till no word from the infernal woman. She must be oblivious to her worth. Taggart fisted his hands atop the desk, glaring at the calendar. How long had it been? How many letters had she ignored? Precious time was running out. With her continued silence, she'd force his hand. He would
“Thaetus, how long since we sent the last missive?”
of the twined mail packet echoed through the room as Thaetus tossed the bundle on the table. “Long enough for the signed receipt to return stating she's received it and
Taggart slammed both fists on the edge of the desk and shoved his chair to the wall. “I canna believe there's still no reply. No response whatsoever. What the hell is wrong with this woman? Ye would think she'd be a tiny bit curious. The women of this world, are they no' supposed to be just a wee bit nosy?”
Thaetus shrugged, peering down his beak-like nose over a pair of dilapidated wire-rimmed spectacles. “If not curious, I thought all Americans were at least supposed to be a bit greedy. Ye would think she'd be thrilled to find she'd inherited a fine piece of land such as Taroc Na Mor.”
Taggart launched himself out of his chair and huffed his way across the dense Persian carpet. White knuckling his fists against the damp, cold sill of the window, he stared down into the depressing courtyard below. Where once might have been a garden of well-tended roses stood a clumped circle of mangled thorns choking with shocks of weeds. Dying vegetation surrounded moss-covered flagstones heaved out of place by invading roots of nearby oaks. Overgrown shrubbery sat riddled with out-of-control ivy marauding its way through damaged masonry. A mournful howl filtered from the unseen caverns Taggart knew ran deep beneath the castle. The estate appeared forgotten, the buildings abandoned and battered by the ravages of time.
Taggart blew out a ragged breath. His Taroc Na Mor, his precious sanctuary. The stark vista tore at his heart. Very few individuals on this side of the sacred threshold realized the true importance of this acreage in the remote Highlands. Taroc Na Mor symbolized so much more than just a bit of forgotten land. He'd failed his race's beloved holy ground, failed his duty as protector and lord. He curled his hands tighter, envisioning his helpless charges patiently waiting in the depths below. Grinding his teeth until his jaw nearly cracked, Taggart slammed his hand against the wall. No more waiting. He would get the confounded woman's attention. “That settles it, Thaetus. Hannah MacPherson leaves me no choice. Enough of these certified packets and the blasted receipts she just signs and tosses aside!” Taggart turned from the frosted, lead-paned window. “I will go to this place, this
, and track her down. I'll talk to the stubborn woman face to face.”
“When ye say ye will go to this place ...” Thaetus paused with a thin hand resting on the brass handle of the door, his wispy brows stretched into an expectant arch.
“I must use this world's backwards conveyance, Thaetus. Please get me an airline ticket, if ye will. I need to blend in with the general populace as much as possible. We must ease Ms. MacPherson into the ways of Taroc Na Mor. If we're to convince her to stay and become a part of our lives, we must take care not to frighten her away.”
With a feather-light touch, she adjusted the zoom one more time and double-checked the focus. There. Now, the object in her lens appeared just perfect. The car aligned between the glowing red dots in her camera's lens showed up as crisply and clearly as if she were sitting on the edge of the hood. She'd bide her time and her prey would show up. She'd rub their little noses in it this time. Now when the little miscreant who'd been moving her vehicle decided to appear, she'd snap the picture. She'd have her proof and she'd convince that hardheaded sheriff that his parking tickets were a waste of time.
Hannah settled herself more comfortably on the seat of her ATV. As she took a deep breath and her plan came together, the knot of tension eased in her chest. She could do this; her plan would work. All she had to do was bide her time. She relaxed and allowed her gaze to wander around the peaceful clearing; she realized she sat in one of her favorite spots in the woods. She loved this little hilltop. A serene wind shushed through the leaves fluttering overhead. The fully leafed-out branches of early summer whispered and sang. The pin oaks, maples, and birches swayed with the playful breeze.
She rechecked her beeper.
. Battery charged, red light flashing. If anyone needed her, all they had to do was go to the cafÃ© and Millie would track her down. Closing her eyes, she ticked off her list of patients. She'd just made the rounds of all the farms and everybody was in great condition. Farmer Donovan's mare wouldn't foal for another few days. She'd stopped by the infirmary and checked on Mabry's pups. She worried a little about the runt, but with the bottle-feeding and the liquid vitamins she'd added to his diet, he should continue to thrive.
Stretching her arms overhead, Hannah filled her lungs with the fresh, clean air sifting through the trees. Nothing relaxed her more than the exhilarating scent of greening leaves. Maybe after she nabbed her prankster, she'd sneak a nap later on a stretch of moss-covered ground. A nice slow day, just what she needed, the perfect day to trap a little twerp.
This shouldn't take long. This had to be a couple of local kids one of the town busybodies had paid off. She could hear them now plotting amongst themselves. They would've snickered while they planned where to push her car so the sheriff would write one of his cutesy go-outwith-me tickets. A by-the-book transplant from New York City, Sheriff Matt Mulroney would never write a ticket unless forced to do so. But a flagrant parking violation in front of one of the town's few fireplugs, well, he'd consider that grounds for a ticket for sure.
Fighting against a yawn, Hannah rubbed her eyes as she chuckled to herself. The early summer buzz of the warm woods mesmerized her with a case of the drowsies. If it weren't for the fact they were meddling in
life, she'd find this quite amusing. Hannah doted on Jasper Mills, a miniscule town whose population thrived on the smallest bit of gossip. But the biweekly ticketing of her personal vehicle had almost become a news bulletin on the local morning radio show. Apparently, she'd missed the memo, but it appeared the entire town had held a private ballot and decided she and Sheriff Matt needed to start dating.
Hannah shifted on the seat and scanned the area through the viewfinder. Nothing yet, but she had all day. There was no way they'd be able to resist the bait of her unlocked vehicle sitting unattended on the square. They'd show up. She shook her head. She still hadn't figured out which one of them had managed to sucker Matt into the plot. Evidently, the town had notified Sheriff Matt of the results of their find-Hannah-a-man poll and he'd
decided they needed to start dating.
“Fat chance.” Hannah snapped a twig in two and waved it at an inquisitive gray squirrel peering down from a nearby limb. “I don't need a man. I'm the only veterinarian in a five-hundred-mile radius. I don't need anyone to take care of me.” She could take care of herself
. She'd been doing it for a while now. You'd think they'd get the hint. A gust of wind shoved against her back, pulling her from her thoughts. A familiar ache fluttered in her chest. That old stab of loneliness that had been her constant companion for the past four years. Hannah turned to face the wind, closing her eyes to the breeze.
Jake. Every time she wandered through this part of the woods, the wind stirred against her like a nudging spirit. It just had to be Jake sending her a message from the other side. They'd walked here often when they'd dated. In fact, this neck of the woods had been their playground as kids. Hannah swallowed hard and took a deep breath. At least she could tick off the years now without bursting into tears. Over four years now, since Jake had made her a widow and she'd sworn she'd spend the rest of her life alone on her mountain.
Hannah exhaled with a shudder as she opened her eyes. It seemed like forever ago, the year and half they'd been married. Damn Jake's need to volunteer to patch up the soldiers in the Iraq War. Hannah swallowed hard against the threat of tears as the wind stroked teasing fingers through her hair. He had been such a great doctor. As an orthopedic surgeon, Jake had wanted to do what he could to support the brave soldiers fighting for his freedom. But they'd sent Jake back to her in a box draped with a flag and Hannah had laid him to rest on their mountain. Now here she sat over four years later trying to catch some little twerp hell-bent on making her life difficult. Hannah sucked in a cleansing breath of the early-morning air. Enough. Time to focus on the task at hand.
Hannah propped her chin in her hand and glanced around the hillside as she half watched the dots of people milling around in the square below. Even though they tended to go through her mail, eavesdrop on all her calls, and even place and
personal ads for her in other county papers, Hannah loved each and every nosy one of the tiny population of seven hundred and nine, if you still counted Mrs. McCreedy's nephew who'd just left for college in Chicago.
Her quiet little town sat trapped in a time warp and she wouldn't have it any other way. Jasper Mills wedged itself inside the valley of the Great Ridge Line Mountains like wild mushrooms at the base of an ancient tree.
“Now, that's what I'm talking about.” Hannah straightened as three figures sidled toward her car on the square below. She rechecked the focus in her lens. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened as she shifted her position on the ATV, steadying herself on the seat. As she followed the slow roll of the car with the lever of the tripod, she reminded herself to breathe. “You have gotta be kidding me! She knows better.”
Hannah watched through the camera lens and snapped the pictures as fast as the camera refocused on the culprits below. The more she snapped, the wider she smiled. Her pile of ammunition mounted with every click of the shutter. “This is unbelievable.” Incredulity fluttered in the pit of her stomach as the camera whirred with every press of the button.
At last, the plotters' well-laid plan played out. Her car now not only sat in front of the fire hydrant but also blocked the exit to the fire station. The three had outdone themselves this time. And right on cue, Sheriff Matt Mulroney appeared with ticket pad in hand. Hannah took a few additional shots of Matt as the three individuals who had been kind enough to move her car lined up just behind Matt while he wrote the ticket.
“Oh, I can't resist this Kodak moment. I think I'll even zoom in for a close-up. This is unbelievable. Even Millie!” Hannah adjusted the lens and held down the button. There. The perfect shot of the not-so-perfect crime. As the marauders moved away from her car, Hannah peered over the camera, down into the valley. Her plan had worked. She had her evidence. Now all she had to do was pack it up, take it to town, and end their little game.
Hannah bowed her head against the rising breeze as she packed her camera equipment into the padded ammo box strapped to the back of her ATV. The leafy branches of the oaks swayed overhead and sighed as though responding to her stubborn determination. Glancing up into the sunlit canopy, Hannah shook her finger at the sky. “It's time they accepted the fact that I'm just fine with the way things are now. There's no crime in living alone.” The woods understood. Now if she could just convince her friends. She yanked the strap hard, securing the ammo box behind the seat.
The wind whipped harder through the tops of the trees as if in response to this statement. The gust rippled through the branches and whirled the leaf mold into spinning bundles of debris. It tugged her ball cap, ripping it off her head, and tore her ponytail loose from its ties. The wind bounced her hair band and cap to the ground, then tossed them among the multicolored carpet of leaves.
Hannah scooped the hair tie and hat from among the dried leaves and wrestled her thick curls out of her face. “All right now. Enough fun and games. I've got to get down to the diner with these pictures and end this foolishness once and for all.”
The wind died down, fading through the smaller branches. A stillness fell over the clearing. Hannah shivered as she glanced about the wood. It suddenly seemed strangely deserted. Hannah whistled her favorite bird call that never failed to charm a few feathered friends out of the brush. Nothing. Silence was maintained throughout the wood. Not a branch moved; not a bird chirped. The entire forest stood as though frozen in time.
“Great. Everybody's a critic.” Hannah packed up, strapped her helmet on over her favorite ball cap, and headed down the hill toward town.
“There are rumblings.”
“There are always rumblings. Do ye have my ticket and the rest of my papers? I dinna want to be delayed any longer.” Taggart threw a shirt into a dilapidated, black bag lying open on the bed, then waved his hand until the garment disappeared into its depths.
“Why do ye pack clothes for the journey? Ye can manifest anything ye need.” Thaetus frowned down into the cracked leather tote, then glanced back up at Taggart over the bent rims of his glasses.