Authors: Rachel Lee
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
SHE WANTED PEACE. INSTEAD SHE FOUND DANGER—AND A REASON TO LIVE AGAIN
When Skylar Jamison heads to the Wyoming Rockies, all the army veteran wants is some rest. But as a stranger warns her away—off public lands—every war-torn nerve she has goes on alert.
The ranger who investigates makes her even more wary, for very different reasons. Smart, good-looking, with an inner calm Sky envies, Craig Stone sparks her interest and wakes all her fears.
Craig didn’t plan on inviting Sky to stay with him. But there are armed strangers in his forest. And Sky—tough, vulnerable, sexy Sky, everything he’s ever wanted—is their target. They are each trained to handle danger. It would take both of them, together, to survive this new threat….
This wasn't the R & R she'd been hoping for....
She had come out here for peace, quiet and the restorative benefits of painting and solitude. Instead a total stranger had walked her into something that harkened back to Iraq. She really ought to just pack up and go somewhere else.
But she knew she couldn't, wouldn't do that. She hadn't been exaggerating when she had said she would never abandon a fellow soldier, and she meant it. She got the feeling Craig didn't have a whole lot of help, so unless they found a reason to call in the Feds or ATF or something, she would do what she could to help. She was going to have his back.
She heard Craig draw a breath, as if he were about to say something, when she suddenly realized that the edginess running along her nerve endings no longer had solely to do with him.
“Shh,” she whispered almost inaudibly. “We're being watched.”
Conard County: The Next Generation
This story was born of a confluence of things. It began as a memory of the “water wars” I saw when I sold real estate in the Rocky Mountains. Things like that can get extremely touchy and very litigious and expensive. It can even get dangerous and ugly. But as I toyed with the idea, I needed a reason for the water problem, and I began thinking about all the headaches this could cause the forest service if water was cut off to forest service land.
And voilà, I had my hero, a law enforcement officer with the Forest Service, a man who found his peace and meaning in preserving public lands for the future. And my heroine, a woman with a traumatic past who had come to the mountains to heal and paint. From there it was one easy step from water being the problem, to the guy who was building a militia on his private land.
I hope you enjoy this story of two people melding their very different lives as they face an unexpected threat together.
Rocky Mountain Lawman
Books by Rachel Lee
Harlequin Romantic Suspense
**The Final Mission
**Just a Cowboy
**The Rescue Pilot
**Guardian in Disguise
**What She Saw
**Rocky Mountain Lawman
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
An Officer and a Gentleman
*Miss Emmaline and the Archangel
*Point of No Return
*Cowboy Comes Home
“A Soldier for All
**A Soldier’s Homecoming
**Protector of One
**The Man from Nowhere
**Her Hero in Hiding
**A Soldier’s Redemption
**No Ordinary Hero
***Claim the Night
***Claimed by a Vampire
**Conard County: The Next
Other titles by this author available in ebook
was hooked on writing by the age of twelve, and practiced
her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This
New York Times
bestselling author now resides in
Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.
To my dear friend Linda, who helped with research and saved my sanity
more than one occasion. Sometimes we get sisters by birth, and other times we discover them. Thanks, Sis.
uddy Jackson sat at the fancy dining table his great-grandmother had carted out here from back east almost a century ago, a table that looked out of place amidst the mostly rough-hewn surroundings of the cabin his grandfather had built and his family had added to over the years.
His wife and kids were out tending the garden as they should be. The growing season here was short, and there was no time to waste.
Across from him sat Cap MacDonald, a guy he'd met last year at a gathering of “Preppers,” as they called themselves, people who were preparing either for the collapse of society or the end of the world. All of them, of course, assumed that they would survive the cataclysm. Buddy had no doubt of it; he was living in the middle of nowhere. Little could reach him here on his mountainside.
But Cap had somewhat different ideas, and they appealed to Buddy. Cap didn't just want to survive, he wanted to
To be in control afterward. What's more, he made a good argument for self-protection and keeping the parasites out after the troubles started.
Cap had even grander ideas, though. Buddy had been prepping for a long time, and sometimes he got tired of waiting for the moment that would prove the brilliance of his foresight. Cap wasn't prepared to wait. He spoke of how it was their job to bring it all about.
That sounded okay to Buddy most of the time, and the fact that Cap was pulling together a small militia didn't seem like a problem. If the revolution was coming anyway, what was the point of waiting for it?
But something was bothering him now.
“You heard,” he said to Cap, “about that hiker they found dead about four miles from here?”
Cap shook his head. His hands were busy cleaning the AR-15 he always carried. “What about him?”
“He was dead.”
Cap shrugged. “People die out here in the wilderness. You aren't stupid, Buddy.”
“No.” Buddy dropped it, but he didn't stop thinking about it. He knew Cap took his guys out to walk through the national forest that surrounded his land on three sides. Nothing wrong in that. But he also had figured out that Cap was capable of killing. That was one thing Buddy didn't know about himself, and he'd been glad to have someone join him who wouldn't hesitate to defend the compound if necessary.
But surely that didn't extend to some hiker wandering around in the woods? Of course not.
After a minute or two, he finally stopped thinking about it. The revolution hadn't begun yet, and Cap couldn't have had any reason to hurt a hiker, one who wasn't even prowling this property.
No reason at all. Must have just been an accident.
kylar Jamison sat near the top of a rise with a gorgeous view of a narrow river valley below and the soaring face of the Wyoming Rockies ahead of her. Fields of wildflowers in brilliant reds and yellows dotted the grassy slope where she sat, and she could see them in the valley below, as well as in patches on the mountains.
From here she beheld a vast panorama of beautiful nature mostly unmarred by human presence.
That’s why she’d come here. She needed to refresh herself, rediscover her joy in painting after a bad breakup. The pristine wilderness of the national forest around her washed away the sludge that seemed to have mired her heart and soul.
She sat on the grasses on a paint-splattered lightweight tarp. Before her was a small easel holding a canvas on which she had daubed some of the incredible colors around her. Beside her lay a box of oil paints, some rags and a small plastic bottle of citrus cleaner for her brushes. When she was done for the day, she’d wrap her brushes in a cleaner-soaked rag and plastic until she returned to her motel room and could rinse them. On the other side of her was a camera with several lenses. Painting outdoors might inspire her creativity, but the light changed swiftly, and when it was especially good she’d snap photos to capture it, so that she’d have a visual reminder for working later.
Up here, despite it being summer, the air was a bit chilly, and she had wrapped herself in an old sweater she didn’t mind ruining with paint. The quiet breeze tickled her cheeks and occasionally rustled the grasses around her, a great background to her rambling thoughts.
A fluffy cloud blocked the sun temporarily, changing the light drastically, flattening the contrast and perspective. Something about the change gripped her and she reached for the camera, taking a number of quick shots.
The sharp, annoyed cry was so unexpected that she nearly dropped her camera and swung around. A burly man was striding out of the woods just behind her to the left. He wore woodland camouflage head to toe.
She gaped, uncertain how to respond.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Still shocked by the unexpectedness of the man’s arrival and his apparent irritation, she sat frozen. One of the things she’d always hated about herself was her occasional slowness to react. It might have saved her some trouble at times simply because she thought first, but at other times it was potentially dangerous.
The man strode closer, and there was nothing casual in his approach.
Suddenly galvanized, she jumped to her feet, still holding the camera.
“I asked what the hell you’re doing!”
He was getting so close that nervousness assailed her. Instinctively, she braced herself in a defensive posture in case she needed to protect herself. They were all alone up here, miles from anywhere.
“Painting,” she finally said.
“That looks like a camera to me.”
She wondered what the hell was going on, but surprise began giving way to anger as she measured the implied threat in his voice and his approach. “So?”
He got close enough to see the canvas and hesitated. Finally he said, “We don’t like spies around here. You find some place else to take your pictures. I mean it.”
He glared at her for a palpable second, then turned and strode away.
“What the hell?” she said aloud to the now empty hilltop. “What is going on?”
The grasses, trees and mountains didn’t answer. The breeze kicked up a bit, chilling her. She looked around, trying to re-center herself. Same hill, same mountains, so why did she feel she’d just slipped realities?
“Idiot,” she muttered finally. Probably some cranky old curmudgeon who thought he owned the entire state. Defiantly, she picked up her camera and looked through the viewfinder and her telescopic lens. Mountains, trees, grasses, wildflowers. A cabin.
She turned the camera back. She hadn’t really been looking that way because the lighting was bad and didn’t appeal to her, but examining more closely now she saw what appeared to be some kind of homestead across the valley on a higher elevation. She could have zoomed in more, but decided not to. Spy? Really?
Damn it, she thought, this was national forest land. She wasn’t trespassing and had every right to be here. But did she really want to get into it with that nut?
Annoyed, she squatted and began to pack up. There were probably a hundred places where she could get a view just as good without the hassles, and who needed the hassles? The stubborn part of her defiantly wanted to remain, but she’d come out here for peace, not conflict. God knew, she’d endured enough conflict for a while.
She unscrewed the lens from the camera, slipped it into its case, then put everything in her camera bag. It took a little longer to put up her paints, soak the brushes and wrap them in cloth and plastic. When she was sure everything was secure in her backpack, she started to fold her tarp.
Irritated in ways she couldn’t quite put her finger on, she damned the man for destroying a perfectly beautiful day. Part of her wanted to stay put, just to show him, but given the isolation out here, she had to admit that might not be wise.
Just find another place, Sky.
God, she was learning to
men. Such a sense of privilege, as if they were masters of the universe. She had a right to be here, too.
She was stuffing the tarp in her backpack when she saw another man emerge from the trees from the opposite direction, this one riding a horse. She tensed at once, then recognized the colors of the U.S. Forest Service. A ranger. She decided to stay right where she was and give this guy an earful about what had just happened. After all, wasn’t it his job to make sure the public wasn’t harassed on public land?
She wasn’t at all clear what these folks did, but she was sure of one thing: at the ranger station before she’d come up here, a very nice woman had told her she was free to go anywhere she liked in the forest, but advised her to file a description of her planned activities and check in when she returned, just in case.
“If we need to rescue you,” the woman said cheerfully, “it would be really helpful to have some idea when and where to start looking.”
Raising her hand, Sky waved at the rider. At once he turned his mount a little and began to come directly toward her.
God, he looked iconic, she thought. A big man on a big horse under the brim of a felt Stetson. There was no mistaking that long-sleeved light olive shirt with its patches and brass nameplate, or the dark olive jeans. And soon there was no mistaking the glint of a badge on his breast, or the gun holstered at his waist. Or the shotgun in the saddle holster. She guessed he wasn’t an ordinary ranger. What the heck happened in these mountains?
When he got close enough, she could see a square, sun-bronzed face, some dark, close-trimmed hair. Not his eyes, though, in the shadow of his hat. He rode easily, as if he’d been born in the saddle, seeming to sway with the horse’s every move, relaxed and comfortable. Broad shoulders, narrow hips. And armed.
That kept grabbing her. She wondered if she was foolish to come out here without some kind of protection.
He reached her at last, raising a finger to the brim of his hat. “Something wrong, ma’am?”
“Maybe. This is forest land, right? Open to the public?”
“Then why would some guy come tell me to go someplace else?”
He glanced across the valley. “Big guy? Burly?”
“I know him.” The ranger shook his head. “I’ll take care of it. He won’t bother you again.”
“What is he? Some kind of nut?”
“I suppose you could argue that.” For the first time he smiled faintly. “Isolated places sometimes grow cranks. Are you getting ready to leave?”
“Believe it. I don’t like being treated that way. Besides...” She hesitated. “He unnerved me a little. It’s very lonely out here.” Something she’d been enjoying only a short time ago.
“It can be.” Rising a bit in his stirrups, he scanned the area. “How long ago did he bother you?”
Sky tried to measure it. “It had to be at least fifteen minutes. I started packing up as soon as he left.”
He looked at her things. “What do you do?”
“I was trying to paint. I’m an artist.”
“Sometimes. To capture the light.”
“Well, that might do it. All right, I’ll have some words with him. In the meantime...” He swung down from the saddle. “Let me help you carry your things and make sure you get safely back to your car or your campsite.”
Before she could do more than thank him, he’d swung the strap of her heavy camera bag over the pommel of his saddle and picked up her backpack, holding it with one hand and his reins in the other. “Which way?” he asked.
She pointed to where she’d left her car, grabbed the box containing her supplies and canvas, and together they started walking. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry, sticking to a leisurely pace.
Sky, for her part, was starting to bubble over with questions. She just didn’t know if she should ask him. But finally one burst from her.
“Are you some kind of cop?”
He glanced at her, just before they entered the shadow of the trees, and at last she caught a glint of dark gray eyes. “Some kind. I’m in law enforcement for the service, but I’m also a biologist. So I wear a few hats. I keep an eye on the wildlife while patrolling for violators, I do search and rescue, firefighting.” He gave a laugh. “Short staffing makes everyone a jack-of-all-trades, I guess. Anyway, I guess you could say my main job is protecting visitors and employees. Whatever’s most needed on any day.” He paused. “I’m Craig Stone, by the way.”
“Skylar Jamison. Sky for short.”
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Jamison.”
“I was certainly glad to see you. That man made me really nervous, and I don’t get unnerved easily. What is he? Some kind of hermit who thinks he owns the woods?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that. Are you aware that when we turn land into national forest or parkland we don’t throw out people who are already living there?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well, we don’t evict people. They get to stay the way they always have if they want to, or we buy them out. The guy you met owns a spread inside the forest here.”
“Is that what I saw across the valley?”
“Part of it. He owns a fair piece.”
“Does he make a point of bothering people?”
“Not usually. He’s got his property posted and doesn’t like trespassers, but...” He paused. “Something’s going on over there lately. I usually mind my own business when it comes to his property, but maybe it’s time to have a few friendly words. I’m certainly going to make sure he doesn’t drive people off public land, or scare them. Maybe I can even find out why he was bothered by you at all.”
“He called me a spy.”
Craig turned his head and looked straight at her. “Really?”
“His word, not mine.”
He fell silent as they continued to walk. The sound of the horse’s hooves were almost entirely muted by the deep pine needles under the trees, then would become louder again as they scuffed through leaves. “How often have you been out there?”
“This was the third day.”
“Do you use that camera a lot?”
“Like I said, to capture the light as much as anything. It’s changing constantly, and sometimes there’s something about it I really want to catch for later.”
“I wonder if the camera got to him. Well, I’ll find out. Either way, if you want to come back to this spot, you can. I’ll make sure of it.”
“You may have a lot of guns, but they won’t be around when I’m out there alone.”
That elicited a laugh from him. “True, but I don’t think Buddy runs to violence. A little nutty maybe, but I never heard of him hurting anybody. But if you like, I know some other vantages as good as that one I can show you. Well away from Buddy.”
“I may take you up on that.” Although the idea of ceding ground to a crank annoyed her no end. She knew perfectly well that she could deal with that guy. He hadn’t even been armed that she could see. She just didn’t want the conflict. This was supposed to be a break.
“Feel free. Just leave a message for me with Lucy at the station. She’ll radio me.”
“Thanks. So you’re a biologist, too?”
“Focused on wildlife mostly.”
“If it walks, crawls or flies, I’m probably on it. Our mission is to protect everything in these forests for future generations. It’s not always easy. We humans seem to have some problems getting along with nature.”
“No kidding! So I bet you know the names of all the wildflowers?”
“Sure. You want to know what they are?”
“Actually no,” she admitted. “I see them a different way, categorize them by colors and shapes. Names might change what I see.”
“An artist’s eye?”
“Then why did you ask?”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Because you’re the first person I’ve ever met who might actually know the official names of everything in the woods.”
He flashed another truly attractive smile as they reached the service road and her battered sedan came into view. He helped her load her car, then closed her door after she climbed in. She rolled down the window and started the engine.
“Drive slow. We’ve got some logging trucks driving a little crazy up here.”
She looked up at him, drinking in again his good looks. “I didn’t see any.”
“We’re doing some thinning to prevent disease and clearing some deadfalls. If you stay around awhile, you’ll see them. Drive safe.” He gave the top of her car a friendly rap, then stepped back, remounted and watched her drive away.
Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw him. Dang, that man looked good enough to eat.
As soon as there was nothing left but a cloud of dust, Craig pulled the radio off his belt to call his boss. “Hey, Lucy.”
“What’s up, Craig?”
“Buddy. He’s done it again. I’m going to have to go talk to him, probably in the morning. Night’s drawing near.”
“Want me to send someone to meet you?”