Sawyer Coleman watched the patterns the lazy California sun created on her cluttered desk. It had been weeks now since she’d seen the shiny cherrywood surface. Papers were strewn into haphazard piles, pencils with broken points, pens with chewed tops, all signs of overwork and frustration. She really should hire an assistant, someone to help with the load, but no one had ever satisfied her and she loathed having to check and recheck someone else’s work. She had admitted to herself a long time ago that she was a workaholic, but lately she seemed to meet herself coming and going.
Heaving a sigh, Sawyer ran her long, manicured fingers through her wealth of golden-blond hair. There was no getting away from it; the work had to be done, and she was the best one for the job. Coleman Aviation was a family-held enterprise, a leader in manufacturing and designing small private jet planes, and she was the only one with the background and education to handle the growing company.
There were those about her, in the outer offices, who said Sawyer was too dedicated, too persnickety. She’d just heard that one the other day. Persnickety, for God’s sake. The only thing she was certain of was that it wasn’t complimentary.
Sawyer rummaged in her top drawer for cigarettes and lit one. She rarely smoked, usually only in tense situations or as a ploy to stall for time. She was doing both now. Stalling because she didn’t want to look at the invitation a second time, and tense because she hadn’t heard from Rand in over two weeks. That alone was enough to make her itchy. Add that to Maggie’s invitation and she could become a basket case within the hour.
Mother Maggie. Maggie, mistress of Sunbridge. Maggie the man-eater. Maggie, her own mother. Sawyer grimaced.
She was up and out of her chair, smoothing the soft gray flannel skirt over her trim hips. At the window she fixed her gaze on the bright ball in the sky. Aztec gold, she thought inanely as she puffed furiously on the cigarette she didn’t want. The invitation was for a command appearance, a return to Sunbridge to watch Maggie preen. But there was more to it. Maggie needed the family’s approval to take the helm. Bad girl Maggie returns to the scene of her crime but is forgiven. Sawyer laughed and choked on the cigarette smoke, sputtering until tears came to her eyes.
Grand would probably call soon, by tomorrow the latest. Then the others. And Rand, she thought with sudden hope, yes, Rand would call. Long-distance relationships were hell, overseas relationships were even worse.
Damn, now her whole day was ruined. Why couldn’t Maggie have sent the invitation and her chatty little bullcrap letter to the apartment instead of the office? Communication with Maggie shouldn’t be so upsetting after all these years, but it was. She wished she had a hide too thick for Maggie to penetrate. What she did have was a sore, bruised heart that would never heal.
Family reunions should be outlawed. There was no way she could escape the invitation. She’d just have to put a good face on it. Seeing young Riley again would be worth a confrontation with Maggie. And to see Rand and spend time with him, she’d travel to Africa if necessary.
Rand. Her life, her love. Without Rand in her life, there would be nothing but endless days of work and endless nights alone. It was time to think about settling down, time to think seriously about marriage. Just the thought excited her and made her feel warm all over. Her work could be done just as well in London.
Quickly, before she could change her mind, she scrawled a note of acceptance to the July fourth bash. Later, when it was all over, the family would all say what a good sport Sawyer was. Good old Sawyer. Sawyer didn’t bleed red blood like everyone else. Sawyer just hurt and ached inside, but the wounds didn’t show.
Having Rand to herself would make up for everything. Just his smile would drive Maggie from her thoughts. Rand was all she needed, now and forever.
Today would be one of Sunbridge’s finest hours. Tomorrow’s newspapers would carry each detail, right down to what the waitresses were wearing. When Sunbridge had a party, it was news, but when Sunbridge hosted a Texas-style barbecue, it was even bigger news. The family would come, and an impressive showing of some of Texas’s most influential people. Maggie Coleman Tanner’s smile widened. Funny the way she always personified Sunbridge, as though it were a living entity. In some ways it was. Sunbridge had been her past, and now it would be her future.
Maggie’s eyes, blue as the winter sky, took in the flurry of activity below the bedroom balcony. Servants, caterers, waitresses—a whole passel of them, as old Seth would say—were getting her first barbecue under way. The fatted calf, the return of the prodigal child, Maggie thought. She herself was the prodigal, but could a prize longhorn steer qualify as a fatted calf?
She had ordered red-and-white checkered picnic cloths and matching napkins from Neiman Marcus by the dozens. She also vaguely recalled ordering two hundred wicker bread baskets that went for forty bucks a shot. Lobster flown in from Maine, shrimp, crab, and beef, all the accoutrements of a successful bash. The theme might be “country,” but there wasn’t anything provincial about her guests’ tastes. It would be her way of showing them all that she was one of them, that the years she’d lived in New York hadn’t been spent under a rock. She’d traveled in sophisticated circles where conversations centered on the theater, the stock market, and the new exhibit at the Guggenheim—conversations in the abstract. Here in Texas, the topics were more to the point—money, oil, beef, and more money, and not necessarily in that order. The crystal wineglasses winked up at her in the bright sunlight, reminding her that while Texans liked to pretend a “down-home” style of living, they were all smart enough and rich enough to know Baccarat from Cristal d’Arques.
Old Grandpap was probably turning over in his grave. His idea of a barbecue was beer on tap and red beans and rice, his patronizing attempt at being a “common man who made good.” No one would have dared criticize if he’d chosen to serve good bourbon in paper cups; Seth Coleman was too important and influential to offend. On a whim, he could make or break a man and his fortunes, and there was no telling when the old codger would take it into his head to lead you to ruin just for the hell of it.
Things were different now. Old Seth was dead and buried and Maggie was mistress of Sunbridge. This party was just a way of driving that point home. Home. God, it felt wonderful to be back at Sunbridge. No, that was wrong. It felt wonderful to finally belong at Sunbridge.
All her invitations had been accepted; everyone would be here—half of Texas, not that she gave a damn about them, and the family.
Maggie leaned over the railing. This party was costing a fortune and she wasn’t even truly certain why she was throwing it. What was she trying to prove, and to whom? Living here, holding the deed, that was the real proof of who was the owner of Sunbridge. Why did she feel this need to flaunt her ownership? Or was it really because she needed to show the world that she’d finally won her father’s approval, that Pap had thought enough of her in the end to leave his beloved Sunbridge to her, and to no one else? By God, Sunbridge was her birthright! Sawyer had taken it away from her. Her daughter had lived at Sunbridge almost her entire life, while she, Maggie, had been banished. Now Sawyer would be returning as a guest in Maggie’s home. That had to be some kind of divine justice.
Maggie stared off into the distance at the softly rising knoll overlooking the front of the house. All the white cross-fencing and rich golden meadows belonged to Sunbridge. A possessive heat blazed in her. This was Coleman land, her land, and it was alive again because she was home again. She could feel the power of this place. Two hundred and fifty thousand acres of prime land, Coleman land, and she would make it grow and prosper and flourish. She could almost understand what had kept old Seth going all those years. It was Sunbridge, the vigor of the land beating through his veins. His authority had gone unchallenged; he’d been supreme ruler, the invincible force that had built it and loved it and mastered it. Seth, meanest old man who ever took a breath, mean enough to depose his own grandchild. Sunbridge had been meant to go from Seth to his son Moss and then to his grandson Riley. Her sister Susan and she were insignificant females, worthless to him. “Do you see me now, old man?” she said, focusing on the gently sloping knoll where he was buried. “I’m here now, where I belong, where I’ve always belonged.”
Coleman Tanner, Maggie’s son, walked on cat’s feet to stand behind his mother. He knew he could wait there for an hour and she wouldn’t be aware of him until she turned and actually saw him. It was only Sunbridge, this place, that interested her. All her talk of his belonging, of hanging his Stetson on the peg near the front door beside those of his great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle, was just bullshit. The hat was dumb, just like everything else in Texas. When he did wear it, it was only to humor her. Half the time he didn’t know where it was, but somehow his mother always managed to find it and hang it on its appropriate peg.
Coleman was never certain if he should intrude upon his mother when she was alone like this. “Alone” wasn’t quite the word to describe these moods of hers, when she seemed to close herself in with her thoughts. Insulated would be closer to the truth—insulated against everything outside herself, including her own son. When he was younger, it used to hurt and wound him; now it only made him mad. At school, the other boys would comment on how beautiful she was—gleaming dark hair worn just above her shoulders, falling softly around her face to contrast sharply with her crystal blue eyes. He’d even seen some of his instructors watching her slim figure when they thought no one was looking. And there was no smile like his mother’s smile—open, bright, and genuine. When she laughed, her eyes would sparkle and the corners of her mouth would turn up and crinkle. She was beautiful—Coleman had always thought her so—but none of that beauty belonged to him. She was a stranger, and it had been so long since she’d smiled for him, really for him.
Coleman wasn’t certain what Maggie was thinking about, but he did know her thoughts weren’t on him. She hadn’t even been available to pick him up from the airport when he’d returned from school three days ago. Some anonymous chauffeur had met him promptly upon his arrival, instead. She’d explained by saying she’d lost all track of time, what with planning the party and everything. On and on she’d explained, and he’d let her. He liked it when she got flustered and tried to apologize for something she thought she’d done wrong. That meant he could usually get what he wanted out of her without hardly trying.
Cole was growing and, in time, promised to be taller than any of the Colemans, thanks to his father. His eyes and nose were Cranston Tanner’s, the father he rarely saw, but his strong chin and square white teeth and wide, generous smile came from his mother’s side of the family. Maybe his feet, too, but no one seemed certain. A size-thirteen shoe at the age of sixteen was something no one wanted to discuss. He wore his light brown hair close to the head, in a military butch, and he thought it made him look like a boiled owl. But his mother said he looked just like the pictures of her father when he had finished boot camp.
Cole wondered when he’d gain weight. Lean instead of slim, they’d put him on a bodybuilding regimen at school, but so far it didn’t seem to be working, no matter how much he busted his hump. He did it because it was required of him, just like he did everything at that rotten school. He hated it, hated the regimentation, the other boys, the uniform, the instructors, and the pomp and circumstance, yet he excelled in everything. Once, the major had told his mother he was the nearest to a perfect student he’d ever seen.
Maggie had done her motherly duty and smiled and sort of hugged him. But she didn’t really give a damn, Cole thought. She was just concerned with appearances. Get rid of the kid, pay the duty calls and the bills, and then turn on the mother act for vacations. Like now. Fourth of July. Barbecue time. A real Sunbridge shindig, she was calling it. He’d heard about them for years, but he’d never attended one. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be here now. He felt like an intruder. This would never be his.
He was expected to dress Western; that’s what Maggie called it. Western-cut jeans and shirts and boots that pinched his toes. That pissed him off. Wearing a military uniform ten months of the year was bad enough, and now he had to wear another costume. Nothing made him feel like himself, not the uniform or this dude ranch crap. He wanted to pick out his own clothes, like his Brooks Brothers tassled loafers and the other designer things that hung in his closet, things he seldom got to wear.
“For someone who’s about to throw the biggest party in Texas, you look worried, Mother,” Coleman said suddenly.
Maggie whirled. “Coleman! You startled me. . . . And how many times have I asked you to call me Mam? You used to, when you were a little boy.”
She was jabbing at him. It was always like this; he saw it as her way of keeping him at a distance. Never answer a question directly; never say what you were thinking. Instead, launch the attack. But why was he the enemy?
“It’s probably hereditary. You insist on calling me Coleman, when you know that Cole is the name I prefer. I’ve told you enough times.” Coleman’s voice was deep, and always shocked Maggie these days. Somehow it didn’t go with his gangling youth.
“Touché. It’s just that you are a Coleman, and I don’t want either of us, or anyone else for that matter, to forget it.”
“How could you forget? It’s all you ever talk about or think about. I know you’ll take back the Coleman name when the divorce becomes final. Don’t worry about it, Mother. Everyone knows who we are; changing your name isn’t going to prove a thing.” Coleman’s voice was accusing; a smirk twitched at the corner of his mouth.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Texas Heat by Fern Michaels. Copyright © 2001 by Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.