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Necessity, burning curiosity and a Hummer limo brought him here, but as Ben Harding sat in the leather armchair surrounded by three other men, he wondered what the heck he'd gotten himself into. He glanced around the room again. The only thing he had in common with the others was that they each wore a cowboy hat, jeans and boots.
Beyond that, he knew nothing about the men gathered in billionaire Hank Derringer's home. The Raging Bull Ranch lay in the heart of the back of beyond, South Texas, where men were tough, the drug runners were tougher and a property owner stood a good chance of getting killed riding across his own spread.
Ben had done his homework. Hank Derringer had become a recluse since he'd lost his family over a year ago in a botched kidnapping attempt. The man had made billions and continued to make more in the oil and gas industry. All facts that were easy enough to find. But why bring these men here? Why now?
Ben would have blown off the invitation to come if he'd had any other choice. His career at the Austin Police Department at an end, he'd been pounding the pavement looking for work and finding that no one, until now, wanted to hire a man who'd been kicked off the force for killing a man with his bare hands.
Did he regret what he'd done? No.
And he'd do it again, given the same circumstances.
His gut clenched and he fought to push the rage and lingering images to the back of his mind as a tall, slightly older man joined them.
He wore a black Stetson and looked very much like the other men seated around the room. "Gentlemen, I'm Hank Derringer. Thank you all for coming to the Raging Bull Ranch." He sat near the huge stone fireplace, facing them. "I brought you here because you are the best of the best."
"Best of the best what, Hank?" The muscle-bound, blond-haired man across from Ben spoke first. He nodded toward Ben and the other two men. "And who are these guys?"
Hank tipped his head toward the man questioning him. "Patience, Thorn. I'm getting to that. For the rest of you, meet Thorn Drennan, the best sheriff Wild Oak Canyon ever had. A man the people could count on to fight for truth and justice."
Thorn's eyes narrowed. "You're forgettingI'm no longer the sheriff."
"Precisely." Hank turned to the man with brown hair, brown eyes and a wicked scar across his right cheek. "Chuck Bolton. Your friends call you Big Tex, born and raised on a ranch near Amarillo. You know how to ride, rope and build fences like the best of them. Served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan where you wiped out an entire Taliban stronghold against your commander's orders."
The man sat up straighter, his broad shoulders straining against the seams of his chambray shirt. "Got the boot and a bum leg for that."
"A man with courage and determination to fight the good fight," Hank said.
Big Tex shrugged. "I guess it depends on your definition of 'the good fight.'"
Hank moved on to the next person, a man sitting back from the rest, dark circles beneath his eyes, an intense, haunted expression in his green eyes as he stared out the window. "Special Agent Zachary Adams, one of the FBI's best undercover operatives working to stop the drug cartels along the border. Got caught in a bad situation on the wrong side of the border. Yet you survived."
"For what it was worth." The man's gaze shifted from the window to Hank. "And, just for the record, former FBI. I quit."
Hank nodded. "Right."
Derringer turned to Ben, his smile warm, welcoming. "And then there's Ben Harding, the most highly decorated officer on the Austin police force."
"The Ben Harding?" Big Tex snorted. "Weren't you the guy who was fired for strangling Frank Davis to death with your bare hands?"
Ben stiffened. He'd seen what the high-powered CEO had done to that young girl in a run-down warehouse on the seedier side of Austin. He'd watched him run from the scene of the crime with the child's blood on his hands and clothing. Ben hadn't cared who he was or what big company he ran. All he cared about was making the man pay for what he'd done to the girl.
Ben's stomach roiled as he recalled the scene and the memories of another very similar crime involving the deaths of his wife and young daughter.
His fingers balled into fists and he rose halfway out of his seat, ready to take on the world. "Yeah, I killed a man, what's it to you?"
Big Tex shrugged. "Just wondering."
"I read about it. Davis was a sick bastard into hurting little girls. I'd have done the same," the man called Zach said.
"You gave him what he deserved," Thorn agreed. "Why waste money on a system that would have turned him loose to do it again?"
The starch taken out of his fight, Ben sat back against the soft brown leather of the wingback chair. He was disappointed he wouldn't have a brawl to release all the tension balled up in his gut since he'd arrived. At least now he felt more of a kinship with the others in the room.
Hank's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "You are all highly trained in your fields, and because of your various circumstances find yourselves unemployed."
Ben snorted. "Unemployable."
"Wrong." Hank's lips spread into a smile. "I'm here to offer you a position in a start-up corporation."
"Doing what? Sweeping floors? Who wants a bunch of rejects?" Zach asked.
"I need you." Hank rose from his chair. "Because you aren't rejects, you're just the type of men I'm looking for. Men who will fight for what you believe in, who were born or raised on a ranch, with the ethics and strength of character of a good cowboy. I'm inviting you to become a part of CCI, known only to those on the inside as Covert Cowboys, Inc., a specialized team of citizen soldiers, bodyguards, agents and ranch hands who will do whatever it takes to see justice served."
"Whoa, back up a step there. Covert Cowboys, Inc.?" Big Tex slapped his hat against his thigh. "Sounds kind of corny to me. What's the punch line?"
"No punch line." Hank stood taller, his broad shoulders filling the room, the steel in his eyes indisputable. The man was on the up-and-up. "Let's just say that I'm tired ofjustice being swept under the rug."
Ben shook his head. "I'm not into vigilante justice, or circumventing the law."
"I'm not asking you to. The purpose of Covert Cowboys, Inc. is to provide covert protection and investigation services where hired guns and the law aren't enough." Hank's gaze swept over each of the men in the room. "I handpicked each of you because you are all highly skilled soldiers, cops and agents who know how to work hard, fire a gun and are familiar with living on the edge of danger. But mostly because of your high moral standards. You know right from wrong and aren't afraid to right the wrongs. My plan is to inject you into situations where your own lives could be on the line to protect, rescue or ferret out the truth."
Ben stood, his body tense, his first reaction to the older man's words to leave and never look back. "I'm not a vigilante, despite what the news says."
"I'm not hiring you to be one," Hank said. "I'm asking you to join CCI as a protector, a man willing to fight for truth."
"Truth, huh?" Zach said. "It's hard to find people who care about truth anymore."
Hank's lips thinned. "My point, exactly."
"Tell me, why should I work for you?" Ben asked.
The older man's shoulders straightened and he looked directly into Ben's eyes. "I care about truth and justice." He walked to the desk in the corner and lifted four folders. The first he held out to Ben. "Are you in?"
What did he have to lose? Ben had nothing to go back to in Austin. No job, no family. Nothing. Against his better judgment, Ben nodded. "I'm in."
Hank handed him the folder. "Your first assignment is on the other side of the county working undercover on the Flying K Ranch. As far as everyone else knows, you're hiring on as a ranch hand. Your job is to help get the ranch operational, but most of all to protect the woman who just inherited it."
"Sounds easy enough."
"Don't count on it. This county is in need of cleanup. I'm hoping you gentlemen will be the men to help in that effort. It's our first challenge for CCI." Hank stared at the other men. "Who else chooses to take on the challenge?"
One by one the men threw their hats in the ring and grabbed a folder.
Ben opened the file and stared down at the image of a beautiful woman with long strawberry-blond hair, green eyes and skin as pale and smooth as porcelain. His gut told him he was stepping into waters way over his head. What did he know about providing protection to a woman? He'd been a street cop, not a bodyguard. Hell, he hadn't been able to protect his own family. A knot of regret twisted in him, but he asked, "When do I start?"
"Tonight. Grab your gear and get on over there, she should have arrived today."
Ben's eyes narrowed. "You were sure I'd take the job?"
"If not you, I'd be out there doing it myself. Don't get me wrong. I won't ask any of you to do anything I wouldn't be willing to do myself."
Ben clapped his hat on his head and headed for the door. It was a job. He didn't have to like it; he just had to do it until he found something else.
"'The cow dog saved the little girl and became her very best friend. The end.'" Kate Langsdon closed the book and set it on Lily's nightstand. "Now it's time for little girls to go to sleep." She leaned over and kissed her daughter's forehead, her heart squeezing in her chest with the amount of love she felt for this pint-size person with the long, loose curls of silky, strawberry-blond hair, much like her own.
"Mommy?" Lily yawned and rubbed her emerald-green eyes. "Can I have a cow dog?"
"Sure, sweetie. Just as soon as we can find one as good as Jess the cow dog." Kate switched the light off on the night-stand and straightened her aching back, got up and headed into the bathroom. The past few days had been strenuous and emotionally draining, the amount of work taking the spunk right out of her. She'd driven from Houston to Wild Oak Canyon, Texas, cleaned a house that had been standing empty for two months, emptied as much as she could of the moving van she'd rented and poked through the belongings of a man she'd never known and never would. Her father.
Tears welled in Kate's eyes. For years, she'd thought her father dead. All this time, the man had been living in South Texas on a ranch near Big Bend National Park.
Kate dug her hand in her pocket and thumbed the key she'd received a week ago in an envelope from an attorney, including a letter, last will and testament and one corrupt video disk. The day that package arrived everything in Kate's life had changed.
She pulled the key from her pocket and tossed it into her makeup kit, stripped out of her dirty jeans and climbed into the shower. She stood for a long time as the warm spray washed down over her body, releasing the stiffness from her shoulders and tempering the ache in her lower back.
She wished all her worries could wash away with the water. As she stood in her father's house, on the ranch he'd bequeathed to her, she wondered if she'd done the right thing bringing Lily here.
She'd come to start over and to find answers. For one, what did the key fit? The video had been all static and with a brief glimpse of her father, but it cut off before her father could tell her what the key belonged to. Her father's letter left instructions for her to get help from the only man he trusted, Hank Derringer, the owner of the Raging Bull Ranch in Wild Oak Canyon. He'd help her with whatever she needed.
She hadn't called Mr. Derringer at first, taking a day to digest the fact that her father hadn't died when her mother had told her. The news had been so shocking that it took that long for it to sink in. Contacting his trusted friend was the furthest thing from her mind.
Until someone broke into her apartment in Houston while she had been at work and Lily had been at day care.
When she'd come home to find the apartment she and Lily had called home for four years looking as if the place had been tossed in a Texas-size salad bowl, she'd been angry and scared.
How dare someone break into her home? Kate knew she couldn't stay in the apartment, not after it had been violated and especially not knowing the reason. Nothing had been taken, as far as she could tell.
She'd packed up her daughter, boxed their belongings and headed west to Wild Oak Canyon and the Flying K Ranch to find the answers. How permanent this move proved to be was up to what she found, but she'd quit her job and given up her lease before she left. Either way, she couldn't go back and pick up where she'd left off.
Alone in the world except for Lily, Kate had turned to the phone number of the stranger her father had recommended.
Hank Derringer had answered on the first ring. He'd tried to talk her out of coming to Wild Oak Canyon. When she'd insisted, he'd promised to send a cowboy to her, one who could help her get the ranch back up and running and provide the protection she and Lily needed. Her cowboy would be there before they turned in for the night. Or so Hank had promised. Kate wondered what kind of protection she needed on a ranch out in the middle of nowhere.
She'd waited as long as she could to take her shower and still the cowboy hadn't arrived and probably wouldn't until morning.
When the water grew tepid, Kate turned it off and grabbed for the fluffy white towel she'd unearthed from one of the boxes she'd brought with her in the moving van. Bent over, her head upside down to wrap her long hair in the towel, her hands froze. Was that a sound downstairs?
She strained to listen.
Kate shrugged, worried her imagination was getting the better of her. She continued towel drying her hair when something crashed below and a low curse followed.
Her breath caught on a gasp and her pulse raced. She'd turned out the lights on the main floor and locked all the doors before she and Lily had come up for the night. Whoever was down there was moving around in the dark. Inside the house.