Fifteen-year-old Winona Grey stared out at the waterfront ranch that had been in her family for four generations, looking for something that had changed. Loss like theirs should leave a mark—summer grass gone suddenly brown, dark clouds that refused to lift, a tree split by lightning. Something.
From her bedroom window, she could see most of their acreage. At the property's back boundary, giant cedar trees stood clustered together, their lacy boughs draped downward; in the rolling green pastures, horses milled along the fence lines, their hooves beating the tall grass into muddy submission. Up on the hill, tucked into the deep woods, was the small cabin her great-grandfather had built when he homesteaded this land.
It all looked ordinary, but Winona knew better. A few years ago, a child had died in the cold waters along the Washington coast not far from here, and for months the tragedy was all anyone could talk about. Mom had taken Winona aside and warned her about invisible dangers, undercurrents that could drown you even in shallow water, but now she knew there were other threats lurking beneath the surface of everyday life.
Turning away from the view, she went downstairs, into a house that felt too big and quiet since yesterday. Her sister Aurora sat curled up on the blue and yellow plaid sofa, reading. Pencil-thin and bony at fourteen, Aurora was in that awkward stage that was neither quite childhood nor maturity. She had a small pointed chin and dark brown hair that fell long and straight from a center part.
"You're up early, Sprout," Winona said.
Aurora looked up. "Couldn't sleep."
"Yeah. Me, either."
"Vivi Ann's in the kitchen. I heard her crying a few minutes ago, but …" Aurora shrugged her skinny shoulders. "I don't know what to say."
Winona knew how much Aurora needed life to be steady; she was the peacemaker in the family, the one who tried to smooth everything over and make it right. No wonder she looked so fragile. No pretty words could soothe them now. "I'll go," Winona said.
She found her twelve-year-old sister hunched over the yellow Formica table, drawing a picture.
"Hey, Bean," Winona said, ruffling her sister's hair.
"Drawing a picture of us girls." She stopped drawing and tilted her head to look up. Her long wheat-blond hair was a bird's nest of tangles and her green eyes were bloodshot from crying, and still she was beautiful: a perfect Dresden doll. "Mom will be able to see it from Heaven, won't she?"
Winona didn't know how to answer. Faith had always come easily to her before, been as natural and effortless as breathing, but no more. Cancer had come into their family and broken it into so many separate pieces it seemed impossible they would ever be whole again. "Of course," she said dully. "We'll put it on the fridge."
She walked away from her sister, but it was a mistake, that movement, and she knew it instantly. In this kitchen, memories of her mother were everywhere—in the handmade canary and blue gingham curtains, in the Mountain Mama magnet that clung to the refrigerator door, in the bowl of shells on the windowsill. Come on, Winnie, let's go to the beach and look for treasures…
How many times had Winona blown her mother off this summer?
She'd been too busy to hang with Mom, too cool to scavenge the beach, looking for pieces of smooth broken glass amid the shattered oyster shells and drying kelp.
That thought sent her to the fridge. Opening the freezer door, she found a half gallon of Neapolitan ice cream. It was the last thing she needed, but she couldn't help herself.
Grabbing a spoon, she leaned against the counter and started eating.
Through the kitchen window, she could see the dirt driveway in front of the farm house and the raggedy barn-red loafing shed in the clearing.
Up there, her dad's beat-up blue truck was backing up to their rusted six-horse trailer. He got out of the driver's side and went back to the hitch.
"Tell me he's not going to the rodeo," Winona muttered, moving forward.
"Of course he is," Vivi Ann said, drawing again. "He was up at dawn getting ready."
"The rodeo? You're kidding." Aurora came into the kitchen, stood beside Winona at the window. "But … how can he?"
Winona knew she was supposed to step into her mother's empty shoes and explain why it was okay for Dad to get on with everyday life on the day after his wife's funeral, but she couldn't imagine forming a lie of that magnitude, not even to spare her sisters pain. Or maybe it wasn't a lie—maybe that was what adults did in this world, maybe they just went on—and somehow that was even more frightening, even more impossible to voice. The silence lingered, made Winona uncomfortable; she didn't know what to say, how to make this bearable, and yet she knew it was her job to do just that. A big sister was supposed to take care of her siblings.
"Why's he getting Clem out of the pasture?" Aurora asked, taking the spoon from Winona and digging into the ice cream.
Vivi Ann made a sound that was part cry, part scream, and ran for the door, flinging it open so hard it cracked against the wall.
"He's selling Mom's horse," Winona said sharply. It irritated her that she hadn't figured it out first.
"He wouldn't," Aurora said, and then looked to Winona for reassurance.
Winona had no assurance to offer. Instead, she followed Vivi Ann's lead and ran. By the time she reached the parking area by the shed, she was out of breath. She skidded to a stop beside Vivi Ann.
Her father stood there, holding Clem's lead rope. Sunlight hit the sweat-stained crown of his cowboy hat, glinted off the saucer-sized sterling belt buckle he wore. His chiseled face reminded her of the nearby mountains: granite planes and shadowed hollows. There was no hint of softness there.
"You can't sell Mom's horse," she said, panting hard.
"You gonna tell me what to do, Winona?" he said, letting his gaze linger for just a moment on the ice cream.
Winona felt her cheeks redden. It took all her courage to speak up, but she had no choice. There was no one else to do it. "She loves . . . loved that horse."
"We can't afford to feed a horse that don't get ridden."
"I'll ride her," Winona promised.
"I'll try harder than before. I won't let myself be afraid."
"Do we even got a saddle that'll fit you?"
In the excruciating silence that followed, Winona lunged forward and grabbed the lead rope from her father. But she moved too fast or spoke too loud—something—and Clementine shied, bolting sideways. Winona felt the sting of a burn as the rope yanked across her palm and she stumbled sideways, half falling.
And then Vivi Ann was beside her, controlling Clementine with a word, a touch. "Are you okay?" she whispered to Winona when the horse was calm again.
Winona was too embarrassed to answer. She felt her father moving toward them, heard the way his cowboy boots sank into the mud. She and Vivi Ann turned slowly to face him.
"You got no horse sense, Winona," he said. It was a thing she'd heard all her life from him. From a cowboy, it was as cutting a remark as was possible.
"I know, but—"
He wasn't listening to her. He was looking at Vivi Ann. Something seemed to pass between them, a piece of communication that Winona couldn't grasp. "She's a high- spirited animal. And young, too. Not just anyone can handle her," Dad said.
"I can," Vivi Ann said.
It was true, and Winona knew it. Vivi Ann, at twelve, was bolder and more fearless than Winona would ever be.
Envy hit her like the snap from a rubber band. She knew it was wrong—mean, even—but she wanted her father to deny Vivi Ann, to cut his most beautiful daughter down with the sharp blade of his disapproval. Instead he said, "Your mama would be proud," and handed Vivi Ann the ragged blue lead rope.
As if from a distance, Winona watched them walk away together.
She told herself it didn't matter, that all she'd wanted was to keep Clem from getting sold, but the lies were cold comfort.
She heard Aurora come up beside her, walking up the hill now that the drama was over. "You okay?"
"What matters is that he didn't sell Clem."
"Yeah," Winona said, wishing that was how she saw it. "What do I care about who rides a horse?"
But years later, when she looked back on that week of her mother's death, Winona saw how that single action—the handing over of a lead rope—had changed everything. From then on, jealousy had become an undercurrent, swirling beneath their lives. But no one had seen it. Not then, at least.
Excerpted from TRUE COLORS © Copyright 2011 by Kristin Hannah. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.