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Zeke Carey considered himself a damned lucky man.
Maybe the luckiest man alive, though he didn’t like to brag. He liked the facts of his life to do the bragging for him. His father had always said that there was no need for boasting if a man’s life was well-lived.
Zeke had taken that to heart.
He’d been fortunate enough to be born in the finest part of the Rocky Mountains in the last, best place around—that being the great and glorious state of Montana. The only state in the Union he had ever or would ever live in, God willing, and that he’d never had to test that theory was a blessing he had never taken for granted. Not for a single day in his many long years of working the land.
Because the land was the thing.
The land was what woke him in the morning, kept him going, and what he dreamed about at night. Zeke was the current steward of the land his ancestors had claimed high above Paradise Valley, a job and a calling he had taken seriously since he was a kid.
Since he’d worked with his grandfather and his uncles and his own father, tending to these acres like they were all marked indelibly inside his own heart.
He planned to go out the way a man of the land should, right here, surrounded by these rolling hills and then a part of them.
Though, hopefully, not any time soon.
These days, though, something was changing, and it wasn’t the expected indignities of age and time. Or not only said indignities.
Truth was, he was lucky enough to know that age and time were the greatest gifts of all.
Still, these days Zeke found himself waking in the morning with other kinds of legacies on his mind.
He started his days the same way each morning. He woke in the dark long before his wife, and set about the calming rituals—he called them routines, mind—that saw in each new stretch of daylight, however little they were getting of it in the darker, colder months. First he made sure the stove that heated the house was stoked a little hotter and higher, because it might have been spring in a technical sense, but up here in the mountains that didn’t mean it was any less cold.
When Zeke peered outside, he saw fresh snow.
It was late March. Sometimes they saw snow straight through June.
In the kitchen of the rambling old ranch house, he ground up some beans and made the coffee extra strong, anticipating his wife’s complaints about the weather. Complaints she made, without fail, each and every day—her own kind of love song to this place.
Love, Zeke knew, was a complicated thing.
He should know, having had the great fortune to know two great loves in his life, as well as the deep grief that was the other side of it when he’d buried the first.
Alice had been like a soft, warm spring rain. Her love had made him feel clean. He wasn’t the only thing that had bloomed in the shine of her rare smile.
He’d started thinking that life was about earning those smiles when he was fourteen, and had continued that practice until Alice’s last breath.
Belinda, by contrast, was a storm. Thunder, lightning, howling wind—but the end result was the same. She washed away the bad and accepted only the good.
He was a lucky man to have loved twice, so well and so deeply.
Maybe that was why he was thinking less about the land these days, and more about legacies of blood and bone.
Alice had given him three sons, Belinda two.
They were all impossible, just like their father.
Zeke eyed the parade of photographs that dominated the hall as he walked down it, then into the sunniest room of the house. Even on a chilly day like today, with March gloom threatening, the little room seemed cozy.
It was here that he and Alice had hidden away when the babies were asleep at last. Where they had sat together and told each other stories about the future they didn’t know, then, wasn’t theirs to plan. It was here that he had kissed her forehead for the last time and told her to go, that it was okay to leave.
And it was here, again, that he had asked Belinda to marry him. And where she had given birth to each of their sons together.
This room was made entirely of love. It was his favorite room in the house.
He settled into his usual chair, tipping his cup toward the large photograph that always sat there on the table beside him, facing out toward the sweeping view. The best damned view in Montana, to his mind, and that was a high bar.
Alice had always loved this particular view from this particular place. That was why Belinda had insisted that Zeke’s favorite picture of her stay right here with them, because while she would have stayed longer if she could have, that she’d gone was why Zeke and Belinda were together.
He had been happy with Alice. He would have stormed heaven to give her more time.
It had never occurred to him that he could be happy again, but he was. He was luckier than he deserved and he knew it.
These days, it was his five hard-headed sons who didn’t seem to understand that life was fleeting and nothing was promised but here. Now.
More to the point, Zeke was getting tired of his own sons—that he’d made out of two great love stories, not that they seemed to know it—depriving him of what a man of his advancing years wanted most.
Delightful small humans he didn’t have to worry about turning into decent men, so could spoil at will.
“You have that look on your face,” Belinda said, coming into the room and stopping beside him. She nodded at the photograph of Alice. “You know,” she said, addressing the photograph the way she always did, making it clear that Alice was here with both of them, not just Zeke. That she always would be. He would have loved her for that alone. “The last time you looked like that we ended up with alpacas in the back pasture.”
Belinda settled on the arm of the chair and leaned against his shoulder, and they fit together the way they always did. Better by the year. Zeke loved these slow mornings, now that the boys—because they would always be his boys, though they were inarguably grown now—were out of the house. If there was sunlight, it poured in. Today they could see almost all the way to Copper Mountain, rising in the distance.
They took their coffee here. They talked to Alice. They teased each other. They worried and laughed about the funny little children who were men now.
Sometimes they found themselves naked on the floor together, because it had always been like that with them, a passion that could not contain itself.
A storm, Zeke thought. Always a storm.
They lived everywhere else. They did their work, they handled their business and their days.
This room was for breathing in and taking a moment. For the simple joy of being together.
“Folks like wool,” Zeke told Alice gruffly, sending Belinda into gales of laughter.
“Not enough to justify more creatures to feed and care for every day,” she replied, after wiping at her eyes. “And besides, I’m not one of those folks who like wool.”
The alpacas had not been a hit. Zeke had sold them off to a far more alpaca-friendly outfit, who were in fact wool lovers and sold knitted goods and skeins of hand-dyed yarn in the weekly summer market.
Not all great ideas became legacies. He knew that.
But he was having a truly fantastic idea all the same.
“What would you say if I decided to be… a little bit devious?” Zeke asked, his mind turning as he stared out at the land and the hills, and the hints of smoke here and there from the chimneys in the cabins their sons lived in. Alone.
“What I always say.” His wife smiled at him, angelically. “Lie to me and I will gut you, my one and only love.”
“So bloodthirsty.” He kissed her. Then he pulled her into his lap. “You and I are going to have to take matters into our own hands if we want the life we deserve. The grandparent life,” he qualified when she frowned at him. “Sometimes a parent has to allow a child to think something that’s not strictly true. For that child’s own good.”
“Zeke,” Belinda said piously, “I cannot allow you to lie to our beloved children. What do you take me for?” But she grinned. “Unless we have to. And in this case, we clearly have no choice. They are too slow.”
“No choice at all,” Zeke agreed solemnly as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“I’m sure it will hurt us more than it hurts them,” Belinda murmured.
And then they laughed and laughed as he told her what he planned to do.
For their own good.
End of Excerpt