On a dirt road marked by haunting secrets, three strangers caught at life's crossroads must decide what to sacrifice to protect their own agendas…and what they're each willing to risk for love.
If there's any place that can convince Angela Harrell to stop running, it's Ransom Canyon. And if there's any man who can reveal desires more deeply hidden than her every fear, it's Wilkes Wagner. Beneath the rancher's honorable exterior is something that just might keep her safe…or unwittingly put her in danger's path.
With his dreams of leaving this small Texas town swallowed up by hard, dusty reality, all Wilkes has to show for his life is the Devil's Fork Ranch. Though not one to let false hope seduce him, he can't deny the quiet and cautious beauty who slips into his world and changes everything.
Dried weeds scratched against Angela Harold's bare legs as she walked the neglected grounds behind the Ransom Canyon Museum near Crossroads, Texas. Rumbling gray clouds spotted the sky above. Wind raged as though trying to push her back to the East Coast. She decided any rain might blow all the way to Oklahoma before it could land on Texas soil. But the weather didn't matter. She had made it here. She'd done exactly what her father told her. She'd vanished.
Angela had meant to stop long enough to clean up before she took her first look at the museum, but she could not wait. So, in sandals, shorts and a tank top, she explored the land behind the boarded-up building on the edge of Ransom Canyon.
When she'd talked to the board president, Staten Kirkland, five days ago, he'd sounded excited. They'd had to close the museum when the last curator left and in six months she'd been the only one to call about the job opening. Before the phone call ended Kirkland offered her a three-month trial if she could answer one question.
Angela thought it would be about her experience or her education, but it was pure Texas folk history.
"What or who was the Yellow Rose of Texas?" the man on the phone asked in his pure Texas twang.
She laughed. "The woman who entertained Santa Anna before the Battle of San Jacinto. The battle that won Texas independence." She'd always loved that story, which often got left out of history books.
"We'll be waiting for you, Mrs. Jones."
He hung up before she had time to tell him that her name wasn't Jones. In a moment of paranoia, she'd used a false name when she'd bought a laptop and phone. Then again on the application, figuring she'd be just one of hundreds who applied. Now, if he checked her transcripts or references, she'd have to make up another lie. That would be easier than finding some guy named Jones, marrying him and dragging him along to Texas with her.
Angela had driven a hundred miles before she decided she would tell Kirkland that she used Jones because she had been engaged but he left her at the altar. Kirkland would feel sorry for her, but that was better than killing off her imaginary husband.
She'd straighten it all out Monday. She'd even practice just how she'd say it.
Monday, she'd dress in a suit and accept the position as curator for the three-month trial period, but today simply exploring the place would be enough. After days in the car she needed to stretch her legs and breathe in the clean air. She'd dreamed of being in Texas for years. A wild country—untamed, open, free. Something she'd never felt before, but she planned to now. For the first time, she was free to make her own future.
The grounds behind the museum had been left natural, just as it must have looked a hundred and fifty years ago when settlers came to this top square of Texas.
Since the day she'd read there was an opening here for a curator, Angela learned everything she could about this area. The history was interesting, but the people who founded this frontier town fascinated her. They were hearty. Stubborn. Independent. Honest. All things she'd never been. But the first settlers were also broken, desperate and lost. Somehow they'd managed to work together to build, not just ranches and a town, but a future.
Now she had to do the same with no family or friends to help her.
She didn't know if she belonged here. She fainted at the sight of blood. Gave in at the first sign of disagreement.
That left honest. She didn't want to even think about how dishonest she was. She'd lied to get the job as curator of this closed museum.
Standing near the edge of a canyon that dropped a hundred feet straight down, she let the sun's dying rays warm her face. Everything about her had to change. She had to make it so. She had to start over.
Somewhere along the road between Florida and here, she'd come to the conclusion that her father's death wasn't an accident. Maybe he knew something about the company or his brother. Maybe he'd overheard trouble moving in. Why else would he have told her to run? If her life weren't in danger, why would it be so important that she vanish?
Maybe he'd been planning to disappear with her, only time ran out for him. But he had left her prepared.
He'd put money in her account. He'd even suggested that she tell no one about this job in Texas.
The old trailer he bought and hid in the garage fit into the plan. Last month, he'd had her car fit with the hitch. She'd told him she had no need to pull a trailer, but he'd said that if he ever needed the trailer, he didn't want to use it on the company car he drove. Only, she'd been the one who needed the trailer. She'd done what he'd told her to do in the note and now she had to somehow blend in here in Texas.
Taking the curator job was the first step. This time her title didn't have "assistant" attached to it. She would be the boss. This time she would have no aunt to criticize every move she made.
Angela smiled. Her aunt had probably dropped by the beach house to have that talk with her by now. After all, it had been a week. She'd find the key in the mailbox. No note. No forwarding address. No friends notified. Any mail concerning her life on Anna Marie Island would be trashed.
Angela had even cancelled her cell phone service and tossed the phone off the Bradenton Bridge when she crossed onto the mainland.
Disappear, her father's note had said. She'd seen enough spy movies to know what that meant.
She touched the necklace she wore. A replica of the Greek coin on display at her uncle's store. She'd thought of tossing it into the ocean with her phone, but decided it would always remind her of her father. The real one had caused many an argument between the brothers. Her father saw it as a family treasure. Uncle Anthony saw it as something to be sold to the highest bidder.
They'd compromised and made copies to sell for a few hundred dollars each.
Glancing toward the sound of crunching gravel, she watched a white-and-blue sheriff's car pull into the museum's parking lot. Her heart stopped.
Trouble had found her halfway across the country. Somehow her uncle had tracked her. But how? She'd parked her old car in a twenty-four-hour Walmart lot in Orlando and walked across the street to rent a pickup with a hitch for her trailer. Then she'd turned the pickup in before she crossed the Florida state line. She'd bought a junker of a car with cash but it wasn't powerful enough to pull the trailer, giving her nothing but trouble for two hundred miles. Two days later in Georgia she'd traded in the junker and her old two-wheel trailer to a mechanic for a van in a town too small to have a stop sign. The guy said he'd mail the title to the van, but she had given him a fake name and address.
What if the van had been stolen? The law could be about to arrest her, and she had no proof she bought the van.
Angela stared at the patrol car as it pulled in beside her van. Her freedom had lasted less then a week. Maybe her uncle had put out a missing person alert? That wouldn't surprise her. Her aunt probably told everyone Angela was so lost in grief she wasn't to be left alone.
A man in a uniform unfolded out of his car. She expected him to pull his gun as he walked toward her. After all, she'd run away from home at twenty-seven. Something all her relatives would swear quiet Angela would never do.
"Pardon me, miss," the man said as he neared. "This place has been closed for months. We got a no-trespassing sign at the turnoff, but you must have missed it."
In her shorts, no makeup and her strawberry-blond hair in a day-old ponytail, she must look more girl than woman. The echo of her mother's familiar speech about how Angela was too chubby, too squat to wear shorts, circled through her tired mind.
"I'm sorry. I didn't notice the sign." She straightened, trying to look at least five foot five, though she knew she missed her goal by two inches.
She moved toward the lawman trying her best to look like a professional. "I'm Angela—"
Hesitating, she tried to remember the last name she'd used on the application. It slipped her mind completely. "Smith." Angela mentally shook her tired brain awake. "Jones." Of course. How hard could that be to remember?
There, she'd gotten it out. After not talking for three days, words didn't want to form in her brain.
She stared at his name tag. Sheriff Brigman looked as if he easily read the lie that lay in her mind like oil slush. He pulled off his Stetson stalling for time, but she didn't miss the way he looked her up and down from ponytail to sandals.
"Welcome to town, Mrs. Jones. Kirkland told me you were coming."
A hint of a smile lifted the corner of his mouth. He reminded her of a sheriff from the Wild West days. Well built, a touch of gray in his sideburns and stone-cold eyes that said he'd finish the job, no matter what it took, whether it was catching the outlaw or satisfying his woman.
She mentally slapped herself. No time to flirt or daydream. Angela had to think of what to say. Was it too early to ask for a lawyer? Should she start confessing? But to what? She wasn't even sure what crimes she'd committed. Running away at her age didn't seem to be illegal, and she'd read somewhere that you can go by an alias if you were not doing anything wrong.
When she didn't offer any comment, the cop in the Stetson added, "My guess is you couldn't wait to see the inside of this place. Did you just get to town?"
She nodded, thankful he didn't add "Dressed like a fifteen-year-old." With luck, he hadn't noticed she couldn't remember her own name. Maybe he thought she had early onset Alzheimer's.
"Yes, sorry, I've been driving for twelve hours, so I'm a bit scattered. I wanted a quick look at the canyon before dark. It's beautiful out here near the edge."
Brigman nodded as he watched the last bit of sunlight running over the canyon walls turn the rocks gold. "I like to check on the museum this time of day. It kind of reminds me of a great painting. No matter what kind of day I've had, all is calm out here."
"I can see that." She'd feared she would miss the ocean and the beautiful sunsets at Anna Marie Island, but Ransom Canyon had its own kind of wonder. She had a feeling the canyon would grow on her.
"You know, Mrs. Jones, your office has a great view." He pointed to a huge window on the second floor of the big barn of a building.
Angela smiled. "No one told me that, or I might have driven all night."
They both started walking toward the parking lot.
"Your husband driving the moving van in?" Sheriff Brigman had an easy way of asking questions as if he were just being friendly.
"I'm not married," she said, then remembered the application listing her new name as Jones.
"When I interviewed over the phone with Mr. Kirkland, I was two days away from being married." She did her best to look brokenhearted, but it wasn't easy, since she'd never once given her heart away. "The night before the wedding, we called it off."
The sheriff studied her as if planning to wait for more information.
"We didn't work out. My fiancé didn't want to move." She shrugged as if fighting back tears. "When we broke up, I thought a clean getaway would be best, so I went ahead and came to Texas." Since fiancéJones never existed, it wasn't really very painful to walk out on him. "I'd already changed my email and accounts over to Jones."
Brigman raised an eyebrow. "Are you planning to keep his name?"
Angela fought down a nervous giggle. "I'm sentimental about names. Turns out his name was the only thing I liked about the man. As soon as I settle, I'll change everything back. Of course, my driver's license is still in my maiden name." This whole thing was getting mixed up in her brain. At this point any way she could climb out of this little lie was probably going to end up making her look like an idiot.
Thank goodness they had reached her van. A few more lies and the sheriff would probably figure out she was on the run and have her arrested or committed.
"Have you been by your new house yet?" he asked as he opened her car door.
"Do you know where it is?" Mr. Kirkland had mentioned that he'd email her some information, but she'd forgotten to look.
"Sure." He grinned, looking younger. "This is a small town, Mrs. Jones, I mean…"
He waited for her to fill in the blank. "Harold," she answered.
The sheriff nodded once. "Kirkland said you wanted to rent a two-bedroom furnished place that allowed cats. Half the Chamber of Commerce started looking for something special. We don't get many professional curators around here. I could show you the one we picked for you and the runner-up, Miss Harold. I've got keys to both."
"Please call me Angela, Sheriff."
He touched two fingers to the brim of his Stetson in a salute. "All right, Angela. Why don't you call me Dan. Which do you want to see first, a nice little house between the two churches in town or a cabin house on the lake? The church house has more room, but the lake house backs into the shoreline."
"I'll take the lake house," she said immediately. She almost hugged him. Water. She'd be near water.
"Follow me, then."
"I don't want to be any trouble," she said. "If you'll give me the key, I can probably find it."
"No trouble. You have to pass my house at the lake to get to yours. Showing you the place isn't out of my way home at all."
As the sheriff's car led her through the small town of Crossroads, Angela fought down another wave of panic that seemed to be coming over her as often as hiccups. This open country where anyone could see for miles in every direction didn't seem like a very wise place to hide. Probably half the people in town would know where she lived. How could she have ever thought she'd be safe here?
What if Anthony came after her? If he found her? If he or one of his associates had killed her father and made it look like a robbery, maybe they'd kill her, too. They might think her father had told her more than just that the books didn't balance. Maybe they thought she had something that belonged to Uncle Anthony. After all, someone had turned her parents' home upside down looking for something.
Of course, if they came for her, she'd swear she didn't know anything. But would they believe her if her father had already confronted them with some illegal activity he knew about? Whatever her father overheard or found in the books must have been bad. A secret worth murdering for?
She was letting her imagination run away with her again. The police said her father's mugging was just one of a half dozen in the area that weekend. Probably drug related. The investigator hadn't given her much hope that the killer would ever be found. Dark alley. No witnesses. He even said it looked as if her father had been struck with something or pushed, then fell backward hitting his head.
Angela knew the police report didn't tell the whole story. Her father knew trouble was coming. Whoever killed him must have known his habits. Whoever mugged him might have known it might trigger a heart attack. Something had kept him from going to the police with his information and that something or someone had to be the reason he wanted her away and safe.
Only, she had no proof. No facts.
Her only choice was to make a new start and never look back. She trusted her father. If he said run, she would.
The sheriff, in the car in front of her, would be her first friend. This place would become her only home. In three months she'd be so much a part of this wild country she'd almost believe she was born to the land.
Excerpted from Rustler's Moon by Jodi Thomas. Copyright © 2016 by Jodi Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin (US & Canada). All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About the Author
A fifth-generation Texan, JODI THOMAS sets the majority of her novels in her home state. With a degree in Family Studies, Thomas is a marriage and family counselor by education, a background that enables her to write about family dynamics. Honored in 2002 as a Distinguished Alumni by Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Thomas enjoys interacting with students on the West Texas A & M University campus, where she currently serves as Writer in Residence. When not working on a novel or inspiring students to pursue a writing career, Thomas enjoys traveling with her husband, Tom, renovating a historic home they bought in Amarillo, and "checking up" on their two grown sons.