Prudence’s breath released on a sigh. They’d already passed her neighbor’s waist-high cornfield, and she could discern the comforting white lines of her front pasture fence through the dusty afternoon haze. The modest home and scattering of outbuildings rolled into view shortly after. Her chilled hands, clasped tightly in her lap to still their endless twisting, loosened.
“You may stop here, please.”
“What? Your driveway’s gotta be a quarter mile long. Don’t let the AC fool you, Dr. Marsh. Between the heat and humidity, you could poach eggs on that gravel. Let me drive you on up—”
“No!” Her voice rang shrilly.
Although the driver had indeed stopped the vehicle, he was staring at her in a most unnerving manner. Apparently, a more socially acceptable explanation would be required. She had little desire to impose guilt on the man by informing him the air conditioner had been too high and thus she’d welcome any warmth, even less to reveal her extreme aversion to visitors.
The only exception had been the veterinarian, Dr. Lazaire, whom she’d been unable to reach this morning. As evils went, he was certainly more attractive than the alternative, which had required her first to speak to someone in order to arrange transportation for the mare and herself, then, worse yet, sitting in the small waiting room crowded with people.
Though the thought of reliving that experience made Prudence faintly nauseous, she might have to. In any case, she’d need to trailer Bonnie home in a few days. Alienating the driver would only make the situation more uncomfortable than it already was.
Her clenched fingers spasmed as she frantically groped for an appropriate farewell. Finally, she squeaked, “Thank you, sir. Have a pleasant remainder to your day.”
Without turning to verify the results of her attempt, she sprang from the confines of the vehicle. The ground felt wonderfully solid beneath her trembling legs. The driver turned his truck around and drove off. Her panic receded as it began to shrink in the distance and the warm air seeped into her bones. But when she inhaled the familiar odors deeply for further comfort, the mix smelled wrong.
Perhaps the fault lay with the absence of a much-loved fragrance. She glanced at the empty pasture, then away. Prudence hadn’t known Bonnie was pregnant when she’d rescued her outside the slaughterhouse auction barn. And now the pregnancy was causing problems, possibly due to earlier malnutrition, Dr. Lazaire had speculated.
She sniffed again. No, not a missing scent, an additional one, possibly metallic.
Hairs raised at the base of her neck, exposed by the braided bun. Silence hummed in her ears.
Where was Sundance? The big Malamute took his job of heralding arrivals seriously. Surely, he’d have heard the truck’s door slam, and be on his way to investigate. Or had the high temperatures driven him to hide in one of the many holes he loved to dig? The absence of the other heavy-coated friends she provided homes for—a llama, a couple of alpacas, several sheep, and an angora goat—substantiated that theory.
Still, she’d left with Bonnie early this morning. Not even August heat could come between that dog and She-Who-Brought-Food following a ten-hour separation.
Worry hurried her legs while icy dread clawed at the muscles. The pumping of her arms in her peripheral vision appeared as though on a film played in slow motion.
Relief flooded her at the sight of him lying in the shade next to the barn. “Sundance, you handsome, lazy devil.”
Not so much as a tail thumped in reaction.
She tried to run then. But, like trying to breathe, she may as well have been under water. Endless moments later, she fell to her knees beside him and reached out to ruffle his fur. Her hand froze on contact.
The buzzing silence became a roar. She crawled backward, away from the blood caking the dry dust.
How could there be so much of it? The question came to her in the abstract, as though he wasn’t the first and best friend she’d ever had.
Whatever tethered her mind to her body must have snapped then, for she next saw herself drifting above an unlovely woman crumpled in the dirt.
She watched her raise her gangly body and stagger from the open barn to the adjoining side and back pastures, observed her eyes squeezing shut over and over, when faced with the prone alpacas, sheep, and a lone llama—every stray animal that poor, lonely, creature had taken in—lying in pools of blood on the straw in the shadow of stalls, in the grass under a tree, in the tall weeds on the hill.
She saw the woman cover her mouth and nose to block an unbearable stench, saw her retch, then stumble blindly into the house, saw her pick up the phone and dial a number, heard her voice croak two words into the receiver, “Code Red.”