Betting on Hope - By Kay Keppler

Chapter 1

A cream-colored envelope bearing a law firm’s return address could not be bringing good news.

Hope McNaughton stood in her family’s shabby kitchen and fingered the heavy, embossed envelope that she’d found in their mailbox on her way home from work. In the McNaughton family, good news did not arrive in envelopes from law firms. So as Hope stood alone in the middle of the kitchen, looking out the window at the sandy soil and scrubby grass that stretched across the Nevada high plain, she saw instead a dark and slippery slope plunging into an abyss.

The old ranch house had seen better days, but bore its tribulations and indignities fairly well—much, Hope thought, like the family itself—except that her family hadn’t really ever seen better days. The envelope, on the other hand, had never looked better. It was pristine, having slid seemingly untouched through the postal system until it landed in their mailbox. It was addressed to her mother, Suzanne McNaughton, and it looked serious, with all the importance that cream-colored embossedness could give it.

Maybe if I throw it away, nothing will happen, Hope thought. No one has to know.

But of course she wasn’t that childish. She was an intelligent, responsible adult, the chief financial officer of a software company, who could discuss the finer points of tax depreciation and managerial principle as well as software upgrades or managed downtime. For crying out loud, she was an MBA.

Hope dropped the letter on the table like the hot potato it was and went to change out of her suit, nylons, and pumps into jeans, tee-shirt, and boots. Then she plucked from the refrigerator a few pampered but imperfect organic carrots that her younger sister Faith had grown in her big, unprofitable greenhouse and, tucking the letter into her pocket, went out to the barn where her mother would be mucking out the horses’ stalls.

The doors to the big barn were wide open, letting in sun and air, and as Hope entered, smelling the sweet hay and earthy scent of the horses, she could see Suzanne spreading straw in the stalls. In the soft light of the state-of-the-art barn, her mother didn’t look much older than the eighteen-year-old Vegas showgirl she’d been when she’d caught Derek McNaughton’s eye thirty-two years before. Time had etched a few laugh lines around her eyes and slightly thickened the body that had brought Derek to his knees, but she still had the grace and flair of a girl. Mom still hasn’t lost it. And I never had it. Hope looked like her father. Not that she’d ever see him again.

Suzanne straightened up when she saw Hope and smiled at her older daughter. “Hi, Sweetie. How was your day?”

Hope shook her head and grabbed a pitchfork. “I spent the day dealing with off balance sheet financing, and then when I picked up the mail, I saw you got a scary letter. Here, let me do that.” She flung a forkful of straw into Blondie’s stall and spread it evenly over the rubber mats that lined the enclosure.

“I got a scary letter? What did it say?”

“Sheesh. I didn’t read it, Mom. I brought it out with me, though. Just in case some long-lost Irish uncle died recently and left you his string of thoroughbreds.” She broke a hay bale apart, tossing a flake into the stall. Now all three stalls were clean.

“Oh, right. My long-lost Irish uncle. That must be it.”

Hope smiled at her mother and handed her the letter. “I’ll bring in the horses while you find out about Uncle Sean’s spread.”

She went out to the pasture and climbed the white board fence, looking at the three horses that stood idly under the trees, dozing and twitching their tails. Banjo, her favorite, saw her and snorted, then ambled over to say hello. When he got to the fence, he put his nose on her shoulder and exhaled, blasting her neck with a gust of warm air and leaving a mucousy drool on her shirt.

“Hey there,” Hope said, stroking his neck. She’d owned the gelding for five years, and he’d always been friendly and well-mannered, which was a lot more than she could say about any of her boyfriends in the last five years. Banjo was always glad to see her, too, and he never made disparaging comments about why she worked on Saturdays or how she worried too much about her family. And he was always appreciative when she did something nice for him.

She reached into her pocket