Cowboy Undercover

By: Alice Sharpe

Chapter One

Chance Hastings couldn’t sleep. This in itself wasn’t unusual, not lately anyway. Between the extra ranch work an early fall demanded, his brother Frankie’s antics and his own personal chaos, his mind was just wound up too tight. What was unusual was that instead of being in his own cabin two miles over the ridge, he’d elected to spend the night at the main ranch house in the home in which he’d been raised. His father and his new stepmother, Grace, had taken a short trip to Oregon and Chance had volunteered to watch over the house as Frankie was rarely around anymore.

Finally admitting there was no point lying in bed with his eyes wide open, he got up and dressed by the light of the full harvest moon shining through the generous window. He’d always loved autumn in Idaho, especially around the ranching community of Falls Bluff. The golden fields rising to the mountains and the deciduous trees bleeding yellow, orange and red into the high evergreen forest engaged him at every turn.

His plan for the coming day included traveling out toward the mountains with his brothers Pike and Gerard to round up the heifers they wanted to move closer to the ranch for the coming winter. He might as well get a head start on things by saddling up three horses and loading them into the trailer. He paused in the kitchen to start a pot of coffee and leave his brothers a note about meeting him in the barn. He pinned the note to the corkboard by the door.

The perking coffee created a warm ambience in the kitchen that he rarely experienced anymore. Lily, who had shown up under mysterious circumstances nine months earlier and left after a sudden fright six months after that, still dominated the room, at least for him. He could almost picture her at the stove, an enigma of a woman who had wormed her way under his skin. He waited for the coffee to perk, but the more aromatic it became the less he wanted it. Instead, he headed for the mudroom where he retrieved his Stetson from the shelf on which he’d stashed it hours before, grabbed his coat and snagged his truck keys from the hook. As he clasped the doorknob and twisted, the phone back in the kitchen rang. His first instinct was to ignore it. He didn’t really live here. However, calls in the middle of the night always telegraphed urgency.

“Hello?” he said as he grabbed the receiver.

He heard breathing but nothing else.

“Hello?” he repeated.

A child’s voice said tentatively, “Is Mommy there?”

Was this someone’s idea of a joke? “Who is this?” he demanded.

“Charlie.”

Lily’s five-year-old boy? At three thirty in the morning? “Charlie, this is Chance Hastings. Where are you? Where’s your mom?”

“I don’t know,” the child wailed.

“Calm down, big guy. Are you lost?”

“I want Mommy.”

Chance’s brow furled as his imagination suggested all sorts of reasons for the child to have lost track of his mother. None of them were good. “Charlie? Your mom and you don’t live here anymore, remember? You guys left. Do you know where you went?”

Soft sobs filled Chance’s ear. “That’s okay,” he crooned. He could picture the boy’s blond hair and blue eyes, freckles scattered over tearstained cheeks. “I’m trying to help you. When did you see Mommy last?”

“Yesterday,” Charlie managed to choke out.

“Then what happened?”

“I went to school on the big bus.”

“That’s great. What’s the name of your school?”

“Miss Potter’s kindergarten.”

Chance doubted that was the actual name of a school. “Do you know where it is?”

“On the little hill.”

“Do you remember the name of the hill?”

“No.”

“Do you remember the name of the town you and your mom live in or maybe which state it is?”

“I forget. I want my mommy.”

“Okay, we’re working on it. What happened at school yesterday?”

“I made a picture.”

This was like pulling teeth. “Charlie, who are you with now?”

“Daddy.”

The phone in the kitchen was the old-fashioned rotary type. Chance’s grip on the receiver tightened. He didn’t know much about Charlie’s father, Jeremy Block, except that he’d done something severe enough in Lily’s eyes that she’d run from him with their child in tow and hid out here until Block sent someone to abduct and kill her a few months before so he could reclaim his son. The man had been adamant he was working for Jeremy Block.

The night that went down, Lily left Hastings Ridge Ranch, Charlie in tow. Chance didn’t know where Block lived and he didn’t know what had happened in the weeks following Lily’s departure.

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