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The scream woke Deputy Mason Ryland.
His eyes flew open, and Mason stumbled from the sofa in his office where he'd fallen asleep. He reached for his shirt but couldn't find it. He had better luck with the Smith & Wesson handgun that he'd left on his desk.
He threw open his office door and caught the scent of something he darn sure didn't want to smell on the grounds of his family's ranch.
The wispy gray streaks coiled around him, quickly followed by a second scream and a loud cry for help.
Mason went in the direction of both the smoke and the voice, racing out into the chilly October night air. He wasn't the only one who'd been alerted. A handful of his ranch hands were running toward the cabin-style guesthouse about a hundred yards away. It was on fire, the orangey flames licking their way up the sides and roof. And the place wasn't empty.
His newly hired horse trainer, Abbie Baker, was staying there.
That got Mason running even harder. So did another shout for help. Oh, yeah, that shout was coming from the guesthouse all right.
"Call the fire department," he yelled to one of the ranch hands.
Mason also shouted out for someone to call his brothers as well even though they would soon know anyway. All five of them, their wives and their children lived in the family home or on the grounds of the ranch.
Mason made it to the guesthouse ahead of the others, and he tried to pick through the smoke and the embers flicking through the night air. He hurried to the sound of his trainer's pleas for help.
And he cursed when he saw her.
Abbie was in the doorway, her body half in and half out of the house, and what was left of the door was on her back, anchoring her in place.
The smoke was thick and black, and the area was already hot from the flames, but Mason fought his way through just as one of the ranch hands caught up with him. Rusty Burke. Together, they latched on to the door and started to drag it off Abbie. Not easily. It was heavy and bulky, and it didn't help that the flames were snapping at them.
Mason didn't usually think in terms of worst-case scenarios, but he had a split-second thought that his new trainer might burn to death. The possibility gave him a much-needed jolt of adrenaline, and Rusty and he threw the door off her. In the same motion, Mason latched on to her arm and dragged her away from the guesthouse.
"I couldn't get out," she said, her voice clogged with smoke and fear.
"You're out now," he let her know.
Out but not necessarily safe. The ranch hands were already there with the hoses, but he doubted the house would stand much longer. If it collapsed, Abbie could still be burned or hurt from the flying debris.
"Are the horses okay?" she asked. Mason was more than a little surprised that she'd think of the animals at a time like this.
"They're fine." At least he was pretty sure of that. "This is the only building on fire."
Mason scooped her up, and she looked at him. It was pitch-dark, probably two or three in the morning, but thanks to the flames and the hunter's moon, he saw her eyes widen. A single word left her mouth.
Mason didn't have time to question that no before she started struggling. She wasn't a large woman, five-five at the most and on the lean side, but she managed to pack a punch when she rammed her elbow against his bare chest. He cursed and put her in a death grip so she couldn't fight her way out of his arms.
"I'm trying to save you," he reminded her, and he added more profanity when she didn't stop fighting.
Abbie was probably still caught up in the fear and the adrenaline, but Mason was finding it a little hard to be sympathetic with the cold rocky ground biting into his bare feet and with her arms and legs waggling around.
"We have to get away from the fire," he snarled.
Those wide frightened eyes looked at the flames, and she stopped struggling just long enough for Mason to get a better grip on her.
He started running toward the ranch office where lately he'd been spending most of his days and nights because of the heavy workload. He could deposit Abbie there and hurry back to see if the guesthouse could be saved. He wasn't hopeful, especially because the ranch wasn't exactly in city limits. It would take the fire department a good twenty minutes to reach them.
The door to his office and quarters was still open, and he hurried inside, flipped on the lights with his elbow and placed her on the sofa. Mason looked down at her, to make sure she wasn't injured.
She didn't appear to be.
Visibly shaken, yes. Trembling, too. Pale and breathing way too fast. All normal responses under the circumstances.
Her eyes met his again, and Mason saw the fear that was still there. And maybe something else that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
"Did you try to kill me?" she asked.
That single question seemed to be all she could muster because she groaned, closed her eyes, and the back of her head dropped against the sofa.
Mason huffed. That definitely wasn't something he expected to hear her say. He'd been a deputy for fifteen years, and his employee no doubt knew it. Even though most people were leery of him because.. well, because he wasn't a friendly sort, they didn't usually accuse him of arson or attempted murder.
"Why would I set this fire?" he demanded.
Abbie opened her mouth, closed it and shook her head. She also dodged his gaze. "I'm not sure what I'm saying right now. I thought I was going to die."
Mason guessed that was a normal response, but he was beginning to get a bad feeling about this.
"How did the fire start?"
Abbie shook her head again. "I'm not sure. I woke up, and there was smoke all around me. I tried to get to the door, but I started coughing and couldn't see." She paused, shivered. "When I got to the door and opened it, it fell on me." Another pause. "Or something."
"Or something? " he pushed.
Oh, man. The bad feeling was getting worse, and Mason blamed it on that stupid question. Was there a nonstupid reason that she thought someone had tried to kill her, or was this the ramblings of a woman whose mind had been clouded with fear and adrenaline?
"Or something," she repeated.
Abbie pushed her light brown hair from her face. Long hair, he noticed. Something he hadn't realized because she always wore it tucked beneath a baseball cap. In fact, he'd thought of her as tomboyish, but there wasn't anything boyish or tom about the person lying on his sofa. In that paper-thin pale blue gown, she looked like a woman.
An attractive one.
Something Mason wished like the devil he hadn't noticed. She worked for him, and he didn't tread down that path. Business and sex never sat well with him.
"Did you leave the stove on?" he pressed.
But all he got was another head shakesomething else that didn't please him. He wanted some answers here, and he wanted something to tamp down that bad feeling in his gut. However, the knock on his already-open door had him shifting in that direction.
It was his ranch hand Rusty. The lanky young man was out of breath and looked on the verge of blurting something out before his attention landed on Abbie. He motioned for Mason to meet him outside.
Mason looked at Abbie. "I'll be right back." Yeah, it sounded like a warning and it was. By God, he was going to get those answers and settle this uneasy feeling. He would find out why she'd thought he had tried to kill her.
He stepped outside with Rusty, and when he got a better look at Rusty's face, he pulled the door shut. "More bad news?" But it wasn't exactly a question. Mason could already tell there was.
Rusty nodded. "The guesthouse collapsed. Nothing left to save."
Well, heck. That didn't please Mason, but it could have been much worse. His trainer could have gotten killed.
Abbie could have gotten killed, he mentally corrected.
And he cursed himself for thinking of her that way. Mason blamed it on that blasted thin gown and those frightened vulnerable brown eyes.
"There's more," Rusty went on, grabbing Mason's attention.
Mason took a deep breath, ready to hear the news he probably didn't want to hear, but before Rusty could spill it, he saw his brother Grayson hurrying toward them.
Like Mason, his brother was half-dressed. Jeans that he'd probably just pulled on and no shirt. Even half-dressed, Grayson still managed to look as if he were in charge.
And he was.
As the eldest of his five brothers and the Silver Creek town sheriff, Grayson had a way of being in charge just by being there.
"How's the trainer?" Grayson immediately asked.
"Alive," Mason provided. He didn't add the customary and well part to that because he wasn't sure that was true. He should probably look to see if she'd had a blow to the head. After all, the door could have hit her when it became unhinged. She might even have a broken bone or two.
"The EMTs are on the way," Grayson explained. He looked at Mason. "Rusty told you about the guesthouse?"
Mason nodded. "It's gone."
Grayson stopped next to him, his breath gusting. Probably because he'd run all the way from the main ranch house. "Yeah. And there was a gas can by the back porch. Rusty managed to pull it out of there before the flames took over."
What the devil? Mason mentally went through the reasons why Abbie would have had a gas can on the porch, and he couldn't immediately think of one. She trained his cutting horses and didn't have anything to do with any ranch equipment that required gasoline.
"Looks like someone could have set the fire," Grayson concluded.
Arson. On the ranch.
The anger slammed through Mason. Even though he had five brothers who were equal owners of the land, the ranch was his domain. He ran it. It was what he loved, more than a badge, more than just about anything. And if someone had intentionally burned down the guesthouse with Abbie inside, then that someone was going to pay and pay hard.
"It could have been worse," Rusty went on, turning to Grayson. "Mason barely got Abbie out of there in time."
That was true. And Mason went back to Ab-bie's stupid question.
Did you try to kill me?
Had she seen something or someone? Maybe. And Mason changed that maybe to a probably after remembering the way she'd looked at him. He was accustomed to people shying out of his way. Used to the uneasiness that he caused with his steely exterior, but Abbie's fear had twisted something inside of him that he hadn't felt before.
The sound of sirens sliced through his anger and thoughts, and all three of them looked in the direction of the road where there were swirls of red-and-blue lights approaching. The fire department, an ambulance and a sheriff's cruiser. Could be one of his brothers, Dade or Gage, in the cruiser, because they were both deputies.
"I'll talk to them," Grayson volunteered. "You stay with the trainer until the EMTs have checked her out."
He would, but while he was doing that, Mason could ask some questions that might help them get to the bottom of all of this.
Grayson and Rusty headed out in the direction of the approaching emergency responders, and Mason threw open his office door. His attention zoomed right to the sofa where he'd left Abbie.
She wasn't there.
Mason looked at the adjoining bathroom. Door closed. And that's probably where she wasmaybe crying or falling apart from the inevitable adrenaline crash.
He took a moment to pull on his boots, but when he still couldn't find his shirt, he crossed the large working space and knocked on the bathroom door.
So he knocked again, harder this time. "You okay in there?" Still no answer.
He rethought that crying or falling-apart theory and moved on to one that caused his concern to spike through the roof. Maybe she was unconscious from an injury he hadn't noticed.
No knock this time. Mason kicked down the door and was thankful when it didn't hit her. He looked at the sink first. Not there. Then, the separate toilet area. Not there either. And she darn sure wasn't in the shower.
That's when he noticed the bathroom window was wide-open.
What the devil was going on?
He hurried to the window and looked out. Thanks to that hunter's moon, he saw her. Barely. She was at least thirty yards away, her pale blue gown fluttering in the wind.
Abbie was running as if her life depended on it.
Abbie didn't take the time to tell herself that it'd been a really bad idea to come to the Ryland ranch. But that's what she would do later. For now, she just had to get out of there as fast as she could and hope that she could somehow make it to safety.
Safety with no car, no money, no shoes.
Clearly, she had some big strikes against her.
Abbie glanced over her shoulder and saw one of the biggest strikes of all. Mason Ryland. Her boss and perhaps the person who wanted her dead.
She'd been a fool to come here, and that foolishness might soon get her killed.
With Mason's footsteps bearing down on her, Abbie didn't give up. She ran, praying that she would make it to the fence before he could grab her. The fence wasn't a sure thing. First, she'd have to scale it and then try to disappear into the thick woods that surrounded the sprawling ranch. But just reaching the fence was her next obstacle.
"Stop!" Mason yelled.
His angry voice tore through the darkness, through her, and she had a terrifying thought. What if he shot her?
After all, he had a gun. Abbie had seen it when Rusty and he had pulled the door off her. The sight of that weapon and his fierce take-no-prisoners expression had caused her heart to skip a beat or two.
She kept running, her lungs already starved for air, but she wasn't fast enough. With the fence still yards away, Mason grabbed her shoulder and dragged her to a stop before he whirled her around to face him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Mason demanded.
Abbie wanted to demand the same thing, but she couldn't gather enough breath to speak. Mercy, her teeth were chattering from the chilly night air and the fear.
"Well?" he pushed. He looked down at her. At her face. At her gown. At the garment she was wearing over her gown. "And why did you steal my shirt?"
"I borrowed it," Abbie managed to say. She would have done the same to a pair of shoes if she could have found them. She hadn't. So she'd run out of his office barefoot.
He mumbled some more profanity and stared at her as if she'd lost her mind. Maybe she had. But thankfully he didn't shoot her or threaten to do it.
That reprieve meant she had a chance to try to talk him out of whatever he was planning to do to her.