“I’ll get her. Keep watch, you’re a better shot than I am.” Kyle started up the tree before Camille could respond.
“Just hurry,” Camille urged. Tearing her eyes away from her daughter to search the snow for the danger she knew was lurking.
Kyle prayed the thinner branches would hold his weight as he kept his feet as close to the trunk as he could, soon he couldn’t go any higher.
“Willow, I need you to come down to me. I can’t climb any higher. Come on honey, it’s just a few feet.”
Willow blinked at the man with Gracie’s eyes, it wasn’t Tank. She was so cold, her brain had stopped working. She couldn’t remember who he was but he kept encouraging her to come to him. She reached down toward him which caused her to fall the few feet onto him, almost taking them both to the ground the fast way. She just wanted to sleep.
Kyle’s heart was pounding as she fell into his arms, he held onto his niece with all his strength as he tried to get down safely only using one arm. Below him, the horses started making frightened noises.
“Move it, Kyle.” Camille shouted, she sounded far away then two rifle shots boomed from the storm.
Looking down he couldn’t see where she was. Only that Cookie and Lucky were trying to pull free to flee but Cajun was standing firmly like a rock. The other two panicked horses couldn’t get the old cattle pony to budge.
Tank’s voice came shouted out of the blowing snow. “Wally, Hightower!”
“We’re here, Tanner,” Kyle shouted back as he saw a large form emerge from the blowing snow, “In the tree.”
Tank forced his mount into the lower branches, but Kyle called out, “There’s a bear, Camille was shooting at it. Go help her.”
There was a third shot, followed a few minutes later by a fourth. Tank hurried his horse in that direction.
Kyle dropped to the ground with Willow in his arms. “Willow, sweetie, open your eyes and look at me, come on, you can do it.”
Kent’s eyes blinked open in his daughter’s face and Kyle almost choked in relief, but he knew his niece was in trouble, she was severely hypothermic. He pulled off her thin wet nylon jacket and wrapped her in the long duster with him, sharing his body heat to warm her. Sitting there alone with Willow unconscious in his arms, the storm felt oddly quiet in spite of the howling wind. He heard something that sounded like a shouted profanity but he couldn’t be sure if he heard it or imagined it. A fifth shot echoed around them.
“Tanner? Camille?” Kyle shouted into the storm. Moments later two figures leading a horse appeared in near whiteout.
Camille rushed up to Kyle and looking only at Willow’s face, “Oh Gawd. Willow, it’s Mom, look at me.”
Tank hovered over her shoulder creating a windbreak. Willow’s blinked her eyes open for a minute then she turned her face back toward her uncle’s chest and away from the cold wind.
Kyle looked closely at Camille and realized she was covered in mud. “What in the...”
“Wally, we gotta get her out of this wind. We gotta get back, the storm is building,” Tanner announced. Kyle noticed his face was actually pale and he kept glancing between Camille and Willow. To Camille, Tanner said, “Wally, get the horses.”
Camille hurried over to where the horses were tethered and pulled the horses over to where Kyle knelt, holding Willow. Tank helped him get onto Cookie without a word.
“How are we going to get back in this weather?” Kyle shouted, positioning Willow across his lap, under the long coat. He didn’t know how he was going to guide Cookie and manage to hold her. She hadn’t woken up but she had started shivering. He prayed that was a good sign.Camille pulled something like a heavy wool poncho over his and readjusted his hat and scarf.
“Lucky will lead us back to the barn, she hates being out in the weather. Just keep Willow warm and hold on, Tank will lead Cookie and I’ll keep a hold of Lucky. Okay?”
Kyle nodded, shouting over the roar of the storm, “Just get us back.”
Tank pulled the reins over Cookie’s head. “Just hang on to her and don’t fall off, Hightower.”
They began the hours’ long ride back toward the ranch house in the blizzard.
Gramma Dorine paced nervously. Gracie was glued to the window, staring out at the storm. She couldn’t see more than 20 feet from the house but she wouldn’t move until her family was back home and safe.
“Gramma, I see something.”
A moving gray shadow appeared, followed by another and then the shadows became two pairs of horse and three riders. Gracie choked on her worry, Willow wasn’t riding Lucky. She ran to the backdoor barely getting her coat on before she rushed out into the storm. Tank was helping Kyle off her uncle’s horse. He was wearing the alpaca wool poncho her grandparents had brought back from their trip to Argentina. She could see Willow’s boots poking as Kyle hurried toward the house and she realized he was carrying her sister under the poncho.
“Gracie, help Tank with the horses. We have to get Willow inside,” her mother yelled over the wind as she shoved Lucky and Cajun’s reins into her hands.
In the barn, Gracie quickly unsaddled the horses, and began rubbing the snow and ice off them. “What happened? Is Willow hurt?”
Tank sighed, “No and yes, Willow will be fine, she’s just got hypothermia from climbing a tree to get away from a bear.”
“A BEAR!” Gracie squeaked terrified, “There was a bear?”
“Calm down, Angel,” he said as he came out of Cookie’s stall, tossing a towel on a hook. “Your mom got the bear away from the tree while your dad climbed up and got your sister. Then he held her under his coat all the way back. I know you don’t know him, but he loves you and Trouble.”
Gracie burst into tears, and he hugged her. After a few minutes she sniffed, “You haven’t called us Angel and Trouble for a long time.”
He gave her a squeeze, “I figured you two were getting too big for silly nicknames.”
“I’ll always be your angel and Willow will always be trouble, so you can call us that if you still want to.” Gracie said softly.
He smiled down at her, he loved her as if she were his own. “Then let’s feed the horses and get inside, Angel.”
As they put fodder in the feeders, Gracie glanced at Tank, “Do you really think he loves us?”
“I know he does. A father loves his children no matter how far apart they are,” He responded knowingly, thinking about his son.
“But he doesn’t even know us.”
“He will if you give him a chance. He’s been through a lot and he’s been alone a long time. There are something he and your mom need to work out and things they need to talk to you about. Come on, let’s go check on your sister,” Tank muscled the barn door open against the drifting snow and shoved it shut. Gracie held the back door against the wind as they rushed inside.
Gramma Dorine was on the phone and waved for them to be quiet. When she hung up, her face was grave. “We need to get Willow to the hospital as soon as there is a break in the storm.”
Gracie fell asleep, holding Willow’s hand. She barely woke as someone picked her up and carried her to her room.
“What time is it?” She murmured sleepily.
“It’s almost 10 o’clock. Go back to sleep,” The voice wasn’t her Uncle Beau or Tank so she opened her eyes.
Kyle laid her on her bed and pulled the covers up. “Go back to sleep Gracie, we’re going to take Willow to the hospital as soon as the snowplow and ambulance get here.”
“Should I get dressed?” She started to sit up but he gently pushed her back down.
“No. They are just going to take the wood out of Willow’s leg and maybe keep her for a day or two. If you want to see her tomorrow, I’ll come back and get you,” Kyle promised, his heart ached with the knowledge this was the first time he had tucked his daughter into bed.
“Did... did you want us? I mean, Mom and I... and Willow?” Gracie whispered.
His eyes watered at her question, but he had promised himself if given the chance, he would never lie to her. “I would have been there every moment of your life if I had known about you. I hurt your mother very badly, my brother tricked me.”
“No, not Kent. Kent would have been right beside me. Kristoph, my youngest brother, gambled. He owed some bad people a lot of money. He thought he could trick Kent and I into giving it to him,” Kyle explained honestly.
“So your brother tried to blackmail you?” Gracie observed and yawned.
“Yes. He gave Kent and I something with dinner so we would do inappropriate things,” Kyle was trying to word his explanation carefully because of her age.
“He roofied you so you’d screw a couple of hookers that looked like Mom and Aunt Mina is what you mean,” she smirked at the surprised expression on his face. “We’ve seen the pictures, well enough of the pictures to know what happened and why Mom freaked out.”
He sighed heavily, a moment ago she looked like a sleeping angel, innocent and lovely, but looking up at him was a teenager, who was probably far worldlier that he had been at that age. “Pretty much, kiddo. And I have regretted it every day since. But your Mom and I need to talk to you and Willow together about everything that happened. Get some sleep, I’ll see you tomorrow. Good night, Gracie.”
“Good night,” she hesitated for a moment then added, “Dad.”
Kyle stood outside Gracie’s closed door with his forehead leaning against the frame, he wasn’t expecting that so soon, if ever.
Tank put his hand on Kyle’s shoulder, “Are you okay, Hightower?”
Kyle’s voice was a strangled whisper as he looked up with wet eyes, “She called me Dad.”
“Felt good, didn’t it? I’ll give you a minute, the ambulance is almost here. I need to get to the station. Can you take Camille to the hospital? I don’t think she should be driving.” Tank squeezed his shoulder when Kyle nodded then softly walked away.
Camille stared quietly at the ambulance ahead of them. The weather forecasters were saying the storm had stalled and there could be up to six feet of snow by the time the storm ended. There would be no school this week either and that meant no practices for which Camille was grateful. She could focus on the maelstrom of her personal life.
At the hospital, Kyle sat quietly, working on his phone. His phone rang once and he walked away to take the call. But really he needed a few moments, and the distraction of work meant he didn’t have to think about the day Kent died and how he almost lost his last link to his brother today.
Camille made herself stay in her seat and wait for the doctor. In her rush to climb the tree and escape the bear, Willow had impaled her leg on a branch. A piece of the wood was still in her thigh and had to be surgically removed. Willow’s only question was if she could dive at Nationals, the Doctor said it depended on how deep the wound was and if it got infected. Camille didn’t even care about that, all she cared about was that Willow was alive.
She rubbed her hip, when the bear had charged her; she had backed away blindly and tripped over a rock. If Tank hadn’t come at that moment, she would have been mauled like Beau was. Camille hadn’t been afraid for herself; she was only focused on protecting Willow. She shuddered again at the thought that Willow might have died. The creeping ache that had lingered since Willamina died was burning a hole in her chest. She remembered that day with horrifying clarity; tears came every time she thought about it.
Kyle squeezed her hand when he sat back down beside her, “What are you thinking about?”
“The day Willow was born.” Her voice was so soft, so filled with suffering, he wanted to take it away but knew he couldn’t, he could only share it, if she’d let him.
“Tell me about it. Please,” he did not care that he was begging. He wanted to comfort her.
“It was almost five and a half months after the accident. She started crashing, three times in two days. The doctors decided it was time, and they couldn’t wait any longer or risk losing Willow too. They had barely got Mina back the last time and Willow was showing signs of distress. So when Mina’s... when Mina’s heartbeat began to f-fail. I held her hand while they cut Willow out. She never even flinched as they did the c-section and placed Willow in an incubator. Willow didn’t cry or anything, she just turned her head and looked at her mother. And... and... and then Mina sighed. It was the first time she showed any kind of response to anything in all those months... It was like she was relieved... Then her heart... it... it just stopped a few beats later. They declared her dead four minutes after Willow was born... It was like watching her sink, only this time we weren’t in a pool... She wasn’t sinking into the blue mirror, she was sinking into death.” Camille laughed and sobbed at the same time. “Mina always called the pools blue mirrors, she... she said she could feel the reflection of her soul when she floated. She said she... she liked to float... She said it felt like hope.”
She cried softly for a few minutes and Kyle cried with her. His heart felt as broken as hers. Mina had been his first female friend, the first woman in his life who wanted nothing from him except his happiness. She had loved his brother with everything she was, and it made Kyle happy to see how much his brother was loved by the tall, willowy woman who had no idea what a beauty she was inside and out.
“Mina was an amazing person,” Kyle said softly.
“She was and she died. She never got to hold Willow, or see her growing or diving, just in her dreams. I promised I would take care of her and she could have died, Willow could have died and it would have been my fault.” Camille choked on her grief and guilt; it felt like she couldn’t breathe. It felt like the pain had poured out of her heart and filled her lungs, drowning her in the salted sadness of her own tears.
Kyle folded her into his arms, his cheek on her hair, “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You have done a wonderful job with them. Willow will be fine. You saved her and I from the bear, got us home in the blizzard, and treated her for her injury and hypothermia. You’ve been so strong for so long, you’re amazing. Whatever you need, whatever they need, I’m here.”
Camille looked up at him, he could see the brokenness in her hazel eyes, the way the color seemed to swirl in them had always mesmerized him. Someone cleared their throat and they both looked to see the surgeon.
“Mr. and Mrs. Wallace?”
Camille opened her mouth to correct him but Kyle responded, “How’s Willow?”
“She came through the surgery beautifully and will only have a slight scar. There is only slight muscle damage and she will be able to go home tomorrow or the next day. She will need crutches for a week and no swimming until the wound seals but other than following up in a week to check her stitches and some preventative antibiotics, she’ll be good as new in two or three weeks,” The surgeon smiled happily, as Camille’s sagged in relief. “She should be waking up soon, and then we’ll move her from recover to a room. It’s after visiting hours so only one of you will be able to stay. A nurse can take one of you back now.”
“I’ll stay,” Camille answered immediately.
Kyle thanked the doctor profusely then asked, “What about the hypothermia? Did she get frostbite?”
The doctor shook his head, “Not a problem, she has a very mild case, it will be no more uncomfortable that a mild sunburn for a few days. Getting her warm as quickly as you did, saved her from having a more severe case. I’ll send a nurse to take you to her, Mrs. Wallace.”
Then he was gone before Camille could correct him. She had a slight scowl on her face.
“I like the sound of that,” Kyle said quietly.
“Me too. I am so relieved Willow will be okay,” Camille smiled for the first time in days, but it felt like years.
“No, I meant I like the sound of Mrs.,” Kyle grinned.
Camille rolled her eyes at him. “If you want to be Mrs. Wallace, I’ll ask Beau if he would marry you, it’s legal in Colorado but Katherine might fight you for him.”
Kyle chuckled, “I’d rather be your Mrs. and I’m okay if you want to wear the sweatpants in the family, Coach Wallace, but I have to warn you, I am a terrible cook and housekeeper.”
“Oh good grief, shut up, Kyle.” She walked out, but threw him a smile over her shoulder.
“See you in the morning,” he called after her. His humor dropped as soon as she was out of site, he glanced at his phone with a scowl and headed home. He had an unexpected guest at Hidden Spring to deal with.