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From her perch on the porch railing at the Sundance ranch, Annie Sheridan took what she called a memory shot. If she'd had her beloved old Nikon she'd have pulled it out and centered the lens on the familiar faces of her hosts, but the spectacular sunset against the Rocky Mountains would have been the star. Only to the casual observer, though, which Annie most definitely was not.
She'd become an expert at the art of watching from a distance. It didn't even bother her that much, not anymore. Two years into exile, she'd grown used to being the strange woman who ran the Safe Haven large-animal sanctuary, the one who never came to parties unless there was something her shelter neededa favor, a donation, an adoptive home. Of course everyone in Blackfoot Falls knew who she was, and it would have stunned her if the residents of the small town hadn't made up at least a dozen stories to explain her hermit ways.
No one, she was sure, would ever come close to the truth.
She sipped from her glass of white zinfandel, a rare treat along with the scrumptious steak and baked potato she'd had earlier. The last time she'd eaten at a party was in another life.
That sobering thought had her off the railing and heading toward Barbara McAllister and the cluster of family that surrounded the Sundance matriarch. If Annie let herself yearn for anything these daysoutside of more money for Safe Havenit was the friendship of this clan. The three brothersCole, Jesse and Tracewere always willing to lend a hand during an emergency. Jesse had saved many a poor animal's life, or given a horse or a llama or a potbellied pig a new home with his rescue airlifts.
Then there was Rachel and her boyfriend, Matt, so giddily in love. In the past six months two of the three McAllister brothers had hooked up. And now with Rachel taken, that only left Trace on the loose. Something the Sundance dude ranch guests, all of them single women in their twenties or early thirties, were trying to remedy.
Rachel had made several attempts at befriending her, though Annie had kept her distance. But boundary lines that had once been set in stone were becoming more flexible.
"Are you getting ready to leave?"
Annie smiled at Jesse's girlfriend. The whole reason Annie was socializing at all was due to unassuming, crazy-generous Shea. Taking a break from her high-security job as a computer programmer, she'd come to Montana over the Christmas holidays to help at Safe Haven. But she'd come back to Blackfoot Falls because of Jesse. That she'd turned out to be the sanctuary's most influential volunteer and backer was a miracle.
Annie sighed with real regret as she nodded. "I have chores."
"Not from you, although thanks for offering. You stay right here and enjoy yourself with that man of yours."
Shea blushed as she slipped her hands into the pockets of her dark gray trousers. "I'm glad you stayed so long. Jesse said you've never had dinner here before."
"You know how things are. Always something to do, what with every female animal at the shelter pregnant."
Shea laughed. "Not every one."
Annie set her glass on a big tray, knowing no one would mind that she didn't stay to clean up. "It's been a nice party."
"It has," Shea said, with more than a little surprise in her voice. "I usually hate parties. Never know what to say. But with the McAllisters it's different." She leaned in a little closer and lowered her voice. "Yesterday, I talked to Sadie from the Watering Hole for almost half an hour."
"Whoa, look at you, Shea. You haven't even lived here a full month yet and you're already one of the in crowd."
"Jesse tries to include me in things because he knows I'm oblivious," she said in that matter-of-fact tone that still made Annie smile. "Not with gossip, though. He doesn't do that."
Perhaps because he'd heard his name, the man in question sidled up to Shea and snuck his arm across her shoulders, but kept his gaze on Annie.
"I'm flying out to Missoula on Tuesday," Jesse said, "so you might want to put together a shopping list."
She perked up because it was about a hundred miles to Missoula, and she could get things there that weren't available in a small town like Blackfoot Falls or even the bigger Kalispell. Northwestern Montana was gorgeous, but it was mostly land and lakes and mountains. "I'll get on that tomorrow."
"With all that loot you two have been raking in," Jesse said, "it'll be hard to decide what to buy first."
Annie smiled at his teasing. He was the only other person who knew how much of the influx of money had come either directly from Shea or from donations she'd wrangled. Annie pulled her keys out of her pocket. "Trust me, most of it is spent and we had no trouble doing it. Unbelievable how many things need replacing or fixing at that sorry shelter."
"Your cabin, for instance?" Shea said.
"My cabin is fine, thanks." Annie addressed Jesse again, wanting to change the subject quickly. "I'll send a list home with Shea." She looked at her. "I'll see you tomorrow morning?"
Annie fiddled with her keys as she backed up in the direction of her truck. "Great. See you then." She said quick goodbyes to most of the McAllisters along with many thanks, but before they could even try to convince her to stick around for dessert she climbed into her old green pickup.
No matter what she did or how long she left the windows open, the cab always smelled like horses. She didn't mind. Horses had been a comfort to her all her life, and even though they were an amazing amount of work, especially this time of year, she couldn't have wished for better company.
Horses didn't care that she was on the run, that she'd messed up her life beyond repair. They loved her, anyway.
It didn't take long to reach Safe Haven, and the first thing she did was check on the animals in the stable. She had an abandoned stallion that was starting to pick up some weight and get a little shine to his coat, and she added some grain to his feed trough. She spent longer checking on the mares, both of them with full teats but only in the prep stage of foaling, so there was time.
An hour later, she was finished with the barn chores and walked the couple hundred feet to the cabin everyone was so obsessed with. Inside, the overhead light sputtered to life, giving her a shadowed view of her home.
No, it wasn't much, but it served its purpose. She could run her computer, plus she had a coffeemaker, a microwave, a toaster oven and a minifridge. Hell, she'd lived for years with less at the Columbia University dorms. The tiny claustrophobic bathroom wasn't a big deal anymore, though she missed having a tub. But the shower got reasonably hot, and she'd replaced the cracked mirror. And the toilet well, that could use replacing, too. But not until the emergency supplies were stocked and the tractor had a new engine.
Once upstairs in her loft, she turned on the lamp by her bed, and only then realized she should have changed out of her good jeans and one nice shirt before she'd done chores. No use worrying about that now, though. It was late for her, and the alarm would go off before first light, so she pulled on her nightshirt, and by nine-thirty she was under the covers reading a paperback thriller.
A chapter in, her eyelids started sinking. Thankfully, sleep wasn't hard to come by anymore. The key was to keep herself in a constant state of exhaustion. She'd become an expert at that, too.
For the second time in an hour, Tucker Brennan found himself more focused on the view of the stables outside his window than the business at hand. There were several wranglers busy with chores, just like on the rest of his ranch. He would have preferred being out there building up a sweat instead of sitting in his office, filling his day with the business of running the Rocking B.
His Monday morning had gotten off to a rough start. He'd slept through his alarm, then spilled coffee on his lap during breakfast. Maybe he should have gone out last night. There were a number of women he could've called who wouldn't have minded a last-minute invitation. But it was never that easy, was it?
"There's a fundraiser for City of Hope next month."
Tucker turned his chair so he faced his personal assistant, who was seconds into an eye roll. Darren smoothed over the near-gaff by clearing his throat. Tucker didn't let his own frustration show, knowing full well this probably wasn't the first time Darren had brought up this particular agenda item. Or the second.
"It's at the McDermott?"
"Yes. Black tie," Darren said. "The Dallas Symphony Orchestra will be performing before the gala."
Tucker clicked over to his May calendar where Darren had already highlighted the date. He had three other formal events in May and the thought of another one didn't appeal. "Send them a check, please. Personal."
"Match last year's?"
It had been sizable. "Yes."
They continued to go down the list of requests, which seemed to grow exponentially year by year. While Darren did most of the correspondence concerning the ranch operations, Tucker liked to write personal messages where it counted. Like the one to an old warhorse of a rancher from Idaho who was about to retire. With no heir, he was going to auction off sixty thousand acres, along with his cattle and horses and all his equipment, and Tucker meant to purchase a great deal of the stock.
He barely acknowledged Darren leaving the office and set to work composing a letter to the rancher, handwritten, just like the old days, because Cotton and his late wife, Lula, had sent out Christmas letters every year until she'd passed away in 2009.
Just as Tucker started the second paragraph, a notification popped up on his computer. He went to delete the intrusion with one quick click, but the words stopped him.
He saved his screen and switched to Google, where he'd set up dozens of alerts a year ago, having no faith whatsoever that he'd ever hit pay dirt. He'd gotten hundreds of hits because there wasn't anything all that unique about the chosen keywords, but he never skipped a one. This particular alert was for the name Ann, even though the object of his search had been born Leanna Warner. The other keywords were horses and fundraising.
Tucker wasn't even sure why he'd bothered, because that was too close to Leanna's true history. But he'd been thorough and he never let himself get his hopes up. He clicked on the link.
A blonde woman sat in the corner of a photograph. She wasn't looking at the camera, but to her left. Saving the photo, he brought up the Warner file he kept under a separate password. He'd gathered everything he could about the woman a year ago, right after his brother, Christian, had given up his tough-guy act and confessed that he'd been hoodwinked By a slick fundraiser who was tall and slender and had a face that made men do foolish things.
Leanna was a card-carrying member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals with an office in Park Slope. She'd started out with a big firm, eventually opening her own office.
She and Christian had done quite well building up a sizable fund to benefit a number of charities. Only, none of the dividends reached the account. Instead, the investment profits had disappeared. Vanished. So had Leanna Warner, but only after the New York district attorney's office, acting on a complaint, had gone after Christian.
While there was a lot of circumstantial evidence putting the money in Christian's hands, there was no proof, no paper trail. Not that the D.A.'s office had stopped looking. They had made it clear Christian would remain a person of interest until they found Leanna and took her testimony. In the two years since the embezzlement, including the year Tucker had been conducting his own investigation, there hadn't been a single clue as to her whereabouts.
Tucker still wasn't sure there was one now. The pictures he had of Leanna showed an elegant, sophisticated New Yorker. She'd been one of the Manhattan hungry, seeking her fortune and status among the elite. If her plan had been to cut and run, she'd done herself a disservice. With her looks and the confidence she displayed on the two videos he'd found of her, she could have gone far.
Greed had a way of making fools of even the most promising.
Trouble was, he couldn't be sure that the woman, identified simply as Annie, was Leanna Warner. If she'd only turned a little more toward the camera Besides, this woman looked as if she'd been born in Western gear.
He ran one of the old videos and froze it when he had a decent view of her profile. He pulled up the two images so they were side by side on his monitor. For a long time, he just flicked his gaze from one to the other, and dammit, there were similarities. The odds were not high that he'd found the missing Warner, but it would drive him crazy not to know for sure. More importantly, he owed this to Christian.
Tucker didn't have to look up the number for George Morgan, a family friend who also happened to be a private investigator in New York. He'd been on the case from the moment Christian had told Tucker about Leanna Warner, and while George had found out about her past, he'd had no luck finding the woman herself. "Tucker. It's been a while."
"Too long," Tucker said, leaning back in his chair, staring at the new picture as if her position would change if he looked hard enough. "I'm calling about Leanna Warner."
George took a second. "Did something happen?"
"Maybe. I might have uncovered a picture, although I wouldn't count on it. If it is her, she's living in a flyspeck town in northern Montana, working at an animal sanctuary."
"You want me to go check things out." It wasn't a question.
"I'd like that, yes."
"I'm slammed at the moment but I can go in a couple of weeks." Met with silence, George added, "Or I can recommend a couple of other investigators if you'd like."
That changed things. Tucker hadn't realized how invested he was in finding Warner until this photo had cropped up. Locating her might not solve all the issues he had with his brother, certainly wouldn't fix things between Christian and their mother, but it would be a significant start. "Maybe I'll fly out there myself. It's probably a fool's errand, but if it is her, I'll make damn sure she doesn't run again."
"You know, there's no guarantee that bringing her to the district attorney will be enough to clear Christian's name."
"I know." Tucker stared out the window, trying to organize his thoughts. "I won't be hasty. I'll take a look around. See if I can dig up something tying her to the money."
"I don't know . Sure it can't wait two weeks?"
He smiled. "I won't do anything risky. In fact, I have the perfect cover. My foundation funds sanctuaries and shelters."
"Or you can have a look, confirm it's her and, while you wait for me, take some time to go fishing. Montana has some great streams and lakes."
George did, too. "I know. What was I thinking? You're so much like your old man. He never took time off, either."
"Listen, do me a favor. When you can, dust off those Warner files, huh? It's been a while. Let's see if we missed a connection somewhere along the way."
"That I can do fairly quickly."