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Thick clouds gathered overhead as Hunter Jacobson pressed down on the gas pedal of his pickup, determined to reach the café in Dry Creek, Montana, before his grandfather talked Scarlett Murphy out of whatever money she had in her purse. He had the windows open and leaned forward, feeling the sweat on his back. He'd never seen this Scarlett woman, but he pictured her carrying one of those worn black clutches that widows used for their grocery money. He gritted his teeth and stepped on the gas pedal harder.
"Of course, she's not going to thank me for saving her," he muttered, glancing down at his sole passenger, a calico barn cat who was sitting on the other side of the pickup floor licking one of her front paws. She'd gone with him to feed the cattle and he hadn't taken time to shoo her away when he'd gotten back into the pickup moments ago. She ignored him now.
Hunter eyed the country road more closely, squinting as dust billowed up. The sky ahead was gray and the wheat fields beside the road were nothing but a blur of early fall stubble as he sped by.
He had seen the woman's letter lying open on the table when he'd gone inside the house to get a drink of water before heading back to the fields. His grandfather's pickup wasn't parked in its usual spot and, since they were the only ones living on the ranch, he'd picked up the note thinking it was for him. Instead he'd read that Scarlett Murphy was to meet his grandfather this morning at the café to sign some papers he had for her. Her signature was ladylike, spider-web thin and elegant. Nobody under seventy years of age wrote that way anymore.
Not that age was proof against his grandfather's schemes. Hunter was thirty-three years old, but he probably wouldn't know what to do about the old man's mischief if he lived to be a hundred.
Hunter pulled up close to the café, then braked and turned his vehicle onto the strip of barren dirt that everyone used for parking. He pulled the keys from the ignition and opened the door all in the same smooth motion. The heat hit him as he reached back and grabbed the envelope that held the letter. He was surprised when the cat jumped out of the pickup. He'd thought her paw would still be bothering her since he'd pulled a prickly cocklebur out of it only hours ago.
He bent to pick up the feline, but she dodged his hands. The family of cats who had ruled the ranch's barns for generations was tough. They were survivors, all of them. He decided that if this one wanted to run loose for a few minutes among the dozen or so buildings that made up the small town of Dry Creek, she wouldn't come to any harm.
Hunter wasn't so sure about his grandfather's fate.
Thus far, the old man's victims had all taken pity on him and not pressed charges once they'd been paid back. But one of these days he would trip up. The schemes had started more than twenty years ago after the car accident that had killed Hunter's parents. Only a boy then, Hunter hadn't paid much attention to the problems his grandfather had caused. Their neighbors had held back their complaints at first, saying they could understand how a tragedy like that could unhinge a man who was already in his sixties at the time. But those days of tolerance were long over.
His grandfather's deals were legendary. Early on, the old man had convinced one farmer to buy a new breed of pigs, claiming they would reproduce like rabbits. They were all sterile. Then he sold a vacuum cleaner that was supposed to remove grease spots. Instead it shredded the carpet and left the stain untouched in the frayed pieces that were left. One after the other, their neighbors had been duped, and gradually the gossip had spread. Finally even the fresh eggs that Hunter's two younger brothers had tried to sell one summer at a farmer's market had all come home still in their crate. A rumor had started that the eggs were empty shells and no one had enough faith to even crack one open to find out.
Hunter stood in the dirt beside his pickup, the cat twining around his feet, and lifted his eyes to the darkening sky in frustration. Every man, woman and child this side of the Dakota border had been warned not to have any dealings with the Jacobson family. Hunter had thought God would take care of the old man's inclinations after they'd both returned to the church a year ago.
ApparentlyHunter gave the sky a look of rueful reproachit wasn't going to be that easy.
Shaking his head, he hurried up the porch steps, reaching for the handle on the café door just as he heard a quiet motor behind him. He turned and almost stepped on the cat.
"Oops," he apologized.
The feline gave him a sharp meow.
Then both Hunter and the cat turned to see what was coming. A sleek black car had pulled off the asphalt road that swept in from the highway. Slowly, it rolled to a stop. The windshield was tinted, but Hunter didn't need to see inside to know a stranger was behind the wheel. Anyone who drove these roads with any regularity had dirt and mud splattered on both sides of their car, especially during this time of year when the rain came in a downpour or not at all. This car was spotless.
Not many strangers found their way into Dry Creek. This had to be Scarlett Murphy.
Hunter looked down at the envelope he held. He read the return address for the first timeNome, Alaska. Now that was odd, he thought. His grandfather had gotten his start there as a young man in the 1950s. He'd worked a small gold mine on a trickle of running water called Dry Creek just outside the town of Nome. Located near the Bering Sea, the mine had made enough money that, when he'd left it, his grandfather had been able to buy eighty acres on the banks of a different Dry Creek in southeastern Montana. Hunter always believed his grandfather had been lonesome for Alaska when he'd bought his property down here. There was no other way to explain the coincidence of the names.
Hunter waited on the porch, the cat beside him, as a woman stepped out of the car. She didn't turn toward the café but stared into the window of the hardware store on the opposite side of the street. The store was filled with shadows, but a person could still make out the black potbellied stove in the middle of the room and the men sitting on chairs around it talking.
Beside him, the cat started to make a noise low in its throat. Hunter couldn't tell if it was a growl at the threat of the woman or a purr of appreciation at seeing someone so striking.
Hunter voted for the threat. The blood slowly drained out of his face as he realized he had been mistaken about Scarlett. If this woman carried a clutch, it had a designer label. Even without seeing her face, he knew she was young, not old. And he was almost certain that her last nameMurphywas the same as the business partner in Nome who had betrayed his grandfather years ago by stealing the woman he'd loved. The growing unease Hunter had about all of this deepened. The old man had been muttering about the meaning of life lately. Maybe it wasn't past habits that had caused this latest bit of mischief. Maybe his grandfather wanted to settle a score and get some final revenge before he died.
Lord, help us all, Hunter thought in an absentminded prayer. If his grandfather was intent on vengeance, he could cause big trouble.
Hunter could only see the woman's back, but the graceful set of her shoulders and the halo of fiery copper hair blowing lightly around her head made her look like a Botticelli angel out for an morning stroll. The charge in the air might not all be from the upcoming lightning, he thought as he swallowed. His grandfather had said the woman who broke his heart had been stunning. This one was certainly her equal. She wore a sleeveless white silk top. Her arms were well-defined and bronzed by the sun. She put a hand up to smooth down the wayward strands of her hair and he saw a silver bracelet on her wrist. She had muscles and was, at the same time, delicate and utterly feminine.
Hunter was taking a step down from the porch when the woman turned around. He faltered. She was even more beautiful than he'd feared. Something sparkled as she lifted a silver chain that was loose around her neck and slipped it into the front of her blouse. Her face was pale and brushed with the same bronze as her arms. He couldn't fully see the color of her eyes from where he stood, but he could sense their intensity. As best he could tell they were hazel, gold mixed with green.
That's when he realized he could feel the smoldering heat in her eyes because she was staring at himand not in a good way.
He looked down at his shirt. He hadn't changed after coming in from feeding the cattle and discovering the letter. Hunter tried to casually brush the fine hay dust off of his jeans without calling too much attention to it, but there was nothing he could do about the small red stain he'd gotten from putting iodine on the scrape he'd found along the back of the milk cow this morning. His boots were scuffed but clean.
He squared his shoulders. He shouldn't have to apologize for wearing work clothes. He was a rancher and everyone knew it. The last woman he'd come anywhere close to settling down with had called him a dirt farmer and had walked away when he'd assured her that his ranch was not as prosperous as she'd hoped. He'd had no helicopter in the shop for repairs despite what his grandfather had told her. He'd had no tuxedo at the dry cleaner's and likely never would. He wasn't as poor as his date had thought based on her angry, parting words, but Hunter had decided then and there not to let a woman judge him by his walletor his wardrobe.
He finished walking down the porch steps and stood with his legs braced for trouble. This woman dressed expensively and that was never a good sign. He wondered what she had around her neck that she felt the need to hide from him.
"Scarlett Murphy?" he called to her.
He heard another rumble in the distance and the sky over the empty street turned darker. The woman was eyeing him now as though he'd challenged her to a gun-fight on the streets of an Old West town.
The cat suddenly appeared at his feet and meowed sharply. The woman glanced down at the feline, her face softening.
"Careful of the cat," he cautioned softly.
The family of cats that guarded the Jacobson barn didn't know any middle ground with strangers. People were enemies until they proved to be friends. The felines didn't mind a fight, either. That's why Hunter didn't usually bring any of the cats into Dry Creek with him.
The woman nodded and lifted her eyes, looking at him from the far side of her car with increasing suspicion. "I'm here to see Mr. Colin Jacobson."
"I know," Hunter said, careful to keep his voice steady. He didn't want to alarm the cat, but he needed Scarlett Murphy's cooperation. "I'd advise you to leave town without talking to him."
"What?" The woman sounded baffled. The touch of bronze had left her face, which had turned mostly white. She looked like a fine Italian statue. "I've just flown two thousand miles to see him. From Alaska."
"I know," he said. "And I'm sorry for that."
"He has papers for me to sign."
Hunter pulled his wallet from his shirt pocket and took out half a dozen fifty-dollar bills. "I'll cover your travel costs." He turned his wallet over and got more bills from the inside flap. "Just give me a minute. I'll send a check for the rest."
Paying her now would be cheaper than what his grandfather had in store. Hunter always paid back the victims even if his grandfather had already spent the money. With the drought, he couldn't keep doing it, though. It was time to end his grandfather's mischief before they went broke.
"You most certainly will not stop me," she protested. "I came to see Colin Jacobson and that's what I intend to do. I'm not returning to Alaska until Monday."
It was Saturday now.
"I'm sorry, but he's not available."
At least he wouldn't be in two minutes, Hunter told himself. He'd take his grandfather back to the ranch if he had to tie him up and put him in the pickup. Sheriff Carl Wall would come and help him if he needed to make it official. The sheriff had been a good friend to Hunter over the years and knew more than most about the trouble surrounding the Jacobson family.
"But it's the fifteenth of August," the woman insisted. "We have an appointment."
The realization shot through Hunter like a bullet and left him just as dazed. For the first time in all these years, he'd forgotten. Today was the anniversary of the accident that had killed his parents. It all came back in a heartbeat. He had been ten years old and had been riding in the front seat with his father. His mother and two younger brothers, in the rear, had been thrown free of the vehicle when it turned over. His grandfather, although widowed and not in the best of health, had taken him and his brothers into his home. The old man hadn't slept those first few nights, instead going from bedroom to bedroom keeping watch over them. Hunter still remembered the sound of his grandfather's slippers shuffling across the floor. It had made him feel safe.
Hunter was speechless. No one in the family ever talked about that day. They couldn't.
This time he glanced down at the cat almost involuntarily and she, perhaps sensing his mood, abandoned her battle stance and stared at him with calm sympathy. His grandfather had gone out to the barn the morning after the accident and brought the ancestor of this cat into the house. He and his brothers had been mute in their grief, hugging the poor mother cat until Hunter was surprised she hadn't scratched them and demanded release. He'd never figured out how each generation of cats knew when they were needed, but they did.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Scarlett Murphy demanded of him as she took a step forward. "Are you a real-estate agent?"
"Of course not." Hunter came back from the past and protested automatically. He bent and scooped the cat up to his chest. This time she did not try to avoid it. He dragged his hand over her mottled orange fur to calm her. The feline was still tense, ready to bristle at the woman. No one needed to make this confrontation worse.
"Well, you're not getting part of the property, no matter who you are." She glared at him. "No commission. No finder's fee. We Murphys don't fool easy. So I'm asking again. What are you doing here?"
Hunter had his breathing under control and the cat was relaxing.
"I came to, uh, make sure no one takes advantage of you," Hunter managed to say even though he knew it was stilted.