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She felt it again, that creepy-crawly feeling at the nape of her neck, like somebody was staring at her. Meredith West sat up straighter in the booth and glanced around the café as a chill walked up her spine.
It was the usual lunch crowd, locals seated at booths and tables sharing conversation along with the Sunny Side Up Café fare. Nobody suspicious lurked in the corners to give her the odd feeling.
"What's wrong?" Savannah Clarion asked. Meredith flushed, feeling ridiculous but unable to dismiss the sense of unease that had struck her at odd times of the day and night for the past couple of weeks. "Nothing," she replied. "I guess I've just been a little on edge lately." There was no way she could explain to anyone the feeling she had of im- pending doom, of her life exploding out of control.
"Gee, I wonder why?" Savannah smiled wryly, the gesture causing her freckles to dance impishly across her nose. "It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that we've just uncovered a huge ugly conspiracy right here in Cotter Creek, would it?"
As usual, Savannah didn't wait for a reply, but continued, "Everyone is more than a little on edge lately. I can't wait until those FBI agents wipe these dusty streets with the bad guys' behinds ."
Meredith laughed and smiled at the red-haired woman across from her. How nice it was that her brother Joshua had fallen in love with Savannah, who was Meredith's best friend.
The strange sensation that had momentarily gripped Meredith eased somewhat. She picked up a fry and dragged it through a pool of ketchup, then popped it into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
Maybe it was all the craziness in the town that had her feeling so off center. It had only been a couple of weeks since Savannah had almost been killed after discovering that somebody was working with a corporation to buy up as much of Cotter Creek, Oklahoma, land as possible.
The MoTwin Corporation had conspired to obtain the land to create a community of luxury condominiums and town houses. With the help of Joshua, Savannah had uncovered a plot that involved the murders of half a dozen local ranchers.
The investigation was being taken out of the hands of local law enforcement and the FBI was now con- ducting the case.
Meredith frowned. "I can't believe they only sent two agents ."
Savannah shrugged. "I don't care how many there are as long as they get the job done ."
Meredith smiled. "Have you seen them yet? They're sure not going for subtlety with their suits and ties. They look as much out of place as a palm tree would look growing out of our stables ."
Savannah leaned back in the booth and eyed Meredith. "I see you've been cutting your hair again ."
Meredith raised a hand to her bangs and touched them self-consciously. "I just did a little trim ."
Savannah laughed. "What did you use? A buzz saw?"
"There are times I don't find you half as amusing as you find yourself ."
Savannah laughed again, then sobered. "I don't know why you don't take time to go to the Curl Palace and get one of the ladies to give you a real haircut and style ."
Meredith stabbed another fry into her ketchup. "And why would I do that? I've got no reason to fancy myself up ."
"If you'd fancy yourself up just a little you'd have all the single men in Cotter Creek vying for your attention ."
"Half the men in town grew up thinking of me as a little sister, the other half were scared to death of my brothers. I don't want their attention. Just because you're madly in love with Joshua doesn't mean it's your job to see that I find a man. All I need right now is work ."
"Joshua has been complaining about how slow things are at Wild West Protective Services right now," Savannah said.
Meredith nodded. "Things have definitely been slow. It's been over a month since I've had an as- signment ."
Wild West Protective Services was the family- owned business that provided bodyguard and pro- tection services around the country. Meredith worked for the business along with her five brothers.
"I'm not used to so much downtime. It makes me nervous," she said.
And maybe that was what was causing her feeling of unease, she thought. Too much downtime. Or perhaps her disquiet was because of the dreams she'd been having lately, dreams of her dead mother.
She glanced around the café once again, then focused back on Savannah. "I'm thinking about asking Sheriff Ramsey to reopen the investigation into my mother's murder," she said.
Savannah stared at her in surprise. "Talk about a cold case. It's been whattwenty years?"
"Twenty-five. I was three years old when she was murdered." Meredith shoved her plate aside, her appetite gone. "I've been having dreams about her." She frowned thoughtfully. "It's like she can't rest in peace until I find out who killed her ."
"After all this time I'd think the odds were pretty poor that you'd discover who was respon- sible." Savannah eyed her friend worriedly.
"you're right, you have too much time on your hands at the moment ."
Meredith flashed a quick smile. "Maybe, but I am going to talk about it with Sheriff Ramsey ."
Savannah's gaze shot over Meredith's shoulder. "You won't believe the hunk that just walked in the front door ."
"Does Joshua know you talk about other men like that?"
Savannah raised a copper-colored eyebrow. "Honey, I love your brother, but I know a hunk when I see one." Her eyes widened. "And this one is coming our way ."
The words were barely out of her mouth before he appeared at the side of their booth. In her first glance, Meredith registered several things. He was a tall drink of water, topped by sandy-colored hair, with ice-blue eyes that pierced rather than gazed.
Even though he was blond and blue-eyed there was nothing of a pretty boy about him. His face was lean, all angles that combined to give him a slightly dangerous aura. A faint white scar bisected one of his eyebrows. His presence seemed to fill the room with a pulsating energy.
"Meredith West?" tion. As Cotter Creek's star newspaper reporter, she had a healthy curiosity about everyone.
"Strictly pleasure," Kathy McCall replied, her eyes twinkling with good humor. "We decided to take a little trip together, you know mother/son bonding time, and Chase had heard so many things from Dalton about the charming Cotter Creek. So, here we are ."
A flash of impatience shot across Chase's features. "We've had a long bus ride to get here and we'd really like to get settled in ."
"You came by bus?" Meredith looked at him in surprise. Neither of them had any luggage. "Somebody thought it would be a great idea," he said tersely.
Kathy's smile made her look like a good- humored cherub. "It was lovely to see the scenery without worrying about Chase getting a speeding ticket or two ."
"Where's your luggage?" Meredith asked. She'd been in the bodyguard business too long to simply trust the word of two strangers who had appeared at her booth in the local cafÃ©.
"We left it over at the office with Dalton," Chase replied.
Meredith stood and grabbed her coat and purse from the booth. As she did she couldn't help but notice that Chase's gaze swept the length of her, then he glanced away, as if dismissing her as not worthy of his attention.
She'd known the man less than three minutes and already something about him made her want to grind her teeth. She fumbled with her wallet for money to pay her lunch tab.
"Don't worry about it," Savannah said. "I'll get it this time. You can get it next time ."
Meredith flashed her friend a grateful smile, then straightened and looked at Chase.
As she exited the café she was acutely conscious of the man following her. Handsome men weren't anything new to Meredith. She'd been raised with five brothers who most women considered unusu- ally attractive. But in that first instance of laying eyes on Chase McCall, uncharacteristic butterflies had flitted erratically in her stomach. Meredith wasn't used to butterflies.
Kathy fell into step beside her as they walked toward the Wild West Protective Services office just down the street. "We thought we'd be staying with Dalton, but he said we'd be much more comfortable at the ranch," she said.
Meredith thought of her brother's one-bedroom apartment in town. "Dalton's place is pretty small and not real welcoming to guests. The ranch is much better," she agreed, although she wasn't at all sure she liked the idea of sharing her home space with the tall, silent man who walked just behind them. "We're used to company at the ranch ."
As they entered the Wild West Protective Ser- vices office, Dalton stood from the desk. "Ah good, I see you found her," he said to Chase.
"Your description made it easy," Chase replied, a whisper of amusement evident in his voice.
Meredith turned to look at her brother. "And just what kind of description did you tell him?"
Dalton's cheeks reddened slightly as a sheepish grin stole over his lips. "It doesn't matter now," Chase replied smoothly. "We found you and that's all that's important." He picked up the two suit- cases by the door and looked at her expectantly. For somebody who was on vacation he didn't look par- ticularly eager to have a good time. "Unfortunately I'm expecting a phone call that I need to take, otherwise I'd drive you to the ranch myself. But Meredith will get you settled in, then I'll see you this evening at dinnertime." Dalton smiled at her. "Take good care of them, sis ."
She smiled at Dalton, but as her gaze fell on Chase McCall, the strange feeling of disquiet swept through her once again, making her uncomfortable and, oddly, just a little bit afraid.