Rachel Goddard drove up to Joanna McKendrick’s brick farmhouse to make a routine veterinary call and discovered her friend standing on the porch, pointing a shotgun at a man in a business suit.
What on earth? Rachel pulled her Range Rover to a stop on the narrow farm lane and jumped out. A wicked cold wind whipped her auburn hair across her eyes and she had to hold it back with both hands to take a closer look at the surreal scene before her.
The man at the end of Joanna’s shotgun barrel was unmistakable, with his beaky nose and rooster comb of reddish brown hair: Robert McClure, president of Mason County’s oldest and largest bank. Holding up one hand as if to fend off an attack and clutching a briefcase with the other, he backed toward the steps.
Rachel couldn’t catch most of the words pouring out of Joanna, but her fury came through loud and clear.
“Joanna,” Rachel called. “What’s going on?”
“Stay out of this,” Joanna yelled back.
Under a glowering November sky, the wind rattled bare tree branches and sent a few dead leaves tumbling down the driveway. Rachel glanced up the road to a cluster of small houses where the farm employees lived, and beyond to the horse paddocks and the rolling hills. Where was everybody? Hadn’t anybody else noticed what was happening here?
When Rachel swung her gaze back to the porch, Joanna had advanced on McClure, forcing him to the edge of the steps. Another few inches and he would tumble backwards.
Rachel jogged across the lawn to the bottom of the steps. From behind the glass storm door, Joanna’s two dogs barked to get Rachel’s attention. Nan, a golden retriever, wagged her tail, and the mutt Riley stood up against the glass, scratching and whining for release. Rachel had come over this afternoon to vaccinate the dogs and the barn cats, but it might be a while before she fetched her medical case from her vehicle.
His right hand still raised, McClure half-turned toward Rachel. “I’m glad to see you, Dr. Goddard. ” He sounded calm. In his pinstriped suit and tie he might have been greeting her at his office under normal conditions, not at a horse farm while its owner held a gun on him. But his tall, bony body looked rigid with tension and he held his briefcase in a white-knuckled grip.
“Joanna,” Rachel repeated, “what’s going on?”
“Honey, you know I love you like a daughter, but I have to ask you to please shut up and butt out. And if Robert knows what’s good for him, he’ll get off my property and he won’t come back.”
A fit and still youthful woman in late middle age, Joanna normally tackled problems with an unflustered, practical attitude. Rachel had never seen her like this, her cheeks flaming, strawberry blond hair tangled by the wind, hands trembling so violently that the gun barrel jerked up and down. She kept a finger on the trigger.
“But—” Rachel waved a hand, indicating both Joanna and McClure. “This is… bizarre.”
“I just want him to leave.” Joanna feinted with the shotgun.
McClure took a quick step backward into empty air. Arms flailing, fighting for balance, he dropped his briefcase and lurched backward down the steps.
Rachel jumped onto the bottom step and caught his arm to break his fall. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” McClure’s face flushed crimson. He pulled his arm from Rachel’s grasp, straightened his suit jacket, and snatched his briefcase from the steps. “I came here to offer Joanna the deal of a lifetime, and I expected a civilized response. I got a gun in my face instead.”
“Civilized?” Joanna cried. “After what you said to me? You threatened me.””
McClure snorted. “Oh, Joanna, don’t be so melodramatic.”
“Threatened you how?” Rachel climbed the steps to stand beside Joanna.
“I did not threaten her,” McClure said. “I simply pointed out—”
“He told me I’d be sorry if everybody else sells their land to Packard and I’m the only holdout. The whole county will blame me if Packard backs out. He said they’ll come after me, they’ll make me pay one way or another. If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what is.”
McClure shook his head, making his cock’s comb of hair bounce. “You’re misconstruing—”
“Those statements are pretty hard to misconstrue,” Rachel said. “Who are you talking about, anyway? Who’s agreed to sell?”
“Nobody,” Joanna cut in, before McClure had a chance to answer.
McClure’s lips twitched in a faint, condescending smile that made Rachel want to kick him in the shin. “Actually, we’ve already reached agreements with Jake Hollinger and Tavia Richardson. I’ve been authorized as Packard’s agent to offer very generous payments, and they couldn’t turn down a windfall like this. I think the Jones sisters and the Kellys will come around—”
“Lincoln and Marie Kelly will never sell their farm,” Joanna protested. “If Packard wants to build one of their fancy resorts in Mason County, they can do it on somebody else’s land. I don’t want their money. I want to be left alone to raise my horses and run my business.”
“You know the whole county is depending on this development to create a lot of new jobs.” A pained expression creased his brow. “Each sale is dependent on every sale going through. If you hold out, the project won’t go forward.”
“Fine,” Joanna snapped. “That’s exactly what I want.”
McClure extended a hand palm-up as if entreating her to come to her senses. “As I told you, a lot of people will be very angry if you block this project.”
“And I told you not to threaten me.”
“Why do they have to have Joanna’s farm?” Rachel asked.
McClure hesitated and seemed to debate with himself before answering. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I want to be honest. They’ve determined that this is the only suitable place in the county for what they propose. We’re standing on the spot where they want to build the lodge. They want to offer horseback riding, so it’s an advantage to buy a property already equipped to keep horses. Joanna, you’re in a position to make a very lucrative deal, if you—”
“Are you saying they’ve already designed it?” Joanna demanded.
“Without knowing whether they can get the property they need?” Rachel added.
“That’s the way these things are done.”
These things. As if McClure, a small-town banker in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, had a wealth of experience with high-end development. Rachel almost laughed. “How could an architect draw up a plan without knowing what the land is like? Oh, wait a minute. They did know. They’ve been out here, haven’t they? Without Joanna’s permission. Or did they fly over?”
McClure, clearly losing patience with Rachel’s interference, threw an irritated look her way. He directed his words at Joanna. “Does it really matter? Nobody trespassed, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Joanna had her gun up all the way again. “I’ve never seen such arrogance in my life. You tell them to take their damned design and stuff it. Now I want you to get—”
The crack of a gunshot in the distance cut her off. The three of them swiveled their heads west, toward the sound.
Rachel felt suspended, waiting for something more.
“It’s just a hunter,” McClure suggested with an indifferent shrug. “They’ve been out in the woods all week looking for wild turkeys for Thanksgiving.”
A second shot rang out. Rachel’s heart broke into a gallop, the way it always did when she heard a gun fired.
Joanna lowered her weapon. “That came from the Kelly farm.”
“Maybe they’re trying to bag a turkey too,” McClure suggested. “Or thinning out the rabbits.”
Rachel shook her head. “They wouldn’t shoot animals.”
“Robert,” Joanna said, “I don’t see how you could’ve worked with Lincoln at the bank all those years and still not know a damn thing about him and Marie. They keep pet rabbits in the house, for god’s sake, and Marie puts out food for the wild animals. They don’t even own a gun. And they don’t allow anybody to hunt on their land.”
A third shot made them all flinch.
“I don’t like this.” Rachel pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket. “If something’s wrong over there, we can’t stand here wasting time.”
She punched the speed dial number to call her husband, Sheriff Tom Bridger.