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The night was never this dark in Brooklyn. If she'd been back in her home borough, Gabby Rousseau could have counted on a streetlamp or the glow from a sidewalk window or the never-dimmed glare of Manhattan across the river. But here? In the Colorado mountains? She couldn't see ten feet in front of her, even with her headlights on high beam. Heavy clouds blocked the starlight as sheets of rain pummeled the roof of her poor, tired, little Ford hatchback.
She considered pulling over until the storm let up but she didn't dare. What if her tires sank into the mud at the edge of this skinny road that was more pothole than pavement? Then where would she be? Stuck. In the rain. Without a yellow cab for hundreds of miles.
Dis-as-ter! Her cell phone was out of juice, and the charger didn't work. She had no GPS. For the past hundred miles, the car had been making a clunk that got louder and louder. The heater didn't work, which meant the defroster was defunct and she had to crack a window, which let in the rain. She was wet and cold and, just when she thought it couldn't get any worse, the lightning started.
Zigzag bolts of raw electricity slashed the darkness. In the flash, she saw a stark vision. The clawing branches of a thick forest seemed to grab at her car. Jagged rocks appeared at the edge of the road like evil, ancient sentinels. She glimpsed movement. Something was out there. Probably zombies.
She'd been driving four daysfour long, miserable daysacross the country. Finally, she was close to her destination. She couldn't give up.
Thunder rumbled like a barrage of cannons. Her fingers tensed on the steering wheel. This morning when she'd started out, the June weather had been hot enough that she'd put on a pair of high-waisted chino shorts and platform sandalsan unfortunate choice of outfit because she was freezing cold. Her legs rippled with goose bumps. Her toes were numb.
Another bolt of lightning cut through the sky. The thunder roared and rumbled.
"Enough." She couldn't take much more. "Come on, Universe. Give me a break."
If it stopped raining, she'd never criticize the weather again. Was the Universe open to a deal like that? "If I find my way, I'll give up anything. No more chocolate. No more overdrafts in the checking account."
She needed something bigger to deal with, something more important, something life-changing. She needed the barely worn, red-soled Christian Louboutin heels she'd picked up secondhand before she left civilization. "That's right, the Louboutins. Go ahead, Universe. Take my shoes. Just let me find the place I'm looking for."
A flash of lightning showed a carved wood sign: Rousseau's Roost. An arrow pointed left. This is it!
As the thunder rattled around her, she made the turn. She had asked, and the Universe had answered. She was on her way, nearly there. Survival was within her grasp. Did she really have to give up the shoes?
The final stretch of road to Rousseau's Roost was marked by deep ruts. On the plus side, she was moving away from the scary trees, heading across an open space with a barbed wire fence to her left. Things were looking better, much better. The rain seemed to be letting up.
In another crackle-boom of lightning, she saw the outline of a two-story house with a wraparound porch. In photographs, Rousseau's Roost had a rustic charm that appealed to Gabby. She couldn't believe she owned half of this property. She'd been on her own since she was eighteen, and her living space in Brooklyn had been a series of one-room apartments. Now she was a home owner with a house and a barn and acreage.
Her great-aunt Michellewho Gabby had met exactly five times in her whole lifehad left the property to Gabby and her older brother, Daniel, whom she hadn't heard from since her twenty-third birthday party three years ago. Every attempt she'd made to find him and tell him about this strange windfall had fallen flat, which made her sad. With Aunt Michelle dead, her jerk of a brother was her only living relative. She wouldn't really mind splitting the inheritance with him if they could be a family again.
When she parked in front of the house, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. She turned off the engine. It was entirely possible that the car wouldn't start up again in the morning, but she'd deal with that problem when it happened.
The lawyer who'd contacted her had sent the key to the front door, which she had already attached to the key ring that held her car keys, a couple of keys to friends' apartments that she really ought to mail back to them, a lipstick-sized container of pepper spray and one very special set of rhinestone-embellished keys that she had hoped would unlock her fondest dreams. She remembered the day when she and her three friends had used these keys to open the door to the storefront shop on Myrtle Street. For almost two years, they ran a little boutique wherein addition to seamstress work and fittingsGabby got to show off her original designs. Then the money ran out.
She pulled her pink hoodie over her damp brown hair and shoved open the car door. All of her earthly belongings were jammed into her compact car, but her primary necessities were in a red polka-dot carry-on she'd kept on the passenger seat beside her. Wrestling that suitcase past the steering wheel, she started toward the front door. Mud splashed on her black platform sandals. No big tragedy, these shoes were past their prime.
The mountain sounds bore no resemblance to the hum of people and cars and electricity in Brooklyn. Out here, she could hear the splat of the raindrops, the rustle of wind through the branches of a leafy tree at the side of the house andas she stepped onto the porcha heavy thud like a door slamming. Had that sound come from inside the house?
She stood very still and listened with her ear against the door. She heard a creak and a shuffle as though someone was walking on tiptoe, trying not to be heard. But that couldn't be right. Nobody was supposed to be here. The lawyer had told her that the house wasn't occupied. Did she have an intruder? A squatter?
Her phone was dead so she couldn't call 911 for help. She'd have to face this threat by herself. Okay, fine. I'm from the big city. I know how to handle muggers. First rule, don't get too close. Second, make a loud yell to startle them. Rule number three, run like hell.
But where could she run? Turning around on the porch, she squinted through the misty rain until she saw the lights of another house in the distance. All she had to do was drive to the neighbor's place.
Listening again, she didn't hear another sound. Maybe she'd imagined the slamming door and the squeaky floorboards. If there wasn't really an intruder, she'd feel like a dope, running away from an invisible boogeyman.
She cleared her throat and pitched her voice to a low, authoritative level. "Hello? Is anybody here?"
Setting her suitcase to one side, she turned the key in the front door until it clicked. When she eased the door open, the hinges whined. An old house like this was bound to make creaks and thumps and rustles. Stepping across the threshold, she reached for the place beside the door where a light switch ought to be. Her fingers glided down the wall. No switch.
The faint light from a couple of stars peeking around the edge of the clouds shone on the carpeted floor in the entryway. The curtains were drawn inside the house, making the interior even darker than outside. She stumbled into a large room, walking like a blind woman with her arms out in front of her until she bumped into a table with a lamp. Groping along the base, she found the switch and turned it on.
A pale glow lit up the parlor. Her great-aunt Michelle had been an artist and was fairly successful, even had some showings in Manhattan. Her taste showed in the eclectic furnishings, which were a crazy combo of claw-foot tables, sleek-lined sofas and jewel-toned pillows.
"Nice," Gabby said. In spite of the desolation, she could get used to living in a place like this.
From the corner of her eye, she saw movement and whirled around. Standing on the carved, wood staircase in the entryway was the figure of a brown-haired woman in a long, white gown. Not a zombie. Maybe a ghost? Gabby blinked. Was Great-Aunt Michelle haunting the place?
"Who are you?" the ghost demanded.
"Me? Who are you?" Gabby shot back.
"This is my house." Gabby's fingers tightened on the pepper spray. Ghost or not, this person was skinny and the voice was female. If this came down to a physical confrontation, Gabby liked her odds.
In a rush, the ghost descended the staircase. Her long, stringy hair fell past her shoulders almost to her waist. On the landing that was three steps up from the wooden newel post carved in the shape of a gargoyle, the ghost reached down. When she stood, she was holding a rifle.
"Now," the ghost said. "Tell me who you are."
The odds had shifted. Gabby had the good sense to be scared. She raised her hands beside her head and moved toward the staircase. If she could get past the ghost to the open door, she could run to her car and drive to the neighboring house, like she should have done when she first arrived.
"Take it easy," Gabby said. "My name is Gabriella Rousseau. Michelle was my great-aunt."
"You better have some identification."
"No problem." She was almost to the entryway. "My wallet is in my car."
"Don't take another step."
This girl in the long nightgown couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen, and she looked upset. Her eyes were red-rimmed as though she'd been crying. Maybe all she needed was a friend. Gabby tried a smile as she inched her way forward. "How about you put down the gun?"
"I told you not to move."
"Okay, sure." She kept her eye on the bore of the rifle. "You've got nothing to worry about. Look at me. Do I look dangerous?"
"You look stupid in those shorts."
"They were a lot cuter when I put them on this morning." Now wasn't the time for a fashion critique. "Come on, put down the rifle."
"No way. They might have sent you. They might be trying to trick me."
"They? Who are they?"
"Just walk to the door, real slow. I'll be right behind you. One false move and I'll blow a hole in your back."
No way was Gabby going to step into the line of fire. This girl was crazy, and she was trembling so hard that she might accidentally pull the trigger. Gabby needed to take control. As soon as she was even with the rifle, she made a quick pivot and dodged to one side. With her opposite hand, she fired a blast of pepper spray. She grabbed the long barrel of the rifle.
With surprising strength, the thin girl yanked the gun away from her. A gunshot exploded. The girl spewed a string of profanities that would have made a Brooklyn Teamster blush.
Gabby made another attempt to get the gun, but the girl wouldn't let go. They wrestled for the weapon. Gabby yanked hard. Her hands slipped, and she fell backward onto her butt. She dropped her keys and pepper spray. The girl waved the rifle blindly and blasted the head off the wood gargoyle at the foot of the staircase.
It was time for rule number three: run like hell.
Scrambling to her feet, Gabby charged through the open door and dived down the steps leading to the porch. Her car was right there, but it didn't matter because she'd lost the keys. Hunching her shoulders to make herself a smaller target, she ran as fast as she could in the platform sandals, putting distance between herself and the house.
"Get back here," the girl yelled.
Not on your life. Gabby ducked behind a clump of some kind of mountain prickly bush and stared at the house. The figure in white stomped back and forth on the porch with the rifle in her hands, treating the place as though it was her property and she was sworn to protect it. What the hell was going on here?
Gabby decided not to stick around and find out. The crazy girl in the nightgown might decide to get dressed and come after her. The best move would be to run through the drizzle toward the neighbor's lights in the hope of finding reasonable people.
She waited until Crazy Girl went into the house and then made a dash for the road. Leaping across the two narrow lanes, she came to the barbed wire fence on the opposite side. Until now, she hadn't noticed cows or any other wildlife, but it was a good bet that the barbed wire had been erected to keep something penned in. Growing up in Brooklyn, Gabby had zero experience with cattle, but she knew they weren't violent. Cows ate grass, not people.
Carefully, she poked one bare leg between the strands of barbed wires. She lowered her shoulders to squeeze through, and she almost made it. The back of her hoodie snagged. She pulled. The fabric stretched but didn't release. After another pull, she was hooked in two other places. The sweatshirt had to come off. She unzipped the front and wriggled her arms free. Balancing on one foot, she climbed through.
The lights from the neighbor's house were still a long way from where she was standing, and she was freezing cold. The dribbles of rain were already soaking through her long-sleeved cotton T-shirt, which was one of her favorite items of clothing. Her best friend, Hannah, had painted a romantic sketch of the Eiffel Tower on the front.
Gabby needed the hoodie for warmth. She peered at Great-Aunt Michelle's house and saw no sign of Crazy Girl. It shouldn't take more than a couple of seconds to untangle the sweatshirt. She gently maneuvered the fabric, detaching it from one of the barbs, then another. She almost had it free when she snagged the sleeve of her T-shirt. Damn, she didn't want to ruin this shirt that Hannah had worked so hard to make. Quickly, she peeled it off over her head.
Unsnagging the material took a careful touch, but Gabby was accustomed to working with fabric. She manipulated the threads and gently pulled. Both shirts were free and still no Crazy Girl. But someone was approaching. Gabby could hear them getting closer. She turned to face the new threat, clutching her hoodie and her shirt to her breasts to cover her leopard-patterned bra.
A cowboy on a dark horse rode toward her. He wasn't like anything she'd ever seen before. Frankly, she would have been less startled by a zombie attack.
Lightning flashed behind him, outlining his broad shoulders and long legs. When she glimpsed a chiseled profile under the brim of his hat, her heart did a weird little tango. He looked angry. But he was also gorgeous.