"That's all you're taking?" Sydney sat on the couch, eyeing the lone suitcase Nora put down.
Nora eyed it too then looked up at her friend. "I'm only going to be gone for a week. I've got plenty of underwear. I don't need more than that."
"And yet you're taking the cat." Sydney scratched Sully under the chin. He sprawled across her lap and let out a burst of particularly loud purring as if to demonstrate just how content he felt anywhere but in a moving car.
Nora snorted and crossed the room to pluck him out of Sydney's lap and drape him across her shoulders. He didn't protest, just settled with his nose tucked into her ear. "I'm taking the cat because he'll drive you crazy. You may like him now but after an hour or two, he'll be demanding your attention by nipping your heels, literally. I don't want to come home and find out you've skinned him to make a new rug."
"Suit yourself," she said, settling back against the cushions. "But Sully and I have an understanding. He doesn't bite my ankles, and I don't get a new pair of fur-lined boots." This was an old teasing game, without a hint of real malice in Sydney's threat. "So you're really chasing down this guy who claims to be your dad?"
"He is my dad. Mom admitted it. And it's not like I expect anything. I just want to meet him."
"And see if the house is real."
Nora rolled her eyes. "It's not about the house, Syd. I like the apartment. It's about family, you know? Flesh and blood."
"Flesh and blood you haven't seen for twenty-eight years." She held up a hand before Nora could say anything. "If you want to go, I'm not stopping you. You know I've got your back, whatever you do. I just think it's a little fishy. How do you know he doesn't want something out of you?"
Now Nora arched an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"A kidney." She made a throwaway gesture. "An eye. You know they like to take from family members for donations like that."
"You're impossible," Nora said fondly. "And I'm not giving up any body parts. Not unless he offers me a lot of money."
Sydney held up a finger. "Never say unless." She gave in with a shrug and a little smile when Nora laughed. "You're sure you have everything? Camera, cell phone. The underwear you have on now is clean?"
"Yes, mother," Nora teased. She scratched Sully under the chin as well and took him to the cat carrier. He let out one long yowl of protest then let her tuck him in. He promptly curled up with his tail to the wire door. "I've even got cash, in case technology fails me, and I can't use the ATM in Wyoming." She turned back to the couch. Sydney hadn't moved. "Well," she prompted. "Aren't you going to say goodbye?"
"Slave driver. So demanding," Sydney grumbled as she stood, but when she hugged Nora, she held on a moment longer than necessary. "You’d better be careful," she murmured, pulling back so they could look one another in the eye. "If anything happens, if you need anything, you call me right away. And call me when you get there. And—"
"Syd." Nora waited for her friend to stop talking and kissed her cheek. "I'll be fine, I promise. I'll call if I'm not. If you don't stop worrying, you'll give yourself more gray hairs." She laughed and stepped back fast, dodging a playful swat.
Sydney followed Nora out to the car, carrying Sully's travel case. They hugged again, and Nora set off for a long overdue reunion.
The rain wasn't coming down hard enough to leave the wipers on all the time. The squeak of dry rubber against the window, when the water tapered off, made Nora grit her teeth. Of course, the minute she turned them off, the sky would open again and she'd be right back where she started. The back and forth rhythm of the wipers started to sound like they were chanting stu-pid, stu-pid—over and over—in her mind.
If she had any sense, Nora thought, she would’ve turned back by now. She should have considered the downpour a sign for her to stay in the cute little motel she'd found. Sure, she'd had to go out to buy some tuna as a treat for Sully after keeping him locked up all day, but she could have taken advantage of the weather. She'd have been fine, stretched out on the surprisingly comfortable bed, letting him lick tuna off her fingers, while she watched some ancient movie on TV.
Instead she had been impatient. The minute she had Sully unpacked and set up for the night, she got on the phone, dialing the number her father scrawled at the bottom of the letter. It rang half a dozen times, and she'd been about to give up on any hope of a machine when someone finally answered.
Not that he was polite. "Mnf."
"Er." She blinked at the paper. "I'm calling for Shiloh Whiteside. I hope I dialed the right number."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Who's calling?"
"This is Nora. Nora Whiteside. I'm his—"
The line went dead. Nora had tried getting a response, just in case, but when the dial tone buzzed back at her, she had hung up with a frown. "So much for happy reunions."
That should have been sign number two. But she'd put her head down and bulled through the way she always did. She had directions on the seat beside her, a bottle of water, just in case, and the will to get this over with. Started, at the least.
What she didn't have was an understanding of how things on the reservation worked. She'd seen the sign welcoming her to the Wind River Reservation some miles back, blurred by the rain that streaked down her windshield. She'd picked the right direction, but now, an hour later, everything looked the same. She passed the road she wanted, three times. The street sign marking the way to Shiloh's house was simple black on white text. It surprised her after miles of seeming desolation on either side. The road didn't bend at all, and the houses she passed all looked the same. The people she saw sitting on some of the porches didn't smile or wave or even lift a hand to scratch an itch. If she got lost now, she knew she'd be on her own.
Finally finding the house came as a huge relief. She pulled into the bare swath of earth that served as a driveway and turned off the ignition. She ducked her head to peek through the windshield. So this was it, her father's home-sweet-home.
With the sky gone gray instead of the brilliant blue in the picture, the house didn't look quite as pretty. That wasn't being fair, she knew. He couldn't have predicted what the weather would be when she got here. Besides, at nearly seven o'clock, the daylight faded fast and leeched the color out of everything. Maybe she'd have a better impression of it on another day, when the sun was out.
The green pickup truck she'd parked beside didn't look much better than the house. The paint was scratched and rain dripped in one open window. She supposed what mattered most out here was whether or not it ran, but soggy upholstery wouldn't make for a comfortable ride. She'd just take care of that before she knocked on Shiloh's door. She gathered her purse, checked her appearance in the rear view, and climbed out into the downpour.
The truck sat unlocked, not that it mattered when she could have simply reached through the window and opened it from the inside, but she was grateful not to have to wrestle with it. She yanked it open, grabbed the handle on the manual crank, and started turning. And turning. Nothing happened. No glass appeared.
"That thing's been broken since about six weeks after he bought it. Might as well forget it. The truck's used to getting wet."
Nora startled and flinched backward. She clipped her head on the doorframe and straightened with a hand clapped to her skull. She looked toward the house and the source of the voice.
Definitely not her father.
He leaned against the thin porch railing. It bowed beneath his weight. Dark brown hair, thick with waves that all but begged to be touched, swung past his shoulders. His eyes were narrow, little more than dark slits. He had a jaw that looked legitimately square and his mouth quirked up wryly at one side. As she stared at him, he straightened and headed down the three short steps. He was tall, and from this angle, nearly all of his height was leg. He wore broken-in jeans, the seams faded nearly white. His boots, too, were worn and scuffed. They were every day shoes, not just for show like the tourist cowboys who roamed the streets back at home. This man was the real deal.
"He's not here," he said, when he reached the bottom step.
Nora shook herself, breaking off her study. "Who?"
"Your dad. Shiloh."
She frowned. "How did you—"
"New car." He made a throwaway gesture. "Colorado plates." He leaned against the hood of her car. "Haven't seen you around here before, but you look like him. That makes you Nora." He looked her over, head to toe and back again. "He's still not here."
The man might be pretty but his manners needed work. She folded her arms across her chest and lifted her chin, meeting his gaze. "So I get you."
He folded his arms too. "Lucky girl."
She began to wonder if that was true. "Do you have a name?"
"Yep." There was a long pause.
Nora pursed her lips. "Planning to share?"
He grinned, showing off even teeth, and offered a hand. "Tucker Greene."
She squeezed his hand a little harder than strictly necessary. His fingers were warm and callused. He probably didn't notice her attempt to win the handshake war. "So you're his bodyguard?"
"I'm his friend," he corrected. "Worked with him on the house. Heard about you." His gaze raked over her again. "He's got a baby picture. You were cute."
Were? Nora's temper flared briefly. Were. Past tense. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Pity about that baby fat. Hides the dimples." Not that she had any. She was proud of the body she had. She worked hard to keep extra pounds off her thighs and hips. She and the treadmill had a love-hate relationship. She wasn't going to let a were ruin that. "So can I see it?"
One of his eyebrows, tidy and just a little arched like an artist's deliberate brushstroke, twitched upward. "See what, exactly?"
"The house. That's why I'm here, isn't it? This is what he wanted me to see?" She gestured toward the porch. "Seems like a pity to come all this way just to have his bodyguard—sorry, friend—stop me at the door."
Something changed, darkening his eyes from warm brown to a cold, hard black. He nodded his head toward the porch. Obviously she'd hit a nerve, but he didn't explain. "Sure," he said instead. "Knock yourself out."
Nora brushed by him and headed up the trio of steps. The aluminum railing wobbled under her hand, but she'd expected that. If it held steady, she'd honestly have been surprised. She crossed the porch smoothing her hair and clothing automatically. Tucker had said her father wasn't here, and yet this would be her introduction to him and his life. First impressions were important. She opened the door.
"Watch your step."
Nora glanced back over her shoulder. Tucker practically sat on the hood of her car now. When she looked, he flashed an insincere smile and waved. Bodyguard? That gave him too much credit. More like junkyard dog, with all the breeding to boot. "I'm sure I'll be fine." She stepped inside.
She might have spoken too soon.
The picture her father sent had made the house look cute. Quaint. Nora imagined a sort of tidy clutter inside, the kind she'd seen in the apartments of some of her dates. Magazines stacked haphazardly on a coffee table. The toilet seat left up. Dishes in the sink.
She wasn't expecting the carpet to be peeling up at the edges of the room or for strips of wallpaper to be missing, leaving old glue and scraps of what had once been something yellow behind. She never guessed there'd be a hole in the ceiling or a pot on the floor catching the rain that fell through. There were no decorations, no art on the walls. The curtains over the windows were thin and see-through.
She moved in a daze, following her feet. She shuffled to the kitchen, which was more or less in tact, save the fact that the linoleum flooring had come loose. There were tools scattered over the countertops, which came as something of a relief, but it didn't make up for the rust stain in the sink or the fact that the refrigerator leaned to one side. How could her father have lived like this?
She picked her way back through the living room and peered down the hallway that lead to another room. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, trying to ignore the musty, too-long-neglected smell. She found the bathroom, little more than a closet with a toilet and shower. At least it looked more or less clean. True to her prediction, the toilet seat was up.
She pressed on. The door to the bedroom at the end of the hall stood open and for the first time since she'd stepped inside, Nora smiled. In contrast to the chaos of the rest of the house, this was a sanctuary. What little daylight remained through the window over a queen-sized mattress. Though there was no frame for the bed, the covers were pulled up neatly. A nightstand stood beside the bed with an alarm clock, comb, and paperback as its only adornments. She could almost imagine the man in the picture relaxing here. She closed her eyes.
"Enjoying the tour?"
Nora yelped and flinched backward. She hadn't heard him come in. Guilt thrummed through her, making her abruptly aware that she'd invaded someone else's personal space. She heard him shout something. Then she lurched as her foot went through the floor and she fell.
He caught her, wrapping a strong arm around her waist. He pulled her back against his chest and she could feel his heartbeat at her back. Hers was racing too. She clung to his arm with all her strength.
"Got you," he murmured, breath stirring her hair. "I got you. Pull your foot up."
"Yes, you can. I'm not gonna let you fall. Trust me."
Trust him. Trust a stranger who didn't like her anyway. Trust him or fall through the floor into who knew what. She didn't have a choice. She nodded jerkily and let him keep her from slipping any farther as she shifted her ankle and pried her foot free.
He backed up with her until they stood on solid flooring again. Only then did she see the thin piece of plywood, splintered edges marking the spot where she'd put her foot through.
She felt him start to laugh before she heard the low chuckle. "I told you to watch your step."
Nora scowled. "Ha ha, very funny. Let go of me."
It was a simple command. Not a request. Easy to obey. He didn't need to hear her say please. All he had to do was open his arms and let her go. He’d just stop noticing how warm she felt and counting her heartbeats against his chest. He’d ignore the scent of her hair or her perfume or whatever wafted off her skin that way. Simple.
"Nothing twisted, right? I didn't hear anything break." He backed off a step when she stayed standing on her own.
"No, nothing twisted." She tucked hair behind her ear and bent to peer down at the hole. "What is this, a gateway to hell?"
Tucker smirked. "It's a hole in the floor. Three foot drop and solid ground underneath. Sorry to disappoint you. Gateway to hell's a couple doors down."
She looked up, eyes narrow. "There should be a sign or something here. It deserves more than watch your step."
Beautiful and bossy. He should have seen that coming. Should have guessed. She was Shiloh's daughter all right. "I'm used to it," he pointed out. "Figured you'd watch where you were going. My mistake."
"Well, you're lucky I didn't hurt myself. I could sue you for—wait a minute. Used to it. You're living here?"
"While I fix the place up."
She cast a wry glance at the broken plywood board. "You're doing a bang-up job."
Tucker hooked his thumbs through his belt loops and leaned. The floor creaked when his weight shifted. He couldn't help but grin a little when she braced her hands on the walls to either side. "You this nice to everyone you meet or do I get special treatment?"
"You're not exactly Prince Charming, yourself."
"You broke into my truck."
"I was trying to help!" She paused and closed her eyes for a moment. Tucker let his grin slide wider. "Okay," she said when she'd opened them again. "You're right. We got off on the wrong foot. Truce?" She extended her hand to him. "Hi. I'm Nora."
He shook it. "So you're a lawyer, huh?"
Her eyebrows arched. "What?"
"Lawyer. You were going to sue me?"
She blinked and laughed. The smile did good things to her expression, changing the whole shape of her face. She wasn't just beautiful, she was gorgeous. Unlike most of the beautiful women he knew, she didn't act like she knew it. "I'm not a lawyer," she explained. "And I probably wouldn't sue you. I'm a…" She paused, cheeks flushed with color. "I manage a clothing store."
"And you're embarrassed by that? Pays the bills, right?"
"Well. Yes." She shifted her weight. "It's not exactly glamorous, though."
Tucker snorted. "I work in a service shop up the road. Won't see that on those fancy lifestyle shows, either, but glamour won't feed you or put gas in the car. That's what we care about around here. Save the sparkle for your big time friends, city girl."
There it was again, that smile that did things to him from the inside out. She'd lied about the dimples being gone. Maybe they weren't deep, but the shadows were there. They framed her mouth, drew his attention to her lips, and reminded him just how long it'd been since he'd done more than think about kissing a woman.
Color made the freckles across her nose stand out. "Touché. Fair enough." She shifted her weight again, the soft curve of one hip jutting out to catch it. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and his gaze wandered again. She couldn't be doing all of this on purpose, could she? Nah. No way. "So where is he?"
Tucker dragged his mind back to the here and now. "Who?"
Her eyebrows twitched again and one corner of her mouth twisted higher than the other. "Shiloh. My father? I figured I should meet him. That's why I drove out tonight."
Damn it. That smile would fade for sure. He shoved a hand through his hair and heaved a sigh. "Hospital."
Concern chased the color right out of her cheeks. Tucker bit back a curse. "Hospital. What do you mean by hospital?" She straightened up. "What happened? Is it bad?"
"Bad enough," he said as he sighed. "He wanted to get things in order. Get the house fixed up. That's why he wrote the letter in the first place." He frowned. "They told him he had cancer a few years back—"
"Cancer? What kind? Prostate? No." She answered her own question. "Not old enough. Liver? Mom said he liked to drink."
"I bet she did." He'd heard stories about Doreen from Shiloh, and nothing that encouraged him to give her the benefit of the doubt. She'd left at the first opportunity and never looked back, never apologized for taking his family away. "Shiloh stopped drinking before I met him. Twenty, twenty five years ago now. But he smoked like a chimney. Did your mother mention that?" He saw understanding flicker into Nora's eyes and relaxed. A little. "Lung cancer. Chemo didn't work so he's waiting."
"For what?" She hugged herself a little harder.
Tucker shrugged a shoulder. "For you."
She stared at him as if she couldn't believe what she heard. Like she could make him take it back. They looked at one another for a while. Then she took a breath and shook herself. "It's a hospital here on the reservation?"
Tucker smiled wryly. "We've got a clinic. It's nice. New building and all. But they can't handle cancer. He's at General, back in the city."
Nora brushed past him, heading toward the front door with the jerky movements of the obsessed. Tucker frowned and followed, catching her by the elbow before she could duck through.
"Hang on. Hold up a second. Where are you going?"
"To see him," she answered. "He's why I came."
Tucker glanced at the clock on the radio he used to keep him company. He shook his head. "Visiting hours'll be over by the time you get back in. Tomorrow. Go see him tomorrow. Rest tonight." He lightened his grip on her arm. "Long drive, like you said. Get some sleep." He paused, adding, "The way back to the freeway's confusing. Follow my truck. I'll get you back to the highway."
Back to Chapter One
Forward to Chapter Three
Return to the index.