She had to find out if her baby was okay.
Nellie Thompson pressed the accelerator, pushing her beat-up sedan to the limits as she veered onto the back road leading to the Bucking Bronc Lodge.
The people at the Winchester Clinic in town said Dr. Winchester lived on the ranch. But this section seemed deserted. Dark.
Panic clawed at her. Had she taken a wrong turn?
Fumbling with the directions she’d scribbled on a napkin, she tried to make out her own jagged writing, but it was too dark to see.
Her headlights caught the image of a wooden sign ahead. A sign that welcomed her to the BBL. Arrows told her the main lodge was to the left. It housed the counseling center and on-site clinic. Dr. Winchester’s cabin was supposed to be to the right. She swung on to the dirt road, tires screeching and spitting gravel.
Dr. Winchester would know what to do.
She had helped her before. She would help her now.
But she had to tell her about the threats. The man’s eerie voice...
She heaved a breath, pushing at the tangled hair on her cheek as she glanced in her rearview mirror. She thought she’d seen a car a mile back. Thought someone was following her.
Had she lost them? Or was she just being paranoid?
No...the truck had been too close. But where was it now?
Suddenly a loud popping sound rent the air. The car bounced, jolted forward, then rolled over a rut in the road.
Fear clogged her throat. Her tire had blown.
The car jerked and sputtered out of control. She pressed the brakes but the car spun sideways.
She pumped them again, but instead of slowing the car seemed to speed up. A cry caught in her throat, and she stomped the brakes one more time, then clenched the steering wheel in a death grip as it careened toward a boulder.
She swung the vehicle to the left to avoid it, but the car skidded off the road, trampling brush and bushes and bouncing over more ruts. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, struggling to regain control, but it was no use.
The front bumper slammed into a tree and the car screeched to a stop. Her head jerked forward and hit the steering wheel, and her world faded to black.
Seconds or maybe minutes later, she stirred, her vision blurred. Trembling from the impact, she reached for her purse.
She had to get her phone and call for help.
But someone wrenched her car door open. Relief warred with fear as a man pulled her from the seat. She blinked in confusion. Was he going to help her?
Something glittered in the dim light. A gold chain around his neck.
Then the shiny blade of a knife flashed in front of her face, and terror shot through her.
“Let me go,” she shouted.
But his fingers tightened on her arm, and he dragged her toward the woods. She kicked and fought back. She had to get away from him.
A hard blow to his kneecap, and his grip on her loosened. She screamed for help then turned and ran. She had to make it to Dr. Winchester’s cabin....
The terrain was dark, though, the night sounds ominous as she plunged through the bushes. The creek rippled nearby, but she stumbled over a tree root and fell.
The sound of crackling twigs and a man’s cursing echoed in the air, and she pushed herself up and trudged on. She cut a path toward the creek, praying she was almost at the
doctor’s cabin, but her foot hit a tangled vine and she lunged into the brush. Her hands scraped rock and scrub brush, and she tasted dirt.
Then he was on her. His rancid breath bathed her face as he grabbed her hair and flipped her over. She tried to scream, but one hand gripped her neck, choking her, while he raised the knife with the other.
She kicked and tried to throw him off, clawing at his hands to release her.
But the knife blade plunged into her stomach, and she choked on another cry as death whispered her name.
Three days later
Detective Mason Blackpaw watched the guard close the prison doors behind Pruitt Ables and breathed a sigh of relief that the Slasher case was finally over. Ables had been the missing link in their investigation, but once they’d realized Robert Dugan, the man who’d viciously killed a half dozen women, had a half brother, the pieces had fallen into place.
Mason exited the prison with a satisfied smile. He was a cowboy, a loner and a cop. He spent most of his days tracking down criminals.
His job was his life and that was the way he liked it.
No ties. No one to nag him about not being home when he was on a case. No one to expect him to be something he wasn’t.
Except for the law enforcement agencies. Tracking had come so natural to him that he was called in on high profile missing persons and most wanted cases.
But now that he and Miles McGregor had locked up the sociopath and his accomplice, they’d decided to take some much needed R and R. Miles was headed to his new ranch with his son and new wife, and he had decided to devote some time to the troubled boys at the Bucking Bronc Lodge.
He checked his watch, then jumped in his SUV and drove toward the BBL. He’d promised Brody Bloodworth, the founder of the operation, that he’d teach the kids some survival skills as well as tracking techniques.
An hour later, he sat astride his favorite chestnut and introduced himself to the small group of twelve- to fourteen-year-olds. Ray was thirteen, had been beaten over and over by his old man and had a bad attitude. Wally was twelve and had lost an eye in a freak accident. Pablo had been in and out of foster homes and juvy.
And Carlos...he had been a hero of sorts when the Slasher had taken some of the kids and Jordan Wells, Miles’s fiancée, hostage a few weeks ago.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
The boys nodded, although Ray looked surly and Wally a little unsure in the saddle. He’d keep an eye on him, maybe ask Johnny Long, the rodeo star of the group, to spend a little extra time working with the kid on riding skills and building hi