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He wasn't dead yet.
The darkness behind his eyelids thinned. Sensation prickled the hairs on his arm. Inside his head, he heard the beat of his heart—as loud and steady as the Ghost Dance drum. That sacred rhythm called him back to life.
His ears picked up other sounds. The beep-beep-beep of a monitor. The shuffle of quiet footsteps. The creaking of a chair. A cough. Someone else was in the room with him.
The drumming accelerated.
His eyelids opened—just a slit. Sunlight through the window blinds reflected off the white sheet that covered his prone body. Hospital equipment surrounded the bed. Oxygen. An IV drip on a metal pole. A heart monitor that beeped. Faster. Faster. Faster.
"Jesse?" A deep voice called to him. "Jesse, are you awake?"
Jesse Longbridge tried to move, tried to respond. Pain radiated from his left shoulder. He remembered being shot, falling from his saddle to the cold earth and lying there, helpless. He remembered a gush of blood. He remembered…
"Come on, Jesse. Open your eyes."
He recognized the voice of Bill Wentworth. A friend. A coworker. Good old Wentworth. He'd been a paramedic in Iraq, but that wasn't the main reason Jesse had hired him. This lean, mean former marine—like Jesse himself— always got the job done.
They had a mission, he and Wentworth. No time to waste. They needed to get into the field, needed to protect…
Jesse bolted upright on the bed and gripped Wentworth's arm. "Is she safe?"
"You're awake." Wentworth grinned without showing his teeth. "It's about time."
One of the monitor wires detached, and the beeping became ahigh-pitched whine. "Is Nicole safe?"
"She's all right. Arrests have been made."
Wentworth was one of Jesse's best employees—a credit to Longbridge Security, an outstanding bodyguard. But he wasn't much of a liar.
The pain in his shoulder spiked again, threatening to drag Jesse back into peaceful unconsciousness. He licked his lips. His mouth was parched. He needed water. More than that, he needed the truth. He knew that Nicole had been kidnapped. He'd seen it happen. He'd been shot trying to protect her.
He tightened his grip on Wentworth's arm. "Has Nicole Carlisle been safely returned to her husband?"
Dylan Carlisle had hired Longbridge Security to protect his family and to keep his cattle ranch safe. If his wife was missing, they'd failed. Jesse had failed.
He released Wentworth. Using his right hand, he detached the nasal cannula that had been feeding oxygen to his lungs. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he felt the bump where it had been broken a long time ago in a school-yard fight. He hadn't given up then. Wouldn't give up now. "I'm out of here."
Two nurses rushed into the room. While one of them turned off the screeching monitor, the other shoved Went-worth aside and stood by the bed. "You're wide-awake. That's wonderful."
"Ready to leave," Jesse said.
"Oh, I don't think so. You've been pretty much unconscious for three days and—"
"What's the date?"
"It's Tuesday morning. December ninth," she said.
Nicole had been kidnapped on the prior Friday, near dusk. "Was I in a coma?"
"After surgery, your brain activity stabilized. You've been consistently responsive to external stimuli."
"I'll say," Wentworth muttered. "When a lab tech tried to draw blood, you woke up long enough to grab him by the throat and shove him down on his butt."
"I didn't hurt him, did I?"
"He's fine," the nurse said, "but you're not his favorite patient."
He didn't belong in a hospital. Three days was long enough for recuperation. "I want my clothes."
The nurse scowled. "I know you're in pain."
Nothing he couldn't handle. "Are you going to take these needles out of my arms or should I pull them myself?"
She glanced toward Wentworth. "Is he always this difficult?"
Fiona Grant placed a polished, rectangular oak box on her kitchen table and lifted the lid. Inside, nestled in red velvet, was a pearl-handled, antique Colt .45 revolver.
In her husband's will, he'd left this heirloom to Jesse Longbridge, and Fiona didn't begrudge his legacy. She'd tried to arrange a meeting with Jesse to present this gift, but their schedules had gotten in the way. After her husband's death, she hadn't been efficient in handling the myriad details, and she hoped Jesse would understand. She was eternally grateful to the bodyguard who had saved her husband's life. Because of Jesse's quick actions, she'd gained a few more precious years with her darling Wyatt before he died from a heart attack at age forty-eight.
People always said she was too young to be a widow. Not even thirty when Wyatt died. Now thirty-two. Too young? As if there was an acceptable age for widowhood? As if her daughter—now four years old—would have been better off losing her dad when she was ten? Or fifteen? Or twenty?
Age made no difference. Fiona hadn't been bothered by the age disparity between Wyatt and herself when they married. All she knew was that she had loved her husband with all her heart. And so she was thankful to Jesse Long-bridge. She fully intended to hand over the gun to him when he got out of the hospital. In the meantime, she didn't think he'd mind if she used it.
Her fingertips tentatively touched the cold metal barrel and recoiled. She didn't like guns, but owning one was prudent— almost mandatory for ranchers in western Colorado. Not that Fiona considered herself a rancher. Her hundred-acre property was tiny compared to the neighboring Carlisle empire that had over two thousand head of Black Angus. She had no livestock, even though her daughter, Abby, kept telling her that she really, really, really wanted a pony.
Fiona frowned at the gun. Who am I kidding? I'm not someone who can handle a Colt .45. She turned, paced and paused. Stared through the window above the sink. The view of distant snow-covered peaks, pine forests and the faded yellow grasses of winter pastures failed to calm her jangled nerves.
For the past three days, a terrible kidnapping drama had been playing out at the Carlisle Ranch. Their usually pastoral valley had been invaded by posses, FBI agents, search helicopters and bloodhounds that sniffed their way right up to her front doorstep.
Last night, people were taken into custody. The danger should have been over. But just after two o'clock last night, Fiona had heard voices outside her house. She hadn't been able to tell how close they were and hadn't seen the men. But they were loud and angry, then suddenly silent.
The quiet that followed their argument had frightened her more than the shouts. What if they came to her door? Could she stop them if they tried to break in? The sheriff was twenty miles away. If she'd called the Carlisle Ranch, someone would come running. But would they arrive in time?
The truth had dawned with awful clarity. She and Abby had no one to protect them. Their safety was her responsibility.
Hence, the gun.
Returning to the kitchen table, she stared at it. She never expected to be alone, never expected to be living in this rustic log house on a full-time basis. This was a vacation home—a place where she and Abby and Wyatt spent time in the summer so her husband could unwind from his high-stress job as Denver's district attorney.
Water under the bridge. She was here now. This was her home, and she needed to be able to defend it.
She lifted the Colt from the case, surprised by how heavy it felt when she supported it with one hand. The lethal weapon seemed foreign in her cheerful kitchen with its tangerine walls and Abby's crayon artwork decorating the refrigerator.
It was a good thing that her daughter was with the babysitter in town. She didn't want to frighten the child. Or, more likely, send her into gales of laughter at the sight of her mousy, pottery-making mother acting tough.
Peering down the long barrel, Fiona aimed at the toaster on the counter. She snarled, "Go ahead. Make my day."
The toaster didn't back down.
Through the kitchen window, she saw a figure on horseback approaching the rear of the house. Carolyn Carlisle.
Quickly, Fiona tucked the antique gun back into its case and placed it on top of the refrigerator. She grabbed a green corduroy jacket from a peg by the back door. Thrusting her arms into the sleeves, she pulled her long brown braid out from the collar and went down the steps into the yard.
After a skillful dismount, Carolyn met her with a quick hug. A tall woman with her black hair pulled back in a ponytail under her cowboy hat, Carolyn looked comfortable in boots, jeans and a black shearling vest.
Though Fiona had grown up near San Francisco, she loved Western outfits, except for the boots. They squeezed her toes. She preferred sandals. Or the sneakers she was wearing today.
"Good news," Carolyn said. "Jesse Longbridge is awake. He's expected to make a full recovery."
"That's a relief."
"I don't know if my brother ever thanked you for recommending Longbridge Security. Jesse and his men have been more than competent."
Fiona wasn't surprised. Her husband always said Long-bridge Security was the best. "What about Nicole?"
"We've heard from her. She says she's okay, and we shouldn't worry."
"But she's still not home?"
"Things didn't work out the way they should have."
Fiona's heart went out to her neighbor. "I'm sorry."
"I have no intention of leaving things this way. My brother's sulking around like a whipped puppy. We lost a million-dollar ransom. And I won't believe Nicole's all right until I hear the words from her own lips." Her hand fisted. "I'm not done yet. Not by a long shot."
Fiona wished she had one-tenth of Carolyn's determination. When she wasn't at the ranch, Carolyn was a hard-driving businesswoman, the CEO of Carlisle Certified Organic Beef—an international, multimillion-dollar business.
"Would you like to come inside?" Fiona asked. "Have a cup of coffee?"
Fiona moved closer to Carolyn's horse. Elvis was a big handsome mahogany brown stallion with a black mane and a white blaze on his forehead. She glided her hand along his bristly coat. Gently, she encouraged her friend to open up. "I heard that the kidnappers were arrested."
"The FBI closed down that survivalist group that was staying at the Circle M Ranch. Nicole wasn't there."
"You said she called last night."
"It's crazy. I don't even know where to start."
While Fiona waited for Carolyn to sort out her thoughts, she continued to pet the horse. Elvis ducked his head and bared his teeth in a horsey grin. "Is he flirting with me?"
"Elvis is shameless, but don't give him anything to eat. The last thing I need is a fat Elvis."
Fiona chuckled, but Carolyn didn't crack a smile. She was so tightly wound that Fiona thought she might start spinning like a top. Apparently, she wasn't ready to continue with her story because she changed the topic. "I haven't even asked about you, Fiona. How's Abby?"
"She's fine. Right now she's with the babysitter in Riverton."
"You're not usually at your cabin in December."
Not wanting to launch into a dissertation about her own problems, Fiona looked up at the cloudless blue sky. "The weather's been amazing. Almost as warm as Denver. Do you think we'll have a white Christmas?"
"Christmas is Nicole's favorite time of year." Her voice cracked. "She decorates like mad. I don't know how to do any of that stuff."
"I'll help," Fiona offered. "Let's walk while we talk."
With Elvis following behind them, they made their way across the dry winter grass, skirting the edge of the lodge-pole and ponderosa pines that formed a natural barrier around Fiona's house. Her rocky, forested land had never been intended for farming or grazing.
"Before Nicole was abducted," Carolyn said, "she and my brother had an argument. Last night, when they met face-to-face, she told him that the kidnapping gave her time to think, and she decided not to come home. She never wants to see Dylan again."
"She wants a divorce?"
"Apparently." Carolyn kicked a pinecone from her path. "Dylan won't talk to me. Or anybody else. Whatever Nicole said, it was enough to convince him. He called off the search."
"Can he do that?" No matter what the victim said, kidnapping was still a crime. "Isn't the FBI involved?"
"The FBI profilers and search teams were willing to back off. They blame Nicole's behavior on Stockholm syndrome."
"They think Nicole fell in love with her captor?"
"I don't believe it. Nicole and my brother are soul mates. Damn it, she wouldn't leave him. Not like that." Carolyn's determination flared. "I'm not letting this investigation die. I convinced one of the FBI agents to stay. Even if my brother doesn't like it."
She stopped walking. They stood at a high point on a ridge, looking down at the barbed-wire fence that separated their property. In a pasture near the trees, a large herd of cattle were grazing. A field of improbably green winter wheat, planted in late September, stretched out to the road.
Fiona loved this view—a patchwork of subtle winter colors punctuated by the green of the wheat and the heavy black shapes of cattle.
Elvis stepped up beside her and nudged her shoulder like an oversize dog who wanted to be petted. She stroked his neck. "If Nicole is with her kidnapper, that means he's still at large. Right?"
"There are two of them. One of them has a criminal record as long as your arm. The other is Butch Thurgood— supposedly the guy Nicole likes. He's won top prizes in rodeos for bronc busting, and he has a reputation for being a horse whisperer."
"Last night," Fiona said, "I heard two men arguing. I didn't see them, but they were close to my house."
"Did you search?"
Fiona shook her head. It had never occurred to her to go poking around in the dark. "Do you think it was them?"
"It's worth investigating. I'll tell Burke, and we'll come back over here."
"The FBI agent who stayed behind." When she said his name, her features relaxed. "Can I ask you something? Woman to woman."
"How did you know? When you met Wyatt, how did you know he was the man you wanted to spend the rest of your life with?"
"It's not something I planned for. My heart told me."
"Lucky you." Carolyn gave a wry grin. "My heart isn't so direct. I'd know what to do about Burke if I could refer to a balance sheet or see a prospectus."
Though Fiona respected her neighbor's keen business sense and focus, she didn't believe these denials. "It's obvious that you care about him. Even if it doesn't make rational sense, you might even love him."
"I've been in love before, and it hasn't worked."
"You'll never know what's going to happen with Burke unless you give it a try."
"Oh, hell. I couldn't possibly pick a more inconvenient time for this to happen." She stuck the toe of her boot into the stirrup and mounted Elvis. "I'll be back with Burke to investigate your mysterious voices in the night."
"I can't wait to meet him."