The kitchen table was littered with travel brochures, all provided by Karen’s well-meaning best friends. She sat at the table with her cup of tea and a homemade cranberry scone baked just that morning and dropped off by Gina, and studied the pictures without touching them. She was almost afraid to pick up the brochures, afraid to admit just how tempted she was to toss aside all of her responsibilities and run away.
The Calamity Janes had known just how to get to her, selecting all the places she had talked about back in high school. London, of course. Always her first choice since so much of her favorite literature had been written there. And Italy because of the art in Florence, because of the history in Rome and the canals of Venice. Paris for the sidewalk bistros on shady streets and for the Louvre and Notre Dame. They had thrown in a cruise through the Greek isles and a relaxing resort in Hawaii for good measure.
Once the images would have stirred her imagination, the prospect of actually being able to choose one would have filled her with excitement, but today all she felt was sadness. Finally, after all these years, she could make her dream come true, but only because her husband was dead, only if she turned her back on everything that had mattered to him…to them.
Caleb was dead. The words still had the power to shock her, even now, six months after his funeral. How could a man not yet forty be dead? He had always appeared so healthy, so strong. Though he’d been ten years older, she had been drawn to him from the moment they met because of his vitality, his zest for living. Who would have guessed that his heart was weak…a heart that had been capable of such love, such tenderness?
Tears welled up, spilled down her cheeks, splattered on the glossy brochures for places she had put off seeing to marry the man of her dreams.
Not a day went by that Karen didn’t blame the ranch for killing him. That and her stubborn determination to take time off for her high school reunion. Six months hadn’t changed her mind about where the blame lay.
Nor had it dulled her grief. Her friends were worried about her, which explained the arrival this morning of all the brochures. They had remembered how she had once talked of leaving Wyoming behind, of becoming a flight attendant or a travel agent or a cruise director, anything that would allow her to see the world. They were using all of those old dreams in an effort to tempt her into taking a break.
A break, she thought derisively. Her so-called break for that reunion was the reason Caleb was dead. Running a ranch didn’t allow for breaks, not a ranch the size of hers anyway. It was a full-time, never-ending, backbreaking job, with often pitiful rewards.
Once she and Caleb had envisioned taking trips together, traveling to all the exciting, faraway places she had dreamed about before she’d met him and fallen in love. He had understood her dreams even if he hadn’t shared them. This ranch had been his only obsession.
There had been other dreams, of course, ones they had shared. They had dreamed of filling the house with children, but they’d put it off. Just until finances took a turn for the better, he’d promised her.
Now there would be no children, she thought bitterly. No vacations to exotic locales. Not with Caleb, anyway. They’d never gone farther away from home than Cheyenne, where they’d spent their three-day honeymoon.
The Calamity Janes had obviously anticipated her protests that there was no money for a frivolous vacation, no time to indulge a fantasy. Her friends had prepaid a trip to anywhere in the world she wanted to go. It was Lauren’s extravagant gift, most likely, Karen surmised. Lauren’s and Emma’s. Of Karen’s high school classmates, the actress and lawyer were the only ones with any cash to spare right now.
Cassie had recently married a successful technology whiz, but their road was still rocky as Cole struggled to accept the fact that Cassie had kept his son a secret from him for years. Cassie wouldn’t ask Cole for money, though Karen didn’t doubt he would have offered if he’d known about the plan. Cole had been a rock since Caleb’s death, pitching in to handle a hundred little details, things she would never have thought of. He’d wanted to do more, offered to send over extra help, but she had turned him down. Taking on the burden of running the ranch was her penance.
As for Gina, she had been in some sort of financial scrape with her New York restaurant that she flatly refused to discuss, but it was serious enough to have driven her out of New York and back to Winding River to stay. She spent her days in a frenzy of baking and her nights working in the local Italian restaurant where she’d first developed the desire to become a chef. There had been a handsome man hovering around ever since the reunion, but Gina steadfastly refused to introduce him or to explain his presence.
Karen loved them all for their support and their generosity. Her friends’ hearts were in the right place, but she couldn’t see how she could go to Cheyenne for a day trip right now, much less on some dream vacation. The work on the ranch hadn’t died with her husband. Hank and Dooley were pitching in to take up the slack, but they were beginning to get nervous about how they’d be paid or whether the ranch would even survive. They were right to worry, too. Karen didn’t have any answers for them. She knew, though, that Dooley, who’d worked with the Hansons for three decades, had persuaded the younger, more impulsive Hank to give her time to figure things out.
It was January now. She could tell them to find other work and manage for a while, but when spring came, she would have to have help once more. Better to scrape by and re-hire these two, whose loyalty she was sure of, than risk finding no one she could trust come April.
She groaned even as the thought crossed her mind. She was beginning to think like Caleb, seeing betrayal and enemies around every corner. He had been totally paranoid about Grady Blackhawk’s designs on their ranch. It was true that Grady wanted it. He’d made no secret of the fact, especially since Caleb’s death, but it was unlikely that he’d try to get it by planting a spy on her payroll.
Apparently she needed this break more than she wanted to admit. She finally dared to reach for the brochure on London and studied the photos of Buckingham Palace, the Old Vic, Harrods, the cathedrals.
She tried to imagine what London would be like in winter, with snow dusting the streets. Currier and Ives-style images from her favorite authors came to mind. It would be magical. It would be everything she’d ever dreamed of.
It was impossible.
She sighed heavily and reluctantly put the brochure down again, just as someone knocked at the kitchen door.
When she opened it, her heart thumped unsteadily at the sight of Grady Blackhawk. He’d been at the funeral, too. And he’d called a half-dozen times in the weeks and months since. She’d tried her best to ignore him, but he’d clearly lost patience. Now here he was on her doorstep.
“Mrs. Hanson,” he said with a polite nod and a finger touched to the rim of his black Stetson.
She had the whimsical thought that he was deliberately dressing the part of the bad guy, all in black, but the idea fled at once. There was nothing the least bit whimsical about Grady. He was quiet and intense and mysterious.
The latter was a bit more of a problem than she’d anticipated when he first came to pay his respects after Caleb’s death. Karen had always liked unraveling puzzles, and Grady was the most complicated one she’d ever run across. Unfortunately, sifting through clues, ferreting out motives took time, time she didn’t dare spend with her husband’s longtime enemy.
She could just imagine the disapproval of Caleb’s parents, if they heard she was spending time with Grady Blackhawk. Word would reach them, too. She had no doubts about that. Most of the people in the area were far closer to the Hansons, who’d lived here for decades, than they were to Karen, who was still regarded as a newcomer even after ten years as Caleb’s wife. The phone lines between here and Tucson would be burning up as the gossip spread.
“I thought I had made it clear that I have nothing to say to you,” she told Grady stiffly, refusing to step aside to admit him. Better to allow the icy air into the house than this man who could disconcert her with a look.
This man, with his jet-black hair and fierce black eyes, was now her enemy, too. It was something she’d inherited, right along with a failing ranch.
She wished she understood why Grady was so desperate to get his hands on this particular ranch. He had land of his own in a neighboring county-plenty of it from what she’d heard. But there was something about Hanson land that obsessed him.
Over the years he-and his father before him-had done all he could to steal the Hanson land. Not that he wasn’t willing to pay. He was. But, bottom line, he wanted something that wasn’t rightfully his, and he intended to get it by fair means or foul.
According to Caleb, Grady had no scruples, just a single-minded determination. He’d tried to buy up their note at the bank, but fortunately, the bank president was an old family friend of Caleb’s father. He had seen the paperwork, foiled the attempt, then dutifully rushed to report everything to the Hansons. That much was fact.
In addition-and far more damning-Caleb had been all but certain Grady was behind a virus that had infected half their herd the previous year. He had also blamed Grady for a fire that had swept through pastureland the year before that, destroying feed and putting the entire herd at risk.
There had been no proof, of course, just suspicions, which Karen had never entirely bought. After all, Grady had been waiting in the wings, checkbook in hand, after each incident. Would he have been foolish enough to do that if he’d been behind the acts in the first place? Wouldn’t he know that he’d be the first person to fall under suspicion? Or hadn’t he cared, as long as he got his way?
“I think it would be in both our interests to talk,” he said, regarding her with the intense gaze that always disquieted her.
“I doubt that.”
He ignored her words and her pointed refusal to back away from the door. “I’ve made no secret over the years of the fact that I want this land.”
“That’s true enough.” She regarded him curiously. “Why this land? What is it about this particular ranch that made your father and now you hound the Hansons for years?”
“If you’ll allow me to come inside, I’ll explain. Perhaps then you won’t be so determined to fight me on this.”
Karen’s sense of fair play and curiosity warred with her ingrained animosity. Curiosity won. She stepped aside and let him enter. He removed his hat and hung it on a peg, then took a seat at the table. She took comfort in the fact that he didn’t remove his coat. He clearly wouldn’t be staying long.
His intense gaze swept the room, as if taking stock, then landed on the scattered brochures.
“Going somewhere?” he asked, studying her with surprise. “I didn’t think you had the money to be taking off for Europe.”
“I don’t,” she said tightly, wondering how he knew so much about her finances. Then again, just about everyone knew that she and Caleb had been struggling. “My friends do. They’re encouraging me to take a vacation.”
“Are you considering it?”
“Not with you circling around waiting for me to make a misstep that will cost me the ranch.”
He winced at that. “I know how your husband felt about me, but I’m not your enemy, Mrs. Hanson. I’m trying to make a fair deal. You have something I want. I have the cash to make your life a whole lot easier. It’s as simple as that.”
“There is nothing simple about this, Mr. Blackhawk. My husband loved this ranch. I don’t intend to lose it, especially not to the man he considered to be little better than a conniving thief.”
“A harsh assessment of a man you don’t know,” he said mildly.
“It was his assessment, not mine. Caleb was not prone to making quick judgments. If he distrusted you, he had his reasons.”
“Which you intend to accept blindly?”
It was her turn to wince. Loyalty was one thing, but her sense of fair play balked at blindly accepting anything.
“Persuade me otherwise,” she challenged. “Convince me you had nothing to do with the attempts to destroy our herd, that your intentions were honorable when you tried to buy up the note on the land.”
He didn’t seem surprised by the accusations. He merely asked, “And then you’ll sell?”
“I didn’t say that, but I will stop labeling you as a thief if you don’t deserve it.”
He grinned at that, and it changed him from somber menace to charming rogue in a heartbeat. Karen nearly gasped at the transformation, but she wouldn’t allow herself to fall prey to it. He hadn’t proved anything yet. She doubted he could.
“If I tell you that none of that is true, not even the part about the mortgage, would you believe me?” Grady asked.
“What would it take?”
“Find the person responsible.”
He nodded. “Maybe I will. In the meantime, I’m going to tell you a story,” he said in a low, easy, seductive tone.
His voice washed over Karen, lulling her as if it were the start of a bedtime story. She was tired enough to fall asleep listening to it, but she sat up rigidly, determined not to display any sign of weakness in front of this man.
“Generations ago this land belonged to my ancestors,” Grady began. “It was stolen from them.”
“Not by me,” she said heatedly, responding not just to the accusation but to the fact that she’d dared to let down her guard for even a split second. “Nor my husband.”
He seemed amused by her quick retort. “Did I say it had been? No, this was years and years ago, before your time or mine. It was taken by the government, turned over to homesteaders. White homesteaders,” he said pointedly. “My ancestors were driven onto reservations, while people like the Hansons took over their land.”
Karen was aware that much had been done to the Native Americans that was both heartless and wrong. She sympathized with Grady Blackhawk’s desire to right an old wrong, but she and Caleb-or, for that matter, Caleb’s parents and grandparents-weren’t the ones to blame. They had bought the land from others, who, in turn, had simply taken advantage of a federal policy.
“You’re asking me to make amends for something I had no part in,” she told him.
“It’s not a matter of paying an old debt that isn’t yours. It’s a matter of doing what’s right because you’re in a position to do so. And I certainly don’t expect you just to give the land to me because I say it rightfully belongs to my family. I’ll pay you a fair price for it, same as anyone else would. I guarantee it will be far more than what was paid for it all those years ago.”
Before she could stop him, he named an amount that stunned her. It would be enough to pay off all their debts and leave plenty for her to start life over again back in Winding River, where she’d be with friends. It was tempting, more tempting than she’d imagined. Only an image of Caleb’s dismay steadied her resolve. Keeping this ranch was the debt she owed to him. She could never turn her back on that.
“I’m not interested in selling,” she said with finality.
“Not to me or not to anyone?” Grady asked with an edge to his voice.
“It hardly matters, does it? I won’t sell this ranch.”
“Because you love it so much?” he asked with a note of total disbelief in his voice.
“Because I can’t,” she responded quietly.
He seemed startled by the response. “It’s not yours to sell?”
“Technically, yes. But I owe it to my husband to stay here, to do what he would have done, if he hadn’t died so prematurely. This ranch will stay in Hanson hands as long as I have any control over it.”
For a moment, he looked taken aback, but not for long. His gaze locked with hers, he said, “I’ll keep coming back, Mrs. Hanson, again and again, until you change your mind or until circumstances force your hand. This place is wearing you down. I can see it.” He gestured toward the brochures. “Obviously so can your friends. Make no mistake, I’ll own the land…no doubt before the year is out.”
His arrogant confidence stirred her temper. “Only if hell freezes over,” she said, snatching the back door open and allowing a blast of wintry air into the room as she waited pointedly for him to take the hint and leave.
His gaze never wavered as he plucked his hat off the hook and moved past her. He paused just outside and a smile tugged at his lips. “Keep a close eye on the weather, Mrs. Hanson. Anything’s possible.”