by Kathleen Eagle
Rancher Clay Keogh knows he’s in for some heartache the moment he hears that gorgeous Savannah Stephens is back in in town. The torch he quietly carried for her when they were kids was never quite extinguished. Now tiny Sunbonnet, Wyoming is all abuzz over the news of their famous hometown girl’s return and why nobody’s seen her yet. And who knew she had a child? The little girl looks just like Savannah's first love: local bad boy Kole Kills Crow, Clay's half-brother. Whatever her secrets, it's clear she's deeply troubled. As always, Clay is there for her. But until she can come to grips with her secret struggle and deep insecurity, the emotional distance between her and Clay may separate them forever.
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The queen bees of Sunbonnet, Wyoming, were all a-buzz. Savannah Stephens was back, in the flesh this time.
How long had it been since the last time they’d pulled Savannah, dressed only in satin bra and lace panties, out of their mailboxes? She’d been quite the regular fixture on the cover of that mail order catalog for quite a while. Of course, everyone knew all about how those pictures got touched up. But they had to admit, Savannah had the basic equipment. And it was all natural. She was born and raised right there in Sunbonnet. She was a natural. That dewy-eyed smile had been just the right counterpoint for the flawless body of a woman who didn’t have to think twice about walking around in broad daylight wearing nothing but pretty underwear.
Then suddenly she’d vanished. Air-brushed clean away, as though somebody had thrown a coat over her and dragged her back into the house. Had it been three years ago, maybe five?
The drones had noticed right away when it happened, but they hadn’t said much. Once Savannah was gone, the men had gotten their catalog back. If anybody was to order anything, it was probably going to be a man. He’d send for something black and lacy for his own lady, something she would put on for him, just so he could take it off. The next morning she would tuck it away in the back of a drawer, and he’d never see it again. Then it was back to the mailbox. Sure, the men missed seeing Savannah, but there was still plenty of fine-figured diversion on the cover of Lady Elizabeth’s Dreamwear Catalogue.
Still, the women pondered aloud on occasion. What ever became of Savannah Stephens?
Speculation was part of the pondering. Some had heard she’d found greener pastures, but there were all sorts of tales about the nature of green. A movie mogul with a pocket full of green had her stashed in a cottage beside the green sea. Or she’d starved herself like they all did to stay slim, taken to eating nothing but lettuce and drinking green tea, and she’d just wasted away. Some said she’d made so much green herself she’d been able to retire and get fat. Heck, she always was pretty sassy.
The ebb and flow of such comments depended on the weather and what else was in the news, but they never sloshed through the door of the Sunbonnet Mercantile, owned and operated by Billie Larsen, the only relative Savannah had left in Sunbonnet. Or anywhere else, as far as anyone knew. The old general store was a gallery of pictures of Savannah dressed in pretty suits and glamorous evening clothes. The catalogs were stashed underneath the counter. Billie was proud of those, too, but she didn’t tack them on the wall.
Whenever anyone asked, Billie said that her niece was taking some time off from her modeling career. The response hadn’t changed in five years. Conventional wisdom calculated that it had probably been five years since Billie had heard from her once-famous niece, and the conventionally wise were not surprised to hear she’d come home with her tail tucked between her legs. It just proved that New York City was no place for a nice girl from Wyoming. It was bitch eat bitch in places like New York and L.A., or so the females of Sunbonnet had heard. And so they were fond of saying.
The males of Sunbonnet still weren’t saying much. They couldn’t imagine pastures any greener than the pages of Lady Elizabeth’s Dreamwear Catalogue. The thought of that tail and those legs coming home to Sunbonnet seemed too damn good to be true. They’d have to see to believe, and so far the sightings had been few.
But she was surely back.
Even if every person Clay Keogh tipped his hat to hadn’t mentioned it hard on the heels of how quickly the weather had changed this week, he would have known she was close by. Suddenly the clean, dry Wyoming air carried her scent again.
He’d parked his pickup in the shade of the loafing shed behind the Sunbonnet Mercantile, which was the oldest building in town. He was careful not to glance at the upstairs windows as he unloaded the tools of his trade. He had as good a buzz on as any bee, and he hadn’t had a drink in weeks. His face flamed in the shade of his cap as he took a quick inventory of the handles in his tool box. He could have sworn he had Tabasco sauce coursing through his veins, a notion that made him chuckle. Dearly did he love anything spicy, but cayenne in his blood? Not likely. Wyoming dirt made him red-blooded, pure and plain.
Was she upstairs in her Aunt Billie’s spare room, gilding a face that never needed any fixing? Or was she downstairs, helping out behind the counter, the way she used to when they were kids? He hadn’t noticed any cowboys lining up to buy a pack of gum they might never open or a postage stamp for a letter they’d surely never write. If he hurried, maybe he could be first. Just go on in and say hello before he worked up a sweat over Billie’s old mare’s shoes.
He’d only seen Savannah twice in more than a dozen years, but he was counting on one of those hummingbird hugs she’d learned to greet people with since she’d gone away to New York, and he didn’t want his shirt to be sticking to his back when she touched him. Right now his hands were clean and his shirt was dry. He ought to go into the store and announce himself, see if there was any kuchen fresh-baked, ask about the new rasp he had on order. Any other time, he’d do just that.
Anybody but Savannah inside, he wouldn’t be acting like he’d never ventured past the county line. He figured he’d see her sooner or later, and later would give him time to imagine the scene a few more ways. The tune he’d just heard on the radio swirled around in the secret part of his head, where he came upon Savannah alone in the store, wordlessly took her in his arms and welcomed her home with a slow two-step.
He whistled the same tune as he wrapped his leather apron strings behind his back, switched and pulled the ends to the front and tied them below his belt buckle. He reached for his hoof knife. In his head he was noticing how they still danced well together. He’d improved on the steps she’d taught him long ago. He’d practiced a bit. She hadn’t. It’s been years since I’ve danced, she told him. He asked her why, and she said she hadn’t had a partner.
He was smiling when he rounded the corner of the storage side of the shed and came knee to face with the most beautiful little girl he’d ever laid eyes on. Standing in the open doorway, she looked up at him, chocolate eyes as big as soup bowls, likely startled by his size, the way most little people were when they hadn’t seen him coming. She carried a mewling kitten in each hand. He got his smile going again.
She took a small step back, tucked one gray tiger against her neck, lifted her chin and said, “Hello.” She sounded all grown-up and proper, like she was the lady of the house rather than a little girl playing with kittens in a storage shed. She gave him an astute once-over. “Are you the horseshoe man?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m the horseshoe man,” he assured her. She was eyeing his hand and the curved hoof knife he’d all but forgotten about. He quickly slipped it into its pouch on the apron, which was more like a pair of knee-length leather chaps.
“Aunt Billie told me to watch for you. She said you were coming to put new shoes on Dolly and I could watch.”
“She did, huh?” He took a frayed blue halter down from a hook just inside the doorway. “Is Dolly all ready for me?”
“I think so.” She squatted behind the grain box and tucked the kittens into a wooden crate, under the narrow slits of the barn cat’s watchful eyes. The mewling ceased. The little girl hurried to catch up with new activity. “How does she have to get ready?”
“She usually gets Dollied up,” Clay quipped as he unhooked the chain on the corral gate. The child laughed behind his back, and he stepped aside to let her slide under his arm and through the gate ahead of him. “The way all women do when they go shoe shopping.”
“Does she get to pick them out? Can I pick for her?”
She was grinning up at him now, all bright-eyed, and he was thinking he knew her from somewhere. Feeling more than thinking, maybe, because the somewhere wasn’t as far off as the sometime, which didn’t make a lot of sense. Sun-kissed round face, gleaming dark hair swept up in a ponytail, eyes full of puckish sparkle—unless he missed his guess, the child was at least part Indian, and that was the part he knew without knowing, the part he felt connected to. Clay wasn’t Indian himself, but his brother was.
“My shoes only come in one color,” he said. “As far as style, well, we’re going to fix her up with a little wedge because she doesn’t have much heel left on her.”
“You’re going to give her high heeled shoes?”
“Gonna give her some of them hi-igh he-e-eled slippers,” he crooned as he cross-tied the sway-backed sorrel in the loafing shed.
“She’ll look silly like that.” The little girl squatted next to his wooden tool box, hands clasped between her knees, trying hard to look things over without touching. “Are her shoes in here? Can I watch you put them on?”
“How do you feel about that, old girl? Spectators generally aren’t allowed, are they? Especially strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger.” She deserted the box in favor of delivering her point at close range. “I live here.”
“Is that a fact?” Clay repositioned the tool box. “I’ve lived in this town all my life, and I’m pretty sure I know everyone else who lives here. But I don’t know you.”
“You know my mother. Aunt Billie says you do.”
“And who’s your mother?” He knew what was coming, but he had to let it unfold. This was the child’s way of introducing herself. By way of invitation, he slid her a glance.
“I’ll give you a hint.” She beamed, full to bursting with her secret. “My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“The most beautiful?”
“In all the world.” She shot up, stood straight as a soldier, and folded her arms imperiously. “You know her. She used to live here, a long time ago.”
He raked his fingers through the mare’s mane. “The most beautiful woman who ever lived here before, hands down, is Savannah Stephens.”
The little girl was smiling now, like the teacher satisfied with her student’s answer. He wanted to follow up with but you can’t be her daughter.
He shouldn’t have been surprised that she looked like his brother. Savannah would have followed Kole to the end of the earth when they were kids, and that was exactly where he was now, as far as Clay knew. But Kole had left Sunbonnet long before Clay and Savannah were even out of high school, so she’d have had to hook up with him somewhere, somehow . . .
He wasn’t surprised, hell no. It didn’t bother him, either. They were two wondrous adventurers, Kole and Savannah. Two of a kind, although it was hard for Clay to put them together as a pair. Clearly their paths had crossed at some secret place. For Kole’s sake it had to have been a secret place. He’d been dodging some powerful enemies longer than this little girl with the proud grin had been alive. So they’d gotten together, and this child . . .
This child was her own person, and she was the one conversing here, not her mother, and not Clay’s brother.
He smiled. “But if you’re living here now, I couldn’t say who’s the most beautiful anymore. You’d have to ask that ol’ mirror, mirror on the wall.”
Copyright © 2000 Kathleen Eagle
I am indebted to my sister, Jill Pierson Boulrice (the cute one on the right), for being an invaluable resource and a treasured source of inspiration in the writing of THE LAST GOOD MAN. Jill is a breast cancer survivor. She joins me in in reminding our friends to do monthly self exams, get annual mammograms, spread the word, and support the research.
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