Kade Logan stood on the bank, watching the sheriff and his deputies haul the mud-covered vehicle out of the lake. The crane groaned as the auto tilted upward, the rear end lifting into the air, the front wheels dragging across the spongy earth. Brackish lake water poured out through the open windows, along with weeds and silt. Even a few silver fish had made the car their home.
For eight long years, Kade had been haunted by the mystery of what had happened to the dark green Subaru Forester that had belonged to his dead wife.
Oh, he knew where Heather was. In a grave in the old hillside cemetery in Coffee Springs, the small town closest to the ranch. Her body had been found in a shallow depression up in the hills at the base of the mountains outside Denver.
Heather had been beaten and strangled. Any signs of rape had faded as her body decayed, but as beautiful as she was, Kade was sure sex had been involved.
Her killer had never been caught.
“You okay?” Sam Bridger, Kade’s best friend, stood beside him, a tall blond man Kade had known for years. Kade had been too lost in thought to hear him approach.
“She’s been dead eight years, Sam. So yeah, I’m okay.” But the rage he felt had never lessened. It should have. At the time of her death, their marriage was already on the rocks. The second time Kade had caught Heather cheating, he had filed for divorce.
“Maybe they’ll find something in the car that’ll give them a reason to reopen the case,” Sam said.
“Maybe.” Kade hoped so. He wanted Heather’s killer to be found and punished. No matter how things had turned out between them, he owed her that much.
His gaze went back to the car being lifted onto the flatbed of a diesel truck with an Eagle County Sheriff’s emblem on the side. The truck pulled away from the edge of the lake, tires churning through mud made worse by last night’s rain. The motor groaned as the vehicle slogged along the little-used, rutted lane to the asphalt road leading toward Eagle, the county seat.
The last time Kade had seen the dark green SUV was the night Heather had left him. That night, she had packed her things, taken the car, and driven away without a backward glance. Kade had never seen her again.
At the time, like half the residents of Coffee Springs, he’d believed Heather had run off with one of the men she’d met in the town’s only saloon, or maybe a guy in Vail, the ski area frequented by the rich and famous only an hour’s drive away, where Heather sometimes went to ski with her girlfriends.
Kade had believed it too. For a while. Then, two years later, a couple of hikers had found a body in a shallow grave, the dirt washed away by a recent storm. The victim, a female, turned out to be Heather Logan, a shock that had sent Kade into a tailspin.
By then, he’d accepted the likelihood that Heather had been a victim of foul play. She hadn’t left with some big spender from Vail and simply started a new life, as she had threatened to do. She had been murdered.
Since then, Kade had been tormented by guilt. He lived each day with a terrible sense of failure that he had let Heather down. At the very least, he should have found the man responsible for her death.
And made the bastard pay.
“I’ve seen enough,” Kade said. “I’m heading back to the ranch.”
“That’s it?” Sam asked, a blond eyebrow edging up. Sam and Kade had gone to school together, worked side by side during the summers when they were kids. Sam knew Kade well enough to know it was far from over.
Kade thought of Heather and felt the old rage burn through him. “Over? Not by a long shot.” He started striding away, the bottom of his brown, oiled-canvas duster kicking up behind the heels of his muddy cowboy boots.
“What are you going to do?” Sam asked, falling in beside him, matching him stride for stride.
“First, I want to see what the forensic experts find in the car. Then I’m heading into Denver.” A friend in the city owned a company called Nighthawk Security. Kade’s father had known Marcus Delaney. The current owner, a war hero, was his son. Kade trusted Conner Delaney to recommend a competent investigator.
Though Kade had tried that before.
A month after Heather had disappeared, when she hadn’t made contact with any of her friends, he’d began to worry that she hadn’t just run off with a man, as everyone believed. He’d filed a missing-persons report with the police, but they’d never found any trace of her.
After her body was discovered and her disappearance became a homicide investigation, Kade had hired a retired police detective, but the case was cold by then. He began to accept that if the cops and his private investigator couldn’t find the man who had murdered her, maybe it was time to let go.
Still, the rage inside him remained. A cold fury that wouldn’t leave him till the day he found the man responsible for his wife’s death.
And dispensed the justice the killer deserved.
Eleanor Bowman sat at an oak desk near the front door of the office. The building that housed Nighthawk Security, a two-story brick structure on Acoma Street, had recently been remodeled. The interior was done in pleasant tones, with comfortable brown-leather sofas in the waiting area, a conference room, and an employee lounge in the back.
Photos of local wildlife hung on the walls—elk, deer, a big black bear—along with autographed photos of celebrities the company had done business with at one time or another. The faces of Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, and Kevin Costner looked down from sturdy oak frames.
Aside from providing private investigation services, Nighthawk offered a top-rate security team that specialized in personal and business protection. Conner Delaney, the man who owned the company, was former military, tall, dark-haired, and just flat hot.
Though most of the guys on the security team also held PI licenses, Ellie was one of only four private investigators and, along with Conn’s sister, Skye, the only other woman who actually worked out at the office. They were all independent contractors, and though there was room for additional personnel, Conner was very selective. Only the best got a job at Nighthawk.
Ellie was fully licensed, owned a Glock 19 semiauto and a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. But she wasn’t a former police detective like Skye or an army ranger like Trace Elliott, Conn’s right-hand man. Her specialty was undercover work, and she was good at it. Embezzlement, larceny, fraud—Ellie went in covertly and ferreted out the guilty parties, information that went to her employer, who decided what course of action to take.
She rarely came into the office. Anonymity was an important part of her work. But Conn believed she’d be the right person for the job he had in mind.
Since she’d just finished a case, she was looking for something to do. She hoped for something interesting, but work was work. She didn’t want her savings account to dwindle.
She looked up at a noise at the front of the office. The glass door swung open, and a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing a dark brown Stetson walked in. People thought of Denver as a western town, but it had been years since Ellie had seen a guy in a cowboy hat who looked like it belonged on him.
Dressed in crisp, dark blue jeans that fit snuggly over a pair of narrow hips, brown lizard-skin boots, and a white shirt with pearl snaps on the front, the man removed his Stetson, revealing neatly trimmed, golden-brown hair, and strode toward the desk closest to the door, which happened to be hers.
“My name’s Kade Logan.” He had a lean, muscular build and the long, powerful legs of a bulldogger. His deep, masculine voice fit him as perfectly as his hat, and his hard, handsome face could rival any of the celebrities hanging on the office walls. “I have an appointment with Conner Delaney.”
“Yes, Conn mentioned he was expecting someone. I’ll let him know you’re here.” The office was small enough that they didn’t need a receptionist. Ellie rose from behind her desk, wondering if Kade Logan could possibly be the client Conn had in mind for her.
In a cinnamon pencil skirt and matching jacket, a pale yellow silk blouse, and a pair of four-inch, dark brown heels, fall colors for the season, she started for Conn’s office, leaving her jacket draped over the back of her chair. Kade Logan’s eyes, the same golden-brown as his hair, followed her across the room.
Ellie knocked and opened the door. “Mr. Logan’s here to see you.”
Conn rose behind his desk. He was as tall as Logan and, like most of the guys in the office, really built. He was also engaged to be married, though Ellie had her doubts.
“I need to speak to him first,” Conn said. “Then I’ll introduce you.”
“So he’s the client you were telling me about?”
“That’s right. Kade’s father and mine were friends. He owns a ranch called the Diamond Bar.”
“I’ll send him in.” Turning, she headed back to where Logan stood waiting, long legs braced slightly apart, turning his hat in his big, calloused hands. No question this guy was for real. She wondered what kind of help he needed.
She smiled up at him. A little under five-foot-four, she was at least ten inches shorter than Kade. “Go on in. Conn’s waiting.”
He gave her a cursory nod, then disappeared inside the office. She looked down at her skirt and blouse, the business attire she had chosen to meet a new client, and wondered if she should have worn a pair of jeans.
Ten minutes later, she found out.
“Kade, meet Eleanor Bowman.”
His eyes narrowed, forming tiny sun lines at the corners. “You’re Eleanor Bowman?”
“I’m Ellie.” She smiled and stuck out a hand. “Pleasure meeting you.”
His jaw tightened for an instant before he reached out and accepted her handshake.
He turned back to Conn. “Eleanor. With a name like that, I thought she’d be an older woman, someone with more experience. Either way, this is a bad idea.”
“What idea is that?” Ellie asked.
“Eight years ago, Kade’s wife was murdered,” Conn answered for him. “Her body was discovered in the mountains outside Denver, but the killer was never found. Two weeks ago, the car Heather was driving when she disappeared was discovered in a lake near Coffee Springs. That’s the town closest to the ranch. The police now believe she could have been picked up by someone who knew the area, someone who lived there or had ties to the community. It’s possible the killer abducted her, dumped the car in the lake, then drove her somewhere and murdered her. Afterward, he disposed of her body, then returned to Coffee Springs.”
“Maybe the killer wasn’t a local,” Ellie said. “Just someone passing through, someone who lived in Denver, or a nearby town.”
Logan glanced off toward the window. “We were in the middle of a divorce when she was killed. I knew she was seeing someone, but I didn’t know who. He could have been local or someone from out of town. Either way, the sheriff was never able to figure out who it was.”
“And that’s the reason you want to hire me? To find out who murdered your wife?”
His gaze swung to hers. “First off, I don’t want to hire you. Conn thought it would be a good idea. He said your specialty is working undercover, but the last thing I need on my ranch is a woman snooping around. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”
Irritation bubbled up, and her spine went straighter. “Did Conn tell you I was born in Wyoming? I was raised on the Grass Valley Ranch near Jackson Hole. Did he tell you I can ride just about anything you have in your remuda, or that I moved steers up into the mountains and back down into the valley every year? And the weather doesn’t bother me. I know ranching, Mr. Logan. I can fit seamlessly into your operation. I can do whatever job it takes to make people accept me and gather the information you need.”
Conn Delaney’s lips twitched in amusement. “I think you can see why I thought Ellie was the right person for the job. I think you should hire her, Kade.”
A muscle worked in Logan’s square jaw. He raked a hand through his hair, mussed a little from the hat.
“I need some time to think about it.”
“Are you sure?” Ellie asked. “Because if you want to find your wife’s killer, you’ve already had eight years to think about it.”
Kade’s golden eyes narrowed, seemed to burn into her green ones. “I need to know who my wife was seeing at the time she was murdered. I’m happy to pay whatever that information costs. You really think you can do it?”
“If you want me to succeed, I’ll need straight answers to any questions I ask. If you’re willing to do that and if the information is out there, I’ll find out who it was.”
He frowned. Clearly, he didn’t like the idea of her asking him questions about his personal life. On the other hand, he wanted answers.
Kade nodded. “All right, we’ll do it your way.”
Going in undercover was a good idea, and apparently Logan was smart enough to know it.
“It’s a hundred fifty miles from Denver to the Diamond Bar Ranch,” he said. “If you go out I-70, with traffic, it’s about a three-hour drive from here to Coffee Springs. I’ll text you the directions from there out to the ranch.”
“What kind of car are you driving?”
“Whatever kind I need. I have a friend in the used car business. We have an arrangement. He rents me whatever I think is best for the case I’m working. For this, definitely something with four-wheel drive.”
For the first time, she caught a glimmer of respect in Logan’s eyes. “When can you start?”
“I can be there tomorrow, but we need to figure out the best place for me to fit in. That way, I’ll know what I need to bring.”
His hard mouth edged up. “You mean besides your pistol?”
“You better make that plural.” She flashed him a phony smile. “Remember, Mr. Logan, I’m from Wyoming.”
Logan seemed to find that amusing, and some of the tension went out of those wide shoulders. “You’ll need to call me Kade. Same as everyone else.”
“Kade then.” She didn’t smile. She wasn’t thrilled to be working for a guy who didn’t want to hire her because she was a woman.
“You can use the conference room,” Conn said, rising.
Ellie walked ahead of Kade out of Conn’s office, and she led him into the glass-enclosed room next door. She wondered what sort of cover job he planned to dredge up for her and reminded herself she didn’t have to take the case.
As she studied Logan’s solid jaw, the gleam in his world-weary eyes, and his hard, sexy mouth, it occurred to her she would be making a far safer decision if she turned him down.
Kade stretched his long legs out beneath an oak conference table surrounded by ten brown-leather captain’s chairs and studied Ellie Bowman. When he’d called Conn Delaney and asked about hiring a detective, it never occurred to him Conn would suggest a woman.
And a damn pretty woman at that. A little shorter than average, she had a small waist, slender hips, and shapely legs. Dark copper hair, clipped neatly at the nape of her neck, curled softly down her back, gleaming in the sunlight streaming in through the window.
He’d felt a jolt the moment he had walked into the office and seen her sitting at her desk. He was a man of strong sexual appetites, and he’d been single for the past eight years. He noticed women, and Ellie Bowman definitely was one.
“I can bunk in with the hands,” she said. “This time of year, you’re probably still looking for strays and moving them down from to the lower pastures.”
Kade inwardly groaned. The bunkhouse? Not likely. A good-looking woman would be nothing but a distraction to the hands.
“I don’t suppose you can cook,” he said. “Mrs. Stenson is leaving for a month-long visit with her son and his family in Phoenix. Be a place you could easily fit in.”
One of those smooth reddish eyebrows slid up. “Why am I not surprised the only job you think I can handle is in the kitchen?”
Irritation trickled through him. He wasn’t being disrespectful. His mother had taught him better than that. With an opening in the kitchen, hiring her would be believable. Simple as that.
“Cooking won’t be a problem,” she answered before he had time to respond. “My mother cooked for our ranch hands. I pitched in whenever she needed me.”
He managed to nod. “Mabel has a helper, so you won’t be left to do all the work yourself. In fact, Maria usually does most of the heavy lifting now that Mabel is in her seventies.”
“If that’s what you think works best, that’s what I’ll do. It’s your money. I’m sure you’d like to get the best results for the dollars you spend.”
“True enough.” She was pragmatic. Heather had been exactly the opposite, spending ridiculous sums of money on herself. “Taking over the kitchen will give you an excuse to be in town. You’ll be feeding a six-man crew plus my foreman and me, a few part-time hands, a stable boy, and anyone else who happens to be around. Mabel went in for supplies a couple of times a week. That should give you a chance to get to know some of the locals.”
Ellie’s full lips curved in the first real smile he had seen. He wondered what she’d taste like. Damn.
“Actually, standing in for your cook is a good idea,” Ellie said, surprising him with the admission. Kade reassessed some of the assumptions he’d made.
“I haven’t cooked for a while,” she said. “But it’s kind of like riding a horse. Once you’re back in the saddle, you remember how to do it.”
He clamped down on the heat those words generated and the stirring in his loins beneath the table. He’d like to give Ms. Ellie Bowman a ride—the kind neither of them would soon forget.
Kade scrubbed a hand over his face. This was a bad idea on every level. Except that if the lady was as good as Conn said, it might actually work.
Kade straightened in his chair. “Anything else you need to know?”
“Where will I be staying?”
“Mabel moved into a cabin behind the ranch house a couple years back. Her old room is down the hall from the kitchen, off the mudroom.”
He nodded and rose from his seat. “If you think of anything else, you can call me on my cell phone.”
“All right.” Ellie put his number in her contacts, and he put hers in his. There was something intimate about it Kade didn’t like.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there no later than three.”
He frowned. “We get up early on the ranch. Cook’s the first one up.”
She smiled, and he caught a glint of humor in her eyes. “Maybe I should charge you a little extra for ruining my beauty sleep.”
Kade actually laughed. Looked like Ms. Bowman had a sense of humor. Good thing to have on a ranch. “You find my wife’s killer, and I’ll give you a ten percent bonus. That pay for your beauty sleep?”
Ellie stuck out a hand. “You’re on.”
Kade accepted the handshake, his big palm wrapping around her smaller one. Surprised at the strength he felt there, he settled his hat on his head and tugged the brim down low. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ms. Bowman.”
“Ellie,” she said in a voice that made him think of clean sheets and his big, four-poster bed.
That was the moment Kade knew he was in trouble.
New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin, a graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, currently resides in Missoula, Montana with Western-author husband, L. J. Martin. More than seventeen million copies of Kat’s books are in print, and she has been published in twenty foreign countries. Fifteen of her recent novels have taken top-ten spots on the New York Times Bestseller List, and her novel, BEYOND REASON, was recently optioned for a feature film. Kat’s new novel, THE LAST GOODNIGHT, a Romantic Thriller, was released in hardcover on October 26th and is the start of her new Blood Ties series.