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Coming Home
By Shirlee Busbee

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 Coming Home

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Coming Home
By Shirlee Busbee
ISBN: 0446611905
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: Coming Home , by Shirlee Busbee

Chapter
1

Standing on her small deck at the rear of the house and staring out at the hot, dry landscape below her, Roxanne Ballinger decided that she hated September in Oak Valley. And August and probably July, too. The valley was seared by the heat, the pastures were eaten down, and the hay fields shorn of their crops lay fallow and burnt amber and yellow by the sun, except, she reminded herself, those places in the valley where the water table was high and the land stayed green all year. She made a face. Too bad her newly acquired house didn't overlook that area—it'd be nice to stare out at green fields this time of year. Then she shrugged. But if she overlooked those fields, she wouldn't have such a majestic view of Mt. Sebastian in the distance and all the other smaller mountains and hills that tumbled down to the valley floor on its eastern side.

This was not, she admitted, the valley's most attractive time of the year ...at least she didn't think so. And she wondered, not for the first time, what the hell she was doing here. And with a house of her own. She glanced back at the small A-frame building and amended her thought: a cabin of her own. She should be in New York. Tucked comfortably away in her elegant air-conditioned Park Avenue penthouse apartment. Looking forward to all the fabulous entertainment the city had to offer, anticipating the pulsating excitement she'd find on the crowded streets, ready to be seduced by the glamour and vitality of the city. Everything she could humanly want would be at her fingertips. And if she didn't want to venture out, a telephone call would bring all that the city had to offer right to her doorstep: clothes, food, jewelry, handsome men ...

Thinking of the last handsome man who had shared her life, she grimaced. Todd Spurling was an executive editor at one of the major New York publishing houses and their affair had lasted for a grand total of almost five weeks. They'd met this past June at one of the glittering pub parties being held for the launch of some celebrity biography and it had been, she admitted, lust at first sight. As one of the top models in the business, her face had often adorned the covers of such magazines as Cosmo, Vogue, and the like, and justly famous for her generous display of scantily clad limbs in the Victoria's Secret catalog, she was often seen at these sorts of parties. The life of a celebrity, she had discovered, was as much about seeing as being seen and since she was considered one of the "beautiful people" she was invited everywhere. She had nearly refused to attend the party. She'd been unsettled and restless, having just returned from Oak Valley and her brother Sloan's wedding. She almost stayed home that night—the idea of being just another body in another scintillating crowd didn't appeal to her—a feeling she had been experiencing more and more over the past couple of years. But in the end she decided that a night of rubbing shoulders with the famous and want-to-be-famous might be more enjoyable than staring at the walls of her apartment.

She had not gone to the party looking for romance. She snorted. Good God, no! In fact, she had been in a surly mood and rather off men in general. Not that she didn't like men—she did. It was just that lately she'd begun to think that men were really more trouble than they were worth. Maybe, she thought with a sigh, she'd just reached that point in life where she wanted to concentrate on what she wanted, without having to consider what someone else might like—or not. Making the decision to move back to Oak Valley had been a big one and quite frankly, she didn't want the distraction of a man in her life. Then she'd met Todd Spurling ...Todd who was every woman's dream: urbane, considerate, polite, and utterly smitten with her. Todd had also been tall, handsome, blond, broad-shouldered, and had the bluest eyes she'd ever seen and the moment their eyes had met ...Her lip curled. The moment their eyes met she started thinking with a another part of her anatomy than her brain. Apparently Todd had, too, because in less than a month after meeting, they'd been living together in her apartment. And less than a week after that, she'd tossed him out on his gorgeous buns—his gorgeous married buns, disgusted as much with herself as with him.

Roxanne shook her head, her glorious blue-black mane of hair glistening like a raven's wing in the hot sunlight. You'd think at my age, I'd know better, she thought wryly. You'd think that after nearly twenty years of living in the fast lane that I'd learn not to be so impulsive, that at the wise old age of thirty-eight, I'd not be so willing to fling caution to the winds and just leap into the nearest brawny pair of arms. Finding out that Todd had been married, something he had conveniently forgotten to mention when they had been falling into bed together, had been a blow to her pride and her esteem. She had been horrified. For all of her wild reputation, and despite gossip and innuendo to the contrary, married men had been completely off her list. And while gossip and rumor had her sleeping with a new lover every week, the truth of the matter was that there hadn't been that many. She thought about it. Less than a handful. Maybe. She'd always been more cautious about sex than some of her contemporaries. Being raised in Oak Valley did that to a person. Even among the wealthy and powerful Ballinger clan, values considered these days to be old-fashioned had been the rule and though she had shaken the dust of the valley from her feet at nineteen, the mores of the valley had been a little harder to put behind her. Besides, with all the diseases out there, she'd never jumped into bed with just anyone. So why had she acted differently with Todd?

She bit her lip. She wasn't promiscuous. She'd never been promiscuous, not even in her rambunctious twenties when she'd been so greedy and eager to experience life and all it had to offer—so eager to gain polish and sophistication, determined to show the world that she wasn't just a beautiful bumpkin from some hokey place in the sticks. Sure, she'd made some mistakes. She wouldn't deny that. She'd been young, confident, OK, maybe arrogant, certainly convinced that the world was hers for the taking. She'd been like a kid given free rein in a candy store and face it, New York was some kind of candy store for a young woman raised in a place without a stoplight, let alone neon lights and nary a Burger King or mall in sight. She could justify some of those early mistakes, but the affair with Todd Spurling shook her. She'd simply taken one look into those mesmerizing blue eyes of his and ...She snorted. And acted like a silly teenager in love for the first time. But it hadn't been love—she'd retained enough sense to realize that fact. It had been ...Oh, what the hell—it had been stupid and reckless and totally unlike her. Maybe she'd still been all dreamy-eyed from watching Sloan and Shelly exchange their wedding vows and for one wild moment, when she'd looked up into Todd's face, she'd thought to find the same love shared by her brother and his bride. She shook her head. Which was really stupid and pathetic. And impulsive—something she'd always been. She took a deep breath. She was going to try very hard not to be impulsive anymore—especially when it came to men. She didn't need a man in her life, especially not right now when she was embarking on a whole new adventure. She smiled. An impulsive one at that.

Her gaze fell to the valley floor. So here she was. Back in Oak Valley. A place she couldn't get away from fast enough nearly twenty years ago, but now ... It was odd, she thought, how after all those years of being happily swept along by the glamour and excitement found in all those famous cities across the world, London, Paris, Madrid, and Athens, she found herself drawn more and more to the tranquility and predictability of Oak Valley. Where once she'd forced herself to return home for short visits every other year or so, the past couple of years, those visits had been increasing in both frequency and duration, the longing for the valley reaching out across the distances and tugging at hidden places in her heart. She had discovered amusements that had once held her enthralled were now boring and mundane. She smiled crookedly. Words she had once used to describe Oak Valley. Funny how life turned around on you. Now it was everywhere else that was boring and mundane and Oak Valley that held an irresistible appeal.

At first, she'd put this longing for the valley down as a whim, but instead of the need to be here decreasing, she'd found that it had grown. She was, she realized, tired of being Roxanne—the face and body that sold millions of magazines, and no doubt an equal number of pairs of scanty underwear—she wanted to be plain old "Roxy," the oldest Ballinger daughter. Sloan's sister. And Ross and Ilka and Sam's sister. She wanted to wear worn blue jeans and scuffed boots and wander into Heather-Mary-Marie's, the local gift store, and be greeted by half a dozen people who had known her since she had been born and who were not the least impressed by her face, body, and reputation. She wanted a life that didn't involve always being "on," always photographed, always gossiped about . . . She grinned. Well, that was going too far. The valley gossip was legendary and she was quite certain that her purchase of a dead, reputed marijuana grower's property was currently the hot topic of conversation everywhere in the valley. Her grin widened. At least she'd taken some of the heat off of Sloan and Shelly and given the residents something new to speculate about.

The marriage of Sloan Ballinger to Shelly Granger in June had set the valley on its ear. Not only because of the swiftness with which the courtship had progressed but the very fact that a Ballinger was marrying a Granger. The Ballinger/Granger feud was the valley's favorite legend—though it had been a series of conflicts rather than one specific incident. Ballingers and Grangers just naturally took opposite positions ... on any thing. While most of the ugliness had happened decades ago, every time a Ballinger and Granger came face-to-face, the valley collectively held its breath and with bright, eager eyes watched to see if sparks would explode out of thin air. Mostly they did, but sometimes, as in the case of Sloan and Shelly ...Roxanne smiled wistfully. In the case of Sloan and Shelly magic happened.

She gave herself a shake and turned back to the house. Cabin, she amended, and again wondered what the devil she'd been thinking of when she'd bought it. It wasn't as if the Ballingers didn't own thousands of acres in the valley and foothills and mountains surrounding the valley that she could have chosen to settle on. Nor was it as if she wasn't more than welcome to stay as long as she pleased in the family mansion and childhood home on the valley floor—her parents would be thrilled. And if she had wanted, her father, Mark, would have built her a place of her own on one of the many parcels of land owned by the family. She hadn't needed to buy six hundred forty acres, an entire square mile, of mostly useless, mountainous terrain on the west side of the valley. It wasn't, even she would admit, a fabulous piece of land, altogether she probably had only about eighty acres that could be called flat—and that was stretching the word "flat." The rest of the land was sheer, forested hillside with small benches of gently rolling ground here and there—included in the eighty acres of "flat" ground. It wasn't even great timberland—too much underbrush, blackberry vines, buck brush, manzanita, with oaks and madrones intermixed with the pine and fir. But it was hers, she thought with pride. Hers. Bought with her own money. Not family money. She didn't have to share it with a damn person. It was hers. And as for the cabin that came with the place. . .

Roxanne was positive that no other self-respecting Ballinger, except herself, would have considered the rough wood-framed building a prospective home. She laughed to herself. Call her crazy—her sister, Ilka, already had and her parents, their expressions askance, had asked her at least a dozen times if she was sure that this was what she wanted. She had assured them that yes, she really did want the place. The land had its own beauty, but she loved the cabin. It had, she had pointed out to her stunned family, potential. It wasn't big, but it had everything she wanted—or soon would have once she added on and remodeled. Of course she could understand their reaction—the place had sat empty for months and local vandals had broken in several times and practically torn the place apart. Not content with wreaking destruction on the cabin, they'd also prowled around and punched out a few walls in the small pump house and the falling-down shack that served as a garage. Roxanne shook her head. They'd really done a number on the place—not one structure had escaped their mark. It had taken several days of hard, sweaty work to make the cabin almost livable—if you ignored the damage to the walls and floors—which Roxanne did—the remodeling would take care of that. As for the other buildings, she dismissed them. The garage would be torn down and a new one built and the same went for the pump house—the damage done to them she could live with for the time being.

Built at the very edge of one of those benches, the cabin was perched nearly three thousand feet above the valley floor. From the deck and from the east-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, she had stupendous views; the main level was one spacious room, except for the small kitchen area, a bedroom the size of a closet, and a tiny bathroom tucked into a corner. The upper floor had a larger bathroom and two rooms. The decor left something to be desired, but she had no doubt that with a lot of elbow grease and a full checkbook, she'd have it looking just the way she wanted in no time at all.

At the moment, with the exception of a chaste twin bed, a battery-run lamp, an oak end table, a portable CD player, and a new side-by-side almond-colored refrigerator/freezer, set up to run on propane, the place was empty. The original kitchen consisted of a battered stainless-steel sink, propane stove/oven, and a couple of metal cabinets. Her nose wrinkled. Marijuana growers apparently didn't do much cooking.

Of course, she reminded herself, it hadn't been proven that the former owner, Dirk Aston, had really been a marijuana grower—that'd merely been the conclusion of the valley residents. How else, they had asked, did someone unemployed and with no outside income earn enough money to live up there all by himself? And what about that brand-new truck he drove? Where did the money to buy it come from? And why did he have those two greenhouses and black plastic piping running all over the place? And remember all those rolls and rolls of chicken wire and bags and bags of manure? Don't tell me he wasn't growing dope! When she argued that if his profession was so obvious he would have been busted and the property confiscated, the sages had looked wise. Dirk was small-time, they'd said. Not big enough for CAMP (Californians Against Marijuana Production) and the DA's office to go after, they'd said. Lots of guys like Dirk around, they'd said. Sheriff's office knew who they were, but there were worse offenses than growing a little marijuana to keep them occupied. Sheriff's office might harass guys like Dirk now and then, but no one took them serious—bigger, more important fish to fry.

Roxanne didn't doubt that the valley had the correct reading of the situation but it hadn't deterred her. She loved this place. It was isolated, yet town was only about six miles down a twisting gravel road that took almost twenty minutes to traverse—in good weather. Her nearest and only neighbor, Nick Rios, who was staying in the Granger house, was a couple of heavily forested miles away, and after the packed, surging humanity of New York, it was a great feeling to know that she could walk stark-naked out her own door and yodel at the moon and no one would see or hear her. Not that she was going to do that. But she could. If she wanted.

Grinning to herself, Roxanne walked inside the cabin. Crossing to the new refrigerator, she took out a bottle of water and, after twisting off the cap, wandered out the other door of the cabin. There was a small deck here, too, this one covered, and she had a charming view of a small, meandering meadow before the ground rose and forested hillside met her gaze. Like many places in the country, the rear of the cabin was both the entrance and the back door. It had always struck her as strange to drive up to the back of a house, until she took in the fact that the front had the views and no one in their right mind would sacrifice view for a front yard or driveway. The much-speculated-about greenhouses were situated to the south of the cabin, and sipping her bottled water, she'd started to amble in that direction when the sound of an approaching vehicle caught her ear.

She wasn't expecting anyone, and puzzled, she turned back to walk over to the wide gravel area where her own jaunty, rag-topped Jeep was parked. A second later, a red truck, a one-ton dually, roared up the last incline and stopped in a cloud of dust.

Recognizing the truck and the very tall, very big man who stepped out of it, her spine stiffened and her fingers tightened around the bottle of water. Jeb Delaney. Absolutely the last person she wanted to see.

Like the lord of all he surveyed, he strolled over to where she stood. Roxanne once surmised that the commanding air about him came from his job—a detective with the sheriff's department. There was a sense of leashed power around him, like a big hunting tiger on a slim lead, but even she had concluded that it was nothing he did on purpose, it was just ...Jeb.

Most people liked Jeb Delaney. Old ladies doted on him; young women swooned when he smiled at them; men admired him, and young boys wanted to grow up to be just like him. Just about everybody thought he was a great guy. Roxanne was not among them. He rubbed her the wrong way and he always had. She couldn't be in his presence for more than five minutes before she was thinking of ways to knock his block off. It wasn't a new emotion—she'd felt that way since she'd been seventeen years old and he'd busted her for possession of a joint of marijuana. She'd been embarrassed and humiliated as only a teenage girl can be and she'd never forgiven him. The stern first-time warning and confiscation of the joint wasn't for her, nope, he'd made an example of her—probably, she thought crabbily, because she'd been friends with his brother, Mingo, and he hadn't wanted Mingo to become corrupted. It had been the worst incident of her young life—the whole valley had known the story about how he'd handcuffed her in the high school parking lot and put her in the backseat of his patrol car. Fortunately, he hadn't taken her to jail, as all her bug-eyed friends had thought, Mingo among them; he'd driven her home, giving her a tongue-lashing along the way that still made her cringe. Tight-lipped, he'd turned her over to her parents. She'd spent the rest of the school year grounded and endured the disappointed look in her parents' eyes—she'd hated that most of all. Hated the knowledge, too, that she had flaunted the joint practically right under his nose, just daring him to do something about it. She scowled. Well, he'd done something all right. He'd ruined that year of school. She brightened. Of course, she had gained a bit of notoriety over the affair, which had made her a big deal among her friends.

That time was behind her now and over the years most of her cocky edges had been sheared off, but to this day, the sight of Jeb Delaney still had the power to scrape her nerves raw. It puzzled her when she thought about it. She made friends easily and had a reputation for being charming and easy to work with. She liked people—she couldn't have been the success she was if she hadn't. But Jeb Delaney . . . Jeb Delaney set her teeth on edge and made the hair on the back of her neck rise up ...and, a small voice nagged, excites you more than any man you've ever met in your life.

A big man, he stood six feet five and had the shoulders and chest to match. His arms were muscled beneath his plain blue chambray shirt and the tight, faded blue jeans he was wearing fit his lean hips and powerful thighs like a second skin. Sunglasses, dusty black boots, and a wide-brimmed black Stetson completed his garb.

Watching him with all the enthusiasm she would have for an invasion of rattlesnakes, Roxanne demanded, "What are you doing here?"

Jeb stopped about two feet from her and removed his sunglasses. His handsome face was expressionless as his gaze roamed over her, taking in the long, long tanned legs revealed by her pink-striped shorts and the firm breasts only half hidden by the cut of her white halter top. There had been a few times in her career, not many, that she had posed nude, but she had never felt so very naked as she did at this very moment with Jeb Delaney's knowing black eyes moving over her.

Her lips tightened. "I repeat: what are you doing here?"

"Just being neighborly?" he offered with a quirk of his brow.

She snorted. "Jeb, I haven't a clue as to what rock you sleep under at night, but neighbors we're not."

He rubbed his jaw. "Yeah, I guess not." He looked around. "Seems an odd place for you to buy."

"And that's your business because ...?"

Jeb sighed and pushed back his black Stetson. "Are you always so prickly with everyone or is it just me?"

She smiled sweetly. "Just you—I like everybody else."

He grinned, white teeth flashing beneath his heavy black mustache. It made him look like a brigand, a very, very attractive brigand, and Roxanne didn't like the way her heart leaped at the sight of that grin. The jerk.

Her foot tapped. "Are you going to tell me what you're doing here or are we going to spend the morning exchanging insults?"

"Princess, I haven't insulted you . . . yet. You just keep tossing those smart remarks out of that pretty mouth of yours and I might just have to do something about it." His gaze fastened on her mouth and something dark and powerful leaped in the air between them. Then Jeb seemed to shake himself and took a breath. "Look," he said quietly, "I just wanted to see if the gossips were right about you buying this place." He glanced around. "After Dirk was killed, Danny and I came up here to double-check the place—it was a shambles—certainly not the sort of place I'd ever expect you to buy. Thought I'd take a drive up here and check it out. Since you're here, I guess this is one time that the valley gossip was right on the mark."

She was being rude. She knew it. She hated herself for doing it, but she just couldn't seem to stop. Looking down at her pink-painted toes in the flip-flops, she made the supreme effort and muttered, "The gossips are right. I did buy it."

"Why? Like I said, this sure isn't the kind of place one would expect the exalted Roxanne of fame and fortune to buy. Now, a mansion in San Francisco, where you could invite all your famous friends and hold wild bashes, yeah, I could see that. But here? A dead dope-grower's digs in the middle of nowhere? Don't tell me you're thinking of turning your hand to growing a little marijuana on the side?" Coolly, he added, "Not your style, Princess."

Who the hell was he, Roxanne thought furiously, to look down that oh-so-handsome nose of his at her? Most people, especially men, fell over themselves trying to attract her attention, but not Jeb. Oh, no. He couldn't even be polite. And the contempt in his voice when he called her "Princess"....She squirmed, feeling seventeen again and hating him with all that same thwarted fury. Her jaw tightened. What right did he have to condemn her lifestyle? She was a big girl now. All grown-up. She'd like to bloody that handsome nose of his and slap that cool expression on his face into next week.

Knowing she was getting herself all in a snit over nothing, she took a deep calming breath. She'd tried to be polite. OK, not much, but she'd made the effort and what did she get for it? Disparaging remarks and insults. "Is this an official inquiry?" she asked tightly. "Otherwise, my reasons are my own and I don't have to share them with you. In fact, get off my property."

A muscle clenched in his jaw. "You know, someday someone is going to teach you some manners."

Her lip curled. "You volunteering?"

His gaze swept over her. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Maybe."

He swung on his heels and climbed into the truck. The engine snarled to life and with more force than necessary, he spun the vehicle around and nosed it down the hill.

For several minutes after he'd left, Roxanne stood there staring at nothing. What the hell was the matter with her? With anyone else, she would have offered a smile, refreshments, and the hand of friendship. She bit her lip. So why not with Jeb? Because I'm a bitch? Nah. Because he's a jerk. Pleased with her conclusion, she headed for the greenhouses.

It was only ten o'clock in the morning, but already the heat was savage—by noon, every living thing, plant and animal alike, would be gasping for relief—relief that wouldn't come until the sun set. Despite her brief apparel, Roxanne still felt the heat and after walking a couple of hundred yards in the direction of greenhouses decided she'd put off investigating them until early tomorrow morning. Before it got hot. She grimaced. Yeah. Right.

She started back to the cabin when a rustling in the heavy brush to her right had her freezing in her steps. Visions of bears and cougars leaped to her mind—she knew the area abounded with them—and she cursed herself for not carrying some sort of weapon. Even a big stick would have been a comfort at the moment. Trying to remember everything she'd ever known about confronting a bear or a mountain lion, she faced the direction of the noise and edged backward toward the cabin.

The noise grew fearsome and just when she was certain she couldn't stand the suspense any longer, a horse and rider, followed by three dusty, panting cow dogs, burst into view.

Recognizing the wiry rider, a battered beige cowboy hat on his head, Roxanne's heartbeat slowed to normal and a welcoming smile lit her face. "Acey Babbitt!" she exclaimed. "You nearly gave me a heart attack. I was certain that a bear had me in mind for breakfast."

Acey grinned, blue eyes bright in his sun-worn face. "And a tasty meal you would have made." Beneath an impressive pair of white handlebar mustaches, he smacked his lips. "Yes, ma'am, you do look good enough to eat—even to an old cowpoke like me."

She chuckled. "Why, Mr. Babbitt, are you putting the moves on little ole me?"

"Might ...if I were twenty years younger and you were twenty years older," he said, wriggling his bushy white eyebrows. "Of course, if you don't mind a fellow who creaks when he walks, I'd sure be still willing to give it a try."

Roxanne laughed again, not at all fooled by his hopeful expression. Acey Babbitt was seventy-five years old if he was a day and one of the dearest men Roxanne had ever known—and one of the biggest teases. His prowess with cattle and horses alike was legendary and throughout his long career, at one time or another, he had worked for almost every ranch in the valley, including the Ballingers. Just about every kid in the valley, including herself and her siblings, had learned to ride under Acey's gentle but steely guidance. And while he may have worked for others, his first loyalty had always been to the Grangers. She knew he was living in the apartment over the barn at the Granger place and that he was working for Shelly, Sloan's wife.

"OK, enough lecherous talk— you've convinced me that you're hell on wheels," she said with a smile. "What brings you out here?"

Acey made a face. "One of them fine expensive cows that Shelly brought out from Texas is due to calve and danged if she didn't find the only break in a fence for miles around. We discovered it last night about dark. Wasn't much we could do about it then, but Nick and I have been out since before daybreak trying to track her down."

Roxanne frowned. "Wouldn't she head for gentler ground? Toward the valley? My place is so rough, I'm certain goats would turn up their noses at it, let alone a cow ready to calve."

"Don't want to hurt your feelings none, but you're right about that—this has to be some of the roughest ground I've ridden in many a day and I didn't really have much hope of finding her. We figured right off that she'd head down to the valley, but we didn't find any tracks leading in that direction. For the last hour or two, we've been working up and down the ridge, hoping to see sign of her. No such luck so far."

"Well, I'll keep my eye open, but I don't think she'll come this way."

"If you do see her, just give the house a call. Nick's got an answering machine." He paused. "You got a phone out here?"

"Cell phone. The magic of modern technology."

He glanced around. "I heard you'd bought the Aston place. Couldn't hardly believe it." His sharp blue eyes came back to her. "What're you going to do with it?"

"Not grow marijuana," she snapped, her eyes glittering.

Acey held up a hand. "All right. All right. I just had to pry some." He bent his gaze on her. "You've been gone a long time, Roxy. Lived in New York and all them other fancy places. You were always too damned pretty for your own good, but you were always a good kid. I figure you still are, but there are some folks who are a bit more suspicious. Lots of talk in the valley about what you're gonna do up here." He smiled at her. "Glad I'll be able to put their minds at rest."

"Are you serious?" she asked, astounded. "People really think I came home from New York to grow marijuana?"

Acey pulled on his ear. "No one with any sense ... but you know, we got a few poor souls in the valley that got shortchanged in life—they have more feathers in their heads than brains. Don't let it bother you none."

"Did you know Dirk Aston?"

"Not real well. And no, I don't know if he grew marijuana up here or not. I do know that he ran with some rough fellows with bad reputations—Milo Scott, for one, but it wasn't none of my business. If you're real curious, you might talk to Jeb. I know he's a detective these days and isn't doing patrol anymore, but he knows more about what goes on in these hills than just anyone else." Acey wiggled his brows. "Except for maybe me. All kidding aside, you should talk to Jeb. He's a good man. A good deputy."

"Could we please talk about something else besides Deputy Delaney—I just ate."

Acey shrugged, but there was a little gleam in his eyes. "Sure. Anything else you want to know before I slope off?"

"I heard that Dirk Aston was murdered, shot, in Oakland. That he was involved in some sort of turf war? Is that true? Or just more gossip?"

"Maybe he was. And maybe he wasn't. Like Jeb says, Aston could have been just a victim of circumstances. Nothing to prove it either way. The way I hear it, drive-by shootings happen all the time—especially in the area of Oakland where he was found. Could have been that Dirk was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's my take on it and the take of just about anyone with any brains. Dirk was small-time. Liked to talk big and act tough, but no one paid any attention to him. And as for any gossip about you growing marijuana up here . . ." He shook his head. "That's just plain foolishness. And anyone who knows you knows it."

"Thanks, Acey. I needed to hear that." Especially, she thought to herself, after Jeb's visit. El Jerko himself.

He nodded, his eyes kind and shrewd beneath the wide brim of his hat. "Figured as much. Those fellows with feathers for brains talk too much and half the time don't even know what they're talking about. Don't pay 'em any mind."

He glanced around. "So what are you going to do up here?"

She grinned. "Haven't a clue. Ain't it grand?"

Excerpted from Coming Home , by Shirlee Busbee . Copyright (c) 2003 by Shirlee Busbee . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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