Authors: Carolyn Brown
It scarcely seemed like a year since she’d moved to Baird, Texas, population less than eighteen hundred. With her sass and frankness, Aunt Maud had turned Sophie’s life around at a time when it was spiraling downhill at a dizzying speed. Sophie’s preacher husband had just been killed in a plane crash—the same week that she’d found out about his affairs. As a widow she walked away with a bundle of insurance money, and he was buried with his little secrets intact.
Kate patted Sophie’s knee. “We’re here for you,
. You’ve stood beside us and supported us this last year. It’s our turn. You need anything, you call and we’ll come running.”
“And if you let that red-haired temper get ahead of you and do something drastic, just call and say that you need us to bring the shovels. We’ll be there in half an hour and no one will ever find Elijah’s body,” Fancy whispered.
Kate and Fancy had been her best friends since they’d started school more than twenty years before up in Albany, Texas, though the summer they were fifteen their parents all moved away from the area. They’d kept in touch through those long, dry years when they didn’t see each other at all, but it wasn’t the same as seeing one other every day. Kate’s parents had taken her to Louisiana. Fancy’s mother
had moved her to Florida. And Sophie’s dad had followed the oil business. First they went to the Texas Panhandle; moved to Cushing, Oklahoma, after that; and finally to Alma, Arkansas. She met her husband, Matt, in college in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Fate had brought the three friends back to the same area the year before Maud died. Kate’s father had died, and her mother came back to Breckenridge, Texas, where her family was located, so Kate made the move with her. Fancy’s grandmother had fallen and broken her hip, and Fancy returned to Albany to take care of her. Sophie’s world had fallen apart, and Aunt Maud insisted she come to her ranch to put it back together.
The three towns made a triangle on the map. Albany, where they’d grown up, was the uppermost point. Breckenridge was twenty-four miles to the west. Baird was twenty-five miles to the south. They met in Albany once a week on Sunday afternoons at Fancy’s place to visit and kept in touch by phone or e-mails on a daily basis.
“What are you thinking about?” Kate asked.
“How lucky I am to have you two beside me,” Sophie answered honestly.
“Ah, shucks,” Fancy said in a slow, southern drawl.
“Don’t make light of it,” Sophie said. “I mean it.”
Kate patted her on the shoulder. “We know you do, and we feel the same way about you.”
“What am I going to do about that overbearing, insufferable hippy? You think he actually has the money to buy out my part of the ranch? I figured he’d take my more-than-generous offer and run with it,” Sophie moaned.
“Elijah? How do you know he is insufferable? Maybe when he finds out just how determined you are, he’ll take your money, and you’ll never hear from him again,” Kate said.
“Oh, he’s insufferable all right. Can you believe that he had the audacity to say those things to me before Aunt Maud was even in the grave?”
Kate bit her lip to keep from grinning. Aunt Maud had known exactly how abrasive Elijah could be and probably told him to show up at the graveside service on that big cycle just to make Sophie angry. She could believe anything concerning Elijah Jones. He was simply doing what he’d been told to do, and Maud was down on her knees, peeping through the holes in heaven’s floor, giggling at the chaos she’d created by dying.
“He’s going to wish he’d stayed wherever he came from before the week is out,” Fancy assured her.
“Where did he come from?” Kate asked.
“From the pits of Hades. When Aunt Maud told me she’d only willed me half the ranch, she said he was a military man. Maybe he still is, and he’ll take my offer pretty quick. She said that Uncle Jesse had always favored Elijah over his other relatives and wanted his half left to him upon Maud’s death. She abided by his wishes. I was hoping he’d be off somewhere fighting a war in the desert or jungle and would just sign the papers to get his half of the money,” Sophie said.
“Guess the wish fairy was tied up,” Kate said.
Sophie cut her gray eyes over at her friend. “What?”
“You said you were hoping blah, blah, blah. The wish fairy evidently didn’t hear you,” Kate said.
“Don’t make fun of me today,” Sophie whined.
“I’m not, and don’t take it out on me. I didn’t ask that a member of the Hells Angels show up, but I can and will
help get rid of him. You just say the word, darlin’, and he’ll be coyote bait,” Kate said.
“Sell your half to him and get on with your life,” Layla said from the seat on the other side of the limo. At twenty-eight, she was three years younger than Sophie and married with three children. She and Sophie looked nothing alike. Layla had dark hair like their father, brown eyes, and a round face.
Sophie shot her a dirty look, and Layla threw up her palms to fend it off. “Hey, I’m just stating my opinion. You don’t have to tie yourself down out here in the middle of nowhere. You could live anywhere with the money you have, and, if you sell your half, then that’ll make you even richer. You’re still young enough to find a husband.”
“That’s the last thing I want,” Sophie said through clenched teeth.
Sandy tilted her head up and looked down her slender nose at Sophie. She was a younger version of Layla, with short, dark hair, brown eyes, a black suit, and high heels. “I understand. Matt treated you so special. It would be hard to ever find someone to replace him.”
Kate almost choked on the words trying to escape from her mouth. “Don’t they know?” she whispered so low that only Sophie could hear it.
Sophie barely shook her head.
“Sophie is young. She needs a helpmate. It’s a long time from thirty-one to death,” Layla said.
“Yes, but Matt was such a godly man. It’ll be hard to find someone like him,” Sandy argued.
Sophie almost bit the tip of her tongue off.
“You two leave her alone. She’ll find someone if it’s meant to be. If not, then it’s her life,” Donnie said.
“Thanks, Dad,” Sophie smiled.
He reached across the space and patted her on the knee. “Sell it to the man. He wants it. You don’t know a thing about ranching or cows. That’s my advice. But you do whatever you want with it. I was afraid when Matt died you’d become a recluse, but these past few months you’ve been happy. Maybe it’s the ranch that does that for you.”
The smile faded. “I realize y’all want me to be happy. Right now the ranch makes me happy. The day it doesn’t, I’ll take Elijah’s offer to buy me out. Until then, I’m not selling him one cow or chicken.”
The limo came to a stop in front of the house, and the driver opened the door for the ladies. Kate slung a long leg out. Hart had already parked the truck and was beside her, hand outstretched to lead her into the house.
“How’s she holdin’ up?” he asked.
“Madder ’n hell. Her family doesn’t understand what this place means to her,” Kate whispered.
“Who was the motorcycle dude?”
“The other half of Maud’s ranch. That was Elijah Jones.”
“You’re kiddin’ me.
Elijah Jones? I didn’t recognize him in that do-rag and a ponytail. He’s aged.”
“You know him?” Kate asked.
“Used to when he was a teenager and I was just a kid.”
Sophie’s family surrounded her when she got out of the limo. Her father looped her arm through his right one and Ellen’s through his left. Layla and Sandy followed a few steps behind.
Seeing them all together, it was easy to see where Sophie got her height. She and her mother were both tall. But that’s
where the resemblance ended. Ellen had brown hair, green eyes, thin lips, and a weak chin.
“Where on earth did you get that red hair?” Hart asked Sophie. “No one else in your family has it.”
Her father, Donnie, smiled up at Hart, who towered above him by several inches. “Grandma McSwain gave it to her. She was full-blood Irish and just about as feisty as our Sophie.”
Hart continued to stare. “You really don’t even look like you belong with the family.”
“She doesn’t,” Layla laughed. “Momma found her in a bar ditch out on the other side of Albany and took pity on her since she was so ugly.”
“And then she grew up to be the beautiful swan, didn’t she?” Kate said.
“I’m standing right here,” Sophie said.
“What did I miss?” Fancy raised her voice as she scooted her pregnant body out of the limo. Theron waited by the door and offered her his arm. Tina reached up to take Fancy’s hand in hers. Even after living with her dad and stepmother for several months, Tina still felt more comfortable if she was touching Fancy. She’d spent the first three years of her life shifted from one place to the other, only to be finally abandoned by Maria, her biological mother. Fancy was her security blanket, and it was plain that all the people bewildered the little girl.
“Thought for a minute there I was going to have to call for a forklift to get you out of that thing,” Theron said.
Fancy poked him on the arm. “You are so romantic.”
“Momma, when are you getting that baby out of there?” Tina asked.
“Real soon,” Fancy said.
Theron changed the subject. “Who was the motorcycle feller?”
“That would be Elijah Jones. He’s the other half of the ranch now. He and Sophie have to share it. She wants to buy him out. He says
“Elijah Jones? I’ve heard of that name. Hart mentioned him, I think.”
“Hart knows him?”
“I just remember him saying something about Elijah. Can’t remember the details. We’ll have to ask him.”
When they were inside the house, Sophie patted the place on the sofa next to her, and Fancy eased down between Sophie and Kate, the three women presenting their usual united front.
Mess with one and all three were there.
That’s the way Elijah found them when he opened the front door and stepped inside the cool house from the blistering heat. He removed the bandanna from his head and stuffed it into his hip pocket. His thick, black hair was wet with sweat, and the black T-shirt had sucked up the sun’s rays until he felt like he’d been baked inside the thing. He barely glanced at the women before heading down the hallway to the bathroom.
He found a washcloth in the same place Aunt Maud kept them when he came to the ranch as a teenager to work in the summer months. Thank goodness some things never changed.
He looked at his reflection in the mirror. No visible scars even though he’d put in three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He’d been one of the lucky ones that brought all his limbs home intact, but when he looked into Sophie’s
steely gray eyes, a niggling little voice said that his luck might be running pretty damned thin.
He’d hoped that Sophie would be the same whiny kid he remembered. If she’d been that girl, she would have taken his first offer for her half of the ranch and headed for the nearest shopping mall. She hated the ranch back then and carried on like she’d been sent to prison the whole time she spent there. Maybe she was playing hardball and had a higher figure in her head. Well, he wanted the ranch, and he’d have it if it took every dime in his bank account. She could just get used to the idea.
He washed his face and hands and combed his hair back into the ponytail. Using the damp cloth, he brushed the road dust from his black T-shirt. He wasn’t wearing the traditional black suit, but Aunt Maud had asked that he ride his cycle to the funeral in her last letter. Somehow dress slacks, a vest, and a black suit coat didn’t work with that image.
He’d wanted to come see her one more time, but he’d been undercover in one last military mission and had only gotten home from Central America two days before. He’d signed his retirement papers and made arrangements for his belongings to be moved to Baird. Then he’d driven out of Fort Hood, Texas, and headed northwest. That was the day before. He’d stopped at a motel in Fort Worth the night before and rode the rest of the way that morning.
“Here I am. Thought I’d fought my last battle, but it looks like the biggest one yet is ahead of me. I won’t let you down, Aunt Maud. I’ll fight her to the last breath for what you’ve entrusted me with. And Miss Gray Eyes can get ready to lose the war,” he whispered to the man in the mirror.
Aunt Maud had left him a dream he’d never dared think about: the solitude of his own ranch. No more bombs or wars to fight. He could worry about catching a rangy, old longhorn instead of a member of the drug cartel. Sophie could either sell him her half or stay out of his way, because he wasn’t budging an inch. Elijah had come home to the only stable thing he’d ever known.
He checked out the bedroom situation while he was in the hallway. Aunt Maud’s was still exactly as he remembered from the last time he came for a visit. Sophie had taken up residence in the one right across the hall. That left two others. He looked into both and chose the larger one, hoping it would accommodate his furniture. He stepped off another foot on either side of the bed and determined there was room for his king-size bed that would arrive that afternoon.
He crossed the hallway and checked the other guest room. The room was big enough for an office, but the bed, dresser, and chest of drawers would have to go. He might keep the old, wooden rocking chair. He’d spent many hours sitting in it with a book in his hands.
“What are you doing? Marking your territory? Don’t get too comfortable. You’ll get tired of the ranch pretty quick,” Sophie said.
He tensed, his hands balling into fists. No one had managed to sneak up on him in years. After two days, his survival instincts were already beginning to get rusty. “Figuring out where my things will fit, and, honey, I won’t get bored. I’ve done my duty for my country for more than twenty years. I’m ready for boredom.”
Sophie hadn’t figured on him actually moving into the house. Her eyebrows drew down, eyelids shading the anger in her gray eyes. “What things?”
“The moving van should be here this afternoon.”
“You mean you are moving furniture in here?” She gasped.