Once upon a time, a young woman named Siddah King arrived in Libby, Montana. There she met a wonderful man who became a good father to her son. Then the man died.
Siddah has worked hard to keep body and soul together, but her attempts to create a better life for her son are backfiring. Bobby needs help–help that comes in the unexpected form of Gabe King, the older brother her husband idolized, who has just come home for the first time in ten years.
Gabe has problems of his own. Family issues have kept him away from his childhood home, but the news of his brother’s death brings him reluctantly home. The question is, can he and his father get along after all these years, or will this meeting be as disastrous as their last?
As a mother, Siddah can’t help but admit that Bobby is benefiting from Gabe’s presence. But what about her? Torn between Gabe and loyalty to her husband’s memory, she can’t help but wonder–what would have happened if she’d met Gabe first?
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Battling self-doubt and second thoughts, Gabriel King stopped his Jeep on the edge of the winding two-lane highway he’d been driving for the past hour. Far below, a broad valley in the heart of Montana’s timber country stretched between mountain and river. Spires of spruce and pine reached toward the deep blue sky, jockeying for their share of the late summer sunlight and leaving little for the undergrowth. In the distance, he could see rooftops from the town of Libby and the water of the Kootenai River sparkling in the noon-day sun. A little beyond that the Cabinet Mountains, purple and majestic, stood watch over the valley.
It had been years since Gabe had seen this view, but little had changed in the time he’d been away. The valley, including the house barely visible directly below, was as familiar to him as it had ever been. He’d traveled the world over, but he’d never seen anything that could top this combination of blue and green, sky, water and earth. But appreciation for the magnificent scenery warred with trepidation over what he was doing.
Shifting into neutral, he argued with himself one more time. It wasn’t too late to change his mind. His parents didn’t need to know that he’d come back. He didn’t have to face the disappointment in their eyes or the expectation on their faces. If he put the Jeep in gear again and drove away, he wouldn’t have to explain or apologize, or—far more likely, considering his volatile relationship with his father—argue. It would be so easy to just keep going. He could always get to San Francisco early. A little time to think might even increase his chances of getting the financial backing he needed.
But running had been his style for too long.
Maybe he should find a motel, spend the night, and make contact with his mother tomorrow. His father was almost certain to be home today, but tomorrow—Monday—he’d be working at the sawmill and the coast would be clear.
If Gabe waited, he could tell his mother what he’d come back to say and let her pass it on to the old man. Unfortunately, that would solve only one of his problems. In ten years he’d racked up more questions for himself than answers, and the answers lay down there somewhere, either in the white frame house nestled up against the forest, or in the sawmill a dozen miles away on the other side of town.
The past ten years, punctuated by infrequent telephone calls and letters sent sporadically from remote parts of the globe, had left him weary. Though he’d always intended to close the rift between himself and his father, he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Or maybe he’d been afraid to get around to it. Afraid that his father would refuse to forgive him, or that the old arguments would still be alive.
At thirty-two, Gabe had finally grown tired of the anger. Tired of pretending nothing was wrong and of telling himself he didn’t long for closer ties with his family. The only things his stubborn pride had earned him were loneliness and guilt. He’d just finished a two-year stint in the rain forests of Ecuador, and all he had to show for his efforts were a heart filled with regret, a truckload of bills to pay, and a career in shambles, thanks to the fever that had nearly taken his life.
He fingered the letter in his pocket and fought the impulse to read it again. It was the thing that had sealed his fate and finally drawn him back again. He’d tortured himself with it a dozen times or more in the past two weeks, but the words never changed. No amount of longing took away the blow contained in the single sheet covered with his mother’s neat handwriting. No number of regrets would undo the freak logging accident that had taken his younger brother’s life. And even the most heartfelt apologies wouldn’t make up for the eighteen months when Gabe hadn’t even known that Peter was gone.
He pulled his hand away from the letter and wrapped it around the gear-shift. Maybe he should have called to warn his parents of his impending visit, but that old fear had kept him from doing it. He might be afraid that his father wouldn’t want him here, but now that he knew how fragile life really was, staying away was no longer an option.
Smiling grimly, he shifted into gear and pulled onto the road, sending a shower of dust and gravel into the air behind him. He followed the highway almost to the bottom of the hill, then turned onto the lane that led through an arched wooden gateway made from Triple Crown lumber, past a long split rail fence, and finally into the yard in front of his parents’ home. Even after all these years, the house managed, somehow, to look haughty and humble at the same time.
He shut off the ignition and studied what had once been so familiar. Before he could take it all in, the front door banged open and his father stepped out onto the porch. He’d changed since Gabe saw him last. His once-dark hair had turned to gray, and his shoulders were stooped instead of straight and proud, but in every other respect Montgomery King looked much younger than sixty-eight.
Shielding his eyes with one hand, Monty walked to the edge of the porch and looked out at the Jeep. Gabe hesitated, but only for a heartbeat, before opening the door and stepping out. He remained there, unmoving, until he was certain his father had recognized him, then walked slowly toward the house. But he didn’t speak. He’d played this moment in his mind a thousand times in the past two weeks but now, faced with the reality of his homecoming, he suddenly had no idea what to say.
His father remained silent until Gabe reached the bottom of the three short steps that led to the porch. Then, without a hint of emotion, jerked his head toward the Jeep. “You’re going to have to move that thing or your mother won’t be able to pull her car in when she gets home.” Without another word, the great Monty King stepped back into the shadows of the house and let the screen door bang shut between them.
Stunned, Gabe could only stare at the door and wonder if he’d missed something. Pulling his keys from his pocket, he turned back toward the Jeep and asked himself what he’d expected. Not tears of joy, that was for damn sure. But it sure seemed like the old man could have worked up a bit of anger if he’d tried. Gabe would have known what to do with that.\
The one thing he hadn’t expected, and wasn’t at all sure how to handle, was complete indifference.
Telling himself to feel lucky the old man hadn’t sent him packing, Gabe slid behind the wheel of the Jeep and looked around almost blindly for a parking spot his father might consider acceptable. Pleasing Montgomery King wasn’t easy. Peter had been born with the knack, but no matter how hard Gabe had tried, he’d always fallen short—even when it came to simple things like parking his car.
But that was all going to change now. He was a man, not a boy. He’d proven himself capable time and again out in the world. It was only here that he battled the doubts and fears that he wasn’t good enough.
He moved the Jeep to a patch of mown wild grass near the back fence, then crossed the yard to the kitchen door, taking in the familiar sight of mountains rimming the valley and trees towering overhead. He soaked in the scents of pine and sweet grass and the sound of the river splashing over rocks nearby, as if this was just another day.
On the porch, he hesitated about whether to knock or walk in. But he’d been away too long to act as if he’d never left, so he knocked, just as he would have at a stranger’s house.
The old man kept him cooling his heels for a few minutes, but his burly shadow finally materialized in the kitchen doorway. Even through the lace curtains, Gabe could see the scowl on his dad’s face. But Monty merely opened the door and motioned Gabe inside with a jerk of his head.
“There’s a beer if you want one,” Monty said with a nod at the refrigerator.
Unsettled and uncertain, Gabe glanced at the clock, realized it was barely twelve-thirty, and shook his head as he closed the door behind him. “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the feeling he still couldn’t identify. “Mom’s gone somewhere?”
“Just into town to see Siddah and the boy. She goes every Sunday, but she won’t be long.”
Gabe had only seen the name written in a couple of letters, so it took a second to place it when he heard it spoken aloud. “You mean Peter’s wife?”
“I mean his widow.” Some of the coldness Gabe remembered so well crept into his father’s voice. “And don’t pretend you didn’t hear about that, because I know your mother wrote you when it happened.”
Almost unconsciously, Gabe’s hand flew to his pocket. “I got the letter,” he admitted, “but only a couple of weeks ago.” He thought about telling his dad the real reason the letter had languished in Riobamba for a year before he received it, but he wasn’t ready to hand over proof that the career he’d chosen had turned out to be as dangerous and unreliable as Monty had warned him it would be. Not yet.
“I was away,” he said faintly. “Out of touch. I came as soon as I heard.”
His father made a sound deep in his throat. “Well isn’t that just fine? You came as soon as you heard. I’m sure it’ll make your mother feel a whole lot better to know that.” Monty opened the refrigerator and pulled out two cans. Tossing one at Gabe, he resumed his journey into the living room with the other. “You be sure you let her know that, Gabriel. You came just as soon as you heard.”
Gabe caught the can easily, but he wondered when his father had started drinking in the middle of the day. Was it something he did often, or was today an exception? Though he hadn’t consciously thought of his parents as frozen in time while he was away, now he realized that’s exactly what he’d expected. He waited until Monty disappeared, then put the beer back into the fridge and dropped into one of the chairs flanking the large oval table where he’d spent so much time as a kid.
How many other things had changed in the time he’d been gone? Had he done the right thing by coming back? Or was he about to make everything worse?
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