Every shadow in the desert holds a secret; every whisper on the wind, a lie.
When Arizona rancher Em Roark helped send Brit Moonchaser to prison for a crime he doesn’t regret, she thought the Apache horse trainer was gone for good. Ten years later, the ghosts of Brit’s brutal past yank him back to Cochise County as a series of violent crimes target Em’s land.
Someone in the shadows wants the ranch, and to get it they’re willing to kill.
Sheriff Jake Johnson can’t let Em become the next victim. He’’ll do whatever he must to keep her safe. One misstep from Brit, and Jake will make sure the ex-con spends the rest of his life behind gray walls and razor wire.
Trapped by deceit and betrayal, three people cling to solemn vows: Brit won’t go back to prison, Jake won’t overlook evidence, and Em won’t give up the ranch.
In a desert riddled with secrets and lies, who will survive the truth?
Dust and blood. The parts of the man not caked with one were soaked with the other. Em Roark snipped the buttons from his shirt and shoved the chambray away from his chest.
Her gaze and her breath froze.
Beneath smeared crimson, fading daylight etched a map of jagged lines across cinnamon skin. The scars offered bold testament to Brit Moonchaser’s volatile nature.
She squelched an urge to shoot to her feet and back away from a man she’d hoped never to see again. A killer, bleeding to death on her couch.
A quick shake of her head scattered the first raw clutch of panic.
With latex-gloved hands, she jammed a wad of gauze against the blood oozing from a ragged hole half an inch below Brit’s right collarbone. She flicked a nod at an end table. “Turn on the lamp, Zeke.”
Boots clomped twice. A series of three clicks, and then light tinted yellow by the lampshade washed half the room. Neither the color nor the remaining shadows flattered Brit’s features. Harsh, severe, even when he was senseless.
Massaging the muscle atop her right shoulder, she sucked a deep breath and forced calm to fill her lungs as she released the air. She glanced at the unglazed terracotta on the second end table. “That lamp, too.”
No doubt Zeke intended support and protection when he returned to hover over her, but the ranch hand’s tall, wiry presence trapped her too near a man whose very existence implied a threat. Even with his soulless eyes closed, the Apache radiated a fierce, unrepentant darkness. And cold. She’d never forget the cold.
A low whistle preceded Zeke’s laconic drawl. “I knew he was a tough sumbitch, but scars like that could hone an edge on Jell-O.”
The plank floor creaked beneath the cowhand’s weight as he shifted from foot to foot. Each squeak snapped another of Em’s nerves. “For heaven’s sake, Zeke, stand still. You have no idea what happened?”
“No ma’am. Me’n Ace found him and his horse on the north range, up by Seguro Creek. Looks bad, don’t it?”
Em nodded, sinking her teeth into her lower lip. Gunshot wounds were bad by definition, and Brit had suffered a blow to the head, as well. She brushed strands of long, midnight-black hair away from a gash bisecting his right eyebrow. A bruise, mottled in angry red and purple, marched toward the line of his jaw. The injury couldn’t be more than an hour or two old. “You called 9-1-1?”
“No, ma’am. All things considered… I mean, I will if you want, but waitin’ for an ambulance…”
Would double the length of the trip—an hour each way. If Medevac wasn’t somewhere else, a call could bring the helicopter in thirty minutes…and mobilize every sheriff’s deputy in Cochise County. Zeke didn’t want that on his conscience.
She swiveled and fixed him with a look the hands called her boss face. “Go round up Martin. We need to get…Brit—” Even his name brought a shiver. “We’ll have to take him to Douglas.” Down a mile of pitted, dusty road before reaching sixty miles of Arizona asphalt.
“Just go.” A weak smile—the only kind she knew how to produce anymore—settled onto her lips. “Please. I can handle this.” She pulled a bottle of peroxide from within the leather satchel on the coffee table and turned back to the injured Apache.
After a moment’s hesitation, Zeke’s long strides thumped against hardwood. Em glanced up in time to see the wrangler haul the front door closed with too much force.
Great. Brit didn’t even have to be conscious to cause friction at Ghost Shadow Ranch. What was he doing here? On the day she fired him, she’d told him never to return. The strike of a gavel should have reinforced the message.
This can’t be happening. Not again.
The plastic bottle fell from trembling fingers. Em snatched the container before it could roll across scars and disappear among the larger-than-life poppies sprawling over threadbare upholstery. Her gaze stuck on the faded red flowers. Momma, God rest her soul, had loved this sofa, and now the stain of Brit’s blood…
You don’t have time for this.
Pressing two fingertips against his carotid artery revealed a pulse stronger than she expected. She resisted an urge to peel back his lip and apply pressure to his gums like she would with any other patient. Despite conjecture, Brit wasn’t an animal, and veterinary school hadn’t addressed the reliability of the gum test in humans.
Besides, she trusted unconscious animals not to bite. This man, on the other hand… She trusted him to be untrustworthy—and unpredictable. “Who did you tangle with this time?”
At least the bleeding had stopped…on this side. Martin would have to help her with the corresponding wound behind Brit’s shoulder.
Where was Martin? The sooner they reached Cochise Regional, the better.
“Don’t you dare die.” Her teeth clipped each word. “Not even out of spite.”