Read B.J. Daniels the Cardwell Ranch Collection Online
Authors: B. J. Daniels
Tags: #Fiction, #Retail, #Romance
“It’s all over town,” Lanny said. “According to the rumor mill, you and I’ve been upgraded.”
She groaned. Hud must have asked someone about the engagement. That’s all it would take to get the rumor going. “Sorry. I got a little carried away.”
He nodded ruefully. “Then it’s not true?”
She shook her head and saw the hurt in his expression. For the first time she had to admit to herself that no matter how long she dated Lanny, she was never going to fall in love with him. She’d only been kidding herself. And giving Lanny false hope. She couldn’t keep doing that.
“I figured I’d probably have heard if it was true,” he said. “But you never know.”
Yeah, she did know. “I’m sorry,” she said again, unable to think of anything else to say. She hated to break it off tonight. He would think she was going back to Hud and that’s the last rumor she wanted circulating. But she had to get it over with. She didn’t think it would come as too big of a surprise to Lanny.
“You still want to go out tonight?” he asked, as if he sensed what was coming.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said too quickly.
“Yeah, that’s kind of the problem, huh?” He glanced into the house.
She didn’t want to have
this discussion here, on her doorstep, and she didn’t want to invite him inside. She didn’t want him to see the present Hud had left her. It would only hurt him worse and that was something she didn’t want to do.
“Ready?” she asked.
Lanny hesitated for only a moment, then walked her through the falling snow to his large SUV.
She chattered on about the weather, then the sewing shop and Hilde, finally running out of safe conversation as he pulled into the restaurant.
Once inside, Dana found herself watching the door. She couldn’t help it. Now that she knew Hud was back in the canyon, she expected to run into him at every turn, which kept him on her mind. Damn him.
“Hud’s working late tonight,” Lanny said.
She jerked her head around. “I wasn’t—” The beginning of a lie died on her lips. “I just hate running into him,” she said sheepishly.
Lanny nodded, his smile indulgent. “After all this time, it must be a shock, him coming back.” He wiped a line of sweat off his water glass, not looking at her. “He say what brought him back?”
“No.” That was one of the things that bothered her. Why after so long?
“He must think he has a chance with you.” He met her gaze.
“Well, he doesn’t.” She picked up her menu, the words swimming in front of her. “What did Sally say was the special tonight?”
Lanny reached over
and pulled down the menu so he could see her face. “I need you to be honest with me,” he said, his voice low even though because of the weather there were only a couple of people in the restaurant and they weren’t close by.
She nodded, her throat a desert.
“Dana, I thought you’d gotten over Hud. I thought after he hurt you the way he did, you’d never want to see him again. Am I wrong about that or—” He looked past her, his expression telling her before she turned that Hud had come into the restaurant.
Her heart took off at a gallop at just the sight of him. She looked to see if he was alone, afraid he wouldn’t be. He was. He stepped up to the counter and started to sit down, instantly changing his mind when he saw her and Lanny.
“You need a table, Hud?” Sally asked him from behind the counter.
“Nah, just wanted to get a burger,” he said, turning his back to Dana and Lanny. “Working late tonight.”
Dana recalled now that Lanny had said Hud was working tonight. How had he known that?
“Working huh,” Sally said, glancing toward Dana’s table. “You want fries with that?” She chuckled. “Daddy always said if I didn’t pay more attention in school I’d be saying that. He was right.”
“No fries. Just the burger.” He sat at the counter, his shoulders hunched, head down. Dana felt her traitorous heart weaken at the sight. She’d thought she wanted to hurt him, hurt him badly, the way he’d hurt her. Seeing her on a date with Lanny was killing him. She should have taken pleasure in that.
Sally must have seen
his discomfort. “You know I can have that sent over to you since you have work to do.”
“I’d appreciate that,” he said, getting up quickly, his relief so apparent it made Dana hurt. He laid some money on the counter and, without looking in her direction, pulled his coat collar up around his neck as he stepped out into the snowstorm.
A gust of winter washed through the restaurant and he was gone. Just like that. Just like five years ago. Dana felt that same emptiness, that same terrible loss.
“We don’t have to do this,” Lanny said as she turned back to the table and him.
Her heart ached and her eyes burned. “I’m sorry.”
“Please, stop apologizing,” Lanny snapped, then softened his expression. “You and I have spent too long apologizing for how we feel.”
“Can we just have dinner as friends?” she asked.
His smile never reached his eyes. “Sure. Friends. Why not? Two friends having dinner.” The words hit her like thrown stones. Anger burned in his gaze as he picked up his menu.
“It’s your birthday, Dana. Let’s not say anything to spoil it.”
laughed. Her birthday had been spoiled from the moment she’d opened her eyes this morning.
They ordered, then sat in silence until Sally arrived with their salads.
Dana felt terrible on so many levels. She just wanted to get through this dinner. She asked him about his work and got him talking a little.
But by the time they left, they’d exhausted all topics of conversation. Lanny said nothing on the drive back to the ranch. He didn’t offer to walk her to her door.
“Goodbye, Dana,” he said, and waited for her to get out of the car. He met her gaze for an instant in the yard light and she saw rage burning in his eyes.
There was nothing she could say. She opened her door. “Thank you for dinner.”
He nodded without looking at her and she got out, hurrying through the falling snow to the porch before she turned to watch him drive away.
It wasn’t until she entered the house that she remembered the present on her kitchen table.
The box, the size of a thick paperback book, was wrapped in red foil. There was a red bow on top with a tag that read Happy Birthday!
She knew exactly what was inside—which gave her every reason not to touch it. But still she picked up the box, disappointed in herself.
She felt the weight of the chocolates inside, felt the weight of their lost love. She’d tried to get over Hud. Tried so hard. Why did he have to come back and remind her of everything—including how much she had loved him?
Still loved him.
All the old feelings
rained down on her like a summer downpour, drowning her in regret.
She set the box down, heard the chocolates rattle inside. Not just any chocolate. Only the richest, most wonderful, hard-to-find chocolates in the world. These chocolates were dark and creamy and melted the instant they touched your tongue. These chocolates made you close your eyes and moan and were right up there with sex. Well, not sex with Hud. Nothing could beat that.
Making love with Hud was a whole other experience—and she hated him even more now for reminding her of it.
Knowing her weakness, Hud had found these amazing chocolates and had given them to her on her twenty-fifth birthday—the night he’d asked her to marry him.
She glared down at the box and, like niggling at a sore tooth with her tongue, she reminded herself of how Hud had betrayed her five years ago. That did the trick.
Grabbing up the box of chocolates, she stormed over to the trash. The container was empty except for the balled up card from her sister that she’d retrieved from the floor and thrown away. She dropped the box of chocolates into the clean, white plastic trash bag, struck by how appropriate it was that the card from Stacy and the chocolates from Hud ended up together in the trash.
rattled again when they hit the bottom of the bag and for just a moment she was tempted. What would it hurt to eat one? Or even two? Hud would never have to know.
No, that’s exactly what he was counting on. That she wouldn’t be able to resist the chocolates—just as there was a time when she couldn’t resist him.
Angrily she slammed the cupboard door. He’d broken her heart in the worst possible way and if he thought he could worm his way back in, he was sadly mistaken.
She stormed over to the phone and called his office.
“It didn’t work,” she said, her voice cracking. Tears burned her eyes. She made a swipe at them.
“Your…present…The one you left me after sneaking into my house like a thief. It didn’t work. I threw the chocolates away.”
“Dana.” His voice sounded strange. “I didn’t give you a present.”
Her breath caught. Suddenly the kitchen went as cold as if she’d left the front door wide open. “Then who…?”
“Dana, you haven’t eaten any of them, have you?”
“No.” Who had left them if not Hud? She walked back over to the sink and was about to open the cabinet door to retrieve the box, when her eye was caught by something out the window.
Through the snow
she saw a light flickering up on the hillside near the old homestead. Near the well.
She stepped over and shut off the kitchen light, plunging the kitchen into darkness. Back at the window she saw the light again. There was someone up there with a flashlight.
“Dana? Did you hear what I said? Don’t eat any of the chocolates.”
“Do you still have men up on the mountain at the well?” she asked.
“There’s someone up there with a flashlight.”
She heard the rattle of keys on Hud’s end of the line. “Stay where you are. I’ll be right there.”
Dana hung up the phone
and sneaked into the living room to turn out that light, as well. She stood for a moment in total darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust.
Through the front window, the sky outside was light with falling snow. She listened for any sound and heard nothing but the tick of the mantel clock over the fireplace. After locking the front door, she crept back into the kitchen to the window again.
No light. Had she only imagined it? And now Hud was on his way over—
There it was. A faint golden flicker through the falling snow. The light disappeared again and she realized that the person must have stepped behind the old chimney.
She stared, waiting for the light to reappear and feeling foolish even with her pulse still hammering in her ears. If she hadn’t been on the phone with Hud when she’d seen the light, she wouldn’t have called for help.
She’d had trespassers
on the ranch before. Usually they just moved along with a warning. A few needed to see the shotgun she kept by the door.
Obviously this was just some morbid person who’d heard about the body in the well and had sneaked in the back way to the ranch hoping to find…what? A souvenir?
She really wished she hadn’t told Hud about the light. She could handle this herself. The light appeared again. The person moved back and forth, flashing the light around. Didn’t the fool realize he could be seen from the house?
A thought struck her. What if it was a member of her family? She could just imagine her father or uncle up there looking around. Hud wasn’t one to shoot first and ask questions later, but if he startled whoever was up there—Even if he didn’t kill them, he’d at least think them guilty of something.
Or…what if it was the killer returning to the scene of the crime? What if he was looking for evidence he believed the marshal hadn’t found?
The thought sent a chill running up her spine. She stepped away from the window and moved carefully to the front door again in the darkness. The roads were icy; she didn’t know how long it would take Hud to get here.
She found the shotgun by the door, then moved to the locked cabinet, found the hidden key and opened the drawer to take out four shells. Cracking the double-barreled shotgun open, she slipped two shells in and snapped it closed again, clicking on the safety. Pocketing the other two shells, she returned to the kitchen.
No light again. She
waited, thinking whoever it was had gone behind the chimney again. Or left. Or…
Her heart began to pound. Had he seen the lights go out in the ranch house and realized he’d been spotted? He could be headed for the house right now.
She’d never been afraid on the ranch. But then, she hadn’t known there was a murdered woman’s remains in the well.
The shotgun felt heavy in her hands as she started to move toward the back door, realizing too late that she’d failed to lock it. She heard the creak of a footfall on the back porch steps. Another creak. The knob on the back door started to turn.
She raised the shotgun.
The shotgun sagged in her arms as the back door opened and she saw Hud’s familiar outline in the doorway.
He froze at the sight of the shotgun.
“I didn’t hear you drive up,” she whispered, even though there wasn’t any need to.
“I walked the last way so your visitor wouldn’t hear my vehicle coming and run. When I didn’t see any lights on, I circled the house and found the back door unlocked…” His voice broke as he stepped to her and she saw how afraid he’d been for her.
He took the shotgun from her and set it aside before cupping her shoulders in his large palms. She could feel his heat even through the thick gloves he wore and smell his scent mixed with the cold night air. It felt so natural, she almost stepped into his arms.
Instead he dropped
his hands, leaving her aching for the feel of him against her, yearning for his warmth, his strength, even for the few seconds she would have allowed herself to enjoy it before she pushed him away.
She stepped past him to the window and stared up the hillside. There was only falling snow and darkness now. “I don’t see the light now.”
“I want you to stay here,” Hud said. “Lock the door behind me.”
“You aren’t going up there alone?”
He smiled at her. “Does that mean you’re not wishing me dead anymore?”
She flushed, realizing she
wished that. And fairly recently, too. But she hadn’t meant it and now she was afraid that foolish wish might come true if he went up that hillside alone. “I’m serious. I don’t want you going up there. I have a bad feeling about this.”
He touched her cheek. Just a brush of his gloved fingertips across her skin. “I’ll be all right. Is that thing loaded?” he asked, tilting his head toward the shotgun where he’d left it.
“It would be pretty useless if it wasn’t.”
He grinned. “Good. Try not to shoot me when I come back.” And with that, he was gone.
UD MOVED STEALTHILY
through the snowy night, keeping to the shadows of the house, then the barn and outbuildings as he made his way toward the pines along the mountainside.
Earlier, he’d caught glimpses of the light flickering through the falling snow as he’d run up the road toward the ranch house, his heart in his throat.
falling snow illuminated the night with an eerie cold glow. No light showed by the well, but he didn’t think whoever it was had left. He hadn’t heard a vehicle. More to the point, he didn’t think whoever it was had finished what he’d come here to do.
The breath puffed out in a cloud around his face as he half ran through the fallen snow in the darkness of the pines.
He stopped at the edge of the trees in view of the old homestead. Snow fell silently around him in the freezing night air. He watched the eerie play of shadows over the new snow. A quiet settled into his bones as he stilled his breathing to listen.
From this position, the dark shape of the chimney blocked his view of the well. He could see no light. No movement through the blur of snow.
The night felt colder up here, the sky darker. No breeze stirred the flakes as they tumbled down. He moved as soundlessly as possible through the snow, edging his way toward the dark chimney.
He hadn’t gone far when he saw the impression of tracks in the new snow. He stopped, surprised to find that the footprints had formed a path back and forth along the edge of the old homestead’s foundation as if the person had paced here. Making sure Dana saw the light and went to investigate? he thought with a start.
Again Hud listened and heard nothing but the occasional semi on the highway as it sped by into the night. The snow was falling harder, visibility only a few feet in front of him now.
If any place could
be haunted, this would be the place, he thought. A gust of sudden wind whirled the snow around him and he felt a chill as if the woman from the well reached out to him, demanding justice.
He pulled his weapon and made his way toward the chimney, staying in the shadow it cast.
That’s when he saw it. Something lying in the snow. A rope. As he moved closer, he saw that it was tied to the base of the old chimney and ran across the snow in the direction of the well.
Hud stared into the falling snow, but he couldn’t see the top of the well at this distance. He took the flashlight from his coat pocket but didn’t turn it on yet. Holding his gun in one hand and the flashlight in the other, he moved soundlessly along the length of rope toward the well opening.
ANA COULDN’T STAND
still. She’d lost sight of Hud as well as the old homestead chimney as the storm worsened. Nor had she seen the light again.
She couldn’t stand it any longer. She couldn’t wait here for Hud.
She knew he’d be furious with her and had even tried to talk herself out of going up there as she pulled on her boots, hat, coat and gloves.
But ever since last night, she hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that something horrible was going to happen. This morning when she’d found out about the bones in the well and that Hud was back in town, she’d thought that was the something horrible the premonition had tried to warn her about.
But as she
picked up the shotgun and stepped out the back door into the darkness and snow, she was still plagued with the feeling that the worst was yet to come. And then there was her stupid birthday wish!
She took the road, feeling fairly safe that she couldn’t be seen since she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face through the snowfall. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of the mountainside as a gust of wind whirled the snow away. But they were fleeting sightings and she was still too far away to be seen, so she kept moving.
The air was cold. It burned her throat, the snow getting in her eyes. She stared upward, straining to see the chimney, reminded of ranchers’ stories about stringing clotheslines from the house to the barn so they didn’t get lost in a blizzard.
She’d always prided herself on her sense of direction but she didn’t chance it tonight. She could feel the rut of the road on the edge of her boot as she walked, the shotgun heavy in her hands, but at the same time reassuring.
As she neared the homestead, a gust of wind swirled the snow around her and for an instant she saw the chimney dark against the white background. It quickly disappeared but not before she’d seen a figure crouched at the edge of the old homestead foundation.
UD FOLLOWED THE ROPE
to the well, stopping just short of the edge to listen. A gust of wind swirled the snow around him. He edged closer to the hole. The rope dropped over the side into blackness. Still hearing nothing, he pointed the flashlight down into the well, snapped on the light and jerked back, startled.
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to see dangling from the rope. Possibly a person climbing down. Or trying to climb out.
He holstered his weapon, then kneeling, he shone the flashlight to get a better look. It was a doll, the rope looped like a noose around its neck.
What the hell?
He picked up the rope and pulled
it until the doll was within a few feet of the top. Its face caught in the beam of his flashlight and he let out a gasp, all his breath rushing from him.
The doll had Dana’s face.
He lost his grasp on the rope. The doll dropped back into the well. As he reached for the rope to stop its fall, he sensed rather than heard someone behind him.
Half turning, he caught movement as a large dark figure, the face in shadow, lunged at him, swinging one of the boards from the well.
A shotgun discharged close by as he tried to pull his weapon but wasn’t quick enough. The board slammed into his shoulder, pitching him forward toward the gaping hole in the earth.
Hud dropped the flashlight and grabbed for the rope with both hands, hoping to break his fall if not stop it.
His gloved hands wrapped around the rope, but the weight of his falling body propelled him over the side and partway down into the cold darkness of the well. He banged against the well wall with his left shoulder and felt pain shoot up his arm. But he’d managed to catch himself.
He dangled from
the rope, the doll hanging below him. He was breathing hard, his mind racing. Where the hell had the shotgun blast come from? He had a bad feeling he knew.
Bracing his feet against the wall, he managed to pull the gun from his holster, telling himself it couldn’t have been Dana. He’d told her to stay in the ranch house.
He looked up, pointing the gun toward the well opening. He could wait for his attacker or climb out. Snowflakes spiraled down from a sky that seemed to shimmer above him iridescent white. He squinted, listening.
Another shotgun blast, this one closer.
Hud climbed as best he could without relinquishing his weapon. Only seconds had passed since the attack. But now time seemed to stand still.
Then in the distance he heard the growl of an engine turning over and, a moment later, another shadow fell over the top of the well above him.
He looked up through the falling snow and saw the most beautiful woman in the world lay down her shotgun and reach for him.
was in her throat as she looked down into the well and saw Hud hanging there.
He was alive, not broken at the bottom, but partway down a rope. That’s all that registered at first. Then she saw him wince as he tried to use his left arm to holster his gun and pull himself up.
“You’re hurt,” she said, as if the pain were her own. “Here, let me help you.”
She managed to get
him up to the edge and drag him out into the snow. They lay sprawled in the snow for a few moments, both breathing hard from the exertion.
“Thanks,” Hud said, turning his head to look over at her.
She nodded, more shaken now than she’d been when she’d looked over the edge of the well and seen him hanging down there. Aftershock, she supposed. The time when you think about what could have happened. Realized how close it had been. She breathed in the night air as the sound of a vehicle engine died off until there was nothing but the sound of their labored breaths.
They were alone. Entirely alone, as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
Hud sat up and looked at her. He was favoring his left arm and she saw now that his jacket was ripped and dark with blood.
“Your arm…It’s bleeding!”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. What about you?”
“Fine.” She pushed herself up, her arms trembling with the effort.
His gaze met hers and he shook his head. Couldn’t fool him.
She started to get to her feet, but he caught her sleeve, pulling her back to the ground beside him.
Her face crumpled
as he encircled her with his good arm and pulled her tightly against him. His hug was fierce.
She buried her face into his chest, the snow falling around them.
When she pulled back, the kiss was as natural as sunrise. Soft, salty, sweet and tentative. And for a moment nothing mattered. Not the past, the pain, the betrayal. In that moment, she only recalled the love.