Maggie stuffed the woody stems of a cloud of white lilacs into a gallon jar, and some of the water spilled over onto the counter in the kitchenette of her parents' guest house. "J.T. Wainwright," she said, with typical McCaffrey conviction and a wealth of personal experience to back up her theory, "is a whole new twelve-step program, looking for a place to happen. I'm trying to start a business here. Make a life for myself. I don't need that kind of trouble."
Daphne Hargreaves Evanston, her best friend since Miss Filbert's kindergarten class at the old schoolhouse, now an historical monument, like the Brimstone Saloon across the street from it, watched with a wry and twinkly smile as Maggie took a sponge from the sink to wipe up the overflow. Married for the past two years, Daphne was glowingly happy and wanted to see all her friends find the same rather irksome bliss. "Oh, come on, Mags," she chided cheerfully. "J.T. was a little wild as a kid, but he became a cop, so he must have straightened out."
Maggie was stubbornly silent, and Daphne, who could be just as stubborn, fixed her with a mock glare.
"He was a cop," Maggie allowed in due time, and somewhat grudgingly. She straightened a little. "But since when is joining a big-city police force the equivalent of a religious conversion?"
Daphne shook her head and made a tsk-tsk sound. "Methinks thou protests too much, my friend," she said, folding slender arms. "J.T. was shot in the line of duty. He must have been committed to his job, to put himself in the path of a bullet."
Maggie hated to think of J.T. -- or anyone else, she quickly pointed out to herself -- struck down by gunfire, and she shuddered. Images of that lethal confrontation, far away in a New York City warehouse, had disturbed her sleep many a time over the six months since it had happened, although she'd been out of contact with J.T. for much longer.
"It must have been terrible," Daphne reflected somberly, giving voice to her friend's thoughts, as she often did. Sometimes Maggie believed she and Daphne had some kind of psychic connection; they'd been known to go shopping in separate cities, on different days, and come home with duplicate pairs of shoes. "All the pain and the blood, and then his partner being killed, too. Just like his father was. A person can only stand so much violence -- it's no wonder he turned in his badge."
Maggie set the flowers in the middle of her grandmother's round oak table, the thump muffled by a lace doily. She was starting to feel sorry for J.T., and that would not do. When her heart softened, she'd discovered, so did her head.
"That's the official story, anyway," she said, with a little sniff. "That he turned in his badge, I mean. There are those who say J.T. only quit to avoid being fired, and you know it as well as I do."
Daphne sighed, plainly exasperated. "You don't really believe that," she said.
"J.T. has a temper," Maggie pointed out, losing ground fast and damned if she'd admit it. "Don't you remember the time he beat his uncle nearly to death with his bare fists? He nearly went to prison for that."
Daphne narrowed her eyes. "Yes," she challenged, "I remember. It was right after Clive Jenson threw his wife -- J.T.'s aunt -- down the cellar stairs!"
"Violence," Maggie said, fluffing the flowers, "does not justify more violence. You said as much yourself, just a few moments ago."
rdA brief silence fell. Then, "You're still interested," Daphne accused, delight dancing in her silver-gray eyes. Her face took on a dreamy expression, and she sighed again. "It was so romantic, the way he showed up at your wedding and everything
"You need therapy," Maggie said, still fussing with the lilacs. "It wasn't 'romantic,' it was downright awful." She closed her eyes, and the memory of that day a decade before loomed in her mind in three distinct dimensions and glorious Technicolor. She saw herself, clad in a simple white dress, standing beside Connor, her husband-to-be, on the gazebo steps. She smelled the lush, sweet scent of the pink roses in her bridal bouquet. She even heard the minister's voice again, as clearly as if he'd been standing right there in the guest house with her and Daphne:
"If anyone here can show just cause why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."
Right on cue, J.T. squealed into the driveway behind the wheel of his rusted-out pickup truck, startling everyone, bride, groom, and guests alike. He jumped out of that old wreck, leaving the motor roaring, the door gaping, and the radio blaring a somebody-done-me-wrong song, and vaulted over the picket fence to storm right up the petal-strewn strip of cloth serving as an aisle. His ebony hair glinted in the late-spring sunshine, and he was wearing jeans, scuffed boots, and an old black T-shirt.
Given the fact that he'd been the one to end their stormy relationship more than a year earlier, when they were both in Springwater for Christmas vacation, J.T. was the last person Maggie had expected to see, especially on her wedding day.
Resplendent in lace and satin, Maggie watched, speechless, as J.T. strode up the aisle. Connor stood clench-fisted at her side.
Stunned by J.T.'s rejection the previous Christmas -- she'd given him a blue sweater and he'd handed back a broken heart -- Maggie had begun dating Connor almost as soon as she got back to college. They had a lot in common -- similar tastes in music and art, the same political and religious beliefs -- and Connor was handsome and smart, with a brilliant career ahead of him. J.T., on the other hand, was hotheaded and often self-absorbed, with all the earmarks of a lifelong misfit. he'd been in trouble with the law more than once, and there was a vast, dark terrain inside him, a place closed to everyone else on earth -- Maggie included. Passion, she suspected, was all she and J.T. had ever really had together. Great, frenzied sex, followed by loud fights or sullen silences.
Previously stunned into horrified immobility, the wedding guests rose of one accord from their rented folding chairs to murmur and stare, and Maggie's brothers, Simon and Wes, edged toward the intruder from either side. Simon, serving his medical residency at the same Chicago hospital where Connor would intern, was dark-haired and powerfully built, while Wes, a junior at Montana State, majoring in elementary education, had fair hair and blue eyes. Reece McCaffrey, the patriarch of the clan, rose to his feet as well, though the expression in his eyes as he gazed at J.T. was one of compassion, not anger.
"You can't do this, Maggie," J.T. rasped, as Simon and Wes closed in, handsome and grim in their tuxedos, each grasping one of his arms. He shook them off fiercely, his gaze a dark, furious fire that seared Maggie's heart and made her nerves leap beneath the surface of her skin. "Damn it, you know it's wrong!"
She was unable to speak, for her breath had swirled up into the back of her throat, into an inner storm raging there, and her eyes were glazed with tears.
"J.T.," Wes said quietly, reasonably. Wes, always the cool head, the peacemaker. "Come on, buddy. You don't want to do this."
"Is he drunk?" Connor rasped. He was a few years older than Maggie, with hazel eyes and light brown hair that was already receding a little, and no discernible sense of humor. Of course, she hadn't realized that until much later.
J.T. was stone sober; Maggie could tell by the look in his eyes. he'd changed his mind about her, about them, and she felt a surge of furious sorrow. It was a little late, wasn't it? She'd wept over this man, walked through the fires of rage and a hurt so dizzying she'd feared it would overwhelm her. Where had he been when she needed him, wanted him?
Well, damn it, she'd come to her senses, where J.T. was concerned at least. Gotten over the pain, for the most part, and built a whole new framework for her dreams. Her course was set, her future was mapped out, one, two, three. She was returning to Chicago as Mrs. Connor Bartholomew. She planned to finish her degree at Northwestern, land an interesting job after graduation, and settle into a new life. Once Connor had finished his surgical residency they could buy a little house in the suburbs somewhere and start their family.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Staring at J.T., she shook her head, very slowly, still unable to get a word out.
J.T. shoved a hand through his dark, sleekly rumpled hair. "I made a mistake, Maggie," he said, his voice at once quiet and charged with emotion. "A bad one. Don't compound it by running away from what we were, what we had."
"Get out," Connor growled, red in the neck and along his jawline, and he started down the gazebo steps as if to lunge at J.T. To the manor born, and trained to keep his hands clean at all costs, Connor wouldn't stand a chance against Springwater's bad boy. Maggie caught hold of his arm.
She kept her gaze fixed on J.T. "It's over," she managed to say. Then she turned her back on him, once and for all, and set her face toward the future she truly believed she wanted.
How wrong she'd been.
Daphne wrenched her back to the here and now with a snap of her fingers. "Mags?"
Maggie made a face, but a grin was tugging at the corners of her mouth. She'd missed Daphne, she'd missed Springwater, and though she wasn't ready to admit as much, even to her closest friend -- heck, she could barely admit it to herself -- she'd missed J.T. Wainwright. Which just went to prove that even the most solid people had their weaknesses.
"Sooner or later, you are going to have to face him, you know," Daphne observed, opening the refrigerator and peering inside. She brought out a pitcher of ice tea, jingling with fresh ice cubes, and plundered the cupboards for crystal tumblers.
"Springwater is a small town, after all. You won't be able to avoid J.T. forever."
Maggie drew back a chair at the table and sank into it. "Why did he have to come back here?" she asked, not really expecting an answer. A detective with the New York Police Department, J.T. recently had returned to Montana to run the sprawling ranch that had been in his family for well over a century. Beef prices were low, the home place was practically in ruins, and ranchers all over Springwater County were plagued, with greater and greater frequency, by rustlers and various sorts of malicious mischief, but J.T. evidently was undaunted. That, too, was like him. He didn't make plans or draw up lists or consult experts. He just plunged in, worked hard, and improvised, taking things as they came. To Maggie, goal-oriented to a fault, that was the equivalent of riding a runaway roller coaster.
Daphne came through with a reply, as she filled a glass for herself and then, at Maggie's nod, another. "I guess J.T. came back for the same reason you did," she said. "Springwater is home. His roots are here."
"Home," Maggie echoed, a little wistfully. To her the term covered far more territory than just the big, wonderful old house on the other side of the long gravel driveway where she and her brothers had grown up; it meant Reece and Kathleen McCaffrey, her mom and dad. And after nearly forty years together, after three children and five grandchildren, with another on the way, they were sleeping in separate bedrooms and, when they spoke at all, discussing the division of property.
Maggie was baffled by the rift that had opened between them and, even though she knew it was not only impossible but downright dysfunctional too, she wanted desperately to fix the problem somehow, turn back time, make everything all right again.
Daphne sat down, then reached out to squeeze Maggie's hand. Her fingers were cool and moist from the chilled glasses. "Home," she repeated, with gentle emphasis. "You've still got one, you know, so stop looking so forlorn. Everything's going to be all right. You'll see."
Maggie attempted a smile, took up her ice tea, and clinked her glass against Daphne's. "Thanks," she said, and sipped.
"J.T. looks good," Daphne observed, only moments later, never one to waste time and verbiage bridging one subject with another. "Really good. Hot damn, what a body."
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Is that any way for a devoted wife to talk?" she teased. "What would Ben say?" Ben Evanston, Daphne's handsome husband, was a mining engineer. He and Daphne had met when his company had contracted to reopen the old Jupiter and Zeus Silver Mine, which was part of her inheritance, and married soon after. They'd immediately started trying to have a child, so far to no avail.
Daphne ran one perfectly manicured fingertip around the rim of her glass, her gaze lowered. In that quiet, unconsciously elegant pose, with her dark hair upswept, she resembled the portrait of her ancestress Rachel English Hargreaves even more closely than usual. Maggie glimpsed her own gaminelike reflection in the polished glass of the china cabinet against the opposite wall and noted the contrast. She was thirty years old, with short brown hair and large blue eyes, and outside of Springwater, people still asked for ID when she ordered wine with her dinner. She sighed.
When Daphne looked up, she was smiling mischievously. "I can still appreciate a fine specimen of man when I see one," she said.
Maggie laughed. "You're horrible," she replied. It was good to be home again, drinking ice tea with her best friend. She'd moved back to Springwater less than a month before, after selling her condo in Chicago and giving up a lucrative hotel-management job there, having at last made the decision to simplify her life, get off the fast track, and pursue an old and persistent dream of turning the old Springwater stagecoach station into a bed-and-breakfast. The move was long overdue -- she'd essentially been treading water emotionally since the breakup of her marriage two years before -- but she was still getting acclimated to all the changes. Absorbed in her own plans and projects, she'd been caught off guard when J.T. suddenly returned to Springwater.
Daphne glanced down at the doorknob-sized diamond on her left-hand ring finger and frowned as it caught the afternoon light. If someone onboard the Titanic had been wearing that ring, they could have summoned help at the first sign of trouble. Daphne's expression changed, and she sighed.
"What is it?" Maggie asked, immediately worried.
Daphne smiled bravely. "I thought I'd be pregnant by now, that's all," she confided.
Maggie knew, had always known, how much Daphne wanted a houseful of children. Even when they were little girls, Daphne would play only with baby dolls -- no Barbies for her. "Give it time, Daph," she counseled gently. "You haven't been married all that long."
Daphne perked up, nodded, but a shadow of sadness still darkened her eyes. "Right," she said.
"Everything's all right between you and Ben, isn't it?" Maggie asked. With a failed marriage behind her, and a couple of going nowhere romances on top of that, she wasn't exactly an authority on love, but what she lacked in expertise she made up in concern. Daphne had lost both her parents in a plane crash while she and Maggie were still in college, and Ben was all the family she had. Family was everything to Daphne, and to Maggie, too, for that matter.
"Everything's fine," Daphne finally said, in reply to Maggie's gentle question, but she looked away. Presently, she spoke again. "Do you ever wish you and Connor had had a child?" she asked, perhaps to fill the silence.
Maggie prodded the blooms with one finger, bestirring their luscious scent. Connor and his new wife, Janice, had just had a baby boy, and while Maggie had few regrets about ending her marriage, she did feel slightly cheated. During the eight years she'd spent with Connor, her desire to start a family had been consistently shoved to the back burner. According to Connor, there was never enough time, enough money, enough anything. Janice, on the other hand, must have gotten pregnant on the honeymoon.
"It's probably a good thing we didn't," Maggie reflected.
"That isn't what I asked you," Daphne persisted.
Cornered, Maggie shrugged ruefully and hoisted her glass in a second salute. "All right, then," she replied. "Yes, I would love to have a child and no, I don It wish Connor and I had had one together. "A part of her, a reckless part she'd never shared with anyone, not even her dear friend, wished something altogether different -- that she'd left Connor at the altar that long ago summer day, climbed into that battered old truck beside J.T., and sped away. Though she couldn't rightly say how such an action would ultimately have affected J.T., there could be little doubt that she and Connor would both have been better off. Their marriage had been a mistake from the first, although they'd both tried valiantly to pretend otherwise.
"Do you realize that every woman from our graduating class -- every last one of them, besides you and me -- is a mother?" Although Daphne's tone was light, even humorous, there was a frantic note to it. "Even Virginia Abbott."
"There were only six of us," Maggie pointed out reasonably, but she was a little stung by the comparison all the same. O.K., she'd married the wrong man. Instead of kids she had Sadie, a spoiled beagle now snoring on the hooked rug in the living room, with all four feet in the air. In general, though, Maggie had done pretty well in life: good grades in college; a fine job afterward, with profit-sharing and a 401(k) big enough to choke the proverbial horse; the intelligence, enthusiasm, and confidence to get a new business up and running. She was healthy, with a family and lots of friends, and happy, too, though there were nights when she lay awake, staring at the ceiling and feeling like a traveler who's just missed the last boat to the land of milk and honey.
"Virginia Abbott," Daphne marveled, sounding mildly disgusted. "Good Lord. A stretch in reform school and the world's worst case of acne, and she still ended with a minivan, an adoring husband, and four kids!"
Maggie resigned herself to a lengthy diatribe, settling back in her chair and taking another long sip from her ice tea.
"And Polly Herrick," Daphne went on. "Look at her. President of the P.T.A.!"
Maggie hid a smile.
All of the sudden, Daphne ran out of steam. She flung out her hands and gave a laughing sigh. "Listen to me running on," she said. Then, with a glance at her watch, she got to her feet, rinsed her ice tea glass at the sink, and popped it into the top rack of the dishwasher. "I've got shopping to do. Ben is barbequing steaks tonight, and then we're going to watch The Best Years of Our Lives on video. Join us?"
"Oh, right," Maggie scoffed good-naturedly. "That would be cozy. The bride. The groom. The woman from across the street. Shall I bring my dog?"
Daphne laughed, getting to her feet. Now that school was out, she was on hiatus from teaching, and she insisted on helping Maggie with the heavy work over at the Springwater Station. They'd done the worst of the cleaning -- the place had been closed up for several years -- and for the past few days they'd been sorting through the contents of trunks, crates, and boxes, looking for old linens and other antiques that could be used to lend authenticity. "Tomorrow, then," Daphne said. "We're still going to that estate auction over in Maple Creek, right?"
Maggie nodded. "I'll pick you up at six sharp. We can have breakfast on the way."
Daphne, never an early riser, looked rueful. "Six sharp," she confirmed, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. When she wasn't teaching, she liked sleeping in. "See you then."
With that, she was gone.
Sadie got up off the rug, stretched methodically in all directions, one leg at a time, and ambled into the kitchen area to check out her food bowl, the trunk of her body swaying from side to side as she went, like a sausage suspended on strings. Finding nothing there but half a dog biscuit and the remains of that morning's breakfast, she raised baleful brown eyes to Maggie's face and gave a despondent little whimper of protest.
"Did you know," Maggie said, already headed toward the tiny laundry room at the back of the cottage, where she stored kibble, a fresh dog dish in hand, "that the typical beagle gets way too much to eat on account of I sad-eyes syndrome I?
Sadie panted, wagging at warp speed. "Great," she seemed to be saying. "It's working."
Maggie chuckled, shook her head, and gave the dog an early supper. While Sadie dined, Maggie slipped out onto the back step and watched the sun set behind the gazebo. The structure was all but swallowed up in climbing rose vines just beginning to bud, and it was not only innocuous, but beautiful, in a misty, Thomas Kinkaid sort of way. In the ten years since her wedding day she had returned to Springwater many times for holidays and short vacations and, rarely if ever, associated the gazebo with any unhappy memory. Now that Daphne had gone back to house and husband, though, it seemed that she couldn't get J.T. out of her mind, couldn't forget the way he'd looked in the golden light of that spring afternoon long ago -- not just angry, but earnest and confounded and, worst of all, betrayed.
"I'm sorry," she told his ghost, and turned to go back into the guest house.
J.T. gestured, in mid stride, toward the barn, with its sagging roof and leaning walls. The whole ranch was a disgrace; Scully and Evangeline, the first of the Springwater Wainwrights, must have rolled over in their graves more than once in the years since he'd turned his back on the land to play homicide cop in the Big Apple. His aunt Janeen had been too sick to run such a demanding enterprise, and her husband, Clive Jenson, had been no damned good. In point of fact, he'd abandoned Janeen, left her to die alone, devoured by cancer.
Sometimes it seemed to J.T. that there was a curse on the Wainwright name, and on all the attendant property.
"Purvis, "he said to the older man double-stepping along beside him, "look at this place. I'd like to help you out. I really would. But I don't have time to take on another job."
Purvis Digg, a friend and contemporary of J.T.'s late father, Jack Wainwright, had served in Vietnam, and though he apparently didn't suffer from flashbacks or delayed-stress syndrome like many of his fellow veterans, he'd somehow gotten stuck in the sixties just the same. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair long, even though it was thinning on top, and bound back with a leather bootlace. Sometimes he added a headband, Indian style, though J.T. had yet to see a feather. He sported a fringed buckskin jacket bought secondhand during the Johnson administration, combat boots, and thrift-store jeans embellished with everything from star-and-moon-shaped patches and old Boy Scout badges to grease stains.
"But you're a cop," Purvis argued.
Reaching the corral gate, which was falling apart like everything else in J.T.'s life, he stopped, one hand on the rusty latch. "I was a cop," he corrected his old friend.
"Once a cop, always a cop," Purvis said.
J.T. thrust splayed fingers through his dark hair. he'd lost his partner to a punk who would probably be back out on the street in another eighteen months, and taken a bullet himself, and while he'd recovered physically, he wasn't sure he'd ever get over the memory of seeing Murphy fall. Then there was the funeral, watched on video in his hospital room: full honors; the brave, baffled face of the dead man's widow; the plaintive wail of sorrow from his teenage daughter. "Look, Purvis -- "
"Feel pretty damn sorry for yourself, don't you?" Purvis broke in, reddening a little at the base of his jaw. Like most everybody else in and around Springwater, he knew all about what had happened in that warehouse six months back. "Well, here's a flash for you, Junior: You're not the first guy who ever lost somebody they cared about. Your dad was the best friend I ever had -- we joined the service on the buddy plan, and he saved my life in 'Nam -- and one fine day somebody shot him right out of the saddle, if you recall."
Grief and exasperation made J.T.'s sigh sound the way it felt: raw. "Damn it, Purvis, that's a low blow. Of course I 'recall'!"
"Then you probably also recollect that nobody ever rounded up the shooter."
J.T. clenched and unclenched his left fist. He could not, would not, hit a skinny old man, but the temptation was no less compelling. "I recollect, all right. I still have nightmares about it, on a regular basis." Alternating with the ones about Murphy, he added to himself.
Purvis slapped him on the shoulder in an expression of manly commiseration. "Me, too. How old were you when Jack was murdered? Fourteen?"
"Thirteen," J.T. said, averting his eyes for a moment, in order to gather his composure. His father had ridden in from the range that afternoon, on the first hot breath of a summer thunderstorm, so drenched in blood that it was hard to tell where the man stopped and the horse began.
J.T., working in the corral with a two-year-old gelding on a lead line, had vaulted over the fence and run toward his father. Jack had fallen from his paint stallion the same way Murphy had gone down in the warehouse, in an excruciatingly slow, rolling motion. And like Murphy, Jack Wainwright had most likely been dead before he struck the ground. J.T. had still been kneeling in the dirt, rocking Jack's body in his arms, when Purvis, stopping by because someone had reported hearing a shot in the vicinity, had shown up in the squad car and radioed f or an ambulance. It had been too late for J.T.'s dad. Too late, in some ways, for J.T. himself.
"I didn't bring that up just for the hell of it," Purvis said, in his gruff way. "And maybe it was a little below the belt. The thing is, J.T., that wasn't an isolated incident. Sure, we had a lot of relatively trouble-free years around here, but that's all changed over the last couple of months. Some of the same crap that was going on back then is happening again now -- the ranchers around here are losing livestock to theft and poison same as before. Just last month, somebody took a shot at Dave Knox while he was out looking for strays. And I've got me a crazy feeling that we're dealing with the same outfit."
J.T.'s next instinct was to grasp Purvis by the lapels of his campy jacket and wrench him onto the balls of his feet, but he restrained himself -- the tendency to lose his cool had gotten him into trouble a few times, early in his career as a cop. A rap on the knuckles from the department, which included a series of anger-management classes, had pretty much straightened him out, but he still had to be careful.
"Are you telling me you think these are the same people who killed my father?" he demanded, after taking a long breath.
Purvis swallowed, then nodded. "Yup."
"You got any proof of that?"
"No," Purvis admitted. "Just an ache in my gut that says history is repeating itself." He paused. "J.T., this situation ain't gonna go away by itself. I ain't as young as I used to be, and I can't run these bastards down without some help. If I don't get them, the ranchers will have my badge, and you know as well as I do that once I'm gone they'll be up in arms like a bunch of yahoos out of some black-and-white western. We'll have the feds crawling all over the valley after that, but not before a few more people get hurt or killed."
"There must be somebody else," J.T. breathed. He was weakening, and Purvis surely knew it. Digg would never be drafted into the Rocket Scientists, Hall of Fame, but he was no rube, either. Law enforcement was not just his job, it was his religion.
"There's nobody else," Purvis insisted. "0h, I could come up with a pack of hotheaded rednecks, call 'em a posse. But you're the only professional around here, besides me. You're a cop. You can ride and shoot. Besides that, you're a rancher, just like them, and you're Jack Wainwright's son. You've got a stake in this too."
J.T. was silent. Purvis might be a hick lawman from a hick town smack in the middle of no place, but he had the tenacity of a pit bull, and he could argue like a big-city lawyer when it served his purpose.
Purvis came in for the kill. "What do you figure Jack would do, if he were in your place?"
J.T. closed his eyes, opened them again. The first seismic tremors of a headache stirred at the base of his skull. He didn't have to guess what Jack Wainwright would do, or Murphy either. They would have pushed up their sleeves and stepped into the fray. "All right," he said. "All right."
Purvis grinned. "Judge Calloway can swear you in tomorrow," he said.
"I'm going to an auction in the morning," J.T. replied. An elderly, widowed rancher had died over at Maple Creek, and the estate was being liquidated. He intended to bid on a couple of quarter horses and maybe a beef or two. Then he'd be able to call this pitiful place a ranch again, with a semistraight face.
The marshal of Springwater could afford to be generous; he'd gotten what he wanted. "All right. We'll have supper together tomorrow night, then, over at the Stagecoach Café. You, me, and the judge. Be there by six."
J.T. gave a rueful chuckle and shook his head. "You got it, Pilgrim."
Purvis laughed, administered another resounding shoulder slap, and turned to head back to his antiquated, mud-splattered police car. Halfway there, he turned. "Say," he added, as a jovial afterthought. "I reckon you know that Maggie McCaffrey's back in town. Going to spit shine the old Springwater Station and make one of them fancy little hotels out of it."
J.T. knew all about Maggie's return to Springwater; uncannily, her homecoming had very nearly coincided with his own, though they'd managed to avoid running into each other so far. He hadn't seen Maggie since the day he'd tried without success to keep her from marrying Connor Bartholomew. he'd made an ass of himself, in more ways than one, and even after all this time he wasn't anxious to face her -- and not just because he wasn't good at apologizing. he'd been married, fathered a son, gotten divorced, and dated dozens of women, before and after his ex-wife, Annie, but somewhere down deep he'd always had a thing for Maggie. he'd known it, and so, unfortunately, had Annie.
Murphy had warned him. You're going to blow it all if you're not careful, he'd said. You've got a nice wife and a great kid, but all you think about, all you talk about, is this damn job. What are you saving yourself for? A second chance with your high school sweetheart? Wise up, cowboy. It isn't what could have been that matters. It's what is."
"I'll have to stop by and say hello, "J.T. said to Purvis, as lightly as he could. "The Station's been sitting empty for a long time. It's good to know somebody is going to restore it."
Purvis nodded. "A McCaffrey, too," he agreed, pleased. "It'll be almost like the old days, when Jacob and June-bug was runnin' the place."
J.T. might have laughed if he hadn't just been roped into signing on for an indefinite stretch as Purvis's deputy. The way the marshal talked, Jacob and June-bug McCaffrey were just out of town instead of dead and buried for well over a century. "Almost," he agreed.
Purvis lifted a hand in farewell, climbed into his rig, and started up the engine. J.T. watched until the aging lawman had turned around and headed down the long dirt road leading to the highway.
"Shit," J.T. said aloud. He gave the gate latch a pull, and the whole thing collapsed, clattering to the ground.
He hoped it wasn't an omen.
The sky was pink and gold, with just the faintest rim of blue, when Maggie and Sadie pulled up in front of the old Hargreaves mansion across the street from the Springwater Station. Resigned to surrendering her shotgun seat, Sadie jumped nimbly into the back.
Maggie gave the horn a tentative tap, and Daphne immediately came out of the house, dressed, as Maggie was, in jeans, sneakers, and a lightweight blouse. Her hair was pulled back into a hasty ponytail, so that she resembled a teenager, and her fresh skin was bare of makeup.
"Coffee," she pleaded. "Now."
Maggie grinned. "Hang on, my friend," she said. "McDonald's is probably open."
Daphne made an event of fastening her seatbelt, greeted Sadie, and yawned. "Even Ben is still asleep," she said. An avowed workaholic, her husband was notorious for getting up early. Before long he'd be out at the mine, directing crews and equipment.
Once they'd pulled out of the McDonald's drive-through, Daphne became more voluble. "Don't forget," she said, sipping. "You promised us breakfast." She looked back over the seat. "Didn't she, Sadie?"
Sadie, lying on the seat with her muzzle resting on her paws, gave a cheerful whine.
"I'm a woman of my word," Maggie assured them both.
Half an hour later they were in Maple Creek, just over the county line, waiting for a seat at Flo's Diner. Because of the auction, which was to take place only a few miles away, the place was crowded.
"Look!" Daphne said, nudging Maggie. Flo was doing a brisk trade that morning, and it looked as though they might be standing for a while. "There's J.T."
Maggie followed her friend's gaze to the dark-haired, dark-eyed man in the rear booth. In a decade, he'd changed, of course, but only for the better. The planes and angles of his face gave him a rugged look, and he was thicker through the shoulders and the chest. At Daphne's exuberant wave, he grinned in that lazy, lopsided way Maggie had never been able to forget, and stood. with an easy gesture, he indicated the seats opposite his own.
"Come on," Daphne said, and before Maggie could balk, her friend had linked arms with her and started toward J.T.'s table.
Maggie felt her face catch fire; she might have been sixteen instead of thirty. Her heart shinnied up into her throat and got itself stuck there, just like old times.
"Hi, J.T. What great luck, running into you," Daphne chimed.
J.T. Is gaze lingered on Maggie, wry and all too knowledgeable. He obviously knew she would have preferred to be practically anywhere else besides Flo's Diner, face-to-face with the first and only man she'd ever truly loved.
"Hello, Maggie," he said, with a nod.
Maggie nodded back. "J.T."
"Well," said Daphne, "that was easy." She sat down cheerfully, sliding to the inside of the booth and reaching for a menu.
J.T. put out a hand in silent invitation, and Maggie took a seat beside Daphne. Only then did J.T. sit down again.
"We're here for the auction," Daphne said, when the conversation didn't take off right away. "What about you, J.T.?"
"Same thing," he said. His gaze was still fixed on Maggie's face. "Thought I'd pick up a couple of horses. Maybe some cattle."
Maybe some cattle, Maggie thought. Same old J.T. He either didn't realize, or didn't care, that ranching was a risky proposition these days, with so many people cutting back on red meat.
Daphne nudged Maggie hard with one elbow, though she did not look up from her menu. The message was clear enough: "Say something."
"I'm -- I'm looking for antiques -- quilts, old linens, things like that," Maggie explained, with awkward goodwill. "I'm reopening the Springwater Station as a bed-and-breakfast."
J.T.'s eyes burned into hers. "I'm surprised," he said. "That you came back to Springwater to live, I mean. I had you figured for a city girl." His tone was affable enough, but the remark was meant as a jibe, and Maggie knew it. Even before their breakup, there had been fundamental differences between them; she'd thought he was rash and impetuous, and he'd accused her of being too careful. Even rigid.
Her cheeks ached with the effort to smile. Damn if she would let him get to her right off the bat like that. "People change," she said.
"Not usually," he replied, with flat certainty.
"Did you learn that on the mean streets of New York?" She kept her voice neutral.
"No," he answered. "I learned it on the mean streets of Springwater."
Daphne closed her menu with a snap. "What's good here?" she asked, as Flo herself, a plump redhead in a pink uniform, trundled toward them. J.T. had already ordered, and Flo brought him a wide smile, along with his plate of bacon, eggs, and hash brown potatoes, fried crisp.
"What'll it be, honey?" the older woman asked good-naturedly, turning to Maggie.
"I'll have oatmeal," Maggie said, for the sake of appearances. She'd been hungry a few minutes before, but now she wasn't sure she could get so much as a bite down.
Daphne sighed, eyeing J.T.'s breakfast with longing. "Me, too," she said, resigned.
"Don't let your food get cold, "Maggie said, when J.T. hesitated to pick up his fork.
"By all means, eat," Daphne added.
"That's two oatmeals?" Flo asked. "Want any toast? Coffee?"
"Coffee, please," Maggie said, with an agreeable nod, and Flo made a note on her pad and hurried away. The diner was jumping.
"What about Sadie?" Daphne asked.
"Sadie?" J.T. asked, leaning forward a little. He'd begun to eat, but with mannerly reluctance.
"My dog," Maggie said.
"Ah," he said, as though it explained a great deal, her having a dog. "No husband? No kids?"
Was he rubbing it in? Everybody in Springwater knew what every other Springwater native was doing, whether they still lived in town or not. He would have heard about her divorce, not to mention any children she'd had. Maggie smiled sweetly. "Just Sadie," she said. "What about you?"
An expression of genuine sadness flickered in J.T. Is eyes, if only for an instant. "A son, Quinn. He's six."
Maggie had known about the little boy, of course, but hearing the words from J.T.'s own lips had an effect on her emotions all the same. She found herself strangely stricken, unable to contribute much to the conversation after that, and left Daphne in charge of chatting.
The coffee arrived, then the oatmeal. Maggie ordered a side of sausage links to go, for Sadie. She and Daphne settled up their bills, and J.T. attended to his.
She thought she was going to make a clean getaway, but while Daphne was using the rest room, J.T. followed Maggie out to her car and stood nearby while she fed an eager Sadie from a foam take-out box.
"Maggie," he said, low, when she tried to ignore him.
She looked up at him, questioning.
"I think we have a few things to say to each other, don't you?"
Copyright © 2001 by Linda Lael Miller
Once a frontier stagecoach stop, tiny Springwater has grown and changed and entered the twenty-first century. Cattle rustlers may still be stirring up trouble, but now they're high-tech operators in a modern world. Where stagecoaches once rolled along muddy roads, the Internet is now the newest highway in town. But heartbreak is still heartbreak and love still love, and Springwater still boasts a rich legacy of joy, sorrow, and second chances -- as two childhood sweethearts discover when they rekindle a long-ago passion in the place they will always call home.
Maggie McCaffrey left her fast-paced corporate job to take a chance on a more rewarding -- but riskier -- business venture: turning the dilapidated Springwater Station into a bed-and-breakfast. But Maggie didn't count on running straight into J.T. Wainwright, the hometown boy who stole her heart many years before. A tough former New York City cop, J.T. survived a grave gunshot wound and returned to Springwater to find a better way of life. Now, as deputy town marshal, he's facing off with modern-day cattle thieves who are plaguing local ranchers. Stronger than ever, J.T. seems ready for anything -- except, of course, Maggie.
As Maggie's B&B begins to take root, a delightful new cast of Springwater locals passes through its doors. Maggie's parents, Kathleen and Reece, are finding that their forty-year marriage requires a little renegotiating now and then. Cindy, a teenage newlywed with a baby on the way, is learning about love and sacrifice for the first time. And town marshal Purvis Digg is turning Springwater upside down by dating a woman he met on the Internet.
As always, Linda Lael Miller enchants readers with her portrayal of the complex tangle of life and love in a small town. With her trademark sensuality and her þair for wit, she once again brings Springwater to life -- this time, at the dawn of a new era.