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Wyoming Marriage Association Book 2

Hearts can heal … with a little help?

Life’s challenging enough for widower Hall Quick right now. He’s sure not thinking about love.

He has four children -- moody teenager Dan, meddling Molly and Lizzie, and into-everything toddler Bobby – all of them still reeling from their mother’s unexpected death. A ranch that needs more hours than he has to give. A household that passed wrack and ruin a while back.

All he wants from the new schoolteacher is a passable report on his kids so he doesn’t have another problem to deal with.
At least that what he thinks he wants from Kinsey Smith.

The Wyoming Marriage Association has other ideas. A little nudge here, a little accidental meeting there and who knows what can happen . . . maybe even a family.

Second Start: Family is coming in July 2023.




Eighteen months ago


“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Quick.”

The young man in the white lab coat with ironed-in wrinkles fanning from the breast pocket had spilled a jumble of technical and sympathetic words from the instant he’d called Hall Quick out of the hospital waiting room. He’d talked all through their trip down corridors to a solitary room at the end, then all the way back.

Those words thundered down too fast and from too far a distance for Hall to absorb them. Like a drowning in reverse, sucking moisture out of his lungs, his veins, leaving him parched, trying to wet chapped lips.

“Mr. Quick? If you have any questions …”


Hall wished the doctor – What the hell was his name? -- would stay quiet. He wished the drunk in a cubicle somewhere down the hall would stop his hollering. Turn off the ringing phones, unplug the machines whirring and clicking.  All of it.

So there was silence.

A silence big enough and deep enough to let a man think.

The young doctor sucked in a breath as they neared the closed door of the private room where they’d put the family after pulling them from the main Emergency Room waiting area. Hall should have known then.

The intake of oxygen fueled more doctor words. Talking and talking and talking, just as he had even when he’d taken Hall to see Annie.

What used to be Annie.

“… if you’d like me to tell your children …”


Hall’s shoulder jerked as if he’d pulled away from a touch. But the smaller man hadn’t touched him.

“Thank you, Doctor. I’ll … arrangements ... I don’t know--”

“The funeral home will know. Don’t worry about that.”

“Right. Okay.” He should have remembered that from his father. His father had been sick a long time before he died. But Annie … “I’ll, uh, talk to my kids now. Thank you.”

Annie’s kids.

“Take as long as you need.” The doctor hurried away.

Hall wiped his right hand down the side of his work jeans.  His hand had looked so dark and dirty when he’d rested it on Annie’s bare shoulder. There’d been no thought to cleaning up or changing clothes when he got the call out planting alfalfa.

He opened the door, then closed it carefully behind him before he faced them.

Molly and Lizzie sat close together, Lizzie slumped against her sister’s side. Molly’s hair flared out as a vivid shadow across the white wall beyond the sofa. Lizzie’s fairer hair was harder to make out amid the flowers and vines twining on the sofa back. Bobby sat on Molly’s lap, watching her face rather than the pages of a book she read to him.

Before Hall turned to him, his first-born’s voice came sharp and urgent.

“Where’s Mom? Can we see her?”

Dan’s voice skidded up on the last word.

His voice is changing. God, his voice is changing.

Dan had stood by himself at the window, but now he moved closer to the younger three.

Hall had thought Dan would be the only child for him and Annie. After Dan came along, Hall had taken on more duties at the ranch, but he’d still eked out time to take a class. One a semester. Not much, but progress. They’d take precautions. At least until he got his degree.

Then Annie announced she was pregnant again.

I don’t know why you’re upset, Hall. I’ll take care of this new baby, just like I take care of Danny.

That had been the girls. Twins.

With Bobby, Annie hadn’t even bothered with those extra words. She’d just announced it, that knowing, cream-licking smile of hers coming out.

Making babies is one thing we’re good at together, Hall. And raising ’em’s what I’m good at.

Except she wasn’t here to raise them now.

“No, you can’t, Dan.” Hall cleared his throat

Dan had been with him, helping with the planting. Reluctantly, as always. Nearly silently, as always. At least with him.

Your Mom’s had an accident. We gotta go.  That’s all he’d said, already heading for the pickup.

The boy hadn’t asked anything until they hit the highway. Where is she? Is she okay?

They took her to the hospital, and I don’t know.

Hall swallowed now, started again. “You can’t any of you see her. Not … not right yet.”

God, what did he say to them?

Annie always cared for the kids, tended their needs, heard their hopes, nursed their pains.

He remembered trying to hold Dan as a baby, trying to turn his big rough hands to bottle-feedings and diaper-changes. Annie stepped in, guarding against gas or diaper rash. It made sense for Hall to see to the ranch – there was always more work waiting to be done than there was time -- and leave the kids to Annie.

He crouched in front of the sofa, getting eye-level with the girls and Bobby.  Dan stood behind Hall, out of his line of sight.

“Your Mom had something real wrong with her. Something—”

“Because of the accident?” Molly asked.

The three younger kids had been in the truck with Annie when she went off the road just short of the Black Colt Creek Post Office. If she hadn’t been slowing to make the turn … but she had been, so the kids were fine. All the truck had were a few added scratches from the slide into the ditch. Mary Alberts from the post office called the rescue squad.

“No. Not the accident. What was wrong with her was why the accident happened. She had something called an aneurysm in her brain – in her head. It’s when the blood vessel, the uh, thing like a tube that the blood goes through, it gets weak and breaks–”

“No.” Dan whispered it. And again. “No.”

“But the doctors fixed it, right?” Molly asked.

Hall took off his hat, propped it on his bent knee and pushed his fingers through his hair. “They couldn’t fix it. Nobody could fix it.”

Lizzie put her thumb in her mouth. Bobby looked up at Molly as she asked another question.

“Does it hurt her?”

“No. It doesn’t hurt her. Your Momma’s not going to be hurt by anything ever again. She’s … she’s gone to Heaven.”

Molly frowned at him in accusation. “You have to be dead to go to heaven.”

He nodded. A jerky motion, because the muscles in his neck didn’t work right. “Yes. Your Momma’s dead.”

Three of the four babies he and Annie had made stared back at him.

Hall dropped forward to his knees, the straw hat crushed against the carpeted floor.

“Your Momma’s dead.”

The silence expanded, slid in between them, swirled around them like the Wyoming wind.

Then into the silence came the voice of his oldest from behind him. Hot and dry and sharp.

“Why couldn’t it have been you?  Why the hell couldn’t it have been you?” 



“I had no idea Hall Quick would be so difficult,” Bexley Farber said in apology. “This makes three possibilities we’ve arranged for him to meet by happenstance and three times he’s not been where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there for happenstance to happen.”

“Life of a rancher,” said Rebecca, who was married to one. “Needs of the ranch come before anything like a schedule, much less a social life, and for a one-man operation like Hall’s trying to keep going, there are always needs.”

“Then how are we ever going to get him to meet someone? Send them to the ranch?”

“Worked for me.” Rebecca smiled. “If I hadn’t been on the ranch, Luke and I wouldn’t have been thrown together and the magic wouldn’t have happened.”

Bexley chewed her lip. “Okay, but how do we get someone on the Quicks’ ranch?  If Hall could afford help, he wouldn’t be so busy he never took time to talk to other people or go to community events and he might not need the Wyoming Marriage Association in the first place.”

“He’s got to get out some time,” objected Ellyn. She’d started this informal group they’d dubbed the Wyoming Marriage association, but they were all equal members. “Feed store, bank, grocery store – any possibilities at his regular stops?”

“It’s got to be somebody strong. Dax has said a couple times how much Hall’s carrying on his shoulders. He needs somebody strong enough to share that, not to add on by being somebody else he has to take care of,” Hannah said. Her husband Dax was another rancher and knew Hall Quick.

“At the same time, he needs somebody who’ll remind him he has a sense of humor – I remember how great his laugh was when we were kids,” Kendra said.

After a moment of mental inventory of the people at the places Hall Quick regularly frequented, they all shook their heads.

“Also, remember, any candidate has to love kids – from a teenager to a toddler with the twins in between.”

Rebecca grinned. “We won’t forget, Bexley. We’re half convinced you’re actually trying to make a match for those four kids and Hall’s just tacked onto the deal.”

She grinned back. “Well, Kiernan and I did get to know the kids during our time together at Christmas, while Hall was delivering cattle in that blizzard.”

“What? You two had time for anybody other than each other?” Hannah teased.

Bexley didn’t have to answer because Kendra said abruptly, “There is a new teacher in Mason.” Writing and editing for the local paper, she picked up a lot of news. “Vicky Otter, the senior teacher, told me about her. She sounds . . . interesting. And that’s somebody he’d have to see regularly, since she’s teaching his kids.”

“What does interesting mean?”

“Vicky seemed to really like her, but I also got the impression Vicky thinks the new teacher might have ghosts in her past.”

“Who doesn’t?” Ellyn asked.

“Especially who doesn’t when they come to teach at a two-room schoolhouse in Mason, Wyoming,” added Rebecca.

“Barely two rooms. They’re still just using that plywood divider. But the first question is if this new teacher’s single,” Ellyn said.

Kendra nodded. “Vicky said she is. What’s the second question?”

“What’s her name?”

“Kenzie Smith.”

* * *

"Kenzie?  How much longer are you going to wait?" asked Vicky Otter.

Kenzie turned from the open back door she’d been looking out of toward her fellow teacher at the front of her tiny school room.

"I thought I’d give him a few more minutes."

Hall Quick, her last appointment for the day, was the father of two of her students, twin girls who represented a significant portion of the roster.

"It's going on eight. The chicken I cooked can't get much drier, but at least it's warm," Vicky said. "Besides, you'll be so far ahead on paperwork, you'll throw the district into a tizzy."

That might have been true if she’d done paperwork in the nearly two hours since the end of her previous conference – one mostly spent calming the nerves of a first-grader’s parents.

She hadn’t taught students this young since training. Something new had been the reason for coming here to Mason, Wyoming.  So she’d gladly refreshed what she’d learned then and read up on the latest methods.

She hadn’t considered how the parents might differ.

She’d done her best not to think of the parents at all.

"You're right.  Let's close up and have dinner."

"Not much to close up, not much of a dinner," muttered Vicky.

Kenzie bolted the back door and they locked the front door, both actions a nod to insurance requirements rather than security.

First, there wasn't much worth stealing. Beyond a tiny vestibule, side-by-side doors led to the two classrooms which, along with a furnace room and bathroom, filled the squat building.

Second, the teachers' quarters -- two trailers set at angles to each other -- were about a quarter of a city block away, with nothing in between to obscure the view.

Third, crime remained a rarity in Mason, Wyoming.

Unless, Kenzie thought with a faint smile, you counted wildlife forays into the garbage in an effort to broaden their menu.

She accepted the blue-rimmed plate Vicky handed her and helped herself to broiled chicken, tomato and lettuce salad, green peas, and white rice.  She and Vicky had fallen into a pattern in the weeks since she'd arrived in Wyoming of splitting cooking several times a week.

If Vicky had been surprised the new teacher showed up weeks ahead of schedule, she never said so. Not much seemed to surprise or bother her.

Not only had she been teaching here for years, but she’d grown up in the area. Kenzie found her explanations of local geography, history, and customs invaluable.

Kenzie pushed a pea into the rice, a solitary round, green object amidst a population of white dashes that stuck together. She knew how it felt.

“Quit fretting,” Vicky said. “Hall will know where to find you when he shows up.”

Kenzie hadn’t been thinking about the absent Hall Quick, but let Vicky’s comment guide the conversation. “What about the children’s mother?”

“I thought you knew. Annie died, a year ago last spring. Brain aneurysm, they said. One minute she was fine and the next minute she was gone. Had the younger kids in the truck with her.”

“I had no idea.” Kenzie carefully laid her fork on the table. “I can imagine how hard it is for those kids.”

“Hall, too.”

Kenzie’s father died long before her mother did. She had no experience with a husband’s grief. "Yes, I’m sure it is hard for Mr. Quick. But as the only parent, it’s even more important for him not to miss the first conference with two of his children’s teacher.  Their education--”



"He missed conferences for three of his children.”  Vicky tucked a strand of straight, dark hair more firmly behind her ear, revealing a small congregation of gray at her temple.  “He missed the conference with me, too. And I particularly wanted to talk to Hall about Dan.”


"You say that like you didn't know the kid existed.  With all of us cozied up together, you'd have to work hard not to notice. Eighth-grader with sun-streaked hair a beach bunny would die for."

"One of your eighth-graders."

"Yeah."  Vicky’s dark brows slanted up. "One of my eighth-graders. Of which I have exactly two.  And this one is not black-haired and full of himself. Dan’s the one I told you I’m nominating for the scholarship to Cheyenne. First student I’ve had I thought was good enough."

"I remember.” Vicky said a competitive scholarship program sent the top few students from isolated districts to an accelerated program at a high school in the state capital. Otherwise, Mason students attended their “local” high school, which meant a lengthy bus trip each way when the weather was good, and isolation when it wasn’t. “They board in Cheyenne, then?”

“Probably not the way you’re used to from where you taught back east. No dorm. Mostly they stay with another family.”

Vicky was right it was impossible not to know who all the students were. Kenzie heard Dan Quick say something today to Evan Prentiss about living with an aunt in Cheyenne next year, in response to Evan scoffing at Dan’s chances of going away for high school.

But, more than the boy’s future, Vicky’s comment on Kenzie’s recent past caught her attention.

No surprise she knew where Kenzie taught previously. As the senior teacher, Vicky naturally saw Kenzie’s resume.

But there was no requirement that Kenzie talk about it. She didn’t correct Vicky’s impression that the Piedmont School had dorms. The handful of boarding students were housed in private suites in a gracious structure. Parents of Piedmonters demanded no less.

Kenzie sipped water, then said, "I didn’t remember because I've got so much to keep me occupied with my students, especially with being new and--"

"Lying awake at night wondering what in damnation possessed you to come teach in the wilds of Wyoming and if insanity is an excuse to get out of your contract before the school year's up," supplied Vicky cheerfully.

"No.  I never wonder that."

Vicky’s sharp look told Kenzie she’d been too serious.

The other teacher smoothed over the moment. "It's a good thing, because I tried the insanity ploy and it didn't work."

Kenzie chuckled and the conversation turned to their students’ exploits this first week of school. But later, as she cleared the built-in table in Vicky's trailer – her task when Vicky cooked and vice versa --  talk returned to the no-show parent.

"There’ll be even more conferences for Hall before real long," Vicky said as she filled the sink with soapy water.  “There's a boy who's still at home.  He must four or five, so if you don't go nuts, you'll have him, too.

"Great."  Kenzie rubbed the blue-check dishcloth on the thirty inches of counter space this trailer boasted.  As the new teacher, Kenzie had the older trailer, with twenty-four inches of counter space.  "You’re pretty cheerful about this man paying no attention to his children's education."

"The Quick kids are darn good students and don’t have any more social or personality problems than any other three kids their ages – especially for having lost their mother.  You know what they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Kenzie thought about those words later as she crossed the darkness between the trailers, carrying a plate with the wedge of apple pie Vicky gave her.

With less competition, starlight here was a lot brighter than where she used to live. From growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, she knew it could get you from one place to another, especially without the Carolina trees to block it. Still, she needed to concentrate to negotiate the uneven ground.

A shadow detached itself from the two wooden steps that led to her trailer door. Too close for her to run back to Vicky's trailer before--

Kenzie stood her ground. She could do nothing to stop her automatic gasp and recoil.

Damn.” A man swore under his breath before commanding irritably, "Don’t screech like that. I didn’t mean to scare you."

The shadow became a man's broad-shouldered, cowboy-hatted shape looming directly in front of her.

"Kenzie?  You okay?"  Vicky stood framed at the lighted door of her trailer peering out.  "Is somebody else there?"

"It's me, Vick," the man called.  "Hall Quick."

"Hey, Hall, how're you doin’?"

Relief banged against Kenzie’s chest.

"Fine.  I’ll come by and talk to you later about Dan, if that's all right."

"Sure.  Any time."

Vicky closed her door, cutting off that ribbon of light.

Kenzie’s eyes had adjusted enough so she could separate man from shadow. He was enough taller than her five-foot-six to make her initial impression that he loomed reasonable. He wore a denim jacket over a light-colored shirt, faded jeans, and dusty work boots. He was broad under the jacket, narrow under the jeans.

He cleared his throat and gave the door of her trailer a significant look.

Her relief ebbed, but adrenaline didn’t.

She wasn’t inviting any parent into her home, least of all this man, who didn't bother to come on time, but now probably expected a sociable cup of coffee, based on his exchange with Vicky.  He might even hope for a slice of pie.  Forget it.

“You had an appointment at five-forty-five, Mr. Quick, concerning the welfare and education of your children. It is three hours after that."

“I’m sorry I missed the time. I got hung up with repairs.”

“You could have called.”

He pushed back his straw cowboy hat. Moonlight showed auburn hair -- not as fair as Lizzie’s, not as red as Molly’s.

“Cell reception’s not real good by the Arrow Creek draw, Miss Kenzie.”

"Please don’t call me that. Miss Kenzie might be acceptable from the children. As a parent, please call me Kenzie or Ms. Smith."

"But--"  He closed his mouth with a clunk she thought was his teeth connecting. “Sorry I’m late, but I’m here now, and--”

“You can message me in the morning or send a note with Molly and Lizzie, and we’ll reschedule a time that’s mutually convenient and appropriate.”

He held so still and quiet that she was aware of the sound of her own breathing, of the push of the breeze against her side.

“All right, Ms. Smith.”

She couldn’t pin anything on the tone and certainly not on the words. Yet he was irked. Yes, she decided as he resettled his hat low over his eyes, definitely irked. Too bad.

“Good night, Mr. Quick.”

She reached her trailer’s door when his voice came from behind her. He hadn’t moved.

“One thing, Ms. Smith. I sure hope you’re teaching better math to these kids than to be thinking five-forty-five to nine-fifteen is three hours when it’s three and a half. Half-hour might not mean anything where you’re from, but here it means thirty minutes of daylight, thirty minutes of work. That can make a difference in a man’s day."



Hall let the truck glide to a stop by the house, saving what brakes it had for when he really needed them, turned off the engine, and dropped his head back to the headrest that had long ago stuck with the left side higher than the right.

He muttered a phrase that brought a memory -- the scent of cinnamon and the sound of Grandma Quick saying with a lingering brogue when she was particularly exasperated or weary, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, grant me strength.

For some reason this schoolteacher made him think of Grandma Quick, his greatest champion while remaining no-nonsense to the core.

Maybe it was the teacher squaring up to him in the dark, refusing to back down.

More likely a whiff of cinnamon he’d caught from the plate she’d been carrying. Nothing to do with the woman at all. Just a fluke of olfactory senses and memory.

Besides, to fill his strength deficit, he'd need to add a couple dozen saints, but he doubted any lined up in heaven for that job.

He sure could have used them earlier today, when the combiner went out and – especially -- when the machine refused to work after six full hours of repairs.  He'd counted on the combiner lasting through the season, maybe next year.  He would try again tomorrow for a stop-gap fix, but even if he succeeded, it was time lost.

Just what he needed.

The same way he’d needed a snooty teacher from back East who looked not long out of college reminding him he’d screwed up.

The school conferences were on the calendar kept on the refrigerator door, and before he’d headed out this morning he’d promised the girls he’d wear his new blue shirt.

He’d made no promise to Dan, because Dan hadn’t asked.

But the combiner drove every thought from his mind except the absolute necessity of getting it going without another bite out of their savings.  When the portable light he’d rigged to see into the guts of the combiner also went out, he’d returned to the house planning to grab food, another light, and head right back.

Instead, he’d faced his daughters.

There was nothing on this earth to make a man feel he was a worm, a monster, and a heathen like that pair of tear-stained faces.

The moment they’d turned their pathetic countenances toward him and sighed in stereo, “Oh, Daddy....”  he’d have shoved the combiner off a cliff by himself.

In less than five minutes, he’d washed up and high-tailed it to see the teachers, supper-less.

He saw the light in Vicky's trailer, but he figured he should meet with the other teacher first. Vicky would understand.

No answer to his knock. He’d wait a couple minutes for her to return before going to Vicky’s. He’d sat on the steps. He was near certain he hadn't dozed off, but the figure of a woman, her shape silhouetted in the light from Vicky’s trailer, appeared awful sudden.

Okay, maybe he had drifted off.

That new teacher looked at him like he’d come straight out of a mudhole and talked like he’d kept the Queen of Sheba waiting for the fun of it.

He still should have kept a rein on his temper.  It wasn’t Molly’s or Lizzie’s fault he’d gotten little sleep last night, wrestled with a combine most of the day, and missed supper. Or that this new teacher they liked so much was a pain in the butt.

Noise from the house jerked him upright in the driver's seat.  Light poured from every window.

Crafty, the border collie who was allowed inside, was outside the back screen door, baying because he was shut out. Benji, a beige mongrel with none of the winsomeness of the original, was on the house side of the back door, barking frantically. Benji was not allowed in the house because he combined a bad habit of depositing small, dead rodents as gifts in empty shoes with a tendency toward incontinence.

Hall shoved the truck door open.

Benji abruptly stopped barking.  As if in sympathy, Crafty's baying ceased.

To Hall, the silence screamed across the night.

He knew sympathy had nothing to do with Crafty’s restraint.  Crafty didn't want to call attention to himself, because the only time Benji stopped asking to be let out was when nature had taken care of that need already.


As Hall walked up the pathway to the back door, the silence abruptly splintered into the acrimonious voices of his three older children.

"I told you he had to go out, Dan."

"And I told you and Lizzie Borden he shouldn't have been let inside in the first place."

"We didn't precisely let him in," objected Lizzie, who practiced precision like a religion.

"Well, I didn't let him in precisely or otherwise, so I'll be damned if I'm cleaning this mess up."

"You're not supposed to swear, Dan."

"Shut up, Molly."

"You shu--"

"Stop.  All of you."  From inside the screen door three faces turned to Hall in unison.  "Who let Benji in?"

"Nobody let him in--"

"Precisely-- I know," Hall interrupted Lizzie.  Crafty whimpered pitifully to be let inside, apparently considering the request safe now.  "Let's put it this way -- who was holding the door open at the time Benji went from outside to inside."

Dan looked smug, while Molly and Lizzie looked at each other.

"Me," Lizzie admitted.

"Then you get the paper towel."  Crafty picked up volume.  "And put Benji out-- No! not until you've cleaned up the mess, Lizzie, or he'll track through it.  Molly, go around the other way and bring in Crafty before he shatters the windows.  And you, Dan--"  His oldest turned a look of outrage on his father.  "--watch your language."

Ten minutes later, Hall was finally eating a baloney sandwich over the sink as his supper.

Swallowing the last bite and washing it down with lukewarm water from the tap because nobody'd filled the ice cube trays, he became aware of Lizzie and Molly sharing one door jamb and Dan leaning on the other in the passage between the kitchen and family room.  The girls stared at him expectantly.  Dan tried to look bored.

"What the hell are you all doing up still?"

"You shouldn't swear," Molly told him.  "Grandma says we should remind you because sometimes you get busy and forget."

Dan said nothing, but Hall had no trouble reading the vindication in his eldest's face.

"We're not all up," added Lizzie.  "Bobby went to bed half an hour ago."

More than an hour after his bedtime.  Hall couldn't let Bobby sleep in tomorrow because day care on a single-parent Wyoming ranch was Bobby trailing him until his siblings returned from school.

Hall headed into the family room.

"Did you talk to Miss Otter?" Dan asked, straining for casualness as Hall passed. The boy was getting tall, past his shoulder already.

"No."  Damn, he'd totally forgotten.  It made his answer harsh.

"But you saw our teacher, didn't you?"  Molly demanded.

"Isn't Miss Kenzie wonderful?" Lizzie enthused.

He turned to his daughters, bright-faced with expectation, no sign of the tear-ravaged tragedy enacted earlier.

"I have a bone to pick with you two.  Miss Kenzie's not her name."

They appeared identically unaffected by his accusation.

"Actually, her full name is Kenzie Deborah Smith," said Lizzie.  "I saw it on her driver's license when she had her wallet open."

"Then you should call her Miss Smith."  He remembered the dark-haired teacher's words.  "Or Ms. Smith."

"That's ordinary.  And she's not ordinary at all."

"So we decided to call her Miss Kenzie," Molly added comfortably.

"You decided...?"  He sat on the couch with a sigh.  Immediately, he lifted his rump, grabbed the half-clothed Barbie doll whose anatomical wonders had dug into his flesh, and dropped her on the floor.  "Next time, tell me the whole story before you send me off to meet somebody you don't call by her right name."

"But it is her name," objected Lizzie.

"I know, but--"

"Besides," Lizzie interrupted with ruthless logic, "you don't listen to us most times anyway."

He looked into the eyes of his precision-seeking daughter and felt like dropping his head in his hands and staying that way for a couple decades.

"It's past time for all of you to be in bed."

It wasn't quite that simple.  But before too much longer, both girls had gone up, and Dan was on his way, pausing only to deliver a parting shot.  "Lizzie Borden had one thing right, you never do listen."

* * *

As Dan pounded up the stairs, Hall remembered his son saying this morning that Vicky had something particular to talk to him about.

Hall's lips twisted in a grimace as he cleared a spot on the couch.  Well, at least she wasn't the teacher he'd wrangled with.

He dropped his forearm over his eyes.

The shadowy image of the new schoolteacher came into his mind.  Kenzie Smith.  She probably knew exactly what to do with kids, how to talk to them, how to teach them.

Just like Annie.

He jerked to a sitting position and checked the clock. He’d slept almost an hour.

Upstairs, the door to the girls’ room was halfway open. Despite the hall light spilling across their faces, both girls slept deeply.

Lizzie was on her side, curled tight with one fist tucked against her cheek. Molly slept on her back, the sheet under her small chin.

They looked so calm … serene. The highs and lows of their day smoothed away to peace.

They’d cried when their grandmother got on the airplane to return to Arizona two weeks after Annie’s funeral. But by the time everyone piled back in for the return haul to the ranch, they were dry-eyed. And before they reached home, they were singing.

God, they healed fast.

He hadn’t felt like crying when his mother boarded the plane, but he had felt a pressure against his chest.  Maybe it was the continued weight of her words from the night before, when he’d asked her to stay longer.

I could stay on a bit, Hall, but I don’t think that’s best for you and the children.  It’s time you all find your way together.

What if I can’t do it, Mom?  He hadn’t said the words aloud. That hadn’t stopped her from answering.

You’ll do fine.  You’ll learn -- you’re already learning.  It’s natural you’re worried how you’ll get on.  This has been a shock for you all.  And it’s going to be a big change.  Especially considering how Annie ...  Well, that’s the past.

Hall pulled the bedroom door nearly closed, leaving it cracked – he’d learned that lesson the first night after his mother left, when Lizzie’s middle-of-the-night screams woke the whole house.

“She’s afraid of the dark,” Dan had said, full of disdain for his father’s lack of knowledge.

“Not afraid of the dark, precisely,” Lizzie had corrected between gulping air and diminishing sobs. “Want to be able to see when I sleep.”

As he had every night since then, Hall adjusted the door so a thread of the dim hall light would be visible inside and any cries during the night would be heard outside.

He crossed the hall to where his sons slept.

The house had been built in the twenties, and the narrow second story added maybe twenty-five years later. The original house was snug and solid, but upstairs broiled in the summer sun and winter’s winds passed through like travelers in a hurry. Cool fall nights like now were the finest season for these small rooms.

He stepped in to pull the covers over Bobby, knowing he’d toss them off again.

Then he turned to where his first-born slept.

Why couldn’t it have been you?

What happened to the boy who’d looked so like Bobby did now?  Who’d followed him around on chubby legs and held out his arms to be lifted for the view from his father’s shoulders.  Now, even in sleep, Dan’s face reflected the anger and pain that had blazed from his eyes these past months … or had those emotions been there longer?

Why the hell couldn’t it have been you?

Hall turned toward the master bedroom, then stopped.  The time he stood there could be measured only by a cascade of memories. The last one was Annie with the hospital white sheet pulled up.

Why couldn’t it have been you?

He turned sharply enough that his boot heel dug into the thinning carpet and went down the stairs for another night on the couch.

* * *

An internal clock more strident than any alarm told Hall it was morning.  He jerked his stiff neck ruthlessly then stumbled into the kitchen, where he began his Thursday by downing the last three aspirin in the bottle with a mouthful of cold coffee.

A new day was dawning.