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By LISA JACKSON
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Lisa Jackson LLC
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBad Luck, Texas
Heat sweltered over the dry acres of range grass. Shade was sparse, the smell of dust heavy in the summer air. Nevada Smith took aim. Closed his bad eye. Squeezed the trigger.
The old Winchester kicked hard against his bare shoulder, and his target, a rusting tin can, jumped off its fence post to land on the hard ground. The longhorns in the next field didn't so much as twitch, but a warm feeling of satisfaction stole through Nevada's blood as he took a bead on the next target, an empty beer bottle he intended to shatter into a million pieces.
He hoisted the rifle again. Cocked it. Set his jaw and narrowed his eyes. His finger tightened over the trigger, but he hesitated.
He sensed the truck before he heard it. As he craned his neck, he spied a plume of dust trailing the fence posts along the lane just as he heard the rumble of a pickup's engine. Squinting through scratched Foster Grant lenses, he studied the make and model and recognized Shep Marson's red Dodge.
What the hell did that old bastard want? Shep was a deputy with the Sheriff 's Department, a hard-ass who was leaning heavily toward running for county sheriff. As crooked as a crippled dog's hind leg, Shep was a nephew of a county judge, was married to the daughter of a once-rich cattle rancher and was about to be elected by a landslide. Crime in this neck of Texas Hill Country was about to take an upswing.
Nevada's nerves were strung as tight as bailing twine, and it wasn't just because Shep was one mean, bigoted son of a bitch who had no business being this far out of his jurisdiction.
The simple fact of the matter was that Shep just happened to be Shelby Cole's shirttail cousin, a man with whom Nevada had worked briefly and a man who had once threatened him at gunpoint. Nope, there never would be any love lost between Nevada and Shep.
Hauling the rifle in one hand, Nevada walked past an old rose garden with overgrown bushes going to seed. He snagged the worn T-shirt he'd hung over a fence post and hooked it with one finger, slinging the faded scrap of cotton over his shoulder.
A wasp was working busily building a nest in the eaves of the two-room cabin he called home, and his crippled old dog, a half-breed with more border collie than Lab in him, lay in the shade of the sagging front porch. His tail gave a hard thump to the dirt as Nevada passed, and he lifted his head and gave off a disgruntled "woof " at the sound of the Dodge.
"Shh. It'll be all right," Nevada lied. He tried and failed to ignore the throb of a hangover that had lingered past noon and seemed to get worse rather than better as the sun rode high in the western sky and heat shimmered in undulating waves as far as the eye could see. Nevada's stomach clenched as the truck roared closer. His bad eye ached a bit, and he swatted at a stupid horsefly that hadn't figured out that the herd was three hundred feet west, huddled behind a thicket of scrub oak and mesquite trees, each lazy horse standing nose to buttocks with another and flicking at flies with its tail.
Marson's truck slid to a stop in front of the old toolshed and he cut the engine.
The muscles at the base of Nevada's neck tightened—the way they always did when he was confronted by the law. At one time he'd been a member of the ranks; now he was an outcast.
Shep climbed from behind the wheel. A big bear of a man whose lower lip was always extended with a chaw of tobacco, Shep sauntered around the front of his bug-spattered truck. In snakeskin boots, faded jeans and a Western-cut shirt that was a little too tight around his belly, Shep made his way up the dusty path leading to the cabin. Two cans of Coors, connected by plastic strapping that had once held six sixteen-ouncers, dangled from his thick fingers.
"Smith." He spat a stream of black juice through his front teeth as he reached the gate. "Got a minute?"
"Is this official business?"
"Nah." Shep wiped the back of his free hand over his lips. The beginning of a mustache was visible on the freckled skin over his upper lip. "Just two old friends chewin' the fat."
Nevada didn't believe him for a second. He and Shep had never been friends—not even when they'd been part of the same team. They both knew it. But he held his tongue. There was a reason Marson was here. A big one.
Shep yanked one can from its holder and tossed it to Nevada, who caught it on the fly. "Hell, it sure is hot," Shep grumbled, popping the top and listening to the cooling sound of air escaping. With a nod he hoisted the can and took a long draught.
"It's always hot." Nevada opened his beer. "Summer in Texas."
"Guess I forgot." Shep chuckled without a drip of humor. "C'mon, let's sit a spell." He hiked his chin toward the front porch where two plastic chairs were patiently gathering dust. Sweat trickled down the side of Shep's face, sparkling in skinny sideburns that were beginning to gray. "Y'hear about old Caleb Swaggert?" he asked, eyeing the horizon where a few wisps of clouds gathered and the dissipating wake of a jet sliced northward.
The warning hairs on the back of Nevada's neck prickled. He leaned against a post on the porch while Shep settled into one of the garage-sale chairs. "What about him?"
Shep nursed his beer for a few minutes while looking over the eyesore of a ranch Nevada had inherited. With a grunt, he said, "Seems old Caleb's about to die. Cancer. The docs up in Coopersville give him less than a month." Another long swallow. Nevada's fingers tightened over his Coors. "And lo and behold, Caleb says he's found Jesus. Don't want to die a sinner. So he's recantin' his testimony."
Every muscle in Nevada's body tensed. Through lips that barely moved, he asked, "Meanin'?"
"That Ross McCallum is a free man. Caleb's testimony sent the ol' boy to prison in the first place, his and Ruby Dee's. Ever'b'dy in these parts knows what a lying whore Ruby is, and now it looks like she might admit that she was just settin' Ross up."
Nevada felt sick inside. A bit of a breeze, hot as Satan's breath, brushed the back of his neck.
Shep hoisted his can again, nearly drained it. "Now I know it was you who arrested the sum-bitch, Smith, you who sent him up the river, but I thought I should let you know Ross's gonna be out in a couple a days, dependin' on who's reviewin' the case, and I don't have to tell ya that he's got a short fuse. Hell, he was in more fights around here when he was growin' up than you were. Half the time they were with you. Ain't that right?" When Nevada didn't answer, Shep nodded to himself and took another long swallow, finishing the Coors. "When he gits out, he's gonna be mean as a wounded grizzly." Holding the can, he managed to point an index finger at Nevada. "No doubt he'll come lookin' fer you." Crushing the empty sixteen-ouncer in one meaty fist, Shep added, "The way I figger it, forewarned is forearmed. Y'know what I mean?"
"Good." He tossed his empty onto the half-rotten floorboards of the porch and stood. "Y'know, Nevada, I never did understand it much. You two were best friends once, right? He was the quarterback on the football team and you his wide receiver. Well, before he got throwed off. But what happened between you two?"
Nevada lifted a shoulder. "People change."
"Do they now?" Shep's lips flattened over his teeth. "Maybe they do when a woman's involved."
Shep walked down the two steps of the front porch and then, as if a sudden thought had struck him, turned to look over his shoulder. "That's the other news, son," he said, and his tone was dead serious.
"There's a rumor that Shelby's headin' back to Bad Luck."
Nevada's heart nearly stopped, but he managed to keep his expression bland.
"That's right," Shep said as if talking to himself. "I heard it from my sister. Shelby called her this mornin'. So, if she does happen to show up, I don't want no trouble, y'hear? You and Ross did enough fightin' over her years ago. I remember haulin' both of you boys in. You were cut up pretty bad. Lost your eye. Ended up in the hospital. And Ross, he had a couple a cracked ribs and a broken arm after wrasslin' with ya. Seems to me he swore he'd kill ya then."
"He never got the chance."
"'Til now, son." Shep glanced around the sorry yard and drew a handkerchief from his back pocket. He mopped his face, and the grooves near the corners of his eyes deepened as he squinted. "Like I said, I just don't want no trouble. I'm gonna run fer sheriff of Blanco County next year, and I can't have my name associated with any wild-ass shit."
"Don't see how you'd be."
"Good. Let's just keep it that way." He started toward his truck again, and Nevada told himself that he should just let sleeping dogs lie, pretend no interest, seal his lips. But he couldn't.
"Why's Shelby comin' back to Bad Luck now?" he asked.
"Now, that's a good question, ain't it?" Shep paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Sweat stained the underarms of his shirt. "A damned good question. I was hopin' you might have an answer, but I see ya don't." He looked off into the distance and spat a long stream of tobacco juice at the sun-bleached weeds growing around the base of a fence post. "Maybe Ross knows."
Nevada's headache pounded.
"Seems odd, don't ya think, that both he and Shelby are gonna be back in town at the same time? Kind of a coincidence."
More than a coincidence, Nevada thought, but this time, he held his tongue as the older man ambled back to his truck. As far as Nevada could see, Shelby Cole—beautiful, spoiled, the only daughter of Judge Jerome "Red" Cole—had no business returning to the Texas Hill Country. No damned business at all.
Shelby stepped hard on the gas pedal of her rented Cadillac. Brush, scrub oak, dying wildflowers and prickly pear cactus flew past as she pushed the speed limit. Road kill, predominantly armadillos with a few unlucky jackrabbits thrown in, was scattered along the gravel shoulder of the highway. It reminded her that she was closing in on Bad Luck, a tiny town not far from Austin, a town she'd sworn she'd never set foot in again.
The sunroof was open, harsh rays beating down on the top of her head, strands of her red-blond hair yanked from the knot she'd twisted to the base of her skull. She didn't care. She'd kicked off her high heels at the airport and was driving barefoot, her eyebrows slammed together in concentration, the notes of some old Madonna song barely piercing her consciousness.
She took a corner a little too fast, and the tires on the Caddy screeched, but she didn't slow down. After ten years of being away, ten years ostracized, ten years of living life her way in Seattle, she couldn't wait to pull up to the century-old home where she'd been raised. Not that she'd stay long. Just do her business and get the hell out.
Her fingers tightened over the wheel. Memories flooded her mind, memories that were trapped in another time and space, recollections of promises and lies, making love in a spring thunderstorm and feeling the aftershocks of betrayal. And then the grief. The soul-shattering grief that still in the long lonely nights returned to scrape at the hollow of her heart. She swallowed hard. Refused to walk down that painful path.
She snapped off the radio and shoved a pair of sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose. Right now she didn't need to hear anything the least bit maudlin or romantic. Not today. Probably not ever. She glanced at the bucket seat next to her, where she'd tossed her briefcase. From the side pocket, the corner of a manila envelope was visible; inside was a letter—written anonymously—with a San Antonio postmark. It was the reason she'd demanded a leave of absence from the real estate company where she was employed, packed one overnight bag, driven to Sea-Tac Airport and taken the first available flight to Austin.
Less than twenty-four hours from the time she'd received the damning letter, she was driving through the grid of streets in the center of the small town she'd called home for the first eighteen years of her life.
Nothing much had changed in Bad Luck.
The drugstore looked the same, down to the original hitching post still planted in front of the side door. With a wry smile, she remembered carving her initials in the underside of that same post and wondered if they were still there, aged by time and weather, a silly little carving that proclaimed her love for a man who had ended up breaking her heart.
"Fool," she muttered, stopping at the single red light in town and waiting as a pregnant woman pushed a stroller with a crying toddler across the street. Heat rose from the pavement, distorting her vision and threatening to melt the asphalt. Lord, it was hot here. She'd forgotten. Sweat prickled her scalp and the air seemed heavy as it pressed against her cotton blouse. Beneath her khaki skirt her skin was moist. She could close the damned sunroof, roll up the windows and blast the air-conditioning, but she didn't want to. No. She wanted to remember Bad Luck, Texas, for the miserable scrap of ground it was. Named appropriately by an old prospector, the town had grown slowly and only a few of the citizens had prospered—her father being the most visible. Once she'd shaken the dust of Bad Luck from her heels, she'd sworn she'd never return.
And yet she was back.
With a vengeance.
Unerringly she drove down sun-baked side streets and turned the corner at a cement-block motel boasting low rates, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi and cable TV, then nosed the Caddy past a mom-and-pop grocery where scattered cars glinted in the pockmarked lot. Farther on, past small bungalows, some with FOR RENT signs in the windows, the street curved around a statue of Sam Houston in the park and wound through a residential area where shade trees offered some relief from the sun and a few of the older homes had a veneer of nineteenth-century charm.
Far from the center of town, closer to the hills, were the more prestigious and widely scattered homes.
Her father's Victorian was the grandest of the lot, a mansion by Bad Luck standards. Nestled on five acres in the sloping hills a mile from town, with a creek meandering through ancient pecan trees, the house was three stories of cut stone and brick, flanked on all sides by wide, covered porches. Ornate grillwork and tall windows were graced by hanging baskets of fuchsias exploding with color. The grass was cut, green and edged, the flowering shrubs trimmed, and she imagined that the kidney-shaped pool in the back was still a shimmering man-made lake of aquamarine, a testament to Judge Red Cole's wealth, power and influence.
Shelby frowned and remembered the taunts she'd heard as a child and teenager, the whispered words of awe and scorn that she'd pretended had never been uttered.
"Luckiest girl west of San Antonio."
"Can you imagine? She has anything she ever wanted. All she has to do is ask, or blink her baby-blues at her daddy."
"Rough life, eh, darlin'?"
Cringing even now as she had then. Shelby felt her cheeks burn with the same hot shade of embarrassment that had colored them when she'd been told not to play with Maria, the caretaker's daughter, or warned that Ruby Dee was a "bad girl" with a soiled reputation, or learned that her Appaloosa mare was worth more than Nevada Smith had made in a full year of working overtime at her father's cattle ranch located eight miles north of town.
No wonder she'd run. She braked at the garage, slipped on her heels, cut the engine and tossed the keys into her briefcase. Muttering, "Give me strength," under her breath to no one in particular, she climbed out of the car, ignored the fact that her blouse was sticking to her back and marched up the brick walk to the front of the house. She didn't bother raising the brass knocker that was engraved proudly with the Cole name as she remembered the sickening spoof of a nursery rhyme she'd heard in grade school.
Was a nasty old soul
And a nasty old soul was he.
He called for his noose
And he called for his gun
And he called for his henchmen three.
The front door opened easily and the smells of furniture polish, potpourri and cinnamon greeted her. Italian marble, visible beneath the edges of expensive throw rugs, gleamed as sunlight streamed through tall, spotless windows.
"Hola! Is someone there?" an old familiar voice asked in a thick Spanish accent. From the kitchen, soft footsteps sounded, and as Shelby rounded the corner to the kitchen she nearly ran smack-dab into Lydia, her father's housekeeper.
Excerpted from UNSPOKEN by LISA JACKSON Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Jackson LLC . Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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