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The sharp report of a gunshot cracked through the afternoon stillness, the echo reverberating through the rolling rangeland and scattering the sparrows on the barbed-wire fence. Cole Kelley jerked up his head and fixed his gaze on the parched brown hills marking the southern boundary of his ranch. Four more shots barked out in quick succession, execution-style. Then a deep, ringing silence gripped the land.
Cole stood dead still, every sense hyperalert, his attention locked on the hills. Nothing moved. No wisp of dust blurred the cloudless sky. Only the dried grass rippled and bowed, paying homage to the perpetual Montana wind.
But coming close on the heels of his sister's abduction, those shots could only mean one thingtrouble.
His pulse kicked into a sprint.
Cole released his hold on his fencing pliers, yanked off his leather work gloves and tugged the cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans. He speed dialed the bunkhouse, relieved he could pick up a signal on the twelve-thousand-acre ranch.
"I just heard gunfire," he said when one of his ranch hands, Earl Runningcrane, answered the phone. "I'm in the south section along Honey Creek. Who've we got working nearby?"
"Nobody. They're all in the northeast section, stacking the rest of the hay."
Just as he'd expected. Then who had fired shots on his land?
"All right," he said. "I'm going to investigate. Stand by in case I need help."
A profound sense of uneasiness unfurling inside him, Cole gathered up his fencing tools and whistled softly for Mitzy, the border collie chasing rabbits nearby. He loped through the grass to his pickup truck, the tension that had dogged him for the past two weeks ratcheting higher yet.
There was an outside chance those shots had come from a hunter, but deer season didn't start for another week. And with the danger currently stalking his family
Cole yanked open the truck door, waited a heartbeat for the dog to leap inside, then slid in beside her and turned the key. "Hold on," he warned as she pointed her nose out the open passenger side window to scent the breeze. "We're moving out fast."
He shifted into gear and gunned the engine, causing the pickup to fishtail on the gravel road. Then he stomped his boot to the floorboard and sped toward the Bar Lazy K's southern boundary, giving rise to a billowing plume of dust.
Those shots could be a coincidencesomeone shooting at targets, local teens fooling around. But Cole's gut warned him that he wasn't going to like what he found.
Ever since his father's infidelities had hit the tabloids, creating a national media sensation, his family had been under siege.
Dealing with the press was annoying enough. Reporters tramped over Cole's land for a glimpse of the senator. Paparazzi massed outside the ranch gates like flies over roadkill, their numbers swelling every time another of Hank's mistresses came to lightsix so far, proving his father had ignored his wedding vows as easily as he'd forgotten his kids. Photographers had even hovered over the house in helicopters, vying for a shot they could sell to the tabloids, until Cole took out a restraining order to stop them from terrifying the cows.
But there was a darker, far more sinister element seeking his father, unknown enemies who'd threatened his life. And two weeks ago, in a bid to force the senator out of hiding, they'd abducted Cole's sister, Lana, throwing the family into a panic and dramatically upping the stakes.
His jaw clenched tight at the thought of his kidnapped sister, Cole sped up the hill at the corner of his ranch. At the top he hit the brakes, waited for the dust to clear, then scanned the surrounding terrain. Antelope watched from a rise in the distance. Gnarled fence posts stood at the edge of his property like sentinels against the cobalt-blue sky. The gravel road ribboned across the hills toward the Ab-saroka Mountains, the wide-open rangeland giving way to clusters of pines.
There wasn't a person or vehicle in sight.
His nerves taut, Cole leaped from the truck, grabbed his rifle from the gun rack behind his seat, and chambered a round. Then, keeping Mitzy beside him, he waded through the grass toward the fence. The wind bore down, carrying with it the faint sound of lowing cows.
He reached his barbed-wire fence, and Honey Creek came into view below him, a sparkling streak meandering through his neighbor's unmowed alfalfa fields. Still nothing. His heart beating fast, he ran his gaze over the treeless hillsides, then turned his attention to the grass trampled down around the gate. Someone had recently been here, but who?
The foreboding inside him increasing, he unhooked the barbed wire gate and dragged it aside, then followed the line of crushed grass to the slope of the hill. He swept his gaze to the river bottom where he'd pastured his cattle stalling on three black cows lying motionless in the sun.
He curled his hands. Anger flared inside him like a wildfire on a brush-choked hill. Someone had deliberately slaughtered his cattle. But why?
Furious at the senseless loss, he searched the grass around his feet and found a brass casing glinting in the sun. He examined the markings300 RUM. Powerful enough to take down big gameor several defenseless cows.
Struggling to control his temper, he stormed down the hill, scanning the slopes for the remainder of his herd. Insects buzzed in the midday heat. The warm wind brushed his face. He glanced upriver and finally caught a glimpse of the scattered cows. They'd crashed through the barbed-wire fence and crossed the creek into his neighbor's alfalfa. Now he had to chase them out before they died of bloat.
Disgusted, he tugged out his cell phone and called the bunkhouse again. "It's me," he said when Earl picked up. "We've got several dead cows."
"Someone shot them?"
"Yeah." And then the coward had run away. "The rest of the herd broke through the fence and got into Del Harvey's alfalfa. I need several men here fast. Have them bring extra barbed wire and stomach tubes, just in case. And tell Kenny to bring the front loader to haul away the dead cows."
"Kenny went to the Bozeman airport," his ranch hand said. "He's picking up Rusty's daughter. She's flying in from Chicago for a couple of weeks."
The muscles of Cole's stomach tightened. Bethany Moore. This was all he needed. He swore and closed his eyes. But Bethany was no longer his business. Their affair had ended years ago.
"You there, boss?" the cowboy asked.
"Yeah, I'm here." Cole blew out his breath and massaged his eyes. "Just make sure someone brings the front loader. And call the sheriff, Wes Colton. I want him to take a look at this."
Cole disconnected the call, determined to keep his mind off Bethany and the past. She'd made her choices. She'd left Montana. She 'd left him. But he hadn't expected anything else. He'd learned early in life that people never stayed. The only thing he could depend on was his land.
Turning his thoughts firmly back to his herd, he returned to his truck, placed his rifle in the gun rack, and climbed into the cab. He had to work quickly to drive the surviving cattle back across the creek. Mitzy could keep them safely corralled until the men repaired the fence.
Still furious, he cranked the engine. He glanced in his rearview mirror, waited until Mitzy jumped into the open truck bed, then steered his pickup off the road. He bumped and jostled across the field and through the gate, still barely able to keep his temper in check.
He didn't understand this senseless destruction. And he sure as hell didn't need it. Not when his foreman had broken his leg, leaving him shorthanded. Not when his sister had been abducted and the FBI didn't have any leads. And not when he was smack in the middle of the fall roundup, when the future of the Bar Lazy K Ranchand the livelihood of a dozen mendepended on him getting a thousand healthy cattle to market in the next two weeks. An entire year of work boiled down to this single paycheck, and every cow, every pound they gained or lost, could make or break the ranch.
He splashed the truck through the shallow creek bed and drove up the opposite bank. Even worse, he still had a hundred head stranded in the mountains he leased for summer pasture. He needed to hightail it up there to rescue them before the predicted snowstorm moved in, instead of wasting time hauling dead cows.
Scowling, he steered around the trio of carcasses, appalled again by the pointless waste. And fierce resolve hardened inside him, an iron vise gripping his gut. He'd put up with the paparazzi. He'd put up with his self-absorbed father and his bodyguards hanging around. But this was different. This was personal, a direct assault on his ranch.
But whoever had done this had underestimated him badly. The Bar Lazy K meant everything to Cole. This ranch was what he did, who he was. It wasn't just his livelihood, it was his soul. And anyone trying to harm it had better watch out. Because if they wanted war, they'd get it.
But he intended to win.
"What do you mean, she died?" Bethany Moore stood at the luggage carousel at the Bozeman airport, her cell phone pressed to her ear. "How? When? She was fine last night when I gave her the evening dose." Her seventy-year-old patient had been smiling, showing off photos of her granddaughter. How could she have suddenly died?
"They're looking into it," Adam Kopenski, the lead doctor administering the trial, said. "I'll let you know what I hear."
"Poor Mrs. Bolter. Her poor family." A lump thickened Bethany's throat. "I'll come right back. I'll have to check the flights, but I'm sure I can get there by tomorrow morning."
"There's no point returning," Adam said. "There's nothing you can do here. The hospital is looking into it, and I can answer any questions they have."
"I know, but"
"Bethany, forget it. I told you, I've got everything under control. There's no reason for you to come back."
Bethany sighed. Adam was right, but she still felt torn. As head nurse in the drug trial, the patients' safety was her chief concern. "All right, but promise you'll call as soon as you hear anything. Day or night. Don't worry about the time difference."
"I will. And try not to worry. I'm sure it's just one of those things. Now enjoy your vacation. Eat some buffalo burgers and relax."
She forced a smile, trying not to think of Frances Bolter's kind blue eyes. "It's beef on a cattle ranch. Not buffalo."
"Whatever. Just have fun. You work too hard. And I promise I'll keep you informed."
"Thanks, Adam." She meant it. She owed her friend big-time. Not only had he put in a good word for her, helping get her appointed head nurse on the studya huge advance to her careerbut his lively wit had kept her entertained on many a lonely night.
But despite Adam's reassurance, she couldn't put the woman out of her mind. She clicked off her phone and stuck it in her purse just as her hunter-green suitcase pushed through the carousel's plastic flaps. She couldn't imagine what had gone wrong. The Preston-Werner Clinic had a stellar reputation. Adam had screened the patients meticulously for the trials. And Bethany's fellow nurses were all top-notch.
She sighed and pressed her fingertips to her eyes, gritty from the 3:00 a.m. wake-up to make her flight. Adam was right, though. There wasn't much she could do about Mrs. Bolter's death now. And she wasn't naive. She'd lost an occasional patient during the years she'd been a nurse. Still, it was never easy, especially with a patient that sweet.
Besides, her father needed her here in Montana, even if he'd insisted he was all right. He'd fallen off his horse and broken his legnot an easy injury to recover from at sixty-eight years of age.
Her suitcase began to draw closer. Bethany skirted a man in cowboy boots, hefted it from the carousel, and wheeled it across the luggage-claim area to the tall glass doors. Once outside, she blinked in the afternoon sunshine, Bethany walked past the stone pillars to the end of the sidewalk where she stopped to wait for her ride.