Date Published: April 1, 2021
Publisher: Literary Wanderlust
Veterinarian Piper is pragmatic enough to know her marriage wasn’t working, which is why she left Dylan a year ago and pretends it hasn’t hurt like hell every day since. Then Dylan calls out of the blue and tells her to come right away for an animal emergency. Piper arrives on the ranch that used to be her home to find her horse savagely killed. She can’t fathom what could have done it. One thing, however, is obvious. Piper still loves Dylan.
Dylan isn’t over Piper, not by a long shot. After her horse was ripped apart by something he’s pretty sure wasn’t a bear, it feels so good to hold Piper in his arms again. If only they could find a way to undo the mess that drove them apart.
An epic blizzard hits, trapping Piper and Dylan on the ranch for what just might be their one chance at reuniting. But as things get a whole lot scarier, it’s clear something evil has brought them together.
Hunted by the supernatural, they must fight for their lives, but can they also fight for their love?
Piper pulled her phone from the pocket of her white coat, glanced at the screen, and in her shock, dropped it onto the floor of the exam room. Part of the case popped off and her patient, on account of being an Irish setter, lunged for it with an audible snap. The owner yanked back the dog and shot Piper a disapproving look.
Piper bent to pick up the phone and reattached the case. She used the moment to blink back the tears that came as unexpected as the phone call had.
“Sorry about that,” she said with a brightness she didn’t feel and straightened up, trying to put the phone call from her mind. She patted the setter, feeling kinship with a fellow redhead. “Rusty is definitely an eat-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of dog, isn’t he? You said you’re worried he’s been eating gravel?”
After ten minutes of repeated reassurances that Rusty showed no signs of an intestinal blockage, Piper was relieved at the knock on the exam room door.
“Dr. Mitchell?” Her receptionist poked her head in, and Piper smiled as she always did when her best friend had to address her in such a manner. “Hate to bother you, but you have an emergency call.”
Something about the way her best friend smiled back tightly made Piper wonder about her earlier phone call. She told Rusty’s owner they were free to go and slipped back to her office.
The red light blinked on her desk phone, indicating someone was holding. She sank into the chair and drew a deep breath, allowing herself a moment. Just in case.
She stared out the window at the ski lifts hanging still and empty on the brown mountainside. The calendar on her bulletin board might say November, but the sun shone warm and bright. The entire town of Crested Butte was waiting anxiously for the flakes to fall and the tourists to blow in with the cold.
Piper’s vet practice didn’t rely on ski tourism, but she too couldn’t shake the distinct feeling she waited for the cold as well. Waited for it with an odd sense of dread she didn’t understand.
With a sigh, she picked up the phone. “Hello, this is Dr. Mitchell.”
Just like that, his voice sliced open one year, two months, and nine days’ worth of healing. She heard so many things packed into two syllables when he said her name—pain, relief, longing.
No, not longing.
“Dylan,” she whispered. Then cleared her throat. “What’s going on?”
“It’s one of the horses.”
“Maybe you should call Dr. Ramirez.”
She wished he’d stop using her name. His voice was thick like he was fighting off tears, and Dylan wasn’t a man who cried. Ever. Something was wrong.
“Piper, it’s Lightning.” She caught a rustling sound, so faint she might have imagined it and could picture him sitting at his desk in the barn office, taking off the black cowboy hat that had won her heart, and running a hand through his thick, dark curls before shoving it back on. “He needs to be put down.” His voice grew even thicker. “I thought you’d want to come.”
Damn him. He couldn’t have spared her this? Lightning had been her horse for seven years. She’d sat astride him when Dylan got off his own mount and proposed to her one beautiful spring day five years ago. He wanted her to euthanize him?
She wasn’t even a large animal vet.
“I’ll do it,” Dylan said, with that uncanny ability of his to somehow read her thoughts. “But I thought you’d want to come and say good-bye.”
Damn him twice. He knew her too well. If ever there was something to make her set foot on that ranch again with all its painful memories, this was it.
“Piper? Hurry, all right? He’s hurting bad.”
The faint rustle came again. “That’s just it. I have no idea, but something tore him up real good. I was hoping—”
A screaming whinny cut through his words—and her heart.
“I gotta go. Hurry, Piper.”
The line went dead.
The Crazy K Ranch lay only fifteen minutes away from town, but Piper hadn’t driven this road since the night she found Dylan kissing Holly behind the horse barn.
Or, if what he’d said was true, when Holly had been kissing Dylan. Regardless, he’d appeared to be enjoying the kiss. At any rate, their marriage was already almost through by the time she discovered her husband locking lips with the young wrangler in the tight jeans.
She shoved the memory from her mind only to have it replaced with the unpleasant situation at present.
Lightning. The lump in her throat grew as she guided the silver Honda down the dusty, red-tinged dirt road. Leaves rattled across the hood in warm gusts, and she turned up the air in the car.
She crested the hill that afforded the full view of the two-story, log ranch house below, nestled in a broad mountain meadow. The new red horse barn stood a short distance off to the north and behind that, the East River winked in the afternoon light. The elk pen—more the reason for their divorce than Holly—lay to the east, where a few large brown bodies could be seen resting on the hillside. Gunnison National Forest, dark and green, lay behind the elk pen.
Various outbuildings—trailers for the ranch employees, sheds, a few cabins, even an old schoolhouse—lay scattered across the three-hundred-acre spread. No cars were parked outside the cabins, which was strange. It was the middle of hunting season, after all.
Piper put down her window and smelled hay and dust and sagebrush. Crazy K, even during a dry spell that rendered it brown and dull, still looked beautiful. Beautiful and dangerous as a rattlesnake.
A gunshot made her jump. It sounded close, rolling like terrible thunder over the surrounding mountains.
She was too late.
“Oh, Lightning.” She gripped the steering wheel so hard that her fingers hurt, an echo of the ache in her heart.
She stopped the car and put it in park, trying to figure out where the sound came from. Not the new horse barn below. Past the elk pen maybe. Tears spattered the front of her shirt. She could turn the car around and head back into town. Dylan didn’t need her anymore. She’d call him later and tell him she heard the gunshot and thought it best to leave him in peace.
She could. She’d sound like a coward though if she did. Piper wiped her face and put the car in gear. The road curved past the elk pen and a little ways off, Dylan’s white Chevy sat in the grass, a rifle propped against the front bumper.
And then she saw him. She’d seen him around town many times since the divorce. How could she not when the place was so small? But they’d managed to avoid speaking or coming into closer contact than a glimpse across a street for over a year.
The last time she’d spoken in person to this man, he’d still been her husband. Now he was…just Dylan.
She didn’t know if she could handle interacting with him in the best of situations, and the scene before her showed it was the worst.
Dylan, his broad back to her, crouched beside the body of Lightning. A crimson patch, horrifying in its size, surrounded the palomino. A wide trail of blood headed from the forest. At her car’s approach, Dylan turned to look over his shoulder, but she couldn’t see his face under the cowboy hat.
Her pulse thundered in her ears at the sight of him. At the sight of her dead horse.
By the time she’d pulled off the road and climbed out of the car, he was standing, hat in hand, beside Lightning. It unnerved her, the way he watched her walk toward him. She’d seen him give that same look to others over the years before he hired hunting guides or entered a business dealing with someone.
He was taking the measure of her.
She squared her shoulders and strode over to the body of the horse she’d loved. Flies rose and fell in clouds over the mess that had been Lightning. The smell of offal hit her like a punch to the gut.
At the sight of him, she gasped with shock. As a vet, she was well-versed in dealing with dead animals. Indeed, death was often an old friend, called upon by her own hands to administer mercy.
There was nothing merciful about this.
Lightning lay on his side. His stomach had been slashed open to release glistening loops of intestine, strewn ten feet away. Four long slashes ripped open his back. The cuts were so deep she could see the bluish-white glimpse of vertebrae and ribs. A large hunk of his hindquarters was missing to reveal a mass of red muscle too reminiscent of ground beef for Piper’s comfort.
Something was very wrong here. The cream-colored skin on three of his legs had been stripped back from the bone like a peeled apple. It was unnatural.
The only part of the scene that made sense was the blood streaked down his white blaze from forelock to nose from the bullet hole. The first sob escaped her when she noticed one of his eyes had been ripped out. She turned away and found herself enfolded in Dylan’s arms.
He led the horse out of the barn with that wide grin of his, and she swore he and the horse sauntered over with identical cocky steps.
“Lightning and I had a talk,” he said.
“Yeah. Said he’d much rather have you as his rider from now on. He said you’re awful pretty.”
“Really. I didn’t know you spoke horse.”
“I’ve always had a way with different tongues.” He raised his eyebrows and she rolled her eyes. Then Dylan’s mouth pressed against hers in a kiss both sweet and hot as he showed her just how good he was with that tongue of his.
When Piper finally came up for air, it was to bury her face in Lightning’s mane to breathe in the smell of horse. He nickered softly in approval.
“I’ve never had a horse before,” she said.
“Yeah? Seems we’re both having new experiences because I’ve never loved a woman like I love you, Piper Mitchell.”
And he’d pulled her back into his arms much as he was doing now in circumstances that couldn’t be any more different.
Dylan held her tight against his chest as she cried. His scent—his deodorant and sweat and leather and something uniquely Dylan—hurt more than the smell of death overpowering it all.
“I know,” he said, his deep voice rumbling under her ear.
She stiffened in his arms, but he felt so familiar and good, she let him pull her in tighter.
“He must have suffered so much,” she said.
“I shouldn’t have tried to wait for you. So stupid.” His voice caught, and a tear fell from above to slide down her hair and over her jawline.
He hadn’t cried on their wedding day. He hadn’t cried when she told him they wanted different things in life. He hadn’t cried when she asked for the divorce.
But he was crying over a horse. Irritation flared inside her, despite her sorrow for Lightning.
Dylan’s tears on her skin were too intimate anyway, and she eased away. A glance at his face was all she could stand. His hazel eyes were red-rimmed, and he had a day’s worth of stubble, but he looked as good as ever.
He turned away and spun his hat in his hands. “Two months ago, one of my mares foaled Lightning’s colt.” His mouth curved, not quite a smile. “Looks just like him.”
Part of Lightning would live on. She wished she could see the colt. “What’d you name him?”
Now he really did smile. “Thunder, what else?” The smile vanished. “I think I’ll bury Lightning right here. He always liked being up near the forest.”
Piper looked up at the tree line where the national forest began. What secrets did it hide? She and Dylan stood for a bit in a silence only interrupted by the flies and the occasional raucous cawing of some ravens sitting in a nearby tree. They waited for their chance to start in on Lightning, and she tried not to hate them for it.
Dylan cleared his throat, once more reading her thoughts. “What do you think did that? I thought maybe a cougar. But Lightning’s torn to shreds. Big cats strangle their prey.”
“Yeah.” She made herself look back at the body, and the impression of wrongness returned. “Mountain lions eat neatly. They don’t start at the hindquarters or spread around intestines. And something had to be strong enough to drag him from there.” She pointed at the forest. What had he been doing up there?
“Agreed. A bear?”
“Not unless we suddenly have grizzlies in Colorado. When did you find him?”
“A minute before I called you. I think it might have happened earlier this morning.”
“You didn’t hear anything?”
“Don’t you think I’d have mentioned it if I had?”
She experienced another flash of irritation.
“I looked around for tracks, but I couldn’t find anything,” he added. “Ground’s pretty dry. It’s covered in leaves.”
Piper followed the blood, climbing up the hill and into the steep forest where the trail ended in a patch of wet, crimson leaves. She studied the ground, but she was no tracker. Other than the smears of blood, there wasn’t any sign of anything unusual. She didn’t see any animal prints. Dylan was right. Too many leaves everywhere.
The forest was still and quiet. The base of her skull prickled. She hurried back from the tree line and returned to Lightning’s body. The cloud of flies buzzed higher. “I’m going to take some photos.”
Dylan hung his hands on his hips. “What for?”
“Just in case.”
“In case what?”
“You make any enemies lately?”
His tongue went to the inside of his lower cheek, despite giving up chewing when they started dating years ago. Or maybe he’d taken it up again. None of her business now. “You think a person—”
“I don’t know, Dylan. I just can’t imagine what animal could inflict this kind of damage. It seems—cruel.”
“Nature is.” He shook his head. “Hell, I know better than anyone, right?”
“Domestic elk aren’t exactly natural.” She regretted the words as soon as they slipped out her big, fat mouth. Her ex-father-in-law had been very unlucky, becoming one of a handful of people ever killed by an elk. But if the Kincaid men hadn’t run this stupid operation that counted as canned hunting in her book, he’d still be alive today. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. “That was—”
“Low, yeah.” His mouth tightened. “Last week made four years he’s been gone.”
She’d forgotten. She hung her head. Dylan crying over a horse made more sense now. Most likely those tears weren’t just for Lightning. They were for Dylan’s father. And she didn’t think she flattered herself to believe her presence brought up as many painful memories for him as it did her. He was probably feeling, like her, all alone. His mom died of a rare form of bone cancer when Dylan was eight, and his older brother had moved to his wife’s ranch in Idaho. His mom, his dad, his brother. Piper. Lightning. All gone.
Dylan squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Um, as far as enemies, I had to let one of the hands go last month. Caught him stealing liquor from the house. But he was a pathetic mess from his wife and kids leaving him, not some kind of psychopath. He wasn’t even that mad about losing his job.”
He leveled a look at her. “I’m sure as hell not Holly’s favorite person.”
Piper’s stomach clenched. She didn’t want to hear this. She had to hear this. How many nights had she imagined her husband tangling legs and sheets with that twenty-year-old? Veronica said she’d seen them down at the Black Diamond bar shortly after Piper moved out.
Had he slept with her? She took a deep breath. Did it matter? Dylan was a good-looking man. If it wasn’t Holly, there’d surely been other women. He wouldn’t have stayed celibate over a year.
“You think Holly did this?” she said, not asking the question she really wanted answered.
“Course not. But you asked me about enemies. I wanted to be clear she doesn’t like me much now.” He waited a couple of beats, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of asking why. “When she kissed me, I had no choice but to terminate her employment. It was completely inappropriate. I was her boss. She’s more than ten years younger than me. And most important, I was married.” His gaze dropped to the ground. “I liked being married.”
“Yeah.” Her heart beat harder, and her throat closed on what was meant to be a snort. “Just not to me.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “You believe what you want. You always did.”
“I’ll just take some pictures and then I’ll be on my way.”
“That’s probably a good idea.”
Whether he meant the photos or her leaving, she wasn’t sure. Maybe both.
Careful to avoid stepping in the mess, she held her phone high over the scene and took several pictures from different angles.
Dylan leaned against the bumper of his truck and studied her studying Lightning. She did her best to ignore him. She moved around behind the horse and wondered what wounds might be hidden on the side he lay on. She bent to examine the slashes closer when she caught sight of something black protruding from the wound over the spine.
“What is it?” Dylan asked, pushing off the bumper in that sexy way he had of moving.
“Let’s find out.” She took a pair of latex gloves from the back pocket of her jeans and snapped them on.
She poked inside the wound and glanced at Dylan, who’d moved nearer. His top lip curled in disgust. Piper’s own stomach curdled, but she was determined not to let Dylan see how sick this made her. She was a professional after all.
Her fingers curled around something hard and cold, about as thick as her thumb. Whatever it was, it had stuck into Lightning’s backbone. Piper fought off her disgust as she wiggled it back and forth until it gave. Then, with a terrible squelch, she slid the bloody thing out and stood to show it to Dylan.
“What the hell is that?” he breathed.
About the Author
Joy enjoys imagining something creepy in every situation, starting with a fourth-grade theater production when she became convinced a monster lived under the stage. She might not let different foods touch on her plate, but she’s fearless when it comes to mixing love stories and horror in her scary good romances. Joy is currently a school librarian, but has worked in a pet store, a safari park, and vet hospitals and holds a Zoology degree. Animals always feature in her writing. On a good day, her two cats and two pugs make room on the couch for Joy and her family. They live outside Denver, where Joy experiences frequent shaming that she’s never gone skiing in her life. She enjoys reading, traveling, board games, and going with her English husband to explore castles in Britain, where she finds plenty of romantic, spooky inspiration.