Read an Excerpt
By Lisa Jackson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lisa Jackson
All rights reserved.
Curling the yellowed pages in his fist, Max McKee swore beneath his breath and kicked a dirt clod across the pasture. The dry piece of earth landed with a thunk on the side of the stables and shattered into dust. Barn swallows, disturbed from their nests, squawked and dive-bombed the intruder, but he didn't give a damn.
He hadn't for a long time.
But the letters changed things.
He'd discovered the aged pages earlier while going through the old man's business papers, and there, in a thin file labeled MAX, were two handwritten notes that could have changed the course of his life. Max had read the damning words in his father's den, then heard his mother's soft crying whispering through the hallways of the old ranch house. Rather than disturb her grief, he'd walked outside, read each letter again and felt as if a vise had been clamped over his lungs and was slowly being tightened, ensuring that each one of his breaths was more difficult than the last.
"Bastard," he snarled, disregarding the fact that deep down he'd felt a kinship with the crusty old man who'd been his father — Jonah Phineas McKee. The great manipulator.
But it wasn't Jonah's letter that disturbed him most. It was the other single sheet with the flowing script signed by a woman he detested, a woman who had betrayed him, a woman for whom, at one time, he would have walked through the gates of hell just to see her smile.
His back teeth ground together as he remembered her as clearly as if she were standing beside him. Her loose blond curls caught in the summer wind, and wide eyes the color of a morning mist sparkled with an impish light whenever she teased him. Her laughter seemed to roll off the surrounding hills. Her chin stubborn, her mouth wide and sensuous, she stood nearly five foot eight, with a slim and athletic body honed by years of hard work.
She'd left him seven years before, and he'd never really understood why.
"Face it, son, she just wasn't the right woman for you. Too serious about that damned career of hers, too proud to admit when she'd made a mistake."
His father's sentiments had always been spoken brashly, without hesitation.
"She reminded me of one of them wolf dogs, you know the kind they've got down at the Purcell place," Jonah had continued, his dark brows inching up to his shock of thick, snow-white hair. "Them dogs are deceptive — all cuddly and soft as puppies, cute as all get-out. But watch out. Those damned pups turn into killers, like as not. Remember Amy Purcell nearly lost half her face to one of them shewolves. Yep, you're better off without the likes of Skye Donahue."
Max, after his initial denial, had finally decided his father was right about Skye. He'd told himself that Jonah had pegged Skye from the start, though, more often than not in recent years, Max had found himself at odds with his father and had started second-guessing his own loyalties. For years, Max, firstborn and groomed to inherit most of Jonah's estate, had believed that his father walked on water, a veritable god on earth. But as the years passed and he grew more independent, Max began to see Jonah with new eyes. He realized his cantankerous father wasn't as innocent as he would have everyone believe. Sure, Jonah had been a colorful character, as rugged and rough as the outcrop of rimrock that topped the hills surrounding this valley, but Jonah had also possessed a darker side, one Max had begun to discover and one he'd steadfastly ignored. Or been too blind to see.
Maybe Skye had been right all along.
He brushed off his dust-covered hat and rammed it onto his head. The sun was beginning to set, the heat that had shimmered across the dry grass was letting up a little, and shadows stretched over the fields. Max decided he had to quit thinking of his father, of Skye, of the letters.
The damned letters.
He should burn them both and let the wind carry the ashes away, but he didn't. Instead he took the wadded-up pages and tossed them through the open window of his pickup where they floated onto the worn seat. He'd think about the letters later. Much later.
The screen door banged open and Max's sister Casey careened from the house. "There's just no talking to her!" Casey declared, blowing her bangs from her eyes. Petite, with shoulder-length brown hair and a temper that wouldn't quit, Casey stormed across the porch, stomped down the two steps, and landed on a lawn chair. She crossed her legs and bounced her foot up and down in frustration. "Idiot!"
"You're talking about Mom."
"Damn it, Max, do you know what she's trying to get me to believe now? Do you?"
"I hate to ask."
"She thinks Dad was murdered!" Casey looked up at the dusky sky, as if hoping God would send a lightning bolt straight from heaven and knock some sense into their mother. "Murdered! Like anyone has ever been killed in Rimrock!"
"There was Indian Joe."
Casey rolled her eyes. "He was ninety-five years old, blind, and he walked in front of a logging truck! Elvin Green didn't mean to run him over."
"I was just trying to calm you down."
"Well, you can't!" She shot out of her chair and marched up to her brother. Jabbing the air emphatically, she said, "Mom's gone 'round the bend on this one."
"She's still upset. It's only been a week."
Casey shook her head furiously. "She's beyond upset and plans on calling Myrna Cassidy, the reporter for The Rimrock Review. Oh, I can see it now. Inch-high letters screaming that Dad was killed by some unknown murderer. You know that Myrna's always looking for something more exciting to write about besides the school-bond measures and the county fair! She'll print this ... this ridiculous theory of Mom's in a heartbeat —"
"Hold on a minute! Give Mom a break, will you?" Max closed his eyes against a sudden headache. "She's not going to go spouting off to the papers — "
"You'd better stop her! She won't listen to me." Casey tossed her hair out of her eyes and headed toward the barn. "I'm goin' for a ride. Tell Kiki not to hold supper."
"I don't think she'll worry about it."
Kiki, the gray-haired housekeeper who'd been with the McKees for as long as Max could remember, wasn't likely to keep anything warming. Long ago, Kiki had made it clear she thought all the McKee children — Max, his brother, Jenner, and Casey — were spoiled, and she wasn't about to take part in their pampering.
Max stalked into the house and found Kiki fussing over some peach dumplings bubbling on the stove. The aromas of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg mingled and wafted through the old ranch-house walls, reminding Max of happier, simpler times, when he'd been a kid. Life then had been working in the fields, skinny-dipping in the swimming hole, fishing until dark, sneaking a smoke, and constantly wrestling with his brother. Later, as the years had piled up, he'd spent more time wondering about the mysteries of all females and Skye Donahue in particular.
"You'd better go see after your ma. She's carryin' on somethin' fierce!" Kiki didn't bother looking up from her kettle. "Damned peaches, trying to turn to mush on me. And don't you wear your boots on my clean floor. Curse it all, anyway."
Leaving his hat on a peg by the back door, Max walked swiftly down the hall of the rambling ranch house he'd lived in for twenty of his thirty-five years. Virginia McKee's sobs coaxed him around the corner and past the den to the master bedroom. Bracing himself, he rapped his knuckles on the double doors. He didn't wait for a response but slipped into the room where his mother and father had laughed, cried, made love, and argued loudly enough to shake the rafters of the sprawling old house.
Virginia McKee was sitting on the edge of the bed she'd shared with Jonah for only six months before Max had been born. She'd been pregnant when she'd gotten married, a secret she'd have preferred to have kept hidden, but her husband hadn't given a rat's hind leg who'd known the truth. He'd been proud of his virility, prouder still when he'd fathered a son.
Virginia was a small woman with fine bones and a slight figure. She was huddled into a little ball, her arms wrapped around her middle. "Why?" she asked in a whisper that cut straight to Max's heart.
"I don't know, Mom. It just happened."
"I don't think so. He wouldn't have been so careless. He was murdered, Max. I know it. I ... just know it." Staring sightlessly down at her wedding ring, she gnawed on her lower lip. Tears began to rain from her eyes.
"Have you taken a tranquilizer? Doc Fletcher —"
"I'm not taking any drugs! Besides, that old sawbones thinks a pill will solve everything. A pill to sleep, another one to wake up, one to quiet a fast-beating heart, one to keep you from running to the bathroom every ten minutes ... Oh, Lord, I'm prattling on about useless things when there's so much to do."
"The funeral's over, Mom. You can relax." He sat on the bed beside her and the mattress creaked with his weight. "You should rest. Get your strength back."
"He was killed, Max."
"No — "
"Someone murdered him."
Max rubbed a hand over his forehead. "He was drunk. He'd had five or six stiff drinks down at the Black Anvil. Jake, the bartender, thought about taking his keys, but didn't. Dad left, driving too fast. He lost control, couldn't make the corner, and the Jeep wound up at the bottom of Stardust Canyon. End of story."
Virginia shook her head. Her lips pulled together as if drawn by invisible strings. "I tell you, he was killed, Max."
Max closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay, Mom, just for the sake of argument, let's say someone tried to murder him. Okay?"
"How? Did they wrestle the wheel away from him and somehow make the Jeep leap the guardrail? Did they force him off the road? How?"
"I ... I don't know," she said stubbornly.
"The sheriffs department —"
"Hasn't found anything, I know. But they just haven't looked hard enough!" She stood, maintaining her balance by holding on to one of the carved bedposts. "I know your father. He could hold his liquor. He'd driven that road a thousand times."
"Mom, his luck just plain ran out."
"So you won't help me on this."
"It doesn't serve any purpose."
Her eyes blinked rapidly. "I can't believe that you won't do something. Casey, well, there's no talking to her. She's such a ... well, so stubborn, and Jenner, God knows he doesn't much care about the family. Never did. Always had to play the part of the rebel. But you ... you were your father's pride and joy, the son who always did what was right —"
"I'm no saint, Mom," Max cut in, feeling the old, hard-edged emotions beginning to tear at him. "And I gave up being one of Dad's yes-men years ago."
"Still, you believed in him, and damn it, he believed in you. The least you could do is talk to Sheriff Polk, find out what really happened out on Elkhorn Ridge."
"Nothing happened, Mom. Dad just misjudged the corner."
She cut him a glance that silently called him a fool, and he stood to turn down the bed. "Come on, Mom." Patting the crisp percale sheets, he said softly, "Take your shoes off. Try to get some rest."
"I will not be coddled, son! And I'll go to bed when I'm good and ready and not a minute before." Sniffing back her tears, she angled up her thin face, glaring at her firstborn. "You do what you have to, Max, and so will I."
"Don't you worry about me — I can take care of myself. And bring Hillary around more often. Just because Jonah is gone doesn't mean that I won't want to see my granddaughter." She dropped into an antique rocker positioned near the bay window.
"I'll have her this weekend."
His mother snorted. "A weekend father. I always thought more of you than that, Max."
He wasn't going to get into this no-win argument. If he'd had his way, Hillary would live with him, but Colleen had fought him in court and won joint custody, which meant she kept Hillary five days out of the week and Max got the leftovers. The important thing was that his daughter seemed to be doing fine. He'd heard somewhere that kids were resilient. He hoped so. If a child was loved, Max believed the rest would take care of itself. Both he and Colleen loved their daughter; they just didn't love each other. Probably never had.
Guilt was razor sharp as it cut through his heart.
He'd been at fault — the one to blame when the marriage had crumbled. He'd never really gotten over Skye, no matter how much he'd told himself that he had. She'd betrayed him, and he, wounded to the depths of his soul, had turned to Colleen to survive.
His father had been pleased.
But the marriage had been doomed from the start.
And now there were the letters ... the damned letters. He felt as if acid had been poured into his gut because, until he found out the truth about Skye and why she'd left him, he'd never be satisfied.
He kissed his mother goodbye and left her sitting in the rocker staring sightlessly out the window to the dry, rolling fields dotted with white-faced Herefords. Somehow the ranch would survive. He wasn't so sure about his mother.
Avoiding further conversation with Kiki, he snatched his hat from its hook and strode outside to his pickup. He climbed in and saw the wadded-up letters on the seat. Growling an oath under his breath, he switched on the ignition and tromped on the accelerator. Within seconds, he was tearing down the lane at a breakneck pace, dust and gravel spewing behind him, pine trees and fence line flashing by in a blur.
He didn't want to think about Skye. Not now. Not ever. Thoughts heading in her direction invariably led to dangerous territory. Besides, what was done was done. If he'd wanted her — really wanted her — back then, he would have gone after her, wouldn't he have?
Frowning darkly, he switched on the radio, looking for sports scores. Instead, a Bruce Springsteen song of love gone bad drifted out of the speakers. Tell me about it, Bruce, Max thought grimly as he squinted through the dusty, bug-spattered windshield.
The asphalt road he barreled along on stretched for miles in either direction, a straight, paved line that cut through this valley where the John Day River flowed swiftly between the rolling hills of dry grass and sparse juniper trees.
When he finally reached town, he stopped at the feed store, bought several sacks of grain and loaded them into his truck before walking the short distance to the Black Anvil. Where his father, just the week before, had consumed too much liquor before ending up at the bottom of Stardust Canyon, the nose of his Jeep plunged deep into the swift waters of Wildcat Creek. Jonah's blood alcohol level had been near the stratosphere, he'd cracked his head on the windshield and died of heart failure, according to the county medical examiner. Jonah Phineas McKee, a Rimrock legend, had died, and the town had mourned.
Max would miss him, though for the past few years they hadn't gotten along.
Ever since Skye.
Shoving open the swinging doors to the bar, Max strode past the cigarette machine to the interior where smoke hung in a hazy cloud near the ceiling and the air-conditioning system clattered and coughed. Men, just off work, clustered at the bar where they eyed a television suspended from the ceiling, sipped from frosted mugs of beer, picked at complimentary pretzels, and complained about the game, the weather and their wives.
Max ordered a beer and slid into a booth near the window. He stared outside, past a flickering neon sign advertising beer, to the street where heat waves rose like ghosts, though the sun was beginning to dip below the mountains.
"Didn't expect to find you here."
Max lifted one side of his mouth at the sound of his brother's voice. "Can't say the same for you."
Jenner, a half-filled mug of beer in hand, slipped onto the opposite bench. Two years younger than Max, Jenner had always been the rebel, never doing one damned thing that was expected of him. Didn't even finish high school — just up and left to join the rodeo circuit. A cowboy's cowboy, he had only come home to roost a few years ago when his body, barely thirty, had been broken and taped together too many times from tumbling off wild broncs and Brahma bulls or crashing into the fists of indignant husbands. "Yeah, well, someone's got to keep this place in business," Jenner drawled with his go-to-hell smile stretching from one side of his face to the other.
Max and Jenner had been oil and water. Max, for years, had always tried to please their old man, while Jenner had done his best to thwart Jonah at every turn. If Jonah said white, then Max would say ivory, and Jenner was sure to bring up black.
"Mom thinks Dad was murdered," Max said, then, watching the foamy head of his beer sink into the amber depths, took a long swallow. The liquor was cool and malty and settled deep in his gut.
Jenner lifted a shoulder. "He had enough enemies."
"No one killed him, Jenner."
"Probably?" Max couldn't believe his ears.
"Contrary to what you'd like to believe, the old man was, well, borderline honest, would be the best way to put it. We both know it."
Excerpted from Revenge by Lisa Jackson. Copyright © 2016 Lisa Jackson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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