Read CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH Online

Authors: B.J. DANIELS

Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE

CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH (7 page)

BOOK: CHRISTMAS AT THE CARDWELL RANCH
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His heart began to beat a little faster as he threw the SUV into Drive. Lily had the computer flash drive. If there was even a chance she was in danger... He drove by his father’s cabin and got a pistol from Harlan’s gun cabinet. He told himself he was just being paranoid.

As he headed toward Big Sky, he drove as fast as he could. He couldn’t help being worried about Lily up in the mountains all by herself. He tried to assure himself that she was safe. No one knew she had the thumb drive.

His mind kept going back to last night in the bar and Mia, though. He remembered the way she’d clutched his jacket. She
could
have put the thumb drive in his pocket. Now she was dead. His father was in the hospital. And the killers were looking for something. It was too much of a coincidence that he’d found the thumb drive in his pocket. And now Lily thought she’d discovered the information on the computer USB was two lists of names in some kind of code?

Ahead, the road to the summit was a series of switchbacks that climbed from the river bottom to nearly the top of twelve-thousand-foot Lone Mountain. The snow fell harder the higher he drove. He had to slow down because of the limited visibility.

His mind was still whirling as he passed Big Sky Resort and left behind any signs of life. Up here, there was nothing but snowy darkness. He still couldn’t get his mind around what was happening. His father was involved in whatever was going on, and so was the marshal, and he was betting his uncle Angus was, as well.

Harlan had said it was a bad time for a visit. No kidding. He was determined that Tag return to Texas. Hell, Harlan had almost threatened him, insinuating that if he stayed, it could be dangerous. Would be dangerous.

Heart racing, he reached into his pocket for his cell phone to call Lily. He had to make sure she was all right and to let her know he was almost to her house.

But as he started to place the call, he glanced in his rearview mirror, feeling a little paranoid.
You’re not paranoid if someone is really after you,
he thought as he noticed a set of headlights behind him.

He watched them growing closer. The driver behind him was going too fast for the conditions and gaining on him too quickly. Tag looked around for a place to pull over, but there was only a solid snowplowed wall on one side of the road and a drop-off on the other.

Giving the SUV more gas, he sped up as he came out of a curve. Ahead was another curve. He could feel the glare of the headlights on his back, glancing off the rearview mirror and his side mirrors. The vehicle was almost directly behind him.

Tag told himself that the driver must be drunk or not paying attention or blinded by the falling snow. Unless the person behind the wheel was hoping to make him crash.

He tried to shake off even the thought. He wasn’t that far from the road up to Lily’s house. Suddenly the headlights behind him went out.

Glancing in his mirror again, he was shocked to find the vehicle gone. Had the driver run off the road? Or had he turned off? There had been a turnoff back there....

Ahead, Tag saw the sign. As he turned, he looked back down the main road. No sign of the other vehicle. Breathing a sigh of relief, he drove on up the narrow, snowy road. Wind whipped snow all around the SUV. He had his windshield wipers on high and they still couldn’t keep up with the snow.

The road narrowed and rose. He knew he had to be getting close. He thought he caught the golden glow of lights in a house just up the mountain. His fear for Lily amplified at the thought of her alone in such an isolated place.

A dark-colored vehicle came out of the snowstorm on a road to his right. He swerved to miss it and felt the wheels drop over the side of the mountain, the SUV rolling onto its side. His head slammed into the side window. He felt blood run into his eye as the SUV rolled once more before crashing into a tree.

Chapter Seven

The snowstorm blew in with a fury. Inside the house, Lily could hear the flakes hitting the window. It sounded like the glass was being sandblasted.

She shivered and checked her watch as she went to put more logs on the fire. Tag said he would come as soon as he could. She told herself he’d probably been held up by the storm. She just hoped he would be able to get up the road.

Her house sat by itself on the side of the mountain, far from any others. The road often blew in with snow before the plows made their rounds. Since she didn’t usually go to work at her brother’s bar until the afternoon, it hadn’t ever been a problem.

But tonight, she was anxious to show Tag what she’d come up with so far and she worried since there had already been some good-size drifts across the road when she’d looked out earlier.

She’d worked trying to decode the random letters until her head ached. What if she was wrong? What if this was nothing? But she was convinced that there were two lists of names. She’d gotten at least a start on the code, making her more assured that she was on the right track.

A loud noise from outside made her jump. She stopped stoking the fire to listen for a moment and heard it again. Her pulse spiked before she could determine the sound.

She couldn’t help being jumpy. Wasn’t it enough that a woman she worked with had been murdered last night and another one was missing? But Lily didn’t kid herself. Her nerves were more because of Tag and the thought of the two of them alone in her house.

Another noise, this one a loud thud. She peered out at the porch swing an instant before the wind blew it back into the side of the house again with a loud thump. The shadows had deepened on the porch, running a dark gray before turning black under the pines. The porch light illuminated only a small golden disk of light against the falling snow.

Hugging herself, she assured herself that there was nothing to be afraid of up here. She’d always felt safe. The porch swing thumped against the side of the house, followed by a loud thud closer to her front door. Probably that potted pine she had by the door. She started to turn back to her work when something caught her eye. Fresh footprints in the snow on the steps up to the porch.

A gust of wind blew snow against the glass. For a moment, it stuck, obstructing her view. Tag? Could he have come to the door and she hadn’t heard him?

The knock at the door made her jump. She chastised herself as she hurried to the front door, thankful she’d been right and thankful, too, for Tag’s company. Even for a short period of time tonight, she would be glad to have him around. Mia’s murder must have her more shaken than she’d let herself admit.

As she turned the knob, the wind caught the door and wrenched it from her hand. It blew back on a gale, banging against the wall.

Blinded by the cold bite of the snow and wind, she blinked. Then blinked again in astonishment.

“Gerald?”

* * *

L
ILY
HADN

T
SEEN
Gerald since the day before their wedding that had never happened because he hadn’t shown up.

She stared at him now. Nothing could have surprised her more than to find him standing there, caked in snow and huddled into himself to block the wind.

“Would you mind if I came in?” he asked pointedly. “It’s freezing out here.”

She nodded, still too stunned to speak, and stepped back to let him enter, closing the door swiftly after him.

He brushed snow from his blond hair and slipped out of his wool dress coat, holding it at arm’s length to keep the snow off him. He wore dark trousers, dress shoes and a white shirt, including a tie. The knot was a little crooked, which surprised her. Gerald valued preciseness in all things.

As he looked up at her, his blue eyes seemed to soften. She was struck by the memory of the two of them. Just last summer they’d been planning a life together. She remembered the smell of his aftershave, the feel of his fingers on her skin, the taste of his mouth when he kissed her. Like the wind outside, the force of his betrayal scattered those once pleasant memories, leaving her bereft.

She saw with a start that he was still holding his coat out as if waiting for her to take it. She finally found her voice. “Gerald, what are you doing here?”

The one thing she’d told herself she’d loved about this man was that he never wavered. Gerald exuded confidence. While she often felt swept along in his wake, she’d been happy to be part of his life even if it meant accepting that he knew best and always would.

“I had to see you,” he said. He seemed to study her for a moment before he added, “I figured you’d be here. You look...tired.”

She bristled at his words. Leave it to Gerald to speak the cold truth. He’d never been good at tempering his observations. “It’s been a rough day. One of our servers was murdered.”


Your
servers? You mean your brother’s. You
are
still at the university, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” It annoyed her that he’d never understood why she spent the past few Christmas and New Year’s holidays up here at Big Sky helping her brother. He’d always insinuated that Ace was using her and that serving cocktails was beneath her.

Gerald must have seen that he’d irritated her because he softened his tone and asked, “How
is
James?”

“Fine.” There was no reason to pretend any further that Gerald cared about her brother. He had always refused to call him anything but James, saying that Ace was something you might call a dog.

“You said you had to see me,” she reminded him.

He was still holding his coat away from him as he looked behind her into the living room. “Is there any chance we could sit down and discuss this like rational evolved human beings?” There was an edge to his words as if he’d expected her to be more gracious.

She thought how he hadn’t shown up at the wedding. The pain and hurt had dulled over the past six months, but there was still that breath-stealing reminder when she thought of her humiliation.

She’d hadn’t been heartbroken—not the way she would have been had she and Gerald shared a more passionate relationship.

“We’re cerebral,” Gerald used to say. “It’s a higher level of intimacy than simple passion. Who else could appreciate you the way I do?”

“And who else could love such a math nerd,” his sister had said, “but another math nerd?” That, too, Lily had believed was true. So what if they didn’t have a passionate relationship? They had math.

She thought of Tag and his comment,
“You
counted
them?”
He’d thought she was joking. Probably hoped she was joking.

But Gerald had embarrassed and hurt her and left her feeling as if no one would want her if he didn’t. Now, though, he was back. What did that mean?

“Yes, please sit down.” She took his coat and hung it up, feeling conflicted. She wanted to throw him out and yet she wanted, needed, to hear what he had to say.

Leaning toward throwing him out, she reminded herself that Gerald had understood her in a way no other man had and he had come all this way to talk to her. And while they hadn’t been the perfect couple in some aspects, they had a lot in common, since Gerald had been the head of the math department. That was until he took a job in California without telling her.

“Can I get you something to drink? I have a wine you might like,” she said, using the manners boarding schools had instilled in her.

He shook his head as he tested the couch with his hand, then sat down. She’d forgotten he did that. He tested things, weighing them as to how worthy they were, she’d always thought. For a long while, she’d thought that was why he hadn’t shown up at the wedding. She just hadn’t met his high level of quality.

“Please sit,” he said, looking up at her still looming over him. “You’re giving me a crick in my neck.”

She sat across from him and immediately wished she’d gotten herself a glass of wine. Also, her instant response to his command annoyed her. She almost got back up just to show him he couldn’t come into her house and start telling her what to do after what he’d done to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, stilling her in her chair.

Those were two words she’d never heard from him before. She waited for more.

“I can’t explain my actions.”

And still she waited.

“I deeply regret what I did.” Gerald had always been a man of few words as if they cost him each time he spoke and he refused to waste a single one.

A gust of wind rattled the window behind her, making her turn. All she could see was blowing snow and darkness beyond the arc of the porch light.

“Are you expecting someone?” Gerald demanded, clearly annoyed that her attention had wavered.

She thought of Tag. He apparently wasn’t coming. “No. No one.” Lily had barely gotten the words out of her mouth when there was pounding at the door. She jumped up in surprise. So did Gerald.

“I thought you weren’t expecting anyone,” he said suspiciously.

She said nothing as she hurried to the front door. As she opened it, a gust of wind and snow whipped in, but she hardly noticed.

“What happened to you?” she cried when she saw Tag standing there, his face covered in blood.

* * *

“S
OMEONE
RAN
ME
off the road,” Tag said as she ushered him into the house. “Do you still have the—” The words
thumb drive
died on his lips as he saw the man standing behind her.

“We need to get you to the hospital,” she cried.

“No,” he said, his gaze still on the man standing in Lily’s living room. “I’ll be all right.”

“Then at least let me clean up that cut over your eye. I’ll get the first-aid kit.” As she hurried past the man toward the back of the house, she said over her shoulder, “This is Gerald.” Lily disappeared into a back room, leaving Tag alone with the man.

A brittle silence fell between them until the man said, “I don’t believe I caught your name, but you’re bleeding on her floor.”

“Here,” Lily said, hurrying back into the room with the first-aid kit, a washcloth and a towel. She shot Gerald a warning look as she passed him. “His name is Tag. Tag Cardwell.”

“Tag?” The man said it and grimaced. “Charming.”

Lily seemed to ignore him. “Sit down here and let me see about that cut. Are you hurt anywhere else?”

Tag grimaced as he lowered himself into the chair she pulled out. “Just beat up and bruised. My ribs hurt, but they don’t feel broken. Everything else seems to be working since I was able to walk the rest of the way up here.” He grimaced again as the washcloth touched the cut on his temple.

“Sorry,” she said, and reached into her pocket. “Here, take two of these. The prescription is a recent one of mine from a sprained ankle I had.” She jumped up to hurry to the kitchen for a glass of water.

He took the pills and the glass of water she handed him. He tossed the pills into his mouth and downed them with the water. His gaze met hers as he handed back the empty glass. “Thanks.”

“What is this about you being run off the road?” Lily asked.

Now that he was here, Tag was questioning what exactly
had
happened. He’d been so anxious to get to Lily and make sure she was safe... “Just some driver who wasn’t used to Montana weather.” At least he hoped that was all it had been. The driver had kept going, though, hadn’t even stopped to see if he was all right. But if he really was drunk, then he wouldn’t want to be involved.

Gerald cleared his throat. “I should probably go since you’re obviously busy,” he said as he walked over to the table. His fingers ran along the top of the open laptop computer sitting there.

“Please don’t touch that,” Lily said, and got up to go to the table. She closed the computer and pulled out the thumb drive, dropping it into her sweater pocket before returning to Tag. Picking up the washcloth, she began to bathe his face.

“I can do that,” Tag said, and took the cloth from her, smiling at her tenderness. He wiped away the dried and frozen blood he could feel on his face before she took the washcloth back and dabbed at a couple of places he’d apparently missed.

“It seems I’m not the only one anxious to talk to you tonight, although I didn’t make as dramatic an entrance as your...friend,” Gerald said, plainly irritated. Tag wondered what he had interrupted.

“If you’re staying in the area, Gerald, perhaps we could talk tomorrow,” she said without looking at the man as she gently dabbed at the area around Tag’s cut before reaching for the antiseptic.

“What choice do I have if I hope to get this settled?” Gerald snapped.

“I thought it
was
settled,” she said, anger sparking just under the surface. Tag liked the heat he saw in her eyes and thought about the first night they’d met. A woman with attitude, his favorite kind, he thought as he felt the pain pills start to work.

“This is definitely not what I’d hoped for,” Gerald said with a sigh. “I will call you tomorrow if you think you can make time for me.”

“Fine.”

Tag wondered what was unsettled between them, but was smart enough not to ask. Yep, the pills were definitely working. They were strong, which was fine with him. He hurt all over and was thankful when the pain began to numb.

“I’m sorry if I interrupted something,” Tag said as the door shut behind Gerald. “It sounded as if he really wanted to talk to you tonight. I didn’t mean to run off your boyfriend.” Yep, the pills were working. He felt drunk with them. Whatever they were, they were
very
strong.

“He isn’t my boyfriend,” she said as she put a bandage on over his cut. “He’s my former fiancé.”

“You were going to marry that jackass?” The words slipped out before he could stop them. “Sorry.”

“I’m afraid you witnessed Gerald at his worst,” she said as she finished bandaging his wound.

Tag was trying to imagine Gerald at his best. “So, why didn’t you marry him?”

“There,” she said, and closed the first-aid kit. “He stood me up at the wedding.”

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