Authors: Rebecca Winters
Trace grinned. “I learn something new every day living around you. Maybe it'll be contagious. Now I think you've had enough excitement for one day and ought to get to bed. I'll lock up and turn out the lights.”
“Thank you.” Her voice trembled. “For absolutely everything.” She kissed the corner of his jaw and left the kitchen.
He touched his fingers to the spot where her lips had been. Next time she had one of those urges, he'd help her find his mouth.
* * *
Cassie had a dental appointment at noon. A filling had come loose and it was the only time her dentist could fit her in before he left on a trip. She called Mildred who told her to lock the salon. Rosy, her daughter, was visiting and would open it and cover the counter while Cassie was gone.
At one-thirty she returned and entered the shop through the rear door like she always did. When she reached the counter, Rosy stood up and gave her a hug.
“It's been a long time, Cassie, and you're more beautiful than ever.”
“So are you.”
“It isn't fair to look like you do when you're pregnant.”
“Thanks for the lies. In my condition I can use them. You're really great to come in and help me out.”
“Anything for an old friend. Mom says you run this place with the precision of a Swiss clock.”
“Is that good or bad?”
They both laughed. “When my mom says it, you know it's good. Everything has gone smoothly. OhâI almost forgot. You're not going to believe it. Remember Owen, your brother's old friend from high school?”
Suddenly her heart was racing like a runaway train. “Yes?”
“He came inside for a second, looked around and left. I heard he got divorced. Maybe he was looking for his ex. But don't you think that's weird? He's still that same smarmy, squinty-eyed loser.”
“That doesn't surprise me.” Cassie felt sick to her stomach. The news had sucked all the air out of her lungs. “Thanks for covering for me, Rosy. I'll take over now so you can get back to your mom's house.”
“Let's get together the next time I'm in town.”
“We'll do it.”
They hugged again and she left, waving to several customers on the way out. Cassie sat down on the chair and phoned Trace.
Pick up. Please, pick up.
When it went to his voice mail she said, “Trace? I'm at the salon. After I got back from a dental appointment, Rosy said Owen Pearson came in the shop, looked around and left. I'm sure he was on some errand for Ned. You were right about my not moving to the apartment. At least here I'm surrounded by other people. Call me when you can.”
The next hour got busier as it wore on, which helped keep her fears at bay. Trace had to be out doing something that kept him from phoning her back, but she knew he would when he could.
Mildred relieved her at three. Cassie chatted with her for a minute, then left through the back entrance. The first thing she noticed was the glorious sight of Trace lounging against the side of his SUV with his arms folded. Beneath his cowboy hat those shocking blue eyes filled with concern took stock of her. He straightened.
“I'd been out exercising the horses and didn't check my messages until after I'd put them back in the barn. Rather than phone you, I decided to come here and make certain you get home safely. I'll follow you, then we'll talk.”
The knowledge that he was behind her filled her with relief. If she'd seen Owen skulking around the apartment, she would have been panicked. Now that there was no urgency to leave the ranch yet, she'd been sleeping so much better since Saturday night.
Though the threat of Ned was out there, she was comforted to know Trace was in the house. It seemed as though overnight he'd turned back into the rancher with new energy and plans. Cassie could tell he was happier than before. Contrary to her initial worries about living under the same roof with him, they'd slipped into a comfortable routine. By tacit agreement they respected each other's boundaries, keeping her desire for him sheathed.
She entered the house first and walked through to the kitchen. Before she could open the fridge he said, “Zane got back to me earlier today.”
Cassie turned around. “What did he find out?”
“We got lucky if you can call it that. One set of prints on the inside of the barn door was a match for Owen's.”
She let out a gasp.
“Zane thinks he probably got spooked and ran without securing the door and the wind did the rest. After his first arrest, he wouldn't want to be nabbed again. The police have both Owen and Ned's fingerprints on file because of the investigation into Jarod's truck accident. What we don't know is why Owen went into the barn.”
“He was spying for Ned,” she almost hissed. “My brother would have been furious because Masala was Logan's horse. He probably wanted to know if that horse was still in the barn now that my husband was dead. I think he plans to steal it as part of his absurd plan to run a feral stud farm.”
“Ned wants to know your whereabouts, too,” Trace said. “He probably heard that you are working at the beauty salon. They wanted to know your hours. It would explain Owen's brief appearance.”
Cassie threw her head back. “He's up to his old tricks running surveillance for Ned. Owen does whatever Ned tells him to do. It's sick and twisted.”
“I've given this a lot of thought. Ned had time to think and plan while he was in that facility. He has enjoyed harassing you over the years, but no one can predict a timetable for him to do something destructive
he's going to.”
“Oh...he's going to. Just give him time.”
“Zane and I talked about putting a restraining order on Owen, but it's Ned we want to catch in the act. To serve Owen with an order would let Ned know we're watching them. To do this right Zane feels we need to wait a little longer before netting them at the same time.”
“You mean carry out a sting?”
“That's how Zane operates, but a sting takes patience. To reduce the anxiety level I have something in mind, but you'd have to be totally on board with it, too.”
“What is it?”
“I was wondering how you would feel about keeping a dog around here to alert us when someone comes on the property.”
His suggestion couldn't have thrilled her more. “I'd
a dog, Trace.”
He looked pleasantly surprised. “You're not just saying that?”
“Not at all. When I was young we had a terrier, but he didn't like Ned because Ned teased him without mercy. Mother was the dog lover in the family. I begged her to give him away so Ned wouldn't hurt him. One day he was gone and mother never replaced him. I was glad, but I missed Dex horribly. He guarded me everywhere I went.”
Trace's expression sobered. “Do you think Ned had something to do with his disappearance?”
“I'll never know.” She turned and got a lemonade out of the fridge. “Do you want a cola?”
“Not right now, thanks.”
She pulled the tab and took a long drink. “What kind of dog were you thinking of?”
Trace rested against the counter. “A sheltie.”
“I adore shelties! They look like little collies.”
One corner of his mouth curved upward. “Our family had a collie once named Kip.”
“I bet you loved him.”
“To me he was the greatest dog on earth.”
“I know. I felt the same about Dex. Every dog owner feels that way, like they're another member of the family.”
“Yup. Dad thinks Mr. Ogilvie's sheltie kept him alive after his wife died. He was one of my father's clients who passed away this week, leaving Dusty who was with him for eight years. His daughter lives in California. She came here to plan the funeral and sell the house. She can't take the dog with her and asked if Dad could help find a home for him.”
“Oh, the poor thing.” Already Cassie's heart went out to the sheltie who'd lost his owner. “No doubt he's still waiting for him to come home. I saw a documentary recently where one dog was in such great mourning, someone found it lying on the ground of its owner's tomb.”
“It's a heartbreaker all right. Dad has taken care of that dog since it was a pup and knows its history. He's a blue merle with a blue eye and a brown eye.”
“Scout's honor. We could run by the Ogilvie home after dinner and see what we think.”
“Why don't we go now?”
He chuckled before cocking his dark head. “Because you're supposed to put your feet up and rest.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thank you for reminding me.”
There was a time when she wouldn't have liked him minding her business. But in the past three weeks a change had come over her. She had to admit she loved being watched over by him. He was an amazing, caring man whose company she craved more and more.
“You're welcome. While you do that, I'll call Dad and ask him to make the arrangements for us to see the dog. I need an address.”
Cassie hurried to her room and took a shower. Afterward she put on a skirt, which made a nice change from jeans, and teamed it with a summery print blouse with three-quarter sleeves. Then she lay down on the bed and propped her feet for half an hour.
Trace's suggestion that they get a dog had taken hold. She and Logan had talked about getting one when they could get their own place. It would have been so comforting to have one after he'd died, but she wouldn't have dared broach the subject to Sam. This ranch house wasn't hers.
It still isn't, Cassie.
She got up off the bed to apply lipstick and brush her hair. After putting on a mango-scented lotion, she left her room and went to the kitchen, but Trace wasn't there. She found him in the living room watching the news on TV. His black hair was still damp from the shower. He'd put on a dark blue shirt over light gray chinos. No other man could possibly match his looks or his charisma.
He got to his feet while his gaze swept over her. “You look rested. How's your appetite?”
“So am I. Have you been to that new place called Smoky's?”
That's why he'd dressed up. “I've been meaning to try it.”
“Well I'm in the mood for ribs. How about you?”
“That sounds fattening and wonderful.”
“There's no fat I detect on you anywhere,” he murmured. The personal comment did dangerous things to her pulse.
“Liar,” she teased.
“No argument that we might be seen in town together?”
“Since I'm sure my parents know about my pregnancy by now, I'm too grateful for your help to care,” she answered honestly.
A glint of satisfaction entered his eyes. He turned off the TV with the remote. “Shall we go?”
* * *
to be another restaurant with a Western motif and a live band of cowboys cranking out country music. The place was crowded. While they had to wait to be seated, Cassie looked so damn beautiful, Trace couldn't keep his eyes off her. Whatever fragrance she wore was heady stuff.
Less than a month ago, he'd flown into Billings at the lowest ebb of his life. If anyone had told him that in three weeks he'd be head over heels in love with Logan Dorney's pregnant wife...
At the time it would have been beyond the realm of possibility, or so he'd thought. But he knew in his gut this was the real thing. If she was compelled to live in Siberia, he'd follow her there.
The host showed them to a table and soon they were served baby back ribs with side dishes. Trace smiled at her. “They're good.”
“Very tasty. Tonight I can't worry about the salt.”
“Do you really notice a difference?”
“I will when I get up tomorrow. My hands and feet swell. That's why I removed my wedding ring last week.” She'd done it while he'd been in Italy. “Marsha had to call 9-1-1 to get hers cut off during her pregnancy, so I'm not taking any chances.”
“It was that bad?”
“It was starting to cut off her circulation. The fireman had her lie down on the kitchen table while one of them used a ring cutter that had to be inserted.”
“What a painful experience.”
“She said it was excruciating. Having the baby was nothing in comparison.”
Trace chuckled. “I'm glad you're cautious, then. Would you like dessert?”
“Nothing more for me. I'm too full and will waddle out of here as it is, but please order some for yourself.”
He shook his head. “Your strawberries are so sweet, they make the best dessert. I'll eat a bowl of them later.” Trace put some money on the table to pay the bill. “Shall we leave?”
Her green eyes danced. “I thought you'd never ask.”
“Too excited about the dog?” She was a true animal lover.
“I can't wait.”
“Since you can't keep Giselle, maybe Dusty will be the next best thing.” He stood up and helped her from her seat. They walked out to the Explorer and left for the Ogilvie home on the other side of town.
He pulled into the driveway of the small L-shaped bungalow. Before they could get out of the car, the woman came out the front door with the sheltie on a leash. Trace cupped Cassie's elbow as they walked to the front porch. They introduced themselves to the woman named Grace and expressed their sympathy for her loss.
“Thank you. You bear a certain resemblance to your father.”
“I hope he doesn't mind.”
Cassie laughed at him. “You know very well you take after your handsome father.” Trace liked the sound of that.
Grace nodded. “I agree.”
He noticed that the whole time they'd been talking, the dog stood back. “Is Dusty naturally shy?”