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A dragonfly hovered inches from Nora Archer's shoulder, its wings hypnotically beating the warm air of the hacienda courtyard. She ought to get up, get going, get Sean ready for Little League, but peaceful moments were too rare these days. She used to love sitting out here in the late afternoon, when the Bull's Eye Ranch was quiet, the shadows stretched across the bricks, and the breeze was full of honeysuckle and wind chimes.
Milly, the housekeeper, was vacuuming on the second floor, a way of keeping an eye on Sean without making him feel like a prisoner. So, temporarily off duty, Nora lay on the lounger, prepared to steal a few more minutes.
A battle was coming with Sean, and she wasn't eager to engage. They'd quarreled as soon as he got home from school, about whether his homework could wait until after the game. She hadn't budged, though as always she'd needed to steel herself against the pain behind his angry hazel eyes. He was only nine…He'd been through so much.…
But dealing with Sean called for discipline and routine, not sloppy emotion and inconsistency. So she'd held firm. As usual, he'd stomped upstairs in a fury and slammed his door.
Most days, after a scene like that, she would send Harry up to remind Sean it was time to shower and put on his uniform. No matter how prickly Sean was with his mother, no matter how sour he'd grown about his former love, baseball, he never took it out on Harry.
The hero-worship of a little brother had once been the bane of Sean's existence, but not anymore. These days, Harry was the only one Sean seemed to trust.
Unfortunately, Harry was playing at a friend's house.
So for just a few minutes more, she wanted to watch the dragonfly, bask in the spring sunshine, and pretend everything was normal. She wanted to pretend that her boys had a father, who at any moment might come whistling around the corner, shouldering a trio of fishing poles. She wanted to pretend that Sean hadn't grown surly and difficult, that he hadn't begun to hate everything he used to love, and that his nights were peaceful under acres of starry Archer sky, not haunted by nightmares of madmen, guns and fear.
A lovely fantasy, but it couldn't last. Too soon the quiet hour was gone. She opened her eyes and saw that the sunlight had abandoned the last inch of courtyard, the shadow of the tiled roofline on the west touching the shadow of the tupelo on the east.
She sat up. Had she just heard a sound…maybe a car coming through the iron gates at the front of the hacienda?
Evelyn, already? Could it really be almost five?
Nora's sister-in-law had agreed to picked up Harry and meet them here so that they could ride to the game together. Darn. Nora had hoped to get the war with Sean over and won before Evelyn showed up to witness it.
Evelyn always meant well, but the older woman always preferred sandpaper to honey, so she and Nora rarely agreed about how to handle even the smallest parenting issues.
Nora was tugging on her sneakers when, suddenly, the air seemed to burst into chaotic sound.
First, the shrill ringing of the telephone. She felt around under the lounger for the cordless handset. Just as her fingers closed around it, a whoosh of air swept through the courtyard, followed by the bang of the massive wood-and-iron front door.
Then voices. Her sister-in-law's agitated alto. "Sean Archer! I told you I want an answer! What have you been doing?"
"Sean!" The short, high-pitched squeal of the housekeeper, Milly. "How did you get out? What happened to you?"
And, finally, the tearful defiance of her older son. "I didn't do it. I don't care what they say. I didn't do it."
Nora flew into the great room, the telephone still ringing in her hand. She determined first that Sean was all in one piece—and so was Harry, who stood holding Evelyn's hand, eyes wide. Clearly upset, all of them, but no one seriously hurt.
Then she noticed that Sean was covered in dirt, and his left cheek was bleeding.
"I found him trying to sneak in through the side loggia. Look at him! God only knows what he's been up to." Evelyn tried to grab Sean's shirt, but he ducked away. "Explain yourself, Sean!"
Nora winced at the tone, which was guaranteed to make Sean—or anyone—mulish. "Honey," she said more gently. "What happened?"
He took one step toward his mother, as though his instinct was to run to her arms. But then he checked himself. His eyebrows drew together, and his jaw jutted out. "I didn't do it. That guy is a liar."
Harry had no scruples about racing over and burrowing his face into his mother's stomach. "Sean's bleeding, Mom. His face is bleeding."
"I see that. But it doesn't look too bad, really." Nora kept her hand on Harry's carroty curls, but she focused her gaze on her older son. She fought to keep her voice calm. "What guy, Sean?"
"Over at Two Wings. That son of a—"
Evelyn, whose weather-beaten face was every bit as grim as her nephew's, raised her palm. "Sean Archer. We don't use words like that."
Nora felt a twinge of frustration. Bad language obviously wasn't the real problem here. Two Wings, a newly constructed private bird sanctuary, was the property next door to Bull's Eye Ranch. But in Texas terms, next door meant maybe a mile away. Could Sean possibly have been at Two Wings while she thought he was safely pouting in his room?
Without meeting Evelyn's reproachful eyes, she bent down and spoke steadily to her son. "What guy at Two Wings? Do you mean Mr. Cathcart?"
"No." He wiped at his cheek, his fist coming away streaked with dark red mud. Nora saw gratefully that the skin beneath was no longer bleeding—a fairly superficial scrape. "I mean Mr. Cathcart's manager. He's probably the one who was calling just now."
Nora glanced down at the phone in her hand. It had given up its demands and gone silent, cycling over to voice mail.
Sean sniffed. "He thinks I killed a bird. But I didn't."
"Killed?" Evelyn's voice roared. "For God's sake, Sean, what did you—"
"I told you I didn't," Sean began hotly.
"Mom," Harry broke in, his voice rising as he absorbed the agitation around him. "Mom, is Sean okay? Does he have to go to the hospital?" The little boy's voice trembled, and his arms tightened around her waist. "We don't like the hospital."
Her heart squeezed hard at the childish understatement, and all the pain that lay behind it. Little boys shouldn't have the kinds of memories her sons had. They should barely know what hospitals were for.
"Of course not," she said with authority. "It's just a tiny scrape."
Harry lifted his face, brightening, but Sean's expression grew darker. His hazel eyes flashed, and his red eyebrows dug down toward the bridge of his nose. "I still want to go to the game."
"You must be joking," Evelyn snapped. "Do you think this kind of behavior will be rewarded by—"
"It's not a reward!" Sean interrupted his aunt without thinking, but Nora cringed inside, well aware that the older woman had already been offended, and would now be doubly so. Every social faux pas the boys committed was proof, in Evelyn's eyes, that Nora hadn't taught them manners…or respect for their aunt.
"I hate baseball." Sean turned to Nora. "But you said it was a commitment, remember? You said when people made commitments they had to follow through, and—"
"This is different."
Nora knew what she'd said, but she also knew the rules about being consistent with your parenting message. Whoever invented those rules must never have been a parent.
"We need to get that cheek looked at. And then you've got a lot of explaining to do. Most importantly, if you've been in some kind of trouble over at Two Wings, we need to talk to Mr. Cathcart."
"We certainly do," Evelyn agreed.
"No!" Sean wheeled on her, his hands fisted. "Not you! Why would you go?"
Oh, God, could this get any worse? Nora tossed her sister-in-law a smile, asking her to understand that Sean was afraid, and undoubtedly ashamed. He loved his aunt. He probably just didn't want any extra witnesses to his disgrace.
But Evelyn didn't understand. Nora could see by the narrowing of her eyes. She looked as if she'd been struck. Evelyn Archer Gellner was a tough Texas widow, pure steel from the inside out. But the boys, her only blood relations left in this world, were her Achilles' heel. They could break her heart by simply twitching away from her kiss.
If only she could lose some of that barking bossiness, perhaps they could enjoy her more. But right now Evelyn's wounded pride was not the focus.
"I want you to go upstairs with Milly," Nora said quietly. "I want you to wash up and change into clean clothes. I'm going to call Mr. Cathcart."
"He's going to be mad. Because his manager is a liar, and—"
Sean recognized his mother's tone, and he took in a huge breath, preparing to throw a fit. But Milly, who had worked at the ranch since Nora's late husband had been a little boy—and, thus, for the duration of their marriage—recognized the tone, too. This discussion was over. She swooped in and took Sean by the arm before he could get out the first furious syllable.
"Come on," Milly said. Sean balked, digging in his heels, but Milly, who could see three hundred from her spot on the scales, just grinned. "You don't want me to have to sling you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, now, do you? With your little brother looking on?"
At that threat, Harry mustered the courage to leave his spot in Nora's embrace. He walked over to his big brother and took his hand.
"I know you didn't kill anything, Sean," he said. "Really. And Mom knows, too."
Born to be a peacemaker, Nora thought with a rush of tenderness. And thank God they had one in the family these days. Evelyn looked like a thundercloud, and Sean's scowl was almost as fierce.
But then Sean glanced toward Nora, and for a minute she thought she saw something else hiding behind the hostility. Something like…hope.
Hope that she believed in him.
In spite of the other sins, the tempers, the sneaking out, the running away and whatever had caused all that mud and blood, he wanted her to trust that he hadn't done anything as terrible as destroy a living creature.
"Harry's right," she said, praying it was true. "I know you didn't kill anything." She ignored the intake of breath from Evelyn, who clearly thought she was, once again, being too soft.
Refusing to meet her sister-in-law's outraged gaze, Nora watched as Milly and the boys climbed the winding staircase, Sean dragging his dirty hand along the iron railing. When they rounded the first curve, she called up the voice mail.
"Nora," an elegant baritone said smoothly, "this is Logan Cathcart. My manager just said your son was at the sanctuary. He was—He'd been—" A short silence. "It's nothing serious, but…I think we should talk."
She shook her head, frustrated, and clicked the button. "He didn't leave any details," she said, for Evelyn's benefit.
She began scrolling through the handset's electronic address book. "I'd better call him and see what really happened. His message said it wasn't serious, but of course he might be trying not to upset me. He's a very nice man, actually."
She had just found the Two Wings's main number when she sensed Evelyn's gaze boring into the top of her head. She glanced up. Her sister-in-law's expression was even more unpleasant than Nora had imagined. It tried unsuccessfully to disguise her real anger as amusement.
"I know you want to come with us, Evvie," Nora said, trying to smile. "But I honestly think we'd do better alone. Sean's pride is one of his problems, and if you see him—"
"Oh, I know you would rather go alone. That doesn't surprise me. I was just surprised that…You have his number on speed dial?"
"What?" Nora looked at the handset, confused. "Whose?"
"His." Evelyn jerked her head toward the phone, as if there were someone in it. "Logan Cathcart's."
Nora's hands stilled on the keypad. She was so shocked, she couldn't think of a single response. Evelyn's face…her tone…
What could she possibly be hinting at?
But then Nora realized her silence sounded guilty. It even felt guilty, which was ridiculous. She had nothing to be guilty about. She hadn't spoken to Logan Cathcart, except to say hello if they passed in town, since Harrison's funeral six months ago.
She'd hardly exchanged ten words with him even then. Or for several months before Harrison's death, for that matter. Occasionally, in the middle of the night, Nora might wrestle with a guilty conscience about the handsome New Englander who had shocked Texas society by turning good cattle acres into a bird sanctuary, but Evelyn couldn't possibly know that.
"Of course I have the Two Wings's number programmed. Why wouldn't I? They're our closest neighbors."
Evelyn's smile was cold. "And he is, as you say, such a very nice man. The kind of man you'd like to see…alone."
Nora set down the phone carefully on the end table beside Harrison's favorite leather couch. She faced Evelyn squarely, and waited for her to explain.
Clearly in no hurry to do so, Evelyn stared back, folding her arms neatly in front of her chest. Though she was almost sixty now, her skin leathered by years of too much sun, she was still a handsome woman. She wore her salt-and-pepper hair cut short and straight around her ears, accenting her black, bright eyes. Her body had been kept young by constant motion.
If she'd ever given a human being the same warmth she bestowed on her Jack Russell terriers, she might have been quite beautiful. In the ten years Nora had known her, though, she hadn't seen that happen.
"I'm not sure what you're trying to imply, Evelyn."
"Of course you are."
Nora hesitated, feeling as if she'd been caught on a dangerous square of an invisible chessboard. She knew that Evelyn didn't like her. For so many reasons—many of them completely justified.
From the outset, Evelyn had been suspicious of a young nobody's motives in marrying a very rich man twice her age. When it was clear she couldn't prevent the marriage, Evelyn had tried to train Nora to deserve the name Archer, but in spite of her best efforts Nora's social skills were slack, her ranching inferior.
She didn't keep the correct distance with the servants, she couldn't manage the appropriate intimacy with the horses and she never made friends easily with Harrison's business pals.
And, of course, there was the matter of Bull's Eye, the ten-thousand-acre horse and cattle ranch that had been the Archer home for generations.
Posted June 9, 2010
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Posted May 20, 2010
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Posted May 24, 2010
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