t was ten-fifteen when Sky pulled his pickup into the parking lot at the Blue Coyote. The bar closed at eleven on weeknights, and the lot was already thinning out. As Sky switched off the engine he saw Abner Sweeney, still in uniform, stroll out the front door, cross the crumbling asphalt, and climb into a gleaming maroon Ford Explorer, so new that it still had the temporary license permit stuck to the rear window. Either Abner had been saving his pennies, or his promotion to sheriff had given him a nice bump in pay. Or maybe he'd just done somebody a big favor.
Never mind, Sky lectured himself. Having a new vehicle wasn't against the law. And the reason he'd come here had nothing to do with Abner.
Marie was working. As Sky stepped through the door she glanced up to meet his eyes, then tore her gaze away. She looked drawn and harried, the scar a white slash against the olive skin of her face. Except for that scar and her grim expression, she looked much the way Sky remembered his mother.
Stella was nowhere in sight, but her half brother, Nigel, was on duty behind the bar. Sky remembered the boots and the tracks. There weren't many biker types in a cowboy town like Blanco Springs. But the bar would have been open at the time Sky had heard the motorcycle. Nigel would have been working. So, most likely, would Marie.
Finding an empty booth, Sky sat down to wait. Marie was the only one serving seated customers. Sooner or later she would come to him. When she did, he'd have the twenty-dollar bill, with the note folded inside, ready to give her.
Blue pickup, parking lot, after closingâor tell me when and where.
Stella wandered in from the back hallway, tugging down her skin-tight denim skirt. Sky turned away, shifting his face toward the back of the booth. If the woman decided to corner him, that could keep Marie at a distance.
“What'll it be, mister?” Marie stood next to the booth. Sky kept his eyes lowered as he fished the money with the note out of his pocket.
“Corona, no glass.” He handed her the bill. “Bring me back ten and keep the rest.”
“Thanks.” Her voice betrayed nothing as she turned away and headed for the cash register at the end of the bar. Sky cautioned himself not to watch her. Stella had sharp eyes and a suspicious nature. If Marie wanted to treat him like a stranger, he'd be smart to play along. It was clear that she didn't want her boss to know about her connection to the Fletcher family.
Marie came back with the beer, along with ten dollars that she laid on the table. No reply note and no eye contact. Did that mean he was to wait outside for her, or was she blowing him off?
Sky sipped his beer, taking his time. Stella gave him a wink and a wave but didn't sidle over and join him, which was all to the good. At ten minutes to eleven, he walked outside and sat in his truck with the lights off. Twenty minutes later the parking lot had emptied and he was still waiting. He watched the blue neon sign above the door flicker off. His fingers toyed with the keys that hung from the ignition. Maybe he'd struck out.
He was about to start the engine when a shadow peeled away from the dark shape of the building and moved across the parking lot toward him. Making sure the dome light was off, Sky opened the passenger door. Marie slid into the cab beside him, slumping low in the seat as if she didn't want to be seen from outside.
“You haven't changed much,” she said.
“I can't say the same for you.”
Her fingers traced the ugly scar. “A little present from my ex-husband. He came at me with a butcher knife. I don't have to tell you he'll never do that again. Mind if I smoke?”
“Not as long as you blow it out the window.”
While Marie fished for a cigarette and lit it with a cheap, pink plastic lighter, Sky lifted the pocketknife out of his vest. “This belongs to you. I couldn't help wondering if you dropped it on purpose.” He waited for her to answer. When she simply took the knife, he continued.
“Somebody out there shot a fine old man, Marie. Then they went off and left him to dieâit's a miracle he survived. Before I pass judgment and decide what to do, I want to hear your side of the story.”
Marie puffed on her cigarette. “It wasn't me, if that's what you're thinking. It was Coy.”
Another piece of the puzzle slid into place. Coy Fletcher, the second oldest of Marie's brothers, was the bully of the family. Slow-witted and mean, he took pleasure in tormenting anythingâor anyoneâsmaller and weaker than he was. After receiving some nasty bruises and a dislocated shoulder, Sky had learned to stay out of his way.
It was an accident,” Marie said. “We were shortcutting across the ranch when we heard the ATV coming right toward us.”
“The old man wouldn't have hurt you,” Sky said.
“Maybe not. But we didn't know that. And we didn't want to be seen and identified. Coy's got some warrants back in Oklahoma. If he got arrested here, even just for trespassing, he could be in a lot of trouble.
“Coy grabbed the gun off the bike and we ducked behind the bushes. Afterward he told me that he'd meant to shoot over the old man's head, just to scare him off. But right when he fired, the ATV hit a bump. The old man bounced up far enough to catch the bullet.”
Could he believe her? Sky had always had a soft spot for his younger cousin. But the story sounded pretty far-fetched. Given the evidence, he'd be crazy to trust her.
“So after he crashed, you took his gun and left him there.” Until he spoke the words, Sky didn't realize how angry he'd beenâand was. Whether her story was true or not, there was no excuse for leaving Jasper wounded and half-drowning in the seep.
“I wanted to go to him. But Coy said that he was dead and we had to get out of there before somebody else came. The dog was barking at us. Coy was going to shoot it. I promised that if he wouldn't, I'd get the old man's gun where it had fallen off the ATV and go with him. That was when I dropped the knife, on the chance that you'd find it. I wanted to let you know I was here, in case we needed your help.”
Needed his help?
Something went cold in the pit of Sky's stomach. Whatever he'd stumbled into, it wasn't good.
“You said you were shortcutting.”
“We'd picked up some supplies in town. I was driving, and Coy was sitting behind, hanging on to the stuff we'd bought. It was awkward going, so we took the shortest way there.”
A battered Ford Ranchero pulled into the parking lot, radio blaring Mexican music. Its headlights made a sweep as it turned around. An empty Dos Equis beer can flew out the window and clattered to the asphalt. Marie shrank lower in the seat as the vehicle swung close, finished turning, and roared out the way it had come in.
Sky waited for Marie to say more. When she didn't reply, he broke the silence. “I found the marijuana operation, Marie. Did you know it was on my own land?”
She stared down at her hands. Slowly she nodded. “I went to the county recorder's office to check the maps for an out-of-the-way spot with water. It was perfectâespecially with your name on the deed. With it being yours, we figured if you caught us, you'd let us off easy. You
let us off easy, won't you, Sky?”
When she looked up at him, Sky glimpsed the sad-eyed little girl he'd left behind in the kitchen all those years ago. But there were limits to how softhearted he could be.
“The marijuana has to go,” he said. “If it's cleared off my land by the end of tomorrowâplants, hoses, tools, and whatever you and Coy are living inâI won't call in the law. But if you get caught somewhere else, you're on your own. And one thing more. You're never to set foot on Tyler land again. Understand?”
She tossed her glowing cigarette stub out the window. “It was Coy's idea to grow the weed, not mine. Once it's gone, maybe he'll get a job or something.”
“I'm hoping he'll be smart enough to go back to Oklahoma. You too. What are the two of you doing here, anyway?”
“Lute used to call me sometimes. He said there were ways to make good money here, if I wanted to come. When I told Coy, he said he wanted to come, too.”
“Well, you know what happened to Lute.”
“Yes. And I heard that the bastard who shot him died in jail. Thanks, by the way, for paying to have Lute's body sent home.”
“Lute was family. So are you,” Sky said. “Let me drive you back to your camp. We can talk to Coy together.”
“I'm not sleeping out there. I'm staying in the back room above the Blue Coyote. Stella takes the rent out of my pay. It's just Coy who's camping on your land. But don't go out there tonight. He's got guns. If he hears somebody coming, he's liable to shoot first and ask questions later. You know Coy.”
Sky did. Meanness and stupidity made for a dangerous mix. “If you can come back for me in the morning, I'll ride out with you. Coy won't be happy about leaving, but he'll be more apt to listen to reason if I'm there.”
Sky thought about training the colts and all the work he needed to do. Will wouldn't be pleased by his absence. But this mess involved the safety of the Rimrock and everyone on it. It had to be taken care of.
“How early can you be ready?” he asked her.
“As early as you want.”
“Fine. But not here. Pick me up outside the Shop Mart.” She opened the door and swung her legs to the ground. “Good to see you, Sky. Maybe we'll get more time to catch up.”
Sky watched her walk around to the back door of the bar, where the stairs led up to the second floor. Some, maybe most, of Stella's waitresses had used that room to make extra cash as prostitutes. He wouldn't put it past Marie to be doing the same. The thought saddened him, but she was a grown woman, and after what had happened with Lute, he wasn't in the rescue business.
After she'd gone inside, he started up the truck and headed out of town. The marijuana was one thing. But Jasper was another. If the old man had diedâas he nearly hadâCoy would be guilty of murder, or at least manslaughter.
There was no way Sky could keep this secret from Beau and Will. Tomorrow he would tell them about the marijuana and how Jasper had supposedly been shot. Jasper would need to be told, too. If he chose to press charges, Coy's fate would be up to a jury.
He would have to tell the brothers about his property, too, Sky realized. It shouldn't be a big surprise, since they knew Bull had left him something in the will. But he'd hoped to keep it secret until he decided what to do with the land. No doubt they'd have plenty of suggestions.
Glancing down at the dashboard clock, he saw that it was after midnight. Had the red Maserati delivered Lauren back to her doorstep, or was she still “thanking” Josh Hardesty for his contribution to her father's campaign?
Sky cursed the rage that crackled like summer lightning through his veins. Jealousy was a waste of time and energy. If Prescott's spoiled princess daughter wanted to go out with an old
in a fancy car, that was her business. He had more urgent worries, enough to drive a sane man crazy. Lauren Prescott was just one more distractionâone he didn't need.
He would work with her horse because he'd promised, and because a good horse deserved better than to live in fear. But if she expected any more than a friendly fist bump from him, the lady was in for a letdown.
If he told himself he didn't want her, he'd be lying. The memory of pressing her against the desk, thrusting into that tight, hot silk while her voice urged him on, would burn him alive if he let it. But he was a man, with a man's pride and a man's responsibilities. Lauren could play her little games with somebody else.
Marie dragged her feet up the wooden stairs, bone weary after her grueling eight-hour shift. The dark stairwell smelled of cigarette smoke and stale urine. God, how she hated this place. But never mind that. She'd come here for a reason, with a plan she'd already set in motion.
Getting Sky's sympathy had been part of that plan. It was easily done. Sky had always been generous to a fault, too willing to see the good in people even where there was no good to be found. He'd believed in that dumb-ass Lute, and if she played her cards right, he would believe in her.
Not that she meant him any harm. Unlike her brothers, Sky had always been good to her. She wasn't ungrateful. But she wasn't above using his influence and his protection to her advantage. Tonight she'd fed him just enough truth to gain his trustâincluding the part about the recorder's office. The liesâand there'd been a fewâwould need fixing before she saw him again.
She'd never meant to bring Coy to Texas with her. But he was wanted in Oklahoma, and he'd insisted on coming. So far his presence had been a disaster. If she hadn't been hauling his lazy ass back from town on the bike, they would never have run into that old man and Marie wouldn't have had to shoot him. Now she feared Coy's big mouth would get them both in trouble. And trouble was the last thing she could afford right now.
From the upstairs hallway, she opened the door to her room. The day's heat came rushing out, along with the lingering odors of stale sex that rose from the mattress on the rusty metal bed. Marie hated that smell and what it meant. She'd done things she wasn't proud of, but she'd never been a whore.
Stepping inside, she opened the only window. With no cross-ventilation it didn't let in much air, but it was better than nothing. The room above the Blue Coyote was a shitty place to liveâthere was no better word for it. The only bathroom was downstairs in the bar. Needing it now, she took her key and went down the hall to the inside stairway.