Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online

Authors: B. J. Daniels

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance

B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection (3 page)

“Dana, listen—”

“I’m engaged.” The lie was out before she could call it back.

Hud’s eyebrows up. “To anyone I know?”

She took guilty pleasure from the pain she heard in his voice, saw in his face. “Lanny Rankin.”

“Lanny? The
lawyer?
” Hud didn’t sound surprised, just contemptuous. He must have heard that she’d been dating Lanny. “He still saving up for the ring?”

“What?”

“An engagement ring. You’re not wearing one.” He motioned to her ring finger.

Silently she swore at her own stupidity. She’d wanted to hurt him and at the same time keep him at a safe distance. Unfortunately she hadn’t given a thought to the consequences.

“I just forgot to put it on this morning,” she said.

“Oh, you take it off at night?”

Another mistake. When Hud had put the engagement ring on her finger so many years ago now, she’d sworn she’d never take it off.

“If you must
know,” she said, “the diamond got caught in my glove, so I took it off to free it and must have laid it down.”

His brows shot up again.

Why didn’t she just shut up? “I was in a hurry this morning. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“You’re right,” he agreed. “Must be a big diamond to get stuck in a glove.” Not like the small chip he’d been able to afford for her, his tone said.

“Look, as far as I’m concerned, you and I have nothing to say to each other.”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry into your personal life.” A muscle bunched in his jaw and he took on that all-business marshal look again. “I’d appreciate it if you and Warren wouldn’t mention what you found in the well to anyone. I know it’s going to get out, but I’d like to try to keep a lid on it as long as we can.”

He had to be joking. The marshal’s office dispatcher was the worst gossip in the canyon.

“Anything else?” she asked pointedly as his hand remained on the door.

His gaze softened again and she felt her heart do that pitter-patter thing it hadn’t done since Hud.

“It’s good seeing you again, Dana,” he said.

“I wish I could say the same, Hud.”

His lips turned up in a rueful smile as she jerked hard on the door, forcing him to relinquish his hold. If only she could free herself as easily.

The pickup door slammed
hard. Warren got in and started the engine without a word. She knew he’d heard her lie about being engaged, but Warren was too smart to call her on it.

As sun streamed into the cab, Warren swung the pickup around. Dana rolled down her window, flushed with a heat that had nothing to do with the warmth of the sun or the January Thaw. She could see the ranch house down the hillside. Feel the rattle of the tires over the rough road, hear the wind in the pines.

She promised herself she wouldn’t do it even as she reached out, her fingers trembling, and adjusted the side mirror to look back.

Hud was still standing where she’d left him, looking after them.

Happy birthday
.

Chapter Two

Well, that had gone
better than he’d expected, Hud thought with his usual self-deprecating sarcasm.

She was
engaged
to Lanny Rankin?

What did you expect? It’s been years. I’m surprised she isn’t married by now. But Lanny Rankin?

He watched the pickup disappear over the hill, listening until the sound of the engine died away and all he could hear was the wind again.

Yeah, why
isn’t
she married?

Lanny Rankin had gone after Dana before Hud had even driven out past the city limit sign. He’d had five years. So why weren’t the two of them married?

He felt a glimmer of hope.

Was it possible Dana was dragging her feet because she was still in love with him—not Lanny Rankin?

And why wasn’t she wearing her ring? Maybe she didn’t even have one. Maybe she wasn’t engaged—at least not officially.

Maybe you’re clutching at straws.

Maybe, but his
instincts told him that if she was going to marry Lanny, she would have by now.

A half mile down the hillside, he could see Warren’s pickup stop in a cloud of dust. Hud watched Dana get out. She was still beautiful. Still prickly as a porcupine. Still strong and determined. Still wishing him dead.

He couldn’t blame her for that, though.

He had a terrible thought. What if she married Lanny now just out of spite?

And what was this about selling the ranch? The old Dana Cardwell he knew would never put the ranch up for sale. Was she thinking about leaving after it sold? Worse, after she married Lanny?

She disappeared into the ranch house. This place was her heart. She’d always said she would die here and be buried up on the hill with the rest of her mother’s family, the Justices.

He’d loved that about her, her pride in her family’s past, her determination to give that lifestyle to her children—to
their
children.

Hud felt that gut-deep ache of regret. God, how he hated what he’d done to her. What he’d done to himself. It didn’t help that he’d spent the past five years trying to make sense of it.

Water under the bridge, his old man would have said. But then his old man didn’t have a conscience. Made life easier that way, Hud thought, cursing at even the thought of Brick Savage. He thought of all the wasted years he’d spent trying to please his father—and the equally wasted years he’d spent hating him.

Hud turned, disgusted
with himself, and tried to lose himself in the one thing that gave him any peace, his work.

He put in a call to Coroner Rupert Milligan. While he waited for Rupert, he shot both digital photographs and video of the site, trying not to speculate on the bones in the well or how they had gotten there.

Rupert drove up not thirty minutes later. He was dressed in a suit and tie, which in Montana meant either a funeral or a wedding. “Toastmasters, if you have to know,” he said as he walked past Hud to the well, grabbing the flashlight from Hud’s hand on his way.

Rupert Milligan was older than God and more powerful in this county. Tall, white-haired, with a head like a buffalo, he had a gruff voice and little patience for stupidity. He’d retired as a country doctor but still worked as coroner. He’d gotten hooked on murder mysteries—and forensics. Rupert loved nothing better than a good case and while Hud was still hoping the bones weren’t human, he knew that Rupert was pitching for the other team.

Rupert shone the flashlight down into the well, leaning one way then the other. He froze, holding the flashlight still as he leaned down even farther. Hud figured he’d seen the skull partially exposed at one edge of the well.

“You got yourself a human body down there, but then I reckon you already knew that,” he said, sounding too cheerful as he straightened.

Hud nodded.

“Let’s get it
out of there.” Rupert had already started toward his rig.

Hud would have offered to go down in Rupert’s place but he knew the elderly coroner wouldn’t have stood for it. All he needed Hud for was to document it if the case ever went to trial—and help winch him and the bones out of the well.

He followed Rupert over to his pickup where the coroner had taken off his suit jacket and was pulling on a pair of overalls.

“Wanna put some money on what we got down there?” Rupert asked with a grin. Among his other eclectic traits, Rupert was a gambler. To his credit, he seldom lost.

“Those bones could have been down there for fifty years or more,” Hud said, knowing that if that was the case, there was a really good chance they would never know the identity of the person or how he’d ended up down there.

Rupert shook his head as he walked around to the back of the truck and dropped the tailgate. “Those aren’t fifty-year-old bones down there. Not even close.”

The coroner had come prepared. There was a pulley system in the back and a large plastic box with a body bag, latex gloves, a variety of different size containers, a video camera and a small shovel.

He handed Hud the pulley then stuffed the needed items into a backpack, which he slung over his shoulder before slipping a headlamp over his white hair and snapping it on.

“True, it’s dry down
there, probably been covered most of the time since the bones haven’t been bleached by the sun,” Rupert said as he walked back to the well and Hud followed. “Sides of the well are too steep for most carnivores. Insects would have been working on the bones though. Maggots.” He took another look into the well. “Spot me five years and I’ll bet you fifty bucks that those bones have been down there two decades or less,” he said with his usual confidence, a confidence based on years of experience.

Twenty years ago Hud would have been sixteen. Rupert would have been maybe forty-five. With a jolt Hud realized that Rupert wasn’t that much older than his father. It felt odd to think of Brick Savage as old. In Hud’s mind’s eye he saw his father at his prime, a large, broad-shouldered man who could have been an actor. Or even a model. He was that good-looking.

“I got a hundred that says whoever’s down there didn’t fall down there by accident,” Rupert said.

“Good thing I’m not a betting man,” Hud said, distracted. His mind on the fact that twenty years ago, his father was marshal.

“T
ELL ME
you didn’t,” Dana said as she walked into Needles and Pins and heard giggling in the back beyond the racks of fabric.

Her best friend and partner in the small sewing shop gave her a grin and a hug. “It’s your birthday, kiddo,” Hilde whispered. “Gotta celebrate.”

“Birthdays after
thirty should not be celebrated,” Dana whispered back.

“Are you kidding? And miss seeing what thirty-one candles on a cake looks like?”

“You didn’t.”

Hilde had her arm and was tugging her toward the back. “Smile. I promise this won’t kill you, though you do look like you think it will.” She slowed. “You’re shaking. Seriously, are you all right?”

As much as she hated it, Dana was still a wreck after seeing Hud again. She’d hoped to get to work at the shop and forget about everything that had happened this morning, including not only what might be in the old well—but also who. The last thing she wanted was to even be reminded of her birthday. It only reminded her that Hud had remembered.

“Hud’s back,” she said, the words coming out in a rush.

Hilde stopped dead so that Dana almost collided with her.

Her best friend’s surprise made her feel better. Dana had been worried all morning that everyone had known about Hud’s return—and just hadn’t told her to protect her. She hated being protected. Especially from news like that. If she’d known he was back, she could have prepared herself for seeing him—Even as she thought it, she knew nothing could have prepared her for that initial shock of seeing Hud after five long years.

“Hud’s back in the canyon?” Hilde whispered, sounding shocked. The Gallatin Canyon, a fifty-mile strip of winding highway and blue-ribbon river, had been mostly ranches, the cattle and dude kind, a few summer cabins and homes—that is until Big Sky resort and the small town that followed at the foot of Lone Mountain. But the “canyon” was still its own little community.

“Hud’s the new
temporary marshal,” Dana whispered, her throat suddenly dry.

“Hello?” came the familiar voice of Margo from the back of the store. “We’ve got candles burning up in here.”

“Hud? Back here? Oh, man, what a birthday present,” Hilde said, giving her another hug. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. I can imagine what seeing him again did to you.”

“I still want to kill him,” Dana whispered.

“Not on your birthday.” Hilde frowned. “Does Lanny know yet?” she whispered.

“Lanny? Lanny and I are just friends.”

“Does Lanny know that?” her friend asked, giving her a sympathetic smile.

“He knows.” Dana sighed, remembering the night Lanny had asked her to marry him and she’d had to turn him down. Things hadn’t been the same between them since. “I did something really stupid. I told Hud I was engaged to Lanny.”

“You didn’t.”

Dana nodded miserably. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Margo called from the back room. “Major wax guttering back here.”

“Let’s get this
over with,” Dana said, and she and Hilde stepped into the back of the shop where a dozen of Dana’s friends and store patrons had gathered around a cake that looked like it was on fire.

“Quick! Make a wish!” her friend Margo cried.

Dana closed her eyes for an instant, made a wish, then braving the heat of thirty-one candles flickering on a sheet cake, blew as hard as she could, snuffing out every last one of them to the second chorus of happy birthday.

“Tell me you didn’t wish Hud dead,” Hilde whispered next to her as the smoke started to dissipate.

“And have my wish not come true? No way.”

H
UD WATCHED
R
UPERT
, the glow of the coroner’s headlamp flickering eerily on the dark dirt walls as he descended into the well. Hud tried not to think about remains down there or the fact that Brick might have investigated the disappearance. Might even have known the victim. Just as Hud and Rupert might have.

Rupert stopped the pulley just feet above the bones to video the scene on the bottom of the well. The light flickered and Hud looked away as he tried to corral his thoughts. Sure as hell this investigation would force him to deal with his father. The thought turned his stomach. The last time he’d seen his father, more than five years ago now, they’d almost ended up in a brawl, burning every bridge between them—both content with the understanding that the next time Hud saw his father it would be to make sure Brick was buried.

When Hud had
decided to come back, he’d thought at least he wouldn’t have to see his father. Word was that Brick had moved to a place up on Hebgen Lake near West Yellowstone—a good fifty miles away.

The wind seemed cooler now and in the distance Hud could see dark clouds rolling up over the mountains. He turned his face up to the pale sun knowing it wouldn’t be long before it was snowing again. After all, this was January in Montana.

The rope on the pulley groaned and he looked down again into the well as Rupert settled gently on the bottom, the headlamp now focused on the human remains.

Because of the steep sides of the well, the body was contained, none of the bones had been scattered by critters or carried off. The coroner had pulled on a pair of the latex gloves. He opened the body bag and began to carefully fill it with the bones.

“Good thing you didn’t bet with me,” Rupert said. “I’d say the bones have been here closer to fifteen years.” He held up a pelvic bone in his gloved hands. “A woman. White. Late twenties, early thirties.”

In the light from the headlamp, Hud watched Rupert pick up the skull and turn it slowly in his hands.

“Well, how about that,” he heard Rupert say, then glance up at him. “You got a murder on your hands, son,” the coroner said solemnly. He held up the skull, his headlamp shining through a small round hole in the skull.

“The bullet entered this side, passed through the brain and lodged in the mastoid bone behind the left ear,” Rupert said, still turning the skull in his hands. “The bullet lead is flattened and deformed from impact but there will be enough lands and grooves to match the weapon. Looks like a .38.”

“If we could find
the weapon after all this time,” Hud said. He let out an oath under his breath. Murder. And the body found on the Cardwell Ranch.

“Get one of those containers out of my rig so I can bag the skull separately,” Rupert said, his voice echoing up.

Hud ran back to Rupert’s truck and returned to lower the container down to him. A few minutes later Rupert sent the filled container up and Hud found himself looking at the dead woman’s skull. A patch of hair clung to the top. The hair, although covered with dirt, was still reddish in color. He stared at the hair, at the shape of the skull, and tried to picture the face.

“You think she was young, huh?” he called down.

In the well, Rupert stopped to inspect one of the bones in the light from his headlamp. “Based on growth lines, I’d say twenty-eight to thirty-five years of age.” He put down one bone to pick up what appeared to be a leg bone. “Hmm, that’s interesting. The bony prominences show muscle development, indicating she spent a lot of time on her feet. Probably made her living as a hairdresser, grocery clerk, nurse, waitress, something like that.” He put the bone into the body bag and picked up another shorter one. “Same bony prominences on the arms as if she often carried something heavy. My money’s on waitress or nurse.”

Few coroners would
go out on a limb with such conjecture. Most left this part up to the forensics team at the state crime lab. But then, Rupert Milligan wasn’t like most coroners. Add to that the fact that he was seldom wrong.

“What about height and weight?” Hud asked, feeling a chill even in the sun. His father had always liked waitresses. Hell, his father chased skirts no matter who wore them.

Rupert seemed to study the dirt where the bones had been. “I’d say she was between five-four and five-seven. A hundred and twenty to a hundred and forty pounds.”

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