Nancy Morse, Romance Author
Love finds its way back home
Catherine Coleman flees a loveless marriage and painful divorce and returns to the sheep ranch left to her by her grandfather, where the splendor of the Canadian Rockies brings back memories of her teen summers spent sneaking off with the son of a nearby cattle rancher. Cal Walker had stolen her heart away, but when her ruthless father intervened, Cal went off without a word, and happiness slipped through Catherine’s fingers. Now, determined to get the crumbling sheep ranch back in shape, she fights the attempts of an unknown assailant that sabotage her efforts and threaten her life, but how can she fight the thundering echoes driving her back into Cal’s arms?
The familiar ring of that voice forced Catherine’s throat to constrict so tightly that at first no sound emerged. Swallowing hard, her voice scratched at the back of her throat. “Hello, Cal.”
For several tense moments neither of them spoke. When the silence became overbearing, she rose to her feet, brushed herself off and stood there self-consciously, not knowing what to say. What could she say to a man she had not seen or heard from in ten years?
“Do you always shoot at people?” he asked.
“Do you always trespass on other people’s land?”
“When there’s a storm about to break and I need to take a shortcut, I do.”
“How long—?” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and began again. “How long have you been sitting there?”
Long enough for the sight of her to tighten a knot in his belly, Cal thought with dismay. Affecting a disinterested tone he asked, “So, what brings you back to these parts, Cathy?”
His question carried the annoying ring of I-told-you-so. Wearily, she replied, “It’s a long story.”
He went on in a deceptively casual tone that should have warned her they were headed for dangerous waters. “I seem to recall that when you left here—what was it, oh, ten years ago?—you said you were never coming back.”
She stiffened at the reminder. “How would you know what I said when you weren’t around to hear it?”
He shifted uncomfortably in his spot. Back then, word had reached him that she’d left for good. He wondered why word had not reached him now that she’d come back. Why did he have to find out like this, as if he’d stuck his finger into a socket and ten thousand volts of electricity had shot through him?
He’d read about her divorce in the Edmonton papers and had felt a small twist of triumph to learn of the demise of her marriage. The accompanying photograph had also not been without its impact. It had been a shot of Cathy coming out of the courthouse the day the divorce had been granted. Those dark, serious eyes, the full lips compressed into a tense smile for the clicking shutters of the photographers. Her somber beauty had appealed to him against his will as much then as it always had…as much as it did right now. He galvanized himself against it.
“What happened?” he asked. “Got tired of all that fancy living and decided to come back to the family sheep ranch?”
She responded to his pointed sarcasm by observing, “You sound as if you resent my having a place to come back to, Cal.”
It wasn’t the coming back he resented, he wanted to say. It was the leaving in the first place. “Why the sudden interest in sheep?”
“Because now they’re my sheep. This place is in my blood. I guess I’m Angus Coleman’s granddaughter, after all.”
“Yeah,” Cal muttered. “And Ellis Randolph’s daughter, too.” The bitterness behind those words made Catherine shutter.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work to save that place,” he said. “I hear it’s gotten pretty rundown since Angus died.”
Catherine shrugged against the growing darkness. “I learned a few things about sheep ranching from my grandfather. And what I don’t know, I’m sure my foreman does.”
From out of the shadows came a deep laugh. “It’s too bad your foreman doesn’t know anything about boundary lines.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He took his time answering, rising to his feet first and stretching the lean muscles in his back and legs while keeping to the velvet darkness. “Ask your foreman about it.”
It wasn’t that Catherine had forgotten how tall and broad-shouldered Cal was. It was just that she had underestimated the impact it would have on her. When he’d been seated on the ground, she had somehow felt more in control than she now suddenly did. She watched him warily and, in spite of herself, admiringly.
The years had added flatteringly to Cal’s appeal. As a boy, he’d been lean and wiry, like a spring in motion. As a young man he had exuded athletic prowess. But this was no boy standing before her, no young man on the threshold of uncovering his ultimate strength. This was a man full grown, handsome and hostile, a dangerous combination under any circumstance.
“That was one of your sheep I found today, dead.”
She pushed aside her disturbing thoughts of him and responded with an even tone. “I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for it. Sheep don’t die for no reason. Maybe its teeth—”
“Its teeth were fine,” he cut in.
“Wolves didn’t kill it. Wolves would have devoured it on the spot.”
“You seem pretty certain as to what didn’t kill it,” she said. “Care to venture a guess as to what did?”
Cal shrugged with indifference. “Who knows?”
“Something could be contaminating the water further upstream,” she ventured, adding purposefully, “Or someone.”
He looked at her skeptically. “Who would want to kill your sheep?”
Parodying his indifference, she quipped, “Who knows? Maybe some cattle rancher with a gripe.”
“I have no reason to kill your sheep, Cathy.”
She regretted saying it the instant the words had left her lips, but the sound of his voice now, filled with anger and pain, only made her feel worse. She went to the window and looked out. It was nightfall. Overhead, a crescent moon appeared through the feathery branches of the pines. The stars were out, and all that remained of the storm was the smell of damp grass. She breathed in the sweet night aroma. She ought to be getting back. Even though she had assured Gertie, her housekeeper, that she knew her way around the hills and valley, she was bound to be looked upon as a newcomer to these parts and easily capable of getting lost in a storm. The last thing she wanted to do was worry Gertie needlessly, or to give Ben, her foreman, reason to think she wasn’t cut out to run the ranch. He wasn’t, after all, the friendliest person in the first place.
A ribbon of pale moonlight fell softly upon her face as she stood at the window. A sheen of perspiration had evaporated from her skin, giving her complexion a matte look. It was smooth and flawless, and as Cal remembered only too well, remarkably soft to the touch. Her dark hair hung free. She had never cared for styling it, and while it was shorter than it used to be, reaching now to her shoulders instead of to her waist, he was pleased to see that she still preferred to wear it loose and casual. His fingers flexed involuntarily at his sides. They knew the feeling of being buried in the deep, dark fullness of her hair.
Those eyes that had always reminded him of semi-sweet chocolate were focused out the window. She looked to be a thousand miles away, yet he knew that she was very much aware of him. The carefree, unrestrained girl who could ride with the best of them and shoot better than any of them was now a carefully guarded woman whose mistrust was evident in her dark eyes.
The air inside the tiny shack grew thick with tension in the ensuing silence. The distance between them was riddled with mistrust and suspicion. And yet, in spite of themselves, something endured, transcending the miles and the years, causing a tiny spark to ignite.
Catherine heaved a sigh of resignation, thinking dismally how some things never change. She’d always been shamefully attracted to Cal. Sadly, in spite of everything, she still was. She turned from the window and walked to the door.
Outside, the ground was soft from the rain. The soil smelled rich and sweet. The night was warm and clear.
Catherine walked to her car and fished into the pocket of her jeans for the keys. She heard Cal’s footsteps come up behind her, and she tensed. A part of her wished she had never come back. The best thing would be to get in the car and drive away without saying another word. What was there to say, anyway, except to ask why? Too often over the years she had asked herself why. Why he’d been gone when she got back. Even now, as she fumbled with the door, that one word echoed through her mind.
She turned to him suddenly to say something…anything…only to freeze with her mouth open.
It was the way the moonlight struck his face that rendered speechless and caused the muscles in her body to go rigid. For the first time she saw him clearly, distinctly. Those hazel eyes of his that hedged somewhere between light brown and green were fixed anxiously on her. His dark hair fell over his forehead in a crop of unruly curls and looked to be in need of a trim at the collar. Dark stubble spiked his chin. More than one day’s growth, she surmised from the look of it. The years had sharpened the angles of his face and etched tiny lines around the corners of his changeable eyes. His was a careless, haphazard handsomeness that, for some reason, had always appealed to her.
She climbed into the car and for several moments just sat there, regrouping. The unexpected reunion with Cal left her shaken. She’d come to Alberta to get away from her problems, not add to them.
Cal’s sharp rap on the window made her jump. She rolled it down and looked up into his unsmiling face.
“You’d best pick up that carcass first thing in the morning and get it over to a vet for a necropsy. The quicker you know what killed her, the better.”
She cringed at the know-it-all tone of his voice. “I’ll take care of it.”
She leaned forward to start up the engine, but Cal’s hand clamped down on her shoulder. With fingers flexing against her flesh, he pulled her back against the seat.
“I mean it, Cathy,” he warned. “Anything could have killed that ewe. Maybe the water’s contaminated. If it is, I’ve got to know. That water passes through your land on its way to mine. If you don’t do something about it, I will.”
Catherine’s glare stuck bravely to his as she issued a warning of her own. “Cal Walker, don’t you dare.”
It wasn’t the command that made Cal turn to ice inside. It was the vivid memory it conjured up in his mind of a pretty, dark-eyed girl shaking a finger at him and warning in that same tone of voice, “Cal Walker, don’t you dare”, whenever he’d been about to do something stupid.
The years seemed to shrink before Cal’s eyes. For one monstrously long moment it was as if nothing had changed. It hit him harder than he expected, and long after the red glow of her tail lights had disappeared over the horizon, all he could do was stand there and remember.