Cover of the new book "Caribou Crossing "

Caribou Crossing

 

Warning: This excerpt contains adult content. 18 and over only, please.

Excerpt from “Caribou Crossing”

Late February 1995

Miriam Bly lay in darkness, her eyelids heavy, shuttering her from the world. Dimly, she was aware of an ache in her belly, another in her heart, but the sensations were dull, muffled. A cocoon wrapped her, protecting her from . . . From what?

This wasn’t normal not-quite-awake-yet sleep. She felt almost like she’d been drugged. What could have . . . But the thought faded before she could follow it through.

She wanted to open her eyes.

No, maybe she didn’t. Instinct told her there was something she didn’t want to face.

A male voice prodded the border of her safe cocoon. “Honey, I’m here.”

Wade. It was Wade.

A sense of peace filled her. She was with Wade, safe and loved.

“I’m with you, Miriam,” he said softly. “Now and forever.”

She smiled. No need to open her eyes, because his beloved face was crystal clear in her mind’s eye.

* * *

Heaven, Miriam thought as she swayed in the arms of her brand new husband to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” This was sheer heaven.

The male singer’s voice sang the last line, vowing that the yellow rose of Texas was the only girl for him, and a fiddle echoed the plaintive melody.

“That’s how I feel,” Wade said, his chocolate eyes warm and sparkly as he smiled down at her. She’d shed her high-heeled sandals when he’d taken off the jacket of his rented tux, so he was a good six inches taller, making her feel feminine and protected. “You’re the only girl for me. Now and forever, Miriam.”

“Oh, Wade.” Her heart skipped. He could always make her heart skip. “That’s exactly the way I feel.”

Two hours ago, she and her high school sweetheart, Wade Bly, had been joined in marriage just across the street in the historic church that dated back to Caribou Crossing’s gold rush days. Now, after a buffet dinner set up in white tents in the town square, the reception was in full swing to tunes played by The Lonesome Cowboys, a local country and western band.

The clear, velvety September sky showcased a dazzling array of stars, but Miriam was sure they couldn’t rival the ones in her eyes as she gazed up at her nineteen-year-old husband. He had rolled up the sleeves of the slim-fitting white pleated shirt, and unbuttoned it at the neck, so she had ample opportunity to admire his strong muscles and the tan he’d acquired working on his parents’ ranch. His rich chestnut hair was freshly cut in a style that complimented his rugged features.

She nestled as close as the puffy white skirt of her wedding dress allowed, and followed his lead as the band started to play “Stand by Your Man.”

As they circled slowly, she gazed around the square. Surrounded by friends and family—had they invited half the town to their wedding?—she felt loved, blessed, blissful.

One of her best friends, Connie, who was dancing nearby with her steady guy, caught Miriam’s eye and gave her a thumbs-up.

Miriam smiled at her, grateful to Connie and the rest of the gang who’d decorated the town square, making it magical and romantic. They’d threaded the trees with strings of sparkly lights, set out big urns of roses in all shades of pink, and weaved flowers through the lattice of the band shell. Even the statue of gold-panning Richard Morgan, one of the town’s founders, had a wreath of roses decorating his miner’s hat, and the wire-framed caribou set out by the chamber of commerce to promote tourism wore rosy headdresses on their antlers.

The square was the heart of the small town of Caribou Crossing, which itself was near the center of British Columbia’s Cariboo, a ruggedly scenic patchwork of rolling hills and grasslands adorned with indigo lakes, sparkling rivers, and patches of forest.

A gold rush town in the 1860s, Caribou Crossing could easily have turned into a ghost town as many had, but an enterprising minister and a handful of miners saw the potential for ranching, and the town entered a new era. Now, more than a century later, there was a growing tourist industry as well, with the locals playing up the gold rush history and the country and western theme.

Miriam had moved here at age ten when her dad’s bank transferred him from Edmonton, and she’d fallen in love with everything: the magnificent scenery, horses and riding, the small-town sense of community, even the Western attire.

She glanced over to see Wade’s parents heading onto the dance floor. His rancher dad was stocky and handsome in a Western-cut suit and shirt. His mom, whose health was a little fragile, looked vibrant today in a full-skirted blue dress. “It took our wedding to get your dad out of his Stetson.”

“And me out of my boots,” Wade said. “In these dress shoes, I’m as tottery as a new foal finding its feet.”

“Seems to me you’re doing just fine.”

A number of their guests, including some of the females, were wearing cowboy boots and hats. Others, like her mom and Wade’s had taken the opportunity to wear fancier clothes. Miriam loved how folks here were so easygoing and, though they were nosy as all get-out, they weren’t judgmental.

“Warm enough?” Wade asked.

“As long as you keep holding me.” She’d have preferred to get married in the summer, but in Caribou Crossing life was controlled by the seasons. An early September wedding meant that haying was finished at Bly Ranch, and it would be another month before the calves had to be weaned. Oh yes, she was a country girl, for sure. No, make that a country wife!

The song ended and the singer said, “This next tune’s a special request.”

Miriam’s eyes widened and she gazed up at her husband. “Oh, Wade, did you—”

“Not me.” He tipped his head toward the band shell and rotated their bodies so she could see. “It’s your dad.”

Her suit-clad father, Henry Torrance, who was more at home in his office at the bank than on a public stage, looked uncomfortable but determined as he mounted the band shell steps and took the microphone. “This song is for the two ladies in my life. Rosie, my beloved wife of twenty-five years, and with any luck another twenty-five and more to come. This is her favorite song, and I think it’s the right one for my other special girl tonight.” He swallowed and the lights on the band shell revealed a gleam of moisture in his eyes as he gazed across at Miriam.

“You’re my oldest child but you’re also my little girl,” he said, his voice gruff. “I hate to see you grow up and leave my house, but you couldn’t be doing it with a better man. So here’s a song for you and Wade, to start off your new life together.”

Touched, Miriam blinked back tears of her own as she blew him a kiss and mouthed, “Thank you, Daddy.”

The members of the band took up their instruments again. Before the first note sounded, she knew what they’d play: “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a song made famous in the 1970s by The Carpenters. Hokey and sentimental, sweet and romantic, it was a perfect wedding song.

Wade gathered her close as she watched her mom, beautiful and elegant in a rose-colored sheath, step into her dad’s arms as if there was no other possible place to be. “That’s going to be us one day,” she told Wade.

He glanced at the older couple. “Twenty-five years married, with lots more to come? Same as my parents.” He nodded to where his mom and dad swayed in each other’s arms. “Yeah, for sure.”

“Still as in love as we are today.”

“More in love.”

“If that’s possible.” He filled her heart so completely, he’d given her his love and pledged his future, how could her feelings be any stronger and truer? Imagining the future, she said, “One day, you’ll be requesting that very same song when our daughter gets married.”

“You think I’m going to let our daughter get married? What guy could possibly deserve her?” he teased.

She sighed contentedly. “Four kids, right? Two boys, two girls.”

“Yeah, but not for a while. I want time alone with you first.”

“Time.” She gave a happy shiver. “We have so much time. Time to do it all. Our honeymoon, our first apartment. Living together, Wade. It’s going to be so much fun.”

“Being able to make love whenever, wherever, we want.” He kissed her, sweet and warm with a touch of tongue to fire her blood. “Starting with the honeymoon.” In an hour or two, they’d drive to a neighboring town to spend their wedding night in the bridal suite of a historic inn. Then they’d head down to Vancouver to explore the big city for a few days.

“It’ll be different,” Miriam said. “Making love when we’re married. Knowing that we’re really, truly, totally joined together. Forever. It’ll be better than ever before.”

“Tough to imagine.” He tugged her closer. “But I know what you mean.”

Glancing around the open-air dance floor, crowded with kids they’d gone to school with, the parental generation, even a few grandparents, Miriam’s gaze lit again on Wade’s parents.

“That was so sweet of your folks,” she said, “giving us their old ranch truck when they bought a new one.” That truck had carried her and Wade on many, many dates and been the site of loads of make-out sessions—a fact that she hoped his parents had never guessed.

“Pa needs me to show up on time for work, now that I won’t be living at the ranch anymore.”

His folks had a big cattle ranch and Wade had been helping out since he was a toddler. Now he was a full-time paid employee. Bly Ranch was a family business, started by Wade’s granddad, and one day he’d inherit it.

Though Miriam’s parents—her banker dad and high school teacher mom—were town folk, she’d fallen in love with Bly Ranch the first time Wade invited her out to ride. There was nothing she enjoyed more than galloping side by side across the open grassland, then spreading a blanket by the creek under the shade of the cottonwoods for a picnic and a little fooling around.

“You do know,” Miriam teased, nestling against his strong, sexy body, “I just married you for the ranch?”

“Oh, was that the reason?” He gave his hips a subtle pump against her belly.

“Well, there might have been one or two other things.”

They laughed softly together and she thought how amazingly compatible they were. They had the same values, the same interests, the same joy in life. They had all the same dreams.

She could see the future ahead of them, clear as day. Those four children. Living together in town, close to her parents, her and Wade’s friends, and the kids’ schools. Going out to the ranch on weekends to ride and have Sunday dinner. Then eventually, many years from now, she and Wade would be the Blys of Bly Ranch, owning that incredible piece of property and taking care of it so they could pass it down to their own children.

All those beautiful dreams—and they were coming true, starting today.

“It’s all going to be so perfect,” she sighed, going up on her toes to kiss her husband as he held her in the circle of his arms, safe and loved.

Chapter 2

Wade Bly walked down the hospital corridor, running a hand over his stubbly jaw, and swallowed a yawn. The wall clock said five past ten. Outside the window, blustery snow whirled down from a slate-gray sky. February at its nastiest.

He’d had only a couple hours’ sleep during the last thirty. Though he was used to staying up all night when there was a problem with the livestock, this was a whole different thing. He had never, in his entire twenty-seven years, felt so exhausted, drained, and downright shitty. His eyes ached from holding back tears, and his throat burned with unuttered curses and screams.

He fed change into the coffee machine and bought two cups, then returned to Miriam’s room.

His mother-in-law glanced up from where she sat by the bed, holding Miriam’s left hand.

“Any sign of her waking up?” he asked, handing her one of the cardboard coffee containers.

Rose shook her head. Bleak light from the window fell across her face. A high school teacher, she was usually cheerful and energetic, but on this dismal morning she looked as bad as he felt. “Just as you left, her eyelids rippled, but she didn’t open her eyes. She’s smiled a couple of times.” Rose stared at him somberly through swollen, bloodshot eyes.

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He bit his lip. Once Miriam woke, she wouldn’t be smiling. He sank down in the chair on the other side of the bed, took a sip of coffee, grimaced, and put the cup down. Threading his fingers through Miriam’s, he thought how small and lifeless her hand felt.

Her hands were usually in action, tending their daughter, holding a horse’s reins, baking cake, squeezing his butt, stroking him with lazy sensuality.

Rose’s voice broke into his thoughts. “You found someone to feed the cattle and horses?”

“Yeah. Ted Williamson’s going to go over.”

“Did you call your parents?”

“No. I’ll wait until Miriam wakes up.” He wished his mom was here now, though. He could use one of her hugs. The phone just wasn’t the same.

Thinking of his mom’s health, his parents’ move, all the changes over the past months, he asked quietly, “Do you think it was too much for Miriam? Us moving to the ranch and all?” He’d vowed to protect his wife, and he’d failed.

“She’s not like your mother, Wade.” Her voice was even. “She’s strong, she’s always been healthy.”

His mother was strong-minded and loving, but physically frail. Back in the fall she’d had a really bad spell and the doctor said the climate was too harsh for her. That’s when his folks decided to retire early and move to Phoenix.

“You and Miriam always knew Bly Ranch would be yours,” his mother-in-law went on. “It just happened a lot sooner than you expected.” She stifled a yawn and rested her head against the back of her chair.

“A hell of a lot sooner.” His pa wasn’t even sixty yet, and Wade had figured that it’d be another twenty, thirty years before he and Miriam would take over Bly Ranch—and that they’d inherit it, clear title.

“It was the only thing that worked for everyone.”

“Yeah.” His parents had had to finance their move and buy a home down south, not to mention anticipate their living expenses for the rest of their lives, so they couldn’t afford to just give the ranch to Wade and Miriam. They’d given them half, though. Using the down payment he and Miriam had been saving for a house in town, the two of them had obtained a mortgage. A hellacious mortgage that’d have them pinching pennies for years to come.

Rose’s voice broke into his musings. “Last time I spoke to your mom, she said she was feeling so much better.”

“I know. It’s great.”

“She said they’re both learning golf.” She closed her eyes and this time a yawn did escape.

Wade yawned, too, trying to fight against his exhaustion so he’d be awake when Miriam opened her eyes. “So I heard.” He couldn’t picture his hardworking rancher pa on a golf course. But his father would do anything to look after his mom. That was what husbands did for the women they loved. Wade reached for the foul coffee, took another sip. It did nothing to combat his weariness or his sense of guilt.

In a drowsy voice, Rose said, “Miriam loves the ranch.”

“I know.” He’d close his eyes and rest them for just a second.

“She was so excited about moving out there last December.”

“She was.” He smiled as a memory came into his mind.

* * *

Wade unlocked and opened the front door of the log ranch house. On this crisp December afternoon two weeks before Christmas, the sun glinted off the snow, making sparkles that matched up with Wade’s mood. Anticipation—not just of the next moments but of the years ahead—coursed through him. He hoisted his wife, heavy winter coat, boots, and all, into his arms.

Miriam laughed. “Really? You’re going to carry me over the threshold?”

He gazed at her, even more beloved than on the day he’d married her eight years earlier. Miriam was everything to him: vital, cheerful, loving. “You got an objection, Mrs. Bly?”

She beamed at him. “Not a single one, Mr. Bly.”

An impatient girlish voice from behind them said, “Hurry up. I want to get changed and go riding.”

“Hold your horses, Jessie,” he said. This was momentous and he wanted to savor it. Bly Ranch—his childhood home, his heritage—was all theirs. Well, theirs and the bank’s, with a mortgage so huge he didn’t even want to think about it. And he wouldn’t, because everything would work out. It always did, for him and Miriam.

Look at Jessica, their seven-year-old. No, they hadn’t planned on having kids until much later, but she’d come along anyway. And they’d hit the jackpot with this beautiful girl who had his chestnut hair and brown eyes, and her mom’s plucky spirit and generous heart.

He wasn’t much of a guy for speeches, but he said, “Okay, family, this is our new home.” Pride and love made his voice a little rough. “We’re going to look after it and each other, and it’s going to be good to us.”

He took a booted step across the wooden frame. The front door was used only for special occasions. Normally, everyone went in the back through the mudroom, shedding boots and coats on the way, but if ever there was a special occasion, this was it.

Carrying Miriam, he walked into the front room, wood-paneled and cozy. Quiet now, after the past couple days’ bustle of moving. The fire he’d laid an hour ago, before they left to pick up Jessie at his in-laws’ place, just needed a match.

He tilted his head and kissed his wife, then slowly let her down.

“Can I go riding now?” Jessica demanded.

Their daughter loved to ride. Sun, rain, or snow, and there was lots of snow in the middle of winter in the Cariboo. She was a skilled rider and a natural with horses, and she’d been going out on her own for the past year.

Miriam glanced at Wade. “They’re forecasting more snow tonight.”

“Mommyy.” Jessie drew the word out in a protest. “It’s not tonight yet.”

“Take Whisper,” he told his daughter. “She’s good in snow. And watch the sky,” he cautioned. “If you see clouds the color of your horse’s coat, you head straight back. And promise to be careful.”

“I’m always careful.”

Yeah, right. Jessie was a tomboy. But she’d never done herself any serious damage. Scrapes and bruises were part of life in the country, and they toughened you up.

“Even if the sky’s still clear, be back by four, no later,” Miriam added. “You know how quickly it gets dark at this time of year.”

With their daughter gone for an hour or two, he’d have time alone with Miriam. What better way to celebrate their new home than by making love?

Perhaps his wife was thinking the same thing, because she squeezed his hand and shot him a mischievous smile as Jessie took off up the stairs, her ponytail bouncing, to change into riding clothes.

“I’ll light the fire,” Wade said.

Miriam shook her head. “Later. I have other plans for right now.”

“Oh, yeah? Will I like those plans?”

“Guaranteed.” She peeled off her coat and tossed it over the back of the big couch his parents had left behind when they moved. Next, she unbuttoned his coat and he obligingly shrugged out of it and let her heave it on top of hers.

“This is going in a nice direction,” he said, as they both took off their boots and lined them up on the hearth.

“And it’ll continue.” She stepped close, so their jean-clad hips touched. “Crossing the threshold is one big step. The next one’s making love in the master bedroom.”

He slipped his arms around her. “Thanks for not calling it my parents’ room.”

She grinned and looped her arms around his neck. “It does feel weird, doesn’t it? But it’s ours now. Thank God they took their bed.”

“You can say that again.”

She glanced around the living room. “The house doesn’t feel like ours yet, but it will.”

They, together with his pa and a bunch of friends, had loaded some of his parents’ stuff into a U-Haul and moved Wade and Miriam’s belongings from their tiny rental house. His old family home was now a mishmash and he thought it looked nice. “It will.”

“I hope things work out for your folks.”

“Me, too.” This morning, his parents, along with the ranch Border Collie, Shep, had headed off in their new Honda CR-V, towing the U-Haul, on their way to Phoenix. He’d really miss them, but he sure hoped that his mom’s health improved, and that his pa found something to keep him busy.

Wade rested his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “And now we own Bly Ranch.” He still couldn’t quite get his head around that fact. “Us and the bank,” he amended ruefully.

“We can handle the mortgage,” Miriam said, stretching up to kiss him.

He took his time enjoying her soft lips. “You bet we can.” There was no question. Together, they could handle anything.

They broke apart when Jessica hurried down the stairs. “I’ll be back by four. Bye!”

They called good-bye as she headed for the kitchen. A couple of minutes later, the mudroom door slammed.

“Alone in our new home.” Wade smiled down at his wife, thinking how pretty she looked in figure-hugging jeans and a tan sweater that matched her hair. “Someone mentioned the bedroom?”

“That would be me.” She took his hand and they headed up the stairs.

His grandparents had built the house and, though his parents had modernized the kitchen and bathrooms, the place still had a rustic, comfy feel. It had always felt like home, and now that’s exactly what it was. Home for another family. His family. Yeah, it was starting to sink in and feel right. Really, this was good timing. Better to take over the ranch when he and Miriam were young, strong, and full of energy rather than when they had gray hair.

Holding hands, they walked down the hall to the end, the big corner room. The largest window faced out on what in summer was a peaceful meadow where the ranch horses grazed and played, but now was a field of pristine snow.

He glanced around the room. “Hey, you’ve been busy in here,” he said. Yesterday, she and her friends Connie and Frances had spread tarps over everything and painted the room sunny yellow. This morning, he and the guys had moved his parents’ furniture out and his and Miriam’s in. At that point, his wife had kicked him out.

Now he saw that she and her girlfriends had set the room up in a completely different layout than when his parents had occupied it. There were lots of personal touches, too. On the dresser, alongside a Christmas cactus with vivid red blossoms, sat their wedding photo and the photo of them in the hospital with Jessica the day she was born. The cushion his mother-in-law had cross-stitched rested on the rocking chair where Miriam had nursed Jessie and would one day nurse their other babies. The painting they’d bought on their honeymoon—of an aspen grove in early morning light—hung on the wall facing the bed. His wife’s Dick Francis mystery novel and alarm clock were on one bedside table, his clock radio and change jar on the other.

Yes, it was their room now, not his parents’. There was only one more thing they needed to do, to make sure of it.

He turned to Miriam, who smiled and said, “I love you, Wade.”

“I love you, too, honey.” Gazing into her beautiful face, he reflected, “You know, when we got married at nineteen, it kind of felt like we were playing at being grown up. Now it’s real. A ranch and a kid. It doesn’t get more grown up than that.”

Her eyes sparkled and the corners of her mouth curved. “Then let’s have grown-up sex.”

“Twist my arm.” Before she could do that, he reached for the hem of her sweater and hoisted it upward.

The fabric cleared her face and she grinned. “Hey, just because you’re married to me, that doesn’t mean you get to skip the foreplay.”

“Never,” he vowed. “But foreplay’s more fun when we’re both naked.”

“Can’t argue with that.”