorney of record for this petition?” “Yes, sir.” “Who are you representing?” “I’ll be representing the towns of Murphys and Angel’s Camp, Your Honor.” “Thank you.” As soon as she sat, the judge looked at the opposing table. “Mr. Jarvitz?” He rose and faced the judge. “Your Honor.” “You’re the attorney for the plaintiff?” “Yes, Your Honor. I’ll be representing the Blackwood Group.” “All right. Let’s begin.” Jacob sat down and the judge picked up the petition. “Miss Bendix. What appears to be the problem here?” She began to rise again. The judge waved her down. “Let’s remain seated for the duration, Miss Bendix and Mr. Jarvitz. It’ll save us all time.” “Yes, sir.” Carrie began speaking in a clear, solid voice that could be heard throughout the courtroom. “The towns of Angels Camp and Murphys have colorful pasts with gold mining and other minerals, but those days are past. The major industries and places for employment nowadays lie with tourism and ranching. It’s been a solid way of life for these communities, but one they fear will become a thing of the past if this acreage between the two towns is sold to the Blackwood Group.” She glanced at a paper on her desk. “Since counsel representing the buyer neglected to give me further information on the express purpose for the land purchase, my team has had to consider all options.” She tilted her head towards Jarvitz for emphasis. “Sir, I’d like to present the options one by one. Is that all right?” The judge glanced at Jarvitz. “Is that fine with you? Do you care to comment after each one?” “I’d like to save my comments for when Miss Bendix is through, Your Honor, with your permission.” “Fine, fine.” The judge waved his hand in the air. “Miss Bendix, please continue.” She looked up at the judge, “Thank you, Your Honor.” And over at Jacob. “Mr. Jarvitz.” He smiled at her, slightly raising an eyebrow. Not this time, she thought. And Carrie launched into the first point of her presentation. If the buyer wanted to use that acreage for gold mining, they were out of luck because the area had been played out for a hundred years. Besides, there were state statutes declaring mining off limits to historic preservations sights, which parts of that area had now become. “If shopping centers are the focus for the land purchase, Your Honor, there’s no zoning in place for those eight acres to be used in that manner. Mr. Jarvitz will have to go before the Calaveras County Commission for approval for rezoning and then the California State Legislature would have to approve the rezoning request. And, of course, the Legislature has already met for this year, so the request would have to be on the docket for next year.” “You certainly have come prepared, Miss Bendix,” commented Judge Garcia. “How do you know that the County Commission wouldn’t approve the rezoning request?” “I don’t, Your Honor, but that would be a matter for the Commission.” She glanced at Jarvitz out of the corner of her eye and caught him jotting down notes. “Anything for further consideration?” “Yes, Your Honor.” Carrie picked up another packet of information. “The other option we would object to for the purchase of this land would be housing development. One problem is that there are no utilities designated for those eight acres. Again, opposing counsel would have to go before the Calaveras County Commission for rezoning approval but that’s not the major problem.” “Yes, Miss Bendix. What is it then?” asked the judge. “The towns of Angels Camp and Murphys are small towns, Your Honor, of which I’m sure you are well aware since you live in Angels Camp. In fact, Angels Camp is the only incorporated town in this area. If a huge housing development were to be proposed for that acreage, the strain that would cause on the existing town services would be monumental. Even if rezoning was approved, there’s no way there’s enough water in the area to support, say one or two hundred new homes built in the area. Water is being trucked in now for many small California towns.” “True, Miss Bendix. And what else?” “Your Honor, town resources such as power, all utilities, sewage, schools and jails would be overloaded. The towns of Angels Camp and Murphys simply don’t have the economic base with which to tap into for taxes to provide for additional population. The strain on both towns would be astronomical and possibly force the towns to declare bankruptcy.” She glanced down at Tom who smiled at her, set her expression and looked back at the judge. “Judge Garcia. We ask that you uphold our petition to block the sale of these eight acres between Angels Camp and Murphys, and we believe you have enough information to do just that.” “Anything further, Miss Bendix?” “No, sir. Not at this time.” “Mr. Jarvitz? Your position please,” asked Judge Garcia. * * * CHAPTER 38 Jarvitz smoothed his suit, straightened the decorative handkerchief in his pocket. He shot a quick glance at Carrie before beginning his remarks. When his assistants passed various papers over to him, he looked at them and then up at the judge. “Your Honor. Miss Bendix has done a very thorough job of presenting arguments against every possible use for the land, save one.” He looked at the judge expectantly. “Well,” the judge waved his glasses in the air. “Please enlighten the court.” “The Blackwood Group has no designs whatsoever, at this time, for doing anything with the land.” The judge frowned and his face contorted. “What? They have no plans for development with that land?” “No, sir. Not at this time.” Carrie shook her head. Oldest trick in the lawyer’s bag – Pass the problem to a new judge at a different time. This judge probably won’t go along, so let’s pass the problem to a new court at a new time. Slick. But the judge wasn’t convinced. “So the buyer has no plans at all to develop this land? Ever?” “I didn’t say that, Your Honor. They have no plans – at this time.” “So you expect the sale to go through and then in five years have another go at it? Correct?” So the judge wasn’t a dummy, Carrie was gratified to learn. “Is that all you have to say, Mr. Jarvitz?” “Yes, Your Honor. It’s a simple sale. That’s all.” “Miss Bendix?” The judge looked pointedly at her. She smiled at him. “There’s no such thing as a simple sale, Your Honor, especially with the principals in this sale. And I think you know that,” she added. When the judge flicked a quick look at her, she knew she’d made her point. Judge Garcia sat back in his leather chair and thought deeply for a few minutes. The lines between his eyes furrowed and he would put his glasses on, read something and take them off again and again. The audience began to move, create a little noise. Disturbances of air, quiet murmurings. A decision was coming and people were on the edges of their seats. Tom, Murphys’ mayor, sat mopping his brow and glancing around the room. His nervous eyes darted everywhere and he couldn’t sit still. Carrie admonished him twice with a scowl before he settled down in his chair and quit squirming. She sat quietly, motionless, eyes straight ahead, awaiting the judge’s response. At last, Judge Garcia moved forward in his chair and took off his glasses again. “All right. Here’s what I think. Miss Bendix has made her point about all the various uses possible for the eight acres between Angels Camp and Murphys, but it’s hard to present a defense against a play with no offense, if I may borrow a sports analogy for a moment. Mr. Jarvitz will not present any sort of reason why the Blackwood Group wishes to purchase this property.” He glanced at Jarvitz. “If you’ll pardon my frankness, Mr. Jarvitz, I find it completely unbelievable and highly entertaining that you’d think this court was so stupid to fall for a trick like that. Your client buys the land, sits on it for five, six years and tries again when I’ve retired. Nice try… That’s really all you had?” The judge bit his lip to keep a smirk from appearing. “Your Honor,” Jarvitz began. The judge held up a hand. “So for those reasons I’m approving the petition from the towns of Angels Camp and Murphys to block the sale of the acreage to the Blackwood Group.” He brought his gavel down loudly on the block. “Next case.” He stood and quickly left the courtroom. The audience broke out into a loud cheer and stood up hugging one another. Small comments of ‘Way to go, Carrie’ filled the air as they filed out the courtroom door. Carrie let out the breath she’d been holding and leaned back into her chair for a moment. She turned to Tom with a big smile on her face. He grabbed her for a noisy hug and reached into his pocket for that soggy tissue she’d given him earlier. Now he needed it for his misty eyes. “I can’t thank you enough, Carrie. You did a fabulous job. The towns of Angels Camp and Murphys thank you profusely. How about dinner at Murphys Hotel tonight to celebrate?” “Fine, Tom. I’ll be there.” She shook his hand. “About six?” “Sure.” She made a major effort not to kick up her heels in glee, as she began packing up all the materials she’d brought. Tom beat a happy retreat to talk to a few people outside the courthouse. Soon the courtroom was nearly empty. Jacob nodded at his assistants who quickly gathered all their materials and walked out of the room. He glanced over at Carrie, still putting papers in her briefcase. “Nice work, counselor,” he said smoothly. She turned to look at him. “Nice suit.” Jacob took a step towards her. “Carrie?” Looking up, she recognized the signs of a man who was attempting to charm her with style, clothing… manners, money. A silver-haired fox with an exquisite suit and manicured nails. He had been able to do it once, but no more. “What do you want, Jacob?” “You know I’ll be taking this to the state Court of Appeals.” She shrugged. “Go ahead and try. Your buyer will be long gone by then.” He reached out to touch her arm, but she drew back. “Carrie, we were good together. Come back to the firm. I’ll give you a promotion and you’ll be making those six figures you wanted. A corner office, new Lexus, yearly bonuses…an apartment.” “And to you?” “Yes. Nothing’s been the same since you left me.” A smile spread across her face. “I left you? You’ve got that wrong, don’t you?” She tapped a finger on her chin. “The way I remember it, when I wouldn’t sleep with you, you fired me.” She pointed the finger at him. “Isn’t that closer to the truth?” “It’s water under the bridge,” he waved a hand in the air. “Can’t we be good friends again? You’re still a terrific lawyer. Come back. We’d make a good team.” She gave him a sexy smile and stepped in close. Carrie could smell his breath mints and felt his quick intake of breath when she tugged on his tie to bring his face closer. With her lips sizzlingly close to his, she spoke plainly, “Not for all the gold in Calaveras County.” She let go of his tie and his composure slipped. Smoothing the silk tie, Jacob tried again. “Sure about that, Carrie?” “As sure as I’ve ever been about anything.” She closed the briefcase and picked it up without looking at him. “Goodbye, Jacob.” “All right, if that’s what you want.” He stuck one hand in a crisp pocket, smoothed a waxed eyebrow with the tip of his finger. “The offer still stands though.” And he walked out of the courtroom leaving Carrie with closed eyes and a rapidly beating heart. She set the briefcase back down and let out a deep breath of relief. It was good just to breathe – maybe something she had needed to do was finally done. It was a showdown long in coming and a giant weight seemed to lift. “… Nice performance,” said the deep voice from the back of the courtroom. Carrie didn’t need to turn around to know who it was. “Which?” she said with her eyes still closed, facing forward. “The case or the man?” “Both.” Boots clicked across the tiled floor bringing him closer and closer. “You have,” the voice continued, “exceptional skills.” Keeping her eyes closed, she turned while reaching up to remove a hairclip and unbutton her suit jacket. Long, dark hair cascaded along her shoulders and the clicking boots stopped. “I do,” she agreed and opened her eyes. Russ stood before her wearing a gray suit, snowy white shirt and deep red tie. Dark blonde hair, newly cut and nicely combed to one side looked delicious above eyes the color of the sky. It was so damn good to see him. “You’re turning into a country girl before my very eyes,” he teased. “Is that a Western shirt under your power suit?” She nodded giving him a small smile. “You pushed me into this, Russ.” “I’m not going to say I’m sorry. You’re a lawyer, honey. It’s part of who you are…part of the woman I love.” Her smile brightened. “So you do love me.” “You never would let me tell you, but I’ve loved you since you set foot at Lonesome Creek. The question before the bench, counselor, is how you feel about me.” He moistened his lips, looked her squarely in the eye. “Here.” She opened her briefcase, taking out a small object. “I have something for you.” She handed it to him. Russ held a spool of thread in his hand. “I gave this to you last Christmas.” She stepped into him, gently taking hold of his jacket lapels. “I’m giving it back. Once upon a time, I wanted no strings between us. Now I want strings, twine, thread and coils and coils of heavy duty rope, if it’ll bind me to you.” Russ beamed as he put the spool in his pocket. Stroking her face, his smile faded. “I had a tough moment when you moved in on Jarvitz and tugged on his tie.” “You couldn’t tell what I was going to do?” “No.” She smiled, her eyes laughing at the joke. “So…I’m not so predictable after all.” He smiled at her and fished a small piece of paper out of his pocket. “I have something for you.” He handed it over. “Since we’re such great pen pals now.” Opening the paper, Carrie’s eyes misted when she read: Would you marry me, darling Carrie? I promise to love you and keep you safe for the rest of our lives. And you know, I’m a man of my word. Love, Russ She moved closer, lips inches from his. “So it’s a proposal then?” “Yes, ma’am.” He pulled a diamond ring out of a jacket pocket, offering it to her. “I’m wearing the suit and you look beautiful in those sexy heels, so let’s cross the hall and find the Justice of the Peace.” “That’s right. It is a courthouse.” “I love you, honey, and I always will. Please make me your husband. I may not be able to buy you a Lexus or get you a corner office, but no one will ever love you as much as I do.” “With that kind of offer, how can I refuse?” she smiled as he put the ring on her finger. “And I promise to always love and adore you too, Rusty,” she kidded. “Thank you for encouraging me to figure it all out.” “I wasn’t sure at all what I was doing,” he sighed. “And it was incredibly hard to stay away from you.” Carrie went into his arms, the place where she belonged. A ragged breath escaped from Russ as he held her close. After a minute with both of them breathing contentedly in and out, a finger on Carrie’s chin tipped her face until she was staring into his loving eyes. Taking his time, Russ captured her lips with a firm, possessive kiss to seal the deal. When he released her, she gave him a slow, sexy smile. “Let’s get married and go home, Carrie.” Russ kissed her lips again and took her hand. “And home is…” “Lonesome Creek, of course.” THE END Continue reading for an excerpt from STREAM RAN DRY, Book Two in The Westerners Series. CHAPTER ONE Getting out of a taxi, Rebecca shaded her eyes to look up at the tall building in front of her. The sun seemed extra bright today and the temperature in the downtown area was going to be hotter than yesterday. The sign on the building read Las Vegas Sun Times. She paid the cabbie, straightened her shoulders and made her way to the elevators trying to juggle her briefcase, a cup of coffee and the daily editions from three other newspapers around the country. Must keep up with what the competition is running. Yes, she wrote a blog for the paper, but she occasionally broke out in print as well. It was more satisfying to see her name as a byline in print than on a computer screen. As the elevator climbed higher, Rebecca carefully thought out what she would say to Dave about that new story she wanted to investigate. Her editor sometimes had his own ideas about what she should be writing ---Men! Ding… The elevator stopped at her floor and she gathered all her wits about her – She was ready for him. Juggling her briefcase, newspapers and coffee, Rebecca wound her way through the labyrinth of cubicles, desks, blinking monitors and people. She smiled… It was a madcap way to make a living. There were clocks on various walls, telling the time in other locations – London, Paris, New York. Huge lights hung down from the ceiling giving the large room an eerie look… too bright in some places, too dim in others. In most cubicles, people had cell phones up to their ears or their Bluetooths on as they worked simultaneously on their computers. The noise level was high and constant… Phones rang, papers shuffled, machines whirred, things were dropped... People’s voices registered soft or loud, excited or panicky, depending on the nature of their conversation. Chatter, thuds, dings and a crash or two filled the air. A slight musty smell crept to her nostrils, overriding the coffee aroma. Three people stood listlessly by a water cooler holding an impromptu story conference. One of them looked at her as she passed by. “Rebecca! Did you see that piece on the ranching problem out by Allentown?” A thin man with a full beard and serious eyes lifted a hand to flag her down. “Tim…Yeah… Saw it,” Rebecca said over her shoulder. “Let me get back to you about that.” She finally arrived at her office and looked in vain for a surface to put down her coffee cup. Have to clean up this place, she thought for the hundredth time this week. Her office looked like a bomb had exploded in it. She was neat as a proverbial pin in her apartment, but the walls of her office were covered with newspaper print. Stories… stories and more stories… She was always looking for that one really dominant story that she could write her book about. Rebecca had always been a writer, but she felt her newspaper time was just practice for when she could become a published book author. It was a goal she’d had her whole life. Rebecca pushed a pile of papers to one side, set down her coffee and placed the newspapers she was carrying by her desk chair. She sat and opened her briefcase to remove an article she’d been thinking about. But talking her editor into it would be a daunting task. For the second time in fifteen minutes, she squared her shoulders, picked up the article and zigzagged her way to his office. People called out ‘Hi’ to her as she made her way and she smiled all through the office. She waved at her good friend, Ella, and wanted a word with her afterwards. She knocked on Dave West’s door. Editor was printed in large, white letters on the glass door, as if they didn’t all know who he was. Dave was on the phone but motioned to her. She went in, glancing around the office with glass walls – no privacy here… Actually, three walls were glass and one wall was a series of windows that looked out on downtown Las Vegas. She could see the infamous Strip with its huge hotels from his vantage point and marveled at the immense city built in the middle of a desert. Bugsy Siegel was the brainchild of Las Vegas -- A notorious mobster! An interesting origin and derivation of the nickname Sin City. Dave leaned back in his chair and took a good look at her while she stared out the window. Medium height with long, dark brown hair and eyes… Rebecca was a knockout – What the hell was she doing running around the city and state as an investigative reporter? She should have been Miss Nevada or some other beauty title. Oh well, he sighed. To each their own. She was a terrific reporter, just too gung ho sometimes, for his taste. He knew he’d cashed in on her looks by putting her picture on the online blog page and in the newspaper from time to time. And each time he did, the circulation department told him their numbers went up. She was a valuable commodity to him, both in her writing and her attractiveness. Any good editor worth his salt would make the most of those attributes. He laughed at his own thoughts and hung up the phone. “Sawyer… What have you got for me? I see something hanging from your right hand.” “Dave, I’ve got a new story idea.” Her smile was bright and he knew she was going to pitch him yet another loser story. She was much fonder of her story ideas than he was. “…Yeah?” He looked at her doubtfully. “…Like what?” “The whole Pine Mountain story is going to break out again.” “No, it isn’t, Rebecca. That story is dead.” “But I just spoke with some Energy Department people who told me it was coming online again.” He shook his head. “Nope, not going to happen. Deader than a doornail.” “Dave, if you’d just hear me out.” “Love to, Sawyer, but I don’t have the time right now. I need to send you to Allentown.” “Allentown?” she squeaked. “Way the hell out there past Cosgrove? Whatever for?” “Breaking news, kid. Some rancher is taking on the DLR and they’re arming for World War Three…” “DLR?” “…Department of Land Resources, the feds.” “What’s the rancher doing?” “And that, my dear, is the crux of the story.” Rebecca started to object, when Tim interrupted. He hesitantly stuck his head in the door and then came in. “Yeah, Tim…What?” growled Dave. He swallowed. “Dave, I just thought you should let Rebecca know that things are heating up out in Allentown. I could help her on the story, if you’d like.” Tim smiled and nervously shuffled his feet. He peeked a shy glance at Rebecca and back at Dave. “Yeah, okay. I’ll get back to you.” Tim left and Rebecca threw her hands out in front of her. “Don’t you dare, Dave.” Her eyes flashed and her mouth set a hard line. A small smile sat on Dave’s face. “You know that guy’s gone on you, right?” “…Not interested.” Rebecca folded her arms and tapped a toe on the floor. “You work too hard.” “Story of my life.” “You need to get a new story, kid.” “And quit calling me kid. We’re about the same age.” His eyes widened. “How would you know that?” She rolled her eyes. “…Research.” He shrugged and continued. “Listen, Sawyer. I want you in Allentown yesterday and I want you to take Tim with you.” She couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you nuts? Why?” He ticked off the reasons on his fingers. “One – He’s a good writer as well. Two – There could be some danger involved and three – He’s got a big crush on you. Give the guy a chance, Rebecca.” She put her fingers in her ears. “I can’t hear you!” she sang. “Hear this… When was the last time you went out on a date? Had a drink with friends? Went home to see the folks?” When her eyes filled with tears, he backed off. “…Okay, I’m sorry. I forgot about your folks, but you have no personal life. You’re going to get old before your time.” “What you say is true, Dave. Even though it’s probably harassment in the workplace or something for you to be meddling in my private life.” “I know that, Rebecca, but we’re friends too.” Her gaze softened and she looked down at the floor. “I…I’m just not expecting any sort of Happily-Ever-After scenario for myself. I never have. You know my background.” She glanced up at him and he nodded. “I’ve had to work my ass off for what I have. If I lose that traction, I’m afraid of what might happen to my whole universe. If it tilts one bit on its axis, I may fall off.” He was nodding again. “…Understood, but not accepted. I’d like to see you swept off your feet someday by a good man.” “Next time you see a good man, text me.” Dave laughed. “…Maybe you’re right. Still…” “…Still?” “Get your ass out to Allentown pronto and see what the hell is going on. And take Tim with you. I don’t want you going alone.” She opened her mouth to object. “No, your safety is important to me, Rebecca. I don’t want to lose my best reporter. Take Tim and give him part of the story – You two will share the byline.” “Great…Now I have to share the byline.” “Do this and I’ll look over that Pine Mountain story idea while you’re gone.” “…You will?” “No, but I sounded magnanimous for a second there, didn’t I?” he added smugly. She folded her arms again and frowned. “Someday, Dave, I’m going to get a better offer.” He burst out laughing. “I sure hope so, Sawyer, now get out of my office. I’m busy – I’m the editor!” Laughing, she left his office and went to look for Tim. She noticed his happy grin when she headed his way. His face froze when she stopped to speak with him about the Allentown story. “What do you know about it, Tim? Dave wants us up and moving soon on this story.” “Great, Rebecca,” breathed Tim. “Let’s go into the conference room and I’ll go over the research I’ve done so far.” “Okay, and then we need to make arrangements to get out there and stay a night or two.” “Fine,” he smiled. They went into a conference room and began discussing the story. It was a complicated one. * * * CHAPTER TWO Mounting his horse, Wyatt took off his cowboy hat and wiped off the beads of sweat on his forehead. He readjusted the hat back on his head and stuck the damp bandanna back in his pocket. Looking up at the sun, he knew it was going to be hotter today in Allentown than yesterday, and he’d better watch that his neck didn’t burn again. His hair and shirt were already damp with perspiration and it wasn’t noon yet. Not great… He had those fences to mend on the back part of the property and the vet was coming to see about one of his cows. He had a full day ahead and Clint was coming over for rodeo practice later this afternoon. As Wyatt rode his favorite thoroughbred horse to fix those fences, his chest expanded just gazing at the scene around him. Some of the prettiest landscape on earth… Miles and miles of prime land, dotted with pinion and sagebrush, butted up against jagged, darkened hills. Huge, gray clouds far off in the distance hinted at rain that lent a slight, damp smell to his nostrils. Rain in Nevada was always welcome, but not always forthcoming. His ranch was some eight hundred acres that had been homesteaded by his great granddaddy, Albert Washburn, making Wyatt a fourth generation Nevadan – And proud of it. Earth, brush and cottonwoods rolled along forever with nobody bothering anything, except for Wyatt’s herd of six hundred Hereford cows. His family, all the way back to Albert, had always prided themselves on their ability to manage their part of the Western range in regards to indigenous plants, wildlife and cattle. Wyatt was proud that his family had always worked hard to make sure all the local species had their own space. Thoughtful and introspective, Wyatt rode up to the failing fences, dismounted and began his work. His horse dropped its head to munch grass at the foot of the barbed wire fence. He took a deep breath of the sage around him, put on his heavy, leather work gloves and took out pliers from his saddlebag. But as he worked twisting bits of steel back into place in the hot sun, his thoughts were of years in the past… Happier years when Missy was still alive. Swallowing a lump in his throat, Wyatt reached for the bottle of water in his saddlebag. His glove snagged a small pink scarf that he always carried with him – Missy’s scarf, the one she loved the best. Staring at it, memories flooded his mind like a river. When she’d died of cancer three years ago, it was all Wyatt could do to look at her clothes in their closet. He’d packed up everything except for this one scarf… Just couldn’t get rid of everything. Boxing up all the pictures and her knick knacks from around the house just about did him in. She was sweet and kind – everything he’d always wanted in a wife and she was also gone forever. That lump in his throat reappeared and wouldn’t go down this time. Twisting… bending… reattaching. Concentrating on small daily tasks, one at a time, helped him to grieve for her, but the grief seemed never ending. Wyatt stretched his back, leaned over for another swig of water and took off his hat again, wiping more sweat from his face. It had been three very long years. Returning back to the task at hand, he thought of friend Clint’s advice. You’ve got to get back in the saddle, Wyatt. You can’t grieve for Missy forever. Get a date. Rejoin the land of the living. But he just wasn’t ready to do that yet. He still made weekly trips to the small cemetery on his property where she was buried just to talk to her. It was a pretty little place, nestled in a small grove of cottonwood trees with a small stream nearby. Even though Clint’s advice buzzed through his brain, he knew he wasn’t ready to date. Besides, Wyatt sure as hell hadn’t met anyone who measured up to Missy at all. All the local gals that Clint had tried to set him up with paled in her shadow. He didn’t think he’d ever find anyone who could take her place. And that was all right. He believed that all things happened the way they should. If he was meant to be alone, then that’s what he would be. Wyatt wasn’t about to go charging into any romantic situation just because, or for no particular reason. He had to admit he did miss a woman’s companionship and certainly sex, but not enough to risk the complacent life he had going. She would have to be a tough cookie to break through the hard exterior shell he’d built in the last three years to ward off any intimacy that encroached. And if she were a tough cookie…he wouldn’t want her. Missy had been sweet and kind… It was a no-win situation for him. Wyatt finished mending the fences so his cattle wouldn’t wander into this section of the property and rode back to the ranch house to meet with the vet. A few cows were off their feed and he needed to see if there was a problem brewing. Best to nip medical problems in the bud, if at all possible. Just as the vet was leaving, he saw Clint’s old Chevy truck coming up the road, dust flying behind him. Wyatt grinned… Clint was driving way too fast, which meant he had some gossip or news he was dying to spread. The guy had two speeds – slow and fast – making it much easier to read his friend’s moods. Clint pulled up in the side parking area by the ranch house, got out and slammed the heavy door behind him. He walked purposely up to the porch, while Wyatt smiled at the tall, lanky cowboy approaching. “I just know you’re not this excited to practice team roping today,” teased Wyatt. “Ha! I’ve got much better news than that.” Clint breezed past him and went into the house with Wyatt following. Going into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and found a beer. “Well, help yourself, by all means.” “Wyatt.” “Yeah?” Clint twisted off the cap, raised the bottle to his lips and drank a good swallow. When he’d wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he began again. “I was just talking with Rob who got a call from some reporter in Las Vegas.” Wyatt bit his lip. This didn’t sound good. “Okay.” “The reporter wants to interview a few local ranchers about what’s going on over in Allentown.” “So?” “She asked for an interview to get our perspective on things… How we felt about it, you know.” “Well, I know how I feel about the situation, but I don’t feel like sharing it with any newspaper in Vegas.” “How else will anyone in the outside world learn how most of us feel about what that rancher’s doing over there?” “And why do you care?” Wyatt threw his cowboy hat on the table, reached past him, opened the frig and got a beer for himself. Clint watched as he wrestled off the cap, lifted the bottle and took a good pull. Then Wyatt was lost for a minute in his own thoughts, gazing out the kitchen window. Clint took another swallow as he watched his friend struggle. Wyatt’s damp chestnut hair matched the sadness in his dark brown eyes. Eyes that glanced back at Clint now. “What?” Clint shook his head. “I wish I had a magic wand to wave over you sometimes.” “Why?” Wyatt laughed. “Think I could use a little magic?” “You need something, man. You’ve got to come back to the world.” “Okay,” he looked down at his boots. They needed cleaning. “I’m getting there.” “But not in our lifetime, Wyatt.” He shrugged and sat down to pull off his boots. He emptied a few rocks out of them. “What would you have me do?” Clint’s eyes gleamed and Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “I want you to meet this reporter with Rob and me.” He grimaced. “Oh, come on. I have no interest in spreading my opinion all over the state or the world… whatsoever. It’s no one’s business but my own.” “Okay, then do it for me.” Wyatt’s jaw dropped. “Why in the hell would I do it for you?” “…Because, mi amigo,” smirked Clint, “I’ve seen the reporter’s picture on the newspaper blog and she’s a real looker. I’d kinda like to see her in person and ask her out.” Wyatt blinked. “…You’re kidding.” “Nope.” “Now I’m really not interested in this interview. Get your own dates from around here.” He pulled his boots back on and rose from his chair. “Why don’t we practice team roping for the next rodeo? This conversation’s at a close.” Clint persisted. “Hey, who was there to help you when that cougar came down out of the hills and attacked your cattle?” “Yeah, yeah.” “Who helped you dig that new well on your property last year?” “Okay, already…” Clint rested his hand on Wyatt’s arm to pull out the big one. “And who’s been there for you since that tragic day three years ago?” Wyatt couldn’t refuse him now. Clint had been a rock for him since Missy died and they both knew it. He shuffled his feet and looked in his friend’s serious face. “It means that much to you to meet this reporter?” “Yes, it does.” “All right then. Fine, I’ll do it, but this wipes the slate clean. No more markers.” Clint smacked the side of his leg with his hat. “Yup. Slate’s clean… Clean as a new baby’s bottom. Clean as spring water out of an artesian well… Clean as…” Rolling his eyes, Wyatt held up a hand. “Stop.” “Let’s go practice team roping.” “Good. Let’s do something logical and normal, instead of this insane conversation.” But he smiled at Clint who only had his best interests at heart and he knew it. It’s good to have friends. * * * CHAPTER THREE Rebecca had stayed late that night working with Tim, gathering more research. They’d worked for nearly four hours when the editor stuck his head in, grinning at them. “Working late, are we?” “Yes, Dave, as requested.” She tapped her pencil on the table. “Did you reach anyone out there by Allentown?” Dave looked from Tim to Rebecca. “Rebecca got ahold of one rancher.” Tim consulted his notes. “…. A Rob Carson.” “That right, Sawyer?” “Yeah, and he’s promised to find two more ranchers for us to interview.” “So he said that he’d do it?” “…Apparently so.” “That’s good work, reporters. Carry on.” And he left, swinging the conference door shut behind him. Rebecca blew out a breath and ran a hand through her hair. “I’m bushed, Tim. Let’s call it a night.” Tim stretched out his shoulders and yawned. “Yes, I’m good for tonight. Shall we hit it again tomorrow?” “We’d better just hit the road instead. I’ll get the rental car and drive, while you continue the research on the way. How would that be? We can decide which questions we want to ask those ranchers.” She looked up at Tim who was staring at her. “Tim?” She snapped her fingers in front of him. “You okay?” He gulped. “I don’t suppose you’d like to get a drink with me tonight, Rebecca? You know, one for the road, so to speak?” Tim smiled weakly at her as she started to shake her head. “Can’t, Tim. We’re fellow reporters. I have a rule about dating colleagues – It just doesn’t work. Hey, but I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Right? About nine o’clock, you think?” If she kept babbling maybe he’d forget he’d asked her out. Lame perhaps, but there it was. “…Oh, okay, Rebecca. If that’s how you feel. So… I...I guess I’ll meet you here tomorrow morning.” He stood up and gathered his papers. “Goodnight.” She nodded at him. “Goodnight.” She blew out a weary breath as he left and then pulled out her cell phone to punch in a number. “Ella?” “That you, Rebecca? You sound awful.” “…Meet me at the Mirage corner bar, would you? I feel terrible.” “Mirage in ten. See you there.” Sometime during her glass of Chardonnay, Rebecca got around to telling her friend about the conversation with Tim. “Honest to God, Ella. He makes me feel like I just kicked his kitty or something.” She took another sip. “He’s definitely got these puppy dog eyes and just begs me for attention.” “Yeah, Tim has it bad for you.” Rebecca pushed back her long hair. “I’ve never, ever given him one tiny bit of encouragement and he just won’t quit.” She looked up quickly at Ella. “Why don’t you go out with him? He’ll forget me in a heartbeat.” “I’m not sure that that would get him away from you. He seems stuck all right.” “Well, he’s just going to have to give up. I’m not even remotely interested in getting hooked up with some guy.” “Ever?” “…Not for a very long time. Look at you.” She raised her glass to clink with Ella’s. “Look at me what?” “You’re a catch and release sort of woman, a serial dater. You never get serious about anyone, so why should I?” “Rebecca. There’s a big difference between the two of us.” “Which would be…” “I’ve had lots of relationships. Have you really ever had a serious boyfriend?” Rebecca pushed another strand of hair back and shook her head. “…No.” Ella shook her head in response. “What?” “… My dear friend. I know what to look for and I just don’t choose to go there – yet. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to get married someday.” Rebecca put down her glass. “You want to get married someday?” “Yes, I do. But not yet.” “Well, I don’t.” Ella fluffed her curly blonde hair and laughed in Rebecca’s face. “Sweetie, when you fall, you’re going to fall hard… Look at you.” Rebecca obliged and looked down at what she was wearing. “… And?” “You don’t see it now, but you’re gorgeous and sweet and wonderful and you’re going to fall head over heels for a very lucky guy someday.” A giggle escaped her lips. “I am not sweet and wonderful.” “Take it from one who knows. I’ve watched you for years, sweetie, and you can be incredibly kind. You just wear that reporter shield wrapped around you like some kind of superhero cape to keep guys away. And it’ll work… for a while.” She slyly grinned. “I have a superhero persona?” “Yes, let me see now,” Ella tapped a finger to her chin. “How about… Superwoman? Superman was a reporter, so Superwoman could be too.” “I’d rather be Supergeek or SuperReporter.” “No, those names suck” Rebecca and Ella looked at one another and burst out laughing. “Thanks, Ella. We haven’t solved anything, but I feel better about Tim at least.” Ella pushed back her empty glass. “Yeah, I’m sorry about Tim too, but he needs to move on, since you’re stuck in park.” Smiling, Rebecca pulled out her credit card. “This night’s on me, but I’ve got to go. Getting up early to hit the road tomorrow.” She held up the card and a server came to collect it. “Thanks. And you’re going where to do what again?” “Tim and I are traveling west of Cosgrove to Allentown to interview three local ranchers about the situation going on out there with that high profile rancher, the one who’s squaring off with the Feds.” “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “What do these ranchers look like? Any of them single?” The server brought her card back and Rebecca signed the bill, frowning at her. “…No idea and I could care less. I just want to know their opinions for the Op-Ed piece Dave wants to run in the Sunday opinion page.” “Okay, Rebecca,” she laughed. “Interrogation is over for today. I’ll start back in on you when you get back from Nowheresville, Nevada.” “Got that right. Give me the city any day.”

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