Authors: Carla Cassidy
“In an unofficial capacity,” Joshua replied.
Savannah had managed to minimize the danger of last night since she’d awakened this morning, but his offer of bodyguard services put a new spin on things.
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” she asked.
“No, I’m not sure about much of anything. But I’ve always thought it was better to be safe than sorry.”
“If we’re talking about my safety, then I like the way you think,” she said with a touch of dry humor. She wasn’t sure what made her more uncomfortable, the way her heart pounded at the thought that she might be in danger, or her heart’s reaction to the thought of having Joshua at her side for the next couple days.
Silhouette Intimate Moments
Strangers When We Married
Man on a Mission #1077
Born of Passion
To Wed and Protect
Out of Exile
Secrets of a Pregnant Princess
Protecting the Princess
Defending the Rancher’s Daughter
The Bodyguard’s Promise
is an award-winning author who has written over fifty novels for Silhouette Books. In 1995 she won Best Silhouette Romance from
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
Anything for Danny
. In 1998 she also won a Career Achievement Award for Best Innovative Series from
Romantic Times BOOKreviews.
Carla believes the only thing better than curling up with a good book to read is sitting down at the computer with a good story to write. She’s looking forward to writing many more books and bringing hours of pleasure to readers.
he’d never meant to make Cotter Creek, Oklahoma, her home. Savannah Marie Clarion had been on her way to nowhere when the transmission in her car had decided to go wonky. She’d managed to pull it into Mechanic’s Mansion on Main Street before it had died completely.
She’d taken one look around the dusty small town and had decided Cotter Creek sure felt like nowhere to her.
That had been three months ago. She now hurried down Main Street toward the Sunny Side Up Café where she was meeting Meredith West for lunch. After that she had an interview to conduct for her job
as a reporter for the
Cotter Creek Chronicle,
the daily newspaper.
“Good morning, Mr. Rhenquist.” She smiled at the old man who sat in a chair in front of the barbershop. His deeply weathered face looked like the cracked Oklahoma earth as he scowled at her.
“Somebody eat the bottom of your britches?” he asked.
She flashed him a bright smile. “It’s the latest style, Mr. Rhenquist. They’re cropped short on purpose.”
“Looks silly to me,” he replied. “No place for fashion in Cotter Creek.”
“If they ever ban grouchy old farts from Cotter Creek, you’d better pack your bags,” she retorted. She instantly bit her lower lip and hurried on, trying not to feel self-conscious in the short gray pants, sleek black boots and pink sweater that clashed cheerfully with her bright red curly hair.
She could almost hear her mother’s voice ringing in her ears as she hurried toward the café. “You’re brash, Savannah Marie. You’re outspoken and it’s quite unbecoming.”
She stuffed her mother’s voice in the mental box where she kept all the unpleasantness of her life as she entered the Sunny Side Up Café. She was greeted by the lingering breakfast scents of fried bacon and strong coffee now being overwhelmed by burgers and onions and the lunchtime fare.
Immediately she spied Meredith at a booth near
the back of the busy café. At the sight of her friend, Savannah couldn’t help the smile that curved her lips.
Meredith West had been one of the first people Savannah had met when she’d settled into the upstairs of a house owned by Ms. Winnie Halifax. Meredith had been visiting the sweet old lady when Savannah had been moving in.
On the surface Savannah and Meredith couldn’t be more different. Meredith always looked like she’d dressed in the dark, pulling on whatever her hands managed to land on while still half-asleep. On the other hand, Savannah had been breast-fed fashion sense by a superficial mother who had believed physical beauty was the second most important thing to being rich.
“Don’t you look spiffy,” Meredith said as Savannah slid into the booth opposite her.
“Thanks. Rhenquist just asked me what happened to the bottom of my britches.”
Meredith’s full lips curved into a smile. “Rhenquist is an old boob.”
A young waitress appeared at their table to take their order, interrupting their conversation momentarily. “So, what’s up with you?” Savannah asked when the waitress had left their booth. “Are you off on another adventure?”
Meredith worked for the family business, Wild West Protective Services. Savannah had been intrigued when she’d learned her new friend worked
as a bodyguard. “And when are you going to let me interview you for my column?”
“No, and never,” Meredith replied. “I’ve decided to take some time off.” She leaned forward, her green eyes sparkling. “My brother, Joshua is coming home. He should be here sometime today or tomorrow.”
“You have too many brothers. Which one is Joshua?”
“The baby. He’s been in New York for the past year and a half and we’ve all missed him desperately.” Her affection for her younger sibling was obvious in her voice.
“Is this a visit?”
“No, he’s decided to move back here. He says he’s had enough of the big city. He’d probably love for you to interview him. Joshua has never shied away from attention.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Savannah replied. “I’m interviewing Charlie Summit this afternoon.”
“Now that should be interesting. I can’t believe Cotter Creek’s epitome of crazy as a loon is going to talk to you.” Meredith shoved a strand of her long dark hair behind one ear.
“Actually, beneath his gruff exterior and eccentricities, Charlie is a very nice man. I sometimes go over to his place in the evenings and we play chess together. He’s lonely and he was thrilled when I told him I wanted to talk to him for one of my ‘People and Personality’ columns.”
“When we were kids he used to scare the hell out of us,” Meredith said after the waitress had returned to serve their orders. “He lived all alone out there in the middle of nowhere and looked like Grizzly Adams on a bad day. There was a rumor that his root cellar was filled with children who had disobeyed their parents.”
Savannah laughed. “I wonder who started that particular rumor?”
“Probably some parent with disobedient children.”
Meredith paused to take a sip of her iced tea, then continued. “Actually, Joshua became good friends with him when Joshua was about fifteen years old. You know that weather vane that Charlie has stuck in the ground next to his house?”
“You mean that copper monstrosity with the rooster?”
Meredith nodded. “One night a bunch of Joshua’s friends dared him to steal it. Joshua sneaked up and Charlie was waiting for him with a shotgun in hand.”
“So, what happened?”
“Charlie made Joshua go inside the house and call my father. As punishment Joshua had to go over to Charlie’s twice a week after school and work. I think he’s kept in touch with Charlie even while he’s been in New York.”
“If your brother is his friend, that makes two friends for Charlie. I’m hoping my article on him will humanize him and make people look beyond the scruffy beard and gruff exterior.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Meredith opened her purse and pulled out a cream-colored envelope and handed it across the table to Savannah.
“A wedding invitation. Clay and Libby are getting married a week from next Saturday.”
“Wow, that’s kind of fast, isn’t it?” Savannah knew a little about the romance between Meredith’s brother Clay and the beautiful blonde from Hollywood.
Clay had been sent to Hollywood to play bodyguard to Libby’s daughter, Gracie, who was a little movie star and had been receiving threatening notes in the mail. Clay and Libby had fallen in love, and Libby and her daughter had moved to Cotter Creek a couple of weeks ago.
Meredith smiled, a touch of wistfulness in her eyes. “Yes, it’s fast, but, according to Clay and Libby, when you know something is right you don’t waste any time.”
The two women continued to visit as they ate their lunch, then all too quickly it was time for Savannah to head to her interview with Charlie.
It was almost one o’clock as Savannah drove down Main Street, headed to the outskirts of town and the small ranch house where Charlie Summit lived.
Every morning for the past three months she had awakened and been vaguely surprised to discover herself for the most part content with her new life.
And content was something she couldn’t ever remember feeling in her twenty-four years of life.
Savannah had awakened one morning in her beautiful bedroom in her parents’ beautiful house and had realized if she didn’t get away from the criticism and unrealistic expectations she’d never know who she was and what she was capable of being.
And so she’d headed for the biggest adventure of her life…finding her life.
It had been that faulty transmission that had brought her to Cotter Creek and a further stroke of luck that Raymond Buchannan, the owner of the local newspaper, was getting old and tired. When she’d approached him with her journalism degree in one hand and an idea for profiling the locals in a column each week in the other, he’d hired her.
In the time she’d been here, she’d grown to love Cotter Creek, but she’d begun to think something bad was happening here. There had been too many accidental deaths of local ranchers lately. On a whim she’d done some research and the results were troubling, to say the least.
She shoved away thoughts of those deaths and rolled down her window to allow in the crisp early-October air, so different from the desert heat in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she’d grown up.
She was looking forward to the interview with Charlie. All her teachers in her journalism classes had told her that she was particularly good at the art of interviewing.
She always managed to glean one little nugget of information that exposed the very center of a person. It was one of her strengths. Her mother had spent her lifetime cataloging Savannah’s weaknesses.
Charlie Summit lived, as most of the ranchers in the area did, in the middle of nowhere. But, unlike most of the flat pastures of his neighbors, Charlie’s little two-bedroom ranch house was surrounded by woods and a yard that hadn’t seen the blade of a lawnmower in the past twenty years.
A rusted-out pickup truck body sat on cinder blocks on the east side of the house, surrounded by old scraps of tin and the infamous, huge, elaborate copper weather vane.
The junkyard collection, coupled with his hermitlike tendencies, certainly helped add to Charlie’s reputation as an odd duck.
What was definitely odd was that, as Savannah pulled her car to a halt in front of the overgrown path that led to Charlie’s front door, his two dogs, Judd and Jessie, were pacing the porch, obviously agitated.
Charlie never let the dogs stay out on their own. He’d always told her the two mutts were too dumb to know to scratch an itch unless he was sitting beside them telling them how to do it.
As she got out of her car, the two came running to her. They raced around her feet, releasing sharp whines. “What’s the matter, boys?” she asked and knelt down to pet first the tall, mostly golden re
triever then the smaller, mostly fox terrier. Savannah loved dogs, one of her many character flaws where her parents were concerned.
She stood and looked toward the house, where the front door was open, but no sound drifted outward. Odd. Charlie never left his door open. He’d always told her that an open door invited in trouble.
The curly red hairs on the nape of her neck sprang to attention as a sense of apprehension slithered through her,
“Charlie?” she called as she stepped closer to the porch. Judd and Jessie whined at her feet. “Charlie, it’s me, Savannah.”
She climbed the steps and paused at the front door as she caught a whiff of a scent that didn’t belong. It smelled like a firecracker seconds after explosion. She rapped her knuckles on the screen door, then stepped inside.
“Charlie? Are you home?” She walked the short distance through the foyer, then took a single step into the living room.
Charlie was home. He sat in his favorite recliner in the cluttered living room, a handgun on the floor beside him and the pieces of his head decorating the wall in bloody splatters behind him.
Savannah froze, for a moment her mind refused to make sense of the scene before her. In that instant of immobility she was acutely conscious of the pitiful yowls of the dogs coming from the porch, the laughter of a live audience drifting from the televi
sion and a mewling noise that she suddenly realized was coming from her.
That moment of blessed denial passed, and the horror struck her like a fist to the stomach. Charlie’s sightless blue eyes stared at her as she stumbled backward, fighting the need to be sick, swallowing against the scream that begged to be released.
Tears blurred her vision as she backed out the screen door. She turned blindly, intent on getting to her car, where her cell phone was in her purse on the front seat.
The scream that had been trapped in the back of her throat released itself as a pair of strong hands grabbed her shoulders.
The red-haired, pink-clad woman nearly barreled over Joshua West as he stepped up on the porch of Charlie’s house. The shriek she emitted as he caught her by the shoulders nearly shattered his eardrums, but the kick she delivered to his shin sent him backward with a stream of cuss words that would have daunted the devil.
“What in the hell is wrong with you, lady?” he exclaimed as he grabbed the porch rail to steady himself.
She stared up at him, whiskey-colored eyes wide and filled with tears. Her mouth worked, opening and closing, but it was as if the act of speech had left her. Her skin appeared unnaturally pale, a smattering of freckles seeming to stand out a full inch from her cheeks.
As he scowled at her she raised a hand and pointed a trembling finger toward the inside of the house. It was only then that Joshua realized it was fear and horror that rode her features.
He had no idea who she was or what she was doing here, but several other questions quickly filled his head. Why hadn’t her ear-splitting scream brought Charlie careening out the door to see what was going on, and why were the dogs running loose?
He took a good, long look at the young woman, in case he had to describe her later, then he went into the house. He’d only taken a single step inside the tiny foyer when he noticed the acrid smell of gunpowder and his gut twisted with a sense of dread.
Smelling gunpowder inside a house was never a good sign. As he took a step into the living room his sense of dread exploded into something deeper, darker. As he stared at Charlie’s body, disbelief fought with shock and a quick stab of grief.
It was obvious in a glance that the old man was dead. Joshua was smart enough to know not to disturb anything, although it looked like an open-and-shut case of suicide.
He needed to do something. He needed to call Sheriff Ramsey. Grief threatened to overwhelm the denial, but he shoved it back, knowing there were things that needed to be done.
What had happened here? How on earth had this happened? Dammit, what had made Charlie do such a thing? What had happened to make the man take
his own life? Of all the men Joshua had known, he would have thought Charlie the last one who would do something like this.
It was only when he stepped back out of the house that he remembered the woman. She was crouched down next to her car, a hand on Jessie’s furry back. As he walked down the steps to the path, she stood, a wary suspicion on her features.