Jenny woke to a quiet so profound it blasted her eardrums, shocking her with the lack of parrot screeches and “get your butt out of bed” shouts from the other members of her film crew. But as she blinked around at the familiar yellow curtains and glossy white furniture of a room decorated in Early Teen, she realized it wasn’t all the way silent. The old bones of the ranch house creaked a little in the cold, and muted noises from downstairs said she wasn’t the first one up.
“Guess we’re not in Belize anymore, Toto,” she said, half expecting Jill to groan from the other side of the tent and tell her to shut up. But she didn’t have a roommate here, or a layer of mosquito netting draped around her bed. Which was just weird.
Ask any other member of her family, though, and they’d say it was the other way around. To them, this was normal. This was home.
A glance at the phone she’d dumped on the bedside table said it was just after eight, and the scents of coffee and cinnamon said it was time for breakfast. Her body wasn’t sure what country it was in, never mind what time zone, but she levered herself out of bed anyway.
Because, hello, breakfast.
No stranger to cat naps, round-the-clock shifts and other o’dark thirty stuff, Jenny was clear-eyed by the time her feet hit the floor. She had slept in sweats and thick socks, but the cold cut through them, making her shiver as she dragged on another sweatshirt and stuffed her feet into a pair of sheepskin slippers.
“Brr.” She headed for the dresser and snagged a fluffy red beret off the corner of the mirror, glancing at the photos her long-ago self had tucked in the frame.
She might want to deny that she’d ever curled and sprayed her hair so big or worn that shiny blue monstrosity to prom, but she was still darned proud of the six pictures she’d snapped during a summer storm when she was fifteen, one after the other, showing slashes of lightning spearing across Mustang Ridge. The photo series had won first prize at the local fair and made it all the way to state before getting beat out by a still life of fruit and old boots. Which had been seriously lame, but whatever.
Surprised by a kick of warmth that didn’t have anything to do with fleece and cashmere, she grinned at herself in the mirror. “Welcome home, kiddo.”
Granted, “home” for her was more of a base camp than a long-term residence, but it was where the big things stayed the same, year after year, and where she knew she’d find a hug and a hot meal no matter what. She was lucky. Not everyone had something so rock solid to fall back on, thanks to a family dedicated to making sure it stayed that way, not just for her, but for all the people and animals that called Mustang Ridge their home.
The door to her room gave off the same three-note squeak it always had, and the wide floorboards in the upstairs hall creaked under her weight, making her feel like a rhino even though they’d been making those same noises since she was eight.
A moment later, there was a flash of movement at the bottom of the stairs and a familiar figure appeared, frowning up. “Did you hear—” Krista gasped, face lighting. “When did you . . . Why didn’t you . . . Oh!” She flew up and grabbed Jenny in a huge hug. “You’re here!”
As always, Jenny felt a shock of recognition at seeing herself in Krista, like she was looking into a not-quite-funhouse mirror that distorted things only slightly, giving her a long blond ponytail, coloring her high cheekbones with a flush of excitement rather than a sunblock-defying tan, and turning her into a country girl.
But then, as always, within those first few seconds everything clicked back into place, and something inside Jenny said, Duh. They were twins, after all.
Laughter bubbled up, and she hugged her sister, hard. “You sound surprised. Did you think I was going to bail on you?”
“No, never. But seeing you makes it feel like this is really happening!”
“I’m here, and it is.” Jenny held Krista away. “But are you sure this is what you want to do with your time off? You’re long overdue for a real vacation. You know, the kind with fruity drinks, pool boys, and sand?”
“Trust me, this is a real vacation.”
“Six weeks of classes? Are you nuts?”
Krista grinned. “Four weeks of classes in a big city plus two more interning at one of the biggest dude ranches in California, which I’m guessing has fruity drinks and pool boys, and hopefully some tips on how to improve our services here. Maybe not to you, but it sure sounds like paradise to me.”
“At least take an extra week for yourself on a beach somewhere. I’ve got the time before we start shooting the new season of Jungle Love.” Barely, but she would make it work.
“I couldn’t ask you to do that when you’ve already rearranged your life to ride herd on this place while I’m gone.” Krista hugged her again, tight enough to strangle. “I can’t believe you’re really here! When did you get in? I was heading out to pick you up in an hour!”
As a belated exclamation and some chair scrapes came from the dining room, Jenny said, “I caught an earlier flight and found a taxi driver who was willing to make the trip.”
“That must’ve cost a fortune!” Krista socked her in the arm. “You should’ve called me.”
Their father appeared in the archway leading to the dining room, saving Jenny from trying to explain a reluctance she wasn’t even sure she understood. Heading toward him with Krista in tow, she stretched out her free hand. “Dad!”
His hug was big and burly, and carried a fresh-sawdust undertone that said he’d put in some early hours in his shop. But despite that familiar smell and the fact that Jenny had known her parents were back at the ranch, there was a moment of disconnect.
Easing back, Jenny grinned. “Hey, big guy. I see you’re back to rocking the lumberjack look.” The last time she had visited her parents—a stopover at an RV campsite on Cape Cod—he’d been sporting loud prints, boat shoes, and a big hat, and looking as relaxed as she’d seen him in years. Now he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and a pair of thick wool socks that could’ve been holdovers from her childhood.
“When in Wyoming,” he intoned, but then shot her a wink that said, It’s all good.
“She left last night, headed for an estate auction on the other side of Laramie, with some stopovers at a few antique places along the way. She’ll be gone a few days, but said to tell you hi and that she’s sorry she missed your first day back.”
Just not sorry enough to change her plans. “An estate sale? Antique stores? When did Mom go American Pickers?” Last she knew, her mother had been into French cuisine and the Food Channel.
“The write-up on the auction said they’re selling some nice Depression-era glass,” her father said in a good-natured nonanswer.
“Speaking of rocking the lumberjack look . . .” Krista gave Jenny’s sweats-on-sweats outfit a pointed up-and-down. “What are you wearing? Everything?”
“Shut up, it’s freezing in here!”
“Pansy. I was just getting ready to open a window and let out some of the cooking heat.” Krista looked perfectly comfortable in yoga pants, a tank top, and flip-flops.
Beneath her fuzzy hat, Jenny scowled. “Try it and I’ll toss you in a snowbank.”
“No you won’t. That’d mean going outside, and there’s no way you’re setting foot beyond the front door without more clothes.” Krista’s grin took on an edge. “Like, you know, one of those survival suits they use in the Bering Sea.”
“Ha. You willing to bet on that?”
“Time out.” Their father made a T sign with his hands. “Breakfast first, then snow fights.”
“Aw,” Jenny and Krista said together, harmonizing, and then laughed and hugged again as the three of them trooped into the main room with its exposed beams and tasteful—if you were into that sort of thing—taxidermy.
It didn’t look exactly the same as it had when they were kids, but it wasn’t all that different, either. The couches and chairs were new and overstuffed, the carved wood mantel over the fireplace held landscapes rather than family photos, and just inside the door was a polished wooden counter-slash-computer stand that served as the registration desk and hub of guest services. The comfortable jumble was gone, the afghans folded, the pillows plumped, and the corners neatly swept, but the homeyness was still there, and not just in the welcome smell of coffee and muffins.
There was still a dog bed near the fire—it had been a while since their last house pup passed on, but a few of the wranglers had working dogs that occasionally snuck in for a nap—and the twelve-person dining table still took up the back half of the room, sheltered by big bookcases that gave the dining area some privacy without cutting off the straight-through view of the snow-shrouded fields, distant mountains, and leaden sky.
During the summer, most everyone ate in the dining hall that had been added on to the other side of the expanded kitchen, leaving the dining area for the occasional special event. In the winter, though, the dining hall was closed off and meals were held at the long, wide-board dining table. Krista, Jenny, and their father sat together at the end nearest the fireplace, where the open hearth held a gray soapstone stove that gave off mellow waves of heat.
Jenny snagged a mug off the sideboard and poured herself a cup of thick, black coffee that practically stuck to her teeth when she took her first sip. She sighed in appreciation. “Mmm. Hello, caffeine. I’ve missed you.”
“They don’t have good java down south?” Krista asked.
“It’s not cowboy coffee.” After a second deep swallow that burned its way along Jenny’s throat and heated her stomach, she set down her cup and motioned to the hallway that led to the big commercial kitchen. “I’m going to go say hi to—”
“Jenny?” A figure bustled through the arched doorway, nearly lost in a ruffled blue apron. Bird-small and delicate, with silver hair and quick eyes, she brought with her a gush of sugar-laden air and a bright smile. “I thought I heard you out here! Oh, sweetie!”
“Gran!” Jenny met her halfway and leaned into the embrace. Inhaling the scents of baking and lavender bathwater, she sighed and breathed out a tension she hadn’t even been aware of. This, she thought. This was what she had missed the most. Emails and Skype just weren’t the same as a hug that smelled like a bakery and stayed tight, like it wasn’t ever going to let go.
Then again, that was Gran. She was the glue behind the scenes of Mustang Ridge, sticking them together with love, stubbornness, and baked goods. She had been the first one to see that the old ways weren’t cutting it anymore, the first one to throw her support behind Krista’s crazy-sounding plan to herd dudes instead of cattle. And, bless her, she had been the only one who hadn’t seemed surprised when Jenny announced she was leaving. Instead, when the time came, Gran had hidden a Ziploc bag full of cookies and five hundred dollars in her luggage, and hugged her good-bye.
Now they hugged hello for the first time in more than a year.
“Let me see you!” Gran drew back and frowned. “You look tired, baby.”
“I am, but it’s nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix. My body isn’t sure what day it’s supposed to be, never mind what time.” She looked past her grandmother. “Where’s Big Skye?” Her gramps wasn’t a fan of crowds—or the transition from cattle station to dude ranch—but given that it was the off season, she would’ve expected him to be either bellied up to the table or mooching bacon out of the pan, giving Gran a wink and a kiss when she scolded him.
“He’s got a cold, which has him stuck in bed and cranky as a mustang with a burr under his saddle. But he’ll want to see you, if you can stand it.”
“I’ll walk down to the cabin after breakfast.” Cranky or not, Big Skye was always a hoot to be around, with a caustic wit and a story for every occasion, most of them starting with, “There was this one roundup . . .” or “I was in this honky-tonk one time . . .” Some of them were even true, though she didn’t have any problem calling him on the tall tales.
Funny, wasn’t it, how families worked? She could spar with her grandfather all day long, but five minutes with her mother in hobby mode put her seriously on edge. Krista, on the other hand, would bend over sideways to keep the peace with their mom, but did the duck-and-shuffle with Big Skye.
Gran patted her cheek. “You’re a good girl. Sit and relax. I’ll be right out with the food.”
Knowing it was no use offering to help—the kitchen was Gran’s domain—Jenny sat. Warmer now, thawed out by family and the heat of the wood stove, she pulled off her hat.
Krista froze with her mug suspended midair. “Ohmigod, did you dye your hair?” She might as well have said “You got a face tattoo?” or “You ate a puppy?” There was that much horror in her voice.
Resisting the urge to put the hat back on, Jenny gave a no biggie shrug. “Why? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s not that. It’s just . . . Wow, it’s so dark! And short!” Krista reached over and rubbed a couple of strands between her fingers. “It makes you look so different. Like, I don’t know. A movie star or something.”
Jenny batted her hand away. “Knock it off. It’s no big deal.” Or maybe it was; she hadn’t decided yet. She’d only had the new hairdo for a couple of days, and the brunette color was a far cry from their natural blond. Maybe it had been a last act of defiance before coming home. . . or maybe self-defense. Either way, she hoped it would make the locals stop and think before confusing her with her sister.
“Hello. It’s a big deal to me.” Krista’s eyes lit. “Did you do it for the show?”
“No way.” Jenny almost laughed at the idea. “As long as I’m more or less presentable, they don’t care what I look like. I’m behind the camera, remember?”
“You don’t need to be. I bet they’d take you as a contestant in a heartbeat. Especially looking like this! It’s got total wow factor.” Krista made another grab for her hair.
Jenny waved a fork to fend her off. “I’d let parrots peck my eyes out before I signed on for Jungle Love.” It was one thing being a cameraman for the exotic reality dating show. It was quite another being a contestant—she didn’t know which would be worse, dealing with the people or being on the wrong side of the camera.
“Then why’d you change your hair?”
“Because I felt like it. And stop touching me.”
“Am I going to have to separate you two?” their father asked mildly over his coffee.
“Nope, because here’s the food.” Jenny sniffed appreciatively as Gran appeared pushing a server loaded with berry pancakes, scrambled eggs, and crispy bacon. “Mmm. I’m starving.”
“Come on,” Krista said. “What have you got against going on the show? I mean, Mike and Niki from season two are engaged. It can happen.”
As far as Jenny was concerned, Mike Neils was a jerk, Niki French had more mileage on her than the average commercial Boeing, and their engagement was as fake as Niki’s boobs. But her contract was very clear on what would happen if she leaked, so she went with a noncomittal: “I’m not interested in dating on national TV.” And it wasn’t like her occasional hookups would be good fodder, anyway.
“But it could be fun. You’d get to go cave diving, treasure hunting, riding in the rain forest . . .” Krista ticked off the made-for-ratings group dates on her fingers, sounding dreamy.
“Live with eleven other women who want me dead,” Jenny added. “That’s assuming, of course, that I didn’t get kicked off in the first episode.”
“With that haircut? You’d totally score.”
“We could take a swing by Harry’s later, get you one to match.”
“I—” Krista lifted a hand to her ponytail. “Um.”
“Didn’t think so.” Jenny grinned as Gran took the seat opposite her, and added, “Besides, I’m not here to talk about the show. Rumor has it that I’m in charge of the guest stuff for the next six weeks. So . . . what do you guys say? You ready to bring me up to speed?”
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