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The small dark room was airless and full of the familiar odors of saddle soap, well-oiled leather, and stale coffee. It began to sway eerily, as if the floorboards were buckling. Becca knew that her knees were beginning to give way, but she couldn't steady herself and she had to clutch the corner of the desk in order to stay on her unsteady feet. Her throat was desert dry, her heart pounding with dread as she stared in horror at the small television set across the room. The delft blue coffee cup slipped from her fingers to splinter into a dozen pieces. A pool of murky brown coffee began to stain the weathered floorboards, but Becca didn't notice.
"No!" she cried aloud, though no one else was in the room. Her free hand flew to the base of her throat. "Dear God, no," she moaned. Tears threatened to pool in her eyes and she leaned more heavily against the desk, brushing against a stack of paperwork which slid noiselessly to the floor. Becca's green eyes never left the black-and-white image on the television but fastened fearfully on the self-assured newscaster who was tonelessly recounting the untimely death of oil baron Jason Chambers.
Flashes of secret memories flitted through Becca's mind as she listened in numbed silence to the even-featured anchor-man. Her oval face paled in fear and apprehension and she felt a very small, very vital part of her past begin to wither and die. As the reporter reconstructed the series of events which had led to the fatal crash, Becca vainly attempted to get a grip on herself. It was impossible. Dry wasted tears, full of the anguish of six lost years, burned at the back of her throat and her breath became as shallow and rapid as her heartbeat. "No!" She groaned desperately. "It can't be!" Her small fist clenched with the turmoil of emotions and thudded hollowly against the top of the desk.
Hurried footsteps pounded on the wooden stairs, but Becca didn't notice. She couldn't take her eyes off the screen. The door to the tiny room was thrust open to bang heavily against the wall, and a man of medium height, his face twisted in concern, rushed into the office.
"What the hell?" he asked as he noticed the defeated slump of Becca's shoulders and the stricken, near-dead look in her round eyes. She didn't move. It was as if she hadn't heard his entrance. "Becca?" he called softly, and frowned with worry when she didn't immediately respond. He took in the scene before him and wondered about the broken cup and the brown coffee which was running over a scattered pile of legal documents on the floor. Still Becca's fearful eyes remained glued to the television set. "Becca," Dean repeated, more sharply.
"What the hell's going on here? I was on my way up here when I heard you scream"
Becca cut him off by raising her arm and opening her palm to silence him. Taken aback at his sister's strange behavior, Dean turned his attention to the television for the first time since entering the room. The small black-and-white set was tuned into the news and the story which held his sister mutely trans-fixed was about some light plane crash in the Southern Oregon Cascades. No big deal, Dean thought to himself. It happened all the time; a careless pilot got caught in bad weather and went down in the mountains. So what? Dean shifted from one foot to the other and searched Becca's stricken white face, searching for a clue to her odd actions. What was happening here? Becca wasn't one to overreact. If anything, Dean considered his younger sister too even-tempered for her own good. A real cool lady. Becca's poise rarely escaped her, but it sure as hell was gone today.
While still attempting to piece together Becca's strange reaction, Dean leaned over to pick up some of the forgotten legal documents. It was then that the weight of the news story struck him: Only one man could break his sister's cool, self-assured composure, and that man, if given the chance, could cruelly twist Becca's heart to the breaking point. It had happened once before. It could happen again, and this time it would be much worse; this time that man had the power to destroy everything Dean had worked toward for six long years.
Silently Dean's thin lips drew downward and his icy blue eyes slid to the screen to confirm his worst fears. He waited while the sweat collected on his palms. A faded photograph of Jason Chambers was flashed onto the screen and Dean's pulse began to jump. It was true! Jason Chambers, head of one of the largest oil companies in the western United States, was dead. Dean swallowed back the bile collecting in the back of his throat.
The news of Jason Chambers' death didn't fully explain Becca's outburst. Dean wiped his hands on his jeans before straightening and then listened to the conclusion of the report. He hoped that the reporter would answer the one burning question in his mindperhaps there was still a way out of his own dilemma. He was disappointed; the question remained unanswered. Dean's jaw tightened anxiously. When the news turned to the political scene, Dean turned the set off.
Becca slumped into the worn couch near the desk and tears began to run down her soft cheeks. She wiped them hurriedly aside as the shock of the newscast began to wear off and the reality of the situation took hold of her. Her hand, which had been raised protectively over her breasts, slowly lowered.
"Are you all right?" Dean asked, his voice harsh despite his concern. He poured a fresh cup of coffee and handed her the mug. "I I think so " Becca nodded slowly, but she had to catch her trembling lower lip between her teeth. She accepted the warm mug and let its heat radiate some warmth into her hands. Though the temperature in the stifling office had to be well over eighty degrees, Becca felt chilled to the bone.
The silence in the room was awkward. Dean shifted his weight uncomfortably. He was angry, but he didn't really know whom to blame. It was obvious that Becca was caught in the web of memories of her past, memories of Brig Chambers and his tragic horse. Dean's lips pursed into a thin line as he paced restlessly in front of the desk while Becca stared vacantly at the floor. A silent oath aimed at the man who had caused his sister so much pain entered his mind. Brig Chambers could ruin everything! Dean coughed when he leaned against the windowsill and looked across the spreading acres of Starlight Breeding Farm. Brig Chambers, if he was still alive, had the power to take it all away!
Dean asked the one question hanging between his sister and himself. "Was there anyone with Jason Chambers in that plane?"
Becca closed her eyes as if to shield herself from the doubts in her mind. "I don't know," she whispered raggedly.
Dean frowned and rubbed his hands over his bare forearms. He pushed his straw Stetson back on his head, and his reddish eyebrows drew together. His blue eyes seemed almost condemning. "What did the reporter say?"
"Nothing the accident had only happened a couple of hours ago. No one seemed to be sure exactly what caused the crash or who was in the plane. The reporter didn't seem to know too much." Becca moved her head slowly from side to side, as if to erase her steadily mounting fear.
"The station didn't know who was in the plane?" Dean was skeptical.
"Not yet," she replied grimly.
Dean ran a hand over his unshaven cheek and pressed on.
"But surely someone at Chambers Oil would know."
Becca sagged even deeper into the cracked leather cushions and toyed with her single, honey-colored braid. It was difficult to keep her mind on her brother's questions when thoughts of Brig continued to assail her. "The reporter said that there was a rumor suggesting that Jason might have had a couple of passengers with him," Becca admitted in a rough whisper. Hadn't Dean heard the story? Why was he pressuring her?
"Who?" Dean demanded. His blue eyes gleamed in interest.
Becca shrugged and fought against the dread which was making her feel cold and strangely alone. "No one seems to know for sure. I told you it's only speculation that anyone is with Jason no one at Chambers Oil is talking."
"I'll bet not," Dean muttered, unable to hide the edge of sarcasm in his words. His eyes turned frigid.
"Maybe they just don't know."
"Sure, Becca," he mocked. "You of all people know better than that. If Chambers Oil isn't talking, there's a good reason. You can count on it."
"What do you mean?"
Dean looked his sister squarely in the eyes and the bitterness she saw in his cold gaze made her shudder. His scowl deepened. "What I mean is that we, you and I, don't know if Brig Chambers is alive or dead!"
Becca drew in a long, steadying breath as she met Dean's uncompromising stare. Her brother's harsh words had brought her deepest fear out into the open and she had to press her nails into her palms in order to face what might be the cruel truth. He can't be dead, she thought wildly, grasping at any glimmer of hope, but fear crawled steadily through her body, making her blood run cold and wrenching her heart so savagely that it seemed to skip a beat in desperation.
She wouldn't allow the small gleam of hope within her to die. "I think that if Brig had been on the plane, the television station would have known about it."
"From the oil company, I guess."
"But they're not talking. Remember?"
"I just don't think that Brig was on the plane." Why didn't she sound convincing?
"But you're not sure, are you?"
"Oh God, Dean," she whispered into her clasped hands.
"I'm not sure of anything right now!" As quickly as her words came out, she regretted them. "I'm sorry I didn't mean to snap at you. It's not your fault," she confessed wearily. "It's all so confusing." Silent tears once again ran down the elegant slopes of her cheeks.
"What are we going to do?" Dean asked, not moving from his haphazard position against the windowsill. Anxious lines of worry creased his tanned brow.
"I don't know," Becca admitted as she faced a tragedy she had never before considered. Was it possible? Could Brig really be dead? Her entire body was shaking as she drew her booted feet onto the edge of the couch and tucked her knees under her chin. As her forehead lowered, she closed her eyes to comfort herself. No matter what had happened, she vowed silently to herself that she would find a way to cope with it.
Dean watched his sister until the anger which had been simmering within him began to boil. His fist crashed onto the windowsill in his frustration. "I told you that we should never have gone back to old man Chambers," he rebuked scornfully. "It was a mistake from the beginning to get involved with that family all over again. Look what a mess we're in!"
"Not now, Dean," Becca said wearily. "Let's not argue about this again."
"We have to talk about it, Becca."
"Why? Can't it wait?"
"No, it can't wait, especially now. I told you that going back to Jason Chambers was a mistake, and I was certainly right, wasn't I?"
LISA JACKSON 15 "I had no choice," Becca pointed out. "We had no choice."
"Anything would have been better than this mess you managed to get us into! What the hell are we going to do now?"
Trying futilely to rise above the argument, Becca attempted to pull the pieces of her patience and shattered poise into place. "For God's sake, Dean, Jason Chambers is dead! For all we know, other people might have died in that plane and all you can think about is the fact that we owe Jason Chambers some money."
"Some money?" Dean echoed with a brittle laugh. "I wouldn't call fifty thousand dollars 'some money.'"
Becca could feel herself trembling in suppressed fury. "The man is dead, Dean. I don't understand what you're worried about"
"Well, then, I'll enlighten you, dear sister. If Jason Chambers is dead, we're in one helluva mess. I don't pretend to know much about estates and wills or anything that happens when a guy as rich as Jason Chambers kicks the bucket, but any idiot can figure out that all of his assets and liabilities will become part of his estate. You and I and the rest of Starlight Breeding Farm are part of those liabilities." Dean took off his hat and raked his fingers through the sweaty strands of his strawberry-blond hair. "There's only one man who is going to benefit by Jason Chambers' death: his only son, Brig. That is, if the bastard is still alive."
"Dean, don't " Becca began. She was visibly trembling when she rose from the couch, but in her anger some of the color had returned to her face and a spark of life lightened her pale green eyes.
"Don't you dare come to the aid of Brig Chambers," Dean warned. "Any praises you might sing in his behalf would sound a little hollow, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, Dean all of that"
"That what? Scandal?" Dean suggested ruthlessly.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Why not? Does the truth hurt too much? Don't you remember what happened at Sequoia Park?"
"Stop it!" Becca shouted irritably. In a more controlled voice, she continued. "That was a long time ago."
"Give me a break, will ya, Becca? Brig Chambers nearly destroyed your reputation as a horse breeder, didn't he? And that doesn't begin to touch what he did to you personally. Even if your memory conveniently fails you, I've still got mine." Dean wiped a dusty layer of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand before striding to the small refrigerator and withdrawing a cold can of beer. He dropped into a chair, popped the tab of the can, and let the spray of cool white foam cascade down the frosty aluminum. After taking a lengthy swallow, he settled back into the chair and cradled the beer in his hands. His cold eyes impaled his sister, but he managed to control his temper. Calmly, he inquired, "You're still carrying a torch for that bastard, aren't you?"