Nobody else was in the bar at night. Stella and her brother lived in an apartment across townâprobably a palace compared to this dump. Marie used the toilet and bent over the sink to wash. The single 40-watt bulb gleamed on the mirror that reflected her scarred face. Someday she'd have the money to get that scar removed. She'd have money for other things as wellâa hot car, pretty clothes, and her own condo. Lute had wanted those things, too. He'd died trying to get them. But she was a lot smarter than Lute. She had a planâone she was about to take to the next level.
She'd figured there was no hurry. But now that Sky was involved, time was running out. She would have to act tonight.
“You're home late. I hope that's a good sign.” Garn Prescott set his bourbon glass on the coffee table and rose as his daughter walked in through the front entry.
“Hardly.” Lauren sounded annoyed. Her rumpled blouse was missing a button. “We had a flat tire on the way home. I offered to help him change it, but he insisted on calling his auto club. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere for over an hour, waiting for them to show up.”
Prescott sighed. “Well, at least the time must have given you a chance to get better acquainted.”
“Oh, we got acquainted, all right, if that's what you want to call it. The wrestling match ended when I slapped his smarmy face! I hope you cashed that check he gave you. After tonight, I wouldn't put it past him to stop payment.”
Prescott had put the check in his wallet for his next trip to the bank. The thought that the funds might be blocked was enough to make his stomach churn. Maybe it was time he got one of those high-tech phone apps that let you snap a photo of the check and send it to the bank.
He squelched the urge to rail at his daughter. Didn't Lauren realize how much he needed the goodwill of the governor's family, to say nothing of the money?
At least Stella Rawlins's cash was safe in the bank. It wouldn't be a bad idea to call and thank her, maybe take her out to dinner. He preferred his women younger, like Tori Tyler, who'd been turning him down ever since his wife's death had made him a widower. But Stella's air of knowing sexuality intrigued himâalmost as much as her offer of more money for his strapped campaign.
“Did you have to antagonize the man, Lauren? Not that I expected you to sleep with him, but couldn't you have given him a little encouragement, maybe left him hoping for more?”
Lauren's shoulders sagged for an instant. Then her head came up. “God, I'm not even going to dignify that question with an answer!” She flung him a look of defiance. “What are you doing up so late, anyway? It's not like I'm still in high school.”
Prescott picked up the TV remote and clicked it on. “The local station gave me a deal on some airtime. I just want to make sure they're running my ad.”
He settled back on the sofa to watch. The ad was a rerun from his previous campaign two years ago. But what the hell, he hadn't changed that much and neither had his message. Anyway, who was going to see it in the middle of the night? When he got more money coming in, he'd shoot a new ad and buy some decent time to run it. But right now this was the best he could manage.
“What do you think, Lauren?” he asked. “How could I improve on this for the new ad? Would you be willing to say a few words on camera, maybe give the boys something to look at?”
There was no answer.
“Lauren?” He looked back toward the entry, where she'd been standing. His daughter was nowhere to be seen.
Lauren switched off the floodlights that illuminated the swimming pool behind the house. Cloaked in darkness, she walked to the water's edge. The night air was stifling, her skin sticky with sweat. Worse, she felt dirty, as if she'd just allowed herself to be sold. Maybe she hadn't delivered the goods. But Josh Hardesty had assumed she would. After all, he'd paid the price. He'd even implied as much the first time she'd shoved him away.
The smell of expensive leather, from the Maserati's sweat-dampened seats, clung faintly to her clothes. Her fumbling fingers peeled away her blouse and bra, her slacks and underwear. She kicked off her sandals, stepping free of the clothes that had bunched around her feet.
Never again, she vowed as the dark heat of shame crawled over her skin. This was the last time she would let guilt, filial duty, or even the need for peace goad her into playing politics for her father.
Maybe if she'd been born male, he would have cared more for her growing up. But Garn Prescott had never shown much interest in his daughter. And now that she was here, all he wanted was to use her. To hell with him.
Curling her toes over the tiled edge, she knifed into the pool. The water closed over her, cool, dark, and welcoming, shutting out the ugliness in the world. She swam deeper, lungs bursting with the urge to breathe. Was this how it had felt to Mike when heâ
But she mustn't think about that. Dwelling on the memory would only send her into another downward spiral. She couldn't let it happen again. She had to move on.
Like a fighter pilot pulling out of a dive, she kicked for the surface. Breaking free, she filled her lungs with air and stretched out to float on her back. High overhead, framed by an ocean of stars, the Milky Way spilled across the heavens. Starlight gleamed on her breasts where they rose above the water. Chilled by the deep dive, her nipples were darkly swollen, like ripe blackberries.
She imagined Sky looking down at her, touching her body with hypnotic hands as gentle as water. The thought lingered, triggering delicious twinges of memory. . . .
If she were to make a list of reasons she should stay away from Sky Fletcher, it would be a long one. And Sky's list of reasons to avoid her would be even longer.
They'd grown up in different worlds. She was a city girl. Sky was wedded to his life on the ranch with the horses he loved.
She was an heiress who loved designer clothes, gourmet restaurants, and posh surroundings. Sky's wealth lay in his utter lack of need for material things.
She was in limboâreaching, searching for something she couldn't even name. Sky knew exactly who he was and what he expected from life. She was an emotional train wreck. He was as solid as a granite boulder.
If discovered, their relationship would send her father into a screaming rage. Lauren couldn't care less. But she knew what the Tylers thought of Garn Prescott. A liaison with Prescott's daughter was a complication Sky didn't needâand wouldn't want.
Red flags and roadblocks all the way. Common sense told Lauren to heed the warning signs. But how could she, when she craved Sky's arms around her the way she'd craved air when she was underwater, holding her breath?
Would she see him tomorrow when she went to the Tylers', or would he find reasons to avoid her? They hadn't exactly parted on good terms. She'd sensed something was wrong earlier when they'd ridden away from the spring. Then, when Hardesty had shown up at the ranch house, she'd not only stood there and let the man treat Sky like a common hired hand but she'd joined in, dismissing him with an order to put away her horse.
What had she been thinking? Had she wanted to avoid a showdown? Protect Sky? Protect herself? Any way you looked at it, she'd handled the situation like a jerk. Sky was a proud man. What were the odds that he would never forgive her?
Early the next morning, when Sky stopped by the house to talk with Will and Beau, the brothers were gone. He found Bernice in the kitchen, spooning pancake batter onto a cast iron griddle for Erin's breakfast.
“They left twenty minutes ago in Beau's Jeep,” she told him. “Will said they were going up to check the cattle pens on the caprock. From there, they planned to drive to Lubbock and bring Jasper home.”
“Great news. This place hasn't been the same without him. Did Will give you any idea when they'd be back?”
Bernice scooped three golden pancakes off the griddle and dropped them onto Erin's plate. “They were hoping it might be before noon. But you've been in the hospital, Sky. You know how long getting out of there can takeâwaiting for the doctor, signing all that blasted paperwork. Want some pancakes?”
“Thanks, but I can't stay,” Sky said. Telling Beau and Will about the marijuana on his land would have to wait till tonight. Meanwhile, he had to pick up Marie in town and prepare for a nasty confrontation with Coy. He could only hope he wouldn't need the Smith and Wesson .38 he kept under the driver's seat of his truck.
Erin buttered her pancakes and drowned them in a lake of maple syrup. “Sky, can you help me work with Tesoro this morning?” she asked between bites.
Most days Sky enjoyed helping Will's daughter handle her precious palomino foal. But today the timing was wrong. “Sorry, but I need to go into town,” he said. “Remind me when I get back. I'll see what we can do then.”
“Okay. But promise me you won't forget.”
“I won't forget if you remind me, will I?” He flashed her a grin as he ducked out the kitchen door. Erin was a great kid. He liked knowing she was his niece, even though he'd never tell a soul. Later in the day he would try to make time for her. But right now he had darker concerns on his mind.
Marie was waiting outside the grocery store when he pulled up. She slid into the passenger side of the truck and slumped in the seat, her battered Stetson pulled low to shadow her face. “Let's get going,” she said.
Sky pulled onto Main Street and headed back toward the highway. “I think it's time you told me what all the sneaking around is about,” he said.
Marie didn't answer.
“I figured you didn't want anybody to know we were related, especially Stella. But I'm not okay with this, Marie. Tell me what you're up to.”
“You're so smart. You tell me.”
Sky touched the brake, letting a rabbit race across the road. The sun was up, the day already getting hot. “That's not how it works,” he said. “I've got a job and a reputation on the line. Since you're bent on dragging me into your mess, I need to know what's going on.”
“Why should I tell you when you don't give a shit about our family?”
“That's not true. I tried to help Lute. He ended up setting a fire, stealing two horses, and sending a little girl to the hospital. But even then, when he was cornered, I tried to save him. That's what got me shot.”
“Well, what about now?”
She was leading up to something. Sky met her words with silence, hoping she'd say more. At last she spoke again.
“Lute called me a couple of days before he died. He said Stella meant to kill himâshe wouldn't do it herself, but she'd send somebody else. That was her way. Do you believe that?”
“Pretty much,” Sky said. “But there's no evidence against the woman. She can't be arrested and charged without proof.”
“I don't need proof.” Marie's voice was leaden. “Lute was my brother and she had him killed. I'm here to make the bitch pay.”
The pickup's engine rumbled in the silence. Sky shifted into low gear as he turned the truck onto an unpaved side road. The going would be slow and dusty from here.
“How?” he asked.
“That depends. Right now the plan is to win her trust, take the time to learn all I can about her operation, then strike where it'll hurt her the most.”
“You could do it legally. Find enough evidence to turn her over to the law.”
“I could.” She rolled up the window to keep out the billowing dust. “But I don't have to if there's a way to do it fast and dirty.”
He had to give her credit, Sky conceded. Legal or not, going after Stella Rawlins took a lot of guts. But did Marie understand the depth of the danger?
“Be careful,” he said. “Stella's like a black widow spider with webs in places you'd least expect. Cross her and she can be deadly. Look what happened to Lute.”
“Lute didn't know what he was getting into. I do. And I'm smarter than he was.”
“I always thought you were smarter than all of your brothers put together,” Sky said. “And speaking of brothers, how does Coy fit into your plans?”
Marie leaned back in the seat and put one dusty boot on the dashboard. “Wasn't my idea to bring him along in the first place,” she said. “Sometimes I think I'd be better off without him. But he's here, and it would be a shame not to put him to use. Any suggestions?”
“Don't ask me.” In the distance, Sky could see the stand of mesquite that marked the boundary of his land. The uncleared scrub made it perfect for hiding an illegal crop. He could only hope Coy would leave without putting up too much of a fuss.
But knowing Coy, anything could happen.
Stopping fifty yards short of the property line, Sky parked in the open and pulled the hand brake. “Hope you don't mind getting out first,” he told Marie. “If Coy sees it's you, he's less apt to react.”
“No problem.” Marie swung out of the truck and strode across the expanse of dry grass. Sky took a moment to holster the pistol he'd brought. He didn't plan to shoot his cousin, but if Coy needed a little extra persuasion, a gun might come in handy.
“Coy, it's me!” Marie called out. “I've brought Sky!”
There was no response. She called again as Sky came even with her. Again, there was no answer.
“I don't like this,” Marie said. “Coy's usually up by now, and he's pretty alert.”
“Stay behind me.” Sky drew the pistol and cocked it. Moving into cover, he edged forward. This wild country, within easy reach of the border, was the haunt of illegals, fugitives, and drug gangs. He needed to be ready for anything.