Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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Fields of Home

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2008 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

On the day Brandon Rhodes came back into her life, Mercedes Walker Johnson was shopping at Safeway, not expecting anything out of the ordinary and certainly not expecting to see a ghost from her past. She wandered to the aisle where the boxed cereal sat on the shelves, frowning at the contents. Her three boys loved the stuff, but she knew the cold flakes weren't as healthy as her home-cooked cereal. Still, in the past year or so, she'd taken to letting them get their own breakfast on Sundays. Everyone needed a day off—or as much of a day off as any woman on a farm could take. Even Wayne stayed away from the fields on Sundays, though the cow still had to be milked and the animals fed.

She plucked a few boxes off the shelf, the ones with the lowest sugar content. Whatever questionable nutritional value they contained would at least be boosted by whole, fresh milk from their cow.

Starting down the aisle, she wondered how Wayne and twelve-year-old Darrel were coming along on the planting. The sugar beets, of course, were already in the ground and growing. Hopefully they would have the spring wheat planted within the next week or two, so they could get in some corn to supplement their cattle's ration of hay from the alfalfa that was already standing a foot tall in the fields. Wayne had been trying his hand at raising cattle these past few years because a crop of calves could be worth far more than sugar beets and wheat. The winter had been tough for the animals, though, and she and Wayne had spent many months worrying about how many they might lose to cold or disease, but spring had blessedly come on time, and most had survived well.

There was a man standing at the checkout as she approached. For a moment, he was any man, someone she didn't know, but then he tilted his head and chuckled at something the checker said, and Mercedes' breath rushed from her. Him! He's here.

But she couldn't really believe that. No, it was only someone who looked like him. Such a recognition had happened before, and always she would stand there with elation and fear vying in her heart, until at last the man would turn and she would realize she was mistaken.

It's not him, she told herself. But she pushed her cart behind a display of ketchup where she could observe him without being noticed.

"This place has changed a lot since I was here," the man said. He was handsome, she could see, with brown hair and a square jaw that bore a slight stubble. He wore dress pants and a button-down shirt, with the first button open.
"Been nearly thirteen years."

Mercedes swallowed hard. Thirteen years. It could just be a coincidence.

"Well, the years tend to do that to a place." The checker was a plump Native American woman in her fifties, one Mercedes often saw here, though she didn't know her by name. "Things change. So you're a doctor, are you?"

"How did you know?"

She pointed without expression to the identification card clipped to his pocket. "Your tag. You come to work at Riverton Memorial?"

"Actually, I'm here to teach the heart procedures I developed with some universities. We're holding a seminar here."
"Well, uh, Dr. Rhodes, I hope you have a good time here in Riverton. Maybe I'll see you again. Thank you for shopping at Safeway."

Mercedes' heart thundered in her chest. Dr. Rhodes. Dr. Brandon Rhodes. Once she'd hoped and prayed to see him again, thought she might die if she didn't. But that was before she'd understood the truth and begun hoping and praying never to see him again. In the past few years, she'd almost managed never to think about him at all.

A normal person would go to the counter and say hello. After all, they'd once been close. More than close. She still remembered the first day they met, how they'd shared lunch in the hospital cafeteria, the way the world had ceased all movement. The way her life had changed.

Mercedes closed her eyes as the familiar wave of pain crashed through her chest and spilled through her limbs and out every pore of her body. He had no right to come back. Not now. Not after all this time.

I hate you, she thought, but she knew it wasn't that simple.

The main reason, of course, that she couldn't smile and greet him was Darrel. If it could be said that she had a favorite child, Darrel would be it, though her other sons were as -precious, and she worked hard to treat them the same. The fact remained that Darrel was different. He was a part of the old life, the life that yearned for more. She knew he wouldn't belong on the farm much longer, but she wasn't ready to give him up quite yet.

You don't deserve him, she said to the man's retreating back. I won't let you ruin his life . . . like you did mine.

Of course, there was no indication that he was in Riverton for any reason other than the one he'd told the checker. He might not know that she still lived an hour northeast of the city on what had once been her father's farm. Maybe he thought she had continued on to be a psychologist. If so, she could be working anywhere by now.

The thoughts calmed her, and she was about to make her way to the counter when he stopped and turned back to the checker. "Have you heard of a place called Walker Farm? Do you happen to know who owns it now?"

"Sounds familiar, but there are a lot of farms around here."

"It's about fifty miles or so out of town. Northeast."

"I don't go out that way much. Sorry."

"What about a woman named Mercedes Walker? Do you know her?"
The woman shook her head, lightly rustling the gray-streaked black hair that fell midway down her back. "We got ten thousand people living here, plus all those that come in from the other towns to shop. It ain't thirteen years ago. We don't know everybody like we did back then. Or practically."

He nodded. "Well, thanks. I figured it was a long shot."

"Maybe try the phone book."

"Good idea. I'm sure I'll be seeing you. I'm here for a couple weeks."

Mercedes' heart was pounding so loudly she almost couldn't breathe. So much for hoping he wouldn't pursue their connection. But why would he even try? Did he think she'd still be sitting here, waiting for him? And what right did he have to return after all this time, anyway? Thirteen years since he'd walked away.

He's just looking up an old friend, she told herself. Bitterness filled her mouth at that. Friends. She hadn't even been worth a postcard or a letter. Maybe if he'd written, it would have been different for Darrel. But it was too late now. She loved her life, her boys, and Wayne. Nothing this stranger could do now would change that.

Unless he somehow knew about Darrel.

Mercedes closed her eyes again, fear welling up in her chest. Dear God in heaven. Please help me.

"Are you all right?"

Mercedes opened her eyes to see the checker standing in front of her. "Oh, thanks. I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"You sure? You're white as a sheet."

"I'm all right. Really. I think I'm finished shopping. Could you ring me up?"

"Sure. Come on over to the register."

When the groceries were tallied, Mercedes' hand shook as she wrote out the check. The woman didn't bother to ask for ID, obviously recognizing her from other trips into town, but her eyes caught on the name. "Walker Farm? Mercedes Johnson. Hey, there was just a guy in here asking about you. Real handsome fellow. A doctor. Been in a couple times in the past few weeks. I think he's probably still in the parking lot. Do you want me to catch him?"

"That's okay, I—"

"No problem, really." The checker slammed the till shut and scooted toward the front of the store faster than her bulk should have allowed.

"Please," Mercedes called after her. "Don't—" But the woman was already out the door.

Brandon.

Panic made Mercedes wonder if there was a back door. She imagined herself vaulting over a cart of vegetables as the store manager chased her down. Then the panic subsided as quickly as it came. Anger took its place. He had no right to come back into her life.

The checker reappeared—alone, and Mercedes felt an odd piercing disappointment that made no sense at all. "He'll be right in," the woman told Mercedes. "He's putting his bags in his car."

"Thank you." Mercedes made a private note never to shop this Safeway again. Yet why should she let a man she hadn't seen for almost thirteen years chase her away? Another burst of anger gave her strength. Ignoring her cart, Mercedes hefted her plastic bags of groceries, two in each hand. They weighed nothing compared to what she had to lift at the farm.

She strode out the door, heading purposefully toward her green truck. The battered Ford had seen better days, but it was like an old friend, dependable and familiar. With any luck, she'd get in and drive away before Brandon caught up with her. Setting down the bags, she opened her door, shoved the groceries inside, and climbed into the cab. Relief was already calming the furious pounding of her heart.

"Mercedes?"

Her hand froze on the open door. Part of her wanted to slam it and drive away, but the other part was curious about the man he'd become. She turned and met his eyes. For several seconds, she said nothing. She drank in the handsome face, brown hair, and green eyes. He looked the same, and yet he didn't. There was maturity in the face and a confidence that had been lacking when she knew him before.

For a moment she felt disoriented, as though the fabric of time was somehow adjusting itself. From somewhere came the blare of a car horn and a man's distant shout. But the earth didn't stand still. Brandon Rhodes was just a person she had once known, and if she played this moment well, she would never have to see him again.

"Excuse me?" she asked.
"It is you! Mercedes, don't you recognize me? It's Brandon Rhodes."

"Brandon?" She scrunched her forehead. "Oh, Brandon! My goodness, it's been so long." She gave him a polite smile he couldn't possibly know was fake. He didn't know her at all—and apparently never had. The past was proof of that.

Then she was climbing out of the truck, leaving the door open for a quick retreat. He stepped forward tentatively, and they embraced in a loose, impersonal hug, the kind people used when they weren't close. Or perhaps the kind of hug exchanged when one of them was holding a secret. If there had been no secret, Mercedes would have been excited and pleased to see him, and the hug would have been -real.

"You haven't changed a bit," Brandon said as she drew quickly away. "I mean, you have, but you haven't. Your hair is the same, and your eyes are still dark enough to be black. But I don't remember the freckles."

"They're from the sun. I didn't get much sun back in the old days. Too much bookwork."

"Life must have treated you well. You look great!"

"Thanks. You, too. So what brings you to Riverton?"

"Oh, a seminar at the hospital. You know, giving back. I'm staying at the Alpine House for a few weeks. Thought I'd look up some old friends."

Old friends. She remembered her thoughts in the store. Friends did not begin to describe what they had been to each other. "That's nice. Is anyone you know still at the hospital?"

"Not many. Old Dustbottom is, though. He'll probably outlive us all."

Mercedes smiled. "He still in charge of the morgue?"

"Yep. And the backside of his coat is still just as speckled with dirt or ink or whatever it was. Have you ever seen him around?"

"I don't get into town much. Especially to the hospital." Only to give birth to her children. But she wasn't going -there.

"So what are you doing these days? Practicing psychiatry? Psychology?"

She shook her head. "Neither. I'm married now. Raising a family. We're running my family's farm."

He blinked. "Married—of course you are. I'd heard that. I was married for four years myself. It didn't work out."
"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "That's the way it goes."

Not in Mercedes' book. Marriage was a commitment you didn't walk out on. But then, Brandon was good at walking out on commitments.

"So you have children. I mean, you'd have to if you're raising a family." His eyes seemed intent as he spoke, and Mercedes felt a tremor of fear.

"Yeah, three boys. Good kids. In fact"—she looked at her watch—"I'd better get back to them. They're helping their dad with the planting today, since it's Saturday. But the younger ones don't have as much endurance, and sometimes they can be more of a hindrance, if you know what I mean."

"I don't have children, but I can imagine. How old are they?"

"Eight and nine. Their daddy's patient and a good teacher, but there's a limit. And believe me, they like to push it."

She forced a laugh.

"And your other boy? Didn't you say you have three?"

"He's two years older." Not exactly a lie because Joseph would be ten in three months, and then he would be two years younger than Darrel's twelve. But since Joseph was still only nine, Brandon would assume Darrel was eleven. Eleven kept him safely out of reach. "He's not very tall or big, but he's got a good head."

"I'd love to meet them. I bet they look like you."

"Two of them do. The other one looks like his dad, even down to his red hair and blue eyes."

"I'll bet they're great. Oh, I wanted to tell you, I saw your brother four or five weeks ago."
This surprised her. "Where?"

"At the hospital in San Diego where I work. His company was updating some of our electronics."

"That's funny. He didn't mention it. He was here helping with the planting last weekend." What she wouldn't add was that the farm hadn't done well last year, and with the purchase of a new tractor, they'd had to forego hiring help until the harvest. Austin's willingness to pitch in had been a godsend.

"Well, I only saw him briefly, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't even sure he remembered me. We only met a few times when I lived here."

Mercedes let herself relax. Even if Austin had recognized Brandon, he wouldn't have betrayed her secret. He knew the stakes as much as she did. This was only one more secret of a shared past. A past where their father drank and treated his children like worthless chattel. A past where their mother had let him. "He was concentrating on college in those days. He's become quite successful, though."

"I see he left the farm."

Mercedes wasn't quite sure, but she thought she sensed a question there. Did he wonder why she was still at the farm she'd vowed never to return to after her mother's tragedy? She doubted he could ever understand. "Actually, Austin comes back quite often. We even keep a room for him. He took over my grandmother's charity when she died a few years back. Runs it -part--time with his wife. He got married four months ago."

"That's good to hear."

She knew it was only something said to fill the empty space between them. Thirteen years was too long to feel -comfortable.

"Do you have time for a quick drink?" he -asked.

"Not really. My husband and the boys are waiting. Some other time."

"Maybe."

"Maybe," she echoed. There really wasn't much else to say, was -there?

"Mercedes . . ."

"Yes?" She put a hand on the -door.

"The way we left it. I didn't mean . . ." He looked up at the sky. "Time passed so fast. I didn't mean for things to work out that way. It's one of my biggest regrets."

What does he regret? she wondered. The relationship? Leaving? Or not keeping in contact? But none of that really mattered now.

"It's okay," she said with more gentleness than she felt. "We both moved on. That's just the way it is." She thought it was particularly poetic to use his own terminology against him. In her heart, though, her fury mounted. He'd given up so much. Worse, he'd made the choice for both of them, a choice she'd had to live with for thirteen years. He'd broken more than her heart; for a time, she'd lost even her will to live. Only Wayne had saved her. Wayne, with his quiet, unassuming love. With his constant support and refusal to judge. Though she had deserved his scorn, he'd given her back her life. In return, she'd given him that life.

And I'm happy, she thought fiercely. Turning, she climbed into the -truck.

"Mercedes," Brandon said -again.

She looked at him from behind the wheel, simply waiting.

"I'd like to drop by, if I may. Meet your husband, talk about old times."

"You've met Wayne before. He worked for my father."

He looked puzzled. Likely he remembered Wayne as old enough to be her father, though he was only fifty-two to her thirty-nine.

"Anyway," she continued, "you're welcome to come out, but we're still getting in the spring wheat." What she wanted to tell him was to go back to wherever he'd come from and leave her family alone. The way he pushed told her he wanted something from her. She could only pray it didn't involve Darrel. Yet what else could it be? "That means we're not at the house much." Or at least Wayne wasn't.

He nodded. "Well, it was nice to see you."

Mercedes shut her door, put the truck into gear, and drove away. She could see him in the rearview mirror watching her go. The scene brought back memories of when he had left and she had stayed behind. Her heart felt tight.
Thirty miles outside Riverton, she pulled off the highway and leaned her head on the steering wheel. She was shaking so badly that she felt ill. "Wayne," she whispered. She needed Wayne.

Forty minutes later, she was in the barn saddling Windwalker, her white stallion. Di and Thunder, her red retrievers, watched patiently, wagging their tails with excitement. But only Thunder followed as she galloped from the barn, Di choosing to stay back with her new litter of puppies. Always the good mother, watching over her babies. That's what mothers did.

Wind beat into her face, flattening the tears down and over her cheeks until they seemed more like a sheen of sweat than tears at all. Windwalker, a surprise present from Wayne last year, was her most prized animal. He had traded three calves to their neighbors down the road for the young horse, and Mercedes believed he was worth far more. She loved the power in his limbs and the elation of moving so fast over the ground that time didn't seem to matter. Today was no exception. Hunching over his mane, she urged him onward. He flew like the wind. And for those few minutes, she was safe.

She came upon the west fields too quickly for her state of mind, but seeing Wayne and Darrel on the tractor and the younger boys, Joseph and Scott, playing in the back of the seed truck gave her a rush of belonging. These were her men, her place, and even the heartrending mound of dirt in the family cemetery past their small fruit orchard was a part of who she had become.

"Hi, Mom." Joseph and Scott waved her over.

"Can I have a ride back?" Scott added. "I'm bored."

"I'll take you both home in a minute. First I need to talk to your father."

Wayne had spotted her and opened the tractor cab, leaping down and leaving Darrel to operate the machine alone. He loped toward her in his customary gait, which was strangely graceful. Wayne was a tall man, built as strong as an old tree. At fifty-two, he had the strength of a much younger man, but his face was worn and weathered by the sun, and his red hair had gone an orangey white. His blue eyes were kind, and the wrinkles in his face were as much a part of him as the furrows were a part of the fields. Not for the first time, Mercedes understood that Wayne was the farm. He was as constant as the earth, as tender as the plants he coaxed out of the soil, as forgiving as a thirsty stalk of wheat after a spring rain.

"What's wrong?" he said as they met halfway.

She looked to the right and to the left, unwilling to meet his eyes.

"Mercedes." He spoke in almost the same way as Brandon had, but then he added, "Honey, I'm here."
She took a breath and looked into his eyes. "I was at Safeway. He's back in Riverton. He came to teach a seminar or something. I—I'm afraid."

He didn't ask her who "he" was. "He" was the only person who had stood between them all these long years, the one with the power to change their safe world.

Wayne made a noise of dismay in his throat and pulled her into his arms. Besides galloping on Windwalker's back, this was the only other place she felt completely safe, where nothing could touch her. Even as a child when he'd protected her from her father's wrath or her mother's indifference, she had felt safe with Wayne.

"I love you. It's going to be all right."
She dropped her head to his shoulder, wiping her wet cheek against his dusty shirt. "He wants to come by. What if he knows?"

"What if he doesn't?"

She pulled back slightly to look up into his face. "Then why come? After all these years?"

"Maybe he's finally realized what he lost." Wayne's eyes were sorrowful, and Mercedes wondered if he thought such a thing would change her life—knowing that Brandon might have come back for her.

It wouldn't, of course. Yet just for an instant, she remembered how she'd felt the day Brandon left. The certainty that he would be back for her, the belief that he couldn't live without her as she couldn't live without him.

He hadn't come back.

Until now.

Mercedes swallowed hard. "He never loved me, not the way you do." She said this with a surety born of long years of knowing. Sometimes Wayne's love weighed heavily on her, as though it were a burden, because she knew that everything she could give him could never possibly equal what he gave her.
 

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