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On the day her second life went up in flames, a female shopper stared out as the rain came sideways, driven by the high winds of a sudden squall. Just inside the automatic glass doors, she hesitated, watching another woman stagger beneath her umbrella before a gust blew it inside out.
With a murmur of sympathy for the drenched customer scurrying to her car, the shopper in the doorway wondered whether her frozen dinners would survive if she waited out the downpour. Or whether she would have at least thought of an umbrella if she hadn't been too miserable, too anxious, to check the weather forecastor even look up at the sky.
A baby-faced manager trotted up to her, the loose knot of his necktie peeping out from beneath his plastic poncho. "If you'll point out your car," he offered, his Adam's apple bobbing, "I'll pull it right up to the front here by the overhang."
Her knee-jerk response was to clutch her keys even tighter, to trust no one, as she'd been warned. But the young manager looked so newly minted and so earnest, and she'd almost forgotten what it was to be offered such an uncomplicated kindness. Besides, this was small-town Iowa, a world away from everything she feared.
"Thank you," she told him before pointing out a small sedan so nondescript it might as well be invisible. Which was exactly why she drove it, rather than the sleek, eyecatching Jaguar she'd been given for her thirtieth birthday, a replacement for the Mercedes from the year before. "You're so sweet to do that for me."
Nodding, he turned quicklythough not fast enough to hide his blushand dashed off into the rain.
Seconds later, she flinched as a boom shook the air, the lot, the entire building and a gout of flame erupted, so blinding that her first stunned thought was that the poor manager had been struck by lightning.
Behind her, screams competed with the sirens of a half-dozen car alarms, and several employees pushed past her to see what had happened. But she stood frozen, mute with terror, her panicked pulse pounding in her ears. With an almost-audible click, her shocked brain put together what she'd really witnessed. Not an act of nature, not a lightning bolt at all.
The flames pouring from her car's shattered windows and whipping in the wild wind had nothing to do with this storm. And everything to do with Renzo's favorite means of disposing of "loose ends."
Where would she go now, now that he'd found her a thousand miles and a new identity away?
Where could she hide this timeand who could be trusted with her life?
Two weeks later
Huge, black and in a world of hurt, the bull was in no mood to be messed with. Inside the corral, nearly a ton of raw beef and attitude paced restlessly and snorted, his breath steaming in the freezing morning air.
"Easy, Nitro. Steady, boy," said Dylan Frick, noting the torn and bloody shoulder that Dead River Ranch veterinarian Amanda Colton needed to stitch up. Whether the massive creature had gotten caught on some barbed wire or fought with another animal, Dylan couldn't say. All that mattered was keeping ranch owner Jethro Colton's prized new Angus-Brahman cross strong enough to re-invigorate the herd.
Dying or not, the billionaire was still counting on Dylan, the head wrangler and renowned large-animal whisperer, to calm the massive beast enough so he could be treated. But as he told Bingo and Betsy, the ranch's two English shepherds, "Stay," and stepped inside the pen, he automatically shifted focus, slowing his movements and syncing both his brain and body with the huge animal's instincts.
Big universities had experts giving clinics in stock handling all over Wyoming and beyond, but Dylan had never needed any training to get started. He'd known what to do ever since the day he'd first toddled outdoors and slipped into the stall of a stallion so dangerously unstable that Jethro had given orders for the horse to be put down.
Dylan still remembered his mother's terrified cry, her ashen face as she'd rushed toward him. In crystalline detail, the memory unfolded, and he watched her fear give way, first to astonishment, then joy and wonder, when the "vicious" stallion lowered its head and nickered for him to scratch its silky neck, the first step in the valuable stud's rehabilitation.
But Dylan's thoughts zoomed in on the freeze-frame image of his mother, the mother who had held him, raised him, loved him
Who'd been murdered on this very ranch just four months ago, shot down by a kidnapper bent on taking Jethro's only grandchild. Racked with guilt that he had even considered for a moment the possibility that she was not his biological mother, Dylan soon found himself drifting, plucking at the edges of a life that threatened to unravel.
Nitro turned toward him and pawed the ground, still muddy with the remnants of an earlier November snowfall. Dylan looked away with feigned indifference, tracking a red-tailed hawk that flew out of the woods behind the stable. Then he strolled across the corral, his long-limbed body as loose and unhurried as his mind was troubled.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the bull instinctively veer away, trotting in the direction of the open chute door. Trusting that the huge animal would stay put once he found the hay, sweet feed and water Dylan had placed there, he wondered again why he had allowed himself to be talked into taking the damned DNA test in the first place. Though he had bigger goals, he'd been happy in the work that he'd felt born to do, content living in his Spartan room in the employee wing of Dead River Ranch's grand mansion. And he was proud, damned proud, to be the only child of widowed ranch governess Faye Frick, who had served as a loving mother figure for so many others. He didn't need cushier surroundings, and he damned well didn't want to find out he was actually Cole Colton, Jethro's only son, who'd been taken thirty years before and never seen or heard of again.
Worse yet, he didn't want to deal with the suspicion that the woman, whose absence was still a raw wound, might have killed to claim him.
Outside the corral, Betsy and Bingo leaped to their feet barking and raced toward him. It was the only warning Dylan had about the high price of his distraction, his only chance to avoid the black blur hurtling toward himand a pair of wicked horns. He leaped sideways, dodging death, but not even that instinctive action saved him from a glancing blow off his right shoulder.
The impact spun him, slamming him into the fence rails with force enough to rattle his back fillings. At his side in a split second, the shepherds leaped and barked, distracting the bull as he charged after first one, then the other, giving Dylan the moment he needed to roll beneath the bottom rail to safety.
Still on the muddy ground, he caught his breath and whistled for the shepherds. The brown-and-white female heeded instantly, with black-and-white Bingo giving the bull one last, defiant bark and following a moment later. Both dogs rushed to fill his arms, their frantic licks and wagging tails encouraging him to get to his feet.
"All right, you two. All right. Good dogs, very good dogs." Dylan stroked the silky heads and rose with a grunt, aching everywhere. Looking around to see if all the noise had brought anybody running, he sighed and told the pair, "There's an extra biscuit in it for you if you don't let this get around. Maybe steak, if I can sneak one from the kitchen."
As he headed for the stable to wash up, he clenched his jaw, scarcely believing he'd made such a rookie mistake as assuming that an already-agitated bull would rather munch some sweet feed than take out his aggression on the nearest target. If he kept it up, Dylan knew, his worries over this damned DNA test and all the recent criminal activity would be the death of him.
Leaving the dogs outside, he closed the stable door just behind him, then went to the big sink. Stripping to the waist, he washed off the ground-in mud and beading blood from the scraped skin of his lower left arm.
He didn't get much further when he froze, abruptly aware of the shuffling of hooves and a horse's nervous nicker. Turning off the water, he heard a thump against another stall, followed by the low rumble of another horse. An uneasy rumble, as if there were somethingor someonein this stable that did not belong.
He pulled on his shirt, his thoughts returning to his mother's murder. Though a young hand named Duke Johnson had confessed to the crime, no one yet knew who had put him up to itor later murdered two other household employees. Except that, somehow, there was a woman involved, a woman who might very well be the mastermind behind it all.
Was someone skulking around now, maybe even doing something to the horses that Dylan spent so much time with that they felt like personal friends?
Too angry to take the time to grab his jacket, Dylan crept toward the row of stalls, his shirt still unbuttoned. Looking into the first doorway, he saw Gabby Colton's sweet old sorrel, his ears flattened and the rims around his brown eyes white.
"Shh," Dylan whispered, and almost instantly, the gelding quieted.
In the next stall, his own horse, a stocky buckskin he called Bushwhack, stuck his head out to give him a friendly nudge. Though the quarter horse was one of the most laid-back animals Dylan had ever worked with, he wondered, was he so distracted by recent eventsor rattled by his run-in with Nitrothat he'd imagined an intruder?
He continued walking along the line of stalls, goose-flesh breaking out along his arms and shoulders. But it wasn't from the cold alone, for ahead, he heard more agitated stampingand was that a female voice?
Unable to recognize the speaker, he crept past stall after stall, looking in on a gray, a palomino and then Amanda Colton's chestnut. What he saw in the next stall froze the air in his lungsand made him completely forget his aching body.
A tall, clearly female figure had her back to him as she faced another chestnut, a troubled young mare that a neighboring rancher had asked Dylan to evaluate. Though there were other brunettes on the ranch, this woman's long, chocolate-colored waves and statuesque build made him absolutely certain she was a stranger, as he'd feared.
Dylan doubted that the intruder knew the fidgeting animal wasn't one of Dead River Ranch's horses, just as she wouldn't know that the flighty young mare had recently put an experienced cowboy in a body cast.
"Easy there," the woman crooned, her rich, sweet tones stirring a reaction in the pit of Dylan's stomach, a reaction he couldn't spare the time to think about.
"Who are you?" he asked sternly. "And what the hell are you doing in there?"
With a cry of alarm, she spun around, dropping a brush as her hand darted inside her jacket. Startled by the sudden movement, the young mare squealed and spun around, and a pair of steel-shod hooves flashed, aimed straight for the woman's head.
Reacting on pure instinct, Dylan wrapped his arms around her waist and swung her out of the way. As he kicked the stall door shut behind him, he turned the stranger around to face him, then noticed, for the first time, the small, snub-nosed revolver in her trembling hand.
A gun pointed straight at his thundering heart.
For over a year now, she had been telling herself that, when the moment came, she wasn't going to go down without a fight. In her mind, she'd run through dozens of scenarios, preparing herself to scream, to claw, to stab or shootwhatever it took to survive to get justice as she'd sworn to and reclaim some semblance of a normal life.
Yet faced with the bare-chested man, she froze for a crucial moment, as stricken by his serious blue eyes as the fact that this particular "assassin" had just saved her from the supposedly gentle horse she had been grooming.
Close as he was standing, the moment's hesitation cost her. Before she registered his movement, he'd snatched the gun from her hand and turned it on her.
"Don't. Move," he warned, digging into his jeans' back pocket with his free hand. "I'm calling the police."
"No. Please," she begged, realizing that this gorgeous specimen, with his tight, toned abs and his unforgiving gaze, hadn't come to kill her. But if he sounded the alarm and called in the authorities, anyone might arrive, and there would be a lot of questions. Questions that were bound to leave her just as dead.
A memory detonated in her mind, an image filled with rain and fire, with the horrifying reek of burning metal, gas andat least in her imaginationhuman flesh. The knowledge that that fate had been meant for her, that it could follow her here, too, revved her panic even higher.
"He'll find me if you do! He'll kill me this time for certain."
He glanced down at the phone and swore, and she noticed the cracked, black screen. As he tucked the broken cell back inside his pocket, the devastating blue eyes narrowed. "I asked you before. Who are you? And who sent you? Tell me now."
"I'm H-Hope. Hope Woods," she stammered. "I work here. Look, I'll prove it."
Her hand jerked toward her jacket's zipper, then stopped abruptly at the harsh, metallic click of the pistol's hammer being cocked.
"No sudden moves," he warned her. "And what do you mean, you work here? I've been on this ranch for almost thirty years, and I've never laid eyes on you."
"I'm the new maid," she said, her voice shaking. "I have the uniform, see?"
"Stand still," he ordered as he stepped closer. Close enough for her to smell the sharp scent of the soap he used, with the background aroma of hay, hard work and saddle leather. The combination was a far cry from the expensive colognes and exotic aftershaves worn by the men she'd once imagined she knew, but she decided on the spot she liked the honest smell of horse and cowboy better.
Flicking a look at her eyes, he reached for the tab of the zipper and slowly worked it downward, his breath warm against her face.
"So you've got the uniform," he conceded, nodding toward the ugly gray dress, with its stiff, starched fabric. "But that doesn't explain anything, not why you're out here messing with the horses and certainly not why you pulled a gun on me."
"You startled me."
"You said something a moment ago, something about someone who was going to kill you if I called the police. Why? What're you being coerced to do here? And what else have you done for this person already? Who have you killed?"