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By Stella Bagwell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I've never tried to kill anybody! Whoever says different is a damn liar!"
Ross Ketchum stopped pacing around the study of the T Bar K ranch house long enough to glare at his sister and her new husband.
"What about that time the city cops hauled you in for choking Lance Martin?" Victoria asked.
Ross threw back his head and laughed. "That was just a little high school prom fight, and Lance needed taking down a notch or two."
Victoria shared a wry look with her husband, Jess, who was sitting beside her on a long, leather couch.
"Okay," Victoria conceded, "so it was just a little squabble between two roosters. But other people around here remember the incident. And if this thing goes to trial -"
"It isn't going to go to trial, Sis," Ross said with confidence. "Not with me as the defendant."
With a helpless groan, Victoria turned to her husband. "I give up. It's your turn to try and convince him how serious this thing is."
Jess Hastings was not only Victoria's new husband, he was also the under-sheriff of San Juan County. And, more ironically, he was the person Ross had supposedly tried to kill.
Three weeks ago, right here on T Bar K land, someone had shot Jess in the shoulder. If the bullet had struck three inches lower, his brother-in-law would be dead now.
"Victoria is right, Ross," Jess spoke up. "The D.A. is making noises about pressing charges."
His jaw tight, Ross pulled the black cowboy hat from his head and tossed it at a rail of pegs hanging on a nearby wall. The hat hit one of the pegs, dangled wildly, then settled into place. Like his life, he thought wryly. Sometimes it seemed he was only hanging on by his fingertips, but after everything was washed and dried he was usually standing firmly on his feet. He had to believe things would turn out for the best this time, too.
"Well, obviously I've been framed," he said. "And that means we're all going to have to be careful around here."
Jess nodded in total agreement. "The way I see it, none of us can be too careful."
Ross turned a concerned eye on his sister. "You couldn't have married Jess and moved to the Hastings ranch at a better time. I'm glad you're not staying here now."
Once Jess had been released from the hospital, Victoria had been so eager to marry him, she'd forgone a big, splashy wedding for a simple ceremony in the judge's chambers. Ross didn't understand such love and devotion. At least, he'd never felt it for any woman. But he was glad his sister was happy at last. Her marriage was the only joyful thing that had happened around the T Bar K in years.
"I'll still be in and out," Victoria assured him, then, with a grateful glance at her husband, added, "but Jess will be with me. In the meantime, Neal Rankin is expecting you in his office tomorrow morning at nine."
Neal Rankin was the attorney the Ketchums used for all the legal business concerning the T Bar K. Along with being their attorney, he'd been a good friend to Ross and Victoria ever since their childhood days.
Frowning, Ross looked up from unbuckling his spurs. "Rankin? What for? Don't tell me that something is wrong with the ranch's books?"
"No. It's not the books," Victoria told him. "He wants to speak with you about this shooting incident."
Ross snorted a laugh. "Since when did Neal Rankin think he was a criminal attorney? He must be needing a vacation."
"With friends like you, I'm sure he does need a vacation," Victoria shot back at her brother. "But he wants to speak with you just the same. We - uh, he thinks we need to hire a defense attorney for you."
Leaning down once again, Ross pulled the sundial spurs from the heels of his boots. He'd been in the saddle all day. He was tired. He needed a shower and bed. He didn't want to talk about, or even think about, attorneys and shootings and jail.
"Oh hell, I don't need a defense attorney."
"Then you'd better tell Neal that in the morning," Victoria said flatly. "Because he thinks you're in trouble."
Grinning, Ross winked at her. "Trouble is my middle name, Sis. Everybody in San Juan County, New Mexico, knows that."
The next morning Ross drove into Aztec early and ate a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs at the Wagon Wheel Cafe. After his third cup of coffee, he walked down the sidewalk to Neal Rankin's small law office. Inside, behind a wide desk, a hefty woman with graying black hair smiled at him.
"Hello, Mr. Ketchum," she greeted cheerfully. "Nice day, isn't it?"
"Hello yourself, Connie. And any day that Neal calls me to the office is a grand day," he said drolly. "Is he in yet?"
Connie jerked a thumb toward the door behind her left shoulder. "Ten minutes ago. Better go in now before someone else gets in line."
Ross crossed the room and entered the small connecting office. A tall man with dark-blond hair was in the process of pouring coffee into a dark ceramic mug. He looked around as Ross helped himself to a chair.
"I guess you've never heard of knocking," he said.
"Not on your door, buddy," Ross told him.
With an accepting shake of his head, Neal held up the coffee cup. "Want some?"
"No. I just left the Wagon Wheel. The little waitress there never let my cup cool," Ross said with a cocky grin.
Neal took a seat behind his desk. "That's because she knows you're a rich man."
Ross chuckled. "And here I thought she was taken with my looks."
"You're crazy, Ross. You're thirty-five years old and you're not a bit different than you were at twenty."
"Why should I try to improve on a good thing?" Ross grinned, then got straight to the point of his visit. "Besides, you're the one who's crazy if you're thinking I need a lawyer to defend me."
The other man sipped from the mug before he settled comfortably back in the leather chair. "I not only think you need one, I've already hired one for you."
Incredulous, Ross scooted to the edge of his seat. "No!"
"That's right," Neal said calmly. "She'll be here in the morning. And I expect you to be around the ranch when she arrives."
Ross looked even more stunned. "She?"
Neal nodded. "Isabella Corrales, Bella for short. She's very good. She worked for a time as a prosecutor for Dona Ana County."
Incensed, Ross jerked off his hat and slapped it against his knee. "You not only hire a woman, but you hire one who's a prosecutor! What are you trying to do to me?"
Accustomed to Ross's passionate outbursts, Neal smiled patiently. "Calm down, old friend. I'm trying to take care of you."
Excerpted from His Defender by Stella Bagwell Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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