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Chase sat back in his chair at the Lucky Lady Saloon in Fool's Fortune, Colorado, letting the three-hundred-dollar-a-bottle whiskey and the lilting sound of Sadie Lovely's voice wash over him.
Today marked the anniversary of his obligation to his grandfather's will. In order to inherit all of what his grandfather left him, he had to agree to live at the Lucky Lady Ranch for two entire years without leaving for more than one month out of each year.
Finally, he was free to choose wherever he wanted to go, whatever he wanted to do and whomever he wanted to do it with.
But he wasn't really. In the past two weeks, he'd gone from anticipating leaving the ranch to his overseer to promising to stay until things settled down with Sadie.
Fifteen years older than him, she was a friend from his former playboy life, really an acquaintance who'd saved him from being mugged by thugs and drowning in a gutter when he'd been too drunk and stupid to help himself.
Tough as nails, with a heart of gold, Sadie had held off the thugs with a .40-caliber pistol she kept strapped to her thigh beneath her evening dress. She'd dragged him into her home, sobered him up and asked for nothing in return.
He'd offered her his friendship, and even got to know her grandson, Jake, a cute little boy with curious green eyes. He wasn't sure what had happened to cause Jake's mother to crash her car, hadn't asked and Sadie hadn't volunteered the information. It was clear she was raising the boy to the best of her ability.
When she'd come to him two weeks ago, scared and in need of his help, he'd opened his doors to her, set her up with a job at one of the businesses he'd inherited from his grandfather and helped her move her and her grandson into his big empty house on the Lucky Lady Ranch until she could get set up in a place of her own.
Sadie ended her song and descended from the stage to sit in the chair opposite Chase. In her late forties, she was still an attractive woman, with smooth curves and a sultry smile. "I'm glad you came."
Chase sat forward, the mild buzz from the alcohol clearing as he leaned forward. "I came as soon as I got your message. I must say I'm surprised you agreed to perform tonight."
She shrugged. "I never know when a threat is real or just a threat. All I know is that I can't live my life like this. I have to work to support my grandson. Speaking of which." She bit her lip, the lines around her eyes more pronounced than usual. "I want to make sure you're still good for my backup should anything happen to me where Jake's concerned."
"I'm his godfather now. I'd do anything for the kid."
She reached across the table and touched his arm. "Even raise him as your own?" Sadie held his gaze.
Chase's chest tightened. "That won't be an issue. He's got you."
"I'm serious. I have a bad feeling."
"We moved you from Leadville to give you a new start. Hopefully, whoever burned down your house won't follow you here. You should be okay."
She smiled. "I have a limited number of skills. Changing my name and hair color hardly constitutes going incognito when all I'm qualified to do is sing and
Chase covered her hand. "Look, Sadie, you're done with that other life. You don't have to go back to entertaining men. You have a good job here, where all you have to do is sing for a living." Though he subsidized her earnings, he wasn't telling her. He owed her his life.
She nodded. "Thanks to you. I'm just afraid my past is catching up to me."
"Why? What has you scared?"
"I had another empty message on my voice mail. On my new cell phone." She bit her bottom lip.
"It was a computer-generated sales call gone bad." Chase shook his head. "What else do you have?"
"I feel like someone is following me. Watching me." She turned her head and stared out at the practically empty barroom. "Especially today. Every time I turned around I saw nothing, yet I can swear someone is there. Waiting. Watching."
"Sweetheart, after having a stalker following you around for the past few weeks, you have a right to feel paranoid."
She pulled her hand away from his. "It's more than that. When I left my dressing room earlier, I locked the door behind me. I went back because I forgot my throat spray. The door was open. I know I locked it."
"Perhaps the janitor?"
"He doesn't come on until after midnight."
Chase's anger simmered just beneath the surface.
Sadie was his friend and he hated seeing her so distraught. "I placed a call to a man I know of who provides specialized, undercover bodyguards. I asked specifically for a woman to blend in with you and the saloon."
Tears welled in Sadie's eyes. "A bodyguard?" Then she shook her head. "I can't pay you back. Not yet."
"No need. I don't like the idea of you and Jake in danger. At least you'll be safe at the ranch until you find a place of your own. And hopefully, we'll discover who's stalking you and nail the jerk before you move back to town into your own place."
She smiled. "In the meantime, I need to know that you'll be there for Jake, if anything happens to me. You're the only one he trusts besides me and the Quaids." She leaned closer to him. "Chase?"
"If anything should happen to me, I want you to have this." She pressed something cold and hard into his palm and curled his fingers around it.
"What is it?" He could tell by the shape, it was a key, but to what?
"It's the key to my safe-deposit box at the First Colorado Bank in Denver. You, me and my attorney are the only ones who have access to the box. He has authority to turn it over to the police should you and I disappear."
"Which you aren't, and I'm not," he assured her.
Sadie took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I haven't told you everything about me. The safe-deposit box has information in it that would explain a lot. I can't say that I've lived a perfect life. Far from it. Basically, it's a compilation of my secrets and Melissa's, Jake's mother."
Chase snorted. "As if I would be the one to judge."
Sadie gave him one of her gentle smiles. "You've changed in the past two years, Chase." Her forehead crinkled. "I'm glad you're not drinking as heavily, but I think you've lost some of your fire."
It was his turn to smile at her. "The last time you gave me advice, I slowed down. Are you telling me I slowed down too much?"
"You did the right thing. You were on a suicidal path. Your grandfather's will was just the ticket to get you back on track, not me."
"I wouldn't have come back to Fool's Fortune if it hadn't been for you."
Her mouth twisted. "Sure you would have, if for nothing else but to spit on your grandfather's grave for the way he disinherited your mother."
"My parents might still be here if he hadn't been so hard on my mother."
Sadie clucked her tongue. "You don't know that."
"Well, they wouldn't have been living in New York City. My mother never liked living anywhere else but Colorado."
"That's the past. As a wise man once said to me, you have to let go of your past to live in the present or you will have no future."
Chase sat across the table from Sadie, the woman who, despite her former trade, reminded him of the mother he'd lost six years ago. He pocketed the key, determined to guard Sadie's secrets. "Thanks, Sadie. Rest assured. I'll take care of Jake if anything happens to you."
She nodded. "That's all I ask."
"Now let me take you home."
"I drove my car here. I can drive it home." She pushed to her feet, a tired smile curving her lips. "I should be okay."
Chase shook his head. "I won't take no for an answer."
He, too, rose from his seat. "Besides, I'd like the company on the drive back to the ranch."
"Are you sure you don't mind that Jake and I are staying with you at the ranch?"
"The house is too big for just me and the Quaids." With a smile, Chase added, "Jake should be sound asleep by now. Knowing Frances, she's plied him with homemade cookies and read him several books by now. Probably let him stay up late, despite his nine o'clock bedtime."
Sadie's lips twisted. "I'd be angry at her, but she's so good with Jake and he adores her. The poor boy needs a mother."
"He's got you."
"And I love him with all my heart. Too bad Melissa didn't live to watch him grow into a man. Hard to believe she's been dead almost six months."
"Still hurts, doesn't it?" Chase slipped an arm around the older woman and hugged her to him as they walked to the little room behind the stage where Sadie had left her faux fur jacket hanging on a coat rack.
Sadie stopped in front of the coat rack and waited for Chase to gather her coat and hold it out to her. As she slipped her arms into the sleeves, she said, "A mother should never have to bury her own child."
Jake let his hands rest on Sadie's shoulders for just a moment. "You never told me what happened to Melissa."
"She ran her car over the side of a cliff. The police ruled it an accident, but the people who knew her said she'd been acting funny, almost paranoid."
Jake shrugged into his coat, his eyes narrowing. "Do you think she committed suicide?"
"I wouldn't put it past her. But then, she exacerbated her problems by continuing to put herself front and center of trouble." Sadie's shoulders sagged, making her appear every bit of her forty-something years. "I should have spent more time with her when she was a teen."
"If she was like every other teen, she wouldn't have wanted you around."
"You don't have any kids scattered across the country, do you?" Sadie pinned him with her stare. "You were the wild one for a while there."
"No, I was sure to protect the women I'd been with
and any child that might have resulted, from getting a father he couldn't count on." Fishing his keys from his pocket he held the door for Sadie.
She touched his cheek as she stepped through the door. "You would make a good father."
"I don't know why you think that. My father was never home. He and my mother never settled for long."
Sadie smiled. "I know because I can see what a good man you are."
Chase led the way out the back door and around the side of the building onto Main Street. The wind had picked up, sending a chilling blast from the snowcapped peaks surrounding them down to the streets. Bowing his shoulders, Chase did his best to block the wind from Sadie as they crossed Main Street, their feet making sharp clicking sounds on the icy pavement.
"When are you going to find yourself a woman to share your life with?" Sadie asked.
"Again, my parents weren't the best advertisement for marriage. I'm not the least in a hurry to find a woman to settle down with. I like my solitude and I'm beginning to like the seclusion of the Lucky Lady Ranch."
At the middle of the street headlights shined in Chase's eyes. He lifted his hand to block the brilliant glare blinding him. "We'd better hurry." Chase gripped Sadie's arm and guided her toward the other side of the street.
Before they reached the sidewalk, tires squealed and the vehicle sped up, aiming directly for them.
"Run!" Chase shouted, shoving Sadie toward the sidewalk, then he turned to face the oncoming vehicle.
Katherine Rivers blinked tired eyes as she entered the outskirts of Fool's Fortune, the quaint Colorado town in the middle of the Rockies. It was well past eleven o'clock, Texas time, and she'd been on the road since four that morning.
All she wanted was to get to the Lucky Lady Saloon, find a bed to crawl into and save the introductions to her new assignment, Chase Marsden, until after she'd had a decent night's sleep. She wasn't even due in until tomorrow. Surely a good night's sleep would boost her spirits and set her on the right path with this new job and her first CCI assignment.
The streets, cheerfully decorated in bright Christmas lights, were pretty much deserted with the occasional car passing. Small town life would suit her fine after the insanity of Houston traffic and crime.
Her GPS indicated she was two blocks from the saloon on Main Street. She could see the neon lights of a building ahead and presumed it was her destination. Two shadowy figures emerged from the entrance and started across the street. Good. Maybe the place would be empty and she wouldn't have to speak to anyone but the desk clerk.
Her back ached and the scar on her belly twinged at the enforced inactivity of driving across Texas and New Mexico all day. She needed to move, to perform the stretching exercises the physical therapist had armed her with after her surgery.
She snorted. A broken-down Texas Ranger, medically retired after a shoot-out gone wrong. Some bodyguard she'd be.
Faced with finding a job sitting behind a desk, Kate had been more than happy to accept Hank Derringer's offer of employment in his supersecret organization, Covert Cowboys, Inc. Although, being female, she wasn't sure how that worked. Technically, she was a cowgirl, born and raised in the panhandle of Texas on a four-thousand-acre ranch.
She knew her way around horses, cattle and a barnyard. The fourth daughter of a rancher, she had never felt she was a disappointment to her father, who would probably have preferred sons to carry on the Rivers name.
Her father treated her like any other ranch hand, only with a whole lot of love and care. She could ride as well or better than any man on the ranch and she'd done her share of roping, branding and castrating steers. Her sisters had preferred to work in the house, but knew how to ride and feed the animals.
Her father boasted she was as good or better than any son he might have had and he wouldn't have changed a thing. When she left the ranch to join the Texas Rangers, Kate Rivers wasn't afraid of anything.
All that had changed in one night, one fateful shootout.
Resisting the urge to floor her accelerator and finish this trip, Kate pushed away thoughts of that night eight months ago and maintained her speed, her goal in sight.
A dark SUV darted out in front of her from a side street.
Kate slammed her foot on the brake pedal and skidded to a halt.