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Rayanne charged into the dappled shadows under the trees, following the narrow path that led toward town, the dense growth making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Where was he?
Her breath came in fits and jerks as she broke into a run down the game trail. A few feet in, her shoe caught on a root, sending her sprawling forward to land on her hands and knees. Ignoring the warm trickle of blood down her shin, Rayanne lurched back to her feet, wishing she'd taken the time to exchange her flip-flops for running shoes. But there hadn't been time for practical matters, not when Uncle Ray needed her.
The trees thinned out ahead, affording her a better view of the town. There wasn't much left of Blessing, but that was no surprise. The last residents had abandoned the place over a hundred years ago, leaving behind only the few buildings too stubborn to fall down.
No sign of her uncle in any direction. What would she do if he didn't come back soon? At thirteen, she could take care of herself for a while, but the mountain was a scary place to be all alone. She yelled Ray's name several times with no answer except the soft rustle of leaves.
Should she go back to the cabin and call the authorities for help in finding him? No, he'd never forgive her. Uncle Ray wanted nothing at all to do with the government that had taught him how to kill and then did nothing to repair the damage it had done to his soul.
So that left it up to her. As his namesake, she took her uncle's well-being very seriously.
Ignoring the pain in her side, she sprinted toward the old church, the one place that would give her the best vantage point. It sat right smack in the middle of Blessing, directly across from the saloon. Inside the sanctuary, she waited a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior before making her way to the staircase that led up to the belfry. Out of habit, she avoided the missing second step, using the banister to pull herself up directly to the third. The rest of the stairs were sound enough, allowing her to reach the roof quickly.
The hinges on the door creaked in protest when she pushed it open and stepped out onto the narrow confines of the belfry. She carefully skirted the hole where a bell used to hang. It had probably been sold off for scrap metal by one of the former residents, but that was old history. Right now, all Rayanne cared about was finding her uncle.
She hated heights, and each step across the rough wood floor took all the courage she could muster. Dread made her feet heavy as she crossed the short distance to the front edge of the roof. She latched on to the worn wooden railing in relief. But the second she touched it, the air around her rippled and blurred. Her stomach heaved as she clutched the railing and waited for the world to quit rocking.
When the floor beneath her feet finally steadied, she risked a quick peek at the street below. She blinked twice and looked again.
"What the heck?" she asked, not expecting an answer.
The town below was no longer a skeleton of what it used to be. Instead, the street was lined with buildings that hadn't been there only minutes before, all constructed out of fresh-hewn lumber.
And there were people-men, women and children-going about their business as if they strolled through Blessing every day, all wearing clothes straight out of a history museum. Were they reenac-tors? She couldn't imagine Uncle Ray tolerating such an intrusion on his privacy.
Besides, how could she have missed seeing them on her way through town? As she scanned the faces to see if Uncle Ray was among the throng of people, a shout went up, drawing everyone's attention to the far end of town. A group of men on horseback appeared in the distance, riding hard for the center of town, sending everyone on the street scurrying for cover. Something was dreadfully wrong. Rayanne ducked down even though the railing wouldn't provide much cover.
Just as the last child was dragged inside the old store and the door slammed shut, a solitary man appeared in the doorway of the saloon, carrying a rifle in his right hand. He paused long enough to inhale deeply on his cigarette before tossing it on the wooden sidewalk and grinding it out with the heel of his boot.
He stepped out into the street and the bright sunshine, moving with a lethal grace. Just like the others, he wore an authentic-looking costume: a cowboy hat, boots and a duster that had seen a lot of hard miles. His hat sat tipped back slightly, giving her a glimpse of coal-black hair. From the faded blue of his shirt to the scuffs on his boots, whoever had designed his costume had an amazing eye for detail.
Her pulse tripped and stumbled as the stranger turned to face the oncoming riders. He pushed his duster open, revealing a lethal-looking pair of revolvers. The holsters rode low on his hips, looking all too comfortable there as if he'd been born wearing them. There was a deadly stillness about him that she could feel even from her perch two stories above the street.
A few daring people in town peeked out of windows and through cracks of open doors. Playacting was one thing, but the scene unfolding in front of her felt too real, dangerous. If Rayanne could've run away, she would have. But her feet ignored her orders and remained right where they were.
The riders slowed their horses to a walk and fanned out across the narrow confines of the street. If the man was nervous about being badly outnumbered, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he planted his feet in a wide stance, as if hurricane winds couldn't have budged him.
Was she witnessing an actual gunfight straight out of the Old West? The tension radiating from everyone in sight certainly seemed real enough. She should go back to hunting for Uncle Ray, but at that moment nothing could've dragged her away from the drama unfolding before her. When the riders started forward again, time stopped and the seconds stretched to the breaking point.
The hinges creaked behind her, warning her that she was no longer alone. Thinking it had to be her uncle, Rayanne smiled in relief and turned to scold him for worrying her so. Instead, a man she'd never seen before stepped through the narrow doorway, ducking to avoid the church bell.
Before she could wonder much about its sudden reappearance, she saw that he, too, was heavily armed. She shrank back into the corner, hoping that he wouldn't notice her even though she huddled in plain sight.
He ignored Rayanne completely as he crouched down to peer over the railing. When he brought his rifle up to his shoulder, there was no doubt in her mind that he had his sights centered on the lone man below and meant to do him serious harm. When he pulled back on the hammer, preparing to shoot, her voice finally broke loose. Her terrified warning echoed down the street.
The man on the street spun to face the church. For a long heartbeat, his pale blue eyes met Rayanne's just before he fired his own rifle. The man beside her jerked and stumbled. He had a puzzled look on his face as he slowly sank to the wooden floor, his fingers trying to hold back the red stain spreading over the front of his shirt.
For a few seconds, silence reigned. Then blood, hot and bright, rained down on Rayanne's face and hands. At first she only whimpered as she frantically tried to scrub her hands clean on her clothes. But when Rayanne saw the man's eyes staring up at her, dull and lifeless, she screamed and kept on screaming until her throat was raw and her face burned with the hot acid of tears and fresh blood.
Her uncle finally appeared and pulled her into the solid warmth of his arms. He stroked her back, murmuring words of comfort in that awkward way of his. After a few moments, he stepped back.
How odd. Ray no longer towered over her. Either he'd grown shorter or she was taller. He'd also aged, the gray streaks in his red-gold hair more pronounced. All of that was strange enough, but it was the sadness in his smile that caused her heart to stutter.
"I've always loved you, Rayanne. I always will. I'm so proud of the woman you've become."
Woman? She was barely a teenager.
Ray brushed her hair back from her face. His eyes, so like her own, looked at her with such serious intent. "You have the gift, same as me. The mountain and Blessing need your special touch. Don't let anyone tell you different. Promise me that much."
She had no idea what he was talking about, but she nodded, anyway. "I promise."
"That's real good, sweetheart." Then he looked around. "It's time for me to go."
He smiled one last time as he slowly faded into shadow with no substance, leaving her alone on the rooftop bereft and still splattered with blood.
Rayanne bolted from her bed and went stumbling across to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet in time. Kneeling on the floor, she heaved and retched until there was nothing left to come up. After a bit, she pushed herself back to her feet, waiting for another wave of nausea to pass before stepping closer to the sink.
It had been years since the nightmare had been so vivid, and she needed her mirror's reassurance that she was twenty-eight, not thirteen. Even with her face pale and her hair a tangled mess, it helped to calm her nerves a little.
She grabbed the robe hanging on the back of the bathroom door, an old flannel one Uncle Ray had loaned her one summer. Having that little piece of him close by always comforted her. Her next stop was the kitchen to brew a cup of chamomile tea. Along the way, she turned on every light she passed.
Anything to keep the shadows at bay.
After putting the kettle on the stove, she sank down on the nearest chair and waited for her heart to stop pounding. Dawn was still an hour away, but she wouldn't risk going back to bed for fear the dream would play itself out again. She'd had as much terror as she could handle in a night, thank you very much.
Things might be different if she had someone there to help ward off the fear, but she didn't. Bright lights, hot tea and a warm robe would have to suffice.
Just as the kettle started to whistle, the phone rang. Rayanne stared at it for several seconds before reaching for the receiver, her hand trembling hard enough she almost dropped it.
"Rayanne? I'm sorry if I woke you up, but I thought you'd want to know. Uncle Ray passed away during the night. It was his heart."
Her mother's stark words stole the oxygen in the room, leaving Rayanne struggling to breathe around the lump of grief in her chest. Had Ray really come into her dream to say goodbye? She wouldn't put it past him.
"Rayanne? Did you hear what I said? Ray's gone."
She forced herself to answer. "Yes, I did, and I'm really sorry, Mom. I'll call you later about the arrangements."
Then she hung up and let the tears come.
One week later
Rayanne taped up the box and set it down on the floor by her office door. She had more packing to do, but right now a break was definitely in order. Dropping into her chair, she popped the top on a bottle of water and then picked up the book that had come in the morning mail. Flipping through it distracted her from the quagmire of her own thoughts.
The past seven days had been hell, plain and simple. They'd honored her uncle's request that they not make a fuss over his passing. In truth, he'd had few friends, and they weren't the kind to stand on ceremony.
Two days later, a lawyer had contacted her about Ray's estate. Her mother had been with her when the call came in and insisted on accompanying Rayanne to the appointment. What a disaster that had been. She'd spent the ensuing days either berating her late brother for forcing Rayanne to move up to his mountain cabin to claim her inheritance or demanding that Rayanne contest the will. The attorney had repeatedly emphasized the terms of the will were rock solid, but her mother had a habit of hearing only what she wanted.
Rayanne had finally quit answering her mother's calls. Eventually, she'd have to deal with her, but right now she had other priorities.
Lost in her thoughts, a knock on her office door startled her. Who could it be? Surely her mother wouldn't have tracked her down here. Setting her book aside, she unlocked the door. When she saw who it was, relief had her smiling.
"Hi, Shawn, I'm glad it's you. I was afraid my mom had decided to drop in for a visit." She looked around at the surrounding chaos in her office. "Sorry about the mess. I was just taking a short breather before I finish packing."
She pointed toward the stack of boxes she'd yet to fill in hopes he'd take the hint. He didn't. Instead, he shoved a pile of papers aside to make room for himself on the corner of her desk. He picked up the book she'd been reading.
"Still studying up on dead towns, I see."
"The correct term is ghost towns, not dead ones."
She let a little of her irritation show. Even though he was teasing, she wasn't in the mood. She took her research seriously. Normally, Shawn respected that, but he'd been in a strange mood lately.
She took the book from him and set it aside.
"When were you going to tell me that you'd asked for a leave of absence from the university?" His voice was a shade too cool for the question to be completely casual.
Oh, that. Whoops. "I only got the approval late yesterday afternoon, and I asked the dean to make an announcement this morning at the staff meeting."
Shawn's eyebrows snapped down tight over his eyes. "That's not the same as you telling me yourself."
She'd been dreading this moment. "I left you a voice mail this morning."
His expression lightened up a little. Good. She really hadn't meant to hurt his feelings, but she'd already faced off against her mother over her acceptance of the terms of Uncle Ray's will. She didn't want to have to defend her decision to anyone else.
"It's just that all of this is so sudden, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed."
He looked marginally happier. "Are you sure putting your life on hold is a good idea?"
Was that what she was doing? Maybe, but then what choice did she have?
"I'm simply following the dictates of my uncle's will. He didn't leave me any wiggle room on this."
Shawn drew a deep breath. "Somehow I doubt you would've fought the terms regardless."
He was right. "I'm sorry, Shawn. I haven't been myself since all of this happened. Ray's death hit me hard. The semester is almost over, so the dean was pretty understanding about me leaving early. One of the grad students will cover the last few classes for me and give the final."