Deep beneath the desert lies a woman's body, mummified by salt, abandoned by those who ought to seek her. With her rests a secret that someone will kill to keep buried.
|Publisher:||Dorchester Publishing Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Colleen Thompson is the author of nine romantic suspense novels at Dorchester as well as six historical romances under the pseudonyms Gwyneth Atlee and Colleen Easton. She is a two time RITA Award Finalist (for Romantic Suspense) and won the Texas Gold for Best Mainstream Fiction.
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The Salt Maiden
By Colleen Thompson
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Colleen Thompson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial, Who, squatting upon the ground, Held his heart in his hands, And ate of it....
-Stephen Crane, "The Black Riders and Other Lines"
Long before the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians ever dreamed of making mummies, nature had perfected her technique. First take a corpse-a human's, for example-and protect it from the ravages of predators and weather. Then find a quick way to strip the body's tissues of all water content.
Dry winds do a fine job, providing the unfortunate's final resting place is cold enough to discourage hungry insects. But even in a hot locale-say the arid country of West Texas-certain natural compounds serve the purpose quite as well.
One of the most effective substances is common salt, including the white crystals surrounding a body in a cavern so far beneath the desert's surface, the coyotes and the turkey vultures never sense its presence. And neither do the searchers, whether they use horses, SUVs, or small planes in their hunt for one missing woman amid the hundreds of square miles where rattlesnakes outnumber humans and scorpions have outlasted every species since the dinosaurs.
Could she speak, our modern mummy might beg the searchers to look longer and look deeper. But, of course, she's been beyond that for some time.
* * *
Dana Vanover stopped dead in the middle of the hallway of Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Her head was already shaking as her mother turned.
"I'm not doing this," Dana told her. "I'm sorry for these people, Mom. Truly sorry their daughter's condition is so serious. But I don't want to get to know them. I don't want to feel ..."
Her mother arched an elegantly sculpted blond brow and folded arms both tanned and toned from tennis. Her latest cosmetic procedures might have smoothed the lines from her face, but they did nothing to erase the disapproval. "Feel what, Dana? Sympathy for the only grandchild I'll have?"
Spinning on her heel, Dana stormed toward the elevator, her long strides easily outdistancing her mother's. The staccato click-click of high-heeled sandals trailed her.
"Please, Dana, let's not dwell on-" Isabel's voice rose to a squeak.
Dana turned in time to see her mother toppling forward and reacted reflexively to save her from a fall.
"You all right, Mom?" She scanned quickly, her gaze sliding from her mother's sleek blond pageboy haircut to the summery green-and-white dress.
"I ... I'm fine," she said, then pointed down at the pretty pear green sandals to indicate a broken strap. "The price of vanity, I guess."
As she extricated herself from Dana's grip, her mother shuddered at the unexpected touch. Isabel Smith-Vanover Huffington tried to hide it, but Dana knew very well that she loathed all forms of physical contact, particularly those that took her by surprise. Dana had once heard whispers of abuse in her mother's childhood, but no one in the family was willing to discuss it.
Dana shook her head. "One day you're going to break your neck in those things."
"If I do, at least I won't be caught dead in those abominations you insist on wearing."
Dana frowned at her. "Right." But it wasn't the insult to her Birkenstocks that grated.
"Oh, for heaven's sake. You must know I was joking." Her mother took a deep breath, then reached for Dana's elbow. At the last instant she dropped her hand instead and kicked off the broken sandal, then bent to pick it up. "We've come this far. Please."
She bobbed along a step or two before Dana stopped again beside a brightly colored mural of cheerful cartoon animals.
"She's really not your grandchild, or my niece either. Angie saw to that when she put her up for adoption. Nikki belongs to the Harrisons. We were never even meant to know about her. And we never would have if she weren't in such bad shape."
Tears welled in her mother's green eyes. "They've asked for our help. To save that dear child's life."
Isabel had learned of the "dear child" only when a private investigator had landed on her doorstep three weeks earlier, yet here she stood, playing the queen of empathy, though she had never shown more than ill-disguised revulsion for her own two daughters' illnesses. Had Nikki Harrison and her parents really won Isabel over during her first, brief visit to the cancer center, or was she merely trying on the role of distraught grandmother to see how well it suited?
"We've both been tested," Dana told her, "and if the match had been good I would have gladly donated bone marrow for a transplant. But it's not a possibility, and I can't afford to get any more involved in this-"
"You used to be such a caring girl. And you still do so much good. For animals, at least."
Dana braced herself against the implication that she thought more about her canine and feline patients than about people. "I told you, I am sorry. But I can't bleed for everybody, Mom. I don't have the energy right now. I have a veterinary clinic operating at a loss, thanks to the time I took off after my surgery. And I still have a ton of wedding gifts to send back, along with some pretty damned awkward notes to go with them-"
"You haven't finished that yet?" Her mother's eyes shot wide. "Oh, Dana. It's been more than three months now. What on earth are people going to think?"
Dana didn't have an answer. She felt guilty enough without Isabel hammering the nail in deeper.
After passing a nurses' station, her mother paused to check the room numbers on a sign before she turned a corner. Still hobbling, she made careful progress while Dana followed in her wake, helpless as a leaf drawn by the current. But not as unprotesting.
"I'm sorry, Mom. Sorry I won't be giving you a grandchild. Sorry I haven't been able to write your friends to tell them, 'Here's your Waterford dust catcher back; thanks anyway. Alex, the rat bastard fiancé, thought the whole hysterectomy-at-thirty-one thing was too much of a downer.'" She wanted to deck the sniveling coward every time she thought about how he had dumped her by text message and then ducked the resulting shit storm with a quick transfer to the New York office of his brokerage firm. "And I'm especially sorry I can't get sucked into another of my big sister's dramas right now."
People were giving her a wide berth as she passed them: a frail-looking young mother towing a small boy by the hand, a round-faced woman in raspberry-bright scrubs pushing a cart of trays that stank of steamed broccoli and heart-healthy chicken. Poor, sick kids were going to love that.
"You're making a scene," her mother whispered as she hobbled. "And finding Angie is the least we can do to save that sweet child. When you see how hard her parents are praying for a miracle, how totally devoted they are to-"
Still following, Dana cut her off. "There's no guarantee Angie's going to be a match, even if we did know where to find her. She still hasn't cashed those checks, right?"
Dana and her sister each received a modest monthly stipend from a trust fund set up after their father's death. Neither would come into the full amount until she turned thirty-five. For Angie that was less than a year away. Then she'd be free to blow $2.4 million on her various addictions. Until then, however, she depended on the monthly payments. But Dana wasn't too worried just because Angie had put off cashing the last two mailed to her. It probably meant she'd drifted into a relationship with a man content to pay the bills for as long as the ride lasted. Or possibly she was so into one of her commissioned weavings that she'd temporarily forgotten about drugs-or even food. Or maybe she'd hooked up with some commune and given over all her cares to Jesus. Where Angie was concerned, almost anything could happen-except another rescue from her sister. That ship had sailed-and sunk-already.
"She hasn't cashed them," Isabel confirmed, "and when I called, the sheriff told me no one's seen her in at least two months. But she can't have gone far. He found her car out by the house where she was living. Apparently the engine's gone bad. Something about a cracked block, maybe?"
Dana felt the first frisson of unease then. "What about her loom?"
"He says as far as he can tell, all her things are still there. And I asked especially about the loom."
It's not my problem, not my problem, not my problem. Dana repeated the words until they blended like a mantra. Angie had sworn at her for rushing to the rescue the last time, had skipped out of town and vanished the time before that. And if I have to fight with her now, on top of everything else ... Dana rubbed her temples, but she couldn't hold back her concern.
Troubled though she might be, Angie wouldn't leave her loom behind. Not that one thing, not ever. Once, during a rare calm visit while Angie was in rehab, she had described it to Dana as her only constant: the shuttle that married the varied strands of warp to weft and wove scant snatches of peace out of her chaos. She could become almost poetic when she talked about it. Angelina Morningstar, she called her weaver self, the artist. Other people called her that, too, and during her more stable periods, "Angelina" made good money selling work inspired by years of cultural anthropology courses that had never quite translated into a degree.
"Maybe you should fly out there and check on her." Dana's suggestion slipped out before she could stop herself, though she already suspected it was a lost cause.
Her mother paused before a closed door. "Heaven knows I'd like to. But you know very well she'll head for the hills if she hears I'm within a hundred miles. Besides, Jerome has put his foot down this time."
Although her mother's husband of six years loved nothing more than seeing his name listed among the big-time benefactors of well-publicized charitable endeavors, the real estate developer had never approved of his wife "enabling" Angie's irresponsible behavior. But Dana suspected Isabel was using him as an excuse, that she would far rather send her younger daughter as an emissary and throw money at the trouble than risk yet another heartbreak. It was tough to fault her mother, since Dana wished that she could do the same thing, wished that the buck didn't always stop, inevitably, with her.
"I'm not doing it this time," she insisted. "And I'm not going to make the Harrison family's tragedy mine."
Her mother raised her knuckles toward the door and paused to give her a look from the intersection of Shrewd and Appraising. "Come inside for just a minute. We'll need to wash and put on masks and gowns. Then we can meet the Harrisons. Do that much for me, and I swear I'll never bring up this subject again."
Not my problem, not my problem, not my problem, went the mantra. But the moment Nikki Harrison looked up at her through Angie's brown eyes, Dana's resolution shattered, along with her vow to stay out of her sister's life and get her own on track.
Excerpted from The Salt Maiden by Colleen Thompson Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When her sister Angie disappears, veterinarian Dana Vanover leaves her practice to search for her sibling in her last known address, the desert town of Devil's Claw, Texas. No one in the isolated West Texas community wants her there, especially the politicians who fear their dirtysecrets will be exposed and Rimrock County Sheriff Jay Eversole who fears for her safety.----------------- Jay insists Dana go home and let law enforcement deal with the missing person¿s case but she refuses as this missing person shares her blood. As Dana forces Jay to work with her, their attraction makes the temperature of the desert look like that of a tundra. However, someone watches both Jay and Dana with the understanding if they get to close they will find a permanent rest spot underneath the sands of the desert.--------------- The key to this romantic suspense thriller is the depth of the cast including the references to the modern mummified title character. Dana is obstinate as she refuses to walk way without the truth while Jay is dedicated and caring in a town without pity. Readers will appreciate Colleen Thompson¿s tense tale as the strong characterizations and their interplay make the tension that much more vigorous and potent.------------- Harriet Klausner
I can't praise this book enough and I recommend it to everyone. Beautifully crafted, the perfect balance of romance and suspense, it kept me on the edge of my seat and then it blew me away. I loved it! The premise, the plot, the romance...all brilliant!
THE SALT MAIDEN by Colleen Thompson is riveting suspense with an emotionally satisfying romance. The finely detailed characterization combines with an eerie exquisitely written landscape to make this novel a reading and re-reading pleasure. Dana Vanover needs to locate her sister Angie and time is of the essence. Nikki Harrison needs a bone marrow transplant to save her life. Dana and her mother, Nikki's grandmother, are not matches, so as her biological mother, Angie is Nikki's last hope. With urgency to save Nikki and please her mother, Dana travels to Devil's Claw, a desert in Rimrock County, Texas --- the last place Angie was located. The deeper Dana delves into her sister's life, the more danger she unearths... including a body preserved in salt. The town's residents were none to keen on Angie's eclectic ways or her interference in town affairs nor do they relish Dana's digging up the past. As soon as she arrives in Devil's Claw, danger lurks everywhere. Sheriff Jay Eversole is Dana's only ally in the small town but as a former desert warrior and war veteran, he is plagued by day time nightmares. Can Dana find her sister in time and is her growing attraction for Jay a threat to her safety? Will the sheriff's past come back to haunt their search, making him a threat? Each chapter of THE SALT MAIDEN begins with either an entry from Angie's sobriety journal or a quote about salt, adding a suspenseful or reflective dimension to the novel. The desert wasteland haunts the landscape of this novel, creating an almost paranormal character in THE SALT MAIDEN. Colleen Thompson creates an intriguing landscape, not only of the natural world of the desert but also a landscape that extends into the daily life and dynamics of the community of Devil's Claw. The outer landscape becomes an internal landscape of her characters as Colleen Thompson reveals the vulnerabilities and inner psychological wasteland within Dana, Angie and Jay. The suspense of THE SALT MAIDEN twists and turns as the motivations of different characters conflict and add new suspects. When one clue is solved, another even more intriguing mystery remains. Colleen Thompson creates fast-paced suspense where every second contains both danger and a pressing need to find answers. At the same time, Colleen Thompson creates a romance that is reflective in tone through her portrait of the wasteland, adding a fresh intriguing vision to the genre. As the desert warrior Jay and Dana work together, they are forced to reveal parts of their pasts that they have kept hidden. THE SALT MAIDEN is a romance that dares to look into the wasteland of the heart and heal wounded souls. Readers will appreciate THE SALT MAIDEN both for the immediate reading pleasure but also the mysteries and questions that remain afterwards. The almost mystical nature of salt and the salt maiden haunts even once the suspense resolves. THE SALT MAIDEN leaves the reader with a question that will make this book a re-reading or book club discussion delight: are some unforgivable acts redeemable?
Colleen Thompson has risen to a new level of complexity in this amazing novel. Talented wordsmith that she is, Ms. Thompson has touched depths of characterization a lesser writer might fear with two strong, passionate people searching not only for necessary answers to a well-plotted mystery, but also for their own personal answers, perhaps the more painful of the two.-------------Dana Vanover¿s life has been a little rocky of late. Her small animal vet clinic is operating at a loss because of the time she had to take off for surgery. Oh, and speaking of the whole hysterectomy-at-thirty-one thing, she has not even had a chance to return all the wedding presents for which she was left responsible when her cowardly ex-fiancé dumped her by text message three months before.------------- She definitely is not going to get sucked into another of her big sister Angie¿s dramas.------------But the niece Dana has never known because Angie placed the child for adoption at birth needs a bone marrow transplant as a last hope to beat the cancer slowly leaching the child¿s life away. So once again, Dana is off on a rescue mission chasing her dysfunctional, druggie sister, and this time to the very end of civilization, a miserable community called Devil¿s Claw, Texas.------------Jay Eversole is back home, following in the footsteps of his uncle and his grandfather before him as sheriff of Rimrock County. That he has come back after being relieved of his law enforcement duties in Dallas because of PTSD ¿ flashbacks to the nightmares he survived in Iraq ¿ doesn¿t bother the small town folks who have known him all his life.------------Now green-eyed Dana Vanover, as attractive as she is big in the trouble department, is stirring it up faster than he can take care of it. Within the first thirty minutes he knows her, she nearly passes out from the unrelenting temperature, then manages to get herself bit by a five-foot rattlesnake.---------------The shimmering heat of the surrounding area houses more scorpions and centipedes than it does humans. No one has seen Angie in two months, but a stubborn Dana believes her sister is still in the area. The only item sacred to Angie¿s sanity is the loom the artist uses to create her tapestries. Dana knows her sister wouldn¿t have abandoned it here had she moved on.------------The desert doesn¿t have anything on the steamy heat Dana and Jay generate as their attraction grows. Add the intrigue of small town politics, a questionable salt dome project and new clues unfolding in the mystery surrounding Angie¿s disappearance that lead to life-threatening danger, and you¿ve got an amazing romantic suspense.--------------This thriller will keep you entranced until its very last secret is unveiled. This is Ms. Thompson¿s best ever.