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He had a trespasser.
Clay Colton narrowed a wary gaze on the unfamiliar blue sedan parked under a stand of mesquite trees. This corner of the Bar None, Clay's horse ranch, was as flat as a beer left out in the Texas sun, and he'd spotted the car from half a mile away.
He tapped his dusty white Stetson back from his forehead and wiped his sweaty brow. Finding a strange sedan on his property didn't sit well with him—especially in light of the recent trouble his sister, Georgie, had endured. He still got sick chills thinking how a woman had broken into his sister's home, stolen from her, passed herself off as Georgie.
A shiver crawled up Clay's spine despite the scorching June heat. Esperanza, Texas, his home for all his twenty-six years, had always been a safe place, no real crime to mention. He clicked his tongue and gave his workhorse, Crockett, a little kick. His mount trotted forward, and as he neared the car, Clay saw that the Ford Taurus had crashed into one of the mesquites, crumpling the front fender. A fresh sense of alarm tripped through him.
"Hello? Anyone there?" Clay swung down from Crockett and cautiously approached the car. Visions of an injured, bleeding driver flashed through his mind and bumped his blood pressure higher. "Is anyone there?"
He peered into the driver's side window. Empty. The car had been abandoned.
Removing his hat, Clay raked sweaty black hair away from his eyes and circled to the back of the sedan. The trunk was ajar, and he glimpsed a white shopping bag inside. Using one finger to nudge open the trunk, Clay checked inside the bag.
His breath caught.
The bag was full of cash.
Intuition, combined with fresh memories ofGeorgie's recent brush with identity theft, tickled the nape of Clay's neck, making the fine hairs stand up. A wrecked and abandoned sedan with a bag of money meant trouble, no matter how you added it up. He stepped back and pulled his cell phone from the clip on his belt. He dialed his friend Sheriff Jericho Yates's number from memory.
"Jericho, it's Clay. I'm out on the southwest corner of my land near the ravine, and I've come across an abandoned Taurus. The car hit a mesquite and banged up the front end, but I don't see any sign of the driver."
Sheriff Yates grunted. "You don't see anyone around? Maybe the driver tried to walk out for help."
Clay scanned the area again, squinting against the bright June sun from under the rim of his Stetson. "Naw. Don't see anybody. But it gets better. There's a bag of money in the trunk. A lot of money. Large bundles of bills. Could be as much as a hundred grand."
He heard Jericho whistle his awe then sigh. "Listen, Clay. Don't touch anything. Until I determine otherwise, you should consider the car and everything around it a crime scene."
"Read me the license plate."
Clay rattled the numbers off.
Through the phone, Clay heard the squeak of Jericho's office chair. "Thanks. I'll run a check on this plate, then I'll be right out."
Clay thanked the sheriff and snapped his cell phone closed.
Gritting his teeth, he gave the abandoned sedan another onceover. This was the last thing his family needed. After returning his cell to his hip, Clay climbed back on Crockett and headed toward his original destination—the broken section of fence at the Black Creek ravine. Regardless of where the car and money came from and what the sheriff determined had happened to the driver, Clay had work to do, and the business of ranching waited for nothing.
Several minutes later, the rumble of car engines drew Clay's attention. He looked up from the barbed wire he'd strung and spotted Jericho's cruiser and a deputy's patrol car headed toward the abandoned Taurus. He laid his wire cutters down and shucked his work gloves. Grabbing a fence post for leverage, he climbed out of the steep ravine and strode across the hard, dry earth to meet the sheriff.
Even after all these years, it felt odd to call Jericho "sheriff." Growing up together, he and Jericho had spent hours fishing and hanging around the local rodeo stables where Clay worked whatever odd jobs he could get. Though they'd never spoken much about it, Clay and Jericho had shared another bond—single-parent homes. Jericho's mother had left his family when he was seven.
Though Clay had known of his father, Graham Colton, the man had been an absentee father throughout Clay's childhood. When his mother died, Clay had finished raising his brother and sister while working oddjobs on neighboring ranches. The success both Jericho and Clay had achieved as adults was a testament to their hard work and rugged determination.
Jericho met Clay halfway and extended a hand in greeting. "Clay."
Shaking his friend's hand, Clay nodded a hello. "Afternoon, Hoss. So what did you learn about the car?"
Jericho swiped a hand through his hair and sighed. "It's a rental from a little outfit up the road. Reported stolen a few days ago."
Clay arched a thick eyebrow. "Stolen?" He scowled. "Guess it figures. So now what?"
Jericho squinted in the bright sun and glanced toward the stolen Taurus where one of his deputies was already marking off the area with yellow police tape. "Chances are that money didn't come from someone's mattress. Heaven only knows what we could be dealing with here. I'll call in a crime scene team to do a thorough investigation. Probably San Antonio. They'd be closest."
A crime scene team.
The words resounded in Clay's ears like a gong, and he stiffened.
He worked to hide the shot of pain that swept over him as bittersweet memories swamped his brain.
Clay had two regrets in life. The first was his failure with Ryder—the brother he'd helped raise, the brother who'd gone astray and ended up in prison.
His second was his failed marriage. Five years ago, his high-school sweetheart had walked away from their three-year marriage to follow her dream of becoming a crime scene investigator. Clay blamed himself for her leaving. If he'd been more sensitive to her needs, if he could have made her happier, if he could have found a way to—
"Clay? Did ya hear me?" Jericho's question jolted Clay from his thoughts.
"I asked if you'd altered anything on or around the car before you called me. Say opening a door or moving debris?"
Clay shook his head. "I nudged the trunk open. One finger, on the edge of the trunk hood. Didn't touch anything else."
Jericho jerked a nod. "Good. I'll let the CSI team know. Be sure to tell your men this area is off-limits until we finish our investigation."
"Right." Removing his Stetson, Clay raked his fingers through his unkempt hair. "Guess I'm just on edge considering what Georgie's been through with that Totten woman."
"Understandable. But there's no reason at this point to think there's any connection."
"Yates." The deputy who'd arrived with Jericho approached them.
The sheriff turned to his officer and hitched his chin toward Clay. "Rawlings, this is Clay Colton. Clay, my new deputy, Adam Rawlings."
"Hey." Clay nodded to the neatly groomed deputy and shook his hand.
"Sorry to interrupt, Sheriff, but I found something. Thought you should take a look."
Jericho faced Clay, but before he could speak, Clay waved a hand. "Go ahead. I need to get back to work, too."
Pulling his worn gloves from his back pocket, Clay strode back toward the ravine where his fence had been damaged and got busy stringing wire again. He had a large section to repair before he went back to the house, and all the usual chores of a thriving ranch to finish before he called it a day. Unfortunately, though fixing the damaged fence was hot, hard work, it didn't require any particular mental concentration. So Clay's thoughts drifted—to the one person he'd spent the past five years trying to get out of his head.
If he knew Tamara, not only had she achieved her dream of working in investigative law enforcement, but she was likely working for a large city department by now, moving up the ranks with her skill, gritty determination and sharp mind. Once Tamara set her sights on a goal, little could stand in her way of reaching it.
Except a misguided husband, who'd foolishly thought that ranching would be enough to fill her life and make her happy.
A prick of guilt twisted in Clay's gut.
Why had he thought that his own satisfaction with their marriage and the challenge of getting the Bar None up and running would be enough for Tamara? Ranching had been his dream, not hers.
Why hadn't he listened, truly heard her, when she spoke of her hopes for leaving Esperanza and her dream of working in law enforcement? Because of the newlywed happiness in other aspects of their relationship, he'd too easily dismissed signs of her discontent and her restless yearning to achieve her own professional dreams. Soon even the honeymoon stars in her eyes dimmed, and her unhappiness began eroding their marriage.
He'd ignored the warning signs until the night they'd argued over the right course of treatment for a sick stud, and he'd returned from the quarantine stable to find her packing her bags. His heartache over having to put down his best breeding stallion paled beside the pain of seeing his wife in tears, pulling the plug on their life together.
Renewed frustration burned in Clay's chest. Failure of any kind didn't sit well with him, but failure in his personal life was especially hard to accept. His broken marriage was a blemish in his past that marred even the success of the Bar None. His single-minded dedication to building the ranch was what had blinded him to the deterioration of his relationship with Tamara. Until it was too late.
He gave the barbed wire a vicious tug. His grip slipped, and the razor-sharp barb pierced his glove.
"Damn it!" he growled and flung off his glove to suck the blood beading on the pad of his thumb.
Stringing wire might not take much mental power, but letting his mind rehash the painful dissolution of his marriage didn't serve any purpose. Tamara was gone, and no amount of regret or second-guessing could change that. Besides, he was married to his ranch now. Keeping the Bar None running smoothly was a labor of love that took all his energy, all his time. He'd scraped and saved, sweated and toiled to build the Bar None from nothing but a boy's youthful dream.
But today the sense of accomplishment and pride that normally filled him when he surveyed his land or closed his financial books at the end of the day was overshadowed by the reminder of what could have been.
Clay squinted up at the blazing Texas sun, which was far lower in the sky than he'd realized. How long had he been out here?
Flipping his wrist, he checked his watch. Two hours.
Crockett snorted and tossed his mane.
"Yeah, I know, boy. Almost done. I'm ready to get back to the stables and get something to drink, too."
Like Jack Daniel's. Something to help take the edge off. Revived memories of Tamara left him off balance and had picked the scab from a wound he'd thought was healed.
He snipped the wire he'd secured on the last post and started gathering his tools.
At first he thought he'd imagined the soft feminine voice, an illusion conjured by thoughts of his ex-wife. But the voice called his name again.
He shielded his eyes from the sun's bright glare as he angled his gaze toward the top of the ravine. A slim, golden-haired beauty strode across the parched land and stopped at the edge of the rise. "Clay, can I talk to you?"
Clay's mouth went dry, and his heart did a Texas two-step. "Tamara?"
Clay climbed the side of the ravine in three long strides and jerked his Stetson from his head. "What are you doing here, Tamara?"
His ex-wife raised her chin a notch and flashed a stiff smile. "I know I'm probably the last person you want to talk to today, but I have questions I have to ask. About the crime scene."
An odd déjà vu washed over him as he stared at her. She looked just as beautiful as the woman he'd married, fought with, made love to, and yet she'd changed, too. Her cheeks and jaw were thinner, more angular. She'd grown her hair longer, the honey-blond shade sporting fewer highlights from the sun, and a hint of makeup shaded her blue eyes and sculpted cheekbones—a vanity she'd never bothered with when she worked beside him on the ranch.
He stood there, so absorbed by the shock of her presence and her beauty that it took a moment for her comment to sink in.
She had questions about the crime scene. Not questions about how he'd been, about their divorce, about the five years that had passed since they'd last seen each other, sitting at opposite ends of a table like two strangers in her lawyer's office.
He blinked. Scowled. "You're here with the CSI team from San Antonio."
The instant the words left his mouth, Clay kicked himself mentally. Brilliant deduction, Captain Obvious.
Tamara gave him a patient grin, apparently knowing she'd surprised him and cutting him some slack. If she were rattled by their meeting, she didn't show it. But she'd had time to prepare.
"I've been with the department in San Antonio since I finished my forensics training. Jericho—" She paused and lifted a hand. "That is, Sheriff Yates—called us out to sweep the scene. I need to ask you a few things. This a good time?"
Clay drew a deep breath, swiped perspiration from his forehead with his arm and jammed his hat back on his head. "Sure. Shoot."
Tamara pulled a small notepad from the pocket of her black jeans and wet her lips.
Clay's gaze gravitated to her mouth and froze on the hint of moisture shimmering in the sunlight. Heat that had nothing to do with the summer day flashed through his blood.
A picture of Tamara from high school flickered in his mind's eye. Sitting on a corral fence rail at the rodeo where his mother had been riding. Her silky hair tucked behind her ears. Her blue eyes shining at him. Pure joy glowing in her face. He'd captured her cheeks between his hands and leaned in to steal his first kiss from her. She'd been startled at first. But soon after, her smile had widened, and she'd returned his kiss in kind. The first of thousands of sultry kisses they'd shared.
Yet now, gawking at her mouth like a schoolboy, he felt as awkward and uncertain as he had that day at the rodeo. But she wouldn't welcome a kiss today the way she had back then. He'd lost the right to kiss Tamara years ago.
Warmth flared in her eyes before she averted her gaze and cleared her throat. "When was the last time you were out on this corner of the ranch?"