Cowboy Accomplice - lightnovelgate.com
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Rourke was still on his honeymoon, but she felt as if she knew him from everything she'd heard about him. Brandon was quiet around her, almost shy. Something was going on with him. He'd been sneaking out at night and meeting some woman. At least that was the family scuttleb.u.t.t. Everyone wanted to know who Brandon's secret woman was, but he wasn't talking.
She'd only seen Cash a few times. He seemed the most serious of the McCalls. Dusty had filled her in on Cash's lost love from college. Jasmine Wolfe had been on her way to Antelope Flats to meet his parents so the two could announce their engagement. But Jasmine never made it. She disappeared and was never found. Brokenhearted, Cash had stayed single all these years, pining away for her.
The McCalls were full of stories. The only McCall she hadn't seen much of was J.T. He seemed to be keeping his distance making it clear he just wanted the jeans commercial over with so the ranch could get back to normal.
Tears burned her eyes. She brushed at them, angry with herself. She'd never been a woman who cried at the drop of a hat. Until recently. She blamed the horror of what she'd been through, but knew it had more to do with her feelings for McCall. The dire situation at Way Out West Jeans. Her conflict of interests.
Through the window, she watched the film crew set up the next shot, the director signaling J.T. to ride through the scene. She hated the way the commercial romanticized his life, almost devaluing the man and his rugged, hard-earned lifestyle, which she had come to admire.
"It's just a commercial," she said to herself in the empty room. But it wasn't. This commercial would make millions of dollars for Way Out West Jeans. Hadn't that been the plan? It would launch the line, take the company national-public-and change her life.
She just hadn't figured on it changing her life this much. The contrast between her world and McCall's was so extreme...and suddenly she didn't feel like she belonged in either. She'd changed and in ways she couldn't even comprehend yet.
She looked out across the land and felt an ache for all this s.p.a.ce-and for that man down there on the horse. She didn't want to leave this ranch-or McCall.
J.T. COULDN'T BELIEVE Reggie had gone to all this trouble for a stupid television commercial. It wasn't bad enough that she'd almost gotten herself killed, she'd turned his ranch into a circus.
This commercial didn't reflect his life in the least. She could have gotten herself some L.A. model and saved herself a lot of money, time and trouble. Not to mention save him a lot of grief.
He knew why he was in such a bad mood. This was the last shoot. Then it was over. The commercial and Reggie. He wondered how long she'd stay once the commercial was shot. She was probably packing at this moment. He swore at the thought.
As he rode across the set, he told himself that this was how Reggie saw him and his lifestyle. As a fantasy western life straight out of the movies. She didn't want the reality in her commercial any more than she wanted it in her life.
He swore under his breath as he heard the director yell, "Cut! Let's try that one more time."
J.T. trotted back to the man. Anthony Grant. Reggie's friend. He seemed like a nice enough man but after fourteen "takes," J.T. had had it.
He rode up to him and leaned down so only Anthony could hear. "I think you meant to say, 'That's a wrap,"' J.T. said, meeting the man's gaze.
Anthony squirmed under J.T.'s intent stare. "Yes," he said. "I see your point. I think that last one was perfect." He raised his voice. "That's a wrap."
"Thank you." J.T. rode toward the barn. He couldn't wait to get these clothes off, couldn't wait to get these people off the ranch, couldn't wait for things to get back to normal.
Normal meant Reggie leaving, he reminded himself. He couldn't believe the way his family had taken to her. But then she could be quite adorable. The thought made him ache.
He'd done his level best to keep her at a distance. At night though, he would weaken and think about going to her, holding her, making love to her, begging her not to go.
And that is exactly why he hadn't gone to her.
She couldn't stay even if she had wanted to. It was perfectly clear how much all of this meant to her. He'd seen how responsible she felt for the crew and knew she was banking on this commercial selling a lot of jeans. And that was her life. L.A. and blue jeans. Not the Sundown Ranch and cows.
He swung off his horse and kicked at a dirt clod, angry with himself for letting the woman get to him. Well, she had what she wanted. There wouldn't be anything keeping her on the ranch now that the commercial was done. Her career meant everything to her. Everything, she'd said.
Even if she'd had a change of heart-which she hadn't or she wouldn't have let him do the commercial-she would never fit in here on the ranch. The woman couldn't cook anything but pancakes! And he had no intentions of living in the main ranch house with a hired cook and housekeeper. He'd always wanted to build a place a few miles from here. There was a perfect spot in the foothills.
But he wanted it to be just the two of them. Until the kids came along. Although, knowing Reggie she could get the hang of being a ranchwoman-if she set her mind to it.
He shook himself, amazed where his mind had taken him. But d.a.m.ned if for a moment he hadn't imagined that log house with Reggie and a houseful of little McCalls running around in cowboy boots.
"d.a.m.n," he said under his breath. The last thing he wanted was for Reggie to go back to L.A. and that scared the h.e.l.l out of him.
He thought of his own parents. All those years apart because as much chemistry as they'd had between them, they couldn't live together.
He realized that could be him and Reggie.
J.T. looked up and saw Cash driving up in his patrol car. He'd already had Brandon giving him a hard time, saying things like "nice duds" and "nice a.s.s." He didn't need Cash getting his two cents in. J.T. was just thankful that Rourke wasn't around. That would be the last straw.
He'd managed to keep the filming of the commercial quiet. He'd take the storm once the commercial hit national television.
Cash got out, glanced at the fake western set, and shook his head.
"Don't ask," J.T. said. "What are you doing here?"
"You agreed to do the commercial?" Cash sounded more than a little surprised as he glanced from J.T. to the set, looking as if he'd suddenly been dropped into Hollywood. His speculative gaze came back to his brother. "I don't believe it. Why would you do that?"
"Don't read anything into it," J.T. snapped. "She was going to lose her job. She almost got killed up at the line shack. I owed her."
"Uh-huh," Cash said nodding.
"What?" J.T. demanded, scowling at his brother.
"I ran a check on her." He held up his hands and stepped back as if he thought J.T. would take a swing at him. "I ran a check on everyone at that line shack. It's my job. J.T. She wasn't about to lose her job. She owns owns the company." the company."
He could only stare at Cash. Reggie owned Way Out West Jeans?
"But that's not what I came out to talk to you about," Cash said. "Can we talk in the barn for a minute?"
J.T. didn't like the sound of this. He followed his brother over to the barn, still trying to digest what Cash had told him. How was it possible that Reggie owned the company? She'd made it sound as if her career was riding on this commercial. Was it possible the woman had conned him? He almost laughed.
Reggie had won. He'd done the commercial. She must be gloating in her room at the back of the house. His mother had given her the first-floor guest room so she could get around in the wheelchair until her ankle was better. There was no doubt that she'd played on the sympathy of his family-and him as well. She knew he felt responsible for everything that had happened to her.
Well now that the commercial was in the can, her ankle would be miraculously better and she'd be on the next plane to L.A.
"I have some bad news," Cash said without preamble once inside the barn. "We just got a positive ID on the man you called Roy Shields. His real name is Roy Sanders. He's with the FBI."
J.T. felt all the air rush out of him, knowing what was coming.
"Roy Sanders was working on a case with Mexico involving the deaths of three plastic surgeons."
"If Roy was the FBI agent, then Will Jarvis-"
"An FBI agent by the name of Will Jarvis was also on the case," Cash said. "I got a photo of Will Jarvis the FBI agent faxed to me. No resemblance to the wounded man you knew as Jarvis. Sheridan, Wyoming, had Claude Ryan's DNA from a rape charge when he was about nineteen. The hospital had a blood sample of the man who called himself Will Jarvis. The DNA samples matched. The man you know as Will Jarvis is really Claude Ryan."
J.T. knew what was coming. "He isn't in the hospital in Billings anymore, is he."
Cash shook his head. "He survived surgery and had been moved to a private room to recover. After I got the news about Roy, I had the DNA samples checked and sent police to the hospital to detain Claude Ryan, but he was gone. The others found one of the doctors dead in the hospital room closet, naked. Claude had stolen the man's clothing. The doctor's car is also missing."
J.T. thought about the talk he'd had with Will Jarvis around his campfire. He hadn't been waiting for Claude Ryan to come to kill him. He'd been waiting for the FBI agent Roy Sanders. Claude had just been playing with him. He could have killed him then. So why didn't he?
"When we went back up to the line shack nine years ago, we found drag marks and grizzly tracks. We also found boot prints but with everyone tromping around up there searching... We'd been so sure the grizzly had gotten him," Cash said.
"He had help getting away," J.T. replied, the pieces starting to fall together as he thought about what Will Jarvis had said about the burn scars on Slim's hands. J.T. remembered the fear he'd seen in Slim's eyes. Slim had known that one of the men in camp was Claude Ryan. But like J.T., he wouldn't have recognized the man's face because of all the plastic surgery Claude had been through. The only people who had seen Claude after the surgeries were the doctors and they were all dead.
J.T. felt his heart take off as he looked toward the ranch house. "Claude is alive." And he wasn't finished. He'd somehow gotten Slim and Luke to the line shack to kill them.
"I have the state police on their way down here to make sure the ranch is safe-"
But J.T. wasn't listening, he was already running toward the ranch house, afraid he was too late.
REGINA HEARD the bedroom door open behind her. She'd been so intent on her thoughts that she hadn't realized that the shooting of the commercial was over, everyone packing it in. She didn't see J.T. anywhere. Time had run out.
She turned, realizing she couldn't leave here without telling J.T. the truth. She'd fallen in love with him.
But it wasn't J.T. standing in the doorway. She stared at the man, at first too shocked to react. And then it was too late. Before she could scream or move, Will Jarvis grabbed her, pressing the tip of the knife blade into her side, the blade biting through her shirt to her skin, his hand covering her mouth as he whispered next to her ear, "Make a sound and I'll kill you."
Her mind raced. This man wasn't an FBI agent. Oh G.o.d, he was Claude Ryan. He dragged her out the back door, the same way he'd come in. She'd been given this room because it was on the first floor at the back and had easy wheelchair access.
With all the commotion of the commercial, no one noticed as he dragged her across a small patch of lawn then through the trees toward what appeared to be an old shed.
The lock on the shed door had been broken, she noticed as he pulled her inside and shoved her hard against the wall.
The shed was long and narrow, dark except for a little light sifting in through a small dirty window. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
He smiled, looking her over. "I saw the number you did on J.T." He laughed. "You had him where he didn't know if he was coming or going. What the h.e.l.l was he thinking hiring someone like you to cook at a cow camp?"
"He didn't hire me. Buck did," she said, lifting her chin, determined not to let him see her fear. Men like him fed off fear. She seemed to know that instinctively. Just as she had never trusted him.
He drew back a little in surprise and smiled. "You're a feisty one, you are. I still can't believe you got out of the cabin before it burned to the ground."
She took a breath and tried to calm her pounding pulse as her eyes adjusted to the semidarkness inside the shed and objects began to take shape. An old stool, some garden tools against the far wall, several old wooden buckets, a few old doors leaning against the wall next to her, lots of cobwebs and dust.
She shivered at the thought of spiders and realized how ridiculous that fear was right now. She was in an old shed with a crazy man with a gun and a penchant for killing.
One thing was for certain. She didn't want to die in this shed. Not before she told McCall how she felt about him. A week ago she couldn't have imagined herself in this predicament, not in a thousand years. Not only had she never been in love, but she'd also certainly never been through what she had the past few days.
But because of both, she felt stronger, more capable and she had every reason to want to live. She took in the junk in the shed, decided what would make the best weapon. This man wasn't going to kill her without her putting up a fight.
"You tried to burn me up in the cabin?" Her voice broke, betraying her a little. "Why are you doing this?"
Meanness shone like insanity in his eyes. "You have no idea what it's like to feel your flesh on fire, to feel it melting off your face." He put the gun into his pocket and took out a knife, rotating it back and forth so the blade caught the dim light. He stared at the blade as if hypnotized by the flicker of light and dark. "I have been under the knife so many times I lost count. I knew I couldn't come back until I had a new face, one that showed no sign of the scarring."
"You wanted a new face just so you could get revenge?" she asked, unable to hide her astonishment.
He glared at her as he put the knife away and pulled a length of cord from his pocket, advancing on her. "I survived only to get my revenge. So many times I wanted to die, but then I would think about J. T. McCall, back here on his big ranch."
"What a waste of your life, revenge," she said, almost feeling sorry for the man. She couldn't imagine what demons motivated him, only that he was a tormented man, obsessed with J. T. McCall.
"Shut up," he snapped and moved toward her, just as she knew he would, anger and hate in his eyes. "I am going to set this shed on fire and watch it burn from the hills just beyond here. I will hear your cries when your flesh melts like mine did. J.T. will hear your cries but he won't be able to save you. He won't be able to save himself. I will kill you both slowly. With J.T., an inch at a time, taking from him everything, just as he did me."
He was close enough now. She grabbed the edge of the doors and pushed with all her strength as she dodged to the side. The old heavy doors toppled over, hitting him in the shoulder, making him shriek in pain just before the stack thundered to the shed floor in a cloud of dust.
She ran for the shed door but he was on her before she could reach it. She let out a scream and he slapped her, knocking her to the floor. That's when she saw the gas cans in the corner. New cans and she knew that's how he intended to burn down the shed-with her in it.
"WHAT IS IT?" his mother cried as J.T. ran through the house to the back guest room and threw open the door to Reggie's room. She was gone!
"Have you seen Reggie?" he demanded, not surprised to find his mother and sister behind him. They both shook their heads.
"She was in here packing, planning to leave as soon as the commercial was over," Shelby said, accusingly. "She was upset."
He glanced around the room. Her suitcase was open on the bed, packed, ready to leave. But he'd seen her little red rental sports car on his way into the house. It was parked out front.
"See if she is outside with the crew," he said, glancing toward the back door. "I'm going to check out back. If you find her, keep her with you."
"James Thomas, what is going on?" his mother demanded.
"The killer could have her." And then he was gone out the back door. He hadn't gone but a few feet into the trees when he saw the fresh tracks.
His mother had insisted on an area of lawn behind the house and Asa had had sod put in and a sprinkler system that came on every few hours during the summer.
The gra.s.s was wet now from early frost. So was the ground at the edge of the lawn. Boot tracks. And another track where someone had been dragged, heels digging into the wet earth.
He looked up and saw the old shed in the distance and began to run toward it. He hadn't gone far when he heard something heavy crash to the floor and then a scream.
REGINA TRIED to fight Claude off but he was too strong for her. He held her down while he began to bind her wrists in front of her with the cord.
She kicked and screamed until he hit her again, making her see stars. He bound her ankles, holding her down where she couldn't kick out at him. The shed floor was rough against her back as he pressed her into the wood and dust. She struggled to breathe, the pressure of his body on her heavy and painful. And then he released her.
She futilely fought the cords he'd put around her wrists and ankles, as she heard the splash of liquid against the walls and smelled the gasoline.