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Rowena Wright hadn't set foot on Bell River Ranch land for fifteen years. And apparently she still didn't want to. Though she'd driven a thousand miles to get here, she'd been sitting in her car for half an hour, staring at the brown-fingered weeds that crawled up the peeling paint of the back wall.
She had no idea what she was waiting for. It wasn't as if anyone was likely to appear on the sagging kitchen porch to welcome her in. The place was shut up as tight as a church on Monday, and the afternoon was waning. She ought to hurry, before the long aspen shadows turned the two-story, badly repaired timber-and-brick structure into a death trap of rotted boards and unfamiliar furniture.
She ought to, but
But if she shut her eyes she could almost hear Penny and Bree squealing on the tire swing, over by the stables. If she sat very still, she could feel the thrumming of horses' hooves as the cowboys cantered in through the two twisted bristle-cone pines that flanked the front gate. If she inhaled hard, she could even smell her mother's Sunday-morning bacon floating on the air.
And oh, the air. Spring-fresh sunshine and buttercups. The perfume slipped its way through a chink in her armor she hadn't known existed. And the thought arose before she could stop it.
Home. The air here in Western Colorado smelled like home.
"Oh, for Pete's sake." She opened her eyes and yanked the key out of the ignition. "There's enough sap in those words, girl, for a whole boatload of syrup."
That was her father's expression, and her voice even sounded a little like hisgruff and contemptuous. Well, at least she'd inherited something useful from him, if only the ability to recognize mawkish nonsense when she heard it.
She got out and slammed the door.
"Home, my ass," she said, loud enough for his ghost to hear. Daring him to slap her, like he did in the old days. Weird, to feel profanity on her tongue again. Though she had spent a lifetime running, rebelling and defying authority, she had never cussed anywhere but here, on Bell River land. And never unless her dad was within earshot.
So profanity now must mean that, in some illogical, subconscious way, she didn't really believe he was gone. That was ridiculous, of course. Johnny Wright had been exiled from Bell River Ranch just as long as she hadlonger, because the police had carted him away that first night, and it took a few days for the authorities to decide what to do with the three terrified, motherless daughters he'd left behind.
"Bastard." She glared at the house. She'd get her suitcases later. Right now she just needed to push past the invisible barrier that seemed to be blocking her entry. Whether it was Johnny Wright's ghost or her own inner child, that barrier was going down. Now.
She took one step, then halted as she caught something out of the corner of her eye. Movement maybe in one of the second-floor Dutch gable windows. An almost imperceptible ripple in the dingy white curtains, as if a breath of wind had whispered through a warped frame.
Except that there was no wind. The skin at the back of her neck tingled as she scanned the meadow. The day was as still as a picture postcard. White clouds dotted the bluedomed sky, as immobile as paint smudges. By the gate, the sentinel pines stood in eerie silence. Even the harebells and candytufts might have been drawn onto the grass with crayons.
She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders. She was imagining things. No one was in there. When she'd picked up the key from the rental agent, the woman had mournfully informed her that the most recent tenants had skated out at least two weeks ago, without paying April's rent.
So it was simply nerves. She'd expected a little of those, of course. The only answer was to face them down.
She climbed the back stairs, noting that a couple of them creaked ominously under her weight and would need to be fixed. The porch swing had collapsed, and its rusted chains lay in undulating curves beside it, like sloughed-off snake skins.
The key turned smoothly, thank goodness, and she moved through the musty laundry room and entered the large, bright kitchen. She noted that her breaths were quick and shallow, so she slowed them down, taking care to draw from her abdomen.
The kitchen. Her mother's sanctum.
She relaxed with a strange relief as the scent of the room hit her. It certainly didn't smell like Moira Wright in here. Fifteen tenants in fifteen years had left their own odorbad cooking and neglect. A crusty pan still sat unwashed in the sink, halffull, a watering hole for mayflies. A blue-white scum had begun to form on the surface.
Awful. But not as awful as it might have been to inhale the rich, industrious mix of lemon cleansers, brass polish, cinnamon and cloves that her mother had always filled the house with.
Okay. One room down. Only ten more to go.
And the staircase.
Her heart thumped, but she forced herself to move forward. The large breakfast nook to her right held no table, no daffodils, no laughing little girls. She ran her fingers lightly across the bar as she passed, noting the dust that had mingled with the sticky rings of sloppy beer mugs. That was okay, too. Her father hadn't been a drinker. He didn't even have that excuse.
Then the pass-through counter that led into the great roomdefinitely no problem here. The tacky Barcaloungers and fake leather couches were so different all the years of burly, burping men watching football had smothered the more delicate memories of Scrabble and singalongs, and her mother's sad eyes as she watched the snow through the picture window. Penny and Bree, who loved snow days, hadn't ever understood why the bad weather made their mother sad. But Rowena knew. Snow meant Moira couldn't get away, not even for an hour or two.
Rowena put her fingertips against the wall to steady herself as she approached the turn toward the front foyer. Remember, deep breaths. It was okay. She was okay. Just round this corner, and she'd see the stairs. But they would be only stairs. Nothing more.
Left foot in front of right. Breathe from the belly. Resist the urge to squeeze eyes shut. It was only a foyer. No one would be there. No one would be lying there, broken, bloody, dying .
And before her eyes could adjust to the new, colored shadows of the foyer, someone something screamed.
The sound broke the air like shattered glass. Shrill, piercing, terrible.
Rowena had to grab the wall to keep from sinking to her knees. Maybe five or six stairs up, a small dark shadow twisted, scuttled, lost its footing and thumped, still screaming, down to the foyer floor.
She stared, heart pounding, at the writhing heap on the floor, legs still churning. Incredulous, she saw that it was a boy, dressed in typical miniature cowboy denim and flannel. Maybe eight or nine. Towheaded and bug-eyed, at least right now. A dozen small objects scattered in a semicircle around him, obviously dropped from his hands or his pockets as he fell.
His screaming had stopped, but he seemed to be choking on the tangled stampede strings of his cowboy hat.
She bent over and put out a hand.
"Don't touch me!" The boy's shoes scuffed frantically against the hardwood floor as he propelled himself away from her. He hit the bottom stair, and could go no farther, so he clambered to his knees, his wide eyes shooting defiant fire. "There's no such thing as ghosts. Don't touch me!"
She fought the urge to laugh, if only from relief. Far from being an apparition, this panicked kid believed he was being attacked by a phantom.
"Relax," Rowena said matter-of-factly. "I'm not a ghost."
The boy stopped moving and squinted at her, clearly unconvinced. The light wasn't great here in the foyer. The windows all had decorative colored glassa lovely aesthetic effect, but not very practical. She straightened, stepped over to the front wall and flicked the chandelier's switch. The dim blue, green and red shadows disappeared in a blaze of crystal brilliance.
"See?" She tapped her forearm with her palm. "Real flesh and bones."
The boy frowned. "Yeah, but You look You look just like the lady who."
He didn't finish. He didn't have to. It wasn't hard to figure out who he thought she was. Now that she was almost as old as her mother had been when she died, she looked exactly like her. Sometimes her own reflection in a mirror stopped her heartbeat.
The only curious part was how the boy knew what Moira Wright had looked likeconsidering he hadn't been born until at least five or six years after the. The murder.
"I'm Rowena Wright. The lady who died here was my mother. That's why I look like her."
The boy squinted again, as if deciding whether to believe her. Something about his angry belligerence made her want to smile. He'd been squealing like a stuck pig less than a minute ago. He was still on his haunches on the floor, with his hands twitching on his knees. His chin was covered in dust, from where he'd done a face-plant at the foot of the stairs, yet it still thrust up and out an extra combative inch.
Pure bravadoa cocky, undaunted attitude at the moment he felt most vulnerable. She knew that technique all too well. In spite of herself, she felt a tug of affection for the little interloper.
"Your mom. Okay, I guess that makes sense," he said, with the gravity of a judge handing down a verdict. "So I guess this is your house?"
"Yep." She didn't say anything else, didn't ask the obvious question. In the better light, she saw that the objects scattered around him were candy. Tootsie Roll candies. Lots of them. He might be a trespasser, and he might have a pretty effective badass facade, but nothing proclaimed youth and innocence like a pocketful of Tootsie Roll candy.
He must have seen her looking at them, because for the first time he flushed, and quickly started gathering up the candy. He straightened onto his kneecaps, making room in his pockets, jamming the little twisted wrappers in with a rough, manly shove.
"Okay, well." He finally clambered to his feet. He ran his hand through his mass of wheat-colored hair and stuffed the tail of his shirt back down into his jeans. "I guess I'll get out of your way, then."
"Just like that?" She smiled wryly. "You're not even going to tell me your name?"
"I'd rather not." He dusted the knees of his jeans. "Wouldn't mean anything to you anyhow. And truth is, I'm not supposed to be here."
She raised one eyebrow. "No kidding."
He obviously recognized the sarcasm. He narrowed his lids and flattened his lips angrily, which made him look about ten years older. It also gave her a quick glimpse of what a handsome man he'd be someday, with that healthy, unruly thatch of blond hair and those thick-lashed, marble-blue eyes.
"I wasn't doing anything wrong, you know. I don't like, set fires or rip stuff up. Or smoke."
Tootsie Roll candy and cigarettes. What a thought. "Okay. That's good, I guess."
Her mild tone seemed to take the edge off his defensive belligerence. He relaxed his mouth and shifted his sneakers on the dusty floor.
"I like it here, you know? I like to be by myself. And it's a good house, no matter what people say." He flicked a glance up at her, clearly realizing how rude that sounded. "Sorry. But you know how stupid people are."
She kept a straight face somehow. "Yeah, actually, I do."
He nodded, as if they finally understood each other. "My dad's the stupidest of them all. He knows Bell River isn't really haunted, but he like hates it when I come here. He said if I came again he'd kick my ass." He shrugged. "Sorry, but that's what he said."
A weird protective heat flared in her breast. "Your father beats you?"
"Naw." The boy rolled his eyes. "He talks tough, but he thinks self-control is like the most important thing in the world. He'll just ground me for the rest of my life. He's like a control freak."
The man sounded delightful. No wonder the boy wanted to get away and be by himself.
"Okay, then, you don't have to tell me"
A grown man's voice, maybe five yards away. Even muffled by the walls, the anger in the word was evident. "Damn it. Alec!"
The boy's eyes widened. "Dad," he whispered, though Rowena wasn't sure whether he spoke to her or to himself.
His fear was contagious, and she almost suggested he dart out the back. The man's voice sounded furious, and she instinctively wanted to help the kid escape.
But her adult conscience stopped her. She didn't have the right to judge the situation. She had no idea what was really going on with this kid. At the very least, he was too young to have free rein of open country. These Gunnison Forest foothills were gorgeous, but full of dangerous wildlife, slippery rocks, treacherous white water and a thousand other natural hazards. The boy's father had the right to set whatever limits he thought were necessary.
"I'm sorry," she began, when the man's voice came again, this time clearly from right outside the front door.
"Alec Quinton Garwood. If you're in there, you'd damn well better open up this instant."
Rowena stared at the door, her blood draining down to her toenails.
"Garwood?" Though she spoke to the boy, she kept her gaze trained on the door, as if a wild animal were about to burst through. "Your name is Garwood?"
From the corner of her eye, she saw him nod miserably.
"And your dad His name wouldn't be Dallas, would it?" The kid made a surprised sound. "How did you know?" Garwood. Oh, lord, of course. Suddenly the blond hair, the blue eyes, the genetic promise that he would be handsome beyond belief they all made sense.
"Rowena?" The boy Alec used her name for the first time. "How did you know?"
"No way." He moved closer. "You must. You know my dad?"
"Yeah. At least I used to, a long, long time ago."
She turned around, caught his anxious blue gaze and smiled as bracingly as she could. "Hold on to your Tootsie Rolls, Alec Garwood. Things are about to get a little bumpy round here."
Dallas had always known it would happen. Sooner or later, he'd open a door, turn a corner, look up from his desk and see Rowena Wright standing there.
It wasn't logical. It was simply an unshakable certainty that she wasn't gone for good. Even as the years accumulated, as tenants passed through Bell River Ranch, and people departed Silverdell, some in a casket, like his father, and others in a limo, like his ex-wife, he never doubted Rowena would return.