You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
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A rogue black stallion. A sacred white buffalo. Mysterious night voices.
Megan Gillespie returns to Wyoming to fulfill a promise. Nothing more. Yet when the unexplainable happens she is drawn into the intrigues surrounding her uncle’s ranch…intrigues that escalate the longer she stays. How can prized mares simply vanished? Who is the Native American that appears only at night? Why is her uncle determined to keep her from leaving?
Torn between the desire to escape and the need to resolve these long-held secrets, Megan uncovers truths that threaten her life…and stir her to the depths of her soul.
List Price: $10.58
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Next Step Books (July 14, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The scene below riveted her.
Like a pack of wolves, a group of men circled a black stallion. Head flailing, the horse fought uncountable ropes. He reared, hooves striking blindly. Foam flecked his neck, teeth bared and mouth opened in a silent shriek. The setting sun painted his soaked hide in blood-colored lather. Dust boiled upwards, the air choked with pinpricks of glittering gold.
The horse fought in vain. His cry, one of rage and impotence, shuddered through Megan.
Pain! She doubled over, as though punched the stomach. Can’t breathe. Her eyes burned from the agony.
The stallion again reared, legs lashing out.
“Hold him. I said, hold him!” A tall man yanked a lariat from the hands of one of the men.
The next moment, the stallion lunged forward. Men scattered. Rope tore through the gloves of one cowhand, the sound like a zip-line at high speed. He howled.
The stallion’s getting away! Megan’s heart leaped with hope. He’s getting–
Joy crumpled into terror. The horse charged directly at her.
* * *
“Hey, ya hear me? I said, whatcha think of Silver Springs?”
The voice pierced the fog of her mind. Megan shook her head and blinked. A gentle breeze lifted a strand of hair and caressed her cheek. She turned to the speaker.
Miles, the driver of the van, scratched his ribcage as he grinned at her.
A chill crawled through her. She could have sworn she’d just been standing….
“Cat got yer tongue?”
Miles spat a brown stream of unmentionable liquid into the dirt. She stepped back to avoid being splattered.
He smirked. “Better get used to it, Miz City Gal. Out here, don’t need my spittin’ cup.”
She vaguely recalled the chipped mug and its foaming contents in the truck’s console. Hadn’t she just spent three hours coming from Cheyenne? She remembered thinking how hot the ride had been without air conditioning.
A door slammed. The other passenger opened the back of the van and grabbed his luggage, muttering under his breath.
“Hey, I can get those.” Miles sprang forward to haul the man’s belongings into the building.
A battered sign hung from the eaves of the self-proclaimed hotel, half the words blistered off. Weatherworn rocking chairs squeaked on the porch, propelled by invisible patrons.
As she stared at her grimy feet, Megan remembered stepping out of the van. I distinctly recall worrying about my sandals. Pedicured toenails had morphed from mauve to mud-colored. Dust streaked her skirt. Miles had asked if she were “rump sprung” as she’d gazed down the empty streets of Silver Springs. But after that….
The late afternoon sun beat down, warring with her lingering out-of-sync feeling.
She again glanced down the main street. Twenty or so sad buildings spread out on both sides of a potholed road. Peeling paint, grime and neglect stamped the worn wooden siding. At a distance stood a lonely corral and dilapidated barn. If not for three pickup trucks, Megan could swear she’d stepped back a hundred years into the old west.
I had these thoughts before. The sense of déjà vu hit her again. What is going on?
She remained alone by the van, staring down the vacant street and asking herself why she would voluntarily travel to the wilds of Wyoming. Was she crazy? Obviously, in light of the weird stuff that had happened since the moment of her arrival.
Three months. That’s all I promised my uncle. Megan took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She could put up with almost anything for three months. Besides, she’d earned it. She’d worked multiple seventy-hour weeks to finish a major project so she could take the time off.
Down the street, a dust devil swirled hypnotically. The tan cyclone bobbed and gyrated, then lifted into the air, passing over her head as though parading out of town. For a moment, the sun blinded her with hazy orange. The cloud of dirt settled and split apart, spraying the horizon in gold and scarlet.
“Wow,” she murmured, entranced by the beauty.
A white calf stood at the edge of town. Is that a buffalo? Nothing had been there a minute ago. Feet splayed, the ghost-colored animal calmly returned her gaze, oblivious to the dust storm. Animals didn’t normally stare at people, but this one did. Wholly intent on her, the calf didn’t move. Megan shivered.
The miniature storm continued to blow at the edge of town, then suddenly shifted, spraying dirt her direction. Dazzling sand particles danced around, without touching her. The storm raged for minutes. Then it unexpectedly died as though someone flipped a switch. She blinked and looked back to the edge of town.
The calf had vanished.
She straightened. Where–?
“Miz Gillespie?” A deep male voice sounded nearby.
Megan ignored the speaker. The calf had been right there!
“Did you–did you just…?” Unable to explain the event, she clamped her mouth shut, still staring.
“Did I what?”
Finally, she gazed at the newcomer.
I’ve seen him before.
The tall cowboy looked like he’d stepped out of a western movie. Sandy hair, blue-gray eyes, and deep tan made her gulp. Not only was he lean and square-jawed, but the huge silver belt buckle, shaped like a horseshoe, large hat and well-worn boots completed the picture.
He grinned. “Don’t tell me you’re overcome by our picturesque town.”
“Heya, Jack.” The voice of Miles boomed as he exited the hotel. “Thought that was you.”
The cowboy turned to the driver. “Where’ve you been? Stop to take pictures or something?” Annoyance roughened the words of the man named Jack. “I’ve been waiting over an hour.”
“I’m sure you found someone to keep ya occupied. Heard the new barmaid has her eye on you.”
“You could’ve called.” Jack poked the brim of his hat back with a thumb.
“Forgot my phone. ’Sides, I was busy talking to the purdiest gal I’ve seen in a while.” Miles winked at her. “This here’s Daniel’s niece.”
The cowboy stuck out his hand. “Jack Crawford. Foreman of the Double O.”
“Megan Gillespie.” As she shook his hand she hissed in a breath from his firm grip.
“Figured. You got his red hair.”
“That ain’t all of his this city gal’s got.” Miles guffawed.
What’s that mean? She pulled her hand away from Crawford’s.
“Course, she don’t have as many freckles. And good thing she don’t weigh near–”
“This your gear?” The foreman stepped up to the back of the van.
Gear. She tucked away the interesting word as she shot him a grateful look. “Yes. Let me–”
“I got it.” He grabbed the three pieces of designer luggage, then stuffed one under his arm. “This all?”
“Let me get my purse and carryon.” She hurried to the front seat to retrieve them.
“That’s one thing about Jack.” Miles dug into a can of tobacco, apparently oblivious to the fact they ignored him. “Always knows how to treat the ladies right.”
“I’m parked down the street.” Crawford indicated the trucks with a tilt of his head.
“So you could be closer to the bar?” Miles stuffed a wad in his lip, then smirked.
The foreman glared. “We agreed to meet at the post office, remember? My pickup’s right out front.”
The driver spread his hands. “How’s I supposed to know we’d have an extra passenger? Jed Harper wanted me to drop him off at the hotel.”
Crawford straightened with a jerk. “Harper?”
“Harper Junior. Returning to the fold, so to speak.” Miles scratched his cheek without a break. “Staying in town overnight. Guess he wants to patch things up a’tween him and the old man.”
Megan raised her brows. The sullen man who’d shared her van ride didn’t seem the type who wanted to patch up anything.
“He tell you this?” Crawford’s mouth hardened. “Or you making it up?”
Miles looked taken aback. “Aw, you know me. Picked it up here and there.”
“And spreading it around.”
“Hey, ain’t still bad blood a’tween you and Harper, is there?”
The foreman’s jaw jutted as he glanced at Megan. “Let’s go.”
“You’re supposed t’forgive and forget, Jack.”
Without answering, Crawford stalked down the street.
She hurried to follow, wondering what Miles meant by bad blood. However, his parting shot distracted her. “Whatever you do, Miz Gillespie, don’t let Jack take the scenic route. He’d ruin your reputation, fo’sure.” His squawking laugh made her wince.
“Thanks again for stopping by.” An overly bleached blond popped out of a building and smiled brilliantly at Crawford. “Don’t forget you got that tab running.”
“You know I’m good for it.” He touched the brim of his hat.
Her smile faded as soon she noticed Megan.
When he reached a blue Chevy, he tossed her luggage into the bed then climbed into the full-sized cab, leaving her to fend for herself. He could at least open her door, couldn’t he? She tucked her carryon under an arm to free her hand. Crawford unexpectedly leaned over and opened the door from the inside.
“Thanks.” Though she was grateful they’d gotten away from Miles, the foreman could be a little more helpful. And not toss her suitcases around like cattle prepared for branding.
He started the truck before she shut the door and began to back out. Megan fumbled to find the seat belt.
“You don’t need ’em around here.”
She glared at him. “I happen to value my life.”
“Nobody uses ’em–trust me.”
She ignored his comment and dug between the middle of the seat. The shoulder strap was missing, leaving her only with the lap belt. After locating the other half, she jammed the gritty ends together, and then struggled to tighten it. Clogged by dirt and disuse, the mechanism wouldn’t budge. Crawford was already heading out of town, acknowledging the wave of another woman who walked along the street.
Megan hated to give up, but finally folded her hands to hide the fact that the belt lay slack. Without a word, Crawford reached over. With one hard tug, he tightened the strap.
“Ow! Enough.” The material dug into her pelvis. She spent the next couple minutes trying to loosen it. “You didn’t have to cut off circulation to my legs.”
He remained silent, staring ahead at the narrow road.
After settling, she studied the landscape. Bare dirt, pinyon pine and spindly grass, all either brown or faded. Nothing else could be seen for miles and miles. What creatures could possibly survive here? Already she missed the lush green of Florida. Forbidding gray mountains dominated the horizon. Though she’d spent the first nine years of her life in Wyoming, nothing seemed familiar. Or inviting.
Megan threw a glance at the foreman. “How far to the ranch?”
“’Bout an hour.”
“That far?” When he didn’t volunteer anything else, she tried again. “Is the road paved all the way?”
“Have you lived in this area long?”
She blew out a breath. “Definitely not big on conversation.”
Crawford acted as though he hadn’t heard. Fingers choking the steering wheel, he stared ahead. Maybe there was still bad blood between him and Jed Harper.
The subdued drone of tires on pavement began to grate on her nerves. Silence pressed on her, but instead of growing sleepy, she found herself tensing. She almost asked the foreman to turn on the radio. More than once, she unclenched her hands and forced her shoulders to relax. She sighed deeply several times, trying to get enough air.
The shrill ringing of a phone made her jump.
“Sup?” Crawford pressed the cell to his ear. After a pause, he said, “You’re kidding. When? Where? On my way.”
He stomped on the accelerator. When the pickup began to rock, Megan clutched at the door. She glanced at the speedometer. They were doing over seventy-five.
“What’s going on?” Her voice came out a little more sharply than she intended.
“Need to make a detour.”
“Where?” Miles’ warning about a scenic route flashed through her mind. “My uncle’s expecting me.”
“This won’t take long.” Gaze locked ahead, Crawford’s jaw stiffened.
The needle edged eighty. Eighty-five.
“Do you have to drive so fast?” She raised her voice over the whine of the engine. “I’m sure–”
“He doesn’t want me to miss this.” Crawford shot her a hard glance. “Believe me.”
She gulped, saying nothing more.
He slowed only slightly as they came to a dirt road and careened around the corner. The pickup skidded, spraying rocks into the air. They fishtailed. With casual expertise, he righted the vehicle, then sped up again. The truck bounced crazily over uneven ground. Megan banged her arm against the window then grabbed the seat back. Her carryon leaped up, then crashed to the floor several times.
In the distance, men and horses crowded around something. Dread built in her. As the truck hurtled down a hill, she lost sight of them. Her stomach vaulted into her throat. Crawford slammed on the brakes, causing the truck to skid sideways. After shoving the gearshift lever into park, he flipped off the keys.
“Stay here. You’ll be safe.” He jumped out.
For several minutes, she heard only her panting breath. Her arm felt bruised where it had hit the window. Fighting to slow her pounding heart, she rubbed her neck. Megan pushed away the premonition of having been there before.
The sun dipped lower in the sky, the heat growing inside the truck until it became suffocating. She turned the key so she could roll down both windows a few inches. Outside, the blowing wind snatched at the nearby pinyon pine, rustling the twigs, the sound reminiscent of shuffling paper. The breeze moaned its way through the windows.
Help me. Someone, standing outside the cab of the truck, rasped the barely audible words.
“What?” Megan jerked around to look out her window. Imagining she saw a dark form, she shrank back.
No one was there.
“This is creepy.” She rubbed her arms.
The barrenness of the countryside and the utter stillness clawed at her mind.
I’ve been here before. I know it.
She shuddered. Where had Crawford gone? What was he doing? The cries of men and animals gradually welled up into awareness, as though someone slowly turned up the volume on a radio.
The scream of a stallion pierced the air. A shiver slithered down her spine. What were they doing to the horse? Déjà vu hit so hard, she clenched the door handle and dashboard to brace herself. The scent of spring rain enveloped her.
This can’t be happening.
Megan peered through the dirty windshield, knowing she’d done that before. But when? How?
Her hand crept up her throat. The burn of something tightened around her neck. It pulled against her flesh, crushing her windpipe. The agony built and built until she could hardly breathe.
Out of the corner of her eye, a white blur streaked past the truck. Megan gasped in recognition as a buffalo calf ran up the knoll and disappeared.
The next moment, she bolted out of the cab and sprinted up the rise.
*Review to come! ~ASC