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Authors: Elle James

Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense

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BOOK: Thunder Horse Redemption
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The woman was as hardheaded as any one of the Thunder Horse brothers. She had to be, in order to run a ranch on her own after her father’s death. Even when her brother had been alive, she’d been the one to manage the daily upkeep and operations, while Mason followed his own dreams of being an FBI special agent.

Pierce remembered how excited Mason had been when he’d started his FBI training. Despite Roxanne’s belief to the contrary, Pierce had tried to talk Mason out of joining the FBI, telling him that he needed to help his sister with ranch operations. But Mason had that Carmichael stubbornness, too, and in the end, Pierce hadn’t been able to change his mind. At the time, he’d consoled himself with the thought that he would always be there, both to help Roxanne with the ranch and to keep an eye on Mason. Now, he couldn’t do either.

Pierce shook his head, pushing the thoughts away. That was the past. The present held more pressing matters. With a currycomb, Pierce tackled Cetan’s other side. “Did the sheriff ever go out to the site of the shooting?”

Tuck shook his head. “No.”

Pierce snorted. “Didn’t expect he would.”

“Seemed satisfied with the bullet casing. Like it would catch the culprit.”

“The man’s a waste of the badge he wears,” Dante said.

“Came out, flirted with Mom and left,” Maddox added. “Seemed like he couldn’t have cared less about the shooting, taking the opportunity to investigate as an open door to our mother.”

Tuck stuffed the wad of fabric containing the bullet into his jeans pocket. “He did say he’d go to the Carmichael place and ask Roxanne a few questions today.”

Pierce’s teeth ground together. He’d like to be there when the sheriff stopped by Roxanne’s. The lawman would be more hassle than help.

Again, he had to remind himself Roxanne Carmichael would no longer accept his help.

“Julia’s worried about Roxanne.” Tuck’s words interrupted Pierce’s thoughts. “Do you suppose one of us should camp out at the Carmichael ranch until they find this guy?”

“She wouldn’t let us if we tried.”

Tuck grinned. “I know. Just thought I’d suggest it. It would make Julia happier.”

“You two have your own worries, what with the wedding coming up fast. How many days now?”

“Five.” Finished on his side, Tuck rounded the horse’s backside and collected the currycomb from Pierce. “But if things get worse with that shooter, we might have to postpone.”

“No way. You two deserve each other.”

Tuck laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” His smile straightened and he clapped a hand on Pierce’s shoulder, leaning in to speak so that only Pierce could hear. “Look, Pierce, I know this was supposed to be your time. You should have been married by now, not me. I just wanted you to know, I’m here for you if you need to talk.”

“About what?” Pierce stepped away from his brother, letting Tuck’s hand fall to his side. The last thing he needed was his brother’s pity.

“You could talk about Roxanne, the wedding…” He shrugged. “You know…things.”

Pierce took the brush and currycomb back from Tuck’s hand. “I’ve got nothing to say. Our breakup is old history. I’m over her.”

Tuck hesitated for a moment, as if he wanted to say more. Then he nodded. “The offer is open. Whenever you need me, I’m here to listen.” He didn’t wait for a response, instead leaving the barn. Maddox and Dante followed him shortly after.

Pierce stood with the brush in his hand, his chest squeezing so tight he couldn’t breathe. If he was so over Roxanne, why did he feel like he was having a heart attack?

He forced himself to go through the motions of brushing Cetan from front to rear, one more time. His hands moved slowly, one steadying stroke at a time until they quit shaking and he could breathe normally.

All the while, he pictured Roxanne lying next to him on the cave floor, her pale white skin almost glowing in the darkness, her soft curves nestled against him.

Yeah, he was over her.

Chapter Five

Roxanne called the sheriff’s office as soon as she’d discovered the paint in the barn.

Deputy Shorty Duncan showed up in less than an hour to question her on the events of the day before and to take pictures of the damage done in the barn.

He spent time with each of her ranch hands, questioning them about their whereabouts during the night, but nothing came of it. According to their accounts, no one had seen anything and Roxanne hadn’t been there to verify.

As he slipped the pad he’d been taking notes on into his pocket, the deputy faced Roxanne. “I’ve got what I need.”

“Any idea who would do this or why they’d want me to stay out of the canyon?”

Duncan shook his head. “No, ma’am, but I’ll be checking into it. You can be sure of that.” He tucked his pen in with the pad. “In the meantime, I suggest you stay out of the canyon. Sounds like trouble.”

“Aren’t you going to check out the canyon to see why someone would want me to stay out?”

“Soon as I get some backup to go with me, I sure will. Don’t you worry.”

“Not much help, was he?” Jim Rausch, her ranch foreman, said as he stepped up beside her to watch the deputy drive away.

“Wonder when he plans to be back out to check the canyon?”

“No tellin’.”

Roxanne sighed. “We can’t wait for the law—we have cattle to round up. We’ll save the canyon for last.”

Jim nodded toward the hands gathered with their horses and called out, “We’re burnin’ daylight. Mount up.”

Roxanne spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon with her ranch hands, mending the fences and loading chutes, preparing for the roundup. It made no sense to herd the cattle into the corrals until all the preparatory work had been taken care of. And maybe the routine mending would give the sheriff and his men time to check out the canyon.

Two of the hands worked a downed fence on the northern perimeter, while the other two worked the fences in the holding pens.

Roxanne and her foreman removed and replaced weathered boards on the loading chute.

She’d worked through lunch while her men had stopped for sandwiches, preferring the solitude to sustenance. She couldn’t have eaten had she wanted to, her stomach remaining knotted since Pierce had left.

The work was slow and steady…and very tiring. As two o’clock rolled around, she strode over to her foreman. She hated to slow down the work by taking him away from his duties, but after being shot at the day before, she knew she couldn’t risk riding out alone, especially to the canyon. Despite Pierce’s promise to check on the horses along with his brothers, she knew she needed to see for herself that the herd hadn’t been harmed. And for her own peace of mind, she wanted to see to that
without
Pierce beside her.

“I need you to ride over to the canyon with me to check on Sweet Jessie.”

“Sure you want to do that, Miss Carmichael?”

“I need to make sure Sweet Jessie and the rest of the herd are okay.”

Jim gathered his reins and turned his horse, glancing down at his watch. “Didn’t Mr. Pierce say to meet them out there at three o’clock?”

“And we will. But I wanted to get a jump on finding Sweet Jessie to save them some time and the possibility of trouble in the canyon,” she lied. She really wanted to get out there, find Sweet Jessie and get back to her ranch without spending any more time than she had to in the presence of the Thunder Horses, one in particular.

“I’d feel better with them there.” He pushed his hat back on his head and stared to the north. “There’s safety in numbers.”

“We’ll be fine, with you as my backup. There was only one shooter.”

“Still not likin’ it, but if it’s what you want, let’s get a move on. There’s still lots to be done out here.”

Jim and Roxanne saddled up and headed out across the prairie.

Roxanne clamped her cowboy hat down on her head, glad for the shade as the sun beat down on her shoulders. The heat of summer had settled into the badlands of North Dakota. Without a tree in sight, the land baked, waves of heat radiating from the dry earth, making the early-morning chill a dim memory.

A trickle of sweat slipped down between Roxanne’s breasts and she shifted in her saddle, her jeans clinging to her damp legs.

Roxanne slowed her paint horse to a walk. The heat would tire the horses faster than the speed and she wanted to conserve energy for their return.

Jim rode up alongside her and settled into the slower, steadier pace. After a while, he glanced over at her. “You know, Pierce is a good man.”

At the mention of Pierce’s name, Roxanne’s heartbeat kicked up a notch. “Can we talk about something else?”

Jim shrugged. “Just saying.” He rode in silence for a few more minutes.

Roxanne breathed easier after a while, certain Jim wasn’t going to continue selling Pierce.

Then he cleared his throat and said, “You two had somethin’ special. You don’t find that often, you know.”

She glared at her foreman. “I don’t want to discuss the man. Besides, you’re one to talk. Since when are you an expert on relationships?”

Again, the older man shrugged. “I was in love once.”

Roxanne’s brows rose. “I didn’t know that. I’ve never even seen you with a woman.”

He frowned. “I go to town on my days off. Not that it’s any of yer business, little girl.”

She smiled, glad they weren’t talking about her and Pierce anymore. “I’m not so little anymore.”

“My point exactly. You’re getting older and need to settle down while you’re still breedin’ age.”

“Jim Rausch, you make me sound like a broodmare.” She shook her head. “I don’t want to settle with or for anyone. Not now or anytime soon. I’m doing just fine on my own.” It was mostly true. She’d
make
it true. Just as soon as she convinced her silly heart not to pine for Pierce.

“You ought to reconsider your opinion of that Thunder Horse boy. He’s still pretty stuck on you.”

“Don’t go there. You know he’s the reason Mason joined the FBI, and that it’s his fault Mason got himself killed.”

“Not the way I see it.” Jim rode in silence for a long second or two, before adding, “Mason had his own reasons for joining the FBI. You can’t blame it on Pierce.”

“Pierce sent him into that building that blew up.”

“Now how was he supposed to know the building would explode?”

The image of a fiery explosion had haunted her dreams and memories for months. Roxanne didn’t need a reminder. “I’m the wrong one to ask. I don’t know the details, and Pierce refused to tell me.”
Even when I begged him to explain, to tell me what had happened.
“All he’d say was that Mason’s death was his fault. I’m not marrying Pierce Thunder Horse and nothing you can say will change my mind.”

“A woman’s got a way of changing her own mind.”

“Don’t hold your breath.” She nudged her horse to go a little faster, trying to put distance between her and Jim.

Unfortunately, he remained abreast. Jim glanced at her, his lips curled ever so slightly. “Just saying.”

Roxanne clamped her lips shut, refusing to further the conversation by replying to him.

As they neared the canyon’s rim, she slowed her horse, her gaze darting right and left. As far as she could see, nothing moved across the edge. That didn’t mean a shooter wasn’t lurking, but for now, Roxanne felt confident they were alone on the plains. She patted the rifle protruding from the scabbard on her saddle. Between her and Jim, it was two against one, and they were both armed. That ought to keep the attacker from making a move.

“I’ll go down first. When I’m close to the bottom of the trail, you can start down. In the meantime, keep your rifle ready.”

“I got yer back, Miss Carmichael.” Jim pulled his weapon out and checked the chamber.

She smiled at the man she’d known for as long as she could remember. “Thanks, Jim. When I get to the bottom, I’ll cover for you.”

Domino, her black-and-white paint gelding, wasn’t too keen on the narrow trail. After a little gentle persuasion, Roxanne got him headed in the right direction.

He picked his way down the steep trail, his steps slow and nervous. At several particularly dangerous points, pebbles slipped over the side and tumbled to the bottom.

Domino tossed his black mane and nickered, his eyes rolling back.

Roxanne smoothed her hand across his long, sleek neck. “Easy, boy. Just a little farther.”

Ten feet from the bottom, she pulled the rifle from her scabbard and waved it up at Jim.

The foreman began his descent more easily. His horse was older, more docile and sure-footed.

Roxanne twisted in her saddle, careful to check all directions for a possible threat.

When Jim and his bay mare hit the halfway point, the hair on Roxanne’s arm stood on end and she glanced over her shoulder. Nothing. She turned in her saddle to get a better look behind her.

A movement along the canyon rim caught her attention, and Roxanne’s heart stopped. Someone was up there.

A jumble of rocks and boulders tumbled down the hill toward Jim and his horse, kicking up dust and more rocks in its path.

“Get out of the way!” Jim shouted, urging his horse to hurry in an attempt to beat the landslide.

Domino reared and backed away from the base of the trail, whinnying wildly.

With one hand holding the rifle, Roxanne struggled to keep her seat and maintain control of her gelding.

The rattle of rocks grew to a roar as a large boulder bumped down the steep slope.

Roxanne’s breath caught in her lungs and she froze.

Jim and his horse were directly in the boulder’s path.

“Move!” she shouted, waving the hand holding the rifle. “Move!”

Jim glanced behind him, his eyes rounding. He dug his heels into the horse’s flank, startling the horse.

The mare leaped forward and reared as the boulder passed by, narrowly missing them both. The mare recovered her footing, but Jim lost his seat and tumbled out of the saddle.

As if in slow motion, he landed on the downhill side of the trail, bouncing off the rocky slope and cartwheeling downward, picking up speed with the landslide of rocks and gravel.

The foreman somersaulted, slid and bounced the rest of the way down the five-hundred-foot drop, landing in a rush of stones and gravel with a sickening thud.

Roxanne dug her heels into Domino’s sides and raced to the base of the slope, her heart hammering against her ribs so hard it hurt.

“Jim. Oh, dear God, Jim,” she cried as she dropped to the ground and crouched over the older man’s still form.

Pebbles and small rocks continued to slide down, pelting her face and arms, some of them sharp, drawing blood.

Roxanne didn’t care. Jim was her only family, the man who’d been a father to her when her own had died.

“Jim.” She reached for the base of his throat and pressed two fingers to his skin, praying with all her heart for a pulse.

“Please be alive. Please.”

She held her breath, willing her shaking hands to steady. Finally a faint pulse bumped against her fingertips and she let out a long shaky sigh. “Thank God.”

But when she took stock of his form, her vision blurred and she sat back hard on her heels.

Jim lay at an awkward angle, his ankle twisted beneath a rock, his face pale, scratches bleeding across every exposed surface. And never once did he open his eyes.

Roxanne raised her face to the sky and cried, “Help! Please, oh please, help!”

* * *

“S
ITTIN

LIGHT
IN
THE
saddle today, brother?” Dante settled his cowboy hat on his head, pushing it down tight as he swung up on his black gelding.

Pierce eased himself into his own saddle on Cetan. “I got saddle sores from riding the past two days.”

“Need to rebuild the calluses on your butt, brother. Becoming a softy in the agent business,” Maddox teased. “I’ll take the truck with the medical supplies.”

“Says the man who rides horses for a living,” Pierce quipped.

“I’ll let you two do all the fun stuff in the canyon while I provide cover from above. Besides, someone’s got to haul the medical supplies in case Sweet Jessie needs them, and they ain’t gonna fit on the back of your horse.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’ll be napping, old man.” Dante clicked his tongue and his horse trotted out of the
barnyard.

Maddox caught Pierce’s gaze, all kidding wiped from his face. “Nothing from Tuck, yet?”

“Nothing more than what you already know. The bullet and casings are a match. He couldn’t lift any prints. He’s trying to get a trace on the plastic explosives, but there wasn’t much to go on.”

Maddox nodded. “You two will catch this guy. I know I can count on my FBI brothers to always get their man.”

“I just hope we get him before he gets Roxanne.”

“Yeah.” Maddox’s head dipped and he fiddled with the leather gloves he carried. “Speaking of Roxanne…”

Pierce held up a hand. “Don’t go there. We’re history.”

“Spending the night in a cave alone with her didn’t stir up any lingering anything?” Maddox gave him a pointed stare.

“We weren’t alone. We had three horses in the cave with us.”

Maddox snorted. “You’re avoiding the question.”

“No, I’m not answering it. Come on, we’ll be late for our three o’clock with the woman at this rate.”

Before he could leave the barnyard, Pierce spied Maddox’s fiancée running from the house toward them, carrying a pair of walkie-talkies.

“Maddox, you got company.”

The pretty, dark-haired princess of a breakaway Russian nation skidded to a halt, breathing hard. “You almost forgot your radio.” After she handed him one, she stood for a moment, staring up at him, the love shining from her eyes. “Be careful, please.” Then she flung her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his.

Maddox’s arms circled her tiny waist, pulling her close, deepening the kiss.

Pierce’s gut knotted.

Maddox and Katya were so in love it made Pierce want to gag.

He dug his heels into Cetan’s flanks, startling the animal into a jerky lope. Pierce didn’t slow the horse until he was well out of eyesight of the barn, his brother and his brother’s fiancée.

BOOK: Thunder Horse Redemption
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ads

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