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Too impatient to wait until the rotors of the helicopter came to a stop, Carolyn Carlisle disembarked, ducked and ran with her laptop in one hand and briefcase in the other. Dirt and dead leaves kicked up around her feet. Her long black hair whipped across her face. When she was in the clear, she gave the charter pilot a thumbs-up signal and the chopper took off, swooping through the Rocky Mountain sunset like a giant white dragonfly.
Silence returned to the wide valley, which sat in the shadow of snowcapped peaks. The surge of joy Carolyn usually felt when she returned to the cattle ranch where she'd grown up was absent. Her home, Carlisle Ranch, was under threat.
Last night, there was a fire at the north stable. Across the pasture, she could see the place where the barn once stood. The blackened ruin stood out in stark relief against the khaki-colored early December fields. The stench of burnt wood tainted the air. All the livestock had been rescued, thank God. But expensive equipment had been destroyed, and the sheriff suspected arson.
She marched up the walk toward a sprawling, two-story, whitewashed ranch house, originally built by her great-grand-father and added to by subsequent generations. Her first order of business was to kick her brother's butt for not calling her last night when the fire broke out.
Dylan had waited until today to inform her, probably because he didn't want her interfering. The family ranch, running about two thousand head of Angus, was his responsibility and he preferred that Carolyn stay in the Denver office of Carlisle Certified Organic Beef. Usually, their arrangement worked out well. She liked the city and loved the daily challenge ofrunning a multimillion-dollar corporation.
But she was still a rancher at heart. As soon as she had heard about the stable fire, she'd had to be here. Hadn't even taken the time to change her business attire—teal silk blouse, black wool suit with a pencil skirt and high-heeled boots.
As she climbed the three stairs to the veranda that stretched across the front of the house, she was confronted by a cowboy with a rifle.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"I work for Longbridge Security, ma'am." He pointed to a trefoil patch on the arm of his denim jacket.
"Did my brother Dylan hire you?"
"Yes, ma'am." He held open the front door for her.
She considered the presence of a bodyguard to be a good sign. At least Dylan was taking action. They couldn't really expect the Delta County sheriff's office to patrol the thousands of acres they leased for grazing.
Leaving her laptop and briefcase by the coatrack, she went down the hallway toward her brother's office. The door was ajar and she heard voices from inside—angry voices.
Her brother's wife of five years, Nicole, stormed from the room. Her blue eyes were furious. Her jaw clenched. "I'm sorry you had to hear that, Carolyn."
"I just got here." She liked and respected Nicole. Considered her more like a sister than a sister-in-law. "I was just getting ready to yell at Dylan myself."
"Be my guest."
"First, we could go out to the kitchen and have a cup of tea. Or something stronger if you like."
"Right now I just want to be alone." Nicole went to the front door. "I'm going to take a ride down by the creek."
The door slammed behind her.
Carolyn's first impulse was to follow her, but Dylan stepped into the hall. "How the hell did you get here so fast?"
"I chartered a chopper. After you finally got around to telling me about the fire, I wanted to see for myself that Elvis was all right."
"Your horse is fine. He's in the corral by the barn."
She'd intended to read him the riot act, but he already looked miserable. His shoulders slumped. His pale green eyes—identical to hers—were red-rimmed. "We need to talk."
"You missed Thanksgiving. Again."
"I had to work." And she wasn't going to let him guilt her out for shirking family responsibilities. Her every waking thought was devoted to running the family business. "What happened, Dylan? Was it arson?"
"There's nothing you can do." He stepped back into his office and shut the door.
Good old Western stoicism. Closed doors all around. Never show emotion. Never share what's really wrong. Never ever cry. That cowboy ethic might have worked in the Old West, but this was the twenty-first century with psychologists on every corner.
In search of a sympathetic ear, Carolyn left the house and headed toward the outdoor corral attached to the big barn with stables in the back. If she hurried, she could catch Nicole who was probably still getting saddled up. Instead, Carolyn looked for her version of a shrink. Elvis.
Reaching over the top rail of the corral, she stroked the white blaze on her horse's forehead. His upper lip curled in the trademark sneer of his namesake. He batted his long lashes, shamelessly flirting though he was over sixteen years old and had expanded his girth since she last saw him.
"No more sweets for you, Elvis."
He whinnied in protest.
She tugged a forelock of his black mane. "If you get any fatter, you won't fit into your white jumpsuit."
As she watched Nicole head out, Carolyn shivered. She should have grabbed a jacket before she came out, but the weather was pleasant enough—probably in the mid-fifties—and her blood still boiled with anger. She had a bad feeling about Nicole riding alone. It didn't seem safe. Not if there was an arsonist on the loose. A few minutes later, a man wearing a jacket with the Longbridge Security patch rode from the barn to follow her.
She turned her attention to Elvis. The horse listened while she talked about her worries about the ranch, about Dylan and Nicole. They'd always seemed like the perfect couple. If they couldn't make it, what hope did Carolyn have of finding a mate? She was thirty-three with no special man to warm her bed. Her last date had been a disaster and…
A noise distracted her. A snap that ricocheted across the valley. A rifle shot?
Carolyn peered across the field. The bodyguard and Nicole were nowhere in sight.
The grizzled ranch foreman, Lucas Mann, came around the corner of the barn, moving faster than his usual bow-legged saunter. "Carolyn, did you hear that?"
"Hush." She listened hard. A volley of shots echoed from far away, like pebbles being dropped in a metal bucket. Sound traveled great distances in the thin mountain air and she couldn't tell where the gunfire was coming from. "Lucas, give me your gun."
"You heard me."
Lucas handed over his sidearm. Though he looked like an old-time cowboy, the weapon he carried in his belt holster was a brand-new Glock nine millimeter.
Carolyn tucked the gun into the waistband of her skirt. "We need to find Nicole and make sure she's okay. She was headed southwest toward the creek. I want you to saddle up. Bring one of those security guards."
"What the hell are you fixing to do?"
"Take care of business." If someone had fired on Nicole, she needed backup. And she needed it now.
In her high-heeled boots, Carolyn climbed the corral fence, tore the slit on her wool skirt and slung her leg over Elvis's bare back. As soon as Lucas unlatched the corral gate, she rode through. Digging her heels into Elvis's flanks, she took off across the field.
Riding without a saddle wasn't easy, especially not with the horse's bristly coat snagging her panty hose and an automatic pistol digging into her side. She wouldn't have attempted this ride with any other mount, but Elvis's gait was as familiar as her own jogging style. Her body adjusted instinctively to the rhythm of his gait. In her teens, she and Elvis had won dozens of trophies and blue ribbons for calf roping and barrel racing in local rodeos.
She clung to his mane and directed him with pressure from her knees and verbal commands. The chilly December wind sharpened her tension as she rode toward the area where the valley merged into rocky hillsides covered with forests of ponderosa pine.
She hadn't heard any other shots. If there had been a gunfight, it was over. The damage was done.
What if Nicole and the bodyguard were shot and bleeding? Can't think about that now. She needed to stay focused. That's what I do best—hard-driving, straightforward action.
Through the dusky gloom, she spotted a horseman coming out of the trees at a slow walk. The bodyguard. He slumped over his horse's neck. As his horse came to a stop, he slipped from the saddle to the ground.
She dismounted and ran toward the injured man. His shirt and denim jacket were covered in blood, his face twisted in pain. She sank to her knees beside him and pushed his jacket aside. If she could figure out where he'd been shot, she could apply pressure and slow the bleeding.
"Nicole." His voice was faint. "Couldn't save her."
Talking was too much of an effort. He needed to calm down and slow the pumping of his heart. But Carolyn had to ask, "Was she shot?"
"No." His eyelids closed. "They took her."
She tore open the buttons on his shirt, exposing a raw, gaping hole in his upper chest. Carolyn took off her suit jacket, wadded the fabric in a ball and pressed against the wound. Blood also stained the sleeve of his jacket and his leg. She had to get him to a hospital.
His hand gripped hers. He forced his eyes open and stared with fierce intensity. "Nicole tried to fight. Two men. One of them hit her. She fell. Didn't move."
Carolyn choked back a helpless sob. Oh, God. How could this happen?
"The other guy…" The bodyguard coughed. His fingers tightened. "He stood guard. He got off a shot. Before I could get close enough to…"
"You did the best you could."
"I fell off my horse. Couldn't move. Just lay there." It must have taken a fierce effort for him to mount up. Even now, he struggled to sit. "Saw their faces. I can ID them."
"Settle down." Though she respected his courage, this man wasn't going anywhere. "Help is on the way."
She glanced over her shoulder. What was taking so long? Lucas should have been here by now.
The bodyguard lay back. His chest heaved. Yet he forced himself to speak. "They said Dylan would pay. He'd pay a lot. To get his wife back."
"Are you telling me Nicole was kidnapped?"
"That's right. Kidnapped."
His eyes closed and his body went limp. He was still breathing. But just barely.
Her arms ached from putting pressure on his wound. The jacket she pressed against his chest was already soaked in blood. His chances for survival decreased with every minute.
"Don't die." Tears slid down her cheeks. "Please. Please, don't die."
She heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching and dashed away her tears. If the men found her crying, they wouldn't listen to a word she said. And Carolyn needed to take charge, needed to be strong. Her brother was going to be crazy and illogical—dangerously irrational.
The bodyguard she'd met on the veranda joined her on the ground beside the injured man. "I'll take it from here, ma'am. I'm a medic."
"You did the right thing," he said, "putting pressure on the wound. Don't worry. We'll get him to the hospital."
She stood and stepped out of the way, relieved that the wounded bodyguard would be cared for by someone who knew what he was doing. Turning on the heel of her boot, she faced four other men on horseback. All of them had rifles. They looked like a posse from the Old West.
Lucas swung down from his horse and came toward her. "You've got blood all over. Are you hurt?"
Her lips pinched together. If she told them Nicole had been kidnapped, they'd take off to rescue her. They were cowboys, experienced hunters who were capable of following the track of a jackrabbit across miles of mountain terrain. If they located the kidnappers, there'd be a shoot-out.
The paramedic called out. "I need the first-aid kit in my saddlebag. Somebody call an ambulance."
"You heard him," Carolyn said. "The first thing is to get this man to a hospital. He's lost a lot of blood."
While the other cowboys followed instructions from the paramedic, she saw her brother racing toward them, leaning low over the mane of his horse, riding like the demons of hell were on his tail. He pulled up and dismounted in a single move, hit the ground running and yanked her into a hug. "Thank God, you're all right."
"I'm fine." She could feel the tension in his body. Every muscle was clenched. Dylan wasn't going to like what she had to say, but there was no way to get around it.
His eyes were wild. "Where's Nicole?"
"Listen to me, Dylan." She grabbed his arm and held on tight, hoping she could save him from his own temper. "Before the bodyguard was shot, he saw two men with Nicole. He heard them say that you'd pay a lot to get your wife back. They kidnapped her."
He tore free from her grasp. "I'll kill the bastards."
Exactly what she was afraid of. "Think about what you're saying. If there's a gunfight, Nicole could be hurt."
He strode a few paces away from her, yanked off his hat and slapped it against his thigh. "What the hell am I supposed to do? Twiddle my thumbs while some son of a bitch holds my wife hostage? Wait for the sheriff to figure this out?"
"Let me handle this. The bodyguard who tried to protect Nicole is already standing at death's door. I don't want anybody else to get shot."
"She's my wife. I've got to find her."
Her brother was the most hardheaded man she'd ever known. There was no point in trying to talk sense into him. "I can see that I'm not going to change your mind."
"Then give me your gun. I want all of your posse's guns. It can't hurt for you to track the kidnappers, but if you're not armed, you can't start a shoot-out."
"This isn't your call."
"Before Dad died, he told me to take care of my little brother. And that's what I intend to do."
He threw up his hands. "It's not fair to bring Dad's ghost into this situation."
She didn't play fair, she played to win. "Dad wouldn't want you to risk your life. Or anybody else's."
"Fine. We'll leave the guns. What are you going to do?"
"Go back to the house and wait to hear from the kidnappers." That wasn't enough and she knew it. "And I'm calling in the FBI."
Two anda half hours later, Carolyn stood on the veranda outside the house. The porch lights shone on a black van that had just parked next to the Delta County sheriff's SUV. This had to be the FBI.