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Last of the Ravens
Linda Winstead Jones

“I said maybe.” Did she look that bad? Could everyone around her see that the work of talking to ghosts was draining her, robbing her of sleep, making her feel much too old for her twenty-six years?

That was certainly possible. It was as though she didn’t only understand the emotions of the spirits she talked to, she experienced them. She didn’t only hear and see how they died, she felt their pain. She was tired all the time, and lately if she got four hours of sleep it was a good night. It wasn’t all that unusual that those closest to her might see the effects of the strain.

“Maybe is a start,” Roger said. He took the burgers off the grill and put them on a platter. “We should’ve done steaks,” he said beneath his breath.

Thank goodness, a change of topic. “It’s my birthday and I wanted your burgers,” Miranda said.

“And chocolate cake!” Jackson called, walking out of the kitchen door and into the backyard bearing a huge birthday cake complete with fudge icing and decorative yellow roses.

“What more could a girl ask for?” Miranda said, her eyes flitting from Autumn and Jared to Roger and Cheryl. Two couples, each so different, each so close—each a part of something intimate and special that Miranda had given up on ever knowing. She finally pinned her eyes on Roger and sighed. “Fine. A long weekend will be enough, though.”

“Two weeks would be better,” he countered. “Fresh air, complete quiet, outlet malls…”

“A psycho,” Miranda added.

“Korbinian’s not a psycho,” Roger argued with a sharp and slightly censuring glance to his wife. “He’s just odd as hell, and he’s pissed because I won’t sell him the cabin. You leave him alone, and he won’t bother you. I’ll run you up on Saturday.”

“Can I go?” Jackson asked, his voice bright and his eyes lighting on Miranda briefly. Fifteen-year-olds were not particularly good at hiding their emotions, especially where women were concerned. Roger’s son had had a crush on Miranda for the past several months.

A living being liked her for herself, and he was really cute. Too bad he was a starry-eyed kid.

“We’re not going to stay long,” Roger warned his eldest son.

“That’s okay,” Jackson responded.

Roger nodded. “Sure, you can ride with us.”

“What about you, Cheryl?” Miranda asked.

“No thanks,” she answered quickly. “I’ll leave it to the Talbot men to see you there. The girls have dance class on Saturday, and besides, I suspect we won’t be in Tennessee long enough to make a visit to Pigeon Forge and the outlet malls.” She sighed in feigned distress. “Another time. Now, let’s eat!”

With the window to his four-wheel drive truck rolled down to let in the cool mountain air, Bren heard the chatter of change on his mountain. Birds flew; critters scrambled. Either some tourist had taken a wrong turn and was horribly lost, or Talbot was at his cabin. Damned, stubborn man. Sure enough, there was a familiar car parked in the drive of the small, red-roofed cabin that marred the side of Bren’s mountain. He drove by slowly, and as he did the front door opened to frame the big man who owned the place—and refused to sell. Bren’s last offer had been ridiculously high, and still Talbot had turned him down without even taking time to consider selling.

Bren braked a bit when he caught sight of a smallish woman standing behind Talbot. That was not Mrs. Talbot, who was a tall, thin brunette. This woman was a short, shapely blonde. Was she a mistress? A new wife? Hell, a cabin this isolated would be the perfect place to carry on an affair. No wonder Talbot wouldn’t sell!

Spotting the truck, Talbot stepped onto the porch and waved, almost as if he wanted Bren to stop. Bren kept his eyes on the curving road ahead as he drove up the mountain road. No way would Talbot be able to drive all the way to the house at the top of the mountain, not without four-wheel drive—not that he’d ever been all that social.

It was no mistake that getting to the Korbinian house was such an effort. Bren didn’t want visitors; he didn’t like surprises.

He glanced in the rearview mirror just in time to see the blonde woman step onto the porch. She had long, straight hair that was as pale as Bren’s was dark, and she was smallish without being frail-looking. She had a womanly shape he could appreciate even from this distance. Nice. He couldn’t see her face well, and still he felt something unexpected. A pulling, almost. A draw that made him consider turning around and driving back down the hill just to see her better. He fought the urge and kept going, slowly.

Behind her was a teenager Bren recognized as having been here before. If Talbot had brought his son along, the blonde wasn’t a girlfriend. For some reason that hit him with a rush of relief. Maybe she was entirely unattached. Maybe she was free. He shook off the thought. When the sight of a passably pretty stranger made his thoughts wander this way, it was time to get laid.

With that realization, his thoughts returned to the woman down the hill. If the pretty blonde wasn’t with Talbot, then why was she here? Not that he cared.

Unless Talbot planned to sell the cabin to her, in spite of his refusals of Bren’s generous offers. These days many people made permanent homes in the mountains, rather than just vacation homes they visited a few times a year. What if the woman planned to stay? Attractive and shapely or not, that would be a disaster.

Miranda settled in after Roger and Jackson left. There was more than enough food for the week in the cupboard and the fridge, and while she didn’t have a vehicle of her own—she didn’t care much for driving since the accident, especially on winding mountain roads—Roger had made arrangements with Duncan Archard, who owned the gas station at the foot of the mountain.

The cabin was small, and it was furnished with a collection of mismatched pieces that had been discarded from the Talbot household over the years—and perhaps, she suspected, picked up off the side of the road. Many of the pieces were in rough shape, though they were still usable. There was no style to speak of, and Miranda’s design sensibilities itched. She couldn’t help but look at the small rooms with an eye to possibilities. There were four rooms and one horrendously small bath. The two bedrooms were utilitarian at best. The main room was comfortable but sparsely decorated. A bookcase stuffed with old books had a figurine of a black bear sitting atop it, and there was a chipped bowl sitting in the center of the coffee table. The kitchen was small and was stocked with the barest of necessities, as well as the groceries she had bought on the way into town. The curtains in the kitchen window were made of a fabric that sported a repeated image of ducks. Shudder.

Perhaps the cabin was too small to ever be grand and impressive, but with a little imagination and some work it could be attractive and cozy, an adorable cottage in the Tennessee woods.

But bad taste aside, the place was completely quiet. The bed and the couch were both quite comfortable. As Cheryl had warned, there was no cell signal here. With more than a touch of relief, Miranda turned off her cell and stored it in a bedroom drawer. She hadn’t realized how much she’d needed to get away until she’d walked into the isolated cabin and felt a rush of something like peace. Her friends had recognized her need for rest before she had, but she could no longer deny it. She probably wouldn’t need to call on a driver at all this week. She was going to sleep late and nap and read and go to bed early. There was no television, so she wouldn’t be inundated with the bad news of the world. No politics, no disasters, no sad stories—as long as she could ignore the bits of news that would be sure to pop up when she checked her e-mail on the laptop. For one week, everything beyond this mountain could wait.

She wasn’t even worried about the psycho up the road. Roger had explained that Brennus Korbinian owned a real estate brokerage and his own construction company. Her brief glimpse of him as he’d driven by in his expensive truck had soothed her somewhat. Korbinian was younger than she’d expected a crotchety loner to be, and though she had not gotten a really good look at his face she’d seen longish black hair and one sharply defined jaw. He was just a rich guy with a weird name who was annoyed that he couldn’t own this entire mountain. He wasn’t a psycho, though he was a spoiled brat, and he wouldn’t ruin her week of rest. She probably wouldn’t see him again, unless she happened to be sitting on the small front porch as he drove by. As there was absolutely no reason for her to sit on the tiny front porch when out back there was a large deck with a fabulous view, she was quite sure she’d had her first and last glimpse of him.

Since ghosts usually remained near the site where they’d died, perhaps she’d even have a quiet week where her ability was concerned. This place was isolated, not all that easy to get to and sparsely inhabited. She needed a rest from the ghosts she spoke to much more than she needed a rest from people. The spirits she spoke to had no sense of time and were likely to pop in at any time, usually at two or three in the morning while she was trying to sleep, if she happened to be within a few miles of the site of their deaths. Their emotions and demands drained her. Maybe here, so far from any highly populated area—

“I thought you would never get here!”

Miranda spun around and found an older woman sitting in the rocking chair near the cold fireplace. Ghosts were not usually so substantial that they looked real; not since Jessica’s appearance after death had Miranda seen a spirit so solid. “Who are you?” Best to find out what the ghost wanted and send her on her way. Otherwise, the plan for a week of rest had just gone out the window. Miranda waited to be assaulted with anger or sadness or confusion, which was normal in these instances. The ghosts who came to her always wanted something from her.

Instead, she was surprised to feel awash in love and peace, in spite of the harsh words. The dark-haired woman sitting in the rocking chair smiled. “He has been waiting for you. He just doesn’t realize it.”

“Who…?” Miranda began, but before she could continue the ghost disappeared. The sensations of love and peace were gone in an instant, just as the ghost was gone.

Miranda swore under her breath. So much for her week of rest! “You’d better let me sleep tonight,” she mumbled, staring at the empty chair.

It was well after dark when Bren climbed onto the deck railing, naked and curious and a little annoyed. Behind him the house was unlit. No lamps shone to illuminate and reveal his secret to any who might be watching. There was only the moon above, and its light was not enough to fight against the complete and deep darkness of his mountain.

Down the hill bright lights burned in the cabin that was a blight on his life. Who was the woman? Why was she here? Was she there alone or had Talbot and his son remained, too? Bren found that even now, hours after he had glimpsed her, he wanted a thorough look at her face. More than that, he’d been thinking of her and wondering why she was here since he’d walked into the house, annoyed after seeing Talbot at the cabin.

Perhaps he would see and know more with the senses of the raven than he did as a man. In the form he hid from the world he would fly around the cabin, peer through the windows with 154 eyes, and maybe he would finally understand why he had not been able to get the blonde out of his mind.

Maybe he’d get a close look at her and realize she was not so pretty and tempting, after all.

Bren dropped from the railing and burst, and as a flock of ravens he swooped toward the cabin. He caught the wind with his wings, he became a part of the night air and he flew. There was no other freedom like this one, no feeling to compare to gliding through the sky.

The lights of the cabin appeared to be brighter than they had through human eyes, and he felt the woman’s presence more strongly than before. Even in this form, he was pulled toward her as if by a powerful magnet. She was alone in the cabin; he knew it long before he swooped down and saw that Talbot’s car was gone from the driveway. He felt the presence of the woman in a way he had never felt another; her heartbeat was in tune with his. He could feel and hear her breath even from here, and if he could he would gladly fly through her window and encompass her, caressing her with the tips of silky black wings and studying her face with many eyes.

The flock swooped down and circled the cabin, and Bren glimpsed the interior through the cabin windows. Some of the curtains were closed, but the large sliding glass door that looked over the mountain was uncovered, for who could possibly see into the cabin from that vantage point?

The blonde sat on the couch with a book in her hand, legs drawn up beneath her, hair falling over half her face, a crocheted afghan across her lap. As he watched she lifted her head, alerted by the sound of wings that caught the air, or else by the same instinct that called him here. She looked into the night, into him, and Bren felt as if he’d been pierced by blue eyes.

The woman dropped her book to the couch and stood, and wrapping the afghan around her shoulders, she walked to the sliding glass door. Bren did not make a hasty escape but remained where he was, circling the cabin, watching her through ravens’ eyes, unable to tear himself away. What was it about her that called to him so strongly? It was more than her beauty, more than his curiosity, more than the fact that he’d been too long without a woman in his bed.

She was curious, too. Hearing him but surely unable to see much in the dark of night, she opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside. The deck was accessible only from the house so she felt safe enough, he imagined. She’d heard something, perhaps felt something, and had come outside to explore.

She stepped to the railing and looked into the night sky, catching sight of the assemblage of birds, which moved in unison, which moved as one. Instead of being alarmed by their number and their closeness, she smiled.

Miranda watched the big black birds fly before the brilliant orb that was the moon. The mountains, the moon, the birds. Before her was a heart-stopping picture unlike any she had ever seen before, beautiful and unexpected. She was a city girl, and sights like this one were unknown to her.

She had no pets at home, and if she ever did decide to get one, she wouldn’t choose anything as exotic as a bird. But she did have a soft spot for ravens, always had. Maybe a story or poem she’d read long ago had stuck with her, maybe some past image had been planted in her brain, because she couldn’t resist the rare knickknack or book where ravens were concerned. Over the years her collection had grown. It was no wonder she was fascinated with the birds. They were dangerous and elegant, impressive and puzzling, intelligent and savage. And beautiful.

Soon she’d make her way to bed, but for now she found herself enjoying the night air and the ravens, the peace and quiet and the absence of ghosts—the one who had appeared so briefly earlier in the evening had not shown herself again. She leaned casually against the deck railing. Why didn’t Roger and Cheryl come here more often? There was something special about these mountains. They touched her soul in a way she could not explain, and though she was not ready to admit it aloud, she was deeply grateful to her friends for all but forcing her to come here.

The birds she’d been watching changed direction and swooped away from her, disappearing into the wooded land just beside and beneath the cabin, this sturdy structure that looked to be perilously built onto the side of the mountain but felt solid enough. Miranda walked to the side of the deck and looked down, but it was too dark to see much of anything below. She did hear the rustle of wings and the crackling movement of birds in the underbrush for a moment, and then all went still. She strained, listening closely, but the birds were completely silent.
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