Ghosts of High Paradise Ranch Series, Book 2
While investigating complaints in ranch country, western Montana, government employee Susana Kader is run off the road by a bizarre glowing horse and rider. She’s afraid someone’s trying to scare her away, but she’s much more frightened when she realizes it’s not a human, but a ghost cowboy on a phantom horse.
Following a strange glowing rider to a remote portion of the High Paradise Ranch, foreman Reede Munro finds Susana stranded. Her first touch sends sparks racing through him, but her vague answers about her reason for being on the ranch spike his curiosity. Unable to resist their wild mutual attraction, they spend a hot afternoon in his bed.
The ghostly presence is determined to meddle, though, and Reede enlists the help of the ranch’s resident ghost whisperer, who reveals shocking information that will change Reede’s life forever. But he’s not the only one with secrets, and when Susana’s are exposed, she knows her days with Reede are over. Can fate intercede before Reede and Susana make the biggest mistake of their lives?
Susana Kader swerved her little green sedan to miss the… “What the heck?” A glowing green horse and cowboy raced across the dark road right in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and spun the steering wheel, making her tires slide along the gravel. She’d been going too fast; she’d told herself that just three minutes ago, but did she listen? No.
All she wanted was to get home. Well, her rented cabin close to the High Paradise, Thad McCade’s Montana ranch. Which she was illegally crossing right at this moment.
Her car slowed but headed for the ditch. “Aw, hell no!” She was being so smart, taking this shortcut to get home five minutes earlier than if she’d used the main road. After spending nine hours poring over public records of the High Paradise Ranch, she was looking forward to a glass of scotch, a frozen meal expertly prepared by her microwave, and a long soak—
A loud bang came from the front end of the car as it nosedived into the ditch and stopped with a vengeance, tossing her forward against the seatbelt. Her head hit the side window as the airbag bloomed in front of her.
Everything went gray. She tried to stay awake but her eyelids dropped. A wobbly memory of a shimmering cowboy on a powerful horse passed through her mind. Was this her punishment for all the dirt she was digging up on the ranch? To be reaped from this planet, not by a black-robed figure with a sickle, but by an electric cowboy?
Reede Munro wandered from the kitchen of his house—technically it was the High Paradise Ranch foreman’s house he was allowed to use. Carrying a bottle of beer, he walked through the dining room and juggled his sandwich plate in his other hand as he turned on the light in the living room. It had been a long day, and even though he’d been foreman for eleven months, he still hadn’t gotten used to having to boss the men around.
Thad McCade, one of the owners of the ranch, had promised Reede he wouldn’t regret taking the job, and he didn’t, except for at night, when he was all alone in this house. He plopped down in the leather recliner in the living room and turned up the volume on the basketball game playing on the big screen TV.
Solo living allowed him to leave the TV on all night, playing it as loud as he cared to. No one would hear. No one else was in the big old two-story place that had been built for a family to grow into. Chugging his beer, he washed away the bad memories that lingered too close tonight. He was here alone, and probably always would be, the way his luck was going.
A thump sounded from the back of the house. A really loud thump, not like the usual creaks and groans that had him thinking of the restless spirits that wandered the night.
He cocked his head, scratching his short beard then tugged at his dark-blond hair, cut short this afternoon by a ranch hand’s girlfriend who was studying to be a stylist.
Finishing his sandwich, he considered heading to bed, even though it was barely nine. Five a.m. came damn early, especially in late fall, close to the end of October when the sun didn’t shine over the mountains until well past eight.
Another thud came from the back of the house, and Reede muted the TV, un-reclined himself and wandered toward the kitchen. He stopped three feet shy of entering the room.
From the window in the door and the one over the kitchen table, green light flooded into the room. Clomping, like horses’ hooves pounding the planks, raised up a ruckus.
“Damn cussed ranch hands.” They were up to their pranks again? When he’d been promoted to foreman, the other hands had made a point of carrying out elaborate hoaxes on him. He hadn’t complained. It was just their way of initiating him, showing him that even though he was in charge of them now, they still considered him one of them.
That had gone on until Thad had heard about the pranks, and had taken a walk down to the bunkhouse one evening and laid down the law. Reede hated to think he needed someone to police the men for him, but it had worked, and the pranks had stopped.
Reede pulled his coat off the tree by the door and tugged it on, then set his heavy black cowboy hat on his head and opened the door. He was ready to face whatever the boys had in store for him tonight.
Through the screen door, the glow blinded him for a second before it moved off the porch and headed along the split-rail fence line away from the ranch buildings.
He stepped outside onto the porch. Squinting, Reede tried to make out what the shape was. Tall and wide, it almost looked like someone on a horse. “Idiots.” He shook his head and turned to go back inside.
The clomping noise came again, right behind him, the glow lighting the porch like a thousand green bulbs.
He froze, his eyes shifting to the side, waiting for whatever was about to go on next.
When nothing happened, he turned.
The thing sped off, moving incredibly fast, and stopped about two football fields away. Had they rigged up some kind of zipline?
Reede put his hand on the screen door, and was instantly flooded with light, and the sound of hooves on wood behind him.
He dropped his hand. “Okay, boys. I’ll play, but let’s get it over with, huh? So I can get back to the game.”
The thing moved away again, a bit farther down the fence line this time.
Reede automatically reached inside the door for his rifle. On a ranch, at night especially, a person was wise to carry protection. And not the…romantic kind.
He jogged down the few steps, his boots hitting hard to let whoever was in the glowing suit know he was playing along.
The thing moved further down the fence, nearly a quarter mile away now. “Come on, guys.” He said it to whomever was surely hanging around his house, watching—or recording—his reaction. “You’re really gonna make me do this?” He trudged to his four-wheeler and slid the rifle in the holster. “Okay, but you can count on some extra ditch diggin’ tomorrow.” He fired up the ATV and headed in the direction of the glow.
It kept pace with him, maintaining the same distance no matter how fast Reede went. He slowed to button his coat and pull up the collar against the frosty night. There was no moon, and the stars burned like high-beams through the black sky. Nearly ten minutes later, he finally began making progress on the thing.
First item on his morning to-do list; he’d make the guys tell him how they did this. He grinned. It was pretty damn cool.
The thing stopped on the other side of the fence, behind a large object in the ditch by the side of the minimum maintenance road. A car? Reede turned his ATV toward the fence, shining his headlights toward whatever it was. Sure enough, a green car sat at a forty-five degree angle, nose down in the ditch. He’d never have seen it if…
The thing disappeared. Didn’t fade away, didn’t ride off. Just poof.
A fierce chill raced down his spine, nearly shaking his hands off the grips. “Damn forsaken crap.”
A woman stepped around the back end of the car, her footing unsteady as she kept one hand on the trunk. Her long, curly, blonde hair glowed gold, her other hand shielded her eyes from his headlights. “Hi. Are you real? Or are you a ghost, too?”
Ghost? Reede looked to where the thing had been just seconds ago. The chill that shook him this time nearly unseated him.
This was why he left his TV on every minute he was in the house. The damn ranch was haunted.
Susana stared into the light that either meant someone had come to save her, or St. Peter was arriving to take her home. When the dull roar of the engine stopped, she figured it was probably a human. Thankfully, a human. Whatever that green thing was that was just here had scared her half to death.
“I swerved to avoid it, and ended up here.” She pointed to where the ghost rider had been just seconds before. She shook off the panic and breathed through the fear that had her heart thudding madly. She’d grown up with a very eccentric, psychic grandmother, but had never seen anything like this before.
“You okay?” A male voice came from behind the headlights, then a smaller beam, probably from a flashlight, flicked around the area where the ghost had stood.
“Yes, but my car’s got a flat.” She pointed to the front tire, or what was left of it. “I think my rim’s bent, too.” Shivering, she wished she’d thought to grab her suit coat out of the car before she’d stepped out. Her thin white blouse did nothing to ward away the chill wind.
After she’d come to consciousness and realized there was no cell service out here, she’d spent a few unsuccessful minutes trying to back her car out onto the road. She’d gotten out of the car to change the tire, sure to be a challenge in her three-inch heels and pencil skirt. She’d been just about to open the trunk and change clothes when the green horseman had reappeared. “The way the car is sitting on the incline like that, I don’t think the tire can be changed.”
The flashlight beam got closer then went a little wonky as the man climbed over the wood fence to get to her. “You tried to back it out?” The light shone on the spots where the front tire had eaten away at the grass.
“Yes. It’s in there good and tight.” This would not help her stay under the radar with the High Paradise people. Getting caught on a road she shouldn’t have been driving on, and having to be rescued as well. Not her best moment.
He stepped down into the ditch, his flashlight scanning the car. “We can head back to my place and I can give you a ride home.”
Usually a trusting person, right now she wished she had her pepper spray canister in her hand. “And you are…?” If the answer wasn’t right, she’d open the trunk and grab the lug wrench to defend herself.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He shone the flashlight on his face. His dark-blond beard and mustache covered the lower half of his face, his hat shielded the top, but what was in between was astounding. Beautiful blue eyes behind enviously long lashes, a strong, straight nose, and full lips that promised a sensual spirit.
She’d seen his picture while doing her research, but the live man was a hundred times more intriguing than the image.
“I’m Reede Munro, foreman of the High Paradise Ranch.” He shone the light toward her flat tire. “And actually, Thad McCade, the ranch owner, lives just a ways from my house. His girlfriend is home now, so I can bring you there if you’d feel safer. Or have them come and get you, but…” He patted his coat pockets. “I left my sat phone charging at the house, so I might not be able to reach them.” He mumbled a curse.
The information she’d found on Reede Munro painted the fascinating picture of a true gentleman, a cowboy in every sense of the word. College educated with no criminal record, she’d bet her government pension he was trustworthy. “No, that’s not necessary. I’d…” How to say this without making herself seem suspicious to him? “I’m rather embarrassed by all this, and would like to keep it as quiet as possible.” The longer Thad McCade was unaware of her existence here, the better chance she had of succeeding in her mission.
“Okay. But I’ll need to let him know what’s happened here, since it’s his spread. But I’ll keep details to a minimum.”
She smiled. He truly was a nice guy. “Thanks. And I’ll have a tow truck come out in the morning to haul—”
“No need. I’ll have the ranch hands come out and take it to the ranch’s machine shop. They’ve been sorely underworked lately.” He chuckled.
“I’m interested to hear about why that is, but I’ll take you up on your offer, if you’re sure it’s okay.” The cold nipped at her again and she crossed her arms with a quick shiver.
“Ma’am, my apologies.” He trudged up the ditch toward her and handed her the flashlight, then took off his coat and held it out for her.
She gladly accepted it and passed the flashlight back to him. Shrugging into the coat, she let the warmth touch her chilled skin, and his scent, leather and…rum, maybe, waft up to her nostrils. “Thank you.” Her entire body relaxed and warmed, as if the coat held magical properties.
“Welcome.” He gestured toward the car. “Your purse? Anything else?”
“My suit coat.” Her black work bag was in there too, filled with details on the ranch and the government lands surrounding it. Would it be safer with her or in the car? She didn’t want to risk the ranch hands taking a peek at it in the morning, and she trusted that Reede wouldn’t go through it when she wasn’t looking. “My messenger bag too, please.”
The duffle bag in her trunk should be safe. It held her change of clothes for doing fieldwork. The boots, jeans, shirt, coat, and hat wouldn’t give anything away if anyone did snoop in there.
He gathered her things and walked up the other side of the ditch, setting them on the far side of the fence. After removing the top board of the fence, he came back to her, shining the light on her feet. “With those shoes, uh, it might be safer if I carried you up to the four-wheeler.”
He wanted to…carry her? She blinked a dozen times.