Read CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH Online

Authors: B.J. DANIELS

Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE

CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH (15 page)

“Are you all right?” he asked the moment Lily appeared at the small broken window. He could see her, but he ached to take her in his arms. It was the only way he could convince himself that she truly was all right.

She nodded, looking scared but definitely relieved to see him.

“How many people are in the house?”

She shook her head. “Someone left earlier. I’ve only seen one man, but I heard someone come a little while ago. It sounds like a woman.”

So there was just the redheaded man and Wilma.

“I think the one just got out of prison.”

He could feel the cold seeping in through the knees of his jeans as he knelt on the ground. Time was passing. The man on the phone said he would call back in ten minutes—and let him talk to Lily. He had to move quickly.

“I know how you feel about guns, but I’m afraid you’re going to need this,” he said as he pulled the Glock from behind him and handed it to her through the window. “It’s ready to go. All you have to do is pull the trigger. Aim for the largest part of the body.” He saw her cringe. “You can do this.”

She nodded, a determined look settling on her features.

He gave her a smile, then pulled off his glove and reached through the broken window to touch her face with his fingertips. She closed her eyes, leaning into his warm palm. Tears beaded her lashes when he pulled his hand away.

“I’ll be down to get you in a few minutes. If anyone else comes through the door, shoot them.”

With that, he stood. From inside the house came the loud report of a gunshot followed by a scream and another gunshot. Tag grabbed the shotgun and ran toward the front of the house.

* * *

L
ILY
LISTENED
.
She heard nothing overhead following the two gunshots and the scream. Her heart was beating like a war drum. Tag had come for her. She’d known he would. He was that kind of cowboy. Wasn’t that why she’d made love with him last night? She’d known the kind of man he was. Otherwise, she would never have—

Another gunshot and the pounding of footfalls. She held her breath as she looked toward the door, then down at the gun in her hand. Her heart was in her throat now. Was Tag all right? He’d come to save her, but what if—

She couldn’t bear to let herself even think it.

She had to get out of here. She couldn’t just stand here waiting for that door to open. Dropping the gun onto the mattress, she moved to the door, willing her trembling to stop.

When she’d heard someone at the window, she’d been just about to push the piece of paper she’d written the codes on under the door. In a perfect world, once she pushed the key through from her side, it would fall on the sheet of paper and she would pull it through. Once she had the key, she could open the door.

This wasn’t like any mathematical problem she’d ever come across. This was her life. She didn’t know why they had kept her alive. But she feared all of that had now changed. They would kill her and Tag if they got the chance.

She’d held her breath, waiting and praying that the next sound she heard was Tag’s voice on the other side of the door.

But there had been nothing.

Lily didn’t know how long she’d waited. Until she couldn’t take it any longer.

Finally she pushed the sheet of paper slowly under the door, her heart in her throat. She half expected the paper to be jerked away, the door to fly open...

But nothing happened.

Now, willing her fingers not to tremble, she used the piece of plastic fork she’d kept to carefully poke gently into the keyhole.

She felt the key move. If she pushed too hard, the key would fall out—away from the door and the paper she’d pushed under the door.

Too slowly and she chanced that someone would come downstairs—someone other than Tag.

She pushed and prayed and a moment later she heard the key fall and land with a
clink.

Her heart dropped. It sounded as if the key had missed the sheet of paper. Now it would be out of her reach.

She could barely stand even the thought as she knelt down to see where the key had gone. To her shock, she saw it lying half on, half off the paper.

Her fingers were trembling too hard for her to touch the sheet of paper and try to pull it back inside the room.

She took deep breaths. She had one chance. She stilled her trembling as she knelt farther down and at a snail’s pace, she began to pull the corner of the paper with the key hanging off it toward her.

The light caught on the key. It flashed, so close now that she could almost feel it in her hand when she opened the door.

A huge foot suddenly stomped down on the key and sheet of paper. She let out a scream before she could catch herself and fell back on her butt.

As the man put the key in the lock and threw open the door, she scuttled backward, unable to get her feet under her quickly enough to stand.

The large man loomed over her, sans his mask. The light caught on the gun in his hand as he raised it, the barrel pointed at her chest.

“You’re too smart for your own good,” the man said.

The gunshot was deafening in the basement room. Lily didn’t realize that she’d closed her eyes until she opened them to find the man still standing over her.

He had an odd expression on his face.

Lily looked down expecting to see blood, expecting to feel life leaking from her. When she saw nothing, she looked back up in time to see him falling toward her.

She rolled away at the last instant. As he fell face-first within inches of her, she saw the hole in the back of his shirt and the blood seeping out.

As a shadow filled the doorway, her gaze swung to it. The next moment she was in Tag’s arms and he was holding her. “We have to get out of here,” Tag whispered next to her ear, but he moved as if he couldn’t bear letting her go.

She nodded against his chest, then drew back to look at the man lying on the basement floor. “Is he...?”

Tag didn’t answer. He picked up the Glock from the mattress, took her hand and led her up the stairs. As they neared the top, he motioned for her to stay back.

She caught only a glimpse of a woman’s body lying on the floor near the kitchen as Tag hurriedly drew her toward the outside door. “Was that—”

“Ray Emery’s wife. The two of them were arguing. He killed her before I came in.”

They stepped out into the cold, wintery night. The sky was ebony and adorned with tiny white jewels. A moon washed over the snow, turning it to alabaster. The freezing air stole her breath. That and the sound of a vehicle roaring toward the cabin, the lights bobbing on the rough snow-packed road.

* * *

T
AG
DREW
L
ILY
toward a barn on the back of the property. As they slipped into the pitch-black, he held her to him for a moment until his eyes adjusted to the light.

Now if he could just get Lily out of here. He could hear the sound of the vehicle’s engine growing louder. Not the marshal. Not the way the rig was roaring down the road without flashing lights or a siren. No, it was probably whoever he’d spoken to earlier on the phone.

His eyes finally adjusted to the darkness. They fell on the large snowmobile at the door. He stepped away from Lily for a moment to feel if the key was in it. It was.

“When I start the snowmobile’s engine, open the barn door the rest of the way and hop on,” he told Lily as they heard two car doors slam, followed by shouts from the house moments later.

He started the snowmobile and threw it into gear, as Lily swung the door wide. He pulled her on as he hit the gas and burst out into the freezing night.

The headlight of the snowmobile bobbed as they took off, racing through the deep snow of the field. Tag headed for a stand of pines, knowing that as long as they were in the open field, they were too perfect a target.

A bullet whizzed past.

Lily wrapped her arms around his waist as they sped across the field, the snowmobile busting through drifts and sending up a cloud of fresh snow. The air filled with ice crystals as it blew past. Moonbeams played over the surface of the fresh-fallen snow. The winter night seemed to be holding its breath.

When Tag dared look back, he saw the light of another snowmobile coming after them.

Chapter Fifteen

As Hud raced toward the cabin where Tag had said Lily McCabe was being held, the urgent call came in from Harlan.

“Camilla Northland has escaped from prison.”

The words hit like a sledgehammer. He tried to breathe, to keep his heart from banging out of his chest. Ahead, he could see the turnoff into the cabin. All he managed to say was, “How long ago?”

“Four hours ago.”

“Four hours! Wasn’t there a guard outside her door?”

“She got the jump on him. Unfortunately there was a bus accident and the doctors and nurses were busy....”

Four hours would give Camilla plenty of time to get to where she was headed. For all he knew, Camilla was in Big Sky. Even on the ranch. There was no doubt in his mind that she would be coming after him and his family.

Hud fought to take a breath. Fear paralyzed him for a moment. Fear, and the memory of just how far that crazy psychopath of a woman would go to get what she wanted.

He touched his brakes at the turnoff and swung down the old river road. “How?”

“She’d gotten into an altercation with two other women. They were all taken to the hospital because of their injuries. Two of them escaped. Camilla was one of them.”

All these months when Dana had been afraid that Camilla would find a way to come after them again, he’d told her not to worry. That Camilla was never getting out of prison. That she could never get to them again.

“She’s on her way to the ranch if she isn’t already there,” he said, hoping Harlan could tell him otherwise.

Instead, the former agent said, “I just talked to Angus. He’s headed back there now. I’m on my way, but I can send a deputy—”

“Does Dana know?”

“Angus hasn’t told her yet.”

“Tell him to call and tell her. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He hung up. It took everything in him not to turn around and race toward the ranch. But Tag Cardwell and Lily McCabe were in the cabin ahead. He couldn’t let them die even to save his own family.

Ahead he saw two snowmobiles racing toward him.

* * *

C
AMILLA
MOVED
THROUGH
the dark toward the house. Her ribs hurt. She stopped and had to shift the gun stuck in her waistband. The snow was deeper than she’d thought it would be and had worn her out quickly. Either that or she was in worse shape from the fight than she thought.

In the distance she could see the lights on at the ranch house. Had Dana heard yet that her “cousin” was on the way? Had Hud?

She’d checked before she began her hike. The marshal was still involved in the showdown by the river. Subterfuge at its best.

Camilla pushed on through the fallen snow until she reached the backside of the house. When she’d stayed here last April, she’d come and gone in the middle of the night several times. She’d learned the darkest parts of the yard and the best way to enter so as not to be seen.

Nearing the house, she slowed to catch her breath. Hud’s patrol rig wasn’t parked out front. She had to believe her information was correct and Hud was still involved down the canyon.

She tried the door. Locked. She smiled, realizing she would have been disappointed if Dana had left the door open for her.

She glanced at her watch. Dana was a creature of habit. She would be upstairs putting the kids to bed right now.

It took only a few moments to pick the lock and, easing the door open, slip inside.

* * *

T
HE
WHINE
OF
the snowmobile behind them grew louder. Tag ventured a look back. He’d gotten Lily into this. He had to get her out. Another bullet zinged past, this one so close it took his breath away. The pines were ahead. Just a little farther and they would be in the trees.

He didn’t see the dip in the snow until it was too late. The snowmobile roared down into it, but the skis caught in the deep snow and then hit the ground underneath.

Tag flung the two of them to the side as the snowmobile nose-dived. He rolled. He felt Lily slam into him as they hit the ground and were instantly covered with snow.

He came up only to be blinded by the lights of the other snowmobile. The light suddenly shut off as the sound of the snowmobile motor died and a large dark figure loomed over them.

Tag pulled her closer so his body shielded hers. He could see the shotgun lying just feet away. The snowmobile, its engine still running, its lights dim, buried in the deep snow, idled just feet away.

The moonlight caught the glint of metal as the man pulled a gun from his coat. “The two of you have caused nothing but problems,” he said between gritted teeth. “All you had to do was give us the damned flash drive.” He aimed the gun at Tag’s chest. “Hand it over now or I’ll take it off your body. Which is it going to be?”

Tag dug in his pocket and pulled out the computer thumb drive. He tossed it to the man, knowing the man would miss it. The small device fell into the deep snow, making the man swear.

Behind Tag, he felt Lily loosen her hold on him, felt her take the pistol from his pocket. She raised the gun. He could feel her trembling, the hand holding the gun shaking. The killer saw it, too. She couldn’t pull the trigger.

Tag lunged for the shotgun lying next to the snowmobile in the snow. The sound of the gunshot made him flinch. He heard Lily cry out. For a moment, he thought she’d pulled the trigger. But the shot had come from farther away.

The man standing over them appeared surprised as he looked down at his chest. The gun in his hand wavered, then fell from his fingers into the deep snow. The second shot dropped the man.

Marshal Hud Savage waded toward them through the snow. Behind Tag, Lily was crying and saying, “I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I just couldn’t.”

Tag took her in his arms, assuring her that it didn’t matter, but he could tell that it did matter much more than it should have to her.

* * *

A
S
C
AMILLA
CAME
around the corner from the kitchen, Dana came face-to-face with the woman she’d thought was her cousin only months before.

“Dee—” She caught herself. “I’m sorry, it’s Camilla, isn’t it?”

“Actually I go by Spark now.” She smiled but didn’t raise the gun she clutched at her side.

“Cute,” Dana said, still surprised how much the two of them resembled each other even though they shared no blood. It had made it so easy for Camilla to pretend to be her cousin. Dana hated how vulnerable she’d been just months ago.

“What now?” Camilla asked, still smiling.

“I guess that’s up to you. I always wondered what I would do if I ever saw you again.”

“Really?” Her gaze went to the shotgun in Dana’s hands, the barrel aimed at her heart. “And now here we are. You know, we would have made great cousins. We’re so much alike.”

“We’re nothing alike,” Dana snapped.

Camilla’s smile wasn’t quite as self-assured as it had been. “Are you sure about that?” She looked past Dana. “I thought you would be putting your children to bed.” She cocked her head. “I don’t hear the patter of their little feet.”

“They aren’t here. They’re with Hilde.”

“Hilde, your good and loyal friend,” Camilla scoffed.

“You tried to destroy that friendship, but you failed.”

“I’m surprised your
good
friend would leave you, knowing what you were up to.”

“I talked her into taking the children so I could get packed to leave since you’d put a hit out on my husband.”

Camilla raised an eyebrow. “I don’t see you packing.”

“No, I’ve just been waiting for you. You wouldn’t just want Hud. You’d come after me and my children again. I decided to get it over with.”

“You were that sure I’d come here?”

Dana smiled. “I knew you couldn’t let anyone else do your dirty work. You enjoy it too much.”

“You might have more backbone than I thought.” She glanced toward the front window. “Or you’re expecting your husband to come save you.”

Dana laughed softly. “You think I’m weak, certainly no match for you, since you were able to fool me so easily, isn’t that right?”

Camilla didn’t bother to answer, the truth in her smirk. “I bet that shotgun isn’t even loaded.”

Dana laughed. “Wanna bet?”

“Have you ever killed anyone?” Camilla sighed. “It’s not easy. You’ll have to live with what you’ve done.”

Dana laughed again. “How would you know anything about living with what you’ve done? You have no conscience.”

“You’re wrong. I never wanted to do the things I’ve done. If I could do it over—”

“That won’t work with me anymore,” Dana interrupted. “I know you. I can see into the darkness where your soul should be.”

Camilla smiled and took a step toward Dana.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“You don’t have what it takes. I can see it in your eyes. I’m betting I can raise my gun and fire before you have the guts to pull that trigger.”

“That will be the bet of a dead woman.”

Camilla stopped moving. Her fingers holding the pistol at her side twitched. “I’m beginning to see what Hud sees in you. Where is he, by the way?”

“Right behind you,” Dana said.

“You expect me to fall for that? I turn around and you jump me?” Camilla shook her head. “What we have here is a standoff. I shoot you. You shoot me.”

“Except I have a shotgun which means after I shoot you, you won’t be going back to prison so you can escape again and hurt someone else. Nor will I live in fear anymore. This ends here.”

* * *

H
UD
HEARD
THE
shots as he raced toward the front door of his ranch house. He burst in, gun in hand, to find his wife on the floor in a pool of blood. A few feet away, Camilla Northland was struggling to get to her feet. Her left side was a mass of torn bloody fabric. But one look at her and he knew she would survive this—just as she had survived everything else in her life.

The marshal stepped to her quickly and smashed his boot heel into the hand holding the pistol. She didn’t even make a sound as he kicked the gun out of the way and rushed to his wife.

“Call 911,” he yelled as Tag Cardwell appeared in the open doorway. Hud had told Tag and Lily to stay in the patrol vehicle. He wasn’t surprised that Tag hadn’t.

“Dana,” Hud cried. “Dana, can you hear me?” Leaning down, he placed his head to her chest and with a groan of relief, felt it rise and fall. She was still alive.

Tag was on the phone with the 911 operator. In the distance, Hud could hear the sound of sirens. He saw the crease along his wife’s skull where the bullet had grazed her. She was losing blood fast. He quickly yanked off his jacket and shirt and pressed the shirt to her wound as a shadow fell over him.

“Look out!” Tag cried.

As Hud spun around, he instinctively picked up the shotgun lying beside his wife. Camilla loomed over him, a knife raised high. But it was the expression on her face that froze his breath in his throat. She was smiling broadly, her eyes as bright as the moonlight on the snow outside.

She drove down with the blade, aiming for his heart. He rocked back, raised the barrel and fired. As he rolled to the side at the last minute, the knife plunged past him so close he thought he’d felt the whisper of the blade, which stuck in the floor as Camilla fell on top of him. With disgust, he shoved her body aside.

Outside the ambulance’s lights flashed as it swung into the yard and two EMTs jumped and ran toward the open door.

“Dana,” Hud whispered next to her ear. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”

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