Read an Excerpt
Wolf Creek, Montana
Jessie McCloud shivered in the raw wind that blew down from the buttes, carrying a spatter of raindrops that felt like ice against her tear-dampened cheeks. She struggled to stifle her sobs but succeeded only in hiccupping as she tried to swallow the sound.
Flanked by her two tall teenage brothers, she clutched their hands, squeezing harder.
Seventeen-year-old Chase bent toward her. "Are you okay, Jessie?"
She nodded, glancing fearfully over her shoulder at the Montana State Department of Corrections Officer who stood several feet behind them. The uniformed man's expression was stern, his gaze fixed on the mahogany casket and gravesite beyond.
Jessie turned back, focusing on the velvety petals of the red roses with their lush green leaves resting on top of the casket. She'd adored her Grandpa Angus and could hardly believe he was gone. No longer would he tell her stories and share the butterscotch candy he always had tucked away in his jacket pocket. No longer would he tease her and laugh at her riddles.
She looked up at her brother Luke, who held her right hand. His face was grim as he stared toward the mourners on the far side of the grave. Curious, her gaze followed his and located their grandfather's widow, Laura Kerrigan-McCloud, surrounded by her family.
Jessie's eyes narrowed over the small group of Kerrigans.
Her grandfather had married Laura Kerrigan when they were both elderly and their hair snowy-white. He'd loved her dearly and wed her despite the objections of her family and his. The feud between the McClouds and the Kerrigans had begun in 1922, when a crooked poker game cost a McCloud 2500 acres of prime land. But her Grandpa Angus was the first to die as a result of the enmity between the two families, indirect though it was.
Jessie had overheard Luke telling their father he was convinced Grandpa Angus had died of a broken heart. He loved his grandchildren and when Chase went to jail, Luke believed, Angus had grieved himself to death.
Jessie hated all the Kerrigans but the one she hated most wasn't there. Lonnie was nearly seventeen, the same age as Chase, but he was a bully, the opposite of her big brother in every way. Lonnie had caused the death of Chase's best friend, Mike Harper, in a car accident that had left Chase hospitalized with two broken ribs and a concussion. Backed by his father, Harlan, Lonnie had lied and convinced the police and courts that Chase had been the driver of the wrecked pickup truck. Chase, convicted of negligent homicide, had been sentenced to jail.
It was so unfair. She vowed to become a lawyer and send all the Kerrigans responsible for the injustice, especially Lonnie and his father, to prison. She wouldn't give up until she'd set things right.
The wind picked up, sweeping down from the buttes behind the cemetery to ruffle the short spikes of spring grass that were bright green threads among winter's dried yellow stalks. The raw breeze carried rain, and umbrellas snapped open.
"Our Father, Who art in Heaven..." The minis-ter's voice was joined by Jessie's mother's, her tear-filled recitation of the familiar words trembling in the air. Unable to speak, Jessie gripped Luke's and Chase's hands tighter. Their much-larger hands were roughened by calluses, enfolding her cold, smaller ten-year-old fingers in warmth and security. Bracketed by her tall teenage brothers, she struggled to keep the sobs inside but the effort made her chest hurt and her eyes sting as grief clamored for release.
The prayer ended and the crowd of mourners on the far side of the casket stirred, murmuring while they lined up to follow the minister as he approached her parents.
All but the Kerrigans. Laura, Harlan and his widowed sister-in-law, Judith, and her two children, Rachel and Zach, climbed into a luxury sedan and drove off, leaving the cemetery.
I hate you all. Jessie vowed fiercely, You'll pay for hurting my family. I swear on Grandpa's grave.
"Jessie," her mother said softly.
A tear rolled unheeded down Jessie's cheek and she obeyed the silent invitation of her mother's outstretched arm. Releasing her brothers' hands, she moved to her mother's side and nestled against the slightly damp wool coat. Margaret McCloud slipped her arm around her daughter's shoulders and tucked her close.
The stream of mourners offering hushed words of condolence seemed to go on forever but finally the last person turned away.
"It's time, son." The corrections officer stepped forward, resting his hand on Chase's shoulder.
No! He couldn't take Chase, not now. Jessie sucked in a breath and held it, her muscles rigid with the effort to not cry. Her vision wavered as she watched the big brother she adored hug her mother and father and say goodbye. Then it was her turn. The tears slipped past her defenses.
Sobbing, she flung herself at Chase and wrapped her arms around him, desperate to keep him with her.
Chase's tight hug and the feel of his hand as he smoothed her hair was heartbreakingly dear and familiar. She couldn't make her fingers release him but at last, he pried her fists free of his coat and stepped back.
Jessie felt ripped in two. The next few moments were a blur as her brother said goodbye. Far too quickly, the marked police car was driving away, leaving Jessie, Luke and their parents standing alone by the gravesite.
I hate the Kerrigans, she thought fiercely, fists clenched, as she stared after the police car taking her brother away.
Wolf Creek, Montana Late summer, 15 years later
"Zach Kerrigan is back in town."
Jessie McCloud froze, all her attention focused on the voices of the women in the next grocery aisle.
"I know. Stacey saw him buying gas at Keeler's Truck Stop two days ago. She said he hasn't changed, in fact, he looks better than he did in high school. She was almost hyperventilating while she was telling me."
Feminine laughter floated over the shelves. Jessie stood motionless in the cereal aisle, clutching a forgotten box of granola mix.
"And he wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but she didn't have a chance to ask him whether he was involved with anyone."
"I hope not," the first speaker said. "But one of us should find out. Why don't you..." The voice faded, the two women obviously moving away down the aisle.
Zach's home. Jessie felt shell-shocked. When did he come back? How long has he been here? She'd been out of town herself for the last two and a half weeks, visiting a college friend in Wyoming, but she'd spoken to her parents several times while she was gone. Her mother hadn't said a word about Zach's return to Wolf Creek.
"Mommy? Can we buy this cereal?"
The little-boy treble, followed by a tug on her khaki shorts, broke the spell that held Jessie and she looked down. Her three-year-old son, Rowdy, clutched a box of cereal against his middle with one arm while his right hand gripped the hem of her shorts. She forced a smile. "Sorry, Rowdy. What did you ask me?"
"Can we get this one?" He released her to grasp the box with two hands and hold it up for her inspection. The bright colors of a superhero's costumed body splashed across the front panel.
"Sorry, kiddo." Jessie shook her head. "That's about ninety-five percent sugar and five percent wheat. Let's try this one."
Rowdy scowled, clearly disappointed. "But Mom, this is what all the superheroes eat."
"And just how do you know, young man? Have you been watching cartoons with Uncle Chase and Uncle Luke again?"
"Yup." The little boy grinned, his face lighting with mischief.