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Jasmine's aunt, Yvette Hannon, joined her at the window. A tall, striking woman with classic features and graying hair, she exuded an enviable grace and confidence. Her smile reassuring, she placed a warm hand on Jasmine's slender shoulder. "Knowing your mother, she probably bumped into an old friend in town and has lost all track of time. I'm sure Celeste is all right."
"My mother hasn't been all right in a long time. Not since—" Jasmine stopped, frowning as she averted her gaze.
"Not since they found Raven Hunter's remains," Yvette finished with a sigh.
Raven Hunter was a name from the past, which had only recently resurfaced with a vengeance. Thirty years ago, Raven and Jasmine's aunt, Blanche Kin-caid, had been illicit lovers. When it had been discovered that Blanche was pregnant, their affair had caused a scandal in the Kincaid family, as well as in the town of Whitehorn. Blanche's brother, Jeremiah, had vehemently opposed any suggestion of his sister marrying a member of the Cheyenne. It hadn't been long after Blanche's pregnancy was revealed that Raven disappeared. Some say Jeremiah had paid him off, that Raven had taken what money he could get and run. Others say he'd loved Blanche too much, that he wouldn't have abandoned her. They believed Raven was dead, most likely at the hand of Jeremiah Kincaid.
Apparently, the latter was true.
For, at the construction site of the new casino/resort that straddled the Laughing Horse Reservation and the Kincaid ranch, Raven's remains had been recently uncovered. A bullet lodged in the rib cage confirmed Raven had died a violent death. The discovery set into motion a chain of events that had led to two more deaths, the most recent of which had hit too close to home. Jasmine's family was still reeling with the news of their cousin Lyle Brooks's death.
"This investigation into Raven Hunter's murder is wearing on Mother. Why won't she talk to us?
If she'd just tell us what's wrong " Jasmine let the words drift into a frustrated silence.
Choosing her words carefully, Yvette said, "Darling, you have to understand what this must mean to your mother. I was at school in Bozeman when Raven disappeared, but Celeste was still there at the ranch. Despite Jeremiah's opposition, she stood by Blanche during her pregnancy and when she gave birth to your cousin, Summer. She was also with Blanche when she died. It was a very trying time for everyone, but most of the burden fell on Celeste. Discovering Raven's body has dredged up a lot of painful memories. Is it any wonder that your mother might be upset?"
"No, I suppose not. But she isn't sleeping, Aunt Yvette. I hear her up at night, pacing. Last night, at two o'clock in the morning, I found her sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of her bedroom, surrounded by candles, burning incense and chanting." She shook her head at the thought. "When she turns to the spiritual world, there has to be something more than just memories troubling her."
"She was chanting?" Yvette's brow furrowed. "Celeste does have a strong belief in the spiritual hereafter. Perhaps she was calling upon the spirits to help Raven find peace at last."
"It isn't Raven Hunter who needs to find peace, it's my mother," Jasmine said, her voice sharper than she'd intended. She sighed. "I'm sorry, Aunt Yvette. I didn't mean to snap."
"It's all right, dear," she said gently. "I know you're worried."
Absently, Jasmine touched the gold-plated compass hanging by a chain around her neck, and felt her heart catch with emotion. The compass had been a gift from her mother when she'd turned twenty-one and had returned home after finishing her training at the culinary school. Because of Jasmine's love for hiking in the mountains, Celeste had told her it was her reassurance that Jasmine would always find her way home.
With the memory strengthening her resolve, Jasmine strode to the front desk and snagged her purse from behind the counter. "She should have been home hours ago. I'm not waiting any longer. I'm going to Whitehorn to look for her."
Yvette followed her to the desk. "Perhaps you're right. I'll take care of things here at the B and B while you're gone. You will call, won't you? If you find anything anything at all."
At the sound of her troubled voice, Jasmine squeezed Yvette's arm. "I'll call."
Releasing her aunt, Jasmine strode to the front door. The heels of her cowboy boots tapped against the lobby's pinewood floor, matching the nervous beat of her heart. She wiped a clammy hand down the length of her short pleated skirt. Despite late August's cooling temperatures, she felt hot and sticky. Her eyelet shirt clung uncomfortably to the curves of her body. Pushing aside her discomfort, she stepped outside onto the large, open porch that ran the length of the front of the house.
By the time she reached the first step of the wooden stairs, however, she noticed a cloud of dust being kicked up on the lane that led into town. Jasmine stopped, squinting at the rapidly approaching car. From what she could see, the luxury car was a silvery gray, one that she didn't recognize. An unexpected guest for the B and B, she supposed. With an impatient scowl, she reminded herself that she didn't have time to greet a visitor. Yvette would have to handle this new arrival.
Gravel crunched beneath its tires as the car slid to a quick stop in front of the manor house. Coughing, Jasmine waved a hand in a vain attempt to clear the air of the dust whipped up by the skid. A fine layer of grit floated over her like a powdery blanket. Once the dust settled, the driver's door opened and a tall, dark, handsome Native American man stepped out onto the driveway.
He was muscular, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. His hair was straight and black, with touches of gray at the temples. He wore it long, to the collar of his buttoned-down shirt, and all one length. Lifting his sunglasses from the bridge of his nose, his dark brown eyes glimmered in the sunlight as he fastened a gaze upon her.
Jasmine froze, unable to move as he slowly raked his eyes up and down the length of her body. Never before had she been subjected to such a blatantly assessi ng stare. She nearly trembled beneath its weight. It felt as though he were undressing her with his gaze.
Despite the differences in their ages—his she guessed to be late thirties, or early forties; hers a mere twenty-three—she felt an instant stirring of awareness deep in the pit of her belly. A sensual heat warmed her blood. She was surprised by her strong reaction to this total stranger, but not intimidated by him. Instead, she returned his stare with a curious gaze of her own.
The stranger was the first to break the spell that seemed to hold them both. His deep voice rumbled in her ears as he asked, "Is this the Big Sky Bed & Breakfast?"
"Y-yes, it is," she said, stumbling over an assent. Rolling her eyes at her clumsiness, she cleared her throat and began again. "I'm Jasmine Jasmine Monroe. My family owns the B and B. May I help you?"
"My name's Storm Hunter," he said, his eyes never leaving her face, as though testing for her reaction. He stepped toward her, closing the distance between them. "And I believe that I'm the one who can help you."
Hunter? Jasmine's heart skipped a beat at the name. Storm Hunter, Raven Hunter's brother. She'd heard he was back in town. Her cousin David Hannon, a special agent for the FBI who'd been on a leave of absence since shortly after the remains of Raven Hunter had been found, had mentioned Storm's tempestuous arrival in Whitehorn. The two men had nearly come to blows when Storm had refused to accept the lack of progress in the investigation of his brother's murder. Apparently he bore a personal grudge against anyone with a connection to the Kincaid family.
Goodness only knew why this forceful man was now standing on the driveway of her family's bed-and-breakfast.
"I don't understand," she said, unable to hide the skepticism from her voice. "You want to help me?"
A corner of his mouth lifted in a semblance of a polite smile. "Perhaps I should clarify. What I meant was, I believe I have something that belongs to you." With a sweep of his hand, he gestured toward the front seat of his car.
For the first time Jasmine noticed another person inside. There, slumped against the passenger door, was Celeste Monroe, Jasmine's mother.
"Mother!" Jasmine gasped in alarm. She turned, calling over her shoulder for her aunt's support. "Aunt Yvette, come quick. It's Mother."
Not bothering to wait for her aunt, she pushed past the disturbing Storm Hunter and hurried to her mother's side. Wrenching open the car door, she was stunned by her mother's pallid complexion. Her short, russet hair looked disheveled. A fine layer of per spi ra tion dampened her skin.
Gravel crunched beneath his shoes as Storm joined her. She glanced up at him, her gaze accusing. "What have you done to her?"
He flinched at her bitter words. A reaction that he quickly hid behind a stony mask of indifference. His expression cool, he said, "I haven't done a thing to your mother. She fainted at the sheriff's office in Whitehorn. I was there when it happened. I offered to drive her home. She accepted. That's the extent of my involve ment."
Jasmine's face grew hot with embarrassment as she realized how unjust her accusation must have sounded. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"
The skin around his finely sculpted cheekbones grew taut. His jaw stiffened, his strong chin lifting in defiance. "There's no need to apologize, Ms. Monroe. I assure you, I'm used to the white man thinking the worst of me merely because of the color of my skin."
Jasmine felt as though she'd been struck by the words. "The color of your skin? Don't be ridiculous. I never—"
"Jasmine." Celeste's fragile voice interrupted.
Forgetting all else, Jasmine leaned forward, reaching for her mother's hand. "Mother, are you all right?"
"Take me inside," she whispered.
"Of course," Jasmine murmured.
"Jasmine?" Yvette's breathless voice caught her attention. Her aunt's cheeks were flushed from hurrying. Worry lines creased her careworn face. "What's happened? What's wrong with Celeste?"
"She fainted in town," Jasmine said quickly. She glanced at Storm. "Mr. Hunter brought her home."
"Mr. Hunter?" Yvette's troubled gaze traveled to Storm.
"Yes, Storm Hunter. Mr. Hunter, this is my aunt, Yvette Hannon. I believe you've already met her son, David?"
The reminder of his and David's ill-fated meeting, the one that had nearly ended in a fistfight, was uncalled for. But so was his accusation that she would judge another man by the color of his skin. When she saw Storm's eyes narrow in irritation, she couldn't help but feel a bittersweet sense of satisfaction.
Now they were even.
Gracious as always, Yvette extended a hand in greeting. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Hunter. It's, uh, good to finally meet you."
If Storm seemed surprised by this show of cordiality, he didn't show it. Instead he accepted Yvette's proffered hand with a smooth smile. "You're welcome, Mrs. Hannon. I hope your sister will soon feel better."
"Celeste, right." Yvette gave a quick nod, as though gatheri ng herself to take control of the situation. "Jasmine, help me please. Let's get your mother inside."
Together, the two of them half lifted Celeste from the car. Celeste's white cotton, Gypsy-style shirt had come untucked from the waistband of her long broomstick skirt. The gauzy fabric sagged against her shapely curves. As was her mother's habit, somewhere along the way, she'd kicked off her sandals and was barefoot. Jasmine plucked the wayward shoes from the floor of the front seat to carry inside.
Flanking her mother on both sides, Yvette and Jasmine each held her by one arm. Slowly the three women headed for the front porch. As they neared the top step, Jasmine turned, glancing over her shoulder at the quiet figure still standing beside the silver car. "Mr. Hunter," she said, "if you wouldn't mind waiting, there's something I'd like to tell you."
Not bothering to wait for his answer, Jasmine turned away and led her mother inside.
Posted July 11, 2011
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