Bad Luck, Texas 1999
Heat sweltered over the dry acres of range grass. Shade was sparse, the smell of dust heavy in the summer air. Nevada Smith took aim. Closed his bad eye. Squeezed the trigger.
The old Winchester kicked hard against his bare shoulder, and his target, a rusting tin can, jumped off its fencepost to land on the hard ground. The longhorns in the next field didn’t so much as twitch, but a warm feeling of satisfaction stole through Nevada’s blood as he took a bead on the next target, an empty beer bottle he intended to shatter into a million pieces.
He hoisted the rifle again. Cocked it. Set his jaw and narrowed his eyes. His finger tightened over the trigger, but he hesitated. He sensed the truck before he heard it. As he craned his neck, he spied a plume of dust trailing the fenceposts along the lane just as he heard the rumble of a pickup’s engine. Squinting through scratched Foster Grant lenses, he studied the make and model and recognized Shep Marson’s red Dodge.
What the hell did that old bastard want? Shep was a deputy with the Sheriff’s Department, a hard-ass who was leaning heavily toward running for county sheriff. As crooked as a crippled dog’s hind leg, Shep was a nephew of a county judge, was married to the daughter of a once-rich cattle rancher and was about to be elected by a landslide. Crime in this neck of Texas Hill Country was about to take an upswing.
Nevada’s nerves were strung as tight as bailing twine, and it wasn’t just because Shep was one mean, bigoted son of a bitch who had no business being this far out of his jurisdiction.
The simple fact of the matter was that Shep just happened to be Shelby Cole’s shirttail cousin, a man with whom Nevada had worked briefly and a man who had once threatened him at gun point. Nope, there never would be any love lost between Nevada and Shep.
Hauling the rifle in one hand, Nevada walked past an old rose garden with overgrown bushes going to seed. He snagged the worn T-shirt he’d hung over a fencepost and hooked it over one finger, slinging the faded scrap of cotton over his shoulder.
A wasp was working busily building a nest in the eaves of the two-room cabin Nevada called home, and his crippled old dog, a half-breed with more border collie than lab in him, lay in the shade of the sagging front porch. His tail gave a hard thump to the dirt as Nevada passed, and he lifted his head and gave off a disgruntled “woof” at the sound of the Dodge.
“Shh. It’ll be all right,” Nevada lied. He tried and failed to ignore the throb of a hangover that had lingered past noon and seemed to get worse rather than better as the sun rode high in the western sky and heat shimmered in undulating waves as far as the eye could see. Nevada’s stomach clenched as the truck roared closer. His bad eye ached a bit, and he swatted at a stupid horsefly that hadn’t figured out that the herd was three hundred feet west, huddled behind a thicket of scrub oak and mesquite trees, each lazy horse standing nose to buttocks with another and flicking at flies with its tail.
Marson’s truck slid to a stop in front of the old toolshed and he cut the engine.
The muscles at the base of Nevada’s neck tightened – the way they always did when he was confronted by the law. At one time he’d been a member of the ranks; now he was an outcast.
Shep climbed from behind the wheel. A big bear of a man whose lower lip was always extended with a chaw of tobacco, Shep sauntered around the front of his bug-spattered truck. In snakeskin boots, faded jeans and western-cut shirt that was a little too tight around his belly, Shep made his way up the dusty path leading to the cabin. Two cans of Coors, connected by plastic strappings that had once held six sixteen-ouncers, dangled from his thick fingers.
“Smith.” He spat a stream of black juice through his front teeth as he reached the gate. “Got a minute?”
“Is this official business?”
“Nah.” Shep wiped the back of his free hand over his lips. The beginning of a moustache was visible on the freckled skin over his upper lip. “Just two old friends chewin’ the fat.”
Nevada didn’t believe him for a second. He and Shep had never been friends – not even when they’d been part of the same team. They both knew it. But he held his tongue. There was a reason Marson was here. A big one.
Shep yanked one can from its holder and tossed it to Nevada, who caught it on the fly. “Hell, it sure is hot,” Shep grumbled, popping the top and listening to the cooling sound of air escaping. With a nod he hoisted the can and took a long draught.
“It’s always hot.” Nevada opened his beer. “Summer in Texas.”
“Guess I forgot.” Shep chuckled without a drip of humor. “C’mon, let’s sit a spell.” He hiked his chin toward the front porch where two plastic chairs were patiently gathering dust. Sweat trickled down the side of Shep’s face, sparkling in skinny sideburns that were beginning to gray. “Y’hear about ol’ Caleb Swaggert?” he asked, eyeing the horizon where a few wisps of clouds gathered and the dissipating wake of a jet sliced northward.
The warning hairs on the back of Nevada’s neck prickled. He leaned against a post on the porch while Shep settled into one of the garage-sale chairs. “What about him?”
Shep nursed his beer for a few minutes while looking over the eyesore of a ranch Nevada had inherited. With a grunt, he said, “Seems ol’ Caleb’s about to die. Cancer. The docs up in Cooperville give him less than a month.” Another long swallow. Nevada’s fingers tightened over his Coors. “And lo and behold, Caleb says he’s found Jesus. Don’t want to die a sinner. So he’s recantin’ his testimony.”
Every muscle in Nevada’s body tensed. Through lips that barely moved, he asked, “Meanin’?”
“That Ross McCallum is a free man. Caleb’s testimony sent the ol’ boy to prison in the first place, his and Ruby Dee’s. Ever’b’dy in these parts knows what a lying whore Ruby is, and now it looks like she might admit that she was just settin’ Ross up.”
Nevada felt sick inside. A bit of breeze, hot as Satan’s breath, brushed the back of his neck.
Shep hoisted his can again, nearly drained it. “Now I know it was you who arrested the sum-bitch, Smith, you who sent him up the river, but I though I should let you know Ross’s gonna be out in a couple a days, dependin’ on who’s reviewin’ the case, and I don’t have to tell ya that he’s got a short fuse. Hell, he was in more fights around here when he was growin’ up than you were. Half the time they were with you. Ain’t that right?” When Nevada didn’t answer, Shep nodded to himself and took another long swallow, finishing the Coors. “When he gits out, he’s gonna be mean as a wounded grizzly.” Holding the can, he managed to point an index finger at Nevada. “No doubt he’ll come lookin’ fer you.” Crushing the empty sixteen-ouncer in one meaty fist, Shep added, “The way I figger it, forewarned is forearmed. Y’know what I mean?”
“Good.” He tossed his empty onto the half-rotten floorboards of the porch and stood. “Y’know, Nevada, I never did understand it much. You two were best friends once, right? He was the quarterback on the football team and you his wide receiver. Well, before he got throwed off. But what happened between you two?”
Nevada lifted a shoulder. “People change.”
“Do they now?” Shep’s lips flattened over his teeth. “Maybe they do when a woman’s involved.”
Shep walked down the two steps of the front porch and then, as if a sudden thought had struck him, turned to look over his shoulder. “That’s the other news, son,” he said, and his tone was dead serious.
“There’s a rumor that Shelby’s headin’ back to Bad Luck.”
Nevada’s heart nearly stopped, but he managed to keep his expression bland.
“That’s right,” Shep said as if talking to himself. “I heard it from my sister. Shelby called her this mornin’. So, if she does happen to show up, I don’t want no trouble, y’hear? You and Ross did enough fightin’ over her years ago. I remember haulin’ both of you boys in. You were cut up pretty bad. Lost your eye. Ended up in the hospital. And Ross, he had a couple a cracked ribs and a broken arm after wrasslin’ with ya. Seems to me he swore he’d kill ya then.”
“He never got the chance.”
“‘Til now, son.” Shep glanced around the sorry yard and drew a handkerchief from his back pocket. He mopped his face, and the grooves near the corners of his eyes deepened as he squinted. “Like I said, I just don’t want no trouble. I’m gonna run fer sheriff of Blanco County next year, and I can’t have my name associated with any wild-ass shit.”
“Don’t see how you’d be.”
“Good. Let’s just keep it that way.” He started toward his truck again, and Nevada told himself that he should just let sleeping dogs lie, pretend no interest, seal his lips. But he couldn’t.
“Why’s Shelby comin’ back to Bad Luck now?” he asked.
“Now, that’s a good question, ain’t it?” Shep paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Sweat stained the underarms of his shirt. “A damned good question. I was hopin’ you might have an answer, but I see ya don’t.” He looked off into the distance and spat a long stream of tobacco juice at the sun-bleached weeds growing around the base of a fencepost. “Maybe Ross knows.”
Nevada’s headache pounded.
“Seems odd, don’t ya think, that both he and Shelby are gonna be back in town at the same time? Kind of a coincidence.”
More than a coincidence, Nevada thought, but this time, he held his tongue as the older man ambled back to his truck. As far as Nevada could see, Shelby Cole – beautiful, spoiled, the only daughter of Judge Jerome “Red” Cole – had no business returning to the Texas Hill Country. No damned business at all.
* * *
Shelby stepped hard on the throttle of her rented Cadillac. Brush, scrub oak, dying wildflowers and prickly pear cactus flew past as she pushed the speed limit. Road kill, predominantly armadillos with a few unlucky jackrabbits thrown in, was scattered along the gravel shoulder of the highway. It reminded her that she was closing in on Bad Luck, a tiny town west of Austin, a town she’d sworn she’d never set foot in again.
The sun roof was open, harsh rays beating down on the top of her head, strands of her red-blond hair yanked from the knot she’d twisted to the back of her head. She didn’t care. She’d kicked off her high heels at the airport and was driving barefoot, her eyebrows slammed together in concentration, the notes of some old Bette Midler song barely piercing her consciousness.
She took a corner a little too fast, and the tires on the Caddy screeched, but she didn’t slow down. After ten years of being away, ten years ostracized, ten years of living life her way in Seattle, she couldn’t wait to pull up to the century-old home where she’d been raised. Not that she’d stay long. Just do her business and get the hell out.
Her fingers tightened over the wheel. Memories flooded her mind, memories that were trapped in another time and space, recollections of promises and lies, making love in a spring thunderstorm and feeling the aftershocks of betrayal. She swallowed hard. Refused to walk down that painful path.
She snapped off the radio and shoved a pair of sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose. She didn’t need to hear anything the least bit maudlin or romantic, not today. Probably not ever. She glanced at the bucket seat next to her, where she’d tossed her briefcase. From the side pocket, the corner of a manila envelope was visible; inside was a letter – written anonymously – with a San Antonio postmark. It was the reason she’d demanded a leave of absence from the real estate company where she was employed, packed one overnight bag, driven to Sea-Tac Airport and taken the first available flight to Austin.
Less than twenty-four hours from the time she’d received the damning letter, she was driving through the grid of streets in the center of the small town she’d called home for the first eighteen years of her life.
Nothing much had changed.
The drugstore looked the same, down to the original hitching post still planted in front of the side door. With a wry smile, she remembered carving her initials in the underside of that same post and wondered if they were still there, aged by time and weather, a silly little heart that proclaimed her love for a man who had ended up breaking her heart.
“Fool,” she muttered, stopping at the single red light in town and waiting as a pregnant woman pushed a stroller with a crying toddler across the street. Heat rose from the pavement, distorting her vision and threatening to melt the asphalt. Lord, it was hot here. She’d forgotten. Sweat prickled her scalp and the air seemed heavy as it pressed against her cotton blouse. Beneath her khaki skirt her skin was moist. She could close the damned sun roof, roll up the windows and blast the air conditioning, but she didn’t want to. No. She wanted to remember Bad Luck, Texas, for the miserable scrap of ground it was. Named appropriately by an old prospector, the town had grown slowly and only a few of the citizens had prospered – her father being the most visible. Once she’d shaken the dust of Bad Luck from her heels, she’d sworn she’d never return.
And yet she was back.
With a vengeance.
Unerringly she drove down sun-baked side streets and turned the corner at a cement-block motel boasting low rates, air-conditioning and cable TV, then nosed the Caddy past a mom-and-pop grocery where scattered cars glinted in the pockmarked lot. Further on, past small bungalows, some with “For Rent” signs in the windows, the street curved around a statue of Sam Houston in the park and wound through a residential area where shade trees offered some relief from the sun and a few of the older homes had a veneer of nineteenth-century charm.
Far from the center of town, closer to the hills, were the more prestigious and widely scattered homes.
Her father’s Victorian was the grandest of the lot, a mansion by Bad Luck standards. Nestled on five acres in the sloping hills a mile from town, with a creek meandering through ancient pecan trees, the house was three stories of cut stone and brick, flanked on all sides by wide, covered porches. Ornate grillwork and tall windows were graced by hanging baskets of fuchsias exploding with color. The grass was cut, green and edged, the flowering shrubs trimmed, and she imagined that the kidney-shaped pool in the back was still a shimmering man-made lake of aquamarine, a testament to Judge Red Cole’s wealth, power and influence.
Shelby frowned and remembered the taunts she’d heard as a child and teenager, the whispered words of awe and scorn that she’d pretended had never been uttered.
“Luckiest girl west of San Antonio.”
“Can you imagine? She has anything she ever wanted. All she has to do is ask, or blink her baby-blues at her daddy.”
“Rough life, eh, darlin’?”
Cringing even now as she had then, Shelby felt her cheeks burn with the same hot shade of embarrassment that had colored them when she’d been told not to play with Maria, the caretaker’s daughter, or warned that Ruby Dee was a “bad girl” with a soiled reputation, or learned that her Appaloosa mare was worth more than Nevada Smith had made in three years of working overtime at her father’s cattle ranch located eight miles north of town.
No wonder she’d run. She braked at the garage, slipped on her heels, cut the engine and tossed the keys into her briefcase.
Muttering, “Give me strength,” under her breath to no one in particular, she climbed out of the car, ignored the fact that her blouse was sticking to her back and marched up the brick walk to the front of the house. She didn’t bother raising the brass knocker that was engraved proudly with the Cole name as she remembered the sickening spoof of a nursery rhyme she’d heard in grade school.
Old Judge Cole
Was a nasty old soul
And a nasty old soul was he.
He called for his noose
And he called for his gun
And he called for his henchmen three.
The front door opened easily and the smells of furniture polish, potpourri and cinnamon greeted her. Italian marble, visible beneath the edges of expensive throw rugs, gleamed as sunlight streamed through tall, spotless windows.
“Hola! Is someone there?” an old familiar voice asked in a thick Spanish accent. From the kitchen, soft footsteps sounded, and as Shelby rounded the corner to the kitchen she nearly ran smack-dab into Lydia, her father’s housekeeper.
Dark eyes widened in recognition. A smile of pure delight cracked across her jaw. “Señorita Shelby!” Lydia, whose once-black hair, neatly braided and wound into a bun at the base of her neck, was now shot with streaks of silver, smiled widely. Wiry strands that had escaped their bonds framed the face that Shelby remembered from her youth. Lydia’s waist had thickened over the years but her face was unlined, her coppery skin with its Mexican tones and Native American cheekbones as smooth as ever.
“Dios!” Lydia threw her arms around the woman she’d helped raise. “Why did you not tell anyone you were coming home?”
“It was kind of a quick decision.” Unwanted tears burned the back of Shelby’s eyes as she hugged Lydia. Black dress, white collar, white apron and sensible sandals – Lydia’s attire hadn’t changed in all the years Shelby had been away. And she still smelled of vanilla, talc and cigarette smoke. “It’s . . . good to see you.”
“And you, niña.” She clucked her tongue. “If I would know you are coming, I would have cooked all your favorites – ham and sweet potatoes and for dessert pecan pie. I’ll make it this day! Is it still your favorite?”
Shelby laughed. “Yeah, but please, Lydia, don’t go to any trouble – I don’t know how long I’ll be staying.”
“Hush. We will not talk of your leaving when you just walked through the door. Ahh, niña!” Tears brightened the older woman’s eyes. Blinking rapidly, she said, “You are like a fantasma, the ghost of your mother.” Sighing, Lydia held Shelby at arm’s length and looked her up and down. “But you are too skinny – Dios! Do they not know how to cook up north?”
“Nope. No one does,” Shelby eased. “Everyone’s skin and bones in Seattle. They just drink coffee and huddle against the rain and climb mountains. That sort of thing.”
Lydia chuckled. “This, we will fix.”
“Later. Right now I want to see the Judge,” Shelby said, refusing to be deterred by the housekeeper’s kindness or any ridiculous sense of nostalgia. She had a mission. “Is he at home?” She extracted herself from Lydia’s embrace.
“Sí. On the verandah, but he is with clients. I will tell him you are -”
But it was too late. Shelby had already started for the French doors leading to the backyard. “I’ll do it myself. Thanks, Lydia.”
She walked past the shining mahogany table that, with its twelve carved chairs, occupied the dining room. A floral arrangement of birds of paradise, her mother’s favorite flowers, graced the lustrous table, just as a new arrangement had every week since Jasmine Cole’s death over twenty years earlier. Crystal and china, sparkling and ready for a sit-down party, were visible through the glass panes of a massive china closet.
Nothing seemed to change in Bad Luck, Shelby decided as she opened the French doors and stepped onto the tile verandah that overlooked the pool. Fans mounted in the ceiling of the porch swirled the air lazily, and shade from the live oaks and pecan trees eased some of the summer heat that rose from the terra cotta that skirted the pool and reflected in sharp rays off the shimmering blue water.
Her father was seated at a small table. Dressed in a black suit and white shirt, a black Stetson on the table, his cane with its carved ivory handle lying across his lap, he was deep in conversation with two men. Not three henchmen, but, she supposed, two yes-men dressed in jeans and shirts with their sleeved rolled up. One had a brown moustache and thinning hair, the other wore a silvering goatee and dark sunglasses.
At the sound of the door closing behind her, they all looked up. Two faces scowled slightly, then gave her the once-over as if in tandem. Their sour expressions ebbed slowly to interest.
She ignored them both.
Her father looked over his shoulder. “Shelby!”
She ached inside when she saw the pure joy that lit his face. God, he’d aged. His face had become jowly with the years, his belly larger than it had been. His eyelids had sagged a bit and lines wove through his neck and across his forehead. His red hair had faded and grayed, but he was still an imposing man, and as he pulled himself to his full height of six feet, three inches, she remembered how intimidating he’d been on the bench.
“My God, girl, it’s good to see you.” He opened his arms wide, but Shelby held her ground and stood away from him.
“We need to talk.”
“What the hell are you doin’ here, darlin’?” Disappointment clouded his blue eyes, and a part of her wanted to run to him and throw her arms around his neck and say Oh, Daddy, I’ve missed you. But she didn’t. Instead, she swallowed back the urge to break down altogether and stiffened her spine. She was no longer a frightened little girl.
“Alone, Judge. We need to talk alone.” She stared pointedly at his latest gofers.
The men, dismissed by a nod from their boss, kicked out their chairs, and with muffled words and hasty assurances from Judge Cole that they’d get together later, walked stiffly around the back of the house and through a gate. In the ensuing stillness, when the sound of bees humming and a woodpecker drumming were all that could be heard, Shelby didn’t waste any time. She reached into her briefcase, pulled out the manila envelope, ripped it open and spilled its contents onto the glass-topped table where the ice in three half-consumed drinks was still melting.
The black-and-white photo of a girl of nine or ten stared up at them, and the Judge sucked in his breath as he slowly sat down again. Shelby noticed that his wedding band had cut a groove in the ring finger of his left hand, a ring that hadn’t been removed in over thirty years, and on his right, he sported a flashy diamond that most Hollywood brides would envy.
Shelby leaned over the table so that the tip of her nose was nearly touching her father’s. With one finger she pointed to the black-and-white picture. “This is my daughter,” she said, her insides quaking, her voice unsteady. “Your granddaughter.”
She looked for any sign of recognition in the old man’s face. There was none. “She looks just like me. Just like Mom.”
The judge glanced at the photo. “There’s a resemblance.”
“No resemblance, Judge. This girl is a dead ringer. And here” – she edged a piece of paper from beneath the photograph – “this is a copy of her birth certificate. And this . . . the death notice of her as a baby. Read it – Elizabeth Jasmine Cole. She was supposed to have died, Judge – of complications, heart problems – right after birth. You . . . you told me she hadn’t made it. That those ashes I spread in the hills . . . oh, God, whose were they?” she asked, then shook her head, not wanting to hear any more lies. “Don’t . . . oh, God.” Shelby’s throat was clogged and she thought she might throw up. “You lied to me, Dad. Why?”
“I didn’t -”
“Don’t! Just don’t, okay!” She held both her palms outward, in his face, and stepped back. Bile roiled in her stomach. Beneath her skin, her muscles were quivering in rage. “Someone, and I don’t know who, sent me all this. I got it yesterday, and so I came back here to clear it up. Where’s my daughter, Dad?” she demanded through teeth that were clenched so hard her jaw ached. “What the hell did you do with her?”
“Now, darlin’ -”
“Stop it! Right now! Don’t call me darlin’, or sweetie, or kiddo, or missy or any of those cute little names, okay? I’m all grown up now, in case you hadn’t noticed, and you can’t smooth-talk you way out of this, Judge. I’m not a little girl. I know better than to believe a word that passes through your lying lips, and I only came back here to find my child, Judge – my daughter.” She thumped her chest with her thumb.
“Yours and who else’s?” he asked, his smile having disappeared and the old, hard edge she remembered coming back to his voice.
“That – that doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t it?” The judge scattered the papers across the table and frowned, his eyes narrowing behind wire-rimmed reading glasses. “Odd, don’t you think? You get proof that you’ve got a kid during the same week that Ross McCallum is going to be released from prison.”
“What?” Her knees nearly buckled. McCallum couldn’t be given his freedom. Not yet. Not ever. Fear congealed her blood. She was suddenly hot and cold all at once.
“Oh, so you didn’t know?” The judge settled back in his chair and played with the ivory handle of his cane. He looked up at her over the tops of his glasses. “Yep. Ross is gonna be a free man. Oh . . . and Nevada Smith, he’s still around.”
Her stupid heart skipped a beat, but she managed to keep her face bland, her expression cool. Nevada was out of her life. Had been for a long, long time. Nothing would change that. Ever.
“Yep,” the judge went on, fingertips caressing the smooth knob, “inherited a rocky scrap of land that he’s tryin’ to ranch. No one knows how he’ll handle Ross’s freedom, but the word is that there is certainly gonna be hell to pay.” He bit his lower lip and scowled thoughtfully, as he’d often done while hearing long-winded summations when he was on the bench. “And now someone sends you bait – a little chum in the water to lure you back to a town you’ve sworn you’d never return to. Someone’s playin’ you for a fool, Shelby,” he said, slowly nodding his head, as if in agreement with himself, “and it ain’t me.”
For once she believed him.
She’d flown back here on a cloud of self-righteous nobility and determination to find her child. That hadn’t changed. But now she felt manipulated, and yes, as her father had said, played for a fool. Unwittingly, she’d stepped into a carefully laid trap set by an unknown individual with purposes of his own.
Beneath the blouse that stuck to her skin, her shoulders squared.
She’d find a way to get herself out of this damned snare. Come hell or high water, she’d leave Bad Luck, Texas, behind her once and for all.
And this time, by God, she’d take her daughter with her.