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"YOU HAVEN'T BEEN yourself lately, Shannon." Miranda Ward studied her sister's drawn expression.
"Nothing." Shannon feigned grave interest in her reflection as she swept her black hair into a ponytail and tied it with a scrunchie that had seen better days. "Can't a person want a little time alone without something being wrong?" She turned to face Miranda in the riding stable's tiny bathroom, nearly colliding with her.
"I know you better than that." Her sister stepped out of the way. "But if you don't want to tell me what it is, I guess I can't make you."
Shannon brushed past her, moving through their mother's office and on into the barn. "I'm going riding," she said. "We'll talk when I get back, okay?"
"Come on, let me go with you. Chet and Sam can hold the fort until Mom gets back from the feed store."
"Nope. Thanks anyway." Shannon waved over her shoulder as she headed for a nearby stall.
Undeterred, Miranda watched while her sister saddled her big bay gelding, Poker. "I was hoping you'd tell me about that phone call you got last night."
Shannon whirled back to her. "You were listening?" Her gaze darted to where Chet and Sam stood outside, jaw jacking with a couple of tourists who'd just returned from a ride.
Miranda kept her voice low. "No. But I couldn't help overhear some from Mom's living room. Did it have to do with the trial?"
Shannon's eyes widened briefly, and Miranda easily caught the nervousness her younger sister tried to hide. "What did you hear?"
"Nothing, really. Just you—on the phone. Who were you talking to at eleven o'clock?"
"None of your business."
That might be true—if Shannon wasn'ta key witness in an upcoming rape and murder trial. "All right," Miranda finally said. "You want to have supper with me tonight?"
"Sure. If you promise not to interrogate me. I'll get enough of that when we go to court."
"I thought you said we'd talk later."
"And we will." Shannon led Poker down the aisle toward the open double doors at the far end. "See you."
"Have a good ride." Miranda watched as Shannon swung into the saddle and set off at a trot.
Poker's shod hooves clacked along the hard-packed dirt trail that wound through the scrub oak, growing fainter as he and Shannon turned off the main path and disappeared into the trees.
THIRTY MINUTES LATER, Miranda helped her mother
unload the sweet feed from the pickup, glad for the chance to talk to her in private. Chet and Sam had taken a group of eight out on a trail ride minutes ago, heading north across Paige Ward's sixty-five acres. They'd be gone for at least an hour. Miranda tugged a fifty pound sack of grain toward the edge of the dropped tailgate. "Have you noticed anything wrong with Shannon lately, Mom? I know she's got a lot on her mind, but she's awfully withdrawn."
Paige paused, brushing her black bangs out of her eyes. Her dark Cherokee skin was further browned by the late June sun. People said Miranda looked more like her mother than Shannon did, even if Miranda's hair was brown and her eyes blue.
"The trial's got her out of sorts. Can't say as it hasn't left me with a few sleepless nights."
"Me, too. I'll be glad when it's over." Miranda shouldered the bag. "Shannon's been holding up pretty good through it all, though. Haven't you noticed it's only lately she's been acting weird? She didn't want me to go riding with her. And she was talking to someone on the phone late last night when I left the house."
"Is that a crime?" Paige hopped down from the truck and hefted a sack onto her own shoulder. "No. But it's not like her." Miranda followed her into the barn. "And she hasn't been eating well lately, either."
Paige leaned the grain on the edge of a bulk-size feed bin. Overhead, swallows scolded from a mud nest in the rafters, then swooped away. "That's true enough. But you know how it is when you get busy. Sometimes I forget to eat, too."
"I wish I had that problem." Miranda pulled the string on the bag of feed, and sweet-smelling, molasses covered oats, corn and milo poured in a golden arc into the bin. As she discarded the empty sack, she heard hoofbeats outside. "Sounds like Shannon's back."
"Well, that was a short ride. Maybe she decided to let you tag along, after all." Paige headed back to the truck.
"Yeah." Miranda walked to the rear doors, freezing as she looked out, her heart racing. "Mom! Come quick."
Poker galloped into the stable yard, riderless, stirrups flapping. Sweat soaked his coat, and his nostrils flared. "Whoa, boy." Miranda grabbed his dangling reins. One was broken, the leather snapped in two where he'd likely stepped on it. Poker's ears swiveled back and forth. Trembling, he dipped his head and blew loudly.
"What the hell…?"
"My God," Paige said from behind her, reaching out to rest her hand on Poker's neck. "What happened? He's hotter than a firecracker."
Miranda's stomach pitched. "Shannon wouldn't do that to him on purpose." She looked at the saddle and caught her breath. "Mom." She touched the pommel, then looked down at her fingers. Blood.
"Oh, dear Lord." Paige's hand went to her chest.
"Sam said he heard a cougar out back last night." There were hundreds of acres of public forest around Paige's riding stable, handled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Miranda shoved the gelding's reins at her. "Take him. I'm going to look for Shannon."
Paige calmed the riled horse. "I'll lock up and ride out with you."
"No, stay here. Call the sheriff's office." Wishing her roping horse wasn't several miles away at her own ranch, Miranda saddled Sundae, one of the best wrangler horses her mom owned—a big red dun. Her fingers flew as she threaded the latigo through the cinch and quickly tied it off.
She was shaking from head to toe.
Any rider could get bucked off, no matter how experienced. And accidents happened. The blood didn't necessarily point to a cougar attack. So what did it mean? Shannon wouldn't have passed by Sam and Chet and their group, because she'd headed up the east fork of the trail, so riding out to find them would do no good.
Where was she? "Take the pistol," Paige said. "I'll get it." She hurried away, then returned with a holstered .44 and a set of saddlebags.
Miranda flung the bags behind the cantle, then slid the gun inside, queasy at the sight of her sister's blood on her hand. She grimaced and wiped her palm down the leg of her jeans.
Adrenaline on overload, she rode away at a gallop.
WHEN LUCAS BLAYLOCK HEARD the call come in over
his police radio, his first impression was that Miranda Ward had been injured. His heart nearly leaped from his chest.
Miranda. A tough woman who'd never needed anyone. Least of all him.
Not since he'd left her standing at the altar seven years ago.
Flipping on his lights and siren, he turned his Chevy Blazer in a tight U and sped down the county road that led away from Sage Bend to the Rocking
W. Shannon and Miranda were as close to each other as sisters could be, and he could imagine how worried Miranda and Paige were. A mountain lion had been reported in the vicinity, stalking cattle. But it wasn't only four-legged predators Lucas was thinking about.
Six months ago, a young woman—Jo Ella Jamison—had disappeared from the parking lot of the later in the next county, stuffed in a culvert. Stripped. Raped.
And Shannon Ward was a key witness to the events preceding Jo Ella's murder.
Lucas pressed harder on the accelerator, and the high-powered engine responded, sending a plume of dust and gravel in the Chevy's wake.
Paige Ward met him in the driveway outside the barn, near where a bay gelding stood tied to a hitching post—soaked with sweat. Paige's lined face was pinched, and she gave him a look that was half worry, half resentment. She appeared a great deal older than forty-eight. But then she'd had a hard life. Paige had been running the Rocking W since her girls were toddlers. Since their father skipped out on them.
Yet another worthless excuse of a man.
Of course, he shouldn't talk. "Sheriff," Paige said. "Thanks for coming so quickly." But her hard gaze let him know she didn't like him any better now than she had seven years ago.
"What happened?" He pulled out his notepad and scratched the details in a shorthand only he could decipher as she explained.
His top deputy, Garrett Rutledge, pulled in and parked behind the Blazer.
Paige gestured toward the bay. "I didn't want to unsaddle him until you'd had a look."
Lucas ran his hand over the horse's neck, noting the blood on the pommel. "You'd better cool him down. But see if you can pull that saddle off without disturbing things too much. Set it over there." He motioned.
She bristled. "I'm not stupid, Sheriff." She lifted her chin. "I've already got a horse saddled and waiting for you in the barn. Figured you'd want to have a look for Shannon yourself." Her tone let him know she'd saddle a horse for Satan himself if he could bring her daughter back safely. "Miranda said she rode up the east trail."
Lucas nodded. "Thanks." Tucking the notebook in the pocket of his Western shirt, he tugged the brim of his silver Stetson down over his eyes. Mostly to keep it from blowing off when he rode, but also to hide his own concern from Paige. Five years as the sheriff of Sage Bend had hardened him to violence, but murder was rare in his town. Hell, only 875 people lived here. Besides, he had a soft spot for Miranda and her little sister.
Always had. Always would.