Running away from a love affair gone sour, spoiled heiress Miranda Barrett has come the small East Texas town once run and then ruined by her late, tyrannical grandfather. She had hoped to find a safe harbor where she could hide; instead she has to deal with the attentions of two handsome men, both of whom have a reason to hate her, the enmity of the town, a deranged stalker and someone who shamelessly manipulates her phobic fear of rats.
The more Miranda becomes involved with the town and restarting her grandfather’s factory the more it seems someone is determined to stop her. She finds fragile wildflower wreaths where no one should be able to enter and is besieged by ‘gifts’ of dead animals. When she is rescued after being kidnapped Miranda starts to believe the worst is over, but she is wrong. The worst has only begun.
The two men were waiting for her; an ancient and battered car was parked out on the street, but they stood on the far side of the porte cochere. Workmen, dressed in faded and ratty denim, they were as rough-looking as the men who had thrown stones at Stephen’s car–at her–but their voices were gentle and respectful.
“Can we talk with you?”
After only a moment’s pause Miranda finished locking the door with her singular key. “About what?”
“I’m Caleb Summers and this is Billy Fred Dougherty. We used to work for your granddaddy.” His enormous, gnarled hands kneaded his gimmie cap into a shapeless wad. “We saw where you’re opening up the plant again and...”
“Stephen Thigpen is handling all the plant business,” Miranda replied coolly. “I don’t know when hiring will begin, but you need to talk to him.”
“We did,” said Caleb, who was obviously the spokesman of the two. “At least, we talked to his secretary. She didn’t say much. We’re good men, Billy Fred and me, and we worked for RWP for most of our lives. Things was hard when the plant closed. We both got families. It ain’t been easy feeding them. We’re asking you to take us on, Miss Barrett.”
His simple, direct appeal touched Miranda’s heart, making her hang on even tighter to her icy, imperturbable composure. It would be disastrous if it got around that the new owner of RWP was a softie for a hard luck tale.
“I’m sure Mr. Thigpen will be happy to talk to you when we actually start the hiring process. Now if you’ll excuse me...”
The two men had not moved. Miranda looked beyond them to the sky. Stephen must have been listening to the radio. There were only a few clouds, but there was a brisk wind scudding them across the sky, which might presage rain. Miranda sighed; why had she picked silk to wear? If she got caught in the rain it would be spotted. There was no time to change; she’d just have to put up the top.
“We were good workers for your granddaddy. He didn’t have no call to close the plant and put us out of work. All we want to do is look after our families...”
The humble, pleading note in his voice clawed at Miranda’s sensibilities. This was America, land of opportunity and freedom; no man should have to beg for a job. But… times were hard here. By opening the plant she was doing everything she could to help, and she couldn’t open the door to having her home besieged by jobseekers.
Her face pleasant but impassive, Miranda opened the car door, slid under the wheel and punched the button to raise the top. The small motor began to purr as softly as a cat.
“There will be lots of jobs, gentlemen–”
Slowly, like a snake rising from sleep, the intricately folded canvas top lifted up and began to come forward.
“–I just hope you understand it’s just going to take a little while–”
The first impact on her shoulder made Miranda think with a sudden thrill of alarm that perhaps one of the men had grabbed her, but they were still standing unmoved on the far side of the porte cochere. Then there was another plop right beside her and when Miranda saw what it was she couldn’t think of anything else.
Teeth! Teeth and claws and silky, shiny fur...
A splatter of wet hit her arm. The rain already? Could it come under the porte-cochere?
But rain wasn’t red.
Was she bleeding? Had the rat bitten her again?
Miranda’s voice was nothing but a rough, gasping hiss as she struggled for breath. Then, with an effort even greater than the last time, she screamed.
Caleb and Billy Fred didn’t know what was happening when Miss Barrett began to scream. When they saw the dozen or more rats falling from the folds of the opening top, they unceremoniously jerked her from the car. Rats bit, and rats sometimes carried rabies, and they had no intention of letting anything happen to this woman who promised to bring jobs back to town.
Only when she was safely out did the men notice that, contrary to the hyperkinetic habits of rats, these specimens were unusually still. Curious, Caleb peeked closer while Billy Fred did his best to subdue the hysterical Miss Barrett.
“Oh, my dear Lord!” he murmured. It was more of a prayer than a statement of surprise.
No wonder the rats weren’t moving. Each furry little throat had been neatly slit.