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McKettrick land, Cheyenne Bridges thought stoically, as she stood next to her rented car on a gravel pullout alongside the highway, one hand shading her eyes from the Arizona sun. A faint drumbeat throbbed in her ears, an underground river flowing beneath her pulse, and she remembered a time she could not have remembered. An era when only the Great Spirit could lay claim to the valleys and canyons and mesas, to the arch of the sky, blue as her grandmother's favorite sugar bowla cherished premium plucked from some long-ago flour sackto the red dirt and the scattered stands of white oak and Joshua and ponderosa pine.
It had taken Angus McKettrick, and other intrepidly arrogant nineteenth-century pioneers like him, to fence in these thousands of square miles, to pen their signatures to deeds, to run cattle and dig wells and wrest a living from the rocky, thistle-strewn soil. Old Angus had passed that audacious sense of ownership on to his sons, and the sons of their sons, down through the generations.
McKettricks forever and ever, amen.
Cheyenne bit her lower lip. Her cell phone, lying on the passenger seat of the car, chimed like an arriving elevatorNigel again. She ignored the insistent sound until it stopped, only too aware that the reprieve would be fleeting. Meanwhile, the land itself seemed to seep into her heart, rising like water finding its level in some dank, forgotten cistern.
The feeling was bittersweet, a complex tangle of loneliness and homecoming and myriad other emotions she couldn't readily identify.
She had sworn never to come back to this place.
Never to set eyes on Jesse McKettrick again.
And fate, in its inimitable way, was forcing her to do both those things.
An old blue pickup passed on the road, horn honking in exuberant greeting. A trail of cheerfully mournful country music thrummed in its wake, and the peeling sticker on the rear bumper read Save The Cowboys.
Cheyenne waved, self-conscious in her trim black designer suit and high heels. This was boots-and-jeans country, and she'd stand out like the proverbial sore thumb the moment she drove into town.
Welcome home, she thought ruefully.
The cell chirped again, and she picked her way through the loose gravel to reach in through the open window and grabbed it.
"It's about time you answered," Nigel Meerland snapped before she could draw a breath to say hello. "I was beginning to think you'd fallen into some manhole."
"There aren't any manholes in Indian Rock," Cheyenne replied, making her way around to the driver's side and opening the door.
"Have you contacted him yet?" Nigel didn't bother with niceties like "Hi, how are you?" either in person or over the telephone. He simply demanded what he wantedand most of the time, he got it.
"Nigel," Cheyenne said evenly, "I just got here. So, no, I have not contacted him." Him was Jesse McKettrick. The last person in this or any other universe she wanted to seenot that Jesse would be able to place her in the long line of adoring women strung out behind him like the cars of a derailed freight train.
"Well, you're burning daylight, kiddo," Nigel shot back. Her boss was in his late thirties and English, but he liked using colorful terms, with a liberal smattering of cliches. Westernisms, he called them. "Let's get this show on the road. I don't have to tell you how anxious our investors are to get that condo development underway."
No, Cheyenne thought, sitting down sideways on the car seat, constrained by her tight skirt and swinging her legs in under the steering wheel, you don't have to tell me. I've heard nothing else for the last six months.
"Jesse won't sell," she said. Realizing she'd spoken the thought aloud, she closed her eyes, braced for the inevitable response.
"He has to sell," Nigel countered. "Failure is not an option. Everythingand I mean everythingis riding on this deal. If the finance people pull out, the company will go under. You won't have a job, and I'll have to crawl back to the ancestral pile on my knees, begging for the scant privileges of a second son."
Cheyenne closed her eyes. Like Nigel, she had a lot at stake. More than just her job. She had Mitch, her younger brother, to consider. And her mother.
The bonus Nigel had promised, in writing, would give them all a kind of security they'd never known.
The pit of her stomach clenched.
"I know," she told Nigel bleakly. "I know."
"Get cracking, Pocahontas," Nigel instructed, and hung up in her ear.
Cheyenne opened her eyes, pressed the end button with her thumb, drew a deep breath and released it slowly. Then she tossed the phone onto the other seat, started the engine and headed for Indian Rock.
The town hadn't changed much since she'd left it at seventeen, bound for college down in Tucson. There was the dry cleaners, the library, the elementary school. And the small, white-steepled church where she'd struggled to understand Commandments and arks and burning bushes, and had placed quarters, after unwrapping them carefully from a cheap cloth handkerchief, in the collection plate.
She sat a little straighter in the seat as she drove the length of Main Street, signaled and turned left at the old train depot, long since converted to an antiques minimall. The rental car bumped over the railroad tracks, past progressively seedier trailer courts, through a copse of cottonwood trees.
The narrow beams of the ancient cattle guard rattled under the tires.
Cheyenne gave a grateful sigh when the car didn't fall through and slowed to round the last bend in the narrow dirt road leading to the house.
Like the single and double-wides she'd just passed, the place had gone downhill in her absence. The lawn was overgrown and coils of rusty barbed wire littered the ground. The porch sagged and the siding, scavenged and nailed to the walls without regard to color, jarred the eye.
Gram had been so proud of her house and yard. It would break her heart to see it now.
Her mother's old van, a patchwork affair like the house, stood in the driveway with the side door open.
Cheyenne had hoped for a few days to settle in before her mother and brother arrived from Phoenix, and at least put in a ramp for Mitch's wheelchair, but it wasn't to be. Her heart fluttered with anticipation, then sank.
She put the rental in Park and shut off the motor, surveying the only real home she'd ever had.
"I'll show you an ancestral pile, Nigel," she muttered. "Just hop in your Bentley and drive on up to Indian Rock, Arizona."
The front door swung open just then, and Ayanna Bridges appeared on the porch, wearing a faded cotton dress, high-topped sneakers and a tentative smile. Her straight ebony hair fell past her waist, loosely restrained by a tarnished silver barrette she'd probably owned since the 1960s. When her mother started toward the rickety steps, Cheyenne got out of the car.
"Look," Ayanna called, pointing. "I found some old boards out behind the shed and dragged them around to make a ramp. Mitch whizzed right up to them like he was on flat ground."
Life had forced Ayanna to be resourceful. Makeshift ramps for her son's wheelchair were the least of her accomplishments. She'd waited tables, often pulling two shifts, grappled with various social-service agencies to get Mitch the medical care he needed, sold cosmetics and miracle vitamins, all without a twinge of self-pityat least, not one she'd ever allowed her children to see.
Cheyenne scrounged up a smile. Pretended to admire the pair of teetering, weathered two-by-fours, each with one end propped on the porch floor and one disappearing into the weedy grass. Doubtless, Mitch had used them to alight from the van, too.
Ifwhenthe bonus came through, Cheyenne planned to buy a new van, specially equipped with a hydraulic lift and maybe even hand controls. For now, they would have to make do, as they'd always done.
"Good work," she said.
Ayanna met her in the middle of the yard, enfolding Cheyenne in a hug that made her breath catch and her eyes burn.
She blinked a couple of times before meeting her mother's fond gaze.
"Where's Mitch?" Cheyenne asked.
"Inside," Ayanna said, her words gently hushed. "I'm afraid he's brooding againhe misses his friends in Phoenix. He'll be all right once he's had a little while to get used to being here."
Cheyenne could empathize. She thought, with poignant longing, of her one-bedroom condo in sunny San Diego, half a mile from the beach. She'd sublet it, and that was another worry. If she couldn't convince Jesse McKettrick to part with five hundred acres of prime real estate, she not only wouldn't have a job, she'd have to stay in Indian Rock, find whatever work there was to be had and stockpile pennies until she could afford to start over somewhere else.
As she stood there despairing, Nigel's cell-phone comment blew through her spirit like a cold wind scouring the walls of a lonely canyon. Everything's riding on this deal. And I mean everything.
"Come on inside, honey," Ayanna said, taking Cheyenne's arm when she would have turned and fled back to the rental car. "We can bring your things in later."
Cheyenne nodded, ashamed that she'd come so close, after all her preparation and effort, to fleeing the scene.
Ayanna smiled, butted her taller daughter lightly with the outside of one shoulder. "We've all come home," she said softly. "You and Mitch and me. And home is a great place to start over."
Home might be a "great place to start over," Cheyenne reflected grimly, if you were a McKettrick. If your key fit the lock of one of the several sprawling, rustically elegant houses standing sturdily on a section of the legendary Triple M Ranch.
If your name was Bridges, on the other hand, and you were the daughter of a charming but compulsive gambler who'd died in jail, and a hardworking but fatally codependent dreamer like Ayanna, making a clean-slate beginning was a luxury you couldn't afford.
Ordinary people had to settle for survival.
Nurleen Gentry shuffled and dealt the flopa pair of sevens and a queen. Once the cards were down, lying helter-skelter on the scruffy green-felt tabletop, she folded her hands, glittering with fake diamonds ordered from the shopping channel, and waited.
Jesse leaned back in his customary chair in the card room behind Lucky's Main Street Bar and Grill and pretended to consider his options. He felt the eyes of the other poker players on him, through the stale and shifting haze of blue-gray cigarette smoke, and gave nothing away.
"Bet or fold, McKettrick," Wade Parker grumbled from the other side of the table. Jesse allowed one corner of his mouth to crook up, ever so slightly, in the go-to-hell grin he'd been perfecting since he was eleven. Wade wore a bad rug and a windbreaker emblazoned with the logo of the beer company he worked for, and his full lips twitched with impatience. The tobacco smudge rose from the cheap cigar smoldering in the ashtray beside him.
Next to Wade was Don Rogers, who owned the Laundromat. Don squirmed on the patched vinyl seat of his chair, but Jesse knew it wasn't the wait that bothered the other man. Don was a neat freak and wanted to tidy the flop so badly that a muscle under his right eye jerked. Touching anybody's cards but his own could get a man shot in some parts, though the retribution would be neither swift nor terrible in the old hometown.