Excerpt from JACKSON HOLE VALENTINE
Margaret Fisher glanced around the attorney's waiting room, her heart fluttering like a hummingbird on steroids. Too nervous to concentrate on the magazine in her lap, she took a couple of deep breaths and let her gaze linger on her surroundings.
The random width plank floor made from exotic woods added visual appeal while the muted tan-colored walls provided the perfect foil for the "artwork" in the room. Like many businesses in Jackson Hole, the designer had carried the cowboy theme a bit too far for her liking. Ryan Harcourt's rodeo awards were featured prominently on the wall and a well-oiled saddle sat on display in one corner.
Despite Ryan having graduated from a prestigious east coast law school, there was not a diploma in sight. Margaret assumed there would be one in his office. It didn't surprise her to see him focus on his roots in the outer waiting area. In Jackson Hole, the majority of his clients would relate better to his rodeo background than to his Ivy League education.
The young attorney—and former champion bull rider—was well known to Margaret. He'd been a classmate of hers at Jackson Hole High School as well as a close friend of Margaret's boyfriend, Cole Lassiter. Not boyfriend, she corrected herself. Cole was simply the jerk who acted as if he loved her, took her virginity and then unceremoniously dumped her, all without taking her on a single "date."
It had been years since she'd seen Cole. She'd half-expected their paths to cross at the funeral. After all, growing up he and Joy had been next-door neighbors. Margaret had also heard he stopped in to see Joy and Ty whenever he was in town. But then, Cole hadn't bothered to come to her parents' funeral so it hadn't surprised her when he didn't show. Respect didn't seem to be a word in his vocabulary.
"Charlie, would you like to play with these?" Lexi Delacourt, the social worker seated to Margaret's right, opened the large colorful bag and let the child she'd brought with her peer inside.
Margaret smiled as the boy's eyes brightened, and she pushed aside the old memories. There were more important things to think about today. Cole was the past. Today was about her future. Just like it had been when she'd sat in the attorney's office on her seventeenth birthday. That day she'd been with her seven siblings. The normal laughter and joking that always occurred when they were all in the same room had been noticeably absent.
It was understandable, of course. They'd been stressed and grieving. Anxious about what was going to happen to them now that their parents had died. She wondered if Charlie had that same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach she'd had back then.
She cast a sideways glance at the little boy who was now lining up plastic dinosaurs on the rough-hewn top of the wooden trunk coffee table. The six-year-old was the son of Margaret's childhood friend, Joy and her husband, Ty.
Now they were both gone, killed in an accident only weeks before Christmas near Brown's curve on Route 22. The same stretch of Jackson Hole roadway where her folks had died.
It's not fair.
Tears stung the back of Margaret's eyes. Though she hadn't seen as much of her friend as she'd have liked since leaving Wyoming fifteen years ago, thanks to the Internet and cell phones, she and Joy had remained close confidantes and friends.
Without warning Charlie jumped up from the brown-and-white cowhide sofa, his boots making a loud thud on the floor.
"I'm gonna look at the fish," he announced to Lexi when she cast him a questioning look.
He crossed the room looking adorable in his blue chambray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He'd been wearing something similar in the picture Joy had emailed Margaret last summer, the one taken at the Lil' Buckeroo Rodeo in Pinedale.
Charlie had been a much loved child. Her friend had embraced motherhood and Ty had doted on his son. Both wanted more children, but for some reason Joy had been unable to get pregnant again. They'd been trying since Charlie turned two and this past year had started expensive fertility treatments.
Margaret could understand why her friends had wanted more children. She'd fallen under Charlie's sweet spell when she'd returned to Jackson Hole last Christmas for the christening of her brother's twin babies. She'd been thrilled for Travis and at the same time envious of the way his life had so happily fallen into place. Before leaving town she'd stopped and spent time with Joy and her family.
When it came time for her to leave, Charlie had wrapped his arms around her and given her a kiss. Looping an arm around his waist, Margaret had teased Joy that she was taking him with her. But, as always, she'd left Wyoming alone, single seat on the aisle.
"They're ginormous." Charlie whirled around, his eyes wide with awe.
"Super big," Margaret agreed then sighed when he turned back to the aquarium. She'd once hoped to have a husband to love and a child just like Charlie to cherish. But she was already in her early thirties and that dream was looking less likely with each passing year.
As a physical therapist who dealt primarily with stroke patients, Margaret didn't have much opportunity to meet eligible men at work. And she'd never been one for the bar scene. To complicate matters, most of her friends were married. Of course, she reminded herself, if she'd been willing to exchange vows with a man she liked and respected but wasn't madly in love with, she'd be married, too.
But last year, after much soul-searching, she broke it off with her fiancé. She hadn't regretted her decision. Okay, maybe a couple of times on dark, lonely nights when she remembered how good he'd been to her and feared she'd simply been expecting too much. After all, they'd gotten along well and had fun when they were together. Did "madly in love" really have to be part of the equation?
Then she'd run into him and his new girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. The way they looked at each other told her she'd been right to call off the wedding. Not only for her sake but for his. Everyone deserved to be loved with such passion.
"Me an' my dad used to go fishing," Charlie said, gazing at the tank. "Mommy would sometimes come, too. But daddy had to put the worm on the hook for her."
"That was nice of him." Lexi said. "You had a nice daddy."
Having Lexi overseeing Charlie's case felt almost like having a family member involved. When the attractive social worker with the sleek brown bob had introduced herself, she'd mentioned she was a good friend of Margaret's older brother, Travis, a local OB-GYN.
Margaret knew Travis and his wife, Mary Karen, had a group of close knit friends. Like Lexi, all were married with children. Margaret sighed. Sometimes it felt as if everyone had the life she wanted…except her.
"Have you seen the will?" Lexi asked in a low tone leaning over the arm of her chair.
Margaret shook her head. "But I have a good idea what's in it."
At the funeral, when Ryan asked her to come to his office for the reading, she hadn't been surprised by the request. Last year, when one of their high school classmates had died of cancer, Joy had broached the subject of Margaret raising Charlie if anything should happen to her and Ty. She'd been flattered but wondered why Joy wouldn't want her child raised by family.
Joy had informed her she'd already approached her parents. Apparently they'd stammered and offered a whole litany of excuses—they'd retired to Florida because of Larry's health, the gated community they'd just settled into didn't allow children, it would be best for Charlie to remain in familiar surroundings…
Margaret's heart had ached for her friend. All these years Joy had been right. She'd always insisted that her parents really had only one child--her brother--and that she wasn't that important to them.
Ty's own family situation wasn't much better. He'd been estranged from them for years. They'd sent a small plant for the memorial service.
"Charlie, honey, don't press so hard against the glass," Lexi called out to the boy but made no move to get up.
With an older child and a busy toddler at home this was probably the only chance the social worker had to rest. Margaret stifled a smile and rose to her feet. She crossed the room, her heels clicking loudly on the hardwood. Normally she favored more comfortable clothing than the silver-blue suit and certainly more sensible footwear than high heels. But this had seemed an appropriate day to forego comfort for something more stylish and business-like.
She crouched down beside the boy who had his nose pressed against the aquarium glass. "Which one do you like best?"
"The yellow one." Charlie pointed to a large silver angel fish with a blanket of gold over the head and back.
"It's very pretty." Margaret resisted the urge to brush the tousle of chocolate brown hair back from his face. "Do you remember me, Charlie? I'm Margaret. I was a friend of your mom."
The boy turned to face her, his eyes a deep, dark blue. "Pastor says my mommy and daddy are with Jesus in heaven."
Margaret took a deep breath and blinked back tears. The sermon at the funeral had been comforting but it was still hard to accept that it had been her childhood friend lying in one of the two caskets at the front of the church. Heartbreaking to realize she and Joy would never laugh over the phone or tweet pithy one-liners to each other.
Still, she believed the pastor when he'd said Joy and Ty were in a better place. Her friend had such a quirky sense of humor that Margaret had no doubt that at this very moment she was livening up the heavenly throng with Ty cheering her on.
"Do you think they're coming back for me?" he asked in a small voice.
"I'm afraid not," Margaret said softly. She cursed her honesty when his eyes filled with tears and his bottom lip began to tremble. "But I know they're still watching over you. And that they love you very much."
"I want my mommy." The boy's arms stiffened at his sides and his hands clenched into tiny fists. "Bring her here. Now."
Her heart rose to her throat. If only I could bring her back. And Ty, too.
Like a whirlwind sweeping across the plains, as quickly as Charlie's anger flared, it disappeared and he began to cry.
Margaret wrapped her arms around him, murmuring soothing words and holding him tight. After several heartbeats he quit struggling. After several more she felt him relax in her arms.
From her own experience, she knew a little about what he'd be going through in the weeks and months ahead. She vowed to make this transition as easy as possible for him.
With his soft curls still pressed against her cheek, Margaret heard the attorney's office door open. But she couldn't move a muscle. The child had his arms around her, holding her as tight as a drowning sailor would grasp a life preserver.
"Margaret." Ryan moved to her side and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Lexi will take good care of him while we talk."
"Charlie, I have something really cool to show you." The social worker peeled the boy from Margaret's arms. "The office down the hall has some gigantic fish."
"Bigger than those?" Charlie pointed to the aquarium, his tears like little crystals on his long lashes.
"Oh my goodness, yes. Way bigger." Lexi held out her hand. "Come with me and we'll go see them."
The little boy hesitated, glancing at Margaret.
"I'm not going anywhere," Margaret assured him. "I'll be here when you get back."
After a long moment, Charlie put his fingers in the social worker's hand. "I wanna see the fishes."
Lexi smiled at Margaret and gave the attorney a wink. "We won't be long."
Margaret watched them leave. Her heart warmed when Charlie returned her wave.
"I'm glad you could make it." Ryan gestured toward his office then stepped aside to let her pass. "We're waiting for one more but there's some preliminary stuff we can get started on."
Margaret smiled, finding it strangely refreshing to hear an attorney use the word "stuff." She took a seat in front of his desk, wondering who it was Ryan was expecting. It hadn't crossed her mind that anyone else would show up for the reading. "Did Joy's parents change their minds and decide to stay in town a little while longer?"
"Nothing like that." The attorney took a seat in the cowhide and leather swivel desk chair and offered her an easy smile.
Despite being thrown to the ground and stomped on by bulls weighing close to two thousand pounds, Ryan looked no worse for wear. His face was unscarred and his hair as dark and thick as it had been in school. He was a cute guy but Ryan had never made her heart skip a beat.
Back then, people who didn't know him well had always confused him with Cole. Both had dark hair and slender athletic builds. But Ryan's eyes were a silvery grey while Cole's eyes were as blue as the ocean.
In her young, stupid days, Margaret had been convinced she could drown in Cole's eyes. She resisted the urge to gag.
Ryan shifted in his seat and glanced at his watch. Tiny lines furrowed his brow.
If Margaret didn't know better, she'd say he was worried. But that didn't make sense. What did he have to be concerned about? Unless, he thought she was having second thoughts about raising Charlie. Could he be afraid she was going to bail on the boy?
Margaret leaned forward and rested both hands on the edge of the desk. "Joy and I talked last year about her and Ty's wishes, should anything happen to them. I'm fully aware that she wanted me to—"
The outer office door jingled.
Ryan's head jerked toward the sound.
Margaret paused and sat back.
Before she could say another word, Ryan leapt from his seat and rounded the desk. "I'll get it."
But he didn't have time to reach the door before it swung open. Turning in her seat to gawk at the new arrival seemed a little gauche so Margaret waited for the visitor to stroll into view.
"It's good to see you," Ryan said.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting long."
Margaret froze. The man's voice sounded all too familiar. She shivered as the sexy voice continued. "DFW got snowed in and all the flights backed up."
She didn't need to turn in her chair to know who Ryan had so warmly welcomed. Even after all these years, she recognized his voice. It was the same sexy rumble that had whispered sweet nothings in her ear when she'd been sixteen. The same husky voice that had shook with emotion when he'd pronounced her his sweetheart and given her a silver heart-shaped locket for Valentine's Day. The same voice that she hadn't heard again after they'd made love in the backseat of his old Chevy.
She dug her nails into her palms.
"You're lucky you didn't make it in yesterday morning. We had a jet go off the runway," Ryan rattled on. "Typical November weather."
"Anyone who grew up in this region should know better than to fly in the day of any event, especially at this time of year." Margaret turned in her seat, unable to sit still a moment longer. "Unless it was your intent all along to miss the funeral."
She had only a second to brace herself before Cole fixed his brilliant blue eyes on her and to be startled at the sight of him on crutches.
"You remember, Margaret Fisher." Ryan gestured to her with a broad sweep of a hand. "She went to high school with us."
It didn't surprise Margaret that Ryan would feel the need to clarify. After all, it wasn't as if they'd run in the same social circle back then. Ryan and Cole had been popular, while she'd been studious, shy and completely forgettable. A part of her had wondered if he'd ever mentioned his involvement with her to his friends. Apparently not.
Cole's expression gave nothing away. "Of course, I remember Meg."
"Meg?" Ryan lifted a brow. "I don't know that I've ever heard anyone call her that before."
That's because no one else ever had, only Cole.
"I meant, Margaret," Cole returned easily.
Ryan's eyes held a curious gleam and Margaret got the feeling he knew there was more to the story than a simple verbal faux pas.
"You're looking well," Cole said to her when the silence lengthened.
Other than the crutches and the brace on his right knee she supposed she could say the same about him. His hair was a little longer now, brushing his collar in a stylish cut. The hand-tailored dark suit he wore emphasized broad shoulders and lean hips. Surprisingly, he'd foregone a tie and left his grey shirt unbuttoned at the neck.
While she grudgingly admitted that he looked…attractive…she had no use for him or for the words that came so easy to his tongue. Margaret lifted her chin. "Your friend appears to be too much of a gentleman to tell you—but this is a private business meeting."
She could have cheered when her tone came out cool with just the slightest amount of indifference.
Cole's brows pulled together and he shot Ryan a puzzled glance. "You told me this was the time you'd set aside to go over Ty and Joy's Will."
Margaret narrowed her gaze and focused on Cole. "You must really be doing badly if you came all this way just to see if they left you anything."
For a second she regretted speaking so frankly. Being brash wasn't her style. Then she recalled how Cole had treated her and she decided she was being too kind.
"I'm doing quite well, not that it's any of your concern." Cole's expression darkened. He turned to Ryan. "What the hell is going on here?"
A look of guilt crossed the attorney's face and the gaze he shot her was filled with apology.
Margaret had always been intuitive. The unique gift that had failed her only once before was now telling her that something was about to go wrong. Dreadfully wrong.
"Ryan?" Margaret choked out the attorney's name, finding breathing suddenly difficult.
"Neither of you have the complete picture, not yet." Ryan gestured for Cole to take a seat then exhaled a harsh breath. "That's the way Ty and Joy wanted it."
Then this wasn't a chance meeting, but something orchestrated from the grave by Margaret's oldest and dearest friend. Oh, Joy, what have you done?
"I think I'd better sit down." With lips pressed tightly together, Cole moved carefully across the slippery wood floor and eased himself into the only empty chair in the room, the one next to hers.
Though a big part of her life revolved around physical rehabilitation, she didn't comment on his unsteady gait or ask about his injury. Quite simply she didn't care. She couldn't care. Not about him. Or his gimpy leg.
The only thing she wanted to know was why he was at this meeting…and how soon he'd be leaving.
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