Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
“As I was saying…” Roxanne glared at Pierce. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“She’s got a point,” Dante agreed. “She’s all grown up.”
“It’s either go to Medora with Roxanne or stay here with her. Those are the choices.” Pierce’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “After the latest attack, I don’t think she should be left alone.”
“Yeah, heard about that.” Dante’s arms crossed over his chest and he gave his brother a tight look. “Mom heard from Sheriff Yost that Roxanne had another encounter with the dirt bike yesterday and that you had a little fire out here the night before. Nice to get that kind of news from the grapevine. Mom was not happy that you didn’t call.”
“The fire happened in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to worry her.”
“All it would have taken was a single phone call.” Dante’s arms dropped to his sides. “But I understand. Roxanne, are you ready to go?”
She stood with her feet braced, her arms crossed over her chest. “I don’t need you to take me to town.”
“The longer you argue, the longer it will take to get there and back. And I know you’re dying to get back to the roundup.” Dante hooked her elbow and tugged her toward the truck.
Roxanne glared over her shoulder at Pierce. The smirk on his face didn’t make her any less mad. “Don’t think you can order me around, Pierce Thunder Horse. I’m only going with Dante because it will take less time than me arguing with your sorry carcass.”
“See you in a few hours. Don’t go lookin’ for trouble.” Pierce tipped his hat and took off for his truck.
Roxanne climbed up into the cab of Dante’s four-by-four pickup and sank into the leather seats. “I’m not happy about being babied.” Not only did it put a hitch in her confidence, but it made her worry about how it would look to the bank president if he saw her being escorted by the Thunder Horse men, as if she couldn’t take care of herself.
Still, she had to admit that it was nice not to have to be on alert for the whole drive. Even after a full night’s sleep, she was still exhausted by the previous day’s work and the thought of another tough day in the saddle ahead. She tipped her hat over her eyes and feigned sleep to avoid conversation with Pierce’s brother.
Dante seemed as content to drive in silence as she was. By the time they drove into Medora twenty minutes later, Roxanne’s muscles had relaxed and she’d almost fallen asleep.
Dante pulled into the feed store. A young clerk was sweeping the front sidewalk as Roxanne jumped down from the truck.
“You can wait here,” she told Dante. “I’ll only be a minute.”
Typical Thunder Horse, Dante climbed out of the truck and followed her in.
The teen frowned, set his broom aside and moved to let her by. “You’re early, Ms. Carmichael.”
“I have a couple things to get. It will only take me a minute.”
With Dante in tow, Roxanne raced around the store, gathering nails and a roll of barbed wire.
“I need four sacks of sweet feed, too,” she called out to the boy.
Dante helped the teen stack the four fifty-pound bags onto a hand truck. By the time they met back at the register, Roxanne had the items she needed.
The teen rang up the purchases. Roxanne handed over her credit card and held her breath.
Dante wandered off toward the hunting equipment and rifle cabinet, giving Roxanne a little much-needed privacy on her transaction.
After swiping her card twice, the clerk glanced up. “It’s not going through.”
Heat rushed up into Roxanne’s face. She’d pushed her credit to the limit the last time she’d come to town. She’d hoped her credit card company would increase her limit just enough to allow the charges to go through. Glancing around at the items she had to have to keep her animals healthy enough to do the work they had to do, she sucked up her pride and asked, “Can I put it on my account?”
The clerk looked up her account number, entered the amount in the computer and shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, your account is maxed out.”
Out of options, Roxanne glanced down at the supplies. “I’m sorry to have held you up.”
To Dante, she said, “I’ll be getting groceries.” Then she turned and left the feed store, her heart dragging around her feet.
She had to pass the diner on her way to the market. Mr. Palmer pushed through the door, almost hitting her in the face. When he saw it was her, he turned the other way.
“Mr. Palmer,” she called out.
The man stopped and hesitated before he faced her. “Yes, Ms. Carmichael?”
“Do you know if the bank president will be in this morning? I’d like to set up a meeting about my line of credit application.”
“As I said on the phone, it will be a waste of your time. The choice has been made. Nothing you can say or do will alter the decision.”
“Without consulting me?” Her fists clenched and she stepped closer to the banker, standing eye-to-eye with the man. “What kind of bank are you running? Well, forget it. I’ll find a bank that will loan me the money.”
“Good luck with that, Ms. Carmichael. You’re not a good risk—no one will loan you the money.”
“You’ll eat those words, Mr. Palmer. Just you wait and see.”
Sheriff Yost emerged from the diner, his back to them as he spoke to someone inside. When he closed the door, his brows rose. “Is there a problem here?”
Anger still seething, Roxanne let Palmer escape as she turned her ire on the sheriff. “Yeah, what have you done to capture the man who shot at me and then tried to burn down my house with me in it?”
He raised his hands, a placating smile spreading across his face. “Now, now, Ms. Carmichael, we’re doing the best we can. I have Deputy Duncan leading the investigation. I’m sure we’ll get our man.”
“Yeah. I’m reassured.” She pushed past him. “In the meantime, I have to have a bodyguard because you can’t do your job and keep the citizens of this county safe. Excuse me while I do something more productive than talk to a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Roxanne entered the supermarket, collected what little groceries she could afford, paid with the last bit of cash she had in her wallet and carried the bags outside to wait for Dante.
As she stepped out on the sidewalk, Dante’s truck pulled up alongside her.
Good. At least she wouldn’t have to stand around and risk running into more of the people who made her life hell. As she dumped the bags onto the backseat, she glanced into the back of the pickup at the four sacks of sweet feed and the roll of barbed wire she’d been forced to leave behind at the feed store.
Anger bubbled up yet again. She opened the passenger seat door and stared across at Dante. “Tell me you didn’t pay for my feed and supplies.”
“I didn’t. I paid for your
feed and supplies.” He grinned. “There is a difference.”
She pointed toward the feed store. “Take them back.”
“You sure as hell can.”
“No, the store’s closed until tomorrow morning.”
His grin faded. “Roxanne, get in the truck, you’re making a scene.”
“I don’t give a damn if I’m making a scene. I won’t be the object of pity or charity.”
“Then get into the truck.” He shifted into Park and reached for his door handle. “Or I’ll help you in myself. That’ll make a nice, big scene if that’s what you want.”
“Damn you, Dante.” Her voice shook as she climbed into the pickup and shut the door. “Damn you and all of the Thunder Horses.”
“We’ve all been down at some point in our lives. I’m just trying to give you a hand up.”
“I never wanted to be beholden to anyone.”
“And you aren’t now. Consider it a gift.”
” Dante shifted into Drive and headed out of Medora.
Roxanne sat in her corner, staring out the side window as the scenery raced by, fighting a wall of tears threatening to crumble around her.
Not far out of town, she leaned her face against the cool glass, wishing a hole in the ground would swallow her up. Her burdens had become so onerous she didn’t think she could stay afloat long enough to swim to shore.
Perhaps it would be a blessing if someone finished her off. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about the ranch being taken from her or where her next meal would come from.
Good grief, girl. Get a grip
Roxanne sat up straight and swiped at the moisture in her eyes. Her daddy hadn’t raised a quitter. Let her attacker bring it on. She’d be ready.
During the long drive to Bismarck, Pierce couldn’t help but think about Roxanne and what had almost happened on the porch. If not for the fire…
He groaned. How was he supposed to stay focused on keeping her safe if he couldn’t keep his hands off her? Maybe it was for the best for her to spend some time on Dante’s watch instead of his. Without her distracting presence, Pierce might actually be able to make some progress on finding the man who was targeting her.
Pierce had called ahead to the hospital, letting them know that he’d be by to collect Jim after he stopped at the bureau. Tuck had been there working since he’d handed over the bullets, plastic and casings they’d found. While his absence—with a wedding to prepare for in less than a week—had to be driving his future bride nuts Pierce couldn’t help but feel relieved that he could depend on his brother’s help.
He pulled into the bureau parking lot in Bismarck and stared up at the building. It felt as if it had been months since he’d been there when, in fact, it had only been days. So much had happened at the ranch that he hadn’t had time to stop and think. Some vacation.
Inside, he found Tuck at his desk, poring through computer files.
“Anything on the casings and bullets?” Pierce asked.
“Good to see you, too, Pierce.” Tuck chuckled as he rose and hugged his brother. “They do match, but we couldn’t lift any prints off them. Nor could we get a trace on the plastic explosives.”
Pierce smacked his palm against the wall. “Damn.”
Tuck resumed his seat in front of the computer. “I’ve been checking the databases on Roxanne’s ranch hands. As expected, there’s nothing on Abe and Fred. Clean as a whistle. But then you suspected that. They’ve been with Carmichael Ranch for a while. Toby had a speeding ticket a couple months back, but nothing alarming in his files.”
“What about Ethan Mitchell?” Pierce leaned over his brother’s shoulder and stared at the screen.
“Did you know he’s a local boy from Bismarck?” Tuck clicked a few icons.
“Yeah, I gathered that much from Toby.”
A mug shot of Ethan Mitchell appeared on the screen, his hair longer and dirtier, but with the same sullen face. “He had an arrest a while back for disturbing the peace. His neighbor called the cops when an argument took to the streets.”
Pierce’s chest tightened. “Convicted?”
“He paid a fine and that was the end of it. Apparently the woman he was arguing with was his girlfriend. He claimed it was a simple domestic dispute that got out of hand.”
“What did the girlfriend say?”
“She refused to make a statement.”
“Too afraid of him?”
Tuck shrugged. “Maybe. Probably. But I can’t really say for sure.”
“Nice to know the man respects women.” His fingers tightened around the back of Tuck’s chair, the urge to return immediately to the Carmichael Ranch so strong he had to fight himself not to give in.
“Yeah,” Tuck was saying. “You should warn Roxanne that he might be trouble.”
“Think he could have been the one who shot at her?” Pierce asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t find any weapons charges against him.”
“Dig deeper. He’s got a real attitude. The man is surly, argumentative and rude.”
Tuck snorted and smiled up at Pierce. “Making friends, brother?”
“See if you can find out where his girlfriend was.”
“Why are you interested in her?”
“One of the hands thinks Ethan’s got a chip on his shoulder because his girl died in an accident.”
Tuck’s brows rose. “An accident our friend Ethan caused?”
Pierce frowned. “Just dig.”
“Will do.” Tuck turned back to his computer.
“Anything I can do from the ranch?”
Tuck shook his head. “Other than watching out for Roxanne, keeping an eye on Ethan and finding more evidence to go on…I can’t think of a thing.”
“I’m on it.” Pierce straightened. “Let me know if you hear anything.”
“Same with you. Some vacation you’re on. You’ll need to come back to work to rest up.” Tuck rose from his seat and walked with Pierce to the door of his office. “Oh, one other thing. You need to stop by the tuxedo shop and check the fit on your tux for the wedding. Only a couple more days before
Thunder Horse ties the knot.”
“I’ll slip by on my way to pick up Jim at the hospital.”
“Thanks, then I can tell Julia to mark you off her bad list.”
Pierce chuckled. “Didn’t know she had a bad list.”
“She doesn’t. Julia’s an angel. I’m the bad guy, using my position as groom as an excuse to boss my brothers around.” He smiled, his gaze on the photograph of Julia sitting on his desk. “She deserves to have it turn out great.”
Pierce’s chest tightened. “You love her, don’t you?”
“Never thought I’d admit it, but I do. I think from the moment I met her over a year ago, I’ve loved her.” He shrugged and grinned. “I was just too stubborn to see it.”
Pierce had to force a smile. Seeing his brother so happy only made him realize how empty his life was. “Thunder Horse stubborn?”
Tuck clapped a hand to Pierce’s back. “You got that right.”
Pierce envied his brother’s joy. “You’re a lucky man.”
“On that note, I’ll agree. Now leave so I can get back to work. My fiancée would like to see me again before the wedding.”
Pierce left the bureau building and drove straight to the tuxedo rental shop, whipping into the parking lot and shoving the shift into Park a little harder than was necessary. He was anxious to get back to the ranch as soon as possible.
Apparently Tuck had called ahead. The owner pushed the door open as Pierce stepped down from the truck.
Within minutes he’d tried on the suit, confirmed that it fit perfectly, changed back into his regular clothes and been sent on his way, arriving at the hospital a few minutes later, coming to a stop in the drive-through pickup area.
Jim waited in a wheelchair inside the lobby, surrounded by the scent of disinfectant. There was a sheaf of discharge papers in his hands, and a frown creased his forehead. “About time you got here. Been stewin’ in my juices for nearly half an hour. I could use a breath of fresh air. Damned hospitals. Can’t stand the smell.”
“Couldn’t wait to go home?” Peirce asked, wheeling the chair through the door and out onto the curb.
“No, they couldn’t wait to get rid of me,” Jim grumbled, pushing to his feet. “And here I was about to make a move on the good-looking nurse.”
“Probably why they booted you out of your room.” Pierce wheeled the chair back inside and returned to help Jim.
In a hospital-provided boot, Jim limped toward the truck on his sprained ankle.
Pierce opened the passenger seat door and reached out to the older man.
Jim shoved his hands away. “I’m not a damned cripple. Let me do it myself.”
Pierce stepped back as the man tried to maneuver himself up into the truck without applying pressure to the cast covering his broken arm, or the boot encased around his foot.
He grabbed the handle above the door and leveraged himself into the seat, dropping down with a wince.
Before the foreman could protest, Pierce leaned in, dragged the seat belt over his shoulder and snapped it in place across his lap.
Jim grunted his thanks, holding his injured arm out of the way throughout the process.
As Pierce headed out of the parking lot, the SUV’s steering wheel pulled hard to the right. At first Pierce attributed it to the uneven pavement that took a beating during the winter’s icy weather. But as Pierce maneuvered the truck onto the interstate heading west, the vehicle continued to pull to the right. He couldn’t remember running into anything to knock the wheels out of alignment and the tires had all appeared inflated properly when he’d left the hospital.
He kept driving, determined to get to the ranch. He’d take the truck to his mechanic when he was sure Roxanne was safe.
“Miss Carmichael doin’ all right?” Jim asked, taking Pierce’s mind off the front wheel.
“She’s holding her own. I sent Dante to Medora with her to keep her safe. She had some things to get and he promised to look out for her while I went to Bismarck.”
Jim nodded. “I heard you had a fire in the house night before last.”
Pierce shook his head in rueful resignation. He’d hoped they’d be able to keep the news from Jim, but really, he’d always suspected the man would find out. “How’d you hear about that?”
“I may be old, but I’ve got friends.”
Jim had been a part of the western North Dakota community all his life. It didn’t surprise Pierce that he had already heard about the fire, considering it was in the same house he lived in. “Someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into Roxanne’s bedroom window.”
Jim shot a concerned look his way. “Was she in there at the time?”
“No she was on the porch.”
Pierce didn’t add.
Jim’s jaw tightened. “I don’t know who the hell is trying to sabotage her life, but he’d better stop before I put a bullet right between his eyes.”
“Believe me, if I knew who it was, it would have stopped already. He’s not leaving much for us to go on.” His fingers tightened around the steering wheel, his frustration bubbling up. Reminding himself that Jim didn’t need more worry to add to his injuries, he asked, “What’s the doc say about you and riding?”
“Not to ride horses.” Jim breathed hard out his nostrils. “Didn’t say nothing about driving a truck or a four-wheeler.”
“You’ll have a challenge driving with a sprained right ankle, and limited to one-handed steering.”
“I’ll manage. The cattle have to make it to the sale come hell or high water.”
“Are things that tight?” Pierce asked.
“They ain’t loose if you know what I mean. That girl’s been working her fanny off to make that ranch pay enough to survive on.”
A smile quirked the corners of Pierce’s lips just as the truck jerked hard toward the shoulder, the right front end dipping toward the pavement. A loud screech ripped through the air as metal ground into concrete.
Pierce fought to keep the truck from careening off the interstate into a ditch. As fast as he’d been going, he couldn’t maintain a straight trajectory. The vehicle slid off the road, bounced over the gravel and shot into the ditch, coming to a hard stop when the front end hit the embankment.
The force of the impact threw Pierce forward, the seat belt catching and stopping him from slamming into the steering wheel or flying through the front windshield.
When the world came to a complete stop, the cab of the truck tipped forward at a steep angle, buried in the embankment.
Pierce shot a glance at Jim.
The man’s seat belt held him from falling forward into the dash. His eyes were squeezed shut and his face was creased in a grimace.
“You okay, Jim?”
“Been better,” he said through gritted teeth. “This seat belt is pressing against some of those broken ribs.”
“Hang on, I’ll get you out.”
“I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
Pierce released his belt, falling hard into the steering wheel. He shoved his door open and scrambled out, ducking back to search the floorboard for his cell phone.
He found it lodged between his seat and the console. The screen was cracked and no manner of shaking or rebooting the device would make it work.
Tossing it aside, he hurried around the other side of the truck and pulled the door open.
Careful not to hurt Jim further, Pierce helped the injured man down onto the ground. Once he had the foreman settled, he rounded to the front of the truck and stared down at where the tire had been.
Both the wheel and tire were missing and, from what Pierce could tell, the axle had broken. A spare tire wasn’t going to fix this truck; nor was he going to be back to the Carmichael Ranch anytime soon.
His chest tightened. Was it simply bad luck that the truck’s wheel had fallen off? Or had someone loosened the lug nuts in an attempt to sabotage Pierce’s truck and keep him from returning to check on Roxanne?
* * *
the groceries in the refrigerator and pantry, Roxanne headed for the barn.
Dante stood beside the truck, poking at the keys on his cell phone.
“You won’t get any reception out here.”
“A man can always wish.” He glanced up. “Mind if I use your landline? I wanted to check in with Pierce and Tuck.”
“I’ll be just a minute. You won’t go anywhere while I’m inside, will you?”
Roxanne shook her head. She’d ditched her bodyguard once too often lately, and what had it bought her? She’d nearly been run down by a motorcycle and buried in a landslide. “I’m not planning on going any farther than the barn for now. I’ll stay put until you’re done. But then I have to get out to the canyon. Today’s the last chance I have to get those cattle into the sale.”
As Dante jogged toward the house. Roxanne entered the barn.
While she’d unloaded the groceries, Dante had stacked the feed sacks inside the barn, but they still needed to be transferred into the right containers. Feed had to be stored in metal cans to keep the mice from getting into it. They could chew through a paper feed sack in less time than it took to pour the feed into one of the metal trash cans they kept for storage.
Hefting a fifty-pound bag onto her shoulder, she carried it across the barn to the row of cans lining the wall. Each contained a different kind of feed. She located the sweet feed can, tossed the lid onto the ground and tore open the sack.
As she emptied its contents into the can, the door to the barn swung closed, shutting out the daylight she’d relied on to see what she was doing. Assuming it had been the wind, she thought nothing of it beyond the inconvenience of pouring feed in the dark. Still, she knew the barn more than well enough to finish the task in the dark, so she didn’t bother going over to reopen the door.
As she emptied the bag into the bin, the combination of oats, corn and barley along with the sweet scent of molasses filled Roxanne’s senses. She’d always loved the smell of sweet feed. The horses loved it and needed the additional nutrition boost to keep up with the amount of work they performed during roundup.