There he was, sitting in his damned rocking chair as if it were a throne.
Slade McCafferty gnashed his back teeth and felt the taste of crow on his tongue as he glared through the bug-spattered windshield of his truck to the broad front porch of the ranch house he’d called home for the first twenty years of his life.
The old man, John Randall McCafferty, sat ramrod straight. In a way Slade respected him for his tenacious hold on life, his stubbornness, his determination to bend all of his children’s wills to meet his own goals. The trouble was, it hadn’t worked. The eldest McCafferty son, Thorne, was a hot-shot attorney, a millionaire who ran his own corporation from Denver, and the second-born, Matt, had struck out on his own and bought himself a spread near the Idaho border. Randi, the youngest, Slade’s half sister, lived in
That left Slade.
Ever the black sheep.
Ever the rogue.
Ever in trouble.
Not that he gave a damn.
As Slade eased out of the truck, a sharp pain shot through his hip and he winced, feeling the skin tighten around the barely visible scar that ran down one side of his face, a reminder of deeper marks that cut into his heart, the pain that never really left him. Well, no doubt he’d hear about that, too.
He paused to light a cigarette, then hobbled up the path through the sparse, dry grass that served as a lawn. Though it was barely May, it had been a dry spring, hotter than usual for this time of year, and the sun-bleached grass was a testament to the unseasonable and arid weather.
John Randall didn’t say a word, didn’t so much as sway in the rocker as he watched his youngest son through narrow eyes. A breeze, fiery as Satan’s breath, scorched across the slight rise that supported the old ranch house. Two stories of weathered siding with dark-green trim around each window, the house had been a refuge once, then a battlefield, and later a prison. At least to Slade’s way of thinking.
He sucked hard on the filter tip, felt the warmth of smoke curl through his lungs and faced the man who had sired him. “Dad.” His boots rang as he hitched up the steps and John Randall’s old hunting dog, Harold, lifted his graying head, then thumped his tail on the dusty planks. “Hi, boy.”
“I thought you might not come.”
“You said it was important.” Jeez, the old man looked bad. This tufts of white hair barely covered his speckled pate, and his eyes, once a laser-blue, had faded. His hands were gnarled and his body frail, the wheelchair parked near the door evidence of his failing health, but there was still a bit of steel in John Randall’s backbone, a measure of McCafferty grit in the set of his jaw.
“It is. Sit.” He pointed toward a bench pushed under a window, but Slade leaned against the rail and faced him. The sun beat against his back.
“What’s so all-fired important?”
“I want a grandson.”
“What?” Slade’s chest tightened and he felt the same old pain pound through his brain.
“You heard me. I don’t have much time, Slade, and I’d like to go to my grave knowin’ that you’ve settled down, started a family, kept the family name alive.”
“Maybe I’m not the one you should be talking to about this.” Not now, not when the memories were so fresh.
“I’ve already had my say with Thorne and Matt. It’s your turn.”
“I’m not interested in—“
“I know about Rebecca.” Slade braced himself. “And the baby.”
Slade’s head pounded as if a thousand horses were running through his brain. His scar seemed to pulse. “Yeah, well, it’s something I’ve got to live with,” he said, his eyes drilling into the old man’s. “And it’s hell.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“You can’t go beating yourself up on side and down the other the rest of your life,” his father said with more compassion than Slade thought him capable of. “They’re gone. It was a horrid accident. A painful loss. But life goes on.”
“Does it?” Slade mocked, then wished he could call back the cruel words. He’d said them without thinking that his father was surely dying.
“Yes, it does. You can’t stop living because of a tragedy.” He reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out his watch, a silver-and-gold pocket watch engraved with the crest of the Flying M, this very ranch, his pride and joy. “I want you to have this.”
“No, Dad. You keep it.”
The old man’s lips twisted into an ironic grin. “Don’t have any use for it. Not where I’m goin’. But you do. I want you to keep it as a reminder of me.” He pressed the timepiece into Slade’s palm. “Don’t waste your life, son. It’s shorter than you think. Now, it’s time for you to put the past behind you. Settle down. Start a family.”
“I don’t think so.”
A fly buzzed near John Randall’s head and he swatted at it with one gnarled hand. “Do me a favor, Slade. Quit moving long enough to figure out what you want in life. Whether you know it or not, what you need is a good woman. A wife. A mother for your children.”
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Slade growled, dropping his cigarette to the floorboards where he crushed out the butt with his boot heel.
“I made my share of mistakes,” his father admitted.
Slade didn’t comment.
“I was young and foolish.”
“Like I am now? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“No. I’m just hoping you’ll learn from my mistakes.”
“Mistakes. You mean, your two marriages? Or your two divorces?”
Slade glanced over his shoulder to the rolling hills of the ranch. Dust plumed behind a sorry old tractor chugging over one rise. “And you think I should get married.”
“I believe in the institution.”
“Even though it stripped you clean?”
John Randall sighed. “It wasn’t so much the money that mattered,” he said with more honesty than Slade expected. “But I betrayed a good woman and let you boys down. I lost the respect of my children, and that . . . that was hard to take. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to do it again, I would. Remember if I hadn’t taken up with Penelope, I would have never had my daughter.”
“So it was worth it.”
“Yes,” he said, pushing the rocker so that it began to move a bit. “And the only hope that someday you’ll forgive me, but more than that, Slade, I hope you find yourself a woman who’ll make you believe in love again.”
Slade pushed himself upright. “Don’t count on it.” He dropped the watch into his father’s lap.
Seven months later.
The McCafferty’s! Why in the world did her meeting have to be with the damned McCafferty brothers?
Jamie Parsons braked hard and yanked on the steering wheel as she reached the drive of her grandmother’s small farm. Her wheezing compact turned too quickly. Tires spun in the snow that covered the two ruts where dry weeds had the audacity to poke through the blanket of white.
The cottage, in desperate need of repairs and paint, seemed quaint now, like some fairy-tale version of Grandma’s house.
It had been, she thought as she grabbed her briefcase and overnight bag, then plowed through three inches of white powder to the back door. She found the extra key over the window ledge where her grandmother, Nita, had always kept it. “Just in case, Jamie,” she’d always explained in her raspy, old-lady voice. “We don’t want to be locked out now, do we?”
No, Nana, we sure don’t.
She checked her watch. She had less than an hour before she was to sit down with Thorne, Matt and Slade McCafferty. The Flying M ranch was nearly twenty miles away.
“Better get a move on, Parsons,” she told herself though her stomach was already clenched in tight little knots at the thought of coming face-to-face with Slade again. It was ridiculous, really. How could something that happened so long ago still bother her?
She’d been over Slade McCafferty for years. Years.
Seeing him again would be no problem at all, just another day in a lawyer’s life, the proverbial walk in the park. Right? So why, then, the tightness in her chest, the acceleration of her heartbeat, the tiny beads of sweat gathering under her scalp on this cold day? For crying out loud, she was acting like an adolescent, and that just wouldn’t do. Not at all.
Back up the stairs.
She changed from jeans and her favorite old sweater to a black suit with a silk blouse and knee-high boots, then wound her hair into a knot she pinned to the top of her head, and gazed at her reflection in the mirror above the antique dresser. It had been nearly fifteen years since she’d seen Slade McCafferty, and in those years she’d blossomed from a fresh-faced, angry eighteen-year-old with something to prove, to a full-grown adult who’d worked two jobs to get through college and eventually earn a law degree.
The woman in the reflection was confident, steady, and determined, but beneath the image, Jamie saw herself as she had been: a heavier, angrier, the new-girl-in-town with a bad attitude and even worse reputation.
A nest of butterflies erupted in her stomach at the thought of dealing with Slade again, but she told herself she was being silly, reliving those melodramatic teenage years. Which was just plain nuts! Angry with herself, she pulled on black gloves and a matching wool coat, grabbed her briefcase and purse, and was down the stairs and out Nana’s back door in nothing flat. She trudged through the snow to her little car, carrying her briefcase as if it were some kind of shield. Lord, she was a basket case. So she had to face Slade McCafferty again.