When it came to big gatherings, there was nothing like a good old-fashioned Texas funeral.
From the doorway of the cavernous ranch house parlor, Beau Tyler sipped his bourbon and studied the Texans who'd come to mourn and swap stories about his father. Now that Bull was properly eulogized and planted in the family cemetery, the real get-together could begin.
From the pit-barbecued beef in the backyard to the salads, casseroles, and desserts the neighbors had brought along, there was plenty to eat—and to drink. Guests heaped their plates from the groaning buffet table, filled their glasses at the bar, and took advantage of the rare chance to socialize.
After eleven years away, Beau felt like a stranger. Children had grown up in his absence. Middle-aged folk had grown old, and some of the old ones had passed on. Scanning the crowd, he could spot only a few people he recognized. Every now and then he'd spot a familiar face but rarely could he link a name with it. He supposed it was to be expected.
Catching the sound of the front door closing, Beau automatically glanced in its direction, obeying the well-honed instinct to locate and assess the person coming up behind him. His gaze landed on a big, burly bear of a man, dressed in the uniform of a local law enforcement officer, in the process of removing his hat. There were more lines in his craggy face and some gray in his hair, but Beau had no trouble recognizing the county sheriff, Hoyt Axelrod.
At almost the same moment, the sheriff spotted him, briefly narrowed his sharp eyes, then nodded his head in recognition. "Beau Tyler." He walked straight toward him, a hand outstretched in greeting. "A lot of people around here were wondering if you'd come back for the funeral. Some were even placing bets on it."
"Someone got lucky, then." The handshake was firm but brief.
"I'm sure your brother appreciates having you here. Sorry I couldn't make it to the funeral, but I got tied up at the courthouse."
"Duty first," Beau responded. "Comes with the badge."
"That's right. You'd know about that, wouldn't you? You're an agent with the DEA now, aren't you?" Axelrod asked.
"I never figured you were the kind to go into law enforcement. Growing up, you always seemed more interested in good times and partying," the sheriff remarked, while his gaze made a fresh study of him in this new light.
"People change," Beau replied, and idly swirled the bourbon in his glass.
"That they do," the sheriff agreed. "And Lord knows, there isn't a part of this country that isn't plagued by drug problems of some kind. I'm just glad we aren't any closer to the border than we are. But this isn't the time or place for shoptalk." The cell phone hooked to his belt beeped, advising the sheriff of an incoming text message. Axelrod darted an apologetic glance at Beau, checked his phone, then hooked it back on his belt. "If you're going to be around a few days, maybe you can stop by my office and we can trade some stories."
"I've got a flight out tomorrow. Maybe another time."
"I'll hold you to that," the sheriff replied, giving no sign he meant it any more than Beau did. Immediately he shifted his attention to the people milling in the parlor. "You wouldn't know where I might find your brother so I can offer him my condolences?"
"Last time I saw him, he was by the bar. "
"I'll find him. It's good to see you again, Beau.
I'm just sorry it had to be under these circumstances."
Beau nodded in response and watched as the sheriff began making his way through the throng of mourners toward the bar. He knew he should mingle with the guests, but he didn't feel like making small talk. He was about to turn away from the parlor when he caught sight of a face he recognized at once.
There was Tori, Will's ex-wife, in a knee-skimming black lawyer suit. Tall and slim, with sun-streaked hair, she looked classy as hell. Beau had always thought she and Will were meant for a lifetime together. Whatever had driven them apart must've been bad. But then Will was capable of being a stubborn, insensitive jackass, especially when it came to women. And Tori had never been one to quietly knuckle under.
Tori had been cornered by a neighboring rancher, Congressman Garn Prescott. Prescott had given the eulogy at the funeral, which was surprising since Bull and Prescott's late father had hated each other's guts. But a lot could change over time, and there was an election coming up this fall.
Reading Tori's body language, Beau surmised that the man was invading her personal space and all she wanted was to end their conversation. He was weighing the wisdom of going to her rescue when he felt a touch on his arm and heard a soft voice.
"Are you my uncle Beau?"
Beau turned to the young girl by his elbow. She looked about twelve, with intelligent blue eyes and a dark blond ponytail tied with black satin ribbon. For a split second he failed to recognize her. Then he recalled glimpsing her at the service, next to her mother.
"Erin? Is that really you?"
The grin that lit her face—a miniature of Tori's but with Will's blue eyes—answered his question.
"I can't believe it!" Smiling, he shook his head in mock amazement. "The last time I saw you, you were still in diapers!"
Her laugh was musical. "Not anymore. I'm almost in eighth grade. Someday I want to be a lawyer like my mom, or maybe a vet like Natalie."
Natalie. Something like an unhealed scar pulled inside him. He'd heard she was in veterinary school, and later on that she'd finished and married Slade Haskell. But nothing more. Not in years. He'd almost succeeded in forgetting her.
As if any man could forget his first time—and hers.
"My dad told me you were in a war. He said you got shot."
"I was, and I did. But I'm okay now." And he was okay. The nightmares about the action he'd seen in Iraq still plagued him sometimes, but he'd learned to deal with that. As for the bone-shattering shoulder wound that had gotten him sent Stateside, it did no worse than hamper his racquetball game and stiffen up in cold weather. He'd been lucky over there. Damned lucky.
"And now you catch bad guys that sell drugs. That's what my dad says."
"Well, I used to. Now I get to boss other people who catch them."
"Can I get you a sandwich or something?" Erin asked. "I'm helping Bernice today. She said I could be her gofer. "
"I'll grab something later. But thanks for the offer."
"Time for me to get gofering." She wrinkled her lightly freckled nose. "I hope we can talk some more while you're here. When I grow up, I want to see the whole world—-just like you."
"I'm leaving tomorrow. If there's anything you want to talk about, we'd better make it soon."
"I'll do my best. But right now Bernice needs me to fetch more napkins." She flitted off through the crowd. Beau's gaze followed the path of her bobbing ponytail. A smile edged the corners of his mouth. The kid was a winner straight out of the gate.
At least Will and Tori had done something right.
Tori's hand cramped around her glass of iced tea. Her black stiletto pumps were killing her feet. The tightness at the back of her neck signaled an oncoming headache, and Congressman Garn Prescott, who'd backed her against a leather settee, wouldn't get out of her face.
Keep skunks and politicians at a distance. Bull's words came back to her as she fought the urge to shove the man away.
"How can I convince you, Tori?" The congressman was fifty-two, a big, handsome, graying man whose breath smelled of the Scotch he'd been drinking. "A woman like you, your talents are being wasted in a backwater town like Blanco Springs. As a member of my Washington staff, your salary would be twice what you're making here. And the connections—my dear, there's no limit to where you could go."
Does that include your bed, you lecherous old goat?
Tori scanned the room over Prescott's shoulder. She spotted Will standing near the massive stone fireplace, his broad-shouldered frame and dark brown hair a beacon in the crowd. But his back was turned toward her. And Will Tyler was the last man she would ask to ride to her rescue.
"Say the word and I'll make it happen—full benefits, your own town house, the works." Prescott gave her arm a proprietary squeeze. "It'll be the best decision you ever made."
Freezing at his touch, Tori shook her head. "I have a daughter, and she's happy here. I'm not about to haul her across the country, away from her father and this ranch. Sorry, Garn, but my answer is no."
"Dinner, then, at least. Give me one more chance to convince you."
Tori's patience had reached the fracture point, but she didn't want to make a scene. She was groping for a civil response when she felt a light touch at her elbow. Swiveling her gaze, she looked up into Beau's mischievous hazel eyes. Her lips moved in a silent thank you.
"Congressman." Beau's greeting was friendly but firm. "Hope you'll excuse us, but the lady is urgently needed elsewhere."
Taking Tori's arm, he steered her toward the front entry. "How about some fresh air?" he muttered.
"Yes. Please. This place is a zoo."
"And I've just rescued you from the gorilla." His grin dazzled as he opened the door and led her out onto the porch. Kicking off her pumps, Tori set her glass aside and sank onto the double swing. The dog, drowsing on the top step, raised his head, then settled back into his afternoon nap.
"This is more like it," she breathed. "Another thirty seconds with that man and I'd have slapped his smarmy face. I don't even agree with his politics, let alone want to work for him."
"Well, you can't blame him for trying." Beau settled at the other end of the swing, leaning into the corner so he could look at her. The two had been friends since first grade, and nobody had been more pleased than Beau when, after law school, she'd married his big brother.
She turned her face to the slight breeze that was blowing and drew in a deep breath. "Mmm, the air smells so good and clean after yesterday's storm," she declared, then added with a trace of wistfulness, "I just hope it means we'll get our usual spring rains and end this drought." Her gaze traveled back to him. "The storm made it tough for you, I hear. Will told me your flight was forced to divert to another airport. What time did you finally get to the ranch?"
"By the time I got a rental car and drove here, it was after midnight," Beau admitted. "By the way, I met your daughter in there. She's a gem."
"Erin's the best thing that ever happened to me. At least Will and I accomplished something good when we brought her into the world."
"I was thinking the same thing earlier." Beau kicked the swing into motion. The light, creaking sound blended with the distant calls of spring meadowlarks. "You and Will were the real deal. I lost my faith in true love when you split up."
Tori sighed. She should have known the conversation would go this way.
"What happened?" Beau asked.
"What has Will told you?"
"Nothing. You know Will."
"Do I?" Tori still wondered about that. She hadn't been much older than Erin when she'd fallen in love with Will Tyler. But he was older, and he'd paid her scant attention until years later when she'd returned home to Blanco Springs with her law degree. Their passionate whirlwind courtship had allowed them little time to get reacquainted. By the time she woke to the realization that she'd married a stranger, she'd been pregnant with their daughter.
"It's past and forgotten, Beau," she said. "Let's talk about something else—like you. Any special lady in your life?"
Beau shrugged. He'd always been the handsome brother, with a runner's long bones, light brown hair, and a roguish charm that matched his looks. Will, on the other hand, was chiseled in his father's dark, solid image, and he was just as intractable as Bull had been.
Bull Junior, Tori had called her husband during one of their arguments.
"Special ladies take time," Beau said. "And they expect things, like being told where you are, who you're with, and when you'll be home for dinner."
"Sounds like a passel of excuses to me." Tori gave him a roguish wink. "You'd make time for the right woman if you found her."
Beau's gaze traced the sun-streaked curl that trailed along her cheek. He knew better than to think Tori was flirting with him. They'd been friends most of their lives, but there was no romantic chemistry between them. And even though she was legally free, to him she would always be his brother's woman.
"Maybe I'm just not the right man," he said. "The kind of work I do can make you pretty cynical." He gave the swing another push with his foot. Sex was something he could get any time he wanted it. There were plenty of single, pretty women in Washington, most of them ambitious as hell. For them, a roll in the hay was just a way to let off stress, or maybe a leg up to the next level of wherever they were headed. Beau had long since learned to settle for that.
An easy silence had settled over the porch, warmed by the afternoon sun and broken only by the creak of the swing and the hum of foraging bees. Beau let his gaze wander over the ranch yard and the big landscape that stretched away from it. Little had changed since he'd left the ranch better than ten years ago. For a moment he let the familiarity of it all, its sights, scents, and sounds, take hold of him. Endless times in Iraq he had called this image to mind, times when the pull of home had been strong. And the pull was strong now, forcing him to admit he'd missed being here and being a part of the ranch's rhythms.
Before it could take hold of him, Beau shifted his position on the swing, angling more toward Tori. In the distance, barely visible, a white Toyota Land Cruiser had turned off the main highway and onto the long ribbon of gravel that led up to the ranch house.
"Remember back in fifth grade when Natalie put a garter snake in the teacher's desk drawer?" Tori asked.
Natalie again. Beau forced a chuckle. "How could I forget? The teacher went straight to Mr. Warner's office and quit." Natalie, he recalled, had fessed up to save the poor snake and got three weeks' detention for her crime. The little scamp had been unrepentant.
"How's Natalie doing?" he asked. "Are the two of you still best friends?"
"Solid as ever." Tori reached for her iced tea and took a sip.
"Last I heard, she was married."
"Yes, to Slade Haskell. It's been a few years now. No children. He runs a trucking business out of Blanco."
Beau had tried to imagine the petite, quicksilver girl he remembered with the hulking Slade, who'd made it to college on a football scholarship, then dropped out after blowing out his knee in the first game. Somehow the picture would never come together.
"Do you think she's happy?" he asked.
"You can ask her yourself. That's her SUV coming up the road."
Beau felt the catch in his chest. His feet dropped to the porch, stopping the swing. He was overreacting, he told himself. They weren't nineteen anymore.
And Natalie was a married woman.
"I'd planned on bringing her with me today, but she called at the last minute and said she had a foal to deliver." Tori rose, stepped into her pumps, and smoothed her hair into place. "Looks like she made it after all. And now, if you'll excuse me, it's time I was checking on my daughter. "
As she vanished inside, Beau rose and walked to the porch rail. No doubt Tori had left on purpose. Given the way he'd treated Natalie ten years ago, their meeting was bound to be awkward. He couldn't blame Tori for not wanting to be a part of it.
Guests had parked their vehicles along both sides of the road for a good fifty yards. The white Toyota pulled off and parked behind a rusty Ford pickup at the end of the line. Maybe he should go back inside, pretend he hadn't seen her. But that would be the coward's way. If the little spitfire still wanted a piece of his hide, he would take his punishment like a man.
He watched as the driver's door opened, and a petite figure stepped out. From a distance, at least, the girl who'd been Natalie Russo hadn't changed much. Doll-sized, with an unruly mane of black curls, she appeared to have come straight from her work. The black blazer she'd tossed on over her jeans and plaid shirt was her only nod to dressing for a funeral. But at least she'd come.
She must've known he'd be here. Had she made the effort because of him—or in spite of him?
When she froze in her tracks for an instant, Beau sensed that she'd recognized him. His feet propelled him forward, off the porch and down the road in long strides that ate up the distance. They met halfway, facing each other at arm's length.
"Hello, Natalie," he said.
Her lips trembled, forming a smile that didn't quite reach her dark eyes. "There were a lot of people who didn't think you'd come back for Bull's funeral. I'm glad you did, though. It's good to see you."
She extended her hand. He took it gently, checking the impulse to imprison it in his big palm. Her fingers were small, her skin cool and lightly callused.
"It's been a long time." Beau cleared the thickness from his voice. "I hear tell you're Mrs. Haskell now. "
"Doctor Haskell, if you please." Her smile was almost real this time, deepening a dimple at the corner of her mouth—the dimple he'd once loved to taste. Beau forced that memory aside, knowing it was bound to return when he was alone.
"I stand corrected," he said. "You've done well for yourself. But I knew you would. You were al- ways smart."