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Dillon Savage shoved back his black Stetson and looked up at all that blue sky as he breathed in the morning. Behind him the razor wire of the prison gleamed in the blinding sunlight.
He didn't look back as he started up the dirt road. It felt damn good to be out. Like most ex-cons, he told himself he was never going back.
He had put the past behind him. No more axes to grind. No debts to settle. He felt only a glimmer of that old gnawing ache for vengeance that had eaten away at him for years. An ache that told him he could never forget the past.
From down the road past the guardhouse, he saw the green Montana state pickup kicking up dust as it hightailed toward him.
He shoved away any concerns and grinned to himself. He'd been anticipating this for weeks and still couldn't believe he'd gotten an early release. He watched the pickup slow so the driver could talk to the guard.
Wouldn't be long now. He turned his face up to the sun, soaking in its warmth as he enjoyed his first few minutes of freedom in years. Freedom. Damn, but he'd missed it.
It was all he could do not to drop to his knees and kiss the ground. But the last thing he wanted was to have anyone know how hard it had been doing his time. Or just how grateful he was to be out.
The pickup engine revved. Dillon leaned back, watching the truck rumble down the road and come to a stop just feet from him. The sun glinted off the windshield in a blinding array of fractured light, making it impossible to see the driver, but he could feel the calculating, cold gaze on him.
He waited, not wanting to appear overly anxious. Not wanting to get out of the sun just yet. Or to let go of his last few seconds of being alone and free.
The driver's side door of the pickup swung open. Dillon glanced at the ground next to the truck, staring at the sturdy boots that stepped out, and working his way up the long legs wrapped in denim, to the firearm strapped at the hip, the belt cinched around the slim waist. Then, slowing his eyes, he took in the tucked-in tan shirt and full rounded breasts bowing the fabric, before eyeing the pale throat. Her long dark hair was pulled into a braid. Finally he looked into that way-too-familiar face under the straw hat"a face he'd dreamed about for four long years.
Damn, this woman seemed to only get sexier. But it was her eyes that held his attention, just as they had years before. Shimmering gray pools that reminded him of a high mountain lake early in the year, the surface frosted over with ice. Deeper, the water was colder than a scorned woman's heart.
Yep, one glance from those eyes could freeze a man in his tracks. Kind of like the look she was giving him right now.
"Hi, Jack," he said with a grin as he tipped his battered black Stetson to her. "Nice of you to pick me up."
Stock detective Jacklyn Wilde knew the minute she saw him waiting for her beside the road that this had been a mistake.
Clearly, he'd charmed the guards into letting him out so he could walk up the road to meet her, rather than wait for her to pick him up at the release office. He was already showing her that he wasn't going to let her call the shots.
She shook her head. She'd known getting him out was a gamble. She'd foolishly convinced herself that she could handle him.
How could she have forgotten how dangerous Dillon Savage really was? Hadn't her superiors tried to warn her? She reminded herself that this wasn't just a career breaker for her. This could get her killed.
"Get in, Mr. Savage."
He grinned. Prison clearly hadn't made him any less cocky. If she didn't know better, she'd think this had been his idea instead of hers. She felt that fissure of worry work its way under her skin, and was unable to shake the feeling that Dillon Savage had her right where he wanted her.
More than any other woman he'd crossed paths with, she knew what the man was capable of. His charm was deadly and he used it to his advantage at every opportunity. But knowing it was one thing. Keeping Dillon Savage from beguiling her into believing he wasn't dangerous was another.
The thought did little to relieve her worry.
As she slid behind the wheel, he sauntered around to the passenger side, opened the door and tossed his duffel bag behind the seat.
"Is that all your belongings?" she asked.
"I prefer to travel light." He slid his long, lanky frame into the cab, slammed the door and stretched out, practically purring as he made himself comfortable.
She was aware of how he seemed to fill the entire cab of the truck, taking all the oxygen, pervading the space with his male scent.
As she started the truck, she saw him glance out the windshield as if taking one last look. The prison was small by most standards"a few large, plain buildings with snow-capped mountains behind them. Wouldn't even have looked like a prison if it wasn't for the guard towers and razor-wire fences.
"Going to miss it?" she asked sarcastically as she turned the truck around and headed back toward the gate.
"Prison?" He sounded amused.
"I would imagine you made some good friends there." She doubted prison had taught him anything but more ways to break the law. As if he needed that.
He chuckled. "I make good friends wherever I go. It's my good-natured personality." He reached back to rub his neck.
"Was it painful having the monitoring device implanted?" A part of her hoped it had given him as much pain as he'd caused her.
He shook his head and ran his finger along the tiny white scar behind his left ear. "Better anyday than an ankle bracelet.Anyway, you wanted me to be able to ride a horse. Can't wear a boot with one of those damn ankle monitors. Can't ride where we're going in tennis shoes."
She was willing to bet Dillon Savage could ride bare-ass naked.
His words registered slowly, and she gave a start. "Where we're going?" she asked, repeating his words and trying to keep her voice even.
He grinned. "We're chasing cattle rustlers, right? Not the kind who drive up with semitrucks and load in a couple hundred head."
"How do you know that?"
He cocked his head at her, amusement in his deep blue eyes. "Because you would have caught them by now if that was the case. No, I'd wager these rustlers are too smart for that. That means they're stealing the cattle that are the least accessible, the farthest from the ranch house."
"It sounds as if you know these guys," she commented as the guard waved them past the gate.
Dillon was looking toward the mountains. He chuckled softly. "I'm familiar with the type."
As she drove down the hill to the town of Deer Lodge, Montana, she had the bad feeling that her boss had been right.
"What makes you think a man like Dillon Savage is going to help you?" Chief Brand Inspector Allan Stratton had demanded when she told him her idea. "He's a criminal."
"He's been in prison for four years. A man like him, locked up!" She'd looked away. Prison would be hell for a man like him. Dillon was like a wild horse. He needed to run free. If she understood anything about him, it was that.
"He's dangerous," Stratton had said. "I shouldn't have to tell you that. And if you really believe that he's been masterminding this band of rustlers from his prison cell Then getting him out would accomplish what, exactly?"
"He'll slip up. He'll have to help me catch them or he goes back to prison." She was counting on this taste of freedom working in her favor.
"You really think he'll give up his own men?" Stratton scoffed.
"I think the rustling ring has double-crossed him." It was just a feeling she had, and she could also be dead wrong. But she didn't tell her boss that.
"Wouldn't he be afraid of them implicating him?"
"Who would believe them? After all, Dillon Savage has been behind bars for the past four years. How could he mastermind a rustling ring from Montana State Prison?
Certainly he would be too smart to let any evidence of such a crime exist."
"I hope you know what you're doing," Stratton said.
"For the record, I'm against it." No big surprise there. He wasn't going down if this was the mistake he thought it was. "And the ranchers sure as hell aren't going to like it. You have no idea what you're getting yourself into."
Stratton had been wrong about that, she thought, as she glanced at Dillon Savage. She'd made a deal with the devil and now he was sitting next to her, looking as if he already had her soul locked up.
She watched him rub the tiny scar behind his left ear again. It still surprised her that he'd agreed to the implanted monitoring device. Via satellite, she would know where he was at any second of the day. That alone would go against the grain of a man like Dillon Savage. Maybe she was right about how badly he'd wanted out of prison.
But then again, she knew he could very well have a more personal motive for going along with the deal.
"So the device isn't giving you any discomfort?" she asked.
He grinned. "For a man who can't remember the last time he was in a vehicle without shackles, it's all good."
As she drove through the small prison town of Deer Lodge, past the original jail, which was now an old west museum, she wondered what his life had been like behind bars.
Dillon Savage had spent his early life on his family's cattle ranch, leaving to attend university out East. Later, when his father sold the ranch, Dillon had returned, only to start stealing other people's cattle. Living in the wilds, with no home, no roots, he'd kept on the move, always one step ahead of her. Being locked up really must have been his own private hell.
Unless he had something to occupy his mind. Like rustling cattle vicariously from his prison cell.
"I'm surprised you didn't work the prison ranch," she said as she drove onto Interstate 90 and headed east.
"They worried that their cattle would start disappearing."
She smiled not only at his attempt at humor, but also at the truth of the matter. It had taken her over two years to catch Dillon Savage. And even now she wasn't sure how that had happened. The one thing she could be certain of was that catching him had little to do with her"and a whole lot to do with Dillon. He'd messed up and it had gotten him sent to prison. She'd just given him a ride.
Reda Harper stood at the window of her ranch house, tapping the toe of her boot impatiently as she cursed the mailman. She was a tall, wiry woman with shortcropped gray hair and what some called an unpleasant disposition.
The truth? Reda Harper was a bitch, and not only did she take pride in it, she also felt justified.
She shoved aside the curtain, squinting against the glare to study her mailbox up on the county road. The red flag was still up. The mailman hadn't come yet. In fact, Gus was late. As usual. And she knew why.
The last few weeks Angeline had been going up the road to meet mailman Gus Turner, presumably to get her mail. By the time Angeline and Gus got through gabbin' and flirtin' with each other, Reda Harper's mail was late, and she was getting damn tired of it.
She had a notion to send Angeline one of her letters. The thought buoyed her spirits. It was disgraceful the way Angeline hung on that mailbox, looking all doe-eyed, while Gus stuttered and stammered and didn't have the sense to just drive off.
The phone rang, making Reda jump. With a curse, she stepped away from the window to answer it.
"Listen, you old hateful crone. If you don't stop." She slammed down the receiver as hard as she could, her thin lips turning up in a whisper of a smile as she went back to the window.
The red flag was down on her mailbox, the dust on the road settling around the fence posts.
Reda took a deep breath. Her letters were on their way. She smiled, finally free to get to work.
Taking her shotgun down from the rack by the door, she reached into the drawer and shook out a half-dozen shells, stuffing them into her jacket pocket as she headed to the barn to saddle her horse.