Whispers Through Time

Cortez, Colorado, Present Day.  Someone was looting the ancient Anasazi ruins at Black Mesa–and it was Kurt Richards’s job to stop them.  Of course, most of the damage had been done a century before, when settlers first discovered the ruins.  But there was no way Kurt could change the past–until he slipped down a cliff face and into a time he had only imagined…

Cortez, Colorado, 1890.  When he cannot find the modern city of Cortez, Kurt has to accept the unbelievable.  But he may be able to change the future when he stumbles upon the Lazy H ranch–where the recently widowed Olivia Hamilton struggles to hold on to her land.  Without Kurt’s help, she could lose her property–and the ruins that sit on it–to a greedy banker.  As their friendship blossoms into passion, Kurt is determined to prevent the loss of Olivia’s home–and the loss of his own heart to a woman who lives in another century.

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Chapter One

Cortez, Colorado – 2000

Clothes spilled from the closet to the bedroom floor, bureau drawers stood open. Shoes lay in the middle of the room and the bookshelf on the far wall was nearly empty. If it hadn’t been for the two suitcases near the door, a third half-packed on the bed, and Charlotte standing in front of the bureau, her arms filled with underclothes, Kurt Richards would have called the Cortez police to report a robbery.

He recognized the signs immediately, of course. This wasn’t the first time someone had walked out on him. But some part of his brain refused to acknowledge it could be happening again. He stopped unbuttoning his shirt and stood there for a moment to let the realization sink in.

“What are you doing?” An unnecessary question, but the only thing he could think of to say.

Charlotte sent him the look of raw disgust that had become all too familiar over the past few months. “I’m leaving.”

Well, there it was. He couldn’t even try to deny it now.

It shouldn’t be such a big surprise. Their relationship had been slipping into the hauntingly familiar pattern for a long time. When welcoming smiles disappeared and sex cooled into something resembling duty or habit, when bitterness began to fill a woman’s voice and accusations loomed beneath every word, the end couldn’t be far behind.

The past came rushing back to haunt him—not just losing Holly, but every unhappy experience since his father walked out the door twenty years earlier. When his mother died two years later, leaving him in her Aunt Dorothy’s care, Kurt had quickly learned to hide his emotions in a crisis. This one was no exception.

Kurt kept the bitter spear of pain inside and worked up an insolent expression instead. “I can see that you’re leaving. Do you mind if I ask why?”

Charlotte propped her hands on her narrow hips, her tanned skin a stark contrast to the white of her shorts and tank top. She shook her dark hair, slightly damp from the August heat, out of her eyes. “Do you have to ask?”

He hated when she started a discussion that way. He wasn’t a mind-reader, for hell’s sake. Thinking back over the last few fruitless arguments they’d had, he tried to come up with one that might have pushed her to this. “Is this about last night?”

She laughed bitterly. “It’s about the past six months, Kurt. But, yes. Last night was the final straw.”

The room grew hotter and it felt as if someone had sucked the oxygen from the air as it always did when the subject came up. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t marry you.” He dashed a trickle of nervous sweat from his temple. “Just that this isn’t the best time. This latest rash of vandalism at Black Mesa is going to keep me working longer hours than ever.”

“Longer than twenty-four hours a day?” Charlotte tossed the clothes she held into the suitcase and turned back to the dresser for more. “Why don’t you tell the truth? You don’t want to get married. I was just too gullible to realize it before now.”

“You know how I feel about marriage,” he reminded her. “I’ve never lied about that.

“Yes, and I know why you feel that way.” Charlotte jerked something from the dresser and wheeled around to face him. “But I’m not Holly, and I’m tired of paying for what she did. I didn’t cheat on you, Kurt. I’ve done everything I could to make you happy and help you forget that she did, but it hasn’t done any good, has it? You’re determined to be miserable, and I can’t live this way anymore.”

The accusation made his temper flare, more at himself for being foolish enough to share the details of Holly’s betrayal than at Charlotte for using it against him. Women had a way of turning whispered confidences into weapons when the chips were down. He knew that, but he’d trusted her anyway. “I’m not determined to be miserable—”

“No?” Anger flashed in Charlotte’s eyes and distorted her mouth. She pushed a damp lock of hair from her forehead. “You’ve been divorced for three years and you’re still moping about it.”

Resentment knifed through him, but he refused to let it show. “Are you trying to make me believe that you’ve forgotten your past?”

“No. Of course not.” She took a steadying breath and shook her head sadly. “Nobody forgets, but most people don’t let the past consume them. They don’t let it color everything that happens afterward.”

“Obviously,” he drawled carelessly, “most people never walked in on their wives and their best friends in bed together. I know you didn’t.”

Tiny white lines of frustration formed around Charlotte’s mouth. Kurt felt a twinge of guilt for his bad temper, but he brushed it aside.

“No, I didn’t,” Charlotte conceded. “But I’ve been through other things and you know it. I’ve tried not to make you pay for things other people have done to me. All I’ve ever asked for was the same courtesy.”

Much as Kurt hated to admit it, she had a point, but stubborn pride wouldn’t let him acknowledge it. Later, maybe. If they could work through this. If he ever felt secure again. But not now when his heart and emotions lay on the floor, vulnerable, exposed. Raw.

Charlotte studied him for a moment, as if she expected some response. When he didn’t say anything she shook her head and started in again. “It’s not just that, anyway.”

“So we’re going to air the entire list, are we?” Kurt let a bitter smile contort his mouth. “Well, please . . . don’t stop now. Tell me what else I’ve done to deserve this.”

She sighed heavily and glanced away. “I’m tired of coming in a distant second to your career, Kurt.”

He let out a harsh laugh. Too harsh, perhaps. It gave away how much he cared. “I’ve never put you behind my work.”

“Haven’t you?” Charlotte stepped into the connecting bathroom and emerged with a collection of makeup and facial cleansers. “What time is it? Do you have any idea?”

He refrained from glancing at his watch. “I know I’m late getting home tonight, but I’ve told you about the trouble at Black Mesa.”

Charlotte waved his explanation away with a jerk of her arm. “It’s after nine o’clock. You’ve been gone since before the sun came up. And don’t blame it on the trouble at Black Mesa. Even when you’re not having problems at the site, you’re never here.” She scooped up the shoes from the floor, tossed them into the suitcase, and closed it with an ominous click. “I’m beginning to feel as if the only time you want to be around me is when you want sex.”

“That’s not true.” His voice rose in protest at the unfair accusation. He softened it quickly. The walls of the tract houses in this neighborhood were thin as cardboard and he didn’t want the neighbors—people he had to work with every day—to overhear. “You know it’s not true.”

“Do I?” Charlotte propped her hands on her hips again. “We haven’t gone out together in months—not that there’s anywhere to go in this godforsaken place. But you could at least take me to the Burger Barn or Chuck’s Lounge once in a while, couldn’t you? It seems like you’re embarrassed to be seen with me.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Charlotte was an incredibly beautiful woman. That was part of the trouble. Kurt didn’t like the looks she got from other members of the crew and he hated the nagging insecurity that inevitably came along with them.

He wanted to argue with her, to explain his reasons, but she’d only use that as proof that he was moping over Holly. Aunt Dorothy’s stern admonitions to be strong echoed in his head, and memories of the stinging slaps she’d administered whenever he’d weakened kept him silent.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said after a long moment. “Not about me being embarrassed to be seen with you, but about the rest. God knows I’m no good at relationships. Just look at my track record.”

“I’m not interested in your track record,” Charlotte shouted. “That’s what I’m talking about. You can’t even have an argument with me without bringing Holly into it.”

He bit his tongue to keep from pointing out that she was the one who’d mentioned Holly first. Nothing could turn a woman vicious faster than telling her she was wrong.

“You’re so consumed with your divorce, you don’t even notice me.” She hoisted the suitcase from the bed and lowered it to the floor beside the others. “You’re so busy with your thousand-year old pottery shards and broken tools, you can’t see what’s going on in front of your eyes. Well, I won’t be in front of your eyes anymore. I hope you’re happy.”

Kurt ran a hand across his face, moved it to the back of his neck, and tried like hell to think. Part of him wanted to ask her to stay. The other part told him to cut his losses and let her go. Once a relationship began to falter, there was no salvaging it. He’d learned that lesson the hard way.

He studied Charlotte’s face, wondering at the emotions he saw written there. Was it hope or resolve flickering in her eyes? Wistfulness or bitterness curving her lips? Regret or disgust tightening the muscles of her jaw?

When he didn’t speak, she sighed again and broke the silence. “You don’t care, do you? The minute the going gets tough, you run away.”

He resented the accusation bitterly. He’d never run from a fight in his life. “I care.”

“You have a strange way of showing it.” She picked up two of the suitcases and started toward the door. “There’s not an ounce of expression on your face.”

Kurt turned away, wanting to make sure none of the searing pain inside spilled over into his eyes. He resisted the impulse to carry the other bags for her. Maybe he couldn’t stop her from walking out on him, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to help her.

Charlotte stopped just inside the door, brushing the hair from her forehead once more as she turned to face him. This time, there was no mistaking the look in her eyes, the curl of her lip, the set of her jaw. “Do yourself a favor, Kurt. If you ever think about getting involved with a woman again, don’t. You’ll be much happier living alone . . . and so will the women you meet.”

He kept his mouth shut, knowing that this was the dangerous moment, the time when he was most likely to weaken. Let Charlotte think him a heartless beast. It didn’t matter. Let her think he didn’t care. It would be better in the long run.

Only when she disappeared into the living room did he allow his feelings to show, and then only for the briefest of moments. He pulled himself under control quickly, shoving the emotions away, tamping them deep below the surface where he kept the others.

He could almost hear Aunt Dorothy’s crisp voice warning him that big boys don’t cry. He could almost see her deep-set black eyes boring into his, waiting for him to show some sign of weakness so she could box his ears or, as she’d so often put it, give him something to cry about.

It had been a long time since Kurt had felt the urge to cry—not since he was eleven years old and Jeff Conover had bloodied his nose on the playground over a kiss on the cheek from Victoria Grant. Somehow, years later, he’d managed not to cry when his marriage fell apart, and he sure as hell wouldn’t cry now.

Instead, he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. He could feel tears dangerously close to the surface, stinging, scratching, clawing their way out. He studied his face in the mirror, almost daring himself to betray some sign of emotion. There, deep in his eyes, he could see the wounded ten year-old who’d stood beside his mother’s grave.

Disgusted with himself for weakening, he turned on the faucet and scrubbed away the dirt he’d picked up on Black Mesa during the day. He kept his mind on his job as he washed, thinking about vandals instead of Charlotte carrying out the last two suitcases, deliberately tuning out the final click of the front door, stubbornly refusing to let regret get the best of him as he heard her car leaving the driveway for the last time.

Charlotte was right about one thing. He was better off alone.

Sand swirled into Kurt’s mouth and nose, dusted his eyes and filtered through his clothing. Sweat beaded his upper lip, and his mouth and throat felt as dry as if he’d swallowed a pair of old gym socks. The sharp scent of ozone and the quickly darkening sky threatened one of the thunderstorms so common in southern Colorado during the heat of the summer.

Maybe he should turn back and take shelter in the Jeep he’d left behind a bluff, using Sleeping Ute Mountain as his point of reference to find it again. The one-man tent in his pack wouldn’t offer much protection against the forces of nature. Out here in the back of beyond, Mother Nature could unleash the fury of hell. But he hesitated only a moment before deciding to keep going. He’d find shelter somewhere in the maze of canyons carved into the mesa. He’d be fine.

Shifting his heavy backpack, he cast a glance over his shoulder to make sure the Jeep was hidden from view, uncapped his canteen, and rinsed his mouth with tepid water. The wind, unceasing here on the top of the mesa, seemed to carry the voices of the Anasazi, nearly silent whispers urging him forward. Far below, the lights of Cortez twinkled in the evening sky.

Like a man possessed, he’d spent the past two days and nights since Charlotte walked out on him here on the mesa, guarding the cliff dwellings from looters and taking chances he’d have fired anyone else on his crew for taking. But with his personal life in shambles, he welcomed the discomfort and held on with both hands to the chance to keep himself busy.

A few more days, he reasoned, and the memory of Charlotte leaving would begin to fade. A few more nights and he’d be back to his old self. Meanwhile, with luck, he might catch the thieves who’d been raiding the cliff dwellings under cover of darkness.

Robbing a protected site was a federal offense, but even more it felt like sacrilege to Kurt. The Anasazi had made their homes on this land for nearly a thousand years. They’d created farms, carved dwellings from the sand, loved, laughed, hurt, and cried here. They’d made miracles out of nothing and wrought a civilization out of the desert. And then, without explanation, their civilization had disappeared around the year 1300.

Kurt had made it his life’s work to learn more about them. Unfortunately, so many artifacts had already disappeared, carted off during the late 1800s when white men first discovered the ruins, it was difficult to piece information together.

Black Mesa seemed to be a frequent target for looters, not only because it was a remarkable site, but because of the old legend about a city of gold hidden in its mysterious labyrinth of canyons. Unbelievably, there were still people who believed and came looking. But Kurt refused to sit by while selfish, greedy people pillaged the few remaining scattered remnants of the ancient culture.

With Charlotte gone, he told himself as he walked along the edge of the cliff, he could devote all his time and attention to his life’s work. There was nothing left to distract him. He should be glad.

Running his arm across his forehead, he gazed into the narrow arroyo and told himself to concentrate on finding shelter from the approaching storm instead of dwelling on his failures. He tried to focus on the twisted trunks and green-black heads of the juniper and piñon dotting the red sand, the clusters of gray-green sage at their feet.

He loved this land. Something in it spoke to him and kept him here in spite of its remote location and sparse population. This evening, as the sun dipped onto the western horizon and painted the sky every color from fiery orange to deep indigo, the voices on the wind seemed louder than usual.

He took another drink from his canteen and turned toward the spring at the head of the canyon, knowing he should replenish his supply of fresh water before darkness fell and the storm hit. As the sun sank, the wind grew cooler and traced an icy finger along his spine.

Before long, the night air would seem almost frigid after the intense heat of the day, but he wouldn’t indulge himself with a fire. If the looters were out there, a fire would give him away. He’d make do with his sleeping bag and blankets.

Shifting his pack again, he started his descent carefully, moving slowly and keeping his eyes trained on the path for rocks and roots breaking the ground. Even with the man-made paths leading to the ruins, the steep descent was treacherous.

Getting hurt wasn’t on his agenda. A man could lie hidden in the network of canyons forever while search parties passed him by.

He’d only gone a few feet into the crevice when a noise caught his attention. Something that shouldn’t have been there. Human. He froze in place, held his breath, and listened, but the silence around him seemed complete. Maybe he’d been imagining it.

And maybe not.

He cast about for cover and stepped off the path toward a stand of piñon pine a few feet away. The sun had slipped low and disappeared now. The sky had faded to deep gray-black. A sprinkling of stars gave him some light but clouds covered the rising moon and made him wary of moving too quickly.

Again, the sound came. A voice. A whisper. A brush of boot-shod foot against soft rock. Definitely human. Definitely wrong.

Kurt touched the butt of his rifle, but he didn’t pull it out of his pack. It was possible the intruders weren’t treasure hunters. They might be perfectly harmless—members of the nearby Navajo nation, lovers seeking solitude, children searching for adventure.

He glanced at the sky, half wishing the clouds would dissipate so he could see, half-praying they’d keep him hidden for a while. If the voices were innocent, the last thing he wanted to do was leap onto the path brandishing a weapon like the Lone Ranger. If they weren’t, the element of surprise would work in his favor.

He listened, trying to identify which direction the voices were coming from. One minute it sounded as if they were in front of him; the next, behind or to one side. The wind gusted, drowning out the sounds one moment, magnifying them the next.

Go to her.

The whisper, coming from directly behind him, nearly cost Kurt his footing. He grasped a low-hanging branch to keep him upright and held his breath while he searched the gathering darkness. An icy shiver raced up his spine along with another gust of wind. Dirt swirled in front of him and the clouds seemed to close in on him.

Go to her.

This time, he could have sworn he heard the soft sound of a woman’s voice. No, not a voice. It sounded like crying.

Charlotte? Kurt shook off that idea with a silent laugh. He couldn’t imagine Charlotte crying, and he knew for damned sure she wouldn’t be out here. She’d never even bothered to visit the ruins with him after that first time, and he’d had to almost beg her to come then.

Not Charlotte, then. But who?

One of the thieves? Unlike some of his crewmates, he knew women were as capable of carting off priceless artifacts as men. But if someone was hurt—especially a woman—he had to do something.

Moving slowly from the cover of the trees, he spoke for the first time. “Is someone out there?”

The soft crying stopped immediately and silence engulfed him. He stepped further away from the trees, moving closer to the cliff’s edge and pulling his rifle from his pack in case it was a trick. “Ma’am? Are you hurt?”

Only the rustling of the branches and the distant rumble of thunder answered. Swallowing convulsively, he inched further away from cover and scoured the ravine and the rim of the mesa.

Nothing moved except dust and trees in the wind. No one spoke.

He strained to hear the whisper, the muffled sobbing, the sound of wildlife scurrying for cover, but total silence greeted him. “Ma’am?”

In the distance, lightning split the sky. The deep crackle of thunder followed, and Kurt cursed himself for coming out here alone. Maybe he should go back to the Jeep and call for help. But his supervisor would have his hide for taking a chance like this and he’d probably reward Kurt with a suspension from duty. The last thing Kurt needed right now was empty time with nothing to do but think.

Go to her.

The whisper, so close, so insistent, made him spin around, half-convinced he’d find someone breathing down his neck. But that move was his biggest mistake of all.

His foot slipped in the soft sandstone and the earth seemed to crumble beneath his feet. Frantically trying to save himself, he caught at a nearby juniper but he was too far away to reach it. He let out a shout and windmilled his arms, trying to catch his balance. But it didn’t help.

Like a rag doll, he slipped off the side of the mountain into the inky blackness below.

Pain.

In his leg. In his shoulder. In his head. His pulse pounded through him with every heartbeat. A rock jabbed into his back. Another into his hip. His knee throbbed, sweat trickled down his face and pooled beneath his arms, and dust filled his nostrils. He felt like hell and he hadn’t even opened his eyes yet.

At least he was alive. That was something to be grateful for.

With the return of consciousness came a wave of nausea. Kurt kept his eyes shut, hoping a few more minutes would get rid of the worst of it. His stomach churned and his head throbbed.

This just might qualify as the worst damned week of his life.

A bug buzzed near his ear. A raven squawked in a nearby tree. Some other creature set up a steady stream of chatter.

Slowly, reluctantly, he inched open his eyes and took in his surroundings. The sun had already begun to rise over the eastern slope of the canyon and the sky had gone from jet black to pale lavender, blue, and peach. He’d been lying here all night.

Slowly propping himself up with one elbow, he checked his position. He hadn’t fallen far, thank God, before a smooth, flat boulder had broken his fall. But in his current shape, the climb back up would be torture.

He checked himself gingerly for broken bones, let out a sigh when he didn’t find any, and rubbed his ankle. In the cold light of day, his decision to come out here alone seemed far less heroic than it had last night. Far more foolish. He was damned lucky the vandals hadn’t finished him off while he lay here.

He tried getting to his feet, but his right knee buckled as soon as he put his weight on it. He clutched an exposed root to keep from landing on his ass again, felt about for his canteen, and uncapped it eagerly. He filled his mouth with stale-tasting water, swallowed slowly, and took another sip.

He’d give almost anything for a hot shower, and he’d have sold his right arm for a steaming cup of coffee and a soft place to sit. But first things first. He had to make it back to the Jeep or coffee, cushions, and showers wouldn’t be an issue.

Funny, but just thinking about coffee sent his imagination into high gear. He could have sworn he could smell some on the still morning air. The wind had died down, and with it the voices he’d heard in the night. The spirits of the ancients seemed weaker as well. In fact, the morning seemed peaceful, serene, and harmless.

Maybe he’d imagined the voices last night. Now that he thought about it, the haunting whisper could have been the wind. Or the product of some deep-seated regret at letting Charlotte walk out without trying to stop her. Either way, he felt like a fool for letting it send him ass over tea-kettle down the cliff.

It seemed to take forever to drag himself up the side of the canyon and he had to stop several times to rest. The fall had left him weaker than he’d first thought. But the imagined scent of coffee, and even the aroma of breakfast cooking, spurred him on.

Dirt crusted beneath his fingernails and covered every inch of his jeans and shirt. Rocks and roots had scraped his knuckles and blood oozed from beneath the skin. Never again, he told himself firmly. He’d never set off into the wilderness alone again.

At long last, he reached the crest of the mesa. Taking a deep breath, he planted his hands on the top of the canyon wall, found a solid foothold, and heaved with all his might. Twice, he nearly tumbled back into the canyon, but he managed to hold himself upright and keep his footing. On the third try, his chest and shoulders landed on the mesa, leaving his legs dangling over the yawning ravine.

While he sought something solid to hang onto with his hands, he curved his good knee and tried to bring the lower half of his body out of the canyon. He ignored the rustle of lizards through the sagebrush and gave one last heave-ho. He made it with some effort and, finally out of danger, stayed there for a minute, eyes closed against the rising sun, while he tried to catch his breath.

The aroma of fresh coffee, stronger now, and the nicker of a horse teased his eyes open again. Maybe there were people out here. Hikers. Backpackers. Back-country cyclists who’d wandered from the approved trails. And maybe they had coffee. And aspirin. At this moment, he’d kill for either.

If he could make it to the Jeep, he’d spend a few minutes looking before he drove back to Cortez. He just hoped his leg wasn’t hurt so badly he couldn’t work the clutch or his shoulder too banged-up to shift gears.

Feeling stronger, he lifted his gaze and looked out over the mesa top to orient himself. Sunlight bathed Sleeping Ute Mountain, gilded the tops of the distant pines, and beckoned him closer. He crossed the mesa top slowly until he should have been able to see Cortez in the valley below. But instead of the small city with its cluster of houses and businesses, he saw only a few low buildings in the distance and a small house set into a small clearing almost directly below him.

He must have gotten turned around somehow.

He circled slowly, trying to align himself, then looked again. But Cortez still wasn’t where it should have been.

He rubbed his eyes, studied the landscape all around him, and tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. Something wasn’t right. Had someone moved him? No, Sleeping Ute Mountain was right where it was supposed to be, it was just the town that looked different.

Limping, he hurried as quickly as he could across the mesa top, checking landmarks, reassuring himself that he wasn’t on the wrong track. When the bluff where he’d hidden the Jeep appeared from behind a thick stand of juniper—thicker by far than he remembered—he let out a sigh of relief.

He dug his keys from his pocket and rounded the bluff, but he saw nothing but sage, piñon pine, and juniper, dirt and rocks and sky.

The Jeep—and everything in it—was gone.

(copyrighted material) 

Don’t miss the next story in this saga — An Echo in Time

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