Authors: J. Arlene Culiner
Tags: #romance, #contemporary
This edition published by Crimson Romance
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2013 by Jill Culiner ISBN 10: 1-4405-7166-X
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-7166-4
eISBN 10: 1-4405-7167-8
eISBN 13: 978-1-44057167-1
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The back seat of Jace’s car looked like it needed a shave.
“Can’t you dogs keep your hair on?”
The huge black animal only wagged its tail, a look of simple adoration in its eyes. Jace sighed. His day was going all wrong. He didn’t like dogs, didn’t like dog hair, and didn’t like being late. Yet here he was, late for his appointment, busy driving a shedding mutt around the ramshackle, one-horse town of Blake’s Folly. Town? No one in his right mind would call this a town. Or a village. Or a community. It was simply a jumble.
Yes, that was the right word for it: a jumble of shacks, rundown wooden frame houses, beat up trailers, car wrecks, weeds and dust. Hard to imagine that a hundred years ago Blake’s Folly had been a wild community — a Gomorra — a name that brought terror into the hearts of honest men and women; but also a refuge in a harsh, hostile wasteland.
Times had changed, all right. Nowadays there was nothing appealing, nothing welcoming and nothing threatening about the place. It was definitely a has-been.
“Jeez!” muttered Jace. “Why would people want to live in a mess like this?” As if in response to the question which was of course, merely rhetorical, the dog sighed.
Jace threw the creature a sour look in the rear view mirror. “The last thing I need is a dog with all the answers.”
The dog was large — very large. Its bulbous head seemed to sway on a sagging neck. Its legs were long, knotted, spindly, and its ribs wanted to punch through a dull, ratty looking coat. Yet, ugly though it was, the damn thing still had appeal.
But was that a reason to talk to it? Jace had never had a conversation with an animal in his life; folks who did were either nuts or absolute fools. “And there’s no way I’m sliding into one of those categories!” he stated with definite emphasis.
The animal’s tail thumped a mocking denial on the seat. Jace sighed. It was all the fault of the dry Nevada air. “Doing strange things to my brain,” he muttered. “I need the city, with big city dirt, pollution and noise. Spend a few more hours in the desert with this beast, and I’ll find myself explaining the theory of relativity to it.”
He turned, moaned. The amount of dog hair on the back seat had reached disaster proportions. He had to get rid of this animal, and fast.
Suddenly, the rutted track came to an abrupt end. Jace slammed his foot down on the brake and the car skidded to a dusty stop. Now what? Ahead of him, the countryside stretched out in beige desert monotony: endless, lifeless, treeless.
The man at the gas station had told him to take this dog to the last house in town: a yellow house. A house belonging to a woman called Alice Treemont — how was that for a moniker? Certainly seemed appropriate for a woman who lived in the desert and took in stray dogs. He could just picture her too: hair dyed ruby red, cigarette hanging out of a corner of her mouth, her body molded by leopard latex. Or else a mean-lipped witch, one who hated every male on earth.
Jace stared at the structure on his right. It was a building of sorts. High, rickety-looking, made out of wood, it looked like the typical haunted house found in amusement parks when he was a kid. Could this be what he was looking for? Impossible. He peered out at the landscape: left, right, behind, ahead. Nothing else. Just this place.
“A yellow house,” he groaned. “This is what locals call yellow?” Sure, it must have been yellow once. Probably around 1875.
Opening the car door, he stepped out onto the soft, brown dust that, to his great disgust, instantly covered the fine Italian leather of his boot.
Hell on earth, that’s what this part of the world was. He was really looking forward to getting out of here, going back to crowded Chicago, to art galleries, concerts, the theater — all of those places — and being in the company of one of the beautiful, sophisticated women he knew.
• • •
“Seems to me every female needs a male around the house,” Pa Handy declared in his usual know-it-all tone of voice.
Know-it-alls drove Alice to distraction. She might be a tall, deceptively fragile-looking woman, but she was rarely cowed. She glared belligerently at the potbellied man in front of her. “Seems to me we have differing opinions on that subject.” Her voice was dangerously low.
Not in the least threatened, Pa stared right back with complacency. “Seems to me one of us is sure to be wrong. Take this broken down water heater, for example. Now if … ”
“Male or no male, appliances wear out,” Alice interrupted, hoping to bring this utterly worn out subject to a definite end, although trying to stop Pa from giving unwanted advice was harder than blocking a flash flood. Yes, he meant well. But he was nosy and interfering. Just like everyone else here in Blake’s Folly.
Shaking his head dolefully, Pa scrutinized the scramble of nuts, bolts, and rusty screws curled into the palm of his gnarled left hand. “Sure they do but it’s mighty nice having someone around to put things back together again. I bet Brad Mace would’ve fixed this water heater up in no time. If you’d just let him in through your front door, that is. Got all sorts of odds and ends out on that ranch of his, Brad does.”
“I have no intention of asking Brad for anything,” Alice countered tersely. The very last thing on earth she
do was ask Brad for help. He’d interpret the request as a mating call. He would read deep, dark, hidden meaning into it. Seduction. Invitation. As far as Alice could judge, Brad had been alone out on that ranch of his for too long now.
“Seems a shame to me, Brad out on that ranch,” Pa pursued, as if reading her thoughts. “You here in town. Both of you on your own. Both of you lonely and single … ”
“Brad is definitely not the man for me.”
“How do you know if you don’t make an effort? He’s a good man, Brad.” Pa nodded in stubborn confirmation of his own opinion. “Nice place he’s got out there too. All he needs is a good woman to take care of it for him.”
Was she really going to let herself be dragged into this conversation? Obviously she was. If only to put all thoughts of a burning romance between herself and Brad Mace out of Pa’s mind for once and for all. If only to click off the matchmaker’s gleam in his little half-moon eyes.
“Pa, I really hope with all my heart Brad finds the good woman he needs. But that woman doesn’t happen to be me. I didn’t come to Blake’s Folly to get married. I came here to be alone. I also came here because I love snakes, I love writing about them, photographing and protecting them. As you well know, Pa, it’s my profession. I’m a herpetologist. And you also know Brad Mace hates snakes. Brad Mace
snakes. Brad Mace is too damn stubborn to accept that snakes have a very necessary role in our ecological system.”
Even she noted how her voice had risen. It always did when talk came around to this particular subject. Snakes: the most unloved creatures on earth. And she felt it was her duty to save them all; to educate others to appreciate them as much as she did.
Pa shook his head. “Snakes. Not a fit thing for a woman to be interested in, if you ask me.”
“Okay, Pa. Subject closed.”
So what if she sometimes felt lonely? So what if she sometimes thought it would be nice to share life, hopes and ideas with someone she loved, someone who loved her? There was no way on earth she’d admit that to Pa Handy. Or anyone.
What was the point? What were the chances of finding a man who shared her interests out here? Zero. That’s the way life went. She’d taken the risk when she’d decided to come to Blake’s Folly, flee her disastrous marriage to a successful Hollywood film director and inveterate womanizer, abandon her own career as an actress, step out of a lifestyle that had been making her miserable for years.
She’d come to live in this ramshackle Nevada home built by her great-grandfather in the eighteen hundreds, and had found the peace she’d craved. For the last ten years, she’d been trudging over the desert’s barren beauty with the stray dogs she rescued, and she’d never felt healthier or stronger. But that didn’t stop her from — sometimes — dreaming about love. On the other hand, she refused to give up the things she believed in, her principles, just so she wouldn’t be alone anymore. And that’s exactly what a relationship with Brad Mace would have meant.
“Pa? Can you fix the water heater or not?”
Pa shook his grizzled head, waved the heavy wrench in his right hand. “Dunno. Gotta fuss around with it a bit before I decide. Tricky things, these old heaters.”
Well, it didn’t sound
hopeless did it? There was a chance he could do something. Buying a new heater would cost her good money, and in Blake’s Folly, money was a commodity scarcer than rainfall.
Although not quite as difficult as finding the right man to love.
Impossible to miss the hum of an engine on the trail leading to the house — a car coming up this way was something rare indeed. Alice left the kitchen, went into the parlor, and looked out the front window. She saw a Land Rover skid to a stop. Saw the man who stepped out of it — tall, rusty-haired, strong looking. Saw him jerk open the car’s back door, and heard him call out, “End of the line, Killer!”
Something large and black seemed to unfold, stretch and then, on unsteady legs, unenthusiastically pad out onto the dust of the yard.
The man turned, stared up at the house. His expression told her all she needed to know: he wasn’t exactly sneering, but he still looked incredulous. Okay, the house had no discernible style — not western, not Victorian, not anything — and some parts did look as though they were ready to fall to bits.
But there was beauty in the old place too, she thought defiantly: large bay windows stared out at a bleakly beautiful landscape; an ancient rattan settee on the broad, wooden, somewhat sagging veranda invited you to sit, relax, slow down. Take the time to look out at the dusty bare hills, the endless sky. Think about life, wonder what all the hustle and noise was about.
Alice shook herself, chased the silly thoughts out of her mind. Sure, that was the way she’d felt when she’d come out here, but why would a man like that one notice such things? Just look at him: tall, his tight muscular thighs were outlined by obviously expensive jeans, and his broad shoulders stretched out the worn brown leather of his jacket. He was — yes, she had to admit it — wonderful-looking. He also looked like a man with things to do, places to go. Definitely not the sort to waste admiration on the scenery in a one-flea community.
“Come on, boy,” she heard him say, and watched as he strode up the hard path leading to the wooden porch, Killer loping behind him with meek resignation.