THE COLT PRANCED back and forth, snorting loudly as Cullen Cade watched from a few feet away planning his approach. He took a step to minimize the space and, once things seemed calmer, Cull patted Mr. Big’s slick neck, then gradually smoothed his hand to the saddle. “That’s right, buddy. Just like that. We’ll take this nice and slow.”
He pulled himself up and the second he was settled into the polished leather, the colt snorted loudly, clawed at the air, then came down hard. “Whoa there, boy,” Cull whispered.
Mr. Big’s ears cocked before he turned several times, his tail swishing. He twisted left then right and expertly tossed Cull into the dirt. The horse whinnied and walked away as if nothing had happened.
With a silent curse, Cull stood, dusted himself off and dragged his Stetson off to slap it against his jeaned thigh. “That’s some stubborn sum’bitch,” he muttered. He’d been working with the colt for weeks now and hadn’t gotten anywhere.
“Don’t you mean that’s some birthday gift from Dad? He’s either trying to prove a point or kill you,” Zander Cade said from where he straddled the top rail around the arena.
“You know the saying, ‘What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger’.” Cull didn’t take his eyes off Mr. Big who stood close to the fence, shaking his head back and forth as if warning Cull not to come any closer. “I bet if I had more carrots you’d be just fine.” The horse sniffed, and Cull growled, “This fellow doesn’t like men. That’s the problem.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to attempt this as many times as it takes.” Cull eased forward slowly and climbed into the saddle again. Holding the reins tight as the colt pranced irately around the arena, Cull clenched his jaw, preparing himself for another dirt bath, but it didn’t happen. “I think he’s finally settling down.”
“Don’t let him fool you, bro,” Zander warned. “He’s got that look in his eye.”
“Yeah, what look is that?”
His brother’s laughter reached his ears. “Sort of reminds me of Kace when he gets pissed.”
“I heard that.” Kace strolled up to the fence. “That horse doesn’t like you much, Cull.”
“Nah, we just need to establish who’s boss.” Once he loosened his hold on the reins ever so slightly, the colt saw his chance and bucked wildly, kicking his back legs then his front and folded over like a performer taking a bow sending Cull sliding forward and onto the ground. He stood and held his side, feeling a twinge of pain in his ribs. At least they weren’t broken but they’d smart tomorrow.
“See, I told you,” Zander bellowed. “Want me to try? I’ve been told I have the smooth touch.”
Giving his brother an agitated eye, Cull sighed. “Just you watch and see. He’s going to make a fine horse one day.”
“You going to train him, are you?” Kace asked.
“Hell yeah, I am. I’ve never shied away from a challenge before. He just needs some time.”
“You either have more nine lives than a litter of kittens or rubber bones.” Kace snorted.
“Remember what Dad told us growing up?” Cull braced his elbows on the top of the fence.
“Yeah, that rowdy horses make good cowboys.”
“He’s right, you know. The first horse I trained was the devil, even broke a couple of my ribs, but he damn sure made me tougher.” Cull opened the gate and slipped out. “Will you take care of his saddle for me? I’ve got some place I need to be.”
“Sure, but are you seriously doing this bounty hunter job?” Zander and Kace followed Cull into the stables.
“Fugitive Recovery Agent, bro, and yes. I find it gratifying.”
“I call bullshit!” Zander spit into the dirt.
“Is it gratifying to be shot at by a two-hundred fifty-pound biker who’s wanted for the death of three people? Great entertainment, man,” Kace said.
“The money’s good and this is just a stepping stone. I’ll talk to you both later. Don’t try riding my horse.” He crossed the grass to his truck, feeling a dull ache in his ribs. Mr. Big put a hurting on his body. It didn’t help that two days ago he’d cornered a fugitive and the bastard thought it would be clever to try and run Cull over with his Harley. He’d be dead by now if it wasn’t for quick reflexes. Too bad the concrete parking lot hadn’t been a little more forgiving on his landing.
Pulling away from the Cade Ranch, he steered the wheel toward Cheyenne. He probably wouldn’t make it before nightfall but that was okay. As long as he got his man, handed him over to authorities and was in his bed by midnight, Cull didn’t care one bit what happened in between.
Pushing the speaker button on his phone in the holder on the dashboard, it was answered on the second ring. “Hey, Deke. I’m headed to Cheyenne now. Want to give me the lowdown on this case?” Detective Deke Johnson worked for the Laramie Sheriff’s Department and he and Cull had been good friends since they’d been in the police academy together. Cull worked with agencies all over Wyoming chasing down fugitives and because of his honed tracking skills, his record was spotless. When he was set on the trail of a criminal, chances were they’d face iron bars within thirty-six hours.
“You’ve got a real doozy on your hands this time, Cade,” Deke said.
“Tougher than that tower of a bastard I brought in two days ago?” Why did he feel an invisible punch to his ribs?
“Still in pain?”
“Like a mofo, but that’s why you fellows contract this shit out. I take the beating and you take the credit.”
Deke’s laughter rasped the line. “Yeah, that sounds about right. You sure you’re still into finding fugitives? This next one will throw you for a loop.”
“He’ll go down like the rest.” Cull eased back into the leather of the driver’s seat.
“Well, he’s actually a she who has a few tricks of her own. She is Monica Warren. We found a business card in the dead guy’s wallet. Who’d think escorts would have business cards these days. Anyway, she was last seen in Cheyenne a week ago, disappeared right after the murder of some big-time lawyer, Thomas Yates. He was found stewing in his own blood in a motel room.”
“Thomas Yates? Isn’t he the one in the commercials, guaranteeing people that he’ll win their case? His slogan is ‘Yates has the best rates’.”
“Yes, that’s him. Get this, the guy was married to some rich broad for ten years, but apparently liked snatch on the side. Warren was his paid mistress, and the last known person to be seen with him before he bit the dust. It appears the rich suit was into paying for dates for a year now and met Ms. Warren twice weekly, rain or shine. Same room.”
“Do you think she had a motive to kill him? Isn’t that bad for business?”
“Hell, maybe Yates wanted to turn the old model in for a new one and she didn’t like the thought of losing her money wagon. Shit, who knows what these people think.”
Cull slowed the truck. He’d seen a lot of things in his days as a lawman, but he’d learned to never judge a book by its cover, so to speak. “How’d the victim die?”
“A stab wound to the chest and a sliced throat. Her prints were all over the place, but she disappeared and is nowhere to be found and we can’t match her in the system. Broad’s never been in trouble and the only photograph we have is a shot from a surveillance camera from the hotel property.”
“Did she work for an agency? Did you talk to them?”
“No, and everything these days is done incognito online. I’m slammed with three homicides, the boss is breathing down my neck, and these cases with rich people suddenly become sweet bait to the media. We’re trying to keep the circumstances hush hush for the family, you know, because who the fuck wants it splattered all over the news that her husband had his dick where it didn’t belong. If anyone can find Warren and bring her in, it’ll be you. Bring her to me, buddy, so we can get to the bottom of this.”
“It should be pretty easy.” He was ready for an easy capture. “Another question, who found the dead man?”
“A stabbing and sliced throat would cause a lot of bleeding. Did Ms. Warren walk out of the hotel with blood all over her?”
“Hell, maybe she brought an extra pair of clothes to change in.”
“Were they found?”
Deke groaned. “Listen, buddy, you’re working the wrong side of the law here. Your job is to bring them in and let us handle the details.”
“Right.” Cull had a hard time not asking questions, but the less he knew about a case the better. His only purpose was to track them down and haul them in.
“You should be thanking me. There’s a large amount of reward attached to this. The family want her caught as badly as we do. They want this handled with care, if you know what I mean.”
“A reward? Already? Seems like a knee-jerk reaction.”
“Hell if I care. We’re on a time crunch here. If the media gets ahold of the details they’ll have a field day with their smear campaigns.”
“Who are these people you’re talking about? Politicians or church members?”
“You’re good, my friend. Politicians. Our widow is a candidate for senator and is endorsed by some heavy-duty backers who want this to stay as hushed as our widow does. The bastards are always wanting to cover up something.”
“You don’t sound very sympathetic with the situation.”
“Hey, the guy was boning a girl twenty years his junior and his wife gets in front of the camera and is all weepy-eyed. You know she must be thanking her lucky stars that the bastard met his death. Widow lady’s PR gave a speech with some bullshit story that Yates had been doing business from the motel room, blah blah blah. Anything to save her political career.”
“You still harboring some issues with the ex, Deke?” Cull remembered how his buddy had hit rock bottom after his wife of twenty years asked him for divorce when she met a rich oil tycoon and they ran off together. This only made Cull appreciate more that he was single.
“Just a bit.”
“So, you want me to find the girl, bring her to you for questioning, and I collect the reward?”
“I can’t collect, now can I? You know how these rich families work. They have the understanding that money speaks across all language barriers. A hundred grand for anyone with information that’ll lead to Warren’s capture.”
Cull whistled through his teeth. “Maybe they need a private investigator and not me.”
“If I wasn’t ten years away from retirement, I’d drop this job like a hot rock and find this princess myself. This is free money, dude. I’m relaying this information to you so you can go find the girl and we both win. You take the money and I look like the hero.” His laugh vibrated the line. “You’re the man for the job. Catch her before she disappears, Cull.”
A hundred grand would be his best payment yet and would be enough to start building his dream house. “You said you had a picture of her?” Cull pulled over on the side of the road, grabbed his laptop from the backseat and switched it on.
“I’ll email it to you right now.” Keyboard clicks sounded in the background. “Get the email?”
“Just did.” He clicked on the mail and his screen filled with a blurred security camera photo. She had striking red hair and was wearing a form-fitting red dress that paid tribute to long, toned legs. “Is this all you got?” he groaned. It was a poor shot.
“You can find her. You’re the man for the job. I have faith in you.”
“I’m glad you do.” Cull was known to track down criminals with little to go on, but this wasn’t a lawman’s everyday case.
Muffled voices were heard on Deke’s side. “I’ve got to go, buddy. We have a dead body. What kind of dick dies at cocktail hour on a Friday?”
“The nerve of some people.”
The line went dead.
Cull stared at the screen. So, this could be a bit difficult. With no time to waste, he pulled out onto the road, focusing on the reward that was waiting on him. He guessed he did owe his buddy a thank you. His law friends were good about leading him to cases that offered the big rewards.
“Where will you stay tonight?”
Sally Holloway plastered a smile on her face. She had become good at pretending things were okay. “Let’s see what my choices are…hmm…that upscale motel on the corner of Fifth or the luxurious park bench at the le terminus.” She laughed but the concerned look on her friend, Pete’s, face made her shoulders slump.
“It’s not safe sleeping on the bench at a bus station.”
“I’ve done it before. I have my handy dandy mace for protection.” He’d been letting her roll out a sleeping bag on the floor of his shop at night, but the last few days he’d been in the hospital fighting a case of pneumonia. “And you shouldn’t worry. I can take care of myself.”
“Let me speak to Laura—”
“No.” The mention of his snooty daughter made Sally’s hair stand up. The last time Laura found out that Pete had opened his shop doors to Sally all hell broke loose. She couldn’t cause a rift between the kind man and his family.
“You’ve stepped in and helped with deliveries more times than I can count and those arrangements you helped make for the wedding were fabulous. The least I can do is offer you a place to sleep.” Pete started coughing and she reached for his water, holding it so he could drink from the straw.
“You do enough.” She fixed his pillows. “You always pay me for the work that I do.”
He patted her hand, looking up at her with pale grey eyes. “One day you’re going to find a man who’ll give you the world, my dear. You deserve the kind of love my Missy and I had. God rest her soul. I still remember looking across the dance floor and seeing her, knowing that I would marry her.” His eyes always lit when he spoke about his late wife.
“Maybe one day, Pete.” Yet Sally wouldn’t hold out hope. She needed a man like she needed another hole in the head. After her last relationship that ended with her packing a bag and sneaking out in the middle of the night, she knew she’d never put herself in the same horrible situation again. She’d lost everything because of him.
“One day I’m going to hire you at the shop. Watch and see,” he said with a hint of a smile.
“Visiting hours are now over.” The announcement sounded over the hospital intercom.
“That’s my cue, Pete.” She grabbed her jacket and bag and tugged it up over her shoulder.
Reluctantly, she said goodbye to him and left the room, stopping at the small coffee shop to grab a coffee before stepping outside of the hospital onto the sidewalk. A gust of wind blew over her causing goosebumps to scatter her skin. The night was unusually cool, or maybe her mood contributed to her icy feeling. She hated seeing the elderly man in the hospital. He was the only friend she had in the world. He never looked at her as the homeless woman who ran away from her abusive boyfriend, and he always offered her kindness.
Slipping into her jacket, she dragged the collar up to protect her neck. Looking up at the sky, she gave a little prayer that it wouldn’t rain. It would only make her life more miserable.
She looked both ways on the sidewalk and sighed. What she wouldn’t give to be heading home to crawl into a comfortable bed tonight, but she’d given up everything for her safety. Freedom had a price and she’d paid dearly.
Tonight, she was on her own.
Every night she was on her own.
Where would she sleep tonight? The bus depot was an option, but she never slept well there. The local shelter had already closed and wouldn’t give out any more beds. She could always hang out and walk the streets, do some window shopping and want for all the things she couldn’t have.
A rain drop splashed her cheek and that solidified her decision. The bus station it would be then.
Warming her hands with the lukewarm cup, she listened to the faint sound of horns beeping and the low buzzing of the corner street lights. Hearing laughter she looked across the street as a man and woman greeted each other with a long kiss. Her throat constricted but she refused to allow her emotions to form self-pity. Once she let the tears flow they might never stop, and then what? She had no ear to listen to her vent or shoulder to soak up her tears. Crying made her weak, vulnerable. Living on the streets for six months now, it was important that she never allowed any weakness to show. Feebleness made her a sitting duck for the users, manipulators, and the street scum that scoured for victims.
She’d once been the victim, but never again.
One year ago, she would have never believed she’d be here, on the street with five dollars to her name. There was no one to blame but herself. Wrong boyfriend and bad choices equaled a devastating end to a life of comfort. Burke Combs had been a dream that turned into a nightmare. He’d stolen her attention and when he’d had her where he’d wanted her, he’d stolen her independence, money and left her stripped of a nice life—and her reputation. How had she missed the red flags that he was dangerous? That he’d use up his savings then hers to gamble and pay for entertainment.
Working her bottom lip, anger erupted inside her remembering what Burke had done that had been the end. She had been working as a physical therapist for a clinic and he’d used her key card to get in and steal narcotics from the locked cabinet. Even though she hadn’t done anything wrong, the company still fired her. That night she walked away, moved in with a friend, and never looked back.
Until Burke hunted her down.
He had been drinking and when she’d refused to go home with him, he’d ransacked her friend’s apartment and threatened her. Sally knew she had to disappear.
Turning a corner, absorbed in her thoughts, Sally brought her gaze upward just as she saw a flash. She collided with the woman, sending her purse one way and the phone she had been using another. The top had popped off Sally’s coffee, splashing all over the stranger’s expensive looking fur coat.
“Oh my God!” the woman squealed. She was tall, a good six inches taller than Sally, her blonde hair was cut in a neat bob and she wore crimson lipstick. The diamond necklace around her neck reflected the street corner light.
“I’m so sorry. Here, let me help you.” Sally started to reach for the purse from the sidewalk.
“Don’t touch! You’ve done enough!” The woman looked around frantically as if she were looking for someone. “I can’t wait to get out of this neighborhood,” she mumbled.
“I-I…didn’t see you.” Picking up her empty cup and the crushed the lid, Sally blinked as the woman gave her a look that could jackhammer through rock. “What can I do? I could go into a shop and get paper towels.”
“You could make yourself scarce. That’s how you can help.” The tall blonde sighed in agitation as she hurried to pick up her purse and the contents that had fallen out. Sally took a step back, watching, realizing it was best to steer clear. The woman seemed panicked as she gathered her things and continued on her way. Her heels tapped loudly against the cement.
Sally dropped her empty cup into a trash can and that’s when she saw the small red change purse. “Oh no!” She grabbed the forgotten item and took off in the same direction where the woman had gone. Looking up and down the sidewalk, it was empty. A cab’s taillights faded down the street.
She swiveled on her heels and looked around the shadowed street, uncertain what she should do. And then the rain started, pelting down in fat drops that immediately soaked through the thin jacket and jeans she wore. Scurrying under the shelter of an overhang at a closed Chinese restaurant, she looked at the Chanel purse with disdain. With the attitude the stranger had given Sally, she had an urge to toss the purse back onto the ground and forget about it. The incident had already caused her to miss her opportunity to get to the bus station without getting soaked. Now she’d have to wait for the downpour to stop. She was already cold, but she’d be freezing by the time she made it to the station.
She didn’t owe the angry woman anything…
And yet, Sally couldn’t find it in herself to walk away.
Reluctantly, she unzipped the expensive purse and looked for the woman’s ID that was tucked in the plastic pocket. Monica Warren. “So, Monica Warren, you don’t make very nice first impressions.” Along with the identification card were a few large bills, a key, and a business card for a local attorney. Thomas Yates. Sally thought the name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place him.
Thunder rolled in the distance. The weather wasn’t letting up. She realized she had no choice but to go out into it and find the woman. Dragging off her backpack, she unzipped it, dropped the small purse inside and pulled the strap tightly over her shoulder.
The rain continued to come down hard as she made her way past closed shops. She raced in the direction that would take her the few blocks to the address she found on the woman’s address card.