Authors: Karen E. Rigley,Ann M. House
Karen E. Rigley
Ann M. House
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
KAREN E. RIGLEY
ANN M. HOUSE
Cover Design by Rae Monet, Inc.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
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Our very own, very special, cheering section:
Bob, Erica, Bonnie & Becky,
with heartfelt thanks for their unflagging support.
Deepest appreciation to all of those who had a hand in bringing this to publication. You know who you are. It would not happen without each and every one of you.
Eric George Montoya stood beside his foreman staring down at a small padded envelope Domingo had just handed to him.
Eric Montoya, Bar M Ranch, Las Nubes, NM
No return address and no postage. He frowned.
Domingo glanced at the envelope. “Such a big truck to deliver such a small package.”
“What big truck?” Eric asked, tearing open the envelope.
“A big red truck. Eighteen-wheeler. The driver, he give this to me and say it is for you.”
“Oh for . . .” Eric ground his teeth at the sight of the antique brooch that fell into his hand. Cupid, against a gold filigree key, had bow and arrow drawn and notched, ready to shoot his poison dart into an unsuspecting heart. A slight smile curved the cherub’s mouth and his sapphire eyes twinkled mischievously. Eric glared at Domingo.
“I know nothing more,” the foreman hastily assured him.
“Hmm. I think I know where to get some answers.” Turning on his heel, Eric stormed into the ranch house, deciding which Carrington cousin he should call and vent his wrath upon first.
Since his cousin Ty Carrington and Ty’s wife, Sierra, operated their Internet matchmaking service ‘CupidKey’ in Houston, Texas, he felt fairly confident he’d targeted the culprit. Grabbing the phone, he punched in Ty’s cell number.
“Hey, cuz, what’s up?” Ty answered cheerily.
,” Eric barked. “Cupid got delivered to me by an eighteen-wheeler.”
Ty laughed, turned away from his phone, and made a comment. Eric could hear Sierra’s faint laughter join in. “So it made the journey okay?” Ty asked, more than a hint of amusement in his tone.
“You can bet on it. Right here in my hot hand.” Eric gazed down at the charm. The piece always felt warm. Even as a child, he recalled feeling that warmth when he held the ‘precious family heirloom.’ “OK, what’s the story?”
“A while back, Cupid escaped. A truck driver found him, so Cupid united the trucker with his new wife, and now the charm’s back in the family. With
. Good luck, cuz.”
“Thanks a million. You’ll have this back on your desk in record time. I’m not in the market.” Eric clicked off before his cousin could say more. Thinking of the fence line he needed to check, he dropped Cupid into his pocket and headed out to saddle his horse. There’d be time to deal with the family legend later.
Coral and violet streaks of cloud slashed an azure sky, framing the fireball that was slowly sinking toward the desert horizon.
“Wow!” Mesmerized by such a spectacular sunset, Destiny Winston swerved her midnight-blue Mustang off the highway onto an unmarked rocky road. The Mustang bumped directly west, trailing a wake of dust that belied the car’s slow speed, then halted at the edge of a bluff. Grabbing her camera, she hopped out into the dry, windblown evening.
Sounds of her own crunching footsteps accompanied her to the edge of the bluff where she stared out over a magnificent desolation of purpling mountains, shadowed canyons, and winding arroyos. The scenes seemed to call to her, demanding to be photographed, and she took several shots.
“Are you lost?” inquired a deep voice from behind her.
With a startled gasp, Destiny whirled, causing her hair to wrap around her face like a scarf. She peeled the strands away from her eyes to see a cowboy sitting astride a big brown and white paint horse blocking her path to the car. He gazed down at her from eyes shadowed by a well-worn western hat. A rifle hung beside him in a scabbard.
Senses on alert, she lifted her chin as she waved a hand at the flaming horizon. “I just wanted some photos of the sunset.” Feeling more than a prickle of anxiety, she hoped it didn’t show.
The cowboy dismounted, removed his hat, and hung it on the saddlehorn. He towered above her, standing well over six feet. Studying him, she appreciated that his jeans and faded cotton shirt failed to disguise the smooth-muscled build of an athlete. His black, straight hair brushed his collar and his skin in the golden light was burnished copper. Leaving the horse’s reins loose, he moved with a panther’s grace to stand beside her. Her breath caught at his nearness, but she stared out over the vista as if she barely noticed.
“I can understand why you want a picture. I never get tired of it.”
“Oh?” Destiny glanced up at him to search his expression and see if he was mocking her. His chiseled cheekbones framed a straight, high-bridged nose and impassive face. Eyes as dark as midnight met hers. She read no mockery in his gaze.
“You’re on private property.” His voice didn’t sound unfriendly. He’d simply stated a fact. But Destiny felt flustered. He was very big. And this was such a remote place.
“I didn’t see any ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”
“You had to open a closed gate.”
“I most certainly did not.” Drawing up to her full five-foot-three-inch height, she tossed back her head and looked him straight in the eyes. “There was no gate across this road and no sign.”
He arched a dark brow. “Then someone else left it down. A wire gate with both a posted sign and a Bar-M sign should close off this road.”
“This is the Bar-M Ranch. Where’re you from?”
“Austin, Texas.” A satisfied smile tugged at her mouth at the thought of her mission. “
magazine sent me on assignment here to New Mexico.”
Again, the lifted brow. “To take pictures of sunsets?”
“Among other things.”
“Where are you headed?”
“To my motel and a hot bath.” She lifted her heavy hair off her neck and let the cool evening breeze fan her. “It takes over twelve solid hours of driving to get here from Austin. I’m bushed.”
“You should get to the highway. Backtrack the way you came. It’ll be dark soon, and this road can be difficult to follow in darkness.”
Certain she didn’t want to be stuck out in strange territory at night, Destiny nodded. “Yes, of course.” She couldn’t resist adding, “Really, there was no gate.” They strolled to her car and he opened the driver’s side door for her. Sliding in, she laid the camera on the seat and gazed up at him. “Thanks.”
“Drive slowly. I’ll ride out behind you.” He shut the door and she ran the window down. “I need to put that gate up before my cows are scattered all over kingdom come,” he added.
“Yes. Well.” Destiny blinked, feeling awkward. “Perhaps I’ll see you again.”
The corner of his thin, well-shaped mouth lifted in a slight smile. “Perhaps.”
He mounted his horse with that animal grace, capturing Destiny’s gaze. Forcing herself to avert her eyes before he noticed her gawking, she gave the western horizon one last look. Deep, clear orange rimmed the distant, inky black mountains. Shifting the Mustang into ‘drive,’ she headed back the way she entered. The headlights sliced through thickening darkness and illuminated the open gate as she turned onto the highway. The tall, bronze cowboy had spoken the truth. She glanced into the rearview mirror as she drove away and saw him just approaching the gate behind her.
The narrow blacktop undulated between barely visible hills and mountains that appeared to be constructed of great tumbles of rocks, rimmed with even higher mountains in the near-distance. A jackrabbit scrambled safely across the highway as Destiny braked to allow its passage. She sighed in relief. Maybe that jackrabbit had braved the highway to join a mate. She hoped so. Nightfall in this high country wove a veil of loneliness. Because she was a stranger? Or did the cowboy feel it? She suddenly realized she hadn’t gotten his name, unusual for her.
To a photojournalist, automatically obtaining names became second nature. Her professionalism nudged her. She hadn’t even asked to photograph him. Yes, she’d studied that big lean body and chiseled bronze face, then allowed a fantastic subject escape her camera. Well, she’d find out his identity and rectify that oversight. Next time she encountered him, she vowed not to be all aquiver like a silly high school kid.
By the time she reached her motel in the tiny town of Las Nubes, the west flamed with glowing embers, defying the high desert night. As she stepped out of the car, she realized the temperature had dropped and the air had turned chilly. Greeted by a tobacco-chewing office manager, she checked in quickly and found her room. Once inside, Destiny plopped her things onto one of the double beds. The bright comfortable room smelled faintly of disinfectant.
Knowing her folks would worry about their ‘baby girl’ traveling all that way, she took out her cell to check in with them, then frowned at the single bar showing. Half bar. Bar, back to half. Impatiently, she stepped out the door and aimed the phone this way and that before achieving maybe a bar and a half. It’d have to do, since she hadn’t noticed a room phone. Oh, well, her editor had warned her Las Nubes was rather remote. Miles ago her GPS had gone nuts, trying to locate the area.
“Ah, it’s ringing,” she murmured, both pleased and halfway surprised.
Then her mother’s voice, “Hi, dearest. I take it you arrived?”
“Finally. It’s really a looooong drive! I’m beat . . . Hello? Are you still there?”
“ . . . barely hear you, Destiny. Are you walking around? You’re breaking up.”
“Okay, I’ll try and be still. I had to come outside the room to get any signal at all. So don’t get worried if I don’t call frequently . . . Hello? Mom?”
“. . . promise not to worry too much if I don’t hear . . .”
“Thanks, Mom. Give Dad my love, and I’d better hang up before the phone does it for me.” She clicked off and stepped back inside.
Digging out her foaming bath oil, she headed for the tub. As she relaxed in the steaming jasmine-scented water, she pondered her assignment.
At twenty-eight, she had worked as a photographer and journalist for several years. Though not a child of plenty, her middle-class parents had provided decently for her and her older sister until they grew up and left home. This year, her dad had retired. Her mom had always stayed home, keeping house and raising the children. Now they occupied themselves with long-neglected hobbies, some postponed travel, and with the grandchildren Dawn and her husband produced. They were waiting impatiently for Destiny to marry and provide more.
They might wait forever
. Not part of her life plan. While other girls dreamed of weddings, she dreamed of photography. From the day she received her first simple camera from her parents as a gift for her twelfth birthday, Destiny immediately fell in love with it. After her college graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in business, she landed a job with a large Austin firm. Not her planned career, but it paid the bills, financed photography and journalism courses, plus kept her in photography equipment. During that busy time, she worked freelance for local publications, attended classes at night, and held down her job during the day.
Reaching the point where she could support herself freelancing, she joyfully quit her administrative job to sell feature-photo stories regularly to local and regional publications. Based on those credits, she’d landed this assignment from
Destiny smiled, envisioning her article and professional byline. She looked forward to reporting the discovery of an old Army trading post and Native American camp. A new adventure. A new chapter in her life.
Tomorrow she’d take possession of a cabin she had rented weekly. The cabin, cheaper and more private than a motel, included a small kitchenette, allowing her to cook and save the cost of constantly eating out. Not that she imagined the area offered many places to dine. Besides, she could download and edit her photos there more conveniently. Yes, a cabin trumped a motel room.
Eric followed her car from enough distance to allow the dust to settle. By the time he reached the open wire gate and dismounted to close it, the blue Mustang had disappeared. But the vision of the driver lingered: a golden cloud of shining hair, aquamarine eyes rimmed in sooty lashes, peachy face of an angel.
She’d mentioned something about an article for a magazine. He’d been so waylaid by her beauty, he could hardly remember any semblance of a conversation. Her name? She hadn’t said. But Las Nubes was a small town. Likely they’d cross paths again.
Without thought, he smoothed his shirt pocket where Cupid rested, barely noticing the charm’s ever-present warmth. Yep, they’d likely cross paths again. He’d see to it.
Morning dawned clear and pale, promising the sun long before it actually appeared above the mountaintops. Destiny rubbed her arms, amazed at the chill of the morning air. It’d already be hot in Austin. She reloaded her Mustang, returned her room key, and drove west on a farm-to-market road where she spotted the cluster of rental cabins, each set apart from one another in an arrangement featuring privacy.
“Howdy, ma’am. You Winston?” asked a leathery, wiry, bewhiskered man, leaning out the doorway of the front cabin, which boasted a crooked wooden sign declaring
. Despite his scruffy clothes, he acted pleasant and business-like. It took her less than two minutes to check-in and get a key. Obviously, he had watched her arrive. They probably weren’t overrun by guests.
Cabin Number Two, Destiny’s cabin, was made of sun-bleached cedar, like the others. Sparse, but clean, she could see why the cabins weren’t in high demand. Very basic and not exactly a luxury tourist trap. But then, the motel last night wasn’t five-star, either. Settling in at rocket speed, she grabbed her map, already aware this mountainous area rendered her GPS useless.
Time to report to the site. But first, a quick call to her editor. She didn’t have much more luck with a cell signal than she had at the motel, but got through.
“Good morning, Ed. I’m here,” she sang.
“Hey . . . good that’s . . . middle of nowhere.”
Changing position, she picked up enough to increase the signal adequately. “Cell service is sketchy to say the least,” she informed him. “I haven’t even tried to pick up Wi-Fi. You should have seen where my GPS tried to send me.” She laughed.