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As he approached the barn, Charlie Black saw the sleek, scarlet convertible pulling into his driveway, and wondered when exactly, while he'd slept the night before, hell had frozen over. Because the last time he'd seen Grace Covington, that's what she'd told him would have to happen before she'd ever talk to or even look at him again.
He patted the neck of his stallion and reined in at the corral. As he dismounted and pulled off his dusty black hat, he tried to ignore the faint thrum of electricity that zinged through him as she got out of her car.
Her long blond hair sparkled in the late afternoon sun, but he was still too far away to see the expression on her lovely features.
It had been a year and a half since he'd seen her, even though for the past six months they'd resided in the same small town of Cotter Creek, Oklahoma.
The last time he'd encountered her had been in his upscale apartment in Oklahoma City. He'd been wearing a pair of sports socks and an electric blue condom. Not one of his finer moments, but it had been the culminating incident in a year of not-so-fine moments.
Too much money, too many successes and far too much booze had transformed his life into a nightmare of bad moments, the last resulting in him losing the only thing worth having.
Surely she hadn't waited all this time to come out to the family ranchhis ranch nowto finally put a bullet in what she'd described as his cold, black heart. Grace had never been the type of woman to put off till today what she could have done yesterday.
Besides, she hadn't needed a gun on that terrible Friday night when she'd arrived unannounced at his apartment. As he'd stared at her in a drunken haze, she'd given it to him with both barrels, calling him every vile name under the sun before she slammed out of his door and out of his life.
So, what was she doing here now? He slapped his horse on the rump, then motioned to a nearby ranch hand to take care of the animal. He closed the gate and approached where she hadn't moved away from the driver's side of her car.
Her hair had grown much longer since he'd last seen her. Although most of it was clasped at the back of her neck, several long wisps had escaped the confines. The beige suit she wore complemented her blond coloring and the icy blue of her eyes.
She might look cool and untouchable, like the perfect lady, but he knew what those eyes looked like flared with desire. He knew how she moaned with wild abandon when making love, and he hated the fact that just the unexpected sight of her brought back all the memories he'd worked so long and hard to forget.
"Hello, Grace," he said, as he got close enough to speak without competing with the warm April breeze. "I have to admit I'm surprised to see you. As I remember, the last time we saw each other, you indicated that hell would freeze over before you'd ever speak to me again."
Her blue eyes flashed with more than a touch of annoyancea flash followed swiftly by a look of desperation.
"Charlie, I need you." Her low voice trembled slightly, and only then did he notice that her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she'd been weeping. In all the time they'd datedeven during the ugly scene that had ended themhe'd never seen her shed a single tear. "Have you heard the news?" she asked.
"Early this afternoon my stepfather was found stabbed to death in bed." She paused for a moment and bit her full lower lip as her eyes grew shiny with suppressed tears. "I think Hope is in trouble, Charlie. I think she's really in bad trouble."
"What?" Shock stabbed through him. Hope was Grace's fifteen-year-old sister. He'd met her a couple of times. She'd seemed like a nice kid, not as pretty as her older sister, but a cutie nevertheless.
"Maybe you should come on inside," he said, and gestured toward the house. She stared at the attractive ranch house as if he'd just invited her into the chambers of hell. "There's nobody inside, Grace. The only woman who ever comes in is Rosa Caltano. She does the cooking and cleaning for me, and she's already left for the day."
Grace gave a curt nod and moved away from the car. She followed him to the house and up the wooden stairs to the wraparound porch.
The entry hall was just as it had been when Charlie's mother and father had been alive, with a gleaming wood floor and a dried flower wreath on the wall.
He led her to the living room. Charlie had removed much of the old furniture that he'd grown up with and replaced it with contemporary pieces in earth tones. He motioned Grace to the sofa, where she sat on the very edge as if ready to bolt at any moment. He took the chair across from her and gazed at her expectantly.
"Why do you think Hope is in trouble?"
She drew in a deep breath, obviously fighting for control. "From what I've been told, Lana, the housekeeper, found William dead in his bed. Today is her day off, but she left a sweater there last night and went back to get it. It was late enough in the day that William should have been up, so she checked on him. She immediately called Zack West, and he and some of his deputies responded. They found Hope passed out on her bed. Apparently she was the only one home at the time of the murder."
Charlie frowned, his mind reeling. Before he'd moved back here to try his hand at ranching, Charlie had been a successful, high-profile defense attorney in Oklahoma City.
It was that terrible moment in time with Grace followed by the unexpected death of his father that had made him take a good, hard look at his life and realize how unhappy he'd been for a very long time.
Still, it was as a defense attorney that he frowned at her thoughtfully. "What do you mean she was passed out? Was she asleep? Drunk?"
Those icy blue eyes of hers darkened. "Apparently she was drugged. She was taken to the hospital and is still there. They pumped her stomach and are keeping her for observation." Grace leaned forward. "Please, Charlie. Please help her. Something isn't right. First of all, Hope would never, ever take drugs, and she certainly isn't capable of something like this. She would never have hurt William."
Spoken like a true sister, Charlie thought. How many times had he heard family members and friends proclaim that a defendant couldn't be guilty of the crime they had been charged with, only to discover that they were wrong?
"Grace, I don't know if you've heard, but I'm a rancher now." He wasn't at all sure he wanted to get involved with any of this. It had disaster written all over it. "I've retired as a criminal defense attorney."
"I heard through the grapevine that besides being a rancher, you're working part-time with West Protective Services," she said.
"That's right," he agreed. "They approached me about a month ago and asked if I could use a little side work. It sounded intriguing, so I took them up on it, but so far I haven't done any work for them."
"Then let me hire you as Hope's bodyguard, and if you do a little criminal defense work in the process I'll pay you extra." She leaned forward, her eyes begging for his help.
Bad idea, a little voice whispered in the back of his brain. She already hated his guts, and this portended a very bad ending. He knew how much she loved her sister; he assumed that for the last couple of years she'd been more mother than sibling to the young girl. He'd be a fool to involve himself in the whole mess.
"Has Hope been questioned by anyone?" he heard himself ask. He knew he was going to get involved whether he wanted to or not, because it was Grace, because she needed him.
"I don't think so. When I left the hospital a little while ago, she was still unconscious. Dr. Dell promised me he wouldn't let anyone in to see her until I returned."
"Good." There was nothing worse than a suspect running off at the mouth with a seemingly friendly officer. Often the damage was so great there was nothing a defense attorney could do to mitigate it.
"Does that mean you'll take Hope's case?" she asked.
"Whoa," he said, and held up both his hands. "Before I agree to anything, I need to make a couple of phone calls, find out exactly what's going on and where the official investigation is headed. It's possible you don't need me, that Hope isn't in any real danger of being arrested."
"Then what happens now?"
"Why don't I plan on meeting you at the hospital in about an hour and a half? By then I'll know more of what's going on, and I'd like to be present while anybody questions Hope. If anyone asks before I get there, you tell them you're waiting for legal counsel."
She nodded and rose. She'd been lovely a year and a half ago when he'd last seen her, but she was even lovelier now.
She was five years younger than his thirty-five but had always carried herself with the confidence of an older woman. That was part of what had initially drawn him to her, that cool shell of assurance encased in a slamming hot body with the face of an angel.
"How's business at the dress shop?" he asked, trying to distract her from her troubles as he walked her back to her car. She owned a shop called Sophisticated Lady that sold designer items at discount prices. She often traveled the two-hour drive into Oklahoma City on buying trips. That was where she and Charlie had started their relationship.
They'd met in the coffee shop in the hotel where she'd been staying. Charlie had popped in to drop off some paperwork to a client and had decided to grab a cup of coffee before heading back to his office.
She'd been sitting alone next to a window. The sun had sparked on her hair. Charlie had taken one look and was smitten.
"Business is fine," she said, but it was obvious his distraction wasn't successful.
"I'm sorry about William, but Zack West is a good man, a good sheriff. He'll get to the bottom of things."
Once again she nodded and opened her car door. "Then I'll see you in the hospital in an hour and a half," she said.
"Grace?" He stopped her before she got into the seat. "Given our history, why would you come to me with this?" he asked.
Her gaze met his with a touch of frost. "Because I think Hope is in trouble and she needs a sneaky devil to make sure she isn't charged with a murder I know she didn't commit. And you, Charlie Black, are as close to the devil as I could get."
She didn't wait for his reply. She got into her car, started the engine with a roar and left him standing to eat her dust as she peeled out and back down the driveway.
Grace drove until she was out of sight of Charlie's ranch and then pulled to the side of the road. She leaned her head down on the steering wheel and fought back the tears that burned her eyes.
A nightmare. She felt as if she'd been mysteriously plunged into a nightmare and couldn't wake up to escape, didn't know how to get out.
She'd barely had time to mourn her stepfather, the man who had married her mother when she'd been sixteen and Hope had been a baby.
William Covington had not only married their mother, Elizabeth, but had also taken on her two children as if they were his own. Grace's father had died of a heart attack and William had adopted the two fatherless girls.
He'd guided Grace through the tumultuous teen years with patience and humor. He'd been their rock when their mother had simply vanished two years ago, taking with her two suitcases full of clothing and her daughters' broken hearts.
Grace raised her head from the steering wheel and pulled back on the road. She couldn't think about her mother right now. That was an old pain. She had new pains to worry about and a little sister to try to save.
No way, she thought as she headed toward the hospital. No way was Hope capable of such a heinous crime. And Hope had always been the first one to declare that she thought drugs were stupid. She couldn't be taking drugs.
But how do you know for sure? a little voice in her head whispered. She'd been so busy the last couple of years, working at the shop and flying off for buying trips. Since the disappearance of her mother and her subsequent breakup with Charlie, Grace had engaged in a frenzy of work, exhausting herself each day to keep the anger and the heartache of both her mother's and Charlie's betrayals at bay.
Sure, lately, when she'd spent time with Hope, the young girl had voiced the usual teenage complaints about William. He was too strict and old-fashioned. He gave her too little freedom and too many lectures. He hated her friends.
But those were the complaints of almost every teenager on the face of the earth, and Grace couldn't believe they had meant that Hope harbored a killing rage against William.
She turned into the hospital parking lot and slid into an empty parking space, then turned off the engine. She stared at the small structure that comprised the Cotter Creek hospital, her thoughts filled with Charlie Black.
Six months ago, everyone in town had been buzzing with the gossip that Charlie Black had finally come home. She knew his father had died from an unexpected heart attack and had left Charlie the family ranch, but she'd assumed he'd sell it and continue his self-destructive path in the fast lane. She'd been stunned to hear that he'd closed up his practice in Oklahoma City and taken over the ranch.
She'd met Charlie two months after her mother's disappearance. She hadn't told him about her mother, rather she'd used her time with him as an escape from the pain, from the utter heart break of her mother's abandonment.
With Charlie she'd been able to pretend it hadn't happened. With Charlie, for a blessed time, she'd shoved the pain deep inside her.