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By Lisa Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Susan Lisa Jackson
All rights reserved.
So this was how the other half lived.
Brig McKenzie threw his denim jacket over the seat of his beat-up old Harley-Davidson. Squinting against the harsh sunlight, he glared at the groomed lawn that rose in tiered layers to the monstrosity of a house mounted upon the crest of a small hill. Rock walls supported each layer of clipped grass, and roses heavy with bloom splashed the grounds with color and scented the air. No dandelion or blossom of clover or thistle dared interrupt the thick green carpet of Buchanan grass.
This ranch — if that's what you'd call it — was a far cry from his own home, the single-wide trailer he'd shared with his mother and brother for most of his life. An orange crate shored up with two-by-fours sufficed as the front step, and dry weeds and crabgrass choked the gravel walkway. A metal sign, rusted with age, swung near the screened front window and boasted palm readings and psychic consultations by Sister Sunny. His ma. Part Cherokee and part Gypsy and the best damned mother a kid could ask for.
Gazing at the Buchanan house, he felt none of the jealousy that consumed his older brother, Chase.
"Christ, Brig, you should see that place," Chase had said on more than one occasion. "It's a mansion. A goddamned mansion complete with maids and cooks and even a chauffeur. Can you believe it? In Prosperity, Oregon, which is Hicksville, U.S.A., an honest-to-goodness chauffeur. Man, what a life." Chase had leaned across the scratched Formica table in the trailer's kitchen and whispered, "You know, I'd kill for a place like that!"
Brig wasn't all that impressed. He figured old man Buchanan had his own demons to deal with.
Now, he stared at the massive gray stone and cedar structure that was Rex Buchanan's home. Three rambling stories with gabled roofs, arched windows, decorative shutters and more chimneys than Brig cared to count. A monument built to a timber king.
Buchanan owned nearly everything and everyone in town, and to hear Brig's mother tell it, old Rex was practically a god on earth, but then his mother said a lot of things — strange, psychic things that bothered Brig. He didn't believe in all that astrological crap, and yet Sunny McKenzie had scored big-time on more than one of her predictions. It was spooky — gave him the creeps.
He didn't want to think of his beautiful mother, whose husband had walked out on her soon after Brig was born. Instead he concentrated on the vast acres of land that belonged to the Buchanans. Fences, painted stark white, split the countryside into smaller fields where expensive horses — mostly quarter horses from the looks of them — grazed on the dry summer grass. Sleek coats gleamed in the late afternoon light — brown, black, sorrel and bay — as the animals swatted flies with their tails. Gangly-legged half-grown foals tried to mimic their mothers and pick at the sun-bleached grass.
The ranch seemed to go on for miles, acre after acre of dry fields that rolled upward to the foothills, where thick stands of fir and cedar, the backbone of Buchanan's business, waited to be felled by the logger's ax. The timber on this spread alone was worth a fortune.
Yep, Rex Buchanan was one rich son of a bitch.
Brig glanced over his shoulder and found a tall man with weathered skin, sharp nose and deep-set gray eyes. Dressed as if he planned to do a little rodeo riding, one thumb hooked on a tattered belt loop of his dusty jeans, the man stepped out of the doorway of the stable and crossed the yard. "I'm Mac." He shoved his Stetson back on his head. Sweat ran down from his forehead. "The boss said you'd be showin' up." Mac's expression, one of silent distrust, didn't alter. He offered Brig a callused hand with a firm shake, but didn't let go. "I'm the foreman and I'll be watchin' you." His grip tightened just a fraction, squeezing Brig's hand to the point of pain. "I don't want no trouble here, boy." Finally, he released the vise of his fingers. "You got yourself a reputation in town; don't pretend that you don't know about it. The boss, well, he's into charitable causes and hard-luck cases, but I'm not. Either you pull your own weight around here and do as you're told or you're out. Got it?"
"Got it," Brig said, bristling under his work shirt. He should find it amusing, he supposed, the way everyone assumed that he was up to no good, but he didn't. Not today. He didn't like the idea of working for Buchanan, but in a town the size of Prosperity, he had little choice and he'd lost more than his share of decent jobs already. At nineteen he was nearly out of options. He gritted his teeth and told himself that he was lucky to be here, but a part of him, an inner rebellion that he couldn't quite tamp down, told him that working for Rex Buchanan was going to be the worst mistake of his life.
"Good." Mac clapped him on the shoulder. "Then we understand each other. Now, come on, I'll show you where you can start." He headed off for the stable, Brig at his heels. "I expect you here at five-thirty every morning and sometimes we'll work until it gets dark, at nine — ten o'clock. You'll get overtime. The boss is death on payin' a man his fair share, but you'll be expected to stay until whatever job we're doin' is done. Okay?"
"No problem." Brig couldn't hide the sarcasm in his voice and Mac stopped dead in his tracks.
"I'm not talkin' about just occasionally. In the summer we work nearly 'round the clock and you won't have much time for drinkin' or women." He threw open the door to the stable. Dust swirled in air thick with the smells of horses, dung, and urine. Flies buzzed against grimy windows and the temperature in the stable seemed to rise another five degrees. "Let's cut the crap, okay?" Facing Brig again, he jabbed a long, bony finger at Brig's chest. "I know about you, McKenzie. Heard all the stories. If it ain't stealin', it's booze, and if it ain't booze, it's women."
Brig's shoulder muscles bunched and his fingers coiled into fists, but he didn't say a word, just held the bastard's hard gaze.
"The women around here, they're ladies, and they don't need no riffraff from the wrong side of the tracks sniffin' at their skirts. One thing that's sure to piss off the old man is some randy young buck tryin' to get into his daughters' panties. And that doesn't begin to say what their older brother would do. Derrick's not someone you want to mess with; he's got a mean streak in him that runs real deep. He's on the possessive side and he won't take kindly to anyone tryin' to feel up his sisters. Miss Angela and Miss Cassidy, they're off limits, y'hear?"
"Loud and clear," Brig replied with a sneer. As if he'd want one of Buchanan's uppity daughters. He'd seen the older one in town, a flirt who knew she was drop-dead gorgeous and toyed with the randy boys that hung out at the Burger Shed. The younger girl wasn't near as pretty as her half sister, but she could look right through a man. Rumor had it she was a tomboy, liked horses more than she did boys, and couldn't control her sharp tongue. She was too young anyway, barely sixteen. Brig wasn't interested.
He hadn't had much contact with the Buchanan girls. The dark-haired tease had been shipped off to a Catholic school in Portland — St. Something-or-other — boarding there during the week, coming home only on the weekends to show off for the boys, and Cassidy was just too damned young and headstrong. Neither one was Brig's kind of woman. He liked them sexy but honest, horny but clever, with no plans for a future with him. He wasn't interested in rich women; they just spelled trouble. He'd leave the wealthy girls who were looking for a good time with the wrong kind of guy to his brother. Chase had a lust for wealth, expensive cars and rich women. Brig just didn't give a damn.
Mac was explaining what his responsibilities were: "... as well as hauling hay and helping with the combining. We'll be puttin' up fence over by Lost Dog Creek where it borders the Caldwell place and then you can work with the horses. From what I hear, you're supposed to know how to handle even the meanest of the lot." They walked through the back doors to stand in the shade of the building.
In the next paddock a spirited two-year-old colt was holding court. His head was high, nostrils quivering in the dry wind that swept through the valley, ears pricked forward to the east where a herd of fillies was grazing. The colt pawed the dry ground, threw his head back and let out a high whistle, then ran from one end of the paddock to the other, his tail streaming behind him like a red banner. "That there's Remmington ... well, Sir George Remmington the Third or some such shit. 'Sposed to be Miss Cassidy's horse, but he's just too damned headstrong. Threw her off two weeks ago, nearly caused her shoulder to separate, and yet she still insists she's gonna break him."
Mac patted his breast pocket, found a crumpled pack of Marlboros. "I don't know who's more stubborn, the horse or the gal. Anyway, Remmington will be your first project." The Marlboro wedged between his teeth, he slid a glance toward Brig and lit up. Smoke drifted out of Mac's nostrils. "You make sure that he's under control before Miss Cassidy tries to ride him again."
"I'm supposed to stop her if she tries?"
Grinning, Mac drew hard on his cigarette. "Ain't no one gonna stop her if she tries, but she had a bad fall. She ain't stupid. She'll wait."
The colt, as if sensing he had an audience, galloped to the far end of the paddock, where he kicked up a cloud of dust and reared, his front legs pawing the air.
Mac's eyes thinned. "He's a damned devil."
"I can handle him."
"Good." Mac looked skeptical but Brig would prove him wrong. He'd grown up around horses, hanging out at his Uncle Luke's ranch. Luke had let him learn the trade but had to sell out. Since then Brig had worked on a couple of other places and ended up being fired from each, not because he didn't do a decent job, but because he couldn't control his temper and let his fists do the talking. The last job, only two weeks before at the Jefferson place, was the worst. He'd ended up with a broken nose and bruised fist. The other guy, the one who had made the mistake of calling him the son of a "cheap Indian whore" before throwing a punch that Brig had sidestepped, was feeling the pain of Brig's wrath every time he took a breath, compliments of two broken ribs. No charges had been filed. Enough ranch hands had seen the fight to know that Brig wasn't to blame.
"Okay, so that's it." Mac crushed his cigarette beneath the toe of a scuffed cowboy boot, reached inside the door of the stable and dragged out a shovel. "You can start today by cleaning the stalls." A spark of malevolence gleamed in Mac's eyes as he tossed the shovel to Brig, who snatched it quickly out of the air. "As long as you do as I say, things'll be fine, but if I ever find out that you crossed me, you're out."
He turned to walk into the stable, but a man barely out of his teens, about the same age as Brig, blocked his path. Tall and muscular with suspicious blue eyes, he just stared at Mac. "Oh, this here's Willie. He can help you with the shovelin'."
Brig knew all about Willie Ventura. The town half-wit. A retarded boy whom Rex Buchanan had decided to take in and offer a job. Willie wasn't bad-looking, but his hair was always mussed, his shirt dirty, his mouth slack a lot of the time. He hung out in town drinking sodas at the Burger Shed or playing some kind of pool at Burley's — a local striptease joint.
"Willie," Mac said, "you'll be workin' with Brig from now on."
Willie's mouth worked a bit and his eyebrows drew over his eyes in a worried scowl. "Trouble," he said, motioning quickly in Brig's direction and avoiding his eyes.
"No, he's workin' here now. Boss's orders."
Willie wasn't happy. His thick lips pulled into a puckered little frown. "Big trouble."
Mac rubbed his chin and eyed Brig again. "Yeah, well," he said, "nothin' I can do about that."
Cassidy's shoulder throbbed, but she wasn't going to let any stubborn mule of a horse beat her. She downed two aspirins with a swallow of water, then dashed out of the bathroom, her boots ringing loudly on the bare steps of the back staircase. She was out the screen door before her mother could catch her. Racing down the hill to the stable, she ignored the fact that it was twilight, nearly dark. Night or day, it was time to teach that damned colt a lesson.
Sweat beaded on her forehead — the heat of the afternoon still lingering like a curse. Even the faint breeze had little effect on the temperature, which had been hovering near a hundred for most of the afternoon. The roses had begun to wilt in the heat despite the sprinklers that were pumping well water onto the dry beds. Yellow jackets, thirsty and mean, hovered near the sprinkler heads.
At the stable, she didn't bother with the lights; she could still see well enough and there was no reason to let her mother know what she was up to. Dena Buchanan would have a fit if she knew Cassidy was deliberately disobeying her. Again. Though she'd never said it, Cassidy was sure that her mother wanted her to be more like Angie, her half sister. Beautiful, boy-crazy Angela, who dieted to keep her waist tiny and brushed her long black hair until it gleamed. Her clothes came from the finest stores in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, where sometimes she'd been asked to model. With flawless skin, high cheekbones, pouty lips and eyes as blue as a summer sky, Angie Buchanan was, without a doubt, the most beautiful girl in all of Prosperity.
The boys were crazy for her and she teased them mercilessly, reveling in their adoration, lust and sexual frustration. Even Derrick seemed mesmerized around his sister.
It was enough to make Cassidy sick.
She yanked a bridle off a hook in the tack room and found Remmington in his stall. In the half-light his liquid eyes held a tiny spark of fire. Yep, this one liked a challenge. Well, so did she. "Okay, you mean old jackass," she said in her most coaxing tone, "it's time for you to learn a thing or two."
She slipped through the gate to the stall, stepped inside and sensed the tension in the air. The colt pawed the straw and snorted, the whites of his eyes showing in the darkness.
"You'll be all right," she said, slipping the bridle over his head and feeling his tense muscles quiver as she fiddled with the buckle. "We'll just take a nice little ride —"
A hand clamped over her forearm.
She yelped. Her heart nearly stopped. Spinning around, she started to scream before she recognized Brig McKenzie. Her father's latest acquisition. That thought bothered her. She'd heard stories about Brig and had admired his irreverent streak, never once believing that he, like everyone else in town, would eventually become a Buchanan possession.
Tall, broad-shouldered, with tanned skin and a nose that had been broken more than once, he glared down at her as if she'd done something wrong.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, trying to yank back her arm and failing.
"You know, that's exactly what I was gonna ask you." Furious blue eyes assessed her. Thin, nearly cruel lips drew flat over his teeth. She knew in a split second why so many girls in town found him dangerously sexy.
"I came here to get my horse and ride —"
"You think you can stop me?" she scoffed, unsettled by the way he was holding her, furious that he would try to tell her what to do. Truth to tell, she was more than a little embarrassed that he'd sneaked up on her without her hearing him, but she wasn't going to let that side of her show.
"It's my job."
"Remmington's your job? Since when?"
"Yesterday." His voice was rough and close, his breath much too warm as it whispered across her face. "Your dad hired me to train your horse."
"My dad hired you to work in the fields."
"And with this colt."
"I don't need any help."
"That's not the way I heard it."
"Then you heard wrong." She wrenched her arm away and winced as pain burned through her shoulder. "This is my horse and I'll do what I please with him."
A derisive snort. "The way I heard it, he does what he pleases with you."
"Get out of my way —" she warned, and to her mortification he laughed, low and sexy and without much real emotion. But he didn't move, just stood between her and the animal, looking for all the world like a range-tough cowboy, determined to have his way. His chin was hard and set, his eyes narrowed obstinately. He smelled of sweat, horses and leather along with the faint undercurrent of smoke.
Excerpted from Final Scream by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2005 Susan Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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