He drove home and grabbed his rod and reel and waders, then headed to the Big Wood River and the spot just below the River Run Bridge where the big trout fed without fear in the winter. Where only the most dedicated fly fisherman stood knee deep in water so cold it forced its way through Gore-Tex, pile, and neoprene. Where only the hard-core walked cautiously across the frozen ice, stacked like blue cards against the river's steep banks. Where only the obsessed walked into the river and froze their balls off for a chance to battle a twelve-inch rainbow.
Only when he heard the sound of the river tripping over rocks, the swish of his line whipping back and forth, and the steady clicking of his reel could Rob begin to feel the tension ease between his shoulders.
Only when the sight of his favorite nymph kissed the perfect spot at just the edge of a deep pool did his mind finally clear.
Only then did he find the peace he needed to calm the struggle within him. Only then did the loneliness ease. Only then did everything seem right again in Rob Sutter's world.
"There's a group social at the grange tonight," Regina Cladis informed Stanley Caldwell as he rang up a pound of bologna, a quart of milk, and a can of coffee.
Stanley groaned inwardly and kept his gaze pinned on the keys. He knew better than to look into Regina's thick glasses. She'd take it as a sign of encouragement, and he didn't have an interest in Regina or socials of any kind.
"We're all bringing samples of our poetry. You should come."
He glanced over at Hayden Dean, Rob Sutter, and Paul Aberdeen, who stood gathered around his coffee machine a few feet away. "I don't write poetry," he said loud enough for them to hear, just in case they thought he was the kind of guy who sat around writing poetry.
"Oh, you don't have to write it to enjoy it. Just come and listen."
Stanley might be old, but he wasn't near senile enough to get himself shut in a grange with a bunch of poetry reading and writing women.
"Iona is bringing her famous peach thumbprints," Regina added as enticement.
"I have to work on my accounts books," he lied.
"I'll do the accounts books for you, Grandpa," Katie offered as she moved toward the front of the store with a snow shovel in one hand and her coat in the other. "You should go out with your friends."
He frowned. What was wrong with her? Lately she'd been pushing him to "get out of the house," even though she knew he liked to stay home nights. "Oh, I think that-"
"I can pick you up at seven," Regina interrupted.
Finally Stanley looked into Regina's thick glasses and stared at the only thing he feared more than one of those social meetings-riding in a car with a woman who was practically blind. "That's okay. I can drive," he said, having absolutely no intention of driving anywhere.
He gazed past Regina's kinked-up hair to his granddaughter, who was walking toward the door. Katie's brows were pulled together like she was irritated. She stopped to lean the shovel against the magazine rack.
"I'll save a chair for you," Regina offered.
"I'll shovel the snow, Katie," he said. He set Regina's can of Folgers in a paper bag. "I need you to take a delivery to Ada over at The Sandman Motel."
"Ada just wants to pump me for information about you. Tell her she needs to come in and do her shopping like everyone else," Kate said through a frown. The last delivery she'd made to The Sandman hadn't gone well, and Stanley suspected he'd never get her to go back. Still, he had to try, because the alternative was having to go himself.
"Shoveling snow is man's work." He glanced once more at the men by the coffee machine. "Let me finish up here, and I'll go out and do it."
"There's no such thing as 'man's work' anymore," Katie told him as she shoved her arms into her navy blue peacoat. Stanley took Regina's check and glanced at the men standing around the coffee machine. He prayed his granddaughter wouldn't elaborate. He and Katie had had several arguments concerning men's and women's roles. This wasn't Las Vegas, and she wouldn't win any friends with her women's lib crap.
The good Lord didn't see fit to answer Stanley's prayer. "Women can do anything men can do," Katie added, eliciting several raised brows and pointed looks from the men. His granddaughter was a beautiful young woman. She had a good heart and she meant well, but she was too independent, too opinionated, and too vocal. And that was too many things for a man to overlook. After living with her for a month, Stanley could see why she wasn't married.
"Can't make a baby by yourself," Hayden Dean pointed out, and he topped off his mug.
She glanced down as she buttoned her coat. "True, but I can go to a sperm bank and pick out the perfect donor. Height. Weight. IQ." She pulled a black beret out of her pocket and placed it on her head. "Which, when you think about it, seems a more logical way to conceive than in the backseat of a Buick."
Stanley knew she meant to be funny, but her humor was lost on the men of Gospel.
"Not as much fun, though," Hayden added. She glanced over at Hayden, who stood between the other two men. "That's debatable."
She wrapped a black wool scarf around her neck, and Stanley wondered if he should wrap it around her mouth. That Rob was a strapping young fella. He was single, too. He hadn't been in the store for a few weeks now, and if Katie would just keep quiet, she might trick him into a date. And Katie needed a date. Needed something to do, other than fussing at him about his eating habits, rearranging the hygiene aisle, and telling him how to live his life.
"Can't pee standing," Paul Aberdeen said.
"No lady would consider doing that," Stanley interceded on Katie's behalf.
"I'm sure if I absolutely had to, I could manage it somehow."
Stanley winced. That last announcement would scare off any man, but Rob looked more amused than insulted. Laughter shone in his green eyes as he gazed across the candy aisle at Katie. "But you can't write your name in the snow," he said and lifted his mug to his lips.
In the flattest voice Stanley had ever heard her use, Katie asked, "Why would I want to?" Her tone puzzled Stanley. The last time Rob had been in, Katie had gotten all red-faced and flustered. The kind of flustered a woman got around a guy like Rob. The good Lord knew Rob had been flustering the women in Gospel since the day he'd driven that HUMMER of his into town, and his granddaughter had been no exception.
Rob took a drink, then slowly lowered the mug. One corner of his mouth slid up. "Because you can."
The other two men chuckled, but Katie looked perplexed rather than amused. The kind of perplexed women got when they didn't understand men. And for all of her years, there was a lot Katie didn't understand about the opposite sex. Like a man naturally wanting to take care of his woman, even if that woman was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
Stanley handed Regina her bag of groceries, then moved from behind the counter in one last attempt to save Katie from herself. "Now, let me do that. Your grandmother never lifted a snow shovel in her life."
"I lived on my own for a long time," she said as she grabbed the snow shovel before Stanley could get to it. "I've had to do a lot of things for myself. Everything from hauling my own garbage cans to the curb to changing the tire on my car."
Other than wrestle with her, what could he do? "Well, if it gets to be too much, I'll finish up."
"Shoveling snow kills more than a thousand men over forty a year," she informed him. "I'm thirty-four, so I think I'll be fine."
With no other choice, Stanley gave up. Kate opened the door and walked outside, leaving a chill in her wake that Stanley wasn't certain had all that much to do with the weather.
A cold morning breeze slapped Kate's left cheek as the door closed behind her. She pulled the frozen air deep into her lungs and let it out slowly. A warm puff of breath hung in front of her face. That hadn't gone well. Her intent had been to get out of the store as quickly as possible, not to upset her grandfather or sound like a man-basher. She didn't even want to contemplate peeing while standing-ever. She'd never actually changed a tire, but she was sure she could do it. Fortunately she wouldn't have to, because like a lot of capable and intelligent women, she belonged to AAA.
Kate leaned the handle of the shovel against her shoulder and took her gloves from her pockets. For the past half hour, she'd felt like she'd been holding her breath. Ever since Rob Sutter had walked into the M &S looking better than she remembered. Bigger and badder. A green-eyed, six-foot-two reminder of the night she'd wanted to live out a fantasy. A night she'd just wanted some anonymous sex and had ended up with a humiliating rejection instead.
She knew the mature thing to do would be to get over that night in the Duchin, but how was she ever going to forget it if she had to see Rob all the time?
Kate wiggled her fingers in her gloves. She hadn't been near Rob for two weeks now, but she'd spotted him a few times across the parking lot or driving that ridiculous HUMMER around town. She hadn't seen him up close and personal, though, until this morning when he'd come in for a granola bar and stayed for a cup of free coffee.
While she'd shelved paper products and listened to Tom Jones moan his way through "Black Betty" like he was getting blown, Rob had chatted it up with some of the other local men. They'd talked about the freakish snowstorm that had hit the area the night before, and all she'd been able to think about had been details of the Sun Valley debacle. While they'd debated whether the snowfall should be measured in inches or feet, she'd wondered if Rob Sutter really couldn't recall any of the details-if he was a blind drunk in need of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a question that had been driving her insane. Not, however, enough to ask.
The conversation had progressed to the mountain goat Paul Aberdeen had blown away that hunting season. Kate had wanted to ask Paul why anyone would fill their freezer with an old goat when there was perfectly good beef at the M &S. She hadn't because she hadn't wanted to draw attention to herself and because she knew her grandfather was already irritated with her for packing away a Tom Jones, The Lead and How to Swing It, poster that had hung over her bed.
Living and working day in and day out with her grandfather was taking awhile to get used to. He liked dinner at exactly six. She liked to cook and eat sometime between seven and bedtime. If she didn't have something prepared by six, he just pulled out a Hungry Man and tossed it in the oven.
If he didn't stop it, she was going to have to hide all his Swansons, and if he didn't stop having her do all the home deliveries, she was going to have to kill him. Before she'd moved to Gospel, Stanley had closed the store between 3 and 4 p.m. and done the deliveries himself. Now he seemed to think the job fell on her shoulders. Yesterday she'd delivered a can of prunes, a jug of prune juice, and a six-pack of Charmin to Ada Dover. She'd had to listen to the older woman go on about how she'd been "backed up for days." That was just one conversation you didn't want to have with anyone, especially a woman who resembled an old chicken.
Kate feared she was scarred for life now. As soon as she got her grandfather over his depression and she helped him move on with his life, she needed to get her own life. One that didn't include home deliveries to man-hungry widows. She didn't have a plan or know how long any of it would take, but if she gave it more effort, gave him a gentle loving push, the sooner it would happen.
Kate grasped the handle and scooped up a big shovelful of snow from the sidewalk. A little grunt escaped her lungs as she tossed the snow into the shrubs. She'd never experienced an Idaho winter and didn't know snow was so heavy. She recalled one year in Las Vegas when it had snowed almost half an inch. Of course it had melted within an hour. No wonder over a thousand people a year had heart attacks.
She placed the shovel's edge on the walk and pushed. The sound of metal scraping along concrete filled the morning air and competed with the occasional sound of traffic. A white curl of snow filled the shovel, and instead of lifting it again, she pushed the pile into the shrubs next to the building. A much better method, she thought as she slid the blade down the walk. A lot better than straining her back and flirting with the kind of heart failure that an aspirin a day wouldn't help.
The chilly breeze lifted the ends of Kate's scarf, and she paused to pull her hat over the tops of her ears. Her head was filled with worthless factoids. She knew that an adult brain weighed three pounds and the human heart pumped two thousand gallons of blood a day. She'd spent a lot of time on surveillance reading magazines and general reference books because they weren't all that engrossing and she could easily put them down to tail a suspect. Some of it had stuck. Some hadn't. She'd tried to learn Spanish once, but all she could remember was Acabo de recibir un envio, which would come in handy if she ever had to tell someone that she'd just received a shipment.
One side benefit of having a head cluttered with trivia was that she could use it to break the ice, change the subject, or slow things down.
At the end of the walk, she turned and started her way toward the front of the M &S once more. This time she pushed the snow off the curb and into the parking lot. Her toes inside her leather ankle boots were starting to freeze. It was March, for God's sake. It wasn't supposed to be so cold in March.
Just as she approached Rob's HUMMER, he stepped out of the M &S and moved toward her, wearing the same dark blue coat he'd had on two weeks ago when she'd seen him. His hiking boots left waffle tracks, and his heels kicked up the snow. She expected him to step off the curb and jump in his HUMMER.
"How's it going?" he asked as he came to stand in front of her.
She straightened, and her grasp on the handle tightened. His coat was zipped to the middle of his chest, and she fixed her gaze on the black label sewn on the tab. "Okay."
He didn't say anything, and she forced her gaze past his tiny white scar, soul patch, and Fu Manchu. His green eyes stared back at her as he pulled a black knit hat from his coat pocket. For the first time she noticed his lashes. They were longer than hers. Lashes like that were a total waste on a man, especially a man like him.
He pulled the hat on his head and continued to study her as if he were trying to figure something out.
"Warn me if you're going to write your name in the snow," she said to break the silence.
"Actually, I'm standing here wondering if I'm going to have to wrestle that snow shovel out of your hands." His warm breath hung in the air between them as he added, "I'm hoping you'll be nice and hand it over."
Her grasp on the handle tightened a bit more. "Why would I hand it over?"