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Could this photo be the answer to her prayers?
Only moments before, Raine Crockett had picked up the latest issue of the San Antonio Express with plans to scan the news before she got down to the business of her daily schedule at the Sandbur Ranch. But the paper had slipped from her hand and scattered across the floor, exposing a grainy black-and-white picture wedged among the classifieds. Now, she was still staring at the miracle in her hands, wondering if it might finally lead her to the truth about her mother's past—and the identity of her father.
Her friend's breezy voice had Raine jerking her head up and snapping the paper shut at the same time.
Nicolette Saddler, a member of the family that owned the Sandbur, was like a sister to Raine. This morning she desperately wanted Nicci's advice.
"Thank God you stopped by! I want you to look at something."
Nicolette glanced at the small watch on her wrist. "Sorry, Raine. I don't have time. I have thirty minutes to get to the clinic. I just stopped by to ask you to let Cook know not to set a place for me this evening. I'm going to be working late."
Not willing to let Nicci get away that easily, Raine jumped to her feet and grabbed Nicolette by the arm.
"Raine! I said I don't have time! What—" Her exasperated expression turned curious as she watched Raine shut the door behind her. "What in the world is this about—" She paused as her medical training took over. "You look almost green. Are you feeling ill?"
Raine's hair swished against the tops of her shoulders as she shook her head. Normally she was a quiet, serious-minded young woman, a bookkeeper who kept her nose stuck in the incoming and outgoing invoices of the Sandbur. It wasn't like her to get emotional. But the photo had filled her with hope and excitement.
"I'm not sick!" Raine's office was inside the Saddler family's ranch house where anyone, especially her mother, might be passing by, so she spoke in a hushed voice, "I want you to look at this." She jerked open the paper and thrust it at Nicolette.
A deep frown marred the woman's forehead as she scanned the paragraphs beneath the photo.
"What do you think? Could it be my mother?"
"Maybe. I don't know. This was taken years ago. Lord, look at that big hairdo! And the dangling earrings! Your mother wouldn't be caught dead looking like that now. Still—" She paused. "I have to admit, it does resemble her."
Another burst of optimism surged through Raine, in spite of her attempt to stem it. This photo was probably just another of one missing person among thousands. And Raine's mother wasn't actually lost. She was living here on the ranch, safe and sound, just as she had been for the past twenty-some years. It was Esther Crockett's past—and all her memories of Raine's father—that had been lost.
Nicolette groaned. "Raine, I really don't want to get into this." Raine understood why her friend didn't want to get involved. Nicci didn't want to encourage a search that would only cause deeper rifts between Raine and her mother. Well, Raine didn't want another fight with her mother, either. But she wanted—needed—answers, and as far as she was concerned, this photo was too important to simply toss in the trash.
"Am I crazy for thinking this might be Mother—before she lost her memory?"
Nicolette pointed to the brief information beneath the photo. "The woman went missing back in 1982. Why would anyone start searching now?"
"Maybe they've searched before—in other areas of the country. But just think, Nicci, the timing would be right. I was born that year, the year my mother lost her memory. And this woman does resemble Mother. I'm not crazy about that, am I?"
Nicolette's expression changed to one of concern. "No, honey, you're not crazy. But you've tried this before. By now you ought to realize what a long shot it would be for this—" she tapped the paper with her forefinger "—to be your mother in her younger days. This woman was obviously a glamour girl! Esther always looks like she just stepped out of a Victorian novel!"
Raine grimaced. It was true that Esther Crockett's appearance was somewhat dowdy. And up until Raine had become an adult, Esther had also insisted that her daughter appear and behave in the same conservative fashion.
Little by little, Raine was doing her best to cut the thick ties her mother had used to restrict her all these years. But the separation wasn't nearly fast enough to suit Raine. She was going to turn twenty-four next month. She was a grown woman now and she wanted to be her own person and live life her own way without fearing her mother's disapproval. Most of all, she desperately wanted to find her father, even if her mother was dead set against the search.
"You're right, Nicci. But Mother could have been different, before," Raine argued on a hopeful note. "After all, she got pregnant with me. There must have been a man in her life."
"True." Nicci's eyes were full of sympathy. "You really want to find your father, don't you?"
Raine nodded as a hard lump of emotion collected in her throat. Ever since she'd been old enough to ask about her father, she'd been told there was no way of finding him. Esther didn't remember that part of her life and, moreover, she refused to allow Raine to search for anything that might lead her to the man.
Blinking at the film of tears in her eyes, Raine said, "More than anything. What if I have brothers or sisters somewhere? I think about that all the time. It drives me crazy that Mother won't talk about it or help me search."
Shaking her head, Nicci handed the paper back to Raine. "Well, I guess there's always a slim chance you could accidentally stumble onto some sort of genuine information here. But you'd be running a big risk in trying! The last time you did something like this—well, everyone on the ranch remembers how furious your mother was when she found out."
Biting down on her lip, Raine paced around the room. "You don't have to warn me about Mother. We've had so many fights about this that, frankly, I'm sick of trying to reason with her."
"What does that mean?" Nicolette questioned warily. "That you are going to call the number in the paper?"
Raine's casual shrug belied her spinning thoughts. "Maybe—I don't know yet."
To hear her mother tell it, Raine should be more than content with her life. She had a nicely furnished office with an antique oak desk, leather chairs and a couch made of beautiful Corriente steer hide raised here on the Sandbur. Potted plants shaded the wide windows and an elaborate stereo system supplied her with music while she worked. She received a very adequate paycheck every week, plus plenty of benefits to go with it.
The accounting degree Raine had obtained two years ago was now paying off. Her job on the Sandbur was one that most any young woman would be envious of. She had a nice apartment in town and a social life, if she wanted it. But no matter how hard she tried, Raine couldn't dampen the longing she had to find out about her mother's past and her father, who had to be out there somewhere.
Nicolette nodded at the paper. "Why is an attorney instead of a private investigator taking the calls? Could be the woman in the photo is a criminal."
Raine refused to consider that idea. "Then it couldn't be Mother. She's too straitlaced for that kind of past."
Nicolette rolled her eyes. "Raine, you can't know what kind of person Esther was twenty-five years ago! You could open up a nasty can of worms with this thing!"
Raine tightened her lips line. "You're trying to discourage me."
Nicolette threw up her hands in a helpless gesture. "I'm only trying to point out the downfalls. Especially if Esther discovers what you're up to."
Raine reached out and plucked the paper from her desk. "Maybe I can do this without her knowing about it. At least for a while." Raine locked it away in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet.
"What are you doing that for?" Nicolette asked. "There are newspapers everywhere on this ranch, including your mother's house. She's probably already spotted the picture."
"I don't want anyone other than you knowing that I saw it."
"I'm getting worried now! This isn't like you! You don't normally keep things from your mother. At least not something this important."
Raine swiped the air with her hand. "Those are the key words here, Nicci. Something this important. This is my family we're talking about—my father!"
Nicolette's worried expression changed to one of resignation. "I know now how empty I would feel if I didn't know who my father was. And I've always thought it strange that Esther doesn't want to know who she used to be or where she came from. What woman in their right mind wouldn't want to find the man that fathered her child?"
Nicolette's question was one Raine had been asking herself for years now, but a reasonable answer had never come to her.
"I don't understand it, either," Raine said with a sigh. "I think she's afraid.You just talked about opening a nasty can of worms. Well, I think that's how your mother feels. But in my opinion, no one can truly step into the future if one doesn't know her past." Raine was no longer just talking about her mother.
As Nicolette left, Raine returned to her desk chair and dropped her head in her hands.
Oh, Mother, she silently wailed, why can't you understand that I need to know who my father is before I can ever have a family of my own? It would all be so much easier if you would help me search for him rather than threatening to disown me if I even tried to look.
The shrill noise of the telephone jerked her back to the present and she cleared her throat to put on her best business voice. "Sandbur Ranch, business office."
"Raine, it's Matt here. I just wondered if you'd managed to find those vaccination papers on the bull we brought in yesterday? The vet will be here this morning. I need them."
Raine shoved all thoughts of her mother and the newspaper article from her mind. "Sure thing, Matt. I have them right here. Would you like for one of the maids to bring them to your office?"
"Hell no!" the man barked in her ear. "Every damn time one of them shows up at the barn it takes me an hour to get the boys back to work and their minds on their business. I'll come after the papers myself."
"No need for that," Raine quickly offered. "I can run them over to you."
"Don't even think it. You're worse on the guys than the maids," he said, then he hung up before Raine could make any sort of reply. Which wasn't surprising. Matt Sanchez was all business and spent nearly every waking hour of his life making sure the cattle on the Sandbur were the best in Texas.
He was a good man to work for, as were the other family members who ran the Sandbur. For more than forty years, two sisters had made this ranch one of the best and biggest in south Texas. Elizabeth Sanchez and Geraldine Saddler had forged their families and succeeded in keeping the property prosperous by insisting that everyone work together.
Raine couldn't help but be envious of the close-knit siblings and cousins. In good or bad times they were always there for each other. What must it feel like to be surrounded by loving relatives?
If you had the gumption to stand up to your mother and call that attorney, maybe you would find your own family.
The prodding little voice inside Raine's head caused her gaze to swing to her file cabinet. Should she? Might the call lead her to her father?
Until she found the courage to pick up the phone, Raine could only wonder.