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Home on the Ranch: Oklahoma: Defending the Rancher's Daughter / The Rancher Bodyguard

Home on the Ranch: Oklahoma: Defending the Rancher's Daughter / The Rancher Bodyguard
Home on the Ranch: Oklahoma: Defending the Rancher's Daughter / The Rancher Bodyguard Carla Cassidy THESE WILD WEST BODYGUARDS KNOW WHAT IT TAKES TO RIDE TO THE RESCUE! DEFENDING THE RANCHER'S DAUGHTER Kate Sampson is lucky to be alive after nearly being trampled by a stampeding cattle herd–she has to be on alert every second. Professional bodyguard Zack West offers protection…and something a lot more dangerous. The sensual cowboy had branded her with his passion years ago. Now he's back, ready to claim her love all over again.THE RANCHER BODYGUARD Grace Covington had vowed never again to lay eyes on the hotshot defense attorney who'd broken her heart. But when her stepfather is murdered, her sister found holding the bloody knife, Charlie Black is the only one who can help. And he seems determined to prove he's a changed man, too, capable of protecting her–body and soul. These wild west bodyguards know what it takes to ride to the rescue! Two reader-favorite cowboy romance stories from New York Times bestselling author Carla Cassidy. Defending The Rancher’s Daughter Kate Sampson is lucky to be alive after nearly being trampled by a stampeding cattle herd—she has to be on alert every second. Professional bodyguard Zack West offers protection…and something a lot more dangerous. The sensual cowboy had branded her with his passion years ago. Now he’s back, ready to claim her love all over again. The Rancher Bodyguard Grace Covington had vowed never again to lay eyes on the hotshot defense attorney who’d broken her heart. But when her stepfather is murdered, her sister found holding the bloody knife, Charlie Black is the only one who can help. And he seems determined to prove he’s a changed man, too, capable of protecting her—body and soul. Praise forNew York Timesbestselling author Carla Cassidy “The first page of this Wild West Bodyguards book pulls the reader in just for the opportunity to learn more about Charlie. An interesting mystery with surprising twists…will keep the pages turning.” —RT Book Reviews on The Rancher Bodyguard “Small towns, dangerous secrets and painful pasts are expertly conveyed in Cassidy’s clever hands, speeding readers toward surprising revelations.” —RT Book Reviews on Scene of the Crime: Widow Creek “Cassidy crafts sympathetic characters…along with a strong, well-developed plot. A charmingly sweet and ruggedly strong hero is the icing on the cake…” —RT Book Reviews on Cowboy with a Cause “With flawed but heartwarming characters, and a flair for storytelling, Carla Cassidy shines.” —RT Book Reviews on To Wed and Protect CARLA CASSIDY is a New York Times bestselling and award-winning author who has written more than one hundred books for Harlequin. Before settling into her true love—writing—she was a professional cheerleader, an actress and a singer/dancer in a show band. Carla believes the only thing better than curling up with a good book to read is sitting down at the computer to write her next story. She’s looking forward to writing many more books and bringing hours of pleasure to readers. Visit her website at carlacassidy.com (http://carlacassidybooks.com/). Books by Carla Cassidy Harlequin Romantic Suspense Cowboys of Holiday Ranch Series A Real CowboyCowboy of Interest Men of Wolf Creek Series Cold Case, Hot AccompliceLethal LawmanLone Wolf Standing Cowboy Café Series Her Cowboy DistractionThe Cowboy’s ClaimCowboy with a CauseConfessing to the Cowboy The Coltons Series The Colton BrideHer Colton Lawman Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com (http://www.harlequin.com/) for more titles. Home on the Ranch: Oklahoma Defending the Rancher’s Daughter The Rancher Bodyguard Carla Cassidy www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) TABLE OF CONTENTS DEFENDING THE RANCHER’S DAUGHTER (#u878d3d6d-4b26-527d-881b-73a9bff6d4b0) THE RANCHER BODYGUARD (#litres_trial_promo) Defending the Rancher’s Daughter Carla Cassidy Contents Chapter 1 (#udaf0ea2c-c65f-56c0-9831-25614df8af32) Chapter 2 (#u135a1591-2c29-5a5e-9722-6242929ad597) Chapter 3 (#u851b5ea9-8bd0-528f-ab9b-86d93c3da47a) Chapter 4 (#u52e7a7f8-f6bb-55ad-bc94-0afb6385bced) Chapter 5 (#ua085e1cf-f152-5832-9ad6-90683ba018ba) Chapter 6 (#u6abb8234-e148-5ac0-97a9-f1f05634c4a8) Chapter 7 (#u196d08fb-4493-5c17-8d19-a609f29699fb) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 Kate Sampson pulled the pickup out into the center of the wide expanse of pasture. In the distance storm clouds gathered, hanging low and black and occasionally rumbling thunder. The weather forecast was for the potential of severe storms and as she walked from the truck to check a stock water tank, the oppressive unsettled atmosphere pressed thick against her chest. Or was it grief she felt? It had only been two weeks since her father’s death. Two weeks of the worst kind of sorrow she’d ever felt and two weeks of insidious suspicions. She shoved thoughts of her father aside, needing to get finished and to get inside the house before the storm vented its fury. Beneath the clouds not too far away the large herd of cattle lowed and stomped hooves with unsettled restlessness as if sensing the approaching storm. She had three more stock tanks she hoped to check before the storm hit. It was merely a routine maintenance task she could have asked one of the ranch hands to do, but she’d wanted to do it herself. She’d needed something to pass the long hours of the late afternoon, something to keep her mind away from the grief and the questions that ripped at her heart in those quiet moments of solitude and inactivity. A flash of lightning ripped through the black clouds, followed by a roar of thunder. She decided checking the other stock tanks would have to wait. She didn’t want to be out in an open pasture with an electrical storm overhead. She checked the tank, saw the windmill spinning and that the water level was where it was supposed to be, then turned to head back to where she’d parked her pickup a distance away. At that moment a loud noise seemed to come from the back side of the pasture near the cattle. Kate froze, trying to identify the odd, sharp noise. Not thunder, then what? Within seconds the ground began to tremble beneath her feet and a dust cloud formed over the bawling cattle. As she stared in horror, she saw the herd break into a run, frightened cows bumping shoulders, slamming hooves against the ground in a stampede of beasts. And they were running directly at her. She shot a frantic glance at her pickup, which suddenly seemed too far away. Still, she took off running toward it, knowing it was the only thing that would keep her from being crushed beneath the onslaught of frightened animals. The ground seemed to have stolen the thunder from the sky as Kate ran. Her heart crashed into her ribs as the herd came closer…closer. She was just about to the truck when the first animal careened into her with a force that sent her airborne. She crashed down on one foot then crumbled as her ankle screamed in pain. Panic clawed up her throat as she saw the rest of the livestock bearing down on her, close enough that she could see the frantic roll of their eyes. She tried to scramble to her feet, but her ankle couldn’t hold her and she fell to the ground once again. Dust choked her and she smelled the sweat of the cattle, heard the snorts of distress as they approached like a locomotion at full steam. Trampled. Within seconds she was going to be trampled to death. Frantically she looked at the truck and realized her only hope. As fast as she could, she rolled across the ground. She’d just slid beneath the truck as the first of the herd thundered by. The hooves against the dry earth kicked up a dust storm and Kate squeezed her eyes tightly closed as she heard bodies crash into the sides of the vehicle, heard the bawling of calves being trampled. As the last of the livestock went by, she could hear the sounds of fence breaking and the frantic cries of cowboys trying to corral the crazed herd. She remained beneath the truck, coughing dust and trying to ignore the painful throb of her ankle as the sounds faded in the distance. Her heart pounded almost painfully as she realized how close she had come to a terrible death. Hooves approached and as the horse was reined in next to the truck, a pair of faded boots hit the ground. She recognized the snakeskin as belonging to Sonny Williams, the ranch manager. He leaned down and peered beneath the truck. “Ms. Sampson, are you all right?” his deep, familiar voice asked urgently. She took a deep breath and released it slowly, the panicked fear ebbing away. “Yes, I’m okay.” She scooted out from beneath the truck and pulled herself up to a sitting position. The wooden fencing at the far end of the property was gone, as was most of the herd. A calf lay dead and nearby another calf limped slowly, bawling like a frightened baby. Kate wanted to bawl, as well. If she’d been alone, she’d curl up and cry, but instead she swallowed against her tears, unwilling to show any sign of weakness in front of Sonny. She’d had enough problems with the ranch hands since her father’s death. The last thing she wanted them to see was any sign of weakness on her part. “I got the men out rounding up the herd and once we get them all back, we’ll get the fence mended,” he said, then held out a hand to help her up. She reached out to grab the middle-aged man’s hand and pull herself up, but instantly nearly crumbled as she tried to put weight on her left foot. “You need to go have that looked at,” Sonny said, his gaze on the ankle that had already swollen up to twice its normal size. “I’ll drive you in to the hospital.” “No, it’s okay. I can drive myself,” she replied, leaning heavily against the driver’s door. At least it was her left foot and the truck was an automatic. “I need you here to take care of this mess.” Her sentence was punctuated by a loud clap of thunder. He looked toward the fence and shook his head. “Guess it was the storm that spooked them?” “Who knows?” “Are you sure you’re okay to drive yourself to the emergency room?” His weathered features worked into a deep frown. “I’ll be fine. Just take care of things here. When I get home you can give me a full damage report.” She slid into the truck. “I’ll open the gate for you,” he said. She nodded and started the engine as Sonny remounted his horse. She followed him to the gate and, when he opened it, she drove through. The pain in her ankle worried her. She couldn’t afford to be down, didn’t have time for a broken bone. Not only did she have questions about her father’s riding accident two weeks ago, and suddenly finding herself running the ranch, but now she had some disturbing questions about what had just happened to her. For the past two weeks she’d entertained dark thoughts, suspicions that had kept sleep at bay and a gun next to her bed. She’d told herself she was overreacting, that grief did terrible things to people and she was just desperately trying to make sense of her father’s untimely death. She’d tried to convince herself that the overwhelming job of suddenly running the ranch was skewing her thinking. But such rational thoughts did nothing to dispel the darkness that had claimed her soul. Maybe it was time to speak her suspicions out loud to somebody. But who? Sheriff Jim Ramsey was good at arresting drunk and disorderly cowboys on a Saturday night, but she wasn’t sure she trusted his investigative skills in working a murder case. Besides, she’d tried to talk to him soon after her dad’s death and he’d dismissed her concerns with a pat on her head and a sympathetic sigh. Funny, when she thought about who she trusted most to talk to, it was also the man she detested more than anyone else in the world. Zack West. Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel as she thought of the cowboy who had been the source of her first passionate fantasies and for years the bane of her very existence. Zack worked for his family business, Wild West Protective Services. Zack’s father had begun the business years ago and it now was a multimillion dollar enterprise offering bodyguard services to people all around the world. Zack, along with his four brothers and sister, worked the business. It had been years since she’d seen him; he spent most of his time away from Cotter Creek and on location. She’d heard through the grapevine that he was back in town. As soon as she got to the hospital, she’d give him a call. As much as she hated it, she needed him. The throb of her ankle brought back the memory of the strange sound she’d heard just before the cattle had stampeded. The loud noise had had nothing to do with natural phenomena. Now that she had a moment to consider it, she thought the sound had been like that of a bull horn. Yes, it was time to talk to Zack. She needed to tell him that she suspected her father’s deadly fall from a horse hadn’t been an accident. She believed somebody had murdered Gray Sampson. She also needed to tell him that somebody had started a stampede that could have killed her. She gripped the steering wheel with suddenly sweaty hands as she thought of that mass of frightened cattle racing toward her. If she hadn’t been so quick on her feet, if she’d paused another single second before racing for the truck, she wouldn’t be driving herself to the hospital right now. She’d be dead. It was at that very moment that she realized somebody had just tried to kill her. * * * Zack West heard her before he saw her. “If it’s not broken then tell Dr. Greenspan to get in here and wrap it so I can get out of here.” Her familiar voice, filled with agitation, drifted out the open door of Exam Room Four. “I’ve got lost cattle wandering around the countryside and broken fencing. I don’t have time to waste hours in here.” Zack hesitated just outside the door, summoning the strength to face the spoiled, willful girl who had never hidden her dislike of him. Why had she called him? The only way he’d know what she wanted was to go into the exam room and to speak to her. He met a nurse hurrying out, a harried expression on her face. He entered the room and hoped his face didn’t radiate his shock at the sight of her. When he’d gotten the call from her stating that she was in the emergency room and needed to talk to him, it had been sheer curiosity that had prompted him to respond. He’d been curious to see her and interested to find out why she was at the hospital. She was staring out the window, unaware of his presence. He took that moment to reconcile the woman he saw to the wild teenager of nearly five years before. The last time he’d seen her she’d been a gangly seventeen-year-old with a bad haircut and mascara-smeared eyes. There was nothing gangly about the woman in front of him. Her feminine curves were evident despite the blue flowered hospital gown she wore. The hair he remembered as an uneven burnt-copper mess now hung below her shoulders. One of his hands unconsciously rose to his cheek, where the last time they’d been together she’d ripped sharp fingernails down his skin at the same time she’d kicked him in the shin so hard he’d thought he’d be crippled for the rest of his life. “Katie.” Her head whirled around and he saw that her eyes were still the same intense blue that he remembered, minus the raccoon rings of mascara. There was a long moment of awkward silence and he wondered if she, too, was remembering the debacle of their last meeting. Her gaze swept him from head to toe, reminding him that he hadn’t shaved this morning and was about a month overdue for a haircut. The fact that he even thought about his own physical appearance irritated him. “I’m here, so what do you want?” he asked brusquely. “Zack. Please close the door.” Her voice gave nothing away of her emotions. He shut the door, then turned back to face her, a heavy tension in the air between them. “Please, have a seat.” She gestured to the chair next to the examining table where she sat. “I’m fine.” He jammed his hands into his pockets. He didn’t want to sit. He didn’t intend to stay. “What happened?” He pointed to her ankle, which was swollen and turning ten shades of purple. “Somebody tried to kill me.” He raised a dark eyebrow. It was the kind of dramatic statement she’d often made as a girl. “How? By squeezing your ankle to death?” The baleful look she leveled at him would have sent lesser men running for the hills. Zack merely stood his ground, waiting for her to explain. She broke the gaze first, looking down at her hands clenched tightly in her lap. “I was out in the pasture checking a stock tank and somebody caused my herd to stampede. If I hadn’t managed to roll underneath my truck, I would have been killed.” Despite the fact that he didn’t want anything to do with her, she’d certainly grabbed his attention. He swept his cowboy hat from his head and sat in the chair. “What do you mean, somebody caused your herd to stampede?” As he listened to her explain what had happened, he tried to figure out why she had called him. She’d certainly made it clear years ago that she didn’t like him, had resented his relationship with her father. She’d been a brat, trying to undermine him, competing with him for her father’s attention and generally making his life miserable when they’d been younger. So why on earth had she called him? “Are you sure it wasn’t the storm that spooked the cattle?” he asked. “There was a lot of thunder and lightning, enough to spook a herd.” “The storm had them restless, I’ll admit to that.” She shoved a strand of her long, shiny hair behind her ear. “But I heard something like an air horn blow and that’s what spooked them into the stampede. Somebody did this on purpose and the only reason for them to have done this was in hopes that I’d be trampled to death.” At that moment the door opened and the doctor entered. “X-rays are back. No break, just sprained. We’ll get that ankle wrapped up and get you out of here.” Zack headed for the door, but paused as she called his name. “Would you wait for me? I still need to talk to you.” He hesitated. “Zack…please.” It was the first time he’d ever heard that word from her lips and it seemed to be pulled from someplace deep inside her. “I’ll be in the waiting room,” he said grudgingly, and left the exam room. For the past month Zack had felt as if the world had gone mad. A woman he’d come to respect and love had been murdered, his eldest brother, Tanner, had gotten married, Gray Sampson had died and now Katie had said please. He threw himself into one of the cheap orange plastic chairs in the waiting room, unsurprised to find himself alone. The Cotter Creek Memorial Hospital was small and most folk knew that if an injury was serious, the best place to go was to one of the bigger hospitals in Oklahoma City, a two-hour drive away. He twisted the rim of his hat between his fingers, his thoughts on the woman he’d just left. Katie Sampson, all grown up. She had turned twenty-three years old a month ago and was as pretty as any woman he’d ever seen—not that he cared. He was just surprised that the wild-haired, skinned-knee brat had become a lovely young woman. Lovely to look at, he reminded himself, but still Katie Sampson. As he waited, he thought about what little information Katie had given him. He dismissed the idea that somebody had intentionally spooked the herd in an effort to kill her. She’d always been given to melodrama and although unusual, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of reality for a storm to cause a herd to stampede. A loud boom of thunder crashed overhead, but still no rain peppered the glass. Looking toward the windows, he wondered why he’d agreed to wait around, what else she could possibly want to tell him. She entered the waiting room on crutches, her ankle cloaked in a bright purple wrap. Once again he was struck by the physical changes that had occurred since last time he’d seen her. Her scrawny neck was now a graceful, slender column. Her grass-stained jeans clung to curvy hips and long, lean legs. That palpable tension again filled the air and he watched as she walked over to the window and stared out. For a long moment she said nothing and he merely watched her, waiting for her to explain what she wanted, why she needed to talk to him. “You didn’t even come to his funeral.” Her voice was low, but vibrated with a rich bitterness. She turned to face him, her pretty features twisted into an angry mask. “He loved you like a son, but you couldn’t even show up to pay your last respects.” Grief ripped through him as he thought of her father. Gray Sampson had been far more than a neighbor to Zack. The older man had been like a second father to him. During Zack’s turbulent teenage years, Gray had been the voice of wisdom and unconditional love. But he wasn’t about to explain himself to her. “You call me down here to talk about what I should or shouldn’t have done in the last two weeks or is there something else on your mind?” Some of the anger left her face and for just a moment a raw vulnerability shone from her eyes and her shoulders sagged as if she carried the weight of the world on them. Zack preferred her anger, it was familiar. “I want to hire you. Whether you believe it or not, somebody tried to get me killed this afternoon.” He frowned. “Haven’t you heard? I’m not working for the family business anymore. I’m not for hire. Call Dalton, he’s in charge of the business while Tanner is on his honeymoon. He’ll assign somebody to you if that’s what you want.” Zack’s father had semiretired a year before and Zack’s eldest brother, Tanner, had taken over the reins of running the company. However, Tanner had gotten married a week before and was now on his honeymoon, leaving Dalton, Zack’s second eldest brother in charge of the business. Zack had worked as a bodyguard for the past ten years, since his twenty-first birthday, but a month ago he’d quit the family business when his last assignment had gone bad. “I don’t want anyone else. I want you.” Whatever touch of vulnerability he’d thought he’d seen earlier in her was gone. Her eyes were steely, reminding him of when she’d been a young girl and had wanted her own way. “I just told you, I’m not for hire anymore.” To his surprise, she leaned toward him and placed a hand on his arm. “You’re the only person I really trust in this town and it’s not just about what happened to me this afternoon.” Her blue eyes suddenly radiated an emotion he’d never seen in them before. Fear. Her fingers tightened on his arm. “Zack, I think somebody murdered my father.” Chapter 2 She’d forgotten the raw masculinity that radiated from him. It was there in the simmering depths of his moss-green eyes, in the shadow of whiskers that darkened his jaw and the broad shoulders that strained at the confines of his navy T-shirt. She dropped her hand from his arm, all too aware of the heat of his skin and her nearness to him. His scent surrounded her, the smell of the wind and the approaching storm and the underlying hint of maleness that might have stirred her if she’d allow it. Taking a deep breath, she took a step backward as he stared at her in disbelief. “What are you talking about?” His deep voice radiated skepticism. “From what I heard, Gray fell off his horse and hit his head. A senseless tragedy but hardly murder.” “Dad was a championship bronco rider. There wasn’t a horse alive that could throw him. And he wasn’t riding some spirited mount that morning, he was riding Diamond, the same horse he’d been riding for the past seven years.” The words bubbled from her like smoke from a boiling cauldron. All the fears she’d fought for the past two weeks suddenly seemed too close to the surface. She needed somebody to listen to her. She needed somebody to really hear her. Another rumble of thunder boomed overhead. “Katie, accidents happen, even to the most skilled riders. You should know that. All it takes is a moment of inattention, a snake on the path, anything can make a horse rear and throw a rider.” He raked a hand through his shaggy dark hair and she knew she was losing him. “But we aren’t talking about some greenhorn, Zack. We’re talking about my father.” She turned around to stare out the window at the dark, angry clouds, despair eating at her. “Something bad is happening at my ranch, Zack,” she continued. “And it started before my father’s death.” “What do you mean?” She turned back to face him and again felt the jolt of his physical presence. Damn, she’d hoped that four years of college and an additional year of wisdom and growth and life experiences would somehow kill the intense physical attraction she’d always felt for him. If she lived to be a hundred, she’d never understand the contradiction of disliking him and being physically attracted to him. Even when she’d been young, the eight-years-older Zack West had excited her in ways she hadn’t understood. When she’d heard he was back in town a month before, she’d steeled herself for a visit, but he hadn’t come around. She’d been relieved and yet oddly disappointed by his absence. Then, at her father’s funeral, she’d looked for him, appalled by the fact that he hadn’t been there. But she tamped down the simmering resentment about that and instead focused on what she needed to tell him. “A month ago Dad was going up to the hayloft in the barn and he fell through one of the rungs of the ladder. If he hadn’t managed to grab on to the step above, he would have fallen to the floor. We discovered that it looked like the rung had been partially sawed through.” Zack frowned, the gesture pulling together his thick dark eyebrows. “Have you talked to Jim Ramsey about these things?” Kate sighed as she thought of the sheriff of Cotter Creek. “I spoke to him a week after dad’s death. He seemed to think I was making mountains out of molehills, that I needed to go home and grieve and stop looking for boogey men at the ranch.” At the look on Zack’s face, she wanted to cry. She saw his disbelief and knew that he was probably thinking the same thing as Sheriff Ramsey had, that her grief was making her somehow delusional. “Look, Katie…” “It’s Kate,” she corrected, and saw his jaw clench. “I outgrew Katie when I stopped wearing pigtails.” “Kate, just answer me one question.” He gazed at her intently. “Why on earth would anyone want to kill your father? Everyone liked Gray. He didn’t have any enemies in the world.” “If I knew why somebody wanted him dead, then maybe I’d know who is doing these things.” She moved over to one of the orange chairs and lowered herself into it. She noticed he hadn’t asked why anyone would want to kill her. He probably thought she deserved whatever came her way. Certainly he’d never hidden his dislike for her. “Look, I know we haven’t exactly had a stellar relationship in the past, but I need you to come work at the ranch and to find out what’s going on. Don’t do this for me. Do it for Dad. He loved you like a son.” Funny, after all this time the thought of Gray’s love and adoration for Zack still had the capacity to wrankle her heart just a little bit. But she didn’t have time to examine old baggage and resentments. As much as she hated it, she needed Zack. “Katie—Kate,” he corrected himself. “I already explained to you, I don’t work for Wild West Protective Services anymore. I quit a month ago.” He set his hat back on his head and she couldn’t believe he was going to walk out on her. She struggled to her feet, cursing the ankle that forced her to move across the floor on crutches as he started for the door. “I guess my father was one poor judge of character,” she said to Zack’s back. He slowly turned to face her, his eyes flat and emotionless. “And just what is that supposed to mean?” As the events of the afternoon replayed in her mind, it wasn’t just anger that built inside her, but also fear. “Dad believed you hung the moon and stars. He thought you were a man of honor and he’d turn over in his grave if he knew you were turning your back on him.” He stood frozen, his features utterly devoid of emotion. In the long pause of silence, her anger outweighed her fear. “Get out,” she exclaimed, overwhelmed by so many emotions she thought she might explode. “I must have been out of my mind to call you in the first place. Just get out, get out of my sight.” He didn’t wait for her to tell him again. He turned on his heels and left the waiting room. Kate walked back to the window and looked out with regret. If only she could call back the last three minutes of their conversation. Whenever she was stressed or feeling powerless, she had a tendency to respond with anger. It was a curse and a habit she’d worked hard to change, but ten minutes with Zack and she’d reverted to old form. She watched until he pulled out of the lot and out of her sight. It was only then that an unexpected sob rose up in her throat. She swallowed hard against it. Other than tears spent upon her father’s death, it had been years since she’d cried. In fact, the last time she remembered crying had also been the last time she’d seen Zack. Of course, she’d been a headstrong almost-eighteen-year-old at the time and he’d been the very bane of her existence. She had promised herself a long time ago that she would never again cry over Zack West. She angrily wiped at her eyes as she limped out of the hospital and toward her truck. The storm was passing, without a drop of rain having fallen. Early June and already they were suffering a drought. But the weather conditions were the last thing on her mind as she left the hospital behind and headed back toward the ranch. Instead she focused on the stampede, worrying about the damage that had been wrought by the out-of-control herd. New fencing cost money, dead cattle were a loss and, for a moment, she felt overwhelmed by the choice she’d made to take over the reins of the ranch after her father’s death. They were supposed to have been partners, she and her father. After college, when she’d decided to return to the ranch, she’d hoped that the two of them would work side by side on the land they both loved. She’d hoped to have the time to make her father proud of her. But time had been stolen from them. He’d been murdered. Nothing and nobody would ever be able to convince her otherwise. And nothing and nobody would be able to make her believe that the stampede that had nearly taken her life hours before had been an accident. Something bad was happening at her ranch and the one man she’d believed might be able to help her had walked away, leaving her alone to face whatever evil had come to stay at Bent Tree Ranch. * * * It was just after seven the next morning when Zack drove toward the Sampson place. Nightmares had driven him out of bed at a few minutes before five and for the last two hours he’d been sitting at his kitchen table, drinking coffee and thinking about Gray and his daughter. The nightmares had been a part of his life for the past month, but the thoughts of Gray and Katie were new and confusing. He didn’t believe that Gray had been murdered, nor did he believe that somebody had tried to kill Katie by stampeding her herd the day before. As a girl, Katie’d had a penchant for finding drama and creating trouble. Zack certainly knew what grief could do to somebody, how it could work in the brain and create all kinds of crazy scenarios. He’d learned that the hard way over the past month. But the fear he’d seen in Katie’s eyes had been very real and his love and respect for Gray weighed heavy in his heart. Gray had been his sanity through the insanity of adolescence. Gray had been his family when he’d felt isolated, invisible in his own. As one of six kids, Zack had gotten lost amid his siblings and if not for Gray’s love and counsel, Zack had no idea how he might have survived those years of seeming isolation. He’d decided to give Katie a couple of days, to sniff around the ranch to see if anything nefarious was going on. He wasn’t doing it for her. He’d do it in the memory of the man he’d loved like a father. Dammit. He’d do it even though he didn’t want to be anywhere around her, have anything to do with her. Besides, in the past month he’d grown tired of his own company, tired of not knowing what direction his life would take. He turned into the entrance of the Sampson place and saw the tree that had given the ranch its name. Bent Tree Ranch. The tree was an old oak bent at the waist like an old woman with a short cane. Many times as a teenager he’d arrive at the ranch to see Katie sitting in the limbs, a mutinous glare on her face. This morning there was no sign of Katie in the tree, but Zack did see the signs of trouble in the overgrown lawn and the fact that he didn’t see a single ranch hand working anywhere on the property. He pulled up in front of the house and before he could cut the engine, the door opened and she stepped out into the early-morning sunshine. Her hair caught the fire of the sun and glistened as her pretty features radiated surprise at his appearance. Clad in a pair of worn, tight jeans and a light blue T-shirt that only enhanced her attractiveness, she stood motionless. Zack shut off his truck, already regretting the impulse that had brought him here. “What do you want?” No hint of friendliness or relief in those blue eyes of hers. There was also no sign of the crutches. “I didn’t think this was about what I wanted, but rather what you wanted,” he replied. “You said you needed my help. I’m here.” She hesitated, and for a moment he wondered if she would send him away again. Fine by him. He was here under duress, haunted by the memories of her father, tormented by the trauma he’d suffered on his last assignment. “Come in,” she finally said, and opened the screen door to allow him entry. He nodded and walked past the two redwood rockers on the front porch, trying not to remember the hundreds of nights he and Gray had sat on the porch and solved world problems. Although it had been almost a year since Zack had been inside the house, he felt embraced by the familiarity as he walked through the door and into the living room. Gray’s wife had died when Katie had been a year old and the absence of a feminine touch had always been present in the house. The furniture was sturdy, in neutral earth colors. The focal point of the room was a large television. On either side of the television were shelves that held trophies and ribbons, ornate buckles and photos of Gray’s years as a professional bronc rider. The room smelled of furniture polish and an underlying remnant of cherry pipe tobacco. The familiar scent shot a wave of sorrow through him. He should have visited Gray when he’d arrived home from his last assignment. He should have taken the time to come talk to the old man. But he’d been so wrapped up in rage, in despair, he hadn’t wanted to visit anyone, and now Gray was gone. “Come on into the kitchen,” she said. He swept his hat from his head and followed behind her, trying not to notice the slight sway of her hips in her tight jeans. Maybe the sway was because she was limping slightly. He touched his cheek, in the place where a faint scar had remained, to remind himself of their history. Kate. Not Katie, he reminded himself. Papers strewed the round oak kitchen table and she quickly gathered them up as she gestured him into one of the chairs. “I was just going over some figures, trying to see what the stampede is going to cost me.” “Damage bad?” he asked, and eased into the chair. “Bad enough.” She walked over to the counter where a coffeepot was half full. “Want a cup?” “All right,” he agreed. This all felt far too civil and every muscle in his body tensed as if in anticipation of some kind of explosion. She set a cup of coffee in front of him, then carried her own to the chair next to his and sat. “I lost three cows, six calves and half a fence line.” “I also heard you’ve lost a number of your ranch hands in the last couple of weeks.” She raised an eyebrow. “Where did you hear that?” “Smokey mentioned it to me.” Smokey Johnson wasn’t just the cook and housekeeper for the West clan. When Zack’s mother had been murdered years ago, Smokey had been working as the ranch manager. He’d moved into the house to help Zack’s father with the six motherless children, all under the age of ten. She shook her head. A faint smile curved her lips, there only a moment, then gone. “That man seems to know everything about everyone in this town. And yes, about half the men walked off in the week following my dad’s death. I’m not sure whether it was because they didn’t want to work for a woman or they assumed I’d be selling the ranch. They ran like cockroaches in the light of day. But I’ve got some good men left.” A frown lowered her perfectly arched eyebrows. “At least, I think they’re good men.” “Are you thinking about selling out?” “Not a chance.” Her eyes flashed with a touch of anger. “That vulture, Sheila Wadsworth, came to see me the day after my dad’s funeral to see if I was interested in selling. I told her to get off my property and stay off.” “Sheila’s just doing her job.” Sheila Wadsworth owned one of the two real-estate agencies in the town. “She acts like the Donald Trump of Cotter Creek, wheeling and dealing, and she has the sensitivity of a brick.” She bit her lower lip, a lip he didn’t remember being so full. “What happened to your crutches? Aren’t you supposed to be using them?” He needed to focus on something other than the shape and fullness of her lips. “Those things are aggravating. I can’t move fast enough with them. Besides, I can bear weight on the ankle this morning.” “When you called me yesterday, what did you want me to do? What did you have in mind?” He took a sip of the coffee and found it bitter. It seemed somehow appropriate, a reflection of their past relationship. “I want you to investigate my father’s death. I’d like for you to stay here at the ranch, in the bunkhouse, to see if you can find out who might have been responsible for his death and also who spooked my herd yesterday.” Zack believed it was a goose chase and apparently his feelings showed on his face. She sighed impatiently. “If you don’t believe what I’ve told you, then why are you here?” Why was he here? What had prompted him to leave the self-imposed isolation he’d been in for the past month? To momentarily surface from the darkness that had threatened to destroy him? “I’m here because I loved your father.” It was the simplest of explanations. He wouldn’t tell her that the fear he’d seen in her eyes had haunted him, that despite the fact that he thought her spoiled and pushy and obnoxious, he’d seen her fear and couldn’t help but respond. His answer seemed to satisfy her, for she nodded and stood. “Then the first thing we should do is get you settled into the bunkhouse.” “No, the first thing I’d like to do is see where Gray fell off his horse.” He knew Katie well enough to know that if this was going to work at all he had to establish control from the very beginning. Her eyes narrowed, as if she was aware that a power struggle had begun. In those calculating blue depths he saw the moment she decided to acquiesce. She averted her gaze from him. “Fine. We’ll need to saddle up some horses. He was on a trail about a mile from here.” They had just stepped off the porch when a handsome blond male approached them. At the sight of her, he swept his dusty brown Stetson off his head and smiled. “Kate, you doing okay this morning? Are you supposed to be off your crutches so soon?” “I’m fine, Jake.” She flashed the cowboy a warm smile that Zack felt down to his toes. “I’m heading into town to order the lumber for the fence. Do you need anything?” Zack took a step toward the man and held out his hand. “Zack West,” he said. “Jake Merridan.” He shook Zack’s hand. “Nice to meet you.” “Zack is coming to work for me,” Katie said. “We were just going to saddle up and take a little tour of the place.” “Nice to have you aboard,” Jake replied. “Jake is fast becoming one of my most valuable ranch hands,” Katie said, once again offering the blond a full smile. “He’s been with us for the last couple of months but has already made himself invaluable.” Zack saw the look in Jake’s eyes as he gazed at Katie, a look that told Zack the man would be happy being something much more than a valuable ranch hand. More power to him, Zack thought. Within minutes Jake was on his way and Zack and Katie were in the stables saddling up a couple of mounts. “Where did you find Mr. Wonderful?” he asked as he tightened a saddle strap. “Who? Oh, you mean Jake? He came to work for Dad when the Wainfield ranch sold.” Despite the obvious tenderness of her ankle, she swung up into the saddle with the grace he remembered from her as a young girl. Kate had always been a horsewoman. Like her father, she loved the big creatures and could have been a successful barrel racer, but she’d lacked the discipline and had been too wild, too reckless. He mounted, as well, and they left the stables heading west across the hard, dusty earth. The horses walked side by side and Zack found his attention drawn to her over and over again. If he didn’t know her at all, if he hadn’t just gone through a terrible lesson about love and loss, he might have found himself attracted to her. Her facial features were bold yet feminine and spoke of inner strength. Physically she was the kind of woman who always caught his eye…long-legged and with a little meat on her bones. He frowned, irritated by his observations, and focused his gaze straight ahead. They rode toward a wooded area and in the distance he saw several other men on horseback and assumed they were some of her men. “I heard you graduated from college,” he said to break the silence. She cast him a sideways gaze. “Don’t sound so surprised,” she said dryly. “I might have once been a bit of a handful, but that doesn’t mean I was stupid.” “I didn’t mean to imply that you were stupid. I was just kind of surprised to hear that you’d come back here to work with Gray on the ranch.” “Why would that surprise you? This is my home.” “I don’t know, Gray just mentioned to me several times that you seemed to be enjoying college life in Tulsa.” Actually, Gray had worried about her, afraid that her rebellious and impulsive nature would get her into some kind of trouble. “So, why did you quit Wild West Protective Services?” He had the distinct impression she was changing the subject on purpose. “I just decided it was time for something different.” He wasn’t about to share with her the personal trauma that had led him to make that particular painful decision. “So, what are your plans?” “I don’t have any plans other than to give you a couple of days.” She stopped her horse in its tracks and stared at him in disbelief. “A couple of days? Zack, I need more than a couple of days of your time. This isn’t just about my father. I think it’s about something bigger, something evil.” With the bright sun heralding a beautiful day, her words sounded just shy of silly. It was impossible to imagine evil in this place of sweet smelling grass and lingering morning dew. It was impossible to imagine evil anywhere in the small, picturesque town of Cotter Creek, Oklahoma. But Zack had learned the hard way that evil existed where you least expected it. He’d learned that sometimes no matter how hard you tried, no matter what lengths you went to, evil had its day. “Show me where your father fell.” “It’s just ahead.” They rode a few minutes longer, then she stopped and dismounted. He did the same. “Every morning for as long as I can remember, Dad rode this path along the tree line.” Her eyes darkened slightly. “He enjoyed his solitude. Anyway, two weeks ago he took off for his ride like he usually did, but an hour later Diamond returned to the stable without him. “Jake and Sonny and I took off looking for him and we found him there.” She pointed to an area nearby. “There’s a rock there, and it appeared that he’d fallen or been thrown off the horse and hit his head on the rock in the fall.” For the first time he saw a flicker of emotion other than irritation or anger in her eyes and he realized how difficult it had been for her to bring him to this place of her father’s death. Despite the fact that he hadn’t particularly liked her as a girl and had no idea what kind of woman she’d become, he couldn’t help the empathy that rippled through him. He reached out and lightly touched her on the shoulder, standing so close to her he could smell the scent of her, a clean, sweet scent. “Stay here. I’ll just be a minute or two.” He left her with the horses and went to the area she’d indicated that Gray had ridden his last ride. The ground was packed hard and cracked from lack of rain, making it impossible for him to discern any pattern of horse hooves that might have existed. As he crouched to look at the ground around the rock where Gray had apparently hit his head and died, a wave of grief overtook him. There had been too much death in his life lately. Dammit, he shouldn’t even be here, immersing himself in Katie’s latest drama. Accidents happened. People died. There wasn’t a boogey man behind every curtain and there was no way he intended to get sucked into Kate Sampson’s life. He winced as he saw the blood splattered on the top of the rock. Ugly, but keeping with the aspect of a fall and a bang of the head against an unforgiving element. He glanced over to Katie, who stood next to her horse, her arm wrapped around the gelding’s neck. For just a moment as their gazes met, their crazy, explosive past was gone and only the present shined from her eyes—fear and regret and a million other emotions he couldn’t begin to understand. What he suddenly wanted to do was to put her fears to rest. He wanted to tell her that rungs to lofts rotted, that storms spooked cattle and a good man had been thrown to his death from his horse. He wanted to tell her that she was overreacting, falling into her pattern of histrionics, that she needed to deal with her grief and to get on with her life. He broke the gaze and instead focused on the rock once again. He picked it up and turned in over and in that instant everything changed. Chapter 3 The moment she saw the expression on his face, she knew. He dropped the rock to the ground and stepped backward, as if the rock was a rattlesnake, and as his gaze caught hers, she knew. “What?” she asked, her voice nothing more than a mere whisper. She had no idea what he’d found, what he thought, but she knew it was bad. He walked to where she stood by the horses. “We need to call the sheriff. He needs to get out here.” “What did you find?” Thick emotion pressed tightly against her ribs, making it hard for her to take a deep, full breath. His eyes, normally so distant, were now filled with emotions that frightened her. There was a softness there she’d never seen. The grief she’d been fighting off since the morning they’d found her father’s lifeless body swelled up inside her and unwanted tears sprang to her eyes. “Gray didn’t just fall and hit his head on that rock.” His voice was steady, but soft. “If I was to guess, that rock was used to beat your father in the head.” Every ounce of oxygen seemed to expel from her body. “I knew it.” She managed to gasp as she stumbled away from the horse and turned her back on Zack. Tears tumbled down her cheeks as painful sobs racked her. Murdered. She’d known it in her heart. The moment she’d found her father lying motionless on the ground, she’d known deep inside that something wasn’t right. Her father had been murdered, and along with this knowledge came the complete and painful acceptance of his death. “Katie.” She sensed Zack right behind her and she turned blindly into his arms. As she buried her head in the sunshine freshness of his T-shirt, it didn’t matter that she’d disliked him for as long as she could remember. It didn’t matter that she believed him responsible for most of the unhappiness in the early years of her life. All that did matter was that she needed somebody to hold her tight and his strong arms enfolded her and pulled her against his solid body. She leaned into him, tear after tear escaped. She’d never see her father again. She’d never again spend evenings on the porch, rocking and listening to him reminisce with stories of her mother who had died when Kate was a baby. She’d never have the opportunity to prove to him that she was as good as any son might have been. Grief slowly gave way to anger. Her father hadn’t died a natural death, nor had he been taken in a tragic accident. Somebody had stolen his life, stolen him from her. As the sorrow ebbed away, she became conscious of where she was and whose arms held her. Zack’s chest was solid muscle and his arms radiated strength even as he awkwardly patted her on the back. She had once promised herself that Zack West would never see her cry again and within twenty-four hours of seeing him again, she was in his arms weeping. She jumped back, mortified by her momentary lapse of control. “I’m sorry,” she said as she wiped her cheeks. “No apology necessary.” He stuck his hands into his pockets, his features devoid of all emotion. She looked away from him, needing a moment to gain control of herself. She took several deep, cleansing breaths, then looked at him once again. “I need you, Zack. I need you to find out who did this to my father. If it takes two days, then I need you for two days. If it takes a year, I need you for a year. But I won’t rest until I know who is responsible for this.” He held up his hands and backed away from her, as if what she asked was too much. “Whoa, let’s take it one day at a time. The first thing we need to do is get back to the house and call Sheriff Ramsey.” “But you’ll see this through?” She wasn’t sure why, but it seemed imperative that she get a definite commitment from him. “I need to know that you won’t quit until my father’s murderer is behind bars.” She needed to know that the outrage that burned in her was just as white hot in him. “One day at a time, Katie. That’s all I’m willing to commit to right now.” His eyes held a distance she didn’t understand, a remoteness that confused her. “What is your problem, cowboy?” She stepped closer to him. The anger that coursed through her needed a target and he was the most convenient around. “My father loved you like a son, and he thought you loved him, as well, but obviously he was mistaken about your feelings for him.” She started to spin away from him but gasped as he reached out and grabbed her by the wrist. He pulled her closer, so close she could see the tiny flecks of gold in the depths of his green eyes, smell the faint scent of coffee on his breath. Her heart seemed to stop beating as his gaze held hers intently. For a moment she felt the crackle of electricity in the air and with it the knowledge that she’d pushed him too hard. “Don’t ever doubt the fact that I loved Gray. I told you, we’ll take this one day at a time. If that’s not agreeable to you, then get somebody else. My feelings for your father are mine alone and the way I deal with his murder isn’t any of your business.” He released her wrist. “Now let’s get back to the house.” He mounted his horse and she did the same, her skin still burning from contact with him and her heart pounding just a bit unsteadily. “That boy’s nothing but raw emotion,” Gray used to say about Zack. “He just hasn’t figured out how to control it yet.” Of course, at the time her father had spoken of Zack, she’d had the feeling he was really trying to tell her something about herself. Apparently, Zack had learned control. Or maybe he’d lost his ability to have any emotions. She wasn’t sure which, but as they rode back toward the house, once again his features gave nothing away of his internal thoughts or feelings. “If you tell any of my men I lost it and cried, I’ll personally take my shotgun and shoot you in your cold, mean heart.” He gave her a wry, tight smile. “Now that’s the Katie Sampson I know and remember, always using vinegar when sugar might work as well.” She bit back a retort and for a few moments they rode in silence. Once again she found herself wondering what on earth had possessed her to call him of all people? He’d never pretended to like her, had always shown her nothing but disdain. Her father had not only loved Zack, but had admired him, had believed him to be an honorable man. That’s why she’d called him, because she knew no matter what he thought of her, he’d do what was right. He’d find Gray’s killer. “You’re sure of what you saw on that rock?” she asked, breaking the silence that had grown distinctly uncomfortable. “There’s blood on both sides, and on the underneath there’s some matted hair. That’s not consistent with a fall.” He grimaced. “I wish I’d had on gloves when I picked it up.” “Do you think Jim might be able to get fingerprints off it?” “Anything is possible. But, even if he does manage to get fingerprints off the rock, they won’t mean anything unless the perpetrator has a record with prints on file.” Kate frowned as they rode into the stable. At the moment everything seemed so complicated, so overwhelming. She wanted to fix the damage from the stampede, to catch her father’s killer and whoever had spooked the herd the day before, then get on with her life. They dismounted and she gestured to a tough-looking man who was in the process of mucking out a stable. “Brett, would you unsaddle our horses and brush them down?” Brett Cook tossed the shovel aside, a surly expression on his deeply tanned, scarred face. Kate tried to ignore the expression. Brett could be difficult and she should let him go, but at the moment she couldn’t afford to lose another ranch hand, even a bad one. As he approached them, Kate made the introductions. “Brett, this is Zack West. He’ll be working for me. Zack, Brett Cook.” The man thrust out a beefy hand and Zack shook it. “Nice to meet you,” Zack said. “Likewise.” Brett dropped his hand and began to unsaddle one of the horses. “That’s a man who looks like he’s been on the wrong side of trouble more than once,” Zack said as they left the stable. “That scar down the side of his face looks like an old knife wound.” “It is. He got it a year ago in a bar fight at Crazy Joe’s.” “He also smells like he slept in a brewery.” “I know. Dad fired him twice in the past year, then rehired him. He’s a quick-tempered alcoholic and I should fire him, but he’s good with the horses and I can’t afford to lose any more men right now.” “Why did Gray hire him back?” “You know Dad, he was always a sucker for a sob story. Brett apologized and told Dad he’d do better, that he needed the job to make child support payments.” Zack nodded. “I’ll need a list of those men who work for you now and those who left after your father’s death,” he said. “It also would help if you could give me the names of men who left Gray’s employment in the past year or so. I also think it would be better if we’d go see Jim Ramsey in person rather than talk to him on the phone.” “All right.” They reached the front porch. “Just let me get my purse and lock up so we can go see Sheriff Ramsey. Then we’ll come back here and get you settled in the bunkhouse.” Within minutes they were in Zack’s truck and headed into town. Cotter Creek held a charm she’d thought she’d never find anywhere else in the world. As Zack drove down Main Street toward the sheriff’s office, that charm was evident. People meandered down the sidewalks, as if they had all the time in the world to explore the various shops. There had been a time before her graduation from college that Kate had considered remaining in Tulsa and not returning to the small town of Cotter Creek. In the midst of college partying and new friends, Kate had thought this place provincial and dull, but as maturity had set in and she’d faced the rest of her life, she’d known this was where she belonged, this was where she wanted to live and raise a family. Of course, she’d barely gotten settled back into town and ranch life when she’d suddenly found herself in charge of running the ranch by herself. She slid a glance at Zack. “You ever think of leaving here and living someplace else?” Despite the morning sunshine, his hat cast shadows across his face, making it impossible for her to read his expression. “When I was younger I couldn’t wait to leave Cotter Creek. I wanted to move someplace where I wasn’t ‘one of those West boys.’ But for the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and I’ve realized this is where my roots are, where I want to be for the rest of my life. What about you?” “While I was in my first couple of years in college I got it into my head that I’d never go back to the ranch, that I’d stay in Tulsa and build a life there.” “So what happened to change your mind?” She leaned back in the seat and thought about her answer. “There was no real defining moment. As time went on I missed the ranch. I missed Cotter Creek and most of all I realized that I wanted the opportunity to get closer to my father.” Emotion once again pressed hard against her chest. She swallowed and continued. “Besides, I’d done all the city things, clubbed and danced and drank myself half silly. I’d shopped and eaten in fancy restaurants and done everything Tulsa had to offer. But I realized when the time came for me to build my life, to get married and have a family, I wanted to do it here.” He pulled into an empty parking place in front of the sheriff’s office, then turned to look at her. “Are you sure you’re up to this? We need to be calm and rational so Jim takes what we have to say seriously.” “Don’t worry about me,” she said, half irritated by his words of caution. “All I want is for Jim to take this seriously and to do whatever he can to find out who killed my father.” “Good, then we have a common goal.” He opened the truck door and got out. Kate hurriedly did the same. Before they could get into the sheriff’s office a familiar voice called Kate’s name. Sheila Wadsworth hurried down the sidewalk toward them, the smile on her face rivaling the brightness of the rhinestones that decorated her tight denim dress. “Zack West, I swear, honey, you get more handsome every time I see you,” she exclaimed. “Ah, Sheila, you’re nothing but a sweet talker,” he replied dryly. She giggled, an affected girlish sound Kate found particularly annoying, especially since it came from a woman well over the age of fifty. She braced herself as Sheila turned her attention in her direction. “Kate, darling. I just wanted to apologize for my behavior after your daddy’s funeral,” Sheila said. “I should have given you more time to mourn before approaching you.” Her expression was properly contrite. “But now that you’ve had some time to think, are you still planning on keeping the ranch?” “Sheila, read my lips. I’m not selling…ever.” “You have a buyer lined up?” Zack asked. Sheila’s plump shoulders moved up and down with a shrug. “Nobody in particular. I just know it would sell quickly and make Kate a wealthy woman. She could make enough money to live anywhere she wanted to.” “I want to live where I’m living right now,” Kate replied evenly. “Well, dear, if you change your mind you know where I am.” She wiggled two fingers, then turned and marched back up the sidewalk from where she’d come. “That woman is quickly becoming the bane of my existence,” Kate said. “Forget her. She’s always been a pushy opportunist. We’ve got more important things to take care of.” Zack paused on the sidewalk just outside the office and turned to look at her once again. “Let’s not complicate the issue by mentioning your suspicions about the stampede.” Her first impulse was to buck and kick. Dammit, somebody had spooked her herd on purpose yesterday and she’d nearly been killed. But reluctantly she recognized the wisdom of Zack’s words. She also suspected Zack didn’t believe her about the intentional stampede, but she knew better than to push that particular issue with him at the moment. There was no concrete evidence of what had happened in the pasture the day before. Right now the important thing was to get Jim Ramsey investigating her father’s death. As much as she hated to admit it, Zack was right. There was no point in confusing things. She nodded and together they entered the office. A woman seated at a desk manned the reception area. “Morning, Kate, Zack.” Sarah Lutten smiled, the gesture pulling all her wrinkles upward. “Good morning, Sarah. Sheriff in?” Zack asked. “He’s in. Let me just check to make sure he’s available.” She got up from the desk and disappeared through a door that Kate knew led back to the sheriff’s personal office and the jail cells. As they waited for Sarah to return, Kate thought of those moments when Zack had held her while she’d cried. His arms had been so strong around her and for a brief moment she wished she were back in those arms once again. She straightened her spine. She had to get hold of herself. She needed Zack for his investigative skills, for the resources he and his family business could bring to the table. But the last thing she needed was to become emotionally dependent on him in any way. “You can go on back,” Sarah said as she reentered the room. They entered the small inner office and Sheriff Jim Ramsey rose to greet them. “Katie, Zack, what brings you two to see me on such a fine morning?” He gestured them to the two chairs in front of his desk then sank into his big leather chair. “Murder.” The word escaped from Kate before she could stop herself. Zack shot her a look of warning and she sat back in the chair and bit her bottom lip to keep anything else from escaping her mouth. It was probably just as well she sit back and let Zack handle things. Sheriff Ramsey had always been one of those men who listened to men better than he listened to “the little ladies” in town. Jim frowned and absently plucked a piece of lint off his protruding belly. “Murder?” His gaze went from Kate to Zack. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” “That’s what we’d like for you to find out,” Zack said. “I rode out to the place where Gray had his accident. How much investigating did you do into his death?” Jim’s frown deepened. “It was an open and shut case. His head was on a rock, Kate and some of her men told me his mount had come back without him to the stables. It seemed pretty obvious what had happened. You should know these kinds of accidents happen occasionally out here in ranching territory.” There was an edge of defensiveness in his tone. “Dr. McCain pronounced Gray dead due to head trauma. It was ruled an accidental death and that was that.” And that was that. Those words resonated in Kate’s heart with a hollow ache. That was that. Her father was dead and nothing in this world would bring him back. She would never again have the opportunity to make him proud. She would never be able to tell him just how much she’d loved him. “Did you check out the rock where Gray fell?” Zack asked. Jim shrugged. “No reason to. When it looks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Zack leaned forward, his eyes narrowed slightly. “It didn’t quack and it wasn’t an accident.” “What are you talking about?” As Zack explained what he’d found on the rock, Kate watched him. In the five years since she’d seen him, the lines radiating from his eyes were a little bit deeper, his mouth appeared more sensual than she remembered and his face held a strong maturity that hadn’t been evident years ago. His shoulders appeared wider, but his stomach and hips were as lean as when he’d been a teenager. He’d always affected her on some base, visceral level. His nearness to her had always charged the atmosphere with dangerous electricity. It still did. She frowned and tore her gaze from him, realizing she was studying him in an effort to distance herself from the details of her father’s murder. She became conscious of her ankle throbbing and told herself that when she got back to the ranch she needed to prop it up for a while. “We’d like a full investigation into Gray’s death,” Zack said to Jim. “And of course we’ll do whatever we can to assist you.” Jim leaned back in his chair and raked a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “If what you think is true and that rock was used to bludgeon Gray to death, it was kind of stupid for the murderer to leave it right there at the scene.” “On the contrary, it was very smart. If the rock hadn’t been there then you would have instantly ruled Gray’s death suspicious. As it was, the murderer counted on you chalking it up to a tragic accident,” Zack replied. “And that’s just what I did,” Jim said mournfully. Kate wasn’t sure whether the sheriff felt badly about not fully investigating the situation in the first place or the fact that he now had to do something about it. Sheriff Jim Ramsey wasn’t known for his energy and enthusiasm for his work. Most people in the town were hoping that retirement was just around the corner for him so they could vote in a new sheriff, somebody younger and more committed to the position. “I’ll get right on it,” Jim said, and stood, as if to indicate to them that the meeting was over. “We appreciate it, Sheriff.” Zack stood, as well, and shook Jim’s hand. Kate got up, vaguely irritated that Jim had listened to Zack when he hadn’t listened to her two weeks before. The good-old-boy network was apparently alive and well in Cotter Creek. As she and Zack left the office and got into his truck, she tried to tamp down her irritation. “It’s good that bad things don’t happen too often in Cotter Creek because that man is barely competent.” “He’s just lazy,” Zack replied. “He was certainly lazy in the way he handled Dad’s death.” “He was the one who found my mother’s body when she was murdered. Of course, he was just a deputy then.” His words shocked her. “I’d forgotten about your mother’s murder.” He shrugged. “It was a long time ago. I was only six when she was murdered.” There was nothing in his voice to evoke her sympathy, but sorrow swept through her as she realized she wasn’t the only one who had lost a parent to senseless murder. “They never found the person who killed your mother, did they?” “No. She left one night to get groceries in town and several hours later was found strangled along the side of the road.” He turned his head and gave her a quick look. “But don’t worry. We’ll find the bastard that killed Gray.” She should have found comfort in his words, but she didn’t. Although she desperately wanted to know who had killed her father and why, she knew discovering those answers wouldn’t heal the hole left in her heart. “How did you get through it? When you lost your mother? How did you get through the pain?” “I was young. The only thing I really remember about that time was that it upset me because my father cried a lot.” He glanced at her again and this time the green of his eyes appeared darker, slightly haunted. “I think loss is more difficult to handle when you’re older and less resilient.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, turning his knuckles white as he directed his attention back out the truck’s front window. They didn’t speak again until they reached the ranch. “I’ll take you to the bunkhouse and get you settled in,” she said as he parked the truck and they got out. “Almost everyone in town knows I’m no longer working for Wild West Protective Services, so as far as anyone is concerned, I’ve just signed on here temporarily to help you out with the ranch work until you can hire new help.” “That’s fine with me,” she agreed. He reached behind the seats and grabbed a large duffel bag, then they began the long walk toward the bunkhouse in the distance. As they walked she thought again of that look she’d seen for a brief moment in his eyes. She had the feeling that he knew intimately about loss as an adult and that made her curious. It had been years since she and Zack had interacted in any way. She certainly liked to think she’d changed in that interval of time and wondered how he might have changed. What might have happened that had caused the darkness she’d seen in his eyes? She knew that for several years he had dated Jaime Coffer, a gorgeous blonde who had one day simply up and left Cotter Creek. Somehow she didn’t think that had caused the dark shadows. He’d seemed fine after Jaime had left and had never lacked for female companionship. “Did you enjoy all the traveling you did for the business?” she asked. “It was all right.” “I’ll bet you’ve met a lot of interesting people.” “Interesting enough.” “Are you always so chatty?” she asked dryly. He stopped walking and turned to face her, his features once again partially shadowed by the brim of his hat. “I’m not here to socialize. I’m here to catch a killer.” She felt the blush that warmed her cheeks. Nothing had changed. In the blink of an eye, in the tone of his voice, he’d managed to make her feel like the nuisance she’d been as a child. Once again she was aware of the throb of her ankle. She was eager to get back to the house, prop up her foot and get away from him. He continued to walk and she followed behind, remembering all the times as a young girl he’d made her feel like an interloper in her own life. She reminded herself once again that she didn’t have to like him to need his expertise. She didn’t have to enjoy his company to use his investigative skills. But, perversely, she couldn’t help the fact that she wouldn’t have minded his arms around her one more time. Chapter 4 Zack was relieved when Katie left him alone in the bunkhouse. He’d felt off balance since that moment out in the pasture when she’d turned into his arms and wept for her father. Even though he’d known Katie since she’d been a child, it was only the second time he’d ever seen her cry. The first time had been tears of rage and embarrassment when he’d picked her up and carried her away from a party she should have never attended. This time her tears had been ones of sorrow, of grief. But it hadn’t been her tears that had disconcerted him. It had been the warmth of her body against his, the press of her full breasts against his chest, the sweet, feminine scent of her that had so rattled him. At that moment his body had reacted powerfully, like a man’s to a woman’s, and it had stunned him. The last thing he’d expected was to feel any kind of physical desire for Katie. Hell, he hadn’t liked her as a kid and the verdict was still out on whether he would find her tolerable as an adult. He shoved thoughts of her away as he placed his personal items in the footlocker at the end of the single bed that would be his sleep arrangement for as long as he was here. The bunkhouse had at one time been an integral part of every ranch, but in recent years had become less important as ranch hands had transportation and often lived off the ranch where they worked. Just before Katie had left, she’d told him that he’d be sharing the space with four other men. His bunk mates would be Brett Cook and Jake Merridan, whom he’d already met, and Mike Wilton and George Cochran, whom he had yet to meet. Katie had also told him that ranch manager, Sonny Williams, lived in a small cottage near the main house. The rest of the ranch hands lived off the ranch. Besides the beds, the large open building boasted a small kitchen area, complete with refrigerator, microwave and a two-burner stovetop, and table and chairs. A sofa and a couple of chairs formed a living room, the central piece, a midsize television. Gray had always believed in a bit of comfort for his men. “Happy men make happy workers,” he’d often say. The bathroom was built for more than one man and had two shower stalls. Zack finished storing his items in the trunk, then eyed the other trunks that sat at the end of each bed. He was alone. It would be easy to take a moment to sneak a peak into the personal items of the others, but a glance at his watch made him put that particular action on hold. It was nearly noon and at any moment the men would be coming in for lunch. The last thing he wanted was to be caught snooping. Besides, at this moment he wasn’t sure what he’d be looking for. He walked to the door and stepped outside, looking over the land, and for a moment he felt as if Gray stood beside him. Gray had always considered this land his little piece of heaven on earth. Bent Tree Ranch had pastures of sweet green grass, groves of thick trees that provided shelter to herds and all the outbuildings a ranch needed to help it be successful. A little piece of heaven, but what Gray hadn’t known was that there was a serpent loose in the garden. Zack was determined to find out just who that serpent was and why he’d wanted Gray dead. * * * Lunch with the men was interesting. Mike Wilton and George Cochran seemed friendly but reserved. Brett Cook was sullen but tolerable and Jake exuded a friendly enthusiasm that Zack didn’t trust. Zack had always relied on his instincts when it came to people, but the lunch was too brief for him to form any real impressions. He knew the best way to learn about a man was to work beside him and so after lunch he went with Brett and Jake to work on the fence that had been destroyed by the stampede the day before. “Katie told me you worked on the Wainfield ranch before coming here,” Zack said to Jake as the two worked to unload the lumber he’d bought in town. “Yeah. I was there for two years. Then Joe had that tractor accident and his kids sold off the place.” Jake shook his head. “Damned shame. He was a good man.” He slid Zack a curious glance. “So, are you and Kate old friends?” “Something like that,” Zack replied, knowing he was being vague. It was easier than trying to explain the crazy relationship between himself and Katie. “This place is awfully big for a woman to run alone.” It sounded like an idle observation but Zack knew Jake was subtly staking a claim. “I’ve gotten real close to Kate since I’ve been working here.” Staking a claim and perhaps warning off any competition. Zack leaned against one of the fence posts, pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped it across his forehead. “As far as I’m concerned, getting close to Katie is kind of like getting too close to a wildcat. She can appear nice and calm, but you never know where she’s going to claw your skin off.” Jake laughed, obviously pleased by Zack’s reply. “I’ve always liked a bit of a wildcat in my women. There’s nothing finer than gentling a wildcat.” At that moment the sound of an approaching horse caught their attention. Sonny Williams rode toward them. As he reined in and dismounted, he nodded to Zack. “How you doing? Ms. Sampson told me you’d hired on.” “Doing good, Sonny.” Sonny had worked for Gray for years, so he was no stranger to Zack. “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you worked for that fancy business with your dad and your brothers and sister.” “I quit that a month ago. I’ve been kicking around for the last couple of weeks trying to decide what I want to do with my life. Smokey mentioned to me that Katie had lost some men after Gray’s death, so I figured I’d sign on and do some honest work here until she can hire on more men and I can decide exactly what I want to do.” “Right now we can use all the help we can get.” A frown tugged at Sonny’s weathered features. “Things have been tough around here. I still can’t believe Gray is gone.” The frown lifted and he looked around. “Well, it looks like you men are on top of this job. I’ll just leave you to get back to work. Don’t forget tomorrow Doc Edwards is going to be here to tag all the new calves. I’ll need all hands to help with the process.” With a nod to all three men, Sonny remounted and headed in the opposite direction from where he’d come, and Zack and the others got back to work. The men worked on the fencing until the sun began to set, then knocked off for the day. Zack and George let Jake, Mike and Brett use the facilities first as they intended to head into town. It was Friday night and payday and Sonny had distributed the checks an hour before. George and Zack showered after the other two had left, then ate a quiet meal. After cleaning up, George settled in one of the chairs in front of the television and promptly fell asleep and began to snore. Zack eased down into one of the other chairs, his mind sorting through his impressions of the men he had met so far. It didn’t take him long to become bored with his thoughts and slightly irritated by the blare of the television. He got up and drifted outside. Dusk had fallen and night shadows crept across the ground. He leaned against the building and looked toward the main house. The porch light was on and he thought he saw a figure seated in one of the two chairs on the front porch. Katie. He wondered how many nights in the past year she and Gray had sat side by side, just like he and Gray had years ago. It somehow didn’t seem right for her to be sitting there all alone. As he walked toward the house he told himself he was only going to ask her about the list of employees he’d requested from her. It had nothing to do with the fact that she looked so lonesome in the encroaching darkness. She stood as he approached and once again he was struck by her physical presence. She was a good four or five inches shorter than his own six feet, but she gave the impression of being taller. She’d obviously showered and changed since he’d seen her earlier in the day. She was clad in a blue sundress that bared her tanned arms and did amazing things to her eyes in the illumination from the porch light overhead. The scooped neckline revealed just a hit of cleavage and a new tension settled into Zack’s gut. “Evening, Zack.” She sank onto the chair. “Katie.” He swept his hat from his head. “I was wondering if you’d had a chance to get together that list of employees for me.” “I’ve got it inside.” She seemed disinclined to get up again. “Why don’t you sit for just a few minutes?” He hesitated. He’d told himself he’d walked up here to get the list, then go back to the bunkhouse, but there was a wistfulness in her voice, a softness he’d never heard before. It intrigued him. He sank into the chair next to hers, once again feeling unbalanced by her. The anger she’d displayed at the hospital when she’d told him to get out of her sight had been pure Katie, so familiar it was almost comfortable. This softer, almost vulnerable Katie disconcerted him. He wasn’t at all sure he trusted it. “Friday night and you don’t have a hot date?” he asked. “I haven’t had a hot date since I left college behind,” she replied. “What about you? No town hottie waiting for your company?” He grinned. “I’ve been gone for so long I don’t think I know any of the town hotties anymore.” Zack would never admit to her just how long it had been since he’d been out with a woman. For the past year work had consumed him, leaving no time for personal relationships of any kind. For a few minutes they were silent. It wasn’t a restful, peaceful kind of silence. Zack had learned long ago that there was little restful or peaceful about Katie Sampson. “This is the time of the evening I miss him most,” she said, her voice soft and low. “In the hours just after supper and right before bedtime. I never knew a house could be so quiet.” He set his hat on the porch next to his chair. “As I recall, you never seemed particularly fond of silence,” he said dryly. He tensed, knowing she might see his words as bait. He saw the flash of her white teeth as she smiled at him. He’d noticed that smile earlier in the day when it had been directed at Jake. It was a beautiful smile and completely unexpected. “I suppose that’s your way of telling me I was always making noise when I was younger.” She leaned deeper into the chair. “I suppose I’m willing to admit that I was a bit of a handful when I was younger if you’re willing to admit that you were an arrogant, egotistical, overbearing pain in the neck.” He bristled at her characterization of him. “I’ll admit half of that is true.” “Gee, let me guess which half you’ll admit to,” she replied. She released an audible sigh, one that spoke of weariness. For a long moment neither of them spoke. Zack was normally quite comfortable with silence, but this one felt thick and charged with an energy he couldn’t define. “Did you find out anything this afternoon?” She broke the silence. He leaned back and directed his gaze toward the bunkhouse in the distance. “Not really. George and Mike seem like decent men. Brett doesn’t seem like a decent man and Jake seems to be developing a major crush on you.” He turned to catch her surprised expression. She laughed, a deep, sexy sound that shocked him. He realized it was the very first time he’d heard her laugh. Odd, that in all the years he’d hung out here, he’d never heard her laughter before. And never would he have expected it to be such a pleasant sound. “Now you’re going to have me questioning your investigative skills,” she said. “Jake has certainly been a godsend since Dad’s death. He helped me take care of the arrangements for the funeral and has been a comfort, but there’s certainly no romance there. He’s just a good employee.” Maybe she didn’t see any romance on her end, but Zack knew with a man’s instinct that Jake’s interest in Katie had nothing to do with him being her employee. “What are you going to do with the list of names I’m giving you?” she asked. “I’ll give them to Dalton. He’ll do a complete background check on each of them.” He relaxed as the conversation turned to his work, the reason he was here. “Within a couple of days, a week at the most, I should know everything there is to know about the men on your list.” “But you won’t know which one of them killed my father. You won’t know which one of them stampeded my herd.” “Probably not,” he agreed. “At least not from looking at their backgrounds, although that information might give me a clue as to who is capable of such a crime.” “You really don’t believe me about the stampede, do you?” Zack felt the dangerous ground beneath him. So far she’d shown him a calm, rational nature that he’d never seen before. But he suspected she was on her best behavior because she needed him. There seemed to be a tenuous peace between them, but he was certain it was a peace easily shattered. Still, he wasn’t going to lie. “I don’t know what I believe,” he finally replied. “I’ll go get the list for you.” She stood abruptly and he got a whiff of her fragrance. The pleasant scent did nothing to diffuse the sudden tension that crackled in the air. “Katie, if you wanted a yes man to help you out with this, then you’ve hired the wrong man. I wasn’t there in the pasture yesterday. I didn’t see what happened, so I can’t make a judgment call.” “By not believing what I’ve told you happened, you’ve made a judgment call about me,” she replied. Without waiting for an answer she went into the house, allowing the screen door to slam shut behind her. * * * Kate didn’t know why it was so important to her that he believe her, but it was, and the fact that she knew he didn’t frustrated her. And if she were to look deep inside she’d know what she’d find there was fear. Somebody had killed her father. That was a fact. Somebody had intentionally spooked her herd and nearly caused her to be trampled to death. If her death had been the intent, then the attempt had been unsuccessful, which meant there might be another attempt. She didn’t want her death to be what made a believer out of Zack. Still, her desire for him to believe her went beyond the fear for her personal safety. She frowned, not wanting to take the time to examine her feelings where Zack West was concerned. As it was, she was aware of the fact that she was far too conscious of him as a strong, good-looking man rather than an intelligent, trained investigator. She hadn’t liked the way her heart had jagged just a bit in her chest when she’d seen him heading toward the house. The night shadows had clung to him, making him look tall and strong as he’d strode toward her. She told herself she’d just been grateful for the company, for anyone’s company in the quiet hours of the evening. She grabbed the manila folder that held the list she’d prepared for him that afternoon then returned to the porch, where he now stood next to the railing. “I wasn’t sure how far back you wanted me to go on former employees. You mentioned a year, so that’s what I did.” “At least this gives us a place to start.” He took the folder from her then leaned back against the porch railing. “Sonny mentioned this afternoon something about Doc Edwards coming out tomorrow to tag new calves. What’s that about?” he asked. “We’re not branding anymore. One of the things I implemented when I got back from college was electronic tags for the cattle. That way if they’re stolen, we can track them by computer to find out where they are.” “What made you decide to do that?” he asked. “Branding has always been good enough for most people around here. Besides, I thought cattle rustling went out with disco.” “Haven’t you heard? Cattle rustling is back in fashion. With the new fad of low carb diets, rustlers have discovered that beef is big business again. I talked Dad into tagging last spring when he lost twenty head of cattle to rustlers.” She saw one of his dark brows raise slightly. “I guess I’ve been out of touch with the ranching world since working for Wild West Protective Services.” He gazed at her thoughtfully. “It’s been several months since I last saw your dad. I asked you before, but maybe you’ve thought of somebody he’d had problems with? I don’t just mean here around the ranch.” She sighed and stared out at the brilliant blanket of stars strewing the night sky. “I’ve thought about it for the past two weeks and I can’t think of anyone Dad had problems with or exchanged a harsh word with. Brett has been an ongoing problem, but when he came to Dad with a sob story Dad rehired him, so surely he wouldn’t have any grudge to hold.” She looked at him once again. “You of all people should know how easygoing Dad was. He didn’t have a temper. He didn’t go looking for problems. I just can’t imagine anyone having a reason to hurt him. You know he was on the town city council. I have gone to most of the meetings and there’s always arguing about issues, but never does it feel mean-spirited.” “Maybe I need to check out the local politics, go to the next council meeting.” “The next meeting is a week from tomorrow. Every second Saturday evening of the month. I just can’t imagine any city business that would result in somebody wanting to kill Dad.” He stared off into the night. “If we can figure out a motive, then it will be easier to solve the crime. Unfortunately it’s possible there is no motive, that it was a crime of rage, a crime of passion.” He returned his gaze to her and his eyes glittered in the artificial porch light. “What do you mean?” “I mean maybe out there on the trail Gray encountered somebody and they had a fight that ended tragically.” “There was no fight,” she countered. “At least, not a fair one. Dad was a big man and quite capable of taking care of himself. I saw him, Zack. I saw him on the ground. I held one of his hands in mine.” Her voice cracked and she took a deep breath to steady herself. “There wasn’t a mark on his face, a scratch or bruise on his hands. He never got a chance to defend himself.” Without conscious thought she stepped forward and curled her hand around Zack’s strong forearm. “It was an ambush, Zack. That’s what happened on the trail that morning. Somebody ambushed my father and killed him.” He covered her hand with his own, his eyes holding not a haunted but a dangerous glint. “I told you we’ll get him, Katie, and we will.” His hand was hot on hers and for a moment her breath caught. She licked her dry lips. “Kate,” she said, her voice a mere whisper. “It’s Kate. I’m not a little girl anymore, Zack.” “Yeah. I noticed.” His voice sounded deeper than usual and in that moment Kate remembered how many times in her youth she had dreamed of Zack’s hand holding hers, his mouth touching hers and his body possessing hers. She wondered what his mouth tasted like, if it would taste as dangerous, as sensual as it looked. There was something in his eyes that filled her with a crazy, sweet longing and, with a rush of anticipation, she leaned forward. Chapter 5 Zack’s senses swam with her. All memories of the negative way he’d once felt about her, what he’d once thought about her, disappeared as she leaned closer, close enough that if he wanted he could capture her full, sensual lips with his. For just a brief, charged moment he saw only the fact that she was a beautiful woman with eyes that beckoned and a scent that half dizzied him. Would kissing her somehow ease the ache that had been in his heart for the last month? Would pulling her body tight against his somehow diminish the anger that had festered in him for too many days, too many nights? The desire to find out might have tempted him if he didn’t remember all too clearly the last time she’d looked at him with her eyelids half open and her lips parted as if expecting a kiss. He stepped backward, breaking their physical contact as he pulled away from her. “Last time I stood that close to you, you scratched half the flesh off my cheek,” he said. Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “If you expect me to apologize, you’ll be waiting a long time. You were where you didn’t belong and it really wasn’t any of your business.” “You were where you didn’t belong, as well,” he reminded her. Her cheeks deepened in color. “That was a long time ago. What’s important isn’t the past, what’s important is the here and now.” “Easy for you to say. I bear the scars of the temper tantrum you threw in the past.” He reached up and touched his cheek where the small scar had ensured that he’d never completely forget Katie Sampson. “You’re joking, right? I didn’t really leave a scar, did I?” She stepped closer to him and once again he tensed as the scent of her surrounded him. Before he knew her intent, she reached up and traced a soft, warm finger across his cheek. She gasped and jerked her hand away. “Oh, Zack. Tell me the truth? Did I do that or did you get it some other way and you’re just trying to make me feel bad?” What in the hell was he doing? As he looked at her face, her features taut with concern and maybe just a touch of remorse, he wondered why he’d even brought up that night so long ago. “I’m just giving you a hard time,” he finally said. “I got this scar in a bar fight several years ago, and you’re right, what’s important is the here and now.” He stepped down from the porch. “I’d better get back to the bunkhouse before the other men come back from town.” “Of course. I’d like to go with you when you take the file to Dalton.” “That will be first thing in the morning. Dalton won’t be in the office in town tomorrow, but he has everything he needs at the ranch to start working the background checks. Don’t you need to be here for the cattle tagging?” He didn’t want her with him. He’d been less than twenty-four hours in her employment and she was already bothering him in a way that confused and irritated him. “No. Doc Edwards and the men know how to handle it.” She leaned against one of the porch railings once again, her features obscured by the night shadows. “Zack, I have no intention of you running this investigation without me. I want to be beside you every step of the way. Partners, so to speak.” “I don’t work with partners,” he said. “Well, you’ve just changed your work habits,” she replied. “I’ll be ready first thing in the morning to go with you to speak to Dalton.” Before he could protest again, she turned and disappeared into the house. Zack stared at the closed door, his cheek still burning from her touch. He placed the manila folder in his truck parked at the side of Katie’s house, then headed back to the bunkhouse with the moonlight overhead guiding his way. When he’d decided to give Katie a couple of days, he figured the worst he’d have to put up with from her was her explosive temper tantrums and impertinence. He never would have guessed that the scent of her would twist his guts into knots, that her simple touch to his face would generate enough electricity to start a storm. He never would have guessed that her mouth would tempt him to forget the fact that he had no intention of ever getting deeply involved with a woman again. It had been one hell of a day. First, the realization that Gray’s accident hadn’t been an accident after all and now the knowledge that Katie Sampson had the power to stir him on a level where he hadn’t been stirred in a very long time. George’s snores greeted him as he entered the bunkhouse. The middle-aged man had moved from in front of the television to his bed. With the aid of a night-light that gleamed from the kitchen area, Zack made his way to his own bunk. He shucked off his jeans, pulled his T-shirt over his head, then crawled beneath the crisp white sheets on the bed, but sleep remained elusive. He would have liked an opportunity to read through the file before going to bed to see if any names leaped out at him. Although Zack was aware of the American romance with cowboys, he also knew that in reality many of the workers who drifted from ranch to ranch were misfits, ex-cons and bad apples. Every rancher probably had a horror story about one of his ranch hands, but not every rancher was killed by one of his own. Katie had to be right about one thing. If Gray had suffered no defensive wounds, then somebody had ambushed him on the trail. Gray had been a big man, no slouch when it came to physical strength and agility. Zack had to guess that the first blow had come from behind, that Gray had been blindsided. That meant he probably hadn’t been on his horse when he’d been attacked. He’d dismounted to meet somebody? To speak with somebody he’d met on the trail? It had to have been somebody he knew. A man usually didn’t dismount a horse for a stranger. She’d been so warm in his arms. The stray thought sliced through his head as he remembered holding Katie as she’d wept. He thought of that moment on the porch when she’d leaned toward him and he’d had the crazy impulse to kiss her. Partners, indeed. The last thing he needed in his life was a woman. He’d emotionally invested as a teenager and early twenty-year-old in the wrong woman and most recently been involved with a client who had ended up dead. As far as he was concerned, emotional investment in anything or anyone was vastly overrated. The Katie he had always known was nothing more than a big vacuum of emotion and he wasn’t about to get sucked into her by unexpected physical desire or the fact that they both mourned the same man. He was still awake around midnight when the men came in from town. He feigned sleep and listened to them stumbling around, talking in half-drunk whispers as they fell into bed. Within minutes the room was once again silent. Was one of these men a murderer? Had one of them met Gray on the trail that early sunny morning and killed him? At the moment Zack had no clue, not even the faintest inclination as to who might be responsible. * * * He awoke suddenly, his heart pounding, and for a moment disoriented as to where he was. He sat up and full consciousness gripped him. He had no idea if he’d been asleep for five minutes or fifty. The nightmare. That’s what had awakened him. The nightmare about Melissa’s death. Certainly it wasn’t an unusual occurrence. In the past month, nightmares about his client’s death had haunted him regularly. Knowing from experience that sleep wouldn’t come easily again, he slid out of bed and pulled on his jeans and boots. He moved quietly, not wanting to awaken any of the other men, and slipped out of the bunkhouse door and into the darkness of the night. He leaned against the bunkhouse and for a moment wished he had a cigarette. Even though he’d quit smoking more than a year before there were still times, especially lately, that he thought about a calming lungful of smoke. Fortunately, the impulse never lasted long. Melissa. He hadn’t been in love with her, but he’d loved her. He’d been hired to keep her safe from an abusive, soon-to-be ex-husband and in the couple of months he’d spent with her he’d come to respect and admire her strength and indomitable spirit. When she’d told him she didn’t need his services anymore, when she’d released him from her employment, his instincts had told him the danger still existed. But he’d ignored his instincts and now she was dead. The nightmare that haunted him was always the same. Even though when Melissa had been killed by her ex-husband Zack had been a hundred miles away, he dreamed of that moment of her death. In his dream, she stepped out of her car and waved to him, her face radiating the warm smile of a close friend. Clad in a white sundress, she looked cool and confident, stronger than he’d ever seen her in the time they’d shared together. As she started walking toward him, a shot rang in the air and the front of her white dress blossomed with scarlet as she crumpled to the ground. That was always when Zack awakened. He should have followed his instincts. He should have insisted that he remain as her employee for another day, another week, another month. His instincts were silent now, as if killed by the tragedy of Melissa’s senseless death. When he’d first heard about Gray’s death he should have known something wasn’t quite right, but the instincts he’d relied on so much in his line of work were quiet. Maybe what had awakened him hadn’t been nightmares at all, but rather dreams of Katie. Nothing had surprised him more than his physical response to her. It was more than the fact that he hadn’t been with a woman for nearly a year. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that he wasn’t the only one who felt the magnetic pull of physical attraction. Katie felt it, as well. He’d seen it in her eyes as they’d stood so close together on the porch. He’d felt it simmering between them every moment they spent in each other’s company. Hell of a thing. The world had gone half mad. He turned to go back inside to bed, but hesitated as something caught his attention. A flicker of light that didn’t belong on the side of the dark house. It was there only a moment, then gone. He continued to stare, a surge of adrenaline filling his veins. There…again a flicker. As he stood trying to discern what it was, a lick of flame shot upward and he knew. Fire! His brain screamed it before his mouth could form the word. He remained frozen for only a millisecond, then threw open the door to the bunkhouse. “Fire,” he said. “The main house is on fire.” He didn’t wait to see how fast the men would respond. With his heart pounding frantically, he turned and ran for the house, knowing that the area where he’d seen the flames was where Katie’s bedroom was located. * * * Hot. She was hot and she knew it was all Zack West’s fault. If his eyes weren’t such a beautiful green, if his mouth wasn’t so sensual, then she wouldn’t be hot and bothered by him at all. The heat he generated in her wasn’t just a mental thing, but a physical thing, as well. Her body was slick with perspiration. Her hair clung to her neck in damp tendrils as she moved her hands down his sweaty, muscled chest. Hot. Too hot. What had begun as sensual pleasure had become something uncomfortable, almost painful. She twisted away from him, needing some air, needing to cool off before she internally combusted. In that instant she surfaced from the dream to find herself alone in her bed. Although she left her dreams behind, it took several moments for her brain to completely clear. She remained still, eyes closed, and wondered if perhaps she’d somehow nudged the thermostat into a heat mode instead of cool. As full consciousness struck, she smelled smoke in the air, heard a strange, faint crackling that snapped her eyes open. Instantly she squeezed her eyes tightly closed as acrid smoke made them water. Smoke? Why was the bedroom filled with smoke? Smoke. Heat. Fire! She sat up, her frantic gaze instantly captured by the deadly flames dancing across the pane of her bedroom window. Before she could move, the window shattered and flames shot inside. With a scream she leaped out of bed. Her thoughts scrambled, heart hammering in terror as she raced toward the bedroom door. What was happening? How had the house started on fire? She hesitated only the duration of a heartbeat before touching the bedroom door, hoping, praying, that the fire was only on the outside of the house and not racing throughout. The wood was warm, but not hot. She gasped in relief as she touched the doorknob and found it cool to her fingers. Apparently the fire wasn’t in the main section of the house but rather confined to the outer wall of her bedroom area. With a whoosh, the curtains in the bedroom went up in flames and with another scream Kate grabbed the knob and pulled on the door. It didn’t budge. The heat had become unbearable and in the light provided by the fire she could see the smoke that billowed in the room, stinging her eyes and stealing her breath. Out. She had to get out! Why wouldn’t the door open? She grabbed the knob with both hands and pulled as hard as she could, but the door refused to open. Frantic voices drifted in through the window above the roar of the flames. Zack. She heard his deep voice barking orders, and even though she should have been comforted by the fact that her men had abandoned their beds to fight the flames, she knew she’d die in this room before they got the fire extinguished. “Zack!” She moved as close to the window as possible and yelled his name over and over again. A spasm of coughing momentarily overwhelmed her and she fell to her knees. “Katie!” Zack’s voice penetrated her smoke-filled head and she saw his face outside the busted window. “Get out!” he cried. “Get out of there.” “I can’t,” she replied. Her voice sounded no louder than a whisper as once again a fit of coughing gripped her. “The door is jammed or something.” Tears streamed down her face and she felt as if she were being boiled alive. She was going to die. While her men sprayed water on the house to fight the fire, she was going to die in here from the smoke. Low. She needed to get low. She dropped to her knees. The smoke wouldn’t be as thick near the floor. How had this happened? Had she fallen asleep without blowing out one of the candles she loved to burn in the evenings? But that didn’t make sense. The fire was on the outside coming in, not on the inside burning out. What difference did it make now? She couldn’t breathe…there was nothing but smoke…nothing but darkness. Her bedroom door exploded inward and with a grateful sob she saw Zack. His face was grim as he swept her up into his arms and carried her out of the room. She wound her arms around his neck and buried her face against his hot, bare chest. Tears streamed down her cheeks, tears from the smoke along with ones of relief. When he left the house and stepped out onto the porch, she lifted her head and dragged in deep cleansing breaths of the cool night air. He laid her on the cool grass. “Are you all right?” he asked. She nodded, once again coughing as her lungs cleared of the noxious smoke. “I want you to get in my truck and lock the doors.” She frowned, wondering if the smoke had somehow addled her brain. Why would he tell her to lock herself in his truck? “Katie, don’t ask questions. I’ll explain later.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her up to her feet. “Go. Lock the doors and don’t open them for anyone except me.” Too weak to protest, too confused to even try to make sense of anything, she obeyed. He watched until she was in the passenger seat of his truck and locked inside, then he disappeared around the corner of the house where the fire still burned. Kate leaned her head back against the seat and closed her stinging, watering eyes. What had just happened? She couldn’t make sense of it. She felt as if she were still asleep and all of this was just a horrible dream. Why hadn’t she been able to get out of her room? She opened her eyes and saw Jake approaching the truck. He, too, was covered with soot, his handsome features tight with concern. With Zack’s words ringing in her ears, she cracked the window down only an inch. “Are you all right?” he asked. “God, Kate. I’ve never been so frightened for you.” “I’m fine, just shaken.” It felt ridiculous to be speaking to him through the small crack in the window and again she wondered what had prompted Zack to tell her to lock herself into his truck. “Can you tell what happened?” Jake shrugged. “All I know is that it looks like you lost part of your bedroom.” He pointed toward the side of the house. “I’d better get back to help. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.” She nodded and he hurried away, disappearing into the darkness that now hung over the landscape. She wanted to see the damage. She wanted to know what was going on. Her impulse was to get out of the truck. This was her ranch and she should know what was happening. What stopped her was the grim glint that had darkened Zack’s eyes as he’d ordered her into the truck. Once again she leaned her head back and closed her eyes as the cool night air caressed her from the slightly open window. She suddenly remembered what she’d been dreaming before she’d awakened. Her dreams had been filled with Zack. She’d dreamed of his arms around her, his lips taking full and utter possession of hers. She’d imagined running her hands over his hot, smoothly muscled chest and wanting him to make love to her. She jumped as a knock fell on the driver window. She leaned over and unlocked the door for Zack. He slid into the seat, bringing with him the smell of wildness, of the remnants of an inferno. For a moment, neither of them spoke. She felt his exhaustion and something deeper, darker, that she wasn’t at all sure she wanted to explore. “We got it out,” he finally said. “The outer wall of your bedroom will need to be replaced. I don’t know how much smoke damage is inside the house. I would guess your room is pretty well trashed between the smoke and water.” She fought a weary sigh. “I’ve never heard anyone say that ranch life isn’t filled with challenges.” He stared at her for a long moment, as if she’d somehow surprised him. “What were you expecting? Tears and feet-stomping?” “It wouldn’t be completely out of character,” he observed. She refused to rise to his bait. “So, could you tell what happened? How the fire started?” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “I’m taking you to my place for the night.” She sat straighter in the seat. “I can’t leave,” she protested. “You can’t stay, at least not for the rest of the night.” He placed the key in the ignition and started the engine. “I already told Sonny I’d make arrangements for you for tonight and he’s posting a guard so nobody will go into the house through the damaged area.” “Zack, I can’t leave my home.” “You can for tonight.” His voice held a firmness that brooked no argument. He put the truck in gear and pulled away. Kate frowned, a flutter of worry coursing through her. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” “I’ll tell you this, I believe you about the stampede.” Of all the things she’d expected him to say, this hadn’t been one of them. “How did we get from here to there?” she asked as they drove through the Bent Tree Ranch gates. “I believe that it’s possible somebody intentionally spooked your herd in an effort to hurt you because of what I found when I broke down your front door to get you out of that burning bedroom.” “What did you find?” Her heart began to hammer an unnatural rhythm. “Somebody had tied a rope from your doorknob to the bathroom doorknob, making certain you wouldn’t be able to get out of that room.” He cast her a quick glance, his eyes glittering in the light from the dashboard. “Somebody tried to kill you tonight, Katie.” Chapter 6 Zack tightened his fingers on the steering wheel as he thought of the rope he’d found, the rope that had made it impossible for Katie to escape the inferno of her bedroom. It had been a devious mechanism for death. He felt her gaze on him, stunned and with more than a touch of fear. He glanced at her, noting her widened electric-blue eyes, the paleness of her skin beneath the thick layer of soot. “The way I see it, the plan was that you would probably be overcome by smoke, the fire would overwhelm the house and that rope would have eventually burned away, leaving no trace of its existence.” “Who spotted the fire?” she asked. Her voice held the slightest tremble. “I did. I couldn’t sleep so I stepped outside the bunkhouse and just happened to glance toward the main house. That’s when I saw the flames and sounded the alarm.” “So, if you’d gotten a good night’s sleep you probably would have found me dead in the morning.” His hands once again tightened on the steering wheel. “It would seem that was the intent.” She leaned back against the seat and released a weary sigh. “Any suspicions on who might have set the fire?” He turned down the narrow road that led to the West property, wishing he had a different answer for her than the one he had. “None. When I woke up I just assumed all the men in the bunkhouse were sleeping, but appearances can be deceiving.” “So it might or might not have been one of the men in the bunkhouse.” Her voice was as weary as he’d ever heard it. “Katie, we’re not going to figure this out tonight. I’ll call Ramsey, but it’s too dark for anything to be done tonight. Let’s just get to my place, shower off the soot and smoke and get a few hours of sleep.” He felt her gaze on him and turned to meet it. “What?” “I don’t even know where your place is. Do you live with your father and Smokey?” “No, I live in a two-bedroom house that was originally built for the ranch manager. It’s small, nothing fancy, but it’s my space and gives me my privacy.” They didn’t speak again as he pulled through the gates of the West ranch and he drove past the large, sprawling ranch house. “What’s that?” she asked as his headlights fell on a smaller house that was in the building process. “That’s Tanner’s place. It burned down several weeks ago. While he’s on his honeymoon, he’s got a crew of men working to rebuild it.” “Yes I heard about that. Are fires a normal occurrence in the lives of the West men?” she asked dryly. He offered her a tight grin. “I’d say it’s less about the West men and more about the women they choose to hang out with.” He wondered how long she could maintain her calm, her seemingly nonchalant attitude in the face of her own attempted murder. He had a feeling she was suffering some sort of shock. No lights shone from the small, two-bedroom cabin Zack called home. As he pulled up front he recognized that over the past couple of hours his mind had gone from unwilling investigator to determined bodyguard. His head clicked and whirled with suppositions and possibilities as he parked and shut off the engine. “I want you to wait here while I check things out inside,” he said. By moonlight he once again saw her eyes widen. “Surely you can’t believe somebody might be inside waiting for us.” “If I’m to believe what you told me about the stampede and with what happened tonight at your place, I’d be a fool not to consider any and all possibilities. I’ll check things out, then we’ll get settled inside.” Armed with a heavy-duty flashlight that he pulled from beneath his seat, he left her locked in the truck. As he approached his front door he cursed the fact that he didn’t have his gun by his side, but rather had left it in the storage trunk at the foot of his bed in Katie’s bunkhouse. When he’d seen the flames of the fire, his gun had been the last thing on his mind. All he’d thought about was getting to the house and getting her out of danger. He had another gun inside and vowed that from now on he would go nowhere without a weapon. Using the powerful beam from the flashlight, he checked around the front door, making sure nothing appeared out of place or that the lock didn’t appear tampered with. He recognized that he was being overly cautious. Nobody could have known that he’d spirit Katie away to his place for the night, but he’d rather err on the side of caution just to be safe. He unlocked the door and carefully eased it open, all senses on alert. He flipped on the light switch that illuminated the living room. Before going further into the house he went to the small desk, opened the bottom drawer and withdrew the 9 mm. Armed with the gun, he set aside the flashlight and systematically checked the remainder of the two-bedroom cabin. It took only minutes for him to clear the cabin and to feel secure that nobody had been inside since he’d last been here. He returned to the truck and opened the driver’s door. “It’s okay. You can come on in.” She got out of the truck and he followed her across the short expanse of grass and through the front door. It was at that moment he realized what she wore. The silky, short, pink nightgown was smoke-blackened, but clung to her curves and exposed nearly the full length of her long, shapely legs. For just a brief moment as he walked behind her and took in the figure beneath the skimpy gown, he felt as if he’d plunged back into the flames that had engulfed the side of the house. The minute they were inside he closed and locked the door. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and stood in the center of the room as if shell-shocked. “Why don’t I get you some clean clothes and you can get into the shower? Then you can catch a couple hours of sleep before you have to deal with anything else.” He needed her to get out of that gown and into something, anything, less revealing. He had a feeling that if she stood just right in the light he’d be able to see right through the gauzy material. She nodded and he went into his bedroom and found her a black T-shirt and a pair of boxers. From the hall linen closet he grabbed a clean towel and washcloth, then returned to the living room to find that she hadn’t moved. Accepting the things he handed her, her eyes flickered with a whisper of anger. “If I wasn’t so exhausted, I’d be pissed off about all this.” He smiled, oddly relieved to hear those words. He’d rather her show a little spirit than be beaten into the ground. “Go take your shower. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to be pissed off.” As she disappeared into the bathroom, he breathed a sigh of relief and forced a mental image of her out of his mind. He had more important things to think about. He went into the spare room to make sure it was ready for her. There wasn’t much to get ready. He hadn’t lied when he’d told her there was nothing fancy here. While he’d been working for the family business, he’d spent little time here. The house was functional, but Spartan. The spare room held only a chest of drawers and a single-size bed. He knew the sheets on the bed were clean and was more interested in checking to make sure the window was locked and secure. He left the room and went to the linen closet to grab a towel. He’d shower later, when she was asleep, but he wanted to wash off the worst of the soot and grime. As he stood at the kitchen sink, using hot water and dish soap to scrub himself, his mind worked to make sense of what had happened. Somebody had tied Katie into her bedroom then had set a fire outside her bedroom window. He replayed in his brain those moments when he’d first awakened from his nightmare and had stumbled toward the door to get out of the bunkhouse. He’d told her that when he’d left the bunkhouse he’d assumed the men were sleeping, but the truth was, he wasn’t sure of that at all. He hadn’t paid any attention to the other men in their beds. For all he knew those beds could have been empty. It had been dark and he’d been half asleep. He couldn’t swear that all the men had been where they were supposed to be…in bed. Not only did he have those men to worry about, he also needed to find out who else worked for Katie who lived in town. It would have been relatively easy for somebody to park their car some distance away and carry a can of gasoline and a length of rope for their mission of death. How had the person gotten into the house? Had Katie neglected to lock the doors? Had an unlocked window been an open invitation? How many people had keys to the Sampson house? So many questions and no answers to speak of. Good, that gave him time to call Ramsey. It took him only minutes to speak with the sheriff, who assured him that the police would begin an investigation first thing in the morning. He finished cleaning up, then went into the living room. The sounds of the shower let him know it would still be a few minutes before Katie came out of the bathroom. He sat on the edge of the sofa. He would sleep here for the remainder of the night, where he could hear if anyone tried to come in through the front door or the back door in the kitchen. Leaning back, he raked a hand through his hair and released a long, deep sigh. He’d vowed to himself he’d never do this again, that he’d never put himself into a position to be responsible for the safety of another human being. And now he found himself in the very position he’d vowed never to be in again. But he couldn’t walk away now. Even though there had been countless times in the past he’d personally wanted to throttle Katie Sampson, there was no way he could walk away from her and leave her alone and vulnerable for a killer. * * * Kate dried off and pulled the clean T-shirt on over her head, her mind curiously numb. The shirt hit her midthigh and swallowed up the shorts Zack had given her, making it appear she was clad only in the shirt. She wadded the ruined nightgown into a ball and threw it into the trash can next to the sink. She found a comb in one of the vanity drawers and pulled it through her shoulder-length hair and it was only then that she realized how badly her hands trembled. She set the comb aside and sat on the edge of the tub, her stomach rolling with nausea as the enormity of what had just happened struck her. The stampede had scared her, but if she were perfectly honest with herself she had to admit that she’d entertained just a tiny bit of doubt about what, exactly, had spooked the herd. She’d believed she’d heard an air horn or something like that just before the stampede, but there had been a little part of her that had acknowledged that it might have been nothing more than a strange clap of thunder. There was no way she could make what just had happened a strange quirk of nature. Somebody had tried to kill her. Just as somebody had already killed her father. A chill raked up her spine, a chill she worried would never go away. The idea that somebody had tied her into a burning bedroom terrified her. Who would do such a thing? Who could hate her enough to want her dead? She rose to her feet. The cold grip of fear certainly wasn’t going to go away sitting here alone in Zack’s bathroom. As she entered the living room and he stood from the sofa, it was obvious he’d done some cleaning up of his own. His face and torso were clean and his hair damp. “You can sleep in my spare room and I’ll bunk here on the sofa for the night,” he said. His eyes slid down the length of her and a muscle ticked in his jaw. “The sooner you get some sleep, the better we can deal with all this in the morning.” “I don’t even know where to start dealing with all this,” she replied. “But I’ll tell you one thing, nobody is going to force me to stay away from the ranch. I’m here tonight because it’s the smart thing to do, but tomorrow morning I intend to be back home where I belong.” “We need to take things one at a time. First thing in the morning we’ll deal with the problem of making your place secure. Until that’s done, you aren’t staying there.” There was a note of finality in his voice that made her want to kick and protest. She felt as if she controlled nothing at the moment and the feeling was frustrating. “I’d like to tell you that I intend to stay at my place whether it’s secure or not. Emotionally I don’t like that I feel as if you’re making that decision for me, but intellectually, I know you’re right. I can’t stay there unless the damage to the wall in my room is repaired so nobody can just waltz into the house from outside.” “Thank you for seeing things my way.” She offered him a small smile. “I’m only seeing things your way because at the moment it’s the right way.” “Let’s get some sleep,” he said. She followed him into a small bedroom and once again the icy hand of fear seemed to curl and squeeze around her heart. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but the bed is good and firm and you’ll be safe for the night.” He started out of the room but stopped as she called his name. For just a moment she didn’t know what to say to him. She refused to tell him just how frightened she really was, didn’t want him to know the depth of the despair that gripped her at the moment. “I know we’ve butted heads in the past, but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad I’m not facing this all alone,” she finally said. “Sleep with the door open,” he said, then turned and left the room. Sleep with the door open? She’d like to sleep in his arms! Not because he was Zack, but rather because she felt so unsafe, so utterly alone. Foolish woman, she thought as she pulled down the navy cord bedspread, then shut off the light in the room. Tomorrow when she got back to her place she’d get out her dad’s gun and strap it to her side. She didn’t need a man’s arms around her, especially Zack’s. All she needed was the comfort of a Smith & Wesson. * * * She’d expected to have problems falling asleep, but she awoke with the first stir of dawn lighting the sky. For a long moment she remained unmoving, playing and replaying the last two weeks of her life in her mind. She’d thought the bottom had dropped out when her father had died. She’d believed nothing could get worse. She’d been wrong. The night replayed in all its horror…the smoke, the flames and the moment when she’d felt sure death was a heartbeat away. If Zack hadn’t noticed the fire and hadn’t been able to break down her door, she wouldn’t be here now. The scent of freshly brewed coffee filtered in through the open door of her room, letting her know that Zack was already up and around. She got out of bed, finger-combed her hair and pulled on the shorts she’d kicked off before climbing beneath the sheets the night before. It took her only a moment to make the bed, then she left the room. Zack sat at the small kitchen table, facing the direction of the living room. He raised a hand at the sight of her. She returned the gesture and beelined into the bathroom. She wished she had a toothbrush, a hairbrush, her own clothes. But she used her finger to brush her teeth, Zack’s comb to untangle her sleep-tousled hair, then left the bathroom in search of a cup of the coffee. “Morning,” she said to Zack as she entered his small kitchen area and spied the coffeemaker on the countertop. She poured herself a cup, then joined him at the table. Clad in a clean white T-shirt and a pair of jeans, he smelled of minty soap and shaving cream. He might look rested, but he still had a grim expression on his face. “Did you get some sleep?” she asked. “Some…enough,” he replied. “It’s going to be a long day.” “I have a feeling it’s going to be the first of many long days,” she replied. They sipped their coffee in silence, as if each mentally prepared themselves for what lie ahead. Kate’s thoughts were purely practical ones as she wondered how much work it would entail to fix the damage from the fire so she could stay at her house tonight. First the dead cattle and broken fencing and now this, additional expenses she hadn’t planned. If these kinds of things continued, how long could she survive? She wasn’t made of money. She shoved these disturbing thoughts aside. She refused to be displaced from her father’s home, from her own home. Her father would never want her to turn tail and run away from any conflict or danger. But he’d also want her to be smart. “As soon as you’re finished with your coffee, we’ll head up to the main house and give that file to Dalton,” he said, breaking the silence. “I’ll call Jim Ramsey from there to check in. My sister should have a pair of shoes you can borrow until we get back to your place.” She downed the last of her coffee and stood. “I’m ready when you are. I’m eager to get back to the ranch and get things going on fixing up the damage.” He stood, as well. “Before we go anywhere I need to get you something else to wear.” The muscle that had ticked in his jaw the night before was back. “What’s wrong with what I’ve got on?” Shorts and a T-shirt were not uncommon attire for her. The muscle ticked faster. “The shorts are too short. It looks like you don’t have anything but legs beneath that shirt.” Before she could reply, he disappeared into his bedroom and returned with a pair of sweatpants. “Put these on, then we’ll go.” Kate returned to the bedroom where she’d slept and took off the shorts and pulled on the sweatpants, her heart hammering rapidly, not in the rhythm of fear, but rather in the beat of something entirely different. There had been just a moment as he’d handed her the pants that she’d seen something burning in his eyes, something she’d never expected to see from Zack West. Desire. She’d thought she’d seen it in the depths of his eyes last night just before he’d left her porch, but she’d dismissed it. She’d assumed the crackling electricity between them had something to do with the negativity of their past relationship, but now she recognized what she’d been feeling for him was desire. And apparently he felt it, too. She had little time to digest this novel idea. She had a sheriff to talk to, a house to rebuild and a killer to catch. Zack was obviously ready to get the day under way for he stood at the front door, jingling the keys in his hand. They drove toward the main house. The West residence was a huge, rambling ranch that made Kate’s house look quaint. Of course, it had only been Kate and her father living at Bent Tree Ranch, while the West place had been home to Zack, his father, Smokey, Zack’s four brothers and his sister. A stab of ancient resentment stirred inside her and she consciously tamped it down, knowing the worst thing she could do was allow it to take hold. They pulled up and immediately the front door opened and Smokey Johnson and Red West stepped out onto the front porch. Red was a big man, with the same broad shoulders as his sons and an easy warmth that made people immediately trust him. Smokey was shorter, with gray hair and bushy eyebrows pulled together in a perpetual frown. Kate wasn’t put off by the frown. She knew Smokey possessed a heart of gold beneath his gruff exterior. Red embraced Kate in a quick hug, then looked at his son with open curiosity. “Awful early for a visit. Let’s head inside and you can tell me what’s going on.” Minutes later they were seated at the kitchen table being served coffee by Smokey. Kate knew that years ago Smokey had worked as ranch manager for Red, but a fall from a horse had left him with a limp and a new job helping to raise Red’s kids. Zack had just begun to fill them in on what was going on when Dalton entered the kitchen. Two years older than Zack’s thirty-one years, Dalton shared the West green eyes and dark hair, but his features were softer, less sculptured than Zack’s. Dalton took the file folder Zack had carried in with him and agreed to get to work right away on the background checks, then Zack excused himself to go into the office to make a call to Sheriff Ramsey and get Katie a pair of shoes. “Hell of a thing,” Red said when Zack had left the room. “We’re losing the good men and women of Cotter Creek right and left, first Joe Wainfield in that terrible tractor accident, then your father and now this… somebody trying to hurt you.” “If anyone can figure out who’s behind this, it’s Zack,” Smokey said, his affection for Zack apparent in his gruff voice. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders.” “Anything you need, Kate, anything we can do, you just let us know,” Red added. “We’re always here for Zack and we’re here for you, too.” Her heart filled with a combination of gratitude tempered by a renewed flare of old resentment. The love and support Zack received from his family was evident on their faces, in their words, in the very air of the room. So why hadn’t that been enough for him? Why had he felt the need to steal her father’s love and respect from her? Chapter 7 By the time Katie and Zack returned to her ranch the sheriff and the fire chief were waiting for them. “We’ve already questioned the ranch hands who are here,” Sheriff Ramsey said. “Unfortunately nobody saw or heard anything. It’s also going to be tough to check alibis. Most of the men will tell me they were in bed at the time the fire began.” “There’s no question arson was involved,” Chief Buddy Norval said. “From the fire pattern it’s easy to see that the fire was set directly beneath the bedroom window.” He looked at Kate. “You were lucky, little lady, that your men saw the fire and came to the rescue.” “There will be a full investigation,” Jim promised as he got into his patrol car. He pulled away from the ranch, the fire chief following behind him. “Golly, that was a lot of help,” Katie said dryly. Zack grimaced, knowing that the odds of them discovering the guilty party were negligible. Somebody had almost gotten away with murder the night before. It had only been a stroke of luck that had kept Katie alive. In the early morning light the full extent of the damage was visible, although not as devastating as Zack had feared. The exterior plywood had burned away to reveal the 2x4s beneath, but at least they and the roof had been saved. “Half a day’s work and we’ll have the plywood replaced,” Zack said as they stood side by side surveying the damage. “We’ll just board up the window for the time being. Let’s go inside and take a look at the bedroom.” He followed behind her as they entered the house. She’d been unusually quiet since they’d left his place and he wondered what thoughts whirled around in her head. She continued to surprise him with her composure, her calm in the midst of a storm. She had to be frightened, but she’d displayed little of that emotion. He found himself wondering what life experiences in the past five years had transformed her from the out-of-control wild child into a reasonable, rational woman facing apparent danger with a calm, steely resolve. “Looks like I won’t be sleeping in here anytime soon,” she said as they stepped into her bedroom. The walls were smoke-damaged and the floor and furnishings were wet from the fire-extinguishing water that had been sprayed through the broken window. He watched as she walked to her closet and opened the door. The clothing inside appeared fine, but he knew each article would retain the smoky scent of the fire. “Everything will have to be washed,” she said, as if she’d tapped into his thoughts. She grabbed several pairs of jeans from a shelf, a handful of shirts and two pairs of shoes. “Need some help?” he asked. “No, thanks, I’ll just take what I need for the next couple of days and get a load of laundry started.” Although her voice remained calm, her features radiated the first cracks in her facade. She appeared pale, a small wrinkle danced across her brow and her lips were compressed in a taut line. He followed her from her bedroom into the laundry room just off the kitchen. He watched as she put the first load into the washer and started the machine, then she turned to him, her frown deepening. “Are you going to follow me around like a shadow all day long?” “Depends on where you go and what you intend to do,” he replied. “In case you’ve forgotten, somebody tried to kill you last night.” Her lips thinned as she clenched her jaw for a moment. “I’m not likely to forget anytime soon.” She leaned back against the washing machine, her eyes holding a whisper of haunting. Before he could reply, Jake’s voice called from the front door. “Kate?” Zack stepped aside so she could leave the laundry room, then followed her to the front door. He stood back and watched as Jake took Kate’s hands in his. “Are you all right? I was worried sick about you all night.” The handsome blond cowboy cast a quick glance at Zack, the brief eye contact managing to radiate a wealth of resentment. “I’m fine,” she assured him, and didn’t seem in a hurry to reclaim her hands from his. “The sheriff and Chief Norval said the fire was intentionally set. What’s going on?” Jake asked. “I wish I knew,” Katie replied, and finally withdrew her hands from his. Jake stepped closer to her and Zack felt every muscle in his body tense. He told himself that it was a protective response, that he wanted to make sure Jake did nothing to harm Katie. “What can I do to help, Kate?” he asked. “I’m not talking about feeding cattle and cleaning horse stalls. I’m talking about you personally, what can I do to help you get through this?” Zack wanted to tell him to step back from her and give her a chance to breathe. For crying out loud, the man stood so close to her he had to be stealing all the oxygen in her immediate area. “What I need most from you and the other men is to keep the ranch running smoothly and help get the side of the house repaired before nightfall,” she said. Zack could tell Jake didn’t like her words, would have preferred something more personal from her. Maybe he wanted to rub her feet or stroke her brow, he thought irritably. “Of course.” He finally stepped back from her and Zack relaxed a bit. “And tell Sonny I need to speak with him,” she added. He nodded. “I’ll go find him right away.” “Thanks, Jake.” He flashed her a big grin, shot Zack another quick glance filled with simmering resentment, then left. “That boy has got it bad for you,” Zack observed as she closed the front door. She sighed and worried a hand through her long, shining hair. “Too bad romance is the very last thing on my mind. In fact, I haven’t had time for romance since I left college and came back here.” “What about before then? In college?” He had no idea why he’d asked the questions. It had nothing to do with his job in finding her father’s murderer and keeping her alive. It fell under the heading of useless information he didn’t need to know. “In college I had time for romance,” she answered succinctly, and offered no more details. “So, what’s the plan for the day?” “If you’re going to stay inside and do laundry, then I’ll go outside and help the men with the house. But the rules are that nobody comes inside unless I’m in here, too. No exceptions.” “That’s not a problem. I’m not in the mood for company this morning. In fact, if I thought about it real hard, I could probably work up a case of crankiness.” “Maybe you need a nap,” he offered, although he was feeling a bit cranky himself. “Neither one of us got a good night’s sleep.” A knock on the front door interrupted the conversation. She opened it to Sonny, whose features showed the same worry Jake’s had worn. “I’m ashamed to say I slept through the excitement last night,” he said, a hangdog expression on his face. Kate placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Sonny. All’s well that ends well. The men from the bunkhouse rose to the alarm and thankfully managed to put out the fire before I got cooked.” “Hell of a thing,” Sonny said, and shook his head. “The sheriff and Chief Norval spoke to all the men about the fire,” he said. “I just want you to know that I can’t imagine one of my men being responsible for something like that.” “I know. I don’t want to think that one of our men could be responsible,” Katie replied. As the two spoke about what needed to be done for the day, Zack watched the old man carefully, knowing that from this moment on every single person in Katie’s life was a potential suspect. Still, it was difficult to think of Sonny as a viable suspect. The man had worked for Gray for years, had been a trusted right-hand man to Katie’s father. That didn’t let him off the hook entirely, but as far as Zack was concerned, there were others of more interest. He thought about Jake. It was obvious the man desperately wanted a relationship with Katie. Was it possible the handsome face hid a devious mind? Was it possible he’d killed Gray to get closer to Katie? Then had set the fire and planned to be the hero? As Zack remembered the night’s events, Jake had been only a step behind him in getting through the front door and into Katie’s bedroom. Was it possible Brett Cook, who had been fired and rehired by Gray more than once, harbored such a hatred for his boss that killing him hadn’t been enough? His hatred demanded more…the death of Gray’s daughter? Zack had nothing but speculation and even he recognized that this kind of speculation was wild and that he was reaching for answers. The truth of the matter was, he didn’t have enough information on which to base any speculation. When Sonny and Katie had concluded their conversation, Sonny left and Zack was once again alone with her. “I want you to lock the front door and don’t let anyone inside. I’ll work on the house and keep an eye on the men. Later this afternoon we’ll figure out where we go from here.” He left her inside and went out to join the men. Besides the cowboys who had been his bunk mates for part of the night, there were others, as well. Sonny introduced him to the five men who lived in town but worked the ranch each day. As Zack took stock of each of them he thought how much easier life would be if the homicidal tendencies in some men’s hearts shone visibly from their eyes. Unfortunately, killers rarely wore their mask of evil on the outside. The work on the house went on through the morning. Zack worked beside the others, not talking but listening to the conversations swirling around him. Later he would make notes of his impressions of each of the men who worked for Katie. Zack had worked as a professional bodyguard for the family business since the time he was twenty-one years old. He knew through experience that much of the personal protection business wasn’t just about muscle and guns, but rather crawling into the mind of a suspect and keeping logs and notes about those who might be potential suspects. He welcomed the physical labor that made it difficult to think about Katie in that skimpy nightgown, Katie in his T-shirt, Katie in his arms. His sleep the night before had been almost nonexistent as he lay on the sofa with thoughts of Katie filling his head. At noon Doc Edward’s lumbering van pulled up. The middle-aged veterinarian greeted all the men like old friends. “Zack, I heard through the grapevine that you’d taken up ranch work,” he said. Zack nodded. “Got tired of the family business and all the traveling I was having to do for that job.” He was aware of Jake standing nearby, eavesdropping on the conversation. “I got a hankering for the smell of hay and the feel of a few calluses on my palms.” Mark Edwards smiled. “Nothing like a little physical labor and ranch life to set a man’s world right.” He looked at the new plywood on the side of the house. “What’s all this?” “Had a little trouble last night. Seems we’ve got a firebug in the area.” Edwards frowned. “Kate okay?” “She’s fine,” he replied. A small smile curved the vet’s lips. “I’ll bet she’s madder than a wet hen. Kate’s never been one to let somebody step on her toes without stepping back. I know that from the town council meetings.” Anything else he might have said was cut short by Sonny, who motioned toward him. “Well, I’d better get to work. It will take most of the afternoon to tag the cattle.” As Zack got back to work with the rest of the men, Mark’s words played and replayed in his head. Obviously the temper he remembered Katie possessing was still there, she just hadn’t displayed it to him yet. But apparently she’d displayed it to others. Now all he had to figure out was if Gray had died because he had made somebody mad at him or if perhaps he’d died because Katie had made somebody mad as hell at her. * * * Kate sat at the kitchen table, listening to the washing machine agitate, her thoughts doing the same thing. She wanted to be outside, watching the cattle being tagged, overseeing the day’s activities and interacting with the men. But she knew she’d be too stupid to live if she just arbitrarily decided to go about her business as usual knowing that somebody had tried to kill her the night before. So she had to be content following Zack’s rules, remaining in the house alone while life went on as usual around her. She spent the morning doing loads of laundry. While the washing machine washed and the dryer dried, she sat at the kitchen table making a list of things she wanted to do when life returned to normal. Mostly it was a list of chores, things that had needed to be done for the past several years but had never been accomplished. The spare bedroom needed to be repainted, the root cellar on the side of the house needed to be cleaned out and she needed to pack up her father’s clothing and donate it to one of the charities in town. Her heart ached as she thought of this particular task. It would be the final goodbye to the father she had never really felt had given her the respect she’d hungered for, the unconditional love she’d sought from him all her life. By noon she had changed out of the clothes she’d borrowed from Zack and into one of the newly washed sundresses that had been hanging in her closet. As she sipped a glass of iced tea she thought about what Zack had said about Jake. Even though she had feigned ignorance of Jake’s obvious interest in her, she’d been aware of the cowboy’s subtle overtures of romance. Jake was handsome and nice and most any girl would probably be pleased to catch his eye, but Kate wasn’t any girl. There was no electricity when Jake gazed at her, no tingles of pleasure or excitement when he touched her. There was no breathless anticipation when he came near. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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