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According to the legend, the town of Lost Creek is cursed. Only a few buildings remain along the shore of the Missouri River in an isolated part of Montana.
The story told over the years is that a band of outlaws rode into the fledgling town and killed a mother and child, while the rest of the residents watched from a safe distance.
When the husband returned, he found his wife lying dead in the dirt street, his child and her doll lying next to her, and the townspeople still hiding from the outlaws.
He picked up his daughter's doll from the dirt and swore revenge on the townspeople.
One by one, residents began to find a small cloth doll on their doorstepsand then they'd die. According to one story, the rest of the townspeople fled for their lives.
But another story tells of a pile of bones found at the bottom of a cave years later. Men, women and children's bonesthe residents of Lost Creek and evidence of a story of true retribution.
The sun sinking into the Little Rockies, Jud Corbett spurred his horse as he raced through the narrow canyon. Behind him he could hear the thunder of horses growing louder. The marshal star he wore on his leather vest caught the light as the canyon heat rose in waves, making the towering rock walls shimmer. Sweat trickled down his back. His mouth went dry.
Just a little farther.
His horse stumbled as he rounded the last bend and almost went down. He'd lost precious seconds. The riders were close behind him. If his horse had fallen
His gray Stetson pulled down low over his dark hair, he burst from the canyon. On the horizon, the ghost town of Lost Creek wavered like a mirage under the cloudless blue of Montana's bigsky.
Jud felt his heart leap as he spurred his horse to even more speed, adrenaline coursing through his veins.
The loud report of a rifle shot punctuated the air. Jud grabbed his side, doubling over and grimacing with pain. The second shot caught him in the back.
Tumbling headlong from his horse, he hit the ground in a cloud of dust.
"Cut! That's a wrap."
From the sidelines, assistant director Nancy Davis watched Jud Corbett get up grinning to retrieve his Stetson from the dirt.
"He's such a showoff," stuntwoman Brooke Keith said beside her, her tone a mixture of envy and awe.
"The man just loves his work," Nancy said, cutting her gaze to the stuntwoman and body double.
That got a chuckle from Brooke. "Kind of like the way the leading lady just likes to be friendly."
Nancy watched as Chantal Lee sauntered over to Jud and, standing on tiptoes, whispered something in his ear.
Jud let loose that famous grin of his as Chantal brushed her lips against the stuntman's suntanned cheek before she sauntered away, her hips swaying provocatively.
"Easy," Nancy warned.
"Easy is exactly what she is," Brooke said with obvious disgust as she walked off toward Jud.
Jud Corbett was shaking his head in obvious amusement at Chantal. Whatever she'd offered him, he wasn't taking the bait.
As Brooke joined Jud, Nancy couldn't help the sliver of worry that wedged itself just under her skin. All she needed was Chantal and Brooke at each other's throats. There was enough animosity between them as it was. She'd have to talk to Chantal and tell her to tone it down.
As for Brooke Nancy watched the stuntwoman sidle up to Jud and knew the signs only too well. A catfight was brewing, and Jud was about to be caught right in the middle. Nancy wondered if he realized yet what a dangerous position he was in.
"Nice stunt," Brooke said with an edge to her voice as she handed Jud a bottle of water.
"Thanks," he said and took a long drink. "But you could have done that stunt blindfolded."
She smiled at that, but the smile never reached her eyes. "I was referring to Chantal's stunt."
"I hadn't noticed." He'd noticed, though he certainly hadn't taken it seriously. Chantal liked to stir things up.
Brooke chuckled. "You noticed."
"Good thing I never date women I work with while on a film."
Brooke eyed him. "That's your rule?"
"The Corbett Code," Jud said, lifting his right hand as if swearing in.
She laughed. He liked Brooke. He'd worked on a couple of films with her. She was a grown-up tomboy.
Chantal Lee, on the other hand, was a blue-eyed blond beauty, all legs, bulging bosom and flowing golden hair. While Brooke was the perfect stunt double for the star, she dressed in a way that played down her curves. The two could have passed for sisters, but they were as different as sugar and salt.
Brooke was scowling in the direction of Chantal's trailer. "Did you know Chantal demanded another stunt-woman and body double? Zander refused, even though Chantal threatened to break her contract."
That surprised Jud. Not about Chantal, but about director Erik Zander, who had never seemed like a man with much backbone. But if the rumors were true, Zander was betting everything on this film, a Western thriller. Apparently, it was do or die at this point in his career.
According to the rumor mill, the director was in debt up to his eyeballs from legal fees after a young starlet had drowned in his pool and the autopsy showed that the woman was chockfull of drugsand pregnant with Zander's baby.
He'd managed to keep from getting arrested, but it had cost him not just his small fortune but his fiancée, the daughter of a wealthy film producer. She broke their engagement, and that was the end of her wealthy father backing Zander's films.
Jud paid little attention to rumors but he did have to wonder why Erik Zander had decided to produce and direct Death at Lost Creek, given the publicity after the death at his beach house. On top of that, Zander had cast Chantal Lee and Nevada Wells, former lovers who'd just gone through a very nasty public breakup. Jud feared that would be the kiss of the death for this film.
Jud had gotten roped into the job because Zander had made him an offer he couldn't refusecomplete control over all the stunts in the movie as stunt coordinator.
Suddenly Chantal's trailer door slammed open. The star burst from it, clutching something in her hand as she made a beeline for them.
As she drew closer, Jud saw that the star had one of the small rag dolls from the film gripped in her fist. She stalked up to the two of them and thrust the doll into Brooke's face.
"I know you left this on my bed, you bitch!" Chantal screamed. "If I catch you in my trailer again " She threw the doll at Brooke.
Jud watched Chantal storm away. Everyone in the common area had witnessed the scene but now pretended to go back to what they were doing.
Beside him, Brooke stooped to pick up the doll that had landed at her feet.
Jud saw at once that the doll wasn't one from the prop department. He took the tiny rag doll from her. It was so crudely made that there was something obscene about it.
Brooke wiped her hands down the sides of her jeans as if regretting touching the ugly thing. "I didn't put that on her bed." She sounded confused and maybe a little scared.
"You're not buying into that local legend," he said with a chuckle. "Not you."
She smiled at that but still appeared upset. According to the script for Death at Lost Creek and local legend, the recipient of one of these dolls was either about to have some really bad luck, or die.
"I'll take that," Nancy snapped as she came up to them and held out her hand.
Jud dropped the tiny rag doll into it. From the look on the assistant director's face she was not amused. But then Jud didn't think he'd seen her smile since he'd gotten to the set.
"I can't wait until this is over," Brooke said, her voice breaking after Nancy walked away. "I hate this place."
He'd heard the crew complaining about the isolation since the closest town was Whitehorse, Montana, which rolled up its sidewalks by eight o'clock every night.
But Jud suspected it was the scriptnot the location that was really getting to them. Their trailers were circled like wagon trains, one circle for the crew, another for the upper echelon in what was called the base camp.
Not far from the circled RVs was the catering tent and beyond it was the false fronts and main street depicting the infamous town of Lost Creek.
But it was the real town of Lost Creek farther down the canyon that had everyone spooked. Now a ghost town deep in the badlands of the Missouri Breaks, with its history it was a real-life horror story.
All that was left of the town were a few rotting wooden buildings along the creek and the Missouri River. The town, like so many others, had been started by settlers coming by riverboats up the wide Missouri to settle Montana.
The wild, isolated country itself was difficult enough for the settlers. The river had cut thousands of deep ravines into the expanse, leaving behind outcroppings of rocks and scrub pine and hidden canyons where a person could get lost forever. Some had.
But even more dangerous were the outlaws who hid in the badlands of the Breaks and attacked the riverboats and the towns. Lost Creek had been one of those towns.
"I have to get away from here for a while," Brooke said suddenly. "Are you going into town tonight?"
"Sorry, I've been summoned to a family dinner at the ranch. Which means something is up, or I'd ask you to come along."
"That's right, your family lives near here now. Trails West Ranch, right?"
He nodded, wondering how she knew that. But it wasn't exactly a secret given who his father was. Grayson Corbett had graced the cover of several national magazines for his work with conservation easements both in Texas and Montana.
"I'm dreading dinner tonight," Jud admitted. He had been ever since he'd gotten the call from his father's new wife, Kate. That in itself didn't bode well. Normally Grayson would have called his son himself. Clearly Kate had extended the invitation to make it harder for Jud to decline.
"Family," Brooke said. "That's all there is, huh."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
She smiled. "I'm fine. You're a nice man, Jud Corbett, but don't worry, I won't let it get around."
He watched her walk away, strangely uneasy. He'd worked with Brooke before. She was a beautiful, talented woman with a core of steelmuch like Chantal. She didn't scare easily. He suspected whatever was bothering her had nothing to do with a silly rag doll or the horror stories that went with it.
Baby showers were enough to make any twentysome-thing female nervous. For Faith Bailey it was pure torture. But she had no choice.
This was a joint shower for the very pregnant Cava-naugh sisters, who Faith had grown up with.
Laci Cavanaugh had married Bridger Duvall, and the two owned the Northern Lights Restaurant in downtown Whitehorse. Laney Cavanaugh had married Deputy Sheriff Nick Giovanni, and they had built a home near Old Town Whitehorse, where the girls' grandparents lived. Both sisters were due any day nowand looked it.
The shower was being held at the Bailey Ranch in Old Town Whitehorse, the only place Faith had ever considered home in her twenty-six years. Another reason Faith had to be here.
But as she sat in her own ranch house living room, she couldn't help feeling out of place. Almost all of her close friends were married now, except for Georgia Michaels, who owned the knitting shop in town, In Stitches. And everyone knew what followed marriage: a baby carriage.
"Can you believe this population explosion?" her friend Georgia whispered. On the other side of Georgia, their good friend Rory Buchanan Barrow was fighting morning sickness even though it was afternoon.
When they were all kids, growing up in this isolated part of Montana, they'd all vowed not to get married until they were at least thirty-five, and none of them was going to stick around Whitehorse. Instead, they'd sworn they would see the world, have exciting adventures and date men they hadn't grown up with all their lives and dated since junior high.
While some hadn't married the boy next door, they'd all fallen hard for their men and totally changed their big plans for the future.
Faith couldn't help but feel annoyed with them as she looked around the crowded living room and saw so many protruding bellies and wedding bands. To make matters worse, they all looked ecstatically happy.
A man and marriage just wasn't Faith Bailey's secret desire, she thought as she looked wistfully out the window at the rolling grassland and the rugged edge of the Missouri Breaks in the distance.
"I had to add a baby bootie knitting class at the shop," Georgia whispered to her. "Something about getting pregnant makes a woman want to knit. It's really spooky."
Faith laughed, imagining her sister McKenna knitting booties in the near future. McKenna had started her Paint horse farm, and her husband, Nate, was busy building them a home on a hill overlooking the place, but neither had made a secret of their plans to start a family right away.
It was her older sister, Eve, who Faith thought would be hesitant. While all three Bailey sisters were adopted and not related by blood, Eve was the one who was driven to find her birth mother. Before bringing a child into the world, Eve would be more determined than ever to know about her genes and the blood that ran through her veins.
Faith watched Laci and Laney open one beautifully wrapped box after another of darling baby clothing and the latest in high-tech baby supplies, all the time wishing she was out riding her horse. After all, she was only home for the summer, and she'd promised herself she was going to spend every waking moment in the saddle.
"If I see one more breast pump, I'm going to be sick," she whispered to Georgia who laughed and whispered back, "Do you have any idea what some of that stuff is for?"
Before Faith could tell her she didn't have a clue, Laci's water broke, and not two seconds later, so did Laney's.
Faith smiled to herself. She was going to get in that ride today after all.
Showeredand changed, Jud came out of his trailer to find Chantal Lee waiting for him beside his pickup. He groaned under his breath as he noticed Nevada Wells sitting in the shade of his trailer with a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the table next to him. Nevada was watching Chantal with a look of unadulterated hatred on his face.
The two stars had made front-page tabloid news for months beginning with their scorching affair, their torrid public shows of affection and their scandalous breakup all in public.