Read CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH Online

Authors: B.J. DANIELS

Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE

CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH (4 page)

Lily hoped he was right. “Did you ask Mia why she left early night before last?”

“She apologized, said she’d suddenly gotten a migraine and hadn’t been able to get my attention, but since it hadn’t been that busy...”

Lily nodded. Had Mia been drinking the night before last as well as last night? If so, Lily really hadn’t seen that coming.

But what did she really know about the woman? Other servers she’d worked with often talked about their lives—in detail—while they were setting up before opening and cleaning up after closing. She’d learned more than she’d ever wanted to know about them.

Mia, though, was another story. She seldom offered anything about herself other than where she was from—Billings, Montana, the largest city in the state and a good three hours away. It wasn’t unusual for people from Billings to have condos at Big Sky. Mia’s parents owned a condo in one of the pricier developments, which made Lily suspect that the woman didn’t really need this job.

“What do you know about Mia?” Lily asked her brother now.

He shrugged. “Not much. She never had much to say, especially about herself. I could check her application, but you know there isn’t a lot on them.”

“But there would be a number to call in case of emergency, right?”

“I think that is more than a little premature,” her brother said. “Anyway, if the marshal thought that was necessary, he would have contacted me for the number, right?”

“Maybe. Unless they have some rule about not looking for a missing adult for twenty-four hours. Still, I’d like to see her job application.”

Ace got to his feet. “I’ve got to open the bar soon anyway. Come on.”

In the Canyon office, her brother pulled out Mia Duncan’s application from the file cabinet and handed it to her.

He was right. There was little on the form other than name, address, social security number, local phone number and an emergency contact number. Most of his employees were temporary hires, usually college students attending Montana State University forty miles down the highway to the north, and only stayed a few weeks at most. Big Sky had a fairly transient population that came and went by the season.

So Lily wasn’t surprised that the number Mia had put down on her application was a local number, probably her parents’ condo here at Big Sky.

“No cell phone number,” she said. “That’s odd since I’ve seen Mia using a cell phone on at least one of her breaks behind the bar.”

Lily didn’t recognize the prefix on the emergency number Mia had put down. She picked up the phone and dialed it, ignoring her brother shaking his head in disapproval. The number rang three times before a voice came on the line to say the phone had been disconnected.

“What?” Ace asked as she hung up.

“The number’s been disconnected. I’ll call the condo association.” A few moments later she hung up, now more upset and worried than before. “That condo doesn’t belong to her parents. It belongs to a retired FBI agent who recently died. The condo association didn’t even know Mia was staying there.”

At a loud knock at the bar’s front door, they both started. Lily glanced out the office window and felt her heart drop at the sight of the marshal’s pickup.

Chapter Four

As Tag pulled up in front of his father’s cabin, he saw that Harlan’s SUV was gone. He hadn’t seen much of his father since he’d arrived and wasn’t all that surprised to find the cabin empty. Harlan had been in bed this morning when Tag had left to go Christmas tree hunting. He had the feeling that his father didn’t spend much time here.

Tag felt too antsy to sit around and wait. He needed Harlan to put his mind at ease. That leather jacket the dead woman was wearing was a dead ringer for the one he’d seen on the arm of Harlan’s couch.

Fortunately, he had a pretty good idea where to find his father. If Harlan Cardwell was anything, he was predictable. At least Tag had always thought that was true. Now, thinking about the murdered woman, he wasn’t so sure.

Just as he’d suspected, though, he found his father at the Corral Bar down the canyon. Harlan was sitting on a bar stool next to his brother, Angus. A song about men, their dogs and their women was playing on the jukebox.

The sight of the two Cardwell men sitting there brought back memories of when Tag was a boy. Some men felt more at home in a bar than in their own house. Harlan Cardwell was one of them. His brother, Angus, was another.

Tag studied the two of them for a moment. It hit him that he didn’t know his father and might never get to know him. Harlan definitely hadn’t made an attempt over the years. Tag couldn’t see that changing on this visit—even if his father had nothing to do with the dead woman.

“Hey, Tag,” Uncle Angus said, spotting him just inside the doorway. He slid off his bar stool to shake Tag’s hand. “You sure grew up.”

Tag had to laugh, since he’d been twelve when he’d left the canyon, the eldest of his brothers. Now he stood six-two, broad across the shoulders and slim at the hips—much as his father had been in his early thirties.

After his mother had packed up her five boys and said goodbye to their father and the canyon for good, they’d seen Harlan occasionally for very short visits when their mother had insisted he fly down to Texas for one event in his boys’ lives or another.

“I hope you stopped by to have a drink with us,” Tag’s uncle said.

Tag glanced at the clock behind the bar, shocked it was almost noon. The two older men looked pretty chipper considering they’d closed down the Canyon Bar last night. They’d both been too handsome in their youths for their own good. Since then they’d aged surprisingly well. He could see where a younger woman might be attracted to his father.

Harlan had never remarried. Nor had his brother. Tag had thought that neither of them probably even dated. He’d always believed that both men were happiest either on a stage with guitars in their hands or on a bar stool side by side in some canyon bar.

But he could be wrong about that. He could be wrong about a lot of things.

“I’m not sure Tag drinks,” his father said to Angus, and glanced toward the front door as if expecting someone.

Angus laughed. “He’s a Cardwell. He
has
to drink,” he said, and motioned to the bartender.

“I’ll have a beer,” Tag said, standing next to his uncle. “Whatever is on tap will be fine.”

Angus slapped him on the back and laughed. “This is my nephew,” he told the bartender. “Set him up.”

Several patrons down the bar were talking about the declining elk herds and blaming the reintroduction of wolves. Tag half expected the talk at the bar would be about the young cocktail waitress’s death, but apparently Hud had been able to keep a lid on it for the time being.

Tag realized he couldn’t put this off any longer. “Could we step outside?” he asked his father. “I need to talk to you in private for a moment.”

“It’s cold outside,” Harlan said, frowning as he glanced toward the front door of the bar again. Snow had been plowed into a wall of white at the edge of the parking area. Ice crystals floated in the cold late-morning air. “If this can’t wait, we could step into the back room, I guess.”

“Fine.” Tag could tell his father was reluctant to leave the bar. He seemed to be watching the front door. Who was he expecting? The woman who’d been in his cabin yesterday?

“So, what’s up?” his father asked the moment Tag closed the door behind them.

“I need to ask you something. Who was at your cabin yesterday when I showed up unexpectedly?” Tag asked.

“I told you there wasn’t—”

“I saw her leather jacket on the couch.”

Harlan met his gaze. “My personal life isn’t—”

“A woman wearing a jacket exactly like that one was just found murdered on the Cardwell Ranch.”

Shock registered in his father’s face—but only for an instant.

That instant was long enough, though, that Tag’s stomach had time to fall. “I know you couldn’t have had anything to do with her murder—”

“Of course not,” Harlan snapped. “I don’t even know the woman.”

Tag stared at his father. “How could you know that, since I haven’t told you her name?”

“Because the woman who owns the leather jacket you saw at my cabin came by right after you left this morning. She is alive and well.”

Tag let out a relieved sigh. “Good. I just had to check before I said anything to the marshal.”

“Well, I’m glad of that.”

“I had to ask because this woman is the same one who stumbled into me last night at the Canyon—the same bar where you and Uncle Angus were playing. After seeing that leather jacket at your cabin...well, you can see why I jumped to conclusions.”

“I suppose so,” his father said, frowning. “Let’s have that beer now. We’ll be lucky if your uncle hasn’t drank them.”

“The woman worked at the Canyon Bar,” Tag said, wondering why his father hadn’t asked. Big Sky was a small community—at least off-season. Wouldn’t he have been curious as to who’d been murdered? “She was working last night while you were playing in the band. A tall blonde woman? I’m sure you must have noticed her. Her name was Mia.”

Harlan looked irritated. “I told you—”

“Right. You don’t know her.” He opened the door and followed his father back to the bar. Angus was talking to the bartender. Their beers hadn’t been touched.

The last thing Tag wanted right now was alcohol. His stomach felt queasy, but he knew he couldn’t leave without drinking at least some of it. He didn’t look at his father as he took a gulp of his beer. He couldn’t look at him. His father’s reaction had rocked him to his core. A young woman was murdered last night, her body dumped from a snowmobile on an old logging road on the Cardwell Ranch. He kept seeing his father’s first reaction—that instant when he couldn’t hide his shock and pretend disinterest.

“You two doing all right?” Angus asked, glancing first at Tag, then at Harlan. Neither of them had spoken since they’d returned to the bar. Tag saw a look pass between the brothers. Angus reached for his beer and took a long drink.

Tag picked up his, taking a couple more gulps as he watched his father and uncle out of the corner of his eye. Some kind of message had passed between them. Neither looked happy.

“I’m sorry but I need to get going,” he said, checking his watch. “I’m meeting someone.” He’d never been good at lying, but when he looked up he saw that neither his father nor his uncle was paying any attention. Nor did they try to detain him. If anything, they seemed relieved that he was leaving.

Biting down on his fear that his father had just lied to him, he reached for his wallet.

“Put that away,” his uncle said. “Your money is no good here.”

“Thanks.” He looked past Angus at his father. “I guess I’ll see you later?”

“I’m sure you will,” Harlan said.

“Dana’s having us all out Christmas Eve,” Tag said. “You’re planning to be there, aren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” his father said. He hadn’t looked toward the door even once since they’d returned from the back room.

Tag felt his chest tighten as he left the bar. Once out in his rented SUV, he debated what to do. All his instincts told him to go to the marshal. But what if he was wrong? What if his father was telling the truth? He couldn’t chance alienating his father further if he was wrong.

On a hunch, he pulled around the building out of sight and waited. Just as he suspected, his father and uncle came out of the bar not five minutes later. They said something to each other as they parted, both looking unhappy, then headed for their respective rigs before heading down the canyon toward Big Sky.

Tag let them both get ahead of him before he pulled out and followed. He doubted his father would recognize the rented SUV he was driving. It looked like a lot of other SUVs, so nondescript it didn’t stand out in the least. He stayed back anyway, just far enough he could keep them in sight.

His uncle turned off on the road to his cabin on the river, but Harlan kept going. Tag planned to follow his father all the way to Big Sky but was surprised when Harlan turned into the Cardwell Ranch instead. Tag hung back until his father’s SUV dropped over a rise; then he, too, turned into the ranch. Within sight of the old two-story farmhouse, Tag pulled over in a stand of pines.

Through the snow-laden pine boughs, he could see his father and the marshal standing outside by Hud’s patrol car. They appeared to be arguing. At one point, he saw Hud point back up into the mountains—in the direction where Tag had found the dead woman’s body. Then he saw his father pull out an envelope and hand it to the marshal. Hud looked angry and resisted taking it for a moment, but then quickly stuffed it under his jacket, looking around as if worried they had been seen.

Tag couldn’t breathe. He told himself he couldn’t have seen what he thought he had. His imagination was running wild. Had that been some kind of payoff?

A few minutes later, his father climbed back into his SUV and headed out of the ranch.

Tag hurriedly turned around and left, his mind racing. What had that been about? There was no doubt in his mind it had something to do with the dead woman his father had denied knowing.

* * *

D
ANA
STARED
AT
the Christmas tree, fighting tears.

“It’s not
that
ugly,” her sister, Stacy, said from the couch.

Last night, Dana, her husband and her two oldest children had decorated it. It hadn’t taken long, since the poor tree had very few limbs. Hud had just stared at it and sighed. Mary, five, and Hank, six, had declared it beautiful.

Never a crier except when she was pregnant and her hormones were raging, Dana burst into tears. Her sister got up, put an arm around her and walked her over to the couch to sit down next to her.

“Is it postpartum depression?” Stacy asked.

She shook her head. “It’s Hud. I’m afraid for him.”

“You knew he was a marshal when you married him,” her sister pointed out, looking confused.

“He’s talking about quitting.”

Stacy blinked in surprise. “He loves being a marshal.”


Loved.
After what happened here on the ranch last spring, he doesn’t think he has what it takes anymore.”

“That’s ridiculous.” A woman pretending to be their cousin had turned out to be a psychopathic con artist. “Camilla fooled us all.”

Dana sniffed. “Not Hilde.” Her sister handed her a tissue. Hilde had tried to warn her, but she’d thought her best friend was just being jealous and hadn’t taken her worries seriously. Not taking Hilde’s warnings seriously had almost gotten them killed.

“Hilde’s forgiven you, right?” Stacy asked as Dana wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

“Kind of. I mean, she says she has. But, Stacy, I took some stranger’s word over my best friend’s, who is also my business partner and godmother to one of my children!”

“You and Hud both need to let this go. Camilla is locked up in the women’s state prison in Billings, right? With six counts of attempted murder, she won’t get out until she’s ninety.”

“What if she pretends to be reformed and gets out on good behavior? Or worse, escapes? We’re only a few hours away.”

“You can’t really think she’s going to escape.”

“If anyone can, it’s her. Within a week, I’ll bet she was eating her meals with the warden. You know how she is.”

“Dana, you’re making her into the bogeyman. She’s just a sick woman with a lot of scars.”

Dana looked at Stacy. Her older sister had her own scars from bad marriages, worse relationships and some really horrible choices she’d made. But since she’d had her daughter, Ella, Stacy had truly changed.

“I’m so glad you’re in my life again,” Dana said to her sister, and hugged Stacy hard.

“Me, too.” Stacy frowned. “You have to let what happened go.”

Dana nodded, but she knew that was easier said than done. “I have nightmares about her. I think Hud does, too. I can’t shake the feeling that Camilla isn’t out of our lives.”

* * *

C
AMILLA
N
ORTHLAND
WAS
surprised how easy it was for her to adapt to prison. She spent her days working out in the prison weight room, and after a month of hitting it hard, figured she was in the best shape of her life.

She’d tuned in to how things went in prison right away. It reminded her of high school. That was why she picked the biggest, meanest woman she could find, went up to her and punched her in the face. She’d lost the fight since the woman was too big and strong for her.

But ultimately she’d won the war. Other prisoners gave her a wide berth. Stories began to circulate about her, some of them actually true. She’d heard whispers that everyone thought she was half-crazy.

Only half?

Like the other inmates, she already had a nickname, Spark. Camilla could only assume it was because of the arson conviction that had been tacked on to her attempted murder convictions.

She’d skipped a long trial, confessed and pleaded guilty, speeding up the process that would ultimately land her in prison anyway. It wasn’t as though any judge in his right mind was going to allow her bail. Nor did she want the publicity of a trial that she feared, once it went nationwide, would bring her other misdeeds to light.

The local papers had run stories about the fire and Dana and her babies and best friend barely escaping. Dana and Hilde had become heroes.

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