by Nat Burns
When Lily Dawson’s estranged father passes away, she’s forced to return to her childhood home in New Mexico to settle his affairs and prepare the sprawling cattle ranch for sale.
Once there, Lily is dumbfounded by what she discovers. It seems that her Air Force father has been assisting the federal government in protecting the United States from alien threats—threats from other worlds.
Lily has no intention of taking her father’s place in his work. But when a new menace emerges, she reluctantly steps in to fill his shoes.
Airman Hunter Moon has been assigned to bring Lily Dawson safely to the President. Their attraction is immediate and when Lily is hurt, Hunter is there. And Hunter will always be there.
This is the first adventure in the Desert Willow Series.
Lex’s Reviews - This book was really interesting. That really is the best way to describe it. When I was reading it, I wasn’t saying “wow, I really liked this” but I was absolutely hooked from the first few pages. This book interested and entertained me enough that I would want to read another from the series. It’s a pretty big wide open premise that could produce some exciting new stories.
Sudden lightning flashed repeatedly, creating an interlaced gold and white harlequin pattern across the bright blue New Mexico sky. The staccato blazes of energy stopped abruptly as a harsh ripping sound echoed across the desert. A striped whiptail lizard scrabbled away and under a rock just as an opening, a vertical slash, appeared in the sky and hung suspended above the sandy scrubland. The slash vibrated and an ebony craft was birthed out into hot air that still bore the essence of ozone from the lightning. Spinning, the egg-shaped ship settled gracefully onto the sand, the motion not even raising one grain of dust.
Lightning returned, but this time it stayed contained within the sheltering arms of a dry grotto nearby, a large arching overhang of brown and tan stone. Spears of energy crackled as it formed into a sizeable ball of light. The ball hovered mid-grotto until a slit opened in the ship. At that point, the particles of light scattered, seeming to disperse into the very essence of the rock framing the grotto. The clear crystals embedded in the rock glowed for a long moment and then the light vanished.
A dun, bulbous head protruded from the side of the ship. A wizened lead-colored body—naked but featureless—trailed through the slit and a small alien creature jumped onto the sandy earth. A second, then a third similar form followed, and the trio stepped away from the ship. The craft spun once and faded completely from sight.
As they stood there, chests heaving as though trying to breathe unfamiliar air, one of the creatures paused and turned back to study the rock grotto some three hundred feet away. Huge dark eyes narrowed as its small slit-like mouth twisted. It lifted one long, gnarled finger and pointed toward the rocky outcropping and the rock frame lit once, brightly, as if beckoning. The creature’s compadres turned as one and stared in the direction indicated. They remained that way for several moments. All was still. Even the desert wind paused in its blowing. Then a sudden wind returned, driving gritty sand across their pale, wrinkled skin and breaking the momentary lull.
One of the creatures shuffled awkwardly to one side and shoved a medium-sized boulder out of its way. The auburn, dust-coated rock rolled away along the desert floor as though made of paper. The striped whiptail lizard, which had been hiding underneath, turned to face the possible threat, its mouth open in a quiet hiss. The alien leaned forward, its rounded head cocked to one side as though studying the lizard. The whiptail moved one step back as the creature absently lifted a nearby rock. Nonchalantly, the alien slammed the rock onto the small reptile.
As the rock pounded onto the lizard, all three aliens closed their eyes, heads tilted back as though enjoying the experience together.
The solo alien, as if curious to see what he had wrought, dipped one bony, overlong finger into the remains. He lifted the finger and examined it as he lumbered back to the other two.
The creatures, grouped together once more, turned as one toward the shimmering high-rises of downtown Albuquerque looming in the distance. They communicated in a brief blast of chittering language and then ambled briskly across the hot, cactus- and juniper-speckled sand toward the heart of the city.
“I’m glad you’re dead, Dad. There. I’ve said it. Are you happy?”
Lilianne Dawson paced restlessly across the sparse, closely shorn grass of the newly crafted family cemetery. Her steps were resonating and powerful. She paused and stared with a severe gaze at her father’s simple headstone.
Denny (Duck) Dawson
August 20, 1948–March 12, 2018
United States Air Force
“What did you expect? That leaving me the ranch would make up for all those years of practically ignoring me?”
The pacing resumed and her spread hands, held below her waist, gestured as if pushing down air.
“Nope, not gonna happen. In fact…you know what? Yep, I’m gonna sell it. Sell it all and hightail it out of here as fast as I can. You just watch me. And….and there’s nothing you can do about it. How does that feel?”
She paused in pacing and in speech, chest heaving to capture breath as she waited, listening. Of course, there was no response. Lily sighed.
“Just as well,” she muttered.
“Miss Lil? We need to get on back now. Miss has rung the bell and that means dinner is ready for us.”
Landon Kya’nah—her Lanny—stood at a respectful distance, on the perimeter of the wooden cemetery fencing. His worn felt hat was held in both hands and he turned it nervously, making it resemble the slow propeller of a biplane.
Lily gazed at him absently. Sudden remorse blossomed in her. How would she tell Lanny and his capable wife, Sage, that their lifetime of service would no longer be needed at Good Neighbor Ranch? That they would have to move from their home of almost twenty years? The sorrow was tinged with doubt. Could she really sell the sprawling New Mexico ranch that her father had loved so dearly?
She jutted out her chin stubbornly. It wasn’t as if the ranch was all that productive. Sure, they made some money from the sale of scrawny beef cattle, but she had always marveled that her father had made any profit at all, especially when she and her mother had still lived with him.
She walked slowly toward Lanny, the sun hot against the thin T-shirt material on her back.
It must have been her father’s salary from the consulting position he’d maintained after leaving military work that allowed him to continue to hold on to the ranch. And had allowed Lily and her mother to live well in Florida after they’d left New Mexico. After they’d left her father. She grimaced.
“Miss Lil.” Lanny nodded his head respectfully. “Sorry to take you from your father but you know how Miss is when she has her mind set. Miss’s bell says it’s time to eat, it’s time to eat.”
Lily studied the ranch foreman’s mahogany-colored, smooth features and smiled fondly at him. In some ways, Lanny had been more a father to her than her own father had. And Sage certainly more a mother than her own mother, Sandy.
“I remember it well, Lanny. Don’t you worry about that.”
Lanny chuckled and tucked his head as they walked toward the ranch house. After about a quarter of a mile, he adroitly swept his hat onto his head.
“Mind the goat heads,” he muttered absently.
Lily dropped her gaze and stepped past the pervasive, burr-filled weed just in time. Puncturevine, or goat head as it was known, was the bane of a rancher’s existence. The beautiful, golden-flowering weed produced spiny seedpods after blooming, burrs that badly injured the legs, mouths, and digestive tracts of livestock. The leaves also contained a nitrate level high enough to poison them. Not to mention what the plant did to the skin of the ranch hands unfortunate enough to encounter the scattered burrs in late summer.
“Thanks, Lanny. I sure don’t miss them in Florida,” she said.
“The desert is all about surviving,” he reminded her. “Florida’s wet. It’s easier.”
Lily’s thoughts flew to the run-down city she lived near, filled with gangs and thievery. Most days she was more than glad to ride the bus into town to her waitress job because so many of her coworker’s cars had been broken into. Or had been carjacked with no regard for the driver’s well-being.
She glanced west toward the distant Zuni mountain range, knowing that there were probably only a handful of people living between Good Neighbor Ranch and that ridge. Maybe this was a good thing.
“So what’s changed in the five years we’ve been gone, Lanny?” she asked quietly as they stepped into the paddock north of the house. She remembered hanging over this fence, watching as Lanny handled new horses, getting them under control and trained as cow horses. She looked at him again, admiring anew the copper-like sleekness of his Native American skin. He was wearing his usual outfit, thick, worn jeans and a button-down, long-sleeved cotton shirt. She had a sudden urge to grasp his long, heavy black hair in her hands as she had when still a child and he had carried her from place to place. The remembered smell of him inundated her—sweat, wood smoke, and liniment.
“Been slow here. We had rain three weeks ago. Ran in the arroyos.” His expression when he glanced at her was subtly chastising.
Lily felt foolish immediately for initiating small talk with the foreman, who she knew had no need for it. Not that Lanny wasn’t friendly or sociable, he simply had no use for inane chatter to fill silence. Silence was not a problem. It was not a void that needed to be filled.
They continued in that silence and Lily let a sigh of peace escape. Silence was a good thing, a restful thing. She’d forgotten that in the noisy, busy life she now led.
Approaching the long, low ranch house, Lily felt memory buoy her again as it had when she’d arrived earlier that afternoon. The memories were good ones, mostly. It had been hard saying good-bye to her one and only lengthy childhood home, the departure brought about by her parents’ grim divorce following her final year of high school. She had known, in that moment of parting, that she’d lost something beyond important, something she could never again reclaim.
Yet here she was again—but forever changed—hardened by circumstance and time. The ranch, though still beautiful, had changed too. It could never hold the same magic for her that it had before. Looking at it through new, mature eyes, she could see that it was little more than a desert outpost. Well-maintained, yes, but surrounded by miles and miles of scrub desert. She gazed out over the west pasture and saw the black dots of grazing Criollo cows off in the heat-wavering distance. Did she want to live in such an isolated spot? Of course not.
She fingered the cell phone in her jeans pocket, wanting to check it for messages, but she wasn’t ready for Lanny’s scorn should he see her do it.
They mounted the steps to the front porch, Lanny’s boots echoing a familiar tune from her childhood. Sage, standing at the partially opened screen door, was yet one more surrealistic memory. For a brief moment, Lily wondered if she were indeed truly, physically, back in Morris, New Mexico.
“Well, took you two long enough,” Sage said in her strange, song-like English that touched Lily somewhere deep inside every time she heard it. “Didn’t you hear the bell?”
Lanny grunted and held the door for Lily. She brushed past Sage, pausing to grin at her to defuse the older woman’s frown. It took a few seconds, but Sage’s lips began their slow curve upward.
“Get on with you,” she said, playfully swatting Lily’s rear. “Wash your hands, both of you. Lord knows what you’ve gotten into.”
Lanny grinned and shoved Lily to one side as they stepped into the mudroom next to the kitchen and stopped at the deep utility sink to wash their hands.
“Hey, you married her,” Lily muttered as she focused on her fingernails.
Heavenly smells were coming from the kitchen, chief among them Lily’s favorite—fresh, homemade bread.
“And no regrets,” he replied, handing her a towel.
They passed into the kitchen and Lily took her customary seat at the scarred wooden table as if no time had passed. There was a formal dining room less than ten feet away but it had only been used when her mother had insisted or when visitors dined with them. Most meals at the ranch happened at this overlarge, shellacked kitchen table, crafted from weathered and bowed cottonwood. Quite often it had been only Lily and her mother, her father too busy working and Lanny, and Sage, of course, never daring to eat with Sandy Weiss Dawson.
“And your father?” Sage asked as she brought large bowls of beef stew to the table.
Lily’s mouth watered. It had been a long time since she’d had Sage’s excellent cooking. “Well, we didn’t have a lot to talk about,” Lily replied with a sigh.
Sage pressed against her back as she leaned to place a bowl of stew in front of Lanny. “Was the stone okay? We just got the basic one after…”
“I know,” Lily said. “I’m sorry I didn’t come out to help with the arrangements. What you chose is fine. Thank you.”
Sage took her seat and the three lowered their heads in a moment of silence.
The first mouthful of stew caused Lily to moan aloud. “Oh, my God, this is good. I don’t know what you do, Saysay, but I’ve never tasted stew this good anywhere from here to Florida.”
Sage chuckled and pulled off a chunk of homemade bread and handed it to Lily. “It’s made with love and other good stuff,” she explained.
Lily smiled her thanks and reached for the butter knife.
“Fresh beef,” Lanny offered as he accepted the bread Sage handed him. “Makes it special.”
“That could be,” Lily agreed around a mouthful of bread.
“Your mother?” Sage asked gently. She averted her eyes.
Lily chewed and swallowed before answering. “The same.” She lowered her head. “She does manage to keep the trailer park running. She doesn’t start drinking until late afternoon and that seems to work for her.”
“What do you do? Waitress?” Lanny asked.
“I still waitress at Clay’s Eatery. In the historic part of town. I get a lot of tourist tips and it’s enough for me.”
“You still look after her, though?” Sage sounded worried that Lily would abandon her mother.
“Oh, of course. She pretty much needs me to help her, especially in the evenings. I work the morning and early afternoon shifts at the café. Got lucky with that.”
Sage nodded. “Yes, lucky.”
Lily took another bite of stew and let the hot, salty goodness linger on her tongue for a few seconds. “Guess Dad decided Mama would drink the property up. That’s why he left it to me?”
Sage nodded and studied Lily pensively. “Your father loved you. Never had the time, but he did cherish you.”
Lily grunted ruefully. “Yeah, he cherished the thought of me. The reality? Not so much.”
Sage stirred dismissively and became keenly interested in her own bowl of stew.
Lanny reached for a second chunk of bread. “Will you move back?”
Lily sighed and sat back, chewing thoughtfully. Panic filled her, but she knew she couldn’t lie to the sweet countenances studying her. “No, I don’t think so. There’s no work here for me or for Mama.”
Sage placed her spoon carefully on the table. “But the ranch. Who will run the ranch?”
Lily could only shake her head as her eyes filled with unwanted tears. She knew selling the ranch would be a huge step, but she didn’t want to prolong the misery wrought by her father. Being here was painful and brought back all those memories of her father’s back to her as he walked away, busy with something else. Something besides her.
Lanny stood abruptly, painstakingly shoved his chair under the table and left the kitchen without a word. Lily stared at his abandoned dinner with her heart crawling up into her throat. His disapproval lingered like an unpleasant odor.
What did they expect of her? Her life lay elsewhere now. Anger rose in her, and ignoring the tears that filled her eyes, she lifted an annoyed gaze to Sage.
But Sage’s eyes were turned toward the window above the sink. She was chewing thoughtfully, her mind obviously very far away and focused on something different from the here and now.
I feel like crap, Lily typed into her phone.
Dinner was over and Lily had retreated to the front porch after Sage had refused her offer of help with the dishes. Now she was finally able to communicate with her friends.
R u sure u wanna sell? Diana texted. I mean, u do love that place.
Bastard’s place, Lily wrote. Bt feel bad fr sage n lanny.
Tru but u r lttg him win.
No. Kickng his butt. He rlly lovd it here.
Carrie says hi.
Carrie was Diana’s girlfriend of the month. Lily couldn’t even remember what she looked like.
Hi back. Everything ok at café?
Sure. No probs. Leonard grabbed my ass.
LOL. Grab his back.
K. Mom is ok. Went by yesterday.
Welcome. Nd me, txt me.
Wrk smarter nt harder, Lily wrote in her usual sign-off to Diana.
Lily scrolled through her phone and dealt with a few emails before making the screen inactive and resting her head back on the rocking chair. She tucked her phone away and closed her eyes. She could almost smell the scent of frying potatoes and grilled meat and onions that permeated the café where she worked. It had become very strange for her to be away from work or from the trailer park where she lived. She knew she should text or email her mother again but knew that by this time, Sandy was well into the maudlin phase of her inebriation and Lily just didn’t feel up to that. She leaned forward and fished a pack of cigarettes from her pocket. She shook one out and lit it with the lighter kept stored in the cellophane sleeve of the pack. She inhaled, the harsh smoke invading her lungs and wakening her anew.
Wondering what her next move should be, she stared at the porch ceiling. She needed to call a realtor to list the property. That would probably be the first priority. She also needed to ride the range and make sure everything was okay with the land and the fencing. Not that she was worried—Lanny was an excellent crew chief.
Then she needed to get up with Margie to find out the status of the livestock and who would be a potential buyer if the property listed with or without livestock. She sighed and flicked the ash off her cigarette. There was a lot to do and the two weeks she’d scheduled would fly by. She could stay longer, if necessary. Diana had a friend covering for Lily at the café, but she didn’t feel safe leaving her mom alone that long. It would be her luck that Sandy would burn the trailer park down and then they’d have to move back to New Mexico.
A sudden weight on her legs startled her and her eyes snapped downward. Twit, the orange-striped tom she had brought home from the annual harvest fair eight years ago, stared up at her with brilliant topaz eyes. He had gotten huge under Sage’s excellent care.
“Well, hello, where have you been?” she said, pulling him close in a prolonged hug.
Twit head-butted her chin and a purr rattled the broad chest under her petting hands. She had forgotten about Twit. Relocating him, a free-roaming ranch cat, was going to be tough. Lily sighed and leaned forward to bury her face in Twit’s soft fur. Tears welled and dampened the fur against her eyes. Twit continued to purr, his tail entwining about her arm as if for comfort.
No, not going to be easy, none of it. After Sage notified her about her father’s sudden death, Lily had been stunned but uncaring. She’d lost herself in her daily routine, not bothering to consider it further. Then, after being contacted by the lawyer handling the estate, she’d been forced to deal. And she hated that. Hated that she had to be drawn back into this circle that she had so forcibly removed herself from.
She crushed out the cigarette on the sole of her shoe and laid the butt aside.
Leaving the ranch five years ago had been like ripping her heart out, but she had quickly toughened and moved past the binding she felt to the land and people here. Being forced to take care of her mother had helped. Sandy had been a bundle of fury and regret, bouncing between the two emotions like a well-played handball. During the past few years, with only his holiday cards and monthly checks, as if from faraway, distant relatives, Lily and her mother had done well. Had forgotten well. To be thrust back into that emotional torrent now, reminding her of what she had lost, was bordering on a type of insanity. Lily was a master at compartmentalizing her life and this…this death of the father…had no compartment.
Steps sounding on the floorboards inside caused Lily to raise her head and wipe her eyes on the shoulder of her T-shirt. She had to stay strong and see this through. She needed to regain control, to regain sanity in her life. She cuddled Twit up onto her shoulder where he purred against her ear.
“Beautiful evening,” Sage said as she stepped onto the porch.
Silence fell between them. Sage was another Native who needed no small talk. Lily’s cell vibrated in her pocket, but she ignored it. Probably her mother.
They remained that way a long time, a New Mexico ranch tableau, Lily and Twit in the rocking chair and Sage standing at the porch railing, eyes surveying the scrubland surrounding the house.
“You can take your pa’s room for as long as you’re here,” she said as she settled into the rocking chair next to Lily.
“My old room’s fine,” Lily replied absently, hand resting on Twit’s rump. Her gaze was on the changing sunset that was lending ribbons of pastel to the mountains and the western sky.
“I made up the room for you,” Sage reiterated firmly. They sat silently as the sun lowered below the horizon and dusk claimed the desert. After some time, a chill swept across Lily. Sage must have felt it too, for she rose and pulled her ancient, dark blue cardigan close.
“Good night, sweet girl,” she said, leaning to kiss Lily’s forehead. “The room’s all ready for you and I unpacked everything. Don’t forget to lock the front door.”
“You’re not staying here?” She hated the alarm in her voice.
“No, Little Lil,” Sage said patiently, moving to stand at the top of the porch steps. “I’m going to sleep in the guest house, next to my husband, like I have for forty years. You’ll be fine and I’ll be back in the morning before breakfast. Go, sleep. It’s been a long day.”
Lily stiffened her shoulders. “Thank you, Saysay. I love you.”
Sage waved over her shoulder as she descended the steps and moved across the front yard. She was backlit by interior lights against the deep purple sky as she hoisted herself into her old dented pickup. The truck, using no headlights, slowly lumbered away along the wide dirt drive.
Lighting another cigarette, Lily sat watching the now cloudless night sky until a sly stirring in a clump of nearby brush worried her and sent her inside, Twit at her heels. Coyote often hunted rabbit near the house and she wanted the two of them to have no part of that. Once inside, she locked the door and sighed at the emptiness of the large home—very different from the cramped two-bedroom mobile home she and her mother lived in now. This house was like a presence around her—a creature that inexplicably frightened her. She lingered at the door and recalled a time when it had been filled with family. Once it had even been a happy family. She frowned at the dimness as Twit meandered toward the darkened kitchen, probably seeking the midnight snack Sage, no doubt, invariably left for him.
Lily strode along the long hallway leading to the master bedroom, switching off lights as she passed them. At the door to what once had been her parents’ bedroom, she paused, old restrictions ballooning in her brain. She shook them off and pressed open the door.
Sage had left the bedside lamps on and the room was almost cheerful, even welcoming. She closed the door and moved silently into the master bath. Sage had arranged Lily’s toiletries in her usual efficient manner and Lily debated showering. Fatigue won out and she merely brushed her teeth and washed her face instead.
Yawning as she reentered the bedroom, she realized how tired she’d become. The idea of selling the ranch was eating away at her, and even after she’d burrowed beneath the Russian sage-scented blankets, her own thoughts berated her. And although she expected to be awake for hours, sleep came quickly and blessedly gave her peace.