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Why had he come back here?
Halfway down the mile-long dirt-and-gravel driveway, Court Brody slowed the old truck he had purchased for this assignment to a stop and surveyed the Lonesome Pony ranch. Though not the same ranch he had grown up on, the scene was all too familiar. A wide stream curved through the property like a winding snake. The towering mountain ranges served as a backdrop for a picture straight off the pages of a calendar. A large barn and corral sat in the distance, beyond the trees that bordered the house and yard. Though more modern, the big rambling house with its sprawling front porch reminded him of the one he hadn't lived in as a kid growing up in Montana.
Nope. His family had occupied a much smaller place just far enough away from the big house to know he didn't really belong, but not quite far enough away to ignore what he was missing. Court swallowed the bitterness that welled in his throat at the memories.
His family had been dirt poor. Once his pathetic excuse for a father had died, he and his three bothers had scattered apart like so much dust in the wind. But he had landed on his feet. He'd gotten his college degree by working hard and earning a scholarship. Then he'd joined the Bureau. He had what he wanted now—money, prestige and a great condo as far away from this damned place as he could get and still remain in the continental United States. His brothers hadn't done so badly either.
"Enough, Brody," Court grumbled. Coming back here wasn't his idea, but he would make the best of it because it was his job. And Courtland Brody never failed at his job. He was good. He knew it, and the Bureau knew it as well. If Daniel Austin and the rest of his Montana Confidential crew didn't know it yet, they soon would. Whether they ever wanted to admit it or not. Court knew the business of undercover work.
A division of the Federal Department of Safety, Montana Confidential worked in a way the Bureau couldn't. The agents lived and worked a ranch, thus blending in with the locals. The Bureau, acting as Big Brother, offered to lend a hand in getting the Montana operation off the ground. Translation: Court's new assignment, infiltrate the militia and determine what leader Joshua Neely was up to. Not such a bad assignment had it been any place else on the planet. There were far too many memories here that he didn't want to relive. Too many faces he didn't want to see… couldn't bear to see.
Disgusted with himself for loitering in the past, Court drove the rest of the way to the house and parked behind Daniel Austin's truck. It was Saturday and most of the crew appeared to be on the porch enjoying the late August afternoon. Thankfully it wasn't as hot as it had been the past couple of days. He might as well get this
over with. Court emerged from the vehicle and strode toward the house.
Not surprisingly, Dale McMurty was the first to greet him. Dale and her husband, Patrick, were locals and friendly to a fault. Exactly the kind of people he'd left behind eleven years ago. He didn't want anyone close, and the McMurtys liked to get close. The elderly couple served as caretakers for the ranch Montana Confidential used as a home base. Just one more reason he was glad to be bunking at the compound now.
"Howdy, Court," Dale shouted, hands propped on her apron-clad, ample hips. She appraised him from head to toe as he stepped up onto the porch. "Now, that's more like it, son. You look like you belong on a ranch instead of in some big fancy office."
Court couldn't prevent the half smile that tilted one side of his mouth. Leave it to Dale to praise his thrift-store finds. He needed to fit in, therefore faded jeans and worn shirts were a must. But the boots and hat were his own. Some things a man couldn't compromise on. No matter how long he lived in the city, he didn' t think he would ever find anything that wore better than a good pair of boots.
"You look like the Marlboro man," Whitney MacNair, Austin's executive assistant, noted, approval in her crisp voice. As usual, she looked like a model off the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.
"Thank you, ladies," Court acknowledged with a tip of his hat. Dale was likely just being nice, Court knew, but Whitney—the fashion queen—was another story. "I couldn't exactly waltz into Neely's compound wearing Armani, now could I?"
Whitney pretended to consider that option for a moment, then grinned. "Guess not, cowboy."
Court resisted the wicked urge to ask her if she knew the UPS man on a first-name basis yet. The wilds of Montana might not offer a Gucci store for the diehard in-vogue shopper, but Whitney had discovered a direct connection to her favorite big-city shops on the Internet. And UPS was more than happy to deliver.
Frank Connolly, one of the agents assigned to Confidential, nodded a hello in Court's direction, but he was too busy attending to his new wife to pay Court any real mind. And CJ. definitely had eyes only for Frank. She shot Court a quick smile just the same. He had to admit that the two made a nice couple. A wistful feeling welled inside of him, but he brutally squashed it. He didn't need a relationship like that… he had the Bureau.
Jewel, the McMurtys' usually vivacious twelve-year-old granddaughter, looked about as solemn-faced as a lonesome filly separated from the rest of the herd. Court wondered if Frank and C.J.'s wedding was the reason for her sad expression. The kid had herself a king-size crush on the ex-military pilot. Frank's sudden marriage to CJ. obviously didn't sit well with the kid. Well, Court could certainly sympathize with that.
Marriage was just like family—overrated.
More greetings were exchanged before Court made his way to the man he needed to see. Daniel Austin, head of operations, stood at the far end of the porch looking out over the ranch. The place was shaping up rather well, Court had to admit. And Austin was the driving force behind the evolution. A former dude ranch, the Lonesome Pony had every amenity one could wish for in the wilds of horse country, including a fancy pool and private cabins. Austin had done a good job pulling this setup together in a short period of time.
Court wondered, though, as he came up next to Austin, if this would ever be enough for the man. Court had the distinct impression that something was missing. Maybe Austin was another victim of the wedding bell blues. The man was obviously still in love with his ex-wife, and missed his son immensely.
Just another reason, Court mused, to steer clear of the troubling entanglement of marriage. He didn't want to know the kind of regrets and pain being separated from a child could bring.
Austin met Court's gaze then, and studied him a moment before he spoke. "What went wrong?"
Before Court even opened his mouth, the man knew. He was smart, and too wise for Court's comfort. Of course, it didn't take a rocket scientist to know that Court wouldn't have bothered stopping by so early in the operation unless he felt it absolutely necessary. "I ran into an old friend," he admitted quietly.
"I thought you didn't have any connections here."
Court heard the concern in the older man's voice. Both knew just how risky this business could be. There was no room for guesswork.
"Just one." One he had banished from his mind two years ago, Court didn't add. One he should have forgotten, but hadn't really—at least not on the level he needed to. And he'd definitely tried.
"Give me his name and I'll have Kyle or Frank take care of it."
"Her name is Sabrina Korbett." Court let go a weary breath. "And I can take care of her myself. She won't give me up."
Surprise evident in his expression, Austin asked, "You're sure about that?"
Court nodded. "She's the only one who knows. She wouldn't purposely put me in danger, but…" He took a moment to consider his words. "But she might not understand, so I'll have to talk to her." He shrugged. "Make up some kind of acceptable excuse."
Austin rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "She's that kind of connection, huh?"
"She used to be." Court pretended to survey the landscape he'd just as soon not lay eyes on again. Austin was studying him, attempting to read his thoughts. Measuring the risk.
"I've met Sabrina, even bought some mares fromher," Austin told him. "She seems nice enough." He leveled his too-knowing gaze on Court's. "But watch your step," he advised sagely. "A woman can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. Even one as sweet as Sabrina."
Court suffered his own little jolt of surprise at the knowledge that Austin knew Sabrina. Just another possibility he hadn't considered. It seemed his old life was determined to get all twisted up with his new one. And he didn't want that to happen.
"I just came by to let you know that I'm in," Court said abruptly, effectively changing the subject. "They're going to make it official at the rally tonight."
"Let's take a walk," Austin suggested.
Court followed Austin across the porch and to the steps. Before he could get away completely, C.J.'s English-accented voice stopped him. "Whitney and Kyle are laying odds on who will walk down the aisle next. What's your opinion, Agent Brody?" she asked.
Deliberately, Court turned back to face both the question and the lady. Her cheeks darkened as if she'd only just realized how forward her question sounded. "I wouldn't dream of speculating, Mrs. Connolly, but I can guarantee you it won't be me."
A knowing smile tilted the lovely scientist's mouth. "Never say never, Agent Brody," she warned.
"When my daddy gets married, I'm gonna be the f'ower girl," Molly, Kyle Foster's daughter, announced in her most enthusiastic three-year-old voice, from her position in her daddy's lap. Kyle only shook his head in dismay.
Court gifted the little girl with a smile and quickly turned away from the other speculative gazes. He didn't care what they laid odds on as long as they left him out of it. Kyle, the second agent assigned to support Montana Confidential, should have learned his lesson as well. Court had heard the rumors about how the guy's ex-wife had dumped him and the kid. Court shook his head as he followed Austin away from the house. Walking away from a defunct marriage was one thing, but leaving a kid was unspeakable.
Just another reason that "never" was exactly when Court planned to marry. The image of Sabrina suddenly loomed large in his mind, but he pushed it away. Whatever they had once shared, it was long gone now. There was nothing between them anymore but his guilt, her hurt and a lingering spark of leftover physical attraction.
"The vet stopped by yesterday," Austin said, drawing Court's wayward attention back to him. "That prize-winning mare we were lucky enough to purchase was successfully bred with the new stallion."
Court glanced at the pasture beyond the corral where the stallion grazed. The animal was a beauty. A dark bay with a white blanket and spots. Court propped one arm on the top rail of the corral and surveyed the other mares scattered about beyond the stallion. Mostly quarter horses and Appaloosas, he noted, remembering that the Double K, Sabrina's ranch, had specialized in Appys. The thought was accompanied by another image of Sabrina and those long, tanned legs. His mouth went dust dry.
Blinking away the image, he snagged his gaze on the one horse that didn't seem to fit with the rest of the herd. An old gelding—Silver, if he remembered right. A mottled white horse, the color of stonework. The bony old fella wasn't good for much other than keeping the McMurtys' granddaughter happy. The girl did love that old horse.
Court snapped his thoughts back to the assignment. Horses weren't his business anymore. Neither were ranches. Hell, he didn't even like being here.
"Is there something else you wanted to say, Austin?" Court knew the man hadn't dragged him away from the others to brag about his breeding expertise. Court already knew more than he wanted to about what people did for a living in Montana. He could teach Austin a thing or two. Including how that fancy helicopter Austin had insisted the Confidential crew needed for rapid deployment could be used for herding horses.
Austin fixed his steady brown gaze on Court's. "I know you think you're not one of us, Court, but you are." He held up his hand when Court would have protested the "teamwork" talk again. "Right now you're assigned to Confidential, and I expect you to remember that."
"I don't think there's much chance I could forget it," Court returned curtly.
"You're a good man, Court, a top-notch agent, but don't think that will keep me from jerking your butt off this assignment if you ignore my orders."
Court gritted his teeth against the instant response that wanted to form on his lips. He knew his job… and he knew the chain of command. Austin didn't need to remind him of either.
"Don't even think about leaving me out of the loop. We're a team. Frank and Kyle are part of that team as well."
"You'll know everything I know," Court assured him patiently. "I'll keep you fully informed."
"Good." Austin's gaze returned to the stallion. "Since I know you're a man of your word, I won't worry about that anymore."
"I'll check in with you as soon as I have anything to pass along."
Court turned and strode toward his truck. He would keep Austin informed… that was his job. But if Austin thought Court was going to follow anybody else's time clock, he had another thought coming.
Reluctantly, Court stopped and turned back to the man in charge. "Yeah?"
"Don't forget what I said about women. You can't ever be sure."
Court nodded thoughtfully, then continued toward his destination. Hell, he supposed his next stop should be the Double K. He had to set Sabrina straight right from the start. And he had every intention of finding out what she'd been doing at the militia compound.
Maybe that way she wouldn't haunt his dreams again tonight. Hell, if he'd known that last night's dream of seeing her again was going to be prophetic he'd have avoided today's confrontation. But he hadn't known, and today's little tête-à-tête had proved one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. He would have to be very, very careful where Sabrina was concerned.