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The Danger Within
By Valerie Hansen
Steeple HillCopyright © 2006 Valerie Hansen
All right reserved.
Layla Dixon lifted her face to the sun, closed her eyes and stood motionless, basking in the clean, welcoming feel of the high country. Of all the places she'd been, this part of Colorado came the closest to feeling like home. It truly was "God's Country."
She sighed, smiled. It had been a good idea to wander in this direction. After all, it wasn't as if she intended to stick around very long. The minute she was made to feel unwelcome, she was history.
She zipped her down-filled vest as she glanced at the hopeful blue heeler waiting for her to let him out of the cab of her pickup. If Colorado Springs hadn't been on the front range of the Rockies where the climate was warmer, the icy chill of early February would have been unbearable. As it was, her breath clouded around her head and her boots squeaked on the thin sheet of snow that dusted the sidewalk.
She opened the passenger side door and ruffled the dog's mottled gray ears. "You wait in the truck, Smokey. I'll bring you back a snack, okay?"
The sad look she got in return made her chuckle. "That won't work this time, old boy. This is for your own good."
He lunged, trying to lick her face.
Layla ducked and laughed. "I'm not changing my mind. I don't care how many kisses you give me." Hugging the dog's muscular neck she told him, "You'resuch a good boy. I'm so glad we met when we did. I needed a buddy."
The dog wiggled and panted happily in response. Holding up her hand, palm out, she commanded, "Stay," and backed away, closing the door. The windows were down enough for ventilation and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Smokey would probably be more comfortable than she was.
Shivering, Layla lifted her scarf to cover her head and wrapped her arms around herself, bangle bracelets jingling. Good thing she was familiar with this area and knew how to dress. She hadn't given up her trademark flowing skirt and favorite silver jewelry but she had been smart enough to slip on sweatpants under the skirt and switch from moccasins to boots. Image was one thing. Freezing to death for the sake of style was another. If her parents had taught her anything, it was to conform to the dictates of nature and go with the flow instead of complaining.
Michael Vance clomped into the Stagecoach Cafe and shrugged out of his fleece-lined leather jacket before wending his way to his usual table.
He'd kind of hoped cafe owner Fiona Montgomery would be busy in the kitchen. No such luck. He could see he was in for an inquisition, starting right now. Bright red hair fluffed, grin in place, she was headed straight for him.
"Michael! What brings you into town?"
He snorted as he laid his black felt Stetson on the empty chair beside him. "What doesn't. It's been one of those weeks."
"Uh-oh. It's only Tuesday."
"Tell me about it."
Fiona slid her ample self into the chair across from him and leaned her elbows on the table.
"Sounds like you'd better tell me. How are things on the Double V? Any word from your foreman?"
Though it wasn't Michael's habit to confide in the local telegraph-in-a-waitress's uniform, he figured it might be for the best in this case. "No. Ben's still missing. The police suspect he had problems with drugs again but I can't believe it. He'd been clean and sober for years, even before I hired him."
"How's that Hector Delgato guy working out in Ben's place?"
"He's okay, I guess. Kind of quiet and moody but he does his job. I heard he has an eye for the ladies. You'd better watch out." Michael gave Fiona a wink.
"Humph. I can handle myself. I've been married to Joe long enough to get all the practice handling unruly men that I'll ever need."
Michael chuckled. "It wouldn't have been any better if you'd married a Vance. That's exactly what Aunt Lidia always says about Uncle Max."
"Poor man. I heard he's still in a coma."
"Yeah. I stopped at Vance Memorial before I came here. It's tough to see him like that."
"Lidia seems to be holding up okay, considering. I offered to let her come back and cook for me if she wanted, thought she might need the distraction. But she's spending every spare minute at the hospital, holding Max's hand. That's understandable."
"Yeah." Michael ran his fingers through his hair.
"All my troubles put together don't amount to a hill of beans compared to theirs."
"I know you're worried about Ben and Max but I get the impression there's more. What else is wrong?"
"Imelda sprained her ankle."
"Oh, no! Is she okay?"
"Actually, I think she's milking the injury for all it's worth. Norberto's been spending most of his time fussing over her, which means I'm not only short a cook, my best ranch hand is too distracted to think straight. A guy like me could starve to death cooking for himself. You don't happen to know of anyone looking for a job as a housekeeper, do you?"
Fiona snorted. "No. Too bad Dorothy Miller's in Florida for the winter or you could ask her to come out of retirement and come back to work for you." She paused, thoughtful. "Say, if it's a cook you want, how about asking at the Galilee Women's Shelter?
I'm sure Susan Dawson knows someone who could use the job and the self-esteem boost."
"I thought of that. And I may. But I was kind of looking for a stable, motherly type, like Dorothy was." He flashed Fiona a lopsided grin. "What are you doing for the next couple of weeks?"
The restaurant owner gave him a playful whack on the forearm. "Running this place and taking care of my Joe. That keeps me plenty busy, thank you."
Michael shrugged. "Well, it was worth a try. How's Joe doing these days?"
"Pretty well, considering. I'm not going to tell him about your problems because he might try to help out. It wouldn't be good for him."
"I know it wouldn't. I've offered to get somebody to come in and take good care of Imelda to free up Norberto but he won't hear of it. He's like a mother hen around her."
"Love is like that."
Michael made a face. "I wouldn't know."
"You can't count Tammy. She was wrong for you from the get-go. I'm just glad you saw through her before you made the biggest mistake of your life."
"Yeah, right." He cocked his head toward the kitchen. "So, what's the special today? I figure I'd better fill up while I'm here."
Fiona patted his hand as she got to her feet and took out her order pad. "We're featuring the Smoked Salmon Caesar Salad but I know you're strictly a meat-and-potatoes man. How about the Roasted Pork Green Chili? I've got fresh-baked corn bread to go with it."
"Sounds good." He scanned the growing lunch crowd. "Have you seen Doc Pritchard lately? I've been calling his office and all I get is the answering machine."
"That's all you will get for a while. He's having some sort of midlife crisis, I guess. Took off for Vegas and left old Wilt in charge."
Michael grimaced. "That's what I was afraid of."
"Why? What do you need a vet for?"
He lowered his voice and spoke aside. "I've lost five head recently. No sickness, no symptoms of disease. They just keeled over. I'm not about to trust the rest of the herd to Wilt. He retired from practice twenty years ago. His methods of diagnosis have to be outdated."
"You going to bring in another vet then?" Michael again raked his fingers through his thick, dark hair. "I don't know yet. I hate to. The last thing we ranchers need is to have the government get in a tizzy over nothing and quarantine us before we figure out what's causing the problem. The price of beef is already unsteady."
"Well, no wonder your chin is draggin' the ground. You just sit there and relax for a bit. I'll get your order in and bring you a cup of coffee while you wait. How's that sound?"
"Better than anything that's happened to me lately," Michael said. "And a piece of your famous apple pie, too, please."
"Gladly. Back in a jiffy."
Michael watched Fiona wend her way between the red-checkered, cloth-covered tables, greeting patrons as she went. The decor of the place was rustic and Western and the food was superb, but the real ambience came from its owner. Fiona radiated a homespun warmth that gave the Stagecoach Cafe its special aura of welcome, of home. Though her pride in the restaurant's offerings was understandable, he suspected she could have served mundane fast food like any generic burger joint and been just as successful.
Speaking of burgers... Michael's gut twisted. The mysterious losses he'd experienced hadn't looked as though they were caused by any known bovine diseases but anything was possible, even though remote. The Double V was his life. His reason for being. His uncle Max, his sister, Holly, and most of his cousins had gone into some form of law enforcement. That kind of career had never appealed to him. He was man of the land. A rancher to the core. If he lost the ranch...
Philippians 4:6 popped into his mind and made him smile. "Yeah," he said, trying not to be cynical, "'Be anxious for nothing...'" Easier said than done. It was almost as hard to trust the Lord and not worry as it was to give thanks for the mess he was in.
Fiona delivered his meal and he bowed quietly over it to whisper, "Thank You for this food, Lord. Please be patient. I'm working on thanking You for the other stuff."
Michael sighed, then added an honestly reverent, "Amen." * * *
Layla hesitated at the door of the busy restaurant. The red, barnlike building had been an empty, rundown relic of the nineteenth century the last time she'd visited Colorado Springs. Whoever had renovated it had done a monumental job of restoration. Curiosity urged her to open the door. Once she did, tantalizing aromas drew her inside without a second thought. She might not choose to eat meat but that didn't mean she couldn't appreciate well-prepared cuisine.
She slipped off her scarf, propped one hip on the nearest stool and leaned an elbow on the small counter just inside the entrance. A woman with hair the color of a shiny fire truck hurried over.
"Afternoon. Something to drink?" Fiona asked.
"No, thanks. I'm just waiting for a table. I can eat out here if you're too full."
"Nonsense. We'll find you a place in a jiffy. What brings you to Colorado Springs?"
"Just passing through," Layla said pleasantly. "I used to live around here, years ago."
"Really?" There was no condemnation in the titian-haired woman's expression when she said,
"Maybe I knew you. I used to have lots of friends from the hippie commune on the way to Cripple Creek."
"Then you may have heard of my family. I'm Layla Rainbow Dixon. My mother is Carol and my dad's Gilbert."
"Dixon? Not Carol 'Moonsong' and Gilbert 'River' Dixon!"
Excerpted from The Danger Within by Valerie Hansen Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Hansen. Excerpted by permission.
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