Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
As he entered the long barracks-style building, four heads turned his way. “Evenin’.” He touched the brim of his hat and strode in. “Looks like I’ll be helpin’ with the roundup. Miss Carmichael said to bunk here.”
Pierce nodded at Abe Hunting Bear and Fred Jorgensen, men he’d known as long as he’d known Roxanne.
“We could use the help, Pierce.” Abe offered his hand. “Seems the herd is scattered farther than normal this year. The early drought has them ranging wide to get enough to eat.”
Pierce braced himself as the Lakotan gripped his hand hard enough to crush bones. When Abe let go, Pierce shook his hand, letting blood rush back in. “Good to see ya, Abe.”
Fred proffered a hand, his gaze direct. He didn’t utter a single word, just shook Pierce’s hand and let go. The man turned to his bunk, dropped down on the thin mattress and tipped his hat over his eyes. Typical of the shy cowboy. The man had a painful stutter that worsened under stress. He’d rather fake sleep than carry on a conversation.
Pierce stepped past the first two bunks and nodded at the kid. “You’re new here.”
The blond-haired, blue-eyed gangly boy shook Pierce’s hand with a surprisingly strong grip. “Name’s Toby Gentry. You might know my oldest brother, Jake. I think you two went to high school together in Medora.”
A smile spread across Pierce’s face. “He played football, didn’t he?”
Toby grinned. “Starting quarterback for three years straight.”
“You’ll have to tell him hello for me next time you see him.”
“I will. We Skype once a week. Jake’s in the army now, deployed to Afghanistan.” Instead of a sad look, Toby’s shoulders straightened, his thin chest pushing out, pride for his brother apparent.
The fourth ranch hand sat on his bunk, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. He didn’t get up to greet Pierce. Instead his eyes narrowed.
Pierce refused to back down. “Hi, I’m Pierce Thunder Horse.”
The younger man’s nostrils flared, but he gave a nod of acknowledgment. “Ethan.”
“I’ll be helping Ms. Carmichael through the roundup.”
Toby motioned Pierce toward the bunk beside his. “You can bunk here.”
“Thanks.” Pierce unfolded the thin mattress and dropped his bedroll on it, eying the sullen ranch hand as he settled his sleeping bag. “I’d better get back up to the ranch house. The boss said she’d have a sandwich for me.”
“I’ll go with you. I’m kinda hungry, too.” Toby led the way.
Pierce followed the boy out of the bunkhouse.
When the door shut behind them, Toby glanced at Pierce. “Don’t worry about Ethan. He’s not the friendly type. Likes to work alone.”
Pierce fell in step with the young man. “What’s his problem?”
Toby shrugged. “He’s always been kinda a loner, but he ain’t been right since his girlfriend died a couple months back.”
“What happened to her?”
“From the little he’s told us, she was in a fire or somethin’.” Toby scuffed his boot in the dirt. “He doesn’t like to talk about it and we don’t ask. No sense in poking a man where he’s hurting already.”
Pierce could definitely understand that, and in spite of himself, he felt a little pity for the morose young man. “Thanks for the warning. Does he always have such a bad attitude?”
Toby’s brows wrinkled. “Well, he ain’t all that friendly, but he wasn’t hired to chat. He does his job and he don’t talk back. Don’t know if he’s planning on sticking around, though. Miss Carmichael hired the two of us on as temporary until she gets some fences mended and all the cattle in. If the sale goes well, we might stay on for good. If not…” his shoulders raised and lowered “…guess I’ll be looking for work again.”
“Does Ethan have a last name?”
“Mitchell. He answered Miss Carmichael’s advertisement. Came from Bismarck. I think he has some local friends, though. Saw him talkin’ to Shorty Duncan on his day off.”
Pierce slowed. “Deputy Shorty Duncan?”
Toby turned to face him. “Somethin’ wrong with that?”
“No, no. Just seemed odd. When was this?”
“Last Sunday.” Toby’s head tipped to the side. “Why?”
“No reason. Just curious.”
Toby stepped up on the porch and strode toward the back door. He knocked.
“Come in,” Roxanne called from inside.
The door opened into the large kitchen.
Roxanne stood at a butcher-block cutting board, wearing the same dusty jeans she’d worn all day, her feet bare and her auburn hair hanging down around her shoulders in wild, loose curls.
She’d taken time to scrub clean her face and arms and she looked young, sexy and so beautiful it hurt Pierce to look at her.
When she glanced up, her frown swept upward in a smile for Toby.
Pierce’s fists clenched, the stab of jealousy completely unexpected and unwarranted. He had no claim to Roxanne anymore.
“Hey, Toby,” she said. “I’m glad you came up to the house. I have some extra chicken here—could you use a sandwich?”
Toby grinned. “Thanks, Miss Carmichael. I sure could. Abe cooked tonight and it wasn’t nearly as good as what you make. Not that I’m complainin’. Just saying.”
She handed one of the two sandwiches she had prepared to him and the other to Pierce.
“Won’t you have a seat?” She motioned for Toby to sit at the long solid pine kitchen table.
“Nah, but thanks. I think I’ll eat this on the way back to the bunkhouse. It’s gettin’ late, and I wanna catch some shut-eye. Got a long day ahead.”
Roxanne smiled and held the door for the young man. “See ya in the morning, then.” She stood staring out at the night for a few minutes before she turned back into the kitchen.
Pierce laid the sandwich on the cutting board and sliced it down the center, handing her one side. “Eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Do it for the ranch then. Your hands won’t want to play nursemaid to you if you pass out from malnutrition.”
She glared at him, but she took the sandwich and bit into the end of it.
“What do you know about Ethan Mitchell?”
“Only that he works hard, and came from Bismarck.” She bit off another piece and chewed. After she swallowed, she asked, “Why?”
“He’s got a chip on his shoulder. I just wondered if you knew why?”
“Started a couple months ago. Apparently his girlfriend was killed in an accident back in Bismarck. Happened around the same time as Mason…” Roxanne set the sandwich on the cutting board. “Why do you want to know?”
“Have you ever said or done anything to make him angry?”
“No.” She shook her head. “He’s been a little bad tempered, but it never really seemed aimed at me. I assumed he was going through a grieving process.”
“Angry for two months? You’d think he’d have moved on by now.”
Roxanne’s mouth quirked up on the corners then straightened. “It’s not that easy, and you know it.”
Pierce stared down at the sandwich in his hand. “Guess you’re right. I’m still angry over my father’s death, and at the sheriff for not doing any more than he did to investigate.” Pierce’s fingers tightened around the sandwich, as images of his father’s body being laid out in the Thunder Horse ranch house crowded into his memory. The mix of anger, frustration and crushing sadness had meant that he’d wanted to lash out at everyone in the immediate vicinity.
Yeah, he could understand Ethan’s anger. Pierce glanced at Roxanne. She’d been angry when they’d told her about Mason’s death. Pierce had been angry as well—at himself—and he’d lost none of that anger or self-blame since.
He’d understood when Roxanne called off their wedding. But his heart had still broken, and not just from her rejection. Mason had been his friend, too. He’d grieved for the loss, as well, and mourned even more that he couldn’t hold Roxanne through her sorrow.
Roxanne wrapped her arms around her middle and turned to stare out the window at the night. “Maybe you’d better go get some rest like Toby. We’ll be up early tomorrow.”
Pierce took his sandwich and left the kitchen, feeling no closer to bridging the chasm that had opened between him and Roxanne the day her brother died. Nor was he sure he wanted to bridge the gap.
She deserved better. Someone to be there for her, not someone who’d let her down.
As he headed back toward the bunkhouse, he tossed the sandwich into the bushes. After the eventful day, hunger for food was the farthest thing from his mind. Hunger for Roxanne? Well, he’d just have to get over it.
Roxanne headed toward her bedroom determined to follow her own advice and get to bed early. When she passed by her office, she remembered the stack of correspondence she’d put off as long as she could. Had all gone well today, she’d have tackled it as soon as dinner was over.
Tired to death and heart weary, she wanted to pass the door and ignore the bills, but she couldn’t. If she didn’t pay a couple of them, she’d be turned over to a collection agency. Not only would they hound her for payments, her credit rating would suffer and she’d never get another loan to tide her over through the rough months when cash flow was an issue.
Dragging her feet into the office, she sat behind the desk and stared at the mound of envelopes and the ancient computer on which she kept the ranch’s books.
She opened the first envelope. A bill with a thirty-days-past-due notice. Her gut clenched. Her father had prided himself on always paying his bills on time.
“Well, Daddy, a lot has changed and I’m not so sure you left the ranch to the right person.”
Her father hadn’t had much choice. Roxanne had been one of two children. Mason had had an equal interest in the ranch, but he hadn’t wanted to stay and work it, preferring to join the FBI instead. That left Roxanne to take care of the ranch, the cattle and horses, not to mention her responsibilities as the Bureau of Land Management representative in charge of monitoring the wild horses of the badlands.
Roxanne loved the ranch and couldn’t imagine herself doing anything other than what she was doing, but sometimes the struggle to keep things going was almost more than she could bear. Especially when the bill collectors came to call and she couldn’t afford to pay.
The economy had tanked, cattle prices fallen and her mortgage had come due. The sale of the cattle would only stall the inevitable. Sooner or later, she’d lose the ranch and be homeless and jobless.
Then why the hell didn’t she just get up from her desk and go to bed and sleep until next Wednesday?
Because Roxanne Carmichael didn’t give up. It wasn’t in her blood. She came from a long line of hardheaded Carmichaels who didn’t know when to call it a day.
Determined to find the money to pay the bills, she tapped the keyboard.
She checked the plugs and the connections and tried rebooting.
The computer wouldn’t reboot, the screen remaining dark.
Self-pity slammed into her like a mini-tsunami, crashing over her and sucking her down.
Tears filled her eyes. She rose from the chair, a rush of anger bubbling up and over. Roxanne shoved the stack of papers off the desktop and slammed her palm on the scarred wooden surface. “What next? Good Lord, haven’t we suffered enough?”
With the walls closing in around her, Roxanne flung open the French doors leading out onto the deck and stepped through. She breathed deeply, hoping to calm the rising panic.
“How will we survive? How will I pay the men?” Roxanne dropped into the porch swing, burying her face in her hands. “I should just give up.”
* * *
back to the bunkhouse. Instead he performed a perimeter check of the ranch house and the outbuildings, circling each structure, checking inside, around the outside and anywhere danger might lurk.
He found nothing.
Before returning to the bunkhouse, he made one more pass around the ranch house. A light burned in the kitchen and one in the study. Roxanne was probably still awake.
Pierce wondered why. Was she worried about Jim? Suffering from insomnia after being shot at and almost getting caught in a landslide?
A soft sobbing sound reached him. He tilted his head to listen. Had it been the rustle of the leaves in the tree shading the house from the moonlight?
The breeze died down and the sobbing continued, accompanied by the repetitive creak of metal on metal from the direction of the porch.
Easing his way up the steps, Pierce tiptoed across the wooden planks until he stood in front of the old porch swing he and Roxanne had shared on many occasions.
The woman sat hunched over, her face buried in her hands, moonlight glinting off the moisture spilling through her fingers.
Seeing Roxanne, an incredibly strong woman, reduced to tears of despair tugged at Pierce’s heart. All his self-made promises to keep a distance faded away as he reached out and pulled her into his arms.
Roxanne gasped, her eyes widening.
When she realized it was him, she stiffened. “What are you doing here?”
“I heard you crying.”
She sniffed. “Cowgirls don’t cry.”
“Right.” Pierce thumbed away a trail of tears on her cheek. “Must have been the wind I heard in the trees.”
She sniffed again, her eyes pooling with a fresh wash of tears. “What am I doing wrong?” Roxanne buried her face against his shirt, her fingers clutching at the fabric. Her shoulders shook with each sob, the sounds muffled against his chest.
He stroked her hair and held her steady, comforting her, whispering words of his ancestors into her ear, soothing her.
When her tears slowed to a trickle, he tipped her face up and pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead. “Everything will be okay.”
“How do you know?” She stared into his eyes, her own red rimmed and glazed with moisture.
“Because you’re strong. You always come through.”
Her head dipped, her gaze dropping to where her hands rested on his chest. “I’m not strong enough to protect my ranch and the people who work for me.”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about that. Let the sheriff find the shooter. It’s his job.”
She gave him a confused look, and for a moment, he wondered if she had other problems, troubles that she hadn’t shared with him. But her expression closed off before he could analyze it further. “You of all people are one to talk. You never trusted the sheriff’s investigation on your father’s death. Why should I rely on him now?”
She had a point.
“These men can take care of themselves. You aren’t their bodyguard.”
She shoved her hair out of her face. “But they work for me. I’m responsible.”
“Then give them the choice. Tell them what’s going on, and then say that they can work for you and run the risk, or walk.” Pierce cupped her chin. “You can’t take care of everyone.”
“You can’t,” he said softly.
The fight seemed to go out of her, and she leaned into him. “I want to,” she murmured. “I know it’s wrong. But I can’t help it. It’s who I am.”
“The person I fell in love with.” Pierce laced his fingers through her hair and pulled her closer. She melted into him and he slid his finger under her chin, tilting her face up toward him before leaning in closer…closer…
A rustle in the bushes made him freeze, his head jerking up. He listened, trying to make out the noise.
Then a loud crash broke through the night.
“What the hell?” Pierce jumped to his feet and bolted off the porch, racing around the side of the house. He thought he saw a shadowy form running away, but before he could get a lock on where the person was going, there was a burst of light that dazzled his eyes and completely disoriented him. Turning his head toward the source, he let out a gasp of shock.
Someone had set the house on fire. And they’d started with Roxanne’s bedroom.
* * *
as broken glass, Roxanne had rushed into the house as soon as Pierce had left the porch. Running into her room, she was shocked and horrified to see smoke and flames rising up the side of her bed, licking at the fabric of the quilt her mother had made especially for her.
“No!” Roxanne rushed forward, grabbing a throw rug from the floor, using it to beat at the flames, ignoring the way the acrid scent of gasoline filled her lungs along with the smoke.
“Roxanne!” Pierce called out through the shattered window. The next thing she knew, he’d barreled into the room, too.
Flames spread from liquid spilled on the wood flooring, and climbed up the curtains on either side of the broken window.
Roxanne yanked the quilt from the bed and tossed it to the floor, smothering the flames beneath her rug.
Pierce ripped an area rug up from the hallway and laid it over the flaming fluid, snuffing out the fire. Then he opened the broken window, yanked the burning curtains, rod and all, from the wall, and shoved them out onto the ground.
After the fire was out, Roxanne stood in the bedroom surveying the wreckage, her heartbeat finally slowing from the panic she’d felt only moments before. A fresh breeze helped clear the smoke from the room. Roxanne coughed, noticing for the first time the burning sensation in her lungs when she breathed. She stared at the damage. “Why is this happening?”
“I don’t know,” Pierce said. “But it has to stop.”
Roxanne bent to lift her mother’s quilt and inspected the damage. A giant scorch mark marred one corner, the rest was only blackened by smoke. A good washing would clean it up. But would it erase the stench of smoke? The lingering taint of fear?
She hugged the blanket to her body.
“I’m going to call the sheriff.” Pierce headed down the hall.
“Miss Carmichael, you okay?” a voice called from outside the house.
“Yes, Toby,” Roxanne answered. “I’m fine. I’m coming out.”
While Pierce placed the call, Roxanne briefed the ranch hands on what had happened.
“Sorry, boys, but the sheriff will probably question everyone. I ask you all to cooperate.”
Pierce stood on the porch, his gaze taking it all in.
Roxanne wondered what was going on behind his dark gaze. Did he have any lingering regrets that their moment together on the porch had been interrupted?
Outside, with the cool North Dakota night breeze chilling her skin, Roxanne had been having second thoughts. Perhaps the interruption had been destiny’s way of saying
don’t go there
The men returned to the bunkhouse and waited for the sheriff to arrive. Denying the urge to clean up the mess in her bedroom, Roxanne made a pot of coffee and sat on the porch, pretending to drink a cup, lost in her thoughts on where she and Pierce had been headed and the damage done both between them and to her house.
Twenty minutes later, Deputy Shorty Duncan showed up and took their statements. He gathered the bottle fragments, dropping them into an evidence bag.
“Someone used an accelerant and what looks like a beer bottle to make a Molotov cocktail.” He brushed his hands off on his trousers and met Roxanne’s gaze. “Easy enough for even a grade-school kid, and damaging.”
“Tell us something we didn’t know,” Pierce said.
“I’ll have the bottle fragments dusted for prints.” The deputy stepped back, his gaze panning the room. “No guarantees.”
“I’ve heard that before. When are you going to actually do something about the man trying to kill Miss Carmichael?” Pierce asked. “After she’s dead? No wait, you don’t even investigate murders, do you?”
“You got a problem with me, Mr. Thunder Horse?” Shorty Duncan puffed out his barrel chest and moved toe-to-toe with Pierce. The deputy stood six inches shorter than the Lakotan, but he was no less self-
Roxanne’s pulse raced, sure she would witness a fight if she didn’t do something. She eased between the two men. “Look, guys, I’m tired and I want to get some sleep in what’s left of the night.” She stared up at Pierce, holding his gaze.
“I’ll do my job, just keep him on a leash, will ya?” Shorty snapped a few pictures, using a camera he’d brought from his SUV. “If you have any more troubles, just call nine-one-one.”
Roxanne nodded. If they didn’t find prints on the glass, the deputy’s trip to her ranch would turn out to be nothing but a waste of time. At the rate the sheriff was investigating what had happened, someone was sure to die before they resolved the case.
It was time to take action.
After Deputy Duncan left, Pierce helped her clean up the glass and mop the remaining gasoline from the floor. When they’d finished, the clock had pushed past midnight.
With a full day of roundup ahead, Roxanne groaned. “I’m getting a shower. You don’t have to stay. You can go back to the bunkhouse.”
Pierce shook his head. “You take the first shower. I’ll grab my gear and sleep on the couch.”
Too tired to argue, Roxanne nodded. “Thanks.”
“I’m just glad I was here.”
“Me, too.” She avoided his eyes and ducked into the laundry room where she gathered clean if wrinkled clothing that didn’t smell of smoke. She hurried down the hallway to the guest bathroom.
She rushed through a shower, scrubbing the smoke and soot from her hair. Her chest felt tight, her throat raw, but thankfully the smoke in her room hadn’t been too thick.
When she’d combed the tangles out of her hair and smoothed cream into her skin, she stepped out of the bathroom wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. Nothing at all sexy.
Pierce had been to the bunkhouse and returned with his bedroll. He’d removed his shirt and had just set his boots beside him on the floor.
When he straightened, Roxanne’s breath caught in her throat at how big and handsome the man was. He wore his Lakota heritage with pride. She cleared her throat. “The shower’s yours,” came out in a gravelly croak. “Towels are in the cabinet beneath the sink. If you need anything else, let me know.”
Roxanne stood for a moment longer, unable to tear her gaze from him.
He inhaled, his naked chest expanding, then he let it out on a sigh. “It’s been a long day. Go to bed, Roxanne.”
As if all the wind had been sucked from her lungs, Roxanne hesitated only a moment longer. Then she performed an about-face and escaped into the guest bedroom, shutting the door firmly between them. She leaned against the wood panels, her heart racing, her body on fire with flames hotter than any Molotov cocktail could inspire.
Hell yeah, it had been a long night, and likely it would get even longer.