Obsession (Natchez Trace Park Rangers #2) - Patricia Bradley


The January warm spell had definitely ended in South Mississippi. Emma Winters zipped her National Park Service jacket against the biting north wind as she hiked the quarter mile from the gate to the Mount Locust Visitor Center on the Natchez Trace. A hike that wouldn’t have been necessary if she hadn’t forgotten the gate key. Or the folder she needed to finish a report due by midnight.

Forgetting things wasn’t like her, but her mother’s resistance to tracking down her brother had Emma off-center. Her cell phone broke the silence, and she checked her caller ID. She wasn’t sure she was ready for her mother’s reaction to the email she’d sent and let two more rings go by. In fact, she was tempted to not answer her mother’s call at all because she just didn’t want to hear her objections. But just before it went to voicemail, Emma punched the answer button. “Hello,” she said, forcing a cheery note in her voice.

“Oh, good, I caught you,” her mother said. “I received the flyer you emailed.”

“And? What did you think?”

“Honey, I think you’ll get a lot of nutcases if you send it out. Like you did before when you offered money for information on Ryan.”

“But someone might know some—”

“Your brother’s choices in life are his. I hate to see you throw good money after bad.”

“It’s my money,” she muttered. As each year passed, finding her twin brother pressed deeper into her heart, but she should have known her mother would kick up about the flyer. If she knew the whole story . . .

“What are you doing? You’re breaking up.”

“Walking to my office.”

“You’re . . . Mount Locust . . . night?”

“Mom, we have a bad connection,” she said. “I’ll call you when I get home.”

Emma ended the call and shrugged off the sense of failure that seeped into every fiber of her body whenever she thought of Ryan. But it wasn’t so easily shrugged off. She glanced toward the sky just as a pale sliver of moon broke through the clouds, giving off enough light to cast eerie shadows on the ground.

A shiver ran over her body. Maybe next time she would ask someone to come with her. Or bring a gun. Not likely. She’d never desired to be a law enforcement ranger and was quite satisfied being on the interpretive side of the National Park Service.

In spite of that, the hair on the back of her neck rose as she approached the stone and wood building. Come on. Don’t get all spooked. She worked here, and Mount Locust was as familiar as the backyard where she’d grown up. And it wasn’t like being here after dark was something new. From November until the days got longer, she locked up every day in the dark. Besides, she’d never been afraid of the dark. Even so, she scanned the area, trying to shake the sense she wasn’t alone.

Nothing moved as she scanned the grounds, her gaze stopping at the lighted maintenance building a quarter mile away and visible through the bare trees before moving to the tractor shed a few yards away. Probably should check on the ground penetrating radar machine that had arrived earlier today. Tomorrow she was supposed to begin the preliminary mapping of the historic quarters and the adjoining cemetery.

She’d left word for the new district law enforcement ranger on the Natchez Trace to have someone swing by every few hours to check for trespassers. Now would be a good time for a ranger to arrive . . . as long as it wasn’t Samuel Ryker. Emma hadn’t seen her once-upon-a-time fiancé since he returned to Natchez and had avoided talking directly to him on the call for assistance. But eventually she would have to face him, and she might as well make peace with it.

Something rustled to her right. Emma froze with her hand on the doorknob. She turned just as a bottle rolled from the open passageway separating the office from the restrooms.

“Who’s there?” She tried for commanding, but the tremor in her voice destroyed the effect.

A bedraggled gray-and-white tabby walked around the corner and sat down, its doleful stare almost as pitiful as its meow. Emma released the breath caught in her chest and leaned against the door. “Where did you come from?”

The cat couldn’t be over three or four months old. It stretched and then rubbed against her leg, and Emma stooped to pick it up. She could count the poor thing’s ribs. With it