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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded A Legacy of Lies, you’re in for a treat!
by Stephenia McGee
Sarah Sanders is so stressed-out at college that she’s having fainting spells. She’s behind on the rent and facing eviction. Dropping out of school feels inevitable. Needing a break, she accepts her boyfriend’s invitation to visit his parents’ ranch out west. But she finds much more in Montana than fresh air and mountain trails.
Ranch hand Jim Anderson has suffered from night terrors for over a year. But despite this secret struggle, his life at the ranch had been a welcomed escape from his past. Until those terrifying dark shadows started coming for him in the middle of the afternoon.
Brought together by an unseen hand, Sarah and Jim must travel across the country to unravel a web of deceit and uncover Jim’s long history of lies before the evidence is sealed away forever.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Murky voices pushed into Sarah’s mind. She pushed them back. A steady throbbing pulsed in her temple, drowning out the pesky sounds trying to draw her from the deep stillness surrounding her. Finally, it was quiet. No stress. No pressure. Sarah leaned her head back and took a deep breath. Crisp air filled her lungs. The bright blue sky was only interrupted by striking mountain peaks. In the distance, a silhouetted figure on a muscular horse kicked up dust as they galloped toward her. Hooves pounded a steady rhythm that vibrated in her chest. Closer. The cowboy lifted his chin. She could almost see him.
A noise caught her attention. A voice. Insistent. Heavy-accented. Russian? The cowboy began to fade, the pounding hooves replaced by a steady pulsing in her temples. Someone called her name. Sarah tried to focus. Something wasn’t right. She wasn’t dreaming. The voices returned. Louder this time. Forcing her leaden eyes open, Sarah tried to find the source of the echoing voices.
Blurry faces hovered in a circle over her. Her eyelids slide closed as she tried to clear her mind. Slowly, her senses began firing neural transmissions to her muddled brain. She lay on a hard floor, tough, industrial carpeting pricked under her bare knees. A lingering smell of dust from the passage of many feet mingled with stale chips and old coffee.
Sarah groaned. The humming voices became clearer. A touch on her shoulder snapped her mind to attention. Her eyes flew open.
“Miss Sanders? Miss Sanders, are you okay?”
The heavy Russian accent belonged to her physics professor. He and several of her classmates leaned over her with concerned looks.
Sarah gently shook her head. She rose to a sitting position and placed a hand to her forehead.
“You passed out, Miss Sanders. Are you feeling well? Do we need to call someone from the student health center?”
“No. I think I’m okay.” She glanced at the faces surrounding her. Most of them she recognized, but she couldn’t place any names. “What happened?”
The professor dramatically wagged his head, locks of thick gray hair slipping across his forehead. “Well, we don’t really know. We were discussing the exam when I heard the students gasping, and there you were, out on the floor.” He frowned. He probably thought she had a bad hangover.
Sarah dropped her gaze. “I think I just need to go home and rest.”
“Very well. You can email me for the remainder of the notes.”
Sarah nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
Hands slide under her elbows as two young men helped her to her feet. She felt her ears turning red. “Thank you.”
“Do you need a ride home?” one asked. An attractive guy towered over her. They’d spoken once or twice before, but she couldn’t recall his name. She thought it started with an M.
Sarah tried to smile. “No, thank you. I’m okay. I live close.”
“Would you like me to walk you?”
“No, I’m okay, really.” He looked disappointed. “But thank you, anyway.”
He dipped his chin and returned to his seat. Everyone still watched her.
Professor Ivanov pointed a finger at her. “You might want to go to the student health center.” His stern gaze caused her cheeks to flush.
Sarah quickly gathered her things and hurried a few doors down to the women’s bathroom. Hands shaking, she splashed cold water on her face and tried to calm her nerves. She studied her reflection. The circles under her eyes were getting darker. She sighed and cut off the water.
Outside, she sat on a bench and breathed deep breaths of fresh late spring air. Sarah didn’t need to go to the health center. She knew why she’d passed out. She’d had a panic attack. It had happened before, though not for the last several years. She’d been lost during the review. No way she was going to make a high enough grade on the final exam to bring up her average. If she didn’t make a “C” in physics, she’d have to take it again during the summer if she had any hope of applying to medical school.
She should’ve known better than to take a twenty-one credit hour semester. It was taking too much out of her. She was taking her final levels of both physics and organic chemistry.
Those two classes alone kept her up until the early morning hours. She just hadn’t been getting enough sleep. That had to be all it was. She needed a break. Her body was telling her to slow down.
A vibration in her back pocket startled her. Sarah flipped open the phone. “Hello?”
“Miss Sanders? This is Beverly.”
Sarah cringed. “Yes?”
“Sarah, you know why I’m calling. You missed the rent again. I shouldn’t have to keep reminding you about it every month. Your lease is nearly up. I’m going to have to ask you and your friend to find other living arrangements.”
Sarah squeezed the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. “Please, Beverly.
I’m sorry. My class load is overwhelming and I’m sorry I’ve been late a few times. I’m under a lot of stress right now. If you’ll just let me run to the bank I can be over there first thing in the morning to–”
“What’s wrong with right now?”
“I still need to go to the bank and I have another class.”
“Fine. Bring it first thing tomorrow. But my decision still stands. I’ll need you both out at the end of the month.” The line went dead.
She hated to lose that apartment. It was clean, fully furnished, and way better than sharing a bathroom in the dorm.
Help me, Lord. I don’t know what to do.
Sitting back against the cool metal backrest, Sarah chewed her lip and thought about her predicament. She hadn’t told Clark about her fainting spells. He’d try to help, but she didn’t want to put her problems on him. She could handle it. Still, talking to him made her feel better. She pushed Clark’s number on speed dial. He answered after only two rings.
“Hey, Sarah. I thought you’d still be in class.”
“Yeah. Got out early. Are you busy?”
“Just doing some last minute cramming. What’s up?”
She started to tell him the truth, but thought better of it. “Your offer still stand?”
“Sure! Have you decided to come?” The excitement in his voice made her smile.
“Yeah. I think I will. Maybe it’s just what I need.”
“Great. You’ll love it. I know you will.” He paused, but she didn’t say anything else.
“Okay, well, I really got to get ready for this test. How about we talk about this over supper?”
“Okay. Good luck on your test.”
“Bye.” Sarah placed the phone back in the pocket of her jeans and slowly made her way across campus.
She decided to skip her next class. She certainly didn’t need any more fainting spells, and besides, it was probably better if she went to the bank and then took some time off to rest. Marci wasn’t home when she made it back to the apartment, so she flopped across the overstuffed couch and buried her head under a multicolored throw blanket. Within moments, her body slept.
The sound of the kitchen door opening roused Sarah from her dreamless slumber. She sat up and ran her fingers through her tangled hair.
Marci rounded the corner into the living room. She pushed her black-frame glasses back on her nose and put her hands on her hips.
Sarah yawned. “Hey, Marci.”
“Well, I guess you got a phone call from Beverly, too?” Marci’s thick, southern drawl made her words flow as smoothly as molasses. It was a shared condition. But whereas Marci was proud of her southern roots, Sarah did her best to sound like anyone but that small-town Georgia girl.
“Yeah,” Sarah said. I’m really sorry.”
Marci shrugged. “It’s okay.”
Sarah popped her knuckles. They both knew it wasn’t. She changed the subject.”So… did you get the scholarship?”
Marci looked at her for what felt like a long time. “No.”
Sarah offered a half-hearted smile. “Sorry. You deserved it.”
“Thanks.” Marci turned back to the kitchen and grabbed a Mountain Dew from the fridge.
She returned and leaned against the doorframe, apparently lost in thought. Sarah studied the fraying edge of the throw blanket and tried to come up with some words of encouragement. Or comfort. She couldn’t think of anything.
“What’s your schedule like?” Sarah asked, finally breaking the tense silence.
“Got a chem test tonight at eight, but that’s it. My last one’s bio, tomorrow at eleven. You?”
“My last ones physics, tomorrow morning. After that, I guess I’ll come back here and pack. Looks like our lease is up.”
“Are you goin’ home for the summer, then?”
Sarah inwardly cringed. No way was that going to happen. “No. I decided to go with Clark.”
Marci grinned. “Good.”
“Yeah. I guess. What are you going to do?”
Marci shrugged. “I was thinking of taking some summer classes, but I think I need a break. My parents have been wanting to see me, so when we close everything out here, I guess I’ll go home for a spell.”
Sarah hung her head. “Sorry.”
Marci sat next to her and placed an arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “Don’t you worry.
Things always work out for the best. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
Sarah forced a smile and wished she felt half as confident.
Jim Anderson woke up screaming. Cold sweat rolled down his forehead. Another nightmare. He sat at the edge of the bed struggling to breathe. He ran his clammy hands through his damp hair, his nerves frayed. Jim staggered down the hall to the small bathroom to splash his face with water. His heart skipped when a knock rattled the door on its hinges.
“You okay in there? What’s goin’ on?” The brusque voice of the foreman grated his last remaining nerve.
“Nothing.” Jim shot back. He flung open the bathroom door and stood glaring up at Buddy. “Just a dream.”
Buddy growled. “Not again.”
Jim looked down the hall. The roused ranch hands glared in his direction, mumbling rude expressions under their breaths. After a few seconds, the sound of their slamming doors echoed through the bunk house.
Buddy swore. “You scared of the dark, boy? What the heck do ya’ mean wakin’ everyone up this time of night? Get your butt back in bed. We got an early day tomorrow.”
Jim clenched his teeth and closed the door.
Great. Like this is going to earn you any respect around here. Get a grip on yourself, man! You have enough to deal with.
He leaned against the door and took several ragged breaths to calm his nerves. Jim thought of his mother. Her wisdom. She always knew how to ease his anger.
I miss you so much. I’m sorry, Mom.
That was a demon he didn’t want to face tonight. He forced the images from his head.
When his pulse finally slowed, he returned to his room and dropped onto his creaky bed. The sheets were still damp with sweat. Tonight he was thankful he was the only guy without a roommate. Despite their frequency, he’d never had a nightmare this vivid before. So real. So intense.
It’s just stress. Too many old memories still swimming around in my head.
Jim reached up and touched the v-shaped scar under his eye. His fists reflexively clenched. He resolved he would never have anything to do with that life again. Ever. He was safe here. He flopped back onto his pillow without getting back under the covers, unconcerned with the spring chill permeating the plank walls. Forcing his eyes to close, he drifted into a fitful sleep.
The next morning, Jim was put on maid duty. He spent most of the morning straightening up around the bunkhouse and washing dishes in the kitchen. His afternoon consisted of barn work.
After a solid hour of rubbing saddle soap into the leather of six ropers, he grew tired of the chore. He set the rag aside and stretched his aching muscles. He was reaching for a seventh saddle when he heard a commotion outside.
The shouts drew Jim from the barn. Justin Parks cussed and strained his large bicep muscles against the rear gate of the stock trailer. The rusted red metal vibrated from the hammering it was receiving from the frightened animal inside.
Ronnie Wilson’s head emerged from the window of the pickup truck at the front of the trailer.
“Am I close enough? I can’t see a thing with that trailer rocking. Justin, get out of the way before you get yourself killed!”
Buddy hollered for Ronnie to back up farther and motioned with his hands. The truck eased back until it was positioned in front of the arena gate. Jim dashed across the yard and pulled open the large metal cattle gate just as Ronnie put the truck into park.
Jim was about to get a closer look through the slats in the trailer when Buddy’s calloused hand grabbed his shoulder and flung him backward.
“Get out of the way.” Buddy growled before stalking up to Ronnie’s truck.
Jim stumbled. When he regained his footing, he stepped on the bottom rail of the arena to watch the unfolding chaos. Ronnie slammed the truck door and threw his hat on the ground.
“Those idiots are going to hear from me,” he said. “I should sue them for endangerment.”
Buddy scooped up his boss’ hat and followed him around to the back of the trailer. Jim kept his mouth shut and stayed out of the way lest Buddy send him back to cleaning tack in the barn. The horse’s neighing and snorting nearly drowned out the clanging of the metal as the animal repeatedly kicked and reared in the trailer.
“Stand back.” Justin shouted as he flung the trailer door open. He dove for safety just as the massive animal bolted through the gate. Heaving, and covered with thick, foamy sweat, the impressive bay flung his head in the air and reared. Jim had never seen a horse more beautiful.
Its black mane gleamed in the late afternoon sun and danced on the light breeze.
Buddy cussed as he forced the arena gate closed. Ronnie had backed just a little too far, and it took all of Buddy’s strength to close the metal gate against the back of the trailer. He and the others joined Jim on the rail to watch the crazed horse paw and pace with furry on the other side of the enclosure.
Buddy spit a stream of tobacco. “What in blazes you thinkin’ bringing that maniac horse
here? You plannin’ on having a rodeo?”
Ronnie narrowed his eyes. “Don’t start with me today. You think I knew that animal was crazy? There are laws against drugging horses. You better bet I’m going to get my money back.”
Buddy nodded. They watched the horse in silence for several minutes. Ronnie was still stewing when Buddy leaned forward to look toward Jim.
“Hey, horse whisperer, why don’t you hop in there and tame that beast with your weird ‘horse language’ crap?”
Jim cut his eyes over at Buddy and scaled the fence.
“Hey! Are you crazy?” Ronnie yelled.’
Jim just kept walking, ignoring them.
“Fool thinks he’s got some kinda power over horses. Watch that one teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget.”
Jim strode to the center of the arena and stopped. When the animal spotted him, it stopped pacing and turned a wild eye on him. He slowly dropped into a crouch.
“What in tarnation is he doing?” Ronnie mumbled.
“I done told you he does crap like that. You should see him out here with that horse of his.” Buddy said.
Jim took a deep breath. He smiled at the horse. It tossed its head. Jim remained perfectly still and lowered his eyes. The minutes ticked by slowly. He could hear the men behind him shuffling. Finally Ronnie sighed.
“Boy, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but your burning daylight.”
Jim didn’t move.
“Well, I’ll be.” Ronnie let out a low whistle. “You boys see that?”
The horse took a few cautious steps toward him as he slowly lifted his arm and extended his hand. It took another cautious step and stretched his neck until the tip of his muzzle grazed Jim’s fingertips.
He snorted and tossed his head, his dark mane dancing around his massive head. Jim remained motionless, the sweat trickling down the back of his neck. The cowboys behind him stood silent. Jim licked his lips. One wrong move and he could be trampled. He controlled his breathing.
The bay took another step forward and touched Jim’s hand again, sniffing. Jim rose painstakingly slow from his position. The animal didn’t move. Keeping one hand in front of the horse’s nose, its hot breath on his fingertips, Jim eased his other hand to his thick neck and rubbed gently. After a few strokes, the animal lowered his head. Jim smiled, gave him a few more rubs, and turned to walk away.
The three cowboys on the fence stared at him with open astonishment. Justin shook his head and walked away. Jim flashed Buddy a smirk, hopped the fence, and returned to the barn, letting the door slam behind him.
Instead of returning to his work in the tack room, Jim stood by the door, enjoying the moment. He wouldn’t soon forget the look on Buddy’s face. Outside he heard men’s voices and pressed closer to the door. He had to strain a little, but could make out most of what they were saying.
“That kid’s got guts,” Ronnie said.
Buddy snorted. “Fool is what he is. Could’ve been killed.”
“You’re the one told him to get in there.”
“Didn’t think even he was that stupid.” Buddy cursed and kicked at the gravel. Jim held in a laugh.
“Looks like he made good on what you called him. In all my years I ain’t never seen someone calm a crazed animal like that.”
“I still don’t like him. Just something that ain’t right about him.”
“Why? ’cause he ain’t kissing your boots like the rest of them?” Ronnie said. “Gotta admire a man who doesn’t worry too much about what everyone else thinks ’bout him.”
Jim nodded behind the door. At least Ronnie was sticking up for him.
“That boy’s been a good worker this last year, and you know it. He’s smart too.”
“Don’t trust a man I don’t know anything about.”
“He just turned twenty-four, goes by Jim, and is as good a worker as any this ol’ ranch has ever seen. What else you need to know?”
“You ever look for anythin’ on him?” Buddy lowered his voice. Jim pressed his ear closer against the rough wooden door. The men weren’t too far off.
“No. Why would I do that?” Ronnie asked, sounding a little annoyed.
“Still seems like somethin’s just off ’bout that guy.”
“So, he’s a bit tight-lipped ’bout himself. Nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of fellas who won’t shut up about how great they are.”
“Well, what ’bout that scar? He ever tell ya ’bout it? Won’t say nothin’ to anyone else. He shuts up tighter’n a clam whenever someone asks.”
“Don’t rightly know. Maybe it’s got somethin’ to do with why he don’t talk much ’bout himself.”
Buddy huffed. “Yeah, probably somthin’ incriminating.”
Jim tightened his fists. He knew he shouldn’t be ease dropping, but he couldn’t help it.
“Never can assume what you don’t know about a man, Buddy,” Ronnie said. “You still haven’t lightened up on him, have you?”
Jim stepped as quietly as he could over to the crack between the two large doors. He wanted to see the look on the foreman’s face. It was worth risking being caught. The strip of light was just wide enough for him to see Buddy, but not Ronnie.
Buddy scowled. “I ain’t hard on him. I just point out what he does wrong. If he knew what was goin’ on, then I wouldn’t have to correct him so much. It’s just a hassle to have to worry ’bout some greenhorn all the time.”
Jim rolled his eyes.
Ronnie laughed. “Yeah, sure.”
“Well, I’m proud of Jim. Y’know, Clark should be here tomorrow. They’re ’bout the same age.”
“He’s comin’ in from college?” Buddy asked.
“Still can’t believe you let him go to a school in California.”
“He made a good choice, even if it’s all the way down into bleeding-heart-liberal country. Wakely University’s got business classes, and they’re one of the few colleges in the country that’s got hands-on horse skill classes too.”
“Got hands-on horse classes here.”
Ronnie laughed. “I reckon that’s true.”
Buddy flashed a rare smile. “Just wait ’till he comes home with some bleach-blond Barbie-doll for your daughter-in-law.”
Jim heard Ronnie kick the gravel. “Naw! A good western woman like his momma is what he needs. A rancher needs someone who understands the hardships of livin’ off the land. It’s tough enough to handle all the rough necks around.”
Buddy nodded. “Yeah. And she’s gotta be able to pull a calf at two in the mornin’!”
“I don’t think the boy’s lookin’ to settle anytime soon. He’s only–”
The blaring of Ronnie’s cell cut into the conversation. He always kept it in a leather holster on his hip. Jim figured Ronnie had the volume on that thing up as far as it would go.
“This is Ronnie.”
Jim eased over to position himself so he could see Ronnie through the small crack.
“Yeah. This is Ronnie Wilson.” He frowned.
Jim watched as a bewildered expression crossed his boss’s face.
“Well, ma’am, what might his name be and I’ll see what I can do for you?”
Ronnie pulled the phone from his ear and stared at it in confusion.
“What was that about?” Buddy asked.
“I don’t know. It was weird. Some woman askin’ me ’bout her son. But didn’t seem like she remembered his name. Then the line went dead.”
“So call back.”
“That’s what’s strange. There’s no ID showing. It doesn’t give a number or say unknown or private, or anythin’.”
“Huh. That is weird.”
Ronnie shrugged and the two men walked toward the house. Jim frowned and returned to work.
Sarah twirled her spaghetti around her fork, then chewed without really tasting it.
“So, what are you going to do with all your stuff?” Clark’s voice drew Sarah out of her thoughts.
“Well, the apartment was furnished, so all I really have is my clothes and a few other things. I packed most of it in my car. I have a friend whose parents have an empty place in the storage building behind their house, and she told me they said I could park it there for a couple of weeks while I’m gone.” She shrugged. “After we get back, well, then I’ll start looking for something else.”
“Are you going to go home to see your folks?” Clark asked.
It was an honest question, one that anyone with a normal family would ask. She knew it shouldn’t irritate her. “No, I don’t think so. It’s a long trip.”
Clark studied her for a moment, but didn’t push. He reached across the checker-print tablecloth and took her hand. It disappeared in his. She smiled.
“So,” he said, brimming with excitement. “I think this trip is just what you need. Take some time off. Have some fun. Get some fresh air.”
“Yeah.” She still hadn’t told him about the dizzy spells. No sense in worrying him for no reason. “You have no idea. This semester’s been awful. I need a break.”
Clark grinned. “You’re going to love it.”
Sarah hoped he was right. Why, then, did she have this uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach? She took a deep breath of the garlic-scented air and squeezed Clark’s hand.
He was a good guy. Kind. Funny. He took her to church. He was stable and trustworthy.
Everything she was looking for. Maybe some time away with him would give her a chance to open up more. Once she got away from all this stress, she’d have a little more time to focus on the relationship. Maybe that was all she needed to calm the uneasiness.
After dinner, they strolled hand-in-hand through the melting daylight toward her apartment. It was a small, two bedroom rental in the basement of a fifty’s style bungalow, but it was clean, had a private entrance, and was close to campus. She was going to miss it. Sarah walked most days to class and to the little Italian place Clark liked to take her to just a few blocks away. Saved a lot on gas. Not that her ancient Toyota used that much, but she saved where she could.
Sarah stopped at the front door and tilted her head back to look at him.
“So, I’ll see you first thing in the morning?” Clark asked.
“Okay.” Her bags were already packed. Her car stuffed with grocery-store boxes and parked in the shed. There was no turning back. This was going to be a good thing. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and smiled. “See you in the morning.”
Sarah turned toward the door, but Clark caught her hand. “Is something wrong?”
She took a breath and studied his face for a few seconds. “No. Nothing’s wrong.”
He frowned. “Something’s bothering you. What is it?”
Sarah thought a moment about how much she should tell him. A moth fluttered around the light by the door, its wings bumping against the glass. Sarah watched it for a few moments pondering the right words. “Well, I have a lot on my mind, I guess. I doubt I made what I needed to on that physics final this morning. I have nowhere to live, and my chances of getting more student loans for another semester are slim. On top of that, I’m just not so sure I even want to do this anymore.”
“Do what? Medical school?”
“Yes,” Sarah said softly. Somehow saying it out loud made it more real.
“It’s not that simple. If I don’t get that degree, how am I ever going to pay off the debt? It’s too late now.” Sarah swallowed the lump in her throat. Her emotions were just too close to the surface today.
Clark took her hand. “I’m sure it will work out. You never know what the future might hold. Maybe you won’t have to worry about paying them off alone.”
The uneasiness returned. “Clark, I… I just want to take things slow. You know that, right?”
“Yes. And we have, but I thought you wanting to come meet my parents meant we were taking this to the next level. I care about you, Sarah. A lot.”
“I care about you, too. But I said no to begin with because that’s exactly what I figured you’d think.”
Clark dropped her hand. “What do you want, then? You’ve got me confused. One moment I think we’re doing great, the next you’re distant. I’m getting tired of this, Sarah. Do you want to be with me or not?”
She dropped her eyes. Finally, she gave him the most truthful answer she could. “I don’t know.” Her words were barely a whisper.
Silence. When she looked at him, his face was hard. She stepped a little closer and placed her hands on his tense shoulders. “Clark, I do care about you. I didn’t mean it like that. I just, well, to be totally honest, I’m just stressed completely out. I want to have deeper feelings. I want to make this work. I think it can, but I need to get away from all this for awhile and have some breathing room. That’s why I wanted to go with you.”
Clark relaxed a little, but still didn’t speak.
“The whole meeting-your-parents thing makes me nervous, though. I’m not sure we’re ready for what that signifies. That’s why I was hesitant to go to begin with.”
Sarah dropped her hands and stepped back. What more could she say?
Finally, Clark released a long breath. “Okay. I understand. We’ll go and have a good time. Don’t think about it as meeting my parents. Think about it as a vacation and some time away.” He paused for a moment. “And maybe as a chance for us to spend some more quality time together.”
Sarah smiled. “Yes. I would like that very much. Thank you, Clark.”
He grabbed her and hugged her. She returned the embrace. He eased her back and touched his lips softly to hers. “Good night.”
“Good night.” Sarah watched him walk away until his form disappeared among the shadows.
She went to her room and shut the door. A thousand questions about her future whirled in her mind as she glanced over the small space. The closet and dresser were cleaned out. Her clothes for tomorrow were hanging in the bathroom. Everything but what she’d need in the morning was packed. She and Marci had already wiped down the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and vacuumed the floors. There was nothing left to do.
Tomorrow would be a new day. Somewhere deep inside, she knew this was the right choice. Sarah quickly changed and crawled into bed, and within moments she was dreaming of horseback riding through the mountains.
* * * * *
Later, from Chapter Six
It was cold.
The eerie silence of a moonless, starless night engulfed him.
Jim shivered. It had been high noon only a few minutes ago. Had he fallen asleep? He didn’t remember being tired. He shook his head and tried to focus his groggy mind. He peered around cautiously. Where was his horse?
A rustling sound in the bushes startled him. His eyes darted to investigate. Nothing.
No, wait. There it was again. Off to the left. His eyes strained, searching for the slightest movement or shape. Something. Anything.
He felt like a kid afraid of the dark.
Get a hold of yourself, man.
Fingers of fear teased along the back of his neck. The hairs stood on end. He shivered.
Where was that horse?
“Ciervo!” His voice sounded weak even to his own ears. He tried again. Now he was completely hoarse.
Swallowing the panic rising from the pit of his stomach, he took a cautious step forward.
He heard stirring in the woods behind him. Squirrels? He listened intently.
The noise came again. No. Definitely not a squirrel. Something was pacing in the woods. Deliberate. Stalking. Jim’s mouth went dry.
His heart raced and he looked desperately around, scanning the darkness. Blackness blanketed the meadow. Jim hoped Ciervo hadn’t wandered too far. He started to walk. Slowly. Calculating. He couldn’t tell in what direction he moved.
His cell! He could use it as a light source. Jim’s hand brushed at his hip. It wasn’t there. He frowned. It always stayed on his belt. He never left the ranch without it.
Jim’s eyes strained, but he could barely make out his surroundings. The farther he walked, the darker it got. His breathing came in quick, rapid intakes.
A shrill sound broke the silence. His heart leaped.
Where was he? Was the mountain lion after him?
Hoof beats. Thank goodness.
They were pounding quicker than his rapidly drumming heart. A shadow appeared about thirty feet in front of him.
It wasn’t his beloved horse. It looked like something galloping up from Hell.
The horrid creature ran wildly toward him. The cold air caused the hot breath to billow from its nostrils like a smoking dragon.
The monster’s eyes looked like no earthly thing he had ever seen. The bulging orbs had a luminescent shine that came from deep behind the pupils. In the pitch black they glowed like a ghostly beacon.
The horse-shaped beast lowered his head. The creature was preparing to slam into him.
Jim threw himself out of its path and landed sharply on his hip. His right thigh slammed into a large, extruded boulder. Fire shot down his leg. Ignoring the pain, he jumped to his feet, eyes probing the darkness for the crazed brute. The ghostly version of Ciervo had vanished.
Despite the cold, he began to sweat. Jim felt eyes boring into him. Someone or something watched him. He was exposed. Unprepared. His heart hammered in his chest. His body refused to move.
Another sound. Different. It wasn’t rustling limbs or bushes, and it certainly wasn’t the horse’s wild hoof beats. It was quiet, like a soft whisper. Crying? No, calling out for something.
He strained to catch the garbled words. The voice grew louder. More urgent. Still he couldn’t make out the woeful tone. Then, as if his brain finished translating some cryptic code, the word became clear.
Again. Louder this time. “James… James…” The voice rose and fell in the darkness. Its eerie sound slithered into his ears.
“Hello?” His voice echoed hoarsely. He held onto a feeble hope the voice came from someone nearby lost in the dark along with him. No one here knew him by that name. He stood holding his breath, listening.
Suddenly, a freight train of frigid air knocked him backward. Terrified, he dared not to move. The voice came again.
“You must help. Soon it will be too late–”
An insidious roar erupted around him. Hot, musty breath bathed Jim’s face. He struggled backward. He couldn’t quite make out the figure standing over him. The silhouette was enormous. Its shoulders spanned at least four feet. An odd-shaped head swayed from side-toside.
Paralyzed with fear, Jim lay helpless. The creature rose to stand upright. Seven. Eight feet tall. Jim gasped for air. His feet tore into the soft ground, trying to gain footing. Desperately trying to get away. The creature came crashing toward him.
A radiant blast of light slammed into the creature, propelling the fiend backwards. Jim shielded his eyes as a horrific battle commenced. Two shadow-laced figures laid into one another. Even the searing light slashing at the beast couldn’t illuminate it. It was made of darkness.
Jim scrambled on his hands and knees, and tried to escape the chaos unfolding. Finally climbing to his feet, he ran.
He didn’t make it far.
Snatched downward by an unknown force, Jim slammed into the ground. A massive weight compressed his chest. He couldn’t breathe. Fighting to free himself, he felt an ominous drag backward. The being constricted Jim’s movements. It stared deep into his eyes, as if it could see his very soul.
“You are not ready,” the voice boomed.
Jim’s eyelids snapped open. The sunlight burnt as though he had been in a dark theater and was just emerging into a July afternoon. Jim sat up and looked around. He was in the meadow where he had stopped for lunch. It was half past noon, just like he remembered. Ciervo grazed quietly, his eyes nearly closed and his tail casually swishing away buzzing insects. Jim couldn’t remember a dream ever feeling so real. Something was in his hand. It was the ham sandwich he had packed earlier. He’d fallen asleep eating? He felt strangely cold, though the day had warmed to about sixty-five. He shivered and got up to walk to the buckskin. His right thigh throbbed. He shook his head. Must have been sitting on it wrong.
The horse raised his head and pricked his ears forward, inquiring what his master wanted.
A soft nicker vibrated the horse’s nostrils. Jim found the itchy spot at the base of Ciervo’s neck, just at the top of the mane. The horse leaned his big frame into his fingers, coaxing out a smile.
Jim still felt tense, though. In the woods behind him, he thought he heard a rustling. Slowly turning his head, he caught a glimpse of something retreating.
Then it was gone.