Read CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH Online

Authors: B.J. DANIELS

Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE

CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH (12 page)

“I don’t get why it’s so important.”

“In order to get released prisoners to kill for them, they had to promise their anonymity. If word got out that the feds had gotten hold of one of the lists...”

All Tag could think about was the fact that his father’s name was on the list and the ones above might already be dead.

“Where is Harlan now?” When Hud hesitated, Tag said, “It’s too late to hold out on me now.”

“I honestly don’t know. Apparently Mia had been working with a prison snitch. She’d heard that several prisons had started a type of co-op. For a fee, you can have someone on the outside killed. A recently released inmate kills someone he doesn’t know, has no connection to. In return he gets either money or a favor. The idea is that the former inmate won’t get caught because he has no motive.”

Tag got it. His heart pounded as he realized why they were so desperate to get the thumb drive. “This list links the hits with the former inmates.” This was incriminating stuff that could shut down the murder ring.

“I know Lily knew Mia and was the one who discovered her condo had been ransacked, but why do you think her disappearing has anything to do with the murder list?” Hud asked.

“Lily was with me when I found the thumb drive in my pocket. Once she took a look at what was on it, she determined it was written in some kind of code.”

Hud frowned. “How did they know she had the thumb drive—let alone that she’d decoded it?”

Tag felt his heart drop. “I don’t know. I thought she and I were the only ones who knew about it.”

* * *

A
S
THE
MAN
entered the room, Lily was blinded by the sudden light for a moment. He carried a tray and she caught the smell of a microwave dinner. Her stomach growled. She was surprised that she was starved. It seemed odd to her to think about food at a time like this.

Her gaze went from the tray to the man. He was big and bulky with hamlike hands and arms covered with tattoos. Over his head, he wore one of those rubber Halloween masks, this one of an ogre.

She didn’t miss the irony as she watched him put down the tray on the end of the mattress. She thought about jumping up and making a break for the door. Or grabbing the tray and attempting to hit him with it.

But even if she hadn’t felt so weak from whatever they’d knocked her out with, she knew either attempt at escape would be wasted effort. Better to eat the food he’d brought, get her strength back and bide her time.

He didn’t say a word as he turned and walked out of the room. Nor did he appear to be worried about a surprise attack from behind.

She thought she probably should have tried to make conversation with him. Hadn’t she heard somewhere that in a situation like this you needed to make yourself as human as possible to your abductor?

But Lily was smart enough to know that this wasn’t a garden-variety abduction. The fact that they hadn’t killed her outright probably meant they were holding her hostage.

Just as she surmised that this had to have something to do with the thumb drive and Mia’s murder—as she and Tag had guessed.

The thought of Tag brought tears to her eyes. Why hadn’t she admitted that they’d made love? They would have been in her bedroom at the house in each other’s arms—instead of her being here.

She’d let fear keep her from him. But she’d never seen herself the way she was with Tag last night. Nor had she ever felt as close to another human being. She ached for Tag Cardwell, and that scared her, too, because she feared Gerald was right and Tag was all wrong for her. A mathematician and a Texas cowboy? Their lives were miles apart in more than distance.

And yet she couldn’t get him out of her racing heart. She tried not to let herself think about what would happen if these men didn’t get what they wanted as she dragged the tray over to her and dug into the food. It was as wonderful as it was awful. She thought of Gerald and his contempt for any food that wasn’t four-star-restaurant quality.

She actually smiled at the absurdity of it all since she practically licked the cardboard container clean. The food made her feel a little stronger. But what boosted her more than anything was the knowledge that Tag would be looking for her.

Lily hugged herself, thinking about last night and their lovemaking. He was the kind of man who would ride in on a big white horse and save her. A sob escaped her lips. What if he hadn’t gotten her message? Or worse, what if these men had already found Tag and taken care of him?

She assured herself that the cowboy wouldn’t let her die without a fight.

Chapter Twelve

Everything could be bought for a price. Camilla had learned that at an early age. That price though was often very high—and too often wasn’t monetary. So she’d spent her life paying dearly.

Because of that, it didn’t come as a surprise that what she now wanted would be very costly. Snakebite had slipped back into the lunch line, returning with a hoarsely whispered cryptic message. “The laundry room. Right after dinner.”

Camilla ate as if it were her last meal. It just might be, she thought as she studied the solemn faces around the table. Something was up. She could feel it on the electrified air. Even the guards seemed to sense it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw them moving restlessly around the perimeter.

The walk down to the laundry room seemed interminable. But her resolve kept her moving. Whatever Snakebite had planned, it would be worth it if she could get the retribution she so desperately needed.

The laundry was busy with worker bees. Most of them didn’t look up. Only two guards kept watch. Camilla felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck as first one of the guards stepped out and then the other.

She had one of those panicky moments, pure stomach-dropping, adrenaline-surging, breath-stopping moments before two of the women who’d been folding sheets turned and came toward her.

The first blow knocked the air out of her and smashed her teeth into her lips. The second blow cracked a rib. She tasted blood and began to fight back with everything she had.

Had she been set up from the beginning? Or was this part of the plan?

Right now it didn’t matter. She was fighting for her life.

* * *

T
HE
SOUND
OF
a cell phone ringing took both Tag and Hud by surprise. As Tag dug his cell phone out of his pocket and started to answer it, the marshal laid a hand on his arm.

“They could be calling to trade Lily for the thumb drive,” Hud said. “Agree to meet them.”

The phone rang again. “Hello?”

“It’s Ace.” Even over the roar of the bar crowd in the background outside his office, Tag could hear fear in Lily’s brother’s voice. “I just got a call demanding the thumb drive or they are going to kill Lily.”

“What did you tell them?”

“To call you.”

“Good.” He disconnected and looked at the marshal, knowing he’d been listening in. “I’m going to give them the thumb drive.”

“You have it on you? Let’s take it to the office and make a copy,” Hud said as he got out and motioned for Tag to get in the front seat of the patrol SUV. “I need to try to reach your father and let him know what’s happening. For all we know, Harlan has already rescued Lily.”

Tag wasn’t going to hold his breath on that one. He still couldn’t get his head around his father and uncle being agents, even retired ones. His mother had to have known. Was that another reason she’d left Harlan and Montana—or the real one?

As he climbed into the front of the patrol SUV and Hud started the engine, he touched the thumb drive in his pocket and prayed. Whoever had Lily had to believe that no one had been able to break the code. Otherwise, the thumb drive was useless to them and they would have no reason to keep Lily alive.

* * *

L
ILY
DIDN

T
FEEL
so shaky after she ate. She still had a horrible taste in her mouth from whatever had been on the cloth the man had forced over her mouth. And, of course, there was the fear.

She did her best to hold it down, tempering it with the knowledge that someone would be looking for her. Not Gerald. By now he would have flown back home. She realized she probably would never see him again.

Her lack of regret made her feel a little sad. She’d almost married the man, would have if he had shown up that day. Gerald didn’t know it but he’d saved them both from a horrible mistake, she thought as she got up from the mattress. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light enough that she wasn’t afraid to move around. She started on the wall next to the mattress on the floor and, moving like a blind woman, felt her way around the room.

She wasn’t sure exactly what she hoped to find. Another door other than the one she’d heard the man lock behind him? A window? Anything that would give her a chance of escaping?

The room was larger than she’d thought, cleared of any furniture. The knotty-pine walls made her think it was someone’s cabin that was seldom used and that she was in the old, musty basement.

Lily tried to picture where it might be, but she had no idea how long the men had driven to get her here. Nor did she know what time of day it was. Or even what day since she didn’t know how long she’d been out. She still felt groggy as she slid her fingers along the wall and took tentative steps.

She no longer wore a watch. She depended on her cell phone for the time. Her phone was in her purse, wherever that was now.

“Ouch.” Her fingers connected with a wooden frame. A door frame? No, she realized as she felt around it. A window. She felt cloth and jerked. Dark fabric tore away from a basement window, bringing with it a choking amount of dust. She’d been right. This basement hadn’t been used for some time.

With the window uncovered, Lily had hoped for more light. But unfortunately the snow had covered the dirty glass. Still, it was a little brighter inside the room without the dark curtain.

One look at the size of the window and she saw that it wasn’t an avenue of escape. She was slim, but not slim enough to get out the window even if snow hadn’t been banked up against it.

Taking advantage of the dim light, she quickly moved around the rest of the room, discovering another window and tearing off the cloth that had been tacked up over it. Less snow was banked against this one so it let in a little more light.

She could see the entire room. Definitely a basement. Musty and old and unused. Whose? Did the men who’d brought her here even know? It could be some cabin that no one used anymore.

When she reached the door, she tried the knob but of course found it locked. As she moved back to the bed, she felt her fear increase. She couldn’t see how she could possibly escape this room unless she could outsmart her captors.

She had just sat down on the mattress to consider how she might do that when she remembered the sound of the man unlocking the door. No dead bolt. He’d used a key and it had made an odd sound. She stared at the door. It was very old, the wood a dark patina, so old it had a skeleton key.

Quickly she moved to the door and bent down to peer into the keyhole. There were two things about skeleton keys that gave her hope. One was that they fit in a rather loose-locking mechanism. Two was that they were often left in the other side of the door.

She could see the end of the key and the light around where it didn’t quite fill the keyhole. At the sound of heavy footfalls, she scrambled toward the bed, stumbling over something. Her purse?

Grabbing it, she quickly searched for her cell phone. Gone, of course.

Hearing someone approaching, she sat down on the mattress and tucked the purse behind her to wait, her mind alive with an idea.

* * *

A
T
THE
MARSHAL

S
office, Hud copied the thumb drive onto his computer, then made a copy for Tag. “I’m going to have to keep the original.”

Tag insisted on checking to make sure it had copied the information before he agreed. Then Hud told him to wait just outside his door while he made a couple of calls.

He’d started to protest, but the marshal cut him off. “Don’t make me lock you up, okay? I’m going to try to reach your father. If you get the call, don’t answer it until you let me know.”

Tag nodded. He had little choice since all he could do was wait for Lily’s abductors to call. Looking for her would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. There were too many places they could have taken her.

All he could think about was that two women had been killed and the killers had Lily. He could feel the clock ticking. He clutched the thumb drive in his pocket and prayed that they wouldn’t find out that Lily had decoded what was on it.

He was too nervous to sit still. Getting up, he walked down the short hall until he was just outside the marshal’s office. He could see Hud on the phone, his back to him. The door was partially open and as he moved toward it, he heard what Hud was saying.

Tag stopped, frozen in place as he listened.

“Ray Emery, huh? Okay, give me the directions to his ex’s house.” He repeated them as he wrote them down.

Tag recalled the name Ray Emery had been on the murder list as one of the former inmates. Ray apparently had an ex-wife who lived just outside Big Sky.

Whoever was on the other end of the line must have given him an order because Hud said, “I don’t like locking him up, even for his own good...I know. I can’t do anything until he gets the call...Don’t worry, I won’t let him play hero, but I’m doing it my way now...Yeah? So arrest me. This is your mess, Harlan. Your name is on that list next, and mine’s after that...Yeah, I’ll do that.”

Tag had heard enough. His father wanted Hud to lock him up in jail. Once the call came in...

When the marshal hung up, he quickly placed another call. This one to the Bozeman office requesting assistance. He would need two deputies to escort someone to the airport and make sure he made the flight.

Tag didn’t have to guess who that would be. He eased down the hall and let himself out the back door. Fortunately someone from the funeral had seen that Harlan’s old pickup was returned to Big Sky.

Tag had seen it parked out in back of the marshal’s office when they’d driven up. The keys weren’t in the ignition or even on the floorboard. But Tag knew where his father kept a spare one. Their mother had learned the trick from Harlan, apparently while the two were married.

He opened the small lid over the gas cap and felt around, smiling as his fingers closed around the key.

Within minutes, he was driving out of Big Sky, headed for Ray Emery’s ex-wife’s house down the canyon.

* * *

W
ILMA
E
MERY
LIVED
in an old cabin off the road in an isolated area on the river. The cabin was pre–Big Sky and the resort, when a lot of people had summer places that were rustic, basic and far from pretentious. This was one of them.

The cabin backed up to the river and was hidden from the road by trees. Tag parked in a wide plowed spot nearby, got out and walked over to look at the river. The land was much higher here than the water.

There was a narrow trail that wound down to the water, one no doubt used by fishermen in the summer. Now it was snow-packed, but there were tracks where some hard-core fisherman had gone down recently and fished in an open area before the surface had frozen over again.

Tag took the trail, half sliding in the snow because the embankment was a steep wall of rock and snow. He landed feetfirst on a large snowcapped rock at the river’s edge.

He felt thankful he hadn’t ended up breaking through the ice at the edge. As he glanced to the south where the water curved away, he couldn’t see Wilma’s cabin. But he knew about where it should be. He made his way across the icy round granite boulders, headed in that direction.

As he reached a point where he guessed the cabin should be just up the steep embankment, he spotted another narrow winding path upward.

The path was full of snow, almost indistinguishable. He kept thinking of Lily, his heart quickening, his stomach dropping. He had to find her. Those words were like a mantra in his ears as he scaled the embankment, slowing toward the top. He’d gotten her into this. He had to get her out.

The cabin was completely surrounded by trees. He stopped behind one large pine, its boughs low and thick, concealing him from view of the windows he’d glimpsed on this side of the cabin.

He listened, not sure what he hoped to hear. Lily screaming? That thought sent ice down his spine. As he moved toward the cabin, he thought of Lily naked in his arms last night. The woman had gotten under his skin as no woman ever had before. He would find her. He just prayed it would be soon enough.

Why hadn’t the kidnappers called?

* * *

H
UD
HAD
BEEN
wondering if he was doing the right thing about Tag Cardwell as he came out from making the calls. “I still couldn’t reach your father...” The rest of the lie died on his lips.

Tag was gone.

Hud swore as he hurried out to the dispatcher. “What happened to my prisoner?”

Annie looked up in surprise. “Your prisoner? It wasn’t like he was handcuffed or booked...”

Hud didn’t wait for the rest. He knew Annie was right. He’d screwed up. Tag had to have known he was going to be either detained in jail or shipped out of state on some other type of security warrant.

He couldn’t worry about Tag now. He had to find Lily McCabe before he got the call that another woman had been murdered. He felt a sudden surge of that old feeling of wanting to put the bad guys away, that whole incredibly dangerous and yet amazing need to fight for good over evil, with the belief that he was born to do this.

He’d thought he’d lost it. He’d thought he’d needed to turn in his star because he wasn’t up to doing this anymore. It made him furious with himself that he’d had these months of self-doubt. He would go down fighting because in his heart this was who he was. He couldn’t escape this any more than he could escape whatever had led him down this path to begin with.

Ray Emery’s ex lived down the canyon in a cabin on the river. He was betting she knew where her ex-con husband was. Emery’s name was on the list.

Hud’s cell phone vibrated. He checked the number. Harlan. Hud hesitated only a moment before he answered the call. “I don’t know where your son is,” he said into the phone. “He’s like his old man. Stubborn and determined.”

Harlan swore.

“I’m on my way to see Ray Emery’s ex now,” Hud said.

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