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Authors: Carolyn Brown

Daisies in the Canyon

BOOK: Daisies in the Canyon
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Carolyn Brown

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477826546

ISBN-10: 1477826548

 

Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014910623

In memory of my precious sister and my best friend, Patti G. Russell

1953–2013

Chapter One

D
ry-eyed and silent, Abby Malloy focused on the wooden casket that held the remains of the father she’d never known. The north wind rattled the bare limbs of an old scrub oak tree in the corner of the small cemetery. The preacher read the twenty-third Psalm, but the words were whipped away with the fierce wind.

Dozens of people bunched up under the tent and sang “I’ll Fly Away.” She looked at the words on the back of the funeral program, but she didn’t sing along. On the last verse of the song, someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she looked up into the green eyes of a man with a daisy in his hand. He shoved it toward her and she took it, then he moved on down the row of three folding chairs and gave one to each of two other women. Abby wondered what in the hell she was supposed to do with it. Didn’t folks usually put a rose on the casket if they followed that tradition? Could the women next to her be Ezra’s other two daughters?

She glanced over at them, covertly studying each of them as they stared straight ahead at the casket. The will said that the sisters all had to live together in Ezra’s house, that if any one of them left, they could have a third of his money but not a bit of the ranch. The last one standing got the land, the cattle, the house, and the whole shebang. If more than one was left at the end of one year, then they would share the ranch. Neither of those two looked like they were interested in anything but the cash-out, especially the prissy one right next to her. And the wild-looking hippie on the end would probably get bored real early, no doubt about it.

Abby wasn’t totally sure if she wanted anything of Ezra’s—not his money or his damned land—but she’d stick around a few days to see what happened. Hell, without the army anymore, she didn’t have anything else to do, and she might like ranching once she learned how to do it.

Her stomach twisted into a pretzel, more from stress than hunger. Would it be a sin to eat one of the miniature candy bars she had tucked away in her jacket pocket? She was reminded of how she’d felt in Afghanistan—the same emptiness surrounded by nervous energy—especially that horrible day with the little girl. Today was not her fault, though. Today the burden fell on Ezra, even if he was dead.

The cold January wind didn’t feel like the scorching wind that pushed the desert sandstorms. The colors were different. Everything over there was shades of tan; here they were an array of orange, ocher, and mustard. But the lonesome aura surrounding her remained the same. Maybe it was because she had a war to fight here, too.

Her mother, Martha, had died in January twelve years ago, but that day Abby’d cried so hard that her eyes swelled shut and she broke out in hives. Not so today at her father’s funeral, but then, she’d never known Ezra Malloy. Never even laid eyes on him, according to her mother. Ezra had wanted a son and he’d had some screwball notion that once a woman had a girl, that’s all she’d ever have. So when Abby wasn’t a boy, Ezra gave her mother a healthy settlement and sent her back to Galveston, Texas.

She looked around at the small crowd: neighbors and friends bundled up in coats against the winter chill. When they’d sung, she’d heard a few off-key quivers, the hallmark of sucking cold air into your lungs.

A man in a uniform with a sheriff’s patch on his arm stood a few feet away from the right end of the casket. Dirty-blond hair, entirely too long for an officer of the law, tickled the collar of his shirt. Instead of regulation uniform pants, he wore jeans that hugged his butt and thighs like a glove and that stacked up just right over his shiny black cowboy boots. His brown eyes were pools that drew her in when she caught him studying her. It was winter and yet he had a deep tan that said he spent as much time outside as indoors. And those little crow’s-feet at the sides of his eyes told her that he had a sense of humor. His dark brows knit together as if something had suddenly worried him. Her fingers itched to touch those creases on his forehead and tell him everything would be all right. Then the creases disappeared, and the sexiest mouth she’d ever seen turned up in a slight smile.

She blinked and looked at the casket, but her eyes strayed back to the sheriff. His uniform shirt was starched and ironed and fit across his broad chest. Her eyes dropped lower to his belt buckle and she almost blushed.

Get a hold of yourself, Abby! Shit fire! You are at a funeral, not in a bar with a bunch of randy soldiers,
she fussed at herself.

The man who’d given them the daisies stood beside the sheriff. He was younger and not nearly as sexy, but he sported the same longish hair, though his was brown. Was longer hair a prerequisite to living in the Palo Duro Canyon? The cowboy’s green eyes looked sad behind his wire-rimmed glasses and his square-cut jaw was set in a solemn expression. Creased jeans bunched up over his highly polished cowboy boots. This must be that Rusty the lawyer had mentioned when he’d called.

Two men in suits came forward and opened the casket. Abby had attended funerals with an open casket, but never seen it done at the cemetery. Curiosity made her want to look in the casket, to see Ezra, maybe to figure out what it was about him that had drawn her mother to him. But another part of her wanted to leave right then and never look back.

The people filed past, most of them shaking hands with the guy who’d handed out the daisies, the sheriff, and the preacher. None of them tarried long before they hurried off to their vehicles to get out of the cold wind. Now it was time for Ezra’s daughters to stand up, to go forward, to look at the father they never knew lying in his casket.

The lawyer who’d called had said she had two younger sisters, and in fact, they’d all been seated in a way to let her be first to go. So she went, more to get it over with than to exert any authority or seniority. She didn’t want to look in the casket, and she damn sure didn’t want to press the daisy in the pages of a fat book or put it in a glass of water to remind her of the father who didn’t want her because she wasn’t a boy.

She wanted to walk right past the casket without a sideways glance, to throw the daisy on the ground and step on it, but her military training surfaced subconsciously. She snapped to attention, hands at her sides, head and back in alignment in front of the casket, proving to Ezra that she was every bit as strong as any son he might have had.

She glanced down and blinked several times. He was just an old man with wispy gray hair and wrinkles. He wore bibbed overalls, a red flannel shirt, and a day’s worth of gray stubble. Why had her beautiful mother fallen in love with this man? He should have spent his life kissing her feet, because he was lucky she’d even glanced his way.

Clamping her jaws tightly, Abby looked up at the guy with the glasses, who nodded as if he knew how she felt. He couldn’t begin to understand the mixture of emotions jumbled up inside her gut. She couldn’t even get them sorted out. In frustration she tossed the daisy in the casket and it landed on Ezra’s heart.

“I’m Rusty Dawson,” the man said softly. “The lawyer probably told you about me. That’s my black truck out there. I’ll lead the way back to the house.”

The preacher shook her hand and told her he was sorry for her loss. She nodded politely, but how could you lose something that you never had? She headed straight for her silver-colored truck. When she was a little girl, she’d pretended that her father was a superhero off fighting wars, who couldn’t come see her because he was saving the world. As a teenager she’d pressed her mother for answers, and her mother had told her the truth; from then on Abby had figured him for a son of a bitch. However, seeing the scrawny old man in the casket brought only disappointment. She reached inside her coat pocket and brought out the bite-size candy bar, unwrapped it as she walked, and popped it into her mouth. The paper went in the left-hand pocket and by the time she swallowed, she had another one ready to eat. She crawled inside the truck, out of the bitter north wind whipping down the canyon, and watched the sheriff interact with the people.

“Damn fine-lookin’ man,” she mumbled as she reached for another candy bar.

She waited until Rusty got into his truck and pulled out onto the gravel road. The sun was high in the sky and only four vehicles were headed that way, thank God! She didn’t want or need a bunch of neighbors and friends telling her what a fine man Ezra had been. Two miniature candy bars later, the black truck came to a stop, and she pulled in beside it.

Cows roamed around in the pasture outside the small yard, roped in with a white three-rail fence in need of paint. Bare rosebushes and naked crepe myrtles waited patiently for the warmth of spring to bloom. A trio of dogs bounded off the porch of a long, low-slung ranch-style house with a wide front porch. It would have never passed muster in the army, not with that peeling white paint. Rusty stopped long enough to pet each dog and said something that made their tails wag. What was it Abby’s mother said about kids and dogs and people? Oh, yes—a person might fool some folks, but never a kid or a dog. Evidently Rusty had a few good qualities, if the dogs liked him.

For a cowboy, he wasn’t showing off his manners too well. But then, why should he? If Abby or either of those two strangers who were her half sisters threw in the towel before a year was up, he’d get the whole thing. That was a pretty good incentive to make their lives miserable so he’d wind up with the ranch.

Once out of the truck, she circled around behind the vehicle, picked up a dark green duffel bag, and hoisted it up on her shoulder. There were no more candy bars in her pocket, but a separate small suitcase was filled with more, along with bags of chips, nuts, and trail mix and the little wooden box holding her mother’s ashes. Thank God she had a high metabolism or she’d weigh as much as a baby elephant. Food had always been her stress relief: from doughnuts when she was a little girl and things didn’t go her way to chocolate bars in high school to make it through a test to potato chips in the service when she was wound too tight to sleep. When she was nervous, she ate. When she was sad, she ate. When she was happy, she ate. Even at that very moment, she needed food.

The dark-haired prissy sister pulled two suitcases out of an older-model maroon minivan. Matched luggage with her initials engraved on them. Abby could see several boxes with writing on the side also stacked perfectly inside the van.

The blonde hippie sister drove a small truck that had been red at one time but now was faded and rusted in spots. The tires were so bald that it was a wonder they made it down the canyon incline without blowing apart. A crack in the back window ran from the bottom corner halfway across, but duct tape kept the wind and rain from seeping inside. Evidently she didn’t have suitcases, because she slid plastic grocery store bags along one arm and picked up two more with the other hand.

Rusty opened the door and stood to one side to let them enter the house. “I’ve asked the executor of the will to join us, since the lawyer had another appointment today. He and his wife will be along in a couple of minutes. They were talking to some folks when we left. If y’all want to have a seat in the living room, we’ll wait for them there.”

“What is that?” Abby sniffed the air.

“It’s a small community down here in the canyon. Folks brought covered dishes for our dinner. It’s a respect thing,” he said. “We’ll eat after you hear what Jackson Bailey has to say. I asked the sheriff, Cooper Wilson, to join us for lunch.”

“Why?”

“Because he was Ezra’s friend and I wanted to. You got a problem with that?”

“Not unless he puts a hand toward my piece of fried chicken,” she said. That smart-ass remark brought a picture of his hands to her mind. Strong, wide hands that looked as if they’d know how to please a woman. A tingle shot down her spine when she let her mind wander, thinking about just how his hands would feel on her. She quickly blinked away the image and concentrated on her surroundings.

The house faced the east and the living room sported a big window looking out on the porch and over the front of the property. While he drank his morning coffee, Ezra probably sat in the well-worn old leather recliner and watched the Texas sunrises. Abby dropped her duffel bag beside suitcases and plastic bags tied in knots at the top and did her best to ignore the recliner.

The room looked like it had been arranged by a man interested in comfort instead of beauty. The sofa took up most of the space on the back wall, with the recliner and an end table at one end and a floor lamp at the other. The coffee table testified by the scuff marks that lots of boots had been propped on it through the years. Two wooden rockers faced the cold fireplace, but Rusty had turned them around, making a semicircle. Without waiting for the ladies to sit, he’d claimed one chair. The prissy sister sat in the one next to him.

“If we’ve got folks coming, we’d best bring in some kitchen chairs,” the hippie sister said.

Abby noticed the sparkly diamond stuck in the side of her nose when she passed her. No, sir, that girl wouldn’t make it past the first week, much less a whole year. The only sound in the house was the scrape of two chairs being dragged across the floor. Hippie sister ignored the recliner and sat down in a wooden chair. Abby took the second one.

BOOK: Daisies in the Canyon
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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