Addison Reed fixed a steely gaze on her foreman as he headed into a seedy-looking bar. Now what? March inside and demand answers? No. The hot-headed approach would never work. Confronting the man she’d come to love like a second father would only result in a heated argument.
She drummed her fingertips along the top of the steering wheel. This may not have been a well-thought-out plan, but she had to do something. Not being able to trust Jacobs was killing her. She needed something concrete to prove her neighbor, William Ramsey, was the one responsible for stealing her cattle.
Not her dearest friend.
So far Jacobs happened to be the only link. Hard to believe the man she’d trusted and relied on for so many years could be in cahoots with the likes of Ramsey.
Think with your head. Not your heart.
She released a heavy sigh. His actions incriminated him. Over the past six months, the man had been surly and distant. He’d blow up at the drop of a hat, his patience thin with their stock and other employees. This behavior alone hadn’t fed her doubts. She’d simply chalked it up to old age.
However, when the veteran cowboy continued to buck requests for head counts of the stock, her suspicions had been stoked. Then, after a lifetime of marking the cattle with her family trademark R in a circle brand, came the push for ear tags. An odd demand considering he’d been the one who’d insisted on the old school way of ranching, pointing out just how easily the tags could be removed by rustlers.
This morning the head count had been nearly ten shy of last month’s, not counting the cows and heifers ready to calve. Though the loss didn’t seem like much, to a small cow-calf operation like hers, it was devastating. And less than an hour ago, she’d overheard a phone call with Jacobs agreeing to meet someone here.
Perhaps this was all coincidental, but she had her doubts. Addison blinked away the angry tears threatening to surface, swiping at the few that managed to escape with the back of her hand. Though she wanted to believe her foreman wasn’t to blame, a part of her already knew the truth.
Her windshield fogged up and she wiped it clear with her sleeve, then focused on the rough outside of the bar with her gaze. Judging by the packed parking lot, it was at full capacity.
Though the dive, housed on the outskirts of Hardin, Montana and aptly named Custer’s Last Stand, wasn’t her cup of tea, it was exactly the kind of place she’d imagined Ramsey would feel at home.
And now her beloved Jacobs.
Leaving her winter coat in the truck, she donned her Stetson, and tugged the worn brim low, so it covered her face. Not much of a disguise, but at least the hat hid her features. Hopefully, the bar was as crowded as the parking lot implied.
Loud, twangy music greeted her at the door. Addison cast a quick glance around the room, then headed for the shadows. More concerned with the whereabouts of Jacobs than where she was walking, she ran face-first into the hard steel of a cowboy’s chest.
Addison raised her head, locking gazes with a forest green stare.
“Whoa, you okay?” he asked, tipping his hat. Wavy brown hair in need of a cut, and a crooked grin caught her off guard.
Transfixed by his rugged handsomeness, she mumbled, “Sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Don’t be. This happens to be the highlight of my night,” the flirty stranger confessed.
The last thing she needed was to be sidetracked by a good looking man, but Addison couldn’t help but smile. She shuffled to go around him, at the same time he attempted to move out of her way. She moved to the other side and once again he mimicked her actions.
“Not that I’m complaining, but I usually buy a girl a drink before asking for her to dance,” he joked.
The man was certainly charming. Any other night she might let him buy her drink. Perhaps a dance. However, tonight, she had more important things on her mind. Addison placed both hands on his biceps to keep him in place, then stepped around him to shuffle forward into the crowd.
She spared a quick glance over her shoulder as the throng of people standing by the door blocked her view and he disappeared. A flitter of regret tickled her stomach. A night free from her problems would be nice. Especially with the captivating stranger.
She swiftly disregarded the thought, targeting her gaze on her foreman’s back as Jacobs threaded through the crowd toward a table at the back of the bar and joined a lone cowboy. She ventured close enough to see the other man’s face.
A shiver ran down her spine. She’d been right to trust her gut. Both Jacobs and Ramsey had joined forces. No wonder the count for her cattle was coming up short. However, simply seeing the two together did nothing more than justify her suspicions. She still needed solid proof her shady neighbor was the one profiting from her loss. She inched closer in hopes of hearing their conversation.
“You’re late.” An older woman blocked her path. “Johnny’s a hard-ass. He won’t put up with a barmaid who can’t make it to work on time.” Hard, blue eyes pierced Addison with a shrewd gaze. “No matter how pretty.” The seasoned server snorted, then thrust forward the round serving platter she gripped. “Make sure it doesn’t happen again. And lose the hat.”
The hard plastic pressed into her side and a surprised gasp escaped her. The woman thought she was here for a job? “What? No,” Addison shrieked, pushing at the tray with a stern hand. “Wait,” she hesitated.
Grasping the platter, she considered the option. As long as she steered clear of the back table, posing as a waitress might be the perfect cover. She nodded toward the seedy pair. “Are those two in here a lot?”
The server glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah. Every night this week. Since you are so interested, they can be your first customers. They’re lousy tippers anyhow.” She shrugged, then walked away.
Great. So much for avoiding the table. What was she doing anyway? She knew nothing about serving drinks. The only thing she’d ever served was hay to her stock. Plus, she’d also be easily recognized the moment Jacobs or Ramsey looked her way.
She cast a weary glance around the crowded bar. How hard could it be to stay out of their sight? Though she refused to serve them, all she had to do was get close enough to hear their plans. Before she could talk herself out of the harebrained scheme, she clutched the tray and neared the table.
Keeping her head low and a stiff back to the duo, she cleared a table off to the side. Grasping an empty bottle, she leaned in to hear their conversation. Though somewhat muffled, Jacob’s distinct gravel tone rose above the crowds banter.
“Weather permitting,” he drawled.
She gritted her teeth, tightening her grip on the bottle. What exactly did that mean? More of her stock would be stolen right from under her nose if only the weather permitted?
She slammed the glass on the tray as a surge of anger accelerated her heart rate. How dare they steal her cattle? And how could Jacobs stoop so low? The man had been her father’s best friend. A shoulder she’d cried on five years ago when the car wreck had taken her parents’ lives.
Perhaps, she should let the law deal with this. However, two meetings with Sheriff Gatlin were enough. For all she knew, he was in on the cattle rustling also. The man certainly had no problem letting her know his thoughts on a woman running a ranch. Topping it off with his advice to sell…to Ramsey no less.
She was on her own. Knowing she’d need something more substantial than a comment about the weather, she reined in her emotions and continued the farce, filling the tray with several more empties.
“How about a round of whatever you have on tap?”
A slap stung her backside and she jumped, spilling the empty bottles back onto the table she’d just cleared. Intense heat burned her cheeks, and she considered blowing her cover. Instead, she clenched her jaw and forced restraint. If she weren’t on a mission, Ramsey would be going home with a bloody stump where his hand had been.
“You got it, cowboy,” she replied in a low, strained rasp.
She quickly piled the bottles back onto the platter and scampered toward the bar where the older waitress stood talking to a heavy-set man tending bar. She placed the tray on the counter and turned toward the woman. “Those guys want you to serve them. Asked for whatever was on tap.”
“Seriously?” the woman asked.
Addison nodded. “I think one of ‘em has his eye on you.” She pointed toward the men, focusing on Jacobs. “The older cowboy on the right.”
The woman narrowed her gaze, spurning Addison with a skeptical glare, then whipped her head in the direction of the table. “Huh. Just my luck. Usually he’s the quiet one.” She returned her attention back to the barkeep. “Might as well pour me a couple of drafts, J. T. Maybe I can flirt a good tip out of the old cowpoke.”
Or some information. Addison sighed. This had been a complete waste of time. She knew less now than she had an hour ago.
The bartender saw to her request, placing two full, frosty mugs onto the woman’s tray, then sent her off with a nod of his bald head. The quiet man drew Addison’s attention. Weren’t barkeeps known for being good conversationalists and listeners? Maybe he’d heard something?
“So…uh…J.T.? You know those guys?” She studied his face searching for some kind of lead, anything, to justify this insane ploy she’d embarked on as he picked up two shot glasses from the counter.
The man shook his head and set the glasses into the sink. He grabbed a towel, then walked to the other end of the bar without speaking a word.
Another brick wall. So much for stimulating conversation. Frustrated, she tapped the counter with her fingers and targeted Jacobs. Suddenly, the older cowboy rose, said something to Ramsey, and brushed past the waitress, heading toward the exit.
He was leaving? Her heart seized in her chest, then began an erratic beat, thundering loudly in her ears. Now she faced another problem. She stood between Jacobs and the door. Unless she could get out first, he’d pass right by her. Perhaps he wouldn’t notice? Or maybe she could blend into the crowd?
She wavered between standing her ground and fleeing. Jacobs may be a thief and a liar, but he wasn’t stupid. If she stayed put, and he did see her, then her cover would be blown for sure. He certainly wouldn’t believe she chose the bar, which happened to be an hour’s drive out of her way, simply on a whim.
No. She couldn’t chance it. Wouldn’t chance it.
Addison raced to the door, but as she neared the exit the crowd thickened and slowed her escape. She glanced over her shoulder to see Jacobs closing in. Hurrying her pace, the heel of her boot slid across the sawdust covering the floor and she lost her footing.
A firm grip grasped her shoulders stopping her fall.
“You again?” A husky voice rose above the blaring sound of the country fiddle rocking the room.
She raised her head and locked onto a familiar green gaze. Great. Of all the people in this place, she had to run into this handsome man. Twice? Frantic, she spared another glance behind to see Jacobs was almost within reach. Seeking camouflage and not knowing what else to do, she faced the stranger.
“If our first meeting made your night, then you’re going to love this,” she mumbled, then stood on her tip toes and planted a kiss on the cowboy’s lips.