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Snowbound with the Bodyguard & The Cowboy's Secret Twins: Snowbound with the Bodyguard / The Cowboy's Secret Twins

Snowbound with the Bodyguard & The Cowboy's Secret Twins: Snowbound with the Bodyguard / The Cowboy's Secret Twins
Snowbound with the Bodyguard & The Cowboy's Secret Twins: Snowbound with the Bodyguard / The Cowboy's Secret Twins Carla Cassidy Two fan-favorite stories of romance and suspense from New York Times bestselling author Carla Cassidy! Snowbound with the Bodyguard Dalton West has no time for love and family. But protecting is in his blood. When Janette Black and her baby show up in the midst of a snowstorm, Dalton can tell she has plenty to hide. Still, he takes the pair in to wait out the storm, and bars the door from any danger. But that danger shows up sooner than they expect. The Cowboy's Secret Twins One cold December night, Henry James Randolf III wanted to escape, and ended up with the sexy Melissa Monroe in his arms. Now, a year later, she shows up at his Texas ranch with adorable twin boys. Was their night of passion a premeditated snare, or a Christmas surprise? But when shots ring out, his instincts take over. He'll stop at nothing to keep Melissa and the boys safe. Praise for New York Times bestselling author Carla Cassidy “The strong hero in Jimmy and the snappy dialogue between him and Sheri draw the reader into the story. The sweet chemistry between them, along with Cassidy’s expert storytelling and engaging plot, keeps the pages turning.” —RT Book Reviews on Lone Wolf Standing “Cassidy creates strong conflict and tension. An intricate plot, sympathetic characters and hot chemistry between Debra and Trey make this a great read.” —RT Book Reviews on Her Secret, His Duty “Cassidy just keeps getting better.” —RT Book Reviews “Carla Cassidy has done a good job of portraying the fragility but resilience of the survivor and the detailed work of investigation…Crime fans will get hold of Deadman’s Bluff and be determined to solve the mystery by themselves.” —Fresh Fiction “A terrific, enthralling addition to [Cassidy’s] Cowboy Café series.” —Goodreads on Cowboy with a Cause Snowbound with the Bodyguard & The Cowboy’s Secret Twins Carla Cassidy www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) CONTENTS SNOWBOUND WITH THE BODYGUARD (#u50244bb1-b74d-54eb-9e1c-a36c6c3d8c08) THE COWBOY’S SECRET TWINS (#litres_trial_promo) Snowbound with the Bodyguard Carla Cassidy Contents Prologue (#u6bdfa7f8-a4f0-5c56-8546-45b406ccbf9f) Chapter 1 (#ub28b6c6e-a3ea-5f1c-9417-15053a69dbc8) Chapter 2 (#u4451554c-435a-506a-935c-a37139b731d9) Chapter 3 (#u6b3596bc-9b73-5a26-91b1-914aa8db98b2) Chapter 4 (#u010e6b10-dd37-5e26-a2e4-01845c01245f) Chapter 5 (#u46e5a50d-3333-5fce-b3d2-c697ddcc30a7) Chapter 6 (#ua2b12117-c605-56f8-b821-e57e784650d8) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) 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) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Prologue “Order up.” Smiley Smith, owner and short-order cook at Smiley’s Café, banged the small bell on the counter to punctuate his words. Janette Black wiped her hands on her cheerful red-and-white apron, then walked over to retrieve the Thursday special. She grabbed the plate and served it to the man seated at the long counter. “Here you go, Walter.” She smiled at the old man who came in every Thursday afternoon regular as clockwork for Smiley’s meatloaf. “Thank you, honey. Can I bother you for another cup of coffee?” Walter offered her a sweet smile. “For you, Walter, it’s no bother.” She turned around and went to get the coffeepot, grateful that the lunch rush was over and she only had two more hours in her shift. Then she could go home and snuggle her little boy and visit with Nana until it was time for her to be back here first thing in the morning. “How’s that grandmother of yours?” Walter asked as she poured his coffee. Janette’s heart warmed at thoughts of her grandmother. “She’s okay. We have her heart condition under control. She tires easily, but she’s doing just fine.” Walter laughed. “She’s a corker, that one. It will take more than a couple of strokes to keep her down.” As Janette began to wipe down the countertop, she smiled. Her grandmother wasn’t just a corker, she was the woman who had raised Janette from the time she was three and the woman who was now helping Janette raise her little boy. Nana’s last stroke had been nearly a year ago, but she had astounded the doctors with her recovery. Janette was just giving the shiny surface a final swipe when the tinkle of the bell over the front door indicated another diner arriving. She looked up and her blood froze. There were three of them, all wearing the khaki uniforms of law enforcement. Sheriff Brandon Sinclair led the way, swaggering in followed by two of his trusted deputies. There were only two cafés in Sandstone, Oklahoma, and she’d chosen to work at Smiley’s because the other place, Lacy’s, was where Sinclair and his men usually ate their lunch. Sheriff Sinclair surveyed the café like a king overseeing his domain, his ice-blue eyes narrowing just a touch as his gaze landed on Janette. Take a table, she mentally begged. If they sat at the table, then Heidi, Janette’s coworker, would wait on them. Janette had spent the past year of her life doing everything possible to avoid contact with the sheriff. As he and his deputies headed toward the counter, her stomach bucked with a touch of nausea and her heart began to beat the rhythm of panic. She couldn’t lose it. Not here. Not now. She refused to let him know how he affected her, knowing that he would relish her fear. He’s just another customer, she told herself as the three seated themselves at the counter. “Can I take your orders?” she asked, surprised to hear her voice cool and collected despite all the emotions that quivered inside her. “Coffee,” Sinclair said. “What kind of pie is good today?” “Apple,” Janette replied tersely, then added, “the apple is always good.” “Then let’s make it coffee and pie for all of us,” Sinclair said. Janette nodded and turned to get the coffeepot. She could do this. As long as she didn’t look at him too long, as long as she didn’t get close enough to smell his cologne. She had a feeling if she got a whiff of that cheap, cloying smell she might vomit. She filled their cups, trying to ignore the way Sinclair’s eyes lingered on her breasts. Her throat tightened and her heart banged harder against her ribs. “Never guess what I heard through the grapevine,” Sinclair said to his deputies. “What’s that, Sheriff?” Deputy Jed Billet asked. “I heard that Janette has a little baby boy. What is he, about five months old, Janette?” Sinclair gazed at her knowingly. She turned to get their pie, her hands trembling as she opened the display case that held the desserts. He knew. Dear God, he knew. “Gonna be tough, being a single parent,” Deputy Westin said. As she placed the pie in front of Sinclair he reared back on the stool. “A boy. There’s something special about a boy, don’t you think so, Jed? I mean, I love my three little girls, but I always dreamed about how great it would be to have a son. Unfortunately, all my wife could pop was girls. Still, a boy needs a father, don’t you agree?” A roar went off in Janette’s head. She had to escape. She had to take her son and leave Sandstone because she knew what evil Sheriff Brandon Sinclair was capable of, and as long as she remained in Sandstone he had the power to do whatever he wanted to do. If he decided he wanted her baby boy, she knew he’d find a way to get him. Chapter 1 “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I just got word that the bus isn’t coming.” Janette blinked and stared up at the man in charge of the Cotter Creek bus station. She straightened in her chair as she realized she must have dozed off. She wrapped her arms around her still sleeping son and gazed at the man with confusion. “Excuse me?” she said. “The bus. It’s not coming. It’s been held up by weather.” “By weather?” Dulled by sleep, she stared at him as if he were speaking a foreign language. He nodded. “Ice.” He pointed out the window. Janette followed his finger and gasped in surprise as she saw the icy pellets falling from the sky. The ground was already covered with at least an inch. Where had it come from? When she’d arrived at the bus station two hours ago the skies had been thick with gray clouds, but there hadn’t been a hint of snow. Of course the last thing on her mind when she’d left Sandstone had been the weather forecast. She looked back at the man and tried to swallow against the sense of panic that had been with her since she’d packed her bags and left Sandstone that afternoon. A friend of her grandmother’s had driven her the thirty miles to Cotter Creek, where a bus to Kansas City ran every other day. It was supposed to run today. “Will it be here tomorrow?” she asked. “Depends if the weathermen are right or wrong. They say we’re in for a blizzard, but they’re wrong more often than they’re right.” He shrugged his skinny shoulders and pulled a stocking cap over his head. “You best get settled in someplace for the night. I’ve got to close down here. Check back in the morning and I’ll know more about the schedule.” He was obviously in a hurry, tapping his heel as he looked at her expectantly. “Of course.” She stood, grateful that Sammy still slept in his sling against her chest. She didn’t want to show how scared she was, didn’t want to do anything that might draw unnecessary attention to herself. She’d find a pay phone, call the nearest motel and get a room for the night. Hopefully she’d still have time to get as far away from Sandstone as possible before Brandon Sinclair even knew she’d left the small town. She grabbed the handle of her large suitcase and draped the diaper bag over her shoulder, still groggy from the unexpected catnap. She was barely out the door before the bus station, little more than a shack, was locked up behind her. The ice that fell had coated the sidewalk and created shiny surfaces on everything else in sight. Under different circumstances she might have found it beautiful. With Sammy safely snuggled beneath her wool coat, she looked up and down the street. She didn’t know Cotter Creek well. Perhaps there was a bed-and-breakfast someplace nearby where she could spend the night. A new disquiet soared through her as she eyed the deserted streets. It was just after six but it was as if the entire town had packed their bags and left. There wasn’t a person or a car on the street. She should have asked to use the phone in the bus station. She should have asked the man where she could get a room for the night. But the nap had dulled her senses, and he’d hurried her out too fast for her to think clearly. The sight of a phone booth in the distance rallied her spirits. Cotter Creek was near a major highway, and that meant there had to be a motel somewhere nearby. Pulling the suitcase behind her, she hurried as fast as the slick concrete would allow toward the phone booth, feeling as if luck was on her side as she spied the small phone book hanging on a hook just inside the door. She stepped into the booth and closed the door behind her, grateful to be out of the cold wind and stinging ice. With cold fingers she thumbed through the book until she found the page with the motel listings. Make that one listing. The Cotter Creek Motel. Digging change from her purse, she felt Sammy stir as if the rapid beating of her heart disturbed his sleep. She drew a deep breath to steady her nerves. She’d wanted to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible from Sandstone and Brandon Sinclair. Okay, so she couldn’t get on the bus tonight. She’d cool her heels in a motel room and catch the bus the next day. Although she hated to part with a dime of the money that was neatly folded and tucked into a side pocket in her purse, she really didn’t have a choice. She had to get out of town tomorrow. Thirty miles was far too close to the devil and his minions. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she was a thousand miles away. Once she got settled in a new town, she’d send for Nana and the three of them would build a new life where Brandon Sinclair couldn’t bother them. She dropped the change into the slot and punched in the number for the Cotter Creek Motel. A man answered on the third ring. “No room at the inn,” he said. “Is this the Cotter Creek Motel?” she asked, her hand tightening on the receiver. “Yeah, but if you’re looking for a room, we’re full up. They’ve shut the highway down up north and I’ve got a houseful of travelers. I’ve even rented out my sofa in the lobby.” He sounded positively gleeful. “Sorry.” He hung up. Janette held the receiver for a long moment, her heart pumping with panic once again. She hung up and frantically thumbed through the skinny phone book, looking for a listing of a bed-and-breakfast, a rental room, anywhere she could get a warm bed for the night. There was nothing. She wanted to call her grandmother and ask her what to do. Where to go. But she’d only worry Nana, and that was the last thing she wanted to do. Besides, Janette was an adult. She had to handle this. She was twenty-four years old and a mother, and the most important thing in her life at the moment was little Sammy. She had to get him someplace safe and warm. She leaned her head against the cold glass of the booth and watched as the ice began to turn to snow and pick up in intensity. What was she going to do? She and Sammy couldn’t spend the night out in the elements. Desperation filled her and she felt a panic attack coming on. The palms of her hands grew slick with sweat as her throat seemed to constrict. She closed her eyes and drew in deep breaths, forcing the attack away. She didn’t have time to be weak now. Sammy needed her, and she needed to get him someplace safe for the night. She opened her eyes once again. The clouds and ice were creating an early twilight. She straightened as she saw a light shining from a window of one of the storefronts in the next block. Where there was light there might be somebody who could direct her to a place for the night. She checked to make sure her coat was securely fastened to keep Sammy as warm as possible, pulled up her hood and tied it beneath her chin, then stepped out of the phone booth and into the wind that had begun to howl with fierce intensity. She kept her gaze focused on the light, a beacon of hope. It didn’t take long for her gloveless fingers to turn numb and her cheeks to burn with the cold. Ice pellets pinged on the sidewalk and her bare skin. She walked slowly, carefully, not wanting to fall on the slick walkways. Before she reached the radiating light, she saw the shingle that hung above the doorway. West Protective Services. She knew that name. She frowned thoughtfully, then remembered. There had been an article in the paper not too long ago, a human interest story about the family who owned and operated a bodyguard business. The article had described the family as honorable, trustworthy people who put their lives on the line for their clients. If she remembered the article correctly, they had been instrumental in cleaning up Cotter Creek when a development company had tried to take ranch land and had hired people to kill the ranchers. You have to trust somebody, a little voice whispered in her head. She had no other choice. Once again she felt her throat closing up, a quickening of her heart and a sense of doom that portended one of her panic attacks. Not giving herself a chance to second-guess her decision, she started for the door. She reached for the door handle just as a man barreled out and into her. He bumped her with just enough force to cause her to lose her footing on the slippery sidewalk. She felt herself careening backward, but before she could fall, two big strong hands grabbed hold of her shoulders and steadied her. “Sorry. Are you all right?” His deep voice was nearly carried away by the wind. She looked up into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. In an instant she assessed him. Shockingly good-looking, bold features, tall, with broad shoulders beneath a thigh-length black coat. He looked at her as if she were an apparition blown from the North Pole. She had no idea if she could trust this man or not. Under any other circumstances she would never ask a stranger, particularly a man, for help. But she was out of options. “Please…I need help.” * * * All Dalton West wanted was to get home and out of the snow. He’d been absorbed in paperwork and hadn’t noticed the weather until he’d gotten up to stretch and had realized the forecasted storm was upon them. He’d hurriedly shut down the computer and turned off the coffeepot, his only goal to get to his nearby apartment. The last thing he wanted was to be snowed in at the office. But with this woman looking at him with eyes the color of a summer Oklahoma sky, eyes that were filled with both desperation and wariness, he reopened the office door and ushered her inside. She swept past him, pulling a large suitcase behind her as she entered. As he stepped back inside she turned to face him. “I…you protect people, right?” He nodded, wondering what she was doing out in the snow. “That’s my job.” “I want to hire you for the night…to protect me.” “Protect you from who?” he asked. She gave a nervous laugh. “Not who…what. I need you to protect me from the weather. I arrived here in Cotter Creek a couple of hours ago to catch the bus, but it seems the bus isn’t coming this evening. I need a place to stay for the night, but the motel is all booked up.” At that moment the sound of a crying baby came from beneath her coat. She unfastened the buttons to reveal a tiny boy in a blue coat. Dalton didn’t know much about babies, but the little guy looked to be only a couple of months old. As his blue eyes landed on Dalton, he grinned and bounced in his sling. “This is my son, Sammy, and I’m uh…Jane Craig. I was hoping you could find us a room or something for the night,” she said. “I can pay you for your trouble.” There had been just enough hesitation before she spoke her name that Dalton sensed she was lying. She had a pretty face, heart-shaped with those big blue eyes and pale eyebrows that arched perfectly above them. Her trembling full lips were a faint shade of blue, indicating to him that she had already been outside too long. Why would she lie about her name? Or had he just imagined that moment of hesitation? Business had been slow enough lately that maybe he was looking for mystery where there was none. “I’m Dalton West,” he replied, then frowned and looked out the window where the blowing snow was creating almost whiteout conditions. He could think of several places he might be able to get her a bed for the night, but none of them were within walking distance, and nobody in their right mind was going to get in a car to come and pick her up. There was really only one alternative, and it wasn’t one that made him a happy man. “Look, I have an apartment two blocks from here. You can stay there for the night and I’ll bunk downstairs with my landlord.” It was obvious from the expression on her face that she didn’t like the idea. Dalton raked a hand through his hair and tamped down an edge of impatience. He certainly could understand her reticence. She was a young woman alone with a baby and he was a virtual stranger. In her circumstances he wouldn’t be thrilled by his suggestion. “Oh, no…I couldn’t,” she began. “Look, Jane. I’m a bodyguard by profession. I make a living protecting people. You’ll be safe for the night. Besides, I don’t know what else to tell you. We’re out of options.” His glance went back out the window, then he looked back at her. “And we need to get going before we can’t get out of here.” She hesitated another minute. “I’ll hire you for the night to protect me. We’ll keep it a business deal.” “Fine. You can write me a check when we get to my place.” It was obvious to Dalton that she couldn’t afford their usual fee. Her coat was worn and her shoes looked old. This was not a woman rolling in dough. As she rebuttoned her coat to protect her son from the elements, he grabbed hold of her suitcase. They stepped back out into the howling wind and stinging snow, and Dalton fought the impulse to take her by the elbow to help her keep her balance on the slick sidewalk. There was something about her posture, something about the look in her eyes that warned him she would not appreciate it. The howling wind made conversation next to impossible so they trudged side by side in silence, heads bent against the mix of ice and snow falling from the sky. It was difficult to pull the suitcase on its wheels through the thick snow that blanketed the ground. Instead Dalton picked it up by the handle to increase their pace. The two-block walk seemed to take an eternity. He breathed a sigh of relief as they turned off Main onto Maple Street. He could barely see just ahead the white two-story house with the wraparound porch he called home. Normally, Dalton didn’t mind being snowed in for a day or two. He was a solitary man who enjoyed being alone, but it looked as if at least for the short-term he’d be spending his snow time with his landlord, George. When they reached the house he motioned toward the staircase that led up the outside. His apartment was the top floor. She went up the stairs before him as he hefted the heavy suitcase up stair by stair. At the top he unlocked the door, then opened it and gestured her inside. He followed just after her, flipping on the interior light and welcoming the warmth the place offered. He turned to look at her. Her lips were now completely blue and she trembled almost uncontrollably. “Let’s get out of these wet coats and shoes,” he said. The whole scene felt a little surreal. The snow outside, a mysterious woman and baby…it was like the setup of some ridiculous movie. He unbuttoned his coat and watched her do the same. Her gaze didn’t meet his but rather swept around the room like a rabbit hunting for a safe burrow. He followed her gaze, taking in the place he’d called home for the past two years. When George’s wife had died five years ago, the old man had renovated the house with this apartment upstairs. It was a way for him to keep his house and not feel so alone. The apartment was roomy, with a nice-sized living room, a small but fully functioning kitchen, a half bath off the laundry room and a large bedroom with a full bathroom. Dalton had furnished it in a minimalist, functional style. But as he saw it through another’s eyes he realized it was a cold space, with little personality. He frowned and took her coat from her to hang in the small utility room off the kitchen. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said and gestured to the sofa. “I’m just going to put these wet things in the other room.” He left her there, hung the wet coats on hangers to dry, then returned to find her still standing in the center of the room, rubbing the baby’s back as he once again slept. “Where were you headed?” he asked. She jumped at the sound of his voice, as if she’d momentarily forgotten he was there. “Uh, Kansas City. I was going to visit my sister.” Again he had a gut feeling she wasn’t telling him the truth. She refused to hold his gaze and even though the room was warm, her lips trembled slightly. And he realized she wasn’t cold. She was afraid. “Look, why don’t we just get you settled in. The kitchen is there.” He pointed to the doorway. “If you want anything to eat feel free to help yourself. I’ll just go change the sheets on the bed then I’ll be out of your hair.” He started toward the bedroom but stopped as she called his name. “If you just tell me where the sheets are, I’ll change the bed. And I need to pay you.” “The sheets are on the bottom shelf in the bathroom, and it really isn’t necessary for you to give me any money.” “Yes, it is,” she countered, and her chin rose with a show of stubbornness. “It’s important we keep this a business transaction.” “Fine,” he replied. He named a nominal fee and watched as she opened her purse and carefully withdrew the amount in cash. “I’ll just get a few things together then I’ll head downstairs,” he said as he took the money from her. He shoved the bills into his pocket, then grabbed her suitcase and wheeled it into his bedroom. He gathered a small overnight bag, then returned to the living room where she still stood in the center of the room, as if frozen in place. “You should find everything you need for the night, but if you need anything you can’t find, I’ll write down my cell phone number and leave it on the kitchen table.” She gave an imperceptible nod of her head. “I… Thank you for this. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.” “You’ll be fine here for the night and we’ll sort things out in the morning.” “Thank you again,” she said, then disappeared into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. He heard the click of the lock being turned. Dalton stared at the closed door for a long moment. His family would probably tell him he was crazy for allowing a stranger to take up residence in his place even for one night. But they hadn’t seen the vulnerability, the sheer desperation that clung to her closer than her coat. Besides, what was she going to do? Tuck his television under one arm, her son under the other and run out into a blizzard? There was nothing here for her to steal that wasn’t insured. He didn’t know if he believed that she’d told him her real name or her destination, but he knew for sure that she’d needed someplace warm and safe and she’d found it here. He went into the kitchen and wrote his cell phone number on a sheet of paper and left it on the small oak table. Then he wrote his own home phone number down and returned to the bedroom door and knocked. She opened the door, her eyes wide and wary. “I just wanted to let you know there’s leftover roast beef in the refrigerator if you get hungry and there’s extra blankets on the shelf in the closet if you need them. If you need to call your sister to let her know where you are, here’s the phone number.” He held out the slip of paper. “Thank you, I’m sure we’ll be fine.” One hand snaked out to take the piece of paper from him. “I guess I’ll see you in the morning.” She closed the door again but not before Dalton saw something flash in her other hand, something silver like a blade. A knife? Every instinct he owned shot to high alert. He’d been trained to look for trouble, and he had a horrible feeling he’d just invited trouble into his home. Well, he couldn’t do anything about it now. He headed for the interior staircase that led downstairs to George’s living quarters. He would have to face it—her—in the morning. Chapter 2 She saw the red lights flashing in her rearview mirror and glanced down at her speedometer. Damn. It looked like she was going to get a speeding ticket. She supposed she was lucky that she hadn’t gotten one before now. Two nights a week she’d been making the twenty-five mile drive from Sandstone to a local community college, taking classes to eventually take the GED test. She always drove too fast on this particular stretch of deserted highway. Pulling over to the side of the road, she wondered how many extra hours she’d have to work to pay for this particular mistake. As if money wasn’t already tight enough. Glancing in her rearview mirror once again she saw the patrol car pull to a stop just behind her. The flashing red light went off, as did the headlights. As the driver’s door opened she recognized Sheriff Brandon Sinclair getting out of the car. She fumbled in her schoolbag for her license as he approached the side of her car. She rolled down her window and offered him a small smile. “Sheriff Sinclair,” she said. “Turn off your lights and get out of the car,” he told her. She frowned, but didn’t think about not doing as he asked. As she got out of the car Sheriff Sinclair smiled. “Well, well, don’t we look all sexy in that little skirt,” he said, and there was something in his eyes that made her suddenly afraid. * * * Janette awoke with a gasp, heart pounding as she sat up and stared wildly around the unfamiliar room. The large mahogany dresser and the navy overstuffed chair weren’t hers. She wasn’t in her room. Where was she? Then she remembered. She was in Cotter Creek, in Dalton West’s bedroom. Sammy slept peacefully next to her on the king-sized bed. She lay back down and shoved the last memories of her nightmare away. The large bed had been a luxury after years of sleeping on a twin in her tiny bedroom in the trailer where she lived with Nana. Despite the luxury, sleep had been a long time coming. She’d jumped and tensed at each moan and groan of the unfamiliar house. Even when she had finally fallen asleep, it had been a night of unrelenting nightmares. Surely by noon or so the streets would be cleared of whatever snow had fallen overnight and the bus would finally arrive. It had to come today. She needed to get as far away from here as possible. When the streets are cleared, he’ll come looking for you, the little voice whispered in her head. She felt like a fish in the bottom of a barrel, far too close, far too easily caught. She’d left the bedroom only once during the night, to make a bottle for Sammy. Knowing that he would probably sleep for another hour or so, she got out of bed and headed for the adjoining bathroom. She wanted to be dressed and ready to leave as soon as possible. It wasn’t until she stood beneath a hot spray of water that she thought of the man who had allowed her into his home. In another lifetime, under different circumstances, she might find herself attracted to him. He was certainly easy to look at, with that thick dark hair and those gorgeous green eyes. He reminded her of another man—a man who had not been quite as handsome but had devastated her, bitterly disappointed her at the time she’d needed him most. She didn’t need a man in her life. She and Sammy and Nana would be fine. All she had to do was get out of this town and decide where they would all begin a new life, far away from the reaches of Sheriff Brandon Sinclair. After showering she wrapped herself in one of the large fluffy towels and walked over to the window for her first look outside. She gasped as she saw that the storm hadn’t passed by but instead seemed to be sitting right on top of the little town of Cotter Creek. It was impossible to discern street from sidewalk. Snow had transformed the earth into an alien landscape where nothing looked as it was supposed to. There weren’t just a couple of inches on the ground, there was at least a foot and a half and it was still falling from the gray, heavy sky. Janette knew someplace in the back of her mind that it was beautiful, that the world looked like a winter wonderland, but all she could think was that the snow was a disaster, big fat fluffy flakes of doom falling from the sky. Trapped. She was trapped there, and the only faint comfort was that if she were trapped by the weather, then so was Sheriff Brandon Sinclair. She turned away from the window and crouched on the plush rug to open her big suitcase. The first thing she saw inside was the bright red book bag she’d thrown in at the last minute. Inside were the books she’d bought to study for her GED and the tape recorder she’d used in class. It had been more than a year since she’d opened the bag that now represented not only the dream she’d once had for herself of getting more education, but also the worst night of her life. She hadn’t opened the bag since the night she’d been pulled over for a speeding ticket, and she didn’t open it now. She set it on the floor and dug out a pair of jeans and her favorite blue sweater. She didn’t have a lot of choices as she’d packed only a minimum of clothes for herself. Most of the suitcase contents were cans of powdered formula, cereal and diapers and clothing for Sammy. Once she was dressed and had brushed out her long, wet hair, she eyed the phone on the nightstand. She should call Nana and let her know what was going on. The old woman would worry if she didn’t hear from Janette. Thank goodness the call wasn’t long distance, Janette thought as she punched in her grandmother’s number. Nana answered on the second ring and Janette pressed the phone to her ear as if to get closer to her grandmother. “Nana, it’s me.” “Janette, honey, where are you?” Nana asked. “Did you get off before this storm?” “No, I’m still in Cotter Creek.” “At the motel?” Nana asked. “The motel was already full by the time I found out the bus wasn’t coming. The snow was coming down and I didn’t know what to do, but then I saw a light on in the West Protective Services office.” Janette twisted the phone cord around her little finger. “I hired Dalton West to be my bodyguard and he brought me to his apartment for the night.” “Are you safe there?” Nana asked, her voice filled with concern. Janette considered the question. “Yes, I think I’m safe,” she finally replied. It was odd, but having survived the night she did feel safe. “I’ve heard about those Wests,” Nana said. “Supposed to be good solid men. I’m just grateful that you and that precious little boy are away from here and not out in this storm someplace.” Janette glanced toward the window and frowned. “It looks like I’m going to be stuck here for a while.” She twisted the phone cord more tightly around her finger. “Has anyone been by to ask about me?” “Nobody, honey. The storm moved in and nobody is going anywhere at the moment. Don’t you worry none. He’ll never know from me where you went and by the time he makes his way here to ask questions you’ll be far out of his reach.” “Let me give you the phone number here, just in case you need to reach me.” Janette read the number off the piece of paper Dalton had given her the night before. “I’ll call you when I’m about to board the bus. Maybe they’ll get the streets cleared by tomorrow.” “You just take care of yourself and Sammy. Don’t worry about things here. I got my friends at the trailer park to take care of me and I’ll be fine as long as I know you’re fine.” Janette unraveled the cord from her finger. How she wished she could crawl through the phone line and feel her grandmother’s loving arms around her, to go back to a time when she didn’t know about fear, about evil. Afraid that she might cry if she remained on the phone much longer, she quickly said goodbye then hung up. Checking to make sure that Sammy was still sleeping soundly, she arranged the bed pillows on either side of him then walked to the bedroom door. She hesitated before turning the knob to step out of the room. She’d told Nana she was safe, and at the moment she felt fairly safe, but she’d also been unaware of any danger on the night Sheriff Sinclair had pulled her over on the side of the road. As much as she’d love to stay holed up in the bedroom until the bus pulled in, that was impossible. She hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before and her stomach was protesting its neglect in loud angry growls. The scent of freshly brewed coffee greeted her as she opened the bedroom door, letting her know she was no longer alone in the apartment. Energy surged through her as all her senses went on high alert. Her feet whispered against the living-room rug as she moved toward the kitchen. She hesitated in the doorway. Dalton stood at the stove with his back to her. A white, long-sleeved jersey clung across his broad shoulders and worn jeans hugged the length of his legs. He was barefoot and his hair was rumpled like he’d just crawled out of bed. A sizzling noise was quickly followed by a whiff of bacon and Janette felt the nerves in her stomach calm. It was hard to be frightened of a barefoot man frying bacon. She must have made some sort of sound for he whirled around to look at her. “Good morning,” he said. “There’s coffee in the pot if you’re interested.” “I’m interested,” she replied. He gestured to the coffeemaker on the counter. “Cups are in the cabinet above.” She walked over to the cabinet, retrieved a cup, then poured herself some coffee. She carried it to the table and sat, unsure what else to do. Dalton turned back around to flip the bacon. Janette was aware of a tension in the air, the tension of two strangers sharing space. “It looks like you’re going to be stuck here for at least another day or two,” he said. “Maybe I could find another place to go to,” she offered. Once again he turned around to face her. “It would take me half the day to shovel enough snow just to open the outside door. Trust me, nobody is going anywhere today.” A muscle in his jaw tensed, letting her know that he wasn’t particularly happy about the unforeseen circumstances. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said. He’d never know just how sorry she was that she was stuck here in Cotter Creek. “We’ll just have to deal with it,” he replied, then turned his back on her once again. Taking a sip of her coffee, she had a vision of Brandon Sinclair tunneling his way through the snow to find her. She mentally shook the thought out of her head. Once again she stared at Dalton’s back. He was a fine-looking man and so far he’d been nothing but honorable. He made a living protecting people. Maybe she could tell him. Maybe she could tell him the truth. The thought of telling somebody and having them believe her was wonderful. “How about an omelet?” he asked. “I’m making myself one and can split it with you.” She felt bad, that this man was not only having to share his personal space but also his food. Still, she was starving and it seemed silly to refuse. “That sounds good,” she agreed. Once again she sipped her coffee, watching as he prepared the ingredients for the omelet. “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked. “No thanks, I’m used to doing things my way,” he replied. “Tell me about this business of yours. I read an article not too long ago about West Protective Services. If I remember correctly it’s a family business, right?” He nodded. His tousled hair made him appear less daunting than he had the night before. “It was started by my father, Red West. Eventually all of us started working for the business.” “All of you?” “I’ve got four brothers and a sister. Joshua is the youngest and he just got married to Savannah, who owns the local newspaper. Then there’s Clay, who met his wife when he was on assignment in California. They have a little girl, Gracie. There’s Tanner, the oldest. He and his wife, Anna, just had a baby.” Janette felt herself relaxing as he talked. Not only did he have a nice, deep voice that was soothing, but it was obvious from the affection in his voice as he spoke that the West family was a close one. It was easier to trust a man who loved his family. “Then there’s Meredith. She recently moved to Kansas City with her fiancé, Chase. She and Chase are planning on coming back here in March to get married. Finally there’s Zack. He doesn’t work for the family business anymore. He married Katie, the woman who lived next door to our family, and he’s the sheriff of Cotter Creek.” Any hope she might have entertained of being truthful with Dalton West crashed and burned. He’s the sheriff of Cotter Creek. The words echoed inside her head. There were only thirty miles between Cotter Creek and Sandstone. There was no reason for her not to believe that Brandon Sinclair and Zack West were not only acquaintances but also perhaps friends. She had no idea how far-reaching the good-old-boy network was in the state of Oklahoma. One thing was clear. For as long as she was stuck in this apartment, she couldn’t tell Dalton the truth. Her very life and the life of her son might depend on her keeping her secrets. At that moment, as if he’d awakened and sensed his mother’s despair, Sammy began to cry from the bedroom. * * * Dalton drew a deep breath as “Jane” hurriedly left the kitchen to get her son. He was exhausted, having spent the night on George’s tiny sofa after hours of listening to George talk. And the old man could definitely talk. He’d already been feeling a little irritable when he’d climbed the inside staircase back to his apartment. As if spending an evening with George hadn’t been enough, he was now stuck in his apartment with a stranger, a woman whom, he had to admit, stirred something inside him just by being there. A woman who’d had a knife in her hand the night before. Could he really blame her for wielding a knife? After all, as much as she was a stranger to him, he was a stranger to her. She’d had no idea what kind of a man he was, what she’d been walking into when she’d entered his apartment. He cut the omelet in half and placed it on two plates, then added the bacon and put the plates on the table. She couldn’t know that he was a solitary man who didn’t particularly enjoy sharing his space, his world, with anyone. Even though he found her amazingly attractive, all he wanted was for her and her son to move on. She returned to the kitchen, her son and a bottle in one arm and a box of powdered cereal in the other. “I need to make some cereal for Sammy. Do you have a small bowl I can use?” Dalton got out the bowl, then watched as she tried to maneuver with the wiggly baby in her arms. “You want me to hold him while you get that ready?” he asked reluctantly. He didn’t particularly like kids, had only thought about having a couple once, a long time ago, but it had been nothing more than a foolish dream. “Thanks.” She smiled at him for the first time, a real, open genuine smile that unexpectedly shot a flash of heat through his stomach. As she offered the baby to him, Sammy seemed to vibrate with excitement and offered Dalton a wide, drooling grin. As soon as Dalton had him in his arms, Sammy reached up and grabbed hold of his nose, then laughed as if finding the West nose vastly amusing. “He likes you,” Jane observed as she measured out the rice cereal and added warm formula. “You sound surprised,” Dalton replied. “I am. He’s usually not good with strangers, especially men.” “What about his father?” Dalton asked as she stirred the cereal, then set the bowl on the table. Her eyes darkened. “His father isn’t in our life.” To his relief she took the baby back and sat at the table. For the next few minutes they sat in silence. She alternately fed Sammy and herself while Dalton ate his breakfast. Sammy laughed and smiled at Dalton every time Dalton looked at him. He had to admit, the kid was cute with his tuft of dark hair and blue eyes. Dalton finished eating before Jane, or whatever her real name was. “Do you need to call your sister in St. Louis to tell her you’ve been delayed?” “I already did,” she replied. Dalton stared at her. She’d told him the night before that she was on her way to visit her sister in Kansas City. Women interested him, but a woman with secrets definitely intrigued him. He didn’t call her on her slip, but instead leaned back in his chair and watched as she finished feeding Sammy. He didn’t want to be intrigued by her. He wanted the snow to melt quickly and her and her cute baby to move along on their way to wherever. However, the weather report that morning hadn’t been exactly favorable for her to make a quick escape out of his house. Taking a sip of his coffee, he gazed out the window where the snow still fell in buckets. At least she didn’t seem to be a chatterer. She didn’t expect him to entertain her with lively conversation. Silence had always been Dalton’s friend. Growing up in a household with a rambunctious bunch of siblings had made him appreciate his solitary life now. Odd that he suddenly found the silence strangely stifling. “We’re lucky we still have power,” he finally said to break that uncomfortable silence. “The news report this morning said that half the town is without power and phone service.” “That’s terrible,” she exclaimed. “Most folks around this area are prepared for situations like this. They have wood-burning fireplaces or generators that will be cranked up. We Oklahoma people are solid stock and know how to deal with an emergency.” She frowned. “I certainly wasn’t prepared for this particular emergency.” “According to the weather report I heard the snow is supposed to end by nightfall. If that happens, then first thing in the morning the locals will get out and clear the streets.” “It can’t happen fast enough for me,” she replied. She looked up from Sammy, her blue eyes dark and troubled. “I’m sorry I can’t get out of your hair right now. I know when you offered me a place to stay last night you had no idea that I’d still be here today.” Dalton shrugged. “We’ll just have to make the best of it.” “I just hope if they get the streets cleared in the morning then the bus comes tomorrow afternoon.” There was a thrum of desperation in her voice. “Surely your sister will understand the delay.” “Of course.” She averted her gaze from his and focused on her son in her arms. “I’m just anxious to get gone.” “Is this a vacation trip?” She kept her gaze firmly on her son. “Yes. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my sister and she hasn’t met Sammy, so I thought it would be nice to take a trip to visit her. I suppose it was foolish to plan a trip in late January. But babies are only babies a short time.” She was rambling, and it was Dalton’s experience that people who rambled were usually hiding something. She seemed to realize what she was doing for she suddenly clamped her lips closed and frowned. Getting up from the table she started to grab for her plate. “I’ll take care of that,” he said. She gave him a grateful nod, then once again disappeared from the kitchen. Dalton remained seated at the table. He sipped his coffee and looked out the window. Although he stared at the snow, his mind was filled with those blue eyes of hers. At thirty-three years old, Dalton had worked the family business for twelve years. He’d spent that time studying people, and the assessments he made of those people sometimes made the difference between life and death. Jane Craig was lying. He’d seen it in those impossibly blue eyes of hers. Secrets and lies. There had been something in her eyes that had looked not only like quiet desperation, but also screaming fear. His mind whirled with all kinds of possibilities. Who in their right mind planned a bus trip in the Midwest in January? Especially with an infant? He could write off the appearance of the knife the night before as a wary woman in the home of a stranger. But what was she doing with a wicked-looking knife like that in the first place? Secrets and lies. What he was suddenly eager to find out was whether her secrets and lies could be the difference between life and death, and whether the snowy conditions had suddenly made him a player in a drama he wasn’t prepared to face. * * * Sheriff Brandon Sinclair stared out the window and silently cursed the snow. He’d been in a foul mood since the day before, when he’d gone back to the diner to have a little chat with Janette and discovered she’d up and quit her job, just like that. He’d been on his way to the little rattrap trailer where she lived with her grandmother when a six-car accident just outside of town had required his immediate attention. By the time he’d finished up, the ice had begun to fall in earnest. He tried to ignore the sound of his three daughters playing in the middle of their living-room floor. He hadn’t thought about Janette Black since the night they’d had sex over a year ago. Then yesterday morning he’d heard the rumor that she had a little baby boy, a rumor that had been confirmed when he’d spoken with her at lunch. Since that moment, he couldn’t get her—or more precisely the boy—out of his mind. His son. He knew in his gut that the kid was his. “Brandon, honey, your breakfast is waiting,” Brandon’s wife, Sherrilyn, spoke from someplace behind him. He grunted but didn’t turn around. Sherrilyn was a good woman. She’d come into the marriage not only crazy about him, but with the kind of respectability and a trust fund that Brandon had desired. She kept the large house neat and tidy, tried to anticipate his needs before he knew them and was an adequate if boring bedmate. She loved being the sheriff’s wife, and while Brandon was feared and respected by the community, Sherrilyn was loved for her charity work and big heart. But, when it came to giving Brandon what he’d wanted most in life, she’d failed miserably, pumping out three girl babies instead of the boy he desperately wanted. “Mommy, Susan won’t share,” Elena, his youngest, whined from the living room. She was always whining about something. Girls whined. Girls cried, and he had three of the whiniest, weepiest girls in the county. He narrowed his gaze as he turned away from the window and headed for the kitchen. As soon as the snow stopped, he’d get that boy. He didn’t much care what he had to do, but eventually that little boy would be living with him, being raised by him. Boys needed their daddies, and if the only way to get that kid was over Janette Black’s dead body, well then that could be arranged, too. Chapter 3 Janette stayed in the bedroom with Sammy for most of the morning. She played peekaboo with him, laughing as he grinned and squealed at her antics. When he started to get sleepy, she picked him up in her arms and sat in the chair near the window, rocking and singing softly to him until he fell asleep. She placed her lips against Sammy’s downy hair, drawing in the sweet baby scent of him. He was her heart, this little boy. Before his birth she had loved him, but nothing had prepared her for the depth of her love for him now. Her heart squeezed as she thought of the threat that felt ominously close, a threat to this baby and their future together. She would do whatever it took to keep him safe and away from the man who was his biological father. She shoved aside thoughts of Sinclair, unwilling to allow the chill that thoughts of him always produced to consume her. She was conscious of the sounds of Dalton in the next room. It was a good thing he’d told her about his family before she’d confessed what was really going on. She should have known it wouldn’t be safe to tell him the truth. Bodyguards probably had to work closely with law enforcement officials. For all she knew, Brandon Sinclair could be a drinking buddy of the entire West clan. When Sammy was sleeping soundly, she gently laid him in the middle of the big bed and tucked the pillows around him to stop him from rolling anywhere. She stood for a long moment staring down at the baby who owned all of her heart. She would do whatever it took to keep Brandon Sinclair away from Sammy. She would run to the ends of the earth, hide for the rest of her life if that’s what it took. You’re nothing but trailer trash, Janette. Nobody is going to believe you if you ever tell. Those were the last words she’d heard from Sinclair that night on the highway. He hadn’t spoken to her again or even looked at her until yesterday in the café when he’d told her he knew she had a son. She’d tried to be so careful during her pregnancy. Thankfully she’d gained little weight and had been able to hide her condition until her eighth month. It was only then that she’d told the people who’d noticed that she was pregnant that she’d had a fling with a man passing through town. Because she believed Sinclair—nobody would ever believe her if she told the truth. Tired of being cooped up, she finally left the bedroom and entered the living room, where Dalton sat in a chair reading a book as a saxophone wailed the blues from the stereo. She wasn’t concerned about the noise waking Sammy. From the time he’d been born he had slept like the dead, undisturbed by loud noises. Dalton looked up and nodded at her. “Are you ready for lunch?” he asked and closed his book. “No, thanks. I’m fine.” She gestured to the book on his lap. “Please, don’t let me interrupt you.” “You aren’t. It isn’t a very good book, anyway.” She glanced to the overflowing bookcase against one wall. “You must read a lot.” “I enjoy reading,” he agreed. His piercing green eyes seemed to peer directly inside her. “What about you? Are you a reader?” She sat on the edge of the sofa. “I’d like to be, but there never seems to be enough time. Between taking care of Sammy and my job there aren’t many hours left in the day.” “What kind of job do you have?” “Right now I’m a waitress, but that’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life.” She hesitated a moment, then continued, “I had to drop out of high school my junior year because my nana…my grandma got sick, so the first thing I need to do is get my GED.” She wasn’t sure why she told him this. It was more information than he’d asked for and she was certain he didn’t care what her future plans might be. Those direct green eyes of his held her gaze. “Your grandmother is important in your life?” “Definitely. She raised me. It was just me and her, and of course my sister,” she hurriedly added. She’d never been a liar, and the lies she now found herself spouting bothered her more than a little bit. “What about your parents? Where are they?” “Who knows? I never knew my father and when I was three my mother dropped me off at Nana’s house and we never heard from her again. Nana told me she was a troubled woman with drug problems. I think she’s probably dead by now.” Janette had long ago made peace with the fact that her mother had been unable to parent her. At least she’d been unselfish enough to put her in Nana’s care, where she’d been loved and looked after. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and she was surprised by the touch of empathy she heard in his deep voice. “My mother was murdered when I was just a boy.” “That’s horrible,” she exclaimed. He shrugged. “You deal with the bumps life throws you.” He stood suddenly, as if to end the conversation of that particular topic. “Are you sure you aren’t ready for some lunch? I’m going to make a sandwich.” “I guess I could eat a sandwich,” she agreed and got up to follow him into the kitchen. Once again she found herself sitting at the table while he fixed the meal. “I need to give you more money,” she said. “You’re feeding me and everything. I feel terrible about all this.” He smiled then, and the power of his smile shot a wave of heat through her. It was the heat of a woman intensely aware of an attractive man. It shocked her, but she embraced it, for it was something she hadn’t felt for a very long time, something she’d thought Brandon Sinclair had killed. “I think I can manage to feed one slender woman for a couple of days without declaring bankruptcy,” he said. She returned his smile. “I just want you to know that I appreciate it.” She glanced toward the window where the snow appeared to be slowing down. Surely by tomorrow she could leave. She gazed back at Dalton. “So, I guess your dad raised you, then? It must have been quite a challenge, considering how many of you there were.” Once again he grinned, transfusing his rather stern features with an unexpected warmth. “Ah, Dad had a secret weapon. He hired a cantankerous old cowhand as a housekeeper. Smokey Johnson not only threatened to beat our butts if we got out of line, he followed through on his threats often enough to make us take him seriously.” Despite his words it was obvious he held a lot of affection for the cowhand turned parental figure in his life. For the first time since she’d stepped out of the bus station yesterday evening, some of the tension that had coiled inside her eased. “Ham and cheese okay?” he asked. “Perfect. Is there anything I can do to help?” “Nah, sit tight. I can handle it. Besides, if you work as a waitress I doubt you get too many people offering to wait on you.” She laughed. “That’s the truth.” He smelled nice, like minty soap and a touch of sandalwood, and she felt herself relax just a little bit more. “Is your sister older or younger than you?” The question came out of left field but reminded her that she couldn’t let her guard down for a minute. “Older,” she said. “Why?” “Just curious.” He walked over to the table with their lunch plates. “What would you like to drink? I can offer you milk, water or a soda.” “Milk would be nice.” He rejoined her at the table a moment later with two tall glasses of milk. For the next few minutes they ate in silence. “From what you told me earlier it sounds like all of your brothers and your sister are married and having kids. Why aren’t you married?” she asked to break the uncomfortable quiet. A flash of darkness momentarily chased across his green eyes. “I guess after growing up with a houseful of people I’ve discovered in my adult years that I enjoy my solitude,” he replied. “I like living alone and not having to answer to anyone and have no plans to ever get married.” He took a drink of his milk, then continued, “What about you? I’m assuming things didn’t work out with you and the baby’s father?” She looked down at her sandwich and pulled off part of the crust. “No, we tried to make it work. He’s a great guy and everything, but we just weren’t good together.” She looked at Dalton once again and forced a small smile to her lips. “But thankfully we have managed to remain good friends.” How she wished this were true. How she wished that Sammy’s father was a good man who could help her instill the right qualities in their son instead of a monster who would taint the innocence of the little boy. Dalton leaned back in his chair and studied her. “You’re a pretty woman. I’m sure you won’t have any problems finding some special guy to share your life.” There was nothing in his voice to indicate he was flirting with her in any way, but she touched a strand of her hair self-consciously. She hadn’t felt pretty in a very long time and she was surprised to discover that his comment soothed a wound she hadn’t realized she possessed. “I’m in no hurry at the moment to make any commitment to anyone,” she replied. “I just want to be able to take care of my son and myself.” At that moment the phone rang, jolting every nerve in Janette’s body. What if it was Dalton’s brother, the sheriff? What if Dalton mentioned that he had a young woman and a baby staying with him? What if Sinclair had already begun the search for her and had contacted Dalton’s brother? Horrible scenarios went off in her head, mini-movies of doom. As Dalton started to rise to answer, she grabbed him by the forearm and held tight. Her heart beat so hard, so fast she wondered if he could hear it. “Please, please don’t tell anyone I’m here.” His eyes pierced her with a sharpness that was almost painful. He didn’t answer but instead pulled his arm out of her grasp and walked over to the phone. “Hello?” he said, his gaze never leaving Janette. “Yeah, hi, Dad. I was just eating lunch.” As Dalton continued his conversation, he never broke eye contact with Janette. The tension that had dissipated earlier crashed back through her, twisting in her gut like a deadly Oklahoma tornado. His voice remained pleasant as he carried on his conversation with his father. When he finally hung up he returned to the table and reached out to grab her forearm as she had done his. “Now, Jane,” he said, his voice deceptively calm. “You want to tell me just what the hell is going on?” * * * Dalton stared at the woman and tried to ignore how fragile, how warm, her slender arm felt beneath his grasp. Her stunning blue eyes were wide and darted around the room as if seeking somewhere to run, to escape. She tried to pull her arm free from his grip but he held tight, just as she had a moment earlier. “Talk to me,” he said. “Tell me why you don’t want me to mention to anyone that you’re here.” This close he could smell the scent of her, clean with a touch of honeysuckle fragrance. She closed her eyes and he couldn’t help but notice the length of her eyelashes. She tried to pull away from him again and this time he let her go. She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold and looked at him. “I’m sorry. I lied to you before.” She looked down at the table. He frowned. “Lied about what?” She got up as if she wanted as much distance from him as possible, but he had a feeling that what she was really doing was giving herself time to think. He wasn’t at all sure he was going to believe anything that fell out of her mouth at this point. Moving to stand next to the window, she turned to face him. “I lied about Sammy’s father. He isn’t a nice man. He…he used to beat me. He was abusive and I needed to get away.” There was a tremble in her voice, a timbre of fear that made him want to believe her. “You think he’s looking for you?” Again she wrapped her arms around her middle. “You can bet on it. And if he finds me he’ll hurt me. He might hurt Sammy.” “That’s not going to happen here,” Dalton said firmly. He offered her a smile. “After all, you’ve hired me as your personal bodyguard and I promise you I’m damned good at what I do.” She didn’t return his smile and that, along with the darkness in her eyes, made him believe her. “Is that why you carry a knife?” he asked. She raised a pale eyebrow. “How do you know about that?” “I saw it last night when you opened the bedroom door.” She returned to the table and sat, her gaze going out the window. “I won’t let him hurt me again.” She looked back at Dalton and there was a hard glint in her eyes. “I just want to get out of here. Once I get to my sister’s I’ll be just fine.” “What’s this guy’s name?” Dalton asked. “What difference does it make?” He shrugged. “Just curious. I know most of the families in this area. Just thought I might know him.” She blinked once…twice. “His name is Billy Johnson. I doubt if you know him. He’s not from around here. His family is from someplace back east.” Once again he had the feeling she wasn’t being completely honest with him. Did he care? If he were smart he would stop asking questions now. In the next day or two she wouldn’t be his problem. “I’d better go check on Sammy,” she said and rose from the table. He watched her hurry away, unable to stop himself from noticing how the worn jeans fit snugly across her shapely butt. He was acutely aware of the fact that physically he was attracted to her, but that didn’t mean he wanted to be pulled into her life drama. He got up from the table, carried their lunch dishes to the sink and began to rinse them. As he worked, his thoughts drifted to his last assignment. It had been over a year since Dalton had worked a case as a bodyguard. Her name had been Mary Mason, she’d lived in Tulsa and she, too, had been the victim of domestic violence. He’d worked for her for almost four months, guarding her between the time she’d filed for divorce and the divorce proceeding itself, which had been expedited by a judge sympathetic to her situation. Mary had known the statistics, that in these kinds of cases the most dangerous time for an abused wife was in the weeks prior to the divorce. In those four months, he’d fallen head over heels in love with her and she had appeared to feel the same way about him. They had forged a bond that he thought would last the rest of their lives. They’d made plans for a wedding after her divorce, laughing as they created a fantasy event fit for a king and a queen. It wasn’t until the day after the divorce proceedings that the fantasy exploded. Mary told him she needed some time to regroup, that he should return to his home in Cotter Creek and give her a little time alone. He’d understood the request, had encouraged it, so certain was he that they would be together. He’d called her often, they’d emailed, but after only a month he’d received a Dear John letter. She’d fallen in love with another man. They were getting married. Dalton had made a wonderful temporary hero, but that’s all he had been. He scowled as he put the dishes in the dishwasher. The whole thing had left a bad taste in his mouth, a heartache that had been long in healing. Since that time he’d worked the office, answering the phones and keeping the books. He preferred dealing with paperwork instead of people. Footsteps sounded on the inside staircase that led from George’s place upstairs to Dalton’s. A moment later, a knock sounded on the back kitchen door. Jane might not want anyone to know she was here, but it was already too late to keep that piece of information from his landlord. George would have thought it damned odd that Dalton wanted to sleep on his sofa if Dalton hadn’t told the old man that he’d given harbor from the storm to a young woman and her baby. He opened the door to see George wearing hot pads on his hands and carrying a fresh pie. “Had some canned apples and thought it was a good day for some pie and coffee.” He swept past Dalton and into the kitchen, where he deposited the pie on the table. “So, how about making us some coffee to go with this work of art.” He pulled out a chair and sat. Dalton grinned. “Feeling a little cabin fever, George?” He got a pot of coffee ready to brew. “I hate being cooped up. You know me, Dalton, I’m a social kind of man. Sitting and listening to my own thoughts bores me to death. Where’s your houseguest?” At that moment Jane appeared in the doorway with Sammy in her arms. She froze at the sight of George. “Jane, this is my landlord, George, from downstairs,” Dalton said. George popped up from the chair and walked over to where she stood. “Jane, nice to meet you. And who is this little fellow?” Sammy took one look at George’s big, silly grin and screwed up his face. He wailed as if George were the devil himself and burrowed closer to Jane’s chest. “Oh my.” George quickly stepped back. “I’m sorry,” Jane said. “He’s hungry. I was just going to fix him a bottle.” Dalton realized she not only held the boy in her arms, but also juggled a bottle and a can of powdered formula mix, as well. Short of putting Sammy on the floor, it was going to be next to impossible for her to hold him and make the bottle. “Want me to take him?” he asked and gestured to the crying child. She shot him a grateful look. “If you don’t mind. It will just take me a minute to get this ready.” He nodded and took Sammy from her. Almost immediately Sammy not only stopped crying but grinned at Dalton as if the two were best buds. “Would you look at that?” George exclaimed. “That boy is plum crazy about you.” “He’ll be a lot crazier about that bottle,” Dalton replied, grateful a moment later when Jane took her son back. She sat at the table, Sammy in her arms sucking on his bottle with obvious contentment. “George brought up a freshly baked apple pie,” Dalton said as he got out coffee mugs from the cabinet. “Hmm, that sounds good. Apple is my favorite.” She offered George a tentative smile. “My missus, God rest her soul, loved my apple pies. Always told me if God served pie in heaven, then he’d be serving mine,” George replied. “Guess this snowstorm took you by surprise.” “Definitely,” she agreed. George could talk, and that’s what he did for the next hour. Sammy finished his bottle and fell asleep. Dalton sat and sipped his coffee as George entertained Jane with colorful descriptions of people in town, humorous stories of his misspent youth and his fifty-year marriage to the woman who had owned his heart since he was sixteen. Dalton had heard the stories before. What he found far more interesting than George’s conversation was watching Jane interact with the old man. As she listened to George, she looked relaxed. Her long blond hair was so soft-looking, so shiny, it made a man want to reach out and touch it, coil it around his fingers, feel it dance across his chest. The first time she laughed aloud, Dalton was shocked by the pleasure that swept through him. She had a great laugh, one that would easily evoke smiles in others. Although she visited with George in general terms, he noticed that she gave nothing of herself. She didn’t mention family or friends, didn’t speak of her hometown or her job. Irritated with these kinds of thoughts, he got up to pour himself another cup of coffee, then returned to the table. He didn’t want to think about how sweet she smelled or how her lips were just full enough to tempt a man. She’d given no indication that she might be up for a short, reckless affair to pass the time until she got on the bus out of town. And the last thing he wanted was any kind of an emotional entanglement with any woman. She’d be gone soon, and that was that. It was just after three when George finally got up from the table. “It’s been a real pleasure,” he said and smiled at Jane. “There’s nothing nicer than spending a snowy afternoon in the company of a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, at my age, a good nap is also a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, and I’m past due mine.” She offered him a sunny smile. “Thank you for the pie, George. Your wife was right. It was the best I’ve ever eaten,” she replied. George beamed as if kissed by an angel. “George, have you mentioned to anyone that I’m here?” Jane asked. “Can’t say I have.” George scratched the top of his head. “Haven’t talked to anyone except Dalton since this storm moved in.” “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention it to anyone.” She flashed him a bright smile. “I’m kind of hiding out from somebody.” George’s eyes lit up. “Ah, a woman of mystery. Your secret is safe with me.” He started to turn to head out the way he had come, but paused and pointed to the window. “Would you look at that?” Both Dalton and Jane looked through the window where the snow had finally stopped and the sun peeked out from behind the last lingering gray clouds. Chapter 4 “You think the bus will run tomorrow?” Janette asked Dalton. The three of them were in the living room, having just eaten supper. He was seated in the chair and she was on the sofa. Sammy was gurgling happily from a blanket on the floor. “Doubtful,” he replied. For the past hour they’d heard the sounds of plows starting the storm cleanup and each grind of gears had been like music to her ears. She just hoped and prayed she got out of there before Sheriff Brandon Sinclair somehow discovered where she was. “Although most of the locals who have plows will be out and have our streets cleaned, it will probably be at least another day or so before the highways are completely cleared and the bus can show up.” He gazed at her curiously. “Surely you can’t be afraid that your boyfriend will find you here. You didn’t know you were going to be here, so how could he know?” “Logically, I know that, but emotionally, I just have this terrible need to get out of town, to get as far away as possible,” she replied. “I just want to stay safe.” “I told you that you’d be safe here,” he said. “When that bus comes, I’ll personally see you safely aboard and in the meantime nobody is going to harm you while you’re in my home.” A new burst of gratitude filled her. She’d taken a terrible chance coming into the home of a stranger, but Dalton had proven himself to be nothing other than a good, honorable man. She leaned back on the sofa. “So, what do you do when you aren’t bodyguarding?” she asked. She’d been in his home for twenty-four hours but didn’t really know anything about him. “I mentioned before I like to read, and when the weather’s nice I do a little work at the family ranch.” “Family ranch?” She could easily imagine him, long legs astride a powerful horse, a cowboy hat pulled down low over his brow. “My dad has a huge ranch north of town. It’s become something of a family compound. My brother Tanner has a house on the property, and Clay and his wife, Libby, have been talking about building there.” “Hmm, that sounds nice. It must be wonderful to have such a close, loving family unit. I used to wonder what it would be like to have a whole mess of siblings.” He laughed, a deep low sound that warmed her. “Believe me, it’s not as wonderful as it sounds. You wait in line for the bathroom, you wait to be served at the table, you share everything you’re given and there’s incessant noise.” She searched his features. “But there must have been something wonderful in it.” He frowned, the gesture doing nothing to detract from his handsomeness. His gaze drifted to the window and he stared out for a long moment before answering. When he looked back at her the deep lines in his face had softened. “I suppose there was something wonderful about it,” he said as if conceding a huge point. “I definitely never felt lonely and I knew my family always had my back when I got into trouble.” “And did you do that often?” she asked. “Get into trouble?” His eyes gleamed with a hint of mischief. “Probably more than my share, although nothing serious. What about you? Were you a wild child or one of those Goody Two-shoes who always played by the rules?” It was the first conversation they’d had where she didn’t feel on edge, wasn’t afraid of screwing up the lies she’d already told with new lies. Maybe she was feeling more relaxed because the snowplows sounded like imminent escape. “I was in-between,” she said. “I’m sure my grandmother would tell you that I had some wild moments and like your Smokey, she didn’t hesitate to burn my butt if I needed it. But I never broke any laws or anything like that.” “That’s a relief. I wouldn’t want to be harboring a criminal in my house,” he said, his green eyes teasing. She returned his smile. In different circumstances she had a feeling it would have been easy to like Dalton… really like him. Although he seemed reserved, when he smiled at her she wanted to break through that reserve and get to the heart of the man. But she couldn’t afford to be attracted to him. As soon as the streets were cleared she’d be out of his apartment and as far away from Cotter Creek as she could get. This was nothing more than a temporary respite from the drama that her life had become on the afternoon that Sheriff Brandon Sinclair had walked into the café. “I’ll bet you spend a lot of time with your family,” she said. “Not really. Oh, we get together for the usual holidays, but most of the time I’m perfectly satisfied alone.” “Still, I imagine it’s a good feeling to know that they’re there if you need them,” she replied. Sammy cooed like a dove as he found his own fingers, his legs kicking with happiness. She watched Dalton as his gaze went to her son. Dalton looked back at her. “You’ve got a tough road ahead of you.” “What do you mean?” “A single mother, no father in the picture and you mentioned that you don’t have your GED yet. You’ve got an uphill battle ahead of you.” “I know,” she agreed, suddenly sober as she gazed down at Sammy. “I might have grown up poor in a trailer park, but I’m going to make something of myself so that Sammy has everything he needs.” She heard the angry resolve in her own voice, a resolve that had strengthened when Sinclair had told her that she was nothing but trailer trash and nobody would believe her if she told what he’d done. “There’s nothing wrong with being poor, or growing up in a trailer park,” Dalton said softly. She smiled. “Spoken like a man who has never known what it’s like to be poor.” “You’re right,” he conceded. “I was lucky never to have to worry about finances. The bodyguard business pays well and we all share in the profits of both the business and the ranch.” “Did you always want to be a bodyguard?” “When I was ten I wanted to be a rodeo clown,” he said. “When I was twelve I wanted to be an astronaut, then a treasure hunter and a gold miner.” She laughed. “For me it was a movie star, a ballerina then a princess.” She sobered. “It never entered my mind that in reality I’d be an abused woman on the run with a small baby.” “Your sister will take you in?” “Of course,” she replied around the lump of fear that swelled in her throat. She had no idea where she was going, no idea what she’d find when she arrived. Her only support system was a sixty-eight-year-old woman with a bad heart. Dalton ran a hand through his thick dark hair, not breaking eye contact with her. “Why do I get the feeling that you aren’t telling me everything?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said and looked down at Sammy, who had begun to fuss. “I’d better get him a bottle,” she said as she got up from the sofa. It was a relief to escape those piercing, intelligent eyes of his. She didn’t know what he saw that made him think she was keeping secrets, but there was no way she could tell him the truth. And in any case, it didn’t matter. She would be gone soon enough. She fixed Sammy his bottle, then picked him up off the floor. “I think I’m going to go ahead and call it a night,” she said. He nodded. “Unless it will freak you out entirely, I’m planning on sleeping here on the sofa tonight. I like George a lot, but his sofa is small and last night he kept me up until long after midnight telling me stories I’d heard a dozen times before.” She was surprised to realize the idea didn’t freak her out. She trusted him to remain the perfect gentleman he’d already been. “Would you rather stay in your own bed? Sammy and I could bunk in here,” she offered. “No, I’ll be just fine. Good night, Jane,” he said. She wished she could hear her real name on his lips, but fear still ruled her decisions, including the decision to tell him little white lies, as much as she hated it. “Good night, Dalton.” Even though it was relatively early, Janette breathed a sigh of exhaustion as she got ready for bed. It was hard work watching every word that fell from her mouth and being careful not to say too much or too little. When she was in her nightgown she moved to the window and stared outside. The street in front of Dalton’s had been plowed, leaving piles of snow on either side that glistened in the streetlights. The sooner she got on the bus the better she’d feel, but escaping this part of the country certainly didn’t ease the fear that was a constant inside her. She might escape Sinclair but then she’d have to face settling into a new place, finding work and taking care of Sammy and earning enough money to send for Nana. Dalton was right. She had a tough road ahead of her. Sammy finished his bottle, and she sang softly to him until he fell asleep. It took her longer to sleep and when she finally succumbed, the dream began almost immediately. “Well, well, don’t we look all sexy in that little skirt,” Sinclair said, and there was something in his eyes that made her suddenly afraid. Janette held out her driver’s license, but he didn’t take it from her. Instead those cold, blue eyes of his swept leisurely down her body. “You were going awfully fast. You doing drugs?” “I don’t do drugs, Sheriff,” she exclaimed. “I’m going to have to frisk you to make sure you have nothing illegal on you.” He stepped closer to her and she smelled the scent of him, a stale sweat odor mingling with an overly sweet cologne. Unconsciously she took a step backward, heart pounding painfully hard. He narrowed his eyes. “Don’t you fight me, girl. I’ll have you in handcuffs so fast your pretty little head will spin.” He grinned. “Or maybe I’ll just have to shoot you for resisting.” And then he put his hands on her. Hands. Everywhere on her. And hot breath on her face. And in her dream she did something she hadn’t been able to do that night. She screamed. * * * The scream pulled Dalton from a dream of a naked Jane in his bed. He shot upright on the sofa, for a moment not knowing what it was that had awakened him. Then it came again, a scream of such terror it raised the hairs on his arms, on the nape of his neck. Jane! He stumbled from the sofa and into the bedroom, adrenaline surging and heart pounding. He flipped on the overhead light and instantly realized Jane was in the middle of a nightmare. She thrashed on the bed, flailing her arms and legs as if fighting for her life. Sammy cried out, too, and his eyes fluttered open, but he settled back to sleep, as if accustomed to his mother having bad dreams. “Jane,” Dalton called softly. She moaned, whipping her head from side to side, but she didn’t open her eyes. He approached her, trying not to notice that the sheets had slipped down to her waist and the pale blue silk nightgown she wore did little to hide her full breasts. The fight or flight adrenaline that had filled him at the sound of her scream now transformed to another kind of energy as a surge of desire struck him midsection. “Jane,” he said again as he moved closer to the edge of the bed. Still she didn’t respond. He was going to have to touch that soft-looking pale skin and he knew he was going to find it far too pleasant. “Jane, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.” He leaned over and took her by the shoulders. Her eyelids snapped open and she looked at him, wildness in the depths of her eyes. She stared at him and the wildness left as recognition struck. She released a little gasp and to his surprise launched herself out of the bed and into his embrace. She trembled in his arms and sobbed silently into the crook of his neck. He tentatively slid a hand down the cool material that covered her back. “Shh, it was just a dream,” he said softly. It would be easier to comfort her if he wasn’t bare-chested, if he wasn’t so intensely aware of every point where her bare skin made contact with his. She raised her face to look at him. Her eyes were misty with tears but her full lips parted as if in invitation or some kind of strange desperation. He didn’t think about kissing her ahead of time. He didn’t consciously plan to. It just happened. One minute he was gazing at her face and the next minute his mouth covered hers. He didn’t just kiss her, she kissed him back, her mouth opening against his as he pulled her closer to him. The kiss lasted only a second or two, then she pulled away from him, a horrified look on her face. “I’m sorry,” she said, her cheeks blossoming with high color. “No…I’m sorry,” he replied stiffly. “You were screaming and obviously having a nightmare and I…I just meant to wake you.” She released a breathless, embarrassed laugh. “I’m definitely awake.” “Then I’ll just…uh…let you go back to sleep.” Dalton backed out of the room, afraid that if he remained another minute longer he’d want to kiss her again. What was he doing? he wondered as he threw himself back on the sofa. Every nerve in his body was electrified, every muscle tense. His response to that kiss stunned him. He knew virtually nothing about Jane Craig except that her skin had been soft as silk and her lips had been hot and willing. It was possible by tomorrow she’d be gone. It was even more certain that he didn’t want to be involved with her. He didn’t want to know what she dreamed about, he didn’t want to share his life with her in any way, shape or form. It had been wrong to kiss her, because all he could think about now was how much he wanted to kiss her again. He fell asleep dreaming of the sweet heat of her mouth and awakened the next morning stiff and sore from the night on the sofa. He got up, nearly tripping over Sammy’s diaper bag on the floor. He swallowed a curse. By the time he’d made coffee, some of the stiffness of his muscles had begun to ease, as had his foul mood. He sat at the table, his hands wrapped around a mug of fresh brew. Even though it wasn’t quite seven o’clock he could hear the sounds of plows already at work. Maybe the bus would come this afternoon, he thought. That would be a good thing. He could see Jane and Sammy to the bus stop, wish them well on their way, then return to his solitary life without temptation. And Jane Craig had become a definite temptation. He still sat at the table with thoughts of Jane when a knock sounded on his door. He jumped up from the table and hurried to answer. He pulled open the door to see his brother Zack standing on his landing, his gloved hands holding a shovel. “Hey, bro, just thought I’d check in to see if you survived the storm. I just finished clearing off the driveway and your car and thought you might have a hot cup of coffee for me.” Dalton held the door tightly. Please, please don’t tell anyone I’m here. Jane’s words pounded in his head as he stared at his brother. “You didn’t have to do that,” he said. “And you don’t want to come in here, Zack,” he finally said. “I’ve got the flu, been throwing up off and on all night.” Zack frowned and took a step backward as if to avoid any germs floating in the air between them. “You need anything? We’ve about got all the major roads cleared in town and some of the stores are opening this morning.” “Nah, I’m fine. I just think I might be contagious so it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to come inside, but I really appreciate you cleaning off the driveway. I’m sure George appreciates it, too. I’d love for you to come in, but I’m really not feeling well.” Dalton couldn’t tell if Zack believed him or not but he breathed a sigh of relief as Zack backed down the stairs, promising to check in on him later. Dalton closed the door, hating the fact that he’d lied to his brother for reasons he didn’t quite understand. If Jane’s abusive ex-boyfriend had somehow tracked her to Cotter Creek, then why on earth would it matter if the local sheriff knew about it? He turned to see Jane standing in the bedroom doorway, Sammy in her arms. “Thank you,” she said. “Don’t thank me. I’m not happy about lying to my family.” He walked back into the kitchen, aware of her following just behind him. When he saw that she was about to prepare a bottle for Sammy, he held out his hands to take the kid from her arms. As always, Sammy looked delighted to see him. He launched himself into Dalton’s arms with a big grin that lit up his entire little face. “Is this kid ever in a bad mood?” Dalton asked as he sat in a chair. Sammy smelled like baby powder and lotion, a pleasant scent that reminded Dalton of dreams half-forgotten and abandoned. “Rarely,” she replied, moving to the sink. As she stood with her back to him he couldn’t help but notice again the tight fit of her worn jeans across her butt. She had a great butt. Besides the jeans she wore a pink sweater that hugged her slender curves and complemented her blond coloring. She fixed the bottle, then took Sammy from his arms and sat in the chair next to his, her hair falling softly around her shoulders. “If the streets are clear enough maybe it would be best if I found someplace else to go until the bus runs again.” She looked so small, so utterly vulnerable, and at that moment Sammy smiled at him around his bottle’s nipple, the gesture sending a stream of formula down the side of his mouth. “That isn’t necessary,” he replied. “Zack just told me the streets are practically clear, so I imagine that the bus will run tomorrow.” “Good.” She held his gaze. “About last night…” “You had a nightmare. I comforted you. That’s all there was to it.” He got up to pour himself another cup of coffee. “You want some breakfast? I was thinking maybe I’d make a stack of pancakes.” “You don’t have to go to all that trouble for me,” she protested. He grinned at her. “I’m more than willing to go to that kind of trouble for me.” She returned his smile. “Well, in that case pancakes sound wonderful.” Breakfast was pleasant. Sammy entertained with coos and grins as his mother and Dalton ate pancakes and talked. The conversation was marked with a new easiness that he suspected came from the fact that they both saw the end of their confinement together. She made him laugh as she shared with him funny stories about her grandmother. He noticed that in none of the stories did she mention the older sister she was supposedly on her way to visit, but he didn’t call her on it. Instead he simply enjoyed the way her eyes sparkled as she spoke of the old woman who had raised her. She might not have graduated high school, but she was smart as a whip. She argued politics with him and spoke easily of current affairs. He had a feeling she would do well no matter what path she chose in life. The rest of the day passed pleasantly. As Sammy took a late-afternoon nap, Dalton and Jane sat at the table and played poker with toothpicks as chips. “You’re one heck of a bluffer,” he said after she’d won her third pot. She laughed. “If you think I’m good, you should play with Nana. She’s the ultimate poker player in the family. In fact, she gets together once a week with some of the other ladies in the trailer park and they tell everyone they’re playing bridge, but they really play poker.” He laughed, but his laughter was cut short by a knock on his door. “Sit tight. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.” She cast him a grateful look as he got up from the table. It was probably one of his other brothers coming to check in on him. He’d have to play the sick card again. Hopefully he could bluff as well as Jane when it came to fooling his family members. He pulled open the door to see a burly, dark-haired man he’d never seen before standing there. He wore the khaki pants and coat of law enforcement. “Yes?” “Dalton West?” “Yeah, I’m Dalton.” “I’m Sheriff Brandon Sinclair from over in Sandstone. I hate to bother you, but I’m looking for a woman named Janette Black. She’s traveling with a baby and I have reason to believe she might have come here.” His gaze went over Dalton’s shoulder, as if trying to see inside the apartment. Dalton tensed but offered the man a frown of confusion. “There’s no woman or baby here,” he said. “What makes you think she’d come to me? I’ve never heard of this Janette Black before.” That part, at least, was true. But it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Jane was really Janette. “She stole money from the café where she worked and when we went to find her just before the storm hit we discovered more serious crimes. Her grandmother has been murdered and Janette is a person of interest. Your name and phone number were on a piece of paper next to the old woman’s bed, so we thought maybe she’d come here.” “Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t help you.” Dalton’s head whirled with the information Sheriff Sinclair had just given him. What in the hell was going on? Sinclair studied him for a long moment, then held out a card. “If you see her, or if she tries to make contact with you, give me a call. She’s dangerous, Mr. West. She needs to be behind bars.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” Dalton said. He murmured a goodbye, then closed his door. He waited until he heard the sound of the sheriff’s boots going back down the stairs, then he went into the kitchen. Janette sat at the table, her face devoid of all color. As she stared at him a deep, wrenching sob ripped from the back of her throat. “He killed Nana. First he raped me, and now he’s killed Nana,” she cried. She jumped up from the chair. “I’m—I’m going to be sick.” She ran for the bathroom as Sammy began to cry. Chapter 5 Janette stood in the bathroom fighting not only an all-encompassing grief, but wave after wave of nausea, as well. Just hearing his deep voice had made her ill. Knowing he’d been on the other side of the door had sickened her. He’d found her. He’d said he found a notepad with Dalton’s name and number next to Nana’s bed. There was no way Nana would have willingly given him that information. Oh God, she must have died trying to protect Janette and Sammy. Blinded by her tears, she leaned weakly against the wall and wondered if it were possible to die of grief. She felt as if she were dying. Her heart felt as if it might explode at any moment. Nana was dead. Nana was dead. Never again would Janette feel Nana’s arms around her, never again would she see the old woman’s eyes shining with love, her wrinkled face wreathed with laughter. And Janette was wanted for her murder. That’s how he would get Sammy. He’d see her tried for a murder she hadn’t committed. She’d spend the rest of her life in prison, and Brandon Sinclair would have her precious boy. And her nana, the woman who had meant the world to her, was dead. “Janette?” Dalton knocked on the door. She sucked in air, trying to staunch the deep sobs that ripped through her. She didn’t want to face him, was afraid that he might believe all the horrible things that Sinclair had said. And if he did believe Sinclair, there was nothing to stop him from contacting the lawman and letting him know she was here. “Janette, come on out. We need to talk.” His voice held a quiet command. She grabbed a handful of tissues and wiped at her eyes, at her nose, then tossed the tissues into the trash. But she was reluctant to open the door, afraid to face him. What if she told him the truth and he didn’t believe her? She didn’t think she could handle it. “Janette, you can’t stay in there all night.” He was right. She couldn’t stay in the bathroom. She opened the door. He no longer held Sammy, but as she stepped out of the bathroom Dalton opened his arms to her. She walked into them as tears of rich, raw grief began to flow again. His strong arms surrounded her, and they felt like shelter from a world that had been terrifying for a very long time. She cried into the front of his shirt, wondering how she was going to survive without Nana’s loving support. After several minutes, Dalton released her and led her to the sofa. Sammy was once again on his blanket on the floor, staring up at the ceiling as if fascinated by the patterns the late-afternoon sunshine made as it drifted through the window. Dalton sat next to her, his features inscrutable. “The truth, Janette. I need to know the whole truth,” he said softly. “You said he raped you. Were you talking about your old boyfriend?” She had two choices. Continue with the lies she’d told him, or tell the truth about everything. Her heart banged against her ribs. “No.” The word whispered out of her on a wave of despair. She knew it was time to tell the truth. She had nothing to lose now and she wanted—needed—Dalton to know. She grabbed a strand of her hair and twisted it around her finger. “There is no ex-boyfriend. The man who raped me, the man who killed my grandmother, is Sheriff Brandon Sinclair.” Dalton’s eyes narrowed and he drew in a quick breath of surprise. “I think maybe you need to start at the beginning and tell me everything.” She leaned back against the plump sofa cushion and closed her eyes, fighting the overwhelming grief that still reached out to smother her in its clutches. She opened her eyes and gazed down at Sammy, who in the midst of her heartbreak had fallen asleep. Looking at Dalton, she fought against the tears and drew a deep, steadying breath. The beginning. “It happened one night when I was driving home from the classes I was taking to study for my GED. They took place at a community college about twenty-five miles from where I lived in Sandstone.” She rose from the sofa, unable to sit as she fought against the panic that remembering that night always brought. It was a panic that constricted her lungs, closed up the back of her throat and quickened her heartbeat. It was the fear of having to remember and the additional stress of wondering if Dalton would believe her. “Janette.” He reached out and took her hand. Holding it firmly he drew her back on the sofa next to him. “It’s okay, you’re safe for now.” He didn’t let go of her hand. It was as if he knew she needed support, something to cling to as she went back to that horrible night. She nodded and swallowed hard. “The highway between the community college and Sandstone is pretty deserted after dark. I was about halfway between the college and home when I saw the lights of a patrol car in my rearview mirror. I knew I was speeding so I pulled over to the side of the road, figuring I was about to get a ticket.” She paused and drew another deep breath, trying to still the frantic beat of her heart. Dalton squeezed her hand, as if to give her strength and she desperately needed it. She needed all the strength he could give her to get through the rest of it. “I thought something was odd when he told me to turn off my headlights and get out of the car. He told me I had been speeding and asked if I was doing drugs. I’ve never touched drugs in my life,” she stated emphatically. Dalton nodded, his expression giving nothing away of his inner thoughts. “Had you had run-ins with him before that night?” “Never,” she replied. “I’d seen him around town, on the streets, but he’d never spoken to me before, never even noticed me that I knew of.” “What happened next?” he asked. A trembling began deep inside her. It was as if all the warmth of the room had been sucked out and an arctic chill had taken over the world. Tears blurred her vision once again and she blinked them away, angry that after all this time the memory of what happened still had the power to make her cry. “He told me he needed to frisk me and he warned me that he’d hate to have to shoot me for resisting.” She looked down at Dalton’s hand around hers, unable to look him in the eyes. “He raped me there on the side of the road.” The words didn’t begin to describe the horror, the violation of that night. Her nose filled with the sweaty, ugly scent of Sinclair. Her skin wanted to crawl off her body as she thought of the way he’d touched her, the sounds he’d made as he pushed himself against her. “I won’t bore you with all the ugly details.” She pulled her hand from Dalton’s, afraid he could feel the ugliness inside her. She couldn’t look at him, was afraid to see disbelief in his eyes. She’d fall completely to pieces if she saw doubt or condemnation there. “What happened after?” His voice was soft, as if he understood the emotions blackening her soul. Thank God he didn’t press her for any of the details of the rape itself, for she’d shoved those particular memories deep inside her in a place where she wouldn’t easily retrieve them. She looked up into those warm green eyes of his. “Nothing,” she said simply. She forced a smile of dark humor. “I guess I should be grateful that at least I didn’t get a speeding ticket.” The smile faltered and fell away as tears once again burned at her eyes. He raised a dark eyebrow. “You didn’t tell anyone?” She leaned back and stared at a point just over his shoulder. “Who was I going to tell? I couldn’t exactly report the crime to the sheriff.” There was more than a touch of bitterness in her voice. She shook her head. “I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to tell Nana because I thought it might destroy her. It wasn’t until I realized I was pregnant that I finally told Nana and the man I’d been seeing at the time.” A shaft of pain stabbed through her. “He asked me what I’d been wearing that night, implying that it was somehow my fault. Needless to say that was the end of that relationship.” “And you’re sure Sheriff Sinclair is Sammy’s biological father?” There was a faint note of apology in his voice. She wanted to be offended by the question, but realized Dalton really didn’t know anything about her. It was a fair question, she supposed. “I’m positive. The guy I was seeing at the time…we hadn’t…you know, been intimate.” Her cheeks burned and she kept her gaze averted from his. “So, you realized you were pregnant. What happened then?” She looked at him once again. It was impossible to read him. She had no idea if he believed her or not, couldn’t get a sense of anything that might be flowing through his head. “The last thing I wanted was for Brandon Sinclair to know that I was pregnant. I managed to hide my condition from everyone until late in the pregnancy, then I told people who noticed that I’d had a fling with a salesman passing through town.” She gazed down at Sammy. “As far as I was concerned Brandon Sinclair had no right to know about my condition. From the very beginning Sammy was my baby and nobody else’s.” “So, he didn’t know anything about Sammy.” “I didn’t think he knew until three days ago when he walked into the café where I worked.” She told him about Sinclair and his deputies coming in and the sheriff asking her about her son. “There was something in his eyes, something in the things he was saying that let me know I had to take Sammy and run and so that’s what I did. I didn’t steal anything from the café, but the moment the sheriff left, I told Smiley, the owner, that I didn’t feel well. I also told him I wasn’t happy working there and I was quitting, then I went home.” She paused a moment to draw a deep breath then continued, “Nana agreed that I needed to take Sammy and leave town, get as far away as possible from Sheriff Sinclair. One of Nana’s friends drove me here to catch the bus. Our plan was that I’d get settled someplace far away from Oklahoma, then I’d send for Nana and we’d start building a new life together.” Grief once again rocked through her and new tears burned at her eyes as she thought of her grandmother. Dalton studied her, a tiny frown furrowing the area in the center of his forehead. “After that night of the rape, did he continue to bother you? To threaten you in any way?” She shook her head. “No. Of course, I went out of my way to avoid him. I kept my pregnancy pretty well hidden, too. The few times we did run into each other, it was as if nothing had ever happened. He’d look right through me, as if he had no memory of what he’d done.” She wrapped her arms around herself, fighting a new chill. A bitter laugh escaped her. “Who was I going to report it to?” she said more to herself than to him. “Who was I going to tell about the rape? The sheriff? His deputies? Brandon Sinclair owns Sandstone.” Leaning forward she stared at the wall just over Dalton’s shoulder. “Everyone is afraid of him. He’ll get Smiley, my boss at the café, to agree that I stole money. He’ll get anyone in town to say anything whether it’s true or not, because nobody wants to get on his bad side. Besides, when he was done with me he reminded me that I was nothing but trailer trash and nobody would ever believe my word over his.” “I believe you.” Those three words, so simply spoken, wove a strand of warmth around her heart. She hadn’t realized how badly she’d wanted to hear somebody other than her nana say them. She began to cry again. * * * Dalton pulled her against his broad chest as her tears flowed once again. He believed her. Dalton, better than anyone, knew that a gold badge of law enforcement could hide a sick, twisted soul. There was no way she could fake the grief she felt for her grandmother and there was no way she could have manufactured the trauma she’d exhibited as she’d told him about the rape. He tightened his arms around her. There was a special place in hell for men who raped women, and a place beyond hell for men in authority who abused women. Janette’s tears finally ebbed and she raised her head and looked at him, the blue of her eyes dark with tortured sorrow. “I just can’t believe she’s gone,” she said, her voice hoarse with emotion. “I just talked to her yesterday morning.” “Yesterday morning?” Dalton frowned, the sheriff’s words replaying in his mind. “You spoke to your grandmother yesterday morning?” She nodded and moved out of his embrace. She wiped at her cheeks and tucked a strand of her shiny hair behind her ear. “I called her from here to let her know that I was stuck here because of the storm.” “But according to what Sheriff Sinclair told me, he found her dead before the storm moved in.” Janette blinked in confusion. “But that’s impossible.” Her tears disappeared as a tenuous hope shone from her eyes. “He lied. And if she wasn’t dead when he said she was, maybe she isn’t dead at all. Maybe he just said that to get you to turn me over to him.” She jumped up from the sofa and headed to the cordless phone on the end table. Dalton leaned forward and watched her. As she punched in numbers she looked small and fragile, and the thought of a man touching her, taking her with force filled him with a simmering rage. He watched her face as she gripped the phone receiver tightly against her ear. The hope that had momentarily lit her eyes faded. “Nobody answered,” she said as she hung up. “Even the answering machine didn’t pick up.” Her eyes grew shiny with tears once again. “Is there anyone else you can call to see what’s going on?” “Nana’s friend, Nancy.” She quickly punched in the number. “She lives next door to Nana at the trailer park. She’ll know what’s going on. Nancy,” she said into the phone. “It’s me.” Myriad expressions played across her face as she listened to the voice on the other end of the line. “Oh, God, is she…” Tears once again fell from Janette’s eyes but she offered him a tremulous smile. “Nana, are you all right?” As she said these words a knot of tension eased in his chest. Either she was a better actress than Meryl Streep or she was now talking to the grandmother she’d thought murdered. “Does he know where you are now?” Janette asked. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” She paused and listened for several minutes, then continued, “We’re fine and hopefully tomorrow we’ll be on the bus. Don’t worry, Nana, everything is going to be okay. I love you, too. I’ll stay in touch.” Janette hung up the phone and stared at Dalton, her eyes once again haunted with fear. “She’s alive, thank God.” She returned to the sofa. He saw the tremor that went through her body, but when she gazed at him he realized it was anger shining from her eyes, not fear. “What’s happened?” he asked. “Yesterday morning Nana braved the snow to go to Nancy’s and have coffee. She was there for about two hours. When she got home she had the feeling somebody had been in her trailer. She didn’t find anything out of place or missing so she chalked it up to her imagination. Then last night she was feeling lonely and unsettled, so she went back to Nancy’s to play some cards and spend the night. During the night her trailer was set on fire.” Shock filled Dalton at her words. “Thank God she wasn’t home. He meant to kill her, Dalton.” Janette’s hands clenched into fists at her sides. “He meant to kill her and blame me so he can see me in prison. Then he’ll be free to claim Sammy.” They both looked at the sleeping child on the floor. A weary resignation filled him. He’d offered her safe harbor from a snowstorm but now it appeared that the storm in her life had nothing to do with the weather outside. And he had a feeling whether he wanted it or not, her storm had become his. “Why don’t we get something to eat? It’s past dinner-time and I think we both could use something warm in our bellies.” He got up from the sofa and she followed him into the kitchen. “Grilled cheese and soup?” he asked and pointed her to the table. She shrugged, as if it didn’t matter what he offered her. He opened a can of tomato soup and poured it into a saucepan, then when he had it warming up he prepared the grilled cheese for the awaiting skillet. As he worked, she stared out the window where darkness had begun to fall. He had to admit that there was something about her that touched him, that called on protective instincts he’d thought had been lost when he’d lost Mary. “It must have been a tough decision to have the baby under the circumstances,” he said. “A lot of women would have chosen a different option.” “I thought about an abortion,” she replied. “But, to be honest it was just a passing thought. It might be an option for a lot of women, but it wasn’t for me. I was easily able to separate the innocent baby from the monster who had raped me.” She smiled then, the first smile he’d seen from her since the appearance of Brandon Sinclair on his doorstep. It was like sunshine breaking through chill wintry clouds. “Sammy is the best of me and there hasn’t been a single minute that I’ve regretted my decision to give him life.” That’s mother love, he thought. That fierce, shining emotion he saw in Janette’s eyes, that was what he’d lost when his mother had been murdered. Dalton rarely thought about the mother he couldn’t remember, but a shaft of unexpected grief stabbed him now. “It was a sheriff who murdered my mother twenty-five years ago,” he said. Her eyes widened as she stared at him. “The sheriff of Cotter Creek, Jim Ramsey. He was arrested a couple of months ago when he stalked my sister.” “Why? Why did he kill your mother?” Dalton stirred the soup, then placed the first two sandwiches into the skillet. “He said he loved her, but it wasn’t love, it was a sick, twisted obsession. He approached her one night on the highway and told her he loved her, that he wanted her to leave my dad, and when she refused he lost it and strangled her.” He didn’t miss the parallel in what had happened to his mother and what had happened to Janette. Men they should have been able to trust had accosted both on a lonely stretch of highway. The only difference was, Janette had survived and his mother had not. “Oh, Dalton, I’m so sorry.” He nodded and swallowed around the unexpected lump of emotion that rose up in his throat. “It was a long time ago. She was a wonderful, loving person.” “And your father never remarried?” Dalton flipped the sandwiches. “No, never even looked at another woman. He and my mom were true soul mates and when she was gone he never showed any interest in pursuing a relationship with anyone else.” “From what my grandmother told me, my mother wasn’t even sure who my father was.” Her gaze went back to the window again and when she looked back at Dalton a tiny frown furrowed her forehead. “Why would he tell you that I’d killed Nana?” Dalton took up the grilled cheese sandwiches and placed them on two separate plates. “If he burned down her trailer last night it’s possible he doesn’t know she isn’t dead. If he puts out the word that you’re wanted for questioning in a murder case, then you’re going to have trouble hiding out. He can get law enforcement officials in every county keeping an eye out for you.” He set the plates on the table then went back to grab the two bowls of soup. “If you’re trying to cheer me up, it isn’t working,” she said dryly. She placed her spoon in her bowl, but didn’t begin to eat. Instead, she looked back out the window, where night had completely fallen. “Do you think he believed you when you told him you didn’t know me, that I wasn’t here?” Dalton followed her gaze to the window and a tight knot of tension formed in his chest. “I have a feeling we’ll know before the bus shows up in town.” * * * Brandon raised his collar against the stiff wind that blew from the north. He stood across the street from Dalton West’s place, eyes trained on the upper windows. She was in there. He smelled her, the trailer trash tramp who was trying to keep his son from him. He’d known that she’d blown town, had taken his son and left Sandstone. A visit to her grandmother’s house yesterday had given him his clue. The old lady wasn’t home but he’d gotten inside and taken a look around. The minute he’d seen the name and phone number on the nightstand, he knew in his gut that he was on her trail. It was obvious from the condition of the small bedroom in the trailer that Janette had packed up and left. Clothes were thrown helter-skelter and there wasn’t a baby article to be found except for the crib, which was stripped of bedding. He’d been enraged. He’d gone back to his office, researched to find out what he could about Dalton West, then late last night had returned to the trailer and set it on fire. He considered the death of Janette’s grandmother collateral damage. He hadn’t yet gotten the official report of the fire from their fire chief, but he knew the man would write up whatever Brandon told him to. With the old woman dead and Janette wanted as a suspect in an arson-murder case, she’d find it difficult to get out of Cotter Creek. She was a wanted woman, and if he put a reward on her head, she wouldn’t be able to show her face anywhere. He’d known he’d find Janette, and he had. He narrowed his eyes as he watched the windows. Even though Dalton West had told him he’d never heard of Janette Black, that there was no woman with a baby inside his place, Brandon knew he’d lied. The sheriff had done his homework. He knew Dalton West was a bachelor who lived alone. But he’d watched the silhouettes move back and forth in front of those windows and knew the professional bodyguard wasn’t alone. And if that wasn’t enough, when Dalton had opened the door and Brandon had gotten a glimpse inside, he’d seen a diaper bag on the living-room floor, a diaper bag with the same blue teddy bear print that had decorated one area of one of the small bedrooms in the trailer. She was in there, and there was no way she was going to escape him. One Oklahoma bodyguard wasn’t going to stand in the way of Brandon Sinclair getting exactly what he wanted. Chapter 6 The cough woke Dalton. An irritating cough that pulled him groggily from his sleep. His eyes burned as he sat up on the sofa and realized the air was filled with the acrid scent of smoke. Fear shoved aside the last of his sleepiness as he grabbed his gun off the coffee table where he’d placed it before going to sleep the night before. He turned on the lamp next to the sofa and gasped as he saw the dark smoke that swirled in the room. Fire! They had to get out. Maybe George had forgotten to turn off a stove burner and something had caught flame. Dalton didn’t give much thought to what caused the smoke, he just knew he needed to get Janette and Sammy out, for the smoke appeared to be thickening by the second. Fire could be dangerous, but smoke was just as deadly. He pulled on his boots, then grabbed a coat, his cell phone and car keys and hurried into the bedroom where Sammy and Janette were asleep. He turned on the overhead light and Janette stirred, but didn’t awaken. “Janette.” He walked over to the bed and shook her shoulder with a sense of urgency. A spasm of coughing overtook him as she opened her eyes. “We need to get out of here,” he finally managed to gasp. She didn’t ask questions, obviously aware of the imminent danger that whirled and darkened the room despite the overhead light. “I’ll get your coat,” he said. “Just grab what you need.” As Dalton raced back through the kitchen into the small utility room where he’d hung her coat the night she’d arrived, he felt no heat beneath his feet, heard no ominous crackle of flames. But that didn’t mean they weren’t in danger. She met him at the bedroom door, pulling her suitcase behind her and Sammy in her arms with a blanket over his head. He thought about telling her to forget the suitcase, but realized the case contained all the possessions she and Sammy had left in the world. He grabbed the suitcase from her and motioned her toward the door that led to the interior staircase. He needed to make sure George got out as well. Before he opened the stairwell door he felt the wood, wanting to make sure it wasn’t hot, that deadly flames weren’t already attempting to burn through. The door radiated no heat so he opened it and motioned for her to precede him down the stairs. The smoke wasn’t as intense in the staircase, and still he could feel no heat radiating from any of the walls. But where there was smoke, there had to be a fire. They hit the landing to the first floor and Dalton entered George’s area of the house. “Wait here,” he said to Janette as he raced through George’s living room and down the hallway to the bedroom where the old man slept. It took him only minutes to rouse George from sleep and get his coat and shoes on him, then together they all made their way to the front door. It wasn’t until they opened the front door to get out that Dalton’s brain fully kicked into high gear. “Wait,” he said urgently before Janette ran outside. His mind whirled with suppositions. Brandon Sinclair had burned down Janette’s grandmother’s place. This evening he’d come to ask if Janette was here. Was it possible Sinclair hadn’t believed Dalton when he’d said he didn’t know Janette? Was it out of the question that he’d set a fire to try to smoke her out? “Janette, my truck is in the driveway. I’m going out first and when I get outside you run for the truck. George, you come out after Janette.” He released the lock on his gun, knowing he might have to provide cover for her if Sinclair was outside. He knew by the look in Janette’s eyes that she perceived his thoughts, realized the potential for danger. She gripped Sammy more tightly against her as George took the suitcase from her hand. “Problems?” George asked. “Possibly,” Dalton replied. George nodded and straightened his thin, sloped shoulders. Dalton went out the door, gun drawn, and with every sense he possessed on high alert. The night held the eerie silence that snow-cover produced, a preternatural calm that could be deceptive. Snow crunched beneath his boots as he stepped onto the front porch. The cold air stabbed his lungs as he drew deep, even breaths. He looked both directions, seeing nothing amiss but unwilling to trust that the night shadows held nothing dangerous. He took several more steps, then turned back to the house, noting dark smoke rolling out of a partially opened basement window. Had George left it open? The old man had a workshop downstairs where he did some woodworking. Had he left his wood-burning tool on, and somehow it had caught fire? His heart pounded as adrenaline continued to pump through him. He had no idea how big a fire might be burning there, but it was apparent he needed to get the others out of the house as soon as possible. Looking around once again he saw nothing that indicated any danger. He walked back up to the door and motioned for Janette to follow him as he tried to watch every direction around them. The gunshot came from the left, the bullet whizzing by Janette’s head as she screamed in terror. Dalton’s body slammed her to the ground, and he hoped that in the process Sammy wasn’t hurt. “Get down, George,” he yelled at the old man, who had just stepped off the porch. George dove into a snow-bank with the agility of a man one-fourth his age. Another gunshot exploded in the quiet of the night and the snow next to where Dalton and Janette lay kicked up. The shots had come from the direction of a large oak tree in the distance. Janette screamed again and Sammy’s cries added to the melee. Dalton’s heart crashed against his ribs and he thought he could feel Janette’s heartbeat through their coats. “I’m going to roll off you and start firing. When I do, run like hell to the truck and get inside. Stay down.” He fumbled in his pocket for his keys and gave them to her. “And if anything happens to me, drive away and don’t look back.” He didn’t give her time to protest or accept, he rolled off her and began firing at the tree. At the same time he heard the sound of a siren in the distance and knew that somebody had heard the shots and called for help. When he saw that Janette was safely in the truck, he stopped firing and waited to see if there would be an answering volley. Nothing. For a long moment he remained where he was, not moving, but listening…waiting…wondering if the threat still existed or not. He got up into a crouch as the siren grew louder. Still no answering shots. He had a feeling the shooter had run at the first sound of the siren. He hurried to the driver’s side of the truck and was surprised to see George come burrowing up from the snowdrift and running to throw the suitcase in the back of the truck bed. Dalton had just backed out of the driveway when Zack’s patrol car came screaming to a halt. “Get down,” he ordered Janette. She bent so she wasn’t visible and Dalton was grateful that at the moment Sammy wasn’t wailing. He rolled down his window as Zack rolled down his. “Call the fire department, and see to George,” Dalton said. “I’ll be in touch.” As Zack yelled a protest, Dalton pulled out onto the street and sped away from his brother, the house and the quiet, solitary life he’d led. Thankfully, Janette remained silent as he headed out of town and kept a watchful eye on the street behind him for anyone that might be following. He needed to think. Zack was a newly elected sheriff and aware of everyone’s eyes on him. After the disgrace of Jim Ramsey, the last sheriff of Cotter Creek, Zack was proving himself to be a strictly by-the-book kind of lawman. Dalton believed in rules, but sometimes rules had to be bent, even broken, and he wasn’t convinced that Zack would see things his way. If Brandon Sinclair had an arrest warrant for Janette, then Dalton feared his brother would feel it necessary to turn her over to him. He wouldn’t want to put himself in the middle of a problem that wasn’t his, especially in bucking the authority of a fellow sheriff. “Where are we going?” Janette asked, finally breaking the tense silence in the truck as they left the town of Cotter Creek behind. “A place where you’ll be safe until we can figure things out,” he replied. Besides, if he did decide to confide in Zack, what could he tell him? That a strange woman had shown up on his doorstep and had initially lied about everything, but finally had told him a story that he believed? Zack would ask for cold hard facts and Dalton had none. He couldn’t prove that Brandon Sinclair had set the fire tonight or fired the shots. No doubt Sinclair hadn’t used his service weapon; ballistics would probably lead to a dead end. He couldn’t prove that Janette hadn’t stolen money from her employer, although he could attest to the fact that she hadn’t been anywhere near that trailer when it had gone up in flames. Unless Sinclair screwed around with the reported date of the fire. He didn’t want to put his brother in the untenable position of having to choose between doing his job or supporting Dalton’s decision to break the law by hiding Janette. He’d talk to Zack, tell him who he thought was responsible for both the fire tonight and the gunfire, but he wouldn’t tell Zack where Janette was hidden away. He wouldn’t give her over to Zack, who might find himself with no alternative than to turn her over to Sinclair. He cast a quick glance at the woman in the passenger seat. She bounced Sammy in her arms and asked no more questions about where they were going or what they were going to do. She trusted him. After two snowbound days together, she trusted that he was taking her someplace where she’d be safe. It shocked him, awed him, and if he were to admit the truth to himself, it scared him more than just a little bit. She was placing not only her life, but also the life of her little boy directly in his hands. He clenched the steering wheel tightly. He hadn’t signed on for this, had simply offered a woman and her baby shelter from the storm. A tiny spark of anger filled him. He didn’t want this responsibility. Since the debacle with Mary he’d consciously backed away from being involved with anyone, even his family. He didn’t want anyone depending on him, needing him. He didn’t want the responsibility, but now that he had it, he couldn’t turn his back. Janette had been trapped by the storm, and now he was trapped by her circumstances. * * * Janette thought she might be in a mild state of shock. She couldn’t process the fire, the gunshots and now a drive down narrow, slick roads with darkness all around. She should be terrified, but she wasn’t. She was beyond terror and instead felt only a weary resignation, a stunning knowledge that she was no longer in control of her own life. She glanced at Dalton. In the faint illumination from the dashboard his handsome features looked grim and more than a little bit dangerous. She could only imagine what was going through his mind right now. Because of his kindness to a stranger, his home had been set on fire, he’d been shot at and he was now making a dash over the snow-slick roads to a safe place. “I’m so sorry I got you involved in all this,” she said. “All I wanted to do was leave town.” His knuckles turned white on the steering wheel as she felt the back end of the truck slide out. She caught her breath, then relaxed as he skillfully steered into the skid and straightened out the truck. “I know,” he replied. “We’ll talk when we get where we’re going.” That comment effectively staunched any other conversation she might have wanted to have. She cuddled Sammy closer against her and stared out the passenger window, where no lights from houses broke the darkness of the night. He seemed to have a plan and she was grateful, because she had none. She couldn’t return to his apartment because it was obvious Sinclair knew she was there. She felt terrible that she’d now placed Dalton in a horrible position. If he didn’t turn her over to the sheriff, then he was breaking the law and could face even uglier repercussions of his own. She’d like to be able to tell him just to drop her off somewhere, that she’d figure things out on her own. But that wasn’t an option either. She couldn’t go back to Sandstone and she couldn’t get out of Cotter Creek. She was in a horrible state of limbo, with Brandon Sinclair like a hound dog sniffing her scent. She sat straighter in the seat as Dalton turned off the main road and through an iron gate. He doused his headlights as they approached a large ranch-style home. “That’s my dad’s place,” he said as they drove past the sprawling one-story house. “It would be better if nobody knows you’re here on the property.” That explained him dousing the truck lights. They entered a pasture area and he threw the gears into four-wheel drive as they hit the thicker snow where no plows had been. They passed another house where lights shone from several windows. “That’s my brother Tanner and his wife’s place,” Dalton said. Still they didn’t stop. Once they’d passed the second house Dalton turned the truck headlights back on. There were other tracks in the snow. In one area it looked as if several trucks or cars had made figure eights. An area of thick woods was on their right, mostly evergreen trees, which she assumed provided windbreaks. Eventually Dalton turned through a small break in the trees and pulled to a halt in front of a small cabin. Trees completely surrounded it, tall evergreens that made it impossible to see the place unless you were right on top of it. “Who lives here?” she asked, nerves jumping in her stomach. “For now, you do,” he said as he shut off the engine. “At one time or another, I think all of my brothers have lived here for short periods, but for the last couple of months it’s been empty. You should be safe here.” She should have been safe on the road between her home and the community college. She should have been safe in Dalton’s apartment. She couldn’t afford to take her safety for granted anymore. “Come on, let’s get you inside and settled,” he said as he opened his truck door. Janette got out of the truck and stared at the cabin. There was nothing welcoming about it. Illuminated only by the faint cast of the moon filtering through the trees, it looked dark and cold and forbidding. She tightened her grip on Sammy as she followed Dalton up the stairs to the front door. He used a key to unlock it, then pushed it open, flipped on a switch that lit a small table lamp and ushered her inside. The sense of welcome that had been absent from the exterior was present inside. Plump throw pillows covered a dark-green sofa, and a rocking chair sat next to the fireplace. The wood floor gleamed with richness except where it was covered by braided rugs. “It’s nothing fancy,” Dalton said as he wheeled the dial of the thermostat on the wall. “There’s a bedroom and bath and a small kitchen.” He turned to face her. “We’re deep enough in the woods that no one should see the lights, but I won’t light a fire. I don’t want smoke from the chimney to draw any curious people.” He motioned her to follow him into the small kitchen, where he opened cabinets to show her a stockpile of canned goods. “There’s enough here to hold you for a night or two.” “You’re not staying?” She tried to keep the fear out of her voice but didn’t quite succeed. “I’ve got to get back to town and check on George and talk to my brother.” “What are you going to tell him?” She studied his features, wondering if he’d decide to give her up, that this was all trouble he hadn’t bargained to take on and he was finished with her and her mess. He swiped a hand through his thick dark hair and leaned against the wall, his expression unreadable. “I don’t know for sure. I’m still sorting out things in my head. But I promise you I won’t tell him you’re here.” He shoved off from the wall. “Things are pretty dusty in here, but there’s fresh bedding in one of the dresser drawers in the bedroom, and it won’t take long for the furnace to warm things up.” “I’m sure we’ll be fine,” she replied, although she wasn’t sure of anything. She wanted to tell him not to leave her, that she needed him to hold her, to wrap her in his strong arms and make her feel safe. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d truly felt safe. On second thought, yes, she did remember. It had been the night of her bad dream when he had held her and soothed away her fear. He walked over to the doorway that led off the kitchen and flipped on the light to illuminate a small bedroom with a double bed and a long dresser. “It’s late. You should try to get some sleep. There’s a phone in the living room. I’m assuming you don’t have a cell phone.” “Where I come from cell phones are a luxury, not a necessity.” He nodded and headed for the front door. “You’ve got my cell phone number. If you need anything don’t hesitate to call.” She followed him to the front door, nerves jangling inside as she watched him go out to the truck then return with her suitcase, which George had thrown into the back at the last minute. “Will you be back later tonight?” she asked. His green eyes narrowed intently. “I don’t know. I can’t make any promises. For sure I’ll try to be back here sometime tomorrow. Is there anything you need for Sammy?” “It depends on how long we’re here. If it’s for too much longer I’m going to need some more diapers.” A sense of urgency swept through her. “Surely the bus will run tomorrow and I can get on it and away from here.” He stared at her for a long moment, and she had a feeling he wanted to say something to her, something she might not want to hear. Instead he turned toward the door. “I’ll see you sometime tomorrow.” And with that he was gone. Sammy slept soundly as she laid him on the sofa with pillows surrounding him while she went into the bedroom to make up the bed. The last thing on her mind was sleep. Restless energy filled her, coupled with a simmering sense of terror that was unrelenting. Was Sinclair still in Cotter Creek? Those gunshots tonight were intended to kill her. Had his intention been to kill them all, then pluck Sammy from her dead arms? She now recognized that Sinclair would do anything to get Sammy. The man was insane. Was it truly about him wanting a son, or was it more than that? Maybe he was angry that she’d left town and was afraid that once she was out of Sandstone, she’d feel safe enough to talk about what he’d done to her. It was impossible to know the man’s mind. A chill washed over her, and it had nothing to do with the coolness of the room. Once the bed was made she placed Sammy in the middle, then walked back into the living room, knowing that sleep would be a long time coming. She stood at the living-room window and stared out into the darkness of night, her thoughts going to the man who had just left. Smelling the scent of his pleasant cologne, which lingered in the air, she wrapped her arms around her middle and tried not to allow herself to wish for a life different than the one she’d been handed. The memory of that single kiss she’d shared with Dalton warmed the chilled places inside her. What would it be like to kiss him longer, harder? What would it be like to lie naked in his arms, to make love with him? Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/carla-cassidy/snowbound-with-the-bodyguard-the-cowboy-s-secret-twins-snowb/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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