Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online

Authors: B. J. Daniels

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance

B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection (31 page)

“I said I would look into it.” He hung up just as a car pulled up in front of the house. With a sigh of relief, he started to open the door to greet Hilde when he saw that it wasn’t her car. Nor was it Stacy’s.

When he saw who climbed out, he let out a curse. Before he could answer the door, his phone rang again. Figuring to get all the bad news over with quickly, he took the call from the lab as he heard footfalls on the porch and a tentative knock at the door.

“Hud, who is that at the door?” Dana called.

He listened to the lab tech give him the news, then thanked him and, disconnecting, stepped to her bedroom doorway.

“What is it?” she demanded. “Was that the lab on the phone?”

He nodded. “Ella
is
your niece.”

Dana began to cry and laugh at the same time as she looked into Ella’s beautiful face.

There was another knock at the door.

“Is that Stacy?” she asked, looking up, her eyes full of hope.

He shook his head. “I wish,” he said and went to answer the door.

Chapter Fourteen

“Clay?” Dana said as her younger brother appeared in the bedroom doorway, Jordan at his heels.

“Hi,” he said shyly. Clay had always been the quiet one, the one who ducked for cover when the rest of them were fighting. “Jordan told me you’re pregnant with twins. Congratulations.”

“Jordan?” she asked, shooting a look at her older brother. “Clay, what are you doing here?”

“I called Clay at the studio where I knew he was working,” Jordan said.

“The studio let me use the company plane, so here I am,” Clay said.

“Tell me what is going on. Why haven’t you cashed your checks for the past six months and why does Stacy have your car?”

“Easy,” Hud said as he stepped into the room. He gave both her brothers a warning look.

She didn’t look at her husband. Her gaze was on her younger brother.

“I’ve been in Europe the past six months, then I changed apartments and forgot to put in a change of address,” Clay said. “That’s why I haven’t cashed my checks. As for the car, I wasn’t using it, so I told Stacy she could have it. I’m working for a movie studio in L.A. so I have a studio car that picks me up every morning.”

“I’m glad things are going well for you,” Dana said. “But you know what’s going on with Stacy, don’t you?”

“All I know is that she said she needed to get here to the ranch and could she borrow my car,” Clay said. “So where is she?”

“That is the question,” Hud said next to him. “She seems to have disappeared.”

“Well, if you’re worried because she has my car, it’s no big deal.”

“It’s not the car that we’re worried about,” Dana said. “She left her baby here.”

“Her
baby?
” Clay said. “Stacy has a baby?”

At the sound of another vehicle, Hud quickly left the room. Dana assumed it would be Hilde, but when he returned, he had Liza with him.

“You’ve met my brother Clay,” Dana said.

Liza nodded. “Looks like you’re having a family reunion.”

“Doesn’t it though,” Hud said under his breath.

“Yes, all we need is Stacy,” Dana said. “And a larger bedroom.” She saw a look pass between the deputy and her husband. “I know that look. What’s happened?”

“I just need to talk to the marshal for a few moments,” Liza said. “But I’m going to need Jordan.” He nodded and stepped out of the room with her and Hud, closing the door behind them.

“I can’t stand being in this bed and not knowing what’s going on,” Dana said.

Clay was looking at the baby lying next to her. “Is that Stacy’s?”

“Yes,” Dana said with a sigh as Ella stirred awake. At least Stacy hadn’t kidnapped Ella. This little baby was Dana’s niece. But where was Stacy? And did whatever Liza needed to talk to Hud and Jordan about have something to do with her sister or the murder?

* * *

“I
THINK
YOU

D
BETTER
SEE
these photographs,” Liza said to Hud the moment the bedroom door closed behind him. “Tessa gave them to me. She said Alex had left them in her safekeeping.”

“Alex
trusted
Tessa?” Jordan said. “He had to know how close she was to Shelby.”

“Obviously Alex trusted her not to give the photos to Shelby,” Hud said and gave Jordan a how-did-you-get-involved-in-this-discussion? look.

“Tessa and Alex had a history,” Liza said and told them what Crystal Winslow had told her. “She thought Alex was having an affair with Shelby, but I think it might have been Tessa. The two of them were dating in high school when Shelby broke them up so Tessa could spy on Tanner, right, Jordan?” He nodded and she continued. “That’s a bond that Alex and Tessa shared against Shelby. With Tessa’s marriage over and Alex’s apparently not going well, they reconnected.”

Hud looked through the photos then reluctantly handed them to Jordan. “You know the people in the photos?” he asked his brother-in-law.

Jordan nodded. “So someone took photos of the party. This can’t be enough to get Alex killed over.”

She waited until Jordan had finished going through the photos before she took them back, sorted through them until she found the two she wanted, then produced a magnifying glass from her pocket. “Check this out.”

They all moved over to the table as Liza put the large magnifying glass over the first photograph. “You can clearly see Malcolm Iverson’s construction equipment in the background. But look here.” She pointed at a spot to the left of one of the large dump trucks.

Jordan let out a surprised, “Whoa. It’s Shelby.”

Liza moved the magnifying glass to the second photo and both men took a look.

“Shelby vandalized the equipment,” Jordan said. He let out a low whistle and looked at Liza. “You can clearly see Shelby dressed in black, dumping sugar into one of the two-ton trucks’ gas tanks. If these photographs would have come out back then, she could have gone to jail.”

Liza nodded. “Shelby has every reason in the world not to want these photographs to ever see daylight. She’s married to the man whose father she bankrupted by vandalizing his construction equipment. The rest is like knocking over dominos. She vandalizes the equipment, Malcolm Iverson blames Harris Lancaster and shoots him, Malcolm goes to prison, then gets out and mysteriously dies in a boating accident.”

“She didn’t pull this off alone,” Jordan said.

“No,” Liza agreed. “In these two photos you can see Whitney and Ashley are keeping everyone’s attention on them at the campfire,” she said as she showed them two other photographs of the girls pretending to strip to whatever music was playing.

“Where was Tessa?” Jordan asked.

“With Tanner in the woods,” Liza said and sifted through the photos until she found one of Tanner and Tessa coming out of the woods together.

Jordan let out a low whistle. “Shelby thought of everything.”

“She just didn’t realize that someone was taking photographs of the party,” Liza said.

“I wonder where the negatives are. Alex wasn’t dumb enough to trust Tessa completely. So who has the negatives?”

“Jordan has a point,” Liza said.

Hud looked at his brother-in-law. “You should have gone into law enforcement.”

Jordan smiled. “I’m going to take that as a compliment.”

“I’m sure Hud meant it as one,” Liza said.

“If Alex had the goods on Shelby and was blackmailing her, then why ask around about photos that were already in his possession? Or hint that Tanner’s death wasn’t a suicide?” Hud asked.

“Maybe he just wanted to shake up those involved. Or shake them down. What I’d like to know is who took the photos,” Jordan said.

She looked over at him. “I just assumed Alex did since he isn’t in any of them. Was he at the party that night?”

Jordan shrugged. “He was earlier.”

“So these could merely be copies of photographs taken at the party,” Hud said. “Which means there could be more than one person shopping the photos. That is what you’re getting at, right, Deputy? Blackmail? For the past twenty years?”

Liza shook her head. “At least Alex hasn’t been blackmailing Shelby for twenty years that I can find. I got his bank records for the past two years faxed to me. He made his first deposits only four months ago. Nine thousand dollars each month. He must have known that anything over ten thousand dollars would be red flagged by the bank.”

“Why wait twenty years if he was going to blackmail Shelby?” Hud asked.

“I suspect that when his wife threw him out—along with all his stuff including some old photographs from high school, he hadn’t looked at them in years,” Liza said. “When he did, he saw what we’re seeing and, since he already had reason to hate Shelby over the Tessa deal, decided to blackmail her.”

“And she killed him,” Jordan said.

Hud sighed. “Can we prove it?”

“Not yet,” Liza said as she sorted through the photographs. “But I overheard Shelby on the phone with a creditor saying the check was in the mail. I asked around. Yogamotion has been having trouble paying its bills the past few months, but Hilde says it is packed for every class and it isn’t cheap to join.”

“So have you talked to Shelby yet?” Hud asked.

She shook her head. “There’s something else you need to see.” She pointed to a figure in the shadows of the pines at the edge of the campfire in one of the photographs.

“Stacy?”
Hud said after taking the photo from her and using the magnifying glass to bring his sister-in-law’s face into focus. He groaned and looked at Jordan.

“She wasn’t there when I left,” he said, holding up his hands. “It never dawned on me that she might have been at the party. We never went to the same parties or hung with the same crowd, so I have no idea what she was doing there.”

“This could explain why Stacy came back to the canyon,” Hud said with a curse.

“Maybe it is just bad timing on her part.” Liza tapped the photo. “But Stacy knows who was taking the photographs. She’s looking right at the person with the camera.”

“Which means she also knew there were photographs taken of the party that night.”

* * *

“H
UD
?”

“Dana, what is it?” he cried, hearing something in his wife’s voice that scared him. He rushed to the bedroom door to find Clay holding Dana’s hand. Ella was crying.

“Can you take Ella? She needs a bottle,” Dana said.

He tried to calm down. “That’s all?” Then he saw his wife grimace. “What was that?” he demanded as Liza volunteered to take the crying baby and get Ella a bottle. Jordan had moved to the side of Dana’s bed.

“A twinge. I’ve been having them all day,” Dana admitted.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.

“Because I didn’t want to worry you.” She cringed as she had another one, this one definitely stronger from her reaction.

“I’m calling the doctor,” he said and started to turn from the crowded room.

Hud hadn’t heard a car drive up let alone anyone else enter the house so he was surprised to turn and see Stacy standing in the doorway of Dana’s bedroom.

Maybe more shocking was how bad she looked. Both eyes were black and the blood from a cut on her cheek had dried to a dark red. Her hair was matted to her head on one side with what Hud guessed was also blood.

Dana let out a startled cry when she saw her sister.

“I wasn’t completely honest with you,” Stacy said in a hoarse voice as she stumbled forward.

That’s when Hud saw the man behind her, the one holding the gun.

“Just get the baby,” the man ordered Stacy, jabbing her in the back with the barrel of the gun. “Then we won’t be troubling you people any further.”

Stacy moved toward the bassinet that had been brought in next to Dana’s bed. She leaned over it, gripping the sides.

Hud saw the bruises on her neck and noticed the way she was favoring her left side as if her ribs hurt her. He looked at the man in the doorway still holding the gun on Stacy.

“What’s this about?” he asked the man, trying to keep his tone calm while his heart was pounding. Dana was in labor. He needed to get her to the hospital. He didn’t need whatever trouble Stacy was in right now.

“Didn’t Stacy tell you? She made off with my kid.”

“She’s my baby, too, Virgil,” Stacy said, still staring down into the crib.

Hud remembered that the crib was empty because Liza had taken the baby into the kitchen with her to get her a bottle.

“He took Ella away from me,” Stacy said, crying.

“Her name isn’t
Ella,
” Virgil snapped. “I told you I was naming her after my mother. Her name is Katie, you stupid b—”

“He took her from me right after she was born and has been raising her with his girlfriend,” Stacy said through her tears. “He would only let me come see her a few times.”

“Because you’d make a crappy mother. Letting you even see her was a mistake,” the man spat. “Now get the damned baby and let’s go.”

Even the thought of this man taking Ella made Hud sick to his stomach. But he couldn’t have any gunplay around Dana, especially since his own gun was locked up like it always was when he was home with the kids.

Dana still kept a shotgun by the kitchen back door though, high on the wall where the kids couldn’t reach it, but handy for adults. He wondered if Liza had heard Stacy and the man come in, if she had any idea what was going on?

Stacy turned her head, her gaze locking with Hud’s, as she pleaded for his help.

“Let me get the baby for you,” Hud said and stepped to the bassinet.

* * *

L
IZA
HAD
BEEN
HEATING
A
BOTTLE
of formula for Ella when she heard the door open, then close softly. She listened, drawn by the faint sound of footfalls crossing the living room to Dana’s door.

She peered around the corner in time to see the man with the gun. Her heart leaped to her throat. She was out of uniform, her weapon was in the car and she had a baby in one arm. She carefully opened the door of the microwave before it could ding and looked at Ella. The baby grinned at her and flapped her arms.

“I’m going to have to put you down. I need you to be really quiet,” Liza whispered. She looked around for a place to put the baby and decided the rug in front of the sink was going to have to do. Carefully, she put down the baby. As she was rising, she saw the shotgun hanging high on the wall over the back door.

Knowing Dana, the shotgun would be loaded. All she could do was pray that it was since she wouldn’t have the first idea where to look for shells. She could hear Ella babbling on the rug behind her and trying to snake toward her.

Hurry. She reached up on tiptoes and eased the shotgun off its rack. Trying not to make a sound, she cracked the gun open. Two shells. She dearly loved Dana who knew there was nothing more worthless than an unloaded shotgun.

Ella was watching her expectantly as she crept to the kitchen doorway. She could see the man with the gun, but she could hear voices coming from Dana’s bedroom. Normally, she was cool and calm. It was what made her a good cop. But so much was riding on what she did now, she felt the weight of it at heart level.

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