Authors: B.J. Daniels
New York Timesbestselling author B.J. Daniels continues her acclaimed Cardwell Ranch series!
The last of his clan to come home to Big Sky, Montana, Laramie Cardwell wasn’t planning to spend the holidays chasing an elusive cat burglar. He’s stunned to discover that the masked, black-clad figure he tackles to the snowy ground is a woman. After a distracting and sizzling kiss, she flees Laramie, who’s knocked senseless by the culprit. Even though he manages to hold on to the stash in the melee, the sexy thief single-handedly steals Laramie’s heart! Now he’ll move any mountain to capture the mystery woman whose kiss still smolders on his lips.
In a breathless whisper, she said, “You just now noticed that? Could you let me breathe?”
Shocked, he shifted his weight to allow her to take breath into her lungs. This was the cat burglar?
She freed one arm and wiped away the powdery snow from her eyes as she whispered something else.
He cut his eyes to her, suddenly worried that he had injured her when he’d taken her down. She motioned for him to lean closer. He bent down.
Her free hand cupped the back of his neck, pulling him down into a kiss before he could stop her. Suddenly her lips were on his, her mouth parting as if they were lovers...
New York TimesBestselling Author
B.J. Danielsis aNew York TimesandUSA TODAYbestselling author. She wrote her first book after a career as an award-winning newspaper journalist and the publication of thirty-seven short stories. She lives in Montana with her husband, Parker, and three springer spaniels. When not writing, she quilts, boats and plays tennis. Contact her atbjdaniels.com, on Facebook or on Twitter,@bjdanielsauthor.
Books by B.J. Daniels
Rescue at Cardwell Ranch
Wedding at Cardwell Ranch
Deliverance at Cardwell Ranch
Reunion at Cardwell Ranch
Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch
Justice at Cardwell Ranch
Cardwell Ranch Trespasser
Christmas at Cardwell Ranch
The Montana Hamiltons
Visit the Author Profile page atHarlequin.comfor more titles.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Laramie Cardwell—The Texas cowboy only planned to spend the Christmas holidays in Montana with his family. But that was before he had a run-in with a female cat burglar.
Obsidian “Sid” Forester—The artist and thief can’t let anyone stop her—even a handsome Texas cowboy who is determined to capture her.
Zander Andrews—She’d made a lot of mistakes when it came to what little family she had left. Did she dare hope that this Christmas could change all that?
Taylor West—The cowboy artist thought he had it all, a young wife and a promising career—until his wife ran off and Laramie Cardwell showed up at his door.
Rock Jackson—The artist’s love for women was costing him after two divorces, but he’d found a way to have it all.
Hank Ramsey—He and three others had started the Old West Artists’ Coalition to promote themselves and cowboy art, but maybe they’d been too restrictive about who they let into their club.
Cody Kentworth—The artist knew he was only as good as his reputation.
Dana Cardwell Savage—Her Christmas wish was to get the last of her Cardwell cousins to Montana.
There are books that seem to write themselves. And there are books that try to kill me. This one drove me crazy. But thanks to an escape to the Bahamas with people I love, I was able to finish the book. This one is for Danielle, Travis, Stelly, Leslie and, always, Parker. Your faith in me keeps me going.
Excerpt fromLucky Shotby B.J. Daniels
The moment she’d stepped into the dark house, she could feel the emptiness surround her like a void. The owners wouldn’t be coming to Montana for Christmas this year. The couple was getting a divorce. The man’s third marriage, the woman’s first.
She’d gotten her information from a good source, but she’d learned, though, that you can never be certain of anything, especially the rumors that ran more wildly than the river ran through the Gallatin Canyon past Big Sky.
Standing stone still in the dark, listening, she waited for a few moments before she snapped on her tiny penlight. There were no other homes close to this one. The owners of these expensive spacious second homes wanted to feel as if they had the mountainside to themselves. Because of that there was little to no chance that anyone would notice if she turned on lights. But she didn’t like playing against the odds when it came to the chance of being discovered.
As she moved through the house, she saw sculptures that she knew had cost a small fortune and paintings like some she’d sat for hours studying in museums back East. She hurried on past them, reminded that time was never on her side. In and out as quickly as possible was her personal motto. Otherwise she knew all too well things could go very badly.
She found the painting in the master bedroom on the third floor. A twenty-by-sixteen-inch signed Taylor West original depicting a rancher on horseback surveying his herd. It was one of her favorites. She stepped to it quickly, admiring the brushstrokes and the skillful use of shading as she let the penlight move over it until she found what she was looking for.
Lifting it off the wall, she checked the time. She was running a little over five minutes on this job because of the three stories she’d had to search for this piece.
Quickly she replaced the painting with the one she’d brought, noticing that the bag she’d carried it in had torn. Wadding up the bag, she stuffed it into her coat pocket and tucked the painting from the wall under her arm.
She made her way back through the house, pleased. If only they were all as easy as this one. She’d barely completed the thought when a set of headlights washed over the room.
* * *
LARAMIECARDWELLMENTALLYkicked himself for driving up this snow-packed narrow mountain road in the dark. But according to his sister-in-law, and the real-estate agent for the property, if he wanted a house in the Big Sky area, he had to jump on it the moment it became available.
“Why would you want to buy a house up here when you can stay in one of our guesthouses on the ranch whenever you come?” his cousin Dana Cardwell Savage had argued.
While he appreciated her hospitality at Cardwell Ranch, as much time as he found himself spending in Montana, he wanted a place of his own. It had been family that had brought his brothers back to Montana. But it was love—and barbecue—that had them staying.
He often marveled that it had all started with barbecue—the one thing all five brothers knew. They’d opened a small barbecue joint outside of Houston. Surprisingly, it had taken off and they’d opened others, turning a backyard barbecue into a multimillion-dollar business. It had been his brother Tanner “Tag” Cardwell who’d first come up with the idea of opening their first Texas Boys Barbecue restaurant in Montana in Big Sky.
While some of them had balked at the idea, it had proved to be a good one. Now his brothers were talking about opening others in the state. His four brothers had all returned to their Montana roots, but Laramie was a Texas boy who told himself that he had no desire to live in this wild country—at least not full-time.
With his entire family here now, he wanted his own place, and he could darn sure afford a second home. Though he suspected the one he was on his way to check out would be too large for what he needed.
But there was one way to find out. He figured he’d get a look at the house from the outside. If it wasn’t what he wanted, then he wouldn’t waste his sister-in-law McKenzie’s time looking at the interior.
As he topped a small rise in the road, a moonlit Lone Mountain, the peak that dominated Big Sky, appeared from behind a cloud, making him catch his breath. He’d seen the view numerous times on his other visits to the area, but it still captivated him.
He had to admit this part of Montana was spectacular, although he wasn’t so sure about staying up here for the winter. While the snow was awe inspiring in its beauty, he still wasn’t used to the bracing cold up here.
“You wouldn’t mind it if you had someone to cuddle with at night,” his brother Tag had joked. All four of his brothers had fallen in love in Montana—and with Montana—and now had wives to snuggle up to on these cold winter nights.
“I only want a house up here,” Laramie had said. “I can kick up the heat when I spend time here during the holidays.”
As he topped the rise in the road, his headlights caught on a three-story house set against the mountainside. Laramie let up on the gas, captivated by the design of the house and the way it seemed to belong on the side of the mountain in the pines.
That’s when he spotted the dark figure running along the roofline of the attached garage.
Laramie remembered hearing that an alleged cat burglar had been seen in Big Sky, but so far the thief hadn’t gotten away with anything.
Slamming on the brakes, he threw open the door of his rented SUV, leaped out and took off running. It crossed his mind that the robber might be armed and dangerous. But all he could think about was catching the thief.
The freezing snowy night air made his lungs ache. Even though he’d been the business end of Texas Boys Barbecue, he’d stayed in shape. But he felt the high altitude quicken his breathing and reminded himself he wasn’t in Houston anymore.
The dark figure had reached the end of the roofline and now leaped down as agile as any cat he’d ever seen. The thief was dressed in all black including a mask that hid his face. He was carrying what appeared to be a painting.
Laramie tackled the burglar, instantly recognizing his physical advantage. The burglar let out a breath as they hit the ground. The painting skidded across the snow.
Rolling over on top of the thief, Laramie held him down with his weight as he fumbled for his cell phone. The slightly built burglar wriggled under him in the deep snow.
“Hold still,” he ordered as he finally got his cell phone out and with freezing fingers began to call his cousin’s husband, Marshal Hud Savage.
“You’re crushing me.”
At the burglar’s distinctly female voice, Laramie froze. His gaze cut from the phone to the burglar’s eyes—the only exposed part of her face other than her mouth. The eyes were a pale blue in the snowy starlight. “You’re a...woman?”
In a breathless whisper, she said, “You just now noticed that? Could you let me breathe?”
Shocked, he shifted his weight to allow her to take breath into her lungs. This was the cat burglar?
She freed one arm and wiped away the powdery snow from her eyes as she whispered something else.
He cut his eyes to her, suddenly worried that he had injured her when he’d taken her down. She motioned for him to lean closer. He bent down.
Her free hand cupped the back of his neck, pulling him down into a kiss before he could stop her. Suddenly her lips were on his, her mouth parting as if they were lovers.
The next thing he knew he was lying on his back in the snow looking up at the stars as the cat burglar took off. Her escape had been as much of a surprise as the kiss. He quickly sat up. He’d lost his cell phone and his Stetson. Both had fallen into the snow. He plucked them up as he lumbered to his feet. But by then she was already dropping over the side of the ridge.
He took off after her, but he had gone only a few yards when he heard the roar of a snowmobile engine.
Scrambling after her, he turned the corner of the house in time to see the snowmobile roar off through the snow-heavy pines and disappear. He listened to her get away, feeling like a fool. He’d let her trick him.
She’d taken advantage of his surprise and the extra space he’d given her to breathe. She was a lot stronger and more agile than she had appeared and she had a weapon—those lips. He groaned when he thought about the kiss—and its effects on him.
As he turned back, he saw a corner of the painting sticking up out of the snow. Laramie trudged to where it had landed. The only good news was that she hadn’t gotten away with the painting.
Surprisingly the frame was still intact. He carefully brushed away the snow, thinking about the woman who’d gotten away. He’d known his share of women in his life. A few had tempted him, a couple had played havoc with his heart and several had taken him for a ride.
However, none of them had tricked him like this. He could well imagine what his brothers would say.
But would he be able to recognize her if he ever saw her again? She’d never spoken above a whisper and he hadn’t gotten a chance to remove her ski mask before she’d dumped him in the snow.
Those eyes. Those lips. He told himself if he ever saw either again, damn straight he’d recognize her.
She thought she was smarter than he. She thought she’d gotten away. But he had the painting. And he would find her—if she didn’t find him first, he thought, glancing at the painting in the moonlight.
To the fading sound of the snowmobile, he walked back to his rental SUV. Placing the painting in the backseat, he called his cousin’s husband, the marshal.
* * *
THATHADBEENtoo close. As Obsidian “Sid” Forester pulled the snowmobile around to the back of the cabin, she glanced over her shoulder. No headlights. No lights at all. She hadn’t been followed.
She’d taken a longer route through the trees. At first she’d thought the man who’d tackled her was the owner of the house. But she’d done her research on him and knew he was much older than the man she’d just encountered.
So who was that cowboy with the Southern drawl? Moonlight on snow did strange things to one’s vision. But she had gotten a good look at him—a better look than he’d gotten of her, she assured herself. Thick dark hair. Ice-cold blue eyes. Handsome, if you liked that clean-cut, all-business kind of man. She did not.
The only thing that had thrown her was his accent. Definitely from down South. Definitely not the New Yorker who owned the house.
That wasn’t all that had thrown her, she had to admit. The kiss. It had worked just as she’d planned and yet... She touched her tongue to her upper lip, remembering the electrical shock she’d felt when they kissed. Worse was the tingling she’d felt in her belly. True, she hadn’t kissed a man in... She couldn’t even remember when, but she’d never had that kind of reaction. She certainly hadn’t expected to feel...anything.
Her pulse was back to normal by the time she entered the cabin. The air smelled of oil paint, turpentine and linseed oil. She shrugged out of her boots and coat at the back door, hung up her coat and kicked her boots aside as she moved to the painting she’d been working on earlier that day.
She gave it a critical perusal before moving into the small kitchen. Unfortunately she hadn’t been to the grocery store in several days. She was always starved after one of what she called her “night jobs.” With a bottle of beer—her last—a chunk of cheese and some stale bread, she stepped into the living area where a half dozen paintings were drying.
The cabin was small with only a living room, kitchen, bedroom, small bath and a storage room off to one side at the back. The moment the owner had shown it to her—and told her about all its peculiarities—she’d had to have it and had quickly signed the papers.
Sitting down now, she considered each of her paintings as she ate her snack and sipped her beer. It was hard to concentrate after what had happened earlier, though. She’d come close to getting caught before, but nothing like tonight. What would the man do?
Go to the marshal.
She considered that and decided she wasn’t worried about the law catching up with her.
What did worry her was that he had the painting.
Taking another bite of cheese and bread, she chewed for a moment before washing it down with the last of the beer. She really did have to go to the store tomorrow.
Just the thought of going out in public made her wonder if she would run into him. That was the other thing about her cabin. It was nestled in the woods, far from urban Big Sky.
What if she did see him again? She had no doubt that she would recognize him. She’d gotten a good look at him. He had high cheekbones, a patrician nose and generous mouth. She felt that ridiculous stirring again over that one stupid kiss.
She assured herself that there wasn’t any way he could recognize her since she’d had the black ski mask on the whole time. Nor could he recognize her voice since she hadn’t spoken above a whisper.
Shaking her head, she tried to put him out of her mind. There was more than a good chance that she would never see him again. Obviously he was a tourist, probably only here for the holidays. Once the holidays were over, he’d be on a jet back to wherever he’d picked up that Southern drawl.
Still, she wondered who he was and why he’d driven up to the house tonight. Probably lost. Just her luck. What other reason could he have had to be there?
But while she’d gotten away, it hadn’t been clean, which upset her more than she wanted to admit. She prided herself on her larceny skills. Worse, she’d failed. She didn’t have the painting.
Losing her appetite, she tossed the crust of stale bread in the trash and put the cheese back into the fridge before she returned to her work in progress. She always did her best thinking while she painted.
* * *
“SO,YOUDIDN’Tsee her face?” Marshal Hud Savage asked as he looked up from his report at the marshal’s office later that night.
“She was wearing a ski mask with only the eyes and mouth part open. Her eyes were this amazing...bluish-silvery color.” Laramie frowned. “Maybe it was the starlight but they seemed to change color.” He realized the marshal was staring at him. “Just put down blue. If I ever see those eyes again, I’ll recognize her.” Or those lips, he thought, but he wasn’t about to tell Hud about the kiss.
It had taken him by surprise—just as she’d planned. But for a moment, his mouth had been on hers. He’d looked into her eyes, felt something quicken inside him, then her warm breath on his cheek and...
He shook his head, reminding himself that it had only been a ploy and he’d fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. He’d kissed athief! What annoyed him was that he had felt anything but disgust for what she’d done.
“How about height and weight?” Hud asked after writing downblue.
Laramie shrugged. “Small. Maybe five-five or -six. I have no idea on weight. Slim. I’m sorry I don’t have a better description. It all happened too fast. But I have the painting. Maybe you can get her fingerprints—”
“Was she wearing gloves?”
“And you say she got away on a snowmobile?”
All he could do was nod.
“Did you get a make or model?”
Another shake of his head.
“And she overpowered you? Was she armed?”
Laramie groaned inwardly. “Not armed exactly. She was much stronger than I expected and she moved so fast... She caught me off guard.”
Hud nodded, but he appeared to be trying hard not to laugh.
“You wait until you find her. She’s...wily.”
Hud did chuckle then. “I’m sure she is. Here. Sign this.”
“So what are the chances you’ll catch her?” Laramie asked as he signed the report.
“With a description like the one you just gave me...” Hud shook his head. His phone rang and he reached for it. “Marshal Savage.” He listened, his gaze going to Laramie. “Okay. Yep, that’ll do it.” Hanging up, he picked up the signed report and ripped it in half before tossing it into the trash.
“What?” Laramie demanded.
“I just spoke with the owner of the house. He hadn’t planned to come up this holiday, but apparently McKenzie called him yesterday and told him you would be looking at the house. Seems he’s anxious to sell, so he flew in tonight.” Hud met his gaze. “When I called the maintenance service and asked them to check the house, they found him there. He looked around to see what was missing and found nothing out of order.”
“There wasn’t anything missing? Was he sure?”
“It seems he has a painting, just like that one...” He pointed to the one leaning against the wall on the floor near Laramie, the painting the cat burglar had dropped. “It isn’t missing.”
“That’s not possible.”
Hud shrugged. “The owner says he has the original—the only one of its kind. Also, he said his house hasn’t been broken into.”
“That can’t be right. I saw her coming out of the house.”
“Or did you just see her on the ridge of the garage roofline?” the marshal asked.
Laramie thought back. “Maybe I didn’t see her come out of the house.”
“Since the first report we received about a cat burglar, we’ve had several sightings. But in all three cases, nothing was taken, the house showed no sign of forced entry...”
Laramie could see where this was going. “So it was a...hoax?”
Hud studied him openly for a moment. “You didn’t happen to mention to your brothers that you were going up to that house tonight, did you? They also didn’t happen to tell you beforehand about a cat burglar in the area, did they?”
He would kill his brothers. “You think it was a setup?”
Hud shrugged. “You know your brothers better than I do, but I’d say you’ve been had.”
Had in more ways than the marshal could even imagine. He got to his feet. “I’m sorry to bother you with this, then. I just hope they haven’t planted counterfeit money on me, as well.” His brothers had told him that Hud was investigating a counterfeit operation that had been passing fraudulent money in the canyon.
“Let’s hope not,” Hud said with a groan. “I get a call a day about a bad twenty. Someone’s churning them out,” he said getting to his feet. “In the old days it took a lot of expensive equipment and space along with some talent. Now, all you need is a good copy machine. A video online will walk you through the entire process. The good news is that these operations are often small. We aren’t talking millions of dollars. Just someone needing some instant spending money.”
“Well, good luck finding your counterfeiter and, again, I’m sorry about this. You have enough going on.” But as he turned to the door, he said, “What about the painting?”
“The owner swears he has the authenticated original with paperwork on the back.” Hud shrugged. “I would imagine this is nothing more than a cheap prop.”
“Then you don’t mind if I keep it?” Laramie asked.
The marshal chuckled. “It’s all yours.”
Laramie considered the painting on the floor. It was what he would have called Old West art, a rancher on horseback surveying his herd. It was titled “On The Ranch” and signed by an artist named Taylor West. The painting looked expensive to him, but what did he know?
“If someone comes looking for it, I’ll let you know. But I have my doubts.” Hud grinned. “If you ever see that woman again, though... I’d be curious just what color her eyes are since they seem to have made a real impression on you.”
* * *
“REALLY?” LARAMIEDEMANDEDwhen he saw his brother Tanner “Hayes” Cardwell at his house the next morning. “That wasn’t funny what you and the others pulled last night.” He couldn’t help but wonder if the kiss had been planned, as well. It was a nice touch, something that would have had his brothers rolling on the floor laughing. “Hud got a real kick out of it since he has nothing to do but take bogus crime reports. I hope he arrests the whole bunch of you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hayes said as he poured coffee for them.
Laramie looked to his sister-in-law and real-estate agent McKenzie. He’d been staying with them this holiday and, while he enjoyed being with them, he was anxious to get his own place. McKenzie had been helping him find a house.
“Tell me you weren’t in on it, too,” he said to her.
“I abhor practical jokes.” McKenzie shot a disapproving glance at her husband. “What did you and your brothers do?”
“Nothing. Honest.I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Hayes said holding up his hands. He looked genuinely innocent.
But Laramie wasn’t buying it. He knew his brothers too well. They’d all treated him as if he was the bookworm who ran their family business, Texas Boys Barbecue. They would all have said he was the brother who never had enough adventure in his life.
So it would be just like them to set this up to add some spice to his life, as they would call it.
“Who was the woman?” Laramie demanded.
“There was awoman?” Hayes asked and grinned.
McKenzie shook her head. “You’ll have to tell me about it on the way to the house, Laramie. I promised the owner we’d be there by nine. You can deal with your brothers later.”
On the way up the mountain, he told McKenzie about what had happened last night.
“That doesn’t sound like something Hayes would do,” she said. “Are you sure your brothers were behind it?”
“It’s the only thing that makes any sense. I saw her leaving with a painting. So, of course, I thought she’d stolen it. I guess that’s what I was supposed to think.”
“Are you sure the painting you have is a fake?”
“It doesn’t look like it to me, but I’m no expert by any means. The owner says he still has the original. So maybe I stopped the woman before she could make the switch, but I could have sworn she was comingfromthe house.”
McKenzie seemed to give it some thought. “Maybe she saw your headlights coming up the road and took off before she could make the switch.”
“I suppose. If she really was a cat burglar. Or it could be just what the marshal thinks it is—my brothers’ idea of a joke.
“I know an art expert if you’re interested in finding out about the painting. Or, if it is by a local Western artist, you could take it right to the source,” she said.
“Have you ever heard of Taylor West?”
McKenzie looked over at him in surprise. “He’s a well-known artist in these parts. He lives farther up the canyon near Taylor Fork. I’m sure if you took the painting to him, he’d be able to tell you if it was his or not.”
“I just might do that.” He looked up the mountain road ahead and thought about what he’d seen last night as he’d come over the last rise. He couldn’t help thinking about the woman. She’d certainly played her part well. If his brothers had been in on it.
He thought about what he’d seen in her eyes just before he started to call the marshal. She’d looked scared. But that could have been an act, too.
“First thing I want to do is see the original,” he said to McKenzie.
“You think the owner lied about having it? Why would he do that?” she asked as the house came into view.
“I don’t know. To collect on the insurance, maybe. He could be in on some scam involving the artwork if this artist is that well-known.”
McKenzie raised a brow as she parked next to a white SUV next to the house. “Cowboy art doesn’t go for that much. A Taylor West might sell for near a hundred grand to the right market. But we aren’t talking the Mona Lisa.”
He didn’t know what the original was worth, but he was anxious to see it. “I looked up the artist’s website last night. Most of Taylor West’s original work sells for twenty-five to seventy-five thousand depending on the size. Some of his older works are worth more.”
“Did you see this particular painting on the artist’s website?”
The owner, Theo Nelson, turned out to be an older distinguished man who’d apparently made his money in real estate back East. “If you have any questions, just let me know. I’ll be in my study.” Nelson disappeared up the stairs, leaving them alone.
“So what do you think, so far?” McKenzie asked as they stepped to the bank of windows that looked out on Lone Mountain. The snow-covered peak glowed in the morning sun against a robin’s-egg-blue sky.
“The view is incredible,” Laramie said. Then he dragged his gaze away to look at the paintings on the walls.
“This open concept is nice,” McKenzie said as she went into the kitchen. “Great for entertaining. Granite countertops, new top-of-the-line appliances, lots of cupboard space, a walk-in pantry and even more storage for multiple sets of china and glassware—if you ever get married to a woman who collects both... You aren’t listening to me,” she said when Laramie didn’t take the bait.
“Sorry. Let’s see the second story,” he said, already starting up the stairs.
The next floor had a large second living area, two bedrooms and a study. The study door was partially open, the owner at his desk, head down.
Laramie scanned the walls quickly. The painting wasn’t there.
“Another great view,” McKenzie was saying.
He agreed, taking a moment to notice the house. He liked it. “Let’s see the top floor.” He saw her shake her head, but she followed him up to the third level.
This, he realized, was a huge master bedroom. It cantilevered out so when he stood at the bank of windows, he felt as if he was flying.
“Impressive,” McKenzie said. “But I’m not sure I could sleep in here. I have this thing about heights. The master bathroom is really nice, though. Check out this shower.” She turned, no doubt realizing she’d lost him again.
Laramie stood in front of a painting, shaking his head. “This is the one.”
“Does it look like the painting you took from the woman last night?” McKenzie asked in a whisper as she stepped closer.
“It looksexactlylike it. How can he be so sure it’s the original?”
“Because I had it authenticated.” Neither of them had heard the owner come up the stairs to join them. Now the man stepped past them to take the painting off the wall and show them the back.
Laramie could see that it had a small card taped to the back. He realized how easy it would have been for the cat burglar to make the switch—including the authentication.
“You must be the man who thought you saw a burglar here last night,” Nelson said as he put the painting back on the wall. “I’m glad it was a false alarm.”
“Me, too,” Laramie said, still not sure he believed it.
“So what do you think of the house?” the man asked.
“I like it.”
“We’ll be looking at some others,” McKenzie said quickly. “How long are you going to be in town?”
“Only as long as it takes. So if you’re interested...”
“You’ll hear from us,” she said, motioning to Laramie that it was time to go. “I have several other houses for us to look at this morning,” she said once they were in the SUV heading off the mountain.
“Don’t bother. I want that one.”
She shot him a look. “But you haven’t even—”
“That’s the house. Find out what furniture stays. Also I want that painting.”
As they dropped over the rise, the house disappearing behind them, McKenzie hit her brakes and skidded to a stop in the middle of the narrow snow-packed road. “You want the painting?”
“I’m pretty sure he’ll part with it. If he’s selling the house, then he’s leaving Montana. His next wife won’t want any cowboy art in her house.”
McKenzie laughed. “You are definitely decisive once you make up your mind, but did you even look at the house or do you really just want the painting?”
He smiled over at her. “I want both. See what kind of deal you can get me, but don’t take no for an answer.”
She laughed and shook her head as she got the SUV going again. “You’re more like your brothers than I thought you were.”
She had no idea. “I think you’re right,” Laramie said. “It wasn’t my brothers who put that woman up to that stunt last night.”
“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” she said.
“I think she reallyisa cat burglar.”
McKenzie shot him a look. “But she didn’t steal anything.”
He rubbed his jaw, surprised that he’d forgotten to shave. He’d been so anxious to confront Hayes this morning. “I’m not sure about that.”
“Why am I getting a bad feeling that you’re thinking of trying to catch this woman?”
He smiled over at her. He knew he could go to his brothers for help. Hayes was a private investigator and Austin, who’d been a deputy sheriff, now worked for Hayes at his investigative business.
But his cat burglar had made this personal. He wanted to catch her himself.
“I know Taylor West’s work well,” the art dealer said when Laramie called. “Who did you say gave you my name?”
“Local Realtor McKenzie Sheldon Cardwell. She said she’s worked with you before.”
“Oh, yes, McKenzie,” Herbert Darlington said. “You have a painting you’d like me to authenticate?”
“If you can.”
Darlington made an unpleasant sound. “If it is a true Taylor West work, I will be able to tell at once. When would you like me to take a look at it?”
“I’m parked outside your gallery right now.”
The gallery was in a narrow building along the main street of Bozeman. Laramie had driven the forty-five miles first thing that morning. He was anxious to know about the painting. Even more anxious to know about the woman who’d gotten away.
Golden light shone on the paintings on the old brick walls of the gallery as he entered. He looked for any by Taylor West and saw several of Native Americans as well as one of cowboys. This one, though, was a cattle drive filled with longhorns and cowboys driving the herd through a canyon. It looked so real he could almost smell the dust the cattle were kicking up.
“Bring it back here,” Darlington said motioning to a door at the back. The man was short and thick with thinning hair above a round red face. He wore a dark suit like an undertaker and sported a narrow black mustache above narrow thin lips.
Without another word, Darlington took the framed painting from him and moved over to a table. He snapped on a light, pulled on a pair of glasses and bent over the artwork.
“Where did you get this?” he asked after a moment.
“I picked it up from an unknown source.”
Darlington shot him a look over one shoulder before returning to the painting. “It’s quite good.”
“But it’s not a Taylor West.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Laramie waited impatiently as the man pulled out a magnifying glass and went over the entire painting again. So much for being able to tell at a glance.
After a few minutes, Darlington let out a sigh, took off his glasses, snapped off the light and turned. “It’s an original Taylor West.”
Laramie let out a laugh as he raked a hand through his hair. How was that possible? How did any of this make sense? It didn’t. “You’re sure?”
The art expert gave him a pained, insulted look. “I’m guessing you picked it up for a song.”
“Something like that.” He reached for the painting.
“So you’re interested in selling it,” Darlington said. “I suppose I could make you an offer.”
“It’s not for sale.” He reached again for the painting and this time the gallery owner handed it over, though reluctantly.
“I would be happy to authenticate it for you in writing,” the gallery owner said.
Laramie wondered if he’d authenticated the one now hanging in the house he hoped McKenzie was getting for him. “I’ll think about it.” The art dealer walked him toward the front door.
Just then a tall, thin older man with a shoulder-length mane of white-blond hair and a handlebar mustache came in on a gust of wind. He looked like something out of an Old West movie.
“Cody can verify what I’ve told you,” Darlington said.
Laramie eyed the man, wondering if he was also considered an art expert.
“Cody Kent is another of our Western artists,” the gallery owner said. Then he turned to Cody. “Mr. Cardwell brought in a Taylor West painting. He was questioning its authenticity.”
“Really?” Cody tilted his head to look at the painting in Laramie’s hand as Darlington explained to him that while this was a one-of-a-kind piece, apparently there was another one owned by another collector.
That definitely got the man’s attention. “So you’re saying one of them is a forgery?”
“I’d stake my reputation that this is the original,” Darlington said, puffing himself up. “Do you agree?”
Laramie handed the man the artwork and watched him as he inspected it. He noticed that the man’s hands seemed to tremble as he stared at it.
The artist handed it back. “Sure looks like the real thing to me.” Cody Kent’s gaze met his. “Where did you get it?”
“Just picked it up recently,” Laramie said. He took it back from the older man. “Glad to hear you both agree it is an authentic Taylor West.”
As he headed for the door, Darlington followed. “Well, if you decide to get rid of it...”
Laramie shook his head but then stopped just short of the door to ask, “How much would you say it’s worth?” He noticed that Cody Kent had moved to one of the paintings on display only yards from them, clearly listening to the conversation.
Darlington seemed to give a price more thought than was necessary since he’d just offered to buy it. “I could give you...thirty,” he said, keeping his voice down.
“Thirtythousand,” Darlington said. “It would be more but it’s an older piece. His work has improved over the years.”
Was that right? Laramie smiled to himself. From what he’d seen online last night, artists’ older work appeared to have more value—especially if the artist was now dead. Taylor West was still kicking, apparently, but Laramie suspected the painting must be worth a lot more that what he was being offered.
“Thanks, but I think I’ll keep it,” he said as he tucked it under his arm. “It has...sentimental value.”
* * *
SIDPUTONclean jeans and a sweater to go to the grocery store. Often she went in her paint-streaked pants and shirts. Anyone who paid any attention was aware that she painted since she spent most Saturdays at the local craft show selling her wares.
Not her paintings, but haphazardly done Montana scenes on everything from old metal saw blades and antique milk cans to ancient tractor parts and windmill blades. Amazingly, her crafts sold well, which proved to her that most people didn’t know the difference between good art and bad.
But today she wanted to fly under the radar. No reason to call attention to herself as an artist. It might be too risky if the man from last night was still in town. She knew she was being silly. He’d probably completely forgotten about her.
She assumed he would have gone to the marshal last night with a story about her robbing that house. Since the painting wouldn’t be missing, she wasn’t worried.
Her only regret was losing the painting. She needed it. Which meant she had to get it back. Or taking all these chances would have been for nothing.
Where was the painting now? She’d learned at a young age to make friends where needed. Now she picked up the phone and called her friend who worked at the marshal’s office as she drove to the grocery store.
After the usual pleasantries, she said, “So what’s new down there?” Dispatcher Tara Kirkwood loved her job because she got to know everything that was going on—and she loved to share it.
“Counterfeit bills keep turning up,” Tara said, keeping her voice down although the office was small and she was probably the only person down there right then. The marshal and detectives were probably out.
She and Tara had established long ago that anything Tara told her wouldn’t go any further—and it never had. “The marshal is chasing one right now that was passed at the Corral Bar.”
“No more cat burglar sightings?” she asked after listening to what Tara knew about the counterfeit bills.
“Actually, before Hud left, he said his wife’s cousin who is in town caught the cat burglar last night.” She laughed. “According to him, the burglar turned out to be aher.”
“No kidding? So is she locked up down there?”
“Naw, she got away.” Tara laughed again. “Hud got a chuckle out of it since apparently there was no crime and his cousin-in-law was quite taken with the woman.”
Sid laughed even though this was not what she wanted to hear. The marshal’s cousin-in-law? Just her luck. Not to mention “quite taken with her”?Really?She thought of the kiss. It might have been a mistake since she’d had a hard time forgetting about it, as well.
“What’s the guy’s name?” she asked.
Cardwell?Anyone who lived in the Gallatin Canyon knew that name. The Cardwell Ranch was one of the first established in the canyon. But she’d never heard of a Laramie Cardwell before.
“You said he was in town. So he’s not from here?” she asked even though she knew his accent was way too Southern.
“His father is Angus Cardwell. Apparently his mother got a divorce years ago and took her five sons to live in Texas. Laramie’s up here from Houston. He and his brothers own that new place, Texas Boys Barbecue.”
“Have you tried it yet?” Tara asked.
“No. I’ve been meaning to, though,” she said, realizing it was true.
“It’s really good.”
“So did the so-called cat burglar get away with anything?” she had to ask. “You said no crime was committed?”
“Laramie found a painting, but it wasn’t stolen from the house. I overheard Hud say Laramie is hanging on to it. Kind of like a souvenir.”
Sid mouthed a silent oath. She’d reached Meadow Village and the grocery store. “So now it’s hanging at Cardwell Ranch,” she joked.
“More than likely at his new house,” Tara said.
“His new house?”
The dispatcher dropped her voice even further. “The house that he caught her allegedly robbing? He’sbuyingit.”
Sid pulled into a parking spot in front of the store. Tara was always a wealth of information. “Now that is a coincidence,” she said. “So apparently he’s staying.”
“At least for the holidays I would think. You really should try their barbecue. It issogood.”
“I just might do that. Got to go. Sure hope they catch those counterfeiters.”
“Me, too. Hud is fit to be tied. It will be nice when things die back down around here.”
Disconnecting, Sid parked in front of the grocery, thinking about everything Tara had said. How was she going to get the painting back? She’d never been one to push her luck and hitting the same house twice was more than risky, especially since now Laramie Cardwell might be expecting her. But did she really have a choice?
Her stomach growled. Still hungry and realizing it was almost lunchtime, she looked up the hill at the sign for Texas Boys Barbecue.
* * *
THEFAMILYHADgathered at the Cardwell Ranch for lunch. Everyone but Laramie.
“What’s going on with him?” Austin asked. For years he had been the no-show brother, the one who caught grief because he didn’t play family well. Since meeting Gillian and returning to his birthplace, he’d changed. He loved these family get-togethers.
“He’s looking for the cat burglar,” McKenzie said. “And the four of you can blame yourself for that if you’re behind this.”
“What?”Austin asked, looking around the table. Hayes told him what he knew, Hud added his part and McKenzie finished it up. “Seriously?Laramie is trying to find this woman?” He turned to Hayes. “You told him we had nothing to do with this, right?”
“I swore we didn’t.”
Austin groaned. “So he might actually be chasing a real cat burglar.”
“Only if the cat burglar is a young woman with silvery-blue eyes,” Hud said, shaking his head. “This whole cat burglar thing started when a few residents saw a dark-clad figure sneaking around a couple of houses. But the bottom line is that no one has reported being burglarized. No valuables or paintings are missing.”
“So you think it’s a hoax,” Austin said.
“I do,” the marshal agreed. “Probably the local security company put the woman up to it to drum up more business. A lot of the people in Big Sky are from urban areas so security is a concern for them. The rest of us locals don’t even bother to lock our doors.”
“He told me he was going to visit the artist whose painting the woman dropped,” McKenzie said between bites. “Taylor West. He lives up the canyon near Taylor Fork.”
“Why didn’t he come to us?” Austin asked his brother Hayes. “We are actually trained for this sort of thing.” He’d gone to work for Hayes’s detective agency after quitting the sheriff’s department in Texas—he hadn’t been satisfied being simply retired. Gillian had been right. He’d been miserable. He was too young to retire and he enjoyed investigative work.
“Seriously?” Dana asked. “You don’t understand why your brother might want to solve this thing on his own? It involves an apparently attractive woman who tricked him and escaped. Laramie is related to all of you. Enough said. He probably thinks she’s in trouble and is off to save her.”
They all laughed, but Austin couldn’t shake the bad feeling he had.
“I know that look in your eye,” Gillian said to Austin. “Don’t do it.”
“She’s right,” Jackson said speaking up. “We need to stay out of this. I think Laramie’s been getting bored running the business. Why not let him have a little...fun, since there is nothing to the cat burglar stories?”
They all agreed. Except Austin. “Fun?What if this woman is dangerous?”
“Laramie can take care of himself,” Hayes said. “He hasn’t just been sitting behind a desk for the past ten years. He’s worked with some of us on cases. I think Jackson’s right. He needs this and he needs us to stay out of it.”
Austin couldn’t help being protective of his youngest brother. While he and Hayes had both worked in law enforcement, Laramie had no experience dealing with criminals.
“I hope you’re right,” Austin said as he watched his family finish their lunches. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Laramie had no idea what he was getting into.
For the time being, he’d stay out of it since, if Hud was right, it had been nothing but a prank. But if a woman was involved...
Artist Taylor West was a tall drink of water. At least that’s how Laramie had seen him described on his website. The man who opened the door at the West homewastall. He’d aged, though, since he’d put his photo on his website. Laramie guessed he must be in his sixties and had once been very handsome. The gray hair at his temples gave him a distinguished look, but his complexion told the story of a man who drank too much.
“I don’t usually meet clients at my home,” West said, looking put out.
Laramie was glad he hadn’t called ahead. “This was a matter that couldn’t wait.” A photograph on the wall behind the man caught Laramie’s attention. It was of Taylor with a pretty young green-eyed blonde. He was staring at the photo more intently than he realized—especially at the eyes. Could this be the woman he’d tackled last night? She looked the right size but the eye color was wrong.
“My wife, Jade,” West said.
Laramie blinked in surprise. Given the age difference between the artist and the woman in the photo, he would have thought it was West’s daughter.
West’s gaze went to the painting Laramie was holding in one hand. “Is that one of mine?” He sounded like a man worried that Laramie had come here to complain.
“That’s what I’d like to know. I promise not to take any more of your time than necessary.”
“What makes you think it’s mine?” West asked.
“Because it has your name on it.” He didn’t mention that the so-called expert at the gallery had authenticated it.
“Well, fine, come on in out of the cold. This shouldn’t take long.” He didn’t look less perturbed, but he did step back to let Laramie in.
But that was as far as the invitation was extended. Standing in the entryway of the house, Laramie uncovered the painting and handed it to the artist. Past West, he could see that the house was a huge mess. So where was the young wife?
West looked at it and said, “I don’t see what the problem is,” and started to hand it back.
“So it’s yours?” Laramie asked.
“Obviously,” the artist said with impatience.
“Then thereisa problem.” He told him about the one that Theo Nelson owned, the one that had been authenticated. “How do you explain that?”
“One of them must be a forgery since I only painted one.”
“And you’re sure this one is the original?”
West snatched the painting from him and with a curse headed down a hallway. Laramie followed, stepping over boots and shoes, jackets, dirty socks and assorted dog toys.
“The cleaning crew comes tomorrow,” West said over his shoulder before turning into what was obviously his studio. It, too, was in disarray.
Laramie suspected the man didn’t have anyone to clean the house. Or the young wife to do so, either, for that matter.
West snapped on a lamp and put the painting under it. “Where did you get this?”
“I picked it up recently.”
“Nelson is right. If he has the original, then this one isn’t mine,” West said.
“Are you sure?” Clearly he wasn’t. “I should tell you that before I came here, I took the painting to a local expert,” Laramie said. “He confirmed it was yours and offered me thirty thousand for it.”
The artist’s eyes widened in surprise. “The original is worth over fifty.”
Just as Laramie had suspected. “But the question is, which is the original?”
West swore. “If this is a forgery, it’s a really good one.” The man was frowning at the artwork, clearly angry and also seeming confused.
“I’ve looked at both. They appear identical. So if you didn’t paint the copy, then who did?”
The artist shook his head. “How would I know?” He was upset now.
“It would take some talent, wouldn’t it?”
West sighed impatiently. “Sure, but—”
“Otherwise, you’re saying any art student could copy your paintings?”
“I see what you’re getting at,” the older man said angrily. “Yes, it takes talent. Alotof talent. They would have had to have studied their craft and have some natural ability, as well. Also they would have had to study my work. Not just anyone could make a reproduction this good.”
“So has this person been hiding under a rock, or is it someone you know?”
West seemed shocked by the question. “It couldn’t possibly be anyone I know.”
“Why not? I would think the cowboy art market is very small. It must also be competitive. There can’t be that many of you painting at this level, right?”
The artist nodded. “There are only twenty of us in the OWAC.” Seeing Laramie’s quizzical expression, he elaborated. “The Old West Artists Coalition.”
Laramie considered that. “Only twenty? That sounds like a pretty elite—and competitive—group.”
“We’re allfriends. We encourage and support each other. The only competition is with ourselves to get better.”
“But some of you must make more money than others,” he prodded. “Who is the best paid of this group of cowboy artists?”
West met his gaze with an arrogant one. “I am, but there are several others who do quite well.”
“And you’re telling me there is no jealousy?” Laramie scoffed at that. He knew too well, being one of five brothers, that competition was in male DNA. “So who are the others who are doing ‘quite well’?”
“Cody Kent and Hank Ramsey, in that order. Rock Jackson quite a ways behind those two.”
Laramie couldn’t help but laugh. Just the fact that West knew that provedheat least had a competitive spirit. “So what exactly does this group do?”
“I told you. We support each other. We came together because of a desire to keep this art form alive in memory of the greats like the late Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. But also to ensure the work is an authentic representation of Western life. Without standards of quality and a respect for each other and the work...” He sounded as if he was quoting the group’s bylaws.
“And you belong to this group?”
“I’m one of its founders along with Rock, Hank and Cody Kent,” he said proudly.
Laramie had heard something in the man’s tone. “What does it take to be a member?”
“You have to apply. The members decide if your work and your character meet our standards.”
“Originally, you had to have cowboy experience as well as talent. That’s changed some. Why are you asking me all this?” West demanded.
Laramie wasn’t sure. “So it’s an exclusive...club.”
“None of my fellow artists would have any reason to rip me off by duplicating my work, if that’s what you’re getting at,” West said. “Not to mention, most of them don’t have the talent to copy my work.”
Laramie tried not to smile. No competition here.
“Look,” West said as if he knew he’d said too much. “There aren’t that many of us. We’re a dying breed of artists who care about our work. The satisfaction comes from painting and selling our own work—not copying someone else’s and passing it off for money.”
“Even if they needed money badly?” Laramie asked.
He saw something change in West’s expression as if the question had made him think of someone. Laramie knew money could be the most obvious reason for making forgeries of Taylor West’s work. Or maybe to rub West’s arrogant face in it.
West picked up the painting, frowning harder as he studied it again. “This is definitely the original,” he said, but he seemed to lack conviction.
“If no one in your group is talented enough to make you question if this painting is yours or not...”
“I’m telling you,” West snapped, “there’s no one alive who could have copied my work well enough to fool an expert, let alone me.”
Laramie thought that was a ridiculous statement given that someone obviously had, and he said as much.
West suddenly looked even more upset. “There is one man,” the artist said after a moment. He’d paled. “H. F. Powell.”
“Where would I find him?”
West didn’t seem to hear him for a moment. He shook his head as if clearing away cobwebs from his brain. “Find him?” His laugh was more of a grunt. “Six feet under, last I checked.”
* * *
TEXAS? SOTHATwas Laramie Cardwell’s accent, Sid thought. The barbecue restaurant had opened in Big Sky Meadows just last year. She’d heard it was owned by five brothers from Houston. Since she didn’t get out much—at least during the day—that had been all Sid knew about the place.
Good sense told her to go into the store, buy some food and take it back to the cabin. The sooner she got home, the sooner she could get ready for tonight. Last night’s close call was a good reminder that she needed to finish this and move on.
But barbecue sounded good. More than anything, she was curious. She quickly shopped for what groceries she needed, telling herself she would get a barbecue sandwich to go. She knew she was taking a risk, but then again, she’d been taking risks for some time now. Putting the groceries into the back of her SUV, she walked quickly up the hill to Texas Boys Barbecue on the recently plowed sidewalk. The sun glistening off the snow was almost blinding. It was one of those clear, cold winter days in Big Sky when she could see her breath as she walked. She looked up at Lone Mountain, momentarily stunned by how beautiful it was this morning.
Sometimes she got so busy she forgot to notice what an amazing place this was. Once she was done with all of this, maybe she would take a few weeks off and snowboard up on the mountain. She deserved it after this.
A bell jangled over the door as she entered the restaurant. It was early so the place was busy but not packed, and there were enough people that she didn’t think she would stand out. Not that she believed Laramie Cardwell could recognize her.
The aroma of smoked meat filled the air, making her stomach growl again. Slipping into a booth, she pulled out a menu from behind an array of barbecue sauces with names like Hot in Houston and Sweet and Spicy San Antonio.
She’d just opened it when she heard a male voice with a distinct Southern accent coming from the kitchen. Looking up she saw a head of dark hair. The man was talking to another man with the same accent. As the first man turned, she realized he wasn’t the one from last night, but the resemblance gave her a start even before she laid eyes on the second man.
It was him!
Suddenly, as if sensing her staring at him, he glanced in her direction. Sid quickly ducked behind her menu as a young waitress approached her booth.
“What can I get you?” asked a teenaged girl with a ponytail and an order pad.
“I’ll try the pulled pork sandwich with beans and coleslaw,” Sid said from behind her menu. “Can I get that to go?”
“Great choice. What would you like to drink?” the girl asked.
Sid peeked out from behind the menu. Through the window into the kitchen she could no longer see the two men—nor could she hear them. Maybe they’d left.
“And a beer.”
The girl nodded, then shyly asked if she could see her ID. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask.”
Sid might have found that amusing since she was thirty. But she was aware that she didn’t look a day over twenty. Behind the waitress, she heard the men’s voices coming from the kitchen again. They sounded as though they were arguing.
She heard one say he didn’t like what the other one was doing. “Austin, if I need your help I’ll ask for it. I can handle this.” Laramie Cardwell’s voice. Handle what?
Sid looked up at the waitress. Today of all days, she didn’t want to show her ID. She knew it was silly since Laramie Cardwell hadn’t seen her face last night. But he might have a few moments ago. She remembered him above her in the moonlight and the way he’d looked into her eyes...and felt a shiver.
“You know, just make it a cola. I have work to do this afternoon.”
The poor girl nodded without looking at her and wrote on her order pad.
“The owners of this place, are they really from Texas?” Sid asked.
The girl brightened. “They sure are. Five brothers. They just opened this place, but I heard there’s another one going to open at Red Lodge.”
“Really? Five brothers, huh?”
“Yep, all raised in Texas. They were born here, but left when they were kids. Four of them have moved back.”
“The fifth one?” Sid asked, remembering how strong the man’s Texas accent had been.
“Laramie still lives in Houston. That’s where the main office is located. He’s the one in charge of all the restaurants. They’re cousins to Dana Cardwell of Cardwell Ranch, if you’re familiar with the area.”
Anyone who lived in the Canyon as the Gallatin Canyon was known had heard of the Cardwells of Cardwell Ranch.
“Their story is on the back of the menu, if you’re interested. I’ll get your order right out,” the girl said. “You want that cola while you wait?”
Sid would much rather have had a beer and felt foolish for not showing the girl her ID. What were the chances that the waitress would remember her name or have any reason to mention it to her bosses?
Glancing toward the kitchen, she didn’t see the men. Or hear them, but that didn’t mean they weren’t still back there. And if the man from last night had seen her a few minutes ago...
“Sure, I’ll take the cola now, but make it to go,” she said as she picked up the menu and turned it over.
The Cardwell brothers’ story was on the back along with their photos. What surprised her was that Texas Boys Barbecue was a franchise the brothers had started. She’d just assumed they only owned this one restaurant.
Less surprising was that all five brothers were drop-dead gorgeous. In the photo on the back of the menu, the photographer had lined them up along a jack-legged fence, a ranch house in the background. Each brother wore jeans, boots, Western shirts and Stetsons. Each was equally handsome.
Her gaze went to Laramie. He was definitely the one who’d tackled her last night. She felt a shiver as she looked at his photo. His blue eyes stared back at her almost challenging. She told herself she had nothing to fear. He didn’t know who she was or the marshal would have been to her door already. Even if he had bought that house, he’d be like most of the residents—staying only a few weeks of the year.
She wished she could wait for him to return to Texas. Unfortunately, she couldn’t. Time was running out. She had to get the painting back—even knowing there was a chance of crossing paths with Laramie Cardwell again. She would just have to make sure that didn’t happen.
Laramie left the restaurant, his mind on the painting and the woman, of course. The winter day sparkled under a blinding sun that ricocheted off the new-fallen snow. At loose ends waiting to hear if McKenzie got him the house, he went for a drive up the canyon.
Next to the highway, the Gallatin River snaked through the canyon under a thick layer of aquamarine ice. He tried to enjoy the beauty of this alien winter place. The snowcapped pines bent under the weight of their frozen burden, reminding him that it was less than a week until Christmas. His cousin Dana loved the holidays and went all-out surrounded by her family. He smiled at the thought.
Glancing in his review mirror, he realized he’d seen the large dark brown older-model sedan behind him before—right after he’d left Taylor West’s house. It was behind him again.
He tried to laugh off the thought of someone following him. First cat burglars now this? Well, there was one way to find out, he thought as he neared the Corral Bar. He slowed and pulled in. The car went on past.
The windows on the vehicle had been tinted, so he hadn’t gotten a good look at the driver. If he had to guess, he’d say male. As it disappeared up the road, he told himself the driver hadn’t been following him anyway.
He thought about going inside the bar and having a burger and a beer. This was his father and uncle’s favorite bar. Their band often played here.
But he was too antsy. He wanted to get back and find out if McKenzie had gotten him the house...and the painting. He pulled back on the road headed toward Big Sky again, his thoughts going to his cat burglar. The forgery at the house had to have been painted by someone with a whole lot of talent as Taylor West had said.
So if it was a forgery, who had painted it? Not some dead man named H. F. Powell unless he’d painted it before his demise. But the big question was why would his thief take it instead of the authenticated original?
She wouldn’t. So if he was right and she’d been coming out of the house when he’d arrived, then she’d been in the process of stealing the original when he’d stopped her.
Which meant McKenzie was about to make a deal for a forgery.
Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he glanced in his rearview mirror. The brown car was back.
He felt a start at the sight of it behind him again. As he glanced in his rearview mirror again he saw that the vehicle was coming up fast. The canyon road had been plowed, but the dark pavement was still icy. Add to that the twists and turns the highway took as it wound through the Gallatin Canyon and the driver of the car was going way too fast.
Laramie had only a moment for his brain to take it all in before he realized that the driver had no intention of slowing down. A curve was coming up, one with a steep rock face on one side of the road and a precarious drop to the frozen river on the other.
He felt the vehicle’s bumper connect with the back of his rental. Just a tap. But on the icy road that was all it took. The rental SUV began to fishtail on the ice as the dark car bumped into him again. He could feel the tires lose traction and the next thing he knew he was sliding toward the river. He felt the tires go off the pavement. A wall of snow rushed over the hood.
Expecting the SUV would be pitched into the river and break through the ice, Laramie braced him. Moments later, heart in his throat, he was shocked when the deep snow off the side of the highway stopped his descent just yards from the frozen river. He sat, so shaken he didn’t notice the dark car backing up on the highway above him until he heard the roar of the engine.
Looking up, all he saw was the dark tinted windows on the passenger side as the car sped away.
* * *
THEPULLEDPORKsandwich was to die for, just as Tara had said. Sid couldn’t believe she hadn’t been to Texas Boys Barbecue before this. The beans and coleslaw were quite good, too. She had downed the cola on the drive back to the cabin but had saved the rest until she’d reached home. Once there, she’d pulled a cold bottle of beer from the grocery bag and sat down at her kitchen table to devour the barbecue. She couldn’t help licking her fingers.
Her father would have loved the food, she thought, and then pushed the thought away. While he was always with her, driving her more than ambition, remembering him often brought aching pain. One day that pain would go away, once she accomplished the job she’d set for herself, she told herself as she cleaned up the mess and changed her clothes.
Back at her easel, she considered the painting she was working on. It was one of her father. He was standing by a horse next to the corral. His battered straw cowboy hat was pushed back, sunlight on his weathered face. Behind him were the rocky cliffs and scrub pine of her youth. She was painting it from memory since all the photos had been lost.
She thought of the stash of original artwork she had hidden all these years. It had been years since anyone had seen those paintings—herself included.
* * *
LARAMIECALLED911the moment he was out of the SUV and standing at the edge of the highway. He couldn’t believe how lucky he’d been. Just a few more yards and the rental would have been in the river.
Marshal Hud Savage came on the line. “What’s this about you being forced off the road?”
He told him and Hud promised to have a wrecker sent down to get his rental out of the snowbank.
Laramie had given him what little description he could of the vehicle that had forced him off the road. As with the alleged cat burglar, he had little information other than the car was large and brown with tinted windows.
“It happened too fast,” he said. “But there was no doubt of the driver’s intent.” He could almost see Hud nodding.
“Had you passed the driver? Or had any interaction before this?”
“No. I saw the car earlier up by Taylor Fork, then again later when I went for a drive up the canyon.” He could tell that Hud had little hope of finding the vehicle. “Can you do me a favor? Find out what Taylor West drives.”
“Taylor West, the local artist?” Hud asked with obvious surprise.
Hud told him that West owned a large SUV and an older-model pickup. Neither matched the description Laramie had given him.
“What makes you think Taylor West had anything to do with running you off the road?” Hud had wanted to know.
“Nothing really,” Laramie said. “That’s just the first place I noticed the car following me, after I visited the artist. I’m probably wrong about there being a connection.” And yet he had a feeling that if Taylor hadn’t been behind it, then someone he knew definitely was. But he had no idea why. “Maybe I ticked off the driver somehow.”
“Maybe,” Hud said. “You sure you weren’t going too slow?”
* * *
TAYLORWESTPACEDthe floor after the Texan left. He’d been so shaken that he would have poured himself a drink if there’d been any booze in the house. But his wife had dumped every drop she could find down the drain before she’d left. He’d dug out enough from his hiding places that he’d been fine. Until now.
“When are you coming back?” he’d demanded as he’d watched her throw her clothes into two suitcases and head for the door.
“When you get some help with your drinking.”
He didn’t need any help. He drank fine without it.
The old joke fell flat. He knew it was more than his drinking. She’d been trying to let him down easy, he thought as he looked around the house. He hadn’t realized what a mess it was until he’d seen it through his visitor’s eyes. What had Laramie Cardwell been thinking, showing up unannounced at his door like that?
“It’s that damned painting,” he said as he opened one kitchen cupboard after another, not even sure what he was looking for—then he remembered where he’d hidden a bottle of bourbon months ago and felt better.
In the laundry room, he moved the washer out a little. Reaching behind it, he groped around, feeling nothing but air and cobwebs. Panic filled him. The drive to the nearest liquor store was a good ten miles. He couldn’t go to the nearest bar since he’d been kicked out of it.
His hand brushed over the cold throat of the bourbon bottle. His relief rushed out in a laugh that sounded too loud in the small room. Clutching the bottle, he withdrew it, wiped off the dust with one of his dirty shirts lying on the laundry room floor and headed for the kitchen.
Unable to find a clean glass, he took his first drink straight from the bottle. The liquor bathed his tongue in bliss, warmed his throat and quenched his thirst. He took another drink as the first one reached his belly and sent a golden glow through him.
That’s when he knew he was in trouble. There was only one man who could have painted the forgery. He’d be kidding himself if he thought it was anyone but H. F. Powell. He thought of Powell’s last words to him. “I could paint one of your pieces and you wouldn’t know the difference, that’s how good I am.”
Taylor shook his head. He hadn’t let himself think of H.F. in years. Some things were best forgotten. Everyone knew that the painter had become a recluse in the last years of his life. No one had seen him for almost two years before the tragedy. There hadn’t been a funeral—at H.F.’s request. No memorial service. No family.
H.F. must be rolling in his grave since his paintings were now worth a small fortune. Taylor admitted grudgingly, the man had been one hell of a painter. But look where it had gotten him. The arrogant old fool had died alone and miserable.
Just like you’re going to die.Taylor snorted at the thought and the one that came after it.What goes around, comes around.He shuddered and took another drink, regretting the calls he’d made the moment Laramie Cardwell left. But he’d been so upset and he wasn’t in this alone.
Rock Jackson had sounded as if he’d been asleep before the call.
“I’m telling you this painting was so good... I’m not even sure it isn’t the original,” he’d told Rock. “Tell me there isn’t any chance—”
“Take it easy. You’re jumping to conclusions. Who brought you the painting?”
Taylor told him.
“The guy’s gone, right?”
“He just left.”
“Then there is nothing to worry about,” Rock had said. “Look, I have to go. Have a drink. Everything is fine.”
Artist Hank Ramsey had told him pretty much the same thing, only Taylor had heard more worry in Hank’s voice.
“If you had seen this painting...” Taylor had said feeling sick to his stomach.
Hank had asked the name of the man who’d stopped by and what painting it had been. Hank had tried to calm him back down. “Taylor, we’re all painting cowboys, horses and Indians. We’ve all had someone copy our paintings. Since you’re at the top of the heap, your paintings are going to be forged the most. Let me see what I can find out. In the meantime, don’t do anything crazy.”
He’d hung up, thinking about the other members of OWAC, picturing each of their faces and telling himself that none of them were good enough to paint such a perfect forgery.
He’d tried to call Rock back, but the number had gone to voice mail. “This is Taylor West. Call me. We really need to talk. If that painting is what I think it is... Call me.” He’d disconnected, wondering where Rock was. Or if he just wasn’t taking his calls after the first one. Which would make Rock look pretty suspicious, wouldn’t it?
Now he took a long drink, admitting that he never should have trusted Rock. Rock wasn’t that much different from H. F. Powell when it came to women. Now Rock was in trouble because of another woman. In the middle of an ugly divorce, he was probably desperate for money. But how far would he go?
Taylor knew his suspicion of Rock could also be because Rock had always been jealous of him—especially when Taylor had married Jade.
Jade. Where was his beautiful young wife? She’d probably gone to her mother’s back in Indiana. He shoved the thought of her away as he took another drink. He had a lot more to worry about than Jade.
* * *
“THEHOUSEISYOURS,”McKenzie announced when Laramie stopped by her office after getting his rental SUV pulled out of the snowbank. He was still shaken, but even more determined to get to the bottom of whatever was going on.
“And the painting?” he asked expectantly. He told himself he couldn’t be sure which was original and without it, he might never know.
She chuckled. “Yours, as well. He wanted extra for it, but I convinced him that you wanted pretty much everything in the house except, of course, any items that he couldn’t possibly part with. If you don’t want the furniture, I know a consignment place—”
“No, furnished is perfect. So what is he leaving?”
“Everything, including the kitchen sink, except for the other paintings and sculptures. He has an art dealer coming to take the lot of them this afternoon.”
Laramie couldn’t hide his relief. He wasn’t sure why the painting was so important. But what had happened after he’d left Taylor West’s house had him convinced the painting was at the heart of it. He thought about the house—where he’d seen his alleged cat burglar. “How soon can I take occupancy?”
“Right away, I suppose, if you’re in that much of a hurry.”
He’d been staying with Hayes and McKenzie and didn’t want to hurt her feelings. “No hurry, just anxious to get settled.”
“I can understand that. Since the house will come completely furnished, there won’t be much that you will need. He’s leaving bedding, all of which he said is brand-new. Apparently they haven’t gotten to use this house much. I take it that his soon-to-be-ex wife didn’t like it up here. Too isolated. Since you’re paying cash, I can arrange a rental agreement until the sale is final. You should be able to move in this evening. The owner is in a hurry to get out of town.”
“But this...urgency to get settled, it wouldn’t have anything to do with your...cat burglar, would it?”
Laramie smiled to himself. “You sound like Austin. I ran into him earlier at the restaurant. Like I told him, I know what I’m doing.” He wished that was true.
But he didn’t think the earlier incident was an attempt to kill him. Then what had it been? If the driver had wanted to scare him off, then he’d failed. Laramie was more determined than ever. He was counting on his cat burglar coming back for the painting. It was just a gut feeling, but a strong one, that for some reason she really needed that painting. And he really needed answers.
He stood to leave.
“Don’t forget this,” McKenzie said reaching behind her. She handed him what Theo Nelson believed to be the original painting.
He stared at it, anxious to compare it to the one in his rented SUV. “Question, if I wanted everyone to know I’d bought the house, how would I go about getting the word out?”
McKenzie laughed. “In a small community like Big Sky? Are you kidding? Everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s probably already out there since the owner informed me to go ahead and change the security information to yours. You’ll need to change over the utilities and everything else as soon as you get into the house. But if you were to stop by the furniture store or the grocery and happen to mention you’d bought a house...”
“Let me know when you have my key, and thank you so much. Oh, and one more thing. Have you ever heard of an artist by the name of H. F. Powell?”
“Of course. In fact, one of his paintings is coming up for auction at the Christmas ball this year. It’s expected to go high. This interest in cowboy art...”
She laughed. “Uh-huh.”
Laramie realized how little he knew about art in general as he left for Meadow Village. His plan was to do exactly what McKenzie had suggested. He had a feeling that his cat burglar kept her ear to the ground. How else had she known that the house was supposed to be empty last night?
Sid rubbed her back. It ached from hours spent painting. She hadn’t realized how long she’d been working. When she painted, time flew by. She hadn’t even noticed that her back was aching until a few moments ago when she finally laid down her brush.
She also realized she was hungry. Going to the fridge, she peered in. She’d bought the basics at the store, but nothing appealed to her. The pulled pork barbecue sandwich came to mind. Why not go back there? Several good reasons came to her. Except once she thought of barbecue, nothing else would do.
This late in the evening, Texas Boys Barbecue was quiet. Only a few booths were taken. She slipped into one and was thankful when a different waitress came out with a menu.
“We have a special, if you’re interested,” the young woman said. She rattled off a variety of items, but all Sid keyed in on was the wordsribs. Her stomach growled.
“I’ll take the baby-back rib special.” She started to say “to go” but stopped herself. “And a beer.” As she started to whip out her ID, she realized the waitress wasn’t even going to ask for it. With relief, she put it away, sat back and took in the place in a way she hadn’t done earlier. It was nicely done. Comfortable and homey but without kitschy knickknacks. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming and the smells coming out of the kitchen were making her mouth water.
It felt good to be out of her cabin. She sat back, relaxing—until she heard voices in the kitchen as the waitress brought out her beer. Taking a sip, she watched the back, hoping to get another look at Laramie Cardwell. From where she sat, she could hear the conversation. This time there were three men, all of them speaking with a Texas drawl. But no Laramie.
“So he got the house?”
“He’s moving in tonight.”
“What was the rush?”
“Apparently he’s anxious to get settled.”
“I hope that’s all it is.”
“Bet Dana is already planning a housewarming.”
Laughter before the three left.
Laramie was moving into the housetonight?
So Tara’s information had been right, not that she’d doubted it. Sid thought about Laramie showing up so late the night before at the Nelson house on the side of the mountain. He’d only been interested in the house, but he’d stumbled onto her. Just her luck.
“I’m sorry,” Sid said getting the waitress’s attention. “But could I have that order to go?”
* * *
LARAMIEWASATthe grocery store when McKenzie called to say she had the key to the house. “Do you want to meet at the house?”
“Sounds great. I’m picking up a few things. I can meet you there in thirty minutes.”
He quickly got what he needed and headed for the checkout. In a matter of minutes he would have the key to his house. He owned a high-rise condo in Houston, but he had never been this excited about the purchase even though the condo had an amazing view of the city.
The house was perfect for him since he didn’t plan to spend that much time in Montana. But he needed his own place when he did. If anything, he thought he might spend more time here—during the summer months.
Would he love the house as much if his cat burglar didn’t come back for the painting? He pushed that thought away, telling himself he was in the market for a house long before he’d laid eyes on the dark-clad figure running along the rooftop. Long before the kiss.
At the checkout, he was impatient to get into the house. He had to wait in line behind a half dozen people and wished now that he hadn’t bothered. Glancing around, he studied the other people in the line. The tourists were easy to spot in the latest ski gear or after-ski wear.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a bulletin board. Dana had mentioned that there were always people looking for housecleaning jobs around Big Sky, if he needed help.
A poster with cowboy art on it caught his eye. A name jumped out at him. H. F. Powell. Leaving his basket to save his place in line, Laramie quickly stepped to the board. Western Art Exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. H. F. Powell was one of the artists featured in what the poster said was a rare exhibit of the Western masters.
Hurriedly, he searched the poster for the date, fearing he had missed the exhibit. With relief, he saw that it opened tomorrow. Until today, he’d never heard of H. F. Powell. Now he was curious about the man and his work given that Taylor West swore he was the only man who could have duplicated his work so perfectly.
His cat burglar had certainly piqued his interest in Old West art, he thought. After he checked out, he put his groceries in his SUV and walked up the hill to the restaurant for his dinner. The special tonight at Texas Boys Barbecue was ribs so the cook had saved him a slab along with sides.
As he entered the back door, he breathed in the smell of the food, still amazed that his and his brothers’ love for barbecue had led to their Texas Boys Barbecue success. None of them ever had to work another day in their lives, but of course they all did have some job because that was the way they were raised. As promised, the cook had his dinner wrapped and ready to take home to his new house.
It was on his way out that he saw a woman as she came out of the front of the restaurant and climbed into a blue SUV.
The woman caught his eye because of the way she moved. No wasted motion, her steps so fluid—and familiar—as she hurried toward her vehicle. He stood there watching her get into the SUV, feeling like a man who’d just seen a ghost.
A thick, long curly mane of strawberry blond hair hung around her shoulders, catching the last of the day’s light and making it shine like copper. He held his breath as he watched her slide behind the wheel. The engine revved. She seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Just like that night.
It was her.
All common sense told him that he couldn’t possibly have recognized her simply by the way that she moved. There must be dozens of slim young women like her in the area. And yet...
He looked down the hillside to where he’d left his vehicle as she backed up and sped off up the road toward the mountain. There was no way he could reach his vehicle in time. All he could do was watch her get away.
Which was good, he realized. His first impulse had been to go after her. And then what? If only he had been close enough to see her eyes. And those lips. He told himself that if he saw those again, he’d know for certain.
He was thankful he hadn’t gone after her and made a fool of himself. He could just imagine what his four brothers would say if he shared this “sighting” with them.
“You need a woman,” Tag would say. “Stalking is illegal,” Hayes would warn him. “Get a grip,” Austin would say. “I agree with Tag. You need a woman bad,” Jackson would add.
As the blue SUV disappeared over a rise, he thought they would have been right. What was going on with him? This wasn’t like him. He always thought things out before he reacted. And yet last night, he’d gone after what he believed to be a thief without any thought to the risk.
And now he’d almost chased that woman down, and yet what were the chances she was the same woman? Big Sky wasn’t a large community. If McKenzie was right, then the woman might already know who he was. If that had been her... Would she dare go to Texas Boys Barbecue if she knew who he was, though?
He thought of the woman, of those silver-blue eyes, of those bee-stung lips, thought of how she’d tricked him and gotten away. Yes, she would go to the restaurant he and his brothers owned. The woman was a risk taker.
That thought sent a current of excitement through him.
What if she had gone there looking forhimbecause she needed to get her hands on the painting—just as he’d suspected?
Laramie went back inside Texas Boys Barbecue. It only took a minute to find the young waitress who’d served the woman. “She didn’t happen to use a check or credit card to pay for her dinner, did she?” he asked, crossing his fingers.
He couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“Is there a problem?” the waitress asked.
“No, I was just hoping to get her name.”
The teen laughed. “All you had to do was ask. Iknowher. That is I’ve seen her at the craft shows. Her name is Obsidian Forester, but she goes by Sid for short.”
“Obsidian.” He nodded, silently cheered. He had her name. “Wait, you said craft shows?”
“Yeah, she’s one of the exhibitors like me. I make candles and sell them. It’s just something I like to do in my spare time since I like crafting.”
“What does...Sid sell?”
“She paints scenes on stuff like handsaws, milk jugs, anything that is kind of old and rusted.”
He couldn’t help the thrill that moved through him. Maybe that really had been her. “So she’s an artist,” he said more to himself.
“I think she’s wasting her talent painting on old junk.” The teen shrugged. “But what do I know? People seem to like what she does. She sells more of those paintings than I do candles.”
“You don’t happen to know where she lives, do you?”
* * *
ASSIDDROVEHOME, she told herself not to let the Texas cowboy rush her. But she could feel the clock ticking. Any good thief knew not to play against the odds. She’d been lucky, but lately she’d been seen. Then last night, almost caught.
Once at the cabin, she ate her ribs. It was already dark. This time of year in the canyon it was pitch-black by five. The ribs were as good or even better than the pulled pork. She licked her fingers after finishing the last one, then cleaned up the kitchen and herself before dressing in all black. Picking up the black ski mask, she headed for her snowmobile.
The next house on her list wasn’t far from her cabin, but she took the long way. The owners were spending the holidays in Hawaii. At least that was the intel she’d gotten on them. It would be easy to find out if it was true. The couple drove a huge ivory SUV and left it in the drive when they were there.
For months, she’d done endless research on the houses she planned to hit and the people who owned them. This one was owned by an older couple. He’d been a pilot, she a homemaker. The house was modest by Big Sky standards.
Sid had met both of them at the local art shows. She often struck up conversations, especially with people who had a piece of art she was interested in. Art lovers were quick to talk about the artists they liked. It hadn’t been easy to find the owners of the pieces she still needed, but she’d finally tracked them all down.
As she came over a rise, she saw the house. It loomed up out of the darkness. No lights on inside. No large SUV in the drive. The couple kept it in the garage for the next time they flew in.
She killed the engine on the snowmobile some distance from the house. There were no other homes around, one of the benefits of this affluent community. No one wanted neighbors. At least not ones they could see from their houses.
The snow was deep on this side of the mountain. She’d brought snowshoes for the last part of the hike up to the house. Strapping them on, she grabbed her canvas bag and started up the mountain. The moon had come up and now poured silver over the snowy landscape.
Sid could see her breath. The house sat on the side of a mountain at about six thousand feet above sea level. She stopped to catch her breath and look back down the mountain to where she’d left her snowmobile. Nothing moved in the darkness of the pines.
Ahead, moonlight shone a path to the house. Sid listened. Hearing nothing but her own breath, she headed for the house.
In and out. She set her watch. Five minutes. Then she slipped in through the back door that had been unlocked for her by Maisie at the precise time. She knew exactly where the painting she needed would be hanging and, turning on her penlight, headed right for it.
The exchange didn’t take more than a few seconds. She put the painting into the large canvas bag, remembering the night before when the other bag she’d used had a hole in it. Another mistake. She was getting sloppy. Not because of overconfidence, she told herself. No, it was that she’d done this so many times it was becoming routine.
She thought of Laramie Cardwell as she locked the door behind her, texted Maisie“Lunch tomorrow?”—their code—and headed for her snowmobile. As she drove the snowmobile toward her cabin, she realized that once she had the painting she’d lost last night, she’d be done with these kinds of night jobs.
It filled her with a strange nostalgia. She’d been at this for several years now. When she’d started, she had questioned her sanity. Why do this when it could go so badly if she were caught?
Last night that had almost happened. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in her nature to leave anything undone—even if shehadn’tneeded the painting to finish what she’d started. She would get that painting back and end this once and for all.
* * *
“SOWHATDOYOUTHINK?”McKenzie asked as Laramie used his key to enter his new house.
“I love it,” he said as he stepped in and took a deep breath. Through the wall of windows at the front of the house Lone Mountain glistened in the twilight.
“From what I can tell, he left everything but the artwork—other than the one you bought,” she said. He looked around, realizing he would have to get more art for the walls, especially with these high ceilings. Walking through the house, he didn’t see much that he would change. Theo Nelson’s decorator had done a grand job of furnishing the house.
“He even left dishes, flatware and stemware,” McKenzie said shaking her head. “He must not have been very attached to the house.” She sighed. “There is a used furniture shop down the valley that we call the Second-Wife’s Club. Most of it comes from Big Sky. New wife, all new furnishings. You can get some great deals, if you’re interested.”
Laramie shook his head. “I can’t imagine anything more that I would want or need. It is clear that Theo and his wife didn’t spend much time here. Everything looks brand-new. I expect to see the price tags still on everything. Let me get some things from the car and then let’s take a look upstairs.”
The second floor looked the same except for the study. Theo’s computer was gone, but that seemed to be the only change. “He didn’t even take any of the books on the shelves,” McKenzie commented.
In the bedrooms, the beds were still made up with new linens, down comforters and expensive duvets, she noted. “He left all the linens in the bathrooms and the closets for the entire house.”
Laramie glanced around and then headed for the stairs to the master bedroom with the two paintings he had acquired. The room looked much the same, save the spot on the wall where the Taylor West had hung. He took the painting he’d purchased from Theo Nelson and hung it back where it had been. On the wall next to it, he hung the one his cat burglar had dropped.
He turned on the small spotlights that shone on the paintings and stood studying the two, still unable to find anything to distinguish either of them.
“I’m glad you like the painting,” McKenzie said joining him. “I could have gotten the price of the house down another twenty grand without it.”
He chuckled. “According to the artist, the original is worth fifty. Your art expert offered me thirty thousand for the one I acquired from my mysterious alleged thief.”
She let out a low whistle. “Wow, so you got a deal on both of them. That makes me feel better. But I get the impression you would have paid even more for it and the house.”
Laramie smiled. “You did great, McKenzie. I can’t thank you enough.”
“But which painting is the real McCoy?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” he said. “Meanwhile, I love the house.” He walked over to the wall of windows. In the darkness of the winter night, the snow-covered Lone Mountain looked ghostlike.
He stood, admiring his view and wondering when his cat burglar would be back.Ifshe would be back. He thought of Obsidian “Sid” Forester and wondered how he could make sure they crossed paths if she didn’t come back.
Logic, something he’d always prided himself on, reminded him that he couldn’t be sure Sid was his cat burglar.
“Not yet,” he said to himself as he looked out at the Montana winter night. But all his instincts told him he’d already found her. Now it was just a matter of catching her in the act.
The next morning, after a rough night, Taylor West woke up hungover and upset. He hadn’t gotten a moment’s sound sleep last night, worrying that he’d been betrayed. Worse if the truth came out...
He picked up his cell phone and saw that it had been turned off. He had four calls from Cody Kent. He listened to the voice messages, then returned the man’s call.
Clearly either Rock or Hank had called him—or they both had. And they’d both pretended to him that there was nothing to be worried about. He swore as he tapped in Cody’s number.
“What’s this about some forgery?” Cody demanded, sounding both angry and worried. Cody related that he’d been by the gallery yesterday and had run into a man with one of Taylor’s paintings.
“Laramie Cardwell. I know. He came by my house.”
“Was...it...the...original?” Cody asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I would swear it was.”
“So the other one is a forgery. Have you seen it?”
“I know what you’re getting at,” Taylor said. “The other one has to be a forgery, right? And anyone could have painted it.”
Cody agreed. “So stop getting everyone all riled up over nothing.”
“You’re right.” Still Taylor had a bad feeling about this.
“You’ll let me know if there is a reason to worry, right?”
“Of course.” He hung up and tried Rock’s number. It went straight to voice mail. Where the hell was Rock? He’d gotten off the line so quickly yesterday...
Taylor felt sweat break out under his arms even though his house was cold this morning because he hadn’t bothered to turn up the heat.
He’d had a long night to think about it. If anyone had betrayed them, it would be Rock.
* * *
LARAMIEHADN’TSLEPTwell the first night in his new home. There was nothing wrong with the bed, the Egyptian cotton sheets or the house’s ambiance. Still, he’d had trouble getting to sleep. Even after he’d dozed off, he’d awakened often thinking he’d heard something. All night he’d lain in the king-size bed, listening and waiting for the woman to return and thinking about the vehicle that had tried to put him in the river yesterday.
The incident had to have something to do with the painting, right? Which meant it had something to do with the cat burglar. What, though?
Before going to bed, he’d had a thought. Taking out his pocket knife, he’d carefully scratched a very small mark on the back of the canvas on the painting he’d purchased with the house.
He was sure she’d come back for one—or both—of the paintings. He figured if he ever saw them again after that, he’d know which was which. And if she only took one, he’d know which one she’d left behind. He was pretty sure she knew which one was the real one.
With that, he’d turned out the lights and gone to bed. When he’d opened his eyes this morning, he’d half expected to see the paintings gone. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d sneaked in and taken them both.
But upon waking, he was almost disappointed to see both paintings right where they’d been when he’d gone to bed. She hadn’t come for either one. What if he was wrong and she wouldn’t be back?
His phone rang. Seeing it was from the marshal, he quickly took the call. “Do you have some news for me?” he said without preamble.
“Yesterday you asked me to check on vehicles owned by Taylor West,” Hud said.
“Right. And you told me he didn’t own a large brown car.”
“No, he doesn’t. But his wife, Jade, does. I got to thinking and checked to see if there were other vehicles that might be registered to someone other than Taylor.”
“His wife?” Laramie remembered the photograph he’d seen of the pretty young blonde.
“I’ve put a BOLO out on it,” Hud said. “We could get lucky. But why would Jade West—or someone using her vehicle—want to run you off the road?”
Laramie hung up convinced that it had something to do with the painting, but what, he had no idea. As he headed for the shower, he wondered if Obsidian Forester was indeed his cat burglar. The only way he’d know for sure was if she came back for the painting. He realized how much he was counting on it.
Showered and dressed, he went downstairs. He’d just poured himself a bowl of cereal that he’d bought at the store yesterday when the security company he’d called rang his doorbell.
Theo Nelson had a security system but it hadn’t gone off the night Laramie had seen the woman on the roofline. Which meant that the woman had disarmed the alarm before entering the house or she had outsmarted the system.
So he wasn’t going to bother adding more security. All he wanted were cameras, and nowadays they made such small ones, she wouldn’t know she was being captured on video.
He glanced at his watch. He needed to know more about cowboy art. McKenzie had handled everything including changing over the utilities and contacting the alarm company for him. Leaving the security people to do their work, he drove to Bozeman to the Museum of the Rockies. It was another beautiful winter day, not a cloud in the sky, the blazing sun bright on the snow.
He found himself watching his rearview mirror, looking for the large dark car that had run his off the highway the day before. But by the time he reached Bozeman, he hadn’t seen it.
Parking near Montana State University, he entered the museum. While known for its dinosaur collection, the museum also held a variety of other exhibits throughout the year, according to the clerk who took his money, stamped his hand in case he wanted to come back later and handed him a map.
Since the museum had just opened for the day, there were only a handful of people in the new exhibit featuring Old West master artists. There were paintings by both Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, two well-known Old West artists from the 1800s.
They had apparently painted what they saw around them, capturing a lifestyle that they romanticized with their art. While four-wheelers had replaced horses at a lot of ranches, his cousin had told him, the cowboy life survived even to this day out here in the West.
Laramie had just stepped into an adjoining exhibition room when he saw a young woman standing in front of a large painting of a Native American chief in full headdress.
It was the same woman he’d seen coming out of Texas Boys Barbecue yesterday. Obsidian “Sid” Forester.
At seeing the woman again, his pulse jumped as excitement raced through his veins. He reminded himself that she was an artist in her own right, so of course she would be here. That didn’t make her guilty of being the cat burglar.
She wore jeans and a canvas jacket over a rust-colored sweater. Her coppery hair was tucked up under a Cubs baseball cap, which pitched her face into shadow, making it impossible to see the color of her eyes at this distance. Nor could he get a good look at her mouth. But even in silhouette he could tell that her lips were full.
He remembered the taste of her mouth and felt an ache that had nothing to do with cowboy art. His reasons for wanting to find this woman had gotten all tangled up with a desire to kiss her again. He knew it was crazy and could just imagine what his brothers would say. But he couldn’t wait to get his hands on her as if to assure himself that she was actually real. That what she evoked in him that night was real, as well.
Warning himself to take it slow, he moved closer. As if sensing him staring at her, she looked in his direction, then quickly turned away. He felt a start. Was it possible? He wouldn’t know until he got a better look, but all his instincts told him he had her.
* * *
ITDIDN’TTAKETaylor West long to drive to Gallatin Gateway, a small, almost forgotten town at the mouth of the canyon. Once billed as the Gateway to Yellowstone, the town back then had a train that brought tourists to the beautiful large hotel, before ferrying them into the park.
Rock Jackson owned a small ranch against the foothills overlooking the Gallatin River. The place was run-down, the house small and old with some outbuildings behind it, including Rock’s studio.
As Taylor pulled up and got out, he thought he saw movement at one of the front windows. But when he knocked hard at the front door, there was no answer from within.
“He probably saw me and doesn’t want to deal with me,” Taylor told himself. The drive had sobered him up since he’d been drinking before he’d left home. He hated that the drive might have been for nothing, until he reminded himself that he needed to go to a liquor store anyway.
He pounded again. Still no answer. Moving to peer into a front window, he saw that the place was neat and orderly inside. That made him all the more angry since his own house was a mess. Somehow that convinced him even more that Rock Jackson was guilty of something.
Walking around the side of the house, Taylor noticed Rock’s art studio. Was he back there working? Raging inside, now positive that Rock had betrayed him, he stormed toward it. This time, he didn’t bother to knock. He grabbed the door handle and turned it. Locked.
Cursing, Taylor cupped his hands against one of the windows. The studio was exactly like something he’d always talked about building on his property. He could see only one painting from where he stood. It appeared to be one of Rock’s in progress.
As he started to turn away, he saw that there was another room behind the studio. When he got around back, the door into that part of the building had a padlock on it. That alone seemed suspicious.
He picked up a rock and tried to break the padlock but, failing, tossed the rock away and swore. The mellow he’d had earlier was starting to wear off along with the booze, leaving him with a headache and a worse mood. Furious, he stood outside the studio feeling as alone as he’d ever felt. The temperature had dropped with the appearance of clouds obscuring the sun. He shivered and looked around, not sure what to do then.
He could smell snow on the freezing air and wondered why he hadn’t gone south this winter. Jade had wanted to go, but he hadn’t wanted to make the long drive to Arizona. Now he wished he had. Laramie Cardwell wouldn’t have been able to find him and he wouldn’t have known about the painting.
Taylor knew that kind of thinking was crazy. Even if he’d been in Arizona, the painting would have surfaced. He’d seen it with his own eyes. He knew what that meant.
Behind him, he spotted an old barn on the property and walked toward it, thinking he’d look around and wait for Rock to return, since he now realized there was no vehicle here. He didn’t want to have to drive all this way again if he could help it.
He pushed open the barn door and stepped into the dim darkness. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, but he didn’t mind. It was warmer in here and with the booze wearing off...
Taylor blinked as a large dark object in the barn took shape before him. At first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He thought for sure it must have been the beginning of a hangover making him only imagine it.
But there was no doubt. The question was what was his wife’s car doing in Rock Jackson’s barn?
* * *
SIDTRIEDTOcalm her racing heart. Her mind raced, as well. What was Laramie Cardwell doing here? Her first impulse was to flee, but that would be the worst thing she could do. Seeing him here had been so unexpected. She hadn’t been prepared. That’s why her pulse thrummed and skin prickled at the memory of his touch.
Whywashe here? Maybe he was simply interested in cowboy art. She groaned silently as she moved from painting to painting, aware of him tracing her steps like a wolf on the scent of its prey.
Wasn’t it possible that his interest in cowboy art had been sparked by the painting she’d dropped and nothing more? Which meant he hadn’t forgotten about the painting any more than she had.
Was he here trying to find out more about the painting? Or was he looking for her? Her heart took off like a wild horse running in the wind. Was it possible he’d followed her? That thought turned her blood to ice.
Sid prided herself on her quick thinking when cornered—thus the kiss that had gotten her freedom two nights ago. But she was too aware of him—and vice versa. Good sense told her to leave, but she would have to walk right past him. Also, it might call more attention to her.
Even if she was right and this had something to do with the painting she’d dropped... Even if he was looking for her... He didn’t know the importance of the painting in his possession any more than he could prove she was the woman he’d tackled that night.
Telling herself to play it cool, she forced herself to relax. She was safe and she had to admit, she was curious about the Texas cowboy. Wouldn’t it be to her benefit to learn as much about him as she could? After all, she needed that painting.
As she moved through the exhibit, taking her time looking at each painting, she studied Laramie every chance she got out of the corner of her eye. He was taller than her few stolen glimpses of him had led her to believe. And since he was the business end of the Texas Boys Barbecue empire, she would have expected him to be some computer geek. But the man who’d tackled her had been anything but.
His dark hair was longer than she first thought. Was that designer stubble on his jaw? She smiled to herself, thinking that she might be wrong about him. He might not be as straitlaced and uptight as she’d thought at their first encounter. Either that or he’d loosened up since then.
Laramie moved slowly, studying each painting, stopping longest, she noticed, at an H. F. Powell painting of a cattle drive. The painting was beautiful, a masterpiece. Even someone without an artist’s eye would see that.
He seemed so intent that she hadn’t realized she’d been caught staring until he turned suddenly in her direction. She quickly swung back to the painting she had been pretending to examine. The intensity of his look had rattled her again. Could she be wrong about him not knowing who she was?
Just as she started to move away, he stepped up beside her.
“I know nothing about this kind of art,” he said in his Southern drawl. “Do you really have to be a cowboy to paint it?”
She didn’t look at him. “Sorry, but I wouldn’t know. I’m not a fan of cowboy art.”
“Really?”He sounded surprised. “And yet here you are.” She could feel all of his attention on her. “So you just wandered in here like me?”
“It would seem so,” she said, and quickly looked at her watch.
“Take this, for example,” he said clearly ignoring her subtle attempt to escape. “Is the idea to portray the life of the cowboy? Or romanticize it because these guys look too happy when you know they have to be freezing?”
Sid looked at the painting of cowboys standing around a campfire drinking coffee from tin cups as cattle milled in the background and snow began to fall. He was right. She couldn’t help but smile.
Just as she couldn’t help looking over at him.
He seemed startled for a moment as he met her gaze. Then his eyes shifted slowly to her mouth. She fought the urge to lick her lips as she recalled his mouth on hers. His gaze returned to hers. She tried not to shiver.
“I know this sounds corny,” he drawled, “but I feel as if we’ve met somewhere before.”
She did her best not to react to his words. “If that’s your best pickup line—”
He snapped his fingers as if it had only just come to him. “Texas Boys Barbecue. I saw you coming out of there yesterday.” While his intent gaze was still probing, his smile was all sincerity. “I’m betting you had the rib special. Tell me I’m right.”
She tried to relax. “So you’re a betting man?”
He laughed. “Not usually, but then again I’m a long way from home and out of my element. Right now I’m betting that if you agreed to have a cup of coffee with me, it would make this Texas boy feel more at home this far north.”
She laughed, as well. “You seem very much at home to me.”
“Laramie Cardwell,” he said and extended his hand.
Sid felt she had no choice but to shake it. Her hand disappeared into his large, warm, suntanned one. She tried not to react to the jolt she felt. “Obsidian Forester.”
“Obsidian? What a beautiful and unusual name.”
“That’s why I go by Sid.”
“Well, Sid, I hope you take me up on the cup of coffee. I haven’t met many people since I’ve been here.”
She was tempted, which surprised her. Playing with fire was one thing. Stepping into a blazing furnace was another. Still, he had no way of knowing—let alone proving—that she’d been the woman whose path he’d crossed that night. And if he did suspect, what better way to prove him wrong than by taking him up on his invitation?
Not to mention, he had the painting she needed. Maybe there was another way to get it, other than stealing it outright. Anyway, what would it hurt to have one cup of coffee with him?
Violet. It was the color of her eyes. But Laramie realized as they walked the block to the coffee shop that her eyes changed colors in different light. No wonder he hadn’t been sure that first night.
But there was no mistaking the lips. They were bow-shaped, wide and full, and a delicate shade of pink today. He’d remembered the feel of them against his the moment he saw them. Crazily, what he’d wanted more than anything right there in the museum was a repeat kiss. He couldn’t be sure, with everything that had been happening that night, exactly what he’d felt when she’d kissed him. It had happened too fast. But the next time she kissed him...
Where had these thoughts come from? He reminded himself that she was athief. His plan was to catch her. The chance of there being another kiss was beyond remote.
He was still surprised that she’d agreed to have coffee with him. He’d worried that he’d come on too strong. He’d never been like his brothers, who seemed to all have a way with women. He was more reserved. More cautious, usually. While he’d done his fair share of dating, he’d never met a woman he’d been serious about.
He figured he knew less about women than he did cowboy art, which was saying a lot. So he felt he was out of his league if Obsidian “Sid” Forester was who he believed she was.
“So fess up,” he said once they were seated in a small coffee shop a block from the museum. “You did have the ribs, didn’t you?”
She had a nice laugh. An amazing smile. The woman was striking from her coppery hair to her heart-shaped face and the row of freckles that graced her cheeks. But it was her eyes that fascinated him. They’d been violet, but now in the winter light coming in from the coffee shop window, they were almost silver. Like a wolf’s, he thought. Silver like they’d been in the moonlight the night they’d met.
“You caught me,” she said. “I had the ribs. They were wonderful, but I guess I don’t have to tellyouthat. I’m betting you’re one of the Texas boys.”
“Yep. My four bothers and me,” he said, figuring she probably already knew that if she’d looked at their story on the back of the restaurant menu. Wouldn’t only an innocent woman go to the barbecue restaurant after his encounter with the cat burglar?
No, he thought. This woman was gutsy. She’d go there almost as a dare.
“Barbecue was the only thing we knew, so we started cooking out behind a small house we turned into a restaurant in Houston.” He shrugged. “The business just kind of took off.”
“What brought you to Montana?” she asked and took a sip of her coffee. He could feel her watching him over the rim of her cup and wondered what game they were playing. She was definitely his cat burglar. He’d stake his life on it. The thought made him think of the car that had run him off the highway. If he didn’t stop this, what would happen next?
Laramie knew he should be worried about that. But there was no way he was backing off. “My brothers and I were all born here in Montana. When my parents divorced, Mom took us to Texas where she had relatives. My dad still lives near Big Sky, so one after another my brothers have returned, and each has fallen in love with Montana and a woman... Opening a restaurant up here seemed like a good idea.”
“It appears to be doing well. I heard you were opening another one in Red Lodge.”
He smiled, nodding. “I handle the business end of it, so it’s one reason I’m here, along with wanting to spend time with my family over the holidays.”
“So you aren’t staying?” she asked and took another sip of her coffee.
“As a matter of fact, I bought a house yesterday partway up the mountain.”
“Really?”She didn’t sound that surprised. “So you’re planning to move up here?”
He shook his head. “I’ll only spend part of the year here like most of the residents, it seems. I still own a condo in Houston and operate things from there.”
“So tell me aboutyou,” he said.
Sid shrugged. “Not much to tell.”
“Come on, I just told you my entire life story.” He took a sip of coffee and asked, “You live in Big Sky.” She nodded. “What do you do there?”
Her silver-blue eyes met his. “I paint.” Her full mouth quirked into an amused grin.
“Paint?”He pretended to be surprised. “You’re anartist? Or do you paint houses?”
She smiled as she shook her head. “I’m more of a hobby-craft person. I paint Montana scenes on old rusty things I find like saw blades and old milk cans. I definitely wouldn’t consider myself an artist.”
“That explains what you were doing at the exhibit,” he said studying her. “You really like cowboy art.”
“I admire the artists, but cowboy art isn’t my cup of tea, trust me.”
“What is?” he asked.
The question seemed to surprise her as if no one had ever asked her that before. Maybe that was why it took her a moment. Or, he thought, maybe it took her a moment to come up with a lie. “Abstract. I like lots of color. I prefer impressionism over realism when I paint.”
“My sister-in-law McKenzie would love one of your pieces, then.” He studied her. She seemed to be relaxed, but he felt a tension just under the surface. He could feel it buzzing like a live wire between them. “I’d like to see your work sometime.”
She said nothing as she finished her coffee and looked again at her watch. “I really need to go.”
Laramie mentally kicked himself, but he’d never been patient when he wanted something badly. He pushed his coffee aside and stood as she rose. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I do hope our paths cross again.”
“Maybe they will,” she said. He could smell the citrus scent of her morning shower. “Enjoy your new house.”
“Speaking of my new house... I am in desperate need of artwork. The ceilings are ten to twelve foot throughout. I have only one painting I’m partial to, but nothing else. With all these walls to fill, I need help. I sure would appreciate it if you could advise me.” She started to decline. “Come on, who better than an artist who loves color to help me?”
* * *
DON’TDOIT.Sid met the handsome Texas cowboy’s gaze. He’d just told her he had only one painting. She didn’t have to guess which one that was.
“I doubt we like the same things,” she said.
“You might be surprised,” he drawled. “I’d love to show you my house whenever you can come by.”
“There are plenty of designers around who could advise you on artwork. I’m not the person you want.”
“Oh, I suspect you are exactly the person I’m looking for.”
She looked at him, wondering how true that was.
“I have a confession,” he said leaning toward her. “I have no artistic talent. I’m betting you have a better eye for art than you think. I’d love to see what you come up with.”
Was he trying to tell her that he knew who she was? Or that he at least suspected? Or was he hitting on her? That thought almost made her laugh. Wouldn’t that be her luck? A good-looking Texas cowboy interested in her and she had to avoid him for obvious reasons.
“You might not like what I come up with,” she challenged.
He seemed to study her. “I think I might surprise you.”
She feared that was definitely what might happen.
He walked her back to the museum where they’d left their vehicles. A brief thaw had left the streets of Bozeman bare, but there was still plenty of snow in the mountains. Laramie commented on how beautiful it was.
“So do you ski?” he asked as they neared the museum parking lot.
“No.” Sid wondered why she’d lied. But then again she was lying just being with this man.
She shook her head.
“You must do something to enjoy winter since you live in Big Sky. Snowmobile?”
He had stopped beside a white SUV. She assumed it was the same one she’d seen the night he caught her leaving Theo Nelson’s house with the painting.
“I hate how loud snowmobiles are,” she said truthfully and mugged a face. “They ruin the winter quiet, don’t you think?”
Laramie smiled at that. “But they seem to be a necessity if you’re going to get around in the mountains in the winter and want to avoid the roads.”
She looked away. She could feel her heart thundering in her chest. Oh, yes, he suspected her all right. “Don’t you ski?”
He laughed at that. “I’m a Texas boy. I doubt I’ll be staying here long enough in the winter to learn. But my cousin has invited me to do some horseback riding on her ranch. Do you ride?”
She thought of the horses she’d loved when she was younger and the many hours she’d spent in the saddle. Surprisingly, she hadn’t realized how much she missed it until that moment.
“I love to ride.” The words were out before she could bite her tongue.
Laramie’s eyes brightened. “Then we have to go for a ride. When are you free?”
“With the holidays and all...”
“I’m staying until after the holiday masquerade ball that I’m told by my cousin Dana I can’t possibly miss.” He eyed her openly. “You don’t happen to be going?”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t be caught dead there.” And this time bit her tongue.
He laughed again. “I feel the same way, but my cousin is very persuasive. Listen, I’m serious about that horseback ride and about your help with artwork for the house.”
“Speaking of being verypersuasive.” Their eyes locked for a moment and she felt a warning chill sprint up her back.Be careful. This was not a cowboy to fool with. Admittedly, he definitely had his appeal. She recalled the jolt she’d felt when she’d shaken his hand, not to mention the strange reaction to the kiss. “I’ll think about both.”
“Do that. This is mine,” he said motioning to the SUV. “It was nice meeting you, Sid. Oh, I should tell you where I live in case you take me up on my offer. It’s the three-story one off Lone Mountain Trail. You probably know it, right?” His gaze met hers and held it. She felt a shiver wind its way up her spine. One minute she was convinced he was hitting on her and the next she was positive again that he knew exactly who she was and was setting her up. “Why don’t I give you my phone number in case you can’t find it.”
“I’ll find it,” she said as she turned and walked away, mentally kicking herself for this cat-and-mouse game she was playing since she was the mouse and the cat was a much craftier adversary than she’d first thought.
As she climbed into her vehicle, she warned herself to let it go. But that meant letting the painting go. She couldn’t do that, she thought with a curse. And Laramie Cardwell was practically daring her to come steal it.
* * *
“WHATISGOINGONwith you?” his brother Austin demanded when he showed up at Laramie’s door later that afternoon.
He gave him a confused look. “I bought a house?” Motioning his brother in, he headed for the kitchen.
“Thishouse?” Austin said from behind him as he closed the door and followed him. “The house where you saw what you believe was a cat burglar? I know what you’re doing and I don’t like it.”
Laramie laughed. “You’re the one who encouraged me to buy a house up here.” He opened the refrigerator and offered his brother a beer.
Austin declined with a shake of his head. “I’m not talking about the house and you know it. Hud told me that someone ran you off the highway.”
“Just some crazy driver,” Laramie said, wondering how much Hud had told his brothers. Apparently nothing more than that since Austin didn’t ask him about Taylor or Jade West.
“Is this just about the woman?” Austin asked instead.
“I didn’t buy the house for that reason.”Well, not completely, he thought as he closed the refrigerator. “Come take a look. You’ll have to admit the house is perfect for me.”
Austin stepped into the living room, still looking skeptical.
“Check out the view,” he suggested as he walked to the front window in the living room area. “Open concept. Granite counters. State-of-the-art appliances. What’s not to like?”
His brother looked out at Lone Mountain glowing in the afternoon light and seemed to relax a little. “It’s nice.”
“There are two more floors. The second floor is great for company, two bedrooms, another living area, another bath. The master is on the third floor.”
“Where is the painting?” Austin asked.
Realizing there would be no getting rid of him without showing him the painting, Laramie led the way up to the third floor. “Check out the view from here.”
“Impressive.” But clearly he’d come to see the painting.
The painting was where it’d been when he moved in. And now the alleged original was hanging next to it.
“That’s what all the fuss is about?” his brother asked, clearly not that impressed by the artwork.
“It’s cowboy art.”
Austin shot him a look. “I’m aware of that. What is the original worth?”
His brother’s eyebrow shot up. “And you bought it with the house?”
“I got a deal on it.”
“Not if it’s the forgery,” Austin pointed out. “Now you havetwoof them?”
“Unless Hud catches the cat burglar and needs them back for evidence.”
Austin gave him a “knock off the bull” look. “You think she’ll be back for it.” Laramie said nothing. What would be the point since it was obvious Austin knew him too well? “Have you considered just how dangerous this might be?”
“I’ve already found the thief.”
His brother’s eyebrow shot up.“What?”
“I met her today at a cowboy art exhibit in Bozeman. We had coffee.”
Austin shook his head as if trying to clear it. “You need to go to Hud and—”
“Without proof? Not a chance. Also I don’t want to scare her away.” Laramie headed down the stairs.
“So how do you plan to catch her? That is what you’re doing, right?” his brother asked, catching up with him.
“I asked her to help me decorate the house.”
“Why would you do that?” Austin let out a curse. “If you’re right and this woman really is a criminal, then you are in over your head already. I’m serious. What has gotten into you?”
“Isn’t it possible that I know what I’m doing? Just because I’ve always been the brains behind the business doesn’t mean I can’t do what you and Hayes have been doing for years.”
Austin ignored the part about “the brains behind the business.”
“Damn it, Laramie, you aren’t trained for undercover work.”
He leaned against his kitchen counter. “What about the times I’ve helped the two of you on cases? Give me a little credit.”
“At least tell me what you’re planning to do.”
“I need to know what her game is. She’s been seen leaving other houses, but nothing according to the owners was taken. Don’t tell me that doesn’t intrigue you.”
Austin frowned. “I smell a scam, either with the artist, the owner of the painting and/or your cat burglar.”
“I have no idea, but,” Laramie said, smiling, “I hope to find out.”
His brother seemed to run out of arguments. “What is this woman’s name? I’ll run a background check on her and see if she’s had any arrests or convictions.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather—”
“Your instincts aside, you need to know who you’re dealing with. Unless you don’t want to know the truth because... You haven’t fallen for this woman, have you?”
“Of course not,” he said and looked away, remembering the kiss.
“I just don’t want you getting involved.”
Austin sighed. “How did this woman get under your skin so quickly?”
Laramie shook his head. There was no denying it. Sid had gotten to him.
“If this is about proving something to yourself or to the rest of us—”
“Maybe it started out that way,” Laramie admitted. “But if anyone can understand getting hooked on a case, it should be you.”
His brother rubbed his neck for a moment before he smiled. “Apparently you are a lot more like me than I ever realized. Okay. All I’ll do is run a background check on her. Just let me do that. Unless you’re afraid of what I’m going to find out.”
“Her name is Obsidian Forester. But I don’t want you going to Hud with this yet.”
“We’ll keep it between us, for now. Obsidian Forester. With a name like that, I shouldn’t have any trouble. In the meantime, be careful. You’re sure she isn’t the one who ran you off the road?”
“I can’t imagine how she could be.” That was at least true enough.
Sid looked around her cabin at all the work she had to do. Since coming back from the museum and her encounter with Laramie Cardwell, she’d gotten little done. Nor had she slept well last night. All her instincts told her to forget about the painting Laramie Cardwell now had in his possession.
If only she could. The painting was a loose end, one she had to take care of, which meant she would have to deal with Laramie Cardwell.
She kept rerunning their conversation in her head. She wavered between,he knows it was youandhe can’t possibly knowandeven if he does suspect you, he can’t prove it.
Still, getting closer to him—and the painting—felt like a trap. She had no doubt that she could steal the painting back. He would be spending some of the holidays with his family. It would be the perfect time to take it.
But then he would know that, as well. Her head hurt as she considered what he might be up to. If he suspected who she was, then he would try to get proof. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he was just waiting for her to show up in the middle of the night to try to retrieve the painting she’d dropped so he could catch her red-handed.
Was Marshal Hud Savage in on it? She didn’t think so. Since none of the paintings were missing, he wasn’t apt to think that a crime had been committed.
So what was Laramie up to besides tempting her? The fact that he seemed to be tempting her for more than the painting unnerved her. During coffee a couple times she’d caught him looking at her as if...as if he was interested in her? Of course he was, but not because he was attracted to her. And yet, she had felt an electric spark between them. A stirring she hadn’t felt in a very long time—if ever.
The thought made her laugh. If it wasn’t complicated enough, she could never fall for abusinessman. She bet that most of the time he wore a three-piece suit and spent his time behind a desk. Definitely not her type. And yet that image didn’t quite seem to fit Laramie Cardwell.
No one who spent all his time behind a desk was in that great shape. No, when she closed her eyes, she saw him in boots, jeans and a Western shirt. He’d mentioned going horseback riding. Maybe she would take him up on it and see just how “Western” he really was.
The idea had too much appeal. If she were smart, she would keep her distance. But then how could she find out what he was up to, let alone get the painting back?
She picked up her keys before good sense could stop her and headed for her SUV. It was time to pay Laramie Cardwell a visit.
* * *
AUSTINRANTHEname Obsidian Forester the moment he reached his computer at the small office he kept at his wife’s gallery.
“You look awfully serious,” Gillian said from the doorway.
“Laramie’s met a woman.”
She chuckled. “And that’s bad?”
“It depends on whether or not she’s a convicted felon or worse.”
“There’s something worse than a convicted felon?”
Austin watched as the information came up on the computer screen. He knew what he’d been expecting. A record that showed the woman was a thief, a forger...at the very least a con artist.
“Well?” Gillian asked as she came into the room.
“No record. Nothing.”
“Why don’t you sound relieved?”
Austin raked a hand through his hair. “He’s my little brother.”
“Maybe the woman is fine.”
“Maybe she is just starting her criminal career and my little brother is her first victim.”
“It sounds to me like you’re just looking for trouble,” Gillian said as she turned to leave.
* * *
LARAMIEHEARDTHEsound of the vehicle coming up the road. Another of his brothers? They’d always been protective of him because he was the youngest. He hadn’t minded, liking that they had watched his back. But this was different. This was something he wanted to handle himself.
He sighed as he looked out and was pleasantly and unexpectedly surprised to see Obsidian Forester’s older-model blue SUV coming up the road. He hadn’t expected her to take him up on his offer—let alone so soon.
Hurrying upstairs, he stashed the painting she’d dropped that night in the closet and then rushed back down. He would show it to her, but not right away.
As the blue SUV pulled in, his heart jumped in his chest with expectation. Even though he knew she was probably only here because of the painting, he still smiled to himself as he watched her get out of her vehicle from a window.
Laramie ran a hand through his thick dark hair and braced himself to see her again. Chimes filled the house as she rang the doorbell. He hoped that the reason Austin hadn’t gotten back to him yet was because he hadn’t found out anything worrisome about Sid. Bracing himself, he opened the door.
Sid looked out of a fur-trimmed hooded coat. Her face glowed from the cold and the afternoon light. Her breath came out in white puffs, her eyes clear blue like the ice on the river. Snowflakes danced in the air around her. She was a winter wonderland vision standing there.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?” she asked as a few moments passed without either of them speaking.
He mentally shook himself out of his reverie. “Sorry, you looked so...”
“Cold?” she suggested with a smile.
“Exactly, come on in.” He stepped aside to let her enter.
“I probably should have called.”
“Except you didn’t take my number. But your timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Let me take your coat. I have a fire going in the fireplace if you need to warm up, and I can make some coffee.”
“Thank you,” she said, shrugging out of the coat. Her ginger hair was loose and now fell around her shoulders in a sunset wave of color. Her freckles seemed to stand out even more on her pale face. “It’s Montana in late December.” She shrugged as if being a little cold was expected.
“So you’re used to winter,” Laramie said as he hung up her coat in the closet by the front door. “I never asked you if you’re from here or a newbie like me.”
“New to this town. But I was raised in Montana not too far from here.” She followed him into the kitchen.
“So where exactly are you from?” he asked as he poured her a mug.
“I grew up outside of Maudlow,” she said with a laugh. “You’ve never heard of it, right? It’s to the north. Not much of a town there anymore.” She glanced around. “Nice house.”
“Thanks. I didn’t want anything too big, but by my condo standards, this place seems huge. It does make me want to stay here more, though.”
“You aren’t planning to stay long this time?” she asked as she wandered into the living room, then turned. “Do you mind?” she asked nodding toward the stairs.
“No, please. Take a look around. As you can see, the walls are all bare down here.” He followed her up the stairs, again noting how fluidly she moved. Also how quietly.
On the second floor, she made a lap through the main room, then headed up the second set of stairs to the master bedroom. To the casual observer she didn’t seem to know the house. But it was clear to him that she knew exactly what she was looking for.
On the third floor, she entered his bedroom slowly. Fortunately, he’d made the bed this morning and he hadn’t left any clothing lying around. Because he’d been expecting her. He was pleased that he’d been right. In fact, she’d shown up even sooner than he had hoped.
She stepped in, seeming to take in the view before she turned first to the right, then slowly to the left as if leaving the painting till the last.
Laramie had to smile to himself. This is what she’d come to see, he thought, as she took in the painting. Everything else had been pretense—he was sure of it.
“This is the painting you told me you bought from the owner?” she asked without looking at him.
“That’s it. There was just something about it, if you know what I mean.”
“No. Like I said, I’m not a fan of cowboy art, but as long asyoulike it...” She glanced around. Looking for the other painting?
“I’m not sure what I like, to tell you the truth.”
“Isn’t there art in your home in Houston?” she asked as if actually interested.
“I bought the condo new. It came decorated.”
She shook her head as if she couldn’t imagine doing something like that.
Her eyes were darker in his bedroom, a deeper blue. He wondered what color they would be when she opened her eyes in his bed in the morning. The thought shook him to his boots. Of course he was attracted her. What red-blooded Texas boy wouldn’t be? But to think that there was a chance they might be lovers...
“What’s funny about this painting,” he said, drawing her back to it, “is that I have two of them.”
That definitely got her attention. “Why would you buy two of them?”
“Good question, since, when I visited the artist, he told me he painted only one of them,” Laramie said as he stepped past her to open the closet and pull out the second one. He hung it next to the first. “So which one is the original?”
* * *
SHELOOKEDATTHEMfor a moment. “I have no idea.”
Sid strangled back the cry that rose in her throat. Only moments before she had been looking at all the wonderful wall space he had in his house, thinking how fun it would be to fill it with art. She’d been excited about the ridiculous thought of helping him. How she would have loved it. She had tons of ideas. Not that it would ever happen, but it was fun to fantasize about a lot of things when it came to Laramie Cardwell.
Then he’d said he’d talked to Taylor West about the two paintings, and all the air had rushed out of her. The room suddenly felt too hot, too small, too bright.
She’d barely been able to get the words out. “You showed the work to the artist?” He nodded, hopefully unaware of how upset she’d become. “I would think he would know his own artwork,” she said carefully.
“I thought the same thing. Apparently one of these is the original. The other, a forgery. A very good forgery.”
“That’s remarkable. Did he have any idea who might have been able to forge it?”
Laramie shook his head. “West said the only man good enough to have done the work was one H. F. Powell. Have you heard of him?”
She could only nod.
“But apparently he’s dead. So it remains a mystery. Just between you and me? What makes it all the more crazy is how I came to have both paintings.”
Sid listened as he told her what she already knew. “That is quite the story,” she said when he finished.
“It’s a mystery.”
“I’m sure you’ll solve it,” she said, hoping she was wrong.
“Maybe,” he said meeting her gaze. “I’m sure hoping I do.”
Sid reminded herself that the only reason she’d come over here was to get the painting back, which meant getting closer to Laramie Cardwell. But being here with him, standing this close to him, looking into those blue eyes...
She felt a small tremor move through her.He knew.It was time to quit kidding herself. He was just waiting for her to make a mistake. But that wasn’t all she saw in his eyes or felt being this close to him. Some kind of chemistry was arcing between them and he felt it, too.
Sid tried to convince herself this was about nothing more than foreplay, flirtation. But the attraction was so strong between them that there was no denying it.
Worse, shelikedhim. Look at the interest he’d taken in Western art since the first night they’d met, she thought with a hidden smile. He’d become intrigued, just as she had become intrigued by him. She couldn’t say that about most of the men she’d dated. Her last serious relationship had been in high school. Fortunately she’d been smart enough not to marry him.
But whatever feelings she might have when it came to Laramie Cardwell, the question now was how far she would go to get the painting back.
* * *
LARAMIESAWTHEWAYSid was clutching the coffee mug in both hands. “Your coffee must be getting cold. Let’s go back down. I want your opinion on that big wall in the living room.”
He’d noticed the change in her. What he’d told her had upset her. But by the time they reached the kitchen, she seemed her cool, calm self again.
This woman would be the death of him. The thought surprised him as if it was a warning. But there was no denying whatever was going on between them under the surface. It wasn’t his imagination. This woman did things to him. That alone made her dangerous—not to mention the fact that she was a criminal. A thief. Or worse.
He told himself he wouldn’t be stupid enough to let her steal his heart.
“If I’m going to help find the right art for you, then I’ll need to figure out what you like,” Sid said after he’d warmed up her coffee and showed her the large, high-ceilinged wall in the living room.
“How do you suggest doing that since I don’t know what I like?” he asked, inexplicably still intrigued and attracted by this woman. He really had to be careful. Austin was right. He had no idea what he was getting into.
She smiled as she looked up at him, her eyes locking with his. “I guess we’ll have to spend more time together so I get to know you better.”
He felt a dart of desire puncture his already weak reserve.She was flirting with him.
“I completely agree,” he heard himself say, all the while reminding himself who he was dealing with. Austin was afraid this woman was dangerous. His brother had no idea given the mix of emotions Sid evoked in him.
She smiled. “Any suggestions?”
Shedefinitelywas flirting with him. Laying some sort of trap for him?
He decided to play along. “We could start by going horseback riding, but it’s supposed to snow this afternoon.”
Sid laughed. “I love riding in the snow, but if you—”
“No, I’m in. Just let me call my cousin Dana.”
* * *
TAYLORWESTTRIEDhis wife’s cell phone number again. It went straight to voice mail—again. Only this time, the message said that her voice mail was full.
He slammed down the phone. Since seeing Jade’s car in Rock Jackson’s barn, he hadn’t been able to sleep—except for the hours he’d drunk so much that he’d passed out.
“Don’t do anything crazy,” fellow artist Hank Ramsey had told him. Taylor hadn’t wanted to tell anyone, but he was going out of his mind, so he’d called Hank for advice.
“Don’t do anythingcrazy?” he’d demanded after hearing Hank’s advice. “Rock has stolen mywife! And who knows what else he’s done.” He’d stopped short of telling Hank what else he suspected Rock Jackson of doing. Did he trust either Rock or Hank? Not anymore. Not since he’d seen the painting Laramie Cardwell had in his possession.
“You don’t know for a fact that Jade is with Rock.”
“Her car is parked in his barn,” he’d said between clenched teeth. “And he has a room behind his studio with boarded-up windows and a padlock on the door.
“There could be another explanation than the one you’ve jumped to.”
“What would that be if it wasyourwife?”
“Jade could be storing her car there. Didn’t you say she was planning to go to Ohio to visit her sister for a while?”
“Indiana to visit her mother.” He’d cursed under his breath, sorry he’d called Hank. “I thought that was where she would go. She never said—it doesn’t matter where she went.Her car is in Rock’s barn.Even if she flew to Mars, why would she leave her car with him?”
“Probably because she didn’t want to pay the overnight fee at the airport. Gateway isn’t that far from the airport. Rock probably gave her a ride.”
He hadn’t thought that Jade knew Rock that well. True, she’d been to enough cowboy artist conferences that maybe she’d come to know the artists better than he did. He spent most of his time at those things getting to know the bartender rather than listening to the bull the other artists were spouting.
“Also, I’d be careful about making any accusations since you have no proof about anything. You might want to watch the booze, too. The one thing we have to do is stick together.”
Taylor had heard something in the man’s voice. Was he warning him? “I’mnot the problem.”
“We don’t even know thereisa problem.”
Hank wasn’t talking about Jade any longer. “You didn’t see the painting,” Taylor’d said, trying to keep the anger and the fear out of his voice.
“I’ll talk to Rock. I’m sure there is nothing to worry about.”
Right, Taylor thought as he went to unlock his gun cabinet.
On the way to Cardwell Ranch to meet Sid and go horseback riding, Laramie’s cell phone rang. It was his brother Austin.
He braced himself as he took the call. “So what did you find out about Sid?” he asked, just wanting to get it over with.
“Sid?You’re using her nickname already?” Laramie could practically see his brother shaking his head.
“So did you find something or not?”
Austin sighed. “She appears to be squeaky clean. No arrests, no speeding tickets, nothing. She lives alone, owns a small, older cabin back in the woods outside of Big Sky and drives an older-model SUV.” Not a large dark car. “No debt. Makes a modest living with her artwork.”
Laramie wanted to laugh with relief. “So why don’t you sound happy?”
“Because she’stoosqueaky clean.”
“There is no satisfying you, Austin,” he joked.
“You still think she’s the woman you saw that night with the painting though, right?”
“I’m not sure.” He knew he was hedging because he was starting to like Sid—and hecouldbe wrong about her being the woman. It had been dark and she’d been wearing a ski mask. All he’d seen were her eyes, and there were a lot of women with blue eyes, right? But those lips... Not every woman had those.
“Just be careful. If you need my help...”
Laramie thanked his brother and drove on to Cardwell Ranch, where he and Sid had agreed to meet. Sid hadn’t arrived yet, but his cousin Dana was waiting for him.
“So you’ve already met someone?” As they stood in her warm, ranch kitchen, Dana sounded too happy to hear that it would be a woman going riding with him.
“You’re responsible for marrying off all my brothers, aren’t you?” Laramie joked. “Well, this time you’ve met your match. Marriage is the last thing that is going to happen with this woman.”
“I hope you don’t have to eat your words,” Dana said smiling.
She suddenly quit smiling. “This isn’t the woman you caught with the painting?”
“That stopped your matchmaking cold,” he said with a laugh.
“You’re going horseback riding withher? Does Hud know?”
“We don’t know for sure that it is even her. Also your husband is convinced this whole cat burglar thing is nothing more than a hoax.”
“Well,I’mnot convinced. What if the woman is dangerous?”
Laramie laughed. “You sound like Austin. Look, if I don’t make it back from the horseback ride, you’ll have your answer.”
“I don’t think that’s funny.”
“Dana, it’s just a horseback ride. If you want to worry...she’s helping me purchase art for my new house.”
His cousin looked aghast. “You be careful, Laramie Cardwell. I’ve been through enough with your brothers. I don’t need you getting into trouble.”
Outside, the ranch wrangler had saddled two horses. Laramie told his cousin he was more than capable of saddling his own horses, but Dana had insisted he come inside and visit with her while he waited for his “date” to arrive. Sid had said she needed to run some errands and would prefer to meet him at the ranch.
As a blue SUV pulled into the yard, he went out to greet her. Not surprisingly, Dana followed on his heels.
“Sid, this is my cousin Dana Cardwell Savage. Dana, Obsidian ‘Sid’ Forester.”
Sid held out her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “Thank you for offering the use of your horses. I’m looking forward to it.”
“You ride?” Dana asked.
“I grew up on a ranch and rode every day for years.”
Laramie noticed that Dana seemed to soften toward the woman, ranch woman to ranch woman. “Then I am especially glad you’re going to get to ride today,” his cousin said. She turned to Laramie. “How far were you planning to ride?”
“Not far,” he said. “We’ll be back in a couple hours.”
The wrangler handed each of them their reins. Laramie watched Sid swing up into the saddle. Clearly she was comfortable on a horse. He followed suit and they headed along a trail that followed the river. Fresh snow rose in the air around them as they rode.
The day was crisp and cold. Ice crystals hung in the air and the promise of snow rode on the breeze. But it felt good to be back in the saddle. Laramie had ridden often on his brother Jackson’s place. He’d missed it since Jackson had sold his ranch in Texas and moved to Montana.
“Your cousin seems nice,” Sid said as they rode.
“Dana? She’s amazing. She’s also responsible for getting us all to Montana.”
Sid cut her eyes at him. “She seemed a little worried about you.”
“She’s overprotective when it comes to family. But I could tell she liked you. Wait until you get to know her. She’s great.”
* * *
WAITUNTILYOUget to know her.He made it sound as if they would be spending a lot of time together. Sid said nothing as they rode through snow-laden pines. Water rushed under the thick aquamarine-colored ice on the Gallatin River beside them. The air smelled of snow. She could see that it was already snowing on the top of Lone Mountain across the narrow river valley.
Was she wrong about Laramie’s suspicions? Maybe he really was attracted to her and wanted nothing more than a date.
“I was surprised to hear you’d grown up on a ranch,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“You don’t like cowboy art.”
She chuckled. “You think they go hand in hand?”
“I guess not.”
“What about you? Where did you learn to ride?”
“We had relatives with horses when we were young. Then my brother Jackson bought a small ranch. I used to ride there almost every day. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed my brothers since they’ve all moved to Montana. Even my mother is here now.”
“You’re so lucky to have such a large, close family.”
He looked over at her. “You don’t?”
She shook her head. “My mother died when I was three. My father passed away some years ago. He taught me—” she hated the tremor she heard in her voice “—to ride.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. It sounds like you were close.”
Sid just nodded, afraid to speak for fear she would cry. It surprised her, all this emotion. Let alone the fact that she had opened up to Laramie—the last person she should be letting her guard down with.
“You don’t have any siblings?” he asked.
“An older sister who travels a lot.”
“You must get lonely,” he said glancing over at her.
Catching a whiff of Laramie’s fresh-from-the-shower scent, she felt a longing wash over her. But it was more than a desire to be in this man’s arms. It was a need to trust someone other than herself. For just an instant, she wanted to tell him everything. What a weight that would be off her shoulders to confide in someone. To confide in this strong cowboy.
As if sensing the way she was feeling, Laramie reined in next to her. It happened so fast that she didn’t have time to react. He reached over and she felt his thumb on her cheek. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized she’d been crying as he smoothed away a tear.
His gaze locked with hers as he leaned into her, his mouth finding hers. She tasted the saltiness of her tears and the cold scent of the winter day on his lips. Her own lips parted as she leaned into the kiss. He cupped her face, the kiss sweet and soft, then more demanding. She felt heat run like hot water through her veins, warming her to the toes of her boots.
As if realizing what he was doing, he pulled back suddenly. “Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”
She swallowed, desperately wanting to grab the collar of his winter coat and pull him into another kiss. His mouth, warm against hers, had kindled a flame in her like nothing she’d ever felt. She ached to lose herself in this man, which was so not like her that it terrified her. She was always careful. But at this moment, she wanted to throw caution to the wind and let her heart have what it wanted.
“I’m not sorry,” she heard herself say, although she knew she should be. Did she have to remind herself how dangerous it was to get too close to Laramie Cardwell, of all men?
It was the second time they’d kissed, she realized with a start. Was that why he’d kissed her? If so, then did he now know she was his cat burglar?
Now what? she wondered as they rode back toward the ranch house. Was he setting her up for a fall? After that kiss, she feared she had a lot more to worry about than the painting.
* * *
ROCKJACKSONOPENEDone eye to see the time on the clock beside the bed. He’d forgotten for a moment where he was. Then he remembered. He was hiding out in a friend’s condo in Bozeman and he wasn’t alone. He groaned pleasantly, surprised that he’d slept this late. Even more surprised that he could be this happy.
Rolling over, he looked into Jade West’s young, beautiful face. He couldn’t believe she was in his bed. The hours they’d spent making love since she’d shown up at his door were a blur.
The moment he’d laid eyes on her the first time at an Old West Artists Conference, he’d been smitten. The worst part that first time was realizing that she was that old fart Taylor West’s trophy wife. He’d said then that the marriage wouldn’t last.
And he’d been right. But he never thought he had a chance with her. He was more than surprised when she’d shown up at his door and had fallen into his arms. The satisfaction that gave him was shameful, but he still enjoyed every moment of it. Jade washis.
Her lashes fluttered and a moment later her green eyes opened. She smiled, making him laugh with delight.
“What?” she asked as she rolled over onto her back. She had the best rack he’d ever seen and this morning she was displaying it for the world.
“I’m just happy.” Happier than he had ever been. With two bad marriages and an imminent divorce, he’d had his share of heartbreak. Jade was his compensation for those hard times. It didn’t hurt, either, that he’d stolen that smug SOB Taylor West’s wife.
“I need to call Taylor.”
Her words burst that moment of pure joy. Like a soap bubble, it popped right before his eyes. “Is that necessary?”
She turned onto her side to look at him again. “I need totellhim.”
“You could let me do that.”
Jade shook her head, her delightful lower lip protruding as she said, “I have to do it myself. It’s the right thing to do. I don’t want him thinking I’m coming back.”
She was young, Rock thought. Barely legal to buy alcohol in Montana. What did she know about these things? “He isn’t going to be happy. I’m sure he’ll beg you to come back. Or threaten to kill us both.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
Rock wasn’t so sure about that. Taylor could be a loose cannon when he was drinking—which was most of the time. Worse, there was bad blood between them and had been for years.
“You don’t have to do itrightnow, do you?” he asked as he pulled her to him.
She purred in his arms and he felt his happiness level rise again. He had what he wanted. Well, almost. He was tired of feeling second rate because of Taylor West. Now that he had Jade, he told himself that nothing could stop him from getting what he deserved. He had Taylor’s wife. Soon, she would have Taylor’s money.
Life was perfect. Almost. After a quick shower, he checked his emails and found the message from Taylor about the painting.
* * *
DANAHADApot of chili and a pan of warm-from-the-oven corn bread ready for lunch when Laramie and Sid returned from their ride.
“You can’t say no, Sid,” Dana insisted as they handed over their reins to the wrangler. She stood on the porch wearing an apron, her hands on her hips. “Hud doesn’t think he can make it home for lunch, the kids are with their aunt Stacy. I desperately need adult conversation.”
Laramie glanced at Sid. She looked torn. He’d felt so close to her on their ride, but then he’d felt her pull away again as they’d neared the ranch house. Now she looked as if she wanted to run—and yet was tempted to stay. He might have wondered what she had to fear if he hadn’t already known.
“Chili and corn bread,” he said. “Did I mention that my cousin is a great cook?”
“I would love to,” she said to him, “but I can’t. Thank you so much. It sounds wonderful,” she called to Dana on the porch. “But I have to go. Thank you again for the horseback ride. It was lovely.”
Laramie watched her head for her SUV. The kiss had confirmed what he already knew. Obsidian “Sid” Forester was his cat burglar. There was no doubt now. “Maybe I’ll see you later?” he called after her, wondering what would happen next. He knew what he wanted to happen.
She smiled and nodded. “Maybe.”
“Well?” Dana demanded once the two of them were seated, chili and corn bread in front of them.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said honestly.
“You don’t have to tell me anything. The look on your face says it all,” Dana said with a grin. “The woman has gotten to you.”
He wanted to deny it but didn’t bother. “She told me she lost her father some years ago. I can tell that she is still hurting over that. Apparently, he was all the family she had other than an older sister who travels all the time.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Dana said, sounding close to tears. She knew what it was like to lose someone she loved. She’d lost her mother, Mary, a few years ago and then, because of a dispute over the ranch, nearly lost her sister and brothers. “I wish she’d stayed for lunch. You should invite her to the masquerade ball.”
“I already mentioned it to her.”
“And?” Dana asked hopefully.
“She wasn’t interested.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He could tell that Sid’s refusal had surprised her as much as it had him. “Well,youhave to come. Don’t even try to get out of it,” Dana said. “We’re all going, including all of your brothers. Everyone wears a costume and doesn’t remove their masks until the stroke of midnight. It’s the biggest event in the canyon.”