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Authors: Alex Van Tol

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BOOK: Knifepoint
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Alex Van Tol

rca s


Copyright ©
Alex Van Tol

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Van Tol, Alex
Knifepoint / written by Alex Van Tol.
(Orca soundings)

Issued also in an electronic format.
ISBN 978-1-55469-306-1
ISBN 978-1-55469-305-4

I. Title. II. Series: Orca soundings
PS8643.A63K53 2010 JC813'.6 C2010-903604-2

First published in the United States,
Library of Congress Control Number:

Jill is enduring a brutal summer job on a mountain ranch, guiding wannabe-cowboys on trail rides. On a solo ride with a handsome stranger she ends up in a fight for her life with no one to help her.

Orca Book Publishers is dedicated to preserving the environment and has printed this
book on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Cover design by Teresa Bubela
Cover photography by Getty Images

BOX 5626, Stn. B
V8R 6S4

BOX 468
Printed and bound in Canada.

13 12 11 10 • 4 3 2 1

For Barb and Jan,
who reminded me I was a writer.


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter One

Voices, sudden and loud, jolt me out of my dream. Confused, I try to sit up. But I can't. It feels like I've been tied to the bed with a million tiny threads. I force one eye open. Turn my head. The clock radio says
. The voices keep shouting. They're coming from the radio. The same radio I've woken up to for the past thirty-five days, at the same ungodly hour.

Except every morning it gets harder.

I raise my head and look at the wooden walls. A million tiny daggers shoot through my skull. Ugh. I prop myself on one elbow and hit
. The daggers turn into hammers and spread out across my body. About a thousand go to work on the soles of my feet. I swing my feet out of bed, careful not to touch them to the floor. I can't face that agony yet. Yawning, I reach for some socks. I've
to start going to bed earlier. I can't keep functioning on five hours of sleep a night. Not when my job beats the crap out of me every day.

The metal bedframe squeaks as I heave myself up. Owww, ow. I could die right about now. If a serial killer poked his head into my room and offered to stab me at this exact moment,

I'd tell him to go right ahead. I wonder if it's normal for my feet to hurt this much.

Well, yeah, maybe. When you spend fourteen hours working and then another five dancing nonstop. But it's so fun!

I glance at the clock again.
. I shove my screaming feet into my cowboy boots. I look at them. They're filthy, caked in horseshit after the July rains. I'm not supposed to wear them inside the bunkhouse, but whatever. I can't scrub the crap off either. I've tried. It's all over the bottom of my chaps too. That's a bummer. I spent a lot to have those custom made. That was back when I thought I'd be making $12.50 an hour.

Back before I found out that what James really meant was $1250
a month.

Slave labor, that's what it is. Kristi and I calculated it a few weeks ago— a couple of days before she ditched the ranch to go find a decent-paying job in the city. Turns out I make about $4.46 an hour. It's
work, too, being a wrangler: chucking hay bales, hefting saddles, dragging buckets of grain, pushing and pulling around 1500-pound animals all day long.

Thinking of the horses gets me moving. The first barn shift starts at seven, and being late sucks. If you start your morning late, you spend all day playing catch-up.

I leave the rest of the bunkhouse sleeping, closing the door softly behind me.The cold morning air stings my throat as I hobble across the grass to the main lodge. My feet are killing me.

Heavy dew darkens my boots. God, it feels like winter's coming already.

I shiver, wishing I'd dug around to find my gloves.

I push open the screen door leading to the kitchen. Steve, the morning cook, hands me a muffin on my way through.

He's nice enough but looks like he just escaped maximum-security prison.

Who knows, maybe he did. They're not particularly strict with their hiring practices around here. Steve has so many tattoos it's hard to see any un-inked flesh on his arms. I like him though. He feeds me for free. The other cooks make you punch a meal card if you want so much as a package of saltines.

“You look like shit, Jill,” he says pleasantly.

“Kiss my chaps, kitchen boy,” I snarl over my shoulder.

Steve laughs, then growls at me.

“With pleasure.”

Pit stop at the coffee machine. Then straight out to the barn. Hopefully there won't be a nine o'clock ride. If there isn't, I'll be able to come back into the restaurant and eat a proper breakfast after I get the horses saddled.

No one's at the barn when I get there.

I figured as much. Carrie and Laura downed a whole lot of beer last night.

It's not the first time they haven't shown up for their shift. And I'm certain it won't be the last either. They get away with murder, those two. Jerks. If
ever overslept and missed the start of my shift, I'd sure as hell hear about it. But they're the queen bees, so I keep my head down and my mouth shut.

Whiskey snorts in recognition when she sees me. I give her a quick brush, pitch a blanket and saddle onto her back and sling a bridle over her soft face.

Where's Kim? I'd almost be glad to see her grumpy butt marching around the corral this morning, swearing at random horses and kicking any that looked at her the wrong way. She's a total cow. But I gotta say, she gets stuff done around the barn. If she was here, she'd have dragged Carrie and Laura out of bed by their long sexy hair. She's the only one who'd dare.

Now I remember. It's Kim's day off.

Damn. No Kim, no Carrie, no Laura.

No one else on the schedule. I'll have to round up the horses on my own.

All sixty of them.

I swallow my butterflies and swing up onto Whiskey's back. I turn her head toward the night pasture.

I have no idea whether I'll be able to gather up five dozen horses and herd them in one tidy bunch toward the barn. I'm not a born-and-raised cowhand by any stretch. As far as I know, nobody has ever rounded up on their own. Lucky me. But what else can I do? I can't wait until one of the beautiful drunkards staggers in for her shift.

That could be hours. By then there'll be guests lined up along the corral fences, waiting for their trail rides.

I've got to do it.

When we get there, Whiskey and I run a quick perimeter check around the night pasture. I crack the whip and get them all moving toward the gate.

I wait until every horse is crammed up against the fence, noses, necks and bums all crowded together in a warm shifting mass. Whiskey and I wedge our way along the fence to the gate.

I hold my breath and flip the latch off the gatepost. The gate groans open, powered by a dozen hungry horses.

I crack the whip. “Hyaaaaagh!
go, boys!

Startled, the horses bolt straight out of the gate and pound along the road leading to the barn.

Right on.
Go, Jill!
I give Whiskey a kick and we lurch away, chasing the heels of the horses at the back.

“Hyaaagh!” Over and over I shout and crack the whip. The horses thunder along the road, kicking up dust in the morning sunlight. They hammer into the main corral and spread out along the fences, content to be hemmed in again.

I close the corral gate behind them and slide to the ground, surprised that my shaking knees hold me up.

“Nice work,” says an appreciative voice. I spin around. A guy I don't recognize is leaning against the fence.

He's maybe in his mid-twenties. Dark hair. Red shirt. He flashes a grin at me.

And he's gorgeous. Was he watching that whole time? I feel myself flush.


“Thanks.” I can't think of anything else to say, so I tie Whiskey to a fencepost and loosen her saddle. I jerk a halter off a peg and walk out into the corral. I slide it over Ace's head and lead him into the barn. I grab another halter.

“I'm Darren Parker. From Bar G,” he says. His voice is friendly. I know that ranch. It's just up the valley, about twenty minutes away. “You guys do adventure rides?”

I swallow. An adventure ride? Yeah, we do them. But I sure hope that's not what he's after. A trail ride is one thing.

The horses just line up and follow each other's butts through the forest for a couple of hours. But adventure rides?

Crashing through rivers, pelting down hills and racing through meadows?

I hate taking out adventure rides.

Don't get me wrong. I love running my horse fast and taking crazy chances. But I don't like being responsible for other people during a fast, risky ride. I don't have the same kind of horse background that the other wranglers have.

Nope, adventure rides aren't my thing. It's hard enough for me to hang on to my own damn horse, let alone look after someone else's.

But I don't say any of this. Maybe this guy will be able to handle himself.

Being a wrangler and all.

“Rides start at nine o'clock.” I glance at him. “You might as well go in and have breakfast while you wait.”

With that, I turn back to the work of catching horses. And I hope to hell that he can't hear my heart as it tries to pound its way through my chest.

Chapter Two

I work like a fiend. By a quarter to nine I've got ten horses fed, brushed and saddled. I stand in the middle of the barn, wiping my brow with my sleeve. It's going to be a hot day.

The horses rustle and munch their way through the hay I've forked up into their feed baskets. I'm even more tired than I was when I first woke up. My throat is dry and my stomach is rumbling. But I don't have time to eat. Not yet, anyway.

I unscrew the cap on my water bottle and take a long drink. I cast a quick glance toward the bunkhouse, hoping that Carrie and Laura are on their way over. Please, please let someone show up before this adventure ride goes out. As cute as Mr. Bar G is, I still don't feel like racing across ridgetops with him.

God, I feel like such a chicken sometimes. I hate it. I wish I could be as comfortable and brave on a horse as Carrie is. She's just totally dialed in to what it means to ride. She and her horse are, like,
. Thinking and acting in tandem. I can't help but feel envious.

BOOK: Knifepoint
8.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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