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Coming back to West Virginia would be a big mistake.
The anonymous text message he'd received on his cell phone just that morning came back into Penn Ramsey's mind at the exact moment he slammed on his brakes, barely avoiding a six-point buck leaping across the rough, rock-based road, and just as barely avoiding a skid off a sheer, thirty-foot drop in the process. The haunting backcountry, with its thick, wild woods and narrow, twisting byways, was as unforgiving as it was forbidding. Rookie mistake, swerving to spare a deer's life, when the maneuver could cost your own.
Yeah, coming home was a mistake. He couldn't argue with that one.
He stared at the buck, where it had stopped frozen in his high beams. A tight beat passed, and then the animal turned, bounded madly up the opposite bank, and disappeared. Penn wondered again who would have sent him that cryptic message, a message that was either a mysterious note of concern or a sinister and veiled threat. He couldn't come up with an answer now, any more than he could while he'd been sitting on the plane.
Penn waited an impatient beat to make sure Bambi didn't have company. Despite his mistake, he had grown up in the country, and where there was one deer, there was often another. When none appeared, he pressed the gas. The rented Land Rover bounced on the rugged road. It was just starting to rain, and fog slid phantom fingers across the narrow lane as he came around the next bend.
New York City's blinking neon, blaring horns, and skyscraping buildings seemed a planet away. The countryside outside Haven, West Virginia, was as he remembered from his childhood, some kind of lushly-forested alternate universe, filled with memories and ghosts, overgrown hills and meadowsand quiet. Way too much quiet.
Quiet in which to remember, reflect; to once again experience guilt.
The fog cleared and he spied a porch light down below the road, saw the mailbox with its cheap, stick-on gold numbers and letters flash in his headlights. The box leaned over as if it had been run into one too many times, but the address remained2489 Laurel Run Road.
He was four miles from Limberlost Farm, he knew that now. He knew that because he knew exactly how far it was from the old family place to 2489 Laurel Run.
A big, old black walnut tree stood in a curve two miles up, halfway between Limberlost and that house on Laurel Run. The sweet spot. He and pretty Willa used to meet there when he was young and dumb and full of
He slowed the Land Rover as fog rolled over the road again, windshield wipers slapping at the persistent drizzle outside the vehicle. He passed the black walnut tree as the fog swept in and out, playing chicken with the road. Willa'd gotten married and moved to town, last he heard. Granddad was dead. He'd kept in touch with a couple of his old football buddies for a while, but he'd lost track of them a long time ago.
He'd bet he didn't know a soul on Laurel Run these days. Not that many souls remained, from what he knew. He hadn't seen a porch light since he'd passed Willa's old place, and it was at least four miles since he'd left town after stopping for gas, and had turned down this godforsaken, unpaved road to nowhere.
You can't go home again. But here he was.
Turning around sounded real good.
The mist cleared away again, long enough for him to see in his beams that, yeah, the bank still fell off sharply to his left and the hill rose just as steeply to his right. No escape. He had a purpose here, and he couldn't leave till it was done.
Limberlost Farm, its four hundred acres, orchards, fields, ponds and river frontage, was worth something; maybe not a whole lot in a backwater town like Haven, but something. And all he had to do was live in the ramshackle of a farmhousethat was likely halfway falling off the hill by nowfor thirty days before he could sell it. Seed money, that's what he needed. Limberlost was his seed money.
Damn his cousin, Jess, for getting the money up front in the will. Penn got stuck with the property and its encumbering requirement of a month's residency to claim his inheritance. He would have fought the ridiculous requirement, but the executor of the estate had warned him that would only complicate the probate process. Penn could complete the month's requirement before the will even reached the probate judge. Bottom line, he wanted the money. Whatever would get him there quickest.
He'd been the top-producing marketing director at Brown and Sons Ltd. when he handed in his resignation, but he wasn't a Brown or a Son. Launching his own firm wasn't just a dream anymore. One month of hell. It was worth it. Then he'd put the place up for sale and take whatever he was offered. Good riddance.
He fought a burst of guilt. He had a right to live his life the way he saw fit. He might have been born here, but he'd gotten out as soon as he could.
The farm shouldn't be much farther. At least, if he remembered correctly. The wildly wooded bank to his left leveled out as he came down the last rolling hill, where the road would reach the bottom land and open pasture. He saw teetering fence posts, slumping wire. The dark, the gloam, the decaying rural sceneryit was right out of a horror movie.
He saw a flash of light in the mist. An animal sprang onto the road ahead. A calf, this time.
Fog curled in sharp again, blinding him.
He hit the brakes, but the car only picked up speed as it ran down the slope. He slammed harder on the brakes, uselesslyadrenaline shot through his veins. He couldn't see, couldn't stop
The fog cleared. The calf stood straight ahead, staring into his headlights, frozen. Penn swung the wheel to the right. The calf bolted, in the same direction. Penn veered to the other side and
All he knew was, that wasn't a calf he struck.
It was a woman.
Willa hit hard, flat on her back. Sprinkles dotted her face. Rain. She lay there for a timeless stretch, aware of only the ominous sound of the growing storm around her. Wind. Cold.
Hands grabbed her shoulders, strong, urgent.
"Are you all right?"
She blinked, desperately working to clear her vision, pushing back tears that sprang out of nowhere. Reaction setting in, almost impossible to believe. Hit. She'd been hit. By a car.
His car. This stranger. She could see nothing of his face, just the gleam of his eyes. Her pulse thumped, kicking into gear out of shock. His voice sounded distantly familiar. Confusion left her blank, even as something deep inside clanged a warning she couldn't quite grasp.
Beneath her, she felt the rough rubble of the road. She struggled to make sense of her surroundings, remember where she was. The broken fence. The calf. Then
That car, out of nowhere. Oh, God.
Sick horror gripped her. She pushed up with her hands, fighting past the arms that tried to hold her down. She had to see if she was okay, she had to see if anything was broken. She didn't have time to not be okay. She had the farm, Birdie, everythingtoo much. And it was all on her, by herself.
Relief nearly collapsed her backward when she realized her arms and legs were all right.
"I'm okay," she cried, pushing at the stranger holding her again. "Let go of me! I have to get my calf!"
"Forget your damn calf!" he grated back angrily. "You were just hit by a car! We need to get you to a hospital to be checked out!"
Where was her flashlight? Headlights framed the stranger bending over, leaving his face in darkness. Headlights from some sort of sport utility vehicle that was even now rammed into the stone pillar at the side of her gate. Fabulous. He'd nearly hit her calf, hit her, then hit her gatepost. She was lucky he hadn't plowed through the fence she'd just finished fixing, or plowed into her while she'd still been fixing it.
Her truck, her beat-up old Ford pickup truck, was still parked in the drive, undamaged. Thank God. She needed her truck.
Rain splashed down on them, harder now. She had to get her calf in. She had to get back up the hill to the house. Her four-year-old daughter was there, alone, waiting for her.
"Get off me!" she yelled, pushing against him with more strength now, even as his firm hands moved up and down her arms, down her body, as if checking her over. She didn't need checking over. Not by a hospital, and certainly not by him. "I'm fine."
She scrambled to her feet, managing to slip out from under him with a sudden move. She was fine. She was standing. Dazed, aware of an aching throb through her body, and fearsome rumblings of thunder from the dark sky above. It would be pouring soon.
He came after her, seeming taller and bigger with every step. She almost choked because she'd forgotten to swallow. It wasn't just his voice. His shape and form were frighteningly familiar. She felt a wave of dizzy fear that made no sense. She couldn't know him. She hadn't been expecting anyone.
"I still say you should be checked out at a hospital," the man said again. "You could have a concussion." He raised his voice over the buffeting wind.
She struggled to keep her feet, even as her knees wobbled. "I'm fine," she repeated. "And I don't really care what you say. I stood up too fast, that's all." She didn't want to admit that maybe she was just a little scared of him, or that her dizzy, sick sensation meant anything at all. She turned slowly, looking for her flashlight. She spotted it at the edge of his beams and went for it.
It was dead, totally dead. She'd dropped it when he hither, along with the pliers, hammer and staples she'd been using to fix the fence. She reached down and grabbed the rope halter she'd brought to get the calf in.
Swinging around, she looked into the fog swirling past the road, swathing the bank. Her pulse thumped painfully. Dammit, dammit, dammit. She couldn't afford to lose anything, including that calf. Limberlost Farm was on a perpetual brink of disaster.
"Calf's gone. You'll find it tomorrow."
She swung back at him, irritated mostly because he was right. And arrogant about it.
"Would you leave me alone? Get in your car! Go away! Or get me your insurance information." How disoriented was she? She'd almost forgotten that vital point. "You hit my gatepost."
Not that it was some fabulous gatepost. It was old and crumbly. Whatever. He'd run into it.
"I hit you, too."
"I know that! I'm not going to the hospital. I don't need to. Nothing's broken. Just tell me who your insurance people are and your name and back your car on out of here."
"I'm not going anywhere," he said.
Her pulse thumped again. She stepped toward him. He stood just at the edge of the beams. God, he sounded familiar. And looked familiar in that edge of light . Sheer instinct made her want to shrink back, but she didn't shrink from anyone, not anymore.
Dangerous, that's how he looked. Tall, powerfully built, dressed in jeans and a dark T-shirt under a leather jacket. Athletic shoes, not boots. He didn't look like he was from around here, or sound like it either, and yet his voice rang a bell. His face was all sharp planes and angles cut in shadows. She couldn't make out the details of his face, but she was almost positive he was good-looking. He was arrogant, wasn't he?
He definitely looked big and bad, which made her attempt to play at big and bad herself rather emptily.
"What do you mean?"
"My brakes. They're dead. That's why I couldn't stop the car. I tried not to hit the calf and "
He'd hit her when she'd run into the road after it. Stupid move on her part. She was lucky to be alive, lucky he hadn't more than struck her with the corner of his bumper, which was just enough to knock her down. He'd swerved into her gatepost to keep from hitting her dead-on. Or she might be dead.
Then her brain kicked in and she realized what he'd just said. His brakes had failed. He couldn't get out of here in his car. It was dark and rainy and late.
And stranded. Just what she needed to top off her evening. A stranded stranger.
"Where were you going?" As if she felt like ferrying him anywhere. But she couldn't leave him here at the side of the road under these conditions. Even if he had just hit her and damaged her property and seriously annoyed the hell out of her.
He jerked his head at the drive. "Here."
"Because it's mine."
Double blink. Had her hearing been affected?
"I don't think so."
Now she forgot to breathe for a full beat. What was going on here?
"This is my farm," she said. Rain, soaking her now. She didn't care. Who was he? She was just about to ask that question but he beat her to it.
"Who are you?" he asked, and stepped toward her into the light from his beams.
Fully into the light.
Before she could open her mouth, he answered for her, his voice oh-so-familiar, and she knew exactly why. Oh yeah, she knew why he was so familiar and why she was so scared. Her head reeled.