Just Because, Book 2
Bridget Wilder ducked behind the boxes and wondered how the hell she got here. Slowly, she peered around the shipping crate that was currently hiding her. She was armed with nothing more than a mini-recorder, her car keys, cell phone and a tube of cherry ChapStick. If things went down badly, she was screwed.
One of these days she was going to take lessons at the shooting range and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Sometimes she thought she was the only journalist in New York City who wasn’t packing heat. Not that her job as the What to Do in the City This Weekend girl was all that hazardous to her health. Worst on-job injury she’d ever received was food poisoning from a hot dog at a street fair.
Now, that was all about to change. Her mind whirled over the information she hoped to receive tonight. The Honorable Judge Lucian Thompson was on the take. He was as crooked as they came and she was about to get rock-solid proof. She imagined the implications her front-page story would have for the city’s court system. How many guilty criminals had Thompson sent back out on the streets simply to fill his own pocket?
The editor in chief of her newspaper was going to freak out when she presented him with this article. She grinned in excited anticipation. This was the kind of story—the kind of break—every struggling reporter hoped to receive in her life. She pictured herself as a young Woodward or Bernstein—except, of course, she had a rocking manicure and hot pink Converse tennis shoes. Her picture would be splashed on every TV station and in every newspaper as the reporter who set New York City on its ear with her groundbreaking investigative report.
She checked the time on her cell phone. Her informant, a friend from college, was late. Lyle had lived in the same apartment complex during their senior year. He’d asked her out a few times early on. She’d genuinely liked Lyle, but they had absolutely nothing in common—he was into mysteries and sudoku, while she was a romantic comedies and shopping kind of girl. One night after drinking too much red wine, Lyle had tried to kiss her. More than a little bit tipsy, she let him. It had lasted less than fifteen painful seconds. Then they’d pulled apart and started laughing hysterically. It had been obvious to both of them there was no sexual attraction. With the pressure of a relationship gone, the friendship had blossomed and grown.
After graduation, she’d landed a job at The New York Reporter, a small newspaper in the city, while Lyle had been hired as a network specialist for the city court system. She’d teased him after he landed the job that she was glad he’d learned to use his computer skills for good rather than evil. She had no doubt Lyle could hack his way into any computer system if he put his mind to it. Bridget considered that now and worried about the means he’d used to discover the information he was about to share with her.
A door opened at the far end of the abandoned warehouse. She’d laughed when Lyle had given her directions to the place for “the drop”, as he called it. Her friend was far too fond of Tom Clancy novels, and she knew he had every episode of Criminal Minds saved on his DVR. She started to rise, but recalled Lyle’s warning. Count to one hundred before you expose yourself. I want to make sure no one’s followed me.
She’d rolled her eyes when he issued that directive, but given the creepy surroundings and the nervous butterflies in her stomach, it suddenly didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Crouching lower, she slowly began to count in her head. She hadn’t made it to thirty when the doors of the warehouse opened again. Peering from behind the crate, she watched as two men came into the large room. Lyle, who’d been standing in the middle of the room, whirled to face them.
Bridget’s heart raced faster as pure, sheer terror coursed through her veins. Lyle had said he would come alone and he’d insisted she do the same. Given her friend’s nervous stance, she knew these men hadn’t been invited to the party.
“Well, well, well. What a surprise. You’re out late, Lyle.”
Fuck. Her breathing picked up when she recognized Judge Thompson’s voice. This was bad. Very, very bad. She sank lower, her back pressed against the rough crate. She forced herself to think. There had to be something she could do to protect her friend.
“Judge Thompson.” Lyle’s voice was steady. Bridget’s respect for her geeky friend went up several notches. “Didn’t expect to run into you here.”
“Didn’t you?” The judge’s question was laced with malice. “Surely you didn’t think your computer tampering would go unnoticed.”
Bridget’s breathing accelerated and her hands shook as she reached into her pocket. Pulling out her cell phone and her mini-recorder, she struggled to hit the red dot. Perhaps she could capture the judge saying something incriminating she could use to barter for their freedom. Unfortunately, she wasn’t holding her breath the device would pick up much. She was too far away.
Quietly placing the recorder on the ground, she turned her attention to her phone, dialing 911. The operator’s voice sounded unbearably loud in the warehouse and Bridget froze. There was no way she could talk to the person on the other end without being discovered.
Lyle and the judge continued to speak, but Bridget found it difficult to make out their words as blood coursed through her body, pounding in her ears like a bass drum. The operator spoke again. Bridget was paralyzed with fear. She had to do something, say something, but she was too terrified to speak, even in a whisper.
As she peered around the crate, Bridget’s stomach plummeted to her feet. The judge had pulled out a gun. The men were still speaking and by their comfortable stance, she knew her presence was unknown. The judge and his accomplice were completely focused on Lyle.
“Who are you meeting here?” the judge asked.
Lyle put his hands out nonchalantly. “I’m not meeting anyone. Just taking a little nightly stroll.”
The judge’s henchman threw a punch at Lyle’s face. Bridget heard the cracking of bones and suspected he’d broken Lyle’s nose. Lyle made no move to defend himself or to fight back. He simply raised his hands to his nose, trying to stem the flow of blood.
“Don’t be a smart-ass.” Judge Thompson sneered at Lyle.
Bridget was distracted when the 911 operator spoke once more. She needed to act, needed to do something before Lyle was hurt even worse. Keeping her eyes on the men in the center of the room, she lightly whispered the address to the warehouse. The operator attempted to ask more questions, but Bridget had already spoken more than she dared. None of the men had heard her whispers, and it gave her foolish hope. Perhaps the police would arrive in time. Perhaps the cops would burst in with guns drawn to capture the villains and save them.
“Give me the flash drive.” The judge held an outstretched palm toward Lyle, the other hand still holding the all-too-threatening gun.
“Don’t be any more stupid than you already have been. I know what you have in your possession. You can give it to me now and try to beg for your pathetic, meaningless life, or I can take it off your dead body. Either way works for me.”
“Either way sounds like a death sentence for me.”
If Bridget hadn’t felt like beating the shit out of Lyle for his cavalier attitude, she would have cheered on his bravery. He wasn’t cowering or pleading. He was incredible.
As the seconds passed, Bridget prayed the night’s silence would be broken by approaching sirens. None came.
“Give it to me,” the judge demanded.
Lyle shook his head. “You didn’t think I’d actually bring it here, did you?”
Bridget prayed that was true. If Lyle didn’t have what Judge Thompson wanted, surely that bought him more time.
The judge looked at his accomplice, jerking his head toward Lyle. “Check his pockets.”
Lyle didn’t put up a fight as the bruiser began searching his pockets. Bridget closed her eyes and released a silent curse when the man pulled a flash drive out of Lyle’s right pocket.
“You don’t think that’s the only copy I’ve made, do you?” Lyle’s voice rang out across the vast space, his words clear and welcome.
Yes, Bridget mouthed. Keep them guessing…and talking. Where the fuck were the police?
The judge shrugged as if unconcerned. A malicious smile covered his face and Bridget knew things were about to go as bad as they possibly could. The scene began to unfold in slow motion as the judge lifted his hand and fired one shot directly into the center of Lyle’s chest. There was no warning, no time for Lyle to run or dodge. One minute he was standing there, the next he was lying on the floor.
Bridget sat stunned, motionless. It was as if time simply stood still. She didn’t breathe. Her heart didn’t beat. Ice-cold numbness consumed her.
The judge’s voice broke the spell. “Search the rest of the warehouse. Make sure no one else is here.”
She was dead. Glancing around, she realized she’d placed herself in the worst possible position for escape. She was hiding along a far wall, and the only way to the lone door at the front of the building was by crossing the vast space where the judge stood, where Lyle lay inert on the floor.
Distant sirens pierced the night and all three living occupants jerked. The judge’s henchman gave up his search and the two of them hastily escaped. The sound of a car’s doors slamming, an engine starting, and peeling tires on the pavement told her they’d be long gone before the cavalry arrived.
Bridget picked up her mini-recorder and phone, then rose from her hiding spot. She forced her legs to support her. As if treading through waist-deep mud, she fought her way to the center of the floor. She knew what she’d find there, knew what she’d see. Lyle had been dead the second the judge pulled the trigger, his life extinguished in the blink of an eye.
When she reached her friend, she dropped to her knees by his side. His lifeless eyes were still open, a slight look of surprise covering his frozen features. She studied his face, memorizing it, imprinting it in her mind and on her heart. She’d let him down. He’d trusted her with the information he’d uncovered. Only her. And she’d failed him.
Picking up his hand, she held it gently in hers.
“I’m sorry, Lyle,” she whispered. “So sorry.”
The sirens grew louder, cars pulling up outside the warehouse. She didn’t rise to meet the police. Instead, she remained with Lyle and let them come to her. They entered with their weapons drawn and approached cautiously. Once they determined she wasn’t a threat, they took stock of the scene and called for a coroner.
Calmly, she answered all of their four thousand, two hundred and twenty-two questions. She saw the look of surprise on all the cops’ faces when she named Judge Thompson as the murderer. Finally, a million years later, they let her leave—with a police escort.
Climbing the stairs to her apartment with the rookie cop shadowing her ascent, Bridget made a silent vow to her friend. The judge would pay for tonight’s crime as well as all the others. She wouldn’t rest until justice had been served…for Lyle.
Six months later…
Bridget stared at the piece of paper in her hands, her eyes no longer focusing on the words she’d committed to memory months ago. Sighing heavily, she glanced out the window at the picturesque, snow-capped mountains in the distance. Sometimes she still found it hard to believe how much her life had changed in such a short span of time. This time a year ago, she was typing up local interest pieces in a four-by-four cubicle at the Reporter’s offices. Her only view back then was of a computer screen. To add some life to the dull cubicle, she had a calendar thumbtacked to the wall with scenes similar to the real-life one she was staring at now. In New York, she pretended like the calendar was her window with a view.
With one pull of a trigger, her life had altered overnight.
“The words in that letter aren’t going to change no matter how many times you read them.”
She grinned, glancing over her shoulder at Rodney. “You say that every time I pull it out.”
“Maybe that’s because you’re looking at it every five minutes like you’re going to see something different. Not sure what you’re hoping to find.” Rodney claimed the comfy armchair opposite hers, stretching his feet out and crossing them at the ankles.
Rodney Jackson had been assigned to protect her after the arrest of Judge Thompson. The murderer hadn’t spent a single night in jail for his crime, making bail almost immediately. Apparently judges—crooked or clean—looked out for each other.
“There has to be something we’re missing.”
Rodney looked around at the small sitting room of the bed and breakfast where they were currently hiding out. “You can say that again. Seems to me we’ve hit a dead end.”
She shook her head. She wouldn’t—couldn’t—accept that. “No, Lyle’s put all the pieces here. We just have to figure them out.”
Apparently Lyle had stopped by her apartment prior to his appearance at the warehouse. He’d slid a coded letter under her door that she’d discovered when she returned home that night.
At first, she hadn’t had time to acknowledge or even attempt to crack the code contained in the message. She’d been instructed to quickly pack a suitcase, and then she’d been placed in the very capable hands of Rodney, who had become her protector, guardian angel and best friend.
Rodney rested his head against the cushioned back of the chair and sighed loudly. “I don’t know, Bridge. It’s not looking good.”
Guilt pricked at the edges of her conscience. The dear cop had put his life and career on the line for her. She hated feeling like she’d failed yet another friend.
“We’re in the right place, Rodney. I know it. We just have to figure out the rest of the puzzle, and we’ll have all the evidence we need to take down a hell of a lot more criminals than just Judge Thompson.” Lyle had given up his life to see not only the judge brought to justice, but the judge’s entire network as well.
She sighed. He had also died for her. He’d brought the evidence to her instead of a more seasoned reporter because he wanted to help her get a promotion, a break in her career. Bridget intended to see that his sacrifice wasn’t wasted. She’d find the evidence, see the bad guys put behind bars, and then she’d take New York by storm. She’d become the greatest reporter ever and write a front-page article telling the world what Lyle had done.
She looked at the letter again. The paper had lost its crispness due to her constant handling. It was now soft as thin cotton and just as flimsy. Lyle’s damn love of mysteries and puzzles was currently driving her insane. He’d clearly coded his message in a way—he’d thought—only she would be able to solve. Unfortunately, he’d been too clever for her.
He’d penned the letter as a memory—one they didn’t share. To anyone reading the message, they’d think it a short, funny story about a drunken night in college. Bridget knew better. Lyle had mentioned there were copies of the flash drive the judge had taken from him. Copies that held the information he’d uncovered regarding the judge’s illegal affairs. When she thought back to the night he was killed, she was certain Lyle had said that one statement louder than everything else. Actually, she had proof that was true, because it was one of the few things her minirecorder had picked up in the warehouse. She knew to the very depths of her soul that Lyle’s letter would lead her to those copied files.
After several months of traveling from safe house to safe house—and she used that term lightly—she’d managed to convince Rodney they should pursue the clues left in the letter rather than sit idly by, awaiting the beginning of the trial.
When it became apparent someone inside the New York police department was selling out their whereabouts to the judge and his accomplice, they’d decided to go it alone. Rodney had taken to calling her kitten, claiming she had the nine lives of a cat. Bridget was pretty sure she’d already used up at least eight of them. There was no way she could face the open end of a gun again and survive.
“I must’ve lost my mind, letting you talk me into coming here.”
She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Don’t talk like that. We’re so close. We have to be.”
“Christ, Bridget. We’re no closer to finding those files now than we were when we were still in Oklahoma.”
“The code indicated Saratoga. You discovered that piece of the puzzle yourself.” She held out the paper and pointed to the first line in the letter. It simply said,
Remember in college when Sara got totally trashed at the toga party?
It was Rodney who had shared the fact that some codes were based on numbers. By counting every sixth word, they came up with Saratoga. Bridget recalled Lyle saying one time that he was born in Wyoming. When Rodney had said the word Saratoga, something clicked with her. Unfortunately, his every sixth word theory had run dry after that sentence. The code of six didn’t appear to work for the rest of the missive.
“And here we sit in the middle of Bumfuck, Wyoming, with a crooked judge’s hit man hot on our heels with no backup and no disk or flash drive or whatever the fuck it is we’re supposed to be looking for.”
“The copy the judge took off Lyle the night he was killed was a flash drive. I bet that’s what we’re looking for.”
Rodney shook his head. “Regardless of what the information is stored on, we still don’t know where it is. I need to call in, tell my chief where we are. As it is, I’m pretty sure he’s ready to fire my ass the minute I show myself.”
Twice, a hit man had shown up at the safe house where they were hidden, and twice, Rodney had managed to smuggle her to safety. Following the last failed attempt on her life, they’d holed up in an abandoned apartment building outside Oklahoma City for three days while trying to figure out their next move. When Bridget had shown him Lyle’s letter and laid out her reasons for wanting to break the code and find the information, Rodney agreed to help her. They’d gone rogue, unable to trust anyone in Rodney’s department.
“Rodney, the damage is done. We can’t undo the fact that we’ve cut ties from them. You knew when we took this route your job was in danger. Don’t cave now. Not when we’re so close. I guarantee if you go back to New York with the information to bring down so many criminals, there’s no way your chief will fire you. Hell, you’ll probably be hailed as a hero and given the key to the whole freaking city. They might even throw you a parade.”
Rodney chuckled. “Christ. You could talk a billionaire into giving up all his money. Never met such a persuasive woman.”
She grinned. “Not persuasive. That makes me sound like some crooked politician. I prefer the word determined. What we’re doing is right, Rodney. You know it is or you never would have gone along with this plan in the first place. It’s too late for cold feet.”
“And what happens if the hit man shows up here? This isn’t like the last two places. They were secluded with preplanned escape routes. We’re sitting ducks here. And the worst part is I can’t ensure the safety of the other guests in this bed and breakfast. The owners are nice guys. I’d hate to put them in danger.”
Rodney had a very good point. They’d come to Saratoga with no plan other than to find the flash drive. Rodney had been in a hurry to get them off the road and to find them a place to stay, so he’d opted for this secluded B&B away from the town rather than the hotel on the main thoroughfare. Even though it was peaceful and off the beaten track, they’d been on their own for too many months, and it was hard not to feel exposed in the relatively full B&B. Just their luck, they’d chosen Valentine’s weekend to go it alone. They were surrounded by lovers on romantic getaways.
“We’ll just have to be on our guard.”
Rodney raised an eyebrow. “And how will that be different from any other day these past six months?”
She laughed. “Why don’t you see if the owners will let you use their computer? Maybe you can find a secluded cabin somewhere around here that we can rent for cheap.”
“Cheap being the operative term.”
They’d cleaned out both of their bank accounts just before hopping on a bus from Oklahoma to Wyoming. Without the protection of the police department, money was going to be tight. Neither of them dared to use their credit cards.
Rodney rose. “I’d rather walk the perimeter of the property again. Try to map out some sort of plan in case the bad guys show up. Why don’t you do the cabin research?”
“You mean I can leave the room?” She’d expected Rodney to keep her under lock and key in the tiny room, and while she wouldn’t complain, she didn’t relish the boredom that would ensue.
“Well…” he hedged.
She stood quickly before he could change his mind. “This sounds like a good plan. It will be too suspicious if I stay in this room. Better if we act normal.” She gave Rodney a quick kiss on his cheek. With his short black hair and light brown skin, he was the poster child for biracial beauty. Handsome as sin with a body to die for, he was also completely, one hundred percent out of the closet.
Another loss for our side, Bridget thought when Rodney added a strong hug to her kiss. Rodney had confided one evening several months ago that his sexual preferences had come to light shortly before her unfortunate evening in the warehouse. Some of the fellow officers in Rodney’s precinct had revealed their true colors as homophobes and roughed him up one night after his shift ended. The asshole officers had been suspended, but the chief had thought it best to put some time and distance between all parties. As a result, Rodney had been assigned “babysitting duty”, as he called it. Their first few weeks together had been strained to say the least as Rodney harbored some serious anger over the assignment and Bridget wallowed in grief and guilt over her part in Lyle’s death.
The night after the first attempt on her life, they’d started talking rather than avoiding each other. Eventually Bridget’s grief lessened and Rodney’s anger abated. Since then, there wasn’t a thought either of them had that wasn’t shared.
“Just don’t leave the house, kitten,” he cautioned.
“And try not to engage in conversation with anyone. Don’t establish eye contact or let anyone see you.”
She barely caught herself before she rolled her eyes. “That might be tough when I ask to use a computer.”
Rodney shook his head. “This is a mistake. Maybe it would be best if you didn’t leave this room.”
She grinned at his overprotective nature. “I won’t go farther than the sitting room downstairs. I’m researching cabins, remember? Finding us somewhere else to stay. I’ll be in and out so quickly no one will remember I was even there.”
He sighed. “Don’t go on any personal accounts. No checking email or IMs or—”
She held up a hand to silence him. “Preaching to the choir, Officer. Believe me, I know the drill by now.”
He reached up and ruffled her hair before turning and heading out the door. Before he crossed the threshold, he issued the same warning he’d been giving her for months. “Be careful, Bridge.”
Walking to the dresser, she straightened the hair Rodney had mussed up. Studying her reflection, she realized that, for the first time in a long time, she looked more like her true self. She wondered at the transformation.
For months following Lyle’s murder, she’d worn dark circles and a haunted expression. She’d been a stranger even to herself, jumping at every sound, trembling every time the lights went out. Her mother used to despair about her habit of rushing into danger headfirst without a care to the consequences. In the course of ten minutes, that rashness, that faux bravery had been wiped out. It had taken her a long time to get used to the new, far-too-cautious woman she’d become.
The self-assured gleam in her dark brown eyes was gone, replaced instead by wariness. That look no longer seemed strange.
This is the new normal.
Picking up a hair band, she pulled her dark blonde hair into a ponytail. It had grown quite long since she’d left New York.
“That’s what happens when you lead a life on the run. No time for the hairdresser,” she murmured. Maybe she’d look up hair salons in town while she was searching for a secluded cabin to rent.
That thought was dismissed almost immediately. Money was too tight. She and Rodney had spent nearly two hours last night trying to figure out how long they could exist on their own before they ran out of funds. There were three weeks left before the judge’s trial began. They had enough money for perhaps two, if they were thrifty.
Bridget released a long breath and dismissed that worry from her mind. She and Rodney had adopted the “one day at a time” motto the second they left Oklahoma. For today, she had a roof over her head and enough money in her pocket for food. She also felt safe for the first time in months. After the attack on their first safe house, Bridget hadn’t had a peaceful moment, constantly looking over her shoulder. She wasn’t sure what was so different now, but she knew—to the depth of her soul—that she and Rodney were in a good place. No one in the world knew where they were or how to find them. It felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders for a little while. She intended to enjoy the respite.
Walking into the hallway, she locked the door to her room and descended the wide staircase. Glancing in several of the B&B’s common rooms for Todd or Steven, the hotel proprietors, Bridget took a few minutes to study the beautifully restored old home. When they’d arrived yesterday afternoon, Rodney had hustled her to their room immediately, sequestering her there while he checked out the property and secured food for their dinner. It felt good to be free.
She was about to cross the foyer to check the other side of the house when the front door opened. Her new habit of hide first, ask questions later emerged and she panicked, trying to dodge back the way she’d come. In her haste to escape, her foot caught on the edge of the Oriental rug, and she took a hard tumble.
Four boot-covered feet appeared before her. She felt strong hands on either side reaching down to help her up.
“Sorry,” she said, keeping her head down. It was foolish to think anyone in this small, middle-of-nowhere town would know who she was, but Rodney had taught her well in the art of making herself as invisible as possible. She fought to suppress her trembling hands. Her heart was racing a mile a minute. God, why did she have to be frightened of her own shadow? She hated living like this, feeling this way.
“You okay, miss?”
All of Rodney’s tutoring went out the window as her nipples pebbled and a slight shiver of arousal wove its way through her body. She lifted her face to see the owner of that deep, sexy-as-hell voice. Identical faces etched with concern greeted her.
She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound emerged. Standing before her were twin Greek gods, kings of the western frontier, complete with rugged, dimpled cheeks, blue eyes that—honest to God—twinkled, and shaggy, made-for-running-her-fingers-through dark brown hair only partially concealed by cowboy hats.
If she’d lived a hundred years ago, she would have felt compelled to fucking swoon. Instead, her twenty-first-century sensibilities took over and she simply muttered, “Holy double wow.”
Both men grinned widely at her ridiculous comment. “I take it that means you’re not hurt, darlin’.”
Her pussy clenched at his term of endearment. Could there be anything hotter than a gorgeous cowboy calling her darlin’ with that slight country twang? Briefly she imagined him—hell, who was she fooling, them—whispering it to her while they lay together naked in bed.
She cleared her throat and forced herself to stop staring—and drooling—like a love-struck teenage girl. “I’m fine. Clumsy and embarrassed, but otherwise unscathed.”
The hot cowboy on her left chuckled. “Unscathed, huh? Pretty talk. Where are you from?”
“New York,” she confided before her brain engaged to scream a warning. Jesus. Rodney should have locked her in the room. She was going to blow their cover in under thirty seconds, and all because of a couple good-looking men. Stupidity due to horniness was not something her cop friend would forgive easily.
“City girl,” the other cowboy said, though his tone indicated interest more than disdain.
She nodded, determined to keep her mouth shut before any more little tidbits—like the fact she was hiding out from a corrupt judge—fell from her desperate-to-taste-the-cowboys lips.
“I take it you’re one of the guests staying here?” her hot cowboy number one asked.
She paused, decided the question was harmless and nodded once more.
“So what brings a city girl to our neck of the woods?” This question was posed by hot cowboy number two.
She and Rodney had sketched out a rough explanation for their visit with the intention of refining it this morning. Now, it appeared she would have to fly by the seat of her pants. “I’m here with my half-brother.” Shit, five words in and she was already straying from the script. She and Rodney had agreed to pose as a couple, but for some reason, she didn’t want these two men to think she was in a relationship.
That thought led to a major internal eye-roll.
Right, Bridget, like you have so much time to try to hook up with a cowboy—or two.
“Vacation or business?”
“Vacation,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at being a cowgirl.” Where the fuck had that come from? She’d never considered such a thing in her life until laying eyes on these two Wonders of the Western World.
“Well, now. If you need some help with that, Matt and I are pretty good teachers.”
Matt. Cowboy number one had a name.
“You teach a lot of cowgirls the ropes, do you?” she asked with a lilt in her voice. Christ, could her flirting be any more obvious? Why not post a sign on her forehead that said, Hasn’t been laid in a year.
Matt’s smile grew, his dimples deepening. A girl could fall into those bottomless caverns on his chiseled face and never be found again. She could think of worse places to get lost. “My brothers and I own the ranch next door. We train horses, give riding lessons. Stuff like that. We’d be more than happy to help you give that cowgirl lifestyle a whirl if you’re interested. We’ll even supply the rope if that’s what you fancy.”
Her brain went straight to the gutter and she had trouble focusing after riding lessons.
She recalled a song she and Rodney had heard on the radio while holed up in Oklahoma. The chorus of the song told listeners to save a horse and ride a cowboy. They’d laughed their asses off as Rodney had twirled her around the small kitchen in a ridiculous city-folk attempt at Texas two-stepping.
“Hey, there you guys are.” Todd, one of the owners of the B&B, appeared from a back hallway. Bridget had only seen him briefly the night before. “I was starting to worry.”
“We got sidetracked by a pretty lady,” Matt said, winking at her.
She wasn’t sure how that simple gesture, which would have seemed somewhat creepy in the city, could be so charming here. Her core temperature rose another notch.
Todd joined their small group and held out his hand to her. “I’m afraid I didn’t get to introduce myself to you properly last night.” He turned to the cowboys to explain. “Bridget and her companion appeared in the midst of the kitchen fire.”
She hated to say how much that fire ordeal had thrilled Rodney to no end. He’d considered their less-than-noteworthy arrival the first bit of good fortune after several months of shitty luck and declared no one would even remember they were there. She was quickly destroying that luck. She was supposed to be invisible, not engaging in a conversation with three men, two of whom hadn’t taken their eyes off her since entering the house. She struggled to regret that, but it was turning her on too much. It was a bit disconcerting to discover her libido outranked her sense of self-preservation.
“Bridget Carson,” she said, quickly recalling the fake name Rodney had used last night when they checked in.
“I’m Todd Branner, Steven’s other half. He was the tall, terribly handsome fellow who checked you in last night.”
Bridget nodded, smiling at Todd’s description of his boyfriend.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you, but our ancient stove finally gave up the ghost in grand style. Nothing like going out in a blaze of glory.”
“So I heard. I’m relieved no one was hurt and there was no serious damage,” she said.
Todd shrugged. “Only damage was to my Baked Alaska, which was a crime of epic proportion. Besides, I always keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen for Steven’s night to cook.”
“I heard that,” Steven said, rounding the corner.
“Busted,” Todd joked.
They all laughed. Bridget felt the tension that hadn’t left her body in months begin to loosen. It felt good to be back in the land of the living, among people whose biggest concerns were issues at work and burned dinners.
The front door opened and her fears reappeared in an instant. It took all the strength in her body not to move behind the two large cowboys. They could shield her from the newest arrival easily with plenty of bulky muscles to spare.
Rodney entered and took in the scene in silence. She saw surprise, annoyance and anger cross his features in the span of a single second.
“There’s my baby brother,” she said with forced cheerfulness, praying Rodney would pick up her cues and roll with them. She’d shot their cover story to hell.
“Hey, sis.” Rodney appeared lighthearted, but his eyes were piercing hers. He wasn’t happy to find her out in the open with half the neighborhood in attendance. “I thought you had a headache.”
He was giving her a quick out. She needed it. “Just looking for some aspirin.”
“Oh,” Todd piped up. “You should have said something. Didn’t mean to keep you standing around. I have a big bottle in the kitchen. Let me go grab it.”
Matt turned to Rodney, reaching out for a handshake. “I’m Matt James and this is my brother, Mark. We live next door.”
At last, a name for cowboy number two. Matt and Mark James.
Bridget moved toward Rodney, who gave her a questioning look, uncertain what to say to these strangers. Filling in the blanks for him, she took over the introductions. “This is my half-brother, Rodney Carson. And I’m Bridget, which you already know.”
“You’re both from New York City?” Mark asked.
Rodney’s piercing gaze shot daggers in her direction, but she pointedly ignored him. “Yep. We’re both city slickers.”
Matt glanced her way once more. “If you’re serious about the cowgirl lessons, Bridget, you’re welcome to come over to the James Ranch. We’ll have you roping and riding in no time.”
She nodded noncommittally. “Thanks. That’s a nice offer.”
“Here we are.” Todd handed her two aspirin and a glass of water.
Rodney placed a firm hand on her lower back. For a minute, she expected him to pinch her in true sibling style. She could tell he was mad enough to. “I think maybe you should go back upstairs, Bridget, so you can lie down.”
“Okay.” Great, she wasn’t looking forward to the coming eruption. She’d never seen Rodney lose his temper, but she could tell he was on the verge of it at the moment.
Matt glanced at the kitchen door. “Guess we’ve put off the backbreaking reason we’re here long enough.”
“Backbreaking?” she asked.
“Matt and Mark came over to help us drag out the oven from hell. The replacement will be delivered this afternoon and I wanted a chance to clean up the mess. Little washing and touch-up painting and we should be right as rain. Dinner may be a bit late though, and I’m afraid lunch is just going to be cold-cut sandwiches.”
“No problem,” Rodney said smoothly. “Need a hand with the stove?”
Matt slapped Rodney on the back in a friendly manner. “Hell yeah. That fucker is ancient. Probably weighs a ton.”
Rodney turned to her. “Go on up, Bridge. I’ll be there in a little while. Once we’ve sorted stuff out in the kitchen.”
No doubt her protector intended to minimize the damage she’d done in terms of compromising their cover story. Climbing the stairs, she tried to summon a bit of guilt for messing things up. For some reason, she couldn’t do it. Foolish or not, she felt safe here. Her gut told her she could trust these people. It had been a long time since she’d experienced that. It gave her hope for the future. Maybe she wouldn’t always be frightened. Maybe the old Bridget was still inside, lurking, waiting for the right time to reemerge.
Please let that be true.
She had reached the door to her room when she recalled Matt’s tempting offer. She smiled and let herself pretend she really was on vacation. She may be a city girl, but she had no doubt she was more than ready to saddle up and ride with those cowboys. She could just imagine all the juicy daydreams she could conjure up about the James brothers.
Maybe her time spent in this room wouldn’t be so boring after all.
For the first time in a long time, the downhill spiral of her life appeared to be changing direction. Yee haw.
The next morning, Bridget sat down for breakfast in the B&B’s dining room. As she’d expected, Rodney had given her an ass-chewing of epic proportions the previous afternoon. It was well deserved, but she was still smarting a bit from it.
The only reason she had been allowed to come back out in public was because Rodney had determined Todd, Steven and the hunky twin cowboys were decent guys who didn’t have a clue who she and Rodney really were. Besides, as he’d said, the damage was done. There were now witnesses who could identify them to anyone who came looking. The four men would become suspicious if she suddenly took to hiding in the room. He’d decided it would be better if they went about their business as if everything were normal. However, he stressed she wasn’t allowed to set one foot outside the inn.
So much for her riding lessons dream.
Because of the mess she’d made, Rodney’s new goal was to find a secluded cabin to rent in the woods near Saratoga while they tried to piece out the clues in the remainder of the letter.
Much to her chagrin, they would have to leave the B&B immediately. Bridget was loath to return to the solitary existence that had become her normal life the past few months. While Rodney was nice company, she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed people until yesterday’s flirtatious conversation with Matt and Mark. She was tired of being alone and lonely.
Guilt pierced her heart with that thought. Lyle’s face as he lay dead on the cold warehouse floor flashed before her eyes. She was doing this for him. She’d made him a promise that night. Three more weeks. Twenty-one days until she could see justice served. She owed that to Lyle. Until then, it was too selfish to wish for anything else.
Once she’d repaid that debt, she’d figure out a way to return to her own life. She just prayed she could find it again.
“That’s not a very happy face.”
Bridget jumped, nearly spilling the glass of water Todd had put in front of her only a few minutes earlier. “Oh God!”
“Damn. Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.” Quick hands reached out to catch the water.
Speak of the devils. Bridget glanced up to find Matt and Mark looking down at her.
“Hey,” she said, the racing of her heart no longer based on fear. The sight of the cowboys sent her body into overdrive. “What are you guys doing here?”
Mark removed his hat, running his hand through his hair. “Todd offered us a big breakfast as a thank you for moving the oven. We don’t turn down one of his western omelets.”
“They’re that good?”
Matt followed his brother’s lead, removing his hat as well. “Best in the state. Sorry about scaring you. Thought you saw us walk in.”
She shrugged off her unwanted fears, forcing a lie from her lips. “I was daydreaming.”
“Must have been some dream to take you so far away. Didn’t look like a particularly nice one either,” Mark said.
She used to believe nightmares were only for sleeping. However, after spending the past six months wide awake in the midst of a horrible dream, she now knew better.
She forced the unpleasant thought from her mind and painted on a smile. For now, she was exactly where she wanted to be—surrounded by nice people in a place that felt safe and homey. She’d focus on that instead. She gestured at the empty seats across from her. “Would you like to join me?”
Mark grinned. “Thought you’d never ask.”
She rubbed her hands on her lap as they each claimed a chair at the table. Sweaty palms? Was it due to anxiety from her earlier concerns or girlish nervousness over being so close to the James twins? Rodney would kill her for pushing her luck, but she was running perilously low on common sense or care these days.
The months since Lyle’s shooting had passed in one long blur of constant pain, limitless fatigue and never-ending motion. She was tired of being suspicious of everyone.
Prior to Lyle’s murder, she’d never known a stranger. She’d won friendliest in her high school yearbook’s Who’s Who, and she missed talking to people, hanging out with friends, dating. Most of all, she really missed sex. Not that she was promiscuous, but criminy, it had been nearly a year since she’d even kissed a member of the opposite sex. She wasn’t cut out for a chaste lifestyle.
On top of the everlasting horniness, it was exhausting to look at everyone as the enemy. She hated walking into a room and wondering if someone there was plotting her death. There was something comfortable about the handsome twins that told her she could trust them.
Matt leaned back in his seat, stretching his long legs out beneath the table. His foot accidentally rubbed against hers. She had to fight to keep her libido at bay. “How’s your headache?”
She frowned for a moment, wondering what he was talking about. Then she recalled Rodney’s lie. “Oh, it’s fine. All better.”
Todd came out of the kitchen and made a beeline for their table. “I was starting to wonder if you guys were going to take me up on my omelet offer.”
“We had a bit of trouble with one of the horses this morning. One of the Appaloosas threw a shoe. It set us back a bit of time,” Mark replied.
“Well, it’s no problem. I’ve still got my new stove fired up and hot. I know what you guys want. What about you, Bridget?”
“I’ll just have a bowl of cereal.” She wasn’t a hundred percent sure breakfast was included in the price of the stay.
Matt shook his head. “Cereal? No wonder you’re so skinny. She’ll have an omelet too. On us.”
“Oh, you don’t have to—”
Mark reached across the table and patted her hand. “We’re not letting you leave Wyoming without trying this omelet.”
She laughed. “Well, in that case, I suppose I’d better relent.”
Todd poured each of them a cup of coffee before heading back to the kitchen. She’d postponed coming down for breakfast, thinking she could avoid the rush. She thought her plan had worked as she’d had the whole place to herself for a few minutes. Funny, how the space had seemed large and cold when she’d been alone with only her sad memories. Now, with the James twins flanking her, the room seemed pleasantly crowded and decidedly warmer. For the first time in a very long time, fate was smiling on her.
Mark leaned over and put his cowboy hat on the vacant table next to them. “Did you give any thought to our offer for riding lessons?”
She tried to find a way to put them off without seeming rude. There was simply no way she could afford to pay for lessons even if Rodney agreed to it, which he wouldn’t. He’d gone off early this morning to find them somewhere else to stay, and he’d been very firm in his instructions that she “lay low”. There was a good chance he’d succeed in securing them a new hiding spot, and by afternoon, they’d be crawling into some other lonely hole.
“I have a confession,” she said. Both men were looking at her intently. She was entranced by their similarities. They were mirror images of each other. It was almost unnerving.
Matt grinned. She’d noticed yesterday that Matt had a slight cleft in his chin his brother didn’t share. It was her only clue in telling them apart. “They say confession is good for the soul.”
“There’s a difference between wanting something and doing something.” She almost winced as she said the words. She wanted something—two somethings—but there was no way she could do anything about that desire. Mainly because she was running for her life, and secondly, who wanted two men…at the same time? It was ludicrous. “While the idea of being a cowgirl sounds like fun, I’m deathly afraid of horses.”
The words weren’t exactly a lie. She’d nearly been run down by a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park as a child. The experience had stuck with her, and since then she’d given those carts, as well as police horses, a very wide berth.
Mark shook his head in disbelief. “What? How can you be afraid of horses? They’re the most loving, gentle creatures on earth.”
She shrugged. “They’re huge, attract flies, and their eyes are on the sides of their heads. I find that very unnerving.”
Matt burst into laughter. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that excuse for a fear of horses, but you’ve got a point.”
Mark gave his brother a warning glance that was more amused than annoyed. “Don’t encourage her. She shouldn’t be afraid of horses.”
Bridget leaned closer. “I’m not sure it’s fear as much as I’m simply not familiar with them. The only horses I’ve ever seen were city creatures—police horses or ones hooked to carriages. The whole concept of getting up on one of those things isn’t a comfortable concept to me. I mean, if you want to know how to get from midtown to Canal Street on the subway, I’m your girl. You want to know the quickest route from point A to point B so the taxi driver doesn’t rip you off, ask me. Put me on a horse and I wouldn’t even know how to make the thing go. It’s not like you can put money in the slot and have it take off.”
Matt chuckled. “Girl, you haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a horse.”
“I’m fine with the subway and taxis, thank you very much. I prefer my modes of transportation to have wheels, not legs.”
Todd emerged from the kitchen carrying three large platters. Bridget’s eyes widened at the sheer volume of food on her plate. “You expect me to eat all of that?” There were two pieces of thick toast slathered in butter, an omelet the size of her pillow, and at least five pounds of potatoes, whipped up hash brown style with green peppers and onions.
Since going rogue with Rodney, they’d existed on peanut butter sandwiches and cereal. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Matt said, snatching a slice of toast of her plate. “We’ll help you finish whatever you can’t eat.”
She reached over and grabbed a piece of his toast to replace hers. “Don’t worry about me. We city girls know how to eat.”
Mark picked up his fork and lifted an eyebrow. “I find that hard to believe. You’re too skinny to be that good an eater.”
“You know, that’s the second time you boys have called me skinny. I’m starting to feel like that’s an insult.”
Matt’s gaze drifted down her body, away from her face. “Believe me, there’s no insult intended.” His eyes lifted and met hers once more. “You’re damn easy on the eyes.”
She blushed at his compliment. There was something so open, so honest about both men that she found it hard to resist them. She tried to dismiss the thought from her mind because she certainly wasn’t going to have a chance to get to know either of them better.
Conversation slowed as the three of them dug in to their enormous breakfasts. She had to hand it to the twins. It was, by far, the best omelet she’d ever had, and for the first time in a long time, she let herself enjoy a meal. Lately, eating had become something she had to do to survive. Back in New York, she’d loved going to different restaurants, trying different things. She missed the salad at Carmine’s and the little Thai place in Hell’s Kitchen.
“Damn, Mark, doesn’t look like we’re going to get to help her clean her plate after all,” Matt joked.
Glancing down, Bridget realized she’d polished off all of the eggs and was almost finished with the hash browns. “I can’t believe I ate all that, or how good it was.”
Mark wiped his mouth with his napkin and put it back in his lap. “You looked like you hadn’t eaten in a year. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“I did. I can see why you’d ask for that as payment for work. Todd’s an amazing cook.”
Matt put his fork down and leaned back in his chair, looking relaxed and well fed. “We come over here quite a bit for breakfast and lunch. Used to be four bachelors living in our house. Cooking wasn’t something we had a lot of time for.”
Bridget leaned forward and rested her arms on the table. She was genuinely curious to learn more about them. “Four bachelors?”
Mark joined in the conversation. “Matt and I live with our older brother, Caleb, and our kid brother, Jacob. Caleb’s a doctor at the local hospital, so he works some screwed-up hours. Jacob does a lot of the cooking, but he’s what you might call a free spirit, so counting on him for vittles is risky. Whenever he gets involved in a project—whether it’s an article he’s writing or something for his college class—it can be days before he looks up.”
Bridget’s ears perked up. “Article?” She missed her writing more than she could say.
Matt nodded. “Yep. Kid loves to write. He freelances for a couple of magazines and newspapers. Mainly stories about gay rights, living life outside the closet, stuff like that.”
“Your brother is gay?”
Mark stiffened up slightly and she backtracked quickly, afraid she’d offended him. “I wasn’t asking to pry or to insinuate anything is wrong with that. Fact is, Rodney is gay too. I was thinking maybe we should introduce them.”
Matt laughed. “You want to hook our brothers up?”
Bridget grinned. “No…well, maybe.”
If Rodney was feeling as lonely and horny as she was these days, maybe a hot hookup with a cowboy would take the edge off. Lately, Rodney had been wound up tighter than a spring. Not that she blamed him. In all likelihood, he’d lost his job at the police station the day he’d stepped off the radar with her. His future was as uncertain as hers at the moment. “Is your younger brother as hot as you two?”
Bridget wasn’t sure where the words had come from, but the deadly dimples reappeared on both of the men’s faces as their smiles grew.
Mark leaned toward her, taking her hand in his. She hoped he couldn’t feel the sudden trembling there. “You think we’re hot?”
Both of them had moved closer, and she had to press her legs together to still the sudden twinge in her pussy.
Matt grasped her other hand. “Who’s hotter—me or Mark?”
She burst into laughter as she studied their mirrored images. Mark rolled his eyes at his brother’s inane comment. Then she realized there were other definite differences besides the cleft chin. As she learned more about them, they suddenly didn’t seem so similar.
Matt was clearly the fun-loving one with a great sense of humor. There was a wicked twinkle in his eyes that guaranteed he was always up for a good time. In contrast, Mark seemed the epitome of a country gentleman: kind, more serious. She had no doubt he was the type of guy who opened doors for women and insisted on picking up the tab.
“I plead the Fifth on that question. So what did you mean when you said it used to be four bachelors? Did someone move out?”
Mark shook his head. “Nope, someone moved in.”
Bridget’s heart skipped a beat. Did one of them have a girlfriend? She’d never considered they may already have significant others. “Oh?”
Matt offered the explanation. “Caleb got himself a girlfriend, Jessie. We’re expecting him to pop the question any day now.”
She smiled, foolishly relieved. “Nice. You like her?”
“Jessie?” Mark asked. “Oh, heck yeah. She’s a helluva lady. Been through a rough patch this past year. She and Caleb deserve a little happiness.”
Bridget could relate to tough years. “So she’ll live at the ranch with all of you?”
Matt shook his head. “Nah. I figure they’ll want to start a family pretty soon. Since Mark and I run the ranch, it’s hard for us to move out. We need to be close to the stables. Caleb mentioned building his own house closer to the main road to make it easier for him during the winter when he’s on call. We have a fairly long driveway, and after it snows, it takes some effort to plow it so he can get out.”
She was used to snowy winters in New York. It was one of the things she’d missed this year. She and Rodney had spent a great deal of the last few months hopping from safe house to safe house in the south. They’d celebrated Christmas in Phoenix and the temperature had been in the eighties that day. At the time, she’d considered the lack of snow a blessing. With the heat and unfamiliar surroundings, she could pretend it wasn’t Christmas, and it kept her homesickness at bay.
“Sounds like you own quite a bit of property.”
Mark nodded. “We do okay. Our family’s lived in this area for several generations. It’s home.”
“It must be nice to have such solid roots. I grew up in the city, but my parents were originally from Jersey.”
“You have any other brothers or sisters besides Rodney?” Matt asked.
Bridget sucked in a sharp gasp of air. It had been on the tip of her tongue to say she was an only child. She knew she was treading on thin ice, tempting fate by talking to them, but Matt and Mark were so easy to be with, they made her forget what a fucking mess her life was at the present. “No. It’s just him and me.”
Mark frowned. “No parents?”
She shook her head because it was easier than making up another long story she’d likely screw up later. She hated lying to them. Her folks were alive and well and retired in Hoboken. She was also certain her mother hadn’t slept a wink since Bridget had gone into protective custody. Another pound of guilt she’d had to carry around. Her heart ached at the thought, and for one very foolish moment, she wanted to confess the truth to Matt and Mark, to tell them about Lyle, the judge, the murder. She had nearly convinced herself it was a good idea to unload all her burdens on their very capable, strapping shoulders and had even opened her mouth to speak the words when fate stepped in.
“Hey, Bridget. I wondered where you were.”
Rodney walked up to the table. He didn’t seem as annoyed to find her out and about today as he was yesterday. She suspected that was because he’d spent some time getting to know the James brothers. He’d confided last night this seemed like a safe place and the people were genuinely nice.
Maybe she’d talk Rodney into telling Matt and Mark about their plight. They seemed like the kind of men who’d be willing to help.
She smiled and held out her hands. “Looks like you found me. Matt and Mark treated me to the best omelet in, hmmm, I’m trying to remember.” She looked at Matt. “Did you say in the state or in the world?”
“Universe,” Matt replied, adding to her joke.
“Gotcha, the best omelet in the universe,” she finished. When Rodney looked at her empty plate with an expression of hunger and jealousy, she felt a pang of guilt for not saving him half. “I should have saved some for you.”
He shrugged good-naturedly. “That’s okay. I’ll grab something later.”
“Actually,” Todd said, coming out of the kitchen with a full plate, “I’ve kept this warm in the oven, hoping you’d come back soon.” He placed the dish at an empty spot at the table and gestured for Rodney to sit down. “This is on the house, to say thank you for helping us move the dinosaur stove out of the kitchen yesterday.”
Rodney quickly claimed the chair, not remembering to speak until he’d shoveled in two enormous mouthfuls. “Thanks.”
Matt laughed. “I can tell you two are related. Never seen two people go after a plate of food with the same level of enthusiasm.”
Mark turned to Rodney. “We were just trying to convince your sister to come over to the James Ranch for riding lessons.”
Rodney swallowed quickly. “Riding lessons? I don’t think we’ll have time for that. We’re leaving soon.”
“Oh, darn,” Todd said. “I thought Steven said you’d be here through the week.”
“That was the original plan,” Rodney said, “but now I’m not sure we’re going to be able to stay that long.”
Bridget tried to ignore the sudden ache she felt at the idea of picking up and moving on yet again. Hanging out with the twins had been a nice change after months of monotony. It had been so long since she’d allowed herself to let herself feel pure, simple attraction. Lyle’s murder had skewed her ability to judge people and their motives and while she longed to accept Matt and Mark’s offer of friendship, fear held her back.
“Well, you have to stay through tonight at least. I’m making a Valentine’s Day feast. We thought we’d follow that up with dessert and games,” Todd offered.
Bridget glanced Rodney’s way, trying to determine exactly how fast he wanted to move. She couldn’t tell from his facial expression if he’d even found them somewhere new to hide.
Rodney nodded. “That sounds great. We wouldn’t leave until tomorrow or the day after at the earliest.”
Bridget released a slow breath. One more night. She looked at the twins. “Will you two be here?”
Matt gave her a wickedly sexy grin. “You looking for a Valentine, Bridget? Because if so, I’m your man.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Did you ever consider that she might be interested in a real man, rather than a guy who acts as old as his shoe size? What size are your feet again? Eleven?”
Matt scooted his chair closer and grasped her hand. “I doubt she’s looking for some boring stick in the mud. Be my Valentine, Bridget, and I’ll show you a good time.”
Her face flushed as she envisioned how good that time could really be. She needed to get a grip. “You two are incorrigible. I’m not really in the market for a Valentine, so how about if I just promise to keep you in mind if that changes?”
“You got a boyfriend?” Mark asked.
She shook her head. “No, that’s not it.”
Matt squeezed her hand. “Then I’ve still got a chance.”
She laughed. “Maybe you didn’t hear my brother, Rodney. We’re leaving soon.”
Mark shrugged as if unconcerned. “Maybe we can convince you to stay longer.”
It would take very little for either man to convince her to stay. They looked at her with an unnerving hunger in their gazes. Her body was responding to it—hook, line and sinker.
She considered herself passably pretty, though certainly not what anyone would call a raving beauty. She didn’t wear makeup and usually wore her long hair pulled back. In New York, she dressed in more conservative, professional attire at work. However, since arriving in Wyoming, she hadn’t been out of blue jeans.
She’d had her fair share of dates and even lovers, but none of them had ever looked at her like Matt and Mark were looking her at that moment. Worst of all was the fact she was attracted to both of them. What the hell was she supposed to do with that unnatural feeling? If they stuck around and she indulged in a little play, she’d have to choose. For the life of her, she couldn’t decide which James brother appealed to her more.
Rodney saved her from having to respond. “You’re welcome to try to convince her, but it won’t work. We really do need to leave.”
Todd began clearing away the dirty dishes. “I hope nothing bad has come up to disrupt your vacation.”
Rodney shook his head. “No. Just some things we need to take care of at home.”
All of them rose from the table. The James twins picked up their hats and put them back on. She had never realized how sexy the cowboy look truly was until she’d met these two men who wore it so damn well.
“Well, I guess Matt and I should head back to the ranch. We’ll be back later for dinner. Save me a seat next to you, Bridget.”
Matt wrapped his arms around her shoulders and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Save the other side for me.”
She wasn’t sure if she’d truly heard the sexy innuendo in his tone or if it was wishful thinking on her part.
Her power of speech temporarily left her, so she merely nodded.
“See you later, Bridget,” Matt added, placing a friendly kiss on her cheek.
Mark shook Rodney’s hand and the two of them left as Todd returned to the kitchen.
Rodney glanced around the room to make sure they were alone. “Damn. Looks like you’ve made quite an impression on those guys. Might be better if we left now. They’re both eyeballing you like you’re the prime rib at a banquet.”
She grinned at his analogy, but didn’t bother to deny the truth of it. She didn’t even want to deny it. It felt too good. Two of the hottest men she’d ever laid eyes on were attracted to her. She was going to hold on to this high for as long as it lasted. Given her current position, it didn’t appear she’d manage to maintain it for longer than a day.
“Did you find somewhere for us to stay?” she asked.
Rodney shook his head. “I found a couple possibilities—cabins in pretty secluded areas, but the issue is going to be money. I asked Steven if I could borrow his truck to do a little exploring. I’m just about to head out to take a look at them.”
“Why bother if money is going to be an issue?” Bridget wanted to stay at the B&B. A city girl at heart, she took comfort in having more people around. Hiding out in quiet cabins unnerved her. She’d had no idea how loud nature was, how much squirrels scampering in leaves could sound like a villain with a gun sneaking up behind her.
“You’re not going to like this, but I’m checking to see if we could hole up in one without going through the realtor. I got the impression from the rental website that neither of these places gets used much in the winter. Weather tends to be an issue.”
She looked at Rodney with amazement. He was the most honest, law-abiding person she’d ever met. “You’re going to break in?”
“Bridget. We’re low on money and running out of options. The trial starts in three weeks. We just have to hang in there that long. I’ll call my partner a couple days before we need to return, explain why we took off and ask him to secure us transportation back to the city.”
“We came here to try to find the information Lyle had on the judge. We can’t exactly do that if we’re stuck on some mountainside, squatting in someone else’s house.”
“Yeah, about that.” Rodney took Lyle’s letter from his pocket. “I was playing around with this earlier and I want to show you something.”
They reclaimed their seats at the table. Bridget could hear Todd cleaning up in the kitchen, singing along loudly with the radio. She grinned at his off-key accompaniment to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. She wasn’t sure where the rest of the guests had gone, but aside from his performance, the house was relatively quiet.
Rodney pointed out the part of the code they’d already broken. “So if the first sentence is every sixth word, then we’re left with Sara and toga. Bridget, remember in college when Sara got totally trashed at the toga party. If you count six more words after toga, it takes us five words into the next sentence.”
Bridget nodded. “We’ve done that. Silly girl swore to God and then on her mother’s grave she would give up alcohol. The next word after toga is God, but counting out six more words leaves us grave. God’s grave.”
She’d repeated that phrase a million times in her head. They’d searched the only churchyard cemetery within the city limits the moment they set foot off the bus. They’d been so certain they would find a clue. Instead, they’d come up with nothing.
“What if it’s not every sixth word? What if in the second sentence it’s every fifth?” Rodney asked.
She glanced at the paper and re-counted. “Godmother’s? Oh my God. What if it is?”
“Do you know if Lyle had a godmother? Who she was?”
Bridget closed her eyes, forcing her memories of Lyle to the foreground. She should have been a better friend. She didn’t have a clue. She racked her brain trying to remember, but nothing came to her.
“Fuck,” she finally admitted. “I have no idea.”
Rodney only looked slightly disappointed. “So go five more words over and you get the word up. I have no idea what that means, but count five to the next sentence and I think Lyle gave us a clue about that the godmother.”
Bridget looked at the third sentence. “Ellen.”
Rodney nodded. “Ring any bells?”
She shook her head. “No, but I suppose we could ask around. What do you think the chances are his godmother has his last name—Turner?”
“Slim to none,” Rodney replied. “And the rest of that sentence doesn’t seem to offer up a surname. I tried highlighting every fourth word, thinking maybe it was a countdown code, but that doesn’t seem to work either.”
Bridget continued reading silently. And then Ellen told her that the key was “drink in moderation first.” “Every fourth word leaves us with the and in. Those are pointless.”
“Yeah. I know. And then the last line is still hanging out there.”
She reread the final sentence of the missive. Always loved that wealth of unhelpful, impractical information. Call me later, Lyle. “What if we just pull out words that look important?” she suggested.
Rodney sighed. “We’ve tried that, remember? Too many words. Too many variables. Plus we still have that damn up hanging out there unexplained, which could mean my godmother Ellen theory is shot to hell.”
“We’re closer now.”
Rodney leaned back in his seat. “Yeah. I guess. But I have to tell you, if Lyle weren’t already dead, I’d probably kill him for leaving us such shitty clues.”
Bridget laughed. “You’d have to get in line. Why he thought I could figure this out is beyond me. He must’ve tried to explain how to work sudoku puzzles to me a thousand times, but I never got it.”
“We still have some time. There’s three weeks until the trial. We’ll just keep plugging along until then. At that point, we’re going back to New York—with or without the flash drive. I’m going to grab the keys to Steven’s truck and go check out the cabins.”
“You know, if the cabins don’t work out, we could always just stay here. We have enough money to cover us for most of the three weeks if we’re careful. It feels safe here.”
Rodney gave her a knowing grin. “You can’t kid a kidder, Bridge. Safety has nothing to do with it. There are two fucking gorgeous cowboys here, and you’re hot to get into their sexy-as-shit, too-tight jeans.”
She narrowed her eyes. Apparently, she hadn’t been the only one checking out the James brothers’ Levis. “Yeah, well, just remember they’re my cowboys, hot stuff. You can look, but no touching.”
“Believe me, those two don’t play for my team.”
She laughed. It had become a pass-the-time game on the bus trip from Oklahoma to Saratoga for her and Rodney to decide whose sexual-orientation team their fellow travelers played for. “Maybe not, but their brother does.”
Rodney closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Christ, kitten. We’re running for our lives here. We don’t have time to get laid.”
She stuck out her lower lip in playful pout. “All I’m asking for is a few more days. If we really are looking for a woman named Ellen, we’d have a better chance finding her if we’re closer to town. Besides, imagine if their younger brother is as hot as them. You’ve gotta be feeling the effects of this forced abstinence as much as me.”
“Here comes the persuasion again,” Rodney muttered. “Fine, Bridget. I’ll admit it. I’m horny as shit and tired of sharing a room with you. It’s not like I can take care of my own needs with you snoring across the bedroom.”
“I don’t snore.”
“But I’m not about to jeopardize your life or mine for a quick screw with a cowboy I’ll likely never see again after we leave here. We’re so close to end, Bridget. Let’s don’t fuck it up now.”
He was one hundred and twenty percent right. Damn him. “And you say I’m the persuasive one. Fine. I’m focused again. Promise.”
He reached out and patted her on the shoulder. The gesture was meant to comfort her. She wanted to shrug it off, rail at him, but she couldn’t. He understood her frustrations because he shared them. It wasn’t fair for her to blame him for something that was ultimately her fault. Would Lyle still be alive today if she hadn’t suggested he share the information he’d uncovered with her? If she hadn’t planted the seed that they break the news by splashing it all across the front page of the newspaper? If she’d insisted that they call the cops first?
Rodney refolded Lyle’s letter and put it back in his pocket as he stood. “Why don’t you expand on your friendship with Todd? See if you can’t find a way to figure out who this Ellen might be.”
She forced her concern aside at Rodney’s worried glance. She gave him a jaunty salute. “Aye aye, Captain.”
He laughed, fooled by her feigned attempt at lightheartedness. “I won’t be gone long. Don’t get in to any trouble.”
She watched him leave but made no move to rise. She was suddenly feeling very tired.
Three more weeks and the running would stop.
Three more weeks and she could return to her normal life. That thought didn’t bring her as much comfort as it used to. She wasn’t the same woman who’d escaped New York in the middle of the night. That woman was driven, obsessed with climbing the ladder of success. That woman let her best friend sacrifice his life simply to provide her with information for a lousy newspaper article.
That woman didn’t exist anymore. Her life had been snuffed out the instant the judge’s bullet pierced Lyle’s flesh.
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