The graveside service was short, per her father’s instructions. It was Brandon’s wish to get things over with as quickly as possible, for everyone’s sake. He’d made that quite clear on numerous occasions. He didn’t like long-winded preachers or drawn-out ceremonies. That’s the way he’d died, too. Quick, not lingering, a heart attack while he was checking the stock. He was gone before the ranch hands could get help.
And that, in the end, had been a blessing. Rilla didn’t think she could hold up much longer. She’d sat through the service at the funeral home, numb. And now, she was going through the motions by rote. She was glad Helen was at her side, guiding her every step of the way.
But how long would Helen be there beside her? Not forever. She was going to have to learn to do this on her own.
She wished she’d had just a little more time to adjust to the whole idea of her father being gone.
Helen touched her elbow and nodded through the gray mist at her truck. The service was blessedly finished. It had showered earlier, leaving sullen dampness behind. Rilla understood Helen’s intention—she’d wait for her as long as Rilla needed. Everyone else had left moments ago, drifting off to their vehicles and slowly leaving her with their condolences. Taking a deep breath, Rilla looked skyward to catch the outline of the San Juans in the near distance through the drab haze of the afternoon. This mountain town and the Triple R had been her home for twenty-six years. Each of those years she’d had her father to lean on. >From now on, things would be different.
“I sure hope you’ve taught me well, Brandon Ray,” she remarked as she watched the clouds skim by overhead. Briefly, a patch of blue sky and sunshine opened up and Rilla wondered if that was her answer. She wondered if her father was sending a message that everything would be all right.
Allowing herself a small smile, she stepped closer to the casket. Having said all the good-byes she could say, and shedding all the tears she had, now all she could do was stand and stare at the cascade of Colorado wildflowers and greenery.
One tear did manage to escape just as a shadow fell across the arrangement.
Rilla glanced up.
The man standing before her seemed familiar somehow. He was dressed in Wranglers, a western shirt, and a badly fitting sports coat. She suspected it wasn’t his. His black Resistol was tipped down over his eyes, but the square jaw, the thin lips, the nose looked just like—
It couldn’t be him.
“Rilla? That you?”
It was. The voice was unmistakable. Drawn and lazy, like smoke over a campfire. He looked at her with surprise on this face. She figured she probably mirrored that look right back.
He tipped his hat back on his head. Sandy hair, cut short. It was Garth.
“Yeah. Been a while, huh?”
It was damned hard to find her voice. “Ten years,” she finally got out.
Rilla bristled. He didn’t even know how long? “Yeah. Ten long years.”
She watched his eyes flare. What was it she saw in them? Her gaze played over his face. Ten years had more than aged him. Ten years had turned him into a man worth raking your gaze over. He was something. Yet, he had always been something.
But why was he here? Why now?
“So what brings you back after all this time?”
His hands went to his hips, fingertips tucked into his pockets. A look of exasperation passed over his face. “Hell, Rilla. Do you have to ask me that?”
“You should have come back when he was alive,” she blurted out. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Garth being here. “It would have meant a lot more if you’d come back when he was alive.”
Rilla wished she hadn’t said that as she took in the pained expression that raced across his face.
“Well, I’m back now,” he challenged.
“As I see.”
He glanced away. Rilla tried to tamp down the anger rising inside her, along with a host of other emotions. Tears dared to rim her eyes again. She’d never expected this. What did Garth want? Surely after all this time….
“I don’t want anything, you know that.”
It was as if he’d read her mind.
“I just wanted to pay my respects. To him. To you.”
Rilla looked into his eyes. Maybe he spoke the truth. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe.
“All right. So you’ve done that.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, as though he couldn’t believe it was really her. “You’ve grown up.”Yes, I’ve grown up, Garth. I’m not a silly teenage girl any longer. Not the girl you can kiss and run away from…
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