ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. COPYRIGHT 2017 BY MAGGIE SHAYNE LEWIS.
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11.21.17

Maggie Shayne's SHINE ON OKLAHOMA

Chapter One

Dax Russell hit the double doors running, only to be met by a nurse and an orderly. The alarm on their faces let him know he was out of line.

He took a step back, held up his hands. “Sorry.” He was out of breath, had run all the way from the taxi. Then he saw his mom, just coming out of a hospital room, through a heavy wood door that dwarfed her. She was Tinkerbell personified, and he adored her. She met his eyes, gave him a sad smile and then said to the staff standing between them, “It’s okay. That’s our son.”

“Oh. Thank God.” The nurse patted his chest, and the orderly grinned and shook his head as they moved aside. Dax met his mom halfway. Her pixie short platinum hair was probably mostly silver now, but you couldn’t really tell with blond hair that light. She hugged him and he picked her up off her feet like he always did when he saw her. It was kind of their thing, him being so big, her being so small. He hugged her hard, but not too hard, then set her on her little feet again.

It often amazed him that a man of his size had somehow been produced by a little thing like his mom.

“How are you, honey?” she asked.

He lifted his head and looked toward the door she’d come out of.  “I’ll let you know.”

“No, tell me now. How are you?”

The way she said it, he knew what she was asking. And he didn’t mind. “Dry since Christmas,” he said. “Not a drop.”

“And?”

He smiled. “Life is pretty amazing when your eyeballs are clear enough to see it.”

“It is.”

It wasn’t. The only woman he’d ever loved was a criminal and he couldn’t seem to get over her. But that wasn’t anything his mom needed to know.

She took him by the hand, led him in the wrong direction.

He tugged half-heartedly. “I should see him.”

“After we talk.” She led him through the ICU, through a set of doors and into a small waiting room with little round tables and padded chairs. A TV set mounted high on one ivory wall played the headlines to no audience. A row of vending machines, a row of windows, and a water cooler filled the space.

Caroline led him to a little table far from the television, near the windows. He sat down, and she did too, and then she clasped his hand in both of hers across the table. “It’s your father’s time honey,” she said. “The cardiologist is amazed he even made it to the hospital. It was a massive heart attack.”

It seemed like her words didn’t register in his brain at first. She could read him, his mom could. She loved him, had left her boorish husband mostly because of him, he’d always thought. His father was a bully, and it didn’t matter if you were a business rival or his own son. He was mean to everyone. And yet she was here. Probably because there was no one else who cared enough to be bothered.

“He’s going to die,” she said. “Do you understand, Dax?”

“He’s gonna die?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, baby.”

He blinked, trying to find words. His father was a strapping, powerful man. He couldn’t just die. “When?”

“Could be any minute. Could be a couple of days. The doctor says it won’t be longer. Right now, he’s slipping in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he’ll just slip out and keep on going.”

“Wh-what about life support? Why can’t they keep him—”

“There’s too much damage to his heart, Dax.  He’d need a transplant, but there’s damage to other organs, as well, and his lifetime of drinking has riddled his liver. There’s no way back from this.”

He blinked, taking that in. It sounded cold, somehow. “Can I see him now?” he asked, staring at nothing, a spot in the space between them.

She nodded and let go of his hand. “I’ll be right here.”

He nodded, got to his feet and walked mindlessly out of the waiting room. A nurse saw him, the one who’d stopped him in the hall, and gave a smile. He had brown hair and bangs that tried to cover up the acne on his forehead, and his eyes were soft but knowing. He pointed at the door, and said, “three-oh-five” in a funeral voice.

Dax pushed the door open and went inside. At first he thought he’d walked into the wrong room. A wrinkled, saggy-faced man with skin tinted gray lay against white sheets, beneath a white blanket. The top sheet was folded over the blanket, and the old man’s arms were resting on top of it. There was an IV line in his arm, and oxygen tubes in his nostrils. There were leads strung from his chest to a monitor. The monitor and IV were mounted to a pole beside the bed. The oxygen came from a port on the wall.

His hair was mostly white, but streaks of carrot-stained yellow still showed through. That was what told Dax he wasn’t in the wrong room, those ginger streaks. Only he used to have a lot more of them.

When did he get so gray?

Dax sank into a bedside chair and remembered the last time he’d spoken to his father. He’d admitted that he’d taken money from the Aurora Downs accounts to give to a beautiful con artist for a kidney transplant she didn’t really need. He’d paid it back, thanks to a loan from a friend. But that hadn’t mattered to his father. He’d fired him on the spot, called him six kinds of idiot, and disowned him.

That had been eighteen months ago.

Mom was sure he’d been sorry after. She thought Dax ought to come home and talk it out. But he knew better. Dax had apologized three times, deeply and sincerely, in voicemails left on his father’s cell, because the old man wouldn’t take his calls. But admitting he’d been even a little bit wrong was beneath the great man. In fact, sitting there, Dax couldn’t recall ever hearing his father apologize to anyone in his whole life. Still, he wished they’d made peace, him and Dad, before it came to this.

“I thought there’d be more time.” Dax said it softly, turning away, blinking back tears. He focused on the monitor instead of the man, studied its wavy lines and numbers as if he had a clue what the hell they meant.

Now you show up.”

Dax turned fast, saw that the old man’s eyes were open, watery and bloodshot, the white parts tarnished. “Dad.” He moved closer, patted a big hand with his own. “I’m here.”

His father grimaced, then his eyes fell closed. “I thought so, too,” he said.

“Thought what, too?” Dax recalled his own words. “That there’d be more time?”

His father nodded.

“It doesn’t matter now, Dad. It’s all good, all is forgiven.”

Those dull eyes popped open with near violent force and his head came right off the pillow. “Forgiven?” There was no mistaking the disgust in his voice. Then he let his head fall back onto the pillows again. “Nothing is forgiven. I thought there’d be more time to change my will. Too late now, though.”

Dax stood up slow, knowing now that this wasn’t going to be the moment he’d wanted it to be. No mending of the rift, no healing moment, no tender goodbye. He was stupid to have thought it could be like that. Then he took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about what I did. I honestly thought Kendra’s life depended on it.”

“She played you.”

“It’s what she does.” He shrugged. “I thought you’d want to make peace with your only son before you died. I thought you’d want a chance to say goodbye.”

His father closed his eyes. “Try not to fuck up my legacy like you fuck up everything else.”

It stung. It shouldn’t have. He’d hardened his heart against his old man years ago. And yet it stung. “If you left it to me, you can forget it. I don’t want it.”

His father’s eyes opened a little wider. “You refuse it, it goes to the SRA.”

“Yeah? And I don’t care. Let the State Racing Association have it.”

“But your mother…”

“Owns 49%. I know. She can do what she wants with her half. It has nothing to do with me.” He started to turn away, but a hand gripped his wrist with surprising strength. He turned back. His father’s face wasn’t white, it was red, bordering on purple, his eyes bulging.

“She’ll go to prison.”

Dax widened his eyes. “What did you do, Dad?”

“SRA…the books…” He relaxed all at once, eyes falling closed.

Dax swore, and bent over his father, clasped his shoulders. “What about the books? Dad! Dad!”

His father didn’t reply. His face didn’t look strained anymore. It was relaxed. Dax shot a look at the monitor. Its lines had gone flat.

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CHAPTER TWO

Four Days Later…

“Hey, Dax. How you doin’?”

His spine went rigid. Her familiar, sexy as hell voice raked his nerve endings like a hot finger with a razor for a nail. Kendra.

He was sitting at The Long Branch, sipping a giant mug of foamy, icy root beer, mainly just to prove to himself that he could. And for the company. Jason was manning the bar this morning, helping out because Joey was too busy with his pet project, The Twig.

Jason met Dax’s eyes over the bar. They offered support, should he need it. Then he wandered to the other end of the bar to give them space.

The place was dead, but it was early. Its curved hardwood bar gleamed, and the tables around the room were mostly empty. The player piano was silent. Just past the curving staircase that led up to several guest rooms, red velvet curtains hung, graceful and heavy and soft. The dining room was on the other side, but that half of the place wasn’t open this early in the day.

Bracing himself, Dax spun his saddle-shaped barstool around to face her.

And there she was. He looked from her big, emerald green eyes, as innocent as springtime, to her plump, lonely lips, to the ivory silk cami that clung to her breasts and didn’t quite reach to the top of her low-slung, skin-tight jeans. She wore a denim jacket over the top, unbuttoned, and high heeled boots under the jeans.

He knew every inch of her. He’d loved her. Planned to marry her. She’d scammed him out of a pile of money and left him in the dust.

He forced his eyes to travel back up to her face again. Her hair wasn’t strawberry blond like her twin sister Kiley’s. It was lighter, the color of sweet lemonade, and long, and perfectly straight.

“Hello, Kendra.” He tried to make it sound cold and distant, and to hide the parts of him that wanted to lurch off the stool, pick her up and kiss her till she quivered. “What brings you back to Big Falls?”

“I miss my sister.”

Her sister. Hell. “She uh…she know you’re coming?”

“I imagine she does by now,” she said, giving a little nod. He followed her gaze and saw Jason, just sliding his phone back into his pocket.

He knew better than to take anything Kendra said as the truth, though. As a general rule, if her mouth was open and sounds were coming out, she was lying.

“You came here first?” If she was really in town to see Kiley, what was she doing at The Long Branch?

“Thought I’d see if I could get a room, unload my crap, freshen up. I don’t want Kiley to feel like she has to put me up.”

“I see.” No, he didn’t.

She lowered her thick lashes until they touched her cheeks. “I heard about your father, Dax. I’m real sorry.”

“How?” he asked.

“How what?” Her eyes opened again, locked onto his. “How did I hear?”

He nodded.

“Online, I guess. A friend of mine who knows a friend of yours posted an RIP or something like that.”

“Something like that.”

She nodded. “That why you’re drinking? Last I knew you were on the wagon.”

He said, “Yep. Drowning my sorrows in root beer.”

She blinked, her green eyes sliding to the mug. Then she smiled and it was the first genuine expression he’d seen cross her face so far. “That’s great. I’m glad.” She slid up onto a stool beside him. Jason noticed and came right over. Kendra’s twin sister Kiley was married to Jason’s brother Rob, so technically, they were family.

“Hey, Kendra. What can I get you?”

“I’ll have what he’s having,” she said. “And some information.”

Jason and Dax exchanged a quick look that said, here it comes.

“I’m dying to know what on earth you McIntyres are up to out yonder?” She gestured left, in the general direction of the construction project. It was fifty yards east and twenty yards back from the road, on Long Branch land. Another fifty yards past that was Joe and Emily’s newly built home.

“Joey’s building a miniature of the Long Branch out there for kids,” Jason said. “Bat-wing doors and all. Inside there’ll be a ball pit, arcade, and they’ll serve ice cream and pop. Outside, mini-golf and a paintball course.”

She lifted her brows and looked to Dax, who nodded confirmation. “Joey bought his brothers out, and he’s been going strong ever since. He’s calling it The Twig.”

She slapped her thigh and laughed. Jason slid a mug of root beer her way.

“He has a wife and a little girl now,” Jason said. “You’ll meet ‘em, you stick around long enough. Did I hear you say you needed a room?”

“Yeah, if you have anything.”

He plucked a key off a hook under the bar, slid it across the wood to her. “Top of the stairs, hang a right. Corner room. No charge.”

Her lips thinned, eyes lowered. “You don’t have to do that. I can pay my own way.”

“It’s a Brand-McIntyre rule,” Jason said. “Family doesn’t charge family.”

“Not even the black sheep?” she asked.

“Not even,” Jason said.

“Thank you. I’m grateful.” She took a sip. Foam stuck to her upper lip. Dax wanted to kiss it away, so he looked elsewhere. Then she said, “I feel bad, Dax. I caused a rift between you and your dad.”

“You widened a rift that was already there,” he said.

“Still…” Deep breath, sincerity in her eyes. A little too much of it. “I hope you had the chance to mend fences before….” She let the words trail off, waited for him to fill in the rest.

“I was with him when he passed,” he said. Which really didn’t explain anything.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I am.”

“You don’t seem okay.” She sighed, and when he didn’t say anything, took another sip. “I’d like to ask you a favor, Dax.”

He had no doubt she did. He’d been waiting for her to get to the point, tell him what it was she wanted from him this time around. God knew if she was here and being nice to him, she must want something. “What kind of favor?”

Her deep breath expanded her breasts against the cami. He tried not to notice and noticed anyway. “I don’t know how Kiley’s gonna feel about me showing up. I’m… would you go out there with me?”

He closed his eyes slowly, opened them again. “I don’t get it.”

“I know it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, but…when we were together—”

“We were never together,” he said. “It was just a game you were running.”

“I was running a game. But you weren’t. You were a great boyfriend. I always felt good about myself when I was with you. I always felt safe.”

“You don’t feel safe around your sister?”

“I don’t feel good about myself around my sister.”

He took a deep breath, sighed heavily. “I have to go over anyway.”

“You do?”

“Yeah.” He drained his glass. Hers was only half-empty. “Give me your keys. I’ll get your bags for you while you finish up.”

She smiled, a watery, wavery little smile of gratitude, relief. No hint of triumph, like he’d have expected if she thought she had him wrapped around her finger again.

He probably ought to warn her about what she was going to find out at Rob and Kiley’s Holiday Ranch. But he decided not to. It wasn’t his place. That was a matter between the two sisters. They’d have to work it out on their own.

Kendra dug out her car keys, dangled them in front of him. He took them, looked at them, and said, “You’re driving a Vette?”

That smile was real. “Sixty-two, red and white drop top. It’s my most prized possession.”

“I bet it is.” He wondered what poor slob she’d taken for such a sweet ride, but he took the keys without asking and headed out to the parking lot to get her bags. Not because he was falling into her sticky, deadly web again. But because he hadn’t been raised to tell a girl to go get her own damn bags.

And because he wanted to get a look at that car.

#

            Kendra drove out to the place where she’d grown up playing in wildflower meadows with her twin sister and thinking life would always be just that sweet.

She barely remembered her mother. Kiley didn’t either, though she’d built a pretty convincing version in her imagination–equal parts sixties sit-com supermom and angel. But Diana Kellogg hadn’t lived to see her twin daughters’ fourth birthday, and she couldn’t have been too angelic. She’d married Jack, after all.

Kendra’s heart twisted up a little as she thought of her father. In her head she saw his smile, the one that could charm the panties off a nun, the deep dimples, the sparkle in his light blue eyes.

He’d better be okay.

She glanced into the rearview mirror. Dax’s angry, snarling Charger came right behind, like a bright orange tiger stalking a deer, ironically, driven by the sweetest guy in America. Or at least he used to be. He seemed bitter now, wary, but whose fault was that? She firmed her jaw, caught a gear, pressed harder on the gas.

A few miles west of The Long Branch, she took a right onto Pine Road. She’d never seen the irony in the name until she’d lived in the northeast for a while. You couldn’t get five minutes outside NYC before the majestic conifers showed up, sky-tickling tall, and carpeting every rolling hill. What passed for a pine tree here was like a New York pine tree’s botched GMO experiment. One of the freaky ones that would have to be mercifully put down.

It was different there. Flatter, and wider and hotter. And the pine trees were crooked and short, like arthritic old men.

The road was familiar, unwinding between wide meadows and harvested fields. The grasses were tall and spotted with orange Indian Paintbrush and yellow dandelions, even in mid-November, all of it swaying in the breeze like a slow-motion dance. The sun hung low. Every now and then, a sunbeam bounced off the Cimarron, at the far edge of the green dancing meadow, and flashed bright yellow in her eyes. It was fall. And she was home.

“What a sentimental pile of horse shit.” She turned left into the driveway, under the big HOLIDAY RANCH arch, past the freshly painted barns all red with white trim. They’d cleared out the barnyard that used to be in front of the smaller barn, dozed it flat and added gravel to make a parking area surrounded by a split rail fence. The big barn had been modified, and looked almost new. There were horses grazing in the fields that stretched between the barns and the river, colts kicking up their heels where Kendra and Kiley used to play.

They’d painted the house too, white with red trim, and a white picket fence surrounded it now.

“It must’a looked so pretty once,” a little girl’s voice said in her memory. And she was there, right there, near that corner fencepost, with Kiley, who held up a rotted piece of rail that was still clinging by a single nail. “I bet it went all the way around.”

“We could fix it, I bet,” Kendra had said, her head full of visions of how nice it would look. Visions that had been quickly replaced by one of Jack Kellogg saying, “And how you gonna get the funds for it, Kendra? Who’s gonna buy the boards and the nails and the paint? Me? Not me, I’ll tell you that. You gotta start thinking about things like this now, so you don’t grow up all dependent and needy. You gotta figure out how to make your own way in this world. No one’s ever gonna do it for you.”

She sighed, and snapped her attention back to the present, to the white picket fence around the house, and the shutters with the little heart-shaped cutouts. They’d replaced the old, rotting window boxes with new ones, painted red to match the barn, all of them overflowing with orange and yellow flowers.

It was as pretty as two little girls had once dreamed it could be.

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