Linda Howard


© 2011

Chapter One

He’d won.

She’d lost.

She really, really hated losing. Losing pissed her off more than just about anything else.

The very idea made her grind her teeth, made her think twice about what she was about to do, which essentially was to throw in the towel. Okay, not exactly throw in the towel, but she was definitely retrenching, and she needed to act now. Stubbornness was one of her main faults, something she was well aware of, so before it could trip her up and make her change her mind, Angie Powell quickly scrawled her name on the contract with the only Realtor in the area, Harlan Forbes, then leaned back in her chair and tried to control her breathing.

There, it was done. Her place was officially up for sale. Her stomach was so knotted she felt as if she’d stepped off a cliff and was cartwheeling toward the ground, but there was no going back. Well, there probably was; Harlan had known her most of her life, and would probably tear up the contract right now if she asked him to. Not only that, the contract wasn’t open-ended. If her home didn’t sell in the allotted time, she’d either extend the contract or… what? What other option did she have? None, that’s what. This was do or die, sink or swim, and any number of other back-against-the-wall cliches. She was damned if she’d just give up, though. Moving operations wasn’t the same as giving up.

“I’ll get this posted online right away,” Harlan said, swiveling around to lay the contract beside his sleek, all- in-one computer and monitor combined, a surprisingly up-to-date piece of electronics in a shabby, crowded two- room office on the second floor above the hardware store. “That’s how most of my contacts are being made these days.” He gave her a quick glance, concern written large on his florid face. “Don’t get your hopes up on having a firm offer right away, though. The listings around here are on the market for six months, average, which isn’t bad in this economy.”

“Thanks,” she said to Harlan, who’d been one of her father’s best friends. She supposed he needed to make the sale as much as she needed to sell. The downturn in the economy had hit everyone. Six months. God, could she hold on for six more months? The answer was: If she had to. She could do anything if she had to.

She got to her feet. “Believe me, I’m not hoping for anything right away.”

But she was; she couldn’t help it. She wished the place would sell this very minute, before she could think about it too much. At the same time, she dreaded the thought of leaving, and the two emotions pulled and fought inside her until she wanted to scream, for all the good that would do, which was none.

She shrugged into her coat and picked up her big tote bag, settled her hat on her head. She needed both the coat and the hat. November had come in cold and brisk, already dusting the valleys with a few light snows. The mountain peaks surrounding the valley were white, the wind blowing off them carrying the scent of winter, evergreen mixed with fresh snow. A warm front was coming in that should melt the snow back some, but everyone, human and animal, knew the warmth would be temporary; soon the cold would settle in for months.

She had to plan on being here through another winter. It would be nice if her place sold immediately, but if she was anything, Angie was realistic. Pie in the sky had never appealed to her, not when there was a plain old apple on the ground. Right now, however, she couldn’t see either apple or pie. All she could do was try to eke out a living and stay on top of her bills enough to hold off foreclosure, until her place sold and she could relocate.

If. Now there was a word. If her dad hadn’t borrowed a bunch of money five years ago to expand the business, buying more horses, four-wheelers, building three small guest houses, the place wouldn’t even have a mortgage, and she’d be okay even with the downturn in her income. But he had, and she wasn’t. Yes, she’d sold the four-wheelers and most of the horses, and used the money to pay down the principal on the loan, but even if she refinanced, the payment would be more than she could handle, and that was assuming the bank would let her refinance, as tight as credit was right now.

At least she hadn’t waited until she was in real trouble. No, that big, wide streak of realism had read the writing on the wall and recognized that, within a year at the absolute most, she was going to be out of money and out of business, unless she took action. But a year was optimistic; the six months Harlan had mentioned for selling her house and property was far more like it. By then, she might not even be breaking even, and one thing she didn’t want to do was dip into her savings. For one thing, she didn’t have that much; for another, throwing good money after bad was a good way to lose everything.

Harlan heaved his bulk out of his squeaky office chair and walked with her to the door. “I’ll be out tomorrow to take some pictures,” he said.

“I’ll be there. I have a guide trip day after tomorrow, so I’ll be getting everything ready.” Right now, that one guide trip, with a repeat client, was the only thing on her books. Three years ago, before Dare Callahan had returned home and begun carving huge holes in her business, she had gone weeks with just enough time between guide trips to replenish supplies. Even two years ago, with him set up in competition, she’d done okay, and had actually been glad to have a little time to rest between trips. Last year had been slow. This year had been disastrous.

Harlan patted her arm as he opened the door for her. “I hate to see you leave, but you know best.”

“I hope so. I’ve done some research, and I think I’ve found a good location, up past Missoula.” She wasn’t getting her heart set on any particular place, though; she’d isolate sections where hunting guides were thin on the ground, and work from there. Moving wouldn’t accomplish much if she put herself back into a situation with steep competition.

He glanced out the door, at the mountainous scenery he’d seen thousands of times, and a faintly sad expression crept over his face. “I’m thinking about leaving, too.”

“What?” The unexpected confession jerked Angie out of herself and her own problems; she stared at him in shock. He’d always been here, been in these parts, and a fixture in her life from the time she and her dad had moved to the area. She had moved away a couple of times, once to college and then afterward to Billings, but Harlan had always been here, as reliable as the sun rising in the east. She couldn’t imagine this place without him. “Why?”

There was a faraway look in his eyes, as if he’d turned inward. “Because the older I get, the closer I am to the people who’ve already gone on, and the harder it is to relate to the ones still here,” he said softly. “Some days all I can think about are the dead ones. I catch myself talking to Glory all the time.” Gloria was his dead wife; Angie had never heard him call her anything other than Glory. “And your dad… I still talk to him as if he were standing right here. And there are more, too many more.”

He sighed. “I don’t have an unlimited number of years left, you know, and I’m spending too much of my time alone. I need to move closer to Noah and the grandkids, connect more with them while I still can.”

“You’re talking as if you have one foot in the grave. You aren’t old!” She was still too shocked to be diplomatic, but then diplomacy had never been her strong point. Afterward she could always think of what she should have said, but in the moment she tended to blurt out whatever she was thinking. Besides, Harlan wasn’t old; he was probably in his mid-sixties, close to her dad in age.

But her dad was gone, and suddenly Angie thought she knew what Harlan meant. He was hearing the call of the beyond; sometimes she caught the echo of it herself, in the stillness around her that would suddenly be filled with memories. Maybe it was nature’s way of transitioning from life to death, or life to another life. He knew he was probably in the last quarter of his life, and he wanted to make the most of it with the people who meant the most to him.

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