Plan slowly, run fast.
As her mother’s words repeated in her mind like a well-worn mantra, Fila Sahar struggled to right her clothing in the cramped bathroom of the Emirates-owned airplane she’d been traveling in for hours. She’d waited to escape from Afghanistan for over ten years, keeping her head down, gathering information, cultivating contacts, fitting each puzzle piece together with infinite care. Soon—very soon—it would be time to run.
She washed her hands with shaking fingers, turned off the tap, and dried them carefully. In the mirror, her dark, almond-shaped eyes were almost obscured behind the delicate netting of her sky-blue burqa. As she smoothed it down and gathered its folds to cover as much as her clothing as possible, she blessed the covering garment for the first time in her life. The men who’d brought her here weren’t relatives and they had never seen her face. That would have brought too much shame to her family.
Family. Fila refused to believe any of the radicals who had held her captive for over a decade were related to her in any way.
Turn the weapons of your enemies so they point at their own hearts.
Those weren’t her mother’s words; they were the words of the Taliban men who’d trapped her in their violent snares and swallowed up her life. But the words still fit, and she’d follow them.
One last check in the mirror to see that all was well, and Fila opened the bathroom door, retraced her steps to her seat, and submitted herself to the strict care of her guards once again.
“What the hell are we doing here?” Cab Johnson asked from his uncomfortable position in the back seat of Rob Matheson’s oversized Chevy. At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was always uncomfortable in back seats. Hell, he could barely wear his hat in here. It didn’t help that he shared the extended cab with three other cowboys—three men he’d normally call his best friends. Rob Matheson, at the wheel, was a tall, blond, blue-eyed man he’d known since grade school. An all-around trouble-maker, Cab had no doubt he was behind today’s shenanigans. Ethan Cruz sat beside Rob in the front passenger seat. A dark-haired, rugged rancher, he’d grown up on the spread next to Rob’s and was another of Cab’s oldest friends.
Rounding out the group was Jamie Lassiter, a little shorter than the other two, a little slighter, as well, but he possessed a wiry strength and he’d never taken last place when it came to getting the attention of women. No, that distinction fell to Cab, which was one reason he was still single while the rest of them had recently settled down. More reserved than his friends, he’d always hung back when they flirted and talked with the pretty women at bars, at parties, heck, even in grocery stores. He wasn’t the flirting kind. As county sheriff it behooved him to keep a more dignified demeanor. Plus, he’d had his eye on a particular woman for quite some time.
A woman engaged to another man.
Cab sighed. It had been a rough few months in many ways. While his friends had gotten married one by one over the sunny summer, he’d helped to track down a killer with the rest of southern Montana’s law enforcement officers. A man who had brutally assaulted and beaten to death three young women, and nearly finished off a fourth before he was apprehended. Cab was still haunted by details of the cases and the fact they hadn’t caught the man sooner. The fourth victim—a woman named Amanda Strassburg—was still in the hospital and would be for some time. Samuel Grady, the perpetrator, was behind bars awaiting trial. The evidence was solid—they’d caught him in the act—and Cab was sure he’d spend the rest of his life in prison at the very least.
He was also sure there were other Samuel Gradys out there, and that kept him from sleeping well these nights. Today he wasn’t working, though, so he had planned to head over to Linda’s Diner for lunch in the hopes that he’d forget his dark thoughts in the hustle and bustle of the eatery. Midmorning he’d gotten a call from Ethan, who had asked him to stop by. He did so on his way into town and had met up with the whole gang—Ethan, Jamie and Rob—all getting ready to run an errand. The next thing he knew he’d been coerced into coming with them. Well, coerced was probably too strong a word. He’d been mostly pleased to see his friends all together without their wives for once—not that he minded their wives. It was simply galling to be the odd man out these days. First Jamie became partners with Ethan on the Cruz ranch, then Rob joined in. Now all three of them were married and living on the same spread. Cab was out in the cold. He didn’t begrudge his friends the fun they had living and working together. He just hated being on the outskirts of that fun all the time.
He was beginning to have second thoughts about this errand, though. Why were they parked in front of Thayer Jewelers?
The call from Ethan seemed innocent enough. He’d asked Cab to come by and pick up an extra pie his wife, Autumn, had baked for him. Never one to turn down pie, Cab made it his business to come right over. As soon as he found the three of them waiting for him, he should have known something was up.
Because something was definitely up.
“Did Autumn ask for an upgrade on that ring you bought her?” he asked Ethan as they all piled out of the truck. He eyed the jewelry store with suspicion. Rose Bellingham would be in there.
Rose. When he wasn’t dreaming about the possibility of a serial killer coming to Chance Creek, he dreamed about Rose these days, even though he had no right to do such a thing. Unfortunately sometimes those two dreams merged and when he woke, thrashing and hollering, he paced the floor of his bedroom for hours, unable to sleep at all. Rose lived alone. Her fiancé, Jason Thayer, was off in North Dakota, making his fortune in the oil fields. Rose rented the carriage house behind Jason’s father’s old-fashioned house in town. Safe enough, but was a young single woman ever really safe?
“Nah, we didn’t come here for me,” Ethan said, giving him a friendly shove toward the door.
“Then why are we here?” He had a feeling he wouldn’t like the answer. How was it that everyone else in town respected him except these three idiots? As the county sheriff, he normally called the shots. Not when Rob, Ethan and Jamie were around.
“Come on,” Jamie said and pulled the door open. Cab reluctantly went inside. He’d never liked the jewelry store, probably because it made him feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Everywhere he looked stood glass cases filled with precious, delicate jewelry.
Definitely not his scene.
“Do whatever you need to do and let’s get out of here,” he growled. He wasn’t in the mood to see Rose, either. He didn’t want the reminder that she was engaged to Jason, whose father owned this store. Rose had worked here for a couple of years now. She’d been engaged to Jason for nearly six. What was the man waiting for?
Sometimes Cab wished Jason would get a move on and marry Rose already. That would put the final nail in Cab’s coffin and he could get his grieving over and done with. Rose would become Jason’s responsibility and maybe he could stop worrying about her. Other times, he hoped Rose and Jason’s engagement would stretch out until it finally snapped and she gave him back his ring. It was wrong to wish unhappiness on another man, but Cab did. Often.
“Over here,” Ethan called, gesturing for them to join him at one of the cases. Cab figured the sooner they finished this charade the sooner they could leave. He moved carefully to join the others as they bent over a display of engagement rings. Rose, who’d been near the cash register when they came in, crossed to join them, a smile on her pretty face. She was petite with glossy dark brown hair and startling blue eyes that often contained a spark of humor. Cab loved the way she was always smiling, even if sometimes that smile was wry. She was cheerful, sharp, imaginative and lively. Jason was a fool to leave her alone so long.
Cab kept his expression carefully friendly, as always, all too aware of the engagement ring that had been on Rose’s finger for as long as he could remember. He knew Jason had slipped the thin silver band on after he took her to their senior prom. Cab hadn’t noticed Rose much back then. He was a young buck in those days just establishing himself as a sheriff’s deputy. Directly after graduation, Jason moved to North Dakota. Rose stayed in Chance Creek and found herself a job. Cab had noticed her more and more over the years but had kept his distance until Rose became friends with Autumn and started to help out from time to time at the Cruz guest ranch. Thrown together more at social occasions, Cab had gotten to know her better, and as much as he told himself she was off limits—entirely off limits—he couldn’t help wishing she wasn’t.
“That one,” Jamie said, pointing to the most ostentatious ring in the bunch. Cab would hate to know the woman who wanted that monstrosity on her finger.
“Nah, too flashy,” Ethan said. “I think that one.” He pointed to a wisp of a gold band.
“That’s not an engagement ring; that’s hardly a ring at all,” Rob said. “This one.” He jabbed a finger at a circlet of yellowish diamonds that made Cab wince.
It was amazing any of them had wives, he thought, leaning over and examining the case for himself. His eyes immediately lit on a vintage art deco ring with flowing lines and several sparkling diamonds. It reminded him of Rose somehow; artistic, womanly, unique.