Left bankrupt after her billionaire father’s sudden death, Alexandra Haywood returns to Shelby County, Kentucky—that bit of Southern splendor known as Paradise County—to sell the family’s magnificent horse farm. Part of her mission is to fire Joe Welch, the sexy, stubborn farm manager who worked hard for the Haywoods while raising his children. But Joe refuses to be fired, and he and Alex clash. They also fall for each other—hard. Just as their attraction flares, a shocking murder with ties to the past rocks the county—and cuts close to home when Joe’s teenage son, Eli, and Alex’s wild-spirited younger sister, Neely, vanish. Now, the evil that lurks beneath Paradise County raises its gruesome head—and Alex is targeted as the next victim.
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The instant he stepped inside the dark barn, Joe Welch knew he'd found the source of his urgent sense that something was wrong.
Someone was in the barn. Someone who had no business being there. The thoroughbreds were restless, moving agitatedly about in their stalls, not quiet like they should be so late at night. One -- he thought it was Suleimann -- whinnied to him softly. There was an indefinable heaviness in the air: the weight of an unseen presence. He could feel it, tangible as the scent of smoke that still lingered outside from the burning of a pile of brush that afternoon.
Standing in the rectangle of moonlight that streamed through the wide door he had just rolled partly open, squinting down the long row of stalls, Joe searched the shadows for an intruder. At the same time, his fingers slid along the sanded-smooth planks, groping for the light switch. He found it, flipped it -- and nothing happened. Figured. The lights were out, which wasn't all that unusual. The wind had been up earlier, and sometimes, out here in the county, that was all it took to knock down a power line. Or maybe a fuse was blown. That happened sometimes too, when too many lights were turned on at once. Lots of lights were on up at the Big House tonight; he'd seen them as he'd walked across the field. So it was probably a fuse.
His gaze continued to search the darkness as his hand dropped to his side. After a moment he found what he was seeking: a darker, denser, human-shaped shadow that seemed to be sitting on the soft raked sawdust of the floor. The figure's back rested against the left-side wall. Its legs were stretched straight out in front of it, solid black logs against the pale umber of the sawdust. In the darkness, Joe might have missed it entirely, except that it was the one shadow that remained motionless amid all the other shadows that shifted and danced just beyond the reach of the moonlight.
Suleimann -- he was sure it was the big roan now -- called to him again, anxiously.
"You there! Identify yourself, please!" His challenge was peremptory, but not altogether rude, on the off-chance that it might be his employer or one of his employer's guests sitting there on the ground.
No answer. No movement. Nothing.
Joe took a deep breath, steadying himself as his muscles tensed. Billionaires and their pals didn't sit in barn shavings as a general rule, so he thought he could pretty much rule out that possibility. Which left -- what? A couple of these horses had been purchased just a few months before at Keeneland's July sale for around a million dollars each, the rest were more or less valuable to some degree, and an intruder presented a host of possibilities, none of them good.
As he prepared himself to scare or beat the bejesus out of whoever had invaded his barn, Joe suddenly recognized, along with the expected smells of hay and manure and sweet feed and horse, the unmistakable odor of sour mash. It slid up his nostrils and down his throat, and left a distinct taste on his tongue. A taste that, over the years, he had come to know and hate.
His tension dissipated as anger and frustration took its place.
"Pop?" The smell was a dead giveaway. Who else was it likely to be at this time of night but his dad, drunk as a skunk as he was always swearing he would never be again? When liquored up, Cary Welch sometimes visited Whistledown's barn, imagining that he was the big-time thoroughbred trainer he had been once, instead of a drunken has-been with a damaged reputation that no owner would let within spitting distance of his horses.
Including Charles Haywood, Joe's primary employer and owner of Whistledown Farm, whose barn and horses these were.
No answer except another agitated whinny from Suleimann and the restless stomping of hooves. Still the sitting figure didn't move. But there was no mistaking that smell.
"Damn it, Pop, you got no business in this barn when you've been drinking, and you damned well know it! I oughta kick your scrawny ass from here to Sunday and back!"
The shadow didn't so much as twitch, didn't respond in any way. Had his father passed out?
Swearing loudly, Joe headed toward the motionless figure. Horses snorted and nickered at him from both sides as they came to the fronts of their stalls en masse.
"You think I don't see you? I see you plain as day, you old fart." His booted feet were surprisingly loud as they stomped through the sawdust. The shadow -- his father -- remained as still as a rabbit in the open with a dog nosing about. "I'm telling you right now, I don't need this crap."
It was shortly after one a.m. on a frostbitten Thursday in early October. Joe had gone to bed at eleven, just like always. He'd even fallen asleep, dead to the world as soon as his head touched his pillow, just like always. But he'd woken with a start at 12:38 a.m., according to the glowing green numbers on his bedside clock. He never woke in the middle of the night anymore -- a long day of hard, physical work was, he'd found, the ultimate cure for insomnia -- but tonight he had. Groggy, cross, filled with an indefinable sense of unease, he'd made the most obvious mental connection: something was up with his kids. Rising, pulling on the jeans and flannel shirt he'd left draped over the chair in the corner of his small bedroom, he'd padded barefoot out into the old farmhouse's drafty upstairs hall to check on them.
Jen's room, right across the hall from his own, was his first stop. Poking his head inside without turning on the light, he discovered his eleven-year-old daughter sleeping soundly on her side facing the door. Her knees were drawn up almost to her slight chest beneath the tattered red and blue, horse-appliquéd quilt that she loved. Her short, feathery brown hair was fanned out over her pillow. One small hand cushioned her tanned cheek. Ruffles, the fat beagle mix that was Jen's constant companion, lay on her back at Jen's feet, all four legs up in the air, her long black ears spread out on either side of her. Unlike Jen, she was snoring lustily. She roused herself enough to open one brown eye and blink at him.
Joe made a face at himself as he closed the door again. No trouble here. Not that he had expected any. Not really. Jen had never caused him any trouble in her life that he could remember. If occasionally the thought occurred that she was her mother's daughter, Joe put it out of his mind. It was he who had the raising of her, not Laura. Laura was long gone.
Josh and Eli were a different story. The room they shared was half a dozen steps down the hall, just past the bathroom. One of them was the more likely cause for this gut-sense he had that something was amiss. Not that they were bad boys -- they weren't -- but they were boys, and as such no strangers to mischief. He opened their door, looked inside, and discovered sixteen-year-old Eli, still clad in jeans and a T-shirt, fast asleep, sprawled on his back on the rumpled twin bed. His feet in their once white but now laundered-to-gray athletic socks extended past the end of the mattress by a good three inches, one arm trailed off the side of the bed, and headphones were clamped to his ears. Eli was almost as tall as Joe's own six-foot-three, with a lanky frame that had not yet started to fill out. His mouth was open slightly as he snored, and a textbook of some kind -- algebra, probably, he'd said he had a major test tomorrow -- lay open on his chest. Against the far wall, fourteen-year-old Josh's bed was rumpled but empty.
Ah-hah, Joe thought, congratulating himself on his finely tuned parental radar. Years of being both father and mother to this trio had rendered him acutely sensitive to his children. If Josh was up and about at this time of night, secure in the knowledge that his old man usually slept like a rock, he was about to get one heck of a surprise.
The lamp on the battered oak nightstand between the twin beds was on. The volume on the stereo beside the lamp had to be cranked up high, because, despite the headphones, Joe could hear the whine of tinny guitar riffs and the rhythmic thump of a driving bass.
As he'd said to Eli on countless occasions, maybe he'd do better in his classes if he just once tried studying without the stereo blasting his eardrums into the next state. Of course, Eli claimed that the music helped him concentrate. Not that he could prove it by his grades.
Mouth twisting wryly, Joe stepped into the room and removed the book from Eli's chest. Closing it, he put it on the nightstand and turned off the stereo. Lifting the headphones from his son's head -- Eli never so much as twitched -- he put those on the nightstand, too, switched off the lamp, and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Now, where was Josh?
As soon as Joe started down the steep, narrow staircase that led to the bottom floor, he heard the TV. A gentle bluish glow illuminated the arch that led into the living room and turned the well-worn floorboards at the base of the steps a weird shade of brownish purple. Frowning, Joe stepped into the patch of purple and looked left, into the living room. The TV was on, volume low, tuned to what looked like one of the Terminator movies. Still dressed in the ratty gray sweater and faded jeans he had worn to school, Josh lay on his back on the couch, his black head pillowed on the comfortably worn, brown-tweed arm as he followed the action on the screen.
"Hey, buddy, why aren't you in bed?" Joe asked gruffly, moving into the room, relieved to find his most trouble-prone child no farther afield than this.
Josh twisted around to look at him.
"Eli's got to have the light on so he can study." Josh's voice was bitter in the way of put-upon younger brothers everywhere.
"Bummer." Joe crossed to the TV and turned it off, then looked back at Josh. "Eli's asleep. Go up to bed. You've got school tomorrow."
"Dad! That was Arnold!" Josh protested, sitting up. At about five-eight and thin as a blade of grass, he still had a lot of growing to do. He ran his fingers over the short stubble of his severely crew-cut hair in frustration. The hairstyle, Joe thought, was Josh's attempt to make himself look as unlike Eli as possible, which was hard when the brothers bore so close a resemblance. Josh frequently teased Eli about what Josh mockingly called his older brother's long, beautiful hair. Eli was vain about his nape-length, slightly wavy black locks, and such brotherly attempts at humor were generally not well received.
"Too bad. It's almost one o'clock. Go to bed."
"Can't I please watch the rest of it?" Josh's blue eyes were pleading as he looked up at Joe, and there was a wheedling note in his voice.
"Nope. Go to bed. Right now," Joe said, unmoved.
"You heard me." Josh was the one who could be counted on to test the boundaries of his patience every step of the way, Joe reflected. Sometimes when he had to tell Josh something fifty times before he was obeyed Joe found himself one deep breath away from making his point with a swift kick to the boy's butt, but underneath he understood his second son's need to assert his individuality. Just as he understood his need to differentiate himself from his older, and to Josh's eyes, more accomplished brother.
"If you'd make Eli turn out the light at a decent time, I'd be asleep right now. But no, you never make Eli do anything." Josh's voice was sullen.
"Joshua. Go to bed." Crossing his arms over his chest, Joe mentally counted to ten.
Josh looked at him, and Joe looked levelly back. Josh snorted with disgust, stood up, and shuffled from the room, the too-long legs of his baggy jeans dusting the floor as he went.
After watching his son disappear up the stairs, Joe shook his head, then turned slowly around in the dark living room.
The kids were fine, it seemed. Had he heard something, then, the TV maybe or some other noise Josh had made, that had been out of the ordinary enough to wake him up?
Maybe. Probably. But while he was up, it wouldn't hurt to check on the horses. He was almost as attuned to them as he was to his kids.
Horses were his livelihood, and his passion. He bred them, trained them, cared for them. His own, in the shabby, black-painted barn out back, for love and what he could wrest out of the business, and, for a steady paycheck, those of Charles Haywood, in the immaculate, twin-gabled white barn up the hill.
Listening with half an ear to the noises Josh made getting ready for bed upstairs -- toilet flushing, sink running, floor creaking, the opening and closing of doors -- Joe moved from the living room to the hall and then to the kitchen at the rear of the house. Sitting down in one of the sturdy, white-painted kitchen chairs, he thrust his bare feet into the lace-up brown work boots he had left just inside the back door, tied them, and stood up. Grabbing his University of Kentucky Wildcat blue nylon parka from the coatrack, he let himself out the back door, locked it behind him, and headed across the cold-crisped grass for his barn.
It was a beautiful night, bright and clear, colder than usual for October, which was generally mild in Kentucky. Overhead dozens of stars twinkled in a midnight blue sky. The moon lacked only a sliver of being full, and shone round and white as a car's headlight, illuminating the gently rolling countryside with its scattering of houses, barns, four-board fences, and two-lane roads.
His thirty-three acres marched alongside Haywood's six hundred and seventeen, but because his acreage had once been part of the Whistledown Farm property -- the manager's house, to be precise -- the two barns were within easy walking distance of each other. His, on the little rise behind his own house, and Whistledown's, atop a bigger hill and separated from his property by a single black-painted fence, were no more than half a dozen acres apart.
As he approached his barn, the triangular-shaped pond to the right shone black in the moonlight, reflecting the night sky as faithfully as a mirror. The covered training ring, a three-quarters-of-a-mile indoor oval that allowed him to work his horses in inclement weather, sat silent and deserted at a little distance to the rear, looking for all the world like a long, curved, black-painted train tunnel. Beyond the ring, an owl hooted in the woods bordering the back of the property, and from some greater distance still a coyote howled. Near the edge of the woods, just visible as a solid dark block against the variegated charcoal of the timber, stood his father's small log cabin. The lights were out. No surprise there. Like himself, his widowed father was a horseman, which meant he was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy.
When he wasn't drinking, that is.
Joe stepped inside his barn, flipped on the light -- an evenly spaced lineup of cheap fluorescent fixtures overhead, not fancy but adequate for the job -- and looked around. Silver Wonder came to the front of her stall, blinking and snorting a soft question. Drago and Timber Country were next, thrusting their heads out of the open top of the Dutch-style stall doors, looking at him curiously. Down the row, more horses, some his, some boarded, popped their heads out. They knew the schedule as well as he did, and plainly wondered what had brought him to their domicile in the middle of the night.
"Everything okay, girl?" Joe walked over to Silver Wonder and rubbed her well-shaped head. The ten-year-old brood mare nudged him, wanting a treat, and he felt around in his coat pocket for a peppermint. Silver Wonder loved peppermint.
Unwrapping it, he held it out to the petite gray. She took the candy between velvet lips, drew it into her mouth, then chomped contentedly. The scent of peppermint filled the air as he made a quick circuit around the stalls. Built in a rectangle, the barn housed approximately forty horses in two rows with stalls facing each other on each side, an office area at the front, and an open area at the rear. The utilitarian layout provided what amounted to a small track around an indoor core of stalls and tack rooms so that the horses could be cooled out indoors when necessary.
It was obvious from the demeanor of the horses that there was no problem here.
"All right, go back to sleep." Ending up back where he had started, Joe patted Silver Wonder's neck affectionately, resisted her nudging hints for another peppermint, and left the barn.
Probably Josh being up was the only thing out of the ordinary on this starlit night. This was Simpsonville, Kentucky, after all. Population 907. The heart of the horse country that was Shelby County. Paradise County, the locals called it for the beauty of the landscape and the tranquility of the lifestyle. Crime was so rare here as to be almost nonexistent.
Yet Joe had felt strongly that something was wrong. And, he realized, he still did.
He would check on the Whistledown horses, then walk once around his dad's house before turning in again.
It was a simple matter to scale the fence. Actually, he did it an average of a dozen times a day. A boot on the lowest board, a leg flung over, and it was done. He climbed the hill to the accompaniment of his own crunching footsteps and the more distant sounds of nocturnal creatures going about their business. On the horizon, silhouetted against a stand of tall oaks, Whistledown, Haywood's white antebellum mansion, glowed softly in the yellow shimmer of its outside security lights. With Mr. Haywood and a party of friends in residence for the Keeneland races, the usually empty house was lit up like a Christmas tree. Diffused light glowed through the curtains at a dozen windows. Four cars were parked in the long driveway that most of the year held none.
Must be something to be so rich that a place like Whistledown was used for only about six weeks a year, mainly during the spring and fall Keeneland races, Joe mused. Horses were nothing more than an expensive hobby to Charles Haywood, and Whistledown Farm was only one of about a dozen properties he owned. Of course, Joe was sure the guy had problems, everybody had problems, but with money like that how bad could they be?
He'd like to try a few of the problems that came with being richer than hell, instead of constantly worrying about covering expenses. The most important things in his life -- his kids and his horses -- both required a lot of outlay without any guarantee of a return.
Unlike his own admittedly shabby barn, Whistledown's was shiny with new white paint, two stories tall, and embellished with the twin scarlet cupolas that were the farm's trademark. Reaching the door, Joe unlatched it, rolled it open, and stepped inside.
Moments later he went stomping furiously down the length of the barn, the smell of whiskey drawing him like a beacon, cursing and ready, willing, and able to put the fear of God into his dad.
His patience was at an end. Six weeks ago, after Joe had hauled him out of Shelby County High School's kickoff basketball game, where Cary had seriously embarrassed Eli, who was a starting forward, and his other grandkids by bellowing the school fight song from the middle of the basketball court at halftime, Cary had sworn never to touch another drop of booze as long as he lived.
Yeah, right, Joe thought. He had heard that song before, more times than he cared to count. They all had. But this was the last straw. His dad knew -- knew -- that he wasn't allowed near the horses if he'd been drinking. Especially the Whistledown horses. Especially with Charles Haywood in residence.
It was so dark that it was difficult to be certain, but the motionless figure seemed unaware of him as Joe stopped no more than a yard away and stared hard at it. A flicker of doubt assailed him: maybe it wasn't his dad after all. The man looked too big, too burly, but then maybe the dark was deceptive. Suddenly, the only thing he was sure of -- fairly sure of -- was that whoever it was, was a man. Shoes, pants, the individual's sheer size -- all looked masculine. Legs thrust stiffly out in front of him, the guy was sitting on the ground, head turned a little away, arms hanging at his sides, hands resting palms up on the ground. Joe thought his eyes were closed. Again, it was too dark to be sure, but he thought he would have seen a gleam of reflected light or something if the guy was looking at him.
"Pop?" he said, although he was almost positive now that the sitting figure was not his father. He caught a whiff of another smell foreign to the barn. It was sharper and more acrid, if not as familiar, as the booze. His voice hardened, sharpened. "All right, get up!"
The man didn't move.
The reddish-brown sawdust looked almost black in the darkness. But all around the man's right side, in a circular shape that seemed to be spreading even as Joe stared at it, was a deeper, denser blackness, an oily-looking blackness....
Joe's eyes narrowed as he strained to see through the darkness. Moving nearer, crouching, he laid a wary hand on the man's shoulder. It was solid and resilient -- but, like the man, totally unresponsive.
"Hey," Joe said, gripping the shoulder and shaking it. Then, louder: "Hey, you!"
The man's head flopped forward, and then his torso slumped bonelessly away from Joe, his leather coat making a slithering sound as it moved over the wood. He ended up bent sideways at the waist, limp as a rag doll, his head resting at the outermost edge of the oily-looking circle.
That posture was definitely not natural, Joe thought. The man had to be dead drunk -- or dead.
Oh Jesus. Dead.
All around him now horses stomped and snorted and called in a constant, agitated chorus. He could feel their nervousness, their recognition that something was wrong in their world. The hair on the back of his neck prickled as he felt it too: the sensation he had first experienced upon entering the barn. The best way he knew to describe it was the weight of another presence. Glancing swiftly over his shoulder only to see nothing but shadows and moonlight and the bobbing heads of horses behind him, it occurred to him just how very isolated the barn was.
There was a movie Eli liked. Joe couldn't remember the name of it right off the top of his head, but the tag line went something like this: In space they can't hear you scream.
That about summed up how he felt as he crouched there in the dark beside the slumped, motionless figure. He felt the touch of invisible eyes like icy fingers on his skin, and glanced around again. He could see nothing but the horses, and the shadows, and the moonlight pouring through the door. But a sudden fierce certainty that he was not alone seized him.
"Who's there?" he called sharply.
There was no reply. Had he really expected that there would be? Mouth compressing, he turned his attention back to the man before him. Touching the oily sawdust he discovered, as he had suspected, that whatever had discolored it was sticky and wet -- and warm.
Blood. The sharp, rotting-meat stench of it was unmistakable as he held his fingers beneath his nose.
"Jesus Christ," Joe said aloud, wiping his fingers on the sawdust to clean them. Then he reached for the man's neck, feeling for the carotid artery, for a pulse. Nothing, though the flesh was warm. At the same time he leaned over the still figure, squinting at the shadowed features.
By that time, his eyes were as adjusted to the dark as they were going to get. He could not see everything -- small details escaped him, and colors -- but he could see some things. Like the fact that the guy's eyes were definitely closed, and his mouth was open, with a black froth that could only be blood bubbling up from inside.
Charles Haywood. Joe took a deep, shaken breath as he recognized his employer. There was a blackened hole about the size of a dime in his left temple, a growing circle of blood-soaked sawdust around the right side of his upper body -- and a handgun lying not six inches from his left hand.
What he had smelled along with the booze was the acrid scent of a recently fired gun, Joe realized. Haywood had been shot dead.
Copyright © 2000 by Karen Rorobards