Texas Ranger Sarah Osborn approached the man at the paddock. He faced away from her, his arms resting on the top slat of the fence. His tall, lean build radiated tension as he fisted his hands. She could see his biceps flexing beneath the T-shirt. There’d been a time she knew Ian O’Leary well. But not anymore. Maybe never.
“Ian,” she called out. “I’m here about your stolen stallion.”
He stiffened, pushed away from the wooden railing, and swung around. The tan cowboy hat shadowed his expression, but there was no mistaking his anger—the hard line of his jaw gave that away. “I heard you were assigned to this area, but I’d expected the sheriff. What’s a Ranger doing investigating a stolen horse?”
“I’m heading a multi-county investigation into the recent cattle rustling.”
“My prize stallion was taken. I don’t have many cattle on this ranch, but the ones I have are accounted for.”
“Sheriff Denison and I thought since a few horses have been taken, too, that this is the work of the same cattle rustlers.” She didn’t have to see his dark blue eyes to know they were drilling into her.
“Very well. What do you need from me?” A tic twitched in his cheek.
“To tell me what happened.”
“I went through this with the sheriff this morning on the phone.”
“Humor me. Run through it again.” She ground her teeth to keep from saying what was really on her mind: Why did you come home? Since she worked several counties in this part of northeastern Texas, she’d managed for the past six months to keep her distance, but she couldn’t avoid him forever.
He turned to the fence and gestured with his hand. “I keep Thunder near the barn. This is his paddock.”
“When did you notice him gone?”
“About six this morning. I walk by here a bunch of times every day, since my home is so close.”
As she walked toward the fence, she glanced over her shoulders at the simple red brick, one-story house with a long front porch, and if she remembered correctly from when they’d dated fifteen years before, it had a deck off the back that overlooked a large pond. “I heard about your father. I’d have been at the funeral, but I was on vacation when it happened. I didn’t find out until I came home a week afterwards.”
“He went fast and didn’t suffer much. I didn’t get to say good-bye…” Ian swallowed hard.
She fixed her gaze on the lower half of his face, the only part she could see. For a few seconds his lips, frowning, drew her total attention. Memories of that mouth kissing her flooded her mind, and her heart rate accelerated. “I’m sorry. He was a good man.”
“The last I heard you were working in Houston for the FBI. What made you come home now and run the ranch?” Now, when it was too late for them? Now, when her heart had finally scarred over where he’d broken it in two. And why did she care, anyway? It had been fifteen years.
“I promised my dad I wouldn’t sell the ranch. It seemed appropriate I carry on for him.”
“He had the best rodeo horses in this part of Texas, maybe in the whole state.”
“Which may be a reason someone took Thunder. He’s sired many champions.”
Thunder, his stallion. That’s why she was here at the Shamrock Ranch. She had to find out what she needed and leave. “When was the last time you saw him?”
“Last night about eleven.”
“You were at the barn late?”
“No, looking out my office window. It gives me a good view of Thunder, the barn, and some of the fields where the mares are. There’s a security light that shines on the barnyard and into the front of the paddock. He was at the fence.”
“So he was taken between eleven and six. Did anything unusual happen in the middle of the night? Did you hear anything out of the ordinary?”
“Frisky barked”—he paused and tilted his head—“about two this morning. But Dad’s dog does that most nights. I tune him out unless he persists. He didn’t.”
Ian scowled. “At the vet’s. Whoever took Thunder poisoned him. Doc Miller is keeping him overnight, but he should recover.”
Sarah started for the gate into the paddock. “I’m going to take a look around.”
“I already have. There are boot prints. There was only one set I couldn’t rule out—size twelve or thirteen.”
“One person? Are you sure?”
Finally Ian pushed his hat’s brim up his forehead so she could clearly see his expression. “I might have left the FBI, but I’ve been a law enforcement officer at least two years longer than you. Also, I’m usually the only one who handles Thunder. It took me several months to come to a truce with the stallion.”
He nodded, removing his cowboy hat and raking his fingers through his thick brown hair. “Until he accepted me, my dad was the only one who dealt with him. That’s why I’m surprised someone snuck into his pasture, grabbed him, and got away without Thunder making a lot of ruckus.”
“If they poisoned Frisky, maybe they did something to Thunder to make him more docile.”
“I suppose the person could have tranquilized him.” Ian pointed to the boot prints near the railing by the gate. “As you can see, a truck pulling a trailer was backed up to this area.”
“No ransom demand yet?”
“I wish. Then I would know Thunder might be returned. I haven’t heard anything. If he isn’t found, it will set the ranch back financially.”
“Does anyone hold a grudge against you?” Besides me. But even she didn’t, not really when she thought about why they’d parted years ago. She couldn’t fulfill his dream of being in the FBI and making a difference, especially in keeping this country safe from terrorists. His best friend had died in a terrorist attack, an attack that haunted Ian. He was supposed to be at the courthouse in Dallas that day. But he’d been delayed.
After that, Ian was driven to stop terrorists from attacking innocent people. And in the process, he’d probably earned himself an enemy or two.
“I’ve put my fair share behind bars, but most of them are still in prison.”
Sarah used her cell to snap some pictures of anything that might be evidence, but she had to agree with Ian. There wasn’t much to go on. After she made a cast of the shoe print Ian had indicated didn’t belong, her gaze connected with his. He had a way of looking at a person and making her feel possessed by him, as though he could read her mind.
She blinked and looked at his hat, his T-shirt, the ground, until she got her bearings back. Only then did she peer at his face again. “So no other horses or cattle are missing, just Thunder?”
One corner of his mouth hiked up. “That’s what I said. If I remember anything else, I’ll let you know.”
“Please do. If it’s the cattle-rustling group, stealing Thunder may mean they’re branching out. He isn’t an ordinary horse, but a prize stallion.” She dug into the pocket of her tan pants and pulled out a business card, then wrote her cell number on the back of it. “It’s easier to get ahold of me through my cell phone. I’m not in the office much. I have several counties to cover, so I’m on the road a lot. If they contact you about a ransom demand, please let me know. Do you have a photo of Thunder?”
“Come up to the house. I have one in my office. Thunder has a microchip injected in him to help identify him, so even if they change his outer appearance, we’ll know when we’ve got him. But the scanner used to ID the horse has to be close to pick up the signal. No GPS tracking yet.” Ian shut the gate and walked toward his house. “I’ve contacted the Equine Protection Registry, and he was put on their Hot List, which goes out to various agencies. The microchip can’t be removed without surgery.”
“Too bad about the GPS.”
“Yeah, I know. One day that will be available, but that doesn’t help me now. I had a tag with a GPS tracking system on Thunder, but I found it by the gate, smashed. If they try to take Thunder out of the country through legal channels, I might get him back. But I think he’ll stay in the U.S. The rodeo circuit is strong, and a good horse is valuable.”
“Some ranchers have microchips in their cattle. Our modern day branding. But there is a black market for cattle. A person can make good money with the price of beef so high.” Sarah studied the tire tracks leading away from the gate. “How many people do you have working for you?”
“Two hands that have been with the ranch for years—Charlie and Tony. They aren’t involved.”
“Charlie was here when you and I…” For some reason the word dated wouldn’t get past the lump lodged in her throat.
A few seconds passed before Ian said, “Yeah. Tony was hired five years ago. There were other cowhands, but they haven’t been here since Dad cut back on the number of cattle last year.” Ian opened the back door and waited for her to go inside first.
Stepping into the kitchen, she felt as if she’d stepped back into time. She and Ian would come in after riding and grab something cold to drink. Her gaze strayed to the same oak table in the alcove where she would sit with Ian right next to her and dream of the future. The memory sent her pulse rate up a notch.
Ian gestured toward the office down the hall, the same one his dad used for years. “Make yourself comfortable. I won’t be long.”
As she made her way toward the office, she could feel Ian’s stare on her, but there was no way she would look back to see if she was correct. She hadn’t been enough for him all those years ago. She’d been finishing her senior year in high school when he’d left the small junior college nearby. She’d been planning on going to school with him, but he’d been driven to seek his own path—without her.
Inside the office she strolled around, taking in what was new and what was old. A photo of him on his horse graced the wall behind the large desk. There was a time he’d thought that horse would be his partner on the rodeo circuit. That had been important to him once, but he’d discarded that dream, too. She paused at the window and glanced out, noting Thunder’s paddock and the barn, just like he’d said.
Why had Ian come home now, after all this time? He promised his dad he would run the ranch, but the Ian she had known wouldn’t have given up on his dreams for anyone. He sure hadn’t given them up for her. Why did he leave the FBI for his father after his death? And why now?