Copyright 2004 by Texbard

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Chapter 9

Aileen entered the third floor family room, bearing a tray of sandwiches and a pitcher of lemonade, along with a tall tumbler full of a soy concoction.  Kennedy had given her very explicit instructions on what she wanted in the shake, necessitating a trip to a health food store in town.  Joseph had willingly made the trip, returning with several different canisters containing odd-smelling powdered mixtures.  He'd also picked up bottles of vitamins and minerals his daughter had requested, and some oxygen-infused water Kennedy seemed convinced would help build back up her red blood cells.

They had pulled out the bed part of the leather sleeper sofa, and Kennedy was propped up against a pile of pillows, with Carson tucked against her right side.  The television was on with the sound turned down, colorful mute cartoon characters running back and forth across the screen.  Both women were dozing, and Aileen was loath to wake them.  She set the tray on a side table, and found the television remote, quietly clicking it off.

Just as she turned to leave the room, the downstairs doorbell rang, and a corresponding chime on the hallway wall just outside the door sounded.  The occupants of the bed stirred, and Carson sat up, looking around.  "Oh.  Lunch."  She turned and spied Aileen.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  Let me go get the door, and I'll be back up."  She studied Kennedy whose eyes were still closed.  "Probably the sheriff and that Ranger Smothers.  I'll tell them to come back later."

"No," Kennedy grumbled, her eyes fluttering open.  "I'm awake.  Might as well get it over with.  I can drink my shake and talk at the same time."

"You're sure?"  Aileen sat down on the side of the mattress, and reached across, brushing the hair off her daughter's forehead.  "They only gave you one night of rest.  Goodness sakes, but they're chomping at the bit to talk to you two.  They've called twice already this morning, and the sheriff was by right after breakfast.  I sent him away."

"Mama, I could've talked to him," Kennedy's gently admonished her.

"You were out like a light on drugs," Aileen patted her cheek.  "I don't think you could've spelled your name for them, much less told them your story."  Aileen herself had gotten Carson's version of what had happened to them. She'd slowly but surely coaxed it out of the reticent woman, who seemed hell bent on sparing both her and Joseph any undue worry, until Aileen reminded her of some of her daughter's antics growing up.  There was very little that shocked Aileen.

"Fine," Kennedy huffed.  "Bring 'em up now, though.  Bet I have just as many questions for them as they have for me."

"Ah.  I see."  Aileen ruffled her head and left them to start lunch.

Carson picked up the tumbler and sniffed it, and wrinkled her nose.  "Good lord.  You're going to drink that?"

"Chock full of protein, vitamins, and minerals."  Kennedy scooted up, wincing at the pain in her leg and shoulder.  "Stuff is gonna heal me up quick."

"Honey, do you need more Vicodin?  You haven't had any since last night."  Carson picked up the bottle of pills, along with a bottle of the super water.

"Not taking 'em anymore."  She sucked at the straw in the tumbler, holding it carefully in her right hand.  Her left arm was held snuggly in a sling against her chest.  The bullet had just chipped the underside of her clavicle, and the doctors wanted her to keep it still for a few days.  Kennedy had also been packing in the calcium and vitamin D, along with some glucosimine condroitin and shark cartilage.

"Kennedy, your body has just been through some serious trauma.  Don't you think you should take the painkillers for a while?  Give yourself some time to relax without tensing up from pain?"  Carson shook the bottle, making  the pills rattle.

"Pain's my friend.  Let's me know what my limits are."  She poked her chin out stubbornly, and took another sip of her shake.

"But the doctor said …"

"Carson."  Kennedy blew out a frustrated breath.  "I don't want narcotics in my system, and I sure don't want to get dependant on them.  End of discussion.  Please?"

Realizing where Kennedy's reluctance came from, Carson relented, and set the bottle aside.  "Alright.  Just promise me if you get to hurting too much, you'll at least let me know."

"Sure, if you promise not to force feed me those things, if I do."  Kennedy's voice was edgy, a testament to pain, boredom, and a slightly-off feeling she had from all the medication she'd had in her system.

"I promise."  Carson brushed off the bad mood, and patted a long leg.  She was just about to pick up a sandwich, when Aileen returned with the Brewster County sheriff, and Ranger Smothers, just as predicted.

"Howdy, Shea."  The sheriff took a seat in a recliner across from them, while Smothers sat on the stone hearth.   "Ma'am."  He nodded at Carson.  "Well, well, Shea.  Been a long time."

"I'll say."  Kennedy blushed faintly.  "Last time I saw you, I believe we were separated by a set of bars."

"That we were."  He stretched out his long legs, crossing his boots at the ankles.  "I'm sorry about the circumstances this time, but it's dang nice to be questioning you as a witness instead of as a suspect."

Carson choked on a sip of lemonade, coughing violently for a moment before she caught her breath.  She glanced sideways at her bemused lover, and simply raised her eyebrows in question.

"Carson, this is Sheriff Randall Waters.  As you've heard, he and I go back a long way."  She played with the straw in her shake, nibbling on it.

"Pleased to meet you," Carson eyed him curiously, wondering exactly how many times he and Kennedy had crossed paths.  "I guess you want to hear what all happened to us, huh?"

"Yes, I do, and I have several questions for y'all as well, but why don't you start from the beginning, one at a time?"  He sat back, and pulled a pen and a notepad from his shirt pocket, flipping it open and giving them an encouraging smile.  Ranger Smothers also took notes, and Aileen quietly took a seat off to the side.  Joseph had gone into town on some silent mission, assuring her he'd be back in time for dinner.

Carson launched into their story, telling everything she could remember, from when they heard the first shot, until they landed at Rio Grande Village.  Kennedy added what she remembered, although her recollection wasn't quite as complete as Carson's.  As they finished, the sheriff pulled out another notepad, and studied it for a moment.  "Ma'am," he eyed Carson.  "We found something in that raft y'all were in.  I know it wasn't yours, from your story, but did you leave anything in there?"

"I … I don't think so."  Carson frowned.  "What?  Oh …"  She looked over at Kennedy, who studied her in utter confusion.  "Honey, I forgot to tell you about this, but I found something wrapped in plastic in that raft.  I meant to tell the rangers about it, but I forgot.  It was like a brick or something."

"Drugs."  Kennedy  closed her eyes.  "Is that what y'all found?"

"Yeah."  His voice grew quiet.  " Miz Garret, I need to get your fingerprints, if you don't mind.  Shea, I already have yours."

"But.  But I didn't …"  Carson's voice shook with fear.  Surely they didn't think with everything else, she'd had time to smuggle drugs on the side.  Her heart began to beat faster, as she thought about prison, and trials, and losing her paralegal certification.  Drug smuggling was a felony, wasn't it?  "Kennedy?"

"Ma'am, we don't think you did anything.  We've already dusted it for prints and found a few sets.  If you touched it, we just want yours so we can eliminate those as suspect."  He chewed on the end of his pen, his eyes apologetic.  "But we do need them."

"Randy," Kennedy scowled at him.  "Not funny."

"I'm sorry, Shea.  It's routine.  You know that.  Been dusting a lot of things for prints. It just helps if we have as much information as possible."

"Okay," Carson reluctantly agreed.  "Long as you have something to get the ink off my fingers afterward."

"We do.  I'll go get the print kit out of the car in a minute."  He studied the notepad.  "You know Tom Mackey?"

Kennedy's eyes narrowed.  "Yeah.  In fact, I need to file a report on him.  He drugged my drink at Armadillo Flats last Friday night."

"Gonna be tough to prosecute."  Sheriff Waters watched her reaction carefully.

"Why?" She almost growled.  "Damn near killed me and Carson here, when I tried to drive my bike before I realized what he'd done."

"He's dead."  Her face told him plainly she had no idea.  And Aileen's soft gasp didn't hurt anything.  "He's the body we took out of the campsite area at La Clocha.  We already have a suspect in jail on him, though.  Matched the bullet to a locally-registered rifle."

"Rick Wolden?"  Kennedy asked pointedly.

"How did you know that?"  He studied her suspiciously.

"He was with him when he drugged me."  She took a breath.  "You think he shot me too?   You match that bullet Carson gave y'all at the hospital?"

"Ballistics is still checking it out, but it appears to be from a different rifle," Smothers jumped in.  "Rick though, we found his truck abandoned out on one of the county roads, with one of them teeny spare tires on one rim -- had a blown out one in the bed.  The rifle was still on the rack, and the only prints on it were his.  We dusted the entire truck, and only found his prints, Tom's, and another set we haven't matched to anything in our database.  Found the usual -- beer cans, camping gear, fishing gear, cooler of food.   And some fraternity sweatshirt they must've lifted somewhere, 'cause lord knows neither of them boys ever graced the doors of a frat house."

"Which fraternity?" Aileen asked quietly, her voice trembling a little.

"Tau Kappa Epsilon -- what do they call them boys …?"

"Tekes," Kennedy sighed.  "Mama?"

"My son is in that fraternity down at The University."  Her eyes were sad, mirroring her daughter's.  "We'll get him here as soon as possible, and get his part of this cleared up."

"He's here now.  I just picked him up at the airport a couple of hours ago." Joseph entered the room, followed by a terrified Pete.  He shoved his hands in his pockets and stood back against the wall and looked down, unable to meet Kennedy's gaze.

"Pete," Aileen stood.  "So help me son, you had better tell these people every last thing you know, or I'll turn you over my knee.  I don't care if you're bigger than me.  I …"

"Not without a lawyer," he answered, his face set in hard lines.

"Peta Braden Nocona …"

"He's right, Mama."  Kennedy shifted, noting her brother's posture.  Despite the stubborn front, his eyes were terrified, and his hunched shoulders made him look smaller than usual.  "If they suspect him of anything at all, he shouldn't answer without legal counsel present.  Unfortunately, I can't be that counsel," she continued softly.  "Not this time."  She looked back at Randall and Smothers.  "Is he a suspect for anything?"

"He's not been eliminated, if that's what you're asking," Randall saw the sorrow in her eyes.  "I'm sorry, Shea.  No one who was near that rifle has been eliminated yet.  Plus we have the two other dead girls, and we're still trying to figure out who they might have been trying to meet up with.  And that is the most bizarre thing …"

"They died of massive heroin and cocaine overdose," Smothers interjected.

"Is that the twenty-first century version of goofballs?" Kennedy's voice was incredulous.  "That's insane."

"It was way more than an accidental overdose," Smothers continued.  "The coroner found some burst baggies in their stomachs.  We think they were smuggling drugs over from Mexico."

"Smuggling?"  Carson frowned.  "I don't understand."

"They ingest baggies of drugs," Kennedy turned to her, watching comprehension slowly dawn.  "They travel somewhere, and hope the baggies pass intact, and after they reach their destination.  It's real risky."

Carson's face went through several quick expression changes, and she finally wrinkled her nose.  "Oh.  Ick.  Why would anyone do that?"

"The drug cartels down in Mexico and South America, they recruit people to do this for them.  Get them fake passports and ID's.  They can make a ton of money if they have a successful mission," Randall answered.  "If not, they die.  We see it every now and then, but usually the smugglers fly in, because they want to get where they're going as fast as they can.  Coming overland on foot.  Haven't had much of that."

"Rick and Tom were dealing," Kennedy glanced over at Pete, who glared at her.  "Maybe they were meeting up with them."

"Maybe," Randall watched brother and sister, and made mental note of a few more questions to ask later.  "Let me go get that print kit, and I think we can wrap things up for now."

"And I need to head over to Rick's and search for any other firearms, since I don't need a warrant.   I can go in under the protection of searching as game warden.  I need to see if any of his match up to the bullet Carson took out of  you."  Smothers also stood. 

"Shea was shot?"  In answer, Kennedy raised up just enough that he saw her sling for the first time.  Pete's head snapped around at his father.  "You didn't tell me that.  You just said I needed to get back here because the sheriff wanted to talk to me."

"He did," Joseph leaned back against the wall next to him.  "I didn't tell you about your sister, because I wanted to see your honest reaction when you heard about it in her presence."

"I didn't have anything to do with it!"  He shouted.  "Pa!  How could you even think …?  Am I free to go?"  He beseeched the sheriff.

"You can leave this room, but I'd advise against you leaving this house until you've hired a lawyer, son."  He stood in the doorway.  "You're going to need one, I think."  He ducked out of the room, and Pete stormed after him in the opposite direction.  They heard his bedroom door slam, and Joseph sighed.

At the same time, Carson gasped a little, and all but slapped her own forehead, before she turned to Smothers.  "Oh, lord, I'm so forgetful.  I should've told y'all yesterday, but right before we got to the village we saw two men standing on the river bank, a ways up from where the fire was.   One of them had a rifle, and when we yelled at them, they told us to shut up.  I'm sorry, I was so busy worrying about Kennedy when we finally got off the river, I forgot all about them.  They're probably long gone by now."

"About what time was that?"  Smothers flipped her notepad open again.

"Only a little while before we got to the village."  Carson felt Kennedy's hand at her leg.  "Can't believe I forgot about that.  You might could've caught them if …"

"Sweetheart, I forgot about them too."  She squeezed Carson's leg.  "We both had a lot going on about that time."

"Well, it wouldn't have been Tom, because Tom was already dead by then."  Smothers jotted down a few lines, and closed the notepad.  "It could have been Rick and his buddy that picked him up at the ranger station down there earlier yesterday morning.  And we still have Sam Greene locked up -- the bear mauling victim.  After all of this happened, we found a few charges -- enough to hold him for a while.  Since he was messing around yall's campsite, he's not been completely eliminated from all of this either."

"What?"  Joseph and Aileen both spoke at the same time.

"Um …" Kennedy looked over at them, chagrin written across her features.  "In all the excitement, I forgot to tell y'all about the guy who tried to get into our tent, or the bear that stopped him."  She pursed her lips inward.  "Pa, I need to talk to you about a couple of things later on."

"Anything to do with the case?"   Smothers frowned.

"No.  Just a deer."  She smiled, and felt Carson's hand creep over, covering hers.

"Alright."   Smothers came over and shook their hands.  "In that case, I need to go pay Rick's house a visit.  Y'all need to stick around for a few days until we get all this straightened out, if you can."

"We can."  Carson forestalled the protest on Kennedy's lips.  "Kennedy's law partners are aware of what all has happened, and they said to take our time, that they'd hold down the fort until we can get back to Austin."

"Okay, then I'm on my way." Smothers shook hands with Joseph and Aileen.   "I'll let y'all know as things progress."

"Thank you," Aileen went down to see her to the door.

"So,"  Joseph sat down on the side of the bed.  "Once we get done with fingerprinting, you want to talk?"

"Yeah.   I …" Kennedy glanced at Carson.  "I … um …"

"I think I'll go down and meet the sheriff, so he doesn't have to come all the way back up here."  She slipped off the bed.  "And maybe I'll see if you mom needs some help with anything after that."

"I'll have Pa come find you in a bit, okay?"  Kennedy's eyes shone with gratitude.

"Okay.  Take your time."  Carson smiled, and left them to talk.

"Astute," Joseph commented, as he watched her leave.

"Best thing that ever happened to me," Kennedy replied quietly.  She looked up.  "Pa, what does it mean, if two people see a spiritual guardian at the same time?"

Joseph smiled and he scooted closer.  "That would depend on the circumstances," he answered slowly.  "It's a very rare thing.  I've never known anyone personally, that that happened to.  I heard once of a father and son seeing one at the same time, and shortly thereafter, the father was killed.  The elders think the guardian appeared so as to take over the job of watching out for the son.  That guardian stayed with him throughout his life."

"Oh," Kennedy replied unhappily.  "Does it always mean one of them is about to die?"

"No," he gave her right foot a little tug.  "It can mean other things too."

"What if the two people are lovers?"  She looked down, her cheeks blushing dark pink.

"Ah. I see."  His eyes twinkled.  He'd already guessed where the conversation was headed, and he waited for her to look up.  "In that case, it most likely means the two lovers are bound so closely together, that they share the same spirit.  The spiritual guardian sees them as one, and protects and guides them both."

"Sort of a soulmates thing?"  Kennedy whispered.

"Yes.  The two spirits do not merely exist side by side, but are entwined."  His voice grew very serious.  "It's a bond that cannot easily be broken, Shea.  It goes beyond the grave."

Misty blue eyes looked up at him.  "I don't want it to ever be broken, Pa.  I just have to figure out some things."

"I know."  He leaned over, and kissed her on the head.  "Don't fret, love.  You already walk the same path.  In good time, the pieces will fall in place, exactly when they are supposed to."

"Thank you."  She got her right arm around him, hugging him close.  "I have the best example I could ever want, Pa, of what love is.   All I ever had to do was look to you and Mama."


Carson sat on the back porch, surrounded by the dogs.  Talia lay close to her side, guarding her in Kennedy's absence, and keeping the other dogs from crowding her too much.  The rest of the pack waited eagerly in a polite semi-circle, as she one by one fed them rounds of doggie biscuits.  Cody crept closer than the others, his nose resting on the toe of her hiking boot, as he took proprietary claim on her as one of his masters.

"Think they've had enough time yet?"  She looked back over her shoulder at the closed screen door, and sighed, her shoulders slumped over slightly.  She'd gone through the fingerprinting exercise, and Aileen had insisted room-cleaning and meal preparation were under control, and had shooed her outside for some fresh air.

"I have been inside all day," she muttered.  She looked across the yard toward the corral, where most of the horses were out, taking advantage of the bright sunny day.  Carson finished distributing the bones, and got up, swiping her hands down the legs of her jeans, before she picked her way across the yard to the fence.  It was an old-fashioned corral, and she climbed up on the top rail, taking a seat facing the horses.  The dogs all followed in hope of more biscuits appearing.

One of the mustangs came over and nuzzled her shoulder, nibbling at her soft cotton flannel shirt.  "Hey there."  She gave it a friendly scratch beneath the ears and received more nuzzling, and a contented whicker for her efforts.  "I could tell she needed some time alone with her dad."  She shifted a little bit, rubbing the horse's neck.  "This has to be really different for her, bringing me home and all.  And after all she's been though.  Lord .."

She shuddered, flashbacks running through her head of Kennedy falling after she was shot.  She closed her eyes, feeling her insides tense with turmoil.  A tear escaped, and she swiped it away.  "I love her so much," she confessed to her four-legged audience.  "I almost lost her twice this weekend."  She sniffled, wiping her hand across her eyes.  The mustang nudged her stomach, making a low rumbling noise.  "I was so scared.  S … so scared.  I can't lose anyone else.  I just can't.  But I can't keep her locked up in a padded room, now can I?"

" I certainly wished I could a few times when she was growing up."  Aileen saw her jump at the sound of her voice, and placed a hand on her back.  "I’m sorry, Carson.  I didn't mean to surprise you."  She climbed up on the fence next to her, and another horse came over for some attention.  "You looked a little lost out here, and I thought you might need some company."

"It's okay."  Carson drew in a breath to still the tears.  "Thank you.  It's been a rough few days, huh?"

"Oh, let's see.  My daughter gets drugged, I learn my son is doing drugs, my daughter and her partner go missing …" she glanced at Carson.  "My daughter gets shot, and my son might have something to do with it.  I think I can safely say I've had better holidays."  She rubbed Carson's arm.  "I've shed a few tears myself over all this.  Joseph has too, but he doesn't know I know."

"Really?"  Carson turned toward her, dropping one leg and swinging it as she talked.

"Caught him in his studio.  He's really a very gentle man, but even the softest male souls have their limits.  I backed on out before he saw me, and let him work it out.  If he needs my shoulder to cry on, he'll let me know."  She smiled.  "I don't think he's cried since he brought Shea home from Houston, after Angela …"

"She's a lot like him, isn't she?"  Carson smiled.  "After I was kidnapped, she'd never come right out and say she needed comforting."

"But in subtle ways, she let you know, didn't she?"  Aileen shook her head in mild amusement.  "Yes, she's always been like that.  So independent, with personal space a mile wide.  Getting her to open up was often like cracking open a coconut -- stubborn, that one is.  When she was little, if she was hurt, or something bad happened, she usually ended up out in the barn in the loft, or up in that round window in her room.  The only way I ever knew she needed any mothering -- she'd come find me, maybe sitting on the couch, or standing at the counter in the kitchen, and she'd snuggle up under my arm.  Now mind you, I almost never just sit or stand, so whatever I was doing -- cooking, or mending, or folding laundry, she'd pretend she was there to help, but I knew better."

Carson laughed lightly.  "She's gotten a little better than that.  Now she'll snuggle up without needing any busy work, and if I ask the right questions, I can get her to talk  to me."

"Well, that's good to hear.  I supposed it's easier to snuggle up to your girlfriend with no pretense, than to your mother."  She watched Carson redden, and look down.  "Does that make you uncomfortable, Carson, for me to talk about yall's relationship?"

"I … um …" her tongue felt too big for her mouth, and she suddenly found it hard to breath.  "I think it's way cool how accepting you are.  It's real different from how I grew up, is all."

"I don't mean to embarrass you."  She patted Carson's arm again.  "I can't tell you how thrilled I was when Parker told us about you, and the first time I talked to Shea about you … her voice … it did my heart good to hear that lighthearted playful tone in her voice.  It had been years since … Carson?"

The blush turned deep red, and Carson scrubbed at her own neck, looking everywhere but at Aileen.  "I'm okay.  I … I remember that call …" She nibbled her lower lip, unable to look up.

"Oh."  Aileen chuckled.  "I forgot about that."  She touched Carson's shoulder, giving her a friendly little shake.  "Listen to me.  I'm an old married woman.  I have three children, and I can assure you they were all conceived in the conventional way.  I am well-aware that none of my children have ever had any Puritan tendencies.  You've seen our family interact, and that includes my oldest and his wife.  I'm happy he found her, and I'm happy my daughter found you -- I want her to have love in her life."

Carson continued to feel the heat in her face, but forced herself to look up.  "You don't know how glad I am to hear that.  Give me some time.  All this might take some getting used to.  My family was pretty reserved about stuff like this.  I … I like it though, that y'all are so open with each other."

"We tried to raise our children to understand that they could talk to us about anything."  She laughed lightly.  "Doesn't mean they always took that to heart, but usually, in the big things, we always eventually sat down and talked about it.  Even my hardheaded daughter, and her even more reclusive younger brother.  Pete -- he's been a puzzle to me most of his life.  Kept to himself a lot.  Made Shea look downright outgoing."

"Wow," Carson commented.  "That's tough to imagine."

"Hey."  A slightly-hoarse voice called across the yard.

"Speaking of stubborn," Carson mumbled to Aileen, who smiled at her conspiratorially.  Carson turned, straddling the fence post.  "What are you doing up?"

"Can't stand to be still that long."  Kennedy grimaced, as she walked down the steps, her left leg stiff with pain.  "Ugh."  She hobbled across the yard and tucked up under Carson's arm, resting her cheek against her side.  Aileen and Carson observed the snuggle, and exchanged glances, then burst out in a fit of giggles.  "What?" Kennedy pouted.  "Did I say something funny?"

"No, honey."  She ruffled her head.  "Your mother and I were just talking, is all."

"Oh."  She pursed her lips, still confused at the laughter, then smiled a little, and shrugged it off.  Digging in her pocket, she produced the keys to her father's truck.  "Wanna go for a ride?"

"Kennedy!  This morning you were knocked out on painkillers and barely coherent.  I don't think you should be driving just yet, besides, your leg and arm …"  Carson tried to take the keys, and surprisingly, Kennedy let her.

"Not gonna drive."  She flashed a charming smile.  "I was hoping you might do the driving.  Please?  I just need to get out for a little while."

Aileen watched the exchange and chuckled.  "Did I mention she got a lot of mileage out of those baby blues and pearly whites as a child?"

"Hey!"  Kennedy's tone was comically indignant, and the pout returned.

"She still does," Carson replied, her voice resigned.  "Alright, but not very far, and not for long.  You need to rest, get your strength back up."

"Fine."  She agreed much to quickly.  "Works for me."  She glanced at her watch, which she'd switched to her right arm. "Let's get going."

Carson hopped off the fence, and stopped, as Aileen tugged at the back of her shirt.  "Hmmm?"  She leaned in, listening.

"She's got something up her sleeve," Aileen commented.

"Oh, don't you know it."  Carson shook her head, and shuffled to keep up.  "Slow down.  You're injured, remember?"

"Long legs, remember?"  Kennedy mimicked her tone, watching Carson's face, knowing she was recalling their conversation on the hiking trail by her embarrassed smile.  "Hah.  Made you look at 'em!"

"You are such a brat!"  Carson caught up and stopped just short of swatting her on the behind.

"Girls, be careful," Aileen called after them.

"Yes, ma'am," they answered in unison, then looked at each other and laughed.

She watched them climb in the truck and drive away.  Yes, her daughter was going to be just fine.  Her eyes wandered up to the second floor window of Pete's bedroom.  Her son on the other hand …  One down, one to go, she sighed, and went back inside the house.


They drove into town and through it, stopping once at the coffee shop.  Carson glanced over at Kennedy, who, despite their earlier playful mood, was now in full-brooding mode, a storm gathering in her eyes as she looked out the window.  Careful to avoid the gunshot wound, Carson reached across, and hesitantly touched her on the leg, leaving her hand there when she received a silent sad smile.

"You wanna tell me where we're going?"  She cleared her throat.  "Not that 'turn right here, turn left there' doesn't work for me, mind you."

"County jail,"  Kennedy nodded toward a low brick building a few blocks down.  "Need to have a little chat with someone, if you don't mind."

"You want me to go in with you?"  Carson kept her eyes on the road.  "I can always go back to the coffee shop and pick you up in an hour or something."

"No."  Kennedy shook her head, dark bangs falling across her eyes.  "Come in with me.  Even if they make you stay in the waiting area, I'd like to know you're nearby.  But if the set-up is the same as last time I was here, they'll just let us all chat in a room with a couple of tables.  It's not like the movies, with the little room with glass and a tiny slot to talk through.  We don't exactly get a lot of hardened criminals in Brewster County."

"How many times were you … um … taken there when you were growing up?"  Carson swallowed, still looking toward the road and the parking lot, as she turned in and found a spot under a tree.

"Gosh, I'd have to count it up, but I'd guess at least a dozen times,"  Kennedy answered casually, as she opened the truck door and gingerly slid to the ground. "Ouch.  Dammit!"  She hopped on her right leg a little, holding her left one with her right arm, making the hop precarious at best.  "Auuggghhh!  Landed wrong on my left leg."

Carson bit off a 'told you not to go out,' and hurried around, shoving aside her questions about the dozen visits for another time.  "Honey, careful, before you hurt your arm as well."  She got an arm around her waist and guided her up a handicapped ramp and into the building.

"Shea Nocona!"  A large Hispanic man in uniform put down a newspaper, and stood up behind a desk.  "As I live and breathe.  Heard you were home for the holiday.  Should I prepare your usual room, or are you only here for a few hours this time around?"

"Hardee-har-har."  Kennedy groaned.  "Howdy, Miguel.  We're just here to pay a little visit to Rick Wolden."

"And 'we' would be?"  He eyed Carson expectantly, clasping his hands behind his back and grinning.

"Miguel, this is my partner, Carson.  Carson, meet Miguel, who must be older than dirt by now, considering he was working here when I was just a babe in the cradle."  She smirked.

"Was not!"  He kept smiling, and held out a hand.  "Please to meet you, Carson."

"Pleased to meet you," she returned the handshake, his large hand swallowing hers for an instant.

"Don't go believing her, now."  He gestured at Kennedy.  "I'm only about five years older than Miz Shea here -- been working here since I was right out of high school."

"Yeah, yeah."  Kennedy was genuinely smiling herself this time, enjoying the banter.  "Can Carson go back to the visiting room with me?"

"Sure enough."  He led them back down a hallway and into a fairly small room with four wooden tables, and high mesh-covered windows across one wall.  A coke machine hummed in one corner, and the smell of old burned coffee permeated the air from a coffeemaker.  "You ladies pick a table, and I'll bring Wolden back.  No purses?"

"Purses?"  Kennedy laughed.  "Have I ever carried a purse, Miguel?"

"No, but if either of you did, I'd have to confiscate them.  Rules and all."  He jangled a set of keys at his belt.  "Be back in a minute."

The heavy door whooshed closed behind him, and Carson wandered over to a table and took a seat, sipping at her coffee shop brew with new appreciation, as she glanced over at the mostly-empty pot on the nearby counter.  Kennedy walked around the room once, as if she were searching for something, stopping at each table and studying the surface.  "Place hasn't changed any," she commented.  "Even have the same drinks in the coke machine."  She took a seat next to Carson and a smile lit up her face, as she traced something on the tabletop with her fingertip.  "Ah. There it is."

Carson leaned over and saw the letters 'KSN' carved neatly into the scarred wooden top.  "Yours?"

"Yeah."  Kennedy sat back and carefully lifted her left leg, propping it up on the table.  "Man, that feels better up than down."  She was wearing loose sweats in deference to her injury, and she smoothed the soft fleece over the spot that covered her bandage.  "Yeah, carved my initials there one time with a pocket knife they failed to confiscate from me.   I was bored and waiting for Mama and Pa to come get me.  Not like they ever kept any reading material in here or anything."

"What had you done?" Carson asked quietly.

"Don't remember off the top of my head.  Probably caught me out drag racing, or drinking behind the school, or lord only knows what.  Might have skipped school or something."  She looked down, shifting her sling-supported arm until her hands were clasped over her stomach.  "Guess you never went to jail, huh?"

"No, can't say as I have."  Carson dug in her pocket and found some quarters.  "You want a coke?"

"Yeah, root beer would be good, thanks."  She continued to look down, listening as the money clinked into the machine and the cold can slid into the catching receptacle with a loud thud.  Another click indicated Carson was opening it, before she set it on the table in front of Kennedy and knelt down next to her, making eye contact.

"I'm not judging you, honey.  Just trying to understand who you were back then is all."  She felt a warm hand against her face, and closed her eyes, leaning into it.  Kennedy stroked her cheek with her thumb.  "Do my questions make you uncomfortable?"

"A little, yeah."  She blinked.  "Being back here, that kid inside of me comes drifting up to the surface, and at the same time, I think about what a hell-raiser I was, and I get a little embarrassed, knowing you weren't anything like that.  I'm not real proud of who I was back then, Carson.  It's just that I did have some proud moments, if that makes any sense."

"Perfect sense."  The door behind her opened, and Carson turned, as Miguel led Rick into the room.  His skin was sunburned, and his hair was sorely in need of washing.  He wore jeans and a sweatshirt that appeared to be his own, although the handcuffs at his wrists branded him as the prisoner he was.

"Shea," he drawled, his eyes going a little wide in surprise, before a carefully guarded hood slipped into place.  Miguel all but shoved him into a chair.

"I'll be right outside the door, so don't get any funny ideas, Wolden."  He glared at Rick severely, and nodded at Kennedy and Carson, before he left them to talk.

Rick waited until the door was closed completely, before he leaned forward on his arms on the tabletop.  "I didn't shoot you, Shea, I swear it.  Didn't shoot Tom either, but they don't believe me."

"They said your prints were the only ones on the gun," Kennedy watched him carefully, but saw no surprise register.  None was expected, as she assumed he already knew that.  Her eyes went cold.  "What were you doing down in the park near my campsite?"

"I said I didn't shoot you," he muttered sullenly.

"Didn't ask if you shot me.  I asked …" she slowly swung her leg down and leaned forward herself.  "What were you doing down there?  I find it hard to believe it was a coincidence."

"Shea, two guys killed Tom.  I heard them, but I didn't see them.  I was in the woods hiding."  He looked down at his fingers, flexing them before he folded them together again.

"You ran like a coward?"  She snorted.  "Figures."

"No, I went to get us some filtered water, and they came into our camp while I was gone.  I heard gunshot, Shea.  Heard them talking, but they didn't see me.  Sounded like they tracked us down, 'cause they were planning to wait for me.  So I turned and started walking.  They had already killed Tom.  What I figure is they got in my truck and took my gun and used it.  Maybe they wore gloves or something, but it wasn't me.  I didn't shoot Tom, and I didn't shoot you."  He held his hands out in a pleading gesture.  "You have to believe me."

"Why should I?"  She spat.  "You and Tom drugged my drink at Armadillo Flats and let me get on a motorcycle.  I could've been killed on the road, you moron, and Carson too!"

"Tom drugged your drink?"  He answered so stupidly, it was obvious it was the first he knew of it.  "Geez, Shea.  I knew he wanted to scare you, but I had no idea …"

Kennedy's eyes bore into him. "What do you mean he wanted to scare me?"

Too late, Rick realized his mistake, and he sighed.  "Look, Shea, here's the whole deal, least what I know of it."  He glanced around and lowered his voice.  "We were just messing with you at Armadillo Flats, leastwise that's what I thought.  Was a time you would've been interested in our goods, am I right?"

"Yeah," she reluctantly agreed.  "Go on."

"I honestly didn't know he drugged your drink.  What I do know is, next day, your little brother came around and warned Tom he thought you were gonna go to the sheriff.  Tom only told me it was over us selling to Pete, but I gather you were going to tell them about Tom drugging you as well?"

"Never mind what I was going to do."  Kennedy swallowed a rising lump in her throat.  Pete had gone behind her back to someone who had tried to hurt her.  It was like a punch in the gut, and she felt a little ill.  "Keep talking."

"So Tom, he got to nosing around and found out where you were, and decided to go give you a scare."  He looked around again.  "Yeah, he did have a gun and a knife with him, but I don't think he planned to use them.  He was mad as a hornet at you, though.  He wanted to scare you enough to get you to back off."

"And you went along with him, why, exactly?"  she snarled.

"Come on, Shea.  Like I had a choice."  The blue eyes snapped and he cringed as if she'd raised a hand.

"There's always a choice!" she bellowed.  "God, Rick, grow up and be a man.  Tom was trash.  Always was.  Now he's dug you in too."  She drew a breath, her insides shaking furiously.  "You wanna tell me how Pete's sweatshirt ended up in your truck?"

Rick frowned and scooted back a little.  "Hell if I know.  I didn't even know it was in there.  Maybe one of the nights when he was at the Flats and came out to the truck to buy something?  Tom sometimes took the truck too, so maybe they went somewhere together without me."

"Listen, Rick," she talked slowly, trying to resist the urge to choke him.  "Since I came home, I've learned my brother is doing drugs.  My root beer was drugged and I almost took a tumble on my bike with Carson, as  a result.  I was shot twice, and now I learn my little brother cares more about a couple of bottom-dwelling drug dealers than he does about me.  It's been a fucking stellar Thanksgiving, let me tell you."  She shoved the table hard with her right hand, pushing it against his chest until he coughed.

"Back off, Shea."  He edged his chair back some more.

"Oh, no."  She got up and paced as best she could, her leg notwithstanding.  "I'm just getting started.  Right now, you're the main suspect in Tom's murder.  You know that.  You have some half-baked story about two guys shooting him.  Carson here saw two guys after I was shot, but they were too far away for us to see any detail, so for all I know, it was you and Tom.  'Cept we saw two guys again after Tom was dead, but maybe that was you and whoever the hell picked you up at Rio Grande Village."

"No"  Rick closed his eyes, his voice trembling.  "There were two guys, Shea.  I've been trying to convince the sheriff of that, because whoever they are, they're still out there."

Kennedy stopped and turned, his words chasing a chill down her spine.  "You really didn't shoot me, did you?"

"No!"  He cried out miserably.  "How many times do I have to tell you?  Shea, I'm scared.  You know I sell a bag of pot here and there, but I've never done anything worse than that.  Never killed anyone.  Hell, I can count on one hand the number of fist fights I've been in."

"Wuss," Kennedy mumbled.

"Huh?"  Carson frowned.

"Nothing."  Kennedy hobbled back to her chair and sat down again.  "I believe you about not shooting me …"

"Shea, you don't know how much that means to …"

"Hold it."  She held up a finger.  "Jury's still out on Tom.  All I really have to say to you right now, is, if I ever hear you came anywhere near my brother again, I will personally hunt you down and make sure you live to regret it."

She stood, nervously smoothing her hair back.  "Come on, Carson, let's get out of here."

"Shea, you know any good criminal lawyers?"  Rick asked hopefully.

Kennedy sighed.  "I've got to find someone for Pete, but I'll see what I can do.  Gonna cost you.  You might just want to go with court-appointed counsel."

"And go to death row?" he shook his head violently.  "I don't think so.  I'll find the money, if you can send someone my way."

"No promises, but I'll do what I can."  She shook her own head in befuddlement, and followed Carson from the room.

After a quick goodbye to Miguel, they stepped outside and got into the truck.  Kennedy sat back in the seat and closed her eyes, her head spinning from pain and anger, and something else she couldn't quite identify.  "Carson?"  She opened her eyes.

"You need any Advil or anything?"  Carson started the truck.

"I need to go home to Austin, that's what I need."  She released a long breath.  "But I can't just yet."  She rolled her head to the side, her face grim.  "I do believe him, and he's right.  There are still two guys out there who want me dead, and who may have already killed Tom."

"Do you really think someone is after you?  Any idea who?"  She put the truck in gear and steered it back to the road, wondering if her jittery nerves were from caffeine or from fear.  "Honey, maybe we should get back to Austin sooner rather than later.  If they are  after you, maybe they won't come after you there."

"My family," Kennedy shook her head.  "Can't just leave them behind.  What if they are targeting me?  Who's to say they won't retaliate against my family as well?  I need to give Randall a call after he's had time to get back to the jail.  We might need an officer patrolling  around the house area for a while, just in case.  And then there's Pete …" she trailed off, her face more forlorn than Carson had ever seen it.

"What are you going to do?"  She reached across, her hand finding Kennedy's leg for the return trip.

"Kick his ass into next week," she growled.

"Get in line," Carson growled back.


Kennedy hobbled into the bedroom and lay cross-wise on the comforter, her right arm drawn across her eyes.  She shifted and groaned as sharp pain shot through her left shoulder, but otherwise she remained quiet.  Carson stepped quietly into the room behind her and closed the door, leaning back against it as she studied the silent figure on the bed.  She sighed and moved over to the bay window, and pulled back the curtains, staring out at the sun chasing cloud shadows across the ground below.  "Nice day out there."

"Mmm."  Kennedy removed her arm from her face long enough to glance over at Carson's back.

"You gonna go talk to Pete?"  She turned and sat down on the cushioned platform under the window, scooting back and crossing her legs.

"Can't face him right now," Kennedy mumbled.

"You gonna stay here and rest while I go talk to him?"  Carson leaned forward a bit, resting her arms loosely on her crossed legs.

"I don't think I can live under the same roof with him at present."  One sad blue eye appeared and blinked, before the long arm covered it again.

Carson puzzled over that, watching Kennedy's chest rise and fall with her breathing.  Despite her reclined position, she could tell Kennedy's body was tense, whether from pain or stress, or both, was a toss-up.  She was half-tempted to call and book them on the next flight from Midland back to Austin, but she knew they had to stay a while longer.  Besides that, she knew Valerie and Serena had promised to hold down the fort at the law office for the rest of the week, and the one after that, if necessary.  The horses would be fine at the boarding stables, and the place they had boarded the cats was the equivalent of kitty club med, complete with video of birds and fish for them to watch to their feline hearts' content.

Damn it, she silently punched the thick cushion she sat on.  They needed a break.  The trip to Alpine was supposed to be fun and relaxing, but for the most part, it had been anything but.  Well, maybe except for our time in the waterfall cave, and the day before that, she admitted to herself with a tiny smile.  They'd even missed Kennedy's birthday, and that … she huffed out a frustrated breath … that was simply unacceptable.

She shoved decisively off the cushion, and slipped over to the bed and sat down on the edge.  "I need to go make a couple phone calls downstairs, honey.  You want me to bring you anything when I come back?"

A guardedly-interested blue eye reappeared, and Kennedy scooted over, until her head was in Carson's lap.  A mildly-contented noise escaped her lips, and she felt a gentle stroking touch to her hair, as Carson carefully ran her fingers through it.  "Just bring back yourself."  She closed her eyes again.  "Maybe some cookies."

"I can do that," Carson soothed softly.  "You gonna be okay?"

"No," a grumpy voice answered.  "Maybe later, after all this is over."  She released a long trembling breath.  "Why does it hurt so much?"

"Because you don't expect family to betray you," Carson answered quietly.  "Because he's your baby brother, and you love him."

"Don't know why I expected more," Kennedy looked up at her.  "Not like I set him a real good example."

"Don't start down that path, please."  Carson rubbed her head.  "You've set him a plenty good example the past five years or so.  Pete made his own poor choices, and you know it."

"I don't know much of anything right now."  She snuggled down more into the thick down comforter, and allowed the soothing touch to seep in and begin to heal the pain, just a little bit.  "Except that I don't think I can stand to look at my own brother."

"Tell you what, let me go make those calls, and maybe when I get back, I'll bring you cookies and an even better surprise."  She scooted toward the edge of the bed.  "Deal?"

"You gonna come back naked?"  Kennedy looked up hopefully.

Carson simply burst out laughing, glad for the unexpected humor.  She leaned over and kissed the dark head, and received a gentle nuzzle to her belly.  "You are something else, Kennedy Shea."  She kissed her again, this time brushing her lips.  "I think loving you is going to be one heck of an adventure."

"Like it hasn't been already, eh?"  White teeth flashed in a genuine smile.

"That it has."  Carson carefully slipped out from under her, sliding a pillow under Kennedy's head.  "You want me naked, do you now?"

"Naked is always good," dark lashes batted playfully.

"Can't promise that just yet, but maybe I can work some nakedness into the rest of the surprise."  She couldn't resist kissing Kennedy's head one more time, and leaned over, gasping a little when long fingers tickled her ribs, before Kennedy cupped her face, stroking it with her thumb.

"Do I get to get naked with you?"  A little color was returning to Kennedy's cheeks, along with a familiar sparkle in her eyes.

"Oh, I think that can be arranged."  Carson reluctantly pulled away.  "I'll be back in a bit.  You want me to send your mother or father up to sit with you while I'm gone?"

Kennedy frowned.  "No.  I think I'll just take a nap.  Pa's busy with some new painting in his studio, and Mama is probably down one floor getting guest rooms ready."

"Okay."  Carson stopped in the now open doorway.  "Sweet dreams."

Kennedy blew her a kiss.  "They will be."

Carson shook her head as she padded down the hall, and traipsed down the two flights of stairs that led to the first floor.  After making a few calls, she collected a platter of cookies, one glass of regular milk, and one glass of soy milk, and carefully carried her tray back upstairs.  As she passed Pete's room, she noticed the door was cracked open.  She was certain it had been closed on her way downstairs, and she stopped, wondering if it was an invitation.  "I’m probably gonna regret this," she murmured, as she set the tray down on a hall table, and knocked softly at the door.  "Pete?"

"Come on in," a contrite voice answered.

She stepped inside and waited, leaning against the wall.  Pete sat in a window similar to the one in Kennedy's room, both knees drawn up with his arms wrapped around them.  "Can I sit down?"  She indicated the empty space next to him, and he nodded slightly, not looking up.  She settled down, and swiped slightly-sweaty palms against her jeans-clad legs.  "We had a talk with Rick."

Pete glanced up, dried tear-tracks evident on his cheeks.  "Yeah?  And?"  He looked back down, anger clouding his features.

"And I don't know whether to talk to you, or beat the living daylights out of you."  Her shoulders slumped in defeat, and she fought her own tears.  "I hate feeling this way.  You're her brother.  How could you betray her like that?  How could you?!"

At the sound of her shaking voice, he looked back up and swallowed.  "Didn't mean for things to turn out the way they did.  I didn't think …"

"No.  You didn't, did you?"  She stood, and began pacing the room.  "Let me tell you something, Pete.  I'm an only child and both my parents are dead.  My family, the family I knew growing up, is gone.  Do you have any idea how lucky you are?"  She moved closer, doing her best to keep a lid on her rage.  "Do you?"  Her voice rose and she fought the urge to slap him senseless.

"I …" he looked back down.  "I just didn't want my friends to go to jail is all."

"Do you understand what you've done, Pete?  What you almost did."  Carson picked up a decorative pillow and hurled it across the room.  It hit the far wall and bounced to the floor.  "Your friend, if you called him that, Tom -- he's dead now.  And Rick is in jail anyway.  And your sister."  She clenched and unclenched her fists.  "Your sister, the love of my life, very nearly died because you had to open your big mouth.  You almost killed her.  Just turned her over to a couple of guys who would kill for a bag of cocaine."   She found another pillow and it followed the first one.  "Or maybe you just don't care.  I swear, the way you've been acting, maybe you wanted her dead."

"I …"

"Shut up!"  She whirled around and faced him.  "She loves your sorry ass.  God knows why, but she does.  She made some calls a little while ago, and found you a lawyer up in Odessa.  He'll be by to visit you in the morning.  If I were her, I would've just let you flounder on your own, but she cares about you too much to do that.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take her out for a nice birthday celebration.  We'll be gone a few days, so you can shove your attitude.  Won't be anyone around to use it on."

"I never meant for her to get hurt.  You have to believe me," Pete pleaded.  Large eyes brimmed with tears, and he swiped his hand across his face.

It took the wind out of her sails, and Carson slumped back against the wall, shoving her hands into her pockets.  "I do."  She looked up.  "But that doesn't undo what you did.  She's pretty bruised right now.  You cut her pretty deep, and it's going to be a while before she's gonna get past this.  Broken trust is a tough thing to mend."

"Should I go talk to her?"  He started to stand, but Carson held up a hand, and he sat back down.

"I wouldn't just yet.  Give her some time."  She pushed the door open and stepped partway out.  "Hopefully she'll come back in a few days in a much better mood.  Meanwhile, you have some pretty big problems of your own to deal with."

Shades of a 12-year-old boy surfaced in his tanned features, and Pete blinked, fighting the urge to cry.  "Carson," he answered softly.  "I'm scared.  More scared than I've ever been in my life.  I don't know how things went so wrong."

"Sounds like you have a lot to think about." She gazed at him intently and he shrunk back in reflex.  "She's been in this place before, you know.  Give her some time, and she just might have some words of wisdom for you.  But if I were you, I'd be trying to remember everything you can, so your lawyer can help you when he gets here.  And I think it will be best for all of us if you and she aren't under the same roof for a little while."  She opened the door wider.  "I have to go."

"Can you tell her I'm sorry?" He looked up hopefully.

"Sure, I can do that."  She slipped out the door and retrieved the tray, and made her way back into Kennedy's room.

"Hey." Kennedy studied the tray and perked up noticeably.   "What you got?"

"Cookies and soy milk."  Carson set the tray down.  "Eat up, 'cause you and I have some reservations this evening to go celebrate your birthday."

"Aw, Carson."  Kennedy managed to sit up.  "That's sweet, but I'm not sure I'm up for an evening out, just yet."

"Gonna be an evening in."  Carson tugged her suitcase out from beside the wall.  "How does you, me, a really nice room, and some excellent room service sound?  You won't have to do anything more strenuous than maybe take a nice long bath."

"That sounds perfect."  She edged closer, snagging Carson's belt loop with her right hand, and pulling her around to face her.  Carson ended up standing between her legs, one hand resting on her right shoulder, while the other tilted her chin up.  Kennedy looked up at her earnestly, her thoughts a jumble.  "You really do take good care of me."

"That's my job now, isn't it?"  Carson's insides fluttered, remembering things they talked about before Kennedy was shot, and the direction their conversation was leading.  She swallowed and shoved down the attack of nerves, covering it up with a little wink.

Kennedy felt the tremor in her hand, and captured it, kissing her knuckles.  "Can't think of anyone better for the job."

"Come on then," Carson forced herself to step back.  "Let's pack up a few things and go celebrate, birthday girl."


The strong scent of oil paint and turpentine assaulted Carson's nose, as she poked her head inside the studio.  It was a bright sunny room, considering it was in the basement, with a row of windows circling the room just below the ceiling, letting in the outside sunshine.  Various sets of lights also hung from the ceiling, and she noticed an impressive row of dimmer switches next to the door.  Stacks of canvases, some finished, some in progress, and some untouched, leaned against two walls, while others adorned half a dozen easels scattered about the room.

A sink and long counter graced half of one wall, while a large cabinet and a set of shelves covered the other half.  A table in one corner bore several instruments, some she recognized, and some she didn't, although one appeared suspiciously to be a machine for stretching canvas.  The room had a warm, busy, yet cozy feel to it, and soft new age music flowed from a boom box on the table.

"Hi."  Carson stepped all the way into the room.  "Am I interrupting you?"

"Ah.  Come on in."  Joseph's back had been to her, but now he turned to face her, setting aside a tin of paints and a brush, and wiping his hands on a rag that hung from his belt.  His shirt was clean, and free of paint, as were his shoes and the floor around him.  Carson recalled experiments in painting, and was impressed with his ability to confine the paint to the canvas.

"What are you working on?" She moved closer, studying a wide painting on an easel next to him, that had the beginnings of the mountains and trees of Big Bend colored in along one side.

"Something my daughter mentioned," Joseph gestured toward the un-painted side of the canvas, where he had sketched in bits of scenery to be painted.  "It struck an inspirational chord and wouldn't leave me alone, so I came down here to capture it."

"Oh."  Carson's eyes widened as she spotted something that was surely a buck.  Unpainted, it was anyone's guess as to what color it would be.  She noted some faint symbols, possibly Native American, that were sketched in along the bottom of the painting, and again along the top, framing the scene.  "What you've done so far is gorgeous."  She looked around the room.  "All of it.  Kennedy has some nice ones on the walls at home, too."

"Home?"  Joseph smiled, his tone slightly teasing.

Carson blushed and looked down.  "At her house, I mean …"

"I'm sorry, Carson," Joseph chuckled, feeling badly he had teased her.  "I didn't mean to make you ill at ease."

She looked up uncertainly.  "Does that bother you?  Me calling her house 'home'?"

"No."  He gazed steadily into her eyes.  "So, Aileen tells me you have a birthday surprise for Shea?" he changed the subject.

"Um.  Yeah, I do, actually."  She looked at the painting he was working on again.  "What color do you plan to paint that deer?"

"White."  His eyes conveyed amusement, and Carson realized he was reading her thoughts.

"I see."  She swallowed, wiping her suddenly-sweaty palms on her jeans legs.  "I saw him, you know."

"Yes.  Shea told me."  He raised one knee, resting his foot on the top crosspiece of his stool, wrapping his hands around his leg.  "That sort of thing doesn't happen very often, but I'll let my daughter share my theories with you.  I had assumed she would have by now."

"Oh, yeah.  You're probably right.  Just … we got a little distracted with everything going on, and …"

"I'm sure she'll share with you when she's ready."  He smiled.  "Shea -- she's always been one who had to ponder things a bit and let them sink in.  Deep thinker, that one is."

"You can say that again," Carson smiled back.  "I just thought maybe if we got away for a day or so, it would give her a chance to relax and maybe emotionally recover some from everything that's happened -- process things.  You know."

"Good idea," his gaze became pointed.  "What about you, Carson?  Do you need a little time away to sort things out?"

Ah.  An opening.  Thank you.  She felt the need to pace, and moved over under the windows, her hands clasped behind her back as she sought her words.  "I … um … you see, I already did some of that … sorting things out, I mean.  I had a lot of time to think while we were in that cave after she was shot.  And before that, even."  She turned back to face him.  "What I figure is, Kennedy, she waited five years to get into a relationship after Angela died.  That tells me she doesn't take them lightly."

"That would be true," Joseph nodded in agreement.

"But at the same time, she isn't one to push people into something they aren't ready for."  Carson moved closer, and leaned back against the counter top across from him.  "All along, she's told me to take my time, figuring out if I wanted to move to Austin, figuring out if I wanted to look for my own place."

"No matter what she really wishes for, I'd wager," Joseph encouraged her.

"Yes!"  Carson smiled.  "That's exactly it.  She's never pushed me, sir."

"Carson, please."  He smiled warmly.  "'Joseph' will be fine."

"Oh.  Right.  Joseph."  The infuriating blush returned, warming her cheeks.  "Your daughter -- Kennedy -- I think she wants all the things you have with your wife, you know?  A home.  Security.  A family."

"Love?" Joseph added helpfully, watching the blush turn crimson.

"Yes," she whispered.  "That most of all.  I do love her, sir … Joseph … sorry."  She blinked, feeling the sting of frustrated tears.  "I do.  She means more to me than anything, and I'd do just about anything for her.  I just want her to be happy."

"Do you think you make her happy?"  The question was harsh, but his tone was kind.

"I … I try to.  I hope so.  I …"

"Carson," his voice was very gentle.  "I know you do.  I see it in her eyes every time she looks at you.  Nay, every time she mentions your name.  My daughter glows with her love for you.  You didn't know her before, so you can't see the difference you've made in her, but I surely can."

"Is it a good difference?"  Carson crossed her fingers behind her back.

"Good in every sense of the word," he assured her.  "Shea has been alone for much too long, and I could feel the emptiness she felt.  I couldn't be happier you've come into her life."

A great weight as it lifted from her shoulders, and she felt almost faint with relief.  "Well, good, you see, because Kennedy, I don't think love alone is good enough for her.  She deserves that security and all that other stuff I mentioned.  She deserves to know that if she gives her love to someone, that she won't wake up one morning and find that person has left her, and thrown that love away.  She deserves to know that whoever holds her heart will cherish it, and honor it, and take care of it."  She paused, taking a deep breath.  "Am I making sense?"

"Absolutely," Joseph nodded gravely, his eyes slightly amused.  "Go on."

"Mr. Nocona … sir … oh, drat!" Carson sputtered.  "Joseph."  She released a long breath.  "My intentions toward your daughter are honorable.  I love her, and what I figured out in the past few days is, I want to be with her always.  I … I know we can't get married.  Not legally.  Maybe someday we will, but … but I want to ask you, sir …" her eyes flashed with a bit of pride, daring him to correct her on her choice of words at such an important moment.  "… that if I ask your daughter to spend the rest of her life with me, that you will give us your blessing."

There.  She'd said it.  Now she only hoped it had made sense.

"Carson, come here."  Joseph beckoned her with a crooked finger, his face expressionless.  She walked slowly toward him, hoping he wasn't planning to smack her into next week when she got within reach.  Instead, he opened up his arms and welcomed her into a most unexpected hug, along with a kiss to her cheek.  "I'd be proud to welcome you into my family."  He released her.  "And for the record, my daughter would be foolish to reject such an offer."

"You don't think she'd …?"

"Not in a million years," he answered.  "And yes, you have my blessing.  You didn't need to ask, but I'm honored you did."

Carson flung her arms around his neck again.   "Thank you.  You won't live to regret it."

"Of that I have no doubt."  He smiled as she stepped back.  "Go and take her to her surprise."

"I will," she turned toward the door.

"And Carson, make sure she tells you about the white buck."  His eyes twinkled with mischief.  "You have a much higher blessing than mine."

She opened her mouth to ask another question, and then closed it, thinking better of it.  "Alright."  She gazed at him in puzzlement.  "Thank you.  I will."

She mounted the stairs and slipped through the first floor of the house, and out the back door, where Kennedy sat on the porch swing, gazing out at the horses in the padlock.  "You done with your super-secret meeting?" her tone and her face were more than a little grumpy.

"Yeah."  Carson held out a hand and waited, while Kennedy slowly reached out and accepted it, allowing herself to be pulled up.  "You ready to go?"

"Been ready," she grumbled.  "Still don't see what you had to talk to Pa about that is so all-fired private.  He probably gave you all kinds of advice on how to deal with me when I'm hurt, didn't he?"

"Nope."  Carson patted her cheek and she scowled.  "All in good time, honey."

"I coulda told you about the buck," Kennedy ventured.

"Didn't ask him about the buck," Carson shot back.  "But he did tell me to ask you about it, so I told him I would."

"He … he did?"  Two dark brows disappeared under her bangs.  "How on earth did that come up?"

Carson simply smiled, and helped her into the truck.


Continued in Chapter 10

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