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By Shirlee Busbee
Warner BooksCopyright © 2003 Shirlee Busbee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStanding on her small deck at the rear of the house and staring out at the hot, dry landscape below her, Roxanne Ballinger decided that she hated September in Oak Valley. And August and probably July, too. The valley was seared by the heat, the pastures were eaten down, and the hay fields shorn of their crops lay fallow and burnt amber and yellow by the sun, except, she reminded herself, those places in the valley where the water table was high and the land stayed green all year. She made a face. Too bad her newly acquired house didn't overlook that area-it'd be nice to stare out at green fields this time of year. Then she shrugged. But if she overlooked those fields, she wouldn't have such a majestic view of Mt. Sebastian in the distance and all the other smaller mountains and hills that tumbled down to the valley floor on its eastern side.
This was not, she admitted, the valley's most attractive time of the year ... at least she didn't think so. And she wondered, not for the first time, what the hell she was doing here. And with a house of her own. She glanced back at the small A-frame building and amended her thought: a cabin of her own. She should be in New York. Tucked comfortably away in her elegant air-conditioned Park Avenue penthouse apartment. Looking forward to all the fabulous entertainment the city had to offer, anticipating the pulsating excitement she'd find on the crowded streets, ready to be seduced by the glamour and vitality of the city. Everything she could humanly want would be at her fingertips. And if she didn't want to venture out, a telephone call would bring all that the city had to offer right to her doorstep: clothes, food, jewelry, handsome men ...
Thinking of the last handsome man who had shared her life, she grimaced. Todd Spurling was an executive editor at one of the major New York publishing houses and their affair had lasted for a grand total of almost five weeks. They'd met this past June at one of the glittering pub parties being held for the launch of some celebrity biography and it had been, she admitted, lust at first sight. As one of the top models in the business, her face had often adorned the covers of such magazines as Cosmo, Vogue, and the like, and justly famous for her generous display of scantily clad limbs in the Victoria's Secret catalog, she was often seen at these sorts of parties. The life of a celebrity, she had discovered, was as much about seeing as being seen and since she was considered one of the "beautiful people" she was invited everywhere. She had nearly refused to attend the party. She'd been unsettled and restless, having just returned from Oak Valley and her brother Sloan's wedding. She almost stayed home that night-the idea of being just another body in another scintillating crowd didn't appeal to her-a feeling she had been experiencing more and more over the past couple of years. But in the end she decided that a night of rubbing shoulders with the famous and want-to-be-famous might be more enjoyable than staring at the walls of her apartment.
She had not gone to the party looking for romance. She snorted. Good God, no! In fact, she had been in a surly mood and rather off men in general. Not that she didn't like men-she did. It was just that lately she'd begun to think that men were really more trouble than they were worth. Maybe, she thought with a sigh, she'd just reached that point in life where she wanted to concentrate on what she wanted, without having to consider what someone else might like-or not. Making the decision to move back to Oak Valley had been a big one and quite frankly, she didn't want the distraction of a man in her life. Then she'd met Todd Spurling ... Todd who was every woman's dream: urbane, considerate, polite, and utterly smitten with her. Todd had also been tall, handsome, blond, broad-shouldered, and had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen and the moment their eyes had met ... Her lip curled. The moment their eyes met she started thinking with a another part of her anatomy than her brain. Apparently Todd had, too, because in less than a month after meeting, they'd been living together in her apartment. And less than a week after that, she'd tossed him out on his gorgeous buns-his gorgeous married buns, disgusted as much with herself as with him.
Roxanne shook her head, her glorious blue-black mane of hair glistening like a raven's wing in the hot sunlight. You'd think at my age, I'd know better, she thought wryly. You'd think that after nearly twenty years of living in the fast lane that I'd learn not to be so impulsive, that at the wise old age of thirty-eight, I'd not be so willing to fling caution to the winds and just leap into the nearest brawny pair of arms. Finding out that Todd had been married, something he had conveniently forgotten to mention when they had been falling into bed together, had been a blow to her pride and her esteem. She had been horrified. For all of her wild reputation, and despite gossip and innuendo to the contrary, married men had been completely off her list. And while gossip and rumor had her sleeping with a new lover every week, the truth of the matter was that there hadn't been that many. She thought about it. Less than a handful. Maybe. She'd always been more cautious about sex than some of her contemporaries. Being raised in Oak Valley did that to a person. Even among the wealthy and powerful Ballinger clan, values considered these days to be old-fashioned had been the rule and though she had shaken the dust of the valley from her feet at nineteen, the mores of the valley had been a little harder to put behind her. Besides, with all the diseases out there, she'd never jumped into bed with just anyone. So why had she acted differently with Todd?
She bit her lip. She wasn't promiscuous. She'd never been promiscuous, not even in her rambunctious twenties when she'd been so greedy and eager to experience life and all it had to offer-so eager to gain polish and sophistication, determined to show the world that she wasn't just a beautiful bumpkin from some hokey place in the sticks. Sure, she'd made some mistakes. She wouldn't deny that. She'd been young, confident, OK, maybe arrogant, certainly convinced that the world was hers for the taking. She'd been like a kid given free rein in a candy store and face it, New York was some kind of candy store for a young woman raised in a place without a stoplight, let alone neon lights and nary a Burger King or mall in sight. She could justify some of those early mistakes, but the affair with Todd Spurling shook her. She'd simply taken one look into those mesmerizing blue eyes of his and ... She snorted. And acted like a silly teenager in love for the first time. But it hadn't been love-she'd retained enough sense to realize that fact. It had been ... Oh, what the hell-it had been stupid and reckless and totally unlike her. Maybe she'd still been all dreamy-eyed from watching Sloan and Shelly exchange their wedding vows and for one wild moment, when she'd looked up into Todd's face, she'd thought to find the same love shared by her brother and his bride. She shook her head. Which was really stupid and pathetic. And impulsive-something she'd always been. She took a deep breath. She was going to try very hard not to be impulsive anymore-especially when it came to men. She didn't need a man in her life, especially not right now when she was embarking on a whole new adventure. She smiled. An impulsive one at that.
Her gaze fell to the valley floor. So here she was. Back in Oak Valley. A place she couldn't get away from fast enough nearly twenty years ago, but now ... It was odd, she thought, how after all those years of being happily swept along by the glamour and excitement found in all those famous cities across the world, London, Paris, Madrid, and Athens, she found herself drawn more and more to the tranquility and predictability of Oak Valley. Where once she'd forced herself to return home for short visits every other year or so, the past couple of years, those visits had been increasing in both frequency and duration, the longing for the valley reaching out across the distances and tugging at hidden places in her heart. She had discovered amusements that had once held her enthralled were now boring and mundane. She smiled crookedly. Words she had once used to describe Oak Valley. Funny how life turned around on you. Now it was everywhere else that was boring and mundane and Oak Valley that held an irresistible appeal.
At first, she'd put this longing for the valley down as a whim, but instead of the need to be here decreasing, she'd found that it had grown. She was, she realized, tired of being Roxanne-the face and body that sold millions of magazines, and no doubt an equal number of pairs of scanty underwear-she wanted to be plain old "Roxy," the oldest Ballinger daughter. Sloan's sister. And Ross and Ilka and Sam's sister. She wanted to wear worn blue jeans and scuffed boots and wander into Heather-Mary-Marie's, the local gift store, and be greeted by half a dozen people who had known her since she had been born and who were not the least impressed by her face, body, and reputation. She wanted a life that didn't involve always being "on," always photographed, always gossiped about ... She grinned. Well, that was going too far. The valley gossip was legendary and she was quite certain that her purchase of a dead, reputed marijuana grower's property was currently the hot topic of conversation everywhere in the valley. Her grin widened. At least she'd taken some of the heat off of Sloan and Shelly and given the residents something new to speculate about.
The marriage of Sloan Ballinger to Shelly Granger in June had set the valley on its ear. Not only because of the swiftness with which the courtship had progressed but the very fact that a Ballinger was marrying a Granger. The Ballinger/Granger feud was the valley's favorite legend-though it had been a series of conflicts rather than one specific incident. Ballingers and Grangers just naturally took opposite positions ... on any thing. While most of the ugliness had happened decades ago, every time a Ballinger and Granger came face-to-face, the valley collectively held its breath and with bright, eager eyes watched to see if sparks would explode out of thin air. Mostly they did, but sometimes, as in the case of Sloan and Shelly ... Roxanne smiled wistfully. In the case of Sloan and Shelly magic happened.
She gave herself a shake and turned back to the house. Cabin, she amended, and again wondered what the devil she'd been thinking of when she'd bought it. It wasn't as if the Ballingers didn't own thousands of acres in the valley and foothills and mountains surrounding the valley that she could have chosen to settle on. Nor was it as if she wasn't more than welcome to stay as long as she pleased in the family mansion and childhood home on the valley floor-her parents would be thrilled. And if she had wanted, her father, Mark, would have built her a place of her own on one of the many parcels of land owned by the family. She hadn't needed to buy six hundred forty acres, an entire square mile, of mostly useless, mountainous terrain on the west side of the valley. It wasn't, even she would admit, a fabulous piece of land, altogether she probably had only about eighty acres that could be called flat-and that was stretching the word "flat." The rest of the land was sheer, forested hillside with small benches of gently rolling ground here and there-included in the eighty acres of "flat" ground. It wasn't even great timberland-too much underbrush, blackberry vines, buck brush, manzanita, with oaks and madrones intermixed with the pine and fir. But it was hers, she thought with pride. Hers. Bought with her own money. Not family money. She didn't have to share it with a damn person. It was hers. And as for the cabin that came with the place ...
Roxanne was positive that no other self-respecting Ballinger, except herself, would have considered the rough wood-framed building a prospective home. She laughed to herself. Call her crazy-her sister, Ilka, already had and her parents, their expressions askance, had asked her at least a dozen times if she was sure that this was what she wanted. She had assured them that yes, she really did want the place. The land had its own beauty, but she loved the cabin. It had, she had pointed out to her stunned family, potential. It wasn't big, but it had everything she wanted-or soon would have once she added on and remodeled. Of course she could understand their reaction-the place had sat empty for months and local vandals had broken in several times and practically torn the place apart. Not content with wreaking destruction on the cabin, they'd also prowled around and punched out a few walls in the small pump house and the falling-down shack that served as a garage. Roxanne shook her head. They'd really done a number on the place-not one structure had escaped their mark. It had taken several days of hard, sweaty work to make the cabin almost livable-if you ignored the damage to the walls and floors-which Roxanne did-the remodeling would take care of that. As for the other buildings, she dismissed them. The garage would be torn down and a new one built and the same went for the pump house-the damage done to them she could live with for the time being.
Built at the very edge of one of those benches, the cabin was perched nearly three thousand feet above the valley floor. From the deck and from the east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, she had stupendous views; the main level was one spacious room, except for the small kitchen area, a bedroom the size of a closet, and a tiny bathroom tucked into a corner. The upper floor had a larger bathroom and two rooms. The decor left something to be desired, but she had no doubt that with a lot of elbow grease and a full checkbook, she'd have it looking just the way she wanted in no time at all.
At the moment, with the exception of a chaste twin bed, a battery-run lamp, an oak end table, a portable CD player, and a new side-by-side almond-colored refrigerator/freezer, set up to run on propane, the place was empty. The original kitchen consisted of a battered stainless-steel sink, propane stove/oven, and a couple of metal cabinets. Her nose wrinkled. Marijuana growers apparently didn't do much cooking.
Of course, she reminded herself, it hadn't been proven that the former owner, Dirk Aston, had really been a marijuana grower-that'd merely been the conclusion of the valley residents.
Excerpted from Coming Home by Shirlee Busbee Copyright ©2003 by Shirlee Busbee. Excerpted by permission.
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