Kate sat in traffic, wondering why on earth she’d attempted a trek across Dallas during rush hour. She adjusted the AC, took a deep breath and tried not to think of the pack of cigarettes she kept with her . . . just in case.
“If it wasn’t so damn hot,” she murmured, pointing the vent towards her. It was only mid-May, but already the summer heat was showing itself. She glanced affectionately at the cigarettes, then forced her eyes back to the road. She didn’t know why she tormented herself with them. She’d been in various stages of quitting for the last two years, finally able to count days between cigarettes instead of just hours. And this time, it had been four days. Well, three days, nine hours and a handful of minutes. But who’s counting?
Her cell rang, thankfully distracting her from the nicotine fit she was about to have. She smiled when she saw the number displayed. Brenda had been gone nearly three months and Kate was surprised how much she missed her friend.
“Hi!” she greeted.
Kate grinned. “You can’t call me kiddo. I’m thirty-seven.”
“Yes, and I’m fifty-seven, so that makes you a kiddo, darling.”
Kate laughed. Brenda had been calling her kiddo since they’d first met, eight years ago. She pretended to be offended, but honestly, she’d miss the affectionate name if Brenda stopped.
“So, how is the desert? Do you miss the city yet?”
“I told you, this is not the desert. In fact, I’m not even in Santa Fe anymore. I’ve moved farther up in the mountains, and right now I’m staring across a canyon, seeing the beautiful sandstone cliffs that inspired Georgia O’Keefe. Oh, Kate, you should see it in the mornings. It’s breathtaking.”
Kate nodded. “So, I guess that means you’re painting. How’s it coming?”
“Oh, darling, I absolutely adore the freedom to express myself this way. It has been so uplifting to be here, I can’t even describe it.”
Kate shook her head. She had met Brenda Granbury in a writing class eight years ago when the wealthy widow decided she was ready to write her first novel. A bit eccentric—okay, very eccentric—but they had hit it off despite their twenty-year age difference. And over the years, Kate had watched as Brenda tried her hand at writing, sculpting, pottery, and now painting. “There’s an artist inside, just waiting to break free,” Brenda said on many an occasion. So, Kate encouraged her in all her pursuits, even though she knew that Brenda didn’t have one ounce of artistic talent! It made Brenda happy to try and that’s all that really mattered.
“Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.” Kate inched along in traffic. “Do you have plans to return soon? I miss our weekly dinners.”
“Oh, I miss you, Kate, but I don’t miss the city at all. In fact, I’ve moved from the lodge here in Coyote after only a few days, moved to one of the summer homes up the mountain a ways.” She paused. “An interesting group of people live here, Kate. Artists, all. And, I seem to have found myself in a lesbian mecca.”
“Oh, Brenda, please! Your gaydar is nonexistent.” Kate turned the AC up again as the traffic came to another stop. “You thought I was straight for the first month you knew me.”
“That’s not fair. You were pretending to be straight. That should be illegal.”
“I wasn’t pretending to be straight!”
“Kate, darling, you still pretend to be straight!”
“I do not! Just because I’ve not announced publicly that I’m gay doesn’t mean that I’m hiding. For God’s sake! Is it necessary that people know everything about you?”
“Of course not. Now tell me, how’s the book coming?”
Kate closed her eyes and leaned her head back, silently shaking her head. “It’s coming.”
“I guess that means you still have writer’s block.”
“I hate that term, Brenda. There is no such thing as writer’s block. You either have a story to tell, or you don’t. It has nothing to do with so-called writer’s block.”
Kate crept along in traffic, her eyes staring ahead. “And I guess I don’t have a story to tell.”
“Darling, why don’t you take a break?”
“A break from what? Not writing?”
“A break from there, from the city. Come stay with me for awhile,” Brenda suggested. “Coyote is a lovely little town.”
“In New Mexico? In the summer? Brenda, the Dallas heat is enough, I certainly don’t want to go to the desert.”
Brenda laughed. “It was forty-one degrees when I got up this morning. It was lovely. What was it there at eight a.m.? Seventy-five and humid already?”
“Oh, Brenda, it’s not just that.” She looked wearily out at the traffic. “What am I supposed to do with Robin?”
“Good Lord, is she still in the picture?”
“She lives with me, Brenda. Of course she’s in the picture.”
“Something I still fail to comprehend. It’s not like you’re in love with the woman.”
“I’m sorry you don’t see it, but I do love her, Brenda.”
“You love chocolate too. I said in love, darling.”
Sadly, Kate knew she was right, but she refused to give Brenda any more ammunition where Robin was concerned. After two years of casual dating, Robin’s apartment complex was sold and her rent nearly doubled. Kate did what she felt any friend would do. She offered her place until Robin could find something else. Robin moved into Kate’s bedroom, not the spare, and now, six months later, Kate assumed she had stopped looking for a place of her own.
And it wasn’t so bad, really. They got along well. And Robin could cook, something Kate hated to do. So even though the sex wasn’t mind boggling—or frequent—it was enough to sustain their relationship.
“So? What do you say?” Brenda asked, jarring Kate from her musings.
“It would be good for you, Kate. A change of scenery.”
“I don’t know, Brenda.” She looked at the endless traffic ahead of her and sighed, her glance going to her stash of cigarettes. “Tell me again what the temperature was today.”
“New Mexico? But why?”
Kate looked at their bed, which was cluttered with clothes she’d pulled from her closet and drawers—jeans, shorts, and practically every T-shirt Kate owned. Should she really trust Brenda’s advice on packing? Casual clothes, darling. All casual. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to throw in some slacks and a dressy blouse or two.
“Hmm?” She looked at Robin, forgetting that she was even in the room. “Sorry. What?”
“I asked why are you going to New Mexico?”
She paused. “To write. I have an October deadline and I’m on page twenty. Brenda seems to think a change of scenery would do wonders.”
“Surely you don’t plan to be gone until October, Kate.”
“No. But you could always come visit, you know.” The words were out before Kate could stop them. Brenda seemed to think that it was Robin’s presence in her apartment, in her life, that was causing Kate’s writer’s block. Of course, Kate didn’t have writer’s block.
“Well, I suppose I could take a long weekend here and there. I could even take some extended time in July, perhaps.”
Kate shook her head. “We’ll see. I may not have time for more than an occasional weekend, Robin. It’s really going to be a working trip.”
“I’ve never been to Santa Fe.”
“Brenda’s not in Santa Fe anymore. Some little town, up in the mountains—Coyote.” Kate folded the clothes she’d tossed on the bed, surprised at the excitement she felt. Perhaps Brenda was right. A change of scenery might be just the thing she needed to kick-start her writing.
“Well, I know I’ll miss you,” Robin said as she moved behind Kate, pulling her close.
Kate resisted the urge to stiffen. Instead, turning into Robin’s embrace, she welcomed her gentle kisses. She didn’t even protest when Robin pulled her to the bed, their weight crushing the neatly folded T-shirts. As Robin’s hand slipped inside her panties, Kate noted absently that she’d have to refold her shirts again, perhaps even wash and dry them to get the wrinkles out.
I wonder if I need to bring a jacket . . .
Brenda studied her painting, wondering why her sandstone cliffs looked nothing like the view spread out before her. Well, the colors were there, at least.
“It looks lovely, Simone.”
Brenda turned, smiling at the petite young woman who was patiently teaching her to paint and who insisted on calling her Simone. Harmony was wearing her usual white. Today, it was a long, comfortable sundress, her sandals and painted toes just peeking out beneath the hem.
“Lovely? I wouldn’t go that far,” she said.
“You must have patience. Your colors are magnificent today.” Harmony handed her a small crystal she had been fingering. “Here. Squeeze tight. Feel the energy,” she said quietly.
Brenda did as she was told, imagining energy pulses vibrating from the crystal she held in her hand. She knew she would pocket the crystal later, then add it to the growing collection she had. Harmony and Sunshine seemed to have an endless supply of them.
“Ariel tells me you have a friend coming. You must be excited.”
“Yes, a young friend from Dallas. She’s a writer. She’ll fit right in.”
“I don’t read much, I’m afraid. What’s she done?”
“She writes a private investigator series. She’s working on number seven. The Masters. Paul and Jennifer. They pretend to be a married couple in the books.”
Harmony shook her head. “Sorry. Never heard of them.”
Brenda shrugged. The first three books in the series were best sellers. The last three, well, she’d never tell Kate this, but the last three were real stinkers.
“Come to dinner tonight, Simone. Sunshine says Ariel has a new young thing and we want to meet her.”
Brenda snorted. “Don’t know why. She’ll have another new young thing next week.”
Harmony laughed. “She does stay busy, doesn’t she?”
Brenda smiled. Yes, Lee—or Ariel, as Harmony and Sunshine called her—did stay busy with the young women who seemed to flock to her. She’d become friends with the county sheriff, but she’d long ago lost count of the number of women Lee brought around.
Brenda fanned herself as she waited for Kate’s plane. Her straw hat and over-sized sunglasses did nothing to keep the noontime sun at bay. As much as she’d enjoyed her stay in Santa Fe—spending endless hours visiting the art galleries—she was glad she’d moved up higher into the mountains. Not cold by any means, not this time of year, but their daytime temperatures had yet to reach eighty. Here, in Santa Fe, under a cloudless sky, she figured it was above ninety already, reminding her of the cursed Dallas heat. Perhaps that was why only two others had braved the patio for lunch. The airport grill—famous for its green chili burgers, she was told—was packed on the inside, the air conditioning humming quietly in the background. But Brenda was anxious to see her friend, so she sat at the edge of the patio, watching as a plane prepared to land.
“Flight four thirty-nine from Albuquerque, now approaching.”
“Finally,” she muttered. She stood, watching as the plane touched down, its wheels bouncing only once, then taxied smoothly the rest of the short runway. It was a small jet, holding about twenty people, but on this Wednesday, she doubted it was even half full.
Moving to the edge of the patio, she squinted into the sun as she watched the hatch open and the stairs descend. Kate was the fourth to depart, a large backpack slung over one shoulder, and Brenda grinned, not realizing how much she had missed her young friend. She watched as Kate brushed the blond hair off her forehead, then slipped on her own sunglasses.
“Katie!” Brenda waved, watching as Kate shielded her eyes, and lifted a hand in greeting.
Brenda walked down the steps of the patio, her sandals clicking on the hot asphalt as she hurried to the plane. She was engulfed in a tight hug, then surprised by a quick punch on the arm.
“You said it wasn’t hot here,” Kate reminded her, her eyes moving over the shimmering asphalt around them.
Brenda grinned. “I said it wasn’t hot where I was staying. Why do you think I moved up the mountain?”
Kate turned in a circle taking in her surroundings, her eyes widening at the beautiful mesas and plateaus in the distance. She turned back to Brenda, slipping her sunglasses on top of her head.
“But it’s beautiful, Brenda. I haven’t been here in ten years or more.”
“We’re in an airport, darling. It’s not beautiful. Out there,” she pointed. “Now that’s beautiful.” She linked arms with Kate. “How much luggage do you have?”
Kate gave a wry smile. “Two somewhat large suitcases.”
Brenda shook her head. “I told you to pack casual, didn’t I? Jeans, shorts and the like.” She pointed to herself. “I’ve worn these same capri pants three times this week.”
Kate smiled. “I don’t believe that’s something I would be advertising. You do laundry, right? I mean, I know you have a housekeeper in Dallas, but you know how to do laundry, don’t you?”
“I’m not that pampered, Kate. Of course I know how to do laundry. I just choose not to do it.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you have someone who does that for you here?”
“Well of course I do. I refuse to stoop to that level. She comes once a week and it’s worked out beautifully. In fact, I’m thinking of having her come more often. She’s a wonderful cook.”
Kate nodded. “Will I get to take advantage of this service?”
“Mi casa es su casa, darling,” Brenda said with a wave of her hand.
“This might be a good summer after all.”
“I’m glad you didn’t insist on doing the Santa Fe thing today. It’s just too hot to be walking the streets.”
Kate grinned. “But as you told me, it’s a dry heat.”
“That was just to get you out here. We’ll come down here one evening when it’s cooled some, eat Mexican food, stay the night, then hit the galleries the next morning. And I know I’m being ridiculous, Kate, because we’ve shopped in Dallas before when it was a hundred degrees. Maybe it’s my age. I just can’t seem to tolerate the heat anymore.”
Kate studied her friend as she drove them out of Santa Fe and headed up the interstate highway. Brenda looked different. But maybe it was just the casual clothes, the sleeveless blouse that threw her. Kate drew her eyebrows together. Brenda’s trademark bright red lipstick was missing. Kate moved closer. My God, does she even have any makeup on?
“What are you doing?”
“Take those ridiculous sunglasses off.”
Kate reached over the pulled them off, her eyes widening. “Oh my God.”
“The Brenda I know would not even leave her bedroom without makeup, much less leave her house. What has happened to you?”
“Give me those,” Brenda said, snatching the sunglasses from Kate and putting them back on her face. “Nothing has happened. This is just a new phase in my life, darling.”
“I thought painting was the new phase.”
“Yes, it is. And I have met some wonderful people up here, all kind of . . . earthy people.”
Brenda waved her hand. “Natural. Peaceful.”
“Oh God, you haven’t stopped shaving, have you?”
“No, I still shave and bathe, Kate. But you’re right. Can you see me in Dallas, looking like this in public?”
“So, you’ve quit wearing makeup? Whatever for?”
“I have quit decorating myself, yes. It was as if I was trying to hide the true me beneath makeup and clothes and diamonds.”
Kate’s eyes flew to Brenda’s fingers. Missing were the three rings Kate had never seen her without. “Brenda, please tell me you’ve not joined a cult and been brainwashed.”
Brenda laughed, slapping Kate’s leg affectionately. “Oh, Kate, darling, nothing that exciting, I’m afraid. I’m fifty-seven years old Kate, and for the first time in more years than I can remember, I am among strangers. They know nothing of my past, of my husband, of the wealth that I have. One day, while I was still in Santa Fe, I was dressing, fixing my face, finding the perfect, eloquent dress to wear to dinner, sorting through my jewelry when it hit me. Nobody knew me here. I didn’t have to dress the part. If I wanted to wear those cool linen shorts that I’d bought, no one would think me underdressed.”
“Brenda, I’ve been telling you for years that you didn’t have to dress the part. It’s not like he’s around any longer to force you.”
“Oh, I know. But it was such a habit after twenty-five years. All of his so-called friends still thought I’d married him only for his money. So I had to be extra careful.”
Kate smirked. “Well, he was thirty years older than you.”
“I’ll tell you now, Kate, I never was in love with him. I cared for him and grew to love him over the years, but I was never in love. And something his friends would be shocked at, for he was such a strong man, but he was . . . impotent.” She whispered the last word.
Kate smiled. “So, you did marry him for his money.”
Brenda shrugged. “I grew up in Beaver’s Creek, Oklahoma. It was an accomplishment just to graduate high school.”
“You were twenty-five when you met him. Hardly high school.”
“Twenty-four and it didn’t matter. I was still in Beaver’s Creek. Best waitress the Beaver Saloon had ever had, in case I haven’t mentioned it before.”
“You have, but I still don’t know what it has to do with here and now, and why you’ve suddenly quit making yourself up.”
Brenda laughed. “Kate, darling, the simple truth is, I don’t have to make myself up any longer. Don’t you see? In Dallas, around our old friends, around the wives of our friends, I had to play a part. And I was good at it, I admit. But here, it no longer applies.”
“But Brenda, you can’t just let yourself go just because you’re away from your normal friends and your normal life.”
“Kate, do I look like I’ve let myself go?”
“Actually, no, you look wonderful,” Kate admitted. Brenda’s normally pallid skin had a healthy glow. Even her hair style had changed. The dull, hair-sprayed style she normally sported had been trimmed and left natural. Well, as natural as a bottle of blond hair color will get you.
“Thank you. I feel wonderful. And I can’t wait for you to meet everyone. But Kate, you have to promise to keep an open mind.”
“Brenda, I am the most open-minded person you know.”
“In your dreams, darling.” Brenda pointed out the window. “That’s the Rio Chama. We’ll come upon the lake soon, but the canyons around here are magnificent. You won’t believe the colors, Kate.”
Kate looked out the window, for the first time admiring the scenery as they climbed higher into the mountains. Hard to believe that just that morning, she was fighting traffic around the airport in Dallas and now here she was, far removed from the city and all its noise and hustle.
Brenda slowed as the highway came to an intersection. She pointed quickly to their right. “Taos is that way,” she said as she got in the left-hand lane. “Coyote is this way.”
“What exactly is Coyote?”
“Oh, it’s just a dot on the map, really. They do have a very nice lodge, though. I stayed there three days. But the area is filled with summer homes, most owned or rented by artists. I was lucky enough to find one to rent through the summer.” She glanced quickly at Kate. “It’s costing a small fortune, but I hardly care. It’s well worth it. I can’t wait for you to see the view in the mornings. The sunrise just brings everything to life. Now I know why Georgia O’Keefe found such inspiration there.”
“In Coyote?” Kate asked. “Where you’re staying?”
“Oh, yes, darling. The locals say she came often to paint the cliffs. Why, there are even pictures of her at the bakery.”
Kate bit her lower lip. “Are there any real trees, Brenda? Other than this,” she said, pointing to the small, stunted trees that graced the landscape.
“I mean, you’re not taking me to a desert with cliffs, right?”
Brenda laughed. “I promise, no desert. Well, they call it the high desert, but really, there are trees. It’s quite beautiful, Kate. And higher up in the mountains, there are pine and spruce forests.”
Kate nodded, enjoying the scenery that sped past as Brenda drove them deeper into the wilderness. It could be fun, she thought. And if it wasn’t, she could always head back to Dallas any time.
“So, tell me about these new friends of yours,” Kate suggested. “And why do I have to keep an open mind?”
“Well, there’s Sunshine and Harmony. I have no idea their ages or real names. They’re somewhere between twenty and forty. Very earthy. They’re into crystals and the like.”
“Sunshine and Harmony? Are you joking?”
“Oh, no. Harmony is teaching me to paint. She’s very talented. She has her own gallery in Santa Fe.”
“Harmony? Who names their child Harmony?”
Brenda sighed. “Kate, I told you to keep an open mind. They are very nice. Now their friend Starlight, she’s a little strange.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “You’re just messing with me, right? Starlight?”
“Obviously, those not their real names, Kate. That’s just what they go by. Harmony has this habit of naming people. It seems to stick.”
“Okay. Who else?”
“Well, I can’t wait for you to meet the sheriff.”
“The sheriff? You’re friends with the sheriff?”
“Yes. She’s something else. I swear, Kate, if I was ever curious about playing for your team, she’d be the one I’d pick. She’s got this magnetism about her. I can’t explain it.”
“Good Lord, Brenda!”
“I’m serious. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving lesbianism a try, just because of her.”
Kate laughed. “You don’t give it a try, Brenda. You either are or you aren’t.”
“Well, that hasn’t stopped a parade of young blond things from throwing themselves at her, most of them straight and curious. Apparently she’s very talented.”
“And she what? Teaches them? Sex?”
Brenda grinned. “What would you do, darling, if twenty-year-old blonds were begging to share your bed?”
“Brenda, I’m thirty-seven years old. Twenty-somethings do not beg to share my bed. And if they did, I’d send them home to their mothers, that’s what I’d do.”
Brenda nodded as she made a turn off the highway. “Yes, I’m afraid you would, kiddo. Lee, however, doesn’t seem to have that problem.” Brenda glanced at Kate. “Of course, she’s not thirty-seven. In fact, I have no idea her age, either. Young, I’m sure.”
Kate took a deep breath. “Okay, so far you’ve mentioned three earth fairies and a sex maniac sheriff. Have you met anyone normal, Brenda?”
Brenda laughed as they topped a rise. “That’s what I have you for, darling.”
“Oh my God,” Kate murmured. She gripped the dash, her eyes scanning the vastness laid out before her.
Brenda nodded. “Those were my exact words, I believe, when I first saw this.”
Kate pointed. “The mountains there, is that Taos?”
“No, no. Taos is to the east.” Brenda motioned out her window. “That’s actually south, from where we came. Polvadera Peak is over eleven thousand feet. But the main canyons are to our north. You’ll learn much more about the area from Lee. She’s agreed to be your tour guide. She’s quite knowledgeable of the area.
“Wait. Lee? As in the sex person?”
“She’s really very nice, Kate.”
“Uh-huh. And we’ll have so much in common. I’m in a monogamous, committed relationship. And she’s teaching straight girls how to have sex. You know how I feel about promiscuous women, Brenda. They get you into trouble one way or the other.”
“Well, if you leave your sex lives out of it, I believe you’ll have something in common. Aside from you, she’s probably the most normal person I know here. That’s why I know you’ll get along.”
“Brenda, by now you know how I am. I’ve never been into the whole casual sex scene,” she said with a wave of her arm. “I think it’s disgusting, actually. I mean, we’re not animals. We’re not fucking like bunnies.”
“Obviously you’re not, darling.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
“You know what that means, you don’t need me to spell it out.”
Kate grabbed the dash again as Brenda turned off onto a bumpy dirt road. “You know where you’re going, right?”
“Of course. If we’d stayed on the main road, it would have taken us into Coyote. We’ll go there tomorrow and I’ll show you around. This road will take us to our summer home, Kate. You’re just going to love it.”
“I’m sure I will, Brenda. But do you have any neighbors?” she asked as she looked around— trees, rocks and little else.
“Not close neighbors like in the city, of course not. The house we’re staying at sits on more than two hundred acres. I’ve walked most of it.”
Kate stared. The Brenda she knew did not walk. In fact, she was known to get in her car and drive to the end of her driveway to check the mail. She closed her eyes. God, I hope she hasn’t been brainwashed by some earthy cult!
Kate shook her head. “Nothing, it’s just . . . you’re walking?”
“I’m telling you, darling, this is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. You’ve known me for years, Kate. You know I’ve never really been into nature and all that crap,” she said with a laugh. “But out here, I’m actually learning the names of plants, if you can believe that.”
“Well, I can’t,” Kate murmured. Then, as she stared, “My God.”
“Oh, yes. Beautiful.”
The large adobe home came into view, but it was not the house that drew Kate’s attention. No, the cliffs that spread out behind the house held her. The red sandstone reflected the afternoon sun, causing her to squint as she admired them.
“Oh, Brenda, now I see why you love it here.”
“I told you my view was incredible. The house is built so that the cliffs are visible from nearly every angle.”
As soon as Brenda parked, Kate was out, her arms spread wide. The heat that she was expecting was absent. It was pleasant, dry. The air smelled fresh. “Pine trees, Brenda?” she asked.
“Pinon pines and scrub oaks, primarily. There are some ponderosa pines mixed in, mostly in the wetter areas, and up higher in the mountains.”
Kate grinned. “And you know the names of trees. Oh my.”