Rancher's proposition(7)

By: Anne Marie Winston

"Joe." They'd gone to high school together, and he'd always liked the guy. "You got some good news for Lyn?"

A choking sound made him look across the kitchen. Lyn stood with her back to the sink. No, he corrected himself, Lyn was backed against the sink so tight she could have passed for one of the fixtures.

Her green eyes were wide and shocked-looking and her face was a pasty, ghastly white. He could practically smell fear in the cool kitchen air.

"What's going on here?" His voice was less welcoming and he deliberately allowed a growl to work its way into the words. He didn't know what the sheriff had said to frighten Lyn, but he already knew he didn't like anybody coming into his house without warning and scaring her all to pieces.

Joe Parker cleared his throat, clearly choosing his words carefully. He gestured to the man with him. "This is Detective Riddle from the Pennington County Sheriff's Department Office of Investigations." Then he looked across the kitchen at Lyn. "Lyn Galloway is a suspect in the death of a man. I've come to take her to town to answer some questions."

"You have the wrong woman," Cal said flatly. "My housekeeper's name is Lyn Hamill."

"Her maiden name was Hamill. She was married to Wayne Galloway." He turned to Lyn. "You didn't tell him you had a husband?"

"I knew she had a husband. She's been divorced for over a year." Cal could feel fury bubbling its way to the surface, and he clamped down hard on it, knowing he had to stay focused. "She woke up in the hospital two months ago with no memory of anything in her recent past. She was beaten and there were finger marks around her neck. So you can tell her husband from me that if he's the one who put them there, Cal McCall's going to be looking for him."

Joe held up a warning hand. "Don't give me a reason to consider you a suspect, Cal."

"A suspect in what?"

Joe lowered his hand slowly, rubbing the other over a jaw stubbled with golden beard, and Biddle spoke for the first time. His blue eyes were cool and assessing. "Wayne Galloway's body was found in an apartment building in Rapid City last week. According to the landlord, this woman rented one of the apartments from him for the last year." He turned to Lyn. "How long have you been living here?"

Lyn just stared at him.

"She's been here for about two and a half months," Cal said impatiently. "And before that, she was in a women's shelter in Rapid after she was released from the hospital. I have the names of both places, along with her doctor and the director of the shelter." He allowed himself the smallest smile of victory. "So she couldn't have killed him. She hasn't left the ranch without me or Silver since she got here, and then she hasn't gone any farther than Kadoka."

Riddle shook his head. "That isn't going to matter," he said coolly. "Whoever killed Galloway stuffed him into a closet in the basement of the building." He paused. "The tenants have been complaining about an odor and somebody finally got annoyed enough to go hunting the source. Coroner says it looks like he's been there awhile."

"Jeez." The stark recitation shook him, he wasn't going to pretend it hadn't, and he saw Lyn's instinctive recoil from the ugly vision.

"So I have to talk to Mrs. Gal—"

"Don't call me that." It was little more than a hoarse whisper, but both men turned to stare at the fragile-looking woman. Lyn spoke slowly, quietly, to the detective. "I don't think—I'm pretty sure, I mean, that I didn't kill anyone, but I don't know that for sure because I can't remember—"

"Lyn." It was a single syllable but it served to halt the words tumbling from her lips.

She stopped speaking and turned to look at Cal.

"Don't say another word until I call a lawyer." He turned to Joe. "Are you arresting her?"

Joe looked shocked by the suggestion. "Heck, no, Cal, of course not. But she's got to answer—"

"Then I'm asking you to leave. Unless you want to arrest her." He looked at Biddle. "If you want to make an appointment to talk to her, I'll have my attorney call your office."

The sheriff regarded him in baffled frustration. "You're making this a bigger deal than it has to be, Cal."

"I'm asking you to leave," Cal repeated, ignoring the glowering detective. He held out a hand to Lyn. "I need your help in the barn."

As if she were a flimsy iron filing and he the magnet, Lyn lurched across the room and took his outstretched hand in a grip so tight he could feel her fingernails digging into his flesh. He transferred her small palm to his other hand and put his arm around her, leaving the two men to find their own way out as he swept her out of the house and across the yard.

As they walked, he was conscious of the slender body beneath his arm, the way her rounded breasts heaved as she took deep gasps of air, the way the soft flesh of her hip brushed his with every step they took. He hated himself for his body's preoccupation with hers, but he was powerless to do anything about it. He'd been fighting a losing battle with attraction—and arousal—for weeks.

He'd been unable to ignore her from the very beginning. Though she'd quietly insinuated herself into the daily routine, taking over the care of the house so quickly and so well that he was grateful every time he stepped through the door, he'd been fascinated by her heavy mane of red curls, her fair skin, the curves she acquired as her slender body regained some weight.

One day he'd walked into the kitchen while she was stretching on tiptoe for a vase to arrange some wildflowers she'd brought in. It was back on the shelf just far enough to be out of her reach.

"I'll get it," he'd said, and without thinking, he had walked across the kitchen and put a casual hand on her hip while he'd reached over her head for the vase. The moment he'd felt her slim, fragile body pressed against his, the mild arousal he'd been feeling from time to time had come back tenfold. He'd been so astonished at his body's bold response that he'd thrust her away from him and gotten the heck out of the kitchen, too flustered to talk to her.

His mind had been astonished. He'd taken her in as a favor to his sister, and initially, he'd felt nothing but pity for the silent waif who scurried around him as if he might grab for her at any moment. After the first week, she'd relaxed and settled into her role as his housekeeper and he'd grown more and more aware of her feminine presence in his home. But he hadn't expected to find himself fighting an inclination to tear off her jeans and lift her onto his hard, aching flesh and sate himself with her slender, elfin beauty.

As they passed Tor, Cal reached out with his free hand and snagged the bay's reins and led him along with them. "Gotta get this saddle off him," he told her.

But the instant they were in the shadows inside the barn, he forgot everything but the woman who crumpled to her knees. She would have gone down completely if he hadn't still had his arm around her. Hastily, he dropped Tor's reins and put his other arm around her, holding her to him. He could feel her shaking against him and he cursed Joe Parker until the air turned blue. This was the last thing she needed right now.

He half carried her over to the wooden bench outside the tack room and sat down, pulling her onto his lap. Little whimpering sounds came from her throat and he put a big hand against the back of her head, pressing her against his shoulder. She turned her face into his neck and he could feel wet warmth trickle down inside the collar of his shirt.

She was crying. Now he was really furious. She was such a little trooper that nothing normally got to her.

"Shh," he soothed in a deep, crooning voice, rocking her against his chest. "It'll be all right. You know I won't let anything happen to you."

There was no response, but after a few more moments, she took a deep breath and let it shudder out. "I can't believe he's dead," she said in a whisper.

"I'm sorry," he said, though for the life of him he couldn't understand why she'd be grieving. He surely couldn't work up any real sorrow over the slimeball's demise.

She stirred against him. "I don't think I am," she said in an odd, expressionless tone. "He was horrible to me. Even after we were divorced, I was terrified of him. I think what I am is relieved. Does that make me a terrible person?"

He considered for a moment. "Nope. It makes you a sensible person."

There was another silence. He stroked his hands up and down her back, enjoying the feel of the little bumpy ridges of her spine beneath his fingertips, feeling her trembling lessen as she calmed.

"I'm going to call a lawyer as soon as we get back to the house," he said.

Her body stilled in his arms. Slowly, she drew away far enough to see his face, and her solemn green eyes were wide and shadowed. "I can't afford a lawyer," she said, her voice even huskier than usual.

"I can." His voice rang with grim determination. "Nobody's putting you in jail for something you didn't do."

She was silent for a long moment and he could see her agile mind performing all kinds of mental maneuvers. Finally, she looked away. "You don't know I didn't kill him."

He took her arms and lightly shook her once. "Yes, I do."

Her wide eyes darted back to his.

"You've lived in my house for over two months," he reminded her. "I've watched you with my family and friends and with the stock." He deliberately smiled and lightened his tone. "If you haven't killed that damned sneaky goat by now, I can guarantee you've never hurt anybody else."

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