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Somewhere ahead, a branch rustled. Pebbles clattered down a rocky slope.
Tessa McAllister reined her horse to a stop, settling him with a calming hand at his neck. He blew hard through his nostrils, his muscles tense as he edged sideways on the narrow trail.
Around the next bend, she remembered, the path widened as it crossed a lane leading to an isolated cabin, then it disappeared into a heavy stand of pines. Early evening was prime time for wildlife activity, and there could be anything lurking just out of sight.
A mountain lion.
A mama bear and cubs.
A moose protecting her calfaggressive and more unpredictable than a bear, though at least it wouldn't eat people.
Whatever it was, Dusty wanted no part of it. And with loose rock on the trail and a thousand-foot drop only inches away, backing up would be a dangerous option. "Easy, babe," she murmured, reaching down to unbuckle the strap on her rifle scabbard.
He threw his head and fought the bit, flecks of foamy saliva flying, his tail lashing in agitation as he danced in place.
It was likely that the "predator" ahead was on two feet instead of fourthough even the human kind could be dangerous, given the recent rash of thefts in the area.
But growing up on a ranch in the Wyoming Rockies had prepared Tessa to defend her life and livestock at a moment's notice.And whatever loomed ahead, it was blocking the only way down this side of the mountain.
She waited a good five minutes, and when nothing scary came around the bend, she urged Dusty forward, singing, "Oh, Susannah" at the top of her lungs to warn away any wildlife.
The gelding's ears flicked back and forth as he shook his head.
"Everyone's acritic," she muttered as she stood in the stirrups for a better view.
Now, she could see the dense stand of brush flanking the road. The birds abruptly fell silent. She felt Dusty's back tense. She urged him forward, one halting step at a time.
A hint of silver glittered through the bushes.
Someone uttered a harsh curse.
A deafening crack split the airthen something slammed into her thigh with searing force.
A heartbeat later, she glimpsed a dark pickup rocketing down the lane ahead. Stunned, feeling strangely disoriented, Tessa reached down to touch her scuffed leather chaps, then stared.
Her hand was covered with blood.
Sitting on an exam table at the tiny Wolf Creek Medical Clinic, Tessa silently berated herself for taking this trip into town.
Clouds of billowing dust had marked the fast retreat of that mysterious vehicle as it tore away. Surely the shooting was an accidenta stray bullet during target practice, maybe, or someone shooting game out of season. Either way, if the guy realized what he'd done, it would account for his panicked departure.
But with those unanswered questions, the fact that she and Gus were in townleaving no one to watch over the ranchfilled her with unease. Even his wife Sofia, who was the cook and housekeeper, was away.
"I could've treated this wound myself," Tessa mumbled, watching Mary Andrews, a physician's assistant, finish cleaning her wound. "It's just a scratch."
"No, your hired hand was right. This needed to be taken care of here." Mary looked up at her and smiled. "I suppose you would've used your cattle salve and antibiotics?"
"Right." Tessa gritted her teeth against the pain.
"II've patched myself up before."
"Not a good idea. I've seen the handiwork of some of the cowboys who've come in after they've gotten an infection or haven't healed right. Anyway, you were due for a tetanus booster." Mary leaned closer and inspected the three-inch furrow gouged across Tessa's thigh. "You're lucky. A few inches difference, and it could have hit a major vein or shattered your femur. How on earth did this happen?"
"Accident." Tessa shrugged.
But what if it wasn't?
She'd urged Dusty into high gear to put distance between herself and any further danger, then a mile down the trail she'd had to pull him to a halt while she stopped the bleeding. As the initial numbness wore off, the pain had steadily increased, and it had been a long, difficult trip back home.
Mary laid out a tray of dressing materials and tore open a packet of sterile gauze squares. "After I finish this, I'll give you a tetanus booster and an injection of long-acting antibiotic. I'm also sending you home with an antibiotic prescription. Make sure you finish the bottle, okay?"
Tessa nodded. Earlier, she'd been preoccupied with making it back to the ranch. Putting her horse away. Staggering to the house, all the while trying to hold her makeshift bandage in place.
Now, in the quiet of the clinic, the memory of that unexpected gunfire made her shiver.
Her eyes warm and compassionate, Mary seemed to read Tessa's mind. "A delayed reaction, I'll bet. Happens all the time after accidents and such. Can I give you an extra blanket while I do this?"
Tessa drew in a steadying breath, and managed an answering smile. "The sheet's fine."
Bells chimed over the front door, then the sound of male voices drifted down the hall. Tessa could hear her hired hand Gus, who was waiting in the reception area, plus a voice she didn't recognize.
"The clinic is closed, so that's probably the deputy." Mary tipped her head. "Want to talk to him while I do your dressing?"
Tessa glanced at the clock. "It would save time. Gus and I need to get back to the ranch."
Mary called out, and a serious-looking young deputy, with Gary Hayes on his name plate, appeared at the door, a clipboard in hand. He stood there, uncertain, a rosy blush staining his fair cheeks, even though Tessa was well covered by her shirt and a hospital drape over her hips and legs.
"The sheriff is busy," he said. "He'll stop by your place as soon as he can. In the meantime, I need to take your statement."
Tessa winced as Mary started applying the dressing. "I was on the trail that skirts the Chatsworth cabin. Maybe six or six-thirty."
"Did you see anyone at all in the area?"
"But when you called 911, you said there was a vehicle."
"I'm pretty sure it was a pickup. The road from the main highway up to that cabin is washed out in a couple places, so I doubt anyone could've navigated it in a car."
"Darkthat's all I know. I caught a flash of something shinyprobably a bumperbut the vehicle was obscured by brush, and then it left in a hurry. I couldn't guess at the make, model or exact color."
"Do you think the driver figured you'd seen him? Panicked, maybe, over leaving a witness?"
Looking up from his clipboard, Deputy Hayes fiddled with his pen as Mary finished applying the dressing to Tessa's wound and administered the two vaccinations.
"I'll go to the front office and write up my progress notes," Mary said to Tessa, giving the deputy a pointed glance. "You two can just come on out when you're done talking."
As soon as she left, the deputy's mouth flattened to a grim line. "Your brother-in-law couldn't be here right now, because he's investigating a crime scene at the cabin."
Tessa stared at him. "W-was someone injured?"
"The owner lives in Denver, and this is his luxury weekend hideaway. He wasn't there, luckily. From what we can gather after talking to him on the phone, there was at least a ten-thousand dollar loss from theft and vandalism."
"I don't know yet. But you might've stumbled across our suspects, and they could be afraid you can identify them." The deputy slowly shook his head. "So if I were you, Ms. McAllister, I'd watch my back."
* * *
Josh Bryant stepped off of his vintage Harley Electra Glide and lifted off his helmet. He ran his fingers through his hair, then unzipped his black and white leather jacket and took a good look at the dusty, sleepy two-block stretch of businesses.
The faded sign on the edge of town read Wolf Creek, Wyoming, Population 986. From the appearance of the boarded-up buildings on the outskirts, the town had faced serious problems through the years.
Here, though, there was growtha coffee shop, a couple of antique shops. A store offering gifts and flowers. A tiny office advertising Tourist Information and Chamber of Commerce in its dusty store-front window, and a few other shops farther down. Evidence that the town was probably gearing up to attract the rising influx of vacationers and wealthy land buyers from out of state.
He'd heard about the area from his old girlfriend Tessa, during their freshman year of college. Before he accepted this assignment, he'd done some online research and learned that a number of McAllisters still lived in the area including Tessa's mother, Claire, who owned Snow Canyon Ranch. Through the wonders of the Internet, he'd also discovered that Tessa seemed to be running a wilderness outfitting business at the ranch, though maybe she simply owned it and lived elsewhere.
Given her aspirations back in college, he hadn't expected to find her in Wyoming at all. And given her bitter, final words to him years ago, he doubted that she'd be very welcoming. Still, a local contact would be helpfulespecially if the ranchers found out why he was there.
Though Tessa didn't know it yet, she could be his ticket to freedom from a life of more pain, heartbreak and overwhelming guilt than he'd ever thought possible.
And the sooner he got this project done, the faster he could leave.
At the tiny Chamber of Commerce, Josh found a Snow Canyon Outfitters brochure with directions to the ranch and a phone number. It also showed a map of the general area of the mountains covered by Tessa's outfitting company. Numerous trails crossed the western boundary of the ranch and snaked up into the high country, then fanned out over a vast area where customers could opt for scenic rides, fishing, or hunting expeditions.
After calling the ranch and reaching someone who said Tessa would be returning from a pack trip this afternoon, he'd gone out to set up his campsite, then started out on foot carrying a backpack filled with camera equipment.
With luck, his GPS system and that map, he might be able to intersect the pack trip on its way back. He'd have the elements of surprise and innate Western hospitality on his side. She might even be happy to see him. With another casual encounter or two, he might be able to convince her that despite their past, they could be friends.
It was a perfect plan
Until he heard the steady clopping of hooves and caught sight of her leading a string of six horses and riders down from the mountain, and every last part of that plan crumbled to dust.
"Aren't we back yet?" The nasal voice piped up from the middle of the pack for the third time in ten minutes. "This trip was way too long!"
Tessa swiveled in her saddle, one palm on her gelding's hindquarters, the other pressing against the still-painful muscles in her thigh. This group of six had opted for an easy, one-night trip, meant for photographing scenery and wildlife, but the night had been too cold and the day overcast.
Growing up with a hard, no-nonsense mother like Claire, Tessa had little tolerance for whiners and complainers, and this group had both in spades. "We're nearly at the ranch border. After that, we're less than an hour from the home place."
"An hour!" One of the men groaned and stood in his stirrups. "Would've been better off on foot. I told you girls that. But, oooooh, no. We had to rent horses."
The "girls," all at least in their fifties, nodded in agreement, their heads swiveling as one toward the imperious, silver-haired matron on the last horse in the line.
Dusty jerked to a halt, his head up, his ears pricked. Tessa whipped around to face forward, a dozen dangerous scenarios flashing through her thoughts. Rifle fire. The panic that would ensue amongst these soft city folk if they had to make a fast escape. They'd probably all fall off in the dirt if their horses broke into a lope.
Dusty's head bobbed up and down, as if trying to focus on something.
And sure enough, someone was crouched in the shadows, still as granite, facing the side of the path maybe a dozen yards ahead. Intently looking at some-thing or was he waiting for her to draw near?
Her pulse stumbled at the thought of how truly vulnerable she and her customers were.
He slowly straightened. Turned. Reached up and twisted the bill of his ball cap from his nape to frontand then she saw what he held. A camera, with a long telephoto lens.
Relief melted her muscles to jelly as she sagged in her saddle. "Howdy," she called out. "Just passing through."
He nodded, stepped farther away from the trail to let them pass.
But at the moment she looked over to smile her thanks, her heart lodged in her throat.
She stared at his tall, muscular build.
At his faceso different now, yet still the same; its lines and planes sharper, more defined. The jaw line more resolute.
But there was no mistaking those blue eyes or the deep waves in his black hair even if his eyes held shadows and secrets that hadn't been there before.
The shock on her face surely matched his.
He'd walked away from her ten years ago, leaving her with the most devastating situation of her life. Damaged her faith. Changed the course of everything she'd dreamed of while growing up on her mother's ranch.
And he was most definitely a man she'd never, ever wanted to see again.