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Hot on the Trail - Vicki Tharp

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Trail

Books by Vicki Tharp

Lazy S Ranch series

Cowgirl, Unexpectedly

Must Love Horses

Hot on the Trail

Hot on the Trail

Vicki Tharp

LYRICAL PRESS

Kensington Publishing Corp.

www.kensingtonbooks.com

To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

LYRICAL PRESS BOOKS are published by

Kensington Publishing Corp.

119 West 40th Street

New York, NY 10018

Copyright © 2018 by Vicki Tharp

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

All Kensington titles, imprints, and distributed lines are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotion, premiums, fund-raising, educational, or institutional use.

Special book excerpts or customized printings can also be created to fit specific needs. For details, write or phone the office of the Kensington Sales Manager: Kensington Publishing Corp., 119 West 40th Street, New York, NY 10018. Attn. Sales Department. Phone: 1-800-221-2647.

Lyrical Press and Lyrical Press logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

First Electronic Edition: July 2018

eISBN-13: 978-5161-0452-9

eISBN-10: 1-5161-0452-8

First Print Edition: July 2018

ISBN-13: 978-1-5161-0453-6

ISBN-10: 1-5161-0453-6

Printed in the United States of America

Dedication

Dedicated to CW4 Seth Johansen, USAR (Retired), UH-60 pilot, and Major Dave Heronemus USMC (Retired), CH-46E pilot. Thank you for your sacrifice and service to our country, and for your insight and help with technical aspects of this book. Neither would have been the same without you.

CHAPTER ONE

Life isn’t always about the strength within. Sometimes it’s about finding the strength without.

Without friends, without family, without a net to keep you safe.

Sometimes it’s about finding the one thing in your life that matters most.

And sometimes, it’s about the horses.

* * * *

Jenna Nash stopped midstroke with her currycomb on her horse’s neck and looked over at Santos, one of the Lazy S ranch hands. What do you mean, you can’t find Kurt? I thought he was fixing fences with you and Alby?

Never showed up after breakfast and no sign of him all morning. Santos’s barbed tone pricked her attention. Normally his temperament was as level as Wyoming’s high mountain plains.

Santos leaned against the empty stall door, his spurs tink, tink, tinking as he adjusted his stance. From beneath his cowboy hat, his dark brown eyes watched her with a quiet intensity. This is the second time this week Kurt’s missed—

Yeah, I know. And the state will, too, when I submit my weekly progress report.

Look, Jenna. He lost the thorny tone, his expression set to I-hate-to-be-the-one-to-tell-you-this. I understand that Healing Horses is important to you, but maybe Kurt shouldn’t have been the program’s test case.

‘Test case’? You make him sound like part of a mad scientist’s evil experiment. This wasn’t meant to be easy. Healing Horses is a therapy program. For troubled veterans. Not a skate party for first graders.

But your program’s final licensing depends on this guy’s success. He could jeopardize the whole program.

If we can’t help guys like Kurt, we have no business getting that license to begin with. You’ve seen with your own eyes—with my stepmother, with Boomer—how this place, how these horses, can heal people. And still, you doubt. Jenna stopped before her voice went shrill, afraid if it went any higher, the coyotes would start howling.

Her dog trotted in and sat on her toes. She ruffled her fingers in the cattle dog’s scruff. It’s okay, Dink.

Santos’s face soured like he’d sucked on a lemon and added a jalapeño chaser. Dink lay down, a wary eye on Santos. Jenna resumed her brushing, maybe a tad too hard. Angel nudged her with his nose, and Jenna stumbled forward a step. That’s what happened when your horse was the Lurch of horsedom and didn’t know his own strength.

Switching to the body brush, Jenna used long, slow, soothing strokes, more for her than the horse, and flicked the loosened dirt away.

Jenna softened her voice. Sorry, I didn’t mean to take my frustration out on you.

It wasn’t Santos’s fault Kurt was unreliable.

It wasn’t Santos’s fault Kurt had a history with alcohol and drugs.

And despite how she’d defended her decision, it wasn’t Santos’s fault that Kurt was the last person Jenna should have agreed to let participate in the program. But her dad always said, go big or go bigger.

Then again, if Kurt hadn’t been all those things, he wouldn’t have needed Jenna or the program or the horses.

She picked at a clod of dirt in Angel’s thick black mane. Did you check Kurt’s cabin?

Checked his cabin, the barn, the round pen, the big house. Nowhere left to check.

The bacon Jenna had gobbled down that morning turned her stomach, and she swallowed down the icky urp. Where’s his car?

Cabin.

Horse?

Pasture.

Then he has to be around here somewhere. Jenna tossed the brush into the grooming bucket, unhitched Angel from the rail, and turned the horse out into his stall. Jesus, I feel more like a parole officer than a program director. Maybe he went into Alpine or Murdock. To the hardware store or—

Santos laughed. It held about as much humor as a cart of manure. Murdock’s at least twenty miles from here. Alpine even farther. What’s he going to do, walk there?

A friend could have picked him up.

If Santos had been the type to roll his eyes, he would have. He cut her a look that screamed get real.

"I guess he would have to have friends for that," Jenna said.

Santos picked up the grooming bucket and hung it on the hook by the stall door. Want me to start calling all the bars?

He knows the rules. No drinking, no drugs.

Yeah, but to a guy like him, the straight and narrow fits like a straitjacket.

The tips of Jenna’s ears heated. She should have known accepting her ex-boyfriend’s best friend into the program would come back to bite, chomp, chew, and gnaw on her ass until nothing was left.

Jenna scooped up her hair and tied it into a ponytail with a piece of bright orange hay string. A hot breeze blew through the barn, whipping up a miniature dust devil, sticking hay and dirt and disappointment to her skin.

You and Alby go on without him, Jenna said. I’ll have another look around. And as soon as I find his ass, we’ll get back on schedule.

"You’re loco for trying. Kurt’s a lost cause. You need to—"

She nailed him in the chest with a dirt clod to shut him up. I don’t need you telling me what I should do. I get enough of that from my father. This is my program, my baby. Call me naïve or stubborn or crazy. But I can’t give up on him like everyone else has.

Santos tucked her under his arm like an overprotective big brother as they walked out of the barn. I don’t want you to get hurt.

Stepping out into the high sun turned their shadows into amorphous blobs at their feet. She glanced across the pasture, past the grazing horses, past the rolling hills that climbed higher and higher and higher until they crashed into the jagged eastern slope of the Rockies. Santos didn’t understand. No one really did.

I’m not giving up on him, Jenna said as she stepped away.

Don’t give up, but don’t get your hopes up, either. And if this doesn’t work out, if Kurt fails, remember it wasn’t your program that failed. It wasn’t you who failed.

I have no intention of failing, so don’t count me out yet.

* * * *

In his CO’s outer office at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Quinn Powell fixed the crease on the cuff of his desert utilities and glanced down at the scuffs on his suede boots while his CO’s staff sergeant tap-tap-tapped away on his keyboard, an incessant, proficient percussion that drummed in Quinn’s head like the ticking of a clock wound too tight.

Much like the clock on his career.

A career that had taken off, only to stall after his crash, his career now spinning out of control with the ground rushing up fast to smack him.

The phone buzzed on the staff sergeant’s desk, and he picked up, listened, then said, I’ll send him in, ma’am.

The staff sergeant glanced up at Quinn and bumped his chin toward the inner office. Quinn’s stomach went wonky. He flattened a curled corner on the bandage covering his newest skin graft, and entered his CO’s office.

Lieutenant Colonel Rosalind Kind sat behind her desk in her flight suit. Rosie the Riveter, everyone called her, though no one dared say that to her face. Well, except Moreland. The last Quinn had heard, the stupid bastard was still cleaning latrines with his tongue.

His CO’s nickname had more to do with her pinup-girl body, which defied her age and Uncle Sam’s uniforms. But all that mattered in Quinn’s book was that she was one hell of a helo pilot.

He stood at attention.

She sat arrow-straight in her chair. Have a seat, Lieutenant.

I prefer to stand, if that’s okay, ma’am.

She was silent a beat. As you wish.

Quinn clasped his hands behind his back, palms sweating.

Glancing down at the personnel file on her blotter, labeled Powell, Quinn on the tab, his CO flipped through the file, ran her index finger down the middle of the page, speed-reading.

He kept his gaze on her, not letting his eyes wander to the window, to the dark clouds that obliterated the sun and marched across the airfield like an angry battalion.

When she made it to the bottom of the page, she sat back, gave him that assessing gaze of hers, as if all his faults were tattooed in Marine green on his forehead. Either that or the rumor she could read minds was for real.

How’s the arm?

His heart kicked hard at his sternum, one strong, pissed-off thunk, before he forced optimism into his voice. Better every day, ma’am.

Her eyes narrowed, making her look a lot less like Rosie and a lot more like Patton. Your latest medical report rates your skin grafts at ninety-five percent healed. Strength and neurological function at seventy.

Like I said, better every day.

She flipped back a couple of pages in the report, then glanced up at him. A five percent improvement in strength and neurological function in two months? Not promising, Marine.

I will fly again. At the last second, he caught himself from sounding pathetic and adding the I have to onto the end. After all, flying wasn’t just what he did. It was who he was.

As if reading his thoughts, her lips pursed, accentuating the fine lines around them. The flight surgeon noted that if full function hasn’t returned by now, it’s unlikely that it will.

I just need more time.

You’ve had almost a year.

I’m fine.

The doctor disagrees.

He doesn’t know everything. The words came out more forcefully than he’d intended. He quickly, prudently, tacked on a ma’am.

Then her features softened and her shoulders lost some of their rigidity, their formality, and she stood and came around the utilitarian desk. She sat on the edge, crossed her legs at the ankles, and braced her palms on either side of her.

I know this isn’t easy—

Hardest damn thing I’ve ever done.

She raised a neatly plucked brown brow at him.

Ma’am.

Do you mind if I finish my sentence? She wasn’t asking.

Quinn gave himself a mental Gibbs-slap to the back of his head. Smooth, man, real smooth. Then again, he’d never been good at holding his tongue. Crap attribute for someone hoping for a long career in the military.

She didn’t wait for an answer. And he was smart enough not to offer one. What I was going to say was, I know this isn’t easy. You were shaping up to be one of my best pilots—

"Am, ma’am. Not were."

She eyed him, then rolled her hand in a take-it-off motion. Let me see your arm.

He rolled up the mesh dressing and the bandage underneath. She stepped closer, and he held his arm out to her.

From his wrist to his elbow, there was a crater in the muscles of his forearm, a skin graft overlaying the once-mangled flesh. Most of the grafted skin was the bright pink of recent healing, while bits of it were red and scabby where the graft was taking its own damn time to heal. Like he didn’t have plans, didn’t have an agenda.

She ghosted her fingers over the top. She wanted to touch, but at the same time she didn’t. Hurt?

When her eyes met his, he didn’t see the lieutenant colonel, the woman whose decisions could kill his career. He saw a fellow pilot. And he answered with a rare honesty. Like a bitch, ma’am.

She nodded once and stepped back. Then held up her right fist, her arm bent at the elbow. Grab my wrist, like you’re in the cockpit and it’s the cyclic.

He wrapped his fingers around her wrist, and his middle finger overlapped his thumb.

Try to keep my arm from moving, she said. Show me what you’ve got.

She pulled and pushed and tried to move her arm to the right, the left. Mostly he kept her arm centered. She was strong. Not-fighting-a-downdraft-in-a-raging-storm strong, though sweat formed at his temples from the effort.

Or maybe the doctor was right. Maybe he wasn’t as strong as he’d thought.

She stopped fighting him, and he let go of her wrist. One more month, Lieutenant. That’s when you’re due for your annual. You pass the physical, and if the flight surgeon clears you, I’ll take you up for a flight check myself.

A smile creased his face—the same smile he had when he’d first received his wings—and his throat grew too tight to speak.

Dismissed, Lieutenant.

He gave her a curt nod. As he reached the outer office, the breakfast in his belly soured. One month. Four weeks. Thirty days. Seven hundred and twenty hours, give or take.

Considering how long it was taking him to heal, a month wasn’t long at all.

* * * *

Jenna stepped through the back door of her grandparents’ home, otherwise known as the big house. Her grandmother, Lottie, was in the kitchen, putting away the last of the breakfast dishes. Her grandmother cooked breakfast and dinner for the family, the ranch hands, and the soon-to-be participants in her Healing Horses veteran therapy program. Simple, hearty fare that never disappointed.

Kurt hasn’t come by, has he? Jenna asked.

Lottie stopped mid-swipe, with her towel on a wet plate. The front of her purple apron was damp and her gray curls flat from the kitchen heat. Something wrong?

Jenna ignored the prickle of apprehension at the base of her spine and pasted on a plastic smile. No need to worry her grandmother. No. Dad and I must have gotten our signals mixed up. I thought Kurt was working with Alby and Santos this morning, but he never showed. He probably rode out early this morning with Dad and Mac to check the fences. I’ll catch up with him later.

But if Kurt had gone with her stepmother, Mackenzie—Mac for short—and her father, then why was Kurt’s horse in the pasture?

She caught the screen door on the backswing, so it wouldn’t slam against the jamb, and headed back to the barn. She counted the animals in the pastures. All the horses were accounted for. No way had Kurt ridden out. The tingle in her spine clawed its way up one vertebra to the next. Dink sucked up against her leg as if sensing something wasn’t right.

Over in the round pen, Sidney, their resident horse trainer, worked a rank mustang that had a mean streak as dark as the horse’s ebony coat. From the ground, Sidney drove the horse forward. He bucked and kicked and almost jumped the six-foot fence. Jenna didn’t call out. Breaking Sidney’s concentration with a horse like that could be deadly.

Besides, Kurt was her responsibility. How could Jenna expect to run a therapy program with multiple participants if she couldn’t even keep track of one person?

One really troubled person.

And no, she wasn’t naïve enough to expect her program to be all sunshine and smiling faces. This program was for real people with real problems. It was going to be hard and trying and soul-crushing and amazing and empowering—all at the same time. For her veterans, as well as herself. But these programs worked. She knew firsthand what people accomplished when they didn’t give up.

Even though Santos had checked Kurt’s cabin, Jenna detoured and headed down the dirt road behind the big house.

With each step, puffs of dust kicked up, the earth dry, wanting for rain. Fluffy white clouds stacked up behind the mountain range and blew northward. No rain again today.

Ahead were two cabins Sidney’s husband, Boomer—well, Bryan, but no one dared call him that except his wife—had built for Jenna’s veterans. Boomer steered the old John Deere, scraping away the topsoil, preparing the dirt for the foundations for two new cabins.

Farther down, there were two much older cabins. Boomer and Sidney lived in one, and the two ranch hands, Santos and Alby, bunked in the other. A ’65 Mustang sat in front of Kurt’s cabin. At least he’d come back from the AA meeting the night before.

Kurt? You in there?

Jenna climbed the two wooden steps to the cabin’s covered front porch. Dink slunk between her legs until his head stuck out in front of her knees, the rest of him behind her, the way he did when a storm was approaching. But the sun was up, and the clouds continued their northerly march. Dink’s apprehension wasn’t the fault of the weather.

She knocked on the door. Dink whined. She knocked again. Open up, or I’m coming in.

She waited for a beat, two. The John Deere’s engine grumbled and growled, and the metal bucket screeched as it scraped across rocks, raising the hair on her arms. She wiggled the door handle. Locked.

She stepped onto the chair beneath the front window and pulled a spare key from a divot beside one of the rafters. One last time, she pounded on the door with the meat of her fist, not wanting to walk in on Kurt naked.

With no answer, she slipped the key in the lock and pushed the door open. It swung easily on the hinges, hitting the opposite wall with a dull thud. Dink took a tentative step inside and looked back at her, as if he wasn’t willing to go in without her.

She stomped the dust off her boots on the mat and walked in. As with the other cabins, there was a set of bunk beds on each side of the room with footlockers for personal possessions and bare hooks for clothes. A shared bathroom against the back wall, hidden behind a pseudo-kitchen—refrigerator, counter, sink, microwave, coffeepot. The basics.

No point checking the bathroom, Kurt wasn’t there. The air was too still. Still, like he hadn’t been there for a long time. Still, like he hadn’t spent the night in his unmade bed. Since his bed was never made, though, that didn’t tell her anything.

Where was he if he wasn’t with Hank and Mac? Even though Kurt had his problems, in the four weeks he’d been at the ranch, if he was going to be on time for anything, it was for the work sessions with the mustangs or riding out with Alby and Santos. His disappearance baffled her.

Dink backed out of the cabin, having never gone fully inside. Jenna left as well, pulling the door closed behind her, not bothering to lock the door.

She retraced her steps. Rechecked the barn and the makeshift firing range. The parking area for tractors and trailers. She checked the junkyard where the grass had grown high around rusty old implements and dilapidated tractors, then back up toward the hay barn.

The whole time she searched, Dink never left her side, his head Velcroed to her jeans. She tripped over his paws. At the hay barn, there was nothing except row after row, stack after stack, of round and square bales of hay.

Still no Kurt.

Sidney had finished up with the mustang, so Jenna headed back to the round pen. She glanced down. Dink was gone. Turning and walking backward, Jenna spotted her dog digging a hole beside the hay barn.

Come on, Dink. Give the rats a rest.

Dink didn’t stop digging. He didn’t even slow down.

Dink!

If the hay barn had had a concrete floor, Jenna would have left him there, but her grandfather would take both their hides if Dink tunneled under. She jogged back to the barn, a rooster tail of dirt flying out from between the dog’s legs. Jenna tapped him on the back. The darn dog kept digging. She grabbed his collar and tugged. He struggled free and kicked dirt up into her mouth. She spat it out.

She jerked him back. Dink. Sit!

Dink sat. Dirt crusted on his nostrils, his whiskers, his toenails. Tiny clumps of mud clung to the hair at the inner corners of his eyes, and dust coated his lolling tongue.

Stay.

He squeaked out a whine.

Jenna dropped to her knees in front of the hole. He’d dug fast and furious and had burrowed under the outer wall. She pushed handfuls of dirt into the hole to fill the void.

Her hand brushed against something.

Not hay. Rat? She couldn’t leave a dead animal there to rot. Jenna grimaced. Dink crawled on his belly to the edge of the hole and whined again. Jenna scooped out the dirt, her face butted up against the wall, and snaked her arm through. She patted the dirt, trying to locate the object.

Her hand landed on it. Soft like fabric. Like flannel. What the—?

She tugged, and it fell into the hole.

Fingers.

A scarred hand.

Kurt’s hand.

* * * *

The sheriff showed up with the light bar on top of his pickup flashing, the siren blaring, the ambulance a hundred yards and a dust cloud behind. Jenna glanced over from her seat in the cab of the John Deere and saw Lottie run out to greet him, then refocused on the levers.

Her heart thrummed, and her fingers shook on the tractor’s bucket controls. Don’t be dead, don’t be dead, don’t be dead. The round bales were stacked high and deep. If by some miracle Kurt was still alive, she couldn’t risk a thousand-pound bale rolling and crushing him.

Their best option was to remove the metal sheeting on the sides of the barn, and without a ladder tall enough, they’d improvised. Which meant she operated the tractor and Boomer removed the screws, balancing with his blade prosthetic on top of the six-foot ladder, on top of a sheet of plywood spanning the width of the tractor bucket. A tractor bucket currently extended to its maximum height.

OSHA would shit a brick if they saw that.

OSHA would have to revamp their manual to cover this level of stupidity if they saw that.

OSHA would levy such a massive penalty that her grandchildren would still be paying the debt a hundred years from now if they saw that.

But she didn’t care about OSHA. All she cared about, all anyone on the Lazy S cared about, was getting to Kurt.

After Boomer had removed the last of the screws, he climbed off the ladder and made a motion with one hand, telling Jenna to bring him down. She backed the Deere, lowering him as she went.

The sheriff and the paramedics didn’t waste any time moving in. The metal sheeting was grooved, and the men fought the overlap to pull the panel free. Jenna killed the engine and jumped down as the men yanked the metal clear.

For a split second, Kurt’s body hung in the air, defying gravity. Head down, eyes open—face, blue-gray and livid with blood. Then his rigid body crashed to the ground. He didn’t flip or flop or grunt or groan.

You didn’t do that when you were dead.

Her heart stopped beating. One second it raced in her chest, and the next…nothing. This void, this vacuum in the center of her chest where her heart used to be, was sucking the blood from her cheeks, the strength from her muscles, the hope from her soul.

She sank to the dirt. The hard-packed earth jarred her spine. She stared out at the scene in front of her. The sheriff speaking into the radio on the shoulder of his uniform. Boomer with his arm around Sidney, holding her close to his chest. The paramedics backing away. Lottie, with her arm wrapped around her waist, a hand to her mouth, her cheeks stained with tears.

A deputy with a camera snap, snap, snapped. Photos of Kurt. Of the side of the barn. Of the gap in the siding. She sat in the dirt, too stunned to move. Sometime later, Sheriff Elmore St. John approached her with a couple of clear bags in his hand. I need to show you something.

He was a tall man. Somewhere between her dad and Boomer, his features hard beneath the brim of his tan cowboy hat. A muscle twitched at the corner of his right eye. He held out his hand and helped her to her feet. Her legs were numb, unsteady, as she took one tentative step, testing.

They hadn’t covered the body yet. The sleeve of Kurt’s red flannel shirt was buttoned around his right wrist; the one on the left, shoved up above the elbow. The sheriff turned her and helped her over to his truck with a hand on her elbow.

He sat her in the front passenger seat. Her boot slipped on the step rail, and she grabbed on to the handle to haul herself inside. After she had settled, he gave her two sealed clear bags. Inside the first was a spoon with the handle bent back, the bowl black with soot. In the other, a syringe, the skinny kind, the kind diabetics used—or junkies.

No. The word wheezed out of Jenna’s mouth. "He…he’s clean. He was clean. His test came back a couple days ago. He wasn’t using. I don’t understand."

I need to ask you some questions.

O-okay. Her chest loosened, and air filled her lungs again. Her heart tripped a weak, shaky beat in her chest, and her fingers tingled as blood flow returned.

When was the last time anyone saw Kurt?

Last night. After dinner. He went to catch the late AA meeting in Murdock.

No one saw him return?

She shook her head. As I said, it was a late meeting. I vaguely remember the shine of his headlights in my window as he pulled past the house last night, but I didn’t see him.

What time was that?

Jenna thought back to the night before. She’d been reading in bed. Ten thirty or so…the first time.

What do you mean the ‘first time’?

It was coming back to her now. I saw lights flash about ten thirty. When I got up to use the restroom around midnight, I saw lights then, too. I was half-asleep. I didn’t think anything about it.

Was it Kurt both times?

Honestly, I can’t say for sure it was him either time. I never went to the window. I just assumed it was him.

Could a friend have followed him home?

Kurt’s only been here a month. He didn’t have any friends outside of the ranch. Not that he’d mentioned.

Someone from his meetings, maybe?

Jenna shrugged. I have no idea. You would have to ask them.

And as far as you know, he hasn’t been using since he’d been here. St. John had his little spiral notepad out, scribbling away as he noted her replies.

He’d been lucid, coherent, with clean drug tests. And clean tests for the six months prior to coming here, according to his doctor. This isn’t a drug treatment facility. The veterans have to be alcohol- and drug-free before they’re approved to come.

Wouldn’t be the first time an addict has relapsed.

No. Jenna focused on the clods of dirt on the floor mats. I don’t suppose it would. He’d seemed to be doing so well. The horses were starting to trust him…he was a little rough around the edges. Everyone liked him, though… Jenna raised her hands and let them flop back into her lap. Then she glanced back up at the sheriff. What the hell am I doing? Who am I to think I could do this? That I could help these men and women?

Whoa, now, Boomer cut in as he stepped up to the truck.

She hadn’t seen him approach. Or heard the coroner’s car pull up. Through the windshield, she watched as a sheriff’s deputy finished with the photographs and the coroner moved in. A wide man with a short body. Because of his girth, he squatted unsteadily beside Kurt.

Jenna. Boomer drew her attention to him. The compassion in his eyes, that of a man who had lived through worse, who