Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
Roxanne closed her eyes to the image of her brother’s battered body lying in the coffin at his funeral.
“Are you okay, honey?” Amelia Thunder Horse appeared before her.
“I’m fine.” She set the photograph back in place.
Amelia settled on the couch and took up a crochet hook and a half-finished afghan, her fingers twisting around the yarn as she poked the needle in and out of loops. “It sure has cheered up the house, having the baby here,” she commented. “I have to say, I worried about my special agent sons—especially Tuck—wondering if they’d ever settle down enough to give me grandbabies.”
“Why Tuck, in particular? Pierce is certainly very dedicated to his job. He loves being an FBI agent.”
“True, but he knows there’s more to life than that. You know Pierce tried to talk Mason out of joining the FBI.”
Roxanne’s head jerked up and she stared across at Amelia. “No, I didn’t know.”
Amelia’s lips twisted. “You can’t tell young people anything. They have to make their own decisions, find their own way.”
Brushing away a stray tear, Roxanne nodded, unable to speak, her heart hurting, the pain of her loss still fresh.
“Mason came over practically every evening for a week after he got accepted into the academy. He could barely wait.” The older woman’s lips lifted in the hint of a smile. “I remember trying to talk Pierce and Tuck out of joining the FBI. Lot of good it did. I heard them telling Mason the same things I told them—mostly that they needed to stay and run the ranch.”
“That’s what I tried to tell Mason.”
Amelia glanced across at Roxanne. “Don’t get me wrong, my boys all love this place. It’s their home. But Pierce, Dante and Tuck wanted to follow their own dreams—they wanted to make a difference for others. I couldn’t hold them back, even if I had wanted to, and I did want to. They had to live their own lives.”
“And the ranch didn’t fit in with their plans…or Mason’s.”
She’d blamed Pierce for so many things—was it just because she hadn’t been able to accept the truth? She fought so hard to defend her right to choose her own life on the ranch. Had she held Mason back by not giving him the right to make that choice for himself?
“You might not have known that Pierce was the one to find Mason after that warehouse explosion.”
Roxanne shook her head, the tears falling faster.
“He held Mason until the medical folks arrived. But Mason died in his arms.” Amelia Thunder Horse brushed a tear from her cheek. “He never said anything. Tuck told me.”
Roxanne’s heart broke all over again, but in a strange way she felt healed. The anger and blame that had taken over, ruining her relationship with Pierce, had finally begun to lift. She could forgive him for everything that had happened…and maybe she’d be able to help him forgive himself. Amelia had said he needed someone stubborn to help him see the truth—and no one was better at out-stubborning Pierce Thunder Horse than her.
* * *
the FBI building in Bismarck, Pierce went straight to his office. Tuck popped in while Pierce was booting up his computer.
“Remember that lead I said I was looking into?”
“Yeah.” Tuck had Pierce’s full attention. “Who is it?”
“The neighbor who filed the report that got Ethan Mitchell arrested.”
“Ever get the name of the woman Mitchell was arguing with?”
“No, but I got the name of the police officer who arrested him. He might know more about what happened.”
“Let’s pay the man a visit.”
“I’m a step ahead of you, brother.” Tuck grinned. “Got an appointment to have coffee with the man in fifteen. Grab your keys and let’s hit the road.”
Pierce led the way out of the building and climbed into the truck, Tuck sliding into the passenger seat.
Ten minutes later they pulled into a diner that had seen better days but had an impressive number of cars gathered in the parking lot.
“Must have good food,” Tuck observed.
“Have to—the place looks like a dump.” Pierce climbed down and entered the establishment, his gaze panning the busy restaurant for a uniform.
“He said he was off duty,” Tuck informed Pierce.
A man sitting alone at a table waved at them as a waitress plunked a plate full of pancakes in front of him.
Pierce strode across the room and pulled out a seat in front of the off-duty police officer. “Pierce Thunder Horse.” He stuck out his hand and shook the policeman’s.
The man didn’t apologize for eating in front of them; he just lifted his fork and knife and dug into the stack. “What can I do for you two?”
Tuck unfolded a printout of Ethan Mitchell’s mug shot. “Remember this guy?”
The man nodded, chewing on a gooey bite of pancake. He swallowed. “Arrested him a couple months ago for disturbing the peace. From the looks of it, if I’d been about ten minutes later, I could have gotten him on assault, too. I got there just in time to keep him from getting violent.”
“Why wasn’t the girl’s name listed in the arrest report?”
“She refused to give a statement. And we couldn’t file any charges against her—she wasn’t the one making all the ruckus.”
Pierce leaned forward. “Did you ask the neighbors who she was?”
“They said she was his girlfriend, but they didn’t know her name. She was always coming and going.”
Pierce hid his disappointment. The cop hadn’t been able to tell them much more than what was already in the report. “Sorry to interrupt your breakfast.”
“I didn’t know her name at the time of the arrest, but I think I know who she is. Saw a picture of her that same week in the obituaries.”
Tuck glanced across at Pierce then turned to the officer. “You say it was the same week?”
“Yeah. It’s been a couple months so I don’t remember her name anymore. But I bet if you look through the obits for that week, you’ll find her.”
Pierce wasn’t sure that knowing the name of Ethan’s dead girlfriend would help, but he didn’t have anything else to go on. “Thanks for your time.” He passed on shaking the man’s hand, preferring to let him finish his breakfast.
Back in the truck, Pierce sighed. “I feel like we’re chasing our tails.”
“You said to dig deep on Mitchell. That’s what we’re doing. You know your gut is your best investigation tool. If your gut tells you to look into Ethan Mitchell, that’s what we’ve gotta do.” Tuck clapped a hand on Pierce’s shoulder. “Let’s go to the newspaper office and see if we can access the obituaries for that week. They might find things faster than we can.”
Pierce headed for the local newspaper office. Once there they waited ten minutes for someone to free up to help them dig through the files for the week Ethan Mitchell was arrested.
It had been a busy week of deaths.
Going through the newspaper stories for that week, Tuck sat back. “I remember that week. We were here in Bismarck.” He looked up at Pierce.
At the same time, Pierce ran across the article reporting an explosion at a local warehouse. The blood drained from Pierce’s face. “That was the same week as the raid.”
He didn’t have to say which raid. His brother knew…he’d been there. “The one where Mason died,” Tuck finished.
Pierce sat back in his chair, the air knocked out of his lungs just as if he’d been punched in the belly.
“It wasn’t your fault Mason died,” Tuck said. “It could have been you or me in that warehouse. He just happened to get there first.”
“I know that. We lost a number of good agents that day.” And Pierce had lost his fiancée, as well.
“Look, Pierce, if this is too much to go through, I can finish.”
“No.” Pierce leaned forward and pressed on. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look so fine.”
“It’s been a bad week.”
“I’m sorry about you and Roxy. I never thought she’d blame you for Mason’s death.”
“It was my fault. I should have stopped him.” Pierce shook his head. “It’s just as well. We could never have made it work between us.”
“She has the ranch. I have the bureau. What kind of life is that for a couple?”
“If you love each other enough, you can make it work.”
“How?” Pierce shot a straight look at his brother. “She’d be in the corner of Nowhere, North Dakota. Who knows where I’d be if she needed me?”
“It’s a chance you take on each other. And there would be family close by if she needed help.”
“She deserves someone who will stick around and be satisfied with ranching.”
“What if she doesn’t want to keep up the ranch?”
“It’s her home. She’s the last Carmichael. I would never ask her to give it up to follow me. She has dreams of her own.”
Tuck nodded. “You have a point. Besides, she dumped you. It’s not like the issue will ever come up again. She doesn’t strike me as a woman who will come crawling back on her hands and knees.”
“I wouldn’t want her to,” Pierce said.
“Do you want Julia to talk to her? She wasn’t keen on marrying a special agent, but she came around.”
“No.” Pierce shook his head. “Just leave it. It’s over between Roxanne and me.”
“Doesn’t look too over to me,” Tuck muttered.
Pierce ignored him, flipping through the computer screen to the next day’s paper and scrolling down to the obituaries. That’s when he found a picture of a woman in her mid-twenties. He glanced at the name, Leah Jennings. “Tuck, why does this name ring a bell?”
“I don’t know, but it does.” Tuck leaned over and stared at the picture. “I don’t recall her face, just the name.” Pierce hit Print and pulled the photograph and write-up off the printer. “We got what we came for here. Let’s go back to the office and see what we find on Ms. Jennings.”
Roxanne paced the living room and kitchen of the Thunder Horse ranch house, becoming more agitated with each hour that passed. Several times she’d called the Carmichael Ranch trying to get through to Jim, and each time she’d hung up frustrated when she’d gotten no answer.
Her foreman had just survived a significant fall with multiple fractures. He shouldn’t be up and running so soon. And yet, if he wasn’t, the work might not be getting done.
Guilt burned like bile in Roxanne’s already scratchy throat. Standing on the porch, staring out over the pastures, wishing she could see all the way to her place, she had just about had enough of the waiting.
Maddox had made a run to town for feed, taking Katya with him. Dante had stayed behind, claiming he had reports to catch up on for his work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Yet instead of holing up in the office, he’d gone out to the barn.
Roxanne suspected he only stayed because of her.
She hated being watched over like a child. And she hated even more that Dante had already been the recipient of her attacker’s violence.
Roxanne gripped the porch railing, her fingernails digging into the wood. Inactivity made her crazier than not knowing who was after her. She needed to talk to her men and find out where things stood with getting the cattle ready for sale. In the bright light of day, it seemed crazy to think that she wouldn’t be safe with her men—or that they’d be in danger just from having her there, especially if they all stayed together. Surely they could protect each other.
She’d trust Abe, Fred and Jim with her life. Toby and Ethan were newcomers to the ranch, but they’d been there for the past three months before the incidents started so she was sure they couldn’t have been involved.
Not being there to keep an eye on the people and place that meant so much to her was killing her.
Amelia joined Roxanne on the porch and laid a hand on her arm. “They’ll call if something happens that shouldn’t. Why don’t you come have a cup of hot tea with me? Or I could make up some lemonade, if you’d like that better.”
She stuck her hands in the back pockets of the jeans that Mrs. Thunder Horse had laundered. Her clothes no longer had the acrid scent of smoke, but Roxanne couldn’t get the smell out of her senses—a constant reminder of everything that had happened and of how easily her home could be taken away from her if she wasn’t vigilant in protecting it. “No thanks. I really need to get home.”
“Honey, you’re not safe there right now. And you promised Pierce you’d be safe.”
Roxanne closed her eyes. She had promised him that. But surely she’d be safe as long as she took precautions and stuck close to the men. They needed her out there with them.
If she didn’t get the cattle to the sale, she wouldn’t be able to pay her ranch hands. They’d leave for paying work and she’d be left to run the ranch on her own. She couldn’t manage all the work by herself to earn enough money to pay the mortgage. All strikes against her.
She stood to lose her home and the ranch that had been in her family almost as far back as when Theodore Roosevelt had lived in the badlands. The cattle sale was her only hope, and she couldn’t help with the roundup, all because someone was playing her.
Roxanne smacked the porch railing with her palm. “Horsefeathers!”
“Excuse me?” Amelia stared at Roxanne, her brows wrinkled. “Did you say horsefeathers?”
“I did. I’ll be damned if I let my ranch be taken back by the bank or anyone else.”
“Is the bank giving you troubles, dear?”
Already regretting opening her mouth, Roxanne scuffed her boot on the wooden deck. “Not yet. But they will if I don’t make my mortgage payment. I need to be out helping with the roundup.”
Roxanne grabbed Amelia’s hands. “Please. I just need a ride over to my place. Or I could borrow a horse and bring it back tomorrow. Please, Mrs. T.” She stared into the woman’s eyes.
Amelia squeezed her hands. “Honey, you know I can’t keep you here. You are not a prisoner. I only ask that you reconsider. Maybe Dante could go with you, to keep an eye out for you.”
“Dante already took a hit for me. I can’t ask him to take me.”
“Maddox will be back shortly, I’m sure of it.” In her concern, the older woman gripped her hands hard enough to hurt. “Can you wait at least until then? Perhaps Pierce will be back from Bismarck by that time, and he can take you himself.”
More guilt washed over Roxanne. She’d already put two of Amelia’s sons in danger watching over her. She didn’t want anything else to happen to the Thunder Horses. With a sigh, she hugged Amelia. “Okay, I’ll wait until Maddox comes back, or Pierce—whoever gets here first. Then I really must go home.”
“Thank you, dear.” Amelia hugged her back, her arms strong, reassuring. “I’d be so worried if you left without someone to watch out over you.”
“I’m just not used to standing around, doing nothing. It’s making me crazy.”
“You could help me with lunch,” Amelia offered. “Or maybe you’d rather help Dante out in the barn. At least you’d have something to keep you busy while you wait.”
A shiver trailed across Roxanne’s skin as she thought about the day before, being trapped inside the burning barn. If she hoped to get over the trauma of the fire, she could start in the Thunder Horse barn, where burning was less likely. “I’ll find Dante. Maybe I could be of some use to him. No offense, Mrs. T.”
“None taken, dear. Go.”
Roxanne hurried down to the barn, ready to do something physical, anything to pass the time until Maddox or Pierce returned and took her back to her ranch.
Dante was bent over the unshod hoof of a black stallion, scraping it clean with a hook.
“Need a hand?” she asked.
“Okay, let me put it this way....” Roxanne took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Is there anything I can help with, to keep me busy before I blow a gasket? Please?”
Dante chuckled. “Bored?”
“More frustrated than bored. But yes.”
“Then you can bring the bay mare in from the pen and tie her up to the next stall. Her hooves are in bad shape. I’m pulling shoes and cleaning. The farrier will be by later.”
“I can do that.” She grabbed a lead rope from a nail and hurried outside.
The next thirty minutes was spent in silence as the two pulled old metal horseshoes off the stallion and mare and cleaned the accumulated gunk out of their hooves.
“Dante!” Amelia Thunder Horse’s shout made Roxanne drop the mare’s last hoof halfway through cleaning.
Dante had just settled the stallion in a stall and given him a bucket of feed and a couple sections of hay. He stepped out of the stall and hurried to meet his mother outside the barn, pulling her into his arms. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
Amelia Thunder Horse’s hand shook as she spoke. “I just got a call from the sheriff’s department. Maddox and Katya have been involved in a wreck. They’re being sent to the hospital in Bismarck.”
Her heart thumping hard against her ribs, Roxanne emerged from the barn, wiping her hands on her jeans. “How bad was it?”
“They didn’t say, just that they were being taken by ambulance to St. Alexius in Bismarck. We should go at once.”
“Come on, I’ll drive.” Dante led his mother toward the house, then stopped and turned toward Roxanne, frowning. “You’ll have to come with us.”
“No.” Roxanne remained standing beside the barn. “You’ll need room in the truck to bring Maddox and Katya back, if they release them immediately. And I want to be here in case Jim needs to reach me for anything. You two go. I’ll stay here.”
“But that leaves you alone.” Dante shook his head. “No, you’ll have to come.”
“If anything happens, I know how to shoot a gun and I can call the sheriff.” When Dante opened his mouth to protest, Roxanne held up her hand. “Go. You need to check on your brother and his fiancée. I’ll be fine.”
Dante’s frown deepened. “You wouldn’t try to go home, would you?”
Roxanne waved them on. “I’ll just finish up on the mare’s hoof and get her settled. You two should hit the road. It’s a long drive to Bismarck.”
Amelia’s brows knit. “I don’t like leaving you.”
“I don’t like knowing Maddox and Katya are hurt. Please, go.” Roxanne turned back to the barn, ending her side of the argument. By the time she’d finished scraping the mare’s hoof, she heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway as Dante and his mother left for Bismarck. Roxanne wondered if Maddox and Katya’s accident was caused by the same person who’d been gunning for her. More guilt piled into her already churning gut.
As she led the mare into a stall and fed her grain and hay, she couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened in the past few days and how it didn’t make any sense.
The shooting that had started it all made the least sense of all. Who had it out for her and why? Other than the land she owned, she couldn’t come up with a single reason someone would want to kill her.
Was it the land? No one had approached her about purchasing the Carmichael Ranch. With times as tough as they were, not many people were stupid enough to invest in a small-time cattle operation that barely paid the bills.
Not many people except for her. Because it was all she had left of the family she’d loved.
A lump rose in her throat and she swallowed hard to clear it. She’d done enough moaning and crying over the loss of her family. And she’d let recrimination and bitterness lead her to pushing away Pierce, and her best chance to start a new family.
Now that she looked back over the past couple months, she recognized her actions for what they were. Anger over the loss of her brother and fear of investing her love in yet another person who stood a good chance of dying and breaking her heart.
Not that she was the only one to blame—Pierce had pushed her away, too. But if they were both willing to let go of the past, was there still a chance that they could build a future together?
A shadow passed over the door to the barn, blocking the sunlight.
Roxanne glanced up to see the silhouette of a man astride a horse.
She froze, unable to see the rider’s face and whether or not he carried a gun.
Roxanne let go of the breath she’d been holding and stepped forward at the familiar voice. “Toby?”
“Yes, Ms. Carmichael, it’s me.” He leaned over his saddle horn.
“What’s wrong?” She emerged from the shadows of the barn and blinked in the bright light of day. Ethan sat on a horse a few paces behind Toby, his cowboy hat pulled down, shading his eyes. “Is Jim hurt? Are the others okay?”
“They’re fine. Ethan and I were sent over to get you because one of the wild horses is down. We thought you should know, being that you’re the representative to the Bureau of Land Management and all.”
Roxanne stiffened. “Which one?”
“I’m not sure. Ethan saw her. He thinks it’s Sweet Jessie, the one injured the other day when that man shot her.”
Roxanne glanced at Ethan. “Was she down…dead…or still alive?”
“Still alive,” he answered, his words terse.
Ethan touched the brim of his hat, tipping it lower, the shadow all but hiding his face. “Not far from the watering hole near the canyon rim.”
“Ethan and I can try to doctor her, or—” Toby paused “—put her out of her misery, but we thought you’d want to call it.”
A weight as heavy as lead settled in Roxanne’s chest. Sweet Jessie had been one of her favorites. When they’d spotted her a day ago, she’d been up and running, as if the gunshot wound hadn’t fazed her a bit. It must have been worse than they’d thought for infection to set in that quickly and take her down.
“I’m coming.” Roxanne glanced around. “Can one of you saddle a horse for me? I need to run in and call Pierce to tell him where I’m going.”
Ethan leaned forward. “No time. If you want to help her, we need to go now.”
Roxanne frowned at Ethan’s sharp words. “By the time you have a horse saddled, I’ll be ready.” She stared across at the younger man, her early thoughts resurfacing. But she pushed them aside, the horse’s welfare more important than her own safety. “Find a horse in the pen over there. Don’t saddle one from the stalls, they need shoes. I’ll be back before you’re done.”
Toby dropped down out of his saddle and hurried toward the pen Roxanne had indicated. Ethan dismounted and strode into the barn.
Taking off at a run, Roxanne raced to the house and up the porch steps. She found the kitchen phone and tried calling Pierce’s cell phone, but the call went straight to voice mail. Frustrated, she hung up and tried Tuck’s cell, hoping that he’d be with Pierce and could pass the phone over to him. When she got his voice mail, too, she went ahead and left a message. Then she grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and quickly scribbled a note to Amelia explaining what had happened, in case she got home first.
Then she ran back to the barn.
Ethan was slipping the bridle over a mare’s head while Toby cinched the saddle’s girth around her belly.
Instead of mounting immediately, Roxanne ran into the barn, found the large-animal medical supplies and filled a saddlebag with items she might need. Pierce’s family was just as involved with the care and concern for the wild horses of the badlands as she was. They wouldn’t mind her taking supplies, especially in as big a hurry as she was. She’d pay the Thunder Horse family back when she could.
When she emerged from the barn, she tossed the saddlebag over the horse’s hind quarters and tied it to the saddle with the leather straps. All in all it had taken less than eight minutes to run to the house and gear up.
She mounted and reined the horse around, aiming in the direction of the canyon. “Let’s go.”
They took off at a gallop, Roxanne in the lead. The ride seemed to take forever, with Sweet Jessie’s fate in the balance. When they finally neared the border to the Carmichael Ranch, Ethan pulled up next to Roxanne. “We might need help holding her down.”
Roxanne slowed to a stop, her gaze panning the landscape.
“Ethan, go get Abe and Fred. Toby and I will find Jessie and assess the situation.”
“I saw her. I know exactly where she is. Toby can get the others and bring them back.”