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For today's ride, Dan Armstrong had brought along his custom-made six-shooter, but he couldn't believe he'd need it.
He didn't normally wear it, but his uncle had told him to take a gun if he went out alone. And since it had been years since the man had shown a whit of interest in Dan's well-being, he'd listened. Now he was glad he'd done so because his imagination was working overtime.
There was something about this forest that said Old West, South Dakota style. His sprawling estate outside of Fort Worth was a jewel, but north Texas didn't have stands of pines this pretty or the carved sandstone bluffs that ran along the Dakota River.
It was a damn shame the trees, the river and the land wouldn't be the same once his company got done with them. His uncle, Cecil Armstrong, who ran one half of Armstrong Holdings, wanted to clear-cut these hundreds of acres before building a dam on this river, about five hundred yards upstream. No sense in throwing away perfectly good logging rights, Cecil had said. Logically, Dan couldn't argue with that, but he'd hate to see this forest go.
He didn't doubt that this place looked the same today as it had hundreds of years ago, back when cowboys and Indians rode the range. If he closed his eyes, he could almost hear war whoops and the thunder of hooves.
He twisted in the saddle, squinting as he looked into the afternoon sun. He really did hear hoofbeats.
The sound stopped when he moved, and by the time he got his eyes shaded with the brim of his Stetson, all he could see was a dust cloud about a hundred yards back, down the well-worn deer path he'd come in on.
Instinctively, Dan dropped his hand to the butt of his pistol. Sure, the engraved nickel firearm was only good for six shots, but he'd wanted a piece that was specifically weighted to his grip.
His hand flexed around the gun and waited. The dust settled around a figure. The sunlight provided an almost spar-kly air around her. He blinked. What he saw didn't change, so he shook his head. Still there.
A Native American princess sat astride a paint horse. Her hair hung loose behind her, blowing in a breeze that Dan couldn't feel. He couldn't feel much of anything but sheer shock. What the hell?
Her horse took a step closer. She wore nothing but an old-fashioned, unadorned buckskin dress that rode high up on lean thighs that clung to the sides of her paint horse with natural ease. It was clear this princess knew how to ride bareback. The length of her legs ended with simple moccasins. Her horse's face was coated in red. Was that war paint?
Could this be happening? She looked like she belonged to a different time, as pure and untouched as the land around her. He'd seen a few Lakota Indians in the three days since he'd arrived, but none of them looked like this.
None of them looked at him like she was looking at him.
One of her hands held the reins of her horse, the other was relaxed by her leg. She tilted her head, sending all that black hair off to one side. She was stunning. A princess of the high plains.
Dan's heartbeat picked up and he slid his hand away from his revolver. She was not what he expected. Cecil had warned him that the local Lakota Indians were a bunch of lazy drunksbut not this woman. The proud way she held her body as her clear eyes swept over him made it obvious that neither of those adjectives applied to her. He'd never seen a woman as stop-what-he's-doing-and-stare beautiful as she was. She leaned forward, and he caught the shape of her buckskin-clad chest. His pulse wasn't the only thing that picked up. What the hell was wrong with him?
The princess flashed him a smile, which didn't help. He had trouble reading her expression at this distance, but there was no mistaking the wide grin or the brightness of her teeth. Then, as quickly as she'd smiled, she was a blur of motion. Her horse shot forward in the same second her hand shot up. His hat went flying as an explosion rocked the valley.
His horse jumped and spun, and Dan lost track of the woman. His first instinct was to rein in Smokey; his second was to duck for cover. That explosion had sounded a hell of a lot like a gunshot.
By the time he got his stallion turned back around, she was gone. Dan didn't think, he just acted. He touched his spurs to the horse's side and took off for the deer trail. Fueled by adrenaline, he plunged into the shadowy woods. Beautiful or no, no one took a shot at him. No one.
He could hear the sound of a large body crashing through the underbrush, over to his left. Whoever she was, she was abandoning the deer path. Dan blinked hard, forcing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He thought he caught a flash of white ahead.
The harder he rode, the madder he got. In the oil business, he'd dealt with plenty of shady charactersmen with agendas or historiesbut no one had ever taken an unprovoked shot at him. Hell, no one had ever taken a shot at him, period. He didn't have enemies because he didn't make them. That "man-against-the-world" crap might have been the way of things back in the old days, but Dan was no gunslinger. He was a businessmana successful one. His word was his bond, and his lawyer rode herd when a deal went south.
He caught the flash of white again and froze.
A white-tailed deer was high-tailing it away from him.
Cursing, Dan pulled Smokey to a stop and tried to figure out what the hell had happened. Maybe it hadn't been real. People imagined sounds, right? But then he remembered his hat. It had come off in the confusion. No matter what had actually happened, he wasn't going to leave his hat. He loved that hatit fit his head perfectly. Slowly, Dan worked his way back down to the tall grass until he saw the brown brim of his Stetson. He got down to fetch it.
His gut clenched in a terrifying rage. A hole pierced the front peak of the hat, less than an inch from where it had rested on his head.
She'd shot at him. That beautiful womanbare legs, barebackhad shot at him.
Somebody owed him an explanation.
Dan was still plenty steamed by the time he got back to the ranch house. For some crack-brained reason, his uncle had decided to set up the hydro division of Armstrong Holdings in one of those grand old mansions some cattle baron had built back in the 1880s. As far as mansions went, it was a beautiful piece of workthree floors of hand-carved banisters and stained-glass windows on sixty acresbut corporate headquarters it wasn't. Why Cecil was camped out on the edge of the middle of nowhere, halfway between the state capital in Pierre and the Iowa border, instead of at the small staffed office he had in Sioux Falls was beyond him. It was almost like the old man was trying to hide.
As chief operating officer of Armstrong Holdings, the family business that Dan's father had started with his brother Cecil forty years ago, Dan owned half of this house. Technically, he owned half of the water rights on the Dakota River over which the Red Creek branch of the Lakota Indian tribe was suing Cecil. He owned half of that pretty little valley where his hat had met an untimely death. Technically, he was an equal partner in this whole damn enterprise, and had been since he'd assumed control of the petroleum division in Texas from his mother when he turned twenty-one.
He'd be damned if he let Cecil destroy the company he'd worked so hard to expand.
Cecil had never been one for technicalities, an opinion made abundantly clear last week when he'd ordered Dan to drop everything in Texas and come to South Dakota. Cecil had a problem with the dam he'd spent nearly five years trying to build and had threatened that Armstrong Holdings would lose billions of dollars and just about every government contract they had if Dan didn't get his ass on a plane within a week.
Dan hated to let anyone think he was at the old man's beck and callleast of all, the old man himselfbut this problem with the dam gave Dan the perfect opportunity to come up here and figure out what those littleand not so littleblips in the company's financial reports were all about. He didn't know what exactly he was looking for, but he knew he wouldn't find it in Texas. He was going to have to suffer his uncle until he could force Cecil out of the role of chief executive officer.
Now that he thought about it, Dan remembered that it was Cecil who had warned him about the local Indiansthat he was having trouble with negotiations with some of them. Dan just hadn't realized that the problem would require body armor and a helmet.
The gabled roof of the ranch house looked even more ominous as the late-afternoon sun cast deep shadows over the front yard. The cast-iron fence looked less like it wanted to keep Cecil's old coon dog in and more like it wanted to keep armed assailants out. Dan stormed through the front door, making the housekeeper jump.
"Is everything all right, Senor Armstrong?" Maria's thick Mexican accent was the closest thing to Texas in this whole house.
Dan slowed. From what he could tell, Cecil treated this poor woman like dirt, which made Dan go out of his way to be polite. Being friendly with the staff had always helped him in the pastespecially when he needed information. Mom always said Dan could catch more flies with honey when he wanted to, and right now, he had a bunch of flies bothering him. "Maria," he said, his voice slipping down just a notch as he whipped off his hat. Her cheeks colored. "Do you all have trouble around here?"
The color deepened as she dropped her eyes to the ground. Dan guessed that maybe thirty years ago, Maria had been quite a looker. He didn't mean to make her blush, but sweet-talking a woman was second nature for him. "Trouble, senor?"
"Native American trouble?" Maria blinked in confusion, so Dan tried again. "Indian trouble?" Even saying the phrase felt wrong, like it was the 1880s and he was stuck in the middle of a range war. He cleared his throat. If it weren't for the bullet hole in his hat, he'd be certain he'd lost his mind. He held his hat out to her.
Maria went very still as she looked at the hole, and then at his head. "Dios mi! No, senor, we do not have that kind of trouble."
Damn. Dan was good at reading people, women in particular. Maria was telling the truth.
"You'll let me know if you hear of any, won't you?" He shot her his please smile.
Her head bobbed as she began to back toward the kitchen. "Si, senor."
Satisfied, he continued on to his uncle's office. It had probably once been the formal dining room, capable of seating twenty, but no more. Now it was crammed full of everything a man needed to run a major energy corporation. In Texas, Cecil had been a ruthless businessman, squeezing out smalltime operations and buying land for astonishing prices. By the time the SUV craze rolled around, he held a near monopoly on Texas oil.
Cecil was whip-smart. By the time the writing was on the fossil fuel wall, he'd already invested deeply in hydroelectric dams. That's what had brought him to South Dakota. The water rights were cheap up here, and the potential was huge. Armstrong Hydro was quickly becoming not just the major player in the field, but the only player.
Dan didn't like the man, never had. Not one bit. But family was family, and Cecil and Dan were tied by blood and by business. Dan couldn't get rid of the old man without hard evidence of malfeasance that he could present to the Board of Directors. Maybe on this trip, he'd find just what he needed to finally cut their connection. Without breaking stride, he burst into the room.
"Well?" Cecil demanded without bothering to look up from the report he was studying. The old man still had the same pompadour and trimmed mustache he'd worn since the 1950s. The only thing that had changed in five years were the jowls Cecil was now sporting. Those jowls, combined with the careful grooming, made Cecil look like the poster boy for the banality of evil. Emphasis on the evil. Those pictures of Cecil and his brother Lewis, Dan's father, with their first oil derrick were the only proof Dan had ever seen that his uncle smiled. He'd certainly never smiled at Dannot once.
Dan gritted his teeth and threw his hat on the desk. The hole landed directly in front of Cecil's face. "Someone took a shot at me."
Cecil appeared to study the wounded hat for a moment. "Did you get them?" He didn't sound concerned or surprised. "No. I lost her."
A sneer wrestled one corner of Cecil's mouth up. "You let a girl get off an unanswered shot?"
He didn't have to defend himself here. Cecil had told him to pack his revolver. "Thanks for the warnin'."
"Are you sure it was a girl?" The sneer didn't falter.
Dan thought back to the lean, bare thighs, the long hair and that smile. Girl, no. Woman? Hell, yes. "Positive."
"No one's seen her before." Cecil hadn't known a woman was out there? He seemed to be struggling to digest the information. "If it's the same troublemaker, she's sabotaged the engineer's work site on more than one occasion."
He had heard about the trouble with the work site, but only third-hand from an engineer Cecil had sent packing. Cecil apparently didn't believe an ecoterrorist attack on an Armstrong project was worth reporting to the boardyet another thing he was hiding. How many other things were there?
Dan had dealt with ecoterrorists before. The Earth Liberation FrontELFhad burned more than a few of his derricks before Dan had managed to negotiate a truce of sorts. But even ELF had never gone to all the trouble of disguises in broad daylight. They'd been strictly an under-cover-of-night group, more bent on the destruction of property than of people. He could handle ecoterrorists. What he couldn't handle were armedand beautifulNative American princesses.
Without missing a beat, Cecil threw Dan's hat back at him and picked up a sheaf of paper from the top of a neat pile. "I have a new assignment for you."