Authors: D'Ann Lindun
Tags: #romance, #suspense
This edition published by
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
10151 Carver Road, Suite 200
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2013 by Christine D. Linscott-Dunham
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 123rf.com
Dedicated to Vernon and Joan Dunham
The best in-laws a girl could ask for
The porch light burned out while she’d been gone.
Elizabeth Adams’ hands shook as she tried to open the still-unfamiliar door. When she tried again, the key clattered to the ground. She bent to search, fumbling in the dark. “Get a grip on yourself, Liz.”
Easier said than done.
Who knew what, or who, might be lurking around every corner?
Forcing her hand still, she slid the key into the lock. Before she stepped inside, she reached in and flipped on the light. A cat meowed and she almost jumped out of her skin. Realizing it was only Fancy, her mother’s purebred blue Persian, she reached down and picked up the pampered feline. Burying her nose in his soft gray fur, she entered the house, locking the door behind her. Weaving her way through stacks of open shipping boxes littering the still-alien room, she walked into the kitchen. Dropping the protesting cat on the scarred avocado-green counter, she rummaged through the cupboards until she found a can of the brand of food he preferred. She opened it, and wrinkling her nose, spooned it in a dish. Placing his meal in front of him, she said, “I’m going to change. Don’t go anywhere.”
Feeling a bit foolish talking to a cat she’d never liked much, she went upstairs, flipping on every light as she went. Uneasiness plagued her. Telling herself it was her overactive imagination working overtime, nothing more, she slipped on jeans and pulled a flannel work shirt over her silk tee. She tugged on a pair of riding boots and wrapped a scarf around her head. Used to Los Angeles’ year-round warm weather, she found Colorado’s bone-chilling December a shock.
The lack of neighbors, the black night skies, but most of all, the complete and utter silence unnerved her. The nearest town was only about fifteen miles away, but to someone used to having a grocery, a dry cleaner, a gas station and a movie theater within a few blocks of her home, the tiny burg might’ve been a hundred miles away. Salt Lick sure wasn’t a Mecca.
Not a place she would ever visit.
In fact, up to a couple months ago she hadn’t even known she’d had an uncle in Colorado. Her mother, Lillian Harper Adams, had left the state thirty-five years ago and never looked back. Until her brother had been killed, and she had been named executor of his will … plus owner of his remote ranch.
Leaving Elizabeth in charge of their floral shop, Lillian had come here to clean out her long-lost brother’s house and put it up for sale. Everything should have taken her a week or two, tops. A month had passed since Lillian had come to Colorado to settle her brother’s affairs and disappeared like mist on a California afternoon. During her last brief phone call, about a week ago, Lillian told Elizabeth she planned to visit a man who had been the last one to see Henry alive — J. B. Cooper. Elizabeth had arrived in Salt Lick, Colorado a week ago, but seemed no closer to the truth than she’d been back in L. A. Coming to search for her mother on her own had seemed like a good idea, but now she wondered if she’d made the right decision. If she weren’t desperate, she never would’ve attempted such a thing.
Her frantic phone calls to her mother went unanswered. Several desperate pleas to the local sheriff’s department had yielded no answers either. In a desperate attempt to find her mother, Elizabeth decided to see for herself if she could locate her. She’d packed up Fancy and headed east.
Her daily visits to the police brought no more answers than her phone calls had. If she didn’t know better, she’d think they were stonewalling her. But why? What should’ve been a quick trip had turned into a mystery-shrouded eternity. She’d always admired the west, loved western movies, but this land scared her.
Blinking back tears, she pulled on a heavy down coat and gloves. Gently pushing Fancy away with her toe, she unlocked the door and went outside. Night had already claimed the peaks of the nearby La Sals, and darkness bore down on the valley floor with alarming speed. Stiffening her shoulders, she stepped off the porch when a movement caught the corner of her eye. She jumped back on the steps. “Who’s there?”
A man wearing a patched denim jacket over a pair of filthy overalls came toward her. “Howdy, ma’am.”
Elizabeth kept her shaking hand on the doorknob. “Who are you?”
Taking his conductor-style hat off with a grubby paw, he said, “Lyle Pritchett.”
“What do you want?” With his child-like wide eyes and simple answer he seemed harmless enough. Still, she remained poised to jump inside at a moment’s notice.
“Work?” His eyes filled with faint hope.
“No. I don’t have any jobs.” She relaxed a fraction. “How did you get here?”
He shrugged. “Walked. Could I sleep in your barn?”
“Oh, no. That wouldn’t do at all. It’s freezing. Don’t you have a home? Somewhere to be? Is there someone I can call to come and get you?”
He frowned. “Nope.”
“I need to go in now.” Elizabeth felt like a heel, chasing this seemingly harmless old man out in the cold, but she had no intention of allowing him to come in her house or camp out in her barn. Had her mother trusted a stranger and ended up kidnapped … or maybe worse?
With another shrug, he turned and headed down the pathway toward the road.
Elizabeth went inside and watched from behind the curtain as Lyle went behind a row of lilac bushes. Not certain he really left, she went in the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee. Glancing at the clock on the wall, she saw it was just before five
She’d wait a few minutes to give strange, creepy Lyle time to get far away. She treated homeless bums better back in L.A. At least, she handed them a bill or two on occasion. She should’ve allowed him to come in and warm up. If only she knew who to trust.
A minute or two later, a dog barked somewhere. Sure she was hearing things, Elizabeth cocked her head but the sound didn’t come again. The unfamiliar man had spooked her. There weren’t any dogs nearby. The closest neighbor was over a mile away. She rummaged around in a drawer and found a flashlight.
Her mother’s inherited horse would be hungry. Elizabeth had to get hold of her fear and feed him. Stepping out on the porch again, she saw no sign of Lyle. Relieved, and hoping he had gone back to town, she went toward the barn.
• • •
The hair on the back of J.B. Cooper’s neck stood up and goose bumps prickled his skin. An odd electricity he couldn’t identify sparked the atmosphere. Reaching into a pocket of his Carhartt jacket he dug out a pair of sheepskin gloves and pulled them over his frozen fingers. An icy wind whipped across his neck and he tugged his Stetson down a little tighter.
His eyes narrowed as his gaze roamed over the familiar terrain. Something wasn’t right. The scent of snow had hung on the air even before black clouds raced over the horizon. Already December, it was late for the first snowfall of the year, but white would be on the ground by morning.
The weather matched his mood. Twenty Hereford yearlings he’d expected to find in the north pasture were missing. Like the phantom herd in the song Ghost Riders, they’d vanished into thin air. He motioned, and his blue heeler loped ahead, nose to the ground. Reining his sorrel that direction, Cooper’s heart thudded against his ribs.
When he arrived at the catch corral a few minutes later, the pen stood empty. The adobe ground told the story. The earth had been churned and torn by bovine hooves. Someone had crowded the yearlings into the pen where they’d milled around.
Stepping off the gelding, Cooper dropped his reins on the ground and knelt down to study the marks. A hoof print stood out — one of the horses was missing a back left shoe, leaving his hoof cracked, jagged. Not much to go on. In this rugged country a horse could throw a shoe about once a day.
Cooper remounted the gelding and followed the tracks, unable to guess why the rustlers had headed toward his house. As he rode, Cooper faced the terrible truth — his cattle were gone, stolen. He grew angrier each mile. Who had herded his heifers into the upcoming blizzard? And where had they gone?
His heart sank a little lower with each question. Those cattle were his future. He’d scrimped and saved every dime for the last year to buy one hundred heifers to build his ranch. And someone had stolen some of them?
Frustrated, his mind continued to work over the puzzle.
He’d have to solve the crime himself; he had no use for the law. And they had none for him.
The sun began to dip behind rolling adobe hills and the wind picked up. Cooper tucked his chin into his collar, wishing for a cup of hot coffee. It barely registered when the dog took a sharp left over a bluff. His sorrel tugged on the bit, but turned when Cooper reined that direction.
His cows had been taken to the deserted ranch next door.
Located in an isolated canyon, the abandoned ranch sat just over the hill from his own spread. Rustlers could run cows there and never be noticed. The corrals and loading chutes would be perfect for moving large numbers of animals. Not a soul would see anything. Nobody had lived there since Henry Harper died a little over four months ago … at Cooper’s own feet.
Mrs. Banks, Salt Lick’s only realtor, had come by his home with the message he’d better keep a low profile when she was showing the Harper ranch. No one wanted to live next to a killer. So far she’d been right. At least, no one had moved in. The lack of a sale wasn’t because of him, though. One day he’d ridden over and had been dismayed to see how dilapidated the house and outbuildings looked. After Bea died, Henry let the place go to hell.
Cooper lifted his head when the gelding came to an abrupt stop. The blue heeler whined. An unfamiliar noise hung on the air. He tipped his head. Was he imagining things? The growl of a diesel engine seemed to come closer, but there wasn’t any reason for a pickup to be out here. Maybe he was losing his mind. Or maybe it was the swirling snow that confused him. Nope. He realized his eyes were fine, his ears were, too. Leaning forward to peer through the falling darkness, he saw every light in the Harper home blazing. The old two-story farmhouse was lit up like a Christmas tree.
Nudging the sorrel with his heels, Cooper urged the horse down the steep slope. The gelding slid down the slick bank on his haunches.
After debating a minute whether to go to the house, Cooper decided on the corrals. If foul play was going on, he’d like to get the jump on the rustlers. The skin on the back of his neck prickled again. Was there someone waiting inside, ready to ambush him? He relaxed when the heeler didn’t act like she sensed anything out of the ordinary.
The cold wind blew icy gusts into his face. Ducking his head, he noticed the barn door slamming against the wall. If someone was in the house, why didn’t they come out and take care of it? As rotten as those planks were, it wouldn’t take much to smash them all to smithereens. He watched the house for a minute. No one showed up. Maybe they couldn’t hear the banging over the wind.