THE CITY GAL, THE COWBOY, & THE ACCIDENT
Rick slammed on the brakes, spun the Range Rover around, and headed in the opposite direction—the wrong direction. Caught off balance by his sudden recklessness, Hannah’s bare feet slid off the dashboard, and her leg slammed into the car’s door. Her heart pounded and adrenaline raced through her body.
Before she could voice a single, recognizable word, Rick veered off the highway, slowed down, and rolled gently into the parking area of a quaint little chapel. There a dozen or so guests tossed handfuls of rice toward a smiling bride and groom.
Hannah rubbed her knee and turned down the thumping hip-hop music blaring from the radio. “What are you doing, and why are we stopping here?”
“You’ll see.” He was up to something. But then, he always was.
“We have two hours of driving ahead of us, and you know I want to get to the ranch before dark,” Hannah said, glaring at him.
He flashed a grin her way. “Come on! Let’s do it.”
“Huh?” Tipping her head, Hannah’s pretty green eyes peered over the top of her sunglasses. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Hey, it’s me. Would I kid?”
He was exasperating but could always make her laugh even when she didn’t want to. “You’re crazy, and you know that was never part of our plan,” she said, wagging a judgmental finger at him.
“Wait here.” All smiles, he jumped out of the car and headed toward the chapel’s front steps, strutting with confidence.
The last few wedding goers lingered as Rick rushed up, grasped the preacher’s outstretched hand, and started talking. Before long, he glanced back at Hannah, conveying another grin, this one loaded with mischief. What was he up to now?
A surge of discomfort bubbled up in Hannah’s chest. The joke had gone a little too far this time. He’d been teasing her about getting married for several months, but lately, he’d campaigned for her hand with marked persistence. It had been funny, almost flattering at first, but now his silliness had surpassed the brink of annoying.
He turned and loped back to her, his expression sheepish.
“Sorry, babe, no wedding for us today. The guy said we’d need a Colorado marriage license. Imagine that. But he also said he’d be happy to perform a fake wedding ceremony if we were interested.” His head nodded as if that might get Hannah to go along with his foolish idea.
“Oh, really? A ‘fake’ ceremony? Doesn’t sound like preacher talk to me,” she said, arching an eyebrow and grinning at his silly persistence.
“Maybe not those exact words, but—”
Hannah liked Rick. He was the only real friend she’d ever had. But marriage? No! She wasn’t in love, and marriage was not even at the bottom of her lengthy to-do list. She was not about to let anything sabotage their upcoming adventure or her personal goals for future happiness.
They drove on in comfortable silence. With the music turned off, the purr of the engine lulled Hannah into a light sleep until the unfamiliar sound of gravel crunching beneath their tires prompted her eyes to open. She bolted upright, looking everywhere at once.
“Are we here? Is this our ranch?”
Mesmerized by the magnificent greenery visible in all directions—nothing like the dry desert she’d left behind —Hannah held her breath, waiting for their new home, the ranch house they would share, to come into view. When it appeared, the sight was dreamlike and almost too good to be true. Compared with the cramped apartments she lived in most of her life, this ranch house, though obviously old, was as grand as a mansion.
Hannah leaped from the SUV before it came to a complete stop and dashed toward her first real home. A home that would bear her name, not some landlord’s name.
“Slow down, Hannah.”
“No way! Why don’t you hurry up?” she called out without glancing back.
He caught up with her just as she reached the top of the steps. Then, to her surprise, he scooped her into his arms and stepped toward the threshold.
Nearly nose-to-nose, she managed to say, “I think a few rules accompany such an action.”
“Since when did you become an avid rule follower?”
They laughed, and he dropped a light kiss on her forehead. “You ready?”
“More than ready. Let’s go.”
Their Great Adventure was about to begin . . .
“Pretty sure that someone had a decent pair of wire cutters,” said the repairman. “But lookie here.” He stuck his index finger into a hole in the dirt. It was a tight fit. “Any idea what might have made these holes? There’s plenty of ‘em.”
Hannah knelt to get a closer look at the trail of holes. “Last night’s vandal wore stilettos,” she said matter-of-factly.
The two men stared at her, confused. “English, please. You’re talking to country boys.”
“High heels. Ultra-thin high heels. You know, women’s shoes?”
Trace’s eyebrows drew in, but he looked doubtful.
“Are you sure?”
The repairman handed Trace the completed work order to sign, but Hannah intercepted the hand-off.
She signed it, handed it back, then looked up at Trace. She knew only one person around here who could manage stilettos in the dirt. Callie. The thought of that girl being here, sabotaging her phone, awakened a new determination in Hannah, especially now that Trace didn’t seem to buy her stilettos story.
She tried to put herself in his shoes – his boots, rather. He’d known Callie ever since she was a little girl. Now was not the time to argue. She wanted their picnic to go without a hitch. But later, the gloves were coming off.
Hannah insisted that the bank had made a mistake. She went so far as to suggest that someone there had stolen the money, or there had been a cyber-attack on the account.
“Those are all possibilities, but highly unlikely,” Trace said, mixing concern with logic. It seemed Hannah had considered every reason except the obvious one – that Rick had faked his own death and was now alive and extremely rich. “Hannah, some people would do just about anything to get their hands on that kind of money. Anything.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed. “I know what you’re thinking. If Rick drained the bank account, that would mean he’s not dead and he stole my money. But… then who died in our Range Rover?”
Trace waited, wondering if she’d come to the same conclusion he had. He did not want to be the one to bring it up.
“Oh my God!” she whispered, suddenly pale. “Did Rick murder someone?”
“I don’t know.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her close. She trembled, and he understood exactly why. If Rick was a murderer, Hannah’s good friend had become a dangerous man. Maybe he’d always been a bad guy. This new possibility changed the direction of his thinking. Now he was more determined than ever to keep her safe if it was the last thing he did.
He tipped her chin upward and held her gaze. “I never should have left you last night.”
“I should have tried to stop you.”
“I came up with a plan,” he said hoarsely, drawing back a little. “Want to hear it?”
She nodded, so he took her hand, and they walked to the bench by the corral. The horses ambled over, curious, but today Hannah only had eyes for Trace.
“Our current situation is complicated by an abundance of factors.”
She nodded and smiled sweetly. “Today you’re sounding more like a college boy than a cowboy.”
He tilted his head slightly. “I once was a college boy.”
“Really? What did you major in? Cows?”
“I’ll have you know, young lady,” he said, looking indignant, “that I received a Master of Science degree. I am also a licensed veterinarian.” His pride-filled smile became a mischievous grin. “And I like classical music!”
“Well then, Mr. Full-Of-Surprises, back to your plan.”
“Let me preface the divulging of my plan, my four-part plan, with one important caveat.”
She giggled. “Okay, okay. You’ve made your educated point. Now go back to being the cowboy I love.”
That last word hung precariously in the air. Her hand flew to her mouth and heat blazed on her cheeks. Had she really said that? From the stunned look on his face, she must have.