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Hiding Out At The Circle C

Jill Shalvis

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  She had to hurry. Her very life could depend on it. Sprinting up the stairs to the tiny flat she and the other geologists stayed in during their stint with EVS—Earthquake/Volcano Studies—in South America, Haley came to a skidding halt.

  Blood stained the open door. Just inside lay two very still bodies. Oh, God. Danyella and Frederick. Her colleagues. Her friends.

  Haley backed up, feeling faint and stiff with terror. But for the grace of God, it could have been her lying dead on the floor. She slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her panicked breathing and whirled, running as fast as she could back down the stairs.

  The sharp pain in her abdomen told her that she needed the ulcer medicine in her purse, badly, but she couldn't stop. If she did, they'd find her, and Haley doubted she'd ever need her medicine again.

  Think, think. She had to think, but it was all she could do not to scream in frustration and fear. Last week, she'd made the discovery. The one she'd worked on for so long. She'd created a system that would take some of the mystery out of earthquakes and volcanoes. But something had gone wrong—terribly wrong. Earlier today, she'd found EVS's office building destroyed by a bomb. And now she'd made the grisly discovery that two of her five-member team had been murdered. If what she suspected was true, Haley had no doubt she'd be next. The team would he systematically wiped out, one by one, because of greed.

  It was simple. She believed her system priceless because of the lives that could be saved. But someone else cared more about the quick money to be made. With a strength she didn't know she possessed, Haley calmed herself and hailed a taxi, holding her breath in the oppressive heat as the insane driver sped into traffic, dodging through throngs of people, bikes and cars.

  The taxi screeched to a halt at the international airport in Peru, and so did her heart. She had no family who would help, and nowhere to go except … home. The United States.

  Watching her back, feeling desperate and more frightened than she'd ever been, she got on the first plane she could—to Los Angeles. She had little cash, but stopping at the bank just didn't seem plausible at the moment, so she used a credit card.

  Haley had come to this continent with other brilliant geologists, to study earth movement. It had been Japan before that, and before that, Europe. Anywhere plagued by volcanoes and earthquakes. She'd been the youngest on the team, but wasn't she always? Having finished her doctorate by her middle teens, Dr. Haley Whitfield had been quickly accepted into the elite group at EVS. Their goal: to predict earthquakes and volcanoes in order to save and preserve lives. She'd done her part—developed an undersea computerized system that would help anticipate those events—but she'd never in her wildest dreams thought it would be used to cause them. Yet, that's what someone had done. Used her ideas to create earth movement. To kill.

  She knew this without a doubt. Knew that yesterday's tragic earthquake several hundred miles to the south, on an unknown and totally uncharted fault, hadn't been natural. Thousands had died—because of her system.

  Motivated by adrenaline and fear, she rushed toward her departure gate, numb with shock. Work was her life, and everything—absolutely everything she'd worked for—she was leaving behind. The pain in her stomach twisted like a knife. Who knew where Bob and Alda, the other two geologists were, or if they were even alive? Or if Lloyd Branson, head of EVS, had escaped the bomb? Had the sweet, quiet, unassuming man been murdered, too? Her heart ached for those she'd known as her only friends, and she prayed they were safe, that they were right this minute fleeing as she was.

  Somehow she made it through the flight to L.A. The minute she got off the plane, the pager on her hip vibrated to life, nearly scaring her right out of her skin. With shaking hands, ignoring the crowd jostling around her, she lifted EVS's high-tech, compact pager and saw she had two messages. The heavy turbulence on the plane must have masked the vibration.

  The first printed message renewed her terror.

  It was from a South American number, and signed "Alda." "Haley, I hope you've gone. They think you're responsible! Run, Haley. If you haven't already, run!"

  Haley swallowed hard. So she wasn't the only one left alive, thank God!

  But the second message had her staggering to a chair, mindless of the crowd around her. It, too, was from South America, from another number she didn't recognize.

  "Come back or you're next."

  She was next.

  What now? The U.S. government had its own program going at the United States Geological Survey, the nation's center for earthquake research. Studying plate tectonics and shifts in the earth's crust, they also searched for methods of prediction. The geologists there were also developing a way to reduce the effects of earthquakes, utilizing a method that would eventually approximate the system that Haley had already created. But the USGS believed they were the brightest and the best. They'd never accept the fact that she'd developed a superior system—only to lose it.

  Haley firmly turned off her pager, but couldn't bring herself to throw it away. Somehow, sick as it seemed, the thing was her only link to that insane world. She shivered and closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry. She could be thankful for one thing—that without her or the other geologists to recreate it, the system couldn't be used again. And without the notes and records destroyed in the bomb blast, she couldn't produce another system like it in less than a year.

  So here she was, running for her life, a suspect in the bombing and the murders. Those were crimes for which, if extradited back to South America, she'd be executed swiftly. What to do?

  Well, if she didn't want to die, she had to completely disappear.

  Suddenly Haley felt three times her twenty-five years. Yet she was alive, wasn't she? So what if all she had was the twenty dollars in her purse and the clothes on her back? She was alive, she reminded herself again as she swallowed two pills for her ulcer. For however long, she was alive.

  She blinked back tears and forced herself to remember that was a good thing.

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  Chapter 1

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  When the plane from Los Angeles finally arrived in Colorado Springs, everyone waiting in the terminal moved and shifted in anticipation. Everyone, that is, except Cameron Reeves.

  He leaned negligently against the wall, as far away from the hustle and bustle as possible. While waiting for the aircraft to unload, he amused himself by watching the people rush around like busy little ants. Nellie, his sister-in-law, was no different. She burst off the plane with her usual sense of urgency and he found himself grinning at the sight of her, bulging with pregnancy. He saw her turn her head to a woman walking next to her, whisper something, then squeeze the woman's hand before coming toward him.

  "Cam!" She stopped short, her seven-and-a-half-months-pregnant belly taking up the entire aisle. Hands on her hips, she gave him the once-over, ignoring the poor people struggling to get around her. "Where's Jason?"

  "I came instead."

  "Why?" she demanded. "What's the matter?"

  "Now there, Nellie—" he started, ready to soothe. In the two weeks she'd been visiting her mother in Los Angeles, she'd ballooned. She looked ready to pop.

  Her pretty green eyes narrowed and Cam wondered if all women, no matter how even-tempered, turned psychotic while pregnant. "Don't tell me," she insisted, holding up a hand. "I'm sure I don't want to know."

  "It's not serious, Nellie. Jason just…" Cam hesitated, watching with fascination as people managed to push and shove their way around this hug
e woman who, just last spring, had been the tiniest thing he'd ever seen.

  "He just what, Cameron?"

  He winced at the use of his full name. Well, his brother had warned him she'd be ticked. "Okay, he fell off the barn roof—"


  "But it's only a sprained wrist. I swear it."

  They looked at each other, brother and sister-in-law, and despite their equal concern for Jason, smiled. Then laughed. Jason was undoubtedly the clumsiest, most wonderful man alive. And they both loved him.

  "How come Zach didn't come?"

  Cameron grinned at that. His other brother had vowed to stay as far away from either Jason or Nellie as much as humanly possible. "He's afraid that growth you've got going there is contagious." He reached out to rub her belly fondly, taking it as a good sign when she didn't snap his hand off.

  "Poor Jas. Only a sprain, huh?" Nellie sighed, relented, and finally moved to hug Cam. Her stomach hit him first, and he staggered slightly, before adjusting himself to accept her weight.

  "Nice visit with your mother?" Cam pulled her to his side and they started to walk.

  "Yeah, right. Cam, wait." Nellie slanted him an indecipherable look. "Actually, this works out better that Jas stayed home. You'll handle this better than he would, anyway."

  "Handle what?"

  Nellie glanced over her shoulder, then looked at him. "We're still looking for a housekeeper, right?"

  She knew they were. They lived in an isolated area, the Circle C Ranch somewhere between too big to be small, and too small to be big. Even though both his brothers loved ranching, they struggled with the work. It didn't help that since the last housekeeper had left about six months ago, Nellie had been killing them all slowly and painfully with her horrid cooking and experimental casseroles. Or that no one wanted to clean the ranch house regularly because they all were exhausted from the long, hard days outside. Not to mention the house's sheer size. Now, with Nellie pregnant, Jason worried about her working too hard. "Don't tell me," Cam said cautiously. "You decided to take cooking lessons."

  "No, something better." She pulled away from him and took his hands. "I've hired a housekeeper. I don't know how long she'll stay, but—"

  "You hired us a housekeeper on the plane from Los Angeles?"

  "I met her in LAX. My plane was late, and I'd gotten hungry—"

  "There's a surprise— Oof." Cam rubbed his gut, which Nellie had just elbowed. "Go on."

  "My arms were full. A million people were pushing and shoving and this woman was the only one who stopped to help me." Her eyes filled with sorrow. "Oh, Cam. You should have seen her, poor thing. She can't be any older than me, and she's so scared. I think she's running from someone, and I—"

  "And you just wanted to help."


  Cam understood perfectly. He and Nellie shared what the rest of the family called the "bleeding-heart syndrome." Both had a deep, burning desire to right wrongs, fix other people's lives and bring home strays. Cam lifted his head, shifting his gaze over the remaining passengers. He found her immediately. She stood rock still and apart, her shoulders squared, head high. He didn't see anything but her pale, proud, tear-ravaged face. She looked at him—straight at him—and when their eyes met, he felt a jolt.

  Her eyes were electric blue. And even from far away, they were the widest, deepest eyes he'd ever seen. For the first time in too long, he felt a stirring of something he couldn't name. He swallowed hard against it.

  "She's alone?" he asked in a low voice.

  "All alone. And nowhere to go. Her name's Haley and all I know is she flew in from South America, but she's from the States. Somewhere."

  As collectors of the needy, he knew neither he nor Nellie could care less if the young woman could cook or clean. All that mattered was that she needed them. But both of them knew from past experience that Zach and Jason weren't easy sells.

  "She's wonderful," Nellie said quickly. "We bonded immediately."

  Which, given Nellie's current temperament, said a lot. Besides, Cam trusted her instincts implicitly. "All right," he said, his gaze still locked on the woman.

  "All right? Oh, Cam, just like that?" Impulsively, Nellie hugged him again, laughing in delight. "Sometimes I think I married the wrong Reeves."

  "You know you did." He grinned.

  She still held him close, the baby between them like a basketball. She batted her eyelashes at him. "Will you tell Jason about her?"

  He laughed and shook her off. "No way."


  Still looking at the woman, because strangely enough, he couldn't tear his eyes away, he asked, "You promise not to cook anymore?"

  "I promise."

  "Deal, then." He couldn't ask for more. "I'll tell Jason."

  "And Zach," she clarified.

  "Yeah, and Zach. But it's going to cost you." There would be hell to pay for this, he knew. Just last month, when he'd brought home the abused puppy, the one that even Jason couldn't doctor up, they'd spent three hundred dollars on surgery and veterinarian fees. Zach and Jason both had extracted a promise from him not to bring home anything else, but Cam would worry about that later.

  With Nellie in tow, he threaded his way through the waning crowd and stopped before the woman.

  "Hello." Cam flashed a quick, self-deprecating smile that hopefully signaled he was harmless. A tad too thin, he decided. He usually liked long hair on a woman, but her dark, short cut swung gently to her chin, suiting her narrow features. She had a pale, elegant face that at this moment was staring at him as if he were the one being interviewed. "I hear you'd like a job," he said to her.

  She nodded—regally, he thought—giving him a queen-to-peasant look that had his smile spreading. Spunk. He liked that, too.

  "You live on a ranch, far from town?" she asked, a flicker of a frown crossing her face.

  "Pretty far from Colorado Springs," he admitted, sensing her unease, and again giving her that smile that said he couldn't hurt a fly. "The Circle C is north and slightly east, at the base of the mountains. It's an hour from here."


  He grinned. "Isolated enough that Nellie has to talk to herself for company."

  Nellie rolled her eyes. "There are some small towns out that way," she told Haley. "But nothing close to the size of Colorado Springs."

  "Good." She straightened her already impossibly straight shoulders. "Yes, Mr. Reeves, I'd like a job."

  He had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with a hoity-toity housekeeper, except enjoy looking at her. "My name's Cameron. Cam, if you'd like. That's what my friends call me."

  "Thank you." She nodded, and though she was a good foot shorter than him, she managed to tilt her nose down at him. "Cameron. My name is Haley W-Williams."

  God, he loved that voice instantly, all deep and husky as if she'd just woken up. A man could lose himself in a voice like that. But while her vocal cords screamed sex, nothing else about this woman did. Her shadowed eyes barely hid her exhaustion and something else that might have been fear. She hugged her purse close to her, and for the first time, he noticed that she didn't seem to be dressed properly for autumn in the Rockies. Her thin blouse tucked into trim-but-also-thin slacks wouldn't protect her once they went outside the terminal.

  And since when did a homeless, down-on-her-luck housekeeper wear clothes that looked like they came from Saks Fifth Avenue?

  "Let's go get our luggage," Nellie said.

  "I have none," Haley said quietly, though her eyes were anything but calm.

  Cam watched a hardness come into that electric-blue gaze. His mild curiosity leaped to avid stage. "Well, then," he said lightly, giving Nellie a look when she opened her mouth to express sympathy he instinctively knew Haley wouldn't appreciate, "we'll just get Nellie's then. Ladies? Shall we go?" He offered them each an arm, amused when Haley refused to take it. When he had Nellie's suitcase, he directed the women toward the exit.

  "Wait," she said. "This position…
It's for room and board?"

  The position offered whatever she needed, but he didn't say that. "Yes."

  "I'd have my own room?"

  She needed a place to stay, that much was obvious. As well, she'd need some more clothes and personal things. But at the moment, he was more concerned with soothing her obvious mistrust of him, and wariness of any implied "duties," than anything else. "Yes, of course. Our ranch house is large, but we also have a guesthouse. It'll be all yours, if you want it. You'd eat with us since you'll be cooking. And we can come up with an agreeable salary, I'm sure."

  She'd gone from fragile and frail to downright beautiful as pride and anger sparked color into her pale cheeks.

  "I won't do any … anything except cook and clean." She lifted her chin.

  Damn, but her dignity had his blood humming. And her haughty indignation tickled him, though he struggled not to show it. He appreciated the glory of a woman's temper, but didn't like to cause it. No, that was something he steered clear of—except for Nellie because it was so much fun to goad her. And because he didn't have to sleep with her at night; Jason did. "I wouldn't expect anything else from you."

  Haley stared at him, weighing his words for honesty.

  Nellie smiled gently at her. "Believe me, Haley, no one will bother you. You'll be safe."

  Haley turned away, needing to think for a moment. Running for her life, she realized this job was her only choice. Her credit cards were useless. She could be traced as far as L.A., she knew that. That was why she'd used a cash machine at LAX to withdraw money for the flight with Nellie. From L.A. International she could have gone anywhere, and since she hadn't used her real name when buying her ticket, there would be no way to figure out her location—unless she used her cards or withdrew more cash.

  Thank God Nellie had come along when she did. After her brief spell of panic and self-pity on arriving at LAX, Haley had turned her pager on again out of morbid curiosity. She'd immediately gotten another grim message from South America.