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Authors: Ruby Laska

Black Ember

 
BLACK EMBER

The Boomtown Boys, #4

 

RUBY LASKA

 
Also Available

In The Boomtown Boys Series

 

Black Gold

 

Black Heat

 

Black Flame

 

Copyright © 2014 by Ruby Laska.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

 

Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

EPILOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

 

Caryn Carver stared into the mirror, holding the scissors tightly. Was she really going to do this? Spread out on the white marble bathroom counter were her drug store purchases, sixty dollars’ worth of items that would make her mother’s head spin around like that scene from The Exorcist.

 Just yesterday she, her mother, and her mother’s assistant Belinda were standing in the Seventh Avenue showroom of the designer who outfitted half the Oscar nominees last year, finalizing Caryn’s gown for the Children’s Trust Annual Spring Gala. Georgia Carver was on the board of the Children’s Trust foundation, and pictures of her at the ball would be splashed across the society pages. Unlike Caryn, Georgia adored the spotlight, and it adored her back.

 After the fitting, Belinda had ticked items off the list on her iPad:

 “You’ll be meeting for mani-pedis at the salon at eight a.m.”

 “Yes, it’s on my calendar.”

 “Then Franz at ten for makeup. I’ll have a light lunch brought in—we don’t want to risk anyone photographing you before the event.”

 “Of course.”

 “Your mother is due at four o’clock to give interviews. You’ll be joining her…?”

 Belinda raised an eyebrow questioningly, even though Caryn had never missed a single Children’s Trust ball—or Museum of Natural History luncheon or Ballet Conservatory dinner. She owed her mother that. Far more than that, of course, but if Caryn could help her mother’s many causes by showing up and being photographed with her, she would.

 Except that the event was tomorrow. At eight o’clock tomorrow morning, her mother would arrive at the salon and find an envelope waiting instead of her daughter. In the envelope was Caryn’s handwritten apology for missing the event, and a promise to call when she got back to town. Caryn had the note messengered over earlier this afternoon; the same messenger was taking the gown back to the showroom and the jewelry back to the flagship store’s vault. She’d called the store’s manager and explained that she had been called away for several days. The winter collection was in production, sketches for the spring collection were being circulated, and the Caryn Carver Bijoux empire—with stores in Dallas and Miami in addition to New York—would just have to run itself without her for a week or two.

 Everything was set. She grabbed a section of her hair—the sleek golden mane that reached halfway down her back, the hair that made her instantly recognizable to her fans around the country—took a deep breath and sliced it off.

 “Oh dear,” she gasped, staring at her own reflection. The chopped hair hung barely past her chin, a length she hadn’t worn since high school at the extraordinarily exclusive Saint Rita Academy. For four years Caryn endured the unflattering bob, the white knee socks, and plaid jumpers; she now credited that time with inspiring her to create her one-of-a-kind silver and gemstone creations, as a way for women to make even the most ordinary outfits truly special.

 Grimly, Caryn grabbed another chunk of hair. The scissor blades flashed as she made her way around her head. The resulting haircut was far from even, but that was part of the plan. Caryn
wanted
to look like she couldn’t afford a salon haircut, or even a strip mall haircut.

 When she picked up the box of dye—“Vixen Mahogany,” the shade was called—her hands were shaking. The last gasp of twilight was fading through the floor-to-ceiling windows in her twenty-second-floor master bathroom overlooking Central Park.

A taxi was coming for her in a few short hours to take her to LaGuardia, where she was catching a red-eye to Minneapolis, where she would connect to a puddle jumper. She had a lot to do before then. She had to pack this afternoon’s purchases into the battered duffle bag she’d found in a thrift store around the corner from Times Square. And she had to complete her transformation.

She ripped the box of hair dye open.

CHAPTER TWO

 “Well, it’s about time, sleepyhead,” Deneen Burgess scolded. Zane Olivo groaned and rolled up on one elbow to see his roommate’s girlfriend standing at the foot of the bed, glaring at him. Dangling from her hands was one of his good dress shirts. “Do you realize it’s nearly dinnertime? You missed lunch, and Matthew made chili mac.”

“I’ll just have it for dinner,” Zane said, yawning. “And in case you didn’t bother to look at the schedule, my hitch ended at seven o’clock this morning. I’m off for three weeks, so sue me if I wanted to start my time off with a full night’s sleep.”

“A full
day’s
sleep, you mean,” Deneen corrected.

“What are you doing with my shirt?”

Deneen looked at the pressed cotton button-down on its dry-cleaner hanger. “It’s not like you’re wearing it,” she said defensively.

“Well, no, business attire is generally frowned upon on an oil rig,” Zane said. He managed to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. “Which kind of begs the question of what Jimmy’s going to do with it. I assume you’re stealing it to give to him, right? Because I can’t exactly picture you in a man’s shirt.”

Deneen laughed, and Zane couldn’t help giving her an exasperated grin. She had become like an annoying kid sister since moving into the bunkhouse with the rest of them. She ran her event planning business from a spare bedroom, and by all accounts was doing very well at it. It had taken Zane and his roommates a little while to get used to the click of her high heels and the cloud of perfume that trailed after her wherever she went, but since the only other female resident of the bunkhouse was her sister, no one seemed to mind.

“Don’t worry,” Deneen said, “you’ve got plenty of other shirts left. I told Chase to borrow one too. Cal’s got to work and Jayne bought Matthew a shirt already, so you’re all covered for tonight.”

Zane blinked and ran a hand through his hair. “But…tonight’s the bachelor party. We’re all going to wear old T-shirts and jeans with holes in them.”

“No, absolutely not,” Deneen said, consulting the clipboard in her other hand. “You’re dining in a private room at DuBonnet’s. I’ve selected the wines already.”

Zane groaned and dropped his face to his hands. “Deneen…hasn’t anyone ever explained to you what goes on at a bachelor party?”

Deneen pursed her lips. “I am quite aware of some of the coarser traditions, but since it is my big
sister
who is getting married in two days, nothing unseemly is going to happen.”

“Buzzkill,” Zane yawned. “How are we supposed to tell stories from the old days with a wine steward looking over our shoulders? How are we going to get a stripper to jump out of a dish of sorbet?

Deneen sighed. “Matthew and I negotiated a compromise. Following the dinner, the party will repair to Buddy’s for a nightcap. You can probably tell a story or two there, if you insist.”

“Aw, Buddy’s?” Zane said, scowling. “I bet there’s never been a stripper there since the day it opened. No Jaeger shots, either, or karaoke or wet T-shirt contests.”

Secretly, he thought that Buddy’s Tavern was the ideal place to end the evening. Not only was it walking distance from the ranch, so no one would have to drive home, but it was far enough from the center of Conway, North Dakota that it catered mostly to locals. From the outside, the tavern wasn’t much to look at. Nor was the inside, with its scarred linoleum floors and ancient oak bar and tables, neon beer signs and ball caps decorating the walls. There were only three kinds of beer on tap, none of them imported, and the liquor selection was limited to the brands a working man could afford without putting a big dent in his wallet. Perfect, in other words, for Matthew’s sendoff into matrimony.

It was fun to tease Deneen, however. Though she’d successfully planned quite a few events since moving to North Dakota six months earlier, this was her first wedding, and she wanted it to be perfect—so much so that she was driving them all crazy with the details.

“I will turn a blind eye to what goes on at Buddy’s,” she said, “as long as you promise me that Matthew will have all his wits about him first thing tomorrow morning. We’ve got to pick up the tuxes and go over the music, and then there’s the rehearsal and dinner tomorrow night. I’ll never forgive you if he’s hung over.”

“I’m not his keeper,” Zane shrugged. “But I’ll tell you what, I’ll make sure he doesn’t get drunk and hook up with Opal for one final wild ride before he gets hitched.”

“Considering that Opal just celebrated her forty-fifth wedding anniversary, I’m sure her husband will appreciate that.”

Opal was the lone waitress at Buddy’s since his other waitress went on maternity leave. He’d been advertising for a new one, but most local women had found jobs in town that paid a lot more. Since Conway’s population had doubled when the oil boom arrived in western North Dakota, wages at the hotels and restaurants and stores and nightclubs downtown were paying outrageous wages and signing bonuses. Few women were willing to give up such a lucrative job to work at Buddy’s, where the local ranchers had weathered enough boom-and-bust cycles to view the current frenzy with patient skepticism.

“Well, if you’re done stealing all my stuff, I guess I ought to take a shower before the big bash,” Zane said.

“Don’t forget to shave,” Deneen said. “There are going to be pictures. And toasts—have you written your toast yet?”

Zane got out of bed, stretching and towering over Deneen. “Woman, if you think you want to know what the boys are going to be saying to each other a few hours from now, you’re mistaken. Save your energies for the reception. Since you’ve invited half the town, we’ll all have to watch our p’s and q’s then. But tonight’s just us, and what happens at Buddy’s, stays at Buddy’s.”

CHAPTER THREE

 

The landing wasn’t the smoothest Caryn had ever experienced. Once, twice, three times the little prop plane bounced on the tiny single runway at Conway’s airport before shuddering to a stop in front of what looked like a giant metal shed.

“I’ll never get used to that,” the man seated next to her said, finally relaxing his grip on the armrests. A nervous flyer, the poor man had turned a sickly shade of green shortly before takeoff in Minneapolis, and Caryn had finally taken pity on him and tried to distract him with conversation. “I make that trip home after every hitch, and every time I’m sure the plane’s going to fall into Lake Michigan.”

“Well, you’re here now, Sam,” Caryn said soothingly. “A hot meal and a good night’s sleep and I bet you’ll feel as good as new.”

“Good luck with your job search, now,” he said. “You’re sure I can’t give you a lift?”

“I’m sure.”

Caryn hadn’t anticipated so much friendliness. The men waiting for the commuter flight had offered to carry her bag, and insisted she precede them down the walkway, despite the way she looked. She’d drawn a few curious glances, but that was all.

A ride would have been nice, except that Caryn wasn’t sure exactly where she was headed. She thought she’d just take a room at the nearest dive motel, but from what Sam told her, there wasn’t a room in the boomtown that hadn’t already been booked. Caryn was pretty sure that a generous tip might make a room available, but she was traveling incognito now, and her alter ego was down on her luck. A show of cash would blow her cover.

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