My Outlaw

My Outlaw

by Linda Lael Miller
My Outlaw

My Outlaw

by Linda Lael Miller


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Linda Lael Miller’s rich imagination, robust humor, and stirring sensuality have earned her accolades as one of the “twentieth-century maestros” (The Paperback Forum) of romantic fiction. Now she creates a tale of love so compelling it soars—through the heart of the Old West, and through time itself.

Seven-year-old Keighly Barrow never forgot the night she spied a boy her own age at her grandmother’s Redemption, Nevada, mansion. He was staring at her from an antique mirror in the ballroom, standing among gaudily dressed women in an old-time western saloon. Keighly could only discover that his name was Darby Elder—and that he lived a century ago.

Twenty years later, engaged to be married, Keighly inherited her grandmother’s house. Back before the ballroom mirror, she faces a handsome cowboy whose roguish air radiates trouble. Keighly senses the spirit of Darby Elder—along with an electric charge of passion passing through the glass...and into her heart. But old news clips declare this outlaw son of a local madam would die in a shoot-out. Keighly’s magical connection to Darby is too strong not to try and save his life or, if history will not bend, to love him as fiercely as the fleeting moments will allow.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439107768
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 04/20/2010
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 750
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

About The Author
The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is a #1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than one hundred historical and contemporary novels, most of which reflect her love of the West. Raised in Northport, Washington, Linda pursued her wanderlust, living in London and Arizona and traveling the world before returning to the state of her birth to settle down on a horse property outside Spokane. Published since 1983, Linda was awarded the prestigious Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 by the Romance Writers of America. She was recently inducted into the Wild West Heritage Foundation's Walk of Fame for her dedication to preserving the heritage of the Wild West. When not writing, Linda loves to focus her creativity on a wide variety of art projects. Visit her online at and

Date of Birth:

June 10, 1949

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Redemption, present day

The elegant old house, emptied by the other heirs of everything except the fixtures, one bed, a few boxes of papers and books, and Great-Aunt Marthe's harp, seemed to yawn around Keighly Barrow as she stood in the entry hall, one suitcase at her side.

She bit her lower lip and held back tears, allowing the mantle of ownership to settle slowly over her. Her emotions were mixed: she had always loved this place, and her experiences here had almost invariably been happy ones. Still, its very emptiness was a painful reminder that her grandmother and parents were dead.

Keighly sighed. She owned a small art gallery in Los Angeles, selling other people's paintings and sculptures, and she and Julian had been dating seriously for five years. She had plenty of money, inherited from her parents and carefully invested. There was no reason to hold on to an enormous old house in the near-ghost town of Redemption, Nevada, fifty miles from anywhere, and yet Keighly had not wanted to give the place up.

The reality was that the mansion was literally falling to ruin; it was time to do something -- restore it and put it on the market, turn it into a shelter of some sort, donate it to the local historical society, if there was one...

Or move in herself, and pursue her sculpting in peace.

Keighly shook her head. That last idea was out of the question, of course. She had the gallery to consider, a circle of friends...and Julian. A successful pediatric surgeon, he could not be expected to abandon a thriving practice and start all over in a town so small that even freight trains didn't pass through.

She felt a mild surge of irritation, and suppressed it quickly. She was thirty years old, after all, and she wanted children. But, that required a husband, which was where Julian came in.

Keighly picked up her suitcase and sighed again. It wasn't that she didn't love him -- he was sweet, steady, and even good-looking, if a little on the predictable side. It was just that -- well -- where was all the wild passion she'd expected to feel? Where was the poetry, the romance?

Where was Darby?

At the foot of the broad stairway leading to the second floor, Keighly glanced toward the tall double doors of the ballroom, which stood slightly ajar, remembering the photographs of her grandparents dancing there, Gram in her wedding dress, Grandfather in his coat and tails.

Oddly, a stray breeze stirred the strings of Aunt Marthe's harp just then, and Keighly thought she heard the notes shape themselves into a brief, merry tune.

Brow puckered in a slight frown, she put the suitcase down again and, after drawing a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, proceeded into the ballroom. She glanced at the harp, a large instrument, once spectacular, like the house, but now fallen into disrepair.

Keighly knew she was stalling. On some level, she'd been thinking about this room and its mirrored wall since the last time she'd visited the house, several years before, when she'd been tempted to sell. In the end, she hadn't had the heart, even though the real-estate market had been booming then and her uncles and cousins had all encouraged her to go for the big bucks.

She hadn't seen Darby during that visit, which shouldn't have surprised her, she supposed. There had been no sign of him the day the memorial service was held for her father, or after her grandmother's funeral, either. His absence had seemed like a betrayal, and deepened her already fathomless grief.

She forced herself across the dusty marble floor and stood directly in front of the mirror, in just the spot where she'd first glimpsed Darby, on her seventh birthday.


Unexpected tears burned in Keighly's eyes. "Where are you?" she asked in a whisper.

The harp's strings stirred, and overhead, the crystal teardrops of the Murano chandelier tinkled a soft, almost mystical response. A sweet shiver danced up Keighly's spine.

She was alone, of course.

She smiled ruefully and turned back to the mirror, almost as an afterthought, and what she saw made her gasp.

There was still no sign of Darby, but the saloon was back, crammed with unsavory-looking types in canvas dusters, battered cowboy hats, and mud-caked boots. Stringy hair and pockmarked faces abounded. On a small stage at one end of the room, three women in scanty costumes and garish makeup performed a suggestive dance, while a diminutive man wearing a derby, garters on his shirtsleeves, and high-water pants with suspenders hammered away at the keys of the same ruin of a piano. A fat, mustachioed barkeeper polished glasses, and other men played cards at various tables, most of them armed with long-barreled pistols in battered holsters.

The tableau was completely silent, and yet Keighly felt the faintest vibrations of sound and energy, as though the scene were just barely beyond the reach of her hearing. The colors were vivid; women moved among the tables serving beer and whiskey, as sleekly bright and colorfully plumed as birds from some undiscovered jungle.

Suddenly, desperately, Keighly wanted to step through the mirror, like Alice, and enter that other world.

She retreated a step, swallowing hard. Her own image, that of a tall, slender blond woman clad in bluejeans, a white cotton shirt, and a lightweight tweed blazer, was hazy and transparent. As though she were the ghost, and not the long-dead people on the other side of the glass.

The uncomfortable sense of unreality she so often felt intensified in those moments, making her light-headed.

Holding her breath, Keighly stared through her reflection at the scene beyond.

She took another step back. Instinctively, she knew that the cowboys and the dancing girls and the barkeeper were not specters or hallucinations; they were utterly real, going about their business in their own niche in time, completely unaware of her presence.

Only Darby, she thought with a pang, had ever been able to see her.

Where had he gone?

Keighly dashed at her cheeks with the back of one hand. Maybe he'd died, she thought. What she was seeing was obviously the nineteenth century, and mortality rates had been high there, for everybody. The population was plagued by such killers as typhoid, smallpox, cholera, and consumption, to name only a few. People carried guns, and didn't hesitate to use them.

Of course, they did that in L.A

She shook her head involuntarily, rejecting the idea that Darby could be dead. In almost the same moment, she made up her mind to have a look at the old part of the local cemetery, a place she had assiduously avoided when visiting her dad's and grandmother's graves. Unless Darby had left Redemption, never to return -- a distinct possibility -- there might be a stone or monnument bearing his name and the date of his death.

The spectacle in the mirror began to fade, and Keighly leaped forward again, without thought, pressing both hands to the glass as though to hold on, to stop all those busy strangers from leaving her. A moment later, she moved back again, quickly, and dusted her palms on the thighs of her jeans.

Keighly turned and left the ballroom with as much dignity as she could muster.

Once, she'd visited a psychiatrist in L.A. and told him about the mirror, and he'd diagnosed the phenomenon as an "autogenic hallucination," a condition often associated with migraines. Keighly had explained that she never had a headache serious enough to be described as migraine in her life, only to be handed a prescription fo pain pills.

She'd tossed the slip of paper into a trash bin in the lobby of the doctor's office building.

Even now, she didn't question her sanity. Yes, she was a sculptor and therefore an artist -- Julian said she was hopelessly right-brained -- and she had always had a active imagination. But Darby and the Blue Garter Saloon were not illusions.

Were they?

She was in her old room, studying the naked mattress on the narrow canopy bed with distaste, when the cellular telephone in her purse gave a burbling ring.

Knowing the caller was Julian, Keighly hesitated, then pulled the electronic marvel out of her bag and flipped down the mouthpiece.

"Hello, Julian," she said. Had she sounded snappish? She hoped not, because Julian didn't deserve that kind of treatment. He was only being thoughtful. He was always being thoughtful, no matter what he said or did. He chuckled, and she imagined him in the hallway of Los Angeles' Mercy Hospital, wearing his lab coat and stethoscope over a crisp white shirt and well-pressed trousers. His dark hair would be impeccably combed, no matter how frantic the day had been. Nothing, but nothing, ruffled Dr. Julian Drury, miracle-worker and surgeon extraordinaire.

"I guess I should be grateful you weren't expecting a call from some other man," he said.

Keighly held back a sigh, shoved the fingers of her free hand through her hair. "I'm a one-man woman," she replied, a little flippantly. If you don't count your weird obsession with Darby Elder, taunted some part of her brain that usually minded its own business and kept quiet.

"How was the trip, darling?"

"Long," Keighly answered. "I'll feel better once I've had a shower and something to eat." She glanced at her watch -- it was nearly four in the afternoon -- then at the bed, where her suitcase rested, unopened. Maybe she would check into a motel, just for a few days, until the utilities were turned on and she'd had a chance to buy a cot and some blankets, sheets and pillows. She'd been so anxious to return that she hadn't foreseen the need for secondary lodgings.

Julian would have, of course. He'd have planned ahead. Made reservations.

No, Keighly thought ruefully. The whole trip was a fool's errand to him; he wouldn't have come back at all, if he were in her place.

"Do you know what I think you should do?" he asked, startling her back to attention.

Yes, Keighly reflected, mentally rolling her eyes. Julian meant well, but he could be so pedantic. You've already told me a thousand times, and now you're going to tell me again. And I'll listen because I want so badly to love you. "What?" she asked, in a quavering voice.

"Get a good night's sleep, hire a real-estate agent to sell that monstrosity of a house, and then drive straight back to L.A. Your life is here, Keighly. With me."

She was starting to get the kind of headache that called for a buffered pain reliever, and it annoyed her that Julian had referred to her grandmother's home as a "monstrosity," when he'd never even seen it, but she was too tired to debate the matter. "It isn't going to be that simple, Julian," she replied moderately. "The place needs a lot of fixing up and besides, Redemption isn't exactly the crossroads of the nation. People aren't clamoring to buy property here."

"So hire carpenters and painters and leave already," Julian said, with a sort of blithe peevishness. "Give the place to the town for a library or free clinic, blow it up or burn it down. Just get rid of it."

Keighly waited a beat before answering. She hated it when they quarreled, and being so far apart would make it worse. "What do you care if I own one old house in the desert?" she asked, as reasonably as she could. "You have investment property all over the country, after all."

"That's just the point," Julian replied, with tender indulgence. "I have investments. Holding on to a rickety old mausoleum in a ghost town is not good resource management, Keighly."

Keighly bit her lower lip. "I think we should talk about this another time."

"When, if not now?"

"Julian, I have a headache. I'm tired and I'm cranky and I'm feeling very unreasonable. That's why I am hanging up now. Pressing the End button. Good-bye, Julian. I'll call you in a few days."

His sigh bounced up to some satellite and back down, into Keighly's ear. She visualized the whole process, and it seemed to take place in slow motion. "I'm sorry, darling. You're right -- this is no time to talk about anything important. And I'm being paged, so I'd better go. Get some rest, Keighly."

With that, he was gone.

Irritated with herself, rather than Julian, Keighly switched off the power on the cell phone and tossed it back into her purse. Then, picking up her suitcase again, she left her childhood bedroom and went downstairs to her car. She passed the Shady Lane Motel on the way to the cemetery, and smiled to herself. No concierge floor there, she thought. No room service, and no minibar. But at least the place would be clean, and the VACANCY sign was lit.

Reaching the Redemption Cemetery, Keighly stopped to pay her respects to her father and grandmother before moving on to the weed-filled part of the grounds, where the oldest graves were. Here, there were crooked monuments, weathered crosses, and, occasionally, brass nameplates all but covered in dirt and grass.

Some sites were ringed with white stones or broken bricks, and many had vanished altogether. More than an hour had passed before Keighly found Darby Elder's grave, tucked away in a plot belonging to a family named Kavanagh, and marked with a bronze sundial, half grown over with moss.

It did not surprise her, this tangible proof that a person called Darby Elder had actually lived.

It was the family plot that troubled her.

Maybe, Keighly reasoned, with a strange, deep pang of sorrow, Darby had married a woman of that name. Or perhaps the Kavanaghs had been his mother's people. In either case, she had never heard her grandmother mention that particular clan, and that was odd, since Gram had been an authority on Redemption's colorful history.

She caressed the name with almost reverent fingertips. It was spelled out in large, raised letters, simple and unembellished. Finally, with a sigh, she scraped away the debris in order to read the dates beneath.

Born, 1857. Died, 1887.

Keighly's throat closed over a soft sob, and again tears stung her eyes. It was just plain silly to be kneeling in an overgrown graveyard, mourning a man who'd died over a century before, but there she was.

What would Julian say, if he saw her now?

She smiled a little, despite the sorrow that gripped her, rising awkwardly to her feet, dusting her dirty hands off on her jeans. He'd probably suggest, with a teasing glint in his eyes, that she look into the possibility of having a left-brain transplant, since her own didn't seem to be functioning.

She drove away from the cemetery in a hurry, and stopped at a filling station to wash her hands and face and run a comb through her hair before checking into the Shady Lane Motel. After a consuming a grilled-cheese sandwich from the snack bar in the bowling alley across the street, she went back to her room, bolted the door, took off her clothes, and headed for the shower.

Afterward, she pulled on a cotton nightshirt, brushed her teeth, and fell into bed, attempting to watch television. There was nothing on but syndicated sitcoms and tabloid shows hacking away at tired themes.

Keighly switched off the set and slept, though fitfully, her mind crowded with dreams she would not remember in the morning.

San Miguel, Northern Mexico, 1887

When they finally found Darby Elder, he was playing strip poker with three whores and a corset peddler, and he was losing. Fact was, he'd got down to his drawers and boots, which surprised neither of his exasperated, trail-weary half brothers.

"God damn it, Darby," Will kavanagh growled, sweeping off his hat and slapping one thigh with it in pure annoyance, "why the hell do you have to put us through this kind of shit? It ain't like we're trying to haul you back for a hangin'."

Darby narrowed his eyes, but did not raise them from his cards. He had a lot at stake. He figured the peddler was bluffing, but there was a devilish twinkle in Maria's dark gaze that said her run of luck was holding. She wasn't going to ask for his boots if he lost.

"What about you, Simon?" he asked, around the cigar clenched between his teeth. "Don't you have a piece to say?"

The eldest of the three, Simon was well read, Eastern-educated, and obviously tired of chasing his father's bastard son all over the west, trying to force an unwanted birthright down his throat.

"If it were up to me," Simon responded, "I'd hang you right here."

Darby laughed and rubbed the stubble of beard covering his jaw. Maria wasn't even fidgeting.

"I'm out," the peddler said, probably unnerved by Will and Simon's unexpected arrival and unkind attitudes. He threw down his cards, picked up his satchel full of samples, from which he'd lost a garter and a lace-trimmed camisole, and fled.

Maria's glance flickered toward Angus Kavanagh's sons and heirs, taking in Will's invariably affable, if disgruntled, personage, and Simon's graceful good looks. A slight smile settled briefly on her lips before she turned her concentration back to the game. The two remaining players, Agnes and Consuela, threw in their hands without giving an explanation.

Maria slid a stack of poker chips into the center of the table. "Call," she said, purring the word, knowing damn well that Darby couldn't match the ante.

He spread out his cards. Three tens and a pair of deuces.

Maria grinned and laid down her hand.

Four of a kind, all jacks.

"Shit," Darby said.

"What an utter waste of time you are," Simon commented.

"I love you, too," Darby replied. He still hadn't looked at either of them. Maybe if he waited them out, they'd have a few drinks and then get back on their horses and ride home to Nevada.

Even as he relished the prospect, Darby knew they were about as likely to do that as Maria was to ask for his boots. Before she could say anything, though, Simon tossed a handful of silver coins onto the table in front of her.

"Game's over," he said. "Take your winnings and get out."

Maria looked at the money, a sizable amount from her point of view, then at Darby. With another little smile and a twinkle in her dark eyes, as if pondering the choice, she scooped up the loot, gave the girls the signal to vamoose with a slight inclination of her head, and vanished.

Which left Darby alone with his brothers in the small, private room, wearing only his boots and drawers. He rubbed the back of his neck -- the game had been going on for hours and he was tired and sore as hell -- and finally turned to face Will and Simon.

Will, blue-eyed, golden-haired, easygoing Will, was leaning against the wall, his brawny arms folded, gazing at the door through which Maria and her little helpers had just disappeared. It wasn't hard to figure out what he was thinking.

Simon, on the other hand, stood like a rooster, his canvas duster pushed back at the sides because his hands were resting on his hips. He had dark hair, long enough to curl over the back of his collar, and strange silver eyes that could pin a man to the wall as surely as a sword's blade. It was said that he resembled his mother, a legendary Tidewater beauty, long-since succumbed to the rigors of settling in the wild west.

Will looked like Angus -- or at least, like the youthful image in the portrait of the old man that hung over the fireplace in the big study out at the Triple K -- but his temperament was all his own. Angus was about as good-natured as a grizzly with a forked stick up its ass.

Darby sighed and reached for his trousers, which had been tossed onto an extra chair in a corner of the room. As for him, well, he didn't take after anybody in particular.

"You've got to come back," Will said.

Darby hitched up his pants and buttoned the fly. "Like hell I do," he answered.

"The old man is sick," Simon put in. There was something in his voice -- weariness, grief -- that caught Darby's attention right away.

"What do you mean, he's sick?" Despite it all, he felt a stab of alarm. Somehow, he'd expected Angus to live forever, he guessed. He snubbed out the cheroot in a chipped saucer provided for the purpose.

"Pa wants to see you," Will interjected. He looked pale, under all that trail dirt, and there was no sign of the cussed well-being that usually gave him the look of an overgrown kid up to mischief. "He took to his bed about ten days back. Can't get his breath half the time, and his chest hurts."

Darby snatched up his shirt and turned his back on Angus Kavanagh's legitimate sons to button it. When he spoke, his voice sounded hoarse, though he'd made an effort to avoid that. "Reckon you shouldn't have left him," he said, strapping on his gunbelt and securing the holster to his thigh by a worn strand of rawhide. "What I don't understand is what he wants with me. We've settled all there was to settle, he and I."

He'd barely gotten the words out before he was gripped by the shoulders, whirled around, and flung hard against the wall. The forty-five leaped into his grasp, an automatic response born of years of almost incessant practice, and his hand trembled slightly as be put the pistol away.

Darby and Will had often roughhoused, both as boys and as men, but it was Simon he faced now, Simon he had nearly shot. His eldest brother, usually not given to violence, stood close enough to gut-shoot, his quicksilver eyes glittering with fury.

"You owe him this much, damn your worthless ass, and if you don't go willingly, I swear to Christ I'll have the undertaker sew you up in a shroud and take you home over the back of a packhorse!"

Home. To Darby, home was the Blue Garter Saloon, his mother's fancy whorehouse. The only thing he missed about the place was the image of that girl he'd seen in the mirrors that lined one wall of the dance hall. He'd thought she was an angel for a long time, with her big, gentle eyes and shining blond hair; now he figured she'd been an illusion, pure and simple. Something imagined by a lonely kid.

But he mourned her all the same.

"You mean back to the Triple K," he said. The meaning of the ranch's name had never eluded him: it stood for the three Kavanaghs, Angus, Will, and Simon. No place for a prostitute's by-blow in that equation.

Simon let out an explosive sigh and thrust a hand through his hair. His black hat rested on the poker table, where Maria's ill-gotten gains had been. "Yes," he said, with exaggerated patience, "that's what I mean."

Will's head was down. "He's dying," he said, in a voice that made Darby want to offer some sort of comfort. The trouble was, there was nothing he could do or say that would change anything. Angus was a big, broad-shouldered man, with a full head of white hair and the stamina of a bull bison, but people got old. An accomplishment in itself, in that part of the country.

"You'd better tell him the rest," Will added, when Darby didn't give in. Didn't speak at all.

"The rest of what?" Darby demanded, narrowing his eyes, jabbing his brother's chest with one finger.

Simon thrust a hand through his hair again. "It's your ma."

"What about her?"

It was Will who answered the question, sounding wearier than ever. "She's dead, Darby -- it happened just before Pa fell sick. Some kind of fever." He paused, drew a breath and released it audibly. "I'm sorry."

Rage and something Darby couldn't quite acknowledge as grief surged through him, overrode the effects of the raw Mexican whisky he'd been drinking all day. He slammed both hands into Simon's chest, nearly knocking him off his feet.

Simon did not attempt to defend himself.

"You knew Harmony was dead when you walked in here and you didn't tell me?"


"Take it easy," Will pleaded. "It's the sorta news a man has to work up to. You can't just say a thing like that right out -- it ain't decent nor kind."

Darby let his hands drop to his sides, turned his head away for a moment. Harmony Elder had been a whore, there was no denying that. She'd also been a good mother, in her no-nonsense way, and proud. She'd built a thriving business and held on to it.

"Something has to be done about the Blue Garter," Simon said quietly. "Even if you won't come to the ranch and see Pa, you ought to settle your mother's affairs."

Darby's eyes burned; he told himself it was because of the haze of cheroot smoke that still filled the little room. He cursed under his breath, and it wasn't because be knew he had to go back to Redemption. He'd promised Harmony a long time ago that, when the time came, he'd see that the terms of her will were carried out.

He neither knew nor cared what those terms were.

"All right," he said. "Just let me get my things and settle up a few accounts."

"Tomorrow is soon enough," Simon said, with uncommon gentleness. He started to lay a hand on Darby's shoulder, then wisely thought better of it and drew back.

"It's fixin' to rain," offered Will, who, unlike Simon, had never bestirred himself to go back East and learn to talk fancy. The younger of Angus Kavanagh's two sons loved the ranch too much to leave it, and Darby didn't blame him. It was a glorious place, the Triple K. Nearly seventy thousand acres of timber and cattle land, with two working silver mines thrown in for good measure. The main house was big, a mansion by Redemption standards, but both Simon and Will had sizable spreads and lived under their own roofs.

Will was married, Simon was a widower with a young daughter.

Darby envied them their homes and families far more than their money, or the paternal love of old man Kavanagh.

"Yeah," Darby agreed belatedly. "It's fixing to rain, all right. You'll want to get beds down the street, at the hotel. It's clean enough, and they set out a decent meal."

"We'll ride north in the morning," said Simon. Though he phrased the words as a statement, Darby knew they really added up to a question.

He nodded.

"You could eat with us," Will said tentatively. He'd always been the peacemaker and, in spite of his efforts not to care, Darby liked him.

"I don't need or want your charity," he said coldly.

"We were expecting you to pay," Simon put in, with a wan grin. "I just gave most of my money to that whore -- she was cheating, by the way -- and you know Will's Betsey. She never lets him out of her sight with more than two bits in his pocket."

Darby might have smiled, under other circumstances. As it was, the only thing he had to look forward to at that point was the unlikely possibility that he might see Keighly Barrow in the mirror again, once he got back to the Blue Garter.

He'd caught glimpses of Keighly on and off since he was a kid, but she hadn't put in an appearance in several years. Not since before he took up with the Shingler brothers, in fact. She was a fancy of his and nothing more, however much he might have liked for things to be different, and yet the longing to see her again, when it came to him, was a savage ache, rooted somewhere behind his heart.

Even now, with the news still fresh in his ears that his mother had died and the man who had sired him would soon follow, it was Keighly he wanted to turn to for solace.

It had taken Keighly three days to get the lights and water turned on in the old house, and she was sleeping in the ballroom on a cot from the camping department of the hardware store.

She was happier than she'd been in a very long time.

The peace and quiet was blissful, and she might have gone so far as to turn off her cell phone and let the battery go dead if she hadn't known Julian would get upset if he couldn't reach her and either send out a search party or come to fetch her himself.

She didn't want to go anywhere, except maybe to Las Vegas, the nearest city of any size, to buy clay and a new set of sculpting tools. Her hands ached to shape something fresh and new, something born of her own soul.

A desert storm was brewing, complete with thunder and spectacular flashes of lightning, when Julian called. Keighly was standing at the French doors at the far end of the ballroom, eating fast-food chili out of a paper container and watching the spectacle, when the telephone rang.

Reluctantly, she answered. The transmission was crackly, and Julian's voice sounded hollow, as though he were calling from another planet, instead of the next state. At the moment, Keighly was thinking in terms of Pluto.

"Hello," she said, balancing the phone between her shoulder and ear.

"I can hardly hear you!" Julian screamed good-naturedly.

Keighly flinched, forced herself to smile. "There's a storm," she said, and took another bite of chili.

"What did you say?"

She chewed hastily and swallowed. "I said, THERE'S A STORM!"

"When are you coming home?"

Keighly suppressed a sigh. "I don't know," she answered. "I need to stay here for a while, Julian. I can't explain it. I just need to stay."

Julian was silent for so long that Keighly thought they'd been cut off. Then, resignedly, he said, "I'm coming over there."

"No," Keighly said, quickly and with a firmness she usually reserved for cheeky-shipping clerks and rude waiters.

"What did you say?"

Lightning sliced the sky and filled the ballroom with light. The harp sang and the chandelier made soft, crystalline music. And then the room was dark.

"I don't want you to come here, Julian," Keighly explained. The house was big and empty, but even with the power off, it wasn't spooky. She felt a strange, expectant buzz in the pit of her stomach, as though something important were about to happen, and strolled over to the mirror.

No sign of Darby or the Blue Garter Saloon.

"Keighly, what's happening here?" Julian asked, sounding baffled. "Are you trying to tell me, by any chance, that you don't want to see me anymore?"

"No!" Keighly said, so vehemently that she was embarrassed. Without Julian, there would be no family, no babies, no house filled with laughter and squabbling and light. "No," she repeated, more circumspectly. "I'm not saying that at all. It's just that -- well -- it's so quiet here, and Los Angeles is so hectic. It feels marvelous just to take a break from the smog and the freeways."

"And me," Julian said forlornly.

"No," Keighly insisted. But she wasn't so sure this time, and she knew Julian was perceptive enough to discern that, in spite of poor electronic reception.

"Maybe this will be good for both of us." He sounded slightly stiff, distant. She'd hurt his feelings, and she hated herself for it.

"It's not like I'm dating anybody," Keighly pointed out.

Julian made no comment. He'd accused her, during past arguments, of withholding a part of herself from him, and she knew he was thinking of that now. "Call me when you're ready to talk," Julian replied, after a short pause. "You've got my pager number." With that, he disconnected.

Keighly stared at the small receiver in her hand for a few moments, seeing her fantasy children disappear, one by one, from the imaginary family photograph she carried in her head. She almost called Julian back right then, to tell him she was packing her things and returning to L.A. immediately, but something stopped her.

It was the faint sound of a train whistle.

Frowning, Keighly closed the phone and set it aside on a windowsill, along with her plastic spoon and half-finished meal. She waited, listened intently, and, in between claps of thunder, heard the plaintive wail again.

Shaken, she went to her cot, dragged it a few feet nearer to the mirrored wall, and sat down to wait. There was nothing weird about hearing a train whistle, she reflected, her heart thumping against her breastbone, unless you happened to know that the old depot had burned down in 1952 and there weren't any tracks inside of thirty miles.

Copyright © 1997 by Linda Lael Miller

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