Reluctant Angel

 

When a love is lost, is it possible to make room for another?

When a murder at The Cullar Resort brings Gabi Cullar and Chase Winters together, sparks fly and passions ignite. But Gabi still clings to the memory of her dead husband, leaving Chase to wonder if there will every be room in her heart to love another.

In a twist of fate, Gabi and Chase come together but it will take some “Divine” intervention before Gabi can ever accept Chase into her heart.

 

Published: 12/16/2014
Length: Mid-Novel
Word Count: 68,247
Genre: Paranormal/Romantic Suspense
Rating: Sensual
Available formats: PDF, RTF, Epub, HTML, Mobipocket (.prc)

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RELUCTANT ANGEL
By
Cassandra Bella


© Copyright by Cassandra Bella, September 2014
© Cover Art by Mariah LaMott, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-60394-651-3
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636


This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author's imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.

 

Prologue

A jolt of surprise brought him to attention.

Five years, and Jack Cullar still wasn’t used to the whispered calls. They drifted, unexpectedly, through deep wells in his mind.  Dark places he never knew existed while he was among the living.

Sighing heavily, he concentrated on what he’d been taught during his guardian lessons. The difficult act of transporting without moving a muscle still presented a problem for him.

Closing his eyes, he placed Charles Pulley’s face into the forefront of his mind, the old man’s weathered skin, cigar permanently attached to the left side of his mouth.  He concentrated on his short, stout figure, the gray hair circling his bald spot, spark of wisdom inside the blue of his eyes.

“You’re getting better, I see.”

The familiar, deep voice shifted around him. Standing in the midst of Charles’s origin…his own personal place within the Heavens…he was surprised he hadn’t screwed it up this time.

His transporting left a little something to be desired. It took some getting used to, all the little tricks one was expected to learn when they traveled upwards. The last time he’d visited his commanding angel, he forgot to bring the bottom half of his body along. He had stood in Charles’s origin with a great, black void stretching out from underneath his waist.

The old man had understood. Everyone started where Jack had. Even Charles, over five hundred years ago, had to learn to move around in the golden mist of the Heavens, where it was impossible to simply walk from one origin to the next.

“I’m not sure if I’m getting better or just luckier.” Jack relaxed into a puff of smoke, offering the same comfort his old, worn recliner once had. So many changes. He wondered if he’d ever get used to them.

Settling in front of him, Charles folded his arms over his hefty middle. Nibbling for a silent moment on the end of his unlit cigar, his blue eyes ran an assessing gaze over Jack. For as long as he had known the older man, Jack had never seen his trademark cigar actually burning.

Charles was nothing like he imagined angels to be. Every picture he’d seen portrayed innocent, sweet creatures.  Shimmering halos over golden heads. White, glorious wings stretched with beauty. He expected angels with harps, ivory flowing gowns.  But found instead a slightly over-weight, cigar-gnawing man who, in many ways, reminded him of his high school English teacher.

“Something has come up that requires immediate attention.” Charles rubbed two thick fingers against the stubble darkening his chin. “A situation that’s out of the ordinary.  One that has taken some special clearing to be approved.”

“What kind of special clearing?”

“The kind that comes approved from the very top.” His expression grew somber. “You will be granted some rights most apprentice angels are never given.”

Jack raised a curious brow. “I’m nowhere ready for any sort of assignment. We both know that.”

“You may not have all the training as most, but everyone is ready when it comes to carrying out the work of the Heavens.”

Fingers of anxiety crept up his spine. Regardless of Charles assurance, he knew he wasn’t ready to carry out any kind of duty as a Heaven-sent angel. Apprentice angels could be in training for up to five decades before they were considered worthy of the label, Guardian Angel.

“We’re sending you back to the living world. Your duty will be to hover just at the edge of awareness where your presence will go undetected.”

Suddenly tense, Jack rose to his feet. He stared through the mist, concentrating on the beauty surrounding him. It was a beauty that was felt rather than seen. An unbelievable reality that could not be explained in the simple language of the living, nor seen by their unknowing eyes.

The splendor helped calm his nerves.  Taking a deep breath, he turned back to Charles. “Why me?”  A sliver of dread echoed in his voice.

“Because it’s your wife that needs the help.”

“Gabi?” Jack’s heart leapt into his throat. Even now, when he closed his eyes, he could see his red-haired, feisty, beautiful wife.

“What’s happened to her?”

The older man shook his head. “Nothing at the moment. But her fate shows that to change soon. She will need your help in the near future. That is why the exception has been made for you to return before your time.”

Jack’s nervous energy switched directions. He wasn’t worried about whether or not he was ready to return to the living. His worry was for Gabi, for whatever problems Charles saw in her life.  He’d give anything to keep his beloved Gabi-Mae safe.  “What is it I have to do?”

“That I can’t tell you. What Gabi needs from you must be learned on your own.”

“I don’t understand. Shouldn’t I be advised before-hand about what it is I am expected to do for my wife?”

A gentle, round hand covered his own. “You will understand, son. This will prove to be an important lesson for you as well as for Gabi. There is much for you to learn with your return.”

Chapter One

Gabi wasn’t sure what pulled her from her dreams. She sat up, blankets catching around her waist.  A shake of her head cleared the muddled fog from her mind. For an instant her glance fell on the framed portrait sitting on her nightstand.  Giving the golden-haired man a small smile, she pushed up from her bed, bare feet hitting the cold, hardwood floor.

Something had roused her. That much she did know. Hiding a yawn behind the palm of her hand, she crossed the wooden floor, gazed out the window.

From the second floor of the house, she looked out over the twenty cabins scattering the resort. Only their shadowed outlines reflected back from the clearing cutting through the surrounding wilderness

It was calm and peaceful, not even a breeze disturbed the tranquility. Everyone was tucked in tightly for the night. Everyone, except her. Whatever interrupted her sleep, it obviously disturbed only her. With a heavy, tired sigh, she turned away from the window, eyeing her bed with longing. She could still get a few more hours of sleep before her alarm went off.

Heading for her inviting pillow mattress, she paused halfway as a sudden movement outside the window caught her attention. Turning back to retrace her steps, she stared into the night.

There…she saw it again just outside of cabin six. Somebody was moving around in the shadows. She was sure of it.  Paying no mind to her thin T-shirt or bare feet, she bolted down the stairs, hitting the front door with full force.  She didn’t care about the danger, the risk.  She cared only about protecting the resort she and Jack had poured their hearts and souls into.

Small pebbles, scattering the path between the main house and cabins, dug into the bare soles of her feet. The cool night air brushed against her bare legs, sent a shiver through her body. Only the subdued light of the moon, the stars, guided her way, but she could have made the same route with her eyes closed, she knew it so well.

Stopping short of cabin six, lingering in the shadows, she searched for any sign of the intruder. There was no sign of the dark figure anywhere, nor was there evidence he had caused any harm while he had been around.

Needing to satisfy her worries, she stepped up for a closer look. If she didn’t make sure everything was in order, she would never get back to sleep. Stepping cautiously from the shadows, she circled around to the front of the cabin, her heart stopping at the sight of the open door. The inside was nothing more than a gaping black hole in the limited light.

“Hillary.” Gabi’s voice echoed in the silence. “Hillary, are you all right?”

No movement or sound came from inside.  Gabi hovered on the edge of indecision, fear and uncertainty weighing her down. She had to do something.  She couldn’t just stand around, hoping nothing was wrong.

Allowing a few seconds to pass, hoping Hillary would suddenly appear to assure her that all was well, she finally inched forward.  The open door beckoned.  A frightening call, daring her to enter.

First one foot then the other.  She repeated the phrase inside her head.  Dried leaves and twigs crunched underneath the weight of her steps.  At the threshold she paused, scanning her eyes over a room full of shadowed silhouettes.  Knowing the cabin like she did, she could make out the antique dresser pushed into a far corner, the feather bed stretched along the wall.  Nothing appeared out of place.

But there was an eerie calm inside the cabin, setting her on alert.  Something wasn’t right.  She felt it all the way to the bottom of her toes.  Stretching her left arm out to the side, her fingers crawled along the hard wood of the wall until they landed on the light switch.  With a flip of her wrist, light flooded the room, exposing everything inside.

“Hillary.”

Face hidden in the pillows, her guest remained still.

Gabi moved deeper into the cabin.  At the foot of the bed she stopped, looked down on the blond woman deep in sleep. Reaching out, she gave her foot a shake, hoping to rouse her.

Not a single muscle moved.  Reluctantly, she inched up the side of the bed. Hillary was still…too still. There was no rising of her back as she pulled in deep breaths.  No flicker of her eyes giving proof to dreams. Only stillness, so complete, Gabi knew Hillary wasn’t going to wake up.

Not now.  Not ever.

* * * *

The shrill call of the doorbell pulled her from the mound of dishes at the sink.  Wiping off the soapy water reaching clear to her elbows, she shook her head at the disorderly kitchen before starting down the hall.

She really should put a stop to feeding everyone who worked for her at the resort. It was a huge chore to clean up after them.  Even as she made the claim, Gabi knew she’d never do it.  Breakfast at the main house was a tradition.  One she had no intention of changing.

Running damp hands along the sides of her white shorts, she reached for the doorknob, wondering who it would be this time. Her front porch had encountered more foot traffic in the three days since Hillary’s murder than it had seen in the past six months.

Gracing her face with a friendly smile, she pulled the door open, stepped into what she expected to be a stream of sunlight pouring through. Instead, a wall of blue denim and black cotton blocked the rays.

Her smile faded as her eyes leveled on the rock solid chest pushing against a layer of cotton.  Trailing her gaze up over a mass of corded muscles, she stared into eyes as black as the midnight sky. She lost all power of speech as those eyes captured hers, holding her in a mind-numbing trance.

“Gabrielle Cullar?” The deep baritone of the stranger’s voice slid over her like silk, sending a shiver of awareness racing up her spine. With a hard blink, she found the strength to pull free from the man’s dangerous gaze, taking a step back for extra protection.

“I’m Gabrielle Cullar,” she managed once the capability of speech returned. “Gabi,” she amended with an outstretched hand. Clear thought ruling again, she realized he might be a potential guest.  She couldn’t let her strange reaction scare him away.

The hand engulfing hers rubbed roughly against the softer skin of her palm, sending a jolt of awareness through her right arm. Quick to drop her hand before suffering another awkward trance, she adopted her friendly smile once again.

“My name is Chase Winters.”  He dropped his hand, rested it against a firm thigh.  “Your brother, Max, asked me to come by.”

“Max sent you?”

He nodded.

Gabi moved away from the door.  Accepting her silent invitation, he stepped inside as she closed the door behind him. The front room was large, a wall of windows offering plenty of light, yet Chase’s presence completely engulfed the space, his large, hovering size closing her in.

“Your brother told me there was some excitement here a few nights ago.”

“Excitement.” Gabi took a large step back, uncomfortable with her reaction. “Is that what my brother called it?”

“No.” He shook his head. Through the sunlight streaming from the windows, a shimmer vibrated off the leather band holding his long, ebony hair in a ponytail at the base of his neck.

A true rebel. The thought came out of nowhere.  Quickly, she shoved it away.

“What Max told me was that a woman was strangled to death in one of your cabins and that you were the one to find her.”

Against her will, she shivered at the reminder. She’d been haunted by more than a few nightmares since that night. Nightmares she prayed would go away as time passed.

“Her name was Hillary Carter. She was a local of Willow County.”

“Then why did she feel the need to rent one of your cabins? Didn’t she have a place of her own?”

Nodding, Gabi ushered them deeper into the room, motioning Chase toward a deep green chair arched beside the red stone fireplace.  Claiming the identical chair across from him, she did her best to appear at ease.

“She worked for Kingsley Resort on the other side of the lake.  Like those who work here, they provide housing for their employees, at least through the busy summer months.”

Chase nodded, absorbing the information. Curious, she watched him. “Are you from a neighboring County Sheriff’s office?”

“Not exactly.”  A half smile stretched his full lips.  “My jurisdiction is New York City.”

“New York City.” Surprise reached through her words. “Surely, Hillary’s murder isn’t big enough to warrant sending someone halfway across the country to investigate?”

“You’re right.  It’s not.”

He certainly wasn’t eager to offer details. If he thought she was going to play twenty questions just to find out why he was here, he was wrong. He showed up on her doorstep, unexpected.  It was up to him to explain why.

Dark, probing eyes met hers.  He watched and waited, testing her patience while she refused to be the one to break the silence dropping over them.

The sounds of the lake drifted through the open windows, the roar of a boat, splashing of swimmers.  They reminded her of the many chores she needed to tend to before her guests returned from their day in the sun.  If the man didn’t speak up soon, she was going to have to leave him to his thoughts before the day was wasted.

“Max and I are old friends.”

She jumped at the sudden intrusion of his voice breaking through her thoughts.

“We were partners when he started with the NYPD.  For seven years, until he came here, we worked together.”

Understanding quickly settled and she smiled in relief. “Max sent you over to rent a cabin. You definitely came to the right place. One recently became available, just a few yards away from the lake. I’m quite sure you’ll like it…”

He held up a hand, putting an end to her ramblings. Shaking his head, he pulled in a deep breath, stretching the muscles in his chest even tighter. Her gaze strayed to the creases underneath the cotton before she could stop herself.

“I’m not here on a vacation. I’m here because your brother asked me to come.”

“To help with Hillary’s murder?”

“No.”  He shook his head. “Your brother is perfectly capable of conducting an investigation on his own.  He asked me here for another reason.”

“Which is?” Her already short patience was wearing thin.

“He asked me to stay with you until Hillary’s killer is caught. Sort of an unofficial bodyguard until the case is closed.”

“He sent you to do what?”  Her words close to a shout, she pushed up from her chair.  “Max actually thinks I need a baby-sitter looking out for me?”

“He’s worried about your safety.”  Chase eyed her carefully, as if afraid she’d bolt.  “The murder may somehow be tied to the resort.  He doesn’t want anything to happen to you.”

Gabi folded her arms over her middle, her shoulders squared in preparation for a fight. If Max were the one standing in front of her, instead of Chase, she’d strangle him.  Over the years she’d learned to deal with his over-protective nature.  But this time he’d gone too far. This time, she was putting her foot down.

“Nothing is going to happen to me.”  She had complete belief in her words.  “So you can find your way back to town and tell that over-bearing, irritating brother of mine that I don’t need a baby-sitter hanging around. I can take care of myself.”

Chase rose from his place, taking a cautious step in her direction.  “I can’t go back to town. I promised your brother I’d stay with you, regardless of what you said to try to change my mind.  He already figured you wouldn’t take too kindly to the idea.”

“He figured right. And why would you leave your job in New York to do this for Max?  Aren’t you needed back at your station?”

“I’ve been on a leave of absence for the past six months. And I owe your brother a lot.  I couldn’t say no.”

“Well, I’m saying no.” Spinning on her heels, she headed for the front door. “I’m sorry you wasted a trip out here, Mr. Winters.  Maybe Max will compensate you for the money you spent to get here.”

Chase’s large palm flattened against the door before she could swing it open. “I’m sorry, Gabi, but I promised Max. You’re stuck with me until Hillary’s murderer can be found.”

The deep lines in his face hardened in determination.  Setting his back to the door, he crossed his arms over his front, defiance shimmering in his black eyes.

Of all the nerve. Hands clenched at her sides, she fought the urge to find the center of his gut. If she could have doubled him over with a quick punch, she would have given it a try.  But the man was a brick wall standing in front of the door. If she hit him, it would probably end up hurting her far worse than him.

That didn’t mean she was giving in.  Not by a long shot. Neither Max, nor his cop friend, was going to tell her how to run her life. She didn’t want, or need, a bodyguard.  And she wasn’t about to be bullied into agreeing to one.

She turned on the heel of her foot without uttering a word to the irritating man blocking the door.

“Where are you going?”  His deep voice followed her.

Against her better judgment, she paused. “Not that it’s any of your business,” she tossed over her shoulder.  “But I’m going to call Max. If you won’t leave on your own, then I’ll have to convince that bull-headed brother of mine to get you out of here.”

* * * *

Chase watched the shapely curve of her backside disappear down the long hallway. He knew the response she was going to receive from Max, knew she wasn’t going to like it.

“She’s going to hate that I sent you,” Max told him yesterday on the telephone. “My sister has a stubborn streak running through her veins and she doesn’t take too kindly to being told what to do.”

He was right about that. The woman had a temper to match the fiery red curls tumbling down her back. She might be small but she was definitely not meek. The feisty, stubborn streak running through her more than made up for her petite size.

Pushing away from the door, he returned to the front room. For all its grand size, there was a feeling of coziness to it. The furnishings were a shade of deep green, ivory pillows tossed carelessly over soft cushions. The floor was mahogany wood, polished to a deep shine. A thick throw rug in the center perfectly matched the colors of the furniture.

Above the large fireplace a dark wood mantle shimmered from a recent polish, frames of all sizes, styles, scattered about. He moved closer, gazing at the pictures, noticing every one included a tall, blond-haired man with deep blue eyes and a piercing smile.  In some, he stood alone.  In others, he was part of a couple or a group.  Gabi was in many of them, smiling up at him, love etched deep in her soft expression.

At the last picture, he paused for a better look. Gabi again joined the tall, broad man, but in this picture she wore white lace, a thin strip of veil pushed back onto her tumble of red curls.  The man at her side matched in his own crisp white tuxedo, a sexy red garter belt dangling from his left hand.

But it wasn’t the garter belt causing him to look closer. It was the sight of such a young woman staring back at him.  Gabi didn’t look much past twenty now, but in the picture she was a child. Her emerald eyes still held the quality of innocence.  The expression on her face had not yet been hardened by the reality of life.

Obviously a child bride.  He turned away from the pictures, close to feeling like an intruder in her personal life.

Max had told him about the car accident that had taken his brother-in-law’s life.  Gabi might know nothing about him, but he knew plenty about her from the tales Max poured over him.  She might be angry with her brother, but he knew the relationship she shared with Max was close.

That was why he had been sent to look after his friend’s little sister.  Max worried about her welfare, took it as his responsibility to look out for her.  He was overprotective, Chase would agree, but he also cared for Gabi in a way most people could only wish for.

“I hope you know what you’re getting me into, Max, old buddy.”  He fought the doubt creeping in.

“I know exactly what I’m getting you into.”

Chase turned toward the front door, an easy smile forming at the sight of his old friend.

“I take it Gabi got a hold of you.”  He stretched out his hand.

   The other man took it immediately in his firm grip. “I was ordered to come over and kick you out on your butt.  I warned you she wouldn’t be happy I sent you to look after her.”

“So, am I out on my butt?”

“Yes, you are.”

The answer didn’t come from Max, but from the redhead fireball storming down the hall. She stopped directly in front of Chase and her brother, hands on her hips, her stubborn chin tilted up at them.

Chase bit down on the smile threatening to escape, knowing it would only anger her more.

“Gabi, Chase isn’t going anywhere.”  Max’s voice was firm. “Somebody was murdered in one of your cabins three nights ago.  Until I find out who did it and why, I don’t want you staying here alone.”

The angry glare she pierced through Chase’s chest transferred to include her brother. “I’m not alone, brother dear. There are plenty of big strong men around who work for me.”

“But they’re not trained, Gabi.  Chase is a fellow police officer. He knows how to take care of situations that can quickly rise out of control.”

“Excuse me, Sheriff.”  Her emerald eyes lit with sparks of irritation. “But I do believe that is what you are around for. To protect and serve the citizens of Willow County.”

“I want someone here around the clock and you know I can’t do that. With the Deputy position still open, I don’t have enough man power to do half of what I should be doing.”

Chase stepped back from the argument, unnoticed.  Although he was a part of what was being discussed between brother and sister, ultimately it wasn’t his decision to make. Both came from the same tree, Max just as stubborn and feisty as his sister.

A good foot taller than Gabi, he towered over her.  But his size didn’t intimidate her as she came nose to nose with her brother.  "I don’t need a baby-sitter, Max. I refuse to have some stranger storm into my life simply because you decide I need to be looked after.”

“Chase isn’t a stranger. I’ve known him for years.”

“I haven’t, which makes him a stranger to me.”

Chase found a small end table to lean against. Hitching a hip against a rounded corner, he crossed his arms over his front, hooked one ankle over the other.  Gabi Cullar really was a sight to watch when she was all fired up. Her eyes took on a sparkle all their own.  The light dusting of freckles, bridging across her nose, darkened against the angry red of her skin.

He knew Max was worried about his sister staying out here alone, but Gabi was obviously a woman who could take care of herself. Even Chase, standing well over six feet tall, would think twice before agreeing to meet her in the back of a dark alley.

“Look, Max.” Her deep, slow breath lifted her round breasts, capturing Chase’s full attention. “I know you’re worried, but this is my house.  You can’t barge in here and tell me what to do.  I’m a grown adult, perfectly capable of making my own decisions.”

“I know you are.”  Max reached out and tweaked his sister’s nose, an action in complete difference to the words he spoke. “But I’m asking you to do this as a favor to me.”

Shaking her head, she opened her mouth to refuse again.  Max held his hand out to stop her. “I need Chase here for my own peace of mind. I need to concentrate on finding Hillary’s murderer and I can’t do that if I’m constantly worrying about you.”

“You’re a good police officer.”  She crossed her arms defensively over her slender frame.  “You’re perfectly capable of handling an investigation, no matter what.”

“But any distractions will only hinder the case. If Chase is here, I’ll be able to spend my time on the investigation rather than checking up on you.  Regardless of your arguments, you and I both know that is exactly what I’ll do if you’re here alone.”

Her opinion of her brother’s reasons for Chase sticking around became evident in the deep frown creasing her lips. Reaching out with the pad of his thumb, Max brushed a soft touch across the lines of anger crinkling the bridge of her nose.

“Do this as a favor to me, Gabs.”

Chase could tell she was giving in. The pleading look on her brother’s face drained away the coldness behind her emerald eyes, softening them once again to their brilliant color.  Her arms fell to her sides, shoulders easing back.

“I want it on record that I don’t agree with one bit of this.”

“Consider it done.”  Max bit down on his lip, hiding the triumphant smile sneaking up on him.

“He only stays until the investigation is over with then he’s out of here.”

“Agreed.”

Chase was debating whether or not he was offended by Gabi’s insistence to get rid of him when emerald eyes suddenly stabbed through his chest.  He straightened from his place against the small table, meeting her hard gaze with one of his own.

“You know, you could always just decide on your own that you aren’t going to stay.”

“I could,” he returned in a flat tone, letting the silence fall over them.

She withstood it for only a few seconds.  Squaring her slender shoulders, her stubborn chin came up to full attention as she glared at him across the space of the room. It wasn’t his idea to give her the protection she was so strongly against, but she was angry with him just the same.

“He can sleep on the couch,” she tossed over her shoulder, reaching the front door, her hand curling around the gold knob.

“Gabi.”  Max eyed her carefully.  “What about the guest…”

Her hand flew forward before Max could continue. “I said he can sleep on the couch.  If he can’t handle it, then he’s free to leave.”  She threw open the door, sunlight pouring into the room.

“I need to talk to Baby about a horse.”  She stormed out the door.  “I trust Mr. Winters can get comfortable on his own.”

With that she was gone, leaving both men to stare after her.

“Baby?”  Chase’s voice echoed with the slam of the door.

Max only shook his head in response. “Don’t even ask.”

Chase figured that was probably for the best since his main concern, at the moment, was how he was going to get his six foot three body to fit on a couch that was no more than five feet long.

Chapter Two

“Insufferable, irritating men.” Gabi’s heavy steps fell against the gravel drive in tune with her frustration. The morning sun set high in the sky, heat burning down on her shoulders. All around, the sounds of Lake Divine and the surrounding wilderness drifted back to her.

People came here to relax, free themselves of everyday stress.  The lap of waves against sandy shores, the fluttering of an animal rustling through the leaves helped bring peace to the area.  Magically seeping through the bones, people breathed easier, smiled a little more.

But none of that magic was working.  Tension rippled through her, twisting her insides into a painful knot.

“Hey there, boss lady.”  The deep growling voice greeted her as she stepped into the muted darkness of the horse stables. Scents of hay and dust swept around her, replaced the gentle aroma of wildflowers and pine lingering outside.

Stepping from the shadows of a back stall, the owner of the familiar voice approached, a wide smile etching deep wrinkles in the skin of his weathered face.  A pipe dangled from one side of his mouth, the scent of burning tobacco reaching her before he did.

Baby Walker was a person all his own.  She was never quite sure how he had earned his unusual nickname. It certainly had nothing to do with his looks.  A big barrel of a man, his skin had toughened to leather, his expression hardened by years of tough, laboring work. Two front teeth, exposed when he smiled, were chipped from a bar fight years ago.  His voice raw and scratchy from decades of pipe smoking.

But inside, where it counted, he was as gentle as a teddy bear.  She loved him as if he were her own family.  She would have never succeeded in keeping the resort up and running without his help.

“Looks like old Red is going to be just fine.”  He hitched a finger underneath the rim of his straw hat, lifting the shadows from his eyes.  Knowing eyes, Jack had called them more than once, holding years of wisdom in their depths.

“I stitched up the cut on her leg, made sure she was comfortable in her stall. A few days of rest and she should be back to new.”

“Thanks, Baby.” She followed him to the back of the stables.  Red’s long, sleek neck poked over the top of the gate holding her in her stall.  Her head bobbed as soon as she spotted company, a puff of excited air pushing through her large nose.

Patting the neck of the chestnut mare, Gabi bent over the gate, taking a closer look at Baby’s handiwork.  Where once there had been a wide, gaping hole caused by a brush against a barb-wired fence, there was now a clean patch of stitches holding the injured skin together.  A dark salve was liberally rubbed around the stitches, keeping the cut protected from infection.

“Are all the other horses out?” She patted Red’s sleek neck, headed back the way she had come.

“All but that pistol of yours who’s causing trouble in the arena. The rest are on a trail ride Rudy arranged for the guests.”

She smiled at his mention of the big, black stallion who was her personal favorite.  Diablo was her friend, her confidant.  It didn’t bother her in the least that she spent a majority of her time confiding in a horse that couldn’t talk back.  She knew in her heart he understood.  That was all that mattered.

“Saw your brother pull up.”  Returning to the bright sun outside, Baby tilted his head in the direction of the white Blazer, Willow County Sheriff etched across both doors.  Standard issue red and blue lights stretching the top.

She nodded, settled a foot against the fence, whistling for Diablo.  Seconds later, a long black head peered out from the corner of the stables, followed by a sleek, firm body, rippling from the force of muscles surging through.

Diablo was a horse of the finest breeding. He’d been bought from one of the country’s finest breeders as a stud, but Gabi’s instant love for the stallion turned him into much more.  She’d trained him when others said he wasn’t trainable, encouraged his rebellious spark rather than chased it away.

“Max bring you some information on Hillary’s death?” Baby reached out, patted the magnificent stallion.

Diablo nudged his nose into her arm, seeking the treat he knew she had ready for him.  Reaching into her front pocket, withdrawing a peppermint candy, she held it out in her flattened palm.

“There’s no new information.”

“Then what brought your brother out all this way?”

Gabi rubbed her nose against Diablo's. “He’s got a misguided idea that I need protection until Hillary’s killer is found.  He sent some hotshot New York cop out to look after me.”

Baby scratched at the silver stubble on his chin.  “Seems to me, he might be right.  It ain’t safe to be alone with a killer on the loose.”

Her eyes wide, she turned on him. “Don’t you start too.”  She prepared for yet another fight. “Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I need some big tough male to keep watch over me. I’ve been taking care of myself for five years now and I’ve been doing just fine.”

“But there hasn’t been a killer on the loose. I have to admit, even I’ve been wary after what happened. It’s kind of nice to know there’s someone around looking out for things.”

“Well, at least somebody’s happy to have him stick around.”  She stroked the nose Diablo continuously poked into the palm of her hand.  For all his spirit and spunk, he truly was a little child at heart, searching for love and understanding.

“I just bet you’ll sleep better yourself, boss lady, knowing he’s keeping an eye out.”  Baby tipped his hat at her, turned on the heels of his boots and disappeared into the darkened stables.

“Men.”  She shook her head in disgust. “They’re all the same. They see a damsel in distress and think it’s their responsibility to save them.”

Diablo snorted in response.  Cupping her hands on both sides of the stallion’s large face, she buried her face into the soft hair along the bridge of his nose.  Dust swirled up as he kicked a hoof against the dry dirt covering the ground. Though it was destined to settle on her skin, in her hair, she didn’t move away.

Instead, she released an aggravated breath, hoping to ease some of the tension warring inside. It was bad enough her brother insisted she be baby-sat, but did he have to send someone like Chase Winters to do the job?

Gabi thought of the alluring man, standing on her doorstep. Those ebony eyes were frightening enough, but attached to the rest of his hardened, mind-numbing body, they were downright lethal.  The man was the perfect image of rebellion.  Dark and mysterious.

He was everything Jack was not. She would do well to remember that.  Jack was the classic golden boy, wavy blond hair, sparkling blue eyes.  He was the quarterback for the high school football team.  President of Student Council.  An all-around American boy who had captured her heart when she was only fifteen.  Made her his wife the day after her eighteenth birthday.

Without conscious thought to what she was doing, she twisted the simple wedding band on her finger. “I miss him so much, Diablo.”  She nuzzled the black horse. “It’s been five years and I still can’t let him go.”

The stallion bobbed his head in understanding, drawing a light smile from Gabi.  If anyone knew how deep her love ran for her deceased husband it was Diablo.  She’d cried on his neck for months after the car accident.  Still cried on the big horse whenever the feeling of loss became too great to handle.

“I don’t want this Chase Winters in my house.” Defiance laced her words.  “He doesn’t belong here.  Only Jack was meant to share that house with me.”

Only Jack, she thought again, winding her arms around Diablo's long neck.  The feel of the strong, powerful horse chased away images of the dark stranger she wanted out of her home…out of her life.