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A long memory made for bad company when a man had too much time on his hands. Especially when those hands held a sizable number of grudges.
Caleb Cantrell eased up on the gas pedal of the pickup truck he'd rented earlier that morning at the airport. He cut the engine and stepped down from the cab, his worn boots hitting the ground and raising a cloud of dust. First time in ten years he'd set foot in Flagman's Folly, New Mexico, and the layer of dirt that now marked him made it seem as if he'd never left.
Yet he'd come a hell of a long way since then.
Here on the outskirts of town, he stood and stared across the unpaved road at the place he'd once had to call home. After he'd left there, he'd slept in no-tell motels, lived out of tour buses and trucks and, eventually, spent time in luxury hotels. Didn't matter where you went, you could always tell the folks who took pride in ownership from the ones who didn't give a damn.
Even here, you could spot the evidence. Not a ritzy neighborhood, not a small community, just a collection of ramshackle houses and tar-paper shacks. A few had shiny windows and spindly flowers in terra-cotta pots. Some had no windowpanes at all. Here and there, he noted a metalsided prefab home with too many coats of paint on it and weeds poking through the cinder blocks holding it up.
And somewhere, beyond all that, he knew he'd find a handful of sun-bleached trailers, their only decoration the cheap curtains hanging inside. The fabric blocked the view into the units through the rusty holes eaten into their sides.
Sometimes, the curtains blocked sights no kid should see, of mamas doing things no mama should do.
Swallowing hard, he retreated a pace, as if he'd felt the pull of one rust-corroded hulk in particular. It wouldn't still be there. It couldn't. But he had no intention of going over there to make sure.
Across the way, a gang of kids hung out near a sagging wire fence and a pile of cast-off truck tires. Still quiet, but soon their laughter and loud conversations would start, followed by the shouts from inside the houses. Some of the houses, anyway.
The rough edges of his ignition key bit into his palm.
In all the years he'd been gone from this town and with all the miles he'd logged, he should have shoved away everything that bothered him about this place.
He hadn't forgotten a single one of them.
The gang of kids had moved out of sight behind one of the shacks. A lone boy, eight or nine years old, stayed behind and stood watching him. Dark hair, a dirty face. Torn T-shirt and skinned knees. Could have been Caleb, twenty years ago.
The kid made his way across the road. "Hey," he said, "whatcha doing?"
"Just looking around."
"What's wrong with your leg?"
The boy must have noticed his awkward gait, the stiffness that always hit him after he sat in one position for a while. "I hurt my knee. Getting off a bull."
"Thought you were supposed to stay on 'em."
He shrugged. "That one had other ideas." Not too badin those three quick sentences, he'd managed to bypass two years' worth of rehab and pain.
The kid looked away and then quickly back again, shuffled his feet and jerked his chin up high. Caleb recognized the mix of pride and false bravado.
"Hey, mister got a dollar?"
"Sure." How many times had he asked that question himself? How many times had he sworn he'd never ask it again? He reached into his pocket for his wallet, thumbed it open and plucked out a bill without looking at it. "Here you go."
"Wow. Gee, thanks. Thanks a lot."
Caleb grinned. The boy's grubby fingers clutched a hundred-dollar bill. He turned and raced across the road as if fearing Caleb would change his mind. He wouldn't. He had plenty of money now.
Folks in town would sure be surprised to see him again, especially when he started spending that cash. When he started showing them just how far he'd come. Maybe then they'd look at him differently than they had years ago.
His grin fading, he shoved the wallet into his pocket and nodded.
Yeah. He'd show them, all right.
Too early to tackle his first order of business.
Caleb looked down the length of Signal Street, taking in the storefronts along the way. Insurance agency. Harley's General Store. Pharmacy. Ice-cream parlor and clothing store. Everything the same as he remembered it from ten years ago. Except for the real estate office he planned to visit as soon as they opened.
How would Tess handle seeing him walk in the door?
The question stunned him, making him realize he wasn't sure how he'd react to their meeting, either. They hadn't parted on the best of terms.
He turned his back on the office and found himself staring at the Double S Cafe. Not much to look at, just a small square structure made of stucco. But Dori and Manny had brightened the place with pots filled with cactus plants all along the front and painted flowers and vines scrolling around the doorway. Above the door, a sign showed one letter S hooked on to another one. The Double S. That was new since his time.
Slowly, he made his way inside and along the jagged path between scattered tables to the rear of the cafe. He'd spent a lot of time in this cramped but cozy room, way back when, though not as one of the customers. How could he, when most days he went off to school without even any lunch money?
He settled on one of the stools that gave him a view through the open doorway into the kitchen. The owners, Dori and Manny, stood in conversation near the oversize oven. Dori spotted him first, her expression telling him she'd recognized him right away.
They hurried out to the counter.
Manny shook his hand and slapped him on the shoulder.
He stiffened when Dori leaned close to give him a long, sturdy hug. "It's so good to see you, Caleb."
Her voice hadn't lost the trace of Spanish accent that had always flavored her words or its gentle tone. Now he'd grown old enough to tell it masked concern for him. Or pity? He hoped not. She squeezed his hand, and he saw that same concern in her eyes.
"Good to see you, too." He had to clear his throat before he could continue. "Both of you."
"We read about you in the newspaper. We sent you cards."
Had they? If so, he'd left them behind unread when he'd transferred from the hospital to the rehab. He would have to give her the only response he could. "I didn't write to anyone"
"No matter. You were busy with the rodeo. And after that " She shook her head. "You weren't well enough, we know that. The judge called the hospital for more news. That was a terrible accident. Terrible." She squeezed his fingers. "But you're well again?"
How did he answer that?
As far as his body went, yes, he was back in one piece. As "well again" as the doctors said he might ever get. But in his mind and his gut a different story there. All those months in rehab, he'd found himself with a lot of time to think about things. To run through the memories of his life up till then.
To develop a need that wouldn't let him rest.
He couldn't tell Dori about all that.
"I'm fine," he said simply.
"And you've come home?"
He shot a glance around the cafe, recalling the many nights he'd swept the floors and cleared off the tables after the last customers had gone. The small, brightly decorated restaurant had once represented so much to him. A place to work, get a good meal and feel less alone. That might explain what had driven him to come in here this morning.
He'd first talked to Tess here, too. The memory caused his stomach to clench. The fact she worked in the only real estate agency in town made their reunion inevitable. Suited his purpose, too. She'd get a firsthand look at how well he'd done for himself.
He looked back at Dori and Manny, once the only friends he'd had. Almost the only family. But come home?
He couldn't tell Dori that, either.
"Just visiting," he said instead. "And while I'm here," he added, putting his plan into words, "I'm looking to buy some investment property."
"But that's wonderful," Dori said, obviously delighted. "You will find yourself a nice house and want to settle down here."
"I've got a house alreadyon a ranch in Montana." He smiled to soften the words. "But it'll be nice to visit for a while."
A short while.
Seeing Dori and Manny had revived some of the few good memories he had, but they couldn't outweigh the bad.
Once he did what he needed to do, proved he was the equal of anyone else in this town, he'd leave Flagman's Folly behind him again.
Could anything beat showing up for work on a Monday morning and finding a long, tall cowboy waiting on the doorstep?
Yes, Tess LaSalle decided. Unfortunately, cowboys came by the dozen around here. What she needed was one with money.
It was a gorgeous first day of June, worthy of any advertising blurb she could write to attract new clients to
Wright Place Realty. But in their tiny town, there was not a client to be found. Unless ?
Half a block away, she eyed the man leaning against the dusty pickup truck parked at the curb. From his black Stetson to his Western shirt with the shiny pearl snaps, he might have dressed to play a role. Yet one glance at his formfitting, threadbare Wranglers and well-worn black boots plainly announced the truth: he was the real thing.
Whether or not he had cash on the barrelhead remained to be seen.
Still, she hurried along Signal Street toward the storefront office. As desperately as they needed clients, she wasn't about to let this one get away.
"Good morning," she called, digging in her canvas bag for her key ring. "Let me get the office open for you."
"Morning." When she neared him, he held out his hand.
Automatically, she responded. His hand engulfed hers, the roughness of his fingers tingling all her nerve endings. She looked up to find his face hidden by the brim of his Stetson. She could see only a firm jaw and the dark stubble of five o'clock shadow. Another indication of a working cowboy and not a wealthy rancher?
As she watched, he lifted his head and tipped his hat, revealing thick, wavy dark hair and a pair of blazing green eyes.
Tess's fingers trembled in his. She'd have given anything to disappear at that moment. He couldn't have missed her reaction. Just as she couldn't miss recognizing those eyes.
Caleb Cantrell had planned that move to startle her. He'd succeeded, more than he could ever know. Shock warred with guilt inside her.
Belatedly, she realized his hand still covered hers. A treacherous longing to hang on to him stunned her. Appalled by her own emotions, she snatched her fingers away and dropped her arm as if she'd been burned.
She took a long, deep breath and set her jaw. Forcing her voice to remain steady, she asked, "What are you doing here, Caleb?"
He gestured toward the storefront. "That's a real estate office, isn't it?"
Before she could give the obvious answer to his question, a blue van pulled up to the curb behind his pickup truck. Tess's best friend and boss, Dana Wright, emerged from the van. She did a double take at seeing Tess's companion, then marched over to them. "I don't believe my own eyes. Caleb, is that really you?"
"In the flesh."
Good-looking flesh, too, with a nice even tan that set off the whiteness of his smile as he grinned. Tess clutched the key ring she'd finally dug out of her bag.
"Well," Dana continued, "it's good to see you. You remember me? Dana Smith? Now Dana Wright?"
"Of course I remember you. Couldn't forget either of the prettiest girls in town, now could I?" He smiled at Tess.
She stiffened. He was wasting his time. No amount of sweet-talking would ever get her to believe in him again.
Sure, Dana could act natural and concerned. She didn't have Tess's history with the man.
Or Tess's secret.