Excerpt from Cowboy Protector
Hannah Williams scanned the bus depot at Sweet Creek, Montana, tugging her heavy overcoat closer to her to ward off the chill of the biting wind that swooped down from the snow-capped mountains nearby. When her gaze paused on a stranger, she memorized the face, then moved on to the next one. She’d learned to be totally aware of the people and terrain surrounding her. Her life depended on it.
On her second sweep of the terminal, Hannah spied a newcomer who towered over the others around him. Wearing a black cowboy hat that blended with his black, straight hair and a camel-colored, sheepskin coat, he surveyed the crowd with dark coffee-colored eyes, his strong jaw set in a look of concentration. His tanned features were in stark contrast to most of the people in the depot who were pasty white from hibernating during the winter months. His command of his space touched off an alarm in her. Friend or foe? For a second she poised herself to run in case he wasn’t the man she was to meet.
His intense gaze zeroed in on her. She stiffened and clutched her purse against her as though that would protect her from a bullet. Run. Find another job, screamed through her mind.
I need the work. A ranch would be a perfect place to hide.
He headed for her, the throng parting to allow him through. With each stride that brought him closer, her heart increased its pounding. She took a step back.
Nearing her, he smiled, straight white teeth standing out against the bronze face, but all she could focus on was the cleft in his chin. Another man she knew had one. Its sight instantly threw her back into the past.
Devon Madison brushed up against her as she left the courthouse. The hatred spewing from him held her immobile. He leaned close andwhispered, “I’m coming after you,” in such a chilling, cultured voice she shuddered despite the summer heat radiating off the asphalt in Los Angeles.
She forced the memory back into its box, hopefully never to be opened again.
“Are you Hannah Williams?”
The question from the cowboy in front of her whisked her totally back to the present. No, I’m Jen Davis. But not anymore. She was reminded each time she heard a different name from the one given to her at birth. “Yes.”
“I’m Austin Taylor. Pleased to meet you.” His grin widened, two dimples appearing on either side of his mouth.
When he held out his hand, she shook it, a strong clasp with roughened fingers that fit the man before her.
“Let’s get out of here. We have about a thirty-minute drive to the ranch.” He gestured toward the parking lot. “My Jeep is this way.”
She followed him to a dirt-covered, red SUV and slipped into the front passenger seat. “I’ll need to catch the five-o’clock bus for Billings. Will that be a problem?”
“No. We can talk on the drive. Then when we reach the Triple T, you can meet my daughter, Misty, and spend some time with her.”
The town of Sweet Creek disappeared quickly as Austin headed west. After placing her purse on the floor by her feet, Hannah leaned back against the cushion and peered at the side mirror nearest her. Not any cars behind them. Good. Relaxation eased through her as she angled toward her prospective employer.
He glanced at her. “The person I hire for this job must have a good rapport with Misty. My daughter has been through a lot lately, and her usual cheerful disposition has suffered.”
“You told me on the phone that she was in a car wreck four weeks ago. What are her medical concerns?”
“A broken leg with a cast that goes up to her thigh, a broken wrist and respiratory complications from the air bag deploying. I brought her home yesterday and will need someone to start within a few days. Misty has developed asthma and is having trouble with her breathing, not to mention the fact that it’s hard for a child who was very active before the accident to be immobile. As you’ll see my ranch is isolated. I need someone to be a companion and help with any medical issues that arise while I’m working. Later when her casts come off, Misty will have physical therapy exercises to do. I need someone who can follow the instructions given by the physical therapist.”
“When are the casts coming off?” She didn’t like staying any longer than two, maybe three months in one place.
“The doctor hopes to take the arm cast off in a few weeks and see if he can remove the other one and put her in a leg immobilizer. But even then she won’t be able to bear weight for a while.”
“I’ve worked with patients who need to do certain exercises. That shouldn’t be a problem at all.”
He shot her another assessing gaze. “I’m thankful my grandmother knew of a good friend in Billings who’s using home health care.”
“I’m glad she got in touch with Mr. Peterson. My job with him is winding down. I was starting to look for another one, so this will work out perfectly. That is, if you hire me.”
“Will you be able to start within three days? I got the impression from Granny that Saul was doing much better now.”
Hannah glanced behind her, saw a white pickup a hundred yards back and tensed, her fingernails digging into her palms. Dragging her attention back to Austin, she uncurled her hands and forced a calmness into her voice that she never felt in an unfamiliar environment. No big deal. Trucks are everywhere in Montana. “Yes, Saul’s doing very well.” She pasted a grin on her face. “To tell you the truth, I could have left a couple of weeks ago, but I think he gets lonely and enjoys the company.”
“He only had glowing words to say about you and your work. When Granny got off the phone, she was ready to hire you on the spot, sight unseen.”
But you weren’t, hence the invitation to come to the ranch for an interview and to meet your daughter. “I do have another reference if you need it.” At least on the job before Saul Peterson’s, she’d still gone by the name Hannah Williams. Soon she would change her name again-some variation of Williams or maybe it was time to pretend Williams had been a married name and she was now using her maiden name. She didn’t want to get too comfortable in the same routine.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
Hannah reached into her oversized purse and withdrew the manila envelope, then placed it on the seat between them. “Also in there is my resume with my medical training information.”
He peered down at the envelope she laid on the seat between them. “Not only do I need someone who can administer Misty’s medications and tend to her medically, as I said earlier, I need a companion to help take my daughter’s mind off what has happened. According to Saul, you’re quite entertaining. But he’s seventy-six. How do you do with five-year-olds?”
“I love children and have worked with several over the past few years.” And each child has only confirmed my desire to have a family, something that’s unattainable.
“So you’ve worked in Billings. Where else?”
“All over Montana. Before Billings, I was in Great Falls, Missoula, Silver Gorge and White Bend, to name a few.”
His eyebrows rose. “You do move around a lot. I can’t imagine being away from my ranch for too long.”
“Montana is beautiful, and I’ve been to some gorgeous places. I have no ties so I can move freely. Some places are remote and don’t have access easily to home health care. I fill a need.”
Hannah didn’t have a family. Jen Davis did, but that person was dead to the world. She “died” five years ago, and Hannah had to remember that. Any slip could be fatal. “No family.”
“Speaking of family, my grandmother Caroline, the one who knows Saul, lives with us. She’s usually full of energy, but her diabetes is acting up. She wanted to take care of Misty by herself, but that would be too much for her. I want the person who works with my daughter to keep an eye on my grandmother, too. I’m afraid she isn’t taking her medicine like she should. So much of our life has been disrupted with the accident.”
“I also love working with older people. They always have such interesting lives. Why, Saul had been with the rodeo in his younger days, and I got to hear all about how to ride a bull and bronco. Enough to know I don’t want to.”
Austin chuckled. “Neither do I. I’ve spent more time on the ground than I care, breaking horses.”
Hannah peered behind the Jeep and still saw the pickup hanging back about a hundred yards. The tension she’d managed to hold at bay while talking about the job instantly swamped her. When Austin turned off the highway onto a narrow paved road, the white truck mimicked his move. She clutched her hands together, her back ramrod straight to the point it ached.
“Relax. We’re almost there.”
Not five minutes later Austin turned off the road onto a gravel one, driving his Jeep under an arch proclaiming to the world they were on Triple T land. And the pickup trailed them.
Every couple of minutes Hannah threw a glance over her shoulder, trying to draw a decent breath. The truck was still behind them. She compelled air into her oxygen-deprived lungs.
“Do you realize someone is following us?” she finally asked as the SUV headed up a rise in the road.
“Yeah, that’s my foreman. He’d gone to town for some supplies.”
“Oh.” Hannah sagged against the seat, her stress deflating like a balloon being pricked with a pin. She caught his evaluating gaze and cocked a grin. “I just thought it was unusual for someone else to turn off the highway then the road back there.” As usual, she overreacted and needed to work on that. She was safe and nothing remotely dangerous had happened to her since she’d left the Witness Protection Program two years before. Not even the U.S. Marshal’s office in Montana knew where she was, so how was Devon Madison going to find her?
“I employ nine people year-round. I’ve been hiring lately since this is the beginning of our busiest time…