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A whisper of sound, so fragile it might have been only a fragment left over from a dream. Another woman might have burrowed back under the blankets, refusing to open her eyes as she willed herself back to sleep. Not Ellie Parker. Not only had the infant recently entrusted to her care awakened every protective instinct she possessed, but her past had made her overly wary.
The noise came again, an echo of a ghost. Heart pounding, she held herself utterly still while waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Luckily, the full moon brought traces of silver to light the room.
There. Near Amelia's antique crib that had been hastily brought down from the attic. A figure in black, wearing a hoody and a ski mask, reaching for the baby.
Leaping to her feet, Ellie screamed. Loud and shrill. The intruder froze, then ran for the window, yanking it open and racing away.
Baby Amelia began to wail, and Ellie rushed to her on shaky legs, trying to catch her breath.
"What is it? What's going on?" Theo Colton's deep voice, throaty from sleep and full of concern. He flicked on the light switch.
"A man," Ellie gasped, pointing past where he stood, his broad-shouldered body filling the doorway. "Dressed in black, wearing a ski mask. He was trying to take Amelia."
And then the trembling started. She couldn't help it, despite the tiny infant she clutched close to her chest. Somehow Theo seemed to sense this, as he gently took her arm and steered her toward her bed.
"Sit," he ordered, taking the baby from her.
Reluctantly releasing Amelia, Ellie covered her face with her hands. It had been a strange day, ever since the baby's mothera beautiful, elegant woman named Mimi Randhad shown up that morning insisting Theo was the father and then collapsing. Mimi had been taken to the Dead River Clinic with a high fever and flu-like symptoms. Theo had Ellie looking after Amelia until everything could be sorted out.
But Theo had no way of knowing about Ellie's past, or the danger that seemed to follow her like a malicious shadow. "I need to leave," she said to him. "Right now, for Amelia's sake."
Theo stared at her, holding Amelia to his shoulder and bouncing her gently, so that her sobs died away to whimpers and then silence. The sight of the big cowboy and the tiny baby struck a kernel of warmth in Ellie's frozen heart.
"Leave?" Theo asked. "You just started work here a week ago. If it's because I asked you to take care of this baby until her mama recovers, I'll double your pay."
"It's not about the money." Though she could certainly use every penny she could earn. "I I thought I was safe here. Clearly, that's not the case."
He frowned. "I can assure you " Stopping, he handed her back the baby, holding her as gingerly as fragile china. Once Ellie had the now-sleeping Amelia, Theo began walking around her room. "How about I check everything out? Is anything missing?"
Helpless to answer, since he obviously didn't understand, she managed a shaky shrug, gently patting Amelia's back. "I don't think he was here for possessions, which I have very few of anyway. He was definitely after Amelia."
"He?" Theo swung around to face her, his stance emphasizing the force of his muscular body. "Are you sure the intruder was a man?"
"Yes." Despite the baby's heat, she couldn't seem to get warm. "Who would try to kidnap a baby, especially with her mother gravely ill?"
"Maybe it just looked that way." He continued checking the room. "Nothing appears disturbed. Any idea how he got in?"
"No. He ran out the doorway into the hall when I screamed." For the first time she realized Theo was nearly naked, wearing only some sort of pajama bottoms low on his narrow hips. His bare chest gleamed. Trying not to stare and failing miserably, she felt her mouth going dry. For one brief second, she allowed the sight of himso big, so masculineto make her feel safe.
And then Theo went into her bathroom. He cursed, and she knew. Her stalker had somehow found her.
Pushing to her feet, she placed the sleeping baby carefully back in her crib and hurried over. Theo appeared tense, a muscle working in his jaw. "This seems to be directed to you," he said, pointing. The only baby you'll be taking care of is OURS had been written on the mirror with black marker.
Her knees again nearly gave out. She felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach. "That settles it. I have to go."
"No." He reached out and steadied her. "No, you don't. You're safe here, Ellie. I can help you, protect you. But you need to tell me what's going on."
Despite the fact that she knew sexy Theo Colton couldn't be her knight in shining armor, she took a deep breath. "A couple of weeks ago, I left my home in Boulder, Colorado, because I had a stalker. He seemed to find me everywhere I went, leaving me black roses."
She nodded. "I don't know why. He also left notes that said things like No one will ever love you like I do and One day you'll be mine forever.'''
"Did you go to the police?"
"Yes, but they said they couldn't do anything unless he threatened me. None of the notes said anything about him wanting to harm me. I couldn't get a restraining order or anything."
He gave her a long look, his green eyes unfathomable. "Yet you felt threatened."
"Yes. Wouldn't you?"
"Do you have any idea who he is?"
"No." She blinked. "And believe me, I tried to find out. I had friends hide and watch me to see if I was followed. No one ever saw him. The note and the roses would appear. So finally I couldn't take it anymore. I left everything in my apartment, packed a small bag and took off. I didn't tell anyone anything, just got in my car and drove."
"You must have been followed."
"I don't know how," she cried. "Honestly, I was very, very careful. When I left Boulder, I drove to Fort Collins, then Laramie, before I headed to Cheyenne. I stayed in Cheyenne for a couple of days before I saw your ad for a live-in cook. My car barely made it here before it died." And as soon as she had the money, she planned to get it fixed.
He nodded. "Don't worry. I'll take care of this." Picking up the phone on her nightstand, he punched in some numbers. "Hey, Flint," he drawled. "Sorry to wake you so early on a Sunday morning, but I need you to come over." Briefly he relayed what had happened before replacing the phone in its cradle.
"You've probably heard that my brother is the police chief in Dead River. He's on his way."
Heart in her throat, she nodded. Despite the fact that police apparently didn't take this kind of thing seriously, maybe the fact that the police chief was a relative of Theo's would help.
If he couldn't, then she was out of here come sunrise, even if she had to take a bus. No way did she want to bring her personal dark cloud down on this family, who'd taken a chance on an out-of-towner with few references. Though Theo hadn't known it, giving Ellie this job had likely saved her life. No way did she want any of them hurt because of her, especially not such a sweet and innocent baby.
Theo stayed with her while they waited for his brother to arrive, leaving her only long enough to go put on a shirt.
Flint arrived a few minutes later. Like Theo, he was tall and muscular, with the same dark hair and striking green eyes. He appeared drained, but that might only have been due to Theo's call waking him in the middle of the night.
"I was on my way over here anyway," he said, a shadow crossing his face. "I just got word from Gemma at the clinic. Mimi Rand passed away a little while ago."
Both Theo and Ellie gaped at him. Theo was the first to speak. "What was wrong with her?"
"Cause of death hasn't been determined yet." Flint shrugged, his expression weary. "She had a high fever and flu-like symptoms. That's all I know."
Ellie glanced at Theo, watching for signs of grief. After all, if the ranch gossip was to be believed and Amelia was his daughter, then that meant the mother of his child had just died.
While he appeared a bit disconcerted, nothing more, she realized that might be because he wasn't the type of man to show his emotions on his sleeve. She then looked at Amelia, still sleeping soundly, her heart squeezing in her chest. "That poor motherless baby. What's going to become of her now?"
For the first time, Theo seemed uncomfortable. He shifted his weight and tugged at the collar of his shirt, before clearing his throat. "We need to get her checked out to make sure she's not sick like her mother. Mimi's ex-husband is a doctor at the clinic. Our sister, Gemma, works with him. I need to talk to him about all this. We'll work something out."
"Yes," Flint said grimly. "We certainly will."
Ellie got the distinct impression from the way the two brothers exchanged glances that they were saying without words that family stuck together, no matter what. A sharp pang of longing ripped through her, which she quickly pushed away. She'd realized years ago what her parents were and weren't capable of, and being a family wasn't one of those things.
"Now, what occurred here?" Flint asked. "Theo says you had some kind of break-in?"
She nodded. "Yes. I'm pretty sure the intruder was here because of me. For some reason, he wanted to take or hurt the baby to get at me."
Cocking his head, Flint frowned. "Why would you think that?"
Pointing with a shaky finger toward the bathroom, she swallowed hard. "Because he left me a message."
Flint hurried off to check it out. She and Theo waited. A second later, she heard the click and whirr of a camera. When he returned, his expression had gone grim. "What exactly is going on?"
Theo filled him in on Ellie's past, as well as details about what had just happened. Ellie tried like heck not to squirm as both men studied her with identical sharp gazes.
"Tell me exactly what you saw," Flint told her, his serious voice stern but compassionate.
"I'm afraid I can't help much." She wished she could stop shaking or at least get warm. The chill seemed to have snaked into the marrow of her bones. "Even back in Colorado, I've never known my stalker's identity. I've never even seen him."
"You did tonight," Theo reminded her, his gruff voice gentle.
"Not really. It was dark and I couldn't get a good look at his face. Even if I'd managed to turn on a light before he fled, I'm pretty sure he wore a ski mask."
Flint nodded. "Anything else you can tell me about him?"
She thought for a moment. "He was tall and lanky, but I can't tell you much more than that. It all happened so fast."
Her words came out sounding a little more forlorn than she'd intended. To her surprise, Theo put his big hand on her shoulder and squeezed, offering reassurance. She instinctively leaned into his touch, and when she realized what she'd done, she stiffened and moved away.
Meanwhile, baby Amelia slept on, undisturbed.
"We'll try to find him," Flint said. "Theo, you might look into investing in some sort of home alarm."
"I will," Theo promised.
"Good." Glancing at his watch, Flint put his notepad and pen back in his pocket. "Now I suggest you both get some sleep. We'll talk again after the sun comes up and we're all more rested."
After escorting his brother to the door, Theo returned to Ellie's room to check on her and the baby. Seeing Ellie so terrified and defenseless had awakened every protective instinct he possessed. He'd be lying to himself if he claimed he hadn't noticed how lovely she was, especially since he'd hired her personally. He enjoyed women, especially beautiful ones, and just because that damn rodeo accident had sidelined him didn't mean he had to give up that.
He'd actually figured she'd be a nice diversion while he was stuck here at the ranch. But Ellie Parker surprised him. She'd only been here one week, but when she wasn't working in the kitchen, she might as well be a ghost. Her willowy, athletic good looks had attracted the attention of several of the ranch hands, and Theo had listened to them complain about how she kept to herself. As if she wanted to be invisible.
Which was oddly ironic, because Theo was used to living life in the spotlight, all the attention on him. One damn crazy-ass bronc and he was off the circuit, his season over for the first time since he'd made it into the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association and started competing with the big boys. He'd loved the rough competition, the mean, hard-bucking broncs and the hefty payout. For the past three years, he'd ranked in the top twenty of the bareback bronc riders and been steadily climbing. This past year had been his best. This year, the PRCA Bareback Riding World Championship had been within reach.
He wanted that title so bad he could taste it. The pinnacle of his career, the real moneymaker. He'd lusted after that ever since he climbed on his first bronc. And he was damn good at it. He had a knack for knowing beforehand which way the animal was going to buck and spin. He'd figured out how to make his eight seconds count.
The money had been flowing in. After all, it was July, with rodeos with such huge payouts they called it the Cowboy's Christmas. There were plenty to choose from. With an eye on the World, he'd chosen to compete in the ones with the biggest payouts since his placement in the standings depended entirely on total money won.
And he couldn't seem to stop winning. Every day, he called PROCOM, the PRCA's computerized system, and got his numbers. As his standings continued to improve, he supposed in retrospect, he'd gotten cocky. So when he'd drawn the one horse no one had ever been able to beat, a beast known by the cowboys as one of the toughest broncs around, a National Finals horse, it had never occurred to him not to try. After all, he was unstoppable.
The instant they'd exploded from the chute, he realized this bronc wasn't like the others. Something was scrambled in his equine brain. After the first crazy sideways leap, Theo remembered nothing until he'd woken up in a hospital bed.
Even in an occupation where injuries are common, everyone had been concerned. They'd told him he was lucky he wasn't dead. At his lowest moments, he wasn't too sure about that. He'd lived for the circuit, spent his time traveling from region to region, pulling his camper behind his pickup. Now he had nothing to live for, not really. Injured, he couldn't ride, and if he couldn't ride, he couldn't win. Injured, he was nothing, his standings slipping with every rodeo he missed.
He'd retreated to his family's ranch to recuperate and lick his wounds. Luckily, due to Slim George, the ranch foreman who'd been in charge since Theo'd been a small boy, the place ran smoothly.
Which was great, since Theo wouldn't have been much help. After his head injury had left him unconsciousthey'd used the word comafor weeks, he'd had a long, slow recuperation. Not just his head, but he'd come within a hair of being paralyzed and the discs in his back were fragile enough that he'd have to be careful the rest of his life.
The doctors had said he'd never ride again, never mind compete. He'd told them all to go to hell and checked himself out of the hospital in Cheyenne as soon as he could, despite his broken ribs and bum knee. Flint had picked him up, sharing some grim news. One of Theo's competitors, a cowboy named Hal Diggins who'd had a cold streak for several months, had injected the bronc with some kind of amphetamine to make it go crazy. Hal had been arrested, and, despite Theo's protests, Flint had moved back to Dead River to help take care of Theo while he recuperated. Later, Theo had learned Flint had wanted to get out of Cheyenne and heal his own wounds. Despite Theo asking, Flint refused to elaborate on what they might be.