Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online

Authors: B. J. Daniels

Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance

B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection (5 page)

The marshal’s office was in the lower meadow in a nondescript small wooden building, manned with a marshal, two deputies and a dispatcher. After hours, all calls were routed to the sheriff’s office in Bozeman.

Hud had inherited two green deputies and a dispatcher who was the cousin of the former sheriff and the worst gossip in the state. Not much to work with, especially now that he had a murder on his hands.

He parked in the back and entered the rear door, so lost in thought that he didn’t hear them at first. He stopped just inside the door at the sound of his name being brandished about.

“Well, you know darned well that he had some kind of pull to get this job, even temporarily.” Hud recognized Franklin Morgan’s voice. Franklin was the nephew of former marshal Scott “Scrappy” Morgan. Franklin was a sheriff’s deputy in Bozeman, some forty miles away.

Hud had been warned
that Franklin wasn’t happy about not getting the interim marshal job after his uncle left and that there might be some hard feelings. Hud smiled at that understatement as he heard Franklin continue.

“At first I thought he must have bought the job, but hell, the Savages haven’t ever had any money.” This from Shirley Morgan, the dispatcher, and Franklin’s sister. Nepotism was alive and well in the canyon.

“Didn’t his mother’s family have money?” Franklin asked.

“Well, if they did, they didn’t leave it to their daughter after she married Brick Savage,” Shirley said. “But then, can you blame them?”

“Hud seems like he knows what he’s doing,” countered Deputy Norm Turner. Norm was a tall, skinny, shy kid with little to no experience at life or law enforcement from what Hud could tell.

“Maybe Brick pulled some strings to get Hud the job,” Franklin said.

Hud scoffed. Brick wouldn’t pull on the end of a rope if his son was hanging off it from a cliff on the other end.

“Not a chance,” Shirley said with a scornful laugh. “It was that damned Dana Cardwell.”

Hud felt a jolt. Dana?

“Everyone in the canyon does what she wants just like they did when her mother was alive. Hell, those Cardwell women have been running things in this canyon for years. Them and Kitty Randolph. You can bet Dana Cardwell got him the job.”

Hud couldn’t help but
smile just thinking how Dana would love to hear that she was responsible for getting him back to town.

Franklin took a drink of his coffee and happened to look up and see Hud standing just inside the doorway. The deputy’s eyes went wide, coffee spewing from his mouth. Hud could see the wheels turning. Franklin was wondering how long Hud had been there and just what he’d overheard.

Norm swung around and about choked on the doughnut he’d just shoved into his mouth.

Shirley, who’d been caught before, didn’t even bother to look innocent. She just scooted her chair through the open doorway to the room that housed the switchboard, closing the door behind her.

Hud watched with no small amount of amusement as the two deputies tried to regain their composure. “Any word from the crime lab?” Hud asked as he proceeded to his office.

Both men answered at the same time.

“Haven’t heard a word.”

“Nothing from our end.” Franklin tossed his foam coffee cup in the trash as if he suddenly remembered something urgent he needed to do. He hightailed it out of the office.

Deputy Turner didn’t have that luxury. “Marshal, about what was being said…”

Hud could have bailed him out, could have pretended he hadn’t heard a word, but he didn’t. He’d been young once himself. He liked to think he’d learned from his mistakes, but coming back here might prove him wrong.

“It’s just
that I—I…wanted to say…” The young deputy looked as if he might break down.

“Deputy Turner, don’t you think I know that everyone in the canyon is wondering how I got this job, even temporarily, after what happened five years ago? I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m the marshal for the time being. All I can do is prove that I deserve it. How about you?”

“Yes, sir, that’s exactly how I feel,” he said, his face turning scarlet.

“That’s what I thought,” Hud said, and continued on to his office.

He was anxious to go through the missing person’s file from around fifteen years back. But he quickly saw that all but the last ten years of files had been moved to the Bozeman office.

“We don’t have any records back beyond 1994,” the clerk told him when he called. “That’s when we had the fire. All the records were destroyed.”

Twelve years ago. He’d completely forgotten about the fire. He hung up. All he could hope was that Rupert was wrong. That the woman hadn’t been in the well more than twelve years. Otherwise…He swore.

Otherwise, he would be forced to talk to the former marshal. After all this time, the last thing Hud wanted was to see his father.

“I’
M TAKING THE FIRST
flight out,” Jordan said without preamble when he called Dana back. “I’ll let you know what time I arrive so you can pick me up at the airport.”

Dana bit down on
her tongue, determined not to let him get to her. He seemed to just assume she wouldn’t have anything else to do but pick him up at Gallatin Field, a good fifty miles away. “Jordan, you must have forgotten. I have a job.”

“You’re half owner of a…fabric shop. Don’t tell me you can’t get away.”

She wasn’t going to chauffeur him around the whole time he was here, or worse, let him commandeer her vehicle. She took a breath. She would have loved to have lost her temper and told him just what she thought of him. He was in no position to be asking anything of her.

She let out the breath. “You’ll have to rent a car, Jordan. I’ll be working.” A thought struck her like the back of a hand. “Where will you be staying in case I need to reach you?” Not with her. Please not with her at the ranch.

She heard the knife edge in his voice. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to stay at that old rundown ranch house with you.”

She almost slumped with relief. She’d suspected for some time that he was in financial trouble. Ever since two years ago when he’d married Jill, an out-of-work model, Jordan had seemed desperate for money.

“I assume Jill is coming with you?” Dana said, assuming just the opposite.

“Jill can’t make it this time.”

“Oh?” Dana bit
her tongue again, just not quick enough. Jill had set foot in Montana only once and found it too backwoodsy.

“You have something to say, Dana? We all know what an authority you are on romantic relationships.”

The jab felt all the more painful given that Hud was back in town. “At least I had the sense not to marry him.” Instantly she wished she could snatch back the words. “Jordan, I don’t want to fight with you.” It was true. She hated how quickly this had escalated into something ugly. “Let’s not do this.”

“No, Dana, you brought it up,” Jason said. “If you have something to say, let’s hear it.”

“Jordan, you know this isn’t what Mom wanted, us fighting like this.”

He let out a cruel laugh. “You think I care what she wanted? The only thing she ever loved was that damned ranch. And just like her, you chose it over a man.”

“Mom didn’t choose the ranch over Dad,” Dana said. “She tried to make their marriage work. It was Dad who—”

“Don’t be naive, Dana. She drove him away. The same way you did Hud.”

She wasn’t going to discuss this with him. Especially today. Especially with Hud back. “I have to go, Jordan.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. “At least I have someone to warm my bed at night. Can your precious ranch do that?”

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Dana snapped. “Jill will be long gone once you don’t have anything else you can pillage to appease her.”

She knew at once
that she’d gone too far. Jordan had never liked to hear the truth.

Dana smacked herself on the forehead, wishing she could take back the angry words. He’d always known how to push her buttons. Isn’t that what siblings were especially adept at because they knew each others’ weaknesses so well?

“Jordan, I’m sorry,” she said, meaning it.

“I’ll have Dad pick me up. But, dear sister, I will deal with you when I see you. And at least buy a damned answering machine.” He slammed down the phone.

She felt dirty, as if she’d been wrestling in the mud as she hung up. She hadn’t wanted the conversation to end like that. It would only make matters worse once he hit town.

She told herself that with luck maybe she wouldn’t have to see him. She wouldn’t have to see any of her siblings. The only one she’d been even a little close to was Clay, the youngest, but she wasn’t even talking to
him
lately.

And she didn’t want an answering machine. Anyone who needed to reach her, would. Eventually. She could just imagine the kind of messages Jordan would leave her.

She shuddered at the thought. As bad as she felt about the argument and her angry words, she was relieved. At least Jordan wasn’t staying at the ranch, she thought with a rueful smile as she went into the kitchen and poured herself of a glass of wine.

As she did, she heard
the sound of a vehicle coming up the road to the house and groaned. Now what?

Glancing out the window she saw the marshal’s black SUV barreling toward her.

This day just kept getting better.

Chapter Four

Across the river
and a half mile back up a wide valley, the Cardwell ranch house sat against a backdrop of granite cliffs and towering dark pines. The house was a big, two-story rambling affair with a wide front porch and a new brick-red metal roof.

Behind it stood a huge weathered barn and some out-buildings and corrals. The dark shapes loomed out of the falling snow and darkness as Hud swung the SUV into the ranch yard.

He shut off the engine. Out of habit, he looked up at Dana’s bedroom window. There was nothing but darkness behind the glass but in his mind he could see her waving to him as she’d done so many times years before.

As he got out of the patrol car, ducking deep into his coat against the falling snow, he ran to the porch, half expecting Dana’s mother, Mary Justice Cardwell, to answer the door. Mary had been a ranch woman through and through. No one had ever understood why she’d married Angus Cardwell. He’d been too handsome and charming for his own good, with little ambition and even less regard for ranch work. But he’d also been heir to the C-Bar Ranch adjacent to the Justice Ranch.

When the two
had married, so had the ranches. The combined spread became the Cardwell Ranch.

No one had been surprised when the two divorced. Or when Angus gave up the ranch to Mary.

People were just surprised that the two stayed together long enough to have four children.

And Angus and Mary had certainly produced beautiful children.

Jordan, the oldest, was almost too good-looking and had definitely taken after his father. Clay was the youngest, a slim, quiet young man who worked in local theater groups.

Then there was Stacy, two years older than Dana, cheerleader cute. Stacy had cashed in on her looks her whole life, trading up in three marriages so far. He didn’t like to think about Stacy.

There was no comparison between the two sisters. While Dana also had the Justice-Cardwell good looks, she had something more going for her. She’d been the good student, the hard worker, the one who wanted to carry on the family tradition at the ranch, while the others had cut and run the first chance they got.

Dana, like her mother, loved everything about ranching. It and breathing were one and the same to her. That’s why he couldn’t understand why Dana would be selling the place. It scared him.

He couldn’t stand
the thought that he’d come back too late. Or worse that he’d been carrying a torch for a woman who no longer existed.

As he started to knock, he heard a dog growl and looked over to see a gray-muzzled, white-and-liver springer spaniel.

“Joe?” He couldn’t believe his eyes. He knelt as the dog lumbered over to him, tail wagging with recognition. “Joe, hey, old boy. I didn’t think you’d still be around.” He petted the dog, happy to see a friendly face from the past.

“Was there something you wanted?”

He hadn’t heard the front door open. Dana stood leaning against the frame, a glass of wine in her hand and a look that said she was in no mood for whatever he was selling.

He wished like hell that he wasn’t going to add to her troubles. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat as he gave Joe a pat and straightened. “Mind if I come in for a few minutes? I need to talk to you.”

“If this has something to do with you and me…”

“No.” He gave her a rueful smile. There was no “you and me”—not anymore. Not ever again from the look in her brown eyes. “It’s about what we found in the well.”

All the starch seemed to go out of her. She stepped back, motioning him in.

He took off his hat and stepped in to slip off his boots and his jacket before following her through the very Western living area with its stone and wood to the bright, big airy kitchen. Joe followed at his heels.

“Have a seat.”

Hud pulled out a chair
at the large worn oak table, put his Stetson on an adjacent chair and sat.

Dana frowned as Joe curled up at his feet. “Traitor,” she mouthed at the dog.

Hud looked around, memories of all the times he’d sat in this kitchen threatening to drown him. Mary Justice Cardwell at the stove making dinner, Dana helping, all of them chatting about the goings-on at the ranch, a new foal, a broken down tractor, cows to be moved. He could almost smell the roast and homemade rolls baking and hear Dana’s laughter, see the secret, knowing looks she’d send him, feel the warmth of being a part of this family.

And Dana would have made her mother’s double chocolate brownies for dessert—especially for him.

Dana set a bottle of wine and a glass in front of him, putting it down a little too hard and snapping him back to the present. “Unless you think we’re both going to need something stronger?” she asked.

“Wine will do.” He poured himself some and topped off her glass as she took a chair across from him. She curled her bare feet under her but not before he noticed that her toenails were painted coral. She wore jeans and an autumn gold sweater that hugged her curves and lit her eyes.

He lifted his glass, but words failed him as he looked at her. The faint scent of her wafted over to him as she took a drink of her wine. She’d always smelled of summer to him, an indefinable scent that filled his heart like helium.

Feeling awkward, he took another drink, his throat tight. He’d known being in this house again would bring it all back. It did. But just being here alone with Dana, not being able to touch her or to say all the things he wanted to say to her, was killing him. She didn’t want to hear his excuses. Hell, clearly she’d hoped to never lay eyes on him again.

But a part of
him, he knew, was still hoping she’d been the one who’d sent him the anonymous note that had brought him back.

“So what did you find in the well?” she asked as if she wanted this over with as quickly as possible. She took another sip of wine, watching him over the rim of her glass, her eyes growing dark with a rage born of pain that he recognized only too well.

Dana hadn’t sent the note. He’d only been fooling himself. She still believed he’d betrayed her.

“The bones are human but you already knew that,” he said, finding his voice.

She nodded, waiting.

“We won’t know for certain until Rupert calls from the crime lab, but his opinion is that the body belonged to a Caucasian woman between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-five and that she’s been down there about fifteen years.” He met her gaze and saw the shock register.

“Only fifteen years?”

Hud nodded. It seemed that, like him, she’d hoped the bones were very old and had no recent connection to their lives.

Dana let out a
breath. “How did she get there?”

“She was murdered. Rupert thinks she was thrown down the well and then shot.”

Dana sat up, her feet dropping to the floor with a slap. “No.” She set the wineglass down on the table, the wine almost spilling.

Without thinking, Hud reached over to steady the glass, steady her. His fingers brushed hers. She jerked her hand back as if he’d sliced her fingers with a knife.

He pulled back his hand and picked up his wineglass, wishing now that he’d asked for something stronger.

Dana was sitting back in the chair, her arms crossed, feet on the floor. She looked shaken. He wondered how much of it was from what he’d told her about the bones in the well and how much from his touch. Did she ever wonder what their lives might have been like if she hadn’t broken off the engagement? They would be husband and wife now. Something he always thought about. It never failed to bring a wave of regret with it.

He didn’t tell Dana that the woman had still been alive, maybe even calling to her attacker for help as he left her down there.

“I’m going to have to question your family and anyone else who had access to the property or who might have known about the dry well,” he said.

She didn’t seem to hear him. Her gaze went to the large window. Outside, the snow fell in huge feathery flakes, obscuring the mountains. “What was she shot with?”

He hesitated, then
said, “Rupert thinks it was a .38.” He waited a beat before he added, “Does your father still have that .38 of his?”

She seemed startled by the question, her gaze flying back to him. “I have no idea. Why—” Her look turned to stone. “You can’t really believe—”

“Do you have any guns in the house?” he asked in his official tone.

Her eyes narrowed in reaction. “Just the double-barreled shotgun by the door. But you’re welcome to search the house if you don’t believe me.”

He remembered the shotgun. Mary Justice Cardwell had kept it by the door, loaded with buckshot, to chase away bears from her chicken coop.

“You have any idea who this woman in the well might have been?” he asked.

“Fifteen years ago I was sixteen.” She met his gaze. Something hot flashed there as if she, too, remembered her sixteenth birthday and their first kiss.

“You recall a woman going missing about that time?” he asked, his voice sounding strange to his ears.

She shook her head, her gaze never leaving his face. “Won’t there be a missing person’s report?”

“The law and justice center fire in Bozeman destroyed all the records twelve years ago,” he said.

“So we might never know who she was?” Dana asked.

“Maybe not. But if she was local, someone might remember her.” He pulled his notebook and pen from his pocket. “I’m going to need Jordan’s phone number so I can contact him.”

“He’s flying in
tomorrow. He’ll probably stay with Angus, but I’m sure he’ll be contacting you.”

He thought it strange she referred to her father as Angus. He wondered what had been going on in the years he’d been gone.

“You know where to find them,” she continued. “Angus on the nearest bar stool. Clay at his studio in the old Emerson in Bozeman. And Stacy—” Her voice broke. “Well, she’s where you left her.”

Hud surprised himself by taking the jab without flinching.

“I was really sorry to hear about your mom’s accident.” He’d heard that Mary had been bucked off a horse and suffered severe brain damage. She’d lived for a short while, but never regained consciousness.

Dana locked eyes with him. “She always liked you.” She said it as if it was the one mistake her mother ever made.

“Is that why you’re selling the ranch?”

She got up from the table. “Is there anything else?”

He could see that he shouldn’t have mentioned the sale. Not only was it none of his business, but he also got the feeling today really wasn’t the day to ask.

He finished his wine and pushed himself up from the chair. Picking up his Stetson, he settled it on his head. “I see you forgot your ring again.”

D
ANA CURSED HERSELF
for ever lying about the engagement let alone the ring. “The stone was loose,” she said, compounding the lies. She’d spent thirty-one years telling the truth and Hud came back to town and she became an instant liar.

“You’re not engaged
to Lanny Rankin,” he said softly. “Are you?”

She lifted her chin ready to defend her lie to the death. “Not that it’s any of your business—”

“Why did you lie to me, Dana?”

Something in his tone stopped her cold. Obviously he thought she’d done it to make him jealous because she still cared. This was turning out to be the worst day of her life.

“I didn’t want you thinking there was any chance for you and me.”

He smiled. “Oh, your attitude toward me made that pretty clear. You didn’t have to come up with a fiancé.” His eyes suddenly narrowed. “Why
hasn’t
the guy asked you to marry him? Something wrong with him?”

“No,” she snapped. “My relationship with Lanny is none of your business.” She could see the wheels turning in his stubborn head. He thought more than ever that she was still carrying a torch for him.

“You’re the most annoying man I’ve ever known,” she said as she headed for the door to show him out.

His soft chuckle chased after her, piercing her heart with memory. So many memories of the two of them together.

“At least I still have that distinction,” he said as she snatched open the front door and he stepped through it.

Joe, she noticed, had followed them and now stood by her feet. The old dog might be deaf and barely getting around anymore, but he was no fool. When push came to shove, he knew where his loyalties lay.

Hud turned in
the doorway to look at her, all humor gone from his expression. “At some point, I’ll need to talk to you about this investigation. I can come here or you can come down to the Big Sky office—”

“The office would be fine,” she said. “Just let me know when.”

“Dana, I really am sorry about—” he waved a hand “—everything.”

Her smile felt as sharp as a blade. “Good night, Hud.” She closed the door in his face but not before she heard him say, “Good night, Dana,” the way he used to say it after they’d kissed.

She leaned against the door, her knees as weak as water. Dammit, she wasn’t going to cry. She’d shed too many tears for Hud Savage. He wasn’t getting even one more out of her.

But she felt hot tears course down her cheeks. She wiped at the sudden wetness, biting her lip to keep from breaking down and bawling. What a lousy day this had been. This birthday was destined to go down as the worst.

Joe let out a bark, his old eyes on her, tail wagging.

“I’m not mad at you,” she said, and squatted to wrap her arms around him. “I know you always liked Hud. Didn’t we all?”

Dana had never been one to wallow in self-pity. At least not for long. She’d gone on with her life after Hud left. His coming back now wasn’t going to send her into another tailspin.

She rose and walked
to the kitchen window, drawn to it by what she now knew had been in the old well all these years. The horror of it sent a shudder through her. Was it possible she had known the woman? Or worse, she thought, with a jolt, that Angus had? Hud had reminded her that her father had owned a .38.

With a groan, she recalled the time her father had let her and Hud shoot tin cans off the ranch fence with the gun.

Through the falling snow, she looked toward the hillside and hugged herself against the chill of her thoughts before glancing at the kitchen clock.

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