Chapter 2

Just follow him, that’s what Cal had told Nikki. But where the hell was he taking her? She was starting to get a little nervous. Really, what did she know about this guy, except what she’d researched? Not a whole hell of a lot. He could be a serial killer or something.

She could see the headlines now: THE DUDE RANCH MURDERER STRIKES AGAIN!

Now she was being ridiculous. She had a good instinct when it came to people. Not one alarm had gone off when she met Cal earlier today. Nor when he’d joined her at the ranch. Nikki thought she’d caught a subtle difference, not quite as friendly, but shrugged off the feeling. It had been a long drive and she was tired.

She hit a pothole that almost swallowed her car, effectively drawing her back to the present. That would teach her to pay attention to where she was going and not where she’d been.

The road they were on was worse than the dirt road she’d traveled to get to the ranch. This wasn’t much more than a path. Her car would definitely need an alignment job when she returned to the city, and detailed from end to end. It looked more gray than black. And it was starting to smell like the country. Her nose wrinkled. And country air was a little too aromatic for her.

Cal rounded a corner and pulled in front of a dilapidated shack straight out of Deliverance. All it needed to complete the picture was a couple of men on the porch playing banjos and a floppy-eared hound dog dozing between them. Her brain began sending warning signals. This wasn’t good, not good at all.

She stopped behind Cal and cut the engine before getting out. Dread filled her.

“Why did we stop here?” she asked.

“This is the old homestead,” he proudly proclaimed as he walked toward the porch.

“And your point is?” She eyed the shack with more than a little trepidation. The exterior needed painting-or maybe glue would be better, because it looked as though there wasn’t much holding it together. She had a bad feeling about why he’d stopped in front of it.

“You said you liked it rough.” He smiled at her, but his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

Boy, did they have their wires crossed. “You expect me to stay here?” No story was worth living in this run- down hovel. She wanted a resort, massages, pedicures-hot oil sliding over her, a man’s hands massaging it into her body.

“It’s the only thing available.”

Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. This was it-the only thing they had vacant?

She glanced around. Her opinion of the place didn’t get any better. There was a small barn and pen just off to the right that looked as though it was in better shape than the cabin, a few trees, and that was it. She’d be stuck out here by herself-at least a half mile from the main ranch. Hell, it could’ve been ten miles and it wouldn’t have made a difference. If she screamed, no one would hear her. A cold chill of foreboding ran down her spine.

This was so wrong. Visions of how she would kill Marge filled her thoughts. If she got an all-city jury, she’d get off, hands down.

She hugged her middle. “I’m surprised anyone would stay here.”

He shrugged. “This was my grandparents’ first home. They seemed to manage okay. Some people like returning to the old ways. Did you know there’s a pueblo in Taos, New Mexico, and some of the buildings are over a thousand years old? No utilities, none of the luxuries we take for granted, but there’s a tribe of Indians who live there because they respect the ways of their ancestors.”

Well, it wasn’t her style. And she wasn’t about to…

“But then, some people don’t have what it takes.” He casually leaned against the post that held up a slightly warped roof.

One eyebrow shot upward. Was that a challenge? It had sounded like one. At the very least, he questioned if she could stand up to the rigors of a life without amenities. She’d faced Fort Worth’s mean streets. Even covered a gang war once. She could certainly handle staying in a place that had seen better days and having…what? No microwave?

“Of course I’m staying. This is exactly what I was looking for. I just questioned whether the cabin would hold up if a strong wind should blow through. I’d hate for it to fall down around me.”

He studied her. Was that a smidgin of respect she noted in his eyes? If it was, it was gone in the next second.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” he told her. “Because this is about as rough as it gets.”

His gaze lingered long enough for her to start feeling a buzz of anticipation. The cabin had thrown her for a loop, but as her body came to life under his mesmerizing eyes, she thought about the fantastic benefits that went along with this assignment.

“You did say you liked it rough.” His gaze caressed her, sending a flash of heat coursing through her body.

She nodded, afraid that speaking would be too difficult. Her mouth had gone completely dry as images of entwined naked limbs flashed across her mind. She inhaled a ragged breath. She really needed to get laid more often.

When he turned and started up the two lopsided steps, the spell was broken. Oh, yeah, he’d definitely earned his reputation as a lady’s man. Her panties had come close to the melting point.

He nodded toward a triangle of rusted metal that hung from the porch. “If you do get in a bind, just ring that. But don’t forget about the boy who cried wolf. It’s only for emergencies.”

“I have a cell phone.” She made her way up the steps.

“It doesn’t always work at the cabin. Unless you want to crawl up on the roof. You might get better reception there, but I don’t suggest it. I’d hate for you to fall off and break something.”

Okay, what was going on? Her gut told her something had changed since their first meeting. When he’d ridden up on his horse to get the cow back on the other side of the fence, Cal had flirted with her-hadn’t he? He was still flirting with her, and the look in his eyes when he glanced her way was more than heated. Hell, it scorched her skin.

But he also acted as though he expected her to run screaming back to her car. It was almost as though he hoped she would run screaming back to her car. The mixed messages didn’t make sense.

Maybe the sun pounding down on her during the drive here had fuddled her brain. Right now, Cal acted as if he was happy she’d picked up the gauntlet-but not in a good way.

Nonsense of course. She was overly tired. She’d been putting in long hours at work. When was the last time she’d even taken a vacation?

Her parents had once told her to put in the hours while she was young. There would be time to enjoy the fruits of her labor once she’d established herself. Except for the occasional long weekend, she didn’t take vacations. It was probably time she did.

She pushed her hair behind her ear. No, she was only imagining his changed attitude toward her. There was no way Cal could know the real reason she was here. Marge was too crafty to let the cat out of the bag, and as far as anyone at the office knew, she was on vacation-completely plausible.

The drive to the Texas hill country had taken her longer than she’d expected because she’d gotten lost-twice. She was tired. Nothing was going on. When she returned home, she was getting a GPS.

Cal stepped inside the cabin, then held the door open for her.

She brought her attention back to the present and walked past him. The interior was even worse. A layer of grime and dust covered the probably once white sheets that draped over the furniture. She was so going to kill Marge for this.

“The maid’s day off?”

“Most people who stay here want to do everything-including cleaning the place.” He let his gaze slowly roam over her. “You don’t look the type. I wouldn’t blame you if you left.”

She waltzed past him. “I don’t mind a little hardship if I get what I’m after.”

He crossed his arms in front of him. “And what are you after?”

You. A juicy story.

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