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Seriously, who in their right mind hid a spare key under a flowerpot where any thief could find it? Ruby McPhee's sister, apparently. Climbing the porch steps, Ruby counted the third chrysanthemum from the right. The key was there, exactly where Scarlett said it would be.
Small-town living, Ruby told herself as she opened the trailer door-only one lock, no dead bolt-with shaking fingers. Inside, she felt less anxious than she had outdoors, but not much.
At the front window, she pushed aside the curtain. Early morning sun cast lengthy shadows across the yard, the exaggerated silhouettes of tall ponderosa pines resembling daggers.
Okay, she was letting her imagination get the best of her. No one, not even her boss at the Century Casino or her closest friends, knew her exact whereabouts. Just her sister and the Las Vegas police detective assigned to her case. The one who had recommended she lie low for a while after her stalker violated the order of protection against him and showed up at her work, looking for Ruby and threatening a coworker.
Her case. Lie low. Order of protection. The words had a scary ring to them, and Ruby was tired of being scared. That was the whole reason she'd come to Sweetheart, Nevada, this out-of-the-way little mountain town. To be safe and to sleep through the night undisturbed by sudden noises and bad dreams.
She let the curtain fall back in place and inspected the single-wide trailer. It was old and sparsely furnished with the barest of necessities. So typical of her sister, who rebelled at the thought of lingering too long in one place.
Ruby sighed and started toward the narrow hall leading to the single bedroom. Despite a lack of creature comforts, the trailer would suit her purposes just fine.
Something caught her eye as she passed the worn checkered sofa. A framed picture, the only one in the room, sat on an end table. She picked it up, recognizing the photo as one taken a few years ago at their mother's birthday party. Her heart immediately softened.
Like most identical twins, Ruby and Scarlett were the spitting image of each other. So much so, they were nearly indistinguishable when dressed the same. But unlike most identical twins, they weren't inseparable and didn't share some sort of psychic connection. They'd grown apart during high school and had never quite bridged the gap that widened when their mother remarried.
Until now. Scarlett had come to Ruby's aid when she needed it most. Perhaps blood really was thicker than water after all.
Replacing the picture, she removed her smart phone from her purse, sat on the sagging sofa and dialed her sister's number. Scarlett answered on the first ring. She sounded so happy, Ruby almost forgot her own worries. Almost.
"You made it," Scarlett said. "Any problems?"
"None. Thank you, MapQuest."
"I really, really appreciate this."
"I'm the one who owes you."
"They're going to put that guy away, Rubes. Don't worry about it."
"Right." Ruby shivered at the reminder. How could she not worry?
She saw herself coming home at 3:00 a.m. and walking unsuspectingly into her darkened condo. Heard again the strange scuffling sound, then heavy breathing as an inky figure emerged from behind a corner. Felt strong hands grab her by the throat and squeeze, cutting off her air supply.
Only a miracle had enabled her to escape with minimal injury.
Forcing a calming breath into her lungs, Ruby changed the subject. "Things okay with you and Demitri?"
"Wonderful. Fantastic. It's going to work this time."
Scarlett had left Sweetheart for San Diego around midnight. Three hours later Ruby was in her car and leaving the Vegas city limits.
Her sister was meeting her off-and-on-again boyfriend for yet another reconciliation while Ruby was taking her sister's place. Literally. Occupying her trailer and filling in for her at work.
The two sisters had spent the better part of the previous evening on the phone, with Scarlett describing in detail her job, her boss and his wife, their family, the Gold Nugget Ranch where she worked as the only female wrangler, and the layout of the town.
Ruby had asked endless questions and scribbled pages of notes. Still, she worried about her ability to pull off the switch. Especially the job part. While once an accomplished rider, she hadn't been on a horse in eleven years. Hopefully, it was like riding a bike.
"If things go well," Scarlett continued, "and I'm sure they will, I won't need my job anymore."
"Would you be happy living in San Diego? You've always been a country girl."
"I'll be happy anywhere, as long as I'm with Demitri."
Scarlett's boyfriend worked as a marine biologist at Sea-World. Currently, Ruby corrected herself. He traveled extensively and often spent months at sea aboard a research vessel. Well, working in their favor, Scarlett wasn't a homebody. Another distinction between the sisters.
"You'd better hurry," Scarlett said.
Ruby glanced at her watch and mumbled a curse. She- Scarlett-was due at the Gold Nugget in twenty minutes.
"Boots!" she blurted.
"In the bedroom closet. Jeans are in the dresser. Good luck."
"Gotta go, sis. Demitri's leaving. Bye."
With that, Scarlett disconnected, and Ruby was left to manage on her own.
She hit the bathroom first, washing the lack of sufficient sleep from her face and arranging her hair in a simple ponytail. Ruby, assistant manager of the casino's exclusive VIP lounge, wore carefully applied makeup and elegantly styled her long tresses. Scarlett the cowgirl didn't bother with makeup or styling her hair. Too much trouble.
In the bedroom, Ruby ransacked the closet and bureau drawers, finding jeans, a shirt, a belt, socks and boots. As she dressed, she reviewed her pages of notes laid out on the bed.
Scarlett had only worked at the Gold Nugget Ranch for three months. Nowhere near long enough to have earned vacation time. It was also May, the start of the guest ranch's busy season and a month before some huge town-wide wedding event. The ranch couldn't spare her.
That didn't matter to Scarlett, however. If Demitri wanted her to come to San Diego and give their relationship another go, she'd do it and damn the consequences.
When Ruby had told her sister about the stalker and the detective's recommendation that she leave Vegas, Scarlett, always the more daring of the two, proposed that they change places. No one would find Ruby, and Scarlett would have a chance to visit Demitri without losing her job.
Ruby's boss, sympathetic to her plight, had given her the time off, with the promise she return after her attacker's arraignment. While it was doubtful her stalker would plead guilty, it was hoped he'd leave Ruby alone, not wanting to make his case worse by committing another crime.
Crazy as it sounded, the old switching-places scheme might succeed. Ruby and Scarlett had done it before. Frequently, in fact, when they were younger.
Once, Ruby had impersonated Scarlett and taken a difficult calculus test for her during their junior year in high school. Another time, Scarlett had broken up with Ruby's boyfriend when Ruby didn't have the nerve.
This could work. Ruby just needed to stay focused and keep her wits about her. Not give anyone cause for suspicion.
She didn't require MapQuest to find the Gold Nugget Ranch. There were plenty of signs in town pointing the way. She read them in between looking anxiously in her rearview mirror or over her shoulder-habits that had become second nature last month when the stalking started, and increased last week after the attack in her condo.
At the gas station where she filled up her car, she paid at the pump, in case someone inside was friends with Scarlett and would want to chat.
Her car! Oh, no. She hadn't thought about that until right this second. Scarlett drove a Jeep. Someone was bound to notice the strange vehicle and ask questions. The three-mile drive along the highway to the ranch gave Ruby time to concoct a plausible story.
A rental car. Because her Jeep was in the shop. Yes, that sounded good. She repeated the fabrication three times over so it would flow more naturally off her tongue.
Perspiration formed on her brow. This leading a double life wasn't going to be as easy as she'd first thought. Maybe she-Scarlett-should call in sick for the week after all. Scarlett had actually suggested it, but Ruby dismissed the idea, not wanting to give her sister's boss a reason to fire her.
Ruby had her doubts about this rekindled romance with Demitri. If he and her sister broke up again, which was likely given their history, Scarlett would need a job.
When Ruby pulled into the ranch, she drove slowly, visually comparing the buildings and landmarks with those her sister had described. Spotting the barn, she headed straight there and pulled in next to a pickup truck parked along the side. This, Scarlett had advised, was where the wranglers left their vehicles.
Standing outside her car, she paused. The horse corrals were across the way. Beyond them, the arena, bunk-house and, on the nearby hill, a half-dozen guest cabins. She should head toward the corrals. Scarlett had told Ruby to check in with the trail boss first thing upon arriving.
At the sight of so many people gathered at the corrals, she momentarily lost her nerve and ducked into the barn instead. Just for a few minutes, she told herself. Until she felt calmer.
The smell of hay and horses triggered memories of years gone by when riding had been part of Ruby's daily life. She made her way to the four box stalls standing in a row. According to her sister, the working trail horses were housed in the corrals, and the barn served as a sort of infirmary.
Two stalls were empty. A third contained an old, sway-backed mare and the fourth a pony that poked its nose over the side of the stall and nickered at her. She couldn't resist and reached out to pet the whiskered face.
"How you doing, little fellow?"
In reply, the pony pressed its warm nose into her palm.
"Hey, Scarlett, what's going on?"
Ruby spun, alarm shooting through her in waves, and faced the woman who had come up silently behind her. Hoping her smile didn't appear too nervous, she tried to place the woman from her sister's descriptions. The owner's wife? In her current disconcerted state, Ruby couldn't remember.
"H-hi. I'm ah checking on the pony."
"Mooney's fine." The woman smiled in return. "Her thrush is much better."
Ruby mentally repeated the pony's name and ailment for future reference.
"Lyndsey's been taking care of her," the woman continued. "Cleansing the hoof and medicating it."
Lyndsey? That was one of the owner's little girls. Could this woman be Annie, his wife? Ruby wished she could be sure. She didn't dare call the woman by name for fear she was wrong.
"Well, good," Ruby replied. "I'll just mosey on over to the, ah, corrals, then."
She shoved her hands in her jeans pockets, and then whipped them out, deciding the stance made her look uncomfortable. Which, she was, but she didn't want to appear that way
"Stop at the house first," the woman instructed. "I got a call a minute ago. Someone's here to see you."
There was a twinkle in her eyes. "Who do you think?"
"I don't know."
"Cliff, of course." The twinkle brightened. "He's waiting in the kitchen. Come on, I'll go with you. The first trail ride isn't for another hour. You have plenty of time for a visit."
Time, but no desire. Not until she was more acclimated to her surroundings.
The kitchen, Ruby recalled, was in the main house. Halfway there, she and the woman passed an SUV. She noticed the official logo on the side and came to a sudden stop, the alarm from earlier zapping the strength from her knees.
"Is that the sheriff's vehicle?"
"What else would Cliff drive?" The woman took hold of Ruby's arm to hurry her along.
"Why is he here?" Had the Las Vegas detective phoned the sheriff? Told him of the switch? If so, wouldn't he have alerted Ruby?
Beside her, the woman blew out an exasperated breath. "Because that's what men do when they're dating a woman. They show up unannounced and surprise her."
"Dating!" Ruby squeaked.
"Unless you have another definition for when a couple goes out six times in the past month."
Scarlett had a boyfriend. Another boyfriend besides Demitri. And he was the local sheriff!
A rush of anger steadied Ruby. Of all the details not to share, her sister had to pick the most important one.
Cliff Dempsey sat at the long oak table, a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. The next moment, he sprang to his feet and began pacing. What, precisely, was he doing here?
"Something wrong?" Sam asked.
His friend and owner of the Gold Nugget Ranch had joined Cliff in the empty kitchen. As recently as last week, a dozen guests would have competed for elbow room at the crowded table. Since completion of the new dining hall, the kitchen belonged solely to the staff.
"I probably shouldn't bother Scarlett when she's at work," Cliff said.
"Don't worry about it." Sam nodded at the bouquet of fresh flowers lying on the table. "You asking her to the square dance this weekend?"
"Yeah." Cliff nodded, wiping his damp palms on his khaki slacks.
As the law in these parts, he'd handled every situation from breaking up fights between drunken wranglers to singlehandedly taking down an armed bank robber to talking a possibly suicidal woman off the cell-phone tower at Grey Rock Point. Yet the prospect of inviting Scarlett McPhee to the dance had him sweating like a pig.
This was hardly their first date. It was, however, their first date after a recent lull. He and Scarlett had started out strong enough but this past week, she'd seemed to lose interest, not returning his calls and sounding distant when they did talk.
Cliff wasn't sure what to make of it. Could be something simple as her having a case of nerves. Just because he was considering taking their relationship from casual to serious and wanted to test the waters didn't mean she was, too. He was determined to find out.
"Nothing like waiting till the last minute." Sam dropped into an empty seat. "The dance is the day after tomorrow."
Cliff sat across from him. "I wasn't sure I could get the evening off." In truth, he'd stalled, doubting the wisdom of showing up unannounced. She may not appreciate it.
If he could go back in time to five minutes ago, he'd head straight to the station rather than call Sam's wife looking for Scarlett because, par for the course, she hadn't answered her cell phone.
"It's none of my business," Sam said, "but you want to tell me what's really bothering you?"
Cliff pushed his cowboy hat back on his head, then took it off and set it on the table. "My aunt Hilda thinks I should get married."
"It's a nice state to be in with the right woman. I can vouch for that."
"She thinks I should get married at the Mega Weekend of Weddings in June."
"Whoa!" Sam sat back. "Kind of soon, isn't it? That's only six weeks away. You and Scarlett haven't been dating very long."
"Real soon. Hilda has it in her head the local sheriff marrying will be a big draw. Bring more tourists to town for the event. Registration is only about half of what the town council hoped for."
Cliff's aunt not only owned the Paydirt Saloon, Sweetheart's most popular watering hole, she was also the mayor and a driving force behind the Mega Weekend of Weddings extravaganza.
The town of Sweetheart had a colorful history. It was founded by a pair of young lovers who met on a wagon train passing through. They married in California and returned to Sweetheart to settle down and raise a family. The man promptly discovered gold in the nearby mountains, and the town experienced its first boom.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, young couples began eloping to Sweetheart, their marriages officiated by a judge who didn't inquire too deeply into a person's age. The surrounding natural beauty drew tourists and outdoor recreationists, eager to hike, fish, horseback ride and, during the winter months, cross-country ski.
For the past fifty years, until the forest fire last summer nearly destroyed the town, the citizens of Sweetheart had capitalized on the wedding and tourist trade. Most of the local economy had depended on it for their livelihoods. When the tourists stopped coming after the fire, the economy died. Cliff's aunt, along with Sam and several dedicated others, was leading a fierce fight to restore Sweetheart to its former glory.
"She also thinks it will help with my reelection this fall," Cliff continued. "Hers, too. Not that anyone would run against her."
Sam had a point. A Dempsey had held the office of sheriff since the 1860s. It was a long-standing tradition the citizens were more than happy to continue.