Authors: Kay Keppler
By Kay Keppler
Copyright © 2011by Kay Keppler
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law. Please do not participate or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Cover design: Francesca Zometa
Cover art: Dynamic Graphics, 2007
Special thanks to
Beth Barany, Laura McClure, and Patricia Simpson—
the best readers a person could have
A cream-colored envelope bearing a law firm’s return address could not be bringing good news.
Hope McNaughton stood in her family’s shabby kitchen and fingered the heavy, embossed envelope that she’d found in their mailbox on her way home from work. In the McNaughton family, good news did not arrive in envelopes from law firms. So as Hope stood alone in the middle of the kitchen, looking out the window at the sandy soil and scrubby grass that stretched across the Nevada high plain, she saw instead a dark and slippery slope plunging into an abyss.
The old ranch house had seen better days, but bore its tribulations and indignities fairly well—much, Hope thought, like the family itself—except that her family hadn’t really ever seen better days. The envelope, on the other hand, had never looked better. It was pristine, having slid seemingly untouched through the postal system until it landed in their mailbox. It was addressed to her mother, Suzanne McNaughton, and it looked serious, with all the importance that cream-colored embossedness could give it.
Maybe if I throw it away, nothing will happen,
No one has to know.
But of course she wasn’t that childish. She was an intelligent, responsible adult, the chief financial officer of a software company, who could discuss the finer points of tax depreciation and managerial principle as well as software upgrades or managed downtime. For crying out loud,
she was an MBA
Hope dropped the letter on the table like the hot potato it was and went to change out of her suit, nylons, and pumps into jeans, tee-shirt, and boots. Then she plucked from the refrigerator a few pampered but imperfect organic carrots that her younger sister Faith had grown in her big, unprofitable greenhouse and, tucking the letter into her pocket, went out to the barn where her mother would be mucking out the horses’ stalls.
The doors to the big barn were wide open, letting in sun and air, and as Hope entered, smelling the sweet hay and earthy scent of the horses, she could see Suzanne spreading straw in the stalls. In the soft light of the state-of-the-art barn, her mother didn’t look much older than the eighteen-year-old Vegas showgirl she’d been when she’d caught Derek McNaughton’s eye thirty-two years before. Time had etched a few laugh lines around her eyes and slightly thickened the body that had brought Derek to his knees, but she still had the grace and flair of a girl.
Mom still hasn’t lost it
And I never had it.
Hope looked like her father. Not that she’d ever see
Suzanne straightened up when she saw Hope and smiled at her older daughter. “Hi, Sweetie. How was your day?”
Hope shook her head and grabbed a pitchfork. “I spent the day dealing with off balance sheet financing, and then when I picked up the mail, I saw you got a scary letter. Here, let me do that.” She flung a forkful of straw into Blondie’s stall and spread it evenly over the rubber mats that lined the enclosure.
“I got a scary letter? What did it say?”
“Sheesh. I didn’t read it, Mom. I brought it out with me, though. Just in case some long-lost Irish uncle died recently and left you his string of thoroughbreds.” She broke a hay bale apart, tossing a flake into the stall. Now all three stalls were clean.
“Oh, right. My long-lost Irish uncle. That must be it.”
Hope smiled at her mother and handed her the letter. “I’ll bring in the horses while you find out about Uncle Sean’s spread.”
She went out to the pasture and climbed the white board fence, looking at the three horses that stood idly under the trees, dozing and twitching their tails. Banjo, her favorite, saw her and snorted, then ambled over to say hello. When he got to the fence, he put his nose on her shoulder and exhaled, blasting her neck with a gust of warm air and leaving a mucousy drool on her shirt.
“Hey there,” Hope said, stroking his neck. She’d owned the gelding for five years, and he’d always been friendly and well-mannered, which was a lot more than she could say about any of her boyfriends in the last five years. Banjo was always glad to see her, too, and he never made disparaging comments about why she worked on Saturdays or how she worried too much about her family. And he was always appreciative when she did something nice for him.
She reached into her pocket and took out the carrot that he knew was there but was too polite to demand. Banjo took the carrot delicately from her hand and crunched it, tossing his head to show his approval.
“Mom got a letter from a law firm,” she told the horse. “It’ll be bad.”
Banjo watched her, his ears pricked forward, listening.
“Eviction notices, divorce papers, bankruptcies—that stuff means letters from law firms. Trust me, Banjo, you don’t want to get a letter from a law firm.”
Banjo shook his head, shooing a fly that had bothered him.
“Now, if I were a horse, somebody would give me a carrot,” Hope continued. Banjo stepped forward again, and Hope wondered if he knew what the word “carrot” meant. Banjo was a very smart horse. She stroked his face, running her hand up between his ears, and patted him on the neck.
“Somebody would give me a carrot and pet me, and everything would be good.”
Banjo turned his head into her hand.
“If I were a horse, I’d marry you,” Hope said, feeling the heaviness of the letter weigh on her. “You’ve got everything going for you. You’re good looking but not flashy, and you’re loyal to the bone. And you don’t seem to be crazy about sports. Well, maybe the Kentucky Derby. But that’s only once a year, so I could deal with that.”
Banjo shifted his weight, swishing his tail.
“But as it is, our love is doomed.”
I must be nuts, talking to a horse.
Hope stroked Banjo, feeling the sun heat her back.
But at least it’s cheap therapy.
The other two horses, sensing treats, started over to the fence. Hope dug out the other two carrots and gave one each to Blondie, the shy, elderly Palomino mare they’d had since Hope was thirteen, and Ralph, their goofy gelding. Faith had rescued him one day from a slaughterhouse, and although he had been despondent when he arrived, time, good food, and good treatment had cheered him up considerably. Now he was giddy with pleasure all the time.
Blondie took her carrot and turned away to eat it in privacy, and Ralph took his with a little two-step sideways dance. Hope felt a rush of affection for the animals. When she’d left the office today, she’d wanted to ride before supper—take Banjo out through the canyon, up into the hills. She wanted to hear the creak of the saddle and smell the mesquite and horse, breathe the warm, dry air. See the distance.
Now that the letter had come, though, she knew she needed to stick around to do damage control. If controlling the damage was possible.
She jumped off the fence and opened the gate.
“Time for supper, guys,” she said. All the horses knew what “supper” meant. Banjo walked through the gate, and she put her hand on his back, walking alongside. “If the letter’s really bad, I’ll give you a little extra grain tonight,” she promised him. “We’ll all have to keep our strength up.”
Ralph, doing his crazy little hopping number and then Blondie, moving slowly, followed them back into the barn and turned into their stalls. The horses slurped their water and munched their hay, settling down. Hope gave each of them a small measure of grain, then closed the stall doors and latched them.
Then she looked at her mother.
Suzanne sat on a hay bale, leaning back against an empty stall. Her face was ashen. The letter had slipped through her fingers and lay on the floor.
Hope went over and sat next to her. Picked up the letter. Read it. And felt her world collapse beneath her feet.
Back from the barn, Suzanne went upstairs to shower and Hope called the lawyer. The letter was signed by Joseph Sharp, and when he answered the phone, his voice was reedy and thin.
Not a good sign,
Hope thought, not sure what a good sign would be.
“We got your letter today, Mr. Sharp,” she said, “and we don’t understand it.”
“I have the documents right here, Ms. McNaughton.” Hope heard papers rustling on the other end of the phone. “The parties thought there might be confusion. Indeed, Mr. McNaughton told me that he thought you would call.”
“Yes, well, people who are cheated and lied to tend to get curious,” Hope said, feeling anger spike against her father. He couldn’t talk
her, but he could talk
her to the lawyer? What was that about? “People who are forced off their land might complain. No wonder he thought I’d call.”
“Yessss. Well. I assure you everything is in order.”
“How could my father lose the ranch?” Hope asked. “My parents bought it outright twenty-two years ago. There wasn’t a mortgage. Just tell me what happened, Mr. Sharp. That’s what we’d like to know. Because you’ve told us to get out in a month, and after twenty-two years, that’s just a little sudden.”
Joseph Sharp cleared his throat. “Mr. McNaughton lost the property in a card game.”
Hope closed her eyes. Of course that’s how Derek lost it. She should have guessed. Her father wasn’t the worst card player in the world, but he never knew when to quit. When his chips were gone, he’d bet anything—the car, the house, his kids’ college educations. He just kept playing, expecting his luck to turn.
And now he’d made his family’s luck turn, as well.
“The title was transferred in my office two days ago,” Joseph Sharp said now.
“Who is the winning party?”
“I don’t know with whom Mr. McNaughton played. The owner on the transfer agreement is a Delaware corporation, Passaic Holdings.”
“Can we make an offer on the place?”
Joseph Sharp sighed. “I don’t think the ranch is in your price range.”
“My parents paid a hundred thousand for it twenty-two years ago,” Hope said. “How much does the winner want for it? It must be worth more now.”
“A lot more.” The lawyer’s voice was ripe with satisfaction. “At least two million.”
Hope glanced around the funky, old-fashioned kitchen, the battered kitchen cabinets and worn linoleum. For this, well, okay, not
, exactly—the barn was a luxury hotel with room for eighteen horses—but they’d let the house go to pay for the barn, and the land itself was one hundred fifty acres of shrub.
“Two million,” Hope said. They could never afford that. They just barely met their expenses on the ranch as it was.
“Passaic Holdings has a potential buyer, which expressed interest in expanding into that area of Nevada.”