Luke Dawson stood alone in the Rainbow Valley cemetery, eyeing the coffin in front of him and feeling not one bit of sorrow. He knew this was a time for tears and prayers, but he hadn't cried since he was four years old, and he'd stopped saying prayers when he realized nobody on the other end seemed to be listening. As for the man in the coffin, neither tears nor prayers were going to change a thing about where he spent eternity.
Luke heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Father Andrews approaching. He wore the vestments of an Episcopal priest and a solemn expression to match the occasion. When Luke was a teenager, Father Andrews had been new in town, fresh out of seminary and eager to save the world. He'd tried to talk Luke into coming to the youth group at church, and Luke had responded by taking one last drag off his Marlboro, grinding the butt beneath his boot, and telling him to go to hell.
But they were both older now. Painting graffiti on the side of the school building and shoplifting beer from the Pic 'N Go were distant memories for Luke, and the lines etched on Father Andrews's face said his idealism had dissolved into an outlook that was considerably more realistic. He put a hand on Luke's arm.
"I'm sorry about your father."
Luke glanced over his shoulder, seeing nothing but a small scattering of headstones guarded by hundred-year-old red oaks. "It appears you're the only one."
"There was no announcement of the service."
"This is a small town," Luke said. "People know."
"When did you last see your father?"
"The day I left Rainbow Valley."
"You haven't been back since then?"
"No. Not once."
"Do you know of any other friends or relatives who may be joining us?"
His father had only a few relatives, but they were so distant Luke hadn't even bothered to contact them. As for friends, Glenn Dawson didn't have any. For forty years, he'd been a stain on the fabric of Rainbow Valley, Texas, a spotless tourist town that prided itself on its wholesome image. He'd lived in a run-down house on twenty ragged acres and subsisted on panhandling and disability checks. Luke had never been completely sure of his father's disability, but he'd managed to con some social worker into believing he couldn't work. His first stop whenever he received a monthly check had been the liquor store.
And the more he drank, the meaner he got.
"No," Luke said. "Nobody. Just go ahead and say whatever it is you have to say so we can get this over with."
Father Andrews opened his Bible and began to read. Luke slipped off his cowboy hat and held it in front of him, more out of respect for Father Andrews than the man in the coffin. Luke just let the priest's words flow past him, closing his mind to the memories that tried to surface. He only wished they could be buried right along with his father.
Then he heard something behind him. He looked over his shoulder, surprised to see a woman coming up the sidewalk. For a moment he couldn't place the face, only to have a wave of recognition wash over him.
The last time he'd seen Rita Kaufman, she'd been in charge of the Rainbow Valley Animal Shelter, tossing hay to the horses and manhandling cranky hundred-pound dogs. She looked twenty years older now, even though only eleven years had passed. She leaned on a cane, walking with a slight limp. Her dark hair was more salt than pepper now, and veins stood out sharply on her forearms. But when she finally reached Luke's side and looked up at him, he was pleased to see blue eyes as steely and determined as ever.
Father Andrews paused, and Luke said, "Mrs. Kaufman. Nice to see you."
She nodded, then turned to the priest. "Sorry to interrupt, Father. Go on."
As Father Andrews continued, Luke felt grateful that Mrs. Kaufman had taken the trouble to show up. When he was in high school, she'd given him a job at the shelter when nobody else would hire him. At first she'd been hell to work for, because nobody had ever laid down the law to him like Rita Kaufman. But gradually she'd become the one person in this town he could look up to, and for the first time in his life, he knew what it felt like to have somebody give a damn.
Luke understood there were certain liturgical necessities the priest had to perform, but every minute that passed was painful. In the distance, clouds churned and darkened, joined by the faint rumble of thunder. It would be raining within the hour. After that, a rainbow would probably appear. Luke had always felt the irony of living a gritty, black‑and‑white life in a town where rainbows appeared more often than just about any other place in the country.
By the time the priest closed his Bible, Luke felt as if a century had passed.
"Thank you, Father," he said.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Father Andrews asked.
He nodded to the coffin. "This will all be taken care of by this evening."
"I know. I talked to the people here earlier."
"Well, then." Father Andrews reached out his hand. "It's good to see you again. I'm just sorry it's under these circumstances."
Luke shook his hand. With a final solemn smile, the priest headed back down the sidewalk.
Mrs. Kaufman turned to Luke. "So are you staying in town for a while?"
"No," he said, slipping his hat back on. "I have to be at a rodeo in Phoenix day after tomorrow, so I need to get on the road."
"I've been watching the standings. Looks like you're heading to the World Championship this year."
So she knew what he'd been up to. Luke wondered if anybody else in this town had been inclined keep up. He doubted it. It was more likely that they were waiting for his photo to show up on the post office wall.
"Keep your eye on ESPN the first week of November," Luke said. "You just might see me win the bull riding championship."
"I'll be watching."
If Luke won the championship, endorsements would follow. Hats, jeans, pickup trucks—you name it. More than once he'd fantasized that one of those companies would buy space on the big billboard on the outskirts of Rainbow Valley and splash his face all over it. Then nobody in town would be able to enter the city limits without knowing that the kid they swore would follow in his father's footsteps had actually made something of himself.
Luke glanced at the coffin one last time, waiting for some kind of emotion to overtake him, but all he seemed to be able to feel was relief. He and Mrs. Kaufman turned and made their way down the sidewalk toward the cemetery entrance.
"So how are things at the shelter?" Luke asked.
"Good, I hear. I'm not there anymore. This damned stroke. Had to retire."
So that was it. Luke figured it had to be something pretty substantial to slow Rita Kaufman down.
"Are you married?" she asked as they walked.
He smiled furtively. "Several."
"Ever think about settling down?"
"It's hard to settle down when I'm in a different town every week. But it'll be worth it when I win the big one."
"Guess I'll have to figure out what to do with all that money." They stopped by the cemetery gate. "Thanks for coming. I appreciate it."
"I'm sorry about your father."
Luke knew her condolences weren't just about his father's death. They were also about his life. And Luke was damned sorry about that himself. An unseasonably cool breeze swirled around him, accompanied by a rumble of thunder, and he had the most unnerving feeling that his father had stepped up to take one last swing at him before heading to whatever afterlife was waiting.
Luke had grown up with the knowledge that he was nothing but a rock around his father's neck, a kid dropped on his father's doorstep by a woman even more disreputable than he was. She'd been a mother only by the broadest definition of the word, a woman who'd decided a two-year-old was just a little too much to handle between turning tricks and soaking herself in alcohol. His father heard she died years later, giving him an unneeded reason to pop open another bottle of whiskey.
"I'm glad he's gone," Luke said. "You suppose I'm going to hell for that?"
Mrs. Kaufman lifted her shoulder in a tiny shrug. "Nah. You did enough time in hell when you were a kid. I'm thinking maybe that gives you a free pass to heaven."
"Nice to know. Now I can act up all I want to."
"Don't get cocky. Whatever the Lord gives, the Lord can take away."
Luke smiled briefly. Then his smile faded. "You know that bull riding championship?"
"I'm going to win it."
Mrs. Kaufman's steely blue eyes softened. "You know what, Luke? I believe you." She paused. "And I hope that's the thing that finally makes you happy."
Luke felt an odd twinge when she said that. Then he brushed off the feeling and gave her a smile. "A man doesn't get much happier than I am right now."
He wasn't lying. Nothing thrilled him more than the prospect of being at the top of his game. In three months, the championship would be his, and he'd have everything he'd ever dreamed of.
Luke felt a drop or two of rain. He looked at the sky and realized the storm was moving in faster than he'd thought.
"Where are you heading?" he asked Mrs. Kaufman.
"Rosie's. Meeting a friend for lunch. It was a nice day, so I walked from the square. I should know better than that by now, shouldn't I? Nice days around here can turn to rainstorms before you know it."
"If you walk back, you're liable to get drenched," Luke said. "Let me drive you."
Knowing Mrs. Kaufman, she'd tell him she could most certainly walk a few blocks by herself, rain or no rain. Instead, she said she'd appreciate the ride, and he helped her into his truck. Her stroke had clearly forced some realities on her she'd never had to face before.
As he drove the two blocks to the town square, the storm kicked up, and by the time Luke pulled into a parking space in front of Rosie's, his windshield wipers were on high. He waited for a small break in the downpour before helping Mrs. Kaufman into the café.
The place hadn't changed much. It had the same black and white tiled floor, the same red vinyl booths. Photos in cheap frames lined most of the walls, showing various Texas politicians, minor celebrities, and other VIPs who'd dropped in over the years to try Rosie's barbecue and chicken fried steak. Families with squirming kids were scattered at tables, their cameras and shopping bags from Lola's Pet Emporium screaming tourist loud and clear. A couple of men sat at the Formica‑topped counter, sipping coffee and reading the paper. One waitress chatted with another at the end of the counter, both of them wearing tank tops, jeans, and pink bib aprons that said Rosie's Café: Pets Welcome, People Tolerated.
Then one of the waitresses turned and saw Luke. She froze for a moment, her eyes growing big. Then she turned to the other waitress, and he could read her lips from across the room.
Look! That's Luke Dawson!
It took him a few seconds to recognize her. First name Bobbie, last name...he couldn't remember. She'd been a year ahead of him at Rainbow Valley High, one of those girls who thought about sex first and her reputation second, who would have gotten horizontal with him in a heartbeat if only he'd said the word. He found it a little pitiful that she was still there eleven years later, waiting tables for lousy tips.
Get out of this town, he wanted to shout. There’s a whole world out there! Go now, while you still can!
But he knew his advice would be lost on her. She already had that bright, gossipy glint in her eyes, and five minutes after he left, she was going to be telling everyone she knew that he was back to stir up trouble all over again.
It was definitely time to go.
Luke said goodbye to Mrs. Kaufman and turned to leave, only to have something familiar catch his eye. He turned back, focusing on a woman sitting in a booth along the back wall, her head bowed as she read the menu. Just the sight of her made every nerve in his body tighten, and for a moment he could barely breathe. Memories collided with each other so fast and so wildly it felt as if a dozen DVDs were playing inside his head all at once.
No. It couldn't be. Shannon North?
He told himself it had to be somebody else, that his eyes had to be playing tricks on him. But even though eleven years had passed and adolescent memories were untrustworthy things, still there was no doubt about it.
It was Shannon.
She wore jeans and a T-shirt, and she'd pulled her dark hair into a ponytail at the crown of her head, just as she had all those years ago when they'd worked together at the shelter. But the tall, gangly girl he remembered was gone. As pretty as she’d been back then, it had merely hinted at the beauty she was waiting to grow into.
And boy, had she ever grown into it.
Until he walked into this cafe, his memory of her had been blurry around the edges, growing more colorless as time passed, like a photograph fading away. Now he was flung back eleven years to a sizzling summer night when his emotions had run so hot he'd practically incinerated on the spot. She was the girl he'd wanted beyond all reason, the girl who gave him a feeling of worth for the first time in his life. Then came the night everything fell apart, leaving him broken and aching inside. It was a lesson he'd never forgotten.
An enormous brindle‑coated Great Dane sat on the floor beside Shannon, nervously alert. Just then there was a loud clap of thunder, and he leaped up and scurried under the table. Shannon just stroked her foot along his side as she continued to look at the menu.
It didn't surprise Luke to see a dog in the cafe, not when Rainbow Valley advertised itself as the most pet-friendly town in America. And it didn't surprise him that the dog was with Shannon. There were animal lovers, and then there was Shannon North. But it wasn't excessive puppy-petting that set her apart. She had no bleeding heart to get in the way of common sense. Just a deeply ingrained belief that every creature that walked the earth deserved a break.
"She's the friend I'm meeting for lunch," Mrs. Kaufman said.
Luke snapped out of his trance. "She lives here now?"
"She took over for me at the shelter two years ago."
Luke couldn't believe it. He'd thought surely she lived hundreds of miles away, taking advantage of all the opportunities she'd had that he could never have hoped for. Yet here she was having lunch at Rosie's as if time had stood still.
"She went to the University of Texas," Rita said. "Got her accounting degree and moved to Houston. I stole her away from a public accounting firm. Their loss."
So Shannon had done everything she said she was going to--college, professional degree, high-powered job, only to move back to Rainbow Valley. Her life in Houston had to have been a good one, way better than what this dinky little town could offer. So why in the world would she want to come back here?
A possible answer came with his next heartbeat. For a man, maybe?
"And no, she's not married," Rita said, as if she'd read his mind.
Just then Shannon closed her menu and turned toward the door, and Luke knew the exact moment she saw him. Her eyes widened, recognition lighting her face. For a split second, he imagined her smiling. Waving. Something. But just as quickly, she turned her attention back to her menu, studying it as if she didn't already have it memorized.
So many times during the past several years, Luke wondered what it would be like if he ever saw Shannon again. In his heart, though, he knew. She would ignore him as if she hadn't even seen him. Still, her instantaneous dismissal felt like a knife right to his heart, and for a moment the pain was as sharp as it had been all those years ago.
He brushed it aside, telling himself he'd put this place behind him. Put her behind him. But that didn't mean he wasn't tempted to walk right across this café and slide into the booth beside her, just so he could watch her flustered face as she tried to reconcile her eleven‑year‑old memory with the flesh‑and‑blood man sitting beside her.
"Why don't you join us for lunch?" Mrs. Kaufman said.
Luke nearly choked. Was she serious? "That wouldn't be a good idea."
"I'm pretty good at reading body language," he said, nodding in Shannon's direction. "She's hoping I'll turn around and walk right out of here."
"Oh, no. I don't think—"
"Oh, yes ma'am. And as much as I appreciate the invitation, I'm going to do just that."
"I should have told you earlier," Mrs. Kaufman said. "She sends her condolences."
"Oh, yeah? So why didn't she deliver them in person?"
Mrs. Kaufman paused. “It's not my place to answer that. I’m just passing on the message.”
"Then you can consider it passed on," Luke said. "Goodbye, Mrs. Kaufman. And thanks again. For everything."
Before she could say another word, he left the café. The rain was letting up, but it still dripped from the brim of his hat as he hurried to his truck. He had one last stop to make before leaving town—the real estate office. It was time to find out what he needed to do to get his father's property sold so once he left this place again, he'd never have to come back. But as he started to get into his truck, compulsion drove him to turn back and look through the window into the cafe.
Shannon was watching him.
After a moment, she tilted her head and he saw her lips move, forming words he'd never expected to see.
For several seconds, Luke couldn't tear his gaze away. Maybe the rain drizzling down the glass had made him see things that weren't really there. But if she'd said those words, exactly what did they mean? Was she sympathizing?
He didn't care. If it was sympathy, he didn't need it, and if it was an apology, it was about eleven years too late.
He got into his truck, refusing to look back again as he drove away. Shannon belonged only in his memories, distant ones that were going to stay buried, now and forever.