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Chuck Bolton walked to the edge of town, working the kinks out of his bum leg, his limp more pronounced after his two-hour ride on one of the resort nags, housed in the old-fashioned livery stable.
He hadn't had much call to ride in the military, spending most of his time on foot or in an armor-plated vehicle, patrolling the villages and Taliban-riddled hillsides of Afghanistan.
He'd still be there had he not turned all Rambo and gone off the deep end. Some called him a hero. His commander called him an idiot for risking his life. But other than ending his military career, he couldn't regret his vigilante justice on the Taliban stronghold he'd leveled to the ground single-handed.
After what they'd done to that kid
Chuck shook his head to clear the images. That was the past. Wild Oak Canyon and Covert Cowboys, Inc. were his future.
On the edge of town, looking south, he drew in a deep breath of hot, dry air and let it out. Not many understood the lure of this parched desert or chose to live here. Outsiders didn't last long, not with miles and miles of flat, unchanging terrain, with the Davis Mountains rising in the distance, appearing closer than they actually were.
Hell, Chuck might not have come back had he not been invited to join CCI, the secret organization billionaire ranch owner Hank Derringer had started recently. Wild Oak Canyon held too many memories, both good and bad.
Everywhere he turned he ran into mental images of PJ.
PJ riding a horse across the desert landscape, PJ smiling up at him from their favorite swimming hole, begging him to join her, PJ telling him she'd love him forever.
Forever had been all too short. She'd begged him not to volunteer for the rotation to Afghanistan, wanting him to wait until his unit was called up, giving them a little more time together before he was put into harm's way. His Army National Guard unit hadn't been due for rotation for another twelve months when a call went out for volunteers.
Chuck had insisted on going, telling her duty called and he had to go.
They'd argued, Chuck had said things he wished he hadn't, his temper getting the better of him. Looking back, he could see that PJ had been scared, afraid of losing him. And he'd pushed her away so effectively she'd ended their engagement, throwing the ring in his face shortly before he'd left for predeployment training at Fort Hood.
God, he'd been so stubborn. If only he'd said he was sorry, they might be married by now. He wouldn't be wandering the streets of Wild Oak Canyon in search of what he'd lost.
Yeah, and if wishes were horses, he probably would have been bucked off on his butt anyway.
Bottom line was that he was back. He hadn't had the nerve to look up PJ yet and wouldn't. That didn't stop his gaze from searching every face passing by on foot or in cars and trucks.
So far, he hadn't seen her. For all he knew, she might not be here at all. The last correspondence he'd had from her was a letter asking where she could send the things he'd accumulated at her house. The address had been the same house she'd lived in with her mother in Wild Oak Canyon, but that had been a year ago. A lot changed in a year. He'd driven by that address when he'd gotten to town. A Hispanic family with two small children lived there now.
Chuck performed a clumsy about-face and headed back to the Wild Oak Canyon Resort staff quarters, his temporary lodging for the assignment Hank had given him.
His cover was as a handyman, fixing things around the resort and Cara Jo's Diner, adjacent to the resort compound. Cara Jo Smithson, the most recent owner of the diner and the new property manager for the resort, would give him the particulars about the real assignment. He was to be a bodyguard for one of her employees. No one was to know that but Hank, Cara Jo and Chuck. Not even the employee. What was so special about that person that he needed protecting? Chuck wouldn't know until Cara Jo returned from her supply run to Fort Stockton. She'd fill him in with all the particulars of the case then.
Hank had given him a key to one of the rooms in the resort staff quarters. The room was at the back of the resort closest to the diner. From what he could tell, there were only two staff rooms in this wing of the resort, and they shared a bathroom down the hall.
After settling his duffle bag in the room, Chuck had examined the exterior of the diner and the resort compound. Wild Oak Canyon's Main Street and the resort had a quaint Wild West theme with weathered-wood storefronts, an old-style barbershop, a general store and a saloon with a hitching post out front. Cara Jo's Diner was just like the rest of the town, only some of the weathered wood needed repair before someone got hurt or the building suffered further damage from wind and the elements.
Chuck noted weatherworn boards peeling up on the porch, along with a splintered railing and loose shingles on the roof. One of the eaves had rotted through and would need replacing. As soon as he had sufficient supplies, he'd go to work on those little fix-it items. They wouldn't keep him busy for long. He hoped there was more work to be done on the inside of the resort or maybe the old livery stable. He preferred working outside, especially around animals. They weren't as judgmental as people.
Until he had the supplies and his marching orders, he was at loose ends with energy to burn. Thus the ride, followed by a walk to the end of town and back.
Temperatures hovered close to ninety, even after the sun set and the stars came out to fill the night sky with their brilliance.
Chuck headed to the resort. The back door to the office remained locked, no light inside indicating Ms. Smithson's return.
Sweaty and smelling of horse, Chuck decided on a shower before his meeting with the boss lady and clumped up the stairs to his room. After gathering soap, shaving gear and a towel, he slipped off his boots and socks and headed down the hallway.
A noise in the room beside his had him leaning in toward the door. A baby cried, and a woman's voice talked softly, soothing it.
Chuck knocked on the door. Was Ms. Smithson younger than he'd thought? Did she have a baby?
After a long moment the door opened to a slim, pale-skinned young woman with dark hair piled in a messy bun on the back of her head. She clutched a baby in her arms, balancing a bottle under her chin as she juggled the door handle and tried to look up at him. "Yes?" she managed without dropping her chin-hold on the bottle.
"Are you Cara Jo?" Chuck asked.
She let go of the door and gripped the bottle, holding it for the baby to feed. "Oh, no, I'm Dana. Cara Jo is the owner of the diner. She lives above it."
"Sorry, I'm supposed to meet with her about a job. I'm your new neighbor." He jerked his head to the left toward his apartment door.
"Oh, you must be the handyman." She balanced the bottle with her chin again and held out her hand. "I'm Dana. Cara Jo should be back any minute. She left early this morning for Fort Stockton to get supplies for the resort and diner. They said they'd be back by nine tonight. It's almost nine now."
"I'm Chuck Bolton. Nice to meet you, Dana."
"Good to have a handyman around again. My, but you are very tall."
He smiled. He got that a lot. At six feet five inches, he tended to be taller than most men. "I can see that you're busy. I won't bother you." He glanced down at the baby, a bubbly, milky smile spreading across her face. Her brown hair curled across her forehead, and the big brown eyes were in sharp contrast to Dana's cornflower-blue eyes. "Cute baby."
Dana smiled down at the child in her arms. "Hear that, Charlie? He thinks you're cute. Me, too, my sweet little baby girl."
"I guess I'll be seeing you around." He chucked the baby under the chin and she reached out, snagging his finger in her tight little grip. "A little tiger, aren't you?" He smiled down at the baby, his heart squeezing in his chest. He'd had dreams of him and PJ raising a family together. A strapping brown-haired, brown-eyed boy like him, and an angelic blond-haired, green-eyed girl the spitting image of her mother.
The phone rang in the apartment behind Dana. "Excuse me. Nice to meet you."
Chuck turned away as Dana shut the door.
Yet another reminder of PJ and the family they should have had. He needed to get over her and get on with his life.
It just wasn't that easy.
Cara Jo drove the truck behind the resort and backed up close to the rear entrance of the diner. "I don't know about you, but I'm past exhausted. What say we leave most of this stuff in the back until tomorrow, when we can get some help unloading?"
Peggy Jane Franks dropped down out of the truck and stretched. "Agreed. We can grab the perishables and store them in the walk-in refrigerator and call it a night. I want to see Charlie."
Mentioning her daughter made PJ smile. An entire day away from her baby made PJ miss her so much it hurt.
Cara Jo dropped the tailgate and slid the ice chests full of everything from butter to frozen yogurt to the edge. The normal delivery truck had broken down in Fort Stockton, and they were running low on supplies. Otherwise they wouldn't have made the long drive themselves.
Once they had the food stored in the freezer and refrigerator in the restaurant, PJ hurried up the back stairs of the resort, hoping to catch Charlie awake. They'd arrived later than she'd expected, and Dana would be tired and ready to go home.
PJ fit her key in the lock of her small apartment and pushed the door open. "Hey, Dana, I'm home."
Dana looked up from bending over the crib, situated just inside the bedroom door. "Oh, it's you."
PJ laughed. "Yeah, it's me. Expecting anyone else?"
Dana smiled. "No, no. I just met the new handyman Cara Jo hired out in the hallway a few minutes ago. I thought maybe he got lost on his way back to his room."
"How's my sweet Charlie?" PJ crossed the room, anxious to hold her daughter.
Dana lifted the baby out of her crib and handed her to PJ. "She was just about to nod off, but when she heard your voice, her eyes popped wide open."
PJ smiled down at Charlie and hugged her against her. "Hey, sweetie, did you miss your mommy?"
Charlie cooed up at her, a toothless smile spreading across her face.
"Of course she did. The sun rises and sets on you, in Miss Charlie's eyes." Dana stared down at the child in PJ's arms. "You're so very lucky."
"I know." PJ kissed Charlie's cheek. Charlie was a perfect baby, full of joy and so easy to take care of. Everyone loved her.
Dana touched PJ's shoulder. "I gotta run. Tommy will be yowling for dinner."
PJ glanced up. "This late?"
"You'd think the man didn't know what a microwave oven was. I bet he didn't bother to get the plate I left for him this morning out of the refrigerator." Dana laughed and smiled at Charlie. "She was an angel."
"Ha. I'll bet she wore you out."
"Not at all. I didn't mind watching her a bit." Dana's eyes glistened.
"You're a natural, Dana. Have you talked to the doctor again? Is there anything you can do?"
"It's in God's hands." Dana smiled through unshed tears. "Two miscarriages must be a sign it isn't meant to be."
"Don't talk like that. It'll happen when you least expect it." As it had happened for PJ.
"I'm not getting my hopes up. Been there too many times and cried buckets of tears." Dana hugged PJ. "Take care of my baby. I think I could love her as much as you do." Dana left, closing the door behind her.
Alone at last with Charlie, PJ dropped into her rocking chair. It wouldn't take much for Charlie to fall asleep, but PJ wanted to hold her a little longer. The sweet scent of baby shampoo and powder filled her senses and gave her a feeling of home.
After a few minutes Charlie slept, her mouth working a sucking motion, the fingers of one hand bunched into a tiny fist. She looked so much like her fatherbrown hair, brown eyes and ready for a fight.
PJ chuckled, her laughter catching on a sob. She missed Chuck so much she thought she might die sometimes. If not for sweet Charlie, she might have lost the will to live altogether.
Still wearing the clothes she'd traveled in, PJ felt wrinkled, covered in road grime and in need of a shower to wash away the stress of the long drive.
She laid Charlie in her crib and gathered clothing, a bathrobe and toiletries. Switching on the baby monitor, PJ tucked the receiver in her pocket and headed for the door to her suite. She exited and turned to lock the door behind her.
The bathroom was between her suite and the only other staff apartment in this section of the building. When she opened the door, a waft of warm, moist air and a scent she could never forget enveloped her.
Someone had used the shower. Must be the new handyman Cara Jo had spoken of on their trip to Fort Stockton.
PJ's stomach clenched, and her fingers tightened around the doorknob. The new guy would have to use the same soap Chuck had, and damned if he didn't also use the same cologne. As tired as she was, PJ could barely hold it together as the aromas washed over her, bringing back memories best left in the back of her mind.
She had to have a shower and didn't have another option close enough to her room that the monitor would carry to, so PJ closed the door behind her. Her hands shook as she set the monitor on the sink and turned it up loud enough that she could hear it over the water's spray.
With quick, efficient movements, she flung off her clothes and stepped beneath the cool spray. She was fast about her showers, concerned about leaving Charlie alone too long.
After a quick shampoo and rinse, she ducked her head around the curtain and listened to the monitor. A reassuring staticky silence was all she heard. As she closed the shower curtain, a different sound carried over the speaker.
PJ strained her ears.
She shut off the water and listened more intently.
Then a sharp sound, like something falling, echoed through the monitor.
What the hell?
PJ pulled on her pajama bottoms and top, grabbed her key and flung the bathroom door open.
The door to her apartment stood open.
PJ's heart slammed to a halt and then kicked into high gear. She had been careful to close and lock the door when she'd left. As she stared into her dark apartment, fear rooted her to the floor for only a moment.
Her baby daughter was in that room. Cold dread filled her and she shot forward, ready to take down anyone who threatened to harm
"Charlie," she said and launched forward.
When she stepped through the open door, a dark figure wearing a black ski mask grabbed her and flung her inside.
PJ screamed and scurried backward and then turned to run. She made it only one step before a hand latched onto her hair and yanked her backward.
PJ screamed again, her cry cut off by a large gloved hand clamping down over her mouth. She bit into it, her teeth barely making a dent in the thick leather glove.
She kicked and slammed her elbow into his gut, but he wouldn't release her hair, the pressure on the roots pulling her skin tight over her forehead, pain radiating through her scalp.