It didn’t snow in Whiskey Creek often. But when it did, it took Cheyenne Christensen back to another time and place. Not one filled with picture-perfect memories of warm holidays, gaily wrapped packages and hot apple cider, like the Christmases her friends enjoyed. No, this kind of weather made her feel sick inside, as if something dark and terrible had happened on just such a night.
She wished she could remember exactly what. For years she’d racked her brain, trying to make sense of her earliest memories, to conjure up the woman with the smiling face and pretty blond hair who featured in so many of them. Was she an aunt? A teacher? A family friend?
Surely it wasn’t her mother! Cheyenne already had a mother who insisted there’d been no one in her life meeting that description.
That didn’t mean it was true, however. Anita had never been particularly reliable—in any regard.
“Chey, where are you? I need my pain meds.”
Real mother or not, the woman who’d raised her was awake. Again. It was getting harder and harder for Anita to rest.
Trying to shake off the stubborn melancholy that had crept over her when the snow began to fall, Cheyenne turned away from the window. The three-bedroom hovel she shared with her mother and sister wasn’t anything to be proud of. She’d put up a Christmas tree and lights, and kept the place clean, but their house was easily the most humble abode in Amador County.
Still, it was better than the beater cars and fleabag motel rooms she’d lived in growing up. At least it provided some stability.
“Be right there!” She hurried to the cupboard to get the morphine. After more than a decade, her mother’s cancer was back. Cheyenne hated to see anyone suffer. But if Anita hadn’t gotten sick fifteen years ago, they might never have settled down, and coming to Whiskey Creek was the best thing that had ever happened to Cheyenne. As guilty as it made her feel, she would always be grateful for the diagnosis that stopped all the shiftless rambling and finally enabled her and her sister to enroll in school. She just wished the cancer that had started in Anita’s ovaries had stayed in remission instead of reappearing in her pancreas.
“What are you doing out there while I’m lying in here, suffering?” her mother demanded as soon as Cheyenne walked into the room. “You don’t really care about me. You never have.”
Fearing there might be some truth in those words, which sounded slurred because she wasn’t wearing her dentures, Chey refused to meet her mother’s gaze. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be a good daughter,” she said, but even she believed it was duty, not love, that motivated her. She held too much against Anita, had longed to escape her for so many years she couldn’t remember when she’d first started feeling that way.
Anita preferred her sister, anyway. She’d made that clear all along. Fortunately, Cheyenne didn’t have a problem with it. Presley was older by two years. She came first and would always be number one with Anita.
“I did my best by you,” her mother said, suddenly defensive.
Here we go again. She brought a spoonful of morphine to her mother’s lips. “That might be true,” she conceded. But it was also true that Anita’s best fell far short of ideal. Until they came to Whiskey Creek, she and Presley had been dragged through almost every state in the western half of the country. They’d gone hungry and cold and been left alone in cars or with strangers for indefinite periods of time. They’d even been forced to beg on street corners or at the entrances to malls when their mother deemed it necessary.
“You never cut me any slack,” Anita complained, snorting as she attempted to shift positions.
Determined to preserve the peace, Cheyenne changed the subject. “Are you hungry? Would you like a sandwich or some soup?”
Her mother waved dismissively. “I can’t eat right now.”
Cheyenne helped her get comfortable and smoothed the bedding. “The meds will make you sick if you don’t get something in your stomach. Remember what happened last night.”
“I’m sick, anyway. I can hardly keep anything down. And I don’t want to put my dentures in. The damn things don’t fit right. Where’s your sister?”
“You know where Presley is. She works at the casino.”
“She never comes around anymore.”
That had to be the painkiller talking. Not only did Presley live with them, she watched Anita during the day so Cheyenne could work at the bed-and-breakfast owned by her best friend’s family—and as long as Presley didn’t have the money to buy dope, she helped out on weekends, too. “She left a couple of hours ago.” Already it seemed like an eternity to Cheyenne, and evidently Anita felt the same way.