Authors: D'Ann Lindun
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Heat: Previously published by Crimson Romance February 2012
2013 by D’Ann Lindun
Design: Carey Abbot
Mom and Dad~
This one’s for you.
For the years we spent at
some of the best ever!
Love you both.
Other Titles by D’Ann Lindun
The Cowboys of Black Mountain:
Promise Me Eden
Sunny Days Ahead
The Brides of Black Mountain: Shiloh’s Song and
The Cowboy’s Baby
A wave of despair
kicked Mike Malone in the gut, nearly doubling him over.
Warm Arizona air in
his face and the sweet perfume of nasturtiums in full bloom made his stomach
churn. This time of year—early February—The Jumping Cholla Resort should be
packed with tourists escaping bitter northern winters. With the holiday hustle
and bustle over, the century-old ranch would normally be bursting at the seams
with pale-faced vacationers soaking up the Arizona sunshine.
The pool stood
empty, the horses grew fat, most of the help had been let go. Besides four
long-time friends, the only other resident on the ranch was an old prospector
named Skeeter. Because Mike felt sorry for the guy, he let him stay in one of
the cabins. Hell, someone might as well use them. No one else could.
Skeeter minded his
own business, wandering out in the nearby Superstition Mountains for days,
sometimes weeks on end, searching for lost treasure. His only companion on
these trips was a little burro named
. Mike had
asked about that once, and Skeeter told him nobody else would want the homely
little animal. Mike grinned thinking of it. There was precious little else to
feel good about.
Deciding to see if
Skeeter would like to have breakfast, Mike walked the short distance to the
Spanish-styled cabins, enjoying the view along the way. The near horizon was
filled with jagged red cliffs and a cactus forest. In the distance, the
violet-hued Superstitions strained for the sky. Along the western edge of the
property, the Salt River provided water to the citizens of Phoenix and its
suburbs. Right now, Mike almost hated the sight of the slow-moving current.
Fighting off his anger, he knocked on the door of the last cabin. When no one
answered, he shrugged and turned away.
Then he spotted
staked out a few feet from
cabin. Something didn’t look right. The burro’s head hung between his front
legs, his ears drooped. In two quick strides, Mike was at the little animal’s
side. The burro’s sleek tan flanks were drawn up tight. He obviously hadn’t
been fed or watered in at least a day or two. This wasn’t like Skeeter. He loved
his little companion. Something had to be wrong.
After leading the
burro to an empty corral and filling the trough with cool, clean water and the
feed bin with good hay, Mike went to see about Skeeter. He knocked again,
listening carefully for signs of life. Hearing nothing, he took the master key
out of his pocket and unlocked the door. The stench hit him first. His mind
refused to believe it for a moment, but the sticky-sweet smell of something
once alive, now rotting, was unmistakable. He’d come across enough dead animals
in the desert to recognize the particular odor.
Digging a clean
bandanna out of his pocket, Mike held it over his nose and mouth and stepped
inside. In the dim light, he saw
body in the bed. Apparently he’d fallen asleep and not awakened again. For that
much, at least, Mike was grateful. He scanned the room. Skeeter had been a man
of simple means. Nothing personal adorned the room. No pictures, no mementoes,
nothing. Turning away, Mike wondered if there was anyone alive who cared about
the old prospector.
body pulled away, a
sheriff’s deputy lingered.
“Too bad about your friend.
At least he died here, where someone knew the score. If he had croaked out in
the desert, nobody would’ve been the wiser.”
It’s a good
thing,” Mike commented, his tone as dry as the air around him. He handed over a
ragged green duffle bag. “This is all he had. What about the body?”
“Someone will have to claim it; make funeral
arrangements.” The deputy looked pointedly at Mike.
He sighed. “I’ll
be in touch later this afternoon.”
Waiting until the
cop pulled out of the driveway, Mike headed for his house. He needed coffee.
What a fine mess this was. As if he didn’t have enough problems of his own, now
he was saddled with making burial arrangements for a mere acquaintance. He and
Skeeter hadn’t been close friends. While riding in the desert last fall, Mike
had met up with the solitary prospector, and taking pity on him, invited him
for a meal. With the ranch standing empty, Mike had urged the old man to stay,
and Skeeter accepted. Whatever his business in the desert, Skeeter didn’t
share, and Mike didn’t pry.
No time like the
present to clean the cabin.
As he walked the
stone path to the guest building, he noticed a pair of bright red cardinals on
an outstretched arm of an ancient saguaro. One of the birds cocked its head
Mike’s way, eyes bright with curiosity.
At the door, Mike
took a deep breath, and turned the key.
lifted the mattress to take it outside to haul to the dump later. A crumpled
legal-size envelope fell to the floor, and Mike dropped the mattress back on
the bed springs, curious about the envelope. He picked it up and examined it.
The address was to Gary James, Tortilla Flat,
real name was Gary James? The return
postmark was from Las Vegas, Nevada, and read 1991.
Holding it for a
moment, Mike took a deep breath before looking inside. A few pieces of paper
slid into his waiting hands.
A yellowed map with one jagged
edge, torn in half, a black-and-white picture of a pretty, dark-haired woman
holding a baby.
Mike studied the
map, and recognized several landmarks in the desert. But it was meaningless without
the other half. He laid it aside and unfolded the single lined sheet. In large,
curly handwriting, a woman named Carole told Skeeter she couldn’t wait any
longer for him to come to his senses and return home to her and their daughter.
They wanted him with them. Let her know what he decided.
folded the yellowing paper and along with the aging photo, returned them to the
envelope. Why had Skeeter had chosen the desert, rather than go back to a wife
who apparently missed him? Stuffing the letter in his pocket, along with the
map, Mike then put the clothes back in the bag. Would Carole James possibly
still be listed in Las Vegas?
He went to his
office and dialed information. A smooth-voiced operator gave him the number,
and in a moment the phone began ringing, connecting him to Carole James. What
would he say? Did the woman on the other end even care about Skeeter anymore?
While he waited, trying to decide how to begin, he took the map out of his
pocket and laid it on his desk.
dropped her purse, keys, and heavy satchel on the table by the door just as the
phone began to ring. It was probably just another solicitor on the other end
and she reached for it reluctantly. She recognized the Arizona area code but
not the number. “Hello.”
A cautious male voice on the other end asked,
“Who is this?” Mallory’s heart pinched at the
sound of her mother’s name. She’d been dead a year, but her loss still hurt.
“You don’t know me . . . my name is Mike
Malone. I’m here at The Jumping Cholla Resort . . . .”
“I’m not interested in a vacation right now.”
Mallory tapped her fingers on the bar. God, these salesmen were relentless.
“I’m not selling anything,” the voice on the
other end said quickly, before she could hang up.
“What, then?” Mallory knew she sounded rude
but she was exhausted. She had a million papers to grade, not to mention a
house to clean, groceries to buy, and laundry to do.
before classes on Monday.
“Are you Carole James?” the man asked again.
“No. What’s this about?” She sighed heavily.
Maybe if she just heard him out, he’d go away.
“Do you know how to reach her? Are you
related to a Gary James?” Mike Malone’s voice had a
Like he didn’t want to be talking to her
any more than she wanted to be talking to him.
went shaky and she fumbled for a bar stool behind her. Sinking back onto it,
she asked, “Is this some kind of prank? Who are you?”
“It’s no joke.”
pounded like an out-of-sync drum. “Explain yourself.”
“As I said, my
name is Mike Malone. I own The Jumping Cholla guest ranch in Mesa, Arizona. A
– Gary James lived here. He died in one
of my cabins. There’s a letter in his effects from a woman named Carole James
in Las Vegas. On the off chance she was listed, I tried information and got
Her father was
. This Mike, this stranger, kept talking, but Mallory didn’t hear a
word he said. Somehow, she’d clung to the hope he would someday appear.
Strolling into the house, dropping his dusty fedora on the table by
the door, picking her up and swinging her around.
He lingered in her
memory, frozen in time. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see him any
other way but the young, handsome man who’d left for work one day and never
came back. Never mind that twenty-two years had passed since he’d left both
five-year-old Mallory and her mother with no explanation. To her knowledge,
he’d never written or called once in all those years.
“Are you there?”
Mallory coughed to
cover the tears in her voice. “Yes. Please continue.”
“Who am I talking to? Look, I really need to
speak to Carole James. Maybe I could call back at another time.”
back the sob that rose in her throat. “She’s deceased.”
“I’m sorry. Are
you someone who might know how to reach
, Gary’s family?”
“He was my
father,” Mallory replied softly.
A long silence
stretched over the wire. Then Mike said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”
“You didn’t know? He didn’t . . . mention my mom?
Or me?” Mallory twirled a piece of her dark curly hair between her fingers, a
habit she fell back on when nervous or upset.
“We weren’t close,” the man replied kindly.
“Your dad was a hermit. No one really knew him, far as I know.”
“I see.” She didn’t really. Hadn’t her dad
been attached to anyone? Why had he shut out the whole world to live in exile
in the Arizona desert? She’d never have the chance to find out. A hot wave of
unexpected grief caught her. She blinked back tears, and swallowed the lump in
her throat. She wanted desperately to hang up. “Is there anything else?”
“Uh, actually, well yeah.
The body, Skeeter, he was taken to the morgue. About funeral arrangements . . .
Mallory felt stupid. This man had called to hand over the responsibility of
burying a man she barely remembered. “I think I better come down there. You’re
in Mesa? That’s a suburb of Phoenix, right? And you own a guest ranch? Do you
have accommodations available? Never mind. I imagine you’re very busy right at
this time of year. I’ll get a hotel in town.”
“You’re welcome to stay here. We’re not
crowded right now.” A touch of something—irony?—filled his voice. “Call me back
with your flight information, and I’ll pick you up at Sky Harbor.”
“That’s very generous, but unnecessary. I
don’t want to impose,
. . . I’m sorry, I didn’t
catch your last name.” Hot tears burned in her throat. All she wanted was to
hang up and cry.
“It’s Malone, but
me Mike. And I want to help.” He sounded so sincere she wanted to trust him.
“That’s very kind,” she murmured.
He seemed to sense
her hesitation. “Look, you can check me out on the ’net. Mike Malone, Jumping
Cholla guest ranch. Or call Deputy Tim
the Mesa sheriff’s office, he’ll vouch for me.”
“If you’re certain—”
“It’s the least I can do, and I won’t take no
for an answer.”
They talked for a
few more minutes finalizing plans,
For a long time
after Mike Malone’s call, Mallory simply sat and stared at the phone. Grief
stabbed her, although for the man she barely knew or her own lost dreams, she
couldn’t say. She’d never have the chance to tell her dad how much she missed
him, how much he meant to her, how she’d wanted to be just like him, or how mad
she was at him. But most of all she wouldn’t have the chance to tell him how
much she still loved him.