by Alexis Morgan
April 1, 2014
Haunted by desire...
When Rayanne's favorite uncle leaves her a secluded mountain cabin in his will, she feels and instinctive pull to the place—and to the ghost town nearby. But is she drawn there by her love of history? Or by the memory of the mysterious stranger whose ice-blue eyes have haunted her dreams since she was a girl?
She soon discovers that her destiny and the brooding gunslinger's are entwined. Wyatt carries the burden of a dark past, and Rayanne is the only woman who can bring him peace. But to give him the release he needs, she may need to sacrifice the most powerful love she's ever known.
No one was ever alone on the mountain. Sometimes voices whispered in the mists, uttering words too faint to be understood. Eyes watched from the shadows, the weight of their gaze sitting heavily on those few brave enough to venture far up the slopes. The most sensitive of the visitors might feel the fleeting touch of hands without substance, leaving a chill on their soul. Smart folks didn't linger for long.
Rayanne charged into the dappled shadows under the trees, following the narrow path that led toward town, the dense growth making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.
Where was he?
Her breath came in fits and jerks as she broke into a run down the game trail. A few feet in, her shoe caught on a root, sending her sprawling forward to land on her hands and knees. Ignoring the warm trickle of blood down her shin, Rayanne lurched back to her feet, wishing she'd taken the time to exchange her flip-flops for running shoes. But there hadn't been time for practical matters, not when Uncle Ray needed her.
The trees thinned out ahead, affording her a better view of the town. There wasn't much left of Blessing, but that was no surprise. The last residents had abandoned the place over a hundred years ago, leaving behind only the few buildings too stubborn to fall down.
No sign of her uncle in any direction. What would she do if he didn't come back soon? At thirteen, she could take care of herself for a while, but the mountain was a scary place to be all alone. She yelled Ray's name several times with no answer except the soft rustle of leaves.
Should she go back to the cabin and call the authorities for help in finding him? No, he'd never forgive her. Uncle Ray wanted nothing at all to do with the government that had taught him how to kill and then did nothing to repair the damage it had done to his soul.
So that left it up to her. As his namesake, she took her uncle's well-being very seriously.
Ignoring the pain in her side, she sprinted toward the old church, the one place that would give her the best vantage point. It sat right smack in the middle of Blessing, directly across from the saloon. Inside the sanctuary, she waited a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the dim interior before making her way to the staircase that led up to the belfry. Out of habit, she avoided the missing second step, using the banister to pull herself up directly to the third. The rest of the stairs were sound enough, allowing her to reach the roof quickly.
The hinges on the door creaked in protest when she pushed it open and stepped out onto the narrow confines of the belfry. She carefully skirted the hole where a bell used to hang. It had probably been sold off for scrap metal by one of the former residents, but that was old history. Right now, all Rayanne cared about was finding her uncle.
She hated heights, and each step across the rough wood floor took all the courage she could muster. Dread made her feet heavy as she crossed the short distance to the front edge of the roof. She latched on to the worn wooden railing in relief. But the second she touched it, the air around her rippled and blurred. Her stomach heaved as she clutched the railing and waited for the world to quit rocking.
When the floor beneath her feet finally steadied, she risked a quick peek at the street below. She blinked twice and looked again.
"What the heck?" she asked, not expecting an answer.
The town below was no longer a skeleton of what it used to be. Instead, the street was lined with buildings that hadn't been there only minutes before, all constructed out of fresh-hewn lumber.
And there were people—men, women and children—going about their business as if they strolled through Blessing every day, all wearing clothes straight out of a history museum. Were they reenactors? She couldn't imagine Uncle Ray tolerating such an intrusion on his privacy.
Besides, how could she have missed seeing them on her way through town? As she scanned the faces to see if Uncle Ray was among the throng of people, a shout went up, drawing everyone's attention to the far end of town. A group of men on horseback appeared in the distance, riding hard for the center of town, sending everyone on the street scurrying for cover. Something was dreadfully wrong. Rayanne ducked down even though the railing wouldn't provide much cover.
Just as the last child was dragged inside the old store and the door slammed shut, a solitary man appeared in the doorway of the saloon, carrying a rifle in his right hand. He paused long enough to inhale deeply on his cigarette before tossing it on the wooden sidewalk and grinding it out with the heel of his boot.
He stepped out into the street and the bright sunshine, moving with a lethal grace. Just like the others, he wore an authentic-looking costume: a cowboy hat, boots and a duster that had seen a lot of hard miles. His hat sat tipped back slightly, giving her a glimpse of coal-black hair. From the faded blue of his shirt to the scuffs on his boots, whoever had designed his costume had an amazing eye for detail.
Her pulse tripped and stumbled as the stranger turned to face the oncoming riders. He pushed his duster open, revealing a lethal-looking pair of revolvers. The holsters rode low on his hips, looking all too comfortable there as if he'd been born wearing them. There was a deadly stillness about him that she could feel even from her perch two stories above the street.
A few daring people in town peeked out of windows and through cracks of open doors. Playacting was one thing, but the scene unfolding in front of her felt too real, dangerous. If Rayanne could've run away, she would have. But her feet ignored her orders and remained right where they were.
The riders slowed their horses to a walk and fanned out across the narrow confines of the street. If the man was nervous about being badly outnumbered, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he planted his feet in a wide stance, as if hurricane winds couldn't have budged him.
Was she witnessing an actual gunfight straight out of the Old West? The tension radiating from everyone in sight certainly seemed real enough. She should go back to hunting for Uncle Ray, but at that moment nothing could've dragged her away from the drama unfolding before her. When the riders started forward again, time stopped and the seconds stretched to the breaking point.
The hinges creaked behind her, warning her that she was no longer alone. Thinking it had to be her uncle, Rayanne smiled in relief and turned to scold him for worrying her so. Instead, a man she'd never seen before stepped through the narrow doorway, ducking to avoid the church bell.
Before she could wonder much about its sudden reappearance, she saw that he, too, was heavily armed. She shrank back into the corner, hoping that he wouldn't notice her even though she huddled in plain sight.
He ignored Rayanne completely as he crouched down to peer over the railing. When he brought his rifle up to his shoulder, there was no doubt in her mind that he had his sights centered on the lone man below and meant to do him serious harm. When he pulled back on the hammer, preparing to shoot, her voice finally broke loose. Her terrified warning echoed down the street.
The man on the street spun to face the church. For a long heartbeat, his pale blue eyes met Rayanne's just before he fired his own rifle. The man beside her jerked and stumbled. He had a puzzled look on his face as he slowly sank to the wooden floor, his fingers trying to hold back the red stain spreading over the front of his shirt.
For a few seconds, silence reigned. Then blood, hot and bright, rained down on Rayanne's face and hands. At first she only whimpered as she frantically tried to scrub her hands clean on her clothes. But when Rayanne saw the man's eyes staring up at her, dull and lifeless, she screamed and kept on screaming until her throat was raw and her face burned with the hot acid of tears and fresh blood.
Her uncle finally appeared and pulled her into the solid warmth of his arms. He stroked her back, murmuring words of comfort in that awkward way of his. After a few moments, he stepped back.
How odd. Ray no longer towered over her. Either he'd grown shorter or she was taller. He'd also aged, the gray streaks in his red-gold hair more pronounced. All of that was strange enough, but it was the sadness in his smile that caused her heart to stutter.
"I've always loved you, Rayanne. I always will. I'm so proud of the woman you've become."
Woman? She was barely a teenager.
Ray brushed her hair back from her face. His eyes, so like her own, looked at her with such serious intent. "You have the gift, same as me. The mountain and Blessing need your special touch. Don't let anyone tell you different. Promise me that much."
She had no idea what he was talking about, but she nodded, anyway. "I promise."
"That's real good, sweetheart." Then he looked around. "It's time for me to go."
He smiled one last time as he slowly faded into shadow with no substance, leaving her alone on the rooftop bereft and still splattered with blood.