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Wild Horse Springs (Ransom Canyon #5)

By:Jodi Thomas




BRANDI MALONE WATCHED a sheriff walk into the Nowhere Club as she worked in the shadows of the small stage. The place wouldn't be open for hours. She'd planned to rehearse for a while, but now she couldn't do that until the sheriff left. Somehow having someone watch her work out the kinks in her performance seemed like singing to a voyeur.

She liked this time of day in the bar when all was quiet and the air felt almost clean.

Growing up in a big family was noisy, and living close to them as an adult always made her feel like she was being watched. Her two brothers' and sister's families had settled within sight of the house they grew up in. But even when Brandi had moved back in her twenties, Malone Valley wasn't where she'd wanted to be, and when she'd left the second time, she'd sworn, as she had once before, that she'd never return.

The road had been her home for fourteen months. Brandi didn't have a house, an address, or anyone to report in to, and that was just fine with her.

Gig after gig on the road was her living room, and at night she stepped out onto her front porch, which was her stage. Brandi Malone was butterfly free and wanted it that way.

She stood perfectly still, no more than a shadow, and waited for the man in uniform to vanish from her world.

The sheriff disappeared down the hallway to the owner's office. She wasn't curious. Her job was to be onstage for three sets a night. That was all. This was a bar; of course lawmen would drop by now and then. The sheriff was probably only checking the new liquor license, same as another sheriff did last week, or maybe he was looking for an outlaw, though this place didn't seem much like an outlaw bar.

She moved the mic closer to the piano, where she'd lined up her songs for tonight. Though she knew them all by heart, she always kept the sheet music close, just in case her mind wandered.

Brandi didn't worry about much, not where she lived or what she ate, or even what town she was in, but she wanted every performance to be perfect. It had to be. It was all she had left that mattered in her world.

Maybe she wanted, if only for a few minutes, for all those who were sober enough to listen, to forget about their problems and just enjoy. She wanted them to step into the music and dance on the sawdust floor or in their minds. That's what she did. For a few hours, if her songs were just right, she forgot all about the cavernous hole in her heart and swayed to the music. Her thoughts would slow to match the beat those nights, and for a short time she'd drift. She'd breathe deeply and almost believe life was worth living.

"Brandi!" Hank, the owner, yelled. "Sheriff's got something for you."

The tall man in a tan uniform moved toward her, and for a moment she considered running. But he was between her and the door, and the guy's face, framed in the shadows of his hat, looked like he operated strictly by the book.

She had no outstanding bills or fines or tickets. She hadn't committed a crime. There was no reason the law wanted her, so the sheriff must have questions about the bar, or maybe her old van parked outside...

Brandi stood and waited as the sheriff neared. She was stronger than she'd been months ago. She didn't have to run from questions.

When she'd first hit the road, she hated strangers asking where she was from or anything about her family. She didn't want to talk about anything but her music. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed.

Only, when this stranger in a uniform raised his eyes to look up at her standing on the small stage, he smiled as if he was happy to see her. "Morning, ma'am," he said.

She didn't miss that the lawman's eyes ran the length of her body before he reached her face. Could he have been checking her out? Surely not. Not if he called her ma'am.

"Morning," she managed to say. "What's the problem?"

"No problem."

He smiled again, and she had the feeling that he was a man who didn't smile often. Brandi relaxed slightly. He had honest blue eyes.

"This wouldn't happen to be yours?" he asked as he lifted a boot. "It kind of looks like something you might wear."

Brandi exploded. "Yes! Someone stole them out of my van two weeks ago. In their hurry, they dropped the left one in the parking lot." She bounced down from the two-foot-high stage. "I loved those boots. I thought I'd lost this one forever, but I couldn't bring myself to toss the other one away."

The sheriff stood as stiff as a mannequin while she hugged him.

"Thank you. Thank you." She reached for the boot.

He pulled it away. "Now wait a minute. I have to have proof." He was smiling again, obviously enjoying himself. "Maybe you need to try it on. The slipper needs to fit. I think it's the law, or maybe just a rule."

She looked down at the tennis shoes she was wearing. "I have to have that boot. I own the match. One boot's no good without its mate."

"I'll need to see the left one first before I hand this one over."

"Follow me." She shifted and straightened as if planning to march, playing along with his game.

Her long legs made it easy to make the step onto the stage. She rushed behind a black curtain and opened an almost invisible door. She hoped the sheriff carrying her boot was following her. Guessing that he was watching her every twist, she slipped quickly into a narrow hallway, then left toward her dressing room.

He was right behind her.

The sheriff was in his forties, maybe five or six years older than her, and definitely interesting. She'd always liked talking to men with honest eyes. They were rare.

Brandi grinned as she tried to guess what the sheriff might be like out of uniform. He was that kind of handsome most women didn't notice. There was something so solid about him he seemed hard, except maybe for his mouth. The man had kissable lips, she decided, but she'd bet