Runaway Angel – Northstar Prequel

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Coming Spring 2019

 

Andy sat on the front steps of the main house and scraped as much mud off his boots as he could with the hand trowel Jessie kept beside the stairs for exactly that purpose. Between yesterday’s rain and today’s warm sun melting the tired patches of snow lingering in the shaded areas, it seemed the entire Royal R Ranch was a great big mud hole. He wasn’t about to complain, though. Spring was finally gaining ground, and he was looking forward to watching the sloping meadow at the center of the ranch compound explode in a riot of colorful wildflowers. By the time he’d hired on back in November—six months ago as of today—the ranch had already been buried under snow.

Satisfied he wouldn’t track half the pasture into the house, he pushed to his feet and headed in, hanging his cowboy hat on the rack just inside the front door.

The first room inside was a large dining room dominated by a massive table that could comfortably seat thirty. To his left, separated by the staircase, was an even larger living room wrapped in an assortment of plush couches and recliners. Both were empty. The well-outfitted kitchen to the right, however, was not. Smiling, Andy joined Jessie, the matriarch of the Royal R, and Martha, the ranch’s sole designated housekeeper, at the island where Martha was stacking hoagies on a platter and Jessie was tossing pulled pork in her special sauce. Like the living room and dining room, the kitchen was large enough to handle the needs of a restaurant but looked instead like a larger version of a cozy home kitchen complete with a smaller table where the Robinsons and their staff dined when they didn’t join the guests in the dining room.

He inhaled, drawing the aroma of the fresh-baked rolls, pulled pork, and the spicy-sweet of Jessie’s Tabasco, apple-cider, and brown sugar sauce deep into his lungs. His stomach growled.

“Good lord, Andy,” Martha laughed. “Didn’t you eat breakfast this morning?”

“I swear I did,” he replied.

Jessie offered him a forkful of pulled pork. “Well?”

The blend of tangy sweet and spicy flooded his mouth, and he savored them for a moment before responding. “If heaven could be found in food, that’d be it.”

He walked over to the sink to wash his hands and forearms, then took the bowl of pulled pork and the plate with the grill chicken breast filets. She lovingly pinched his waist. “Glad you like my cooking so much, my boy. It’s nice to see a little more meat on your bones.” When the housekeeper, Jessie turned to her. “He was too skinny when he first hired on, wasn’t he, Martha.”

“Mmm-hmm. He’s filled out nicely since, though.”

“That’s something of a miracle,” he remarked. “Pretty easy to work off even the heartiest meal in a hurry around here.”

“You think it’s easy for you to work off a meal?” Martha pointed to her growing belly. “Try eating for two.”

Chuckling, Andy carried the bowls into the dining room.

Two of the ranch’s other hands wandered in and washed up for lunch and claimed their usual seats at the big table. Andy eyed the empty chair to Kurt’s right.

“Where’s George?”

“Dunno,” Kurt replied. “Not my job to keep track of him.”

“I saw him heading up to his cabin about an hour ago,” Tony said.

Andy let out a growl. Dammit.

“Jessie, I’ll be right back,” he called into the kitchen. To Kurt and Tony, he said, “Why don’t you two help Martha finish setting the table?”

He snatched his cowboy hat off the rack behind the front door and settled it on his head, and stepped out into the brilliant early afternoon, marching straight across the meadow. George’s small cabin sat near the southern tree line, the center of the five staff cabins. Just as he leapt over Crystal Creek, which bisected the field and pooled in a fishing pond at the middle of it, he heard the clear ringing of the big triangle calling everyone in to eat.

This was getting old. George was as good a hand as they came, and Andy genuinely liked the man… when he was sober. When he wasn’t, he could be downright surly. And how many times now had he disappeared in the middle of a chore only to show up hungover to work the next morning?

Andy pounded on the door. “Get out here, George!”

The door popped open, and George stood on the other side, squinting. Andy took one look at the man and his lip curled. The cowhand was already inebriated enough that he needed to brace his hand on the doorjamb to steady himself.

Andy shoved his way into the cabin and located a half-downed bottle of Jack Daniels on the coffee table. The place reeked of stale alcohol, burned coffee, and stagnant air.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” George bellowed when Andy walked over to the kitchen sink and emptied the bottle.

“You’re on the clock.”

“You son of a bitch!”

George took a clumsy swing at him, and Andy saw it in plenty of time to duck. He shoved against the ranch hand’s back, pushing him face-first into the fridge. Leaning close to his ear, he said, “I don’t care what you do on your own time, but I’m not going to let you jeopardize my job or put me or anyone else on this ranch in danger.”

“You ain’t the boss of me, so you can just go right to hell. That bottle cost me—”

“What do you care? You’re just pissing it away, anyhow. Kitchen sink or the toilet, doesn’t matter—your money’s gone down the drain.”

He reached into a cupboard, found one clean glass, and filled it with water. George stumbled over to the sink, and Andy handed him the glass.

“Drink this. Then get your ass down to the barn. You can muck stalls, and if you don’t like that option, you can take your chances with Jim, but he’ll likely fire you on the spot.”

The cowhand’s eyes rounded at his last statement. Good. Maybe he’d gotten through to the man. At forty-one, George was close to twice Andy’s age, and he’d been working for the Royal R for eight years. By right, he should’ve been promoted to ranch foreman when the previous foreman had been forced into an early retirement. But Jim hadn’t trusted him to stay sober, and now the alcohol was taking control of his life again, proving the rancher right.

Forty-one? He looked a decade older, and that was being kind.

Andy snatched the empty glass from George’s hand and filled it again. “What’s it going to be? Mucking stalls or possibly losing your job?”

“I think I’ll muck the stalls.”

“Smart choice. I’ll bring you some lunch in a bit.”

As soon as he stepped outside, Andy inhaled deeply to clear the stink from his nose and lungs. He jogged back across the meadow. Everyone was sitting down at the table and well into their lunches when Andy slipped through the front door and hung his hat on the now crowded rack.

Jim noted his arrival with a smile. It faded quickly when he noticed Andy’s expression. “That son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath. “Where is he?”

“He decided to muck stalls.”

“He did, did he?”

Jim dropped his half-eaten sandwich on his plate, pushed his chair back, and with his usual charming smile to the guests, politely excused himself. He gestured to his wife to join him in the kitchen. Andy took a seat at the table and piled pulled pork on a hoagie, watching the kitchen as he ate. A few minutes later, the kitchen door slammed, and Andy winced, glancing around the table. Martha, Kurt, and Tony were fielding questions from the sixteen guests about life on the ranch, and none of the guests seemed to have noticed the undercurrent of tension. Small mercies.

Moments later, Jessie resumed her seat at the table, smiling brightly as if nothing was wrong, but there was a sharpness in her eyes that made Andy nervous.

“He’s not going to fire George, is he?” he asked quietly.

“He wants to. Eat your lunch, Andy, and don’t worry about it.”

That was easier said than done, but Jim returned ten minutes later and was soon laughing and smiling with the guests, so Andy did his best to enjoy the incredible meal. He was hungry, so that, at least was easy.

As lunch wound down, Kurt and Tony led the guests out to the corral to saddle horses for the trail ride. Jim took the rest of his lunch into the kitchen, and his expression gave Andy no clue as to his thoughts. He hoped the man hadn’t decided to fire George; they needed him, even as unreliable as he’d been the last month. At least until they could hire another hand or two.

Rather than head immediately out to the corral to saddle his own horse, Andy hung back to fix a sandwich for George and helped Martha and Jessie with the cleanup.

Martha hooked him around the waist and gave him a one-armed hug. “You’re a one-of-a-kind gentleman, Andy. Thanks for helping.”

“My pleasure,” he replied.

He headed into the dining room to get his Stetson, but Jim’s voice stopped him. “A word, Andy.”

Jessie turned to Martha, resting a hand on her arm. “Would you give us a few minutes?”

Nodding, the housekeeper scooted out of the kitchen.

Jessie gestured to the staff table in the northwest corner of the kitchen. “Pull up a chair.”

He chose to stand, leaning against the big island and glancing between Jim and Jessie. No one spoke, and the longer the silence stretched, the heavier the dread became in his gut.

“I’m sorry if I overstepped my bounds,” he began.

“You didn’t.” Jessie said, wiping her hands on a dish rag and tossing it over her shoulder. “Thank you for handling George so quietly.”

“He’s a good hand,” Andy said. “As good as they come. It’d be a shame to throw that away because he’s going through a rough time right now.”

“I’m glad you think that. Because he’s your problem now. You either get him to straighten his shit out or you fire him.” Jim gripped his shoulder. “As of today, you are our new foreman.”

He stared blankly at the rancher and his wife. What just happened?

“We need someone we can rely on,” Jessie said. “Someone we can trust to make sure the ranch runs smoothly even if we’re not on site to make sure it does. That’s you, Andy. As you’ve proven time and again. We were actually planning to make the announcement this week, anyhow, but you when you handled George so quietly today…. Well, we didn’t see the point in waiting any longer.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes. And ask for tomorrow off so you can start moving in to the foreman’s house.”

The foreman’s house….

There was something else attached to the promotion and that cozy yellow cottage sitting at the tree line at the southern edge of the meadow, and it took a while for the pieces to come together into a coherent realization.

This was the permanence he’d lost five years ago.

Jessie wrapped her arms tightly around him and hugged him for a long time, perhaps sensing the swirl of overwhelming emotions threatening to drag him under.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“No, Andy,” Jim said, “thank you.”

Jessie took him by the chin and forced him to look at her. “You’re a part of our family, Andy,” Jessie added, “and you have been from the beginning, but welcome home. Maybe now you can believe that. Now, get on out to the barn and let poor George know he has his job for another day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And none of this ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ business, Andrew Todd Epperson. I thought we made that clear when we brought you on board.”

He smiled at the full name. It solidified this feeling that he had finally found a home. “Yes, Jessie.”

She hugged him again and gave him a wink when she pulled away. “We’re family here, remember?”

Nodding, he murmured, “Yes, we are.”

He grabbed George’s lunch and his hat and wandered out to the barn, walking slowly to let everything sink in. To his credit, George was throwing himself into his work, pitching the dirty straw into the wheel barrow with a steady rhythm. The hand glanced up with a grim expression as Andy neared.

“So it is you then,” he remarked. “I figured it would be. I still have a job, boss?”

Andy regarded him with raised brows. “For another day, to quote Jessie.”

George returned his gaze to the straw, toying idly with the pitchfork. “Thanks for going to bat for me.”

“How do you know I did?”

“Jim ripped me a new one. Said as far as he was concerned, I should be fired but he was going to leave it up to the new ranch foreman.”

“You’re a good hand, George, and a good man when you’re not drinking.” He handed George his lunch and added, “Next time you take a swing at me, I won’t hold back.”

“There won’t be a next time, boss. There shouldn’t’ve been a first time. I got too much respect for ya. Always have, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“I do, and I appreciate the apology.”

Andy grabbed two buckets and turned them over, motioning for George to have a seat. With his forearms braced on his thighs, he leaned toward the cowhand. “You quit drinking before. When I first started work here, you were still sober—had been for over seven years. You have to do it again, George, or it’s going to destroy you. I know Amelia leaving hurt you, but this is hurting you, too. And it might hurt someone else.”

George buried his face in his hands and muttered something that sounded like “heartless whore,” but Andy couldn’t be sure; the words were distorted by his companion’s attempt to hold back tears. He reached across the space between them and gripped the man’s shoulder. It was like trying to move a boulder. George’s body had gone rigid as he fought against the grief and anger.

“Twenty years, Andy. She was a ranch hand’s wife for twenty years, but suddenly she couldn’t take the life anymore?”

Andy shrugged. “People change. Nothing you can do about that but move on.”

The cowhand let out a sniff of humorless laughter and tilted his head to study Andy with narrowed eyes. “You sure you’re only twenty?”

“Twenty-one next month.” Andy laughed. “Yes, I know I’m an old soul. Kurt and Tony remind me of it daily.”

“Eh. They’re pups. What do they know?” George sat up straighter. “I think it might be time to go back to AA. I don’t want to lose my job. I don’t want to lose my home.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea. You’re a good man, and I know you can beat this. I want to see you do it.”

The older man gave a sniff. “Thanks, kid. Jim and Jessie… they made a good choice. You’re going to be every bit as good a foreman for this ranch as James was.”

“I hope you’re right.” Andy let out a breath and smiled. “God knows I’d love nothing more than to spend the rest of my life right here.”

“Do yourself a favor, then. Find yourself a wife who loves this place and this life as much as you do. And not one who just says she does.”

“Wise advice.” Andy offered George a smile. “Sorry you had to learn it the hard way.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

Andy left his companion to his chore and saddled his horse. As he rode north toward the line of fence most likely to have been damaged by the windstorm that had howled through the mountains the last two days, he tried to reconcile the shift in his position here on the Royal R.

What a day. When he’d risen this morning, he’d been a regular hand just like Kurt, Tony, and George, and now…. He could stop wandering and stop wondering where he’d be in six months, a year, or five.

He paused at the edge of the forest and swung his buckskin mare around to face the compound, taking in the gravel drive that looped around the edge of the meadow and connected all the sheds, barns, the main house, guest cabins, and staff cabins. His eyes rested longest on the quaint foreman’s house, sided in pale yellow with white trim. It was his now.

At last, he could start putting down roots.

* * *

Jane set one foot inside her front door and froze. Like an electrical current, tension snapped through the house, and she stepped cautiously into the living area. Her father was on the phone, leaning against the wall dividing the dining room and kitchen with his back to her. She didn’t have to ask who was on the other line; the tight set of his shoulders was a dead giveaway. It was the Robinsons.

Her chest tightened. She missed them even more than she missed their ranch.

She eyed her father and slipped quietly past him into the kitchen, wondering how big the explosion would be tonight.

Her mother, pulling dinner off the stove, smiled brightly. “Hi, honey. How was work?”

“Crappy.”

“I’m sorry. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

Doubtful. She didn’t say it, though, only gave her mother the most optimistic smile she could manage. Days like today made her lament the end of spring semester. At least her classes at Olympic College had provided a break from her otherwise mundane routine.

She glanced in her father’s direction. “Dad’s talking to Jim and Jessie?”

“Mmm-hmm. Would you help me set the table?”

“Sure.”

Her mother walked through the dining room to the base of the stairs to the family’s bedrooms. “Ben! Dinner’s ready!”

As she set the table, she studied her father. Damn, he looked old. The lines at the corners of his eyes and across his forehead and between his brows had deepened, and his dark hair was now dusted with silver. The most obvious sign, however, was his shoulders. Once strong and proud, they now slumped in defeat, the left stiff and arthritic and the right damaged beyond repair.

“We’ll see,” he said into the phone. His lips twitched into a humorless smile. His words and voice were peaceful enough, but she knew that look in his gray Conner eyes—that spark of pain edged with dark despair. “Maybe this is the year we’ll make it back to Northstar for a visit.”

A moment later, James set the phone in its cradle. He braced his hands on either side of it and let out a sigh. The conversation had drained him, and for almost a minute while his family gathered at the table, he stood there, head hanging with weariness in every line of his body. Five years should’ve been long enough for him to come to terms with the fact that he’d never be able to go back to his job as foreman for the Royal R Ranch, but fifty years probably wouldn’t be enough. Suddenly, he pushed off the wall and strode to his seat at the head of the table with a mild expression. Like nothing was wrong.

Jane didn’t trust it.

Across from her, her little brother stared at his plate.

“Jane, would you please pass the chicken?” James asked.

Cautiously, she did so.

“Well?” her mother asked too cheerfully. “How’s everything on the ranch?”

“Fine,” James replied.

She dropped a dollop of mashed potatoes on her plate. “How’s Andy doing? When I talked to Jessie last week, she couldn’t stop talking about what a godsend he’s been these last six months.”

“He’s great, Eleanor. Doing… just… great.

Jane winced. Here it comes.

“Are they still thinking of promoting him to foreman?”

“Not just thinking. They did it today.”

“Good for them! It’s about time they found someone to replace you.”

God, mom, Jane almost groaned. Please stop.

But it was already too late.

James slammed his silverware on the table. “You’re just tickled about it, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. They need someone like him. I don’t know why you’re so sore about it.”

“You don’t know why I’m sore? Jesus Christ.” He shoved his plate away with such force that it cracked the bowl holding the mashed potatoes. “That’s my goddamned job.”

“Was, James. It was your job. Are we really going to have this argument again?”

“If we hadn’t needed to come here to—”

“Don’t you dare blame my parents and their health issues again. We left because your shoulder is ruined. It can’t handle the work on the ranch.”

“You never know. They’re coming up with new and better ways to repair—”

“You’d have to have enough shoulder left to repair, James, and you don’t!”

He drew a deep breath, but before he could unleash the fury behind it, Jane rocketed out of her chair, knocking it over.

“Fuck this,” she snapped and stormed from the room.

“You watch your language, young lady!” her father bellowed.

She ignored him, striding for the stairs with her back rigidly straight. Her parents’ angry voices followed her all the way up to her bedroom, silenced only when she slammed the door. She paced her room. She had to get out of here. She couldn’t sit around all night and watch her family tear itself further apart.

“Guess I’m going to Bobby’s party after all,” she muttered.

She jerked her dark green polo over her head, stripped out of the plain white tank top underneath and her khaki pants, and hurled it all toward the hamper in the corner of her room. Anger snapped through her, and she rummaged through her closet and drawers.

With a twist of her lips, she selected a pair of skin-tight, low-cut black jeans and a brown, faux-leather crop top she’d never had the courage to wear anywhere but here in the privacy of her room. She shimmied into the clothes, then released her dark hair from its ponytail and ran her brush through it before roughing it up so it flowed silkily around her shoulders. Next, she freshened up her makeup, using a dark brown liner and shadow to make her gray eyes snap, and then she tugged her favorite black cowboy boots onto her feet, letting her jeans cover their shafts. She topped it all off with her rhinestone-encrusted belt and turned to the sliding mirror doors of her closet to admire the result.

The breath sucked between her teeth. The girl staring back at her with those defiant eyes wasn’t a girl at all, but a woman with a purpose to hurt anyone and everyone who had ever hurt her. The amount of skin showing would’ve horrified her shy fourteen-year-old self. Bare midriff, bare shoulders and arms, and more than a little of her breasts bared, too.

Shrugging off the doubt curling around her, she tugged on her light-weight jacket and tiptoed out of her room and down the stairs. Her mother and brother were in the kitchen putting their ruined dinner away. There was no sign of her father, but she knew where he was—out in the garage. Silently, she slipped out of the house and strode out to her truck.

She drove to her best friend’s house, hoping to catch her before she left for Bobby’s party; she didn’t want to show up alone.

Whitney opened the door with a wide grin. “Thought you weren’t going tonight.”

“I changed my mind.” Jane stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and lowered her gaze. “Bit of an atmosphere at home.”

“What’s new?”

Jane snorted.

“Well, you’re just in time. I was on my way out the door.” Whitney grabbed Jane’s hand and yanked the door closed after yelling a quick goodbye and “Love you!” to her mother. “Let’s go kill some boredom and bad vibes.”

Laughing, Jane raced with her friend out to her truck and slid in behind the wheel, barely waiting for Whitney to strap in before she peeled out of the driveway. Whit let out a giddy squeal and lifted her hands above her head like she was riding a roller coaster.

She was Jane’s total opposite—short, voluptuous, and blonde, outgoing and adventurous—but their friendship worked. One mischievous wink of those brown eyes, and the promise of fun lying just ahead cleared Jane’s worries right out of her head. Of their group of friends, Jane had missed Whit the most this last year. In the fall, everyone had gone off to big schools with big dreams for their futures. Everyone except Jane.

She had no idea what she was going to do with her life, and she didn’t see the point of wasting money on an expensive university while she figured it out. The only plan she had was to continue taking classes at Olympic College and maintain her job at the plant nursery until she either careened totally off the rails of the crazy train or some magical lightbulb clicked on to illuminate what her future would hold.

Lame.

Just like everything else in her life since her family had left Northstar.

They were the last to arrive at Bobby Kendrick’s clifftop house in Indianola. Cars lined his driveway and both sides of the entire block, so she parked her truck a block away in front of Bill and Mary Granger’s house—she knew them through her brother’s friendship with Bill’s niece, Aelissm, and hoped they wouldn’t mind. She shrugged out of her jacket and left it on her seat.

“Holy crap, Jane. I can’t believe you’re actually wearing it.” Whitney leaned back and grinned. “You look sexy as hell. If Ross is here, he’s going to be so sorry he dumped you.”

Jane shrugged and walked down the hill toward Bobby’s house. As soon as she and Whitney walked through the front door, a chorus of disbelieving cheers greeted them.

“Holy… crap. I can’t believe you got her to come, Whit,” the party’s host remarked. He let his gaze linger on Jane. “Damn, woman. It’s a good thing we have a fire extinguisher because you are hot as hell.”

She felt her lips lift, and a coy vanity warmed her. “Thanks.”

“Come on in.” Bobby nodded his head toward the open windows across the airy living space. Upbeat music drifted through them from the big deck at the front of the house. “Most everyone’s out on the deck dancing or down in the yard playing volleyball.”

Whitney snatched her hand and yanked her toward the deck with such force that Jane nearly lost her balance. More amused than upset that her friend was dragging her off without the benefit of asking if she wanted to be dragged anywhere, Jane laughed. She’d never enjoyed crowds and tonight was no exception, but the pulsing energy out on the deck was intoxicating.

It was impossible to hang onto her anger, and she exhaled as it slipped away. This is what she needed tonight, and without realizing it, she abandoned herself to the music, dancing with Whitney and a group of their friends. It was amazing to let go and remember what it was to enjoy life again, if only for a couple hours.

When someone grabbed her ass, and it all shattered.

The reaction snapped through her like a whip, and her fist connected with soft lips and hard teeth.

“Jesus Christ, Jane!” the boy cried. “What the hell was that for?!”

It was Ross. Her ex-boyfriend. She scowled as he reached for a napkin from the refreshments table and dabbed his lip. When he saw the blood on the napkin, he sneered at her. “You’re such a bitch, Janie.”

God, she hated that nickname. “You grab my ass after you broke up with me, and I’m the bitch?”

“Oh, come on. What did you expect, showing up dressed like that?”

“A fight. And you’re the jackass dumb enough to give me one.”

She turned away, but Ross gripped her shoulder. She whirled on him, snatched his wrist and wrenched it around hard enough to make him yelp. “Put your hand on me again and I’ll break it. Asshole.”

She released him and stalked away.

“You know why I really broke up with you, Jane?” he called after her.

“I really don’t give a damn, Ross.”

“I got sick of taking a back seat to your misery. If you miss Montana so damned much, why don’t you just go back?”

That stopped her in her tracks, but she didn’t turn around. She reached for her usual response—I can’t; there’s no work—but it abandoned her, so after a moment’s hesitation, she strode away. She located Bobby standing a few feet away, his face pale with horror. “Sorry, Bobby. I was stupid to come, so I’m gonna get out of here before I ruin the rest of the party.”

“Jane, you don’t have to—”

“Yeah, I do.”

With her fury still too eager to be unleashed, she needed to cool down before she tried to drive home or the explosion when she got home would make that one back there seem like a fart. A walk on the beach might do it, so she pushed her way through the crowd toward the stairs.

Just as she set her foot on the first step down to the beach, she heard someone crow, “Oh, man, Jane just kicked your ass, Ross!”

“Shut up, shithead.”

With a small glimmer of satisfaction, she jogged down the stairs with Whitney on her heels. Her friend followed her silently as she picked her way across the rocky, driftwood-strewn upper shore toward the old ferry dock.

She stooped to pick up a rock before they ascended the towering staircase, tossing and catching it idly as they wandered down the long dock. Her boot heels clunked on the planks while Whit’s flip-flops set a faster, slapping rhythm. When they reached the end, Jane finally let the rock rest forgotten in her palm with her fingers curled loosely around it and stared at the blood on her knuckle. She wiped it clean on her jeans and saw that she’d cut it—probably on Ross’s teeth. With her lips twisted in a smirk, she forced her gaze elsewhere.

Discounting the stink of creosote pilings, briny air, and seaweed and the constant damp, Western Washington was a beautiful place. It just wasn’t for her.

She missed the craggy peaks that embraced the Royal R Ranch. She missed the vibrant alpine meadows dotted with spring wildflowers. She missed the silver-green sagebrush and the shivering leaves of the quaking aspen caught in a mountain breeze. She missed the glowing night sky with its millions of glittering stars. And the cattle and horses and ranch dogs and barn cats and the wildlife. She missed them, too.

Most all, she missed the part of herself she’d left in Northstar—her innocence and wonder.

“Your hand all right?” Whitney asked.

Jane glanced at it again. No new blood had welled to replace what she’d cleaned off. “Yeah.”

“Then maybe you shoulda punched him a little harder.”

Jane hurled the rock and watched its arching flight until it hit the water in a splash that caught the last rays of the sun. Then she turned around and rested her elbows behind her on the railing. Suddenly, the Douglas firs crowning the bluff and the thick sea air were too close, smothering her. She couldn’t breathe here—neither with her lungs nor with her soul. Eventually, if she stayed here, she would become as bitter and broken-spirited as her father. She couldn’t let that happen. She wouldn’t.

“Wait a sec,” Whitney said slowly. “What just happened? Where’d that look come from?”

“What look?”

“The one like you’re preparing to kick the entire world’s ass.”

Jane gave a bark of laughter. “Maybe I am. I know what I need, Whit. I always have. And it doesn’t matter that there’s no clear path to it. I’ll cut my own.”

She shoved off the railing and strode toward the head of the dock.

“Jane! Wait!”

She didn’t stop.

“Dammit, Jane! My legs aren’t as long as yours.”

She shortened her strides, but she didn’t stop, and Whitney jogged to catch up.

“You’re really gonna do it?”

“I’m really gonna do it.”

Fifteen minutes and a collect call to Jessie Robinson later, Jane’s decision didn’t seem so much like the shot of a loose cannon. She dropped Whit off at home, promised they’d get together for a big celebration of some kind before she left for Northstar, and braced herself to face her family.

When she pulled up in front of her parents’ house, she went straight in. No point in lingering in her truck, letting the doubt seep in. Draping her jacket over her arm to hide her cut knuckle—better her father blew a rod over her clothing than the evidence that she’d gotten into a fight—and marched into the house.

Her parents and little brother sat on the couch, watching television and waiting for her. She sat primly on the loveseat and folded her hands in her lap, careful to hide her cut knuckle. Surprise widened her family’s eyes when they noticed her attire, but no one said anything. Almost a minute passed in silence.

Finally, her father spoke. “I will address this—” His gesture indicated her clothing. “—in a minute. But first, there is a matter more pressing. I had an interesting conversation with Jim and Jessie just now. Care to explain yourself?”

Somehow, it was easier that her parents already knew.

She perched on the arm of the loveseat perpendicular to the couch. “I’m going home. To Northstar. Just because you can’t go back doesn’t mean I can’t.”

“You can’t make a living there, Jane,” he snapped.

“Jessie said they need someone just like me who can do it all. Martha’s pregnant, and she’s going to need more help with the housekeeping, and with George drinking again… who knows if he’ll be able to quit this time. And even if he can, in the meantime, they need someone who can pick up the slack for him.”

“Short term, Jane,” her mother murmured. “That’s a short-term job. You need a college degree to get anywhere in this world these days.”

“So I’ll transfer to the university in Devyn. I’ll get a degree in business management or accounting. Jim and Jessie have a new foreman, but they need someone who can help with the books. I will become that person.”

Jane said it quietly but firmly, and her parents stared at her in shock. Their daughter, who had grown increasingly reckless and rebellious and frustrated, especially in the past year, wasn’t one to speak with such quiet, logical conviction.

“You have all the answers, don’t you? But what about the things you can’t see coming? What happens if you find yourself some good-looking cowboy who gets your heart to fluttering and you can’t imagine your life without him, hmm? What happens when he gets hurt or the job breaks his body like it did mine. Then what? You’ll be right back where you started,” James said. “But you go and you prove it to yourself that you can’t make a living there, that it’s not the happy paradise you remember.”

“You’re not going to change my mind, Dad. Win or lose, I’m doing this. And you of all people should understand why I have to. I hate who I’m becoming here.”

Swearing under his breath, James pushed to his feet, waved his hands dismissively and stalked out of the room. Jane stared after him long after he disappeared up the stairwell and then shifted her gaze to her mother. Eleanor’s eyes filled with tears, and she shook her head.

“A week?” her mother said slowly. “You couldn’t have given us more time or discussed this with us?”

Abruptly with the tears spilling over, she followed her husband out of the room. With only Ben for company, Jane braced her elbows on her knees and dropped her head into her hands. Burying her fingers in her hair, she took a deep breath so she didn’t start crying, too. She’s been so certain that this would end in a fight that she hadn’t prepared herself for this. It was somehow harder to deal with. She knew how to fight anger, but that quiet sadness?

“I can’t believe you’re going,” came her brother’s low voice.

She lifted her gaze and studied his young face for a moment. Suddenly, he seemed so much older than twelve.

“I have to, Ben. I hate it here. I’m going crazy, like I’m dying inside.”

“I know that. And I know you’ll be happier back in Northstar. I want you to be happy again. But I’m going to miss you.”

She walked over, sat beside him, and hugged him for a long time. “I’m going to miss you, too. And maybe, if I’m over there, Mom and Dad will finally make good on their promise and come for a visit so you can come see me.”

“I’d like that. Hey, Jane?”

“Yeah?”

“Dad’s wrong. You won’t come back. You’ll make it over there.”

“Oh, yeah? And how do you know that?”

“Because you want it. More than anything.”

Laughing softly, she tightened her arms around him. She didn’t say it, afraid that giving voice to the fear would jinx her, but she hoped he was right.

 

* * * * *

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