Erin Richardson handed over some of her precious stash of cash and signed by the X for her rental car. Leaving a paper trail made her nervous, but reaching her destination quickly took precedence. Home sweet home. The black sheep of the family was returning to the fold.
Hating the heavy jacket she’d donned to keep out the last blast of winter cold, she tossed it in the back seat of the little sedan. The car would warm up soon enough. The bulky coat was a further reminder that she’d been forced to leave behind the warmth and her friends for the cold and uncertainty of the Blue Ridge…also known as home. Right. The place where she was headed had rarely felt like home, at least not as she had wanted it to be.
An image of a frowning face with snapping, dark eyes flashed in front of her. Sam. He was older now, but so was she. Not that it would make a difference. He was one more face lined up in judgment of her.
She slid behind the wheel and checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. A little different look than last fall when she’d dropped in on the ’rents so unexpectedly. Erin had kept the extra body jewelry but ditched the Goth-looking makeup and dyed her hair back to its natural color. This time when she returned home she wasn’t aiming to shock as she had been at Tabitha’s art showing. Erin was trying hard to fit the image of the senator’s daughter. That would be a first. But now totally necessary.
After what had happened right before she left the Virgin Islands, it was important to lay low and fit in. Maybe she should get rid of the ring in her eyebrow. No. She’d keep it for now. That was one too many changes for her to cope with at the moment. If she suddenly turned up in plaid and pearls, she’d make her family more suspicious than they would be simply by her turning up at all.
One thing hadn’t changed. Erin carried a bag of some high-grade pot, a few hits of ecstasy, and even a couple of Quaaludes she’d traded for with a guy from South Africa. She laughed humorlessly as she pulled out of Dulles and headed southwest in the rental. There was only so much goodness she could stand, and she certainly wasn’t ready to give up her escapes from reality. It might at least brighten the dullness of where she’d grown up. Mountain Meadow. She shivered. Her last memories of her hometown were some of the most humiliating of her life. She was far from happy to be back, but life had a way of throwing curve balls. She wished it wouldn’t throw so many.
With a long drive still ahead of her, she stopped at a Starbucks and wired up on a triple shot of espresso. As the miles slid by, her nerves tightened. She would so much rather still be on board the Sprite, but Andre Delacroix had certainly screwed that. Staying there after what she’d overheard? No way. She might be stupid, but she wasn’t suicidal.
Just thinking of Andre made her stomach tighten. She was afraid Rick, the Sprite’s captain, and the rest of his crew were underestimating how dangerous Andre could be. Rick was forever writing Andre off as nothing more than a spoiled, rich kid, much as he’d originally thought her. While his opinion of her had certainly undergone a radical change, his opinion of Andre hadn’t, and Erin was afraid they were all making a big mistake.
Her hands clenched on the steering wheel, her left leg adding a rapid tattoo. She still had part of a joint already rolled. Maybe a few tokes would calm her nerves, take her stress level down a notch. After all, if Stoner and Catherine were as uptight as ever, she’d need all the help she could get once she arrived in the middle of nowhere. A little brain fog might help blunt how underwhelmed her parents would be to see her. Maybe she could even pretend they would welcome her home. Erin laughed. Like that would happen.
Suddenly, surprising them didn’t seem like such a great idea. In the back of her mind, fear niggled that her parents would have asked her not to come if they had known of her plans ahead of time. How mortifying was that? She snorted. No more humiliating than being carried out of a party last fall tucked under Sam Barnes’s arm like a little kid in the midst of a temper tantrum. That had accomplished essentially the same thing that evening. Erin had taken the hint and cleared out before they could actually kick her out.
She had never been able to do anything right in her parents’ eyes. So now she was going back? Really. She needed her head examined. What was the definition of insanity? Oh right. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Erin yawned. God, she had forgotten how truly boring this area was. No people, almost no traffic and certainly no lights. Nothing, as a matter of fact, to help her stay awake. Even worse, she’d already hit several icy spots where she felt the car’s traction turn loose for an instant. After years of rarely driving at all and only in warm, sunny climates, the ice had certainly jolted her back awake. Erin shook her head and blinked her gritty eyes several times.
Shit, she was so tired she’d started to see things. Was that a deer in the road? Was it a pot-induced hallucination? That most recent bag had been a doozy. At the last minute, she stared into a white face and wide, startled, brown eyes and yanked the wheel hard to the left. The car plunged off the shoulder of the road and through a dark board fence. The air bag exploded back at her, smacking her forehead and making it burn. Finally, the car landed at an odd angle, one wheel hanging over the bank of a creek. The only thing breaking the silence were the moos of panicked cows roaming in the darkness. Wow, this was some fucking trip. She slumped forward.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she groaned and touched her head. It was wet and sticky. She shivered. Her heavy coat was somewhere in the backseat. Why did it have to be so god-awful cold? She yearned for blue skies, even bluer water and hot, steamy nights. She could use a drink. Something alcoholic and on the rocks would be perfect. She hurt. Where the hell was she anyway?
It was dark, but this didn’t look or feel like St. Thomas. She fumbled with her seatbelt, and it finally popped open. Her legs refused to obey as she opened the door, so she stumbled and half fell out onto the frozen ground. God, it was slippery out here and so freaking cold! She rubbed her arms, her coat forgotten. Her teeth chattered, and that only made her head hurt worse.
Erin turned around and looked at the car. Holy shit! She was in the middle of a cow pasture, and her rental car was a mess. God, how stupid. As she surveyed the damage to the vehicle, she decided it would be a whole lot easier to handle with a little buzz going. Life in general was a lot easier to face when she was a little bit high. She’d discovered that early in high school. She went back to the car, pulled out her purse, fumbled around until she found another joint, and lit it. Breathe deep, hold, exhale. It was a routine. A couple of tokes and she felt her calm return.
She turned to look at the fence behind her. Wow! It looked even worse than the car, though God knew it was hard enough to see anything out here. Had she taken that much of it out? Erin giggled as she imagined a cartoon vision of fence pieces flying through the air like matchsticks. The image was like one of those old Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote keeps screwing everything up. Yep! That was her all right. Wile E. Coyote, the original screw up. Maybe she should check to see if the car she’d leased came from Acme rentals.
It all struck her as so amazingly funny. She sat on a rock, puffed on her joint, and giggled. Welcome back, Erin! Nothing like arriving in style in Mountain Meadow. Daddy, I’m home! A few more feet, and she’d have made a splash right into the bottom of a shallow creek. Wouldn’t everyone be so proud of her?
Some things never changed.
As she toked the joint in her hand, she looked around blearily. Where was she? She couldn’t be far from home. But God, it had been so long since she’d been here. Last fall didn’t count. She hadn’t even spent the night. So, yeah, where was she? A couple of blinks and she momentarily cleared her vision enough to see the dark silhouette of a cabin. As she looked at the hills and trees surrounding her, memories came back. Her cheeks flushed with humiliation. She was on Sam’s land. Why did every mortifying moment of her life involve Sam? He was the only man who had ever made her breath catch and her heart pound, and he was the only man who had never shown any sign of wanting her. Life was so unfair.
* * * *
With his long, sock-clad feet propped over the end of the couch, Sam had nearly dozed off when his phone rang. It had been a crazy day what with deputies on vacation or sick. Sighing impatiently, he snatched the cordless phone from its resting place on the table next to him. “Barnes.”
“Sam? It’s Stoner. Carter called me. There are cows out on the highway. He’s not sure whose they are. He’s already out there trying to round them up. I’d be happy to help, but that whole electronic tether thing…”
“Dang it, Stoner,” Sam snarled. “I’ll call the department and tell them to ignore the alarm and why. The neighbor kid who helps me is sick with pneumonia, but I’ll be out there as soon as I get my boots on to see what’s up.” Sam slammed the phone down with a bang.
At that moment, he would gladly have strangled the judge who sentenced former Senator Stoner Richardson to two years house arrest for pleading guilty to conspiracy charges. It was nothing but a major pain in the butt, when it wasn’t a downright joke. In the last six months, Stoner had probably spent as much time away from home as confined to it. Now he was going off the property again. If someone didn’t suspend his sentence soon, Sam might go beg the judge himself so he wouldn’t have to play watchdog for the wandering senator. He would have to talk to Evan about it. The guy had served half his sentence already and had been a model prisoner.
Sam’s already taciturn mood grew even more thunderous as he yanked on his coveralls, slipped his big white-stockinged feet back into thick-soled work boots, and pulled a cowboy hat on. Sweet Mary. He’d be glad when spring got here. Better yet, summer so he could work in either a T-shirt or shirtless.
Most of all, he wished he wasn’t going out in the dark to round up cows in the freezing cold. Just in case, he threw a roll of barbwire, some temporary posts, and his wire cutters into the back of the truck before he bumped down the drive.
Please let them be Stoner’s Angus and not his Hereford crosses. It would please him to no end to have something to hang over the senator, but as he reached the road, he saw broad white faces reflecting back at him in the moonlight. It was his baldies. Stoner would never let him hear the end of it.
Even in the dark, the tall, angular form of the former senator leaning against his pickup was plain to see. He spoke as soon as Sam got within earshot. “Carter’s herded most of them through the gate, but we haven’t located the break in the fence yet. You know, Sam, if you’d hire another hand or two…”
Sam spun on his neighbor, fists clenched, but only glared at him. “Not all of us drip money, Senator.”
Stoner’s two-way radio crackled. “I’ve found the problem, Mr. Richardson. An accident. Fence is busted pretty good here in the corner by the creek. Car’s hanging with one wheel over the bank.”
Sam instantly converted from farmer to sheriff. “Any injuries you can see? Do I need to radio for an ambulance?”
“Don’t think so. There’s a woman here. She seems okay, I guess. She’s laughing.”
“Laughing?” Stoner’s mouth twisted.
Sam growled with anger. Probably some teenager out joyriding. Just what he needed, something else to drag him back into town tonight when all he wanted to do was crash. “Hop in, Senator. I’ll give you a ride. You and Carter mind helping me put up a temporary fence?”
“Not at all.”
“I know we haven’t exactly been on the best of terms….”
Stoner cut Sam off. “That was years ago, Sam. Besides, looking back, I don’t think you were the one at fault. Erin was out of control.”
Sam nodded, deciding it was better not to respond. Erin always seemed to be at the middle of any discord. He might not be at fault for his actions, but his thoughts about the senator’s daughter had been anything but pure. It was twelve years ago, so maybe it was time to let things lie. After all, Erin was gone and it didn’t look like she would be back. Last fall hardly counted. He rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the thought.
As they drove down the road, Sam used the radio in his truck to call in the accident and said he would handle it until they could get someone out in the morning. As he and Stoner climbed out of the truck in the darkness, Sam saw how much of his fence was smashed.
“Holy freaking cow! Could the stupid idiot have done any more damage?”
“Damn,” Stoner added. “It almost looks like the driver did it on purpose.”
“Or fell asleep at the wheel,” Sam grumbled. Fools. Nobody needed to be out on a night like this one, especially just joyriding. Icy patches from the last storm were still refreezing at night, making driving risky.
In the pasture, on the other side of the car, they heard Carter’s deep rumbles and a higher pitched voice.
“I’m fine, man. Hey, jerk, get your hands off me. Ooh! Was that cow shit I stepped in? Oh, God. Oh gross. That is so freaking disgusting. Man, I hate this place! I always hated this place.”
Stoner looked at Sam, who saw the same shock of recognition reflected in the senator’s features before both of them slipped and slid down the embankment in a sudden hurry, running across the pasture to the car. Sam skidded to a stop, all of his thoughts jumbling together, but what lingered in his mind was, not like this, Erin, not like this.
Erin looked up as she heard them and grinned. The grin started Sam’s heart pounding until he saw her bloodshot eyes in the glow of the flashlight. “Hi, Daddy! Hi, Sammy! I had a little accident.” Then she leaned over and vomited right at a very surprised Carter’s feet. Sam doubted it was the puke that floored Carter. Hearing Erin call Stoner Daddy probably accounted for the look on the foreman’s face.
As Stoner slowed, so did Sam. They approached cautiously, as if they had encountered a wounded grizzly and weren’t quite sure how it would react. But then confronting Erin had always been that way. He never knew exactly which Erin would show up. Would she snap his head off or twine herself around his heart? Sam had been struggling with that since he’d first met her when she was nine. No matter how much he’d tried to forget her over the years, it hadn’t happened. His feelings had just changed.
“Erin?” Stoner ventured quietly. “What are you doing here?”
Sam sniffed the air, inhaling an all too familiar odor. Any nostalgia he might have been experiencing evaporated. “Darn it, Erin. Have you been smoking pot right here on my land?”
She straightened, her eyes wary as she looked between the two men. “Don’t worry, Daddy…Sam. I’m fine, just a little head injury. So nice of you to ask, and nice to see things haven’t changed. Oh wait, I guess they have, because the last time you two were this close together, Daddy, you were trying to choke Sam at the same time you were calling me… Let’s see. What was it? Oh yes, a ‘white trash tramp and no daughter of yours.’ Fourteen was such a good year.”
She glanced at Carter’s gaping jaw and smiled coolly. “Another fond memory of childhood in the Richardson household.” Erin tilted her head back and laughed. “Hi, Daddy. I’m home!”