Criminologist Miguel Acevedo had come face-to-face with his biggest challengeEmma Richardson, guardian to a newborn baby and admitted psychic. The Native American beauty claimed to have information that could bring down a notorious criminal, but Miguel wasn't about to buy into her "abilities" so fast. Before long, though, Emma's leads attracted a killer and Miguel became her bodyguard. Now, as he watched her with the innocent baby and became captivated by her blue gaze, Miguel sensed his ordered world tilting on its axis. First he'd gone from skeptic to believer. Could the switch from confirmed bachelor to family man be far behind?
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Emma Richardson folded her arms on the desktop in her home office and laid down her head. At nine o'clock in the morning, it was too early for a nap. But she was tired, so very tired.
I'll only rest my eyes. Only for a moment. While the house is quiet .
Reality faded as a psychic vision seeped into her mind. Daylight shimmered and vanished, transformed into night.
She was in a forest.
A cold wind rattled through bare branches, and the shadows shifted beneath her feet. Beside her, to the east, the dark waters of a wide, wild river crashed against rocks and boulders, spewing a deadly froth.
A tall woman appeared. She wore an FBI jacket. Her eyes were hollow. Her lips were white and dead. She spoke only one word. "Run."
Emma didn't ask why. She knew. He was coming closer. The danger was coming closer.
She scrambled over the rocks at the river's edge. This was no good; she needed to seek open ground. Turning to the west, she fought her way through thicket, pine and cot-tonwood. The trees dissuaded her. West was the wrong direction. On the medicine wheel, west meant death.
She slipped, caught hold of the slender white trunk of an aspen. The bark felt warm, full of life. The branches were green with leaves. This tree had saved her balance, kept her from falling.
With a final effort, she crawled into the open. As she ran, her sneakers dug into the moist earth, still saturated from the recent blizzard. She vaulted over low shrubs and patches of snow, running hard, running for her life.
The muscles in her thighs throbbed. Her blood pumped so fiercely through her veins that her ears were ringing. But she had to keep going. If she stopped, he'd catch her.
Straight ahead, she saw a car, and she heard the cries of an infant. She had to protect him. She veered toward the souththe direction of safetyleading her pursuer away from the precious child.
He was gaining. So close that she felt his hot, fetid breath on the back of her neck. His hands grabbed her jacket. There was no escape. He had her. She fell.
He was on top of her. Shadows hid his face but she saw his necklace. A leather medallion with a black bear claw design. He held a knife. Moonlight gleamed on the silver blade.
Through the ringing in her ears, she heard him say, "Aspen got away. But you will die."
As the blade descended toward her throat, her eyelids closed .
She woke with a start, jolted back in the swivel chair. April sunlight poured through the window. The screen saver on her computer showed a random lightning bolt pattern. Though Emma knew she was safe at home, the aura of danger lingered. Her heart raced as if she had actually been running.
Finally, she'd had a vision. Finally, her gift as a medium might help her find her cousin.
Before the images faded in her memory, she grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down all that she could remember. Her pen flew across the page, making sketchy notes: Woman in FBI jacket. The river to the east. The green aspen leaves. Running to the west. The car with the baby. Turn to the south. His knife. His leather necklace. She drew the bear claw design.
Lifting her pen, she looked down at the paper and saw that she'd unintentionally drawn a second design. Leafy with vines, it looked like a logo. Three letters twined together. VDG.
Where did that come from? And what did VDG stand for? Very Damn Good? Vines Do Grow? Or the V could stand for Virgin. She winced. Don't go there. This vision wasn't about her personal life. These images pertained to the disappearance of her cousin, Aspen Meadows.
Aspen. She circled the word. The aspen tree in her vision was leafy and warm, still flowing with sap. And the pursuer said that Aspen got away. Emma wanted to believe those words, wanted to believe that her cousin had survived the attack. But where was she?
Five weeks ago, just before a spring blizzard blanketed the southeast corner of Colorado with several feet of snow, Aspen's car had been found in a ditch just outside Kenner City. Her six-week-old son, Jack, was safe in his car seat, but Sheriff Patrick Martinez suspected foul play. When he placed Jack in Emma's care, he had warned her to be prepared for the worst.
But that couldn't be. Aspen wasn't dead. Whenever someone close to Emma passed on, she knew. The dead came to her from the other side, spoke to her, showed her visions or symbols. Ever since she was ten years old and her deceased grandmother warned her about the fire, she'd been a mediumable to communicate with the dead. At age thirty, she trusted her spirit visions almost more than reality.
For five long weeks, she'd been hoping that her psychic senses would give her a clue to Aspen's whereabouts, but nothing had come into her mind. Until now. The spirit who showed her this vision had to be the tall FBI womana dead woman. Who was she? How was she connected to Aspen's disappearance?
Emma closed her eyes and concentrated. Who are you?
Nothing came. Not a sound. Not a symbol.
Please tell me. Who are you?
Are your initials VDG?
She heard a faint echo. Julie. Then silence again.
"Okay," Emma said as she opened her eyes. "Your name is Julie."
It was a start. Sometimes, Emma was able to reach out to these spirits, and they'd respond. She communicated often with her grandma Quinn and her aunt Rose, both of whom had been popping in to offer advice on how to care for Aspen's infant son. They observed and commented and nagged about how Emma was doing everything all wrong. If the spirits of Grandma and Aunt Rose had been able to change diapers, life would be so much easier. But no. Emma was the sole caregiver. Definitely not a job she'd signed up for.
She figured that the main reason she hadn't had a vision about Aspen's disappearance was severe sleep deprivation from baby Jack's every-few-hours feeding schedule. He was a cuddly little bundle of stringent demands: Feed me. Change me. Carry me. Rock me. Dealing with an infant was far more time-intensive than she'd ever imagined. Also, she had to admit, more rewarding.
Though she learnedfrom the dozens of baby care books she'd purchased onlinethat Jack's change of facial expression could be nothing more than a reflex or a muscle twitch, his smile was amazing. And the random sounds he madeother than the full-throated cryingtickled her. In his wide-open eyes, she saw the wisdom of the ages. She had to find Aspen, to reunite her with this little miracle named Jack.
Finally, she had a vision to work with. Emma grabbed the phone on the desk and punched in the number for Sheriff Martinez. He owed her for a couple of cases where she'd used her skill as a medium to help him find missing persons. Now, it was his turn to help her.
Miguel Acevedo, a forensic investigator for the Kenner County Crime Lab, rode in the passenger seat beside Sheriff Patrick Martinez. Miguel hated that his analysis of a crime scene was being called into question. By a psychic? "This is a waste of time, my friend."
"Don't be so sure," Patrick said. "Over the years, Emma has helped with missing person cases. She's saved lives. Everybody around here trusts her and knows she's not a fraud."
"Why haven't I heard of her?"
"You don't know much about Kenner City. Your crime lab has only been here for a year."
Though the Four Corners area covered a huge territory in four different states, the small-town populations were insular. The people in Kenner City were slow to accept change, even slower to warm up to strangers. Miguel hardly knew anyone outside law enforcement. "Tell me about one of her cases."
"Remember last fall when that boy disappeared from his mother's house? Emma told me where to look."
"The boy was with his father." And it didn't take a visionary to figure out that the estranged dad snatched his own son. "Wasn't he your first suspect?"
"You bet, but Emma said they were in Durango. In a room with a wagon wheel in front. And she saw the number seven."
"Was she right?"
"Close enough. The name of the motel was the Covered Wagon. And it was room seventeen." Patrick reached up to adjust the brim of his Stetson. "Trust me. She's the real deal."
"A real psychic. Those two words are opposites. If something is realas in realityhow can it be psychic?"
"You're a real pain in the ass, Miguel."
"It's my primo talent."
"And she's not really a psychic. She's a medium."
"What's the difference?"
"She talks to dead people."
"Muy loco." He lowered the window and pushed his open palm against the wind. A fresh coolness rushed inside the cuff of his denim jacket and plaid cotton shirt. A few weeks after the blizzard, there were still patches of snow on the shady side of the street and at the curbs where the snow plows had piled up little mountains. Today's temperature was already in the fifties. By noon, it would be sixty. The weather felt like spring. His favorite season. He felt like a kid instead of a thirty-three-year-old man, felt like he should stick his head out the window like a collie and let the wind blow through his hair.
He ran his fingers through that thick, black hair which was seriously in need of a trim, then turned toward Patrick. "Tell me, my friend. Did Emma the fortune teller predict that you'd fall in love with Bree Hunter?"
At the mention of his fiancée's name, the big tough sheriff melted like chocolate in mole. "Emma isn't that kind of psychic. She doesn't read a crystal ball."
"Exactly what kind of bruja is she?"
"She's not a witch," Patrick said. "There are scientific theories about paranormal abilities and mediums. Why are you so threatened?"
"She's no threat. Just a waste of my time."
He'd already done a thorough analysis of the vehicle abandoned by Aspen Meadows. From the skid marks left by tires and a high-impact dent on the rear bumper, he determined that Aspen's car was forced off the road into a shallow ditch. He'd found no fingerprints or other trace evidence in the car, other than those of Aspen and a few close friends, which led him to believe that she'd climbed out from behind the steering wheel and took off running probably searching for help or trying to divert her pursuer from harming her baby.
Then Aspen disappeared. She was either purposely in hiding or dead. No matter what Emma Richardson said.
Patrick cleared his throat. "Do me a favor. Don't tease Emma."
"Why not? The bruja is sensitive?"
"Aspen is her cousin. They're close. They grew up together on the rez."
The nearby Ute Mountain Ute reservation took up thousands of acres on these high plains. Patrick's fiancée, Bree, was a detective on the tribal police force. "I didn't know Emma was Ute."
"Partly. She doesn't look it. Her hair is brown, not black. Her eyes are blue."
It must have been tough to live on the rez and not look like everybody else. Miguel would have felt a twinge of sympathy if he hadn't thought this whole psychic thing was crazy. "I won't give her a hard time, unless she asks for it."
"She's a good woman. When I told her about Aspen's disappearance, Emma stepped up and took responsibility. She's the temporary guardian for Aspen's baby."
"What about the father?"
"Aspen never said who he was."
"We could run the baby's DNA," Miguel said. "The father might be in the database."
"The guy obviously doesn't care. Baby Jack is better off with Emma."
The sheriff pulled into the driveway of a pretty little ranch-style house, white with black trim and a shake roof. The lot was huge and well-landscaped with indigenous pines and spruce. Empty flower boxes at the windows waited for their spring planting.
"Nice place." The cleanliness and normality surprised him. He'd halfway expected a haunted house with cobwebs draped across the windows and a graveyard in the back. "What does this medium do to earn her living?"
"Some kind of consulting or editing. She works at home on her computer." Patrick issued one last warning. "Be nice."
"I'll be on my best behavior, and that's saying a lot. I used to be an altar boy."
Like that churchgoing boy from so many years ago, he trudged along the sidewalk, dragging his feet. He'd rather be somewhere else. Back at the lab, he had work piling up and a new piece of audio analysis equipment he wanted to play with. He waited on the front stoop while Patrick rang the bell. From inside, he could hear a baby crying, which didn't exactly reassure him about Emma being a good mother substitute.
The door swung open. Miguel found himself staring into the huge blue eyes of a slender woman with straight, silky brown hair that fell across her forehead and was cut in a straight line at her sharp, little chin. He saw hints of her Ute heritage in her dusky complexion and high cheekbones. Her lips pulled into a wide, open smile as she greeted Patrick. Though she balanced the fussing baby in her arms, she managed to shake his hand when the sheriff introduced them.
"Pleased to meet you, Miguel."
His first impression was all good, muy bueno. As he entered her house, he studied her more closely. As a CSI, he was trained to notice details. Her silver earrings and the necklace around her long, slender neck had a distinctive Ute design. Her beige turtleneck, almost the same color as her skin, and her jeans resembled the typical outfit worn by most people in the area at this time of year. But the fabric of her turtleneck was silk. He didn't know much about women's clothing, but he suspected that she shopped in classy boutiques.
In her sunlit kitchen, she offered them coffee.
With a glance at Miguel, Patrick said, "We probably shouldn't waste any time."
"No rush," Miguel said.
"Oh, good," Emma said as she bounced up and down with the whimpering baby, gently stroking the fine hair on top of his head. "Because it's time for Jack's feeding. I just finished heating the formula."
"I'll take the baby."
Miguel held out his arms. Back home, he had a growing herd of nieces and nephews. Though his family lived only a few hours' drive away from Kenner City, his schedule didn't leave much time for visits, and he missed them.
When she handed over the baby, dressed in footed pajamas, he wrapped the blanket snugly around the infant's tiny legs and cradled him in the crook of his arm. "Hush, mijo."
The baby looked toward him. As soon as Miguel took a seat at the kitchen table, the fussing stopped. "How old is he? About three months?"
"Eleven weeks." Her jaw literally dropped. "How did you get him to settle down?"
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