Excerpt: Ride the Rainbow Home
“Oh!” Meg jumped as lightning crashed overhead. She swerved slightly but fought her sports car back into her lane. July had come to the high plateau and with it, a typical afternoon thundershower. To Margaret Taylor, who hadn’t seen the high desert for years, the storm was anything but typical. Lightning danced along the ridges and shimmered through the valley of the Little Colorado River, sending thunder rumbling in its wake. Giant thunderheads loomed thousands of feet above the red sandstone cliffs, pierced here and there by shafts of yellow light that brought heaven to earth. Meg watched in wonder as she pushed east along I-40, back to the land she had once called home.
Home? Rainbow Rock had never been home. The five years she’d spent here had been the worst of her life. The jeers and bullying she'd suffered as stepdaughter to Lon Ramsdell, the high school principal, had been ravaging: “teacher’s pet,” “killjoy,” “goody-goody,” and so much worse. With relief, she had grabbed her diploma and hit the road for UCLA, vowing never to return.
And she hadn’t. Not for ten years, years she had spent putting adolescence behind her and building a career in management training. Now the years had softened the sting of those old wounds. Maybe it was time to make her peace.
A phone call had begun this adventure, interrupting one of her busiest mornings. She had known the voice instantly. “Meg, I had twins! Sammy and Serena.”
“Congratulations, Sally.” Meg had covered the phone while she mouthed to her secretary to hold all calls. “You have your hands full, don’t you?”
“No kidding! That’s why I called. Can you come help?”
“You’re kidding, right?” She pulled the Sky Tech file as she mimicked the line from Gone with the Wind. “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout tendin’ no babies, Miz Scarlett.”
But Sally had always been persuasive, and her arguments—a recent cesarean, an absent family, and four babies under four—were convincing. Add to that their ten-year high school reunion later in the month and Meg was hooked. “Okay, I’ll come,” she’d said, wondering why she’d ever fought it, “but I’ll only help with the housework. You can take care of the babies!” She had finished some pressing business and arranged for her colleague, Allen, to cover her next six-week training tour. Then she started for Arizona.
Meg left the rain behind as she turned north from Holbrook toward Rainbow Rock, nervously drumming the dash. Would people even know her? The slim, poised businesswoman she saw in her mirror every morning was a far cry from the chubby, awkward teen known as Peggy Taylor, or behind her back, as Piggy. Her ivory skin was clear now, her figure trim, her glasses replaced by contacts that intensified the blue of her eyes, and her weight down by thirty pounds. She’d changed her long, limp hair to short, chic curls that had darkened almost to black, but none of that had quieted her insecurity.
Brooding thoughts evaporated like the summer rain as she crested the ridge. Rainbow Rock lay before her, nestled in the bowl of a desert valley. Thunderclouds still rolled along the layered sandstone bluffs that had given the town its name, freckling their vivid colors in light and shadow, but the sky above the valley floor was clearing. Meg pulled onto the overlook and sat staring down on the town. For years she’d struggled to forget everything about Rainbow Rock, fighting so hard she had even forgotten the good things, like the rugged spectacle of the painted hills and the peace that followed a summer storm.
She’d also forgotten, or at least put aside, the memories of her friendships and the good time she’d shared with companions, other misfits like herself. Peggy Taylor, Sally Williams, and Little Jimmy McAllister had been “the three musketeers,” indivisible against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the barbed insults of the high school in-crowd. Meg’s loyalty to those friendships had finally brought her back; it caused her to move forward now, nudging her car onto the highway. As she dropped into the valley, the clouds along the far ridge loosed a veil of shimmering rain. A shaft of sunlight struck it and burst into color, streaking the sky with a brilliant double rainbow that stretched above the distant hills like a welcome banner.
Meg shook herself to ward off a growing sense of awe. She prided herself on being sensible, not given to seeing signs and omens. It was merely a coincidence that she had returned during one of the summer’s loveliest moments, and that was all it was.
A beep sounded and a light on her dashboard advised Meg to check her fuel. She grumbled, muttering a word her mother would not have approved. She’d probably have to stop before driving to Frank and Sally’s. Sighing with frustration, she scanned the horizon for a gas station.
The first signs were for tourist traps, like Thunderbird Indian Trading Post and Fort Huachuca Gifts and Curios. Tourists, blindsided by such signs, believed they could get a crack at real Native American crafts. Meg knew better. One summer it had been her job to peel “Made in Korea” stickers off the cheap kachinas and tipi trinkets at Fort Huachuca (she hadn’t discovered it was illegal until she started business school in L.A.), and no one told the tourists that the Indians of northern Arizona had never lived in tipis, or that the real Fort Huachuca was on the Mexican border, having nothing to do with Navajos, Hopis, or any other Native North Americans. Meg smirked as she drove by; tourists who bought such trash got just what they deserved.
She passed the Eagle Wing Lodge with its cabins in the shape of cement wigwams so unlike local hogans and pueblos, and then she spotted Kirby’s Shell. She looked for a self-serve pump, then remembered that small-town Arizona seldom offered one, and stopped beside the only unleaded pump that didn’t wear an “Out of Order” sign. A nice-looking towheaded teenager jumped to her service, his friendly smile turning wolfish when he spotted Meg behind the wheel.
“What can I do for ya, little lady?” he drawled in a creditable imitation of John Wayne.
“Just fill it, please.” She flashed the boy a no-nonsense look that said, Whatever your line is, I’m not biting.
Not the least discouraged, the boy leaned near her window as the pump rang her total. “What brings you to town?”
Meg ran one manicured hand through her short, sassy curls. “Do you have a drinking fountain?” she asked, then noted the name on his uniform and added, “Kyle?”
The boy flushed slightly. “No, ma’am, but there are paper cups by the sink in the ladies’ room, ‘round back.” He opened her door.
Something about the boy’s face seemed familiar. “Kyle what?”
He grinned, the wolf on the prowl again. “Willard, ma’am. Kyle Willard at your service.”
Meg opened her mouth in surprise, and quickly closed it again. No need to blow her cover by telling Kyle she had once been his babysitter. “Check the oil, please,” she tossed over her shoulder as she rounded the building. She heard the boy whistling tunelessly as she rounded the corner—and caught her breath.
Before her lay a stretch of red earth that reminded her just how lovely the desert could be. Dotted with sagebrush and greasewood, it lay perfect and timeless in the pure golden light of the afternoon, its plane broken only by the small, flat hill that stood a lone sentinel on the valley floor.
And that was when she saw him, the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He was climbing Valley Hill some forty yards away. His muscular upper body, bare and bronzed, was dappled by the spotty light as he worked his way up the bluff. He wore old, well-fitted jeans and climbing boots, and the light breeze riffled his leonine mane of thick blond hair. He seemed perfect, essential, and ageless, at one with the bluff, the desert, and the endless sky.
Meg let out her breath, unaware she had been holding it, then stared in fascination. A shaft of light fell over the climber, making his tanned skin gleam like polished gold. “Who is he?” she whispered, not realizing she had spoken aloud until Kyle answered.
“He’s a local guy. Name’s Jim. Some kids spotted Indian relics and he’s checking to see if there might be an old burial site.”
Disappointment cut through Meg like summer lightning, leaving a flat taste. “A grave robber.”
“No, ma’am, not Jim. He’s not in it for the money. He locates burial sites and gets ‘em recognized by the state so nobody can mess with ‘em.”
“Oh.” Meg turned her concentration to the man on the hill. He was beautiful, to be sure, but there was also something mystical about him—ageless and elemental, something that called out to her, drawing her to him. As she watched, he rounded the curve of the bluff and disappeared. Disappointment cut through her as she realized she had never seen his face.
Kyle shifted uneasily.
“Well.” Meg shook herself back to reality. “What do I owe you for the gas?”
“It needed oil too.” Kyle began an itemized list of charges as they rounded the building.
Meg followed reluctantly, looking back to see if the man was really gone or if he had ever really been there at all. For a fleeting moment, Meg wondered if he’d been nothing but a mirage, or a wish. She forced her attention back to the boy, pulling bills out of her wallet.
It had been the moment, she told herself as she left Kirby’s. The moment, not the man, had caused her sudden fascination, her trembling hands, her rapid heartbeat. It was the magic of the storm and the mystery of the desert that had caused her to lose her head, a quirk of timing, a trick of fate. She smiled, almost believing. She was halfway through town before she realized she never got that drink of water.