"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys..." blared out of a sports car that roared past April St. Clair's sophisticated vehicle on the freeway. It was a Friday evening and she was on her way home from work. She glared after the Porsche, not upset simply because she knew she wouldn't be able to get the annoying tune out of her head for hours, but because the song so aptly summed up the crux of her life. She'd taken her mother's advice and become a "lawyer and such", yet she'd never totally been able to escape the cowboy life she'd grown up in.
I really should call Dad, visit him...but how can I ever get myself to go back to Fever? she asked herself guiltily as she took the exit toward her luxury Lubbock townhome. Escaping was hard enough fifteen years ago. How can I explain to him how impossible it is for me to go back there when most of my memories of that place are suffocatingly bad? And how can I ask him to forgive me for being such a rotten daughter, especially after the last time he was here?
April still cringed at the four-month-old memory of when her father had visited her the previous March. Out of nowhere, no phone call, no word of warning...he'd shown up at the law firm she'd made partner at a year ago and asked her to dinner. Her mentor, Senior Of Counsel Attorney Chester Underwood, had been in her office at the time and her father had invited him along, too. The meal had been the most agonizing of her life. Her father had refused to allow her to pay when they both knew he'd been broke most of his life and, since he'd retired as a for-hire ranch hand, that state had only worsened. His unsophisticated clothing, hat and boots, had been all but worn through. Every word out of his mouth had been a curse or laced with bad grammar.
As much as April had hated herself for feeling embarrassed by her own father, that evening she couldn't shake the humiliation. He'd become the epitome of all she'd shed of her old life. Never had she wanted those halves of herself to merge, but they had that night, and her mentor had picked up on her discomfort. After he'd been called away from dinner early, she'd walked Chester to the coat room. He'd gently chided her, saying her father was obviously a good man, salt of the earth, and he loved her and was rightly proud of her. They didn't make cowboys like Peter St. Clair anymore. She had no reason in the world to be embarrassed byhim.
If her father had noticed her cruelty, he hadn't displayed it when she'd returned to the table and absolutely refused to allow him to pay for the check. The waiter had taken her debit card over the crumpled bills her father had been counting out to cover the extravagant bill. Though he'd been hurt that she wouldn't allow him to take his "own daughter out for supper", he'd continued beaming sweetly at her after they'd left the restaurant and gone to his ancient pickup that was quite an eyesore against the rest of the classy vehicles in the parking lot. He'd asked her if she might consider visiting him soon. She'd made an excuse about her work, and, as usual, he'd been understanding. And I put the consideration right out of my head, although the guilt has persisted. I have to call him, if nothing else. I'll do it this weekend. Tomorrow. Or Sunday.
Tonight, she had a date. Her friend, Weston Stewart, would be picking her up in about an hour. They were going to dinner, then dancing at Wild West Lubbock which didn't open until nine o'clock. She had just enough time to jump in the shower and get ready before he arrived.
Pulling into her attached two-car garage, she parked and grabbed her briefcase and purse. Every townhome in the community had a private fenced backyard, membership at the gym centrally located within the residences, and those who lived here were provided year-round lawn care, free cable and internet. She'd fallen in love with the huge two-bedroom, two-bath luxury home. Sure, it was much too big for just her but, compared to what she'd come from, she planned to indulge in the best life had to offer. She could afford it now. Somehow that seemed like her restitution for the few choices she'd been given before she'd struck out on her own to build a life for herself.
She unlocked the side door into her kitchen from the garage, then rushed inside, setting her briefcase and purse on the immaculate counter. She pressed the button to listen to her messages while shucking her shoes and unbuttoning her blazer. Weston, confirming when he would pick her up--and how much he was looking forward to their date. The dry cleaner with confirmation that her clothes were ready to be picked up...
"This is Sheriff Pickler from Fever, Texas. Miss St. Clair, you're listed as the next of kin.I'm sorry to be the one to tell ya your father, Pete St. Clair, was found dead by a neighbor this morning in his trailer..."
April choked in disbelief, punching the button on her answering machine without an ounce of coordination. The message played back and she prayed that it would be different, that she hadn't heard it right. But even when she'd listened to the message four times, the bad news didn't change. By that time, she was clutching the edge of the counter, breathing harshly, as if someone had sucker-punched her in the stomach. Daddy, no. That dinner at the restaurant... It can't be our last time together... No, please.
Without conscious thought, she reached for the receiver and dialed the number that the sheriff had left at the end of the message, asking her to return his call. The same voice answered, and she gasped, "April...St. Clair. My father..."
"Miss St. Clair. Thanks for returnin' my call."
"What..." Tears burned into her eyes, so hot and overwhelming, she had to press her fist ruthlessly against her mouth to control them. I couldn't go to see you, couldn't even call you. Oh, Daddy, how could you always forgive me? How can I ever forgive myself? Tell me this isn't true. Someone tell me that please! I can't take this. Why didn't you accept my offer to pay for an apartment for you here in Lubbock--anything to get out of that dirty, dustbowl, speck of a ranch town? Why did you have to be so attached to Fever? That's the only place you could ever call home, the place you always said you'd die and be buried... April cried out at the thought, and the sheriff immediately stopped his words...something about a good friend and neighbor of her father's who visited him every day, letting herself into his trailer because he hadn't answered her knocks. She'd found him...
"I couldn't be more sorry, Miss St. Clair. Your daddy was a good man. One of a kind."
April closed her eyes, shoving down the grief punching its way up through her chest. She wasn't surprised that the sheriff knew her father so well, even though she didn't recognize his name. In a town as small as Fever, everyone quite literally knew everyone else. If the sheriff had been in town for more than a few years, he would have come to know every soul there--easily. "Please...what happened, Sheriff?"
"How did he...?" Don't make me say it out loud.
"Didn't ya know, honey? Your daddy had cancer."
Cancer? But I just saw him... "Lung?" Her father had smoked cigarettes he rolled himself--two dozen, at least, every day of his life for as long as she could remember.
"Nope. 'Way he smoked, s'pose it woulda made more sense. Nah. He had somethin' he called 'lethal prostate cancer'. Diagnosed 'bout four months ago. He didn't wanna do nothin' about it."
"He refused treatment?"
"Man didn't have two nickels to rub together. And 'way he figured it, he'd had a long, full life."
"All he ever wanted to do was join Mama," she murmured.
"That's right, miss. That he did. Can't believe Petey didn't tell ya when he went up to see ya in March. Thought for sure he would."
"No. I had no idea. I..." She had to admit that her father had looked twenty-five years older and frailer than he had the last time she'd seen him--more than two years previously. What would I have done if he had told me? But she knew the answer to that. She would have taken away all his choices, all the things that made him the man he'd always been. Salt of the earth. They don't make cowboys like Pete St. Clair anymore. She would have insisted he move in with her and follow the prescribed treatment until there were no other options left. Because she wouldn't have wanted to let him go. But she'd known since she was a child that her father was biding his time in this world, waiting to join her mother on the other side. Her mother's death, giving birth to their second child--April's brother or sister--had altered him almost beyond recognition. And not for the good.I always believed I was the one most punished for our loss.
"Think you can come up tonight, Miss St. Clair?"
Tonight? How can I do anything else? I wouldn't want to, despite all my previous misgivings about going back. I need to... I don't know what I need to do, but I have to go there...go home. My guilt will suffocate me if I don't go back to the place I vowed fifteen years ago I'd never return to.
"I can be there in about an hour, Sheriff."
"Good. Come on down to my office. You know..."
"Yes. I grew up in Fever." The sheriff was new--probably the only new thing to come to Fever in a century.
* * * *
Did Dad intend to tell me he had cancer when he came to Lubbock in March? April quickly re-buttoned her blazer and shoved her feet back into her pumps. Why didn't he? Because I was so embarrassed at dinner? Her agony metastasized boundlessly inside her, until she felt she might burst with the torture.
Shaking her head because she could so easily break down right now--when she couldn't--she grabbed her purse and pulled out her cell phone to call Weston. He answered cheerfully, but she didn't let him finish. "I can't go out tonight. Something came up. I won't be able to call you for a few days."
"Few days? Why? What are..."
"I'll call you." She hung up because she knew she was incapable of talking at the moment. She didn't want to say the words out loud, that her father had died--alone and miserable.
Quickly, she walked back out to her car and started the drive to Fever. If only her mind would shut off so she could concentrate on what she had to do now. Instead, memories and old and new fears bombarded her. Did her father believe she hadn't loved him despite what she said? Had her words sounded like lip service to him? She'd never told him the truth because she didn't know how to without making him believe she hated him and never wanted to see him again. That wasn't true, not at all. But she'd never been given the opportunity to grieve for her mother and sibling who hadN'T survived long after birth. She couldn't break down even then because she'd had no choice but to be the strong one.
After her mother had died, her father had rented a filthy hovel of a trailer in town, working seasonally as he found ranch work. There'd never been any money for anything more than the necessities--rent, food, second-hand clothing--and even those had been in short supply. He'd worked all day, came home at night stinking to high heaven, and in between school work, she'd been expected to keep the trailer clean and make all the meals--sometimes out of almost nothing. His grief had devastated him to the point where they hardly talked about anything beyond short, impersonal exchanges. He'd closed himself off to everyone, and sometimes she'd believed he'd done that mostly with her. But as a teenager, when she'd finally analyzed their relationship, she'd realized they'd never truly had one. He worked all the time, she rarely saw him, and even when they were together, they didn't share anything truly special. He'd never been more than her father. It was her mother she'd been close to. When Mama had gotten unexpectedly pregnant, they'd made a million plans together about the new baby. And then Mama had been gone, and there'd been no one to talk to, no one to hold and kiss her, make her her favorite cookies or read her one of the many books she'd adored. Her mother had no longer tucked her into bed at night and said her prayers with her.
One minute, she was with me, and the next she was gone from the face of the earth, gone from the center of my world. And then it was just Daddy, silent and scolding, making sure I was working. I worked my fingers to the bone every single day of my life. When he told me Mom had left me a small inheritance, I knew at that very minute that it was my only escape. I was a straight A student because it was the only way to get out of this hard, thankless life with no compassion, no love. Mom wanted me to have choices, and, even if the little she could scrimp and save for me wasn't much, it was all I needed to get out. Combined with the money I made as a teenager working part-time at the local motel as a maid, I was all set. Loans and scholarships and a full-time job during college and then law school finished what Mama started.
April hadn't expected her father to be stunned when she announced the day she graduated high school that she was leaving, going to college--she'd gotten into prestigious Rice University in Houston. With her flawless grades and highest honors, she'd had her pick of colleges. But he hadn't known any of it. She'd never been sure he would let her go when the time came, and so she didn't take any chances. She'd kept aside part of her paychecks for a car that she'd purchased only a few days before she graduated. She'd packed what little she owned into a brown bag, and when she got home from her graduation ceremony that day, she'd been all ready to leave behind the life that had caused her such agony. Nothing could have stopped her, especially her father. She'd steeled herself against anything he might forbid her to do.
But he'd only stared at her in shock that she wanted to leave her home, leave him alone. He hadn't looked that devastated since her mother's funeral. And it'd thrown her. She'd mumbled something about having made him a month's worth of meals--they were neatly labeled and organized in the freezer--before she fled the trailer and went out to her "new" used car. He'd followed her, looking lost, especially when he'd asked her when he'd see her again, and she hadn't known how to answer beyond that things would be busy for a while. She'd call when she was settled in... When he'd hugged her, she'd known he hadn't wanted to let her go, and she'd been the one to pull away. She'd run...because she'd felt very much like she was escaping something, running like hell for her life--from a life she hadn't enjoyed since her mother had been taken from her so cruelly.
While in college, taking summer classes and working a full-time job even then, she'd come home one afternoon. Her father had been out. Standing in the trailer again, remembering who she'd been--the little girl in third-hand clothes, hand-me-down, boys' cowboy boots, her long hair always twisted into a knot to keep it out of her way, living for the few moments she got to relax and read a book for pleasure--she'd been frozen in memories. Whatever she did during her days while she grew up here, she'd forever been dreaming. Dreaming of designer clothing that fit her because they'd been made specifically for her, her hair professionally cut in a flattering style that made her beautiful, doing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to because she'd worked hard for the privilege. She could be anything. She could be someone--someone important. She'd be her own boss and no one would tell her what she had to do and how to do it. People would envy her. They would respect her. They would never see even a glimpse of who she'd been forced to be long ago.
Instead of waiting for her father to get back home that day, she'd turned tail and run the same way she had when she'd left this place. She'd known for as long as she could remember that her father would always be a part of this town--as much as the ground and the sky and the cattle were. But she couldn't go back to a life she'd hated passionately after her mother's death, not even for a visit.
That unnatural abhorrence she'd felt that last time she'd been in Fever washed over her again as soon as she pulled into town. Fighting it wasn't easy, especially when she wasn't willing to consider why she was here now. She drove straight to the sheriff's department, a tiny three room building just off the main drag. April imagined this town didn't look much different now than it had when it was founded in 1842.
Although it was nearly seven p.m., the heat was almost unbearable when she stepped outside the air conditioning in her car. She felt like she was wilting during the short walk inside, and she wasn't in the least surprised when she stepped into the building and saw the windows open, junky, old-fashioned fans churning out the dry, hot air and spitting it as far as it could across the room. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been anywhere that didn't have air conditioning.
There was a small desk in the corner of the room. An older lady sat behind and a middle-aged man perched on the corner of it. He wore a uniform that made her shudder because it looked so stuffy and hot. They both turned to look at her, blinking in shock as if she'd dropped in from another planet instead of the city.
"April St. Clair?" the sheriff asked, coming to his feet. He grinned. "Well, your daddy wasn't kiddin' about you bein' pretty as a picture."
April swallowed. No one in Fever would describe her that way except her father. The last time anyone else had seen her, she'd been a waif of a shy girl, taller than almost everyone her age, and certainly ganglier. She'd been all straight, blond hair and awkward, skinny, long limbs. Most probably didn't even know what she'd looked like without her nose buried in a book--library book. She'd never owned a book until she went off into the world on her own.
Pretty? No. She'd been far from it. She'd also never worn makeup until she'd left this place. No boy had ever looked at her, and she hadn't had a single friend to call her own. She'd always told herself she was glad about that--nothing to make her look back for.
The older woman--Mabel Mulroney--shook her head, her lips pursed but smiling. "Ain't seen anything so fancy in Fever since Mac Mackenzie brought his little woman, Mandy, out here to live in the sticks. She had some high-falutin' title like 'interior decorator', but she's sweet as blueberry pie."
The sheriff chuckled, and April blushed as much from embarrassment as the heat. She couldn't help wondering what they were thinking of her--considering the poverty her father had lived in. Did they realize he lived that way by choice? He'd refused to accept anything she offered him. Did they believe she'd refused to pay for his medical treatment as well? Did they wonder why she'd never visited him? Did they assume she was a heartless, rich monster who hadn't cared at all?
"I asked Mort to keep the funeral home open a little longer tonight, so you could see your daddy and work out the arrangements," the sheriff told her kindly.
Mort? The mortuary was owned by a man named Mort? She shouldn't have been surprised, but then he was probably just called that by everyone in town. Nicknames were preferable to real names around here. That was probably why April didn't recognize him.
As the sheriff led her outside, he said, "I don't wanna tell you this, honey, if you don't already know, but your daddy didn't have anything to leave behind for you. Nothin' but what's in the trailer he rented, his truck, and the horse he bought not long ago."
She barely noticed him calling her "honey"--something that most lawyers in big cities would take exception to. In small, old-fashioned Fever, calling a girl or woman "honey" was the same thing as calling her by name. It meant nothing and was only one step above "miss".
"Wait...what? Did you say my father bought a horse?"
Sheriff Pickler nodded "Been boardin' it over at Triple Aces."
"My father couldn't have afforded a horse, and he absolutely would not take money from me."
"You're right there. He was a proud man. But he said he'd been savin' for years, and when he finally had what he needed, he bought that there horse. Wanted Shawn Jacobs to train it, but Shawn only agreed to put it up."
April frowned at the familiar name. Shawn Jacobs? The same boy she'd gone to school with? Shawn had been by far the most popular boy at the school--a school that was elementary, middle and high school all rolled into one. The girls had all been mad for him, with his straw-blond hair, muscular frame, good looks and the kind of charm that could get him anything he wanted. Shawn had never looked at her seriously once. Probably never knew I existed and I don't believe for a second that he remembers our humiliating interactions, especially that last one.
The day they'd graduated high school, she'd been beyond petrified to have to deliver the valedictory address--by virtue of having the highest rank in a graduating class, in fact the highest rank in nearly thirty years--at the commencement exercises. She hadn't believed she could be more agonizingly self-conscious than in doing that, but she'd been wrong about that being the worse of it. As she'd returned to her seat after her speech, Shawn Jacobs had stuck out his leg at the last minute and she'd gone sprawling like the gangly filly she'd been. The entire school had broken into wild laughter. Even to this day, the thought of that incident mortified her. Shawn had only compounded the problem by trying to help her up. She'd slapped him away. She'd never wanted him to touch her again, and she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to forgive him for ending her time in Fever as the laughingstock. It was probably what everyone remembered best about her. No, she never wanted to see him again. Would she have to now? Because of a horse her father couldn't possibly have been able to afford?
"My father probably had bills...in town or elsewhere. I want to pay them."
"Sure that would be appreciated by many, miss."
The visit to the tiny funeral home in the same building as the police station was the hardest thing April had ever done. Seeing her father's ravaged, shrunken form, lifeless on the table, undid her. She couldn't stay there, and the sheriff quickly took her away. She'd given Mort her cell phone number so that when arrangements--the best of everything--were finalized, he could call her.
Sheriff Pickler escorted her to the trailer court in town, and the neighbor she'd been told about joined them just outside her father's trailer. "I am so sorry to have you come home like this, hon," Lindy Matron, a woman who had to be in her late fifties and looked "sweet as blueberry pie", said when they'd been introduced. "Your daddy out-and-out refused treatment. He collapsed once, see, and Sheriff here took him on over to Lubbock. Petey didn't like that much, I can tell you, when he woke up. He'd known for a while somethin' was wrong, but he didn't see no point to gettin' it taken care of. So, even though he was diagnosed with that lethal cancer, he figured the sooner it was over, the better. Your daddy was a brave man. He was in terrible pain near all the time."
"Pete never told his daughter nothin'," the sheriff confided.
"Well, hell. Suspected as much, or you would've come 'round, wouldn't you've, hon?"
April swallowed, and Lindy put a comforting arm around her shoulders. Almost as if she was reading her guilty, devastated mind, Lindy insisted forcefully, "You didn't do nothin' wrong, honey. Don't you think you did for a second, hear me? Your daddy was who he was, and nothin' was gonna change that. But, boy howdy, was he proud of you. Talked about you every single day of his life. How big and important you was over in the city at that law firm. He loved you to pieces, hon. Went to every single one of those big events in your life--said he'd never forgive himself for not goin' to your high school graduation, and you bein' the valey-dictory, too."
Blinking at the older woman, April murmured, "He came to...my college graduation?"
"Didn't he tell you? Well, hell. Didn't he congratulate you there? He went to everything, hon--when you finished law school, passed the bar and got your first job at that fancy law firm, and when you made partner there and they threw you that big ol' party. Kept up on all of it, he did. Sun rose and set on you, April. How come he never told you he was there all those times?"
April shook her head, flabbergasted to learn that he'd felt bad about missing her high school graduation ceremony in the first place and the rest of it to boot.
"You're even more radiant than he always said. Look just like your mama. I seen pictures up all over the trailer." Lindy grinned. "'Bout the only things that man ever dusted."
The words reminded April that she had to go inside her father's trailer--sooner or later. She wasn't sure she could do it either.
"Might wanna run over to the Triple Aces Ranch tomorrow, miss. See about that horse," Sheriff Pickler advised. "You know how to find it?"
April nodded. In the summer, she and her mother had always gone to the ranches her father worked at during the day. Sometimes to help out, and other times just because it was about the only thing to do. Her mother met up with her women friends there, and April could always find a quiet place in the haymow, near the horses, or in the pastures to read a book. Her father had worked at Triple Aces a lot, and so she knew it well. "I remember. Thanks for everything, Sheriff."
When he'd left, April glanced at the rundown shack of a trailer, and Lindy seemed to see her anxiety when she murmured, "You're as white as a sheet, hon. Come on in my trailer. I got air conditionin'. My son put it in for me. We'll have some iced tea and you can get your bearin's."
At any other time, April would have refused, but she wanted to put off the inevitable. If it couldn't be indefinitely, she'd take what she could get.