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This is going to be one lonely Christmas.
Murphy Anderson gave herself a mental shake as she turned her car off the snowy county road onto the neglected driveway that led to her family ranch. She was not going to endure another sad, lonely Christmas at her childhood home. This was going to be a positive and productive Christmas. She’d brought along a holiday arsenal to keep the mood as cheery as possible while she went through the house and prepared the property for sale. The boxes in the back seat of her car were loaded with spiced teas, holiday-scented candles, music, and even a small potted evergreen tree. She’d spent too many Christmases without a tree, so the decorated pine had been a must. When she returned to Missoula, she’d plant the little tree in the yard of the house she was in the process of buying to commemorate closing this chapter of her life.
And while she was on the ranch, she was going to stay positive. Absolutely, 100 percent positive.
Okay…90 percent positive. The ranch still held a lot of ghosts, but at least she wouldn’t be tackling them alone. Benny, her adopted poodle terrier, sat on the console beside her, watching the edges of the road as if expecting a yeti or a polar bear to step out of the snow-laden brush to block the road. If that happened, Murphy had no doubt that her self-appointed guard dog would consider himself well able to take care of business.
Murphy leaned forward to see better and concentrated on keeping the car dead center in the middle of the road. There was at least four inches of new snow on the ground and she knew that beneath the deceivingly smooth blanket of white the road was rutted and not car-friendly. She had all-wheel drive, which helped, but four-wheel drive would have made her feel more secure.
The sun slipped behind the horizon as she followed the narrow tree-shadowed road toward the place she simply could not think of as home. Her plan of settling in before dark had been squashed by a minor fender bender outside of Marietta, which had slowed traffic. She only hoped that the utility company had turned on the power as promised. Without electricity, there’d be no heat, no water, no light. She pretty much wanted all three. Heat, water and light would make it oh-so-much easier to keep a positive spin on things. Lack of those were going to make for an uncomfortable night.
Not your first.
No, indeed. Life had been hard on the Anderson Ranch, both physically and emotionally, but she’d worked to put things into perspective first after leaving home for college and then after finally connecting with her father just months before his death.
She rounded the last corner of the mile-long driveway, and then slowed to a stop. Her childhood home, the lonely place where she’d developed her imagination and endured the cold rigidity of life with her distant dad, looked even bleaker than she remembered. How could it be possible?
Maybe it was the rapidly growing twilight, but all color seemed washed from the place, making the ranch look like a grainy black-and-white photograph. A whitish-gray single-story house sat beneath stark black skeleton trees. The barn loomed dark and empty fifty yards away. The outbuildings scattered here and there looked like a hodgepodge of cobbled-together wood and metal, which was essentially what they were.
She hadn’t expected to feel a nostalgic draw toward the place, or a sense of belonging, but she was surprised at how hard the urge to escape slammed into her. It was engrained, that need to escape. When she’d lived there, she’d taken refuge in her journals and her artwork, keeping both semi-hidden from her father who hadn’t been a fan of self-expression. Not after his artist wife had walked out on him, and then died, leaving him saddled with a small daughter to raise. He had approved of Murphy’s love of horses, but that hadn’t kept him from selling her beloved mare shortly after she’d left for college. So long ago, but the hurt was still raw.
Benny gave her an impatient poke with his nose. Murphy frowned at the terrier and he cocked his head at her as if to say, “Get over it.”
Her dog was right. Ever since her father had gotten ill and moved to Missoula six months before his death, she’d focused hard on ‘getting over it.’ Addressing the past and moving forward. She raised her eyebrows at the terrier. “Thanks.”
She drove on and parked in front of the gate, telling Benny to stay in the car where it was warm. The wind hit her hard as she got out of the car and struggled to close the door. She clutched her down jacket around her as she stepped over the snowy branch that had fallen from the elm tree onto the drifted walkway, then made her way to the porch. The first low porch step creaked under her weight, as did the second. The third gave up the ghost and her foot crashed through.
Murphy almost went over sideways, which would have been an awesome way to break an ankle, but she caught hold of the newel post and other than grazing her chin on the frozen white flakes of paint still adhering to the weathered wood, managed to regain her balance without hurting herself. Her boot was stuck fast, though, the broken boards squeezing in on her ankle in a painful way. Keeping a death grip on the newel post, she twisted her foot. Nothing. She twisted again, and her heel slipped inside the boot.
Cool. She might not have to gnaw her foot off to get to warmth.
By working her heel up and down, she finally managed to pull herself free of the boot. Her sock came off, dropping into the snow, but she left it there as she balanced on one foot and leaned down to wrestle the boot out of the narrow hole.
Success…if one didn’t count the big gouge in the leather or the scrape on her chin.
Murphy let out a sigh that turned shivery as another gust of wind blasted over her. Here she was, exactly where she didn’t want to be, but damn it, she was tough enough to get through this.
Welcome home, Murphy Anderson. And remember, you are going to stay positive!
Fine. But the 90 percent positive might have just slipped to eighty-five.
Snow began to drift down in lazy flakes shortly after Cody Marvell left Marietta with his classic GMC pickup loaded with enough groceries to see him through until his brothers returned to the ranch a few days after Christmas. He and his brothers generally took turns watching the ranch during the holidays, with two of them visiting their mother and stepsisters in Washington State and one remaining on the MCC—the Marvell Cattle Company ranch—to care for the livestock and make sure the house didn’t freeze up. He’d been the designated ranch-sitter last year, but this year his youngest brother, Shane, had been invited to visit his girlfriend’s family in Nevada, so Cody volunteered to man the helm again. His oldest brother, Zach, poured his life’s blood into the ranch, and it did him good to get away. Cody would see his mom and sisters in the spring after the melt.
The snowfall picked up in intensity, to the point that it was hard to see by the time he turned off the highway onto the county road leading to the Marvell Ranch. And then it simply stopped. The weather had been strange this winter.
A single set of tracks cut through the snow on the road ahead of him. Narrow tracks belonging to a car. He didn’t know anyone in the area who drove a car in the winter, but perhaps one of his distant neighbors had company for the holiday. If so, they were smart to travel today, since more snow was predicted in the near future, followed by a short warm spell—thank you El Niño—which would turn unplowed roads into a quagmire before freezing again.
He slowed as he rounded what he and his brothers called Anderson corner, named in honor of the abandoned ranch about a mile north of the road, then he rolled to a stop as the tracks he’d been following turned down the Anderson driveway.
Greeley Anderson had suffered a stroke the previous spring and, after spending six months in a care facility in Missoula, had passed away. So, who’d just driven down the Anderson road?
And was it any of his business?
Yeah. It was. Neighbors watched out for neighbors—even absent ones. Greeley was absent in a very permanent way, but his daughter, Murphy, still owned the place. She hadn’t set foot on it in at least a decade to the best of his knowledge, but she was still a neighbor. Cody put his truck in gear and followed the tracks into the driveway.
As he drove down the snow-covered road, he ran through possibilities. Caretaker? He wasn’t aware of one.
Kid party? Unlikely, unless they all traveled in one small vehicle.
Someone looking for a meth lab locale?
Since Murphy had hired an acquaintance of Cody’s to close up the place after Greeley had gone to the care center last spring, Cody knew there was no electricity. No water. Not good conditions for a squatter or a meth lab, unless the person had a generator.
Okay…slight possibility there, which became greater as he emerged from the trees and saw that the house was lit up. He rolled to a stop, then opened his window. A blast of cold air hit him, but he ignored it as he strained his ears, listening for the rhythmic purr of a generator. Nothing but silence. The heavy kind that came with low clouds and the threat of more snow.
What now? Continue on and investigate? Turn around and call sheriff’s dispatch to check on the place and see if whoever was there had a right to be there?
He got his answer when the door to the house opened and a woman stepped onto the porch, freezing in place when she caught sight of his headlights.
Murphy Anderson? Home for the first time in almost a decade?
Who else could it be?
Crunch time. He either drove all the way into the place, or he left. He opted for driving in to let the woman who was possibly Murphy know who he was, so she wouldn’t be freaked by a strange rig turning around and leaving. Hopefully she wasn’t armed.
With that happy thought, Cody put the truck in gear and slowly drove into the ranch proper, swinging a big circle so that his window faced the porch where the woman stood illuminated by the light pouring out the still-open door. The door she probably intended to escape through and then lock if it turned out he wasn’t friendly.
He rolled down the window as he completed the turn so that it was fully open by the time he stopped parallel to the porch. Yes, it was definitely Murphy. Her blondish-brown hair was shorter, hitting the middle of her back instead of reaching to her waist, and she was no longer stick thin. But her expression was the same as it had been before she’d left home—wary. The few times he’d spoken with her back in the day, she’d barely responded, so he’d done them both a favor and let her be. She’d seemed relieved.
“Hi, Murphy,” he said in an easy voice. “Long time.”
“Cody.” There was a faint note of relief in her voice, but she showed no other signs of letting down her guard even though she now knew he was a friend, not a foe. If anything, she clutched her sweater around her more tightly. Because of the wind? Or because she was recovering from being spooked?
“Sorry to show up like this. I noticed the tracks and thought I’d check them out.” He cleared his throat. “I was sorry to hear about Greeley.”
The polite thing to say, even though Greeley had never been all that friendly to his neighbors.
Murphy glanced down at the snowy porch and when she looked back up again, her expression was more relaxed, but still not all that friendly. “Thank you. And thank you for checking out the tracks. That was nice, since you couldn’t possibly have known what was on the other end.”
Encouraged by the shift in attitude, he tried a smile. “I gave that a lot of thought as I was driving.”
She worked up a small smile in return—the kind one might give an IRS auditor. “Thank you.”
“Not a problem.” His duty was done. It was time to roll up his window and be on his way, but instead he asked, “Will you be staying long?”
“As long as it takes to get the place cleaned up.”
“A couple years, then.”
His joke fell flat. Why in the hell was he getting the feeling that she had something against him? He hadn’t seen her in a decade. And before that he’d had next to nothing to do with her—even when she and her dad were working on his family ranch.
“Are you here alone?” he asked.
She quickly lifted her chin. “No.”
Silence fell between them again and Cody reached for the gearshift.
“Well, Murphy, I hope you and…whoever…have a good Christmas. Happy holidays.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. He started rolling up the window when she blurted, “Do you know where Lady is?”
He stopped the window halfway up. “I do not.” He’d sold the quarter horse mare he’d bought from Greeley to a friend in Miles City almost four years ago. That friend had in turn sold her to a mutual acquaintance who’d moved out of state.
She swallowed as she lifted her chin. “Thanks. Just thought I’d ask. Merry Christmas to you, too.”
And with that, she turned and walked into the house, closing the door behind her—hard, but not too hard.
Good thing, because otherwise the ramshackle place may have come down around her.
What a place to spend Christmas
End of Excerpt