Read an Excerpt
A wave of homesickness as wide and deep as the Irish Sea swept through Tiernan McKenna as he sat his roan gelding Red Crow and studied the Bitter Creek Mustang Refuge grassy meadows amidst winding rugged canyons, ragged rock spires backing pine and cedar forest.
The trees gave the Black Hills their name, because from a distance, the foliage made the mountains look black. Missing the rolling land and lush green valleys of the Emerald Isle, Tiernan gazed out over the valley below, where mustangs grazed. Nothing like the Thoroughbreds he'd worked with all his life, horses he'd trained and ridden, these horses were feral.
He'd thought this was what he wanteda complete change from his old life, a way to get out of his brother Cashel's shadow, a chance to cowboy. He'd grown up watching old American Westerns on the telly. Cimarron, The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, Billy the Kidthose were only some of the movies that had entranced him. So here he was in the American West and ironically, an historical Western film called Paha Sapa Gold was just starting to shoot in the Black Hills, mostly on refuge land, thereby infusing the organization with sorely needed money.
Longing seared Tiernan as he gazed out on the film's camp in the distance. There were trailers for the production staff and the stars behind the supposed Main Street, though mostly facades like cardboard cutouts represented the town. The only interior sets here were the jail and the saloon. The remaining interiors would be shot in an L.A. studio.
On adjoining reservation land backed by ragged pinnacles of rock, a dozen tepees made up the Lakota Sioux village set. And up in thehillsTiernan wasn't certain if it was reservation land or refugewas the sealed-off entrance to an old gold mine. He'd heard the production company was planning to use that, too, since Paha Sapa Go/d referred to the Custer Expedition's search for gold in the Black Hills despite it being Sioux land.
In the flat below were two side-by-side fenced pastures, empty now, that would hold the horses to be ridden in the film. They would come both from the MKF Ranch where he worked and from the reservation. Even the refuge mustangs would be used as a wild herd in a couple of scenes.
Too bad he wasn't part of thatthe old films had fascinated him, had enticed him to make his move from Ireland to America. Well, that and not wanting to answer to Cashel anymore. Whether it was horses to train or psychic abilities to control or women to woo, Tiernan didn't want to be second best to his older brother anymore. He needed to be his own man, wherever that would take him.
So, after considering long and hard, Tiernan had left Ireland to make a life of his own. Second cousins had taken him in, had allowed him to test himself, to see if this life really was for him. While satisfying, the reality of itthe hard, dirty, unromantic work of cowboying, the answering to yet another relativetook the luster out of those films he'd loved so much. He'd thought that, like the silver-screen cowboys, he would find a way to make his own mark, on his own terms.
Now he realized he'd been telling himself a fairy tale.
Now a confused Tiernan didn't know what he wanted.
Now, missing his brothers Cashel and Aidan despite himself, missing Ma and Da, missing the green countryside and near-daily rains that brought life to Ireland's estates separated by hedgerows and limestone fences and paved roads, he wasn't so certain.
Had he made the biggest mistake of his life in leaving behind everything he knew and loved?
McKenna pride wouldn't allow him to admit it, to go crawling backhe had to make a go of it here. He had to prove to himself that he would find that elusive something that would give him the mantle of responsibility and make him feel like his own man.
Riding out on the Bitter Creek Mustang Refuge run by his cousin Kate and her husband, Chase Brody, alone on his day off, Tiernan felt even more lost as he was swept up in a timeless, borderless land without endnothing but raw nature in every direction, not even a road in sight. The sensations filling him were simply overwhelming.
For all he knew he could be daysweeks, monthsfrom civilization he could simply imagine it .
Below, the feral horses stirred, then were instantly on the move. Flight instinct kicking in, they roared down the valley as one unitgrays and chestnuts and bays and sorrels and Pintos and Paints. His own mount danced and squealed, and a wave of psychic energy that nearly obliterated his vision engulfed Tiernan as he fought to keep the gelding under control. He shook away the dark, sought the reason in the opposite direction, looking to the forested red cliffs, expecting to see a mountain lion, the only real predator to threaten the herd.
Nothing jumped out at him, neither man nor beast, but once infected with the fear, he knew somethingor someonewas out there.
About to take his mount down to the valley to look for the danger, he was startled to hear his name yelled from behind.
"Tiernan, wait! I want to talk to you!"
He turned in the saddle and saw Kate Brody riding straight for him. Kate was one of his second cousins, her mother being a McKenna, and them having the same great-grandparents. Feisty and outspoken, she was a veterinarian, able to sit a horse or doctor it as well as anyone he'd met.
The smothering sensation of a moment ago flitted away like the morning mist. "A good afternoon to you," he said as Kate drew alongside him, her freckled face wreathed in a smile, her wild red hair poking out from under her brimmed hat.
"I have great news. It's Quinhe just got the call. He's going to be chief of police of Blackwood, which is only thirty-some miles north of here. Everyone's so excited!"
"How grand for him."
"For us all. That means he'll stay and not disappear again."
Tiernan was closest in age to Kate's youngest brother, Quinlan Farrell, who'd been a federal agent working mostly undercover until he'd recently returned to his home state with his wife-to-be, Luz Delgado. The Farrells were throwing a big engagement party for the couple. Quin had been hoping for a lawman's job in a smaller venue and now he had one. Well, good for him. Tiernan could appreciate a man wanting to cut his own path rather than follow the one his family set out for him. Quin was lucky his family was so supportive of his choice.
"What about the film?" Tiernan asked, suddenly thinking of the responsibility Quin had taken on. "Surely Quin can't still work on it in addition to handling a new job."
Since Chase and Kate were too busy keeping the refuge going, they'd hired Quin to be their liaison with the production companya temporary stopgap until he landed something more permanent. The company had barely taken up residence. Filming would begin in the next few days.
"Of course Quin can't do both jobs," Kate said. "So Chase and I were wondering if you would consider taking over for him."
"Me?" Even as he questioned her, his pulse quickened. "I know nothing about filmmaking."
"But you do know how to wrangle horses. That and acting as a buffer when the crew needs something from us is basically all you need to do."
Somehow Tiernan didn't think the job would be quite so simple, but he didn't care. This opportunity seemed heaven-sent.
"What about your parents?" Tiernan had been working on the MKF Ranch since arriving from Ireland. "They will be counting on me"
"Already taken care of," Kate assured him.
His enthusiasm for coming to South Dakota renewed, he said, "I'm your man, then."
"Good. I need to check on the volunteersthey're out mending fences. We'll talk more this evening. Dinner at our place. You can move in with us. We have a spare bedroom and bath. Pack your things and bring them over about six."
With that, Kate turned her mare and moved off.
And a smiling Tiernan turned back toward the red cliffs where he'd sensed the threat that had panicked the herd and decided to investigate.
Why couldn't she be happy? Ella Thunder wondered. Having just driven in from Sioux Falls, she'd turned off the highway and had cut across land that was now a mustang refuge, a shortcut to the rez. Halfway there, she'd stopped in the shelter of some pines and gotten out of her SUV to get a better look at the herd and to reconnect with the land. Something had spooked the mustangs, though. They'd raced across the valley as if death was nipping at their hooves.
The thought reminded her of the reason Mother had taken her and Miranda to her own people and kept her daughters away from the rez to keep them safe. Fifteen years and Ella was finally returning for a short visit, all because of a film. All despite Mother's objections. A high school history teacher, Ella had written a textbook on Native American peoples in South Dakota for her students. After reading Ella's book for research, Jane Grant, the producer of Paha Sapa Gold, had hired her as a consultant.
Ella had gone through the screenplay and made several suggestions to make the story more authentic. Because Jane thought Ella's perspective might be useful when filming the spiritual tribal scenes, she'd hired Ella to come on set at least for a few weeks.
A job that would make Ella face her past.
It was time.
She didn't want to live as she'd been doing anymore no more than a shadow in this world. Part of her had died with Father in that nightmare she'd tucked to the far reaches of her mind. She didn't stray there anymore, not on purpose, but sometimes her mind betrayed her and she had no choice but to relive the unthinkable.
Ella fought it, then unable to help herself, closed her eyes and saw Father tied to the stake. The air around her stirred as it always did with his presence.
It's time, he tells her as the fire licks at his feet.
Time for what? Ella asks.
Journey? Father, what do you mean?
Danger everywhere, he says. Look to your other half, for only then will you be whole.
As quickly as her father had entered her mind, he was gone.
Ella opened her eyes and the earth came back into focus. She rubbed her left arm, the scarred area a little stiff from the long drive in air-conditioning.
That wasn't a memory. Then what had it been?
Nothing like thisFather talking to her as if he were still alivehad ever happened to her before. What did Father mean by her other half?
Her chest tightened and her stomach knotted. That fateful day, Father had said she wasn't ready, that she would be destroyed but now he was saying it was time? Or was she telling herself this, conjuring her father herself? Fear licked at invisible wounds, and Ella huddled within herself at the enormity of the charge.
"Oh, Father, I don't know."
But part of her did. Some intuitive part deep in her soul. Father had said she would need her bravery for a journey of terrible danger. She'd remembered that when she'd accepted the consultant job on Paha Sapa Gold. When she'd gone against her mother's wishes and agreed to return to the place of nightmares.
Ella closed her eyes and tried to call her father back so that he could explain further, so that he could tell her what he expected her to do.
Father, I need you.
But the air around her remained still.
When nothing further happened, Ella decided to get going. The grandparents would be waiting, her return a momentous event in their quiet lives. Mother had insisted her returning to the rez would be a huge mistake, but Ella didn't regret coming to reconnect with the grandparents who wanted to know her in person again. Grandparents she hadn't seen in fifteen years.
Despite her arthritic hands, Grandmother was too stubborn to give in to the affliction. Ella knew this from their phone conversations, even as she knew Grandmother would have been cooking since dawn, to celebrate the return of her granddaughter.
Was there true reason to celebrate?
Though Ella was no less determined to return to the rez, doubt had set in after signing the contract with the movie company. Was she really ready to face her past and the people responsible for her father's death? Who had started the rumors? Who had whipped the crowd into a feeding frenzy? Would she know them when she saw them?
Picking her way back to her SUV, she heard a twig snap nearby and froze. Her pulse fluttered. Focusing in on the sounds around her, she heard an explosive squeak like that made by the tail feathers of a hummingbird in the opposite direction, the low, throaty noise of a jackrabbit in distress and directly behind her a whispered footfall that reminded her of a cougar preparing to pounce.
That would account for the mustang herd taking off, she thought, scanning the ground wildly for a weapon and spotting a softball-sized rock.
Before she could reach for it, a sharp pain in the back of her head accompanied by an explosion of light confused her senses, made everything go in and out of focus, sent her reeling, facedown into the earth.
For all his curiosity, Tiernan hadn't expected to find anything, so when he spotted the dark green SUV sheltered under a boxelder amidst the pines, he stiffened, his surprise touching Red Crow, who danced sideways. Not making a sound, Tiernan held the gelding in check and focused all six senses.
What came to him strongest was a blinding pain. He let go and the pain subsided and his vision cleared.
Dismounting, he looped the horse's reins in a low branch of a pine and moved carefully to the left, through a scattering of trees, toward a clearing overlooking the meadow valley. That's when he saw heran attractive lass in jeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, dark hair flowing down her back in a thick ponytail. She was sitting on the ground, trying to get to her feet but not quite managing.
Tiernan rushed to her side to help, but what he got for his trouble when he touched her arm and murmured, "Easy, there," was a fist square in his chest.
The air rushed out of him and he let go of her and she scrabbled back, staring at him with wide-open amber eyes. "Get away from me, or I'll I'll "
She looked around wildlyfor a weapon, he supposed.
"You'll what?" he asked in the soft, melodic voice he used when working with horses, a voice meant to calm and seduce. "I'll not be hurting you."
"You knocked me out!"
"'Tis someone else you need to be accusing. I just rode up a few seconds ago." He indicated Red Crow, now standing quietly in the pines, his head lowered as if he were napping.