Smoketree - By Jennifer Roberson

Chapter One

“Are you all right?” Cass Reynolds asked.

I realized my hand had strayed once again to my forehead. The habit had become ingrained in six months, no matter how hard I tried to break it.

“I’m just tired,” I told her. “It was a long flight from New York to Phoenix, and the charter to Flagstaff was pretty bumpy.” I forced myself to put my hand down. I didn’t really need to touch the scar. I knew it by heart. An ugly, purple welt stretching across my brow to my right temple, the result of my most recent surgery, and I was so hypersensitive about it I felt as though I bore a brand. Or Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.

I smiled wryly, liking the imagery. My scar certainly wasn’t from any illicit, unconscionable adultery, but the results were much the same. I was stared at and, though not precisely shunned, certainly pitied. My looks, my livelihood were threatened, and all because of the peculiar healing qualities of my own skin.

As a child I had experienced my share of bumps and bruises, as well as knee scrapes and tetanus shots and all the other expected hazards of childhood. I’d hardly noticed the ugly lumps of scar tissue then, being too concerned with my games, and I’d outgrown my clumsiness. It wasn’t until the accident that I rediscovered my tendency to develop keloids—excess scar tissue—and realized my career was in jeopardy. Such vivid reminders of human vulnerability have no place on a fashion model.

There was genuine concern in Cass’s young face. She couldn’t be more than eighteen or nineteen. "Is it me?” she asked. “Does my driving make you nervous?”

“No,” I lied politely. Actually, anyone's driving made me nervous. It was one of those things I’d have to get over. My personal space, that zone of safety each of us lives and moves about in, had been destroyed. I was nervous any time I climbed into a car. “How did you find out about it?”

There was conflict in her face. I thought she was searching for the proper words, attempting to be diplomatic. Finally she settled for absolute honesty. “I’m a movie fan. Tucker Pierce was my favorite actor.” Color rose in her face, then receded. I knew she was recalling who it was she spoke to. “I had a crush on him. I sort of kept track of his movements in all those gossip magazines…”

I couldn’t help the smile. “I remember.” And I did. Every bit of it. From the glamor and glitter to the very last party, and the long drop off a California cliff.

Therapy, my closest friend called the trip. The chance to put my perspectives back in place and recoup my ambition. Except that I didn’t really have any ambition anymore, being stuck in an odd sort of emotional limbo. So Vanessa had made a couple of phone calls and put me on a plane to Arizona. And Smoketree. A dude ranch, of all places.

Cass braked, tight-lipped, as a battered pickup truck swung into our lane without warning. She shook her head and tapped impatient fingers against the steering wheel, then flashed me an apologetic smile. “I hate this town for that very reason. Of course Phoenix is worse—more like a mini-LA all the time. Give me a wide-open road any day, and a good horse in my trailer…” She handled the station-wagon with a competence I admired, even if she did get frustrated by stop-and-go traffic. All in all, she handled it much better than I could… now.

I chewed idly at a thumbnail and stared out at the passing sights. Flagstaff wasn’t much different from any other small town with an interstate highway through the middle of it. But I liked the pine trees and brilliant blue sky, and particularly admired the magnificent May day.

“Can I ask you a question?” Instantly she waved a hand. “Not about him—I promise. About modeling.”

“Sure,” I told her with a sigh. “Whatever you like.”

“I just wondered what it is that really makes a model. Why is it some of you make it to the top while others stay in department store catalogues?”

Momentarily diverted, I grinned at her. “What you’re really trying to ask—without hurting my feelings—is why I’ve made it when I’m not beautiful?”

She stared at me, mouth dropping open. “No, it isn’t!” But she blushed again.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told her, laughing. “It’s all just a combination of things, anyway. ”

“Bones.” She touched her average, nicely rounded, snub-nosed face morosely.

“Most of it is