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The last time Polly McMaster missed a meeting of the Elmer, Montana, town council, she had ended up mayor.
It had put the fear of missing meetings into her for two solid years. Some things, however, took precedence over leadership avoidance—and one of them was her nine-year-old son bleeding all over her kitchen floor.
“Look, Ma, I can spit through it.” Jack took a gulp of water and demonstrated how the inch-and-a-half gash in his chin, courtesy of Randy Naylor’s hockey stick, worked as an auxiliary mouth.
Polly, though not squeamish—who could be after four children and fourteen years of being married to a rodeo bullfighter?—still grimaced. So she bundled Jack into the pickup and hauled him down to the hospital emergency room in Livingston, deputizing her mother to attend the council meeting in her stead.
She gave Joyce strict orders not to let her be named street commissioner or town treasurer or head of anything that required her to wear funny hats or to house livestock.
It was enough that she had to run the council meetings and oversee the Christmas pageant. Last month she’d got stuck housing the presently dozen out-of-work rabbits who had most recently been employed as the Elmer Christmas pageant’s livestock-on-the-hoof.
The only job, Polly told her mother, that she was willing to do was head the committee raising funds for the library. The Elmer library had seen better days, more books, and more hours. If she was going to be stuck with a committee, Polly wouldn’t mind that.
“If no one else will do it,” she told her mother on her way out the door.
She had quite enough on her plate.
Besides being mayor, Polly was the Elmer postmistress, a part-time college student, and widowed mother of four. That meant, this year, helping Jack make a giant flour-and-water relief map of the Amazon jungle, being a chaperone at Daisy’s seventh-grade dances, helping sixteen-year-old Lizzie, who was presently calling herself Artemis, rehearse lines for the school play, and serving as a bad example for nineteen-year-old Sara who was positive she could do a better job than Polly at living a well-ordered life.
Polly agreed. Well-ordered was not a word she had ever used to describe her life.
Sometimes, she thought, while waiting for Jack to get stitches and ticking through her phone to make sure all her bills were paid, she could be the poster girl for Ask A Busy Person If You Want Something Done.
It was past ten when she and Jack returned, three hours and eleven stitches later.
“So how did it go?” she asked, unwrapping herself from the January snowstorm and shaking snowflakes out of her unruly ginger-colored hair. She looked hopefully at her mother, who was sitting by the fireplace doing her latest project. What Polly meant was, Am I home free?
“Went very well,” Joyce said with a satisfied smile. But she didn’t quite meet her daughter’s eyes and went back to the wall hanging she was macraméing.
Polly, understanding the subtleties of eye contact or lack thereof, hung her jacket on the hook by the door, then eyed her mother narrowly. “How well?”
Joyce flicked a beaming smile in her direction. “Very well indeed.” But then she looked at her mass of knots again.
“Not the roads committee?”
“Of course not. Artie Gilliam said he’d do that. Come here,” Joyce said as Jack passed. “Let me see.” She admired his bandage. “Heavens, when you heal, with that scar on your chin, you’ll look just like Indiana Jones.”
Jack smiled widely. “Cool. Hey, Dais,’” he bellowed up the stairs at his sister. “Grandma says I look like Indiana Jones.”
“Not hardly,” Daisy’s disdainful voice floated down.
“Do too!” Jack shouted back. “I’ll show you.” He started to sprint toward the kitchen, where a door led into the small connected shop where his aunt Celie had her single-chair beauty salon and his oldest sister, Sara, had rented out DVDs before streaming got to be The Next Big Thing. The shop was still called C&S Spa and Video and, because at least half the local population couldn’t get a decent satellite signal, it was still among Elmer’s most thriving businesses. It also provided Jack and his sisters with a never-ending supply of movies to watch as long as they didn’t mind them being at least six months old.
“Not,” Polly said, using her lightning-fast maternal reflexes to catch him by the neck of his sweatshirt as he bolted past, “on a school night. Go to bed.”
Polly gave him her best I’m-the-mother-and-what-I-say-goes face. “Now.”
Jack rolled his eyes, gave a long-suffering sigh, then turned and pounded up the stairs instead. “You’ll see tomorrow,” he yelled at Daisy. “Indiana McMaster, that’s me!”
“He never talks when he can shout it, does he?” Joyce wasn’t complaining, just stating a fact. She’d raised three daughters and considered herself an expert on girls. But Jack, though the apple of her eye, was a mystery. Even at nine, he was A Man.
“No, he doesn’t.” Polly took a deep breath, feeling the adrenaline begin to fade. She found Jack restful—loud voice, pounding feet, stitches and all. He was far less of a challenge than the girls. Jack was like his father had been—cheerful, mellow, easygoing, uncomplicated. What you saw was what you got.
It still hurt sometimes, thinking about Lew. He had been gone almost six years, killed in a plane crash on his way back from the Dodge City rodeo one stormy summer evening. A day didn’t go by that Polly didn’t miss him. They’d been soulmates, best friends, lovers. They complemented each other.
“Together,” Lew used to say with a grin, “we make one complete person.”
Polly had discovered how very true that was after he was gone and she was left to do everything. What would Lew do? She asked herself a dozen times a week, especially when dealing with Jack.
She knew he would have laughed when Jack had spat the water. So she had laughed. But inside she’d ached a little, wishing as always that he were here to be the father Jack needed.
But she wouldn’t let herself think about Lew now. There would be time for that tonight when she was alone in bed. Now she focused once more on her mother.
Joyce was humming as she tied knots and consulted the directions and the picture in the 1970s-era magazine she’d found the pattern in. It was supposed to be airy with a sort of fishnet quality to it.
Polly thought it looked like a hair shirt.
“So Artie’s heading up the roads committee. Bless his heart.” Artie Gilliam was ninety or so, still running Elmer’s hardware store. He didn’t need to be worrying about Elmer’s transportation future, but she was delighted he was. “So I got the library?”
Joyce stuck her tongue between her teeth and scowled at the hair shirt. “Over, over, under, around. Loop. Loop,” she muttered. “Carol Ferguson’s doing that.”
Polly raised her eyebrows. “Carol is?”
Carol wasn’t even on the council, so she must have turned up and volunteered. That was good. Unless . . .
“Don’t say I’ve got to do the Christmas pageant again this year!” Polly flung herself across the legs of the overstuffed armchair and looked at her mother, dismayed. “I thought we agreed Celie would do that. She’s the entertainment whiz—not me.”
Celie knew more about actors than anyone else alive. She prowled the internet, read every word of Entertainment Weekly, watched every gossip show, and saw every movie as soon as it was released.
Well, not every movie. Just those starring hunky handsome men—especially God’s gift to women, Sloan Gallagher.
Sloan Gallagher and his colleagues were Celie’s defense against real men—the ones she met every day.
Ever since Matt Williams had jilted her ten years ago, Celie had sworn off three-dimensional men. Silver screen heroes, with their two-hour staying power, were the only ones she trusted. Her fantasy life was terrific.
Her real one was dull as dirt.
Polly rarely thought she knew better than anyone else how to live their lives. She didn’t care if Celie wanted to swoon about Hollywood hunks forever. But with all her dramatic expertise, Celie might as well put it to work.
And what better way than running the Elmer Christmas pageant? She would understand even more fully the lives of Sloan Gallagher and the other hunks she dreamed about if she got involved.
Privately, Polly thought it would do her sister good to see the nitty-gritty. Let her get stuck with kids with measles and pregnant Marys and stage-frightened ten-year-olds throwing up on her shoes. Let her talk some bashful cowboy into being Joseph. Let her tell him to bring his bathrobe to wear on stage and be told with a grin that not only didn’t he own a bathrobe—he didn’t wear pajamas, either!
Polly had been told exactly that.
She’d been chair of the Elmer Christmas pageant five out of the past seven years. Only twice had she been lucky enough to presume upon the ignorance of newcomers. She had just taken advantage of the last newcomer when Charlie Seeks Elk, Cait Blasingame’s new husband, had run the pageant this past year.
Now, unless some unsuspecting fool moved in—or Celie volunteered—there was no one else, and Polly had run out of ideas and cowboys and patience with ten-year-olds.
The only thing she hadn’t run out of was bunnies—somebody’s idea of “incorporating a touch of realism into the pageant” a couple of years back. They were out in the shed behind the house right now. There were thirteen of them at last count. By next Christmas, God knew how many there would be.
Polly would deal with the bunnies. She wanted Celie to run the pageant.
“Celie let you volunteer her, didn’t she?” Celie had evening haircutting appointments so she couldn’t go herself.
“Mmm? Yes. Yes, she did.”
“Wonderful!” Polly sighed and stretched her arms over her head. The weight of perpetual responsibility began to lift. She smiled and kicked her feet and wiggled her toes. “I’m off the hook.”
There was a pause. “Not quite.”
Polly’s feet stopped kicking. “What do you mean, not quite?”
Joyce looked up, blinking over her half-glasses like one of the rabbits. “Nothing much.” She gave a little laugh. “There was just a bit of new business.”
Polly felt the sword of Damocles swinging above her head. “What new business?”
“It’s about Maddie.”
“Maddie Fletcher? She’s not ill, is she?”
Maddie was seventy-five if she was a day, and she still worked as hard as two men to keep the family ranch going. The Fletcher place, called the Arrow Bar, had been in her late husband, Ward’s, family for four generations. Since Ward’s death two years ago, Maddie had done her best to keep up on her own.
Joyce shook her head. “No. But it’s almost as bad. Ward took out a loan to buy a new bull and fix up the buildings four, five years back. It wasn’t any problem making the payments as long as he was alive, but . . .” She shrugged sadly.
Polly stared. “Don’t say they’re foreclosing!”
“Not yet. But they’re expecting payment. It was one of those balloon things. Maddie got behind when Ward was sick and now she can’t catch up. Worse, some Hollywood fellow wants it and the bank thinks he’s a better bet.”
“They can’t do that!”
“Actually, Will Jones is afraid they can.”
Will, a retired rancher and an old neighbor of Maddie’s, was well-versed in the kinds of things banks could do. He’d dealt with them for more years than Polly had been alive. A few years back he’d left the running of the ranch to his son, Taggart, and moved to Bozeman, but it didn’t stop him staying abreast of local business concerns. If Will thought the bank could do something awful, Polly believed him.
“Will came to the meeting?”
“He and Taggart. They think we, as a community, should help Maddie out.”
“Well, of course. But . . . Maddie let them?” That didn’t sound like the stubbornly self-reliant Maddie that Polly knew.
Joyce shook her head. “You know Maddie. Proud as a post. She’d have gone under and never said a word. But Will ran into her at the bank right after she got the news and she looked so bad he thought she was ill.”
“I’d be ill,” Polly said flatly. She swung around and sat up straight. “So what are we going to do?”
Elmer and environs were home to a fair share of independent-minded folks—Maddie among them. But no one ever turned their back on a neighbor and they always took care of their own.
The Fletchers had always lent a hand when anyone else was in need. They’d been right there helping Polly after Lew’s death.
They’d even had a hand in raising Lew himself. Having no kids of their own, Ward and Maddie Fletcher had opened their home and their hearts to a passel of foster kids for over forty years. One of those kids had been Lew. He’d thought the sun rose and set on Maddie Fletcher. Madeleine was their oldest girl, Sara’s, middle name.
Now Joyce beamed at Polly over the top of the hair shirt. “I knew you’d feel that way. I told ’em you would.”
The penny dropped.
She had been named head of the Save Maddie Fletcher’s Ranch committee.
Well, no problem there. That was a job worth having. And it wouldn’t be difficult, really.
Polly had run countless PTA fundraisers over the years. She’d helped the 4-H raise money for the county fair, had baked several thousand cookies for several hundred bake sales, and just this past month, had organized a snow-shoveling contingent made up entirely of hyperactive nine-year-olds.
She could raise money blindfolded and with one hand tied behind her back—as soon as she figured out what would bring in the amount of money required.
“I don’t think a bake sale is going to do it,” she said, her mind whirling through possibilities as she stared into the fire. “It would take an awful lot of cookies and cakes to pay off even the interest on a bank loan.”
Joyce nodded. “It would.”
“And even if I got all the kids to shovel all the snow for the rest of the winter and donate all their proceeds, that wouldn’t do the trick.”
“You’re right,” Joyce said.
“Maybe a benefit dance?”
“Not enough revenue,” her mother said.
Polly blinked, surprised at Joyce’s comment, even though her mother was certainly correct. “Er, right.”
“We need something with broader consumer appeal,” Joyce went on.
Polly stared at her mother.
The hair shirt sat unnoticed in Joyce’s lap now. There was a sparkle in her eyes—the first sparkle Polly had seen in a long time.
Her mother had once been cheerful and content—happy as a rancher’s wife, doing all the things that needed to be done to keep the ranch running. But when Polly’s father, Gil, had died two years ago, everything changed.
Knowing she couldn’t run the ranch by herself, Joyce had sold it to Mace and Shane Nichols and their wives and had moved in with Polly. For a year, she’d been a mere shadow of her former self, grieving for her husband of thirty-eight years, who had died of a heart attack. Until last winter, when she got a part-time job as the evening receptionist at the Livingston hospital, Joyce hadn’t done more than stare out the window.
Finally, on her sixtieth birthday four months ago, Joyce had woken up and realized she wasn’t going to die like Gil—even if she wanted to. She was going to be stuck on this mortal coil for a while, and ever since, she’d been determined to make up for lost time.
A week didn’t go by that she didn’t start a new project—like the hair shirt. The study of market economics was another.
“I want to know what a bull market it,” she’d said over dinner three weeks ago. “And a bear. And cost-averaging strategy.” She’d ordered an economics book online. Now she used terms like revenue and cost averaging.
It took some getting used to.
“Nothing we’ve done before will do,” Joyce said now. “We need a large-scale effort with lots of community participation. We need to take it beyond the local market.”
Polly nodded, still a little dazed. “We’re talking thousands of dollars?”
Joyce named a figure that made Polly wince. “Rounded off, of course,” Joyce said.
“Of course,” Polly echoed, dismayed. “I’ll give it some thought then.”
“I already have.”
Polly looked up, blinking. “You? I mean, er, wow. And you think your idea will, um . . . generate enough revenue?” She tried to sound economic.
“Oh, yes. And everyone else did, too.”
It was decided, then?
“So what is it?” Polly was having trouble imagining anything that the residents of Elmer and its surrounding ranches could do that would raise thousands of dollars.
Joyce’s eyes sparkled. “We’re going to have an auction.”
Polly’s eyebrows lifted. “An auction? You mean everybody contributes white elephants and stuff?”
It was a nice idea, but she didn’t see it raising a pile of money. But then, her mother had only been studying economic issues for three weeks.
“Not enough revenue?”
“Not enough revenue.” Joyce finished tying a knot. “And it wouldn’t get enough people involved. Besides, it wouldn’t use our surplus. You should always work from your surplus,” she informed Polly gravely. “I read that in chapter four.”
“Chapter four. Right,” Polly said. “Of course. But I don’t quite see. I mean, what have we got a surplus of . . . besides snow?” Which was piling up outside even as they spoke.
Joyce tied one last knot, looked up, and smiled beatifically. “Cowboys.”
Well, yes. If there was one thing Elmer had a lot of, if there was one thing it was simply overloaded with—besides snow in winter—it was cowboys.
They worked on the valley ranches, mended fences, herded cattle, and came into Elmer to hoist a few beers and raise a little hell. They played pool in the Dew Drop, Elmer’s tavern, they ate fried chicken and meat loaf at the Busy Bee Café, they hung around Loney’s welding shop getting their trailer hitches welded and prowled the aisles of Gilliam’s Hardware, buying rolls of baling wire and cases of duct tape. And besides the local contingent, there were always a couple of dozen passing through or going to “bull-and-bronc-riding-school” at Taggart Jones’s place.
They were thick on the ground, all right.
But as far as Polly could see, that was the trouble. “Who’d buy them?” she asked.
But before she got an answer, Jack and Daisy began scuffling upstairs and she had to go sort them out. Then Lizzie wanted her to practice lines with her for an upcoming audition, and by the time Polly got back downstairs to pursue the issue, her mother had gone to bed.
So Polly went to bed, too, and spent a good part of the night thinking about Maddie, worrying about Maddie, and trying to figure out how this auction idea her mother was so proud of would work. It was all well and good to say you should auction off your surplus, but if you had too many to begin with, who’d want them?
“Everybody,” Joyce said cheerfully when Polly came downstairs in the morning and finally got a chance to ask. Her mother was dishing up oatmeal for Daisy and Jack and humming as she did so. She still looked pleased.
“I wouldn’t buy one,” Lizzie said. Lizzie had little use for cowboys in her life. She wore black, read Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, and wanted someday to star in an off-off-Broadway production because Broadway, she said when her mother asked her, was too commercial and didn’t speak with the voice of real people.
Polly wasn’t sure Lizzie spoke with the voice of real people, either. “Liz . . .” she ventured.
“Artemis,” her daughter corrected firmly and pushed back her chair, gliding to the sink with her empty dish.
As Artemis, Polly noticed, her daughter didn’t walk anymore, she glided. When she wasn’t gliding, she swept. She didn’t talk, she proclaimed. And she didn’t feel, she experienced—and then emoted.
Polly thought it was a lot of work being Artemis. She couldn’t ever have done it. She didn’t have that much energy.
“Did you feed the rabbits, Artemis?” Polly asked her.
“Not my turn,” Lizzie said. “It’s Jack’s.”
“It’s always my turn,” Jack complained.
“Maybe we could bid on a cowboy to feed the rabbits,” Daisy suggested.
“What are we bidding on them for?” Polly looked Joyce’s way. “Mending fences and baling hay and working cattle? They do that anyway.”
“This is extra,” her mother explained. “They’re donating time, and the money will go to Maddie.”
“But that means the guys who are scraping by are doing all the supporting.”
“That’s just part of it,” Joyce said. “Everyone in the valley can donate something cowboy related.”
“Like what?” Polly asked.
“Well, Taggart and Noah are donating bull-and-bronc-riding courses,” her mother said.
“And Brenna’s donating one of her cowboy hero paintings. Taggart said Tuck would donate a series of pen-and-ink sketches of last year’s rodeo and he was sure Charlie would provide some original cowboy photos. Artie’s donating some old cowboy postcards. There’s a ton of cowboy-related items. People are still coming up with things.”
Polly thought they might get a few outsiders in for Brenna’s painting. Brenna Jamison’s cowboy watercolors were well known in art circles as far away as New York. And Charlie Seeks Elk, currently one of Polly’s favorite people because he’d directed this past Christmas pageant, was something of a household name as far as photographers went.
“That might get us something,” she agreed.
“And Taggart said he was pretty sure Felicity could talk a few of the single guys on the rodeo circuit into being bachelor dates, so the girls can bid on them.”
“That ought to get us a dollar or two,” Lizzie said drily.
“Lots of women love cowboys,” Joyce said firmly. “Your father was a cowboy.”
“I know, but—”
“And they will get the runoff from our big-ticket item.”
“Big-ticket item?” Polly queried. “What big-ticket item?”
Joyce was smiling smugly. “We’re auctioning off a famous cowboy.”
The only famous cowboys Polly could think of were Roy Rogers, Will Rogers, Gene Autry, and Buffalo Bill. She turned to pour herself another cup of coffee. “All the famous cowboys are dead.”
“Not all.” Joyce looked up, beaming as Celie came down the stairs just then. “Not Sloan Gallagher.”
Polly poured coffee all over her hand. She said something rude and unprintable, slapped the mug down on the counter, then hastily mopped up the spilled liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. Sloan Gallagher’s not coming here.”
“Sloan Gallagher’s coming here?” Celie demanded, turning white.
“Sloan Gallagher’s coming here?” Lizzie, for the first time, looked delighted. “Says who?”
Joyce rubbed her hands together. “Gus.”
Polly stared at her. “Gus Holt?”
Gus was the foreman at Blasingame’s ranch. His wife, Mary, had been the other newcomer Polly had roped into the Christmas pageant. Gus had helped out too. Polly was very fond of both of them. But she couldn’t imagine how Gus could promise them Sloan Gallagher.
“He and Sloan went to school together,” Joyce explained. “They were best friends in elementary school and junior high. But Sloan’s mom died and his dad lost the ranch and Sloan lived at Maddie’s for a time. You did know he lived at Maddie’s?” She looked at her daughters.
“Yes, but . . .” Celie’s voice trailed off. She still looked stricken.
Polly finished mopping up the coffee, then turned around, her fingers locked around the mug. Oh yes, she knew Sloan Gallagher had once lived at Maddie Fletcher’s.
“He was one of her foster kids,” Celie agreed, finding words at last. “But that was years ago. He’s never been back.”
“No, he hasn’t,” Polly said firmly. “And Celie’s right. It’s been years. Why would he bother?”
“Gus said he would.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Polly wasn’t having it. “He won’t. Hurry up, Lizzie. The bus will be here any minute.”
“He might come,” Lizzie said, determined that he should.
“Of course he won’t,” Celie said.
Joyce shook her head at both her daughters. “How did I ever raise such doubters? You”—she fixed her gaze on Celie—“you should be over the moon. You could bid on him! Stop dreaming and get the man of your dreams. And I’d have Sloan Gallagher for a son-in-law.” Joyce looked positively enraptured at the prospect.
Celie’s face turned bright red. “Don’t be silly.”
“Exactly,” Polly said. All these bright ideas were obviously going to her mother’s head.
“Just because Sloan Gallagher was briefly Fletchers’ foster child, that doesn’t mean he’d allow himself to be auctioned off,” she told her mother firmly. “Not everyone has fond memories of being a foster child. He might have hated it. Anyway, if he wants to help, he can send a check. He could probably just pay the whole loan back for her if he wanted to.” She tapped her daughter on the shoulder. “Lizzie! Artemis! Whoever you are, get a move on. Now! The bus will be here.”
Lizzie scooped up her backpack. “He might be worth seeing,” she said, still hoping. “We can hope.”
Sloan Gallagher might once have been a tried-and-true, hell-bent-for-leather Montana cowboy, but he was currently one of the top five box-office draws in America. Celie had read that tidbit of information aloud not a week ago.
Now her sister nodded emphatically. She knew Polly was right. And she was glad, Polly was sure. The two-dimensional Sloan Gallagher that Celie dreamed about was safe. A whole lot safer than the real Sloan Gallagher was likely to be.
Celie wouldn’t want him here any more than Polly did.
Not that he would remember her. Polly knew that. She had no reason to believe he would remember one of the most embarrassing moments in her life.
She told herself that over and over as she trudged up the hill to the post office later that morning. It was silly that she even remembered.
But she did.
And not because Sloan Gallagher was America’s heartthrob. No, this had happened long ago when Sloan had been a thin, wiry fourteen-year-old and Polly had been deeply and completely in love with Lew.
As long as she could remember, it had only been Lew for her.
And it had always been her for Lew. He’d chased her around the playground clear back in kindergarten, trying to kiss her. Then everyone had laughed. Now he’d have been hauled in for sexual harassment, Polly thought with a wistful smile. Not that she’d ever felt harassed. Heaven knew she’d done her share of chasing him!
It seemed so long ago.
Even that day in the barn . . .
Polly shook her head. What a disaster! Every time she thought about it, she felt equal parts mortification and amusement.
She wondered what Celie would say if she knew Sloan Gallagher had seen her naked.
No one knew now except Polly—and Sloan Gallagher.
Not that he would remember, she reminded herself fiercely once again.
Way too much had happened in his life for Sloan to recall that one long-ago evening in Fletchers’ barn. Polly was sure he’d seen far more memorable sights in the past twenty years.
Most of the rest of Elmer might have remained here and stayed the same, but Sloan Gallagher hadn’t. He’d changed, grown up, moved on.
Polly was certain he would never come back.
End of Excerpt