That's what Marla Gossett sought when she moved to Dry Creek, Montana. She wanted a safe haven to raise her kids, far from the troubles of the past. Then an unusual theft cast suspicion on her family...and brought Deputy Sheriff Les Wilkerson into the struggling widow's life.
In Marla's young son, Les saw a lonely child in need of a guiding hand. In the plucky single mother, he saw a woman he could love. But a crisis threatened to destroy Marla's fragile trust. Unless the deputy could convince her that her family had a special place in the community…and in this bachelor
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Marla Gossett sat in her bare apartment on the one wooden chair she had left to her name. The apartment building faced a busy street in south central Los Angeles, with the constant hum of cars going by. Marla didn't even hear the noise any longer. She'd sold her sofa yesterday and the kids' beds the day before that. She wished she could at least take the beds with them, but they wouldn't fit in the car when they moved. Besides, they all had sleeping bags.
Right now she was in the middle of selling her lamp to the African-American woman who had moved in down the hall a week ago.
Marla had given up on selling the chair she was sitting on. No one was willing to buy it with "XIX" carved into the arm. Not that she blamed them. She felt uneasy just sitting on the thing herself. She had put a notice in the hallway a week ago and several people had asked about the chair until they saw the numbers.
"You'll have a new life away from here," her African-American neighborSusan was her name said softly. Susan was looking at these numbers on the chair. "Your son?"
Marla nodded. She wasn't proud that her eleven-year-old son, Sammy, had carved the sign of the 19th Street gang into her furniture. She told herself it was only natural for young boys to be impressed with the tough guys that ruled their neighborhood. The 19th Street gang was the largest Hispanic gang in Los Angeles. She knew her son was just an onlooker at this point. Other people didn't know that, though, and they were scared to buy the chair even if it was solid oak and had been the finest piece of furniture she owned.
The chair had been a wedding gift, and there was a matching wooden cross that came to hang behind it.
Susan looked up from the chair. "Well, I guess they have gangs everywhere. Where are you going, anyway?"
"A place called Dry Creek, Montana. My husband had an uncle who left us a house there before he died."
"Did your husband get a chance to show it to you?"
Marla shook her head. She had already shared her vital statistics, so the woman knew her husband had died from lung cancer last year.
"Well, at least he left you with something," Susan said in a tone that implied she didn't expect much from men. "Of course, it would have been better if he'd gotten you some life insurance."
"We always thought there was plenty of time." The woman nodded, and Marla wondered how it was that death had become so commonplace. Some days she wanted to scream at the injustice of it, but more often it just weighed her down with its ordinariness.
She had been a widow for over a year, and it still felt like yesterday. She'd married Jorge when she was nineteen, and it hadn't taken long for the blaze of romance between them to settle into a steady flame of affection. At least, she had assumed the flame was steady. That was the way it had been on her side.
The cancer came hard and swiftly. It wasn't until Jorge was gone that she had had time to think about her marriage. Near the end, when he could barely speak, Jorge confessed he'd been unfaithful several times and pleaded with her to forgive him. He said he didn't want to die with those sins on his conscience.
After his diagnosis, Jorge had started praying often and had asked her to move their wooden cross into the bedroom. It seemed to comfort him, and Marla was glad for that. She believed her husband did repent his sins. So what could she do? There was no time to work through her feelings. She forgave him because she had to, and then he lost consciousness, dying later that same night.
When he was gone, all Marla could think about was their marriage. She kept wondering if something was lacking in her, and if that was why Jorge had not loved her enough to be faithful or to even talk to her about his problems. Maybe she didn't inspire love the way other women did.
Even when he'd proposed, Jorge had not made any grand gestures of love toward her. Marla had not thought anything was wrong with that, though; she thought it was just the way he was. Marriage wasn't all about roses and valentines. She'd accepted that. But had she missed some clue? Or were there many little clues she had ignored? Was a woman supposed to keep a tally of things that would tell her if her husband still loved her? How could she not even have known he was unfaithful?
As her feelings for Jorge changed, Marla wondered if she'd ever really known her husband. Still, especially in the past few weeks, she'd wished he were still alive so they could share the problems about Sammy. Jorge might have been unfaithful to her, but he had loved Sammy. What would Sammy do without his dad?
Worrying about Sammy had made her take the cross out of the box, where she'd put it after Jorge died, and hang it on the wall again. Sometimes she'd look at it, searching for the solace her husband had found in it. She wished she could find an answer for Sammy there. The cross didn't speak to her the way it had to Jorge.
"Did you say Montana?" Susan was frowning for the first time.
Marla nodded. She wondered why the mention of Montana was disturbing her neighbor more than their earlier discussion about death had.
"They don't have much color there."
"You mean trees?"
Susan pursed her lips as she turned to study Marla. "No, I mean people."
Marla had combed her hair this morning, as she did every morning. It was freshly washed and fell smoothly to her shoulders. At thirty-five, she knew she was no great beauty, but her skin was light olive, and she'd been told her eyes were nice. Her brown hair didn't sparkle with highlights, but she looked all right. She wondered why Susan was looking at her with such an intense expression.
Her neighbor finally nodded. "You'll do fine, though. I'd guess you'rewhathalf Hispanic?"
"On my mother's side."
Susan kept nodding. "And your son and daughter. I've seen them. They could be white."
Jorge had been half-and-halfHispanic-Anglo as well. That had been one of the things they had in common. "They pride themselves on being Hispanic, especially my son."
Susan grunted. "That's just gang talk. He'll get over it quick enough when he's away from here."
"I'm not sure I want him to get over it," Marla said stiffly. "He should be proud of his roots."
So much had been taken from them. She had to draw the line somewhere.
"Take my advice and blend in," Susan said as she picked up the lamp. "You've got a better chance of getting a new husband that way. Especially in a place like that."
"But" Marla protested. She wasn't sure if she was protesting hiding her roots to find a husband or looking for a husband in the first place. She supposed she would have to marry if she wanted a new father for her children. But she wasn't ready for that yet. What if a second marriage proved only how lacking she was as a woman? There was no reason to believe she'd do any better the second time around than she had the first.
"Trust me. No one wants to have a Hispanic gang member in their neighborhood, no matter where they live. If they don't know you're Hispanic, there's no reason for them to make the 19th Street connection."
"But Sammy's not in the gang. Not really." Susan held up her hands. "I'm just saying these people will be nervous. There was an article in Time magazine last monthor was it Newsweek? Anyway, it was about gangs sending scouts out to small towns to see about setting up safe houses there. They want to have a place to send their guys so they can hide out from the police if things get bad. I wouldn't blame a small town for being careful."
"Well, of course they should be careful, but " Susan looked at the carving on the armchair again and then just shrugged. "I had a cousin drive through Montana a few years ago. If I remember right, he said the population is only about two percent Hispanic for the whole state. How big is this Dry Creek place you're moving to?"
"Two hundred people."
Susan nodded as she pulled the agreed-upon five-dollar bill from her pocket. "Then you and your kids will probably be the token two percent."
Marla frowned as she stood up. She was ready for the woman to leave. "We're probably not that far from a large city. Maybe Billings. There'll be all kinds of people there."
Susan snorted as she finished handing the bill to Marla. "All I can say is that you'll want to take your chili peppers with you. I doubt you'll find more than salt and pepper around there. It's beef and potato country in more ways than one."
Marla slipped the bill into her pocket. "We don't have a choice about going."
She didn't want to tell her neighbor that the police had come to her door a little over a week ago and warned her that Sammy was on the verge of becoming a real member of that 19th Street gang. She figured they were exaggerating, but she couldn't take a chance. She had given notice at her cashier job and started to make plans. She had to get Sammy out of here, even if it made every soul in Dry Creek nervous. At least she would own the house where they would live, so no one could force them to leave. Sammy and her four-year-old daughter, Becky, would be safe. That was all Marla cared about for now.
The neighbor took one more look at the scarred chair. "I guess we all do what we need to do in life. It's too bad. It was a nice chair."
Marla nodded. "I wish you well," Susan said as she started walking to the door. "And, who knows, it might not be so bad. My cousin said they have rodeos in the summer and snow for Christmas. He liked the state."
Marla mumbled goodbye as the neighbor left her apartment. She'd been anxious about the move before talking to Susan. Now she could barely face the thought of going to Dry Creek. But looking down at the arm of that wooden chair, she knew she had to go. She'd lost her husband; she refused to lose her son, too.
She wouldn't hide their ethnic roots from the people in Montana, but she saw no reason to advertise them, either. And, of course, she'd keep quiet about Sammy's brush with gang life, especially because it would all be in the past once she got him out of Los Angeles. She was sure of that. She had to be. Dry Creek was her last hope.