Read an Excerpt
Saving the Sheriff
A Three River Ranch Novella
By Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek
All rights reserved.
What a way to spend Christmas Eve. Sheriff Red LeClair tucked his chin into his chest, the fresh assault of stinging snow enough to take his breath away. He crunched through the ice-crusted path to the field where a small band of wild mustangs waited patiently, barely visible as shadows against the nighttime backdrop of cedar and fir.
"Carson spoils you, you know," he called to them, tossing a bale of hay onto the ground beyond the beam of light thrown by his pickup.
The weather forecast had predicted a dump of snow over the next few days, but the wind had caught them all by surprise. The livestock would be burning a lot of fuel just to stay warm.
Red threw down a couple more bales, and with a quick flick of his utility knife, cut the twine, spilling fragrant splits of summer over the snow. Beneath the heavy-duty leather gloves, his fingers were stiff with cold, but he wasn't really complaining. In fact, he'd leaped at the chance to look after Three River Ranch while his friend was away. Tramping through the snow, freezing his butt off, was a damn sight better than watching endless Miracle on 34th Street reruns in his empty Lutherton apartment. Whoever said there's no place like home for the holidays obviously didn't buy groceries in single-serve portions.
Carson Granger wouldn't have left at all, except that his wife Rory's mom had given them and their little girl Lulu an all-expenses-paid trip to Maui, where she was having a family-only Christmas wedding. To Red's way of thinking, step-father-in-law stretched the meaning of the word family, but he wasn't about to argue. He was grateful to have somewhere to be and something to do.
Their next-nearest neighbor, Zach, had promised to check in every day or two, on Carson's request, but Red could handle it on his own. He liked Zach Gamble well enough but he didn't need a babysitter. He didn't need any company at all. Christmas was a hell of a time for a guy with no family to speak of, who'd signed his final divorce papers less than a month ago.
He climbed back into the truck and pulled away from the corral. At least this year was better than last year. He'd gotten the position in Lutherton, Montana, the same week Kayla got her first nibble from a recording studio. It never occurred to him that she wouldn't be as excited for him as he was for her. When he offered to give up the promotion to go to Nashville with her, he'd seen disappointment flit over her face. It had taken him months to realize that her chance at musical stardom was also her chance to start over, without him. And that neither of them had been happy for a long time.
But that didn't stop the pain.
In his rearview mirror, he saw the horses slip out of the shadows for their meal, individuals appearing only as edges to the murky herd, moving as one, a unit whose strength lay in numbers.
In the barn, he dumped fresh kibble into the pans for the colony of feral cats that lurked in the corners, fat and full-coated for the winter, big-eyed with suspicion.
Even they lived as a group.
Must be nice.
He pushed the thought out of his head and forced himself to focus on his chores. Work hard, be friendly, but don't let anyone get close enough to hurt you. That was his mantra now.
Every howl of wind made the walls shriek and groan and he could feel the temperature dropping by the minute. He added an extra measure of kibble in case he had to hole up inside and wait out the storm.
Water lines clear, check. Fresh feed for the saddle horses, check. Clean stalls, check. Gates, doors and latches secure, check, check and check.
He slogged back to the truck, thinking about the casserole Rory's housekeeper Bliss had left in the refrigerator for him, wishing he'd remembered to bring beer. And some action movies on DVD. Lord knows it would be slim pickings on TV. He'd spent last Christmas watching the tube blindly, letting tinny laugh tracks and remixed music wash over him as he sat numbly in the debris left by Kayla's departure.
This year, he had the lights and decorations on Rory's pretty tree sparkling in the corner. Second-hand joy was better than none. But those old favorite movies and carols still hurt too much.
He pulled the truck door open against the wind but before he could step in, the gale yanked it from his hands. He barely managed to haul it shut behind him. This storm was really working itself up. He couldn't wait to get indoors again.
He'd nuke a heaping plate of that Bliss special, bum a couple of beers off Carson and channel surf until he found Dexter or Sons of Anarchy. Even CSI or Criminal Minds would do.
But just before he turned the ignition, he heard a sound he shouldn't have. An engine revving, tires spinning on ice and the bone-jarring sound a clutch makes beneath an impatient foot.
Three River Ranch had a trespasser.
* * *
Thank goodness she'd had time to switch out the black plastic boots for proper footwear, thought Frankie Sylva, looking down at her ridiculous elf suit. It was hardly suitable for being stuck in a truck and buried in snow.
But teachers-on-call couldn't let any job go by, however short or humiliating. Especially when that job dove-tailed with the other passion in her life: animal rescue.
She'd succeeded, and that gave her a glow that even the stinging snow couldn't erase. Score one for the good guys! The precious creatures she'd transported to the Three River Ranch sanctuary would now have a chance to live as nature intended, rather than being turned into Christmas dinner. Or trophies on a wall.
Focus! She tugged the ridiculous puff-ball-topped toque further onto her head but it did little to protect her from the frigid wind, which seemed to get stronger every second.
Frankie stood on the upside of the gentle slope into which the rear tires of the trailer had slid when she'd attempted to pull it from the corral gate. Invisible ditch. Good one, Universe. The snow around her was dirt-spattered and hoof-trampled but she couldn't help that now.
She needed a tow truck. Unfortunately, she found her cell phone lying on the floor of the cab in a puddle of melted snow, dead as a doornail. No blaming that on the universe.
If only she'd told someone where she was going over the holidays, maybe there would be a chance a friend would come looking for her. But this year was an aberration. Normally, she roasted a turkey and invited everyone and anyone she knew who would otherwise be alone. Then, she'd serve meals at a soup kitchen, clean cages at the animal shelter, sing in the community choir, whatever she could to help.
There were plenty of causes that needed her, and she'd learned to love volunteering at Christmas. She'd made tons of friends this way. But they were, as the saying went, the kind of friends who help you move, not the kind who helped you move a body.
Or in this case, five bodies.
Independence, it seemed, had its down side.
But this kind of thinking, she admonished herself, wasn't the least bit helpful.
Her second-best plan was to unhitch the trailer and leave it until the storm blew over and she could dig her way out.
She shone her flashlight over the connection between her boss's now-empty truck and trailer.
The rig had been prepped, loaded and idling when she'd told the driver he didn't have to make the haul to the slaughterhouse after all, that she'd do it for him. He'd tossed her the keys so fast her cover story was pretty much wasted.
Unfortunately, he'd also assumed she knew how a hitch worked. Or how to back up on a single-lane road. Or how to craft a contingency plan.
The animals were free, that was the important thing. Her evil boss wouldn't be barbequing them as burgers next summer. So she'd miscalculated the storm. So she'd spend the night in the truck. She had trail mix. She had a flashlight. She'd be okay. It would be fine.
And once the sun was up, she could dig herself out.
Frankie jumped and dropped her flashlight. Bone-deep instinct kicked in, a primal watch out, honey! Not necessarily danger ... but maybe.
Two words, and oh, baby. No gruff old-timer, his voice sounded young, strong ... and smoky, full of ... campfire stories ... and marshmallows roasted on fresh-cut branches ...
She gave her head a shake. Don't be an idiot, Frankie.
He was a man with a truck.
"I'm stuck." She put on her most innocent grin and faced the headlights. She couldn't see a thing through the snow. "Can you help me out?"
Three River was supposed to be empty over Christmas. At least, the ranch's Facebook page had indicated the family was in Maui. The mustang sanctuary was well-known among animal lovers and Frankie felt certain they'd have helped her cause, if she could have asked them. So she'd taken a chance that they wouldn't mind. That in fact, they'd never know.
Yet here was a man, from what she could hear over the snarl of engines and wind. A man unexpected, in every way.
But what if he was private security? Or worse, a game warden.
Stop it! Think positively, Frankie!
Maybe, despite the little mishap with the ditch, the universe was on her side after all. Maybe this was just a kindhearted local who'd be delighted to help out a damsel in distress.
The man stepped out, leaving the engine running and the driver's door standing open. This time she caught a glimpse of a cowboy hat and beneath it, a stubbled jawline. Broad shoulders. And tall. He held up a much better flashlight than the one she had, shining it high, scanning the truck, the listing trailer. Then scanning her. The beam of light traveled over her body, up and down, leaving no inch untouched. Warmth rose to her cheeks, prickly in the winter air.
"Wanna tell me who you are and what you're doing here?" He cleared his throat and she thought she heard the glimmer of a smile. "Lost on your way to work?"
"Ha-ha." She sighed and stamped her feet, aching with cold now that she was standing still. "Yes, I'm wearing an elf costume. Can you pull me out or what?"
He walked up to the trailer and shone the beam inside. He moved smoothly, deliberately — like a hunter she thought, her breath quickening.
"That option disappeared about six inches ago, I'd say." The man knocked his fist against the side of the truck, the metal echoing hollowly, and then he moved the light off her and aimed it out into the empty field. "Red LeClair, Lutherton sheriff and currently in charge of this icy little slice of heaven. Wanna tell me what's going on out here? Ma'am?"
Sheriff! Universe: home run, Frankie: out.
Frankie followed his light where it dissolved in the darkness, watched it catch on low shrubs and rocks sticking up through the snow. She swept a gloved hand over her cheek and bit her lip. She'd expected the animals to bound off into the sunset the second she opened the trailer, but it hadn't happened like that. They'd wandered off to the nearest wooded area, but that's as far as they'd gone. At least the snow was coming down so hard and fast their hoofprints were nearly covered already. But would they find the food set out for the mustangs? They wouldn't last long in this weather.
Go! Run! She urged them silently. Had she been too late? Were they already too habituated to humans? This was the perfect location for them. Perfect!
As his light moved, she could see the gleam of eyes, still watching from the woods. Darn!
"Look," she said, eager to draw his attention back. "I'm sure this looks a little ... odd —"
"What this looks like," he said, clicking off his light and crossing his arms, "is trespassing. For starters."
She swallowed. "Technically, you might have a point. But I can explain."
"How about we start with your license and registration, please. Ma'am."
And that's when Frankie began to suspect the universe wasn't just having a little fun at her expense, but was in fact a PMSing hag. She rummaged through the glove box until she found the crumpled insurance papers belonging to Conrad Toole, the man who owned the truck and the dilapidated roadside Christmas display she'd been part of. Until tonight, when she'd liberated the five young elk he'd been parading as reindeer.
She could see how this might appear sketchy.
"Nice to meet you, Francesca Sylva of Kalispell, Montana," said the man, looking up from her license, checking the photo against reality. Then he held up the truck papers. "You're a long way from home, ma'am."
The wolfish glint in his eyes was at odds with his gentlemanly words. Time to work that damsel- in-distress business, hard. "Thank goodness you happened along, Sheriff! I'm delivering this empty trailer to my ... brother ... and I'm afraid I got turned around."
She batted frozen lashes.
Sheriff Red LeClair waited, like a teacher listening to another "the dog ate my homework" story.
"Now I'm stuck," she continued, forcing her numb lips into what she hoped was a smile. "I just need a push. If you could help me get those pesky wheels back onto solid ground, or maybe lend me your cell phone, I'd be so grateful."
At that, his eyes narrowed. "Really. You'd be grateful."
Oh lord. That sounded bad, even to her own ears. But before she could dig herself in deeper, he went on.
"Since the highway closed an hour ago, I'm guessing you got here via the back roads. So unless your ... brother ... lives right around here, there's no place to go."
Frankie looked away, the quick hard thuds of her heart telling her that this escapade had gone from bad to worse.
"You're a lone woman stranded on private property, while a blizzard of biblical proportions threatens to shut down the entire county. Even if a little push could set you right, you'd be stuck again within the hour." His gaze traveled down her body. "And you're hardly dressed for the weather."
"Thank you for your concern," she said, inching back toward the cab of Conrad's truck. "But I'm certain my ... Conrad ... will be here any moment."
She leaped gracelessly inside the truck and slammed the door shut.
The sheriff sighed and leaned against the gate, his shoulders hunched against the nearly- horizontal snow.
Frankie let the window down a half-inch. "You should go back before you freeze."
He looked away, holding his hat on with one hand. She shut the window and grabbed her cell phone again, punching the buttons randomly. You never knew when the darn thing would come back to life.
Nope. No luck there. What a surprise.
The sheriff gestured for her to open the window.
"No cell service," he called over the wind. "Let me get you to a land line."
She pressed the window button up again, wishing there was a way to slam it closed. No cell service! Why didn't he say that in the first place?
Her flashlight flickered, then went out.
Oh come on, Universe! Enough, already!
She willed herself to breathe slowly but it didn't work. It was only a matter of time until the truck ran out of gas, or the battery died, leaving her in the dark.
She tried not to look at him, standing motionless in the circle of thin light, but it was no use. Wind swirled around him, flinging eddies of snow into his face.
Maybe he wasn't exaggerating about the storm.
She cracked the window again.
"How do I know I can trust you?" she called out.
"Maybe because I'm still here," he yelled.
Wind tore at his sleeves, stealing his breath before it even puffed into the darkness. Was he shivering?
She opened the door and jumped onto a drift of snow that wasn't there two minutes ago.
"Okay!" she shouted. "You win! What do you want?"
He pushed off the fence and took her arm.
"Finally. I thought we were both going to freeze to death out here." He herded her to his own pickup. "Give me your keys."
"What? Why?" Before she knew it, he'd dropped them somewhere inside his jacket. "Give them back!"
She stumbled onto the passenger seat, blinking. Her eyes were watering so badly she could hardly see. "Am I under arrest?"
"Depends." He put his truck in reverse. "What are you guilty of?"
"Poor planning? Felony foolishness?" Trespassing. Vehicle theft. Possession of stolen property.
Excerpted from Saving the Sheriff by Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen. Copyright © 2013 Roxanne Snopek. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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