Pickett Charles Lockhart sat at the end of a long table formally set for nine in a private dining room in the Petroleum Club in downtown Fort Worth. Suffocated. That was the only word that described how he felt.
The Petroleum Club had several separate dining rooms, the smallest of which his father had reserved. Dad had arranged the seating before anyone arrived—Pic at one end of a the table, his younger half-brother Troy Rattigan to Pic’s left. Beside Troy was an empty chair reserved for their little sister. Next to it on her left, their ninety-one-year-old grandmother was already seated, then Mom. Dad occupied the seat at the other end of the table, opposite Pic. On Pic’s right were three empty chairs.
And why was the seating arrangement important? Because Dad, hoping to avoid open conflict that often accompanied Lockhart get-togethers, had taken great pains to see that Pic’s older brother Drake was seated as far from Mom as possible. As far as Pic knew, Drake had not spoken to their mother in at least two months.
Gloom from a cloudy day crept through large windows and seemed to cloak all the family members. Pic usually considered himself an island of calm in the stormy sea of the Lockhart family, but today, he was as uneasy as everybody else.
The Petroleum Club’s dress code called for jackets and dress denim only, so everybody had been forced to dress up a little for this dinner. Grandma Lockhart had a new hair-do and was wearing a pretty blue dress and a pearl necklace. Mom looked as classy as always in something black and fancy and enough diamonds to blind a rap star.
The men in the family were all properly attired. Dad wore a suit, including a vest, and a tie. Troy had on ironed and creased Wranglers, custom-made boots and a blazer, but no tie. Nobody had never seen him wear a tie except at Grandpa’s funeral. Pic himself wore khaki Lucchese slacks, a white starched button-down, a brown blazer and a tie he couldn’t remember the last time he had worn.
Mom drained the contents of her glass—probably Crown and water—and set the heavy empty tumbler in front of Dad with a clunk. “Order me another drink.”
Pic set his own glass on the table, leaned sideways toward Troy and said sotto voce, “Mom’s hitting the sauce pretty hard today.”
Troy swallowed a sip of his own drink. “Guess she’s upset. She lost control of ol’ Drake and look what happened.”
Pic snorted. “She hasn’t had control of Drake since we were kids.”
Drake. The oldest Lockhart son and the reason for today’s gathering. Pic’s thoughts traveled up the street to the Tarrant County Courthouse where William Drake Lockhart, III, was getting—or by now had gotten—married. He was due to show up any minute with his bride. Their father had insisted on a family dinner though Drake had neither asked for nor wanted a party. In the Lockhart family, what the bride might have wanted hadn’t been considered or discussed.
With his tie threatening to choke him, Pic ran his finger around the inside of his stiff collar. “April first. Helluva day to get married, if you ask me.”
Swirling his whiskey and ice cubes in a thick glass, Troy chuckled. “No shit. If I was ol’ Drake, I’d be superstitious about that. Our big brother never ceases to amaze. Who else could drag a judge downtown on a Sunday morning to do a wedding?”
Drake could call on more than one judge for favors. In a few short years, thanks to money and more brains and balls than most men had, he had become one of the movers and shakers in the dynamic Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex economy. “Friends in high places,” Pic muttered.
“Have you met her?” Troy asked.
“Nope. No one has”
“I’ve seen her pictures on those billboards down at Camden. I wouldn’t boot her outta bed.” Troy gave a deep-throated huh-huh-huh.
Drake’s new wife Shannon owned a real estate company in the small town of Camden, forty-five miles away. She advertised on billboards on the state highway that ran through the middle of the town. A smiling, larger-than-life picture of her greeted everybody who entered either end of town.
“You wouldn’t boot a chimpanzee out of bed,” Pic growled. “Drake would kick your skinny butt if he heard you say that. By now, she’s probably your sister-in-law. Grow up, will you?”
As if Pic hadn’t chastised him, Troy looked up at him with a mischievous grin and perfect teeth. “So how did our Drake manage to become a shotgun groom? I suppose you know the whole story.”
Pic did not know the whole story of today’s bizarre turn of events. What he did know was that Drake was a guy who had always been picky and elusive as quicksilver when it came to women. For him to up and marry somebody he had known only a few months, somebody none of the family had ever met or heard of was too off-the-wall.
Though Pic and he had always been tight. Drake hadn’t confided in him and that rankled. Still, Pic figured he didn’t have any room to criticize or even discuss Drake’s private life. After all, just a few years ago, he had shared his two brothers’ reputations for womanizing and in those wild and crazy years, he wouldn’t have appreciated the family or anybody else nosing into his affairs. “Nope. It’s Drake’s private business.”
Troy rambled on. “I mean, hell, he grew up on a ranch. And he’s bedded more women than I even know. With that much background, he oughtta be able to keep from getting trapped.”
Troy was so mouthy he would talk to the wall if no human were present. Pic withheld comment although his little brother’s rant did make a logical point. The bride was pregnant. Two months, Drake had said.
Taking no hint from Pic’s tepid contribution to the conversation, Troy continued. “I remember when Little Sister and I were in high school. Drake’s marathon sex life with high-profile babes had Mom’s panties in a wad half the time.”
Pic made a mental sigh. Troy was a twenty-nine-year-old stud with a reputation for loving ’em and leaving ’em. He could smart off all he wanted, but he had no more room to pass judgment on Drake’s history with women than Pic did.
Pic only half listened to Troy’s irreverent remarks. He was preoccupied with his own emotions, a confusing mix he couldn’t define— joy, tumult and low-grade anger, among others. The idea of Drake becoming a husband and father was still so fresh Pic hadn’t had time to sort out his true feelings. Of course he was happy at his big brother becoming a family man if that was what he wanted.
As for the anger, Pic couldn’t explain it. Did that emotion come from the uncertainty of his own future relationship with the brother he adored? If the guy now had a wife and soon, a kid, would he have time to give his little brother the time of day?
He picked up his glass and stared into it. “You know something? Six months ago, if I’d given a thought to Drake getting married, I would’ve said it might never happen. And if it did, it would be a carnival affair with all the whistles and bells that go with a big wedding. Even the governor might show up.”
“Well, you know Drake, Troy said. “He likes to do his own thing.”
Pic swallowed the remainder of his drink and let his mind drift. Weddings and honeymoons and pregnancies made him think of sex. Mandy Breckenridge, his girlfriend of two years, was back in Drinkwell, waiting for him. He hadn’t had any in a month.
His and Mandy’s sex life was definitely suffering. Pic had taken over management of the vast Double-Barrel Ranch back in January. He was now trying to walk in his dad’s footsteps. So far, that task had demanded sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. A good part of the time, he was too exhausted or didn’t have enough time to drive thirty-eight miles to Mandy’s house in town. Pic envied Drake. Now that he had a wife, he would be getting laid regularly and he wouldn’t have to leave home to do it.
Troy’s voice intruded on his musing. “You know, this is a nice place, but not my style. I never come here.”
Pic looked around—dark wood-paneled walls, thickly upholstered chairs, dramatic lighting. He might find the subdued ambiance soothing if he weren’t in a tall building surrounded by people. As for the sixty-year-old Petroleum club itself, except for Drake who dined here often, none of the Lockhart family ever came here. Their home was ninety miles away. Dropping into the Petroleum Club in downtown Fort Worth just wasn’t handy. Dad had chosen it for today’s dinner because it was Drake’s turf and convenient to the courthouse.
“Exactly what is your style?” Pic asked Troy. “Inquiring minds want to know.”
Troy’s dark brown eyes took on a wicked twinkle. “I’ll just bet they do.”
The question had been strictly rhetorical. Nobody ever heard Troy discuss his social life. He threw back the last of his drink. “I need another drink.”
Pic caught his arm. “Hey, take it slow today, okay? Unless you came on a horse, you’ve got to drive somewhere when you leave here. You’re in enough hot water without adding a DWI.”
Troy, as well as their sister Kate, was in a serious situation. Both his and her names were on a persons-of-interest list with an insurance company arson investigator as well as the Texas Rangers. Back in December, Kate’s huge horse barn had burned to the ground, along with a luxury horse trailer, a new Dodge RAM dually truck and an extensive list of equipment. The casualty list included four of Kate’s highbred horses. The total loss had now climbed to more than two million dollars.
The value of the loss had ensured an investigation. A conclusion of arson hadn’t taken long. Finding the arsonist was proving to be harder. Kate had made the list of suspects because her horse breeding business was a shoestring operation with a sketchy history of showing a profit, much less enough net income to support her Santa Fe shopping trips or her preference for $2,000 boots.
The insurance investigator was dubious that she cared more about the horses burning alive than she did about the insurance payout. What he hadn’t figured out even yet, or didn’t believe, was that the income from a trust fund left to each of the Lockhart siblings by their grandfather was what kept Kate in high style. She couldn’t have cared less about the insurance money. But Dad cared and so did Drake and Pic.
Troy had been pulled into the mix because while he wasn’t Kate’s formal business partner, he aided her so much, he was her perceived partner.
Troy lifted his arm from Pic’s grip. “Okay, Mom.”
They barely had time for the waiter to deliver another drink to Mom and Troy before their little sister arrived in a fog of perfume. The latest, no doubt, from a fragrance counter at Neiman Marcus. But it wasn’t her scent that caused Pic to do double take.
Kate’s costume—and that was the only word that described the sexy dress made of what looked like pale deerskin. Rawhide laces with rabbit tails on the ends held the back together. The soft garment clung to her long willowy body and struck her mid-thigh. A glittery belt was buckled around her hips and glittery earrings the size of tennis balls dangled from her ear lobes. Red boots with fancy-tooled shafts encased her legs from toe to knee.
“Oooh, shit,” Pic mumbled.
“Good God,” Troy quipped.“Who the hell does she think she is? Pocahontas?”
Dad rose, met her before she had a chance to sit and clasped her arm, looking her up and down. He was obviously flummoxed. “Katie, what the hell are—”
“What?” she snapped.
“What have you got on?”
“What is your problem?”
“My problem, daughter, is your get-up.”
“You ordered me not to wear jeans.”
“Nobody but a self-centered nonconformist would come to the Petroleum Club dressed like this. Don’t you give a shit what people think?”
“Since when do you worry about what people think?” Kate’s words snapped out like a whiplash. “For your information, I bought this in Santa Fe and I paid a helluva lot of money for it.” She yanked her arm from his grasp, planted her hands on her hips and thrust her face toward his. Wearing boots, she looked Dad almost eye-to-eye. “As for what people think? Personally, I don’t think people think at all. And I don’t usually come to the Petroleum Club. Why would I? There’s nobody here under a hundred years old.”
With that, she plopped into her seat beside Grandma, tilted back her head and shook back her long blond ringlets, leaving Dad standing there with his jaw hanging.
“You look lovely, Kathryn,” Mom said.
“Your dress is just fine, Kathryn,” their grandmother added.
“Thank you, Grandma,” Kate said, leaning and giving her a one-armed hug. “I wasn’t talking about you when I said a hundred years old.”
Grandma gave a breathy little laugh and spoke in her reedy li’l-old-lady voice. “That’s all right, darlin’. I almost am a hundred years old.
Dismissed, Dad threw up his hands and returned to his own seat.
Kate dug her phone from her purse and began to text furtively. Outside the entrance to the club, a sign asked members and guests to turn off their cell phones. Pic heaved a silent sigh.
“What have you been doing?” she asked Troy absently, her eyes on the phone’s screen, her fingers darting over it. “I hope you haven’t been in the bar getting drunk.”
Troy leaned toward her and said in a low tone, “I’m cool, Baby Sister. You be cool, too. And turn off your cell phone. Can’t you read signs?”
Kate clapped the phone down beside her place setting. “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m not your baby sister.”
“Sure you are. You’re three months younger than I am. That makes you the baby.”
Pic winced inside. Troy had come to live at the Double-Barrel when he was eight. Kate, too was eight. The two of them had grown up side-by-side, almost like twins, but Pic fervently hoped nobody would be rehashing that story today.
Kate glowered at him. “Don’t say that. You know Mama doesn’t appreciate hearing it.”
“C’mon, you two. Knock it off,” Pic growled.
Kate crossed her arms over her chest and pushed out her bottom lip in a pout, as if she were nine instead of twenty-nine.
Mom dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, the dime-sized diamond wedding ring she wore on her right hand glinting from the light of the chandelier.
“Oh, Mama, stop it,” Kate said. “I know Drake’s your pet, but he’s a grown man.”
“Dammit, Betty, will you stop bawling?” Dad said. “There’s nothing to cry about.”
Mom sniffed deeply. “I can’t help it. He’s marrying a slut and a gold-digger. I’m sure she would’ve been happy with a check. He should’ve written her one and been done with it.”
“Horseshit,” Dad said. “You don’t know any of that.”
Dad’s tongue wasn’t usually so loose when Grandma was around. Apparently, he had gotten into the Jack Daniel’s early. Pic sighed again.
“I know more than you do,” Mom said on a sniffle. “You’d be more concerned yourself if you had bothered to read the report.” She dabbed at her eyes again.
The “report” had come from a private detective that Mom and one of Drake’s old girlfriends had teamed up and hired to investigate Drake’s bride, thus Drake’s rage at their mother. As late as yesterday, he was still mad enough to bite a nail in half.
“I don’t intend to read it,” Dad said. “It’s like Kate said, Betty. He’s a grown man. Old enough to lay in the bed he’s made.” He craned his neck, looking for the waiter.
“Well, Mister Know-It-All,” Mom said. “I happen to believe there’s a reason she got herself pregnant.”
“Last I knew, Betty, women don’t get themselves pregnant. It’s not a solo event.”
Troy leaned in Pic’s direction and whispered, “Point for Dad.”
“Shut up. Don’t agitate,” Pic said, although sometimes Mom did make him want to gnaw on the woodwork himself.
“You know what I mean,” Mom carped. “I’ll bet anything you want to name there’s no prenuptial agreement.”
“What the hell difference does it make now?” Dad growled. “The woman’s already knocked up. With our grandchild, I might add. I thought you wanted grandkids.”
“I do, under the right circumstances. The problem with our boys, Bill Junior, is they’re too much like you. They think with what dangles between their legs.”
Pic’s eyes bugged and he shot a look at Grandma who sipped contentedly at her Manhattan, as if Mom hadn’t just insulted the whole family.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see this…this”—Mom flipped a palm in the air—“this whole thing turn into an expensive fiasco. Just like with that tramp Pic married.”
Pic’s gut clenched. Not one person in his family, especially not his mother, ever considered that he had been in love with his former wife. All he had heard from them for years was what a gold-digger Lucianne had been and how much his divorce had cost him and the family. “His stupid act of immaturity” Mom called his former marriage.
Dad pointed his finger at Mom’s face. “Betty, shut up. And when Drake gets here, I don’t want to hear one damn word about a prenuptial agreement.”
Prenuptial agreement. In Pic’s mind, the two words lit up like a sign on a cheap motel, which was exactly where he had found his ex-wife in bed with a horse groomer. After being so rudely reminded, how could he not think about his own elopement without the benefit of such a document?
For sure, most of the family recalled what had happened when he had gotten divorced. The hefty diamond ring he had bought his bride, which had gone with her when she left him, and the divorce settlement less than two years after the wedding had taken a sizeable chunk of his trust fund, plus a bite out of the family coffers. To this day, an anvil of guilt about that weighted his shoulders.
Toying with his silverware, Pic glanced at his watch again.
Grandma spoke up. “I don’t know why everybody’s so unhappy. We ought to be glad Drake found somebody to marry. He’s thirty-five years old. I was starting to wonder if something was wrong with him.”
“Leave it to Grandma to drill straight to the heart of a matter,” Troy mumbled.
“Yep,” Pic agreed. “The queen of saying something nobody wants to hear, especially if you give her some liquor. Kate must’ve inherited that trait from her.”
“We’re all happy, Mother,” Dad assured her.
“Well I’m not happy,” Mom said to Grandma. “I promise you, Sarah, I am not happy.”
“We get that, Mama,” Kate snapped. “I don’t know why we don’t just leave Drake alone. Coming here for a big dinner he doesn’t even want to be at is such a bunch of BS. And it kept me from being at the futurity finals in Houston.”
Kate bred, raised and trained cutting horses. She and Troy spent half their time hauling them to cutting competitions somewhere. Sometimes one of them won a few bucks, though not as much as they cost. Breeding fees were what kept her small ranch going. The blood of champions coursed through the veins of her horses. Horse owners from everywhere brought their mares to breed with Kate’s studs. She personally collected and sent frozen semen all over the country, in spite of Mom’s constant rebuke about the “unladylike” practice of playing with horse’s privates.
Their mother placed a hand on Kate’s forearm and gave her a pleading look. “Kathryn, darling, please don’t—”
Kate stopped her by pulling her arm away. Little Sister and Mom had never been pals. Kate blamed Mom for their parents’ marital problems. But then, they all blamed Mom. And her latest stunt was a good example why. Pic couldn’t imagine how he would feel if their mother did something to him like she had done to Drake. Mom believed he should be seeking a mate with more social status than Mandy and she mentioned it often, but Pic ignored her. A wedding wasn’t in his plans for his future. He might never get married again.
Their father’s laser blue gaze pierced Kate. “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk at this table, young lady. This is your brother’s wedding day. Show some respect. He’s done a lot for you. Even now, he’s trying to pry the money for your barn out of that second-rate insurance company that damned lowlife Palmer hooked you up with. God knows if he’ll have any luck.”
Jordan Palmer was Kate’s former fiancé who the whole family thought to be nothing but a gigolo.
On a huff, Kate got to her feet and marched away. To the ladies’ room, Pic hoped, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she left the party. Little Sister was a blond beauty who had never met a convention she didn’t hate or a horse she didn’t love and she felt the same way about quite a few cowboys. Spoiled, for sure. Mom was the only person in the family who had ever tried to hobble her. Dad doted on his only daughter, thus she did what she damn well pleased most of the time.
“What the hell’s wrong with her?” Troy asked. “She thinks Drake hung the moon. Why would she bitch about showing up at his wedding dinner?”
“Beats me,” Pic said. “You’re the one who hangs out with her.”
So much for a joyous occasion with the brawling Lockharts. But then, that was the way the Lockharts were. And always had been. They loved one another fiercely, stood shoulder–to-shoulder in a crisis, but they fought each other fiercely, too.