Michelle Wilson tucked a strand of wind-blown blonde hair behind her ear, eyes never leaving the saffron and magenta hued western sky where the brilliant orange sun threw long shadows over the Alberta prairie. Beneath her the big buckskin gelding shifted and shook his head to dislodge the flies that came out as the evening breeze eased a bit. Max snorted and stamped a hoof to emphasize his desire to be moving on.
“I know, bud. Just a few more minutes and the show’ll be over.” She stroked his neck and flipped his mane back to one side. Glancing toward the house perched on the southwest side of the coulee she sighed when no lights glimmered on the lower floor. Cale must still be tied up at the clinic. After one last look at the fading sunset, the woman touched her heel to the gelding and turned him for home.
The throaty lowing of the stock in the lower pastures stirred contentment in her soul. The cow-calf pairs were all in good flesh and there was plenty of grass for them. The need to ride out and check the stock and range was a source of joy to Michelle. A grin creased her face, Grampa felt so close on nights like this she found herself turning to speak with him. If she closed her eyes, the sound of his horse’s hooves in the grass was almost real. Shaking her head at the silliness of her thoughts she gave Max his head and let him lope along the familiar trail back to the home yard.
Dust rose in a shimmering cloud around her and dry grasses whispered harshly as they passed. After the deluge and floods earlier in the year, the weather turned hot and dry. With the incessant wind sucking moisture as it passed, the prairie was dry and dusty now in late October. Max dropped to a jog as they entered the yard coming to a halt by the barn. Michelle slid down from the saddle still careful of the arm she injured in July. Even though it healed well it still gave her an unpleasant twinge now and again. “Stupid arm,” she muttered when numbness shot through her fingers.
Across the coulee the lights shone warmly in the house she grew up in. Stacey would be wrestling with the wood stove trying to coax some warmth out of it to combat the dropping temperature. Why George wouldn’t just let the girl fire up the furnace…But that was her brother, holding onto the old ways. She could hear him now, “If it was good enough for Gramma and Grampa it’s good enough for us.” Michelle shrugged. Her brother was Stacey’s problem now, not hers. And thank the Lord for that.
Michelle shivered in her thin jacket. Once the sun disappeared the heat of the day fled with it. The wild taste of autumn was in her mouth and the scent of it in her nostrils. Her senses told her fall had arrived and winter was on its way.
She stripped the gelding in short order, brushed him down and picked his feet before turning him loose to join the others in the pasture by the barn. The overhead light sparked off the ring on her left hand when she slid the saddle onto the rack in the tack room. Michelle paused for a moment to admire the blue and yellow flash as she turned her hand. The ring was small with a low profile, once Cale put the ring on her hand she had no intention of having to remove it to do everyday chores. A big flashy diamond just didn’t fit her lifestyle. Leave that to Stacey and George. She grinned. Served her brother right, hooking up with a fashion conscious woman. She hung the bridle on its hook and tossed the brushes into the grooming box. One last check before she turned out the lights and made her way across the yard to the house.
A chorus of barking greeted her when she stepped onto the porch. She pushed open the mud room door and released the hounds. Storm spun around in her three-legged dance while Crazy Puppy whirled in circles threatening to knock Michelle’s feet from under her.
“CP, settle down you crazy mutt!” The young male paid her no mind but continued his antics across the porch and into the yard. “Idiot.” Michelle sat on the top step of the broad porch and stroked Storm’s head as the black dog leaned against her leg. “Guess we can’t ask him to be the ring bearer, huh momma?” The woman giggled at the young dog capering in the gathering dusk.
Storm looked up with adoring eyes and thumped her tail. Ruffling the dog’s head one more time, Michelle got to her feet. “C’mon, CP. Let’s go.” The black and white dog galloped toward her and leaped onto the porch, skidding to a stop at the door. Storm whuffled in her throat and glanced up at the human as if to say, kids. “I know, Storm. He’ll grow up some day.” Michelle opened the door and let the dogs in, following them into the mud room and closing the door behind them.
The house was quiet and dark around her. She flicked on the light and crossed the kitchen to check the phone for messages. There was a new voice mail, Michelle put the kettle on to boil while waiting for the message to come up.
“Hello? Hello? I’m looking for…” The tiny voice cut out before finishing the sentence.
Her hand froze in mid-air reaching for a mug out of the cupboard. The voice was somehow familiar but she couldn’t place it. Warning bells rang in her head while her heart thundered in her chest. “Who is that?” she whispered. Whirling around, she ripped the phone from the stand and checked the caller ID. Private Number. “Damn it all to hell!” She replaced the phone in the charger. What is wrong with me? It’s just a wrong number, or some stupid telemarketer. There’s no reason to get all het up about it. Get a grip, Michelle.
Shoving the incident to the back of her mind, she turned off the boiling kettle and set about making the tea. She glanced at the clock wondering if she should call Mary and see if Cale was still at the vet clinic or out on a call. The sun was down now and stars pricked the night sky outside the big kitchen window. Headlights bounced on the gravel road across the coulee and her heart leaped in anticipation. Only to be disappointed when they turned into the Wilson homestead instead of continuing on around.
“Well, Stacey’ll be happy at least. George must be home from the rig.”
Leaving her tea on the table, Michelle got up and fixed a quick dinner. No telling when Cale would get home. Her gaze fell on the pile of papers and magazines on the counter. Wedding stuff. She twisted the ring on her left hand and frowned. It seemed like such a lot of fuss for just one day. Mary was like a pit bull with a bone about it all. Flowers, colours, a monogram for heaven’s sake. Who needed a monogram? The woman went on for an hour the other day about whether the M should be over the C or vice-versa. Michelle grinned at the memory of Mary’s reaction to her indifference.
Flowers would be nice, of course. But everything was so expensive, you’d think the flowers were made of gold. And a dress! Who in their right mind would spend over five grand on a dress that would only get worn once? She picked up one of the glossy magazines and flipped through it. “Not me,” she said aloud. “If I had my way I’d get married in jeans on horseback.”
“You know what they say about people talking to themselves.”
“Cale!” She dropped the magazine on the counter and spun around. Michelle launched herself across the room into his arms. “I didn’t see you come up the road.”
The dark haired vet kissed her soundly and extricated himself from her arms. “Is there anything to eat? I’m starved.”
“I just got home myself a little while ago. I can do something quick like wieners and beans, or do you want something more substantial?” Michelle kissed him on the cheek and proceeded to pull pans out of the cupboard.
“Beans sound good. I’m gonna go take a shower, okay?”
“Sure, go ahead, sweetie. By the time you’re done this’ll be ready.” Michelle put some hot dogs into the frying pan and turned on the burner beneath them. While the pan heated up, she dumped a can of beans into a sauce pan. Rolling the wieners with a fork she kept an eye on the other pot. Cooking hot dogs in a fry pan made Mary roll her eyes, but Michelle loved the crispy skin it produced, it reminded her of roasting them over an open fire where the skin split open in the blaze.
The old pipes clanked telling her Cale was finished in the shower. She turned off the burners and hurried to set the table. She was just adding glasses when he sauntered into the kitchen, the overhead light waking blue-black highlights in his wet hair. Even in sweat pants and an old T-shirt the sight of him turned her heart over. “Come and get it,” she called.
Cale slid into a chair and picked up the mug of tea Michelle left earlier. Taking a sip, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Michelle paused beside him with the fry pan in hand, he was working way too hard. Pushing himself to save Doc from putting in too many hours. She speared three crispy hot dogs onto his plate and put the remaining ones on her own.
“Cale, why don’t you call Carrie and see if she can come help out?” Michelle put the fry pan in the sink and brought the beans to the table.
“I don’t know if the practice can support another vet right now.” He shovelled food into his mouth.
“You’re working yourself to the bone, you’re not gonna do the practice any good if you make yourself sick too.” She frowned and waved her fork at him. “Call Carrie, or I will. Mary and I talked about it the other day and she thinks it’s a good idea.”
Cale snorted through his nose. “I can only imagine what Luke had to say about that.”
“Doc wasn’t part of the conversation,” she said primly. “He’s still recovering from that heart attack and Mary wants to go to Arizona before Christmas so he won’t be much help anyway.”
“I suppose…” Cale reached over and cut a thick slice of bread from the loaf on the table.
“It can’t hurt to ask her. I know the wedding isn’t til May but there’s a ton of things need doing and Christmas is coming,” Michelle prodded him.
“It’s only October for heaven’s sake. I’ve got enough to worry about without thinking about Christmas.”
“No kidding. When do you think Spud will be ready for his surgery? Poor guy, he’s going crazy on stall rest and hand walking. It’s been a while since the trailer accident.”
“I’ve got him pencilled in for next week.” He held up a warning hand. “It’ll depend on what the x-rays say. I took plates today.”
“Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“No sense getting your hopes up.” Cale got up to ladle a second helping of beans onto his plate and returned to the table.
“Well?” Michelle kicked him in the shin. “Is it a go?”
“Yeah, I think it’s time. I’m gonna get a second opinion before I go ahead, just to be sure. The owner is a cranky lady who’ll have my head on a stick if I mess this up.” Brilliant blue eyes grinned at her across the table.
“Moi? You wound me, sir. How could you even think such a thing?” She placed a hand over her heart and assumed an injured expression.
“I’ve seen you in action, my dear. I’d rather get between a mother bear and her cub than you and your horses.”
She got to her feet and wrapped her arms around him from behind, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. “I love you, Doctor Benjamin. Thank you for taking such good care of my pony.”
“Love you too, Chelly.” He pushed back from the table, shoving the chair out of the way to take her in his arms. “God, you smell good.” He inhaled deeply with his nose in her hair. “Horses, sage, and home.”
Michelle snuggled closer, resting her head on his chest. After all the craziness of the summer, things were finally starting to settle down and make sense. “Has Doc said anything to you about going to Arizona? I’m not sure Mary is gonna have much luck getting that old man to leave for long.”
Cale’s voice rumbled in his chest against her ear. “Not a word. Much as he needs the break, I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of him getting dragged off south of the border.”
“More’s the pity, I worry about the old coot.” She rubbed her cheek against his shirt.
“Me too.” His hand caressed the top of her head, slipping down to slide under the hair at her nape where his fingers massaged the cords in her neck.
“Mmmmm, that feels amazing.” She worked her hands up under his shirt, running her fingers over his ribs and up the hard planes of his back.
Pressure from his hand tipped her head back and she raised her lips to meet his. She lost herself in the sensation of his hands on her body and his lips skimming over her skin. Without lifting his head, he walked her toward the hallway, fingers tweaking the buttons of her shirt open.
“Cale, the dishes…” His mouth swallowed her words. “The dogs need to go out,” she tried again.
“Dishes will be there in the morning.” Her shirt slipped to the floor. “Dogs can wait.” Her bra followed the shirt.
“Cale…” He swept her up in his arms and headed down the hall toward the bedroom. Storm and CP trailing behind.
“Shut up, woman and kiss me.” His voice, low and husky, sent shivers over her skin.
Dark clouds bunched and crowded the northern skies while the wind whipped dirt devils down the lane in front of the pickup. Storm rested her chin on the window frame and whined. Michelle reached over and smoothed a hand over the wide black head. Crazy Puppy, not to be excluded, stood on the flipped down divider between the front seats and licked the driver’s cheek.
“Get down, idiot dog.” She pushed him back into the rear seat. Frowning, she glanced at the lowering cloud bank in the rearview mirror. There was weather brewing, no doubt about that. The prairies could use the moisture, but the timing was terrible. Mary and Doc’s Hallowe’en party was tonight. Michelle changed the radio station to the all-news channel hoping to catch the weather report before she got home.
Turning off the highway onto the gravel she eased off on the gas at bit. Tumbleweed rolled across the road reminding her of a herd of sheep running like lemmings. Wind rocked the truck peppering it with dirt and whatever else got picked up in the gusts. “Looks like its blowin’ a gale, as Grampa used to say,” Michelle addressed her canine companions. What light that leaked through the clouds and dust faded rapidly. The year was closing in, days shortening perceptibly each day as the season wound down toward the winter solstice. On this, the last day of October, the pickup’s headlights came on at five-thirty in the afternoon.
The announcer’s voice cut out to indicate an incoming call.
“Michelle? Where are you?”
“Hey, Cale. I’m almost to Pekisko. The horses in Vulcan took a bit longer than I thought. I shouldn’t be too much longer. Are you still at the clinic?”
“On my way home now. Carrie’s on call tonight, but if it gets crazy I’ll have to jump in.”
“Let’s hope it’s a slow night and Carrie can enjoy the party too. Can you get the eggs for me? It’ll save some time when I get home.”
“Sure, but those hens like you a whole lot bettern’ they like me. I’ll do my best.” He laughed.
“I’ll see you’re rewarded richly for braving the attack of the chicken girls,” she teased.
“I’m gonna hold you to it.” He paused.
“You still there?” Michelle glanced at the small screen in the dash.
“Yeah. Did you talk to Kayla today?”
“No, why? Something wrong?” She frowned and concentrated on the road where it took a sharp bend.
“She came by the clinic looking for you earlier. Said it wasn’t important, but I kinda got the impression it was.”
“Well, her and Rob will probably be at Mary’s shindig so I’ll see her there. Gonna let you go, sweetie. It’s darker than heck and starting to rain. No wait, maybe it’s snow. Love you.”
“Drive careful, Michelle. Love you too.”
The announcer’s voice filled the cab as the connection cut off. “A special weather statement has been issued for areas south of Calgary in the foothills. Rain turning to wet snow accompanied by wind gusts up to seventy kilometres are expected over the next few hours.”
“Lovely,” she muttered. Rain lashed the windshield as the sky opened. Michelle leaned forward to peer through the water sluicing down the glass. It took forever to reach the junction of 540 and 22. The headlights fought a losing battle against the storm when she turned north. Just another twenty kliks or so. The black night became starred with white sleet whipped by the gusts. A glance at the dash told her the temperature was dropping.
The phone rang again just as she was turning off the highway onto the gravelled township road toward the ranch. The caller ID was Kayla. Refusing to take her attention off the road conditions, Michelle ignored it. Whatever it was would just have to wait til later.
The gleam of lights at George and Stacey’s were barely visible when she passed the lane. They must still be home, maybe they were going to take a pass on Mary’s party. Flexing fingers stiff from gripping the wheel, Michelle drove through the ranch gate and parked as close to the porch as she could get. She stepped out and let Storm jump down while she opened the rear door. Crazy Puppy bowled past her. Michelle shook her head as she scooped up her equipment bag and slammed the door. The dogs waited by the mud room door, Storm patiently, CP not so much, dancing in circles and barking.
Yellow light spilled onto the porch boards, Cale haloed by the illumination behind him stood in the open door. “What a night.” He held the door for the dogs and kissed her as she ducked under his arm into the house. “You still want to go into town tonight?”
She paused to shed her wet jacket and hung it on a hook, shucking her mucky boots in the process. Snow pelted the windows softly splatting in counterpoint to the howl of the wind. “I promised Mary we’d be there. It’ll just take me a minute to shower and change.” She halted and turned back with one foot over the threshold of the kitchen. “You still want to go, don’t you?”
Cale shrugged. “If you do. It’s been a long day, but I’ve got tomorrow off if all goes according to plan.”
“Good!” She flashed him a grin and hurried through the kitchen, down the hall and up the stairs to the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later she danced through the kitchen door in a red dress with flirty handkerchief hem floating around her. “Like it?” She twirled around for better effect. Cale caught her around the waist and whirled them across the floor before kissing her soundly. “I take it that’s a yes?”
“That’s a hell, yeah.” He grinned. “You sure you want to go to this party thing? I can think of other things we could do to while away the evening.” He kissed her nose and pulled her close.
“That’s a very tempting offer, Doctor Benjamin. But I did promise Mary and we’re already late. You hold that thought til later though, okay?” Michelle wriggled out of his arms and headed to the mud room door. “C’mon, times a’wasting.”
“If you insist.” Cale shrugged and followed her out. “Now that’s a pretty sight.” He stopped and leaned on the door frame.
“What?” Michelle looked up from pulling on knee high heavy boots. “It’s snowing like crazy out there.”
“Just sayin’, that’s quite the fashion statement. All the best dressed ladies in Calgary will be waltzing through Bankers Hall in a pair of those.” He ducked to avoid the cowboy boot she hurled at his head.
“Easy for you to say. You can just wear your boots, I’ve got these fancy things.” She waved a pair of strappy sparkly shoes in his direction. “Not exactly snow wear.”
Laughing, Cale held her good coat out for her to slip into. “I could carry milady to her chariot?” he suggested.
“Not hardly.” She turned and kissed him before snugging the scarf around his neck. “But thanks for the offer.”
Cale shrugged into his own coat and opened the door on the wild night. Wet snow was already accumulated on the boards of the porch and blanketed the vehicles. Michelle wrapped the long coat tighter around her and headed for Cale’s truck. He opened the passenger door for her and put a hand under her elbow to help her in, shutting the door behind her. She settled herself and wrestled with the seatbelt, shivering at the icy blast that accompanied Cale as he joined her in the cab.
It took almost twenty minutes to navigate the roads into Longview from the ranch. The white steepled United Church looked picture postcard perfect in the falling snow. For a moment Michelle allowed herself to imagine walking down the aisle in May. Somehow it didn’t seem real, like it was happening to someone else and not her. All her childhood dreams centred around Rob Chetwynd, she’d always planned to get married on the ranch under a bower of flowers. Well, dreams change. She reached over and squeezed Cale’s hand. He glanced at her with a grin and squeezed back before concentrating on the road again.
Light spilled onto the sidewalks of town, the parking lot of the Twin Cities was full. A little snow wasn’t going to keep the boys from their Friday night fun. In spite of the stormy weather and the lateness of the hour a few trick or treat stragglers were still on the streets. Cale turned down into the back lane behind the clinic and wedged the pickup into a small spot among the vehicles already there.
“That’s Rob’s truck, so Kayla must be here. I’ll have to see why she’s been calling me all day.” Michelle stepped down from the truck and picked her way along the path to the back door of the house. Next door, two of Storm’s half-grown puppies barked from Harvey’s kitchen window. The two of them standing with paws on the sill looking out and proclaiming their displeasure at being excluded from the festivities.
“Chelly, Cale! Glad you could make it.” Doc took their coats and disappeared to deposit them in the spare room. “Mary! Chelly and Cale are here,” his voice cut across the babble of conversation.
Cale twined his fingers with hers and drew her through the kitchen toward the living room. Michelle leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment before they joined the fun. Doc appeared with a beer in each hand. He handed one to each of them. “First one’s on me, after this, you know where they are,” he said before moving off to greet newcomers at the front door.
“Mary sure knows how to throw a party, don’t she?” Harvey greeted her. “Good thing that woman’s already spoken for or I’d have to marry her meself.” The confirmed bachelor chuckled at his own joke and wandered off toward the bar.
“Michelle! Glad you could make it.” Mary engulfed her in a huge hug. “You too, Cale.” The older woman smiled at him over Michelle’s shoulder. “You look…” She released Michelle and held her at arms’ length.
“I look what?” She frowned and smoothed the skirt of her dress.
“You look very un-Michelle-like.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” Michelle shot Cale a quelling look as he struggled not to laugh. “Stifle, if you know what’s good for you,” she warned.
“Run along, Cale. Before you get in trouble.” Mary shooed him away and took her friend’s arm. “Yes, my dear, it’s a compliment. You look lovely. I’m just so used to seeing you in jeans and a shirt with horse shit on your boots, this is a nice change.”
“Thank you, I think.” She let the older woman steer her toward the fireplace. “Is Kayla here somewhere? She’s been trying to get a hold of me all day.”
“She was asking after you earlier, but I don’t know where she is right this minute. Now tell me, have you decided on a dress for the wedding yet? Bridesmaids? Maid of Honour?’ Mary’s eye’s sparkled. “Don’t keep an old woman in suspense, it’s not good for the heart.”
“You’ll outlive us all, woman.” Michelle sat carefully on the big armchair by the fire, mindful of the frothy skirts of the dress. “I haven’t got a clue what kind of dress I want. It would be so much easier if I could just wear jeans and be done with it.”
“We’ll see about that. No jeans!” Mary patted her hand. “Now, bridesmaids? Who are you thinking of? Stacey? I can’t imagine you’ll feel comfortable asking Kayla…”
“Honestly, Mary. I have no idea. Cale hasn’t decided how many attendants he wants, so that’ll determine how many I need to come up with.”
“Michelle! You make it sound like a big chore. We’re talking about what is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.”
“I know, I know. I just hate all the fuss and being the centre of attention. I’ll be happy when it’s over. I just want to marry Cale and live happily ever after.”
“So, bridesmaids?” Mary prompted.
“Okay, okay. You’re like a dog with a bone, for heaven’s sake. I thought maybe Allie, we room together a lot on the road, Pat…if Cale decides to ask George to stand up for him I’ll have to ask Stacey. I might anyway. If I need another, Sara from high school might agree to do it.”
“Who do you want as your Maid of Honour? That’s kind of important, you know.”
Michelle leaned her head on the back of the chair. “No idea. You could do it, couldn’t you?”
“Me? I thought I was standing in for Mother of the Bride?”
“You’ve been more of a mother than my own ever was. Couldn’t you do double duty? Please?” She took Mary’s hands in hers.
“If it’s what you want. But, really, you should have a young’un, someone closer to your own age.”
“Age, schmage. It’s settled, you’re my Matron of Honour. I want Doc to give me away. Lord, that’s an awful phrase. Like I’m just a bit of property being handed from one man to another.”
“Let’s just say ‘walk with you down the aisle’ then, shall we. Luke will be thrilled. Have you asked him yet?”
“No, there’s plenty of time. We’re not getting married until May.”
“Wait and see, time will fly by. We need to have all our ducks in a row. There’s always unexpected things that come up.”
“I’ll ask him once this Hallowe’en nonsense is over. Look at some of those costumes, you never told me people were dressing up.”
“I just left it up to everyone to decide. I’m way too old to bother with it. I really should go and mingle, check on the food and nibbles. And, there’s Eva. I haven’t had a chance to say more than hi to her. You go find Cale and have yourself some fun.” Mary slid off her perch on the arm of the chair and bustled off.
Michelle finished her beer and went in search of another, along with some of Doc’s famous meatballs in sauce which would be centre stage in the assortment of food on the big dining room table. Cale was nowhere in sight as she picked her way across the crowded room. Her progress was slow, stopping to chat with friends on the way. The gathering was an eclectic mix of young and old, a cross section of small town community. Harvey was holding court in one corner regaling his cronies with tales of his dogs’ exploits. Michelle hoped he was embroidering his tale and that the mutts weren’t really that incorrigible.
She slipped through the swinging door into the relative quiet of the kitchen, although in true western fashion the room was also a centre of conversation. A hotly contested card game was taking place at the table and a group of men lounged against the counter by the coffee maker. After pausing to exchange some banter with the men, she snagged a long neck out of the fridge and went back to the main room.
Piano chords quieted the chatter for a moment when Mary settled at her beloved upright. Michelle drifted over to join the group gathering around her. Sing-a-longs were a hall mark of Cassidy parties. She glanced around for Stacey and George, but wasn’t surprised to find them absent. The couple tended to stick close to home when he got back from a hitch. I wonder where the hell Kayla is? The pretty blonde should stand out even in this crowd. The woman was drop dead gorgeous. On second thought maybe I should ask her to be a bridesmaid. Take the attention off me. A self-depreciating smile tweaked her lips. Be interesting to find out what’s so all fired important she needed to talk to me about.
Deciding Kay would find her eventually, Michelle dismissed the worry and gave herself over to enjoying joining her voice with the others in the well-known old favourites. Mary’s tastes ran to everything from bluegrass to pop. She giggled her way through Brother, Where Art Though and the Wabash Cannonball. As usual, she choked back tears and couldn’t finish singing Old Shep. Damn song got to her every time. Cale joined her, sliding an arm around her waist. She smiled up at him and leaned against his solid warmth.
“I don’t see Carrie, did she get called out?”
He bent closer to hear her. “Not that I know of. I think she’s talking to Red Hanson, at least that’s the last time I saw her.”
“That’s good. It’s a dirty night out there.” She glanced out the large picture window where the snow had turned to sleety rain.
“It is that. Good night to be inside surrounded by friends.” He dropped a kiss on her head.
Someone tugged on her elbow. “Michelle?”
“Kayla, I was looking for you earlier. What’s up?”
The blonde glanced at Cale and dropped her eyes. “I need to talk to you…”
Cale fished his phone out of his pocket at the same time. “I gotta take this, Michelle. Sorry.” He moved off to a somewhat quieter corner, a frown creasing his handsome face.
“What’s wrong?” She turned back to Kayla.
“Have you seen Rob today? Oh, damn it, here she comes.” The woman’s faced paled.
“Who?” Michelle craned her neck to see.
“Kayla.” Mrs. Chetwynd bore down on them. “Where’s Rob, I’ve been calling him all day and he won’t answer. What have you done to upset him this time?” The wiry little woman glared at her daughter-in-law.
“I have no idea where he is. He’s not answering me either,” she responded.
“So what did you do?” Mrs. Chetwynd demanded. “I thought you were making sure he went to rehab, kept up with his AA sponsor. That’s your responsibility as his wife.” She poked Kayla in the chest with a stiff finger.
The woman moved back away from the assault. Tears shone in her blue eyes. A stab of sympathy shot through Michelle. There but for the grace of God, go I. I should be thanking Rob for dumping me. She caught Doc’s eye across the room and motioned him over. Here comes the cavalry. The old vet bulled his way across the room, clearing a path through the chaos. He raised a shaggy eyebrow toward Caroline Chetwynd. Michelle nodded imperceptibly. No way did she want Caroline’s wrath turned on her.
“Caroline, how are you.” Doc put an arm around the woman’s shoulders and drew her away from the two younger women. “Come along now, let me get a cup of that special tea you and my wife seem to like so much.” He glanced back over his shoulder and Michelle gave him a thumbs up and a thankful smile.
“Now, what’s wrong?” She turned back to Kayla. “Rob fall off the wagon again?”
“I don’t know,” her voice trembled with emotion. “He’s been gone since yesterday, nobody’s seen him. At least nobody that will admit to it, anyway.”
“Did you check the Twin Cities? No never mind, of course you did.”
“There and every bar from Nanton to Okotoks. I’m tired of looking and honestly, I don’t know what to do if I find him.”
“I can understand that, he can be mean when he’s drinking.”
“What do I do, Michelle? You know him better than anyone. Hell, according to his mother if he’d married you like he was supposed to, he wouldn’t have any reason to drown his sorrows, as she puts it.”
“You can’t believe that, Kayla. You, me, it wouldn’t matter.”
“How did you manage him when you were together?” She stopped and blushed. “I know I don’t really have the right to ask you that, not after what happened…”
“Forget it. Looking back I know I was stupid. All the time I thought we were happy and he was being faithful to me when he was whoring around with whatever little buckle bunny caught his eye. And to be honest, we were both younger then, and a lot wilder. At least I was, he’s still wild as a March hare. The way he’s behaving, I’m not sure I ever knew him.”
“You’re my last hope. I was really banking on some advice from you. I’m at my wit’s end, what with him blowing hot and cold, and Caroline just waiting for him to get rid of me. Truth is, I’m about ready to admit I made the biggest mistake of my life and cut my losses.”
“Things haven’t really gotten better since last Christmas? I thought you guys were working things out.”
“I thought so too. For a while. But then I lost the baby and he acts like he’s the only one that’s hurting. I’m the one who was pregnant, I’m the one who couldn’t carry the baby to term. It’s like my heart got ripped out and then Rob stomped on it, just to make sure I felt like crap.”
Michelle hugged her and drew her out of the living room, down the hall toward the deserted entryway. “I’m sorry, Kayla. It must be hard. Rob’s always been all about Rob, he’s kind of oblivious to other peoples’ problems. I’m sorry it’s been so hard for you.”
“Thanks.” She sniffed back tears and wiped her cheeks. “I just feel like they gang up on me, him and his mom.” Kayla hesitated and looked down at her clenched hands. “I talked to a lawyer in Calgary yesterday. I haven’t told anyone except you. My parents will be overjoyed if it happens. They love to tell me they told me so from the start.” She sighed and looked up. “Maybe they’re right.”
“Do you love him?” Michelle took the cold hands in hers. “Are you ready to live your life without him?”
“Yes, no, I don’t know.” A weak smile crossed her features. “Of course I love him, or I’d have been gone long ago. Somehow I just can’t make myself take that final step and leave.”
“Well, that’s more than he deserves, the way he’s acting. When he does decide to show up, get him sober and read him the riot act. Make him realize you’re serious about things having to change. He loves you, Kayla. More than he ever thought he loved me. If anyone can make him happy, it’s you.”
“Thanks, Michelle. You’re kinder than I deserve.”
Cale waved to her from the living room and tapped his watch. “I gotta go, Kay. Call me if you need to talk.” She hugged her and turned to leave. “One more thing, tell Caroline Chetwynd to back off and make it plain to your husband he needs to take your side in things. You’re tough, you can do it.”
Leaving the blonde with a bemused expression on her face, Michelle made her way through the crowd to Cale. “Mary’s got a huge piñata she wants to get bashed open. Do you want to stay or head for home?” His breath tickled her ear.
“I’m ready for home if you are.”
“I’ll just let Doc know we’re off then.” Cale left her for a moment.
Michelle found Mary in the crowd. “We’re heading out now. You’ll have to beat your piñata without me.”
“Take care of yourself. Drive safe. Oh, did you find Kayla?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you about it tomorrow. Keep Caroline away from her if you can, and if Rob decides to show up have someone take him out back and beat some sense into him.” She hugged the older woman.
“I’ll do what I can. Bye, sweetie.”
“Michelle, you coming?” Cale hailed her from the kitchen door.
“Coming,” she called back and joined him. Together they gathered up their coats and boots and headed out into the cold night.
Cale closed the door after she scrambled in. He ducked in the driver side a second later, dark hair wet and sleek as a seal. She waved the strappy sandals in her left hand at him. “My barn boots aren’t looking so stupid now are they?” She giggled.
“Without a doubt Michelle Wilson, soon to be Benjamin, you are a true fashion statement.” The diesel engine roared to life and he cranked the heat up. “Let’s get home and let those mutts out for a pee. I’m ready for bed, been a long day.”
One hand smothered a yawn as he pulled out onto the highway. Michelle turned her head to survey the vehicles in the Twin Cities lot as they headed south. The huddle of pickups and cars was too dark and muddled for her to make anything out.
“What’re you looking for?” Cale glanced at her. “Got anything to do with the conversation with Kayla?”
“She doesn’t know where Rob’s got himself off to and wondered if I’d heard from him.”
“Have you?” He quirked an eyebrow in her direction but didn’t take his attention from the wet pavement.
“Not hardly. I’d have told you if I did. I’m done bailing him out.”
“I hope that’s true. That you’re done running to his rescue.”
Michelle punched him lightly in the arm. “Idiot. After the trouble he caused last spring, he can go whistle.”
“Glad to hear it.” He smiled at her as he slowed to navigate the turn onto the gravel road. They rode in silence for a while, the storm whining around the truck. Lights still showed in the upper story of her childhood home when they rounded the end of the coulee. Michelle grinned.
“Looks like Stacey and my brother are having a quiet night at home.”
“She’s really happy, Chelle. George makes her happier than I’ve ever seen her. I’m just worried…” Cale drove under the Chetwynd Ranch sign and parked by the house.
Michelle scootched around to face him after releasing the seatbelt. “What are you so worried about? She’s big girl.”
“She is. I just don’t know what’ll happen if your love’em and leave’em brother dumps her.”
“He does have a track record,” she agreed. “But, this is different. He’s never moved one into the house before, or stuck with anyone this long. I’m half expecting the sky to fall and hear he’s asked her to marry him.”
“Do you think? Heart’s would be breaking all over southern Alberta from what I hear.” Cale leaned over and kissed her nose.
“Probably.” She giggled. “I’m freezing in this dress, c’mon, we can talk about shit inside.” Hugging the long coat tighter around her, she slid down and hurried to the porch. Cale was right on her heels and opened the door for her. “First thing on your list of chores around here is to change that damn sign over the gate. You hear? This is your place now, the Benjamin Ranch or whatever you want to call it. Hell, take the stupid sign down and just leave the elk head up there.”
“Not my place, our place. We’ll call it whatever you want, of nothing if that’s what you prefer.” Cale steadied her while she wrestled with the long coat and the dress to get her tall boots off. Slinging her good coat over his arm along with his, he followed her into the welcome warmth of the kitchen.
Storm and Crazy Puppy danced in circles, well CP danced and yowled, Storm contented herself with hopping on her one front leg. “I’ll let them out and watch for them. You go on to bed.”
“Sure, you just want me to warm up the sheets for you.”
“There’s that. If you get too cold, I’ll just have to think of a way to warm you up.” He sent her a devilish smile that set her heart racing as he exited with the dogs.
Leaving the kitchen light on for him, Michelle padded down the hall in her stocking feet. Stupid pantyhose did nothing to keep a girl warm, she reflected. She only turned on the lamp by the bed rather than the overhead light. Depositing her fancy shoes in the back of the closet she slipped out of the red dress and hung it carefully away from the everyday clothes that dominated the space. She thought about removing the sexy red underwear bought with that particular dress in mind and decided against it. Sliding between the cold sheets, breath hissed through her lips. Cale would just have to warm her up some before she’d let him remove them. Smiling, she snuggled under the duvet and listened for the scrabble of paws and the sound of his footsteps coming down the hall.