Rady had warned her repeatedly. He'd told Savannah that the ghost town was dangerous, that it was a disturbing place. He'd told her over and over not to look for it. And all these years Savannah had stayed away. But the more her brother cautioned her, the more convinced she'd become that she had to find it. If for no other reason than the roses. Roses were Savannah's passion"especially old roses, planted before 1867 and now found mostly in cemeteries and abandoned homesteads.
It was because of the roses that she ignored Grady's advice and began to seek out the long-lost town.
After a six-week search, roaming about the rugged Texas hill country, first in the truck, then on horseback and finally on foot with no map and little information, she'd located it. Bitter End. What a strange name, but no stranger than the town itself.
No matter how furious Grady was when he discovered what she'd done, it'd been worth the risk. This certainly wouldn't be the first time she'd defied her older brother. Nor would it be the last. Grady seemed to carry the weight of the world on
his shoulders; he rarely smiled anymore. He was as loud and demanding as Savannah was quiet and intense. But her stubbornness was easily a match for his.
Glancing at the truck's speedometer, she pressed her foot to the floor, although it generally wasn't in her nature to rush. However, her chances of escaping Grady's anger were greater if she got back to the house before he returned from his duties around the ranch. Not that she feared his anger; she simply preferred to avoid it.
Her brother was so often angry these days, with beef prices dropping and all the other problems associated with running a large cattle ranch. It didn't help that, thanks to Richard, they continued to struggle with debt and financial hardship.
Savannah forced her thoughts away from the unhappy events of six years earlier. It was wrenching enough to have lost both parents in one devastating accident, but Savannah feared that their brother's betrayal, which had followed so soon afterward, would forever taint their lives with bitterness.
"Oh, Richard," she whispered as the truck sped down the winding country road. The pain he'd wrought in her life and Grady's was the kind that even love would never completely heal.
Grady had changed in the years since their parents' tragic deaths"and Richard's betrayal. Finances and other concerns had harassed and tormented him until she barely knew him any longer. Through sheer stubbornness and backbreaking work he'd managed to accomplish the impossible. He's saved the Yellow Rose Ranch, but at a terrible price. Grady had sacrificed himself and his youth to hold on to the land that had been settled by their great-great-grandfather shortly after the Civil War. Or, as her Southern grandmother called it, the War of the Northern Aggression.
Savannah had wanted to help with their finances; after all, she had a college education. It would be a small thing to return to school and take the necessary courses to obtain her teaching certificate. The Promise school board had repeatedly advertised for substitute teachers, and a full-time position was bound to become available within a few years. Grady, however, wouldn't hear of it. He needed her on the Yellow Rose, and Savannah accepted that. She handled the majority of the paperwork, cooked, cleaned the house and did the gardening. She'd indulged her love for roses, started keeping goats and occasionally hand-raised orphaned or abandoned calves. For six years she'd picked up the slack and made a decent life for herself. But compared to Grady, she didn't feel she was doing nearly enough.
Her desire to contribute to the family income had prompted her to establish a mail-order business for her roses, and while Grady had politely listened to her plans, he hadn't encouraged them. Her small venture was just now starting to show a profit, of which Savannah was extremely proud. In the past few months she'd been spending her evenings working on a catalog.
What Grady needed, in Savannah's opinion, was to marry and start a family. At thirty-five he was well past the age most men settled into family life. He probably would've done so long before now if he hadn't been required to dedicate every waking minute to the ranch. She wondered whether it was too late, whether he'd ever get married. Savannah herself had long since given up any hope of marriage and children. Her maternal urges would have to be satisfied by her animals, she told herself wryly. She'd turned thirty-one her last birthday and hadn't dated in the past four or five years. She rarely thought about having a relationship anymore. Men didn't understand her quiet ways or appreciate her strength or gentleness of spirit. It no longer mattered. She was content with her life. She'd learned to take pleasure in small things"the beauty of flowers, the affection of animals, the comfort of a well-ordered house.
Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets and pink evening primroses, all in bloom, lined the twisting road. Savannah loved spring. The scent of the air brought with it the promise of warm weather and new life. Grady and Wiley, the hired hand who'd been with them so many years he was more family than foreman, had assisted in delivering fourteen calves this week and were looking for that many more in the next couple of days.
Savannah glanced at her watch and hoped Grady had been delayed this afternoon. Otherwise he was going to have a conniption, especially when he realized where she'd gone.
Sighing, she turned the familiar bend in the road and caught sight of an abandoned truck parked close to the ditch. Savannah didn't recognize the vehicle; that in itself was unusual. People who didn't know the area hardly ever wandered this far off the beaten path.
The truck had seen better days. The color had faded badly and a large dent in the side revealed a section where rust had eaten a hole the size of a small plate. With the truck parked as it was, fifteen miles outside of town, far from anywhere, Savannah couldn't help wondering if something was wrong. She might have stopped to investigate if she hadn't been in a hurry.
The decision was taken from her a few miles down the road when she saw a cowboy walking, carrying a saddle. Even from this distance she could see how weary he was; he seemed to be favoring one side, limping discernibly. At the sound of her approach, he straightened, shifted the weight of his saddle and stuck out his thumb.
Never in all her life had Savannah stopped for a hitchhiker, but this man, miles from anywhere and walking in the opposite direction from town, must have been spent.
Savannah pulled over and eased to a stop. She opened the door and climbed out. "Is that your truck parked back there?"
"Yes, ma'am," he answered politely. He was tall and wiry, about her age, she guessed. His Stetson rested low on his brow, shading his face from the afternoon sun. When he touched his fingers to the brim in greeting, she noticed that his eyes were pale blue. "I'd be much obliged for a ride."
Although she'd stopped, Savannah hesitated, unsure what to do. "I wasn't headed toward town."
"As far as you'd take me would be appreciated. Your truck's the first vehicle to come along in more'n two hours." He gave her a tired smile. "I'd hoped to find a ranch and use the phone there, but I haven't seen one yet."
Apparently he didn't realized he was walking away from Promise. "I live ten or so miles down the road." Shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun, she pointed toward the Yellow Rose. Riding with her would only take him farther from where he needed to go. She was about to explain as much, then realized he was tired, hurting and probably hadn't eaten a decent meal in hours, if not days. Grady wouldn't be pleased, butâ€¦ She shrugged off the prospect of her brother's wrath.
"If you like, you can stay the night in the bunkhouse and I'll drive you to town in the morning."
She could tell that her offer surprised him; his eyes widened briefly. "That's mighty kind of you, ma'am."
The fact that he called her ma'am made her feel dowdy and old-fashioned. She supposed that was exactly what she was, though. No one had to tell her she looked older than her age. She usually wore full-length dresses rather than the more fashionable shirt and jeans; her mother had encouraged this, saying that dresses complimented her tall willowy figure. She'd grown accustomed to working in them, donning an apron for household chores. Her thick straight blond hair fell down her back, almost to her waist. Grady had teasingly called her a flower child of the sixties, and in some ways, she did resemble a hippie.
"I'm Savannah Weston."
"Laredo Smith." Again he touched the brim of his hat.
"Pleased to meet you," she said and smiled shyly. "Laredo's an unusual name."
He grinned as if the comment was familiar. "So I've heard." He hitched the saddle higher and added, "My given name's Matthew, but when I was a kid and we moved away from Texas, I wanted to take part of it with me. From that day on I only answered to Laredo. After all these years, I don't know who Matthew is, but Laredoâ€¦well, it's a comfortable fit and suits me just fine."
Savannah couldn't have said why, but she had the impression that these details weren't something he shared often. She told herself it was silly to feel honored"but she did, anyway.
She must have smiled because he responded with a grin of his own. It amazed her how a simple smile could transform his drained features. A hint of something warm and kind showed in his sun-weathered face, mesmerizing her for a moment. A little shocked by her own response, Savannah decided she was being fanciful and looked away. Laredo Smith was a stranger and she'd do well to take care.
"If you'd like, you can put your saddle in the truck bed," she offered and walked to the back to lower the tailgate.
The leather creaked as he lifted it from his shoulder and wearily set it down. He hesitated when he saw the roses and reached out a callused hand toward the fragile buds. Gently he fingered a delicate pink petal.
"These are antique roses, aren't they?" He closed his eyes and breathed in the distinctive perfumed scent of the flowers.
His knowledge surprised her. Few people knew about old roses or had heard the term. In her research Savannah had learned that many of the roses found in Texas were of unknown lineage, recovered from hidden corners and byways in an ongoing search-and-rescue mission"like the one she'd been on that very day. Savannah was well aware that some would describe her as a "rose rustler"; it wasn't how she thought of herself. Her overwhelming motivation was her love of the flowers.
"You know about old roses?" she asked.
"My grandmother had a rose garden and she grew roses passed down by her own grandmother. It must be at least twenty years since I saw one. Where'd you ever find these?"
Her pause was long enough for him to notice. "In an old graveyard," she said. "Near, um, an abandoned town." While it was the truth, it wasn't the entire truth, but Savannah didn't dare add any details about the ghost town. Only a few people in Promise had even heard of Bitter End. And although Grady had repeatedly warned her against seeking it out, he'd never told her exactly what was so threatening about the long-deserted town.
Only now did Savannah understand her brother's concerns. The dangers weren't found in the crumbling buildings or the abandoned wells; no, they weren't so easily explained. She couldn't help shuddering as she remembered the sensation ofâ€¦darkness that had come over her when she'd first set foot on the still, silent grounds. Even that didn't adequately describe the emotions she'd experienced. It wasn't a feeling of evil so much as a pressing sadness, a pain and grief so raw that a hundred years hadn't dimmed its intensity.
Knowing little of the town's history, Savannah had felt defenseless and almost afraid. Years earlier, Grady and two of his friends had heard their parents discussing Bitter End, but when Savannah questioned her mother, she'd refused to talk about it. From Grady, Savannah had learned that the town was said to have been settled by Promise's founding fathers. Why they'd moved, what had happened to prompt the relocation, was an unsolved mystery. For all she knew, it was something as mundane as water rights. Although that would hardly account for what she'd felt".
Despite Grady's warnings, Savannah had found Bitter End and dug up the old roses in the graveyard, but she hadn't ventured beyond the fenced area beside the church. She left as quickly as she could. By the time she made it back to the truck, she was pale and trembling.
She'd driven away without looking back. She hadn't investigated any of the other buildings, and she was annoyed now for letting the opportunity pass. She might have found more old roses had she taken the time to search.
"They're beautiful," Laredo said. The light pink bud, perfectly formed, lay like a jewel in the palm of his hand.
"They truly are exquisite, aren't they?" The sheer joy and excitement she'd felt on discovering the roses quickened her voice. "I just couldn't be happier! It's so much more than I hoped to find!"
His gaze held hers and he nodded, seeming to share her enthusiasm.
Warming to her subject, Savannah added, "It's incredible to think they've survived all these years without anyone to care for them."
Laredo gently withdrew his hand from the rosebud. "Would you be more comfortable if I rode in the back, ma'am?" he asked.
"Savannah," she insisted.
The smile returned again, briefly. "Savannah," he echoed.
"You're welcome to ride in front with me."
He climbed slowly into the cab and she could see that the action pained him considerably.
"I don't suppose you know anyone who's looking for a good wrangler?" he asked.