Clay Cosen wants nothing more than to put his dark past behind him, but his work impounding free-roaming cattle is creating new enemies. Rancher Isabel Nosie has her own reasons to mistrust him. She loved him once, and she's never forgiven him for her fiancé's deatha death she thinks Clay could have prevented. When someone starts killing her cattle, though, she has no choice but to turn to the best tracker on the reservation.
Soon, Izzie herself is in danger, and Clay's attempts to protect her and clear her name make him a targetand a suspect. Clay risks losing everything: the respect of his family and his tribe, and the woman he's never stopped loving.
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Black Mountain Apache Reservation
Izzie Nosie lay low over the mare's neck hoping to make herself less of a target for whoever was shooting at her.
Damn, this was her land.
What was going on?
Her legs flapped as she kicked her chestnut quarter horse, Biscuit, to greater speeds. Who was up there shooting at her?
She leaned to the right, touching the leather bridle to her horse's strong neck. The signal was received, and Biscuit darted between two pines, jumping the downed log that blocked escape. She knew her pursuers were not on horseback, so she did her best to take the route hardest to maneuver on foot. Still, she couldn't outrun a bullet. The next shot hit the tree to her left, sending shards of bark and splintered wood flying out against her cheek, barely missing her eye. She ignored the sting, focusing on flight.
Just a little farther and she'd be below range. She knew the terrain as well as she knew the layout of her barn. Fifty feet more and she could cut down a sharp hill and be clear. It'd take them a few minutes to reach the embankment for another shot, and she meant to be long gone by then. She broke from the woods and right into the path of another gunman. This one was mounted on a tall buckskin.
She drew up short, causing poor Biscuit to rear back as her mare tried to go from a gallop to a stop and nearly made it. The rider was Indian, big, lean and aiming a rifle. She used a trick of her ancestors, throwing her near leg over the pommel and falling until she lay pressed to Biscuit's opposite side. Her fingers gripped the coarse hair of her mare's neck, and she squeezed the pommel with her upper knee to keep from tumbling to the ground.
"Izzie. It's me. Clay Cosen."
She felt her already galloping heart pound painfully as emotion bled through her. What was Clay doing here? Was he one of them?
No. Never. But the doubt lifted its head like a rattlesnake in a bed of bluebonnets. Her mother's words echoed in her mind.
He's a convicted criminal.
"This way," he called. "I've got a truck."
She hesitated just long enough to cause him to look back. She saw his face go hard. Somehow he knew at a glance that she no longer trusted him. His tight, guarded expression filled her with regrets. So many regrets.
Emotion paralyzed her, and she lost her balance, slipping from her saddle and tumbling along the ground. The jolt of pain made her suck wind between her teeth. She fell, rolling to her feet. Clay was there, rifle gripped in one hand and the other extended out to her, as he guided his horse with only the pressure of his legs. She knew the man could ride. His rodeo titles proved that, and he was a sight to see approaching at a full gallop. She didn't think. She just acted, grasping his gloved hand as he charged by and leaped into the air as he pulled. He swung her up behind him. His horse never broke stride as he continued on, down the embankment. Behind them one more shot sounded.
Then they were racing over her pasture and down the steep incline. She could not see past his slate-gray cowboy hat and broad shoulders sheathed in a navy blue gingham check. He wore a battered leather vest the color of his horse, work gloves and faded denim jeans over cowboy boots that had seen better days.
Izzie wrapped her arms about his narrow waist and glanced behind them. There came Biscuit, galloping after her mistress. Izzie looked beyond but saw no one step from the cover of the aspen and pines and heard no more gunshots.
Her ears buzzed, and she trembled as the adrenaline ebbed. Izzie gave herself permission to hold him again and pressed a cheek to Clay's back. The horse's breath sounded like a great bellows as they charged on and on through the tall, yellowing grass. She held tight, feeling the taut muscles of his abdomen beneath her splayed fingers. Their bodies moved together with the horse, rocking, and Izzie closed her eyes and savored this moment, because, regardless of the reason, it had brought Clay back into her arms again.
It wasn't until his mount began to slow and Clay's posture became more erect that her mind reengaged.
Why was Clay Cosen here in her pasture? How could she know that he was not with them? But instead of thinking, she had just jumped right into his arms like the damn fool she always was every time she got around this particular man.
Poison, that's what her mother, Carol Nosie, called him. The kind of man to ruin a girl and not just her reputation. Look what Clay's father had done to his poor mother. A cautionary tale of the consequences that came of choosing the wrong kind of man. This one would take everything, her position in the community, her self-respect, her obligations to her family and, most importantly, her heart.
So why did holding him again feel so right?
Izzie's hands slipped from his middle, paused for one instant on his hips and then let go.
Clay twisted and glanced back at her.
What kind of a question was that? She'd been shot at, lost her seat and then her horse and now sat tucked against his body as if she belonged to him.
"Hell, no, I'm not all right."
Clay made a sound that might have been a laugh. Then he turned the horse, so they could see the way they had come. Biscuit was trailing her at a trot.
"I don't see any sign of them." He glanced back at her, giving her an enticing view of his strong jawline and the slight stubble that already grew there. His russet skin was so beautiful, taut and tanned. Izzie lifted her hand and had it halfway to his cheek when she realized what she was doing and forced it back down.
"Who were they?" asked Clay.
"No idea. I noticed I was missing cattle and thought they got up into the woods. There's another small pasture up in that draw. But the next thing I know, I see someone on foot, and when I called out, the idiot started shooting at me."
"I'd say at least two idiots from the sound of the shots. One was using a semiautomatic weapon."
Her body went cold at that news.
He scowled at her, and still he was a welcome sight. His expression was a mix of concern and aggravation, as if she had intentionally put herself in danger.
Clay had been born a month earlier to the day, but at twenty-four, she no longer needed him shepherding her, did she?
"You're bleeding," he said and leaned in her direction. She held still as he removed one glove and swiped a thumb gently over the crest of her cheek. She felt the sting of pain, and his fingers came away bloody. He held her chin and tilted her head as if she were a child. Well, they weren't thirteen anymore, and he was not hers. So why was it so hard to draw back?
Clay motioned with his head. "Let's go."
They rode at a canter across the pasture, and she noted her herd had moved far down field. Good, she thought. Farther away from the bullets. That's all she neededdead cows. It was hard enough to make ends meet with the water restrictions.
"Why are you here, Cosen?" she asked, refusing herself the intimacy of his first name.
He pointed to a truck parked along her fence line. "Collecting strays."
Clay worked for Dale Donner, the general livestock coordinator. One of their jobs was gathering strays from all reservation highways, which included this out-of-the-way road snaking along her grazing land. But she kept her fences in good repair, mostly because she could not afford to lose any cattle. Yet he was here, working. Her mouth went dry.
"Strays?" she repeated.
Her cattle were the only ones up here, and she was missing more than a few. Izzie had a sick feeling in her stomach.
"You catch any?"
His expression was serious. "Some."
"Izzie, someone just shot at you. I'd feel a whole lot better if we had this conversation out of range and behind cover. I've got room in my trailer for Biscuit."
He remembered the name of her favorite horse. What else did he remember? Their first kiss? The night she let him go a little too far? Or the day she told him she could not see him anymore?
They rode through her downed fence, the wire lying on the ground. She didn't see any cattle on the road, but she swung down to lift the wire.
"It's been cut," she said.
He dismounted, too, glancing back toward the woods, his rifle still out and ready. "Get behind the trailer."
"The fence," she said. "The hell with the fence."
"Did you do this?" she asked.
In answer, his color rose and his jaw set. Then he grabbed her with more force than necessary and hustled her over to the horse trailer.
Clay opened the gate and lowered the ramp. She loaded Biscuit and exited the trailer to find his mount tied to the ring on the side of the trailer. She watched him disconnect the trailer hitch.
He jerked his head toward the truck. "Get in, Bella."
He hadn't called her that since her sophomore year in high school on the night she told him she must stop seeing him.
Why, Bella? Why?
Clay rounded the trailer, and she heard the gate shut with a resounding clang. "I can't leave Biscuit."
Clay took hold of her arm and muscled her along. He was much bigger and stronger than she recalled. He had to release her or the gun to get the door open, and he chose her. He motioned to the interior, and she slipped into the cab. Then he jogged around the front of the grille and slid the rifle into place on the rack behind them.
She caught the movement and shouted.
"There!" she said, pointing.
Someone moved on the top of the tree line. Clay leaped into his seat and started the truck, accelerating into the U-turn and narrowly missing the opposite ditch.
They traveled a half mile down the hill before he lifted the radio from his hip.
"My brothers are coming. Don't want them riding into gunfire."
She nodded her agreement to that. He must mean Gabe and Kino. Gabe was the new chief, and Kino was now a police officer for the tribal police. Izzie had heard that Clay's little brother was about to be married.
Clay called his office, relayed the details and clipped the radio to his belt. He glanced in the side mirror and then back to the road. "Who are they?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I didn't get a good look." She dabbed at her cheek and winced. The blood was already drying on her face. "Why would men with automatic rifles be sneaking around in those woods?"
"A good question," he said. "What's up there?"
"Just another pasture. Oh, and a road. The tribe just improved it. It's gravel now. They did a really nice job."
"Why would the tribe improve a road going to pas-tureland?"
Izzie wrinkled her brow as she thought about that. "I don't know."
"It's just an open field?" he asked.
"Well, there's some dry fill up beyond the pasture, some digging. The tribe uses the dirt to fill holes. Maybe that's why they need the road. To bring in bigger equipment?"
But he didn't sound convinced, and his tone made her realize she should know what was happening on the land she leased. Izzie needed to get some answers.
Clay had sworn he'd never be back here.
But here he was, sitting in the police station interview room. The room that he had hoped to never see the inside of again. The very same room where he had been brought in handcuffs. Had it really been eight years? Seemed like yesterday.
Clay felt the sheen of cold sweat cover him, and he tried to tell himself that this was different.
Was it? Or was he in that kind of trouble all over again?
They had met the authorities at the bottom of the pasture. After the tribal police had cleared the scene and found no sign of the gunmen, one of Gabe's officers had taken Clay's rifle, and they had told Izzie that fifty-one of her cows had been impounded for trespass on tribal lands by a representative of the General Livestock Coordinatorin other words, by Clay. After hearing that news, Izzie hadn't spoken to him once on the long drive to the station, and he expected that she'd never speak to him again. That realization was more disturbing than sitting in this damned room again.
But he hadn't done anything wrong. Unless he had. You didn't have to know it to have done it. He'd learned that lesson well enough. Maybe this was just like the last time, only it was Izzie setting him up. Letting the cows out, calling the manager's number, drawing him into a gunfight.
No, that was just crazy, his stupid paranoid fears rearing up like a horse in the shoot at a rodeo. Tighten the cinch. Open the gate. Watch it buck. Eight seconds and all you could do was hold on. Clay held on now. He'd tried to make the right decisions. Tried to think before he acted. Tried not to take everything at face value, not be so gullible. But when he'd seen Izzie running for her life, he hadn't thought about the consequences. He had just ridden full speed into gunfire.
Clay rested his head in his hands and drew a deep breath. He still felt sick to his stomach.
He'd asked Gabe to call his boss and tell him where he was. Clay knew that if there was even a whiff of misdeeds, Donner would fire him. He'd do anything to keep this job. Anything.
He'd been lucky to get hired in the first placewith unemployment so high on the Rez and so many men searching for honest work, men without his priors.
His younger brother, Kino, came in to speak to him. Kino had been on the force about a year, acting as a patrolman. It was something Clay could never be. They didn't take men with criminal records into the police or the FBI, where his uncle Luke Forrest worked. Kino had been surprised that they had let Clay work with the Shadow Wolves on Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Clay was a special case because he was Native American, which was a requirement, a very good tracker and his conviction was not a felony. Though it nearly had been.
"So, busy day?" asked Kino, taking a seat and opening his laptop.
Clay didn't laugh. The last time he was here, Kino had been thirteen years old.
What was his boss going to say? He'd sent him to clear strays and he'd ended up in jail, again.
Kino thumbed over his shoulder. "Captain's office."
"You mean Gabe's office."
"I call him captain here. We only have one interrogation room."
Clay knew that.
"She says you had no right to impound her cattle."
"They were on the road."
"She's claiming that they were released."
"Upper fences were cut," said Clay.
"Yeah, I heard that."
"I saw that. Don't know about the lower pasture. I didn't see anything, but I wasn't looking."
"We'll check. You didn't cut them, did you?"
Clay blinked in astonishment, expecting Kino to laugh or smile or say this was some joke. He didn't. He just sat there, waiting.
"I think all our guys are up in the woods," said Kino. "I'll ask them to run the fence lines."
"They're going to ruin the scene."
"You and I are not the only ones who know how to track, brother."
"So you want to do this, or would you prefer one of the other guys handled it?"
"No. Go on."