Red Thunder Reckoning

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Flesh & Blood, Book 2
by Sylvie Kurtz

Harlequin Intrigue
April 2002
ISBN 0-373-22657-8

EVERY MAN HAS HIS DAY OF RECKONING…

With a new face and new life, Kevin Ransom vowed never to return to that small Texas town where an impulse of anger had destroyed his body and soul. But then, he never dreamed that his actions that day on the Red Thunder River had led a madman to keep the woman he loved in a drugged state, trapped as a prisoner in her body for fifteen years. Kevin had caused Ellen Paxton enough pain, but for her sake he had to go back to make things right, especially when he found out that she and her horse ranch were in grave danger. He would keep his identity hidden…. But would he be able to hide the love still in his heart?

EXCERPT

Chapter One

“What is this?” Nina Rainwater asked in disgust, flipping through channels and landing on the only one showing news. “A million channels and this is what I get? I’m in Colorado, how come I’ve got to listen to weather from Beaumont, Texas?”

“Satellite dish, Grandmother,” Kevin Ransom said as he entered the hospice room. Nina looked out of place in the pink frill of the room. He’d always associated her with blue skies and green pastures, with the scent of sweet hay and the smoke of a wood fire–with undying energy.

She didn’t look well this evening. Strands of hair, dull as a rainy November sky, poked out of her usually neat braid. Her brown eyes were listless and her breathing seemed more labored in spite of the tubes feeding her oxygen through her nose.

The mock disgust was for his benefit. She didn’t want him to worry about her. But he couldn’t help himself. She’d given him his life back after he’d thrown it away. He owed her more than gratitude, and now, when she needed him most, he was helpless again. “Sometimes you can’t get local news with a satellite dish.”

“Pah!” She pitched the remote and looked longingly at the sun starting to set outside her window. The bearberry flowers, pussy-toes and columbines in the rock garden bordering the property swayed in the breeze.

“Want me to turn off the TV?” Kevin asked.

She shrugged.

Kevin reached for the remote–a mere five inches from where she’d launched it–and aimed the gadget at the television set on the roll cart at the foot of Nina’s bed. He was about to press the power button, when the image on the screen jumped straight out of his nightmare. It rose like a ghost from his past and laughed at him with Satanic glee.

You can run as fast and as far as you want from trouble, but it will never let you forget.

He dreaded evenings when his mind had time to catch up with his body, prompting the assault of all he longed to forget. For sixteen years he’d lived a lie, trying to erase the mental picture of his brother’s lifeless body ripped from his grasp on the Red Thunder’s flood-swollen waters.

Like some punishment cursed upon him by a Greek god, Kent, Ellen and the accident on that awful evening, visited him nightly, torturing him with all he’d lost.

The television screen showed a transport van filled with race horses toppled on a rain-slicked highway outside a small East Texas town. As much as his life revolved around horses, it wasn’t his equine brothers that held him entranced but the man swaddled in a black slicker trying to save them. Watching the sheriff on the screen was as if he were viewing his own face had the rocks in the Red Thunder River not altered it all those years ago.

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. Blood roared in his ears. Thoughts tumbled through his mind like debris on a storm-tossed sea. It’s the rain, he tried to convince himself. It made him think of the river, of that night.

It’s not him. It can’t be. Look, the name’s different. Conover, not Makepeace. And Beaumont is hundreds of miles from Ashbrook.

Downriver, he reminded himself. The sharp cheekbones. The hard eyes. The mantle of responsibility square on his shoulders. Familiar. Could Kent have survived such a long trek down the raging Red Thunder?

The face on the screen joined the haunted memories preying on his mind, overlapping, morphing one into the other, mocking him. Kent, Ellen, anger, so much anger.

“Pajackok? What’s wrong?”

When Nina had found him, his broken jaw had made him unable to talk. She’d renamed him Pajackok, the Algonquian word for thunder. She’d told him he was all thunder and no lightning. Told him she’d help him find his spark. He’d done his best to discourage her care, but she’d ignored him.

She still didn’t know about Ellen, about his brother, about the damage he’d done with one raw burst of anger.

Pajackok … Kevin Ransom. Both lies.

If he’d changed his name, maybe Kent had, too, and given himself a second chance. Kent hadn’t been happy in Ashbrook but he’d been the responsible one and those self-imposed responsibilities had weighed him down and cemented him into place. Would he have welcomed the chance at freedom?

Could it be? Could Kevin have avoided all of this torture if he’d just had the courage to face the consequences of his actions? Was Kent alive?

“Pajackok?”

To reassure Nina, Kevin strained to find a smile. The gesture was shallow and didn’t linger long on his lips. The spot of warmth on his heart for his adoptive grandmother grew cold in the shade of guilt and shame from his memories. For Nina’s sake, he swallowed them back, and forced another smile. “Nothing, Grandmother.”

Despite her shortness of breath, she laughed, shaking a finger at him. “Nothing translates to everything when you say it that way.”

“Sometimes, I wish you weren’t so good at reading my mind.”

“Not your mind, Pajackok, your face.”

He ran a hand over the scars that landscaped his cheeks like a dropped puzzle. The ugliness was his due.

“Are you going to tell me or am I going to have to guess?” she insisted on a wheeze.

“I’m worried about you.”

She nodded and looked away. “I’m going home tonight.”

“No, don’t say that.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, he took her frail hand in his.

“It’s time.” Her eyes implored understanding. “This robe no longer fits. It’s so heavy.”

He didn’t want to hear this, didn’t want to lose her.

Her gaze once again sought the flowers swaying in the breeze, then searched the hills fading into darkness. “Take me to the ranch. I want to see the stars rising over the mountains.”

“Grandmother…”

She tugged at the tubes dangling from her nose, then swept the room with a hand. “This is not my wish.”

Dying a stranger among strangers. He couldn’t blame her. She’d wandered all of her life, picking up bits and pieces of Native American philosophy along the way. He wasn’t sure what kind or if she even had any Indian blood. All he knew was that because of Nina, he’d learned to make peace with most of his demons and had found a noble purpose in life. If she wanted to ‘shed her robe’ watching the evening stars rise over the mountains, who was he to deny her her final wish?

“It’s those damned cigarettes of yours.” Gritting back a flash of anger, he strode to the closet and yanked her purple jacket off the hanger.

“Pah! Cigarettes, whiskey, demons. They all get you in the end. I’ve had a long walk on the good Red Road. I have no regrets. It’s just the start of another circle, Pajackok.”

“I know.” She’d told him enough stories about life and circles and connections. Hanging on to her when she was in such pain was selfish. But he still needed her wisdom, still needed her friendship … still needed her love.

He supported her as they walked down the corridor, wheeling the oxygen bottle behind them. She greeted everyone with a smile. Despite of his silent plea, no one tried to stop her. In his truck, he tucked a clean horse rug around her knees and switched the heat to high to keep her warm.

On the hill overlooking the grazing horses she’d raised, a peace he hadn’t seen for months came over her face. In the moonlight, the horses were nothing more than dark shapes, moving slowly to the rhythm of their hunger. She sat and motioned for him to join her.

“This is a good place.”

“You should have bought your own ranch years ago.” He tucked the blanket around her knees and lifted the hood of her coat onto her head.

“I didn’t feel the need.” She stared at the sky as if it were a gazing ball. “Do the demons still visit you at night?”

Her question took him by surprise and he found the denial strangling in his throat. How could she possibly know about the demons?

“Honor me, son of my heart, by having the courage to go back to your roots and heal your past. Only in that way will you find your peace.”

She was pulling all the strings she’d carefully lain over the years. Honor, discipline, connection, respect. They were the touchstones of her life, her guiding principles, and she’d quietly instilled them in him. He would give his own lungs to see her live, but he couldn’t go back to Texas. Not with the memories of Kent and Ellen tearing him up inside. What could he say to either of them to make them understand the depth of his regret?

He shook his head. “Grandmother, I honor you, b–”

“Good, I’m glad that’s settled. I didn’t want to go home until I was certain you would follow the right path.”

“The horses–”

“Stanley Black Bear will take care of them until you’re ready to let go. When you do, he’s promised to give you a good price for the ranch.”

“I couldn’t sell this place.”

“Not today, but soon.”

He said nothing. Arguing with her was useless. She was too damn stubborn.

“I’m not leaving you.” She placed a gnarled hand against her heart then covered his own with it. A pulse of energy passed between them. “Soon you will be my heart. I will be with you always in your heartbeat, in your son’s heartbeat, in your daughter’s heartbeat.”

She was wrong. For him, there would be no son, no daughter. Once he’d shared dreams of a family with Ellen. They’d mapped out a whole future filled with horses and children … and love. But those dreams had died on the river sixteen years ago. The void stirred an eddy of sorrow in his heart.

Nina dug into the worn leather pouch she carried at her waist and brought out what looked like a piece of bone. “This is for you.”

He took the bone and saw Nina had carved and painted it into an eagle feather. On the upper right side, she’d emblazoned a medicine wheel. “Protection from your demons until you can let them go.”

“Grandmother…” He gazed at the feather in the palm of his hand and fought the burning itch scratching the back of his eyes. The feelings wound so tight inside him wouldn’t form into thought, into words.

“Oh, look, Pajackok, the Midnight Star is here. Do you hear its song?”

He realized then that he didn’t need to say anything. She already knew his heart better than he did. He sat by her and held her close. With her he watched the midnight star until she shed her robe.

Then, not knowing quite where the consciousness to do so had come from, he sang her spirit home.

* * * * * * * * *

Three days later, to honor Nina and all she’d done for him, Kevin headed south and east.

His brother was alive. He had to find him. He had to humble himself and ask for forgiveness. Only then could he stop working so hard at trying to forget the brother he thought he’d killed and the woman he’d loved too much.