August 1st, 2008
Cole’s Gamble

He was going to fuck Renata. Get it out of his system. Gamble—same as he’d done in Bulldog’s office—that he’d come out of it unscathed and unattached.

His cock pulsed in celebration of his resolve. His brain called him a fool even as he was punching in her cell number and going hard when she answered.

“I’m at the ranch,” he said. “You close by?”

“Five minutes and on my way there.”

“Good, I’ll see you then.”

He hung up, his jaw clenched as his cock pressed hard against the front of his jeans. Frustration rode him, the need for release making him want to unzip and jerk off, or better yet, pull Renata into his tack shed and pin her to the back of the door with his dick.

To hell with his grandmother’s prediction and running from it. Running hadn’t gotten him anywhere because here he was, back where he started, only needing to have Renata under him even worse than before.

Cole took a deep breath when Renata pulled into the ranch and parked next to the Harley. He forced his features into the same emotionless mask he used when he played poker as she got out of her truck, long legs encased in jeans guaranteed to make a man think about peeling them down and off.

A peach-colored shirt caressed her torso, filling his mind with thoughts of slowly unbuttoning it to reveal breasts tipped with dark, dark nipples. Christ, she was beautiful.

The first time he’d seen her he’d thought Halle Berry, only better. Lithe and sleek, utterly feminine and yet she didn’t come across as helpless or weak.

Renata was the kind of woman who looked good on a man’s arm but didn’t need to be there. She could hold her own. Hell, hadn’t she proved that at the ride when she’d been in the woods with a body and a killer close by?

“Something up, Cole?” she asked as she approached, making his cock want to tear out of his jeans in order to get to her. “Something besides the fact it looks like we’ll be working together to find out who killed Lauren?”

He couldn’t stop himself from reaching out, putting his hands on her shoulders. Damn, part of him had been looking for an excuse since yesterday in the truck. “Your tack shed was broken into last night. There’s damage.”

She trembled slightly, unnoticeable if he hadn’t been touching her. “How bad?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t disturb anything, just opened the door and looked inside after I got here and found someone had been in mine.”

“Somebody looking for something?”

“That’d be my guess.”

“You call the police?”

“No. I called you.”

She gave a small nod as though that made sense to her. Beneath his hands he felt her straighten, put steel in her spine. “Guess I’d better see.”

He let his hands drop away. Took a step back and turned, emotional self-preservation kicking in when he realized he wanted to take her hand, twine his fingers with hers in comfort and solidarity.

They walked to her shed in silence. Like his, the lock was cut then put back so only someone looking closely would realize it’d been tampered with.

Renata reached toward it, halted midway, shaken though she thought she was doing a pretty good job of holding it together. Whoever broke in was probably wearing gloves, still, she asked, “What about fingerprints?”

“Doubt whoever was here left any.” But Cole pulled out a handkerchief and offered it to her.

She took it and removed the lock, stomach churning at what she was going to find inside. Then she took a deep calming breath and opened the door.

Everything she owned was on the floor. It was mixed in with Solitaire’s grain, the bag it’d come in slashed and torn until there was barely anything left of it.

Bile rose in her throat at the savagery. Tears formed despite her determination not to shed any. Fear threatened to make her start shaking.

This was rage. Violation. This was the killer saying they were sorry they hadn’t killed her when she stumbled onto Lauren’s body.

Her bridle lay in pieces. Her saddle was next to it, the stuffing exposed where it’d been stabbed repeatedly.

Renata didn’t pretend not to need someone to lean on when Cole’s arms went around her, pulling her backward against his chest. Her heart thundered louder as a new fear arrived. “Solitaire.”

When she would have pulled away in panic, Cole stopped her with the tightening of his arms. “Solitaire’s fine. I saw her on the hill when I drove in. I don’t think the killer will come back to attack her. Your shed is about loss of control and fear of being caught, not revenge. I think my shed was hit first. That’s where Lauren’s stuff is. When the killer didn’t find what they were looking for they tried yours and lost it.”

Renata shuddered. She forced her mind to concentrate on the puzzle, the story. Her sense of humor saved her from despair, from the helplessness that could come with being a victim. “You think Orrin’s going to shit a brick when all this ends up on my expense reimbursement request?”

Cole laughed, a masculine rumble of approval against her back that shored up her courage. “If it’s a problem I’ll get it for you at the poker table. Whenever I’m in town I sit in at the regular game he’s got going with Bulldog.”

Renata couldn’t help smiling. Damn, she was a sucker for a man who was self-aware, confident without being a swaggering asshole. “You sound pretty certain of winning.”

“Played with Orrin enough times to justify it.” Cole’s arm tightened slightly and for a second she let herself believe it was because he didn’t want to stop holding her, but then his arms dropped away and he retreated, leaving her feeling bereft even though she knew it’d be a big mistake to get used to having him at her back.

Renata turned her attention to the shed. She didn’t have the heart to clean up, to bag her stuff as trash and haul it home. If there was any consolation to be had it was that the saddle and bridle hadn’t cost a lot of money. They’d come off eBay because she’d figured it was smarter to go with cheap and used until she knew exactly what she wanted.

A good saddle could cost a thousand dollars or more, not exactly the kind of money she had lying around. And saddles were like new cars, as soon as you used them, the resale value plummeted. “Call the police?”

“We can if you want to. They might pick up trace evidence. Could come in handy when they’ve got a suspect to compare it to.”

Renata’s stomach tightened as she realized calling Detective Gaines could tie up hours, hours maybe the killer was trashing her place or venting his or her rage on Puff.

The scene from Fatal Attraction flashed into her mind, the one with the kid’s pet rabbit boiling on the stove. Nausea threatened. “I think I just want to go home, Cole. Get my rabbit and move him somewhere safe.”

“My place. I think you should stay with me until this is over.”

Renata’s heart stuttered. Heat rushed into her belly, chasing away the nausea. The part of her brain that wasn’t migrating to between her thighs managed to voice itself, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” There was no way she could stay with him and not sleep with him. No way. She just wasn’t that strong.