Wyoming Bold Online - Diana Palmer

CHAPTER ONE

IT WAS ONE of the worst blizzards in the history of the Rancho Real in Catelow, Wyoming. Dalton Kirk stared out the window and grimaced as the flakes seemed to grow in size by the minute. It was the middle of December. Usually weather like this came later.

He pulled out his cell phone and called Darby Hanes, his foreman. “Darby, how’s it going out there?”

“Cattle are pretty deep in it,” Darby replied, his voice breaking up with static, “but we’re holding our own with feed so far. Getting hard to reach them, though.”

“I hope this doesn’t last long,” he said heavily.

“Me, too, but we need the snow for the spring water supply so badly, I’m not complaining.” Darby chuckled.

“Take care out there.”

“Sure. Thanks, boss.”

He hung up. He hated the storms but Darby was right about their desperate need for snow. The summer drought had made it hard on ranchers all over the West and Midwest. He just hoped they’d be able to get feed to the cattle. In an emergency, of course, federal and state agencies would help to airlift bales of hay to the animals.

He went into the living room and turned on the History channel. Might as well occupy himself instead of worrying so much, he thought amusedly.

* * *

MAVIE, THE HOUSEKEEPER, frowned as she thought she heard something at the back door. She was clearing away dishes in the kitchen, nervous because the storm seemed to be getting worse.

Curious, though, she went and peered through the white curtains and gasped when she saw a pale, oval face with wide, green eyes staring back at her.

“Merissa?” she asked, shocked.

She opened the door. There, in a hooded, bloodred cape, almost covered with snow, stood a neighbor. Merissa Baker lived with her mother, Clara, way back in the woods in a cottage. They were what local people called “peculiar.” Clara could talk out fire and talk off warts. She knew all sorts of herbal remedies for illness and they said she had the “second sight” as well, that she could see the future. Her daughter was rumored to have the same abilities, only magnified. She recalled that when Merissa had been in school, her classmates had shunned her and victimized her so badly that her mother pulled her out of the local high school because of her ongoing stomach problems. The school system had sent a homeschool worker with her classwork and oversaw her curriculum. She had graduated with her class, with grades that shamed most of them.

She’d tried to work locally, but her reputation was unsettling to some of the conservative businesses, so she went home and helped her mother, earning her living with a combination of fortune-telling and online website design, at which she was quite good. She had an older computer, and a cheap internet connection at first, but as her business grew, she’d started making money. She’d managed to afford better equipment and higher internet speed. Now, she was very successful. She designed websites for at least one quite famous author and several businesses.

“Come in out of the snow, child!” Mavie exclaimed. “You’re soaked!”

“The car wouldn’t start,” Merissa said in her soft, delicate voice. She was almost as tall as Mavie, who was just above five feet seven inches. She had thick, short, wavy platinum hair and pale green eyes that were huge in her face. She had a rounded little chin and a pretty, naturally pink bow-shaped mouth, and tiny ears. And a smile that could have melted stone.

“What are you doing here in a storm?”

“I have to see Dalton Kirk,” she said solemnly. “And it’s urgent.”

“Tank?” Mavie asked blankly, using the youngest Kirk brother’s affectionate nickname.

“Yes.”

“Can I ask what it’s about?” Mavie asked, confused, because she didn’t think the family had any business dealings with Merissa.

Merissa smiled gently. “I’m afraid not.”

“Oh. Well, let me go get him, then.”

“I’ll wait here. I don’t want to drip on the carpet,” the young woman said with a laugh that sounded like silver bells.

Mavie went into the living room. There was, fortunately, a commercial. Dalton had turned the sound off.

“Damn things,” he muttered. “One minute of program and five minutes of commercials, do they really think people are going to sit there and watch so many at once?” he huffed. He frowned at Mavie’s expression. “What’s wrong?”

“You know the Bakers, don’t you? They live in that cottage down the road, in the cottonwood thicket.”

“Yes.”

“Merissa is here. She says she has to talk to you.”

“Okay.” He got up. “Bring