County Road One Fifty Seven seemed more barren than usual on this sultry July afternoon as Whitney Storm drove her apple-red Ford beater toward home. Two years she had been negotiating with Beckett to get that horse for her son, Spencer. Two and a half years she’d done every newspaper or magazine article no matter how ridiculous the subject matter to put away the extra money. She’d blistered Old Man Beckett’s ears with her un-lady-like anger, when he’d shattered her son’s hopes. Some kind of mother she was. She couldn’t even get her son the only present he put on his birthday list. A sudden loud pop filled the cab and her truck fishtailed. She gripped the wheel to keep control and pumped the brakes. A sharp zig and then a zag straightened it out, but the vehicle rode the edge of the paved road on uneven wheels, veering closer and closer to the wire fence. The tires squealed. Her heart pounded in her chest. “Jesus.”
A hard jolt sent the truck barreling through the fence and into the overgrown field beyond. The screeching sound of metal on metal echoed in her ears. Call it luck or by the grace of God, but the battered Ford stalled before going too deep onto the rancher’s pastureland.
“Damn.” She breathed, willing her heart to slow down.
She shoved open the driver’s side door and dropped into knee-deep weeds. Walking to the back end of the truck, Whitney saw where the barbed wire had grabbed on, wrapped a layer of paint on its spikes, and left deep scratches that ran the length of the truck on the passenger side. The rear tire had blown and the rim looked like a crumpled aluminum can.
Burrs stung and tore the exposed skin on her calves, and clung to her anklets as she waded through the jungle of weeds toward the driver’s side to get her purse. The cell phone inside was dead thanks to her brother stepping on it yesterday. She hadn’t had time to get a new one. She banged both fists against the cab. “Great,” she roared. “Just great.”
Note to self: Kick Murphy’s ass when I get home.
Gray clouds circled, thunder rumbled and lightning flashed, deciding where to strike. This day had leveled at five on her shit-o-meter. She drew a breath. Too much anxiety messed with her inner calm. Breathe two, three, four; hold two, three, four; out two, three, four. And she counted again.
Feeling slightly better, she grabbed a half-empty water bottle, slung her purse strap over her head, and worked her way back to the lonely stretch of Oregon road. The oil on the black tar shined. That plus an earlier rain made the road slick, and it had been her misfortune to rush across it with bald tires. Beams of diminishing sunlight fought their way through thick clouds bringing the extra energy she needed to reinforce her flagging strength.
Up ahead, Douglas firs lined both sides of the road, bathing it in deep, gloomy shadows. There were no signs of other people which didn’t improve her sour mood. “Back roads to hell,” she murmured. If she weren’t so pissed off about the events of the day, she might enjoy the solitude. The opportunity of not having to guard against other people’s thoughts, and emotions didn’t come often.
The menacing weather shifted south, but unwanted humidity remained. Sweat gathered at her neck and slid between her breasts as she marched along the shoulder of the road. Although thankful she’d changed into sneakers before leaving Beckett’s farm, she wished for a pair of shorts and a tank top instead of the Capris and sassy yellow blouse she’d worn to sway the swindler. Little good that had done.
She wondered what time it was as she gulped the last drop of water and slapped at a bee buzzing around her head. Even with sneakers, her feet ached and her right knee buckled a couple of times, remnants of a bad fall at an ice skating competition when she was nineteen.
Colorful streaks branched across the evening sky as lightning danced among the cumulus puffs. A pair of headlights gleamed behind her. She stopped as the car pulled alongside. Her internal warning system kicked in so she didn’t approach the car.
The passenger window slid down. “Whitney? Fancy meeting you here.”
Dylan Kline. Could this day get any worse? He had a smile with a politician’s sincerity, a lawyer’s kindness, and a snake oil dealer’s slick retort.
“I bet you’re glad I came along.”
He reached over the seat and opened the door of his Lexus. “Climb in.”
Where was a horse when she needed one? Another low rumble and new dingy clouds helped with her indecision. “Yeah. Sure. Thanks.” She shored the walls in her mind to keep out his thoughts which sullied her calm. The comments running through his head were even oilier than his smile.
“I saw your truck in the field back there. You should be more careful out here by yourself.”
She should be more careful of him. “My tire blew out.”
He chuckled. “I guess it’s up to me to make sure you get home safe.”
“After all, there is an election coming up, and I’ll want to make sure you cast a friendly vote for the mayor.”
She shifted slightly. “Speaking of which, I called to make an appointment with the mayor, and his office never got back to me.”
“I can’t understand why they’d be avoiding an interview. I’ll make it happen for you.”
Whitney glanced at his sharp profile in the twilight. His straight nose, square jaw, and short brown hair looked sinister in contrast to those same features in daylight.
“I’ll want to see the list of questions you intend to ask.”
“So you can prepare the appropriate responses.”
“It’s customary practice to review questions prior to an interview.”
She sighed. “Fine. Where do you want them sent?”
Dylan pulled out a business card. “You can email them to my office.”
Whitney took the card, doing her best not to touch the man, and put it in her daybook.
A couple of miles later they passed the welcome sign and pulled onto Oak Valley’s main street. Townsfolk were gathering in the square around a bonfire to start off the Elk Run Festival. The locals used the annual event to bid farewell to summer and greet the early fall. Heavenly smells of barbeque chicken, grilled corn on the cob, and hot apple cobbler floated through the open window making her empty stomach growl. She could use a beer too. First, she needed to call her mom and let her know of the unfortunate mishaps. The Storm family internal communication network began transmitting the minute the tire blew and she crashed into the ditch. Her mother, the commander and chief of the family empaths, would be expecting a report.
Gotta love genetics.
Not being able to reach Whitney by phone would have sent her mother into worry mode. The trip had taken much longer than originally planned. She hated having to tell her son the horse he’d set his heart on had gone to a higher bidder. “Drop me here, please.”
“Sure.” Dylan stopped the car. “I can take you to your house though.”
“That’s okay.” She didn’t want him anywhere near her house. She unbuckled her seat belt and threw open the door.
“How about a dinner meeting with me and the mayor? We can discuss the upcoming election, maybe a few personal tidbits. It would be an exclusive.”
“That’s very generous.” To her knowledge the mayor hadn’t been giving anyone exclusive anything. “I’ll speak with my editor about it.”
“I hope we’ll see each other again soon, Whitney.”
Not if she’s lucky.
“I look forward to receiving those questions.”
She watched Dylan leave, then headed toward the center of activity. Since her brother Adam owned a bar, he always had a booth at the festival. Family would inevitably be there.
Her eldest brother had no knack for humor or tact. “Whitney, you look like shit. Where the hell have you been?” Adam scolded when she strolled up to his booth.
“Don’t start,” she snapped.
Adam assessed her.
Whitney sighed. “Long story. Mom and Dad around?”
“They were here for a while, but Spencer got tired so they left.”
“Can I borrow your cell?”
He put his hand on hers and squeezed affectionately before giving the phone over, and going to help another customer.
“Hey, Mom,” Whitney said.
Her mother’s no-nonsense tone told Whitney the anxiety from today’s events had been projecting, big time. “I got a flat and had to walk.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the festival. I just got in.”
“We waited for you.”
“Yeah, Adam told me. I’m sorry about being so late.”
“Are you okay? Do you need Dad to come get you?”
“I’m fine. I hitched a ride. I’m going to hang out here for a while, get something to eat. I’ll see if Adam will let me use his car to swing by and pick up Spencer later.”
“Okay, honey. Try to relax and have a good time.”
Good time? Yeah, right. She needed to make arrangements to have her truck towed out of the field, which wouldn’t happen until tomorrow. More to the point, the fence she’d demolished had been put up to keep horses or cattle penned in. She handed her brother his phone. “Give me a bottle of water, would you?” She needed to re-hydrate, and wash away the negative vibes. “And a beer.”
Propping her elbows on the wooden counter, she sipped the water, closed her eyes, and meditated to gather strength. The growing festival crowd unintentionally invaded her mind with happiness, anxiety, love, guilt, shame until she swore she’d go mad. She hated crowds.
Feeling grounded but no less overwhelmed, she saw Deputy Bell joking with a group of festival goers. He’d probably know who owned the fence or at least how to contact them. “I’ll be right back.”
Adam touched her forearm. “You okay?”
He knew what crowds did to her and she appreciated the concern. “I’m all right. I just need to speak with Deputy Bell.”
She angled through empty spaces in the crowd. As she approached, Bell pushed a hand through his thick dark hair and his brown gaze fixed determinedly on her. His voice rumbled with his greeting. “Hi, Whitney.”
“Deputy Bell.” A chill raced across her skin but ended quickly. It was the night breeze she told herself half-heartedly as it trailed away. She’d dealt with too much already today. She wasn’t going to read any more into a chill than that.
“How many times have I asked you to call me Rick?” He growled the last bit.
“My momma taught me right. While you have that uniform on, you’re Deputy Bell.”
Rick had thrown subtle hints her way ever since he’d joined the force. Nice guy, an out-of-towner, but she had no interest in a relationship with him or anyone else for that matter. He was used to her refusals by now, or should have been. Of course in this small town young, single women were limited, thereby reducing the prospects of dating material for the unattached men.
Rick held a beer in his hand. The street light glinted off the aluminum. Her brow arched. “Aren’t you on duty?”
“Yep. I’m watching for any trouble-makers.” He moved a little closer. “Are you causing trouble, Miss Storm? Do I need to haul you down to the station?”
“Not me, Deputy. I’m here to report an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
Whitney explained what had happened.
His demeanor turned professional. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m sure whoever owns the property is going to scream bloody murder about the fence though. I have insurance.” How to pay for the deductible would be another matter to work out.
“How’d you get to town?”
“A motorist took pity on me and gave me a ride.” She hadn’t really thought about what Dylan might have been doing way out there.
In a gruff voice he said, “Are you going home? I would be happy to escort you.”
Another wave of unease assaulted her going straight to her stomach. She managed a small smile and shook her head. “Actually, I’m going to stick around and eat. I’m starving.”
“I’ll walk you that way then.” He stayed close while she got a plate of food and her beer. A rowdy group of teenagers caught his attention so Bell excused himself to handle it, throwing his beer can in the trash as he went by.
Whitney was hopelessly attempting to wipe the last of the sticky barbeque sauce off her fingers with a thin paper napkin when bright-eyed, liquored-up Terry Smith ambled over in a weaving pattern.
Terry had been the all-around home town football hero in high school. His sandy blond hair, brilliant white smile, and well-toned body had looked awesome in those tight football pants. They’d dated for a short while, but it hadn’t lasted.
Now, his once gorgeous hair had thinned, his athletic body had grown saggy, and he sported a beer belly. The word around town was his wife had filed for divorce.
“What about it, Whitney, you ready for a dance?” He sidled up close. “I’ll ask the band to make it a slow one.”
Don’t light a match around him.
She pressed a hand to his chest and gently pushed to put distance between them. The festival brought out the partiers and it smelled as though he’d been at it for a while. He grabbed her hand and dragged her onto the make-shift dance floor so quickly she didn’t have time to say no.
A sharp tremor, a silent alarm, skittered across her shoulders and gripped her stomach. She scanned the populous dancing and the watchers. She spotted Terry’s soon to be ex glaring hatred in her direction. As she spun in a circle with the next dance move, she noted Deputy Bell on the other side intensely interested in her interaction with Terry. All she got from Terry was a warm fondness, albeit a little askew from the drunkenness. Still the uneasy feeling stayed with her, a warning. The bad was piling up.
After the last song, Whitney stopped to catch her breath. That round of dancing did her in. Terry proved to be as light on his feet as she remembered.
He whooped it up. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Let’s do it again.”
“Thanks, but no. I’m heading home.”
He smiled in a lopsided, drunken kind of way. “I’ll come with you.”
“No. I mean, no thanks. You stay here and have fun.” She hastily scoured the area. “If you want another partner, Mrs. Goldberg looks ready for some two-stepping.”
Terry frowned. “I’d rather be with you.”
“I’ll see you later.” She retreated quickly to Adam’s booth. “Adam, I’m going to run home and freshen up. Did you park at my house?”
“Can I borrow your car to go get Spencer?”
He got that dreamy-eyed look as he handed her the keys. “Take good care of Lola.”
What a freaking guy. “Not a scratch,” she promised, and crossed her heart as she took the keys.
Fanning her face with a folded paper, she walked the two blocks to her house. There were stragglers even this far south of the square. Most of the locals had turned out for the festival as well as die-hards from nearby towns. A few family friends passed her on the road and they exchanged pleasantries.
She’d done several articles for the local papers through the years about where the idea for the festival originated, how it had gotten its name, and the traditions of the summer event. The beer flowed freely, the music played loudly, and the barbeque guaranteed even more beer would flow to quench the raging inferno of the cayenne-spiced sauce.
The dim light in her front window had her offering a prayer of thanks. She needed to pee and take a shower. Creepy sensations crawled all over her skin like she was buried up to her neck in an ant hill. Phantom echoes from this extremely stressful day. The walk home helped release a fraction of the overload.
A tall figure stepped from behind a barberry bush up ahead. The faint moonlight bounced off dark shoulders, but his face was shadowed. Instinct along with weird blips in her head told Whitney to shift directions, so she angled away and crossed the street.
The figure sped toward her, catching up in a few steps.
Violent thoughts seared her brain with such intensity that she grabbed her head with both hands.
A well-muscled arm snaked about her waist and a large hand clamped over her mouth. The attacker focused bloodshot eyes on her through the slits in the ski mask. Panicked, she clawed at the hand that prevented a scream, but his fingers dug viciously into her cheeks. The attacker staggered, dragging her toward the bushes.
Terrible images of what could happen flashed through Whitney’s mind. The pounding in her head increased to exaggerated proportions as her emotional guard failed. Hungry lust plowed through her. They were his emotions, powerful and overriding. She scratched at the attacker’s covered arms and rammed an elbow into his ribs. He grunted, spun, and slammed her body against the trunk of a huge maple tree, stunning her, and leaving her gasping for breath.
“You are mine.” The masked attacker’s alcohol-laden breath caressed her upturned cheek while one hand roughly grabbed at her breasts.
“Off, asshole,” she yelled when he removed the hand covering her mouth.
The attacker lifted her off her feet and threw her to the ground. Pain sliced a wedge in her head as it bounced off the grassy lawn. The assailant’s weight held her down while dry lips smashed against her neck.
Her emotions overrode everything else. Anger and fear warred for dominance. She thrust a knee toward the asshole’s groin, but missed the mark. His fingers tightened on her arms, bruising the tender flesh. The bottom of her shirt rode high, and the slime skimmed a hand along her bare ribcage. It took every ounce of control she possessed not to heave in revulsion.
Festival music blared from giant speakers, drowning out Whitney’s hoarse cries for help. Fear strangled her, cutting off much-needed oxygen. Her strength waned but she had to hold on. Losing would mean the unthinkable. She balled her right hand and punched the guy upside the head. He fell partially to the side then straightened, closing his hand around her fist. “I like it when you fight.” The attacker pressed her arm and hand to the ground and lowered to do who knew what next.
Unexpectedly, the assailant’s weight lifted.
She rolled to her side, and tried to focus on the silhouetted form who tackled the bastard, landing a right hook to his jaw. The attacker kicked her savior, knocking him across the lawn, got up and ran away.
“Jesus. Are you okay?” Murphy limped over, holding his stomach, and knelt next to her.
Whitney curled into a fetal position, the sound of her brother’s voice a blessing and his gentle touch a welcome relief. “Not really. This is officially the worst day of my life.”
At the Wellington Clinic, Sheriff Lindsey took her statement. “Anything you can remember will help, Ms. Storm.”
Surrounded by a sea of white linens, she said. “Sorry, Sheriff. All I can tell you is he’s approximately six foot tall, he’d had a lot to drink, and he wore a mask.”
Lindsey blew out an exasperated breath and turned to Murphy. “It’s good that you showed up when you did.”
“I’d been calling all afternoon to see if she wanted to go to the festival.” Murphy glanced at her. “I wasn’t able to reach her so I headed to the house. You know how it is.”
“And I wasn’t able to answer since someone, no names mentioned—” She cast a chiding glance at Murphy. “—Broke my phone.”
Murphy ducked his head and ran fingers through his sandy hair. Whitney knew the old codger sheriff would turn red and say he didn’t believe in that “woo-woo stuff” if Murphy mentioned he’d been having eerie, troubled feelings all day and her terror from the attack delivered stabbing pain to his temples.
The sheriff closed the small notebook and placed it in the pocket of his uniform. “I’ll be in touch. Call me if you remember anything. Anything at all.” Sheriff Lindsey shook Murphy’s hand and left.
“God, Whitney. I’m still shaking. If I hadn’t felt how terrified you were—”
“But you did.”
“But what if I hadn’t gotten there in time?”
Whitney clasped his hand. “You got there.”
Murphy’s cell phone rang. He barely glanced at the number. “Hi, Mom. She’s right here frowning at me. I—” He handed Whitney the phone.
“I’m fine, Mom. A partier had a little too much to drink and got carried away.”
Murphy narrowed his eyes at her lie. She struggled to keep a calm voice and add another layer to her weakened inner shield even though her nerves were jumbled and raw. Her energy stores were almost non-existent and certainly not strong enough to block her mother.
“Don’t lie to me,” her mother’s concerned voice crooned.
“I’m not lying, exactly. It’s been a long day, too much happening all at once.” She straightened out the blanket, spreading her hand across it to get rid of wrinkles as her right leg bounced underneath.
“Are they keeping you overnight?”
“No, I’m not being admitted. Murphy will take me home when they release me.”
“I’ll stay with her, Mom,” Murphy yelled into the phone.
“Come by the house tomorrow, I’ll see for myself. We’ll keep Spencer tonight.”
“Give him a big kiss for me.” Her head hurt and her eyelids pulsed. Not only was she dealing with her emotions, but Murphy’s, her mother’s, and any other warm body within her sensory range. She avoided hospitals whenever possible. Agony, pain, and grief lived in the air. Her head felt as though she’d sucked in a few liters of helium. “I need to leave this place,” she said and handed Murphy his phone.
“I’ll find the doctor.”
Whitney grew up in Oak Valley, population 5,670, and knew many people by name. She heard about things like this happening, but never believed it could happen in her home town. She closed her eyes to meditate and release some of the tension. She just wanted to put it behind her and move on. What was past was past and couldn’t hurt her anymore.