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Jodi Thomas

The Widows of Wichita County

© 2003

Prologue

The last day of August Clifton Creek, Texas

Randi Howard pressed the fold in the marriage license with one long ruby-red fingernail and slipped it into her huge leather purse.

'Good luck with this one,' the clerk said without smiling. 'Sorry we misspelled your name and you had to come pick up another copy.'

Randi waited for her to add, 'see you again in a few years,' or 'I'll remember it's i next time around.' But the clerk moved away without another word.

Suddenly in a hurry to leave the aging courthouse, Randi pivoted on the heels of her red boots, letting the fringe of her jacket fly. The place gave her the creeps; everything echoed off the scrubbed floors and pale marble.

'There won't be a next time,' she whispered to herself as she patted the license hidden away in her purse. 'I swear on my mother's grave-if she has one by now.'

She hit the latch on the door at full speed, letting her long legs carry her straight into the wind and toward Jimmy's truck parked half a block down at the cafe. He would be her salvation this time. He would live with her long enough for the glue of marriage to stick. She would be thirty in two years and she planned to be married, not looking for husband number four. At best, Jimmy would make her happy. At least, he would stay around.

Which was more than she could say for the last two good old boys who had also swept her off the bar floor and into a wedding bed. By the time she'd changed the sheets, they were gone.

But Jimmy had promised to give it a good try. He owned his own trailer home outright. He had a good job and a rich uncle. No one in town had a bad word to say about him and, in the three months they had lived together, he had not hit her once. That, for Randi, was some kind of record.

She closed her eyes against the sting of the wind whirling dust devils across the West Texas parking lot. This time, if the marriage failed, she would have no one to blame but herself. Jimmy was solid and kind. He married her even after everyone in town tried to talk him out of it. He drank a little, but then she usually finished at least two beers by the time she spread on her makeup. And he loved her. At least she thought he did. He told her so once and once seemed enough.

Randi slowed as she passed the long windows of the town's only bank. Her image reflected back at her from the smoky glass. Wild red hair, too much eye liner for daylight, western clothes cut tight to show off her endless legs and square shoulders. Randi smiled. She was a bar light beauty and she knew it.

A woman inside the bank stepped to the window. For a moment, their images blended and both looked through the other. They stood, the smoky glass separating them, seeing only themselves.

Randi blinked, almost crying out as the fine young woman's expensive clothes and regal carriage mingled with her own frame. She wore breeding and grace for the first time in her life. For one instant, she saw another Randi, one that might have been or maybe one that might yet be. She saw a lady, not a throw away cowgirl who had to fight sometimes just for the right to keep breathing.

Finally, Randi raised her gaze to the beautiful woman's huge dark eyes.

Truth delivered a solid kick in her gut.

The lovely woman in the expensive clothes had looked at Randi and must have seen the same blending of images. She saw what she might become if she continued to live in Clifton Creek. Only unlike Randi's pleasure, the lady appeared horrified.

Unable to stare a second longer Randi ran toward the cafe, wiping tears she blamed on the dust away from her cheek. 'What's wrong with me?' she swore under her breath. 'I'm married to Jimmy Howard now. I'm going to be happy. Ain't no sense in wanting what you can't have.'

She kicked at a dandelion fighting its way through the crack in the sidewalk. 'I should have been born a plant. I wouldn't care if I was a flower or a weed. Plants don't care if they're wanted or loved, they just grab ahold of the earth and grow.'

Opening the cafe door Randi straightened to her full height. Without caring that folks watched, she ran to Jimmy, straddled him like he was a kitchen chair and kissed him long and hard.

She would survive in this town even if she had to grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. Nothing better was coming along. Tired of wandering without a compass, she planned to take root right here in Clifton Creek.

Half a block down the street Anna Montano stepped out of the bank and walked toward a waiting Range Rover. Even her tailored clothes and grace of movement could not hide the doubt coursing through her body as she regarded her new hometown.

Clifton Creek, Texas, had to be the ugliest place on God's planet. The very air smelled of cow manure. She had left a beautiful country villa in Italy surrounded by rolling land rich in color and entered a world painted only in brown hues. A Coming Soon Wal-Mart sign was the most colorful thing in this place named after a creek that had dried up years ago.

Her new husband had described his home in Texas as a place with wide-open spaces and an endless sky. But he forgot to add that the countryside and air were dusted in dirt so thick Anna could not tell where the land ended and the sky began.

As if the flat brown country was not ugly enough, the people of this place had dotted the landscape with monstrous drilling rigs for oil production. She had not seen Davis's ranch yet, but the farther she got from the airport the more homesick she felt. At twenty-one she suddenly was not ready for the changes she had thought were so romantic only days ago. The whirlwind courtship, the huge wedding, all the gifts and well wishers had been replaced with silence, and she felt more alone than she ever had in her life with her new husband sitting only a few feet away.

'Clifton Creek,' she whispered trying to become familiar with the words. But they felt foreign on her tongue, as alien as everything around her.

She smiled slightly, her mood shifting for a moment when she remembered something her mother said once. 'When all are strangers around you, you are the one in the wrong place. You are the foreigner.'

Anna had wanted to come to America slowly, by boat, with the horses Davis had brought from her father's ranch. But Carlo, her brother, had traveled with the fine animals while Anna had flown alone with her new husband. Rocketed into a world she did not understand beside a man she hardly knew.

The change had been too abrupt. She felt like a freshwater fish splashing down in the ocean and expected to survive. She could not breathe.

Anna slipped into the car and reached for her husband's hand, but he only brushed her fingers away as he turned a page of the local paper. 'Don't worry.' He gave her a quick glance. 'You'll get used to it here. Before long you'll love it. This place settles in your blood.'

Anna wanted to scream. No, this place would never be a part of her. When she had agreed to marry Davis, she thought she would be flying away to freedom. She had no idea freedom would look this desolate.

Old-timers say that in the oil fields trouble rides the wind, but death explodes in the silence of routine.

Five Years Later

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