When Rachel Goddard turned onto Ben Hern’s property, she couldn’t see the other car barreling toward hers down the long, curving driveway. All she saw up ahead were the massive rhododendrons and trees in summer leaf that formed a screen on both sides. Even Ben’s house was invisible from this angle.
Rachel was good-naturedly teasing Holly Turner, her young veterinary assistant. “I’ve never seen anybody so excited about meeting a dog and a cat. Don’t you see enough pets at the clinic every day?”
“I know it’s silly.” Holly flashed her megawatt smile. “But his cat and dog are like celebrities, bein’ in a comic strip and on TV.” She paused for a fraction of a second before adding, “It’s so excitin’ to have somebody famous like Mr. Hern comin’ to live right here in Mason County. And to think you grew up with him!”
Rachel glanced at Holly, watched her tuck her black hair behind her ears, change her mind and let it drop against her cheeks again. Acting as if she were on her way to a date and nervous about how she looked. Maybe bringing her along on this house call hadn’t been a good idea. “You know, Ben is—”
Rachel swung her gaze back to the road, saw the blue car flying around the curve toward them. She wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right. Tires screeching, her SUV bumped off the driveway and crashed into a wall of greenery. Branches cracked, leaves slapped the windshield, Rachel and Holly bounced in their seats.
Rachel floored the brake. When the vehicle stopped, they seemed to be inside a shrub. Big rubbery leaves pressed against the windshield and windows.
“Oh, my god,” Rachel gasped. Her heart banged against her ribs, the beat echoing in her temples. She saw everything through a screen of her own auburn hair, fallen forward over her eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah—” Holly paused to gulp. “I’m okay.”
Rachel slumped forward against the steering wheel and blew out a long breath. “Was that Cam Taylor?”
“I think so. He went by so fast.”
Rachel’s mind had snapped a picture as the other car raced past and now produced it in surprising detail—the battered Ford with one front fender a different shade of blue than the rest of the car, the driver’s hands clenched around the steering wheel, his hair whipped into a fright wig by the blowback through open windows. “Has he lost his mind? For god’s sake, he could have killed us.”
With trembling fingers, Rachel pushed her hair out of her eyes. She looked around and tried to orient herself. All she saw was vegetation. She shifted the vehicle into reverse and began backing out slowly.
“Why do you suppose he was here?” Holly asked. “What business would he have with Mr. Hern?”
“Probably the same business he had with you and me. Begging for money. I guess he didn’t get it from Ben either.” The tires bumped over roots and rocks.
Rachel gave the vehicle more gas. Abruptly it popped free of its leafy trap and lurched back onto the driveway, throwing both of them forward against their seat belts. Holly yelped. Rachel struggled with the steering wheel, couldn’t straighten the tires fast enough, and slammed on the brakes just in time to stop the SUV from sailing off the driveway on the other side.
She sat still for a moment, clutching the wheel and willing her heart to slow down. Her mouth was so dry her lips stuck to her teeth.
“Oh, my goodness,” Holly said, assessing the mangled rhododendrons from which they’d emerged. “I hope Mr. Hern’s not real picky about how his yard looks.”
Rachel gave a shaky laugh and shifted into drive. They rounded the broad curve that led to the parking circle outside Ben’s Georgian brick house. Rachel pulled in behind Ben’s black Jaguar and the little green Volkswagen beetle that belonged to his assistant, Angie Hogencamp.
Rachel couldn’t shake the dizzy, helpless sensation of losing control. Her hands were still trembling, her heart still racing when she retrieved her medical bag and acupuncture case from the back seat.
Examining the outside of the vehicle, Holly exclaimed, “Look at your poor car. It’s all scratched up.”
The hybrid SUV was only a month old, but after the run-in with the rhododendrons its silver paint looked as if a gang of vandals had worked it over with sharp objects. Rachel was too relieved to be safe, though, to care about the car. “It’s nothing compared to what could have happened to you and me.”
She handed Holly the acupuncture case. Calm down, she told herself. She was here to treat an animal in pain, and she didn’t have time to indulge a reaction to the near-collision.
She and Holly were mounting the front steps when Ben opened the door and greeted them with a smile. “Hi, Rach—” He broke off, his smile fading, as he glanced from Rachel to Holly and back. “Is something wrong?”
Rachel took a good look at Holly’s disheveled hair and dazed expression for the first time and realized she probably appeared equally shaken up. Combing her hair back from her face with her fingers, she told Ben, “Cam Taylor ran us off the driveway. We’re both okay, but it would have been nice if he’d stopped to make sure he hadn’t killed us.”
“Aw, for Christ’s sake.” Ben inclined his head toward Holly, who stood a foot shorter. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
Holly bobbed her head. Clutching the acupuncture case to her chest with both arms, she suddenly seemed oblivious to everything but the handsome dark-haired man who stood so close. Holly had met him a couple of times before, when he visited Rachel at the cottage she and Holly shared, but it might take a lot more exposure before his exotic aura wore thin. Females tended to react this way to Benicio Hernandez, the Cuban-American artist who lurked behind the Anglicized tag of Ben Hern, cartoonist. His brooding eyes and sensitive features, combined with well-defined muscles under a black tee shirt, made him look like a model for the cover of a romance novel. Good thing, Rachel thought, that Holly’s boyfriend wasn’t around to see the rapt expression on the girl’s face.
“What on earth did you do to make Taylor take off in such a frenzy?” Rachel asked.
“He got mad because I won’t lend him money to bail out his little newspaper. Would you believe he even tried to weasel money out of my mother while she was here?”
Holly found her voice at last. “Mr. Taylor’s real stubborn. He’s been after me too, tryin’ to get some of the money my aunt left me. I don’t even have it yet, but he wants me to promise him some of it.”
“He asked me too, a few days ago,” Rachel said. “He made a very persuasive case, I’ll say that for him. The county does need a newspaper, and he’s pretty passionate about it. If I’d never seen the paper—But I have seen it, and lately it’s started looking like some poor animal that should be put out of its misery.”
Ben laughed and dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand. “To hell with Cam Taylor.” He turned his smile on Holly. “It’s about time you met Sebastian and Hamilton.”
“I’m so excited.” Holly beamed back at him. “I just love Furballs. Are they just like you show them in the comic strip and the TV shows?”
“I think I’ve caught their personalities. I hope you realize, though, that they can’t actually talk.”
“Well, I know that,” Holly said, with a little gust of a laugh. “They’re going to love you,” Ben said. “How could they help it?”
Her smile widened beyond the point that seemed physically possible, and Rachel had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. She could understand other women’s reactions to Ben, but she’d known him too long to be fooled by the smooth exterior. She still saw the gawky teenager, too thin for his height, too introverted to mix in groups, happiest when he was alone with his sketch pad or canvas. Although his appearance had changed since they’d grown up as neighbors in Northern Virginia, the person inside was much the same.
“Come on,” Ben said. “Sebastian’s on the porch with Angie.” As she followed Ben into the house, through the foyer and living room, Rachel experienced the same weird sense of dislocation she felt every time she visited him. He’d bought the house fully furnished from the estate of an elderly woman, and as far as Rachel could see he hadn’t changed a thing in the downstairs rooms during the three months he’d lived here. Queen Anne tables, gold-framed mirrors, brocade draperies and upholstery— not exactly Ben’s taste. The only alterations he’d made were upstairs, where he’d stripped the master bedroom to essentials and had a wall removed so he could convert two smaller bedrooms into a studio.
Ben ushered them through French doors onto the big screened porch, where his dachshund lay motionless on the floor.
Angie Hogencamp watched over the dog from a green wicker settee. Ben’s assistant was a slender young woman with freckles over her cheekbones and brown hair worn in a single braid down her back. “It’s awfully hot out here,” she said to Rachel, “but this is where Sebastian wants to be. We took him inside and he dragged himself right back out again through the pet door.”
“Now he won’t even stand up,” Ben said. He crouched beside his dog and scratched Sebastian’s head.
Placing her medical case on the floor, Rachel knelt and stroked the dog. The remnants of tension over the driveway incident faded as she concentrated on her patient, and her hands once again felt sure and steady. “Hello, love,” she murmured. “That old back of yours acting up again?”
Without raising his head, the dog rolled mournful eyes in her direction. Another furry head bumped Rachel’s elbow, and she reached around to pat Hamilton, Ben’s gray and white Maine coon cat. When the cat turned his attention to Holly, she looked as thrilled as if she were meeting a movie star. She set the acupuncture case on the floor and knelt to pet him.
With Ben looking on like a worried father, Rachel listened to Sebastian’s heart and lungs, and gently probed his abdomen to make sure he didn’t have a simple bellyache from the rich treats Ben fed him. “His vital signs are normal,” she told Ben, returning her stethoscope to her bag. “I’ll give him another acupuncture treatment for his back pain and see how he does.”
Ben, squeamish about watching the needles go in, turned away and gazed out over the back yard flower garden.
Settling cross-legged on either side of the dog, Rachel and Holly nudged him onto his stomach and stroked him until he relaxed. Rachel tore open a package of long, fine needles, located acupoints with her fingertips, and inserted four needles just under the skin along the dog’s spine. With tiny alligator clips, she connected wires to the needles and to the battery-operated electrical stimulator. When she turned on the low-level current, the dog’s back rippled but he didn’t react otherwise.
“Good boy,” Rachel murmured. “Okay, Ben, you can look now.”
He did, but winced at the sight of Sebastian with needles protruding from his back like porcupine quills.
“It’s not hurting him.” Rachel punched in twenty minutes on her pocket timer. “Want me to stick a few needles in you to prove it?”
Angie and Holly laughed at Ben’s expression of horror. “Whoa,” he said, raising both hands to ward off the threat. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Just then footfalls sounded on the porch steps, and they all looked around. Cam Taylor stood at the screen door. He rapped on the frame once, then opened the door and stepped onto the porch.
“What the hell?” Ben sprang forward to intercept him. “You can’t just walk in here. Why are you back, anyway?”
Rachel said, “Maybe he wants to apologize to Holly and me for endangering our lives.”
Taylor ignored her sarcasm and spread his hands as if in supplication. Rachel’s eyes were drawn to the stump of the third finger on his right hand, and she wondered briefly, as she had before, how he’d lost it.
“Yes,” he said, “I did come back to tell you I’m sorry and make sure you’re all right. I’m under a lot of pressure, I’ve got a lot on my mind. But that’s no excuse. Will you accept my apology?”
Rachel hesitated, reluctant to let him off the hook. The man’s face was flushed, and half-moons of sweat soaked the underarms of his blue shirt, but his hair, brown shot through with gray, looked as if he’d tried to tame it before he joined them. He gave her a sheepish smile that made him seem boyish and almost handsome.
Rachel sighed. His apology sounded forced, but at least he’d made the effort. “Sure,” she said.
“All right, you’ve apologized,” Ben said. “Now you can leave.
And don’t come back this time.”
Sebastian whimpered, probably reacting to Ben’s harsh tone.
Rachel stroked his head.
“I want to apologize to you too,” Taylor said. “I got worked up and I said some things I probably shouldn’t have. If you’ll just hear me out and take a look at the business plan I’ve put together—”
“I’ve already heard your story more than once,” Ben said. “I don’t think you’ve grasped what’s at stake here,” Taylor said. Rachel heard the strain in his voice as he tried to speak in a calm, measured tone. “We lost the radio station years ago, and if the Advocate disappears too, the people of Mason County won’t have any source of local news. They won’t have anybody to speak for them, to ask the tough questions—”
“Listen to me,” Ben said. “One last time: I’m not handing you a check. I don’t care what you call it—a loan, an investment— I’m not under any obligation to support you.”
“I’m not asking for myself,” Taylor protested. A slight edge to his voice and a spark in his eyes, quickly smothered, hinted at the anger he was struggling to control. He gestured at his faded blue shirt and worn khaki pants. “Look at me. Do I look like I care about money? If money meant anything to me personally, I wouldn’t even be in Mason County. I care about the people. They depend on the paper to look out for their interests.”
“All I know is that you came into my house and started threatening me—”
“Threatening you?” Taylor said with a little laugh. “That’s an exaggeration, isn’t it? I’ve just tried to make you see where I stand on…certain things. Things you probably don’t want to talk about in front of your friends.”
Taylor glanced at Rachel, who regarded the two men with fresh interest. Something was going on here that she couldn’t identify, something more than a man asking for a loan that Ben didn’t want to give.
Ben’s gaze jumped from Rachel to Holly to Angie, and the sudden apprehension in his eyes made Rachel all the more curious about the subtext of his exchange with Taylor.
“I’m through talking to you,” Ben said. “You’re leaving right now.”
He grabbed Taylor’s arm and tried to push him out the door. Younger, bigger, and stronger, Ben should have had the advantage, but Taylor caught the door jamb with both hands and held on. His color deepened alarmingly, and Rachel wondered if he had a heart or hypertension problem.
“Ben,” she said, “calm down, please. This is ridiculous.” She wanted to rise and put herself between the two of them, but Sebastian had begun to tremble and she couldn’t abandon him. Taylor was losing his tenuous self-control. He glared at Ben. “You gave a million dollars to a damned animal shelter, while children right here in Mason County are going hungry—” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Angie exclaimed.
She stepped up to face Taylor. “Ben gives a lot of money to help children, but he doesn’t brag about what he does the way you do. And he doesn’t steal people’s money like you stole from my mom and dad.”
“Stole? I didn’t steal anything from—”
“That’s enough.” Ben pried Taylor loose from the jamb, shouldered the screen door all the way open, and shoved him out onto the steps.
Rachel gasped when Taylor stumbled backward, windmilling his arms for balance. Ben caught him before he fell, and without pausing he propelled Taylor down the steps and into the yard. As they disappeared around the side of the house, Rachel heard Taylor yelling, “If people knew the truth about you, if they knew what you’ve done—”
Rachel exhaled and willed herself to relax. She’d never seen Taylor act this way before. He had a reputation as a self-righteous do-gooder, but in her few encounters with him she’d found him courteous enough, if exasperatingly persistent. It was Ben’s behavior that worried her, though. He had a right to resent being pressured, but seeing him get physical with Taylor scared her a little. What did he mean when he accused Taylor of threatening him? What was it that Ben didn’t want to talk about in front of her and Angie and Holly?
Rachel noticed for the first time that Holly, sitting on the other side of Sebastian, looked distraught and on the verge of tears. To break the tension, Rachel grinned and said, “Believe me, not all house calls are this exciting.”
Holly managed a weak smile.
Leaning against a post, Angie chewed her bottom lip and watched the yard. When Ben hadn’t returned after a couple of minutes, she said, “I guess he’s just making sure Cam Taylor really leaves this time.”
“I hope so. This little guy needs peace and quiet during his treatment.” Rachel was curious about Angie’s claim that Taylor had stolen money from her parents, but bringing it up again might provoke another outburst of anger. Stroking one of Sebastian’s long ears, Rachel asked, “Are you ever sorry you took this job?”
Angie shook her head. “I love working for Ben. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I really appreciate you helping me get the job.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” From time to time, Rachel had wondered whether being here alone with Ben every day was the best thing for Angie, but it was none of her business. She could only hope the young woman was too levelheaded to fall for her boss.
Ten minutes ticked by with no sign of Ben. “Maybe he’s in the house,” Angie said. “I’ll be right back.”
Rachel was removing the needles from Sebastian’s back when Angie returned. “He’s gone,” she said, frowning. “His car’s not out front.”
Strange, Rachel thought. Had Ben followed Taylor beyond the grounds to make sure he didn’t come back? That really was going too far, in her opinion. And why would Ben leave without telling anybody?
Rachel expected him to turn up any second as she gave Angie instructions for the dog’s care and Holly packed up the equipment, but by the time they left he hadn’t returned.
They were on the driveway, headed for the road, when Holly sighed and said, “His house is so beautiful. I can’t imagine livin’ in a place like that.”
Rachel shook her head, bemused. When the court released Holly’s windfall inheritance, the legacy would include a house as grand as Ben’s, but she’d sworn never to live in it. Too many bad associations. In all seriousness, Holly had suggested the place was haunted by her dead aunt. Grandma says when somebody dies a bad death in a house, their spirit never leaves it. For now, Holly seemed content to stay in Rachel’s four-room cottage on the McKendrick horse farm, where she’d lived since starting work at Rachel’s veterinary clinic months earlier.
Turning onto the road, Rachel wondered again where Ben had gone. Something about this situation gave her the creeps. To distract herself as much as Holly, she said, “I’ll tell you a secret—Frank’s going to be in Furballs, starting about a month from now.”
“Oh, wow!” Holly exclaimed. “Frank’s gonna be a star!” Rachel smiled at the thought of her battered one-eared cat, rescued from a Dumpster, transformed into a celebrity. “He’d better not let it go to his head. If he develops a taste for caviar, he’s out of luck.”
As Rachel drove toward Mountainview, where her vet clinic was located, Holly chattered on about possible storylines for Frank’s fictional life. Rachel tried to listen, but she couldn’t stop thinking about Ben, and she hoped to see him drive past any minute, on his way home.
Holly’s voice trailed off when they approached an old blue car in the middle of the road.
“That’s Cam Taylor’s car,” Rachel said. “Maybe he had a breakdown.”
“I sure hope we don’t have to give him a ride back to town.” When Rachel pulled up behind the car, she realized it wasn’t occupied. The driver’s door hung open several inches. “What on earth? Do you see him anywhere?”
They glanced around at the woods on both sides. Nothing but trees.
“He might’ve gone lookin’ for help,” Holly said. “If he has a cell phone, he could have called.”
“Maybe he’s back in the woods,” Holly said, “you know, answerin’ a call of nature. But why wouldn’t he pull over, instead of…”
Rachel stared at the empty car, the open door, and full-blown dread seized her. She swung around Taylor’s car and parked on the gravel berm. “You stay here,” she told Holly. “I just want to take a look around.”
She got out and jumped over the drainage ditch, her pants legs brushing against the Queen Anne’s lace blooming there. A strip of land about ten feet deep, thick with weeds and wildflowers and vines, separated the road from the woods. Spotting a patch of poison ivy, Rachel hesitated to wade farther through the vegetation. She paused, pulled off her sunglasses, and squinted into the gloom under the trees.
A movement snagged her attention. She caught a glimpse of color, no more than a hundred feet in, before it vanished behind a tree. Light blue. The faded shirt Cam Taylor was wearing. Relief washed through her, and she opened her mouth to call out and ask if he was okay, but stopped herself. Of course he was okay. He was probably peeing against a tree and wouldn’t welcome her intrusion.
Taylor came into view again—his back, his hair, one gesticulating hand. Although Rachel couldn’t see another person, she heard two voices now, rising and falling. Taylor’s was the only one she recognized. The other remained so indistinct that she couldn’t have said whether it was a man or a woman. Only a few of Taylor’s words carried clearly. “…don’t have the nerve…dare you.” He was arguing with someone. Why here? Why in the woods?
Taylor moved, and she lost sight of him among the trees. Rachel didn’t want to get involved in this. Sliding her sunglasses back on, she turned toward the road and her vehicle.
The crack of a gunshot made her spin around. Another shot rang out. Rachel dropped to her knees, ducked her head and covered it with her arms.
She waited, her heart thudding, her mouth dry. The birds had gone silent. Over the sound of her own raspy breath, she heard a thrashing noise, like somebody running through the undergrowth. A squirrel chittered furiously. Then she heard a car start somewhere in the distance.
A touch on Rachel’s shoulder made her flinch.
“You okay?” Holly crouched beside Rachel, her eyes wide with alarm. “Did somebody shoot at you?”
“No, not at me. Get back in the car,” Rachel said. “Call 911. Call Tom.”
“You call him.” Holly stood. “Come on. We need to leave here right now.”
Rachel scanned the woods as she rose, trying to pick out the light blue of Taylor’s shirt in the forest of green and brown. He could be lying on the ground, bleeding to death. “I think somebody shot Cam Taylor,” she said. “I have to see if I can help him.”
“No!” Holly gripped Rachel’s arm with both hands and tried to pull her away. “You’re not goin’ in there with somebody that’s got a gun!”
Rachel twisted her arm free. “Whoever did it is gone.” “You don’t know that. You can’t be—”
“I heard him leaving. Holly, go back to the car. Call Tom.
Tell him to send an ambulance. Right now!” Rachel set off into the woods.
The tree canopy closed over her, shutting out the sun. She stuffed her sunglasses into her shirt pocket and pushed on. Slapping aside drooping vines, stumbling over fallen tree branches, she felt like a walking target.
He’s gone, she told herself. The shooter’s gone. Please, God, let him be gone.
Why hadn’t she listened to Holly? She didn’t even like Cam Taylor. It was nuts to risk her safety for him.
He’s hurt, bleeding; he needs me.
She found Taylor on the ground under an oak tree. He’d collapsed at an odd angle, coming to rest with his right leg twisted under him, his left arm flung up over his face. Blood soaked the front of his shirt.
Feeling exposed and vulnerable, Rachel pivoted in a circle, searching for movement among the trees. She saw no one lurking in the woods, no sign anyone else had been there except for a path of trampled vegetation leading away.
Rachel bent over Taylor, but the stench of fresh blood and feces and urine made her gag and draw back. Flies already buzzed over the body, drawn by the odors. Rachel waved them away. They didn’t disperse, but rose to circle above Cam Taylor, waiting, like tiny planes in a holding pattern.
If there was any chance he was alive, that she could help him, she had to try. Holding her breath, Rachel knelt beside him. Pressing her fingertips to one side of his neck, then the other, she searched for a pulse.
He felt warm to her touch, as warm as life, and as still as death.