(Story Setup: Brooke Thalberg of the Silver Creek Ranch
discovered that an old family barn was burning. She saved
her horses with the help of a stranger.)
"Come on," Brooke said wearily, refusing to glance one
last time at her family's barn, although she could hear the
crackle and roar of the fire. "The bunkhouse is close.
We'll wash up there and see to your face."
And she could look into his eyes and see if he was the
sort who set fires for fun. He didn't seem it, for he
didn't look back at the fire either, only trudged behind
The bunkhouse was an old log cabin, another of the
original buildings from the nineteenth century silver boom
days, when cattle from the Silver Creek Ranch had fed
thousands of miners coming down from their claims to spend
their riches in Valentine Valley. Brooke's father had
updated the interior of the cabin to house the occasional
temporary workers they needed during branding or haying
season. There were a couple sets of bunk beds along the
walls, an old couch before the stone hearth, a battered
table and chairs, kitchen cabinets and basic appliances at
the far end of the open room, and two doors that led into a
single bedroom and bathroom.
The walls were filled with unframed photos of the
various hands they'd employed to work the ranch over the
years. Some of those photos, tacked up haphazardly and
curling at the edges, were old black and whites going as
far back as photography did.
Brooke shivered with a chill even as she removed her
coat. The heat was only high enough to keep the pipes from
freezing, and she went to raise the thermostat. When she
turned around, the stranger had removed his hat and was
shrugging out of his Carhartt jacket, revealing matted down
hair and a soot–stained face. He was wearing a
long–sleeve red flannel shirt and jeans over cowboy
To keep from staring at him, she pointed to the second
door. "Go on and wash up in the bathroom. I'll find a
He silently nodded and moved past her, limping slightly,
shutting the door behind him. He might be hurt worse than
he was saying, she thought with a wince. As she opened
cabinet doors, she realized the kit was probably in the
bathroom. Sighing even as she rolled up her sleeves, she
let the water run in the kitchen sink until it was hot,
then soaped up her black hands and started on her face. If
her hair hadn't been in a long braid down her back, she'd
dunk her whole head under. She'd have to wait for a shower.
Grabbing paper towels, she patted her skin dry.
A few minutes later, the stranger came out of the
bathroom, his hair sticking up in short, damp curls, the
first–aid kit in his hand. His face was clean now,
and she could see that the two–inch cut was still
"You probably need stitches," she said, even as the
first inkling of recognition began to tease her. "You don't
want a scar."
He met her gaze and held it, and she saw the faintest
spark of amusement, as if he knew something she didn't.
"Don't worry about it, Brooke."
She hadn't told him her name. "So I do know you."
"It's been a long time," he said, eyeing her as openly
as she was doing to him.
He was taller than her, well–muscled beneath the
flannel shirt that he'd pushed up to his elbows.
And then his name suddenly echoed like a shot in her
mind. "Adam Desantis," she breathed. "It's been over ten
years since you went off to the Marines."
He gave a short nod.
No wonder he looked in such great physical shape.
Feeling awkward, she forced her gaze back to his face. He'd
been good–looking in high school—and knew
it—but now his face was rugged and masculine, a man
She got flashes of memory then—Adam as the cool
wide receiver all the high school girls wanted, with his
posse of arrogant sidekicks. He'd been able to rule the
school, doing whatever he wanted—because his parents
hadn't cared, she reminded herself. And then she had
another memory of the sixth grade science fair, where all
the parents had helped their kids with experiments, except
for his. His display had been crude and unfinished, and his
mother had drunkenly told him so in front of every kid
within hearing range. Whenever Brooke thought badly of his
antics in high school, that was the memory that crept back
up, making her feel ill with pity and sorrow.
"Your grandma talks about you all the time," she finally
said. Mrs. Palmer spoke of him with glowing pride as he
rose through the ranks to Staff Sergeant, a rarity at his
"Hope she doesn't bore everybody," he answered, showing
sincerity rather than just tossing off something he didn't
mean. "I hear she lives with your grandma. The Widows'
"The name was their idea. They're kind of famous now,
but those are stories for another day. Come here and let me
look at your cheek." He moved toward her slowly, as if she
were a horse needing to be calmed, which amused her.
"I can take care of it," he said.
"Sit down!" She pulled out a kitchen chair and
pointed. "I can't reach your face. I'm tall, but not that
"Yes, ma'am," he answered gruffly.
She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling.
He eased into the chair just a touch slowly, but somehow
she knew he didn't want any more questions about his
health. Adam Desantis, she told herself again, shaking her
head. He wasn't a stranger—and he wouldn't have
started the fire, regardless of the trouble he'd once
gotten into. She told herself to relax, but her body still
tensed with an awareness that surprised her. She was just
curious about him, that was all. She cleared her throat and
tried to speak lightly. "I imagine you're used to taking
"Not for the last six months. I left after my enlistment
Tearing open an antiseptic towelette, she leaned toward
him, feeling almost nervous. Nervous? she thought in
surprise. She worked what most would call a man's job, and
dealt with men all day. What was her problem? She got a
whiff of smoke from his clothes, but his face was scrubbed
clean of it. She tilted his head, her fingers touching his
whisker–rough square chin marked with a deep cleft in
the center. His eyes studied her, and she was so close she
could see golden flecks deep inside the brown. She stared
into them, and he stared back, and in that moment, she felt
a rush of heat and embarrassment all rolled together.
Hoping he hadn't noticed, she began to dab at his wound,
feeling him tense with the sting of antiseptic.
Damn it all, what was wrong with her? She hadn't been
attracted to him in high school—he'd been an idiot,
as far as she was concerned. She'd been focused on her
family ranch and barrel–racing, not the kind of girl
who would lavish all her attention on a boy, as he seemed
to require. Brooke always felt that she had her own life to
live, and didn't need a boyfriend as some kind of status
But ten years later, Adam returned as an ex–Marine
who saved her horses, a man with a square–cut face,
faint lines fanning out from his eyes as if he'd squinted
under desert suns, and she was turning into a schoolgirl
all over again.
Adam stared into Brooke Thalberg's face as she bent over
him, not bothering to hide his powerful curiosity. He
remembered her, of course—who wouldn't? She was as
tall as many guys, and probably as strong, too, from all
the hard work on her family ranch.
A brave woman, he admitted, remembering her fearlessness
running into the fire, her concern for the horses more than
herself. Now her hazel eyes stared at his face intently,
their mix of browns and greens vivid and changeable. She
turned away to search the med kit and his gaze lingered on
her slim back covered in a checked western shirt that was
tucked into her belt. Her long braid tumbled down her back,
almost to the sway of her jean–clad hips. It's not
like he hadn't seen a woman before. And this woman had been
a pest through his childhood, too smart for her own
good—seeing into his troubled life the things he'd
tried to keep hidden—too confident in her own talent.
She had a family who believed in her, and that gave a kid a
special kind of confidence. He hadn't had that sort of
family, so he recognized it when he saw it.
He wondered if she'd changed at all—he certainly
had. After discovering his own confidence, he'd built a
place and a name for himself in the Marines. His
overconfidence had destroyed that, leaving him in a fog of
uncertainty that had been hovering around him for half a
Kind of like being in a barn fire, he guessed, feeling
your way around, wondering if you were ever going to get
out again. He still didn't know.
After using butterfly bandages to keep the wound closed,
Brooke taped a small square of gauze to his face then
straightened, hands on her hips, to judge her
handiwork. "You might need stitches if you want to avoid a
He shrugged. "Got enough of those. One more won't hurt."
He rose slowly to his feet, feeling the stiffness in his
leg that never quite went away. The docs had got most of
the shrapnel out, but not quite all of it. The exertion of
the fire had irritated the old wound, but that would ease
with time. He was used to it by now, and the reminder that
he was alive was more than he deserved, when there were so
many men beneath the ground.
After closing the kit, Brooke turned back to face him,
tilting her head to look up. They stared at each other a
moment, too close, almost too intimate alone here. Drops of
water still sparkled in her dark lashes, and her skin was
fresh–scrubbed and free of makeup. She looked
prettier than he remembered, a woman instead of the skinny
Adam was surprised at the sensations her nearness
inspired in him, this awareness of her as a woman, when
back in high school she'd barely registered as that to him.
He'd dated cheerleaders and party girls, not cowgirls. Now
she held herself so tall and easily, with a confidence born
of hard work and years of testing her body to the limits.
She cleared her throat, and her gaze dropped from his
eyes to his mouth, then his shirtfront. "You have a limp,"
she said. "Did one of the horses kick you?"
"Had the limp on and off for awhile. Nothing new."
She nodded, then stepped past him to return the med kit
to the bathroom. When she came back out, she was wearing a
fixed, polite smile, which, to his surprise, amused him.
Not much amused him anymore.
"I'm glad you're not hurt bad," she said. "You did
me—us—a big favor and I can't thank you enough
for helping rescue the horses. How'd you see the fire?"
"I was at the boardinghouse and saw the smoke out the
window." If the trees hadn't been winter–bare, he
might not have seen it at all, which made him think
uneasily of Brooke, battling the fire alone. "Where are
your brothers? They might have come in handy if I hadn't
seen the fire. I assume they still work on the ranch?"
She nodded. "They're at the hospital with my dad,
visiting my mom. Did you remember she has MS?"
He shook his head. "I never knew."
"She never talked about it much, so I'm not surprised.
Most of the time, she only needs a cane, but she's battling
a flare–up that's weakened her legs. The guys took
their turn at the hospital today, while I rode fence. Guess
I found more than I bargained for." She eyed him with
speculation. "So you're back to visit your grandma."
She put her hands in her back pockets and rocked once on
her heels, as if she didn't know what to do with herself.
That stretched her shirt across her breasts, and he had to
force himself to keep his gaze on her face.
"Grandma's letters were off," he admitted. "She seemed
Brooke focused on him with a frown. "Scattered? Your
"My instincts were right. I got here and she was a lot
more frail, and she's using a cane now."
"A cane? That's new. And I see her often, so maybe I
just didn't notice she'd slowly been..." She trailed off.
"Declining?" He almost grumbled the words. Grandma
Palmer was in her seventies, but some part of him thought
she never changed. She was still the one woman who could
briefly get him away from his parents to sleep on sheets
that didn't smell of smoke, to eat meals that didn't come
from a drive–thru. He was never hungry at Grandma
Palmer's, whether for food or for love. There weren't
holidays or birthdays unless Grandma had them. All he'd
been to his teenage parents was an unwanted kid, the result
of a broken condom, and they blamed him for making so
little of their lives. He saw that now, but at the time?
He'd been relieved to enlist in the Marines and start his
Now he and Grandma Palmer only had each other. His
parents had died after falling asleep in bed with
cigarettes a few years back, and he hadn't experienced
anywhere near the grief he now felt in worrying about her.
He might have only seen her once or twice a year, but he'd
written faithfully, and so had she. The packages she'd sent
had been filled with his favorite books and food, enough to
share with his buddies. He felt a spasm of pain at the
memories. Some of those buddies were dead now. Good
memories mingled with the bad, and he could still see Paul
Ivanick cheerfully holding back Adam's care package until
he promised to share Grandma Palmer's cookies.
Paul was dead now.
When Adam was discharged, it took everything in him not
to run to his grandma like a little boy. But no one could
make things right, not for him, or for the men who died.
The men, his Marine brothers, who were dead because of him.
He didn't want to imagine what his grandma would think
about him if she knew the truth.
"Those old women still seem strong," Brooke
insisted. "Mrs. Ludlow may use a walker, and your grandma
now a cane, but they have enough...well, gumption, to use
their word, for ten women."
He shrugged. "All I know is what I see."
And then they stood there, two strangers who grew up in
the same small town, but never really knew each other.
"So what have you been up to?" Brooke asked, rocking on
her heels again.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "Nothing much."
In a small town like Valentine Valley, everyone thought
they deserved to know their neighbor's business. Brooke
wouldn't think any different—hell, he remembered how
she used to butt into his in high school, when they weren't
even friends. She'd been curious about his studies, a
do–gooder who thought she could change the world.
She hadn't seen the world and its cruelties, hadn't left
the safety of this town, or her family, as far as he knew.
He'd seen the world—too much of it. There was nothing
he could tell her—nothing he wanted to remember.
"Oo–kay then," she said, drawing out the word.
He wondered if she felt as aware of the simmering
tension between them, and as uneasy as he did. He wouldn't
let himself feel like this, uncertain whether he even
deserved a normal life.
"What am I thinking?" she suddenly burst out, digging
her hand into her pocket and coming out with a cell
phone. "I haven't even called my dad."
She turned her back and stared out the window, where the
firemen were hosing down the smoldering ruins of her family
barn. For just a moment, Adam remembered coming to the
Silver Creek Ranch as a kid when his dad would do the
occasional odd jobs for the Thalbergs. He'd seen the close,
teasing relationships between Brooke and her brothers, the
way their parents guided and nurtured them with love. Their
life had seemed so different, so foreign to him.
And now Brooke would never be able to understand the
life he'd been leading. So he turned and walked quietly out