It was a great day to catch a killer.
Jonathan Adam Blakely pulled into the long gravel driveway of the McGregor Ranch. The rumbling of the distant thunder was getting closer and toward the west, the sky looked black. As one gust of wind kicked up its swirling heels and died, another took its place. These were welcome respites in the sweltering heat, but even these blasts of air were too heavy with moisture.
Adam didn’t care. Another crack of thunder turned his world into a film noir atmosphere, accentuating his morbid mood.
He rolled down the window to watch a riding lesson in the arena and almost suffocated with a blast from the stifling heat. The hay, horses and pine needles from the bordering forest preserve scented the sauna. Reminders of the stables of home.
The riders tried to control their horses with one hand as they wiped sand out of their eyes with the other. Several of them were looking up at the massive oncoming wall cloud and leaving the arena. All looked soaked from the steamy humidity.
A redhead passed him on a bay horse, her face shining with beads of
perspiration. She caught his eye and looked like she was going to stop, when her horse swerved at the sound of thunder. The woman regained control and kept on going.
Adam kept his eyes peeled on the arena, trying to spot his quarry. He’d never met a murderess face to face, and he doubted she’d wear a sign around her neck stating ‘killer.’
I don’t give a damn anymore about anything except finding Maggie McGregor.
He’d do anything to bring to justice the woman who’d destroyed his father. And since his FBI friends couldn’t or wouldn’t help, he’d decided to concoct a new identity--Adam Grant, playboy entrepreneur.
He was determined to see what this she-devil might look like.
A woman was standing in the center of the arena, circled by a few riders. Her brash voice screamed at her students to get their animals into the barn before the storm hit.
A strong gust sent a garbage can flying across the arena, and one of her riders lost control. The thoroughbred sidestepped and bucked. The frightened teenager lost her balance and pitched over the horse’s side, landing on her rear. She still held the reins.
How had she managed that? Adam got out of his Chevy Silverado and leaned against the rail to watch.
The redhead rode up and jumped off her horse.
He couldn’t hear the conversation, but the mini-drama interested him. The girl was crying, apparently frightened, and her horse snorted and pawed the ground, looking anxious to be back in the barn.
The woman gave the girl a hug, and the girl’s face lit up, sending a pleasant sensation through Adam. He wondered who the woman was.
The riding instructor walked up to them frowning and shaking her head. She said something, and the redhead held her hands in a surrender posture, mounted and trotted back to the gate.
Adam shoved his thoughts aside as a black anvil thundercloud blotted out the sun. The wind died down and the sky shifted to resemble an ugly
bruise he’d sported once after a fight in high school.
From inside his horse trailer, he heard his horse’s impatient pawing on the floor boards.
He drove down the driveway and parked his rig close to the large sliding barn door. An older man, leather-skinned, bronzed by the wind and sun, crouched while fiddling with something on the side of a tractor. When Adam approached, the man handed him a screwdriver, and asked for his help.
“See this? You just screw that sucker in until it’s tight. I’ll be holdin’ the piece on--like this.”
Amused, Adam did what he was told, crouching down beside him.
“Yes, yes. That’s right. Good.”
He stood up and appraised Adam. “Thanks. You our summer help? Bit old for a high school lad, I think.”
Adam grinned and handed the old man his screwdriver. “No, I’m Adam Grant.”
“Sorry. I was expecting a boy who wanted a summer job and didn’t show up yesterday. I don’t know what made me expect him today. I’m Cullum McGregor.” He brushed himself off on bib overalls and shook hands.
A firm grip. A self-assured, kindly, tough old man who’d give a kid a summer job. Not the kind of man who’d raise a daughter to kill horses.
“I’ll be glad to help, if you need a hand.” Adam remembered his role. He gave the man a shy shrug. “I haven’t been around working farms much. I’m a city boy.”
“Mr. Grant. . . .”
“What’s a city boy like you doin’ here? Little out of your element, aren’t you, son?”
Adam smiled. “Renting an apartment and boarding my horse.”
“Ah yes. You’d be the one renting the apartment.”
“That would be me. Where should I put my horse?”
Cullum McGregor opened his mouth, but shut it again as he looked at the sky. “Nasty bit of weather. Wouldn’t surprise me if that one spawns a tornado.”
The sky looked like God’s fury ready to unleash itself upon an unsuspecting mankind for their manifold sins.
“Come on, Adam. Let me show you your stall.”
Adam followed Cullum into the barn and down the aisle where curious heads poked noses over stall doors. He stopped at an empty space with ankle-deep bedding.
“This’ll be your horse’s stall,” Cullum said.
Adam nodded and peered inside. “What’s that on the ground?” he asked. And, before the old man could answer Adam asked, “And what’s that for?” Adam pointed to the grated window on the stall door.
Cullum’s eyes narrowed at him, before he grinned. “Haven’t been around horses much, have you?”
Adam shook his head.
“Well son, let’s start with where we keep ‘em. The horse is kept in a stall--it’s like their bedroom. The shavin’s their blankets and that grate on the door keeps their teeth from nibblin’ on passersby.” Cullum slid the stall door open and switched on the light, as Adam kicked through the sawdust.
Good quality bedding. Looking at the peeling paint on the walls, he thought the old man’s priority lay with the comfort of his animals and not appearances.
A loud clap of thunder crashed overhead. The stall light flickered. He heard whinnying and looked outside the stall. Soaked riders led their panicky horses down the aisle. Someone yelled something from outside, but the unleashed combination of wind and rain was so loud, he could hardly hear anything.
“Close the barn door,” someone yelled.
The redhead he’d seen in the arena led her bay down the aisle pointing to the outside. “There’s a horse still out back. And...” she said, looking at Adam, “There’s a horse in a trailer outside.”
“Um…” Adam said, desperate to get Bluebird inside, but not allowing himself to blow his cover. “Could someone help?” Adam shook his head, trying not to grimace at his pretended stupidity.
“My daughter can help you,” Cullum said. Adam looked around for the instructor, but didn’t see her.
“Where is she?”
“Here,” the woman replied, reaching out her hand for the formal handshake with one hand and holding onto her reins with the other.
“My daughter, Maggie,” Cullum said. “Maggie, this is our new boarder, Adam Grant.”
Adam took her hand and stared at the woman who had the largest aquamarine eyes and most luscious copper hair he’d ever seen in a--murderess. This was Maggie McGregor?
Maggie had left her fiancé, Ricky Lane, with bitter feelings a little over a month ago. When she’d learned about his murder and the death of Black Autumn, all life seemed to leave her. She’d been going around half zombie-like, with a sense she’d never recover. Now, her only joy was her father’s sense of humor and her old horse, Playboy.
She hadn’t felt compelled to introduce herself to another boarder in her father’s barn, but the fact that the stupid idiot had left a horse in the trailer when a storm was about to hit, forced her to speak to him.
There was something about the newest addition to the McGregor barn. Something about the ruggedly handsome face that was vaguely familiar. No. She’d never met him before but….
She wasn’t sure why she did an on-the-spot comparison. Adam was taller than Ricky, but not by much. He didn’t have the classical movie star looks of Ricky. Adam had an earthy, sensual quality about him. Ricky had been fair and blond. Adam was sun-bronzed, and his dark and tousled hair made her want to comb it with her fingers.
Something else about him drew her attention--not physical, but
emotional. Ricky had been a confident, self-important man, who was hard and cold when he didn’t get his way. This man looked lost, like a tragic figure in a Greek play.
“He’ll be needing help getting his trailer into the barn,” Cullum said. “Mags, me dear, you put Playboy away, and go fetch the horse in the back. Adam, can you back up that trailer?”
“I’ve never tried,” Adam replied.
“Oh great, just great,” Maggie muttered.
“Oh, by the way Maggie, he’ll be rentin’ the little apartment. You’ll need to get it ready.”
“He’ll be what?” Maggie, who’d started to move Playboy away, stopped and turned, her face registering surprise and annoyance.
“I’ll be renting….”
“We need to get your horse out of there,” she said, “before the storm blows it into the next county.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Adam turned and followed Cullum out of the stall.
How had this man managed to drive the trailer here in the first place? She made a mental note to shoot that question at him later.
She’d thought he’d looked like a tragic figure. She changed her mind. Now, as she looked at him, maybe he was the one about to inflict a tragedy on someone else. It wasn’t so much his humorless smile, but the dark eyes--flat, hard and distant. She felt an intrusion entering into her life, and she didn’t like it.
Most of the boarders had already left, but the few that remained were sliding open the barn doors so Cullum could back in Adam’s rig. He just made it. The men slid the door shut as a sheet of wind and rain followed them, and a few seconds later the roof started crackling with pings, clicks and finally shuddering to ‘bams.’ It sounded like someone was taking a hammer and trying to make scrap metal. They yelled their goodbyes and ran through the adjacent smaller door, banging it shut as they left.
Maggie turned the news reports up on the radio, and then started down
the aisle toward the back pasture.
“The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for northern Porter County in Indiana extending into Michigan. Take immediate cover.” A beep sounded, and the message repeated. “The towns of.…” Maggie strained to hear, but a close crack of thunder blocked out the names.
A terrified shriek came from the back pasture. Filled with dread, she moved into a dead run toward the back door. A terrified gray Arabian was rearing, bucking up and down, and racing around in circles. Maggie tried to grab the halter of the traumatized animal, but missed, and slipped to the ground. His front feet came down inches from her head, and he reared again. The wind kept her immobile, as hail pelted her face, and steel-shod hooves hovered above her.
Suddenly, the hooves swerved and came down on her other side. Now, Cullum was holding onto the horse, calming him, backing him away, and leading him into the barn. Maggie scrambled to rise, hindered by sheets of violent wind and rain. Adam grabbed her around the waist and helped her to her feet. The wind blew them back into the barn.
“Thanks, Adam.” They struggled to pull the door closed. “I slipped. The wind pinned me down.”
The thought that this man had the guts to take on the storm to rescue her registered for only about two seconds before she realized he was staring down at her. She felt heat rush to her face.
Her sopping tank top clung against her skin, and except for mud splotches, was almost transparent. She looked up just in time to see Adam avert his eyes. Momentarily, she crossed her arms over her chest, then decided, why bother? He’d already seen everything she had there anyway. I feel like a naked drowned rat.
Cullum appeared from around a corner and threw a flannel shirt at her. She struggled to get it on over her soaked skin. Water still poured off her hair onto her already wet face, and she tried brushing away the stream with her sleeve.
“Maggie, help Adam get his horse out of that trailer before that animal tears it apart.”
The hail came down harder, and the frantic pounding of hooves came from the trailer.
“Come on Adam. Let’s get him out of there.” She hurried down the aisle toward the front of the barn.
“Her,” Adam said as he trotted to catch up. “My horse is a girl.”
The rain slammed into one side of the barn. Then, after it changed directions, it assaulted the walls from the other side.
Damn Adam. This is no time for a lesson in horse terminology. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Let’s get her out of there.”
Maggie rushed toward the trailer, Adam close behind. Beginners she didn’t need, especially around nervous horses, in traumatizing storms.
“First time owner, I take it?” Maggie asked. Without waiting for his response, she asked, “You have a lead rope somewhere?”
So, you’ve bought yourself a horse and haven’t a clue what to do. Probably bought the trailer at the same time and had them load her for you. God help you, if you’d had an accident on the road. Dumb city boy.
“Yeah, sure. It’s in the front seat,” he said.
They reached for the lead rope at the same time, and his hand landed on top of hers. He released his grip just a little too quickly, and the nylon rope fell off the seat and onto the ground. Maggie sighed and rolled her eyes. She reached down to pick it up. Adam had the same idea, and they bumped heads.
“Sorry,” he said.
Oh boy! For a flash of a second, their eyes had locked and there had been something--she shrugged it off.
“Why don’t you stand over there?” She indicated away from the trailer. “Way over there. Like in the next county.”
The noise outside grew louder.
Maggie grabbed the rope and opened the side door.
“What’s your horse’s name?” she yelled.
“What?” he shouted back.
“Horse’s name.” Maggie had to scream to be heard.
Adam still hadn’t moved when Maggie reached the rear of the trailer. She unsnapped the rope attached to the front manger and hooked on the nylon lead. Then, once again she motioned for Adam to move out of the way. He walked to the rear and stood by the back doors.
“No! She’s likely to run you over coming out of this trailer. Move back!” He did.
Bluebird came bounding backwards out of the trailer as Maggie grabbed the line. The mare reared as another onslaught of wind slammed into the side of the barn. She calmed the mare enough to get her inside the stall as Cullum came running down the aisle. He was out of breath, wild-eyed, his expression laced with fear and horror.
“Sirens went off! We’re in the path of a tornado!”
A loud crash of something smashed into the side of the barn. Cullum screamed, “Get into the office--now!”
Maggie could barely hear the wail of the sirens coming from the fire station through the continuing barrage of hail and an eerie lull in the wind. She’d always heard a tornado sounded like a freight train, but this sounded more like a screeching pig.
Adam grabbed her by the hand, following Cullum to the warm-up room and into the office, the safest part of the barn. After stumbling into the dark room over several pairs of legs, they sank onto the floor.
Maggie was trembling violently. She felt the tension in Adam’s body, but he didn’t make a sound. She wondered if he was even breathing. Maggie couldn’t make out who was in there, until she heard her father’s voice.
“Thank God,” Cullum said, relief flooding through his tone.
The wind turned into a roar, and her eardrums felt as though they’d
burst. She buried her head into the warm chest at her side.
An orchestra of popping, sucking and crashing beneath the screeching roar triggered an icy fear twisting around her heart. The office seemed like it was coming off its very foundation, and she hung onto the closest thing handy for dear life.
The tornado left as quickly as it had come. The sound faded into the distance, and the room was deathly quiet except for the rapid sounds of breathing among the group huddled together. Suddenly, sunlight poured in through the arena windows filtering into the adjacent areas, as normal as any Sunday afternoon in the summer.
Maggie’s head spun, and she still trembled, but she was able to notice that the musky, sweat-scented, suffocating vice that held her was Adam, and she was in his arms.
He whispered, “Maggie, it’s okay. You can let go. It’s over.” His voice soothed as it might a nervous horse or a panicky child. He didn’t make a move, and she didn’t budge. That moment seemed like infinity. She was locked in an embrace with a man she didn’t like, but she didn’t want him to stop holding her.
When reality hit, embarrassment flooded her. She needed to get away from him gracefully, so she pulled away, bumping into the riding instructor, Francine Simmons, in the process.
“Hey,” Francine said, looking like she was about to bump her back. But when Adam looked at her, she appeared to change her mind and smiled. At least he was good for something.Adam looked at Francine, switched his glance to Maggie and then back to Francine. For the first time, she thought she noticed a reaction in those dark brooding eyes. He didn’t like her.
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