That Woman in Wyoming

He’s only doing his job–but he’s breaking her heart.

Bounty hunter Max Gardner’s latest case brings him to Serenity, Wyoming, where he meets Reagan McKenna and her teenaged daughters. Max can’t help admiring the way Reagan puts her family before everything. Her daughters and her younger brother mean the world to her.

Suddenly Serenity–with its small-town charm–seems the perfect place to live. And Reagan and her children the perfect family for Max. But Reagan lost her husband in the line of duty, and Max’s career puts their future in jeopardy…and that’s not the only thing standing between them.

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CHAPTER ONE

Max Gardner covered the car’s dome light with one hand as his partner, Donovan Reed, slipped inside. A strong gust of cold March wind blew in through the door, bringing the scent of rain with it. Shivering, Max swirled the dregs of hours’ old coffee in the bottom of a paper cup while Donovan shut them inside with a nearly inaudible click.

“Is Carmichael in there?” Max asked.

Donovan shook his head and motioned for Max to start the engine. “I couldn’t see anything. They’ve got the windows covered, and there are so many shrubs around the house I couldn’t get in close.”

Max turned his gaze to the small frame house three doors from where they’d parked. The neighborhood had definitely seen better days. Max had spent more nights than he could count in neighborhoods like this one over the past ten years. Sometimes they got lucky; sometimes not. “So I guess we wait until he shows himself?”

“If he’s even there.” Donovan held both hands over the defrost vents on the dashboard. “He’d better not have given us the slip this time.”

With his black leather vest, shoulder-length hair, thick brown beard, and tattoos on both arms, Donovan looked like a biker—the kind of guy most people would instinctively be wary of. Max had worked with him long enough to know that Donovan’s scruffy exterior hid a razor-sharp mind and finely-honed instincts. He trusted Donovan’s judgment.

“Third time’s the charm,” Max said with a grin. “We’ve got him this time. I can feel it.”

Donovan let out an appreciative sigh as the heat kicked on. “I just hope he comes out before morning. Holly will have my head if we miss our plane.”

“A year ago, you’d have thought this was great fun. I think marriage has skewed your priorities.”

“Changed ‘em,” Donovan said with a lopsided smile, “not skewed. And don’t try to tell meyou’d rather cool your heels waiting to collect a bounty than spending a week in Cancun with the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Max laughed softly and shut off the engine again. Even for comfort, they couldn’t risk calling attention to themselves. “I’d rather cool my heels on a stakeout. A week with any woman is too much commitment for me.”

“One of these days, some woman’s going to help you change your mind,” Donovan warned. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Max took a sip of lukewarm coffee, grimaced, and set the cup back in its holder. “You’ll have to wait. It isn’t going to happen.”

He might sometimes envy Donovan having a beautiful woman waiting for him at home, but he couldn’t understand how his friend could ask her to live with the uncertainty that came with their career. Max was sharply aware of the danger they faced every time they went after a fugitive. It didn’t seem right to ask a woman to live with that.

True, some situations were more dangerous than others, but nobody who’d escaped from jail or skipped bail was happy to see them. Some tried to run again. Others resisted. The most unlikely people had weapons, and few hesitated to bring them out when bounty hunters came knocking at the door.

To make matters worse, he and Donovan spent days, sometimes weeks, on the road. The pay was good but sporadic, and they couldn’t count on a paycheck until they had it in their hands. Not the ideal career for a family man. Not even close. Max just hoped Donovan and Holly wouldn’t eventually regret their decision.

He checked his watch and changed the subject. “It’s almost ten o’clock. If our friend at the bar wasn’t lying, Carmichael’s girlfriend will be leaving for work soon.”

Donovan leaned back in the seat and closed his eyes. “If she does, you can charm her. If it looks like she’s going to let you into the house, come and get me.”

Max glanced at his worn jeans, faded T-shirt and the bulletproof vest beneath his jacket. He ran a hand along the stubble on his chin and laughed. “I’ll really charm her, all right.”

Donovan opened one eye and grinned. “Use that honest face of yours. It makes women weak in the knees.”

“Right. Weak.” Max arched his back to work out the kinks from sitting in the same position for hours. “You’re the one with a woman at home. Maybe you ought to do the charming.”

Donovan gave a lazy shrug and closed his eyes again. “You’re the beauty of this partnership. I’m the brawn—remember?”

Max started to answer, but when the front door he’d been watching opened he nudged Donovan instead and nodded toward the shadowy figure stepping onto the porch. “I think we’re in luck. Someone’s coming out.”

Donovan sat upright again, leaned forward and squinted to see through the dark. “It’s not Carmichael, unless he’s started cross-dressing. Must be the girlfriend. Tall. Blond. Thin. Matches the description I got from the bartender at Lucky’s.”

Max adjusted his shoulder holster, zipped his jacket, and reached for the door handle. “What’s her name again?”

“Monique Marshall.” This time, Donovan covered the dome light so Max could let himself out into the gathering storm. “She’s all yours, partner.”

Keeping one eye on the woman and the other on the house, Max set out toward her. She clicked on stiletto heels toward the front gate, wearing a jacket edged with some kind of fur and a skirt that barely grazed the tops of her thighs. She looked half frozen in the sharp March wind.

Max kept his pace slow until she reached the sidewalk, then quickly closed the distance between them. “Excuse me—”

Monique wheeled around to face him, barely managing to keep her balance on the dagger heels. “What in the hell—?” She clutched her purse tightly and glanced over her shoulder for an escape route.

Max held up both hands where she could see them. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’m looking for a friend of mine, and I wonder if you can help.”

She pursed a set of crimson lips. “I doubt it.”

“His name’s Travis Carmichael,” Max said as if she hadn’t responded. He kept his smile friendly and his stance nonthreatening, but his gaze drifted between her face, her hands, and her oversized purse. He didn’t want to be caught off guard if she had a weapon inside.

Monique tossed a lock of platinum hair over one shoulder and hitched her purse high on her shoulder. Her eyes flickered and her lips thinned slightly. “Sorry. Don’t know him.”

“Are you sure? I was told that you did.”

Her eyes stopped flickering and narrowed tightly. “Who told you that?”

“A mutual friend.”

Her gaze moved over him rapidly, taking in every detail of his appearance. “You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

“No.”

“Well, you’re not a friend. You definitely don’t belong in this neighborhood.” A lock of wind-tousled hair fell into her eyes. “Travis is in trouble again, isn’t he?”

Max figured skipping bail on an armed robbery charge qualified as trouble, but he wasn’t going to give her details. “If he is, I’m sure you don’t want to be part of it. Why don’t you tell me where to find him? I’ll make sure you won’t be involved.” He glanced at the house behind them. “Is he inside?”

“No.” Monique chewed one bright red lip and thought for a moment. “Okay, you’re right. I doknow him. But he hasn’t been anywhere near here in over a year. And that’s the truth. The only people inside that house are my daughter and her babysitter.”

Her gaze didn’t waver, and Max followed his gut instinct that she was telling the truth. “Do you know where I can find him?”

Another gust of wind threatened the slim band of Monique’s skirt. She slapped one hand over it to hold it down. “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

“It’s important.”

She pushed the hair out of her face impatiently and started toward an aging yellow Volkswagen parked beside the curb. “Look . . .  Travis and I had a thing for a while, but it wasn’t serious. I kicked him out last year, and I haven’t heard from him since–thank God.”

Max followed her into the street. “How about other friends? Do you know anyone else who might have heard from him recently? Like I said, it’s important.”

Monique glanced at him over her shoulder. “Travis has screwed over everybody I know. He’s good at that.” She spent a second or two wrenching open the dented car door. “If I were you, I’d ask his sister.”

“Sister?” Max scowled. Doug Slate hadn’t mentioned anything about a sister when he passed the case over to them. “I didn’t realize Travis had a sister.”

“Believe it or not, even a loser like Travis has family.” Monique smiled bitterly. “She’s probably the only person who’s still speaking to him. He runs through friends pretty fast.”

Charming guy. “What can you tell me about her?”

Monique tossed her purse onto the car seat. “I’ve never met her, but Travis used to talk about her a lot. I got the feeling they were pretty close.”

Great. Two peas in a pod. “Any idea where I can find her?”

“He got a couple of letters from her while he was here. Her return address was some little town in Wyoming—something like Peace or Tranquility.” Monique scowled thoughtfully and shook her head. “But those aren’t right.” She slid behind the wheel and put the key into the ignition. “I remember now. It was Serenity.”

Serenity, Wyoming. Max had never heard of it, but it shouldn’t be hard to find. “What about a name?”

“Ronnie, I think. Yeah . . . that’s it. Ronnie. Travis said he’d take me there to meet her but he never did. He always did talk big, but he wasn’t much for keeping promises. Probably still isn’t.” She gave the door a sharp tug. “Just do me one favor, okay? Don’t tell him you talked to me. The last thing I need is Travis Carmichael showing up on my doorstep.”

“You have my word on it.” If Max had anything to say about it, Travis would be cooling his heels in a jail cell before the weekend was over.

He waited until Monique drove away, then turned back toward the warm car where Donovan waited. “She hasn’t seen him,” he said when he was back inside. “But here’s an interesting bit of news. Carmichael a sister living in Serenity, Wyoming.”

Donovan’s forehead creased and a scowl tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Why in the hell didn’t Doug tell us about her?”

“Probably because he didn’t bother to look.” Doug Slate might own the bonding company Max and Donovan contracted with, but he was a shining example of incompetence at its best. Max filled Donovan in on the letters and ended with, “Monique got the impression Travis and the sister are close.”

“Which means that’s the first place we should have looked.” Donovan shook his head. “I’m telling you, Doug isn’t half the man his father is. The company’s been going to hell in a hand-basket since he took over. And you know why? You know what his problem is? He doesn’t care.”

“Actually, I think it’s our problem.” Max put the Taurus into gear and pulled onto the deserted street. “I’m beginning to wish I’d never promised Harvey I’d stay on for a year after he retired.”

“You and me both.” Donovan rolled down his window a crack and lit a cigarette. “One of these days Doug’s going to get us killed. Personally, I think it’s time for you and me to make some decisions, even if we don’t want to. Maybe we should strike out on our own.”

Max had the sinking feeling Donovan was right. Breaking with Slate would be easy since they weren’t actually Slate’s employees. But Max believed in keeping his word, and the idea of cutting loose six months early didn’t sit lightly on his shoulders.

“Holly’s going to have a fit when I tell her I can’t leave tomorrow,” Donovan said as he flicked ash out the window.

“You’re not going to tell her. There’s no reason for you to miss your vacation just because Doug screwed up. Take Holly to Cancun like you planned. I’ll track Carmichael down.”

Donovan blew out a cloud of smoke and shook his head. “No way. I don’t like the idea of you taking it alone.”

Max grinned. “Okay. Then I’ll take Holly to Cancun and you can find Carmichael.” He laughed at Donovan’s quick scowl. “Quit worrying, would you? I can handle picking up somebody like Travis Carmichael with one hand tied behind my back.”

“Assuming nothing goes wrong.”

“Nothing will go wrong. Carmichael’s an amateur. Sooner or later, he’s going to turn up somewhere looking for help, and it’s probably going to be at his sister’s place. Blood’s thicker than water, you know. And if I run into trouble, I’ll call Doug. Does that make you feel better?”

“Not much.”

Max stopped at the corner and checked for oncoming traffic. “Relax. I’ll have Carmichael in custody and be back in San Diego before you get your first sunburn. I guarantee it.”

(copyrighted material)


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