Danielle Jamison groaned as the jet touched down on the runway. It wasn’t just the hangover, she was used to hangovers. It was what was waiting for her when she got off the plane.
Her parents had more than once before said things about “tough love” and “straighten up and flying right.” Dropping in and out of college was driving them crazy, they said. Staying out all night to party with her friends, and sleeping all day, wasn’t what they wanted for her. What she wanted didn’t matter. As long as she lived under their roof, they said, and spent their money, she had to follow their rules. It didn’t matter that she was an adult of twenty-two.
This crazy idea of theirs was enough to make her sick even without a hangover. Sending her to the family dude ranch in Wyoming was the worst possible punishment. There was nothing in Wyoming except rocks and sky. Her mother had refused even to get her a limousine from the airport to the ranch, saying someone from Big-J Ranch would come pick her up.
She dawdled, groaning again as she pulled herself out of the seat. When the flight attendant cheerfully welcomed her to Casper and asked if she needed assistance, Danielle just grunted at her. She delayed longer, digging her cell phone out of her purse and waiting for it to turn on before ambling slowly up the aisle to the exit.
She had promised to call her parents as soon as she landed. But she had promised them lots of things over the years. They had already sent her a thousand miles to nowhere. What more could they do? So she started calling her girlfriends, but of course nobody answered. Everyone else was still sleeping off her farewell party.
The terminal was nothing like the airport in New York. There was almost nothing to it: no shops, no restaurants, no nothing. It just had people hurrying to leave.
Danielle stumbled her way to the baggage claim area and found a bench. With relief she sat again, laying her aching head in her hand. Maybe if she got really sick her parents would let her come back home.
“You must be Miss Jamison,” a rough voice said.
Danielle lifted her head just a bit finding scuffed cowboy boots and faded blue jeans. “Yeah. Who are you?”
“I’m Tim Slade, foreman at your father’s ranch,” he answered. “You got luggage?”
“Yeah,” Danielle replied, in a tone of bored disinterest. Of course she had bags. He didn’t really think she came out here with only her purse, did he?
“You best get them and come on, then,” the foreman said brusquely. “We got work waiting.”
That got Danielle to lift her head and gape at him. He was about her father’s age, but his face was weathered by sun and wind. His expression made it seem like he had never smiled or laughed in his life. “By myself?” she demanded.
He lifted a hand to push the brim of his hat up a little. “Your father said you were a strong-willed one. I figured you wouldn’t need any help.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” she retorted, slowly standing. “I got sent out here for two weeks and I brought a lot of stuff. I need a hand with my things.”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll go find you a cart,” he said dryly.
Danielle lifted her chin as he turned. He wasn’t planning on making her do it, was he? What kind of man was he? She couldn’t believe this. It just wasn’t fair.
Tim just stood and watched as she got her bags piled on the luggage cart, then didn’t offer to pull it for her despite how heavy it was. She hauled it after him to the doors and outside. To her dismay, but no real surprise, he led the way to a battered pickup truck. He dropped the gate and got into the cab without even offering to help her put her bags into the flatbed.
Danielle had to dig in her purse for her sunglasses. The light was so bright she thought for sure she was going to throw up right there on the sidewalk. Once the shades were on, she felt a little better. She muscled her bags into the bed of the truck by herself, and that made her feel a little better still. She didn’t need old Mr. Slade’s help. But when she tried to get the gate closed, it just banged down again, making her head throb.
“I’ll get it,” he said waving her toward the cab like he was doing her a huge favor.
Danielle climbed up into the passenger seat and hauled the door shut. Leaning back, she sighed in relief. After a moment, she opened her purse retrieving her phone and cigarettes. But before she could light up, Mr. Slade objected.
“Not in here, you don’t,” he said climbing into the cab and starting the engine. “You might as well just throw them away. We don’t allow smoking on the ranch.”
“What do you mean?” Danielle demanded. “You can’t tell me I can’t have a cigarette anywhere for two weeks.”
“Your parents’ orders,” the foreman replied, not looking at her. “Did you call them yet?”
“No,” she said, sulking and slumping in her seat.
“Best do that, then. Other thing you can’t have on the ranch is that fancy phone of yours.”
“Ask ’em yourself.” Slade had both hands lightly on the wheel, and Danielle could swear he seemed amused by her outrage. “You’re out here to work, missy, not for vacation.”
Danielle called home, and her mother answered. They got into an argument at once dragging her father onto the other line. It was no use, her parents were firm. They had been worried about her, and this was their solution. They figured forcing her to work at the dude ranch, without her phone, without cigarettes or drinking or anything fun at all, would make her into something different. What that would be, they didn’t say.
“Why do you hate me?” Danielle cried.
“Honey, we don’t hate you,” her father said. “Don’t you see? Every time we try to help you, you say we hate you.”
Her mother started to say something but Danielle just hung up. They always said the same things. They wouldn’t let her have any fun. They were always so down on her. They didn’t remember anymore what it was like to be young.
It was almost an hour to the ranch from the airport, and she cried nearly the whole way. The foreman said nothing, but as they neared the turn-off from the county highway, he took some pity on her at last.
He stopped the truck just before the traditional arch that spanned the private road for the Big-J Ranch. When Danielle looked at him, Mr. Slade said, “If you wanted to hop on out here and have yourself a last smoke, I suppose no one would see you. Just make sure you don’t leave the butts burning.”
“Thanks,” she said, scrambling for the door latch.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “I’ll take your things on up to the house. Don’t dally too long. Like I said, we got work waiting.”
Danielle got out and frantically lit a cigarette. The truck was gone before she knew it and she leaned against the split-rail fence. She felt dizzy from the bliss of nicotine. Her parents, the flight, it was all very stressful. At least her hangover was just about gone. And feeling her mind clear, she looked around and noticed how pretty the sky was here. It was bluer than she could have imagined. It was never this blue in New York.
Danielle got out her phone, but saw at once she had no bars. ‘Figures,’ she thought sourly. It didn’t matter if her parents said she could have it or not. Out here in the middle of nowhere, she didn’t have service. She could get bitten by a snake or attacked by bandits or something, and she wouldn’t be able to call for help. ‘That would serve my parents right; sending me off like this,’ she thought.
She sighed, dropped the end of her cigarette, and remembered what Mr. Slade had said about not leaving them burning. The grass around did look really dry. She stepped on it, then got out another and lit it. If she wasn’t going to be able to smoke, she might as well have a few while she could.
It had been nearly two hours since he had unloaded the girl’s luggage from the truck onto the porch. He had run out of things to do that kept him within sight of the road. She had yet to show up.
“Owen!” the foreman called. His son trotted over at once, still coiling a lasso as he did. “That girl is still by the road, I bet. Go on down and get her.”