“Well, Laura, I’ve got some bad news,” Garrett Kincaid said as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the enamel pot resting on the remains of the campfire. Dark embers glowed red and the wide night sky twinkled with thousands of stars above this ridge of the Crazy Mountains. Somewhere, not too far away, a coyote howled.
Of course Laura didn’t answer. She’d passed away years ago, but after nearly half a century of living with and loving her, he sometimes had to talk to his wife. He believed that a part of her still lingered nearby, if only in his heart.
Squatting near the fire, sipping the hot, bitter brew, he tamped down the loneliness that never quite left him and glanced at his painted stallion, Ricco, who was grazing just beyond the glow of the campfire.
“Now, Laura, even though Larry was our firstborn, you and I both know that he had more than his share of faults.” Garrett squeezed his eyes shut. “Larry never thought the rules applied to him. He drank, gambled, smoked and womanized his way into an early grave.” A lump filled Garrett’s throat and he wondered, not for the first time, if somehow he’d failed his only boy, if he’d been too arrow-straight and unbending for his wayward son. But it was too late for regrets. “Darling’, now that he’s gone, too, I hate to badmouth him. Hell, I loved him almost as much as you did. I just hope he knew it.”
Frowning, Garrett stretched out one leg on the long grass and heard the rush of water from the creek, swollen with the spring runoff that cut through these hills. “Anyway, I’ve been going’ through his things. I found a strongbox where he kept a lot of personal papers and such. It seems our son didn’t quit sowing his wild oats when he was a teenager. Not only that, but he fathered himself a passel of boys. Six. Well, maybe even seven, but I’m not sure about that. I’ve got a private investigator looking into it.”
He paused and watched the moon begin to rise in the broad expanse of sky. Yes, this sure was God’s country.
“The investigator’s name is Gina Henderson. She’s a cute thing, and smart as a whip. Right off the bat she found six of our illegitimate grandsons, Laura. Helluva nice girl, she is. You’d like her.” Garrett’s lips curved into a smile at the thought of the feisty redhead. “She’s gonna come here next week and try to locate Larry’s youngest, if the boy really does exist. Anyway, in the meantime, I’ve got to call all our grandsons and tell them about their father, even though they don’t have a clue they have Kincaid blood running through their veins.” He sighed as a night breeze crept through the hills, rustling the branches of the lodgepole pines at the edge of the meadow.
“Yes, Laura, it’s a mess. I sure wish you were here to help me out. I just want you to know that I’m going to make it right, straighten things out with Larry’s sons. It darn near breaks my heart to think that our boy was so . . . well, damned irresponsible — but then, we always knew it, didn’t we? Right from the get-go, Larry was a wild one.”
Garrett envisioned his wife’s pretty face and thought maybe it was better that she hadn’t known about all of Larry’s indiscretions, hadn’t experienced the heartache of realizing there were so many children abandoned by their father. Garrett rubbed his neck and suddenly felt all of his seventy-two years. He drained his cup and tossed the dregs into the fire, causing the coals to sizzle and smoke.
“I’m going to start by calling Trent Remmington. He’s not the firstborn by a long shot, but he seems to be the one who most needed a decent father figure in his life. I’m afraid he might be a lot like Larry. Trent’s a rebel, struck it big in the oil business and doing okay now, but as a kid, he barely finished high school, and gave his mother fits. He and his twin brother, Blake, were passed off as another man’s kids and raised by governesses and the like.” Garrett snorted at the thought and emptied the coffeepot onto the grass. “Blake, he toed the line. Trent was hell on wheels. A real maverick. Still is, I think.” Straightening, Garrett’s knees popped and he felt the flare of arthritis in his hip. He kicked dust into the campfire and packed the remains of a sandwich and his coffeepot into his saddlebag. How did you go about telling a man that everything he’d held true in his life had been a lie?
Well, you just did it. Garrett packed up his few belongings and stuffed them into the saddlebag, too. The fire died and he glanced down the hill to the heart of the ranch where a half dozen lights glowed in bright warm patches from the bunkhouse and stables. The silvery illumination of three security lamps reflected onto the roofs of the sheds and the front of the main house. It was empty now. Had been for years.
Well, that was going to change.
God, he missed Laura. She’d been rock-steady throughout all the good and bad times in their marriage. He’d never wanted to outlive her, but — a man didn’t choose his way into the world, or out of it, either.
Deciding to call Trent in Houston this very night, he ignored the ache in his hip, walked over to Ricco and patted the white splash on the stallion’s neck. “Let’s go,” he said, slinging the saddlebag over the saddle horn, grabbing the reins and swinging himself up.
He heard the coyote’s lonesome cry one more time and looked to the sky. A shooting star sizzled across the heavens, Garrett smiled, imagining it a sign from his wife.
“Thanks for listening, darling,” he whispered into the wind. Pulling on the reins, he and the big stallion headed downhill.
“Just slow down a minute, would you?” Trent Remmington half yelled into the crackling cell phone at his ear. Rain pounded the windshield and the crack of thunder was louder than the roar of traffic in this part of Houston. “Who are you? What do you want?” He thought the old man had said something about being his grandfather, but that was impossible.
He maneuvered his BMW through the streets, which were beginning to flood with the sudden torrent. Water sprayed from beneath his tires, the windshield wipers slapped, and some old Garth Brooks tune pulsed through the speakers. Headlights flashed in his eyes as he turned quickly onto the street where he lived in a high-rise apartment building that he owned outright.
” — Kincaid . . . my son . . . your father . . . dead now and I just found his papers . . . .”
Hell, he couldn’t hear a word. “Hang on,” he growled, snapping off the radio as the apartment building came into sight. He pressed the automatic parking gate opener, drove into the underground lot and pulled into his private space. The phone went dead.
“Great. Just great.” He snapped the phone shut, stuffed it into the pocket of his suede jacket and got out of the car. The shoulders and collar of his jacket were wet, the result of his mad dash from an attorney’s office to the car, and the underground garage with its hissing pipes and cement floor was hot and muggy.
Listening for the damned phone to ring, he walked to the elevator, used his key and took a quick ride to the top floor where his suite of rooms — the place he called home in the city — opened up to him. The blinds were up and beyond his leather couches, tables of rosewood, glass and brass was a panoramic view of the city. The windows were steamed, the air-conditioning running full-blast, and through the partially clear glass he could see lightning fork down from the heavens and flash in the brilliance that vied with the glow of Houston’s city lights.
He shucked his wet jacket and poured himself a quick drink, wondering if he should sign on the dotted line to sell off half the wells he owned in Wyoming and net more than ten million before taxes. At one time he would have felt a deep satisfaction with the deal, that he’d proved wrong all the nay-sayers who’d thought him a complete failure. Now he didn’t really give a damn.
As the Scotch — which cost more per bottle than he’d made in a day’s wages when he’d first started out — slid down his throat, he leaned a shoulder against the windowpane and wondered who had called him. Probably some prank or wrong number. The connection had been lousy.
He felt unsettled. Or maybe it was his bad mood. Lately his entire life had turned a corner and he wasn’t certain he like the new direction it was taking. At thirty-two he was restless and edgy, just as he had always been, but he no longer felt the rush from meeting the challenges in his life.
Turning from the window, he tossed back his drink. This change of attitude had all started a few weeks back in Dallas, at an oilmen’s convention. It had been boring as hell, until he’d met the redhead. Celia O’Hara. He’d spied her in the patio bar of the DeMarco Hotel and he’d been fascinated. She was sexy, a bit shy, with legs that wouldn’t quit and wide green eyes that shifted from sly to naive in a heartbeat. From the minute she’d entered the bar, he’d been hooked. Arrogantly he’d assumed she, like so many other women, would fall for his charms.
But the whole night had blown up in his face.
He wondered what had happened to her — she’d disappeared from his bed in the morning — had even gone so far as to make inquiries.
He should have forgotten her, but he hadn’t. He’d even contacted a private investigator. He wasn’t used to taking no for an answer, especially when she’d said yes the night before.
The cell phone rang, shattering his thoughts. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open. “Remmington.”
“I called a few minutes ago.” Trent recognized the deep voice with the slight Western drawl. He sat on the edge of the sofa. “Don’t know how much you heard earlier, so I’ll start over.”
“That would be a good idea.”
“My name’s Garrett Kincaid and I’m your grandfather.”
Trent sat stock-still, holding the phone to his ear with one hand, the ice in his glass melting in the other.
“I know you think Harold Remmington is your dad and, hell, he should get all the credit, raising you and your brother as he did, but the truth of the matter is that your mother was involved with my son Larry. You two boys were the result.”
The man went on and on, and though Trent wanted to call him a raving lunatic and slam the phone shut, there was enough truth peppered into the guy’s story that he didn’t. Maybe Kincaid was a nutcase, but if so, he was a thoughtful, slow-speaking one, and Trent could detect a note of regret in his voice; honest, down-to-earth remorse.
” . . . there are other, as well. I want all of you to meet.”
“Others? I don’t get it.” The guy was talking about Blake, his twin, of course. Or were there more?
“Maybe I don’t want to. You know, this is way beyond bizarre, Kincaid.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. Look, I’m hoping you can arrange your schedule so that you could fly up here to Montana in a week and we can sit down and talk. All of us.”
Trent’s head was pounding, his ears ringing, and flashes of his childhood whipped across his mind’s eye. He and Blake learning to ride bikes, being taught by a baby-sitter. Their mother, Barbara, wasn’t around much. A state commissioner when they’d lived in Montana, she’d been a real go-getter, who’d had little if any time for rambunctious twin boys. Boarding schools and governesses had been Barbara’s means of parenting. Trent had spent most of his time getting into trouble, calling attention to himself. His twin, however, had tried like hell to be perfect, hoping his mother and father would notice. They hadn’t. Barbara had been wrapped up in her career; Harold Remmington had never really given a damn.
” . . . so much we need to talk about,” the caller went on. “I’ve got plans for you boys —”
“I’m used to making my own plans.”
“I know. That’s not what I meant.” The geezer continued, “But since we’re a family now, I’d like to meet all of you.”
“Family?” Trent sneered. “You think you’re part of my family?”
“Yes, son, I do.”
“Give up the awe-shucks-cowboy routine, would you? I mean, this is one helluva lot to digest, and I don’t even know if you’re legit or a first-class nut-case or someone intent on shaking me down. An hour ago my life was just the way it’s been for thirty-two years, and now you expect me to buy that everything I believed in is wrong.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Come on up to Whitehorn. Meet the rest of the family out at the ranch. It’s the only way you’ll know for sure if I’m the real deal or — what did you call me? — a first-class nut-case.” The old man’s voice sounded a bit crafty for the first time. His gravelly chuckle sounded like pebbles rattling inside a wooden box. “Well, maybe I am. Anyway, you may as well come to the ranch. What have you got to lose?”
“Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it?”
Kincaid ignored the sarcasm, gave him directions to the ranch and hung up.
Trent swallowed the remains of his watery drink, and walked directly to the bedroom closet. No way would he wait a week. He pulled out a battered leather bag and flung it onto the bed. Ignoring the suits and sports jackets hanging near the power ties in his closet, he went to the bureau, found a couple pairs of scruffy jeans and some shirts that did the jeans justice and tossed them onto the bed. He only paused long enough to leave a few long-winded voice mails for his secretary and his foremen, giving last-minute instructions and telling them to reach him via his cell phone or e-mail. Then into his bag he threw one pair of slacks and a decent shirt, his travel shaving kit and a bottle of Excedrin.
He called the airport. The first flight anywhere close to Helena wasn’t until morning.
Tomorrow he’d be off to Whitehorn, Montana, wherever the hell that was. He wouldn’t warn the old man that he was coming ahead of time. Nope, he wanted to catch Garrett “Grandpappy” Kincaid off guard.
Trent believed in striking first, blind-siding his opponent. Unfortunately Kincaid had done just that to him. It was now time to turn the tables. From memory, he dialed the number of a private investigator he’d used in the past.
“It’s me,” the recorder stated. “You know the drill. Leave a message after the tone.”
Trent waited, then said, “It’s Remmington, again. I still want you to find out whatever you can about Celia O’Hara, the paralegal from L.A., but now I want you to check out a couple of guys from Montana. Garrett Kincaid and his son Larry. They hail from a small town called Whitehorn, somewhere east of Helena, located off Highway 191 near the Laughing Horse Reservation. Find out anything and everything you can about these guys and e-mail me or call me on the cell. Thanks.” He hung up, discarded the idea of a second drink, stared at the lightning through the window and waited for dawn.
* * *
As she drove her rented Ford Explorer across the ranch land of western Montana, Gina glanced at her watch and smiled to herself. She was making good time from the airport, and her job was just about finished. She’d helped Garrett Kincaid locate six of his son’s illegitimate children. The only question that remained was whether Larry had sired a seventh.
She was willing to bet her life on it. There was that notation in the date book/journal Larry had kept. It read simply, “Found out former flame had baby boy. Check into this. Could be mine. Timing seems perfect.” It could have been idle scribbling, but Gina didn’t think so; it wasn’t Larry’s style. No, there was a baby, all right, and she imagined, given Larry’s track record for fathering illegitimate sons, the boy was a Kincaid. The date book had been stuffed into the box of Larry’s personal effects, the one relating to all of his bastard sons. Gina had a feeling that another child had indeed been born, just in the past year or so, a seventh illegitimate son. Because of Larry’s whereabouts in his last year, Gina would bet dollars to donuts that baby was somewhere in the state, probably not too far from the town of Whitehorn. Well, she thought with the determination she was known for, she’d leave no stone unturned to find the kid.
Though she’d never met the man, Gina held a particular dislike for Larry; he’d been the antithesis of his father, Garrett. A hard-drinking, womanizing, gambling man, Larry Kincaid had swaggered through life without a bit of empathy, understanding, or interest in anyone else. He’d fathered illegitimate children as if he were in some kind of contest, then pretty much ignored the offspring as well as the women who had borne them. Garrett, on the other hand, was decent and straight laced, a man of strict morals, a man as steady and true as Montana, the vast land that spawned him.
All in all, she’d enjoyed locating Garrett’s lost grandsons . . . well, except for one. The hellion. But she wouldn’t think of Trent Remmington now. She’d compromised her own rules when she’d met up with him last month — lying about who she was — and that thought still stuck in her craw.
She’d made a mistake of biblical proportions on that one and nearly lost her heart in the process.
“Fool,” she muttered, kicking off her sandals to drive barefoot. She reached into her open handbag sitting on the passenger seat. Squinting, and avoiding a truck speeding in the opposite direction of this long stretch of highway, she dug into her purse, found her sunglasses and managed to slip them out of their case and onto her nose.
A few years ago, just out of college, she’d begged her brother Jack to let her work with him as a private investigator. He’d balked at first, but finally agreed, and she’d sworn then that she would never get involved with any of her clients.
It hadn’t been a problem. Until she’d met Trent Remmington.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid woman,” she berated herself under her breath as she flipped on the radio. Listening to what little news there was, she leaned an arm out the window and felt the hot May wind pull at the strands of her hair. Acres and acres of rolling ranch land stretched as far as the eye could see under the deep blue Montana sky.
Fences sliced fields spotted with all shapes and colors of cattle and horses. She smiled at the sight of a Brahman calf with its tiny hump mounted over its shoulders and wide, curious eyes watching as she passed. Spotted longhorns ambled along a creek bank and a frisky colt in another field lifted his tail like a banner and ran, kicking its back legs and shaking its head as he joined a small herd of Appaloosa.
The wide expanse was a far cry from the crowded confines of L.A. It was quiet here, maybe too quiet for her, but a nice change of pace. She would only be here awhile. Garrett had invited her to stay at the ranch as she peeked under every as-yet-unturned stone in her search for Larry’s baby. She’d decided to take Garrett up on his offer. She’d always wanted to spend a week on a real working ranch, and now, it seemed she was going to get her fantasy chance. She wouldn’t stay longer than a week; not when she knew that the rest of Larry’s brood would show up soon and she’d come face-to-face with Trent Remmington again.
Somehow she was going to avoid that. Though Garrett had been making noises about her sticking around, meeting the sons and explaining her part in finding them all, she was going to politely turn him down.
There was just no reason to stay.
She spied the turnoff to the Kincaid ranch, just as Faith Hill’s voice wafted from the speakers. Cranking hard on the wheel, she headed down a long lane of twin ruts. Tall dry grass grew between the parallel trails of sparse gravel, brushing the undercarriage of the car. Potholes and rocks dotted the dustylane way and Gina smiled at the pure, raw grit of this part of the country. She spied a tractor chugging in one field, and farther ahead, climbing to the sky, craggy mountains spired over rolling, pine-covered foothills.
Gina slowed as the lane curved toward what appeared to be the heart of the spread. Clustered around the perimeter of a hard-packed parking area was the stable undergoing some kind of renovation, a bunkhouse, and a variety of buildings including a weathered pump house and a variety of machine sheds and the like. The most commandeering building of all — despite its disrepair — was a once-stately, two-storied ranch house that dominated the parking area. Once beautiful, it was slowly going to seed. Shutters missing slats sagged near the windows, the once-white paint was beginning to peel, and more than one windowpane had been boarded over. A broad porch skirted the first floor and a man was standing on the steps. A tall man with broad shoulders, dark hair and . . . and —
Gina slammed on the brakes and the Explorer shuddered to a stop.
There, big as life — no, make that bigger than life — was Gina’s own personal nightmare.
Trent Remmington was waiting for her.
And, from the looks of him, he was mad as hell.