Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe

Kathleen Eagle

July 2013 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-300-0

Can their marriage survive the ultimate betrayal?

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Can their marriage survive the ultimate betrayal?

Young and passionately in love, Clara and Ben Pipestone came from vastly different worlds. She was a college student, studying the indigenous people of the Great Plains. He fixed cars in the winter and followed the amateur Indian rodeo circuit all summer. Ignoring those who doomed their relationship to failure, they married, settled into their life in Bismarck, North Dakota, and had a beautiful daughter, Anna.

But now, thirteen years later, Ben's alcoholism blurs his judgment and lands him in the arms of another woman. The betrayal has torn their marriage apart, and their daughter is paying the price. Shoplifting, drinking, and running with a bad crowd, Anna is out of control. Determined to save their troubled teenage daughter, Clara and Ben take Anna and join a two week trek on horseback across an unforgiving winter terrain, a journey across sacred land in remembrance of Ben's Lakota ancestors.

Can their journey bring them a better understanding of the past and each other? Can it heal their broken trust and unite them as a family?

Bestselling author Kathleen Eagle set aside a gratifying seventeen-year teaching career on a North Dakota Indian reservation to become a full-time novelist. The Lakota Sioux heritage of her husband and their three children has inspired many of her stories. Among her other honors, she has received the Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award.


"Deeply moving, a wonderful romance and a joyous journey of the spirit . . . I loved it!" —Susan Elizabeth Phillips

"A marvelous journey of hearts in search of healing, love, and understanding . . ." —Tami Hoag

"One of romance fiction's premiere storytellers, Kathleen Eagle has given us a reason to believe in the power and the magic of love.” —Debbie Macomber



Mid-October 1990

ANNA PIPESTONE tucked the bottle of Obsession for Men beneath the pile of stuffed animals that served as sentries in the dark corner of her closet. It was a safe place to store all the booty she'd stolen since her friend Jennifer had introduced her to the thrills and skills of shoplifting two months ago. As long as the closet didn't look too messy, she knew her mother wouldn't bother it.

Each small item in her stash was like a trophy, snatched right out from under the nose of a certain bigheaded clerk who manned the cosmetics counter at Dalton's. Sadly, Anna had lost out on the last trophy—an umbrella offered free with any fifteen-dollar purchase—when a skinny guy in a black leather jacket had stopped her the second she'd stepped over the line into the mall. "Store security,” he'd mumbled past a lip full of chew.

At first she'd thought he was just some horny kid trying to hit on her. People always found it hard to believe, just looking at her, that she was only thirteen. But he'd been careful not to touch her, and it was a good thing. She'd have popped him a good one. She'd seen a show on TV about bogus strip searches by guys who looked just about as sleazy as this one. Besides, cops weren't supposed to chew snuff.

But this one did. And in her defensive mode, Anna had almost forgotten about the damned umbrella. At her hearing, she'd tried to tell the juvenile court referee that she'd just taken the giveaway sign at its word and missed the fine print about having to buy something, but he hadn't bought it.

Neither had her mother. The best part of it was, Dalton's was her mother's favorite store. Anna sat back on her haunches and smiled at the white bear her dad had given her for her eighth birthday. She still remembered these things. Who'd given her what for which birthday. Her dad was always saying she wasn't getting any more stuffed animals, but then her birthday would come around, and he'd be the one to give her another bear. Her mother favored clothes and maybe something for her room, like the new yellow comforter on her bed.

Anna didn't like the room's yellow and white decor anymore. She'd tried to tell her mother she wanted to change it to red and black, but Miss Clean and Straight wouldn't listen. As soon as the furor over this crappy probation she was temporarily chained to blew over, she was going to get herself a few cans of black paint and put the daisy wallpaper out of its perky misery.

She pushed herself up off the floor, then flopped on the bed and snatched the morning paper off the alarm clock that sat on her nightstand. According to Daisy Duck's white-gloved fingers, it was almost two o'clock. She was skipping fifth period. She'd have to get moving if she was going to make it to sixth. She didn't skip class very often—detention was a pain in the ass—but somebody had asked her if that Pipestone guy in this morning's paper was related to her. Even though she hadn't looked at the paper, she'd said he wasn't. She didn't ask what it was about, and she didn't want to check out the story in the school library. If it was something about her dad—if he'd fallen off the wagon and gotten picked up by the cops or gotten in a wreck—she'd wanted to be alone when she read about it. She'd gotten a ride home with Jennifer and her scuzzy boyfriend.

But the story wasn't about Ben Pipestone. It was about the upcoming annual Big Foot Memorial Ride. The article quoted Dewey Pipestone, Anna's grandfather, as saying that he was getting too old to be the spiritual leader for the Lakota on such an arduous venture, but there was no one to take his place. Anna knew that the remark was an oblique reference to her father. Dewey Pipestone was determined to live to see his son succeed him as carrier of the Sacred Pipe. Ben's standard reply was, "Guess the ol' man's bound to outlive me, then.” Outwait, Dewey would say. And round and round it went.

Round and round, Anna thought. Just like her and her mom. The ol' lady had only one person left to rag on, now that she'd kicked Daddy out, and that was Anna. Well, if the woman was going to bitch anyway, might as well give her something to bitch about. And as long as Anna was already skipping school, she figured she might as well have some fun. Jennifer Hardin wasn't exactly deep, but she was good for a few laughs. Maybe a little party or something.

Anna reached for the white Princess phone beside the bed. The Tribune snagged her drifting attention, and she dropped the receiver back in place.

It had been a while since she'd seen her grandfather. He'd had a crappy-sounding cough ever since she could remember. An old man's way of hacking. She couldn't imagine he'd gotten any younger. Two weeks was a long time to spend in the saddle, especially in December, especially in South Dakota in December.

Of course, it would have to be a lot easier nowadays than it had been the first time around. Anna had read something about it in school—about a paragraph's worth in the eighth grade history book about the "Battle of Wounded Knee”—but she'd also heard it from the Indian side. A century ago, back in 1890, most of the people had walked those two hundred and some-odd miles, and they'd done it because they had no choice. They were being hounded by the U.S. Army.

But Anna's grandfather did have a choice. He didn't have to risk his health, not in this day and age. He could turn the pipe over to someone else. He was too old to be spending eight or ten hours a day on horseback for two weeks and camping out in the winter.

But Anna could do it. She had a long Christmas vacation coming. Her father wasn't interested, and she could just about imagine what her mother would say. But so what? Those two were so screwed up, it wasn't funny. She'd told them once that if they ever split up, she wasn't going to stay with either one of them. She wasn't going to visit them or let them come to her wedding or baby-sit their grandchildren, nothing. When she'd said it, she wasn't thinking it would actually happen.

It had happened to Jennifer Hardin and a bunch of other kids she knew, but it would never happen to her. Her parents had had a hard enough time getting together, what with her dad being an Indian, her mom being white. They'd had a few problems, big deal. Her dad was working on his problem. As for her mom's problem, well... being too damn good probably wasn't curable. The woman just couldn't be wrong, couldn't cross over the line, couldn't make a mistake.

But Anna could do it. She could do anything she damn well pleased. Who would stop her? Near as she could tell, her dad hadn't even tried to stand up to her mom. He'd just tucked his tail between his legs and moved out. And now her mom couldn't look at a picture of him or find one of his socks in the back of the drawer or even make a pot of goulash without getting all teary-eyed. If she thought she was hiding all that sniffling from Anna, she was definitely mistaken.

What had he done? Anna wanted to know. She got no answers. She'd stopped asking. She had her own life, her own friends, her own stuff to do. Great stuff, too. Just ask her, and she was ready. Just dare her, and she'd try it. Like this ride, for instance. Just let somebody say the word no, and she'd tell them just where they could go.

Anna could do it.


IT WAS THE SONG playing on the radio that made Ben Pipestone tighten his two-fisted grip on the big steering wheel of his old red and white Chevy pickup. Somebody up there had to be orchestrating moments like this, putting "Me and Bobbie McGee” in the DJ's hands just as Ben was approaching the newly resurfaced driveway of his former home. Some all-seeing body who had nothing better to do than to mess with a man's head just when the sorry bastard thought he was finally getting it on straight.

He doubted that Tunkasila had much time for him these days. Probably not Jesus, either, or the Virgin Mary, or anybody in the upper echelon of the Spirit World. He'd bet on his old buddy, Iktome. It was just like the wily Lakota Trickster to play on the sentimental bone a guy could have sworn he didn't have in his body.

Clara was the one who was always getting sentimental over songs, but there Ben sat, staring at the house and letting his throat tighten up over foolish memories. It hurt to swallow, but he actually savored the fleeting twinge. Yeah, pour on the pain, he told himself. Pain was good. Physical pain was the kind of a challenge a guy could really sink his teeth into and hope to beat.

The best way to kill it—well, maybe the second best—was to get busy and concentrate on the here and now. Forget the past and face the present. Deal with the condition of the driveway right in front of him. Take note that the guy who had sold him on the asphalt had done a nice job, which was good to know since Ben had paid the bill simply on Clara's terse approval. No detailed report, no "Thanks, we needed that.” All she'd said was, "Yes, it's fine.” So he'd taken what satisfaction could be had in writing a check for the balance owed on the job. After all, it was still his house, at least partly, if not his home.

The yard needed some work, though. Clara was a great one for putting in flowers in the spring, but after the first frost, she'd always left the dead stuff for him to take care of. Not that he'd minded much. This was the first house he'd owned, and he'd never had a yard before. Probably never would again, not one like this. He figured he might as well drive back up to Bismarck and take care of the fall cleanup next week, sometime when no one would be home.

The thing he'd liked most about the house was the view of the river bluffs from the big window in the front room. Clara had had her list of requirements, but he'd mortgaged his soul so that he could see forever on a clear day. And in North Dakota you could count on plenty of cloudless sky. Someday he was going to buy the adjacent farmland, he'd told Clara. Plenty of room to keep a couple of horses. Some primal part of his brain still measured his personal worth in horses.

The late afternoon sunlight slanted across the field behind the house like long fingers reaching for the last biscuit on the table. Don't reach, Ben could hear Clara saying in that soft, crisp tone she took when she was being the authoritative mother. Ask, and it shall be passed.

Ask, and it shall be passed.

How about, ask and it shall be past?

Not likely. Not after what he'd done.

He set the brake and draped his wrists over the top of the steering wheel, rubbing his chin on the shoulder of his denim jacket. Softly, absently, he added his deep voice to the song's final refrain as he gazed out the pickup's side window. The backyard had faded to yellow-green, but the autumn sun had turned the alfalfa stubble to pure gold. The hollow echo of one single yesterday was all he had to hang on to most nights. It wasn't always the same one, but he tried to stick to the good ones. The days when the troubles were still far away and the nights when he'd slept nearly guilt-free. Those were the yesterdays he believed in.

Today Clara wanted to talk to him about Annie. She'd said so over the phone, taking refuge in a tone she'd once reserved for salespeople and bill collectors. He should have just said, "Talk. I'm listening.” That was usually the way it was anyway these days. She'd talk. He'd listen. It was always about Annie. Clara wouldn't talk to him about much else.

By now she'd have seen his pickup in the driveway, and would be waiting for him to come to the door. He didn't have time for a cigarette, but he sure could have used one.

It wasn't that he didn't want to see her. He did. He always did. Even when he knew he wasn't going to enjoy seeing the look that inevitably crept into her autumn-colored eyes whenever she saw him these days. She always managed to coat that sad look with something harder—a cool glaze, an angry sheen—but at the core of it he could see the hurt. It was always there for him to see, which was as it should have been, for he had been the one to put it there.

The last time he'd mounted the front steps, all hell had broken loose when he'd walked right on in and announced his presence. In the interest of trying to keep the peace, he slowly extended one finger toward the doorbell, but he couldn't quite bring himself to punch the button. Granted, she'd been making most of the house payments since she'd kicked him out, but before that it had always been "we,” "us,” and "ours.” He couldn't see ringing his own doorbell unless he was locked out.

Which, he discovered, he was. The door opened just as he'd thrust his hand into the pocket of his jeans in search of his key. He was greeted by enthusiastic paws, nose, tongue, and wagging tail.

"Hey, Pancho. You still remember me, huh?” Ben plunged both hands into the Border Collie's plush ruff and squatted to greet his old pal, eye to eye. "How's the mutt?” he crooned, playfully shaking the dog's head. "How's the ol' bruiser?”

"Pleased to see you, obviously.”

Straightening slowly as the smile slid from his face, he tried to remember how her voice had sounded when she'd been pleased to see him. He dusted off the warm, soft echo from the annals in his head and let it light a spark in his eyes. "Hello, Clara.”

Once caught, she couldn't look away, but her tone didn't change. "Thank you for coming. I know how busy you are.”

The stiff greeting rankled. How in the hell could she possibly know whether he was busy?

But he shrugged it off. "You said the magic word,” he reminded her as he patted Pancho again, who was whining and wagging to beat the band. "Annie.”

"Yes. The magic word.” A word that was slightly different for her than it was for him, much like most of the magic they'd shared over the years. "Anna is going through a difficult time, and I'm at my wits' end.”

"Your wits' end,” he repeated thoughtfully. "Can't imagine anybody goin' quite that far, Clara.”

"Of course you can. You've driven me there many times.” She gave him a sharp glare as she stepped aside to let him in. "You and this dog. Go on out, now, Pancho.”

"Driven you or taken you?” He couldn't help smiling a little when Pancho had to be shooed along. "Are we thinking about the same place? Clara Pipestone's wits' end, where thinking leaves off and—”

"Stupidity takes over.”

There it was. The bruised look. Her parti-colored eyes reflected it perfectly, and whenever he saw it, that small but troublesome good thing that dwelled deep in his gut got to feeling a little sick. It was the kind of morning-after sick that made the drinking man head straight for the refrigerator or the liquor store or the bar—wherever he had to go to find a can of beer. Ben knew the procedure only too well.

"Wrong subject,” he admitted, stepping into the living room as Clara closed the door. "Is Annie here?”

"No, and she should be.” She checked her watch. It was a gesture she used often to convey any number of messages. Ben recognized the worry-nuance when she glanced at the mantel clock for a second opinion. "I thought she would be. I had a call at work from one of her teachers who had trouble with her in class today, and that's when I called you.”

He could tell the call had been a last resort.

Clara sighed. "But she didn't come home on the bus. I've searched both malls. I've called everyone I can think of. All her friends.”

"The police?”

"No,” she said quietly. "Not yet. If they pick her up, they'll take her to the police station again.” She hit him with one of her meaningful looks. "Yes, again.

Annie and the police? His brain refused to put the two together. "What's goin' on?”

"Her parents have split up. That's what's going on. Not to mention the fact that she's a thirteen-year-old female, and she can't decide whether that particular fate or her mother is the worse bitch.” She challenged him with a cold stare. "I'm sure you can set her straight.”

He saw her stare and raised her one cocked eyebrow. "I'd only be guessing.”

"Yes, well...”

She folded, sinking slowly into an overstuffed brocade chair. Her fluttery gesture invited him to occupy the matching one, so he took a tentative seat on the chair's front edge. They'd called them the mama and papa chairs. He wondered when she'd had them reupholstered.

"She's so much like you, it's scary, Ben. She's reckless. She takes awful chances just to prove...” The small, pale hand made another powerless gesture. "Whatever it is she's trying to prove. Independence, maybe.”

There was something a little scary about Clara's apparent undoing, even if it was only temporary. She was not easily undone.

"Maybe she's not trying to prove anything. Maybe she's not thinking all that straight. Did you check with security at the malls?”

"No. I checked all the fast-food places and searched the stores she goes to. I looked all over.”

"All over?” She probably believed her own bullshit, too, but the fact was, he'd never known Clara to look carefully for anything. He gave a knowing smile. "What you did was, you marched up one side and down the other, blinders cuttin' off your view and smoke rollin' out your ears so you couldn't hear a damn freight train howling at your heels.”

"That's not true at all, but I'll tell you what is true.” She wagged a finger at him, and he silently congratulated himself for getting her back up so quickly, with added starch. "You have no idea what it's like to worry about someone else's safety and well-being, to be angry because they don't have sense enough to call home, and then to feel scared because—” Her finger came down, and her gaze drifted to the clock on the mantel. "Because there's always the remote chance that something terrible might have happened.”

"If it's so damned remote, why is it always the first thing that comes into your head? Can't you just...”

She slashed at his throat with her eyes.

He surrendered with a sigh. "Jesus, here we go.” He closed his eyes briefly, regrouping. "Look, I'm sorry. I don't want to argue.”

"Then let's just stick to the problem at hand, which is finding our daughter.”

"I'll make the rounds again while you stay by the phone. Maybe she saw you coming, and she just ducked out of sight.”

"And I suppose if she sees you, she'll come running.”

"She's just a kid, Clara. Who knows what kind of a game she's playing?”

Her smile was slight and smug. "Her father wouldn't, that's for sure.”

"Looks like she's got her mother buffaloed, too.”

"Like father, like daughter.”

"You wanna back off, just a little?” Her eyes said no. He braced his hands on his knees and pushed to his feet. "Forget it. I'm outta here. I'll call you if I find her. If I don't...”

"Call me anyway.”

The soft plea drew his head around. Her eyes pleaded, too, and he nodded.

"If I have to go to the police...”

He was sure she'd never so much as pocketed a pen at a cash register. The policeman is your friend, she used to tell Annie. But now she seemed to have some misgivings about that. That, too, he could see in her eyes. "If it comes to that, I'll do it,” he said.

"She's already on probation,” she said sadly, then added, "Sort of.”

"Sort of?”

She shrugged. She looked devastated, on the verge of tears. It wasn't the time to ask for more details.

"You just stay by the phone.”

HE STOPPED AT each of the places Clara had already covered, made himself clearly visible for a time, then moved on. He knew his best hope was not finding but being found, assuming Annie really did want to see him. That was the case he chose to presume, even though he was probably stretching it to suit his own needs.

He figured Annie was probably having a good time somewhere, and since she was on her own turf, she wasn't going to turn up until she was ready. He knew the game well. He'd played it a lot himself. The futility of the search frustrated him, but he didn't know what else to do. He was a relative newcomer to the role of being "the responsible one” in this kind of situation, and he was spinning his wheels, running in circles.

He'd been doing that a lot lately. His father was always expounding about the sacredness of the circle, but this was more like spinning his wheels in the clay ruts of his own private hell. His father was a holy man, a pipe carrier—the pipe carrier, to hear him tell it. Not all the Lakota agreed that Dewey Pipestone was rightfully the keeper of the pipe given to the people by the White Buffalo Calf Woman during a time that lived, at least in Ben's mind, only in legend and lore. Ben would have been hard-pressed to think of anything that all the Lakota were likely to agree on, but the "traditionals” upheld Dewey's claim to the title, and that was all that mattered to the old man. He took his calling seriously, even though the ravages of age made it more difficult all the time.

Ben respected his father, and he didn't discount tradition, but he couldn't see himself as pipe-carrier material. The fact that he'd screwed up his marriage notwithstanding, he just wasn't big on ceremony. Besides that, he himself had been a shitty father. His daughter was thirteen, and he'd been out of the house for almost two years. He didn't know what she was taking in school this year or what kind of music she was listening to on the radio these days, whether she had a boyfriend yet or wanted one.

Or where she was. Goddamn, he had no idea where she was or where else to look, and it was getting cold, and it was already darker than hell.

He drove the length and breadth of Bismarck, dragging Main like a youth on the prowl, scouting out cars, scanning the sidewalks. But the Main he'd once dragged had been a hell of a lot shorter than this one. Fewer corners. Fewer white kids. More Indians.

And it sure was a whole lot different when a man was looking for his daughter.

Every carload of boys raised his hackles. Take a good look at these young bucks, he told himself. Cruising for tail. Horny as hell, every last one of them. Annie was thirteen, but she looked older, especially now that she was using makeup. What was her mother thinking about, anyway, letting her put that stuff on her face?

Christ, he hoped she hadn't met up with a load of testosterone on wheels like the one in the slick red Mustang he'd just passed. A guy oughta carry a shotgun loaded for teenage boys, just in case. Blast his ass with saltpeter if he comes sniffin' around your daughter. Especially if he wears a cowboy hat and a pair of sharp-toed Tony Lamas with worn-down riding heels.

Which was exactly what he'd been wearing the day he'd met Clara...

ACTUALLY, HIS FATHER had met her first. The minute he saw the little white Escort turn off the blacktop and come bouncing along the rutted dirt road toward the house, Ben knew somebody from off the rez was looking for an "Indian expert.” Anybody local would have skimmed the ruts and created a wing-shaped dust wake. Long before she drove into the yard, he'd figured the driver for a woman with a mission, and he also guessed she didn't know a hell of a lot about cars.

She stepped out, closed the door, straightened her nice white skirt, and approached him without giving her poor gasping car a second glance. She carried a folded piece of paper. Clearly she had business to attend to.

She also had great legs.

"Is this where Dewey Pipestone lives?”

Ben nodded.

She shaded her eyes with a cupped hand. The warm breeze lifted her dark blond hair like a billowing cape. "Is he home?”

Ben sat back against the hood of the car he'd been working on all afternoon. He'd gotten it started, but it wasn't going far without a whole bunch of parts he didn't have. He tipped his straw cowboy hat back with one finger. Let her get a better look.

"Who wants to know? You a social worker?”

"I'm a student, actually.”

Ahh. "Studying to be a social worker?”

"Studying the history of the indigenous people of North America, particularly the Great Plains.” She smiled, accepting his low, ostensibly appreciative whistle as an indication that he was duly impressed.

He was, but not necessarily with her academic pursuits. She had several assets going for her besides the legs. He liked the way her lips were shaped like a dime-store valentine. And he was glad she wasn't a social worker. They could be damn meddlesome.

She offered a handshake. "I'm Clara Whiting. Mr. Pipestone's expecting me.” She glanced briefly over her shoulder, reconsidering the distant two-lane highway. Not a car in sight. "Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. The directions were—”

"Where you comin' from?”


"Not too many turns between here and Bismarck,” he drawled, deliberately reeling out the words as though he couldn't spare too many. "Pretty hard to get lost.”

"But it's a long drive. I hope I don't have to...” She unfolded the paper and quickly scanned its contents. "If you could just tell me...”

"If you could just tell me why Clara Whiting would be lookin' for Dewey Pipestone, I might be able to help you.” She looked at him expectantly. "The name's Ben Pipestone. You're lookin' for my dad.”

"Oh.” She acknowledged her relief with another pleasant smile. "Good. I didn't think I could've missed the turn. There was only—”

"Dewey's away from his desk right now,” he said, tucking his thumbs into his belt as he eyed the wispy steam rising from her car hood.

"Pardon me?”

He chuckled. "He's not home.”

"He must have forgotten, then.” Her gold wristwatch glinted in the sun. While she checked the time, he glanced at her car, which was still running. Barely. "Of course, I am a few minutes early. Maybe he...” Changed his mind didn't seem to be a possibility. "Do you know when he'll be back?”

"When he's done what he set out to do, I guess. Have you met him, face-to-face, or did somebody point you in his direction?”

He wondered if she realized that the steam wasn't a real good sign.

"I met him at a powwow,” she said absently as she glanced down the road again. "I hope I've got the right day. I'm sure I do.”

"You hope you do, you're sure you do.” Ben smiled. Just because Dewey Pipestone was well beyond prime didn't mean he didn't enjoy looking. And Clara Whiting was a damn sweet eyeful, from the curve of her lips to the curve of her hips. The ol' man would have her thinking he was the be-all and end-all of Indian wisdom. "He'll be here.”

"You're sure?”

"Oh, yeah.” He tipped his head to the side as he stepped back and checked out the puddle gathering between the dry clay ruts under the front of her car. "If you're gonna wait around for him, you might think about shuttin' your engine off. Looks like you're runnin' pretty hot.”


He indicated the telltale steam with a chin jerk, and she finally turned to look. "I'm also sure you're overheating, Clara Whiting.”

"Oh.” She said it as though he'd told her she'd dropped a nickel. "You know, I thought there was something funny going on, but I wasn't sure.”

"Sure enough. Funny as hell.”

"Not funny ha-ha. Funny strange. Accordingly, she approached the car with caution, checking to make sure Ben wasn't far behind. "And something really is going on. It's steaming, isn't it? I thought maybe it was a mirage.” She shook her head and gave a merry little laugh that tickled his ears and made him smile outright. "I'm afraid I don't know much about cars, except how to get places in them.”

"And this one got you all the way here without its gauges going nuts? It must love you.” He nodded toward the driver's side. "You wanna pop the hood once? I've gotta see what's under there.” His sly grin was meant to tease. "An engine or a bleeding heart.”

"I always forget about those gauges,” she muttered as she opened the door and reached inside to turn off the engine. She bent down a little more to pull the release latch, accentuating yet another of her assets. He took his time about retrieving an oily rag from his toolbox. He didn't want to miss any of her cute moves as he ambled back over to lift the hood.

Using the rag and a deft touch, he released the pressure on the radiator cap without scalding himself. Once the steam had dissipated, he was quickly able to locate the problem.

"You've got a busted hose.”

She looked at him skeptically. He wasn't sure whether she was maintaining that safe distance from the engine, its trouble, or him. "How bad is that?”

"Bad enough.” The assessment pretty much covered all three. "This is as far as this baby can take you until somebody takes care of her.


"But it could be worse. If the pump was busted, that somebody wouldn't be me.” He walked away. He could feel her eyes on his back as he tossed the rag into the open toolbox. "Not that I couldn't fix it. I just wouldn't have the parts.”

"You can fix a hose?”

"I can rig something up. Come on in.” He jerked a nod in the direction of his father's three-room house. It wasn't much, but it was shade. "I'll make us some coffee. I'd offer you a beer, but the ol' man won't have it in the house.”

"I'd really prefer a glass of water, if it's not too much trouble.”

"That's exactly what your car wants, and you're both in luck.” He sneaked another peek at those legs. "But I just might be in deep trouble.”

"We'll be out of your hair before you know it.” She smiled sweetly. "Promise.”

AS FAR AS HE knew, that was the only promise she'd ever gone back on. She'd taken root in his hair and permeated every nook and cranny in his brain. Not that she was part of his every conscious thought. Far from it. He worked hard at excluding her most of the time.

He did think about Annie a lot. He thought about his father once in a while, his friends occasionally, and his business was always right there in his face. He thought about himself. Hell, he thought about himself the most. But no matter what else he might be thinking about, Clara was still there, always there, firmly embedded in his head, thoroughly rooted in his hair. And she probably always would be.

He didn't want to go back to her now, tonight, not without Annie in tow, but his search wasn't getting him anywhere but edgy. It would have been nice to be able to save the day, to bring his daughter home safely, see the old my-hero sparkle in Clara's eyes. He liked that much better than that damned raging wounded look. But when he got back to the house and walked in empty-handed, he saw worse. He caught Clara crying.

Tucking her chin into the cowl of a soft blue sweater, she did her damnedest to hide the evidence behind the fall of her side-parted hair. Hanging her head was so unlike Clara that it unnerved him.

Ben greeted Pancho with a passing pat on the head as he strode into the living room. "Did... did somebody call?”

Her hair shimmied with her stiff headshake. "No.”

"Is Annie—”

"She's not back yet, no.” She dragged the heel of her hand quickly over the high curve of her cheek and sighed deeply. "I guess we'll have to call the police.”

"I hate to do that.” He peeled off his jacket and tossed it over the wing back of the "papa” chair.

"You don't have to.” She snatched up the jacket before it had a chance to settle into place. Let her hang it up if it bothers her that much, he thought, but she seemed to have forgotten what she'd had in mind for it. She folded her arms around the black poplin and confronted him, hugging his jacket fiercely beneath her breasts. "You don't have to go with her when she has an appointment with a probation officer. You don't have to listen to her teachers' complaints.”

"I will. Be glad to. She can stay with me, too, you just say the word.”

"The word is no.” Moving as though the weight of that small word exerted a terrible pressure, she eased herself into the chair, the mama chair, the smaller one, the one that fit her. Even so, it seemed to swallow her up when she sighed. "But just don't tell me what you hate to do, Ben, because you don't know the half of it. You don't know what it's like. Every day it's something else. She lies. She talks back to me. She—”

"Teenagers,” he said sympathetically, seating himself in the chair that felt as though it could be his again, even with its sissy new disguise. "We always said she was gonna be a handful, remember? She always had a mind of her own, even when she was just a little squirt.”

"She's not a little squirt now,” she firmly reminded him, folding his jacket in her lap as though it were part of her laundry. "And it's certainly not cute anymore.”

"Having a mind of your own isn't supposed to be cute. It's supposed to happen that way if you're gonna grow up to be your own person.”

"Well, it's not happening that way. She isn't her own person. She's hanging around with a different bunch of kids lately. I don't know them. I don't know their parents. This Jennifer Hardin has a much older boyfriend, I know that. And she smokes.


"No, Jennifer.” She shrugged, now seemingly intent on aggravating a hangnail on her right thumb. He noticed that she'd been biting her nails again. He noticed, too, with a rush of relief, that she still wore her wedding band.

Her voice thickened as the list of concerns mounted. "Maybe Anna does, too. I don't know. I hardly know her anymore. It's something new every day. It's... it's just...”

"It's what, Clara?” The threat of her tears always made him feel clumsy, especially when they were basically on the outs with each other. He didn't know whether to try to touch her, or how to comfort her without touching her. "Tell me what it is. Tell me all of it.”

She glanced at the ceiling, blinking furiously. "She pretends to be sick.”


"I think she's pretending. I don't know for sure. It's so awful to have to take her to the doctor when she has symptoms nobody can seem to explain.”


She shook her head, again furiously. "I don't know. They've done all kinds of tests. They keep asking the same questions, and she's—”

"No, I mean why is it awful to take her to the doctor? She says she's sick, you take her to the doctor, right?”

"Yes, of course.” She squared her shoulders and glared at him. "Of course I do.”

"It's not an inconvenience, is it?”


"Or an embarrassment to you?”

The fury in her eyes pinned him still, and the quickness of her lunge caught him off guard. She slapped him, hard enough to sting them both. They glared at one another some more, but neither could turn away because the hurt was so strong. And it was better than nothing.

Finally he closed his eyes, willing the fading sting to thicken his skin. It was such an unusual move coming from Clara, and so charged with emotion that he almost took pleasure from it.

"How can you suggest such a thing?” she hissed.

"How can it be awful to take her to the doctor?” he asked again, quietly this time.

"You said to tell you. You said to tell you all of it, but you don't really want to know, because you don't have to deal with this... this...” She gestured helplessly. Her cheeks blazed with the rosy color of chaotic emotions.

"How can it be hard to take her—”

"They don't have any answers,” she wailed softly. "She has stomachaches, headaches, sometimes nausea, and nobody seems to know whether it has something to do with her menstrual cycle, or...”

His jaw dropped slightly. He managed to lock it right back into place, but not soon enough. She saw that he'd been unprepared for the news. His male ignorance steadied her. Suddenly she had that earth-mother look in her eye, designed to convince him that she knew the secret of all life and he hadn't a clue.

"Well, naturally,” he muttered. He tried to ward off the memory of the day he'd taught a flat-chested little beanpole with knobby knees and skinned elbows how to ride a bike. Annie was his little girl, wasn't she? She could have any bike she wanted, he'd told her, and she'd picked a little racing bike that he couldn't afford. But he'd bought it anyway. For his little girl.

"She's thirteen. She's, um...”

"She started almost a year ago.”

"Really?” He cleared the frog from his throat. "So that probably has a lot to do with it. I mean... wouldn't it?”

"She says it doesn't.”

"What does the doctor say?”

"We've seen three doctors. They say...” She shook her head and sighed. "They say a lot of things, but they haven't solved the problem. And I want it solved. I want the problem solved. I want Anna to be able to concentrate on school and get her grades back up to where they should be. I don't want her to be sick.” She glanced away quickly, and it took her two tries to get out the last heartfelt gasp. "I don't want her to be unhappy.”

"I don't either.”

"So... so where do we go from here?” She needed a concrete plan. Knowing Clara, she would find her salvation in some sort of plan. "We're going to have to call the police soon, and I just hate to...”

They exchanged a look. He cocked one eyebrow as she acknowledged his prior claim to that statement with another terrible sigh. "Because she's already in so much trouble.”

"For what?”

"Shoplifting, for one thing.”

"Shoplifting? Annie?” The surprises were coming in droves now. "Jesus. When did she start that?”

"All I know is when she got caught.” As if to forestall another loss of control, she folded her hands tightly in her lap before she leaned closer. "I couldn't believe it. I try not to spoil her with a lot of stuff, but anything she needs or really wants...” Clara bit her lower lip, checking the flow of assertions that were not news to him. She looked him in the eye. "She took an umbrella. Can you imagine?”

"Christ.” He shook his head. Under different circumstances, he would have been tempted to laugh. Annie? An umbrella?

"Oh, Ben, we have to find her. I should have called you long before this, because we needed to talk, you know, all three of us, but I couldn't...” She didn't seem to realize she'd clamped her hand around his wrist. "We have to decide.”

His throat went dry. He glanced away, studied the clock on the mantel and registered, not the hour, but the minutes, as though he were anticipating his execution. Five more, and it would be straight up. He nodded once, although he wasn't sure what he was agreeing to.

"It's cold out there, isn't it?”

Her question was almost as surprising as the fragile, teetering-near-the-edge tone of her voice. He nodded again, heavily. His neck felt stiff. "Gettin' that way.”

"She's not wearing a very warm... She was just wearing a thin little...” She closed her eyes, lips atremble, and a single tear slipped down her cheek.

He moved instinctively, planting one knee on the floor next to her feet as he reached for her. He could feel every muscle in her body coil up in her defense, but he was prepared to ignore any rejection. He needed to hold her now, and she needed to be held. She looked at him, tears rolling, and he could feel her resistance softening, melting like candle wax as he pulled her against his chest, absorbing her tremors into his own body. Her tears dampened the side of his neck. Her quick, ragged breaths warmed his chin.

Too soon she came to her senses and drew away. "I don't want to call the police. They'll think she's...”

"They'll think she's what?” He felt a little awkward reversing the motion of his rescue attempt as he backed into his chair.

"A troublemaker or something. But she's not. She's not.” She hammered his folded jacket with her fists. "I hate it when they assume...”

He knew what they assumed, but unlike Clara, he knew from his own experience. He knew what biases his features triggered, what the color of his skin meant to the bankers, the sales clerks, and the cops who'd been brought up on Hollywood illusions. He had the classic Indian face, and he'd passed it on, with a few feminine refinements and a lighter complexion, to his daughter.

"Sometimes I just want to punch somebody,” Clara said.

He smiled indulgently. "Who?”

"Anybody. Except Anna. I wouldn't...”

"I know you wouldn't.”

He nodded.

She nodded.

For a long, gentle moment they looked into each other's eyes, acknowledging that they had that much faith in each other. Where Annie was concerned, neither wanted the pain they caused each other to spill over. But it did. They both knew it did.

She glanced away first. "I'm sorry I slapped you. I don't know why I...” Yes, she did, and so did he. But she turned to him again, her apologetic eyes glistening like sweet, warm maple syrup. "It's not like me. I don't do that sort of thing.”

Granted. He smiled, giving her credit for holding off this long. "Bet it felt good, though.”

"No, it didn't.” Convincing herself required something physical, a firm shake of her own head. "It really didn't feel good.”

"Then how did it feel?”

"It didn't feel like anything.”

He knew better.

"It didn't feel like me, and it was stupid,” she insisted. "A stupid waste of time and energy. We have to find Anna, and then we have to sit down and have a quiet, sensible talk about—”

He interrupted her with a crossing-guard gesture as he cocked an ear toward the back door. "There's somebody outside.”

Clara closed her eyes and blew a deep sigh. "Thank God.”

Pancho scrambled across the kitchen floor, barking his head off. Ben followed as far as the hallway, avoiding light switches, listening in the dark. "Two somebodies,” he reported quietly.

Pancho made a growling beeline down the hall, tracking the movement outside.

Wide-eyed, Clara sprang to her feet. "Her bedroom window.”

"I'll go around,” he proposed, heading for the front door. She handed him his jacket on his way by. "You go back there to her room, but don't turn any lights on.”

He felt a little like a thief in the night, even though he was sneaking around his own bushes. When he rounded the corner to his own backyard, he spotted two shadowy figures. He couldn't tell much about the one on the bottom, but he recognized the one who was getting the boost up to the bedroom window. The braided ponytail, the impossibly long hands, and the smaller version of his hawk's-beak nose belonged to his daughter.

The tipsy giggle did not.

He squared his shoulders, stepped out of the shadows, and took a Matt Dillon stance. "What's goin' on here?”

"It's my dad!”

"Shit.” The booster took two stumbling steps back, nearly dropping his burden on the ground. "I mean—”

"If you guys are playing camel, you need a pool,” Ben said, wishing for the days when he would simply be blowing the whistle on an innocent game.

"We're not playing camel. We're playing spyyyy,” Annie intoned drunkenly. "Spy and see if Mom's back is turned.”

Ben shut his eyes briefly, steadying himself. "But since Dad's back isn't turned, you might as well get down, Annie.”

The boy took pains to extricate himself without letting her fall. He left her hanging on to the window ledge, turned, and faced the paternal music. "I was just tryin' to help her out, Mr. Pipestone.”

"Who are you?”

"This is Larry Prit—” reaching for the boy's shoulder, Anna leaned away from the house like a windblown willow "—chhhert. I was gonna give him an Indian name. Larry Pretty Churt. Chit. Shit. Priddy Shit.” She gave in to the giggles as Ben edged closer. "Larry Pretty Shirt,” she corrected, enunciating with exaggerated care. "Whuduhya think?”

"It's Pritchert,” the boy said tightly.

The pungent smell of beer hit Ben in the face like a sack of cement. The crisp night air suddenly felt surrealistically thick and heavy. "Are you driving, Pritchert?”

"I just gave her a ride. That's all.”

"I'm asking, should you be driving,” Ben explained, summoning patience in the face of a strong urge to wring the boy's scrawny neck. "Are you okay?”

"I didn't have nuthin' to do with this,” the boy said, backing away. "She's a friend of a friend, and I'm just tryin' to help her out.”

"Yeah, Dad, he's jus' a fren, jus' sorta helpin' me out. So what's yer excuse for buttin' in, Dad? Jus' passin' through?”

"I got a distress call from your mom.” He spared the retreating boy a quick wave. "Thanks, Pritchert. Take it easy, now.”


Larry Pritchert backpedaled a few steps, then turned and ran, disappearing around the corner of the house.

Anna grabbed her father's arm, dragging his attention back to her sad state of affairs. "What's she so 'stressed about? I wuz out wi' sum frens. Don'cha want me to have any frens?”

"There's friends, and then there's drinkin' buddies,” he said, reaching out to steady her. "Which kind was that guy?”

"He's nuthin'. Jus' a way to get places.” The statement, Ben realized, echoed her mother's cavalier attitude toward cars. Nothing important. Just a way to get around.

Anna giggled. "Ol' Larry Pretty Shit,” she repeated, enjoying the fruits of her liquored-up wit. She started slipping toward the ground.

Ben caught her by the shoulders and hauled her up on tiptoe. But her legs had gone rubbery. She giggled and went limp again. "Cut it out, now, Annie, we're goin' in the house.”

"Can't say Pretty Shit in th' house, ya know. She'll have a damn piss fit over it.”

His little girl slumped against his side. Tucked under his arm, she dragged the toes of her tennis shoes in the grass, the way she had years ago when she didn't want to quit playing and go inside for supper, a bath, homework, or any number of other fun-killing demands parents were wont to make. Silently Ben cursed Iktome for punishing him with the vilest trick imaginable. Of all the lessons his child might have learned from him...

"Is she mad?”

"You had her worried.”

Anna tipped her chin to look up at him, and her head fell back like a hinged lid. "How 'bout you? Were you worried?”

"Yeah.” Worried would do for starters.

"Never thought you'd see th' day,” Anna mocked with a child's knack for hitting the nail on the parental head. "Course, I've seen you a whole lot worse off.”

Drunk as she was, her aim was true. But he'd never felt any worse than he did right now, supporting his thirteen-year-old daughter while she tried to find her balance on flat, solid ground. God, how he wished he could do it for her.

"So how do you like it so far?”

"Got your attention, din' I? Jus' like you use to get ours whenever you...” She pressed her face into the open front of his jacket.

He paused, knowing how rocky the motion made her feel at this point. He brushed his palm over her forehead, as though he thought his baby might have something easily treatable, like a fever.

She groaned. "I don' guess I feel so good, though. I think I'm gonna—”

She jerked away from him and vomited behind a rosebush.

He was glad he was there to keep her from falling in it face-first, even though the stench was an unwelcome reminder of a past that still nipped too closely at his heels.

"I'm sorry, Daddy,” she muttered as he wiped her chin with a wool glove from his pocket.

"Me, too.” He lifted her into his arms. Still his baby, he thought. Still his long, lanky little bit of a thing who needed her daddy to pick her up and put her to bed tonight.

"I promise I...” Her head lolled against his shoulder. "I won't do it anymore. Don't tell Mom.”

"Don't have to.” He glanced up at Clara, who was standing on the doorstep holding the door open for them. "She knows.”

"She always knows... everything.”

Not quite, he thought. Clara worried, but she also hoped for the best. And she was trusting. At least, she had been, once upon a time.

"We're going to put you to bed,” he told his little girl, laying his chin against her forehead as he stepped past his wife. They exchanged a look, sharing the bittersweet heartache. "Me and Mom, the way we used to. We're going to tuck you in.”

"You're going to stay?” Anna's arms tightened around his neck, her innocent hopes tormenting his ear.

"I'll come back tomorrow.”

"No, don't go.” She wedged her head beneath his chin, pressing hard against his Adam's apple. He could hear the dog panting at his heels as he made his way down the hall, sidestepping to keep her shoes from touching Clara's wallpaper. "Daddy, I wanna go on that ride. Want you to take me.”

"What ride?”

"The one Grandpa's going on. Wanna see my Lala.”

"Tomorrow,” he promised as he bent to lay her on her bed. He held off until Clara had pulled the covers back, then settled her down in the nest of ruffled pillows.

"No, you stay home, Daddy.” Suddenly almost lucid and nearly desperate, Anna gripped his jacket sleeves. "Sleep here tonight. Stay... stay home with us, Daddy.”

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