Sea Cliff 104 by Mary Schultz

To Cass, the unfinished oceanfront condo appeared equally desolate and open to possibility. She dropped her heavy carpet sample books and tape measure onto the bare new kitchen counter. The sound echoed against the freshly painted walls of the model unit she was estimating for interior design.
Sea Cliff 104
Sea Cliff 104 by Mary Schultz
The empty condominium smelled of drying paint and plaster. She walked across the dusty concrete floor to the sliding door, while she absently twisted a nonexistent ring on the third finger of her left hand. She pulled back the glass to let the ocean air inside and brushed the gritty plaster dust off her faded jeans and high-top work boots. The breeze caught the collar of her cotton flannel shirt and she folded the fabric back down. The expanse of the Pacific glistened deep blue in the late October afternoon, and in the distant haze she could see Catalina Island. The way the ocean waves rolled reminded her of alfalfa fields in the wind. She longed for the simplicity of home, the snowcapped peaks of Southwestern Montana's Crazy Mountains, and her family's hundred-year-old farmstead. They’re tubular, she thought. These units are awful. Little tunnels. She picked up a swatch book and looked at the colors and textures of carpet, tile and wood. She walked over to the white marble gas-burning fireplace and leaned against the mantle. Desert sand, or Confetti, she thought. Bamboo. Italian porcelain tile with nearly invisible grout lines would finish the kitchen floor. “These models may take shape after all,” she mumbled. The front door opened and in stepped a masked cowboy, complete with white hat and dress boots. The hot wind caught the door. It slammed and Cass jumped. She took in the sight before her, a towering six-feet-plus of height in a fringed jacket. Blue eyes peered out of the black mask’s eye holes. Those eyes seemed to be studying her reaction. A laugh bubbled up from somewhere within her. The costumed man reminded her of a giant child playing "you'll-never-guess-who-I-am." Then, she collected herself and put on a somber face, remembering that in Los Angeles, any loose masked man could be a dangerous intruder. “Lone Ranger, I presume?” she asked. "Who are you?" a husky voice asked. "And, what are you doing here?" He lifted his hat, slipped off the mask and Cass guessed him to be a man in his forties. She noticed that his straight forehead and strong jaw looked far more appealing once he was unmasked. Cass looked him over, from the blue-black hair tinged with silver to the startling blue eyes that were so intense she was sure she could see a Rocky Mountain horizon in them. "I should be asking who you are. I know it's Halloween, but isn't it a little early in the day for a masquerade?" He looked down at his blazing silver belt buckle and cleared his throat. For another moment, they stood at a stalemate. Finally, Cass said, "I'm Cassidy Brooks, designer.” "Are your eyes really that light shade of green?" he asked. His eyes were on her long auburn curls. "Was the original Tonto really Canadian?" Cass folded her arms across her chest, unwilling to laugh again, in spite of his mischievous smile. "And you are?" she asked. He still didn't identify himself. He cocked an eyebrow, as if waiting for her to continue. Cass tapped her foot and said, "Leonard Rasmussen, the developer, and Petro, of Petro Avakian and Michael McGregor Urban Spaces, agreed I should estimate this three-bedroom model first for interior design. Leonard expects this floor plan to be the leader." "Why didn't you say Leonard sent you? I'm Bud Griffith, the project manager.” He extended a hand and grinned. “You are amazingly self-possessed,” he said. “If you had speed-dialed for help, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier this afternoon, my ex summoned me to take a look at a lamp that shorted out. She didn’t find my get up amusing. She was embarrassed, afraid the neighbors might see me being outrageous. That would reflect badly on her. She has a status to maintain. I guess I’m supposed to maintain it for her.” The warmth of the laugh lines around Bud's eyes unnerved Cass. He’d revealed a lot in a matter of seconds. She'd fallen for charm and wit before, fallen to a low she'd never thought possible. In an effort to guard herself, she took on her down-to-business voice. "Happy to meet you, Mr. Griffith. I hope you'll excuse me, but I'm on a deadline and there's so much to do.” She lifted her silvery steel measuring tape case and turned away from him. "Here, let me hold the end of the tape for you," he said. "Please, don't let me trouble you. I'm sure you were on your way somewhere," she said. Project manager or not, she thought, there's something a bit off center about a man who parades around dressed as a cowboy hero. His presence made her uneasy, though she couldn't have said why. "Are you always so brusque when someone offers to help you?” He followed her and stepped in front of her. She pointed to the mask he held under his arm and said, "I'm not brusque. You just unsettled me." "Well, beg pardon, lady." Inwardly he kicked himself. He regretted the tone he heard in his own voice and wondered why she seemed as sensitive as sand-papered fingertips. Her legs, he noticed, went all the way up to the seat of her jeans. Cass raised her eyebrows. "Oh, or is it ma’am?" Bud asked. "Not lady. How can I be politically correct?” He acted as though he was either trying to be teasing or cute, but he was sounding remarkably belittling. "So you don't want to be friends,” Cass said. “Okay. That's settled. Now, since you’re here, how about telling me why these condos were designed like a Happy Hamster Habitat?” "Excuse me?" He dusted off an unfinished cabinet top and set his hat down. "They are all narrow and deep.” "Everyone wants an ocean view," Bud said. "One in the living room. One in the master suite upstairs. If you can be a little bit cordial for a moment, I'll show you." He turned and bounded up the stairs the way a moose tackles a deep snow field, effortlessly. She followed. At the second story landing, he opened the door at the end of the hall. One entire wall was glass framed with light oak, and out the window, the blue ocean shone. "See that view?” Bud asked. "That crescent of coastline lights up like diamonds at night. I suppose that's why in real estate listings, they call this view the queen's necklace. You can see all the way to Palos Verdes." The peninsula jutted out into the water like a huge green turtle. Closer in, a pair of sailboats glided by, their multi-colored spinnakers filled with wind. "Admit it," Bud said. "The view is beautiful. Will you forgive me? It's hot in here.” He pulled off his fringed Western jacket, revealing a blue chambray shirt and a few straggling wisps of hair that she found herself wanting to pull out from his collar. His shirt carried the scent of freshly cut pine. "I can't deny what you're saying. And every time the light changes, you get a new perspective, too,” Cass said. Cass hadn't realized she was being less than civil until he called her on it. In her lifelong single-mindedness to succeed and her recent determined efforts to avoid men, she had developed what her boss affectionately referred to as a chip on her shoulder the size of Montana. In the many months since Terrence and the "divorlment," as she'd come to call it, she'd become especially curt and bitter, she knew. How odd that a total stranger, and an attractive one at that, would point out to Cass that she was acting like her worst possible self. "Would you come with me?" she asked, her tone softening. "I've got a lot to accomplish here in a really short time frame.” She left the panorama behind and descended the stairs at a brisk pace. She heard his footsteps on the stairs behind her. "Let me begin by showing you flooring samples, and we'll see if we can at least give these models the illusion of space." She opened the sample book and showed him several choices. "I like this sand colored Berber. The texture will add dimension," she said. "But a Berber wrap on all those stairs? I'm fighting cost overruns. I wanted to keep expenses down Ms. Brooks... or, is it Mrs... or..." "Ms. is fine. My friends call me Cass. But we've already agreed we won't be friends. We'll be mutually tolerant." "Funny, that's just what my ex-wife says," Bud said. "Now, about this carpet. Give me a grade lower, or give me this one and cut your price based on volume.” "You don't exactly fine tune the bargaining, do you?" "Time is money. And you said you had to run.” With that, he grabbed his hat, tucked it under his arm, turned and strode toward the door. Hand on the doorknob, he looked back at Cass, his ocean blue eyes sparkling. "Give me your business card," he said. "I might need to get in touch." "Ever heard the word 'please?'" She handed him her card. "I say please to my friends. When you've got this place measured, why don't you shop a little and then set up an appointment to show me your whole proposal?" "Texas Ranger poser," Cass said as the door closed. Bud tapped on the kitchen window and said, "I heard that." * * * The uniformed guard studied Cass's identification card in the bright morning light. He let her pass into the polished black marble and chrome of the Los Angeles Designer Mart. She rode the elevator to the second floor and started down the long hall, bypassing the suppliers of French Provincial furnishings, anything damask or brocade, and narrowing her sights between scaled down contemporary overstuffed pieces and natural wicker accents. In a corner shop under a skylight, she found a loose-cushion sofa with a stark white background interwoven with a faint ribbon of dusty rose and ivy green. She saw chairs, same style, and asked the clerk for an estimate based on one dusty rose chair, one ivy, each with contrasting welting. Master suite, Cass thought. Wicker headboard. Scaled down queen's chair. Wicker dresser with framed mirror. When she closed her eyes and envisioned the view from the model condo's master bedroom, the image of Bud Griffith's face clouded her mind and she found her heart warming one degree at the mental picture of his smile. Death to the tubular, she thought. She left her selections with the sales consultant to give the supplier time to develop a comprehensive bid, and she set off on her next mission. She swung her heavy leather briefcase as she walked at a rapid clip down the hall. Bamboo strips, floor to ceiling, behind the queen bed, a channel of glass tiles between. Instant openness. No more stacked rabbit hutch feeling. Cass sprinted from one merchant to the next, choosing lamps, shades, fabric for custom window blinds. For the master suite, she ordered a bid on a custom comforter trimmed with piping to echo the trim on the upholstered pieces in the living room suite. The lead model, she thought. Don't forget towels, a few dishes and glassware. A silk fuchsia to hang from the ceiling of the master suite. And art. Cass texted a note into her tablet planner to contact a Montana wildlife sculptor and ask him to give her a price on a sculpture for the mantle. She noted a second call she'd make, to a California wine country artist for one of her vibrant colored pencil drawings. For that one wall just inside the master suite. Light, light and more light. In the main floor restaurant, Cass sipped an iced tea and waited for her lunch. Tablet open, calculator poised, she reviewed bids. The letters and numbers crawled together, crowding each other into an indistinguishable blur. She pulled her new eyeglasses out of her purse and silently cursed her astigmatic eyes. The waitress brought her Caesar salad. Half way through the salad, she looked at the bottom line and whistled softly. Uh-oh, she thought, I've overshot my mark. It's a beach condo, not a summer palace for visiting royalty. She looked at the list, wondering if she should pare expenses by axing any of the selections she'd made. Then she decided to go with her initial instinct. She reassured herself with the thought that Petro was paying her for her expertise. She knew how to make land pay for itself. * * * Friday morning, Cass drove into the palm-lined parking lot of the Marina del Rey offices of Leonard Rasmussen Development Corporation. The Early California hacienda style building posed a startling contrast to the adjacent shopping center and nearby concrete and glass monstrosities. She walked through shaded tall arches and into the patio. Sunlight baked down on huge terra cotta pots filled with blooming birds of paradise. Creeping bougainvillea vines, florid with hot pink blossoms, edged into the red tile roof. She stood at a wood framed glass office door, one of several that faced an interior patio. "Bud Griffith, Vice President Project Manager," the placard said. Cass turned and looked out into the parking lot, uncertain what to make of this surprising turn of events. Now it was clear that Bud was second in command to Leonard himself, with far more authority than Cass had assumed, including power over the company's purse strings. Cass had begun the estimate with near certainty that she was a shoe-in to get the contract. Now, nothing was certain. She braced herself, opened the door and stepped inside. A silver-haired woman sat at a desk in a large reception room. "May I help you?" she asked. "Mr. Griffith," Cass said. "I have a ten-thirty appointment." The woman looked at her desktop screen and picked up the phone, pressing one button. A bell chimed down the hall. "Your appointment," she said. "Should I send her in?" Cass studied the office decor while she waited, and decided that if Bud had anything to with the design of this office, he had far better taste than she'd have guessed. The assistant set down the receiver and eyed Cass with what seemed to be a new respect. "Mr. Griffith will be right out," she said. Bud Griffith rounded the corner dressed in a dark gray suit, crisp white shirt and an elegant red and silver tie. Down to his Italian shoes, the softest dull black leather, he emanated style. Cass remembered the costume she had seen him wear, and figured that in a lineup today, she couldn't have identified him as the same man. "Ms. Brooks, may I shake your hand?" he asked. His secretary did a double-take, and Cass wondered if this meant he was being unusually friendly toward her or if she should make ready for some onslaught, or both. "Please," Cass said, taking his hand. He squeezed her hand a little too hard, a little too long. Cass felt the coarse surface of his warm palm, and for a moment, she found herself looking at his well-manicured but rough-textured hands rather than into his eyes. "Come in," Bud said. "Care for coffee?" Before Cass could answer, he said to his assistant, "Sherry, would you?" He escorted Cass into his private office. "You'll need some space," he said, pointing to a black lacquered table in one corner of the room opposite from his desk. "More light?" he asked, drawing back the vertical blinds. The secretary came in and set down a tray. Bud picked up the gleaming steel server and poured coffee into two ceramic mugs. "I forgot to ask. Cream?" he said. "No, thanks," Cass answered. "Ah," he breathed. He smiled, and the laugh lines around his eyes softened. "We drink our coffee the same way." Cass got momentarily lost in the blue of his eyes. They were as vibrant as the mountain bluebirds that flitted just above the lower meadow on the ranch. She breathed in. The man carried a faint, enticing scent of new lumber, and she fought the urge to lean toward him and sniff him. She collected herself by staring at the clasps on her briefcase. "I'd like first to acquaint you with my proposal," Cass said, earnestly trying to ignore her fascination with his dark eyelashes. She busied her hands by putting on her eyeglasses. She opened her briefcase and pulled out two matching folders, presenting him with one. "I'll review this copy with you," she said. "Then leave it behind for Leonard." "He'll appreciate being included," Bud said. "But of course, the model interiors are my decision." He said the 'my' with such overbearing emphasis, his momentary spell of enchantment broke. He is pulling rank again, Cass thought. Why does every man in business have to reinforce his dominance the way a tom cat sprays every blooming plant in the yard to mark his turf? "Understood," Cass said. She opened her folder and turned to the first page. "First, you'll find a flooring and carpet bid," she said. "That bid is for all four model units, and Petro has already approved it," she said. "I managed to arrange for two choices of carpet. One is a slightly better grade, but you could have either or both at the same price. For kitchens and baths, I've also got tight bids on Italian tile, but at least for the lead unit, I'd suggest this higher end gray Mexican tile. This bid is for comparison only. You'll see that my first choice doesn't cost that much more, but it's quite striking..." Quite striking, she thought. She studied his ruddy complexion, and decided he was a man who'd seen his share of adverse weather. His was not a golf course tan. He had the uneven tan of an outdoorsman, a look that drew her nearer. Bud interjected, "Ms. Brooks, I can see you've really done your homework. Your presentation is going to take more time than I've allotted this morning.” He rifled the pages. "I even see swatches in this booklet. But, did you bring your suppliers' cost sheets?" Cass leaned back in her chair, folding her hands. He'd caught her off guard. She was suddenly fuming. How gauche can he be? she thought. Hinting that I should give him my suppliers' prices. So he can see how much I'll make? Or, so he can take my legwork and then buy everything I've selected at cost. Cass closed her eyes for a moment and calmed herself by picturing an alpine lake surrounded by a forest of lodge pole pines, the lake on her family's B-Bar-3 ranch. She recalled the image of the clear deep water, a rainbow trout jumping, and an expanding ripple. This was the place she visited in her mind when she needed strength and serenity. "Mr. Griffith," Cass said. "I see what you're doing, and I'll tell you straight-forwardly that I'm always prepared to give away a fistful of ideas in the name of estimating, but I'm not going to give you the means with which to complete this project without me. So, why don't you first tell me what you think of my proposal, then tell me if you're willing to commit to my ideas." Bud turned to the last page of the folder. "This total exceeds what I'd hoped to pull in the job for," he said. "So, if you want to convince me I should spend this much, you'll have to tell me why." Cass braced herself for the negotiations, the aspect of her job that she resisted most because it called always for conflict and confrontation. "Mr. Griffith, let's be frank. The 'why' is obvious. You're trying to sell high density beach front housing in a transition area during a doubtful economy. Given the price you have to ask per unit in order to come out on top, you've got to present models that sparkle." "Sparkle," he said. "You've built original art into this estimate. I'm looking at the numbers and I'm blinded with sparkle." "I can only advise you that design can increase sales.” Cass could hear the tremor in her own voice. She was usually so sure of herself in business, but this man unsettled her with his soul-searching eyes. Bud rested his fingers on her hand and she felt their heat penetrate to her bones. She didn't know whether he had compassion for her obvious disdain for niggling, or if he genuinely felt an unexplainable attraction toward her, the one she was struggling with for him. She looked down at his hand on hers and didn't move. "I'm getting business mixed up with something entirely unrelated,” Bud said and he withdrew his hand. "My fault." Cass still felt the warmth of his touch. "I've got to ask you once again,” he added, “Won't you let me see your cost sheets?" Cass's hand went cold. She coughed self-consciously and said, "If I did that, two things would happen. First, I'd be doing an enormous amount of legwork for you, for free. Secondly, you could contract the project yourself. That would not only be unfair to me, it would be a travesty against Petro. He and Leonard go way back. So, if you pull off what you're trying to do, saving big, you look like a hero to Leonard, and I look like a fool and an idiot to Petro. No thanks." "You can't blame me for trying," Bud said. "Cost overruns are killing me." "You weasel," Cass said. She stood up, grabbed her bag and snatched the proposal out of Bud's hand. "I can blame you for trying. I can go right back to Petro and tell him you're despicable." "Oh, Cass, can I call you Cass? Petro knows I'm despicable. We've been doing this to each other for years. I can see you're new to his methods and you don't like getting caught in the crossfire." "Crossfire?” "I've had to comply with some building regulations we didn't anticipate. I've got to shave costs everywhere I can." "You've got two dozen dimly lit caves you're trying to pass off as expensive living spaces, and if you don't sell them soon, you'll have the hot breath of the bank on your neck, Bud. Mind if I call you Bud?" Bud sat up straight and cocked his head up at Cass. "You're good. A worthy adversary. And I'm listening now," he said, pulling the proposal out of her hand. "But it's not easy because you're lovely." His eyes stared into her as if he were using them as magnets. For the first time, Cass noticed his shoulders, and how decisive his bearing was. A car's brakes screeched in the parking lot. They both looked out the window. A low-to-the-ground pickup truck loaded with teenagers wheeled through the lot at high speed. "What did you say?” Cass asked, as if unsure she heard correctly. His eyes shone like sunlight on the waters of the bay. His face lit up in a cautious smile. "Oh, call Petro, call Leonard, call the American Civil Liberties Union and accuse me of harassment if you must, but it's a fact and I promise I won't say another word and my noticing you're a beautiful woman won't interfere in the least with my bludgeoning you for the best price I can get." "Well, that's as disarming an argument as I've ever heard,” Cass answered and she melted under his gaze. She felt a tingling at the back of her knees. Then, she rallied to sound all business again. "So you spend a little more up front for a showpiece," she said. "What have you got to sell but ocean view? You maximize location. But the illusion of space costs more. Spend more. Sell more. Sell them sooner. More cash to you in time to do you some good." Bud looked down at the proposal. "Okay," he said. "But for crying out loud. What's this about original art?" "I've done it before on a limited basis. I'd like to expand the concept." "I'm not accustomed to innovative designers, so you'll have to explain." He was sparring with her, she decided. She figured she could add a little drama, too. She ran her fingers along the thin beargrass leaves in the floral centerpiece on the table. "One sculpture. One painting. Recognized artists on the rise. The price of the work gets folded into the asking price of the model when it's for sale. Think of it as MacArt, fast-food culture for people too busy to collect." "Absurd." "No. Good marketing." Bud rubbed his chin. He stood up, paced. "Ask Leonard," Cass said, grinning that at last she could pull rank, too. "What, do you live in Leonard's pocket or something?" Bud queried her. "Why, Bud, I don't live in anyone's pocket." "I could have figured that. I'm thinking. Give me a minute. I'm thinking.” He tapped the top of the coffee server. "Here's the best I can do until the other bids come in. Start on the lead unit, the three-bedroom. But, under these conditions. You have to finish before Christmas, because we get a lot of out-of-town walk-ins around then." "That's just shy of eight weeks away!" "There's more. If the other bids come in higher, the job's definitely yours. If they come in lower..." "This is design, not sheetrock! There's no such thing as bidding to specifications." Bud raised a hand, as if asking her to listen. "If they come in lower, I can see that they may not be as good. Good is measured by results. So, suppose your model opens, and in the first six weeks after opening, a minimum of five new unit sales result from that model. You get the remaining models.” Bud opened the folder again. "I just don't buy your idea of original art, though." Cass wandered to the window and looked out. "I feel strongly about the art. So strongly, I'll make you an offer. You roll it into the unit price. If the art impedes a sale, I'll personally buy it back." "You mean personally Avakian and McGregor Urban Spaces?" "I mean personally Cass Brooks." "Why would you assume that risk?" "I'm confident that I'm right. I like to be successful." "Well, then, we share something in common," Bud said. On the job was the one place in life he felt completely competent. As buildings rose from the ground and took shape, he could watch products of imagination grow from sketches to diagrams to three-dimensional models to solid concrete, glass and steel. Why, he wondered, couldn't the rest of life be like that. Then he remembered why. Mary Elizabeth had tried to do just that with Bud, as though when they married she appointed herself project manager of Bud. She was determined to mold and shape him into acceptable, presentable form. He endured for the sake of their son as long as he could. Then he had to break loose and breathe. She'd initiated the divorce action, and he was secretly grateful. "Then let's work together, and here's to success," Cass raised her coffee cup in a toast. Cass more than liked to be successful, she knew. She needed the assurance of success at work, especially after she'd failed to recognize Terrence for what he was. More than a year had passed since the debacle, and she was driven to never be in a one-down position again. "Cass, you've got yourself a project. Would you like to... celebrate? I'd like to take you to lunch." "I thought you were short on time," she said. "I missed that meeting already." "I'm delighted to have the project, and I appreciate the offer, but...” "But what?" he asked. She couldn't conceive of telling him how terrified she was of intimacy. Men in business were one thing. A man and a lunch date was a different animal. No. Once betrayed, profoundly betrayed, was quite enough. Her stomach pitched at the thought of a first kiss, first lovemaking, and first treacherous lie. She couldn't, wouldn't set herself up for another fall. Self doubt washed over her, and she convinced herself that once you've been unknowingly married to a bigamist, you've got to watch yourself all the time. She looked wistfully at Bud and, removing her eyeglasses, she said, "No. I can't. See you around the hamster habitat." Chapter 2 Joggers ran past the coral trees in the wide center island of Santa Monica Boulevard. Cass made her left turn on Bundy Drive. She headed south, caught the side street and turned her dark cranberry red sedan down the drive. She pressed her garage door opener to lift the security gate. The fountains inside the courtyard gurgled. Window boxes bloomed with red and white vincas. Her phone was chiming as Cass unlocked her door and stepped inside her apartment. She answered it as she set her briefcase down on the round antique oak table. "Mom! What a great surprise. You never call me in the middle of the afternoon," Cass said. "Well, Cassie honey, you sound out of breath. Why don't you heat some water for a nice cup of tea while we talk." "Okay, I will," Cass said. She was growing alarmed. A "nice cup of tea" was the way her family always handled disquieting news. Telephone on speaker, she walked to the sink and filled the tea kettle, stopping to turn on a stove burner. "Mom, what is it?" "Well, you know how your father was down sick all during calving last season, and how he's been worried about the ranch over the last several months." "He mentioned having far fewer calves this year than last, and that he couldn't figure out how a good alfalfa harvest left him so low on winter feed." "These worries are taking their toll. Your father had a little spell. A 'coronary episode' was what the doctor called it." Cass's tea cup fell and shattered against the counter. "Dad? Is he all right?" "He's doing as well as can be expected, given what happened." "What happened?" "He was opening that big cattle gate, the wide one on that northern slope. He just seized up and fell." "When?" "This morning." "Oh, Mom. What did you do?" "I called the clinic in Big Timber. They called for a helicopter." "Where is he now?" "I'm with him here at the hospital in Billings. The doctor said she didn't want to wait to do more tests." "Billings! She must think there's something seriously wrong." "Dad may have to have heart surgery, Cass." "Shouldn't you get a second opinion, Mom?" "Perhaps, but he may just need a little pipe-rooter work. The tests should tell." "Well, Mom, then he should come to Los Angeles." "Cassidy, calm down. Brethren is a first rate medical center. It's known all over the country for coronary care." "Well, I'm not sure it's fine enough. But, Mom, how are you holding up?" "I'm... I'm... I don't know how I am." "What can I do to help today?" "Cassie, that's so you. How about we work up a plan, then make some decisions. Let me think this through a little while." "I should get on a plane tonight." "If Dad needs you to, I would call you in a second.” "If Dad has surgery, I'm going to be there." "Of course. I want you to be. So does he. But, Honey, I may be asking even more of you later. Why don't you wait until I call you?" "Then call me as soon as the diagnostic work is done. If I can’t get the call, my office always knows where to find me." Cass cleaned up the fragments of the tea cup. She made herself a new cup of tea. I can't just sit here waiting, she thought. She picked up the phone and called her office. "I'm sorry," the receptionist said. "Petro isn't expected until tomorrow." Cass left a brief message and hung up. She found Bud Griffith in her contacts list and called his office. His secretary, too, said he wasn't in. "Oh, dear. This is Cass Brooks," she said. "Ms. Brooks? This is Sherry. Is everything all right?" "Not exactly. I've got to reach Bud about the Sea Cliff units." "Let me patch you through to him at home. You just hang on now." In a moment, Cass heard Bud's voice, deep and strong, "Griffith here." "I wanted to let you know that I'm having to leave tonight for what may be a few days." "Days? But, we're on a deadline." "I know," Cass said. "Much of what needs to be done at this point can be initiated by phone or email. I trust my suppliers to follow through. I wouldn't leave if I didn't have to, but..." "What's so urgent?" Bud asked. "It's personal." "Life is personal. I'm not prying. I'm concerned." "I always keep my business and my personal life separate. Now they've collided, and I don't know what to do. My father had a heart attack." "I'm sorry," Bud said. "Does he live here in Southern California?" "No," Cass said. She didn't want to tell him any more. The B-Bar-3 was her secret haven, a private place for family, not for outsiders. "'No' isn't much of an answer. Won't you tell me where you're going?" Cass bit her lip. She felt as if she hardly knew this man, and she certainly didn't want to trust him with knowing so much about her. "I left the information with Petro's office," Cass said. "They'll relay any messages." "Ms. Brooks, you're certainly being secretive. I hope your father's going to be all right." Cass's business reserve cracked like a crystal goblet. She choked out a "thanks." "I appreciate how difficult this must be for you," Bud said. He sighed and added, “I have the sense that you’re like me. You can juggle logistics, maneuver through any obstacle course with both hands tied behind your back. But as for me, when you ask me to feel a crisis, I might as well be a barefoot astronaut on the moon.” Cass’s hands felt cold and her chest ached. "I think you really do understand," she said. "Make a little room for someone who could care. I could be a good friend, Cass, if you'd let me." "Please, don't be kind to me. I'll cry. I've got to go now." "Before you hang up, think of the Lone Ranger. Maybe that'll make you laugh." “Someday you’ll have to explain that costume to me,” Cass said with a smile. * * * Dressed in a loose sweater, jeans and cowboy boots, her down jacket still pulled tightly around her, Cass marched down the gleaming hospital corridor. In a straight-backed chair, a small, gray-haired woman sat hunched, shoulders stooped, a pillow wedged between her neck and shoulder, a gray institutional blanket draped over her knees. Cass tiptoed past her mother, planted herself at the nurse's station and caught the attention of a nurse on duty. "Has my poor mother been there all night?" she asked accusingly. "You mean Peggy? She fell asleep there a couple of hours ago and we didn't want to disturb her," the uniformed woman said. "I want to see my father. Wilson Brooks." "You must be Cass. He told me you'd come, even though Peggy told you not to. He said you'd just know he was going to have surgery." "Pardon?” "Your mother phoned you as soon as she knew, but you were already on a plane headed here. You're quite a tight family. He's being prepped right now, but I'll take you to him in a few moments. He'll be a little groggy." "Thanks. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you," Cass said, catching herself. It seemed whenever she was most frightened, she tended to lash out at the people who were truly trying to help. The more she tried to correct her reactions, the more she found herself apologizing. The nurse put a reassuring hand on Cass's shoulder and said, "Look." Cass turned to see her mother blinking and gazing around, then smiling when she saw her daughter. "Oh, Cassie, you came! I must look a fright," her mother said, smoothing her hair and adjusting the eyeglasses she was still wearing. "I think Dad's about to go in for surgery. Where's his room?" Cass asked. "He's in intensive care," Peggy pointed to a secured door. "We'll have to ring to be let in." A petite dark-haired woman with thick bushy eyebrows came out from an open door down the hall. She strode up to the nurse's station and reached out a hand to Peggy Brooks. "Dr. Rothschiller," Peggy said. "This is my daughter, Cass." "My pleasure," the doctor looked up at Cass. "Please. Come over here. Sit down.” She led Cass and Peggy back to the row of chairs. "I'm sorry, Dr. Rothschiller," Cass said, "but you're not what I expected. You're... you're..." "Dinky, right?” Rothschiller's eyebrows rose like hairy caterpillars. "Next answer, Huntington Memorial Hospital, Pasadena, California. Board certified cardiologist. Trauma subspecialty. To be blunt, Ms. Brooks, I was trained in gang warfare. I'm highly qualified. This hospital is one of the best equipped, best staffed. Your father couldn't be in any more favorable environment. However, his pathology is complex. Waiting is ill-advised.” She paused and said, "Let's go see him." Peggy and Cass followed Rothschiller down the corridor to a room where Wilson Brooks lay strapped on a gurney. An orderly raised its chrome safety rails high and locked them in place. Wilson looked at Cass with drooping eyes. His thick gray hair was unkempt, his chin a gray stubble. A look of recognition crossed his face. "Cookie? That you?" Cass rattled the chrome rail gently. "Don't jump just because you're having a bad hair day." He laughed, then coughed a feeble cough. "A female doctor.” He pointed at Rothschiller and rolled his eyes. "He's incorrigible," Rothschiller said. She looked down at him. "I'll see you in surgery.” She turned abruptly on her heel and left. Peggy's mouth was drawn with worry. She picked up her husband's hand and squeezed it. "Wilson, behave yourself.” Her words sounded lighthearted, but brimming tears gave away her anxiety. Cass touched his cheek and said, "We'll be right here, Dad." He tried to respond, but his mouth moved with no accompanying sound. The orderly nodded to Cass and Peggy, then pushed the gurney down the hall and through the double doors marked ‘surgery.’ Cass took her mother by the arm to the hospital cafeteria and filled a tray with small breakfast portions, saying, "Mother, you'd better eat a little something." Peggy pushed the tray of food away. "I've been so upset," Peggy said. "I just have to push all this fear out of my mind for a while." The large chrome coffee maker at the end of the counter perked and hissed. "Cassie, talk to me about anything other than things medical." "Like what, Mom?" "Your life. What are you involved with at work? Are you dating anyone special? Anything." "I've got a new project. One at least. Sea Cliff condos. The job should be fun, except for the project manager." "Why?" "He's really taking me to task." "Is he single?" "Mother, you ask me about every man I ever mention. The custom drapery man, the dry cleaner, the dentist. About half the people in the world are men. I'm not going to date them all." They both giggled. "I'm so glad you didn't listen to me, Cass, and you came. That's the first time I've laughed since your dad collapsed." "It must have scared you." "Oscar, you remember, the part-time man we took on last winter? Oscar was with him. We're so darn remote. Oscar had already managed to get Dad into the truck. He came for me and I called the sheriff. After that long stretch of dirt road, when we hit the interstate, we were doing ninety." "The truck?" Cass winced. "It's fast, but it rides so rough.” "I would have taken the Suburban, but I didn't want to take a chance moving Dad again. Luckily, a state trooper caught up somewhere near the river. He followed us, lights flashing, to Big Timber. That's where the helicopter picked us up. Wilson was so gray. Like cold logs in the fireplace in the morning.” She caught her breath. Tears fell from her eyes. She looked at the huge digital clock face on the wall. "I don't want to lose that crusty old buzzard.” "Mom, Daddy's got to be okay," Cass said. She examined her phone screen against the wall clock, as if time would pass more quickly if she checked its movement repeatedly. "And what about you?" Peggy asked, sniffing and changing the subject. "Am I ever going to have grandchildren?” She pretended to rock a baby in her arms. "Mother!" "Hey, you're guard was down.” Peggy grinned. "Talk about incorrigible! You're terrible." "Your father and I married and had you so late in life. Now you're nearing the age I was when you were born. I don't want you to wait too long." "Mom, I know how old I am. My biological clock may be ticking its last tock. That's one more thing I have to accept. Won't you?" "I understand you're bitter because of Terrence, but you mustn't let that spoil the rest of your life.” "I can live with the fact that he lied to me, because he did it. What I'm not coming to terms with is the fact that I believed him, Mother. What does that say about me? I was conned for nearly six years of my life. And now, I so seldom meet any men I'm interested in, and when I meet them, I'm suspicious of them." An ambulance pulled up outside, its lights filling the cafeteria, sirens screaming until it stopped at the emergency entrance. Cass and Peggy both watched silently, then Cass finally said, "I could do the single mother thing, but I don't want to have a baby just to have a baby." Peggy gasped. "Careful, Cassie. You're going to send me upstairs to the coronary unit with Dad. Don't let yourself go too sour. Not all men are dishonest and manipulative. What about this project manager you told me about?" "I don't know much about him," Cass said, sipping her coffee and taking a bite of a sweet roll, "Except that he's funny, arrogant and shrewd." Peggy leaned back, looking a little startled. "Lewd?" "Shrewd, Mom.” Cass chuckled. "I shouldn't talk with food in my mouth. Shrewd like wrestles every dime for the project to the ground before he gives it up." "If that's a problem in his character, my mama told me a way to find out." "How?" "Have him take you to an inexpensive restaurant. You know, a friendly, neighborhood kind of coffee shop. Watch how he treats the waitress. That's how he'll treat you once you're married." "Married? Mom, he's just some guy who's throwing obstacles in front of me on the project." "Has he asked you out yet?" "Well, to lunch. But I didn't go." "Cassidy Jane Brooks, if a good man asks you out and you don't even go, how am I ever going to have a passel of grandkids?" "Who says he's a good man?" "He's got a good job, right?" Cass recoiled and blinked hard. "Yes. He's vice president in charge of project development for one of the biggest ocean front developers in Southern California." "Single?" "He mentioned an ex-wife." "See? I read in Cosmopolitan that a true gentleman always lets a lady know his marital status within ten minutes of their meeting." "You and your magazines. What would Cosmo have to say about this? Mom, when I met him, he was wearing a Lone Ranger Halloween costume." Cass studied her mother's far-off stare and saw how distracted Peggy was. "Well, when I met your father, he was wearing a duster and a cowboy hat." "Mom, that's different. Dad was a rancher." "Promise me if he asks you out, you'll say yes.” "Did you hear me, Mom? I said a dude suit." "Cassie, you're so fussy. Lighten up. Maybe I'll just have very heroic grandchildren. I can live with that. You'll accept if he asks you out. Promise?" "Oh, all right. For you." A group of green-clad medical staff people came into the cafeteria. The workers behind the counter lifted the steam table trays of breakfast foods and placed new steel containers that smelled of chicken in marinara sauce and cinnamon apples. Peggy rubbed her eyes and glared at the clock again. "It's okay to admit how worried you are, Mom," Cass said. "It's okay to talk about what's really going on." "No. I'm not going to allow myself to think about what might happen. But, Honey, I do want to tell you something that's happened recently." "About what." "About your father, and how he's had an awakening. Late, of course, but important nonetheless.” Cass patted the back of her mother's hand. "All those years when you were little, Cassie, your father worked like a machine, telling me all the while he was breaking his back for me, and for you. He didn't have a spare minute for you, and it broke my heart, but I didn't know what to do to make him understand you just wanted him to see you." "Mom, I'm over all that looking-for-approval stuff. You don't have to tell me this," Cass said. Yet her curiosity was piqued. "Lately, maybe because we've had some financial stress in spite of all his years of work, your father's a little softer, you know? More philosophical. He was talking to me, telling me if he had life to do over again, he'd treat you more like a son." Cass laughed and said, "At least I know you were talking to my dad." "He never really wanted a boy more than a girl, Cass. He was just compulsive about work. He hid in it. But if he doesn't get the opportunity to tell you he's sorry, I want you to know that he did tell me." Cass fought back tears in the hospital dining room. She put on a smile. "He'll have a chance to tell us all a lot of things, Mom. Probably most of them will be pretty raspy." "Thanks for helping me out, here, Cass. Your father and I've never slept apart in all these years of marriage. I'm trying hard not to borrow trouble." Cass leaned her chin on her fist and stared out the window. Above the rimrocks, a flock of Canada geese flew southward in V formation. "Mom, do the sandhill cranes still nest by the upper meadow?" "You bet," Peggy said. "Have they already gone south?" "I think so. I haven't seen them in several days. Funny. I've only been here since yesterday, and it seems like an eternity. It helps to think about the cranes." The hours passed. Cass and Peggy played cards in the solarium. They drank coffee. Cass noticed a reader response card in a magazine she was thumbing through. She handed it to her mother, saying, "Why not fill it in? It says you can win a free subscription." Peggy dutifully completed the card while Cass found other return coupons to keep her mother busy, everything from an offer for a free soap dish in exchange for answering a questionnaire to a trial offer for a book club. Then they resumed walking the halls. Finally, Dr. Rothschiller came into the solarium where they paced. She sat down and invited the Brooks women to do the same. "Wilson is stable," she said. "He'll be in intensive care, but primarily just so he can be monitored for the next thirty-six hours." "What a relief," Cass said. "The atherosclerosis was causing serious blockage," Rothschiller said. "Will there be any lasting affects?” Peggy asked. "Yes. Several. First, his diet will have to be altered. But with medication and diet, he stands a good chance of being his difficult self for a good many more years." Peggy wept. Cass handed her a tissue, and kept one for herself. "However," Rothschiller continued. "His activity level will be curtailed. You won't have to tell him to pace himself. He'll know. At what altitude do you live?" "Our ranch mostly, at least the house, is at fifty-six hundred feet," Peggy said. "Is that a problem?" Cass asked. "It could be, yes,” the doctor said. "He could stay with me. I live in Los Angeles." "Smog," Peggy said. "That can't be good for him." "West Los Angeles," Cass said. "Very close to the ocean. The air is lovely." "He'd never agree to go," Peggy said. Cass shrugged, certain her mother was right. Dr. Rothschiller said, "I can only tell you that Wilson may have a hard time of it at that elevation. At least, for a while. But let's not be premature. After the initial intensive care period, we'll move Wilson to regular acute care here in the hospital. After that, I recommend that he spend some time in our convalescent care center." Cass saw the look of horror on her mother's face, and could feel her own throat tighten. Rothschiller responded with, "Don't confuse this with a 'rest home.' The words mean just what they say. The facility is a sort of halfway step before going home, to help him rebuild his strength. And believe me, Mrs. Brooks, you'll need those extra days of rest to prepare for what's ahead." "What do you mean?" Peggy asked. "Mrs. Brooks,” Dr. Rothschiller said as she took Peggy's hand. "Most people retire from work at some point. Wilson is seventy-six. The time has come for him to pass the baton." Peggy sobbed and Cass consoled her by saying, "Mom, retirement's not so bad.” "I'm crying because I'm happy. He'll be awful if he can't work, but he's always awful anyway. At least we'll still have him. That's why I'm crying. I love that man. I just love him." Chapter 3 Cass heard the loud thud-thud-thud of the carpet installer's nail gun. The furniture delivery truck waited outside for the installer to finish. She watched the delivery men through the open front door. One poured coffee from a thermos. The others lay against the truck hood in the sunshine. Their rock music blared over the whining of saws and the grinding and slurping of a concrete truck. She tapped her foot and mentally kicked herself. She knew if she hadn't been gone, this schedule overlap never would have happened. Cass had been attending to her parents' needs these days more than to her scheduling of suppliers for the interior design of the Sea Cliff condo. She'd been flying to Montana each weekend at a formidable expense, returning as early in the week as she could. Today, she was playing catch-up on the job and still falling behind. She plugged in the installer's vacuum cleaner and ran it behind him, sucking up loose threads and dust. "Ease, up, please," the young man said. He secured the last of the tackless strip and stretched the faintly speckled Berber weave carpet flush to the wall. He stood and gathered his tools saying, "All right already, I'm done." "Thanks. There are stars for you in heaven," Cass said. "I'd rather have a rush schedule bonus if it's all the same to you," he said. "I'll talk it over with Petro," Cass said, figuring it was the best stall she could give him until she saw where she could cut some corners. If it came out of her pay, she would make sure these workmen got a bonus for their help. As soon as he was out the door, Cass signaled for the furniture delivery men to start unloading their truck. The driver pulled a ramp down from the beneath the back gate. He and his two helpers carried in bed frames, mattresses and box springs, dressers, a sofa and love seat and began arranging furniture. "No, here!" Cass said. She pointed to the wall where she wanted the queen bed headboard to stand in the master bedroom. "Why not here?" a familiar voice said from behind her. She turned and saw Bud Griffith leaning in the bedroom doorway. He was wearing a bright burgundy and turquoise western roper shirt, wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. His eyes reflected the turquoise color of the shirt. She heard herself gasp, and stood for a second embarrassed by her admiration of those riveting eyes. TV Western hero... amusing, she thought. Suit and tie... captivating. Real cowboy... hey, hit me where I live. "Just thought I'd drop by and tell you where to put the bed," he said. "I'm the project manager, and I'm here to help." "Sort of like the IRS. Here to help," Cass said. "How's your father?" Bud asked. Cass heard a thump. The movers had dropped something in the living room. One of them called out, "The big lamp's not broken, Cass. Really." "Good," she answered loudly. "There's no room in the schedule for broken.” She said to Bud, "He's mending. Thanks for asking." "Where do you want this silk ficus?” One of the workmen hollered. "Between the fireplace and the dining table," Cass said. A pelican landed on the deck outside and stared in the glass sliding doors. "Isn't that good luck or something?" Bud asked. "I think that's storks, and only if they nest on your roof." "Close enough," Bud said. "Some of these guys aren't afraid of people at all. They sit on the docks down at the marina and wait for a handout.” He went to the slider, opened it and stepped out onto the deck. The pelican took flight. "Look out there.” He gestured to the sunny sky and the blue water bay. "You can't buy a November day like that." Cass joined him on the deck. "So, your father is recovering in Montana?" he asked again. "Yes.” "How is your mother holding up?" "Well." To Cass, his questions felt like electrically charged probes. She longed for his interest and warmth, and dreaded them, too. Her fear was not that he would grow to care for her, but that she would care for him and lose all perspective. The boundaries of intimacy that others negotiated with ease were razor wire to Cass. "What, are you the strong, stoic type?” Bud asked. "I hadn't thought of myself as a type," Cass said. A smile flickered at the corners of her mouth. The lilt of her mouth encouraged him more than any words could. "Maybe you're the type that could be convinced to join me on a cruise. Out the jetty. On my boat. How about it?" "A boat?" "Thirty foot sloop. It's not far away. A slip in Marina del Rey." "Okay, someday." "No. This afternoon. Before you have time to think about it and say anything but yes." "But, the furniture." The rooms had taken shape, potted silk plants in place, lamps on tabletops. "Look. The crew is about finished." "Well," Cass said thoughtfully, "The window treatments and bedspreads don't arrive until tomorrow morning. I'm at a standstill." He checked his phone screen and said, "It's one thirty. We have light for a couple of hours.” "I haven't said I'd go." "You've got circles under your eyes. You've been marking double-time, I would guess, between your father and this project. Take a breather. It'll do you good." Promise me. Promise me. Cass pictured her mother in the hospital cafeteria, insisting that Cass accept the next date requested. Still, she couldn't bring herself to say yes. "It's a very attractive offer and all, but... it feels like a date, and my life has been plenty complicated enough, and I..." "Sailing is not complicated, Cass.” He raised his hands as if in surrender. "If you don't want to go, I won't ask again today.” He held fast to the deck rail and leaned against it, looking out at the ocean. Bud looked downright human to Cass. The sharp edge of the bitter bargainer was gone. He didn't appear over-slick or overly sincere, like Terrence used to be. She turned and watched the workmen scurrying about. Finally she said, "Okay. You're on." When the last of the furniture was assembled in the condo, Bud stepped out onto the walkway and Cass locked the door behind them. She took the stairs at her usual rapid clip. "Why are you always in such a hurry?" Bud asked. "I never thought of myself as hurried. I think of myself as purposeful." "Slow down a minute. I want to talk to you." Bud led the way to his Mercedes. Cass guessed that it was about eight or ten years old, clean but definitely not flashy. She got in and realized the car smelled faintly like Bud, that woodsy scent she remembered from the appointment in his office. "I've got deck shoes for myself on the boat," he said. "But I don't have any your size. You can't go sailing in those heels. Let's go by your place and get you some canvas shoes." "For all you know, I live in the high desert." "No, you live in town. Petro knows Leonard, Leonard knows me, and they answer my questions. Okay?" "I don't want to go by my place. And I don't like you suddenly pushing to go to my apartment, either. I'm a very private person. Can't you just accept that?" "No. But I'll give it a rest for now. So. Then let's go by the little shoe outlet in the marina shopping center, and you can buy yourself some deck shoes." Cass wondered. Since he invited her to go sailing, why didn't he offer to buy the shoes? Then she thought again and realized that if he had, she probably would have refused on principle. As if he heard her thinking, he added, "Safety requires non-slip boat shoes. I'll bet we can find a pair for next to nothing. You can always leave them on the boat and use them for the next time I take you sailing. And this way, the whereabouts of your apartment is still a mystery to me." "Okay. I'll get some new shoes for this one occasion. But I'm not going to feel altogether right about it." Bud smiled widely. "I love that answer. That's the best answer of all.” He continued grinning like a little boy with a new toy truck as they drove down Lincoln Boulevard amid the conglomeration of auto parts stores, boatyards and funky fish markets. Cass sat wondering if there might be more he'd like her to do and not feel right about. * * * Bud held Cass's hand as she stepped onto the boat's gleaming deck. He pulled the cushions up from the cabin, making ready. He fired up the engine, hauled in the rubber fenders, pushed off from the dock with the anchor pole and motored into the marina. "I won't raise the sail until we're out beyond the jetty. Do you know how to steer one of these things?" he asked Cass. "No, never had the chance." "Now you do. Come here." She stood between him and the stainless steel wheel. She gripped the polished metal, and Bud wrapped his hands over hers. "Get the feel?" he asked. He leaned against her. She tried to pull her hands out from under his. Terrence was charming too, she told herself, and look what he turned out to be. Bud gently wrapped his hands over hers again. She closed her eyes and melted into his warmth. No, she cautioned herself. Time. Give yourself time to discover who he truly is. "You know, I don't know anything about you," he said. "Few do." She heard the tone of her own voice and realized she was sounding rude, her usual technique for bolstering the barriers against feeling, especially feeling warmly toward a man. "Come on, where did you go to school?" "Art Center. Right here in Southern California." She felt his chest touching her shoulders, his breath on her neck. She knew she should move away, wanted to, but she didn't. "Are you an Angelino? Technically, I guess it's Angelina." "No." "I'm not prying. I just want to know you." "Montana," Cass said. "So, your parents have always been there?" "Yes. "Are you a cowgirl?" "I was. I still keep a horse at the ranch. She's this wild-looking Appaloosa with a China eye. You know, sort of pale blue and weird. She gets a little barn sour because I'm never there to ride her. But she's a good cutter.” "You really are a cowgirl! I learned to ride when I was a kid. That's what rural California kids did, but I only did it for pleasure." "Rural California?" Cass asked. "Down near San Diego. I'm a country boy. From a long line of avocado growers. Raised by my grandparents." "No parents around. That must have been difficult for you," Cass said. She allowed his fingers to lock onto hers on the wheel. "It was, but my mother's folks took me in, just as if I was their own son. They never missed a step." "They sound like wonderful people." He pressed his cheek against hers. She leaned into his body and welcomed his touch. The water splashed gently against the hull and sounded like music to Cass. "The best. How many couples live together and work together for more than fifty years? He died of a broken heart six months after she died in her sleep. They accomplished so much considering how they..." Bud stopped himself. He figured he'd prefer not to explain more than Cass asked to know. If he expounded any further on the virtues of his grandparents, he knew he'd ultimately reveal that they were the founders of Sunbright Avocados, a household word she'd surely know. Cass didn't seem the sort of woman who'd respond well to name dropping. "How old were you when you went to live with them?" "Fourteen.” Cass pictured Bud at fourteen, a gangly boy with a determined jaw, a mop of thick dark hair and an exaggerated strut, the kind of boy she and her girlfriends would have called a 'badass' in the halls of her middle school. "My parents died in a small plane crash. Oh, Jeez, I didn't want to be talking about me, or things like this." The confident black-jacketed teenager Cass envisioned suddenly appeared vulnerable, an orphaned child wearing a 'make-me' posture as if it were a bulletproof vest. "Oh, Bud, I'm so sorry. You must understand way more than I would have imagined. I've been so afraid of losing my father. Thank you for encouraging me to come out today. I can see now how much I needed a break." They stood for a long moment, wind in their faces, small waves lapping at the hull. A few other boats were also heading for the end of the jetty and the open water beyond. "Do you feel my hands?" Bud asked. "They're damp. I haven't felt like that since I asked Mary Elizabeth Doherty to the Spring Fling Dance in high school." "What ever happened to good old Mary Elizabeth?" Her knees were trembling from the nearness of him, and Cass clutched the wheel, certain her hands would shake too if left without a concrete assignment. "I married her, had one son, then divorced after fifteen years." Cass flinched. The prospect that Mary Elizabeth was a real person and not just some wistful memory put her on alert. "That's a long time," she said. "Too long to be with someone who disapproves of you." "Disapprove? Of you? Hm. Could this have anything to do with outlandish stand-outishness, like on Halloween?" He shrugged. "Could be. I wasn't socially... aspiring enough. Not formal enough. A little too rambunctious to be the 'right people.' I always felt as if she didn't know me. Or... that she knew me, and didn't like most of me." "Harsh," Cass said. Her fingers caressed his on the wheel, out of sympathy, she told herself. "What about you, Cass? Got an ex? Kids?" "Bud, I...” She sighed. The story of her life sounded so sordid when she tried to find the words. She anticipated a look of disgust on Bud's face if she were to say, "I was married to a man who hopped from my bed to another wife's and back. I'm a fool. A sap. I can't distinguish genuine love from sick-minded manipulation." All she could say was, "I just can't talk about it." Bud responded with silence. He pressed his cheek to hers and pointed to the jutting peninsula. Cass relished his closeness, letting herself have these few moments. The sky shone brilliant blue with a wisp of high clouds far above. The water rippled the color of black pearls. Cass heard a cry from somewhere near, "Dios mio, help them!" and the impact of the boat hitting metal flung Bud into Cass. His arms tightened protectively around her waist, and her knees wobbled at the delicious sensation of his touch. A loud, tearing crunch ripped through the air. She turned and looked at the channel marker that jutted out of the water beside them. A stocky Latin man fishing from a small open boat signed himself, summoning the Holy Trinity. Bud released Cass and extended the anchor pole. He pushed the marker hard away from the side of the boat. It had already done its damage. A gash four feet long was ripped in the hull just above the water line. The man in the neighboring craft continued to murmur prayers. "Cass, we're going to have to motor back," Bud said. "But what about the boat? Are we going to sink?" He tied a life jacket around her, then another on himself, saying, "I hope not. I hope it's just surface damage. We'll have to come about.” * * * Cass and Bud stood on the concrete under the aluminum canopy at the Marina Boat Repair and Dry Dock. An estimator down below them on the wooden dock stood with an electronic tablet in hand, examining the boat. The breeze took on a late afternoon chill. Gulls whirled around them. The sun hovered over the Pacific horizon, a smoldering rayed disk. Bud turned to Cass, lip forcibly quivering in a mock pouty look. "We didn't get very far, did we?" "We went as far as we were going to go," she said. "I suppose it's bold of my to ask, but why?" "When it comes to men, my complications have complications. There's a reason I'm the age I am and very, very single." "Are you ever going to tell me about that?" "Bud, I can barely tell myself." Chapter 4 The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Cass anxiously paced the master bedroom of the model Sea Cliff condo. "The wall treatment isn't what I ordered, Rashmi.” She pointed to the single large mirror behind the queen bed. She had wanted narrower glass-tile panels separated by bamboo strips. The man looked up at her from where he leaned and said, "There was confusion in reading the order.” He ran his finger over the wood trim that concealed one of the screw holes in the massive frame, a frame nothing like the one Cass requested. "What kind of confusion?" she said as she went back to the kitchen where she had been stocking shelves with mugs and glassware she'd bought. She opened a lower cupboard and put away the giant-reservoir, single-cup coffee maker she intended to use for the open house. She was reaching up to another shelf, laying in sugar and cinnamon tea to brew on the day of the unveiling. It was an old real estate agent’s trick, designed to give the property an inviting, homey flavor as prospects wandered through. "Measuring confusion," Rashmi said. "The numbers. Ultimately, they were not clear to my people." "But the product codes should have cleared up any misunderstanding,” Cass insisted. Cass looked at her watch and sighed. She and several thousand other travelers would be descending on Los Angeles International Airport in a few hours. The difference was, hers was not merely a holiday visit home. Her father had taken ill with bronchitis. Three weeks into recovery from heart surgery, he was struggling to breathe. "You'll have to make it right, Rashmi." The man froze. He had to look up at Cass to speak to her. "I could not reach you by phone, because of your many travels. My people did the best interpretation of the written order. You can leave it, see? Looking pretty good." "No. It looks like a mythical Sultan's lair." "What is lair?" "Den. It doesn't matter. This is not what we're paying for." "But to redo, I have to remove from the wall. Could break. Can't hide holes in the wall." Cass was feeling torn in several directions at once. As had happened too often in the past several weeks, hurry threatened her usual precision. She was afraid she might lose control of the project if her attention was fragmented. Some suppliers knew exactly what was expected of them and followed through to the letter. Others needed coaching, or worse, were satisfied with second best. Impatiently, she held up her fist and raised one finger, then two. "What are these fingers, Miss Brooks?" "This is me counting your excuses. If I didn't have to catch a plane this afternoon, I could listen to all of them. Here's what you need to know. If you hurt the wall, you fix it and redo the installation." "Maybe I just call Mr. Griffith himself.” "This is progress, Rashmi. We've skipped ahead from excuses to threats. Go for it." Rashmi stuck his hands in his pockets and pursed his lips tightly, a sign that he was through talking. Cass prodded him. "You're going to complain to Bud Griffith that I want you to make good on your contract?” "Ultimately, I have to tell Mr. Griffith that you make a change and refuse to pay." "There is no change, and I don't have time for this," Cass said. "Let me escort you to the door." Cass drove home and began to pack, all the while fuming at the obstinate man. She stood before her closet pulling out flannel shirts and turtle neck sweaters, trying to change her thinking from palm lined boulevards and warm sun to a Montana November at eight degrees and a screaming wind chill. The phone chimed. She ran to the other room where she left it, concerned that the call would be from her mother as so many had been of late. "Cass? It's me. Bud." Cass felt her pulse race ahead. "Bud?” She could hear herself sound breathless, and she hoped he didn't know it was his voice that triggered her response. "Did you just step off your cross-country ski simulator?" "I dashed for the phone. I keep setting it down and can’t remember where.” She didn't want to admit how off guard she was to hear from him. Then she remembered the conversation with the supplier. "Old shifty eyes called you, didn't he?" She heard Bud's laughter, and found it infectious. "Is that any way to refer to a purveyor of fine products and essential design services?" "He doesn't want to redo the work he did, and I told him he had to.” "You sure ruffled his feathers, Cass. Rashmi says he has your initialed orders. Says since he couldn't speak with you, he used his best judgment." "What he did looks awful. The thing that frosts me is that he had to know it wasn't right." "You asked me a while back to stay away from the condo until the unveiling, so I'm not sure what to do.” "Bud, there's only one thing to do. Rashmi fixes his mistake. I admit I've been rushed lately, but my guess is that monstro-mirror saved him money. He probably had that single section on hand and couldn't get rid of it any other way. The frame is ghastly. Way too heavy for the room." "That would be a question of taste. It's a judgment call." "Bud, I don't have time to talk about this right now. I've got to get to the airport." "Montana again?" "Yes, Montana." "So, you've already arranged for a driver to pick you up?" "No." "The long-term lots will be a zoo." "I know, but I figured I'd take my chances, aim for C lot or farther and fight for a seat on the shuttle." "Let me drive you." "You would do that for me?” Cass looked at the clock on her night stand and at the empty duffel on her bed. There was only one afternoon connecting flight to Bozeman. If she missed it, she'd be trying to catch a plane on Thanksgiving Day. "Yes I would, for you." "That would be great, Bud. But, you live down on the peninsula, don't you? You couldn't get here in time." "Sure I can. I'm calling from the office.” Bud let out a sigh before he said, "And, now you have to give me directions to your place." Bud arrived within minutes, while Cass was watering her house plants and securing the windows. He was wearing tan slacks and a navy blue short-sleeved knit shirt. Cass bit her lip when she saw him. Those shoulders. And arms. His upper body hadn't been so visible in anything she'd seen him wear before. She offered him a glass of iced tea. While she poured, she noticed how he looked around her apartment the way a tourist surveys a foreign city, eyes darting to the shelves above the kitchen cabinets, studying the spines of books in the tall bookcase. "I really appreciate your picking me up," she said, handing him a glass. "I've just got to pack a few more..." she pointed down the hall. She turned and headed toward her bedroom. Bud followed only steps behind saying, "I don't mind. I'll keep you company while you pack." Cass wasn't sure how to respond. In one way, she felt slightly invaded. Yet in another sense, his ease with himself made her feel more calm, and she welcomed his presence. She remembered how warm his touch was when his hands gripped her waist on the boat. All reason fled in that instant. He had no idea how easily he could have turned a near-accident into an afternoon of unleashed passion. Bud sat in a rocking chair by the window seat, and she proceeded to open drawers, lifting out socks and underwear. He picked up a pair of peach colored satin panties by their lace trim and scowled. "I thought you said it was cold there." She snatched the underthings away from him and said, "I've got longies, too.” She held up a pair of silk thermal underwear. "What a relief. If you need those, odds are there's no one on hand to keep you warm." "I am, as Rashmi would say, ultimately, ultimately single.” She tucked the underwear, a nightshirt and long sleeved T-shirts into her soft-sided bag. Bud's eyes lit up with mischief. He reached into her duffel before she zipped it. "Can't I just have one thing to remember you by while you're gone." She slapped his hand and tugged at the lacy bra he gripped. She couldn't help but laugh at his silliness. "Pervert," she said. "Not too perverted. And really, I'm sorry you're going," Bud said. Cass turned to him, a bulky wool sweater in her hands. "You are?" "Yes. I was getting up my nerve to ask if I could cook you Thanksgiving dinner." Cass was moved by his forthright admission. After the abrupt end to their day of sailing, she hadn't expected he'd still be interested in her. Now, she found herself pleased, although she was thoroughly unnerved. "Would you have come?" he asked. "It's an attractive invitation." "That's not an answer. Why are you so evasive, Cass?" "The answer is complicated and I'm running late. Look, I've got to get a few things out of the bathroom," she said. "But I'll explain on the way to the airport, if you're sure you want to know." "Of course I want to know." "Think it through, Bud." Bud's car surged up the hill on Lincoln Boulevard toward the airport. Cass looked out the window, trying to fill her mind with anything other than what Bud wanted to know. The tower at Loyola Marymount University glistened in the afternoon sun. The dry grassy fields were the color of winter wheat. Cass thought of her parents and wondered how she would feel seeing her father with a portable oxygen tank and a mask strapped to his face. She smoothed the fabric of the pants she was wearing, even though there were no wrinkles. "I'm waiting," he said. Bud looked over at Cass, then rested a hand on her knee. "You look so preoccupied," he said. "But you promised.” She looked at his hand on her knee and decided she would leave it there. Soon enough, she was sure, he would move it of his own volition. "You're right. I did.” Cass calculated how long it would take her to tell him what he wanted to know. She estimated she could say what she had to, and then be at the terminal. She would jump out of the car, thereby saving him from having to park. He would know all about her then. She wouldn't have to sit through his reaction, whatever it might be. Then he'd probably leave her alone once and for all, for he would think far less of her. She'd be sad to never know him better, but less miserable than if she gave any part of herself to him only to be betrayed. "I've been in hiding, from men I mean." "That's not news. I want news." "I was married, if you can call it that." Bud moved his hand from her knee, placing it on the steering wheel. "And?" he said. "I was married. And he was married. To someone else. At the same time." "Pardon?" "Don't make me repeat. It's bad enough once." "Cass, you say all this so flatly. Like, I went to the market, picked up my dry cleaning, and married a bigamist." "There's no graceful way to discuss what happened. It's not that I don't accept the reality of my life. It's just that when I allow myself to feel, I feel as if I'm swimming for life, running out of air, and then I hit bottom and have to look for the top again." Bud pulled the car over to the shoulder. "Bud, please, take me to the airport." "In a second. Talk to me, Cass. This is serious." "Sure it's serious. A crime. Unless you're a member of certain sects, in which case multiple simultaneous marriages are odd by most people's standards, but..." "There's no way to make light, Cass. What you're talking about doesn't sound like offbeat religion. Sounds as if you were shattered. Brutally lied to." "Yes." "For, say, a few weeks? Something like that?" "Six years." Another driver honked a horn. Bud looked out the window at passing traffic, then rejoined it. "How could you not know?" "Let me guess, Bud. I'm an idiot. I'm gullible. A real loser. Brain dead." "No, Cass, you're none of those things. You've got all your wits about you. But, the guy must have had a lot of time away, right? How did he account for it?" "He's in advertising. An account supervisor. He traveled for weeks at a time. It's very grueling, hanging on to multi-million dollar accounts, you know. It takes a lot of patience, hand holding, client support." "What a perfect alibi. And, what a consummate asshole. There's only one way you could stay in the dark, even with a perfect cover like that." "How?" "If you loved the guy. Blindly." Cass only knew she was crying when she felt tears course down her face. "I did." There were no sobs, no gasping. The days of moaning and agonizing were long over. Now she was merely weeping because Bud was outraged. He was more angry than one would be as a compassionate human being, a genuine friend. He seemed truly to care. "Oh, Cass. This explains so much. That someone would treat you so shabbily. I don't even know him, and I want to kill him." Bud pulled into the parking structure nearest the terminal and searched the rows for an empty space. He found one, drove into it, and got out of the car, heading at once to the trunk where Cass's luggage was stored. Cass waited a moment, guessing Bud would open her door. He didn't. In the side mirror, she watched him standing immobile, staring off into the dark parking structure. She got out with her carry-on bag on her arm. "Where is he now?” Bud asked. "Out of the country." "You don't see him ever, do you?" "Never." Bud hoisted her duffel bag and took her arm with his free hand. He was still shaking his head from time to time, but Cass's tears had subsided. He walked her toward the security checkpoint. "You want to get a cup of coffee or something?" he asked. "The security line is pretty light right now, so it looks like we have a little time. I could use something stronger, but coffee's probably a better idea." "Sure," Cass said. "If you'll do that...” He gestured to a kiosk where coffee and rolls were on display. "...I'll check the board to make sure your flight's on time." Cass bought two bitter, overheated coffees and paid the airport premium price. She noticed once again that Bud had wanted something, and then let her pay for it. She shook her head, thinking how upset he must be, having heard her weird life story, and she decided to forgive his little oversight. After all, he drove her to the airport, no small act of friendship. They half-sat, half-leaned against uncomfortable counter height stools and sipped their coffee. Bud was surprisingly speechless. His reaction isn't what I expected, she thought. She found herself clinging to his arm and finding strength in his support. At the first announcement for boarding, Cass stood. Bud slipped the carry-on bag from her shoulder and set it on the vinyl seat. Then, he put his arms around her and held her as if she would dematerialize if he let go. The airport terminal buzzed with the rush of travelers, some racing down the corridor, others poised in wait, some with arms open in welcome, others saying their tearful good-byes. At first, Cass was startled at the ferocity of Bud's embrace. His warmth, his scent, the intensity of his hug won her over and she gave in, holding him tightly in return. He leaned back and lifted her chin, bringing her lips to his. She felt the earnestness of his kiss, a firm and gentle pressure that said "I'm here and I won't go away.” Bud pulled away, then kissed her neck. Cass flushed at the sensation of desire she was sure glowed like a neon aura around her body. "You've given that slime monster free rent in your head for too long, Cass. He has no right to be in your thoughts. Make room for someone who could really care about you." He kissed her again, his tongue grazing hers tentatively. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get you over to the security check-in.” A child dropped the scoop of ice cream off his cone near Cass's foot, and she stepped back. The boy shrieked and bawled. His mother picked up the mass of glop with a napkin and dropped it in a trash bin. The boy flung himself on the ground, pounding his fists, screaming, "Give me another one!” The mother lifted him in a football-carry position over her hip and said, "No. We have to get on the plane now.” The child screamed louder, protesting all the way down the ramp. Bud said to Cass, "Give me another one." "I have to go.” Cass's legs wobbled and her hands trembled. She put her hands to her face to cool her cheeks, and she exhaled through her lips in short puffs. "Help me here, Bud. I've got to shift gears.” "I know the feeling," he said. He cleared his throat. "Look at it this way. You'll probably end up seated by Tantrum Boy.” He pointed to the melting puddle of ice cream on the floor. "Tantrum Boy. Just the turnoff I needed," Cass said. "We have to talk more. About you. Everything," Bud said. "Even about the job. And Rashmi." "Rashmi. You really do a good cool-down," she said. "He called to bellyache, but quite honestly, his problem is not my call." "Good!" Cass was delighted. "No. He's your subcontractor, and I'm not involved in the dispute." "But he's got to make that one wall right," Cass said. "If you can get him to change it at no charge, go for it." "And if I can't?" "Accept the job he's done, or pay him to do it over. It's your call." "Bud, is that fair to me?" "Better you than me. I'm fighting cost overruns all the time." Cass reached into her tote for her boarding pass. She glared at Bud with a look of shocked disdain. "I was right in the first place," she said. "This mixing business and personal stuff isn't altogether smart." She slipped off her shoes and got ready to enter the roped-off line. She turned and presented her pass. "Now I've done it,” Bud said aloud. He reached for her arm from outside the velvet rope barrier. "Now you're mad at me." "More like disappointed," she said, withdrawing from his touch. "Thanks for the ride." * * * Cass edged down to her seat. She grabbed a handful of magazines from the rack on her way. After she was seated, she looked them over and realized she had taken Parents and Cosmopolitan, her mother's favorite. She had wanted Architectural Digest or at least some publication about nature, or science, or anything unrelated to human relationships. She found her row and took her window seat directly in front of Tantrum Boy. The hours on the plane gave her time to think, and her thoughts swirled into a hopeless mush. She looked out the window to the spun sugar clouds below. When Bud kissed her, she felt transcendent, higher than the clouds. When he told her she was on her own, that he wouldn't help her manage the unmanageable contractor, she was trapped in a mix of emotions. Angry that Bud would allow someone to do substandard work and get away with it. Glad that Bud respected her ability to handle a situation that was rightfully hers to handle. Long after the sun had set, when the journey was nearly over, Cass recognized that what made her the angriest was the kernel of truth in Rashmi's accusation. He could genuinely have been confused by her written order. Her instructions lately were becoming hasty. She had indeed been unavailable by phone when her father was in the hospital and she was helping out at the ranch. Bud was letting her take her own medicine, which was only fair and right. Fair and right, she thought. Oh, that kiss. The acceptance of Bud's innate sense of justice was overshadowed by Cass's terror of his love. Or more rightly, the prospect of loving him. If she were to love him, that love would give him power. Power to hurt her, a power he would never have if she kept him at arm's length at all times. And then she wondered if Bud was right. Make room for someone who could care. As the plane crossed the dark snow-filled Gallatin Valley and touched down, Cass finally allowed herself to absorb the words, "Someone who could care.” Bud was telling her he could be that someone, if only she would let him. Chapter 5 Peggy met Cass at the airport, and after a welcome hug, Cass said, "Mom, that sculptor promised there'd be a package here for me. It's the piece for the Sea Cliff unit." They walked downstairs to the gift shop where the crate was supposed to have been left with the store operator. A sticky note hung above the "closed" sign. It said, "Cass Brooks, please check in at the bar.” "Only in Bozeman," Cass said. "An irreplaceable, pricey work of art shuffled around like a scavenger hunt." She and Peggy walked into the airport lounge. A television in the corner was blaring while a handful of patrons sat at tables, talking over the noise. A heavyset man with a handlebar mustache and bolo tie stood polishing glasses behind the bar. "I'm to pick up a crate here," Cass said. "A sculpture." "Then you'd be wanting Phil Mahan.” He pointed to a table where a couple of cowboys sat. "Phil!" the bartender called out. "Your lady's here!" The cowboy stood and tipped his hat. He came forward and said, "Cass? Ma'am.” He nodded to Peggy. "I'm Phil. Didn't have time to crate this guy. He's barely cool off the torch.” He reached under the table and lifted a half life-size welded metal sculpture of an eagle. The burnished steel bird of prey sat perched on a delicately sculpted fir branch, complete with long needles. Cass's hand automatically went to the intricate detail of the feathers. The bird looked as if he was in the process of settling on the branch, one claw curled around the perch, the other approaching it. The feathers of the body glowed in shades of burnished gold. The more delicate feathers above the claws and under the tail shone in a bright, near-white stainless steel. The sculpture was as close to alive as Cass could imagine. The sculptor tugged at the tattered scarf tied about his neck. His shirt was singed with burn holes. "This exceeds anything I expected," Cass said. "The price. Can I have this piece for what we agreed on?" "You bet. I got carried away. Or, maybe the eagle sort of took over. Not your fault. Sorry I didn't have time to crate him. Just put in a good word for me in the California market." Cass cradled the cumbersome sculpture to her chest. She looked at her mother conspiratorially, the way she had when she was five and found an unopened fashion doll dream house marked seventy-five cents at a garage sale. "Got to get going," Phil Mahan said. "Don't you want me to give you the balance I owe you?" "You're good for it. You call me if you need anything more.” With that he turned and walked out. Peggy maneuvered the roomy Chevy Suburban down the vacant interstate highway, then up the dark country roads toward the B-Bar-3. Cass kept a lookout for deer, but all she saw were wispy drifts of snow blowing low to the ground. Every now and then she'd steal a look into the back seat where the sculpture sat wrapped in her jacket and secured by a seat belt. She looked over at her mother. Peggy's face was pinched with strain. "Mom, are you getting much sleep?" Cass asked. "Oh, enough, honey.” Peggy patted Cass’s shoulder. "I'm so glad to see you. How about you, dear? You look a little frazzled." "The project is demanding." "How about that man? The one you told me about. Sailing. Bud." "He drove me to the airport today." Cass looked out the window toward the sky. The drifting snow was only at ground level, the wind carrying dry powder that had fallen earlier. The night sky sparkled with stars and a thin wedge of silver moon. She thought how lovely it would be to show Bud the way the stars shone so brightly on cold, clear nights. "And? Are you children playing nicely?" Peggy asked. "Mother!" Cass said. Peggy laughed and shrugged. "Don't take it all so seriously, honey. It's just life." * * * Cass could make out the ranch house in the low light beyond the headlights. The forefathers who built it of hand-hewn logs intended for the two-story house and its wide covered porch to last, and it had. The green metal roof was something her parents had added when she was a child, to help snow slide off and keep ice dams from forming. The giant T shelter in the corral protected the horses from the wind. The barn, hay shed and other outbuildings stood in good repair against the coming of deep winter. The adjacent garage her folks had built of machined logs matched the old colors and textures remarkably well, Cass thought. And it offered shelter from blizzards, complete with remote control door opener. When they entered the house, the late news was drawing to a close on the television. Cass set the sculpture on the mantel for safekeeping. Her father greeted her from the hall. He came out and lowered himself into a recliner close to the hearth. The stone fireplace was ablaze. "Yo, Cassie girl!" he said, stifling a cough. "Dad, how are you feeling?" she asked, leaning over to give him a hug. Peggy excused herself to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. "Had one or two better days, Sweetie, but I'm doing all right." "Mom said you were on oxygen. Where's your tank." "Oh, it seems I can either get warm by the fire, or breathe, but not both. Right now, I choose warm." He pulled his chamois cloth robe more tightly around his chest. "Glad to see you're wearing the flannel pajamas Mom got you last Christmas, and the robe I sent," Cass said. "I'm going to wear them out if this keeps up. Would you put another log on the fire?" Cass picked out a hefty split log and set it in the grate. She gazed again at the sculpture and ran her hand down the lichen-covered stones of the old fireplace. As a child, she had loved their hues of rust and dusty green. The floor-to-ceiling fireplace had loomed over her then. Now, as an adult, the fireplace and the whole log house seemed smaller. But it always felt like home. "How else can I help, Dad? In the next few days, I mean.” Cass sat on a hearth cushion. Peggy came in from the kitchen, cups and teapot on a tray. "Well, tomorrow's Thanksgiving," Wilson said. "You always help your mother with dinner. You don't worry yourself about the outdoor work." Peggy sat down on the sofa. "Wilson, you're the first to condemn false pride. You're under the weather. Cass and I both want to help you get better.” She smiled. "Look at it this way. When Cass was fourteen, and eighteen, she wouldn't suffer orders from you for a minute. Now she's asking. Are you going to pass up this opportunity?" Wilson coughed lightly and relaxed back into his chair. "All right," he said. "The weather turned so suddenly, we've had to start winter feeding. Could you give Oscar a hand with that in the morning?" "Happy to," Cass said. She took a long sip of herb tea and looked at the western landscape paintings on the wall. The old green leather sofa. The hammered brass bucket by the fireplace. The uneven surface of the log walls. This old house was a fortress against her other world. She thought of Bud in that other world and wondered what he was doing right now. She wished they hadn't had words, that she hadn't left without coming to the understanding she had gained on the plane. But, to phone him would escalate their growing interest in one another. No, she thought. I was right the first time. Work life and personal life can't overlap. "Boy am I glad to be here," she said. Thanksgiving morning, Cass rose before dawn to help with the winter feeding. She climbed into the pickup truck with Oscar and headed down the dirt road that was sugar dusted with new snow. Since Oscar was the one at the wheel, when they arrived at the first gate, Cass hopped out and ran toward the fence. She pulled the latch and dragged the wire-and-wood gate out of the way, waited for Oscar to drive forward, then closed the gate behind him and got back in. "Brisk," she said, rubbing her gloved hands together. "Dropped to three below last night," the grizzly cowboy said. He had the window down to fight off condensation on the windshield. His walrus mustache and bushy eyebrows were decorated with beads of frost. "Your daddy doin' any better this mornin'?" "I heard him coughing a lot during the night. He finally quieted down before the sun came up." "Some time back, your mama invited my family to come for Thanksgiving dinner, but that was before your daddy took ill. I don't want you folks to go to any trouble now." "If Mom invited you, I'm sure she wants you to come. Why don't we drive by your house and ask your wife if she's still willing to come?" Oscar shook his head. "I'll talk to her later," he said. "Oscar, I insist. I don't want her to be wondering if she's supposed to cook or not." "You're the boss's daughter," he said, turning the wheel of the truck. Oscar was not one of the ranch hands Cass grew up knowing. He was always reserved around her. Now, she sensed that something was amiss when she saw the state of his house. The porch swing was missing two slats, and one window was boarded over. On the inside, the rugs on the floor lay bare in spots. Two children, a boy and a girl, sat staring at a small television in the living room. Oscar's wife came out dressed in a bathrobe and slippers, infant in her arms. Cass knew they had a teenaged son, too. She supposed he was either still asleep or already gone for the day. "Cass, this is my wife, Valda," Oscar said. "Good to meet you," Cass said with a nod. "Can I get you anything from the kitchen?" Valda asked. "No thanks," Cass said. "I wanted to make sure you knew you were all to come to Thanksgiving dinner." Cass was certain her father paid Oscar a fair wage, and she knew Oscar was also free to pick up additional work in his off time, of which there was plenty in the snowy months. She was uneasy to see this family living in apparent want. "All right," Valda said. "But I'm bringing the pies and I won't hear another word to the contrary." "That's very kind of you," Cass answered. She felt as if this woman was overtaxed already, but knew that any other response would be taken as an insult. * * * Cass looked out at the crisp winter landscape as she and Oscar rumbled along toward the lower pasture. The sandstone rims, formed countless eons ago at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean, jutted up, reminding her of the timelessness of the land. From the flat grassland on the lower boundary of their land to the thick timber to the ragged mountain summit, Cass knew this was home. Oscar stopped the truck. They both got out. Oscar jumped up into the truck bed and pushed a bail of hay to the gate. Cass cut the bailing twine with a pocket knife and broke apart the bail with her gloved hands. A couple of dozen cows ambled over to the feed that sat on the snow-covered ground. Oscar and Cass ran for the truck to get out of the just above-zero cold. "Your L.A. boyfriend's not coming?" Oscar asked. "What boyfriend?" Cass asked in return. "Darned if I know," Oscar said. "Your mama was telling your daddy and me how you got yourself a sweetheart." They stopped to check each of the electrically heated water troughs. One of them had a thin sheet of ice crusted over the top. "The element on this one must have broken, Oscar. Do you think you can get it fixed?” Cass asked. Then, under her breath, she added, "I admit to my mother that I had a date, and the next thing you know, she's got us going steady." "S'pose I can fix it. Folks are always interested in what you're doing down there, you know. Not much happens up here on the mountain. Me, I don't pay no mind.” "Did you ever think of working full-time for my father, even being a foreman? He's going to retire someday." "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it. The thing is, there's too much to it. Besides, me and Valda, we never stay in one spot very long.” He gestured out to the landscape. "I like it here, though. Working for your folks. Like doing what I do. Hope to keep on." "Oh, Oscar," Cass said. "You're worried about my dad, aren't you. And what would happen if he didn't... if he..." she couldn't say the words "didn't get better" and "die.” "Sounds selfish to worry about me. I'm not above it, mind you.” He turned his face away. "But I got my concerns." "Me too. As for the ranch and what's going to happen, the doctor said Dad has to retire, although I don't think he's accepted the notion yet. My mother can't handle the whole operation alone." "Reckon they'll sell out." "I don't know. Before I grew up and left home, I wanted nothing more than to work this place with my dad." "Takes so much out of a person.” Oscar fidgeted. "You wouldn't do that now, would you?” "I hadn't really thought of it, Oscar, until you mentioned it." * * * In the heat of midday, when the sun shone its brightest and the thermometer climbed to seven above zero, Cass bundled up in felt lined boots and a parka and walked out to the fenced pasture where the horses stood. Of the half dozen quarter horses, all sported thick shaggy winter coats. Cass opened the hinged door to the weathered log tack room and found a bucket. She poured from a sack of mixed corn, oats and barley. Her saddle and the rest of the ranch's saddles rested on two split rails. Her horse's blue woven halter, the bridles, cinches, and ropes hung neatly on wall-mounted hooks. Even in the cold of winter, the tack room smelled of horses and old leather. With full bucket in hand, Cass approached the pasture fence. She bent and slipped between the rails. All six of the horses gathered around her. "Don't get pushy," she said, sidling toward the feed troughs. Cass poured from the bucket and the always aggressive chestnut mare found her spot first. The others wedged in, the gelding with the white blaze butting his head to find the feed. Cass's mare came up behind her and nudged her elbow. "You knew I saved some for you, didn't you girl?" Cass asked. The horse stuck her head into the wide-mouthed bucket and chomped at the treat. "You know, when I was little, I had a paint. She was prettier than you. No offense." The horse continued to chew, seemingly not offended. "I could tell her anything. S'pose I'm too old for talking to my horse." The mare finished the last of the grain mix and lifted her head, sniffing as if looking for more. Cass pulled a carrot out of her pocket and held it in her open palm. The mare with the China eye took it with relish. "You see," Cass continued. "Bud's all warm and touchy-feely one minute, then back-to-business the next. I don't know what to make of him. And then, he swears he's divorced but it sounds as if he sees that woman all the time. What would you think?" The mare pawed the ground, threw her head back and bared her teeth. Then, head down, she brushed Cass's pocket with her pinkish-gray lips. "I haven't got anything more to give you," Cass said. "And do you know what? This kind of conversation worked a lot better when I was twelve." * * * At four in the afternoon, Cass and Peggy were ready for guests to arrive. Apron over her silk blouse and floor-length velvet skirt, Cass mashed boiled potatoes. Peggy was careful of her maroon tunic and slacks as she snapped the green beans. The dining room table was set. The turkey platter clean. Wilson napped in anticipation of the holiday festivities. "Oscar and Valda should have been here by now," Peggy said. "I hope they remembered to plug in their engine heater," Cass said. She looked at the thermometer that hung outside the dining room window. "It's twelve below." The house phone rang. Cass listened as Peggy said, "Oh, you betcha. Don't even try. We'll come and get you.” She hung up and turned to Cass. "Their car stalled out by Thieson's place. The whole family traipsed in there to get out from the cold. Lander Thieson offered them dinner, but I told Oscar we'd pick them up." "I'll go, Mom. You know how to do your finishing touches better than I do." "Oh, shoot, Cass. I hate to send you out in the cold. You're all prettied up." "My down jacket won't make much of a fashion statement, but it's practical." "Hold on. I have an idea," Peggy said. She went down the hall toward the master bedroom. Cass added cream to the potatoes and mixed them smooth. Peggy came back into the kitchen carrying a full length coat made from a Hudson’s Bay blanket. "Put it on," she said. Cass pulled off her apron and slipped her arms into the sleeves. "When I was a teenager, I lusted after this coat, Mom. With all the trim stitching and the original stripes, it’s a museum piece. Look at the indigo blue. There’s no fading. I can’t actually wear it. It’s too beautiful." "At twelve below, it’s the best we’ve got to keep you warm, honey." "Thanks for the loan. I'll bring it back safely." Peggy pulled the neckline straight, saying, "You look so stunning in this coat. It's not a loan. It's a gift." "Mom, you can't mean that." "You're my daughter. I can give you anything I want." "But, won't you wear it?" "My life's changing. Your dad's retiring, whether he likes it or not. The social things we used to be involved in, I had to push to get him to do. I'm content now to do exactly what Wilson enjoys. Fish. Take a little walk. Read. I don't need a show pony coat for that." "Thank you, Mom.” Cass reached for the car keys in the basket on the antique hall tree. "Better wear your felt-lined boots, Cass," Peggy said. "Those pumps wouldn't keep your feet from freezing if you broke down on the road." Cass pulled on her knee-high all-weather boots. The clunky black rubber toes poked out from under the floor length coat. "How's this?" she asked, laughing at the incongruous getup. Peggy extended her hands at her sides for emphasis, saying, "Cassie, everything goes with hand-loomed antique wool." After Cass left, Peggy was browning the rolls and preparing a napkin-lined basket for them. She heard water in the pipes, a sign that Wilson was awake and taking a shower. The phone rang and she answered with a cheery, "Happy Thanksgiving!" "Hello to you, too. Is Cass there?" the voice said. "Not right now. Can I take a message?" "This is Bud Griffith." "I'm Peggy, Cass's mother. Glad to meet you, if only by phone." "You too, Mrs. Brooks. When she left, she was so upset with me. Is she still?" "She didn't let on one way or another." "I'm not sure I should leave a message. She may be more upset that I called." "If you called, she must have given you the number." "No, I got it from Petro." "Oh. I see. Well, Bud, is there anything I can do to help you?" "I don't know. I mean, Cass speaks so fondly of you and her father..." "Cass has only spoken of you a little, Mr. Griffith, but she certainly doesn't speak of anyone else." "Thank you. I think the world of Cass, Mrs. Brooks." "Call me Peggy." "And it's Bud, Peggy. I never know quite how to approach her. She's a little gruff sometimes..." "We're talking about Cassie, all right. You sure you don't want me to have her call you?" "Peggy, let's do this. Use your best judgment. If you decide not to tell her I called, I'll probably just call again and take my cue from her." "Otherwise, you'd feel as if you should wait for her to return your call. I understand." "You're great. Thanks, Peggy." Bud hung up the phone, hands shaking. Her mother said she spoke of no other than Bud. He'd had the smallest taste of her gentle side on the boat when she'd let him fold his arms around her. Her leaning on his arm in the airport was another aspect of her he remembered fondly, a rare glimpse at her vulnerability. And her kiss. He had the sense that she held some mysterious potential for passion beyond anything he and good old Mary Elizabeth ever possessed. Not that he'd been totally celibate since his divorce from Mary Elizabeth. But there's a long stretch of ground, he thought, between occasional dating and finding someone so intriguing that you'd confide in her mother on a balmy, lonely Thanksgiving Day. He scrolled to Cass’s cell number and stared at it. He poised his finger over the screen and then set the phone down. It occurred to him that her phone coverage must be spotty anyway, so leaving a message might mean she couldn’t intercept the call, or it might mean she didn’t want to talk to him. There was no way to know. He walked down the long hallway in his house and the sound of his footsteps echoed. Cass returned with Oscar, his prematurely gray wife Valda and their four children. Fifteen-year-old Dwight sat next to his father at the Brooks’ family table. "Dwight shaved," eleven-year-old Colleen said. She tugged at Cass's sleeve to make sure she was heard. "Shut up, frog brain," Dwight said, blushing. "What are those?" seven-year-old Sammy asked as he pointed to a glass relish dish. "Crabapples," Peggy answered. "My mother always serves seven sweets and seven sours," Cass said. "Things you may not usually eat." Valda strapped eight-month-old Seth in his high chair. No sooner had she locked the plastic tray in place when the baby reached out onto the table top and upturned the relish dish. He grabbed a pickled watermelon rind and shoved it into his mouth, then slapped the tray as if he'd made a major coup. Wilson came to the table with Oscar. Peggy invited everyone to sit. All joined hands without a word of prompting and Wilson asked a blessing. A flurry of passing plates and serving led to a moment of quiet, interrupted by baby Seth demanding slices of turkey instead of mashed potatoes and pureed chicken from a jar. "Valda, I don't know how you do it," Cass said. "You are the calmest woman I've ever seen." Valda waved a hand, as though four children in a fifteen year span was not worthy of comment. "I remember when we gave away the crib and all after Sammy outgrew the baby things. We were sure surprised when we learned Seth was coming along," Oscar said. Valda smiled the beatific smile reserved for nursing mothers and individuals under the influence of lithium. "So you love, and then you love some more.” "Here's to the love of family and friends," Wilson said. "And with that, I have an announcement to make." Everyone looked to Wilson, wondering what he would say. Cass knew that for Oscar and his family, Wilson's decisions could force decisions of their own upon them. Peggy talked a good game about doing whatever Wilson wanted, Cass knew, but if what Wilson wanted was to continue to work to his own demise, Peggy would be gravely disappointed and hard pressed to stop him. As for Cass, her life was very different now than it had been all those years ago when she wanted to train in her father's footsteps. He had insisted she go away to college, although he was taken aback to learn that Cass's idea of education was art school. Still, she had made a career, which was his intent. Her work life, successful by any standards, was now worlds away from the B-Bar-3. "I couldn't make this announcement if it weren't for all of you," Wilson said. "Oscar, I have come to depend on you in the past several months, and hope to continue to do so for years to come. Children, your father is a good man. I'm an old guy so I can say stuff like that." Everyone laughed and Wilson raised his hand as if asking for the floor again. "Peggy, you've been the best wife a man could ask for. You deserve a little rest, a little fun, a little travel. So, if my daughter Cass will accept my offer to take on the workings of this ranch, I can retire with complete peace of mind." All stares focused on Cass. "Dad, this is so sudden," Cass said. "Sudden? Cassie, you're an only child. This must have crossed your mind before." Oscar tugged at his mustache. He stared at his plate, then tapped his eldest son's hand when the boy stirred peas into his potatoes. Valda whispered, "Oscar, could you cut Colleen's meat?" Then, aloud to Cass, she said, "This sounds like a private family discussion, but here we all are." Cass said, "Please. Don't feel awkward. This affects all of us." Oscar cut his daughter's meat. Baby Seth chewed with gusto on the remains of a turkey leg. "I thought you'd be pleased, Cass. I figured I'd take your mother on a cruise or something. Peg, you've said you always wanted to go someplace where snow has never fallen." Peggy glowed and said, "Darlin', I'm with you, and I'm out of here.” Tears filled her eyes. "I didn't think you were willing to retire. You had me fooled, you old badger. I thought you were in total denial." "After denial comes acceptance," Wilson said. "But, Dad, I'm in the middle of a project. A job," Cass said. Wilson gestured around the table to Peggy and to Oscar and his family. "We've all made an adequate living off this place, in spite of the recent difficulties, and I'm sure they'll be resolved. I wouldn't propose that you should work for nothing, Cass. I'm just sick. Not crazy." "Dad, I know. I've got to think, okay?" Cass noticed Peggy's eyes roll heavenward as if she were praying, then Peggy said, "Oh, Cassie, you had a phone call. I almost forgot to tell you. That fellow Bud." "Why is he calling me here? Any message?" "I'm sure he'd love to hear from you. He was very concerned that you might be angry with him." "Oh, I don't know what to think of him," Cass said. She turned to her father. "Whether I ever step in or not, Dad, the good news is that you've decided to retire." "How did you turn out to be such an independent little cuss?" Wilson asked. "My Daddy raised me that way," Cass said. "I'll put on some coffee. If everybody's through with dinner, I'll bring out Valda's pies." The imposing log house stood as a fortress against the freezing night while the two families finished their meal and cleared the table. Cass ran her fingertips along the hill and valley ridges of ice that formed inside the windowpanes. On the picture windows, the crystalline condensation rose from the bottom sill to the outer edges at a height of eighteen inches, then dipped at the center to about a foot. "Even if you didn't have a thermometer, you'd know it's cold out there tonight," Oscar said. "Colder than a grizzly's ass," Wilson said. Then, he excused himself to bed. "I'll drive the folks home," Peggy said to Cass. "Why don't you call your fellow back." "He's not my fellow," Cass said as the telephone rang, "And I've decided not to call him." Peggy slipped on her puffy down jacket. She looked at the ringing telephone. To Valda and the children, she raised her arms high, fists clenched and said, "Yes!" "Mother, it could be anyone.” Cass shook her head as she answered the phone. "Cass. It's me. Bud." Peggy shooed Oscar and his family out the door into the night. The only sound in the house was the crackling fire. Surprisingly to Cass, Bud's voice helped her feel centered after her father's proposal had knocked her off balance. "Hi, Bud. Having a nice holiday?” "Oh, sure. Went to my son and daughter-in-law's for dinner. My son had some good news. He's a biology major. A professor of his got a research grant that'll give David a stipend and expand the lab, too. He's stoked. That's how he put it." "What are they researching?” Cass asked. "Plants. Or as David explains it, noxious weeds. I suppose it sounds a little silly and technical." "Not to me. Remember, you've called a cattle ranch. You won't find anyone within hundreds of miles of here who doesn't take weed control seriously. I'm glad for him. And, Bud. I was going to talk to you when I came back, but since you phoned, I guess I'll say it now. I owe you an apology." "How so?" "The business with the mirror in the model unit. My sub. My responsibility." Bud gripped the phone receiver as if that would balance him. A woman who would not only say 'You were right,' but would admit 'I was wrong.' She couldn't have said anything that would endear her to him more. "Accepted. Completely. Do you know how dull it is here without you? How's your holiday?" Bud asked. "Oh, I always like being with my folks and all. The hired man and his family came to dinner. You should have seen Baby Seth with green beans up his nose." Bud laughed. "Sorry I missed that. How's your father?" "He's mending slowly, which is good. The mending, I mean, but..." "What?" "Never mind. Personal problem." "Hey, I'm a person. Tell me." "He pulled a real grandstand maneuver tonight at dinner. You don't know him, but that's my dad." "You sound pretty upset." "Hard not to be. All those years, I would have given anything for him to offer me the ranch. But now..." "Offer you the ranch? As in, live there?" "Live here. Work here. He's taken to heart the idea that he's got to retire, which is positive. But he's got it set in his head that the only person to put in charge is me. I didn't want to get into a fist fight with a man on oxygen, but there's this little problem. I'm settled right where I am." "You bet you are. What did you tell him?" "I told him I'd have to think it through, that I needed some time." "What will he do if you say no?" "Sell the place." "But you said it was originally a homestead." "Yep. Celebrated its centennial a few years back.” Cass was feeling close to tears. She recognized how much of herself she'd just revealed to Bud, and a wave of terror overcame her. No one, simply no one, should know her so well. "I don't want to talk about this. Change the subject, please.” "Wait. Now, back up. You're at a real crossroads here. Don't shut me out. Keep talking. You can't just walk away from a place you feel part of." "Don't ask me to talk about how I feel about this place. You'll make me cry." Cass said. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "I'm not making you cry. You've got some situations worth crying over. Can I tell you what I do when I'm confronted with a pressing decision?" "What?" "I tell myself that any decision made in a panic is usually a bad decision for me. So, I try to structure the situation to give myself time." "What do you do with the time?" "I meditate. Reflect. That may sound corny, but that's what I do. I talk to people whose judgment I respect. Especially to people who have some expertise in the subject I'm trying to make a decision about." "And if, in the end, you still can't make up your mind, what do you do?” Cass's tears had turned to chuckling as she realized she was trying to get Bud to make up her mind for her, which seemed a perfectly reasonable and ridiculous decision all at the same time. "I haven't encountered that yet, but I suppose I'd flip a coin. Sort of, heads Los Angeles and interior design, tails Montana and baroness of a cattle ranch. Simple." "Hardly a baroness. This place has its problems. This past year, Dad started out with about three hundred pregnant cows, not counting the first-time breedings. Out of three hundred, he wound up with about two hundred and eighty. Something's off here. That's too big a loss." "What's killing them?" "That's the weird thing. Dad was sick early last spring, back and forth to the clinic in Big Timber. He saw three that didn't survive, but not the rest. Just heard about them." "How did he hear? Who told him?" "Oscar. The hired man. I can guess what you're thinking, but you've got to understand. My father is no absentee rancher. Anybody'd have to be crazy to try and steal from him under his nose." "Hm. I'm not too familiar with cattle ranching, but that's got to be a serious financial loss.” "Dad could pay for two more part-time people or one full-time hand with what he's lost to date. Add that to the need to buy winter feed, and you've got a pretty dismal year. If he had to make payments on this place, he couldn't afford the luxury of ranching." "Don't you grow your own alfalfa?" "Yeah, but it's as if it shrinks. Dad puts up hay, and it's never enough. If he hadn't had some really good profit years a while back, he couldn't carry on now." "Cass," Bud whispered. "What?" "Do you hear yourself? You care." "Of course I care. But that doesn't mean my being here all the time is the only solution. There have to be other practical ways to approach my father's retirement. Something that doesn't mean I give up the life I know." Bud breathed a sigh. "Good to hear you say that. When are you coming home?" "Tuesday." "Can I pick you up at the airport?" "Not a good idea. Petro is picking me up. Said he wanted to speak with me." "The boss. That sounds ominous." "It is. I'm in some hot water. Running behind. Bud, once I get back, I'm going to have to spend every waking minute getting those units ready.” Cass looked to the welded metal sculpture of the eagle that sat on the hearth. "I'm really excited about finishing up. As a matter of fact, I'm bringing back something so special, I'm buying it a seat on the plane." "Can't wait to see that." "You'll see it at the unveiling, the Sunday after the holiday party." "Won't I see you before then?" Up shot her barrier of reserve. As tempting as his kisses were, Bud was the male of the species, the enemy, the source of anguish and grief. Should she fall for him, she was in danger of losing her perspective, her concentration and possibly her job. And her job was the thing that made her feel rooted. Whole. "No, Bud. Let's wait until after the open house. When the project's complete, then we can see each other freely without mixing up the business and personal stuff." "You're so sane. It's disgusting." "And Bud?" "What?" "Thanks for being a friend." Chapter 6 Bud was true to his word. He didn't call. Cass found herself more wistful than she'd expected. Concentration eluded her. Snippets of their last conversation on the phone played like a continuous audio loop in her brain. She missed the sound of his voice. Work crowded her days. Still, she found herself wondering what Bud was doing, what his shoulders might feel like under her hands, whether he would respond to soft kisses just under his ear or her open mouth pressed against his. She tried not to dwell on his absence during the work days and discovered it was like trying not to think of lemonade on a blistering summer day. She saw to it that the mirrors and chrome frames shone, that the muted comforter in the master suite draped just to the floor, that fresh lemon yellow towels hung in the bathrooms. Crystal salt and pepper shakers sat on the gleaming breakfast bar. The chandelier over the dining table was so clean, dust refused to settle on it. She congratulated herself for staying centered, getting the job done, and not permitting herself to muddy the waters between work and... Play? Pleasure? Personal life? The words swum. None of them described the multi-chambered heart somersaults going on in her chest. She was only certain of one thing. She must complete the first model unit before she saw that man again. Otherwise, the stylish resort condo might turn into a circus tent decked with banners in purple, orange, and green. In the evenings, she would meet with suppliers for the next day's installations, then go home, phone her mother, and eat a dinner of toast and peanut butter. It was then that she would fantasize most about Bud, just before she collapsed into a restless sleep. She remembered the feel of his arms around her in the airport, the sound of his voice on the phone in her parents' kitchen, and she wondered how his most intimate touch would feel. On the one weekend afternoon she had free before the unveiling, she drove to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country to pick up a color drawing she had selected from watercolorist Kathy Shannon's latest show. The coast road from Malibu to Goleta was a show of color. The ocean stretched deep blue under a clear sky. Ice plant bloomed in shades of neon purple and pink. And as she approached the stretch of highway in Ventura where the surf meets a stone barrier beside the road, she sighted a pod of pilot whales near shore. She pulled into a turnout and stopped the car. The half-dozen small whales took turns diving, then smoothly breaking up through the water and splashing back under again. Their rhythmic dance spoke to her spirit, whispering that the universe still spun in a life-affirming direction. If they could find reason to play and feel safe in a world fraught with danger, she guessed she could, too. She found herself looking to the empty passenger seat, wishing Bud were with her. She asked herself why she hadn't invited him on such a pleasant outing. Then she reminded herself that one pleasant outing in her past led to years of heartache, lost years that could never be reclaimed. Bud might be a man she could count on and trust, but he also might be an invitation to grief. He could prove himself over time, if that was his choice. When she arrived at the gallery, Kathy and her husband Kirk were waiting to meet her. "We have a surprise for you," Kathy said. Kirk slid back the bonnet on a big white basket that lay on the braid rug, and inside slept a bald newborn baby with round cheeks and a little double chin. "But you didn't tell me! All I knew was that you two were looking to adopt." "And now we have, after ten years of waiting. Finally, the agency phoned us and poof, we're parents." "What do you think of our daughter?” Kirk asked. Cass touched the sleeping infant's fingers. "Beautiful. Congratulations.” She watched the elated faces of the Shannons and thought to herself that even if the child were homely as sin, there would be no answer to that questions save beautiful. She wondered what her life might have been like if she had got pregnant years ago when she wanted to and Terrence had convinced her to wait. The bitterness seldom overtook her any more, but for a moment she was caught in morbid reflection, feeling profoundly cheated. Then she remembered what Bud said to her once. "You've given him free rent in your head too long.” Hanging on to unpleasant memories was of no value, she knew. Except, she supposed, if those memories serve to stop you from making the same mistake twice. Bud could very well be an honorable, honest man. He'd simply have to prove it. * * * The night of Avakian and McGregor Urban Spaces' holiday party, to which all of Petro's important customers and clients were invited, Cass took a last look in the mirror before she departed for the evening. The black shoes, sculptured low at the instep, did justice to the teal green silk dress, she thought. She slipped into the coat her mother had given her and almost laughed at her image. She could barely find her face and long auburn hair for the coat. If I can't wear this dramatic coat to a Christmas party, she thought, I don't know where I can ever wear it at all. She loaded the last of the finishing touches for the model condo into her car, except for one. She couldn't bring herself to part with the eagle sculpture, at least not yet. She would keep it this one last night, she decided. She found herself almost equally attached to the framed original drawing, and chastised herself for putting too much of herself into her work. She knew she was acting as if she were furnishing her personal home, not a model for sale. She loaded the well-padded picture between the front and back seats, and she was off. The streets were festooned with holiday banners. Storefront windows sported snowy winter scenes painted in the shadow of towering palm trees. The radio blared soft rock music as Cass drove toward the Sea Cliff condos. The radio announcer concluded the traffic update with, "And if you're in the vicinity of Wilshire just west of the Harbor Freeway, keep an eye out for a pocket of congestion. Seems the controversial Spare the Animals League has reserved a ballroom for their holiday fund-raiser at the Los Angeles Hilton on the same night as the Western Association of Furriers. Raw eggs are flying in the impromptu protest, and LAPD is now on the scene." Cass listened in horror. The full ramifications of her mother's gift had not sunk in until now. She pulled into the guest parking lot at Sea Cliff, popped the trunk lever and got out. She stripped off her coat as she stomped to the back of the car, prepared to conceal her treasured historic showpiece in order to save it. The bright trunk light momentarily blinded her. She shielded her eyes, folded the coat and tried to lay it in, but with the spare tire and other items filling up the space, the heft of the garment prevented the trunk from closing. She wadded the coat and was stuffing it haphazardly into the trunk when she heard the words, "Cass, what are you doing?" She shrieked. "It's me, Bud. I didn't mean to frighten you." "You scared the living daylights out of me.” Her heart pounded like a ceremonial drum. She turned around to see him dressed in a dark suit, looking elegant. "Bud. I was afraid you were a mugger or something." "Sorry. I saw you and couldn't help but wonder. You rented a TV Tonto costume for the occasion?” He pointed to the bold striped coat. "It's my new, very old coat. Now I don't dare wear it." "Why?" "I don't want to get egged." "Do you have that problem often?" "I don't know. I never had a coat like this before. I just heard that there's some sort of animal activist frenzy at the hotel where the company party is tonight..." "Ah. Was the coat a gift... from someone special?" "Yes, my mom. Oh, Bud...” Cass stopped talking when she saw him breathe a deep sigh of seeming relief. Then he smiled. "Your mother. Peggy. Well, why don't you take the coat out of the car and put it in the condo. It should be safe enough there tonight..." "I hadn't considered that. Wait a minute. How did you get here?" "My car is over there." "I didn't even see it, Bud." "Well, it's only a little hidden, away from the light. Never mind that. But say, I was on my way to the same party. I'll take you, unless you're meeting a date or something." Cass looked up at him. The blue eyes shone even in the dark. "No date. But wait a minute," she said. "What are you doing here? Your work has been finished for days." "I was just... well, I... you caught me, Cass. I was checking your work before the open house tomorrow." "You promised you'd let me finish before you looked." "Well, I..." "It's not all done. I have until eleven tomorrow morning to finish. You said you wouldn't judge me on work in progress. You didn't trust me, did you?" "Yes, I trusted you. But, it’s just that Cass, I promised not to call. That meant I couldn't talk to you, because you wouldn't call me, so I just came here to see what you'd been doing because your work is so... so... you." He couldn't have disarmed her any more. Every time he said something like that, something to let her know he was thinking of her when she wasn't near, he drove an opening wedge into her cold, solid armor. "You have got to stop being suspicious if we're ever going to get anywhere, Cass." "And where would anywhere be?" she asked. Bud put his arms around her. She didn't want to want his touch. Her conflicting thoughts swirled like a whirlwind, with warning screams of 'keep your distance, fool,' chased by a quiet, calm underlying voice that said, 'don't convict him of crimes someone else committed.' "For starters," he said, "We could go to your company party. Let's hang your coat up inside the model, then I'll drive us there." Cass handed him the painting she still needed to hang. She wore the coat and carried a box from the trunk. She stewed as they walked up the steps. Finally she said, "Aren't you going to tell me what you think of the place?" "I think it's exquisite," he said as he opened the door and turned on the light. "Feels like home to me. So homey I could stay here.” He smiled at her as if waiting for her to invite him to spend the evening. The laugh lines around his eyes faded. "It was just an idea. Don't look so terrified." Cass didn't know how he read her look as one of fear. The only thing she feared was her attraction to him. If he'd pushed the slightest bit, she would have agreed to forego the party, no matter how prudent it would be to show up for her boss's big bash. One more touch from Bud, anything more intimate than a hand on her elbow and she'd give herself to him completely. "Come on," he said. "We'd better go. We have an appearance to make." Chapter 7 Cass and Bud made their way through the angry protesters on the sidewalk outside the hotel. In the throng of people at the elaborate party, they wandered through the crowd looking for her boss Petro and Bud's employer, Leonard. They found the two men at a table near the buffet, where an ice sculpture of a leaping marlin sat surrounded by finger sandwiches and delicacies of all kinds. Petro, looking inordinately jolly, contextually incongruent and round in red tartan plaid pants and a still redder jacket, motioned for Cass and Bud to join them. Leonard Rasmussen, former pro-football player turned developer, pulled back a chair for Cass, making the formal introductions all around. Petro put a hand atop his bald head and said, "So then you came together." Cass could feel herself blush. Bud cleared his throat. Petro said, "Um, I mean, you're here. Together. Well, what do you know?" "We were just talking about Sea Cliff," Leonard said over the noise of the loud band. "We’ve had good response to the announcement for the open house. Seems we'll be having a few prospective buyers tomorrow." "I sure plan to be there. Say, do you like the music, Cass?” Petro asked. "This band covers every phase of rock & roll since the beginning." Cass smiled and nodded. Bud raised an eyebrow to Cass and whispered so no one else could hear, "Isn’t that a lot of ground to cover? Couldn’t we skip the 70s?" "To Petro, it's all good," she answered Bud in a low voice. "I think the world of him, but he's dressed so... festively tonight. Save me. He may ask me to dance." Bud nodded and grinned. "Afraid of being the center of attention?” he asked. "You could say that," Cass answered. Hand on her shoulder, Bud led her to the dance floor. They danced to surf music from the sixties and disco from the seventies, Cass giggling as she followed his moves. He whirled her and turned her, releasing her for a second, then drawing her back. His arm reached around her waist and he bent her in a gentle dip, then drew her to him again. They took a break, sipped champagne, then munched on hot stuffed shrimp, Bud holding the shrimp tails while Cass ate. Her tongue touched his fingertips and sent shivers through her body. When the first few piano strains of the song "Celebrate Me Home" filtered to them, Bud took Cass's hand, leading her again to the dance floor. He leaned into her, cheek resting against hers. Cass saw nothing but the twinkling holiday lights through her closed eyes. She felt the touch of his leg against hers, his hips close, guiding her. He spun her and rocked her ever so slightly. She'd never thought of herself as anything but a barely passable dancer, but in his arms, she felt positively fluid. If he makes love anything like he dances... she thought. His hand caressed hers. His palm was beyond damp. His whole body felt trembly to her touch. "You must already know, Bud. You're an incredible dancer. I could stay right here like this all night." "Oh, Cass, don't say that. I'm shaking. I can't stay like this another second.” His eyes caught the light like fire opals. Her longing matched his, she knew. She wanted nothing less than his taste and touch, his voice, his raw unbridled energy. She desperately wanted to experience all of him. "Do you want to go?" she asked. He gulped. "You mean go, together? Would you?" "Well, you have to take me to my car at some point.” She put her hand at the back of his neck and ran her fingers along the edge of his collar, all the while aching to kiss that same place. "Your car. Of course. Yes. That's it," he said. "And your coat." When they arrived at Sea Cliff, an unseasonably warm breeze fanned the palms. They walked quietly up the steps, all the earlier banter vanished in the tension of anticipation and desire. Cass tried to make light conversation, saying, "How can the night be so cool downtown and so warm on the beach?" "Inversion," Bud said, as if a one-word answer was all he could articulate. The building complex was entirely dark, looming high over the shore like an isolated castle. Once inside, Bud took Cass in his arms and kissed her with barely contained ferocity. He touched her teeth with his tongue, then searched out hers. His arms around her warmed her, his lips soft against hers warmed her more. The kitchen sparkled with cheery light. Bud pulled back and yanked off his coat. He kissed her again, licking her bottom lip as he loosened and slipped off his tie. Just as Bud shook earlier, Cass now trembled with wanting him. He ran his hands over the silk of her dress, fingertips lingering on the fullness of her breasts, then with his hands open to consume the sensation of her hips. "There's no going back now," Bud said. "You know that, don't you, Cass?" "Then we have to go forward," she said. She kissed him, teasing him with her tongue, brushing his lips a little at a time, darting in and out, feeling his tongue with hers then pulling away. He flicked off the kitchen light and led her up the stairs to the master bedroom. He unbuttoned his shirt, then pulled back the bed covers. "Come here," he whispered. He pulled her to him with one hand, and reached for the dimmer switch with the other. Faint light bathed the room. "Look at you," he said. He unfastened her dress and lifted it off her shoulders. Then he started to laugh. He covered his lips with his finger, then said, "The monstro-mirror. I'm not sorry now that it wasn't exchanged." "That was one tug-of-war I just had to let go of. I keep trying to be a perfectionist in an imperfect world." He turned away long enough to ensure safe sex, then approached her again, taking her hands, inviting her to lie beside him. He kissed her first with the gentlest pressure, then took her tongue deeply into his mouth. She felt his buttocks with her hands, the rhythmic tightening of every muscle. He joined with her and she gasped from the joy of finally realizing what she had anticipated for so long. He raised himself up on his arms and made love to her as he would dance, hips lost in a cadence that made all separation of selves disappear. Cass smiled up at Bud and kissed him again as though he were a life mate thought lost at sea and finally returned. "Now I want to taste all of you," he said, sliding to her side. He kissed her neck and shoulders, softly making his way down her breasts, her navel and lower until his tongue lingered, taking her breath away and the lights of the stars and the queen's necklace blended into a whirl of rainbow shimmers. She cried out once, twice and again, pounding clenched fists against the bed. "I didn't hurt you, did I?" Bud raised his chin from where it rested between her thighs. "No," she shuddered. "Oh, no.” She stroked his hair. She felt as if a coil of rubber bands around her heart had all snapped at once, leaving her drained of all energy and fear, and more free than she'd felt since she could remember. Bud inched up beside her and kissed her eyelids, her mouth, deeply. Then he crouched atop her and entered her again. His endurance seemed boundless and sensations of pleasure overtook her against all reason and memory. Again he brought her to orgasm. He moaned in her ear and shuddered, then gasped like a drowning man struggling for a last breath. He lay beside her, his chest heaving. Then he chuckled at some secret joke. "Bud, What's so funny?" "I remember the day we went sailing and I was walking with you and asked you why you always hurry. You said you weren't hurried. You were purposeful." "You remember that?" "Of course. I remember everything about you. And you are purposeful." She smiled and nuzzled against his chest. They lay together, legs and arms entwined. They watched the light of a boat out on the water. They talked about Bud's boat and its repairs, Cass's coat and her father's proposal. "What are you going to do?" Bud asked. "Are you really considering going back to Montana to live?" "I can't not at least consider taking over the ranch. They're my parents," Cass said. "But, if we're going to talk about these kinds of things, I need a nice cup of tea." Cass blew little breathy kisses on the back of his neck just before she slid out of bed and went to the kitchen. In the darkened room, she checked the ready-light on the coffee maker’s water reservoir and readied two mugs for tea. She walked to the huge sliding glass doors and stared off at the lights that glittered down the coast. A crest of white foam on the surf was visible, even in the dark. Warm hands cupped her buttocks. Bud released her hips from his caress to allow her to pass. He opened the doors and stepped out onto the deck in the dark. Tea cups in hand, Cass followed him. Nude, holding ceramic mugs, they sipped steaming sweetened cinnamon tea. "The view from here. I never weary of it," Cass said. "I'll never see the coast all lit up again without thinking of this moment," Bud said. The unusually balmy ocean wind caught Cass's hair. Bud lifted a few blowing strands and kissed them. He sipped from the mug with one hand, and pulled her to him with the other, his bare chest against her back. "We're so new to each other," Bud said. "I can't do much to keep you from deciding to go other than say I want you to stay. For your career, of course. But for me, too. I only just found you." His honesty made Cass's heart melt, for she was feeling the identical sense of discovery. "I told my dad I had to have time," she said. "That's not a decision I can make in an instant.” She snapped her fingers. "The decision you and I made tonight is absolutely all I can handle right now." "You chose wisely. Come with me," he said, taking her hand and leading her to the bedroom. He pulled back the sliding bedroom doors. The breeze eddied in to every corner. "Lie with me here, Cass.” He set his tea mug on the night stand and took hers, too. He kissed her. "I love the sound of the surf," he said. "Don't you?" "I do. When I drove up to pick up that painting..." She pointed to the bright colored drawing leaning against the dresser. "...there were whales swimming in close to the shore at Ventura. Nothing makes me happier than to see them, hear them splashing. If I lived here, I would never close windows. No matter how cool the breeze got. I would always listen to the waves and the gulls screaming." He ran his hand down the curve of her breast. "You're getting cold. That will never do.” He slid out of bed and went to the mirrored closet. Cass watched his reflected image in the light from the miles of coastline below. He withdrew the flannel lined woolen coat and came back to bed, covering them both with the soft lining. "Oh, this is very cozy," Cass said. She rubbed the sleeve along his chin, stubbly with beard growth at the early morning hour. He growled and playfully grazed her shoulders and breasts with his teeth, as a mating lion would do. "You're tickling me.” She laughed. "Mm," he said, holding her to his body, kissing her deeply, running his hand down her inner thigh. "Again?" she asked with mock surprise. And in the folds of the expansive coat, he loved her once more. She trembled as violently as she had the first time, and waves of pleasure overtook her. This man, his touch, his scent, the sound of his voice, his very breath at this moment eclipsed everything in her past and filled her with a longing to live sheltered in his arms. Between gasps, she asked him, "Do we dare lie here for a little while?" "Cass, I can't move.” He made a wrenching noise. She laughed, then sobered. "Bud, there's an open house here tomorrow." "Not until one in the afternoon. I have a way to stifle your practicality.” He pulled her close. She laughed out loud. "If you can do that again, I'm going to enter your name for a world record." He didn't respond. His chest rose and fell in the rhythmic breathing of sleep. Cass pulled the coat up around them and with the sea breeze caressing her face, she drifted effortlessly into sleep. Sunlight crept through the open window. An engine revved outside and a car radio blared, "The wages of sin is death, I say unto you. But the Lord loves a sinner who repents and mends his wicked ways..." "Cass, honey, wake up. It's the gardener," Bud said. "Hm," Cass lay with eyes closed, smiling. "Cass, we've got to get up. We fell asleep. It's morning." "Morning!” She sat bolt upright. "Oh, no. What are we going to do?" "We're going to get our clothes on, make ourselves as presentable as we can.” Bud jumped out of bed and closed the open sliding doors. "We'll straighten up and meet back here after we've changed for the open house." "But the gardener will see us leave together." "That doesn't bother me, Cass. Does it bother you?" "Well, for crying out loud, Bud, we each have homes of our own. I mean, it's pretty decadent to be... you know... here and all." "Well, I suppose you’re right, but I would have been with you here, or in MacArthur Park or the Bat Cave, or on the moon. And I don't care who knows it.” He buttoned his shirt and zipped his pants, saying, "You want me to leave first so you won't have to be seen with me?" "Oh, Bud. That's not what I meant." "Good. Now let me help you.” He fastened her dress and held her coat while she slipped her arms inside it. They walked out and closed the front door. He escorted her to her car, gave her a chaste kiss on the lips, then went to his Mercedes. He, with his warm touch and agonizingly sweet kisses, was gone, and so was the night of spinning stars and deep, dreamless sleep. Chapter 8 The eagle sculpture, poised as if alighting on a branch, dwarfed Cass's undersized coffee table. She circled the table, viewing the art work from every conceivable angle. The burnished steel picked up color and light from the room. She'd grown to love the magnificent creature since he'd taken up residence in her living room. Today, after a the night of fierce and graceful lovemaking with Bud, the sculpture took on new meaning. Now, she was loathe to give up the wild and beautiful bird of prey, but a contract was a contract. She wrapped him and cushioned him in a comforter, carefully taping the ends tightly just in case the piece would suffer a fall in transport. Bud would come to the open house, she knew. She checked her makeup and hair, letting her auburn mane fall as she knew he liked it. She wore a long raw silk skirt and shirt in dark forest green, and soft ivory leather boots. As a last gesture before leaving to have her work scrutinized by the developer, investors and prospective buyers, she opened the closet and took out her coat. Just the touch of the soft lining reminded her of Bud and last night. She shivered all over, reliving the wonder of his touch, his kisses, the comfortable, welcome weight of his body on hers. At Sea Cliff, Cass relished her last few hours in the model condo alone. She placed the sculpture of the eagle on the mantle, and had to admit that the piece looked even more beautiful against the white stone than it had in her living room. In the master bedroom, she straightened the huge brightly colored drawing that she'd hung over the dresser. In the landscape, named "Grass and Granite," tall stands of native California grasses fought for space between lichen covered granite stones in varying lengths and cylindrical shapes. Cass chuckled to herself, seeing now as she hadn't before that the artist was being a bit playful with the phallus-shaped stones. She turned on soft rock music on her way to the kitchen. She readied the coffee and tea service. As she set out trays of hors d'oeuvres, the front door opened and a cheery, "Cass? Is that you?" sounded from the entry. She felt strangely disappointed. Without realizing it, she had counted on Bud to arrive first, not Petro. She heard a throaty gasp as Petro entered the room. "Cass-you-sly-dog-Brooks," Petro choked. "That sculpture! It sure wasn't here earlier this morning." "You were here this morning?” She felt her cheeks burn hot. "What time?" "Oh, I don't know. I passed the gardener as he was leaving. Why?" "Um, uhf...” The image of her employer walking in when she and Bud lay asleep in the bedroom made her face turn to fire. She clutched at the one reasonable answer, saying, "Hey, Petro, you said you wouldn't look until I finished." "Oh, well, I just couldn't help myself. And I'm pleased, Cass. Really pleased. That painting in the bedroom is certainly an unusual touch.” He grinned and paced around. "Now that overlarge bedroom mirror... That wouldn't have been my choice, but I suppose it works." Cass decided to say nothing except, "Thanks." The door opened again and this time Leonard Rasmussen and his wife came in, accompanied by an attractive older couple. "Lovely," the silver-haired woman said, turning to Leonard. "Is this the unit you drove us by last night?" "Yes," Leonard said. "It isn't occupied, is it?" the husband asked. "No," Leonard said. "I don't know what those lights were, but they sure looked as if they came on from in here. Twice in the kitchen, once in the master bedroom." Cass's face rose in color once more. She set out cream and sugar and asked, "Coffee or tea, anyone?" Where is Bud? she asked herself anxiously. Isn't he coming? A stream of guests entered in little bursts throughout the afternoon. Cass overheard a man in a fishing hat ask Leonard, "You mean to tell me that this sculpture goes with the place?" "Absolutely. Do you like it?" "Like it? Are you joking? Imagine owning one. I've seen Mahan's work before, outside the corporate offices of a client of mine in Osaka." "Of course, of course," Leonard said, sounding as if he'd known that fact all along. "Well, it definitely goes with the property." Cass was surprised to feel more than a tinge of resentment. She wanted to say, no, you can't have it. I've changed my mind and it's not for sale. She walked a small group of visitors to the master bedroom and while they fumbled with the closet doors and checked the depth of linen cabinets, Cass overheard a woman who was standing in front of Kathy Shannon's unique painting. "I don't know much about art," the woman said, running her finger down the length of one of the stones. "But I know what I like.” Cass wished Bud were here to share a laugh over the stacks of erect stones. She was longing for his smile, aching for his touch, searching the room for the sound of his voice. She went back down the staircase to the living room, leaving the looky-loos to look alone. That's when she saw Bud, another woman clinging to his arm. "Cass!" he smiled at her. "Come over here. I want to introduce you to Mary Elizabeth." The room wobbled in front of Cass's eyes and she felt dizzy, unable to focus. Her feet continued to move toward him, but she wasn't sure how. Her rib cage tightened around her heart. His ex-wife, she thought. Of course they're going to have contact with one another. They have a child together. But, for crying out loud. Why didn't he warn me? She mustered every shred of decorum she had and extended a hand to Mary Elizabeth. Bud sounded cheery as he said, "Mary Elizabeth stopped by about our son's allowance just as I was leaving to come here. Kids today. Married. In school. Still needing a boost from Mom and Dad.” Bud pulled Cass to his side and put an arm around her waist. "Mary Elizabeth, this is Cass, the woman I've been telling you about." "Happy to meet you," Mary Elizabeth said, still draped on Bud's other arm. Cass was taken aback with how aristocratic Bud's ex-wife looked with her creamy complexion and raven black hair. Nothing had prepared her for Bud and Mary Elizabeth to arrive together, especially since Bud had once said offhandedly that his ex-wife, like Cass at that time, refused to be friends. Leonard rose to his feet from where he sat at the dining table, a sheath of papers in his hand. "Attention! Attention everyone!" he said. "As of this moment, we have offers on two unfinished units of this floor plan. And, this gentleman here...” He took the arm of the man in the fishing hat. "...has just handed me a check. This model, Sea Cliff 101, is officially under contract for sale. Bud, my man, would you do the honors with the champagne?" Bud put his arms around Cass and kissed her, then answered, "Yes!" "Bentley, do remember to put a towel over the cork," Mary Elizabeth said to Bud. She turned to Cass and added, "He makes such a mess, left to his own devices." Bud was gone to the kitchen before Cass blinked. She said to Mary Elizabeth, "Bentley?" "That's his Christian name. Around the time we were divorced, he started calling himself Bud. But that's history, my dear.” She waved as if dismissing an errant fly. "Bentley tells me, Cass, that you were responsible for all this.” Mary Elizabeth made the fly gesture again, but on a grander scale. "Yes," Cass said. Mary Elizabeth smiled a condescending smile and said, "You're a cut above the sort of women he usually dates. You know... devoid of intellect, firm of thigh." "Tight thighs don't preclude brains," Cass said, not about to be buffeted by a left-handed compliment from the ex-wife of the man who had just become her lover. Bud returned and said to Cass, "Petro asked me to tell you he wants to talk to you. He's out on the deck." Cass left Bud in the company of his ex-wife. While she sidled away through the room of people, she heard Mary Elizabeth say, "Change of pace, eh Bentley?” The cocktail party voices of the crowd drowned Bud's answer in a flood of noise. Petro was waiting on the deck, his tan suit jacket fluttering in the breeze, sunlight glinting off the bald spot at the top of his head. He held up a champagne stem in salute. "Cass, these have been a difficult few weeks. I'm glad your father is recovering well, not just for his sake, but for mine.” He smiled as though Cass should have figured out what his cryptic message was about. "Let me put it plainly," he said. "We've been awarded the additional three model units, with the understanding that 'we' essentially means 'you.'" Cass gripped the deck rail. In a span of minutes, the two art works she wished she'd kept and never included in this project were sold to someone else, and she was heartsick. In the same moment, her job security was guaranteed, and she was elated. That elation plummeted when she thought of her father and his wish for her to make the ranch her home. Now her decision was much more complicated and difficult. And then there was Bud, kissing her full on the mouth in the presence of his ex-wife, who shouldn't be present at all. "The catch is," Petro continued, "They need to be finished post haste. I know you planned to go to Montana for Christmas..." "I have to. I promised to. My father may not be with us for many more Christmases.” She had been wondering since this morning how she could stand to be away from Bud for the holiday, and even toyed with the idea of inviting him. "Cass, this is your job. We're under contract here." "If I can shorten my trip and line up subs to get things rolling in my absence, there shouldn't be any problem." Petro pulled the sliding door closed to muffle the noise from inside. "On one condition," he said. "If anything... any single thing even starts to go off course and I phone you at your parents', you are on the next plane home. Period." Cass was startled. "One condition? Hardly. You wouldn't fire me." "Your work is no good to me if you don't do it. I've got to be able to rely on you." "I came through for you, Petro." "But you nearly drove me to distraction. You can only do that once, Cass." "Excuse me, Petro. The contract came in because of me. You be fair to me, and I'll be fair to you." Cass looked out at the surf and repeated Petro's words from moments ago, "The next plane home... Petro, to you and your wife, this is home, isn't it?" "Of course. Same as it is to you. You live here, you're in business here." Cass knew she didn't feel the same way. The land didn't have the right texture. The climate was too uniform. "By the way, Cass, I saw Bud plant a big one on you. Are you two... you know?" "None of your business, boss." "Aha! You are." "I don't know what we are. He's here today with his ex-wife." "Oh, you mean the ice princess. She materializes every time Bud's about due for a healthy commission. Sad part is, he's never caught on to her timing." "Really? Oh, it doesn't matter. Petro, what am I doing anyway?" "You're making a great name for yourself and for me in this industry. You're taking scattershot high density housing and turning it into something more than livable. It takes a special mind set to build and create from raw material like this. For that, I'm banking on you." As the guests cleared from the Sea Cliff condo and only a handful of people remained, Bud took Leonard aside in the laundry room. A few moments later, Leonard had a brief word with his wife, who in turn said cheerily to Mary Elizabeth, "Dear, let us give you a lift home. Come, come. I won't take no for an answer.” Finally, Bud and Cass were alone. Cass wordlessly gathered her personal serving dishes together. She emptied the huge coffee maker and crammed it into a box, making a racket. Bud followed her, at first standing in the kitchen, then sitting on a barstool at the counter. "I bet you want to know why Mary Elizabeth came with me." "That would help, Bentley." He flinched. "Did she call me that?" Cass dropped a silver serving fork and it clattered. "Yes. She said that's your name. And, Bud," Cass held the fork like a weapon. "I've got to tell you. I don't like those kinds of surprises." "You're angry, aren't you?” "Let's just say I'm a little sensitive about being blind-sided. We slept together, and I don't even know your real name?" "You didn't want to be seen with me this morning, and yet I'm not supposed to have any negative feelings about that. But you get bent out of shape because my goof ball ex-wife came by and I couldn't get rid of her. And besides, everybody knows me as Bud." "Where did you get Bud from Bentley?" "I took a few letters from my whole name, Bentley Uldrich Griffith. They're family names. My mother was into fad and pretense. Good thing I wasn't born a few years later. I would have been named Maharishi Mahesh Moonbeam." Cass couldn't help laughing. "But your initials are BUG. That's Bug, not Bud." "I said I chose some letters. They weren't necessarily first letters. Nobody deserves to be named Bug." Cass laughed even harder, then she sobered and said, "Couldn't get rid of your ex? How about something subtle like, 'here's the door?'" "You know me better than that. That's not my style. Since she popped in, I thought it was a good opportunity to talk to her about Christmas, which, by the way, is just around the corner. In the interest of family harmony, we've spent holidays together with our son, and now his wife, too. But in view of you and me, I wanted to let her know that this year would be different. I can't expect you to welcome our amicable divorce arrangement, and I want to be with you." "Hold everything, Bud. Maybe you should have talked to me first, instead of Mary Elizabeth. I'm going to Montana for Christmas." "But you can't." "Why?" "I want you here." "I have to go. It's important. Perhaps life altering." "How?" "I have to make a decision about the ranch, and I can't put if off much longer." "The ranch? But you're job is here. Your life is here. Wait a minute. I'm here. After last night, I thought there was something between us. Something extraordinary." He glared at her as if shocked that she would consider any other possibility but being with him. "I thought so too. Then you showed up with Mary Elizabeth as though that was perfectly normal.” "For me, it is." "Couldn't you have called me and warned me? We're pretty new to each other. I'm not your most secure person. I've explained that to you." "She's my ex. There's always going to be a connection." "Well, call me old fashioned, Bud. As long as your life is so entangled with hers, I've got to think hard about taking you into my life too far." "Entangled how?" "You've told me she phones you every time the garbage disposal gets stuck. I'm no sleuth, but I see the connection. She's got all the utility of a husband, with nothing asked of her. All the take. None of the give. Petro even told me how she always materializes in full dress false eyelashes whenever you finish a project. We all know what that means." "She knows that's a good time to catch me. We share some commitments to David, our son. He's still in college." "Bud, this is probably very presumptuous of me, but in light of my background, I'd be doing myself a disservice if I didn't just speak up. You told me your son is married. I gather you and your ex are helping him through school." "Cass, this is really unbecoming." "You took me to bed without explaining any of these huge family ties to me, so if I'm being forthright, that's just too bad. How unmarried are you? What I want to understand is, how do you, your ex-wife and your son fit together now?" "She and I coordinate funding for him, although the heavy end of responsibility usually falls my way." "In other words, it's all a little vague." "Vague. Yes. That's it." "Except that she issues a summons, and you appear." "No, Cass. She's never worked. Sometimes her allowance doesn't go as far as she wants. I help her out." "Could your ex, per chance, be manipulating you?" "This is a side of you I didn't know existed, Cass. You aren't just mistrustful of men. You're suspicious of women, too." "Am I suspicious or realistic? None of this would be any of my concern if you and I weren't involved, but you're the one who said it, Bud. There's no going back. If Mary Elizabeth has an uneasy truce with you most of the time, then gets all kissy face when she wants your commission to become her windfall, what does that tell you?" He spun on his barstool and looked out the wide windows. As he turned, Cass saw a glimmer of what looked like insight flash in his eyes. His voice dropped half a scale. "I hear what you're saying. You've given me something to think about." She felt like the messenger whom the king wants to kill for carrying bad news. He came into the kitchen and put his arms around her. "I have an idea," he said. "I'll come with you for the holidays." She melted into his embrace. At first thought, the prospect of him being near filled her with happy anticipation. Then she thought of his relationship with his ex-wife and wondered if she could stand by silently and watch him being used, or if she would react by generating more friction and strife. Then, there was the rest of her dilemma, which had nothing to do with Bud at all. "To my parents' house? That's not a good idea." "Why?" "You've never met them." "Then I will." "My dad's been ill." "I won't challenge him to an arm wrestling match." "I have to work while I'm there." "I know how to lend a hand. But that's not what's going on here. You don't want me to come." Cass pulled her hair back from her face and sighed a deep sigh. "You're asking too much too soon, Bud. The ranch is like my soul." "So I'm good enough for your body, but not your soul?" "Ouch. Why do you want to hurt me?" Cass asked. "Hurt you? I've never spent a Christmas holiday away from my son in his life. I'm offering to give that up so I can be with you.” Tears stung her eyes. "I want to be with you. I just have so much on my mind. I have to make a decision about the ranch." "You don't have to face that decision alone. You shouldn't. Let me give you moral support." Now the tears flowed. "If you come to my parents', we'll have to sleep apart. I'm not sure I can bear it." "Cass,” He kissed her, his tongue probing her mouth, warm and insistent. She felt his arms reach and caress her breasts, then firmly hold her hips against him. Their lips parted, but their bodies were still molded in an embrace. "Come with me, then," she said. "I will," Bud said. "And you, come with me now." Cass laughed softly. "Not here. You missed all the commentary earlier. We almost had company. Late last night, Leonard drove by with some prospective buyers. This morning, Petro came in right after the gardener left." Bud's eyes opened wide, then the laugh lines creased as his body crumpled. "Well, Cass, I guess this rendezvous site is history. You haven't been to my place yet. May I be so bold as to invite you?" "Since you're soon to be a guest at my parents' home, I suppose that's not too bold." Cass's body trembled. Bud ran his fingers through her hair, pushing the strands back, kissing her ear, her neck, her mouth. She ran her hands up the starched fabric of his sleeves and felt the power of his arms beneath her touch. In his arms, there was no suspicion, insecurity or indecision. In his arms, she felt nothing but peace. "Let's get out of here," he said. "You can help me decide what to pack." Chapter 9 Cass stepped out of Bud's car. She could barely believe that he lived in this sprawling private old palace in Rancho Palos Verdes. The two-story house with a red tile roof stood nestled among thick stands of trees that looked like they'd been there since the beginning of time. They entered through a side door into the triple garage. Bud opened another door to a stairwell and they climbed to a hallway and a large upper room, a workshop with a row of windows that looked out over an entire oceanfront hilltop. Directly ahead to the west, a couple of dozen ocean miles away, Catalina Island rose in two gentle humps with a narrow isthmus between. To the south lay a deep canyon, a nature hiker's unspoiled paradise. Bud's house sat sheltered between windbreaks of tall sycamores and pines, so that only distant neighbors, to the north and east, would have to use a telescope to catch even a glimpse of his driveway. "This is your house?" Cass asked. "No, this is my garage and workshop. The house is this way.” He gestured for her to follow. They walked down a sheltered staircase of a half-dozen red tile steps and opened a door to a breezeway lined with redwood planters on either side. Cascades of creeping charley filled the thriving garden. A double oak door stood before them. Bud opened it and invited Cass inside to a huge living room walled entirely on one side by glass. "Bet you're thinking, mm, why didn't Mary Elizabeth want the house?" Bud said. "Okay, you caught me wondering." "Keep coming. I'll show you," Bud said. He led her through the formal dining room down the two stairs to a sitting room. Cass was surprised to see the house was so packed with belongings. The tops of bookcases and occasional tables exceeded the level of comfortable clutter. Books jammed with papers crammed the book shelves. From photo albums to file folders, everything was in a state of clean disarray. "Follow me," Bud said. He took her hand and led her to a wide sliding door. She stepped out onto the patio, facing the ocean from the spectacular hilltop vantage point. They stood beside a clear blue swimming pool. About ten yards beyond the pool stood a white bathhouse with yellow canvas awnings shading thickly padded lounge chairs. "Keep coming some more," he said. "We can go as far as that fence." They walked up a short garden path surrounded by ice plant and approached a chain link fence. "That land... or rock slide... is mine, too," he said. "Oh, Lord," Cass cried out. "How long has it been like this?" "It started three years ago. The most recent chunk was last spring." "The whole thing's going to fall. Right off into the ocean." "About fifty feet of it already has," Bud said. She looked down a sheer drop that she was certain must be several hundred feet. "How long do you intend to stay here, Bud? This isn't a safe place to live." He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Calm down. The slippage usually happens after the big spring rains. It's hard to see from this angle, but I had a concrete retaining wall put in. There hasn't been a whole lot of erosion since then. Then again, we've only had a few rains since then. Nothing to speak of." "You call that erosion? Looks like the bathhouse will be next. What are you going to do?" "Cass, there are dozens of us living here on the hill like this. Nobody's died of house overboard. Yet. Anyway, I own the place outright. I'm stymied as to what to do. I can't give it away." She watched the white surf roll into the finger bay below. "Can your insurance company help you?" she asked. "I can't get any. No one in this slide area can. I have a multi-million dollar house that's worth absolutely nothing." "Why did you buy it?" "I didn't. I inherited the place from my grandparents. In their day, when the hill was still here, this was grand style. Now it's just home, for as long as it lasts." "Could the house be moved?" Cass asked. "Not realistically. I've had estimates. It wouldn't be worth what it costs, and there wouldn't be much chance of the old thing surviving the wear and tear. Fact is, Cass, now you know the truth about me. I've got root rot." They walked back inside. Cass pictured what the place must have looked like when Bud's retired grandparents lived in it. The pale yellow wallpaper in the kitchen must have been elegant in an earlier era. Cookbooks still stood on the counter between marble bookends. "Bud, you have stuff here from forever, don't you?" "Easy, Cass. I'm not exactly a pathological pack rat." "I didn't say that. I only noticed that you collect... things. Many things." "I wouldn't call it collecting. I prefer to think of myself as saving important objects in case I need them." She put her arms around him and kissed him softly. "Bud," she whispered, "Sometimes you have to clean house to make room for something new." "The house looks better just having something new in it.” He returned her kiss, enveloping her in his arms. "My room is very clean," he whispered. "Come with me and I'll show you." He led her down a long, wide hallway to a room with a panoramic view of the green surf, the tide pool rock formations on the shore, and the neighboring canyon. "No wonder you can't bear to leave this place," Cass said. "I lie here..." He pointed the king size bed with its tailored dark spread. "..and listen to the wind and the waves. For the past few days, really early in the morning, there's been a lone gray whale hanging out down there.” He stood by the window and looked down, gesturing to the deep green pool where the canyon opened and the waves crashed in. "On his way to Baja, I guess. Stopping for lunch." Bud stroked Cass's neck just under her ear and said, "If you were here just at sunrise, we might see him together." His touch electrified her, while apprehension gnawed at her. She felt caught in a maelstrom of unquenchable hunger for him, but uncertain, as if there were unknowns yet to be revealed about him. He pulled back the covers on the bed. "Are you sure this whole house won't slide down there?” She teased, pointing to the rocks below, feeling her heart, soul and mind sliding toward uncontrollably toward him. "The house won't go barreling off to oblivion tonight. You and I might, though," he said as he unbuttoned her silk shirt and the fabric slid off her shoulders. They made love again as they had the night before. Cass explored every sensitive place on his body with her fingertips and tongue. Bud caressed her nipples with the gentlest pressure of his mouth. "Let me," she said, urging him to his side, her hand on his hip. He accepted her invitation to lie back while she sat atop him, her thighs hugging his chest. Her body arched, rising and falling. She leaned forward, kissing his mouth, tasting his tongue. She gasped over and over with the enduring sensation of pleasure, and her shuddering triggered his uncontainable response. The afternoon shadows lengthened into violet twilight while they rested, resumed, erupted with mutual elation, then began the cycle over again with a look, a touch, a whisper. Finally they lay spent, Cass's head on a pillow at the foot of the bed, Bud's chin cradled in the small of her back, head resting against her buttocks. For a moment, she accepted the peace she felt lying beside him. "Bud," she whispered. "I see him." "Who?" "The gray whale. I can make out his outline in the water. His tail is close to the surface." Bud raised his head. "That's our boy," he said. "Bud, I've been lying here thinking.” She turned to face him. He rolled over and propped himself on one elbow next to her. "And?" "This house is a crisis waiting to happen, Bud. It's only a matter of time until the ground falls out from underneath it." He ran a finger from her bare shoulder to the gentle mound between her legs, saying, "And to think I was so happy a moment ago." "I want you to be happy, Bud.” He kissed her eyelids, forehead and lips. "I believe you do. I know I've got to get organized here. I could call a mover and put everything in storage, but I keep thinking that's stupid until I sort through all the stuff. I guess I'm stalling because I'm so fond of this place. It meant so much to them." "You loved your grandparents a lot," Cass said. "Wish you could have met them. They did everything together. There are so many memories here." "Well, let's take stock. What things do you treasure most in this house?" "Family photos, I suppose. My grandfather's albums. Home movies in old metal canisters. Slides in trays." "The slides and film can be transferred. The albums could be put in storage. Even your garage would be better than the house, Bud." "Yeah, the pool will probably go first, then the house, and the garage last." "How can I help you? What can I do that'll ease your mind?” Cass asked. "Help me sort through boxes. Files. Would you really do that for me?" "Of course I would. It's probably better if we start in the morning when we're fresh. I'm a little tired." He ran a finger softly under her eye and down her nose. "Are you hungry?" he asked. "Want me to take you out to dinner?" "No, then we'd have to get dressed. I don't want to put clothes between you and me. Let's see if you've got a can of soup in the kitchen.” She rose to her feet beside the bed, naked in the faint light of a new moon. "Cass, I've never met anyone like you.” He rested his hands on her hips, his forehead on her belly. "You're the one-of-a-kind, Bud." Chapter 10 In the Gallatin Field airport, the Christmas tree in front of the towering fireplace was ablaze with white holiday lights, and Cass felt glad to be home. Even the life-size burnished steel geese that hung from the cathedral ceiling sported tiny red fur Santa hats. Cass thought Bud looked out of place in his lightweight sweater, cotton slacks and loafers. At least he'd had the sense to carry on a parka. Bud glanced at the other arrivals and the people who'd come to greet them. Cass noticed Bud assessing the crowd. About half the men and just as many women wore jeans and cowboy hats. The rest paraded by in jeans and ski gear in bright purples, pinks and greens. There wasn't a knit dress or a pair of high heeled shoes in the place. A man of about fifty, gnarled as an oak, approached Cass and Bud. Two women stood beside the cowboy. Bud whispered to Cass with what sounded like admiration, “Check out the perfect pencil roll on the hat brim.” "Little Cassie Brooks," the cowboy said. "Lander!” Cass said, throwing her arms around the man and the women in a group hug. Bud stood back in apparent surprise at the warm enthusiasm she expressed for these strangers. "Bud," she said, reaching for him. "These are the Thiesons." The less wrinkled of the women gave a shy nod and Lander said, "So you're Bud. Ever been up this way before?" "Can't say I have," Bud said. "Well, then, you mind the ice." "Thanks," Bud said. He shook his head as if trying not to say aloud that this was the oddest introduction and welcome he'd ever received. "How's your father, Cass? Gave us all a scare," Lander said. "Good, but doing more than he should," Cass answered. "That's Wilson. He don't know quit. Well, be seeing you in the spring, Cass.” Lander touched his hat brim. "Maybe you too, Bud. Branding." Bud guided Cass by the arm as they walked down the stairs and toward the baggage claim area. "Family friend?" Bud asked. "Neighboring rancher. Every Spring, neighbors from a half dozen ranches get together for branding. Share the work. Go from ranch to ranch. It's kind of a big deal here. It's a way to get a whole lot of work done in a matter of days, and it's sort of social, too, in a traditional kind of way." "Hm," Bud said. "I'm just curious. You didn't introduce me to the women by name, but you must know them." "Around where my family lives, when a man's ready to have another man to know the names of the women in his family, he makes the introductions." "You're kidding, right?" "Look, I know it sounds sexist. It's probably based in some protective custom from a hundred years ago." He grinned at her. "Can I do that with you?" "No," she said, taking his hand. They stood in front of the baggage claim. "Hard to lose your luggage," Bud said. "There's carousel one, and carousel one." "We graduated from drop chutes a few years ago. But don't poke fun. Bozeman's growing. Next thing you know they'll have a paging system more complex than the desk clerk yelling, 'hey, anybody here named Bud?'" Cass pointed to a small booth adjacent to the gift shop. "I made a reservation with that car rental company," she said. "Oh, here comes our luggage," Bud said. "Why don't you check on the car while I commandeer the bags?” He blended into the crowd, fighting his way between visitors armed with loose skis and holiday packages. Cass went to the counter to confirm the rental reservation. "Unfortunately, this being Christmas Eve and all," the clerk said, "We're out of cars at the moment." "Out of cars? You can't mean that," Cass said. "One is due back here any moment. The customer phoned this afternoon to let us know he'd be a few hours late returning." "But it's eight thirty. Well, I'll just go to the other agency, the one out on the frontage road." The young woman smiled apologetically. "You're welcome to, of course. But we tried to rent some of their vehicles to make up for our deficit, and what with the holiday crowds, they're out too." "How long a wait, then?" Cass asked. "Half hour. Forty minutes. You can wait in the lounge here, or I can get one of the guys to drive you over to the Log Cabin Cafe in Belgrade. They'll bring you your car as soon as it's ready." Bud walked up to her, arms loaded with their combined luggage. "The Log Cabin Cafe. Are you okay with that, since we have to wait?" Cass said. "Why don't we call a cab?" Cass grimaced, not eager to explain. The rental agent said, "Of the three cabs in town, one is working for the retirement home tonight, one's already picked up a fare to Three Forks, and the other went to the ski resort at Big Sky." "This is your turf, Cass. Show me the way." Bud helped Cass into her coat. She tied a wool scarf around her head. He pulled on his parka. "You'll want to wear that hood," Cass said. He lifted the fur lined hood and fastened the neck. They stepped outside and got into the rental agency shuttle. White exhaust poured out of every car that drove by. Bud watched his breath turn to vapor, and saw the driver take off his eyeglasses and hold them over the heater vent. "My face hurts. My chest hurts," Bud said. "How cold is it?" "Nineteen below. No wind chill, though. Nice for Christmas," the driver said. "Wind is unpleasant when it gets this cold," Cass said. "Undoubtedly," Bud said. The van drove down the long paved drive through an empty field and onto the frontage road. Bud peered out the frosty windows to the lights that bathed a tall white building and the single lit intersection beyond. "Should we have stayed at that hotel tonight?" Bud asked. Cass said, "If it weren't for the fog on the windows, you'd see that sign painted on it says ConAgra. It's not a hotel, just a stylish grain elevator." "I feel as if I've landed on the moon," Bud said. The shuttle stopped on the one well lit corner of town. As they stepped out, Cass said, "Pay close attention to the holiday decorations of the City of Belgrade. Note the similarity between Rodeo Drive and these." One eight-foot-tall metal and plastic candy cane hung draped across a single intersection under a string of lights and silver foil stars. "It's sincere," Bud said. "Like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree." Bud and Cass sat at a booth in the Log Cabin Cafe, a favorite of visiting fly fishermen in the summer and hunters in the fall. Tonight the place was occupied by a handful of ranchers in coveralls and cowboy hats, and a few ragged looking holiday shoppers, and a couple of young families clearly dining out after holiday church services, excited toddlers bouncing on the seats of the red vinyl booths. Cass looked out the clear center spot in the window to the brick facades across the street, the city building, the Rusty Nickel Bar & Casino, and the volunteer fire house. "Look," she said. "Over there. You don't know him, but that's my parents' hired hand. What's he doing here on Christmas Eve?" They watched the man climb into the cab of a flatbed truck and pull away. "I don't know," Bud said. "Why does that sign say Casino?" "Video poker. It's legal in the state. Live poker, too." "Sort of like Nevada, only smaller scale," Bud said. "Who appointed you champion of Montana's moral development?" Cass asked. "Defensive, aren't we, Cass? You have to admit this is different from Los Angeles." "Hey, I can make fun of my home ground, but you can't, all right?" "Fair enough.” Bud gently kicked Cass's thick rubber soled boots under the table. "You trying to scuff up my clean image?" she asked, taking a menu. "If I possibly can." She watched his mouth as he sipped coffee, his hands as he held the cup. His mouth was perfect, she decided. And his hands. They were designed for outdoor use. Not the smooth, un-calloused hands of so many men in business. She pulled out her eyeglasses and put them on. "Do you only wear those for reading?" Bud asked. "For now. I'm told I'll need them for driving as I get older." "What do you see, without them, I mean?" "Letters, any kind of symbols, run together in a long sloppy blur. I can't separate things to make them make sense." A grand-motherly waitress came to the table, her buxom chest a continental shelf in its own right. She held a tablet before her, and through a pronounced overbite, she asked, "Have you decided?" "We have," Bud said. "The lady will have a BLT, and I'll have a tuna melt, with plenty of sweet gherkins on the side." "Gherkins? Ah, pickles. You're not from around here. Do you know this fellow, Cass?" the waitress asked as her face lit up. She smoothed her bootblack dyed hair and said, "Coming right up" before she walked back to the kitchen. "Does everyone here know you?" Bud asked Cass. "Big state, Bud. Small population. Hard to travel too far without running into someone who knows you." "I grew up in Fallbrook, California. The avocado capital. It wasn't near as cold as this, and rounding up the herds was so much easier. They were small and green and didn't move on their own.” He sang softly, "Roll 'em, roll 'em, roll 'em," and Cass laughed. Bud fell into an easy state of relaxation in the warmth of the restaurant and the presence of the good-natured waitress. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” Bud said to Cass. What he stopped short of saying out loud was that he couldn't help thinking how odd life was. His grandparents never set out to acquire wealth. They just saw themselves as fruit growers. He smiled at Cass, remembering the questions she didn't ask when she visited his palatial home, 'who were your grandparents and what did they do?' What hadn't crossed her mind endeared her to him as much as anything. The waitress came back with their order. The side of Bud's plate was piled with little sweet pickles. "You're a fabulous cook," Bud said to the waitress. "Aw, I'm not the cook," she said. "I was afraid you were too good to be true," he grinned. "Oh, you sweet thing," she said, and she strode off behind the counter. Cass remembered what her mother had said about judging a man by how he treats a waitress. Bud certainly passed the test. Cass shuddered as if someone had thrown open a window and the sub-Arctic Montana draft had chilled the marrow of her bones. Here she was, about to take Bud home and introduce him to her parents, and she was completely mixed-up as to how she felt about him. As a lover, he was beyond anything she'd ever dreamed of. On some occasions, such as the open house, she found herself taken aback by his apparent insensitivity. At other times, she found herself wanting him to be more decisive and forceful. Then, she recognized that if he were, she would resent him. They ate and talked about anything and nothing. "What did kids do for fun here when you were teenagers? In winter, I mean," Bud asked. "The isolation made us pretty inventive. A lot of activity was centered around the Community Church Youth Group. Pastor Eckhart, he was the youth pastor then. He seemed so old to me. I'll bet he was 30." "Whoa. Seriously old," Bud said. "Now his son is a pastor. The high school tried to keep kids busy, too. But some kids would drink for amusement. Sex was popular," she smiled at him. "Probably like California, only more indoors because of the cold." Cass stared out the window, her thoughts occupied with how odd it was to see Oscar here so far from home tonight. “When I was a kid, I was at a real disadvantage here,” Cass admitted quite suddenly. “The hands at the ranch were all men. I got razzed a lot. Girls weren’t taken seriously. I wanted to be part of the ranch, and at the same time I wanted to be anywhere but on the ranch. If I hadn’t been an only child, I think my life choices would have been different.” Bud took her hand and said, “We were both only lonely children. But shame on the ranch workers for giving you a bad time. I hope they get to see you now and be sorry.” The waitress brought the check. Bud picked it up. The car rental agency pulled up out front. Finally, they could be on their way. * * * The night sky loomed palpably black, the stars big and bright as diamond clusters. Cass drove the Interstate, watching the icy drifts, paying attention to the glowing reflectors that marked the shoulders of the road. "Uh, oh." She braked evenly, almost to a stop. "What is it?" One huge animal bounded in front of the car, then another, then more. "Those are elk!" Bud said. "Look at the rack of antlers on that bull in front. No question about who's the leader. How did you know to stop?" "I thought I saw a reflection, probably from an eye. One of those peripheral things. You just know something's there. Too bad my sixth sense doesn't work that way all the time." "That reminds me. Cass, something's been on my mind that I want to ask you." "What do I want for Christmas? Oh, Bud, you're too late. We're almost at the ranch." "No, I already solved that one. What I want to ask you about is something different. I don't want to pry, but..." "You let me pry. What do you want to know?" "How did you ever learn about the man you were married to about his scam, I mean." Cass drove on. "I'm not trying to evade your question. The way I found out was so odd. A woman phoned me from a guaranteed student loan program. Said she wanted Mr. or Mrs. Terrence Elias. Technically that was my name, although I always used my maiden name. She said my daughter had skipped out on a student loan and she wanted me to make good on it.” "But, you don't have a daughter. Say, could you turn up the heat in here?" Cass fiddled with the knob and shrugged. "That's as high as it'll go, and you're right. No daughter. It turns out the bill collector got my number from someone at Terrence's office. The poor new account manager didn't know that our home number was unlisted and she was intimidated by the credentials of the woman from the student loan office." Cass rearranged her scarf to cover her neck against the cold. She heard Bud shivering. "If you take your gloves off and hold your hands right over the heater vent, you can get some circulation going again," she said. Bud tightened his hood around his head, then followed Cass's suggestion and warmed his hands. "Didn't you just tell her she had the wrong number." "She knew Terrence's place of business, his social security number, all sorts of information. She had an alternate address for him, too, in another state no less...” Cass felt relieved to be talking about the horror from her past. She had never spoken about these events to anyone outside of her parents, yet the words came easily in the presence of Bud. "...Said she kept getting the run-around from anyone who answered the phone there. She inadvertently gave me the other address while she was ranting." "And?” Bud took off his loafers and put his stockinged feet on top of the floor heater vent. "At first I thought I'd just ask Terrence. Then I thought again. He was so secretive about the phone. He would never give me the number where he was staying when he was gone. He had a private line in his office. Said I should leave a message with his voice mail..." Bud scooted over toward her. He touched her thigh. She raised her leg. He slid his hands under her thigh, between her coat and the fabric of her jeans, and let out a sigh of gratitude for her warmth. "...Your hands are so cold! Anyway, Terrence said his private answering machine was like the traffic department in advertising. Saved confusion. He'd check messages every hour or so, and he'd call me right back." "Playing it all pretty close to the vest, wasn't he? Oh, Cass, what did you finally do?" A semi truck and trailer passed them at high speed going down a grade. Cass flashed her headlights when she saw it was safe for the truck to reenter her lane. Something made a loud sudden smack against the windshield. Bud recoiled. "Rock chip," Cass said. "Any cracks?" "Don't see any," Bud said, withdrawing his hand from the warmth of her body to search the glass for breaks. She went on, saying, "So I hired a detective. He went to the address. Can you believe it? My distinguished, older husband Terrence had been commuting. From Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to his company's office in Chicago, to Los Angeles and back. And there was another Mrs. Terrence Elias, mother of the four Elias children. One was out of school, two in college, one a senior in high school." "Didn't he ever slip up? Say her name? Talk about the kids? Anything?" "Never," Cass said. "Only a couple of miles left.” She pointed to the lights of the ranch that shone in the distance. Bud took in as much of the landscape as he could under the starlit sky. The car rumbled over a cattle guard. A long fence lined a gravel road. A huge stand of bare aspens outlined the base of jutting cliffs. "That takes a more schizoid mind-set than I can even imagine," Bud said. "And he slept at night?" "Like a baby." Bud watched the stately log house take shape, and the surrounding outbuildings. There was a huge wooden barn. A roofed hay shelter. Pens. Sheds. A fenced corral. "Cass, how did it all end?" "I confided to my parents. My dad was beyond hostile. He and I took his truck and went to Lake Geneva. We waited and watched the house until Terrence returned. We opened the door, didn't knock, went in." "Oh, shit." Bud whistled. "The look on that man's face gave me satisfaction beyond measure. He did everything but soil his pants. My dad said, 'What do you intend to do about this situation, boy?' You've got to understand, Terrence was no boy. He's sixteen years older than I am. "Terrence was backpedaling like crazy. Making up stories. Compounding lies. Then he said he had to leave, and tried scooting out the door. My dad was right on his heels. Keep in mind, my dad has a rack in his truck with a loaded varmint gun. Around here, it makes sense. Coyotes and all." "A two-forty-three," Bud said. "I know the kind you mean." "So there we were. Terrence blanched out. I mean, his lips went white. His other wife was screaming, 'What situation? Who are these people?' Two of the kids were there. The look of disgust on their faces told me they knew something about Terrence and his lies." "Did your father shoot him?" "No. I sort of winged him, but not fatally." "You?” "I heard all these words come out of my mouth. I told him to hold still and answer me. Hold still and tell the truth. He was backing away, out the door, down the steps, across the stupid manicured lawn, as if he was entitled to a little weed-free patch of the world. I don't remember everything. Just images. I remember that short-barreled rifle in my hands. I don't remember grabbing it from the truck, but I may have, or maybe my dad was holding it first. I suppose I wanted to frighten Terrence. He lunged at me and the gun went off. The shot nabbed him in the side of the foot. I was the one who wanted to call an ambulance. I knew I'd have to face the police. I was ready. Dad would have supported me, too. I was willing to go to jail for shooting Terrence if that would bring him to justice. Terrence just kept saying no. No ambulance. No police. "Then his other wife fell apart and I convinced Dad to leave them alone. I mean, I was ripped off and devastated, but she really had problems. Terrence got one of his kids to drive him to the hospital. Dad and I read in the local paper that he said he accidentally shot himself." "Where is he now?" "That's the weird part. He quit his job, left his family. Then I heard he was under indictment for mail fraud. Some sweepstakes thing. The last word I heard was that he'd left the country and was hiding from extradition somewhere in Central America." "With a limp, I hope," Bud said as they pulled down the drive to the house. The lights were on inside and smoke rose from the chimney. "Count on it," Cass said as she gathered an armful of packages. "My, God," Bud said. "You're capable of violence." "I'm not proud of it, Bud. No one outside of my family and his knows that happened. And now you." The front door opened and Valda stepped onto the porch. "Hi! Valda, this is Bud. Where's Mom?" Cass asked. "Bud," Valda said, reaching for his gloved hand. "Now, Cass, don't be alarmed. Your folks are okay." "Okay? Aren't they home?" "No. Let me help you with those things," Valda said. "Come and have a cup of tea." Bud took Cass's arm, sensing from Valda's action that something was amiss. "Now, it's not a cause for major concern, but they're at the hospital." "Hospital! In Billings?" "Yes. Your father was having such difficulty breathing, your mother insisted that he go get checked today. Turns out his bronchitis is worse. The doctor admitted him. He's not in any danger, just needed to be corralled and given a different medication. But your mother just about collapsed after he was admitted. They took her blood pressure and, Cass, it was high. Dr. Rothschiller insisted on admitting her, too. She called me, hoping I could catch up with you here or on your way here. Said she'd do anything to prevent Peggy from having a stroke." Bud held Cass as she reeled. "We have to go there," Cass said to Bud. "In the morning, we will," he answered, rubbing her shoulders, stroking her hair. "No. Now." Valda took Cass's hand and said, "The doctor wanted them both to rest, Cass. Medicated them both to get them to sleep. Your father's exhausted from being sick, and your mother's exhausted from taking care of him. By the time you got there, it would be the middle of the night. The nurses thought you might want to phone the desk when you got in." "I will. What about you, Valda," Cass finally had the presence of mind to ask. "It's Christmas Eve. What about the kids?" "The older ones are taking care of the younger ones. I couldn't just leave you a note. Someone had to be here." "I'm sorry, Valda. You didn't have to leave the kids and wait for me." "You were on your way, Cass. I couldn't get through on your cell phone, and it's been hectic around here to say the least. I'm sure Oscar will come and work in the morning so you can go to Billings." Cass and Bud looked at each other, and neither said anything about having seen Oscar out near the airport. "Oh, Valda. I appreciate your help so much." "You'd do the same for me. Always have. I left the mail on the counter. You two go on now," she said. "Get some rest. Oscar and I have to put together all the pieces of a new red wagon before morning." Cass held the door open long enough to let Valda out and a blast of freezing air in. "Make yourself at home," she said to Bud. She went straight to the old wall phone in the kitchen and called the hospital. Bud sat on a hearth cushion, warming his back, eyes fixed on the glittering Christmas tree. He took in the ranch home’s interior. The upholstered furniture was heavy, with deep comfortable cushions and strong sanded log arms. The mix of furnishings was one of antiques and a few contemporary tables and lamps. Bud stood to admire the framed photos and documents on the wall. There was a college graduation photo of Cass, along with a 4-H equestrian event photo of her as a child. Alongside those were oval antique family portraits and a pair of nearly identical faded documents in elaborate script. Most of the handwritten caligraphy was so ornate and faint that he could not make it out at all. HOMESTEAD Land Office at CERTIFICATE No. APPLICATION No. | It is hereby certified, That pursuant to the provisions of the act of Congress, approved May 20, 1862, entitled "An act to secure homesteads to actual settlers on the public domain," Percival Blevins has made payment in full for of Section in Township of Range containing 160 acres. Now, therefore, be it known, That on presentation of the certificate to the COMMISSIONER OF THE GENERAL LAND OFFICE, the said Percival Blevins shall be entitled to a Patent for the Tract of Land above described. Register. The companion framed document was made out to an Elyan Blevins. Bud sat down on the hearth. Cass's voice was subdued on the phone. "Asleep. Well, that's good... How early can we visit in the morning? Oh, I understand. Then we'll arrive around eight... Thanks.” She hung up the phone. "I didn't realize it's after midnight," Cass said. She noticed a large envelope with a color photo of a cruise ship on a calm sea with glaciers in the background. It was addressed to her mother and sported a printed message that said, “Here is the information you requested.” She lifted it up and said to Bud, “I never knew she wanted to go on a cruise, let alone to Alaska.” She set it down, went to Bud and sat on the fleecy rug beside him, her chin on his knee. She stroked the arm he rested on her shoulder and looked up at him. She finally relaxed, realizing there was nothing more she could do. Her parents were mending and in the best of care. The house shielded her and Bud from the deep cold outside. The job faded into the distance of thousands of miles. And most of all, Bud was a font of kindness, a solid rock of caring. The contentment of the moment enveloped her. He leaned back against the stones of the fireplace. "No wonder you enjoy being here," he said. "This place reminds me of some of those grand old snow lodges, the ones the WPA built in the thirties." "This one's earlier. There are square iron nails in the floor joists.” Cass's pride was obvious. “Who were Percival and Elyan?” Bud asked. “Percival was my mother’s great-great somebody, and Elyan was his brother. The two ranches were adjoining 160 acre homesteads, and that’s why we have 360. They found this land and just knew they could prove it up because it had a lake and a spring.” “Oh, now I understand a little more,” Bud said. He ran his hand along the stones of the fireplace. "That's an impressive mantel. You could almost serve a buffet from the top." "That's where I had the eagle sitting, the one that's in the Sea Cliff unit." "How did you part with that sculpture once you'd seen it here?" Cass's mouth fell open. She was surprised and pleased that Bud recognized how perfectly the welded metal sculpture must have fit here. "I've kicked myself every way till Sunday for selling that piece. I should have kept it and bought another. Same with that painting I left there." Bud chuckled. "I can't help it," he said. "Remember that first time you came to my office? I thought you were stark raving to suggest placing quality art in a model unit. You proved me wrong." "I thought you were stark raving when you came bounding in dressed as a cowboy hero. That was Halloween. Now it's Christmas. Christmas Day, since it's after midnight. Here. You first," Cass said, placing a large package in Bud's lap. He shook the box and tugged at the bright foil paper until a corner tore. "It's so light. What can this be?” He prolonged the unwrapping as if savoring the anticipation. He lifted the top and rustled aside the tissue. "It's a bunch of things," he said. First he withdrew a hat, navy blue with a trim bill, fit for the commander of a ship. He put it on and asked, "Oh, captain, my captain?" "You love your sloop," Cass said. "When you're in command of your own boat, you have to be properly outfitted." He withdrew a compact bullhorn from the box and laughed out loud. "Let me guess. This is for warning other sailors to get out of the way when I'm taking out a channel marker." "It doesn't hurt to be prepared," Cass said. Bud reached in and withdrew yet more goodies, everything from non-slip ship's mugs for coffee to moisture-proof kitchen canisters. "Cass, you thought of everything, didn't you?” He rumpled the box. "Bud, keep looking! There's something more." He reached in and fished around in the bottom of the box, withdrawing a folded piece of fabric sealed in a soft plastic bag. "What in the world is this?" He unfolded the flag, a pale background with a bright pineapple in the center. Again he laughed aloud. "Do you know what this is?" he asked. "It's the flag returning sailors fly once they've had time to get reacquainted with their wives. Polite friends and neighbors don't go visiting until they see the pineapple flag." "How did you know that?" "You told me, Bud. I remember everything you say, even when you forget." He leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. Again she felt the touch of his tongue against hers, the taste of him that was becoming so familiar and welcome. He groaned and said, "You're making it hard to continue." She knelt between his knees and kissed him again, her arms locked around him. Bud cupped her chin in his hand, then held her head in his hands and kissed her, his tongue exploring and warming hers. His hands moved to her shoulders, her breasts, while his kiss lingered. She pulled him down to join her on the sheepskin rug in front of the fireplace. "You've got to open your gift, Cass. I'm embarrassed that it's only one.” Bud sat up long enough to reach another large square box. Then he lay back down on the plush rug. Cass beamed at him, teasing him with little kisses on his lips, his neck, his ears. "What can be in here?” She tugged at the velvet and lace ribbon, careful not to hurt the papier mache angel in the center of the bow. "Can I shake it?" His eyes twinkled with mischief. "Shake everything you've got." She grinned and lifted the lid on the box. Then her eyes brightened and her whole face glowed with surprise. "Oh, Bud, this is so beautiful. How did you do it? It's a perfect match.” She lifted the leather and Hudson’s Bay blanket woolen purse out of the box and stroked the soft nap. "It's outrageous. It's so... so..." "It’s so you," Bud said. "Yep," he drawled. "They got a special style here in old Montany. A ranch woman’s got to have a fittin' bag.” He wrestled her to the floor, both of them laughing. The shining blue, green, red and white bulbs of the tree caste a pattern of light over them as their kisses turned to lovemaking so desperate and focused that the impending obstacles of time, distance and responsibility rose and dissipated like wood smoke above the fire lit chimney. The fire turned to embers. Cass showed Bud to her room with its four-poster double bed. He squeezed her hand. They crawled in under a down comforter. Cass set the alarm clock on the night stand. "Let me hold you," he said. "Come here.” He pulled a pillow onto his shoulder, making a soft place for her head to rest. He put his arms around her and said, "I love the sound of reindeer of the roof. Puts me right to sleep." In the dark of the morning before the alarm sounded, they awakened in Cass's bed, entwined under the down comforter. Bud held her in his arms, kissed her mouth, her breasts, and left a trail of shuddering kisses over every inch of her body. He made love to her with the force of a sailor returned from the sea, and swept her into a secret realm of sensation so overwhelming that tears filled her eyes and she cried out from a corner of her soul she hadn't known existed. She lay gasping. Bud drew her to him, his hand stroking her cheek and brushing her hair behind her ear. Sleep took her again, a deep, peaceful, serene slumber. She awakened in the dark to bakery aromas of coffee, almonds and vanilla. She smoothed the place in the bed where Bud had slept next to her, then stepped into her slippers, wrapped a robe around herself and headed into the kitchen. Frost rose high on the windows. The Christmas tree lights twinkled, the kitchen gleamed. Bud was bent over the stove, an oven mitt on his hand. Cass couldn't help but notice that he looked ready for the frozen West in his cowboy cut jeans, boots, and a dark green turtle neck under his charcoal gray sweater. He heard her and turned around. "Merry Christmas, sleepy head," Bud said. His eyes brightened at the sight of her. "A kiss under the mistletoe?” He pointed above his head and held out his arms. "Haven't brushed my teeth yet," Cass said, hand over her mouth. He came around the counter and pulled her to him, kissing her fully. "You taste just fine to me," he said. "Now have some coffee. There's time enough. If we leave by six, we should arrive in Billings by eight. Isn't that what you said?" "Is it four-thirty?" She squinted at the clock on the stove. "Yep. I've made myself at home.” He filled a mug and set it on the counter. "And here's a Christmas stollen.” He set the hot fruited bread on a cutting board and sliced it. "I brought it from that little bakery you love in Venice as a surprise. I realize it's sort of a minor surprise at this point..." Tears welled up in Cass's eyes and spilled down her cheeks as she sipped her coffee. "I'm crying only partly because I'm sad. I'm also crying because I'm so glad you're here with me. I suppose it sounds selfish, but I can't help thinking how I would feel if I'd arrived alone." "That's not selfish, Cass. That's human. Once when David was a rowdy teenager, he fell out of a tree and broke his foot. I spent hours alone in the hospital waiting room. His mother was off doing whatever she did when I had him. That little episode was minor by comparison to what you're going through. I remember feeling sort of hollow and lonely. I don't want you to have to feel that way." He came and put his arms around her. She sniffled and he reached her a tissue. "It's Christmas and my parents are in the hospital. I've got to face the fact that they're getting older." Bud stroked her arm down to her fingertips. "Take a bite.” He held a piece of the semisweet bread up to her mouth and she ate it. "You've been so considerate. If I hadn't made the first overture last night, you wouldn't have... you know." He poured a glass of juice and handed it to her. "Give me a little credit, Cass. I'm male and a member of the human race. I wouldn't take advantage of you while you're upset. But I'll also confess. Give me any subtle hint that you want me, and I'll make love to you. You were sleeping so soundly, I didn't want to disturb you again." "Again?" Cass couldn't hide a smile. "I got up. Went outside to take a walk, but I didn't linger. The inside of my nose froze. Funny, though. I saw lights shining on the hay storage. Somebody was out there with a fork lift. Now, eat some more.” "A fork lift? In the middle of the night? Dad's been afraid someone's stealing our hay. Did you see anything more?" "No. Too dark and too far away. For all I knew, moving hay in was standard procedure. Wish I'd thought to try to get closer.” "I'd like to catch whoever's doing this." "Give me your word, Cass, you'll stay away from short-barreled rifles." He broke a slice of stollen in half, held one piece up to Cass lips, and ate the rest himself. The Christmas bread stuck in Cass's throat as she recognized Bud for the complex man he was. She found him to be fundamentally decent and caring, to the extent that he was overly tolerant and understanding. For all his advice to Cass about letting go of the past, he seemed to find it impossible to sever old ties. And, she recognized, he was so sensual that she wanted his touch against her skin twenty-four hours a day. While the barriers in her heart were falling away, the barriers of circumstance were growing taller. Bud's life was in Los Angeles. Only this morning, after awakening in her parents' house without their presence, did Cass suspect the tearing truth of her own life. She must live here, work here, be here. Chapter 11 Cass and Bud made their way down a corridor behind a round-hipped nurse whose shoes squeaked with every step. A phone rang softly at the nurse's station down the hall, while the Carol of the Bells chimed over the piped-in music. The passageways smelled like fading flowers, disinfectant and trays of uneaten breakfast. A frail old woman strapped to her bed cried out for someone named Sissy. Cass stiffened all over. Bud held her arm and led her on to Wilson's room at the far end of the hall. "You've got to spring me out of here," Wilson said to Cass and Bud without waiting to be introduced. "I don't even know where your mother is in this pit." "Dad, this is hardly a pit. And Dad, this is Bud.” Cass looked around at the gleaming steel and wood veneer, the soft bedding, the fresh carpet and sparkling windows. "I'll talk to the doctor and find out when she plans to send you home." Bud nodded hello and didn't extend a hand, since Wilson's right hand was encumbered with an intravenous tube. "Mr. Brooks," Bud said, "Is there anything you'd like? A magazine?” "The only thing I'd like is to go home. And call me Wilson." "Don't be grumpy to Bud, Dad." Bud waved a hand and said, "Oh, Cass, no man who's used to living life his own way can stand to lie in a hospital bed. It's unnatural." Wilson's glare of mistrust toward Bud softened to a narrow-eyed look of serious scrutiny. "How about a copy of Field & Stream?" Wilson asked. "You fish?" Bud asked. "You bet I fish. You?" "I'm a card carrying member of Trout Unlimited," Bud said. "Oh, no. You mean to tell me you're one of those sappy, yuppie catch-and-release guys? Wilson said. Bud rallied quickly and said, "I'm not opposed to the catch-and-eat idea, either, within fair limits to the fish population. Since I live on the coast and all, I do a little deep sea fishing." "Ever take one of those charters out of Cabo San Lucas down in Baja?” Wilson coughed deeply. "Sure have. Caught some beauties, especially dorado. The waters are full of them. On an open grill, nothing tastes better." Wilson made a thumbs up in return and, coughing, he said, "I don't know what this juice is they're pumping into me, but I'm sure clearing up with it." Cass said, "How about I go get that magazine and see if I can find out when the doctor will be making her rounds." Bud smiled at her, then at Wilson. He sat down in a straight-backed chair near Wilson's bed. "And find out where your mother is!" Wilson said. Cass smiled for the first time since entering the hospital and said, "Why, Dad, I never would have thought of that." "Smart ass kids," Wilson said, a healthy grin on his face. A nurse at the station in the hall directed Cass to the room Peggy shared with another woman. The curtain around Peggy's bed was drawn. Cass could hear Dr. Rothschiller's voice from behind the thin white curtain. "Peggy, this is serious. I'm leaving you with these booklets to read. I want you to know all the facts about hypertension." Cass heard what sounded like her mother crying. "Am I hearing you right, doctor? You're telling me I've got to take this medication for the rest of my life?" "Yes. Controlling your blood pressure may make the difference between your living a normal, active life or your facing life after a stroke, and that's optimistic. I'm putting these possibilities to you bluntly, but there's no way to cushion the facts, Peggy.” "I've been so lightheaded," Peggy sobbed. "It's been scaring me, but I knew I had to take care of Wilson." "You get some help. If you have trouble finding home help, phone my office and we'll see what kinds of services are available out where you live. And Peggy, I know it's not your nature to take pills, but you've got to take these just the way I prescribed them. Don't think when you feel better you can put them in a drawer." Cass had been eavesdropping and didn't know what to do. The woman in the room's other bed lay awake, reading. Cass couldn't tiptoe out now and pretend to enter without having heard the conversation between her mother and the doctor. The doctor pulled back the drape, and Cass stood exactly as she had been standing. "Merry Christmas, Ms. Brooks," Dr. Rothschiller said. "You're certainly racking up the frequent flyer miles these days.” "I'm just glad I'm able to. Doctor, do you expect to look in on my father soon?" "He's next on my list. Is he still as ornery?" "Yes. My friend Bud seems to have a calming effect on him, though." The words 'my friend Bud' sounded so odd to Cass, and she wondered what she should call him. My significant other? My seething, powerful, mind-exploding lover? The man whose kindness wrings my heart to limp gauze? Dr. Rothschiller said, "Peggy, I expect you can go home tomorrow. As for Wilson, we'll just see.” She spun on the stocky heel of her shoe and marched out. Peggy looked up at Cass. "Some Christmas, Cassie." Peggy started to cry. "What's the matter with me? I never bawl." "You're sick and you're dog tired, Mom. Let me get you a warm washcloth for your face and a hair brush. We'll have you feeling fit to face the world in no time." With Cass's help, Peggy put on lipstick and fashioned her hair attractively. The woman in the next bed still sat passively reading as though no one was in the room with her. "You left your friend Bud with Dad?" Peggy asked. "Last I saw them they were swapping fish stories." Bud came into the room and asked, "Would this be Peggy?" "It would," she said, the tears all gone. She offered her hand, and he took it between his. "I hope you're feeling better, and I want to thank you for your hospitality.” Bud put a hand on Cass's shoulder. An orderly came in and left breakfast trays for Peggy and the other patient, then left. "Rats," the other patient said as the pillow behind her shoulders slipped toward the edge of the bed. "Here, I'll get that," Bud said. He went to her and helped her reposition herself upright enough to eat. "He's very handsome," Peggy whispered to her daughter. "And so polished. So polite." "Mom, he's in his forties. You talk as though we're teenagers." “There’s a gap of years between your dad and me. So what?” Bud came back and stood at Cass's side. A woman in a lab coat came in carrying a metal basket full of supplies. She said to Peggy, "One more sample, Mrs. Brooks." "But they just brought my meal," Peggy said. "I'm sorry. Our schedules are out of sync, what with the holiday. No rest on Christmas," the woman said. "Would you excuse us?" she asked Cass and Bud as she drew the curtain. "I wanted to do this now before the medications come." "Dr. Rothschiller said she'd ordered something to help me fall asleep more easily," Peggy said. "It's working. I feel as if I could catch a nap even in the middle of the day.” "We can go sit in the solarium, Mom.” Cass looked at Bud and he nodded. "Oh, you kids go on home," Peggy said. "I'll feel better knowing you're holding down the fort. Just, please, don't forget to come back for me tomorrow." "We won't forget, Mom," Cass said, kissing her mother on the cheek. "I'll remind her," Bud called out from the door. They turned and stepped out into the hallway, but not before Cass heard her mother's roommate say, "Your son-in-law. Boy is he hot." * * * In the afternoon, Cass showed Bud the barn, the equipment shed, the corrals. She held a bucket while Bud poured grain from a sack marked "corn, oats & barley.” She carried the pail to the corral where four horses ambled toward them. Bud reached into the bucket and took a handful of feed. He opened his palm and let the chestnut mare eat from his hand. "That's something," Cass said as she climbed on the rail. "Night Train doesn't make friends easily." Cass held the sides of the pail with both hands and offered it to her Appaloosa. "Dody needs way more attention than she gets. But she's always a good worker come spring." "I've never seen horses with coats this thick," Bud said, patting the mane of the one gelding. "The cold makes them hair up like this," Cass said. The horses finished the treat and the Appaloosa rooted in the bottom of the bucket until Cass pulled the pail away. "You mean if a person stays here, they get hairy?" "It starts with eyebrows," Cass said, touching Bud's frosty brow. "They grow together." "You're from a different world," he said. "Maybe you'll grow to like it here. Come with me. Now you get to see the good stuff." Cass led Bud on foot along a game trail. Their knee-high boots sunk deeper, well beyond ankle depth. Snow crunched beneath their feet. In the open patches of ground, sunlight made the snow-covered forest floor sparkle. The shaded areas remained cool, and icicles hung from the boughs of the lodge pole pines. "This is what I wanted to show you," Cass said. "In a few weeks, you'll have to wear snowshoes or ride a snow machine to come up this far." They pushed through a dense grove of pines. A frozen alpine lake lay before them, hidden from view until they were nearly at its shore. A royal blue Steller's jay squawked from a branch overhead. Bud took Cass's mittened hand in his. "Who could image? This is beautiful," he said. "Look at that rock formation over there. You could perch yourself there and fish the day away. Are there fish in this lake?" "Yep. Rainbows, mostly. You could maybe ice fish, but for my part, I'll wait until summer." The noisy bellowing of hungry cattle broke the quiet of the woods. The sound seemed to come from just beyond the next ridge. "Whose ranch is over that way?" Bud pointed to the direction of the noise. "No one keeps cattle up this high," Cass said. "Sound can be deceiving when it's cold. Must be from down below." Not altogether satisfied with the explanation, Bud said, "Well, Cass, I can only imagine what this spot looks like in summer." "Follow me and I'll show you." She backtracked through the snow to the trail and skirted around the south perimeter of the small lake. When they reached the opposite side, she pointed to a huge clearing. "We call this the upper meadow," she said. "We bring the cattle up here in July and August. Not all at once, of course. It's sure good grazing." Bud raised his jacketed arms and clung to a heavy pine bough, swinging himself like a child on monkey bars. His jacket and shirt rose above his waist, exposing his bare skin to the cold. "Yikes!" he dropped himself to the ground. They heard a high piercing moan, louder than the muted demanding call of the cattle. Both stood silently, waiting for the sound to repeat. Again the weird cry echoed through the trees. "Hold still," Cass whispered. "Maybe we'll get to see him." "See... him?" In one bound, a silvery lynx leapt to the top of the rock formation Bud had admired moments before. Cass watched Bud's breath come in short puffs as he stared at the wild cat. When she turned her attention to the animal again, he screamed as if he were calling his mate and would accept no excuses. Bud whispered to Cass, "He's about as big as a middle-sized dog. What do suppose a cat like that weighs?" "About forty pounds, I'd guess.” She watched the sun graze the top of the rims. "It'll be getting dark. We'd better get back.” Bud followed Cass through the trees and around the lake toward the trail that would lead them back to the truck. "Elk. Lynx. You definitely give the wildlife tour," he said. "We can drive down by the creek on the way home and I'll show you the cow moose and her two-year-old." "Hey, Cass," Bud said. "What?" "Thank you for showing me your secret place." "What makes you think it's secret?" "Because you've never brought an outsider here before." "How did you come to that conclusion?" "Am I right or wrong?" "You're right." He put his arm around her and drew her near, touching her lips with his. "Thank you," he said. Chapter 12 In the middle of the night, Bud lay a hand on Cass's arm and said, "Do you hear that?" She listened. An engine droned. "Sound carries when it's cold and clear," she said. "That could be coming from miles away." He got out of bed and looked out the window. In the distance, a light shone at the hay shelter. "Cass, come look." She got out of bed and pulled back the drape. "Bud, we've got to get out there.” She pulled on the jeans she wore the day before. "Just hold on a second. Were you planning on driving up and letting them see you coming, or taking a walk over and losing your nose to frostbite?" "I'm just going, that's all. Maybe if we went outside and hid behind the equipment shed, we could see a little more." "Well, you're not going alone.” Bud was already dressing. Together they slipped out the mudroom door in the dark and ran the fifteen yards to the side of the shed. "Can you see anything yet?” Bud asked. "Unbelievable," Cass whispered. "They're using our truck." "Then it's got to be someone who has the keys." "Not necessarily. We always leave the keys in it." "Why?" "Somebody might need it. I'm going out there." "Shouldn’t we call the sheriff?” “There’d be nothing to see by the time they got here.” “Cass, you can't confront these people. If they're working in the middle of the night, they sure aren't going to step forward and say, 'Oh, heck. You caught me.' You've got to be a little more sophisticated than they are if you want to catch them without getting yourself hurt." The light went out. The truck pulled away without headlights, down a gravel lane beside a fenced pasture. Bud pulled Cass by the arm, leading toward the house. "When the truck comes back, I'm going to see who's driving," she said. "I'll lay odds that when that truck comes back, neither you nor I will be here. My guess is that whoever's involved with this thing knows our comings and goings pretty well." "That wouldn't be any coup. Everyone knows everyone's business around here." "Except your family's old friend, Oscar. He was out of his element on Christmas Eve." "How can you say that? For all we know, he was buying a last-minute gift. Jeez, Bud, he works here. If Dad loses money, it can only hurt Oscar." "I'm just saying you might consider every possibility. But there's no hurry about finding out. Keep your eyes open. Time will tell." The weather broke between Christmas and New Year's Day. The temperature rose to twenty above zero. Mornings began with Cass and Bud feeding and watering the livestock. Two days after Christmas, they brought Peggy home and Bud took up residence in the guest room. On the third day, they picked up Wilson and took Peggy for a follow-up visit. Each day Cass found herself growing more weary as she added the work of preparing meals and cleaning up. Once they made a trip to the feed store for sacks of grain cake. The cattle would need the extra nutrition to get through the winter months and drop healthy calves. Another day, Bud volunteered to make an unscheduled run to the veterinarian for antibiotics. On the way back, he stopped for fuel off the main highway and saw Oscar's flatbed truck at the gas station convenience store. Oscar was seated at a video machine by the window, his hat brim pulled down. Bud gassed up the ranch truck, watching. Oscar never lifted his eyes. Each afternoon required regular end-of-day attention to the livestock, and each evening demanded a brief period of polite conversation. "When I picked up the mail today, Mom, I noticed a padded envelope from that seed catalog company," Cass said one night. "I won a vegetable garden seed sampler and a window herb garden," Peggy answered. "Yesterday I got a cash rebate on some towels, too." "Why don't you win something useful, like a new fly rod or waders," Wilson said. He looked over to where Bud sat in a chair, hands over his eyes. "Say, Bud, you look like you could use a drink." "No drink will fix what's ailing me," Bud said. "Excuse me. I'm going to turn in." Bud went to the guest bedroom and closed the door. Cass excused herself as well. She fell into her childhood bed, confused, irritated, and acutely alone. "I don't care what you think of today’s or yesterday’s standards," Peggy said to Wilson as they sat alone in the quiet living room. "That man made the effort to come here. That says something about him. He and Cass are more than friends. I think we should let them know we don't care if they share a room while they're here." "Are they married? No. Has he asked her to marry him? No. Tell you what I think of those catch-and-release boys. From California, yet.” "You know what they day, dear. It's better to keep your mouth shut and look stupid than open it and prove it. Bud is working his tail off for her, and that means for you. This is not the era we grew up in, so get down off your high horse and get into this century, Wilson." Wilson looked at his wife with rekindled respect. "You're really mad at me, Peg." "Mad at you? I’d like to flatten you. Standing in the way of the first happiness your daughter's had... maybe ever." "Peggy, you haven't been mad at me in a long time. You must be convinced I'm going to live." "Are you going to live to be nothing but a pain to your daughter?" "No, Peg, that's not what I want. I don't want to stand in Cass's way. She's got Cass standing in her way, and that's enough of an obstacle.” On New Year's Eve afternoon, Cass drove the hay-filled truck and Bud rode in the passenger seat. She revved the engine to keep it warm. Bud got out and hiked up to the gate, unlatched it and dragged it back out of the way. Cass pulled forward. Bud retrieved the gate, hooked it closed and jumped back into the seat. "There's got to be an easier way," he said. "If you want the hard way, try forgetting that gate and letting the cattle get out," Cass said. "A few years ago, about twenty-five hundred head got loose from a ranch north of that Log Cabin Cafe where we ate." Bud smiled. Clearly he was picturing the sight. Cass knew she had a rapt audience and she went on. "The newspaper report said that at two-thirty in the morning, after breaking through a barrier, they were southbound on Interstate 90." Bud started to laugh and said, "Imagine some drunk leaving that Rusty Nickel after closing. He thinks he'll just drive up the Interstate and sneak in his house without any fuss. Then, he sees a herd of twenty-five hundred cattle headed straight for him. Something like that could make a fellow mend his ways.” When they reached the center of the fenced pasture, Cass shifted the truck into neutral. She turned the steering wheel a quarter turn to the right, reached for a bungee cord and secured the wheel in position. "What are you doing?" Bud asked. "Speeding up the feeding process," she said. She opened the truck door, stood with her left foot on the running board, pressed the clutch with her right foot and shifted into low. The truck started off, cutting a slow, wide arc through the pasture. Bud reached for her arm. "You've been nothing but business since your parents came home, Cass. What's going on with us?" "Jump out,” she said. “Then get into the bed.” She leapt onto the ground and Bud followed her lead from the passenger side. “I've been asking that question myself, Bud,” she said. The truck continued to move in a smooth slow arc. Cattle came toward the truck, bellowing, breathing their warm breath on the frosty windows. Together they shoved an eighty-pound bale of hay to the edge of the open tailgate. "Get ready to push," Cass said. She snipped the orange bailing twine with a pocket knife and together she and Bud kicked the bale over onto the ground. A cluster of cows descended on the hay, with a group of others pushing to get at the feed. The truck bounced along steadily. Cass and Bud repeated the process. She grabbed a giant flake of feed off a bale and tossed it down. “You knew I had a decision to make. What's happened to my parents in the last week has got to affect that decision." Bud cut open the next bale. He flaked it apart and pushed the feed toward the edge where Cass could grab it, saying, "It sounds as if you know what you're going to do." "What can I do?” she answered, tossing feed to the waiting cattle. “I have a responsibility. I can walk away from this place forever. That's a choice, and it’s one that would crush my parents. And me, too. Or I can make this ranch my life's work. I've got no middle ground to go to, Bud. I've made up my mind. I've got to learn everything I can so I can be capable of running this place." "You're telling me this out here, now? I'm out loading hay, dragging gates for you, and you just casually mention you've decided to stay? If that's the decision you've made, why haven't you told me before now?" "I've been searching my mind for alternatives. Please understand. I made a huge mistake when I gave over my destiny to Terrence. Nothing in my life to date has turned out the way I planned. Bud, I don't want to lose you. I also don’t want to leave my job. I've worked so hard, paid all the dues to get where I am." "Well, I'm glad I get sandwiched in there somewhere,” he said. "Sandwiched? Can you appreciate how difficult this is for me? This isn't just real estate. It's my home. This land feeds people. Lots of people. I've got a major life choice going on here. I can be part of the ninety-six percent of the population that only consumes, or part of the four percent that produces what we all consume. I guess you wouldn't understand." "Don't sell me short, Cass," Bud said as he thought of his grandparents and their groves, the expansion of their business, and his small part in its phenomenal growth. It occurred to him that Cass knew nothing of that, which was probably just as well. "There's a lot about a cow-calf operation like this that I know, just from having grown up here. But I don't know half of what I should about when to sell and to whom, which of the new crop of heifers to hold back for breeding, how to choose a sire. I'm a novice," she said. She pulled her knitted hat down over her ears and pushed her neck scarf inside her jacket collar and added, “What I've got going for me, Bud, is that I'm teachable. I've got to try." She looked him with her jaw set, as if defying him to argue with her. Bud said over the truck engine noise, “Excuse me. Were we finished talking?" "No, we're not finished talking, but if you haven't noticed, we're surrounded." The cows crowded the driverless truck, bawling to be fed more. One belched in Bud's face. He waved a hand in front of his nose and said, "Later, Cass, we're going to talk." They each slid down off the tailgate and ran to catch up with the moving truck. "Right now we’re going to jump back on the running board," Cass said. Inside the cab, Cass slipped the gear into neutral and released the elastic cord. She shifted the truck in gear again and said, "Better check the troughs." "Cass, isn't this a little risky, letting the truck drive itself?" "Yeah, all of ranching is risky. And it's sure harder to jump into a moving truck now than it was when I was fourteen. That's when I learned how to do this.” She asked as a second thought, "Do you want to drive back, or should I?" "You drive,” Bud answered. “I don't want you to have to catch the gates.” She drove by one of the electrically heated water troughs, peering into it for signs of ice. "If the something would go wrong and any of the troughs would freeze, that would be bad news for the cattle," Cass said. "Speaking of bad news, Cass, what about the news you just gave me?" She drove along toward the next aluminum tank. "Here's how I see us at this moment, Bud. We both know how we feel. We both know geography isn't trivial." She rolled down her window and saw steam rising above the water, a good indicator that the water was liquid. Bud watched her roll up the window and shut out some of the chill air. "I know," Bud said. "I even let the possibility of being your sidekick flit through my mind," he said, rubbing his gloved hands together. "But that's an unworkable idea, for about a hundred reasons." Cass felt her heart constrict. She'd secretly fantasized that he'd offer to quit his job and leave his home to come to her, yet she knew that was a fairy tale. He wouldn't leave his job. He was established and well-paid. No one would argue that point. His spoke often of his son, whom he saw frequently, so there was another tie. Bud loved the life he led, she knew. He relished the challenge of making new real estate developments come together from structural skeleton to inhabitable buildings. He loved city life. Loved being on the water in his boat. She wondered what were the other reasons he could never picture himself in a new place, a frozen place, but she didn't dare ask. Instead, she said, "Neither of us has to say good-bye. All we have to do is recognize that soon we'll be living far apart.” She slipped the gear lever into neutral and set the brake. The engine hummed. The heater blew warm a stream of air into the cab. "I don't know if I can bear so much as sunlight coming between us," Bud said, pulling her toward him. He kissed her cold lips and warmed them with his own. His tongue reached to hers and lingered. She felt the insistence of his kiss, the demand for more of her. He pulled off his glove and reached for the zipper of her jacket, sliding the metal tab down until he could reach inside. Her nipples, warm and soft, hardened at the cool touch of his hands. Bud groaned and said, "I've been sleeping alone in the guest room for centuries. Dynasties have fallen while I've been alone there." "If this truck heater were better match for twenty above, I'd consider exactly what you're thinking, Bud. Hay and all, I'd do it right here." "Cass, can't we go to a motel or something?" "There is no motel.” Cass laughed while Bud's fingers explored under her bra, inside the waistband of her jeans. "There's not even a good grain elevator. And the barn is colder than this truck. We'll just have to improvise." She touched the front of his jeans and he groaned. "Maybe," she whispered, "If we expose just one thing at a time and keep that one thing very warm.” She kissed him and pulled his tongue into her mouth. "Like that," she said. The fog inside the truck windows turned to frozen condensation, opaque sheets of ice that shielded them from the world while they pleasured each other inside shifting bundles of clothes. They drove back toward the house, Cass's knees weak and still trembling. Bud opened and closed the gates at each stop on the way. At one stop, he turned to Cass and said, "I've been thinking about your dad." "Funny. For the last little while, I wasn't thinking about my father at all." Bud smiled and stroked her cheek. "What I was thinking, Cass, is that a visit to Southern California might give them both a break. Five days. A week. Enough for him to shake that bronchitis and give your mother a change of pace. What do you think?" "I think it's a good idea. And the only one who could handle things here while they're gone is Oscar. Given how you feel about him..." "If I'm wrong, I'll stand corrected in time. If I'm right, better to give him time to step a little deeper into his own mess." * * * When Cass and Bud returned to the house, they found Peggy stirring a pot of stew and Wilson napping in his reclining chair. "Mom, you shouldn't be exerting yourself," Cass said. Wilson opened his eyes and sat up. Bud took seat on a hearth cushion, warming his back by the fire. "Cass, leave your mother alone," Wilson said. "Daddy, I was going to make dinner as soon as we got in," Cass said. "Now about my daughter," Wilson said to Bud. "She won't suffer idleness on the part of anyone, least of all herself." Bud lowered his head, and Cass was sure he did so to hide a smile. She finished setting places, and set a basket of hot crusty sourdough bread on the table. "Come on you two, supper's ready. And, Dad, leave Bud out of this." "Oh, I think Bud is in a need-to-know position, Sweetie. It takes one workaholic to know one, so I'm the one who can tell him about you.” Wilson rose from his chair and motioned for Bud to join him in the dining room. "She takes after me, yes sir. Only to an extreme." "Wilson," Peggy said, carrying a crock of stew to the table. "You..." "Me? I'll tell you about me, Peg." Bud rubbed his chin and said, "Please. Cass told me something today I'm sure she wants to discuss." The noise of colliding plates and flatware stopped. Steam rose off the bowl of stew. "Yes," Cass finally said. "I've been thinking about your offer, Dad, and about how soon I can accept it. I've decided I'll commute until I finish Sea Cliff. In the next several weeks, I'll give my notice to Petro and to my landlord. Then I'll be here for good." Her voice quavered before she finished speaking. Her hands shook. She steadied herself against the table, for as certain as she had been of her decision when she made it, now she wasn't confident at all. Leaving the coast would mean leaving Bud. The last few days of sleeping apart had been hideous. She felt as if once they had spent a night curled together, even if they'd had harsh words during the day, even if their situation appeared hopeless, in the nights they belonged together. Wilson raised his glass to her and said, "Six weeks ago, those words would have made me the happiest man in the world.” He said to Bud, "Now, to be polite..." He raised his eyebrows at Peggy as if letting her know he was trying to be considerate. "...I have to ask, Bud, how do you feel about all this?" "How do I feel?” Bud looked around the table, his eyes finally fixing on Cass. "How the hell would I feel? Embarrassed to be chasing your daughter half way across the country when her mind's already made up. Uncertain about how we can keep any kind of relationship going when we're fifteen hundred miles apart, or if we should even try. Hurt, Cass, that you would invite me in, even into your family..." He gestured from chair to chair. "...then shut the door on me.” He looked down at his plate, then raised his eyes to Cass. "Since you insist on us having a private conversation in front of your parents, I'll tell you something else. I think you want what I have to give you, and you're so frightened of being loved that you'd sabotage yourself." "Peg, how about we excuse ourselves?" Wilson asked. "No, Dad," Cass said. "There's no way to put a lid on a discussion like this once it's started.” She mashed up her stewed potatoes and ate haltingly, as if waiting for someone else to resume the "what-about-Bud" discussion. Bud said to Wilson, "No offense, but has your daughter always been this... this..." "Detached? Obstinate? Self-directed?" Wilson asked. Cass stared from Bud to her father and back to Bud. "When Cassie was a little girl, about seven, her mare dropped a foal that lived about an hour, then died. I'll never forget my squirt's face when she watched that poor baby die. Cassie did everything she could, warming that little thing, wiping its runny face. When it stopped breathing, her face turned solemn as stone. She asked me, 'Can Patchy have another baby?' And I said, 'In time.' 'Good,' was all she said. She wiped her hands and left that barn. Never spoke of that foal again. You see, some folks wail and cry over what they've lost, and that's one way of getting by. My Cassie, she just stows it all inside somewhere. Don't ask me where. It's not my way." "Dad, I don't remember any of that.” Tears glazed Cass's eyes. "Come with me, honey," Peggy said, taking Cass by the hand into the kitchen. Peggy put a pot of coffee and said to Cass, "I remember. You were a different child after that. But you've always had a lot of love in your heart. You're just a little more guarded than most. Nothing wrong with that. Now there's something I want to suggest to you in private." She gestured for Cass to slice a pan of brownies. Cass lifted the chocolaty bars one by one onto a serving plate, while she saw over the counter that her father was leaning toward Bud, speaking so that she couldn't hear. Peggy said, "Cass, you and Bud are welcome to share a room while you're here." Cass swallowed hard. "Mom, are you sure?" "You're old enough to know your own minds.” In the living room, Bud listened to Wilson's apparent rumination. Wilson asked Bud, "What's the thing you like most about fishing?" Bud thought deeply, somehow sensing the question was not about fishing at all. He answered, "The good fight." Wilson nodded and rubbed his chin. "A good rainbow can be less than couple of feet long, weigh just a few pounds, but boy oh boy can he make you earn him. When he's on the line, he's your equal. There's that moment when you respect that fish the way you respect your best friend." Wilson exhaled a deep, "Aha." "Come to think of it," Bud said. "That's the kind of respect I have for your daughter." Cass carried in the brownies. Wilson coughed a deep cough. "Will I ever get over this all-fired bronchitis?" "You know, Cass and I had an idea," Bud said, nodding to Cass. "Before you say anything, Peggy and I had a thought, too," Wilson said. "But I'm sure Cass will clue you in to that when the time is right. Now, what did you want to say?" "Well, we're going to have to go back to Los Angeles in a few days. I think the two of you should come with us and leave Oscar in charge here." Peggy set the ladle back in the earthenware crock. "Bud, whatever made you two think of that?" "You should have some time off, that's all. Cass, your folks can even stay at my place, if that's comfortable for everyone." Cass's mouth dropped open. She couldn't imagine why he was inviting them to stay with him, especially without discussing that part of the plan with her first. She didn't know whether to be annoyed with his presumptuousness or delighted at his insight. Both her parents looked genuinely pleased. "With you?" Cass asked. "I have more room. Don't look so worried. This isn't mud slide season. In any case," Bud said, "With a little warm sunshine, I bet Wilson could shake that bronchitis. As for you, Peggy, you could use some rest too." "That's a generous offer, Bud, but I wouldn't feel comfortable if Mom and Dad didn't stay with me." "I'd feel more at home, too," Peggy said. "But I'd get the most rest if I were away from that old beast.” She pointed at Wilson. "See how she treats me?" Wilson beamed at Bud. "I'll have to work, but Mom, you can rest and check out the museums, anything you like." Peggy said, "This is sounding like fun." The telephone rang and Cass left her place at the table to answer it. "Bud?” Cass queried. “Yes, Mary Elizabeth, he's right here.” She held out the receiver until Bud took it from her. "Yes, as a matter of fact, this is an inopportune time," he said. It was obvious to Cass that Mary Elizabeth went on speaking. Peggy looked at Cass and raised her eyebrows. "Bud's ex-wife," Cass whispered. "Got a hell of a nerve calling here," Wilson said loudly. Cass didn't protest her father's remark. She shared the same sentiment. Wilson kept grumbling, but Cass managed to eavesdrop enough to know that Mary Elizabeth wanted money and was wondering when Bud would provide it. "Is everything all right?" Peggy asked when Bud came back to the table. "Yes. Mary Elizabeth, my son David and his wife Juliann all said to wish you a Happy New Year. David wants to meet you, Cass. We're invited to party he's hosting after a home game." "And Mary Elizabeth will be there,” Cass said. "She seldom goes away," Bud answered. "Californians," Wilson muttered. "Who can make any sense of them?" That night, Cass brushed her teeth and watched from her bathroom door as Bud brought his clothes and shaving kit into her room. She came out and helped him hang his shirts in the closet. It pleased to her to have the scent of his clothing among her things, but she was still uneasy with his invitation to her parents. "Bud, what was that about, asking my parents to stay with you?" "A friendly gesture," he said. "I'm sure you mean well, Bud, but I hate to think of my father catching sight of your cliff. He has a heart condition." Bud undressed down to his shorts. She watched the muscles in his arms contract and release as he stripped. "It was just an idea. I can take no for an answer sometimes." "And, Bud, please slow down. You keep barreling into my life like a Mack truck." "Cass, take a reality check. You and I are in each other's lives. Stop with the come-close-go-away stuff. Some people would read that as 'denial.'" Cass stood clutching the collar of her bathrobe. "If you tell me you don't want me, I'll go away tonight. But you can't say those words, can you, Cass?" Her chin drooped. She ruffled her hair and it fell around her shoulders. She wouldn't look at him. He lifted her chin and pressed his mouth to hers in a fierce, urgent kiss. His tongue caressed hers, warming her to her toes. "You can't say you don't want me," he said, guiding her firmly to the bed. "This feels so awkward, with my parents here." "I don't feel awkward at all, Cass." He pulled back her robe and kissed her between her breasts. She struggled under his insistent kisses. "Stop fighting me. Stop fighting us," he whispered. He wriggled out of his undershorts while holding her in place. Her hips writhed. He loosened the sash on her robe and the soft fabric fell open. She felt herself open to him, and she returned his hard, rough kisses with an intensity to match. They wrestled across the sheets, bound to one another in a moment oblivious to the ice on the windows, the need for covers. A bell chimed somewhere distantly. Then, there was a firm rap at the bedroom door. Bud pulled away from Cass and for that instant looked like some wild creature, a bull elk prepared to fight to the death in the heat of the rut. "Cass," Wilson said through the closed door. "Telephone. It's for you." "I'm sorry, Dad. I forget to bring the phone in here for the night. Look how late it is," she said, pulling her robe tightly around her body. “If only I could count on my cell phone here,” she muttered. "That's what I told the man, but he said it was important." "Who?" "Petro." She said to Bud, "I'd better take it.” Then she called out, "Be right there. Thanks, Dad." She left Bud staring at the ceiling, eyes shut tightly, a grimace of purest anguish on his face. Moments later she returned. "Let me guess," Bud said. "I've got to catch a plane tomorrow," she said. "My guys, my own guys installed carpet with a ragged flaw right down the center. They've got to rip it up, and the schedule just went to zip." He pulled a pillow over his head as if trying to make the world go away. "I'm sorry," she said. "That sort of knocked the suds out of the mood, didn't it?" He took her in his arms and pressed his tense, rigid body to hers. "Quell my fire for you? Not a snowball's chance," he said. Chapter 13 One crisis after another kept Cass at Sea Cliff 104. The installers left a gap between the powder room toilet and the ceramic floor tile, and she cornered them to insist the damage be repaired. The drapery man hung the valance so high that the sill showed beneath it. She made a note to phone and have him correct the problem. Then the sofa was delivered, custom made out of the wrong fabric. Finally, her mother came into the unit behind a young man in coveralls with a putty knife in his hand. "Cass, am I early?" Peggy asked. "No, Mom, I'm late. Did you manage driving in traffic?" "Aggression is the key, dear. I terrorized them. I went to the museum of contemporary art, and then to that huge Swedish furniture store. I had a fun day. In fact, every day since we've been here has been a great day." Cass hugged her mother and said, "Doesn't it feel good to leave Dad with someone and just go?" "I have to confess it does. The woman from the home-help agency you found, Lupe, has been wonderful, Cass. I only hope Dad isn't giving her too much trouble." A man in a blue uniform shirt came through the door. "Last delivery of the day," he said. "Where do you want these tables?" Two other men stood behind him, a heavy glass oval showing from beneath a quilted pad. "That's quite beautiful, but it's not what I ordered," Cass said. "Sign here, lady." "I said it's not what I ordered." "If you don't sign for it, I'll have to take it back. No telling when you'll see it again." "I don't want to see it again." "Suit yourself, lady.” He turned around to leave. "Wait a minute. Where are the tables I ordered?" "Truck's empty, ma'am. I just follow the manifest." He turned and followed his helpers back to the truck. Cass considered signing for the tables and accepting them the way she had come to live with Rashmi's mirror, the mirror she and Bud had laughed about the first night they made love, only two doors down the causeway. She wished she could have that night again, before she ever knew how present his ex-wife was in his life. "Lady? Oh, never mind." She stared the unwanted table and considered the potential hazards of glass breakage in a model unit. She waved a hand to dismiss the men, but they were already gone. "The tables are turned now," Peggy said, "No pun intended." "How's that?" "I'm rested, and you're plumb out of steam." * * * At Cass's apartment, Peggy went right to Wilson while Cass invited the home helper into the kitchen. "How was your day, Lupe?" Cass asked. The dark-eyed woman smiled with her mouth and her eyes. "Wilson, he's a little unhappy. I helped him into his chair first thing, and he says he doesn't want to be a do-nothing. I tell him he's a do something, just a different something. We all have changes." Cass nodded. "He tells me he wants only to work at his ranch," she whispered and put her finger over her lips. "I tell him I want to be with my husband, rest his soul, as I was before the troubles in my home, El Salvador. But it is no longer possible, because he is gone to heaven. So, I spend my days now with Mr. Wilson, and I am blessed for the kindness of all of you." Wilson called out from the other room, "Lupe, come here, dear, would you? Tell Peggy what you told me about your house. They don't have wood stoves, or fireplaces, Peg. No heat. Did you ever hear of such a thing?" Lupe excused herself to join Peg and Wilson. Cass was left thinking, and for an odd instant, she envisioned some far off Central American landscape, with Terrence limping along a barbed wire fenced shore, and a coconut palm lined beach. He was the man she'd promised to love, honor and cherish, and she had, right up until the magnitude of his betrayal fell on her like an avalanche. He was the man who promised to love, honor and cherish her faithfully, yet he'd knowingly, deliberately forsaken that promise. Bud, on the other hand, was a man who seemingly held no secrets, except that he had promised to explain his weird Halloween get-up and never mentioned another word. For the most part, he operated openly, even if he didn't operate flawlessly. But none of that mattered, she told herself, because she'd made up her mind to go, and he never said he would do anything but stay. "Goodnight, Mrs. Cass," Lupe said. "I see you tomorrow." "Thank you, Lupe." "Oh, Mrs. Cass. Mr. Bud called. He asked me to tell you. He has to go to a new project with Mr. Leonard, then he has to pick up Mrs. Mary Elizabeth because her car she says is broken. He asks you to meet him at Mr. David's party.” The way Lupe spoke, addressing everyone formally, Cass's family and relationships sounded excessively complicated. She sat down at the oak table in the kitchen and thought that Lupe had perhaps unwittingly identified the core problem. All Cass wanted to do was to simplify her life. And tomorrow would add still another new relationship, Mr. David, Bud's son. And another, Mrs. David, or as Lupe would say, "Mrs. Juliann.” Then there was Mrs. Mary Elizabeth, to whom Bud was still tied out of some unfathomable motivation. Peggy came into the kitchen saying, "Thanks for giving me your car today. And for everything. Honey, I feel better than I've felt in years." "I'm glad, Mom.” Cass's eyes misted. "You stay right there," Peggy said. "I'm going to make you a nice cup of tea." * * * In the morning, Cass left her parents with Lupe and found her way down more than a hundred miles of highway to a quaint old wood frame apartment building in San Diego. A hand drawn scarlet and black poster board sign on the lawn said, "Aztecs Rule!” A tall, dark-haired young man of about twenty-one, with eyes the color of mountain bluebirds, greeted her at the door, and she knew instantly he could only be Bud's son. "Cool. You gotta be Cass," he said. "You're like, hah...” It sounded as if he was about to say ‘hot’ and thought better of it. He continued by saying, “...here. You’re here. Dad's in the kitchen.” David pointed. Want to say hi to Juliann? My wife.” He guided Cass by the arm, presenting her momentarily to his bride and to his room full of college friends along the way. "Dad!" he called out. "Your lady's here." Bud found them and gave Cass a kiss. Arms around her, he said, "I told David I'd tend the barbecue out on the deck." "Bud, I don't know anyone here but you. Don't ask me to mingle.” "Oh, you're a good mingler. Come find me after you've had a chance to get acquainted with the kids." Cass turned away. Sometimes, Bud could be so intuitive, she thought. And other times, he was blindly insensitive. She felt out of place in the company of so many energetic college students. Juliann, however, approached her and made her feel right at home. "David and I have been looking forward to meeting you," she said. Her soft blond hair was pulled back behind her ears. She wore a faded gingham shirt and worn Levis. "David was so excited to meet you and have you over. He finally even put up a bookcase.” She pointed to a decorative brick and pine board shelf that held a music system and neat rows of text books. "Let me give you the tour of our apartment." As Cass walked with the young woman through the one bedroom and its small bathroom, she noticed what appeared to be new towels hanging and new accent rugs on the floor. "Bud told us you were a designer. David couldn't bear to have you see how scruffy our place had been looking. We spruced it up." Juliann's smile was so genuine, Cass felt immediately affectionate toward Bud's daughter-in-law. "Your place couldn't be any lovelier," Cass said. "It's so bright and welcoming. Look at that coved ceiling molding. How did you and David ever find this great old building?" Juliann's smile widened and her hands grew expressive as she told Cass all about their search for student housing and how this apartment had opened up just as they were to be married. "I've told them they should be in a security building," said a voice that sounded like the whine of a de-clawed cat that had inadvertently been locked outside. "Oh, Mary Elizabeth, I don't go to the laundry room alone or anything. You just have to use common sense in an old neighborhood like this." "Old! It's decrepit.” Cass would have recognized Mary Elizabeth's pained-sounding voice anywhere. "Don't you agree, Cass?" Mary Elizabeth asked. "Looks to me like David and Juliann are grown up and able to decide for themselves. But if Juliann wants my opinion, as student apartments go, I'd say this one has character and charm." Mary Elizabeth threw Cass a look that she could only read as hostile. "Excuse me," Juliann said. "I've got some artichoke dip in the oven.” She scurried out, leaving Mary Elizabeth and Cass alone in the bedroom. Cass tried to think of something upbeat and positive to say to Bud's ex-wife, something that would pave her a graceful escape. She settled on a comment that was unlikely to generate dispute. "Your son is quite handsome. And he seems to be so well-liked.” A loud rendition of a bawdy fraternity song came from the living room, followed by what sounded like the young men vying with one another for the most disgusting armpit noises. "He's a lot like his father," Mary Elizabeth said. "He should have gone to Harvey Mudd, instead of this party school." "Mudd? Is engineering David's field of interest?" "Parents should direct children to their interests, not the other way around. I almost had Bentley, or as you call him, Bud, convinced that the kids shouldn't be living here. But since he's been spending so much time with you, he's not as concerned as he was before." Cass inched toward the door. "Bud's always concerned. He also has respect for his son's judgment.” "Bentley still has an obligation,” Mary Elizabeth said. "A responsibility. Of course, never having had children, you wouldn't know about obligation and responsibility." Cass felt her mouth open, chin fall. She was stunned at the nerve of this woman, and the cruelty. Mary Elizabeth couldn't begin to know why Cass hadn't had children, and how much responsibility she carried. The only way to avoid a scene was to say, "If you'll excuse me..." and sidle out the door into the living room. "Do you know what else?" Mary Elizabeth asked, following on Cass's heels. "I'll tell you, since you won't ask. I liked it better when you were a novelty." "A novelty, as in a fleetingly interesting toy? No, I'm quite capable of sustaining interest," Cass said. "Very bold, Cass. So you're not such a wilting lily, after all." Cass made her way through the college kids who were watching a television with the volume turned up to wall rocking decibels. She squeezed through the kitchen and out the narrow door to the deck where Bud was grilling hamburgers. "Can I just say how beautiful you are? Could you grab me a platter from the kitchen?" he asked. "Sorry. I'm not going back in there alone." "They're just raucous. Not dangerous." "The kids are fine. It's Mary Elizabeth." "Oh, Cass, she's just a snob. You’re a designer. You've dealt with snobs before." Cass looked out across the yard to the decaying apartment house behind the alley. On the rooftop, she saw someone walking. "I don't care to be around her.” Bud set his spatula down and looked at her. "Please don't say that, Cass. My son is the joy of my life. Whatever our differences, his mother and I have always kept cordial so we'd never have to worry about who's going to be with him where, or when." "That's as it should be, Bud. But I don't need that woman in my life." "Cass, someday David and Juliann will have kids. What am I going to do? Say, 'Sorry, can't come to the hospital to see the new grandchild. Cass won't be in the same room with Mary Elizabeth.'" "Wait a minute," she said. "You and I are about to be geographically incompatible. You're jumping way ahead of yourself.” Cass could feel herself slamming shut, like a retail store with a folding iron gate and key lock. End of emotional business day. Closing up shop. "No, Cass, I'm not.” He searched her eyes again. "What are we to each other?” He drew her to him, his hand stroking her cheek and brushing her hair behind her ear. "Could I convince you to stay? Could you love me that much?" Love. Love was what Terrence had professed. Love made her believe lies. Love made her swallow hurt and shame. Love was a joke and she was the brunt of it. Yet from the sound of Bud's voice, and the actions she could track without question, Cass could see that love meant something different to Bud from what had to Terrence, something different from what it had meant to Cass in the past. "What would love mean to us?" Cass asked. "That's an odd question." "Not odd to me. Am I happier waking up with you than I've ever been in my life? Yes. Oh, yes. So if love is savoring every minute with you, wanting to do for you and be with you, yes, I love you. But honestly, Bud, I mistrust the word." He leaned back on his heels. "You're a funny lady. Funny peculiar. I've been showing you that I care, doing my level best. Mistrust has no part in love. None. You hang on to the past with your teeth like a bull terrier, as if last year's misfortune had some value today. Then you withdraw and detach, as though you needed protection from me. Me! Why do you do that? Why?" "I don't know!" Cass said. "I don't know. I never knew I was doing that, and now I can see in your eyes that I've hurt you." "Well, good. At least you can see that far." They stood without speaking. Finally Bud said, "Old what's-his-face really did a number on you, didn't he?" "More than I realized." "I can do battle with anything I can see or feel, Cass, but when it comes to ghosts of deceitful lovers, I'm out of my league." Cass grabbed Bud's hand. She felt a terror of losing him, and losing him at this moment would be more than she could endure. "What about you?" she asked. "Do you love me? Enough to follow me?" The back door opened and a young man's ruddy face peered out. "How long until food?" David's friend asked. "Dude, quit rushing me! Five minutes," Bud said, shoving the door closed. "I already love you," he said. "The fact that I can't just up and leave my job doesn't mean I don't love you." He left her standing on the deck with its peeling paint and sagging posts while he went into the kitchen. "He loves me," Cass thought. "He said the words, and I don't doubt him. And I love him. That's what's been happening to me since I met him. Oh, I get it. I love him." Cass debated whether to tell Bud the hateful words Mary Elizabeth had said. She considered the way she had lived her life with Terrence, keeping her concerns and worries to herself. Anything different, she decided, was preferable to repeating the past. In a moment Bud returned, a ceramic platter in his hand. "Your ex was telling me a few minutes ago..." Cass waved a hand the way Mary Elizabeth did. "...that since I've never had children, I don't have any understanding of responsibility toward other human beings. She also said she liked things better when I was a novelty." Bud set the platter down and took Cass in his arms. The back door opened and Cass heard an "Oh, excuse me, Dad," followed by the sound of the door closing. Bud stroked Cass's chin, ran his fingers through her hair. The only emotion Cass wanted him to express was the one he wouldn't acknowledge. Anger. "Baby, I'm so sorry. Mary Elizabeth must feel very threatened. A novelty, as opposed to something of enduring quality? I don't imagine in all these years since we divorced she's ever encountered anything as unsettling as you." "Me?" Cass asked, wondering how the worst of Mary Elizabeth's behavior got turned into a left-handed compliment. "Her world could change in an instant because of you, Cass. She likes to be in command of her world." "You just said you love me," Cass said. The impact of his simple statement was still sinking in. "I don't say those words lightly. I'm also old enough to know that love conquers relatively little. People with the best of intentions pledge unwavering loyalty no matter what, then 'no-matter-what' happens, and the burden turns out to be too great. I'm a realist, Cass." Cass stood paralyzed with confusion. First, she didn't know if she had unwittingly alienated Bud to the point that he would retreat from her for his own protection. Then, she thought, Aha! He's waffling. That thought gave way to another. Soon she would be living in Montana, far from him. The prospect nearly shattered her. Yet she couldn't abandon her parents. That was unthinkable, too. Now, by circumstance and choice, she and Bud were geographically impossible for one another. "Please, try to consider the source.” He held her tightly. "Give me a hand here, Cassie. We've got to go feed these hormone powered students." After the party, Cass was startled to see Mary Elizabeth get into Bud's car. Only after she thought about the situation did she realize that if Bud drove the woman down, he'd be obliged to take her back. But then, she asked herself, if he could drive Mary Elizabeth, why hadn't he been available to drive Cass? Cass felt herself stiffen when Bud took her in his arms and said, "Follow me until I drop her off. Oh, and I'll stop for gas at that station just before the on-ramp. You should fill up, too." Sometimes he's so... so... bossy, Cass thought. She followed Bud's Mercedes, ruminating on her growing annoyance. When he pulled in to the gas station, she did, too. He got out, gave the attendant his credit card, then returned and began pumping gas into his car. Mary Elizabeth continued to sit in Bud's passenger seat. Cass tried to turn on her pump, to no avail. She went to the cashier's window. The young attendant explained that she had to prepay before filling her car's gas tank. She turned to see Bud washing the windows of his car. Mary Elizabeth pointed a perfectly manicured fingernail to a spot he'd missed. Something about the scene seemed so wrong to Cass, she flinched and turned away. She didn't see Bud's anguished look in her direction, nor hear him tell his ex-wife that the ride was a favor and to kindly quit griping. "That gentleman," Cass said to the clerk behind the glass, gesturing to Bud. "Did he authorize my purchase?" "No," the attendant said. Cass dropped her own credit card into the steel cashier's drawer. She went back to her car and pumped her own gas, her temper rising to a slow boil. Bud had invited her to his son's house, and asked her to drive by herself the hundred miles while he drove his ex-wife because her car was suddenly not running. Mary Elizabeth, Cass suspected, had choreographed the entire day. Mary Elizabeth still held him by the balls. Bud drove off, waving good-bye cheerily. Cass got in her car and headed onto the freeway, passing Bud, never glancing into her rear view mirror. That night, when Cass returned home, her mother was sitting in the living room alone, watching television. "Where's Dad?" Cass asked. "He went to bed. Do you hear that?" "What?" "The sound of silence. His cough is gone." "You're right. He is better. Really well, finally. Say, where's Lupe?" "I sent her home. You know, Cass, I invited her to come with us, to the ranch." "What did she say?" "She said she'd pray about it. I think she'll come. She has no family here. Only a brother in El Salvador. A cattleman. She says in the tropics, the Brahman breed is the most popular. Isn't that something?" The phone rang. Cass reached over turned off the phone. "Cassie, what are you doing?" "I don't want to talk to Bud if he calls." "Why?" "Mom, I'm beyond furious at him. He's a good man in a lot of ways, but more often than not he puts everything and everyone else in his life ahead of me. Especially his ex-wife. She governs him so well, she might as well still be married to him." "Peculiar. That doesn't sound like the man I know." "Then you don't know him well enough.” Cass got up and dead bolted the front door. She paced around the living room, mumbling. "Cassie, you should talk to Bud. He cares for you, and I know you feel the same way about him." "I'll talk to him when I'm good and ready. Anyway, I made my decision, Mom. I'm coming home to the ranch. I've got movers scheduled. My apartment's already rented to someone else. I can fly back and forth until the job's finished, and that shouldn't be more than a few weeks anyway. What is Bud the avocado boy going to do about any of that?" "Avocado boy?" Peggy asked. "Ah, I get it. Rule number one of war. Dehumanize the enemy.” Cass sat down on the sofa and, fists clenched, said, "I have to face the facts. He's divorced, but he's not divorced at all. Been there, Mom. Done that.” She covered her face with her hands, but hands couldn't cover the torrent of tears. She sobbed, no longer able to put up a front of non-caring. "Our lives aren't heading the same direction," she said between gasps. "He's got his own life right here, right down to his ex-wife." "Well, I'm sorry, Honey. I liked him, but if he doesn't have enough sense to quit placating her in order to have you, screw him." "Mother!” Cass blew her nose into a tissue. "Being a ranch woman gives me certain rights. I don't have to mince words." Cass put her head on her mother's shoulder. "I'm sure going to miss you, Mom, until I get home.” Chapter 14 The fourth model home challenged Cass's skill and taunted her with bittersweet recollections. The view from the master bedroom included less of the coast road, more of the wide open ocean. Memories of Bud haunted her especially in that room, for she envisioned him as he had been the first night they made love. Surprisingly, it wasn't their lovemaking itself that replayed in her mind. The vision that returned was the muscularity of his nude back, of him standing on the deck, ceramic mug in his hand. Although the floor plan was identical to the first unit she'd completed, this end unit, since it shared only one common wall with another condo, contained an additional set of odd sized windows overlooking the surf. Cass looked out those windows and thought of the man she'd grown to love. But that was also the man who made his way through life as though he had blinders on, the man who caters to his ex-wife as though they were never quite completely divorced. The thought of going to her rented a week-to-week furnished garage-turned-apartment in Venice Beach made Cass's neck tense, but at least she knew Bud wouldn't ever think to look for her there. She'd managed purposefully to avoid him for nearly two weeks. Petro confirmed that Leonard had started Bud on a new project up in the palisades. Although she knew he'd show up again at Sea Cliff, she planned to sidestep him until she could talk to him without shattering like a carelessly dropped sheet of glass. Everything that crossed her path reminded her of him. The shirts on the revolving rack at the dry cleaners looked like his shirts. The music on the radio was music they'd heard while they danced. She told herself that she was not fleeing from Bud the man, but from the seductively counterfeit dream of what she'd hoped they'd be to each other. She refused to return his calls. She threw herself into her work, and in her work, she grew daring. In a radical departure from her usual inoffensive subtle shades and textures, she chose a carpet pattern that by her demure standards was bold, with accents of teal green, deep blue and cranberry red in a soft gray background. Casting caution aside, she hired a young couple, muralists, to hand paint a garland of ivy leaves over the arched dining room entrance. She arranged for a Swedish finish on the oak floors in the hall and kitchen. She chose the furniture for comfort and brightness, as though this place was her last and best expression of herself. One rainy late February afternoon, when her bespectacled eyes were swimming with too many pages of photographs from light fixture catalogs, she heard the front door of the condo open. There was something about the sound of the door as it broke the seal of the weather-stripping. She knew whose hand held the latch. Bud stood in the foyer, wet boots on the cardboard that Cass had laid down to protect the floor. His maroon canvas raincoat sagged around him. Cass was taken aback by the look in his eyes. They were usually so alive and blue. Today they were dull, like the eyes of a refugee too long without a home. "Did you think we'd never speak again?" he asked. "I knew we would. I didn't know when.” She stood and approached him to help him out of his coat, then caught herself. How did the habit of tending to him form so quickly, she wondered. And how did it become automatic. "I don't deserve to be treated this way," he said. "I never gave you cause for mistrust. I made a point of being there when you needed me right down the line." Cass went to the partially complete kitchen and opened her thermos. "Right down the line, my ass. That's how you see yourself," she grumbled. "You're cold. Have some coffee." "Is that all you can say to me?” He took the disposable cup from her hand and sipped. "There are too many reasons why you and I would never work," Cass said. The causes were all present in her mind, but the scent of him, the nearness of him clouded the obstacles, which she knew was why she'd avoided him all this time. Bud sat in a chair at the plastic shrouded dining table. "What reasons could possibly overshadow what you and I have together, Cass?” His hands were shaking. "The first is geography. You hate small towns. I live in a no-town, just outside a small town." "Okay, I can't dispute that." "And you can't dispute the fact that you think this, Los Angeles, is real life, and anything remote from here is half-life. You believe people who live without nonstop stimulation are half-wits." "I never said that exactly." "You as much as said that. You accuse your ex-wife of elevating herself to some sort of position of superiority, then you do the very same thing yourself." He set the cup down, then lifted it and set it on the kitchen counter. "Me? Superiority?" "Yes." Cass was feeling better, lighter, for saying out loud these thoughts that had weighed so heavily for so long. "And speaking of your ex-wife, how tied up with her are you anyhow?" The words flowed easily now. Cass recognized that at this point, she didn't care, had nothing to lose. The Bud she loved was already lost to her. "Tied? Why is that any of your concern?" "It isn't anymore, I guess. But Bud, if you're sort of married to her and sort of not... well, Jeez, it's a fair question. I mean, who's more important in your life, the woman you claim to love, or your ex-wife, unless of course you're still sleeping with her." "Sleep with Mary Elizabeth? Are you nuts? What goes on in your head, Cass? I help her, that's the limit of my involvement." "Why?” Cass asked. "She's never worked. She's never remarried,” Bud said. "But she could work, couldn't she?" "At what? She studied art history, but that was a long time ago." "So?" "I got used to paying, and years after my commitment was over and done, I just kept paying. It was no hardship for me, and it kept her content." "Do you see why you and I are impossible? Spoon feeding me would never keep me content." "Of course not. Your independence attracted me to you in the first place." "If you really wanted me, at some point, you'd have to upset her." Cass heard her own voice climb an octave. She got up and went to the sliding glass doors to look out at the rain that pelted the glass. She consciously lowered her voice. "You spend your time, your energy, and a big part of yourself on Mary Elizabeth. The more you do for her, the more helpless she becomes, so you're not really helping her. If you think you are, you're kidding yourself. She's perfectly capable of taking care of herself. But that's just my opinion. Now I'll tell you how I feel. When you cater to her and put her whims ahead of everything else, including me, I feel sick inside. So sick, I've got to get away from you. Don't you see? That's enough of a reason for us not to be together." "Mary Elizabeth is just my old business. Why should something so trivial upset you so much?" "Old business may be trivial to you, but it is not to me. I wanted to be your new business. Your only business." His tone softened. "I suppose it bothers you that I help David, too." "Of course not. David appreciates you. Respects you." "You're just saying that because he's male." "I'm saying it because I noticed how he talks to you and treats you. I pay attention, Bud. The same way I watch and listen to Mary Elizabeth. She manipulates you and you don't even know it." Cass paced, shrugging her shoulders, clenching her fists. "Like when you invited me to the party at David and Juliann's. On the way home." "What?" "Mary Elizabeth sat in the front seat of your car on her personal-trainer perfect little rear end while you pumped your gas and I pumped mine. And that's the other thing, Bud." "What other thing?" "Why are you so stingy?" "Me? Stingy?" "You, Bud.” She took a breath, fists knotted, pressed into her hips. "When I drove all the way down to meet your son in my car, you didn't even have the courtesy to offer to buy me a tank of gas." His eyes opened wide, mouth fell slack. He slapped the table top with open hands. At first Cass thought he understood what she was saying, recognized that he was wrong and was about to apologize. Then, he said, "Well, excuse me! I didn't think of it. I was a little rattled, having Mary Elizabeth in my car and you by yourself. The whole thing was awkward. I'm not perfect, Cass. But at least Mary Elizabeth never accused me of being stingy." Cass exploded with, "Why would she? You treat her as if she's a hothouse flower, needing your tender care, and you expect me to be understanding of that, as though I'm more durable, more capable, or more stupid!" "You're not like her. You're different," he said. "That's what I liked about you first, when I hardly knew you. You’re strong. You take good care of yourself." "If you like me because I stand on my own two feet, what keeps you hooked into being Mary Elizabeth's rescuer?" "Different person, different situation," Bud said. "No it's not! You don't even see what you're doing. You're hanging on to Mary Elizabeth the way you're hanging onto your house. It's as if you're the supporting beam, with no structure around you. You're never going to have a present if you don't loosen your grip on the past." "You're a great one, telling me what's wrong with me. You're so island-unto-yourself self-contained. No wonder you didn't notice your ex had another wife." "Oh, so you're not just stingy. You're cruel. Get out of here, and get the hell out of my life." "I will. But not before I say this. Remember when I told you I wanted you to emote? Express yourself. Run with your feelings.” He got up and went to the foyer where his coat hung dripping wet. He pulled it on. "Do me a favor, Cass. Forget what I said. Put a lid on your emotions. I never meant to open Pandora's box." With that he turned and walked out. Bud got into his car and drove. He pounded on the steering wheel, as though he wished the words that had flown from his mouth could be retrieved and unspoken. He found his way to the marina and parked his car in the lot by the locked gate that led to his slip. Rain soaked him as he walked down the gray planks of the dock. He climbed aboard his sloop, opened the hatch and made his way down the wooden steps to the galley. Rain beat on the window beside the dinette, while inside the cabin was dry. The mugs Cass had given him hung secured behind a strip of captain's rail. The new air horn was mounted on the wall near the fire extinguisher. Everything was as he liked his haven to be. Secure, safe, prepared for any eventuality. The flag Cass gave him sat in a cubby behind the dinette seat. He rested a hand on it. He saw her eyes, alive and happy, green as the pine boughs and shining under the lights of the Christmas tree. She'd been so delighted to have found gifts uniquely for him, and her joy at pleasing him showed in her every soft contour of her face. He opened his hands and turned his palms up on the table top. He tried to imagine those hands never touching her again, and he felt an ache under his breastbone so cold he thought his heart would freeze and stop. * * * On the next dry day, Cass met the floor finisher at the unit. "These are the areas," she explained. "From here..." She paced off the foyer, hall, kitchen and the dining room. "...To here." She walked around the man's floor finishing equipment as he dragged it in, and in the process passed in front of his face. He smelled heavily of peppermint and slightly of alcohol. "Are you all right?" she asked. "Fine as fleas knees," the heavyset man said, tugging the suspenders on his coveralls. "You can't stay here while I'm working. Can't walk on the floor till it dries." "I've got lots to do, anyway. I'll come back this evening." At the Culver City offices of Petro and McGregor, Cass walked up the concrete steps to the employee's entrance, envelope in her hand. She had to lean into the wall to allow to two workmen carrying a bolt of carpet to pass. She pushed open the double doors between the design conference room and the front offices, and walked down the long silver-gray and burgundy hall past Payroll and Accounting to the main lobby. The receptionist, a young Latino man, sat behind a sleek black lacquered desk on a raised platform. "Tico, Petro hasn't returned any of my calls. Is he still out of town?" "Yes, Ms. Brooks. Can one of the account team members help you?" "No," she said, slapping her open palm against the sealed envelope marked 'personal and confidential.' "He's the only one.” She looked down at the formal resignation she held in her hand. "Would you do me a favor and see to it that this gets to his desk?" "Sure," the young man said. A phone line buzzed. He held up one finger as if asking Cass to wait. When he finished taking a message, he said, "You had a call.” He pulled a pink note slip out of a clip and handed it to her. It said, "Juliann. Lunch? If possible, meet at noon, Aunt Letty's Veranda in the Marina." Cass looked at her watch. "She didn't leave a number?" "No. Sorry." "Thanks, Tico," Cass said. She left through the gleaming projects exhibit room with its photographic displays of recently finished work, uncertain as to how to respond to Juliann's invitation. Cass had no way to know if Bud was behind the lunch idea, or whether that even mattered. By leaving the envelope with Tico, she had executed her mission. In four weeks, other than her moral obligation to help guide the project to completion, she would be officially through with Avakian and McGregor Urban Spaces. She tried to think of a single reason why she should not be cordial to Juliann, and she couldn't come up with one. She genuinely liked Bud's daughter-in-law. And anyway, Cass would soon be gone for good from Los Angeles, finally at home in Montana. Cass spotted Juliann in a booth facing the windows of the small storefront diner. She was sipping lemonade from an old Mason jar, the way it was served at Aunt Letty's. Juliann motioned for Cass to join her. "I'm so glad you could come," Juliann said. "I was hoping to see you before I left for San Diego this afternoon." "Everything all right?" Cass asked. "Yeah, except, you know, Bud told us you'd moved to Minnesota." "Montana," Cass said. "I knew it was one of those M states in the middle. Try the buffet?” Juliann asked. Cass and Juliann took their cafeteria style trays and loaded plates with black-eyed peas, okra, sweet potatoes and smothered pork chops. Cass chuckled as she sat down and looked at her servings. "I never eat like this. There's enough fat, carbs and salt here to..." "Oh, you've got to bulk up. You're going to the frozen tundra," Juliann said. The way the younger woman dove into her lunch, Cass found it hard to believe Juliann stayed as slim as she did. "I'm just sorry about you and Bud," she added. "David is, too. David says you were the best thing to happen to Bud maybe ever." "David said that?” Cass was at least pleased to get Bud son's vote of confidence, even if it came after the breakup with Bud. "Did he say why?” Cass twirled a bite of pork chop in gravy, and finally ate a tiny sliver. Her appetite was diminishing, just talking about Bud. "Because Bud seemed happy. You know, Bud works at acting happy most of the time. He's either putting on a show, kind of a party guy, or mister big executive, kind of scary." Cass sat back. Juliann's perceptions of Bud intrigued her. They were so different from the way Cass saw Bud. "With you," Juliann said, "He was just himself. But that's not the only reason." "Oh?" The okra, which Cass usually enjoyed, suddenly tasted gummy and bitter. "David just about cheered when he heard what you said about his mother.” The corners of Juliann's mouth rose in the faintest sly smile. "About Mary Elizabeth? What did I say?” Cass remembered saying many things, virtually all of which she wouldn't want repeated to the woman's son. "That she should get up off her meddling tail and get a job. I mean, those weren't the exact words. But, she's my mother-in-law." "Oh. I hadn't looked at her in that light, before," Cass said. She laughed in conspiracy with Juliann, then said, "And David was okay with that suggestion?" "Sure. You've got to understand. David loves his mother. And really, she gives us a lot, which she's in a position to do because Bud gives her a lot.” The waitress swooped by and poured more lemonade. "Look how long her fingernails are," Juliann whispered. "Cass, maybe I shouldn't be telling you all this, but you're so easy to talk to, and you know the whole family. With Mary Elizabeth, there's a string on every gift." Cass couldn't help thinking that only a few months ago, she didn't know this family at all. Now this young woman saw her as a confidante. How easy it would be to have Juliann around. She was so alive, open to possibility, not the least bit guarded. Cass felt better just being near Juliann and basking in her abundant energy. "David knows his mother wants a return on every favor, but there's nothing he can do except decide whether he wants something from her enough to let her yank the strings again." "But it bothers David that his mother whipsaws his father around?" "Oh, yeah. Mostly he wishes Bud would quit seeing her in soft focus, you know, like those sappy sepia-tone greeting cards. David expects Mary Elizabeth to push for what she wants. That's her nature. He was glad you finally confirmed what he'd been telling his dad all along." The waitress sauntered by again, red fingernails flashing. "Pecan pie?" she asked. Cass looked down at her plate, only half of which she'd touched. "No, thank you. You, Juliann?" Juliann shook her head and the waitress vanished. "Cass, you're really moving?" "I've already moved. By the time the ground thaws and we're ready for branding in Montana, I'll be through with my job and out of here." "I wish you weren't going to go. I was hoping you and Bud... I mean, whatever happened between you two is none of my business, but I wouldn't be surprised if Mary Elizabeth was at the bottom of it and I wish I could help somehow.” She waited for Cass to respond. "What Mary Elizabeth does or doesn't do isn't important. How Bud lives his life is what might have mattered to me. When I met him, I was trying to get beyond mistrusting men. I've obviously changed, because I sure trust him. He's like a rock. Always his same stubborn self. It's as if someone put crazy glue on his feet and he's stuck. Won't budge. I love him, not his former life with her.” Cass looked to the ceiling. "Oh, brother, I've probably said way too much." Juliann smiled and pulled a straggling wisp of her hair behind her ear. "No you haven't. You're definitely talking to the right person. David and I care about him more than anyone... except maybe you. That reminds me. David asked if it would okay if we texted to you every now and then." "I'd like that," Cass said. “I’ve got an errand to run,” Juliann asked, holding up her large tote bag. “It’s not far. Will you come with me?” Cass thought for a moment and answered, “Sure.” They walked two blocks to a concrete and glass contemporary two-story building with a sign over the door that read, “Marina Way Retirement Village.” Juliann opened the doors and the receptionist greeted her with a broad grin. “Who’s your friend, Juliann? Where’s David and Bud?” The stocky woman asked. “This is my very good friend, Cass. The guys won’t be in today, but I have some puzzles and more crosswords for the gang.” “Go on in,” the woman said, pointing to the double doors beyond the reception area. The two women entered a comfortable lounge area. A wizened old man pushed his walker over toward them and called out, “Julie, baby, I missed you. Who’s the honey?” A gray-haired woman with swollen ankles ambled closer and scolded the man, saying, “Henry, you know Juliann is married. Juliann, where is your sweet darling husband?” “He’s in San Diego, but he’ll be back to do a re-enactment with Bud in the next few days. This is Cass. She’s new to our group.” A third senior perked up from the sofa nearby. “I loved the Lone Ranger bit on Halloween.” Juliann said, “Bud likes to challenge your memory. Have you all been working on your lines from the next movie selection?” “Can’t we do something we know and remember, like Green Berets with John Wayne?” Henry asked. “We only go back 10 years or so. New movies and recent remakes, with a minor exception for timeless folk heroes,” Juliann said. “We’re trying to keep our memory cells current.” Cass smiled, draped an arm around Juliann and said, “I’m so glad to meet you all.” Only now did she understand Bud’s crazy Halloween costumer. “You know, dear,” said the elderly woman, “Bud’s grandma was my best friend.” “He remembers and I do too, sweetie,” Juliann said. “Look, I brought you all new crosswords and number puzzles. And some fresh magazines and large print books.” * * * Later that afternoon, Cass completed the day's errands as she finally pulled in to the furniture manufacturer's plant in Torrance. Order sheet in hand, she was determined to inspect the upholstered pieces before they were ever put on a delivery truck. She made her way from the reception desk to the floor with the help of the shift foreman. "These are them, right?" the uniformed man asked. He pointed to a sofa in the fabric Cass had selected. She nodded at first, then leaned forward and lifted one of the cushions. "Down? These are stuffed with down?” She couldn't hide her complete exasperation. "Says right here. Down pillows.” He held a clipboard with a duplicate of her order form. "Down accent pillows," she said. "Not the sofa cushions." "Who did this?" the man ranted. "Who made this mistake?” He turned to Cass. "Ma'am, the price quote on this sheet is for foam and poly-fill.” "I'll accept the sofa, if you'll give it to me for the price you quoted," Cass said. He scowled and slapped the sheaf of invoices in his hand. "Hell of a bargain for you, lady. But it's cheaper than doing the whole thing over." "Works for me," Cass said. "Send the sofa on your next delivery." Cass walked out of the giant shop, down the corridor and to her car. She managed to pull onto the northbound freeway precisely at rush hour. Foot alternating between the gas and the brake pedal, she crept along for nearly an hour in a ribbon of tail lights until she'd covered the twelve crowded miles back to Sea Cliff. She rubbed her eyes as she walked the stairs to the model condo in progress. She opened the locked door and swung it back. The weather stripping on the bottom of the door scraped. She looked down to see huge raised globs of floor sealant. She flicked on the light. The varnish-like substance shone like liquid amber. Cass knelt and rapped on one of the mounds. It was as hard as dried acrylic. Panicked, she could only think to call the finisher. She grabbed her cell phone and scrolled through her list of Petro's staff suppliers. She called the man's home number. "It's Cass Brooks. Sea Cliff. The unit you finished today. It's lumpy. Big, huge raised mounds of crud. What happened?" "Give it time," he said. His words were slurring. "What do you mean, time?" "That stuff seeks its own level." "It's already sought its own level and it's staying there. You get your equipment over here and you make that floor right." "Not tonight." "It's not going to be any less lumpy in the morning." "It's not going to be any worse, either." "This project is on a deadline, man. The next subcontractors can't come in until you're finished." "Ask me if I care," the man said. The man's words sounded to Cass like a weird cosmic echo, a one sentence summary of her fate. She cared. Bud didn't. At least not enough to release the past and extend a willing hand toward the future. Cass fought the impulse the throw the phone. Her own rage frightened her. She could only remember being so angry one time in her life, the night she confronted Terrence. She took deep breaths and stepped backwards, her thoughts buzzing as frantically as a disturbed hornet's nest. The pain of loving Bud consumed her. The prospect of seeing him made her recoil. She ached for calm, for freedom from the longing he triggered in her with every look, every touch. The only relief she could imagine was in the form of retreat. She would abandon everything here and find some peace back home. She couldn't and wouldn't juggle two lives any longer. She drove to her furnished rented Venice-funk apartment, sadness and weariness overtaking her. Once inside, she opened a duffel and started packing. She'd given formal notice to Petro, had an obligation, but the thought that overpowered her was that she simply had to get out. Certainly, nothing was going to happen at the job site for days. The floor would have to be completely stripped and redone. She called the airline and booked a morning flight to Montana. Nothing could console her. She tried to imagine herself happily learning every detail of ranch management, but all she could see was Bud standing in the doorway in a rain-soaked canvas coat. She missed his voice, she supposed, most of all. His laughter. His eyes, smiling. His hands on her waist, holding her. She had to stop herself before she reached for the phone to call him and beg him to start over. Start over what, she thought. Start over, knowing they could never live together. Separate lives, his with an ex-wife always at his heels. No. Too much frustration. She wouldn't call. She would let her heart break once again and go on with life alone. She'd had too much of grief to be willing to settle. * * * The icy Montana mornings were crowded with chores. Cass and Oscar plowed snow with the truck to clear the roads, hauled and dropped hay for the cattle, and mended the occasional snapped fence line. Then there was the usual general maintenance work of life, including trips into town with Lupe for groceries, Lupe practicing driving the three-quarter ton Suburban. She had to sit on a pillow in order to see out the windshield. Lupe had flowed into the family as quietly as melting snow into a stream. Once she discovered that the ranch house had indoor hot and cold running water, an electric washer and dryer and an operating furnace, she made herself comfortable and found her own niche. Petro called one afternoon and asked when Cass would be back. "You said it, you wrote it, but I don't accept your resignation," he assured her. "I'll tear up your notice. Just take a little more time off if you need it, then come back." "Petro, I can't carry two full-time jobs fifteen hundred miles apart. I tried. I appreciate everything you've done for me, but I can't be two people." "What about the project, Cass?" "Everything is done except the finish installations. The files are all in perfect order in the office. Give me anyone you want, anyone at all, and I can shepherd the final work over the phone." "Cass, I got the contract because of you. Leonard isn't going to be happy about this. If he pulled out now, I wouldn't have a leg to stand on. I could lose a lot." "He's not going to get vindictive, as long as you get that clown who did the floors over to clean them up before Leonard gets a look at that unit." "What's wrong with the floors?" "You have to see the absence of pride in workmanship to fully appreciate it." "If that brother-in-law of mine messed up again, he's finished." "Brother-in-law? Well. Petro, the floor sure isn't finished. But I am." "You're not even coming back to say good-bye? Everybody gets a farewell lunch." "Petro, forgive me. This is the most difficult decision...” She started to say 'of my life,' then thought better of it. Chapter 15 For the fourth time that early February afternoon, Cass drove out to the rail-fenced heifer pen that lay beyond the two acres of yard. Out of the truck, gumbo mud squished under her overshoes and she cursed it, knowing the early melt could lead to calves sickly with scours. The sky had broken bright blue and a warm Chinook wind softened the chill. Of the four heavy springers, the first pregnant heifers ready to calve, all were round as giant pumpkins, their developing milk bags swelling. But one had gone to the far corner of the pen under the cover of the tall wind block. Cass watched her carefully. The young pregnant female held out her tail. She lay down, then stood again, walking back and forth as if pacing. Cass checked her watch. Three-thirty. She hesitated to leave, but thought again of how adamant her father was about calving. She'd figured he'd be disinterested, having spent his whole life doing the same thing each spring. To her surprise, he had insisted that she come get him. She climbed in the truck and drove back to the house. She left the engine on, ran inside and called out, "Dad! We've got a little labor action going. Better get your jacket on. She's not going to wait for you." On the well-worn path to the pen, Wilson said, "Keeps you busy, doesn't it, watching the heavies?” "I've been at it about every hour and a half," Cass said. By the time they approached, the heifer lay on the ground. "Do you think I'm going to have to pull her?" Cass asked her father. She stalked close enough to see a pair of hooves sprouting out from beneath the heifer's tail. "Give it a little time," he said. No sooner had he spoken than the calf slipped out onto an icy patch of ground. "Easy, eh?" Wilson asked. "You bet. When I was a teenager, I remember calving being, sort of, more critical. Cesareans and all. Was this one just especially easy, or is this something different?" The heifer rose to her feet and welcomed her newborn calf to life with great licks of her tongue. Cass let a smile take her over. She wished Bud were here to share the delight of birth, until she remembered that everywhere Bud went, Mary Elizabeth was sure to follow. "I've changed my approach over the years and you'd better know I take a lot of crap for it." "How do you mean?” "I used to breed all my first-time heifers for calves with weight." The calf's legs wobbled as it tried to stand. "That's where the profit is, isn't it?" "Yeah. Problem is, these little things can't deliver them without trouble. So I've been keeping a few apart, like these, as an experiment." "Experiment?" The calf made it to a standing position, its spindly legs wide apart. "Yes. I've been called everything from a reactionary to radical, but fact is, I found when I quit fighting nature, I had a lot more success. You breed with skinny little bulls like Brangus or even longhorns, and you get a calf that shoots right out." "But then you've got a skinny calf." "A skinny first calf. A lot of folks tell me I'm a fool, I'm wrong. But then, a lot of people tell me growth hormones do no harm, they're the wave of the future, and so on. I don't buy any of that. Call me old-fashioned. Call me nuts. Call me broke if you have to. I'm not going to doctor the beef that comes off this ranch." The calf rooted to nurse at its mother's swollen milk bag. "How do you know how many you can afford to keep apart?" "We'll cover all of that soon enough. You're going to remember more than you think. You learned a lot when you were a kid. Soaked it right up.” "I don't know, Dad. How long do we keep her and the calf here?" "About a week, I expect. Meanwhile, you've got the others here about to drop, and at my count, thirty-seven more beyond that." "And I check them day and night until the last one drops her calf?" "Cookie, that's being a rancher. Do you still want to take over this place? All by yourself?" "Don't needle me, Dad." "I'll lay off, Cassie. But I want you to be happy and you're not." "How do you know?" "I'm your father." * * * In the bright ranch kitchen, the phone rang. Peggy picked it up. "Hello? Oh, hello! Good, dear. Yes, thanks. And how are you?.. Sure, she's right here.” Peggy handed the telephone to Cass. "Yes," Cass said. "Bud?” The sound of his voice brought back every feeling of heartache she'd been trying to bury under long hours of strenuous work. "Don't hang up, Cass. There's a reason why I'm calling. But first, how're you doing?" His tone sounded so welcoming, like a soft kiss after a long absence. "I'm okay. We all are. The folks are going on a cruise as soon as branding is over." "Good for Peggy and Wilson. I'm glad to hear they're well enough. There's a reason why I called, in addition to the fact that I miss you so much I need to hear your voice. Petro asked me to get some details from you about the last Sea Cliff unit.” "You may miss me, Bud, but you're not about to make any inconvenient changes in your life because of me. And, I left the whole file with Petro." "I know. Cass, I can't stand not being with you. He said you promised you'd shepherd the job over the phone to anyone he appointed." "I meant any other employee of Petro's. Not you, Bud." "But, Cass, you said 'anyone.'" "Interiors aren't your job. You don't get paid for doing mine. You work for Leonard." "We're figuring out all those details on this end. Now, are you going to help me through the finish, or not?" Cass felt utterly deflated. Four months ago, Bud had asked her for her figures, hard numbers that would reveal her costs and disclose the percentage of markup his company was paying. Then, she'd been indignant and refused to give an inch. Now, she was the one who had abandoned the project she'd fought to win. Fairness would only be served if she helped Bud with every detail. "What do you need to know first?" she asked. "I've got the file in front of me," he said. "Let's start with the manufacturer in Torrance. I can't keep a clear head. I'm shaking just thinking of you." She wanted to say that she longed for his touch, that she remembered when she sat in the kitchen where she was standing now and he'd fed her Christmas stollen and coffee. She remembered falling asleep in his arms and awakening to him desiring her in the dark, cozy hours of the morning. Instead, she gave him facts and numbers, specifications and dollar amounts. Finally, Bud sighed and whispered, "Cass?" "Yes." "I concede I may have been bullheaded, on a few points, anyway." "You mean on a personal level?” she said, knowing full well the business call was a thin guise to get her to talk to him once more. "Of course I mean on a personal level. Woman, what do you want from me? Blood?" "Blood would be good," Cass said. "I've already put out the sweat and tears." "Give me some time with you, Cass." "What's changed?" she asked. "Nothing. I still love you." "You just don't get it, do you, Bud?” She'd almost succumbed to his charm, then she asked herself if she wasn't defeated enough. There could be nothing between them. The chasm was too wide. She'd give him every shred of information he needed to cover over her trail and finish her work as though she'd never existed, and write him off permanently. He spoke into her silence. "You'll be flying in for the open house on this last condo, won't you?" "No," she said. "In April we'll be branding. My life is here now." "Cass, it doesn't have to be." "But it is." * * * In a matter of days, Bud took unprecedented action. Dressed in a charcoal suit and wearing a tie, he left his private office and walked down the covered patio to Leonard's door. He heard what sounded like a hundred sparrows in the neighboring eucalyptus trees, and smiled. He'd never noticed them before. He looked at his watch. He had only an hour until he was to meet Mary Elizabeth at the bank across the shopping center parking lot. He knocked on Leonard's private office door and then opened it. "Hey, Bud, what was it you sounded so urgent about?" Leonard asked. He invited Bud to sit in one of his massive straight-backed chairs, chairs that must have been selected to accommodate Leonard's former-football-player frame. Bud looked out the windows to the orange-and-purple blooming birds-of-paradise and deep blue lilies of the Nile in the garden. "Bud?” "Sorry," Bud said. "I've got something on my mind. You remember Cass Brooks, the interior designer, really beautiful smile, reddish brown hair." "Sure. Christmas party. Justice to silk. Hard to forget. Weren't you two an item?" "We're way beyond the item stage. At least, I hope. That's why I've got to talk to you. I want to phase myself out of the palisades project. Sea Cliff is all but done, and I want to talk to you about that, too. Specifically about the last model unit, 104. “You look disoriented,” Leonard said. “May be even sad. What’s going on?” “I’m not a pro at leaving. My office,” He half-smiled. “I’ve even been divorced without managing to fully leave my ex-wife.” "Hold everything. Someone offer to take you on as a partner? Couldn't you at least tell me so I could make you an offer, too?" "No, Leonard. It's nothing like that." Leonard's phone rang. He picked it up only long enough to say to his secretary, "Hold my calls.” Then he focused on Bud and smiled a knowing grin. "Okay. Spill it. Who's recruiting you?" "It's worse than that, Leonard. Or better, depending on how it all turns out. I've got to have some time off. A good chunk of time. To be with her. In Montana." "You're putting me on.” Leonard stood and paced around the room. "I'm married. Petro's married. You're not married, man. Don't tell me my last hope, my ideal, is thinking about..." Leonard pushed his fingers through his hair. "It's deplorable." "But it's real. I'm going there. She may have given up on me, but I'm not going to quit. I know I can't wage an ordinary fight, because she's no ordinary woman. That's why I want your help." "My help? Bud, I've got nothing to do with this." "Yeah, you do. Here's how. Remember the sculpture in 101? And there was a painting, too. But those aren't the biggest things. It's about Sea Cliff 104..." * * * Cass ran the tiller through the freshly thawed garden plot. The gas motor roared. Soil flew around her feet. The blades chewed through the roots of Canadian thistle and leafy spurge, noxious weeds that Cass knew she'd have to get rid of before she began planting beans, melons and squash. The ranch, for all its demands, couldn't keep her busy enough to stave off thoughts of Bud. At times she was giddy with longing for him. Alone at night in her childhood bed, she would lie desolate and inconsolable. In the daylight, she put up a front of unconcern to her parents. She fooled no one. Out of courtesy, no one, not even her mother, mentioned his name. * * * Bud left Leonard's office with new determination. He took his briefcase with him and walked under the arbor of aromatic eucalyptus trees to Commerce Western Bank. Mary Elizabeth sat in the lobby waiting for him, a Wall Street Journal in her lap. "You wanted to meet here?" Mary Elizabeth asked as she stood up. "You're not even going to take me over to the Magic Crepe for lunch? Look at you. You’re walking with some lightness in your step." "After we take care of a little transaction here, if you still want to have lunch, I'll take you," Bud said. "Clive always takes me there. Did you say transaction? Oh, that reminds me. My mechanic said the Audi repairs will cost more than I thought." Bud deliberately ignored her, even the reference to the unknown male friend, Clive. "You know, Mary Elizabeth, we changed the checking accounts and the savings, the insurance and all those joint accounts, but we never changed the safe deposit box." Mary Elizabeth's substitute-sweetener smile puckered to nothing. Her cheeks sunk into the hollow of her gaping mouth. "Why would we do that now?" she asked. "We never needed to before." "Come on," Bud said. "Let's go in." They walked together to the desk and signed in. A teller compared their signatures to the signature card and led them to a corner of the vault. The teller inserted her key, and Bud inserted his, withdrawing the box. He and Mary Elizabeth entered a carpet lined cell and locked the door. "Why are you doing this? Why now?" she asked. Bud leaned against the walnut grained wall. "David's grown up. He's married. I've been wrong to keep this from him, wrong to listen to you." They heard voices in the corridor outside the booth. "We agreed, Bentley," she whispered hoarsely, "This is too much responsibility for him. He's not old enough to make solid judgments about an inheritance. It's several million dollars." The voices moved away, and took on a subdued, echoed sound. "Mary Elizabeth, I'm sending these certificates by courier to a banker in San Diego, for David." "You wouldn't." "After my grandfather died, I was appointed trustee for David. We were long divorced by then, as you'll recall, but I always took your point of view into consideration." "But we agreed this should wait until he was out of school. Young people are impulsive. He could dissipate a fortune, especially if he fell under the wrong influence.” A telephone buzzed in the adjacent lobby and no one answered it. "I've changed my mind, based on his performance. For crying out loud, Mary Elizabeth. He's working for one of his professors, carrying a full course load. He has a perfectly lovely wife. They are as solid as solid can be. He needs a break." "He doesn't have to work, Bentley. You could make it easier for him." "I could have, but I didn't, and look at our son. He's a great man with good sense, a big heart and an intact moral compass. I'm connecting him up with some good advisors, and we'll have to have some faith in him." A florescent light bulb hummed. Mary Elizabeth folded her arms over her chest. "This makes me very uneasy." "Could that be because you hoped someday I'd siphon off a healthy share of this for you?” He tapped the certificates. "How can you say that? How can you accuse me?" The door to the adjoining privacy booth opened and closed. "I can say that because you've made a point of never making any effort to work. I've carried you all this time. You wrangle, cajole and need, need, need, but you never produce anything." "I produced our son." "No. You, me and the powers that be," Bud said, looking heavenward, one finger pointed up. "And I'm not referring to the main floor of the bank above us." Mary Elizabeth stared at the folded documents he held. "Be glad, Mary Elizabeth. Our son isn't one of those awful spoiled heirs. Juliann doesn't know anything about this, and that's exactly as we planned it. Life's good." "But he's not out of college." "I'm betting he'll finish, because he's focused. You did that for him, Mary Elizabeth. You helped him stay on an even keel, especially right after we divorced." "But what about me?" she whined. "If David wants to make an arrangement with you, he can. A loan, whatever." "Loan?” She gasped in disbelief. "You don't mean it." "Yes I do. I may be quitting my job, so if you want support, you'll have to get a job of your own." "What would I do? I have no training." "Get training. Be inventive. I'm not going to stop sending what I've been sending instantly. You'll have several weeks." "Weeks? You have no conscience, do you?" "Conscience? I've been as considerate and generous as I would have been if we were married, but you didn't want to be married to me and we haven't been for years. Now I'm going to start being fair to me." "It's that woman, isn't it, Bentley?" "Yes, it's that woman. Cass. And I feel amazing. Terrific." "Revolting," Mary Elizabeth said. "Coming from you, that's a treasured compliment.” He emptied the safe deposit box, opened the door and returned the box to the desk clerk. "We'll be closing this for good now. You can withdraw the signature card." Mary Elizabeth walked out of the vault behind Bud. "I'll never understand you," Mary Elizabeth said. "You could have asked your grandparents to will you any part of their estate, and they would done whatever you wanted. But you. You only asked for the house.” "Hey, I thought real estate was a good investment," he said. "How was I to know the coastline really would fall into the ocean?" "That's what you say. But admit it. There was more to your decision than that.” Mary Elizabeth stood with arms folded, foot tapping. "I loved the folks. I loved their place." "If they'd passed away before we were divorced instead of after, things would be different," she said. Bud touched the back of her hand and said, "I know. Believe me, I know. Listen. Why don't you go visit David and Julian this weekend? Excuse me. I mean, the heirs to everything amassed by Sunbright Avocado, Incorporated." Mary Elizabeth pulled her hand away as if it were scorched, saying, "I can't. I'm going away with Clive.” She prattled on about the man she'd started dating, then blurted out, "You never touched a penny of those funds all these years. You could have, you know, the way the trust was set up. For David's education, any unusual need." "Didn't need to," Bud said. "I had a job.” * * * Early one morning, while Cass was out riding her horse, getting the mare ready for the work soon to come, Peggy answered the phone to Bud's voice again. "Cass wouldn't speak to me, at this point, so I called when I knew she'd be out of the house. If you'd invite me, Peggy, I'd come there. Maybe if I showed up, she'd talk to me." "Well, Bud, her father and I welcome you. Isn't that right, Wilson?" she asked. "Tell Bud to get himself out here now. Come to think of it, I'll tell him.” Wilson sprang out of his recliner and took the phone from Peggy. "Wilson here," he said. "You know, Bud, that daughter of ours has been moping around here and all but killing herself with work. She says there's nothing much troubling her, but I know my Cass..." He listened a moment, grunted in confirmation, then said, "She's not fooling us, and neither are you, son. Are you free to work for me for a time?... Yep, I got a job coming up in a few weeks. All the neighbors will be helping out, too. Then we help them. It's kind of a community effort. Bring your boots, man. It's dirty work. Branding.” Chapter 16 Bud breathed in the crisp late April air and surveyed the scene before him. All but the deepest drifts of last winter's snow had melted, and the remaining dirty brown patches clung to the shaded ground on the north side of the outbuildings. In a wide corral, a couple of dozen calves mewled at being separated from their mothers. The cows bellowed back from a nearby pasture. Wilson walked a quarter of the pen's perimeter with Bud, counting the calves aloud. "Eighteen. Twenty. Remember everything we went over?" Wilson asked. "I'm the front leg man.” Bud put his hands behind his neck and twisted from side to side. "Your back stiff?” Wilson asked. "No. Guess I just didn't sleep well." Bud had arrived late the afternoon before, and Wilson had shown him to the guest room where he slept alone months ago. He carried in his luggage, crate and oversized box when Cass was away from the house, and stowed them in the guest room closet. He ate supper with the family, Cass sitting across from him. She was cordial, polite. She spoke only when asked for the salt or the butter, or a prediction about the weather. He recognized her aloof posture for what it was, a defense. Only a few months ago, he would have read her averted glances and unfinished sentences as a signal to halt and come no closer. Now he saw them as a slim opening in a door he wanted to enter. "You'll sleep tonight," Wilson said. Ten yards away, a half-dozen men in work worn western shirts, boots and Levis sat around a long table outside a rickety travel trailer. One of them was the man Bud had met in the airport on Christmas Eve. Bud could smell coffee and see Lupe in the open doorway. One of the cowboys got up and walked through the gate on the opposite side of the pen. He knelt down and, with a long handled log lighter, he ignited a horizontal metal heater, setting ablaze a propane flame. "With a family operation like this one, we should probably go to a branding chute instead of roping and wrestling," Wilson said. "But as long as we have neighbors willing to pool manpower, I'd just as soon as keep the old ways." Peggy pulled up in the pickup truck. When she stepped down, Bud was surprised to see Cass's gray-haired mother wearing Levis and cowboy boots, a man's flannel shirt and a cotton bandanna around her neck. She carried a folded white cloth in the crook of her arm. She opened the tail gate and spread the cloth, then retrieved a plastic ice chest and a couple of boxes from the cab. Cass rode up on her mare. She reined in her horse beside the truck, giving a hearty wave to her father and Bud as they approached. Hand on her hat, she said, "Mom, have you seen Dwight? I thought he was going to help today.” She looked all around, scanning the area for Oscar's teenaged son. "Haven't seen him, but he'll probably turn up. I've got the vaccine gun all set up and ready. Think I'll just check on the food situation in the trailer. Looks like every one of the neighbors sent a platter of something good.” She pointed to the picnic tables, then strode away with the gait of a woman half her age. Bud saw the look of admiration on Cass's face as she watched her mother. He looked up at her and said, "Your mom looks so different from when I saw her Christmas. Was she born in jeans and boots?" "Just about," Cass said. "She can serve a meal outdoors for thirty to fifty people, have the hot food hot and the cold food cold, and never miss a step.” Bud marveled at the way Cass sat in the saddle, so relaxed and easy. This new perspective on her delighted him. Her cowboy hat shaded her eyes, leaving a curved shadow on her face. She gave her father an affectionate smile. "I guess I worry about Mom a little bit. And Dad, you promised you wouldn't overdo." "Give me a little credit for keeping myself alive this long," Wilson said, striding toward the back of the truck a few yards away. "Excuse me. I've got a few things to do.” Wilson busied himself, examining the container filled with vaccine bottles. Bud watched a hesitant smile play across Cass's lips. "Ready to hold your own with them?" she asked. She gestured to the cowboys who had gathered from neighboring ranches as they did every year to help with branding. "Ready as I can be," Bud said. "What about you, Cass? What are you going to do?” He stroked her horse's neck and patted it gently. "Rope 'n drag 'em." "Oh, Lord," Bud said. He was uneasy enough about making a fool of himself in front of all these strangers. The thought of screwing up in front of Cass made him wonder why in hell he'd ever volunteered to come here for this event. Cass asked, to anyone listening, “What’s Dad going to have you do? Castrate?" Bud winced, not because he had any special aversion to turning bull calves into steers, but because Cass said the word with such relish. "Then you'll need this," a slender old cowboy with a craggy face came up to Bud and handed him a water-filled three-pound coffee can. Icy water sloshed over the lip, wetting the front of Bud's shirt. The man kept a straight face until Cass shook with restrained laughter, then he grinned. Bud was beginning to catch on, based on whispers he overheard. As Cass's "L.A. boyfriend," he was about to be tested without mercy. All of his competence in construction was meaningless in a branding arena. Here, he had to prove himself twice: once for being a greenhorn and again for being the man who wanted Cass Brooks. He had no idea what the ice-water coffee can hazing was about, but he was sure he was soon to find out. "You drop your little testicles in there," the cowboy said. Bud could tell from the look on Cass's face that he must have gone pale. "Not yours. Theirs." The man pointed to the calves. Wilson returned to where they stood and said, "Bud's not going to do the cutting, Frenchy. You said you would. Now, quit giving him a bad time. That's my job." "Oh, Wilson, you know we can't help it," the cowboy said. Wilson motioned for Bud to follow him, and said, "See those two fellows over there? They do the de-horning. Come on. Best say hello..." Bud followed Wilson, more and more regretting the impulse that brought him here. He'd accepted Wilson's invitation to join the branding team as a way to get himself into some proximity to Cass. He wanted to talk to her, explain that he understood her concerns, show her that he was willing to compromise, bend, even try to adapt to her new old way of life. "...And you know Oscar,” Wilson said. "I asked him to be the hind leg man. You shouldn't get into too much trouble that way." Oh, shoot, Bud thought. He trusted Oscar's reliability about as much as Cass trusted Petro's floor finisher. "You ready, Wilson? The iron's hot," a man shouted out. He was kneeling at the branding heater. "Hang on a minute. Cassie!" Wilson called out. Cass rode over from where she waited on her mount. "What is it, Dad?" He held up a single metal brand, the iron cast in the shape of the B3. "Let someone else rope, Cass. I'll supervise. You brand." She dismounted and held her horse by the reins. "Dad, the owner brands." "You bet," he said, exchanging her reins for his brand. He tied Cass's horse to the nearest rail. The cowboy who'd been at the branding heater tipped his hat brim and said, "Whenever you're ready, boss ma'am." Cass stole a look at Bud. He could see her lips press together, as though she were suppressing a smile. That hesitant happy look escaped through her eyes. They reflected the green of the pines on the nearby hills. Bud buried his hands in his pockets, fighting the longing to pull her toward him and kiss her mouth until her buried smile broke free. The instant she looked at him, he nodded and gave her the sparest grin, the only way he could tell her in front of all these people that he loved her, he was happy for her, that he knew how much her father's trust meant to her. Her cautious glance at Bud turned momentarily into a soul-searching stare. Then she blinked, and Bud could see that the rusty gate to her heart had closed again. She took a deep breath and said, "What are we standing around here for?" The circle of men jumped to action, flinging back the gate of the fenced corral. Two horsemen rode in, and Bud watched as the first swung a rope and nailed one of the calves by a hind leg. The roper dragged the bellowing calf near the branding heater. Oscar looked over and motioned for Bud to come along. Bud ran to where the calf was still sliding across the dirt and grabbed the calf's front legs in both hands, pressing his knee into the calf's neck. Oscar sat on the ground and gripped the bottom back leg, holding it between the hock and butt with his thigh. Oscar gave a wrenching tug on the upper leg, and the animal lay immobile on its right side. Bud didn't dare look up for fear of losing his grip, but the motionlessness of the calf told him that Oscar had a similar hold. Into his limited field of vision came Cass's familiar legs and boots, and a branding iron. The calf struggled as the B Bar 3 brand seared its hide. The smell of singed hair and flesh filled Bud's nostrils. As the iron lifted, he could see the clean impression. He envisioned himself wrapping both arms around those legs of Cass's and pulling her on top of him. She disappeared in the cloud of dust beside him. No sooner was the brand gone than one of the men who'd been at the trailer knelt with the vaccine gun and lifted the loose skin just below the calf's shoulder, giving the animal a quick injection. Before he even backed away, another of the cowboys moved in. The calf nearly overpowered Bud. He shifted the weight of his knee to get a better grip and tightened his hold, squeezing his fingers together. The fellow Bud had met before, Lander, seared the nubs of horns from the calf. A trickle of blood stained his tan plaid shirt. "Let 'er up," Oscar said. Bud released the grip with his hands and before he could stand aside, the calf's hoof clipped him squarely in the shin. The animal didn't linger. It jumped to its feet and ran as far from them as the pen and crowd of calves would permit. Bud's leg throbbed, but he wasn't about to let on to the others. He followed Oscar's cue, wrestled the next calf and held it to the ground for all he was worth. Cass branded the bull calf, and the sequence began again with the added measure of Frenchy deftly crimping and searing the testicles, then dropping them in the coffee can. The hours wore on, calf after calf struggling to get free of Bud's hold. He wrestled and overpowered each, partly out of pride, and mostly out of concern for Cass's safety. One calf managed to turn his head and bite Bud's arm just above the wrist. He threw his weight to the knee he pressed into the calf's neck, and as the calf tried to protest, Bud caught a look at the neat row of bottom teeth in the calf's mouth. A thin trickle of blood colored the inside cuff of his shirt. His legs grew tired, muscles trembling with exhaustion. One strapping bull calf wrestled harder than Bud or Oscar. While Bud still struggled to pin the front legs to the ground, Cass took two quick steps backward. Oscar's toe slipped and one of the calf's hind legs came free of his grip. The wild leg flailed and the hoof caught Oscar in the eye. He fell hard on his left elbow. "Son-of-a-bitch," he cursed, right hand covering his injured eye. The calf bounded away, vaccinated and branded, but not yet de-horned or castrated. Cass lay her iron down and knelt by Oscar, as did a handful of the others. "How bad is it? Let me see.” She pried his hand loose. Bud could see that the white of the eye was pooling with blood. "Can Dwight run you into the clinic?" Cass asked, searching for Oscar's teenage son. "Is he here? I haven't seen him." "I sent him on an errand," Oscar said. Wilson came from where he'd been leaning against the fence. "What's all the commotion?" he asked. One look at Oscar's eye said everything. "I'll run him in to get checked." The mood of the cowboys was more somber throughout the rest of the morning. Lander, who'd done the de-horning earlier, now took Oscar's place. Finally, the entire first corral of calves was finished. Bud climbed out of the pen along with Cass and the rest of the men, except for Frenchy. Bud's hands and wrists ached. He could feel a knot forming on the inside of his left thigh from the last stray kick he received. Frenchy strode over to the branding fire and, long stick in hand, he reached into the coffee can and lifted one of the saved remains of the castration. Everyone turned to watch his next move. He skewered the formless thing and held it over the fire, toasting the exterior. "Mm, mm," he said. "You gotta try this, Bud," he said. When the calf testicle was cooked, Frenchy lifted the skewer to his mouth and took a bite as if to prove to Bud that this was a delicacy. "If it's all the same to you," Bud said, "I like Rocky Mountain Oysters better when they're cleaned, breaded and deep fried. But I appreciate the offer. I really do." Frenchy grinned and touched the brim of his hat in salute. Cass let the grin that played at one corner of her mouth break free. One of the other men hollered, "Nice try, Frenchy.” The rest laughed, once they were sure they had each other's permission. The cowboy who'd done the vaccinating threw an arm around Bud's shoulder and walked with him toward the trailer where lunch tables were laden with covered serving dishes and homemade pies. "Frenchy thought he had you," the man said. Bud couldn't stop himself from laughing as he said, "What I can't get over is that he actually ate that thing trying get me to do it. That's commitment." The cowboy gestured for Bud to join him and the others they'd worked with as they broke for lunch. The remaining cowboys on horseback drove the branded calves out of the pen and back to the pasture with their mothers. At the rate the process was accomplished, Bud guessed another couple of hours would elapse before they herded in the next culled bunch of calves to be branded. Bud saw Cass enter the trailer and lean against the counter while she chatted with her mother. He sopped his biscuits in sausage gravy and listened to the banter of the men. He wanted more than anything to talk to her, to touch her, even though she still held him at arm's length. He wondered if she would ever be close to him again, or if by accepting her father's invitation, he'd only alienated her more. Then he remembered the look she gave him when her father handed her the family brand, and that gave him hope. He wanted his coming here to mean something to her, to prove to her that she mattered more than any other woman he'd even known. He wished she'd come out into the light and sit beside him. Yet to his surprise, he found himself strangely contented just to have accomplished his share of the brutal work. The feeling of pushing himself to his physical limits exhilarated him. He understood why these people slogged through winter feeding month after month. At the end, they could celebrate the beginning of a new season at branding. Bud continued to sit long after most all the others left the table. Lander turned a chair around so its metal back touched the table edge. He sat down next to Bud and lowered his plate to the table. "You look about as at home as a cup of coffee at a Mormon wedding," the man said. "It's that easy to see I've never done this before?" Bud asked. "You're passable. Wasn't your fault what happened. And if anybody had a good kick coming, to my mind, it's Oscar." Bud turned a sideways glance to the man. "You don't say." "Especially after what someone ran across by pure accident the other day." "Someone?" "I wouldn't want to mention any names. I mean, if a cowboy is on private property for his own personal reasons, and he stumbles onto something..." "What do you suppose a cowboy might have stumbled on?" "Could have been unbranded yearling calves," Lander said. He wedged a toothpick between his teeth and worked it around. "Say," Bud asked him. "Why would someone let an outsider in on something like this?" "Maybe seeing a good man like Wilson Brooks get righteously screwed makes a body want to puke." "It'd be easy to get the word to him, or to Cass. Why not just let them know?" Bud said. "Suppose he just found out. And, why waste an opportunity. This could be a chance to find out what kind of stuff an outsider was made of." Bud thought for a moment. "It's hard for an outsider to know much," he said. "He might know about some hay stealing going on late at night, but that's..." "Suppose that hay was feeding those very same yearling calves," Lander said. "I've heard of a case where calves supposedly died, but damned if any carcasses were ever found," Bud said. "You don't say," Lander nodded. "I wonder if anybody had an idea where twenty or so unbranded calves were penned up, if they'd give a clue." "The thing is," Lander said. "Wheeler Creek is spring fed. Never freezes. I'd start looking where calves could water on their own.” "With so much at stake, is it smart to go out there unarmed?" "You're quicker than I thought.” The man gave Bud a lopsided grin. "But I wouldn't expect any real trouble since old Oscar's gone in to the clinic." With that, Lander got up. Bud nodded his head and quietly said, "Thanks." "You could be welcome," the man said. "All depends on what you do with what you know. Now, why don't come with me over to the trailer. I don't believe you've met my wife." Bud grabbed the remainder of his paper plate lunch and threw it in the waste can. After a formal introduction to the neighboring rancher's wife, he strode over to the trailer where Cass sat. "I need to talk to you," he said. "Come on in," she answered. "Privately, Cass.” She followed him down the two metal steps and over to the still smoking oil drum barbecue. "Bud, there's a time and place for everything.” She gestured to the corral, the pickup truck, and the people not far away. "I want you to drive me out to Wheeler Creek," he said. "That'll take a half hour." "We can spare the time right now." "What for?" "I'd rather tell you when we get there." Bud tried to picture what might come to pass. There could be absolutely nothing out there. This could simply be one more hazing from the local men. Yet the cowboy had seemed earnest enough. "Take the old truck," she said. "Go by yourself." "I don't know the way. You do." "You sound sort of... worried. This isn't just sightseeing, is it?" "I need you to come with me, Cass. What's the worst that can happen? I'll owe you an apology for wasting your time. I'll grovel. Fair?" "Oh, no harm, I guess," she said as she wrinkled her nose. She turned and walked toward the driver's door. Bud skirted around the truck and jumped in the passenger side, saying, "If it's what I think, there's something at Wheeler Creek you'll want to see." "How come you're so serious all of a sudden?" "Cass, everything I've been doing to get to get close to you is serious. Please, just drive." "Your call," she said. She started the engine and stepped on the gas, easing away from the pens and circling around to the gravel drive. They bounced over the main dirt road for about mile until she turned at an overgrown trail along a stretch of cottonwoods just coming into spring leaves. The road climbed and the gears of the truck groaned on the incline. Clusters of Douglas firs rose up the steep foothills. A stand of quaking aspens shimmered with pale new green leaves. A cow moose grazed in a mossy bog beside the river, never so much as flinching at the sound of the truck. "Pretty here, isn't it?" she finally asked. "Never seen anything like this," he said. "Bud, you did fine today." A tightlipped smile crept across his face. "Coming from you that's lavish praise. So, you say no one lives anywhere near here?" "No. It's private land. Some Hollywood folks. The owners come up and fish the creek in late summer. Someday, they'll probably build a cabin, but for ten months of the year there's no one around.” She stopped short. "Wait. What's that?" Bud noticed a fence post and a few rails jutting out from behind a tree. "Turn off the engine," he said. She stopped the truck behind a cluster of pines and got out. Bud followed. They rounded the next corner and saw a portion of a portable clamp-together pen, with at least two dozen yearling calves inside. Several grazed on tufts of new grass that sprouted around the gurgling little spring pond inside the expensive metal corral. Others meandered toward the side of the corral that was still obscured from view. "The owners don't run cattle here," Cass said. "We tried to lease land from them and they refused. Whose calves are these?" "Yours," Bud answered. She looked at him first with narrowed eyes. Then, he watched her face grow taut with painful recognition. When they got to the clearing, they saw a teenage boy standing on the back of a flatbed truck, pitching flakes of hay into the corral. "That's Dwight!" Cass whispered. "Oscar's son?" "Exactly. He's a decent enough kid. I just can't believe this.” Cass marched forward before Bud could stop her. "Dwight, what's going on here?" The boy was so startled he dropped the pitchfork. Bud could see his hands were trembling. "Nothing, Cass," he said, voice quaking. "These belong to the B-Bar-3. What are you doing?" "Feeding. My Dad told me to." "Did he tell you where they came from?" Dwight clenched his fists and stared at Cass defiantly. She ordered him, "Get in the truck. You're coming with us." "You can't make me," he said. Bud said, “I’ve heard it said that there are two theories to arguing with a woman, and neither one works. And another piece of wisdom I heard during branding is this. Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Dwight followed Cass back to the truck. Bud kept right behind. "Where will you go?" Bud asked. "Eventually, you'll have to go home." Bud caught up to Cass and she could see that he was smiling. "What's so amusing?” she asked. "I don't think this is funny." "It's not funny," he said. "It's almost mystical." "We're being robbed and that's mystical?" she asked. "I ought to throw you face first in that cold-ass spring creek." He reached out and touched her shoulder. "You don't have to. This whole situation is like a splash of cold water in my face. That's what's wonderful, Cass. I'll explain later." They got inside the truck cab, Dwight wedged between them. Bud said, "From what Cass has said, you're a bright boy. So, why would you get involved with stealing cattle?" "Dad said Mr. Brooks wasn't paying him enough to get by, so he'd just even things out. I do what he tells me." "Your family loyalty is admirable, boy, but it's badly misplaced," Bud said. "You can't market unbranded calves," Cass asked. "You could never get them across state lines." "They get branded. Just not with your brand." "Dwight, do you know what you've been doing is wrong?" Bud asked. "Wrong or fair?" the boy's voice choked. "We're going right to the sheriff," Cass said. "Jesus, I'm fifteen. I can’t go to jail!” "I'm going to tell the sheriff that you came forward and told the truth," Cass said. "You know what remorse is?" "That I'm sorry?" "That you're sorry and you'll never do anything like this again. That is how you feel, isn't it?" "Shit." "Cass is trying to give you a break, kid. You'd better think about getting real grown up real quick and taking good care of yourself, because your father sure as hell isn't taking care of you." Dwight's lips trembled. "Remorse," he said. "Yep. That's me." "Then that's what we'll tell the sheriff." "What about my dad?" "He's going to have to answer for himself," Cass said. Chapter 17 That evening, Bud walked arm-in-arm with Cass along the corral fence. The days were growing longer. Rays of twilight still hung over the western mountains. Venus, the first evening light on the horizon, shone as if paving a vibrant path for the rest of the stars to enter the new night sky. "Do you remember when we saw Oscar on Christmas Eve?" Bud asked. "Sure. All the way over in Belgrade, no less. Coming out of the casino. That was so odd." "Since then, I saw him once at the truck stop outside of Billings when I stopped for gasoline," Bud said. "He was sitting at a poker machine. Now I understand." "Understand what?" Cass asked. "He's gambling," Bud said. "And losing. So much that he'd steal. And his poor wife. He's putting miles between his family and the places he gambles so she won't suspect. She's probably got her mind spinning off in another direction, dreading the day he leaves her for another woman." "How do you figure all that?" "She got to know the money's going somewhere. He's told his son that your father doesn't pay him enough, but his wife has to know better than that." "You bet," Cass said. "It's no secret." "Right. But she and the kid have been covering for him and hiding from him.” "You mean, they think they're helping him, but they're hurting him," Cass said. She hooked her arm in his. "Cass, you've been trying to get me to see. I thought loyalty was one thing. It's something else entirely. I'm so absolutely certain now. And I can thank you." He leaned down and drew her to him. He took her chin in his open hand and kissed her mouth. She tasted warm and sweet to him, welcoming, eager. All her anger, fear and mistrust dissolved in the sensation of his tongue on hers. A red glowing current of heat spread from his kiss to her breastbone, causing an ache so pleasing she was lightheaded. Her head was reeling. She wasn't exactly sure what he had just been saying, but she felt confidant he was referring at least in part to Mary Elizabeth, and that somehow Bud's heart now only had one home. Bud took her hand as they ascended the front porch steps. No words were spoken, but Cass had never felt so close to Bud and so secure with her fingers locked in his. Peggy and Wilson were sitting at the dining room table having coffee when Cass and Bud came into the house. "You two must be hungry," Peggy said. "I can warm up supper for you." "Thanks, Mom, but don't go to any trouble. I'll fix us something in a while." Bud looked at his dirty jeans from the day of branding and hesitated to sit down. "Don't you worry yourself," Peggy said when she saw his dilemma. "Everything here is washable, and after what you did for us today, all you need to do is sit down and be comfortable." "You sure proved something to me today," Wilson said. "I wouldn't have believed Oscar was stealing from us unless I saw it myself. You never said a word to me until you had proof. I have to admit I feel stupid. Stupid and relieved." Cass had never felt so in love with Bud. She lay a hand on his sleeve. "Hungry yet? Can I get you anything?" "Just some coffee, thanks," he said, basking in her attention. A knock at the door brought them all to attention. Cass opened it. Oscar stood before her. "Can I come in?" he said. "Sure," she said, gesturing for him to come to the table where Wilson, Bud and Peggy sat. "I want to make restitution," Oscar said to Wilson. "Sit down, man," Wilson said. "How do you propose to do that?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rumpled stack of bills. "This here is six hundred and forty dollars. It's all the cash I got. I figure I owe you this and more for the hay, 'cause you would have sold the beef I took earlier on. Since you got your stock back, that part is as square as I can get it. So, if you'll let me, I can make payments on the rest until I'm clear." "I appreciate your coming straight here," Wilson said. "But I've got to talk to the family before I accept any offer.” Wilson's glance went to Peggy, to Cass and, to Cass's surprise, Bud. "Ideas?" he asked. Peggy clasped her hands together and said, "To think you sat here at this table on Thanksgiving..." Cass squeezed her mother's shoulder gently and said, "I know, Mom, but..." She looked at Oscar. "Still, I don't want to see you go to jail. I'd agree to restitution. How about you?" she asked Bud. "Me?" he asked, surprised to be included. "You lied to your son, Oscar. There's got to be some follow-through. A handful of money is a start, but I'd think a payment plan is in order, and you'd have to make good on it over time." Oscar touched the patch on his eye. Wilson said, "What were you thinking, Oscar? If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. I would have put you on full-time as soon as I was able. But here we are, and Bud's idea is a good one. You write me up an eighteen month payment plan, and I'll drop the charges." "How did you get here, Oscar?" Peggy asked. "Did the sheriff bring you?" "No. Valda did. I'll be going now.” He turned and left the room, closing the door softly behind himself. "I hope he'll make good," Wilson said. "I wouldn't bank on it," Bud said, letting out a deep sigh. "And as for me, I wish I knew what I was doing." "What do you mean?" Cass asked. "Going back to Los Angeles isn't very appealing any more. But I've got a job there, if I want it, and I've got to make a living. At some point, I need to work." Peggy gave him one of her eyes-heavenward smiles and said, "Bud, branding is work." * * * The next afternoon, Wilson and Peggy made ready to catch a Southern California-bound flight to connect with their cruise, and Lupe packed for her stay in Los Angeles. On their way to the airport, Suburban loaded with passengers and luggage, Cass and Bud make a side trip to the Thieson ranch to return serving platters left over from branding. They rumbled down the dirt road, the same one that passed Oscar's house. The flatbed truck was gone, as were the bicycles and the porch swing. "Well, don't that beat all," Wilson said. Bud pulled in. Both he and Cass got out of the tall Suburban. Cass hiked up to the front steps and looked through the clear top half of a broken window. Bud went around the side to the kitchen door and peered in. They met again on the front step. "They've up and gone!" Cass said. "Are you surprised?" Bud asked. "Of course. Aren't you?" "No." "Why?" "Oh, Cass, you're lovable and kind, but you've got so much to learn about human nature. Lander Thieson said it best. Oscar's crookeder than a dog's hind leg." They climbed back in. Bud put the car in gear. No one spoke of Oscar and his misdeeds, as if any word of him might taint the beginning of an adventure. From the passenger seat, Cass watched the wind lift layers of dust off the newly plowed fields of dark earth. She thought how Bud handled the wheel of the car as naturally as if he'd driven these washboard roads all his life. He reached over and patted the top of her thigh. Her body responded with desire, as though all the lovemaking during the night before were not enough, could never be enough. The Suburban bounced over the roughest part of the gravel road that led to the highway. A meadowlark's song rang through air. May had come to the Crazy Mountains with all the grace of a bull bounding out of a rodeo chute. Bulbs sprung out of the ground overnight as if screaming, "Bloom! Life is now!” Cass pointed and Bud slowed the car. Pairs of sandhill cranes in the lower meadow strutted their graceful strut and squawked to each other, preparing for another brief cycle of bountiful life on the river. The sun hovered over the greening fields, so different from the eerie gray white of winter. The wheels rattled over a bridge. The river beneath surged. The trunks of trees on the banks were half hidden in roaring white water. By the time the travelers were safely en route and Cass and Bud returned to the ranch alone, the night sky glittered with stars. Bud ached to give Cass the gifts he'd brought. The sculpture he'd discovered in Mahan's studio sat snugly in a crate wedged in the closet with a string of orange bailing twine. The framed painting leaned against the foot board of the bed. He patted the front of his jacket, assured that the third and final gift was secure. "Well, they're finally off on that cruise they always dreamed of," Cass said. "Funniest thing, though. They won it." "Really?” Bud pretended ignorance. "Yep. They got a certificate in the mail. Some contest Mom couldn't even remember entering, although you know my mother and her magazines. The prize was sponsored by Sunbright Avocado." "Imagine that." "Naturally, I did a little research on the sponsoring company." "Nothing gets by you, Cass.” He whistled and gave her a sheepish grin. “Why didn’t you tell me you bought them a cruise?” Cass asked. “I just wanted them to enjoy the gift,” Bud said. “The sentiment is perfect, but we have to be completely open and honest with each other,” Cass said. “Do you understand why I’m asking that of you?” Bud hung his head and admitted, “I apologize. From now on, we talk everything through. So let me change the subject. What was Lupe doing, going South?" "She went to help her brother apply for a visa." "Well, then, Cass. We're alone." "At no small effort on your part.” He wasn't sure, but he thought he detected a look of admiration in her eyes. "Guess what happened," Bud said. "But first, will you make me a cup of coffee?" Cass went to the kitchen and started a pot. "What?" she asked. He followed her as far as the dining room table and took a chair. "I'm free. From Mary Elizabeth." Cass's heart raced as if she'd run a quick sprint. She gripped the edge of the countertop and smiled as she said, "In that case, do you want cream in your coffee?" "Cream. Tonight that sounds good for a change," Bud said. She carried in two mugs and set them on the table. "How does it feel to be free?” She took the chair beside him. "Light. Strange." "Tell me what happened." "I made a decision. I took care of some financial details on David's behalf. He’s old enough and it was time. The offshoot of all that was that I gave Mary Elizabeth notice. I gave her time to sort things out for herself, but I let her know that I'm not going to be her handyman husband by remote control any more.” Cass's hands relaxed their grip on her coffee mug. Her narrowed eyes opened a centimeter. In the dim dining room light, she watched Bud's face, his neck. His quickened pulse was visible, even from the chair beside his. His blue eyes hinted a glint of mischief. "And do you know what happened? Even before," he said. Cass shook her head. "Mary Elizabeth met someone." Cass finally chuckled. "And it gets better. The someone, the man, is an expert in oil painting restoration. Works for the Pettibone Foundation, as in oil and limitless funds for art and antiquities. He found her a job." "Mary Elizabeth?” Cass shook her head, barely believing. "Yep. She wears power suits with the appropriate amount of fluff at the neckline, the whole show." "Power suit. Is that like the suit you were wearing when I met you?” Cass asked. "Not exactly. You need to exude more testosterone to were a suit like mine. Anyway, you know about my secret society of seniors. Juliann told me she took you to meet them. And I’ll always visit them, you know." Cass touched his face. He closed his eyes and leaned into her caressing fingers. "You're sweet not to say I told you so, Cass, but you did tell me that Mary Elizabeth would move forward if I cut her loose. Now for the next news. I gave notice to Leonard. I'm quitting." Cass set her coffee down so hard that liquid sloshed over the lip of the cup onto the tabletop. She dabbed it with a napkin. "You really did it?" she asked. "Yes. Maybe I could work at the Feed & Grain store, or hire on with a man I met from Reed Point. He needs someone who's handy with a blow torch." She rose from her chair and put her arms around his shoulders. "Oh, Bud. I don't believe it. I do believe it. I've wanted you so much. But it had to be all of you." "I know. Lord knows I tried all the half measures I knew. They didn't work. So here I am. I couldn't see any other way to get you to marry me." "You're asking?" He stood and took her in his arms. "Of course I'm asking. Don't say no. Not now.” He looked like a stunned boxer trying to evade the next blow. "What will we be to each other, you and I?” Cass asked. Bud took her hands in his. "I'll be the one you trust when everything outside of you and me gets shaky. There'll be no doubt between us. We'll wake up every morning in each other's arms, and we'll sort out every disagreement before we go to bed at night. I'll be your partner and your lover. And that's what I want from you." "Then I'll marry you, Bud. And love you. Just love you.” She embraced him, kissing his neck and then his mouth. A flood of warmth washed through her. The touch of his tongue to hers felt like an electrical charge that coursed through her, weakening her. He drew back gently. "Come over here," he said, guiding her down the hall. "I have something for you.” He went to the guest room pulled a thin, wide cardboard container away from the foot board of the bed. He pushed it toward her. "Open this one first," he said. She pulled off the tape at the corners of the corrugated cardboard and the front flap of the large box fell open. She pulled back the tissue and plastic bubble wrap, exposing a colored pencil drawing of a lone snowcapped peak in a glowing field of wildflowers. Orange Indian paintbrush, powder blue harebells and canary yellow glacier lilies enlivened the foreground. "You are incredible, Bud. Kathy Shannon did this. How did you get it?" "I commissioned it. For you. But there's more." "How could there be more?" He went back to the closet, reached in and cut the bailing twine. He dragged out the crate and presented it to Cass. "This is for you too. Got a hammer?" "Hammer?" "To uncrate this thing." Cass ran into the laundry room and opened a drawer. "Another gift?" she asked. "Have at it," he said. She wedged the hammer tongs between slats and eased the pine strips away, clearing a path for what was inside. Bud helped her slide the packing-wrapped object onto a rug. She looked like a girl with a new bike on Christmas morning. "Oh. You didn't," she said, loosening the wrap on the welded metal sculpture of frolicking sea mammals. "It can't be. But it is. It's my whales." "I remembered what you said. When you see them in the water, you feel as if everything is all right with the world. I want everything to be right for you." She kissed him long and hard. He ran his hands through her hair and stroked her cheek with his fingertips. "These treasures. They're extraordinary,” she finally said. "But you didn't have to. Having you was all I ever wanted." "And I wanted to please you. To show you that I'm thinking of you all the time we're apart. There's one more thing," he said. "What can you possibly mean?" He reached inside his jacket and pulled a folded document out of his pocket, saying, "Read this." She lifted her eyeglasses off the end table, put them on and read aloud, "...Transfer of Real Property... Bentley Uldrich Griffith and Cassidy Jane Griffith... husband and wife as joint tenants... hereinafter called Sea Cliff condominium development... unit described as Sea Cliff 104... You bought it? You want me to take your name?" He nodded. "I hope you will. Think of Sea Cliff as a getaway. For us. And for your parents to escape from the cold." "Wasn't that sort of risky?” "Forging your name would have been risky. See? You still have to sign." "Bud, all I want is you." "You've got me. For the rest of our natural lives." He pulled her to him. Her long-ago life with Terrence paled into a muddied blur, as though her past had occurred under anesthesia, while her present with Bud felt as acute and alive as spring in the Crazy Mountains. She could taste and smell the joy their life together, touch its uneven surface with her fingers and sleep dreamlessly in its warmth. Bud held her, one arm wrapped around her, her head cradled on his shoulder. "I was thinking," he said. "You've been doing that a lot lately," she said with a laugh. "I've had a lot to think about. Now listen, Cass. Do you know what settlers used to do with farmsteads?" "What?" "They'd divide the land when their children grew up and section out a parcel for the kids. Then, the kids would build a home for themselves, close to their parents, but not in the same house with them." "Mm. I see where you're headed." "What if we were to build our own place, say in that clearing by the lake, near where all those lodge pole pines grow?" Cass smiled up at him. "I can see the house. A big wide porch overlooking the lake. A high peaked roof and windows tall as a cathedral. We'll put our bed on a platform so we can look out at the mountains." "And I'll hang a swing from a tree for the kids." "Kids? If I'm honest, Bud, I have to admit I always hoped to have a family. But what about you? Your son is grown. I can't ask you to start all over again with me." "With you, Cass, I'd do anything. You've got to know that by now.” "Yes, I trust you." "You must. You haven't even noticed that I brought you everything but a ring.” He took her hand in his and stroked her ring finger. "I left some design sketches with a goldsmith in Bozeman. You see, I know you. You're always working. I want you to have a ring you can wear all the time. I think they call it channel set. One with stones sort of recessed so you won't have to worry about them catching on anything. And I want mine to match, except for the stones of course. I don't need any." Cass squeezed his hand and raised it to her lips. The fact that he planned to wear a ring and never take it off said more to her than any other gift. "I'd wear any ring you choose," Cass said. “Our lives have completely changed. I was all about being an independent designer and doing everything my way. The interior that’s been completely re-designed is mine.” Bud smiled at her and said softly, "I think we should pick out our rings together. Cass, I've been leader and a follower when it comes to these things. Now I’m a partner, and I’m all yours.”

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