In book 1 of this steamy new contemporary Western romance series by two blockbuster authors, a cowboy and a woman on the run take a stand and fight for love.
Carlin Reed lives in fear, off the grid, moving from place to place. So Battle Ridge, Wyoming, a small town in the middle of nowhere, seems like a good place to lie low for a while. But after becoming cook and housekeeper to cattle rancher Zeke Decker, Carlin suspects that she’s made her first mistake. Rugged, sexy, and too distracting for his own good, Zeke is pure temptation mixed with something deep and primal that makes Carlin feel almost safe. Soon things are getting way too hot in the kitchen.
Zeke doesn’t challenge Carlin’s terms: cash, dead bolts, and no questions. It is easy to see that she’s a woman in trouble. Problem is, he’s so blindsided by his attraction to her he can’t think straight. Zeke tries to stay all business, no complications—but that game plan is sabotaged the second Carlin gets under his skin. And when her terrifying past follows her to the ranch, Carlin faces a heartbreaking choice: run away from the man she loves, or put him in the crosshairs of a madman.
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Linda Howard is the award-winning author of many New York Times bestsellers, including Prey, Veil of Night, and Ice. She lives in Alabama with her husband and a golden retriever.
Linda Jones is the acclaimed USA Today bestselling author of more than sixty novels, including Untouchable, 22 Nights, and Bride by Command. She lives in Huntsville, Alabama.
10 months later
Battle Ridge, Wyoming, didn’t look like much. Carlin Reed pulled her faded red Subaru into a parking space in front of an empty store and looked around. There probably wouldn’t be any jobs here, but she’d ask around anyway. She’d found work in some of the damnedest places, doing things that she’d never before have considered. Work was work, money was money, and she’d learned not to be picky. She wasn’t above doing yard work, washing dishes, or just about anything else as long as it didn’t involve prostituting herself. Her first attempt at mowing a lawn on a riding mower had been something worthy of a clip on YouTube, but she’d learned.
From what she could see, Battle Ridge had fallen on hard times. Her atlas gave the population as 2,387, but the atlas was six years old, and from what she had seen driving in, she doubted Battle Ridge supported that many residents now. She’d passed empty houses, some with “For Sale” signs that had been up so long they’d become dingy and weather-beaten, and empty stores with “For Sale or Lease” notices in the windows. Here in the West it would still be considered a fair-sized town, especially in a state the size of Wyoming with a grand total population of half a million people. Nevertheless, the reality was that half the buildings around her were standing empty, which meant she’d likely be moving on.
Not right this minute, though. Right now, she was hungry.
Not surprisingly, traffic was light. Hungry or not, Carlin sat in the dusty four-wheel-drive SUV and through her dark sunglasses carefully studied everything around her, every vehicle, every person. Caution had become second nature to her. She hated losing the unconscious freedom and spontaneity she’d once known, but looking back she could only marvel at how unaware she’d been, how vulnerable.
The level of her vulnerability might change depending on circumstances, but she was damned if she’d add in the factor of not being aware. She’d already noted that the license plates of the cars and trucks parked on each side of the street were all from Wyoming. There was little chance her movements could have been anticipated, since she hadn’t known she’d be stopping here, but she still checked.
Two buildings down on the right was a café, The Pie Hole; three pickups were parked in front even though two o’clock in the afternoon wasn’t exactly a prime mealtime. The name of the café amused her, and she wondered about the person who had come up with it, whether a quirky sense of humor or a don’t-give-a-damn attitude was behind the choice. Her amusement was momentary, though, and she returned to studying her surroundings.
Directly behind her was a hardware store, another small cluster of vehicles was parked in front of it. To the left was a general store, a Laundromat, and a feed store. A block back she’d passed a small bank, and beside it had been a post office. Down the street she could see a gas station sign. There would probably be a school, and maybe people from fifty miles around drove their kids here. Was the town big enough to support a doctor or a dentist? To her, it seemed like a good deal: a thousand or more patients, and no competition. A person could do worse.
After she’d watched for a few minutes, she settled back and watched some more, waiting for that inner sense to tell her when she’d been patient long enough. She’d learned to listen to her own instincts.
The normalcy seeped into her bones. There was nothing frightening here, nothing unusual going on. She got her baseball cap from the passenger seat, pulled it on, and grabbed her road atlas and hooded TEC jacket before getting out of the Subaru. Though it was summer, the air was cool. The TEC was very lightweight, just a couple layers of nylon, but it had so many pockets that it had actually taken her days to locate all of them. If she had to run, everything she needed was in those pockets: ID, money, a throwaway cellphone—with the battery removed and stored in yet another pouch, a pocket knife, a small LED flashlight, even a couple of ibuprofen and some protein bars. Just in case. Seemed as if these days she surrounded herself with “just in case” items and scenarios; she was aware and prepared.
She hit the lock button on the remote, and slipped the key and remote into her right front jean pocket, then headed toward the little café; her leggy stride covered the distance at a fast clip, just one more detail about her that had changed during the past year. Once, she’d never gone anywhere in a hurry; now her instinct was to move, to get from A to B, get her business accomplished, then move on. While it was true that a rolling stone gathered no moss, she wasn’t worried about getting mossy; more to the point, a moving target was harder to hit.
Still, when she reached the café door, her own reflection startled her. Baseball cap, long blond hair in a ponytail, sunglasses—when had she acquired the whole Sarah Connor–Terminator vibe? When had she become someone she barely recognized?
The answer to that was easy: the moment she’d realized Brad was trying to kill her.
She opened the door of The Pie Hole; a bell over the door sang as she walked in. Stepping to the side, she took a moment to do a fast assessment, looking for another exit—just in case—evaluating the three men currently riding the stools at the bar counter, their legs spread and boot heels hooked on the railings as if they were on horseback—again, just in case. There was no clearly marked rear door she could see from her vantage point, though there was one door with a plain “Keep Out” sign. Could be a storage closet, or an exit. She could also assume there was a back door off the kitchen, though, and maybe a window in the bathroom. Not that she’d need either, during this short stop.
The three men at the counter evaluated her right back, and she found herself tensing. She didn’t like attracting notice. The more she stayed under the radar, the less likely it was that Brad would be able to track her. It was reassuring that there was nothing remotely familiar about any of the men, and that their clothing proclaimed them local. She’d gotten good at judging what was local—wherever “local” happened to be—and what wasn’t. These men fit right in, from their creased hats down to the worn heels of their boots.
She shouldn’t have come in here. Too late she realized that any stranger would stand out in a place this small, where the locals might not all personally know one another, but they’d certainly recognize who belonged and who didn’t. She didn’t.
She thought about leaving, but that would attract even more attention. Besides, she was hungry. The best thing to do was the normal thing: sit down and order. She’d eat, pay the bill, then move on down the road.
The café itself was a smallish, pleasant-looking place, gray linoleum floor, white walls, an honest-to-God jukebox against the back wall, red booths along the street-front windows, and a smattering of small round tables in the center of the place. The counter, complete with a couple of clear pie cases and an old-fashioned cash register, ran the length of the right side of the room. A pretty brunette in a pink waitress uniform stood behind the counter, talking to the three men with the ease of long acquaintance; like the men, she’d glanced up at Carlin’s entrance, and even through her sunglasses Carlin caught the brilliant glint of strikingly pale eyes, making her alter her grade of the waitress’s looks from pretty to something more. Maybe those eyes were why the three cowboys were camping on those stools, rather than the lure of food. Good. If they were flirting with the waitress, they were less likely to pay a lot of attention to anyone else.
The last booth was positioned against a solid wall; Carlin chose that one and instinctively slid in so she was facing the doorway . . . just in case. The plastic menu was inserted between the napkin holder and the salt and pepper shakers; she removed her cap and sunglasses and grabbed the menu, more from curiosity than anything else, because all she wanted was coffee and pie. She’d get something to eat, and use the break to study her map of Wyoming, figure out exactly where this little country road went, and pick a place to stop for a while.
She’d been so sure Brad wouldn’t bother to follow her to Dallas. She’d been wrong, disastrously wrong. Now when she stopped she took extra precautions. No one got her social security number. There could be no bank account, no W-2, damn it; somehow she had to fall off the radar, something that was increasingly hard to do with everything computerized. He’d bragged about his computer skills and she’d hoped that was all it was—bragging—but evidently not. She didn’t know how he’d found her in Dallas, but he had, and she’d barely made it out alive. Jina hadn’t.
If she let herself think about what had happened her stomach would knot in panic, and she’d feel as if she were strangling on her own breath, so she’d pushed the memory away and focused on simply moving, doing what was necessary to stay alive. He’d try again, but she was damned if she’d make it easy for him. Somehow she’d figure out what to do, a way to outsmart him, set a trap—something. She couldn’t live like this forever.
But for now, she couldn’t stay in any one place too long. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough cash to just keep driving around the country on a permanent road trip, so she’d work her way around the country. Ideally, she’d find someplace to stay through the winter, which was why she’d ventured this far north. People on the run tended to head toward warmer climes, bigger cities. She’d done the opposite.
She’d told Brad once that she hated the cold, and joked about one day retiring to Florida. Maybe, if he remembered that detail, he wouldn’t think to look for her in Wyoming.
She studied the menu. The offerings were simple: eggs, burgers, and a mysterious “daily special”—along with, of course, the “pie of the day.” Today was Thursday. Maybe Thursday’s pie was apple.
“What can I get you?” The brunette in pink arrived at the booth. She didn’t carry an order pad, but with such a limited menu, there probably wasn’t much need for one.
Carlin glanced up. “Kat” was embroidered on the breast pocket of the pink uniform, and the waitress’s eyes were even more striking close up, a kind of electric gray that tended toward blue, as clear as a mountain lake.
“What’s the pie of the day?”
“We have cherry and lemon meringue.”
“I was kind of hoping for apple,” Carlin said, “but cherry will be fine. And coffee, black.”
“Coming right up.”
After Kat walked away from the table, Carlin placed her atlas on the table and opened it to Wyoming. Her finger traced the road that had led her to Battle Ridge. She followed it on beyond, to other names of other towns and other roads and miles and miles of nothing, on into Montana. In the periphery of her vision she saw Kat approaching with her order and she moved the atlas to the side to make room.
A silverware set wrapped in a napkin and a small plate bearing a huge slice of cherry pie were slid in front of her, followed by a saucer and an empty cup. Lifting the coffeepot from her tray, Kat expertly filled the cup. “Are you lost?” she asked, nodding toward the atlas.
“Where are you headed?”
That was the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“That sounds like freedom,” observed the waitress, and walked away without saying anything else.
Picking up her fork, Carlin took her first bite. The not-apple pie was amazingly good. For a minute, maybe two, she forgot all her troubles and simply indulged her taste buds. The crust was flaky and buttery, and the filling was perfectly sweetened. The coffee was good, too. She took a deep breath, and realized that it was the first time in weeks that she could honestly say she was relaxed. It wouldn’t last, but for now she’d take it.
While she was eating, a man came in for a slice of pie to go. Seemed as if she wasn’t the only one who thought the pie was outstanding. Idly she listened as he and Kat chatted, about neighbors, about the weather. Yes, beyond a doubt the waitress was as much of a pull as the pie, at least as far as the male populace was concerned.
Carlin looked out the window. Battle Ridge wasn’t much to look at, that was a fact, but it had everything a small town needed, at least as far as she was concerned: a place to eat, a Laundromat, a general store. The people who passed by The Pie Hole all glanced in and waved, even though they didn’t stop.
Pulling her jacket close, she unzipped one of the pockets to get money for her food, instinctively counting the bills. Oh, there was plenty for the pie and coffee, but not enough, not nearly enough. Living on the road was eating through her savings faster than she’d expected.
She gathered her things and walked toward the cash register with money in hand. The man who’d come in for lemon meringue left, his gaze lingering on Carlin for a moment too long. There it was again; the look was curious, not malicious—she knew the difference—but one more person had noticed her.
Kat took her money, rang up the sale, and passed back the change. Carlin laid down a dollar tip. It wasn’t much, but percentagewise it was generous, and no matter how poor she was she wasn’t going to stiff a nice person who’d earned a tip.
Carlin knew she should take her atlas and go, but she didn’t. There might be a job opportunity in town, but if she just drove away without asking, she’d never know. She slid her butt half onto a stool and asked, “How long have you worked here?”
A slow smile curled Kat’s mouth. “Seems like forever. It’s my place. I’m cook, waitress, manager, and chief bottle-washer all rolled into one.”
Out of all that, one thing registered uppermost. “You made the pie? It was great.”
“I did. Thanks.” The grin widened. “Apple tomorrow, if you’re still around.”
“Depends on whether or not anyone around here is looking for help.” Carlin figured there were two places in a town where pretty much everything would be common knowledge: the beauty salon, and the café. She’d planned to eat, fill the Subaru’s gas tank, and head on down the road, but her plans were fluid, and she’d take advantage of whatever break came her way.
For a long moment, Kat was silent, her gaze still clear but not giving anything away as she did her own assessment. “Maybe. Can you cook?”
“I can learn.” She could cook enough to get by, for herself, but she for certain wasn’t on Kat’s level. If anyone had ever asked her what her life’s ambitions were, cooking would have been way down close to the bottom of the list. Okay, it probably wouldn’t even have made the list. Her life had changed though, and she was willing to do any kind of work.
“You got anything against doing dishes and mopping floors?”
“Nope.” She wasn’t proud; she’d scrub floors on her knees, if that was what it took to earn some money.
“Ever done any waitressing?”
“A little. It’s been a while.”
“Some things never change.” Kat pursed her lips. “I can only af...
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