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Tavas Haspura willed the Devil’s Gate ranch to Anna instead of his own nephew, Ivan. Anna found that mysterious cattle mutilations were rumored to be witchcraft. When Ivan’s wife Colleen was discovered dead in a canyon, her death was blamed on the Cult of Akerra. Anna had secretly loved Ivan her whole life, but when he proposed, she was suspicious that he merely wanted the ranch. Contemporary Romantic Suspense by Vickie Britton; originally published by Whiskey Creek Press
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Read an Excerpt
Since making the forked turn from Bly, I'd counted two cars and seventeen rabbits. There were probably more rabbits crouched hidden in the tall sagebrush on either side of the narrow dirt road; tiny, long-eared shadows caught frozen by my headlights.
I veered sharply to the left as one of the living shadows darted toward the Mustang's spinning wheels, nearly landing myself in a ditch to avoid striking the quivering scrap of ragged gray fur headlong.
Highway hypnosis had been on the verge of sinking in. Wide awake, my now-alert eyes scanned darkness. I'd barely noticed how the traffic had thinned since I'd made my last stop for coffee at the all-night grill just outside of Bly. Even the tinny country music that had been my constant companion since I'd parted from the main road was deserting me. The radio continued to roar and squeal with mindless static as I drove along. Impatiently, I turned the knob, ridding myself of the intruding blare. The silence that followed was almost too much to bear. Such silence. A few semesters at the University of Reno had almost made me forget how remote and isolated the Devil's Gate ranch really was.
Brad, of course, had called me. Could it really have been only yesterday? He'd been upset. I could imagine him at the other end of the line, flecks of dark glittering in his tawny-gold eyes as he barked at me over the telephone. "Anna, you must come home."
"Home? What are you talking about, Brad? The semester just started..."
"They need you, Anna. Alice needs you. Tavas is ill. Tavas is ... he's..." Brad had never been one to stumble over words, but he was stumbling then.
"Dying?" I'd stepped back from the phoneas if the electrical cord had been shooting out white-hot sparks. Tavas hadn't looked well several months ago, the last time I'd ventured home. Too pale, I'd thought at the time. And he'd been using the cane again, the one with the carved silver head.
Suddenly it all fell into place. The letters from Alice, the subtle questions about when I planned to come back for another visit. It seemed clear to me now, crystal clear, as it would've been long ago if I hadn't been immersed in my own private little world of registration cards and scheduling.
"I never thought..." Tears were brimming in my eyes. I couldn't finish the sentence, didn't really know what I'd planned to say.
"You'll come home, then?"
"Of course. You know Tavas has always been like a father to me. I'll be there as soon as possible."
"I told Alice to expect you Thursday."
"But ... that's the day after tomorrow."
"I could come down after you myself." The determination in Brad's voice betrayed the seriousness of the situation.
"No, Brad. I'll manage."
Somehow, I had. It was now late Wednesday night and I'd accomplished the impossible. I had sublet my tiny apartment, had arranged an indefinite leave of absence from my part-time job and school, had packed my meager belongings into the trunk of the old Mustang that had once been Brad's. And now here I was, half a day early, at the rutted, forked turn-off to the Devil's Gate.
Specters surrounded me, dark, windblown junipers etched sharply against a restless sky. I crossed the cattle guard and onto our property. I could see the broken fence now, rusty sign hanging at an angle in the wind. Beyond, the jagged twin rocks rose high and bare above the cracked earth. "Like the gates to hell", Tavas had always joked. The car moved upward on the trail, winding its way into the heart of the canyons where the faint lights of the ranch glimmered, still some distance away.
It had been a long time since I'd come home for more than a brief visit. Not since Brad told me Ivan had returned. A trapped butterfly fluttered inside of me at the thought of him, leaving me shaken by the overwhelming strength of my own emotions.
Only Brad had guessed the real reason why I'd stayed away so much lately, burying myself in my studies and my work in Reno. Brad and I had practically grown up together. I'd come to the ranch an orphan: the two of us had become as close as brother and sister. Brad knew my thoughts, my feelings, but it was Ivan who'd stolen my heart.
Ivan, with his wavy dark hair, lean Gypsy looks, and hot-blooded Basque temperament. The handsome fairy-tale prince whose short and erratic visits to the ranch during my growing-up years had filled my heart with so many foolish dreams. Deep inside, I think I must have known even then that nothing would ever come of them, that I was little more to Ivan than a pesky, rather incorrigible child.
Don't think about him, I scolded myself, but it hurt. His sudden marriage to that sultry, unstable beauty with her pouting lips and scornful eyes marked the brutal ending of my childhood fantasy.
I concentrated on my surroundings. On either side of the road barren rocks gave off a muted, purplish hue. I'd grown up here, yet something about dusk still made me uneasy. Maybe it was the night sounds. The whistle of the wind through hollow canyons, the sudden scream of a bobcat or the lonesome wail of a coyote brought a child's fears to mind, whispered tales told only in the well-lighted circle of the bunk-houses.
Few of the hired men had not claimed to have seen the Sorguinak flying high over the canyons in the darkness. Even Guillermo, our foreman and Tavas's closest friend, believed that the Cult of Akerra existed, found evidence of devil-worship in spots of dried blood and tallow; faint marks that might have been pentagrams etched on stone in secluded clearings. And hadn't Tavas himself spotted the horns of the black he-goat Akerra one night, just on the edge of the cliffs? Whether he was serious or not, I never could tell. One could never tell what went on in the mind of a Basque.
Goose bumps rose on my arms at the thought of enormous, shaggy Akerra stamping his hooves impatiently, watching me with wild and red-rimmed eyes from some obscure point high in the canyon. Nightwalkers with their skeletal bodies and huge, glowing eyes now seemed to stare at me from the sides of the road as I drove along. Dark shapes, hunched in between the boulders, crouched in waiting. Twisted trees became witches, pointing at me with wild arms, warning me to turn around and go back to Reno. How foolish. I was twenty-three now, hardly a wide-eyed, impressionable child. Yet as I drove the last half-mile, my reluctance mounted. The demons of my childhood I could manage. It was reality that made me grip the steering wheel so tightly my fingers ached. How was I going to face Ivan--and his new wife?
The moment of weakness passed as quickly as it had come. I'd stayed away too long and the circumstances demanding my return were anything but pleasant. Yet I had a right to be here as much as they did.
I kept my eyes focused upon the dim light of the porch, a beacon of warmth for the traveler who was not only physically tired, but tired in spirit. A familiar catch lodged in my throat as I sighted the old white house nestled in between the jagged cliffs. A sweet voice within me chanted, Home, you're finally going home.
I could see Brad standing in the doorway, peering anxiously through the sagging porch screen as I parked the car and began walking toward the house.
He ran out to greet me. "Anna." Then he was pulling me to him in an affectionate bear hug, ruffling my dark hair teasingly, as he'd done years ago when I was a child. Brad always had a way of making me feel safe, secure. For a moment I rested my head against his broad chest. Then we broke apart, suddenly self-conscious, aware we were no longer children.
"Alice has gone to bed," Brad told me as we stepped inside. He paused, then added, being careful to avoid my eyes, "Tavas is sleeping. Let's have some coffee."
"I want to see him, Brad," I insisted.
"Coffee first. There's plenty of time." A fresh pot was waiting on the stove as if made especially for me. I could smell its bitter, welcoming aroma as we moved into the kitchen. I stood for a moment at the doorway, suddenly feeling a helplessness, a sense of loss. The old checkered tablecloth, almost a landmark of the Haspura kitchen, was gone. It looked like Ivan's new wife, Colleen, had done some remodeling.
"Strong and black with just a pinch of sugar," Brad said as he shoved my favorite chipped ironstone mug toward me. I stared down at its reassuring clover-leaf pattern, glad for something familiar.
"It's so good to have you back." A weary darkness drifted through his amber eyes. "For a while, I was afraid you wouldn't show up."
I swallowed a lump in my throat along with the first sip of burning, soothing coffee. "You should know me better than that, Brad."
He lowered his gaze. "I know how hard this must be for you, Anna. You and Tavas have always been so close."
I knew it wasn't Tavas who Brad was thinking about. Even if I hadn't confided in him, Brad would have suspected my absence had something to do with Ivan's return.
"Alice called me last week. She ... so rarely uses the phone. I should have known something was wrong."
The brown in Brad's eyes flashed, dominating the yellow. "We've all been nearly out of our minds with worry." The strain of having more than half of the burden of the Devil's Gate suddenly dumped into his lap was clear in Brad's uneasy manner. He'd never been much of a manager. "And as if we didn't have enough to worry about, someone's been rustling our cattle."
"Brad! Are you sure?"
He ran a hand through his wheat-colored hair. "I should never have mentioned it tonight."
"Have many cattle turned up missing?"
Brad shrugged. "Not many."
"Then I'm glad Ivan's back. It must be a great help to you, having him here."
A shadow fell across Brad's face at the mention of Ivan's name. Ivan and Brad had always been so close. I wondered if something might have happened to cause hard feelings between them.
"Colleen doesn't fit in here at the ranch. And Ivan ... " Again, the dejected shrug, as if nothing in the world really mattered. "Well, he's changed."
"You'll see." With a sudden, swift gesture, Brad reached out and took my hand in his big, tanned one. "Tavas has been looking forward to your coming so much. You've always been his favorite, you know." He grinned suddenly. "Mine, too," he added.
I bit my lip, but still the tears surfaced.
"He's counting on you to cheer him up."
"Of course, Brad. I won't disappoint him."
"I know you won't." He rose and kissed me lightly on the forehead. "Alice has had the guest room made up for you for a week. Get a good night's sleep. You can see Tavas first thing in the morning." Glancing quickly away, he added, "No sense in waking either one of them tonight."
He took the keys from where I'd placed them on the table. "I'll drive your car around and bring in your luggage."
I heard the screen door slam and then all was quiet except the chirping of the locusts and the wind blowing through the tall poplars Tavas had planted outside the window years ago.
Headlights shone in the purplish darkness--Brad driving the Mustang closer to the house. I heard the sound of a motor die.
Footsteps scraped upon the wooden porch. A blast of cool air filled the room as the outside door swung open. I turned toward it, expecting Brad. Instead, it was Ivan who now came toward me. The light from the porch threw its amber glow upon the rugged planes of his face, the high, sharp cheekbones, the sensitive mouth, the dark brows now arched in sudden surprise beneath stormy, mercurial eyes. "Anna! When did you get here?"
I caught my breath slowly, aware of that familiar, flighty sensation as my heart pounded crazily inside my chest. I'd been taken unaware, unprepared for the flood of emotion that seeing him always stirred up in me. For what seemed an eternity I stood facing him, unable to respond, frozen into torturous immobility.
As he stepped toward me, I noticed the change in him. Brad was right. He seemed different somehow. The carefree Gypsy of my daydreams had become somber and melancholy. There was no quick smile upon his lips, no easy laughter in those dark-lashed eyes as he stepped forward and embraced me lightly. The leather of his dark jacket was rough and unyielding against my skin. "Welcome home, Anna. We've missed you."
"At least some of us have." The voice behind Ivan's was sugar-sweet with mockery.
My heart sank as I forced myself to look at her. She stood leaning against the door frame, a half-smile on her full lips. Golden hair shimmered against her white fur coat as she moved until she stood between us, a green-eyed she-cat protecting her own. Malice shone in those glittery eyes. "So what brings the little schoolgirl home?" she demanded.
"I'm here because of Tavas." I straightened, ignoring her sarcasm. "Brad called to let me know that he was ill."
"And I'll bet you just came running," she replied. Her words were slightly slurred. I could smell the alcohol on her breath as she brought her face uncomfortably close to mine. "Dear, sweet Anna. Do you think he'll remember you in his will?"
"'Leena, please." Ivan said.
The awkward silence that followed was relieved only by Brad coming in with my suitcase.
"Good ... goodnight," I murmured. As I followed Brad into the guest room, I risked one quick glance behind me. Ivan was still watching me. I'd sensed he was. His dark gaze now sought mine, imploring forgiveness. I was taken by how miserable he looked. He seemed but the ghost of the laughing young man I'd once hero-worshipped. He turned back to Colleen, his shoulders seeming suddenly much heavier, his eyes deep and shadowed, drained of all emotion.
Brad placed my suitcase near the bed. "Colleen didn't say anything to upset you, did she? She'd been drinking. I could tell."
"She doesn't like me, Brad. She never has. She makes me feel ... so unwelcome."
"Don't let her scare you away. This is your home, too. Tavas would want you to remember that." He was scolding me in that gruff, big-brother tone of his that covered so much underlying tenderness.
"Oh, Brad, what would I do without you?"
"You'd be lost, of course," he replied smugly. Then, with a last, encouraging wink, Brad whispered goodnight.
I glanced about the room--my old room. It was almost the same as I'd left it. The oak vanity with its big mirror still stood in the corner. Alice had turned down the patchwork comforters on the cozy brass bed to reveal clean, white sheets. I looked up, my gaze automatically resting upon the bare space on the wall where my favorite picture, a mountain scene, had once hung. I'd taken it with me to Reno.
For a moment I stood wearily in the middle of the room, absorbed in thought. I couldn't rest without first seeing Tavas. Turning my back on the inviting bed, I stepped out into the hallway, then padded quietly up the empty staircase to Tavas's room at the top. No matter that Brad had suggested I wait until morning. I must see him tonight.
A dim light was glowing from Tavas's room but when I turned the knob quietly and stepped inside, I saw that he was asleep. For a while I sat by his bedside, but he didn't stir. Tavas, the strong, the invincible, seemed so vulnerable in sleep. Since when has he grown so aged, so frail?
Tenderness washed over me as I gazed down at him, resisting the urge to brush back the silvery hair from his temples. I had so much love and respect for the man I'd always called Uncle Tavas. Of course, he wasn't my real uncle. Tavas had never married, so he had no sons and daughters of his own, but he was always taking in strays.
Tavas had made the sprawling ranch a home for us all--his younger brother Lucas's widow, Alice, and their only son, Ivan. He'd taken in Brad, a more distant relative still, to help him with the ranching, and though I wasn't even really a part of the Haspura family, he'd sent for me after my step-father's death, and had raised me as his own. I'd only been four when my parents were killed in the car accident. The ranch was the only home I'd ever known.
Tavas stirred slightly in his sleep, and I felt a twinge of guilt. He wouldn't want me staring down at him like this, would scorn the pity in my eyes. I must return tomorrow when we could talk. Slowly, heavy-hearted, I stepped away toward the door, sorry for once I hadn't taken Brad's advice.
Back in my room, I crawled into the brass bed and closed my eyes, willing myself to think about pleasant memories. About riding the horses in the canyon on a hot summer day, Brad and Ivan on either side of me. I thought about helping Alice bake gingerbread cookies in the warm, comfortable kitchen. I thought of Tavas singing the old Basque folk songs to me as he rocked me gently on his knee--but what kept coming back to mind was Tavas's face as it had been tonight ... so unnaturally pale and tinged with gray.
I lay silent, struggling not to listen to the voices now wafting through the confines of my bedroom walls, floating, disembodied voices edged with anger.
"She has a right to be here." A man's voice, deep and familiar. Ivan's voice.
"I don't care. I don't want her in the same house ... " I heard the creak of wooden beams and realized Ivan and Colleen must be in the top floor hallway, directly above me. Only fragmented sentences drifted down to me, but it was enough for me to realize that I was the topic of their conversation.
"You leave her alone. I mean it." Ivan's voice was dark with warning.
"Do you think you frighten me, you..." But Colleen's sharp reply was already drifting away. I thought I heard the slamming of a door somewhere up above. Then there was silence.
I tried to clear my mind as I listened to the crickets chirping in the night, the wind blowing through the poplars, the distant, peaceful lowing of cattle, but they were alien sounds to me now, not the familiar drone of traffic down the busy streets near the University. When I closed my eyes, Ivan's face haunted me, and the hurt came back, the pain. I tossed and turned and couldn't get to sleep.
Finally I rose and, wrapping my robe about my shoulders, wandered over to the window. The voices were gone now, leaving an eerie, disturbing void. I pressed my forehead against the pane, staring out into the darkness. The wind was blowing in rain. Tiny beads of moisture gathered upon the glass, blurring my vision as my gaze roamed over the dark canyons and purple-edged cliffs.
Almost against my will, I found my gaze settling upon the dark spot between the two highest, most jagged peaks. The Black Canyon. The place where the witches met.
Suddenly a light, pale and ghostly blue, streaked through the canyon.
All was quiet. Even the crickets had stopped chirping. And yet I'd heard something. A sharp electricity vibrated in the air. Drawing in my breath, I stood tense, waiting. Something was about to happen.
Then it came again, only this time louder, more piercing--a shrill, terrifying cry ripping away the unnatural stillness. An agonized wail sending shivers of alarm racing up and down my spine.
I stood at the window, spellbound, listening. Once more, twisted trees became witches, dancing, their long hair tangled in the wind. Dark shapes hid behind boulders, eyes appeared from nowhere to peer out at me from the darkness. And perched upon the top of that steep, rocky ledge, I could almost see the shaggy black silhouette of Akerra, the black he-goat.
For a long time, I waited, but that disturbing sound, that intense, primeval scream that had shaken me to my very soul, didn't come again.
With a weary sigh, I turned away from the window. I'd been in the city too long. Surely, that disturbing sound had been only the howl of some angry bobcat.
A cry in the night. An omen? A sign of warning? The entire house stood under a foreboding shadow even the night creatures could sense.
Colleen didn't want me here. Did Alice ... Ivan? I suddenly felt unwanted, an intruder in the only place I'd ever had to call home. I felt like a lost little girl again. What was I to do? I crept back into bed, pulling the comforters close about me and fell, still shivering, into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.