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Rye Calhoun’s 1986 Chevy Silverado overheated four miles east of Bozeman as the sun began to set. It wasn’t the first time the blue and white truck overheated, and it wouldn’t be the last. But he was so close to Marietta’s rodeo and fairgrounds he could taste it. After nine hours behind the wheel, he just wanted to be there. Parked. Settled.
He hadn’t slept last night, too worried about his younger brother Jasper’s latest respiratory infection. Nineteen-year-old Jasper had been born with cerebral palsy and had struggles, but even with the disease, his infectious smile and endless optimism buoyed the family, lifting them during the darkest times.
Last night had been dark, too. Jasper couldn’t breathe. His vest wasn’t helping. His supplemental oxygen failed to make a difference. Even their mom, normally calm and together, panicked. There was no ambulance to call. No one to step in. So, Rye, once again, stepped in. Crouching in front of his brother’s wheelchair, he gently clasped Jasper’s face, telling Jasper to focus on him, and to breathe with him. Rye held his brother’s gaze. Slow breath in. One, two, three. Exhale, one, two, three. Breathe in, one, two, three, four. Exhale slowly, one, two, three, four.
They faced each other, breathing together. It might have been just a minute or two, but it felt like hours. Breathe with me. One, two, three.
Rye ignored the drama behind him. He blocked out his father’s voice and his mother’s anguish and focused on the only thing that mattered in that moment. Jasper.
Rye didn’t know how long it took before Jasper was breathing, his lips no longer blue. The oxygen kicked in, and Jasper gave Rye a small nod of his head.
Then, and only then, did Rye acknowledge his fear. He’d been afraid. They needed to live closer to a hospital. They needed better care for Jasper. Rye had had it with Eureka, a town on the border of Montana and Canada. It wasn’t the right place for any of them, especially not his younger brother, but Dad had been born and raised in Eureka and was loath to leave his hometown and his company.
Yet Dad didn’t pay the bills anymore. Rye did, and one of these days he and his dad would have to have a serious talk about the future, and Jasper, and his beautiful sisters, twenty-two-year-old Hannah and twenty-year-old Josie, because they had dreams, too. They were smart girls, strong girls, and they never asked anything for themselves, but they should.
Rye had come to realize their dad wouldn’t encourage the girls to pursue their passion, which was why Rye had to. Life had to be more than just survival. Because just surviving wasn’t enough.
Off on the side of the road, Rye lifted the hood of his Chevy. Steam hissed and water bubbled up from beneath the cap on the radiator. It’d be at least twenty minutes before the engine cooled enough to allow him to continue on. Rye should have replaced the radiator last year, but didn’t, not wanting to spend the money, not when it was needed elsewhere.
Pushing back the brim of his cowboy hat, he walked back to the trailer and checked on his horses. Lately, he’d only been traveling with Nickel but one of the barrel racers on the circuit, who’d be competing this weekend in Marietta, had expressed interest in buying five-year-old Topaz, and while Rye was loath to sell a horse he’d hand raised and trained, selling Topaz would help pay Jenna’s tuition for nursing school.
Nickle bobbed his head, acknowledging Rye while Topaz stomped a hoof. Topaz, always impatient and intense, wanted to be free, wanted to run. While Topaz had fire, Nickle was his steady, reliable companion, ideal for roping events.
Rye patted both geldings, giving Topaz one extra because soon he would be gone, before walking back to the front of his truck. Although the steam was slowly evaporating everything still felt dangerously hot.
He felt dangerously hot. Juggling a four-day work week with weekends on the rodeo circuit had worn him down. He didn’t hate roofing—it was his dad’s company after all—but he didn’t enjoy it, and it wasn’t what he wanted for himself. Being a rodeo cowboy wasn’t his future, either. It was hard on the body and hard on the family. But at least being on the road gave him a chance to escape Eureka for a few days and make some extra money, income needed. But it was hard to be away from everyone when Jasper struggled with and suffered infection after infection.
Rye pulled out his phone, checked messages. Zero. No missed calls, either. That was a good sign. But it didn’t ease the hollow ache inside of him. When busy, he was able to ignore the emptiness, pretend it didn’t exist. He’d come to tell himself that the emptiness—part resignation, part dread—wasn’t real, but rather fatigue, and it would pass. When he became more successful. When he made more money. Always this need for money. He’d been responsible for his family for over a decade, but it hadn’t always been so desperate. When his father worked, before his accident, everything had been easier, financially, emotionally. There had never been a lot of money but there had been enough. They had gotten by and even had a few luxuries. Dinners out. A new van that could accommodate Jasper’s wheelchair. His sisters had taken dance classes, and Josie had taken some voice lessons, and while there were no trips to Disneyworld, they would drive up to his grandparents’ farm in Alberta every summer and they’d all enjoyed that.
But once Dad was hurt, the trips stopped, the lessons stopped, the custom van was traded in for an older model that Rye adapted himself for Jasper.
A truck pulled up behind Rye’s on the side of the road. Rye straightened and looked toward the black truck, one of those classic all-purpose work trucks that were neither new nor old, but practical. A man was behind the wheel and a young blonde woman sat beside him. Rye couldn’t help giving the woman a second look. In the setting sun, she appeared gilded, her long gold hair an ethereal halo, her slender frame illuminated.
The man climbed out of the black truck, tall and lean with dark blond hair. He headed toward Rye. “Need help?” he asked, glancing at the propped hood.
Rye swallowed his embarrassment. He hated needing help and did his best to never ask for it. “Overheated but should be okay soon.”
“So, it’s not the first time,” the stranger said sympathetically.
“Jackson Flint,” the other said, extending his hand.
“Rye Calhoun,” Rye answered, shaking Jackson’s hand.
From Jackson’s size and grip, Rye suspected he used to play football. “I’ve put off getting a new radiator long enough. Clearly, it’s time I replaced it.”
“Where are you heading?”
“For the Copper Mountain Rodeo?”
Rye nodded. “You know it.”
“I live there. The rodeo’s celebrating a big anniversary. Eighty-fifth, I think.”
“With some nice prize money, too.” Rye looked back at his engine. “Can you recommend a good garage in town? Just in case.”
Jackson hesitated. “The Calhouns have a garage. Right at the edge of downtown. Tell them I sent you.”
“I will.” Interesting that the garage owners had the same surname as he did. It wasn’t often Rye ran into any Calhouns. He shifted the bar holding the hood up and then slammed the hood closed. “Thanks for stopping.”
“Want me to wait and make sure your truck starts?”
“No, but thanks. You have your girl waiting.” It was all Rye could do not to look at the blonde in the truck. “Don’t want to keep you.”
“Once you’re settled in town, come by FlintWorks for a beer. It’s on me.”
“The brewery at the old depot?”
“That’s it.” Jackson gave a brief nod and returned to his truck.
Rye watched him walk away before glancing at the girl in the passenger seat. She was looking back at him, a long, assessing look that made him hot and his body harden.
Even though she was someone else’s, he still wanted her. So odd, since he couldn’t remember the last time he desired anyone or anything.
He deliberately turned away and climbed into his truck cab, and once Jackson’s black truck passed him, merging onto the highway, Rye started his own truck and followed, careful to keep to the speed limit to prevent his truck from overheating.
Ansley Campbell held her long blonde hair in one hand as Jackson passed the blue and white truck and silver horse trailer, the rugged cowboy in the driver’s seat.
The sun’s long slanting rays had been like a spotlight shining on Jackson and the cowboy with the broken-down truck. The cowboy had looked at her more than once. Normally, she wasn’t interested in being checked out, but the cowboy didn’t seem like the flirty type. If anything, he looked alone, tough, and a little weary, but that was also probably her imagination. He was probably just ticked off he was having car problems. No one liked being on the side of the road on what had been one of the hottest days of the month, especially when pulling a horse trailer.
“He’s okay?” she asked Jackson, as Jackson picked up speed, traffic moving fast, everyone wanting to get somewhere.
“He says he is.” Jackson glanced up into the rearview mirror as if checking for the blue and white truck. “Luckily, Marietta isn’t far.”
“He’s going to Marietta?” she said, before putting two and two together. “He’s going for the rodeo?”
Jackson nodded. He looked at her, amused. “Want an introduction?”
“No. I’m not interested in dating. Anyone.”
He laughed softly. “Simmer down. Everyone knows you’re devoted to your uncle and your art.”
“I am serious about my art.” And my independence, she silently added.
She’d only recently come to Montana from Texas, happy to escape her big family of overbearing men. The last thing she wanted was to tangle with another. It was good to be on her own … or almost on her own as she was living with her uncle, taking care of him, but Uncle Clyde was easy compared to her five brothers. “I do appreciate you driving me to Bozeman. I don’t know how I would have got that canvas to the Sterbas’ law office otherwise. It’s one of the biggest pieces I’ve ever done.”
“It was beautiful, and I still think you should have charged a lot more.”
“I’ll be able to charge more as I get my name out. This sale was just really good for my ego. My first commercial sale.”
“In that case, I’m happy if you’re happy.”
“I’m really happy.” She smiled, more than happy.
Finally, she had time to focus on her art. Finally, there was traction in her career. If she kept working hard, she’d have her own gallery in the next year or two. Marietta would be the perfect place for an art gallery. There was money in Marietta, wealthy ranchers, tourists, as well as all the affluency from the East and West Coasts who came to Montana for their own piece of land with a mountain view.
Jackson signaled, taking the exit to Marietta and Paradise Valley. He’d picked her up from the ranch this afternoon as Uncle Clyde didn’t want her driving his truck and the painting didn’t fit in her small car.
“How is your uncle?” Jackson asked. “Still challenging?”
“I was warned he’d be difficult.” Ansley tried not to think about the dustup with her uncle this morning when she asked—begged—to borrow his SUV.
He wouldn’t even consider it and she lost her temper, upset that she’d lose her sale. Marching to the barn loft, she suddenly thought of Jackson, fellow Texan, and all-around good and gorgeous. He’d offered to help her should she ever be in a bind and today was most definitely a bind.
Jackson’s brow creased. “Did no one else from your family want to come out and help? Why you?”
She shrugged. “They all had careers.”
“And your family didn’t think you did?”
Ansley swallowed a sigh. “They think it’s a hobby. Something I dabble at, something I’ll stop as soon as I grow up.”
“Maybe I should commission something for the brewery.”
Ansley grinned. “Maybe you should. What would you like?”
“How big should it be?”
“That’s your call. You’re the artist.”
He nodded. “It’s FlintWorks’s tenth anniversary this year. Why not celebrate with some art?”
She couldn’t stop smiling. It was easy to brush off the challenges of living with Uncle Clyde while sitting next to Jackson. Jackson exuded confidence—just like her brothers—but unlike her brothers, he’d been a big source of support as she tried to adapt to Marietta. Jackson had also been raised in Texas’s Hill Country, but he had a real job, managing the family’s popular brewery FlintWorks while she pursued a path of her own, a path not respected by her family of overachievers.
Fifteen minutes later, Ansley pointed out the gravel road outside Pray, the road would take them up to Cold Canyon Ranch. The sun had set, and twilight engulfed the mountains, turning the landscape lavender and gray.
As they approached the ranch entrance, Ansley felt the whisper of loneliness that came from still being an outsider in a small town. Maybe if she lived in town, she’d feel more comfortable, but Cold Canyon Ranch was exactly what it sounded like—a ranch high in the mountains, in the shadow of Emigrant Peak, where the sun rose late and disappeared early. The wind blew through the canyon almost constantly, shaping and stunting the few trees. If the ranch was cold during the summer, she couldn’t even imagine how frigid it would be in the winter.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t still be here at Uncle Clyde’s come winter, but she didn’t know who would live with him if she left. She didn’t want to return to her family’s place outside Last Stand, Texas, but living in the middle of nowhere long term wasn’t going to be good for her mental health—or creativity. She missed her friends, and she missed her family, her mom in particular. But at least she was being productive here on the ranch. One of the first things she did in early June was set up a studio for herself in the barn loft. Uncle Clyde couldn’t use the space anymore and he gave it to her with his blessing. She loved having her own place, a place no one went but her. Ansley had never had her own dedicated space to draw and paint, confined to either her childhood bedroom, or sharing her mother’s sewing room. But now she had a huge loft with wonderful light, and she could paint to her heart’s content—or whenever Uncle Clyde didn’t need her.
Jackson pulled up in front of the single-story farmhouse, a 1920s white house with a big, covered porch and the tall windows of the period. The house looked dark, which made her anxious. Hopefully her uncle was fine. She was later than she intended but she’d make a quick dinner for them, pasta probably, and with any luck, he’d disappear into the TV room until bed.
“Thank you again,” she said to Jackson, climbing out of the truck. “You saved me. I’m so grateful.”
“My pleasure. It gave me a chance to catch up with my friends over at Montana Ale Works.”
She closed the door, lifted her hand in a final wave, and watched as he continued around the circular driveway, headlights cutting through the darkness.
Letting herself into the farmhouse, Ansley found her uncle was waiting for her, not in front of the TV, but at the vintage square oak kitchen table with its twisted legs. Two straight-back ladder chairs flanked the table and Uncle Clyde was in one. He’d made a point of telling her when she first arrived that there had never been four chairs, only two, because there had been no need for more. It had always been Uncle Clyde and his wife, and as they’d never had children they didn’t entertain, either.
“You’re late,” her uncle said brusquely as she entered the kitchen. “Wasn’t sure if you were even coming back.”
Ansley held her breath. Her uncle was in one of his moods and she didn’t have the energy to argue with him. “You knew I was taking one of my big canvases to a law office in Bozeman. I told you it would take several hours.”
“You didn’t tell me it would mean I’d miss dinner.”
“You haven’t missed dinner. I just haven’t made it yet. Give me a half hour—”
“You know I like to eat by six.”
“Then you should’ve made yourself something. You’re not helpless. Before I came you made yourself dinner all the time.”
He glared at her. “I knew this was a bad idea having you come here. I knew—”
“It’s not a bad idea as long as we both agree to get along. You’re the one in a bad mood. I came home happy—”
“As well as late.”
She shook her head. “Stop being such a grouch and let me make dinner and everything will be fine.” Her voice was sharper than she intended, but she was tired of taking whatever her uncle dished out.
She’d never even met him until she arrived Memorial Day weekend, late May. It had been an interesting summer living here, and there were times her uncle was good company—well that was going too far. He was satisfactory company—but there were other times, like tonight, when she didn’t know why she was even here.
It wasn’t as if she was being paid to be his live-in companion. She was here as a favor to her parents, not that her dad would ever ask her to stay with his brother on the family ranch, but her mother had taken pity on Clyde and had also seen it as an opportunity for Ansley to get out and spread her wings a bit. So, here she was, trying to keep an eye on her uncle as his health had begun to fail and no one knew what would happen to him—or the Campbells’ Cold Canyon Ranch—which had been in the family since the 1930s.
At the sink, Ansley washed her hands before drying. “I was thinking of just making some chicken and pasta. Would you like chicken Alfredo? Lemon chicken? What sounds best?”
“Whatever is the fastest. I’m hungry.”
“They’re both quick. We’ll be eating in thirty minutes.”
“I don’t know if I can wait.”
“Then how about a yogurt to tide you over?”
His lips pursed. “I just want dinner.”
He reminded her of a small petulant child, and her lips twitched picturing him in a high chair, waving his fists, having a tantrum. “I know. The message has come through loud and clear. Since Alfredo is your favorite, I will do that. But are you sure you wouldn’t like a snack to hold you?”
“You’re being patronizing.”
“And you, Uncle Clyde, are being a little demanding,” she retorted, “but I’m going to put it down to low blood sugar or high blood pressure as I know you wouldn’t normally be so difficult.” Then she gave him her sweetest smile. “I’m going to quickly change, and I’ll be right down, and dinner will be ready before you know it.”
Then as Ansley headed out of the kitchen, she shouted back to him, “And my trip to Bozeman went really well, thank you for asking. I stayed to see them hang the painting on their conference room wall. It was pretty awesome.”
Forty minutes later, they were at the table finishing dinner when her uncle cleared his throat. “Did you take any pictures?” he asked, voice gruff.
Ansley blinked, confused. “Of?”
“Of them hanging your painting in the office.”
She slowly smiled. “I did. Would you like to see?”
He nodded, and she went to get her phone from where it was charging on the hall table. Returning to the kitchen, Ansley pulled her chair closer to his. “I took a half dozen, haven’t even looked at them yet, but this is Jackson Flint carrying the painting into the law office. Jackson is huge and that gives you an idea of just how big the painting was.”
“I don’t know him,” Clyde said.
“He’s been in Marietta four years now, maybe a little longer. He manages FlintWorks, the brewery his older brothers founded in Marietta’s train depot.”
“I knew the name sounded familiar.”
She flicked through a couple photos of the building maintenance moving furniture to clear space for the painting and then hanging it. “Here it is up,” she said, handing her phone back to him. “It really fills up the wall.”
Clyde studied the photo. “The Bridger Mountains. The west face.”
She nodded. “Mr. Sterba was raised at the foot of the mountains. He said it’s his favorite view.”
Her uncle was still examining the photo. “You did a good job. Must have taken you some time.”
“Weeks, but I enjoyed it. We don’t have mountains like this in Texas.”
“You don’t have any mountains in Texas.”
“We do have the Hill Country,” she said, turning off her phone.
“Huh. Those are barely hills.”
She smiled because he was right. Compared to the Rocky Mountains, Texas was pretty much a flat state.
“I see now why you needed my truck. I’m sorry I reacted so badly.”
“I should have asked more questions.”
“It’s behind us.”
Uncle Clyde’s gaze searched hers. “Are you sure?”
“So, how did you sell this landscape?” Clyde asked. “How did Sterba see it? Do you have a website?”
“I have a landing page, and my Ansley Art Instagram account. I use both to direct all traffic to my Etsy store. That’s where a lot of people find me.”
“It’s an online store for artisans. They get a lot of traffic and I’ve been able to sell smaller things through them. But Mr. Sterba’s wife saw my work at the farmer’s market in Marietta. I’ve had a little booth a couple of times and have sold things through that, mostly to tourists wanting a souvenir, but it’s made me money.”
“I always wondered what you were doing out in the barn.”
Ansley laughed. “You knew I was painting.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know you were good.”
“That’s nice of you to say so.” She rose and began gathering their dishes. “Do you want any dessert tonight?”
“Do we have any of your brownies left?”
“I’d like one of those if you don’t mind.” He pushed up, moving slowly. “Can I help with dishes?”
“No, I’ve got this. Go relax.”
But when she carried a dessert plate in to the TV room later, she discovered her uncle slumped in his leather recliner, the television on mute.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, swiftly moving to his side.
Ansley set the dessert plate on his side table and carefully touched his forehead. He wasn’t hot or cold. He didn’t feel clammy. But he did look pale. “Any other symptoms?”
“No. I’m just dizzy. I was dizzy earlier—”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I said I was hungry.”
She sat down on the edge of the couch. “Do you want to go to the doctor?”
“Do you think this is related to your heart issues?”
She frowned, uncertain. “How do you know?”
“Because it passes.”
“How long has it been happening?”
“For the last six months or so. But it’s fine. I’m fine. I think I’ll just go to bed. I’ll feel better in the morning.”
She glanced at the dessert plate on the end table. “No dessert?”
“Maybe put it in the freezer and I’ll have it tomorrow.”
He was struggling to rise, and she hovered, wanting to assist but not sure how.
On his feet, he sighed and shook his head. “If you don’t see me tomorrow morning, I might have gone to meet my maker.”
“Uncle Clyde, don’t say that.”
“Just a joke.”
“It’s not funny. I’m worried about you.”
“Everything’s fine. You deal with the brownie, and I’ll deal with myself.”
But in bed that evening, Ansley couldn’t sleep, her thoughts returning to her uncle.
What if he really wasn’t well and needed medical care? What if he needed help now? She didn’t want to lie in bed, updating her Instagram account if he needed her.
Troubled, she slipped from bed, tiptoed down the hall, and quietly opened his door. His room was dark. She heard snoring. He was asleep. He was okay. Feeling encouraged, Ansley returned to her room and wondered again what her uncle’s future was, as well as the future of Cold Canyon Ranch, which had been in the Campbell family for almost a hundred years.
The Campbells were a Montana family, and always had been since emigrating from Scotland at the turn of the century. Her dad, Callen Campbell, was the first Campbell to leave Montana, turning his back on the family property, but that was because of a deep rift between him and his brother. They hadn’t always been antagonistic. Growing up, her dad and uncle Clyde had apparently been close. They were also competitive like most brothers, with Clyde a little more competitive. But even then, no one expected him to swoop in and steal his brother’s girlfriend when Callen joined the army.
Her dad refused to forgive Clyde even after he’d met Ansley’s mom and had fallen in love. They’d been happy together—obviously with six kids, five boys and one daughter over a fifteen-year period—and were still happily married. But Callen wouldn’t forgive his brother and Clyde made no attempt to repair their relationship, either, not even when widowed. There was no fixing the past, and no hope for the future, which also put the future of the Campbells’ ranch in jeopardy.
Callen still owned half the ranch. Their dad had left the property to both his sons, but Callen did nothing to help it, and he never took the income from it, leaving it all in the Campbell trust.
It was Callen’s wife, Andi, who felt sorry for Clyde. Andi was the one who sent Clyde a Christmas card every year, and a card for Clyde’s birthday. When Clyde’s neighbor, rancher Melvin Wyatt reached out to the Texas Campbells, it was Andi who answered the phone. Melvin was calling to let them know that Clyde was not well, and the Cold Canyon Ranch was falling into disrepair. Melvin said he and his boys were patching fences and checking in regularly on Clyde, but he needed help, someone who could be there daily, as his dementia was worsening.
It had been a shock to Ansley’s dad that his younger brother had vascular dementia. The last time Callen had seen Clyde they were both in their mid-twenties. Now they were men in their late sixties. Callen didn’t feel like sixty. He didn’t feel fifty. He was still fit and strong and riding every day. He worked his ranch every day. Discovering that his brother wasn’t healthy shook him. He and Andi made a trip to Montana and spent a weekend at the farmhouse. Clyde was better by the time they left, less confused, more lucid, but he was easily agitated and would get frustrated by change.
Back in Texas, Callen gathered his family and said that this next year was critical. They needed to help Clyde, and they needed to figure out what to do with the ranch. Andi suggested Clyde move in with them, but Callen wasn’t going to go that far. It was one thing to be concerned about his brother’s welfare, and another to have him under his own roof.
There was much discussion amongst the boys, Ansley’s brothers, about the Montana property. How many acres? How many cattle could it support? Were any crops being grown? Could it provide a living? Despite the intense conversation nobody was ready to move to Paradise Valley, not when everyone had work, and relationships in Texas.
But then Ansley surprised them all by raising her hand. “I’ll go,” she said. “At least for the summer. We can decide what happens after that later.”
Summer had come and gone, and no one mentioned relieving Ansley. Her parents hadn’t returned for another visit. It was as if Clyde and Cold Canyon Ranch were no longer an issue. No one needed to get involved. Ansley had the situation well in hand.
Ansley turned over in bed, squishing her down pillow beneath her cheek. Oh, if only they knew.
End of Excerpt