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The dead quiet made Isabel Ling's skin prickle. In less than an hour the sun would set and she'd be all alone on this road, a good forty minutes from town and another half hour from Mountain Cloud Ranch. She couldn't stop the thought that rose in her mind as she wrestled with the flat tire. Was it a spot like this where her sister died not three weeks ago? A lizard darted under her truck, causing her to drop the lug nuts.
She chided herself as she retrieved them from the dust. "You're thirty-two years old, Is. Not some scared teenager. No one is going to hurt you here." Gritting her teeth she heaved the new tire from the trunk and began to wrestle it onto the axle, ignoring the ache in her head. It was not the time for another attack. She had nothing else with her, not so much as one piece of hard candy, so going unconscious from her hypoglycemia was not an option.
"Need a hand?"
Isabel yelped and whirled around, losing her grip on the tire. She found herself staring into the tanned face of a stranger. He wore a baseball cap with the Air Force logo embroidered on it. His hair was crew-cut style and his chin shadowed in stubble. Perspiration glistened on his forehead and darkened his tank top. Isabel saw her own scared face mirrored back at her in his sunglasses, until he removed them.
She closed her mouth and lifted her chin, willing her knees to stop shaking. "I didn't hear your car."
He shrugged, breathing hard. "I'm out for a run."
She tried not to gape. "In this heat?"
The green of his eyes were a startling burst of color in his browned face. "Good for the soul. Where are you headed?"
Something about his voice was familiar. She wiped a hand across her brow to buy time. "Mountain Cloud Ranch."
His smile wavered. "Cassie Reynolds's ranch? Are you related?"
"We arewere sisters. I'm Isabel Ling."
"Logan Price." He rested his hands on his hips. "I knew Cassie."
The tension in her stomach grew as the pieces fell into place. "Oh, yes. You called to see if you should finish the work on the ranch."
He looked down for a moment. "I hope that was okay. I didn't mean to bother you. I hate leaving a job unfinished."
He had sounded kind on the phone, with a voice that was uncannily familiar, but she'd suspected that his call was motivated by the desire to be paid for his work. Now here he was, and he probably knew more about Cassie than she did.
Since Isabel had run away from home at sixteen, she had only exchanged six letters with her sister. Six ridiculously small pieces of paper, instead of the volumes they should have shared. She swallowed hard and forced herself to look him in the eye, feeling again a stab of familiarity she could not explain.
He raised an eyebrow. "Are you taking care of Mountain Cloud?"
Isabel shot him a tight smile. "Looks that way. I think I'd better get this tire on."
"Let me help you." He bent to take the lug wrench from her hand, muscled shoulders gleaming in the sunlight.
"No, thanks. I can do it."
"I'm sure you can. I'd be happy to help. You look tired."
Isabel stepped between him and the tire. "I appreciate it, but I don't need help."
He looked at her for a long moment, expression unreadable. "Okay. Do you have a phone?"
She pulled the new satellite phone from her pocket. He took it.
"Thanks." She was still smarting over having to buy it at the airport after she lost track of her other one. She wished her checking account total was as hefty as the balance on her credit card.
He punched a few buttons and handed it back, long fingers brushing hers.
"I programmed in my cell number, just in case you need it. I really am sorry about your sister." After another searching look, he turned and ran back down the road, long legs moving easily over the scorched ground.
Isabel watched until he was out of sight. She finished fixing the flat, wondering if Logan knew more than he was telling about things. The suspicious look on his face had been evident in spite of his warm smile.
She brushed the gravel off the knees of her jeans. Maybe he was simply a kind-hearted guy, on a Good Samaritan mission. He could be just what he seemed, her wariness only a product of her past and guilt over not knowing her own sister.
Remember Rawley, Isabel. Remember what happened with him.
She shivered at the thought, the tiny throb in her hand reminding her of the kind of pain misplaced trust can bring. She repeated her hard-earned wisdom again, to cement it more firmly into her brain.
Never trust a stranger.
She recalled the flash of Logan's green eyes. Especially a handsome one.
Logan ran faster, the sweat pouring off him in a tide of heat. So Isabel was Cassie's sister. He should have known, in spite of the different last names. They both had the same dark hair and delicate Asian features.
His earlier conversation on the phone with Isabel had stuck with him for an inexplicable reason. The honest emotion in her voice when she talked of her sister awakened something in him. He didn't think honesty and emotion went together, in view of his past experiences. He had a divorce certificate to prove it.
While Cassie had been exuberant and impulsive, Isabel seemed different. Maybe it was grief over her sister's accident, but his gut told him it was more. She was scared of something or someone.
He was so lost in thought, he didn't notice the strange play of light until the pain in his ankle forced him to a walk. He froze. A glint, the barest moment of light that shone from the cover of a cluster of spruce trees in the distance. He knew it instinctively. It was the gleam of sunlight bouncing off binocular lenses.
His pulse accelerated a notch, and he had to force himself not to seek cover and get a bead on the enemy.
You're not on a mission anymore, Logan.
When the odd glint did not repeat, he decided it was probably a kid playing, enjoying the last few days of August before school started up again. Still, the tingle of unease remained with him down the mountain, all the way to his truck and during the drive to his condo.
The ungainly pounding of Tank's approach brought a smile to Logan's face when he entered the gated yard. How had this nutty dog twined itself around his heart so completely?
In a way, it was a good thing that Bill couldn't keep him anymore. It was the only positive thing about his friend's extended absence, as far as he could see. The broad-shouldered rottweiler galloped up and threw himself on his back for a belly rub, as if he hadn't seen Logan in months. He tossed the rubber ball for his eager pet. When they lay tired out on the grass, his mind returned to the lonely mountain road.
The standoffish Isabel Ling had arrived as suddenly as a mountain storm. She was wary, reserved, as she had been on the phone, but his unease began before, when he had first arrived on Cassie's property with his backhoe. It was nothing he could point to directly, no outward sign of danger. A feeling had crept up on him as he'd started work, as if someone was watching from behind the trees. Watching and waiting.
His instincts shouted the same message when he'd seen the glint of binoculars earlier.
It must be a by-product of his training, a remnant of the dire situations he'd found himself in during his six years in pararescue. Was it simple paranoia?
He'd learned long ago, on the bloody sands of Takur Ghar, to trust his instincts.
But women were an entirely different breed of danger.
What were his instincts telling him about Isabel Ling? He could sum it up in one word.
Isabel finally rounded the last turn as the sun set, plunging the ranch into eerie darkness. In the distance, towers of rock jutted out like clawed fingers against the sky. She hadn't realized her sister's property was so close to the fabled Badlands. Isabel hadn't ever seen Mountain Cloud, the place Cassie bought after their father's death four years before. She hoped it had been a healing place for Cassie. She deserved it after caring for their father, who had shredded the family into unmendable tatters with his drinking and rage, the horrible depression that gripped him when his business had failed along with his wife's health.
Not completely unmendable, Isabel reminded herself, thinking of the letters. The thought made her throat thicken with tears.
She'd made a stumbling step toward reconciliation after far too many years and Cassie had been receptive, or so Isabel thought. The hope that Cassie had forgiven her desertion lifted Isabel out of the despair that had seemed inescapable. Though Isabel had never forgiven her father, refusing to even keep his last name, maybe she and Cassie could have put the past behind and started fresh.
A tear trickled down her cheek. Too late. Why had she waited until it was too late? The quickening wind drew her back to the present, bringing with it a wall of clouds that seemed to press the air down around her in a hot blanket. Though she should have been exhausted from her flight and the seemingly endless drive, her nerves tingled.
Living in Los Angeles meant being surrounded by people, noise and unending business.
Here there was only the wind rattling the dry leaves and the lonely hum of some hidden insect.
The wood-sided cabin beckoned, and Isabel wanted nothing more than to run inside and lock the door. Instead she dropped her bag on the steps and headed for the corral and adjacent barn. Six horses stood quietly, watching her approach, whinnying softly.
"Hey, fellas. Glad to finally meet you." She let herself into the corral and kept a respectful distance. Her horsemanship skills were rusty, leftover from summers spent at her uncle's place. One thing she did remember was that horses didn't like surprises, especially horses rescued from abuse and neglect, as these had been. Keeping up a steady stream of conversation, she checked to see that the water trough was filled as she made her way to the barn.
She was pleased and surprised to find the barn clean, stalls mucked out and fresh bedding on the floor. It must be the work of Cassie's hired hand, John. A soft snuffle made her start. Off in the corner, almost lost in the shadows, was a horse unlike the others. He was smoke-black with a streak of white between his eyes. A thick mane flowed over his wide shoulders. He danced nervously when she took a step toward him, but did not back away.
"Hello there." She could not take her eyes from the powerful lines of the horse. "You must be Blue Boy. Cassie sent me your picture." She felt instinctively that he must be the one that had thrown Cassie to her death. She should despise the animal, but she couldn't, not when she knew how much her sister had loved the beautiful creature.
The horse continued to shift around, the straw crackling under his well-tended hoofs. Blue Boy's coat was glossy and smooth, marred only by the scar that circled his front leg. "It looks like someone has been taking good care of you." She held out her hand, fingers outstretched, and Blue Boy allowed a quick stroke to his muzzle. "We'll be getting to know each other better," she whispered as she backed out of the stall, Blue Boy's dark eyes fixed on hers.
The first drops of rain splattered on her face as she exited the corral and hurried toward the house. She wasn't sure how she would get in if the door was locked, but fortunately it swung open under her hand. The interior was dark and stifling, as if it hadn't been used in a very long time.
Isabel grabbed her bag and started into the house.
Before she made it over the threshold, a loud flap of wings erupted from the nearby trees as an owl shot out of the canopy with an alarmed cry.
She froze in terror.
It's just an owl.
The thought comforted her for only a moment. But what was hidden in the silent woods that had startled it into flight?