Harper’s Bluff

Harper 200Her land! They want her land!

And Harper MacNeal, manager/owner of a small radio station in town, isn’t about to let them have it. That small piece of land along the bluffs that overlooks the Ohio River was her mother’s one gift to her. Now the town council in Clifford, Ohio, wants to build hotels on it. They’ve signed a contract with a riverboat gambling concern, generating dreams of wealth for Clifford and its people. All they need is the land.

Over Harper’s dead body! And “the witch” Asa Prine’s, too, since her land is adjacent to the MacNeal property and takes in an even larger portion of the bluffs the town wants. Whit Dillon, the architect hired from Cincinnati to design the hotels, finds himself in the middle of the explosive conflict between the two women and the town. And Harper’s beauty pulls him in a direction he doesn’t want to go.

Then the attacks begin—the violence. But not everything that happens has to do with the fight over the cliff property. Through it all, a long buried secret is coming to light, one that prompts someone to kill.

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Chapter One

The gun shot blasted the morning mist, shattering the meadow’s silence.

A flock of geese squawked and scattered into the air. The small man in the distance suddenly froze. Below the cliffs, the river drifted sluggishly in the heat of July.

Harper settled the deer rifle against her shoulder again, gazed down the sight line, right forefinger nuzzling the trigger, and pulled. The sound pierced the air. The recoil shoved her backward. A loud ping and the surveyor’s tripod, knocked askew, sailed toward the ground.

“My God,” the man cried, swiveling. Then he spotted her, seventy yards away. “Hey. What-a you doing?”

“Get off my land,” she cried, raising the rifle for a third shot.

“You crazy, lady? I’m on a job. My boss sent me.”

Anger sharpened her aim. The blast echoed over the meadow and into the woods. Another loud ping and the box of surveyor’s tools at the man’s feet skidded across the ground. It erupted against a rock, spewing out instruments.

“Damn you, get off my land,” she yelled, rifle ready. “Next time I’m aiming for body parts.”

The small man stared. Then, without pausing to gather up instruments, he bolted, his legs flying like a turkey’s, for the yellow pickup with ‘Dillon, Architect’ emblazoned on the side. He leaped in, slammed the door shut. The truck lurched to a start and sped across the ground, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.

Harper watched him roar out of sight, her throat dry from hot anger, knuckles white around the stock of the gun. It was pure chance she’d stayed home from the radio station this morning and caught this desecration. How could they do this to her? What gave them the right? Had her father put them up to it?

Finally she took in a ragged breath and dropped the rifle to her side. Her chest heaved with passion, hurt, a sense of betrayal. She ran a hand through her thick cap of black hair and strode along the rock face to the edge of the cliff that overlooked the mighty Ohio. Across the wide stretch of river lay a gentler slope leading to green meadows and farm land.

Her meadow settled once again into the quiet of a summer morning. A hawk cried along the cliff edge. The solemn mist sparkled on leaves of thistle and clover. Woods, plant growth, river, the stark beauty of rock and cliff all made this a sanctuary for Harper MacNeal.

As the stillness of the morning enveloped her, it softened the aching she felt at the violation of her mother’s one legacy to her. This quiet, lovely piece of land was the only part of her mother she had left. A sob moved up her throat. She gazed down on the Ohio flowing unconcerned, a muddy ribbon through the landscape.

“River, you’ll be concerned all right if they do to you what they say they’ll do,” she cried.

The Ohio moved in its eternal way and didn’t answer back.

* * *

Brakes squealed and the tires of the Wrangler spit gravel as Harper skidded to a stop in the drive. Anger and hurt still percolated beneath the surface. Emmett Bainbridge peered out of the barn door. Old Fred, recognizing the sound of the engine, waddled from behind Emmett, his beagle ears flopping as he trotted toward the Jeep.

Harper climbed out, gun in hand, and slammed the door shut with a vehemence that brought Fred to a startled stop and made Emmett’s eyes widen.

“Whatcha been shooting at, girlie?” the old man drawled, his Kentucky accent thick. “Some varmint, maybe?”

“Damn right,” she snapped, then sighed. None of this was Emmett’s fault. “Where’s Pa? Still in the barn?”

Emmett shook his snow white head. “We just finished the milking. Your pa’s in the kitchen, washing up.” He came forward, hobbling on his bad leg – a war injury. “Something’s eating on you, written plain as day on that there face-a yours.”

Harper drew herself up, all five feet, ten inches, in T-shirt and khaki shorts. “A surveyor,” she spit out. “On Mama’s land. I want to know what a surveyor was doing there.” Face set, biting back tears, she stalked toward the farm house. Fred stirred himself and trotted after, but couldn’t seem to keep up with her long-legged gait.

She shoved open the screen door of the kitchen to confront Lloyd MacNeal, standing at the sink, washing his hands. The screen door banged shut before Fred could make it to the porch. He bayed mournfully.


Lloyd turned. A dairy farmer in his early fifties, he still had the power to stir a woman’s pulse; hair full with just enough gray, eyes startlingly blue, model-like features except for the devilish twist to his mouth. Harper resented the fact that she looked more like him than her mother, the wife he’d never loved, never understood.

“What in hell you been up to, Harper?” her father barked, wiping hands on a towel. He eyed the rifle she carried. “Chief Mooney just called.”

Harper shoved the rifle onto the table and strutted forward, her glance fierce. “That man had survey equipment. What was he doing with survey equipment? We’ve been through this already. I want to know where he suddenly got the idea he could survey our property?”

Lloyd glared back, hands on hips. “Damn it, girl, that fellow went to the police. You shot at him. You wanna go to jail?”

Her stomach convulsed. Slowly, deliberately she demanded, “What made him think he could survey our land?”

Blue eyes met blue eyes, both angry, both proud. Finally he turned back to the sink. “We don’t need that piece-a land. Can’t grow crops on it. Can’t graze the cattle there. We stand to make a deal-a money on it from those big developers.”


“Damn it, Harper -”

“No. It’s my land too. Mama left me her share. It’s the only thing I have from her. And I won’t sell.” Didn’t anybody understand? Didn’t they see that to sell this land would be to erase all that was left of Felice MacNeal? Or was that what her father wanted?

With a disgusted grunt, Lloyd slammed off the water faucet. “You are the most pig-headed woman in the whole state of Ohio, you know that? And uppity too. You-n your college ways. Too good for the likes of your own pa.”

So was mama, she thought bitterly. But she didn’t say it, just glared at him, her eyes stinging from tears she was too proud to shed. Finally she turned and stalked back outside.

* * *

“Shot at you?” Whitaker Dillon bawled into the phone. “Christ, Barney, what did you do? Try to play footsies with her daughter in the hay?” Perched on the edge of the mahogany desk, his thigh stretching the tan slacks, he grimaced — Barney wouldn’t find that remark funny. “Did you report it? Who the hell is this person anyway?”

A knock sounded at the office door and it opened. Whit Dillon beckoned his secretary in.

“Just calm down, Barney. She didn’t hit you, that’s the main thing. Women can’t hit shit.” More from the other end. “The tripod, huh? And the box? Two hundred feet?”

The secretary, a stylish brunette in a lavender dress and matching heels, indicated the man behind her. “Mr. Carson’s here.”

Whit nodded at Carson, his associate, who laid a pile of reports on the double sized desk and took a seat nearby in a leather chair, his eyes questioning at Whit’s expression.

Whit shook his head at Carson, then said into the phone, “Okay, I’ll be down in a couple of hours. See if you can set up a meeting with the mayor or somebody. And don’t they have a big-name lawyer-politician in Clifford? Ludlow, isn’t it? Get him too.” More listening. “Lord, no. Don’t go back there. We’ll get the stuff later. Good. See you in a little while.”

After hanging up, he stared at the phone. Finally he raised his eyes. “Why does everything have to be so damned complicated?” Whit noticed his secretary waiting. “Midge, I’m driving down to Clifford this morning. I’ll call you from there and let you know if I have to stay.”

“More trouble from the natives?” Her mouth twitched. “What about lunch?”

“I’ll grab some on the way.”

Midge, with an ‘I told you so’ lift of her brow, left the office while Carson watched her go, his own look appreciative. After a moment he broke in on the silence.

“What’s up, Whit? Trouble with the Clifford deal? I thought we had a clear road on it.”

Whit stood up, ran a hand through brown hair that was slightly graying and walked to the full length window behind his desk. The office was a reflection of the man — large, rich, and without trappings. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he stood there in rolled-up shirt sleeves and tie, glowering at the city. Before him stretched the southern end of Cincinnati and the Ohio River.

“I sent Barney Jaycox down to start the topographical survey for me and some woman shot at him.”

“Shot at him? My God. What’s with these people anyway? They’re offered a money-making deal and they pull out a gun?”

Whit blew out air in a long stream and turned to face Carson.

Carson eased back in the chair. “I don’t get it. The developers sounded like it was all settled. The Clifford people loved the project. Everybody thought you walked on water?”

“Close but not quite, Pete.”

“Give it time.”

Whit shook his head. He took a seat at his desk, pulled a cigar from a box, offered Carson one. Biting off the tip, he held a light for Carson’s then lit his own. Through a cloud of smoke his gray eyes, tough and savvy, narrowed.

At thirty-six, he was a powerful man – in build, in features, in prestige. One of the biggest architects in Cincinnati, he was a self-made man. Losing his father at the age of fourteen had toughened him. Having his younger brother Frankie get drunk and die in a car accident when Whit was twenty-two left its mark. When his attempt at marriage went bad five years later, all softness moved inward, all sensitivity was shielded. His only tender spot he reserved for his mother, Louise Dillon, who kept up the family homestead in Xenia.

“So what’s happening?” Carson wanted to know. “Is the town going to back off?”

“No, not the town, Pete. The deal’s solid. The town wants this, trust me. Riverboat Gambling? They all count dollar signs when they go to sleep at night.”

“Then why the shooting?”

“Don’t know.” He took a puff on the cigar and blew out smoke. “All the legalities are in order. The mayor assured the developers I had a green light.”

Carson leaned forward. “So, who shot at Barney?

Whit shook his head. “I’m not sure. Probably some ole gal who got her wind up. I told him I’d meet him at the police station. I’ll get it straightened out.”

Carson sat back, studying the smoke he blew into the air. “People sometimes get funny over gambling, Whit.”

“We’re building hotels, that’s all. The riverboat is somebody else’s lookout.”

“Let’s hope there’s no trouble. The state has plans to build a super highway connecting the Cincinnati interstate to Clifford. A lot of jobs are riding on this.”

Whit nodded, feeling grim.

Carson reached over and gave his arm a pat. “Well, if anyone can straighten it out, you can.” Carson blew out smoke and the two men stood up. “Call me from Clifford and let me know what the deal is.”

When Carson left, Whit walked back to the window, cigar in hand, and stared at the river in the distance. Pete was right. People were funny about gambling. He’d heard stories of towns fighting over it. They could get real mean.

But that wasn’t his problem. Some ole gal taking pot-shots at Barney was. And he’d have to put a stop to that.

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