Dropped call. Again.
Emma Fox threw her phone back into the cup holder and peered at the GPS screen, clutching the steering wheel in both hands. Its little map still told her to continue straight ahead, her car bouncing and jolting over the dirt road. She couldn’t possibly have a satellite connection if her phone kept dropping her calls, right? She had to be lost.
Honestly, when she’d turned off the main highway onto a gravel road, surprised, she had just assumed this was what Tennessee back roads were like. Her grandfather’s ranch was out in the sticks, rednecks and deer hunting and horses, but she seriously hadn’t expected it to be so far away from civilization. So the turn from gravel road onto dirt road wasn’t exactly bewildering, but it was a different experience for a woman from California.
Her phone rang and she grabbed it. “Oh my goodness, Gabby, you would not believe where I am.”
“Emma,” her cousin laughed. “If this call drops again, I’m not calling you back.”
“I know. It’s ridiculous. Did I tell you I’m on a dirt road now?”
“You’ve said it a million times. What do the directions say?”
“I don’t have them. I figured the GPS would get me there.”
“Smart move, Em.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she groused. The landscape was a tangled mix of tree and pasture and hill, with the dirt road barely making a dent. On either side were fenced-in meadows, cows and horses grazing, and then suddenly she crested a rise and came out on a sprawling view of heat-browned grass. “Look. If you don’t hear from me, send a search party.”
“I wouldn’t know where to send them. Why don’t you just call your grandfather?”
“He’s only got a house phone, no cell, and I think he can’t get to it very quickly. I’ve called twice and it just rang and rang.”
“Is he that bad off?”
“His letter made it sound like he wanted to unburden himself before he goes. You know? Anyway,” she sighed. “Finish telling me about Nonna before I lose the call again.”
“Oh right. Well. I hate to do this to you while you’re out there-”
“No, no. I told you to call me if anything happened,” she said, peering through the grimy windshield at the house sitting back from the road. No sign. Her grandfather’s letter had mentioned a sign at the end of the driveway.
“Well, she wandered out of the apartment this morning and ended up in the restaurant kitchen. At the stove.”
Oh no. Not good. “She didn’t . . . she didn’t try to cook, did she?”
“Yeah. Uncle Remo found her when he came in to make bread.” Her grandmother lived over the family restaurant in San Francisco, but lately she’d gotten forgetful, kept thinking she was needed downstairs to help prepare the menu. “Uncle Remo reminded her that she’d been retired as cook for a long time now, and she got flustered and embarrassed and asked for you.”
“Oh, Nonna,” she sighed, slowing her speed as she approached a crossroads. The GPS still said straight ahead but she was less inclined to believe it. “Gabby, can you go over there this week and stay with her while I’m gone?”
“Have you been spending the night with her?”
“Sometimes. Just when she has an episode like this. It seems to . . . I don’t know, calm her down or help her orient in the here and now.”
“I can’t be there all week, but I’ll go when I can.”
Emma bit her bottom lip, tapped on the brakes as she hesitated at the crossroads. She shouldn’t have taken this trip; she didn’t even know her grandfather – her father’s father. He’d never been a part of her life, and Nonna had been everything.
“Should I turn around and come home?”
“No. No, Em, don’t do that. You drove all that way. It’s only a week.”
Emma swiveled her head left, then right, searching for a sign, but the crossroads was barren.
Except for him.
One guy. Across the road, working on a fence. Baseball cap and jeans. She glanced in her rear view mirror. No one coming, of course. She hadn’t seen a car for miles and miles of dirt road.
“Hey, Gabby? I’m gonna let you go. I see a guy. I need to stop and ask for directions.”
Gabby laughed. “Don’t get murdered.”
“Right, thanks. So encouraging.” Emma crept forward through the crossroads, pointing her car in the man’s direction, then pulling over at the side of the road. “Okay, love you. Please stay with Nonna as much as you can.”
“I got it covered. Call me when you get there.”
“Bye.” Emma ended the call, turned off the engine. The guy had stood up, was watching her from underneath his baseball cap. She opened the door, brought her keys and phone with her.
She headed for the fence that separated them, stepping carefully through the mud in her sandals, brushing her hair back as she looked at the guy. Dark hair, eyes in shadow under the ball cap, hands on his hips. She could see a dirty truck parked yards away on the other side of the fence.
“Hey,” she said when she got close. “I’m hoping you can give me directions.”
“All right,” he drawled. Not as Southern twangy and cowboy as she expected, and he was wearing tennis shoes – not boots – but he definitely wasn’t a California boy. “Do my best.”
“I’m looking for the Fox Horse Ranch.”
“Yeah, I know it.”
“Well good.” She flashed him a smile, saw the way his eyes squinted at her. “Am I close? I’ve stopped believing my GPS after it took me off the gravel road and onto this one.”
He rubbed his hand over his jaw and glanced down the road. “You’re close. Three miles down. On the right. Sign out front.”
“Oh, thank you. Guess my GPS was right after all.” She stuck her hand out to shake, figuring friendliness might help the strange tension between them. “I’m Emma, by the way.”
His hand was broad and rough. His thumb squeezed hers in a strange little move that made her stomach flip. “Riley.”
“Well, Riley.” She took her hand back, let her keys dangle from her fingers. “I appreciate the help. I gotta get going. I’m late.”
Even when she turned and headed back for her car, she could feel his eyes on her. Watching. Not hostile, not exactly, but just wary.
She had no clue why.
Suddenly, it was stifling in the air-conditioned cab of Riley’s truck.
There she was, as he knew she would be. Emma Fox standing in the gravel drive of her grandfather’s ranch, washing the dusty little car she’d driven here in. Her body strained on tiptoe as she lathered suds onto the roof of the car with a rag, fingertips of one hand touching the side for balance. Her khaki shorts stopped about six inches above her knees, revealing strong legs fit for a swimmer or cross country runner. The white tank top was soaked to her skin and Riley found himself annoyed that he’d noticed (the shadow of a dark bra didn’t help either). He was even more annoyed that he responded to it.
The entire ranch had been talking about her arrival, what she’d mean for the business since Benton Fox was looking to hand over the reins. And apparently she’d driven all two thousand plus miles in that old Honda Civic. Riley had been moderately curious about the San Francisco girl, but mostly suspicious. All of the sudden, when her rich grandfather was probably not long for this world, Emma Fox wanted to make a grand homecoming?
Prodigal son indeed. She didn’t seem as wonderful and intelligent as everyone had made her out to be. When she’d pulled her car over and hopped out to ask for directions, tiptoeing in her flip-flops through the mud, she’d looked a little lost, a little silly. Kinda hot. In her shorts and wet T-shirt, barefoot on the sharp gravel, she seemed rather ridiculous; still hot. Blonde, of course. With her sunglasses pushed on top of her head and holding her hair back, Emma Fox looked too simple to orchestrate an elaborate plan to win back her grandfather’s favor.
And that was precisely why Riley was so suspicious of her. She was cute and innocent looking, but if she was as cunning as Benton remembered her mother to be, then she definitely had more going on behind those blue eyes.
Shutting off the engine of his truck, Riley shelved his cynicism and opened the door. Keys jangling pleasantly in his hand, he walked over to Emma’s car, stopped just behind her. Whirling around, hose in hand and startled eyes, the woman sprayed him square in the chest.
“Oh no! Sorry-” But she was laughing, trying to adjust the nozzle only to make it spray in a wider arc, dousing his shoes and jeans as well as splashing the gravel.
“Yeah,” Riley said, holding up a hand and shaking his head. He wiped the water from his eyes and looked her over carefully, debating whether or not she’d done that on purpose. She’d already dropped the hose, letting the water trickle off; the nozzle had been busted for a while. Riley now had a reason to get a new one.
“I saw your truck drive up, but I didn’t expect you to be right there.”
He nodded. “All right, don’t worry about it. I surprised you.”
With a last glance to the hose, she shaded her eyes from the sun and regarded him carefully. “Yeah. You could say that. Riley.” She set her jaw, and he had to revise the ‘silly’ judgment. She had more steel in her than he’d first thought.
“Riley Wilson. I’m the manager here.”
“Uh-huh. You could’ve said that when I asked for directions.” She put a wet hand on her hip, entirely distracting.
“Long drive?” he asked, ignoring her comment.
She gave him a crooked smile. “Yeah, but fun. An adventure. Never know who you’ll meet.”
“I’ll bet,” he said and then watched her slosh the rag back into the bucket. They stood there glancing around the ranch, caught in that awkward moment where there’s nothing to say, but too much interest to part ways. He’d meant to interrogate her the moment he met her, but that plan had been ruined by the strange meeting out on the road. Now he wasn’t sure what to do.
“You see Benton yet? Your grandfather.” He pushed his baseball hat back on his head and wiped at the sweat.
She shook her head. “I knocked and his home health nurse answered. Said he was in bed.”
“He gets tired pretty quickly. Has some confusion.”
She shrugged. “So. I dropped my stuff in a room and came out here to wash my car.”
“I can see that.” He settled his cap more firmly, tugging on the bill, watched her because he didn’t know what else to say.
“Well, want to help me finish? Since you’re all wet anyway. Make up for whatever that was back there. Some kind of awkward cowboy reserve, let’s call it.”
He opened his mouth to refuse, cowboy reserve?, but found himself agreeing instead. “All right.”
He snagged a rag from the back of his truck and moved to help her wash the car with a confusing degree of resentment and satisfaction. Strangely enough, he wanted to help her, if only to get them both inside and in front of her grandfather. Benton Fox would surely see right through her. Wouldn’t he? One way or another.
Coming down the hall, Emma found the ranch manager already at attention in the foyer, looking sharp now that he was showered and dressed in charcoal grey dress pants and a blue dress shirt. Hmm, Riley Wilson. She was surprised to see him dressed up, after pulling into the yard in dirty, torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt, baseball cap, but she wasn’t surprised that he looked so good. Those too-grey eyes in that weathered face –
“You clean up good, Wilson,” she said. Without the hat, the light was warm and appealing over the planes of his face, the orbits of his eyes.
He merely frowned and she got the sense, once again, that he didn’t like her too well. There wasn’t much she could do about his attitude, but she wouldn’t let it get to her. Her grandfather had called her two weeks ago, asking to see her one last time before he died (which seemed entirely too melodramatic for her taste) but she was between shows and it seemed she owed it to him – family loyalty or something. Owning an art gallery that did moderately well and working on her own sculptures was more than a full-time job, but she’d left Gary in charge for the duration of her stay on the ranch.
“Dinner’s ready,” called a voice from the kitchen. Emma followed the sound to the dining room and saw her grandfather was already seated at the head of the table and being served by the woman that came during the evenings to help take care of Benton. Emma had met her when she’d arrived – a stout, older woman named Camilla who talked incessantly about her two grandchildren.
“Hey, Granddad,” she said and leaned forward to kiss her grandfather’s cheek. He looked up at her and patted her hand, but nothing showed on his face. She wasn’t sure what to expect from him. Meeting for the first time, like this, seemed oddly formal.
He’d been the elusive unknown for so long. It was even strange calling him ‘Granddad’, like they had a relationship at all. But it was how he signed his letter, so it was what she’d use.
“Still know your Italian?” he asked, his voice trembling slightly. She couldn’t tell if that was pride or disdain.
Emma nodded, taking the chair her grandfather indicated. “I live right in North Beach – San Francisco’s Little Italy – with all of mom’s family. We run the restaurant.”
“Your mother was a beauty,” Benton said, but he wasn’t smiling. “She died when?”
“Just over a year ago. I wrote you; called.” She watched Riley sit to her grandfather’s left, all of them an uncomfortable distance apart. The room was drafty and bare of any softer touch. Sparse.
Her grandfather didn’t answer her, simply murmured to himself in his chair; Camilla had disappeared. Emma wondered at the tense silence that fell over the table.
“What was your mother’s name?” Riley asked; his face was guarded but he seemed to be trying to put her at ease a little. Maybe. Hard to tell with him.
“Calypso Capriotti. The family owns a restaurant in North Beach, called Capriotti’s.”
“Calypso?” Riley said, a look of astonishment on his face. “Like the Siren from Homer’s Odyssey?”
Emma shot him a slow grin. She was surprised he knew the reference. “Yes. Calypso lured Ulysses away from his journey and held him captive for seven years.”
“Some would say your mother lived up to her name,” Benton said. His hands were steady as he cut his meat, but he wasn’t looking at her. “Only it was longer than seven years. James never made it back home.”
Riley’s face flushed, even under that appealing sun-browned skin. Emma wondered if the sting of that was on her face as well.
With a quick glance at her grandfather, who clearly wasn’t a fan of her mother, Emma waved off the embarrassment. He was an old man; Riley had said he had some confusion. She had enough experience with her grandmother to know she shouldn’t take it personally. “I get it. I was an English major in college. I caught the parallels myself. It’s funny.”
She sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
Riley stared moodily into his dinner plate and worked his fork into the chicken. She could tell he was struggling to find a way to change the subject, so she let him off the hook and did it for him.
“So, Granddad, what’s new on the ranch?”
“Since you were here as a tiny girl? Many things. Too many things to even start. If you’d been here …”
Emma immediately wished she hadn’t changed the subject. Her grandfather seemed intent on dwelling in the past, namely her mother’s ‘capture’ of his only son. Of course, the way Emma’s father, James, had recalled it, he had been suffocated under his father’s strict ways and had been simply waiting for his chance to escape. She wished she had asked her father about this place while he was still alive; she felt like she needed some ammunition against her grandfather’s hostility towards her mother.
“I don’t remember being here. When was I here?” she asked, hoping to steer the conversation back to happier times.
“You were a little thing. Your father came. With her. I told him I’d gladly have the two of you, but not her. Not Cally. You didn’t stay.”
She sucked in a long breath and glanced down at her dinner. Not Cally. Not her. No wonder her mother had never spoken about this man.
Neither had her father, not all that often. Sometimes Emma had trouble remembering his face, bringing back the details of his hands as they sat side by side in mass with her mother’s huge family. Other times, she’d see a man’s silhouette in the distance, some blocks down the street, weaving between pedestrians, and it could’ve been him, it was exactly the way he’d looked when he was alive.
With her father’s absence so sharp in the room, she realized she had probably come back to the ranch in the hopes of reclaiming something her father had always rebelled against, reclaiming a part of him she’d never known. Of course, she had her mother’s large family in North Beach who always looked out for her, the many cousins who protected her and teased her, but she’d been restless for a while now, stuck artistically and spiritually. She’d been missing a part of her history, missing her father, but this wasn’t what she’d been looking for.
When her father had said Benton Fox was a tyrant, maybe she shouldn’t have assumed he was exaggerating.
“I see you met Riley. I don’t know what we’d do without him. He’s faithful.”
Emma stiffened at the insinuation, but flashed Riley a small smile. “Yeah, he helped me wash the car.”
“He’s been such a help around here. He’s like a son.”
Emma flinched, knowing now that her grandfather considered her father lost to him ever since his marriage. Her mother had always been so reserved when it came to the subject of her father’s family. If her mother had still been alive, Emma hoped she’d have warned her, let her know what she was in for.
“When your father never came back from that hippy rally in Oregon, I knew it would be difficult finding someone who could handle the horses like he did.”
Hippy rally? It had been a peace protest against nuclear proliferation.
Emma sighed, biting her lip to keep a lid on her sudden surge of defensiveness. Her appetite had vanished. She picked at the mashed potatoes and listened to her grandfather ramble on.
“It was difficult. His leaving was hard on his mother. She died not three years after that.”
From cancer, Emma wanted to say. Just like her father. And even though Emma knew her mother had told Benton, had called him more than once when her father had been put into hospice, her grandfather had never showed up. But Emma, being only a little girl at the time, had assumed her grandfather was just too old to travel, as her parents had always claimed.
She was starting to believe that had never been the truth. They’d been protecting her from this man, from the bitterness and ire he held for them. She was remembering her mother’s pressed lips, the whiteness of her knuckles on the phone. The way her father looked at the end, face drawn back tightly over his skull, his eyes not seeing them, his spirit somewhere else.
“We had various ranch hands in to look after the horses, but no one seemed right. Then six years ago, Riley drove up in a battered pickup looking for work. So I hired him. He reminds me so much of James before he abandoned us.”
Emma glanced over to Riley, the dark wavy hair, the troubled eyes. He didn’t look a thing like her blonde-haired, blue-eyed father. Where James had been short and outgoing, Riley was tall and quiet. Emma looked more like her father than anyone at that table, but she found herself unable to defend her family to her grandfather, unable to make her mouth work, her tongue unstick. Words always deserted her at times like this.
“So, Emma, want to see the horses after dinner?” Riley asked suddenly.
She flashed him a look, saw how uncomfortable Benton’s rambling seemed to be making him as well. “Yeah, that’d be great.” Anything. Just to get out of here for a while.
“Your father had a way with the horses,” her grandfather said. “He had a way with all animals. So gentle and understanding –”
“We always had dogs around the apartment,” Emma interrupted, trying to show her grandfather an image of James that wasn’t related to the ranch, but to her own life. To the life her father had chosen for himself. That he had loved.
“I can’t believe he was happy cooped up in a city apartment, with only dogs for company.”
Dogs for company – and what were her mother and Emma? She wanted to believe the sting wasn’t intentional, but the set of his mouth, the coldness in his eyes made her think it had been. She’d never expected her grandfather to be this bitter towards her family, and if she’d known, she wouldn’t have come. Her mother had never commented, never said a word against him, and now Emma felt blindsided by his old and tired grudge.
“Daddy was very happy, Granddad. He wrote books and newspaper columns and played piano in a nightclub …”
“Nightclubs.” He was working his food slowly into his mouth, as if every movement was a struggle. She wondered if it was for show, to garner sympathy. He made a noise in his throat that Emma took to be disapproval. “His mother would’ve rolled in her grave if she knew her only boy was playing in nightclubs. In San Francisco.”
Because, of course, of course, San Francisco was the city of hedonism and debauchery, wasn’t it?
She couldn’t win. That was all there was to it. Her grandfather was determined to mourn his son’s choices, determined to make someone suffer for them, and there was nothing Emma could do to change the past twenty odd years.
This was a mistake. Coming here – she should’ve left it alone.
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Anna, Zirk and Laura