January 15th ….
On the ten-year anniversary of the day he lost everything, Nate Crawford got out of bed at three-fifteen a.m. He grabbed a quick shower and filled a big Thermos with fresh-brewed coffee.
Outside in the yard, his boots made crunching sounds on the frozen ground and the predawn air was so cold it seared his lungs when he sucked it in. He had to scrape the rime of ice off his pickup’s windshield, but the stars were bright in the wide Montana sky and the cloudless night cheered him a little. Clear weather meant he should make good time this year. He climbed in behind the wheel and cranked the heater up high.
He left the ranch at a quarter of four. With any luck at all, he would reach his destination before night fell again.
But then, five miles north of Kalispell, he spotted the woman on the far side of the road. She wore a moss-green quilted coat and skinny little jeans tucked into lace-up boots. And she stood by a mud-spattered silver-gray SUV hooked up to a U-Haul trailer. With one hand she held a red gas can. With the other, she was flagging him down.
Nate grumbled a few discouraging words under his breath. He had a long way to go and the last thing he needed was to lose time playing Good Samaritan to some woman who couldn’t be bothered to check her fuel gauge.
Not that he was even tempted to drive by and leave her there. A man like Nate had no choice when it came to whether or not to help a stranded woman. For him, doing what needed doing was bred in the bone.
He slowed the pickup. There was no one coming either way, so he swung the wheel, crossed the center line, and pulled in behind the U-Haul on the far shoulder.
The woman came running. Her bright striped wool beanie had three pom-poms, one at the crown and one at the end of each tie. The poms bounced merrily as she ran. He leaned across the seats and shoved open the door for her. A gust of icy air swirled in.
Framed in the open door, she held up the red gas can. Breathlessly, she asked, “Give a girl a lift to the nearest gas station?” It came out slightly muffled by the thick wool scarf she had wrapped around the bottom half of her face.
Nate was known for his smooth-talking ways, but the cold and his reluctance to stop made him curt. “Get in before all the heat gets out.”
Just like a woman, she chose that moment to hesitate. “You’re not an axe murderer, are you?”
He let out a humorless chuckle. “If I was, would I tell you so?”
She widened her big dark eyes at him. “Now you’ve got me worried.” She said it jokingly.
He had no time for jokes. “Trust your instincts and do it fast. My teeth are starting to chatter.”
She tipped her head to the side, studying him, and then at last she shrugged. “All right, cowboy. I’m taking a chance on you.” Grabbing the armrest, she hoisted herself up into the seat. Once there, she set the gas can on the floor of the cab, shut the door and stuck out her hand. “Callie Kennedy. On my way to a fresh start in the beautiful small town of Rust Creek Falls.”
“Nate Crawford.” He gave her mittened hand a shake. “Shooting Star Ranch. It’s a couple of miles outside of Rust Creek—and didn’t you just drive through Kalispell five miles back?”
Poms danced as she nodded. “I did, yes.”
“I heard they have gas stations in Kalispell. Lots of ‘em.”
She gave a low laugh. “I should have stopped for gas, I know.” She started unwinding the heavy scarf from around her face. He watched with more interest than he wanted to feel, perversely hoping he wouldn’t like what he saw. But no. She was as pretty as she was perky. Long wisps of lustrous seal-brown hair escaped the beanie to trail down her flushed cheeks. “I thought I could make it without stopping.” Head bent to the task, she snapped the seatbelt closed.
“You were wrong.”
She turned to look at him again and something sparked in those fine eyes. “Do I hear a lecture coming on, Nate?”
“Ma’am,” he said with a more of a drawl than was strictly natural to him. “I would not presume.”
She gave him a slow once-over. “Oh, I think you would. You look like a man who presumes on a regular basis.”
He decided she was annoying. “Have I just been insulted?”
She laughed, a full-out laugh that time. It was such a great laugh he forgot how aggravating he found her. “You came to my rescue.” Her eyes were twinkling again. “I would never be so rude as to insult you.”
“Well, all right then,” he said, feeling strangely suddenly at a loss, out of balance somehow. He put the pickup in gear, checked for traffic, and then eased back onto the road again. For a minute or two, neither of them spoke. Beyond his headlight beams, there was only the dark, twisting ribbon of road. No other headlights cut the night. Above, the sky was endless, swirling with stars, the rugged, black shadows of the mountains poking up into it. When the silence got too thick, he asked, “So did you hear about the great flood that took out half of Rust Creek Falls last summer?”
“Oh, yeah.” She was nodding. “So scary. So much of Montana was flooded, I heard. It was all over the national news.”
The Rust Creek levee had broken on July 4th, destroying homes and businesses all over the south half of town. Since then, Rust Creek Falls had seen an influx of men and women eager to pitch in with reconstruction. Some in town claimed that a lot of the women had come with more than helping out in mind, that they were hoping to catch themselves a cowboy. Nate couldn’t help thinking that if Callie Kennedy wanted a man, she’d have no trouble finding one—even if she was more annoying than most.
Was she hungry? He wouldn’t mind a plate of steak and eggs. Maybe he ought to ask her if she wanted to stop for breakfast before they got the gas….
But no. He couldn’t do that. It was the 15th of January. His job was to get his butt to North Dakota—and to remember all he’d lost. No good-looking, mouthy little brunette with twinkly eyes could be allowed to distract him from his purpose .
He said, “Let me guess. You’re here to help with the rebuilding effort. I gotta tell you, it’s a bad time of year for it. All the work’s pretty much shut down until the weather warms a little.” He sent her a quick glance. She just happened to be looking his way.
For a moment, their gazes held—and then they both turned to stare out at the dark ribbon of - road again. “Actually, I have a job waiting for me. I’m a nurse practitioner. I’ll be partnering up with Emmet DePaulo. You know Emmet?”
Tall and lean, sixty-plus and big-hearted to a fault, Emmet ran the Rust Creek Falls Clinic. “I do. Emmet’s a good man.”
She made a soft sound of agreement and then asked, “And what about you, Nate? Where are you going before dawn on a cold Wednesday morning?”
He didn’t want to say, didn’t want to get into it. “I’m on my way to Bismarck,” he replied, hoping she’d leave it at that.
No such luck. “I went through there yesterday. It’s a long way from here. What’s in Bismarck?”
He answered her question with one of his own. “Where you from?”
There was a silence from her side of the cab. He prepared to rebuff her if she asked about Bismarck again.
But then she only said, “I’m from Chicago.”
He grunted. “Talk about a long way from here.”
“That is no lie. I’ve been on the road since two in the morning Monday. Sixteen hundred endless miles, stopping only to eat and when I just had to get some sleep….”
“Can’t wait to get started on your new life, huh?”
She flashed him another glowing smile. “I went through Rust Creek Falls with my parents on our way to Glacier National Park when I was eight. Fell in love with the place and always wanted to live there. Now, at last, it’s really happening. And yeah. You’re right. I can’t wait.”
It was none of his business, but he went ahead and asked anyway, “You honestly have no doubts about making this move?”
“Not a one.” The woman had a greenhorn’s blind enthusiasm.
“You’ll be surprised, Callie. Montana winters are long and cold.” He slid her another quick glance.
She was smiling wider than ever. “You ever been to Chicago, Nate? Gets pretty cold there, too.”
“It’s not the same,” he insisted.
“Well, I guess I’ll see for myself about that.”
He really was annoyed with her now, annoyed enough that he said scornfully, “You won’t last the winter. You’ll be hightailing it back to the Windy City before the snow melts.”
“Is that a challenge, Nate?” The woman did not back down. “I never could resist a challenge.”
Damn, but he was riled now. Out of proportion and for no reason he could understand. Maybe it was because she was slowing him down from getting where he needed to be. Or maybe because he found her way too easy on the eyes—and then there was her perfume. A little sweet, a little tart. Even mixed with the faint smell of gasoline from the red can between her feet, he liked her perfume.
And it wasn’t appropriate for him to like it. It wasn’t appropriate for him to be drawn to some strange woman. Not today.
She was watching him, waiting for him to answer her question, to tell him if his mean-spirited prediction had been a challenge or not.
He decided to keep his mouth shut.
Apparently, she thought that was a good idea because she didn’t say anything more either. They rode in tense silence the rest of the way to the gas station. She filled up her can, paid cash for it and got in the pickup again.
He drove her straight back to her waiting SUV.
When he pulled in behind the U-Haul, he suggested grudgingly, “Maybe I’d better just follow you back to town, see that you get there safely.”
“No, thanks. I’ll be okay.”
He felt like a complete jerk—probably because he’d been acting like one. “Come on.” He reached for the gas can. “Let me—”
She grabbed the handle before he could take it and put on a stiff smile. “I can do it. Thank you for your help.” And then she leaned on the door, jumped down and hoisted the gas can down, too. “You take care, now.” In the glow of light from the cab, he watched her breath turn to fog in the icy air.
It was still pitch dark out. At the edge of the cleared spot behind her, a big, dirty For Sale sign had been nailed on a fence post. Beyond the fence new-growth Ponderosa pines stood black and thick. Farther out in the darkness, perched on a high ridge and silhouetted against the sky, loomed the black outline of a house so enormous it looked like a castle. Built by a very rich man named Nathaniel Bledsoe two decades ago, the house had always been considered a monstrosity by folks in the Rust Creek Valley. From the first, they called the place Bledsoe’s Folly. When Bledsoe died, it went up for sale.
But nobody ever bought it. It stood vacant to this day.
Who was to say vagrants hadn’t take up residence? And anyone could be lurking in the close-growing pines.
He didn’t like the idea of leaving her there alone. “I mean it, Callie. I’ll wait until you’re on your way.”
Unsmiling now, she gazed at him steadily, her soft chin hitched high. “I will last the winter.” The words had steel underpinnings. “I’m making myself a new life here. You watch me.”
He should say something easy and agreeable. He knew it. But somehow, she’d gotten under his skin. So he just made it worse. “Two hundred dollars says you’ll be gone before June first.”
She tipped her head to the side then, studying him. “Money doesn’t thrill me, Nate.”
“If not money, then what?”
One sleek eyebrow lifted and vanished into that bright wool hat. “Let me think it over.”
“Think fast,” he muttered, perversely driven to continue being a complete ass. “I haven’t got all day.”
She laughed then, a low, amused sound that seemed to race along his nerve endings. “Nate Crawford, you’ve got an attitude—and Rust Creek Falls is a small town. I have a feeling I won’t have any trouble tracking you down. I’ll be in touch.” She grabbed the outer handle of the door. “Drive safe, now.” And then she pushed it shut and turned for her SUV.
He waited as he’d said he would, watching over her until she was back in her vehicle and on her way. In the glare of his headlights, she poured the gas in her tank. It only took a minute and every second of that time, the good boy his mama had raised ached to get out and do it for her. But he knew she’d refuse him if he tried.
In no time, she had the cap back on the tank, the gas can stowed in the rear of the SUV and she was getting in behind the wheel. Her headlights flared to life and the engine started right up.
When she rolled out onto the road again, she tapped the horn once in salute. He waited for the red tail lights of the U-Haul to vanish around the next curve before turning his truck around and heading for Bismarck again. As he drove back through Kalispell, he was shaking his head, dead certain that pretty Callie Kennedy would be long gone from Rust Creek come June.
Ten and a half hours later he rolled into a truck stop just west of Dickinson, North Dakota, to gas up. In the diner there, he had a burger with fries and a large Dr. Pepper. And then he wandered through the attached convenience store, stretching his legs a little before getting back on the road for the final hour and a half of driving that would take him into Bismarck and his first stop there, a certain florist on 8th Street.
Turned out he’d made good time after all, even with the delay caused by giving mouthy Nurse Callie a helping hand. This year, he would make it to the florist before they closed. And that meant he wouldn’t have to settle for supermarket flowers. The thought pleased him in a grim sort of way.
Before heading out the door, he stopped at the register to buy a PayDay candy bar.
The clerk offered, “Powerball ticket? Jackpot’s four hundred and eighty million now.”
Nate never played the lottery. He was not a reckless man, not even when it came to something as inexpensive as a lottery ticket. Long shots weren’t his style. But then he thought of pretty Callie Kennedy with her pom-pom hat, her gas can and her twinkly eyes.
Money doesn’t thrill me, Nate.
Would four hundred and eighty million thrill her?
He chuckled under his breath and nodded. “Sure. Give me ten dollars’ worth.”
The clerk punched out a ticket with five rows of numbers on it. Nate gave it no more than a cursory glance as she put it in his hand.
He had no idea what he’d just done, felt not so much as a shiver of intuition that one of those rows of numbers was about to change his life forever.
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