His first love. Mark Peterson had never gotten over Jillian Salvini's desertion ten years ago. She and her family had left in the middle of the night. Mark's heart hadn't recovered. Now that she was back, was a second chance possible?
Her son's father. When Jillian and her son, Drew, reclaimed her family's Panhandle homestead, she'd never expected there would still be a Peterson in residence next door. Of course, she'd never expected her ranch to be sabotaged. Or to find out what had terrified and made enemies of her father and Mark's so long ago.
Finders Keepers: bringing families together
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Like a whipped dog with his tail between his legs, Mark Peterson thought, fighting the bitterness that always boiled up to the surface when he approached the ranch from this direction.
He dropped the chopper low enough that its powerful rotor kicked up dust from the arid ground below. There were no power lines or trees to worry about in this desolate terrain, and it had become his habit to low-level over the Salvini ranch whenever he was coming in from the west.
After a few pointless trips across the deserted ranch, which stirred up memories as well as dust, Mark had given up trying to figure out his motives for doing this. Maybe it was simply a form of masochism. Or maybe it was the fact that this was the last place on earth where he still felt a connection to Jillian. And that in itself was a totally different kind of masochism.
He had never forgotten her, of course, but since he'd come back to Texas, back to his family's land, all those memories had become stronger. And much harder to deal with.
The For Sale signs were still up, he realized, which meant that the price on the property hadn't yet dropped enough to make the co-op snap it up as they had most of the land around here. It would soon, of course, because the people who currently owned the ranch would be increasingly eager to get out of it whatever they could and move on with their lives.
The house had been unoccupied for a couple of months and was beginning to show the effects. Despite the fact that the last owners couldn't afford to hold on to the ranch, they had at least kept it in good shape. Now
Mark eased the cyclic back, bringing the nose of the helicopter up, and increased the pitch. As the chopper rose and then leveled out, he forced his eyes away from the familiar buildings spread out across the flat High Plains countryside below. He didn't need to look at them. He knew every square mile of that ranch almost as well as he knew the one next door. The one where he had grown up.
It already belonged to the cooperation, as did most of those in the area that had come on the market in the last few years. Few individuals could afford the investment it took to make ranching up here a financial success. The cooperation had the backing of a couple of major banks and the monetary wherewithal to ride out the volatile ups and downs of the cattle market.
Families didn't. They couldn't afford to hold on through the hard times. That's why more and more land was being sold to groups such as the one he now worked for. And as much as Mark hated to see that happen, he couldn't blame anyone for choosing a less heartbreaking road than the one that had broken his father.
The thromping blades of the rotor startled an antelope into flight. It raced along under the shadow of the copter for a few hundred feet before it veered off to the right and disappeared beneath him.
Mark's lips slanted with the pleasure of watching that brief display of grace and power. The country below was too dry and forbidding for much of the wildlife that flourished farther south. Of course, the High Plains were different enough from the rest of Texas that they were almost a separate entityone Mark loved with a passion that rivaled his father's.
Although the doctors had put his dad's death down to a stroke, Mark knew that bitterness and failure had played as big a role as his physical condition. A longtime widower, deeply estranged from Mark, who was his only child, Bo Peterson had died a lonely and sour old man. And if he wasn't careful, Mark told himself, coming in now over the ranch that had killed his father, that could be his own epitaph as well.
In contrast to the old Salvini place, the buildings below showed the effects of having enough money. There were only a few hands, including himself, living on the ranch now that the fall roundup was over, but it still had the well cared for air that all of the co-op's properties possessed.
He wondered how his father would have felt about that. He sometimes wondered how he himself felt about it.
He set the chopper down with the ease of long practice. Even after he had completed the shutdown procedures, he remained in the comfortable warmth of the enclosed cockpit, delaying a moment because he dreaded the bite of the November wind, despite the protection of the leather jacket he wore.
There was nowhere in Texas as prone to bitter cold as the top of the Panhandle. The frigid gusts from the north swept ruthlessly across the flat landscape, chilling to the bone.
And his bones were a lot more susceptible than they had been before he'd left here ten years ago, Mark acknowledged. He remembered the pleasure he had once taken in a long day of hard physical labor or in the equally demanding leisure pastimes.
It had been a long time since he'd wrestled a steer or done any saddle bronc riding. And, he admitted ruefully, his lips quirking slightly, it would be a hell of a long time before he did either again.
He climbed out, feeling the jolt of the short step to the ground in every one of the damaged vertebrae of his spine. He gritted his teeth against the pain, trying to stretch out his back unobtrusively as he walked away from the chopper.
Too many hours in the cockpit without a break. He wasn't making any complaints, though. Flying was the only activity he had ever found that he loved with the same passion he had once felt for rodeoing. He had been strictly an amateur, not nearly on a level to go pro, but he had been good enough to win some of the local prizes.
And good enough to win a few admiring glances from the women and slaps on the back from the men of the close-knit ranching communities of the Panhandle. Those had meant more to him than the money or trophies he'd won.
Especially at the last, when some of those glances had come from the doe-brown eyes of the once skinny little girl who had tagged along at his heels, hero-worshiping him the whole time they'd been growing up. Tagged along until in the space of one year, while he'd been away at college, Jillian Salvini had become a woman. A woman he'd seen with newly awakened eyes and fallen head over heels in love with.
''Back mighty late, boy,'' Stumpy Winters yelled from the door of the bunkhouse. ''Boss been calling you. He said for you to be sure and give him a ring when you get up to the house.''
Mark waved an acknowledgment to the old man, hunching his shoulders against a blast of wind that carried with it a stinging assault of dirt. Most nights he stopped at the bunkhouse to talk, delaying the lonely hours he would spend in his father's house until it was time for bed. Tonight he needed to take a hot shower and stretch out his aching back more than he needed company.
Stumpy wouldn't be offended. The old man had known him from the time he had ridden his first horse. Actually, he wasn't sure Winters hadn't been the one who'd put him up on that swayback.
Out of sight of the bunkhouse now, Mark slowed his pace, stretching his spine again. He climbed the three steps that led to the ranch house's back stoop as if he were as old as Stumpy.
Once inside, he shut the door, blocking out the howl of the wind. Closing his eyes, he leaned back in relief against the solid wood behind him.
After a moment he straightened and walked across the kitchen, boot heels echoing on the vinyl-covered floor. He filled the glass standing beside the old-fashioned enamel sink and drank down the same clear, sweet well water of his childhood in a couple of long thirsty drafts. As he stood there drinking his water, he noticed that the shadows were beginning to lengthen over the yard, revealed through the windows above the sink.
He wondered idly what Tom Shipley wanted. Probably instructions about another errand to be run tomorrow. That was mostly what the chopper was used for during periods when cattle weren't being moved. Bringing in supplies and shuttling guests from the airports in Amarillo and Lubbock out to the spread the co-op ran as a dude ranch. Or taking its owners, like Shipley, into market or meetings. Occasionally doing medevac duties for the few injuries that required more than the first aid available on the ranches themselves.
He put down the glass and turned to face the phone on the opposite wall. Make the call, get squared away with Shipley, and then grab a hot shower, he promised himself, imagining the heat relaxing muscles tensed by a long day in the air.
Maybe tensed even further by that little side trip into the past he took every time he flew over the Salvini place. Tensed every time he thought about Jillian. Which had been too often lately for his peace of mind. Especially since he'd come home.
Home, he thought, glancing around his mother's kitchen. Not all that much had changed about it since she'd died. Just over twenty years ago, he realized with a small sense of disbelief.
There was a different color of paint on the walls. New curtains on the windows he'd been looking out. But the scarred wooden table and four chairs were exactly the same. He could still remember the night he'd brought Jil-lian here so they could tell his dad
He stopped the playback of that image, closing his eyes against the painful strength of it. Too damn many memories. Too many ghosts. And none of them, except maybe his mother's, would rest easy with him living here. He pushed away from the counter and walked over to the phone.
After he'd dialed Shipley's number, he stood listening to the distant ringing, his eyes once more considering the chair where Jillian had sat that night. When he realized what he was doing, he turned around, facing the wall instead. And he knew that action was a physical enactment of what he needed to do mentally. To turn his back on the past.
He had been here long enough to know that coming home had been a mistake. It was time to start looking for another job. Time to move on. Time to forget about what had happened here and to get on with the rest of his life.
After all, he thought, the bitterness surging relentlessly to the surface again, that's exactly what she had done. Jil-lian Salvini had turned her back on him and everything that had been between them. In doing that, she had been wiser than he. Apparently Jillian had known, even then, that no matter how badly you might want to, you could never really go home again.