“And BullâI know he never remarried. Were there other women in his life?” Sky sensed he'd strayed onto dangerous ground.
“Not that I know of. When I met him he was still half-crazy with grief.” Bernice shook her head. “Jasper told me a little about Bull's wife. She was from quality folk back East. They disinherited her when she married Bull, but the two of them were too much in love to care. I don't think Bull ever got over losing her.”
“I see.” Sky sank into silence. He wouldn't be asking Jasper any more questions about Bull and his mother. He already knew the answers. Marie Joslyn Fletcher had been there when Bull needed a woman. When he was done using her, he'd walked away without a thought.
Had his mother been in love with the grieving rancher? But why even wonder? The past was dead and couldn't be changed. And Sky had more pressing concerns in the here and now. Like the knife he'd found and the story behind itâa story he was duty bound to share with Will and Beau. He would tell them tonight, before things got any more complicated than they already were.
Glancing over at Bernice, he saw that she'd fallen sound asleep.
Bernice had offered to cook supper that night, but Will and Beau insisted that she put her feet up and take it easy. They could drive into Blanco Springs for burgers and shakes.
“Come with us, Sky,” Will said as they walked out to the truck. “I'll be dropping Beau at Natalie's after we eat, and then picking up Erin at Tori's place, so it won't be a long night. But it'll be a nice break.”
Sky could've warmed some leftover chili in his own small kitchen, but an evening in town did sound like a good idea. And it would give him a chance to tell the brothers about the pocketknife. They might wonder why he hadn't told them earlier. For that there was just one honest excuseâhe'd needed time to think.
Blanco Springs, the county seat, was a twenty-minute drive from the ranch. Its population of 3,082 souls, not counting those who lived on surrounding farms, was served by a gas station and garage; an old-fashioned movie theatre; a grocery store; the Burger Shack, which served sandwiches, shakes, and pizza; and the Blue Coyote, which welcomed cowboys, truckers, and anyone else old enough to drink. Will's ex-wife, Tori, a lawyer, lived in Blanco. So did Beau's fiancÃ©e, Natalie, who had her veterinary practice there.
Sky had thought about telling his story in the truck. But with the oversized tires rumbling over the rough asphalt and the radio blaring country music, serious conversation wasn't worth the effort. He would have to wait for the restaurant.
Even for a weeknight, the Burger Shack was quiet. The three ordered cheeseburgers with fries and shakes at the counter and took a seat in one of the empty booths. In the interval while they waited for their meals, Sky drew the folded knife out of his pocket, laid it on the red Formica tabletop, and forced himself to speak.
“I've been waiting for the right time to show you this. It was lying on the ground, close to the place where Jasper was shot.”
Will picked up the knife, frowning as he examined it. “Looks like something a kid might have dropped. Are you thinking it has something to do with our shooter?”
“Turn it over,” Sky said. “Look at the initials on the back.”
Will stared at the crude carving on the handle. His dark eyebrows came together in a puzzled scowl. “I'll be damned. Those are your initials.”
“I know. I carved them myself.”
“You've already lost me,” Beau said. “I hope you're going to fill us in on the whole story.”
Sky took the knife from Will, balancing it on the flat of his palm the way he'd done years ago. Except for the fact that his hand was bigger now, it felt much the same.
“I was in third grade when I found this on the way home from school,” he said. “It was lying in the road, like somebody'd dropped it. Just a cheap little knife, but I'd never had anything much of my own. To a boy like me it was a treasure. I scratched those initials on it and kept it hidden so my older cousins wouldn't take it.”
“Your older cousins? You mean Lute's brothers?” Beau asked.
Sky nodded. “They were big enough and mean enough to take anything they wanted. Lute was just a toddler when I found the knife, and his sister, Marie, the only girl, named after my mother, wasn't much older.”
Sky had always felt protective of the two young ones and tried to shield them from the brutality that was life in the Fletcher family. Not that it had done much good. Lute was dead now, and the last he'd heard of Marie, she'd run off with a boyfriend.
“I hung on to the knife till I was fifteen,” Sky said. “You already know some of this. My uncle had whipped me pretty bad, and I'd had enough. I packed my clothes and a little food in a pillowcase and waited till the middle of the night when the family was asleep. Then I snuck through the house to the back door. I thought I'd made a clean getaway, but I was wrong.”
The story was interrupted by the waiter with their orders. The cheeseburgers were hot and fresh, the men hungry after a long day of work. For the first few minutes they enjoyed filling their bellies in silence.
Finally Beau spoke up. “So tell us the rest.”
Sky downed the last of his chocolate shake. “I was about to unlock the kitchen door when I heard a noise. I turned around and there was little Marie in the old ripped T-shirt she wore for a nightgown. Tears were running down her cheeks. âDon't go, Sky,' she begged me.”
“Let me guess,” Will said. “You gave her the knife to keep her quiet.”
“And that's the last you saw of the knife till you found it this morning,” Beau finished.
“You two really know how to ruin a good story,” Sky said. “She'd always wanted that knife. She promised to take care of it and not to tell anybody she'd seen me leaving.”
“So you're thinking she could be the one who shot Jasper?” Will had never been one to beat around the bush.
“I don't know.” Sky stared down at the knife in his open hand. “I saw boot tracks small enough to be a woman's. But I can't imagine Marie shooting an old man. Maybe somebody else had the knife. Maybe she wasn't even there. I know I could be wrong, but . . .” His voice trailed off. He shook his head.
“You were wrong about Lute,” Beau reminded him.
“I know. This time I just want to be sure before I ruin somebody's life.” Sky laid the knife on the table again. “When I found this I knew I'd have to tell you about it. But I'm hoping you'll give me some time before you call in the law. I need to learn the truth, and I can best do that on my own.”
Will and Beau exchanged glances. Beau gave a barely perceptible nod.
“Since the law around here is Abner Sweeney, it's an easy choice,” Will said. “But Jasper was almost killed by these people. Promise you'll be careful and that you'll keep us in the loop. If we cut you some slack, we'll need to know what's going on.”
“And promise you'll ask for our help if you need it,” Beau added.
“You've got my word on it. Thanks for understanding.” Sky rose from his seat in the booth. “I'd like to wander over to the Blue Coyote, maybe see what I can find out about who's new in town. Will, can you stop by and pick me up on your way back to the ranch?”
“Sure. But be careful. Some folks might not take too kindly to your asking questions.”
“I mostly just plan to keep my ears open. Call when you're there, and I'll meet you outside. That way you won't have to leave Erin alone in the truck.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Will was protective of his daughter. Now that school was out, Erin was spending most of her vacation with him on the ranch.
After leaving his tip on the table, Sky walked out of the Burger Shack and into the summer dusk. Beau would be spending the night with Natalie, who'd drive him home in the morning. The two planned a fall wedding but had yet to figure out where they were going to live. Beau had his responsibilities on the ranch. Natalie had her clinic in town and didn't want to give up her practice.
Doubtless they'd work it out. Natalie and Beau were too much in love to let that kind of roadblock stand in their way. Sky had noticed the secret glances they exchanged and wondered idly if a woman would ever look at him with that kind of tender passion. Not likely, he conceded. But if he had to settle for something less, the naked lust that had flashed in Lauren Prescott's copper-flecked cat eyes wasn't a bad substitute. She'd looked at him as if she wanted to eat him alive. And she damn near had. He wouldn't mind giving her another chance. But chasing after a woman wasn't his style. Any rematch would be up to the lady.
With the sun gone, the night air was, if not cool, at least tolerable for walking a few blocks down Main Street to the Blue Coyote at the far end. There wasn't much traffic, either on the road or on the sidewalks. Probably some big sporting event on TV, which would mean customers crowding around the 52-inch screen above the bar in the Blue Coyote. At least he'd be able to circulate without drawing much attention.
As Sky had expected, the Blue Coyote's parking lot was full and the bar was jammed. On the TV screen was a regional championship bull riding competition. Since some local cowboys were involved, there was a lot of whooping, cheering, and informal betting. There was no place to sit. Sky found an empty place to stand near the door and looked around.
Nigel, the tattooed skinhead who served as bartender and bouncer, was filling glasses as fast as his customers could empty them. Stella, who owned the bar, was busy playing hostess.
“Hello, Blue Eyes! Where've you been keeping yourself?” She'd spotted Sky through the crowd and was working her way toward him. A handsome, buxom female in her forties with flame-dyed hair and overdone makeup, she lookedâand actedâlike the town floozy. But Sky knew better than to underestimate her. Nothing escaped those sharp, absinthe eyes.
“What's your pleasure? I'll see that you get it pronto. And if you'd like to stick around till after closing . . .” She winked, then laughed, leaving a wisp of doubt that her outrageous flirting had been a joke. For a woman who'd been sleeping with Hoyt Axelrod, and who surely knew he was dead, she didn't seem to be grieving much. Sky wouldn't put it past her to have ordered the ex-sheriff killed.
But as he already knew, there wasn't a shred of proof against the woman.
Sky fished a bill out of his wallet. “I'll have a Corona,” he said. “No need to bring the glass.”
“You've got it, honey!” Turning, she snapped her fingers to catch the ear of the busy waitress. “Over here! A bottle of Corona for my handsome friend!”
Following her gaze through the crowd, Sky glimpsed the waitress from behind. Tall and boyishly lean, her stringy, black hair twisted up with a plastic clip, she was dressed in ragged jeans and a black T-shirt. He didn't remember having seen her before, but he hadn't been to town in a while. Waitresses tended not to last long at the Blue Coyote. Stella drove them hard, and the men, some at least, considered the girls fair game.
The new girl had vanished in the direction of the bar. Stella lingered next to Sky, greeting people as they walked in the door. She was a shrewd businesswoman and made it a point to know her customers. Some she gave nicknames. Sky had been “Blue Eyes” from the first time she noticed him.
The waitress was coming back, balancing Sky's beer, along with other drinks, on a tray held above the heads of the crowd. Sky's gaze traveled from the tray, down her upraised arm to her faceâstrong-boned with fierce, black eyes and a thin, white scar, like the slash of a knife, running down the left side from temple to chin.
Years had passed since he'd last seen her, but Sky's heart slammed with the shock of recognition. His eyes searched for, and found, the tiny white mark in the center of her forehead, a souvenir of the time she'd fallen as a toddler and struck a sharp rock. The years had changed her, and not for the better. But there could be no room for doubt.
It was Marie.
ky waited for some sign of recognition, but Marie's scarred face was a mask of indifference. There was no way she wouldn't know him, but for some reason she kept it to herself. Until he learned more, he'd be wise to play along.
Lowering the tray, she handed him the open bottle. He passed her the ten-dollar bill in his hand. “Keep the change,” he said.
“Thanks.” Something flickered in her eyes as she turned awayâa cold, animal wariness.
Stella lingered beside him, a sphinxlike smile on her painted face. Did she know her waitress was the sister of Lute Fletcher, the twenty-one-year-old boy she'd hired and likely set up to be murdered by Hoyt Axelrod? Stella Rawlins was a master manipulator who played her cards close to her ample bosom. If she suspected the truth, Marie could be in more danger than she knew.
With a saucy parting smile, Stella sashayed off to tend to other customers. Finding a newly emptied table, Sky sat down to finish his beer and wait for Will's phone call. He glimpsed Marie weaving her way through the crowd, but she didn't try to come near him or even to make eye contact.
Whatever cards life had dealt her, she must've had a rough time of it. The nervous eyes, the slashing scar, and the fact that she'd taken this menial job spoke more than words about her condition.
There was no way her showing up here could be a coincidence. But had she come to Blanco Springs to avenge her brother, or for some even darker purpose? Had she dropped the pocketknife by accident, or had she left it for Sky to find, knowing it would lead him to her?
And what was her connection to Jasper's shooting?
So many questions. And his only hope of getting answers was to talk with Marie alone. But that wasn't going to happen tonightânot with the bar packed, Stella on alert, and Will due to pick him up soon. His best chance would be to come back here tomorrow, before the night crowd gathered, maybe pass her a note and arrange a discreet meeting somewhere.
And then what? If he didn't like her story, he would have some hard decisions to make. Blood cousin or not, his first loyalty was to the Tylers. But when he thought of Marie, it was that sad-eyed little girl, begging him not to leave, who came to mind. If the ugly truth demanded it, could he turn his back on her again? If she gave him her trust, could he use it to betray her?
He needed to decide now, before he got pulled in any deeper. If the answer was no, he'd be better off walking away tonight and forgetting he'd seen her.
Will dropped Beau off at Natalie's house on the far edge of town. As he watched his brother stride up the walk, a spring of anticipation in his step, he couldn't suppress a twinge of envy. It had been a long time since he'd spent a night making love to the woman he adored, drifting off to sleep in her arms and waking up to the sweet sight of her face on the pillow.
But Tori had made her decision. So had he, and there was nothing more to be said. At least they had Erin to show for their train wreck of a marriage. Their daughter had been worth it all.
Tori's split-level frame house was ten minutes from Natalie's. The two women had gone through school together and were fast friends, along with Beau, who was the same age. Will, six years older, had never been a part of their tightly knit gang of three. Even as a teenager his duties on the ranch had come first, before friends, fun, sports, and social life. In the end, that had been part of the problem with Tori. But not all of it.
Forcing the thought aside, he pulled the pickup into the driveway. Switching off the ignition and the lights, he mounted the porch steps and rang the front doorbell. Over the years, he and Tori had arrived at an armed truce, which they maintained for their daughter's sake. They rarely clashed these days, but the tension Will felt every time he was about to see her would never go away.
By mutual agreement, Erin's summers were spent on the ranch with Will. This week, however, a dentist appointment and a friend's birthday party, along with Jasper's crisis, had made it more convenient for her to stay with her mother. Will had missed her. In a life of responsibility and hard work, Erin was his sunshine.
“Hello, Will.” Tori opened the door, wearing faded jeans and a striped cotton shirt, unbuttoned far enough to show the barest glimpse of cleavage. Her blond hair was caught back in a loose ponytail. The wire-rimmed glasses she wore for close reading were perched on her nose. Her feet were bare. She looked damned sexy, Will thought. But that notion was best kept to himself.
“Come in,” she said, shifting her glasses to the top of her head. “Erin's upstairs getting ready. She'll be down in a few minutes. Meanwhile, we need to talk.”
“Is something the matter?” Will followed her into the kitchen and took a seat at the table, which tonight was cluttered with open law books and legal briefs.
“Not really. Just a change you need to be aware of. Would you like some iced tea?”
Will shook his head.
What change was she talking about? Was she planning to move? Maybe even get remarried?
He braced himself as she puttered in the kitchen, putting a carton of milk in the fridge, a glass in the open dishwasher. Was the woman trying to drive him crazy?
“How's Jasper?” she asked.
“As feisty as an old badger. Bernice talked with him on the phone a couple of hours ago.”
“So Bernice isn't at the hospital now?” She added two spoons to the rack in the dishwasher.
“No, she's home. For God's sake, stop fussing and sit down!”
Tori closed the dishwasher and took a seat across from him. “I tried to talk Erin into staying here the next few days, but she doesn't want to be away from her foal. I guess she'll be all right as long as Bernice is handy.”
“Erin can pretty much take care of herself. Why would Bernice need to be there?” His chest constricted. “Is something wrong with Erin?”
She looked at him as if he were a backward child. “Erin got her first period today. Since she insists on going to the ranch, I want her to have a woman around in case she needs something or has any questions. Asking you or Beau would be awkward, don't you agree?”
Will stared at her, thunderstruck. “But isn't it too soon for that? Erin's just a little girl.”
“She's twelve, Will. It's not uncommon for girls to start that early.”
“But she'sâ” Will shook his head, feeling old and foolish. “Never mind. It's just the idea of her growing up. It'll take some getting used to.”
“For her, too.” Tori's hand reached toward him, then withdrew as if she'd had second thoughts. “Young girls are very private about such things. I'm only telling you so you'll understand if she's uncomfortable and out of sorts. But don't try to talk to her about it. Leave that to Bernice.”
“You'll let Bernice know?”
“I'll call her after you leave.” Tori rose from her chair, as footsteps pattered along the upstairs hallway. “Shh, here she comes. Don't tell her what I said.”
After listening to Tori, Will expected his daughter to be changed somehow. But as she bounded down the stairs with her backpack, her grin was as happy as ever. She loved the ranch and everything on it, especially Tesoro, the palomino foal Sky was helping her raise and train.
“Let's go, Daddy!” Giving her mother a quick kiss, she dashed out the door to the truck.
Will followed his daughter as far as the front porch, then turned back to Tori. “See you at the ranch for Sunday dinner?” he asked.
“Sure.” She reached up and plucked her glasses off her head. After he left, she'd probably go back to reading up on her current court case. If her life involved anything besides work, her daughter, and her friendship with Natalie, Will hadn't seen any sign of it. Tori was a beautiful woman. She could marry again any time she chose toâhell, that bastard Garn Prescott would have her in a minute. But she and Will had been divorced for eight years, and she was still alone.
“Call if there's any problem,” she said, meaning a problem with Erin.
“Don't worry about it.” He turned away and went down the steps to join their daughter in the truck.
While Erin buckled her seat belt, Will made a quick call to Sky to let him know they were coming. Then he backed the truck out of the driveway.
For a few blocks they drove in awkward silence. Then Erin spoke. “Well, I guess Mom told you my big news,” she said.
“I guess she did.” Will touched the brake at the stop sign and swung the truck onto Main Street.
“I'm not the first girl in my class to get my period. Michelle Hawkins got hers right after school started. And Emily White got hers two months ago. And there are probably some I don't know about. I'm just glad not to be the last. That would be humiliating.”
“Well, congratulations, I guess,” Will said.
“Thanks. How's Tesoro? Does he miss me?”
“He always misses you. Just like I do.” In the darkness of the cab, Will allowed himself a smile. Even after twelve years, he and Tori had a lot to learn about being parents.
Lauren speared a morsel of steaming beef from the plate someone had set in front of her. Taking a bite, she forced herself to chew. She didn't mind good barbecue, but this piece was tough enough to make her wonder if the steer had died of old age. And she could hardly spit it out in front of the guests who'd paid extra to share the round banquet table with the congressman.
“Nothing like good old-fashioned Texas barbecue,” her father was saying. “Now if only I could get my colleagues in the House to sit down to a meal like this, we could solve all the country's problems in one afternoon!”
“And the next day you could invite the Senate!” Josh Hardesty, the governor's stepson, glanced around the table, waiting for a response to his joke. Garn Prescott obliged him with a hoot of laughter. Her father was trying too hard, Lauren thought. For that matter, so was Hardesty.
Representing his stepfather at the fund-raiser, Josh Hardesty was handsome in an overblown way, his Armani suit and silk tie too formal for the countrified setting with hay bales and red-checked tablecloths. He had a way of raising his wrist to check the time on his diamond-studded gold Rolex, as if to display the vulgar piece for Lauren's eyes. He'd arrived at the party in a red Maserati, and Prescott was practically drooling over him. Lauren was under strict orders to be gracious, in the hope of coaxing an extra digit onto his contribution check.
“So what do you think of Texas by now, Lauren?” Hardesty flashed a set of flawless veneers. He was leaning so close that Lauren could have counted the pores on his nose.
Lauren toyed with her food, pretending to eat. “I suppose it has its charms, but I've yet to discover them.” True, she thought. Sky Fletcher was one of the least charming men she'd ever met, but even here she couldn't get him out of her thoughts.
“I'll be in Lubbock for the next few days,” Hardesty said. “I'd be delighted to help you discover some of those charms you're missing.”
“Thanks for the invitation, but I'm a working girl,” Lauren said. “I'm keeping the accounts for two different ranches. People are depending on me to get my work done.”
He shook his head. “I can't understand why a pretty little thing like you would choose to be an accountant.”
“Why not? I've always been good with numbers, and I like the challenge of putting things in order.”
“But all you'd have to do is bat those gorgeous eyes at the right man and you'd be set for life. You could have anything you wanted.”
“Funny,” Lauren said, “that's just what my father tells me.”
Prescott had made it clear that he was hoping for some sparks between his daughter and one of the state's richest single men under fifty. Hardesty seemed interested, but he was far from her type. She would be polite and pleasant for as long as this dreary event lasted. Then she would slip away without giving him her phone number.
Tomorrow she would demand the payment she'd earnedâher pick of any horse on the Prescott ranch.
Garn Prescott surveyed the banquet hall as the seventy-two-minute address from the former Secretary of Agriculture ended. People were pulling out their chairs, standing up to stretch their cramped limbs. A few were already dashing for the exits. Lord, where had his staff dredged up the old dotard? He'd requested a speaker who could fire up an audience. Instead, the former cabinet member, who looked as if he'd served under Warren Harding, had put most listeners to sleep with his droning monotone. Too late, Prescott realized he should have hired a band with a singer to keep things lively. He couldn't afford a celebrity, but there were groups out there who'd perform for the chance to be heard.
The crowd was up and milling now, some headed for the open bar, more leaving. On the far side of the vast room, Prescott glimpsed Lauren, a fetching sight in jeans, boots, and a western-style shirt. He'd noticed how the cameras flashed when she entered the hall on his arm. Now Josh Hardesty had cornered her, and the two appeared to be deep in conversation. If those two clicked, he would count the event a success. Otherwise it was a near fiasco. He'd be lucky to cover what he'd already paid for the hall rental and the damn-blasted caterer.
“Congressman.” The female voice, coming from somewhere behind his shoulder, recalled the taste of aged bourbonârich and mellow, with a subtle kick. He turned to meet a pair of absinthe eyes framed by mascara-slathered lashes. The woman wasn't youngâwell into her forties, he guessed. But there was a sensual quality about her that defied age. Her hair was dyed a flamboyant carmine, her makeup applied with a lavish hand, giving her face an exotic look that brought to mind some ancient Egyptian queen. Her black silk jumpsuit, worn with high-heeled red boots, hugged her generous curves.