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I am a sucker for a good romance, and Always Montana by Deb Martin-Webster is my kind of beach read. Check out the first two chapters here. (PS – it kind of reminds me of Romancing the Stone!)

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Chapter 1

 

unnamed“Excuse me Ma’am, I don’t mean to interrupt your bitch session; however, you do realize your hair is on fire?”

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Joe’s been dead for two years, and he still makes me laugh. He was so relaxed in front of an audience. Unlike me, who would panic at the thought of giving a five-minute PowerPoint presentation, Joe loved entertaining his fans for not only was he a renowned author and accomplished writer but a prolific storyteller as well. The video was from a charity event he attended in Princeton, New Jersey. Some affluent donors weren’t very happy about the lack of seating. Joe was famous for drawing large crowds. He noticed a well-dressed, older woman sitting by the exit door complaining about the seating arrangement. Joe, being the gentleman that he was, excused himself and headed toward the back of the room. She was so engrossed in her own bitching that she failed to notice that he was standing directly behind her. Inadvertently, she leaned into the table’s candle centerpiece and set the front of her hair on fire. Without blinking an eye, Joe gallantly grabbed a glass of water from a nearby table and doused the flames. Needless to say she was humiliated, but ever so thankful for his quick action.

 

Joe flashed his infamous shit-eating grin and said, “You’re welcome, Darlin’. Now, how about you come up front and sit with me. And by the way, that’ll cost you another thousand dollar donation for my heroic firefighting service.”

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The audience gave him a roaring round of applause. He informed the guests that his tip jar was in the back and that it was pathetically empty – nothing her thousand dollar donation couldn’t fix. Joe knew how to work a crowd and please his fans. He was good at what he did, and he knew it.

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I turned my computer off and continued to tidy his office. Funny, I still called it his office. Has it really been two years since his death – seems like yesterday. I thought if I left the room the way it was, it would in some way comfort me. Regrettably, it did just the opposite. It irritated me beyond belief. I’m a neat-freak, and he was an incurable pack rat. Receipts from gas stations, fast food restaurants, numerous coffee shops and illegible crib notes on discarded manuscripts littered his desk.

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There was still the matter of scattering his ashes. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, but I knew it was time to honor my husband’s last wish which was to scatter his remains at the place where he proposed. In my mind, I knew I needed to let go and move on, but in my heart his untimely death still hurt like hell. I’ve heard people use the term heartbroken or heartache. I’d never experienced either – until Joe died. It was an endless, helpless, hopeless pain. I needed to let go. I needed to move on. No matter how painful the task, Joe’s ashes had to be spread.

 

When the time was right, Raymond said he would accompany me to the spot Joe designated. He was very patient and understanding when it came to my grieving.
“Joe was a procrastinator in life so why would he change in death—always needing to be in control,” Raymond would joke. “He still annoys me from the grave—arrogant son of a mangy coyote!”

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I knew it was Raymond’s way of expressing his grief and how he too missed Joe. To be honest, in some strange way, it made me feel better. I missed being referee to their incessant bickering. They had a lot in common. Their inimitable friendship was cherished more than they were willing to admit.

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Charlotte was now in her terrible-twos and quite skilled at navigating herself around the house. She was becoming quite a beautiful little girl. I know all parents think that their children are beautiful and talented, but Charlotte was truly a beautiful child. I called her our little golden girl because of her glowing olive complexion and curly, sandy brown locks. She had my focus and temper and Lash’s (Joe as his fans knew him) curiosity and smile.

 

She toddled into the office and climbed onto his rawhide leather chair. I remembered him gloating when he finished assembling it. He wasn’t patient when it came to following directions or handling tools. He called it his one-and-only successful IKEA achievement. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if I’d given Charlotte an Allen wrench she could have put it together.

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Lord, I miss him. I miss those final edit nights when I’d come in with coffee and sit in his lap. It saddened me to think I’d never see him sitting at that desk again. I picked up Charlotte and gave her a big hug.
I turned away to keep her from seeing my tears. She placed her small hands on my cheeks.

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“Happy . . . h-a-p-p-y Mama,” she whispered.

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Her attempt to console me brought a smile to my face. I kissed her tiny palms.

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“This one’s from me and this one’s from Daddy.”

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Charlotte instinctively knew when I needed her happy reminder. She was wise beyond her years. Raymond called her “Nadie”. Blackfoot and loosely translated, it meant the wisdom of an old soul. Keough cracked the office door and peeked inside.

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“You gals okay? Both of ya’ need to get some rest. It’s long past your bedtimes.”

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Charlotte climbed off my lap and ran over to Keough and latched onto his leg. He picked her up and swung her onto his shoulders.

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“It’s time for this little cowgirl to hit the hay. Come on let’s get you into your bunk. Lou and I will tell you a story about the time I tried to lasso and ride an ornery wild mustang. Would you like that?”
She bounced up and down on his shoulders squealing, “Pap-Pap, horsey!”

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“Don’t worry, Rose. It’s a very short story. It took me three seconds to lose that man-versus-beast battle.”

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I chuckled at Keough’s honesty and said goodnight.

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“Okay, Baby Girl –a quick story then bedtime. That goes for you too Mama.” He paused for a moment and whispered, “And don’t think I haven’t notice you sneaking into this office in the middle of the night. It ain’t healthy for you to deprive yourself of sleep. And it ain’t good for this baby to see you so dang sad all the time. Now, don’t make me tie you up and drag your ass to bed.”

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“I promise I’ll go to bed. Just a few more minutes, okay? Thank you Keough.”

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“You’re welcome, Darlin’ and goodnight.”

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I was leaving the office when I noticed something on the side of the door jam. Funny, I’d never noticed it before. There were two perfectly shaped hearts carved into the trim with the initials MJ loves R. I rubbed my finger over them. When did he do this? What other little treasures has he left behind for me to discover. I went back to his desk, picked up some paper and a pencil and rubbed it over the carving and then tucked it into my shirt pocket. We miss you too, Joe.

 

Chapter 2

 

One missed voice message? I looked at the phone number—it was from Paul.
“Hello Poppet, it’s me Paul. Hope all is well. I’ll be heading back from California and thought I’d drop by. Let me know if it’s okay. I’ve got a gift for the bab’bee and a little something for you. Sorry, I couldn’t attend the scattering of Joe’s ashes. I know I haven’t been in touch, but this new company has me doing my nut driving OTR, that’s over-the-road, Luv. Be that as it may, it’ll be good to see you, eh, you all – call me. Cheers.”

 

It was good to hear from Paul. He was a huge help after Joe’s death. His help on the ranch went beyond selfless. He’d use his flatbed to haul winter hay and load it into the barns. It took Joe and the ranch hands weeks to bring what he brought in a day. It would be good to see him. I enjoyed listening to him talk. His British accent amused me. So different from the accents I hear in Montana. I had to admit that most of the time I didn’t know what he was talking about. What the hell does doing his nut mean? I saved his voice message and made a mental note to call him back tomorrow. He’ll be curious as to why I haven’t scattered Joe’s ashes. Was I consciously waiting for him to attend Joe’s final farewell? I guess I relied on Paul more than I was willing to admit. I didn’t like relying on people; however, he was different. He never expected anything in return. They were simple acts of kindness on his part.

 

There was so much I needed to do. The matter of Charlotte’s christening came to mind. After Joe died, I was so distraught I couldn’t organize anything. I couldn’t think straight – still can’t. It’s a challenge for me to cook or to do our laundry. Thank goodness for Cecilia or we’d have starved to death and gone naked.

 

I need to contact Morgan and Jannine. Both agreed to be Charlotte’s Godparents. They would take care of her in case anything happened to me. Not that Lash Jackson Montana’s kid would ever need or want for anything. The Montana Joe novels were more popular now than ever. Hanna stayed busy promoting his books. Before Joe died, he finished two series. One was entitled, Gunslingers of Culver Silver Creek and the other, Outlaws of Burnt Canyon Crossing. Fans continued to attend his book launchings and buy his novels which would soon be available online. His entire life’s work could be purchased through his redesigned website—thanks to Hanna. Keeping the Montana Joe legacy afloat was no easy task. He’d be pleased by Hanna’s nonstop promotional enthusiasm. Joe’s books continued to dominate the western genre. She was worth her weight in royalty checks. Note to self: Remind me to give that woman a big raise! Second note to self: Ask Raymond if he would perform the christening.

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Raymond was fast becoming a beloved family member. There were times when I felt I was taking advantage of him. He would say, “Rose, you could never take advantage of me. I would gladly give you my right arm if you
needed it. Good thing I’m left-handed.”

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Keough stepped up and took on the roll of Montana patriarch. Keeping his promise to his son, he stayed on to manage the ranch. He also kept his promise to stay sober. Joe would be proud. He looked healthier and a tad younger since giving up the booze. In fact, I could now see the strong resemblance between him and Joe.

 

From time-to-time, his twin brother Kurt would stop by. It was difficult for me to tell them apart. I’d have to remember who was wearing what. Keough preferred denim shirts to Kurt’s plaids. Both men were still exceptionally handsome. I wonder if Lash would have looked as good in his seventies. I must admit Montana men do age well.

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The two years since Joe’s death brought changes for my friends as well. Patrick and Daniel, who were the closest thing I had to family when I lived and worked in New York, left Manhattan and semi-retired to Seattle. A few months after their relocation, Patrick called and informed me they had gotten married. It was a small gathering with a few of their friends from New York. He jokingly said they would have invited me, but they were too afraid I’d sing at the ceremony. They expressed how much they missed me and how excited they were to live so close to Montana. I congratulated them on their recent nuptials and said that I loved they’d be able to visit more frequently. New York now seemed like the other side of the world to me.

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Daniel bragged about Patrick buying him a real cowboy hat with matching chaps. “Can you image, me wearing cowboy clothes? Honey, I must admit I do look fabulous. Who knew being a cowboy could be so glamorous.”
I had visions of him walking down a staircase like Scarlett O’Hara boasting, “As long as I live, I’ll never wear Armani again!”

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Their courage was admirable. Leaving their comfort zone was a huge step. Not many people would relocate such a distance to console a grieving friend. I was happy they did. Even now, I don’t know what I’d do without them.

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I decided to take Joe’s advice and breed Daisy, the horse that Joe gave to me. She turned out a beautiful little filly that looked exactly like her. I named her Daisy Deuce, and I knew she would make a perfect ride for Charlotte.

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Everyone was moving on with their lives – everyone except me. How does one move on after an epic love? The more I’d think about it, the angrier I’d get. Damn you Joe for leaving me! Perhaps going for a ride would clear my head. I wiped my eyes and put on my boots. It always helped Joe with his bouts of writer’s block. He’d arrive back at the house with new ideas, shit-covered boots and an occasional bouquet of wild flowers. What I wouldn’t give to smell them again – the flowers, not the boots.

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A rapid knock at the door brought me back to reality. I noticed the small white van idling in the driveway. It was a young man holding a gold box.

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“Morning Ma’am, I have a delivery for an Amelia ‘Rose’ Montana.”

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I signed for the package and rummaged through my jean pockets for a tip.

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“Wow, THANK YOU—you have a great day. . . Thank you!”

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I was in such a daze, I didn’t realize I’d given him a fifty dollar bill instead of the ten – oh, well. Joe would have said, “Darlin’, its only money. I’ll just write another book. You are becoming an expensive habit, Mrs. Montana—one I never want to kick.”

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The box didn’t weigh much. I didn’t remember ordering anything either. Who could have sent me a gift? It wasn’t my birthday. It was the middle of May. Maybe it was from Jannine and Morgan. I stared at the box for a few minutes – then opened it.

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Inside were two daffodils and a petite strawberry cheesecake in the shape of a heart. Tucked beside the daffodils was a note. I slipped it out of the envelope.

 

“I know your heart. Happy Mother’s Day Cuppy, and for goodness sake quit your droolin’! Love, Joe”

I dropped onto the couch. He always told me he was a man of many surprises. I’d been so preoccupied with my grief that I didn’t realize it was Mother’s Day. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was Lash’s lawyer. He asked if I had received the delivery.

 

“Yes, it just arrived a few minutes ago. How did you know? Do you have hidden cameras in our house? Did Lash set them up before he died so you could keep an eye on me?”

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“No, Rose he would never spy on you. Your husband was . . . eh, with all due respect, rather peculiar. Part of his will states that after his death, you are to receive occasional gifts. When he realized his condition was terminal, he provided me with a list of what to send. He also wrote a series of notes with specific instructions attached as to when and where to send them.”

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Hmm, I understand the when, but the where was very weird – even weird for Joe. Where else would I be? I know the ranch is huge but I haven’t left it since his death. Maybe he knows something I don’t. I decided to save the cheesecake for dessert. It would be good with my after dinner coffee. It’s a good thing I wrote down Joe’s cowboy brew recipe. Lord knows he’s probably bitching up a storm complaining how weak the coffee is in heaven. I laughed to myself imagining him expressing his opinion to God.

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“Excuse me Lord. I don’t mean to be rude and with all due respect you’re a pretty good miracle worker; however, you make a lousy cup of coffee.”

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It was time to wake up Charlotte from her afternoon nap. Just like Joe, she would lie down on the living room rug and sleep. She was a sound sleeper. I could turn on the vacuum and push it around her, and she would not stir.

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I knelt next to her. “Wake up, Baby Girl. it’s time for your lunch.”

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She rubbed her eyes, blinked and stared at me if to say, Why did you find it necessary to disturb me while I was dreaming about toys?

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I sat her in her booster seat. She asked for diced fruit in her favorite My Little Pony bowl. It made me think of our honeymoon in Italy when the fruit bowl went crashing onto the floor while Joe and I were celebrating our love on the kitchen countertop. Charlotte poked me on the arm.

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She picked out a strawberry and put it in my mouth.

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“One for Mama.”

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She shoved another one in my mouth.

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“One for Daddy.” She pointed up towards the ceiling.

 

“Yes, one for Daddy in heaven; he loved strawberries.”

 

She smiled and dropped one onto the floor.

 

“One for Lou!”

 

I picked the berry off the floor. “No, no, not one for Lou!”

 

“We’ll give Lou a doggy treat later, okay?”

 

She took a deep breath and pouted. Lou looked disappointed as well. He lumbered outside to the deck to sulk.

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It was a beautiful day—the kind of day Joe would call Big Sky beautiful. After lunch, we went outside to sit with Lou. He was such a sweet dog. Keough trained him to retrieve Charlotte’s favorite stuffed toy whenever she’d say bear-bear. It was a present Joe bought for her during one of his book tours in Texas – a large teddy bear dressed like a cowboy. She wouldn’t go to bed without it. The minute I tucked her under the covers, Lou trotted over with the bear in his mouth.

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I reached down and stroked him on top of his head. He knew I wasn’t myself. Everyone knew I wasn’t myself. I lived and breathed for Joe. Why did he leave me so soon? I was barely a wife, and now I’m a widow with a child. Maybe this was my life—how my life was meant to be. I never thought I’d be married let alone a mother and young widow. Or perhaps this was the precise way my life was meant to be—to have married my soul mate and be left to carry on his legacy.

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I could hear Raymond say, “Of course this is how your life is meant to be. From the day we are born we make our own path and some are wise enough to follow it no matter where it may lead. Is the path good; is it bad; is it neither? It’s up to the person experiencing the journey to make that decision.”

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Raymond was always positive with his counsel. I called him my living spirit guide. I’d never been very religious or spiritual until I met him. All the woo-woo bullshit people would spout in my New York Yoga class about tapping into their inner-self and finding their higher purpose used to drive me crazy. I believed once a person was dead, he or she was dead and ceased to exist. However, I was not so sure anymore. Wherever I went, I felt Joe’s spirit. His presence was strong and constant. From his hairbrush and toothbrush that remain on his side of the bathroom sink to his unopened bottle of lavender shampoo and not to mention his smelly old barn boot by the mud room door—his spirit lingered. I was not ready to have a séance just to ask him something silly like where he put the extra set of truck keys, but I did want to know if he’s okay.

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I picked up Charlotte and her toys and headed back into the house. It was such a beautiful day—too beautiful to stay indoors. I think I’ll go for that ride and I’ll take her along with me. Charlotte had no fear of horses and loved sitting bareback on Daisy. She’d bounce up and down on her shouting, “Go Daisy.” Joe would be proud of our budding little cowgirl. I sat Charlotte on a hay bale and finished saddling Daisy. Charlotte noticed a plastic object sticking out of a pile of old hay. She walked over, picked it up and handed it to me. It was an empty throat spray bottle. I stared at it for a few seconds then tucked it into my jacket pocket. There wasn’t an inch of this place that didn’t hold memories of Joe.

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I lifted Charlotte onto the saddle first then mounted behind her.

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“Okay, Girls . . . let’s go!”

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Daisy had a gentle and steady gait. Joe trained her well. His horse Bailey was too much of a ride for me. He was fifteen-and-a-half hands of ex-rodeo roping horse with two speeds – full gallop and quick stop. Both moves were beyond my riding skill. Maybe someday I’d try to ride him. But for now, Daisy would do. I couldn’t risk being bucked off. Breaking bones was not an option—not with an active toddler in the house.

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We didn’t ride far, only to the end of the large pasture, which in itself was a half-hour ride. It took another ten minutes or so to get to the large stock pond. The smaller one beside the house was more decorative than functional being only about the size of a swimming pool. Charlotte loved throwing pebbles into the water and then watching the countless ripples they’d create. She would giggle each time they made the plopping sound. I sat in the grass and watched her play. Joe, I wish you were here.

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Seconds later, a hummingbird whizzed by my face. At first, I thought it was a large bumblebee. It returned and hovered in front of me. I remembered what Raymond said about loved ones who have passed on sending animal spirit guides. The small bird remained in front of me for a few seconds then shot off over the pond.

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I thought, If that was from you Joe, stay around a little longer – I miss you.

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Charlotte ran over and sat in my lap. She pointed and said, “Mama look, horsey!”

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In the distance, I could see a horse galloping toward us – it was Keough. He was riding Bailey.

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“Hey there ladies, I thought I’d give old Bailey a much needed work out seein’ that you don’t have the guts to ride him, Rose.”

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I stood up to confront him face-to-face.

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“Listen Old Man; it’s not that I don’t have the guts, I have a daughter to look after and pardon me if I want to do it from my home and not a hospital bed!”

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Keough laughed, “Hah, I knew that would get you riled up! Lord knows you never pass up an opportunity to be right, do ya’?”

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He handed me a small basket. “I thought you two could use a little treat. Now if’n you don’t want my homemade biscuits and sweet tea then I guess I’ll just have to throw it in the pond for the fish. What do you think about that Charlotte?”

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“No, no Pap-Pap. Please, biscuit please!”

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“That’s my baby girl. You always know how to bring a smile to this mud-ugly face . . . and please no comments from you Rose!”

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“Hey, you said it. I was going to comment on your excellent baked goods, however, now that you mentioned it . . . “

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“Let’s just leave it at that Rose. I’d hate for the baby see her mama splashin’ around in the pond after I’ve tossed her in.”

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“Okay, you old crippled up old saddlebum – you’ve won this round. But next time, when the baby ain’t around, it’ll be you and me. You’d better watch your back, because you’re goin’ down.”
“Lord have mercy, Girl. Now that was a threat worthy of a Montana! I’d better hide my six-shooters.”

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“Ha, all I’d need to do is hide your glasses, ya’ blind old geezer.”

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“Okay, now you’ve hurt my feelings. What a terrible thing to say Rose! You know I don’t wear glasses.”

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I laughed so hard I snorted. I had not laughed like that in a long time. Not since Joe died. It felt good. I thought back to the hummingbird. Maybe Joe is around after all.

 

[big-sep]

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To hear an interview with Deb Martin-Webster with Donna Cavanagh, publisher of Shorehouse Books