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Restless, Skylar McLain changed her stance. She let her body settle, with her weight distributed evenly and her feet planted in the earth. Arms steady. She used the two-handed stance since she was so petite. Sight. The target was now centered in her line of vision. Squeeze the trigger and shoot. Then shoot again.
"Bull's-eye," she muttered under her breath, taking small satisfaction in the achievement. Since she went to the shooting range at least three times a week, such accuracy was to be expected. She'd always been a good shotnow she was an excellent one.
She just wished she could exorcise the ghosts. According to her shrink, with whom she'd continued therapy after the mandatory Bureau psych evaluation, until she stopped blaming herself, punishing herself, she'd never be fully healed.
Blah, blah, blah. As if she'd ever be normal again.
Shrink talk. Mentally cursing, she pressed the button for a new paper target and began the sequence again.
The ghosts still taunted her, dancing just out of reach of her bullets. Though they'd caught the guy who'd robbed the bank and gunned down her husband and son, his lifetime prison sentence hadn't helped ease the grief. Even his death wouldn't bring back her family.
Finally finished, she clicked her safety on and hol-stered her Glock. Removing her eye and ear protection, she turned and exited.
The shrink had been right about one thing. The pain had sort of faded over time. Gradually over the past five years, the agonizing vise grip on her heart had been replaced with numbness. She'd welcomed the lack of sensation, of feeling. It allowed her to focus her attention, laser-sharp, on her job. Only her job mattered anymore. She might as well be good at it.
After she headed home, she dressed and packed her bag. Sensing something was up, her border collie, Talia, twirled in circles around the bedroom.
Smiling, Skylar reached out to ruffle Talia's furry head. "Yes, sweetheart. I'm going undercover, so you'll be staying at the kennel." She hated to leave her beloved petTalia had been her son's new puppy, only six months old when he'd been killed.
But then, did she really have to leave her? Her new assignment would be on a horse ranch, after all. What better place for a dog?
"Would you like to go with me, girl?" Skylar asked.
Talia barked, as if to answer in the affirmative.
Before she had time to reconsider, Skylar picked up the phone and called the kennel, canceling the reservation. Talia would go with her. Who knewa dog with herding instincts just might come in handy around large animals.
She instantly felt the knot in her stomach ease. In a few hours, she'd be going undercover. From everything she'd read, Matt Landeta loved animals. He shouldn't have a problem with one hyperactive border collie.
Once everything was packed, including Talia's dog food, favorite toys and bed, Skylar got out the asignment file folder and flipped through it one last time.
Here. Her target. Studying his picture, she speculated, trying to figure out what it was about Matt Landeta that drew her in. He was a tall man with a ruggedly handsome face and muscular build. The peculiar blue shade of his eyes, sapphire mixed with summer-sky, was striking in his tanned face. Idly, she wondered if they really were that color or if he wore contacts. She'd be finding out soon enough.
Today, she'd begin an intricate game of cat and mouse with Matt Landeta. Wealthy and good-looking, he was a local celebrity due to the massive ranch he'd built on the outskirts of town and the beautiful show horses he raised.
She just had to remember not to act as if she worked in law enforcement. Over the years, this had become her biggest challenge, especially since she pretty much lived and breathed her job.
Ostensibly, she'd come to write an article on his Arabian horses for Today's Arabian Horse magazine. This was her cover. In truth, she had to discover if the millionaire had gotten rich because he was illegally selling ammunition to Mexican drug cartels. If so, she would take him down.
Once she had her rental car packed, she whistled for Talia. Since there was nothing the dog loved moreexcept playing ballshe came running and jumped into the backseat.
Now Skylar had everything that mattered to her. According to her records, her destinationMatt's ranchwas about a half hour west of town. Her entire body vibrating with anticipation, she settled in the driver's seat and started the car.
Usually when she went undercover, she drove a department-issued vehicle. This time she'd left the Ford Taurus behind and rented a snazzy little Volkswagen Bug. Her boss should have seen that this car was more realistic to her journalist persona.
As she navigated the country roads, her beloved dog happily panting in the backseat, she couldn't help but feel confident. She'd thoroughly prepared herself with every video, every article about Matt. She knew how this first meeting would go. He'd be charming and arrogant, just a touch condescending, confident that his darkly sexy looks would make her willing to cut the next notch on his headboard herself.
She hadn't yet decided how she'd react to him. She had two choicesshe could go for professional and detached, which would be more natural, or the blushing, tongue-tied pseudo virgin, which would undoubtedly appeal to him more. Now that she thought about it, she'd have to react on the fly and go with her gut, once she discovered the type of woman he found attractive.
She relaxed and looked at the passing landscape with interest. Though she'd grown up here in Anniversary, Texas, it had been years since she'd bothered to drive out here from her home north of Dallas. Her family had moved to Anniversary her junior year of high school and any friendships she'd forged in those days had long since died out.
Amazing how not much ever changed in small towns. The shops on Main Street had been renovated and were apparently now thriving in this lakeside community. She saw two martial-arts studios, several cafes, bars, clothing shops and even a general store. People strolled the sidewalks and shopped and ate at small outside tables.
Pushing down the weird sense of longing the sights brought, she continued to drive past the city limits, over the long bridge that crossed the lake. There were a couple of marinas here, with bait shops and lakeside bars, frequented by the locals who drove up in their boats.
As she stared at the sparkling blue water, the unexpected ache in her throat made her furious. Once, this was the sort of place she might have brought her family. Now that opportunity was long gone.
Giving herself a mental shake, she gripped her steering wheel and drove on. Sentimentality was not compatible with her life or her job. She'd returned here for a reason, one that had nothing to do with her personally.
She'd do best to remember that. Finally she turned from the paved two-lane road to the single-track gravel one that, according to the map she'd been given, led to Matt's impressive spread.
After a series of left and right turns, she pulled up to an immense black wrought-iron gate. Closed, of course. As she coasted to a stop in front of it, she stared, wondering if its resemblance to a biblical entrance to heaven was intentional.
If so, the irony wasn't lost on her.
Rolling down her window, she spoke into the call box next to the gate, identifying herself. A moment later, the imposing barricade swung slowly open.
As she proceeded up the drive, she craned her neck, looking for a glimpse of the ranch house. No such luck; the first buildings were barns and sheds. She counted three outdoor riding areas, a large arena and then a huge building that had to be an enclosed arena next to a square place with a large sign that said Ranch Office. On the far side of the parking lot, away from everything else, was a lovely old barn made of stone and wood. Exuding a sense of age and history, it looked as if it had sat on this land long before anything else was built.
There were several horses, wearing light blankets to protect their coats from the sun, grazing in various green pastures. She even saw one fenced-off field full of cattle.
And still no house.
Then, as she drove around the side of the indoor arena, she saw it, slowing her speed to a crawl so she could take it all in.
The red-tiled roof gleamed softly in the afternoon sun, perfectly complementing the creamy stucco walls. Low-slung and elegant, the house blended with the landscape, managing to look as though it had sprung from the earth decades ago. Even though she knew from her research the hacienda was a mere four years old, the structure had a weathered, peaceful look that would have made a lesser woman melt inside.
Parking, she reflected on how lucky it was that she was not that woman.
Killing the engine, Skylar inhaled deeply. She took her time getting out and leashing Talia, mentally rehearsing her cover story for perhaps the tenth time.
Talia happily began investigating a host of interesting smells. Then, raising her head, she looked past Skylar and let out a single woof as a warning.
Registering the sound of footsteps behind her, Skylar took a deep breath. Showtime. Steeling herself, she slowly turned. Despite her hours of preparation, her first glimpse of him brought her a jolt.
As expected, he was tall, dark and boldlydevilishlyhandsome. This she already knew from the photos she'd pored over. Muscular, fit and tanned. Check.
But she hadn't been prepared for the blatant masculinity radiating from every inch of Matt Landeta's body. Or the restless energy laced with power exuding from him as he strode toward her. The mere fact that he'd shaken her out of her inertia enough to even register such a thing shocked her.
Though she'd sort of decided to go with overawed girlishness, her defenses immediately came up. She straightened her shoulders and became an ice maiden instead.
Talia, however, had no such reservations. She greeted Matt with the same affectionate joy she bestowed on everyone. Plumed tail wagging, her entire body wiggled as he petted her.
"Nice dog. You must be Skylar," he drawled, straightening and holding out a tanned hand. "Pleased to meet you."
When Skylar took it, she noted the calluses, so at odds with the elegance of his long fingers. As she met his gaze, she couldn't help but study him, her lawenforcement-trained eyes missing nothing.
He carried himself with an air of self-confidence. Though he was virile and masculine, genuine pleasure softened his stubborn, arrogant face, as if he were actually glad to see her. Despite the perfection of his granitelike features, there were touches of humor around his eyes, and his generous mouth appeared as though he were always on the verge of smiling.
Interesting. Did he truly enjoy his work so much?
"I hope you don't mind my bringing her," she said, really not caring what he thought. "She's well trained and usually accompanies me on assignments. I promise she won't be any trouble."
"I don't mind." He glanced around. "I'm sure we'll all become great friends while you're here."
His hair, exactly like the pictures she'd studied, was thick and black, tapering neatly to his collar. The shadow of a beard gave him an even more masculine appearance.
Damn. She shivered.
"Are you all right?" Pausing in the act of scratching behind Talia's ears, he peered up at her with a concerned expression.
Somehow, she found her voice. "I'm fine." Attempting a smile, she tried to figure out how in real life a person could look completely different than photographs. Hell, she was a photographer herself and knew there'd be minor incongruities, but this this was unreal.
Despite his surface air of approachability, Matt Landeta looked tough, lean and sinewy. She could sense the danger lurking right underneath his innocuous appearance, like a wild animal biding time until it struck viciously.
Fitting, considering he was allegedly a criminal.
But worse, at least to her, despite everything she'd made herself into, she somehow found him as sexy as hell. Which felt as if she was committing the worst kind of betrayal. She felt this knowledge like the sharp stab of a knife.
Ruthlessly, she pushed all emotions away. All that was for another place, another time. Not now. She had a job to do. Luckily she'd developed nerves of steel. Keeping her expression friendly, she continued to let her gaze roam over him, exactly as any other red-blooded woman would.
"Wow," she drawled. "You don't look like any horse breeder I've ever met."
He grinned back, the beauty in his smile making it difficult for her to keep up the flirtatious act. In fact, the longer she studied him, the more unsettled she became. Rather than making her uncomfortable, this pissed her off. Seriously.
Not good. Not good at all. Her job depended on her getting to know this man, but she couldn't allow personal feelings to factor in.
"And you don't look like any journalist I've ever met, pretty lady." Cocking his head, eyes molten, he gazed at her as if she were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Her fake smile froze on her face. Again, she had to suppress a surge of anger, which threw her off her game.
His gaze sharpened at her lack of response and he leaned closer, bringing with him the scent of coffee and the outdoors.
"Who knew Today's Arabian Horse magazine hired such gorgeous journalists?" Even his voice, deep and as rich as chocolate, stirred unwanted desires inside her, despite the blatant B.S. he was spouting.
Damn. Somehow she managed to smile back, at the same time tugging her hand free. She decided to ignore the fact that he'd held her hand a bit longer than was normal, especially since he was well-known as a player.
She blushed on purpose as his gaze swept over her, growing more confident as she regained her focus. After all, she had years of field experience behind her. She wouldn't falter just because this one guy had movie-star good looks and sinful bedroom eyes.
She could do this. She would do this. Nothing would destroy her 100 percent success rate. Just like with all the others, she'd get to the truth. Eventually.
After all, she could refocus. Glancing down at her dog, her son's dog, who had taken a seat on Matt's foot and had her eyes closed in bliss while he petted her, Skylar simply remembered the life she'd lost, and boom, she was back on track.
With that sobering thought, she straightened her spine, looked him in the eye, and let her smile widen. "Looks like you've got a fan there," she said, gesturing at Talia. "I hope she isn't bothering you."
He shrugged, apparently not in the least bothered. "In case you hadn't noticed, I'm a dog person."
She nodded. "I'm glad. Thank you so much for allowing me this opportunity," she said, managing to sound just on the edge of gushing. To distract herself, she reached down and scratched Talia just below the collar, which was her favorite spot.
A comfortable silence fell. When she finally looked up, she was surprised to find something hungry, something sharp, in his warm gaze. Perfect. As soon as she noticed, his expression changed, becoming the amused, flirtatious one from before. Ah, so she wasn't the only one playing a role.