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Molly Mackillop stared into the flames of the pit fire as the sun rose before her, suffusing Calamity Valley in orangey hues. Another fall daybreak that filled her with comfort, until her grandmother spat on the flames and they roared.
“Fire parted,” Alice said. “Man coming.”
Molly curled her hands around her first mug of coffee for the day and shot a look at the woman most people called Crazy Alice. This was the problem a modern, down-to-earth woman had when she was a descendent of mystics, oracles, and soothsayers. No day started or ended as anticipated.
“What’s he coming for?”
“Can’t say. He’s a while off.”
“Like two hours off? Or two months off?”
Molly peered at the fire, reflecting on her grandmother’s abilities. The flames twirled and pirouetted, licking the logs as the kindling burned. An everyday, ordinary pit fire. Except that it was Crazy Alice’s fire, and according to hearsay, it did as Alice told it.
Molly leaned forward, narrowed her eyes, and spoke silently to the flames. “I hope he’s got a tool belt.”
Nothing. Not even an extra flicker. She wasn’t in touch with her channeling powers. Probably because she didn’t have any.
“Never worried you before,” Alice said.
Molly started and coffee spilled over the rim of her mug. She should be used to her grandmother knowing what was on her mind but these days, the slightest untoward happening set her on edge.
She licked the hot coffee from her thumb. “I’ve never been desperate before.”
Alice chuckled and nodded at the flames. “You looking for love?”
“I’m looking for a strong man with a tool belt and roof-building skills.” Not many men of the brave and daring variety set a foot in the near-deserted town of Hopeless—unless they were lost. And how many brave and daring men got lost? “Has he answered my ad?” she asked, hoping the stranger’s arrival in the Texas Panhandle was the result of a normal occurrence.
Alice didn’t answer.
Not a normal occurrence, then.
A breeze brushed Molly’s face and lifted the long hair from her shoulders. “If I don’t get a roof on the hacienda, I can’t start the business.”
“This man’s got equipment.”
“Is he going to help build my roof?” Without it, there’d be no business to get off the ground. Through the Lens: A gallery of expertise with photographer Molly Mackillop.
Her dream. She’d have a life and a business. As soon as the bad luck disappeared. Just as soon as she rediscovered her spirit—the endeavor kind, not the spooky kind.
Alice rose from the ground, moving as gracefully as a woman half her age, and sat on the bricks edging the pit. The flames sidled away from her, and it wasn’t a breeze that moved them.
Molly shuffled closer. Alice was no fortune-teller and this was no tea-leaf job. She was a giver of wise counsel to those who wanted to listen and Molly was in need of some. “He’s not coming for me, is he?” she asked cautiously.
Alice often predicted tall, dark, handsome men for the ladies who visited her. But only when one was definitely on the way.
“Because I don’t need a man. I need a builder.”
“You’re not right for him, Molly, and this man doesn’t want attention.”
“Fine. I just want his equipment.”
Alice laughed, her head thrown back, her hooded green eyes crinkled. “That’s exactly what his problem is.”
“He hasn’t decided if he’s heading this way yet,” Alice said, “and it’s not his tool belt he’s protecting.”
Molly crinkled her nose and looked at the fire. What does that mean?
The fire didn’t answer.
“What’s wrong with me that I’m not right for him?” she asked, brooding over the possibility that every man in her future would think her unsuitable for anything more than doing his books and paying his bills.
Not that this should bother her anymore. She was over it and her ex-fiancé. Or she would be, as soon as she got the money back that he owed her.
“The two of you won’t fit, that’s all.”
Molly put her mug onto the rim of the fire pit, pulled at the collar of her wool jacket, and changed the subject. Some people said there was a curse on Calamity Valley and she didn’t want to think about that. Not when thinking about something she didn’t believe in might make it real.
“I’ve got the courtyard cleared. There was fancy brick-paving under all that junk, and a fountain.” The hacienda had been empty for seventy-eight years, so there’d been a lot of junk to clear. But slowly, through the debris and dust, the broken bricks and the dried-out garden beds, Molly had known that coming home had been the best idea. Not just the only idea, given her situation.
Through the Lens: It’s your portrait, it’s your sitting. It’s time to chill out and kick back, and it’s my job to make that happen.
She was going to be offering indoor and outdoor portraits for engagement shots, birthdays, family sittings—and there’d be opportunities for photographers to spend the day snapping away at the extraordinary vista of Calamity Valley. Whatever people wanted, Molly would provide. Eventually.
“Does your ex know about us yet?” Alice asked, bringing Molly out of her daydream and taking the skin off a subject she preferred to keep to herself.
Her ex-fiancé. Or the thing, as she liked to think of him.
“There’s no reason for him to know about you all now. Since we’re no longer together.”
“How were you planning on keeping us a secret if you hadn’t found him with another woman, and gone through with the wedding?”
Heat rose up Molly’s neck. “But I did find him, so it doesn’t matter now.”
“You lied, Molly.”
She hadn’t told her ex-fiancé about her family and she had her reasons for that. “I didn’t really lie,” she said. “I just omitted a few things.” Like how spooky they were…
“And what about the lie inside you?” Alice asked gently. “The one you refuse to recognize.”
Molly didn’t want to talk about the lie she was keeping to herself until she worked out whether or not she’d done the right thing or the wrong thing.
“You’ve been calling him,” Alice said, a rebuke in her tone.
“Only to demand he get that loan sorted.”
“Thought you’d emptied his bank account.”
“Which held my money,” Molly pointed out. The rest of her money was tied up in the thing’s new sports car and the reno for his new office.
Without that twenty thousand dollars, she’d never get a roof on her hacienda. Never get her business off the ground. Then what would happen to the valley? Everybody would sell up to the developers who were snooping around and sweet-talking the ninety-seven Calamity residents into selling their land for below market value.
Molly had hidden away in the hacienda Alice had given her on her return to the valley a month ago and she couldn’t do that anymore. If she was truthful, she’d been hiding since she left the valley six years ago, trying to get away from the craziness and find a normal life. The past two years had seen her working her fingers to the bone in Colorado Springs for the thing’s business, forgetting about her own dreams while catering to his.
She straightened her shoulders and squared herself mentally for the day ahead, and the week, and the month. Possibly for the rest of her life. Alone.
She shook that last thought out of her mind. “I’m about to make a stand,” she declared.
“I am. I will. Watch me.” Coming home had been her fortification. Not that she’d had much choice but at least she had backbone.
“You’ve got some big attitude, too.”
Molly preferred to think of it as enthusiasm.
“Just be careful how you use it.”
“I should be allowed to handle my enthusiasm any way I choose,” Molly said, disregarding the mental connection she and Alice had. It might look odd to others, but she was used to these conversations that seemed to be made up of spoken words and unspoken thoughts.
The fire roared to life again. Alice waved a hand over it and the flames settled.
Molly snuck a look at her grandmother. Suntanned but not weathered. Alice’s skin was smoothly ridged, like a shell that had been washed in the ocean for decades, the creases on her face earned from smiling carefully and thinking cautiously for all of her seventy-seven years. Her green eyes were a shade darker than Molly’s. Her long hair, once chestnut-brown and now ash-gray, was knotted at the back of her head. Alice was at ease with herself and with life. Unlike her granddaughter.
“Your mother’s about to get as enthusiastic as you are,” Alice said.
“Why? What’s happened?”
“She’s got a new idea.”
Uh-oh. Momma’s tenacity had an iron grip when she had a new scheme on the go. Scratch that. Momma had tenacity running in her blood. Alice’s daughter, Molly’s mother. The differences between the three women were vast as far as Molly could tell, but love ran thick. Mostly.
“She’s thinking of starting a newsletter,” Alice said. “She’s going to call it a Herald.”
Molly’s eyes widened. “She is not serious. The Hopeless Herald? How’s that going to make us look?” The developers had started calling them all crazy Mackillops—even though Momma Marie had missed out on the spooky genes altogether, and Molly didn’t believe she had any, either.
“You know your mother,” Alice said. “She’ll do what she wants regardless of what we say.”
That was the problem. “What’s she going to write about?” Molly didn’t have anything against Momma running a newsletter, but the timing wasn’t the best, with Molly’s business plan and the need to get everyone on side with the idea of actually having people in town who hadn’t just gotten lost.
“She’ll write about everything that happens, I suppose.”
“What’s going to happen?” Molly asked, alarmed by this prediction.
Alice smiled and a calm look came into her eyes. Most people were pacified or tranquilized by that look, but Molly knew it meant Alice had information—something she’d prophesized, however that worked. Molly had never figured out if Alice was forewarning or foreshadowing.
“If there’s something going on,” she said, “I’d rather know now.” Waiting for something to happen was more frightening than facing it.
“Everything has an end,” Alice said. “But you won’t get there without going through it.”
Unnerving, or what? Molly sighed. “I swear to God, if I ever get this Mackillop gift, I’m disregarding it.”
Alice’s smile deepened. “You’ve had it all your life, child.”
Molly had two cousins from the neighboring towns of Surrender and Reckless and they had soothsayer grandmothers, too—Alice’s sisters. The girls had been told from youth that they’d inherited the mystic ways of their maternal ancestors and that it was up to them to nurture their skills or ignore them. They’d ignored them. What twenty-first-century girl wouldn’t? Especially when there was the curse attached to it.
She took her focus off the fire and onto Calamity land beyond.
Home. And the hacienda her great-grandfather—goddamn the philandering so-and-so—had built for her great-grandmother. The hacienda nobody had lived in because the great so-and-so had left as soon as he’d built the place. All the men who hooked up with Mackillop women left. This was the curse. Supposed curse. Molly didn’t believe in it. She just watched her back when either it or the great-grandfathers were mentioned—in case.
“What brought the great-grandfathers to your mind?” Alice asked.
Molly wasn’t sure. “Superstition.”
“Not my channeling.”
“Don’t bet on that, Molly.”
Molly shivered. The wind must have been humongous to blow the entire single story roof off the hacienda. It had happened just before the three cousins had been born. Purportedly, the great-grandfathers had done it. The GGs were dead, of course, but that didn’t stop them interfering, according to the grandmothers.
“We deal with a lot, we Mackillops, don’t we?” she said reflectively.
None of the grandmothers had husbands and neither did their daughters. Just men who ran off—due to the curse of the great-grandfathers who’d been the first men to run off. Even the cousins got nervous when the GGs were mentioned. Although they usually just changed the subject.
“We deal with what we’re given,” Alice said. “Like everybody else.”
Yes, but everybody else was normal.
Molly picked up her mug, wrapped her fingers around its warmth, and contemplated the horizon and the crest of the sun.
A flame rose higher than the others, like a burning pole of molten steel, and Molly inched back from the fire. “What was that for?”
“The man,” Alice said.
“He’s definitely coming?”
“He’ll know things about you, Molly. He’ll see who you really are.”
“Do I get to know anything about him?” It didn’t seem fair otherwise. “Is he going to cause me trouble?”
“I think he will, child.”
Oh, God! Why was Alice behaving so casually about his impending arrival? “Is he dangerous?”
“He is. But not in the way you’re thinking.”
Molly gulped. “Is he coming here to build my roof?”
“Maybe. If you’re nice to him.”
Nice? He was dangerous!
“He’s going to change things for you, Molly. If you let him.”
No way. She didn’t even want to meet him! Thank God she wasn’t right for him.
One concern kept leading to another. The fact that she needed a roof. The money she needed back from the thing to get the roof. The developers taking the land if she didn’t get the roof in order start the business. And now a dangerous stranger.
“You keep on your toes,” Alice said.
“Don’t worry. I will.”
Saul Solomon figured he was one of those guys with a pretty laid-back attitude unless riled. But one thing he couldn’t take was a liar.
He rubbed his unshaven jaw, lifted himself from the sleeping bag to sit with his elbows on his knees. Why the hell had he woken up thinking about the lies? That time was long gone. He was long gone. From the reasons and the source.
He swung his gaze around the southwest backcountry area of Palo Duro Canyon. The day had a Dear John look to it—downcast and unexpected. Although that would change in about thirty minutes. The sun would rise and cover the desert canyon with its warmth. It was easy to forget what was going on in the world when he was in the canyon. It filled a person with a sense of spiritual solitude. Maybe that was what he’d needed.
But he wasn’t in search of spirituality, he was traveling to get out of Texas.
He’d quit his role as ranger in El Paso company, pulled up roots, and left. When something went bad it was best to walk out under his own steam. He’d sold his pickup, trashed his cell phone and paid cash for a satellite phone. He’d stored his building gear on the cheap in Lubbock, with some shady guy—Saul knew a few shady guys, some of them handy to be acquainted with.
So he was on his way out, ready to start life again. It wasn’t as though it was the first time he’d had to do this, although he’d never expected to be run out of town because of some deranged woman.
He’d been a ranger most of his adult life and it had been an obvious choice to continue being a ranger when he landed in Texas six years ago. He’d seen his share of danger. He’d been involved in rescues, but he was no hero. He’d been doing his job when he saved Sally-Opal from her rolled vehicle, nothing less. But she saw it as a sign that she’d met the guy. She’d chased him as though he was the last man standing. He didn’t know if it was a behavioral pattern or a mindset, but the woman was unhinged. Man was the hunter. But Sally-Opal had hounded him, desperate for love, or maybe just sex. He didn’t know, but he hadn’t been able to shake her. In the end, he’d packed up and left El Paso.
He dragged his backpack toward him and switched his flashlight on since the sun wasn’t as keen to wake up as he was. He unclipped a water pack and drank, deep and long. It took a lot of water to keep a six-foot-two, hundred-and-ninety-pound guy hydrated.
He liked walking—taking his time and enjoying the solitude. He just couldn’t make up his mind where he was going. He pulled his topo map from an internal pocket where he kept his ID and his cash. The map was well worn but not so much he couldn’t read it. It was simply well used, like Saul had almost been with Sally-Opal. There was no accounting for how weird some people were but she had come from left field. For such a sweet-looking girly-girl, she wasn’t afraid to go after what she liked the look of. And she’d liked the look of Saul.
She’d told him she wanted him for his height, his strength, the body beneath his uniform, and—worst of all—for his tool. He could hardly believe it. She wanted to get her hands on his man equipment. Said she had a use for it. Wanted a kid and she’d chosen him. But if he was going to use his tool—and he liked using it—it was going to be on his terms.
As he unfolded the map, a newspaper clipping fell out. He picked it up, dusted it off on his hiking pants, and stared at it in the light from the sun, now shining dimly on the dusty earth around him.
Wanted: builder with Spanish hacienda and adobe-roof renovation experience. Live-in. Full board. (Small wage.) Spend the fall in chilled-out Hopeless, Calamity Valley, Texas Panhandle. Bring your own equipment. Come straight to town and ask for Miss M. Mackillop (the youngest M. Mackillop).
Saul sighed. It was seeing that word—equipment. It chilled his loins.
The newspaper clipping had been wrapped around hot dogs he’d bought yesterday at some canyon picnic. He didn’t know why he’d shoved the clipping into his map. Some odd interest that made him think he might take a look. Except he wasn’t staying in Texas, but with every step, some gut instinct pulled at him, telling him to slow down and wait. This had been happening for twenty-four hours. He’d tried to ignore it, but the pull—an inner compass or something?—kept deterring him.
He glanced at the clipping again. He’d heard of Hopeless. There were two other towns in Calamity Valley. Surrender and Reckless. Some place off the beaten path nobody ever visited. Usually his kind of place.
His sat phone rang.
With another sigh, he pulled it off the clip on his shirt pocket and checked the caller ID. Sally-Opal. The only person who should have this number was his commander. Had he given it to Sally? When had Saul forgotten not to trust anyone?
He winced at the squeal and held the phone away from his ear.
“Sweetie, I got us an appointment,” Sally said. “Can you make it back in time?”
“In time for what?”
She didn’t wait for the slight delay so he missed the first few words. “Couples therapy. Monday, four o’clock.”
“I know you’re mad at me. And I’m a little bit mad at you for leaving, but I’m trying my best to understand what’s bugging you.”
He’d saved her from that rolled vehicle and she’d invited him out to dinner. He’d reckoned it was a nice gesture on her part, so he’d agreed. Biggest mistake of his life.
“Sally-Opal, listen—no—yeah—listen—Sally!” He snatched a breath. “Sally-Opal,” he said again in a more resigned tone when silence reigned. He hardly ever got a turn to talk. “For the last time, we are not a couple. We had dinner once. It wasn’t a date. I left early.”
He’d known five minutes into the evening that there were a lot of things not properly placed in Sally’s head. She kept touching him. His forearms on the table. His fingers. His thigh beneath the table, then his—yeah, his equipment, which hadn’t moved. Not a flutter.
“You mean so much to me, Saul. You just need to come back for the appointment.”
“I’m not coming back.”
“I might be pregnant.”
“Sally-Opal, you’re not pregnant.” Not by him at least. “We didn’t sleep together.” What is this woman on?
“But imagine if we had. I’d be three weeks gone by now.”
“Sally-Opal—” He was beginning to feel sorry for her, but what could he do? How could he let her down gently? He sat up straighter as an idea struck him. “Look, I’m really sorry, but there’s something I didn’t tell you.” He took a breath. “I’m in love with another woman.” That had to do it.
Silence, and it didn’t sound pleasant.
“Since when?” she demanded, her voice hot, breathy fury.
He winced. Now she was going to give him more grief, when he’d just wanted to get her out of his hair kindly. And how could he have met a woman to fall in love with in a few days while hiking the Palo Duro Canyon? He hadn’t met one in all of his thirty years. He held up the newspaper clipping still in his other hand and scanned the ad. “Eh… Since the other day. Love at first sight.”
“What’s her name?”
He checked the ad again. “Mackillop.” Miss M. Mackillop. What would the M stand for? “Moll Mackillop,” he said, thinking of his pony, Moll. He’d learned to ride on her when he was three-years-old. She’d been his best friend with four legs, apart from his dog, and man, if he didn’t still miss her.
“Where does she live?” Sally-Opal squealed.
“Idaho. So that’s it. We’re done. I’m really sorry. I’m sure you’ll find some great man who’s just right for you. Goodbye, Sally, you take care now—”
“I’ve got your sister’s number.”
His blood ran cold. The only way she could have gotten his pretty little sister’s number was if she’d taken it from his cell phone. The one he’d ditched when he bought the sat.
“I’m going to call her and tell her what you’ve been up to!”
“Don’t start anything you can’t finish,” Saul said, his annoyance boiling over the nicer part of his nature.
“You lying cheat!” she said, and cut him off.
He let his hand fall to his thigh. Sally could have snooped through his gear back in El Paso any number of times. When he’d left his cell and truck keys on the table and gone to pay for the dinner he hadn’t eaten. When she’d followed him into his commander’s office in the following days and just sat there, waiting for him to return from whatever rangering duty he’d been on. His gear had been in that office. And she was calling him a cheat.
Five seconds later the sat beeped with an incoming message, and Saul almost threw it into the desert. But it was from his commander.
Saul, I’ve been getting a load of calls about you. From that woman in the rolled vehicle. Not sure what you’ve done, but she’s pissed. She’s not the only one, either. Her father is on your case, and he’s an ex-cop. Might want to lose yourself for a couple of weeks. Don’t know what you’ve got yourself involved in, but keep your head on a swivel, buddy.
Given the life-changing scenario and the lies he’d been given by another woman six years ago—lies that had left his life in tatters for a while—Saul didn’t want to be found. Sally-Opal’s father had nothing on him. The law had nothing on him. But his sister did.
He threw the phone onto his backpack and contemplated his options. Ignoring disappointment came first. He’d been thinking it was time to stop messing around and find some place to open Wilderness Hiking—the business he’d been planning for the past few years. This nonsense with Sally had nudged the decision to move on—and maybe he ought to be thanking her. All he had to do now was find some place for Wilderness Hiking that wasn’t in Texas. It was a big state, but maybe not big enough for him and Sally. Where he’d set up this business, he didn’t know, but he hoped by the time he arrived, he’d have walked off his bad mood.
He’d done nothing to hurt either Sally or her ex-cop daddy. But he did not want his sister on his back. So where was he going to head? Where was the best place to lie low for a week or so until Sally-Opal forgot all about this pregnancy, or found another man to hound? If he left Texas, he’d have to walk out, or hitch a ride, because if he flew out, her daddy would undoubtedly have connections and discover where he’d gone, which would only fuel Sally’s enthusiasm to find him.
A sudden gust of wind rustled the newspaper clipping, then kicked up so strongly the clipping blew out of his hand, and up to his face.
He peeled it off his nose and gave it his ranger glare. He was about to scrunch it up when he caught sight of—
Spend the fall in chilled-out Hopeless, Calamity Valley.
He’d been brought up on a ranch in Colorado; everybody knew how to build something. Every man had some carpentry skills. He’d boarded with a Mexican woman and her teenage kids when he’d first joined the rangers in El Paso. She hadn’t had much so in his off-time he’d restored her adobe house and started a small sideline in reno jobs.
He pocketed the clipping and made a decision. Standard ranger practice. Keep your eyes and ears open, maintain situational awareness, and stay safe.
He wasn’t going to run, although he wanted Sally and her daddy to think he had. He was going to stay close, holed up in some place off the beaten path nobody ever visited.
A town called Hopeless.
End of Excerpt