Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online

Authors: B. J. Daniels

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance

B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection (2 page)

Chapter One

As the pickup bounced
along the muddy track to the old homestead, Dana Cardwell stared out at the wind-scoured Montana landscape, haunted by the premonition she’d had the night before.

She had awakened in the darkness to the howl of the unusually warm wind against her bedroom window and the steady drip of melting snow from the eaves. A Chinook had blown in.

When she’d looked out, she’d seen the bare old aspens vibrating in the wind, limbs etched black against the clear night sky. It felt as if something had awakened her to warn her.

The feeling had been so strong that she’d had trouble getting back to sleep only to wake this morning to Warren Fitzpatrick banging on the door downstairs.

“There’s something you’d better see,” the elderly ranch manager had said.

And now, as Warren drove them up the bumpy road from the ranch house to the old homestead, she felt a chill at the thought of what waited for her at the top of the hill. Was this what she’d been warned about?

Warren pulled
up next to the crumbling foundation and cut the engine. The wind howled across the open hillside, keeling over the tall yellowed grass and gently rocking the pickup.

It was called the January Thaw. Without the blanket of white snow, the land looked rung out, all color washed from the hills until everything was a dull brown-gray. The only green was a few lone pines swaying against the wind-rinsed sky.

Little remained of the homestead house. Just part of the rock foundation and the fireplace, the chimney as stark as the pines against the horizon.

Past it, in the soft, wet earth, Dana saw Warren’s tracks where he had walked to the old well earlier this morning. All that marked the well was a circle of rock and a few weathered boards that covered part of the opening.

Warren cocked his head as if he already heard the marshal’s SUV coming up the ranch road. Dana strained her ears but heard nothing over the pounding of her heart.

She was glad Warren had always been a man of few words. She was already on edge without having to talk about what he’d found.

The elderly ranch manager was as dried out as a stick of jerky and just as tough, but he knew more about cattle than any man Dana had ever known. And he was as loyal as an old dog. Until recently, he and Dana had run the ranch together. She knew Warren wouldn’t have gotten her up here unless it was serious.

As Dana caught
the whine of the approaching vehicle over the wind, the sound growing louder, her dread grew with it.

Warren had told her last night that he’d noticed the boards were off the old dry well again. “I think I’ll just fill it in. Safer that way. Give me something to do.”

Like a lot of Montana homesteads, the well was just a hole in the ground, unmarked except for maybe a few old boards thrown over it, and because of that, dangerous to anyone who didn’t know it was there.

“Whatever you think,” she’d told him the night before. She’d been distracted and really hadn’t cared.

But she cared now. She just hoped Warren was wrong about what he’d seen in the bottom of the well.

They’d know soon enough, she thought as she turned to watch the Gallatin Canyon marshal’s black SUV come roaring up the road from the river.

“Scrappy’s driving faster than usual,” she said frowning. “You must have lit a fire under him when you called him this morning.”

“Scrappy Morgan isn’t marshal anymore,” Warren said.

“What?” She glanced over at him. He had a strange look on his weathered face.

“Scrappy just up and quit. They had to hire a temporary marshal to fill in for a while.”

“How come I never hear about these things?” But she knew the answer to that. She’d always been too busy on the ranch to keep up with canyon gossip. Even now that she worked down in Big Sky, her ties were still more with the ranching community—what little of it was left in the Gallatin Canyon since the town of Big Sky had sprung up at the base of Lone Mountain. A lot of the ranchers had sold out or subdivided to take advantage of having a ski and summer resort so close by.

“So who’s the
interim marshal?” she asked as the Sheriff’s Department SUV bounded up the road, the morning sun glinting off the windshield. She groaned. “Not Scrappy’s nephew Franklin? Tell me it’s anyone but him.”

Warren didn’t answer as the new marshal brought the black SUV with the Montana State marshal logo on the side to a stop right next to her side of the pickup.

All the breath rushed from her as she looked over and saw the man behind the wheel.

“Maybe I should have warned you,” Warren said, sounding sheepish.

“That would’ve been nice,” she muttered between gritted teeth as she met Hudson Savage’s clear blue gaze. His look gave nothing away. The two of them might have been strangers—instead of former lovers—for all the expression that showed in his handsome face.

Her emotions boiled up like one of the Yellowstone geysers just down the road. First shock and right on its heels came fury. When Hud had left town five years ago, she’d convinced herself she’d never have to lay eyes on that sorry son of a bitch again. And here he was. Damn, just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse.

O
VER THE YEARS
as a policeman
in L.A., Hudson “Hud” Savage had stared down men who were bigger and stronger. Some had guns, some knives and baseball bats.

But none unnerved him like the look in Dana Cardwell’s whiskey-brown glare.

He dragged his gaze away, turning to pick up the heavy-duty flashlight from the seat next to him.
Coward
. If just seeing her had this affect on him, he hated to think what talking would do.

Her reaction to him was pretty much what he’d expected. He’d known she would be far from happy to see him. But he had hoped she wouldn’t be as furious as she’d been when he’d left town. But given the look in her eyes, he’d say that was one wasted hope.

And damn if it was no less painful than it had been five years ago seeing her anger, her hurt.

Not that he blamed her. He hadn’t just left town, he’d flat-out run, tail tucked between his legs.

But he was back now.

He picked up the flashlight and, bracing himself against the wind and Dana Cardwell, he opened his door and stepped out.

The sun glinted off the truck’s windshield so he couldn’t see her face as he walked to the front of the SUV. But he could feel her gaze boring into him like a bullet as he snugged his Stetson down to keep it from sailing off in the wind.

When Warren had called the office this morning, Hud had instructed him not to go near the well again. The ranch foreman’s original tracks to and from the well were the only ones in the soft dirt. It surprised Hud though that Dana hadn’t gotten out to take a look before he arrived. She obviously hadn’t known the order was from him or she would have defied it sure as the devil.

As he looked out across
the ranch, memories of the two of them seemed to blow through on the breeze. He could see them galloping on horseback across that far field of wild grasses, her long, dark hair blowing back, face lit by sunlight, eyes bright, grinning at him as they raced back to the barn.

They’d been so young, so in love. He felt that old ache, desire now coupled with heartbreak and regret.

Behind him, he heard first one pickup door open, then the other. The first one closed with a click, the second slammed hard. He didn’t have to guess whose door that had been.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Warren hang back, waiting by the side of his pickup, out of the way—and out of earshot as well as the line of fire. Warren was no fool.

“Are we goin’ to stand here all day admiring the scenery or are we goin’ to take a look in the damned well?” Dana asked as she joined Hud.

He let out a bark of nervous laughter and looked over at her, surprised how little she’d changed and glad of it. She was small, five-four compared to his six-six. She couldn’t weigh a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, but what there was of her was a combination of soft curves and hard-edged stubborn determination. To say he’d never known anyone like her was putting it mildly.

He wanted to tell
her why he’d come back, but the glint in her eye warned him she was no more ready to hear it than she’d been when he’d left.

“Best take a look in that well then,” he said.

“Good idea.” She stood back as he trailed Warren’s tracks to the hole in the ground.

A half-dozen boards had once covered the well. Now only a couple remained on the single row of rocks rimming the edge. The other boards appeared to have been knocked off by the wind or fallen into the well.

He flipped on the flashlight and shone the beam down into the hole. The well wasn’t deep, about fifteen feet, like looking off the roof of a two-story house. Had it been deeper, Warren would never have seen what lay in the bottom.

Hud leaned over the opening, the wind whistling in his ears, the flashlight beam a pale gold as it skimmed the dirt bottom—and the bones.

Hunting with his father as a boy, Hud had seen his share of remains over the years. The sun-bleached skeletons of deer, elk, moose, cattle and coyotes were strewn all over rural Montana.

But just as Warren had feared, the bones lying at the bottom of the Cardwell Ranch dry well weren’t from any wild animal.

D
ANA STOOD BACK
, her hands in the pockets of her coat, as she stared at Hud’s broad back.

She wished she didn’t know him so well. The moment he’d turned on the flashlight and looked down, she’d read the answer in his shoulders. Her already upset stomach did a slow roll and she thought for a moment she might be sick.

Dear God, what was
in the well?
Who
was in the well?

Hud glanced back at her, his blue eyes drilling her to the spot where she stood, all the past burning there like a hot blue flame.

But instead of heat, she shivered as if a cold wind blew up from the bottom of the well. A cold that could chill in ways they hadn’t yet imagined as Hud straightened and walked back to her.

“Looks like remains of something, all right,” Hud said, giving her that same noncommittal look he had when he’d driven up.

The wind whipped her long dark hair around her face. She took a painful breath and let it go, fighting the wind, fighting a weakness in herself that made her angry and scared. “They’re human bones, aren’t they?”

Hud dragged his hat off and raked a hand through his hair, making her fingers tingle remembering the feel of that thick sun-streaked mop of his. “Won’t be certain until we get the bones to the lab.”

She looked away, angry at him on so many levels that it made it hard to be civil. “I
know
there are human remains down there. Warren said he saw a human skull. So stop lying to me.”

Hud’s eyes locked with hers and she saw anger spark in all that blue. He didn’t like being called a liar. But then, she could call him much worse if she got started.

“From what I can
see, the skull appears to be human. Satisfied?” he said.

She turned away from the only man who had ever satisfied her. She tried not to panic. If having Hud back—let alone the interim marshal—wasn’t bad enough, there was a body in the well on her family ranch. She tried to assure herself that the bones could have been in the well for years. The well had been dug more than a hundred years ago. Who knew how long the bones had been there?

But the big question, the same one she knew Hud had to be asking, was
why
the bones were there.

“I’m going to need to cordon this area off,” he said. “I would imagine with it being calving season, you have some cattle moving through here?”

“No cattle in here to worry about,” Warren said.

Hud frowned and glanced out across the ranch. “I didn’t notice any cattle on the way in, either.”

Dana felt his gaze shift to her. She pulled a hand from her pocket to brush a strand of her hair from her face before looking at him. The words stuck in her throat and she was grateful to Warren when he said, “The cattle were all auctioned this fall to get the ranch ready to sell.”

Hud looked stunned, his gaze never leaving hers. “You wouldn’t sell the ranch.”

She turned her face away from him. He was the one person who knew just what this ranch meant to her and yet she didn’t want him to see that selling it was breaking her heart just as he had. She could feel his gaze on her as if waiting for her to explain.

When she
didn’t, he said, “I have to warn you, Dana, this investigation might hold up a sale.”

She hadn’t thought of that. She hadn’t thought of anything but the bones—and her added bad luck in finding out that Hud was acting marshal.

“Word is going to get out, if it hasn’t already,” he continued. “Once we get the bones up, we’ll know more, but this investigation could take some time.”

“You do whatever you have to do, Hud.” She hadn’t said his name out loud in years. It sounded odd and felt even stranger on her tongue. Amazing that such a small word could hurt so much.

She turned and walked back to Warren’s pickup, surprised her legs held her up. Her mind was reeling. There was a body in a well on her ranch? And Hud Savage was back after all this time of believing him long gone? She wasn’t sure which shocked or terrified her more.

She didn’t hear him behind her until he spoke.

“I was sorry to hear about your mother,” he said so close she felt his warm breath on her neck and caught a whiff of his aftershave. The same kind he’d used when he was hers.

Without turning, she gave a nod of her head, the wind burning her eyes, and jerked open the pickup door, sending a glance to Warren across the hood that she was more than ready to leave.

As she climbed into the truck and started to pull the door shut behind her, Hud dropped one large palm over the top of the door to keep it from closing. “Dana…”

She shot him
a look she thought he might still remember, the same one a rattler gives right before it strikes.

“I just wanted to say…happy birthday.”

She tried not to show her surprise—or her pleasure—that he’d remembered. That he had, though, made it all the worse. She swallowed and looked up at him, knifed with that old familiar pain, the kind that just never went away no matter how hard you fought it.

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