She ignored the first tingle. After all, she’d been bent over this operating table for what felt like hours.
Then the second hot shard of sensation shot up her neck. Her hands stilled over the spread-eagled tabby whose abdominal incision she had almost finished closing. Please, God, not here. Not now.
Her prayer went unheeded. In the time it took to form the plea, she felt her scalp prickle. Lord, she’d have to hurry. She’d barely have time to get home before that damnable shower of stars started appearing in the periphery of her vision, eventually narrowing it to a tunnel. Then the tingling in her scalp would graduate to a band of pain….
“Lauren, is something wrong?”
Lauren Townsend glanced at her assistant, Heather Carr. “Migraine,” she lied. She gestured to the patient on the table. “This’ll have to be the last one tonight. Could you duck out and have Karen break the news to the waiting room while I finish up?”
Heather grimaced. “They won’t like it.”
No, they wouldn’t, but it was elective stuff. “Tell them I’ll make it up Thursday night, for half price.” Already her tongue was getting thick. She glanced at Heather. “Could you look after our post-op patients if I take off?”
Thank God! “Okay, then could you have Karen call me a cab, too? I don’t think I’m up to driving.”
Heather’s gaze sharpened. “You sure you’re all right? I mean, do you think maybe you should go to the emergency room?”
“I’m sure,” Lauren said firmly. “It’s nothing that lying down in a dark room won’t cure.” Well, at least that was the truth.
Heather nodded and went to deliver the bad news.
Lauren was removing the anaesthetized cat’s restraints just as her assistant returned.
“Riot averted,” Heather announced. “And I see you’re finished here, which is perfect timing. Your taxi just rolled up.”
“Oh, good!” Lauren peeled her surgical gloves off and discarded them.
“Well, go on. Scoot.” Heather moved in and gently scooped the cat’s limp body up. “We’ve got everything under control here. And if anything does come up, I’ll call Peter.”
The ink had barely dried on Peter Markham’s degree, but he was an excellent vet. And he wouldn’t mind being called in. “Thanks, Heather.”
Twelve minutes later, she stumbled across the threshold of her house. Closing the door, she sagged against it while her two dogs, Gabe and Cissy, jostled for her attention. She’d made it. Just. Another reason to be grateful that she lived so close to her clinic in this Halifax suburb.
“Sorry, guys,” she told the dogs. “You’ll have to wait your turn.”
Rubbing damp palms on her khakis, she pushed herself away from the door. Her legs felt shaky, but they carried her. The weird tunnel vision didn’t help. It made her feel like the walls were crowding in on her as she made her way down the hall to her bedroom. Shutting her door on the dogs, she crawled onto the bed to wait. Her heart pounded with dread. Deep breaths, she told herself as the paralysis stole into her limbs. You’re okay.
Abruptly, her vision went completely black. For a terrifying moment, the sound of her own harsh breathing was her only anchor in the utter, lonely darkness. Then the vision exploded on her consciousness.
A blonde woman dressed in Western wear stood on a ridge top, staring out across a canyon. In the background, the sun brushed the horizon, staining the sky pink. A lovely woman against a lovely backdrop. But Lauren had seen this particular silent picture twice before.
Watch carefully. Check the background this time.
She forced herself to “look” past the woman, if that was the right word for it. Mountains rose against the sky, blue smudges in the distance. Over the woman’s shoulder, Lauren noted four peaks which aligned themselves like bumps on a dragon’s back. That’s good. You can remember that.
If only she could turn and scan the area. But she couldn’t. She saw only what he saw, condemned to watch through his eyes.
Then the woman turned. She was even more beautiful than Lauren remembered. Her green eyes radiated a sultry welcome, a complete and total assurance in her own sex appeal that few women projected. Then the woman’s lips moved as she mouthed a greeting.
She’s not talking to you, Lauren reminded herself.
Helpless, Lauren watched gloved hands rise into her line of sight, one on either side, as though they were her own appendages. No, please, she begged. But it was no use. She longed to close her eyes, flinch away, but she couldn’t. The man’s hands skimmed up the woman’s arms, then closed suddenly over her throat. The sensual welcome on the blonde’s face turned to surprise, then panic, then sheer terror.
As the woman fought for her life, Lauren fought to distance herself. Fought and lost. Stomach revolting, she watched the life squeezed out of the beautiful stranger. Watched it up close and personal, as though the murderer’s hands were Lauren’s own.
Then it was over. As always, the link began deteriorating immediately, but this time Lauren clung to it. She ignored the shut-down signals from her battered mind and held on. Show me something! she screamed silently.
Drawing a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he extracted one. Calmly, as though he hadn’t just committed murder, he produced a book of matches. Lauren shook, but the killer’s work-gloved hands were steady as he lit his cigarette. Steady enough that Lauren had plenty of time to read the logo on the matches.
Foothills Guest Ranch.
He tossed the matches to the ground and wheeled away.
She let go then, exhausted, and started the slow climb back. At periodic intervals, she tested her limbs until at last they obeyed. She let herself out of the bedroom and stumbled to her office, with little Cissy yapping at her feet and Gabe padding calmly along behind her. Anxiety gnawed at her as she flicked on her computer and waited for it to boot and for the wireless modem to connect. Another delay while the search engine loaded. Finally, she plugged in “Foothills Guest Ranch” and almost sobbed her relief when she struck pay dirt on the first try.
Foothills Guest Ranch, Borland, Alberta. The logo was a stylized mustang over the ranch’s name in black “wanted poster” lettering. This was it, exactly the same as the one on the book of matches! For the first time since this particular vision had begun three weeks ago, she felt a stir of hope. Maybe she could do something this time.
Her next thought deflated her. It was just a book of matches. There was no guarantee the murder would happen anywhere near the Foothills Guest Ranch. There was no telling how far those matches might have migrated. Yet the rugged country she’d glimpsed in the background couldn’t be anything other than the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, could it?
Her meager hope fizzled again as another thought struck her. Though she made the season to be high summer, who was to say it would be this summer? What if the murder wasn’t destined to take place for years? What if she were doomed to living this horror for another year? She shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about.
No, she had to act, and act now. She wouldn’t wait around until she read about the crime in the Globe and Mail. Not this time.
She chewed her lip. Maybe she should call Hal.
Hal – Detective Harold Parks – a cold case investigator with the Halifax Regional Police, would listen to her. What’s more, he’d believe her. After what had happened with the DiGiacinto girl’s cold case, he would always believe her. Too bad for both of them that her visions hadn’t been able to help any of the victims escape their fate. She sometimes thought that the grizzled old detective was more tortured by that failure than she was.
No, she decided. As much as she’d like to talk to someone, she wouldn’t bother Hal with this. There was nothing he could do about a crime that hadn’t happened yet, in a jurisdiction thousands of miles away. It would only add to the burden that seemed to weigh heavier on his shoulders with the passing years.
And it went without saying that she couldn’t call her sister, Danielle. Six years older than Lauren, Danny had been permanently scarred by the mortification Lauren had brought down on her family so long ago. Lauren been just five years old when she’d innocently tugged on the cuff of a police officer’s uniform to get his attention so she could tell him that Arianna DiGiacinto had been strangled by her own mother, not the shaggy-haired, bearded stranger on those Wanted posters. That bombshell had drawn a hysterical backlash that Lauren’s parents had been a long while living down. But there had been a silver lining – her mother’s wailing and her father’s grim, silent disappointment had actually banished the visions. Well, for almost two decades, anyway.
Yes, it was just over nineteen years between the DiGiacinto vision and the next one. And the return of the visions had been triggered by Detective Harold Parks.
Detective Parks had been sent to molder away his last two years before pension in the cold case section, and had picked up the DiGiacinto file. Mrs. DiGiacinito had answered the door when he’d called to do a routine interview. He’d hardly gotten the words out that he wanted to talk to her about her daughter’s cold case when the cancer-stricken Ginevra DiGiacinto confessed right there on her doorstep. Lauren had read about it in the papers two days later, and everything she’d managed so successfully to forget had come flooding back. As had the visions.
She’d tried a couple of times to reach out to other “psychics”. In her desperation, she’d hoped they could somehow illuminate or amplify her visions, or be able to see them from a different perspective which might then help her find and save her victims. The first time she’d tried to connect with another psychic was shortly after the visions had resumed. She’d been so young then, still at college. She’d phoned and made an appointment, but when she’d gone around to the woman’s shop, she’d chickened out. The next time, she tried it by telephone, choosing a psychic whose ad she found online. She’d made the appointment and prepaid for it (perhaps she wasn’t the only person to have lost courage before an appointment). The lady had seemed nice enough, but as Lauren had fumbled and stumbled to say what was on her mind, she’d launched into a “reading”. She told Lauren that she could see her spirit guides – there were three of them and they manifested as giant butterflies – and proceeded to start giving her advice based on what these butterflies communicated to her. Needless to say, Lauren had wrapped that conversation up without broaching her problem.
No, she was in this alone.
As though sensing the gloomy cast of her thoughts, Gabe plunked his head in her lap. She smiled and rubbed his ear as she studied the webpage on her screen.
The ranch looked gorgeous, she had to admit. From what she gleaned, it was a real ranch with a real cow-calf operation to which this guest ranch sideline had been added within the last year. It looked, in fact, like a pretty good spot to spend a vacation. All those happy, smiling people on horseback, sharing their love of riding and the outdoors. God, how long had it been since she’d ridden a horse?
For that matter, how long had it been since she’d had a vacation?
Too long. She’d been saving her money for a wedding and saving her vacation time for a honeymoon. But neither had come to pass, so she’d thrown herself into her work instead.
You could take a vacation now. The idea drifted through her mind and snagged there.
Yes, dammit, she could. She could register at the Foothills Guest Ranch for a nice, long vacation. And with a little luck and a lot of digging, maybe she could figure out who that beautiful woman was in time to save her.
Before she let herself get too carried away with the idea, she picked up the phone and called Peter Markham.
“Hey, Lauren, what’s up?”
“How would you like more hours at the clinic?”
A pause. “How many more?”
“Full time, for two, maybe three weeks? Possibly a little longer. Starting mid-week next week, or thereabouts. I’m not exactly sure yet. I don’t have my tickets.”
“Full time? I’d love to! I’m on call evenings for Crowley and McFarlane, but that’s just the first four days. Piece of cake.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it, Peter.”
“Not as much as I’ll appreciate the hours,” he replied. “But I hope there’s nothing wrong?”
“No, nothing wrong. Just taking a long-overdue vacation.” She smiled, hoping he’d hear it in her voice and be reassured. “Thanks for having my back. We can talk about it more on Monday,” she said, and hung up.
Another call to her best friend Kaylee DeGrace – this one not so short and sweet – and . her plants would be watered and her mail picked up. Her dogs she could board at the clinic.
Quickly, before doubt could set in, she went back to her computer and registered at the Foothills Guest Ranch for an open-ended stay and booked her flight.
The moment she finished the task and leaned back in her chair, the details of the vision played in her mind again. Her psyche – and her stomach – rebelled again, but this time, she didn’t feel quite so helpless.
“You won’t get her,” she vowed, then shivered as a faint echo of evil reverberated in her mind.
“Smile, Boss. Here comes another bus load of wranglers.”
Cal Taggart scowled at his foreman, Jim Mallory. “Would-be-wranglers, you mean. Cripes, I wish there was another way outta this mess. I’m not cut out for this, Jim.”
“It’s not such a bad bargain, I don’t reckon, long as you can hang on to the ranch. Whatever it takes, right?”
Cal grimaced as Jim threw his own words back at him. “Right.” Whatever it takes. That was his credo, sure enough. Whatever it took to amass thousands of acres of prime ranch land. Whatever it took to secure the best breeding stock. And now, whatever it took to keep the whole damned shooting match from falling into the clutches of the bank.
“Whatever it took” these days meant throwing his back into making this guest ranch a success. He’d been open to the public for four months now, and bookings were getting better each week. If he could just get it to take off, the profits would help his cattle ranch through this downturn.
Downturn, hell. His eyebrows drew together in a fierce frown. He’d had the worst run of misfortune of his life this summer. A grassfire in June claimed three head, although in truth he counted himself lucky. It might have destroyed his entire herd if it hadn’t been caught it in time. Then what must have been lightning strikes claimed a few more cattle.
But in the scheme of things, those were just aggravations. The real problem was that farm incomes had hit their lowest point since the Depression. Foreign subsidies, low commodity prices, you name it. Which is why he was stuck playing to the tourists.
As the two men pondered the price of survival, the first of the passengers clambered off the bus.
“I’ll handle this, Boss.” With a grunt, Jim pushed his arthritic frame off the fence.
“Stay put, Jimbo. I’ll see to it.” Cal tugged the brim of his hat down and strode across the drought-scorched grass toward the bus. Jim was the best wrangler he’d ever ridden with. Asking him to babysit tenderfooted adventure-seekers on tame trail rides was bad enough. He’d not see his friend reduced to smiling greeter.
No, that distinction he reserved for himself.
Dust rose up from her sandals as Lauren stepped off the bus into the punishing August sun. The black sun dress she’d thought so perfect for traveling sucked up the sun’s heat. Her hands came up to shade her eyes despite the sunglasses she wore. She was definitely going to need headwear. Back home in Nova Scotia, she’d have worn a sun hat to protect her fair skin, but she’d purposely left it behind. Nothing short of a Stetson was likely to cut it here.
She glanced at the man making his way down the line, greeting guests. Now, there was a working hat. Battered and dusty, it looked custom-molded for its tall, lean owner.
Except he didn’t really look much like a cowboy, she realized. Shave off a few years, lose the hat, and she could picture him in a leather jacket, cigarette dangling James Dean-like from his mouth. Or maybe astride a motorcycle.
She focused on his face. All planes and angles, it looked like it might have been carved from the rock that rose in the distance. What would it feel like under her palm? The thought came out of nowhere, as did the answer. Hard, warm, mobile.
She reined in those thoughts as soon as they registered, reminding herself that for all she knew, this man might be the killer. But as he moved closer, she found herself analyzing his gait and trying to put herself inside his head looking out. No, she decided. He didn’t have enough swaggering roll to his walk. His movements were more economical. Graceful, almost.
Suddenly he was there, offering his hand. “Welcome to Foothills, ma’am. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you.” As his big hand enfolded hers, she noticed his eyes. Sensual, hooded, they gleamed a silvery gray, like her beloved Atlantic Ocean under overcast skies.
They also gleamed with something else, she realized with another small jolt. Masculine interest.
Suddenly, she wished for her lab coat and trousers. The professional costume usually precluded this kind of thing. Not that she minded male appreciation. But from this cowboy, it made her unaccountably nervous. Maybe because she felt an answering twinge, a twinge she couldn’t afford to indulge. She hadn’t crossed a continent to flirt with a cowboy. She had one purpose here, and one only.
Turning toward the growing mountain of luggage, she dragged her duffel bag and suitcase from the pile. A hand closed over hers on the duffel bag’s handle.
“Let me help you with that.”
Damn. The gravel-voiced cowboy. “I can manage, thank you.”
“Allow me. You’re really not dressed for it.”
“I’ve got it, thanks.”
At her tone, he released his grasp. “Ma’am.” He tipped his hat, the barest suggestion of amusement flickering in those gray eyes. Then he was gone, helping a family of five drag their luggage from the pile.
Check in, handled by a capable middle-aged woman, went smoothly. Another employee, a quite dazzlingly handsome young man of maybe nineteen or twenty who introduced himself as Seth, showed her to her cabin. It was a fair distance from the lodge, and he insisted on carrying both the duffel bag and suitcase. Not wanting to puncture his youthful machismo, she allowed it. It also gave her the opportunity to study his gait. Burdened as he was, it was hard to judge, but he definitely had some swagger to him. Particularly after he noticed her checking him out. As if! He was just a kid.
But even kids could kill.
En route, they encountered the cowboy, who looked pointedly from Lauren’s empty hands to the overburdened young Seth. Oh, man! After she’d turned down his help only to accept it from this pretty youth, he no doubt concluded she preyed on teenage boys. Well, that was his problem. He could think what he liked. Refusing to blush, she smiled and offered him a what-can-you-do shrug.
A moment later, her young escort left her at her cabin. Putting the disturbing cowboy out of her mind, she explored her new living space. It was tiny, nothing more than a small kitchenette, a single bedroom and a tiny bathroom. The bath, she noted with relief, was modern. Equally pleasing was the sunny bedroom, its double bed draped with a hand-sewn quilt. On a scarred dresser, a bouquet of wildflowers trembled in the breeze from the open window. She fingered the blooms, inhaling their sweet scent. Prairie mallow and some fragrant purple thing.
Lauren crossed to the bed and stretched out on it, testing the firmness of the mattress. Exhaustion tugged at her. She’d love to pull the colorful coverlet over her shoulders, but she couldn’t. If she succumbed to sleep now, she’d be dead to the world until tomorrow, and that was unacceptable. She had a job to do.
On the way over, she’d pumped young Seth for information about how best to meet other folks. He’d suggested she take all her meals in the ranch house’s dining room rather than getting the kitchen to stock the cottage with food. Sooner or later, all the guests turned up there, he’d said.
Okay, the ranch house it was. Groaning, she rolled off the bed and hit the shower.
When she walked into the dining room an hour later, she was among the first of the diners. She picked a table by the window which would allow her to keep an eye on the comings and goings both inside the dining room and outside the house.
Dinner was buffet style. The dueling aromas of beef and fresh baked bread tantalizing her, she strolled over to the big table. She could only gape at the volume and variety of food. Hip of beef, baked potato, molasses baked beans, garden salads…. After six or seven dishes, she stopped counting. And carving the beef, a white chef’s hat on her head, was the same round-faced woman who’d handled the registrations.
“You sure get around,” Lauren said.
The other woman smiled. “‘Round here, nobody has just one job.”
“And what are yours?”
“Registration desk, cook, and housekeeper.” She poked the beef with the tines of her fork. “How do you take your beef?”
“Medium.” Lauren’s mouth watered. “It looks wonderful.”
“It is wonderful.”
At the masculine voice, she turned to find the cowboy, minus his hat and with plate in hand.
“It’s our specialty,” he said, as the cook handed Lauren back her plate, which now bore a sizeable hunk of meat. “Rolled and aged before being cooked in a big ol’ barbecue oven. Nobody does it like Delia.” He winked at the cook.
“Go ‘way with you.” The older woman blushed to the roots of her red hair.
He grinned at Delia. “Not without some of that beef.”
Lauren almost dropped her plate. He’d smiled when he greeted the tour group, but it hadn’t changed his face like this. Good thing. She might have melted into an embarrassing puddle.
“I’ve got just the piece for you, Boss. It still moos when you poke it.”
Boss? This hard-edged cowboy was the proprietor? Lauren watched as the woman forked a slab of rare beef onto his plate. She should have figured it, she supposed. He did exude an undeniable air of authority. No, maybe authority wasn’t quite the right word. At least, not in the conventional sense. It was more like the aura people project when they’re just that confident that they have the skills to meet whatever might be around the next corner.
She’d bet, too, that he harbored a wide streak of cynicism. It was there in the set of his mouth, as attractive as it was. Yes, his character was certainly set in his bones. High, intelligent forehead, strong cheekbones, stubborn chin. What in God’s name drew a man like this to the hospitality industry?
He cleared his throat, and she realized he was waiting for her to move on. Meanwhile, she’d been standing there studying his face as though it held the key to some ancient lost secret.
“Whoops, sorry. Woolgathering.” She smiled up at him while her mind raced. If he was the owner of this operation, he was a man she should be talking to. No time like the present. She glanced around the room and the mostly empty tables, then back up at him. “So, would you like to join me for lunch? Or are you the romantic loner cowboy archetype who has to sit by himself?”
He laughed, the sound sudden and spontaneous. “Ma’am, I’m the type who never says no to a beautiful woman when she asks me to dine with her,” he said. “Not sure what archetype that makes me, except red-blooded man.”
Inside, she felt a few butterflies at the idea of eating her meal with him watching her through those hooded eyes. There was something unsettling about his intensity. But she smiled back at him and said, “Thank you.”
He followed her to the small tablecloth-draped table near the window that she’d staked out earlier and drew out a chair for her. So, the cowboy had manners. She placed her loaded plate on the table and took a seat.
“Cal Taggart,” he said, seating himself opposite her and extending a hand.
“Lauren Townsend.” She extended her own hand, grateful that he merely shook it in a firm clasp and released it. Better and better. She hated it when guys held on too long, trying to make you aware of … what? The fact that they were stronger than you?
“So, did I pass inspection back there?”
Of course, he would mention it. There went all the points for politeness. Not that she minded a little directness. It was usually the best policy. Well, except for when it came to the woo-woo stuff. Honesty, she’d come to learn, was almost universally not the best approach to that particular topic.
“I don’t know yet.” Her gaze swept his torso visible above the table. “I didn’t get past the face.”
A glint in those gray eyes was his only reaction. “And how’d the face rate?”
She pursed her lips, tilted her head consideringly. “A little too strong, but good around the eyes.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You an artist or something?”
He smiled, the same smile that jerked at her senses when he’d used it on Delia. Good around the mouth, too.
“So, do I get a turn?”
She sipped her water. “I guess it would only be fair.”
He studied her. “Good hair, good bones, good diction.” His gaze fixed on her eyes. “Well-heeled east coast lady.”
“Well-heeled?” She let her lips part on a smile. “You make me sound positively proper.”
He shrugged, reaching for his own water goblet. “Could be, I suppose, if I believed it.”
She arched an eyebrow. “And you don’t?”
She waited while he chewed an ice cube. “Mouth makes a lie of the rest of it.”
Her pulse leapt. “Maybe it’s the mouth that lies.”
He made no remark, just watched her with those steady eyes. She suppressed the urge to swallow.
“To faces, then.” She raised her water goblet.
He clinked her glass in a salute. “To faces.”
“Okay, now that the obligatory bantering is out of the way,” she said, conscious of her proper east coast diction, “can I ask you some questions about the ranch?”
Something flickered in his eyes. “Sure. What would you like to know?”
For the next half hour, as they ate, she pumped him about his operation. She learned the ranch could accommodate around twenty guests, depending on how many could double up in beds or share cabins. Currently there were only thirteen guests registered, including her. Cal informed her the average stay for guests was three or four days, so people tended to come and go all the time. Most of them came in on the shuttle bus from Calgary, but some tourists arrived in rental cars. As for guest profile, he reported that he got a lot of couples, from 20-somethings to 50-somethings, as well as a lot of families, so the demographic was pretty mixed.
But talking about business, and by extension, himself, didn’t seem to be Cal Taggart’s favorite pastime. His answers grew progressively shorter, until finally he clumped his coffee cup down.
“Ms. Townsend, if you’re looking to start your own ranch, you’d be better off pickin’ someone else’s brains. There are plenty of more established, more successful outfits in these parts.”
“Oh, no! I have no desire to get into the business.”
“Then why the twenty questions?” His eyes drilled her.
What to say? I’m conducting a homicide investigation – before the fact? Hardly. She licked suddenly dry lips, searching for inspiration. Then the solution came to her.
“I’m a writer,” she lied. “My publisher thought it would be a great idea to set my next book on a guest ranch,” she said, warming to the idea. “It’s research of a sort.”
“A writer?” He sat back in his chair and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Should I know you, then?”
Yikes! She’d as much as said she was published, hadn’t she? “Oh, I don’t think so.”
“Try me. Despite my too-strong face, I have been known to read the occasional book.”
Okay, now what? She could say romance. He didn’t look like a romance reader. On the other hand, maybe he had a mother or a sister who was an avid fan of the genre. Then it came to her. Perfect! She placed her own napkin on the table and sat back. “Not these books.”
There was that eyebrow again. “And what kind is that?”
She smiled. “Female erotica.”