Authors: Jennifer Roberson
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
SMOKETREE © 2012 by Jennifer Roberson
All Rights Reserved
First electronic edition 2013
Book Cover design by Fantasia Frog Designs
Published by Jennifer Roberson
Digitizing, book design and copy editing by Antimatter ePress
Elizabeth K. Campbell, with copy editing by Nancy S. Gilson and Tonya Andrews.
Chronicles of the Cheysuli
THE SONG OF HOMANA
LEGACY OF THE SWORD
TRACK OF THE WHITE WOLF
A PRIDE OF PRINCES
DAUGHTER OF THE LION
FLIGHT OF THE RAVEN
A TAPESTRY OF LIONS
Cheysuli Omibus Editions
LEGACY OF THE WOLF
CHILDREN OF THE LION
THE LION THRONE
*SWORD-BOUND (February 2013)
THE WILD ROAD
RETURN TO AVALON
OUT OF AVALON
HIGHWAYMEN: ROBBERS AND ROGUES
SHORT STORY COLLECTION
GUINEVERE'S TRUTH AND OTHER TALES
By the age of 20, Smoketree was the fourth novel I’d written, following two girl-and-her-horse manuscripts, and my western, now available as Lonnie. I was a lover of romantic suspense novels such as Mary Stewart wrote, wherein attraction is pronounced, but there is no sex. At the time of writing I had horses and was familiar with that whole side of the “modern West,” including rodeos and barrel racing (yes, former rodeo queen here), and I’d attended college at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks (where there is indeed a ski area, though no dude ranch), so setting was a natural. Flagstaff is very different nowadays, but the Peaks remain part of the natural countryside with no commercial development beyond the ski area. You really can ride a horse for miles there through the ponderosa pines, imagining yourself apart from civilization.
“Are you all right?” Cass Reynolds asked.
I realized my hand had strayed once again to my forehead. The habit had become ingrained in six months, no matter how hard I tried to break it.
“I’m just tired,” I told her. “It was a long flight from New York to Phoenix, and the charter to Flagstaff was pretty bumpy.” I forced myself to put my hand down. I didn’t really need to touch the scar. I knew it by heart. An ugly, purple welt stretching across my brow to my right temple, the result of my most recent surgery, and I was so hypersensitive about it I felt as though I bore a brand. Or Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.
I smiled wryly, liking the imagery. My scar certainly wasn’t from any illicit, unconscionable adultery, but the results were much the same. I was stared at and, though not precisely shunned, certainly pitied. My looks, my livelihood were threatened, and all because of the peculiar healing qualities of my own skin.
As a child I had experienced my share of bumps and bruises, as well as knee scrapes and tetanus shots and all the other expected hazards of childhood. I’d hardly noticed the ugly lumps of scar tissue then, being too concerned with my games, and I’d outgrown my clumsiness. It wasn’t until the accident that I rediscovered my tendency to develop keloids—excess scar tissue—and realized my career was in jeopardy. Such vivid reminders of human vulnerability have no place on a fashion model.
There was genuine concern in Cass’s young face. She couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. "Is it me?” she asked. “Does my driving make you nervous?”
“No,” I lied politely. Actually,
driving made me nervous. It was one of those things I’d have to get over. My personal space, that zone of safety each of us lives and moves about in, had been destroyed. I was nervous any time I climbed into a car. “How did you find out about it?”
There was conflict in her face. I thought she was searching for the proper words, attempting to be diplomatic. Finally she settled for absolute honesty. “I’m a movie fan. Tucker Pierce was my favorite actor.” Color rose in her face, then receded. I knew she was recalling who it was she spoke to. “I had a crush on him. I sort of kept track of his movements in all those gossip magazines…”
I couldn’t help the smile. “I remember.” And I did. Every bit of it. From the glamor and glitter to the very last party, and the long drop off a California cliff.
Therapy, my closest friend called the trip. The chance to put my perspectives back in place and recoup my ambition. Except that I didn’t really have any ambition anymore, being stuck in an odd sort of emotional limbo. So Vanessa had made a couple of phone calls and put me on a plane to Arizona. And Smoketree. A dude ranch, of all places.
Cass braked, tight-lipped, as a battered pickup truck swung into our lane without warning. She shook her head and tapped impatient fingers against the steering wheel, then flashed me an apologetic smile. “I hate this town for that very reason. Of course Phoenix is worse—more like a mini-LA all the time. Give me a wide-open road any day, and a good horse in my trailer…” She handled the station-wagon with a competence I admired, even if she did get frustrated by stop-and-go traffic. All in all, she handled it much better than I could… now.
I chewed idly at a thumbnail and stared out at the passing sights. Flagstaff wasn’t much different from any other small town with an interstate highway through the middle of it. But I liked the pine trees and brilliant blue sky, and particularly admired the magnificent May day.
“Can I ask you a question?” Instantly she waved a hand. “Not about him—I promise. About modeling.”
“Sure,” I told her with a sigh. “Whatever you like.”
“I just wondered what it is that really makes a model. Why is it some of you make it to the top while others stay in department store catalogues?”
Momentarily diverted, I grinned at her. “What you’re really trying to ask—without hurting my feelings—is why I’ve made it when I’m not beautiful?”
She stared at me, mouth dropping open. “No, it isn’t!” But she blushed again.
“It doesn’t matter,” I told her, laughing. “It’s all just a combination of things, anyway. ”
“Bones.” She touched her average, nicely rounded, snub-nosed face morosely.
“Most of it is bones,” I agreed. “I have a rather prominent assemblage of them. But it’s what the camera likes—makes lots of angles and hollows and planes.” I smiled at her doubtful expression. “I’ve got a big jaw and high cheekbones and a perfectly wonderful manager. The last is the most important of all.”
“A manager is more important than looks?”
“Without a good manager it doesn’t matter much if you’ve got the looks. ” I shrugged. “Lots of girls have jaws and cheekbones. But my manager suggested a little corrective dentistry, and then he got me a contract with the biggest cosmetics company in the country. That was him, not me.”
Cass slanted me a sideways glance. “Corrective dentistry?”
“I had my front teeth capped and my back teeth pulled. Not my wisdom teeth-those went a long time ago. My back molars.”
I tapped my face. “To accentuate the classic hollow-cheeked look. ”
I smiled. “Most models aren’t so much without makeup. Very few of them are beautiful in the classic sense of the word. Certainly not me. But some people photograph better than others; thanks to my genes and a little manipulation, I’m one.” I stopped short. “
are,” Cass said sharply. “You still look like this.” I stared in surprise as she pulled a magazine from under the front seat and slapped it down next to me. The cover was creased but Cass smoothed it with one hand and held it flat.
I saw a close-up of a laughing, brown-eyed model with shoulder-length blonde hair blown back from her face. It was the kind of face every camera loved. The photographer had done an excellent job capturing a gaiety of spirit that filled the frame with joyousness and appeal. The girl had a warm, vibrant personality that demanded a similar response from anyone looking at the cover.
The girl was me, one week before the accident. Me, six months ago.
“It’s not that bad,” Cass protested. “Your hair hides most of it. Besides, plastic surgery would take away all the scarring.”
“This is the result of plastic surgery,” I told her more calmly than I felt.
That silenced her. For a moment she stared at me as we halted at a stoplight, then she looked away and gassed the car. Her face was slowly turning an unbecoming shade of red. “Well,” she said finally, “I really know how to stick my foot in it.”
I sighed. “Forget it. It’s a mistake everyone makes.” With effort I kept my hand away from the scar. “The surgeons will try again when this one is healed. That’s partly why I’m here—to wait out some of the time. ”
Cass shook her head in disgust. “I really should learn to keep my mouth shut. Uncle Nathan says I’ll start driving the guests away if I don’t.” She chewed at her bottom lip a moment, then smiled and glanced at me. “Have I driven you away yet?”
“Not quite. I’ll let you know.” My eyes drifted down to look at the magazine again, then resolutely I looked away. “Tell me about Smoketree.”
“You want the official brochure stuff or the real thing?”
I liked her candor. “I’ve read the brochure already. It sounds like every other brochure I’ve read.”
Cass laughed. “I know, but it works. How else do you get the folks to come out here?”
I thought about Vanessa’s unorthodox method, telling me she couldn’t afford to lose sleep over me anymore. Not that I blamed her; models need sleep or it shows on film—sleep is a lot more important than food.
I looked at Cass. “The real Smoketree, if you please.”
Cass cast me a sharp, assessing glance and I realized I had underestimated her. She wasn’t naive so much as uncomplicated, which was refreshing. She was also smart enough to have changed the subject. She launched into a description of the dude ranch that sounded suspiciously like public relations rhetoric. Then she veered off on a related topic, waving a hand at a huddled group of pyramidic mountains overshadowing the town we rapidly left behind.
“Those are the San Francisco Peaks. Smoketree is around on the other side of that left peak. ”
I surveyed the sharp cones on my right. Pines thicketed the lower slopes and shoulders of the mountains, but the peaks shook themselves free of vegetation and rose bare-flanked above the timberline, breaking into a hollow basin blanketed with glistening snow.
I sat up. “Snow? This is the middle of
Cass grinned. “We had a late storm in April. That’s what’s left of it—not much, really. And yes—it does snow in Arizona. How else would we have a ski area up there in the Peaks?”
I thought about the shorts and bikini I’d packed. “Should I have brought a down parka and snow boots?”
She laughed and shook her head. “The ranch isn’t that high. Most of the snow is concentrated above the timberline. But the evenings still get pretty chilly. That’s the way it is with deserts, though Flagstaff doesn’t really qualify—hot in the day-time and cold at night.”
“Gorgeous.” I was still admiring the mountains.
“The only way to get the full impact of Smoketree—and the Peaks, for that matter—is to see it all from the back of a horse. I hope you came ready to ride.”
“Then I’ll take you up myself.”
“Maybe tomorrow.” I rubbed at a gritty eye. “Maybe…” She nodded. “You’ll forget all about being tired the minute you lay eyes on Smoketree. Guaranteed.”