Hell-bent on exposing a sinister plot, journalist Savannah Clarion fired up his adrenaline. Not only did she rouse his inner sleuth, but she steered him in passionate directions he couldn't control—nor did he want to. Could he stand a little excitement and a lifetime partnership?
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She'd never meant to make Cotter Creek, Oklahoma, her home. Savannah Marie Clarion had been on her way to nowhere when the transmission in her car had decided to go wonky. She'd managed to pull it into Mechanic's Mansion on Main Street before it had died completely.
She'd taken one look around the dusty small town and had decided Cotter Creek sure felt like nowhere to her.
That had been three months ago. She now hurried down Main Street toward the Sunny Side Up Café where she was meeting Meredith West for lunch. After that she had an interview to conduct for her job as a reporter for the Cotter Creek Chronicle, the daily newspaper.
"Good morning, Mr. Rhenquist." She smiled at the old man who sat in a chair in front of the barber-shop. His deeply weathered face looked like the cracked Oklahoma earth as he scowled at her.
"Somebody eat the bottom of your britches?" he asked.
She flashed him a bright smile. "It's the latest style, Mr. Rhenquist. They're cropped short on purpose."
"Looks silly to me," he replied. "No place for fashion in Cotter Creek."
"If they ever ban grouchy old farts from Cotter Creek, you'd better pack your bags," she retorted. She instantly bit her lower lip and hurried on, trying not to feel self-conscious in the short gray pants, sleek black boots and pink sweater that clashed cheerfully with her bright red curly hair.
She could almost hear her mother's voice ringing in her ears as she hurried toward the café. "You're brash, Savannah Marie. You're outspoken and it's quite unbecoming."
She stuffed her mother's voice in the mental box where she kept all the unpleasantness of her life as she entered the Sunny Side Up Café. She was greeted by the lingering breakfast scents of fried bacon and strong coffee now being overwhelmed by burgers and onions and the lunchtime fare.
Immediately she spied Meredith at a booth near the back of the busy café. At the sight of her friend, Savannah couldn't help the smile that curved her lips.
Meredith West had been one of the first people Savannah had met when she'd settled into the upstairs of a house owned by Ms. Winnie Halifax. Meredith had been visiting the sweet old lady when Savannah had been moving in.
On the surface Savannah and Meredith couldn't be more different. Meredith always looked like she'd dressed in the dark, pulling on whatever her hands managed to land on while still half-asleep. On the other hand, Savannah had been breast-fed fashion sense by a superficial mother who had believed physical beauty was the second most important thing to being rich.
"Don't you look spiffy," Meredith said as Savannah slid into the booth opposite her.
"Thanks. Rhenquist just asked me what happened to the bottom of my britches."
Meredith's full lips curved into a smile. "Rhenquist is an old boob."
A young waitress appeared at their table to take their order, interrupting their conversation momentarily. "So, what's up with you?" Savannah asked when the waitress had left their booth. "Are you off on another adventure?"
Meredith worked for the family business, Wild West Protective Services. Savannah had been intrigued when she'd learned her new friend worked as a bodyguard. "And when are you going to let me interview you for my column?"
"No, and never," Meredith replied. "I've decided to take some time off." She leaned forward, her green eyes sparkling. "My brother, Joshua is coming home. He should be here sometime today or tomorrow."
"You have too many brothers. Which one is Joshua?"
"The baby. He's been in New York for the past year and a half and we've all missed him desperately." Her affection for her younger sibling was obvious in her voice.
"Is this a visit?"
"No, he's decided to move back here. He says he's had enough of the big city. He'd probably love for you to interview him. Joshua has never shied away from attention."
"I'll keep that in mind," Savannah replied. "I'm interviewing Charlie Summit this afternoon."
"Now that should be interesting. I can't believe Cotter Creek's epitome of crazy as a loon is going to talk to you." Meredith shoved a strand of her long dark hair behind one ear.
"Actually, beneath his gruff exterior and eccentricities, Charlie is a very nice man. I sometimes go over to his place in the evenings and we play chess together. He's lonely and he was thrilled when I told him I wanted to talk to him for one of my 'People and Personality' columns."
"When we were kids he used to scare the hell out of us," Meredith said after the waitress had returned to serve their orders. "He lived all alone out there in the middle of nowhere and looked like Grizzly Adams on a bad day. There was a rumor that his root cellar was filled with children who had disobeyed their parents."
Savannah laughed. "I wonder who started that particular rumor?"
"Probably some parent with disobedient children." Meredith paused to take a sip of her iced tea, then continued. "Actually, Joshua became good friends with him when Joshua was about fifteen years old. You know that weather vane that Charlie has stuck in the ground next to his house?"
"You mean that copper monstrosity with the rooster?"
Meredith nodded. "One night a bunch of Joshua's friends dared him to steal it. Joshua sneaked up and Charlie was waiting for him with a shotgun in hand."
"So, what happened?"
"Charlie made Joshua go inside the house and call my father. As punishment Joshua had to go over to Charlie's twice a week after school and work. I think he's kept in touch with Charlie even while he's been in New York."
"If your brother is his friend, that makes two friends for Charlie. I'm hoping my article on him will humanize him and make people look beyond the scruffy beard and gruff exterior."
"Oh, I almost forgot." Meredith opened her purse and pulled out a cream-colored envelope and handed it across the table to Savannah.
"A wedding invitation. Clay and Libby are getting married a week from next Saturday."
"Wow, that's kind of fast, isn't it?" Savannah knew a little about the romance between Meredith's brother Clay and the beautiful blonde from Hollywood.
Clay had been sent to Hollywood to play bodyguard to Libby's daughter, Gracie, who was a little movie star and had been receiving threatening notes in the mail. Clay and Libby had fallen in love, and Libby and her daughter had moved to Cotter Creek a couple of weeks ago.
Meredith smiled, a touch of wistfulness in her eyes. "Yes, it's fast, but, according to Clay and Libby, when you know something is right you don't waste any time."
The two women continued to visit as they ate their lunch, then all too quickly it was time for Savannah to head to her interview with Charlie.
It was almost one o'clock as Savannah drove down Main Street, headed to the outskirts of town and the small ranch house where Charlie Summit lived.
Every morning for the past three months she had awakened and been vaguely surprised to discover herself for the most part content with her new life.
And content was something she couldn't ever remember feeling in her twenty-four years of life.
Savannah had awakened one morning in her beautiful bedroom in her parents' beautiful house and had realized if she didn't get away from the criticism and unrealistic expectations she'd never know who she was and what she was capable of being.
And so she'd headed for the biggest adventure of her life...finding her life.
It had been that faulty transmission that had brought her to Cotter Creek and a further stroke of luck that Raymond Buchannan, the owner of the local newspaper, was getting old and tired. When she'd approached him with her journalism degree in one hand and an idea for profiling the locals in a column each week in the other, he'd hired her.
In the time she'd been here, she'd grown to love Cotter Creek, but she'd begun to think something bad was happening here. There had been too many accidental deaths of local ranchers lately. On a whim she'd done some research and the results were troubling, to say the least.
She shoved away thoughts of those deaths and rolled down her window to allow in the crisp early-October air, so different from the desert heat in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she'd grown up.
She was looking forward to the interview with Charlie. All her teachers in her journalism classes had told her that she was particularly good at the art of interviewing.
She always managed to glean one little nugget of information that exposed the very center of a person. It was one of her strengths. Her mother had spent her lifetime cataloging Savannah's weaknesses.
Charlie Summit lived, as most of the ranchers in the area did, in the middle of nowhere. But, unlike most of the flat pastures of his neighbors, Charlie's little two-bedroom ranch house was surrounded by woods and a yard that hadn't seen the blade of a lawnmower in the past twenty years.
A rusted-out pickup truck body sat on cinder blocks on the east side of the house, surrounded by old scraps of tin and the infamous, huge, elaborate copper weather vane.
The junkyard collection, coupled with his hermit-like tendencies, certainly helped add to Charlie's reputation as an odd duck.
What was definitely odd was that, as Savannah pulled her car to a halt in front of the overgrown path that led to Charlie's front door, his two dogs, Judd and Jessie, were pacing the porch, obviously agitated.
Charlie never let the dogs stay out on their own. He'd always told her the two mutts were too dumb to know to scratch an itch unless he was sitting beside them telling them how to do it.
As she got out of her car, the two came running to her. They raced around her feet, releasing sharp whines. "What's the matter, boys?" she asked and knelt down to pet first the tall, mostly golden retriever then the smaller, mostly fox terrier. Savannah loved dogs, one of her many character flaws where her parents were concerned.
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