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"You did it, girlfriend! I'm so proud of you."
Gaby Navarro accepted a hug from her ebullient friend, Beth Thom. "I keep wanting to pinch myself." Though, truth was, she'd burned a lot of midnight oil to get this promotion to style editor at Bijou magazine.
"It's real hot stuff," Beth advised. "The boss better watch out or you'll have her job."
"I think she's safe for a day or two." Gaby wondered why, now that she had what she'd battled so hard to obtain, she didn't feel more jubilant. From the day she'd left college and arrived in Manhattan, she'd been focused on exactly this climb. She was only tired; that was all.
"We have to celebrate tonight. I'm making reservations." Beth's cheer was impossible to resist. "Put yourself in my hands, girl. We will have a rip-roaring time."
Gaby found herself smiling. Letting the sense of accomplishment sink in. "Thank you."
"Hey, I'm selfish. Editorial board meetings are a pain in the you-know-what. I could use a partner in crime."
The phone on her desk buzzed. She glanced at it, then at Beth. Sighed. "Back to the real world."
Beth grinned. "No rest for the wicked." With a wink, she departed.
Gaby picked up the receiver. "Yes?, "There's a call for you from Texas," the receptionist said. "A Sheriff Anderson. He refuses to leave a message. Congratulations, by the way."
Sheriff Anderson? It had been nine years since she'd had contact with anyone back there.
"Okay, I'll take the call. And thanks." She punched the flickering button. "Gaby Navarro."
"Gabriela?, So strange to be called Gabriela once more. And the voice was not the older one she'd expected. This was his son, Chad. Her former boyfriend.
"Chad? you'rethe sheriff?"
He chuckled. "Amazing, huh? My dad passed away two years ago, and the voters saw fit to give me the job." Memories crashed in on her. Chad, the golden boy, literally. Blond, tall and handsome. Quarterback of the football team, student-body president. All that a girl could dream of.
Until Eli had changed everything. "Gabriela, I'm sorry, but this isn't a social call. I'm afraid I have bad news."
The past vanished with the warning in his tone. "Papa is all right, isn't he?"
A long silence. "That's why I'm calling. You need to come home."
"Is he sick? Hurt?, Papa had always seemed invincible.
"I wish I didn't have to do this on the phone. No easy way to break it. Your father is gone, Gabriela."
"Gone?, she echoed. She dropped into her chair and opened the middle desk drawer, then groped for the picture she kept there.
"There was a fire in one of the barns. He was alone."
"Where was RamÃ ³ n?, The foreman had been with her father as long as she could remember.
A pause. "Your father had to let RamÃ ³ n go several months back, so there was no one" He cleared his throat. "By the time a passerby noticed the smoke, it was too late."
She hunched over her desk, clutching the photograph. She'd left Texas in a fury. Thrown ugly words in her father's face, and now they would never
She barely registered what Chad was saying. "Good man, but in the last few years, his health had deteriorated."
The knife slid in a little deeper. "I'll be on the first plane."
"Let me know which flight, and I'll pick you up."
"Gabriela, please. I want to help you."
"I have to go now. I'll take care of it." She hung up before he could tell her anything else.
Before she had to hear more recrimination in his voice. Her father had wanted her to marry Chad and unite their adjoining ranches.
But she'd had other dreams, even before
Eli. Outcast Eli Wolverton had been her dark secret. Her one true love.
Or so she'd believed until he'd abandoned her. Vanished under a cloud of suspicion.
Eli was old history now, not worth a second's thought, but Papa."
What have I done?
She stroked one finger across the photo of Papa and herself on her seventh birthday, a dignified man smiling at the girl in the pink organdy dress. Ruthlessly, she pushed back the black demon that would devour her if she thought about never being able to make up for what she'd done to her father.
Stop it. Focus on the details. Get online and find a plane ticket. With a leaden heart, she reached for her keyboard drawer.
"Hey, girl, I got us What's wrong?, Beth at the door.
Gaby couldn't figure out how to answer her. She'd never told a soul how she and her father had parted. She'd left her past behind in Texas.
"I just" She crumpled. "Mymy fatherhe's" She lifted stinging eyes. "He's dead."
"Oh, honey" In minutes, Beth had the whole story and, in her inimitable mode, had swung into action.
Before Gaby could blink, she was booked on a flight leaving in three hours and tucked into a cab, headed to pack her things and return home.
Except it hadn't been home for nine years. And now it never would be.
ELI WOLVERTON MADE certain he'd left no tracks leading to the cave where he'd taken up residence. He knelt before the scarred and emaciated dog that seemed to have adopted him and untied the rope he'd used to restrain the healing animal while out making his rounds in the darkness.
With a practiced eye, he scanned the wounds the dog had suffered at the hands of the worst of predators: Eli's fellow man.As he'd traveled the globe the past nine years, Eli had learned that human nature was the same the world over: rich or impoverished, educated or illiterate, there was cruelty in mankind, though there was astonishing courage and kindness, as well.
he'd also acquired critical survival skills to add to those he'd learned the hard way as a child dodging his mother's boyfriend's fists. He could forage for food from jungle to desert, collect water from the dew or the underside of leaves, even perform basic medical care, if necessary. Though he'd experienced enough violence to last him a lifetime, he knew how to take a punch and throw one. He was a fair shot and could use a knife. He preferred, however, to wield his laptop and camera as he circled the planet, telling the stories of people without voices. Making their plights heard on his Internet report, The Hot Spot Journal.
The wandering life suited him fine. He was happiest alone. Relying on no one.
The only person he'd truly trusted, besides the mother he hadn't been able to help when it had counted, was Gaby Navarro.
And she'd abandoned him when he'd needed her most.
The dog licked his hand.
Eli stroked him as he eyed the empty dish. "Your appetite's improving. You ready for a trip outside?"
As if he understood, the dog rose and stretched. Wagged the stub of tail.
Eli smiled. "It's hotter than Hades out there already. Don't guess you want to wait for evening?"
The animal, an odd mix of a boxer's muscular frame, however malnourished, and beagle ears and coloring, whimpered.
Eli headed toward the slit that was the well-disguised mouth of the cave. "All right, let's go."
The dog he had yet to name because he had no intention of keeping him made surprisingly good time, beating him outside. Eli could almost hear the sigh of relief as the hound lifted his leg on a creosote bush. "you're nearly ready, fella. If only I had a clue what to do with you."
A pet was not in his plans. Nor was any sort of permanence.
As the dog followed his nose, Eli settled into the cool, welcome shade and stared out at the blistering heat shimmering over a landscape some would term barren.
He had once called it home, a place he'd missed more than he would ever have imagined at eighteen. It had its own beauty, sere and harsh as it was. The scent of creosote bush and mesquite, the endless vista, the foothills topped by a sky big and blue, with only the faintest vein of cloud-white to marble it.
This land demanded much of those who would inhabit it. The faint of heart moved oneast to the Hill Country, north to the cool green mountains of southern New Mexicoor traversed the thousand miles of more desert to reach the Pacific Ocean.
As he had, nine years ago. Hitchhiked and camped out, worked a series of menial jobs with an eye to making it to California. Gotten a ride from a television reporter, Bob Collier, who'd been driving cross-country, collecting the stories of ordinary people. Their pace had been slow, and as they'd traveled, he and Bob had talked about all the places Bob had been, what he'd seen through thirty years of globetrotting, how the business of news had changed. Bob had opened up the world to Eli, though neither he nor Bob had realized it at the time.
Since then, he'd ranged far and wide to escape the death sentence waiting for him here, however unofficially.
Because he'd known too much. Seen too much. And been powerless to save Gaby except by leaving her behind.
he'd written her a note after everything had gone wrong that last night. he'd longed to see her just once more before he vanished. Be sure she didn't doubt that he was innocent.
But Gaby had never shown. She'd obviously figured out what he'd understood from the first, even if he'd ignored it for one heady spanthat they had no future. She'd had plans, big ones, and he was all too aware that, whatever she'd said back then, he did not fit in them.
At first, the pain of losing her had nearly killed him. If you could die from missing the other half of yourself, he'd have been a goner.
Anger had saved him. Brick by brick, he'd rebuilt the walls only Gaby had breached.
Life went on, and so had he. And he almost managed to forget Gabythough she wasn't called Gaby now, he was sure. That had been his name for her, while everyone else used Gabriela, a graceful, dignified choice for a girl everyone expected to go far.