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Avalon, Ulster County, New York
Every station on Noah Shepherd's truck radio was broadcasting the incessant warning. The National Weather Service had issued an advisory—a prediction of snow, ice and wind—whiteout conditions in a lake-effect snowstorm.Authorities were urging people to stay home tonight, to keep the roads clear for emergency vehicles only. The county airport had closed hours ago. Even the heaviest snow-removal equipment was having trouble lumbering along the highway. Only madmen and fools would be out in this.
Well, madmen, fools and large-animal vets. Noah wished his windshield wipers had a faster setting. The wind-driven snow was coming so hard and fast it was like a solid wall of white. He could barely tell whether or not he was on an actual road.
Legend had it that during lake effect, magic happened. Right, he thought. If this was magic, he'd stick with reality.
After delivering the Osmonds' foal, he should have taken them up on their offer to stay the night, waiting until the weather and roads cleared before making his way back to his home and adjacent clinic miles away. However, according to reports, it could be days before the storm played itself out and it was likely to get worse before it got better. He had the Palmquists' geriatric beagle in the clinic, a cat recovering from spinal surgery and his own animals, which currently included an abandoned pup. He knew he could always call his neighbor, Gayle, to look in on them, but he hated to bother her. With her husband serving overseas and three kids underfoot, she sure as hell didn't need to go traipsing over to his place to check on the animals.
Besides, his scrubs were covered in birth blood and fluid. He needed a shower, bad. He was wearing his favorite hat, a wool cap with earflaps. It was from his "early dork" phase, as one of his former girlfriends had called it. Noah had quite a few former girlfriends. Women his age tended to want something other than life with a country vet.
He leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting at the road ahead. Illuminated by his headlamps, the snowflakes appeared to be flying straight at him in a movielike special effect. He thought of Star Wars, when the Millennium Falcon went into warp speed. And that thought, of course, inspired him to whistle the Star Wars theme between his teeth. Bored with crawling along, he imagined his windshield was a window to a galaxy far, far away. He was Han Solo, and the snowflakes flying at him were stars. He issued orders to his copilot, who perked up at the sound of his master's voice. "Prepare for throttle up. Chewie, do you read? Go at throttle up."
Rudy, a mutt in the passenger seat, gave a huff in response, fogging the window.
Noah's last girlfriend, Daphne, used to accuse him of being a kid who would never grow up. And Noah, who had the subtlety of a jackhammer, suggested only half-jokingly that they make a few kids of their own so he'd have someone to play with.
That had been the last he'd seen of Daphne.
Yeah, he had a real way with the ladies. No wonder he worked exclusively with animals.
"General Kenobi, target sighted, a thermal detonator," he said. In his mind, Noah pictured a galaxy slave clad in a chain mail bikini. If only the universe would actually send him someone like that.
Then he changed his voice to a wise baritone with a bad English accent. "I trust you will find what you seek. And… shit." A pale shadow glimmered in the road right in front of him. He turned the wheel and eased off the accelerator. The truck fishtailed. Rudy scrabbled around on his seat, trying to stay put. In the middle of the road stood a big-eyed doe, ribs showing through its thick winter coat.
He leaned on the horn. The doe sprang into action, sprinting across the road, leaping the ditch and disappearing into darkness. Midwinter was the worst time of year for the wildlife. The starving season.
The radio station played its usual test of the emergency broadcast system. He turned it off.
Almost home. There were no landmarks visible to tell him so, just an inner sense that he was nearing home. Other than college and vet school at Cornell, he'd never lived anywhere else. Each rural mailbox was supposed to be marked by a tall segment of rebar, but the snowdrifts were too deep and the rebar and mailboxes were buried.
He sensed but could not see Willow Lake, which lay to the left of the road. Willow Lake was the prettiest in the county, a natural beauty fringed by the Catskills wilderness. At the moment it was invisible behind the curtain of snowfall. Noah's place was across the road from the lake and slightly uphill. Along the lakefront itself were several old summer cottages, unoccupied in winter.
"General Azkanabi, we need reinforcements," he said, hearing the imaginary music swell in his ears. "Send me someone without delay!"
In that instant, he noticed…something. A glimmer of red in the snowy shadows. The whistled theme song died between his teeth. He eased off the accelerator and kept his eyes on the crimson glow, eventually making out a matching light. Taillights, which seemed to belong to a car stuck in a snowbank.
He stopped the truck in the middle of the road. The car was still running; he could see a plume of exhaust coming from its unnaturally angled pipe. The taillights poured an eerie red light into the night. One of the headlights was buried in the snowbank. The other illuminated the deer that had been hit.
"Stay, boy," Noah ordered Rudy. He grabbed his kit, which contained enough tranquilizer to put down the deer. He lit his flashlight, an elastic headlamp.
Switching on his hazard lights, he emerged into the stormy night. The flying snow and howling wind sliced at him like blades of ice. He hurried over to the car, spying a single occupant inside, a woman. She seemed to be fumbling with a cell phone.
She lowered the window. "Thank God you came," she said, and got out of the car.
She was inadequately dressed for the weather, that was for sure. A high-fashion coat and thin leather boots with tall, skinny heels. No hat. No gloves. Blond hair, blowing wildly in the wind, partially obscured her face.
"You got here so quickly," she yelled.
He figured she thought he was from roadside assistance or the highway department. No time to explain.
She seemed to share his urgency as she grabbed his sleeve and pulled him to the front of the car, wobbling a little on her boots. "Please," she said, her voice strained with distress. "I can't believe this happened. Do you think it can be saved?"
He aimed the beam of the headlamp at the deer. It wasn't the doe he'd spotted earlier, but a young buck with a broken antler on one side, three points on the other. Its eyes were glassy and it panted in a way Noah recognized—the panicked breaths of an animal in shock. He saw no blood, but so often, the injuries that killed were internal.
Damn. He hated putting animals down. Hated it. "Please," the stranger said again, "you have to save it."
"Hold this," he said, handing her a flashlight from his kit to supplement the headlamp. He eased himself down next to the animal, making a soothing sound in his throat. "Easy, fella." He took off his gloves, stuffed them in a pocket of his parka. The rough coat of the deer warmed his fingers as he palpated its belly, finding no sign of fluid, no abnormal softening or heat. Maybe—
Without warning, the deer scrambled into action, legs flailing for traction in the deep, soft snow. Noah caught a sharp blow to the arm and backed off. The animal lurched to its feet and leaped over a snowbank; Noah instinctively moved in front of the woman to shield her from the hooves as the animal clambered off into the woods.
"I didn't kill it," the woman said. "You saved it."
No, he thought, although it must have looked impressive, what with the deer jumping up as soon as he placed his hands on it. He didn't say so, but there was still a good chance the buck might collapse somewhere in the forest, and die.
He turned off the headlamp and straightened up. She shone the flashlight into his face, blinding him. When he flinched, she lowered the beam. "I'm sorry," she said.
Pulling on his gloves, he asked her, "Where are you headed?"
"Twelve forty-seven Lakeshore Road. The Wilson place. Do you know it?"
He squinted, getting his bearings. She had run her car off the road right by his driveway. "Another few hundred yards down toward the lake and you're there," he said. "I can give you a lift."
"Thank you." Snowflakes caught in her eyelashes, and she blinked them away. He caught a glimpse of her face—startlingly pretty, but pale and strained. "I'll get my things." She handed him the flashlight, then fetched a purse and a big tote bag from her car. There was also a roll-aboard, fluttering with tags. In the glow of the dome light, he could see words in some foreign language—'s-Gravenhage? He had no idea what that was. And another with an official-looking seal, like from the State Department or something. Whoa, he thought. International woman of mystery.
She turned off the ignition and the lights. "I don't suppose there's anything to be done about the car," she said.
"Not tonight, anyway."
"I've got a few more bags in the trunk," she said. "Do you think it's safe to leave them?"
"Probably not a huge night for thieves." He led the way to his truck and opened the passenger-side door. "Get in the back," he ordered Rudy, and the dog leaped into the jump seat behind.
The woman hesitated, clutching the purse to her chest and staring up at him. Even in the dim light from the truck's cab, he could tell her eyes were blue. And she was no longer regarding him as the Deer Whisperer. Now she was looking at him as though he were an ax murderer.
"You're looking at me as if I'm an ax murderer."
"How do I know you're not one?"
"Noah Shepherd," he said. "I live right here. This is my driveway." He gestured. The drive leading up to the house, flanked by pine trees weighted with snow, now lay beneath knee-deep drifts. A glimmer shone from the front window, and the porch light created a misty yellow aura around the front door. The entranceway to the clinic, kennels and stables lay off to the left, the security lights barely visible.
She paused, touched her teeth to her lower lip. "Even ax murderers have to live somewhere."
"Right. So how do I know you're not an ax murderer?" She seemed completely unperturbed by the question.
"You don't," she said simply, and got in the truck.
As he walked around the front to the driver's side, Noah wondered if strange forces were at work. He wasn't given to thinking of such things, but hadn't he just been wishing for someone? Was the universe listening after all?
Of course, he didn't know anything about his unexpected passenger. As she'd aptly pointed out, he didn't even know whether or not she was an ax murderer.
Like that mattered. With those looks, she could be Lizzie Borden and he probably wouldn't care. She was gorgeous, and she was sitting in his pickup truck. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? A gift horse. Ha-ha.
He hoped the smell of snow-wet dog and birth fluid wouldn't bother her too much. Don't blow this, he cautioned himself as he climbed into the driver's seat. And quit jumping the gun. He didn't know if she was seeing someone, married, engaged, gay or psychotic. The only thing he knew for sure was—
"Damn," he said before he could stop himself, "Why didn't you tell me you were wounded?" Grabbing the flashlight, he shone the beam on her, following a viscous crimson stain up her leg to the ripped knee of her trousers.
She made a sound in her throat, a wheeze of fright so intense that Noah cringed. Then she began to tremble, her breath coming in panicked little gasps. She said something in a foreign language, like a German dialect, maybe. It sounded like a prayer. She looked up at him with wild fear in her eyes, as though he were her worst nightmare.
So much for not blowing it, Noah thought. "Hey, no need to freak out," he said, but she was lost somewhere, drowning in panic, and then…nothing. She simply melted against the truck seat, her head tilting to one side.
"Hey," he said again, louder now. Shit, had the woman passed out? He ripped off his glove and felt her carotid artery for a pulse. She had one, thank God. "Come on, miss," he urged her, gently cupping her cheek in his hand. "Snap out of it."
Behind him, Rudy scrambled to and fro, whimpering. He could probably smell her terror and her blood. Then he paused, put back his head and howled.
That'll teach me, Noah thought. When he asked the stars to send him someone, he should be a little more specific. "Send me a Hooters waitress" was what he should have said, not some crazy-ass stranger who fainted at the sight of her own blood.
As far as Noah could tell, this was a loss of consciousness brought on by injury, fear and anxiety. In animals, it was sometimes a defense mechanism. In humans…he wasn't quite sure what it meant. Regardless, he needed to check her blood pressure, tend to her wound.
He made sure the truck was still in four-wheel drive, then eased it up the driveway. He passed the house and continued to the next building, which was his clinic. The property had once been his family's dairy, and this building had housed the company offices. When he set up his practice three years ago, he had transformed it into his veterinary clinic.
He got out of the truck and motioned to Rudy. With a yelp, the agile mutt cleared the front seat and bounded away, racing across a snowy field. Clearly he was eager to flee the stranger.
Noah jumped out and ran to the passenger side. "Miss? Can you hear me, miss?"
The woman was still unresponsive. He rechecked her pulse, then awkwardly pulled her from the cab, staggering backward in the knee-deep snow. She wasn't a large woman, but her deadweight dragged at him as he carried her to the clinic. He shouldered open the door and stepped inside, pausing to disarm the alarm system, which he managed to do without dropping the woman. Then he crossed the dimly lit reception area to an exam room. He lowered her to the stainless steel table, extending it to accommodate her length. It wasn't designed for humans, but he had no other choice. "Miss," he said yet again.