Man on a mission, p.1

Man on a Mission, page 1

 

Man on a Mission
 


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Man on a Mission


  He didn’t know what to believe, didn’t know who to trust, and he’d never felt so alone in his life.

  Mark leaned back in his chair, his thoughts drifting to April. Something about her touched him. Something about her pierced through the echo of loneliness in his heart and filled him with the promise of possibility.

  He wanted her. And though he knew little about her, he wanted her as he hadn’t wanted a woman in a very long time.

  But Mark knew he’d be a fool to follow through on the desire he felt for her. He was playing a role. He had a killer to catch, a ranch to save, and that had to take precedence over anything else in his life.

  Most especially what he felt for April.

  Dear Reader,

  This is officially “Get Caught Reading” month, so why not get caught reading one—or all!—of this month’s Intimate Moments books? We’ve got six you won’t be able to resist.

  In Whitelaw’s Wedding, Beverly Barton continues her popular miniseries THE PROTECTORS. Where does the Dundee Security Agency come up with such great guys—and where can I find one in real life? A YEAR OF LOVING DANGEROUSLY is almost over, but not before you read about Cinderella’s Secret Agent, from Ingrid Weaver. Then come back next month, when Sharon Sala wraps things up in her signature compelling style.

  Carla Cassidy offers a Man on a Mission, part of THE DELANEY HEIRS, her newest miniseries. Candace Irvin once again demonstrates her deft way with a military romance with In Close Quarters, while Claire King returns with a Renegade with a Badge who you won’t be able to pass up. Finally, join Nina Bruhns for Warrior’s Bride, a romance with a distinctly Native American feel.

  And, of course, come back next month as the excitement continues in Intimate Moments, home of your favorite authors and the best in romantic reading.

  Leslie J. Wainger

  Executive Senior Editor

  Man on a Mission

  CARLA CASSIDY

  Books by Carla Cassidy

  Silhouette Intimate Moments

  One of the Good Guys #531

  Try To Remember #560

  Fugitive Father #604

  Behind Closed Doors #778

  †Reluctant Wife #850

  †Reluctant Dad #856

  ‡Her Counterfeit Husband #885

  ‡Code Name: Cowboy #902

  ‡Rodeo Dad #934

  In a Heartbeat #1005

  ‡Imminent Danger #1018

  Strangers When We Married #1046

  ††Man on a Mission #1077

  Silhouette Desire

  A Fleeting Moment #784

  Under the Boardwalk #882

  Silhouette Shadows

  Swamp Secrets #4

  Heart of the Beast #11

  Silent Screams #25

  Mystery Child #61

  Silhouette Yours Truly

  Pop Goes the Question

  Silhouette Books

  Shadows 1993

  “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”

  Silhouette Romance

  Patchwork Family #818

  Whatever Alex Wants… #856

  Fire and Spice #884

  Homespun Hearts #905

  Golden Girl #924

  Something New #942

  Pixie Dust #958

  The Littlest Matchmaker #978

  The Marriage Scheme #996

  Anything for Danny #1048

  *Deputy Daddy #1141

  *Mom in the Making #1147

  *An Impromptu Proposal #1152

  *Daddy on the Run #1158

  Pregnant with His Child… #1259

  Will You Give My Mommy a Baby? #1315

  ‡Wife for a Week #1400

  The Princess’s White Knight #1415

  Waiting for the Wedding #1426

  Just One Kiss #1496

  Lost In His Arms #1514

  The Loop

  Getting it Right: Jessica

  CARLA CASSIDY

  has written over thirty-five books for Silhouette. In 1995, she won Best Silhouette Romance, and in 1998, she won a Career Achievement Award for Best Innovative Series, both from Romantic Times Magazine.

  Carla believes the only thing better than a good book to read is a good story to write. She’s looking forward to writing many more and bringing hours of pleasure to readers.

  Contents

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Prologue

  “How’s he doing?” Johnna Delaney asked, her voice a hushed whisper in the hospital room.

  “The doctor says he’s going to be all right physically.” Matthew Delaney’s voice was also low, barely audible.

  “And mentally?” Johnna asked.

  There was a long pause. “It’s too early to tell. He took quite a blow to the head. There’s a possibility he might have suffered brain damage.”

  Their voices drifted away, letting Mark Delaney know they had left his hospital room. He opened his eyes and turned his head toward the brilliant morning sun dancing into the window.

  For the first time in the four days since he’d been brought into the hospital with a severe head injury, he felt completely lucid.

  And with the lucidness came memories. Marietta passing him a note in secret. “Meet me at the barn at midnight tonight. It’s important.”

  And he had met her at the barn at midnight. The moon had been full as he’d stood just outside the barn awaiting her approach. He couldn’t imagine what the pretty social director on his family ranch wanted to discuss with him. All her dealings were usually with his father, Adam.

  He saw her then, hurrying toward him. “Hey, handsome,” she said, greeting him in her familiar fashion, but her trademark smile was absent, replaced by a frown of worry.

  “Hey, gorgeous,” he responded. He and Marietta enjoyed an easy, flirtatious relationship based on the mutual knowledge that there was no real chemistry—other than friendship—between them.

  “Thank you for meeting me.” She reached a hand out for his, as if she needed the physical contact. Mark realized as he gripped her hand that it wasn’t just worry that darkened her eyes, but fear.

  “Marietta, what’s wrong? What’s going on? Why did you want to meet out here in the middle of the night?”

  “I don’t want anyone to know I’ve spoken with you.”

  “Spoken with me about what?”

  “Before I say anything, you have to promise me something,” she said.

  “What?”

  “Promise me you won’t say anything to anyone. Not your brothers, not your sister…nobody.” She squeezed his hand tightly. “I don’t know who to trust—and I don’t know who you can trust. I’m taking a chance in trusting you, but I have to say something to somebody.”

  “I don’t understand—”

  “Promise me,” she repeated fervently.

  “Okay, I promise. Now, what’s going on?”

  “Something bad is going on here at the ranch. Something very bad.”

  “What do you mean ‘bad’?” Mark pressed. “If it’s something illegal, we’ll go to Sheriff Broder.”

  “No! I’m not sure that he’s not involved,” she protested. “I’ve heard whispers…rumors. What they’re doing is wrong…illegal and eventually will destroy us all.” Her voice rose hysterically with each word.

  Mark released her hand and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Marietta, calm down. Now, tell me who is doing what?”

 
He saw her eyes widen and fill with sheer terror. Before he realized what caused her fear, he felt a blow to the back of his head—one second of excruciating pain, then complete and total blackness.

  Mark now pulled himself up to a sitting position in the hospital bed, rage battling with grief as he thought of the events that had led to his hospitalization and Marietta’s death.

  Somebody had killed her and tried to kill him. Somebody had sneaked up behind him and silenced Marietta before she could tell him exactly what was going on.

  He tossed back the covers and stood, pleased to discover no headache and no unsteadiness as he made his way across the room to the window.

  In fact, what he felt more than anything was a relentless energy, a need to get out of this hospital and find out what secret Marietta knew. The secret that had gotten her killed.

  “Mark!” He whirled around to see his brother and sister standing in the doorway. “You’re up. Thank God.” Matthew stalked across the floor and peered at him intently. “How are you feeling? You doing okay? Everyone has been really anxious to talk to you, to find out what happened.”

  Promise me. Marietta’s words spun in Mark’s head. Promise me you won’t say anything to anyone. Not your brothers, not your sister…nobody. I don’t know who to trust.

  “I’m okay,” Mark replied.

  “Can you tell us what happened?”

  He sensed the intensity in Matthew’s voice, and suspicion bloomed. What was going on at the ranch? Who was involved? Marietta had said it was bad, illegal. She’d implied he should not trust not only his own family but the sheriff, as well.

  “Mark?” Matthew pressed.

  Mark raked a hand through his hair, unsure how to reply.

  “Stop it, Matthew,” Johnna said. “You’re obviously upsetting him. We’ll have time to talk when he’s feeling stronger.”

  “I feel fine,” Mark said, his mind working to assess how best to handle the entire situation. He needed to buy some time, needed to think about what had happened, the things Marietta had implied.

  Brain damage. The two words flirted around the edge of his subconscious. Perhaps he could buy himself a little bit of time, pretend his brain wasn’t working quite right, until he could figure out exactly what was going on.

  Trust nobody. Not his family, not law enforcement. Marietta’s words haunted him, and he knew he was on his own to find out what was going on at the ranch and who had killed her and why.

  Chapter 1

  “There must be some mistake.” The tall, dark-haired man looked at April Cartwright as if she were a dead fly that had accidentally fallen on his shirt. “There are no available jobs here.”

  “But that’s impossible,” April protested. She cast a quick glance at her car where her eleven-year-old son, Brian, was waiting, then looked back at the man before her. “I finalized the arrangement with Adam Delaney last week. He knew I was arriving today. I’m to be the new social director.”

  Could he hear her heart pounding? Could he sense her desperation? Sweat trickled down the small of her back, and she fought the impulse to fidget.

  Who was this man with his cold eyes and arrogant features? “Please, if you could just speak with Adam Delaney. He knows all about this.”

  “Unless you find a particularly good medium, talking to him might prove difficult. I’m Matthew Delaney. Adam was my father. He died of a heart attack four days ago. We buried him yesterday.”

  Shock rippled through April. To her shame, she realized her grief was not so much for the man who had died, a man she’d hardly known, but rather for the hope he’d represented—the hope of a new start.

  “Hi.” A second man joined Matthew in the doorway. It was easy to tell the two men were related. Both appeared to have been forged in darkness: ebony hair, shadowed gray-blue eyes and thick dark brows that instantly emitted an aura of disapproval. They both towered over her five feet two inches, and this second man was shirtless, exposing a tanned, impossibly broad, muscled chest.

  “Go on, Mark,” Matthew said. “I’ll handle this.”

  Mark smiled, and any air of darkness vanished. It was the open smile of a guileless man. “I’m Mark Delaney,” he said, and held out his hand.

  “I’m April. April Cartwright.” She allowed him to shake her hand, startled at the unexpected firmness of his grasp. His hand was warm, his palm slightly callused.

  “April. That’s a pretty name. Like spring.” He looked eminently pleased with himself for making the connection between her name and the season, and at that moment April suspected the tall, devastatingly handsome cowboy in front of her was mentally challenged.

  “Go home, Ms. Cartwright. There’s nothing for you here,” Matthew Delaney said curtly.

  “But you don’t understand.” April bit her bottom lip, not quite able to bring herself to beg. What was she going to tell Brian? She’d made so many promises to her son. “We have no home to go to,” she finally said.

  “You can stay here,” Mark said, then turned to Matthew. “She could stay in one of the back cottages. Let her stay, Matthew.” He looked back at April and smiled shyly. “I like her.”

  Matthew stared at Mark, then looked back at April. He raked a hand through his dark hair and frowned. “You can stay for the night. I can’t promise anything beyond that.”

  It wasn’t what April needed, and it certainly wasn’t what she’d expected, but if she couldn’t have the whole loaf, she’d take whatever crumbs were offered. “Thank you,” she replied.

  At least she and Brian could get a good night’s sleep before leaving to go to— To go where? There was nothing to return to. At the moment the sum of her future consisted of a single night in a cottage.

  “If you’ll give me just a moment, I’ll show you where you can spend the night,” Matthew said. It was obvious by his closed expression he was not particularly happy with Mark’s interference.

  “I can show her,” Mark replied.

  Matthew looked at him dubiously. “You sure?”

  Mark nodded. “I can do it.”

  Matthew hesitated another moment, then looked at April. “Mark will show you where you can stay. One night, that’s the best I can offer you. We’re not even sure there will be a Delaney Dude Ranch tomorrow.”

  “Thank you,” April replied.

  “Don’t thank me,” Matthew said. “You can thank Mark.” Without another word he turned and left the doorway.

  Mark stepped out onto the porch, bringing with him the scent of a freshly showered male.

  “Maybe we should just go,” April said. It was obvious Matthew Delaney wasn’t pleased with even giving the reprieve of a night. “Matthew didn’t seem too happy.”

  “Matthew is my brother, and he’s never happy,” Mark replied. “It’s all right. Come on, I’ll show you.” When she hesitated, again he smiled that wondrously warm smile. “Come on,” he repeated.

  April followed him from the porch and gestured for her son to join them. Brian bounded from the car, all skinny arms and legs. His face was lit with eagerness.

  “Brian, this is Mark. Mark, this is my son, Brian.”

  “How do you do, sir?” Brian said.

  Mark grinned widely, as if Brian had told a joke. “My name isn’t sir, it’s Mark.”

  Brian looked at April, a question in his gaze. April shook her head, indicating to him that they’d talk later.

  Mark led them around the huge, rambling ranch house. To the left of the house were the guest quarters, attractive little cottages, which at the moment were empty.

  When April had spoken with Adam Delaney a week before, she’d been told that the ranch had two dark months a year, months when they didn’t take guests, one month in the spring and one month in the fall. The down time was used for major repairs and cleaning. This was the last two weeks of the spring down time.

  In two weeks time, the dude ranch would be jumping with guests, families and newlyweds, young couples and old, all here to enjoy the novelty of the Old Wes
t that the resort offered, unless, as Matthew Delaney had indicated, Adam’s death was also the demise of the highly reputed dude ranch.

  April was intensely conscious of the man next to her. He walked with a loose-hipped gait just shy of a swagger. He was all man yet, in his eyes, in his smile, he appeared rather simple.

  As they walked, the midday sun beat down with relentless heat, and thick dust rode a breeze that seemed to spew straight from a blast furnace.

  She struggled for small talk, but was too tired, too hot and too disheartened. Besides, she couldn’t very well comment on the beauty of their surroundings. There was nothing but barrenness. A land suffering sunstroke. Scrub grass struggled to survive in the blistered red earth, where cacti seemed to be the only vegetation that flourished.

  Inferno, Arizona. The tiny town southwest of Tucson, near the Mexican border, was to have been the place for her to start fresh, begin to build something good.

  She was in the middle of hell, with no job, no money and an eleven-year-old boy who’d been angry at the world for the past two months.

  Behind the big house was another group of out-buildings, these less attractive and smaller than the guest bungalows. “Number three,” Mark said, breaking the silence between them. He stepped up on the small porch and thumped the black numeral nailed to the door. “See, number three.”

  Again Brian looked at April, as if sensing something not quite right with the tall, handsome cowboy. “Thank you, Mark,” she said.

  A pleasant smile curved his lips. “Welcome,” he returned, then clapped Brian on the back. “Come on, let’s get your stuff from the car.”

  “You don’t have to do that,” April protested. He’d already done enough by convincing his brother to allow them to stay for the night.

  “I can do it,” Mark replied. “I’m strong.”

  Oh, there was no doubt he was strong. His broad chest and thick biceps attested to that fact. He was strong but seemed gentle at the same time.

  “Let us guys do it, Mom,” Brian said.

  A lump rose in her throat and she nodded. She watched as Mark and Brian went back to her parked car.

  Brian matched his stride to that of Mark’s, looking achingly youthful as he struggled to keep up. He’d been so excited about living on a real dude ranch with horses and cows and wide-open spaces.

 
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