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Authors: Arthur Mitchell

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BOOK: DarkPrairieFire
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Pa never went mobile. I held the fat phone awkwardly against my shoulder, too used to the slim mobile types.

“Miss Nichols? Sergeant Smith here. Do you have a minute to talk?”

My hands tensed at my sides.
Great,
I thought, readying myself for more bullshit from the authorities, who'd been incredibly unhelpful throughout the whole thing.

I mumbled a quick reply and braced myself.

“Listen, we've followed all the leads, and we've got nothing. Most of the organized drug gangs around here are transient.”

“Transient?” I repeated the word, unsure why it filled me with such anxiety when it should've been a small relief to know they weren't here permanently.

“Yeah. There aren't any known operations based around here. At this time, we've got no reason to believe that your father was intentionally targeted.”

“Okay. What then, Sergeant, do you believe happened?”

“Well, the DEA guys think the whole thing looks like a freak accident. Wrong time, wrong place for Mister Nichols, I'm sorry to say.”

“Sure. It's just like my Pa to lay down and get run over by his killers.” I clenched my eyes shut, trying to bottle my rage, but unable to hold the poison sarcasm in any longer.

“No, no, Miss Nichols.” Smith's tone hardened. “Everybody agrees that he was dragged over to the road and forced into the dirt while they – uh, did the deed.”

I agreed, too irritated for words.

“What we're thinking is, they weren't just out to get him. They must've been on the property, and your father had the bad luck of catching them in the act – a very illegal act. These gangs don't leave any witnesses, you see, and for good reason. I'm sure Mister Nichols would've done the right thing and turned them in.”

“Yeah. He was a good man.”

“The DEA and FBI may have another look at the case when they can get around to it. But, I'm sorry,Miss Nichols...there just isn't anything strange to pursue. We're a small department, and we don't have the resources to keep this going ourselves. I hope you understand.”

Without waiting for me to hang up, the line went dead.

I slammed the receiver into its shell. My breath came hot and heavy, filled with a quiet rage like heat lightning flickering across a humid sky.

“Fucking idiots. You deserve better than this, Pa...”

More than that. I deserve to know what happened to you.

That night, I lay on my plush mattress, an odd contrast with the rickety bed frame beneath me. The squealing springs penetrated my dreams each time I tossed and turned in my sleep.

Ever since I'd taken over the ranch, my nightly visions were unsettled, to put it mildly.

Hellish. Terrifying. And sometimes, filled with a lust that frightened me, desires that shimmered as the only light in the grim darkness.

I dreamed about Ethan slipping into my room, stripped of everything but his tall hat. He sat on the edge of the bed, aggressively wrapping his hands around to touch my spine and pulling me onto his lap.

First, he covered my neck with hot kisses, slowly nibbling his way to my cleavage. But I lightly tapped his cheeks, until he met my fevered eyes.

“Don't take me lightly, baby. I want to be
fucked
good and hard. I want to be fucked by your beautiful body until I forget everything...you can save me from those thoughts, can't you? Only you.”

In my dreams, he obliged. Pinning my wrists onto the mattress, he hurled himself between my legs, parting my thighs with brute movements.

My inner fire went from balmy to scorching hot when he hiked up my gown and slipped into me. My insides stretched around his imaginary hardness, rocketing sharp satisfaction into my brain.

I couldn't ignore my animal side, my ballooning lusts. I whipped my face up to his hard, bare chest, worshiping his rocky muscles with my tongue.

He fucked me just as I demanded – like a huge hammer falling on an anvil. And, best of all, he didn't stop.

Not until I'd been crushed beneath his bulk, crammed to my very depths with his glorious fullness.

We came together, screaming with the bed springs. Ethan's tanned face contorted, and mine soon followed with its own burst of ecstasy.

His masculine groans growled like river rapids, drowning out everything, overwhelming me.

Then my rebellious mind shifted, changing everything.

I wandered along the side of a dark road, following a familiar dirt path flanked by stray weeds.

A short, but strong figure twitched on the ground. I looked up, following the direction of his dim terror – just in time to see a huge SUV rolling toward him.

I screamed with my Pa as the vehicle barreled forward, one front tire aimed menacingly at his neck.

Mercifully, I didn't hear the final sound that choked off his screams forever.

I lurched up in bed, bathed in baby blue twilight seeping in through the brittle blinds. Wiping my brow, I let my feet fall to the cold wooden floor.

It was too close to sunup to bother trying to get back to sleep.

A cool shower helped awaken me, banishing the frightful dreams for good. I craned my head up toward the refreshing ice bullets, ignoring the hot wetness still blazing between my legs.

II: Blood Money

“Yes, yes. Just make sure the guys get their checks. I'll make a decision about keeping the same payroll system next week.”

I hung up on the accounting firm with an angry tap of my finger. With a dozen things going on, there wasn't any time to use the landline and allow it to keep me chained in the kitchen.

I'd resorted to using my own phone to manage all the calls as I hauled tail around Nichols Ranch, probably depleting my precious monthly minutes in the process.

I'd stopped to catch my breath near the old fence. Had it really been three days since I'd taken over running the place full time?

It felt like three weeks. Long enough to make me regret my degree in meteorology.

I wished I'd gotten something more practical instead, like courses in business or agriculture. The glamor had worn off before I'd even completed my program. If I had another year to go, I don't think I could've finished my degree.

Truthfully, I did it for him. Sure, I started out as a bright eyed student, ready to tackle the world and become an expert on my field.

By the end, I did it for Pa. He'd always talked about how amazing it would be if I were the first in the family to get a degree.

Given recent events, I was glad I didn't take that away from him.

In the distance, my eyes caught the sun's blinding reflection shining off his roadside cross.

My heart swelled with sadness, but only for a second. My phone blipped, announcing a new text message.

I recognized Jimmy's simple text-speak right away. Exhaling sharply, I made my way behind the barn where he needed me, passing a couple younger guys who'd taken a break from the cattle pen.

“Hey! Miss Nichols...”

“Dean, right?” I stopped and squinted, noticing that the gangly man's posture seemed like he wanted to give me more than a friendly hello.

“Yeah.” He paused, smiling awkwardly. “Sure hate to tell you this, but one of the big bulls got out this morning while we were moving 'em for inventory.”

I cleared my throat loudly. He threw his hands up defensively while his partner gave me a crooked smile.

“We've got three guys after him. Should be able to hunt him down before he strays too far. I'm real sorry about all this. Just wanted to let you know.”

“Thank you,” I snapped, swinging my knees into motion, unwilling to hold up my trip to the barn with any venting.

Christ. What else can go wrong today?

I knew I wasn't in for good news from the minute I set foot in the barn. Jimmy leaned against the rim of an old cement trough, his rumpled cap balled up in one fist at his side.

“Spill it, man. What's going on now?” I asked. Maybe if I got it over with fast, it wouldn't be so bad...

I wanted my bad news to come in a single blow like a bullet. Not in spades.

“Nothing good, I'm afraid. Combine had a blowout this morning when we fired it up. We think it might be the cylinder head. Either way, we're gonna have to get a mechanic out here pronto, or else the wheat harvest isn't gonna get done this year.”

“At least it's still early,” I said, more for my benefit than his. “What about the cost?”

“Hell, lady, the labor alone's gonna be a small fortune. This ain't like fixing up a Ford pickup.” He lifted his arm, running his fingers roughly through his short beard.

“Now, the parts...that's where we can save some dough. Your Pa picked up a nice catch of machine parts a few years back, when old man McClatchy got out of the repair business and had a big sale.”

I tapped my foot impatiently. It sounded like good news, but I sensed him holding something back.

“Go on.”

“Well, they're up in the loft in this building. Trouble is, it's going to take some real work digging them out. Here...just follow me. You'll see what I mean.”

Sighing, I followed him into the barn. Jimmy ducked ahead of me.

I watched his feet disappear up the steep ladder leading to the barn's upper floor. I couldn't remember the last time I'd gone up there – certainly not since I was a little girl.

I hadn't gotten the time to explore it since I arrived. Sticking my head up near his made for a tight fit.

When he turned on the small LED flashlight he was holding, I almost lost my balance, unnerved by his mad grin. I slapped him playfully on the shoulder.

“You ought to know better! Now, what did you want to show me?”

“Just trying to lighten the mood. Take a good look around, Cat.” The bright light wagged through the darkness, revealing a pathway so small it reminded me a library with its shelves positioned much too close together.

I gasped. Crates, boxes, and uneven objects draped with silky coverings were piled as high as the eye could see.

“Yeah. I thought as much,” he whispered, switching the flashlight off.

He let me descend first, and it was just as well. I needed some air after seeing the mess. Badly.

“Are you sure they're up there?” I asked. He hadn't let me down before, and I'd never heard a single complaint from my Pa in all of Jimmy's years as a ranch manager.

But this...I had to be sure.

“Sure enough. If he'd sold off those spares, I would've known about it.” He watched me cover my forehead with my sweaty palm. “Only trouble is, like you've already figured, someone's got to go up there and dig that stuff out.”

Yeah, someone. We both know that someone is me. I don't know what's up there, but I do know it's
more than old tools and junk.

Pa hid the valuables in all that junk somewhere. As much as I trust these guys, I can't have any old
employee up there digging into it. At least, not without my supervision.

“I'll go,” I said at last. “Any chance one of those younger guys can come up with me?”

Jimmy's face tightened, and he looked at his phone. He'd just read a new message.

“Don't think it would be good to pull them away right now. Damned bull's gone halfway into Hartz property. Now, we'll have get Ethan's guys involved to get that bastard back here.”

Excitement prickled its way through me when I heard the name. I nodded coolly to him.

The last thing I needed was to betray my feelings about our neighbor to Jimmy.

“Maybe I'll pay him a visit myself. The sooner we get that bull home again, the quicker I can get up there and start looking for the parts this evening.”

He shifted anxiously. “If only it were that easy. See, the missing bull isn't the only thing going down.

I need those guys to help me fix the well pump. The regulator sending water into the troughs had some trouble this morning too. Guess it's our lucky day to have everything fall apart.”

Fists formed at my sides. I turned away from him, staring up at the high sun instead. I wanted to explode.

“Okay. Okay, okay, okay,” I muttered. “You worry about the pump. I'll go talk to Ethan and make sure everything is cool. Who knows, maybe he can help me sort through all that crap up there...”

I climbed in my small Malibu and sped off toward Hartz Ranch. The drive took my mind off the recent troubles, if only for a brief time.

Behind swaying wheat stalks and lazy cattle in the fields, the Dakota plains stretched out across the country. Flat, comforting, and free.

I hadn't realized how badly I missed them during my time in the city. I looked up into my mirror, surprised to find my narrow eyes smiling back at me.

You're free out here, girl. This is your chance to start a new life from these ashes, and who knows,
maybe snag a hot cowboy in the process.

Ethan's country house loomed tall, far more modern than the one I inherited. I parked next to it and stopped after getting out, staring up at the high reaching roof tiles broken by narrow skylights.

Least he's used to living in high places. Hm, I wonder if asking for his help isn't so stupid after all.

I looked around his land, impatient and searching for someone, preferably the man himself. Several workers shuffled near what looked like a big garage, too distant to answer my questions.

As if on cue, Ethan's large truck appeared along the white picket fence he'd thrown up near his backyard. I waved, smiling to him as he approached and settled his vehicle next to mine.

“Cat Nichols! I think I already know why you're here,” he said. I grasped his big hand, slowly filling my lungs with air as his fingers tightened around mine, and then darted away.

“Yeah, er – the bull situation. I'm guessing you know all about it?”

“Damned straight. Couple of my guys cornered him just a few minutes ago. They're helping load him into the trailer your men brought over as we speak.” He smiled strong and casually.

My heart dipped into a puddle. It was the kind of smile that felt like it would wash away all my worries with a magic quirk of the lips.

“Good. I'm happy to hear it.” My voice wavered. I hoped I didn't sound
too
grateful.

“You bet. I'm sure the last thing you need are any more worries. I heard all about how the police dropped the ball.” He kicked the ground with one boot, sending a rock bouncing several feet away.

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