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All Chance Walker wanted was to get to the cabin before the snowstorm and the holiday traffic got any worse.
He'd only stopped in for a minute, but now he couldn't wait to get home. He glanced around his office, ignoring the dust that had accumulated while he'd been gone. The light was flashing on his antiquated answering machine. For a moment he thought about checking his calls.
But it was only days until Christmas and he told himself he wasn't in the mood for anything to do with work. Anyone he wanted to talk to knew he hadn't been in his office for weeks and wouldn't be for a while longer. The only reason he'd stopped by this evening was to gather up any bills from the floor where the mailman had dropped them through the old-fashioned door slot.
Chance nudged his dog awake with the toe of his boot. From in front of the old radiator, Beauregard lifted his head and blinked at him, the dog not looking any more anxious to go out in the cold than Chance was. "Come on, boy. Once we get to the cabin I'll build us a fire and make us both big fat steaks. It's the holidays. I think we deserve a treat."
The dog keyed on the word "treat" and jumped to his feet, padding to the door, tail wagging.
Chance glanced around the office one last time to make sure he hadn't missed anything, not sure when he'd be back. The private investigator business was slow this time of year in Montana and he knew he hadn't completely recuperated from the bullet Doc had taken out of his shoulder.
While the physical wound had healed, Chance's heart wasn't into work yet. He wasn't sure when he would be again. Certainly not until the holidays were long gone. This time of year was always the toughest for him.
He saw Beauregard's ears perk up as they both heard the outside door open. Chance didn't give it a thought since he shared the building with a beauty salon, an insurance firm, investment office and a knitting shop.
With Christmas just days away, he knew the beauty shop and knitting store had been busy. That would explain the small, slowly melting snowdrift that had formed just inside his door. With the main entrance door opening and closing all the time, gusts of snow blew up the hallway and under his office door. He'd turned down the heat in his absence, planning to hide out until after the holidays and things slowed down again in his building.
He picked up his old black Stetson from his desk and snugged it down on his head, then moved to open the door, turning out his office lights as he and Beauregard stepped into the long hallway.
At the other end, a bundled-up figure had just come in. Snowflakes, light as feathers, skittered along the wood floor as the man shut the front door behind him, closing out the snowy December evening and the sound of a bell jingler nearby.
Chance slammed his office door, checking to make sure it was locked, and started down the hallway.
The man hadn't moved. Probably waiting for his wife in the beauty salon or the knitting shop.
But as Chance drew closer, he felt a familiar prickle of unease. The man was good-size, huddled in a sheepskin coat, fine boots and slacks, his face in shadow under a pale gray Stetson. A wealthy Montana rancher or—Chance felt a start and swore under his breath.
Or a rich Texas oilman. "Chance Walker," the man drawled in a familiar, gravely voice.
Next to Chance the dog let out a low growl as the hair stood up on the back of the canine's neck.
"Easy, Beauregard," Chance said as he reached down to pet the mutt, surprised his dog had the same reaction Chance did to the man.
"You named your dog Beauregard?"
"Couldn't think of a better name for a stray, mean-spirited mongrel."
Beauregard Bonner let out of howl of laughter and thrust out his hand, grabbing Chance's and pulling him into a quick back-slapping hug. "Damn, boy, I've missed you." Beauregard, the dog, growled louder in warning. "Call off your dog and tell me where we can get a stiff drink in this town. You and I need to talk."
Chance couldn't imagine what he and Beauregard Bonner might have to talk about. The last time Chance had seen Bonner it had been in the man's Texas mansion outside of Houston. Bonner had been gripping a shotgun and threatening to blast a hole the size of Texas in him.
"Damn, this is a cold country," Bonner said, rubbing his gloved hands together and grinning good-naturedly, but there was a nervous edge to the man that Chance didn't miss. "I don't know about you, but I really could use that drink."
Chance had a feeling he would need one himself. He pointed to the Stockman Bar across the street, his curiosity getting the better of him. What would bring a man like Bonner all the way to Montana in the middle of winter?
Nothing good, of that Chance was certain as they crossed the street in the near blizzard, the dog trotting along beside them.
"They let dogs in bars up here?" Bonner asked in surprise as the dog followed them through the door and down the long bar to sprawl on the floor under Chance's stool.
"Actually, they prefer dogs over Texans," Chance said. Bonner looked over at him with a Don't Mess With Texas scowl. "I don't care how long you've lived here, you're still a Texan, born and raised."
Chance said nothing as Bonner ordered them both a drink. Bonner still drank expensive Scotch neat. Chance had a beer, nursing it since he had the drive ahead of him to the cabin—and he knew to keep his wits about him as he studied the man sitting on the stool next to him with growing dread.
Beauregard Bonner had aged since Chance had last seen him. His blond hair had grayed and the lines around his eyes had deepened. But the booming drawl was that of the filthy rich oilman Chance remembered only too well.
"Guess you're wondering what I'm doing here," Bonner said after downing half of his drink.
Chance stared down into his beer, waiting. A Christmas song was playing on the jukebox and the back bar glittered with multicolored lights. There was a Christmas tree decorated with beer cans at the other end of the bar and a large Santa doll with a beer bottle tucked in his sack.
"It's my daughter," Bonner said.
Chance's head shot up. "Rebecca?" Last he'd heard, Rebecca had married some hotshot lawyer from back east who'd gone to work for her father. They lived in a big house near Houston and had three kids.
"Not Rebecca." Bonner made a face. "Dixie."
"Dixie?" Rebecca's little sister? Chance recalled freckles, lots of them, braces and pigtails, an impish little kid who'd been a real pain in the neck the whole time he'd been dating Rebecca.
"Dixie might be in some trouble," Bonner said as he scowled down at his drink.
Chance could not for the life of him imagine what that had to do with him and said as much. "I want to hire you to find her."
Chance pulled back, even more surprised. "They don't have private investigators in Texas?"
"She's not in Texas. She's in Montana. At least, it's where the last kidnapper's call came from."
Chance swore. "Kidnapper?" "I need you to find her. I'm worried this time because the ransom demand is a million dollars."
"This time? What was it last time?" Chance asked, half joking.
"When Dixie was three, it was a hundred dollars. Then a hundred thousand in high school. Five hundred grand in college. I figured Dixie was too smart to ever ask for a million, but damned if she didn't."
Chance couldn't believe this. "Have you contacted the police? The FBI? Shouldn't someone be looking for her?"
"There's something you have to understand about Dixie. The last time she had herself kidnapped in college, I had cut off her money over a little dispute between us. The FBI got involved. It was ugly. She was dating some loser..." He drained his drink and signaled the bartender for another.
Chance motioned that he was fine. "Loser?" he repeated, remembering when Bonner had called him the same thing. It was about the time he'd started dating Dixie's older sister Rebecca. Chance supposed Bonner would still consider him just that, a loser. So why come all this way to hire him?
Rubbing a hand over his face, Chance asked, "So you're saying that Dixie hasn't really been kidnapped. You're sure about that?"
"I can't be sure of anything with Dixie." Bonner tipped up his glass and swallowed. "That's why I want you to find her. I trust you more than I do the police or the FBI, and you can do it with more discretion."
Chance shook his head. "For starters, I don't have the resources of either of those agencies and I'm not working right now. I'm taking the holidays off."
Bonner nodded. "Heard about you getting shot." He smiled at Chance's reaction. "I've kept my eye on you over the years."
Nothing could have surprised Chance more, but he did his best to hide it. "Then you know that I'm not taking any cases right now."
"I know you almost got killed, but that the guy who shot you is dead and won't be hurting anyone else thanks to you," Bonner said.
"Don't try to make killing a man a virtue, all right?"
"You had no other choice," Bonner said. "I saw the police report. Also, I know that your shoulder is as good as new." He smiled again, a twinkle in his eye.
Chance swore under his breath. Bonner hadn't changed a bit. He believed he could buy anything—and most of the time he could. Bonner's was a famous Texas story. Raised on a chicken-scratch farm, poor as a church mouse, Beauregard Bonner had become filthy rich overnight when oil had been discovered on the place his old man had left him.
Ever since, Bonner had used his money to control as many people as possible. And vice versa if what he was saying about his youngest daughter was true. "Go to the authorities," Chance said irritably.
"You've come to the wrong man for this one."
"I can't," Bonner said, looking down into his drink again. "They wouldn't take it seriously. Why should they, given that she's pulled this stunt before and there is no evidence that she's been abducted?"
"What about the ransom demand and the fact that she's missing? There was a ransom demand, right?"
"Just a male voice over the phone demanding a million dollars before I even knew she was missing," Bonner said. "I thought it was a joke. The call came from a pay phone in Billings, Montana."
Chance studied the older man for a long moment. "What is it you aren't telling me?"
Bonner sighed. "Just that I need her found as quietly as possible. I'm involved in some deals right now that are sensitive, which I'm sure is why she's doing this now."
Chance stared at the man. "You're telling me your business deal is more important than your daughter?"
"Don't be an ass, of course not," Bonner snapped.
"Don't you think I pulled a few strings to find out what I could? All the recent charges on Dixie's credit cards have what they say is her signature. From the pattern of use it would appear that she's up to her old tricks."
Chance groaned. "She's kidnapped herself?" Again. Why did she have to pick Montana this time, though? "Why don't you just give her the million? Hell, she's going to inherit a lot more than that someday anyway, right?"
Bonner looked over at him and shook his head. "She'd just give it all away. To save some small country somewhere. Or a bunch of damned whales. Or maybe free some political prisoners. She's like my brother Carl. I swear it's almost as if they feel guilty that we have money and want to give it all away."