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Author: Debbie Macomber



   “I don’t know how much longer your grandfather’s going to live.”

   The words hit Molly Cogan with the force of an unexpected blow. Sinking onto a stool beside the kitchen phone, she blocked out the blare of the television and her sons’ ongoing argument over whose turn it was to set the table for dinner.

   Tom and Clay were at each other’s throats, but Molly could only deal with one crisis at a time. “Who is this again, please?”

   “Sam Dakota. Listen, I realize this isn’t the best time, but I felt I should tell you.” He paused, then added, “Walt wouldn’t appreciate me calling you, but like I said, you have a right to know his health isn’t good.”

   The unmistakable sound of shattering glass filtered through the television noise as the boys’ skirmish escalated.

   Placing her hand over the mouthpiece, Molly shouted, “Boys, please! Not now.” Something in her voice must have communicated the importance of the call, because both turned and stared at her. A moment later, Tom reached for the broom.

   Molly’s hand trembled as she lifted the receiver back to her ear. “How do you know my grandfather, Mr. Dakota?”

   “I’m his foreman. Been here about six months.”

   The fact that Gramps had willingly surrendered control of his ranch to a hired hand—a stranger—told her a great deal. For the past few years, he’d sold off portions of the once-huge spread, until all that remained was a couple of thousand acres, small by Montana standards. He’d managed the Broken Arrow Ranch himself as long as she could remember. Hired hands came and went, depending on the size of the herd, but as far as she knew, he’d always maintained tight control of the day-to-day operations. Over the years his letters had been infrequent, but in the last one—which she’d received after Christmas, four and a half months ago—Molly had sensed something wasn’t right with Gramps. She’d put aside the feeling, however, consumed by her own problems.

   “Tell me again what happened,” she said abruptly, struggling to regain her composure. The man’s first words had been such a shock, much of what he’d said afterward had escaped her.

   “Like I told you, spring’s our busy time, and yesterday your grandfather told me he’d be out to help check on the new calves. When he didn’t show, I returned to the house and found him unconscious on the kitchen floor. Heart attack, I figured.”

   Molly pressed her fingers to her lips to hold in a gasp of dismay. Gramps...in pain. Unable to breathe. Losing consciousness. It frightened her to think of it.

   With her mother and half brother living in Australia, Gramps was her only family here. Her only connection with her long-dead father.

   “I got him to the clinic in town and Doc Shaver confirmed what I thought. It is his heart. Walt has a pacemaker, but the walls of his heart are old and brittle, and it isn’t working as well as Doc had hoped.”

   “Gramps has a pacemaker?” Molly cried. “When did this happen?” She raised her hand to the cameo hanging from a gold chain around her neck and clenched it hard. It was the most precious piece of jewelry she owned. Gramps had given it to her the day they buried her grandmother nine years before.

   “More than six months ago. First I’d heard of it, too.”

   “Why didn’t he tell me?” Molly asked, although she realized Sam Dakota couldn’t possibly know. She wished—not for the first time—that San Francisco was closer to Montana. Right now, Sweetgrass seemed a million miles away.

   “I can’t answer that. I thought you should know Walt’s probably not going to live much longer. If you want to see him, I suggest you plan a visit out here soon.”

   “What exactly is wrong with his heart?” It might have sounded as if she was avoiding the real issue, but she needed to understand Gramps’s condition before she could even begin to think about anything else. Like her finances. And how she could possibly afford a trip to Montana now.

   “Do you know anything about pacemakers?”

   “A little.” Just enough to understand that they emit an electronic beep, which assists the heart in beating at a steady pace.

   “Well, as I said earlier, the walls of your grandfather’s heart are brittle and it’s difficult to get the pacemaker to function properly. Doc Shaver worked on him a couple of hours, but he couldn’t make any guarantees. Said there’s nothing more he can do. It’s only a matter of time before his heart gives out completely.”

   Molly clamped her teeth over her lower lip while she tried to take in what this man was telling her. “I... I appreciate the call. Thank you.” With each word, she felt herself more overwhelmed by emotion. Not Gramps, please dear God, not Gramps. Not yet.

   “Sorry to call with such bad news.”

   “How...how is he now?” She glanced toward the living room and discovered Tom and Clay standing in the doorway, studying her intently. A smile would have reassured them, but even that was beyond her.

   “Better. Will you be coming, then?” the foreman asked.

   “I’m not sure.” Molly didn’t see how she could manage it. With the child-support payments cut off and the financial adjustments they’d already been forced to make in the past year, she couldn’t imagine squeezing one more expense into her already stretched budget. Even a short trip would require at least a week away from her job—a contract position without paid holidays. Plus, she’d have the cost of airfare or, more likely, gas and lodging for the drive. She’d have to take the boys; Gramps would want to see them, and they deserved to see him.

   “When will you know whether you’re coming?”

   It might have been her imagination, but she detected a note of censure. This man knew nothing about her—knew nothing about her circumstances or her life. How dared he stand as judge and jury over her decisions?

   “If I knew that, I’d have said something sooner!” Leaning the back of her head against the kitchen wall, Molly tried to think clearly, desperate to find a way, a solution—anything that would lighten the burden of her fears. Never one to weep openly, particularly with strangers, she fought the growing constriction in her throat.

   “Then I won’t keep you any longer,” Sam said gruffly.

   Molly wanted to shout that he should wait, that she had other questions, but he’d already answered the important ones. What she wanted even more was to hear this stranger tell her Gramps was on the mend.

   But he wasn’t going to say that.

   “Thank you for phoning,” she said, feeling guilty about the sharp retort she’d made a moment ago. No one enjoyed delivering bad news, and it was kind of Sam Dakota to make sure she learned of her grandfather’s condition. “I’ll let you know if we’re coming for a visit,” she felt obliged to add.

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