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      “We’ll only be gone a few hours, Mike.” Kate Neilson Duncan eyed her husband’s reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Eight or nine, at the most.” She opened a drawer beneath the countertop, pulled out her hairbrush and sat on the edge of the bathtub, her bare feet planted on the cool wood floor.


     He lifted an eyebrow. “Kate…”


     She turned from her husband’s “what are you thinking” stare. Bending over her knees, she began to brush her long, dark hair. Stroke after stroke, she brushed from the nape of her neck downward toward the floor, something she did almost every night.


     Her mother had told her years ago a hundred strokes a day would distribute the natural oils in her hair and make it shine. So that’s what she did before bed. She didn’t always remember to count, but most evenings, she remembered to brush.


     Sometimes she thought about her sweet mama while she brushed, determined not to let what memories she had fade. Other times, she thought about her father and her brother, who’d also been killed in the car accident that took her mother’s life when Kate was eight. Occasionally, she thought of the years she’d wandered Pittsburg streets without a dime—or a hairbrush—to her name. And once in a great while, she thought of her prison days, when brushing her hair during a quiet moment was a rare luxury.


     Most nights, she talked with Mike. Tonight, they were discussing an outing with the kids from Freedom House, the children’s home she and Mike’s mom, Laura, had established on their Wyoming ranch several months ago. Kate wanted to treat the children to a fun day in Cheyenne, and she needed another adult to help her keep track of them.


     Chin on her knee, she said, “I’m not asking for the whole weekend.” She’d originally hoped to add a couple camping days to the outing. But when no adults were available to accompany her and the kids, she’d scaled her plans down to one day.


     Mike, who was brushing his teeth, didn’t respond until he’d rinsed his mouth. “Kate…” She heard him run water over the toothbrush and tap it on the sink to knock out the excess.


     “Kate,” he repeated, “you know the only time I can even think of getting away is in the middle of the week. Did you forget this is a guest ranch and that Saturday is our busiest day? Guests will be coming and going, like usual. We have trail rides, bison tours, fishing trips and classes scheduled all day long.”


     She made a face she knew he couldn’t see and kept brushing. No matter what she asked him to do, the ranch came first. “That’s why you have employees.”


     “This is the beginning of summer, the beginning of the guest season, and we have a slew of first-time workers. I need to hang around to make sure everything runs smoothly.” He blew a frustrated breath between his lips. “One of the new hires from town wore tennis shoes today instead of boots and, of course, stepped in a gopher hole. Did a number on his ankle. He’ll be out of commission a couple weeks, at best.”


     “You could put Clint in charge.”

     “You know he oversees the working side of the WP and doesn’t have much to do with the guest side.”


Kate loved the Whispering Pines. Their guest ranch was beautiful and welcoming. And she loved that Mike loved his work. But his hands-on management style controlled their lives. She didn’t have enough fingers to count the plans that had been ruined by sick cows, runaway horses and natural disasters, like last week’s self-combusting haystack, not to mention guests and their emergencies. And then there was his pride and joy, his bison herd…


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