THE MCCAFFERTYS! WHY IN THE world did her meeting have to be with the damned McCafferty brothers?
Jamie Parsons braked hard and yanked on the steering wheel as she reached the drive of her grand-mother's small farm. Her wheezing compact turned too quickly. Tires spun in the snow that covered the two ruts where dry weeds had the audacity to poke through the blanket of white.
The cottage, in desperate need of repairs and paint, seemed quaint now, like some fairy-tale version of Grandma's house.
It had been, she thought as she grabbed her briefcase and overnight bag, then plowed through three inches of white powder to the back door. She found the extra key over the window ledge where her grandmother, Nita, had always kept it. "Just in case, Jamie," she'd always explained in her raspy, old-lady voice. "We don't want to be locked out now, do we?"
No, Nana, we sure don't. Jamie's throat constricted when she thought of the woman who had taken in a wild, rebellious teenager; opened her house and her heart to a girl whose parents had given up on her. Nana hadn't batted an eye, just told her, from the time she stepped over the front threshold with her two suitcases, one-eyed teddy bear and an attitude that wouldn't quit, that things were going to change. From that moment forward, Jamie was to abide by her rules and that was that.
Not that they'd always gotten along.
Not that Jamie hadn't done everything imaginable behind the woman's broad back.
Not that Jamie hadn't tried every trick in the book to get herself thrown out of the only home she'd ever known.
Nana, a God-fearing woman who could cut her only granddaughter to the quick with just one glance, had never given up. Unlike everyone else in Jamie's life.
Now the key turned easily, and Jamie walked into the kitchen. It smelled musty, the black-and-white tiles covered in dust, the old Formica-topped table with chrome legs still pushed against the far wall that sloped sharply due to the stairs running up the other side of the house from the foyer. The salt and pepper shakers, in the shape of kittens, had disappeared from the table, as had all other signs of life. There were light spots in the wall, circular patches of clean paint where one of the antique dishes Nana had displayed with pride had been taken down and given to some relative somewhere in accordance with Nita's will. A dried cactus in a plastic pot had been forgotten and pushed into a corner of the counter where once there had been a toaster. The gingham curtains were now home to spiders whose webs gathered more dust.
If Nana had been alive, she would have had a fit. This kitchen had always gleamed. "Cleanliness is next to godliness," she'd preached while pushing a broom, or polishing a lamp, or scrubbing a sink. And Nana had known about godliness; she'd read her Bible every evening, never missed a Sunday sermon and taught Sunday school to teenagers.
God, Jamie missed her.
The bulk of Nana's estate, which consisted of this old house, the twenty acres surrounding it and a 1940 Chevrolet parked in the old garage, had been left to Jamie. It was Nana's dream that Jamie settle down here in Grand Hope, live in the little cottage, get married and have half a dozen great-grandchildren for her to spoil. "Sorry," Jamie said out loud as she dropped her bags on the table and ran a finger through the fine layer of dust that had collected on the chipped Formica top. "I just never got around to it."
She glanced at the sink where she envisioned her short, round grandmother with her gray permed hair, thick waist and heavy arms. Nita Parsons would have been wearing her favorite tattered apron. In the summertime she would have been putting up peaches and pears or making strawberry jam. This time of year she would have been baking dozens upon dozens of tiny Christmas cookies that she meticulously iced and decorated before giving boxes of the delicacies to friends and relatives. Nana's old yellow-and-white spotted cat, Lazarus, would have been doing figure eights and rubbing up against Nita's swollen ankles, and she would have complained now and again about the arthritis that had invaded her fingers and shoulders.
"Oh, Nana," Jamie whispered, glancing out the window to the snow-crusted yard. Thorny, leafless brambles scaled the wire fence surrounding the garden plot. The henhouse had nearly collapsed. The small barn was still standing, though the roof sagged and the remaining weed-strewn pasture was thankfully hidden beneath the blanket of white.
Nana had loved it here, and Jamie intended to clean it up and list it with a local real estate company.
She glanced at her watch and walked outside to the back porch. She couldn't waste any more time thinking maudlin, nostalgic thoughts. She had too much to do, including meeting with the McCafferty brothers.
Boy, and won't that be a blast? She carried in her bags and, despite the near-zero weather, opened every window on the first floor to air out the house. Then she climbed up the steep wooden stairs to her bedroom tucked under the eaves. It was as she'd left it years ago, with the same hand-pieced quilt tossed over the spindle bed. She opened the shades and window and looked past the naked branches of an oak tree to the county road that passed this stretch of farmland. All in all, the area hadn't changed much. Though the town of Grand Hope had grown, Nana had lived far enough outside the city limits that the fast lane hadn't quite reached her.
Jamie unpacked. She hung some clothes in the old closet, the rest she stowed in the top two drawers of an antique bureau. She didn't allow her mind to drift back to the year and a half she'd lived with Nana, the best time of her life...and the worst. For the first time in her seventeen years she'd understood the meaning of unconditional love, given her by an elderly woman with sparkling gold eyes, rimless glasses and a wisdom that spanned nearly seven decades. Yet Jamie had also experienced her first love and heartbreak compliments of Slade-the-bastard-McCafferty.
And whoop-de-do, she probably was going to meet him again this very afternoon. Life was just chock-full of surprises. And sometimes they weren't for the best.
It took two hours to check in the barn and find that Caesar, Nana's old gelding, was waiting for her. A roan with an ever-graying nose, Caesar was more than twenty years old, but his eyes were bright and clear, and from the shine on his winter coat, Jamie knew that the neighbors had been taking care of him.
"Bet you still get lonely, though, eh, boy?" she asked, seeing to his water and feed and taking in the smell of him and the small, dusty barn. He nickered softly, and Jamie's eyes burned with unshed tears. How could she ever sell him? "We had some good times together, you and I, didn't we? Got into our share of trouble."
She cleared her throat and found a brush to run over his shoulders and back as memories of racing him across the wide expanse of Montana grassland flashed through her eyes. She even rode him to the river where he waded into the deeper water and swam across, all at the urging of Slade McCafferty. Jamie had never forgotten the moment of exhilaration as Caesar had floated with the current. Slade's blue eyes had danced, and he'd showed her a private deer trail where they'd stopped and smoked forbidden cigarettes.
Her heart twisted at the memory. "Yep, you're quite a trooper," she told the horse. "I'll be back. Soon." Hurrying into the house, determined to leave any memory of Slade behind her, she worked for the next two hours getting the ancient old furnace running, turning on the water, adjusting the temperature of the water heater, then stripping her bed only to make it again with sheets that had been packed away in a cedar chest. She smiled sadly as she stretched the soft percale over the mattress. It smelled slightly of lavender—Nana's favorite scent.
Again her heart ached. God, she missed her grandmother, the one person in the world she could count on. Rather than tackle any serious cleaning, she set up a makeshift office in the dining room compliments of her laptop computer and a modem; she only had to call the phone company and set up service again; then, she could link to the office in Missoula.
She checked her watch. She had less than an hour before she was to sit down with Thorne, Matt and Slade McCafferty. The Flying M ranch was nearly twenty miles away.
"Better get a move on, Parsons," she told herself though her stomach was already clenched in tight little knots at the thought of coming face-to-face with Slade again. It was ridiculous, really. How could something that happened so long ago still bother her?
She'd been over Slade McCafferty for years. Years. Seeing him again would be no problem at all, just another day in a lawyer's life, the proverbial walk in the park. Right? So why, then, the tightness in her chest, the acceleration of her heartbeat, the tiny beads of sweat gathering under her scalp on this cold day? For crying out loud, she was acting like an adolescent, and that just wouldn't do. Not at all.
Back up the stairs.
She changed from jeans and her favorite old sweater to a black suit with a silk blouse and knee-high boots, then wound her hair into a knot she pinned to the top of her head, and gazed at her reflection in the mirror above the antique dresser. It had been nearly fifteen years since she'd seen Slade McCafferty, and in those years she'd blossomed from a fresh-faced, angry eighteen-year-old with something to prove to a full-grown adult who'd worked two jobs to get through college and eventually earned a law degree.
The woman in the reflection was confident, steady and determined, but beneath the image, Jamie saw herself as she had been: heavier, angrier, the new-girl-in-town with a bad attitude and even worse reputation.
A nest of butterflies erupted in her stomach at the thought of dealing with Slade again, but she told herself she was being silly, reliving those melodramatic teenage years. Which was just plain nuts! Angry with herself, she pulled on black gloves and a matching wool coat, grabbed her briefcase and purse, and was down the stairs and out Nana's back door in nothing flat. She trudged through the snow to her little car, carrying her briefcase as if it were some kind of shield. Lord, she was a basket case. So she had to face Slade McCafferty again.