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THE COWBOY ENCOUNTER
By Kristy Tate
A TIME-TRAVEL ROMANCE
By these waters we do sleep
Clothed in night so dark and deep
Lady Moon who doth guide our dreams,
Shroud us in your silvery beams.
Take us to a distant time
When love and hearts doth combine.
When Becca Martin stumbles into the Witching Well, she finds that all of her medical training can’t protect her from the dangers of 1870 Colorado and the charms of Clint Warwick. Convinced that her excursion into a distant past and place is nothing more than a delusion, she indulges in a fantastical romance, but when hostilities take a deadly turn, Becca fears she’ll lose not only her heart, but perhaps a future she could never have imagined.
From a modern day New York City mental hospital to the Rocky Mountains of the Wild West, The Cowboy Encounter is a romantic romp that proves once again that love is timeless. Book two, The Witching Well.
The Cowboy Encounter
Becca knew the dangers associated with bottling emotions. But she also knew that the Bible was right when it said to everything there is a season— a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. She recited the words whenever she thought that she might break down and cry.
Sure, some people might cry at weddings, but it was supposed to be a happy time, and Mia was not only her best friend’s sister, but also the sister of the man Becca intended to marry.
Becca’s gaze slid to Joel. Standing beneath the rose arbor, his shoulder touching Mia’s, he looked heart-stoppingly handsome in his tux as he posed for the photographer. The black accentuated his dark hair and eyes. Even the pink bowtie looked good on him. He caught her gaze and held it for a moment. His expression softened. She imagined standing next him—her pale hair and skin in sharp contrast with his Mediterranean handsomeness.
Becca blinked back a tear, and looked down at her hands while all around her cameras flashed and clicked. For not the first time, and probably not the last, she imagined her own wedding.
It wouldn’t be as lavish as Mia’s and Brad’s, of course. Brad, a real estate developer, had fists full of money, which was good wedding-wise, because Mia’s family was on the brink of financial disaster. And although Joel as a high school science teacher had nothing to do with the failing family business, he still shouldered some of the concern over his mom’s mounting medical bills.
But at least Delia was still alive.
That was more than could be said of her dad.
Even as she mentally shook herself away from those bleak thoughts, her hand went to her bodice. She pressed the letter against her breast.
“I wish they’d start the music,” Lacey said, stabbing her cake with a fork. “I need to burn off all these calories.”
“There’s music.” Becca’s gaze slid over Lacey. Her friend wore the same putrid pink bridesmaid dress as Becca, but with her tiny, toned body and long curly blonde hair, she made even the puffy dress look good. Becca tugged at her own bodice, wishing that she was as petite as Lacey.
“But no one’s dancing,” Lacey complained, her gaze darting around the room. She leaned closer and whispered, “There’s Jason West. I can’t believe he actually came.”
“Why wouldn’t he come? He’s not only good friends with Brad, but I heard that Celia’s grandmother personally invited him.”
Lacey shot Celia a furtive glance. “You can almost feel Celia’s loathing radiating across the room. All that negative energy is so unhealthy.”
Becca smiled, and used her fork to toy with her cake. Lacey, a yoga instructor, often talked about a person’s energy as if it generated from more than just chemicals and calories. She loved Lacey, even if she sometimes reminded Becca of a piece of fluff, drifting on the air and through life with nothing more to worry about than her next organic apple and a well-fitting leotard.
“I’m going to ask him to dance,” Lacey announced.
“Were you even listening to me?” Lacey put down her fork. “Aren’t you supposed to be a good listener? Isn’t that, like, your job?”
“Sorry, Lace…” Becca let her voice trail away. “I got some bad news today. I’m trying not to dwell on it.”
“What happened?” Lacey took her eyes off Jason West, and focused on Becca.
Becca knew that Lacey might be fluff, but she was also warmhearted, compassionate, and kind.
“My dad died.”
Lacey’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
Becca tried to shrug like it was no big deal. “It’s okay. You know we weren’t close.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Lacey murmured and wrapped her arm around Becca’s shoulders.
“I’m not going to be sad until later ,” Becca said. “I’m going to enjoy this fairytale wedding. Everything is so gorgeous.”
Lacey nodded, even though Becca knew Lacey would never choose such opulence. “When’s the funeral?”
“Are you going to be able to get off?”
“If I can’t, I’ll quit.”
Becca drew in a sharp breath. “I hate it there.”
Lacey patted her hand. “It’s the primo mental hospital in the country. No one likes it there.”
Thoughts of her student loans flashed through her mind. With her father’s inheritance, maybe she could now pay off her debts. Becca pulled Lacey’s cake in front of her and plucked the fork out of Lacey’s hand. “It’s time to be happy! I’m not going to think about my dad, or the crazies at my work. Right now—I’m happy.” She dug into the cake and took a big bite.
“You go, girl!” Lacey beamed at her. “I’m going to go and ask Jason West to dance!”
Yes. Becca was going to Trouthaven, stinking Colorado, and join the crazies. Although, not necessarily in that order.
She lifted a forkful of cake to her mouth, but her hand froze midair when she caught sight of a man standing beside the swan ice sculpture. He wore brown baggy pants secured with a leather belt, and tucked into scuffed boots. A white, button-down shirt sharply contrasted with his tan skin and blue eyes. He carried a large black cowboy hat in his hand. He looked like he’d be more at home at a rodeo, or on an episode of Bonanza, than at a country club wedding.
His gaze darted around the room. After a moment, his blue eyes met hers, and relief flooded his expression. He strode toward her.
Panic fluttered in Becca’s chest as he approached. She couldn’t say how or why she knew that this man meant her harm, but the sound of his approaching boots ramped up her already tingling nerves.
She put down her fork, stood, turned, and ran.
Hours later, after a shower had rinsed away all the makeup, hairspray, and irrational fears, Becca sat at her own kitchen table and listened to Celia. Her friend’s passionate hatred of Jason West nearly matched her own crazy reaction to the cowboy at the wedding. Becca frowned at her cookie crumbs as if she could read them like tea leaves. She tried to forget the cowboy and focus on what Celia was telling her, but it was hard. The man had looked so out of place, so foreign, so…wrong. And yet, would he have been out of place in Trouthaven, Colorado? Maybe. Although, probably not a hundred years ago.
That was it. He didn’t look like he’d put on some cowboy costume. His clothes looked authentic…Not that she really knew what an authentic cowboy looked like. She’d never even been to a rodeo, let alone a cattle drive, or even further west than Chicago.
Focus, Becca. She corralled her thoughts back to the conversation.
But it was a really odd conversation. No wonder her mind had wandered. She tried to focus on Celia’s words. “So, you’re telling me that you had a dream that Jason West, the hunky lawyer that swindled your grandmother out of her lease, was a highwayman.”
“That’s right,” Celia picked up a cookie and scowled at it. “What does it mean?”
“Dreams don’t always have to mean something,” Becca told her.
“Come on, you can do better than that!” Celia shoved her cocoa mug across the table. “Why did you get a psychology degree if you’re not going to help your friends?”
“There’s no help for you.” Becca laughed to softened her words. She loved Celia, she truly did, but sometimes she found her irrational and annoying. “Besides, there’s no definitive explanation of dreams. There are a thousand and one theories.” Becca bit into a cookie and chewed, her thoughts creeping back to the man with the cowboy hat.
Telling herself that she couldn’t think about him, she banished him to the far corner of her mind.
“I think the one that best applies here,” Becca said, “is the one that claims we often dream about the things that frighten us the most.”
So, why had she been so frightened of the man with the hat? What had made her run? Why had she been so relieved to climb into her Honda and drive away, leaving the cowboy in her rearview mirror looking stunned and confused in the country club parking lot? Why had he chased her in the first place?
Celia nodded. “Okay. That makes sense. Kissing Jason West would definitely be my worst nightmare.”
“Or fantasy?” Becca stretched her lips into a grin and waggled her eyebrows.
Celia looked pale in the warmth of Becca’s cheerful, yellow kitchen. “It just seemed so real.” She touched her lips.
Setting down her mug, Becca studied Celia. She thought about telling Celia that she had problems of her own. Her dad had just died. She needed to settle his estate—whatever that meant. She’d probably have to take off more than a weekend from work, which meant that she’d have to actually talk to Dr. Hyman, a man she did her best to avoid because she suspected that he was just as mentally unstable as his patients. But concern for Celia, and probably a healthy dose of avoidance, made Becca ask, “Tell me, what is your gut reaction to Jason West? When I say his name, what does your body tell you?”
“In real life, you mean?”
Becca nodded. She swept all of her own issues under an invisible rug. “Let’s go back to the beginning, before you knew he was Clive Carson’s attorney.”
Becca gave Celia her best I-don’t-believe-you smile. It almost always worked. Nothing was nearly as effective as a smirk to wring out a confession.
Celia looked away. “I bet you’re a really good therapist.”
Becca thought about correcting Celia. She was a psychiatrist, not a therapist. She had weathered four brutal years of medical school, the lunacy residency, and had the student loans to prove it.
“Should I double your rent to cover the counseling costs?” Becca tapped her finger on the table.
Celia’s smile faded. “You know that once the store closes and I’m unemployed, I won’t be able to afford the rent. I’ll have to move back home with my mom and grandma. Oh—” her voice caught.
Becca frowned at her. “What did I tell you about the awfulizer?”
Celia swallowed, nodded and quoted, “Do not engage the awfulizer.”
“That’s right,” Becca said, patting her hand. “No need to awfulize just yet.”
“I don’t want to move home. It’s too…”
“Awful?” Becca supplied.
Celia looked out the window at the dark night. “It’s wrong for me to say that, isn’t it? I should want to be at home, helping my mom.”
“You are helping your mom,” Becca reminded her. “You drive her to all her chemo appointments. You take your grandmother shopping, and you take her to all her doctor appointments. Twice a week you make them dinner, and you run the shop.”
“Ran the shop.”
“Seriously, if you did any more for them, you would sprout angel wings and be lifted up into heaven.”
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Becca’s breath caught in her throat when she saw Joel standing on the other side of the Dutch door. He tapped on the window again. Still in his tux, he looked Cary Grant handsome. She bounced from her chair to let him in.
He brushed past Becca, snagged a cookie off the table, and shook it in Celia’s face. “I can’t believe you ditched like that. You know you set yourself up for all the family table-talk, right? We’re going to be discussing your anti-wedding behavior for months.”
Celia ducked her head. “I was sick.”
Joel slipped into the chair beside her, bit into the cookie, and studied her like she was one of his lab rats. Becca wanted to scream, look at me! Pay attention to me. But Joel didn’t see her. He never did. She’d been in love with him since the first time they met. She’d been twelve with a mouthful of braces and spots on her nose. He’d been captain of the basketball team with cheerleaders hanging off his arm.
“What’s wrong with you?” Joel asked. “Besides the obvious, I mean.”
“Nothing like a brother to keep my ego nice, small and manageable,” Celia said. She bit into her cookie and glared at Joel.
“You’re not still obsessing over Judson, are you?” Joel asked.
“Of course not!” Celia said too quickly. “I don’t have time for guys.”
Becca caught her eye, and Celia looked away.
“I know that your kind like to think that my kind spend our days pining for the perfect lover-boy,” Celia said, “but really, we girls have much more important things going on in our heads.”
“Who made you the spokesperson for the entire female gender?” Joel chuckled and looked around the tiny kitchen. “Was there an election I missed?” He pulled the plate of cookies in front of him.
Celia reached over and slammed her fist down on his cookies, smashing them to crumbs.
“Hey!” Joel and Becca complained at the same time.
Celia brushed the crumbs off her hand and onto the table. “I am so stressed about the shop, I can’t think about anything else.”
“That’s no reason to destroy perfectly innocent cookies,” Joel said.
“Until I see the business booming, I’m done.”
“Done with what?” Joel asked.
“Define booming,” Becca said.
“Look, closing the shop will probably be the best thing that could ever happen to you.” Joel picked up cookie crumbs and dribbled them into his mouth.
Becca could practically see anger, pure and white zipping through Celia.
“Screw you, Joel,” Celia said.
He held up his hand to ward her off and crumbs dribbled onto the table. “I’m just saying—”
“—That you’re a moron.” Celia finished his sentence. “You better leave before I smash your other cookies.”
Becca stood, put on a pair of oven mitts, and pulled a fresh pan out of the oven. Warm cinnamon-scented air filled the kitchen. Kicking the door closed, she kept her back to the warring siblings. She wanted to tell them that they didn’t know how lucky they were to have each other. As an only child of divorced parents, Becca had often felt alone. And now she was. Again. When she was young, her dad went west to play cowboy, and her mom, a passionate feminist, threw herself into her law career, leaving Becca under the watchful care of Melvin, the bulldog. Becca sighed, sad that she missed Melvin way more than she missed either of her parents.
Becca dropped the pan and several cookies fell to the floor.
“Oops.” She sounded as lame and awkward as she felt. Why did being around Joel make her feel like she was still twelve? She had a doctorate! Every day she braved the torrid waters of Bellflower Hospital.
“You’re destroying cookies, too?” Joel asked. “I expected more from you.”
“Listen, I know this is none of my business.” Becca picked up the cookies that had bounced off the pan and put them on the table.
Joel, obviously unconcerned about the three second rule, slid all of the floor-contaminated cookies in front of him.
Becca set the pan in front of Celia. “You should take a few days off. Give your head a vacation from the shop.”
“I can’t do that!” Frustration filled Celia’s voice. “You know how much work there is, right? I don’t know how we’re going to fit everything into Mrs. Fleur’s attic.”
Becca put her mitt-covered hand over Celia’s. “We’ll all be there to help,” she said, even though she knew that because of her father’s funeral she probably wouldn’t be. She took a deep breath and promised herself that she’d think about Colorado and her dad eventually, but not right now. She needed to confide her own problems to Celia, but this was not the time.
“You need a break,” she told Celia. “You’ve been pushing yourself too hard.”
“You’re right.” Celia bounced from her chair. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”
Joel stared at Celia’s retreating back. He shook his head as Celia pounded up the stairs. “Sisters,” he murmured.
“You’re lucky to have each other,” Becca said.
Joel acknowledged this with a twist in his lips, and stood to leave.
She couldn’t let him go. Not yet. She rarely got him all to herself. Standing, she began to put Celia’s cookies back on the pan. “Do you want to take some of these home?”
“Ah, no.” Joel patted his flat, almost perfect belly.
For a moment, she envisioned him in his swim trunks, and her knees went weak.
“I’m so full of cake,” Joel said.
“But Celia and I will never eat all this.” She moved to the cupboard to get a paper plate. “Let me wrap some of these up for you. You could take them to work—give them to your students or take them to the teachers’ lounge.” Using a spatula, she loaded up a plate.
“I could feed them to Zoe and Zana.”
“Who?” Her hand froze.
“The lab rats.”
“Oh…I guess you could do that.” She piled the cookies up, as if they were going to impress someone other than rodents. Smiling, she handed him the goods. “Joel—if I were to go to Colorado, do you think that…maybe…” She swallowed. She knew the answer to the question she wanted to ask, so she had to find a better question. “Have you ever been to Colorado?”
“Sure. Great skiing.”
Becca nodded. She’d never been skiing. “And fishing, too, right?”
Joel shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose so. Why?”
“My dad has—I mean had—a ranch in a place called Trouthaven. Doesn’t that sound like a good fishing spot?”
Joel raised his eyebrow. “I’m not much of a fisherman.”
“I know. Me neither.”
Joel kept his eyebrow aloft.
“It’s just…my dad died.”
Sympathy flooded Joel’s expression. “Oh Becca, I’m so sorry.” He took her in his arms, which would have been great, but Becca wasn’t quite sure what to do with the plate of cookies in her hand. She wrapped one arm around his waist, and left the other extended, holding the cookies mid-air. She wanted to lean into him, enjoy the comfort of his warmth and nearness, instead, she felt stroppy and stiff.
Too soon, before she could relax, he stepped away from her.
“I have to go to Trouthaven, Colorado.” Becca shivered.
“Can that be any worse than Bellflower?” His smile looked kind, and concerned, …as if he really cared.
“I might have to stay awhile. And if I lose my job…”
She searched his face, and finding nothing but sympathy, she dropped into a chair and put a cookie in her mouth.
“What can I do to help?” He stood behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. The warmth of his touch tingled through her.
Say, don’t go, or, I’ll miss you, or anything other than—
“Do you need a ride to the airport?” Joel asked.
Becca spent the next day at the same place she spent every Sunday—and almost every day, for that matter, at the hospital. Her shift ended at three, and she came home bone weary. Although, she wanted to do nothing more than curl up on the sofa with a book and a cup of cocoa, she still needed to make her travel plans. She knew her Aunt Sally and Uncle Will needed her to make some decisions concerning the ranch, but how could she when she’d never even seen it?
Talking with her relatives was a lot like talking to her patients. She wanted to spend time with sane people, but she was finding that increasingly difficult. Taking her laptop to the living room, she decided she’d make her travel plans while she watched old Twilight Zone episodes. But first, popcorn.
She collided with Celia in the kitchen. Not liking the crazy look in Celia’s eyes or her strange dress, Becca asked, “Where are you going?”
“I can’t tell you.” Celia tried to step around her, but Becca blocked her path.
“Why not?” Becca asked, running her gaze over Celia, taking in the strange pink gown that looked like it belonged at a Renaissance Faire and not in Becca’s kitchen. And it wasn’t just the dress. Celia had her hair piled on top of her head in an elaborate up-do—which was weird. Especially since her hair was all dolled up, but her face was void of any makeup. Not even a touch of mascara or a hint of lip gloss.
Celia put her hands on Becca’s shoulders and moved her out of the way. “Because you wouldn’t believe me,” Celia said over her shoulder as she headed for the door.
Suspicious, and looking for another excuse to postpone making her travel plans, Becca grabbed her purse and sweater off the counter. “Take me with you.”
Celia banged out the door, but Becca followed.
“I don’t even know if I can get back,” Celia said as she climbed into her car.
Becca got into the passenger side. “Get back where? And why are you dressed like that?”
Celia put the car in gear and backed down the driveway.
“Where are we going?” Becca asked.
“First—the Witching Well.”
“The Witching Well? You don’t really believe in that do you?” Becca remembered that the legend could be grounded in truth. A 1980’s study linked the hysterical young women that had spurred the Salem witch trials to the consumption ergot-tainted rye—the same alkaloids used in LSD. Somewhere nearby there was supposedly a spring of the tainted and hallucinogenic water. And Celia wanted to go there.
Celia took a deep breath and launched into insanity.
“I know you won’t believe me, and that’s okay. I wouldn’t believe me, either. Remember how I told you that I went to Cornwall, England and Jason was there?”
“You didn’t mention Cornwall.”
“At the time, I didn’t know I went to Cornwall. I thought the whole thing was a crazy dream. But since then, I’ve been to Merlin’s Cave, Tintagel Castle—”
“You think you’ve actually been there?”
“Why? What changed your mind?”
At a red light, Celia pulled a strand of emeralds out of her dress and showed them to Becca. They glistened in the moonlight. “I have to give them back or else they’ll hurt Jason.” Her voice quivered. “They may even kill him.”
“Where did you get these?”
“I told you,” Celia’s words came out in a long rush of breath. “I was riding in a carriage with some lady when a highwayman that had a spooky resemblance to Jason pulled us over. Before he could do his stand and deliver thing, the woman in the carriage gave me these. I tucked them into my garter and brought them home.”
Becca didn’t say anything for a long moment as she tried to process Celia’s story. Reaching out, she touched the emeralds. They felt solid, real.
“Where do you think Jason is now?”
“I told you, he’s in Cornwall.”
“Near Merlin’s Cave?” Becca finished for her.
“Yes!” When the light turned green, Celia gunned the engine. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
Becca opened her mouth, but no words came out. Her mind raced over all her training and what to do when someone suffers a breakdown. “I believe that you believe your story.”
“Just what does that mean?”
“It means that you’ve been working really hard for a really long time—”
“Oh my gosh! You think I’ve lost it!”
“I didn’t say that. I just think—”
“Okay! Come with me, then.”
“What? Drink the water from the Witching Well?” Becca tried to laugh, but it sounded off. “No. I have a better idea. Let’s go to Jason’s apartment. We’ll probably find him asleep in his bed.”
Celia shook her head and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. “I don’t have time for that. I have to get back before they hurt him…again. This is all my fault.”
Becca placed one hand on the dashboard and grabbed the car door handle with the other. “How is this—whatever this is—your fault?”
“I shouldn’t have ever taken the emeralds. They weren’t mine. I can’t believe that I actually thought I could use them to buy the shop.”
Becca nodded. “I think we’re coming to a breakthrough here.”
“Tell me, sweetie, where did the emeralds really come from?” They looked real, but given their ginormous size, they couldn’t be.
“I told you where I got them!” Celia looked as if she was about to explode.
“And you’re willing to give them away to save Jason?”
“Do you remember that just yesterday you were cursing Jason West?”
“Is that all it’s been, a day? What day is it?”
But Becca wasn’t interested in answering Celia’s questions. “An hour ago, you hated Jason West. I think if someone told you of an opportunity to leave him for dead in Elizabethan—”
“Regency,” Celia corrected her.
“Regency England, you would have jumped at it. And now—you’re risking both of our lives to save him. What does this mean to you?”
Celia bit her lip. “It means I’m a better person now than I was an hour ago.”
Becca shook her head. “I think you’ve been that better person all along.” She held her breath while Celia passed a slow moving truck. “I also think that you’ve been watching too many action films with car chase scenes.”
“Do you have your phone?” Celia asked.
Becca nodded. “Why?”
“I want you to look up something for me. Jason thinks we met our ancestors. I want to know if I’m in anyway related to Percy and Honoria West.”
“What? Seriously? How am I supposed to do that?”
“Go to family search, or my family tree…I don’t know, but I bet there’s a thousand genealogy sites!” Celia’s voice carried panic and bordered hysteria.
“Okay, calm down…and maybe slow down.”
Celia shook her head. “I have to hurry. They might kill him.”
“Sweetie.” Becca put her hand on Celia’s arm.
Celia shook her off. “I know you think I’m crazy! But will you just do it?”
“I will, if you’ll slow down. Take a deep breath.”
Becca pulled her phone from her purse and found a bunch of family tree sort of sites. “This is kind of overwhelming,” she muttered.
Celia threw her a frustrated glance. “Go to Family Search and use my mom’s account. I’ll give you the password.” She spelled it out.
“Oh, look!” Becca said after a moment. “According to this, you really are related to Honoria and Percy West! You and Jason must be long lost cousins or something.”
“It shouldn’t matter, right?” Celia asked. “It was so long ago.”
Becca tried not to look shocked. One of the first things they learned in school was to never look appalled or horrified at what comes out of a patient’s mouth, but this was too much. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of having Jason West’s babies!”
Celia flushed. “Just tell me about Percy and Honoria.”
Becca went back to her phone, keeping her face averted, and trying to hide her worry. “Well, they lived to be very old.”
“That’s good! Did they have any children?”
“All they need is one.”
“But look! That one, Zacharias West, had ten children.” Becca wiggled her eyebrows. “It looks like the West men are very virile.” Becca’s tone turned serious. “I don’t know how you knew about Percy and Henrietta.”
“Honoria,” Celia corrected her.
“But…none of that matters. You don’t need to risk our lives by speeding. You don’t need to drink unfiltered water. You don’t—”
“Come with me,” Celia interrupted her.
“What? Drink the drugged water?” Becca asked. “No, thank you.”
“How about this? Call Jason, and if he doesn’t answer, you’ll come with me.”
Becca frowned out the window.
“Okay, call Gabe, and if he doesn’t know where Jason is, then will you come?”
Becca looked down at her clothes and came up with an excuse. She knew from her schooling that she needed to humor Celia, let her know that Becca loved and respected her. “How can I go to England wearing this?”
“There’s a bunch of dresses right there.” Celia threw a glance over her shoulder. “Go ahead, put one on.”
“This is crazy talk.” Becca’s training went out the window. It was a whole lot easier to be objective and detached when the person having a breakdown wasn’t your best friend. Maybe going to Colorado right now wasn’t the best idea. She should probably stay here and keep her eye on Celia.
“I could use your help.”
“That is the first sane thing you’ve said today.”
“So, put on a dress.”
Becca looked at the collection of dresses in the back seat. She always loved all the dresses from Celia’s grandmother’s shop, and here was her chance to put one on. Which was crazy, right? This whole thing was delusional. Maybe she could run up Celia’s blood work, see if her hormones were out of whack. After another look at Celia’s hands white-knuckling the steering wheel, Becca chose a baby blue prom dress that was two sizes too big. After risking her life by unpopping the seatbelt, she slipped the dress on over her head without taking off her clothes. She patted the dress into place and buckled her seat belt.
Tires squealed in protest as Celia swerved without slowing, throwing Becca against the car door. Her head banged against the window. Sitting upright, Becca glanced in the side-view mirror at the man with the black cowboy hat standing in the center of the road, watching her.
“What a lunatic!” Celia said.
“Yes…” Becca thought Celia was calling the kettle…or hat…black.
Celia turned the car down a dirt driveway. Immediately, Becca knew they were at Judson’s family farm, the home of Celia’s old boyfriend. Interesting.
Celia threw the car into park between a shiny black Porsche and a U-Haul truck. Light shone through the barn’s windows and out the wide open door. Voices came from inside.
“Come on.” Celia took Becca’s hand. “We have to hurry.”
Becca opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again and hurried after Celia, knowing that she couldn’t let Celia loose in the woods in her delusional state.
Should she call for help?
Early evening—they had to be out of there before dark. She ran after Celia, barely able to keep up. Her thoughts flitted back to how she’d intended to spend her night with Rod Sterling and the Twilight Zone. Becca stumbled as she ran, her breath caught in her chest. She pushed herself faster and harder until she caught up with Celia at the top of a hill.
“There it is.” Celia breathed the words.
“There what is?” Becca asked as she gulped for air.
“The Witching Well.” Celia lurched toward it.
“Wait.” Becca grabbed Celia’s hand, but Celia shook her off. “Celia! Stop!”
Celia dropped to her knees at the well’s edge, scooped up a handful of water and drank.
One moment Celia knelt at the edge of a bubbling spring, and the next moment she was gone.
Becca blinked, praying that when she opened her eyes, Celia would reappear.
Becca registered a number of things all at once. Birds singing, a cold breeze blowing, the sun fading, shadows growing. Still no Celia. Becca pitched to the edge of the spring, tripping on the hem of her too long, two sizes too large dress. Peering into the black water, she saw nothing but her own wide-eyed, pale reflection in the black water.
“Celia?” Becca called, her voice plaintiff. “Celia!” she called again, this time angrily.
“So not funny,” Becca muttered, wondering if Celia had somehow staged an elaborate gag. But why would she? And pulling pranks wasn’t something Celia would do. Celia, like Becca, took life seriously. A disappearing act was completely out of Celia’s repertoire.
Concern quickly superseded anger and surprise. Becca dropped to her knees at the side of the spring, leaning forward, she peered into the water again. Thinking she saw something rippling just below the surface, she reached in.
Cold fingers tugged on her hand.
Shocked, Becca called out, “Someone help!” She didn’t know if she screamed because Celia was the one pulling her hand and Becca needed help to pull Celia out, or if something, rather than someone, had a hold of her hand and was pulling her into the well.
Mid-scream, Becca fell with a splash. Paralyzing cold and fear enveloped her. Water filled her nose, mouth, and ears. Looking up through the water to the shimmery surface, Becca tried to swallow her panic, but instead, ended up with a mouthful of water from the Witching Well.