Abiquiú, New Mexico
“There’s no money. I won’t put you through the wretched reading of a heartbreaking will,” Mr. Jennings said after the funeral. He had been the family lawyer since before Peyton was born.
She peered back at him, covered in mourning black. “Sorry? I thought this was only a formality. Every generation leaves the ranch to the next better than when they inherited it.”
“Not this time.”
Peyton loathed the way he fixed his hooded eyes on her, staring over narrow reading glasses. “What do you mean?”
He eased himself onto the sofa in her father’s study and gestured for her to sit down, but she remained standing. “There isn’t enough cash to maintain this massive estate, and there’s no selling the land without the Big House, the stables, horses, the cars and whatnot, and furthermore…” Mr. Jennings huffed, hesitant, reminding Peyton of a horse prodded up a steep hill. “Your mother, rest her soul, asked me to take care of you, and I endeavored my best to honor her wishes, but attorney/client privilege prevented me from warning you earlier. Your father, may he rest in peace… err…”
Jarring memories of the last time Peyton saw her mother, Harlow, alive walloped her. On the day Harlow died, she had struck her twelve-year-old daughter hard enough to cut her lip. “Mom personally asked you to take care of me?”
“More than once.”
Peyton rubbed her hands up and down her arms, a habit pirated from her mother. She recalled opposite moments when Harlow danced with her, twirling her from room to room until they both collapsed from dizziness and laughter.
Mr. Jennings went quiet.
She covered the divide between them in three steps and placed a manicured hand on his forearm. “Whatever it is, it’s not your fault. I’m not a little girl anymore. Not at thirty-three. I don’t need protection, but I need the truth.”
He tugged at his collar and patted her hand. “There comes a point a fellow can’t get any wetter, and a time when he can’t get any sadder. Today is already dreadful. Might as well allow for the downpour.” He reached for the bourbon at his elbow and quaffed it. “The estate is highly leveraged.” He removed an embroidered handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow. “Even with some financial miracle, keeping all this property will make you estate poor. It’ll reduce your life to a more modest lifestyle, and I’ve never known the Chases to settle for what’s modest. That’s not all…”
“Just lay it all on me, Mr. Jennings.” Peyton poured him another drink with trembling hands. “Go on, please.” She sat on her hands to keep from wiggling, and bit her cheek, bracing for the punch to come.
He cracked a sheepish smile and swilled his second drink. “The cars and furnishings are free and clear if you have room for them, but no more expensive horses, and something will have to be done about the cattle.” He shook a thick finger. “I’ve been to a few of your father’s lavish parties. I don’t know what your style is, but it can’t be like Sorensen’s.” He tried to keep judgment out of his inflection, but failed. “I know you’re a reputable art restorer and earn your own income. I don’t discount that.”
Shock hijacked her tongue. For a moment, she froze, her heart thudding in her head. “Why didn’t Dad tell me anything?”
“Wish I had an answer for you, Peyton, but I don’t.”
She thought of the paintings lining the walls of the upstairs gallery, what remained of her mother’s work. She’d been famous for her audacious interpretation of everything indigenous. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, Harlow Peyton Chase captured New Mexico’s gorgeous landscapes. She had also settled in Abiquiú—with hundreds of paintings to her name. To Peyton’s knowledge, her mother had made a private fortune selling her works. Her obituary in The Los Angeles Times read, “Had she not lived only half a lifetime, she would’ve dazzled for the ages.”
Peyton collected herself. “I can’t imagine this life without the ranch. But there’s more?”
Mr. Jennings removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “That’s the worst of it, I’m afraid, Peyton. You don’t have any paintings.”
She shot to her feet. “Explain!” Her father’s voice echoed from the past, reminding her of the Chase standards of decorum. “Please,” she added, her tone lower, and sat down.
“Your father sold them privately. In fear of discovery or reprisal, he had them all copied and restored to their original spots in the gallery. Never disclosing he was no longer in possession of his—”
“—inheritance? My inheritance, you mean.” She thumped a fist on her chest and hardened her features. “Not his—mine. He had no right. Mom left them to me.” Her lips quivered. She was eager to cry at the betrayal, but had none to give. She shook her head, staring out the window at an expanse of mountains hued purple and gold, and at dunes of clouds seen only in the Land of Enchantment, some called New Mexico. “It’s not even about the money. How can I live without her paintings? You’re sure they’re all gone? It’s all I had left of her.”
Mr. Jennings swallowed, sweating. “Well, legally, your mom never stipulated to whom she bequeathed those paintings. Why Sorensen never apprised you of that before is beyond me.”
“What?” Peyton’s chest heaved, and she balled her fists. “But I was always told they’re mine.”
“Your father may have considered them yours, but they were his to sell as far as the law goes.”
She darted to the massive French doors leading to the terrace, every muscle in her body aching to run and keep on running until she collapsed in a mound of dirt.
“About the copies upstairs… err… they’re superb. They might fetch a few thousand each.”
It was like offering a sugar pill to a heart patient.
Peyton paced, clicking on the pink Numidian marble floors. She stared at the violet veins coursing through the rare ancient marble, as if they were runes capable of foretelling her future. “You can’t buy Numidian marble any longer.” She stared at Mr. Jennings. “Half of what built this estate is scarce, priceless. Why did Dad need all that money? Why sell and borrow us to ruin?”
He clasped the bourbon bottle, refilled and guzzled. “After the mines dried up, the expenditures didn’t abate. Your father took to selling assets to maintain the same lifestyle. You knew him best of all. He was a bon vivant with expensive taste.” He took another minute before saying, “Your father left this estate in good shape structurally, I must say. You won’t need major renovations or expensive new equipment any time soon. He kept it all up. That would’ve also been expensive. It’s an enviable house, but you don’t need me to tell you.”
“If I am personally debt free, it’s because my father taught me how to budget. This makes absolutely no sense to me.”
“Sometimes people advise others of what they wish they could do, but fail in themselves. Sorensen maintained the assets. Your problem is cash flow and lack of asset income.”
“I have profound love for my father, but according to you, the bank owns my house.” Peyton slumped on the deep leather sofa, frozen when her world felt on fire. She ruminated over clues she must have missed to be blind-sided to this degree. “I’ll not be the one Chase to lose it all.” She curtained her face with both hands, as if to shield from the carnage. “How long do I have to decide?”
With a creased forehead, the lawyer asked, “To decide on what to do with the estate?”
“You must list the estate. Certainly, don’t default on any payments. You have months, not years.”
“No! My family has lived on this land since before this country existed. This house was built when New Mexico had only two main roads. For God’s sake, the heart of the house is still the original adobe built in 1671. How much does the estate owe?”
“The mortgage your father took out stands at a principle greater than five.”
“Five what? You can’t be telling me Pioneer Ranch owes over five million?”
“About that, yes. Sorry. It’s all in the will.”
Peyton stretched to her model height, straightened her tailored jacket, and smoothed down her pencil skirt. “My mother gave me her last name for a Christian name, so I’d never forget I come from hardworking, brave settlers. The first pioneers.”
Mr. Jennings drank the last of his bourbon and placed the crystal tumbler on the nearest coaster. “Come and see me anytime. I’m in my Santa Fe office on Thursdays & Fridays, and in Albuquerque the other three.” He pointed to the thick file on the massive vintage desk where her father composed much and read more. “I also had my paralegal email you the will, with annotations. I’m sure you’ll have questions.”
Fossilized in loss, Peyton had never felt more alone in the world. Her father was dead, her history was not as she’d known it, and her future was jeopardized. Truth always comes at a price. She worried it would cost her what she guarded, not owned—the Chase heritage.
“What skills do I have for this disaster?” Peyton looked at Mr. Jennings with a compressed chest. “Final thoughts?”
He tapped her on the arm. “You can’t work for yourself, as you do, and not be enterprising. You’ll know what to do.”
Peyton extended her hands, her way of dismissing Mr. Jennings with the grace of her upbringing. “I’ll drive you home.” He protested, but Peyton raised a finger like a mistress reprimanding a schoolboy. “Ah-ah, I’ll have your car transported as well, but perhaps not till tomorrow. I know how hard it was for you to deliver such dreadful news to me today. You’re a kind man, Mr. Jennings. Thank you.”
“It’s a stupid question, but are you all right?”
Rooted in the middle of the desert, in the sunny space of what used to be her father’s study—his inner sanctum—Peyton said, “I can’t get any wetter.”
“There are those who get wet—”
“—and there are those who walk in the rain. The Book of the Samurai. One of my favorites as well. Dad made sure of it.” Peyton gestured to the thousands of volumes lining the walls. Her father had expected her to be a warrior. Was she that fighter now? She pressed her temples, wondering to what degree she had let her father down. She must have. How else could he have concealed crucial facts from her? Memories of her father sitting in his oversized leather chair rose like smoke out of an oil lamp. “Last I saw Dad alive was three weeks ago. He stood in the spring rain waving to me. I had no idea it would be the last time I’d see him.”
A knock on the door was followed by a familiar voice asking for permission to enter.
“I’ll give you some privacy.” Mr. Jennings gathered his belongings. “I want to say hello to some folks out there.”
At the sight of the man she considered the love of her life, Peyton’s mouth went dry. Ashton’s presence was as unexpected as the news Mr. Jennings had just delivered.
Dressed in a tailored black suit, he took decisive steps toward her. “I’m so sorry about your father, Peyton.”
He was close enough for her to smell his Creed Aventus cologne—notes of musk, patchouli, and bergamot. A scent associated with the best days of her life—and the worst. “Ashton Grant.” She realized he was about to hug her and took a step back. She was too fragile to handle the touch of someone once fused to her soul. Last she saw him he was supine and naked, sleeping in sunshine—an image seared on her mind by the trails of lava he left behind. “I’m astonished to see you.”