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The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than 100 historical and contemporary novels. Now living in Spokane, Washington, the “First Lady of the West” hit a career high when all three of her 2011 Creed Cowboy books debuted at #1 on the New York Times list. In 2007, the Romance Writers of America presented her their Lifetime Achievement Award. She personally funds her Linda Lael Miller Scholarships for Women. Visit her at LindaLaelMiller.com.
Lonesome Bend, Colorado
Tricia McCall was not the type to see apparitions, but there were timesespecially when lonely, tired or boththat she caught just the merest flicker of a glimpse of her dog, Rusty, out of the corner of one eye. Each time that happened, she hoped for the impossible; her heartbeat quickened with joy and excitement, and her breath rushed up into the back of her throat. But when she turned, no matter how quickly, the shepherd-Lab-setter mix was never there.
Of course, he wasn't. Rusty had died in his sleep only six months before, contented and gray-muzzled and full of years, and his absence was still an ache that throbbed in the back of Tricia's heart whenever she thought of him. Which was often.
After all, Rusty had been her best friend for nearly half her life. She was almost thirty now, and she'd been fifteen when she and her dad had found the reddish-brown pup hiding under a picnic table at the campground, nearly starved, flea-bitten and shivering.
She and Joe McCall had debugged him as best they could, fed him and taken him straight to Dr. Benchley's office for shots and a checkup. From then on, Rusty was a member of the family.
"Meow," interrupted a feline voice coming from the general vicinity of Tricia's right ankle.
Still wearing her ratty blue chenille robe and the pink fluffy slippers her best friend, Diana, had given her for Christmas many moons ago as a joke, Tricia looked down to see Winston, a black tom with a splash of white between his ears. He was a frequent visitor to her apartment, since he lived just downstairs, with his mistress, Tricia's great-grandmother, Natty. The separate residences were connected by an inside stairway, but Winston still managed to startle her on a regular basis.
"Meow," the former stray repeated, this time with more emphasis, looking earnestly up at Tricia. Translation: It's cat abuse. Natty McCall may look like a harmless old woman, but I'm being starved, I tell you. You've got to do something.
"A likely story, sardine-breath," Tricia replied, out loud. "I was there when the groceries were delivered last Friday, remember? You wouldn't go hungry if we were snowed in till spring."
Winston twitched his sleek tail in a jaunty, oh-well-I-tried sort of way and crossed the small kitchen to leap up onto Tricia's desk and curl up on a tidy stack of printer paper next to the keyboard. He watched Tricia with half-closed amber eyes as she poured herself a cup of coffee and meandered over to boot up the PC. Maybe there would be an email from Hunter; that would definitely lift her spirits.
Not that she was down, exactly. No, she felt more like someone living in suspended animation, a sort of limbo between major life events. She was marking time, marching in place. And that bothered her.
At the push of a button, the monitor flared to life and there it was: the screensaver photo of her and Hunter, beaming in front of a ski lodge in Idaho and looking likewella couple. Two happy and reasonably attractive people who belonged together, outfitted for a day on the slopes.
With the tip of one finger, Tricia touched Hunter's square-jawed, classically handsome face. Pixels scattered, like a miniature universe expanding after a tiny, silent big bang. She set her cup on the little bit of desk space Winston wasn't already occupying and plunked into the chair she'd dragged away from the dinette set.
She sat very still for a moment or so, the cup of coffee she'd craved from the instant she'd opened her eyes that morning cooling nearby, her gaze fixed on the cheerfully snowy scene. Big smiles. Bright eyes.
Maybe she ought to change the picture, she thought. Put the slide show of Rusty back up. Trouble was, the loss was still too fresh for that.
So she left the ski-lodge shot where it was. She and Hunter had had a good thing going, back in Seattle, in what seemed like a previous lifetime now even though it had only been a year and a half since the passion they'd been so sure they could sustain had begun to fizzle.
As soon as she sold the failing businesses she'd inherited when her dad diedthe River's Bend Campground and RV Park and the decrepit Bluebird Drive-in theater at the edge of townshe could go back to her real life in the art world of Seattle. Open a little gallery in the Pike Place Market, maybe, or somewhere in Pioneer Square.
Beside her, Winston unfurled his tail so the end of it brushed the back of Tricia's hand, rolled it back up again and then repeated the whole process. Gently jolted out of her reverie, she watched as wisps of black fur drifted across her line of vision and then settled, with exquisite accuracy, onto the surface of her coffee.
Tricia shoved back her chair, the legs of it making a loud, screeching sound on the scuffed linoleum floor, and she winced before remembering that Natty was out of town this week, visiting her eighty-nine-year-old sister in Denver, and therefore could not have been disturbed by the noise.
Muttering good-naturedly, she crossed to the old-fashioned sink under the narrow window that looked out over the outside landing, dumped the coffee, rinsed the cup out thoroughly and poured herself a refill.
Winston jumped down from the desktop, making a solid thump when he landed, as he was a somewhat rotund fellow.
Leaning back against the counter, Tricia fortified herself with a couple of sips of the hot, strong coffee she kneweven without Natty's subtle remindersshe drank too often, and in excessive quantities.
Winston had been right to put in his order for breakfast, she reflected; it was her job to feed him and empty his litter box while her great-grandmother was away.
"Come on," she said, coffee in hand, heading toward the doorway that led down the dark, narrow stairs to Natty's part of the house. "I wouldn't want you keeling over from hunger."
You're not even thirty, commented a voice in her head, and you're talking to cats. You seriously need a life.
With a sigh, Tricia flipped on the single light in the sloping ceiling above the stairs and started down, careful because of Winston's tendency to wind himself around her ankles and the bulky slippers, which were a tripping hazard even on a flat surface.
Natty's rooms smelled pleasantly of recent wood fires blazing on the stone hearth, some lushly scented mix of potpourri and the lavender talcum powder so many old ladies seemed to favor.
Crossing the living room, which was stuffed with well-crafted antique furniture, every surface sporting at least one intricately crocheted doily and most of them adorned with a small army of ornately framed photographs as well, Tricia smiled. At ninety-one, Natty was still busy, with friends of all ages, and she was pretty active in the community, too. Until the year before, she'd been in charge of the annual rummage sale and chili feed, a popular event held the last weekend of October. Members of the Ladies' Auxiliarythe organization they'd been auxiliary to was long defunctdonated the money they raised to the local school system, to be used for extras like art supplies, musical instruments and uniforms for the marching band. And while Natty had stepped down as the group's chairperson, she attended every meeting.
Natty's kitchen was as delightfully old-fashioned as the rest of the housealthough there was an electric stove, the original wood-burning contraption still dominated one corner of the long, narrow room. And Natty still used it, when the spirit moved her to bake.
Without the usual fire crackling away, the kitchen seemed a little on the chilly side, and Tricia shivered once as she headed toward the pantry, setting her coffee mug aside on the counter. She took a can of Winston's regular foodhe was only allowed sardines on Sundays, as a special treatfrom one of the shelves in the pantry, popped the top and dumped the contents into one of several chipped but still beautiful soup bowls reserved for his use.
Frosty-cold air seemed to emanate from the floor as she bent to put the bowl in front of him. Tricia felt it even through the soles of those ridiculous slippers.
While Winston chowed down, she ran some fresh drinking water and placed the bowl within easy reach. Then, hugging herself against the cold, she glanced at the bay windows surrounding Natty's heirloom oak table, half expecting to see snowflakes drifting past the glass.
A storm certainly wouldn't be unusual in that part of Colorado, even though it was only mid-October, but Tricia was holding out for good weather just the same. The summer and early fall had been unusually slow over at the campground and RV park, but folks came from all over that part of the state to attend the rummage sale/ chili feed, and a lot of them brought tents and travel trailers, and set up for one last stay along the banks of the river. The modest fees Tricia charged for camping spots and the use of electrical hookups, as well as her cut of the profits from the vending machines, would carry her through a couple of months.
Some benevolent soul could still happen along and buy the properties Joe had left her, but so far all the For Sale signs hadn't produced so much as a nibble.
Tricia sighed, watched Winston eat for a few moments, then started for the stairs. Yes, it was early, but she had a full workday ahead over at River's Bend. She'd already let the seasonal crew go, which meant she manned the registration desk by herself, answering the phone on the rare occasions when it rang and slipping away for short intervals to clean the public showers and the restrooms. After the big weekend at the end of the month, she would shut everything down for the winter.
A lump of sadness formed in Tricia's throat as she climbed the stairs, leaving the door at the bottom open for Winston as she would the one at the top. As a child, she'd loved coming to River's Bend for the summers, "helping" her dad run the outdoor theater and the campground, the two of them boarding with Natty and a series of pampered cats named for historical and/or political figures the older woman admired.
One had been Abraham; another, General Washington. Next came a redoubtable tabby, Laurel Roosevelt, and now there was Winston, for the cigar-smoking prime minister who had shepherded England through the darkest hours of World War II.
Tricia was smiling again by the time she reached her own kitchen, which was warmer. She was about to sit down at the computer again to check her email, as she'd intended to do earlier, when she heard the pounding at the back door downstairs.
Startled, Winston yowled and shot through the inside doorway like a black, furry bullet, his trajectory indicating that he intended to hide out in Tricia's bedroom, under the four-poster, maybe, or on the high shelf in her closet.
Once, when something scared him, he'd climbed straight up her living room draperies, and it had taken both her and Natty to coax him down again.
The pounding came again, louder this time.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Tricia grumbled, employing a phrase she'd picked up from Natty, tightening the belt of her bathrobe and moving, once more, in the direction of the stairs. She followed the first cliche up with a second, also one of Natty's favorites. "Hold your horses!"
Again, the impatient visitor knocked. Hard enough, in fact, to rattle every window on the first floor of the house.
A too-brief silence fell.
Tricia was halfway down the stairs, steam-powered by early-morning annoyance, when the sound shifted. Now whoever it was had moved to her door, the one that opened onto the outside landing.
Murmuring a word she definitely hadn't picked up from her great-grandmother, Tricia turned and huffed her way back up to her own quarters.
Winston yowled again, the sound muffled.
"I'm coming!" she yelled, spotting a vaguely familiar and distinctly masculine form through the frosted glass oval in her door. Lonesome Bend was a town of less than five thousand people, most of whom had lived there all their lives, as had their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, so Tricia had long since gotten out of the habit of looking to see who was there before opening the door.
Conner Creed stood in front of her, one fist raised to knock again, a sheepish smile curving his lips. His blond hair, though a little long, was neatly trimmed, and he wore a blue denim jacket over a white shirt, along with jeans and boots that had seen a lot of hard use.
"Sorry," he said, with a shrug of his broad shoulders, when he came face-to-face with Tricia.
"Do you know what time it is?" Tricia demanded.
His blue eyes moved over her hair, which was probably sticking out in all directions since she hadn't yet brushed and then tamed it into a customary long, dark braid, her coiffure of choice, then the rag-bag bathrobe and comical slippers. That he could take a liberty like that without coming off as rude struck Tricia as wellit just struck her, that's all.
"Seven-thirty," he answered, after checking his watch. "I brought Miss Natty a load of firewood, as she wanted, but she didn't answer her door. And that worried me. Is she all right?"
"She's in Denver," Tricia said stiffly.
His smile practically knocked her back on her heels. "Well, then, that explains why she didn't come to the door. I was afraid she might have fallen or something." A pause. "Is the coffee on?"
Though Tricia was acquainted with Conner, as she was with virtually everybody else in town, she didn't know him wellthey didn't move in the same social circles. She was an outsider raised in Seattle, except for those golden summers with her dad, while the Creeds had been ranching in the area since the town was settled, way back in the late 1800s. Being ninety-nine percent certain that the man wasn't a homicidal maniac or a serial rapistNatty was very fond of him, after all, which said something about his charactershe stepped back, blushing, and said, "Yes. There's coffeehelp yourself."
"Thanks," he said, in a cowboy drawl, ambling past her in the loose-limbed way of a man who was at ease wherever he happened to find himself, whether on the back of a bucking bronco or with both feet planted firmly on the ground. The scent of fresh country air clung to him, along with a woodsy aftershave, hay and something mintyprobably toothpaste or mouthwash.
Tricia pushed the door shut and then stood with her back to it, watching as Conner opened one cupboard, then another, found a cup and helped himself at the coffeemaker.