Mama grabbed my chin, cranking it in a westward direction like I was a baby doll with a pop-off head. I’d been savoring the moment, gazing upon a still pristine stretch of our once vast central Florida prairie.
“Quit,’’ I snapped at her, jerking my chin away. Val, the horse I’d borrowed for the annual Florida Cracker Trail Ride, shifted beneath me and shook her own head.
Equine empathy, maybe. Val must have had a mother who drove her crazy, too.
“Well, you don’t need to get snippy.’’ Mama edged her horse a little closer and whispered. “I was just trying to present you in your most flattering light, darlin’.’’
She nodded significantly toward a weekend cowboy astride a big palomino, heading into the evening camp.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mama!’’ I whispered back. “Can’t we spend any time at all together without you trying to find me a man?’’
I glanced at the cowboy. He was bald, twenty years older than me, and about a hundred pounds overweight. The gelding he was riding was plenty big. Still, the horse looked relieved the ride was stopping for the day so he could get a break.
Turning Val away from the long line of riders, I trotted toward a remote corner of ranch land I’d already chosen for our campsite. Mama spurred her horse to catch up, her mouth hooked downward in a pout.
“I don’t know why you’ve got us way out here in Siberia, Mace. There’s not a soul nearby for me to talk to.’’
“I like the quiet, Mama. And you can socialize up a storm at dinner. Besides, I thought this trip was all about the two of us bonding.’’
With Mama’s impending marriage just a few months away, it had been her idea to saddle up and hit the week-long camping and riding trip along the Cracker Trail. She drove me crazy about it until I finally caved in.
“We need us some bonding time, Mace,’’ she’d said. “We’re the last two single gals in the family.’’ I think there was even a tear in her eye.
I got all nostalgic about Florida’s early cattle-driving days, and how we’d traced the historic trail as a family when Daddy was alive. Insanely, I went along with Mama’s plan. My sisters, Marty and Maddie, couldn’t take a whole week off work. But they were going to drive the hour and a half from Himmarshee to the Atlantic coast.
They’d meet us for the big parade in Fort Pierce, the end point for the hundred or so riders who make the cross-state trek.
If I made it that far without killing Mama, that is.
Combine her upcoming nuptials with the fact that my former flame moved back to Miami and out of my life, and Mama’s matchmaking compulsion had hit overdrive.
We were only on day two of the six-day ride, and already she’d eyed every male she’d seen as my possible mate: from the pimply clerk at the mega-store, who bagged up our trail provisions, to the ride’s middle-aged cowboy poet, even after two of his girlfriends got into a scuffle near the stage last night. By this point, I was praying for an off-season hurricane that might force us to cancel the rest of the trip.
We’d just pulled up the horses to a tree line that marked our evening camp, when I suddenly felt Val’s muscular body tense beneath me. Her ears went up. A moment later, I heard the sound myself: Something was moving out there through the shadows of a dense oak hammock.
“Well, as I live and breathe.’’ A deep, booming voice. “If it isn’t the prettiest girl ever to grace the halls at Himmarshee High.’’
Mama’s hand flew to her hair, and she batted her lashes becomingly. I didn’t even bother to turn around. I’m not awful to look at: thirty-one; five-foot-ten; slender, well-muscled build. But Mama and I both know which one of us would be described as the prettiest girl ever at Himmarshee High. She’d been homecoming queen andhead cheerleader. I’d received special permission to compete with the boys at bulldogging for the high school rodeo.
“Mace, honey, look who’s here. You’ve met Lawton Bramble before, haven’t you? Law and I were an item back in high school, a hundred years ago.’’
Given that the wedding in four months would be Mama’s fifth, I was surprised she could still keep all her “items’’ straight. Then again, you don’t forget a man like Lawton Bramble.
He sauntered out of the trees toward Mama and me. In expensive custom boots and worn Wrangler jeans, he was still gorgeous in his sixties; so tall he barely had to raise his head to look us in the eye on our horses.
“Whoo-eee! Aren’t you something, Mace,’’ Lawton said. “You turned out just as pretty as your mama.’’
I hoped I wasn’t blushing. I didn’t care much for the way Lawton treated his land, or for his politics or business practices. Gossip was he was cruel; but he was all charm today. Magnetism oozed off him like musk. And there was no ignoring the force of those blue eyes. No wonder everyone from the governor on down asked how high when Lawton said jump.
Mama patted the hand he’d placed on the horn of her saddle. “I’ve tried to tell Mace exactly the same thing about how pretty she is, Law. I mean, look at that hair: so thick and black. The girl at Hair Today, Dyed Tomorrow says Mace looks just like a silent movie queen. But she doesn’t do a thing with what God gave her. She goes around looking like one of those critters she traps crawled up on her head and built itself a nest. Mace, honey, turn around so Law can see all those snarls in the back of your hair.’’
I shot Mama a murderous look.
“I’m not a heifer at auction!’’
Lawton rocked back a little and hunched his shoulders up to his ears. He might be rich and powerful, but this discourse on my poor grooming was turning him into the Shrinking Man.
“Mama, as much as I’m enjoying your hair-care tips,’’ I said, “I’m hungry. I want to get out of the saddle, get these horses taken care of, and get some grub.’’
Relief passed over Lawton’s face. He took off his hat and brushed a hand through hair that was steel-gray, but still thick. “That’s just what I came to tell y’all. I’ve got a cook site just over in that next clearing, and I’m making a batch of my famous Cow Hunter Chili. I’m gonna serve it at supper, so you better be hungry.’’
Mama’s hand fluttered up to cup the side of her face. It was the left hand, the one with the enormous diamond engagement ring from Sal Provenza.
“Oh, Law, my constitution is much too delicate for that five-alarm recipe of yours.’’
“But if your handsome son is going to be at supper,’’ Mama continued, “we’d sure like to stop by and say hello.’’
“How is that darlin’ boy?’’ Mama pressed ahead, her matchmaking obsession overriding her observational powers.
“Fine.’’ The set of Lawton’s mouth was grimmer than mine.
“You must be so proud of him. I heard he’s stepping into the family cattle business,’’ Mama plowed on, oblivious.
“Don’t believe everything you hear, Rosalee.’’
Mama finally caught on to Lawton’s cold tone of voice. Even in the dim light of the dying sun, I could see a muscle twitching in his clenched jaw. What had gone on between father and son?
“Oh . . . oh, my,’’ Mama sputtered. “I certainly didn’t mean . . .’’
“Don’t I ever,’’ I said.
“Anyway, I’ve gotta get back to my chili and ratchet up the spices. We’ll see y’all in a couple of hours, okay?’’
As Lawton left, Mama swung out of her saddle. I did the same. We worked silently for some time, putting up a temporary paddock; trading the horses’ bridles for halters, tethering them by lead ropes to the trailer. I’d just lifted off Val’s blanket and saddle, when Mama could stand the silence no longer.
“What do you think that was all about, Mace?’’ She whispered, though Lawton was well out of hearing range. “He turned as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss, didn’t he? All I did was ask about Trey.’’
Lawton Bramble III—Trey—had been three years ahead of me in high school. Quarterback on the football team, straight-A student, the air of privilege that comes from being the son of the richest cattleman in three counties. He was exactly the kind of boy Mama would have loved for me to date. And exactly the kind who wouldn’t have given a second glance to a tomboy like me.
“Don’t ask me, Mama,’’ I shrugged, stowing Val’s saddle in the trailer. Predictably, Mama had made no move to finish with her horse. I lifted off Brandy’s saddle, too.
“Just family I guess, like Lawton said.”
Dusk was coming on fast now. Crickets sang. A barred owl called. The air was crisp and chilled. The ride is held every year in February, when it can get cold in the center of Florida. But it rarely freezes. And most riders would rather bundle up with a couple of extra layers than camp along the Cracker Trail in the summer, when it’s so hot the hens are laying hard-boiled eggs.
By the time I watered and fed the horses, my own stomach was grumbling. I had to wait for Mama to decide what outfit to wear, then fix her hair and apply fresh makeup. Who brings mascara and blush-on to a trail ride? I glanced at my watch: More than two hours had passed since we spoke to Lawton. His chili would be spicy enough to peel paint by now.
Finally, we were ready to head over to the Bramble homestead. Several cattle-raising families along the trail generously opened their land each year to the trail riders. The cynic in me always figured that in Lawton’s case, he did it mostly so he could show off.
We started through the hammock, dodging low branches above and clumps of palmetto at our feet. A full moon was just beginning to peek above the clouds on the horizon, adding its glow to the flashlight I carried to find our way. Something small and wild scurried through the dry brush and leaves.
I held back a thorny vine so Mama could pass under. We came out of the oaks and onto a treeless pasture. Light shone from a lantern and campfire in the distance. Just as we started toward it, a woman’s scream stopped both of us short. With barely a glance at each other, we began running toward the sound.
“Oh, my God,’’ the woman screamed again. “It’s Lawton. He’s dead.’’