By: Maya Banks

Then she’d gone home to face her father and his wrath.

Sean came for her two days later, furious with his brothers and ready to kill her father for what he’d done. Sean had refused to leave her there one minute longer. They eloped, but that hadn’t been the final nail in the coffin of her nonexistent relationship with her father.

He’d seemed willing to forgive her marriage to Sean, but when she told him she had a record deal, he’d disowned her.

It seemed everyone but Sean had turned his back on her, and now Sean was gone. All because of her.

He loved her, put her first¾her career, her wants and needs¾and she hadn’t been able to save him.

She waited for the tears to come, even welcomed them, because anything was better than this barren wasteland that resided in her chest. But she simply stared at the window, her grief sealed behind an impenetrable wall of ice.

With a heavy sigh, she slid her legs toward the edge of the bed and struggled upward. Funny, she didn’t remember getting undressed last night, but she supposed she had after Doc gave her a sleeping pill.

Normally she wouldn’t bother with a shower, because there was only her to put up with her appearance, but she wasn’t in her apartment anymore. Aside from Greer and Taggert, there were a number of ranch hands who lived here.

Grimacing over the effort it took to dig in her bag for clothes and the basic toiletries, she trudged off to the shower and without waiting for it to warm, stepped underneath the spray.

The cold shocked some of the lethargy from her system, and by the time she washed and rinsed her hair, it didn’t quite feel like sludge ran through her veins.

After drying off and dressing, she looked at herself in the mirror and winced. She looked…well, dead. There was no life, no spark in her eyes, and her lips were drawn, not in a frown, but in a flat line of indifference. Even a frown denoted some sort of emotion.

To her surprise, her stomach growled, and she took it as a promising sign. Maybe the mountain air was good for her. Or maybe it had just been too long since she had a decent meal.

Leaving her still-damp hair hanging to her shoulders, she picked up her mess and went back into her bedroom. She pulled up short when she saw Taggert standing in the doorway.

“Oh good, there you are. I was coming up to see if you wanted to eat. Buck left breakfast for you.”

“I thought it was against his religion to hold a meal for anyone,” she said dryly. “‘Either be there when it’s put on the table or go without’.”

Taggert chuckled, and she watched the dimple in his cheek deepen. It always amazed her how something so innocuous as a dimple could transform his hardness.

He reached out his hand. “Come on, Emmy. Come eat with me. Afterward I’ll take you out to see the new colts.”

A flicker of interest stirred for a moment, but the thought of walking so far exhausted her.

“Maybe I’ll just eat and hang out here,” she murmured.

His eyes hardened for a moment, but he didn’t argue. Instead he motioned for her hand again, and when she finally extended it, he pulled her out into the hallway.

“You’ve lost weight,” he said bluntly as they descended the stairs. “You need to start eating again.”

Her cheeks tightened, but she remained silent.

When they got to the kitchen she was surprised to see Buck puttering around and even more surprised to see that he still wore the same apron he had years ago. It was worn, had holes and was so thin she could see through it.

“What are you staring at, girly?” he asked rudely.

She felt her lips going upward in a smile, and it shocked her. But it grew even larger as she stared at the cantankerous man who’d been the Donovans’ cook since before she was born.

“Well, now, that’s better. Come here so I can hug you.”

Mechanically, she went forward, still enjoying the sensation of smiling. He hugged her tightly, and she smelled the faint mint of his snuff.

“Still chewing,” she said with a sigh. “Buck, your mouth is going to rot and fall off.”

He drew away and glared at her. “Still nagging, I see. Greer hasn’t given up his smokes, so nag him if you feel the need, but leave me be. I’ve been chewing for forty years, and I don’t aim to quit anytime soon.”

She rolled her eyes as she stepped back. “Pardon me for not wanting you both to die of cancer.”

“The good Lord will take me when he’s ready and not a minute sooner.”

Her smile disappeared and the heavy weight descended on her chest again.

“Ah sheeit,” Buck said. “That was a damn fool thing of me to say, Emmy. I wouldn’t hurt you for the world.”

“I know,” she said, trying valiantly to resummon her smile.