CORA'S PROMISE - Short Historical Romance - Book one in the Texas Strong Series                                Rleased by Barefoot Badger Publishing

Texas 1867

The Farewell

            Cora knelt at the grave marker of her recently deceased husband. She kissed her fingertips and placed them against the smooth engraved wood. Her chest hurt, and she barely caught a breath. She needed time to grieve her loss properly, but that was not a gift afforded her. “I will carry you in my heart always, dear William.”

She brushed a tear from her cheek with the back of her hand. “I don’t want to leave you, but there is nothing for me in Kansas now, and I gave my word. Sleep well in the arms of the angels, my love.”

            Cora glanced toward the marker a few feet away, placed only four days ago. She stood and walked toward it. “You were a dear friend, Berta. I’m proud to have known you. There’s no need to worry, I leave in the morning to make the delivery. I will do as you asked…I will keep my promise.”

            Squaring her shoulders, Cora smoothed the skirt of her dress. The journey ahead would be long and at times treacherous, but there was no other choice. Her word was her bond. She closed the cemetery gate and made her way down the hill, back to the boarding house. There were last minute items to pack, and come daylight she’d start her trek to Rabbit Glen, Texas.

Chapter One

          “Locke. Ramsey Locke, you about? Got somethin’ to give to ya.”
            Ramsey glanced from the barn loft, not surprised to see Reverend Matthew Hollister. It was his habit to check on folks if they missed a Sunday at church. He’d missed several.
            He shoved the pitchfork into the haymow, climbed down the ladder, and headed out the barn door.
            “Reverend, guess you’ve come to see if I’m still among the living?”
            “I have noticed your absence on the Sabbath, Ramsey.” Hollister reached out a hand, and Ramsey shook it. “I know you’ve got a lot to get done ‘fore winter, being you’re working your spread alone. Reckon I can understand you wantin’ to catch ever bit of daylight ya can.”
            “Thanks, Reverend, for your tolerance. I’ll get back to Sunday services soon.”
            “Good to hear.” 
            “What’d you bring me, a hunk of Mary Lou’s maple cake? She promised some next time she baked.”
            “Sorry, Locke, no cake today. Besides comin’ to check on your soul, I’m deliverin’ this. The minister pulled a pale yellow paper from his pocket. Jesse at the telegraph office asked if I’d mind to bring it out to ya.”
            “Who’d be sending me one of those?”  A frown rutted Ramsey’s forehead. He pulled off his work gloves, took the telegram from Rev. Hollister’s hand, broke the seal and read. His eyes registered what his mind couldn’t get a grip on. “Well, this sure is a bit of a strange.” He rubbed the back of his neck and cocked his head sideways.
            “Bad news?” Hollister inquired.
            “Partly so.”
            Ramsey sucked air. It crushed against his ribs like an anvil against steel. The telegram brought a flood of memories he’d been doing his damnest to forget—a time he had no hankering to remember. “It’s about someone I knew back in Kansas,” he finally said. “She’s died. Says here she left me her treasure.”
            “Treasure? Like gold coins?” Hollister asked.
            “That I doubt. This woman had a business, all right, but don’t think it could’ve made her rich by any means.” An image of the petite brunette with an ample bosom and tiny waist danced across his mind. She’d run the local brothel in Cold Springs, Kansas, but in the years he’d known her, he’d never seen her pleasure any man, except for once.   
           “Was this woman a store owner?” The Reverend inquired. “Perhaps she owned stock and sold it before she passed and has willed you a nice endowment.”
            “Wasn’t like that, Reverend.”  Ramsey never spoke of why he’d left Kansas and bought this rundown ranch on the outskirts Rabbit Glen, Texas. He knew the town folks were curious, but they’d respected his privacy. Guess he owed some explanation now.
            “Berta Minors operated the local house of pleasure.” Ramsey blurted.
            Reverend Hollister wheezed and threw a hand to his chest. “Oh dear.”
            “Don’t brand her a bad person. She wasn’t.” Ramsey traced circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot. “She ran a clean house. All her girls were required to have regular check-ups. My mother was the town midwife and I’d completed medical school. Berta enlisted our services to keep the girls healthy and, likewise their clients healthy.”
            “She ran a house of ill repute, my boy. That’s an abomination to God.”
            “You might see it that way, but the bachelors in town yearning for a stake and a woman willing to venture out west, sure didn’t.” Ramsey leaned his back against the wagon wheel. “The women came and went, many of them moving on to California with a fella they’d taken a liking to.”
              He debated if he should reveal more, but figured he couldn’t stop now and leave the Reverend hanging. “It was Berta who held me together when I lost Caroline.”
            Reverend Hollister climbed from the wagon and placed a hand on his neighbor’s shoulder. “Don’t recall you mentioning her before.”
             Ramsey motioned for Hollister to follow as he walked toward the porch and sat on the top step. “When I was attending medical school in Boston, I’d met a lovely woman. We fell in love, got engaged.”
            “That was Caroline?”
            “It was.”
            A bunch of rowdies had shown up in town the day she arrived in Kansas to join me. They’d spent all morning in the saloon located across the street from the stage stop.”
            Ramsey’s jaw locked like forged metal, he blinked back tears a man couldn’t shed. “I saw the stage roll in and hurried down the street to greet Caroline. She opened the door, got out, and when she saw me her smile set her face aglow. That’s the memory I try to hold in my mind, Reverend.”
            “Oh dear, Locke. What happened?”
            Ramsey shook his head and gazed skyward. An anguished sob crawled up his throat. He swallowed it back.
             “She was a stone’s throw from me when four of the rowdies came outside, yelling and firing their guns at each other. Two of those men died that day, and Caroline got hit in the crossfire. I ran to her, pushed my palm against the hole in her chest.” Ramsey’s chin quivered, he chewed his bottom lip. “My…my hands dripped with her blood where it gushed from the wound I couldn’t contain. The stain spread over her green satin dress like a prairie fire in the cyclone.”
            The sun waned behind a cloud and the day chilled. The wind blew lazily across the yard, and it embraced Ramsey like a tightly knitted shawl.  He could almost hear Berta’s voice. Everything’s going to be all right, Ramsey. You’ll see.
            “This Berta, she’s the woman who’s left you her treasure?”
            “The same.” Ramsey decided he wouldn’t completely bare his soul. Some things needed to stay private.
            He chuckled, picked up a piece of straw that had blown across the ground and twisted it around his finger. “One morning I woke up and decided I had to continue to live whether I wanted to or not. Buying this chunk of land and working it got my head on straight. It’s given me a reason to get up in the mornings. I thank the kind folks of Rabbit Glen for that.”
            Ramsey stood, unfolded the telegram and reread it, “Says here the parcel will arrive day after tomorrow. I don’t reckon I’m up to waiting on another stage, Reverend, that might knock my memories more than I can handle.”
            “I can see where that’d be a problem for you,” Hollister said, standing as well. “Listen, I’ll be in Grover that day to pick up flour from the mill. I can retrieve your delivery in Rabbit Glen as I return, bring it out to ya. You’re only a few miles down the road from my place. Won’t be any bother.”
            “I’d be obliged, but let me pay you something for your trouble,” Ramsey offered.
            “What I would take is a small sack of flour if you can spare it. We’re all out ‘til the mill gets our grain ground and bagged. Mary Lou is fretting ‘cause we won’t have biscuits for supper the next two days and if you’re the one who loans us the fixin’s she might be pressed to bake you that maple cake sooner than later.”
            “Don’t want to saddle your lovely wife with a guilt, but I do have flour I can spare. Come on in, and I’ll spoon some up.” Ramsey stepped up on the porch and opened the cabin door. “I’ve got Arbuckle's brewing. You want a cup?”
             “Some coffee would sure warm the stomach,” Matthew Hollister assessed. “Got a chill in my bones this mornin’. Don’t think we’re long ‘fore frost clings.”
            “Reckon you’re right about that, Reverend.”  Ramsey poured two mugs of the stout brew and sat one on the table for his guest. “Sit, take a load off.”
            He placed his coffee on the table as well, but before he sat, he dipped out several cups of flour from a wood canister, placed them in a cloth bag and tied the top shut with a string. He placed the bag in front of the reverend and joined him.
            Thunder rumbled in the distance. “Reckon we’re in for some rain.” Ramsey grimaced.
            “Maybe. Could be old Mother Nature’s just teasin’ us a bit.”
            “I’m in favor of that outcome, Reverend. I still got stock to move.”
            They made small talk and sipped coffee together. All the while Ramsey’s mind wondered—what sort of treasure was Berta Minors sending him?

            Cora curled her arms around her waist, shielding against the damp air. Silent thunder clouds churned overhead giving an occasional sparse glimpse of a hazy sun.
             “How much farther, Reverend Hollister?
               She was bone weary from the long journey that ended in Rabbit Glen, Texas, and  she longed to sit on something that didn’t move. She scanned the vast land before her. If it weren’t for the scrub scattered mountains that reached for the distant sky, it would appear much like the plains of Kansas.
              “Not too far now. Over that next ridge.” Hollister snapped the reins, and the horses followed the pitted road as it veered and yielded to a wooden bridge that crossed a decent size foliage lined brook.
             The road narrowed as it approached the top of the hill. “There’s Locke’s place, yonder.” The Reverend pointed to a modest spread several yards ahead.
             As they neared a sign on the fence announced: Lost C Ranch. A log cabin house sat in the center of a cleared area with a barn in dire need of paint, to the left, the roof covered well on the right. A large corral lay to the north of the road where it entered the barren yard. An adequate plowed garden showed green tops above the ground, a short walk from the house.
            Cora didn’t know how Ramsey Locke would accept the gift she brought, but in doing so, she’d fulfilled her promise to her dying friend, Berta. She shivered, hugged herself tighter. What would tomorrow bring? Where would she go from here? She had no thought. She had no plan. She had no place to be.

            Ramsey rode down the east slope of Washoo Ridge. The cloud bank that’d drifted in before noon stalled, refused to pass over the mountain range and eclipsed the sun that earlier promised a warm day. The unusual and dreary weather over the past two days had held off bringing any rain, and for that he was grateful. A freak storm wasn’t an aggravation he needed right now. Cattle had to be moved from the west and south grazing pastures down to the north meadow where there was still grass. Pole barns needed to be finished in the corrals east of the house so the stock would have shelter from the rain and snow when it came—and it for sure would.
            As far as the eye could see, Ramsey’s land spread out before him, a thousand forty-four acres of Texas dirt. Hard to work, harder to grow, but they were his.     
            “Dammit.” He jerked his hat off and rubbed his gloved hand across his brow. The oaks that bordered the pond basin already turned crimson and gold. A sure sign winter was coming early. There was a passel of work to get done before the snow, and he was way behind point.
            A cold wind kicked up, the air turned static and brought a chill. It crawled up Ramsey’s spine like a scorpion. In the distance, dust created by a wagon as it lumbered up the road floated in ringlets. From his vantage point Ramsey could tell by the tall hat the driver wore it was Matthew Hollister—come to deliver his package due in on the mail stage today, he reckoned. Reining his horse to maneuver the hill, he squint his eyes to bring better focus to the woman who rode beside the minister. He couldn’t make her out, but it sure wasn’t Mary Lou Hollister on the seat. This woman was a slight little thing, compared to Mary Lou’s wide girth.
            Ramsey rode into the barnyard at the same time Hollister pulled the wagon up in front of the cabin. He noticed a dark-haired young boy in the back clutching a tattered old carpet bag. Ramsey tied his Appaloosa to the hitching rail, dismounted, and walked over to the wagon.
            “You got company come to visit, Reverend?”  He pulled off his gloves and shoved them into his back pocket.
            “Not me, Ramsey. You.”  Reverend Hollister tied the reins to the brake lever, got out and came around to assist the young woman and the child to the ground.
            The boy stood beside the wagon, his dark eyes wide and curious. They brought a wave of familiarity, but Ramsey couldn’t put his finger on it.
           “What are you talking about, Hollister?” Ramsey looked off toward the barn as if not interested in what the reverend had to say, yet his heart thumped panic against his ribs.
            The woman stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hello, I’m Cora Sutton. I was hired by Berta Minors to care for her child in the evening hours while she was about her business. Over the years we became friends, and it was me who tended her needs during the last months before she passed.”
            “My momma’s gone to heaven.” The small boy shouted. “I ain’t never gonna see her on this earth again.”
            “I’m real sorry about that, fella. I know the pain you’re feeling, truly I do,” Ramsey offered comfort.
            “I gotta get going, Locke.” The Reverend scurried back onto the wagon seat and slapped the reins against the horses’ rumps. “Git-up, now. Gitty up. Up to you to get the lady back to town when you’re down with your business,” he shouted over his shoulder.
            “Hang on a minute, Hollister…where are you going? You can’t leave these folks here.”  Ramsey trotted behind the wagon a few feet, yelling protests.
            Scratching his head, Ramsey stood with one foot cocked to the side, and watched the wagon disappear down the road. He turned and stomped back to the woman and boy. “Want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
            The woman appeared to blush at the profanity spoken, but he wasn’t in the mood to apologize. “Speak up, woman.”
            “I’m terribly sorry our presence has upset you, but it was Berta’s dying wish that I escort the child to you, Mr. Locke.”
            “This boy?” Ramsey stared at the kid, saw some unfocused memory he couldn’t quite place. “Why would Berta want you to do that?”
            “Because, sir.” Cora cleared her throat. “This is Treasure Keaton Locke. Your son.”





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 On this page, I will post the first chapter of the novels I have completed. I hope you will enjoy reading these tidbits from each book. I've complete Book Two in the Texas Strong series, so here's a short excerpt from Claree's Plan.


The Decision
Atchison, Kansas - July 1871

Claree May Whitney needed a husband, and she needed one now. It was the only way to make null and void the marriage contract her father had signed on her behalf with Angus MacGregor. In the

unsettled parts of Texas, she’d heard men were plentiful and many wanted a wife.

She gazed out from the third story window of her room at the Atchison Hotel. The maples that lined the square across the street were full with deep green foliage. Their leaves twisted in the breeze that cooled the summer day, like dancers at the circus. A white-bearded man sat in front of the barbershop in a chair, leaning back precariously on two legs. Fringed top carriages and buggies passed each other on the street below. The men tipped their high-hats and the women passengers waved to one another. Life moved on in a normal fashion, it seemed, for everyone but her.

“Oh, Claree, are you sure about this?”

“Yes, my dear friend. I have no other choice.” Claree turned, walked toward the bed where Marguerite sat and patted her hand. “As soon as the stage pulls out you’ll go directly to the train station as we agreed?”

“Jamison has the team at the wait. I know what I’m to do.” Marguerite assured. “I’ll mill around, call attention to the fact that I’m a woman alone, inquire about fares and flutter my eyelashes at the ticket master.”

“When my father and Angus come to check if I might have purchased a ticket on the train connecting to the Transcontinental Railway, the ticket tender will surely remember a young woman dressed in green satin, and that she was interested in passage to Sacramento.” Claree touched the sleeve of the dress her father had purchased for her nineteenth birthday last year, the one Marguerite now wore. “The color flatters you much more than me,” Claree told her friend. Claree and Marguerite had traded clothing to seal the deception further. “My plan should throw them off my trail for a generous amount of time. They’ll follow the train route and all the while I will travel an isolated stage road.”

“I’ll package the dress and send it to you once you’re settled. You might have need of a formal gown.”

“No, you keep it, Marguerite. Something to remember me by.”

“Claree, I shall never forget you.” Marguerite sighed. “I pray your plan is successful.”

“It has to be fruitful. I won’t marry a bald, drooling man three times my age. I won’t. No matter the outcome of a high stakes poker game.”

“You should never have been bartered in such a manner, Claree. If your mother were still alive, she’d have not stood for it.” Marguerite shook her head.

“No. She would have put Father in his place for certain, and I shan't accept the results of his rash actions, I assure you.” Claree hugged her friend. “Thank you for helping me change my destiny.”


“Last call. Fort Chadbourne and points west,” a tall, thin cowboy shouted to the sparse assemblage on the boardwalk.

Claree alone climbed into the coach, one of the few stages running since the completion of the railroad to the west coast. This one took supplies, mail, and an occasional passenger to mining camps and rural townships between Atchison, Kansas, and Ft. Yuma in Arizona. The infrequency of stage travel these days was another reason her father and MacGregor would be certain she’d taken the train to make her escape.

She leaned out the window. “I’ll send word as soon as I’m settled. Don’t worry, Marguerite, I shall do well.”

Marguerite clasped Claree’s hands where they rested on the coach window frame. “I know you’re a strong woman, but nonetheless I’ll worry about you.” She squeezed Claree’s gloved hand one last time. “Safe journey my dear friend.”

The coach jolted forward before Claree could respond. She waved until the image of Marguerite disappeared in the distance. She didn’t suppose she’d ever see her beloved homeland again. That thought saddened her. She blinked back tears. No time to dwell on what is behind you.


Love's Lingering Refrain, Contemporary Romance, Book 1 in the Series entitled The Way Something Comes.

The Journey
Wazhazhe Tribal Village near Taney Creek - Missouri, 1807

           He wore a scarlet ceremonial loincloth over buckskin leggings, stood strong, head high, jaw set. Ankle-high moccasins clad his feet. His smooth defined chest glistened with sweat, though others around the Spirit Circle shivered in the morning chill. He inhaled the morning mist, held the breath for a long moment until his lungs threatened to burst. With the release of air his nostrils flared, a warrior ready for battle. He raised his hands, palms upward toward the sky.
            The old medicine woman, Ranoke's tribal mother, reverently placed a black feather into the beaded headband encircling his head. All was as it should be. The elders beseeched the ancestors to impart wisdom so Ranoke’s journey might be swift and sure. Spirit sage smoldered from a bundle held by the medicine woman, its smoke curled and embraced the warrior. He breathed the sacred essence, his hands directed herbal smoke over his head and shoulders. It wrapped around him like a warm fur on a snowy night. The wind blew, whispered an eerie melody of a thousand tribal ancestors in ceremonial chant.
             Ranoke gazed about this ancient place of his people. Bare earth caught in the icy fingers of wayward breezes, swirled into a dust devil and changed direction with each wind gust. Dotted with lush patchwork-colored trees in autumn dress, the surrounding hills rolled lazily, one onto the next and reflected the early morning’s first rays of sunlight.
          The fragrant scent of medicine smoke from long ago meshed with the spirit sage of the Ranoke’s people. Only to his ears came the memory of native flutes. A grove of poplar trees on the ridge rustled in harmony. The magic engulfed him, tugged him, urged him to join the ancients. He came here with one purpose—to meet the spirits of his ancestors, to seek their knowledge and wisdom, their advice and guidance. He searched for the path that would lead to Tessa, his beloved Tessa. He must find her in the nether-world, beg her forgiveness. He’d failed her in a single moment when he’d not remained vigilant and now she was gone. Her death rested heavy on his heart. Guilt consumed him.
          The Wazhazhe brave turned to face the awakening horizon. He stood ready before the circle marked with smooth stones in the clearing, beyond the mouth of the Cave of the Crying Winds. In the sacred tradition of the Spirit Circle he entered from the east. Each of the wheel’s twelve spokes would present a lesson of life. He would pass each in turn, and ask each to reveal its  sacred teaching. Ranoke knew if he failed to heed the message that the life lesson brought, it would be repeated in another time, another place, in another way until the understanding became clear.
          The Medicine Woman handed Ronoke the prepared cup. He drank the pungent brew, an ancient recipe from the ancestors. Next, he chewed the root of dreams, savored its bitter taste, for it would transport him to the spirit world. He swallowed and began to dance keeping time with the rattle of dried gourds shook by unseen hands and heard only by him. Stepping in rhythm to ancestral flutes, one moccasin-clad foot then the other, Ranoke embarked upon his quest.
          The cadence of a tom-tom permeated the circle, the hillsides pulsated, the heartbeat of the earth joined the mesmerizing rhythm of native drums. The sun rose higher in the clear blue sky, the hills glowed as if aflame. Voices from ancient times chanted ever louder, silent to all but the warrior. He swayed, bent his body in fluid motion with the tribal song. The wind accepted him as a brother. Ranoke sang with the spirits, calling Tessa's name, pleading for her reply. His words, known only to him and the ancients, conveyed his sorrow. “Hiyaaa. Nae-tuk-a-shay. Hiyaaa. Nae-toe-nae-a-shay.” His hands clapped the tribal cadence. “Uh-nor-a-ta. Tuk-a-nae. Tuk-a-nae.
          The earth moaned with erotic pleas for the warrior to join her in a mating ritual. Ranoke arched his back, his chest proud, arms thrust forward, fingers pointed toward the heavens. "Hiyaaa. Nae-tuk-a-shay," he sang an agonizing lament. He curled his waist low and stepped forward, heel, toe—step back—forward, heel, toe, toe, heel, leaving a deliberate pattern in the ceremonial ground beneath him. The sequence was repeated until he arrived at the first spoke.
          Louder the drums beat the native message. The wind carried mournful cries, a woman’s wails of sorrow and grief echoed through the meadow. Ranoke twisted and jerked as the spirit of the tormented voice entered his body, became part of him, and he of it. “Ahaaaa, ahaaaa,” he cried, squinting tightly to hold back tears unacceptable to a warrior, yet he could not contain his wails of sorrow. Tessa was dead. It should not be.
          “Ahaaa,” the choir of spirit voices moaned, but Ranoke's voice cried loudest. His body slumped, despair sucked his life force. He raised his hands toward the sky and pleaded with the Great Spirit to free him from this pain, from the dying of his own heart. He must pass each test the Spirit Circle presented, then he could arrive at that place of peace and harmony. There he would be united with Tessa's spirit if he could survive what lay before him.
          “Sha-who-wa-nae,” he sang mournfully. “Noe-o-too-a-so-nae.” An anguished prayer to the Great Spirit for mercy. The responsibility for Tessa’s tormented death was his alone. Blinded to the scheme of the gypsy witch, Ranoke had drank from the goblet she offered and fell under her magic spell. It did not matter that he'd realized, too late, the gypsy's charms were evil, death in disguise.
          He continued the dance. With each spoke of the wheel, his memories joined those of the ancestors in visions that transported him to times past. His love for Tessa was forbidden. She, the fair-skinned daughter of a Military Colonel, he a lowly Indian scout. He relived it all, as if it happened again. He'd met Tessa in the Cave of the Crying Winds, their secret place. They could fulfill the desire to love one another there, hidden from eyes that would condemn them. 
          Ranoke entered yet another spoke of the Spirit Circle, swayed in rhythm with flutes and drums. He remembered the warmth of Tessa's body when he rose above her and took her as his own. His senses dulled by the intoxication of Tessa’s renewed love for him, he’d not detected the danger until it was too late. Again, as then, the gypsy's vengeance exploded before his eyes. The smell of burning black powder sickened him. The stain it left scarred his heart.
          “Tessa, Tessa,” he cried, but she was gone.
          The tom-tom echoed louder, faster. The earth rumbled and shook, still Ranoke danced the circle. Toe, step, heel, toe. He must complete the journey if he hoped to find Tessa in the after-world.
          The ground shook fiercely. Those who stood watching screamed and ran searching for a place of refuge. The earth cracked and swallowed in its hungry attack. The ground twisted and sagged, frenzied and agitated. The Spirit Circle separated, leaving a ragged, gaping hole at its center.
          The nearby Cave of the Crying Winds snorted, bellowed, spewed forth rock and dust. The ground quaked and rumbled more violent. With a groan of agony, a massive granite slab from the interior of the cave pierced through the earth above and stretched skyward, a monument for the one who’d died there.
          The earth stilled and Ranoke's tribal family returned from their hiding places, stood near what had been the sacred Spirit Circle, its stones askew, the magic gone—as was Ranoke.
          A lone black crow stood at the east spoke, the only portion of the circle to remain intact. The scent of sage lingered on the breeze. The crow stretched its neck, cocked its head, eyed the old medicine woman, and communicated an unspoken message.
           “Go, my son,” she whispered.
          The crow flapped and spread its wings, sailed into the air and made a sweeping pass above the onlookers. “Caw, caw,” it squawked in one final swoop across the sky, then the sacred crow of the Wazhazhe people disappeared into the amber dawning of a new day.

        Chapter One - Present Day Branson, Missouri  

           Tracey Miller bit her lower lip, took her foot off the gas, eased down on the brake and checked the address written on a legal size sheet of paper given to her by Attorney William Russell. Two forty-two Monument Drive. This was the place all right. She blinked several times, hoping the image before her might improve. It didn’t. Her stomach coiled like a new spring on a Ford pickup. A faded and peeling sign, that had once proudly announced Stone Oak Theater, dangled from a chain hook on what was left of a rusted iron tripod near the road.
            Early morning mist laced through the autumn foliage of maples lining the street, hung heavy in the 
air, and caused a glare that made the entrance driveway precarious to navigate. In the parking lot, Tracey coasted to a spot beneath the sprawling branches of a mammoth oak and turned off the ignition. She leaned forward, peered through the windshield to survey the natural stone and wood building that had been constructed into the side of a hill. With only the front and one side wall exposed, the structure seemed a part of its surrounding landscape—overgrown and neglected.
            “Great glory, Daddy.”  Tracey leaned back against the car seat. Her flesh 
porcupine goosebumps she couldn’t rub away.
            Why would you purchase this dilapidated old place? Why in the world would you leave such a shamble to me? Why?
            The old structure appeared like something out of a horror film. A tower room extended above the sagging pitched roof and composed a partial second story. Spider webs clung to the 
eaves. Black Widows she’d bet. Rain-splattered, time-stained windows reflected the awakening of a new day.
            Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?           
            Tracey saw her dream of turning the inherited commercial property into a bookstore and gift shop teeter on a thin thread, like the abandoned bird’s nest that hung from a corner brace above one window. She’d given up a good, but boring, job, left her family and broken heart in Columbia, Missouri, drove south with hope and a vision of starting fresh. She’d always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Now, seeing the condition of Stone Oak Theater, she wasn’t sure she’d made a sound decision. A breath escaped her lungs she didn’t realize she’d held. A shiver tensed her muscles—thin rubber bands ready to pop.
            I’m here, might as well take a look-see.
            She glanced up at the great oak’s span of thick twisted foliage. The ancient tree seemed to scrutinize her through squinted, knot-hole eyes. A breeze stirred the icy morning air. The branches of the old oak dipped and swayed in the current, agitated and angry.
             She locked the car and headed for the theater entrance. If she could have climbed Mount Everest in order to bypass the tree’s bulk to get there, she would have. Each step she took toward the door, the tree limbs flailed wilder in the wind. The leaves rustled an eerie refrain. Go away. Go away, they warned. Foreboding curled her spine, and fear stopped her mid-step. She was dizzy, reached out and grasped the tree trunk to steady her gait. The smell of burning black powder assaulted her nostrils. The musky scent of damp rotted timbers—of death—engulfed her like toxic smoke. She 
gasped, her breathing quickened, her lungs unwilling to expand. Hand to her throat, she inhaled a deep cleansing breath, coaxed her body to take in oxygen. Her heart thundered against her ribs like war drums around a ceremonial fire. She hadn’t been this afraid since she thought a monster lived in her closet.
             Tracey stumbled away from the gnarled oak, found her footing, and the apprehension dissipated. Her heart slowed. “Get a grip, girl.” Fatigue after a night of little sleep, followed by the long drive from Columbia, opened a speedway for her imagination to run unchecked “It’s just a tree,” Tracey scolded aloud. Not some forest anomaly with eyes that followed her every move and leaves that shooed her away. Ridiculous. The odors, she surmised, were the remnants carried on the wind of animals that had crawled into the abandoned building over the years and died, although the foulness no longer permeated the air.
            She shook the scattered thoughts from her mind and hurried toward the theater, seeking shelter under the doorway awning. The wind kicked up, blew harder and wailed like a banshee when it cornered the building. Torn strips of the awning’s rotted fabric flapped in its wake. Tracey fumbled to put the skeleton key into the mud caked lock, her fingers numb from the sudden cold. Renegade oak branches whipped against her back. 
            “Ouch,” she 
yelled and pushed at the entry. The heavy wooden door screamed in protest against rusty hinges. Tracey forced her weight against it, shoved hard. The door swung open, she rushed inside, closed it tight, and leaned against the ornately carved barrier.

            Safe. You’re safe now.
            It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior. Dust and the scent of bygone times permeated the foyer. Slate tiles, dulled with years of grime, covered the floor. The hair on her arms and nape prickled, not as if a cat had stepped on her grave, but more like déjà vu.
            She took several cautious steps into the area that appeared to have been the lobby of the one-time theater. Again, she experienced momentary vertigo
and knew how Alice must have felt when she stepped through the looking glass.
            Tattered and faded rose-colored velvet curtains obscured the morning sun that attempted to peek through dirty, beveled glass window panes. Through the riddled window coverings, eerie shadows from early morning traffic danced in strobe-like designs across the floor. Tracey rubbed her fingers against the once polished and fragrant surface of pine walls. Dust particles floated into the stale air like ghost dancers. She felt an unexpected emotion—one of immediate belonging—of coming home.
            There were many unanswered questions regarding this surprise inheritance. She and her father always had an open line of communication, yet he’d never mentioned this property to her before his death. Why? Tracey wondered too, now that she was 
here, if there was any way to turn an abandoned, crumbling theater into a profitable business?
            She gazed around the lobby and tried to imagine it as it’d once been, bustling with eager visitors coming to see and hear country music stars and hopefuls. According to the information 
packet she’d received from the attorney handling the estate, Stone Oak, in its day, boasted being a hot spot of the Ozarks, alive with the strains of guitars, mandolins, fiddles, and banjos. Once it resounded with nasal voices singing about love and love lost,  living and dying, of going on and giving up. That was all before the big names in the country music field came to Branson and constructed enormous theaters along the now famed County Music Strip. In the growth that propelled a small town in Missouri to the top of the places to go and people to see charts, some of the small locally owned theaters could no longer compete. Stone Oak, a small establishment, had fallen prey to the jaws of tourism.
            She set her purse on a dusty glass concession case, heaved a ragged sigh. What did you have in mind, Daddy, when you purchased Stone Oak? Surely there was a plan.
            Tracey noticed one wall of the lobby was composed of a solid slab of granite, from floor to ceiling. A damp musky smell permeated the space as she neared the massive rock wall. She reached out to touch its cool dampness. Her grasp on reality became fuzzy, the sudden fragrance of sage suffocating. Propelled into some mental vortex her mind and body 
warred to separate one from the other. She swayed, unsteady, suffering another bout of vertigo. Holding her head in her hands, she fought to focus on who she was and where she was. The spinning slowed. The incident ceased. It lasted only a moment but left her short of breath and weak.
            “Great glory.” Tracey rubbed her temples. What happened? She wasn’t prone to such spells.
            Food. That's what she needed.
 been nearly six hours since she’d eaten and had consumed only fruit for breakfast. No wonder she was light-headed. She remembered seeing a cafe nearby and picked up her purse to leave when she heard a sad mournful sound. A woman's voice, crying.
            The voice echoed off the walls, made it difficult to pinpoint its source. It was faint and timid, but definite.
            “Who's there?” Tracey called. She walked through an archway that led to the stage area. The voice echoed through the high rafters of the auditorium. “Where are you? Are you hurt?” 
            The granite slab from the lobby continued into the auditorium forming one complete sidewall. Walking down the aisle and between the rows of seats, Tracey tried to get a bearing on the muted sobs, but couldn't.
            “I won't hurt you, just tell me where you are,” she pleaded.
            “Nobody's gonna answer ya, ma'am.”
            Tracey jerked around, startled at the gravel-cracked voice behind her. The 
backlighting from the adjoining room silhouetted a slightly stooped man standing in the archway. “Who are you? What do you want?"
            “Hank Parker. Mr. Russell, the attorney, sent me to be sure you found the place. Appears you did.”
            Tracey walked up the aisle toward the man. “You scared the sass out of me sneaking 
up like that.”
            “Didn't mean to. I called out when I came in the front door, guess you didn't hear me.” He removed his bright yellow baseball cap and rolled it in his hands. “And please, ma'am, call me Hank. I've been keepin’ an eye on the place since your daddy bought it. Meant to WD-40 those front door hinges before now. I’ll get that done today, make it easier for ya to come and go.”
            Hank, dressed in faded bib overalls and scuffed work boots, escorted Tracey back to the lobby. She guessed him about seventy, but his keen step and bright blue eyes gave evidence to a much younger state of mind.
            “That noise you’re trailin' comes from behind the stone wall,” Hank offered.
            “What is it?” Tracey listened again to the faint sound.
            “Been all kinds of speculation over the years, but most agree it's an underground spring trapped behind the granite. When the water flows against the rock it makes the sounds.”
            “Sounds? Plural?”
            “Yes, ma'am. Sometimes it takes on a cryin’ voice. Other times, sings
sweet as an angel choir.”
            Tracey cocked her head and stepped closer to the stone wall, but heard nothing.
            “And sometimes The Lady sleeps,” Hank said. “Like now.”
            “Lady?” Tracey arched her brows.
            “Oh, we call it The Lady on account it has a feminine ring to its goings-on.”
            Tracey smiled. “Is this an Ozarks yarn?
            “All speculation ma'am, pure speculation.” Hank grinned and tugged at one shoulder strap of his overalls.
            “Call me Tracey, okay? I'm not old enough to be a ma'am.”
            “Oh, yes, ma'am—I mean, Miss Tracey.”
            She fought a grin and turned her head. “I’ve explored enough for today,” she told the polite old gent. “I think I'll lock up, grab a bite, and go back to my motel to form a plan of action.” She faced Hank again. “You know, decide priorities.” After seeing Stone Oak, she thought maybe her first priority should be to call a realtor, put a For Sale – Make Offer sign out front and head back to Columbia, forget this notion of going into business for herself.           
            Hank extracted a pencil and 
notepad from a front pocket in his overalls. He licked the pencil lead then scribbled. “This is where you can reach me if you need anything—day or night.”
            Tracey folded the note, shoved it into her jeans pocket and followed Hank outside. The heavy theater door shut, she locked it and gave a wary glance at the old oak tree. 
It loomed in the dusk of the day like an ancient guardian. What the menacing tree watched over she wasn’t sure. She did know it considered her a threat.
            “Can you meet me here at ten o'clock in the morning, Hank? Show me the location of the fuse boxes and light switches?”
pleasured to. Ten sharp.”
            It was settled. She was staying. Her dream of turning Stone Oak into a profitable gift shop and 
bookstore deserved a chance to become reality. You never knew what you could do until you tried—and she was going to give it generous effort.
            Tracey took 
wide berth, skirting the oak tree. She waved goodbye to Hank and got into her car. She felt an unexplained flood of relief inside the sanctuary of the vehicle once she slammed the door shut. The wind that had not ceased since she'd arrived stilled. The calm before the tornado? She hoped not. Shaking her head to dispel the thought she reached to turn the ignition key. At that moment an onslaught of acorns dropped from the overhanging branches of the oak, peppering the car roof like marble size hail. Tracey shoved the gearshift into reverse, backed up and aimed the car toward the street. Twisted tree branches clung to the windows, clawed at the car until she shifted into drive and slammed the accelerator down hard.

            Tracey woke early, showered and dressed for the day. In route to Stone 
Oak she’d made a quick stop at the famed Silver Dollar City Theme Park office to fill out an application for a booth. She had no hope of securing a space for this year to sell her stone art at the theme park’s Fall Crafts Festival. The waiting list was rumored to be long, but she’d be at the top of the list for next year. The yearly event was paramount to her income now that she lived in Branson. A presence at the annual festival, and opening a bookstore and gift shop at Stone Oak, was an opportunity to take her hobby of crafting natural stone jewelry and turn it into a business
            That completed, she headed to the hardware store to pick up paint and brushes. Stone Oak was going to get a 
facelift. Today was the perfect day for a new beginning.
            Back on the highway, Tracey lowered the car window. The sun warmed the day and the clean, crisp scent of fall reminded her of frost-covered pumpkins. Rolling hills glowed in the brilliance of autumn red and gold. Tiny waterfalls cascaded over granite cliffs along the highway. Soon winter would freeze them into suspended icicles until spring kissed them, setting them free.
            She’d been apprehensive about relocating to Branson, but she wanted to rid herself once and for all of 
old memories over a relationship gone sour. She'd just have to figure out how to make a year-round living in a town that experienced mostly a summertime business boom. That would take some creative thinking. She loved a challenge.
            Tracey turned into the parking lot in front of Stone Oak, noticing a red Chevy step-side truck stopped across the street. The man inside flipped through papers, looking around as if lost. One thing Tracey had learned from her short time in the Ozarks was that people here were friendly and helpful. She put her vehicle in park, turned off the ignition and got out.
            “Do you need some help?” she called, as she approached the truck.
            “I was looking for Poke Street and I think I made a wrong turn.”  The man stuck his head out the window and rested his arm on the door frame.

            The sun reflected against cinnamon eyes that shimmered with amber flakes. Eyes a woman could get lost in. Great glory.
            “I’m kind of new to Branson myself, but I believe if you go two blocks 
farther you’ll come to Courtney Lane, hang a left and Poke intersects about a mile down, I’m pretty sure,” Tracey offered.
            “Thanks, I appreciate the assist. See you’ve got someone waiting for you over there.”  The man gestured toward the van in the parking lot.
            “That’s the building caretaker. We’ve got a few things to tidy up around the place.
            “Good luck with that. I’ll not keep you from it then—thanks again.”
            Tracey’s breath caught when he smiled, a smile that reached the corners of those gorgeous eyes. “If you’re looking for work, I could use an extra hand.”
            He laughed. “I’ve got a job, Sugar, but I’ll admit you’re offer is tempting.” He tapped the end of her nose with his knuckle. “Real tempting.”
            In that momentary touch, Tracey saw a flash of...something. A fragmented picture in her mind she couldn’t piece together.
            “Well, I guess if I can’t seduce you with a paint brush, then you best be on your way.”
            Again, he laughed, his eyes twinkled with mischief. He eased the gearshift into drive, waved, and pulled away.
        She stood for a moment and watched the red Chevy step-side with dual exhausts roll down the street. If she’d known the Ozarks sprouted tall, dark and oh my, she’d have moved here a whole lot sooner.
            Tracey parked her El Camino in front of the newly washed windows of the theater, away from the ominous oak tree, cut the engine, and got out of the car as Hank came out the front door.
            “Sorry I'm late,” she yelled.
            “ I saw this guy….”
            “Red truck?”
            “Yes. He needed directions to Poke Street. I hope I told him correctly. About a mile down on Courtney Lane, right?”

“Yep. Same street Attorney Russell’s office is on, remember?”                                  

            “Oh, right. I’d forgotten.”
            Tracey opened the theater door and stepped inside. The lobby shimmered in sunlight streaming through the windows and greeted her with welcoming warmth.
            “See ya pulled down those old curtains before ya took off yesterday,” Hank noticed.
            “I want some bright cheery window coverings. Sheers perhaps. Something that will let the sunlight through, like today. Gives the ambiance of a friendly place, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I want my customers to feel as though they can hang out here a while.”
            Hank opened a door near the archway into the auditorium and headed up a narrow staircase. He motioned to Tracey. “Watch yer step.”
            A switch panel was located at the top of the stairs. Hank explained what each controlled then pointed to the catwalk. “That spans overhead from one end of the stage to the other.”
            “Been lots of country music greats got their start right there.” He pointed to the hardwood plank floor below, as they walked across. “Some got their hopes shattered, but either way Stone Oak gave 'em a chance to fulfill their dream.”
            The air was still and musty, like a moldy dress forgotten in an old trunk. On the other side, they climbed down a ladder and stood in front of the stage. Tracey pulled down a tattered, vinyl covered seat and sat while Hank wondered off to the far side of the auditorium.
            What do you offer me, Stone Oak?
            The fine hairs on Tracey’s arms stood taut as if unseen eyes watched, but she sensed no danger. The granite wall to her left began to hum its song. The Lady was awake. Tracey reached toward the wall, not touching it, but feeling its presence. She closed her eyes and for an unmeasured moment the image of a handsome Native American man dressed in buckskin breeches, floated like a hologram in her mind.
            Long dark straight hair framed his chiseled face. A brightly beaded band circled his forehead and was tied with leather on the side. A black feather dangled from the headband secured by beaded strips of hide. His eyes, the color of polished topaz, penetrated her soul.
            She heard, before she saw, the river rushing over rocks. The vision came into focus. The hologram imaged man stood on the opposite bank from a young woman with porcelain colored skin. He raised his arm and waved her onward, beckoned her to come.
            Tracey watched, as if from the clouds above. The woman lifted her long skirt and petticoat to her knees and waded into the water. Only several feet from the bank she called out to the bronze-skinned man, “I can’t make it. The water is too cold, the current too swift.”
            “Try, Tessa. You must try,” he implored. “If you stay the Evil One will find you. I have been cursed. My medicine cannot reach you there. I am powerless to save you, my love, unless you come to me.”
            The sun-kissed warrior took a step closer to the water’s edge. “On this side you will be safe. We can be together forever.”
            In the dream-like vision, Tracey watched as the woman forged against the current, fell into the icy flow, struggled to regain her footing and pushed on until she neared the bank where the man waited.
            The warrior reached out a calloused hand and secured hers, his eyes twinkled with anticipation. The dark clouds above parted and they were washed in a ray of golden sunlight. The Great Spirit’s blessing?
            The woman circled her arms about the warrior’s shoulders, tangled her fingers in his dark hair, her breath quickened. The native man pressed his hand against the small of her back and pulled her to him. Their passion undeniable.
            It was when the young woman lifted her face to gaze into her lover’s eyes that Tracey saw she was the exact image of herself, dressed in garb from a long ago era. She gasped, shocked.
            “Something wrong, Miss Tracey? Havin’ trouble catchin’ yer breath?” Hank asked, stooping down, touching her arm.
            Her eyes fluttered open dispelling the vision. “I'm fine, Hank, I think. Great glory I…I must have dozed off, was dreaming, I guess.”
            “Musta been a doozie.” Hank stood and leaned against the stone wall.
            Tracey shook the image from her mind and reoriented herself to her surroundings. The experience left her unsettled, her stomach knotted—and wanting. She needed to focus her thoughts elsewhere.
            The granite wall's serenade took on a cheery, rhythmic tone. “The Lady sounds happy today,” Tracey commented.
            “That she does. Appears she's glad you've arrived, Miss Tracey.”
            “That's good, because we're going to have to get along. I plan to stay in Branson, Hank.”
            Tracey smiled. “I’ll sell my natural stone creations and stock books depicting Ozarks history and folklore. That way the tourist can come in, sit in comfy chairs, peruse books, pick up and examine interesting rocks and my stone jewelry designs. When they leave they’ll be able to take a piece of this beautiful country home with them in the items they purchase.”
            Hank nodded his approval. “Let me know if I can be of help. You've got my number. Call anytime, day or night, makes no difference.”
            “I will, Hank, but right now I'm going to give Stone Oak a desperately needed make over.”
            By late the next afternoon, Tracey had managed to get the propane tank filled, the electric switched to her name, telephone service ordered, and she’d painted the primer coat on the lobby walls.
            While the paint dried she took a quick lunch break, made a peanut butter and apple jelly sandwich, and washed it down with bottled water. Her energy renewed she returned to her task on the lower level.
            She scooted the ladder closer to the east lobby wall and climbed to the top. Anxious to get the final coat of paint on the walls, she stretched her five foot four length, brush in hand to dab the Navaho Sand colored paint she’d selected into the corner, diligent to filling all the small cracks in the surface. Tracey stroked the brush steadily along the wall close to the ceiling. Adding more paint to the brush she again extended her reach, balancing herself on one foot.
            “Nice stretch.”
            The unexpected baritone voice startled her and she began to teeter precariously on the ladder. “Ooooh,” she cried, as her foot slipped from the rung. Instinctively she grabbed air, and prepared herself mentally for the pain she knew would come when her body made contact with the floor.
            Instead of the crash she anticipated, she found herself cradled in strong arms. Tracey gazed into familiar cinnamon eyes. Sensuous lips curled and teased her senses. The bearer of these attributes winked, set her feet firmly on the floor and smoothed a tassel of hair from her cheek with his tanned hand.
            He arched an eyebrow. “Do you go with the place? Are you part of the deal?”
            The warmth of his hand caressed Tracey’s temple. In her peripheral vision she glimpsed the silver watch band that adorned his wrist. Multi‑colored stones set within silver filigree caught the sun, pulsated in an erotic rhythm that yanked her from reality.
            Tracey floated, dizzy and disoriented. The visions came. The bronzed Indian, his bare shoulders broad and muscular came into focus. It was a continuation of the dream she’d experienced in the auditorium. She fought not to become a part of the images. The battle was lost.
            The warrior and the woman stood at the water’s edge, clinging to one another in a forbidden embrace. His fingertips grazed her cheek, his lips touched hers, his tongue teased.
            Tessa responded feverishly to his hard body pressed against hers, ached to join with him until they were one flesh. His mouth tasted and tantalized until her body flamed, consumed by the fire. They clung together as if parting meant their demise. He pulled her hair free from its knotted bun and tangled his fingers in its auburn silkiness. His thumb traced the excited peak of her breast. She melted into the intimacy of his touch.



 Like There's No Tomorrow - Contemporary Romance, the second book in the This Way Something Comes Series. 

Chapter One

           Spanish moss dangled from the splayed gnarled oak, its branches shadowed over Mesa Lake. An early morning mist hovered a few inches above the surface and took on an indigo hue from the depths below. It would have been a beautiful sight if it weren’t for the nude blonde that floated face down.
            Sheriff Bonner Raintree spotted the body after he’d pulled off the side of the road to take a whiz. He stopped mid-stream, zipped his pants and rushed down the embankment to the water’s edge. The soft curve of the waist, the rounded buttock and long red fingernails told him the person in the water was female. She’d become tangled in the roots of the old tree, and it didn’t appear to him she’d been there too long. She wasn’t blue. The blonde’s flesh only a shade of gray, and he observed no swelling from his vantage point. The thought crossed his mind to pull her out in the off chance she might be alive. Instead, he perched on the strong roots of the old tree, reached out and touched the woman. Cold as stone. He’d leave her be so as not to further contaminate the scene pending an investigation.
            He retraced his steps up the incline, opened his car door, sat in the seat and let out a sigh. Bonner was born and had lived most of his thirty years in this small, close-knit town in central Texas. Nothing like this ever happened in Schell–except for when Loretta Johnson shot her husband. The bullet hadn’t killed him, but it damn near. Tired of Jonah’s drunken rages she told him if he didn’t change his ways the next time he’d be meeting his maker. The man refused to press charges and had been church going and sober ever since.
            This find today took on a whole other tack. Something real bad put this woman in the water. Maybe it was the Cherokee blood coursing through his veins, a gift from his Shaman grandfather, or maybe it was his years in law enforcement, but his gut instincts were sounding alarms and waving flags.
            Bonner plucked the radio mic off the clip and pushed down the button. “Raintree 1342 calling dispatch—you copy?”
            A familiar voice came over the speaker. “I copy you, Bonner. What’s your 20?” Lucy Hopkins asked.
            “Mesa Lake, at Crystal Cove. Can you send Willy and Randy out? Contact fire and rescue and tell them we need an ambulance out here.”
            “Will do, Bonner. Somebody get hurt boating on the lake?”
            “Not exactly sure what happened, but it wasn’t a boating accident. I’ll give you details when I get in. Get the personnel I asked for out here on the double. And Lucy, call the Justice of the Peace.”
            “That means it’s real bad.
            “Well, since he’s the only one who can officially pronounce someone dead, I reckon it is.”
            Bonner replaced the mic on the clip and made his way back down to the water’s edge and waited. A dead fish, probably caught in a boat propeller, bobbed near the shore. The scent of more than one kind of death permeated the air. He gazed at the body, so beautiful and perfect. What kind of person could’ve done this?  When they got the body out, he wondered who they’d find on the other side of all that blond hair floating like a frayed lily in the gently moving wake.
           “You’re not alone, honey, I’m gonna stay right here with you and we’ll get you out of there as quick as possible.”  He knew she couldn’t hear him, but somehow he had to try and let her know her ordeal was over.
            Sirens blared in the distance. Bonner walked part way up the bank so he could be spotted from the road. Soon he was joined by the two deputies he’d requested and the ambulance crew. “What we got?” Deputy Willy Green asked.
            “Woman in the water, less than eight hours or so I’d guess.”
            The three gazed on the body where it buoyed about two feet off the bank.
            “What a shame.” Deputy Morgan shook his head. “A damn shame.”
            “I’ll get the retrieval hook.” Willy walked toward the rescue vehicle.
            All in all it took over an hour to secure the scene, take photographs, and get the body secured. The ambulance crew carefully turned the woman over onto a wooden slab-lift and into an open body bag.
            “Zip her up and let’s get her over to the Medical Examiner,” one of the crew stated.
            “Wait!”  Bonner held out his hand to halt the normal procedure. “Dammit to hell.” His heart stopped, his mind refused to believe the message his eyes conveyed. “Hell no.”
            The fragrance of wild lavender, a moment ago pleasant, assaulted his senses. He couldn’t breathe—he was suffocating, yet his nostrils took in air. “No, it can’t be.” Bonner sank to his knees, fist clenched.
            “Fuck, man, that’s Jessie Flanagan, ain’t it?” Willy gasped.
            Bonner fought the urge to yell, to rip his crushed heart from of his chest to stop the pain. He squint his eyes to hold back tears he hoped no one saw. Everyone loved Jessie, her effervescent spirit and smile. He loved her. They history. She’d been his wife for about a nanosecond. Brief as it was, it’d branded him for life.
             “Who did this to her? He groaned, not expecting an answer.
            Even with the right side of her skull caved in there was no doubt who lay in that body bag. The scattered pattern of cinnamon colored freckles across her cheeks and nose were magnified by the water droplets that clung to her lifeless flesh. Bonner’s stomach lurched, his breakfast fighting to stay down.
           "I talked to her last night,” Bonner managed to say. “She and a couple of her gal-pals were at Marie’s Café having dinner and laughing. Checking out the guys that came in—you know how they do.”  Oh, yeah, he’d watched Jessie’s flirtatious effects on the eligible, local boys many times. And he’d wanted to punch all their lights out—but he had no right.
            “Yep, been on the receiving end of that myself.” Deputy Morgan fought to get the words out. He cleared his throat. “That tat on her stomach is new.”
            “How would you know if Jessie did or didn’t have a tattoo on her belly?” Bonner burned with a surge of anger. His body rocked for a second before he got control over it.
            “Uh—we had a little thing going a few months back. Thought it might lead to serious, but Jessie, well, she wandered into greener grass. I don’t think there’s a man alive who can…could hold her interest for long. It seems she’s always pushing for a new territory.” Randy spit on the ground. “A week or so ago we ran into each other out at the Double Z Barn Dance. She was wearing one of those below the naval, low-rider short skirts and new red cowboy boots. She didn’t have that,” he pointed, “thing on her skin then. It would’ve been visible. It’s new,”  Randy confirmed.
            Bonner willed himself to maintain a professional demeanor. In order to bring the perpetrator of this horrific event to justice, he couldn’t let his heartbreak debilitate his duty. He took a closer look at the tattoo before the ambulance crew zipped the body bag shut.  It didn’t look so new to him, but being in the water, as she had, probably aged it some. He’d never mentioned that he still held a spark for Jessie, not to her, or anyone—not that it made a difference now. Jessie been a few months away from seventeen and he’d just turned twenty when they’d driven another couple to Oklahoma and act as witnesses while they got married. “Bonner, let’s get married too. We’ll be the talk of Schell.” It was a fluke, but she didn’t have to ask him twice, and it didn’t matter they’d never even gone on a real date. She’d hooked him the moment she’d batted those long dark lashes at him over a glass flask in a chemistry class they shared when he was a senior and she a feisty freshman.
            “Were you there when they left the place?” Willy interrupted his thoughts. “Last night at Marie’s, I mean.”
            Bonner stood. “I skedaddled when I took that call for cattle on the road about ten o’clock.
            His memory remained vivid with Jessie’s last words to him, and her suggestive smile. “Want some company out there on that lonely dark road, Sheriff?”  If only he’d taken her up on that proposal perhaps she’d still be alive. God knew he wanted to act on it, but if word got out that a seasoned law enforcement officer had taken a young beautiful woman on a ride-a-long, alone, out to the boonies, well, that probably would have been the end of his career. There were ethics his profession held to and that scenario didn’t fit into the rule book. She wasn’t the nine year old he used to babysit anymore.
            “They were still hanging out when I left. Marie closes at eleven though, they had to be gone by then,” he told his deputies.
            Willy took off his hat and ran his fingers through thinning gray hair. “Reckon the first thing we need to find out is if anyone saw them leave and if Jessie left when the other girls did.”  Replacing his hat he walked toward the patrol car. “I’ll head back to headquarters, check in with Lucy, then start asking questions around town. Want to meet me at Marie’s when you finish up here, Boss? I need cup a coffee to steady me a little. Someone’s gotta go tell her momma about this, ya know.”
            “I’ll do it,” Bonner volunteered. “I owe her. That coffee does sound tempting though before I drive all the way out to the Flanagan place.” He needed a stiff jolt of caffeine to put the bones back in his legs and speed the heartache to bearable. “Time isn’t the enemy now, that’s for sure, Willy. A couple more hours to let Maudi Flanagan believe her morning is going good can’t hurt. Then I’ll drive out there and rip the hell out of her day.”
            Bonner placed one booted foot in front of the other, took a step then paused. “Randy, can you wait here for the JP to arrive and pronounce her?”
            “Yeah. I’d like to stay with her.” He turned and faced Bonner. “Don’t want her to be alone.”
            Bonner understood. He didn’t want to leave her either, but the longer he waited, the more chance her killer would get away. He wasn’t going to let that happen.“He should be here soon. He’ll order her transported over to the Conroe Medical Examiner’s office for an autopsy.” Bonner struggled to keep his voice calm and professional. “Follow the ambulance over and tell Doc I’ll be along in a while to talk with him.”
            “Will do.”  Randy cocked his head. “You took a gander at that tat, does the three half-circles pattern mean anything, ya think?  The way each backs up to the other and all?” Randy asked.

            “I think those are crescent moons forming a circle. Might be some sort of Celtic Knot. I’m not a hundred percent on it, but seems I’ve seen it somewhere in a magazine or maybe it was on a poster,” Bonner said.
            The deputy pushed back his hat, rubbed his forehead and momentarily shut his eyes. “Just seems a strange choice of design if Jessie was going to permanently mark herself that way.”
            “Strange, how?”
            “Well, don’t you think Jessie was more of a butterfly kind of person?”
            “She’s a butterfly, all right.” Bonner headed up the hill. “I’ll catch up with you at Marie’s.”
            Randy waved. “Yeah, okay.”
            A butterfly. That was Jessie for sure, the way she flitted from one guy to another. She let each one think she was his prize only to leave them with nothing but the dream. He clung to that same dream, but had never even got a taste of it. Came close.
Time passed, Jessie moved on. He’d moved on, gone to college in Houston, then Police Academy, and worked for Houston P.D. Damn his cold feet. He’d done nothing to try and pick up where they’d left off once he’d returned to Schell over four years ago, but then neither had she. He figured Jessie stepped back and took a hard look, and what she saw was a man pretty set in his ways, already established in his career. He reckoned she saw no adventure left in him. Jessie Flanagan was a woman still tasting life, she wasn’t interested in dragging baggage along the way.
           He’d stood silent, and let her go. Never told her their thirty second marriage meant something to him. He cherished Jessie, wanted to protect and care for her, make love to her every chance he got. Oh, how he wished he’d made a point to tell her he loved her. Always had—always would.
           Bonner shook the too late now thoughts from his mind and decided to take a drive around the area, see if anyone might’ve been out fishing and saw or heard anything unusual. He turned the ignition key then radioed his intentions to Lucy at dispatch.
            “That’s a good idea. Might have been someone around when this went down,” she agreed.
            “There were no boats out this morning when I spotted her and I haven’t heard any voices drifting across the lake, but I’ll take a look-see anyway.”
           Bonner released the key on the mic and placed it on the hook. He needed to meet up with Willy and Randy at Marie’s in forty minutes or so, but he’d take the time to pull into every cove, talk to anyone he saw, all the time knowing in his gut he’d find no answers to the questions swirling in his head—not today anyway.

           Sheriff Raintree sat with deputies Green and Morgan in a red vinyl booth savoring a cup of Marie’s special blend coffee. Willy arrived first and had already spoken to Marie.
           “She says the three of ’em left together around ten forty-five last night,” he told the others. “She thought she heard ‘em say they were going over to Beth Bradford’s place to hang out, watch movies or something like that. Marie wasn’t positive on that score.” Willy sipped his coffee. “She says one of ‘em left a scarf in the booth but she don’t know who it belongs to. Either Beth or Jessie she reckons, as it was on the seat where those two were sittin’. Hey, you find anyone out at the lake?” Willy changed the subject in mid-conversation.
            “Only the Sawyer brothers about a half mile down from the dam,” Bonner informed his deputies. “Said they’d put their lines in the water a little before five o’clock this morning. Never saw or heard anything except animal sounds.” He grabbed his hat and pushed it over thick dark curls that fought to be free of the restraints of felt and leather.
           “Willy, you head on over to Beth’s, ask her some questions,” Bonner instructed. “Maybe she can shed some light on this turn of events. Randy, you hold down the office. I’ll go on out to break the news to Maudi Flanagan.”
           “I’d like to go,” Randy said. “Be with you when you tell her.”
           “You sure you’re up to that, Boy?”  Bonner wondered how he would manage to get through such an announcement without revealing his own anguish. The secret he’d carried all these years—his love for Jessie, would serve no purpose if exposed now. He’d remain the professional lawman he knew he had to be, and cry out his pain in the still darkness of his bedroom when he was home and alone.
           “Yeah, it’s something I really need to do,” Randy said, jarring Bonner from his thoughts. “She was a friend. At one time I’d hoped for more, but Jessie wasn’t ready to give her heart to any guy far as I could tell. We stayed friends and that’s what’s important.”
           “Okay, then let’s be off. It isn’t going to get any easier sitting here.”
            Bonner took a final swig from his coffee and instinctively looked up when the bell on the door tinkled indicating someone entered the café. “What the hell?” he gasped. Coffee spewed down his chin and dripped onto his shirt.
            In through the door bounded a tall, slender woman, dressed in pink shorts and matching pink striped crop top. “Hey, Marie, did I leave a purple scarf in here last night?” she asked.
             Bonner staggered out of his seat and made his way to the counter, staring, unblinking, wide-eyed. Joy shot through his heart, it did the happy dance in his chest. It paralyzed him, in a good way.
            Jessie Flanagan glanced up and smiled at the gaping sheriff. “Well, what’s put the skunk in your hat, Bonner Raintree?” she questioned. “You look like you just saw an apparition or somethin’.”