Really, rock music wasn’t what it used to be.
Kate fumbled for the tuning knob on the pickup truck radio and came up with a country station. She liked country, but not today when she was late and tired and stressed after a long day of teaching. The meeting after school with Neve Shepherd’s parents had gone on much longer than she had thought it would, and then she’d had several more tasks to complete after that.
“We’re worried that her boyfriend is a bad influence,” Neve’s father Gary had said at one point.
“Jay Brown,” Annette Shepherd had put in. “Do you teach him, too?”
“Yes, I do.” Kate already knew that Neve and Jay were dating, and she’d resisted blurting out her instant response—Jay a bad influence on Neve? No, it was the other way around. Neve was getting seriously out of control.
Careful with the speed limit, Kate.
She needed rock, and she needed it LOUD, and the Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters just weren’t the same as the bands she’d loved in her teens. Blondie, the Eagles, the Police, the Stones. Those were bands.
I sound as if I’m forty.
Which she wouldn’t be for ages. Not until three years into the next millennium. She was only thirty-two, for heaven’s sake. Meanwhile, if she didn’t find a song she liked, she might start screaming instead.
She twiddled the tuning knob once more, finally found a halfway decent song, started singing with no style and no tune at the top of her voice—it worked a little, as a stress release—then saw the flashing red and blue lights in her rear-view mirror and her heart sank into the pit of her stomach.
Please, no! Not again.
She slowed and pulled over, pressed her forehead against the hard curve of the steering wheel and groaned while she waited for the long arm of the law to step out of his vehicle and arrive beside her.
This couldn’t be happening. And yet it was.
A minute later, he appeared in his dark uniform at her window and she wound it down, the battered pickup not being a recent enough model to have push-button windows. It was the sheriff himself, not a mere junior deputy, and not the highway patrol. Sheriff Harrison Pearce had been with the county for just over a year, and had now pulled her over four times in less than three months for traffic violations. She’d run one stop light in town, and was caught speeding twice out here on the highway, but this time she didn’t even know what she’d done wrong.
“I wasn’t speeding,” she said, before he could open his mouth. He loomed beyond the open window, big and unmoving, the uniform clinging to strong shoulders and well-worked thighs. “I wasn’t.”
“You know, Miz MacCreadie,” he said in a slow Montana drawl, “we gotta stop meeting like this.”
“I know we do. Why is it always you? Between the police department and the sheriff’s office and the highway patrol, there have to be other officers on the roads, you would think.” She shut her mouth quickly, before she began to sound completely hysterical.
“I mean that.” He wore a sober, serious expression that made the planes of his face look as if they’d been carved by a sculptor in a thoughtful mood. He had dark eyes and dark hair and the kind of short, neat haircut that looked terrible on any man who had a badly shaped head.
Sheriff Pearce’s head was very well-shaped indeed.
Almost as well-shaped as his body.
“I wasn’t speeding,” Kate said.
“That is a plus,” he agreed. He sounded calm, and almost kind. “But your tail-light is out.” He put a hand on the roof of the pickup and leaned in a little.
“One tail-light?” she said.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. It’s still a violation.”
“I—I’m sorry, too, but I really didn’t know it was out, and I’m late getting home.”
“Step out of the vehicle, and I’ll show you.”
She stepped. Well, she opened the door with a slightly shaky hand, and stumbled out on tired, impatient legs. Every minute she was delayed here would only increase the likely chaos when she arrived home.
Sheriff Pearce walked her around to the back of the pickup, his stride even and long. “See, it’s your left light, and these roads are pitch black at night. What if someone thinks you’re a motorcycle when they try to pass you?”
“It’s not pitch black yet.” It was a plea, not an argument.
“Will be, soon,” he pointed out, still sounding kind rather than stern. The last fiery edge of the western sun had dipped below the jagged and snow-capped horizon of the distant Tobacco Root Mountains some minutes ago.
She shivered, standing in the cold. There were still thick patches of snow in the ditches, and she wasn’t wearing a coat. “Could I get the tail light fixed, and then bring the vehicle in and show you?”
He was silent for a moment, and she breathed in the calm of him. She’d met him a couple of times outside the context of her shocking and heinous driving record, and she’d never seen a ruffle or a chink in the aura of strength and peace he gave off.
It was amazing. It was wonderful. If he could bottle it, she would be in the market for a steady supply. Her own life and state of being was anything but calm, and that was why this kept happening, this traffic violation stuff. Really, it wasn’t like her. She was a schoolteacher for heck’s sake! A role model.
“Bring it tomorrow,” he said. “Get the light fixed first thing. Can you undertake to do that?” He flicked her a narrow-eyed look, and spoke in the voice of the law.
“I—I will. And if there’s any delay, I’ll call you.”
“Here’s my card.”
I have his card!
Unfortunately it didn’t say “Harrison Pearce, Purveyor of Calm, Wholesale and Retail.” But he was still here, so she just kept breathing, hoping some of the calm might flow into her anyhow.
“Miz MacCreadie…” he said.
“Call me Kate,” she cut in quickly. “My students call me Miz MacCreadie. Anyone else and it feels…” She finished with a shudder and a flick of the hands.
He laughed. “Better make it Harrison, in that case, so that we’re even.”
“Harrison.” Calm, strong, steady as a rock Harrison. She liked it. She wanted more Harrison in her life. They’d also met at the rodeo last October and in line at the bank a few weeks later, not much basis for an acquaintance but she already knew that she liked him.
Not that there was room in her life for anything like that.
“So Kate,” he began again. “Seems to me like you’re not the type who usually runs stop lights or goes too fast on the roads.”
He was looking at her again, seeing too much. It should have made her uncomfortable, but instead it felt like such a relief. She felt a ridiculous urge to fall on his shoulder and burst into tears and tell him her entire life story. Had to gather another calming breath-full of him, instead, in order to stop herself. What did he smell like? All sorts of good things. Cotton and pine and man-warmth.
“Hm?” he prompted.
“I know,” she said, ashamed. She couldn’t meet his gaze, but felt it on her, quiet and patient and thoughtful. “I’m just… in so much of a rush, sometimes. I have a lot on my mind, and when I’m driving I can’t stop it all going round and round in my head. I get tense and harried, and the needle creeps up and I don’t even notice. I’ve been really, really trying not to let that happen since—well, since the last two times you pulled me over.”
She looked up at him and realized how close she was standing, almost close enough that if she swayed forward, she could lean against his chest and listen to his heart, to its strong, steady beat. How long since she’d had a hug from anyone but Rob and Melinda’s kids?
“Too much going on?” the Sheriff suggested.
“Too much, in two different directions, and I feel as if I’m being pulled apart. I—”
—had better stop right there, or he really will think I’m a lunatic, telling him my innermost thoughts and feelings by the side of the highway.
“Problem is, I expect it’s not just showing up in how fast you go on the roads,” he said.
“Probably not just, no.” She’d been having headaches, and periods in the staff room at school when she just sat slumped in her chair like a piece of overcooked spaghetti while the names of the students on her class lists turned into words that made no sense.
“That’s a concern.”
“Maybe you need just the one direction, find a way to achieve that.”
“Well, yes,” she agreed again, although it would be easier said than done.
He seemed to read her thoughts. The formal and somewhat starched law enforcement mannerisms dropped and he said quietly, as if he really knew her, “I mean it, Kate. If you keep going to pieces when you’re driving, because of the stress you’re under, you’ll end up killing someone. Or yourself.”
“I don’t want that on my watch.”
“Thanks, yes, no, of course you don’t.” She was close to tears, now.
Maybe he could see it. He pulled back a little, turned less personal once more. “Where are you headed?”
“Where I’m always headed, this time of day. Home to our ranch.”
“Up Paradise Valley and off a side road to the southwest, before you get to the Sheenan spread, and the Carrigan place.”
“That’s right. You’re learning the geography, and the names.”
He shrugged and smiled, both gestures unhurried. “It’s a nice part of the job, around here.”
Then his manner gave another almost imperceptible shift and she knew he was about to let her go. Since she was in her usual crazy hurry to get home, it didn’t make sense that she wanted to stay here… keep talking… breathe in more of the calm… for a lot, lot longer. “How did you know I was feeling this stressed?” she said. “I—I’m shocked it’s that obvious.”
He gave a slow smile, looked her up and down… or actually the opposite, down, then up… and reached forward, into her hair. He pulled off the sunglasses she’d pushed up there when the sun had dropped behind the mountains. Then he reached again, and showed her the glasses she’d spent ten minutes looking for after Annette and Gary Shepherd had left, back at school. They’d been on the top of her head the whole time.
Finally, he took the spare pair sitting right on the end of her nose, that she’d been unconsciously peering over as she drove, and had totally forgotten about. The six earpieces of three sets of spectacles made a tangle in his big, upturned hand.
“Ah,” she said, and took them from him. She would have been deeply embarrassed if he hadn’t been smiling at her. His smile was as calm as the rest of him. It quietly lit his face from the inside, twinkled deep in his eyes, and had a hint of wicked appreciation that might be purely her imagination.
“So I’ll hear from you tomorrow about the tail light,” he said.
He really was letting her off! “Yes. You definitely will. Thank you. Thanks so much.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“I mean seriously, don’t mention it to anyone, okay?” Definitely a twinkle in his eyes now. “Because I’m not supposed to do things like this.”
She climbed back into the pickup, started the engine and set off carefully, knowing he was watching her.
It was later than usual. Should she have said more to Annette and Gary Shepherd about their wayward daughter, back at school? Been more honest and blunt with them about how Neve distracted every other student in her class? Had she remembered to bring all the right folders for grading tonight? And what about on the home front? The kids would be starving. And Rob even more so. The likelihood of Melinda having a meal prepared was slim.
Don’t speed. Remember your left tail light is out.
Sheriff Pearce—no, Harrison—was right. The darkness was closing in fast, and as soon as she turned off Highway 89 the road narrowed. It carried very little traffic, but still, if someone did come up behind her and want to pass—which they might, since she was most definitely keeping to the speed limit now, if not ten miles an hour below it—the broken tail light could cause a problem.
She shouldn’t be driving like this, every day.
Something needed to change.
A whole new set of thoughts started churning in her head and went nowhere.
It was a relief to pull into the open space in front of the low-slung house that was her childhood family home on the MacCreadie ranch, but as soon as she walked in the door, the relief vanished as it always did.
The TV was on, showing a Rugrats cartoon, but the kids weren’t really watching it. They were playing noisily instead.
All five of them.
There was no sign of Rob, their father. He was probably in the shower, washing off the dirt from a day of ranch work that began at dawn or earlier and didn’t end until the light went again at the end of the day.
The ranch herd of Red Angus cattle was calving right now, and Rob never had quite enough help. He might be up half the night if there was a cow having trouble. Every few days he would cut the “heavies” out of the herd and bring them down to the field by the calving shed, and he, Kate, and Melinda would take turns to check them every couple of hours during the night. The disruption to sleep could be brutal. Kate yawned, thinking about it.
In the kitchen, she found Melinda, her sister-in-law and mother of the brood. There were four different-sized baking pans laid out on the table and cooked strips of lasagne hanging everywhere, over the edges of bowls and pots and even the back of a chair. On the stove, béchamel sauce had cooled in a pan and formed a thick yellow-white skin on top, while Melinda was only just tipping canned tomatoes into another pot—not quite big enough—containing ground beef that was still half raw and onions well on their way to being burned.
Melinda had tomato in her dark, pretty hair, and on her apron. The sink was full of dirty dishes, and the country music on the radio was turned too loud. Yet in the middle of all this she turned and smiled at Kate as if none of it mattered all that much—although that might have been a front. “I thought I’d make a big batch, so we could freeze some of it for another time. But then I got distracted…” She frowned and gave another smile that seemed to be an apology.
“It’s almost seven o’clock,” Kate said, and knew she’d sounded short and snappy. At this stage of preparation, she estimated another hour and a half, minimum, before the meal would be ready, since it needed a good forty-five minutes in the oven after it was put together, and that couldn’t be done until the meat and tomato sauce was cooked.
“I know. I always forget how complicated lasagne is,” Melinda said. “And I think I started in the wrong place, with the béchamel. I sort of… got mixed up.” She waved her hands vaguely.
The kids would be over-tired and beyond hungry. Rob wouldn’t have a second’s peace between the end of the meal and when he needed to get to bed himself. He only let Melinda and Kate take turns getting up once a night during calving season, which meant he was checking the pregnant cows himself, most of the time. Couldn’t Melinda see he needed to be able to rely on her more, on the home front?
Kate fought back her impatience and won over it… for now.
Melinda was always like this. She and Rob had married so young, when she was still only seventeen and already pregnant with Rose. She was a sweet girl, the nicest and kindest person in the world, and she adored her husband. She was twenty-eight years old now, four years younger than Kate, and it wasn’t her fault that her planned third pregnancy had produced triplets.
She and Rob had made great parents to begin with, even though they were so young. Rose had co-operated by being an easy baby, and RJ, the result of a second unplanned pregnancy just four months after Rose’s birth, had been pretty easy, too. It hadn’t seemed like such a foolish decision to complete their planned family of three children right away. A family close in age had its advantages.
But the triplets had been a shock, and way too much.
When they were born—dramatically, by C-section, after Melinda’s blood pressure had climbed to a dangerous height—Rose and RJ were only two and one, so there were five toddlers and babies in the house, and Melinda understandably hadn’t coped so Kate had stayed on here instead of moving into her own place, even though by then she was already teaching at the high school and had to make the commute every day. It was a good half-hour. Thirty-five minutes, really.
But the kids had grown older and easier over the past few years. Rose was ten, now, RJ was nine, and the triplets Jamie, Jess and Jodie were eight, and Melinda still wasn’t coping.
She was so disorganized and vague about everything, and you couldn’t blame sleep deprivation or the Terrible Twos any more. Why couldn’t she manage better? The children were at school all day. Sure, yes, make three or four batches of lasagne at once, streamline the process, it made sense, but start it after lunch or even first thing in the morning, so it was ready in time.
What had Melinda been doing all day? She barely helped Rob with ranch work, even during this busiest time of the year. They could have kept chickens, but when they’d tried it, Melinda forgot to shut them away at night and predators came. She loved color and craft, and had boxes of fabric for quilting, but nothing ever seemed to happen except half-finished projects. Maybe a pillow-cover or a wall-hanging every now and then, if Rob helped her sort everything out and guided her through, but that was about it.
Every day, Kate came home from a hard day of teaching English to high school kids who wanted to learn but didn’t get enough attention, and kids who didn’t want to learn yet attempted to dominate the focus of the entire class… Neve Shepherd, for example…
She came home to this chaos.
Dinner not ready, or not even started, often.
Children not channeled into any kind of task.
Rob desperately trying to wash off the day’s fatigue so he could turn around and pick up the slack, even though he had ranch business on the computer most evenings.
Kate was desperate for a life of her own. Harrison Pearce had delivered a stark warning tonight and she knew he was right. She would never forgive herself if she killed someone on the roads because she was too stressed to drive safely. But how could she leave her younger brother in the lurch? How would this family possibly manage without her? And, more immediately, how would she find the time and energy for the papers she needed to grade tonight?
She took a breath. “Okay, how about I finish making the lasagne?”
“Oh, that would be such a help! Thank you!” Melinda said.
“And you could hear the trips do their reading aloud, for school, and then maybe come in here and wash up some dishes? Rose and RJ could help with that. They’re old enough.”
“You’re right. I should remember to ask them. I should remember to ask them about homework…” She sounded unhappy with herself about it, and her frown had darkened.
“Never mind,” Kate said brightly.
Melinda glanced at her then quickly away again, and Kate knew that Melinda hadn’t missed the tinkly-polite patience in her voice, and the words spoken through gritted teeth. Her sister-in-law might be vague, but she was perceptive about people and atmosphere.
Something had to change. Sheriff Pearce was right, and it wasn’t just about her safety on the roads. If she kept letting herself be pulled in two directions like this, she would grow chronically angry and bitter toward Melinda and Rob. She’d lose any pleasure she felt in the kids because they weren’t hers and they were stopping her from finding a life… a man… kids of her own.
She would start to loathe all of them, loathe Melinda’s mother who could have helped but never did, loathe the beloved family ranch for its demands on Rob’s energy and strength, and she would loathe herself most of all, for becoming such an angry martyr, for not getting out while there was still time.
She loved her brother. She loved his whole family. But something had to change.
End of Excerpt