The sun rose over the range, basking the mountains with light that shimmered over the frozen lake. Silence hovered over the trees and the rocks and now and then, a ray of tenderness spotlighted the sprig of tired green and brown bouquets wedged between the cracks of what was once a dock.
The woman with the long dark hair tucked underneath the faded hat clucked to her horse as she picked her way through the path which wound through the mountains like a sidewinder. Her chap-clad legs squeezing the flanks and the subtle shifting of her hands unnecessary directions because Sienna had gone up these trails back and forth since she was a young filly.
"Come on girl," the woman said, "It's just over the bend." Sienna nickered, her breath clouding the still air and she kept going up the narrow trail, one foot at a time.
The woman looked around her as she always did, because even deep in the Rockies one could never be sure that they were alone. And there were times when being alone in the wilderness could get someone hurt or killed. The woman didn't care about that, solitude was what she wanted. Even natural predators in these parts like coyotes, cougars and the occasional bear couldn't compare to their two-legged counterparts in more urban settings. The woman would take her chances on the mountain trails rather than return to the world she had escaped.
Still, she looked around her once, then again just to be sure she hadn't missed anything or anyone.
"So what will it be? Are you going to tell me where she is or am I going to have to find her the hard way?"
Mac said nothing but looked at his nephew as he paced the room running his hand through his hair. In the corner of the spacious office stood two suitcases, unpacked. In fact, they hadn't even been opened since his nephew returned from his six-month sabbatical of sorts to the news that she was gone. Chance stopped pacing and looked at the older man.
"I'm not mad at you. I just want to know what's going on,"
The edge in Chance's voice caught Mac's attention, and he sighed inside while keeping his exterior on ice. Mac studied the nephew he loved like a son and wondered how much he could trust him. Not that Chance was anything but honest in all his dealings and forthright always with his words whether he had chosen them carefully or not. He would only lie in one circumstance and that was to save a life and if he knew a life was endangered, he would never stop until he saved someone he loved.
Mac knew that about him and that's why he could never tell him the truth.
"So where is she," Chance pleaded this time, but his uncle simply stared back at him. Finally he sunk in the chair behind his desk. His eyes caught a snapshot in time ago framed on his desk, of her and him at the beach during happier times. The camera had caught something in him without him knowing. The way he looked at her, at the laughter in her eyes. It couldn't be the sun's reflection.
"I can't tell you," Mac said simply.
"What," Chance leaned forward, nearly knocking six months worth of contracts off of his desk.
"You'll just have to trust me."
"Trust? I walked in here just minutes ago after some time away…"
"Six months away," Mac reminded him.
"…And she's gone, for good. I hear that someone tried to steal my company while I was away and no one bothered to contact me."
"No one could find you."
Chance nodded, that much was true. After Lily had left him literally at the altar, he had needed some time to get away, anywhere. So he had flown his helicopter out of Los Angeles to a chartered jet and had taken off for parts unknown, with no set plan for coming back. His heart healed quickly, more so than he had imagined but he found himself traveling to different places as he saw fit, following his emotional compass from one locale to the next. The people he'd met along the way helped him find pieces of himself he thought gone forever. Even the bandits that jumped him in one country, taking what they believed were the possessions of a vagabond left him feeling more whole than he had in months. After six months of living life in the moment, his journey was almost complete so it was time to come home.
Still, one piece remained.
"I'm back now. So are you going to tell me what's been going on," Chance said, still at his desk .
"Someone tried to steal your company," Mac said. "And he got away, not with your company or any of its assets but he escaped."
"Who was he?"
Mac looked at his nephew. He closed his eyes for a moment and then he lied.
"We're not sure."
"What do you mean you're not sure? And who's 'we'?"
"'We' are some federal agencies and local ones too of course," Mac said.
Chance leaned back in his chair, thinking. He's gone for six months and someone or some people take advantage of his absence to launch a takeover bid or worse, but usually these people left some sort of trail behind in neon. So he knew his uncle wasn't telling him everything about what had happened. The same uncle who had been trained to lie by one of the government's shadow agencies but who as far as he knew had never lied to him.
"Who was it, Uncle Mac," Chance pressed.
But his uncle only shook his head.
She looked around at the trees surrounding her, like a fortress and she felt safe. Even though dark clouds began to crowd out the sun, the morning glow still outlined every tree she passed. Despite the chill, she pulled her hat off of her head and shook out her mahogany curls which nestled on her shoulders. Once, they'd been waves but standing in a motel bathroom a lifetime ago, she had shorn them off, dropping them in the waste bucket as just another piece of her old life. And when they grew back, the curls had tightened to fit in with her future.
There was no sign of the young mustang who had run off but she knew he was nearby. The yearling had escaped from the herd that was corralled back at base camp. Two nights ago, he had bolted the fence. Perhaps something had frightened him or more likely was calling to him from the edge of the wilderness, outside the ring of fire. She had volunteered to go off and get him, needing the time to herself. As much as she loved working on the ranch that had been her refuge for the past few months, she still often felt that people were like a wool blanket that surrounded her, suffocating her. Most of them understood, as many of the people at the ranch had been brought there by similar forces.
Still, Alice the ranch owner hadn't wanted her to go out alone. But when she saw the look in the woman's eyes, she had quietly passed her a saddle bag containing a thermos of coffee and some warm biscuits.
"Be careful out there, Kelly," was all she said.
Sienna 's voice rumbling from deep in her chest brought Kelly out of her thoughts of the ranch and she saw that light flakes fell on her arms and legs. But that's not where Sienna had focused her attention. Ahead of them , stood the yearling. Tall, broad in the chest and painted with a splash of black amid yellow including a stripe down his back.
"Whatcha doing Frisco, out here by yourself," Kelly moved her horse in closer to the yearling, speaking softly in the voice he loved. Frisco stood like a statue, waiting.
He stood still even as Kelly lassoed him and pulled him towards her and Sienna. His gentleness didn't surprise her considering that despite his wanderlust, Frisco bore the kindness of the mare who had birthed him. His placidity had amazed her when she had first arrived at the ranch. Most definitely not a chip off the old block given the reputation of his sire who had terrorized the range for more than a decade. His dam checked him over while Kelly reached into her saddlebag for some coffee. It would be a cold ride back down the mountain and she needed warmth in her blood not to mention all of her wits about her to make it safely back to the ranch, given that the snow that fell now often quickly became ice on the rocky trail. She hoped it wouldn't get worse.
Alice said she had a way with the horses, but Kelly didn't see anything she had as special. After all, she had grown up with them. She had ridden since she walked and had her own horse by the time she was in school. She had worked after school with her uncle on the ranch and even rode in competitions until she was in high school and her parents were both gone. Even when she spent most of her hours doing the studying that would earn her the valedictorian award at graduation, she still had time to spend with her horses. Not that it was just her choice. Her adoptive parents weren't wealthy and could only afford to hire one hand, even as ranches around them hired enough to fill a bunkhouse or two. Including her best friend who lived on a huge ranch raising Texas Longhorns on an adjacent property. But Kelly didn't fear hard work, it made her forget. She wore gloves, but beneath them her hands were rough from days spent roping cattle and mustangs and reining Sienna up and down numerous trails. Then there were the jagged lines which etched deep in her skin but she didn't want to think about that.
Still, she had to get on down the windy mountain and back to the ranch before it really started snowing. A blizzard could hit like a snake, from behind and faster than you could know it in time to save your life. But today, it just appeared to be flurrying, dancing on the breeze which swallowed up the mountain before winter began in earnest. The three of them would make it back to the ranch just fine but you never know so it was time to get going.
As she rode down the trail, with Frisco's body bumping her leg, she looked around again to make sure she wasn't being tracked by someone outside her range of senses. But quietness greeted her, the soft warmth of the sun which had crept out behind the clouds embraced her. She settled in her saddle and allowed Sienna to show the way.
"He won't tell me a damn thing, Linc," Chance said on his phone.
In most circumstances, he would have spent time catching up with his old friend from the Los Angeles Police Department, who had been promoted to a captain position three months ago. Linc still stayed in the field operations division, overseeing patrol officers who weren't much older than he had been when he had graduated from the police academy years ago. His wife who had spent several decades dreading the phone call that she just knew would rock her from her slumber and change her life but it never came. And it never would, if she had her way but while she wished her husband would take a desk job, she knew the streets were where he wanted to be.
"So you came to me," Linc sighed on the other end of the phone. "The department wasn't involved. It was a federal operation."
"That's what Uncle Mac said," Chance said.
"We handled the preliminaries of the investigation into your company. Then the feds came in, said it was their jurisdiction then took over," Linc said, "Did you talk to Dennis?"
Dennis had worked as the president of Chance's company for the past year taking over that position so Chance could focus on his detective agency.
"No, I just got back into town," Chance said.
"Maybe you should talk to him about the details," Linc advise, but Chance had already hung up. He had gotten an idea.
Kelly dismounted from Sienna and led the mare and her yearling back into the coral. She opened up the gate and took the rope off of Frisco, who walked inside among the other horses. Sienna followed after her into the large barn at the end of the path. Unsaddling the mare and giving her a rub down, Kelly found her mind wandering back where it shouldn't, but it wasn't a horse that could be reined in when it took off. Images filled her mind when she least expected them and most of the time, a simple push would send them back to the recesses. But not all the time. Occasionally, a picture of her old life would linger and she would remember what it had been like before it had all gone to hell and brought her here. She led the mare to her stall and scratched her behind the ears as she ducked her head down. The thoughts came flowing.
A different time.
A different place.
A different life.
And a different name.