Read Lone Tree Online

Authors: Bobbie O'Keefe

Lone Tree

Praise for Lone Tree

Engrossing tale of family and love with
intriguing and well-developed characters.

--
Publishers Weekly

Wonderfully written story about love
with surprising depth.

--
Readers Views

Character driven tale with the drama of
conflict, danger and love that covers three generations of family. Hang on to
your hats, folks, this saga has it all.

--
Romance Reviews Today

 

Lone Tree

Bobbie O’Keefe

 

Copyright 2011 Bobbie O’Keefe

This novel is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s
imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.

 

Dedicated in loving memory to Gwen and
Vernon Bryan, two Texans who made their home in California. And, of course, Richard.
This one was his favorite.

 

(For special reasons the author wanted
to place this story in West Texas, but acknowledges that its terrain is not
fertile enough for the number of cattle given to the Lone Tree ranch.)

Chapter One

Three days behind the wheel of a car was tough on
joints, muscles and nerves, but the worst impact was on the rump. Lainie
Johnson rubbed hers through her khakis, trying not to be obvious about it, as
she exited her midsize sedan into the hot sun. She hoped the café had a healthy
air-conditioning system.

Ahh
. The cool air brought her head
up like a drooping flower might straighten itself out after a drink of water.
As she eased onto a counter stool at the far left, she glanced at the window
overlooking the parking lot, and her eye caught a red pickup sliding in next to
her car. The one dwarfed the other.

The man behind the counter was talking with two men
on center stools who apparently were locals—gabby locals. Lainie reached for a
menu, and the counter tender glanced her way.

“Go on ahead there, Clem,” one man said. “Time we
got goin’ anyway.”

Clem produced an order pad and pencil as he walked
toward her. The door opened, its bell jangling, and a cowboy—he looked like a
real one—entered. Between the western hat and dusty boots with rundown heels,
he wore faded jeans and a long-sleeved, yoked shirt in a maroon-and-gray
checked print.

He looked at her the same moment she glanced at him.
His eyes were friendly and blue and told her he liked what he was looking at.
He dipped his head and tipped his hat with the forefinger of his left hand.
Without really meaning to, she smiled back. Their gazes held a moment, then she
remembered she was supposed to be reading the menu and got back to it.

“Hep you?” Clem gave her a smile, too. His left
eyetooth was missing.

“The BLT looks good. And a cola, please. Lots of
ice.”

“Coke machine broke down, but I got some cold drinks
in cans.” He pointed at the refrigerated case with its glass windows where
there must have been a recent run on soft drinks. Two orange soda pops, three
cherry pops, and a root beer stood in haphazard display.

She wrinkled her brow. “That’s it?”

“Iced tea?”

She nodded without enthusiasm. Her throat yearned
for a frosty hit of carbonation, but she’d never developed a liking for
flavored drinks. Or doctored potato chips. A bag of chips was just fine the way
it was. It didn’t need sour cream or chives or barbeque flavor or anything
else.

Clem walked away, wiping his hands on his apron, and
stuck two pieces of bread into the toaster. The cowboy and other two men were
talking about how hot it was. Why? If they lived in Texas, they should be used
to it. It was only May and already in the high nineties.

The door jangled as the two men left.

“Howdy,” the cowboy said as he sauntered toward her,
his boots clicking on the linoleum. He sat, leaving one stool vacant between
them.

“Hi.” She kept her tone noncommittal.

He gave the menu a cursory glance, then gave her a
longer one. “You belong to those California plates out there?”

She gave him a thoughtful, sideways look, but no
answer.

“Once you opened your mouth,” he said with a grin,
“your secret was out.”

Her return smile was more reactive than intentional.
“Meaning I sound as funny to you as you do to me?”

“Yep.” Somehow, he’d given the word two syllables.
She wondered what he’d do to a word that actually had two syllables. Turn it
into one, probably.

He removed his hat and set it on the stool between
them, brim up, exposing hair so dark even the sun wouldn’t lighten it.

Clem delivered her sandwich, accompanied by a bag of
chips—plain, thank goodness—and iced tea, the glass cloudy with condensation.
The cold drink looked so refreshing she forgot to sweeten it, took a healthy
sip and then scrunched her face up.

The cowboy chuckled and pushed the plastic boat of
sugar packets her way, then caught Clem’s eye and pointed at the coffee pot.

She opened two packets and stirred in the contents.
“Iced tea. Texas drink,” she murmured.

“We like our coffee, too,” he said, as Clem set a
steaming cup before him.

“Hot coffee on hotter days.” With a smile she shook
her head. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“Green salad, steak sandwich, ranch beans on the
side,” he told Clem.

She liked the slow, easy way the cowboy talked. She
ate her sandwich and munched chips, aware of his gaze while he sipped the
steaming coffee.

“That’s not much of a dinner you’ve got there,” he
observed.

“That’s because it’s not dinner. It’s lunch.” She
started on the second half of her sandwich. “You’ll eat yours later tonight and
call it supper.”

“Around the same time you’ll be eating your supper
and calling it dinner?”

“You got it.”

The salad arrived, along with a whiff of tangy
dressing, and he dug in. “Where in California?” he asked, cutting a tomato
slice in half.

“The northern coast. Just below San Francisco.”

“Earthquake country.”

“Uh-huh. And this is tornado country. Everybody’s
got something to worry about.”

“Yep. But we get warned when one’s on its way.” He
forked a thick slice of cucumber. “How much warning you get?”

“Okay,” she said with a soft laugh. “I’ll give you
that one.”

He pushed the empty salad bowl away. “Where you
headed?”

She shrugged without looking at him. “A ways yet.”

“Same here. Wonder if we might be headed the same
way?”

The pull she’d felt when they’d exchanged that first
glance was stronger now, and she figured the same went for him. Part of her
wished they were headed the same way so they could explore this draw between
them, while her practical side told her that wouldn’t be wise.

She checked the amount on the bill above her empty
plate. “Doubt it.”

The steak arrived, still sizzling. He tested a
piece, gave the plate a frown, and looked over at the cook, who was wiping down
the middle counter. “Wouldn’t be averse to a jalapeño if one was to be had.”

Lainie was amused by the way he’d phrased the
request inside a statement.

Clem’s face twisted with apology. “Chopped up the
last one for chili, but I got some hot sauce. That might do it.” He turned back
to his kitchen.

Lainie withdrew enough bills to cover the check and
a tip. With a nod at the cowboy, she slid off the stool. The door jangled when
she opened it, then she heard his voice behind her.

“Goodbye, California,” he said softly.

She turned and gave him a long, slow-building grin.
She was flirting, right along with him, but one more smile couldn’t hurt. She’d
never see him again.

“So long, cowboy.” She made her voice as soft and
seductive as his.

The faded-red pickup looked like a workingman’s
vehicle, dusty and dented, and it appeared to have a lot of miles on it. She
eased into her car, grateful that the shade of the billboard belonging to the
gas station next door hadn’t allowed the sun to turn the vehicle into a hotbox.
Instead it was just smotheringly warm. After adjusting the air conditioner to
high, she merged behind the one other vehicle traveling her way. As the café
shrank in the distance, she tried to remember from which direction the pickup
had pulled into the diner’s lot, but she hadn’t been paying attention.

Which was fine, because romance with a cowboy wasn’t
on her itinerary anyway.

*

Two hours later, she stopped on an unpaved road,
blocking it, but no other vehicle was in sight. She angled her head to look
through the passenger window at a wooden gateway, then she stepped out of the
car to get the whole picture. And once she did, though she couldn’t see the
cattle, she caught their unmistakable smell.

Block letters were carved into the top bar of the
gate, spelling AUBURN. The magnitude of the gate and name seemed to encompass
the entire countryside. The simple outline of a tree was etched onto a wooden
plaque that hung from the center, suspended on two short chains. It swayed
gently in the breeze, its soft creak the only sound in the vast silence.

Lone Tree Ranch.

Other than the fact that it existed, Lainie knew
little about Lone Tree Ranch. During her childhood, whenever she’d asked about
the faraway place where her mother had grown up, either a frown of impatience
or a look of pain had been her only response. Her mother’s sense of regret had
caused Lainie to leave the subject in the background.

Her mother was gone now, but Lainie still felt the
turmoil she’d so often sensed from her. It’d brought her to this place to meet
her grandfather, the person her mother had run from. Then, once she met him,
she’d decide if he was worth bringing into her life and sharing the loss of her
mother with, or leave him in the past where he’d been for twenty-five years.

The sun bore down. When she touched the car door’s
handle, she yelped, jerked her hand back and shook it as if she could rid it of
the burning sensation that way. She used the hem of her blouse to grip the
handle, got the door open and slipped inside. Another couple minutes and the
steering wheel would’ve also been too hot to touch.

Tomorrow would be soon enough to tackle Miles
Auburn, the owner of Lone Tree. It’d been a long trip and Lainie needed to have
her wits about her. She also needed to plan how to approach him. Walking in and
announcing kinship didn’t appeal to her. If that had been her objective, she
could’ve written him from California.

But she wanted to meet him face to face. Who was he?
What kind of man? One meeting might be all she’d need, and she’d turn around
and head back home. Mission accomplished, without kinship turning the tide one
way or the other.

As she turned the key in the ignition, she glanced
ahead at the road. It stretched forever, nothing but an occasional ball of
tumbleweed to break its monotony. Rolling hills in the distance, hinting at
green, but here it was flat, dry, and dusty.

Movement in the rearview mirror caught her eye; a
growing cloud of dust signaled company. She left the Lone Tree gate behind her,
looked again, and saw a red pickup turning onto the ranch road. Her heart
skipped a beat as she recalled the cowboy from the diner and his vehicle, then
she laughed softly.

“No way,” she told the mirror. “State’s too big for
that much coincidence.”

She executed a three-point turn and headed back to
Lawary, the small town she’d passed through a half hour ago. First a motel,
then a restaurant, and then she’d work on finding the fortitude to make her own
turn onto the Lone Tree road.

The town’s only motel conveniently faced a café
across a two-lane street. As Lainie walked back from dinner, she bought a local
newspaper from the machine outside the lobby. After a cooling shower, she
pulled on an oversized t-shirt, propped bed pillows against the headboard and
then herself against the pillows. She crossed her bare ankles and opened the
newspaper. Looking for a taste of the town she read the editorial page first,
turned to the want ads and then froze.

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