The old Maxwell House coffee can she used as a grain scoop slipped from her fingers. It hit the floor. Bam! Oats sprayed. Horses tossed their heads and neighed. Her legs buckled, and she grabbed hold of a rough-hewn post supporting the hayloft.
Maggie, please. Only you can help me.
"Mary Theresa?" Maggie mouthed, though no sound passed her lips. Was it possible? After all these years would her sister's voice reach her? The barn seemed suddenly airless. Close. Cold sweat collected on her scalp though the mercury level in the old thermometer tacked onto the wall near the door dipped below fifty degrees.
It was Thane. He did this to me. The voice pulsed through her brain.
Thane Walker. Mary Theresa's ex-husband and the one man Maggie never wanted to lay eyes on again.
"Did what?" This time she spoke out loud, though her throat was as tight as dried leather, any saliva that had been in her mouth long gone.
Maggie, please, don't let him get away with it . . . .
"Where are you?" she cried, spinning,looking up to the ancient rafters where an owl had taken up residence. Fathers and dust motes swirled in the faint shaft of light from a lone, circular window mounted near the ceiling. She knew that spoken words were useless. Mary Theresa was hundreds of miles away. So far. So damned far. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to throw her thoughts to wherever her twin might be. But it wouldn't work. It never had. Nonetheless she tried screaming in her mind: Mary Theresa, can you hear me? Can you? What did that bastard do to you?
A restless mare snorted.
"If this is some kind of a sick joke . . ." she said, though her heart was pounding a million beats a second. "Mary Theresa, I swear . . ."
Anxious, as if picking up the tension in the air, the horses shifted in their stalls, hooves rustling the straw, muscles quivering under coats that were becoming shabby as winter approached.
Maggie shuddered, the inside of her skin quivering as it always had when Mary Theresa had contacted her through their own special means. Mental telepathy. Instinct. Magic. Witchcraft. ESP. Clairvoyance. Maggie had heard all the terms and slurs, knew that most people considered her eccentric at best and just plain crazy at worst. Slowly, her fingers sliding down the post and gathering slivers, she sank to her knees and rested her head against the solid wood.
She concentrated, willing her breathing to return to normal. Come on, Mary Theresa, come on. One more time. Eyes closed so tightly they ached, she strained to hear, but the only sounds that reached her ears were the constant rustle of hooves in straw, hot breath blowing out of nervous nostrils, the scratch of tiny claws as mice scurried along the concrete floor, hiding in the cracks and crevices of the old barn. "Don't stop now," she whispered, her teeth sinking into her lower lip until she tasted blood.
"Damn you Mary Theresa . . .or Marquise or whoever you think you are. Thank to me!"
The inside of the barn felt as if it were freezing and yet cold perspiration broke out all over her skin. "Mary Theresa--"
"Mom?" Becca's voice sounded far away. The door to the barn creaked open, and a shat of fading daylight sliced into the musty interior. "HEY, are you okay?"
"Fine," she forced out, climbing to her feet and dusting her hands on her jeans. She managed a weak smile, hoping it would mask her lie a little.
Becca with her freckled face, eyes a little too large and a lot too serious for the age of thirteen, was instantly suspicious. "What were you doing in here?" She motioned to the post. "Praying?"
"You were on your knees, Mom. Did you, like have a heart attack or stroke or what?"
Becca wanted answers, and what could Maggie say? I heard you flamboyant aunt's voice while I was feeding the stock? It came to me right here in this barn, hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away from her?
Later, she was still kicking herself as she gazed out the window.
She shouldn't have let Becca go riding. It was getting late, dusk falling and the temperature dropping, but rather than risk another fight, Maggie had let her daughter go for a short ride on her favorite horse.
After issuing words of caution to which Becca had rolled her eyes, she'd ridden off and Maggie headed toward the cabin only to hear the phone blasting from inside. She raced into the house and picked up the phone only to hear the flat sound of a dial tone in her ear.
"Hello?" she said automatically, then started to hang up only to stare down at the instrument as she shrugged out of her jacket. Who had called? If only she lived in the city as before and had caller ID. Or you could buy a new battery for the answering machine and plug it in. You don't have to be a hermit.
That much was true. She hung up. It could have been one of Becca's friends. Though they didn't get many calls since they'd so recently moved here, they did receive a few. Had the caller been her sister, her wayward twin, she wondered, then mentally kicked herself. Just because she'd thought she'd heard Mary Theresa's mental voice a little while ago was no reason to panic. It had been so long since she'd talked to her sister . . . too long and now maybe Mary Theresa was in trouble . . . and couldn't reach her.
Just calm down.
The truth was that Maggie had been hiding for nine months, turning her back on a world that had hurt her and her daughter one too many times.
Coward. Other people cope. Why can't you?
Drumming her fingers on the checkered cloth that covered the table, she frowned at the telephone. Could the caller have been Mary Theresa? It had been so long since they'd spoken. Too long . . .
She picked up the receiver again and dialed rapidly before she let her pride get the better of her. The long-distance connection was made and she waited. One ring. Two. Three. Click.
"Hi." Mary Theresa's breathy, upbeat voice brought a smile to Maggie's lips as she nervously twisted the ring on her right hand. "This is Marquis. I can't come to the phone right now, but leave a message after the tone and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. I promise."
The recorder beeped and Maggie steeled herself. "Mary Theresa, this is Maggie. If you're there please pick up . .. Mary Theresa? . . . Oh, okay . . . Marquis, are you there? she asked impatiently, using her sister's stage name, hoping that if Mary Theresa was within earshot she'd put aside her petulance and answer. A heartbeat. Two. Nothing. "Look, I, um I got a message from you--you know the kind you used to send." She glanced around the room and felt foolish. What if she'd dreamed up the whole thing? "Well, at least I think I did, and I need to talk to you, so please cll me back. I'm still at the ranch in Idaho." She rattled off the number, waited a second or two in the fleeting hope that her sister was listening, then, sighing hung up. "Damn."
The sun had finally set and the cabin felt cold and bereft. Empty. Maggie checked the thermostat, then walked to a window and looked toward the mountains for Becca. Fifteen minutes passed and still she stared through the panes, as if she could will her daughter's image to appear from the shadows. Surely Becca hadn't ridden far . . . As the minutes ticked by, her sister's cryptic message haunted her. What had Mary Theresa said?
Only you can help me. It was Thane. He did this to me.
Did what? Maggie wondered though the didn't want to think of Thane.
She looked at the clock and scowled, the opened the door and looked outside.
There was till no sign of Becca.
She'd been gone over an hour.
Don't be a worry wart. She'll be back.
Sighing, Maggie, shut the door. She walked to the bathroom, snapped her hair into a pony tail, then told herself to calm down. Relax. Her daughter would return soon and Mary Theresa was fine . . . of course she was.
Of their own accord, her thoughts crept down a forbidden path, a crooked trail that still led to Thane Walker. Maggie hadn't seen him in years but imagined he was just as sexy and irreverent as ever, a lone-cowboy type complete with a Wyoming swagger and enough lines in his face to add an edge of severity to already-harsh features. The kind of man to avoid. The kind of man who attracted trouble. The only man who had ever been able to make Maggie's blood run hot.
All because of hearing Mary Theresa's "voice."
"Forget it," she told herself. She must've imagined the whole scene in the barn. She'd only thought she'd heard Mary Theresa's "voice" because it had been so long, so many silent months without a word from her twin.
And now her daughter was late. "Come on, Becca," she worried aloud as she snapped on the exterior light and stepped onto the front porch. Silently she hoped for some sign of her daughter's horse galloping toward the barn. But there was no sound of hoofbeats, no glimpse of a gray gelding appearing over the slight rise of the field. Instead she heard a breath of wind sighing through the dry leaves that still clung to the trees and the clatter of a train rolling on far-off tracks.
She'd about given up standing outside, but couldn't quite. She was too worried. About Mary Theresa. About Becca.
This is ridiculous!
She'd reached for the door when she heard it--the muted rumble of an engine that got louder, then the crunch of gravel being flattened by heavy tires. Turning, she spied twin beams flashing through the night, the beacons broken by the trunks of trees as they passed, headlights from a truck that rolled to a stop not far from the barn. Black, slightly battered, sporting a canopy, the truck was unfamiliar.
A solitary man was behind the wheel--a man she thought she recognized.
"Oh, God," she whispered.
It couldn't be. Or could it? Was her mind playing tricks on her? All the saliva in her mouth disappeared.
The driver cut the engine and opened the door. "Maggie?"
She'd know that voice anywhere, even after more than a dozen years.
Maggie's heart nearly stopped.
Thane Walker, big as life, stepped out of the cab.
And, from his expression, she knew he was bearing bad news.