The land in southeast Wyoming is a magnificent paradox. Spreading plains and rolling hills coexist with rocky mountains and thick velvet pines. From the kitchen window, the view was astounding, and Samantha Evans halted in her duties for a moment to drink it in.
The Rockies dominated the vast curtain of sky, their peaks laced with snow, though it was late March.
Samantha wondered if she would still be in Wyoming the following winter. She dreamed of long walks with the air biting and sharp on her cheeks, or wild rides on a spirited mount with hooves kicking up a flurry of white. But none of that could happen until her sister was well enough to be left alone.
A frown creased her smooth brow. Sabrina was her reason for being in Wyoming, with its majestic mountains and quiet plains, rather than in the more familiar surroundings of Philadelphia’s tall buildings and traffic-choked streets.
The two sisters had always been close, with that special, magical intimacy that twins share. They were not identical. Though they were the same in height and build, Samantha’s eyes were a dark cornflower blue, widely set, with thick, spiky lashes, while Sabrina’s eyes were a light gray. Both faces were oval set with small, straight noses and well-shaped mouths, but while Samantha’s rich brown hair, with its highlights of gold, was shoulder length with a fringe of bangs, Sabrina’s ash blond was short, framing her face with delicate curls. The bond between them was strong and enduring. Even when Sabrina had married Dan Lomax and moved so many miles away to settle on his ranch in the Laramie Basin, their devotion had remained constant and unwavering.
They kept in touch by phone and letter, which helped to mitigate Samantha’s aching loneliness. And she was happy in her sister’s delight in the coming baby. The two women had laughed and planned together over the phone. But that was before Dan’s call. Samantha had been aroused from a deep predawn sleep by the shrill ringing of the phone. She reached groggily for it, but was instantly alerted by the anxious tone of her brother-in-law’s voice. “Sam,” he said without any preamble, “Bree’s been very ill. We did manage to save the baby, but she has to be very careful for a while now. She will have to stay in bed and have constant round-the-clock care. We are trying to find someone to—”
Samantha had only one thought—her sister, the person she loved best in the world. “Don’t worry, Dan, I will come immediately.”
She was on the plane to Wyoming less than twenty-four hours later. . . .
The whistle of the kettle brought Samantha back to the present. She began to brew the herbal tea, placing delicate floral cups on a silver tray.
“Teatime,” she called as she entered the living room. Sabrina was propped up with pillows and comforters on the long wood-edged sofa. Though her smile was warm, her cheeks still retained a delicate pallor.
“Just like the movies,” Sabrina commented as her sister set a tray on the pine table. “But the role of Camille is getting to be a bore.”
“I imagine so.” Samantha poured the fragrant tea into cups. “But you may as well get used to it, Bree, you’ve got the part for a month’s run.” She transferred a large gray-striped cat from Sabrina’s lap to her own, offered Sabrina a steaming cup and sat on the rug. “Has Shylock been keeping you company?”
“He’s a terrible snob.” With a wry smile, Sabrina sipped at her tea. “He did graciously allow me to scratch his ears. I have to admit, I’m glad you brought him with you, he’s my biggest entertainment.” She sighed and lay back against the pillows, regarding her sister seriously. “I’m ashamed to be lying here feeling sorry for myself. I’m lucky.” She rested her hand on her stomach in a protective gesture. “I shall have my baby, and I sit here moaning about your waiting on me.”
“You’re entitled to moan a bit, Bree,” said Samantha, immediately sympathetic. “You’re used to being active and busy.”
“I’ve no right to complain. You gave up your job and left home to come out here and take care of me.” Another deep sigh escaped, and her gray eyes were dangerously moist. “If Dan had told me what you were planning to do, I would never have allowed it.”
“You couldn’t have stopped me.” Samantha attempted to lighten the mood. “That’s what older sisters are for.”
“You never forget those seven minutes, do you?” Sabrina’s eyes cleared, and a reluctant smile curved her generous mouth.
“Nope, it gives me seniority.”
“But your job, Sam.”
“Don’t worry.” Samantha made another dismissive gesture. “I’ll get another job in the fall. There’s more than one high school in the country, and they all have gym teachers. Besides, I needed a vacation.”
“Vacation!” Sabrina exclaimed. “Cleaning, cooking, caring for an invalid. You call that a vacation?”
“My dear Sabrina, have you ever tried to teach an overweight, totally uncoordinated teenager the intricacies of the parallel bars? Well, the stories I could tell you about vacations.”
“Sam, what a pair we are. You with your teenagers and me with my preadolescent Mozarts. Lord knows how many times I cleaned peanut butter off the keys of that old Wurlitzer before Dan came along and took me away from scales and infant prodigies. Do you think Mom expected us to come to this when she dragged us to all those lessons?”
“Ah, but we’re well-rounded.” Samantha’s grin was faintly wicked. “Aren’t you grateful? She always told us we’d be grateful one day for the ballet and the piano lessons.”
“The voice lessons and the riding lessons,” Sabrina continued, ticking them off on her fingers.
“Gymnastics and swimming lessons,” Sabrina concluded with a giggle.
“Poor Mom.” Samantha shifted Shylock to a more comfortable position. “I think she expected one of us to marry the president, and she wanted us to be prepared.”
“We shouldn’t make fun.” Sabrina wiped her eyes with a tissue. “The lessons did give us our living.”
“True. And I can still whip up a mean spinach soufflé.”
“Ugh.” Sabrina grimaced, and Samantha lifted her brows.
“You have your medals,” Sabrina reminded her. Her smile warmed with pride and a trace of awe.
“Yes, I have the medals and the memories. Sometimes, it feels like yesterday instead of nearly ten years ago.”
Sabrina smiled. “I can still remember my terrified excitement when you first swung onto the uneven bars. Even though I’d watched the routine countless times, I couldn’t quite believe it was you. When they put that first Olympic medal around your neck, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
“I remember thinking just before that competition, after I’d botched the balance beam so badly, that I couldn’t do it. My legs felt like petroleum jelly, and I was mortally afraid I was going to be sick and disgrace myself. Then I saw Mom in the stands, and it ran through my mind how much she’d sacrificed. Not the money. The bending of those rather strange values of hers to allow me those years of training and those few heady moments of competition. I had to prove it was justified, I had to pay her back with something, even though I knew she’d never be able to say she was proud of me.”
“You proved it was justified.” Sabrina gave her twin a soft smile. “Even if you hadn’t won on the bars and the floor exercises, you’d proved it by just being there. And she was proud of you, even if she didn’t say it.”
“You’ve always understood. So get over the idea I’m doing you a favor coming here. I want to be here. I belong here.”
“Sam.” Sabrina held out a hand. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. I don’t know what I ever would have done without you.”
“You’d manage,” Samantha returned, giving the frail hand a squeeze. “You have Dan.”
“Yeah, I do.” The smile became soft. “This is the time of day that I miss him most. He should be home soon.” Her gaze wandered to the glass-domed anniversary clock on the mantel above the fire.
“He said something about checking fences today. I can’t quite get away from the image of him chasing rustlers or fighting off renegade Indians.”
With a light laugh, Sabrina settled back among the cushions. “City slicker. You know, Sam, sometimes I can’t even remember what Philadelphia looks like. Jake Tanner was riding along with Dan today to make sure the boundary fences were in good repair.”
“Jake Tanner?” Samantha’s question was idle.
“Oh, that’s right, you haven’t met him yet. The northwest corner of the ranch borders his. Of course, the Lazy L would fit into one corner of his ranch. He owns half the county.”
“Ah, a land baron,” Samantha concluded.
“A very apt description,” Sabrina agreed. “The Double T, his ranch, is the most impressive I’ve seen. He runs it like clockwork, super efficient. Dan says he’s not only an incredible rancher, but a very crafty businessman.”
“Sounds like a bore,” Samantha commented, wrinkling her nose. “Steel-gray hair around a leathered face, a handlebar mustache drooping over his mouth and a generous belly hanging over his belt . . .”
Sabrina’s laughter rang out, high and sweet.
“You’re about as far off the mark as you can get. Jake Tanner is anything but a bore, and speaking from the safety of marital bliss, he’s a fascinating man to look at. And, being rich, successful and unattached, all the females under forty buzz around him like bees around honey.”
“Sounds like a good catch.” Samantha said dryly. “Mom would love him.”
“Absolutely,” Sabrina agreed. “But Jake has eluded capture so far. Though from what Dan says, he does enjoy the chase.”
“Now he sounds like a conceited bore.” Samantha tickled Shylock’s smooth belly.
“You can hardly blame him for taking what’s offered.” Sabrina defended the absent Jake Tanner with a vague movement of her shoulders. “I imagine he’ll settle down soon. Lesley Marshall—her father’s ranch borders the other side of the Double T—has her sights set on him. She’s a very determined woman, as well as being more than a little spoiled, and dreadfully rich.”
“Sounds like a perfect match.”
“Mmm, maybe,” Sabrina murmured. Her face creased in a small frown. “Lesley’s nice enough when it suits her, and it’s about time Jake had a wife and family. I’m fond of Jake. I’d like to see him set up with someone with more warmth.”
“Listen to the old married woman.” Samantha addressed a dozing and unconcerned Shylock. “A year of nuptial bliss, and she can’t stand to see anyone unattached.”
“True. I’m going to start on you next.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Wyoming’s full of good-looking cowboys and handsome ranchers.” Sabrina continued to smile as her sister grimaced. “You could find a worse place to settle down.”
“I have no objection to settling here, Bree. I’ve become quite attached to the wide open spaces. But—” she paused significantly “—cowboys and ranchers are not among my immediate plans for the future.” She rose from the floor in a fluid motion. “I’ve got to check on that roast. Here.” She handed her sister the novel that rested on the table. “Read your love stories, you incurable romantic.”
“You won’t be so cynical when you fall in love,” Sabrina predicted with the wisdom of experience.
“Sure.” Samantha’s grin was indulgent.
“There’ll be bells ringing and fireworks shooting and trumpets blaring.” She patted her sister’s hand and strolled from the room, calling over her shoulder. “Angels singing, flames leaping . . .”
“Just you wait,” Sabrina shouted after her.
Samantha busied herself preparing vegetables for the evening meal, clucking her tongue at her sister’s nonsense. Love, she sniffed derisively. Her only experience with that complex emotion had been fending off unwanted attentions from eager males. Not once had any man lit an answering spark in her. But whatever this love was, it worked for Bree. The younger twin had always been more delicate, softer and more dependent. And though Sabrina was trying to be brave and strong, her sister knew the fear of miscarriage still lurked in the back of her mind. She needed Dan’s support and love, and right now, she needed to feel his arms around her.
Like the answer to a prayer, Samantha spotted two figures on horseback approaching from the lower pasture. Grabbing her heavy jacket from the hook by the back door, she scurried out of the kitchen and into the cold March air.
As Dan and his companion drew closer, Samantha greeted him with a smile and a wave. She had noticed, even at a distance, Dan’s expression of concern. But a smile relaxed his features when he spotted Samantha.
“Sabrina’s all right?” he asked as he reined in next to her.
“She’s fine,” Samantha assured him. “Just a trifle restless, and tremendously lonely for her husband.”
“Did she eat better today?”
Samantha’s smile warmed, lighting her face with a quick flash of astonishing beauty.
“Her appetite was much better. She’s trying very hard.” Samantha lifted a hand to stroke the smooth flank of the gelding he rode. “What she needs now is you.”
“I’ll be in as soon as I stable my horse.”
“Oh, Dan, for heaven’s sake. Let your hand do it, or I’ll do it myself. Bree needs you.”
“But . . .”
“’S all right, boss,” the other horseman interrupted, and Samantha spared him a brief glance. “I’ll tend to your horse. You go on and see the missus.”
Dan flashed his companion a wide grin and dismounted. “Thanks,” he said simply as he handed over the reins and turned to Samantha. “Coming in?”
“No.” She shook her head and hunched her shoulders in the confines of her jacket. “You two could use some time alone, and I’d like some air.”
“Thanks, Sam.” He pinched her cheek with brotherly affection and moved off toward the house.
Waiting until the door closed behind him, Samantha walked over and dropped wearily onto the stump used for splitting wood. Resting her back against the fence, she breathed deeply, devouring the brisk, cold air. The strain of caring for her sister in addition to running the house and cooking the meals, including, over his objection, Dan’s predawn breakfast, had taken its toll.
“A few more days,” she whispered as she closed her eyes. “A few more days and I’ll have adjusted to the routine and feel more like myself.” The heavy corded jacket insulated her from the bite of the cold, and she tilted back her head, allowing the air to play on her cheeks as her mind drifted on the edge of exhaustion.
“Funny place to take a nap.”
Samantha sat up with a jerk, confused and disoriented by sleep. Her eyes traveled up to the speaker’s face. It was a lean face, skin bronzed by the sun and stretched tightly over cheekbones, all lines and shadows, hollows and angles. The eyes were arresting, deep-set and heavily lashed. But it was their color, a deep, pure jade that caught and held her attention. His dusky gold hair curled from under a well-battered Stetson.
“Evening, ma’am.” Though he touched the brim of his hat with due respect, his extraordinary eyes were faintly mocking.
“Good evening,” she returned, struggling for dignity.
“Person could catch a bad chill sitting out too long after the sun’s low. Wind’s picking up, too.” His speech was slow and thickly drawled. His weight was distributed evenly on both legs, hands deep in pockets. “Oughtn’t to be out without a hat.” His comment was accompanied by a fractional movement of his head toward her unadorned one. “Hat helps keep the heat in.”
“I’m not cold.” She feared for a moment her teeth would chatter and betray her. “I was . . . I was just getting some air.”
/> “Yes, ma’am.” He nodded in agreement, glancing behind her at the last, dying brilliance of sun as it slipped behind circling peaks. “Fine evening for setting out and watching the sunset.”
Her eyes flashed at the teasing. She was embarrassed to have been caught sleeping. He smiled a slow, careless smile that crept unhurried across his face. The movement of his lips caused the hollows to deepen, the shadows to shift. Unable to resist, Samantha’s lips curved in response.
“All right, I confess. You caught me napping. I don’t suppose you’d believe I was just resting my eyes.”
“No, ma’am.” His answer was grave, with just a hint of apology.
“Well.” She rose from her seat and was dismayed at how far she still had to look up to meet his eyes. “If you keep quiet about it, I’ll see to it that you get a piece of the apple pie I baked for dinner.”
“That’s a mighty tempting offer.” He considered it with a long-fingered hand reaching up to stroke his chin. “I’m partial to apple pie. Only one or two things I’m more partial to.” His eyes roamed over her in a thorough and intense study that caused her heart to pound with unaccustomed speed.