What She'd Do for Love

By: Cindi Myers

CHAPTER ONE

  THE CLOSER SHE drove to her hometown of Cedar Grove, Texas, the more anxious Christa Montgomery was to be home. She’d fought the idea of moving back to the family ranch, even temporarily, but losing a job she’d loved hadn’t left her with many options. With only a few more miles to go, she had a hard time keeping to the speed limit. All she wanted was a hug from her father, homemade cookies from her mother, and the comfort of her parents’ love and faith in her. With all the upheaval in her life of late, she needed the stability of home. Surrounded by their love and a familiar landscape, she’d regroup and find her feet again.

  Her heartbeat sped up as she approached the sign for Cedar Grove town limits. She gripped the steering wheel more tightly and leaned forward, anxious for the first glimpse of the place where she’d grown up. The demands of working at one of the top marketing firms in Houston had kept her away except for brief holiday visits, which she mostly spent at the family ranch.

  Elation turned to dismay, however, as she guided her car down the town’s main street. What had once been a lively hub of activity was now almost deserted. She counted three For Sale signs in the first block. The grocery store was empty, as was the office supply store, Mavis Butler’s dress shop, and the bookstore.

  She knew, of course, that the economic recession and continued drought had hit the area hard, but she’d never expected this. The town where she’d gone to school, sat through movies with her friends and whiled away hours at the diner was practically a ghost town. The businesses that were left looked forlorn, windows dusty, the signs faded.

  She drove on, out of town and onto the farm-to-market road that led to her family’s ranch, the Rocking M. She relaxed when she spotted the white fencing that marked the beginning of her father’s property, the paint fresh and crisp. A row of survey stakes topped with orange plastic streamers that snapped in the warm spring wind traced a line just inside the fence. Was her father planning to move the fence line?

  A few minutes later she turned the car into the gravel drive beneath the welded iron archway with the Rocking M brand at its center. In the pasture beside the drive a few Black Angus cattle crowded around a metal stock tank beneath the gently turning blades of the windmill that pumped water to keep the tank filled. She looked for, but didn’t see Duncan and Rodrigo, the two cowboys who helped her father.

  When she reached the house, she parked the car in the shade of the tall oak that had once held her tire swing. She sat for a moment and studied the house, with its low, sprawling profile and front and side porches. Compared to the trendy, modern townhomes and mansions of the city suburbs, the house was sadly out of date, and much smaller than she remembered from her childhood. But none of that mattered. This was still her favorite place in the world. No matter how far away her life took her, no matter how many changes she experienced, she’d always feel grounded here, in this place that always remained the same.

  She waited, but the front door didn’t spring open, and her parents didn’t rush to greet her. She didn’t even hear the dog barking. Maybe she should have called ahead, but she’d wanted to surprise them—and to avoid all the uncomfortable explanations about why she was here. Those would come later, when she was with them and talking came easier.

  Her father’s truck sat beneath a cottonwood her grandfather had planted, her mother’s SUV nosed in beside it. Maybe Mom and Dad were riding on another part of the ranch. They’d return soon and Christa would be there—unexpectedly—to greet them. She collected her suitcase from the trunk of her sedan, leaving the boxes of books and other items for later. At the front door she hesitated, wondering if she should knock, then decided that was silly and let herself in. “Dad! Mom! It’s me, Christa!”

  The frantic scramble of toenails on the hardwood floor signaled the arrival of Jet, her parents’ elderly Jack Russell terrier. Though he was growing deaf and slowing down, he still greeted her enthusiastically, jumping up and down on stiff legs and letting out excited yips. She rubbed his ears and patted his back. “Oh, Jet, it’s good to see you, too.”

  “Christa? Is that you?” Her father, his voice hoarse from years of shouting at cows and cowboys over the howl of wind or the drone of machinery, emerged from the back of the house. Dressed in faded jeans and a gray snap-button shirt with a patch on one elbow, he looked more like a down-on-his-heels ranch hand than a prosperous ranch owner. His hair, which had more silver in it than she remembered, curled up at his frayed shirt collar, and needed combing. She stared. Had she woke him from a nap? In the middle of the day?

  Her father’s gaze dropped to the suitcase in her hand, then back to her face. “What are you doing here, honey?” he asked.

  Not the enthusiastic welcome she’d expected. Her stomach tightened. Yes, she should have called ahead. She should have thought this out more. But she’d given up her apartment in Houston and put her furniture in storage. Only the thought of coming home, of being taken care of for a little while so she could regain her strength, had kept her from falling apart. “I’ve come home, Dad,” she said. “Just for a little while.”

  His eyes narrowed and his expression hardened. “Who have you been talking to?”

  “No one.” She felt like a kid again, caught joy-riding on the tractor, or staying out past curfew. She half-way expected her dad to tell her how disappointed he was in her and to sentence her to mucking out horse stalls every Saturday for the next month. “I lost my job. Pemberton Professionals laid off one-quarter of their employees and I was one of them. I thought...I thought I could stay here a while, until I decided what to do next.”

  “Aw, honey.” Dad rubbed his jaw, his hand scraping against a day’s growth of beard. “You know your mom and I are always glad to see you.”

  Except he didn’t sound very glad. “Where is Mom?” Christa asked. Suddenly, she wanted nothing in the world as much as a hug from her mother.

  “She’s resting. You can see her later.”

  “Bud?” Her mother’s voice, sounding old and tired, interrupted them. “Who’s there?”

  Not waiting for her dad to intervene, Christa abandoned the suitcase and, with Jet on her heels, headed down the hallway that led to her old room on one side, with her parents’ room at the end. The flowered carpet runner that stretched down the hall muffled her footsteps. When she reached the partially open door to her parents’ room, she forced a cheerful smile to her face and took a deep breath. Her mother would be glad to see her, and Mom would have some reasonable explanation for Dad’s behavior. Then again, what was Mom doing in bed in the middle of the day? Maybe they had been up all night with a sick calf, or any of the other chores that could distract a rancher.

  Her mother sat propped in bed, looking a little pale, but otherwise okay. Jet hopped onto the bed and curled up beside his mistress. “Mom, is something wrong?” Christa asked.

  “I’m just resting my eyes.” Mom sat up straighter against the piled pillows and fixed Christa with the same look with which she’d questioned bad grades or poor choices in boyfriends. “What are you doing here in the middle of a work week?”

  Christa sat on the edge of the bed. Though she’d rehearsed this conversation over and over on the drive up from Houston, and in the days before that, now that the moment was here her carefully prepared words deserted her. “I got laid off and between my student loan payments and my car payments things are really tight right now. I was hoping I could stay here a few months—just until I can get my life back together.”

  Mom’s gaze darted to Dad, who had followed Christa into the room and stood in the doorway, his still-broad shoulders filling the frame. “Of course you can stay,” Mom said. “Your old room is just like you left it.”

  “Are you sure everything is okay?” Christa asked. “You and Dad don’t seem very happy to see me.”

  “You just caught us by surprise,” Mom said. “Of course we’re very happy to have you home.”

  “Are you sure? I feel like I caught you at a bad time. Why are you in bed? Are you sick or something?”

  “She’ll be fine. She got too tired yesterday, helping me move cattle. That’s all.” Her father’s tone was brusque, but the tenderness in his expression when he looked at his wife made Christa’s eyes sting. Something was going on here—some silent message passing between husband and wife in a code she couldn’t break.

  “Then I’d better let you rest.” She stood and moved toward the door. Jet looked up and thumped his tail, as if to say “Don’t worry, I’ll look after her,” then laid his head back on his paws and closed his eyes. Father and daughter tiptoed from the room, and he shut the door softly behind them.

  But Christa couldn’t as easily shut the door on her worries. Her mother was one of the most vibrant, active women she knew. Adele Montgomery had spent a lifetime riding horses, hauling hay, cooking for cowboys, and managing the Rocking M alongside her husband. To see her in bed in the middle of the day had been more unsettling than Christa could have imagined. “Are you sure she’s okay?” she asked.

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