The moment she'd stepped into the dark house, she could feel the emptiness surround her like a void. The owners wouldn't be coming to Montana for Christmas this year. The couple was getting a divorce. The man's third marriage, the woman's first.
She'd gotten her information from a good source, but she'd learned, though, that you can never be certain of anything, especially the rumors that ran more wildly than the river ran through the Gallatin Canyon past Big Sky.
Standing stone still in the dark, listening, she waited for a few moments before she snapped on her tiny pen-light. There were no other homes close to this one. The owners of these expensive spacious second homes wanted to feel as if they had the mountainside to themselves. Because of that there was little to no chance that anyone would notice if she turned on lights. But she didn't like playing against the odds when it came to the chance of being discovered.
As she moved through the house, she saw sculptures that she knew had cost a small fortune and paintings like some she'd sat for hours studying in museums back East. She hurried on past them, reminded that time was never on her side. In and out as quickly as possible was her personal motto. Otherwise she knew all too well things could go very badly.
She found the painting in the master bedroom on the third floor. A twenty-by-sixteen-inch signed Taylor West original depicting a rancher on horseback surveying his herd. It was one of her favorites. She stepped to it quickly, admiring the brushstrokes and the skillful use of shading as she let the penlight move over it until she found what she was looking for.
Lifting it off the wall, she checked the time. She was running a little over five minutes on this job because of the three stories she'd had to search for this piece.
Quickly she replaced the painting with the one she'd brought, noticing that the bag she'd carried it in had torn. Wadding up the bag, she stuffed it into her coat pocket and tucked the painting from the wall under her arm.
She made her way back through the house, pleased. If only they were all as easy as this one. She'd barely completed the thought when a set of headlights washed over the room.
Laramie Cardwell mentally kicked himself for driving up this snow-packed narrow mountain road in the dark. But according to his sister-in-law, and the real-estate agent for the property, if he wanted a house in the Big Sky area, he had to jump on it the moment it became available.
"Why would you want to buy a house up here when you can stay in one of our guesthouses on the ranch whenever you come?" his cousin Dana Cardwell Savage had argued.
While he appreciated her hospitality at Cardwell Ranch, as much time as he found himself spending in Montana, he wanted a place of his own. It had been family that had brought his brothers back to Montana. But it was loveand barbecuethat had them staying.
He often marveled that it had all started with barbecuethe one thing all five brothers knew. They'd opened a small barbecue joint outside of Houston. Surprisingly, it had taken off and they'd opened others, turning a backyard barbecue into a multimillion-dollar business. It had been his brother Tanner "Tag" Cardwell who'd first come up with the idea of opening their first Texas Boys Barbecue restaurant in Montana in Big Sky.
While some of them had balked at the idea, it had proved to be a good one. Now his brothers were talking about opening others in the state. His four brothers had all returned to their Montana roots, but Laramie was a Texas boy who told himself that he had no desire to live in this wild countryat least not full-time.
With his entire family here now, he wanted his own place, and he could darn sure afford a second home. Though he suspected the one he was on his way to check out would be too large for what he needed.
But there was one way to find out. He figured he'd get a look at the house from the outside. If it wasn't what he wanted, then he wouldn't waste his sister-in-law McKenzie's time looking at the interior.
As he topped a small rise in the road, a moonlit Lone Mountain, the peak that dominated Big Sky, appeared from behind a cloud, making him catch his breath. He'd seen the view numerous times on his other visits to the area, but it still captivated him.
He had to admit this part of Montana was spectacular, although he wasn't so sure about staying up here for the winter. While the snow was awe inspiring in its beauty, he still wasn't used to the bracing cold up here.
"You wouldn't mind it if you had someone to cuddle with at night," his brother Tag had joked. All four of his brothers had fallen in love in Montanaand with Montanaand now had wives to snuggle up to on these cold winter nights.
"I only want a house up here," Laramie had said. "I can kick up the heat when I spend time here during the holidays."
As he topped the rise in the road, his headlights caught on a three-story house set against the mountainside. Laramie let up on the gas, captivated by the design of the house and the way it seemed to belong on the side of the mountain in the pines.
That's when he spotted the dark figure running along the roofline of the attached garage.
* * *
Laramie remembered hearing that an alleged cat burglar had been seen in Big Sky, but so far the thief hadn't gotten away with anything. Until now.
Slamming on the brakes, he threw open the door of his rented SUV, leaped out and took off running. It crossed his mind that the robber might be armed and dangerous. But all he could think about was catching the thief.
The freezing snowy night air made his lungs ache. Even though he'd been the business end of Texas Boys Barbecue, he'd stayed in shape. But he felt the high altitude quicken his breathing and reminded himself he wasn't in Houston anymore.
The dark figure had reached the end of the roofline and now leaped down as agile as any cat he'd ever seen. The thief was dressed in all black including a mask that hid his face. He was carrying what appeared to be a painting.
Laramie tackled the burglar, instantly recognizing his physical advantage. The burglar let out a breath as they hit the ground. The painting skidded across the snow.
Rolling over on top of the thief, Laramie held him down with his weight as he fumbled for his cell phone. The slightly built burglar wriggled under him in the deep snow.
"Hold still," he ordered as he finally got his cell phone out and with freezing fingers began to call his cousin's husband, Marshal Hud Savage.
"You're crushing me."
At the burglar's distinctly female voice, Laramie froze. His gaze cut from the phone to the burglar's eyesthe only exposed part of her face other than her mouth. The eyes were a pale blue in the snowy starlight. "You're a
In a breathless whisper, she said, "You just now noticed that? Could you let me breathe?"
Shocked, he shifted his weight to allow her to take breath into her lungs. This was the cat burglar?
She freed one arm and wiped away the powdery snow from her eyes as she whispered something else.
He cut his eyes to her, suddenly worried that he had injured her when he'd taken her down. She motioned for him to lean closer. He bent down.
Her free hand cupped the back of his neck, pulling him down into a kiss before he could stop her. Suddenly her lips were on his, her mouth parting as if they were lovers.
The next thing he knew he was lying on his back in the snow looking up at the stars as the cat burglar took off. Her escape had been as much of a surprise as the kiss. He quickly sat up. He'd lost his cell phone and his Stetson. Both had fallen into the snow. He plucked them up as he lumbered to his feet. But by then she was already dropping over the side of the ridge.
He took off after her, but he had gone only a few yards when he heard the roar of a snowmobile engine.
Scrambling after her, he turned the corner of the house in time to see the snowmobile roar off through the snow-heavy pines and disappear. He listened to her get away, feeling like a fool. He'd let her trick him.
She'd taken advantage of his surprise and the extra space he'd given her to breathe. She was a lot stronger and more agile than she had appeared and she had a weaponthose lips. He groaned when he thought about the kissand its effects on him.
As he turned back, he saw a corner of the painting sticking up out of the snow. Laramie trudged to where it had landed. The only good news was that she hadn't gotten away with the painting.
Surprisingly the frame was still intact. He carefully brushed away the snow, thinking about the woman who'd gotten away. He'd known his share of women in his life. A few had tempted him, a couple had played havoc with his heart and several had taken him for a ride.
However, none of them had tricked him like this. He could well imagine what his brothers would say.
But would he be able to recognize her if he ever saw her again? She'd never spoken above a whisper and he hadn't gotten a chance to remove her ski mask before she'd dumped him in the snow.
Those eyes. Those lips. He told himself if he ever saw either again, damn straight he'd recognize her.
She thought she was smarter than he. She thought she'd gotten away. But he had the painting. And he would find herif she didn't find him first, he thought, glancing at the painting in the moonlight.
To the fading sound of the snowmobile, he walked back to his rental SUV. Placing the painting in the backseat, he called his cousin's husband, the marshal.
That had been too close. As Obsidian "Sid" Forester pulled the snowmobile around to the back of the cabin, she glanced over her shoulder. No headlights. No lights at all. She hadn't been followed.
She'd taken a longer route through the trees. At first she'd thought the man who'd tackled her was the owner of the house. But she'd done her research on him and knew he was much older than the man she'd just encountered.
So who was that cowboy with the Southern drawl? Moonlight on snow did strange things to one's vision. But she had gotten a good look at hima better look than he'd gotten of her, she assured herself. Thick dark hair. Ice-cold blue eyes. Handsome, if you liked that clean-cut, all-business kind of man. She did not.
The only thing that had thrown her was his accent. Definitely from down South. Definitely not the New Yorker who owned the house.
That wasn't all that had thrown her, she had to admit. The kiss. It had worked just as she'd planned and yet
She touched her tongue to her upper lip, remembering the electrical shock she'd felt when they kissed. Worse was the tingling she'd felt in her belly. True, she hadn't kissed a man in
She couldn't even remember when, but she'd never had that kind of reaction. She certainly hadn't expected to feel
Her pulse was back to normal by the time she entered the cabin. The air smelled of oil paint, turpentine and linseed oil. She shrugged out of her boots and coat at the back door, hung up her coat and kicked her boots aside as she moved to the painting she'd been working on earlier that day.
She gave it a critical perusal before moving into the small kitchen. Unfortunately she hadn't been to the grocery store in several days. She was always starved after one of what she called her "night jobs." With a bottle of beerher lasta chunk of cheese and some stale bread, she stepped into the living area where a half dozen paintings were drying.
The cabin was small with only a living room, kitchen, bedroom, small bath and a storage room off to one side at the back. The moment the owner had shown it to herand told her about all its peculiaritiesshe'd had to have it and had quickly signed the papers.
Sitting down now, she considered each of her paintings as she ate her snack and sipped her beer. It was hard to concentrate after what had happened earlier, though. She'd come close to getting caught before, but nothing like tonight. What would the man do?
Go to the marshal.
She considered that and decided she wasn't worried about the law catching up with her.
What did worry her was that he had the painting.
Taking another bite of cheese and bread, she chewed for a moment before washing it down with the last of the beer. She really did have to go to the store tomorrow.
Just the thought of going out in public made her wonder if she would run into him. That was the other thing about her cabin. It was nestled in the woods, far from urban Big Sky.
What if she did see him again? She had no doubt that she would recognize him. She'd gotten a good look at him. He had high cheekbones, a patrician nose and generous mouth. She felt that ridiculous stirring again over that one stupid kiss.
She assured herself that there wasn't any way he could recognize her since she'd had the black ski mask on the whole time. Nor could he recognize her voice since she hadn't spoken above a whisper.
Shaking her head, she tried to put him out of her mind. There was more than a good chance that she would never see him again. Obviously he was a tourist, probably only here for the holidays. Once the holidays were over, he'd be on a jet back to wherever he'd picked up that Southern drawl.
Still, she wondered who he was and why he'd driven up to the house tonight. Probably lost. Just her luck. What other reason could he have had to be there?
But while she'd gotten away, it hadn't been clean, which upset her more than she wanted to admit. She prided herself on her larceny skills. Worse, she'd failed. She didn't have the painting.
Losing her appetite, she tossed the crust of stale bread in the trash and put the cheese back into the fridge before she returned to her work in progress. She always did her best thinking while she painted.