Chapter 1

Salina Faye Graves stared in shock at the letter from her mother she found just this morning. Her throat constricting, she read it again, trying to absorb the letter's full impact:

My dearest Salina,

I’m writing this to you and to you only. Your father’s guilt over his 14 miners killed in that horrible mine cave-in drove him to suicide. But you must know he was not responsible. It was that conniving Lyman Graves who framed him. He made your father take the rap. Lyman Graves was hell-bent on forcing out all his competitors so he could be king of the coal business in eastern Kentucky. Your father, Minos Drummond, was a good man, an honest man. But Lyman, in his scheme to get revenge on your father, set him up. His revenge was born out of hate. You see, I left Lyman Graves at the altar two years before I married your father. Even though that was long before you were born, I always shielded you and your sister from any knowledge of my former relationship with Lyman Graves. Only your father knew of it.

 Her throat dry, Salina dropped the letter on the bed and gasped for air. Lyman Graves? Her mother and Lyman? But that was impossible!

Her thoughts swirled. No, it wasn't impossible. Lyman and her father Minos Drummond were about the same age. Reeling, she nearly fell from the bed.

She sat up straight and tried to absorb the full impact of her mother's letter. She did not want to believe what she'd just read. The man who drove her beloved father to suicide was none other than her husband—Lyman Graves!

Feeling suddenly nauseated, Salina curled into a fetal position on the bed and began to cry.

She remembered how deeply she had loved her parents, and she felt so alone now. Her tears moistened the pillowcase and she rubbed her cheeks with the back of her hands. She picked the letter back up, raised herself to a sitting position, and read on:

 Two days ago I had a nurse mail to you, at that new address you left with this nursing home, a journal of your fathers that will prove how Lyman framed him, ruined his coal business, and wrecked his life. I asked the nurse to alert you about watching for the journal's arrival, but she said you weren't home when she phoned. The journal reveals every crooked shenanigan Lyman Graves perpetrated not only upon your father, but also on other coal operators and his miners as well. My mind is deteriorating so fast, I cannot try to vindicate your dead father’s name. You must do it for me, Salina. If it takes all of your life, vindicate his name. Free Minos Drummond of the stain he carried to his grave. I appeal to you because I don't think your sister Ari Ann could handle this. You have always been the stronger of my two daughters.

Absolve your father from his guilt so that he might rest peacefully in the grave. Vindicate the family name.

Your loving Mother,

Patsy

Salina stood and crumpled the moist paper in her hand, then laid it on the bed. Waves of nausea swept over her. She swayed on her feet, then began pacing the floor. Damn Lyman! If she'd only known this before, she would never have agreed to marry him fourteen months ago. Never! She dug her nails into her palms and gritted her teeth. To learn he had been the agent of her father's destruction was…devastating.

She swallowed back a bitter taste that coated her tongue. Worse, to know that Lyman had once been her own mother's fiancé made her blood boil.

Stopping at the antique dresser, Salina stared at her reflection in the mirror. What have you done, you foolish woman? How could you have been so stupid? You should have seen Lyman's deceit before now. You’re scarce half Lyman’s sixty-six years and here you are faced with this…

Clenching her hands at her sides, she whirled and paced back across the room. Was the reason for Lyman’s courtship and marriage proposal to me some perverse revenge scheme to get back at my mother because she jilted him at the altar?

Summer rain splashed against the windowpanes as Salina fought the rage and hurt welling inside her.

Through all of her anger and tears, a pleasant thought suddenly emerged. She had not told her mother about her marriage to Lyman. So Lyman did not get the chance to really hurt her mother back. Her mother's mind was soon lost to the shadows of Alzheimer's after she wrote the letter. So her mother, Patsy Drummond, never knew about the marriage. The news, Salina realized, would have crushed her.

Salina returned to the dresser and squinted at the mirror. Pressing her hand to her forehead, she shoved back her disheveled hair. Was it really possible, she asked her reflection, that Lyman married her to get revenge on her own mother? But revenge made no sense, she reasoned. After all, Lyman had offered to foot all the bills for her mother's expensive care in a nursing home. And that, she reminded herself, was the deciding factor in her acceptance of his marriage offer. Plus, he seemed such a kind, caring man. Could he really have put on that persuasive an act?

She turned and moved toward the bed.

A new realization hit her. She stopped dead still, moving her fingers through the air as if performing a complex mathematical task. By consenting to marry Lyman in return for his paying for her mother's health care, she had become totally dependent on the man. She sold not only herself into Lyman's bondage, but her mother as well, God rest her soul. Lyman, for a time, held both their fates in his hands. What a sick satisfaction that must have given him. The bastard.

Her stomach knotted and burned.

She jerked her mother's letter off the bed and reread it, choking back the brackish taste in her mouth.

A disquieting notion crept across her mind like a fungus around a pine branch. Lyman was not what she thought he was. She'd been a fool to marry a man she'd known so little about. A fool. She sank back onto the bed, curled her body into a ball, and lost track of time.

When Salina recovered enough to gather her thoughts, she could still hear the rain against the window. She sat bolt upright as a new realization struck her. She'd never received her father's journal like her mother promised in the letter! Her mind raced over the last time she'd seen her mother—a week before she'd died eight months ago. She'd visited her in the nursing home in one of her mother's rare but brief lucid moments. Her mother had asked Salina to bring home a box containing old picture albums and special mementos. The box where she'd found this letter, which was addressed and stamped but never mailed.

Salina tried to re-trace where she'd been about the time her mother wrote the letter. She'd been right here in Whitestown, Kentucky. At this mausoleum of a house Lyman called home. She'd... No! She was at her sister Ari's house for ten days. When Ari's third baby was born, she'd gone to Hazard to stay with her and help take care of the older children.

Lyman! Lyman must have received the mailed journal and opened it! She fingered the envelope, figuring it never got mailed because her mother's Alzheimer's very likely closed in again right after she wrote it.

Salina shot to her feet. If Lyman stole the journal out of the mailbox, the journal must be at home somewhere. She would find it! And as soon as she had it in her hands, she was getting out. She would not spend one more night under the same roof with that deceitful Lyman.

Where would Lyman have put it?

Remembering where he kept the key to the locked drawer of his desk, she raced down the stairs.

Moving through the big rambling house's center hall toward Lyman's study, Salina heard the screen door on the back porch slam shut. She whirled to face the tall figure of Lyman who strode into the kitchen, his muddy boots clacking on the black-and-white checkered tile floor.

"I want you to cook a fancy Kentucky Burgoo for supper tonight, Salina. I'm bringing those federal mine inspectors here to eat after they finish their tour of my mines."

She planted her hands on her hips, her anger fueling her courage to confront him about the journal. "No, I won't," she snapped. "You can't just march in here at eleven in the morning and tell me to cook tonight for company." She watched as a look of shocked surprise grazed Lyman's face.

"That's your job, lady girl and don't you forget it." Frowning, he smoothed back his mane of silver-white hair and hooked his thumbs inside his belt.

"Not any more, it's not. I've just found out my mother, before she died, mailed a journal of my father's to me here. You've got it, haven't you? You've got it hidden because it implicates you, because it's proof you destroyed my father's good name, his dignity, his life—"

Lyman erupted in harsh laughter.

He took a step toward her. "You mean all that garbage about me yore daddy scribbled in his little black book? His diary?" He sneered and leveled a gloating look at her.

"Let me have it." All too aware of his explosive temper, she backed away from him. If she provoked him too much, he might—

"Good luck. You'll never get it."

"Damn you Lyman, where is it?" she demanded, surprised at the harshness of her words. She'd never before spoken to him in this manner. But the knowledge that he'd brought about her family's ruin and ultimately drove her father to suicide was reason enough now.

"Anything that comes to this house is my property," he barked. "Just like you are. What's mine is mine."

"I'll turn this house upside down. If I don't find it here, I'll get the police involved—"

"Lotta good that'll do you. I own the Whitestown police department. Besides, you got no proof the journal was even mailed. All I have to say is I never saw no journal."

"Then how do you know what he said in it? I have a letter my mother wrote—" She stopped, clamping her mouth together. If she said any more, he might destroy the letter.

Lyman reared his head back and laughed again. "You surely to God don't think anyone would believe the rantings of a crazy old woman like your mother, do you?"

Salina felt like an icicle had stabbed through her heart. "Just let me have the journal. I know you've got it some where."

"And you think I would tell you! You're crazier than your Ma."

"Where is it, Lyman? It's mine."

He took two steps, grabbed her arm and jerked her to his side, wrenching her arm behind her back. "Forget it. Now, I'm hungry, so get dinner cooked, why don't cha?"

She felt his hot breath on her hair and shuddered. "I want the journal," she said, enunciating each word with precision. "And then I want a divorce."

"Ha! You just try that," he snorted. "You're talking awful high and mighty. Just don't you forget where you came from, lady girl. Without me, you'd still be waitin' tables in some cheap roadside eatin' place."

Salina winced as his grip on her arm tightened so much she feared her circulation was being cut off.

"I married you, gave you my name. Gave you this fine place to live in. A fancy car to drive. How many women you know live like this? You're livin' pretty high on the hog, gal."

She saw his menacing glare as she tried to wrest away her arm.

"Have you forgot how I remodeled that room upstairs for your art studio? Footed all the bills for your mother's care in that ritzy nursing home? Is this how you express your gratitude? Talking to me in that uppity little voice?" He jerked her head up with his other hand. "How long do you think you could make it out there in the world alone? Ain't nobody in these parts gonna hire you to teach school if they know you was Minos Drummond's kinfolk. They'd be afraid his craziness was in you, too." He sneered. "Maybe you're planning on selling your paintings here in eastern Kentucky to them dumb, lazy bastards who work in my mines?"

"Turn loose of me, Lyman. You're hurting me." She pulled away from him, fighting back the fear surging within her, hearing his words that were forged in the iron-clad will of one used to giving orders to his miners. She well knew the violence he was capable of.

He released her arm and she felt his large hand circle her left breast.

"’Sides, you don't need to be frettin' that young head of yours over such matters. Yore daddy's been dead and gone a long time. What difference does it make, anyway? Nobody would believe what's in the journal. Ever body knows Minos Drummond was crazy when he wrote that garbage. He shot hisself right after that." He glared at her again and stepped back, adding, "Only a crazy man would shoot hisself in the head."

Salina shrank away from Lyman. A sickening feeling clawed at her memory. Her father's depression. Her own guilt over not being able to help him in his final days. His sudden and rapid deterioration after—

Lyman bent his head toward her neck and she heard the sound of his rushed breathing. Her stomach coiled in revulsion at the thought of his hands sliding over her. Groping hands she'd managed to tolerate now seemed like rough animal paws, invading her.

She stiffened as she felt his hand move across the small of her back. She rued the day she'd sold her soul to this man. Though she'd had no choice at the time because her family was financially destitute, she should have made an effort to find out more about him before accepting his favors. Before giving herself to him. But she could not have let her mother go into a state facility. Not ever! She'd wanted the best care for her. Plus, she'd initially found him…worldly. She sure never knew he'd once been jilted at the altar by her own mother—

The phone's ring shrilled through the kitchen.

Lyman swore under his breath, moved away from her and grabbed the phone.

Salina let out a long, slow breath of relief as she heard his words bark.

"Yeah, yeah, tell 'em I'm on my way. I'll meet 'em outside the entrance to the Number 4 mine." He slammed the phone onto the receiver, grabbed a hat from a peg hanging inside the back porch, and started out the door. "Mine inspectors always was an impatient bunch." Pausing at the screen door, he ducked his head around the corner. "It ain't natural for a woman to get involved in business matters. You just forget what you believe was in that diary. Yore daddy went broke on account of his own investments. His suicide had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Don't think of stirring up no trouble, if you know what's good for you."

"I want the journal, Lyman," she said in a lowered voice. She hated herself for backing off, but she knew deep down inside there was no way Lyman would voluntarily turn it over to her. He knew the journal would incriminate him.

With sudden clarity, she now realized how mean the man actually was. She'd been living a lie.

Her life would never again be the same. Perhaps she was once enticed by his money, but she would no longer be blinded by Lyman's lies—

"Forgot to tell you..." Lyman's silhouette reappeared on the porch. " I've got one of my contacts up in New York working on a showing of your paintings. Says you'll need to send him some photographs of what you want hanging in an art gallery."

Salina bit her lower lip. The way he was always dangling the gallery lure in front of her...it hadn't happened yet. And likely never would.

"You just go on and get that Burgoo cooked. Them men'll be back here with me at six tonight. I want the table set with the good china and silver."

He paused and she was conscious he was studying her.

"And do something with your hair. Braid it into them coils you wind around your head, kinda like a crown. Never did like it hanging down loose like it is now."

Salina closed her eyes as she listened to the screen door slam. She heard him gun his big white Cadillac out of the driveway. Breathing deeply, she told herself to stay calm. She would find that diary if it were the last thing she ever did. She'd turn this house upside down looking for it. And if she didn't find it in this house, she'd search through Lyman's car tonight after he was asleep.

Then she was getting out.

But not before she had the proof of her mother's words in her possession.

The journal would vindicate her father's name. It would restore his reputation.

And it would ruin Lyman.

What if Lyman had destroyed the journal? That thought brought her up short. For safekeeping, she'd better hide her mother's letter she'd left on the bed upstairs so he wouldn't rip it to shreds. Even the letter itself might serve as evidence in helping vindicate her father's name.

Carrying the letter, she moved into the room housing her art studio. The studio was Lyman's wedding gift to her, she recalled. She needed solitude, she'd once told him, to enhance her creativity.

A sense of deprecation swept through her as she cast her eyes about the art studio, surveying it from a new perspective. She thought of the high personal price she'd paid for all this.

She groaned. What a fool she'd been to let herself be lured by Lyman's big talk…like getting her paintings shown in a New York gallery. Hah!

She stashed her mother's letter beneath a stack of blank canvases.

Moving around the room, she studied her sketches. Many were half-finished portraits in which she'd tried to capture the suffering of the miners' grimed faces, the abject poverty and misery reflected in their gaunt eyes.

She picked up one of her oils and held the canvas in her hands. Ari's children, the twins and the baby. She intended to send it to Ari for her birthday. How she wished her sister Ari were still here in Kentucky. With both her parents dead, she needed moral support for what she was about to undertake. She needed a shoulder to lean on. But Ari was in Florida—six hundred miles away.

Silently chiding her sister's husband for taking the job in Tampa, she wondered what Ari was doing now. Probably about the same thing she'd done here in eastern Kentucky, Salina reflected. Sewing for people. Weaving her threads. Pulling at her strings she tatted for customers. Making macramé slings for hanging plants.

She returned the oil to its easel.

Vindicate your father's name. The words rang in her ears with the resonance of a curse.

Her dear father so rankly abused—

She would ferret out the proof. Disclose all the evidence.

She had to start searching for the journal now.

Worrying her lip, she headed toward Lyman's study.

***

The light on the miner's cap perched on Lyman's head flickered as the jitney lumbered over the rails through the last few feet of darkness before nearing the mine entrance. Lyman poked the motorman's shoulder. "Can't you hurry this jitney up? I got a big dinner waitin' at home for me and these mine inspectors. Didn't have no idea we'd be down in the mines this long."

The mine inspector sitting behind Lyman nudged his arm and spoke in a gravelly voice. "We don't have to eat with you, tonight, Mr. Graves. It's awful late and we need to get back to Ashland."

Lyman turned around and spoke to the inspector. "My wife's a fixin' Kentucky burgoo. It's worth waitin' for. You liked it last time you ate with us." He tried jiggling the light on his cap.

The foreman seated next to the mine inspector grinned. "Yore light's been a flickering, boss. Better see to that purty young wife when you get home. You know what these ol' miners say about a man's light goin' out." The foreman guffawed.

"You making an observation, bud?" Lyman shouted in a threatening voice. He smiled as he tried to imagine the foreman's squirm. No man, no matter what his position, would insinuate something to Lyman Graves. No sirree. Everbody in the mines knows that if a man's light goes out, it’s supposed to mean he’s being cuckolded. But I put the fear of God in Salina. Plus, she knows she's beholden to me. So them old superstitions don't mean nothing. Besides, my light’s back on now. More ‘en likely just a faulty battery pack. He squared his shoulders and fingered the object clamped to his belt. But I’m sure gonna have to squelch, pronto, that rebellious little mouth of Salina's I heard this morning. Ordering me to give her that diary of her daddy's... Tonight I’ll—

"Lookout, boss!" Lyman heard the motorman yell. "She's gonna break!"

The jitney lurched and derailed. Lyman heard his own scream mingle with the other screams that pierced the heavy darkness.

***

Frustrated by her fruitless search in Lyman's study for the journal, Salina tapped her nails on the harvest-gold Formica countertop. The clock above the sink said eight-thirty. Lyman told her to have the dinner ready by six. Despite her resolve not to, she'd gone ahead and cooked the Burgoo. Now she wished she hadn't. But it was her last time. No more entertaining Lyman's business associates. Tomorrow she'd be out of here.

She tapped her nails again.

She hated waiting like this. It'd be just like Lyman to take those mine inspectors by a bar across the county line. She wanted to get this dinner party over with, shoo the guests out the door, and lay down the law to Lyman about telling her where he'd hidden the journal.

She looked out the dining room window to see a flashing blue light turning into the driveway. Moments later, a knock sounded on the front door.

A uniformed man stood on the porch, his hat clutched in his hands. "I'm Sheriff Mason, Miz Graves. There's been an accident at Neptune Number Four mine. I'm afraid Mr. Graves has been hurt. If you'll get in the car, ma'am, I'll take you out there."

Woodenly, Salina followed the sheriff and slid into his car's passenger seat. His words flitted in and out of her ears as he sped over the rutted county road. "They think a support beam jolted loose and fell on the rail car," he said as the squad car rounded a curve. "Mr. Graves and the other men riding in that jitney was almost back at the entrance when it fell."

"How bad is he hurt?" she heard herself ask as she tried to still her trembling hands.

"He's alive, at least. He was unconscious when they pulled him out, though. He must'uv been sitting in the rear. Lucky for him, he didn't take the full force of the beam like them others. They's four or five dead."

The sheriff jerked the steering wheel to the left as the car bumped on a gravel road. When the car stopped near a large crowd, he helped her out and led her toward a stretcher. Ambulances were everywhere.

Salina stood rigid as she stared at Lyman who lay motionless on the stretcher. Pieces of bone protruded through his torn, grimed slacks. His steel-toed boots, blood smeared now, were smashed. Her gaze jerked to his soot-covered face where a paramedic was checking an oxygen mask. Beside Lyman, an IV hung from a stand. Salina saw a line running from the IV into Lyman's arm.

The July heat was heavy and humid, and she wiped sweat from her face. She lifted her eyes to the canopy of clouds that hung low in the sky, enveloping the mountain peaks in a haze that obscured the growing darkness. The smell of dank sulfur filled her nostrils.

Lights from the tipple looming above the mine, silent now as if in respect for the wasted lives, cast a yellowish glow. Salina glanced around at the string of worried-looking women, miners' wives and mothers who'd gathered when the siren's wail pierced the air, the siren signaling a mine accident. The women had come, she knew, to learn the fate of their men, their sons, hoping not this time, praying their kin were not among the dead. Salina moved away from Lyman and looked at the carnage of men who had been in the rail car with him, wondering if these were the mine inspectors whose dinner still simmered in her kitchen. Were they the guests she was to have entertained—these broken, lifeless bodies?

News reporters milled about. Salina heard one ask a sooty-faced man wearing a hard hat if he was the foreman. The man's nervous answer ricocheted through the air. "No, he's there on the ground. Dead. But I told Boss Graves last week we needed to shore up that beam afore somebody gits hurt."

Salina felt sick and she looked away. A thought swirled in the back of her mind—if Lyman didn't come around and she hadn't found where he hid her father's journal, what would she do?

Shame over her selfishness swept through her and she fought back a vinegary taste in her mouth.

Off to the side, she saw what was left of the rail car that had ferried the men from deep inside the mountain back to the mine's entrance. The Chariots, Lyman had called those cars.

The man wearing a hard hat faced a reporter who held up a microphone.

Salina listened as the man spoke. "...the best we can piece together is that the jitney Boss Graves rode in was thrown over against the side of the joists holding up the mine's ceiling. And then he must've been drug for several feet behind the car. When the rescue party got to ‘em, they said his ankles wuz all tangled up in the wheels."

Turning, she watched as two attendants slowly moved the stretcher holding Lyman's body toward the back of an ambulance. Near the ambulance, Salina spotted a sign, its lettering weathered and dim. She moved closer and saw the name, Poseidon Coal Company: Neptune #4 Mine, Lyman Graves, Owner and Operator. Beneath that was a trident imposed over a massive sea wave. She studied the crudely-drawn face below the trident—Lyman's face peering out over the scarred landscape like a maimed fisher king surveying its dying land. She remembered the day Lyman had first shown her this sign, the week they'd come back from their honeymoon in Gatlinburg. She'd thought at the time Lyman looked better than the sign depicted him, despite his advanced years.

As she walked back toward Sheriff Mason's car, she tried to avoid looking at Lyman's grotesque leg fractures. She was relieved when his body was hoisted inside the ambulance, out of her sight.

She placed her hands over her ears to block out bellowing sounds—a cacophony from the crowd, blaring sirens, and the hiss and whine of machines inside the mine. She remembered how her mother used to say she hated the noise around the mines. Her mother had even forbidden her little girls to ever go near the mines.

Dazed, she slid into the sheriff's car and with a jerky movement, pulled the door closed. Her fists clenched in her lap as Mason pulled out behind the screaming sirens and the car hurled into the dropping darkness.

Her mother's letter she'd read that morning now seemed like a strange, distant memory. But she would not let the memory fade. Lyman would be okay when they got him to the hospital.

She'd make him wake up. Make him tell her...

***

Perching on an orange vinyl chair in the lobby outside the hospital's emergency room, Salina watched as her neighbor, Ona Neely, sat kneading her palms.

"Have you called Lyman's son out in Colorado yet, Salina Faye?" Ona bore a fixed worry across her lined, ruddy face.

"Not yet. As a matter of fact, I hadn't even thought that far." Salina massaged her brow, trying to force off what felt like a hammer pounding in her head.

"If you'd like me to call him, I'd be happy to. I know this has to be hard on you..."

Blotting out Ona's attempts to soothe, Salina picked up a magazine and flipped through its pages, blinking back bitter tears.

Moments later she was conscious of a voice speaking to Ona.

"Excuse me, are you Mrs. Graves?"

Ona shook her head and nodded toward Salina.

"I'm Mrs. Graves." Salina looked blankly at the white-coated man. A stethoscope jostled above his front pocket.

"I'm sorry. I guess I was expecting some one older."

Salina closed the magazine and fingered the pleats in her skirt.

"Mrs. Graves, I'm Dr. Khorram. We've stabilized your husband's condition. We're preparing him right now for emergency surgery. If you would like, you can go in and see him before he's moved up to the operating room. But he is still comatose."

Salina flinched and balled her hands in her lap. "Why is he having surgery?"

"To repair the compound fractures in his legs. There were several fractures in both legs." He looked gravely at Salina. "Apparently your husband sustained a severe head injury, also. It will be touch and go for the next few days. He'll have to be closely monitored. I would suggest you go home after you've seen him and get some rest. There's no telling how long this surgery will take. Come back, perhaps in the morning. I'll phone you if there's any change."

She swallowed back a lump in her throat and started toward the emergency room.

"I'll wait here in the lobby for you, Salina Faye. When you're ready to go, I'll drive you home. And then I'm a gonna call Lyman's son for you and tell him he needs to come home and see his daddy." Ona stood imposingly in the yellowing light.

"No, I'll call him, Ona." She paused, rubbed her cheek, then continued in an uneven voice, "You know, in the fourteen months since we married, Lyman's only mentioned to me one time that he has a son? I've never seen a picture of him. And I don't even know his name or how to get in touch with him, for that matter."

Ona's brow furrowed. "Your stepson...he's a knockout—just like his daddy used to be. Thick, curly hair as black as coal and eyes too pretty to be on a man." Ona's lips curled downward. "Skin's a lot more olive-toned than his daddy's, though—" She stopped abruptly as if she'd said more than she intended. "His name's Paul Titus Graves. I know where to contact him," she added in a rush. "I'll give you his number when we get back home. For a long time, he's been workin' out in Colorado—ever since he graduated from Colorado School of Mines. Him and Lyman haven't been on the best of terms. They's bad blood between them two. It's a shame, really." She started away, turned back toward Salina and said in a lowered voice, "I'll tell you more about it later. I need some coffee. Can I bring you a cup?"

Salina raised her palm, held it in the air, gesturing toward the ER. "No thanks, Ona. I'm going on in now to see Lyman."

Sighing, she slumped back into the chair and watched as Ona waddled away. She really did not want to think about Lyman right now. That letter—what Lyman had done to her father—it was all too fresh, like a ragged, open tear in her…

She closed her eyes and tried to remember her father. He was a kind man. She recalled the many times he had helped her with her paintings and drawings as a child. A tall, thin man who nearly always wore a brown, leather-brimmed hat and blue jeans, her father enjoyed teaching her about painting. He especially enjoyed drawings of landscapes and animals. On several occasions, he took her hiking up in the mountains to find some new peak to draw or paint.

Each summer, her father drove the family to the outer banks of North Carolina where they stayed for weeks at a time. Easily sunburned, her father always wore his hat, blue jeans, and long-sleeved shirt on the beach. How she missed him now. Yet, as she'd grown older, her father seemed to grow more strangely distant. The hikes became less frequent, the summer trips to the beach ended, the sketches less detailed, the joy less shared.

She recalled how her mother's fading happiness paralleled that of her father's. Her head reaching only to Minos' shoulder, her mother developed a shuffle step in her later years. As the years advanced, both their faces were etched with lines and creases. Her mother's hair grayed, her father grew bald. Dark circles under their eyes signaled some sort of hidden grief and a silent burden. Yet at Minos Drummond's funeral, Salina's mother did not cry, but instead sat stoically beside her two daughters. Years after her father's death, Salina often found her mother lost in thought. Now, she knew why.

Fighting off her melancholy, Salina rose and padded toward the emergency room.

***

Paul Titus Graves adjusted the radio dial as he sped the Hertz rental car across the winding mountain road. The beam of his headlights illuminated broken down pick up trucks, grime covered, that dotted the sides of the road.

His stomach growled. He'd not even taken the time to catch a bite to eat at the Lexington airport. The woman on the phone who'd called herself Salina Faye Graves had said his father was in the hospital in critical condition. Hell, he didn't even know his old man was married.

His stomach knotted. Guess he shouldn't be surprised the ol' lecher had finally gotten hitched. Ever since his mom left them, his father had always latched onto a different woman every week. Never did think he'd actually marry one though. Wonder if this one was as sleazy looking as the others.

An overloaded coal truck slowed in front of him. He'd have to pass it somehow if he could dodge all these potholes.

Static obliterated the music coming over his car radio.

In critical care? For how many days? Good thing summer school graduate classes hadn't been under way too long.

Turning up the radio, he chuckled, remembering how his father had scoffed over the phone back when he'd told him his plans for a graduate degree in archeology. "Archeology! Hell, that's for pussies. What good's archeology gonna do ya in the mines? I need ya here, boy. To help me run these mines. One degree's enough. Now git yore butt on back." But he'd dismissed the cantankerous old goat's demands and stayed in Colorado anyway. Besides he and Lyman never could agree on anything and trying to do business together would have meant certain doom.

Still...there was that sense of loyalty...inbred for ages.

He maneuvered the car around the sharp hairpin curves, keeping his eyes fixed on the road that snaked around the mountain. As he inched around another coal truck creeping up the hill, he saw the mountaintop across the ridge where his old home place nestled in the side of a clearing.

His rental car climbed the steep grade. Then he spotted the familiar opening carved into the kudzu jungle. At least, he reflected, coal dust didn't filter through the windowsills and beneath the doors up here.

His left hand pulled down the turn signal as his right arm swerved the steering wheel toward the wide gravel path. The path wound through sagging crab apple trees up to a seen-better-days circle drive. Placing the car in park, he sat for a long moment, letting his eyes rest on the massive old house that loomed before him.

He took a deep breath, filling his lungs and expelling the air slowly, trying to gather his courage before stepping onto the concrete. Sliding out, he stood on the driveway, noticed the chickweed springing through spidery cracks. Flies droned in the close air.

Forcing himself away from the car, he lumbered toward the covered porch. Ole King Graves was a mighty old soul and a mean old soul was he. He reached for his jug and he reached for his gold and he reached for his women three. Once in junior high school he'd written his version of the Mother Goose rhyme. He remembered how shocked his teacher was and how she'd scolded him.

He spit onto the wide planks of the porch.

A board groaned beneath his feet. He placed one hand on the doorknob while his other tugged at his shirt collar to loosen it.

The door opened.

He stared. His lower jaw dropped in surprise and shock.

"You must be Paul, Lyman's son."

He thought the woman's response sounded like more of a question than a statement. "Yes, I am," he muttered.

"Come in. I wasn't expecting you until late tonight." Waving her fingers in the air, she stood aside as he wandered into the front entrance hall.

He continued to stare at the woman who stood next to him holding out her hand. His arms hung uselessly at his sides.

"I'm Salina Faye. Your father's wife."

"Pleased to meet you." He sucked in his breath and eyed her with a searing fascination. "I caught a red-eye flight out of Denver. That's what put me here so early." His gaze ranged over her shoulders, up the smooth neck to her face where green feline eyes, deep and life-giving, peered out from thick black lashes. He found himself studying her eyes. They were bordered on the sides by barely visible squint lines in the alabaster skin. He noticed she wore no makeup. The full lips bore their natural color.

He tried to open his mouth to speak again, but no words came. Then he saw she was motioning him into the kitchen.

"You have to be exhausted after such a long trip—leaving so early. I'm sure the worry about your father must be very stressful."

Her lilting voice sounded hollow as he followed her across the dimly lit hall. "Has his condition changed any?" he asked as he watched her rounded hips undulate beneath the purple slacks. The motion of her legs seemed effortless as she glided across the planked floor, a scent of jasmine trailing in her wake. He lifted his gaze to her purple silk blouse tied up above her narrow waist, exposing her midriff.

"No. No change," she replied, facing him and gesturing with her hand.

Something about her struck a chord deep inside him. He stared at the ropes of braided dark brown hair coiled around her head like a crown. Flecks of black in her hair shimmered under the overhead light. Shaking his head, he tried to pull himself together, wondering what it was about the way she moved, the scent of her that created this odd impact on him.

When she took a kettle of boiling water off the gas stove, he drew a ladder-back chair up to the kitchen table. Slinging his leg across the rush seat, he seated himself before a place setting for one. "So how long you been married to my dad?" He rubbed his chin between his thumb and forefinger.

"A little over a year."

She kept her back toward him as she puttered around the stove and he rummaged in his head for some appropriate conversation. When he was unable to settle on any small talk, he rolled the fork into a napkin, wondering how in the world his father, who was well into his sixties, could be married to this gorgeous piece of a young woman.

"I fried catfish for dinner," she offered after several moments of silence. "It's fresh from the lake here. Would you like some?" She pulled a plate from a cabinet and faced him.

As she arched her head to the side, the button holding her blouse together above the full breasts gave way and her hand reached quickly to hold it together.

He pretended not to notice and looked up into her questioning eyes, eyes like an ocean in which a man would like to drown. Swallowing thickly, he blurted, "Yes. I haven't had catfish in a long time."

"Good. You look like you need to eat." She lifted a heavy iron skillet toward the counter beside the stove and retrieved a spatula from a drawer.

With his left hand propped over the back of the chair, he sat in the disconcerting silence. When she started toward him, he studied the rebellious wisps of hair that slid over her forehead and inched down the sides of her neck.

"There's been no change in your father's condition since I called you two days ago. He's still unconscious. After you eat, I'll go with you to the hospital."

He saw her point in some vague direction. Heard her add, "That is, if you'd like."

"Sure." He unrolled the fork and stuck it into the fish she'd set in front of him, picking at the corn meal batter, wishing she'd sit down across from him instead of hovering near his side. His eyes stole a glance toward her, regal now in her stance, and for the first time he saw the delicate, thin flowered wreath around her forehead, like a diadem of some sort. Just for a moment, he allowed himself to stare into her sea-green eyes, but quickly forced his own away. His throat tightened and he took a gulp of the hot coffee she'd given him.

"Ona Neely told me which bedroom used to be yours. She said so far as she knew, the room has been untouched since you left."

He listened to her words as they filled the air about them, lingering in the room and in his ears. Her voice was rich and layered and throaty now, piercing the silence in an earthy way.

"Of course," she continued, "I've no way of knowing how long it's been since you slept in that room, but I've cleaned the room for you and made up the bed—"

His cup clattered down on the bare table. He tried to force a look of nonchalance on his face as a slow bile rose in his throat. Wiping up the spill, he stalled, trying to think how to reply to her. "I haven't been back here since I turned twenty-one and that was six years ago. So I don't have any hankering to sleep in what used to be my room. I'll just sleep in the parlor on the sofa. My old room was right next to my dad's...to yours—"

He stopped, fumbled with his napkin, and noticed a faint blush steal across her cheeks as she met his gaze, then looked away. He saw her thumb twirl her wedding ring around so the sprawling diamond faced down.

Salina busied herself at the sink as he finished his plate and scraped back his chair. Standing, he stretched his arms, strode to the door, and turning back to her with a nod, muttered, "Give me ten minutes before we go to the hospital. I want to get my suitcase out of the car, then look for something in the garage." He was surprised at how strained and still his own voice sounded.

"Sure, Paul."

He moved toward the front hall, hesitated, turned back and faced her. "Could I ask a favor of you?" He watched as she dried her hands. "Would you mind not calling me Paul? I know most people around here think of me as Paul Titus Graves, but I prefer to go by the name of Mick. My father always hated that name, but it's what I like to be called. When I was real little, my—" He stopped abruptly.

"Mick? If that's what you prefer." A smile broke across her face as her mouth formed the name.

Outside, Mick expelled his breath, freer now in the open air. It was too close inside that house. The sexy woman who claimed to be his stepmother...her sultry voice—

God, how could ol' Lyman pull that one off! She must have really been hard up to latch onto an old geezer like my dad. He pulled the car keys from his pocket and scratched his head in puzzlement. Funny, the way she talked, though. Didn't sound like she was from around here. And there was a bearing in her stance that reminded him of...of what? he asked himself. He ground his jaw. She was nothing like the others he remembered his dad dragging in all hours of the night.

Opening the rental car's trunk, he retrieved his suitcase. What was that Salina woman's angle anyway? She sure as hell didn't seem too grief-stricken over her husband's condition. He slammed the trunk shut. Maybe she knows more about her husband's prognosis than she's letting on.

He sat the suitcase on the concrete, jammed his hands into the rear pockets of his jeans and stood staring up at the second-floor windows. Heaviness engulfed him and something inside him shouted go back now, leave before it starts again. He squelched back the ache in his chest, the sense of deafening defeat he'd fought all the times he'd looked out from those high arched windows of his old room.

Forcing his gaze away from the high windows, he hunched his shoulders and walked up the front porch steps, deposited his suitcase near a rocking chair. Then he headed around the house toward the sagging garage, filling his lungs with the mountain air. Inside, he flipped a light switch and stared about him in the bare bulb's harsh glare. Hanging neatly over a long wooden table was his bow. He lifted the bow down gently from the metal hook and ran his hand over the sleek, arching wood, fingering it reverently as a musician would an ancient mandolin or a Stradivarius violin. Brushing away a cobweb, he let his fingers pluck at the taut string.

He spotted the dusty sheath holding the arrows. As he reached for them, peace washed over him. His mind flooded with memories of the gangly adolescent he'd been. Then the young man escaping his personal demons in the pristine forests as he climbed a jagged path and pulled the bow, aiming in the preternatural silence at the brown, still animal whose ears pricked in watchful vigil. Mick remembered the quivering of the string in his heart and deep within his subconscious it reverberated with a deferential hallowed echo, an almost worshipful aura about it. Then the ping and hiss as the arrow shot through the air and found its mark, its sound following its flight into Mick's oblivion.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow he'd try it—the hunt, he promised himself, feeling the tension in his body ease and flow away from him.

Mick steeled himself as he walked back toward the house, almost dreading the thought of going to the hospital. At least I won't have to talk to the old codger if he's still unconscious.

He shuddered, bracing himself for the hospital visit.

***

Visibly shaken, Mick walked out of the critical care unit. Spotting Salina on a chair in the corridor, he nodded his head. "You can go in to see him now. I stayed my limit. I don't understand why family members are limited to ten minutes at a time to see a patient in this CCU."

"Hospital rules." Salina shrugged her shoulders and stood.

Mick watched as she walked toward the door, carrying her head high, and knocked. Within moments a nurse opened the door to admit her into the room whooshing with the sound of respirators. The room that had sent chills down Mick's spine. Watching his dad lie there in an orthopedic bed with his legs in traction and all those tubes running into his body had been quite a jolt.

He sat on the empty chair, picked up a two-day-old newspaper from the floor, and tried to focus on a front-page article. But he kept hearing the sounds of those monitors bleeping and humming above his dad's head.

He stared at the headline and his eyes blurred. Too much traveling, he tried to convince himself. He'd gotten up before the crack of dawn to catch a red-eye flight and now his lack of sleep, coupled with the strain of seeing his dad in such a condition, was proving a bit too much. He folded the newspaper and laid it in his lap.

When he saw Salina come out, he tried to force a smile. She was taking all this pretty well, for a woman who'd only been married fourteen months. Has to be hard on her, even though she doesn't show it.

She walked toward him. God, she is a looker, he thought. Those eyes, those fluid movements—

What was he thinking? Here in this hospital where his dad lay comatose...

Mick waited for her to say something. He tapped his shoe against the gray-green linoleum, dropped the newspaper on the floor, and stood.

Finally she spoke. "He doesn't even know we're here, you know? I've been coming here three and four times a day since the accident, thinking he'd wake up and at least know I'm here to see him."

"What have the doctors said about when he should wake up?"

"They just tell me ‘his prognosis is not good’. They seem like they're afraid to say any more, other than that the surgeon says he'll have to remain in traction for several weeks. But they did tell me when Lyman's legs eventually heal, which won't be for a long time, he may be able to have rehabilitation and physical therapy and may even be able to walk again, someday. First, though, he'll be in a wheel chair. If he ever wakes up."

"So the head injury could be there forever?"

Mick felt Salina put her hand on his arm. "That's possible, Mick. He might have permanent brain damage for all we know. I guess we should take steps to keep the coal business running." She squeezed his arm. "The miners have to eat, you know. Somebody has to write the payroll checks."

Mick stepped back. "Don't look at me! I've got to get back to Colorado to my graduate classes as soon as I can."

"You're not going to do that before your father comes out of this coma, are you?"

"I don't know. I can't stay away too long. Summer school graduate classes are pretty intense." He looked at his watch. "I'm going on home. I've got to get some sleep. I don't see any sense in hanging around here. If he doesn't know we're here—he looks like a corpse lying in there." Mick passed a hand across the stubble of beard on his chin. "Do you want to stay?"

"No. I'm going back with you."

As he drove away from the hospital, Mick watched Salina from the corner of his eye. What is her angle, anyway, he wondered. So quiet. So reserved. So...unemotional about...

When he sighted the house, its windows dark now, its orange-tiled roof bouncing the moonlight off the heavy-limbed maple tree near the porch, he slowed the car.

"So what do you do with your spare time?"

"I read a lot. Paint occasionally. Dabble in oils. How about you?"

"I ride horses. Been training them out in Colorado. I think I've still got a stallion boarded at a stable near here. If my father hasn't sold the horse." He turned the rental car into the circular drive, cut the engine, and sat with his hands on the steering wheel.

Salina got out and walked toward the front porch.

Mick locked the door and followed her. Her movements were as graceful as a doe's. He looked at her hair gleaming in the moonlight. She must have loosened the braids before they'd left for the hospital, he reflected. Her hair hung long and loose about her shoulders now. He wanted to run to her, lift that hair in his fingers—

Salina opened the door and held it while he gazed at her. She seemed to have an expectant look on her face he didn't know how to interpret.

"You go on in," he said. "I'm going to sit out here on this porch swing for a while."

When she turned on the entrance hall light, he noticed her full lips curl down.

"Do as you wish. I'll get out sheets and a pillow and put them on the parlor sofa. There's an afghan already there if you want a cover." She placed her hand on the door handle, adding, "Let me know if you need anything." She closed the door behind her.

Mick sat on the swing and studied his feet.

Moments later he heard the front door open. Surprised, he turned his head toward Salina.

"Mick, after you've had a chance to get caught up on your sleep, would you please consider helping me take care of some business matters? Despite Lyman's condition, the Poseidon Coal Company has to go on operating. I could use your help."

His shoulders tensed. "I'm not interested in being a party to my father's sucking the lifeblood from these miners." He feigned a shrug. "So there's no need asking me to assume any managerial tasks."

"Lyman always claimed he treated his miners well."

"Maybe you're a little naïve. Or you just haven't been around long enough to know the truth."

She shot him an odd look, turned, and disappeared inside the house.

Mick yawned, leaned back in the swing, and closed his eyes.

At the sound of a dog howling in the distance, he opened his eyes, looked around, and noticed he'd left a light on inside the rental car. Mumbling over his forgetfulness, he meandered out to the front drive, turned off the light, and leaned against the car. Staring up at the window where a light suddenly appeared, he felt his toes curl under as he thought of the nights he'd sat by the window as a boy listening to his father's liquored rages. The nights he'd run outside and scampered into the darkness of the yard trying to hide from the ever-shifting panoply of slit-skirted, painted-faced women. Sluts his dad dragged home. He'd always wanted to hide from those sleazy women. They were nothing like his real mother, surely.

He remembered crying in the darkened yard after his mother left. He was not yet five years old when she just up and left one day. She never came back and he'd not seen her since.