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Eyes narrowed against the low-slung October morning sun, Winnie Porter stood in the open doorway to the Skyview Gas 'n' Grill, sipping strong coffee from a foam cup. Outside, the relentless wind scoured the barren West Texas landscape, the whiny, hollow sound like the cry of a never-satisfied newborn.
Fitting, Winnie thought, the constant hum of semis barreling along I-40 a half mile away tangling with the wind's nagging. Come on, girl, get a move on, it seemed to say, echoing a restlessness that had plagued her for longer than she could remember. Except now that she finally could get a move on
She shifted on cowboy-booted feet, plowing one sweaty palm down a denimed thigh, the fabric soft as a baby's blanket. Over her cotton cami's neckline, the ends of her wet hair tickled her shoulders and back. Annabelle, her Border collie, nudged her thigh, panting. We go for ride? I ride shotgun, 'kay?
"Here you go. And don't eat it all before you get to Amarillo."
Winnie's eyes shifted to the bulging plastic sack filled with enough food to see a family of pioneers through the winter. "Thanks," she said, steeled against the barely restrained censure flooding the nearly black eyes in front of her. Winnie took the bag, turning away as Elektra Jones blew a breath through her broad nose.
"Miss Ida ain't even been dead a week"
"And all you're doin' is just setting yourself up for more hurt."
An opinion offered at least a dozen times in the last two days. "Can't hurt worse than what I've lived through the last nine years," Winnie said softly, hoisting her duffel onto her shoulder.
"But all this time, yousaid"
"I was wrong," Winnie said simply. "And don't even start about needing me here, E, you know as well as I do you've been basically runnin' this place on your own anyway. Especially for the last year"
Her voice caught as she glanced around Ida Calhoun's legacy to her only granddaughtera run-down diner/conve-nience store/gas station, its proximity to the interstate its sole saving grace. Since Winnie was ten years old the place had variously been a refuge and a prison. And now it was all hers.
Even from the grave, the old girl was still getting her digs in.
"You won't even miss me," Winnie said, facing the downturned mouth underneath an inch-thick cushion of dyed blond hair.
"Now that's where you're wrong," Elektra said, eyes brimming, and Winnie thought, Don't you dare, dammit, giving up the fight when E muttered, "Oh, hell," and clasped Winnie to her not-insubstantial bosom.
"It's only for a week, for heaven's sake."
"Still." Elektra gave her one last squeeze, then clasped Winnie's shoulders, her hands cool and smooth on Winnie's heated skin. "You be careful, hear?" Afraid to speak, Winnie nodded.
Minutes later, with the Dixie Chicks holding forth from the old pickup's radio and Annabelle grinning into the wind from her passenger side perch, Winnie glided onto the interstate behind a big rig with Alabama plates, headed west on what even she knew was likely to be a fool's errand.
Hours later, she climbed out of the truck in front of a mud-colored gnome of an adobe squatting in the woods, wearing an incongruous, steeply pitched, tin-roof hat. With a woof of anticipation, Annabelle streaked into the dense, bushy piñons and yellowing live oaks, their leaves rustling in the cleanest breeze Winnie had ever smelled; she squinted into the glare of luminescent blue overhead, nearly the same color as the peeling paint on the house's front door. This, I can deal with, she thought, smiling, as the sharply cool aira good twenty degrees cooler here than homegoosed her bare arms and back.
Winnie backtracked to tug a long-sleeved shirt off the front seat, as a white Toyota Highlander crunched up behind her. The real estate agent, she guessed, her thought was confirmed a moment later when a very pregnant, very pretty, dark-haired gal carefully extricated herself from behind the wheel and shouted over, "You must be Winnie! I'm Tess Montoya, we spoke over the phone." She opened her back door to spring an equally dark-haired preschooler from the backseat, then laughed. "I warned you not to expect much!"
"Are you kidding?" Winnie shrugged into her shirt, smiling for the adorable little boy, shyly clinging to his mother's long skirt. Then she turned to take in the swarms of deep-pink cosmos nodding atop feathery stems on either side of the door, the pair of small windowsalso blue-framed, also peelinghunkered inside foot-thick walls, like the eyes of a fat-cheeked baby
"I love it already!" she said with another grin in Tess's direction as she grabbed duffel and sleeping bag from behind the seat, then followed the chattering agent inside.
"Unfortunately, both the electricity and plumbing can be temperamental," Tess was saying, palming her stomach. Winnie looked away. "But my auntshe's the owner's housekeeperstayed here for a while before she moved in with the family. So I knew it would be livable. At least for a week! Although it's still beyond me why you wanted to stay in Tierra Rosa. Now if you'd said Taos or Santa Fe"
"This is fine. Really," Winnie said, her gear thunking to the bare wooden floor, gouged and unpolished, as she let her eyes adjust to the milky light inside. In an instant she catalogued the stark, white, unadorned plaster walls and kiva fireplace, the mission-style sofa and matching chair with scuffed leather seats, the oversize rocker, the logheadboarded double bed. The "kitchen" consisted of an old pie cupboard between an iron-stained sink and an ancient gas stove, a battle-weary whitewashed table with two mismatched chairs. A low-framed door, she discovered, led to a bug-size bathroom, clearly an afterthought, with one of those old-time claw-footed tubs.
But the place was spotless, with fluffy towels hanging from black iron rings, a brand-new cake of Dove on the sink. And the thick comforter and fluffy pillows on the bed practically begged her to come try it out.
"It's cozy," she said, and Tess laughed.
"Nice word for it. Listen, sorry I have to scoot, but I've got a million things to do before this little squirt pops out. But there's my card," she said, laying a business card on the table, then trundling toward the open front door, through which floated childish laughter. "Call me if you need anything. Or my aunt, she's just up the hill, I left you her number, too Oh! Miguel! No, baby, leave the doggie alone!"
"I think it's the other way around," Winnie said, laughing, as she called Annabelle off the gigglingand now dog-spit-slimedlittle boy.
"I keep thinking about getting him a dog, but with his father away and a new baby " Tess sighed. "Anyway enjoy your stay!"
Winnie watched the SUV rumble down the dirt road, then went back inside. Annabelle promptly hopped up on the bed, turned three times in place and flopped down, grinning, eager-eyed. We live here now?
"Only for a week," Winnie said over the pinch of anxiety in her stomach, Elektra's warning ringing in her ears. "Maybe."
She tugged open the back door and walked out into the small clearing carved out of the forest, where the sweet, clean breeze caught her loose hair the way a mother might sift a child's through her fingers. A shrill bird call made her glance up in time to catch a flutter of blue wings. A jay, maybe, rustling in the branches, searching for pine nuts. She shut her eyes, savoring, telling herself even if her reason for being here didn't pan out, that after the past yearyearsthere were worse things than spending a week in heaven.
Winnie's smile faded, however, when she opened her eyes and noticed the fresh bicycle tracks in the soft dirt, leading to a path that disappeared into the trees. She turned, frowning, her gaze following the tracks, which stopped just short of the house, next to a woodpile probably loaded with eight-legged things. Or, far worse, no-legged things. With scales and forked tongues.
In the woods behind, something cracked. Winnie wheeled, her back prickling, her great fear of slithery wildlife momentarily forgotten as Annabelle joyfully vanished into the undergrowth in hot pursuit only to flinch at the barrage of pine nuts from overhead, courtesy of a huge, and very pissed-off, squirrel. The dog glanced up, confused, then hauled ass back to the house to cower behind Winnie's legs.
The sky embraced her laughter.
His breath coming in short, angry pants, the child tightly gripped the handlebars of his birthday bikea real mountain bike, just like he'd wantedas he watched the lady and her dog through the trees. He let go long enough to swipe a hand across his nose, a hot burst exploding inside his chest. You get away from my house! he wanted to yell, except his throat was all frozen up
Robson jerked his head toward Florita's call, her voice pretty faint this far from the house. If he didn't get back soon, she'd get worried, and then she'd tell his dad, and he'd get worried, and that would suck. So after one last glance at the lady laughing at her dumb dog, he turned around, pumping the pedals as fast as he could to get back.
To get away.
The chickens scattered, clucking their heads off, when he streaked through the yard, dumping his bike and running around to the back. "An' where were you?" Florita asked when he came into the sunny kitchen, the pretty blue-and-yellow tiles making Robson feel better and sad at the same time, because Mom had picked them out.
"Just out ridin'," Robson said, panting, going to the big silvery fridge for a bottle of juice. He could feel Florita's dark eyes on his back, like she could see right through him. He really liked Flo, but she saw too much, sometimes. And nice as she was, she wasn't Mom. Mom had been all soft and real-looking, her long, black-and-silver hair slippery-smooth when Robson touched it. Flo's hair was dark, too, but it was all stiff and pokey. She wore way too much makeup, too, and clothes like all the teenage girls did at the mall, like she was scared of getting old, or something.
Mom had always said getting old didn't scare her at all, it was just part of life. Robson swallowed past the lump in his throat, only then he realized Flo had been saying something.
Flo rolled her eyes. "One of these days, you're gonna clean out your ears an' hear what I say the firs' time, an' I'm gonna fall right over from the shock." Since Flo said stuff like that all the time, he knew she wasn't really mad. "I said, your father's goin' down to Garcia's, you wanna go with him?"
"No, that's okay," Robbie said, and Flo gave him one of her looks, the one that said she understood. That ever since Mom died, Dad spent more and more time up in his studio, painting, and not so much time with Robson. Not like he used to, anyway. Flo said Dad was just trying to "work though" his feelings about Mom dying and stuff. Which made Robson mad, a little, because you know what? He missed Mom, too. A lot. And it hurt that he didn't feel like he could talk to Dad about it. But whenever he tried, Dad would get all mopey-dopey, and that only made everything worse. So finally Robson stopped trying. Because what was the point?
"You can't stop trying," Flo said softly, like she'd read his mind, which kinda freaked Robbie out. He also knew she'd only nag him if he didn't go, so he finished his juice, went and peed, then dragged himself out to Dad's studio, pushing himself from one side of the passage to the other as he went, even though Flo would get on his case about the handprints.
Once there, he had to blink until his eyes got used to the bright lightwith all the windows along the top, it was almost like being outside. Especially since the room was so tall. Robbie liked how it smelled in here, like oil paint and wood and that stuff Dad used to make the canvases white before he painted on them. Rock music playing from a CD player on the floor practically bounced off the walls and ceiling, it was so loud, tickling Robbie's feet and moving right on up through his body. When he was littler, he used to like yelling out his name in here, just to hear it echo.
Paint all over his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, Dad was cleaning up one of his big paintbrushes, frowning a little at the painting he was working on. At least, Robbie thought he was frowningit was hard to tell with Dad's dark, curly hair hanging in his face. Robbie fingered his own much lighter-colored hair, which was almost as long. Flo was constantly fussing at both of them to get it cut, but Dad said this was their mountain-man look. He didn't shave every day, either. Flo had a lot to say about that, too.
Robbie looked at the painting. Some of Dad's canvases were so humongous he had to build this thing called a scaffolding to reach the top. But this one was small enough to sit on one of Dad's special-made easels. The colors were real bright, oranges and purples and pinks and greens, kinda like the view from his window when the sun was going down. But instead of being pretty, the colors looked like they were fighting each other.
"D'you like it?" Dad asked. His father sounded different from everybody else around here because he was from Ireland. It was neat, watching his friends' eyes get all big the first time they'd hear Dad say something.
He twisted to see Dad watching him with that sad look in his eyes Robbie hated, so he turned his head back around, fast, like when you touch something hot and drop it right away, before it can burn you.
"Who's it for?"
"Just for me," Dad said.
And Robbie said, "Oh." Then he added, "Flo said you're goin' down to Garcia's?"
"Yeah, they got in a shipment for me today." Dad often had art supplies and stuff sent to the old store down on the highway, rather than to the house, partly because it was sometimes hard for the delivery trucks to get up here, partly so people wouldn't be able to find him. Dad didn't like people poking around in his business, he said. "Want to come along?"
"Sure," he said, like it was no big deal. Except when he looked at Dad, he was smiling, sort of. At least enough to make creases in his fuzzy cheeks. But his eyes still looked like they were saying he was sorry. Like Mom's dying had somehow been Dad's fault. Robbie wanted to tell Dad to stop being dumb. Instead, he asked, "Can I get a Nutty Buddy?"