Partners in Crime [Wild Wyoming Series Book 4]
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by Diana Hart
Description: Rafe Sanders gets a violent introduction to ranch life when he's hired to help a young shepherdess named Casey Callahan, but all is not what it seems with Rafe. Both Casy and Rafe have hidden agendas. Both seek the same thing: Casey's brother, Michael, who is on the run from an embezzling charge. Rafe is a bounty hunter determined to bring him in, wile Casey is just as determined to prove her brother is innocent. As Rafe and Casey spar and circle, each is helpless to stop the inevitable as they fall in love, but events are closing in on them and their only choice is to join forces as partners in crime... [Cover art Dirk A. Wolf]
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: April 2004
19 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [326 KB]
Reading time: 205-288 min.
"When strong-willed, 'I can take care of myself, thank you very much,' sheep rancher Casey Callahan, and burned-out FBI agent, turned bounty hunter Rafe Sanders meet--sparks fly. The plot twists will keep you turning the page, and it sizzles with sexual tension. You won't find a hunkier hero than Rafe Sanders! Good, fast-paced read. 4 Stars"--eBook Connections
"This story was very good ... ended with this reader wishing there were still more pages left to turn. One can only hope that Casey's brother will get a story of his own someday!"--Writers Club Romance Group on AOL Reviewer Board "Partners in Crime is a rip-roaring adventure, a danger-filled suspense drama, and a sizzling romance all rolled into one great book. The action never stops. The suspnse is drawn out deliciously until almost the last page, and Rafe and Casey are meant for each other. 4-1/2 Stars!"--Affaire de Coeur Magazine
"This book puts an entirely new twist on an old tale, makes it believable, and does it with a page-turner that doesn't reveal the villains until the end. Partners in Crime is a great and satisfying read. Highly Recommended!"--Under the Covers Book Reviews
RANCH HAND WANTED. Two thousand acres. Salary, room, board and spring bonus. Call the Triple C: 307-555-2121.
Rafe Sanders circled the ad in The Wyoming State Tribune. Lady Luck hadn't smiled on him a lot recently, but this was too good to be true. Fleeing shadows of the past, he'd left Quantico intending to turn over a new leaf. Unfortunately, here in Johnson County, Wyoming, heart of cattle country, leaves were as rare as a good cup of cappuccino.
"Work's pretty scarce 'round these parts."
A tall, lean cowpoke interrupted Rafe's mental ramblings. The younger man was tough and wiry, his clothing more in tune to the way Rafe's should look for this assignment, a tad dusty and a mite saddle worn. Rafe glanced at his shiny anaconda boots and navy blue denims that reeked of newness. Okay, he'd roll around in prairie dirt to create the needed effect. Whatever it took. He couldn't afford to blow this one.
"Actually," Rafe began, "I'm looking for a Ms. Kath --"
"Well, well, well. Hello, there, Stan." The feminine voice behind him was low, almost husky, but the words were sarcastic.
Rafe recognized the steel lining to the woman's words. She wasn't happy. He turned toward the front of the Boone Gambles store. A female version of the young cowboy stood just inside the doorway.
Feet planted shoulder width apart, she assumed the air of a bullfighter. His gaze followed the arc of her slender, sun-darkened arm to where it disappeared under the rolled-up sleeve of her cotton shirt. It was, he decided, her height and the way she used it that inspired the effect. Like a lioness staring down a hyena. Not a bad trick considering the man stood half a head taller than she.
"What the devil do you think you're pulling?" She advanced on the advice-tendering cowboy beside Rafe. A dusty tan Stetson shaded the upper planes of her face. Her mouth compressed into a hard, ungiving line confirming Rafe's initial assessment of her mood.
The man she'd called Stan jutted his chin out and glared at her. "Ain't pullin' nothin', Casey. Just decided to find work elsewhere."
"Oh," Casey said, "how convenient. Two hours after I pay you, you slither off without so much as a hello, good-bye, or kiss my lily white butt? What about that broken fence up on the western ridge? I can't fix it by dusk, not alone."
Stan shrugged a broad shoulder silently saying, 'who-gives-a-hoot?'. "Sorry, Casey."
"The devil you are. I thought you were with me," she said. "You promised you'd stay, help out." She glowered at him from under the brim of her battered Stetson. "You gave your word."
"Now, Casey." A third voice entered the fray.
Rafe swiveled to size up the latest combatant in this verbal repartee. A large, barrel-chested man pushed out of his chair and lumbered up to the woman. Standing toe-to-toe with the latest entrant, it was evident she took no guff from anyone.
"What do you want, Jim Cutter?" she said. Her voice held a weary note, as if this was a worn-out chorus in a very old song.
Until last year, Rafe had made his living studying human behavior, mostly criminal. This tender scene definitely caught his interest.
"Stan works for me now," Jim said. "At double the pay."
A slight hesitation, a momentary drop of her lower jaw, a flare of surprise in her eyes caught Rafe's eye. Years of profiling had created his uncanny ability to read people. The older man had gotten to her, but she'd never let him know. Rafe settled back in the chair and sipped his rapidly cooling coffee. He'd always enjoyed a good game of cat-and-mouse, particularly with a worthy opponent. This woman was an ace.
"Now, Case," Jim said. "It's a free country. I can't help it if Stan has the intelligence to prefer cows over --" his lip curled in a distasteful sneer -- "sheep."
With a growl the woman spun away from the two men. "Alvin," she said to the clerk behind the counter. "I need some fencing. That hogwire you keep out back will do fine. And a bale of barbed wire, too."
"What's the matter?" Jim asked silkily. "Has Little Bo-Peep lost her sheep?"
"Why, Jim." She tipped up her hat and fluttered her lashes outrageously, the nuance of which was lost on her audience. "How you do go on. It's enough to turn a girl's head."
He snorted. "What the hell do you know about being a girl? You've always been more like one of the guys." His gaze took in her work clothes of sweat-stained hat, well-washed shirt and denims, worn boots, and leather gloves tucked into a wide black belt. "You dress like one, work like one, drink like one, have the guts of one--"
"It's the only way to deal with your type," she said with a cool, sarcastic glare. "The type that declares war on poor, defenseless sheep."
"Hell, Casey, I've always hated those stupid critters -- ought'ta be run off a high cliff. Now, with Mike's latest stunt, I have double the reason to despise you, your ranch, your whole family." Jim said. "When you going to see the light and get the hell outta Dodge?"
The small group of men in Stetsons and denims lounging lazily around the same circular table where Rafe sat nodded. Good Lord. This was a bad rehash of an old western. Big, bad cowboys versus the righteous shepherd. And a woman at that. A corner of his mouth hitched up at the irony. Take away the buzzing fluorescent lights, the assortment of used paper cups, and ash trays overflowing with filtered cigarettes, and he could've been back in the 1800s.
No matter the century, though, their eyes still burned with a fiery intensity and their every move shouted 'I'm a cattleman, and I own this range.'
"Yeah." Even the short, scrawny, barely out of high school boy standing in a corner threw in his nickel's worth. "Sheep're even dumber than turkeys. Stupid things stray farther away every time."
The assenting murmur from the snack area seemed to signal a red alert to the woman. Rafe would've bet his pension she wouldn't back away.
She didn't. Pure, white-hot rage bubbled out of her with volcanic intensity, and she whirled on Jim Cutter. "Takes a real big man to shoot lone defenseless sheep. Definitely a man of heroic proportions."
"Ah, Casey. Don't go workin' yourself up." Stan winked.
"Yeah," Cutter said with a smirk.
She glared at her former employee. "This is what you left me for? A demotion from ramrod to a low, down, rotten snake-in-the-grass animal killer?" She stroked her chin. "Yeah, it suits you after all."
"Casey," Cutter said, his voice riddled with low warning, "you'd best watch that big mouth of yours. Might be folks would want to close it permanently." He took two steps and effectively cornered her against the counter.
Rafe tensed, every muscle in his body coiling with anticipation. If that dude took one more step...
He didn't. As if he had more sense than he'd shown so far, he stepped back, but Stan and three more aggressive cowboys came up to flank him.
Adrenaline bubbled through Rafe's veins. Verbal sparring was one thing, this was something altogether different. Cutter was right. This was a free country. People could work for whom they wanted and quit whenever they wanted. They could also raise a herd of whatever animal they wanted and come into a public building without fear of threat or harm. At least the last time Rafe checked the Constitution, they could.
Wariness snaked up his spine, put him on edge. Something in the encounter had grown ugly, something he didn't understand. But there was an tone to their words, a glint in their eyes, a nastiness to their action. Though wound tighter than an over tuned piano wire, instinct said to stay put, sit back, and bide his time.
And Rafe always followed his instincts.
The woman met Cutter's gaze squarely and firmly. "My sheep don't stray unless the fence wire's been cut." As if she'd just pronounced a universal truth, she turned to the proprietor. "Where's my order, Al? I'm burning daylight here."
The store-keep glanced at Cutter who dismissed his cronies with a jerk of his head.
She pulled out her checkbook and pen. Everything in the store seemed to stop in a cartoonishly frozen moment. All eyes focused on her with venomous loathing.
"Well," Jim said. "The lady's got money when none of us has a damned dime. Cattleman's First Bank and Trust went under," he announced.
She clenched her teeth. "I know."
He looked surprised. "Oh, yeah, guess you of all people would."
Low voices murmured behind her. Two cowboys scuttled out the door as though not wanting to get involved any further. Some ugly names and choice epithets came in whispered tones. If she noticed, she didn't let on and focused specifically on her main nemesis, the man called Cutter. She couldn't have been trained in the art of war, but she'd shown such great reflexes so far, he almost expected her to floor the guy with a roundhouse kick to the gut. She'd make a helluva an agent.
Rafe scrubbed a finger over his moustache to keep from smiling in the midst of all this seriousness. His gaze strayed to her again and he couldn't keep his lips from tipping up. She was glorious. She'd make a great partner --
That thought wiped the amusement from his mouth. He didn't have partners anymore, especially the female kind. And he wasn't here to admire a woman, he was here to locate one. Grabbing the copy of the Tribune, he circled the ad for The Triple C.
She scribbled out the store name and the date and waited for Alvin to return with her purchases. "Jim, your attitude is wearing thin. In fact it's ridiculous. Your men have honed their juvenile talents to a dull edge, and I'm sick of it. These little skirmishes stop now."
Jim shook his head. "I don't have 'little skirmishes,' Case. And if I do, they'll stop when you're out of this basin."
She blinked twice then laughed at him. "That sounds like a rehash of 'This town ain't big enough for the two of us.' "
"Well, it ain't," Jim said. "The greatest pleasure in my life will be to see your ass waltzing off into the sunset."
Casey leaned toward him with a cold smile. "Don't hold your breath, cowboy."
Jim glared down at her and squared his shoulders, an impotent attempt to intimidate her with his size and presence. "You've obviously lost what little mind you had, Cutter. From here on in you keep to your ranch and I'll keep to mine."
His eyes flared and his lip curled. "First of all, a ranch has cattle, not sheep. Secondly, it won't be yours for long from what I hear, especially now that you have to run it single handedly. Hell --" he snorted -- "a man couldn't even keep things afloat by himself. Even if you're the closest thing to one, Casey, you still don't have the muscle." He lounged both elbows on the counter. "Yep, one way or another, you'll be gone. Why don't you save yourself a lot of sore muscles and migraines, cut to the chase and leave?"
"Uh, Casey?" Alvin Phillips peered over his reading glasses at her.
Her tension seemed to drain. Her rigid shoulders relaxed and she smiled at him. "Yeah, Al, what do I owe you?"
He gave her the amount. She scribbled it in and handed the check to him. Reaching for her keys, she blessed heaven that her encounter with Cutter was finally over. "I'll back the truck up to the loading dock."
"Uh, Casey...?" He glanced at Cutter whose gaze had turned harsh and wintery. With a jerk of his head, the proprietor's anxiety seemed to climb.
She turned to him, but his gaze skidded from her face to the counter. "This is an out-of-town check," he said.
His observation caught Casey off guard. There was nothing different about this transaction than any of the others they'd done in over a decade. "Yeah? So what?"
Still avoiding her gaze, Alvin stared at the register, flushing from the bottom of his leathered neck to the roots of his salt-white hair. "We don't take out-of-town checks."
"Wha-a-t?" Shock rooted her to the floor and she could only gape at the man she'd known all her life. Ever since she'd stepped inside, her cozy little corner of the world had been upended. Even formerly solid and familiar things now stood on their head. "That check is from the same bank I've used for years, the only one willing to stand behind me through the lean years, the same bank I've paid you from countless times on countless bills. What's the problem?"
"Well," Alvin said, darting another glance at Cutter. "Since the Cattleman's First went under, the businessmen agreed on a policy of cash or checks from local banks only."
"Cattleman's First was the only local bank."
"Then I guess it's cash," Jim drawled.
"Okay, fine." Casey tore up the check and wrote another, leaving the payee blank. "I'll pay anyone with interest to help me out." She scanned the handful of people in the store, people she'd known all her life, had dated, had sat next to in church. No one so much as blinked.
"I'll do it." Trish Cutter's friendly voice echoed from behind the clerk as the small brunette emerged from the back room. "I'll cover your check."
"Trish! You don't need --"
"It's the least I can do to help you and Michael."
A low murmur rumbled through the crowd and a storm cloud of rage crossed Jim Cutter's face. "Get out of here, girl."
"Leave her alone, Jim." Casey folded her arms across her chest. "She's only trying to help."
"-- help that snake she's sleepin' with --" Drifted up from the murmurs in the crowd. Cutter whirled and confronted the men. "Who said that!"
Chairs scraped against the hard wood floor as men jockeyed out of the room. "Trish Cutter, I said go. Now!"
Trish flashed a helpless look at Casey, shrugged her shoulders, and left.
"Oh, come on, Jim. She didn't do anything and neither did Mike." Casey said.
Several more onlookers left, but in the end, Cutter's mob mentality was too well entrenched.
"Don't tell me what to do with my daughter. Your brother's already done enough."
"They're just two people in love. And you're not going to break them up." She stepped forward. "I'm wasting daylight here. I've got fence to fix before dark."
Still no one moved.
"So that's the way the buzzard flies," Casey said to the group of people circling her. "Now it's personal."
Cutter cleaned his fingernails with a pocketknife and eyed the small crowd. "Actually I don't know who's less popular these days, the sheep or you."
She turned back to Alvin. "Come on. Just this once? What do you say?"
Taking in Cutter's glare, the other man shook his head in silence and turned to walk into the back room. "I didn't make the rule."
"Al --" Casey hated to beg, but no price was too high to save her sheep or her ranch. Not even her pride. "Come on, people. We're neighbors. Friends."
"We were, but now --" Cutter whirled her around to face him. "Look at me when I'm talking to you."
Casey drew back, ready to offer him a royal piece of her mind as well as a piece of her fist. Someone beat her to it.
"If I were you, buddy," a lone, dark man said from the corner, "I'd take my hand off the little lady. It'd be best for everyone concerned." Deep and commanding, his voice echoed through the open store. "Especially you."
Along with everyone else, Casey swiveled to face a dark-haired, darker-eyed man who until now had been all but invisible. His clothes were western-cut, but too new, too expensive to pass for just one of the boys. The freshness of his jeans and Stetson screamed 'drugstore cowboy,' and yet, there was a look in his eye that shouted, 'don't screw with me.'
He flicked the newspaper he'd been reading in half and slammed it on the table. Uncrossing his ankles, he dropped his booted feet to the floor. Casey didn't miss the flash of snakeskin, an extravagance she'd never afforded herself.
The new man glared at Jim. "Looks like you have trouble hearing, mister."
Cutter's faltered, but he didn't release Casey. She tried to shrug away, but he tightened his grip and bared his teeth in a feral grin. "I hear fine. You're the one with trouble. Nose trouble."
The small crowd grinned and nodded. The stranger unfolded his tall frame from the chair and moved toward them in a fluid, long-legged gait. He strode like a man sure of his place in the world, of his authority, of himself. He came to a halt beside Casey who at her own five-feet-ten had to tilt her head up to meet his hard gaze.
"You going to sell her that fencing, buddy?" He glared at the clerk hovering half-in, half-out of the back storeroom. "Or what?"
Standing as high, wide, and handsome as Wyoming itself, only a statue could've remained unmoved at the sight of him. And Casey was no statue. Her heart loped in her chest and took a crazy plunge into her belly. It was all she could do to maintain even breathing. For a moment, she almost forgot the commotion around her, focused on her, at her.
"Look, mister, this is none of your affair." In an instant Cutter's voice had changed from threatening to passive and he cocked his head in a deprecating manner. "We're just having some fun with our little red-headed shepherdess who hasn't got sense enough to recognize cattle country when she's smack dab in the middle of it." He chuckled, but no one joined him and the attempt at humor died an immediate death. "Hell, she's a little touched in the loft--" he circled his finger an inch from his temple. "Sitting out in the middle of all those stinking sheep day after day, she'd have to be."
His words caught Casey like a kick in the stomach. "You're the one who's nuts, Cutter. My ranch has been in my family for over eighty years. Your grandfather and great grandfather couldn't burn us out or kill us off, and I'm not going to be any easier to get rid of. When the dust settles, I'll still be here. Just like always."
The stranger's mysterious onyx eyes, shaded by a complement of long dark lashes captivated her. His gaze raked over her with admiration at first, then with a lazy thoroughness that made her want to squirm. That sort of look usually came from someone who should know her a whole lot better than he did.
Stunned, she could only stand open-mouthed under his appreciative scrutiny. She wasn't sure which bothered her more, his languid study or her inability to form a coherent sentence to put him in his place. For some reason, she couldn't stop the flare of heat that flamed deep inside, or the feminine pleasure that exploded at his masculine once-over.
"Ma'am," he said, drawing the word out like an almost palpable caress. He lifted his hat to expose thick ebony hair that curled around his ears and fell rakishly over the collar of his blue work shirt. Absently he tunneled his long tanned fingers through the unruly mat before resettling his Stetson on his head. Tugging his full moustache into a half-smile, he addressed her in a courtly manner that made Cutter and his boys seem like overgrown oafs. "I'd be happy to take your check. How much?"
"I... uh..." Her brains must be connected to that other part of her that had turned to mush under his penetrating gaze. She gave herself a mental kick. "Two hundred, Mr....?"
One corner of his hair-dusted lips hiked up to expose straight, white teeth and made her think of just how devastating his full smile must be. "Sanders. Rafe Sanders."
He stepped in front of Jim who hitched his gaze higher. "Mister," Rafe said, "you're either stupid or deaf. I asked you nice before, now I'm telling you. Get your paws off the lady."
Casey drove her elbow into Cutter's side. His breath whooshed out and he let her go in favor of bending over to suck in oxygen. She stared at the new man. "Thanks, but I don't need you to run interference for me. I've lived here all my life. I can take care of myself."
She may have lived here all her life, may have grown up around these men, but she'd never fit in. A square peg shepherd in the round hole of cattle country. They'd never accepted her, and in the end she'd always had to work three times as hard as any of them to make it. And she had.
Copyright © 2000 by Diane Kirkle and Pam Hart