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Left hand riding lightly on his thigh, Austin Blackwell held the reins with the other and picked his way through the thick woods above Whisper Falls, Arkansas. If one more calf strayed into this no-man's land between his ranch and the cascading waterfall, he was putting up another fence. A really tall one. Barbed wire. Electrified. Let the folks of the small Ozark town whine and bellow that he was ruining the ambience or whatever they called the pristine beauty of these deep woods. They just didn't want to lose any tourist money. Well, he didn't want to lose any cattle money, either. So they were on even playing field. He'd never wanted to open the waterfall to tourism in the first place.
Now, every yahoo with an itch to climb down the rock wall cliff and duck behind the curtain of silvery water traipsed all over his property just to mutter a prayer or two. Wishful thinking or pure silliness. He'd made the trek a few times himself and he could guarantee prayers whispered there or anywhere else for that matter were a waste of good breath.
Something moved through the dense trees at his left and Austin pulled the horse to a stop. Cisco flicked his ears toward the movement, alert and ready to break after the maverick at the flinch of his master's knee.
"Easy," Austin murmured, patting the sleek brown neck while he scoped the woods, waiting for a sight or sound. Above him a squirrel chattered, getting ready for winter. Autumn leaves in reds and golds swirled down from the branches. Sunlight dappled between the trees, although the temperature was cool enough that Austin's jacket felt good.
He pressed his white Stetson tighter and urged the bay onward in the direction of the falls, the direction from which the movement had come. Might be the maverick.
"Coyote, probably." But black bear and cougar weren't out of the question. He tapped the rifle holster, confident he could handle anything he encountered in the woods. Outside the ranch was a different matter.
The roar of the falls increased as he rode closer. Something moved again and he twisted in the saddle to see the stray heifer break from the opposite direction. Cisco responded with the training of a good cutting horse. Austin grappled for the lariat rope as the calf split to the right and crashed through the woods to disappear down a draw.
Cisco wisely put on the brakes and waited for instructions. Austin lowered the rope, mouth twisting in frustration. No use endangering a good horse in this rugged, uneven terrain.
At least the stray had headed in the right direction, back toward the ranch.
"Yep, I'm puttin' up another fence." He patted Cisco's neck with a leather-gloved hand. Somewhere along the meager stretch of old barbed wire the calves had found a place to slip through. Maybe in one of the low places or through a washout from one of the many creeks branching from the Blackberry River. Finding the break across three miles of snaggy underbrush would be a challenge.
But Austin liked it up here on the grassy, leaf- and hickory-lined ridge above Whisper Falls. Always had, especially before the stories started and people came with their noise and tents and plastic water bottles. Before the name changed from Millerville to Whisper Fallsa town council decision to attract tourists. He understood. He really did. Ruggedly beautiful, this area of the Ozarks was isolated. Transportation was poor and there was little opportunity for economic growth, especially since the pumpkin cannery shut down.
The remoteness was why he'd come here. The economy was why he ranched.
Those were also the reasons the little town had changed its name and started the ridiculous marketing campaign to attract tourism. Whisper Falls. Austin snorted. No amount of marketing moved God to answer prayers.
He shifted in the saddle to look toward the ninety-feet-high waterfall.
Here, the Blackberry River tumbled faster than near the ranch, picking up speed before plummeting over the cliff in a white, foamy, spectacular display of nature's force and beauty.
The solitude of the woods soothed him, helped him forget. Nature didn't judge the way people would. He could be himself. He could relax.
The air was clean here, too, tinted with the spray of freshness from the bubbling falls. It almost made him feel clean inside again. Almost. He breathed the crispness into his lungs, held the scent. Hickory and river, moist earth and rotting leaves. Good smells to an outdoorsman. Great smells to a man whose past stank like sewage.
"Better get moving, Cisco. Maybe we can find the fence break before dark."
He pulled the bay around and that's when he saw the woman. A slim figure in dark slacks and bright blue sweater moved quickly from tree to tree in some game of hide-and-seek. Curious, Austin took out his field glasses to look around, expecting a child or lover to join the game. No one did.
Austin swung the binoculars back to the woman. What he saw spurred him to action.
Annalisa Keller stifled a sob. She had to hide. She had to get away. "Please, God. Help."
She heard him coming, thrashing, crashing through the dry leaves and underbrush like the madman he was. Knees rattling, she cradled her left arm and stumbled down the rocky incline. Straight ahead, the falls roared, a rush of sound with the power to sweep her away. The thought tempted, beckoned. Jump in and be swept away. He could never find her. No one would.
Teeth chattering, she resisted the frightening urge. The instinct to survive was too strong. She couldn't give up now.
"Help me, God," she whispered again, grappling to the sides of slick rock, edging closer to the beckoning water, to the screaming falls. The footpath was worn and well-used, as if others had come this way before her. She followed the stones, clinging with cold fingers to the jutting rocks as she edged along the cliff face, hoping to hide from searching eyes above.
The roar of the falls grew louder still. Her heart thundered in answer. Before her was the waterfall. Behind her was the direction she'd come. An awful thought engulfed her. Why had she begun the descent to the falls?
If he spotted her, she'd be trapped between him and the raging water.
But she knew why. She'd been running blindly with no destination in mind other than escape.
She sensed him coming, felt the air change with another presence. In desperation, Annalisa moved forward, praying there was sanctuary against the wet cliff face. One more step and
The world went silent. A deafening silence.
Shocked, Annalisa wondered for one beat if she'd actually jumped into the foaming pool below the waterfall, if she was dead.
Trembling, she reached out, touched the silver curtain of water in front of her. A hard rain shower soaked her hand, cold and prickly like needles of ice.
In awe, she glanced to each side and then upward. The sight was dizzying. Behind was solid rock, wet and slick and shiny, with a jutting overhang high above. Water rocketed over the cliff with such force that a quiet space, like a white-noise machine, formed behind the cascade. She stood on a two-foot ledge, protected in the back by a wall of rock and hidden in front by the waterfall. It was like something out of the movie The Last of the Mohicans.
Her shoulders relaxed a tiny bit. Maybe James hadn't seen her descend. Maybe he wouldn't know she was here. Warmth oozed from her nose. Swiping at the liquid with the back of her hand, Annalisa came away with blood. She shivered, both from cold and shock.
James had nearly killed her this time. He'd kicked her out of the car, tried to run her down and then driven away. She'd seen him angry plenty of times, but never like this. Never so completely out of control.
With a shaky sigh, she closed her eyes and leaned her head against the hard, damp rocks at her back. Her arm ached all the way to her wrenched shoulder. She wondered if the bone was broken.
Never again. Never, never again. She'd said that the first time he'd hurt her, but this time she meant it.
She listened, intent, but could hear nothing from within the watery cocoon.
Maybe James hadn't followed her. Maybe he would go home to California without her. He'd said she wasn't worth the headache. But she also knew his terrible egotistical pride. James got what James wanted. He hated being the loser.
A scrambling noise jerked her to attention. A rock clattered against rock.
Annalisa's heart jacked into overdrive. Blood pounded in her ears. If he'd found her, she was as good as dead, a casualty to the rocky pool below. No one would ever know he'd pushed her.
For a second she was helpless. Then the need to survive kicked in. He would not take her down easily.
With her one good hand, she groped the space at her feet and found what she needed. A rock. A small one, but a weapon just the same.
The sound of movement increased, grew closer. A shadow moved. A big shadow.
Shaking hard, she raised her arm.
A hulk ducked behind the curtain of water. Annalisa's heart hammered wildly. She braced to defend.
"Hey, lady, are you ok"
With a sob, she struck, crashing the rock down with all her ebbing strength.
"Hey!" The shadow staggered back, arm upraised in defense.
The haze of fear cleared from Annalisa's eyes. A man had joined her behind the falls but not James. He wasn't James. He was a big, dark, angry stranger in a cowboy hat. And she'd bashed him with a rock.
Austin blinked rapidly at the slender woman with the stunned face. She was as pale as strained milk and bleeding from the nose and mouth.
"What's going on here?"
She dropped her whamming rock and shrunk away from him.
Austin frowned. Why the heck was she cowering?
"I'm sorry. I thought" She clamped her pale, chattering lips shut.
He rubbed at the growing knot at his temple, surprised to find his hat barely askew. As he adjusted the Stetson, the stars subsided enough that he could remember why he'd come down from the ridge to begin with. "What happened to your face?"
She shook her head. Hair as gold as a palomino horse clung to the sides of her face. It was a good face, nice bone structure, with long blue eyes that took up a lot of physical real estate. But her nose was bleeding and her upper lip puffed out like a bee sting.
Those eyes shifted to one side. In a low murmur she said, "I fell."
"Here? On the rocks? Did you fall from the ridge?"
"Um, yes. On the rocks. I was
hiking." Again, her eyes skittered all over the place. Everywhere but on him. Austin's sixth sense crackled like milk-drenched Rice Krispies. There was something the little lady wasn't saying. His gaze dropped to her shoes. Heels. Strappy, spiky heels. She was hiking in those?
"Looks like you need a doc. Can I call someone for you?" He fished in his pocket and dragged out a cell. "No guarantee of service up here."
She shook her head. "There's none. I tried."
Other than his, Austin didn't see a cell phone. In fact, she carried nothing at all, and unless his eyesight had worsened in the past three minutes, she had no pockets in the sleek pants and fitted sweater. The sixth sense squealed louder. Something was amiss.
He glanced at his trusty little flip phone. The woman was right. The satellite logo was spinning like a top and coming up short. No service. "You hiking up here alone?"
"What?" She looked startled, doe-eyed and guilty about something. A drop of blood rimmed one nostril. She dabbed it with a wrist.
"You said you were hiking and fell. You alone?"
yes. Alone." Again the shifty eyes, the jittery movements. Add a hard swallow for measure and he was sure the lady was lying through her even, white teeth.
She started to move as if to pass him. Austin stepped back but not in time. She bumped the rock face. A cry slipped from swollen lips as she grabbed for her left arm.
"Oh, God, please."
Austin jacked an eyebrow. Was she one of those fruitcakes lured by the town's "rumor" of answered prayers? "Forget it. It's just a story made up to draw tourists."
She blinked, cradling the arm against her chest. "I don't know what you mean."
"Praying under the waterfall." He motioned toward the foaming spray of water. "Useless."
With a bewildered look, she doubled forward and moaned. Her body shook like a motherless calf on Christmas morning.
Against his better judgment, Austin accepted what he had to do. "That's it. You're going to a doctor."
"I think my arm may be broken, but." She ended on a sob.
Her pale lips tightened beneath worried eyes. Austin huffed a frustrated sigh. One, the woman was hurt. Two, she was lying. Three, he wasn't sure what else to do.
He didn't like getting involved in other people's business. In fact, he didn't like getting involved with any kind of people for any reason, but he wasn't a heartless mule, either, who'd leave a woman with a broken arm five miles from the nearest working telephone.
"Come on." He edged his way from beneath the falls and out into the perfect early autumn day. Or it had been perfect until the calf disappeared and a woman showed up.
Austin started up the rocks toward his waiting horse before he remembered. The woman had only one good arm. Going down to the falls was an adventure. Getting back up required two good hands and a stout disposition. With a sigh, he pivoted, taking care on the slick limestone.
Wet and shaking, the blonde edged cautiously along the wall, still cradling the arm.
He trudged back to her. "How did you get down here anyway?"
She shrugged but said nothing. Her silence bothered him.
"Oh, right, you fell." And I flew in on a Learjet. "Come on. You first." If she slipped, he could catch her.
She skittered past him, huddled into herself, the bright blue sweater stretched taut across her stooped back. She was like a wounded blue jay, a flash of color against the deep gray rocks.
Austin wanted to take hold of her elbow to steady her ascent but she didn't give him the chance. She was a strange creature, a mystery with her scared-doe eyes and defiant rock thumping.
He lifted a hand to his temple, found the knot. It didn't hurt much, nothing compared to how the woman's arm must feel. He'd had a broken bone once when a horse and cow collided and his leg was sandwiched between. Hurt like the dickens.
He could hear her breathing, the puffs of someone unaccustomed to long hikes on rough terrain. He thought of her girly heeled shoes, her upscale clothes, the bleeding face. She was lying.
The question was, why?
He moved in behind her and took her elbow with one hand and supported her back with the other. She flinched, a motion that made Austin grind his back teeth. But she didn't pull away, a good thing, because Austin was a stubborn man. If he had to, he'd swoop her over one shoulder and cart her up the rise like a sack of sweet feed. She probably didn't weigh much more than a hundred-pound sack of oats.
They reached the top of the ridge and she paused for a moment to catch her breath and look around. Not a casual glance at nature's beauty, but a search. A furtive, wary search.