• Willa

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She was going to die here in this truck. Eventually the air would run out in the cab, and she would suffocate in the carbon dioxide that was steadily building with each of her panicked breaths. The entire back window had smashed inward with the force of the avalanche, and part of the cab was filled with snow, but luckily the windshield and her driver’s side window had held up to the assault of frozen debris. The force had rolled the truck on its side and probably pushed her partway down the slope. She had no idea how far under the snow she was, and her mind raced to try to remember what she could about how to survive in these situations. Trying to clear some of the snow away from herself inside the cab, she began to search for anything that might be useful to keep herself alive. But how would anyone find her? She knew that controlling her breathing was important, but the panic gripping her chest was like an iron fist, and every ragged, desperate breath brought her closer to death.

Ten months earlier, Denver, Colorado

Laney McRae stepped through the gates of the busy Denver airport and allowed herself to be swept by the crowd toward the baggage claim area where she prayed she would find her luggage quickly. Her only thought was to escape this mosh pit as soon as humanly possible. She always felt a bit confined by crowds, and after a month in her mother’s New York apartment, the constant noise and tension they caused within her left a dull headache nagging between her jet-black brows. Rubbing at the knot in her neck muscles, she pulled out her phone and sent off a quick text to her father who she knew was anxious for her arrival. They had talked while she was waiting for her plane to board in New York, and she knew he would be nearby outside in his “going to town” truck that he only used on rare occasions. Just the picture she conjured of him in her mind made her feel a bit better, and she looked forward to their reunion more than ever now that she was so close to the end of her journey.

She saw that the bags hadn’t arrived yet, so she made her way to stand and wait next to a pillar where she had a clear view of the carousel. She set her serape-style bag between her well-worn moccasins and leaned against the cool wall at her back. Her wrangler jeans were dark and well fitted, topped with a white V-neck tee tucked into her belt at the front. A turquoise pendant hung from the long silver chain that circled her dark, slender neck. The temperature changes while travelling were always so annoying. New York was frigid this time of year, as were the mountains, so the sheepskin coat she had thrown over her arm was necessary. But the plane and airport always seemed hot no matter the weather outside, maybe partly because of the tinge of anxiety she felt when travelling. Carrying the hot jacket around didn’t help though, and she set it at her feet before tackling the heavy braid of hair that trapped the warm air near her neck.

She had been blessed with the best features from both of her parents. The long, glossy, black hair could be attributed to her mother’s Japanese ancestry, along with her slanting dark eyes, fine bones, and tanned complexion. She was often mistaken for having Native American heritage because of it. But her height and the extra curve to her figure, along with the stubborn chin and full lips, were a credit to her father’s Scottish lineage. The crooked angle of her nose had been all of her own doing, however. It was the painful result of a half-broke colt that had come over backward on her during their second ride. Her father had made her get back up and finish the training session, unyielding in his belief that you never left off training a horse on a sour note. She reached up and began to undo the long Dutch braid that hung almost to her belt, and once it was free, she swept the mass of hair up into a high messy bun, securing it with an elastic from her wrist.

It had been a long day of travel from New York where she had been spending time with her mother, as she did every spring before calving began on her father’s ranch. Her mother had left Colorado when Laney was eight in order to pursue her dreams as a fashion designer in New York, but Laney had chosen to remain for most of the time on the ranch with her father. Sam McRae was a tough man in every aspect of life, but after her mother had left, the two had become inseparable. The man had worked hard carving out his cattle empire with his daughter in tow. He had taught her everything he knew of the business, and much to her mother’s dismay, she had taken to it like a fish to water. It was hardly lady-like to discuss breeding of cattle and horses or jostle about with the cowboys in the auction barn, but she loved every minute of it.

Laney still could never picture how her parents had ever thought they would make it in a marriage, as different as they were in almost every aspect. She knew they had been married largely because her mother was pregnant with her, but she was thankful that they had tried as it had given her the opportunity to come to know the cattle industry alongside her father. She couldn’t imagine what her life would have been like if she’d grown up somewhere like the monochromatic apartment where her mother, Emiko, currently resided. A force to be reckoned with, her mother was a fashion guru and made her living in the industry that every aspect of her life revolved around. But no matter how much the feisty slip of a woman praised the location of her SoHo penthouse, it just couldn’t compare to the vast mountain views of their home in Colorado. It was those views that she couldn’t wait to return to if only her luggage would slide down off the ramp so she could escape this incessant crush of people occupying the airport.

Thinking back to the apartment she had woken up in early this morning, she pondered once again how very different her parents were. She couldn’t even picture Sam’s burley frame perched on one of the sleek, immaculate couches that her mother had purchased last year. Emiko had hustled her way up the industry in the last few years, and as much as Laney adored her mother, they were very different people. The ultra-modern surroundings Emiko loved so much were cold to her, and Laney had felt out of place there.

When the carousel finally began to move, she unfolded her long legs, and straightened from her relaxed position against the pillar to get her one checked bag. Calling her father on her cell phone, she determined where he was waiting in the truck outside. He answered on the first ring as she rushed out the doors and into the snowy sunshine, eager to see the white caps of the mountains once again. It had been colder than usual this year, and the snowfall was far exceeding the average.

Sam McRae was standing next to his shiny red pickup with their “Lazy 7’s Ranch” logo emblazoned on the side just as she had known he would be. He raised an arm when she appeared on the crowded sidewalk not far from him. He caught her up in a massive hug and swung her off her feet, laughing his big booming laugh, while his handlebar moustache tickled her ear. He smelled of horses and fresh air, with a hint of old spice that she always teased him for using. The combination of smells was confirmation of her homecoming, ever comforting to her. His embrace was so enthusiastic that they almost slipped on the icy cement. Laughing, she poked him in the belly to get him to set her down, then leaned up and planted a kiss on his grizzled cheek.

“Ugh Dad! You gotta shave!” she scolded, and he thoughtfully rubbed his rough cheek.

“Sorry, girl. I was out feeding cattle at the crack of dawn, and I guess I didn’t bother with the 5 o’clock shadow before I left,” he chuckled.

He held her out at arm’s length for a moment as if inspecting her, then winked and threw her bag into the back seat of the pickup.

“Hungry?” he raised an eyebrow and gave her a cocky grin, already knowing what her answer would be.

“Always,” she laughed as she hopped up into the passenger side. She was promptly greeted by her dad’s old cattle dog, Ace. He licked the side of her face, happy to see her as she displaced him from his spot in the shotgun seat. It is good to be home, she thought to herself as her dad climbed stiffly up into the driver seat, and they lurched out into the busy traffic.

“So…how is your mom? How was the trip?” he asked as he manoeuvred the big pickup carefully through the dense lanes of traffic toward the outskirts of the city and their favourite fast-food restaurant.

“She’s good! Busy, happy… Moved apartments. Takes time off here and there, always travelling for inspiration. She started dating again…” Even though it had been 15 years since her mother had left, it still felt a bit odd to talk to her dad about her mom’s boyfriend, so she changed topics.

“I did some sightseeing around the city while Mom was at work. That place is constantly changing — I don’t recognize half of it each time I go back. Mom keeps me busy whenever she’s done work, and now that she’s the boss, she dragged me to a few of her appointments and events. We saw a couple shows, and I read some books, but I will be happy to get back to work. It’s hard to go from being busy with work every day to THAT, you know? I mean, it’s busy, but a different kind of busy. I even tried out Mom’s yoga studio, and she sent me to her salon for something she called a Brazilian blowout.” Laney rolled her eyes.

He laughed and nodded. It had been what she had been saying about her visits for the last few years. Sam saw himself reflected in her whenever she talked that way. Every time it happened, it worried him that he may have made mistakes in the way he’d raised her. There was always work to be done on the ranch, and when Laney was young, he didn’t have much choice but to drag her along when he was out building a fence or hauling cattle. But it seemed to him that as he got older and slowed down, Laney was only increasing in her drive to be busy, and that worried him.

Sure, she had sown some wild oats when she was in high school, and there had been a couple years when he worried about her being out late and getting into trouble. But then she had been in a bad accident shortly after her graduation and something had changed in her; she had grown up too fast.

Her boyfriend at the time, Cole Upland, had been severely injured and was now in a special care home, paralyzed from the chest down. If anything, the accident had brought him and Laney closer. Sam would never forget the anguish of Cole’s parents who he had been sitting with when they received the news that their son might not pull through surgery. John and Tracy had been agonized, and he had felt for his friends who had a long road of recovery ahead with their son. The guilt that he felt in his relief to find Laney barely even injured, lingered still in his mind.

Sam brushed those thoughts away as he took the exit to hit the drive-through for their favourite fast-food joint. He was so happy to have Laney back home, and he almost looked forward to the long drive home just to have her company. With greasy burgers, fries, and milkshakes in hand, including a burger for the dog, they began the four-hour trek across the mountain range to their home. They had a lot to catch up on and talked about all that had happened at the ranch since she had been gone and what their plans would be for the coming spring. Conversation flowed easily as they drove through the mountains and eventually down into the sprawling valley they called home.

Laney would have loved to make the trip in daylight, but the cool sense of calm and belonging washed over her all the same, as their headlights cast their glow onto the big log home that she loved. Throwing open the truck door, she took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air she had missed so much and climbed down onto the gravel driveway.

Sam grabbed her bag, and they moved through the chill air into the house where the faint smell of wood smoke lingered. Ace curled up on the rug next to her as Laney threw a few logs in the fireplace, the heat assaulting her face and arms as the logs caught the flame.

Contented by the sizzling and popping of the logs, she settled onto the comfortable leather couch to soak in being home. The dog was getting old, and he loved to bask next to the heat on the old tattered mat. She had missed the lodge, and each time she came home, she resolved to spend more time relaxing here, but there was always so much work to be done. More often than not, she ate supper and headed straight for bed, body craving the rest needed to start again early the next morening. But now the slow heat from the fire travelled right to her bones and the sound of the fire in the silence of the house brought a sense of nostalgia.

The rambling log lodge that they called home had been build when Laney was six, and she still remembered staring in awe as the huge logs were swung into place one by one to create its massive frame.

The impressive structure was constructed almost entirely of logs from their property, with huge windows that commanded the most amazing vistas of the mountains from one side, and their valley on the other. The barnyard and outbuildings were laid out down the gentle slope behind the house. The main entrance was preluded by a sweeping stone staircase that led up from the driveway to a huge set of double doors and into the main living area. The broad river rock fireplace commanded the centre of the wall to the right and was the focal point of the room. Huge vaulted ceilings and wide windows facing east and west on either side of the room made the room feel airy. French doors in the back led out onto a spacious porch facing the mountains. To the left, was the spiralled staircase that led up to the bedrooms, each with their own bathroom. Beyond the staircase on the main floor was a chef’s kitchen, complete with state-of-the-art appliances and granite counter tops.

Laney suspected that the kitchen had been the only room designed by her mother and had been a last effort by her father to really make her happy. Since her mother Emiko had left, Laney and her father had made good use of the kitchen, and she looked forward to cooking supper with him tomorrow night. It had always been a special time for the two of them to catch up, and she had a craving for a bowl of their hearty beef chilli. Behind the kitchen, the hall led away to the north to a guest bedroom and bath, and her old playroom, which was now mainly storage. The hall ended in the large room that was her father’s office. A laundry room and cold storage stood just off the garage, and the mudroom led off the house to the barnyard.

Despite the fact that she was exhausted from her journey, there was a thrill in her chest to be home. Even though the darkness enveloped the house, she seemed to absorb a sense of calm and quiet from the mountains that were so near. For a while, she stood and gazed out into the blackness beyond the huge windows. It was almost as if her mind needed time to adjust back to the quiet that surrounded them there.

Sam lived by the motto “early to bed, early to rise”, so it was no surprise that almost immediately after hanging up his coat, he gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and a pat on the shoulder before saying goodnight. Laney watched as he headed up the curving staircase and off to bed, a smile on her face.

“Glad to have you home, girl. The place just isn’t the same without you. The guys aren’t nearly as good a help in the kitchen.” Sam winked, and giving her one last tender look, he disappeared up the stairs. Laney knew that when she was gone, Sam asked the hired hands, Marty and Bill to come in for supper almost every night. Even when she was home, it was a regular enough occurrence, and the group felt more like family to her than anyone else.

After her dad had headed upstairs, Laney wandered through the kitchen for a quick snack. Grabbing some carrot sticks, she wandered back to the living room and her cozy spot on the well-loved leather couch. When Ace got up next to her and laid his head in her lap, her homecoming felt complete.

Looking down at her phone, she noticed a text from Todd, a guy she had been casually seeing before she had left for New York, but decided not to respond to him yet. She felt as though he wanted to advance their relationship, but she wasn’t sure if she was willing to pick things up with him again. Her trip felt like a good breaking point, and she had half hoped that he would move on while she had been gone. Their couple of dates had gone okay, but she hadn’t felt any kind of spark when he had kissed her at the end of the night. She wondered if part of her problem with dating was that no one seemed to measure up to the man her father was.

The last time she had been in a serious relationship was in high school, and it had ended in disaster. The terrible car wreck she and Cole had been through had brought her youth to a screeching halt, and since then, she hadn’t felt the excitement of a new love in the same way again. She had tried to reach out to Cole in the aftermath, but he had changed. He was bitter and angry at the world, and try as she might, she only seemed to be a painful reminder of that awful night. She and Cole had gradually grown apart, no matter how she tried to reconcile with him time and time again. Eventually she had given up on their relationship, but for years she had tried everything she could to keep in touch.

Laney stretched out on the couch, pulling her favourite wool blanket up around her shoulders, and reacquainted herself with the silence. She couldn’t wait for the morning when the sun would rise up over the Rockies, and she could look out of the huge windows and onto the valley where she loved to ride. Eventually she picked her phone back up and texted her mother to let her know she was home safe, as well as her best friend, Bre, who would be glad to hear that she was home. Guilt got the best of her and she reluctantly decided to reply to Todd with a vague message to maybe hang out the next week. She used the excuse that she was going to be busy for a while catching up on ranch work after her trip.

It just took more energy than it was worth to maintain a relationship with the men she had met so far. They never seemed to know what they wanted. And if they did, it never left enough room for her own plans. She refused to make herself smaller to fit into their idea of a future. Half the men her age were still immature and found her focus and independence intimidating, and the other half were in a relationship or married. But there was a part of her that wished for a relationship that would stick. Sometimes she thought her best friend had snapped up the last good man in the country.

Bre was getting married this September, and in the flurry of planning she was constantly bombarding Laney with some new detail of the upcoming big day. Even though Laney wasn’t much help with the planning, as the maid of honour, Bre kept her up to date on what was happening. Texting back and forth, they made plans to meet up that Friday at the bar in town to catch up and have a drink.

Ace shifted on the couch next to her. The half-deaf old dog always seemed to know when she was feeling a little restless. Satisfied that she had gotten the necessary texts sent, she tossed her phone aside and snuggled into his warm fur. Turning on the TV, she flipped through the channels until she found an episode featuring a horse trainer she was interested in. During commercial breaks, she made plans for what she hoped to get done the next day. Eventually, hoping she was tired enough to sleep, she rose and flipped off the TV.

Upstairs in her bedroom she cracked open a window, allowing a surge of the clean winter air to flood the room. After doing a few relaxing yoga stretches to help release the knots from travel, she burrowed beneath her down comforter, and took a few deep breaths before sinking into oblivion.

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