Sunny and warm, the perfect day for mourning lost love. Maybe this would be the year she’d finally be ready to move on. Even as the thought teased her, Sandy suspected it might take another cataclysmic event to let go of the man she’d given her heart to in less than a day.
Summer was a handful of days off, but the mountain air was clean and brisk, nothing like the heavy smog of L.A., where she’d first met the man whose memory haunted her. She had no memories of him in this place except for the ones he’d painted into her mind while they talked. Yet this was where she felt his presence.
Her feisty red roan colt pranced beneath her, reminding Sandy that he needed to run off his excess teenaged energy. Dry dirt kicked up by Domingo in the wake of his fancy footwork muffled the sound of his footfalls to dull scuffling plunks, which he punctuated with occasional impatient snorts.
The dusty ground became more firmed and flattened. Gray rocky outcroppings thrust upward amid a tan landscape dotted by the washed-out green of desert grasses. More of the same lay between them and the scrub pines along the swell of foothills in the distance.
Sandy pointed Domingo in the direction of those hills, finally allowing the exuberant colt to set his own pace. Brawny muscles alternately flexed and contracted beneath her, as he catapulted them across the plain, racing at a full gallop. The denim jacket she hadn’t bothered to fasten caught the wind and billowed behind her like a cape. Chilly air worked its icy fingers along the exposed skin of her long neck, bringing with it a wonderful ache and the exhilaration of knowing she was alive.
She topped a gentle rise, and a sea of yellow and purple wildflowers surprised her, God’s own casually sown garden. The sky overhead was deep blue and cloudless. With the prairie behind her and the snow-covered peaks ahead, Sandy pulled Domingo up inside a cathedral of Ponderosa pines, closed her eyes and inhaled the pungent scent. It was exactly as he had described it, which made it the perfect place to remember him.
Seven years had passed, yet her pain was as exquisite as a fresh wound, probably owing to the fact that she revisited the memory once a year on the anniversary of that horrific day. In the hills of Wyoming that he had loved and missed so much, in the place he had brought her to with just his words, Sandy picked the scab off the wound she never quite allowed to heal.
The job was all that mattered now. Sandy made herself disregard the toppled shelves and scattered books. She blocked out all thoughts about the likely state of her own home. As she listened to the chatter on the official channels, she kept meticulous handwritten notes regarding the status of each unit checking in.
“Battalion 9-Alpha, this is Engine Squad 9-Bravo, do you copy?” The connection was filled with static and the voice was muffled, hard to hear.
Sandy waited for the response of the battalion chief on scene. None came.
The callout was repeated, the voice sounding a bit more urgent. “This is L.A. Engine Squad 9-Bravo, dispatched to the Convention Center—” Again static broke the transmission.
Following protocol, after the second unanswered call, Sandy intervened. “Copy you, ES-9-Bravo. This is central dispatch. Your transmission is breaking up.”
The response was drowned out by a loud burst of static in the earpiece.
“Nine-Bravo, be advised you’re breaking up,” she repeated.
More harsh squawks of static burst from the receiver. Sandy winced, feeling like her head might explode. Then, amid the static, she clearly heard the code every dispatcher dreaded. “Nine-Bravo is 10-60, this location. Code three, code three, code three . . . trapped. . .”
The code for imminent danger!
Static filled the airwaves again as Sandy punched buttons on her console, frantically trying to boost the signal.
“Dispatch, are you there?” The voice was screaming. “Central! This is 9-Bravo in need of assist. The building’s coming down around us!”
Afraid to switch over to relay, with the risk of losing contact altogether, she motioned to Ellen, the dispatcher sitting next to her. Quickly, Sandy wrote on her notepad in bold black ink: UNIT IN TROUBLE.
At the next desk, Ellen nodded and switched channels to contact the Battalion 9 squad leader over the comm.
“Nine-Bravo, this is Central Dispatch,” Sandy acknowledged. Only with great effort did she prevent her stomach-wrenching fear from leaking into her voice. Dread shot out little tentacles of hopelessness to curl around her lungs, squeezing the breath out of her. “I’m reading you, sending help your way. What’s your location?”
“Civic Center parking garage—A level. The building’s coming apart! We need extraction.” The voice was still urgent but now without the panic.
She had to get her own panic under control and keep it that way, Sandy reminded herself, or she couldn’t help anyone.
“Copy you, 9-Bravo. Who am I speaking with?”
“Mick-” More static, then, “Mic-key.”
Sandy scribbled everything she could make out into her hand-written notes. “Mickey, you’re breaking up very badly. How many do you number? How long have you been trapped?”`
“Two confirmed, dispatch, possibly three. I can feel my partner. He’s not moving. I heard someone else moaning down here earlier. I don’t know how long it’s been. I think I’ve been unconscious—I’m pinned—can’t move. It’s dark—can’t see a thing.”
Sandy passed off the information to Ellen so her coworker could convey it to the battalion chief. The sarcastic part of Sandy’s mind registered the irony of having crossed into the twenty-first century and being reduced to the mockery of a child’s game of telephone.
With a pointed shake of her head, Ellen caught Sandy’s eye and handed her a message from the battalion chief. As she read, Sandy’s heart fluttered in her chest briefly before moving upward to stick in her throat. Her free hand came up of its own volition to cover her mouth, as if to prevent herself from saying the words she was reading. Her stomach threatened to pitch up her breakfast.
The Convention Center had collapsed with several men inside. Some of them were buried under four floors of rubble, while above them, the fire from the gas main explosion burned fully involved and uncontained. Rescue efforts would be delayed and prospects for extraction were grim. A chaplain was en route.
God help them all! How could she tell someone he wasn’t going to be rescued? What could she say to a man when her words were likely to be the last he’d ever hear?
Ryan kicked in the clutch and rammed the gearshift into second to take yet another turn on the series of switchbacks through the mountains. The 1967 Corvette Sting Ray had been a mess when he’d bought her, but she’d been a bargain. It had taken almost every one of his days off over the past two years, but he had fully restored her from the engine up. The work had been a welcome distraction from other aspects of his life. This was his first long trip in her and he was enjoying the way she held fast to the road, caressing the pavement around the twists and turns through the mountains the way a woman caressed a lover.
The throaty growl of the engine was drowned out by the whoosh of the wind running capricious fingers through hair he’d allowed to grow too long. It was early in the year to drive with the top down in the mountains but Ryan didn’t care. The bracing cold reminded him he was alive.
It had been too long, the guilty whisper nagged. He should never have let his life get so far out of hand. It shouldn’t have taken an emergency letter from his baby brother for him to come home and make things right with the old man.
Tires squealed just a bit when he took the downward curve a little sharply. He was in the foothills now, only a few miles to go. He’d be able to open his baby up on the highway once the last hill was at his back. Soon the sun would drift down into the shadowy embrace of the mountains behind him, leaving him the stars for company. Aw, man, he’d missed these mountains.
Halfway through what he recognized as the last mountain road switchback, Ryan downshifted again and punched the gas. His mind registered the apparition blocking the road in front of him a bare second before reaction set in. With a curse on his lips, he stood on the brake, sending his car into a slow, sideways skid and stalling the engine.
Adrenaline screamed through his veins, skirted along raw nerves as he stared, with equal measures of irritation and astonishment.
Washed in the golden blush from the setting sun, the horse reared, angrily striking out at the air between them with menacing hooves, nearly unseating his rider. With a toss of his head, the startled horse reared again, baring his teeth and screaming defiantly in Ryan’s direction.
Ryan appreciated the powerful lines of the red roan but the colt was clearly too much for his rider. Though the horse responded to her steady touch, it was obvious any sense of control she had was an illusion. When she swung her gaze in his direction, fury blazed in eyes the color of chicory blossoms.
“Jerk!” Her face mirrored the defiance of the horse. She shoved at the wild mass of dark hair falling across her face. The motion distracted her, giving her mount the opening to misbehave.
With a clatter of edgy hooves on asphalt, the big colt danced and circled, threatened to rear again, but she recovered quickly and held him down. Then the rider tugged on the reins, turned the agitated horse and eased him off the road, sidestepping him down the steep, gravel-covered incline. Upon reaching solid footing, she wheeled the colt sharply around. Casting a last scathing look over her shoulder, she kicked her mount into a reckless gallop across the prairie.
Ryan pushed open the car door and jumped out. He kept his eyes on the horse and rider until they were no more than a speck in the distance, haunted by those amazing blue eyes that shot sparks when they were angry.
“Well,” he said to the early evening sky. “Guess the town’s grown by at least one since I left.”
He wasn’t sure if he was going to shake things up with his return or get himself shaken up. But he sure as heck planned to find out who lived behind those chicory blue eyes.
The discovery that he’d rolled a tire off the rim in his sideways skid did nothing to quell his determination.
By the time she encountered the stranger in the fast car, her earlier upbeat mood had degraded, thanks to the dull heartache she’d given herself from lancing her old wound. Ordinarily, she would have laughed off the incident and introduced herself once she realized no one was hurt. But the moron had just sat in his car staring in disapproval, apparently waiting for her to move out of his all-important way.
Wherever the aggravating stranger was going, she sincerely hoped he didn’t so much as make a pit stop in Orson’s Folly. She was pretty sure another meeting of this sort would result in her doing more than yelling at him.
Edgy with the need to dispel her jitters, Sandy let the colt have his head again and Domingo calmed them both by doing what he loved most, streaking at a neck-breaking pace over the plains of western Wyoming.
By the time they slowed to a walk alongside the fence leading to the stable yard, her ire at the stranger on the road had mellowed to mild interest in whom he might have been. The sun was resting in the cradle between the peaks of two mountains, lingering shafts of red casting long shadows against the blue and white buildings. Sandy closed her eyes, bracing against the little pinprick of pain, and allowed herself to remember the reason she’d first come to Wyoming.
“You hang on, do you hear me?” she ordered. “I won’t go anywhere until they have you, I swear. But you have to stay with me. Promise!”
“Okay . . . promise.” His words were slurred; his voice sounded weary.
Sandy struggled to think of something to talk about—to keep him talking and alert. “Do I hear an accent, Mick?”
His laugh was slow and soft. “Yep, I’m afraid so. I can’t seem to get the Wyoming out of my voice.”
There! Something she could get him to talk about. “Tell me about Wyoming,” she said.
He sighed. “There’s nothing like a wild gallop across the plains on a fast horse. If you can be up on that horse at daybreak, you feel like you’re flying up to meet the day. And to be in the Red Desert at sundown’s even better. If you time it right, just a split second before the sun’s gone, you feel like you’re inside all that red and orange glow. Then in your next breath you’re standing in pitch black. When you look up, the stars are already popping out. So many stars they blend together. And there’s always shooting stars for making wishes.” He laughed softly. “I guess I sound a little pathetic.”
“No.” She wished she could touch him with more than her voice. “More like a homesick cowboy.”
He was quiet for a time, then, “I guess maybe I am, Angel. I am homesick.”
His quiet admission brought tears to Sandy’s eyes, and she prayed he’d see those sunrises and sunsets and stars again. “So you lived in the desert plains?”
“I had the best of both worlds, Angel,” he told her with an easy pride. “Our ranch is in the middle of a finger of desert that’s nestled between two legs of mountains and forest.”
She could hear the love in his voice as he spoke, knew he was picturing it all in his head. “Why did you leave?”
“That’s a story for another time,” he said. “I’ll tell you when we’re on our first date.”
“Are you asking me out?”
“Oh, we’ll go out.” She could hear the grin in his voice. “I was just making the plans.”
Her lips twitched at his audacity.
Cooled and brushed, Domingo nickered a soft goodbye as Sandy left the comfort of the stable and walked into the cold night air.
Stars twinkled into view overhead, millions of glistening pinpoint lights fusing into a lacy curtain of soft illumination against the darkness. A trail of shimmery light tracked across the sky.
For the first time in seven years, she didn’t wish for the impossible. “I want to feel alive again.”
Emotionally and physically exhausted, she tore her eyes from the stars with a heavy sigh, and climbed into the rusty Chevy pickup. It was older than she was by several years so she counted her blessings it still ran. Driving past the main homestead, Sandy tossed a wave to Justin McGee, sitting on the wide front porch of the ranch house puffing on his nightly cigar. With a smile and a nod, the old rancher politely touched a forefinger to the brim of his battered tan Stetson.
Just as Sandy reached the cedar fence posts marking the entrance to the ranch, a pair of headlights swung in from the main road. So, the McGee men were about to receive a caller. She wondered idly if Sean had finally convinced Melanie Mitchell to drop by after her shift at the bar.
The two sets of headlights collided, the bright beams briefly joining forces to split the darkness. Then the moment was gone, leaving Sandy with a vague impression of something low and fast before she was engulfed by the cloud of dust chasing the other car.
Nope. She coughed against the sting in her throat. Definitely not Mel, who tended to drive her ancient economy car with the caution of a grandmother. Tough break for Sean.
Ryan braked in front of the old ranch house and killed the engine. Popping open the door, he took his time getting to his feet.
Though the land slumbered beneath a blanket of darkness, the nighttime couldn’t mask his memories. He knew just beyond the edge of the light lay open spaces, fields of green and gold dotted by brown-and-white cattle and rolls of cut hay, all in the protective embrace of the Rocky Mountains to the west.
Closing his eyes, Ryan inhaled deeply, intoxicating himself on the aromatic blend of cow manure, freshly mown hay, and mountain wildflowers hanging in the air. The sweet, somewhat earthy scent of home.
Overhead, a shooting star blazed a fiery arc through the myriad of visible stars. Ryan thought of a time, so long ago, when he and Sean had lain with their mother on a sleeping bag, watching the stars overhead. Every time she saw a shooting star, she had urged them to make a wish.
Just now, Ryan wished he knew what the heck he was doing coming here.
“Not much call for such a fancy machine on a ranch,” admonished the gravelly voice from the shadow of the porch. “But you always did love speed, didn’t you, boy?”
Justin took a step forward into the light cast by the moon.
“Hello, Dad.” Ryan kept his response respectful and reserved. Leave it to his father to act like this was just another homecoming after a night in town. “You look good.”
Justin chuckled. “Still spreading it thick, I see.” But fondness had crept into his voice. “What I look, is old.” He nodded in the direction of the huge barns that had been standing since before Ryan was born. “Your brother’s out there locking up . . . if you want to go find him, let him know you’re here.”
The statement startled Ryan. “Since when do McGee barns need locking?”
The old man leaned against the porch railing and examined the tip of his cigar.
Ryan waited. It was maddening but no amount of pushing would get his father to talk before he was ready.
Finally, Justin shrugged, fixed Ryan with a pointed stare. “A boy goes away for sixteen years, he’s bound to see some changes when he comes back a man.”
Acknowledging the well-deserved punch straight to the heart with a silent nod, Ryan turned and strode toward the barns.
Strong floodlights, mounted at the corners of each building, lit the yard. Sean was clearly visible as he slid the barn door closed and set the lock. He walked toward the stable, a black and white dog at his heels.
Ryan stood just outside the light’s edge watching his brother, looking for a trace of the boy he’d left behind.
The skinny boy’s frame had become lean and muscular. Glow-in-the dark blond hair had toned down some but Ryan noticed it still had a tendency to curl at the ends even though his brother kept it cut short. Sean had been thirteen when Ryan left. He’d grown into a man Ryan scarcely recognized.
When Sean emerged from the stable, he ordered the dog to stay inside. Then with powerful flexing of his muscles, he slid the door closed. Ryan raised an eyebrow. His little brother had developed some broad shoulders and powerful arms. Setting the latch, Sean’s hands stilled. He eased around, his body tense, ready for anything. It had always been uncanny the way the kid had been so acutely aware of his surroundings; it still was.
Ryan stepped into the light. Green eyes, identical to his own, met and held his gaze. Ryan waited, unmoving and expressionless.
Sean’s tension visibly drained. His smile started slowly, in his eyes first, then spread to his mouth, where it bloomed into a full grin.
“Ry!” In two long-legged strides, Sean was in front of him. “Oh man, it’s good to see you!”
In a move too sudden for Ryan to dodge, Sean folded him into a bear hug and lifted him off his feet, his carefree laughter driving out the last vestiges of Ryan’s uncertainty.
Ryan McGee had come home.