It’s a Sonora, Arizona, sundown and Brandy Ames has one thought: Where’s a cowboy when you need one? Her skittish Arabian gelding turned tail and galloped off leaving Brandy lost in the desert. Then she sees the flicker of fire over the next rise and follows it straight to the camp of a cattle thief. Rugged and drop-dead gorgeous in weathered suede, Jim is a man of few words. There’s no time for small talk, anyway. An oncoming sandstorm is forcing them to take shelter for the night—in each other’s arms.
Brandy wasn’t exactly prepared for his kiss. Willing? Yes. But what was she thinking? Saddling up next to him, Brandy has no idea that Jim has a secret—one that’s going to make Brandy the envy of every girl she knows. And inflame the wrath of a few she doesn’t. It may have begun as a chance encounter in the desert, but it’s about to explode into the most public romance of the year. If Brandy can take the heat.
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The Americana Series: Arizona
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
A WHISPER OF GOLD danced over the sage, the first promise of sundown. The tufted heads of grass bowed their acceptance as the evening breeze stirred with a rustling yawn.
A roadrunner darted along a parallel course with the gray Arabian gelding as it stepped lightly over the gravelly sand base. The roadrunner swerved abruptly to the cover of some mesquite and disappeared. The touch of the rein against the side of the sleek gray neck altered the horse's direction to the right where the broad flatness of a bare rock held back the desert plants from its section of sloping land.
Metal horseshoes clinked on bare rock. There Brandy Ames checked her mount to a halt and gazed at the unobstructed view the position gave her. A gray ear swiveled toward her. The horse stretched its neck in protest against the tightened rein and impatiently tossed its head.
Cream yellow had begun to encroach on the blue sky. Fingers of orange spread out from the western horizon, changing the color of the shadows cast by the setting sun; even the short curls of Brandy's honey-gold hair had a copper hue.
"I wish I were an artist and could paint a picture as glorious as this." Absently she petted the sleek neck, speaking aloud her thoughts to the horse from long habit. "It changes so magically, though. It's like watching in slow-motion as a flower bud opens into a beautiful bloom." The horse snorted and Brandy laughed softly. "Am I being too fanciful, Rashad? As we get to know each other better, you'll find that I tend to get carried away by the Arizona sunsets."
Looping the end of the reins around the horn of her western saddle, Brandy dismounted with springing lightness, moving with unconscious grace to the head of her mount. There she stopped, spying the first crimson pink strokes that touched the thin trail of clouds scattered about the sky.
A pale golden tan glowed from her sunny features. Round, brightly luminous eyes of turquoise-green were accented by the turned-up tip of her nose and the delicately perfect outline of her mouth. Slightly built, there was a deceptive air of fragility about her that neglected notice of her medium height in favor of slender wrist and ankle bones. The inherent animation in her looks made Brandy attractive, yet the watchful stillness that was forever about her kept her in the background.
If asked, Brandy would have laughed at the idea she might be shy, but there was an air of reserve about her that few had penetrated. Now she was alone and there was no need to be reserved. So she cast it aside.
The horse nudged her shoulder as if reminding her of his presence. In answer, she stroked his face without taking her eyes from the budding sunset.
"Today at the shop Karen was bragging about the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains, how rugged and splendorous they were." A contented sigh accompanied her remark. "She's welcome to all that craggy grandeur, Rashad, and I'll just keep right on falling in love with the Sonora Desert every day at sundown!"
The foothills of the mountains blazed a crimson-orange, set afire by the ball of flame dipping near the earth. The vast expanse of blue sky to the east now displayed a purple cast while the western horizon became an intense red-orange. Her breath was caught by the vibrant splash of color. Her hand trailed away from the horse's face, down to the velvet softness of his nose, then to her side.
The gray nuzzled her shoulder again, impatiently blowing through his nose as his shod hooves shifted restlessly on the barren wind-and sand-smoothed rock.
"Stop thinking about your stomach, Rashad." Brandy tapped his nose smartly when the horse displayed an inclination to nibble the sleeve of her white blouse. "Your oats and hay will still be at the stable when we get back. No one else is going to eat them. Just look at this sunset!" Her hand arced toward the horizon. "You're going to have to learn to enjoy this the way Star did. She kept me company over many a sandwich supper eaten in the desert twilight."
As always the memory of the pinto mare brought a wistful sadness to the corners of her mouth. From the time she could remember as a child, Brandy had wanted a horse, but not until she was ten years old did her parents give in and present her with an eight-year-old pinto mare. They had been an inseparable pair until age finally claimed the mare last summer, a week after Brandy's twentieth birthday.
Rashad, the spirited Arabian gelding beside her, had been purchased this past winter after a dutiful mourning period for the mare, her childhood playmate and friend. Brandy still found it difficult not to make comparisons between the two horses, so totally different in personality.
But Brandy supposed it was natural that at times she did compare the two. Star had been such a vital part of her childhood, a friend, a playmate, a confidant of all her secrets. Not that she hadn't had school friends, because she had. It was just that living here in the country west of Tucson, without any neighbors near enough to count, and an only child, Brandy had come to rely very much on the companionship of her horse.
As she grew up, she had been alone a lot but had never considered herself lonely. Her parents' love and affection had been constant, even if sometimes they marveled that Brandy was actually their child. Both Lenora and Stewart Ames had doctorate degrees in their particular field of study and had professorships at the University of Tucson. Career-minded, they were initially surprised by Brandy's lack of ambition.
Yet their love and wisdom was such that they never tried to force her to follow any particular path. If she preferred pottering around the house and working with her hands, then they were happy in her contentment. If they were ever disappointed because she hadn't chosen to pursue an intellectual path, they didn't show it.
Never once had Brandy felt less than an equal to them because she held an undemanding position as a clerk in an arts and crafts shop and handled most of the household duties. It was true that at twenty, nearly twenty-one, she was a little slow at leaving the nest.
Karen, her closest friend and the girl she worked with at the shop, had urged Brandy to move into Tucson and share an apartment with her. But that would have meant giving up Rashad and the serenity of stepping out of the house into the desert, miles from anywhere, with no other buildings to mar the view of the awesome stretch of sand and sage and sky.
And the sunsets. How she would miss the sunsets if she lived in the city, Brandy sighed. Sometimes she was content to view them from the shelter of the patio behind her ranch-style home. Other times, like now, she felt compelled to ride several miles into the desert to witness this silent eulogy to nature.
Wandering to the edge of the flat rock as if to move closer to the blazing red-orange that claimed the sky, she breathed in deeply. The air around her was cool and still. Soon she would have to slip on the tightly-woven denim jacket tied to the back of her saddle, but fight now the faint crispness was a refreshing change from the afternoon's warmth.
"How spectacular it is," she murmured. "And no sunset is exactly like the ones that came before. It's like a magic kaleidoscope in the sky."
Behind her, there was a pawing of horseshoe against stone, rasping and metallic. Brandy glanced over her shoulder, turquoise eyes dancing to the impatient gray.
"Now if Dad was here, he would give you a very scientific explanation as to why earth has such boldly ostentatious sunsets," she grinned. "You see, Rashad, it all has to do with the earth's atmosphere and the way it filters the light from the sun. The reason the sun seems so intensely bright at noontime is because that's when the light is subjected to the least amount of filtering by the atmosphere because the sun is directly overhead. However, at sunrise and sunset, the sunlight has to travel through more of the atmosphere and the violet, blue and green colors are filtered out, while allowing the reds and yellows and oranges to come through. Further," Brandy continued her mock lecture, "the sunsets are more brilliantly painted because of the amount of dust particles that are suspended in the atmosphere during the daylight hours."
The overall hue of the western horizon deepened to a crimson shade. Brandy hooked her thumbs through the belt loops of her levis and sighed.
"It takes away some of the magic, doesn't it, when you start describing a sunset with words like light rays and filters and atmosphere." She tipped her head to one side in contemplation, feathery curls of honey gold framing her face. "It's much more enjoyable when there's mystery in the wonder of it."
The hush that followed her thoughtful words was broken by a rifle report. Some rancher shooting at a coyote, Brandy started to shrug it off, knowing how far sound carried in the desert, but the cracking explosion wasn't dismissed by the fitful Arabian.
On the heels of the rifle shot came the clattering of hooves on stone, and Brandy whirled around to see the bunching hindquarters of her horse as Rashad bolted toward home. Her first reaction was instinctive. She put two fingers to her mouth and whistled shrilly. Star would have responded to the call immediately, but to the Arabian it meant nothing.
"Rashad!" Brandy started racing after the galloping horse, the graveled earth hampering her attempt to run. "Rashad! Come back here."
But within a few feet, she knew she didn't stand a chance of catching the horse. Even at a distance she could see the arched neck and the ears pricked forward. He was heading home to the stable and the oats and hay. She doubted if he would slow to less than a canter the whole way back.
"You just wait," Brandy muttered, cursing beneath her breath at the total absence of loyalty. "You dumb, stupid—"
There was no need to blame the horse. She ran her fingers wearily through her hair. The fault was hers for not ground-hitching the reins. She deserved the long walk home for being so careless. It was time she recognized that Rashad was not the dependable Star.
At least there was consolation in knowing that her parents had gone out for the evening and they wouldn't be alarmed when Rashad returned without her. Balancing that were the ever-lengthening shadows and the increasing coolness of the air.
On horseback, the five or more miles she had traveled would seem like nothing, but on foot in this terrain it was going to be a very long and cold walk. And a hungry one, too, Brandy thought regretfully, as she remembered the sandwiches tucked in the saddlebags.
She turned for one last look at the deepened red of the sunset. The golden glow of the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the first evening star glittered faintly in the purpling sky. Now the darkness would come with a suddenness. It was a sobering thought to travel the miles home on foot, totally alone and in the dark.
Squaring her shoulders, Brandy started in the direction of home. It was strange how different the land looked when not viewed from the top of a horse. The mesquite and sage seemed thicker and the sloping hill appeared steeper. There was a momentary qualm as she wondered how much different it would look in total darkness, then she thrust the vague fear away.
Briskly she increased her pace. There was the reassuring knowledge that within a couple of miles, or three at the most, she would be able to see the light on the stable roof. It would be a beacon to guide her the last miles home.
So she walked. One minute she was aware of the long shadows and the next there was blackness. The moon was only a tiny sliver in the night sky, its light next to worthless. Stars shimmered dimly, fairy dust that was pretty but not illuminating.
The only sound seemed to be her footsteps crunching through the combination of sand and gravel and the brushing of her levis against the sage and mesquite. It was difficult to avoid the patches of prickly pear cactus. Often she walked into them, discovering too late that the dark mound was not sage-brush. Then she would be forced to backtrack a few steps and skirt the thorny desert plant.
Of necessity, her attention was directed on the ground ahead of her. It was impossible to keep her points of reference in focus at all times. Whenever she stopped to catch her breath, she would quickly scan ahead of her to locate them again. Several times she thought she had lost them, but always she had found them and would start out again.
It was too dark to read the hands on her watch, but Brandy had been positive that at the top of the third knoll she would have been able to see the stable light. She studied the beautiful night sky and the brightening stars.
Could it possibly get much darker? she asked herself. A wry grimace crossed her mouth. It was a pity she hadn't listened more attentively when her father had tried to explain the position of the stars and constellations. She might have been able to use that knowledge to verify her directions.
"Maybe that tall clump of mesquite is blocking the light," she murmured aloud, and trudged forward.
She had no idea how far she had walked already. It seemed like miles, but it probably wasn't. She was beginning to get winded. The temperature had dropped several degrees and she shivered uncontrollably at the cold.
Her head throbbed dully. Brandy blamed it on the increasing hunger pangs in her stomach. When she got home, she intended to have an enormous bowl of that beef stew that was in the refrigerator. The tantalizing picture that formed in her mind didn't lessen the gnawing emptiness within.
About a thousand steps later, she stopped kidding herself. Nothing around her looked even vaguely familiar. Somewhere, somehow, she had turned around. Exhausted and feeling slightly weak from hunger, she sank to her knees, unmindful of the sharp pebbles that bit into her flesh. She was lost.
The next question was how far off-course was she? And should she continue on in the hope that she would sight some landmark that would give her the necessary bearings to find her way home? This wasn't the first time she had found herself lost in the desert. The difference was that before she had always left it up to Star to find their way home when Brandy's haphazard system of navigating had failed.
It was impossible that she could have wandered too far in the wrong direction, she told herself firmly. She rubbed her hands briskly over the gooseflesh that seemed to have permanently dimpled her bare arms. If she continued straight ahead, sooner or later she would either see the lights of her home or run into the graveled road that led to the neighboring ranch house.
She would continue on, she decided. Movement was definitely better than sitting in one place freezing to death. A slight exaggeration, she admitted, since it was unlikely it would get that cold. She knew that the general advice was for a person to stay in one place if they became lost. But she wasn't aimlessly wandering about. She was going forward on a straight path that should either lead her within sight of her home or the graveled road that would eventually bring her to it.
She hadn't traveled very far when she developed a stitch in her side. Pausing, she pressed a hand against the pain and looked around. Off to her left, she thought she had seen the flicker of a light. She had been positive her home was either straight ahead or to the right.
Silently she stood studying the area where she thought she had seen the light, trying to force her eyes to pierce the darkness and the shadowy desert growth. Then she saw it again, wavering and fading, but definitely a light of some sort, she thought gladly.
With new purpose, Brandy set out toward it. This time she paid less attention to where she was putting her feet. A light in the desert had to mean people, although she doubted it was her home.
As she drew closer, fighting the sage and cactus that whipped at her legs, her thick leather boots taking the brunt of the punishment, the light became more definite. Then it suddenly took shape. It was a campfire sheltered in the notch of a hill, probably only visible from her direction. Brandy wanted to laugh at the luck that had smiled on her, but she was too weary to do more than grin breathlessly.
"Hello!" She ran toward the fire, an inner relief bringing a note of gaiety into her voice.
At the edge of the circle of light, a dark form moved at her call, the builder of the fire and her rescuer. The shape stayed in the curtain of shadows as Brandy burst into the ring of light opposite him.
Excerpted from Sonora Sundown by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1978 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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